When Mr. Hawbury joined his guests in the breakfast-room, the strange contrast of character between them which he had noticed already, was impressed on his mind more strongly than ever. One of them sat at the well-spread table, hungry and happy; ranging from dish to dish, and declaring that he had never made such a breakfast in his life. The other sat apart at the window; his cup thanklessly deserted before it was empty, his meat left ungraciously half eaten on his plate. The doctor's morning greeting to the two, accurately expressed the differing impressions which they had produced on his mind. He clapped Allan on the shoulder, and saluted him with a joke. He bowed constrainedly to Midwinter, and said, "I am afraid you have not recovered the fatigues of the night."
"It's not the night, doctor, that has damped his spirits," said Allan. "It's something I have been telling him. It is not my fault, mind. If I had only known beforehand that he believed in dreams, I wouldn't have opened my lips."
"Dreams?" repeated the doctor, looking at Midwinter directly, and addressing him under a mistaken impression of the meaning of Allan's words. "With your constitution, you ought to be well used to dreaming by this time."
"This way, doctor; you have taken the wrong turning!" cried Allan. "I'm the dreamer--not he. Don't look astonished; it wasn't in this comfortable house--it was on board that confounded timber ship. The fact is, I fell asleep just before you took us off the wreck; and it's not to be denied that I had a very ugly dream. Well, when we got back here--"
"Why do you trouble Mr. Hawbury about a matter that cannot possibly interest him?" asked Midwinter, speaking for the first time, and speaking very impatiently.
"I beg your pardon," returned the doctor, rather sharply; "so far as I have heard, the matter does interest me."
"That's right, doctor!" said Allan. "Be interested, I beg and pray; I want you to clear his head of the nonsense he has got in it now. What do you think?--he will have it that my dream is a warning to me to avoid certain people; and he actually persists in saying that one of those people is--himself! Did you ever hear the like of it? I took great pains; I explained the whole thing to him. I said, warning be hanged--it's all indigestion! You don't know what I ate and drank at the doctor's supper-table--I do. Do you think he would listen to me? Not he. You try him next; you're a professional man, and he must listen to you. Be a good fellow, doctor; and give me a certificate of indigestion; I'll show you my tongue with pleasure."
"The sight of your face is quite enough," said Mr. Hawbury. "I certify on the spot, that you never had such a thing as an indigestion in your life. Let's hear about the dream, and see what we can make of it--if you have no objection, that is to say."
Allan pointed at Midwinter with his fork.
"Apply to my friend, there," he said; "he has got a much better account of it than I can give you. If you'll believe me, he took it all down in writing from my own lips; and he made me sign it at the end, as if it was my 'last dying speech and confession,' before I went to the gallows. Out with it, old boy--I saw you put it in your pocket-book--out with it!"
"Are you really in earnest?" asked Midwinter, producing his pocket-book with a reluctance which was almost offensive under the circumstances, for it implied distrust of the doctor in the doctor's own house.
Mr. Hawbury's colour rose. "Pray don't show it to me, if you feel the least unwillingness," he said, with the elaborate politeness of an offended man.
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Allan. "Throw it over here!"
Instead of complying with that characteristic request, Midwinter took the paper from his pocket-book, and, leaving his place, approached Mr. Hawbury. "I beg your pardon," he said, as he offered the doctor the manuscript with his own hand. His eyes dropped to the ground, and his face darkened, while he made the apology. "A secret, sullen fellow," thought the doctor, thanking him with formal civility--"his friend is worth ten thousand of him." Midwinter went back to the window, and sat down again in silence, with the old impenetrable resignation which had once puzzled Mr. Brock.
"Read that doctor," said Allan, as Mr. Hawbury opened the written paper. "It's not told in my roundabout way; but there's nothing added to it, and nothing taken away. It's exactly what I dreamed, and exactly what I should have written myself, if I had thought the thing worth putting down on paper, and if I had had the knack of writing--which," concluded Allan, composedly stirring his coffee, "I haven't, except it's letters; and I rattle them off in no time."
Mr. Hawbury spread the manuscript before him on the breakfast-table, and read these lines:
"Early on the morning of June the first, eighteen hundred and fifty-one, I found myself (through circumstances which it is not important to mention in this place) left alone with a friend of mine--a young man about my own age--on board the French timber-ship named La Grace de Dieu, which ship then lay wrecked in the channel of the Sound, between the mainland of the Isle of Man and the islet called the Calf. Having not been in bed the previous night, and feeling overcome by fatigue, I fell asleep on the deck of the vessel. I was in my usual good health at the time, and the morning was far enough advanced for the sun to have risen. Under these circumstances, and at that period of the day, I passed from sleeping to dreaming. As clearly as I can recollect it, after the lapse of a few hours, this was the succession of events presented to me by the dream:--
"1. The first event of which I was conscious, was the appearance of my father. He took me silently by the hand; and we found ourselves in the cabin of a ship.
"2. Water rose slowly over us in the cabin; and I and my father sank through the water together.
"3. An interval of oblivion followed; and then the sense came to me of being left alone in the darkness.
"4. I waited.
"5. The darkness opened, and showed me the vision--as in a picture--of a broad, lonely pool, surrounded by open ground. Above the further margin of the pool, I saw the cloudless western sky, red with the light of sunset.
"6. On the near margin of the pool, there stood the Shadow of a Woman.
"7. It was the shadow only. No indication was visible to me by which I could identify it, or compare it with any living creature. The long robe showed me that it was the shadow of a woman, and showed me nothing more.
"8. The darkness closed again--remained with me for an interval--and opened for the second time.
"9. I found myself in a room, standing before a long window. The only object of furniture or of ornament that I saw (or that I can now remember having seen), was a little statue placed near me. The statue was on my left hand, and the window was on my right. The window opened on a lawn and flower garden; and the rain was pattering heavily against the glass.
"10. I was not alone in the room. Standing opposite to me at the window was the shadow of a man.
"11. I saw no more of it--I knew no more of it than I saw and knew of the shadow of the woman. But the shadow of the man moved. It stretched out its arm towards the statue; and the statue fell in fragments on the floor.
"12. With a confused sensation in me, which was partly anger and partly distress, I stooped to look at the fragments. When I rose again, the Shadow had vanished, and I saw no more.
"13. The darkness opened for the third time, and showed me the Shadow of the Woman and the Shadow of the Man, together.
"14. No surrounding scene (or none that I can now call to mind) was visible to me.
"15. The Man-Shadow was the nearest; the Woman-Shadow stood back. From where she stood, there came a sound as of the pouring of a liquid softly. I saw her touch the shadow of the man with one hand, and with the other give him a glass. He took the glass, and gave it to me. In the moment when I put it to my lips, a deadly faintness mastered me from head to foot. When I came to my senses again, the Shadow had vanished, and the third vision was at an end.
"16. The darkness closed over me again; and the interval of oblivion followed.
"17. I was conscious of nothing more, till I felt the morning sunshine on my face, and heard my friend tell me that I had awakened from a dream."
After reading the narrative attentively to the last line (under which appeared Allan's signature) the doctor looked across the breakfast-table at Midwinter, and tapped his fingers on the manuscript with a satirical smile.
"Many men, many opinions," he said. "I don't agree with either of you about this dream. Your theory," he added, looking at Allan, with a smile, "we have disposed of already: the supper that you can't digest, is a supper which has yet to be discovered. My theory we will come to presently; your friend's theory claims attention first." He turned again to Midwinter, with his anticipated triumph over a man whom he disliked a little too plainly visible in his face and manner. "If I understand rightly," he went on, "you believe that this dream is a warning, supernaturally addressed to Mr. Armadale, of dangerous events that are threatening him, and of dangerous people connected with those events, whom he would do wisely to avoid. May I inquire whether you have arrived at this conclusion, as an habitual believer in dreams?--or, as having reasons of your own for attaching especial importance to this one dream in particular?"
"You have stated what my conviction is quite accurately," returned Midwinter, chafing under the doctor's looks and tones. "Excuse me if I ask you to be satisfied with that admission, and let me keep my reasons to myself."
"That's exactly what he said to me," interposed Allan. "I don't believe he has got any reasons at all."
"Gently! gently!" said Mr. Hawbury. "We can discuss the subject, without intruding ourselves into anybody's secrets. Let us come to my own method of dealing with the dream next. Mr. Midwinter will probably not be surprised to hear that I look at this matter from an essentially practical point of view."
"I shall not be at all surprised," retorted Midwinter. "The view of a medical man, when he has a problem in humanity to solve, seldom ranges beyond the point of his dissecting-knife."
The doctor was a little nettled on his side. "Our limits are not quite so narrow as that," he said; "but I willingly grant you that there are some articles of your faith in which we doctors don't believe. For example, we don't believe that a reasonable man is justified in attaching a supernatural interpretation to any phenomenon which comes within the range of his senses, until he has certainly ascertained that there is no such thing as a natural explanation of it to be found in the first incidence.
"Come! that's fair enough, I'm sure," exclaimed Allan. "He hit you hard with the 'dissecting-knife,' doctor; and now you have hit him back again with your 'natural explanation.' Let's have it."
"By all means," said Mr. Hawbury; "here it is. There is nothing at all extraordinary in my theory of dreams; it is the theory accepted by the great mass of my profession. A dream is the reproduction in the sleeping state of the brain, of images and impressions produced on it in the waking state; and this reproduction is more or less involved, imperfect, or contradictory, as the action of certain faculties in the dreamer is controlled more or less completely by the influence of sleep. Without inquiring farther into the latter part of the subject--a very curious and interesting part of it--let us take the theory, roughly and generally, as I have just stated it, and apply it at once to the dream now under consideration." He took up the written paper from the table, and dropped the formal tone (as of a lecturer addressing an audience) into which he had insensibly fallen.
"I see one event already in this dream," he resumed, "which I know to be the reproduction of a waking impression produced on Mr. Armadale in my own presence. If he will only help me by exerting his memory, I don't despair of tracing back the whole succession of events set down here, to something that he has said or thought, or seen or done, in the four-and-twenty hours, or less, which preceded his falling asleep on the deck of the timber-ship."
"I'll exert my memory with the greatest pleasure," said Allan. Where shall we start from?"
"Start by telling me what you did yesterday, before I met you and your friend on the road to this place," replied Mr. Hawbury. "We will say, you got up and had your breakfast. What next?"
"We took a carriage next," said Allan, "and drove from Castletown to Douglas to see my old friend, Mr. Brock, off by the steamer to Liverpool. We came back to Castletown, and separated at the hotel door. Midwinter went into the house, and I went on to my yacht in the harbor.--By the by, doctor, remember you have promised to go cruising with us before we leave the Isle of Man."
"Many thanks--but suppose we keep to the matter in hand. What next?"
Allan hesitated. In both senses of the word his mind was at sea already.
"What did you do on board the yacht?"
"Oh, I know! I put the cabin to rights--thoroughly to rights. I give you my word of honour, I turned every blessed thing topsy-turvy. And my friend there came off in a shore-boat and helped me.--Talking of boats, I have never asked you yet whether your boat came to any harm last night. If there's any damage done, I insist on being allowed to repair it."
The doctor abandoned all further attempts at the cultivation of Allan's memory in despair.
"I doubt if we shall be able to reach our object conveniently in this way," he said. "It will be better to take the events of the dream in their regular order, and ask the questions that naturally suggest themselves as we go on. Here are the first two events to begin with. You dream that your father appears to you--that you and he find yourselves in the cabin of a ship--that the water rises over you, and that you sink in it together. Were you down in the cabin of the wreck, may I ask?"
"I couldn't be down there," replied Allan, "as the cabin was full of water. I looked in and saw it, and shut the door again."
"Very good," said Mr. Hawbury. "Here are the waking impressions clear enough, so far. You have had the cabin in your mind, and you have had the water in your mind; and the sound of the channel current (as I well know without asking) was the last sound in your ears when you went to sleep. The idea of drowning comes too naturally out of such impressions as these to need dwelling on. Is there anything else before we go on? Yes; there is one more circumstance left to account for."
"The most important circumstance of all," remarked Midwinter, joining in the conversation, without stirring from his place at the window.
"You mean the appearance of Mr. Armadale's father? I was just coming to that," answered Mr. Hawbury. "Is your father alive?" he added, addressing himself to Allan once more.
"My father died before I was born."
The doctor started. "This complicates it a little," he said. "How did you know that the figure appearing to you in the dream was the figure of your father?"
Allan hesitated again. Midwinter drew his chair a little away from the window, and looked at the doctor attentively for the first time.
"Was your father in your thoughts before you went to sleep?" pursued Mr . Hawbury. "Was there any description of him--any portrait of him at home--in your mind?"
"Of course there was!" cried Allan, suddenly seizing the lost recollection. "Midwinter! you remember the miniature you found on the floor of the cabin when we were putting the yacht to rights? You said I didn't seem to value it; and I told you I did, because it was a portrait of my father---"
"And was the face in the dream like the face in the miniature?" asked Mr. Hawbury.
"Exactly like! I say, doctor, this is beginning to get interesting!"
"What do you say now?" asked Mr. Hawbury, turning towards the window again.
Midwinter hurriedly left his chair, and placed himself at the table with Allan. Just as he had once already taken refuge from the tyranny of his own superstition in the comfortable common sense of Mr. Brock--so, with the same headlong eagerness, with the same straightforward sincerity of purpose, he now took refuge in the doctor's theory of dreams. "I say what my friend says," he answered, flushing with a sudden enthusiasm; "this is beginning to get interesting. Go on--pray go on."
The doctor looked at his strange guest more indulgently than he had looked yet. "You are the only mystic I have met with," he said, "who is willing to give fair evidence fair play. I don't despair of converting you before our inquiry comes to an end. Let us get on to the next set of events," he resumed, after referring for a moment to the manuscript.
"The interval of oblivion which is described as succeeding the first of the appearances in the dream, may be easily disposed of. It means, in plain English, the momentary cessation of the brain's intellectual action, while a deeper wave of sleep flows over it, just as the sense of being alone in the darkness, which follows, indicates the renewal of that action, previous to the reproduction of another set of impressions. Let us see what they are. A lonely pool, surrounded by an open country; a sunset sky on the farther side of the pool; and the shadow of a woman on the near side. Very good; now for it, Mr. Armadale! How did that pool get into your head? The open country you saw on your way from Castletown to this place. But we have no pools or lakes hereabouts; and you can have seen none recently elsewhere, for you came here after a cruise at sea. Must we fall back on a picture, or a book, or a conversation with your friend?"
Allan looked at Midwinter. "I don't remember talking about pools or lakes," he said. "Do you?"
Instead of answering the question, Midwinter suddenly appealed to the doctor.
"Have you got the last number of the Manx newspaper?" he asked.
The doctor produced it from the sideboard. Midwinter turned to the page containing those extracts from the recently published "Travels in Australia," which had roused Allan's interest on the previous evening, and the reading of which had ended by sending his friend to sleep. There--in the passage describing the sufferings of the travelers from thirst, and the subsequent discovery which saved their lives--there, appearing at the climax of the narrative, was the broad pool of water which had figured in Allan's dream!
"Don't put away the paper," said the doctor, when Midwinter had shown it to him, with the necessary explanation. "Before we are at the end of the inquiry, it is quite possible we may want that extract again. We have got at the pool. How about the sunset? Nothing of that sort is referred to in the newspaper extract. Search your memory again, Mr. Armadale; we want your waking impression of a sunset, if you please."
Once more, Allan was at a loss for an answer; and, once more, Midwinter's ready memory helped him through the difficulty.
"I think I can trace our way back to this impression, as I traced our way back to the other," he said, addressing the doctor. "After we got here yesterday afternoon, my friend and I took a long walk over the hills--"
"That's it!" interposed Allan. "I remember. The sun was setting as we came back to the hotel for supper--and it was such a splendid red sky, we both stopped to look at it. And then we talked about Mr. Brock, and wondered how far he had got on his journey home. My memory may be a slow one at starting, doctor; but when it's once set going, stop it if you can! I haven't half done yet."
"Wait one minute, in mercy to Mr. Midwinter's memory and mine," said the doctor. "We have traced back to your waking impressions the vision of the open country, the pool, and the sunset. But the Shadow of the Woman has not been accounted for yet. Can you find us the original of this mysterious figure in the dream landscape?"
Allan relapsed into his former perplexity, and Midwinter waited for what was to come, with his eyes fixed in breathless interest on the doctor's face. For the first time there was unbroken silence in the room. Mr. Hawbury looked interrogatively from Allan to Allan's friend. Neither of them answered him. Between the shadow and the shadow's substance there was a great gulph of mystery, impenetrable alike to all three of them.
"Patience," said the doctor, composedly. "Let us leave the figure by the pool for the present, and try if we can't pick her up again as we go on. Allow me to observe, Mr. Midwinter, that it is not very easy to identify a shadow; but we won't despair. This impalpable lady of the lake may take some consistency when we next meet with her."
Midwinter made no reply. From that moment his interest in the inquiry began to flag.
"What is the next scene in the dream?" pursued Mr. Hawbury, referring to the manuscript. "Mr. Armadale finds himself in a room. He is standing before a long window opening on a lawn and flower-garden, and the rain is pattering against the glass. The only thing he sees in the room is a little statue; and the only company he has is the Shadow of a Man standing opposite to him. The Shadow stretches out its arm, and the statue falls in fragments on the floor; and the dreamer, in anger and distress at the catastrophe (observe, gentlemen, that here the sleeper's reasoning faculty wakes up a little, and the dream passes rationally, for a moment, from cause to effect), stoops to look at the broken pieces. When he looks up again, the scene has vanished. That is to say, in the ebb and flow of sleep, it is the turn of the flow now, and the brain rests a little. What's the matter, Mr. Armadale? Has that restive memory of yours run away with you again?"
"Yes," said Allan. "I'm off at full gallop. I've run the broken statue to earth; it's nothing more nor less than a china shepherdess I knocked off the mantel-piece in the hotel coffee-room, when I rang the bell for supper last night. I say, how well we get on; don't we? It's like guessing a riddle. Now, then, Midwinter! your turn next."
"No!" said the doctor. "My turn, if you please. I claim the long window, the garden, and the lawn, as my property. You will find the long window, Mr. Armadale, in the next room. If you look out, you'll see the garden and lawn in front of it; and, if you'll exert that wonderful memory of yours, you will recollect that you were good enough to take special and complimentary notice of my smart French window and my neat garden, when I drove you and your friend to Port St. Mary yesterday."
"Quite right," rejoined Allan; "so I did. But what about the rain that fell in the dream? I haven't seen a drop of rain for the last week."
Mr. Hawbury hesitated. The Manx newspaper which had been left on the table caught his eye. "If we can think of nothing else," he said, "let us try if we can't find the idea of the rain where we found the idea of the pool." He looked through the extract carefully. "I have got it!" he exclaimed. "Here is rain described as having fallen on these thirsty Australian travelers, before they discovered the pool. Behold the shower, Mr. Armadale, which got into your mind when you read the extract to your friend last night! And behold the dream, Mr. Midwinter, mixing up separate waking impressions just as usual!"
"Can you find the waking impression which accounts for the human figure at the window?" asked Midwinter; "or are we to pass over the Shadow of the Man as we have passed over the Shadow of the Woman already?"
He put the question with scrupulous courtesy of manner, but with a tone of sarcasm in his voice which caught the doctor's ear, and set up the doctor's controversial bristles on the instant.
"When you are picking up shells on the beach, Mr. Midwinter, you usually begin with the shells that lie nearest at hand," he rejoined. "We are picking up facts now; and those that are easiest to get at are the facts we will take first. Let the Shadow of the Man and the Shadow of the Woman pair off together for the present--we won't lose sight of them, I promise you. All in good time, my dear sir; all in good time!"
He, too, was polite, and he, too, was sarcastic. The short truce between the opponents was at an end already. Midwinter returned significantly to his former place by the window. The doctor instantly turned his back on the window more significantly still. Allan, who never quarreled with anybody's opinion, and never looked below the surface of anybody's conduct, drummed cheerfully on the table with the handle of his knife. "Go on, doctor!" he called out; "my wonderful memory is as fresh as ever."
"Is it?" said Mr. Hawbury, referring again to the narrative of the dream. "Do you remember what happened when you and I were gossiping with the landlady at the bar of the hotel last night?"
"Of course I do! You were kind enough to hand me a glass of brandy-and-water, which the landlady had just mixed for your own drinking. And I was obliged to refuse it because, as I told you, the taste of brandy always turns me sick and faint, mix it how you please."
"Exactly so," returned the doctor. "And here is the incident reproduced in the dream. You see the man's shadow and the woman's shadow together this time. You hear the pouring out of liquid (brandy from the hotel bottle, and water from the hotel jug); the glass is handed by the woman-shadow (the landlady) to the man-shadow (myself); the man-shadow hands it to you (exactly what I did); and the faintness (which you had previously described to me) follows in due course. I am shocked to identify these mysterious appearances, Mr. Midwinter, with such miserably unromantic originals as a woman who keeps an hotel, and a man who physics a country district. But your friend himself will tell you that the glass of brandy-and-water was prepared by the landlady, and that it reached him by passing from her hand to mine.
"We have picked up the shadows, exactly as I anticipated; and we have only to account now--which may be done in two words--for the manner of their appearance in the dream. After having tried to introduce the waking impression of the doctor and the landlady separately, in connection with the wrong set of circumstances, the dreaming mind comes right at the third trial, and introduces the doctor and the landlady together, in connection with the right set of circumstances. There it is in a nutshell!--Permit me to hand you back the manuscript, with my best thanks for your very complete and striking confirmation of the rational theory of dreams." Saying those words, Mr. Hawbury returned the written paper to Midwinter, with the pitiless politeness of a conquering man.
"Wonderful! not a point missed anywhere from beginning to end! By Jupiter!" cried Allan, with the ready reverence of intense ignorance. "What a thing science is!"
"Not a point missed, as you say," remarked the doctor, complacently. "And yet I doubt if we have succeeded in convincing your friend."
"You have not convinced me," said Midwinter. "But I don't presume on that account to say that you are wrong."
He spoke quietly, almost sadly. The terrible conviction of the supernatural origin of the dream, from which he had tried to escape, had possessed itself of him again. All his interest in the argument was at an end; all his sensitiveness to its irritating influences was gone. In the case of any other man, Mr. Hawbury would have been mollified by such a concession as his adversary had now made to him; but he disliked Midwinter too cordially to leave him in the peaceable enjoyment of an opinion of his own.
"Do you admit," asked the doctor, more pugnaciously than ever, "that I have traced back every event of the dream to a waking impression which preceded it in Mr. Armadale's mind?"
"I have no wish to deny that you have done so," said Midwinter, resignedly.
"Have I identified the shadows with their living originals?"
"You have identified them to your own satisfaction, and to my friend's satisfaction. Not to mine."
"Not to yours? Can you identify them?"
"No. I can only wait till the living originals stand revealed in the future."
"Spoken like an oracle, Mr. Midwinter! Have you any idea at present of who those living originals may be?"
"I have. I believe that coming events will identify the Shadow of the Woman with a person whom my friend has not met with yet; and the Shadow of the Man with myself."
Allan attempted to speak. The doctor stopped him.
"Let us clearly understand this," he said to Midwinter. "Leaving your own case out of the question for the moment, may I ask how a shadow, which has no distinguishing mark about it, is to be identified with a living woman whom your friend doesn't know?"
Midwinter's color rose a little. He began to feel the lash of the doctor's logic.
"The landscape-picture of the dream has its distinguishing marks," he replied. "And, in that landscape, the living woman will appear when the living woman is first seen."
"The same thing will happen, I suppose," pursued the doctor, "with the man-shadow which you persist in identifying with yourself. You will be associated in the future with a statue broken in your friend's presence, with a long window looking out on a garden, and with a shower of rain pattering against the glass? Do you say that?"
"I say that."
"And so again, I presume, with the next vision? You and the mysterious woman will be brought together in some place now unknown, and will present to Mr. Armadale some liquid yet unnamed, which will turn him faint?--Do you seriously tell me you believe this?"
"I seriously tell you I believe it."
"And, according to your view, these fulfilments of the dream will mark the progress of certain coming events, in which Mr. Armadale's happiness, or Mr. Armadale's safety, will be dangerously involved?"
"That is my firm conviction."
The doctor rose--laid aside his moral dissecting-knife--considered for a moment--and took it up again.
"One last question," he said. "Have you any reason to give for going out of your way to adopt such a mystical view as this, when an unanswerably rational explanation of the dream lies straight before you?"
"No reason," replied Midwinter, "that I can give, either to you or to my friend."
The doctor looked at his watch with the air of a man who is suddenly reminded that he has been wasting his time.
"We have no common ground to start from," he said; "and if we talk till doomsday, we should not agree. Excuse my leaving you rather abruptly. It is later than I thought; and my morning's batch of sick people are waiting for me in the surgery. I have convinced your mind, Mr. Armadale, at any rate; so the time we have given to this discussion has not been altogether lost. Pray stop here, and smoke your cigar. I shall be at your service again in less than an hour." He nodded cordially to Allan, bowed formally to Midwinter, and quitted the room.
As soon as the doctor's back was turned, Allan left his place at the table, and appealed to his friend, with that irresistible heartiness of manner which had always found its way to Midwinter's sympathies, from the first day when they met at the Somersetshire inn.
"Now the sparring-match between you and the doctor is over," said Allan, "I have got two words to say on my side. Will you do something for my sake which you won't do for your own?"
Midwinter's face brightened instantly. "I will do anything you ask me," he said.
"Very well. Will you let the subject of the dream drop out of our talk altogether, from this time forth?"
"Yes, if you wish it."
After waiting to hold a preliminary consultation with his son, Mr. Pedgift the elder set forth alone for his interview with Allan at the great house. . . . . The art of diplomacy enters largely into the practice of all successful men in the lower branch of the law. Mr. Pedgift's form of diplomatic practice had been the same throughout his life, on every occasion when he found his arts of persuasion required at an interview with another man. He invariably kept his strongest argument, or his boldest proposal, to the last, and invariably remembered it at the door (after previously taking his leave), as if it was a purely accidental consideration which had that instant occurred to him. Jocular friends, acquainted by previous experience with this form of proceeding, had given it the name of "Pedgift's postscript." There were few people in Thorpe Ambrose who did not know what it meant, when the lawyer suddenly checked his exit at the opened door; came back softly to his chair, with his pinch of snuff suspended between his box and his nose; said, "By-the-by, there's a point occurs to me;" and settled the question off-hand, after having given it up in despair not a minute before.
This was the man whom the march of events at Thorpe Ambrose had now thrust capriciously into a foremost place. This was the one friend at hand to whom Allan in his social isolation could turn for counsel in the hour of need.
"Good-evening, Mr. Armadale. Many thanks for your prompt attention to my very disagreeable letter," said Pedgift Senior, opening the conversation cheerfully the moment he entered his client's house. "I hope you understand, sir, that I had really no choice under the circumstances but to write as I did?"
"I have very few friends, Mr. Pedgift," returned Allan, simply. "And I am sure you are one of the few."
"Much obliged, Mr. Armadale. I have always tried to deserve your good opinion, and I mean, if I can, to deserve it now. You found yourself comfortable, I hope, sir, at the hotel in London? We call it Our hotel. . . ."
Allan felt his false position in the neighborhood far too acutely to be capable of talking of anything but the main business of the evening. His lawyer's politely roundabout method of approaching the painful subject to be discussed between them, rather irritated than composed him. He came at once to the point, in his own bluntly straightforward way.
"The hotel was very comfortable, Mr. Pedgift, and your son was very kind to me. But we are not in London now; and I want to talk to you about how I am to meet the lies that are being told of me in this place. Only point me out any one man," cried Allan, with a rising voice and a mounting color,--"any one man who says I am afraid to show my face in the neighborhood; and I'll horsewhip him publicly before another day is over his head!"
Pedgift Senior helped himself to a pinch of snuff, and held it calmly in suspense midway between his box and his nose.
"You can horsewhip a man, sir; but you can't horsewhip a neighborhood," said the lawyer, in his politely epigrammatic manner. "We will fight our battle, if you please, without borrowing our weapons of the coachman yet a while, at any rate."
"But how are we to begin?" asked Allan, impatiently. "How am I to contradict the infamous things they say of me?"
"There are two ways of stepping out of your present awkward position, sir--a short way, and a long way," replied Pedgift Senior. "The short way (which is always the best) has occurred to me since I have heard of your proceedings in London from my son. I understand that you permitted him, after you received my letter, to take me into your confidence. I have drawn various conclusions from what he has told me, which I may find it necessary to trouble you with presently. In the meantime I should be glad to know under what circumstances you went to London to make these unfortunate inquiries about Miss Gwilt? Was it your own notion to pay that visit to Mrs. Mandeville? or were you acting under the influence of some other person?"
Allan hesitated. "I can't honestly tell you it was my own notion," he replied--and said no more.
"I thought as much!" remarked Pedgift Senior, in high triumph. "The short way out of our present difficulty, Mr. Armadale, lies straight through that other person, under whose influence you acted. That other person must be presented forthwith to public notice, and must stand in that other person's proper place. The name, if you please, sir, to begin with--we'll come to the circumstances directly."
"I am sorry to say, Mr. Pedgift, that we must try the longest way, if you have no objection," replied Allan, quietly. "The short way happens to be a way I can't take on this occasion."
The men who rise in the law are the men who decline to take No for an answer. Mr. Pedgift the elder had risen in the law; and Mr. Pedgift the elder now declined to take No for an answer. But all pertinacity--even professional pertinacity included--sooner or later finds its limits; and the lawyer, doubly fortified as he was by long experience and copious pinches of snuff, found his limits at the very outset of the interview. . . . "No" is the strongest word in the English language, in the mouth of any man who has the courage to repeat it often enough--and Allan had the courage to repeat it often enough on this occasion.
"Very good, sir," said the lawyer, accepting his defeat without the slightest loss of temper. "The choice rests with you, and you have chosen. We will go the long way. It starts (allow me to inform you) from my office; and it leads (as I strongly suspect) through a very miry road to--Miss Gwilt."
Allan looked at his legal adviser in speechless astonishment.
"If you won't expose the person who is responsible, in the first instance, sir, for the inquiries to which you unfortunately lent yourself," proceeded Mr. Pedgift the elder, "the only other alternative, in your present position, is to justify the inquiries themselves."
"And how is that to be done?" inquired Allan.
"By proving to the whole neighborhood, Mr. Armadale, what I firmly believe to be the truth--that the pet object of the public protection is an adventuress of the worst class; an undeniably worthless and dangerous woman. In plainer English still, sir, by employing time enough and money enough to discover the truth about Miss Gwilt."
Before Allan could say a word in answer, there was an interruption at the door. After the usual preliminary knock, one of the servants came in.
"I told you I was not to be interrupted," said Allan, irritably. "Good heavens! am I never to have done with them? another letter!"
"Yes, sir," said the man, holding it out. "And," he added, speaking words of evil omen in his master's ears, "the person waits for an answer."
Allan looked at the address of the letter with a natural expectation of encountering the handwriting of the major's wife. The anticipation was not realized. His correspondent was plainly a lady, but the lady was not Mrs. Milroy.
"Who can it be?" he said, looking mechanically at Pedgift Senior as he opened the envelope.
Pedgift Senior gently tapped his snuff-box, and said without a moment's hesitation-- "Miss Gwilt."
Allan opened the letter. The first two words in it were the echo of the two words the lawyer had just pronounced. It was Miss Gwilt!
Once more, Allan looked at his legal adviser in speechless astonishment.
"I have known a good many of them in my time, sir," explained Pedgift Senior, with a modesty equally rare and becoming in a man of his age. "Not as handsome as Miss Gwilt, I admit. But quite as bad, I dare say. Read your letter, Mr. Armadale--read your letter."
Allan read these lines:--
"Miss Gwilt presents her compliments to Mr. Armadale, and begs to know if it will be convenient to him to favor her with an interview, either this evening or to-morrow morning. Miss Gwilt offers no apology for making her present request. She believes Mr. Armadale will grant it as an act of justice towards a friendless woman whom he has been innocently the means of injuring, and who is earnestly desirous to set herself right in his estimation."
Allan handed the letter to his lawyer in silent perplexity and distress.
The face of Mr. Pedgift the elder expressed but one feeling when he had read the letter in his turn and had handed it back--a feeling of profound admiration. "What a lawyer she would have made," he exclaimed, fervently, "if she had only been a man!"
"I can't treat this as lightly as you do, Mr. Pedgift," said Allan. "It's dreadfully distressing to me. I was so fond of her," he added, in a lower tone,--"I was so fond of her once."
Mr. Pedgift Senior suddenly became serious on his side.
"Do you mean to say, sir, that you actually contemplate seeing Miss Gwilt?" he asked, with an expression of genuine dismay.
"I can't treat her cruelly," returned Allan. "I have been the means of injuring her--without intending it, God knows!-- I can't treat her cruelly after that!"
"Mr. Armadale," said the lawyer, "you did me the honor, a little while since, to say that you considered me your friend. May I presume on that position to ask you a question or two, before you go straight to your own ruin?"
"Any questions you like," said Allan, looking back at the letter--the only letter he had ever received from Miss Gwilt.
"You have had one trap set for you already, sir, and you have fallen into it. Do you want to fall into another?"
"You know the answer to that question, Mr. Pedgift, as well as I do."
"I'll try again, Mr. Armadale; we lawyers are not easily discouraged. Do you think that any statement Miss Gwilt might make to you, if you do see her, would be a statement to be relied on, after what you and my son discovered in London?"
"She might explain what we discovered in London," suggested Allan, still looking at the writing, and thinking of the hand that had traced it.
"Might explain it? My dear sir, she is quite certain to explain it! I will do her justice: I believe she would make out a case without a single flaw in it from beginning to end."
That last answer forced Allan's attention away from the letter. The lawyer's pitiless common sense showed him no mercy.
"If you see that woman again, sir," proceeded Pedgift Senior, "you will commit the rashest act of folly I ever heard of in all my experience. She can have but one object in coming here--to practice on your weakness for her. Nobody can say into what false step she may not lead you, if you once give her the opportunity. You admit yourself that you have been fond of her--your attentions to her have been the subject of general remark--if you haven't actually offered her the chance of becoming Mrs. Armadale, you have done the next thing to it--and knowing all this, you propose to see her, and to let her work on you with her devilish beauty and her devilish cleverness, in the character of your interesting victim! You, who are one of the best matches in England! You, who are the natural prey of all the hungry single women in the community! I never heard the like of it; I never, in all my professional experience, heard the like of it! If you must positively put yourself in a dangerous position, Mr. Armadale," concluded Pedgift the elder, with the everlasting pinch of snuff held in suspense between his box and his nose, "there's a wild-beast show coming to our town next week. Let in the tigress, sir,--don't let in Miss Gwilt!"
For the third time Allan looked at his lawyer. And for the third time his lawyer looked back at him quite unabashed.
"You seem to have a very bad opinion of Miss Gwilt," said Allan.
"The worst possible opinion, Mr. Armadale," retorted Pedgift Senior, coolly. "We will return to that when we have sent the lady's messenger about his business. Will you take my advice? Will you decline to see her?"
"I would willingly decline--it would be so dreadfully distressing to both of us," said Allan. "I would willingly decline, if I only knew how."
"Bless my soul, Mr. Armadale, it's easy enough! Don't commit yourself in writing. Send out to the messenger, and say there's no answer."
The short course thus suggested was a course which Allan positively declined to take. "It's treating her brutally," he said; "I can't and won't do it."
Once more the pertinacity of Pedgift the elder found its limits--and once more that wise man yielded gracefully to a compromise. On receiving his client's promise not to see Miss Gwilt, he consented to Allan's committing himself in writing--under his lawyer's dictation. The letter thus produced was modeled on Allan's own style; it began and ended in one sentence. "Mr. Armadale presents his compliments to Miss Gwilt, and regrets that he cannot have the pleasure of seeing her at Thorpe Ambrose." Allan had pleaded hard for a second sentence, explaining that he only declined Miss Gwilt's request from a conviction that an interview would be needlessly distressing on both sides. But his legal adviser firmly rejected the proposed addition to the letter. "When you say No to a woman, sir," remarked Pedgift Senior, "always say it in one word. If you give her your reasons, she invariably believes that you mean Yes."
Producing that little gem of wisdom from the rich mine of his professional experience, Mr. Pedgift the elder sent out the answer to Miss Gwilt's messenger, and recommended the servant to "see the fellow, whoever he was, well clear of the house."
"Now, sir," said the lawyer, "we will come back, if you like, to my opinion of Miss Gwilt. It doesn't at all agree with yours, I'm afraid. You think her an object of pity--quite natural at your age. I think her an object for the inside of a prison--quite natural at mine. You shall hear the grounds on which I have formed my opinion directly. Let me show you that I am in earnest by putting the opinion itself, in the first place, to a practical test. Do you think Miss Gwilt is likely to persist in paying you a visit, Mr. Armadale, after the answer you have just sent to her?"
"Quite impossible!" cried Allan, warmly. "Miss Gwilt is a lady; after the letter I have sent to her, she will never come near me again."
"There we join issue, sir," cried Pedgift Senior. "I say she will snap her fingers at your letter (which was one of the reasons why I objected to your writing it). I say, she is in all probability waiting her messenger's return, in or near your grounds at this moment. I say, she will try to force her way in here, before four-and-twenty hours more are over your head. Egad, sir!" cried Mr. Pedgift, looking at his watch, "it's only seven o'clock now. She's bold enough and clever enough to catch you unawares this very evening. Permit me to ring for the servant--permit me to request that you will give him orders immediately to say you are not at home. You needn't hesitate, Mr. Armadale! If you're right about Miss Gwilt, it's a mere formality. If I'm right, it's a wise precaution. Back your opinion, sir," said Mr. Pedgift, ringing the bell; "I back mine!"
Allan was sufficiently nettled when the bell rang, to feel ready to give the order. But when the servant came in, past remembrances got the better of him, and the words stuck in his throat. "You give the order," he said to Mr. Pedgift--and walked away abruptly to the window. "You're a good fellow!" thought the old lawyer, looking after him, and penetrating his motive on the instant. "The claws of that she-devil shan't scratch you if I can help it."
The servant waited inexorably for his orders.
"If Miss Gwilt calls here, either this evening, or at any other time," said Pedgift Senior, "Mr. Armadale is not at home. Wait! If she asks when Mr. Armadale will be back, you don't know. Wait! If she proposes coming in and sitting down, you have a general order that nobody is to come in and sit down, unless they have a previous appointment with Mr. Armadale. Come!" cried old Pedgift, rubbing his hands cheerfully when the servant had left the room, "I've stopped her out now, at any rate! The orders are all given, Mr. Armadale. We may go on with our conversation."
Allan came back from the window. "The conversation is not a very pleasant one," he said. "No offense to you, but I wish it was over."
"We will get it over as soon as possible, sir," said Pedgift Senior, still persisting as only lawyers and women can persist, in forcing his way little by little nearer and nearer to his own object. "Let us go back, if you please, to the practical suggestion which I offered to you when the servant came in with Miss Gwilt's note. There is, I repeat, only one way left for you, Mr. Armadale, out of your present awkward position. You must pursue your inquiries about this woman to an end--on the chance (which I consider next to a certainty) that the end will justify you in the estimation of the neighborhood."
"I wish to God I had never made any inquiries at all!" said Allan. "Nothing will induce me, Mr. Pedgift, to make any more."
"Why?" asked the lawyer.
"Can you ask me why," retorted Allan, hotly, "after your son has told you what we found out in London? Even if I had less cause to be--to be sorry for Miss Gwilt than I have; even if it was some other woman, do you think I would inquire any further into the secret of a poor betrayed creature--much less expose it to the neighborhood? I should think myself as great a scoundrel as the man who has cast her out helpless on the world, if I did anything of the kind. I wonder you can ask me the question--upon my soul, I wonder you can ask me the question!"
"Give me your hand, Mr. Armadale!" cried Pedgift Senior, warmly; "I honor you for being so angry with me. The neighborhood may say what it pleases; you're a gentleman, sir, in the best sense of the word. Now," pursued the lawyer, dropping Allan's hand, and lapsing back instantly from sentiment to business, "just hear what I have got to say in my own defense. Suppose Miss Gwilt's real position happens to be nothing like what you are generously determined to believe it to be?"
"We have no reason to suppose that," said Allan resolutely.
"Such is your opinion, sir," persisted Pedgift. "Mine, founded on what is publicly known of Miss Gwilt's proceedings here, and on what I have seen of Miss Gwilt herself, is that she is as far as I am from being the sentimental victim you are inclined to make her out. Gently, Mr. Armadale! remember that I have put my opinion to a practical test, and wait to condemn it off-hand until events have justified you. Let me put my points, sir,--make allowances for me as a lawyer--and let me put my points. You and my son are young men; and I don't deny that the circumstances, on the surface, appear to justify the interpretation which, as young men, you have placed on them. I am an old man--I know that circumstances are not always to be taken as they appear on the surface--and I possess the great advantage, in the present case, of having had years of professional experience among some of the wickedest women who ever walked this earth."
Allan opened his lips to protest, and checked himself, in despair of producing the slightest effect. Pedgift Senior bowed in polite acknowledgment of his client's self-restraint, and took instant advantage of it to go on.
"All Miss Gwilt's proceedings," he resumed, "since your unfortunate correspondence with the major, show me that she is an old hand at deceit. The moment she is threatened with exposure--exposure of some kind, there can be no doubt, after what you discovered in London--she turns your honorable silence to the best possible account, and leaves the major's service in the character of a martyr. Once out of the house, what does she do next? She boldly stops in the neighborhood, and serves three excellent purposes by doing so. In the first place, she shows everybody that she is not afraid of facing another attack on her reputation. In the second place, she is close at hand to twist you round her little finger, and to become Mrs. Armadale in spite of circumstances, if you (and I) allow her the opportunity. In the third place, if you (and I) are wise enough to distrust her, she is equally wise on her side, and doesn't give us the first great chance of following her to London, and associating her with her accomplices. Is this the conduct of an unhappy woman who has lost her character in a moment of weakness, and who has been driven unwillingly into a deception to get it back again?"
"You put it cleverly," said Allan, answering with marked reluctance; "I can't deny that you put it cleverly."
"Your own common sense, Mr. Armadale, is beginning to tell you that I put it justly," said Pedgift Senior. "I don't presume to say yet what this woman's connection may be with those people at Pimlico. All I assert is, that it is not the connection you suppose. Having stated the facts so far, I have only to add my own personal impression of Miss Gwilt. I won't shock you, if I can help it--I'll try if I can't put it cleverly again. She came to my office (as I told you in my letter), no doubt to make friends with your lawyer, if she could--she came to tell me in the most forgiving and Christian manner, that she didn't blame you."
"Do you ever believe in anybody, Mr. Pedgift?" interposed Allan.
"Sometimes, Mr. Armadale," returned Pedgift the elder, as unabashed as ever. "I believe as often as a lawyer can. To proceed, sir. When I was in the criminal branch of practice, it fell to my lot to take instructions for the defense of women committed for trial, from the women's own lips. Whatever other difference there might be among them, I got, in time, to notice, among those who were particularly wicked and unquestionably guilty, one point in which they all resembled each other. Tall and short, old and young, handsome and ugly, they all had a secret self-possession that nothing could shake.
"On the surface they were as different as possible. Some of them were in a state of indignation; some of them were drowned in tears; some of them were full of pious confidence; and some of them were resolved to commit suicide before the night was out. But only put your finger suddenly on the weak point in the story told by any one of them, and there was an end of her rage, or her tears, or her piety, or her despair--and out came the genuine woman, in full possession of all her resources, with a neat little lie that exactly suited the circumstances of the case. Miss Gwilt was in tears, sir,--becoming tears that didn't make her nose red,--and I put my finger suddenly on the weak point in her story. Down dropped her pathetic pocket-handkerchief from her beautiful blue eyes, and out came the genuine woman with the neat little lie that exactly suited the circumstances! I felt twenty years younger, Mr. Armadale, on the spot. I declare I thought I was in Newgate again, with my note-book in my hand, taking my instructions for the defense!"
"The next thing you'll say, Mr. Pedgift," cried Allan, angrily, "is that Miss Gwilt has been in prison!"
Pedgift Senior calmly rapped his snuff-box, and had his answer ready at a moment's notice.
"She may have richly deserved to see the inside of a prison, Mr. Armadale; but, in the age we live in, that is one excellent reason for her never having been near any place of the kind. A prison, in the present tender state of public feeling, for a charming woman like Miss Gwilt! My dear sir, if she had attempted to murder you or me, and if an inhuman judge and jury had decided on sending her to a prison, the first object of modern society would be to prevent her going into it; and, if that couldn't be done, the next object would be to let her out again as soon as possible.
"Read your newspaper, Mr. Armadale, and you'll find we live in piping times for the black sheep of the community--if they are only black enough. I insist on asserting, sir, that we have got one of the blackest of the lot to deal with in this case. I insist on asserting that you have had the rare luck, in these unfortunate inquiries, to pitch on a woman who happens to be a fit object for inquiry, in the interests of the public protection. Differ with me as strongly as you please--but don't make up your mind finally about Miss Gwilt, until events have put those two opposite opinions of ours to the test that I have proposed. A fairer test there can't be. I agree with you, that no lady worthy of the name could attempt to force her way in here, after receiving your letter. But I deny that Miss Gwilt is worthy of the name; and I say she will try to force her way in here in spite of you."
"And I say she won't!" retorted Allan, firmly.
Pedgift Senior leaned back in his chair and smiled. There was a momentary silence--and in that silence the door-bell rang.
The lawyer and the client both looked expectantly in the direction of the hall.
"No!" cried Allan, more angrily than ever.
"Yes!" said Pedgift Senior, contradicting him with the utmost politeness.
They waited the event. The opening of the house door was audible, but the room was too far from it for the sound of voices to reach the ear as well. After a long interval of expectation, the closing of the door was heard at last. Allan rose impetuously and rang the bell. Mr. Pedgift the elder sat sublimely calm, and enjoyed, with a gentle zest, the largest pinch of snuff he had taken yet.
"Anybody for me?" asked Allan, when the servant came in.
The man looked at Pedgift Senior, with an expression of unutterable reverence, and answered-- "Miss Gwilt."
"I don't want to crow over you, sir," said Mr. Pedgift the elder, when the servant had withdrawn. "But what do you think of Miss Gwilt now?"
Allan shook his head in silent discouragement and distress.
"Time is of some importance, Mr. Armadale. After what has just happened, do you still object to taking the course I have had the honor of suggesting to you?"
"I can't, Mr. Pedgift," said Allan. "I can't be the means of disgracing her in the neighborhood. I would rather be disgraced myself--as I am."
"Let me put it in another way, sir. Excuse my persisting. You have been very kind to me and my family; and I have a personal interest, as well as a professional interest, in you. If you can't prevail on yourself to show this woman's character in its true light, will you take common precautions to prevent her doing any more harm? Will you consent to having her privately watched, as long as she remains in this neighborhood?"
For the second time Allan shook his head.
"Is that your final resolution, sir?"
"It is, Mr. Pedgift; but I am much obliged to you for your advice, all the same."
Pedgift Senior rose in a state of gentle resignation, and took up his hat. "Good-evening, sir," he said, and made sorrowfully for the door. Allan rose on his side, innocently supposing that the interview was at an end. Persons better acquainted with the diplomatic habits of his legal adviser, would have recommended him to keep his seat. The time was ripe for "Pedgift's postscript," and the lawyer's indicative snuff-box was at that moment in one of his hands, as he opened the door with the other.
"Good-evening," said Allan.
Pedgift Senior opened the door--stopped--considered--closed the door again-- came back mysteriously with his pinch of snuff in suspense between his box and his nose--and repeating his invariable formula, "By-the-by, there's a point occurs to me," quietly resumed possession of his empty chair.
We have labelled this an "April Fools" Joke On The Literary Public, because on reflective scan we feel that the obvious intent; although we are aware that scholarly men have looked for deeper meaning. Frankly, we believe that "look" was Melville's intent. He has done, in forty clever chapters, what Mark Twain intended by his widely quoted notice at the start of Huckleberry Finn: Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
We suspect that each author had a good chuckle over his own particular method for banishing those with compulsive need to find underlying moral purpose, where none was intended; that is none but a joke at the expense of such 'moral-seekers.']
"How do you do, Mr. Roberts?"
"Don't you know me?"
The crowd about the captain's office, having in good time melted away, the above encounter took place in one of the side balconies astern, between a man in mourning clean and respectable, but none of the glossiest, a long weed on his hat, and the country-merchant before-mentioned, whom, with the familiarity of an old acquaintance, the former had accosted.
"Is it possible, my dear sir," resumed he with the weed," that you do not recall my countenance? why yours I recall distinctly as if but half an hour, instead of half an age, had passed since I saw you. Don't you recall me, now? Look harder."
"In my conscience -- truly -- I protest," honestly bewildered, "bless my soul, sir, I don't know you -- really, really. But stay, stay," he hurriedly added, but without gratification, glancing up at the crepe on the stranger's hat, "stay -- yes -- seems to me, though I have not the pleasure of personally knowing you, yet I am pretty sure I have at least heard of you, and recently too, quite recently. A poor negro aboard here referred to you, among others, for a character, I think."
"Oh, the cripple. Poor fellow I know him well. They found me. I have said all I could for him. I think I abated their distrust. Would I could have been of more substantial service. And apropos, sir," he added, "now that it strikes me, allow me to ask, whether the circumstance of one man, however humble, referring for a character to another man, however afflicted, does not argue more or less of moral worth in the latter?"
The good merchant looked puzzled.
"Still you don't recall my countenance?"
"Still does truth compel me to say that I cannot, despite my best efforts," was the reluctantly-candid reply.
"Can I be so changed? Look at me. Or is it I who am mistaken? -- Are you not, sir, Henry Roberts, forwarding merchant, of Wheeling, Pennsylvania? Pray, now, if you use the advertisement of business cards, and happen to have one with you, just look at it, and see whether you are not the man I take you for."
"Why," a bit chafed, perhaps, "I hope I know myself."
"And yet self-knowledge is thought by some not so easy. Who knows, my dear sir, but for a time you may have taken yourself for somebody else? Stranger things have happened."
The good merchant stared.
"To come to particulars, my dear sir, I met you, now some six years back, at Brade Brothers & Co.'s office, I think. I was traveling for a Philadelphia house. The senior Brade introduced us, you remember; some business-chat followed, then you forced me home with you to a family tea, and a family time we had. Have you forgotten about the urn, and what I said about Werter's Charlotte, and the bread and butter, and that capital story you told of the large loaf. A hundred times since, I have laughed over it. At least you must recall my name -- Ringman, John Ringman."
"Large loaf? Invited you to tea? Ringman? Ringman? Ring? Ring?"
"Ah sir," sadly smiling, don't ring the changes that way. I see you have a faithless memory, Mr. Roberts. But trust in the faithfulness of mine."
"Well, to tell the truth, in some things my memory aint of the very best," was the honest rejoinder. "But still," he perplexedly added, "still I -- "
"Oh sir, suffice it that it is as I say. Doubt not that we are all well acquainted."
"But -- but I don't like this going dead against my own memory; I --"
"But didn't you admit, my dear sir, that in some things this memory of yours is a little faithless? Now, those who have faithless memories, should they not have some little confidence in the less faithless memories of others?"
"But, of this friendly chat and tea, I have not the slightest --"
"I see, I see; quite erased from the tablet. Pray, sir," with a sudden illumination, "about six years back, did it happen to you to receive any injury on the head? Surprising effects have arisen from such a cause. Not alone unconsciousness as to events for a greater or less time immediately subsequent to the injury, but likewise -- strange to add -- oblivion, entire and incurable, as to events embracing a longer or shorter period immediately preceding it; that is, when the mind at the time was perfectly sensible of them, and fully competent also to register them in the memory, and did in fact so do; but all in vain, for all was afterwards bruised out by the injury."
After the first start, the merchant listened with what appeared more than ordinary interest. The other proceeded:
"In my boyhood I was kicked by a horse, and lay insensible for a long time. Upon recovering, what a blank! No faintest trace in regard to how I had come near the horse, or what horse it was, or where it was, or that it was a horse at all that had brought me to that pass. For the knowledge of those particulars I am indebted solely to my friends, in whose statements, I need not say, I place implicit reliance, since particulars of some sort there must have been, and why should they deceive me? You see, sir, the mind is ductile, very much so: but images, ductilely received into it, need a certain time to harden and bake in their impressions, otherwise such a casualty as I speak of will in an instant obliterate them, as though they had never been. We are but clay, sir, potter's clay, as the good book says, clay, feeble, and too-yielding clay. But I will not philosophize. Tell me, was it your misfortune to receive any concussion upon the brain about the period I speak of? If so, I will with pleasure supply the void in your memory by more minutely rehearsing the circumstances of our acquaintance."
The growing interest betrayed by the merchant had not relaxed as the other proceeded. After some hesitation, indeed, something more than hesitation, he confessed that, though he had never received any injury of the sort named, yet, about the time in question, he had in fact been taken with a brain fever, losing his mind completely for a considerable interval. He was continuing, when the stranger with much animation exclaimed:
"There now, you see, I was not wholly mistaken. That brain fever accounts for it all."
"Nay; but --"
"Pardon me, Mr. Roberts," respectfully interrupting him, "but time is short, and I have something private and particular to say to you. Allow me."
Mr. Roberts, good man, could but acquiesce, and the two having silently walked to a less public spot, the manner of the man with the weed suddenly assumed a seriousness almost painful. What might be called a writhing expression stole over him. He seemed struggling with some disastrous necessity inkept. He made one or two attempts to speak, but words seemed to choke him. His companion stood in humane surprise, wondering what was to come. At length, with an effort mastering his feelings, in a tolerably composed tone he spoke.
"If I remember, you are a mason, Mr. Roberts?"
Averting himself a moment, as to recover from a return of agitation, the stranger grasped the other's hand; "And would you not loan a brother a shilling if he needed it?"
The merchant started, apparently, almost as if to retreat.
"Ah, Mr. Roberts, I trust you are not one of those business men, who make a business of never having to do with unfortunates. For God's sake don't leave me. I have something on my heart -- on my heart. Under deplorable circumstances thrown among strangers, utter strangers. I want a friend in whom I may confide. Yours, Mr. Roberts, is almost the first known face I've seen for many weeks."
It was so sudden an outburst; the interview offered such a contrast to the scene around, that the merchant, though not used to be very indiscreet, yet, being not entirely inhumane, remained not entirely unmoved.
The other, still tremulous, resumed:
"I need not say, sir, how it cuts me to the soul, to follow up a social salutation with such words as have just been mine. I know that I jeopardize your good opinion. But I can't help it: necessity knows no law, and heeds no risk. Sir, we are masons, one more step aside; I will tell you my story."
In a low, half-suppressed tone, he began it. Judging from his auditor's expression, it seemed to be a tale of singular interest, involving calamities against which no integrity, no forethought, no energy, no genius, no piety, could guard.
At every disclosure, the hearer's commiseration increased. No sentimental pity. As the story went on, he drew from his wallet a bank note, but after a while, at some still more unhappy revelation, changed it for another, probably of a somewhat larger amount; which, when the story was concluded, with an air studiously disclamatory of alms-giving, he put into the stranger's hands; who, on his side, with an air studiously disclamatory of alms-taking, put it into his pocket.
Assistance being received, the stranger's manner assumed a kind and degree of decorum which, under the circumstances, seemed almost coldness. After some words, not over ardent, and yet not exactly inappropriate, he took leave, making a bow which had one knows not what of a certain chastened independence about it; as if misery, however burdensome, could not break down self-respect, nor gratitude, however deep, humiliate a gentleman.
He was hardly yet out of sight, when he paused as if thinking; then with hastened steps returning to the merchant, "I am just reminded that the president, who is also transfer-agent, of the Black Rapids Coal Company, happens to be on board here, and, having been subpoenaed as witness in a stock case on the docket in Kentucky, has his transfer-book with him. A month since, in a panic contrived by artful alarmists, some credulous stock-holders sold out; but, to frustrate the aim of the alarmists, the Company, previously advised of their scheme, so managed it as to get into its own hands those sacrificed shares, resolved that, since a spurious panic must be, the panicmakers should be no gainers by it. The Company, I hear, is now ready, but not anxious, to redispose of those shares; and having obtained them at their depressed value, will now sell them at par, though, prior to the panic, they were held at a handsome figure above. That the readiness of the Company to do this is not generally known, is shown by the fact that the stock still stands on the transfer-book in the Company's name, offering to one in funds a rare chance for investment. For, the panic subsiding more and more every day, it will daily be seen how it originated; confidence will be more than restored; there will be a reaction; from the stock's descent its rise will be higher than from no fall, the holders trusting themselves to fear no second fate."
Having listened at first with curiosity, at last with interest, the merchant replied to the effect, that some time since, through friends concerned with it, he had heard of the company, and heard well of it, but was ignorant that there had latterly been fluctuations. He added that he was no speculator; that hitherto he had avoided having to do with stocks of any sort, but in the present case he really felt something like being tempted. "Pray," in conclusion, "do you think that upon a pinch anything could be transacted on board here with the transfer-agent? Are you acquainted with him?"
"Not personally. I but happened to hear that he was a passenger. For the rest, though it might be somewhat informal, the gentleman might not object to doing a little business on board. Along the Mississippi, you know, business is not so ceremonious as at the East."
"True," returned the merchant, and looked down a moment in thought, then, raising his head quickly, said, in a tone not so benign as his wonted one, "This would seem a rare chance, indeed; why, upon first hearing it, did you not snatch at it ? I mean for yourself!"
"I ? -- would it had been possible!"
Not without some emotion was this said, and not without some embarrassment was the reply. "Ah, yes, I had forgotten."
Upon this, the stranger regarded him with mild gravity, not a little disconcerting; the more so, as there was in it what seemed the aspect not alone of the superior, but, as it were, the rebuker; which sort of bearing, in a beneficiary towards his benefactor, looked strangely enough; none the less, that, somehow, it sat not altogether unbecomingly upon the beneficiary, being free from anything like the appearance of assumption, and mixed with a kind of painful conscientiousness, as though nothing but a proper sense of what he owed to himself swayed him. At length he spoke:
"To reproach a penniless man with remissness in not availing himself of an opportunity for pecuniary investment -- but, no, no; it was forgetfulness; and this, charity will impute to some lingering effect of that unfortunate brain-fever, which, as to occurrences dating yet further back, disturbed Mr. Roberts's memory still more seriously."
"As to that," said the merchant, rallying, "I am not -- "
"Pardon me, but you must admit, that just now, an unpleasant distrust, however vague, was yours. Ah, shallow as it is, yet, how subtle a thing is suspicion, which at times can invade the humanest of hearts and wisest of heads. But, enough. My object, sir, in calling your attention to this stock, is by way of acknowledgment of your goodness. I but seek to be grateful; if my information leads to nothing, you must remember the motive."
He bowed, and finally retired, leaving Mr. Roberts not wholly without self-reproach, for having momentarily indulged injurious thoughts against one who, it was evident, was possessed of a self-respect which forbade his indulging them himself.
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