Armadale/Book the Second/Chapter VII
Two messages were waiting for Allan when he returned to the house. One had been left by Midwinter. "He had gone out for a long walk, and Mr. Armadale was not to be alarmed if he did not get back till late in the day." The other message had been left by "a person from Mr. Pedgift's office," who had called, according to appointment, while the two gentlemen were away at the major's. "Mr. Bashwood's respects, and he would have the honor of waiting on Mr. Armadale again in the course of the evening."
Toward five o'clock, Midwinter returned, pale and silent. Allan hastened to assure him that his peace was made at the cottage; and then, to change the subject, mentioned Mr. Bashwood's message. Midwinter's mind was so preoccupied or so languid that he hardly seemed to remember the name. Allan was obliged to remind him that Bashwood was the elderly clerk, whom Mr. Pedgift had sent to be his instructor in the duties of the steward's office. He listened without making any remark, and withdrew to his room, to rest till dinner-time.
Left by himself, Allan went into the library, to try if he could while away the time over a book.
He took many volumes off the shelves, and put a few of them back again; and there he ended. Miss Milroy contrived in some mysterious manner to get, in this case, between the reader and the books. Her formal bow and her merciless parting speech dwelt, try how he might to forget them, on Allan's mind; he began to grow more and more anxious as the idle hour wore on, to recover his lost place in her favor. To call again that day at the cottage, and ask if he had been so unfortunate as to offend her, was impossible. To put the question in writing with the needful nicety of expression proved, on trying the experiment, to be a task beyond his literary reach. After a turn or two up and down the room, with his pen in his mouth, he decided on the more diplomatic course (which happened, in this case, to be the easiest course, too), of writing to Miss Milroy as cordially as if nothing had happened, and of testing his position in her good graces by the answer that she sent him back. An invitation of some kind (including her father, of course, but addressed directly to herself) was plainly the right thing to oblige her to send a written reply; but here the difficulty occurred of what the invitation was to be. A ball was not to be thought of, in his present position with the resident gentry. A dinner-party, with no indispensable elderly lady on the premises to receive Miss Milroy—except Mrs. Gripper, who could only receive her in the kitchen—was equally out of the question. What was the invitation to be? Never backward, when he wanted help, in asking for it right and left in every available direction, Allan, feeling himself at the end of his own resources, coolly rang the bell, and astonished the servant who answered it by inquiring how the late family at Thorpe Ambrose used to amuse themselves, and what sort of invitations they were in the habit of sending to their friends.
"The family did what the rest of the gentry did, sir," said the man, staring at his master in utter bewilderment. "They gave dinner-parties and balls. And in fine summer weather, sir, like this, they sometimes had lawn-parties and picnics—"
"That'll do!" shouted Allan. "A picnic's just the thing to please her. Richard, you're an invaluable man; you may go downstairs again."
Richard retired wondering, and Richard's master seized his ready pen.
"DEAR MISS MILROY—Since I left you it has suddenly struck me that we might have a picnic. A little change and amusement (what I should call a good shaking-up, if I wasn't writing to a young lady) is just the thing for you, after being so long indoors lately in Mrs. Milroy's room. A picnic is a change, and (when the wine is good) amusement, too. Will you ask the major if he will consent to the picnic, and come? And if you have got any friends in the neighborhood who like a picnic, pray ask them too, for I have got none. It shall be your picnic, but I will provide everything and take everybody. You shall choose the day, and we will picnic where you like. I have set my heart on this picnic.
"Believe me, ever yours,
On reading over his composition before sealing it up, Allan frankly acknowledged to himself, this time, that it was not quite faultless. " 'Picnic' comes in a little too often," he said. "Never mind; if she likes the idea, she won't quarrel with that." He sent off the letter on the spot, with strict instructions to the messenger to wait for a reply.
In half an hour the answer came back on scented paper, without an erasure anywhere, fragrant to smell, and beautiful to see.
The presentation of the naked truth is one of those exhibitions from which the native delicacy of the female mind seems instinctively to revolt. Never were the tables turned more completely than they were now turned on Allan by his fair correspondent. Machiavelli himself would never have suspected, from Miss Milroy's letter, how heartily she had repented her petulance to the young squire as soon as his back was turned, and how extravagantly delighted she was when his invitation was placed in her hands. Her letter was the composition of a model young lady whose emotions are all kept under parental lock and key, and served out for her judiciously as occasion may require. "Papa," appeared quite as frequently in Miss Milroy's reply as "picnic" had appeared in Allan's invitation. "Papa" had been as considerately kind as Mr. Armadale in wishing to procure her a little change and amusement, and had offered to forego his usual quiet habits and join the picnic. With "papa's" sanction, therefore, she accepted, with much pleasure, Mr. Armadale's proposal; and, at "papa's" suggestion, she would presume on Mr. Armadale's kindness to add two friends of theirs recently settled at Thorpe Ambrose, to the picnic party—a widow lady and her son; the latter in holy orders and in delicate health. If Tuesday next would suit Mr. Armadale, Tuesday next would suit "papa"—being the first day he could spare from repairs which were required by his clock. The rest, by "papa's" advice, she would beg to leave entirely in Mr. Armadale's hands; and, in the meantime, she would remain, with "papa's" compliments, Mr. Armadale's truly—ELEANOR MILROY."
Who would ever have supposed that the writer of that letter had jumped for joy when Allan's invitation arrived? Who would ever have suspected that there was an entry already in Miss Milroy's diary, under that day's date, to this effect: "The sweetest, dearest letter from I-know-who; I'll never behave unkindly to him again as long as I live?" As for Allan, he was charmed with the sweet success of his maneuver. Miss Milroy had accepted his invitation; consequently, Miss Milroy was not offended with him. It was on the tip of his tongue to mention the correspondence to his friend when they met at dinner. But there was something in Midwinter's face and manner (even plain enough for Allan to see) which warned him to wait a little before he said anything to revive the painful subject of their visit to the cottage. By common consent they both avoided all topics connected with Thorpe Ambrose, not even the visit from Mr. Bashwood, which was to come with the evening, being referred to by either of them. All through the dinner they drifted further and further back into the old endless talk of past times about ships and sailing. When the butler withdrew from his attendance at table, he came downstairs with a nautical problem on his mind, and asked his fellow-servants if they any of them knew the relative merits "on a wind" and "off a wind" of a schooner and a brig.
The two young men had sat longer at table than usual that day. When they went out into the garden with their cigars, the summer twilight fell gray and dim on lawn and flower bed, and narrowed round them by slow degrees the softly fading circle of the distant view. The dew was heavy, and, after a few minutes in the garden, they agreed to go back to the drier ground on the drive in front of the house.
They were close to the turning which led into the shrubbery, when there suddenly glided out on them, from behind the foliage, a softly stepping black figure—a shadow, moving darkly through the dim evening light. Midwinter started back at the sight of it, and even the less finely strung nerves of his friend were shaken for the moment.
"Who the devil are you?" cried Allan.
The figure bared its head in the gray light, and came slowly a step nearer. Midwinter advanced a step on his side, and looked closer. It was the man of the timid manners and the mourning garments, of whom he had asked the way to Thorpe Ambrose where the three roads met.
"Who are you?" repeated Allan.
"I humbly beg your pardon, sir," faltered the stranger, stepping back again, confusedly. "The servants told me I should find Mr. Armadale—"
"What, are you Mr. Bashwood?"
"Yes, if you please, sir."
"I beg your pardon for speaking to you so roughly," said Allan; "but the fact is, you rather startled me. My name is Armadale (put on your hat, pray), and this is my friend, Mr. Midwinter, who wants your help in the steward's office."
"We hardly stand in need of an introduction," said Midwinter. "I met Mr. Bashwood out walking a few days since, and he was kind enough to direct me when I had lost my way."
"Put on your hat," reiterated Allan, as Mr. Bashwood, still bareheaded, stood bowing speechlessly, now to one of the young men, and now to the other. "My good sir, put on your hat, and let me show you the way back to the house. Excuse me for noticing it," added Allan, as the man, in sheer nervous helplessness, let his hat fall, instead of putting it back on his head; "but you seem a little out of sorts; a glass of good wine will do you no harm before you and my friend come to business. Whereabouts did you meet with Mr. Bashwood, Midwinter, when you lost your way?"
"I am too ignorant of the neighborhood to know. I must refer you to Mr. Bashwood."
"Come, tell us where it was," said Allan, trying, a little too abruptly, to set the man at his ease, as they all three walked back to the house.
The measure of Mr. Bashwood's constitutional timidity seemed to be filled to the brim by the loudness of Allan's voice and the bluntness of Allan's request. He ran over in the same feeble flow of words with which he had deluged Midwinter on the occasion when they first met.
"It was on the road, sir," he began, addressing himself alternately to Allan, whom he called, "sir," and to Midwinter, whom he called by his name, "I mean, if you please, on the road to Little Gill Beck. A singular name, Mr. Midwinter, and a singular place; I don't mean the village; I mean the neighborhood—I mean the 'Broads' beyond the neighborhood. Perhaps you may have heard of the Norfolk Broads, sir? What they call lakes in other parts of England, they call Broads here. The Broads are quite numerous; I think they would repay a visit. You would have seen the first of them, Mr. Midwinter, if you had walked on a few miles from where I had the honor of meeting you. Remarkably numerous, the Broads, sir—situated between this and the sea. About three miles from the sea, Mr. Midwinter—about three miles. Mostly shallow, sir, with rivers running between them. Beautiful; solitary. Quite a watery country, Mr. Midwinter; quite separate, as it were, in itself. Parties sometimes visit them, sir—pleasure parties in boats. It's quite a little network of lakes, or, perhaps—yes, perhaps, more correctly, pools. There is good sport in the cold weather. The wild fowl are quite numerous. Yes; the Broads would repay a visit, Mr. Midwinter. The next time you are walking that way. The distance from here to Little Gill Beck, and then from Little Gill Beck to Girdler Broad, which is the first you come to, is altogether not more—" In sheer nervous inability to leave off, he would apparently have gone on talking of the Norfolk Broads for the rest of the evening, if one of his two listeners had not unceremoniously cut him short before he could find his way into a new sentence.
"Are the Broads within an easy day's drive there and back from this house?" asked Allan, feeling, if they were, that the place for the picnic was discovered already.
"Oh, yes, sir; a nice drive—quite a nice easy drive from this beautiful place!"
They were by this time ascending the portico steps, Allan leading the way up, and calling to Midwinter and Mr. Bashwood to follow him into the library, where there was a lighted lamp.
In the interval which elapsed before the wine made its appearance, Midwinter looked at his chance acquaintance of the high-road with strangely mingled feelings of compassion and distrust—of compassion that strengthened in spite of him; of distrust that persisted in diminishing, try as he might to encourage it to grow. There, perched comfortless on the edge of his chair, sat the poor broken-down, nervous wretch, in his worn black garments, with his watery eyes, his honest old outspoken wig, his miserable mohair stock, and his false teeth that were incapable of deceiving anybody—there he sat, politely ill at ease; now shrinking in the glare of the lamp, now wincing under the shock of Allan's sturdy voice; a man with the wrinkles of sixty years in his face, and the manners of a child in the presence of strangers; an object of pity surely, if ever there was a pitiable object yet!
"Whatever else you're afraid of, Mr. Bashwood," cried Allan, pouring out a glass of wine, "don't be afraid of that! There isn't a headache in a hogshead of it! Make yourself comfortable; I'll leave you and Mr. Midwinter to talk your business over by yourselves. It's all in Mr. Midwinter's hands; he acts for me, and settles everything at his own discretion."
He said those words with a cautious choice of expression very uncharacteristic of him, and, without further explanation, made abruptly for the door. Midwinter, sitting near it, noticed his face as he went out. Easy as the way was into Allan's favor, Mr. Bashwood, beyond all kind of doubt, had in some unaccountable manner failed to find it!
The two strangely assorted companions were left together—parted widely, as it seemed on the surface, from any possible interchange of sympathy; drawn invisibly one to the other, nevertheless, by those magnetic similarities of temperament which overleap all difference of age or station, and defy all apparent incongruities of mind and character. From the moment when Allan left the room, the hidden Influence that works in darkness began slowly to draw the two men together, across the great social desert which had lain between them up to this day.
Midwinter was the first to approach the subject of the interview.
"May I ask," he began, "if you have been made acquainted with my position here, and if you know why it is that I require your assistance?"
Mr. Bashwood—still hesitating and still timid, but manifestly relieved by Allan's departure—sat further back in his chair, and ventured on fortifying himself with a modest little sip of wine.
"Yes, sir," he replied; "Mr. Pedgift informed me of all—at least I think I may say so—of all the circumstances. I am to instruct, or perhaps, I ought to say to advise—"
"No, Mr. Bashwood; the first word was the best word of the two. I am quite ignorant of the duties which Mr. Armadale's kindness has induced him to intrust to me. If I understand right, there can be no question of your capacity to instruct me, for you once filled a steward's situation yourself. May I inquire where it was?"
"At Sir John Mellowship's, sir, in West Norfolk. Perhaps you would like—I have got it with me—to see my testimonial? Sir John might have dealt more kindly with me; but I have no complaint to make; it's all done and over now!" His watery eyes looked more watery still, and the trembling in his hands spread to his lips as he produced an old dingy letter from his pocket-book and laid it open on the table.
The testimonial was very briefly and very coldly expressed, but it was conclusive as far as it went. Sir John considered it only right to say that he had no complaint to make of any want of capacity or integrity in his steward. If Mr. Bashwood's domestic position had been compatible with the continued performance of his duties on the estate, Sir John would have been glad to keep him. As it was, embarrassments caused by the state of Mr. Bashwood's personal affairs had rendered it undesirable that he should continue in Sir John's service; and on that ground, and that only, his employer and he had parted. Such was Sir John's testimony to Mr. Bashwood's character. As Midwinter read the last lines, he thought of another testimonial, still in his own possession—of the written character which they had given him at the school, when they turned their sick usher adrift in the world. His superstition (distrusting all new events and all new faces at Thorpe Ambrose) still doubted the man before him as obstinately as ever. But when he now tried to put those doubts into words, his heart upbraided him, and he laid the letter on the table in silence.
The sudden pause in the conversation appeared to startle Mr. Bashwood. He comforted himself with another little sip of wine, and, leaving the letter untouched, burst irrepressibly into words, as if the silence was quite unendurable to him.
"I am ready to answer any question, sir," he began. "Mr. Pedgift told me that I must answer questions, because I was applying for a place of trust. Mr. Pedgift said neither you nor Mr. Armadale was likely to think the testimonial sufficient of itself. Sir John doesn't say—he might have put it more kindly, but I don't complain—Sir John doesn't say what the troubles were that lost me my place. Perhaps you might wish to know—" He stopped confusedly, looked at the testimonial, and said no more.
"If no interests but mine were concerned in the matter," rejoined Midwinter, "the testimonial would, I assure you, be quite enough to satisfy me. But while I am learning my new duties, the person who teaches me will be really and truly the steward of my friend's estate. I am very unwilling to ask you to speak on what may be a painful subject, and I am sadly inexperienced in putting such questions as I ought to put; but, perhaps, in Mr. Armadale's interests, I ought to know something more, either from yourself, or from Mr. Pedgift, if you prefer it—" He, too, stopped confusedly, looked at the testimonial, and said no more.
There was another moment of silence. The night was warm, and Mr. Bashwood, among his other misfortunes, had the deplorable infirmity of perspiring in the palms of the hands. He took out a miserable little cotton pocket-handkerchief, rolled it up into a ball, and softly dabbed it to and fro, from one hand to the other, with the regularity of a pendulum. Performed by other men, under other circumstances, the action might have been ridiculous. Performed by this man, at the crisis of the interview, the action was horrible.
"Mr. Pedgift's time is too valuable, sir, to be wasted on me," he said. "I will mention what ought to be mentioned myself—if you will please to allow me. I have been unfortunate in my family. It is very hard to bear, though it seems not much to tell. My wife—" One of his hands closed fast on the pocket-handkerchief; he moistened his dry lips, struggled with himself, and went on.
"My wife, sir," he resumed, "stood a little in my way; she did me (I am afraid I must confess) some injury with Sir John. Soon after I got the steward's situation, she contracted—she took—she fell into habits (I hardly know how to say it) of drinking. I couldn't break her of it, and I couldn't always conceal it from Sir John's knowledge. She broke out, and—and tried his patience once or twice, when he came to my office on business. Sir John excused it, not very kindly; but still he excused it. I don't complain of Sir John! I don't complain now of my wife." He pointed a trembling finger at his miserable crape-covered beaver hat on the floor. "I'm in mourning for her," he said, faintly. "She died nearly a year ago, in the county asylum here."
His mouth began to work convulsively. He took up the glass of wine at his side, and, instead of sipping it this time, drained it to the bottom. "I'm not much used to wine, sir," he said, conscious, apparently, of the flush that flew into his face as he drank, and still observant of the obligations of politeness amid all the misery of the recollections that he was calling up.
"I beg, Mr. Bashwood, you will not distress yourself by telling me any more," said Midwinter, recoiling from any further sanction on his part of a disclosure which had already bared the sorrows of the unhappy man before him to the quick.
"I'm much obliged to you, sir," replied Mr. Bashwood. "But if I don't detain you too long, and if you will please to remember that Mr. Pedgift's directions to me were very particular—and, besides, I only mentioned my late wife because if she hadn't tried Sir John's patience to begin with, things might have turned out differently—" He paused, gave up the disjointed sentence in which he had involved himself, and tried another. "I had only two children, sir," he went on, advancing to a new point in his narrative, "a boy and a girl. The girl died when she was a baby. My son lived to grow up; and it was my son who lost me my place. I did my best for him; I got him into a respectable office in London. They wouldn't take him without security. I'm afraid it was imprudent; but I had no rich friends to help me, and I became security. My boy turned out badly, sir. He—perhaps you will kindly understand what I mean, if I say he behaved dishonestly. His employers consented, at my entreaty, to let him off without prosecuting. I begged very hard—I was fond of my son James—and I took him home, and did my best to reform him. He wouldn't stay with me; he went away again to London; he—I beg your pardon, sir! I'm afraid I'm confusing things; I'm afraid I'm wandering from the point."
"No, no," said Midwinter, kindly. "If you think it right to tell me this sad story, tell it in your own way. Have you seen your son since he left you to go to London?"
"No, sir. He's in London still, for all I know. When I last heard of him, he was getting his bread—not very creditably. He was employed, under the inspector, at the Private Inquiry Office in Shadyside Place."
He spoke those words—apparently (as events then stood) the most irrelevant to the matter in hand that had yet escaped him; actually (as events were soon to be) the most vitally important that he had uttered yet—he spoke those words absently, looking about him in confusion, and trying vainly to recover the lost thread of his narrative.
Midwinter compassionately helped him. "You were telling me," he said, "that your son had been the cause of your losing your place. How did that happen?"
"In this way, sir," said Mr. Bashwood, getting back again excitedly into the right train of thought. "His employers consented to let him off; but they came down on his security; and I was the man. I suppose they were not to blame; the security covered their loss. I couldn't pay it all out of my savings; I had to borrow—on the word of a man, sir, I couldn't help it—I had to borrow. My creditor pressed me; it seemed cruel, but, if he wanted the money, I suppose it was only just. I was sold out of house and home. I dare say other gentlemen would have said what Sir John said; I dare say most people would have refused to keep a steward who had had the bailiffs after him, and his furniture sold in the neighborhood. That was how it ended, Mr. Midwinter. I needn't detain you any longer—here is Sir John's address, if you wish to apply to him." Midwinter generously refused to receive the address.
"Thank you kindly, sir," said Mr. Bashwood, getting tremulously on his legs. "There is nothing more, I think, except—except that Mr. Pedgift will speak for me, if you wish to inquire into my conduct in his service. I'm very much indebted to Mr. Pedgift; he's a little rough with me sometimes, but, if he hadn't taken me into his office, I think I should have gone to the workhouse when I left Sir John, I was so broken down." He picked up his dingy old hat from the floor. "I won't intrude any longer, sir. I shall be happy to call again if you wish to have time to consider before you decide-"
"I want no time to consider after what you have told me," replied Midwinter, warmly, his memory busy, while he spoke, with the time when he had told his story to Mr. Brock, and was waiting for a generous word in return, as the man before him was waiting now. "To-day is Saturday," he went on. "Can you come and give me my first lesson on Monday morning? I beg your pardon," he added, interrupting Mr. Bashwood's profuse expressions of acknowledgment, and stopping him on his way out of the room; "there is one thing we ought to settle, ought we not? We haven't spoken yet about your own interest in this matter; I mean, about the terms." He referred, a little confusedly, to the pecuniary part of the subject. Mr. Bashwood (getting nearer and nearer to the door) answered him more confusedly still.
"Anything, sir—anything you think right. I won't intrude any longer; I'll leave it to you and Mr. Armadale."
"I will send for Mr. Armadale, if you like," said Midwinter, following him into the hall. "But I am afraid he has as little experience in matters of this kind as I have. Perhaps, if you see no objection, we might be guided by Mr. Pedgift?"
Mr. Bashwood caught eagerly at the last suggestion, pushing his retreat, while he spoke, as far as the front door. "Yes, sir—oh, yes, yes! nobody better than Mr. Pedgift. Don't—pray don't disturb Mr. Armadale!" His watery eyes looked quite wild with nervous alarm as he turned round for a moment in the light of the hall lamp to make that polite request. If sending for Allan had been equivalent to unchaining a ferocious watch-dog, Mr. Bashwood could hardly have been more anxious to stop the proceeding. "I wish you kindly good-evening, sir," he went on, getting out to the steps. "I'm much obliged to you. I will be scrupulously punctual on Monday morning—I hope—I think—I'm sure you will soon learn everything I can teach you. It's not difficult—oh dear, no—not difficult at all! I wish you kindly good-evening, sir. A beautiful night; yes, indeed, a beautiful night for a walk home."
With those words, all dropping out of his lips one on the top of the other, and without noticing, in his agony of embarrassment at effecting his departure, Midwinter's outstretched hand, he went noiselessly down the steps, and was lost in the darkness of the night.
As Midwinter turned to re-enter the house, the dining-room door opened and his friend met him in the hall.
"Has Mr. Bashwood gone?" asked Allan.
"He has gone," replied Midwinter, "after telling me a very sad story, and leaving me a little ashamed of myself for having doubted him without any just cause. I have arranged that he is to give me my first lesson in the steward's office on Monday morning."
"All right," said Allan. "You needn't be afraid, old boy, of my interrupting you over your studies. I dare say I'm wrong—but I don't like Mr. Bashwood."
"I dare say I'm wrong," retorted the other, a little petulantly. "I do."
The Sunday morning found Midwinter in the park, waiting to intercept the postman, on the chance of his bringing more news from Mr. Brock.
At the customary hour the man made his appearance, and placed the expected letter in Midwinter's hands. He opened it, far away from all fear of observation this time, and read these lines:
"MY DEAR MIDWINTER—I write more for the purpose of quieting your anxiety than because I have anything definite to say. In my last hurried letter I had no time to tell you that the elder of the two women whom I met in the Gardens had followed me, and spoken to me in the street. I believe I may characterize what she said (without doing her any injustice) as a tissue of falsehoods from beginning to end. At any rate, she confirmed me in the suspicion that some underhand proceeding is on foot, of which Allan is destined to be the victim, and that the prime mover in the conspiracy is the vile woman who helped his mother's marriage and who hastened his mother's death.
"Feeling this conviction, I have not hesitated to do, for Allan's sake, what I would have done for no other creature in the world. I have left my hotel, and have installed myself (with my old servant Robert) in a house opposite the house to which I traced the two women. We are alternately on the watch (quite unsuspected, I am certain, by the people opposite) day and night. All my feelings, as a gentleman and a clergyman, revolt from such an occupation as I am now engaged in; but there is no other choice. I must either do this violence to my own self-respect, or I must leave Allan, with his easy nature, and in his assailable position, to defend himself against a wretch who is prepared, I firmly believe, to take the most unscrupulous advantage of his weakness and his youth. His mother's dying entreaty has never left my memory; and, God help me, I am now degrading myself in my own eyes in consequence.
"There has been some reward already for the sacrifice. This day (Saturday) I have gained an immense advantage—I have at last seen the woman's face. She went out with her veil down as before; and Robert kept her in view, having my instructions, if she returned to the house, not to follow her back to the door. She did return to the house; and the result of my precaution was, as I had expected, to throw her off her guard. I saw her face unveiled at the window, and afterward again in the balcony. If any occasion should arise for describing her particularly, you shall have the description. At present I need only say that she looks the full age (five-and-thirty) at which you estimated her, and that she is by no means so handsome a woman as I had (I hardly know why) expected to see.
"This is all I can now tell you. If nothing more happens by Monday or Tuesday next, I shall have no choice but to apply to my lawyers for assistance; though I am most unwilling to trust this delicate and dangerous matter in other hands than mine. Setting my own feelings however, out of the question, the business which has been the cause of my journey to London is too important to be trifled with much longer as I am trifling with it now. In any and every case, depend on my keeping you informed of the progress of events, and believe me yours truly,
Midwinter secured the letter as he had secured the letter that preceded it—side by side in his pocket-book with the narrative of Allan's Dream.
"How many days more?" he asked himself, as he went back to the house. "How many days more?"
Not many. The time he was waiting for was a time close at hand.
Monday came, and brought Mr. Bashwood, punctual to the appointed hour. Monday came, and found Allan immersed in his preparations for the picnic. He held a series of interviews, at home and abroad, all through the day. He transacted business with Mrs. Gripper, with the butler, and with the coachman, in their three several departments of eating, drinking, and driving. He went to the town to consult his professional advisers on the subject of the Broads, and to invite both the lawyers, father and son (in the absence of anybody else in the neighborhood whom he could ask), to join the picnic. Pedgift Senior (in his department) supplied general information, but begged to be excused from appearing at the picnic, on the score of business engagements. Pedgift Junior (in his department) added all the details; and, casting business engagements to the winds, accepted the invitation with the greatest pleasure. Returning from the lawyer's office, Allan's next proceeding was to go to the major's cottage and obtain Miss Milroy's approval of the proposed locality for the pleasure party. This object accomplished, he returned to his own house, to meet the last difficulty now left to encounter—the difficulty of persuading Midwinter to join the expedition to the Broads.
On first broaching the subject, Allan found his friend impenetrably resolute to remain at home. Midwinter's natural reluctance to meet the major and his daughter after what had happened at the cottage, might probably have been overcome. But Midwinter's determination not to allow Mr. Bashwood's course of instruction to be interrupted was proof against every effort that could be made to shake it. After exerting his influence to the utmost, Allan was obliged to remain contented with a compromise. Midwinter promised, not very willingly, to join the party toward evening, at the place appointed for a gypsy tea-making, which was to close the proceedings of the day. To this extent he would consent to take the opportunity of placing himself on a friendly footing with the Milroys. More he could not concede, even to Allan's persuasion, and for more it would he useless to ask.
The day of the picnic came. The lovely morning, and the cheerful bustle of preparation for the expedition, failed entirely to tempt Midwinter into altering his resolution. At the regular hour he left the breakfast-table to join Mr. Bashwood in the steward's office. The two were quietly closeted over the books, at the back of the house, while the packing for the picnic went on in front. Young Pedgift (short in stature, smart in costume, and self-reliant in manner) arrived some little time before the hour for starting, to revise all the arrangements, and to make any final improvements which his local knowledge might suggest. Allan and he were still busy in consultation when the first hitch occurred in the proceedings. The woman-servant from the cottage was reported to be waiting below for an answer to a note from her young mistress, which was placed in Allan's hands.
On this occasion Miss Milroy's emotions had apparently got the better of her sense of propriety. The tone of the letter was feverish, and the handwriting wandered crookedly up and down in deplorable freedom from all proper restraint.
"Oh, Mr. Armadale" (wrote the major's daughter), "such a misfortune! What are we to do? Papa has got a letter from grandmamma this morning about the new governess. Her reference has answered all the questions, and she's ready to come at the shortest notice. Grandmamma thinks (how provoking!) the sooner the better; and she says we may expect her—I mean the governess—either to-day or to-morrow. Papa says (he will be so absurdly considerate to everybody!) that we can't allow Miss Gwilt to come here (if she comes to-day) and find nobody at home to receive her. What is to be done? I am ready to cry with vexation. I have got the worst possible impression (though grandmamma says she is a charming person) of Miss Gwilt. Can you suggest something, dear Mr. Armadale? I'm sure papa would give way if you could. Don't stop to write; send me a message back. I have got a new hat for the picnic; and oh, the agony of not knowing whether I am to keep it on or take it off. Yours truly, E. M."
"The devil take Miss Gwilt!" said Allan, staring at his legal adviser in a state of helpless consternation.
"With all my heart, sir—I don't wish to interfere," remarked Pedgift Junior. "May I ask what's the matter?"
Allan told him. Mr. Pedgift the younger might have his faults, but a want of quickness of resource was not among them.
"There's a way out of the difficulty, Mr. Armadale," he said. "If the governess comes today, let's have her at the picnic."
Allan's eyes opened wide in astonishment.
"All the horses and carriages in the Thorpe Ambrose stables are not wanted for this small party of ours," proceeded Pedgift Junior. "Of course not! Very good. If Miss Gwilt comes to-day, she can't possibly get here before five o'clock. Good again. You order an open carriage to be waiting at the major's door at that time, Mr. Armadale, and I'll give the man his directions where to drive to. When the governess comes to the cottage, let her find a nice little note of apology (along with the cold fowl, or whatever else they give her after her journey) begging her to join us at the picnic, and putting a carriage at her own sole disposal to take her there. Gad, sir!" said young Pedgift, gayly, "she must be a Touchy One if she thinks herself neglected after that!"
"Capital!" cried Allan. "She shall have every attention. I'll give her the pony-chaise and the white harness, and she shall drive herself, if she likes."
He scribbled a line to relieve Miss Milroy's apprehensions, and gave the necessary orders for the pony-chaise. Ten minutes later, the carriages for the pleasure party were at the door.
"Now we've taken all this trouble about her," said Allan, reverting to the governess as they left the house, "I wonder, if she does come today, whether we shall see her at the picnic!"
"Depends, entirely on her age, sir," remarked young Pedgift, pronouncing judgment with the happy confidence in himself which eminently distinguished him. "If she's an old one, she'll be knocked up with the journey, and she'll stick to the cold fowl and the cottage. If she's a young one, either I know nothing of women, or the pony in the white harness will bring her to the picnic."
They started for the major's cottage.