That gentleman was not yet come to his office; would Mrs. Tulliver sit down by the fire in his private room and wait for him? She had not long to wait before the punctual attorney entered, knitting his brow with an examining glance at the stout blond woman who rose, curtsying deferentially, — a tallish man, with an aquiline nose and abundant iron-gray hair. You have never seen Mr. Wakem before, and are possibly wondering whether he was really as eminent a rascal, and as crafty, bitter an enemy of honest humanity in general, and of Mr. Tulliver in particular, as he is represented to be in that eidolon or portrait of him which we have seen to exist in the miller's mind.
It is clear that the irascible miller was a man to interpret any chance-shot that grazed him as an attempt on his own life, and was liable to entanglements in this puzzling world, which, due consideration had to his own infallibility, required the hypothesis of a very active diabolical agency to explain them. It is still possible to believe that the attorney was not more guilty toward him than an ingenious machine, which performs its work with much regularity, is guilty toward the rash man who, venturing too near it, is caught up by some fly-wheel or other, and suddenly converted into unexpected mince-meat.
But it is really impossible to decide this question by a glance at his person; the lines and lights of the human countenance are like other symbols, — not always easy to read without a key. On an a priori view of Wakem's aquiline nose, which offended Mr. Tulliver, there was not more rascality than in the shape of his stiff shirt-collar, though this too along with his nose, might have become fraught with damnatory meaning when once the rascality was ascertained.
"Mrs. Tulliver, I think?" said Mr. Wakem.
"Yes, sir; Miss Elizabeth Dodson as was."
"Pray be seated. You have some business with me?"
"Well, sir, yes," said Mrs. Tulliver, beginning to feel alarmed at her own courage, now she was really in presence of the formidable man, and reflecting that she had not settled with herself how she should begin. Mr. Wakem felt in his waistcoat pockets, and looked at her in silence.
"I hope, sir," she began at last, — "I hope, sir, you're not a-thinking as I bear you any ill-will because o' my husband's losing his lawsuit, and the bailies being put in, and the linen being sold, — oh dear! — for I wasn't brought up in that way. I'm sure you remember my father, sir, for he was close friends with Squire Darleigh, and we allays went to the dances there, the Miss Dodsons, — nobody could be more looked on, — and justly, for there was four of us, and you're quite aware as Mrs. Glegg and Mrs. Deane are my sisters. And as for going to law and losing money, and having sales before you're dead, I never saw anything o' that before I was married, nor for a long while after. And I'm not to be answerable for my bad luck i' marrying out o' my own family into one where the goings-on was different. And as for being drawn in t' abuse you as other folks abuse you, sir, that I niver was, and nobody can say it of me."
Mrs. Tulliver shook her head a little, and looked at the hem of her pocket-handkerchief.
"I've no doubt of what you say, Mrs. Tulliver," said Mr. Wakem, with cold politeness. "But you have some question to ask me?"
"Well, sir, yes. But that's what I've said to myself, — I've said you'd had some nat'ral feeling; and as for my husband, as hasn't been himself for this two months, I'm not a-defending him, in no way, for being so hot about th' erigation, — not but what there's worse men, for he never wronged nobody of a shilling nor a penny, not willingly; and as for his fieriness and lawing, what could I do? And him struck as if it was with death when he got the letter as said you'd the hold upo' the land. But I can't believe but what you'll behave as a gentleman."
"What does all this mean, Mrs. Tulliver?" said Mr. Wakem rather sharply. "What do you want to ask me?"
"Why, sir, if you'll be so good," said Mrs. Tulliver, starting a little, and speaking more hurriedly, — "if you'll be so good not to buy the mill an' the land, — the land wouldn't so much matter, only my husband ull' be like mad at your having it."
Something like a new thought flashed across Mr. Wakem's face as he said, "Who told you I meant to buy it?"
"Why, sir, it's none o' my inventing, and I should never ha' thought of it; for my husband, as ought to know about the law, he allays used to say as lawyers had never no call to buy anything, — either lands or houses, — for they allays got 'em into their hands other ways. An' I should think that 'ud be the way with you, sir; and I niver said as you'd be the man to do contrairy to that."
"Ah, well, who was it that did say so?" said Wakem, opening his desk, and moving things about, with the accompaniment of an almost inaudible whistle.
"Why, sir, it was Mr. Glegg and Mr. Deane, as have all the management; and Mr. Deane thinks as Guest &Co. 'ud buy the mill and let Mr. Tulliver work it for 'em, if you didn't bid for it and raise the price. And it 'ud be such a thing for my husband to stay where he is, if he could get his living: for it was his father's before him, the mill was, and his grandfather built it, though I wasn't fond o' the noise of it, when first I was married, for there was no mills in our family, — not the Dodson's, — and if I'd known as the mills had so much to do with the law, it wouldn't have been me as 'ud have been the first Dodson to marry one; but I went into it blindfold, that I did, erigation and everything."
"What! Guest &Co. would keep the mill in their own hands, I suppose, and pay your husband wages?"
"Oh dear, sir, it's hard to think of," said poor Mrs. Tulliver, a little tear making its way, "as my husband should take wage. But it 'ud look more like what used to be, to stay at the mill than to go anywhere else; and if you'll only think — if you was to bid for the mill and buy it, my husband might be struck worse than he was before, and niver get better again as he's getting now."
"Well, but if I bought the mill, and allowed your husband to act as my manager in the same way, how then?" said Mr. Wakem.
"Oh, sir, I doubt he could niver be got to do it, not if the very mill stood still to beg and pray of him. For your name's like poison to him, it's so as never was; and he looks upon it as you've been the ruin of him all along, ever since you set the law on him about the road through the meadow, — that's eight year ago, and he's been going on ever since — as I've allays told him he was wrong — — "
"He's a pig-headed, foul-mouthed fool!" burst out Mr. Wakem, forgetting himself.
"Oh dear, sir!" said Mrs. Tulliver, frightened at a result so different from the one she had fixed her mind on; "I wouldn't wish to contradict you, but it's like enough he's changed his mind with this illness, — he's forgot a many things he used to talk about. And you wouldn't like to have a corpse on your mind, if he was to die; and they do say as it's allays unlucky when Dorlcote Mill changes hands, and the water might all run away, and then — not as I'm wishing you any ill-luck, sir, for I forgot to tell you as I remember your wedding as if it was yesterday; Mrs. Wakem was a Miss Clint, I know that; and my boy, as there isn't a nicer, handsomer, straighter boy nowhere, went to school with your son — — "
Mr. Wakem rose, opened the door, and called to one of his clerks.
"You must excuse me for interrupting you, Mrs. Tulliver; I have business that must be attended to; and I think there is nothing more necessary to be said."
"But if you would bear it in mind, sir," said Mrs. Tulliver, rising, "and not run against me and my children; and I'm not denying Mr. Tulliver's been in the wrong, but he's been punished enough, and there's worse men, for it's been giving to other folks has been his fault. He's done nobody any harm but himself and his family, — the more's the pity, — and I go and look at the bare shelves every day, and think where all my things used to stand."
"Yes, yes, I'll bear it in mind," said Mr. Wakem, hastily, looking toward the open door.