Armadale/Book the Third/Chapter I
Two days after Midwinter's departure from Thorpe Ambrose, Mrs. Milroy, having completed her morning toilet, and having dismissed her nurse, rang the bell again five minutes afterward, and on the woman's re-appearance asked impatiently if the post had come in.
"Post?" echoed the nurse. "Haven't you got your watch? Don't you know that it's a good half-hour too soon to ask for your letters?" She spoke with the confident insolence of a servant long accustomed to presume on her mistress's weakness and her mistress's necessities. Mrs. Milroy, on her side, appeared to be well used to her nurses manner; she gave her orders composedly, without noticing it.
"When the postman does come," she said, "see him yourself. I am expecting a letter which I ought to have had two days since. I don't understand it. I'm beginning to suspect the servants."
The nurse smiled contemptuously. "Whom will you suspect next?" she asked. "There! don't put yourself out. I'll answer the gate-bell this morning; and we'll see if I can't bring you a letter when the postman comes." Saying those words, with the tone and manner of a woman who is quieting a fractious child, the nurse, without waiting to be dismissed, left the room.
Mrs. Milroy turned slowly and wearily on her bed, when she was left by herself again, and let the light from the window fall on her face. It was the face of a woman who had once been handsome, and who was still, so far as years went, in the prime of her life. Long-continued suffering of body and long-continued irritation of mind had worn her away—in the roughly expressive popular phrase—to skin and bone. The utter wreck of her beauty was made a wreck horrible to behold, by her desperate efforts to conceal the sight of it from her own eyes, from the eyes of her husband and her child, from the eyes even of the doctor who attended her, and whose business it was to penetrate to the truth. Her head, from which the greater part of the hair had fallen off; would have been less shocking to see than the hideously youthful wig by which she tried to hide the loss. No deterioration of her complexion, no wrinkling of her skin, could have been so dreadful to look at as the rouge that lay thick on her cheeks, and the white enamel plastered on her forehead. The delicate lace, and the bright trimming on her dressing-gown, the ribbons in her cap, and the rings on her bony fingers, all intended to draw the eye away from the change that had passed over her, directed the eye to it, on the contrary; emphasized it; made it by sheer force of contrast more hopeless and more horrible than it really was. An illustrated book of the fashions, in which women were represented exhibiting their finery by means of the free use of their limbs, lay on the bed, from which she had not moved for years without being lifted by her nurse. A hand-glass was placed with the book so that she could reach it easily. She took up the glass after her attendant had left the room, and looked at her face with an unblushing interest and attention which she would have been ashamed of herself at the age of eighteen.
"Older and older, and thinner and thinner!" she said. "The major will soon be a free man; but I'll have that red-haired hussy out of the house first!"
She dropped the looking-glass on the counterpane, and clinched the hand that held it. Her eyes suddenly riveted themselves on a little crayon portrait of her husband hanging on the opposite wall; they looked at the likeness with the hard and cruel brightness of the eyes of a bird of prey. "Red is your taste in your old age is it?" she said to the portrait. "Red hair, and a scrofulous complexion, and a padded figure, a ballet-girl's walk, and a pickpocket's light fingers. Miss Gwilt! Miss, with those eyes, and that walk!" She turned her head suddenly on the pillow, and burst into a harsh, jeering laugh. "Miss!" she repeated over and over again, with the venomously pointed emphasis of the most merciless of all human forms of contempt—the contempt of one woman for another.
The age we live in is an age which finds no human creature inexcusable. Is there an excuse for Mrs. Milroy? Let the story of her life answer the question.
She had married the major at an unusually early age; and, in marrying him, had taken a man for her husband who was old enough to be her father—a man who, at that time, had the reputation, and not unjustly, of having made the freest use of his social gifts and his advantages of personal appearance in the society of women. Indifferently educated, and below her husband in station, she had begun by accepting his addresses under the influence of her own flattered vanity, and had ended by feeling the fascination which Major Milroy had exercised over women infinitely her mental superiors in his earlier life. He had been touched, on his side, by her devotion, and had felt, in his turn, the attraction of her beauty, her freshness, and her youth. Up to the time when their little daughter and only child had reached the age of eight years, their married life had been an unusually happy one. At that period the double misfortune fell on the household, of the failure of the wife's health, and the almost total loss of the husband's fortune; and from that moment the domestic happiness of the married pair was virtually at an end.
Having reached the age when men in general are readier, under the pressure of calamity, to resign themselves than to resist, the major had secured the little relics of his property, had retired into the country, and had patiently taken refuge in his mechanical pursuits. A woman nearer to him in age, or a woman with a better training and more patience of disposition than his wife possessed, would have understood the major's conduct, and have found consolation in the major's submission. Mrs. Milroy found consolation in nothing. Neither nature nor training helped her to meet resignedly the cruel calamity which had struck at her in the bloom of womanhood and the prime of beauty. The curse of incurable sickness blighted her at once and for life.
Suffering can, and does, develop the latent evil that there is in humanity, as well as the latent good. The good that was in Mrs. Milroy's nature shrank up, under that subtly deteriorating influence in which the evil grew and flourished. Month by month, as she became the weaker woman physically, she became the worse woman morally. All that was mean, cruel, and false in her expanded in steady proportion to the contraction of all that had once been generous, gentle, and true. Old suspicions of her husband's readiness to relapse into the irregularities of his bachelor life, which, in her healthier days of mind and body, she had openly confessed to him—which she had always sooner or later seen to be suspicions that he had not deserved—came back, now that sickness had divorced her from him, in the form of that baser conjugal distrust which keeps itself cunningly secret; which gathers together its inflammatory particles atom by atom into a heap, and sets the slowly burning frenzy of jealousy alight in the mind. No proof of her husband's blameless and patient life that could now be shown to Mrs. Milroy; no appeal that could be made to her respect for herself, or for her child growing up to womanhood, availed to dissipate the terrible delusion born of her hopeless illness, and growing steadily with its growth. Like all other madness, it had its ebb and flow, its time of spasmodic outburst, and its time of deceitful repose; but, active or passive, it was always in her. It had injured innocent servants, and insulted blameless strangers. It had brought the first tears of shame and sorrow into her daughter's eyes, and had set the deepest lines that scored it in her husband's face. It had made the secret misery of the little household for years; and it was now to pass beyond the family limits, and to influence coming events at Thorpe Ambrose, in which the future interests of Allan and Allan's friend were vitally concerned.
A moment's glance at the posture of domestic affairs in the cottage, prior to the engagement of the new governess, is necessary to the due appreciation of the serious consequences that followed Miss Gwilt's appearance on the scene.
On the marriage of the governess who had lived in his service for many years (a woman of an age and an appearance to set even Mrs. Milroy's jealousy at defiance), the major had considered the question of sending his daughter away from home far more seriously than his wife supposed. He was conscious that scenes took place in the house at which no young girl should be present; but he felt an invincible reluctance to apply the one efficient remedy—the keeping his daughter away from home in school time and holiday time alike. The struggle thus raised in his mind once set at rest, by the resolution to advertise for a new governess, Major Milroy's natural tendency to avoid trouble rather than to meet it had declared itself in its customary manner. He had closed his eyes again on his home anxieties as quietly as usual, and had gone back, as he had gone back on hundreds of previous occasions, to the consoling society of his old friend the clock.
It was far otherwise with the major's wife. The chance which her husband had entirely overlooked, that the new governess who was to come might be a younger and a more attractive woman than the old governess who had gone, was the first chance that presented itself as possible to Mrs. Milroy's mind. She had said nothing. Secretly waiting, and secretly nursing her inveterate distrust, she had encouraged her husband and her daughter to leave her on the occasion of the picnic, with the express purpose of making an opportunity for seeing the new governess alone. The governess had shown herself; and the smoldering fire of Mrs. Milroy's jealousy had burst into flame in the moment when she and the handsome stranger first set eyes on each other.
The interview over, Mrs. Milroy's suspicions fastened at once and immovably on her husband's mother.
She was well aware that there was no one else in London on whom the major could depend to make the necessary inquiries; she was well aware that Miss Gwilt had applied for the situation, in the first instance, as a stranger answering an advertisement published in a newspaper. Yet knowing this, she had obstinately closed her eyes, with the blind frenzy of the blindest of all the passions, to the facts straight before her; and, looking back to the last of many quarrels between them which had ended in separating the elder lady and herself, had seized on the conclusion that Miss Gwilt's engagement was due to her mother-in-law's vindictive enjoyment of making mischief in her household. The inference which the very servants themselves, witnesses of the family scandal, had correctly drawn—that the major's mother, in securing the services of a well-recommended governess for her son, had thought it no part of her duty to consider that governess's looks in the purely fanciful interests of the major's wife—was an inference which it was simply impossible to convey into Mrs. Milroy's mind. Miss Gwilt had barely closed the sick-room door when the whispered words hissed out of Mrs. Milroy's lips, "Before another week is over your head, my lady, you go!"
From that moment, through the wakeful night and the weary day, the one object of the bedridden woman's life was to procure the new governess's dismissal from the house.
The assistance of the nurse, in the capacity of spy, was secured—as Mrs. Milroy had been accustomed to secure other extra services which her attendant was not bound to render her—by a present of a dress from the mistress's wardrobe. One after another articles of wearing apparel which were now useless to Mrs. Milroy had ministered in this way to feed the nurse's greed—the insatiable greed of an ugly woman for fine clothes. Bribed with the smartest dress she had secured yet, the household spy took her secret orders, and applied herself with a vile enjoyment of it to her secret work.
The days passed, the work went on; but nothing had come of it. Mistress and servant had a woman to deal with who was a match for both of them.
Repeated intrusions on the major, when the governess happened to be in the same room with him, failed to discover the slightest impropriety of word, look, or action, on either side. Stealthy watching and listening at the governess's bedroom door detected that she kept a light in her room at late hours of the night, and that she groaned and ground her teeth in her sleep—and detected nothing more. Careful superintendence in the day-time proved that she regularly posted her own letters, instead of giving them to the servant; and that on certain occasions, when the occupation of her hours out of lesson time and walking time was left at her own disposal, she had been suddenly missed from the garden, and then caught coming back alone to it from the park. Once and once only, the nurse had found an opportunity of following her out of the garden, had been detected immediately in the park, and had been asked with the most exasperating politeness if she wished to join Miss Gwilt in a walk. Small circumstances of this kind, which were sufficiently suspicious to the mind of a jealous woman, were discovered in abundance. But circumstances, on which to found a valid ground of complaint that might be laid before the major, proved to be utterly wanting. Day followed day, and Miss Gwilt remained persistently correct in her conduct, and persistently irreproachable in her relations toward her employer and her pupil.
Foiled in this direction, Mrs. Milroy tried next to find an assailable place in the statement which the governess's reference had made on the subject of the governess's character.
Obtaining from the major the minutely careful report which his mother had addressed to him on this topic, Mrs. Milroy read and reread it, and failed to find the weak point of which she was in search in any part of the letter. All the customary questions on such occasions had been asked, and all had been scrupulously and plainly answered. The one sole opening for an attack which it was possible to discover was an opening which showed itself, after more practical matters had been all disposed of, in the closing sentences of the letter.
"I was so struck," the passage ran, "by the grace and distinction of Miss Gwilt's manners that I took an opportunity, when she was out of the room, of asking how she first came to be governess. 'In the usual way,' I was told. 'A sad family misfortune, in which she behaved nobly. She is a very sensitive person, and shrinks from speaking of it among strangers—a natural reluctance which I have always felt it a matter of delicacy to respect.' Hearing this, of course, I felt the same delicacy on my side. It was no part of my duty to intrude on the poor thing's private sorrows; my only business was to do what I have now done, to make sure that I was engaging a capable and respectable governess to instruct my grandchild."
After careful consideration of these lines, Mrs. Milroy, having a strong desire to find circumstances suspicious, found them suspicious accordingly. She determined to sift the mystery of Miss Gwilt's family misfortunes to the bottom, on the chance of extracting from it something useful to her purpose. There were two ways of doing this. She might begin by questioning the governess herself, or she might begin by questioning the governess's reference. Experience of Miss Gwilt's quickness of resource in dealing with awkward questions at their introductory interview decided her on taking the latter course. "I'll get the particulars from the reference first," thought Mrs. Milroy, "and then question the creature herself, and see if the two stories agree."
The letter of inquiry was short, and scrupuously to the point.
Mrs. Milroy began by informing her correspondent that the state of her health necessitated leaving her daughter entirely under the governess's influence and control. On that account she was more anxious than most mothers to be thoroughly informed in every respect about the person to whom she confided the entire charge of an only child; and feeling this anxiety, she might perhaps be excused for putting what might be thought, after the excellent character Miss Gwilt had received, a somewhat unnecessary question. With that preface, Mrs. Milroy came to the point, and requested to be informed of the circumstances which had obliged Miss Gwilt to go out as a governess.
The letter, expressed in these terms, was posted the same day. On the morning when the answer was due, no answer appeared. The next morning arrived, and still there was no reply. When the third morning came, Mrs. Milroy's impatience had broken loose from all restraint. She had rung for the nurse in the manner which has been already recorded, and had ordered the woman to be in waiting to receive the letters of the morning with her own hands. In this position matters now stood; and in these domestic circumstances the new series of events at Thorpe Ambrose took their rise.
Mrs. Milroy had just looked at her watch, and had just put her hand once more to the bell-pull, when the door opened and the nurse entered the room.
"Has the postman come?" asked Mrs. Milroy.
The nurse laid a letter on the bed without answering, and waited, with unconcealed curiosity, to watch the effect which it produced on her mistress.
Mrs. Milroy tore open the envelope the instant it was in her hand. A printed paper appeared (which she threw aside), surrounding a letter (which she looked at) in her own handwriting! She snatched up the printed paper. It was the customary Post-office circular, informing her that her letter had been duly presented at the right address, and that the person whom she had written to was not to be found.
"Something wrong?" asked the nurse, detecting a change in her mistress's face.
The question passed unheeded. Mrs. Milroy's writing-desk was on the table at the bedside. She took from it the letter which the major's mother had written to her son, and turned to the page containing the name and address of Miss Gwilt's reference. "Mrs Mandeville, 18 Kingsdown Crescent, Bayswater," she read, eagerly to herself, and then looked at the address on her own returned letter. No error had been committed: the directions were identically the same.
"Something wrong?" reiterated the nurse, advancing a step nearer to the bed.
"Thank God—yes!" cried Mrs. Milroy, with a sudden outburst of exultation. She tossed the Post-office circular to the nurse, and beat her bony hands on the bedclothes in an ecstasy of anticipated triumph. "Miss Gwilt's an impostor! Miss Gwilt's an impostor! If I die for it, Rachel, I'll be carried to the window to see the police take her away!"
"It's one thing to say she's an impostor behind her back, and another thing to prove it to her face," remarked the nurse. She put her hand as she spoke into her apron pocket, and, with a significant look at her mistress, silently produced a second letter.
"For me?" asked Mrs. Milroy.
"No!" said the nurse; "for Miss Gwilt."
The two women eyed each other, and understood each other without another word.
"Where is she?" said Mrs. Milroy.
The nurse pointed in the direction of the park. "Out again, for another walk before breakfast—by herself."
Mrs. Milroy beckoned to the nurse to stoop close over her. "Can you open it, Rachel?" she whispered.
"Can you close it again, so that nobody would know?"
"Can you spare the scarf that matches your pearl gray dress?" asked Rachel.
"Take it!" said Mrs. Milroy, impatiently.
The nurse opened the wardrobe in silence, took the scarf in silence, and left the room in silence. In less than five minutes she came back with the envelope of Miss Gwilt's letter open in her hand.
"Thank you, ma'am, for the scarf," said Rachel, putting the open letter composedly on the counterpane of the bed.
Mrs. Milroy looked at the envelope. It had been closed as usual by means of adhesive gum, which had been made to give way by the application of steam. As Mrs. Milroy took out the letter, her hand trembled violently, and the white enamel parted into cracks over the wrinkles on her forehead.
Rachel withdrew to the window to keep watch on the park. "Don't hurry," she said. "No signs of her yet."
Mrs. Milroy still paused, keeping the all-important morsel of paper folded in her hand. She could have taken Miss Gwilt's life, but she hesitated at reading Miss Gwilt's letter.
"Are you troubled with scruples?" asked the nurse, with a sneer. "Consider it a duty you owe to your daughter."
"You wretch!" said Mrs. Milroy. With that expression of opinion, she opened the letter.
It was evidently written in great haste, was undated, and was signed in initials only. Thus it ran:
"BY DEAR LYDIA—The cab is waiting at the door, and I have only a moment to tell you that I am obliged to leave London, on business, for three or four days, or a week at longest. My letters will be forwarded if you write. I got yours yesterday, and I agree with you that it is very important to put him off the awkward subject of yourself and your family as long as you safely can. The better you know him, the better you will be able to make up the sort of story that will do. Once told, you will have to stick to it; and, having to stick to it, beware of making it complicated, and beware of making it in a hurry. I will write again about this, and give you my own ideas. In the meantime, don't risk meeting him too often in the park.
"Yours, M. O."
"Well?" asked the nurse, returning to the bedside. "Have you done with it?"
"Meeting him in the park!" repeated Mrs. Milroy, with her eyes still fastened on the letter. "Him! Rachel, where is the major?"
"In his own room."
"I don't believe it! "
"Have your own way. I want the letter and the envelope."
"Can you close it again so that she won't know?"
"What I can open I can shut. Anything more?"
Mrs. Milroy was left alone again, to review her plan of attack by the new light that had now been thrown on Miss Gwilt.
The information that had been gained by opening the governess's letter pointed plainly to the conclusion that an adventuress had stolen her way into the house by means of a false reference. But having been obtained by an act of treachery which it was impossible to acknowledge, it was not information that could be used either for warning the major or for exposing Miss Gwilt. The one available weapon in Mrs. Milroy's hands was the weapon furnished by her own returned letter, and the one question to decide was how to make the best and speediest use of it.
The longer she turned the matter over in her mind, the more hasty and premature seemed the exultation which she had felt at the first sight of the Post-office circular. That a lady acting as reference to a governess should have quitted her residence without leaving any trace behind her, and without even mentioning an address to which her letters could be forwarded, was a circumstance in itself sufficiently suspicious to be mentioned to the major. But Mrs. Milroy, however perverted her estimate of her husband might be in some respects, knew enough of his character to be assured that, if she told him what had happened, he would frankly appeal to the governess herself for an explanation. Miss Gwilt's quickness and cunning would, in that case, produce some plausible answer on the spot, which the major's partiality would be only too ready to accept; and she would at the same time, no doubt, place matters in train, by means of the post, for the due arrival of all needful confirmation on the part of her accomplice in London. To keep strict silence for the present, and to institute (without the governess's knowledge) such inquiries as might be necessary to the discovery of undeniable evidence, was plainly the only safe course to take with such a man as the major, and with such a woman as Miss Gwilt. Helpless herself, to whom could Mrs. Milroy commit the difficult and dangerous task of investigation? The nurse, even if she was to be trusted, could not be spared at a day's notice, and could not be sent away without the risk of exciting remark. Was there any other competent and reliable person to employ, either at Thorpe Ambrose or in London? Mrs. Milroy turned from side to side of the bed, searching every corner of her mind for the needful discovery, And searching in vain. "Oh, if I could only lay my hand on some man I could trust!" she thought, despairingly. "If I only knew where to look for somebody to help me!"
As the idea passed through her mind, the sound of her daughter's voice startled her from the other side of the door.
"May I come in?" asked Neelie.
"What do you want?" returned Mrs. Milroy, impatiently.
"I have brought up your breakfast, mamma."
"My breakfast?" repeated Mrs. Milroy, in surprise. "Why doesn't Rachel bring it up as usual?" She considered a moment, and then called out, sharply, "Come in!"