Armadale, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter II.

In the House.

Noticing Mr. Bashwood’s confusion (after a moment’s glance at the change in his personal appearance), Midwinter spoke first.

“I see I have surprised you,” he said. “You are looking, I suppose, for somebody else? Have you heard from Allan? Is he on his way home again already?”

The inquiry about Allan, though it would naturally have suggested itself to any one in Midwinter’s position at that moment, added to Mr. Bashwood’s confusion. Not knowing how else to extricate himself from the critical position in which he was placed, he took refuge in simple denial.

“I know nothing about Mr. Armadale — oh dear, no, sir, I know nothing about Mr. Armadale,” he answered, with needless eagerness and hurry. “Welcome back to England, sir,” he went on, changing the subject in his nervously talkative manner. “I didn’t know you had been abroad. It’s so long since we have had the pleasure — since I have had the pleasure. Have you enjoyed yourself, sir, in foreign parts? Such different manners from ours — yes, yes, yes — such different manners from ours! Do you make a long stay in England, now you have come back?”

“I hardly know,” said Midwinter. “I have been obliged to alter my plans, and to come to England unexpectedly.” He hesitated a little; his manner changed, and he added, in lower tones: “A serious anxiety has brought me back. I can’t say what my plans will be until that anxiety is set at rest.”

The light of a lamp fell on his face while he spoke, and Mr. Bashwood observed, for the first time, that he looked sadly worn and changed.

“I’m sorry, sir — I’m sure I’m very sorry. If I could be of any use —” suggested Mr. Bashwood, speaking under the influence in some degree of his nervous politeness, and in some degree of his remembrance of what Midwinter had done for him at Thorpe Ambrose in the by-gone time.

Midwinter thanked him and turned away sadly. “I am afraid you can be of no use, Mr. Bashwood — but I am obliged to you for your offer, all the same.” He stopped, and considered a little, “Suppose she should not be ill? Suppose some misfortune should have happened?” he resumed, speaking to himself, and turning again toward the steward. “If she has left her mother, some trace of her might be found by inquiring at Thorpe Ambrose.”

Mr. Bashwood’s curiosity was instantly aroused. The whole sex was interesting to him now, for the sake of Miss Gwilt.

“A lady, sir?” he inquired. “Are you looking for a lady?”

“I am looking,” said Midwinter, simply, “for my wife.”

“Married, sir!” exclaimed Mr. Bashwood. “Married since I last had the pleasure of seeing you! Might I take the liberty of asking —?”

Midwinter’s eyes dropped uneasily to the ground.

“You knew the lady in former times,” he said. “I have married Miss Gwilt.”

The steward started back as he might have started back from a loaded pistol leveled at his head. His eyes glared as if he had suddenly lost his senses, and the nervous trembling to which he was subject shook him from head to foot.

“What’s the matter?” said Midwinter. There was no answer. “What is there so very startling,” he went on, a little impatiently, “in Miss Gwilt’s being my wife?”

Your wife?” repeated Mr. Bashwood, helplessly. “Mrs. Armadale —!” He checked himself by a desperate effort, and said no more.

The stupor of astonishment which possessed the steward was instantly reflected in Midwinter’s face. The name in which he had secretly married his wife had passed the lips of the last man in the world whom he would have dreamed of admitting into his confidence! He took Mr. Bashwood by the arm, and led him away to a quieter part of the terminus than the part of it in which they had hitherto spoken to each other.

“You referred to my wife just now,” he said; “and you spoke of Mrs. Armadale in the same breath. What do you mean by that?”

Again there was no answer. Utterly incapable of understanding more than that he had involved himself in some serious complication which was a complete mystery to him, Mr. Bashwood struggled to extricate himself from the grasp that was laid on him, and struggled in vain.

Midwinter sternly repeated the question. “I ask you again,” he said, “what do you mean by it?”

“Nothing, sir! I give you my word of honor, I meant nothing!” He felt the hand on his arm tightening its grasp; he saw, even in the obscurity of the remote corner in which they stood, that Midwinter’s fiery temper was rising, and was not to be trifled with. The extremity of his danger inspired him with the one ready capacity that a timid man possesses when he is compelled by main force to face an emergency — the capacity to lie. “I only meant to say, sir,” he burst out, with a desperate effort to look and speak confidently, “that Mr. Armadale would be surprised —”

“You said Mrs. Armadale!”

“No, sir — on my word of honor, on my sacred word of honor, you are mistaken — you are, indeed! I said Mr. Armadale — how could I say anything else? Please to let me go, sir — I’m pressed for time. I do assure you I’m dreadfully pressed for time!”

For a moment longer Midwinter maintained his hold, and in that moment he decided what to do.

He had accurately stated his motive for returning to England as proceeding from anxiety about his wife — anxiety naturally caused (after the regular receipt of a letter from her every other, or every third day) by the sudden cessation of the correspondence between them on her side for a whole week. The first vaguely terrible suspicion of some other reason for her silence than the reason of accident or of illness, to which he had hitherto attributed it, had struck through him like a sudden chill the instant he heard the steward associate the name of “Mrs. Armadale” with the idea of his wife. Little irregularities in her correspondence with him, which he had thus far only thought strange, now came back on his mind, and proclaimed themselves to be suspicions as well. He had hitherto believed the reasons she had given for referring him, when he answered her letters, to no more definite address than an address at a post-office. Now he suspected her reasons of being excuses, for the first time. He had hitherto resolved, on reaching London, to inquire at the only place he knew of at which a clew to her could be found — the address she had given him as the address at which “her mother” lived. Now (with a motive which he was afraid to define even to himself, but which was strong enough to overbear every other consideration in his mind) he determined, before all things, to solve the mystery of Mr. Bashwood’s familiarity with a secret, which was a marriage secret between himself and his wife. Any direct appeal to a man of the steward’s disposition, in the steward’s present state of mind, would be evidently useless. The weapon of deception was, in this case, a weapon literally forced into Midwinter’s hands. He let go of Mr. Bashwood’s arm, and accepted Mr. Bashwood’s explanation.

“I beg your pardon,” he said; “I have no doubt you are right. Pray attribute my rudeness to over-anxiety and over-fatigue. I wish you good-evening.”

The station was by this time almost a solitude, the passengers by the train being assembled at the examination of their luggage in the custom-house waiting-room. It was no easy matter, ostensibly to take leave of Mr. Bashwood, and really to keep him in view. But Midwinter’s early life with the gypsy master had been of a nature to practice him in such stratagems as he was now compelled to adopt. He walked away toward the waiting-room by the line of empty carriages; opened the door of one of them, as if to look after something that he had left behind, and detected Mr. Bashwood making for the cab-rank on the opposite side of the platform. In an instant Midwinter had crossed, and had passed through the long row of vehicles, so as to skirt it on the side furthest from the platform. He entered the second cab by the left-hand door the moment after Mr. Bashwood had entered the first cab by the right-hand door. “Double your fare, whatever it is,” he said to the driver, “if you keep the cab before you in view, and follow it wherever it goes.” In a minute more both vehicles were on their way out of the station.

The clerk sat in the sentry-box at the gate, taking down the destinations of the cabs as they passed. Midwinter heard the man who was driving him call out “Hampstead!” as he went by the clerk’s window.

“Why did you say ‘Hampstead’?” he asked, when they had left the station.

“Because the man before me said ‘Hampstead,’ sir,” answered the driver.

Over and over again, on the wearisome journey to the northwestern suburb, Midwinter asked if the cab was still in sight. Over and over again, the man answered, “Right in front of us.”

It was between nine and ten o’clock when the driver pulled up his horse at last. Midwinter got out, and saw the cab before them waiting at a house door. As soon as he had satisfied himself that the driver was the man whom Mr. Bashwood had hired, he paid the promised reward, and dismissed his own cab.

He took a turn backward and forward before the door. The vaguely terrible suspicion which had risen in his mind at the terminus had forced itself by this time into a definite form which was abhorrent to him. Without the shadow of an assignable reason for it, he found himself blindly distrusting his wife’s fidelity, and blindly suspecting Mr. Bashwood of serving her in the capacity of go-between. In sheer horror of his own morbid fancy, he determined to take down the number of the house, and the name of the street in which it stood; and then, in justice to his wife, to return at once to the address which she had given him as the address at which her mother lived. He had taken out his pocket-book, and was on his way to the corner of the street, when he observed the man who had driven Mr. Bashwood looking at him with an expression of inquisitive surprise. The idea of questioning the cab-driver, while he had the opportunity, instantly occurred to him. He took a half-crown from his pocket and put it into the man’s ready hand.

“Has the gentleman whom you drove from the station gone into that house?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

“Did you hear him inquire for anybody when the door was opened?”

“He asked for a lady, sir. Mrs. —” The man hesitated. “It wasn’t a common name, sir; I should know it again if I heard it.”

“Was it ‘Midwinter’?”

“No, sir.

“Armadale?”

“That’s it, sir. Mrs. Armadale.”

“Are you sure it was ‘Mrs.’ and not ‘Mr.’?”

“I’m as sure as a man can be who hasn’t taken any particular notice, sir.

The doubt implied in that last answer decided Midwinter to investigate the matter on the spot. He ascended the house steps. As he raised his hand to the bell at the side of the door, the violence of his agitation mastered him physically for the moment. A strange sensation, as of something leaping up from his heart to his brain, turned his head wildly giddy. He held by the house railings and kept his face to the air, and resolutely waited till he was steady again. Then he rang the bell.

“Is?”— he tried to ask for “Mrs. Armadale,” when the maid-servant had opened the door, but not even his resolution could force the name to pass his lips —“is your mistress at home?” he asked.

“Yes, sir.”

The girl showed him into a back parlor, and presented him to a little old lady, with an obliging manner and a bright pair of eyes.

“There is some mistake,” said Midwinter. “I wished to see —” Once more he tried to utter the name, and once more he failed to force it to his lips.

“Mrs. Armadale?” suggested the little old lady, with a smile.

“Yes.”

“Show the gentleman upstairs, Jenny.”

The girl led the way to the drawing-room floor.

“Any name, sir?”

“No name.”

Mr. Bashwood had barely completed his report of what had happened at the terminus; Mr. Bashwood’s imperious mistress was still sitting speechless under the shock of the discovery that had burst on her — when the door of the room opened; and, without a word of warning to proceed him, Midwinter appeared on the threshold. He took one step into the room, and mechanically pushed the door to behind him. He stood in dead silence, and confronted his wife, with a scrutiny that was terrible in its unnatural self-possession, and that enveloped her steadily in one comprehensive look from head to foot.

In dead silence on her side, she rose from her chair, In dead silence she stood erect on the hearth-rug, and faced her husband in widow’s weeds. He took one step nearer to her, and stopped again. He lifted his hand, and pointed with his lean brown finger at her dress.

“What does that mean?” he asked, without losing his terrible self-possession, and without moving his outstretched hand.

At the sound of his voice, the quick rise and fall of her bosom — which had been the one outward betrayal thus far of the inner agony that tortured her — suddenly stopped. She stood impenetrably silent, breathlessly still — as if his question had struck her dead, and his pointing hand had petrified her.

He advanced one step nearer, and reiterated his words in a voice even lower and quieter than the voice in which he had spoken first.

One moment more of silence, one moment more of inaction, might have been the salvation of her. But the fatal force of her character triumphed at the crisis of her destiny, and his. White and still, and haggard and old, she met the dreadful emergency with a dreadful courage, and spoke the irrevocable words which renounced him to his face.

“Mr. Midwinter,” she said, in tones unnaturally hard and unnaturally clear, “our acquaintance hardly entitles you to speak to me in that manner.” Those were her words. She never lifted her eyes from the ground while she spoke them. When she had done, the last faint vestige of color in her cheeks faded out.

There was a pause. Still steadily looking at her, he set himself to fix the language she had used to him in his mind. “She calls me ‘Mr. Midwinter,’” he said, slowly, in a whisper. “She speaks of ‘our acquaintance.’” He waited a little and looked round the room. His wandering eyes encountered Mr. Bashwood for the first time. He saw the steward standing near the fireplace, trembling, and watching him.

“I once did you a service,” he said; “and you once told me you were not an ungrateful man. Are you grateful enough to answer me if I ask you something?”

He waited a little again. Mr. Bashwood still stood trembling at the fireplace, silently watching him.

“I see you looking at me,” he went on. “Is there some change in me that I am not conscious of myself? Am I seeing things that you don’t see? Am I hearing words that you don’t hear? Am I looking or speaking like a man out of his senses?”

Again he waited, and again the silence was unbroken. His eyes began to glitter; and the savage blood that he had inherited from his mother rose dark and slow in his ashy cheeks.

“Is that woman,” he asked, “the woman whom you once knew, whose name was Miss Gwilt?”

Once more his wife collected her fatal courage. Once more his wife spoke her fatal words.

“You compel me to repeat,” she said, “that you are presuming on our acquaintance, and that you are forgetting what is due to me.”

He turned upon her, with a savage suddenness which forced a cry of alarm from Mr. Bashwood’s lips.

“Are you, or are you not, My Wife?” he asked, through his set teeth.

She raised her eyes to his for the first time. Her lost spirit looked at him, steadily defiant, out of the hell of its own despair.

“I am not your wife,” she said.

He staggered back, with his hands groping for something to hold by, like the hands of a man in the dark. He leaned heavily against the wall of the room, and looked at the woman who had slept on his bosom, and who had denied him to his face.

Mr. Bashwood stole panic-stricken to her side. “Go in there!” he whispered, trying to draw her toward the folding-doors which led into the next room. “For God’s sake, be quick! He’ll kill you!”

She put the old man back with her hand. She looked at him with a sudden irradiation of her blank face. She answered him with lips that struggled slowly into a frightful smile.

Let him kill me,” she said.

As the words passed her lips, he sprang forward from the wall, with a cry that rang through the house. The frenzy of a maddened man flashed at her from his glassy eyes, and clutched at her in his threatening hands. He came on till he was within arms-length of her — and suddenly stood still. The black flush died out of his face in the instant when he stopped. His eyelids fell, his outstretched hands wavered and sank helpless. He dropped, as the dead drop. He lay as the dead lie, in the arms of the wife who had denied him.

She knelt on the floor, and rested his head on her knee. She caught the arm of the steward hurrying to help her, with a hand that closed round it like a vise. “Go for a doctor,” she said, “and keep the people of the house away till he comes.” There was that in her eye, there was that in her voice, which would have warned any man living to obey her in silence. In silence Mr. Bashwood submitted, and hurried out of the room.

The instant she was alone she raised him from her knee. With both arms clasped round him, the miserable woman lifted his lifeless face to hers and rocked him on her bosom in an agony of tenderness beyond all relief in tears, in a passion of remorse beyond all expression in words. In silence she held him to her breast, in silence she devoured his forehead, his cheeks, his lips, with kisses. Not a sound escaped her till she heard the trampling footsteps outside, hurrying up the stairs. Then a low moan burst from her lips, as she looked her last at him, and lowered his head again to her knee, before the strangers came in.

The landlady and the steward were the first persons whom she saw when the door was opened. The medical man (a surgeon living in the street) followed. The horror and the beauty of her face as she looked up at him absorbed the surgeon’s attention for the moment, to the exclusion of everything else. She had to beckon to him, she had to point to the senseless man, before she could claim his attention for his patient and divert it from herself.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

The surgeon carried Midwinter to the sofa, and ordered the windows to be opened. “It is a fainting fit,” he said; “nothing more.”

At that answer her strength failed her for the first time. She drew a deep breath of relief, and leaned on the chimney-piece for support. Mr. Bashwood was the only person present who noticed that she was overcome. He led her to the opposite end of the room, where there was an easy-chair, leaving the landlady to hand the restoratives to the surgeon as they were wanted.

“Are you going to wait here till he recovers?” whispered the steward, looking toward the sofa, and trembling as he looked.

The question forced her to a sense of her position — to a knowledge of the merciless necessities which that position now forced her to confront. With a heavy sigh she looked toward the sofa, considered with herself for a moment, and answered Mr. Bashwood’s inquiry by a question on her side.

“Is the cab that brought you here from the railway still at the door?”

“Yes.”

“Drive at once to the gates of the Sanitarium, and wait there till I join you.”

Mr. Bashwood hesitated. She lifted her eyes to his, and, with a look, sent him out of the room.

“The gentleman is coming to, ma’am,” said the landlady, as the steward closed the door. “He has just breathed again.”

She bowed in mute reply, rose, and considered with herself once more — looked toward the sofa for the second time — then passed through the folding-doors into her own room.

After a short lapse of time the surgeon drew back from the sofa and motioned to the landlady to stand aside. The bodily recovery of the patient was assured. There was nothing to be done now but to wait, and let his mind slowly recall its sense of what had happened.

“Where is she?” were the first words he said to the surgeon, and the landlady anxiously watching him.

The landlady knocked at the folding-doors, and received no answer. She went in, and found the room empty. A sheet of note-paper was on the dressing-table, with the doctor’s fee placed on it. The paper contained these lines, evidently written in great agitation or in great haste: “It is impossible for me to remain here to-night, after what has happened. I will return to-morrow to take away my luggage, and to pay what I owe you.”

“Where is she?” Midwinter asked again, when the landlady returned alone to the drawing-room.

“Gone, sir.”

“I don’t believe it!”

The old lady’s color rose. “If you know her handwriting, sir,” she answered, handing him the sheet of note-paper, “perhaps you may believe that?”

He looked at the paper. “I beg your pardon, ma’am,” he said, as he handed it back —“I beg your pardon, with all my heart.”

There was something in his face as he spoke those words which more than soothed the old lady’s irritation: it touched her with a sudden pity for the man who had offended her. “I am afraid there is some dreadful trouble, sir, at the bottom of all this,” she said, simply. “Do you wish me to give any message to the lady when she comes back?”

Midwinter rose and steadied himself for a moment against the sofa. “I will bring my own message to-morrow,” he said. “I must see her before she leaves your house.”

The surgeon accompanied his patient into the street. “Can I see you home?” he said, kindly. “You had better not walk, if it is far. You mustn’t overexert yourself; you mustn’t catch a chill this cold night.”

Midwinter took his hand and thanked him. “I have been used to hard walking and cold nights, sir,” he said; “and I am not easily worn out, even when I look so broken as I do now. If you will tell me the nearest way out of these streets, I think the quiet of the country and the quiet of the night will help me. I have something serious to do to-morrow,” he added, in a lower tone; “and I can’t rest or sleep till I have thought over it to-night.”

The surgeon understood that he had no common man to deal with. He gave the necessary directions without any further remark, and parted with his patient at his own door.

Left by himself, Midwinter paused, and looked up at the heavens in silence. The night had cleared, and the stars were out — the stars which he had first learned to know from his gypsy master on the hillside. For the first time his mind went back regretfully to his boyish days. “Oh, for the old life!” he thought, longingly. “I never knew till now how happy the old life was!”

He roused himself, and went on toward the open country. His face darkened as he left the streets behind him and advanced into the solitude and obscurity that lay beyond.

“She has denied her husband to-night,” he said. “She shall know her master to-morrow.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30