A curious coincidence with respect to this story is that after thirteen monthly instalments of it had been published in a magazine three men one after another died of carbon-dioxide suffocation on a ship at Liverpool, precisely as Miss Gwilt died in the novel, and as Miss Gwilt had planned that Armadale should die. The name of the ship, strangely enough, was Armadale. The novel had an extraordinary success, and it is still one of the most generally remembered romances of the middle of the nineteenth century. It illustrates, perhaps better than any other of its author’s works, his marvelous power of ingenious dramatic construction.
At the opening of the season of 1832, Allan Armadale, an Englishman of the West Indies, arrived at Wildbad, in Germany, with his wife, a beautiful woman with a slight taint of negro blood, and their baby boy.
At the same time came a surly Scotchman named Neal.
Armadale had been stricken with paralysis, so that he was unable to finish a certain confession which he had begun to write. He did not wish his wife to know the facts set forth in the confession, and so, with much difficulty, he prevailed upon the surly Scotchman, Neal, to take down the remainder of it and to see to it that the manuscript should be placed in the hands of his representatives, to be delivered to his baby boy when he should be old enough to receive it.
The man making the confession had been born Allan Wrentmore. At the age of twenty-one he had been adopted by Allan Armadale, his kinsman, as heir to his estates in Barba-dos, upon condition that he should take his benefactor’s name of Armadale. The benefactor had cast off his own son, Allan Armadale, for misdemeanors which were unforgivable.
The young man, thus possessed of an estate, needed a clerk or bailiff. A certain Fergus Ingleby applied for the place; Allan Armadale liked him, and, in spite of the unsatisfactory character of his references, appointed him to the place.
Armadale’s mother, distrusting Ingleby, sought to remove her son from his influence by sending the latter to England. She wrote to her kinsman, Mr. Blanchard of Thorpe-Ambrose in Englanda man who had loved her in his youthand arranged with him an invitation for her son to visit him, with the purpose that the youth should marry Miss Blanchard, the heiress of the great Thorpe-Ambrose property. Mr. Blanchard and his daughter were about to go to Madeira for health, and it was arranged that Allan should join them there.
He told the whole story to Ingleby. Soon afterward, and before his vessel was ready to sail, he was taken ill. When he recovered, Ingleby had disappeared.
By a later ship Allan Armadale went to Madeira, but when he arrived there he found that Ingleby, who was in fact the disinherited Allan Armadale and whose father had meanwhile died, had preceded him and had married Miss Blanchard under his proper name, passing himself off as the adopted heir of his father. The marriage had of course required correspondence with the adopted Allan Armadale’s mother while he still lay sick at Barbados, but Miss Blanchard had found means of preventing discovery. She had in her service a girl of the lower classes, Lydia Gwilt, whom she was training to be her maid. Lydia cleverly forged the necessary letters from Mrs. Wrentmore. Inglebyas Allan Armadalewas married to Miss Blanchard, and her fortune became his, beyond her father’s control. The two frankly confessed the fraud they had practised, but the confession could not undo the facts or win the father’s forgiveness.
Allan Armadale challenged Ingleby, after blows had occurred, and Ingleby accepted. But before the meeting could take place, Ingleby and his wife had sailed for Lisbon on the French lumber-ship, La Grace de Dieu.
Mr. Blanchard, father of the young woman, decided to follow them in a swift yacht; Allan Armadale, under an assumed name, being enlisted as a seaman on the little vessel.
The timber-ship was overhauled in a water-logged and sinking condition. The yacht took off the ship’s company, with the exception of Ingleby. Allan Armadale had locked him in the cabin and left him there to drown.
No suspicion of Armadale’s guilt arose except in the mind of the real Allan Armadale’s widow. No prosecution followed. The guilty man went back to the West Indies and there married the wife who was with him when his dying confession was made. The confession was addressed to the guilty man’s infant son, and ended with a superstitious warning to him to avoid all con-tact with the posthumous son of the true Allan. Armadale, lest evil come of it.
The young widow of the drowned Allan Armadale gave birth to a posthumous son whom she named Allan. The circumstances of her marriage had estranged her from her two brothers, sons of Mr. Blanchard of Thorpe-Ambrose, who by this time had died. She retired with her boy to Somersetshire and induced the bachelor rector there, the Rev. Decimus Brock, to take charge of little Allan’s education.
When the boy was sixteen, Mr. Brock saw an advertisement inquiring for the whereabouts of “Allan Armadale,” and brought it to Mrs. Armadale’s attention. She, knowing that it related to the other boy, the son of her husband’s murderer, explained no further than that it did not concern her son. She entreated Mr. Brock, however, to guard her son against all possible contact with the other Allan Armadale. A woman had visited her, a veiled woman, with whom Mr. Brock had twice spoken, but whose face he had not seen. She had extorted money from Mrs. Armadale and had threatened to reveal her-self to young Armadale. She was none other than the Lydia Gwilt who had aided, by forgery, the marriage of Mrs. Armadale. Without revealing this fact, Mrs. Armadale, on her death-bed, entreated Brock to keep that woman from all contact with her son.
About that time a young man, crazed by a fever, was found wandering in the fields and was taken to the tavern. Books in his carpetbag showed him to be a scholar in Greek and German, and when he came to himself he gave his name as Ozias Midwinter. Allan Armadale became his enthusiastic friend, and even before the young man returned to consciousness Allan had made himself responsible for his bills. But Ozias Midwinter had some small resources of his own, and upon his recovery he drew upon them and paid his own bills. Allan Armadale’s generous conduct, however, had so deeply impressed his sensitive nature that he became almost dog-like in his devotion to his young friend. Unable or unwilling to give an account of himself in answer to Mr. Brock’s inquiries, Mid-winter undertook to leave the place at once. Allan on horse-back followed and overtook him, exacting his promise that he would send him his London address.
Then Mrs. Armadale died, soon after the visit of the strange veiled woman, who, she admitted to Mr. Brock, had been associated, before Allan’s birth, with an event of which she could not think without shame.
In answer to Mr. Brock’s appeal, Mrs. Armadale’s brothers refused to renew friendly relations with the isolated boy. He had enough money for his maintenance, and he had built a yacht with his own hands.
Another advertisement for the missing Allan Armadale brought Ozias Midwinter, who was in fact the other Allan Armadale, into possession of a small but secure income.
About the same time three sudden deaths made the Allan Armadale of Somersetshire owner of the great Blanchard estate of Thorpe-Ambrose, with its income of eight thousand pounds a year.
With boyish generosity Allan gave the Blanchard ladies as long a time as they might like before quitting their old home, and, having found Midwinter, he went away for a yachting cruise during the two months for which the ladies had elected to stay at Thorpe-Ambrose.
The drifting away of a boat left Allan and Midwinter alone for a night on a wrecked vessel, the same on which Midwinter’s father had murdered Allan’s father.
During the night Allan fell asleep and dreamed. Midwinter, full of superstition, insisted that he should put his dream into writing, and accepted it as a supernatural warning of evil to come through himself to his friend Allan Armadale. The light-hearted Allan laughed the superstition to scorn and decided that upon taking possession of the Thorpe-Ambrose property he would make Midwinter his steward and take him to live with him. This left the steward’s cottage vacant, and two applications came for the lease of it. One was from Darch, the solicitor who had informed Allan of his inheritance, and the other from a retired military officer, Major Milroy. By the toss of a coin Allan decided to accept the Major’s offer and reject that of the lawyer. Soon afterward Allan learned that his tenants, and the principal gentlefolk round about Thorpe-Ambrose, were planning a great reception for him when he should come to take possession of his estate. They had speeches prepared, arches planned, festivities arranged for, and pro-cessions organized. But Allan hated ostentation, and he resolved to defeat all these arrangements by going suddenly to Thorpe-Ambrose and quietly taking possession. In doing so he offended the whole community, and , when, at Midwinter’s suggestion, he sought to atone by making first calls upon the gentry round about, he was everywhere received with a coldness that left him socially ostracized.
When he wrote to Darch, the old solicitor of the estate, asking him to call upon business, that person replied resenting Allan’s preference of Major Milroy as tenant of the cottage, and declining further service as solicitor. The remedy seemed easy. Allan engaged the other solicitor of the place, one Pedgift, who, with his son, Pedgift junior, stood next in rank.
On his earliest morning walk, Allan encountered, in his park, Miss Eleanor Milroy, the Major’s daughter, better known as Neelie. She was sixteen, fresh, unsophisticated, a born flirt and pretty, and, in Allan’s unaccustomed eyes, altogether charming. He made love to her from the beginning, and went home with her to breakfast, where he made acquaintance with her father and saw a wonderful clock the old gentleman was constructing on the model of the famous clock at Strasburg. The acquaintance ripened rapidly, and, by way of hurrying it, Allan arranged a picnic party on those strange Norfolk ponds known as the Broads. The company was to be small, because Allan’s neighbors were all antagonistic to him for having disappointed them of their show.
In the mean while Major Milroy had advertised for a governess for his daughter, Neelie, and Miss Gwilt had responded. Miss Gwilt was the same Lydia who had aided Allan’s mother in deceiving her father at the time of her marriage, the woman who had blackmailed his mother before her death, the woman who had threatened to reveal herself to him, and the woman against whom his mother had so passionately warned the Rev Mr. Brock to guard her son.
This person possessed a strangely fascinating beauty. She knew every art by which women captivate men and, after a career of crime, she was as unscrupulous as it is possible for a woman to be.
It was her plan, highly educated and accomplished as she was, to secure the appointment as Neelie’s governess, to captivate Armadale, and make herself mistress of Thorpe-Ambrose. She was thirty-five years old, but could pass herself off as twenty-seven, and for the rest she counted upon the disposition of very young men to fall in love with women older than them-selves.
In order to carry out her scheme she entered into a partner-ship with a Mrs. Oldershaw, a “beauty doctor,” who, in company with Dr. Downwald, conducted an establishment for the criminal malpractice of medicine and surgery. Mrs. Oldershaw advanced the necessary money upon Lydia Gwilt’s notes, and it was agreed that she should share in the profits of the venture if it should prove successful. As references were necessary, the Oldershaw woman took temporary lodgings in a respectable quarter, adopted a false name, posed as a gentlewoman, and answered inquiries concerning Lydia Gwilt.
Almost immediately after Lydia’s advent at Thorpe-Ambrose as Neelie’s governess, Allan fell in love with her, forgetting the affection he had felt for Neelie. Neelie became madly jealous, of course, and Major Milroy’s bedridden wife was still more insanely jealous lest the governess should supplant her in her husband’s affections. Midwinter also had fallen in love with Miss Gwilt, whose practice it was to bring to her feet every man with whom she came into contact while preserving an appearance of modest self-effacement. In the list of her new victims she included even old Bashwood, a false-toothed, wig-wearing, shambling, nervous wreck, who had been engaged as an assistant steward to teach Midwinter a business of which he knew next to nothing. Miss Gwilt thought she might have occasion to use Bashwood, and so she took pains to attach him to her service by so much of encouragement to his passion as was necessary.
Midwinter’s superstition had discovered certain fulfilments of Allan’s dream, and his soul was agitated by the conviction that he was destined by malign fate to work mischief to Allan Armadale, the man he loved best in all the world, and the man whose father his own father had murdered, as he knew from his father’s confession, of which the other Allan knew nothing.
The Rev. Decimus Brock, being in London some time before this, encountered Miss Gwilt, veiled as usual, and recognized her by dress and figure as the woman who had visited Armadale’s mother to blackmail her. For Allan’s sake, he followed her home and set himself to watch her from the opposite house. She discovered his purpose and baffled it in her clever way. She dressed Mrs. Oldershaw’s maid in her own gown, shawl, and veil and sent her out to be watched, with instructions to show her face repeatedly at the window on her return. The maid closely resembled Miss Gwilt in figure and carriage, but in face and in the color of her hair she was wholly unlike her. Having thus misled the parson into the belief that he knew the face of the dangerous woman, Miss Gwilt sent the maid to the parson’s own village, there to live as “Miss Gwilt” and to consult the parson himself about her sins. Mr. Brock was thus thrown completely off his guard, and Lydia Gwilt was free to prosecute her schemes at Thorpe-Ambrose.
She was not long in doing so. Allan Armadale was completely fascinated with her, so completely that when she evaded his natural questions about her family and put him off with the statement that it was a sad and saddening story she must presently tell him, he generously accepted the evasion.
When he revealed to Midwinter his half-engagement to Miss Gwilt, Midwinter, who was himself almost insanely in love with the woman, packed his knapsack and set off on a walking tour, meaning to conquer his passion lest he should do harm to his friend.
Finding herself really supplanted by her governess, Neelie Milroy became more than ever wildly jealous of Miss Gwilt, but her jealousy was slight in comparison with that of Major Milroy’s bedridden wife. The latter wrote confidentially to Armadale, suggesting all sorts of possibilities with respect to Miss Gwilt, and telling him that the governess’s references had not been investigated, except carelessly by Major Milroy’s mother. She gave him the address at which Mrs. Oldershaw, under a false name, had answered the inquiries, and urged him to inquire about Miss Gwilt more closely. At the same time she invoked his honor as a gentleman to keep secret her interposition in the affair.
Armadale, in company with Pedgift the younger, went to London. Not finding Mrs. Oldershaw at the address given, Pedgift managed to trace her to the “beauty doctor’s” head-quarters, but she was not there. A little further inquiry enabled him to discover the character of that establishment and to connect Miss Gwilt with it.
Disgusted and sorely distressed, Allan Armadale decided to remain in London for a time. He wrote to Mrs. Milroy, simply telling her that he had not been able to find the “Mrs. Mandeville” who had been Miss Gwilt’s reference. As he was in honor bound not to inculpate Mrs. Milroy, that gentlewoman managed, by aid of this letter, to convince her husband that Allan Armadale had made inquiries with regard to the governess with an unsatisfactory result. The Major’s sense of honor was touched. He demanded an explanation, and, receiving none, denounced Allan for having cast a slur upon the character of a young woman and then failing to justify it. Pledged to secrecy as he was with regard to Mrs. Milroy, Allan was helpless to defend him-self. Miss Gwilt, with a fine assumption of offended dignity, resigned her place, but, on the plea that she courted inquiry, took humble lodgings in the village to await events.
The public, already displeased with Armadale, espoused her cause, and Allan was everywhere denounced, even in the local newspapers.
In response to a summons from Pedgift the elder, who wrote him of the facts, he returned to Thorpe-Ambrose to face the storm.
Pedgift, who had been trained at the Old Bailey prison, thought he knew what manner of woman Miss Gwilt was. He urged Armadale to let him bring a Scotland Yard detective down to look at her, but, with his quixotic impulsiveness, Armadale refused. Thereupon Pedgift threw up his employment as Allan’s solicitor, and Armadale was left completely isolated. The community was hostile; Midwinter had gone away; his solicitor had deserted him; Major Milroy had forbidden him his house, and there was nobody to advise him.
Although he had rejected Pedgift’s suggestion to bring a Scotland Yard man to look at Miss Gwilt, Allan engaged a man to watch her. He had meantime secretly met Neelie Milroy andfreed as he was by this time from his passion for Miss Gwilthe had reestablished relations with the younger woman, who loved him and whom he really loved.
As Midwinter was returning home, after a fortnight or so of tramping, he met Miss Gwilt. She pointed out the spy, who was following her, and Midwinter drove him away. Then, finding that Allan was no longer his rival, Midwinter made fierce love to Miss Gwilt. She in her turn was almost in love with himas nearly so as a woman of her character and history could be.
Having heard her story of persecution, Midwinter made him-self her champion. He went to Armadale to protest. The two quarreled and separated, but Allan dismissed his spy.
Having failed in her scheme to marry Allan and make her-self mistress of Thorpe-Ambrose, Lydia Gwilt set about another enterprise, still more daring, still more criminal. By the terms of Allan Armadale’s tenure, the sum of twelve hundred pounds a year must be paid to his widow, if he should die leaving a widow.
Lydia Gwilt had failed in her effort to marry him, but she decided nevertheless to be his widow. She had drawn from Midwinter the fact that his real name was identical with that of his friend. She decided to marry Midwinter under his true name, to kill Armadale, then to repudiate Midwinter, and to pose as the widow of Allan Armadale, entitled to twelve hundred pounds a year from the estate. The only thing that stood in her way was her real tenderness for Midwinter, and the longing it awakened in her to marry him and settle down to a life of happy respectability. But she put the temptation by.
Though forbidden Major Milroy’s house, Allan met the major’s daughter daily in the shrubbery, and the two planned an elopement. Miss Gwilt, in hiding, heard all their arrangements. In their ignorance of legal requirements respecting marriage, they decided that Allan should go to London to consult a solicitor, he having quarreled with both the solicitors at Thorpe-Ambrose. Lydia managed to meet him conspicuously on the railway platform, and, by an appeal to his chivalry, to compel him to escort her to London in an otherwise unoccupied carriage. This, as Lydia intended, set wagging all the tongues of all the gossips of Thorpe-Ambrose. It was given out that Allan Armadale and Lydia Gwilt had eloped, and that they would marry after the necessary two weeks’ residence in London.
Old Bashford heard this report, and, crazed as he was by his absurd passion for the woman, he followed the pair to London. He knew nothing of Lydia’s purpose to marry Midwinter. He believed she intended to marry Armadale, and his energies were directed to the prevention of that by any means, however desperate. He employed his son, a detective, to discover Miss Gwilt’s past, with the following result:
Lydia Gwilt had first appeared twenty-five years before, at a fair at Thorpe-Ambrose. A quack named Oldershaw exhibited her as a living example of what his lotions would do for hair and complexion. Miss Blanchard of Thorpe-Ambrose afterwards Allan Armadale’s motherbecame interested in the child. She took her in charge, educated her, and took her with her to Madeira. There the girl forged letters for her mistress, as already related. As she possessed knowledge of a painful family secret, the girl was sent to the Continent to be educated, a liberal allowance being made by the Blanchards, though secretly, till such time as she might marry.
She became an adventuress, married, murdered her husband, was convicted and sentenced to death, but, by clemency of the crown, escaped with a period of penal servitude for a theft she had committed.
Old Bashwood’s infatuation was rather intensified than cured by the revelation of the woman’s crimes. Still believing that she was about to marry Armadale, he welcomed the revelation of her past life as a means of alienating his rival and perhaps of securing the woman for himself. He went to Armadale’s hotel, meaning to tell him the terrible story, but Armadale had gone to Somersetshire to the death-bed of the Rev. Mr. Brock; and while Bashwood was seeking him Midwinter and Lydia were married and set out for the Continent.
Some time before this Lydia had sent an anonymous letter to Major Milroy telling him of his daughter’s plan to elope with Armadale. Neelie had confessed the truth of this accusation, but, as she refused to give up her lover, the Major had agreed that she should be sent to school for a year or so; that Armadale and she should hold no communication with each other during that time; but that if at the end of that period he found himself satisfied with Armadale’s conduct, the marriage should take place.
Midwinter had secured an engagement as a newspaper correspondent, and was to be stationed at Naples. As Armadale had to occupy himself somehow during the year’s probation, it was arranged that he should sail in his yacht and join the Mid-winters in Italy. Lydia cherished a hope that the little ship would drown him. It would spare her the trouble of killing him and still leave her free to abandon Midwinter and set up her claim as Armadale’s widow. The yacht was in fact wrecked, but Armadale escaped, and at Naples he hired an old yacht of English build. While he was looking for a sailing-master and crew, Lydia encountered one of her own old desperado lovers, a man who hesitated at nothing, and instigated him to seek the place of sailing-master. She told him, truly, that Armadale would have a very large sum of money in gold on board. With a cutthroat for sailing-master and a band of cutthroats for crew, Allan sailed away.
A great storm arose. The ship weathered it well, but the crew scuttled her, after littering the sea with wreckage and nailing Allan below decks.
The news came that the yacht was wrecked with all on board, including Allan Armadale Immediately Lydia set out for London, upon the plea of illness and distress in her purely mythical “family.” She left Midwinter in Italy with real reluctance. She had come to love him as well as so depraved an adventuress could love. But her love and pity worked no change in her determination to cast him off, claim to be the widow of Allan Armadale, and secure the income of twelve hundred pounds a year.
In London she found the rascal Dr. Downward, now posing under the French name of another quack whose diploma he had bought. Downward was just ready to open a sanitarium, in which there were no patients as yet. He cheerfully perjured himself for a consideration, swearing that he had been present at the marriage of Lydia Gwilt and Allan Armadale, and identifying the two. Armed with his affidavit and her own marriage certificate, and clad in widow’s weeds, Lydia presented her claim.
While the lawyers were considering it and postponing its settlement a letter arrived from Allan Armadale himself. By aid of the one decent man in his crew, he had escaped from the wreck, and after long exposure was picked up and carried to a remote port. He was ill, but recovering, and upon recovery would hasten to London.
Meanwhile Midwinter had come to London; Lydia had callously repudiated him, declaring herself not his wife, but the widow of Allan Armadale.
Now that Allan had escaped and was returning to London, Lydia arranged with the quack doctor to lure him to the sanitarium and there provide her with means of secretly putting him to death. He was to be met at the station and told that Neelie was in the sanitarium but too ill to see him until the next day. One night thus gained would be sufficient for the murderous purpose.
Midwinter also was awaiting Armadale at the railway station, and when Allan insisted upon going to the sanitarium Midwinter went with him.
Allan was assigned to Room No. 4, Midwinter to Room No. 3. There was an apparatus in the corridor for the generation of carbon dioxid. It communicated with Room 4 only. Lydia was instructed to pour six successive measures of a fluid into the apparatus at intervals of five minutes. This would fill the room with an odorless, tasteless, and otherwise undiscoverable gas, which would produce sleep first and then death.
In his superstitious fear of his destiny to do harm to his friend Midwinter insisted upon making an exchange of rooms, he taking No. 4 and Allan sleeping in No. 3.
Knowing nothing of this change, Lydia proceeded to execute her murderous purpose. After she had poured all but one of the measures of fluid into the apparatus, she opened the door of No. 4 to look upon her work. She found her victim lying senseless on the floor, but to her horror it was not Armadale but Midwinter. With a still lingering love for him, she hurriedly dragged him into the corridor, closing after her the door of the fatal room. Opening windows, she succeeded in reviving him, but before he became fully conscious a mood of desperation overcame her. She hurriedly poured the remaining fluid into the apparatus, entered the room and locked herself in.
The doctors next day found upon post-mortem examination that she had died of apoplexy.
Midwinter had fully won his place as a writer with a career before him.
In the spring Allan and Neelie were married and took up their residence permanently at Thorpe-Ambrose.