Man and Wife

Wilkie Collins

Chapter 7 - The Debt


ARNOLD was the first who broke the silence. "Is your father seriously ill?" he asked.

Geoffrey answered by handing him the card.

Sir Patrick, who had stood apart (while the question of Ratcatcher's relapse was under discussion) sardonically studying the manners and customs of modern English youth, now came forward, and took his part in the proceedings. Lady Lundie herself must have acknowledged that he spoke and acted as became the head of the family, on t his occasion.

"Am I right in supposing that Mr. Delamayn's father is dangerously ill?" he asked, addressing himself to Arnold.

"Dangerously ill, in London," Arnold answered. "Geoffrey must leave Windygates with me. The train I am traveling by meets the train his brother is traveling by, at the junction. I shall leave him at the second station from here."

"Didn't you tell me that Lady Lundie was going to send you to the railway in a gig?"

"Yes."

"If the servant drives, there will be three of you--and there will be no room."

"We had better ask for some other vehicle," suggested Arnold.

Sir Patrick looked at his watch. There was no time to change the carriage. He turned to Geoffrey. "Can you drive, Mr. Delamayn?"

Still impenetrably silent, Geoffrey replied by a nod of the head.

Without noticing the unceremonious manner in which he had been answered, Sir Patrick went on:

"In that case, you can leave the gig in charge of the station-master. I'll tell the servant that he will not be wanted to drive."

"Let me save you the trouble, Sir Patrick," said Arnold.

Sir Patrick declined, by a gesture. He turned again, with undiminished courtesy, to Geoffrey. "It is one of the duties of hospitality, Mr. Delamayn, to hasten your departure, under these sad circumstances. Lady Lundie is engaged with her guests. I will see myself that there is no unnecessary delay in sending you to the station." He bowed--and left the summer-house.

Arnold said a word of sympathy to his friend, when they were alone.

"I am sorry for this, Geoffrey. I hope and trust you will get to London in time."

He stopped. There was something in Geoffrey's face--a strange mixture of doubt and bewilderment, of annoyance and hesitation--which was not to be accounted for as the natural result of the news that he had received. His color shifted and changed; he picked fretfully at his finger-nails; he looked at Arnold as if he was going to speak--and then looked away again, in silence.

"Is there something amiss, Geoffrey, besides this bad news about your father?" asked Arnold.

"I'm in the devil's own mess," was the answer.

"Can I do any thing to help you?"

Instead of making a direct reply, Geoffrey lifted his mighty hand, and gave Arnold a friendly slap on the shoulder which shook him from head to foot. Arnold steadied himself, and waited--wondering what was coming next.

"I say, old fellow!" said Geoffrey.

"Yes."

"Do you remember when the boat turned keel upward in Lisbon Harbor?"

Arnold started. If he could have called to mind his first interview in the summer-house with his father's old friend he might have remembered Sir Patrick's prediction that he would sooner or later pay, with interest, the debt he owed to the man who had saved his life. As it was his memory reverted at a bound to the time of the boat-accident. In the ardor of his gratitude and the innocence of his heart, he almost resented his friend's question as a reproach which he had not deserved.

"Do you think I can ever forget," he cried, warmly, "that you swam ashore with me and saved my life?"

Geoffrey ventured a step nearer to the object that he had in view.

"One good turn deserves another," he said, "don't it?"

Arnold took his hand. "Only tell me!" he eagerly rejoined--"only tell me what I can do!"

"You are going to-day to see your new place, ain't you?"

"Yes."

"Can you put off going till to-morrow?"

"If it's any thing serious--of course I can!"

Geoffrey looked round at the entrance to the summer-house, to make sure that they were alone.

"You know the governess here, don't you?" he said, in a whisper.

"Miss Silvester?"

"Yes. I've got into a little difficulty with Miss Silvester. And there isn't a living soul I can ask to help me but _you._"

"You know I will help you. What is it?"

"It isn't so easy to say. Never mind--you're no saint either, are you? You'll keep it a secret, of course? Look here! I've acted like an infernal fool. I've gone and got the girl into a scrape--"

Arnold drew back, suddenly understanding him.

"Good heavens, Geoffrey! You don't mean--"

"I do! Wait a bit--that's not the worst of it. She has left the house."

"Left the house?"

"Left, for good and all. She can't come back again."

"Why not?"

"Because she's written to her missus. Women (hang 'em!) never do these things by halves. She's left a letter to say she's privately married, and gone off to her husband. Her husband is--Me. Not that I'm married to her yet, you understand. I have only promised to marry her. She has gone on first (on the sly) to a place four miles from this. And we settled I was to follow, and marry her privately this afternoon. That's out of the question now. While she's expecting me at the inn I shall be bowling along to London. Somebody must tell her what has happened--or she'll play the devil, and the whole business will burst up. I can't trust any of the people here. I'm done for, old chap, unless you help me."

Arnold lifted his hands in dismay. "It's the most dreadful situation, Geoffrey, I ever heard of in my life!"

Geoffrey thoroughly agreed with him. "Enough to knock a man over," he said, "isn't it? I'd give something for a drink of beer." He produced his everlasting pipe, from sheer force of habit. "Got a match?" he asked.

Arnold's mind was too preoccupied to notice the question.

"I hope you won't think I'm making light of your father's illness," he said, earnestly. "But it seems to me--I must say it--it seems to me that the poor girl has the first claim on you."

Geoffrey looked at him in surly amazement.

"The first claim on me? Do you think I'm going to risk being cut out of my father's will? Not for the best woman that ever put on a petticoat!"

Arnold's admiration of his friend was the solidly-founded admiration of many years; admiration for a man who could row, box, wrestle, jump--above all, who could swim--as few other men could perform those exercises in contemporary England. But that answer shook his faith. Only for the moment--unhappily for Arnold, only for the moment.

"You know best," he returned, a little coldly. "What can I do?"

Geoffrey took his arm--roughly as he took every thing; but in a companionable and confidential way.

"Go, like a good fellow, and tell her what has happened. We'll start from here as if we were both going to the railway; and I'll drop you at the foot-path, in the gig. You can get on to your own place afterward by the evening train. It puts you to no inconvenience, and it's doing the kind thing by an old friend. There's no risk of being found out. I'm to drive, remember! There's no servant with us, old boy, to notice, and tell tales."

Even Arnold began to see dimly by this time that he was likely to pay his debt of obligation with interest--as Sir Patrick had foretold.

"What am I to say to her?" he asked. "I'm bound to do all I can do to help you, and I will. But what am I to say?"

It was a natural question to put. It was not an easy question to answer. What a man, under given muscular circumstances, could do, no person living knew better than Geoffrey Delamayn. Of what a man, under given social circumstances, could say, no person living knew less.

"Say?" he repeated. "Look here! say I'm half distracted, and all that. And--wait a bit--tell her to stop where she is till I write to her."

Arnold hesitated. Absolutely ignorant of that low and limited form of knowledge which is called "knowledge of the world," his inbred delicacy of mind revealed to him the serious difficulty of the position which his friend was asking him to occupy as plainly as if he was looking at it through the warily-gathered experience of society of a man of twice his age.

"Can't you write to her now, Geoffrey?" he asked.

"What's the good of that?"

"Consider for a minute, and you will see. You have trusted me with a very awkward secret. I may be wrong--I never was mixed up in such a matter before--but to present myself to this lady as your messenger seems exposing her to a dreadful humiliation. Am I to go and tell her to her face: 'I know what you are hiding from the knowledge of all the world;' and is she to be expected to endure it?"

"Bosh!" said Geoffrey. "They can endure a deal more than you think. I wish you had heard how she bullied me, in this very place. My good fellow, you don't understand women. The grand secret, in dealing with a woman, is to take her as you take a cat, by the scruff of the neck--"

"I can't face her--unless you will help me by breaking the thing to her first. I'll stick at no sacrifice to serve you; but--hang it!--make allowances, Geoffrey, for the difficulty you are putting me in. I am almost a stranger; I don't know how Miss Silvester may receive me, before I can open my lips."

Those last words touched the question on its practical side. The matter-of-fact view of the difficulty was a view which Geoffrey instantly recognized and understood.

"She has the devil's own temper," he said. "There's no denying that. Perhaps I'd better write. Have we time to go into the house?"

"No. The house is full of people, and we haven't a minute to spare. Write at once, and write here. I have got a pencil."

"What am I to write on?"

"Any thing--your brother's card."

Geoffrey took the pencil which Arnold offered to him, and looked at the card. The lines his brother had written covered it. There was no room left. He felt in his pocket, and produced a letter--the letter which Anne had referred to at the interview between them--the letter which she had written to insist on his attending the lawn-party at Windygates.

"This will do," he said. "It's one of Anne's own letters to me. There's room on the fourth page. If I write," he added, turning suddenly on Arnold, "you promise to take it to her? Your hand on the bargain!"

He held out the hand which had saved Arnold's life in Lisbon Harbor, and received Arnold's promise, in remembrance of that time.

"All right, old fellow. I can tell you how to find the place as we go along in the gig. By-the-by, there's one thing that's rather important. I'd better mention it while I think of it."

"What is that?"

"You mustn't present yourself at the inn in your own name; and you mustn't ask for her by _her_ name."

"Who am I to ask for?"

"It's a little awkward. She has gone there as a married woman, in case they're particular about taking her in--"

"I understand. Go on."

"And she has planned to tell them (by way of making it all right and straight for both of us, you know) that she expects her husband to join her. If I had been able to go I should have asked at the door for 'my wife.' You are going in my place--"

"And I must ask at the door for 'my wife,' or I shall expose Miss Silvester to unpleasant consequences?"

"You don't object?"

"Not I! I don't care what I say to the people of the inn. It's the meeting with Miss Silvester that I'm afraid of."

"I'll put that right for you--never fear!"

He went at once to the table and rapidly scribbled a few lines--then stopped and considered. "Will that do?" he asked himself. "No; I'd better say something spooney to quiet her." He considered again, added a line, and brought his hand down on the table with a cheery smack. "That will do the business! Read it yourself, Arnold--it's not so badly written."

Arnold read the note without appearing to share his friend's favorable opinion of it.

"This is rather short," he said.

"Have I time to make it longer?"

"Perhaps not. But let Miss Silvester see for herself that you have no time to make it longer. The train starts in less than half an hour. Put the time."

"Oh, all right! and the date too, if you like."

He had just added the desired words and figures, and had given the revised letter to Arnold, when Sir Patrick returned to announce that the gig was waiting.

"Come!" he said. "You haven't a moment to lose!"

Geoffrey started to his feet. Arnold hesitated.

"I must see Blanche!" he pleaded. "I can't leave Blanche without saying good-by. Where is she?"

Sir Patrick pointed to the steps, with a smile. Blanche had followed him from the house. Arnold ran out to her instantly.

"Going?" she said, a little sadly.

"I shall be back in two days," Arnold whispered. "It's all right! Sir Patrick consents."

She held him fast by the arm. The hurried parting before other people seemed to be not a parting to Blanche's taste.

"You will lose the train!" cried Sir Patrick.

Geoffrey seized Arnold by the arm which Blanche was holding, and tore him--literally tore him--away. The two were out of sight, in the shrubbery, before Blanche's indignation found words, and addressed itself to her uncle.

"Why is that brute going away with Mr. Brinkworth?" she asked.

"Mr. Delamayn is called to London by his father's illness," replied Sir Patrick. "You don't like him?"

"I hate him!"

Sir Patrick reflected a little.

"She is a young girl of eighteen," he thought to himself. "And I am an old man of seventy. Curious, that we should agree about any thing. More than curious that we should agree in disliking Mr. Delamayn."

He roused himself, and looked again at Blanche. She was seated at the table, with her head on her hand; absent, and out of spirits--thinking of Arnold, and set, with the future all smooth before them, not thinking happily.

"Why, Blanche! Blanche!" cried Sir Patrick, "one would think he had gone for a voyage round the world. You silly child! he will be back again the day after to-morrow."

"I wish he hadn't gone with that man!" said Blanche. "I wish he hadn't got that man for a friend!"

"There! there! the man was rude enough I own. Never mind! he will leave the man at the second station. Come back to the ball-room with me. Dance it off, my dear--dance it off!"

"No," returned Blanche. "I'm in no humor for dancing. I shall go up stairs, and talk about it to Anne."

"You will do nothing of the sort!" said a third voice, suddenly joining in the conversation.

Both uncle and niece looked up, and found Lady Lundie at the top of the summer-house steps.

"I forbid you to mention that woman's name again in my hearing," pursued her ladyship. "Sir Patrick! I warned you (if you remember?) that the matter of the governess was not a matter to be trifled with. My worst anticipations are realized. Miss Silvester has left the house!"