ALL was quiet at Thorpe Ambrose. The hall was solitary, the rooms were dark. The servants, waiting for the supper hour in the garden at the back of the house, looked up at the clear heaven and the rising moon, and agreed that there was little prospect of the return of the picnic party until later in the night. The general opinion, led by the high authority of the cook, predicted that they might all sit down to supper without the least fear of being disturbed by the bell. Having arrived at this conclusion, the servants assembled round the table, and exactly at the moment when they sat down the bell rang.
The footman, wondering, went up stairs to open the door, and found to his astonishment Midwinter waiting alone on the threshold, and looking (in the servant’s opinion) miserably ill. He asked for a light, and, saying he wanted nothing else, withdrew at once to his room. The footman went back to his fellow-servants, and reported that something had certainly happened to his master’s friend.
On entering his room, Midwinter closed the door, and hurriedly filled a bag with the necessaries for traveling. This done, he took from a locked drawer, and placed in the breast pocket of his coat, some little presents which Allan had given him — a cigar case, a purse, and a set of studs in plain gold. Having possessed himself of these memorials, he snatched up the bag and laid his hand on the door. There, for the first time, he paused. There, the headlong haste of all his actions thus far suddenly ceased, and the hard despair in his face began to soften: he waited, with the door in his hand.
Up to that moment he had been conscious of but one motive that animated him, but one purpose that he was resolute to achieve. “For Allan’s sake!” he had said to himself, when he looked back toward the fatal landscape and saw his friend leaving him to meet the woman at the pool. “For Allan’s sake!” he had said again, when he crossed the open country beyond the wood, and saw afar, in the gray twilight, the long line of embankment and the distant glimmer of the railway lamps beckoning him away already to the iron road.
It was only when he now paused before he closed the door behind him — it was only when his own impetuous rapidity of action came for the first time to a check, that the nobler nature of the man rose in protest against the superstitious despair which was hurrying him from all that he held dear. His conviction of the terrible necessity of leaving Allan for Allan’s good had not been shaken for an instant since he had seen the first Vision of the Dream realized on the shores of the Mere. But now, for the first time, his own heart rose against him in unanswerable rebuke. “Go, if you must and will! but remember the time when you were ill, and he sat by your bedside; friendless, and he opened his heart to you — and write, if you fear to speak; write and ask him to forgive you, before you leave him forever!”
The half-opened door closed again softly. Midwinter sat down at the writing-table and took up the pen.
He tried again and again, and yet again, to write the farewell words; he tried, till the floor all round him was littered with torn sheets of paper. Turn from them which way he would, the old times still came back and faced him reproachfully. The spacious bed-chamber in which he sat, narrowed, in spite of him, to the sick usher’s garret at the west-country inn. The kind hand that had once patted him on the shoulder touched him again; the kind voice that had cheered him spoke unchangeably in the old friendly tones. He flung his arms on the table and dropped his head on them in tearless despair. The parting words that his tongue was powerless to utter his pen was powerless to write. Mercilessly in earnest, his superstition pointed to him to go while the time was his own. Mercilessly in earnest, his love for Allan held him back till the farewell plea for pardon and pity was written.
He rose with a sudden resolution, and rang for the servant, “When Mr. Armadale returns,” he said, “ask him to excuse my coming downstairs, and say that I am trying to get to sleep.” He locked the door and put out the light, and sat down alone in the darkness. “The night will keep us apart,” he said; “and time may help me to write. I may go in the early morning; I may go while —” The thought died in him uncompleted; and the sharp agony of the struggle forced to his lips the first cry of suffering that had escaped him yet.
He waited in the darkness.
As the time stole on, his senses remained mechanically awake, but his mind began to sink slowly under the heavy strain that had now been laid on it for some hours past. A dull vacancy possessed him; he made no attempt to kindle the light and write once more. He never started; he never moved to the open window, when the first sound of approaching wheels broke in on the silence of the night. He heard the carriages draw up at the door; he heard the horses champing their bits; he heard the voices of Allan and young Pedgift on the steps; and still he sat quiet in the darkness, and still no interest was aroused in him by the sounds that reached his ear from outside.
The voices remained audible after the carriages had been driven away; the two young men were evidently lingering on the steps before they took leave of each other. Every word they said reached Midwinter through the open window. Their one subject of conversation was the new governess. Allan’s voice was loud in her praise. He had never passed such an hour of delight in his life as the hour he had spent with Miss Gwilt in the boat, on the way from Hurle Mere to the picnic party waiting at the other Broad. Agreeing, on his side, with all that his client said in praise of the charming stranger, young Pedgift appeared to treat the subject, when it fell into his hands, from a different point of view. Miss Gwilt’s attractions had not so entirely absorbed his attention as to prevent him from noticing the impression which the new governess had produced on her employer and her pupil.
“There’s a screw loose somewhere, sir, in Major Milroy’s family,” said the voice of young Pedgift. “Did you notice how the major and his daughter looked when Miss Gwilt made her excuses for being late at the Mere? You don’t remember? Do you remember what Miss Gwilt said?”
“Something about Mrs. Milroy, wasn’t it?” Allan rejoined.
Young Pedgift’s voice dropped mysteriously a note lower.
“Miss Gwilt reached the cottage this afternoon, sir, at the time when I told you she would reach it, and she would have joined us at the time I told you she would come, but for Mrs. Milroy. Mrs. Milroy sent for her upstairs as soon as she entered the house, and kept her upstairs a good half-hour and more. That was Miss Gwilt’s excuse, Mr. Armadale, for being late at the Mere.”
“Well, and what then?”
“You seem to forget, sir, what the whole neighborhood has heard about Mrs. Milroy ever since the major first settled among us. We have all been told, on the doctor’s own authority, that she is too great a sufferer to see strangers. Isn’t it a little odd that she should have suddenly turned out well enough to see Miss Gwilt (in her husband’s absence) the moment Miss Gwilt entered the house?”
“Not a bit of it! Of course she was anxious to make acquaintance with her daughter’s governess.”
“Likely enough, Mr. Armadale. But the major and Miss Neelie don’t see it in that light, at any rate. I had my eye on them both when the governess told them that Mrs. Milroy had sent for her. If ever I saw a girl look thoroughly frightened, Miss Milroy was that girl; and (if I may be allowed, in the strictest confidence, to libel a gallant soldier) I should say that the major himself was much in the same condition. Take my word for it, sir, there’s something wrong upstairs in that pretty cottage of yours; and Miss Gwilt is mixed up in it already!”
There was a minute of silence. When the voices were next heard by Midwinter, they were further away from the house — Allan was probably accompanying young Pedgift a few steps on his way back.
After a while, Allan’s voice was audible once more under the portico, making inquiries after his friend; answered by the servant’s voice giving Midwinter’s message. This brief interruption over, the silence was not broken again till the time came for shutting up the house. The servants’ footsteps passing to and fro, the clang of closing doors, the barking of a disturbed dog in the stable-yard — these sounds warned Midwinter it was getting late. He rose mechanically to kindle a light. But his head was giddy, his hand trembled; he laid aside the match-box, and returned to his chair. The conversation between Allan and young Pedgift had ceased to occupy his attention the instant he ceased to hear it; and now again, the sense that the precious time was failing him became a lost sense as soon as the house noises which had awakened it had passed away. His energies of body and mind were both alike worn out; he waited with a stolid resignation for the trouble that was to come to him with the coming day.
An interval passed, and the silence was once more disturbed by voices outside; the voices of a man and a woman this time. The first few words exchanged between them indicated plainly enough a meeting of the clandestine kind; and revealed the man as one of the servants at Thorpe Ambrose, and the woman as one of the servants at the cottage.
Here again, after the first greetings were over, the subject of the new governess became the all-absorbing subject of conversation.
The major’s servant was brimful of forebodings (inspired solely by Miss Gwilt’s good looks) which she poured out irrepressibly on her “sweetheart,” try as he might to divert her to other topics. Sooner or later, let him mark her words, there would be an awful “upset” at the cottage. Her master, it might be mentioned in confidence, led a dreadful life with her mistress. The major was the best of men; he hadn’t a thought in his heart beyond his daughter and his everlasting clock. But only let a nice-looking woman come near the place, and Mrs. Milroy was jealous of her — raging jealous, like a woman possessed, on that miserable sick-bed of hers. If Miss Gwilt (who was certainly good-looking, in spite of her hideous hair) didn’t blow the fire into a flame before many days more were over their heads, the mistress was the mistress no longer, but somebody else. Whatever happened, the fault, this time, would lie at the door of the major’s mother. The old lady and the mistress had had a dreadful quarrel two years since; and the old lady had gone away in a fury, telling her son, before all the servants, that, if he had a spark of spirit in him, he would never submit to his wife’s temper as he did. It would be too much, perhaps, to accuse the major’s mother of purposely picking out a handsome governess to spite the major’s wife. But it might be safely said that the old lady was the last person in the world to humor the mistress’s jealousy, by declining to engage a capable and respectable governess for her granddaughter because that governess happened to be blessed with good looks. How it was all to end (except that it was certain to end badly) no human creature could say. Things were looking as black already as things well could. Miss Neelie was crying, after the day’s pleasure (which was one bad sign); the mistress had found fault with nobody (which was another); the master had wished her good-night through the door (which was a third); and the governess had locked herself up in her room (which was the worst sign of all, for it looked as if she distrusted the servants). Thus the stream of the woman’s gossip ran on, and thus it reached Midwinter’s ears through the window, till the clock in the stable-yard struck, and stopped the talking. When the last vibrations of the bell had died away, the voices were not audible again, and the silence was broken no more.
Another interval passed, and Midwinter made a new effort to rouse himself. This time he kindled the light without hesitation, and took the pen in hand.
He wrote at the first trial with a sudden facility of expression, which, surprising him as he went on, ended in rousing in him some vague suspicion of himself. He left the table, and bathed his head and face in water, and came back to read what he had written. The language was barely intelligible; sentences were left unfinished; words were misplaced one for the other. Every line recorded the protest of the weary brain against the merciless will that had forced it into action. Midwinter tore up the sheet of paper as he had torn up the other sheets before it, and, sinking under the struggle at last, laid his weary head on the pillow. Almost on the instant, exhaustion overcame him, and before he could put the light out he fell asleep.
He was roused by a noise at the door. The sunlight was pouring into the room, the candle had burned down into the socket, and the servant was waiting outside with a letter which had come for him by the morning’s post.
“I ventured to disturb you, sir,” said the man, when Midwinter opened the door, “because the letter is marked ‘Immediate,’ and I didn’t know but it might be of some consequence.”
Midwinter thanked him, and looked at the letter. It was of some consequence — the handwriting was Mr. Brock’s.
He paused to collect his faculties. The torn sheets of paper on the floor recalled to him in a moment the position in which he stood. He locked the door again, in the fear that Allan might rise earlier than usual and come in to make inquiries. Then — feeling strangely little interest in anything that the rector could write to him now — he opened Mr. Brock’s letter, and read these lines:
“My Dear Midwinter — It is sometimes best to tell bad news plainly, in few words. Let me tell mine at once, in one sentence. My precautions have all been defeated: the woman has escaped me.
“This misfortune — for it is nothing less — happened yesterday (Monday). Between eleven and twelve in the forenoon of that day, the business which originally brought me to London obliged me to go to Doctors’ Commons, and to leave my servant Robert to watch the house opposite our lodging until my return. About an hour and a half after my departure he observed an empty cab drawn up at the door of the house. Boxes and bags made their appearance first; they were followed by the woman herself, in the dress I had first seen her in. Having previously secured a cab, Robert traced her to the terminus of the North-Western Railway, saw her pass through the ticket office, kept her in view till she reached the platform, and there, in the crowd and confusion caused by the starting of a large mixed train, lost her. I must do him the justice to say that he at once took the right course in this emergency. Instead of wasting time in searching for her on the platform, he looked along the line of carriages; and he positively declares that he failed to see her in any one of them. He admits, at the same time, that his search (conducted between two o’clock, when he lost sight of her, and ten minutes past, when the train started) was, in the confusion of the moment, necessarily an imperfect one. But this latter circumstance, in my opinion, matters little. I as firmly disbelieve in the woman’s actual departure by that train as if I had searched every one of the carriages myself; and you, I have no doubt, will entirely agree with me.
“You now know how the disaster happened. Let us not waste time and words in lamenting it. The evil is done, and you and I together must find the way to remedy it.
“What I have accomplished already, on my side, may be told in two words. Any hesitation I might have previously felt at trusting this delicate business in strangers’ hands was at an end the moment I heard Robert’s news. I went back at once to the city, and placed the whole matter confidentially before my lawyers. The conference was a long one, and when I left the office it was past the post hour, or I should have written to you on Monday instead of writing today. My interview with the lawyers was not very encouraging. They warn me plainly that serious difficulties stand in the way of our recovering the lost trace. But they have promised to do their best, and we have decided on the course to be taken, excepting one point on which we totally differ. I must tell you what this difference is; for, while business keeps me away from Thorpe Ambrose, you are the only person whom I can trust to put my convictions to the test.
“The lawyers are of opinion, then, that the woman has been aware from the first that I was watching her; that there is, consequently, no present hope of her being rash enough to appear personally at Thorpe Ambrose; that any mischief she may have it in contemplation to do will be done in the first instance by deputy; and that the only wise course for Allan’s friends and guardians to take is to wait passively till events enlighten them. My own idea is diametrically opposed to this. After what has happened at the railway, I cannot deny that the woman must have discovered that I was watching her. But she has no reason to suppose that she has not succeeded in deceiving me; and I firmly believe she is bold enough to take us by surprise, and to win or force her way into Allan’s confidence before we are prepared to prevent her.
“You and you only (while I am detained in London) can decide whether I am right or wrong — and you can do it in this way. Ascertain at once whether any woman who is a stranger in the neighborhood has appeared since Monday last at or near Thorpe Ambrose. If any such person has been observed (and nobody escapes observation in the country), take the first opportunity you can get of seeing her, and ask yourself if her face does or does not answer certain plain questions which I am now about to write down for you. You may depend on my accuracy. I saw the woman unveiled on more than one occasion, and the last time through an excellent glass.
“1. Is her hair light brown, and (apparently) not very plentiful? 2. Is her forehead high, narrow, and sloping backward from the brow? 3. Are her eyebrows very faintly marked, and are her eyes small, and nearer dark than light — either gray or hazel (I have not seen her close enough to be certain which)? 4. Is her nose aquiline? 5 Are her lips thin, and is the upper lip long? 6. Does her complexion look like an originally fair complexion, which has deteriorated into a dull, sickly paleness? 7 (and lastly). Has she a retreating chin, and is there on the left side of it a mark of some kind — a mole or a scar, I can’t say which?
“I add nothing about her expression, for you may see her under circumstances which may partially alter it as seen by me. Test her by her features, which no circumstances can change. If there is a stranger in the neighborhood, and if her face answers my seven questions, you have found the woman! Go instantly, in that case, to the nearest lawyer, and pledge my name and credit for whatever expenses may be incurred in keeping her under inspection night and day. Having done this, take the speediest means of communicating with me; and whether my business is finished or not, I will start for Norfolk by the first train.
“Always your friend, DECIMUS BROCK.”
Hardened by the fatalist conviction that now possessed him, Midwinter read the rector’s confession of defeat, from the first line to the last, without the slightest betrayal either of interest or surprise. The one part of the letter at which he looked back was the closing part of it. “I owe much to Mr. Brock’s kindness,” he thought; “and I shall never see Mr. Brock again. It is useless and hopeless; but he asks me to do it, and it shall be done. A moment’s look at her will be enough — a moment’s look at her with his letter in my hand — and a line to tell him that the woman is here!”
Again he stood hesitating at the half-opened door; again the cruel necessity of writing his farewell to Allan stopped him, and stared him in the face.
He looked aside doubtingly at the rector’s letter. “I will write the two together,” he said. “One may help the other.” His face flushed deep as the words escaped him. He was conscious of doing what he had not done yet — of voluntarily putting off the evil hour; of making Mr. Brock the pretext for gaining the last respite left, the respite of time.
The only sound that reached him through the open door was the sound of Allan stirring noisily in the next room. He stepped at once into the empty corridor, and meeting no one on the stairs, made his way out of the house. The dread that his resolution to leave Allan might fail him if he saw Allan again was as vividly present to his mind in the morning as it had been all through the night. He drew a deep breath of relief as he descended the house steps — relief at having escaped the friendly greeting of the morning, from the one human creature whom he loved!
He entered the shrubbery with Mr. Brock’s letter in his hand, and took the nearest way that led to the major’s cottage. Not the slightest recollection was in his mind of the talk which had found its way to his ears during the night. His one reason for determining to see the woman was the reason which the rector had put in his mind. The one remembrance that now guided him to the place in which she lived was the remembrance of Allan’s exclamation when he first identified the governess with the figure at the pool.
Arrived at the gate of the cottage, he stopped. The thought struck him that he might defeat his own object if he looked at the rector’s questions in the woman’s presence. Her suspicions would be probably roused, in the first instance, by his asking to see her (as he had determined to ask, with or without an excuse), and the appearance of the letter in his hand might confirm them.
She might defeat him by instantly leaving the room. Determined to fix the description in his mind first, and then to confront her, he opened the letter; and, turning away slowly by the side of the house, read the seven questions which he felt absolutely assured beforehand the woman’s face would answer.
In the morning quiet of the park slight noises traveled far. A slight noise disturbed Midwinter over the letter.
He looked up and found himself on the brink of a broad grassy trench, having the park on one side and the high laurel hedge of an inclosure on the other. The inclosure evidently surrounded the back garden of the cottage, and the trench was intended to protect it from being damaged by the cattle grazing in the park.
Listening carefully as the slight sound which had disturbed him grew fainter, he recognized in it the rustling of women’s dresses. A few paces ahead, the trench was crossed by a bridge (closed by a wicket gate) which connected the garden with the park. He passed through the gate, crossed the bridge, and, opening a door at the other end, found himself in a summer-house thickly covered with creepers, and commanding a full view of the garden from end to end.
He looked, and saw the figures of two ladies walking slowly away from him toward the cottage. The shorter of the two failed to occupy his attention for an instant; he never stopped to think whether she was or was not the major’s daughter. His eyes were riveted on the other figure — the figure that moved over the garden walk with the long, lightly falling dress and the easy, seductive grace. There, presented exactly as be had seen her once already — there, with her back again turned on him, was the Woman at the pool!
There was a chance that they might take another turn in the garden — a turn back toward the summer-house. On that chance Midwinter waited. No consciousness of the intrusion that he was committing had stopped him at the door of the summer-house, and no consciousness of it troubled him even now. Every finer sensibility in his nature, sinking under the cruel laceration of the past night, had ceased to feel. The dogged resolution to do what he had come to do was the one animating influence left alive in him. He acted, he even looked, as the most stolid man living might have acted and looked in his place. He was self-possessed enough, in the interval of expectation before governess and pupil reached the end of the walk, to open Mr. Brock’s letter, and to fortify his memory by a last look at the paragraph which described her face.
He was still absorbed over the description when he heard the smooth rustle of the dresses traveling toward him again. Standing in the shadow of the summer-house, he waited while she lessened the distance between them. With her written portrait vividly impressed on his mind, and with the clear light of the morning to help him, his eyes questioned her as she came on; and these were the answers that her face gave him back.
The hair in the rector’s description was light brown and not plentiful. This woman’s hair, superbly luxuriant in its growth, was of the one unpardonably remarkable shade of color which the prejudice of the Northern nations never entirely forgives — it was red! The forehead in the rector’s description was high, narrow, and sloping backward from the brow; the eyebrows were faintly marked; and the eyes small, and in color either gray or hazel. This woman’s forehead was low, upright, and broad toward the temples; her eyebrows, at once strongly and delicately marked, were a shade darker than her hair; her eyes, large, bright, and well opened, were of that purely blue color, without a tinge in it of gray or green, so often presented to our admiration in pictures and books, so rarely met with in the living face. The nose in the rector’s description was aquiline. The line of this woman’s nose bent neither outward nor inward: it was the straight, delicately molded nose (with the short upper lip beneath) of the ancient statues and busts. The lips in the rector’s description were thin and the upper lip long; the complexion was of a dull, sickly paleness; the chin retreating and the mark of a mole or a scar on the left side of it. This woman’s lips were full, rich, and sensual. Her complexion was the lovely complexion which accompanies such hair as hers — so delicately bright in its rosier tints, so warmly and softly white in its gentler gradations of color on the forehead and the neck. Her chin, round and dimpled, was pure of the slightest blemish in every part of it, and perfectly in line with her forehead to the end. Nearer and nearer, and fairer and fairer she came, in the glow of the morning light — the most startling, the most unanswerable contradiction that eye could see or mind conceive to the description in the rector’s letter.
Both governess and pupil were close to the summer-house before they looked that way, and noticed Midwinter standing inside. The governess saw him first.
“A friend of yours, Miss Milroy?” she asked, quietly, without starting or betraying any sign of surprise.
Neelie recognized him instantly. Prejudiced against Midwinter by his conduct when his friend had introduced him at the cottage, she now fairly detested him as the unlucky first cause of her misunderstanding with Allan at the picnic. Her face flushed and she drew back from the summerhouse with an expression of merciless surprise.
“He is a friend of Mr. Armadale’s,” she replied sharply. “I don’t know what he wants, or why he is here.”
“A friend of Mr. Armadale’s!” The governess’s face lighted up with a suddenly roused interest as she repeated the words, She returned Midwinter’s look, still steadily fixed on her, with equal steadiness on her side.
“For my part,” pursued Neelie, resenting Midwinter’s insensibility to her presence on the scene, “I think it a great liberty to treat papa’s garden as if it were the open park!”
The governess turned round, and gently interposed.
“My dear Miss Milroy,” she remonstrated, “there are certain distinctions to be observed. This gentleman is a friend of Mr. Armadale’s. You could hardly express yourself more strongly if he was a perfect stranger.”
“I express my opinion,” retorted Neelie, chafing under the satirically indulgent tone in which the governess addressed her. “It’s a matter of taste, Miss Gwilt; and tastes differ.” She turned away petulantly, and walked back by herself to the cottage.
“She is very young,” said Miss Gwilt, appealing with a smile to Midwinter’s forbearance; “and, as you must see for yourself, sir, she is a spoiled child.” She paused — showed, for an instant only, her surprise at Midwinter’s strange silence and strange persistency in keeping his eyes still fixed on her — then set herself, with a charming grace and readiness, to help him out of the false position in which he stood. “As you have extended your walk thus far,” she resumed, “perhaps you will kindly favor me, on your return, by taking a message to your friend? Mr. Armadale has been so good as to invite me to see the Thorpe Ambrose gardens this morning. Will you say that Major Milroy permits me to accept the invitation (in company with Miss Milroy) between ten and eleven o’clock?” For a moment her eyes rested, with a renewed look of interest, on Midwinter’s face. She waited, still in vain, for an answering word from him — smiled, as if his extraordinary silence amused rather than angered her — and followed her pupil back to the cottage.
It was only when the last trace of her had disappeared that Midwinter roused himself, and attempted to realize the position in which he stood. The revelation of her beauty was in no respect answerable for the breathless astonishment which had held him spell-bound up to this moment. The one clear impression she had produced on him thus far began and ended with his discovery of the astounding contradiction that her face offered, in one feature after another, to the description in Mr. Brock’s letter. All beyond this was vague and misty — a dim consciousness of a tall, elegant woman, and of kind words, modestly and gracefully spoken to him, and nothing more.
He advanced a few steps into the garden without knowing why — stopped, glancing hither and thither like a man lost — recognized the summer-house by an effort, as if years had elapsed since he had seen it — and made his way out again, at last, into the park. Even here, he wandered first in one direction, then in another. His mind was still reeling under the shock that had fallen on it; his perceptions were all confused. Something kept him mechanically in action, walking eagerly without a motive, walking he knew not where.
A far less sensitively organized man might have been overwhelmed, as he was overwhelmed now, by the immense, the instantaneous revulsion of feeling which the event of the last few minutes had wrought in his mind.
At the memorable instant when he had opened the door of the summer-house, no confusing influence troubled his faculties. In all that related to his position toward his friend, he had reached an absolutely definite conclusion by an absolutely definite process of thought. The whole strength of the motive which had driven him into the resolution to part from Allan rooted itself in the belief that he had seen at Hurle Mere the fatal fulfillment of the first Vision of the Dream. And this belief, in its turn, rested, necessarily, on the conviction that the woman who was the one survivor of the tragedy in Madeira must be also inevitably the woman whom he had seen standing in the Shadow’s place at the pool. Firm in that persuasion, he had himself compared the object of his distrust and of the rector’s distrust with the description written by the rector himself — a description, carefully minute, by a man entirely trustworthy — and his own eyes had informed him that the woman whom he had seen at the Mere, and the woman whom Mr. Brock had identified in London, were not one, but Two. In the place of the Dream Shadow, there had stood, on the evidence of the rector’s letter, not the instrument of the Fatality — but a stranger!
No such doubts as might have troubled a less superstitious man, were started in his mind by the discovery that had now opened on him.
It never occurred to him to ask himself whether a stranger might not be the appointed instrument of the Fatality, now when the letter had persuaded him that a stranger had been revealed as the figure in the dream landscape. No such idea entered or could enter his mind. The one woman whom his superstition dreaded was the woman who had entwined herself with the lives of the two Armadales in the first generation, and with the fortunes of the two Armadales in the second — who was at once the marked object of his father’s death-bed warning, and the first cause of the family calamities which had opened Allan’s way to the Thorpe Ambrose estate — the woman, in a word, whom he would have known instinctively, but for Mr. Brock’s letter, to be the woman whom he had now actually seen.
Looking at events as they had just happened, under the influence of the misapprehension into which the rector had innocently misled him, his mind saw and seized its new conclusion instantaneously, acting precisely as it had acted in the past time of his interview with Mr. Brock at the Isle of Man.
Exactly as he had once declared it to be an all-sufficient refutation of the idea of the Fatality, that he had never met with the timber-ship in any of his voyages at sea, so he now seized on the similarly derived conclusion, that the whole claim of the Dream to a supernatural origin stood self-refuted by the disclosure of a stranger in the Shadow’s place. Once started from this point — once encouraged to let his love for Allan influence him undividedly again, his mind hurried along the whole resulting chain of thought at lightning speed. If the Dream was proved to be no longer a warning from the other world, it followed inevitably that accident and not fate had led the way to the night on the Wreck, and that all the events which had happened since Allan and he had parted from Mr. Brock were events in themselves harmless, which his superstition had distorted from their proper shape. In less than a moment his mobile imagination had taken him back to the morning at Castletown when he had revealed to the rector the secret of his name; when he had declared to the rector, with his father’s letter before his eyes, the better faith that was in him. Now once more he felt his heart holding firmly by the bond of brotherhood between Allan and himself; now once more he could say with the eager sincerity of the old time, “If the thought of leaving him breaks my heart, the thought of leaving him is wrong!” As that nobler conviction possessed itself again of his mind — quieting the tumult, clearing the confusion within him — the house at Thorpe Ambrose, with Allan on the steps, waiting, looking for him, opened on his eyes through the trees. A sense of illimitable relief lifted his eager spirit high above the cares, and doubts, and fears that had oppressed it so long, and showed him once more the better and brighter future of his early dreams. His eyes filled with tears, and he pressed the rector’s letter, in his wild, passionate way, to his lips, as he looked at Allan through the vista of the trees. “But for this morsel of paper,” he thought, “my life might have been one long sorrow to me, and my father’s crime might have parted us forever!”
Such was the result of the stratagem which had shown the housemaid’s face to Mr. Brock as the face of Miss Gwilt. And so — by shaking Midwinter’s trust in his own superstition, in the one case in which that superstition pointed to the truth — did Mother Oldershaw’s cunning triumph over difficulties and dangers which had never been contemplated by Mother Oldershaw herself.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52