Armadale/Book the Last/Chapter I
On the night of the 2d of December, Mr. Bashwood took up his post of observation at the terminus of the South-eastern Railway for the first time. It was an earlier date, by six days, than the date which Allan had himself fixed for his return. But the doctor, taking counsel of his medical experience, had considered it just probable that "Mr. Armadale might be perverse enough, at his enviable age, to recover sooner than his medical advisers might have anticipated." For caution's sake, therefore, Mr. Bashwood was instructed to begin watching the arrival of the tidal trains on the day after he had received his employer's letter.
From the 2d to the 7th of December, the steward waited punctually on the platform, saw the trains come in, and satisfied himself, evening after evening, that the travelers were all strangers to him. From the 2d to the 7th of December, Miss Gwilt (to return to the name under which she is best known in these pages) received his daily report, sometimes delivered personally, sometimes sent by letter. The doctor, to whom the reports were communicated, received them in his turn with unabated confidence in the precautions that had been adopted up to the morning of the 8th. On that date the irritation of continued suspense had produced a change for the worse in Miss Gwilt's variable temper, which was perceptible to every one about her, and which, strangely enough, was reflected by an equally marked change in the doctor's manner when he came to pay his usual visit. By a coincidence so extraordinary that his enemies might have suspected it of not being a coincidence at all, the morning on which Miss Gwilt lost her patience proved to be also the morning on which the doctor lost his confidence for the first time.
"No news, of course," he said, sitting down with a heavy sigh. "Well! well!"
Miss Gwilt looked up at him irritably from her work.
"You seem strangely depressed this morning," she said. "What are you afraid of now?"
"The imputation of being afraid, madam," answered the doctor, solemnly, "is not an imputation to cast rashly on any man—even when he belongs to such an essentially peaceful profession as mine. I am not afraid. I am (as you more correctly put it in the first instance) strangely depressed. My nature is, as you know, naturally sanguine, and I only see to-day what but for my habitual hopefulness I might have seen, and ought to have seen, a week since."
Miss Gwilt impatiently threw down her work. "If words cost money," she said, "the luxury of talking would be rather an expensive luxury in your case!"
"Which I might have seen, and ought to have seen," reiterated the doctor, without taking the slightest notice of the interruption, "a week since. To put it plainly, I feel by no means so certain as I did that Mr. Armadale will consent, without a struggle, to the terms which it is my interest (and in a minor degree yours) to impose on him. Observe! I don't question our entrapping him successfully into the Sanitarium: I only doubt whether he will prove quite as manageable as I originally anticipated when we have got him there. Say," remarked the doctor, raising his eyes for the first time, and fixing them in steady inquiry on Miss Gwilt—"say that he is bold, obstinate, what you please; and that he holds out—holds out for weeks together, for months together, as men in similar situations to his have held out before him. What follows? The risk of keeping him forcibly in concealment—of suppressing him, if I may so express myself—increases at compound interest, and becomes Enormous! My house is at this moment virtually ready for patients. Patients may present themselves in a week's time. Patients may communicate with Mr. Armadale, or Mr. Armadale may communicate with patients. A note may be smuggled out of the house, and may reach the Commissioners in Lunacy. Even in the case of an unlicensed establishment like mine, those gentlemen—no! those chartered despots in a land of liberty—have only to apply to the Lord Chancellor for an order, and to enter (by heavens, to enter My Sanitarium!) and search the house from top to bottom at a moment's notice! I don't wish to despond; I don't wish to alarm you; I don't pretend to say that the means we are taking to secure your own safety are any other than the best means at our disposal. All I ask you to do is to imagine the Commissioners in the house—and then to conceive the consequences. The consequences!" repeated the doctor, getting sternly on his feet, and taking up his hat as if he meant to leave the room.
"Have you anything more to say?" asked Miss Gwilt.
"Have you any remarks," rejoined the doctor, "to offer on your side?"
He stood, hat in hand, waiting. For a full minute the two looked at each other in silence.
Miss Gwilt spoke first.
"I think I understand you," she said, suddenly recovering her composure.
"I beg your pardon," returned the doctor, with his hand to his ear. "What did you say?"
"If you happened to catch another fly this morning," said Miss Gwilt, with a bitterly sarcastic emphasis on the words, "I might be capable of shocking you by another 'little joke.'"
The doctor held up both hands, in polite deprecation, and looked as if he was beginning to recover his good humor again.
"Hard," he murmured, gently, "not to have forgiven me that unlucky blunder of mine, even yet!"
"What else have you to say? I am waiting for you," said Miss Gwilt. She turned her chair to the window scornfully, and took up her work again, as she spoke.
The doctor came behind her, and put his hand on the back of her chair.
"I have a question to ask, in the first place," he said; "and a measure of necessary precaution to suggest, in the second. If you will honor me with your attention, I will put the question first."
"I am listening."
"You know that Mr. Armadale is alive," pursued the doctor, "and you know that he is coming back to England. Why do you continue to wear your widow's dress?"
She answered him without an instant's hesitation, steadily going on with her work.
"Because I am of a sanguine disposition, like you. I mean to trust to the chapter of accidents to the very last. Mr. Armadale may die yet, on his way home."
"And suppose he gets home alive—what then?"
"Then there is another chance still left."
"What is it, pray?"
"He may die in your Sanitarium."
"Madam!" remonstrated the doctor, in the deep bass which he reserved for his outbursts of virtuous indignation. "Wait! you spoke of the chapter of accidents," he resumed, gliding back into his softer conversational tones. "Yes! yes! of course. I understand you this time. Even the healing art is at the mercy of accidents; even such a Sanitarium as mine is liable to be surprised by Death. Just so! just so!" said the doctor, conceding the question with the utmost impartiality. "There is the chapter of accidents, I admit—if you choose to trust to it. Mind! I say emphatically, if you choose to trust to it."
There was another moment of silence—silence so profound that nothing was audible in the room but the rapid click of Miss Gwilt's needle through her work.
"Go on," she said; "you haven't done yet."
"True!" said the doctor. "Having put my question, I have my measure of precaution to impress on you next. You will see, my dear madam, that I am not disposed to trust to the chapter of accidents on my side. Reflection has convinced me that you and I are not (logically speaking) so conveniently situated as we might be in case of emergency. Cabs are, as yet, rare in this rapidly improving neighborhood. I am twenty minutes' walk from you; you are twenty minutes' walk from me. I know nothing of Mr. Armadale's character; you know it well. It might be necessary—vitally necessary—to appeal to your superior knowledge of him at a moment's notice. And how am I to do that unless we are within easy reach of each other, under the same roof? In both our interests, I beg to invite you, my dear madam, to become for a limited period an inmate of My Sanitarium."
Miss Gwilt's rapid needle suddenly stopped. "I understand you," she said again, as quietly as before.
"I beg your pardon," said the doctor, with another attack of deafness, and with his hand once more at his ear.
She laughed to herself—a low, terrible laugh, which startled even the doctor into taking his hand off the back of her chair.
"An inmate of your Sanitarium?" she repeated. "You consult appearances in everything else; do you propose to consult appearances in receiving me into your house?"
"Most assuredly!" replied the doctor, with enthusiasm. "I am surprised at your asking me the question! Did you ever know a man of any eminence in my profession who set appearances at defiance? If you honor me by accepting my invitation, you enter My Sanitarium in the most unimpeachable of all possible characters—in the character of a Patient."
"When do you want my answer?"
"Can you decide to-day?"
"Yes. Have you anything more to say?"
"Leave me, then. I don't keep up appearances. I wish to be alone, and I say so. Good-morning."
"Oh, the sex! the sex!" said the doctor, with his excellent temper in perfect working order again. "So delightfully impulsive! so charmingly reckless of what they say or how they say it! 'Oh, woman, in our hours of ease, uncertain, coy, and hard to please!' There! there! there! Good-morning!"
Miss Gwilt rose and looked after him contemptuously from the window, when the street door had closed, and he had left the house.
"Armadale himself drove me to it the first time," she said. "Manuel drove me to it the second time.—You cowardly scoundrel! shall I let you drive me to it for the third time, and the last?"
She turned from the window, and looked thoughtfully at her widow's dress in the glass.
The hours of the day passed—and she decided nothing. The night came—and she hesitated still. The new morning dawned—and the terrible question was still unanswered.
By the early post there came a letter for her. It was Mr. Bashwood's usual report. Again he had watched for Allan's arrival, and again in vain.
"I'll have more time!" she determined, passionately. "No man alive shall hurry me faster than I like!"
At breakfast that morning (the morning of the 9th) the doctor was surprised in his study by a visit from Miss Gwilt.
"I want another day," she said, the moment the servant had closed the door on her.
The doctor looked at her before he answered, and saw the danger of driving her to extremities plainly expressed in her face.
"The time is getting on," he remonstrated, in his most persuasive manner. "For all we know to the contrary, Mr. Armadale may be here to-night."
"I want another day!" she repeated, loudly and passionately.
"Granted!" said the doctor, looking nervously toward the door. "Don't be too loud—the servants may hear you. Mind!" he added, "I depend on your honor not to press me for any further delay."
"You had better depend on my despair," she said, and left him.
The doctor chipped the shell of his egg, and laughed softly.
"Quite right, my dear!" he thought. "I remember where your despair led you in past times; and I think I may trust it to lead you the same way now."
At a quarter to eight o'clock that night Mr. Bashwood took up his post of observation, as usual, on the platform of the terminus at London Bridge. He was in the highest good spirits; he smiled and smirked in irrepressible exultation. The sense that he held in reserve a means of influence over Miss Gwilt, in virtue of his knowledge of her past career, had had no share in effecting the transformation that now appeared in him. It had upheld his courage in his forlorn life at Thorpe Ambrose, and it had given him that increased confidence of manner which Miss Gwilt herself had noticed; but, from the moment when he had regained his old place in her favor, it had vanished as a motive power in him, annihilated by the electric shock of her touch and her look. His vanity—the vanity which in men at his age is only despair in disguise—had now lifted him to the seventh heaven of fatuous happiness once more. He believed in her again as he believed in the smart new winter overcoat that he wore—as he believed in the dainty little cane (appropriate to the dawning dandyism of lads in their teens) that he flourished in his hand. He hummed! The worn-out old creature, who had not sung since his childhood, hummed, as he paced the platform, the few fragments he could remember of a worn-out old song.
The train was due as early as eight o'clock that night. At five minutes past the hour the whistle sounded. In less than five minutes more the passengers were getting out on the platform.
Following the instructions that had been given to him, Mr. Bashwood made his way, as well as the crowd would let him, along the line of carriages, and, discovering no familiar face on that first investigation, joined the passengers for a second search among them in the custom-house waiting-room next.
He had looked round the room, and had satisfied himself that the persons occupying it were all strangers, when he heard a voice behind him, exclaiming: "Can that be Mr. Bashwood!" He turned in eager expectation, and found himself face to face with the last man under heaven whom he had expected to see.
The man was MIDWINTER.