Armadale – Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins has given us in this novel one more instance of his strange capacity for weaving extra plots. Armadale, from beginning to end, is a lurid labyrinth of improbabilities. It produces upon the reader the effect of a literary nightmare. Miss Gwilt, Mrs. Oldershaw, and Doctor Le Doux of the Sanatorium are enough to make any story in which they figure disagreeably sensational; and Mr. Collins seizes every possible opportunity of working up the horror they inspire to the highest point. If it were the object of art to make one’s audience uncomfortable without letting them know why, Mr. Wilkie Collins would be beyond all doubt a consummate artist. To the accomplishment of this object he devotes great ingenuity, a curious genius for arranging and contriving mysteries, and a good deal of what may be called galvanic power. There is a sort of unearthly and deadly look about the heroes and heroines of his narrative, and though it is necessary for the purpose of the plot that they should keep moving, we feel, that every, one of their motions is due, not to a natural process, but to the sheer force and energy of the author’s will. They dodge each other up and down the stage after the manner of puppets at a puppet-show, and after watching their twistings and turnings from first to last we come away full of admiration of the strings and the unseen fingers that are directing everything from behind the curtain. An ordinary novelist would let the villains murder their intended victim at once, and have done with it. Not so Mr. Wilkie Collins. A hundred agencies are brought into play to suspend our interest through this long volume. Spies, detective officers, lawyers, and two or three virtuous and watchful amateurs counterplot day and night against the villains. Each dogs the other till he is tired, and when he is tired the other dogs him. They overhear each other’s secrets from behind trees, or lurk unsuspected under windows, keeping diaries sometimes of their proceedings. To heighten the absorbing interest of this contest of intelligences, railways, telegraphy, post-offices, presentiments, and dreams are freely used ; and the wonders of science do duty side by side with the marvels of the supernatural world. As a whole the effect is clever, powerful, and striking, though grotesque, monotonous, and, to use a French word, bizarre. There can be no mistake about the talent displayed. What strikes one as wanting is that humor which is the salt of all great genius, and that sense of proportion and beauty which is the soul of all real art.
Excerpt from the text:
ON a warm May night, in the year eighteen hundred and fifty-one, the Reverend Decimus Brock—at that time a visitor to the Isle of Man—retired to his bedroom at Castletown, with a serious personal responsibility in close pursuit of him, and with no distinct idea of the means by which he might relieve himself from the pressure of his present circumstances.
The clergyman had reached that mature period of human life at which a sensible man learns to decline (as often as his temper will let him) all useless conflict with the tyranny of his own troubles. Abandoning any further effort to reach a decision in the emergency that now beset him, Mr. Brock sat down placidly in his shirt sleeves on the side of his bed, and applied his mind to consider next whether the emergency itself was as serious as he had hitherto been inclined to think it. Following this new way out of his perplexities, Mr. Brock found himself unexpectedly traveling to the end in view by the least inspiriting of all human journeys—a journey through the past years of his own life.
One by one the events of those years—all connected with the same little group of characters, and all more or less answerable for the anxiety which was now intruding itself between the clergyman and his night’s rest—rose, in progressive series, on Mr. Brock’s memory. The first of the series took him back, through a period of fourteen years, to his own rectory on the Somersetshire shores of the Bristol Channel, and closeted him at a private interview with a lady who had paid him a visit in the character of a total stranger to the parson and the place.
The lady’s complexion was fair, the lady’s figure was well preserved; she was still a young woman, and she looked even younger than her age. There was a shade of melancholy in her expression, and an undertone of suffering in her voice—enough, in each case, to indicate that she had known trouble, but not enough to obtrude that trouble on the notice of others. She brought with her a fine, fair-haired boy of eight years old, whom she presented as her son, and who was sent out of the way, at the beginning of the interview, to amuse himself in the rectory garden. Her card had preceded her entrance into the study, and had announced her under the name of “Mrs. Armadale.” Mr. Brock began to feel interested in her before she had opened her lips; and when the son had been dismissed, he awaited with some anxiety to hear what the mother had to say to him.
Mrs. Armadale began by informing the rector that she was a widow. Her husband had perished by shipwreck a short time after their union, on the voyage from Madeira to Lisbon. She had been brought to England, after her affliction, under her father’s protection; and her child—a posthumous son—had been born on the family estate in Norfolk. Her father’s death, shortly afterward, had deprived her of her only surviving parent, and had exposed her to neglect and misconstruction on the part of her remaining relatives (two brothers), which had estranged her from them, she feared, for the rest of her days. For some time past she had lived in the neighboring county of Devonshire, devoting herself to the education of her boy, who had now reached an age at which he required other than his mother’s teaching. Leaving out of the question her own unwillingness to part with him, in her solitary position, she was especially anxious that he should not be thrown among strangers by being sent to school. Her darling project was to bring him up privately at home, and to keep him, as he advanced in years, from all contact with the temptations and the dangers of the world.
With these objects in view, her longer sojourn in her own locality (where the services of the resident clergyman, in the capacity of tutor, were not obtainable) must come to an end. She had made inquiries, had heard of a house that would suit her in Mr. Brock’s neighborhood, and had also been told that Mr. Brock himself had formerly been in the habit of taking pupils. Possessed of this information, she had ventured to present herself, with references that vouched for her respectability, but without a formal introduction; and she had now to ask whether (in the event of her residing in the neighborhood) any terms that could be offered would induce Mr. Brock to open his doors once more to a pupil, and to allow that pupil to be her son.
If Mrs. Armadale had been a woman of no personal attractions, or if Mr. Brock had been provided with an intrenchment to fight behind in the shape of a wife, it is probable that the widow’s journey might have been taken in vain. As things really were, the rector examined the references which were offered to him, and asked time for consideration. When the time had expired, he did what Mrs. Armadale wished him to do—he offered his back to the burden, and let the mother load him with the responsibility of the son.
This was the first event of the series; the date of it being the year eighteen hundred and thirty-seven. Mr. Brock’s memory, traveling forward toward the present from that point, picked up the second event in its turn, and stopped next at the year eighteen hundred and forty-five.
The fishing-village on the Somersetshire coast was still the scene, and the characters were once again—Mrs. Armadale and her son.
Through the eight years that had passed, Mr. Brock’s responsibility had rested on him lightly enough. The boy had given his mother and his tutor but little trouble. He was certainly slow over his books, but more from a constitutional inability to fix his attention on his tasks than from want of capacity to understand them. His temperament, it could not be denied, was heedless to the last degree: he acted recklessly on his first impulses, and rushed blindfold at all his conclusions. On the other hand, it was to be said in his favor that his disposition was open as the day; a more generous, affectionate, sweet-tempered lad it would have been hard to find anywhere. A certain quaint originality of character, and a natural healthiness in all his tastes, carried him free of most of the dangers to which his mother’s system of education inevitably exposed him. He had a thoroughly English love of the sea and of all that belongs to it; and as he grew in years, there was no luring him away from the water-side, and no keeping him out of the boat-builder’s yard. In course of time his mother caught him actually working there, to her infinite annoyance and surprise, as a volunteer. He acknowledged that his whole future ambition was to have a yard of his own, and that his one present object was to learn to build a boat for himself. Wisely foreseeing that such a pursuit as this for his leisure hours was exactly what was wanted to reconcile the lad to a position of isolation from companions of his own rank and age, Mr. Brock prevailed on Mrs. Armadale, with no small difficulty, to let her son have his way. At the period of that second event in the clergyman’s life with his pupil which is now to be related, young Armadale had practiced long enough in the builder’s yard to have reached the summit of his wishes, by laying with his own hands the keel of his own boat.
Late on a certain summer day, not long after Allan had completed his sixteenth year, Mr. Brock left his pupil hard at work in the yard, and went to spend the evening with Mrs. Armadale, taking the Times newspaper with him in his hand.
The years that had passed since they had first met had long since regulated the lives of the clergyman and his neighbor. The first advances which Mr. Brock’s growing admiration for the widow had led him to make in the early days of their intercourse had been met on her side by an appeal to his forbearance which had closed his lips for the future. She had satisfied him, at once and forever, that the one place in her heart which he could hope to occupy was the place of a friend. He loved her well enough to take what she would give him: friends they became, and friends they remained from that time forth. No jealous dread of another man’s succeeding where he had failed imbittered the clergyman’s placid relations with the woman whom he loved. Of the few resident gentlemen in the neighborhood, none were ever admitted by Mrs. Armadale to more than the merest acquaintance with her. Contentedly self-buried in her country retreat, she was proof against every social attraction that would have tempted other women in her position and at her age. Mr. Brock and his newspaper, appearing with monotonous regularity at her tea-table three times a week, told her all she knew or cared to know of the great outer world which circled round the narrow and changeless limits of her daily life.
On the evening in question Mr. Brock took the arm-chair in which he always sat, accepted the one cup of tea which he always drank, and opened the newspaper which he always read aloud to Mrs. Armadale, who invariably listened to him reclining on the same sofa, with the same sort of needle-work everlastingly in her hand.
“Bless my soul!” cried the rector, with his voice in a new octave, and his eyes fixed in astonishment on the first page of the newspaper.
No such introduction to the evening readings as this had ever happened before in all Mrs. Armadale’s experience as a listener. She looked up from the sofa in a flutter of curiosity, and besought her reverend friend to favor her with an explanation.
“I can hardly believe my own eyes,” said Mr. Brock. “Here is an advertisement, Mrs. Armadale, addressed to your son.”
Without further preface, he read the advertisement as follows:
IF this should meet the eye of ALLAN ARMADALE, he is desired to communicate, either personally or by letter, with Messrs. Hammick and Ridge (Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London), on business of importance which seriously concerns him. Any one capable of informing Messrs. H. and R. where the person herein advertised can be found would confer a favor by doing the same. To prevent mistakes, it is further notified that the missing Allan Armadale is a youth aged fifteen years, and that this advertisement is inserted at the instance of his family and friends.
“Another family, and other friends,” said Mrs. Armadale. “The person whose name appears in that advertisement is not my son.”
The tone in which she spoke surprised Mr. Brock. The change in her face, when he looked up, shocked him. Her delicate complexion had faded away to a dull white; her eyes were averted from her visitor with a strange mixture of confusion and alarm; she looked an older woman than she was, by ten good years at least.
“The name is so very uncommon,” said Mr. Brock, imagining he had offended her, and trying to excuse himself. “It really seemed impossible there could be two persons—”
“There are two,” interposed Mrs. Armadale. “Allan, as you know, is sixteen years old. If you look back at the advertisement, you will find the missing person described as being only fifteen. Although he bears the same surname and the same Christian name, he is, I thank God, in no way whatever related to my son. As long as I live, it will be the object of my hopes and prayers that Allan may never see him, may never even hear of him. My kind friend, I see I surprise you: will you bear with me if I leave these strange circumstances unexplained? There is past misfortune and misery in my early life too painful for me to speak of, even to you. Will you help me to bear the remembrance of it, by never referring to this again? Will you do even more—will you promise not to speak of it to Allan, and not to let that newspaper fall in his way?”
Mr. Brock gave the pledge required of him, and considerately left her to herself.
The rector had been too long and too truly attached to Mrs. Armadale to be capable of regarding her with any unworthy distrust. But it would be idle to deny that he felt disappointed by her want of confidence in him, and that he looked inquisitively at the advertisement more than once on his way back to his own house.
It was clear enough, now, that Mrs. Armadale’s motives for burying her son as well as herself in the seclusion of a remote country village was not so much to keep him under her own eye as to keep him from discovery by his namesake. Why did she dread the idea of their ever meeting? Was it a dread for herself, or a dread for her son? Mr. Brock’s loyal belief in his friend rejected any solution of the difficulty which pointed at some past misconduct of Mrs. Armadale’s. That night he destroyed the advertisement with his own hand; that night he resolved that the subject should never be suffered to enter his mind again. There was another Allan Armadale about the world, a stranger to his pupil’s blood, and a vagabond advertised in the public newspapers. So much accident had revealed to him. More, for Mrs. Armadale’s sake, he had no wish to discover—and more he would never seek to know.
This was the second in the series of events which dated from the rector’s connection with Mrs. Armadale and her son. Mr. Brock’s memory, traveling on nearer and nearer to present circumstances, reached the third stage of its journey through the by-gone time, and stopped at the year eighteen hundred and fifty, next.
The five years that had passed had made little if any change in Allan’s character. He had simply developed (to use his tutor’s own expression) from a boy of sixteen to a boy of twenty-one. He was just as easy and open in his disposition as ever; just as quaintly and inveterately good-humored; just as heedless in following his own impulses, lead him where they might. His bias toward the sea had strengthened with his advance to the years of manhood. From building a boat, he had now got on—with two journeymen at work under him—to building a decked vessel of five-and-thirty tons. Mr. Brock had conscientiously tried to divert him to higher aspirations; had taken him to Oxford, to see what college life was like; had taken him to London, to expand his mind by the spectacle of the great metropolis. The change had diverted Allan, but had not altered him in the least. He was as impenetrably superior to all worldly ambition as Diogenes himself. “Which is best,” asked this unconscious philosopher, “to find out the way to be happy for yourself, or to let other people try if they can find it out for you?” From that moment Mr. Brock permitted his pupil’s character to grow at its own rate of development, and Allan went on uninterruptedly with the work of his yacht.
Time, which had wrought so little change in the son, had not passed harmless over the mother.