The outskirts of the little town of Thorpe Ambrose, on the side nearest to “the great house,” have earned some local celebrity as exhibiting the prettiest suburb of the kind to be found in East Norfolk. Here the villas and gardens are for the most part built and laid out in excellent taste, the trees are in the prime of their growth, and the healthy common beyond the houses rises and falls in picturesque and delightful variety of broken ground. The rank, fashion, and beauty of the town make this place their evening promenade; and when a stranger goes out for a drive, if he leaves it to the coachman, the coachman starts by way of the common as a matter of course.
On the opposite side, that is to say, on the side furthest from “the great house,” the suburbs (in the year 1851) were universally regarded as a sore subject by all persons zealous for the reputation of the town.
Here nature was uninviting, man was poor, and social progress, as exhibited under the form of building, halted miserably. The streets dwindled feebly, as they receded from the center of the town, into smaller and smaller houses, and died away on the barren open ground into an atrophy of skeleton cottages. Builders hereabouts appeared to have universally abandoned their work in the first stage of its creation. Land-holders set up poles on lost patches of ground, and, plaintively advertising that they were to let for building, raised sickly little crops meanwhile, in despair of finding a purchaser to deal with them. All the waste paper of the town seemed to float congenially to this neglected spot; and all the fretful children came and cried here, in charge of all the slatternly nurses who disgraced the place. If there was any intention in Thorpe Ambrose of sending a worn-out horse to the knacker’s, that horse was sure to be found waiting his doom in a field on this side of the town. No growth flourished in these desert regions but the arid growth of rubbish; and no creatures rejoiced but the creatures of the night — the vermin here and there in the beds, and the cats everywhere on the tiles.
The sun had set, and the summer twilight was darkening. The fretful children were crying in their cradles; the horse destined for the knacker dozed forlorn in the field of his imprisonment; the cats waited stealthily in corners for the coming night. But one living figure appeared in the lonely suburb — the figure of Mr. Bashwood. But one faint sound disturbed the dreadful silence — the sound of Mr. Bashwood’s softly stepping feet.
Moving slowly past the heaps of bricks rising at intervals along the road, coasting carefully round the old iron and the broken tiles scattered here and there in his path, Mr. Bashwood advanced from the direction of the country toward one of the unfinished streets of the suburb. His personal appearance had been apparently made the object of some special attention. His false teeth were brilliantly white; his wig was carefully brushed; his mourning garments, renewed throughout, gleamed with the hideous and slimy gloss of cheap black cloth. He moved with a nervous jauntiness, and looked about him with a vacant smile. Having reached the first of the skeleton cottages, his watery eyes settled steadily for the first time on the view of the street before him. The next instant he started; his breath quickened; he leaned, trembling and flushing, against the unfinished wall at his side. A lady, still at some distance, was advancing toward him down the length of the street. “She’s coming!” he whispered, with a strange mixture of rapture and fear, of alternating color and paleness, showing itself in his haggard face. “I wish I was the ground she treads on! I wish I was the glove she’s got on her hand!” He burst ecstatically into those extravagant words, with a concentrated intensity of delight in uttering them that actually shook his feeble figure from head to foot.
Smoothly and gracefully the lady glided nearer and nearer, until she revealed to Mr. Bashwood’s eyes, what Mr. Bashwood’s instincts had recognized in the first instance — the face of Miss Gwilt.
She was dressed with an exquisitely expressive economy of outlay. The plainest straw bonnet procurable, trimmed sparingly with the cheapest white ribbon, was on her head. Modest and tasteful poverty expressed itself in the speckless cleanliness and the modestly proportioned skirts of her light “print” gown, and in the scanty little mantilla of cheap black silk which she wore over it, edged with a simple frilling of the same material. The luster of her terrible red hair showed itself unshrinkingly in a plaited coronet above her forehead, and escaped in one vagrant love-lock, perfectly curled, that dropped over her left shoulder. Her gloves, fitting her like a second skin, were of the sober brown hue which is slowest to show signs of use. One hand lifted her dress daintily above the impurities of the road; the other held a little nosegay of the commonest garden flowers. Noiselessly and smoothly she came on, with a gentle and regular undulation of the print gown; with the love-lock softly lifted from moment to moment in the evening breeze; with her head a little drooped, and her eyes on the ground — in walk, and look, and manner, in every casual movement that escaped her, expressing that subtle mixture of the voluptuous and the modest which, of the many attractive extremes that meet in women, is in a man’s eyes the most irresistible of all.
“Mr. Bashwood!” she exclaimed, in loud, clear tones indicative of the utmost astonishment, “what a surprise to find you here! I thought none but the wretched inhabitants ever ventured near this side of the town. Hush!” she added quickly, in a whisper. “You heard right when you heard that Mr. Armadale was going to have me followed and watched. There’s a man behind one of the houses. We must talk out loud of indifferent things, and look as if we had met by accident. Ask me what I am doing. Out loud! Directly! You shall never see me again, if you don’t instantly leave off trembling and do what I tell you!”
She spoke with a merciless tyranny of eye and voice — with a merciless use of her power over the feeble creature whom she addressed. Mr. Bashwood obeyed her in tones that quavered with agitation, and with eyes that devoured her beauty in a strange fascination of terror and delight.
“I am trying to earn a little money by teaching music,” she said, in the voice intended to reach the spy’s ears. “If you are able to recommend me any pupils, Mr. Bashwood, your good word will oblige me. Have you been in the grounds to-day?” she went on, dropping her voice again in a whisper. “Has Mr. Armadale been near the cottage? Has Miss Milroy been out of the garden? No? Are you sure? Look out for them to-morrow, and next day, and next day. They are certain to meet and make it up again, and I must and will know of it. Hush! Ask me my terms for teaching music. What are you frightened about? It’s me the man’s after — not you. Louder than when you asked me what I was doing, just now; louder, or I won’t trust you any more; I’ll go to somebody else!”
Once more Mr. Bashwood obeyed. “Don’t be angry with me,” he murmured, faintly, when he had spoken the necessary words. “My heart beats so you’ll kill me!”
You poor old dear!” she whispered back, with a sudden change in her manner, with an easy satirical tenderness. “What business have you with a heart at your age? Be here to-morrow at the same time, and tell me what you have seen in the grounds. My terms are only five shillings a lesson,” she went on, in her louder tone. “I’m sure that’s not much, Mr. Bashwood; I give such long lessons, and I get all my pupils’ music half-price.” She suddenly dropped her voice again, and looked him brightly into instant subjection. “Don’t let Mr. Armadale out of your sight to-morrow! If that girl manages to speak to him, and if I don’t hear of it, I’ll frighten you to death. If I do hear of it, I’ll kiss you! Hush! Wish me good-night, and go on to the town, and leave me to go the other way. I don’t want you — I’m not afraid of the man behind the houses; I can deal with him by myself. Say goodnight, and I’ll let you shake hands. Say it louder, and I’ll give you one of my flowers, if you’ll promise not to fall in love with it.” She raised her voice again. “Goodnight, Mr. Bashwood! Don’t forget my terms. Five shillings a lesson, and the lessons last an hour at a time, and I get all my pupils’ music half-price, which is an immense advantage, isn’t it?” She slipped a flower into his hand — frowned him into obedience, and smiled to reward him for obeying, at the same moment — lifted her dress again above the impurities of the road — and went on her way with a dainty and indolent deliberation, as a cat goes on her way when she has exhausted the enjoyment of frightening a mouse.
Left alone, Mr. Bashwood turned to the low cottage wall near which he had been standing, and, resting himself on it wearily, looked at the flower in his hand.
His past existence had disciplined him to bear disaster and insult, as few happier men could have borne them; but it had not prepared him to feel the master-passion of humanity, for the first time, at the dreary end of his life, in the hopeless decay of a manhood that had withered under the double blight of conjugal disappointment and parental sorrow. “Oh, if I was only young again!” murmured the poor wretch, resting his arms on the wall and touching the flower with his dry, fevered lips in a stealthy rapture of tenderness. “She might have liked me when I was twenty!” He suddenly started back into an erect position, and stared about him in vacant bewilderment and terror. “She told me to go home,” he said, with a startled look. “Why am I stopping here?” He turned, and hurried on to the town — in such dread of her anger, if she looked round and saw him, that he never so much as ventured on a backward glance at the road by which she had retired, and never detected the spy dogging her footsteps, under cover of the empty houses and the brick-heaps by the roadside.
Smoothly and gracefully, carefully preserving the speckless integrity of her dress, never hastening her pace, and never looking aside to the right hand or the left, Miss Gwilt pursued her way toward the open country. The suburban road branched off at its end in two directions. On the left, the path wound through a ragged little coppice to the grazing grounds of a neighboring farm; on the right, it led across a hillock of waste land to the high-road. Stopping a moment to consider, but not showing the spy that she suspected him by glancing behind her while there was a hiding-place within his reach, Miss Gwilt took the path across the hillock. “I’ll catch him there,” she said to herself, looking up quietly at the long straight line of the empty high-road.
Once on the ground that she had chosen for her purpose, she met the difficulties of the position with perfect tact and self-possession. After walking some thirty yards along the road, she let her nosegay drop, half turned round in stooping to pick it up, saw the man stopping at the same moment behind her, and instantly went on again, quickening her pace little by little, until she was walking at the top of her speed. The spy fell into the snare laid for him. Seeing the night coming, and fearing that he might lose sight of her in the darkness, he rapidly lessened the distance between them. Miss Gwilt went on faster and faster till she plainly heard his footstep behind her, then stopped, turned, and met the man face to face the next moment.
“My compliments to Mr. Armadale,” she said, “and tell him I’ve caught you watching me.”
“I’m not watching you, miss,” retorted the spy, thrown off his guard by the daring plainness of the language in which she had spoken to him.
Miss Gwilt’s eyes measured him contemptuously from head to foot. He was a weakly, undersized man. She was the taller, and (quite possibly) the stronger of the two.
“Take your hat off, you blackguard, when you speak to a lady,” she said, and tossed his hat in an instant, across a ditch by which they were standing, into a pool on the other side.
This time the spy was on his guard. He knew as well as Miss Gwilt knew the use which might be made of the precious minutes, if he turned his back on her and crossed the ditch to recover his hat. “It’s well for you you’re a woman,” he said, standing scowling at her bareheaded in the fast-darkening light.
Miss Gwilt glanced sidelong down the onward vista of the road, and saw, through the gathering obscurity, the solitary figure of a man rapidly advancing toward her. Some women would have noticed the approach of a stranger at that hour and in that lonely place with a certain anxiety. Miss Gwilt was too confident in her own powers of persuasion not to count on the man’s assistance beforehand, whoever he might be, because he was a man. She looked back at the spy with redoubled confidence in herself, and measured him contemptuously from head to foot for the second time.
“I wonder whether I’m strong enough to throw you after your hat?” she said. “I’ll take a turn and consider it.”
She sauntered on a few steps toward the figure advancing along the road. The spy followed her close. “Try it,” he said, brutally. “You’re a fine woman; you’re welcome to put your arms round me if you like.” As the words escaped him, he too saw the stranger for the first time. He drew back a step and waited. Miss Gwilt, on her side, advanced a step and waited, too.
The stranger came on, with the lithe, light step of a practiced walker, swinging a stick in his hand and carrying a knapsack on his shoulders. A few paces nearer, and his face became visible. He was a dark man, his black hair was powdered with dust, and his black eyes were looking steadfastly forward along the road before him.
Miss Gwilt advanced with the first signs of agitation she had shown yet. “Is it possible?” she said, softly. “Can it really be you?”
It was Midwinter, on his way back to Thorpe Ambrose, after his fortnight among the Yorkshire moors.
He stopped and looked at her, in breathless surprise. The image of the woman had been in his thoughts, at the moment when the woman herself spoke to him. “Miss Gwilt!” he exclaimed, and mechanically held out his hand.
She took it, and pressed it gently. “I should have been glad to see you at any time,” she said. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you now. May I trouble you to speak to that man? He has been following me, and annoying me all the way from the town.”
Midwinter stepped past her without uttering a word. Faint as the light was, the spy saw what was coming in his face, and, turning instantly, leaped the ditch by the road-side. Before Midwinter could follow, Miss Gwilt’s hand was on his shoulder.
“No,” she said, “you don’t know who his employer is.”
Midwinter stopped and looked at her.
“Strange things have happened since you left us,” she went on. “I have been forced to give up my situation, and I am followed and watched by a paid spy. Don’t ask who forced me out of my situation, and who pays the spy — at least not just yet. I can’t make up my mind to tell you till I am a little more composed. Let the wretch go. Do you mind seeing me safe back to my lodging? It’s in your way home. May I— may I ask for the support of your arm? My little stock of courage is quite exhausted.” She took his arm and clung close to it. The woman who had tyrannized over Mr. Bashwood was gone, and the woman who had tossed the spy’s hat into the pool was gone. A timid, shrinking, interesting creature filled the fair skin and trembled on the symmetrical limbs of Miss Gwilt. She put her handkerchief to her eyes. “They say necessity has no law,” she murmured, faintly. “I am treating you like an old friend. God knows I want one!”
They went on toward the town. She recovered herself with a touching fortitude; she put her handkerchief back in her pocket, and persisted in turning the conversation on Midwinter’s walking tour. “It is bad enough to be a burden on you,” she said, gently pressing on his arm as she spoke; “I mustn’t distress you as well. Tell me where you have been, and what you have seen. Interest me in your journey; help me to escape from myself.”
They reached the modest little lodging in the miserable little suburb. Miss Gwilt sighed, and removed her glove before she took Midwinter’s hand. “I have taken refuge here,” she said, simply. “It is clean and quiet; I am too poor to want or expect more. We must say good-by, I suppose, unless”— she hesitated modestly, and satisfied herself by a quick look round that they were unobserved —“unless you would like to come in and rest a little? I feel so gratefully toward you, Mr. Midwinter! Is there any harm, do you think, in my offering you a cup of tea?”
The magnetic influence of her touch was thrilling through him while she spoke. Change and absence, to which he had trusted to weaken her hold on him, had treacherously strengthened it instead. A man exceptionally sensitive, a man exceptionally pure in his past life, he stood hand in hand, in the tempting secrecy of the night, with the first woman who had exercised over him the all-absorbing influence of her sex. At his age, and in his position, who could have left her? The man (with a man’s temperament) doesn’t live who could have left her. Midwinter went in.
A stupid, sleepy lad opened the house door. Even he, being a male creature, brightened under the influence of Miss Gwilt. “The urn, John,” she said, kindly, “and another cup and saucer. I’ll borrow your candle to light my candles upstairs, and then I won’t trouble you any more to-night.” John was wakeful and active in an instant. “No trouble, miss,” he said, with awkward civility. Miss Gwilt took his candle with a smile. “How good people are to me!” she whispered, innocently, to Midwinter, as she led the way upstairs to the little drawing-room on the first floor.
She lit the candles, and, turning quickly on her guest, stopped him at the first attempt he made to remove the knapsack from his shoulders. “No,” she said, gently; “in the good old times there were occasions when the ladies unarmed their knights. I claim the privilege of unarming my knight.” Her dexterous fingers intercepted his at the straps and buckles, and she had the dusty knapsack off, before he could protest against her touching it.
They sat down at the one little table in the room. It was very poorly furnished; but there was something of the dainty neatness of the woman who inhabited it in the arrangement of the few poor ornaments on the chimney-piece, in the one or two prettily bound volumes on the chiffonier, in the flowers on the table, and the modest little work-basket in the window. “Women are not all coquettes,” she said, as she took off her bonnet and mantilla, and laid them carefully on a chair. “I won’t go into my room, and look in my glass, and make myself smart; you shall take me just as I am.” Her hands moved about among the tea-things with a smooth, noiseless activity.
Her magnificent hair flashed crimson in the candle-light, as she turned her head hither and thither, searching with an easy grace for the things she wanted in the tray. Exercise had heightened the brilliancy of her complexion, and had quickened the rapid alternations of expression in her eyes — the delicious languor that stole over them when she was listening or thinking, the bright intelligence that flashed from them softly when she spoke. In the lightest word she said, in the least thing she did, there was something that gently solicited the heart of the man who sat with her. Perfectly modest in her manner, possessed to perfection of the graceful restraints and refinements of a lady, she had all the allurements that feast the eye, all the siren invitations that seduce the sense — a subtle suggestiveness in her silence, and a sexual sorcery in her smile.
“Should I be wrong,” she asked, suddenly suspending the conversation which she had thus far persistently restricted to the subject of Midwinter’s walking tour, “if I guessed that you have something on your mind — something which neither my tea nor my talk can charm away? Are men as curious as women? Is the something — Me?”
Midwinter struggled against the fascination of looking at her and listening to her. “I am very anxious to hear what has happened since I have been away,” he said. “But I am still more anxious, Miss Gwilt, not to distress you by speaking of a painful subject.”
She looked at him gratefully. “It is for your sake that I have avoided the painful subject,” she said, toying with her spoon among the dregs in her empty cup. “But you will hear about it from others, if you don’t hear about it from me; and you ought to know why you found me in that strange situation, and why you see me here. Pray remember one thing, to begin with. I don’t blame your friend, Mr. Armadale. I blame the people whose instrument he is.”
Midwinter started. “Is it possible,” he began, “that Allan can be in any way answerable —?” He stopped, and looked at Miss Gwilt in silent astonishment.
She gently laid her hand on his. “Don’t be angry with me for only telling the truth,” she said. “Your friend is answerable for everything that has happened to me — innocently answerable, Mr. Midwinter, I firmly believe. We are both victims. He is the victim of his position as the richest single man in the neighborhood; and I am the victim of Miss Milroy’s determination to marry him.”
“Miss Milroy?” repeated Midwinter, more and more astonished. “Why, Allan himself told me —” He stopped again.
“He told you that I was the object of his admiration? Poor fellow, he admires everybody; his head is almost as empty as this,” said Miss Gwilt, smiling indicatively into the hollow of her cup. She dropped the spoon, sighed, and became serious again. “I am guilty of the vanity of having let him admire me,” she went on, penitently, “without the excuse of being able, on my side, to reciprocate even the passing interest that he felt in me. I don’t undervalue his many admirable qualities, or the excellent position he can offer to his wife. But a woman’s heart is not to be commanded — no, Mr. Midwinter, not even by the fortunate master of Thorpe Ambrose, who commands everything else.”
She looked him full in the face as she uttered that magnanimous sentiment. His eyes dropped before hers, and his dark color deepened. He had felt his heart leap in him at the declaration of her indifference to Allan. For the first time since they had known each other, his interests now stood self-revealed before him as openly adverse to the interests of his friend.
“I have been guilty of the vanity of letting Mr. Armadale admire me, and I have suffered for it,” resumed Miss Gwilt. “If there had been any confidence between my pupil and me, I might have easily satisfied her that she might become Mrs. Armadale — if she could — without having any rivalry to fear on my part. But Miss Milroy disliked and distrusted me from the first. She took her own jealous view, no doubt, of Mr. Armadale’s thoughtless attentions to me. It was her interest to destroy the position, such as it was, that I held in his estimation; and it is quite likely her mother assisted her. Mrs. Milroy had her motive also (which I am really ashamed to mention) for wishing to drive me out of the house. Anyhow, the conspiracy has succeeded. I have been forced (with Mr. Armadale’s help) to leave the major’s service. Don’t be angry, Mr. Midwinter! Don’t form a hasty opinion! I dare say Miss Milroy has some good qualities, though I have not found them out; and I assure you again and again that I don’t blame Mr. Armadale. I only blame the people whose instrument he is.”
“How is he their instrument? How can he be the instrument of any enemy of yours?” asked Midwinter. “Pray excuse my anxiety, Miss Gwilt: Allan’s good name is as dear to me as my own!”
Miss Gwilt’s eyes turned full on him again, and Miss Gwilt’s heart abandoned itself innocently to an outburst of enthusiasm. “How I admire your earnestness!” she said. “How I like your anxiety for your friend! Oh, if women could only form such friendships! Oh you happy, happy men!” Her voice faltered, and her convenient tea-cup absorbed her for the third time. “I would give all the little beauty I possess,” she said, “if I could only find such a friend as Mr. Armadale has found in you. I never shall, Mr. Midwinter — I never shall. Let us go back to what we were talking about. I can only tell you how your friend is concerned in my misfortune by telling you something first about myself. I am like many other governesses; I am the victim of sad domestic circumstances. It may be weak of me, but I have a horror of alluding to them among strangers. My silence about my family and my friends exposes me to misinterpretation in my dependent position. Does it do me any harm, Mr. Midwinter, in your estimation?”
“God forbid!” said Midwinter, fervently. “There is no man living,” he went on, thinking of his own family story, “who has better reason to understand and respect your silence than I have.”
Miss Gwilt seized his hand impulsively. “Oh,” she said, “I knew it, the first moment I saw you! I knew that you, too, had suffered; that you, too, had sorrows which you kept sacred! Strange, strange sympathy! I believe in mesmerism — do you?” She suddenly recollected herself, and shuddered. “Oh, what have I done? What must you think of me?” she exclaimed, as he yielded to the magnetic fascination of her touch, and, forgetting everything but the hand that lay warm in his own, bent over it and kissed it. “Spare me!” she said, faintly, as she felt the burning touch of his lips. “I am so friendless — I am so completely at your mercy!”
He turned away from her, and hid his face in his hands; he was trembling, and she saw it. She looked at him while his face was hidden from her; she looked at him with a furtive interest and surprise. “How that man loves me!” she thought. “I wonder whether there was a time when I might have loved him?”
The silence between them remained unbroken for some minutes. He had felt her appeal to his consideration as she had never expected or intended him to feel it — he shrank from looking at her or from speaking to her again.
“Shall I go on with my story?” she asked. “Shall we forget and forgive on both sides?” A woman’s inveterate indulgence for every expression of a man’s admiration which keeps within the limits of personal respect curved her lips gently into a charming smile. She looked down meditatively at her dress, and brushed a crumb off her lap with a little flattering sigh. “I was telling you,” she went on, “of my reluctance to speak to strangers of my sad family story. It was in that way, as I afterward found out, that I laid myself open to Miss Milroy’s malice and Miss Milroy’s suspicion. Private inquiries about me were addressed to the lady who was my reference — at Miss Milroy’s suggestion, in the first instance, I have no doubt. I am sorry to say, this is not the worst of it. By some underhand means, of which I am quite ignorant, Mr. Armadale’s simplicity was imposed on; and, when application was made secretly to my reference in London, it was made, Mr. Midwinter, through your friend.”
Midwinter suddenly rose from his chair and looked at her. The fascination that she exercised over him, powerful as it was, became a suspended influence, now that the plain disclosure came plainly at last from her lips. He looked at her, and sat down again, like a man bewildered, without uttering a word.
“Remember how weak he is,” pleaded Miss Gwilt, gently, “and make allowances for him as I do. The trifling accident of his failing to find my reference at the address given him seems, I can’t imagine why, to have excited Mr. Armadale’s suspicion. At any rate, he remained in London. What he did there, it is impossible for me to say. I was quite in the dark; I knew nothing: I distrusted nobody; I was as happy in my little round of duties as I could be with a pupil whose affections I had failed to win, when, one morning, to my indescribable astonishment, Major Milroy showed me a correspondence between Mr. Armadale and himself. He spoke to me in his wife’s presence. Poor creature, I make no complaint of her; such affliction as she suffers excuses everything. I wish I could give you some idea of the letters between Major Milroy and Mr. Armadale; but my head is only a woman’s head, and I was so confused and distressed at the time! All I can tell you is that Mr. Armadale chose to preserve silence about his proceedings in London, under circumstances which made that silence a reflection on my character. The major was most kind; his confidence in me remained unshaken; but could his confidence protect me against his wife’s prejudice and his daughter’s ill-will? Oh, the hardness of women to each other! Oh, the humiliation if men only knew some of us as we really are! What could I do? I couldn’t defend myself against mere imputations; and I couldn’t remain in my situation after a slur had been cast on me. My pride (Heaven help me, I was brought up like a gentlewoman, and I have sensibilities that are not blunted even yet!)— my pride got the better of me, and I left my place. Don’t let it distress you, Mr. Midwinter! There’s a bright side to the picture. The ladies in the neighborhood have overwhelmed me with kindness; I have the prospect of getting pupils to teach; I am spared the mortification of going back to be a burden on my friends. The only complaint I have to make is, I think, a just one. Mr. Armadale has been back at Thorpe Ambrose for some days. I have entreated him, by letter, to grant me an interview; to tell me what dreadful suspicions he has of me, and to let me set myself right in his estimation. Would you believe it? He has declined to see me — under the influence of others, not of his own free will, I am sure! Cruel, isn’t it? But he has even used me more cruelly still; he persists in suspecting me; it is he who is having me watched. Oh, Mr. Midwinter, don’t hate me for telling you what you must know! The man you found persecuting me and frightening me tonight was only earning his money, after all, as Mr. Armadale’s spy.”
Once more Midwinter started to his feet; and this time the thoughts that were in him found their way into words.
“I can’t believe it; I won’t believe it!” he exclaimed, indignantly. “If the man told you that, the man lied. I beg your pardon, Miss Gwilt; I beg your pardon from the bottom of my heart. Don’t, pray don’t think I doubt you; I only say there is some dreadful mistake. I am not sure that I understand as I ought all that you have told me. But this last infamous meanness of which you think Allan guilty, I do understand. I swear to you, he is incapable of it! Some scoundrel has been taking advantage of him; some scoundrel has been using his name. I’ll prove it to you, if you will only give me time. Let me go and clear it up at once. I can’t rest; I can’t bear to think of it; I can’t even enjoy the pleasure of being here. Oh,” he burst out desperately, “I’m sure you feel for me, after what you have said — I feel so for you!”
He stopped in confusion. Miss Gwilt’s eyes were looking at him again, and Miss Gwilt’s hand had found its way once more into his own.
“You are the most generous of living men,” she said, softly. “I will believe what you tell me to believe. Go,” she added, in a whisper, suddenly releasing his hand, and turning away from him. “For both our sakes, go!”
His heart beat fast; he looked at her as she dropped into a chair and put her handkerchief to her eyes. For one moment he hesitated; the next, he snatched up his knapsack from the floor, and left her precipitately, without a backward look or a parting word.
She rose when the door closed on him. A change came over her the instant she was alone. The color faded out of her cheeks; the beauty died out of her eyes; her face hardened horribly with a silent despair. “It’s even baser work than I bargained for,” she said, “to deceive him.” After pacing to and fro in the room for some minutes, she stopped wearily before the glass over the fire-place. “You strange creature!” she murmured, leaning her elbows on the mantelpiece, and languidly addressing the reflection of herself in the glass. “Have you got any conscience left? And has that man roused it?”
The reflection of her face changed slowly. The color returned to her cheeks, the delicious languor began to suffuse her eyes again. Her lips parted gently, and her quickening breath began to dim the surface of the glass. She drew back from it, after a moment’s absorption in her own thoughts, with a start of terror. “What am I doing?” she asked herself, in a sudden panic of astonishment. “Am I mad enough to be thinking of him in that way?”
She burst into a mocking laugh, and opened her desk on the table recklessly with a bang. “It’s high time I had some talk with Mother Jezebel,” she said, and sat down to write to Mrs. Oldershaw.
“I have met with Mr. Midwinter,” she began, “under very lucky circumstances; and I have made the most of my opportunity. He has just left me for his friend Armadale; and one of two good things will happen to-morrow. If they don’t quarrel, the doors of Thorpe Ambrose will be opened to me again at Mr. Midwinter’s intercession. If they do quarrel, I shall be the unhappy cause of it, and I shall find my way in for myself, on the purely Christian errand of reconciling them.”
She hesitated at the next sentence, wrote the first few words of it, scratched them out again, and petulantly tore the letter into fragments, and threw the pen to the other end of the room. Turning quickly on her chair, she looked at the seat which Midwinter had occupied, her foot restlessly tapping the floor, and her handkerchief thrust like a gag between her clinched teeth. “Young as you are,” she thought, with her mind reviving the image of him in the empty chair, “there has been something out of the common in your life; and I must and will know it!”
The house clock struck the hour, and roused her. She sighed, and, walking back to the glass, wearily loosened the fastenings of her dress; wearily removed the studs from the chemisette beneath it, and put them on the chimney-piece. She looked indolently at the reflected beauties of her neck and bosom, as she unplaited her hair and threw it back in one great mass over her shoulders. “Fancy,” she thought, “if he saw me now!” She turned back to the table, and sighed again as she extinguished one of the candles and took the other in her hand. “Midwinter?” she said, as she passed through the folding-doors of the room to her bed-chamber. “I don’t believe in his name, to begin with!”
The night had advanced by more than an hour before Midwinter was back again at the great house.
Twice, well as the homeward way was known to him, he had strayed out of the right road. The events of the evening — the interview with Miss Gwilt herself, after his fortnight’s solitary thinking of her; the extraordinary change that had taken place in her position since he had seen her last; and the startling assertion of Allan’s connection with it — had all conspired to throw his mind into a state of ungovernable confusion. The darkness of the cloudy night added to his bewilderment. Even the familiar gates of Thorpe Ambrose seemed strange to him. When he tried to think of it, it was a mystery to him how he had reached the place.
The front of the house was dark, and closed for the night. Midwinter went round to the back. The sound of men’s voices, as he advanced, caught his ear. They were soon distinguishable as the voices of the first and second footman, and the subject of conversation between them was their master.
“I’ll bet you an even half-crown he’s driven out of the neighborhood before another week is over his head,” said the first footman.
“Done!” said the second. “He isn’t as easy driven as you think.”
“Isn’t he!” retorted the other. “He’ll be mobbed if he stops here! I tell you again, he’s not satisfied with the mess he’s got into already. I know it for certain, he’s having the governess watched.”
At those words, Midwinter mechanically checked himself before he turned the corner of the house. His first doubt of the result of his meditated appeal to Allan ran through him like a sudden chill. The influence exercised by the voice of public scandal is a force which acts in opposition to the ordinary law of mechanics. It is strongest, not by concentration, but by distribution. To the primary sound we may shut our ears; but the reverberation of it in echoes is irresistible. On his way back, Midwinter’s one desire had been to find Allan up, and to speak to him immediately. His one hope now was to gain time to contend with the new doubts and to silence the new misgivings; his one present anxiety was to hear that Allan had gone to bed. He turned the corner of the house, and presented himself before the men smoking their pipes in the back garden. As soon as their astonishment allowed them to speak, they offered to rouse their master. Allan had given his friend up for that night, and had gone to bed about half an hour since.
“It was my master’s’ particular order, sir,” said the head-footman, “that he was to be told of it if you came back.”
“It is my particular request,” returned Midwinter, “that you won’t disturb him.”
The men looked at each other wonderingly, as he took his candle and left them.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06