THE main purpose of this story is to appeal to the reader's interest in a subject which has been the theme of some of the greatest writers, living and dead--but which has never been, and can never be, exhausted, because it is a subject eternally interesting to all mankind. Here is one more book that depicts the struggle of a human creature, under those opposing influences of Good and Evil, which we have all felt, which we have all known. It has been my aim to make the character of "Magdalen," which personifies this struggle, a pathetic character even in its perversity and its error; and I have tried hard to attain this result by the least obtrusive and the least artificial of all means--by a resolute adherence throughout to the truth as it is in Nature. This design was no easy one to accomplish; and it has been a great encouragement to me (during the publication of my story in its periodical form) to know, on the authority of many readers, that the object which I had proposed to myself, I might, in some degree, consider as an object achieved.
Round the central figure in the narrative other characters will be found grouped, in sharp contrast--contrast, for the most part, in which I have endeavored to make the element of humor mainly predominant. I have sought to impart this relief to the more serious passages in the book, not only because I believe myself to be justified in doing so by the laws of Art--but because experience has taught me (what the experience of my readers will doubtless confirm) that there is no such moral phenomenon as unmixed tragedy to be found in the world around us. Look where we may, the dark threads and the light cross each other perpetually in the texture of human life.
To pass from the Characters to the Story, it will be seen that the narrative related in these pages has been constructed on a plan which differs from the plan followed in my last novel, and in some other of my works published at an earlier date. The only Secret contained in this book is revealed midway in the first volume. From that point, all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed before they take place--my present design being to rouse the reader's interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about. In trying this new ground, I am not turning my back in doubt on the ground which I have passed over already. My one object in following a new course is to enlarge the range of my studies in the art of writing fiction, and to vary the form in which I make my appeal to the reader, as attractively as I can.
There is no need for me to add more to these few prefatory words than is here written. What I might otherwise have wished to say in this place, I have endeavored to make the book itself say for me.
(FELLOW OF THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF SURGEONS OF
IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE TIME WHEN
THE CLOSING SCENES OF THIS STORY WERE
THE FIRST SCENE.
THE hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the morning. The house was a country residence in West Somersetshire, called Combe-Raven. The day was the fourth of March, and the year was eighteen hundred and forty-six.
No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock, and the lumpish snoring of a large dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room door, disturbed the mysterious morning stillness of hall and staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the upper regions? Let the house reveal its own secrets; and, one by one, as they descend the stairs from their beds, let the sleepers disclose themselves.
As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven, the dog woke and shook himself. After waiting in vain for the footman, who was accustomed to let him out, the animal wandered restlessly from one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and, returning to his mat in great perplexity, appealed to the sleeping family with a long and melancholy howl.
Before the last notes of the dog's remonstrance had died away, the oaken stairs in the higher regions of the house creaked under slowly-descending footsteps. In a minute more the first of the female servants made her appearance, with a dingy woolen shawl over her shoulders--for the March morning was bleak; and rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.
Receiving the dog's first cordial advances with the worst possible grace, the cook slowly opened the hall door and let the animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a spacious lawn, and behind a black plantation of firs, the rising sun rent its way upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain fell few and far between; the March wind shuddered round the corners of the house, and the wet trees swayed wearily.
Seven o'clock struck; and the signs of domestic life began to show themselves in more rapid succession.
The housemaid came down--tall and slim, with the state of the spring temperature written redly on her nose. The lady's-maid followed--young, smart, plump, and sleepy. The kitchen-maid came next--afflicted with the face-ache, and making no secret of her sufferings. Last of all, the footman appeared, yawning disconsolately; the living picture of a man who felt that he had been defrauded of his fair night's rest.
The conversation of the servants, when they assembled before the slowly lighting kitchen fire, referred to a recent family event, and turned at starting on this question: Had Thomas, the footman, seen anything of the concert at Clifton, at which his master and the two young ladies had been present on the previous night? Yes; Thomas had heard the concert; he had been paid for to go in at the back; it was a loud concert; it was a hot concert; it was described at the top of the bills as Grand; whether it was worth traveling sixteen miles to hear by railway, with the additional hardship of going back nineteen miles by road, at half-past one in the morning--was a question which he would leave his master and the young ladies to decide; his own opinion, in the meantime, being unhesitatingly, No. Further inquiries, on the part of all the female servants in succession, elicited no additional information of any sort. Thomas could hum none of the songs, and could describe none of the ladies' dresses. His audience, accordingly, gave him up in despair; and the kitchen small-talk flowed back into its ordinary channels, until the clock struck eight and startled the assembled servants into separating for their morning's work.
A quarter past eight, and nothing happened. Half-past--and more signs of life appeared from the bedroom regions. The next member of the family who came downstairs was Mr. Andrew Vanstone, the master of the house.
Tall, stout, and upright--with bright blue eyes, and healthy, florid complexion--his brown plush shooting-jacket carelessly buttoned awry; his vixenish little Scotch terrier barking unrebuked at his heels; one hand thrust into his waistcoat pocket, and the other smacking the banisters cheerfully as he came downstairs humming a tune--Mr. Vanstone showed his character on the surface of him freely to all men. An easy, hearty, handsome, good-humored gentleman, who walked on the sunny side of the way of life, and who asked nothing better than to meet all his fellow-passengers in this world on the sunny side, too. Estimating him by years, he had turned fifty. Judging him by lightness of heart, strength of constitution, and capacity for enjoyment, he was no older than most men who have only turned thirty.
"Thomas!" cried Mr. Vanstone, taking up his old felt hat and his thick walking stick from the hall table. "Breakfast, this morning, at ten. The young ladies are not likely to be down earlier after the concert last night.--By-the-by, how did you like the concert yourself, eh? You thought it was grand? Quite right; so it was. Nothing but crash-bang, varied now and then by bang-crash; all the women dressed within an inch of their lives; smothering heat, blazing gas, and no room for anybody--yes, yes, Thomas; grand's the word for it, and comfortable isn't." With that expression of opinion, Mr. Vanstone whistled to his vixenish terrier; flourished his stick at the hall door in cheerful defiance of the rain; and set off through wind and weather for his morning walk.
The hands, stealing their steady way round the dial of the clock, pointed to ten minutes to nine. Another member of the family appeared on the stairs--Miss Garth, the governess.
No observant eyes could have surveyed Miss Garth without seeing at once that she was a north-countrywoman. Her hard featured face; her masculine readiness and decision of movement; her obstinate honesty of look and manner, all proclaimed her border birth and border training. Though little more than forty years of age, her hair was quite gray; and she wore over it the plain cap of an old woman. Neither hair nor head-dress was out of harmony with her face--it looked older than her years: the hard handwriting of trouble had scored it heavily at some past time. The self-possession of her progress downstairs, and the air of habitual authority with which she looked about her, spoke well for her position in Mr. Vanstone's family. This was evidently not one of the forlorn, persecuted, pitiably dependent order of governesses. Here was a woman who lived on ascertained and honorable terms with her employers--a woman who looked capable of sending any parents in England to the right-about, if they failed to rate her at her proper value.
"Breakfast at ten?" repeated Miss Garth, when the footman had answered the bell, and had mentioned his master's orders. "Ha! I thought what would come of that concert last night. When people who live in the country patronize public amusements, public amusements return the compliment by upsetting the family afterward for days together. You're upset, Thomas, I can see--your eyes are as red as a ferret's, and your cravat looks as if you had slept in it. Bring the kettle at a quarter to ten--and if you don't get better in the course of the day, come to me, and I'll give you a dose of physic. That's a well-meaning lad, if you only let him alone," continued Miss Garth, in soliloquy, when Thomas had retired; "but he's not strong enough for concerts twenty miles off. They wanted me to go with them last night. Yes: catch me!"
Nine o'clock struck; and the minute-hand stole on to twenty minutes past the hour, before any more footsteps were heard on the stairs. At the end of that time, two ladies appeared, descending to the breakfast-room together--Mrs. Vanstone and her eldest daughter.
If the personal attractions of Mrs. Vanstone, at an earlier period of life, had depended solely on her native English charms of complexion and freshness, she must have long since lost the last relics of her fairer self. But her beauty as a young woman had passed beyond the average national limits; and she still preserved the advantage of her more exceptional personal gifts. Although she was now in her forty-fourth year; although she had been tried, in bygone times, by the premature loss of more than one of her children, and by long attacks of illness which had followed those bereavements of former years--she still preserved the fair proportion and subtle delicacy of feature, once associated with the all-adorning brightness and freshness of beauty, which had left her never to return. Her eldest child, now descending the stairs by her side, was the mirror in which she could look back and see again the reflection of her own youth. There, folded thick on the daughter's head, lay the massive dark hair, which, on the mother's, was fast turning gray. There, in the daughter's cheek, glowed the lovely dusky red which had faded from the mother's to bloom again no more. Miss Vanstone had already reached the first maturity of womanhood; she had completed her six-and-twentieth year. Inheriting the dark majestic character of her mother's beauty, she had yet hardly inherited all its charms. Though the shape of her face was the same, the features were scarcely so delicate, their proportion was scarcely so true. She was not so tall. She had the dark-brown eyes of her mother--full and soft, with the steady luster in them which Mrs. Vanstone's eyes had lost--and yet there was less interest, less refinement and depth of feeling in her expression: it was gentle and feminine, but clouded by a certain quiet reserve, from which her mother's face was free. If we dare to look closely enough, may we not observe that the moral force of character and the higher intellectual capacities in parents seem often to wear out mysteriously in the course of transmission to children? In these days of insidious nervous exhaustion and subtly-spreading nervous malady, is it not possible that the same rule may apply, less rarely than we are willing to admit, to the bodily gifts as well?
The mother and daughter slowly descended the stairs together--the first dressed in dark brown, with an Indian shawl thrown over her shoulders; the second more simply attired in black, with a plain collar and cuffs, and a dark orange-colored ribbon over the bosom of her dress. As they crossed the hall and entered the breakfast-room, Miss Vanstone was full of the all-absorbing subject of the last night's concert.
"I am so sorry, mamma, you were not with us," she said. "You have been so strong and so well ever since last summer--you have felt so many years younger, as you said yourself--that I am sure the exertion would not have been too much for you."
"Perhaps not, my love--but it was as well to keep on the safe side."
"Quite as well," remarked Miss Garth, appearing at the breakfast-room door. "Look at Norah (good-morning, my dear)--look, I say, at Norah. A perfect wreck; a living proof of your wisdom and mine in staying at home. The vile gas, the foul air, the late hours--what can you expect? She's not made of iron, and she suffers accordingly. No, my dear, you needn't deny it. I see you've got a headache."
Norah's dark, handsome face brightened into a smile--then lightly clouded again with its accustomed quiet reserve.
"A very little headache; not half enough to make me regret the concert," she said, and walked away by herself to the window.
On the far side of a garden and paddock the view overlooked a stream, some farm buildings which lay beyond, and the opening of a wooded, rocky pass (called, in Somersetshire, a Combe), which here cleft its way through the hills that closed the prospect. A winding strip of road was visible, at no great distance, amid the undulations of the open ground; and along this strip the stalwart figure of Mr. Vanstone was now easily recognizable, returning to the house from his morning walk. He flourished his stick gayly, as he observed his eldest daughter at the window. She nodded and waved her hand in return, very gracefully and prettily--but with something of old-fashioned formality in her manner, which looked strangely in so young a woman, and which seemed out of harmony with a salutation addressed to her father.
The hall-clock struck the adjourned breakfast-hour. When the minute hand had recorded the lapse of five minutes more a door banged in the bedroom regions--a clear young voice was heard singing blithely--light, rapid footsteps pattered on the upper stairs, descended with a jump to the landing, and pattered again, faster than ever, down the lower flight. In another moment the youngest of Mr. Vanstone's two daughters (and two only surviving children) dashed into view on the dingy old oaken stairs, with the suddenness of a flash of light; and clearing the last three steps into the hall at a jump, presented herself breathless in the breakfast-room to make the family circle complete.
By one of those strange caprices of Nature, which science leaves still unexplained, the youngest of Mr. Vanstone's children presented no recognizable resemblance to either of her parents. How had she come by her hair? how had she come by her eyes? Even her father and mother had asked themselves those questions, as she grew up to girlhood, and had been sorely perplexed to answer them. Her hair was of that purely light-brown hue, unmixed with flaxen, or yellow, or red--which is oftener seen on the plumage of a bird than on the head of a human being. It was soft and plentiful, and waved downward from her low forehead in regular folds--but, to some tastes, it was dull and dead, in its absolute want of glossiness, in its monotonous purity of plain light color. Her eyebrows and eyelashes were just a shade darker than her hair, and seemed made expressly for those violet-blue eyes, which assert their most irresistible charm when associated with a fair complexion. But it was here exactly that the promise of her face failed of performance in the most startling manner. The eyes, which should have been dark, were incomprehensibly and discordantly light; they were of that nearly colorless gray which, though little attractive in itself, possesses the rare compensating merit of interpreting the finest gradations of thought, the gentlest changes of feeling, the deepest trouble of passion, with a subtle transparency of expression which no darker eyes can rival. Thus quaintly self-contradictory in the upper part of her face, she was hardly less at variance with established ideas of harmony in the lower. Her lips had the true feminine delicacy of form, her cheeks the lovely roundness and smoothness of youth--but the mouth was too large and firm, the chin too square and massive for her sex and age. Her complexion partook of the pure monotony of tint which characterized her hair--it was of the same soft, warm, creamy fairness all over, without a tinge of color in the cheeks, except on occasions of unusual bodily exertion or sudden mental disturbance. The whole countenance--so remarkable in its strongly opposed characteristics--was rendered additionally striking by its extraordinary mobility. The large, electric, light-gray eyes were hardly ever in repose; all varieties of expression followed each other over the plastic, ever-changing face, with a giddy rapidity which left sober analysis far behind in the race. The girl's exuberant vitality asserted itself all over her, from head to foot. Her figure--taller than her sister's, taller than the average of woman's height; instinct with such a seductive, serpentine suppleness, so lightly and playfully graceful, that its movements suggested, not unnaturally, the movements of a young cat--her figure was so perfectly developed already that no one who saw her could have supposed that she was only eighteen. She bloomed in the full physical maturity of twenty years or more--bloomed naturally and irresistibly, in right of her matchless health and strength. Here, in truth, lay the mainspring of this strangely-constituted organization. Her headlong course down the house stairs; the brisk activity of all her movements; the incessant sparkle of expression in her face; the enticing gayety which took the hearts of the quietest people by storm--even the reckless delight in bright colors which showed itself in her brilliantly-striped morning dress, in her fluttering ribbons, in the large scarlet rosettes on her smart little shoes--all sprang alike from the same source; from the overflowing physical health which strengthened every muscle, braced every nerve, and set the warm young blood tingling through her veins, like the blood of a growing child.
On her entry into the breakfast-room, she was saluted with the customary remonstrance which her flighty disregard of all punctuality habitually provoked from the long-suffering household authorities. In Miss Garth's favorite phrase, "Magdalen was born with all the senses--except a sense of order."
Magdalen! It was a strange name to have given her? Strange, indeed; and yet, chosen under no extraordinary circumstances. The name had been borne by one of Mr. Vanstone's sisters, who had died in early youth; and, in affectionate remembrance of her, he had called his second daughter by it--just as he had called his eldest daughter Norah, for his wife's sake. Magdalen! Surely, the grand old Bible name--suggestive of a sad and somber dignity; recalling, in its first association, mournful ideas of penitence and seclusion--had been here, as events had turned out, inappropriately bestowed? Surely, this self-contradictory girl had perversely accomplished one contradiction more, by developing into a character which was out of all harmony with her own Christian name!
"Late again!" said Mrs. Vanstone, as Magdalen breathlessly kissed her.
"Late again!" chimed in Miss Garth, when Magdalen came her way next. "Well?" she went on, taking the girl's chin familiarly in her hand, with a half-satirical, half-fond attention which betrayed that the youngest daughter, with all her faults, was the governess's favorite--"Well? and what has the concert done for you? What form of suffering has dissipation inflicted on your system this morning?"
"Suffering!" repeated Magdalen, recovering her breath, and the use of her tongue with it. "I don't know the meaning of the word: if there's anything the matter with me, I'm too well. Suffering! I'm ready for another concert to-night, and a ball to-morrow, and a play the day after. Oh," cried Magdalen, dropping into a chair and crossing her hands rapturously on the table, "how I do like pleasure!"
"Come! that's explicit at any rate," said Miss Garth. "I think Pope must have had you in his mind when he wrote his famous lines:
"'Men some to business, some to pleasure take, But every woman is at heart a rake.'"
"The deuce she is!" cried Mr. Vanstone, entering the room while Miss Garth was making her quotation, with the dogs at his heels. "Well; live and learn. If you're all rakes, Miss Garth, the sexes are turned topsy-turvy with a vengeance; and the men will have nothing left for it but to stop at home and darn the stockings.--Let's have some breakfast."
"How-d'ye-do, papa?" said Magdalen, taking Mr. Vanstone as boisterously round the neck as if he belonged to some larger order of Newfoundland dog, and was made to be romped with at his daughter's convenience. "I'm the rake Miss Garth means; and I want to go to another concert--or a play, if you like--or a ball, if you prefer it--or anything else in the way of amusement that puts me into a new dress, and plunges me into a crowd of people, and illuminates me with plenty of light, and sets me in a tingle of excitement all over, from head to foot. Anything will do, as long as it doesn't send us to bed at eleven o'clock."
Mr. Vanstone sat down composedly under his daughter's flow of language, like a man who was well used to verbal inundation from that quarter. "If I am to be allowed my choice of amusements next time," said the worthy gentleman, "I think a play will suit me better than a concert. The girls enjoyed themselves amazingly, my dear," he continued, addressing his wife. "More than I did, I must say. It was altogether above my mark. They played one piece of music which lasted forty minutes. It stopped three times, by-the-way; and we all thought it was done each time, and clapped our hands, rejoiced to be rid of it. But on it went again, to our great surprise and mortification, till we gave it up in despair, and all wished ourselves at Jericho. Norah, my dear! when we had crash-bang for forty minutes, with three stoppages by-the-way, what did they call it?"
"A symphony, papa," replied Norah.
"Yes, you darling old Goth, a symphony by the great Beethoven!" added Magdalen. "How can you say you were not amused? Have you forgotten the yellow-looking foreign woman, with the unpronounceable name? Don't you remember the faces she made when she sang? and the way she courtesied and courtesied, till she cheated the foolish people into crying encore? Look here, mamma--look here, Miss Garth!"
She snatched up an empty plate from the table, to represent a sheet of music, held it before her in the established concert-room position, and produced an imitation of the unfortunate singer's grimaces and courtesyings, so accurately and quaintly true to the original, that her father roared with laughter; and even the footman (who came in at that moment with the post-bag) rushed out of the room again, and committed the indecorum of echoing his master audibly on the other side of the door.
"Letters, papa. I want the key," said Magdalen, passing from the imitation at the breakfast-table to the post-bag on the sideboard with the easy abruptness which characterized all her actions.
Mr. Vanstone searched his pockets and shook his head. Though his youngest daughter might resemble him in nothing else, it was easy to see where Magdalen's unmethodical habits came from.
"I dare say I have left it in the library, along with my other keys," said Mr. Vanstone. "Go and look for it, my dear."
"You really should check Magdalen," pleaded Mrs. Vanstone, addressing her husband when her daughter had left the room. "Those habits of mimicry are growing on her; and she speaks to you with a levity which it is positively shocking to hear."
"Exactly what I have said myself, till I am tired of repeating it," remarked Miss Garth. "She treats Mr. Vanstone as if he was a kind of younger brother of hers."
"You are kind to us in everything else, papa; and you make kind allowances for Magdalen's high spirits--don't you?" said the quiet Norah, taking her father's part and her sister's with so little show of resolution on the surface that few observers would have been sharp enough to detect the genuine substance beneath it.
"Thank you, my dear," said good-natured Mr. Vanstone. "Thank you for a very pretty speech. As for Magdalen," he continued, addressing his wife and Miss Garth, "she's an unbroken filly. Let her caper and kick in the paddock to her heart's content. Time enough to break her to harness when she gets a little older."
The door opened, and Magdalen returned with the key. She unlocked the post-bag at the sideboard and poured out the letters in a heap. Sorting them gayly in less than a minute, she approached the breakfast-table with both hands full, and delivered the letters all round with the business-like rapidity of a London postman.
"Two for Norah," she announced, beginning with her sister. "Three for Miss Garth. None for mamma. One for me. And the other six all for papa. You lazy old darling, you hate answering letters, don't you?" pursued Magdalen, dropping the postman's character and assuming the daughter's. "How you will grumble and fidget in the study! and how you will wish there were no such things as letters in the world! and how red your nice old bald head will get at the top with the worry of writing the answers; and how many of the answers you will leave until tomorrow after all! The Bristol Theater's open, papa," she whispered, slyly and suddenly, in her father's ear; "I saw it in the newspaper when I went to the library to get the key. Let's go to-morrow night!"
While his daughter was chattering, Mr. Vanstone was mechanically sorting his letters. He turned over the first four in succession and looked carelessly at the addresses. When he came to the fifth his attention, which had hitherto wandered toward Magdalen, suddenly became fixed on the post-mark of the letter.
Stooping over him, with her head on his shoulder, Magdalen could see the post-mark as plainly as her father saw it--NEW ORLEANS.
"An American letter, papa!" she said. "Who do you know at New Orleans?"
Mrs. Vanstone started, and looked eagerly at her husband the moment Magdalen spoke those words.
Mr. Vanstone said nothing. He quietly removed his daughter's arm from his neck, as if he wished to be free from all interruption. She returned, accordingly, to her place at the breakfast-table. Her father, with the letter in his hand, waited a little before he opened it; her mother looking at him, the while, with an eager, expectant attention which attracted Miss Garth's notice, and Norah's, as well as Magdalen's.
After a minute or more of hesitation Mr. Vanstone opened the letter.
His face changed color the instant he read the first lines; his cheeks fading to a dull, yellow-brown hue, which would have been ashy paleness in a less florid man; and his expression becoming saddened and overclouded in a moment. Norah and Magdalen, watching anxiously, saw nothing but the change that passed over their father. Miss Garth alone observed the effect which that change produced on the attentive mistress of the house.
It was not the effect which she, or any one, could have anticipated. Mrs. Vanstone looked excited rather than alarmed. A faint flush rose on her cheeks--her eyes brightened--she stirred the tea round and round in her cup in a restless, impatient manner which was not natural to her.
Magdalen, in her capacity of spoiled child, was, as usual, the first to break the silence.
"What is the matter, papa?" she asked.
"Nothing," said Mr. Vanstone, sharply, without looking up at her.
"I'm sure there must be something," persisted Magdalen. "I'm sure there is bad news, papa, in that American letter."
"There is nothing in the letter that concerns you," said Mr. Vanstone.
It was the first direct rebuff that Magdalen had ever received from her father. She looked at him with an incredulous surprise, which would have been irresistibly absurd under less serious circumstances.
Nothing more was said. For the first time, perhaps, in their lives, the family sat round the breakfast-table in painful silence. Mr. Vanstone's hearty morning appetite, like his hearty morning spirits, was gone. He absently broke off some morsels of dry toast from the rack near him, absently finished his first cup of tea--then asked for a second, which he left before him untouched.
"Norah," he said, after an interval, "you needn't wait for me. Magdalen, my dear, you can go when you like."
His daughters rose immediately; and Miss Garth considerately followed their example. When an easy-tempered man does assert himself in his family, the rarity of the demonstration invariably has its effect; and the will of that easy-tempered man is Law.
"What can have happened?" whispered Norah, as they closed the breakfast-room door and crossed the hall.
"What does papa mean by being cross with Me?" exclaimed Magdalen, chafing under a sense of her own injuries.
"May I ask--what right you had to pry into your father's private affairs?" retorted Miss Garth.
"Right?" repeated Magdalen. "I have no secrets from papa--what business has papa to have secrets from me! I consider myself insulted."
"If you considered yourself properly reproved for not minding your own business," said the plain-spoken Miss Garth, "you would be a trifle nearer the truth. Ah! you are like all the rest of the girls in the present day. Not one in a hundred of you knows which end of her's uppermost."
The three ladies entered the morning-room; and Magdalen acknowledged Miss Garth's reproof by banging the door.
Half an hour passed, and neither Mr. Vanstone nor his wife left the breakfast-room. The servant, ignorant of what had happened, went in to clear the table--found his master and mistress seated close together in deep consultation--and immediately went out again. Another quarter of an hour elapsed before the breakfast-room door was opened, and the private conference of the husband and wife came to an end.
"I hear mamma in the hall," said Norah. "Perhaps she is coming to tell us something."
Mrs. Vanstone entered the morning-room as her daughter spoke. The color was deeper on her cheeks, and the brightness of half-dried tears glistened in her eyes; her step was more hasty, all her movements were quicker than usual.
"I bring news, my dears, which will surprise you," she said, addressing her daughters. "Your father and I are going to London to-morrow."
Magdalen caught her mother by the arm in speechless astonishment. Miss Garth dropped her work on her lap; even the sedate Norah started to her feet, and amazedly repeated the words, "Going to London!"
"Without us?" added Magdalen.
"Your father and I are going alone," said Mrs. Vanstone. "Perhaps, for as long as three weeks--but not longer. We are going"--she hesitated--"we are going on important family business. Don't hold me, Magdalen. This is a sudden necessity--I have a great deal to do to-day--many things to set in order before tomorrow. There, there, my love, let me go."
She drew her arm away; hastily kissed her youngest daughter on the forehead; and at once left the room again. Even Magdalen saw that her mother was not to be coaxed into hearing or answering any more questions.
The morning wore on, and nothing was seen of Mr. Vanstone. With the reckless curiosity of her age and character, Magdalen, in defiance of Miss Garth's prohibition and her sister's remonstrances, determined to go to the study and look for her father there. When she tried the door, it was locked on the inside. She said, "It's only me, papa;" and waited for the answer. "I'm busy now, my dear," was the answer. "Don't disturb me."
Mrs. Vanstone was, in another way, equally inaccessible. She remained in her own room, with the female servants about her, immersed in endless preparations for the approaching departure. The servants, little used in that family to sudden resolutions and unexpected orders, were awkward and confused in obeying directions. They ran from room to room unnecessarily, and lost time and patience in jostling each other on the stairs. If a stranger had entered the house that day, he might have imagined that an unexpected disaster had happened in it, instead of an unexpected necessity for a journey to London. Nothing proceeded in its ordinary routine. Magdalen, who was accustomed to pass the morning at the piano, wandered restlessly about the staircases and passages, and in and out of doors when there were glimpses of fine weather. Norah, whose fondness for reading had passed into a family proverb, took up book after book from table and shelf, and laid them down again, in despair of fixing her attention. Even Miss Garth felt the all-pervading influence of the household disorganization, and sat alone by the morning-room fire, with her head shaking ominously, and her work laid aside.
"Family affairs?" thought Miss Garth, pondering over Mrs. Vanstone's vague explanatory words. "I have lived twelve years at Combe-Raven; and these are the first family affairs which have got between the parents and the children, in all my experience. What does it mean? Change? I suppose I'm getting old. I don't like change."
AT ten o'clock the next morning Norah and Magdalen stood alone in the hall at Combe-Raven watching the departure of the carriage which took their father and mother to the London train.
Up to the last moment, both the sisters had hoped for some explanation of that mysterious "family business" to which Mrs. Vanstone had so briefly alluded on the previous day. No such explanation had been offered. Even the agitation of the leave-taking, under circumstances entirely new in the home experience of the parents and children, had not shaken the resolute discretion of Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone. They had gone--with the warmest testimonies of affection, with farewell embraces fervently reiterated again and again--but without dropping one word, from first to last, of the nature of their errand.
As the grating sound of the carriage-wheels ceased suddenly at a turn in the road, the sisters looked one another in the face; each feeling, and each betraying in her own way, the dreary sense that she was openly excluded, for the first time, from the confidence of her parents. Norah's customary reserve strengthened into sullen silence--she sat down in one of the hall chairs and looked out frowningly through the open house door. Magdalen, as usual when her temper was ruffled, expressed her dissatisfaction in the plainest terms. "I don't care who knows it--I think we are both of us shamefully ill-used!" With those words, the young lady followed her sister's example by seating herself on a hall chair and looking aimlessly out through the open house door.
Almost at the same moment Miss Garth entered the hall from the morning-room. Her quick observation showed her the necessity for interfering to some practical purpose; and her ready good sense at once pointed the way.
"Look up, both of you, if you please, and listen to me," said Miss Garth. "If we are all three to be comfortable and happy together, now we are alone, we must stick to our usual habits and go on in our regular way. There is the state of things in plain words. Accept the situation--as the French say. Here am I to set you the example. I have just ordered an excellent dinner at the customary hour. I am going to the medicine-chest next, to physic the kitchen-maid--an unwholesome girl, whose face-ache is all stomach. In the meantime, Norah, my dear, you will find your work and your books, as usual, in the library. Magdalen, suppose you leave off tying your handkerchief into knots and use your fingers on the keys of the piano instead? We'll lunch at one, and take the dogs out afterward. Be as brisk and cheerful both of you as I am. Come, rouse up directly. If I see those gloomy faces any longer, as sure as my name's Garth, I'll give your mother written warning and go back to my friends by the mixed train at twelve forty."
Concluding her address of expostulation in those terms, Miss Garth led Norah to the library door, pushed Magdalen into the morning-room, and went on her own way sternly to the regions of the medicine-chest.
In this half-jesting, half-earnest manner she was accustomed to maintain a sort of friendly authority over Mr. Vanstone's daughters, after her proper functions as governess had necessarily come to an end. Norah, it is needless to say, had long since ceased to be her pupil; and Magdalen had, by this time, completed her education. But Miss Garth had lived too long and too intimately under Mr. Vanstone's roof to be parted with for any purely formal considerations; and the first hint at going away which she had thought it her duty to drop was dismissed with such affectionate warmth of protest that she never repeated it again, except in jest. The entire management of the household was, from that time forth, left in her hands; and to those duties she was free to add what companionable assistance she could render to Norah's reading, and what friendly superintendence she could still exercise over Magdalen's music. Such were the terms on which Miss Garth was now a resident in Mr. Vanstone's family.
Toward the afternoon the weather improved. At half-past one the sun was shining brightly; and the ladies left the house, accompanied by the dogs, to set forth on their walk.
They crossed the stream, and ascended by the little rocky pass to the hills beyond; then diverged to the left, and returned by a cross-road which led through the village of Combe-Raven.
As they came in sight of the first cottages, they passed a man, hanging about the road, who looked attentively, first at Magdalen, then at Norah. They merely observed that he was short, that he was dressed in black, and that he was a total stranger to them--and continued their homeward walk, without thinking more about the loitering foot-passenger whom they had met on their way back.
After they had left the village, and had entered the road which led straight to the house, Magdalen surprised Miss Garth by announcing that the stranger in black had turned, after they had passed him, and was now following them. "He keeps on Norah's side of the road," she said, mischievously. "I'm not the attraction--don't blame me."
Whether the man was really following them, or not, made little difference, for they were now close to the house. As they passed through the lodge-gates, Miss Garth looked round, and saw that the stranger was quickening his pace, apparently with the purpose of entering into conversation. Seeing this, she at once directed the young ladies to go on to the house with the dogs, while she herself waited for events at the gate.
There was just time to complete this discreet arrangement, before the stranger reached the lodge. He took off his hat to Miss Garth politely, as she turned round. What did he look like, on the face of him? He looked like a clergyman in difficulties.
Taking his portrait, from top to toe, the picture of him began with a tall hat, broadly encircled by a mourning band of crumpled crape. Below the hat was a lean, long, sallow face, deeply pitted with the smallpox, and characterized, very remarkably, by eyes of two different colors--one bilious green, one bilious brown, both sharply intelligent. His hair was iron-gray, carefully brushed round at the temples. His cheeks and chin were in the bluest bloom of smooth shaving; his nose was short Roman; his lips long, thin, and supple, curled up at the corners with a mildly-humorous smile. His white cravat was high, stiff, and dingy; the collar, higher, stiffer, and dingier, projected its rigid points on either side beyond his chin. Lower down, the lithe little figure of the man was arrayed throughout in sober-shabby black. His frock-coat was buttoned tight round the waist, and left to bulge open majestically at the chest. His hands were covered with black cotton gloves neatly darned at the fingers; his umbrella, worn down at the ferule to the last quarter of an inch, was carefully preserved, nevertheless, in an oilskin case. The front view of him was the view in which he looked oldest; meeting him face to face, he might have been estimated at fifty or more. Walking behind him, his back and shoulders were almost young enough to have passed for five-and-thirty. His manners were distinguished by a grave serenity. When he opened his lips, he spoke in a rich bass voice, with an easy flow of language, and a strict attention to the elocutionary claims of words in more than one syllable. Persuasion distilled from his mildly-curling lips; and, shabby as he was, perennial flowers of courtesy bloomed all over him from head to foot.
"This is the residence of Mr. Vanstone, I believe?" he began, with a circular wave of his hand in the direction of the house. "Have I the honor of addressing a member of Mr. Vanstone's family?"
"Yes," said the plain-spoken Miss Garth. "You are addressing Mr. Vanstone's governess."
The persuasive man fell back a step--admired Mr. Vanstone's governess--advanced a step again--and continued the conversation.
"And the two young ladies," he went on, "the two young ladies who were walking with you are doubtless Mr. Vanstone's daughters? I recognized the darker of the two, and the elder as I apprehend, by her likeness to her handsome mother. The younger lady--"
"You are acquainted with Mrs. Vanstone, I suppose?" said Miss Garth, interrupting the stranger's flow of language, which, all things considered, was beginning, in her opinion, to flow rather freely. The stranger acknowledged the interruption by one of his polite bows, and submerged Miss Garth in his next sentence as if nothing had happened.
"The younger lady," he proceeded, "takes after her father, I presume? I assure you, her face struck me. Looking at it with my friendly interest in the family, I thought it very remarkable. I said to myself--Charming, Characteristic, Memorable. Not like her sister, not like her mother. No doubt, the image of her father?"
Once more Miss Garth attempted to stem the man's flow of words. It was plain that he did not know Mr. Vanstone, even by sight--otherwise he would never have committed the error of supposing that Magdalen took after her father. Did he know Mrs. Vanstone any better? He had left Miss Garth's question on that point unanswered. In the name of wonder, who was he? Powers of impudence! what did he want?
"You may be a friend of the family, though I don't remember your face," said Miss Garth. "What may your commands be, if you please? Did you come here to pay Mrs. Vanstone a visit?"
"I had anticipated the pleasure of communicating with Mrs. Vanstone," answered this inveterately evasive and inveterately civil man. "How is she?"
"Much as usual," said Miss Garth, feeling her resources of politeness fast failing her.
"Is she at home?"
"Out for long?"
"Gone to London with Mr. Vanstone."
The man's long face suddenly grew longer. His bilious brown eye looked disconcerted, and his bilious green eye followed its example. His manner became palpably anxious; and his choice of words was more carefully selected than ever.
"Is Mrs. Vanstone's absence likely to extend over any very lengthened period?" he inquired.
"It will extend over three weeks," replied Miss Garth. "I think you have now asked me questions enough," she went on, beginning to let her temper get the better of her at last. "Be so good, if you please, as to mention your business and your name. If you have any message to leave for Mrs. Vanstone, I shall be writing to her by to-night's post, and I can take charge of it."
"A thousand thanks! A most valuable suggestion. Permit me to take advantage of it immediately."
He was not in the least affected by the severity of Miss Garth's looks and language--he was simply relieved by her proposal, and he showed it with the most engaging sincerity. This time his bilious green eye took the initiative, and set his bilious brown eye the example of recovered serenity. His curling lips took a new twist upward; he tucked his umbrella briskly under his arm; and produced from the breast of his coat a large old-fashioned black pocketbook. From this he took a pencil and a card--hesitated and considered for a moment--wrote rapidly on the card--and placed it, with the politest alacrity, in Miss Garth's hand.
"I shall feel personally obliged if you will honor me by inclosing that card in your letter," he said. "There is no necessity for my troubling you additionally with a message. My name will be quite sufficient to recall a little family matter to Mrs. Vanstone, which has no doubt escaped her memory. Accept my best thanks. This has been a day of agreeable surprises to me. I have found the country hereabouts remarkably pretty; I have seen Mrs. Vanstone's two charming daughters; I have become acquainted with an honored preceptress in Mr. Vanstone's family. I congratulate myself--I apologize for occupying your valuable time--I beg my renewed acknowledgments--I wish you good-morning."
He raised his tall hat. His brown eye twinkled, his green eye twinkled, his curly lips smiled sweetly. In a moment he turned on his heel. His youthful back appeared to the best advantage; his active little legs took him away trippingly in the direction of the village. One, two, three--and he reached the turn in the road. Four, five, six--and he was gone.
Miss Garth looked down at the card in her hand, and looked up again in blank astonishment. The name and address of the clerical-looking stranger (both written in pencil) ran as follows:
Captain Wragge. Post-office, Bristol.
WHEN she returned to the house, Miss Garth made no attempt to conceal her unfavorable opinion of the stranger in black. His object was, no doubt, to obtain pecuniary assistance from Mrs. Vanstone. What the nature of his claim on her might be seemed less intelligible--unless it was the claim of a poor relation. Had Mrs. Vanstone ever mentioned, in the presence of her daughters, the name of Captain Wragge? Neither of them recollected to have heard it before. Had Mrs. Vanstone ever referred to any poor relations who were dependent on her? On the contrary she had mentioned of late years that she doubted having any relations at all who were still living. And yet Captain Wragge had plainly declared that the name on his card would recall "a family matter" to Mrs. Vanstone's memory. What did it mean? A false statement, on the stranger's part, without any intelligible reason for making it? Or a second mystery, following close on the heels of the mysterious journey to London?
All the probabilities seemed to point to some hidden connection between the "family affairs" which had taken Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone so suddenly from home and the "family matter" associated with the name of Captain Wragge. Miss Garth's doubts thronged back irresistibly on her mind as she sealed her letter to Mrs. Vanstone, with the captain's card added by way of inclosure.
By return of post the answer arrived.
Always the earliest riser among the ladies of the house, Miss Garth was alone in the breakfast-room when the letter was brought in. Her first glance at its contents convinced her of the necessity of reading it carefully through in retirement, before any embarrassing questions could be put to her. Leaving a message with the servant requesting Norah to make the tea that morning, she went upstairs at once to the solitude and security of her own room.
Mrs. Vanstone's letter extended to some length. The first part of it referred to Captain Wragge, and entered unreservedly into all necessary explanations relating to the man himself and to the motive which had brought him to Combe-Raven.
It appeared from Mrs. Vanstone's statement that her mother had been twice married. Her mother's first husband had been a certain Doctor Wragge--a widower with young children; and one of those children was now the unmilitary-looking captain, whose address was "Post-office, Bristol." Mrs. Wragge had left no family by her first husband; and had afterward married Mrs. Vanstone's father. Of that second marriage Mrs. Vanstone herself was the only issue. She had lost both her parents while she was still a young woman; and, in course of years, her mother's family connections (who were then her nearest surviving relatives) had been one after another removed by death. She was left, at the present writing, without a relation in the world--excepting, perhaps, certain cousins whom she had never seen, and of whose existence even, at the present moment, she possessed no positive knowledge.
Under these circumstances, what family claim had Captain Wragge on Mrs. Vanstone?
None whatever. As the son of her mother's first husband, by that husband's first wife, not even the widest stretch of courtesy could have included him at any time in the list of Mrs. Vanstone's most distant relations. Well knowing this (the letter proceeded to say), he had nevertheless persisted in forcing himself upon her as a species of family connection: and she had weakly sanctioned the intrusion, solely from the dread that he would otherwise introduce himself to Mr. Vanstone's notice, and take unblushing advantage of Mr. Vanstone's generosity. Shrinking, naturally, from allowing her husband to be annoyed, and probably cheated as well, by any person who claimed, however preposterously, a family connection with herself, it had been her practice, for many years past, to assist the captain from her own purse, on the condition that he should never come near the house, and that he should not presume to make any application whatever to Mr. Vanstone.
Readily admitting the imprudence of this course, Mrs. Vanstone further explained that she had perhaps been the more inclined to adopt it through having been always accustomed, in her early days, to see the captain living now upon one member, and now upon another, of her mother's family. Possessed of abilities which might have raised him to distinction in almost any career that he could have chosen, he had nevertheless, from his youth upward, been a disgrace to all his relatives. He had been expelled the militia regiment in which he once held a commission. He had tried one employment after another, and had discreditably failed in all. He had lived on his wits, in the lowest and basest meaning of the phrase. He had married a poor ignorant woman, who had served as a waitress at some low eating-house, who had unexpectedly come into a little money, and whose small inheritance he had mercilessly squandered to the last farthing. In plain terms, he was an incorrigible scoundrel; and he had now added one more to the list of his many misdemeanors by impudently breaking the conditions on which Mrs. Vanstone had hitherto assisted him. She had written at once to the address indicated on his card, in such terms and to such purpose as would prevent him, she hoped and believed, from ever venturing near the house again. Such were the terms in which Mrs. Vanstone concluded that first part of her letter which referred exclusively to Captain Wragge.
Although the statement thus presented implied a weakness in Mrs. Vanstone's character which Miss Garth, after many years of intimate experience, had never detected, she accepted the explanation as a matter of course; receiving it all the more readily inasmuch as it might, without impropriety, be communicated in substance to appease the irritated curiosity of the two young ladies. For this reason especially she perused the first half of the letter with an agreeable sense of relief. Far different was the impression produced on her when she advanced to the second half, and when she had read it to the end.
The second part of the letter was devoted to the subject of the journey to London.
Mrs. Vanstone began by referring to the long and intimate friendship which had existed between Miss Garth and herself. She now felt it due to that friendship to explain confidentially the motive which had induced her to leave home with her husband. Miss Garth had delicately refrained from showing it, but she must naturally have felt, and must still be feeling, great surprise at the mystery in which their departure had been involved; and she must doubtless have asked herself why Mrs. Vanstone should have been associated with family affairs which (in her independent position as to relatives) must necessarily concern Mr. Vanstone alone.
Without touching on those affairs, which it was neither desirable nor necessary to do, Mrs. Vanstone then proceeded to say that she would at once set all Miss Garth's doubts at rest, so far as they related to herself, by one plain acknowledgment. Her object in accompanying her husband to London was to see a certain celebrated physician, and to consult him privately on a very delicate and anxious matter connected with the state of her health. In plainer terms still, this anxious matter meant nothing less than the possibility that she might again become a mother.
When the doubt had first suggested itself she had treated it as a mere delusion. The long interval that had elapsed since the birth of her last child; the serious illness which had afflicted her after the death of that child in infancy; the time of life at which she had now arrived--all inclined her to dismiss the idea as soon as it arose in her mind. It had returned again and again in spite of her. She had felt the necessity of consulting the highest medical authority; and had shrunk, at the same time, from alarming her daughters by summoning a London physician to the house. The medical opinion, sought under the circumstances already mentioned, had now been obtained. Her doubt was confirmed as a certainty; and the result, which might be expected to take place toward the end of the summer, was, at her age and with her constitutional peculiarities, a subject for serious future anxiety, to say the least of it. The physician had done his best to encourage her; but she had understood the drift of his questions more clearly than he supposed, and she knew that he looked to the future with more than ordinary doubt.
Having disclosed these particulars, Mrs. Vanstone requested that they might be kept a secret between her correspondent and herself. She had felt unwilling to mention her suspicions to Miss Garth, until those suspicions had been confirmed--and she now recoiled, with even greater reluctance, from allowing her daughters to be in any way alarmed about her. It would be best to dismiss the subject for the present, and to wait hopefully till the summer came. In the meantime they would all, she trusted, be happily reunited on the twenty-third of the month, which Mr. Vanstone had fixed on as the day for their return. With this intimation, and with the customary messages, the letter, abruptly and confusedly, came to an end.
For the first few minutes, a natural sympathy for Mrs. Vanstone was the only feeling of which Miss Garth was conscious after she had laid the letter down. Ere long, however, there rose obscurely on her mind a doubt which perplexed and distressed her. Was the explanation which she had just read really as satisfactory and as complete as it professed to be? Testing it plainly by facts, surely not.
On the morning of her departure, Mrs. Vanstone had unquestionably left the house in good spirits. At her age, and in her state of health, were good spirits compatible with such an errand to a physician as the errand on which she was bent? Then, again, had that letter from New Orleans, which had necessitated Mr. Vanstone's departure, no share in occasioning his wife's departure as well? Why, otherwise, had she looked up so eagerly the moment her daughter mentioned the postmark. Granting the avowed motive for her journey--did not her manner, on the morning when the letter was opened, and again on the morning of departure, suggest the existence of some other motive which her letter kept concealed?
If it was so, the conclusion that followed was a very distressing one. Mrs. Vanstone, feeling what was due to her long friendship with Miss Garth, had apparently placed the fullest confidence in her, on one subject, by way of unsuspiciously maintaining the strictest reserve toward her on another. Naturally frank and straightforward in all her own dealings, Miss Garth shrank from plainly pursuing her doubts to this result: a want of loyalty toward her tried and valued friend seemed implied in the mere dawning of it on her mind.
She locked up the letter in her desk; roused herself resolutely to attend to the passing interests of the day; and went downstairs again to the breakfast-room. Amid many uncertainties, this at least was clear, Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone were coming back on the twenty-third of the month. Who could say what new revelations might not come back with them?
No new revelations came back with them: no anticipations associated with their return were realized. On the one forbidden subject of their errand in London, there was no moving either the master or the mistress of the house. Whatever their object might have been, they had to all appearance successfully accomplished it--for they both returned in perfect possession of their every-day looks and manners. Mrs. Vanstone's spirits had subsided to their natural quiet level; Mr. Vanstone's imperturbable cheerfulness sat as easily and indolently on him as usual. This was the one noticeable result of their journey--this, and no more. Had the household revolution run its course already? Was the secret thus far hidden impenetrably, hidden forever?
Nothing in this world is hidden forever. The gold which has lain for centuries unsuspected in the ground, reveals itself one day on the surface. Sand turns traitor, and betrays the footstep that has passed over it; water gives back to the tell-tale surface the body that has been drowned. Fire itself leaves the confession, in ashes, of the substance consumed in it. Hate breaks its prison-secrecy in the thoughts, through the doorway of the eyes; and Love finds the Judas who betrays it by a kiss. Look where we will, the inevitable law of revelation is one of the laws of nature: the lasting preservation of a secret is a miracle which the world has never yet seen.
How was the secret now hidden in the household at Combe-Raven doomed to disclose itself? Through what coming event in the daily lives of the father, the mother, and the daughters, was the law of revelation destined to break the fatal way to discovery? The way opened (unseen by the parents, and unsuspected by the children) through the first event that happened after Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone's return--an event which presented, on the surface of it, no interest of greater importance than the trivial social ceremony of a morning call.
Three days after the master and mistress of Combe-Raven had come back, the female members of the family happened to be assembled together in the morning-room. The view from the windows looked over the flower-garden and shrubbery; this last being protected at its outward extremity by a fence, and approached from the lane beyond by a wicket-gate. During an interval in the conversation, the attention of the ladies was suddenly attracted to this gate, by the sharp sound of the iron latch falling in its socket. Some one had entered the shrubbery from the lane; and Magdalen at once placed herself at the window to catch the first sight of the visitor through the trees.
After a few minutes, the figure of a gentleman became visible, at the point where the shrubbery path joined the winding garden-walk which led to the house. Magdalen looked at him attentively, without appearing, at first, to know who he was. As he came nearer, however, she started in astonishment; and, turning quickly to her mother and sister, proclaimed the gentleman in the garden to be no other than "Mr. Francis Clare."
The visitor thus announced was the son of Mr. Vanstone's oldest associate and nearest neighbor.
Mr. Clare the elder inhabited an unpretending little cottage, situated just outside the shrubbery fence which marked the limit of the Combe-Raven grounds. Belonging to the younger branch of a family of great antiquity, the one inheritance of importance that he had derived from his ancestors was the possession of a magnificent library, which not only filled all the rooms in his modest little dwelling, but lined the staircases and passages as well. Mr. Clare's books represented the one important interest of Mr. Clare's life. He had been a widower for many years past, and made no secret of his philosophical resignation to the loss of his wife. As a father, he regarded his family of three sons in the light of a necessary domestic evil, which perpetually threatened the sanctity of his study and the safety of his books. When the boys went to school, Mr. Clare said "good-by" to them--and "thank God" to himself. As for his small income, and his still smaller domestic establishment, he looked at them both from the same satirically indifferent point of view. He called himself a pauper with a pedigree. He abandoned the entire direction of his household to the slatternly old woman who was his only servant, on the condition that she was never to venture near his books, with a duster in her hand, from one year's end to the other. His favorite poets were Horace and Pope; his chosen philosophers, Hobbes and Voltaire. He took his exercise and his fresh air under protest; and always walked the same distance to a yard, on the ugliest high-road in the neighborhood. He was crooked of back, and quick of temper. He could digest radishes, and sleep after green tea. His views of human nature were the views of Diogenes, tempered by Rochefoucauld; his personal habits were slovenly in the last degree; and his favorite boast was that he had outlived all human prejudices.
Such was this singular man, in his more superficial aspects. What nobler qualities he might possess below the surface, no one had ever discovered. Mr. Vanstone, it is true, stoutly asserted that "Mr. Clare's worst side was his outside"--but in this expression of opinion he stood alone among his neighbors. The association between these two widely-dissimilar men had lasted for many years, and was almost close enough to be called a friendship. They had acquired a habit of meeting to smoke together on certain evenings in the week, in the cynic-philosopher's study, and of there disputing on every imaginable subject--Mr. Vanstone flourishing the stout cudgels of assertion, and Mr. Clare meeting him with the keen edged-tools of sophistry. They generally quarreled at night, and met on the neutral ground of the shrubbery to be reconciled together the next morning. The bond of intercourse thus curiously established between them was strengthened on Mr. Vanstone's side by a hearty interest in his neighbor's three sons--an interest by which those sons benefited all the more importantly, seeing that one of the prejudices which their father had outlived was a prejudice in favor of his own children.
"I look at those boys," the philosopher was accustomed to say, "with a perfectly impartial eye; I dismiss the unimportant accident of their birth from all consideration; and I find them below the average in every respect. The only excuse which a poor gentleman has for presuming to exist in the nineteenth century, is the excuse of extraordinary ability. My boys have been addle-headed from infancy. If I had any capital to give them, I should make Frank a butcher, Cecil a baker, and Arthur a grocer--those being the only human vocations I know of which are certain to be always in request. As it is, I have no money to help them with; and they have no brains to help themselves. They appear to me to be three human superfluities in dirty jackets and noisy boots; and, unless they clear themselves off the community by running away, I don't myself profess to see what is to be done with them."
Fortunately for the boys, Mr. Vanstone's views were still fast imprisoned in the ordinary prejudices. At his intercession, and through his influence, Frank, Cecil, and Arthur were received on the foundation of a well-reputed grammar-school. In holiday-time they were mercifully allowed the run of Mr. Vanstone's paddock; and were humanized and refined by association, indoors, with Mrs. Vanstone and her daughters. On these occasions, Mr. Clare used sometimes to walk across from his cottage (in his dressing-gown and slippers), and look at the boys disparagingly, through the window or over the fence, as if they were three wild animals whom his neighbor was attempting to tame. "You and your wife are excellent people," he used to say to Mr. Vanstone. "I respect your honest prejudices in favor of those boys of mine with all my heart. But you are so wrong about them--you are indeed! I wish to give no offense; I speak quite impartially--but mark my words, Vanstone: they'll all three turn out ill, in spite of everything you can do to prevent it."
In later years, when Frank had reached the age of seventeen, the same curious shifting of the relative positions of parent and friend between the two neighbors was exemplified more absurdly than ever. A civil engineer in the north of England, who owed certain obligations to Mr. Vanstone, expressed his willingness to take Frank under superintendence, on terms of the most favorable kind. When this proposal was received, Mr. Clare, as usual, first shifted his own character as Frank's father on Mr. Vanstone's shoulders--and then moderated his neighbor's parental enthusiasm from the point of view of an impartial spectator.
"It's the finest chance for Frank that could possibly have happened," cried Mr. Vanstone, in a glow of fatherly enthusiasm.
"My good fellow, he won't take it," retorted Mr. Clare, with the icy composure of a disinterested friend.
"But he shall take it," persisted Mr. Vanstone.
"Say he shall have a mathematical head," rejoined Mr. Clare; "say he shall possess industry, ambition, and firmness of purpose. Pooh! pooh! you don't look at him with my impartial eyes. I say, No mathematics, no industry, no ambition, no firmness of purpose. Frank is a compound of negatives--and there they are."
"Hang your negatives!" shouted Mr. Vanstone. "I don't care a rush for negatives, or affirmatives either. Frank shall have this splendid chance; and I'll lay you any wager you like he makes the best of it."
"I am not rich enough to lay wagers, usually," replied Mr. Clare; "but I think I have got a guinea about the house somewhere; and I'll lay you that guinea Frank comes back on our hands like a bad shilling."
"Done!" said Mr. Vanstone. "No: stop a minute! I won't do the lad's character the injustice of backing it at even money. I'll lay you five to one Frank turns up trumps in this business! You ought to be ashamed of yourself for talking of him as you do. What sort of hocus-pocus you bring it about by, I don't pretend to know; but you always end in making me take his part, as if I was his father instead of you. Ah yes! give you time, and you'll defend yourself. I won't give you time; I won't have any of your special pleading. Black's white according to you. I don't care: it's black for all that. You may talk nineteen to the dozen--I shall write to my friend and say Yes, in Frank's interests, by to-day's post."
Such were the circumstances under which Mr. Francis Clare departed for the north of England, at the age of seventeen, to start in life as a civil engineer.
From time to time, Mr. Vanstone's friend communicated with him on the subject of the new pupil. Frank was praised, as a quiet, gentleman-like, interesting lad--but he was also reported to be rather slow at acquiring the rudiments of engineering science. Other letters, later in date, described him as a little too ready to despond about himself; as having been sent away, on that account, to some new railway works, to see if change of scene would rouse him; and as having benefited in every respect by the experiment--except perhaps in regard to his professional studies, which still advanced but slowly. Subsequent communications announced his departure, under care of a trustworthy foreman, for some public works in Belgium; touched on the general benefit he appeared to derive from this new change; praised his excellent manners and address, which were of great assistance in facilitating business communications with the foreigners--and passed over in ominous silence the main question of his actual progress in the acquirement of knowledge. These reports, and many others which resembled them, were all conscientiously presented by Frank's friend to the attention of Frank's father. On each occasion, Mr. Clare exulted over Mr. Vanstone, and Mr. Vanstone quarreled with Mr. Clare. "One of these days you'll wish you hadn't laid that wager," said the cynic philosopher. "One of these days I shall have the blessed satisfaction of pocketing your guinea," cried the sanguine friend. Two years had then passed since Frank's departure. In one year more results asserted themselves, and settled the question.
Two days after Mr. Vanstone's return from London, he was called away from the breakfast-table before he had found time enough to look over his letters, delivered by the morning's post. Thrusting them into one of the pockets of his shooting-jacket, he took the letters out again, at one grasp, to read them when occasion served, later in the day. The grasp included the whole correspondence, with one exception--that exception being a final report from the civil engineer, which notified the termination of the connection between his pupil and himself, and the immediate return of Frank to his father's house.
While this important announcement lay unsuspected in Mr. Vanstone's pocket, the object of it was traveling home, as fast as railways could take him. At half-past ten at night, while Mr. Clare was sitting in studious solitude over his books and his green tea, with his favorite black cat to keep him company, he heard footsteps in the passage--the door opened--and Frank stood before him.
Ordinary men would have been astonished. But the philosopher's composure was not to be shaken by any such trifle as the unexpected return of his eldest son. He could not have looked up more calmly from his learned volume if Frank had been absent for three minutes instead of three years.
"Exactly what I predicted," said Mr. Clare. "Don't interrupt me by making explanations; and don't frighten the cat. If there is anything to eat in the kitchen, get it and go to bed. You can walk over to Combe-Raven tomorrow and give this message from me to Mr. Vanstone: 'Father's compliments, sir, and I have come back upon your hands like a bad shilling, as he always said I should. He keeps his own guinea, and takes your five; and he hopes you'll mind what he says to you another time.' That is the message. Shut the door after you. Good-night."
Under these unfavorable auspices, Mr. Francis Clare made his appearance the next morning in the grounds at Combe-Raven; and, something doubtful of the reception that might await him, slowly approached the precincts of the house.
It was not wonderful that Magdalen should have failed to recognize him when he first appeared in view. He had gone away a backward lad of seventeen; he returned a young man of twenty. His slim figure had now acquired strength and grace, and had increased in stature to the medium height. The small regular features, which he was supposed to have inherited from his mother, were rounded and filled out, without having lost their remarkable delicacy of form. His beard was still in its infancy; and nascent lines of whisker traced their modest way sparely down his cheeks. His gentle, wandering brown eyes would have looked to better advantage in a woman's face--they wanted spirit and firmness to fit them for the face of a man. His hands had the same wandering habit as his eyes; they were constantly changing from one position to another, constantly twisting and turning any little stray thing they could pick up. He was undeniably handsome, graceful, well-bred--but no close observer could look at him without suspecting that the stout old family stock had begun to wear out in the later generations, and that Mr. Francis Clare had more in him of the shadow of his ancestors than of the substance.
When the astonishment caused by his appearance had partially subsided, a search was instituted for the missing report. It was found in the remotest recesses of Mr. Vanstone's capacious pocket, and was read by that gentleman on the spot.
The plain facts, as stated by the engineer, were briefly these: Frank was not possessed of the necessary abilities to fit him for his new calling; and it was useless to waste time by keeping him any longer in an employment for which he had no vocation. This, after three years' trial, being the conviction on both sides, the master had thought it the most straightforward course for the pupil to go home and candidly place results before his father and his friends. In some other pursuit, for which he was more fit, and in which he could feel an interest, he would no doubt display the industry and perseverance which he had been too much discouraged to practice in the profession that he had now abandoned. Personally, he was liked by all who knew him; and his future prosperity was heartily desired by the many friends whom he had made in the North. Such was the substance of the report, and so it came to an end.
Many men would have thought the engineer's statement rather too carefully worded; and, suspecting him of trying to make the best of a bad case, would have entertained serious doubts on the subject of Frank's future. Mr. Vanstone was too easy-tempered and sanguine--and too anxious, as well, not to yield his old antagonist an inch more ground than he could help--to look at the letter from any such unfavorable point of view. Was it Frank's fault if he had not got the stuff in him that engineers were made of? Did no other young men ever begin life with a false start? Plenty began in that way, and got over it, and did wonders afterward. With these commentaries on the letter, the kind-hearted gentleman patted Frank on the shoulder. "Cheer up, my lad!" said Mr. Vanstone. "We will be even with your father one of these days, though he has won the wager this time!"
The example thus set by the master of the house was followed at once by the family--with the solitary exception of Norah, whose incurable formality and reserve expressed themselves, not too graciously, in her distant manner toward the visitor. The rest, led by Magdalen (who had been Frank's favorite playfellow in past times) glided back into their old easy habits with him without an effort. He was "Frank" with all of them but Norah, who persisted in addressing him as "Mr. Clare." Even the account he was now encouraged to give of the reception accorded to him by his father, on the previous night, failed to disturb Norah's gravity. She sat with her dark, handsome face steadily averted, her eyes cast down, and the rich color in her cheeks warmer and deeper than usual. All the rest, Miss Garth included, found old Mr. Clare's speech of welcome to his son quite irresistible. The noise and merriment were at their height when the servant came in, and struck the whole party dumb by the announcement of visitors in the drawing-room. "Mr. Marrable, Mrs. Marrable, and Miss Marrable; Evergreen Lodge, Clifton."
Norah rose as readily as if the new arrivals had been a relief to her mind. Mrs. Vanstone was the next to leave her chair. These two went away first, to receive the visitors. Magdalen, who preferred the society of her father and Frank, pleaded hard to be left behind; but Miss Garth, after granting five minutes' grace, took her into custody and marched her out of the room. Frank rose to take his leave.
"No, no," said Mr. Vanstone, detaining him. "Don't go. These people won't stop long. Mr. Marrable's a merchant at Bristol. I've met him once or twice, when the girls forced me to take them to parties at Clifton. Mere acquaintances, nothing more. Come and smoke a cigar in the greenhouse. Hang all visitors--they worry one's life out. I'll appear at the last moment with an apology; and you shall follow me at a safe distance, and be a proof that I was really engaged."
Proposing this ingenious stratagem in a confidential whisper, Mr. Vanstone took Frank's arm and led him round the house by the back way. The first ten minutes of seclusion in the conservatory passed without events of any kind. At the end of that time, a flying figure in bright garments flashed upon the two gentlemen through the glass--the door was flung open--flower-pots fell in homage to passing petticoats--and Mr. Vanstone's youngest daughter ran up to him at headlong speed, with every external appearance of having suddenly taken leave of her senses.
"Papa! the dream of my whole life is realized," she said, as soon as she could speak. "I shall fly through the roof of the greenhouse if somebody doesn't hold me down. The Marrables have come here with an invitation. Guess, you darling--guess what they're going to give at Evergreen Lodge!"
"A ball!" said Mr. Vanstone, without a moment's hesitation.
"Private Theatricals!!!" cried Magdalen, her clear young voice ringing through the conservatory like a bell; her loose sleeves falling back and showing her round white arms to the dimpled elbows, as she clapped her hands ecstatically in the air. "'The Rivals' is the play, papa--'The Rivals,' by the famous what's-his-name--and they want ME to act! The one thing in the whole universe that I long to do most. It all depends on you. Mamma shakes her head; and Miss Garth looks daggers; and Norah's as sulky as usual--but if you say Yes, they must all three give way and let me do as I like. Say Yes," she pleaded, nestling softly up to her father, and pressing her lips with a fond gentleness to his ear, as she whispered the next words. "Say Yes, and I'll be a good girl for the rest of my life."
"A good girl?" repeated Mr. Vanstone--"a mad girl, I think you must mean. Hang these people and their theatricals! I shall have to go indoors and see about this matter. You needn't throw away your cigar, Frank. You're well out of the business, and you can stop here."
"No, he can't," said Magdalen. "He's in the business, too."
Mr. Francis Clare had hitherto remained modestly in the background. He now came forward with a face expressive of speechless amazement.
"Yes," continued Magdalen, answering his blank look of inquiry with perfect composure. "You are to act. Miss Marrable and I have a turn for business, and we settled it all in five minutes. There are two parts in the play left to be filled. One is Lucy, the waiting-maid; which is the character I have undertaken--with papa's permission," she added, slyly pinching her father's arm; "and he won't say No, will he? First, because he's a darling; secondly, because I love him, and he loves me; thirdly, because there is never any difference of opinion between us (is there?); fourthly, because I give him a kiss, which naturally stops his mouth and settles the whole question. Dear me, I'm wandering. Where was I just now? Oh yes! explaining myself to Frank--"
"I beg your pardon," began Frank, attempting, at this point, to enter his protest.
"The second character in the play," pursued Magdalen, without taking the smallest notice of the protest, "is Falkland--a jealous lover, with a fine flow of language. Miss Marrable and I discussed Falkland privately on the window-seat while the rest were talking. She is a delightful girl--so impulsive, so sensible, so entirely unaffected. She confided in me. She said: 'One of our miseries is that we can't find a gentleman who will grapple with the hideous difficulties of Falkland.' Of course I soothed her. Of course I said: 'I've got the gentleman, and he shall grapple immediately.'--'Oh heavens! who is he?'--'Mr. Francis Clare.'--'And where is he?'--'In the house at this moment.'--'Will you be so very charming, Miss Vanstone, as to fetch him?'--'I'll fetch him, Miss Marrable, with the greatest pleasure.' I left the window-seat--I rushed into the morning-room--I smelled cigars--I followed the smell--and here I am."
"It's a compliment, I know, to be asked to act," said Frank, in great embarrassment. "But I hope you and Miss Marrable will excuse me--"
"Certainly not. Miss Marrable and I are both remarkable for the firmness of our characters. When we say Mr. So-and-So is positively to act the part of Falkland, we positively mean it. Come in and be introduced."
"But I never tried to act. I don't know how."
"Not of the slightest consequence. If you don't know how, come to me and I'll teach you."
"You!" exclaimed Mr. Vanstone. "What do you know about it?"
"Pray, papa, be serious! I have the strongest internal conviction that I could act every character in the play--Falkland included. Don't let me have to speak a second time, Frank. Come and be introduced."
She took her father's arm, and moved on with him to the door of the greenhouse. At the steps, she turned and looked round to see if Frank was following her. It was only the action of a moment; but in that moment her natural firmness of will rallied all its resources--strengthened itself with the influence of her beauty--commanded--and conquered. She looked lovely: the flush was tenderly bright in her cheeks; the radiant pleasure shone and sparkled in her eyes; the position of her figure, turned suddenly from the waist upward, disclosed its delicate strength, its supple firmness, its seductive, serpentine grace. "Come!" she said, with a coquettish beckoning action of her head. "Come, Frank!"
Few men of forty would have resisted her at that moment. Frank was twenty last birthday. In other words, he threw aside his cigar, and followed her out of the greenhouse.
As he turned and closed the door--in the instant when he lost sight of her--his disinclination to be associated with the private theatricals revived. At the foot of the house-steps he stopped again; plucked a twig from a plant near him; broke it in his hand; and looked about him uneasily, on this side and on that. The path to the left led back to his father's cottage--the way of escape lay open. Why not take it?
While he still hesitated, Mr. Vanstone and his daughter reached the top of the steps. Once more, Magdalen looked round--looked with her resistless beauty, with her all-conquering smile. She beckoned again; and again he followed her--up the steps, and over the threshold. The door closed on them.
So, with a trifling gesture of invitation on one side, with a trifling act of compliance on the other: so--with no knowledge in his mind, with no thought in hers, of the secret still hidden under the journey to London--they took the way which led to that secret's discovery, through many a darker winding that was yet to come.
MR. VANSTONE'S inquiries into the proposed theatrical entertainment at Evergreen Lodge were answered by a narrative of dramatic disasters; of which Miss Marrable impersonated the innocent cause, and in which her father and mother played the parts of chief victims.
Miss Marrable was that hardest of all born tyrants--an only child. She had never granted a constitutional privilege to her oppressed father and mother since the time when she cut her first tooth. Her seventeenth birthday was now near at hand; she had decided on celebrating it by acting a play; had issued her orders accordingly; and had been obeyed by her docile parents as implicitly as usual. Mrs. Marrable gave up the drawing-room to be laid waste for a stage and a theater. Mr. Marrable secured the services of a respectable professional person to drill the young ladies and gentlemen, and to accept all the other responsibilities incidental to creating a dramatic world out of a domestic chaos. Having further accustomed themselves to the breaking of furniture and the staining of walls--to thumping, tumbling, hammering, and screaming; to doors always banging, and to footsteps perpetually running up and down stairs--the nominal master and mistress of the house fondly believed that their chief troubles were over. Innocent and fatal delusion! It is one thing in private society to set up the stage and choose the play--it is another thing altogether to find the actors. Hitherto, only the small preliminary annoyances proper to the occasion had shown themselves at Evergreen Lodge. The sound and serious troubles were all to come.
"The Rivals" having been chosen as the play, Miss Marrable, as a matter of course, appropriated to herself the part of "Lydia Languish." One of her favored swains next secured "Captain Absolute," and another laid violent hands on "Sir Lucius O'Trigger." These two were followed by an accommodating spinster relative, who accepted the heavy dramatic responsibility of "Mrs. Malaprop"--and there the theatrical proceedings came to a pause. Nine more speaking characters were left to be fitted with representatives; and with that unavoidable necessity the serious troubles began.
All the friends of the family suddenly became unreliable people, for the first time in their lives. After encouraging the idea of the play, they declined the personal sacrifice of acting in it--or, they accepted characters, and then broke down in the effort to study them--or they volunteered to take the parts which they knew were already engaged, and declined the parts which were waiting to be acted--or they were afflicted with weak constitutions, and mischievously fell ill when they were wanted at rehearsal--or they had Puritan relatives in the background, and, after slipping into their parts cheerfully at the week's beginning, oozed out of them penitently, under serious family pressure, at the week's end. Meanwhile, the carpenters hammered and the scenes rose. Miss Marrable, whose temperament was sensitive, became hysterical under the strain of perpetual anxiety; the family doctor declined to answer for the nervous consequences if something was not done. Renewed efforts were made in every direction. Actors and actresses were sought with a desperate disregard of all considerations of personal fitness. Necessity, which knows no law, either in the drama or out of it, accepted a lad of eighteen as the representative of "Sir Anthony Absolute"; the stage-manager undertaking to supply the necessary wrinkles from the illimitable resources of theatrical art. A lady whose age was unknown, and whose personal appearance was stout--but whose heart was in the right place--volunteered to act the part of the sentimental "Julia," and brought with her the dramatic qualification of habitually wearing a wig in private life. Thanks to these vigorous measures, the play was at last supplied with representatives--always excepting the two unmanageable characters of "Lucy" the waiting-maid, and "Falkland," Julia's jealous lover. Gentlemen came; saw Julia at rehearsal; observed her stoutness and her wig; omitted to notice that her heart was in the right place; quailed at the prospect, apologized, and retired. Ladies read the part of "Lucy"; remarked that she appeared to great advantage in the first half of the play, and faded out of it altogether in the latter half; objected to pass from the notice of the audience in that manner, when all the rest had a chance of distinguishing themselves to the end; shut up the book, apologized, and retired. In eight days more the night of performance would arrive; a phalanx of social martyrs two hundred strong had been convened to witness it; three full rehearsals were absolutely necessary; and two characters in the play were not filled yet. With this lamentable story, and with the humblest apologies for presuming on a slight acquaintance, the Marrables appeared at Combe-Raven, to appeal to the young ladies for a "Lucy," and to the universe for a "Falkland," with the mendicant pertinacity of a family in despair.
This statement of circumstances--addressed to an audience which included a father of Mr. Vanstone's disposition, and a daughter of Magdalen's temperament--produced the result which might have been anticipated from the first.
Either misinterpreting, or disregarding, the ominous silence preserved by his wife and Miss Garth, Mr. Vanstone not only gave Magdalen permission to assist the forlorn dramatic company, but accepted an invitation to witness the performance for Norah and himself. Mrs. Vanstone declined accompanying them on account of her health; and Miss Garth only engaged to make one among the audience conditionally on not being wanted at home. The "parts" of "Lucy" and "Falkland" (which the distressed family carried about with them everywhere, like incidental maladies) were handed to their representatives on the spot. Frank's faint remonstrances were rejected without a hearing; the days and hours of rehearsal were carefully noted down on the covers of the parts; and the Marrables took their leave, with a perfect explosion of thanks--father, mother, and daughter sowing their expressions of gratitude broadcast, from the drawing-room door to the garden-gates.
As soon as the carriage had driven away, Magdalen presented herself to the general observation under an entirely new aspect.
"If any more visitors call to-day," she said, with the profoundest gravity of look and manner, "I am not at home. This is a far more serious matter than any of you suppose. Go somewhere by yourself, Frank, and read over your part, and don't let your attention wander if you can possibly help it. I shall not be accessible before the evening. If you will come here--with papa's permission--after tea, my views on the subject of Falkland will be at your disposal. Thomas! whatever else the gardener does, he is not to make any floricultural noises under my window. For the rest of the afternoon I shall be immersed in study--and the quieter the house is, the more obliged I shall feel to everybody."
Before Miss Garth's battery of reproof could open fire, before the first outburst of Mr. Vanstone's hearty laughter could escape his lips, she bowed to them with imperturbable gravity; ascended the house-steps, for the first time in her life, at a walk instead of a run, and retired then and there to the bedroom regions. Frank's helpless astonishment at her disappearance added a new element of absurdity to the scene. He stood first on one leg and then on the other; rolling and unrolling his part, and looking piteously in the faces of the friends about him. "I know I can't do it," he said. "May I come in after tea, and hear Magdalen's views? Thank you--I'll look in about eight. Don't tell my father about this acting, please; I should never hear the last of it." Those were the only words he had spirit enough to utter. He drifted away aimlessly in the direction of the shrubbery, with the part hanging open in his hand--the most incapable of Falklands, and the most helpless of mankind.
Frank's departure left the family by themselves, and was the signal accordingly for an attack on Mr. Vanstone's inveterate carelessness in the exercise of his paternal authority.
"What could you possibly be thinking of, Andrew, when you gave your consent?" said Mrs. Vanstone. "Surely my silence was a sufficient warning to you to say No?"
"A mistake, Mr. Vanstone," chimed in Miss Garth. "Made with the best intentions--but a mistake for all that."
"It may be a mistake," said Norah, taking her father's part, as usual. "But I really don't see how papa, or any one else, could have declined, under the circumstances."
"Quite right, my dear," observed Mr. Vanstone. "The circumstances, as you say, were dead against me. Here were these unfortunate people in a scrape on one side; and Magdalen, on the other, mad to act. I couldn't say I had methodistical objections--I've nothing methodistical about me. What other excuse could I make? The Marrables are respectable people, and keep the best company in Clifton. What harm can she get in their house? If you come to prudence and that sort of thing--why shouldn't Magdalen do what Miss Marrable does? There! there! let the poor things act, and amuse themselves. We were their age once--and it's no use making a fuss--and that's all I've got to say about it."
With that characteristic defense of his own conduct, Mr. Vanstone sauntered back to the greenhouse to smoke another cigar.
"I didn't say so to papa," said Norah, taking her mother's arm on the way back to the house, "but the bad result of the acting, in my opinion, will be the familiarity it is sure to encourage between Magdalen and Francis Clare."
"You are prejudiced against Frank, my love," said Mrs. Vanstone.
Norah's soft, secret, hazel eyes sank to the ground; she said no more. Her opinions were unchangeable--but she never disputed with anybody. She had the great failing of a reserved nature--the failing of obstinacy; and the great merit--the merit of silence. "What is your head running on now?" thought Miss Garth, casting a sharp look at Norah's dark, downcast face. "You're one of the impenetrable sort. Give me Magdalen, with all her perversities; I can see daylight through her. You're as dark as night."
The hours of the afternoon passed away, and still Magdalen remained shut up in her own room. No restless footsteps pattered on the stairs; no nimble tongue was heard chattering here, there, and everywhere, from the garret to the kitchen--the house seemed hardly like itself, with the one ever-disturbing element in the family serenity suddenly withdrawn from it. Anxious to witness with her own eyes the reality of a transformation in which past experience still inclined her to disbelieve, Miss Garth ascended to Magdalen's room, knocked twice at the door, received no answer, opened it and looked in.
There sat Magdalen, in an arm-chair before the long looking-glass, with all her hair let down over her shoulders; absorbed in the study of her part and comfortably arrayed in her morning wrapper, until it was time to dress for dinner. And there behind her sat the lady's-maid, slowly combing out the long heavy locks of her young mistress's hair, with the sleepy resignation of a woman who had been engaged in that employment for some hours past. The sun was shining; and the green shutters outside the window were closed. The dim light fell tenderly on the two quiet seated figures; on the little white bed, with the knots of rose-colored ribbon which looped up its curtains, and the bright dress for dinner laid ready across it; on the gayly painted bath, with its pure lining of white enamel; on the toilet-table with its sparkling trinkets, its crystal bottles, its silver bell with Cupid for a handle, its litter of little luxuries that adorn the shrine of a woman's bed-chamber. The luxurious tranquillity of the scene; the cool fragrance of flowers and perfumes in the atmosphere; the rapt attitude of Magdalen, absorbed over her reading; the monotonous regularity of movement in the maid's hand and arm, as she drew the comb smoothly through and through her mistress's hair--all conveyed the same soothing impression of drowsy, delicious quiet. On one side of the door were the broad daylight and the familiar realities of life. On the other was the dream-land of Elysian serenity--the sanctuary of unruffled repose.
Miss Garth paused on the threshold, and looked into the room in silence.
Magdalen's curious fancy for having her hair combed at all times and seasons was among the peculiarities of her character which were notorious to everybody in the house. It was one of her father's favorite jokes that she reminded him, on such occasions, of a cat having her back stroked, and that he always expected, if the combing were only continued long enough, to hear her purr. Extravagant as it may seem, the comparison was not altogether inappropriate. The girl's fervid temperament intensified the essentially feminine pleasure that most women feel in the passage of the comb through their hair, to a luxury of sensation which absorbed her in enjoyment, so serenely self-demonstrative, so drowsily deep that it did irresistibly suggest a pet cat's enjoyment under a caressing hand. Intimately as Miss Garth was acquainted with this peculiarity in her pupil, she now saw it asserting itself for the first time, in association with mental exertion of any kind on Magdalen's part. Feeling, therefore, some curiosity to know how long the combing and the studying had gone on together, she ventured on putting the question, first to the mistress; and (receiving no answer in that quarter) secondly to the maid.
"All the afternoon, miss, off and on," was the weary answer. "Miss Magdalen says it soothes her feelings and clears her mind."
Knowing by experience that interference would be hopeless, under these circumstances, Miss Garth turned sharply and left the room. She smiled when she was outside on the landing. The female mind does occasionally--though not often--project itself into the future. Miss Garth was prophetically pitying Magdalen's unfortunate husband.
Dinner-time presented the fair student to the family eye in the same mentally absorbed aspect. On all ordinary occasions Magdalen's appetite would have terrified those feeble sentimentalists who affect to ignore the all-important influence which female feeding exerts in the production of female beauty. On this occasion she refused one dish after another with a resolution which implied the rarest of all modern martyrdoms--gastric martyrdom. "I have conceived the part of Lucy," she observed, with the demurest gravity. "The next difficulty is to make Frank conceive the part of Falkland. I see nothing to laugh at--you would all be serious enough if you had my responsibilities. No, papa--no wine to-day, thank you. I must keep my intelligence clear. Water, Thomas--and a little more jelly, I think, before you take it away."
When Frank presented himself in the evening, ignorant of the first elements of his part, she took him in hand, as a middle-aged schoolmistress might have taken in hand a backward little boy. The few attempts he made to vary the sternly practical nature of the evening's occupation by slipping in compliments sidelong she put away from her with the contemptuous self-possession of a woman of twice her age. She literally forced him into his part. Her father fell asleep in his chair. Mrs. Vanstone and Miss Garth lost their interest in the proceedings, retired to the further end of the room, and spoke together in whispers. It grew later and later; and still Magdalen never flinched from her task--still, with equal perseverance, Norah, who had been on the watch all through the evening, kept on the watch to the end. The distrust darkened and darkened on her face as she looked at her sister and Frank; as she saw how close they sat together, devoted to the same interest and working to the same end. The clock on the mantel-piece pointed to half-past eleven before Lucy the resolute permitted Falkland the helpless to shut up his task-book for the night. "She's wonderfully clever, isn't she?" said Frank, taking leave of Mr. Vanstone at the hall door. "I'm to come to-morrow, and hear more of her views--if you have no objection. I shall never do it; don't tell her I said so. As fast as she teaches me one speech, the other goes out of my head. Discouraging, isn't it? Goodnight."
The next day but one was the day of the first full rehearsal. On the previous evening Mrs. Vanstone's spirits had been sadly depressed. At a private interview with Miss Garth she had referred again, of her own accord, to the subject of her letter from London--had spoken self-reproachfully of her weakness in admitting Captain Wragge's impudent claim to a family connection with her--and had then reverted to the state of her health and to the doubtful prospect that awaited her in the coming summer in a tone of despondency which it was very distressing to hear. Anxious to cheer her spirits, Miss Garth had changed the conversation as soon as possible--had referred to the approaching theatrical performance--and had relieved Mrs. Vanstone's mind of all anxiety in that direction, by announcing her intention of accompanying Magdalen to each rehearsal, and of not losing sight of her until she was safely back again in her father's house. Accordingly, when Frank presented himself at Combe-Raven on the eventful morning, there stood Miss Garth, prepared--in the interpolated character of Argus--to accompany Lucy and Falkland to the scene of trial. The railway conveyed the three, in excellent time, to Evergreen Lodge; and at one o'clock the rehearsal began.
"I HOPE Miss Vanstone knows her part?" whispered Mrs. Marrable, anxiously addressing herself to Miss Garth, in a corner of the theater.
"If airs and graces make an actress, ma'am, Magdalen's performance will astonish us all." With that reply, Miss Garth took out her work, and seated herself, on guard, in the center of the pit.
The manager perched himself, book in hand, on a stool close in front of the stage. He was an active little man, of a sweet and cheerful temper; and he gave the signal to begin with as patient an interest in the proceedings as if they had caused him no trouble in the past and promised him no difficulty in the future. The two characters which opened the comedy of The Rivals, "Fag" and "The Coachman," appeared on the scene--looked many sizes too tall for their canvas background, which represented a "Street in Bath"--exhibited the customary inability to manage their own arms, legs, and voices--went out severally at the wrong exits--and expressed their perfect approval of results, so far, by laughing heartily behind the scenes. "Silence, gentlemen, if you please," remonstrated the cheerful manager. "As loud as you like on the stage, but the audience mustn't hear you off it. Miss Marrable ready? Miss Vanstone ready? Easy there with the 'Street in Bath'; it's going up crooked! Face this way, Miss Marrable; full face, if you please. Miss Vanstone--" he checked himself suddenly. "Curious," he said, under his breath--"she fronts the audience of her own accord!" Lucy opened the scene in these words: "Indeed, ma'am, I traversed half the town in search of it: I don't believe there's a circulating library in Bath I haven't been at." The manager started in his chair. "My heart alive! she speaks out without telling!" The dialogue went on. Lucy produced the novels for Miss Lydia Languish's private reading from under her cloak. The manager rose excitably to his feet. Marvelous! No hurry with the books; no dropping them. She looked at the titles before she announced them to her mistress; she set down "Humphrey Clinker" on "The Tears of Sensibility" with a smart little smack which pointed the antithesis. One moment--and she announced Julia's visit; another--and she dropped the brisk waiting-maid's courtesy; a third--and she was off the stage on the side set down for her in the book. The manager wheeled round on his stool, and looked hard at Miss Garth. "I beg your pardon, ma'am," he said. "Miss Marrable told me, before we began, that this was the young lady's first attempt. It can't be, surely!"
"It is," replied Miss Garth, reflecting the manager's look of amazement on her own face. Was it possible that Magdalen's unintelligible industry in the study of her part really sprang from a serious interest in her occupation--an interest which implied a natural fitness for it.
The rehearsal went on. The stout lady with the wig (and the excellent heart) personated the sentimental Julia from an inveterately tragic point of view, and used her handkerchief distractedly in the first scene. The spinster relative felt Mrs. Malaprop's mistakes in language so seriously, and took such extraordinary pains with her blunders, that they sounded more like exercises in elocution than anything else. The unhappy lad who led the forlorn hope of the company, in the person of "Sir Anthony Absolute," expressed the age and irascibility of his character by tottering incessantly at the knees, and thumping the stage perpetually with his stick. Slowly and clumsily, with constant interruptions and interminable mistakes, the first act dragged on, until Lucy appeared again to end it in soliloquy, with the confession of her assumed simplicity and the praise of her own cunning.
Here the stage artifice of the situation presented difficulties which Magdalen had not encountered in the first scene--and here, her total want of experience led her into more than one palpable mistake. The stage-manager, with an eagerness which he had not shown in the case of any other member of the company, interfered immediately, and set her right. At one point she was to pause, and take a turn on the stage--she did it. At another, she was to stop, toss her head, and look pertly at the audience--she did it. When she took out the paper to read the list of the presents she had received, could she give it a tap with her finger (Yes)? And lead off with a little laugh (Yes--after twice trying)? Could she read the different items with a sly look at the end of each sentence, straight at the pit (Yes, straight at the pit, and as sly as you please)? The manager's cheerful face beamed with approval. He tucked the play under his arm, and clapped his hands gayly; the gentlemen, clustered together behind the scenes, followed his example; the ladies looked at each other with dawning doubts whether they had not better have left the new recruit in the retirement of private life. Too deeply absorbed in the business of the stage to heed any of them, Magdalen asked leave to repeat the soliloquy, and make quite sure of her own improvement. She went all through it again without a mistake, this time, from beginning to end; the manager celebrating her attention to his directions by an outburst of professional approbation, which escaped him in spite of himself. "She can take a hint!" cried the little man, with a hearty smack of his hand on the prompt-book. "She's a born actress, if ever there was one yet!"
"I hope not," said Miss Garth to herself, taking up the work which had dropped into her lap, and looking down at it in some perplexity. Her worst apprehension of results in connection with the theatrical enterprise had foreboded levity of conduct with some of the gentlemen--she had not bargained for this. Magdalen, in the capacity of a thoughtless girl, was comparatively easy to deal with. Magdalen, in the character of a born actress, threatened serious future difficulties.
The rehearsal proceeded. Lucy returned to the stage for her scenes in the second act (the last in which she appears) with Sir Lucius and Fag. Here, again, Magdalen's inexperience betrayed itself--and here once more her resolution in attacking and conquering her own mistakes astonished everybody. "Bravo!" cried the gentlemen behind the scenes, as she steadily trampled down one blunder after another. "Ridiculous!" said the ladies, "with such a small part as hers." "Heaven forgive me!" thought Miss. Garth, coming round unwillingly to the general opinion. "I almost wish we were Papists, and I had a convent to put her in to-morrow." One of Mr. Marrable's servants entered the theater as that desperate aspiration escaped the governess. She instantly sent the man behind the scene with a message: "Miss Vanstone has done her part in the rehearsal; request her to come here and sit by me." The servant returned with a polite apology: "Miss Vanstone's kind love, and she begs to be excused--she's prompting Mr. Clare." She prompted him to such purpose that he actually got through his part. The performances of the other gentlemen were obtrusively imbecile. Frank was just one degree better--he was modestly incapable; and he gained by comparison. "Thanks to Miss Vanstone," observed the manager, who had heard the prompting. "She pulled him through. We shall be flat enough at night, when the drop falls on the second act, and the audience have seen the last of her. It's a thousand pities she hasn't got a better part!"
"It's a thousand mercies she's no more to do than she has," muttered Miss Garth, overhearing him. "As things are, the people can't well turn her head with applause. She's out of the play in the second act--that's one comfort!"
No well-regulated mind ever draws its inferences in a hurry; Miss Garth's mind was well regulated; therefore, logically speaking, Miss Garth ought to have been superior to the weakness of rushing at conclusions. She had committed that error, nevertheless, under present circumstances. In plainer terms, the consoling reflection which had just occurred to her assumed that the play had by this time survived all its disasters, and entered on its long-deferred career of success. The play had done nothing of the sort. Misfortune and the Marrable family had not parted company yet.
When the rehearsal was over, nobody observed that the stout lady with the wig privately withdrew herself from the company; and when she was afterward missed from the table of refreshments, which Mr. Marrable's hospitality kept ready spread in a room near the theater, nobody imagined that there was any serious reason for her absence. It was not till the ladies and gentlemen assembled for the next rehearsal that the true state of the case was impressed on the minds of the company. At the appointed hour no Julia appeared. In her stead, Mrs. Marrable portentously approached the stage, with an open letter in her hand. She was naturally a lady of the mildest good breeding: she was mistress of every bland conventionality in the English language--but disasters and dramatic influences combined, threw even this harmless matron off her balance at last. For the first time in her life Mrs. Marrable indulged in vehement gesture, and used strong language. She handed the letter sternly, at arms-length, to her daughter. "My dear," she said, with an aspect of awful composure, "we are under a Curse." Before the amazed dramatic company could petition for an explanation, she turned and left the room. The manager's professional eye followed her out respectfully--he looked as if he approved of the exit, from a theatrical point of view.
What new misfortune had befallen the play? The last and worst of all misfortunes had assailed it. The stout lady had resigned her part.
Not maliciously. Her heart, which had been in the right place throughout, remained inflexibly in the right place still. Her explanation of the circumstances proved this, if nothing else did. The letter began with a statement: She had overheard, at the last rehearsal (quite unintentionally), personal remarks of which she was the subject. They might, or might not, have had reference to her--Hair; and her--Figure. She would not distress Mrs. Marrable by repeating them. Neither would she mention names, because it was foreign to her nature to make bad worse. The only course at all consistent with her own self-respect was to resign her part. She inclosed it, accordingly, to Mrs. Marrable, with many apologies for her presumption in undertaking a youthful character, at--what a gentleman was pleased to term--her Age; and with what two ladies were rude enough to characterize as her disadvantages of--Hair, and--Figure. A younger and more attractive representative of Julia would no doubt be easily found. In the meantime, all persons concerned had her full forgiveness, to which she would only beg leave to add her best and kindest wishes for the success of the play.
In four nights more the play was to be performed. If ever any human enterprise stood in need of good wishes to help it, that enterprise was unquestionably the theatrical entertainment at Evergreen Lodge!
One arm-chair was allowed on the stage; and into that arm-chair Miss Marrable sank, preparatory to a fit of hysterics. Magdalen stepped forward at the first convulsion; snatched the letter from Miss Marrable's hand; and stopped the threatened catastrophe.
"She's an ugly, bald-headed, malicious, middle-aged wretch!" said Magdalen, tearing the letter into fragments, and tossing them over the heads of the company. "But I can tell her one thing--she shan't spoil the play. I'll act Julia."
"Bravo!" cried the chorus of gentlemen--the anonymous gentleman who had helped to do the mischief (otherwise Mr. Francis Clare) loudest of all.
"If you want the truth, I don't shrink from owning it," continued Magdalen. "I'm one of the ladies she means. I said she had a head like a mop, and a waist like a bolster. So she has."
"I am the other lady," added the spinster relative. "But I only said she was too stout for the part."
"I am the gentleman," chimed in Frank, stimulated by the force of example. "I said nothing--I only agreed with the ladies."
Here Miss Garth seized her opportunity, and addressed the stage loudly from the pit.
"Stop! Stop!" she said. "You can't settle the difficulty that way. If Magdalen plays Julia, who is to play Lucy?"
Miss Marrable sank back in the arm-chair, and gave way to the second convulsion.
"Stuff and nonsense!" cried Magdalen, "the thing's simple enough, I'll act Julia and Lucy both together."
The manager was consulted on the spot. Suppressing Lucy's first entrance, and turning the short dialogue about the novels into a soliloquy for Lydia Languish, appeared to be the only changes of importance necessary to the accomplishment of Magdalen's project. Lucy's two telling scenes, at the end of the first and second acts, were sufficiently removed from the scenes in which Julia appeared to give time for the necessary transformations in dress. Even Miss Garth, though she tried hard to find them, could put no fresh obstacles in the way. The question was settled in five minutes, and the rehearsal went on; Magdalen learning Julia's stage situations with the book in her hand, and announcing afterward, on the journey home, that she proposed sitting up all night to study the new part. Frank thereupon expressed his fears that she would have no time left to help him through his theatrical difficulties. She tapped him on the shoulder coquettishly with her part. "You foolish fellow, how am I to do without you? You're Julia's jealous lover; you're always making Julia cry. Come to-night, and make me cry at tea-time. You haven't got a venomous old woman in a wig to act with now. It's my heart you're to break--and of course I shall teach you how to do it."
The four days' interval passed busily in perpetual rehearsals, public and private. The night of performance arrived; the guests assembled; the great dramatic experiment stood on its trial. Magdalen had made the most of her opportunities; she had learned all that the manager could teach her in the time. Miss Garth left her when the overture began, sitting apart in a corner behind the scenes, serious and silent, with her smelling-bottle in one hand, and her book in the other, resolutely training herself for the coming ordeal, to the very last.
The play began, with all the proper accompaniments of a theatrical performance in private life; with a crowded audience, an African temperature, a bursting of heated lamp-glasses, and a difficulty in drawing up the curtain. "Fag" and "the Coachman," who opened the scene, took leave of their memories as soon as they stepped on the stage; left half their dialogue unspoken; came to a dead pause; were audibly entreated by the invisible manager to "come off"; and went off accordingly, in every respect sadder and wiser men than when they went on. The next scene disclosed Miss Marrable as "Lydia Languish," gracefully seated, very pretty, beautifully dressed, accurately mistress of the smallest words in her part; possessed, in short, of every personal resource--except her voice. The ladies admired, the gentlemen applauded. Nobody heard anything but the words "Speak up, miss," whispered by the same voice which had already entreated "Fag" and "the Coachman" to "come off." A responsive titter rose among the younger spectators; checked immediately by magnanimous applause. The temperature of the audience was rising to Blood Heat--but the national sense of fair play was not boiled out of them yet.
In the midst of the demonstration, Magdalen quietly made her first entrance, as "Julia." She was dressed very plainly in dark colors, and wore her own hair; all stage adjuncts and alterations (excepting the slightest possible touch of rouge on her cheeks) having been kept in reserve to disguise her the more effectually in her second part. The grace and simplicity of her costume, the steady self-possession with which she looked out over the eager rows of faces before her, raised a low hum of approval and expectation. She spoke--after suppressing a momentary tremor--with a quiet distinctness of utterance which reached all ears, and which at once confirmed the favorable impression that her appearance had produced. The one member of the audience who looked at her and listened to her coldly, was her elder sister. Before the actress of the evening had been five minutes on the stage, Norah detected, to her own indescribable astonishment, that Magdalen had audaciously individualized the feeble amiability of "Julia's" character, by seizing no less a person than herself as the model to act it by. She saw all her own little formal peculiarities of manner and movement unblushingly reproduced--and even the very tone of her voice so accurately mimicked from time to time, that the accents startled her as if she was speaking herself, with an echo on the stage. The effect of this cool appropriation of Norah's identity to theatrical purposes on the audience--who only saw results--asserted itself in a storm of applause on Magdalen's exit. She had won two incontestable triumphs in her first scene. By a dexterous piece of mimicry, she had made a living reality of one of the most insipid characters in the English drama; and she had roused to enthusiasm an audience of two hundred exiles from the blessings of ventilation, all simmering together in their own animal heat. Under the circumstances, where is the actress by profession who could have done much more?
But the event of the evening was still to come. Magdalen's disguised re-appearance at the end of the act, in the character of "Lucy"--with false hair and false eyebrows, with a bright-red complexion and patches on her cheeks, with the gayest colors flaunting in her dress, and the shrillest vivacity of voice and manner--fairly staggered the audience. They looked down at their programmes, in which the representative of Lucy figured under an assumed name; looked up again at the stage; penetrated the disguise; and vented their astonishment in another round of applause, louder and heartier even than the last. Norah herself could not deny this time that the tribute of approbation had been well deserved. There, forcing its way steadily through all the faults of inexperience--there, plainly visible to the dullest of the spectators, was the rare faculty of dramatic impersonation, expressing itself in every look and action of this girl of eighteen, who now stood on a stage for the first time in her life. Failing in many minor requisites of the double task which she had undertaken, she succeeded in the one important necessity of keeping the main distinctions of the two characters thoroughly apart. Everybody felt that the difficulty lay here--everybody saw the difficulty conquered--everybody echoed the manager's enthusiasm at rehearsal, which had hailed her as a born actress.
When the drop-scene descended for the first time, Magdalen had concentrated in herself the whole interest and attraction of the play. The audience politely applauded Miss Marrable, as became the guests assembled in her father's house: and good-humoredly encouraged the remainder of the company, to help them through a task for which they were all, more or less, palpably unfit. But, as the play proceeded, nothing roused them to any genuine expression of interest when Magdalen was absent from the scene. There was no disguising it: Miss Marrable and her bosom friends had been all hopelessly cast in the shade by the new recruit whom they had summoned to assist them, in the capacity of forlorn hope. And this on Miss Marrable's own birthday! and this in her father's house! and this after the unutterable sacrifices of six weeks past! Of all the domestic disasters which the thankless theatrical enterprise had inflicted on the Marrable family, the crowning misfortune was now consummated by Magdalen's success.
Leaving Mr. Vanstone and Norah, on the conclusion of the play, among the guests in the supper-room, Miss Garth went behind the scenes; ostensibly anxious to see if she could be of any use; really bent on ascertaining whether Magdalen's head had been turned by the triumphs of the evening. It would not have surprised Miss Garth if she had discovered her pupil in the act of making terms with the manager for her forthcoming appearance in a public theater. As events really turned out, she found Magdalen on the stage, receiving, with gracious smiles, a card which the manager presented to her with a professional bow. Noticing Miss Garth's mute look of inquiry, the civil little man hastened to explain that the card was his own, and that he was merely asking the favor of Miss Vanstone's recommendation at any future opportunity.
"This is not the last time the young lady will be concerned in private theatricals, I'll answer for it," said the manager. "And if a superintendent is wanted on the next occasion, she has kindly promised to say a good word for me. I am always to be heard of, miss, at that address." Saying those words, he bowed again, and discreetly disappeared.
Vague suspicions beset the mind of Miss Garth, and urged her to insist on looking at the card. No more harmless morsel of pasteboard was ever passed from one hand to another. The card contained nothing but the manager's name, and, under it, the name and address of a theatrical agent in London.
"It is not worth the trouble of keeping," said Miss Garth.
Magdalen caught her hand before she could throw the card away--possessed herself of it the next instant--and put it in her pocket.
"I promised to recommend him," she said--"and that's one reason for keeping his card. If it does nothing else, it will remind me of the happiest evening of my life--and that's another. Come!" she cried, throwing her arms round Miss Garth with a feverish gayety--"congratulate me on my success!"
"I will congratulate you when you have got over it," said Miss Garth.
In half an hour more Magdalen had changed her dress; had joined the guests; and had soared into an atmosphere of congratulation high above the reach of any controlling influence that Miss Garth could exercise. Frank, dilatory in all his proceedings, was the last of the dramatic company who left the precincts of the stage. He made no attempt to join Magdalen in the supper-room--but he was ready in the hall with her cloak when the carriages were called and the party broke up.
"Oh, Frank!" she said, looking round at him as he put the cloak on her shoulders, "I am so sorry it's all over! Come to-morrow morning, and let's talk about it by ourselves."
"In the shrubbery at ten?" asked Frank, in a whisper.
She drew up the hood of her cloak and nodded to him gayly. Miss Garth, standing near, noticed the looks that passed between them, though the disturbance made by the parting guests prevented her from hearing the words. There was a soft, underlying tenderness in Magdalen's assumed gayety of manner--there was a sudden thoughtfulness in her face, a confidential readiness in her hand, as she took Frank's arm and went out to the carriage. What did it mean? Had her passing interest in him as her stage-pupil treacherously sown the seeds of any deeper interest in him, as a man? Had the idle theatrical scheme, now that it was all over, graver results to answer for than a mischievous waste of time?
The lines on Miss Garth's face deepened and hardened: she stood lost among the fluttering crowd around her. Norah's warning words, addressed to Mrs. Vanstone in the garden, recurred to her memory--and now, for the first time, the idea dawned on her that Norah had seen the consequences in their true light.
EARLY the next morning Miss Garth and Norah met in the garden and spoke together privately. The only noticeable result of the interview, when they presented themselves at the breakfast-table, appeared in the marked silence which they both maintained on the topic of the theatrical performance. Mrs. Vanstone was entirely indebted to her husband and to her youngest daughter for all that she heard of the evening's entertainment. The governess and the elder daughter had evidently determined on letting the subject drop.
After breakfast was over Magdalen proved to be missing, when the ladies assembled as usual in the morning-room. Her habits were so little regular that Mrs. Vanstone felt neither surprise nor uneasiness at her absence. Miss Garth and Norah looked at one another significantly, and waited in silence. Two hours passed--and there were no signs of Magdalen. Norah rose, as the clock struck twelve, and quietly left the room to look for her.
She was not upstairs dusting her jewelry and disarranging her dresses. She was not in the conservatory, not in the flower-garden; not in the kitchen teasing the cook; not in the yard playing with the dogs. Had she, by any chance, gone out with her father? Mr. Vanstone had announced his intention, at the breakfast-table, of paying a morning visit to his old ally, Mr. Clare, and of rousing the philosopher's sarcastic indignation by an account of the dramatic performance. None of the other ladies at Combe-Raven ever ventured themselves inside the cottage. But Magdalen was reckless enough for anything--and Magdalen might have gone there. As the idea occurred to her, Norah entered the shrubbery.
At the second turning, where the path among the trees wound away out of sight of the house, she came suddenly face to face with Magdalen and Frank: they were sauntering toward her, arm in arm, their heads close together, their conversation apparently proceeding in whispers. They looked suspiciously handsome and happy. At the sight of Norah both started, and both stopped. Frank confusedly raised his hat, and turned back in the direction of his father's cottage. Magdalen advanced to meet her sister, carelessly swinging her closed parasol from side to side, carelessly humming an air from the overture which had preceded the rising of the curtain on the previous night.
"Luncheon-time already!" she said, looking at her watch. "Surely not?"
"Have you and Mr. Francis Clare been alone in the shrubbery since ten o'clock?" asked Norah.
"Mr. Francis Clare! How ridiculously formal you are. Why don't you call him Frank?"
"I asked you a question, Magdalen."
"Dear me, how black you look this morning! I'm in disgrace, I suppose. Haven't you forgiven me yet for my acting last night? I couldn't help it, love; I should have made nothing of Julia, if I hadn't taken you for my model. It's quite a question of Art. In your place, I should have felt flattered by the selection."
"In your place, Magdalen, I should have thought twice before I mimicked my sister to an audience of strangers."
"That's exactly why I did it--an audience of strangers. How were they to know? Come! come! don't be angry. You are eight years older than I am--you ought to set me an example of good-humor."
"I will set you an example of plain-speaking. I am more sorry than I can say, Magdalen, to meet you as I met you here just now!"
"What next, I wonder? You meet me in the shrubbery at home, talking over the private theatricals with my old playfellow, whom I knew when I was no taller than this parasol. And that is a glaring impropriety, is it? 'Honi soit qui mal y pense.' You wanted an answer a minute ago--there it is for you, my dear, in the choicest Norman-French."
"I am in earnest about this, Magdalen--"
"Not a doubt of it. Nobody can accuse you of ever making jokes."
"I am seriously sorry--"
"It is quite useless to interrupt me. I have it on my conscience to tell you--and I will tell you--that I am sorry to see how this intimacy is growing. I am sorry to see a secret understanding established already between you and Mr. Francis Clare."
"Poor Frank! How you do hate him, to be sure. What on earth has he done to offend you?"
Norah's self-control began to show signs of failing her. Her dark cheeks glowed, her delicate lips trembled, before she spoke again. Magdalen paid more attention to her parasol than to her sister. She tossed it high in the air and caught it. "Once!" she said--and tossed it up again. "Twice!"--and she tossed it higher. "Thrice--" Before she could catch it for the third time, Norah seized her passionately by the arm, and the parasol dropped to the ground between them.
"You are treating me heartlessly," she said. "For shame, Magdalen--for shame!"
The irrepressible outburst of a reserved nature, forced into open self-assertion in its own despite, is of all moral forces the hardest to resist. Magdalen was startled into silence. For a moment, the two sisters--so strangely dissimilar in person and character--faced one another, without a word passing between them. For a moment the deep brown eyes of the elder and the light gray eyes of the younger looked into each other with steady, unyielding scrutiny on either side. Norah's face was the first to change; Norah's head was the first to turn away. She dropped her sister's arm in silence. Magdalen stooped and picked up her parasol.
"I try to keep my temper," she said, "and you call me heartless for doing it. You always were hard on me, and you always will be."
Norah clasped her trembling hands fast in each other. "Hard on you!" she said, in low, mournful tones--and sighed bitterly.
Magdalen drew back a little, and mechanically dusted the parasol with the end of her garden cloak.
"Yes!" she resumed, doggedly. "Hard on me and hard on Frank."
"Frank!" repeated Norah, advancing on her sister and turning pale as suddenly as she had turned red. "Do you talk of yourself and Frank as if your interests were One already? Magdalen! if I hurt you, do I hurt him? Is he so near and so dear to you as that?"
Magdalen drew further and further back. A twig from a tree near caught her cloak; she turned petulantly, broke it off, and threw it on the ground. "What right have you to question me?" she broke out on a sudden. "Whether I like Frank, or whether I don't, what interest is it of yours?" As she said the words, she abruptly stepped forward to pass her sister and return to the house.
Norah, turning paler and paler, barred the way to her. "If I hold you by main force," she said, "you shall stop and hear me. I have watched this Francis Clare; I know him better than you do. He is unworthy of a moment's serious feeling on your part; he is unworthy of our dear, good, kind-hearted father's interest in him. A man with any principle, any honor, any gratitude, would not have come back as he has come back, disgraced--yes! disgraced by his spiritless neglect of his own duty. I watched his face while the friend who has been better than a father to him was comforting and forgiving him with a kindness he had not deserved: I watched his face, and I saw no shame and no distress in it--I saw nothing but a look of thankless, heartless relief. He is selfish, he is ungrateful, he is ungenerous--he is only twenty, and he has the worst failings of a mean old age already. And this is the man I find you meeting in secret--the man who has taken such a place in your favor that you are deaf to the truth about him, even from my lips! Magdalen! this will end ill. For God's sake, think of what I have said to you, and control yourself before it is too late!" She stopped, vehement and breathless, and caught her sister anxiously by the hand.
Magdalen looked at her in unconcealed astonishment.
"You are so violent," she said, "and so unlike yourself, that I hardly know you. The more patient I am, the more hard words I get for my pains. You have taken a perverse hatred to Frank; and you are unreasonably angry with me because I won't hate him, too. Don't, Norah! you hurt my hand."
Norah pushed the hand from her contemptuously. "I shall never hurt your heart," she said; and suddenly turned her back on Magdalen as she spoke the words.
There was a momentary pause. Norah kept her position. Magdalen looked at her perplexedly--hesitated--then walked away by herself toward the house.
At the turn in the shrubbery path she stopped and looked back uneasily. "Oh, dear, dear!" she thought to herself, "why didn't Frank go when I told him?" She hesitated, and went back a few steps. "There's Norah standing on her dignity, as obstinate as ever." She stopped again. "What had I better do? I hate quarreling: I think I'll make up." She ventured close to her sister and touched her on the shoulder. Norah never moved. "It's not often she flies into a passion," thought Magdalen, touching her again; "but when she does, what a time it lasts her!--Come!" she said, "give me a kiss, Norah, and make it up. Won't you let me get at any part of you, my dear, but the back of your neck? Well, it's a very nice neck--it's better worth kissing than mine--and there the kiss is, in spite of you!"
She caught fast hold of Norah from behind, and suited the action to the word, with a total disregard of all that had just passed, which her sister was far from emulating. Hardly a minute since the warm outpouring of Norah's heart had burst through all obstacles. Had the icy reserve frozen her up again already! It was hard to say. She never spoke; she never changed her position--she only searched hurriedly for her handkerchief. As she drew it out, there was a sound of approaching footsteps in the inner recesses of the shrubbery. A Scotch terrier scampered into view; and a cheerful voice sang the first lines of the glee in "As You Like It." "It's papa!" cried Magdalen. "Come, Norah--come and meet him."
Instead of following her sister, Norah pulled down the veil of her garden hat, turned in the opposite direction, and hurried back to the house. She ran up to her own room and locked herself in. She was crying bitterly.
WHEN Magdalen and her father met in the shrubbery Mr. Vanstone's face showed plainly that something had happened to please him since he had left home in the morning. He answered the question which his daughter's curiosity at once addressed to him by informing her that he had just come from Mr. Clare's cottage; and that he had picked up, in that unpromising locality, a startling piece of news for the family at Combe-Raven.
On entering the philosopher's study that morning, Mr. Vanstone had found him still dawdling over his late breakfast, with an open letter by his side, in place of the book which, on other occasions, lay ready to his hand at meal-times. He held up the letter the moment his visitor came into the room, and abruptly opened the conversation by asking Mr. Vanstone if his nerves were in good order, and if he felt himself strong enough for the shock of an overwhelming surprise.
"Nerves!" repeated Mr. Vanstone. "Thank God, I know nothing about my nerves. If you have got anything to tell me, shock or no shock, out with it on the spot."
Mr. Clare held the letter a little higher, and frowned at his visitor across the breakfast-table. "What have I always told you?" he asked, with his sourest solemnity of look and manner.
"A great deal more than I could ever keep in my head," answered Mr. Vanstone.
"In your presence and out of it," continued Mr. Clare, "I have always maintained that the one important phenomenon presented by modern society is--the enormous prosperity of Fools. Show me an individual Fool, and I will show you an aggregate Society which gives that highly-favored personage nine chances out of ten--and grudges the tenth to the wisest man in existence. Look where you will, in every high place there sits an Ass, settled beyond the reach of all the greatest intellects in this world to pull him down. Over our whole social system, complacent Imbecility rules supreme--snuffs out the searching light of Intelligence with total impunity--and hoots, owl-like, in answer to every form of protest, See how well we all do in the dark! One of these days that audacious assertion will be practically contradicted, and the whole rotten system of modern society will come down with a crash."
"God forbid!" cried Mr. Vanstone, looking about him as if the crash was coming already.
"With a crash!" repeated Mr. Clare. "There is my theory, in few words. Now for the remarkable application of it which this letter suggests. Here is my lout of a boy--"
"You don't mean that Frank has got another chance?" exclaimed Mr. Vanstone.
"Here is this perfectly hopeless booby, Frank," pursued the philosopher. "He has never done anything in his life to help himself, and, as a necessary consequence, Society is in a conspiracy to carry him to the top of the tree. He has hardly had time to throw away that chance you gave him before this letter comes, and puts the ball at his foot for the second time. My rich cousin (who is intellectually fit to be at the tail of the family, and who is, therefore, as a matter of course, at the head of it) has been good enough to remember my existence; and has offered his influence to serve my eldest boy. Read his letter, and then observe the sequence of events. My rich cousin is a booby who thrives on landed property; he has done something for another booby who thrives on Politics, who knows a third booby who thrives on Commerce, who can do something for a fourth booby, thriving at present on nothing, whose name is Frank. So the mill goes. So the cream of all human rewards is sipped in endless succession by the Fools. I shall pack Frank off to-morrow. In course of time he'll come back again on our hands, like a bad shilling; more chances will fall in his way, as a necessary consequence of his meritorious imbecility. Years will go on--I may not live to see it, no more may you--it doesn't matter; Frank's future is equally certain either way--put him into the army, the Church, politics, what you please, and let him drift: he'll end in being a general, a bishop, or a minister of State, by dint of the great modern qualification of doing nothing whatever to deserve his place." With this summary of his son's worldly prospects, Mr. Clare tossed the letter contemptuously across the table and poured himself out another cup of tea.
Mr. Vanstone read the letter with eager interest and pleasure. It was written in a tone of somewhat elaborate cordiality; but the practical advantages which it placed at Frank's disposal were beyond all doubt. The writer had the means of using a friend's interest--interest of no ordinary kind--with a great Mercantile Firm in the City; and he had at once exerted this influence in favor of Mr. Clare's eldest boy. Frank would be received in the office on a very different footing from the footing of an ordinary clerk; he would be "pushed on" at every available opportunity; and the first "good thing" the House had to offer, either at home or abroad, would be placed at his disposal. If he possessed fair abilities and showed common diligence in exercising them, his fortune was made; and the sooner he was sent to London to begin the better for his own interests it would be.
"Wonderful news!" cried Mr. Vanstone, returning the letter. "I'm delighted--I must go back and tell them at home. This is fifty times the chance that mine was. What the deuce do you mean by abusing Society? Society has behaved uncommonly well, in my opinion. Where's Frank?"
"Lurking," said Mr. Clare. "It is one of the intolerable peculiarities of louts that they always lurk. I haven't seen my lout this morning. If you meet with him anywhere, give him a kick, and say I want him."
Mr. Clare's opinion of his son's habits might have been expressed more politely as to form; but, as to substance, it happened, on that particular morning, to be perfectly correct. After leaving Magdalen, Frank had waited in the shrubbery, at a safe distance, on the chance that she might detach herself from her sister's company, and join him again. Mr. Vanstone's appearance immediately on Norah's departure, instead of encouraging him to show himself, had determined him on returning to the cottage. He walked back discontentedly; and so fell into his father's clutches, totally unprepared for the pending announcement, in that formidable quarter, of his departure for London.
In the meantime, Mr. Vanstone had communicated his news--in the first place, to Magdalen, and afterward, on getting back to the house, to his wife and Miss Garth. He was too unobservant a man to notice that Magdalen looked unaccountably startled, and Miss Garth unaccountably relieved, by his announcement of Frank's good fortune. He talked on about it, quite unsuspiciously, until the luncheon-bell rang--and then, for the first time, he noticed Norah's absence. She sent a message downstairs, after they had assembled at the table, to say that a headache was keeping her in her own room. When Miss Garth went up shortly afterward to communicate the news about Frank, Norah appeared, strangely enough, to feel very little relieved by hearing it. Mr. Francis Clare had gone away on a former occasion (she remarked), and had come back. He might come back again, and sooner than they any of them thought for. She said no more on the subject than this: she made no reference to what had taken place in the shrubbery. Her unconquerable reserve seemed to have strengthened its hold on her since the outburst of the morning. She met Magdalen, later in the day, as if nothing had happened: no formal reconciliation took place between them. It was one of Norah's peculiarities to shrink from all reconciliations that were openly ratified, and to take her shy refuge in reconciliations that were silently implied. Magdalen saw plainly, in her look and manner, that she had made her first and last protest. Whether the motive was pride, or sullenness, or distrust of herself, or despair of doing good, the result was not to be mistaken--Norah had resolved on remaining passive for the future.
Later in the afternoon, Mr. Vanstone suggested a drive to his eldest daughter, as the best remedy for her headache. She readily consented to accompany her father; who thereupon proposed, as usual, that Magdalen should join them. Magdalen was nowhere to be found. For the second time that day she had wandered into the grounds by herself. On this occasion, Miss Garth--who, after adopting Norah's opinions, had passed from the one extreme of over-looking Frank altogether, to the other extreme of believing him capable of planning an elopement at five minutes' notice--volunteered to set forth immediately, and do her best to find the missing young lady. After a prolonged absence, she returned unsuccessful--with the strongest persuasion in her own mind that Magdalen and Frank had secretly met one another somewhere, but without having discovered the smallest fragment of evidence to confirm her suspicions. By this time the carriage was at the door, and Mr. Vanstone was unwilling to wait any longer. He and Norah drove away together; and Mrs. Vanstone and Miss Garth sat at home over their work.
In half an hour more, Magdalen composedly walked into the room. She was pale and depressed. She received Miss Garth's remonstrances with a weary inattention; explained carelessly that she had been wandering in the wood; took up some books, and put them down again; sighed impatiently, and went away upstairs to her own room.
"I think Magdalen is feeling the reaction, after yesterday," said Mrs. Vanstone, quietly. "It is just as we thought. Now the theatrical amusements are all over, she is fretting for more."
Here was an opportunity of letting in the light of truth on Mrs. Vanstone's mind, which was too favorable to be missed. Miss Garth questioned her conscience, saw her chance, and took it on the spot.
"You forget," she rejoined, "that a certain neighbor of ours is going away to-morrow. Shall I tell you the truth? Magdalen is fretting over the departure of Francis Clare."
Mrs. Vanstone looked up from her work with a gentle, smiling surprise.
"Surely not?" she said. "It is natural enough that Frank should be attracted by Magdalen; but I can't think that Magdalen returns the feeling. Frank is so very unlike her; so quiet and undemonstrative; so dull and helpless, poor fellow, in some things. He is handsome, I know, but he is so singularly unlike Magdalen, that I can't think it possible--I can't indeed."
"My dear good lady!" cried Miss Garth, in great amazement; "do you really suppose that people fall in love with each other on account of similarities in their characters? In the vast majority of cases, they do just the reverse. Men marry the very last women, and women the very last men, whom their friends would think it possible they could care about. Is there any phrase that is oftener on all our lips than 'What can have made Mr. So-and-So marry that woman?'--or 'How could Mrs. So-and-So throw herself away on that man?' Has all your experience of the world never yet shown you that girls take perverse fancies for men who are totally unworthy of them?"
"Very true," said Mrs. Vanstone, composedly. "I forgot that. Still it seems unaccountable, doesn't it?"
"Unaccountable, because it happens every day!" retorted Miss Garth, good-humoredly. "I know a great many excellent people who reason against plain experience in the same way--who read the newspapers in the morning, and deny in the evening that there is any romance for writers or painters to work upon in modern life. Seriously, Mrs. Vanstone, you may take my word for it--thanks to those wretched theatricals, Magdalen is going the way with Frank that a great many young ladies have gone before her. He is quite unworthy of her; he is, in almost every respect, her exact opposite--and, without knowing it herself, she has fallen in love with him on that very account. She is resolute and impetuous, clever and domineering; she is not one of those model women who want a man to look up to, and to protect them--her beau-ideal (though she may not think it herself) is a man she can henpeck. Well! one comfort is, there are far better men, even of that sort, to be had than Frank. It's a mercy he is going away, before we have more trouble with them, and before any serious mischief is done."
"Poor Frank!" said Mrs. Vanstone, smiling compassionately. "We have known him since he was in jackets, and Magdalen in short frocks. Don't let us give him up yet. He may do better this second time."
Miss Garth looked up in astonishment.
"And suppose he does better?" she asked. "What then?"
Mrs. Vanstone cut off a loose thread in her work, and laughed outright.
"My good friend," she said, "there is an old farmyard proverb which warns us not to count our chickens before they are hatched. Let us wait a little before we count ours."
It was not easy to silence Miss Garth, when she was speaking under the influence of a strong conviction; but this reply closed her lips. She resumed her work, and looked, and thought, unutterable things.
Mrs. Vanstone's behavior was certainly remarkable under the circumstances. Here, on one side, was a girl--with great personal attractions, with rare pecuniary prospects, with a social position which might have justified the best gentleman in the neighborhood in making her an offer of marriage--perversely casting herself away on a penniless idle young fellow, who had failed at his first start in life, and who even if he succeeded in his second attempt, must be for years to come in no position to marry a young lady of fortune on equal terms. And there, on the other side, was that girl's mother, by no means dismayed at the prospect of a connection which was, to say the least of it, far from desirable; by no means certain, judging her by her own words and looks, that a marriage between Mr. Vanstone's daughter and Mr. Clare's son might not prove to be as satisfactory a result of the intimacy between the two young people as the parents on both sides could possibly wish for!
It was perplexing in the extreme. It was almost as unintelligible as that past mystery--that forgotten mystery now--of the journey to London.
In the evening, Frank made his appearance, and announced that his father had mercilessly sentenced him to leave Combe-Raven by the parliamentary train the next morning. He mentioned this circumstance with an air of sentimental resignation; and listened to Mr. Vanstone's boisterous rejoicings over his new prospects with a mild and mute surprise. His gentle melancholy of look and manner greatly assisted his personal advantages. In his own effeminate way he was more handsome than ever that evening. His soft brown eyes wandered about the room with a melting tenderness; his hair was beautifully brushed; his delicate hands hung over the arms of his chair with a languid grace. He looked like a convalescent Apollo. Never, on any previous occasion, had he practiced more successfully the social art which he habitually cultivated--the art of casting himself on society in the character of a well-bred Incubus, and conferring an obligation on his fellow-creatures by allowing them to sit under him. It was undeniably a dull evening. All the talking fell to the share of Mr. Vanstone and Miss Garth. Mrs. Vanstone was habitually silent; Norah kept herself obstinately in the background; Magdalen was quiet and undemonstrative beyond all former precedent. From first to last, she kept rigidly on her guard. The few meaning looks that she cast on Frank flashed at him like lightning, and were gone before any one else could see them. Even when she brought him his tea; and when, in doing so, her self-control gave way under the temptation which no woman can resist--the temptation of touching the man she loves--even then, she held the saucer so dexterously that it screened her hand. Frank's self-possession was far less steadily disciplined: it only lasted as long as he remained passive. When he rose to go; when he felt the warm, clinging pressure of Magdalen's fingers round his hand, and the lock of her hair which she slipped into it at the same moment, he became awkward and confused. He might have betrayed Magdalen and betrayed himself, but for Mr. Vanstone, who innocently covered his retreat by following him out, and patting him on the shoulder all the way. "God bless you, Frank!" cried the friendly voice that never had a harsh note in it for anybody. "Your fortune's waiting for you. Go in, my boy--go in and win."
"Yes," said Frank. "Thank you. It will be rather difficult to go in and win, at first. Of course, as you have always told me, a man's business is to conquer his difficulties, and not to talk about them. At the same time, I wish I didn't feel quite so loose as I do in my figures. It's discouraging to feel loose in one's figures.--Oh, yes; I'll write and tell you how I get on. I'm very much obliged by your kindness, and very sorry I couldn't succeed with the engineering. I think I should have liked engineering better than trade. It can't be helped now, can it? Thank you, again. Good-by."
So he drifted away into the misty commercial future--as aimless, as helpless, as gentleman-like as ever.
THREE months passed. During that time Frank remained in London; pursuing his new duties, and writing occasionally to report himself to Mr. Vanstone, as he had promised.
His letters were not enthusiastic on the subject of mercantile occupations. He described himself as being still painfully loose in his figures. He was also more firmly persuaded than ever--now when it was unfortunately too late--that he preferred engineering to trade. In spite of this conviction; in spite of headaches caused by sitting on a high stool and stooping over ledgers in unwholesome air; in spite of want of society, and hasty breakfasts, and bad dinners at chop-houses, his attendance at the office was regular, and his diligence at the desk unremitting. The head of the department in which he was working might be referred to if any corroboration of this statement was desired. Such was the general tenor of the letters; and Frank's correspondent and Frank's father differed over them as widely as usual. Mr. Vanstone accepted them as proofs of the steady development of industrious principles in the writer. Mr. Clare took his own characteristically opposite view. "These London men," said the philosopher, "are not to be trifled with by louts. They have got Frank by the scruff of the neck--he can't wriggle himself free--and he makes a merit of yielding to sheer necessity."
The three months' interval of Frank's probation in London passed less cheerfully than usual in the household at Combe-Raven.
As the summer came nearer and nearer, Mrs. Vanstone's spirits, in spite of her resolute efforts to control them, became more and more depressed.
"I do my best," she said to Miss Garth; "I set an example of cheerfulness to my husband and my children--but I dread July." Norah's secret misgivings on her sister's account rendered her more than usually serious and uncommunicative, as the year advanced. Even Mr. Vanstone, when July drew nearer, lost something of his elasticity of spirit. He kept up appearances in his wife's presence--but on all other occasions there was now a perceptible shade of sadness in his look and manner. Magdalen was so changed since Frank's departure that she helped the general depression, instead of relieving it. All her movements had grown languid; all her usual occupations were pursued with the same weary indifference; she spent hours alone in her own room; she lost her interest in being brightly and prettily dressed; her eyes were heavy, her nerves were irritable, her complexion was altered visibly for the worse--in one word, she had become an oppression and a weariness to herself and to all about her. Stoutly as Miss Garth contended with these growing domestic difficulties, her own spirits suffered in the effort. Her memory reverted, oftener and oftener, to the March morning when the master and mistress of the house had departed for London, and then the first serious change, for many a year past, had stolen over the family atmosphere. When was that atmosphere to be clear again? When were the clouds of change to pass off before the returning sunshine of past and happier times?
The spring and the early summer wore away. The dreaded month of July came, with its airless nights, its cloudless mornings, and its sultry days.
On the fifteenth of the month, an event happened which took every one but Norah by surprise. For the second time, without the slightest apparent reason--for the second time, without a word of warning beforehand--Frank suddenly re-appeared at his father's cottage.
Mr. Clare's lips opened to hail his son's return, in the old character of the "bad shilling"; and closed again without uttering a word. There was a portentous composure in Frank's manner which showed that he had other news to communicate than the news of his dismissal. He answered his father's sardonic look of inquiry by at once explaining that a very important proposal for his future benefit had been made to him, that morning, at the office. His first idea had been to communicate the details in writing; but the partners had, on reflection, thought that the necessary decision might be more readily obtained by a personal interview with his father and his friends. He had laid aside the pen accordingly, and had resigned himself to the railway on the spot.
After this preliminary statement, Frank proceeded to describe the proposal which his employers had addressed to him, with every external appearance of viewing it in the light of an intolerable hardship.
The great firm in the City had obviously made a discovery in relation to their clerk, exactly similar to the discovery which had formerly forced itself on the engineer in relation to his pupil. The young man, as they politely phrased it, stood in need of some special stimulant to stir him up. His employers (acting under a sense of their obligation to the gentleman by whom Frank had been recommended) had considered the question carefully, and had decided that the one promising use to which they could put Mr. Francis Clare was to send him forthwith into another quarter of the globe.
As a consequence of this decision, it was now, therefore, proposed that he should enter the house of their correspondents in China; that he should remain there, familiarizing himself thoroughly on the spot with the tea trade and the silk trade for five years; and that he should return, at the expiration of this period, to the central establishment in London. If he made a fair use of his opportunities in China, he would come back, while still a young man, fit for a position of trust and emolument, and justified in looking forward, at no distant date, to a time when the House would assist him to start in business for himself. Such were the new prospects which--to adopt Mr. Clare's theory--now forced themselves on the ever-reluctant, ever-helpless and ever-ungrateful Frank. There was no time to be lost. The final answer was to be at the office on "Monday, the twentieth": the correspondents in China were to be written to by the mail on that day; and Frank was to follow the letter by the next opportunity, or to resign his chance in favor of some more enterprising young man.
Mr. Clare's reception of this extraordinary news was startling in the extreme. The glorious prospect of his son's banishment to China appeared to turn his brain. The firm pedestal of his philosophy sank under him; the prejudices of society recovered their hold on his mind. He seized Frank by the arm, and actually accompanied him to Combe-Raven, in the amazing character of visitor to the house!
"Here I am with my lout," said Mr. Clare, before a word could be uttered by the astonished family. "Hear his story, all of you. It has reconciled me, for the first time in my life, to the anomaly of his existence." Frank ruefully narrated the Chinese proposal for the second time, and attempted to attach to it his own supplementary statement of objections and difficulties. His father stopped him at the first word, pointed peremptorily southeastward (from Somersetshire to China); and said, without an instant's hesitation: "Go!" Mr. Vanstone, basking in golden visions of his young friend's future, echoed that monosyllabic decision with all his heart. Mrs. Vanstone, Miss Garth, even Norah herself, spoke to the same purpose. Frank was petrified by an absolute unanimity of opinion which he had not anticipated; and Magdalen was caught, for once in her life, at the end of all her resources.
So far as practical results were concerned, the sitting of the family council began and ended with the general opinion that Frank must go. Mr. Vanstone's faculties were so bewildered by the son's sudden arrival, the father's unexpected visit, and the news they both brought with them, that he petitioned for an adjournment before the necessary arrangements connected with his young friend's departure were considered in detail. "Suppose we all sleep upon it?" he said. "Tomorrow our heads will feel a little steadier; and to-morrow will be time enough to decide all uncertainties." This suggestion was readily adopted; and all further proceedings stood adjourned until the next day.
That next day was destined to decide more uncertainties than Mr. Vanstone dreamed of.
Early in the morning, after making tea by herself as usual, Miss Garth took her parasol and strolled into the garden. She had slept ill; and ten minutes in the open air before the family assembled at breakfast might help to compensate her, as she thought, for the loss of her night's rest.
She wandered to the outermost boundary of the flower-garden, and then returned by another path, which led back, past the side of an ornamental summer-house commanding a view over the fields from a corner of the lawn. A slight noise--like, and yet not like, the chirruping of a bird--caught her ear as she approached the summer-house. She stepped round to the entrance; looked in; and discovered Magdalen and Frank seated close together. To Miss Garth's horror, Magdalen's arm was unmistakably round Frank's neck; and, worse still, the position of her face, at the moment of discovery, showed beyond all doubt that she had just been offering to the victim of Chinese commerce the first and foremost of all the consolations which a woman can bestow on a man. In plainer words, she had just given Frank a kiss.
In the presence of such an emergency as now confronted her, Miss Garth felt instinctively that all ordinary phrases of reproof would be phrases thrown away.
"I presume," she remarked, addressing Magdalen with the merciless self-possession of a middle-aged lady, unprovided for the occasion with any kissing remembrances of her own--"I presume (whatever excuses your effrontery may suggest) you will not deny that my duty compels me to mention what I have just seen to your father?"
"I will save you the trouble," replied Magdalen, composedly. "I will mention it to him myself."
With those words, she looked round at Frank, standing trebly helpless in a corner of the summer-house. "You shall hear what happens," she said, with her bright smile. "And so shall you," she added for Miss Garth's especial benefit, as she sauntered past the governess on her way back to the breakfast-table. The eyes of Miss Garth followed her indignantly; and Frank slipped out on his side at that favorable opportunity.
Under these circumstances, there was but one course that any respectable woman could take--she could only shudder. Miss Garth registered her protest in that form, and returned to the house.
When breakfast was over, and when Mr. Vanstone's hand descended to his pocket in search of his cigar-case, Magdalen rose; looked significantly at Miss Garth; and followed her father into the hall.
"Papa," she said, "I want to speak to you this morning--in private."
"Ay! ay!" returned Mr. Vanstone. "What about, my dear!"
"About--" Magdalen hesitated, searching for a satisfactory form of expression, and found it. "About business, papa," she said.
Mr. Vanstone took his garden hat from the hall table--opened his eyes in mute perplexity--attempted to associate in his mind the two extravagantly dissimilar ideas of Magdalen and "business"--failed--and led the way resignedly into the garden.
His daughter took his arm, and walked with him to a shady seat at a convenient distance from the house. She dusted the seat with her smart silk apron before her father occupied it. Mr. Vanstone was not accustomed to such an extraordinary act of attention as this. He sat down, looking more puzzled than ever. Magdalen immediately placed herself on his knee, and rested her head comfortably on his shoulder.
"Am I heavy, papa?" she asked.
"Yes, my dear, you are," said Mr. Vanstone--"but not too heavy for me. Stop on your perch, if you like it. Well? And what may this business happen to be?"
"It begins with a question."
"Ah, indeed? That doesn't surprise me. Business with your sex, my dear, always begins with questions. Go on."
"Papa! do you ever intend allowing me to be married?"
Mr. Vanstone's eyes opened wider and wider. The question, to use his own phrase, completely staggered him.
"This is business with a vengeance!" he said. "Why, Magdalen! what have you got in that harum-scarum head of yours now?"
"I don't exactly know, papa. Will you answer my question?"
"I will if I can, my dear; you rather stagger me. Well, I don't know. Yes; I suppose I must let you be married one of these days--if we can find a good husband for you. How hot your face is! Lift it up, and let the air blow over it. You won't? Well--have your own way. If talking of business means tickling your cheek against my whisker I've nothing to say against it. Go on, my dear. What's the next question? Come to the point."
She was far too genuine a woman to do anything of the sort. She skirted round the point and calculated her distance to the nicety of a hair-breadth.
"We were all very much surprised yesterday--were we not, papa? Frank is wonderfully lucky, isn't he?"
"He's the luckiest dog I ever came across," said Mr. Vanstone "But what has that got to do with this business of yours? I dare say you see your way, Magdalen. Hang me if I can see mine!"
She skirted a little nearer.
"I suppose he will make his fortune in China?" she said. "It's a long way off, isn't it? Did you observe, papa, that Frank looked sadly out of spirits yesterday?"
"I was so surprised by the news," said Mr. Vanstone, "and so staggered by the sight of old Clare's sharp nose in my house, that I didn't much notice. Now you remind me of it--yes. I don't think Frank took kindly to his own good luck; not kindly at all."
"Do you wonder at that, papa?"
"Yes, my dear; I do, rather."
"Don't you think it's hard to be sent away for five years, to make your fortune among hateful savages, and lose sight of your friends at home for all that long time? Don't you think Frank will miss us sadly? Don't you, papa?--don't you?"
"Gently, Magdalen! I'm a little too old for those long arms of yours to throttle me in fun.--You're right, my love. Nothing in this world without a drawback. Frank will miss his friends in England: there's no denying that."
"You always liked Frank. And Frank always liked you."
"Yes, yes--a good fellow; a quiet, good fellow. Frank and I have always got on smoothly together."
"You have got on like father and son, haven't you?"
"Certainly, my dear."
"Perhaps you will think it harder on him when he has gone than you think it now?"
"Likely enough, Magdalen; I don't say no."
"Perhaps you will wish he had stopped in England? Why shouldn't he stop in England, and do as well as if he went to China?"
"My dear! he has no prospects in England. I wish he had, for his own sake. I wish the lad well, with all my heart."
"May I wish him well too, papa--with all my heart?"
"Certainly, my love--your old playfellow--why not? What's the matter? God bless my soul, what is the girl crying about? One would think Frank was transported for life. You goose! You know, as well as I do, he is going to China to make his fortune."
"He doesn't want to make his fortune--he might do much better."
"The deuce he might! How, I should like to know?"
"I'm afraid to tell you. I'm afraid you'll laugh at me. Will you promise not to laugh at me?"
"Anything to please you, my dear. Yes: I promise. Now, then, out with it! How might Frank do better?"
"He might marry Me."
If the summer scene which then spread before Mr. Vanstone's eyes had suddenly changed to a dreary winter view--if the trees had lost all their leaves, and the green fields had turned white with snow in an instant--his face could hardly have expressed greater amazement than it displayed when his daughter's faltering voice spoke those four last words. He tried to look at her--but she steadily refused him the opportunity: she kept her face hidden over his shoulder. Was she in earnest? His cheek, still wet with her tears, answered for her. There was a long pause of silence; she waited--with unaccustomed patience, she waited for him to speak. He roused himself, and spoke these words only: "You surprise me, Magdalen; you surprise me more than I can say."
At the altered tone of his voice--altered to a quiet, fatherly seriousness--Magdalen's arms clung round him closer than before.
"Have I disappointed you, papa?" she asked, faintly. "Don't say I have disappointed you! Who am I to tell my secret to, if not to you? Don't let him go--don't! don't! You will break his heart. He is afraid to tell his father; he is even afraid you might be angry with him. There is nobody to speak for us, except--except me. Oh, don't let him go! Don't for his sake--" she whispered the next words in a kiss--"Don't for Mine!"
Her father's kind face saddened; he sighed, and patted her fair head tenderly. "Hush, my love," he said, almost in a whisper; "hush!" She little knew what a revelation every word, every action that escaped her, now opened before him. She had made him her grown-up playfellow, from her childhood to that day. She had romped with him in her frocks, she had gone on romping with him in her gowns. He had never been long enough separated from her to have the external changes in his daughter forced on his attention. His artless, fatherly experience of her had taught him that she was a taller child in later years--and had taught him little more. And now, in one breathless instant, the conviction that she was a woman rushed over his mind. He felt it in the trouble of her bosom pressed against his; in the nervous thrill of her arms clasped around his neck. The Magdalen of his innocent experience, a woman--with the master-passion of her sex in possession of her heart already!
"Have you thought long of this, my dear?" he asked, as soon as he could speak composedly. "Are you sure--?"
She answered the question before he could finish it.
"Sure I love him?" she said. "Oh, what words can say Yes for me, as I want to say it? I love him--!" Her voice faltered softly; and her answer ended in a sigh.
"You are very young. You and Frank, my love, are both very young."
She raised her head from his shoulder for the first time. The thought and its expression flashed from her at the same moment.
"Are we much younger than you and mamma were?" she asked, smiling through her tears.
She tried to lay her head back in its old position; but as she spoke those words, her father caught her round the waist, forced her, before she was aware of it, to look him in the face--and kissed her, with a sudden outburst of tenderness which brought the tears thronging back thickly into her eyes. "Not much younger, my child," he said, in low, broken tones--"not much younger than your mother and I were." He put her away from him, and rose from the seat, and turned his head aside quickly. "Wait here, and compose yourself; I will go indoors and speak to your mother." His voice trembled over those parting words; and he left her without once looking round again.
She waited--waited a weary time; and he never came back. At last her growing anxiety urged her to follow him into the house. A new timidity throbbed in her heart as she doubtingly approached the door. Never had she seen the depths of her father's simple nature stirred as they had been stirred by her confession. She almost dreaded her next meeting with him. She wandered softly to and fro in the hall, with a shyness unaccountable to herself; with a terror of being discovered and spoken to by her sister or Miss Garth, which made her nervously susceptible to the slightest noises in the house. The door of the morning-room opened while her back was turned toward it. She started violently, as she looked round and saw her father in the hall: her heart beat faster and faster, and she felt herself turning pale. A second look at him, as he came nearer, re-assured her. He was composed again, though not so cheerful as usual. She noticed that he advanced and spoke to her with a forbearing gentleness, which was more like his manner to her mother than his ordinary manner to herself.
"Go in, my love," he said, opening the door for her which he had just closed. "Tell your mother all you have told me--and more, if you have more to say. She is better prepared for you than I was. We will take to-day to think of it, Magdalen; and to-morrow you shall know, and Frank shall know, what we decide."
Her eyes brightened, as they looked into his face and saw the decision there already, with the double penetration of her womanhood and her love. Happy, and beautiful in her happiness, she put his hand to her lips, and went, without hesitation, into the morning-room. There, her father's words had smoothed the way for her; there, the first shock of the surprise was past and over, and only the pleasure of it remained. Her mother had been her age once; her mother would know how fond she was of Frank. So the coming interview was anticipated in her thoughts; and--except that there was an unaccountable appearance of restraint in Mrs. Vanstone's first reception of her--was anticipated aright. After a little, the mother's questions came more and more unreservedly from the sweet, unforgotten experience of the mother's heart. She lived again through her own young days of hope and love in Magdalen's replies.
The next morning the all-important decision was announced in words. Mr. Vanstone took his daughter upstairs into her mother's room, and there placed before her the result of the yesterday's consultation, and of the night's reflection which had followed it. He spoke with perfect kindness and self-possession of manner--but in fewer and more serious words than usual; and he held his wife's hand tenderly in his own all through the interview.
He informed Magdalen that neither he nor her mother felt themselves justified in blaming her attachment to Frank. It had been in part, perhaps, the natural consequence of her childish familiarity with him; in part, also, the result of the closer intimacy between them which the theatrical entertainment had necessarily produced. At the same time, it was now the duty of her parents to put that attachment, on both sides, to a proper test--for her sake, because her happy future was their dearest care; for Frank's sake, because they were bound to give him the opportunity of showing himself worthy of the trust confided in him. They were both conscious of being strongly prejudiced in Frank's favor. His father's eccentric conduct had made the lad the object of their compassion and their care from his earliest years. He (and his younger brothers) had almost filled the places to them of those other children of their own whom they had lost. Although they firmly believed their good opinion of Frank to be well founded--still, in the interest of their daughter's happiness, it was necessary to put that opinion firmly to the proof, by fixing certain conditions, and by interposing a year of delay between the contemplated marriage and the present time.
During that year, Frank was to remain at the office in London; his employers being informed beforehand that family circumstances prevented his accepting their offer of employment in China. He was to consider this concession as a recognition of the attachment between Magdalen and himself, on certain terms only. If, during the year of probation, he failed to justify the confidence placed in him--a confidence which had led Mr. Vanstone to take unreservedly upon himself the whole responsibility of Frank's future prospects--the marriage scheme was to be considered, from that moment, as at an end. If, on the other hand, the result to which Mr. Vanstone confidently looked forward really occurred--if Frank's probationary year proved his claim to the most precious trust that could be placed in his hands--then Magdalen herself should reward him with all that a woman can bestow; and the future, which his present employers had placed before him as the result of a five years' residence in China, should be realized in one year's time, by the dowry of his young wife.
As her father drew that picture of the future, the outburst of Magdalen's gratitude could no longer be restrained. She was deeply touched--she spoke from her inmost heart. Mr. Vanstone waited until his daughter and his wife were composed again; and then added the last words of explanation which were now left for him to speak.
"You understand, my love," he said, "that I am not anticipating Frank's living in idleness on his wife's means? My plan for him is that he should still profit by the interest which his present employers take in him. Their knowledge of affairs in the City will soon place a good partnership at his disposal, and you will give him the money to buy it out of hand. I shall limit the sum, my dear, to half your fortune; and the other half I shall have settled upon yourself. We shall all be alive and hearty, I hope"--he looked tenderly at his wife as he said those words--"all alive and hearty at the year's end. But if I am gone, Magdalen, it will make no difference. My will--made long before I ever thought of having a son-in-law divides my fortune into two equal parts. One part goes to your mother; and the other part is fairly divided between my children. You will have your share on your wedding-day (and Norah will have hers when she marries) from my own hand, if I live; and under my will if I die. There! there! no gloomy faces," he said, with a momentary return of his every-day good spirits. "Your mother and I mean to live and see Frank a great merchant. I shall leave you, my dear, to enlighten the son on our new projects, while I walk over to the cottage--"
He stopped; his eyebrows contracted a little; and he looked aside hesitatingly at Mrs. Vanstone.
"What must you do at the cottage, papa?" asked Magdalen, after having vainly waited for him to finish the sentence of his own accord.
"I must consult Frank's father," he replied. "We must not forget that Mr. Clare's consent is still wanting to settle this matter. And as time presses, and we don't know what difficulties he may not raise, the sooner I see him the better."
He gave that answer in low, altered tones; and rose from his chair in a half-reluctant, half-resigned manner, which Magdalen observed with secret alarm.
She glanced inquiringly at her mother. To all appearance, Mrs. Vanstone had been alarmed by the change in him also. She looked anxious and uneasy; she turned her face away on the sofa pillow--turned it suddenly, as if she was in pain.
"Are you not well, mamma?" asked Magdalen.
"Quite well, my love," said Mrs. Vanstone, shortly and sharply, without turning round. "Leave me a little--I only want rest."
Magdalen went out with her father.
"Papa!" she whispered anxiously, as they descended the stairs; "you don't think Mr. Clare will say No?"
"I can't tell beforehand," answered Mr. Vanstone. "I hope he will say Yes."
"There is no reason why he should say anything else--is there?"
She put the question faintly, while he was getting his hat and stick; and he did not appear to hear her. Doubting whether she should repeat it or not, she accompanied him as far as the garden, on his way to Mr. Clare's cottage. He stopped her on the lawn, and sent her back to the house.
"You have nothing on your head, my dear," he said. "If you want to be in the garden, don't forget how hot the sun is--don't come out without your hat."
He walked on toward the cottage.
She waited a moment, and looked after him. She missed the customary flourish of his stick; she saw his little Scotch terrier, who had run out at his heels, barking and capering about him unnoticed. He was out of spirits: he was strangely out of spirits. What did it mean?
ON returning to the house, Magdalen felt her shoulder suddenly touched from behind as she crossed the hall. She turned and confronted her sister. Before she could ask any questions, Norah confusedly addressed her, in these words: "I beg your pardon; I beg you to forgive me."
Magdalen looked at her sister in astonishment. All memory, on her side, of the sharp words which had passed between them in the shrubbery was lost in the new interests that now absorbed her; lost as completely as if the angry interview had never taken place. "Forgive you!" she repeated, amazedly. "What for?"
"I have heard of your new prospects," pursued Norah, speaking with a mechanical submissiveness of manner which seemed almost ungracious; "I wished to set things right between us; I wished to say I was sorry for what happened. Will you forget it? Will you forget and forgive what happened in the shrubbery?" She tried to proceed; but her inveterate reserve--or, perhaps, her obstinate reliance on her own opinions--silenced her at those last words. Her face clouded over on a sudden. Before her sister could answer her, she turned away abruptly and ran upstairs.
The door of the library opened, before Magdalen could follow her; and Miss Garth advanced to express the sentiments proper to the occasion.
They were not the mechanically-submissive sentiments which Magdalen had just heard. Norah had struggled against her rooted distrust of Frank, in deference to the unanswerable decision of both her parents in his favor; and had suppressed the open expression of her antipathy, though the feeling itself remained unconquered. Miss Garth had made no such concession to the master and mistress of the house. She had hitherto held the position of a high authority on all domestic questions; and she flatly declined to get off her pedestal in deference to any change in the family circumstances, no matter how amazing or how unexpected that change might be.
"Pray accept my congratulations," said Miss Garth, bristling all over with implied objections to Frank--"my congratulations, and my apologies. When I caught you kissing Mr. Francis Clare in the summer-house, I had no idea you were engaged in carrying out the intentions of your parents. I offer no opinion on the subject. I merely regret my own accidental appearance in the character of an Obstacle to the course of true-love--which appears to run smooth in summer-houses, whatever Shakespeare may say to the contrary. Consider me for the future, if you please, as an Obstacle removed. May you be happy!" Miss Garth's lips closed on that last sentence like a trap, and Miss Garth's eyes looked ominously prophetic into the matrimonial future.
If Magdalen's anxieties had not been far too serious to allow her the customary free use of her tongue, she would have been ready on the instant with an appropriately satirical answer. As it was, Miss Garth simply irritated her. "Pooh!" she said--and ran upstairs to her sister's room.
She knocked at the door, and there was no answer. She tried the door, and it resisted her from the inside. The sullen, unmanageable Norah was locked in.
Under other circumstances, Magdalen would not have been satisfied with knocking--she would have called through the door loudly and more loudly, till the house was disturbed and she had carried her point. But the doubts and fears of the morning had unnerved her already. She went downstairs again softly, and took her hat from the stand in the hall. "He told me to put my hat on," she said to herself, with a meek filial docility which was totally out of her character.
She went into the garden, on the shrubbery side; and waited there to catch the first sight of her father on his return. Half an hour passed; forty minutes passed--and then his voice reached her from among the distant trees. "Come in to heel!" she heard him call out loudly to the dog. Her face turned pale. "He's angry with Snap!" she exclaimed to herself in a whisper. The next minute he appeared in view; walking rapidly, with his head down and Snap at his heels in disgrace. The sudden excess of her alarm as she observed those ominous signs of something wrong rallied her natural energy, and determined her desperately on knowing the worst. She walked straight forward to meet her father.
"Your face tells your news," she said faintly. "Mr. Clare has been as heartless as usual--Mr. Clare has said No?"
Her father turned on her with a sudden severity, so entirely unparalleled in her experience of him that she started back in downright terror.
"Magdalen!" he said; "whenever you speak of my old friend and neighbor again, bear this in mind: Mr. Clare has just laid me under an obligation which I shall remember gratefully to the end of my life."
He stopped suddenly after saying those remarkable words. Seeing that he had startled her, his natural kindness prompted him instantly to soften the reproof, and to end the suspense from which she was plainly suffering. "Give me a kiss, my love," he resumed; "and I'll tell you in return that Mr. Clare has said--YES."
She attempted to thank him; but the sudden luxury of relief was too much for her. She could only cling round his neck in silence. He felt her trembling from head to foot, and said a few words to calm her. At the altered tones of his master's voice, Snap's meek tail re-appeared fiercely from between his legs; and Snap's lungs modestly tested his position with a brief, experimental bark. The dog's quaintly appropriate assertion of himself on his old footing was the interruption of all others which was best fitted to restore Magdalen to herself. She caught the shaggy little terrier up in her arms and kissed him next. "You darling," she exclaimed, "you're almost as glad as I am!" She turned again to her father, with a look of tender reproach. "You frightened me, papa," she said. "You were so unlike yourself."
"I shall be right again to-morrow, my dear. I am a little upset to-day."
"Not by me?"
"By something you have heard at Mr. Clare's?"
"Yes--nothing you need alarm yourself about; nothing that won't wear off by to-morrow. Let me go now, my dear; I have a letter to write; and I want to speak to your mother."
He left her and went on to the house. Magdalen lingered a little on the lawn, to feel all the happiness of her new sensations--then turned away toward the shrubbery to enjoy the higher luxury of communicating them. The dog followed her. She whistled, and clapped her hands. "Find him!" she said, with beaming eyes. "Find Frank!" Snap scampered into the shrubbery, with a bloodthirsty snarl at starting. Perhaps he had mistaken his young mistress and considered himself her emissary in search of a rat?
Meanwhile, Mr. Vanstone entered the house. He met his wife slowly descending the stairs, and advanced to give her his arm. "How has it ended?" she asked, anxiously, as he led her to the sofa.
"Happily--as we hoped it would," answered her husband. "My old friend has justified my opinion of him."
"Thank God!" said Mrs. Vanstone, fervently. "Did you feel it, love?" she asked, as her husband arranged the sofa pillows--"did you feel it as painfully as I feared you would?"
"I had a duty to do, my dear--and I did it."
After replying in those terms, he hesitated. Apparently, he had something more to say--something, perhaps, on the subject of that passing uneasiness of mind which had been produced by his interview with Mr. Clare, and which Magdalen's questions had obliged him to acknowledge. A look at his wife decided his doubts in the negative. He only asked if she felt comfortable; and then turned away to leave the room.
"Must you go?" she asked.
"I have a letter to write, my dear."
"Anything about Frank?"
"No: to-morrow will do for that. A letter to Mr. Pendril. I want him here immediately."
"Business, I suppose?"
"Yes, my dear--business."
He went out, and shut himself into the little front room, close to the hall door, which was called his study. By nature and habit the most procrastinating of letter-writers, he now inconsistently opened his desk and took up the pen without a moment's delay. His letter was long enough to occupy three pages of note-paper; it was written with a readiness of expression and a rapidity of hand which seldom characterized his proceedings when engaged over his ordinary correspondence. He wrote the address as follows: "Immediate--William Pendril, Esq., Serle Street, Lincoln's Inn, London"--then pushed the letter away from him, and sat at the table, drawing lines on the blotting-paper with his pen, lost in thought. "No," he said to himself; "I can do nothing more till Pendril comes." He rose; his face brightened as he put the stamp on the envelope. The writing of the letter had sensibly relieved him, and his whole bearing showed it as he left the room.
On the doorstep he found Norah and Miss Garth, setting forth together for a walk.
"Which way are you going?" he asked. "Anywhere near the post-office? I wish you would post this letter for me, Norah. It is very important--so important that I hardly like to trust it to Thomas, as usual."
Norah at once took charge of the letter.
"If you look, my dear," continued her father, "you will see that I am writing to Mr. Pendril. I expect him here to-morrow afternoon. Will you give the necessary directions, Miss Garth? Mr. Pendril will sleep here to-morrow night, and stay over Sunday.--Wait a minute! Today is Friday. Surely I had an engagement for Saturday afternoon?" He consulted his pocketbook and read over one of the entries, with a look of annoyance. "Grailsea Mill, three o'clock, Saturday. Just the time when Pendril will be here; and I must be at home to see him. How can I manage it? Monday will be too late for my business at Grailsea. I'll go to-day, instead; and take my chance of catching the miller at his dinner-time." He looked at his watch. "No time for driving; I must do it by railway. If I go at once, I shall catch the down train at our station, and get on to Grailsea. Take care of the letter, Norah. I won't keep dinner waiting; if the return train doesn't suit, I'll borrow a gig and get back in that way."
As he took up his hat, Magdalen appeared at the door, returning from her interview with Frank. The hurry of her father's movements attracted her attention; and she asked him where he was going.
"To Grailsea," replied Mr. Vanstone. "Your business, Miss Magdalen, has got in the way of mine--and mine must give way to it."
He spoke those parting words in his old hearty manner; and left them, with the old characteristic flourish of his trusty stick.
"My business!" said Magdalen. "I thought my business was done."
Miss Garth pointed significantly to the letter in Norah's hand. "Your business, beyond all doubt," she said. "Mr. Pendril is coming tomorrow; and Mr. Vanstone seems remarkably anxious about it. Law, and its attendant troubles already! Governesses who look in at summer-house doors are not the only obstacles to the course of true-love. Parchment is sometimes an obstacle. I hope you may find Parchment as pliable as I am--I wish you well through it. Now, Norah!"
Miss Garth's second shaft struck as harmless as the first. Magdalen had returned to the house, a little vexed; her interview with Frank having been interrupted by a messenger from Mr. Clare, sent to summon the son into the father's presence. Although it had been agreed at the private interview between Mr. Vanstone and Mr. Clare that the questions discussed that morning should not be communicated to the children until the year of probation was at an end---and although under these circumstances Mr. Clare had nothing to tell Frank which Magdalen could not communicate to him much more agreeably--the philosopher was not the less resolved on personally informing his son of the parental concession which rescued him from Chinese exile. The result was a sudden summons to the cottage, which startled Magdalen, but which did not appear to take Frank by surprise. His filial experience penetrated the mystery of Mr. Clare's motives easily enough. "When my father's in spirits," he said, sulkily, "he likes to bully me about my good luck. This message means that he's going to bully me now."
"Don't go," suggested Magdalen.
"I must," rejoined Frank. "I shall never hear the last of it if I don't. He's primed and loaded, and he means to go off. He went off, once, when the engineer took me; he went off, twice, when the office in the City took me; and he's going off, thrice, now you've taken me. If it wasn't for you, I should wish I had never been born. Yes; your father's been kind to me, I know--and I should have gone to China, if it hadn't been for him. I'm sure I'm very much obliged. Of course, we have no right to expect anything else--still it's discouraging to keep us waiting a year, isn't it?"
Magdalen stopped his mouth by a summary process, to which even Frank submitted gratefully. At the same time, she did not forget to set down his discontent to the right side. "How fond he is of me!" she thought. "A year's waiting is quite a hardship to him." She returned to the house, secretly regretting that she had not heard more of Frank's complimentary complaints. Miss Garth's elaborate satire, addressed to her while she was in this frame of mind, was a purely gratuitous waste of Miss Garth's breath. What did Magdalen care for satire? What do Youth and Love ever care for except themselves? She never even said as much as "Pooh!" this time. She laid aside her hat in serene silence, and sauntered languidly into the morning-room to keep her mother company. She lunched on dire forebodings of a quarrel between Frank and his father, with accidental interruptions in the shape of cold chicken and cheese-cakes. She trifled away half an hour at the piano; and played, in that time, selections from the Songs of Mendelssohn, the Mazurkas of Chopin, the Operas of Verdi, and the Sonatas of Mozart--all of whom had combined together on this occasion and produced one immortal work, entitled "Frank." She closed the piano and went up to her room, to dream away the hours luxuriously in visions of her married future. The green shutters were closed, the easy-chair was pushed in front of the glass, the maid was summoned as usual; and the comb assisted the mistress's reflections, through the medium of the mistress's hair, till heat and idleness asserted their narcotic influences together, and Magdalen fell asleep.
It was past three o'clock when she woke. On going downstairs again she found her mother, Norah and Miss Garth all sitting together enjoying the shade and the coolness under the open portico in front of the house.
Norah had the railway time-table in her hand. They had been discussing the chances of Mr. Vanstone's catching the return train and getting back in good time. That topic had led them, next, to his business errand at Grailsea--an errand of kindness, as usual; undertaken for the benefit of the miller, who had been his old farm-servant, and who was now hard pressed by serious pecuniary difficulties. From this they had glided insensibly into a subject often repeated among them, and never exhausted by repetition--the praise of Mr. Vanstone himself. Each one of the three had some experience of her own to relate of his simple, generous nature. The conversation seemed to be almost painfully interesting to his wife. She was too near the time of her trial now not to feel nervously sensitive to the one subject which always held the foremost place in her heart. Her eyes overflowed as Magdalen joined the little group under the portico; her frail hand trembled as it signed to her youngest daughter to take the vacant chair by her side. "We were talking of your father," she said, softly. "Oh, my love, if your married life is only as happy--" Her voice failed her; she put her handkerchief hurriedly over her face and rested her head on Magdalen's shoulder. Norah looked appealingly to Miss Garth, who at once led the conversation back to the more trivial subject of Mr. Vanstone's return. "We have all been wondering," she said, with a significant look at Magdalen, "whether your father will leave Grailsea in time to catch the train--or whether he will miss it and be obliged to drive back. What do you say?"
"I say, papa will miss the train," replied Magdalen, taking Miss Garth's hint with her customary quickness. "The last thing he attends to at Grailsea will be the business that brings him there. Whenever he has business to do, he always puts it off to the last moment, doesn't he, mamma?"
The question roused her mother exactly as Magdalen had intended it should. "Not when his errand is an errand of kindness," said Mrs. Vanstone. "He has gone to help the miller in a very pressing difficulty--"
"And don't you know what he'll do?" persisted Magdalen. "He'll romp with the miller's children, and gossip with the mother, and hob-and-nob with the father. At the last moment when he has got five minutes left to catch the train, he'll say: 'Let's go into the counting-house and look at the books.' He'll find the books dreadfully complicated; he'll suggest sending for an accountant; he'll settle the business off hand, by lending the money in the meantime; he'll jog back comfortably in the miller's gig; and he'll tell us all how pleasant the lanes were in the cool of the evening."
The little character-sketch which these words drew was too faithful a likeness not to be recognized. Mrs. Vanstone showed her appreciation of it by a smile. "When your father returns," she said, "we will put your account of his proceedings to the test. I think," she continued, rising languidly from her chair, "I had better go indoors again now and rest on the sofa till he comes back."
The little group under the portico broke up. Magdalen slipped away into the garden to hear Frank's account of the interview with his father. The other three ladies entered the house together. When Mrs. Vanstone was comfortably established on the sofa, Norah and Miss Garth left her to repose, and withdrew to the library to look over the last parcel of books from London.
It was a quiet, cloudless summer's day. The heat was tempered by a light western breeze; the voices of laborers at work in a field near reached the house cheerfully; the clock-bell of the village church as it struck the quarters floated down the wind with a clearer ring, a louder melody than usual. Sweet odors from field and flower-garden, stealing in at the open windows, filled the house with their fragrance; and the birds in Norah's aviary upstairs sang the song of their happiness exultingly in the sun.
As the church clock struck the quarter past four, the morning-room door opened; and Mrs. Vanstone crossed the hall alone. She had tried vainly to compose herself. She was too restless to lie still and sleep. For a moment she directed her steps toward the portico--then turned, and looked about her, doubtful where to go, or what to do next. While she was still hesitating, the half-open door of her husband's study attracted her attention. The room seemed to be in sad confusion. Drawers were left open; coats and hats, account-books and papers, pipes and fishing-rods were all scattered about together. She went in, and pushed the door to--but so gently that she still left it ajar. "It will amuse me to put his room to rights," she thought to herself. "I should like to do something for him before I am down on my bed, helpless." She began to arrange his drawers, and found his banker's book lying open in one of them. "My poor dear, how careless he is! The servants might have seen all his affairs, if I had not happened to have looked in." She set the drawers right; and then turned to the multifarious litter on a side-table. A little old-fashioned music-book appeared among the scattered papers, with her name written in it, in faded ink. She blushed like a young girl in the first happiness of the discovery. "How good he is to me! He remembers my poor old music-book, and keeps it for my sake." As she sat down by the table and opened the book, the bygone time came back to her in all its tenderness. The clock struck the half-hour, struck the three-quarters--and still she sat there, with the music-book on her lap, dreaming happily over the old songs; thinking gratefully of the golden days when his hand had turned the pages for her, when his voice had whispered the words which no woman's memory ever forgets.
Norah roused herself from the volume she was reading, and glanced at the clock on the library mantel-piece.
"If papa comes back by the railway," she said, "he will be here in ten minutes."
Miss Garth started, and looked up drowsily from the book which was just dropping out of her hand.
"I don't think he will come by train," she replied. "He will jog back--as Magdalen flippantly expressed it--in the miller's gig."
As she said the words, there was a knock at the library door. The footman appeared, and addressed himself to Miss Garth.
"A person wishes to see you, ma'am."
"Who is it?"
"I don't know, ma'am. A stranger to me--a respectable-looking man--and he said he particularly wished to see you."
Miss Garth went out into the hall. The footman closed the library door after her, and withdrew down the kitchen stairs.
The man stood just inside the door, on the mat. His eyes wandered, his face was pale--he looked ill; he looked frightened. He trifled nervously with his cap, and shifted it backward and forward, from one hand to the other.
"You wanted to see me?" said Miss Garth.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am.--You are not Mrs. Vanstone, are you?"
"Certainly not. I am Miss Garth. Why do you ask the question?"
"I am employed in the clerk's office at Grailsea Station--"
"I am sent here--"
He stopped again. His wandering eyes looked down at the mat, and his restless hands wrung his cap harder and harder. He moistened his dry lips, and tried once more.
"I am sent here on a very serious errand."
"Serious to me?"
"Serious to all in this house."
Miss Garth took one step nearer to him--took one steady look at his face. She turned cold in the summer heat. "Stop!" she said, with a sudden distrust, and glanced aside anxiously at the door of the morning-room. It was safely closed. "Tell me the worst; and don't speak loud. There has been an accident. Where?"
"On the railway. Close to Grailsea Station."
"The up-train to London?"
"No: the down-train at one-fifty--"
"God Almighty help us! The train Mr. Vanstone traveled by to Grailsea?"
"The same. I was sent here by the up-train; the line was just cleared in time for it. They wouldn't write--they said I must see 'Miss Garth,' and tell her. There are seven passengers badly hurt; and two--"
The next word failed on his lips; he raised his hand in the dead silence. With eyes that opened wide in horror, he raised his hand and pointed over Miss Garth's shoulder.
She turned a little, and looked back.
Face to face with her, on the threshold of the study door, stood the mistress of the house. She held her old music-book clutched fast mechanically in both hands. She stood, the specter of herself. With a dreadful vacancy in her eyes, with a dreadful stillness in her voice, she repeated the man's last words:
"Seven passengers badly hurt; and two--"
Her tortured fingers relaxed their hold; the book dropped from them; she sank forward heavily. Miss Garth caught her before she fell--caught her, and turned upon the man, with the wife's swooning body in her arms, to hear the husband's fate.
"The harm is done," she said; "you may speak out. Is he wounded, or dead?"
THE sun sank lower; the western breeze floated cool and fresh into the house. As the evening advanced, the cheerful ring of the village clock came nearer and nearer. Field and flower-garden felt the influence of the hour, and shed their sweetest fragrance. The birds in Norah's aviary sunned themselves in the evening stillness, and sang their farewell gratitude to the dying day.
Staggered in its progress for a time only, the pitiless routine of the house went horribly on its daily way. The panic-stricken servants took their blind refuge in the duties proper to the hour. The footman softly laid the table for dinner. The maid sat waiting in senseless doubt, with the hot-water jugs for the bedrooms ranged near her in their customary row. The gardener, who had been ordered to come to his master, with vouchers for money that he had paid in excess of his instructions, said his character was dear to him, and left the vouchers at his appointed time. Custom that never yields, and Death that never spares, met on the wreck of human happiness--and Death gave way.
Heavily the thunder-clouds of Affliction had gathered over the house--heavily, but not at their darkest yet. At five, that evening, the shock of the calamity had struck its blow. Before another hour had passed, the disclosure of the husband's sudden death was followed by the suspense of the wife's mortal peril. She lay helpless on her widowed bed; her own life, and the life of her unborn child, trembling in the balance.
But one mind still held possession of its resources--but one guiding spirit now moved helpfully in the house of mourning.
If Miss Garth's early days had been passed as calmly and as happily as her later life at Combe-Raven, she might have sunk under the cruel necessities of the time. But the governess's youth had been tried in the ordeal of family affliction; and she met her terrible duties with the steady courage of a woman who had learned to suffer. Alone, she had faced the trial of telling the daughters that they were fatherless. Alone, she now struggled to sustain them, when the dreadful certainty of their bereavement was at last impressed on their minds.
Her least anxiety was for the elder sister. The agony of Norah's grief had forced its way outward to the natural relief of tears. It was not so with Magdalen. Tearless and speechless, she sat in the room where the revelation of her father's death had first reached her; her face, unnaturally petrified by the sterile sorrow of old age--a white, changeless blank, fearful to look at. Nothing roused, nothing melted her. She only said, "Don't speak to me; don't touch me. Let me bear it by myself"--and fell silent again. The first great grief which had darkened the sisters' lives had, as it seemed, changed their everyday characters already.
The twilight fell, and faded; and the summer night came brightly. As the first carefully shaded light was kindled in the sick-room, the physician, who had been summoned from Bristol, arrived to consult with the medical attendant of the family. He could give no comfort: he could only say, "We must try, and hope. The shock which struck her, when she overheard the news of her husband's death, has prostrated her strength at the time when she needed it most. No effort to preserve her shall be neglected. I will stay here for the night."
He opened one of the windows to admit more air as he spoke. The view overlooked the drive in front of the house and the road outside. Little groups of people were standing before the lodge-gates, looking in. "If those persons make any noise," said the doctor, "they must be warned away." There was no need to warn them: they were only the laborers who had worked on the dead man's property, and here and there some women and children from the village. They were all thinking of him--some talking of him--and it quickened their sluggish minds to look at his house. The gentlefolks thereabouts were mostly kind to them (the men said), but none like him. The women whispered to each other of his comforting ways when he came into their cottages. "He was a cheerful man, poor soul; and thoughtful of us, too: he never came in and stared at meal-times; the rest of 'em help us, and scold us--all he ever said was, better luck next time." So they stood and talked of him, and looked at his house and grounds and moved off clumsily by twos and threes, with the dim sense that the sight of his pleasant face would never comfort them again. The dullest head among them knew, that night, that the hard ways of poverty would be all the harder to walk on, now he was gone.
A little later, news was brought to the bed-chamber door that old Mr. Clare had come alone to the house, and was waiting in the hall below, to hear what the physician said. Miss Garth was not able to go down to him herself: she sent a message. He said to the servant, "I'll come and ask again, in two hours' time"--and went out slowly. Unlike other men in all things else, the sudden death of his old friend had produced no discernible change in him. The feeling implied in the errand of inquiry that had brought him to the house was the one betrayal of human sympathy which escaped the rugged, impenetrable old man.
He came again, when the two hours had expired; and this time Miss Garth saw him.
They shook hands in silence. She waited; she nerved herself to hear him speak of his lost friend. No: he never mentioned the dreadful accident, he never alluded to the dreadful death. He said these words, "Is she better, or worse?" and said no more. Was the tribute of his grief for the husband sternly suppressed under the expression of his anxiety for the wife? The nature of the man, unpliably antagonistic to the world and the world's customs, might justify some such interpretation of his conduct as this. He repeated his question, "Is she better, or worse?"
Miss Garth answered him:
"No better; if there is any change, it is a change for the worse."
They spoke those words at the window of the morning-room which opened on the garden. Mr. Clare paused, after hearing the reply to his inquiry, stepped out on to the walk, then turned on a sudden, and spoke again:
"Has the doctor given her up?" he asked.
"He has not concealed from us that she is in danger. We can only pray for her."
The old man laid his hand on Miss Garth's arm as she answered him, and looked her attentively in the face.
"You believe in prayer?" he said.
Miss Garth drew sorrowfully back from him.
"You might have spared me that question sir, at such a time as this."
He took no notice of her answer; his eyes were still fastened on her face.
"Pray!" he said. "Pray as you never prayed before, for the preservation of Mrs. Vanstone's life."
He left her. His voice and manner implied some unutterable dread of the future, which his words had not confessed. Miss Garth followed him into the garden, and called to him. He heard her, but he never turned back: he quickened his pace, as if he desired to avoid her. She watched him across the lawn in the warm summer moonlight. She saw his white, withered hands, saw them suddenly against the black background of the shrubbery, raised and wrung above his head. They dropped--the trees shrouded him in darkness--he was gone.
Miss Garth went back to the suffering woman, with the burden on her mind of one anxiety more.
It was then past eleven o'clock. Some little time had elapsed since she had seen the sisters and spoken to them. The inquiries she addressed to one of the female servants only elicited the information that they were both in their rooms. She delayed her return to the mother's bedside to say her parting words of comfort to the daughters, before she left them for the night. Norah's room was the nearest. She softly opened the door and looked in. The kneeling figure by the bedside told her that God's help had found the fatherless daughter in her affliction. Grateful tears gathered in her eyes as she looked: she softly closed the door, and went on to Magdalen's room. There doubt stayed her feet at the threshold, and she waited for a moment before going in.
A sound in the room caught her ear--the monotonous rustling of a woman's dress, now distant, now near; passing without cessation from end to end over the floor--a sound which told her that Magdalen was pacing to and fro in the secrecy of her own chamber. Miss Garth knocked. The rustling ceased; the door was opened, and the sad young face confronted her, locked in its cold despair; the large light eyes looked mechanically into hers, as vacant and as tearless as ever.
That look wrung the heart of the faithful woman, who had trained her and loved her from a child. She took Magdalen tenderly in her arms.
"Oh, my love," she said, "no tears yet! Oh, if I could see you as I have seen Norah! Speak to me, Magdalen--try if you can speak to me."
She tried, and spoke:
"Norah," she said, "feels no remorse. He was not serving Norah's interests when he went to his death: he was serving mine."
With that terrible answer, she put her cold lips to Miss Garth's cheek.
"Let me bear it by myself," she said, and gently closed the door.
Again Miss Garth waited at the threshold, and again the sound of the rustling dress passed to and fro--now far, now near--to and fro with a cruel, mechanical regularity, that chilled the warmest sympathy, and daunted the boldest hope.
The night passed. It had been agreed, if no change for the better showed itself by the morning, that the London physician whom Mrs. Vanstone had consulted some months since should be summoned to the house on the next day. No change for the better appeared, and the physician was sent for.
As the morning advanced, Frank came to make inquiries from the cottage. Had Mr. Clare intrusted to his son the duty which he had personally performed on the previous day through reluctance to meet Miss Garth again after what he had said to her? It might be so. Frank could throw no light on the subject; he was not in his father's confidence. He looked pale and bewildered. His first inquiries after Magdalen showed how his weak nature had been shaken by the catastrophe. He was not capable of framing his own questions: the words faltered on his lips, and the ready tears came into his eyes. Miss Garth's heart warmed to him for the first time. Grief has this that is noble in it--it accepts all sympathy, come whence it may. She encouraged the lad by a few kind words, and took his hand at parting.
Before noon Frank returned with a second message. His father desired to know whether Mr. Pendril was not expected at Combe-Raven on that day. If the lawyer's arrival was looked for, Frank was directed to be in attendance at the station, and to take him to the cottage, where a bed would be placed at his disposal. This message took Miss Garth by surprise. It showed that Mr. Clare had been made acquainted with his dead friend's purpose of sending for Mr. Pendril. Was the old man's thoughtful offer of hospitality another indirect expression of the natural human distress which he perversely concealed? or was he aware of some secret necessity for Mr. Pendril's presence, of which the bereaved family had been kept in total ignorance? Miss Garth was too heart-sick and hopeless to dwell on either question. She told Frank that Mr. Pendril had been expected at three o'clock, and sent him back with her thanks.
Shortly after his departure, such anxieties on Magdalen's account as her mind was now able to feel were relieved by better news than her last night's experience had inclined her to hope for. Norah's influence had been exerted to rouse her sister; and Norah's patient sympathy had set the prisoned grief free. Magdalen had suffered severely--suffered inevitably, with such a nature as hers--in the effort that relieved her. The healing tears had not come gently; they had burst from her with a torturing, passionate vehemence--but Norah had never left her till the struggle was over, and the calm had come. These better tidings encouraged Miss Garth to withdraw to her own room, and to take the rest which she needed sorely. Worn out in body and mind, she slept from sheer exhaustion--slept heavily and dreamless for some hours. It was between three and four in the afternoon when she was roused by one of the female servants. The woman had a note in her hand--a note left by Mr. Clare the younger, with a message desiring that it might be delivered to Miss Garth immediately. The name written in the lower corner of the envelope was "William Pendril." The lawyer had arrived.
Miss Garth opened the note. After a few first sentences of sympathy and condolence, the writer announced his arrival at Mr. Clare's; and then proceeded, apparently in his professional capacity, to make a very startling request.
"If," he wrote, "any change for the better in Mrs. Vanstone should take place--whether it is only an improvement for the time, or whether it is the permanent improvement for which we all hope--in either case I entreat you to let me know of it immediately. It is of the last importance that I should see her, in the event of her gaining strength enough to give me her attention for five minutes, and of her being able at the expiration of that time to sign her name. May I beg that you will communicate my request, in the strictest confidence, to the medical men in attendance? They will understand, and you will understand, the vital importance I attach to this interview when I tell you that I have arranged to defer to it all other business claims on me; and that I hold myself in readiness to obey your summons at any hour of the day or night."
In those terms the letter ended. Miss Garth read it twice over. At the second reading the request which the lawyer now addressed to her, and the farewell words which had escaped Mr. Clare's lips the day before, connected themselves vaguely in her mind. There was some other serious interest in suspense, known to Mr. Pendril and known to Mr. Clare, besides the first and foremost interest of Mrs. Vanstone's recovery. Whom did it affect? The children? Were they threatened by some new calamity which their mother's signature might avert? What did it mean? Did it mean that Mr. Vanstone had died without leaving a will?
In her distress and confusion of mind Miss Garth was incapable of reasoning with herself, as she might have reasoned at a happier time. She hastened to the antechamber of Mrs. Vanstone's room; and, after explaining Mr. Pendril's position toward the family, placed his letter in the hands of the medical men. They both answered, without hesitation, to the same purpose. Mrs. Vanstone's condition rendered any such interview as the lawyer desired a total impossibility. If she rallied from her present prostration, Miss Garth should be at once informed of the improvement. In the meantime, the answer to Mr. Pendril might be conveyed in one word--Impossible.
"You see what importance Mr. Pendril attaches to the interview?" said Miss Garth.
Yes: both the doctors saw it.
"My mind is lost and confused, gentlemen, in this dreadful suspense. Can you either of you guess why the signature is wanted? or what the object of the interview may be? I have only seen Mr. Pendril when he has come here on former visits: I have no claim to justify me in questioning him. Will you look at the letter again? Do you think it implies that Mr. Vanstone has never made a will?"
"I think it can hardly imply that," said one of the doctors. "But, even supposing Mr. Vanstone to have died intestate, the law takes due care of the interests of his widow and his children--"
"Would it do so," interposed the other medical man, "if the property happened to be in land?"
"I am not sure in that case. Do you happen to know, Miss Garth, whether Mr. Vanstone's property was in money or in land?"
"In money," replied Miss Garth. "I have heard him say so on more than one occasion."
"Then I can relieve your mind by speaking from my own experience. The law, if he has died intestate, gives a third of his property to his widow, and divides the rest equally among his children."
"But if Mrs. Vanstone--"
"If Mrs. Vanstone should die," pursued the doctor, completing the question which Miss Garth had not the heart to conclude for herself, "I believe I am right in telling you that the property would, as a matter of legal course, go to the children. Whatever necessity there may be for the interview which Mr. Pendril requests, I can see no reason for connecting it with the question of Mr. Vanstone's presumed intestacy. But, by all means, put the question, for the satisfaction of your own mind, to Mr. Pendril himself."
Miss Garth withdrew to take the course which the doctor advised. After communicating to Mr. Pendril the medical decision which, thus far, refused him the interview that he sought, she added a brief statement of the legal question she had put to the doctors; and hinted delicately at her natural anxiety to be informed of the motives which had led the lawyer to make his request. The answer she received was guarded in the extreme: it did not impress her with a favorable opinion of Mr. Pendril. He confirmed the doctors' interpretation of the law in general terms only; expressed his intention of waiting at the cottage in the hope that a change for the better might yet enable Mrs. Vanstone to see him; and closed his letter without the slightest explanation of his motives, and without a word of reference to the question of the existence, or the non-existence, of Mr. Vanstone's will.
The marked caution of the lawyer's reply dwelt uneasily on Miss Garth's mind, until the long-expected event of the day recalled all her thoughts to her one absorbing anxiety on Mrs. Vanstone's account.
Early in the evening the physician from London arrived. He watched long by the bedside of the suffering woman; he remained longer still in consultation with his medical brethren; he went back again to the sick-room, before Miss Garth could prevail on him to communicate to her the opinion at which he had arrived.
When he called out into the antechamber for the second time, he silently took a chair by her side. She looked in his face; and the last faint hope died in her before he opened his lips.
"I must speak the hard truth," he said, gently. "All that can be done has been done. The next four-and-twenty hours, at most, will end your suspense. If Nature makes no effort in that time--I grieve to say it--you must prepare yourself for the worst."
Those words said all: they were prophetic of the end.
The night passed; and she lived through it. The next day came; and she lingered on till the clock pointed to five. At that hour the tidings of her husband's death had dealt the mortal blow. When the hour came round again, the mercy of God let her go to him in the better world. Her daughters were kneeling at the bedside as her spirit passed away. She left them unconscious of their presence; mercifully and happily insensible to the pang of the last farewell.
Her child survived her till the evening was on the wane and the sunset was dim in the quiet western heaven. As the darkness came, the light of the frail little life--faint and feeble from the first--flickered and went out. All that was earthly of mother and child lay, that night, on the same bed. The Angel of Death had done his awful bidding; and the two Sisters were left alone in the world.
EARLIER than usual on the morning of Thursday, the twenty-third of July, Mr. Clare appeared at the door of his cottage, and stepped out into the little strip of garden attached to his residence.
After he had taken a few turns backward and forward, alone, he was joined by a spare, quiet, gray-haired man, whose personal appearance was totally devoid of marked character of any kind; whose inexpressive face and conventionally-quiet manner presented nothing that attracted approval and nothing that inspired dislike. This was Mr. Pendril--this was the man on whose lips hung the future of the orphans at Combe-Raven.
"The time is getting on," he said, looking toward the shrubbery, as he joined Mr. Clare. "My appointment with Miss Garth is for eleven o'clock: it only wants ten minutes of the hour."
"Are you to see her alone?" asked Mr. Clare.
"I left Miss Garth to decide--after warning her, first of all, that the circumstances I am compelled to disclose are of a very serious nature."
"And has she decided?"
"She writes me word that she mentioned my appointment, and repeated the warning I had given her to both the daughters. The elder of the two shrinks--and who can wonder at it?--from any discussion connected with the future which requires her presence so soon as the day after the funeral. The younger one appears to have expressed no opinion on the subject. As I understand it, she suffers herself to be passively guided by her sister's example. My interview, therefore, will take place with Miss Garth alone--and it is a very great relief to me to know it."
He spoke the last words with more emphasis and energy than seemed habitual to him. Mr. Clare stopped, and looked at his guest attentively.
"You are almost as old as I am, sir," he said. "Has all your long experience as a lawyer not hardened you yet?"
"I never knew how little it had hardened me," replied Mr. Pendril, quietly, "until I returned from London yesterday to attend the funeral. I was not warned that the daughters had resolved on following their parents to the grave. I think their presence made the closing scene of this dreadful calamity doubly painful, and doubly touching. You saw how the great concourse of people were moved by it--and they were in ignorance of the truth; they knew nothing of the cruel necessity which takes me to the house this morning. The sense of that necessity--and the sight of those poor girls at the time when I felt my hard duty toward them most painfully--shook me, as a man of my years and my way of life is not often shaken by any distress in the present or any suspense in the future. I have not recovered it this morning: I hardly feel sure of myself yet."
"A man's composure--when he is a man like you--comes with the necessity for it," said Mr. Clare. "You must have had duties to perform as trying in their way as the duty that lies before you this morning."
Mr. Pendril shook his head. "Many duties as serious; many stories more romantic. No duty so trying, no story so hopeless, as this."
With those words they parted. Mr. Pendril left the garden for the shrubbery path which led to Combe-Raven. Mr. Clare returned to the cottage.
On reaching the passage, he looked through the open door of his little parlor and saw Frank sitting there in idle wretchedness, with his head resting wearily on his hand.
"I have had an answer from your employers in London," said Mr. Clare. "In consideration of what has happened, they will allow the offer they made you to stand over for another month."
Frank changed color, and rose nervously from his chair.
"Are my prospects altered?" he asked. "Are Mr. Vanstone's plans for me not to be carried out? He told Magdalen his will had provided for her. She repeated his words to me; she said I ought to know all that his goodness and generosity had done for both of us. How can his death make a change? Has anything happened?"
"Wait till Mr. Pendril comes back from Combe-Raven," said his father. "Question him--don't question me."
The ready tears rose in Frank's eyes.
"You won't be hard on me?" he pleaded, faintly. "You won't expect me to go back to London without seeing Magdalen first?"
Mr. Clare looked thoughtfully at his son, and considered a little before he replied.
"You may dry your eyes," he said. "You shall see Magdalen before you go back."
He left the room, after making that reply, and withdrew to his study. The books lay ready to his hand as usual. He opened one of them and set himself to read in the customary manner. But his attention wandered; and his eyes strayed away, from time to time, to the empty chair opposite--the chair in which his old friend and gossip had sat and wrangled with him good-humoredly for many and many a year past. After a struggle with himself he closed the book. "D--n the chair!" he said: "it will talk of him; and I must listen." He reached down his pipe from the wall and mechanically filled it with tobacco. His hand shook, his eyes wandered back to the old place; and a heavy sigh came from him unwillingly. That empty chair was the only earthly argument for which he had no answer: his heart owned its defeat and moistened his eyes in spite of him. "He has got the better of me at last," said the rugged old man. "There is one weak place left in me still--and he has found it."
Meanwhile, Mr. Pendril entered the shrubbery, and followed the path which led to the lonely garden and the desolate house. He was met at the door by the man-servant, who was apparently waiting in expectation of his arrival.
"I have an appointment with Miss Garth. Is she ready to see me?"
"Quite ready, sir."
"Is she alone?"
"In the room which was Mr. Vanstone's study?"
"In that room, sir."
The servant opened the door and Mr. Pendril went in.
The governess stood alone at the study window. The morning was oppressively hot, and she threw up the lower sash to admit more air into the room, as Mr. Pendril entered it.
They bowed to each other with a formal politeness, which betrayed on either side an uneasy sense of restraint. Mr. Pendril was one of the many men who appear superficially to the worst advantage, under the influence of strong mental agitation which it is necessary for them to control. Miss Garth, on her side, had not forgotten the ungraciously guarded terms in which the lawyer had replied to her letter; and the natural anxiety which she had felt on the subject of the interview was not relieved by any favorable opinion of the man who sought it. As they confronted each other in the silence of the summer's morning--both dressed in black; Miss Garth's hard features, gaunt and haggard with grief; the lawyer's cold, colorless face, void of all marked expression, suggestive of a business embarrassment and of nothing more--it would have been hard to find two persons less attractive externally to any ordinary sympathies than the two who had now met together, the one to tell, the other to hear, the secrets of the dead.
"I am sincerely sorry, Miss Garth, to intrude on you at such a time as this. But circumstances, as I have already explained, leave me no other choice."
"Will you take a seat, Mr. Pendril? You wished to see me in this room, I believe?"
"Only in this room, because Mr. Vanstone's papers are kept here, and I may find it necessary to refer to some of them."
After that formal interchange of question and answer, they sat down on either side of a table placed close under the window. One waited to speak, the other waited to bear. There was a momentary silence. Mr. Pendril broke it by referring to the young ladies, with the customary expressions of sympathy. Miss Garth answered him with the same ceremony, in the same conventional tone. There was a second pause of silence. The humming of flies among the evergreen shrubs under the window penetrated drowsily into the room; and the tramp of a heavy-footed cart-horse, plodding along the high-road beyond the garden, was as plainly audible in the stillness as if it had been night.
The lawyer roused his flagging resolution, and spoke to the purpose when he spoke next.
"You have some reason, Miss Garth," he began, "to feel not quite satisfied with my past conduct toward you, in one particular. During Mrs. Vanstone's fatal illness, you addressed a letter to me, making certain inquiries; which, while she lived, it was impossible for me to answer. Her deplorable death releases me from the restraint which I had imposed on myself, and permits--or, more properly, obliges me to speak. You shall know what serious reasons I had for waiting day and night in the hope of obtaining that interview which unhappily never took place; and in justice to Mr. Vanstone's memory, your own eyes shall inform you that he made his will."
He rose; unlocked a little iron safe in the corner of the room; and returned to the table with some folded sheets of paper, which he spread open under Miss Garth's eyes. When she had read the first words, "In the name of God, Amen," he turned the sheet, and pointed to the end of the next page. She saw the well-known signature: "Andrew Vanstone." She saw the customary attestations of the two witnesses; and the date of the document, reverting to a period of more than five years since. Having thus convinced her of the formality of the will, the lawyer interposed before she could question him, and addressed her in these words:
"I must not deceive you," he said. "I have my own reasons for producing this document."
"What reasons, sir?"
"You shall hear them. When you are in possession of the truth, these pages may help to preserve your respect for Mr. Vanstone's memory--"
Miss Garth started back in her chair.
"What do you mean?" she asked, with a stern straightforwardness.
He took no heed of the question; he went on as if she had not interrupted him.
"I have a second reason," he continued, "for showing you the will. If I can prevail on you to read certain clauses in it, under my superintendence, you will make your own discovery of the circumstances which I am here to disclose--circumstances so painful that I hardly know how to communicate them to you with my own lips."
Miss Garth looked him steadfastly in the face.
"Circumstances, sir, which affect the dead parents, or the living children?"
"Which affect the dead and the living both," answered the lawyer. "Circumstances, I grieve to say, which involve the future of Mr. Vanstone's unhappy daughters."
"Wait," said Miss Garth, "wait a little." She pushed her gray hair back from her temples, and struggled with the sickness of heart, the dreadful faintness of terror, which would have overpowered a younger or a less resolute woman. Her eyes, dim with watching, weary with grief, searched the lawyer's unfathomable face. "His unhappy daughters?" she repeated to herself, vacantly. "He talks as if there was some worse calamity than the calamity which has made them orphans." She paused once more; and rallied her sinking courage. "I will not make your hard duty, sir, more painful to you than I can help," she resumed. "Show me the place in the will. Let me read it, and know the worst."
Mr. Pendril turned back to the first page, and pointed to a certain place in the cramped lines of writing. "Begin here," he said.
She tried to begin; she tried to follow his finger, as she had followed it already to the signatures and the dates. But her senses seemed to share the confusion of her mind--the words mingled together, and the lines swam before her eyes.
"I can't follow you," she said. "You must tell it, or read it to me." She pushed her chair back from the table, and tried to collect herself. "Stop!" she exclaimed, as the lawyer, with visible hesitation and reluctance, took the papers in his own hand. "One question, first. Does his will provide for his children?"
"His will provided for them, when he made it."
"When he made it!" (Something of her natural bluntness broke out in her manner as she repeated the answer.) "Does it provide for them now?"
"It does not."
She snatched the will from his hand, and threw it into a corner of the room. "You mean well," she said; "you wish to spare me--but you are wasting your time, and my strength. If the will is useless, there let it lie. Tell me the truth, Mr. Pendril--tell it plainly, tell it instantly, in your own words!"
He felt that it would be useless cruelty to resist that appeal. There was no merciful alternative but to answer it on the spot.
"I must refer you to the spring of the present year, Miss Garth. Do you remember the fourth of March?"
Her attention wandered again; a thought seemed to have struck her at the moment when he spoke. Instead of answering his inquiry, she put a question of her own.
"Let me break the news to myself," she said--"let me anticipate you, if I can. His useless will, the terms in which you speak of his daughters, the doubt you seem to feel of my continued respect for his memory, have opened a new view to me. Mr. Vanstone has died a ruined man--is that what you had to tell me?"
"Far from it. Mr. Vanstone has died, leaving a fortune of more than eighty thousand pounds--a fortune invested in excellent securities. He lived up to his income, but never beyond it; and all his debts added together would not reach two hundred pounds. If he had died a ruined man, I should have felt deeply for his children: but I should not have hesitated to tell you the truth, as I am hesitating now. Let me repeat a question which escaped you, I think, when I first put it. Carry your mind back to the spring of this year. Do you remember the fourth of March?"
Miss Garth shook her head. "My memory for dates is bad at the best of times," she said. "I am too confused to exert it at a moment's notice. Can you put your question in no other form?"
He put it in this form:
"Do you remember any domestic event in the spring of the present year which appeared to affect Mr. Vanstone more seriously than usual?"
Miss Garth leaned forward in her chair, and looked eagerly at Mr. Pendril across the table. "The journey to London!" she exclaimed. "I distrusted the journey to London from the first! Yes! I remember Mr. Vanstone receiving a letter--I remember his reading it, and looking so altered from himself that he startled us all."
"Did you notice any apparent understanding between Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone on the subject of that letter?"
"Yes: I did. One of the girls--it was Magdalen--mentioned the post-mark; some place in America. It all comes back to me, Mr. Pendril. Mrs. Vanstone looked excited and anxious, the moment she heard the place named. They went to London together the next day; they explained nothing to their daughters, nothing to me. Mrs. Vanstone said the journey was for family affairs. I suspected something wrong; I couldn't tell what. Mrs. Vanstone wrote to me from London, saying that her object was to consult a physician on the state of her health, and not to alarm her daughters by telling them. Something in the letter rather hurt me at the time. I thought there might be some other motive that she was keeping from me. Did I do her wrong?"
"You did her no wrong. There was a motive which she was keeping from you. In revealing that motive, I reveal the painful secret which brings me to this house. All that I could do to prepare you, I have done. Let me now tell the truth in the plainest and fewest words. When Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone left Combe-Raven, in the March of the present year--"
Before he could complete the sentence, a sudden movement of Miss Garth's interrupted him. She started violently, and looked round toward the window. "Only the wind among the leaves," she said, faintly. "My nerves are so shaken, the least thing startles me. Speak out, for God's sake! When Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone left this house, tell me in plain words, why did they go to London?"
In plain words, Mr. Pendril told her:
"They went to London to be married."
With that answer he placed a slip of paper on the table. It was the marriage certificate of the dead parents, and the date it bore was March the twentieth, eighteen hundred and forty-six.
Miss Garth neither moved nor spoke. The certificate lay beneath her unnoticed. She sat with her eyes rooted on the lawyer's face; her mind stunned, her senses helpless. He saw that all his efforts to break the shock of the discovery had been efforts made in vain; he felt the vital importance of rousing her, and firmly and distinctly repeated the fatal words.
"They went to London to be married," he said. "Try to rouse yourself: try to realize the plain fact first: the explanation shall come afterward. Miss Garth, I speak the miserable truth! In the spring of this year they left home; they lived in London for a fortnight, in the strictest retirement; they were married by license at the end of that time. There is a copy of the certificate, which I myself obtained on Monday last. Read the date of the marriage for yourself. It is Friday, the twentieth of March--the March of this present year."
As he pointed to the certificate, that faint breath of air among the shrubs beneath the window, which had startled Miss Garth, stirred the leaves once more. He heard it himself this time, and turned his face, so as to let the breeze play upon it. No breeze came; no breath of air that was strong enough for him to feel, floated into the room.
Miss Garth roused herself mechanically, and read the certificate. It seemed to produce no distinct impression on her: she laid it on one side in a lost, bewildered manner. "Twelve years," she said, in low, hopeless tones--"twelve quiet, happy years I lived with this family. Mrs. Vanstone was my friend; my dear, valued friend--my sister, I might almost say. I can't believe it. Bear with me a little, sir, I can't believe it yet."
"I shall help you to believe it when I tell you more," said Mr. Pendril--"you will understand me better when I take you back to the time of Mr. Vanstone's early life. I won't ask for your attention just yet. Let us wait a little, until you recover yourself."
They waited a few minutes. The lawyer took some letters from his pocket, referred to them attentively, and put them back again. "Can you listen to me, now?" he asked, kindly. She bowed her head in answer. Mr. Pendril considered with himself for a moment, "I must caution you on one point," he said. "If the aspect of Mr. Vanstone's character which I am now about to present to you seems in some respects at variance with your later experience, bear in mind that, when you first knew him twelve years since, he was a man of forty; and that, when I first knew him, he was a lad of nineteen."
His next words raised the veil, and showed the irrevocable Past.
"THE fortune which Mr. Vanstone possessed when you knew him" (the lawyer began) "was part, and part only, of the inheritance which fell to him on his father's death. Mr. Vanstone the elder was a manufacturer in the North of England. He married early in life; and the children of the marriage were either six or seven in number--I am not certain which. First, Michael, the eldest son, still living, and now an old man turned seventy. Secondly, Selina, the eldest daughter, who married in after-life, and who died ten or eleven years ago. After those two came other sons and daughters, whose early deaths make it unnecessary to mention them particularly. The last and by many years the youngest of the children was Andrew, whom I first knew, as I told you, at the age of nineteen. My father was then on the point of retiring from the active pursuit of his profession; and in succeeding to his business, I also succeeded to his connection with the Vanstones as the family solicitor.
"At that time, Andrew had just started in life by entering the army. After little more than a year of home-service, he was ordered out with his regiment to Canada. When he quitted England, he left his father and his elder brother Michael seriously at variance. I need not detain you by entering into the cause of the quarrel. I need only tell you that the elder Mr. Vanstone, with many excellent qualities, was a man of fierce and intractable temper. His eldest son had set him at defiance, under circumstances which might have justly irritated a father of far milder character; and he declared, in the most positive terms, that he would never see Michael's face again. In defiance of my entreaties, and of the entreaties of his wife, he tore up, in our presence, the will which provided for Michael's share in the paternal inheritance. Such was the family position, when the younger son left home for Canada.
"Some months after Andrew's arrival with his regiment at Quebec, he became acquainted with a woman of great personal attractions, who came, or said she came, from one of the Southern States of America. She obtained an immediate influence over him; and she used it to the basest purpose. You knew the easy, affectionate, trusting nature of the man in later life--you can imagine how thoughtlessly he acted on the impulse of his youth. It is useless to dwell on this lamentable part of the story. He was just twenty-one: he was blindly devoted to a worthless woman; and she led him on, with merciless cunning, till it was too late to draw back. In one word, he committed the fatal error of his life: he married her.
"She had been wise enough in her own interests to dread the influence of his brother-officers, and to persuade him, up to the period of the marriage ceremony, to keep the proposed union between them a secret. She could do this; but she could not provide against the results of accident. Hardly three months had passed, when a chance disclosure exposed the life she had led before her marriage. But one alternative was left to her husband--the alternative of instantly separating from her.
"The effect of the discovery on the unhappy boy--for a boy in disposition he still was--may be judged by the event which followed the exposure. One of Andrew's superior officers--a certain Major Kirke, if I remember right--found him in his quarters, writing to his father a confession of the disgraceful truth, with a loaded pistol by his side. That officer saved the lad's life from his own hand, and hushed up the scandalous affair by a compromise. The marriage being a perfectly legal one, and the wife's misconduct prior to the ceremony giving her husband no claim to his release from her by divorce, it was only possible to appeal to her sense of her own interests. A handsome annual allowance was secured to her, on condition that she returned to the place from which she had come; that she never appeared in England; and that she ceased to use her husband's name. Other stipulations were added to these. She accepted them all; and measures were privately taken to have her well looked after in the place of her retreat. What life she led there, and whether she performed all the conditions imposed on her, I cannot say. I can only tell you that she never, to my knowledge, came to England; that she never annoyed Mr. Vanstone; and that the annual allowance was paid her, through a local agent in America, to the day of her death. All that she wanted in marrying him was money; and money she got.
"In the meantime, Andrew had left the regiment. Nothing would induce him to face his brother-officers after what had happened. He sold out and returned to England. The first intelligence which reached him on his return was the intelligence of his father's death. He came to my office in London, before going home, and there learned from my lips how the family quarrel had ended.
"The will which Mr. Vanstone the elder had destroyed in my presence had not been, so far as I know, replaced by another. When I was sent for, in the usual course, on his death, I fully expected that the law would be left to make the customary division among his widow and his children. To my surprise, a will appeared among his papers, correctly drawn and executed, and dated about a week after the period when the first will had been destroyed. He had maintained his vindictive purpose against his eldest son, and had applied to a stranger for the professional assistance which I honestly believe he was ashamed to ask for at my hands.
"It is needless to trouble you with the provisions of the will in detail. There were the widow and three surviving children to be provided for. The widow received a life-interest only in a portion of the testator's property. The remaining portion was divided between Andrew and Selina--two-thirds to the brother; one-third to the sister. On the mother's death, the money from which her income had been derived was to go to Andrew and Selina, in the same relative proportions as before--five thousand pounds having been first deducted from the sum and paid to Michael, as the sole legacy left by the implacable father to his eldest son.
"Speaking in round numbers, the division of property, as settled by the will, stood thus. Before the mother's death, Andrew had seventy thousand pounds; Selina had thirty-five thousand pounds; Michael--had nothing. After the mother's death, Michael had five thousand pounds, to set against Andrew's inheritance augmented to one hundred thousand, and Selina's inheritance increased to fifty thousand.--Do not suppose that I am dwelling unnecessarily on this part of the subject. Every word I now speak bears on interests still in suspense, which vitally concern Mr. Vanstone's daughters. As we get on from past to present, keep in mind the terrible inequality of Michael's inheritance and Andrew's inheritance. The harm done by that vindictive will is, I greatly fear, not over yet.
"Andrew's first impulse, when he heard the news which I had to tell him, was worthy of the open, generous nature of the man. He at once proposed to divide his inheritance with his elder brother. But there was one serious obstacle in the way. A letter from Michael was waiting for him at my office when he came there, and that letter charged him with being the original cause of estrangement between his father and his elder brother. The efforts which he had made--bluntly and incautiously, I own, but with the purest and kindest intentions, as I know--to compose the quarrel before leaving home, were perverted, by the vilest misconstruction, to support an accusation of treachery and falsehood which would have stung any man to the quick. Andrew felt, what I felt, that if these imputations were not withdrawn before his generous intentions toward his brother took effect, the mere fact of their execution would amount to a practical acknowledgment of the justice of Michael's charge against him. He wrote to his brother in the most forbearing terms. The answer received was as offensive as words could make it. Michael had inherited his father's temper, unredeemed by his father's better qualities: his second letter reiterated the charges contained in the first, and declared that he would only accept the offered division as an act of atonement and restitution on Andrew's part. I next wrote to the mother to use her influence. She was herself aggrieved at being left with nothing more than a life interest in her husband's property; she sided resolutely with Michael; and she stigmatized Andrew's proposal as an attempt to bribe her eldest son into withdrawing a charge against his brother which that brother knew to be true. After this last repulse, nothing more could be done. Michael withdrew to the Continent; and his mother followed him there. She lived long enough, and saved money enough out of her income, to add considerably, at her death, to her elder son's five thousand pounds. He had previously still further improved his pecuniary position by an advantageous marriage; and he is now passing the close of his days either in France or Switzerland--a widower, with one son. We shall return to him shortly. In the meantime, I need only tell you that Andrew and Michael never again met--never again communicated, even by writing. To all intents and purposes they were dead to each other, from those early days to the present time.
"You can now estimate what Andrew's position was when he left his profession and returned to England. Possessed of a fortune, he was alone in the world; his future destroyed at the fair outset of life; his mother and brother estranged from him; his sister lately married, with interests and hopes in which he had no share. Men of firmer mental caliber might have found refuge from such a situation as this in an absorbing intellectual pursuit. He was not capable of the effort; all the strength of his character lay in the affections he had wasted. His place in the world was that quiet place at home, with wife and children to make his life happy, which he had lost forever. To look back was more than he dare. To look forward was more than he could. In sheer despair, he let his own impetuous youth drive him on; and cast himself into the lowest dissipations of a London life.
"A woman's falsehood had driven him to his ruin. A woman's love saved him at the outset of his downward career. Let us not speak of her harshly--for we laid her with him yesterday in the grave.
"You, who only knew Mrs. Vanstone in later life, when illness and sorrow and secret care had altered and saddened her, can form no adequate idea of her attractions of person and character when she was a girl of seventeen. I was with Andrew when he first met her. I had tried to rescue him, for one night at least, from degrading associates and degrading pleasures, by persuading him to go with me to a ball given by one of the great City Companies. There they met. She produced a strong impression on him the moment he saw her. To me, as to him, she was a total stranger. An introduction to her, obtained in the customary manner, informed him that she was the daughter of one Mr. Blake. The rest he discovered from herself. They were partners in the dance (unobserved in that crowded ball-room) all through the evening.
"Circumstances were against her from the first. She was unhappy at home. Her family and friends occupied no recognized station in life: they were mean, underhand people, in every way unworthy of her. It was her first ball--it was the first time she had ever met with a man who had the breeding, the manners and the conversation of a gentleman. Are these excuses for her, which I have no right to make? If we have any human feeling for human weakness, surely not!
"The meeting of that night decided their future. When other meetings had followed, when the confession of her love had escaped her, he took the one course of all others (took it innocently and unconsciously), which was most dangerous to them both. His frankness and his sense of honor forbade him to deceive her: he opened his heart and told her the truth. She was a generous, impulsive girl; she had no home ties strong enough to plead with her; she was passionately fond of him--and he had made that appeal to her pity which, to the eternal honor of women, is the hardest of all appeals for them to resist. She saw, and saw truly, that she alone stood between him and his ruin. The last chance of his rescue hung on her decision. She decided; and saved him.
"Let me not be misunderstood; let me not be accused of trifling with the serious social question on which my narrative forces me to touch. I will defend her memory by no false reasoning--I will only speak the truth. It is the truth that she snatched him from mad excesses which must have ended in his early death. It is the truth that she restored him to that happy home existence which you remember so tenderly--which he remembered so gratefully that, on the day when he was free, he made her his wife. Let strict morality claim its right, and condemn her early fault. I have read my New Testament to little purpose, indeed, if Christian mercy may not soften the hard sentence against her--if Christian charity may not find a plea for her memory in the love and fidelity, the suffering and the sacrifice, of her whole life.
"A few words more will bring us to a later time, and to events which have happened within your own experience.
"I need not remind you that the position in which Mr. Vanstone was now placed could lead in the end to but one result--to a disclosure, more or less inevitable, of the truth. Attempts were made to keep the hopeless misfortune of his life a secret from Miss Blake's family; and, as a matter of course, those attempts failed before the relentless scrutiny of her father and her friends. What might have happened if her relatives had been what is termed 'respectable' I cannot pretend to say. As it was, they were people who could (in the common phrase) be conveniently treated with. The only survivor of the family at the present time is a scoundrel calling himself Captain Wragge. When I tell you that he privately extorted the price of his silence from Mrs. Vanstone to the last; and when I add that his conduct presents no extraordinary exception to the conduct, in their lifetime, of the other relatives--you will understand what sort of people I had to deal with in my client's interests, and how their assumed indignation was appeased.
"Having, in the first instance, left England for Ireland, Mr. Vanstone and Miss Blake remained there afterward for some years. Girl as she was, she faced her position and its necessities without flinching. Having once resolved to sacrifice her life to the man she loved; having quieted her conscience by persuading herself that his marriage was a legal mockery, and that she was 'his wife in the sight of Heaven,' she set herself from the first to accomplish the one foremost purpose of so living with him, in the world's eye, as never to raise the suspicion that she was not his lawful wife. The women are few, indeed, who cannot resolve firmly, scheme patiently, and act promptly where the dearest interests of their lives are concerned. Mrs. Vanstone--she has a right now, remember, to that name--Mrs. Vanstone had more than the average share of a woman's tenacity and a woman's tact; and she took all the needful precautions, in those early days, which her husband's less ready capacity had not the art to devise--precautions to which they were largely indebted for the preservation of their secret in later times.
"Thanks to these safeguards, not a shadow of suspicion followed them when they returned to England. They first settled in Devonshire, merely because they were far removed there from that northern county in which Mr. Vanstone's family and connections had been known. On the part of his surviving relatives, they had no curious investigations to dread. He was totally estranged from his mother and his elder brother. His married sister had been forbidden by her husband (who was a clergyman) to hold any communication with him, from the period when he had fallen into the deplorable way of life which I have described as following his return from Canada. Other relations he had none. When he and Miss Blake left Devonshire, their next change of residence was to this house. Neither courting nor avoiding notice; simply happy in themselves, in their children, and in their quiet rural life; unsuspected by the few neighbors who formed their modest circle of acquaintance to be other than what they seemed--the truth in their case, as in the cases of many others, remained undiscovered until accident forced it into the light of day.
"If, in your close intimacy with them, it seems strange that they should never have betrayed themselves, let me ask you to consider the circumstances and you will understand the apparent anomaly. Remember that they had been living as husband and wife, to all intents and purposes (except that the marriage-service had not been read over them), for fifteen years before you came into the house; and bear in mind, at the same time, that no event occurred to disturb Mr. Vanstone's happiness in the present, to remind him of the past, or to warn him of the future, until the announcement of his wife's death reached him, in that letter from America which you saw placed in his hand. From that day forth--when a past which he abhorred was forced back to his memory; when a future which she had never dared to anticipate was placed within her reach--you will soon perceive, if you have not perceived already, that they both betrayed themselves, time after time; and that your innocence of all suspicion, and their children's innocence of all suspicion, alone prevented you from discovering the truth.
"The sad story of the past is now as well known to you as to me. I have had hard words to speak. God knows I have spoken them with true sympathy for the living, with true tenderness for the memory of the dead."
He paused, turned his face a little away, and rested his head on his hand, in the quiet, undemonstrative manner which was natural to him. Thus far, Miss Garth had only interrupted his narrative by an occasional word or by a mute token of her attention. She made no effort to conceal her tears; they fell fast and silently over her wasted cheeks, as she looked up and spoke to him. "I have done you some injury, sir, in my thoughts," she said, with a noble simplicity. "I know you better now. Let me ask your forgiveness; let me take your hand."
Those words, and the action which accompanied them, touched him deeply. He took her hand in silence. She was the first to speak, the first to set the example of self-control. It is one of the noble instincts of women that nothing more powerfully rouses them to struggle with their own sorrow than the sight of a man's distress. She quietly dried her tears; she quietly drew her chair round the table, so as to sit nearer to him when she spoke again.
"I have been sadly broken, Mr. Pendril, by what has happened in this house," she said, "or I should have borne what you have told me better than I have borne it to-day. Will you let me ask one question before you go on? My heart aches for the children of my love--more than ever my children now. Is there no hope for their future? Are they left with no prospect but poverty before them?"
The lawyer hesitated before he answered the question.
"They are left dependent," he said, at last, "on the justice and the mercy of a stranger."
"Through the misfortune of their birth?"
"Through the misfortunes which have followed the marriage of their parents."
With that startling answer he rose, took up the will from the floor, and restored it to its former position on the table between them.
"I can only place the truth before you," he resumed, "in one plain form of words. The marriage has destroyed this will, and has left Mr. Vanstone's daughters dependent on their uncle."
As he spoke, the breeze stirred again among the shrubs under the window.
"On their uncle?" repeated Miss Garth. She considered for a moment, and laid her hand suddenly on Mr. Pendril's arm. "Not on Michael Vanstone!"
"Yes: on Michael Vanstone."
Miss Garth's hand still mechanically grasped the lawyer's arm. Her whole mind was absorbed in the effort to realize the discovery which had now burst on her.
"Dependent on Michael Vanstone!" she said to herself. "Dependent on their father's bitterest enemy? How can it be?"
"Give me your attention for a few minutes more," said Mr. Pendril, "and you shall hear. The sooner we can bring this painful interview to a close, the sooner I can open communications with Mr. Michael Vanstone, and the sooner you will know what he decides on doing for his brother's orphan daughters. I repeat to you that they are absolutely dependent on him. You will most readily understand how and why, if we take up the chain of events where we last left it--at the period of Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone's marriage."
"One moment, sir," said Miss Garth. "Were you in the secret of that marriage at the time when it took place?"
"Unhappily, I was not. I was away from London--away from England at the time. If Mr. Vanstone had been able to communicate with me when the letter from America announced the death of his wife, the fortunes of his daughters would not have been now at stake."
He paused, and, before proceeding further, looked once more at the letters which he had consulted at an earlier period of the interview. He took one letter from the rest, and put it on the table by his side.
"At the beginning of the present year," he resumed, "a very serious business necessity, in connection with some West Indian property possessed by an old client and friend of mine, required the presence either of myself, or of one of my two partners, in Jamaica. One of the two could not be spared; the other was not in health to undertake the voyage. There was no choice left but for me to go. I wrote to Mr. Vanstone, telling him that I should leave England at the end of February, and that the nature of the business which took me away afforded little hope of my getting back from the West Indies before June. My letter was not written with any special motive. I merely thought it right--seeing that my partners were not admitted to my knowledge of Mr. Vanstone's private affairs--to warn him of my absence, as a measure of formal precaution which it was right to take. At the end of February I left England, without having heard from him. I was on the sea when the news of his wife's death reached him, on the fourth of March: and I did not return until the middle of last June."
"You warned him of your departure," interposed Miss Garth. "Did you not warn him of your return?"
"Not personally. My head-clerk sent him one of the circulars which were dispatched from my office, in various directions, to announce my return. It was the first substitute I thought of for the personal letter which the pressure of innumerable occupations, all crowding on me together after my long absence, did not allow me leisure to write. Barely a month later, the first information of his marriage reached me in a letter from himself, written on the day of the fatal accident. The circumstances which induced him to write arose out of an event in which you must have taken some interest--I mean the attachment between Mr. Clare's son and Mr. Vanstone's youngest daughter."
"I cannot say that I was favorably disposed toward that attachment at the time," replied Miss Garth. "I was ignorant then of the family secret: I know better now."
"Exactly. The motive which you can now appreciate is the motive that leads us to the point. The young lady herself (as I have heard from the elder Mr. Clare, to whom I am indebted for my knowledge of the circumstances in detail) confessed her attachment to her father, and innocently touched him to the quick by a chance reference to his own early life. He had a long conversation with Mrs. Vanstone, at which they both agreed that Mr. Clare must be privately informed of the truth, before the attachment between the two young people was allowed to proceed further. It was painful in the last degree, both to husband and wife, to be reduced to this alternative. But they were resolute, honorably resolute, in making the sacrifice of their own feelings; and Mr. Vanstone betook himself on the spot to Mr. Clare's cottage.--You no doubt observed a remarkable change in Mr. Vanstone's manner on that day; and you can now account for it?"
Miss Garth bowed her head, and Mr. Pendril went on.
"You are sufficiently acquainted with Mr. Clare's contempt for all social prejudices," he continued, "to anticipate his reception of the confession which his neighbor addressed to him. Five minutes after the interview had begun, the two old friends were as easy and unrestrained together as usual. In the course of conversation, Mr. Vanstone mentioned the pecuniary arrangement which he had made for the benefit of his daughter and of her future husband--and, in doing so, he naturally referred to his will here, on the table between us. Mr. Clare, remembering that his friend had been married in the March of that year, at once asked when the will had been executed: receiving the reply that it had been made five years since; and, thereupon, astounded Mr. Vanstone by telling him bluntly that the document was waste paper in the eye of the law. Up to that moment he, like many other persons, had been absolutely ignorant that a man's marriage is, legally as well as socially, considered to be the most important event in his life; that it destroys the validity of any will which he may have made as a single man; and that it renders absolutely necessary the entire re-assertion of his testamentary intentions in the character of a husband. The statement of this plain fact appeared to overwhelm Mr. Vanstone. Declaring that his friend had laid him under an obligation which he should remember to his dying day, he at once left the cottage, at once returned home, and wrote me this letter."
He handed the letter open to Miss Garth. In tearless, speechless grief, she read these words:
"MY DEAR PENDRIL--Since we last wrote to each other an extraordinary change has taken place in my life. About a week after you went away, I received news from America which told me that I was free. Need I say what use I made of that freedom? Need I say that the mother of my children is now my Wife?
"If you are surprised at not having heard from me the moment you got back, attribute my silence, in great part--if not altogether--to my own total ignorance of the legal necessity for making another will. Not half an hour since, I was enlightened for the first time (under circumstances which I will mention when me meet) by my old friend, Mr. Clare. Family anxieties have had something to do with my silence as well. My wife's confinement is close at hand; and, besides this serious anxiety, my second daughter is just engaged to be married. Until I saw Mr. Clare to-day, these matters so filled my mind that I never thought of writing to you during the one short month which is all that has passed since I got news of your return. Now I know that my will must be made again, I write instantly. For God's sake, come on the day when you receive this--come and relieve me from the dreadful thought that my two darling girls are at this moment unprovided for. If anything happened to me, and if my desire to do their mother justice, ended (through my miserable ignorance of the law) in leaving Norah and Magdalen disinherited, I should not rest in my grave! Come at any cost, to yours ever,
"On the Saturday morning," Mr. Pendril resumed, "those lines reached me. I instantly set aside all other business, and drove to the railway. At the London terminus, I heard the first news of the Friday's accident; heard it, with conflicting accounts of the numbers and names of the passengers killed. At Bristol, they were better informed; and the dreadful truth about Mr. Vanstone was confirmed. I had time to recover myself before I reached your station here, and found Mr. Clare's son waiting for me. He took me to his father's cottage; and there, without losing a moment, I drew out Mrs. Vanstone's will. My object was to secure the only provision for her daughters which it was now possible to make. Mr. Vanstone having died intestate, a third of his fortune would go to his widow; and the rest would be divided among his next of kin. As children born out of wedlock, Mr. Vanstone's daughters, under the circumstances of their father's death, had no more claim to a share in his property than the daughters of one of his laborers in the village. The one chance left was that their mother might sufficiently recover to leave her third share to them, by will, in the event of her decease. Now you know why I wrote to you to ask for that interview--why I waited day and night, in the hope of receiving a summons to the house. I was sincerely sorry to send back such an answer to your note of inquiry as I was compelled to write. But while there was a chance of the preservation of Mrs. Vanstone's life, the secret of the marriage was hers, not mine; and every consideration of delicacy forbade me to disclose it."
"You did right, sir," said Miss Garth; "I understand your motives, and respect them."
"My last attempt to provide for the daughters," continued Mr. Pendril, "was, as you know, rendered unavailing by the dangerous nature of Mrs. Vanstone's illness. Her death left the infant who survived her by a few hours (the infant born, you will remember, in lawful wedlock) possessed, in due legal course, of the whole of Mr. Vanstone's fortune. On the child's death--if it had only outlived the mother by a few seconds, instead of a few hours, the result would have been the same--the next of kin to the legitimate offspring took the money; and that next of kin is the infant's paternal uncle, Michael Vanstone. The whole fortune of eighty thousand pounds has virtually passed into his possession already."
"Are there no other relations?" asked Miss Garth. "Is there no hope from any one else?"
"There are no other relations with Michael Vanstone's claim," said the lawyer. "There are no grandfathers or grandmothers of the dead child (on the side of either of the parents) now alive. It was not likely there should be, considering the ages of Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone when they died. But it is a misfortune to be reasonably lamented that no other uncles or aunts survive. There are cousins alive; a son and two daughters of that elder sister of Mr. Vanstone's, who married Archdeacon Bartram, and who died, as I told you, some years since. But their interest is superseded by the interest of the nearer blood. No, Miss Garth, we must look facts as they are resolutely in the face. Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy."
"A cruel law, Mr. Pendril--a cruel law in a Christian country."
"Cruel as it is, Miss Garth, it stands excused by a shocking peculiarity in this case. I am far from defending the law of England as it affects illegitimate offspring. On the contrary, I think it a disgrace to the nation. It visits the sins of the parents on the children; it encourages vice by depriving fathers and mothers of the strongest of all motives for making the atonement of marriage; and it claims to produce these two abominable results in the names of morality and religion. But it has no extraordinary oppression to answer for in the case of these unhappy girls. The more merciful and Christian law of other countries, which allows the marriage of the parents to make the children legitimate, has no mercy on these children. The accident of their father having been married, when he first met with their mother, has made them the outcasts of the whole social community; it has placed them out of the pale of the Civil Law of Europe. I tell you the hard truth--it is useless to disguise it. There is no hope, if we look back at the past: there may be hope, if we look on to the future. The best service which I can now render you is to shorten the period of your suspense. In less than an hour I shall be on my way back to London. Immediately on my arrival, I will ascertain the speediest means of communicating with Mr. Michael Vanstone; and will let you know the result. Sad as the position of the two sisters now is, we must look at it on its best side; we must not lose hope."
"Hope?" repeated Miss Garth. "Hope from Michael Vanstone!"
"Yes; hope from the influence on him of time, if not from the influence of mercy. As I have already told you, he is now an old man; he cannot, in the course of nature, expect to live much longer. If he looks back to the period when he and his brother were first at variance, he must look back through thirty years. Surely, these are softening influences which must affect any man? Surely, his own knowledge of the shocking circumstances under which he has become possessed of this money will plead with him, if nothing else does?"
"I will try to think as you do, Mr. Pendril--I will try to hope for the best. Shall we be left long in suspense before the decision reaches us?"
"I trust not. The only delay on my side will be caused by the necessity of discovering the place of Michael Vanstone's residence on the Continent. I think I have the means of meeting this difficulty successfully; and the moment I reach London, those means shall be tried."
He took up his hat; and then returned to the table on which the father's last letter, and the father's useless will, were lying side by side. After a moment's consideration, he placed them both in Miss Garth's hands.
"It may help you in breaking the hard truth to the orphan sisters," he said, in his quiet, self-repressed way, "if they can see how their father refers to them in his will--if they can read his letter to me, the last he ever wrote. Let these tokens tell them that the one idea of their father's life was the idea of making atonement to his children. 'They may think bitterly of their birth,' he said to me, at the time when I drew this useless will; 'but they shall never think bitterly of me. I will cross them in nothing: they shall never know a sorrow that I can spare them, or a want which I will not satisfy.' He made me put those words in his will, to plead for him when the truth which he had concealed from his children in his lifetime was revealed to them after his death. No law can deprive his daughters of the legacy of his repentance and his love. I leave the will and the letter to help you: I give them both into your care."
He saw how his parting kindness touched her and thoughtfully hastened the farewell. She took his hand in both her own and murmured a few broken words of gratitude. "Trust me to do my best," he said--and, turning away with a merciful abruptness, left her. In the broad, cheerful sunshine he had come in to reveal the fatal truth. In the broad, cheerful sunshine--that truth disclosed--he went out.
IT was nearly an hour past noon when Mr. Pendril left the house. Miss Garth sat down again at the table alone, and tried to face the necessity which the event of the morning now forced on her.
Her mind was not equal to the effort. She tried to lessen the strain on it--to lose the sense of her own position--to escape from her thoughts for a few minutes only. After a little, she opened Mr. Vanstone's letter, and mechanically set herself to read it through once more.
One by one, the last words of the dead man fastened themselves more and more firmly on her attention. The unrelieved solitude, the unbroken silence, helped their influence on her mind and opened it to those very impressions of past and present which she was most anxious to shun. As she reached the melancholy lines which closed the letter, she found herself--insensibly, almost unconsciously, at first--tracing the fatal chain of events, link by link backward, until she reached its beginning in the contemplated marriage between Magdalen and Francis Clare.
That marriage had taken Mr. Vanstone to his old friend, with the confession on his lips which would otherwise never have escaped them. Thence came the discovery which had sent him home to summon the lawyer to the house. That summons, again, had produced the inevitable acceleration of the Saturday's journey to Friday; the Friday of the fatal accident, the Friday when he went to his death. From his death followed the second bereavement which had made the house desolate; the helpless position of the daughters whose prosperous future had been his dearest care; the revelation of the secret which had overwhelmed her that morning; the disclosure, more terrible still, which she now stood committed to make to the orphan sisters. For the first time she saw the whole sequence of events--saw it as plainly as the cloudless blue of the sky and the green glow of the trees in the sunlight outside.
How--when could she tell them? Who could approach them with the disclosure of their own illegitimacy before their father and mother had been dead a week? Who could speak the dreadful words, while the first tears were wet on their cheeks, while the first pang of separation was at its keenest in their hearts, while the memory of the funeral was not a day old yet? Not their last friend left; not the faithful woman whose heart bled for them. No! silence for the present time, at all risks--merciful silence, for many days to come!
She left the room, with the will and the letter in her hand--with the natural, human pity at her heart which sealed her lips and shut her eyes resolutely to the future. In the hall she stopped and listened. Not a sound was audible. She softly ascended the stairs, on her way to her own room, and passed the door of Norah's bed-chamber. Voices inside, the voices of the two sisters, caught her ear. After a moment's consideration, she checked herself, turned back, and quickly descended the stairs again. Both Norah and Magdalen knew of the interview between Mr. Pendril and herself; she had felt it her duty to show them his letter making the appointment. Could she excite their suspicion by locking herself up from them in her room as soon as the lawyer had left the house? Her hand trembled on the banister; she felt that her face might betray her. The self-forgetful fortitude, which had never failed her until that day, had been tried once too often--had been tasked beyond its powers at last.
At the hall door she reflected for a moment again, and went into the garden; directing her steps to a rustic bench and table placed out of sight of the house among the trees. In past times she had often sat there, with Mrs. Vanstone on one side, with Norah on the other, with Magdalen and the dogs romping on the grass. Alone she sat there now--the will and the letter which she dared not trust out of her own possession, laid on the table--her head bowed over them; her face hidden in her hands. Alone she sat there and tried to rouse her sinking courage.
Doubts thronged on her of the dark days to come; dread beset her of the hidden danger which her own silence toward Norah and Magdalen might store up in the near future. The accident of a moment might suddenly reveal the truth. Mr. Pendril might write, might personally address himself to the sisters, in the natural conviction that she had enlightened them. Complications might gather round them at a moment's notice; unforeseen necessities might arise for immediately leaving the house. She saw all these perils--and still the cruel courage to face the worst, and speak, was as far from her as ever. Ere long the thickening conflict of her thoughts forced its way outward for relief, in words and actions. She raised her head and beat her hand helplessly on the table.
"God help me, what am I to do?" she broke out. "How am I to tell them?"
"There is no need to tell them," said a voice behind her. "They know it already."
She started to her feet and looked round. It was Magdalen who stood before her--Magdalen who had spoken those words.
Yes, there was the graceful figure, in its mourning garments, standing out tall and black and motionless against the leafy background. There was Magdalen herself, with a changeless stillness on her white face; with an icy resignation in her steady gray eyes.
"We know it already," she repeated, in clear, measured tones. "Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy."
So, without a tear on her cheeks, without a faltering tone in her voice, she repeated the lawyer's own words, exactly as he had spoken them. Miss Garth staggered back a step and caught at the bench to support herself. Her head swam; she closed her eyes in a momentary faintness. When they opened again, Magdalen's arm was supporting her, Magdalen's breath fanned her cheek, Magdalen's cold lips kissed her. She drew back from the kiss; the touch of the girl's lips thrilled her with terror.
As soon as she could speak she put the inevitable question. "You heard us," she said. "Where?"
"Under the open window."
"All the time?"
"From beginning to end."
She had listened--this girl of eighteen, in the first week of her orphanage, had listened to the whole terrible revelation, word by word, as it fell from the lawyer's lips; and had never once betrayed herself! From first to last, the only movements which had escaped her had been movements guarded enough and slight enough to be mistaken for the passage of the summer breeze through the leaves!
"Don't try to speak yet," she said, in softer and gentler tones. "Don't look at me with those doubting eyes. What wrong have I done? When Mr. Pendril wished to speak to you about Norah and me, his letter gave us our choice to be present at the interview, or to keep away. If my elder sister decided to keep away, how could I come? How could I hear my own story except as I did? My listening has done no harm. It has done good--it has saved you the distress of speaking to us. You have suffered enough for us already; it is time we learned to suffer for ourselves. I have learned. And Norah is learning."
"Yes. I have done all I could to spare you. I have told Norah."
She had told Norah! Was this girl, whose courage had faced the terrible necessity from which a woman old enough to be her mother had recoiled, the girl Miss Garth had brought up? the girl whose nature she had believed to be as well known to her as her own?
"Magdalen!" she cried out, passionately, "you frighten me!"
Magdalen only sighed, and turned wearily away.
"Try not to think worse of me than I deserve," she said. "I can't cry. My heart is numbed."
She moved away slowly over the grass. Miss Garth watched the tall black figure gliding away alone until it was lost among the trees. While it was in sight she could think of nothing else. The moment it was gone, she thought of Norah. For the first time in her experience of the sisters her heart led her instinctively to the elder of the two.
Norah was still in her own room. She was sitting on the couch by the window, with her mother's old music-book--the keepsake which Mrs. Vanstone had found in her husband's study on the day of her husband's death--spread open on her lap. She looked up from it with such quiet sorrow, and pointed with such ready kindness to the vacant place at her side, that Miss Garth doubted for the moment whether Magdalen had spoken the truth. "See," said Norah, simply, turning to the first leaf in the music-book--"my mother's name written in it, and some verses to my father on the next page. We may keep this for ourselves, if we keep nothing else." She put her arm round Miss Garth's neck, and a faint tinge of color stole over her cheeks. "I see anxious thoughts in your face," she whispered. "Are you anxious about me? Are you doubting whether I have heard it? I have heard the whole truth. I might have felt it bitterly, later; it is too soon to feel it now. You have seen Magdalen? She went out to find you--where did you leave her?"
"In the garden. I couldn't speak to her; I couldn't look at her. Magdalen has frightened me."
Norah rose hurriedly; rose, startled and distressed by Miss Garth's reply.
"Don't think ill of Magdalen," she said. "Magdalen suffers in secret more than I do. Try not to grieve over what you have heard about us this morning. Does it matter who we are, or what we keep or lose? What loss is there for us after the loss of our father and mother? Oh, Miss Garth, there is the only bitterness! What did we remember of them when we laid them in the grave yesterday? Nothing but the love they gave us--the love we must never hope for again. What else can we remember to-day? What change can the world, and the world's cruel laws make in our memory of the kindest father, the kindest mother, that children ever had!" She stopped: struggled with her rising grief; and quietly, resolutely, kept it down. "Will you wait here," she said, "while I go and bring Magdalen back? Magdalen was always your favorite: I want her to be your favorite still." She laid the music-book gently on Miss Garth's lap--and left the room.
"Magdalen was always your favorite."
Tenderly as they had been spoken, those words fell reproachfully on Miss Garth's ear. For the first time in the long companionship of her pupils and herself a doubt whether she, and all those about her, had not been fatally mistaken in their relative estimate of the sisters, now forced itself on her mind.
She had studied the natures of her two pupils in the daily intimacy of twelve years. Those natures, which she believed herself to have sounded through all their depths, had been suddenly tried in the sharp ordeal of affliction. How had they come out from the test? As her previous experience had prepared her to see them? No: in flat contradiction to it.
What did such a result as this imply?
Thoughts came to her, as she asked herself that question, which have startled and saddened us all.
Does there exist in every human being, beneath that outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change? Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces--a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will? Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression--hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation? Within these earthly limits, is earthly Circumstance ever the key; and can no human vigilance warn us beforehand of the forces imprisoned in ourselves which that key may unlock?
For the first time, thoughts such as these rose darkly--as shadowy and terrible possibilities--in Miss Garth's mind. For the first time, she associated those possibilities with the past conduct and characters, with the future lives and fortunes of the orphan sisters.
Searching, as in a glass darkly, into the two natures, she felt her way, doubt by doubt, from one possible truth to another. It might be that the upper surface of their characters was all that she had, thus far, plainly seen in Norah and Magdalen. It might be that the unalluring secrecy and reserve of one sister, the all-attractive openness and high spirits of the other, were more or less referable, in each case, to those physical causes which work toward the production of moral results. It might be, that under the surface so formed--a surface which there had been nothing, hitherto, in the happy, prosperous, uneventful lives of the sisters to disturb--forces of inborn and inbred disposition had remained concealed, which the shock of the first serious calamity in their lives had now thrown up into view. Was this so? Was the promise of the future shining with prophetic light through the surface-shadow of Norah's reserve, and darkening with prophetic gloom, under the surface-glitter of Magdalen's bright spirits? If the life of the elder sister was destined henceforth to be the ripening ground of the undeveloped Good that was in her--was the life of the younger doomed to be the battle-field of mortal conflict with the roused forces of Evil in herself?
On the brink of that terrible conclusion, Miss Garth shrank back in dismay. Her heart was the heart of a true woman. It accepted the conviction which raised Norah higher in her love: it rejected the doubt which threatened to place Magdalen lower. She rose and paced the room impatiently; she recoiled with an angry suddenness from the whole train of thought in which her mind had been engaged but the moment before. What if there were dangerous elements in the strength of Magdalen's character--was it not her duty to help the girl against herself? How had she performed that duty? She had let herself be governed by first fears and first impressions; she had never waited to consider whether Magdalen's openly acknowledged action of that morning might not imply a self-sacrificing fortitude, which promised, in after-life, the noblest and the most enduring results. She had let Norah go and speak those words of tender remonstrance, which she should first have spoken herself. "Oh!" she thought, bitterly, "how long I have lived in the world, and how little I have known of my own weakness and wickedness until to-day!"
The door of the room opened. Norah came in, as she had gone out, alone.
"Do you remember leaving anything on the little table by the garden-seat?" she asked, quietly.
Before Miss Garth could answer the question, she held out her father's will and her father's letter.
"Magdalen came back after you went away," she said, "and found these last relics. She heard Mr. Pendril say they were her legacy and mine. When I went into the garden she was reading the letter. There was no need for me to speak to her; our father had spoken to her from his grave. See how she has listened to him!"
She pointed to the letter. The traces of heavy tear-drops lay thick over the last lines of the dead man's writing.
"Her tears," said Norah, softly.
Miss Garth's head drooped low over the mute revelation of Magdalen's return to her better self.
"Oh, never doubt her again!" pleaded Norah. "We are alone now--we have our hard way through the world to walk on as patiently as we can. If Magdalen ever falters and turns back, help her for the love of old times; help her against herself."
"With all my heart and strength--as God shall judge me, with the devotion of my whole life!" In those fervent words Miss Garth answered. She took the hand which Norah held out to her, and put it, in sorrow and humility, to her lips. "Oh, my love, forgive me! I have been miserably blind--I have never valued you as I ought!"
Norah gently checked her before she could say more; gently whispered, "Come with me into the garden--come, and help Magdalen to look patiently to the future."
The future! Who could see the faintest glimmer of it? Who could see anything but the ill-omened figure of Michael Vanstone, posted darkly on the verge of the present time--and closing all the prospect that lay beyond him?
ON the next morning but one, news was received from Mr. Pendril. The place of Michael Vanstone's residence on the Continent had been discovered. He was living at Zurich; and a letter had been dispatched to him, at that place, on the day when the information was obtained. In the course of the coming week an answer might be expected, and the purport of it should be communicated forthwith to the ladies at Combe-Raven.
Short as it was, the interval of delay passed wearily. Ten days elapsed before the expected answer was received; and when it came at last, it proved to be, strictly speaking, no answer at all. Mr. Pendril had been merely referred to an agent in London who was in possession of Michael Vanstone's instructions. Certain difficulties had been discovered in connection with those instructions, which had produced the necessity of once more writing to Zurich. And there "the negotiations" rested again for the present.
A second paragraph in Mr. Pendril's letter contained another piece of intelligence entirely new. Mr. Michael Vanstone's son (and only child), Mr. Noel Vanstone, had recently arrived in London, and was then staying in lodgings occupied by his cousin, Mr. George Bartram. Professional considerations had induced Mr. Pendril to pay a visit to the lodgings. He had been very kindly received by Mr. Bartram; but had been informed by that gentleman that his cousin was not then in a condition to receive visitors. Mr. Noel Vanstone had been suffering, for some years past, from a wearing and obstinate malady; he had come to England expressly to obtain the best medical advice, and he still felt the fatigue of the journey so severely as to be confined to his bed. Under these circumstances, Mr. Pendril had no alternative but to take his leave. An interview with Mr. Noel Vanstone might have cleared up some of the difficulties in connection with his father's instructions. As events had turned out, there was no help for it but to wait for a few days more.
The days passed, the empty days of solitude and suspense. At last, a third letter from the lawyer announced the long delayed conclusion of the correspondence. The final answer had been received from Zurich, and Mr. Pendril would personally communicate it at Combe-Raven on the afternoon of the next day.
That next day was Wednesday, the twelfth of August. The weather had changed in the night; and the sun rose watery through mist and cloud. By noon the sky was overcast at all points; the temperature was sensibly colder; and the rain poured down, straight and soft and steady, on the thirsty earth. Toward three o'clock, Miss Garth and Norah entered the morning-room, to await Mr. Pendril's arrival. They were joined shortly afterward by Magdalen. In half an hour more the familiar fall of the iron latch in the socket reached their ears from the fence beyond the shrubbery. Mr. Pendril and Mr. Clare advanced into view along the garden-path, walking arm-in-arm through the rain, sheltered by the same umbrella. The lawyer bowed as they passed the windows; Mr. Clare walked straight on, deep in his own thoughts--noticing nothing.
After a delay which seemed interminable; after a weary scraping of wet feet on the hall mat; after a mysterious, muttered interchange of question and answer outside the door, the two came in--Mr. Clare leading the way. The old man walked straight up to the table, without any preliminary greeting, and looked across it at the three women, with a stern pity for them in his ragged, wrinkled face.
"Bad news," he said. "I am an enemy to all unnecessary suspense. Plainness is kindness in such a case as this. I mean to be kind--and I tell you plainly--bad news."
Mr. Pendril followed him. He shook hands, in silence, with Miss Garth and the two sisters, and took a seat near them. Mr. Clare placed himself apart on a chair by the window. The gray rainy light fell soft and sad on the faces of Norah and Magdalen, who sat together opposite to him. Miss Garth had placed herself a little behind them, in partial shadow; and the lawyer's quiet face was seen in profile, close beside her. So the four occupants of the room appeared to Mr. Clare, as he sat apart in his corner; his long claw-like fingers interlaced on his knee; his dark vigilant eyes fixed searchingly now on one face, now on another. The dripping rustle of the rain among the leaves, and the clear, ceaseless tick of the clock on the mantel-piece, made the minute of silence which followed the settling of the persons present in their places indescribably oppressive. It was a relief to every one when Mr. Pendril spoke.
"Mr. Clare has told you already," he began, "that I am the bearer of bad news. I am grieved to say, Miss Garth, that your doubts, when I last saw you, were better founded than my hopes. What that heartless elder brother was in his youth, he is still in his old age. In all my unhappy experience of the worst side of human nature, I have never met with a man so utterly dead to every consideration of mercy as Michael Vanstone."
"Do you mean that he takes the whole of his brother's fortune, and makes no provision whatever for his brother's children?" asked Miss Garth.
"He offers a sum of money for present emergencies," replied Mr. Pendril, "so meanly and disgracefully insufficient that I am ashamed to mention it."
"And nothing for the future?"
As that answer was given, the same thought passed, at the same moment, through Miss Garth's mind and through Norah's. The decision, which deprived both the sisters alike of the resources of fortune, did not end there for the younger of the two. Michael Vanstone's merciless resolution had virtually pronounced the sentence which dismissed Frank to China, and which destroyed all present hope of Magdalen's marriage. As the words passed the lawyer's lips, Miss Garth and Norah looked at Magdalen anxiously. Her face turned a shade paler--but not a feature of it moved; not a word escaped her. Norah, who held her sister's hand in her own, felt it tremble for a moment, and then turn cold--and that was all.
"Let me mention plainly what I have done," resumed Mr. Pendril; "I am very desirous you should not think that I have left any effort untried. When I wrote to Michael Vanstone, in the first instance, I did not confine myself to the usual formal statement. I put before him, plainly and earnestly, every one of the circumstances under which he has become possessed of his brother's fortune. When I received the answer, referring me to his written instructions to his lawyer in London--and when a copy of those instructions was placed in my hands--I positively declined, on becoming acquainted with them, to receive the writer's decision as final. I induced the solicitor, on the other side, to accord us a further term of delay; I attempted to see Mr. Noel Vanstone in London for the purpose of obtaining his intercession; and, failing in that, I myself wrote to his father for the second time. The answer referred me, in insolently curt terms, to the instructions already communicated; declared those instructions to be final; and declined any further correspondence with me. There is the beginning and the end of the negotiation. If I have overlooked any means of touching this heartless man--tell me, and those means shall be tried."
He looked at Norah. She pressed her sister's hand encouragingly, and answered for both of them.
"I speak for my sister, as well as for myself," she said, with her color a little heightened, with her natural gentleness of manner just touched by a quiet, uncomplaining sadness. "You have done all that could be done, Mr. Pendril. We have tried to restrain ourselves from hoping too confidently; and we are deeply grateful for your kindness, at a time when kindness is sorely needed by both of us."
Magdalen's hand returned the pressure of her sister's--withdrew itself--trifled for a moment impatiently with the arrangement of her dress--then suddenly moved the chair closer to the table. Leaning one arm on it (with the hand fast clinched), she looked across at Mr. Pendril. Her face, always remarkable for its want of color, was now startling to contemplate, in its blank, bloodless pallor. But the light in her large gray eyes was bright and steady as ever; and her voice, though low in tone, was clear and resolute in accent as she addressed the lawyer in these terms:
"I understood you to say, Mr. Pendril, that my father's brother had sent his written orders to London, and that you had a copy. Have you preserved it?"
"Have you got it about you?"
"May I see it?"
Mr. Pendril hesitated, and looked uneasily from Magdalen to Miss Garth, and from Miss Garth back again to Magdalen.
"Pray oblige me by not pressing your request," he said. "It is surely enough that you know the result of the instructions. Why should you agitate yourself to no purpose by reading them? They are expressed so cruelly; they show such abominable want of feeling, that I really cannot prevail upon myself to let you see them."
"I am sensible of your kindness, Mr. Pendril, in wishing to spare me pain. But I can bear pain; I promise to distress nobody. Will you excuse me if I repeat my request?"
She held out her hand--the soft, white, virgin hand that had touched nothing to soil it or harden it yet.
"Oh, Magdalen, think again!" said Norah.
"You distress Mr. Pendril," added Miss Garth; "you distress us all."
"There can be no end gained," pleaded the lawyer--"forgive me for saying so--there can really be no useful end gained by my showing you the instructions."
("Fools!" said Mr. Clare to himself. "Have they no eyes to see that she means to have her own way?")
"Something tells me there is an end to be gained," persisted Magdalen. "This decision is a very serious one. It is more serious to me--" She looked round at Mr. Clare, who sat closely watching her, and instantly looked back again, with the first outward betrayal of emotion which had escaped her yet. "It is even more serious to me," she resumed, "for private reasons--than it is to my sister. I know nothing yet but that our father's brother has taken our fortunes from us. He must have some motives of his own for such conduct as that. It is not fair to him, or fair to us, to keep those motives concealed. He has deliberately robbed Norah, and robbed me; and I think we have a right, if we wish it, to know why?"
"I don't wish it," said Norah.
"I do," said Magdalen; and once more she held out her hand.
At this point Mr. Clare roused himself and interfered for the first time.
"You have relieved your conscience," he said, addressing the lawyer. "Give her the right she claims. It is her right--if she will have it."
Mr. Pendril quietly took the written instructions from his pocket. "I have warned you," he said--and handed the papers across the table without another word. One of the pages of writing--was folded down at the corner; and at that folded page the manuscript opened, when Magdalen first turned the leaves. "Is this the place which refers to my sister and myself?" she inquired. Mr. Pendril bowed; and Magdalen smoothed out the manuscript before her on the table.
"Will you decide, Norah?" she asked, turning to her sister. "Shall I read this aloud, or shall I read it to myself?"
"To yourself," said Miss Garth; answering for Norah, who looked at her in mute perplexity and distress.
"It shall be as you wish," said Magdalen. With that reply, she turned again to the manuscript and read these lines:
". . . . You are now in possession of my wishes in relation to the property in money, and to the sale of the furniture, carriages, horses, and so forth. The last point left on which it is necessary for me to instruct you refers to the persons inhabiting the house, and to certain preposterous claims on their behalf set up by a solicitor named Pendril; who has, no doubt, interested reasons of his own for making application to me.
"I understand that my late brother has left two illegitimate children; both of them young women, who are of an age to earn their own livelihood. Various considerations, all equally irregular, have been urged in respect to these persons by the solicitor representing them. Be so good as to tell him that neither you nor I have anything to do with questions of mere sentiment; and then state plainly, for his better information, what the motives are which regulate my conduct, and what the provision is which I feel myself justified in making for the two young women. Your instructions on both these points you will find detailed in the next paragraph.
"I wish the persons concerned to know, once for all, how I regard the circumstances which have placed my late brother's property at my disposal. Let them understand that I consider those circumstances to be a Providential interposition which has restored to me the inheritance that ought always to have been mine. I receive the money, not only as my right, but also as a proper compensation for the injustice which I suffered from my father, and a proper penalty paid by my younger brother for the vile intrigue by which he succeeded in disinheriting me. His conduct, when a young man, was uniformly discreditable in all the relations of life; and what it then was it continued to be (on the showing of his own legal representative) after the time when I ceased to hold any communication with him. He appears to have systematically imposed a woman on Society as his wife who was not his wife, and to have completed the outrage on morality by afterward marrying her. Such conduct as this has called down a Judgment on himself and his children. I will not invite retribution on my own head by assisting those children to continue the imposition which their parents practiced, and by helping them to take a place in the world to which they are not entitled. Let them, as becomes their birth, gain their bread in situations. If they show themselves disposed to accept their proper position I will assist them to start virtuously in life by a present of one hundred pounds each. This sum I authorize you to pay them, on their personal application, with the necessary acknowledgment of receipt; and on the express understanding that the transaction, so completed, is to be the beginning and the end of my connection with them. The arrangements under which they quit the house I leave to your discretion; and I have only to add that my decision on this matter, as on all other matters, is positive and final."
Line by line--without once looking up from the pages before her--Magdalen read those atrocious sentences through, from beginning to end. The other persons assembled in the room, all eagerly looking at her together, saw the dress rising and falling faster and faster over her bosom--saw the hand in which she lightly held the manuscript at the outset close unconsciously on the paper and crush it, as she advanced nearer and nearer to the end--but detected no other outward signs of what was passing within her. As soon as she had done, she silently pushed the manuscript away, and put her hands on a sudden over her face. When she withdrew them, all the four persons in the room noticed a change in her. Something in her expression had altered, subtly and silently; something which made the familiar features suddenly look strange, even to her sister and Miss Garth; something, through all after years, never to be forgotten in connection with that day--and never to be described.
The first words she spoke were addressed to Mr. Pendril.
"May I ask one more favor," she said, "before you enter on your business arrangements?"
Mr. Pendril replied ceremoniously by a gesture of assent. Magdalen's resolution to possess herself of the Instructions did not appear to have produced a favorable impression on the lawyer's mind.
"You mentioned what you were so kind as to do, in our interests, when you first wrote to Mr. Michael Vanstone," she continued. "You said you had told him all the circumstances. I want--if you will allow me--to be made quite sure of what he really knew about us--when he sent these orders to his lawyer. Did he know that my father had made a will, and that he had left our fortunes to my sister and myself?"
"He did know it," said Mr. Pendril.
"Did you tell him how it happened that we are left in this helpless position?"
"I told him that your father was entirely unaware, when he married, of the necessity for making another will."
"And that another will would have been made, after he saw Mr. Clare, but for the dreadful misfortune of his death?"
"He knew that also."
"Did he know that my father's untiring goodness and kindness to both of us--"
Her voice faltered for the first time: she sighed, and put her hand to her head wearily. Norah spoke entreatingly to her; Miss Garth spoke entreatingly to her; Mr. Clare sat silent, watching her more and more earnestly. She answered her sister's remonstrance with a faint smile. "I will keep my promise," she said; "I will distress nobody." With that reply, she turned again to Mr. Pendril; and steadily reiterated the question--but in another form of words.
"Did Mr. Michael Vanstone know that my father's great anxiety was to make sure of providing for my sister and myself?"
"He knew it in your father's own words. I sent him an extract from your father's last letter to me."
"The letter which asked you to come for God's sake, and relieve him from the dreadful thought that his daughters were unprovided for? The letter which said he should not rest in his grave if he left us disinherited?"
"That letter and those words."
She paused, still keeping her eyes steadily fixed on the lawyer's face.
"I want to fasten it all in my mind," she said "before I go on. Mr. Michael Vanstone knew of the first will; he knew what prevented the making of the second will; he knew of the letter and he read the words. What did he know of besides? Did you tell him of my mother's last illness? Did you say that her share in the money would have been left to us, if she could have lifted her dying hand in your presence? Did you try to make him ashamed of the cruel law which calls girls in our situation Nobody's Children, and which allows him to use us as he is using us now?"
"I put all those considerations to him. I left none of them doubtful; I left none of them out."
She slowly reached her hand to the copy of the Instructions, and slowly folded it up again, in the shape in which it had been presented to her. "I am much obliged to you, Mr. Pendril." With those words, she bowed, and gently pushed the manuscript back across the table; then turned to her sister.
"Norah," she said, "if we both of us live to grow old, and if you ever forget all that we owe to Michael Vanstone--come to me, and I will remind you."
She rose and walked across the room by herself to the window. As she passed Mr. Clare, the old man stretched out his claw-like fingers and caught her fast by the arm before she was aware of him.
"What is this mask of yours hiding?" he asked, forcing her to bend to him, and looking close into her face. "Which of the extremes of human temperature does your courage start from--the dead cold or the white hot?"
She shrank back from him and turned away her head in silence. She would have resented that unscrupulous intrusion on her own thoughts from any man alive but Frank's father. He dropped her arm as suddenly as he had taken it, and let her go on to the window. "No," he said to himself, "not the cold extreme, whatever else it may be. So much the worse for her, and for all belonging to her."
There was a momentary pause. Once more the dripping rustle of the rain and the steady ticking of the clock filled up the gap of silence. Mr. Pendril put the Instructions back in his pocket, considered a little, and, turning toward Norah and Miss Garth, recalled their attention to the present and pressing necessities of the time.
"Our consultation has been needlessly prolonged," he said, "by painful references to the past. We shall be better employed in settling our arrangements for the future. I am obliged to return to town this evening. Pray let me hear how I can best assist you; pray tell me what trouble and what responsibility I can take off your hands."
For the moment, neither Norah nor Miss Garth seemed to be capable of answering him. Magdalen's reception of the news which annihilated the marriage prospect that her father's own lips had placed before her not a month since, had bewildered and dismayed them alike. They had summoned their courage to meet the shock of her passionate grief, or to face the harder trial of witnessing her speechless despair. But they were not prepared for her invincible resolution to read the Instructions; for the terrible questions which she had put to the lawyer; for her immovable determination to fix all the circumstances in her mind, under which Michael Vanstone's decision had been pronounced. There she stood at the window, an unfathomable mystery to the sister who had never been parted from her, to the governess who had trained her from a child. Miss Garth remembered the dark doubts which had crossed her mind on the day when she and Magdalen had met in the garden. Norah looked forward to the coming time, with the first serious dread of it on her sister's account which she had felt yet. Both had hitherto remained passive, in despair of knowing what to do. Both were now silent, in despair of knowing what to say.
Mr. Pendril patiently and kindly helped them, by returning to the subject of their future plans for the second time.
"I am sorry to press any business matters on your attention," he said, "when you are necessarily unfitted to deal with them. But I must take my instructions back to London with me to-night. With reference, in the first place, to the disgraceful pecuniary offer, to which I have already alluded. The younger Miss Vanstone having read the Instructions, needs no further information from my lips. The elder will, I hope, excuse me if I tell her (what I should be ashamed to tell her, but that it is a matter of necessity), that Mr. Michael Vanstone's provision for his brother's children begins and ends with an offer to each of them of one hundred pounds."
Norah's face crimsoned with indignation. She started to her feet, as if Michael Vanstone had been present in the room, and had personally insulted her.
"I see," said the lawyer, wishing to spare her; "I may tell Mr. Michael Vanstone you refuse the money."
"Tell him," she broke out passionately, "if I was starving by the roadside, I wouldn't touch a farthing of it!"
"Shall I notify your refusal also?" asked Mr. Pendril, speaking to Magdalen next.
She turned round from the window--but kept her face in shadow, by standing close against it with her back to the light.
"Tell him, on my part," she said, "to think again before he starts me in life with a hundred pounds. I will give him time to think." She spoke those strange words with a marked emphasis; and turning back quickly to the window, hid her face from the observation of every one in the room.
"You both refuse the offer," said Mr. Pendril, taking out his pencil, and making his professional note of the decision. As he shut up his pocketbook, he glanced toward Magdalen doubtfully. She had roused in him the latent distrust which is a lawyer's second nature: he had his suspicions of her looks; he had his suspicions of her language. Her sister seemed to have more influence over her than Miss Garth. He resolved to speak privately to her sister before he went away.
While the idea was passing through his mind, his attention was claimed by another question from Magdalen.
"Is he an old man?" she asked, suddenly, without turning round from the window.
"If you mean Mr. Michael Vanstone, he is seventy-five or seventy-six years of age."
"You spoke of his son a little while since. Has he any other sons--or daughters?"
"Do you know anything of his wife?"
"She has been dead for many years."
There was a pause. "Why do you ask these questions?" said Norah.
"I beg your pardon," replied Magdalen, quietly; "I won't ask any more."
For the third time, Mr. Pendril returned to the business of the interview.
"The servants must not be forgotten," he said. "They must be settled with and discharged: I will give them the necessary explanation before I leave. As for the house, no questions connected with it need trouble you. The carriages and horses, the furniture and plate, and so on, must simply be left on the premises to await Mr. Michael Vanstone's further orders. But any possessions, Miss Vanstone, personally belonging to you or to your sister--jewelry and dresses, and any little presents which may have been made to you--are entirely at your disposal. With regard to the time of your departure, I understand that a month or more will elapse before Mr. Michael Vanstone can leave Zurich; and I am sure I only do his solicitor justice in saying--"
"Excuse me, Mr. Pendril," interposed Norah; "I think I understand, from what you have just said, that our house and everything in it belongs to--?" She stopped, as if the mere utterance of the man's name was abhorrent to her.
"To Michael Vanstone," said Mr. Pendril. "The house goes to him with the rest of the property."
"Then I, for one, am ready to leave it tomorrow!"
Magdalen started at the window, as her sister spoke, and looked at Mr. Clare, with the first open signs of anxiety and alarm which she had shown yet.
"Don't be angry with me," she whispered, stooping over the old man with a sudden humility of look, and a sudden nervousness of manner. "I can't go without seeing Frank first!"
"You shall see him," replied Mr. Clare. "I am here to speak to you about it, when the business is done."
"It is quite unnecessary to hurry your departure, as you propose," continued Mr. Pendril, addressing Norah. "I can safely assure you that a week hence will be time enough."
"If this is Mr. Michael Vanstone's house," repeated Norah; "I am ready to leave it tomorrow."
She impatiently quitted her chair and seated herself further away on the sofa. As she laid her hand on the back of it, her face changed. There, at the head of the sofa, were the cushions which had supported her mother when she lay down for the last time to repose. There, at the foot of the sofa, was the clumsy, old-fashioned arm-chair, which had been her father's favorite seat on rainy days, when she and her sister used to amuse him at the piano opposite, by playing his favorite tunes. A heavy sigh, which she tried vainly to repress, burst from her lips. "Oh," she thought, "I had forgotten these old friends! How shall we part from them when the time comes!"
"May I inquire, Miss Vanstone, whether you and your sister have formed any definite plans for the future?" asked Mr. Pendril. "Have you thought of any place of residence?"
"I may take it on myself, sir," said Miss Garth, "to answer your question for them. When they leave this house, they leave it with me. My home is their home, and my bread is their bread. Their parents honored me, trusted me, and loved me. For twelve happy years they never let me remember that I was their governess; they only let me know myself as their companion and their friend. My memory of them is the memory of unvarying gentleness and generosity; and my life shall pay the debt of my gratitude to their orphan children."
Norah rose hastily from the sofa; Magdalen impetuously left the window. For once, there was no contrast in the conduct of the sisters. For once, the same impulse moved their hearts, the same earnest feeling inspired their words. Miss Garth waited until the first outburst of emotion had passed away; then rose, and, taking Norah and Magdalen each by the hand, addressed herself to Mr. Pendril and Mr. Clare. She spoke with perfect self-possession; strong in her artless unconsciousness of her own good action.
"Even such a trifle as my own story," she said, "is of some importance at such a moment as this. I wish you both, gentlemen, to understand that I am not promising more to the daughters of your old friend than I can perform. When I first came to this house, I entered it under such independent circumstances as are not common in the lives of governesses. In my younger days, I was associated in teaching with my elder sister: we established a school in London, which grew to be a large and prosperous one. I only left it, and became a private governess, because the heavy responsibility of the school was more than my strength could bear. I left my share in the profits untouched, and I possess a pecuniary interest in our establishment to this day. That is my story, in few words. When we leave this house, I propose that we shall go back to the school in London, which is still prosperously directed by my elder sister. We can live there as quietly as we please, until time has helped us to bear our affliction better than we can bear it now. If Norah's and Magdalen's altered prospects oblige them to earn their own independence, I can help them to earn it, as a gentleman's daughters should. The best families in this land are glad to ask my sister's advice where the interests of their children's home-training are concerned; and I answer, beforehand, for her hearty desire to serve Mr. Vanstone's daughters, as I answer for my own. That is the future which my gratitude to their father and mother, and my love for themselves, now offers to them. If you think my proposal, gentlemen, a fit and fair proposal--and I see in your faces that you do--let us not make the hard necessities of our position harder still, by any useless delay in meeting them at once. Let us do what we must do; let us act on Norah's decision, and leave this house to-morrow. You mentioned the servants just now, Mr. Pendril: I am ready to call them together in the next room, and to assist you in the settlement of their claims, whenever you please."
Without waiting for the lawyer's answer, without leaving the sisters time to realize their own terrible situation, she moved at once toward the door. It was her wise resolution to meet the coming trial by doing much and saying little. Before she could leave the room, Mr. Clare followed, and stopped her on the threshold.
"I never envied a woman's feelings before," said the old man. "It may surprise you to hear it; but I envy yours. Wait! I have something more to say. There is an obstacle still left--the everlasting obstacle of Frank. Help me to sweep him off. Take the elder sister along with you and the lawyer, and leave me here to have it out with the younger. I want to see what metal she's really made of."
While Mr. Clare was addressing these words to Miss Garth, Mr. Pendril had taken the opportunity of speaking to Norah. "Before I go back to town," he said, "I should like to have a word with you in private. From what has passed today, Miss Vanstone, I have formed a very high opinion of your discretion; and, as an old friend of your father's, I want to take the freedom of speaking to you about your sister."
Before Norah could answer, she was summoned, in compliance with Mr. Clare's request, to the conference with the servants. Mr. Pendril followed Miss Garth, as a matter of course. When the three were out in the hall, Mr. Clare re-entered the room, closed the door, and signed peremptorily to Magdalen to take a chair.
She obeyed him in silence. He took a turn up and down the room, with his hands in the side-pockets of the long, loose, shapeless coat which he habitually wore.
"How old are you?" he said, stopping suddenly, and speaking to her with the whole breadth of the room between them.
"I was eighteen last birthday," she answered, humbly, without looking up at him.
"You have shown extraordinary courage for a girl of eighteen. Have you got any of that courage left?"
She clasped her hands together, and wrung them hard. A few tears gathered in her eyes, and rolled slowly over her cheeks.
"I can't give Frank up," she said, faintly. "You don't care for me, I know; but you used to care for my father. Will you try to be kind to me for my father's sake?"
The last words died away in a whisper; she could say no more. Never had she felt the illimitable power which a woman's love possesses of absorbing into itself every other event, every other joy or sorrow of her life, as she felt it then. Never had she so tenderly associated Frank with the memory of her lost parents, as at that moment. Never had the impenetrable atmosphere of illusion through which women behold the man of their choice--the atmosphere which had blinded her to all that was weak, selfish, and mean in Frank's nature--surrounded him with a brighter halo than now, when she was pleading with the father for the possession of the son. "Oh, don't ask me to give him up!" she said, trying to take courage, and shuddering from head to foot. In the next instant, she flew to the opposite extreme, with the suddenness of a flash of lightning. "I won't give him up!" she burst out violently. "No! not if a thousand fathers ask me!"
"I am one father," said Mr. Clare. "And I don't ask you."
In the first astonishment and delight of hearing those unexpected words, she started to her feet, crossed the room, and tried to throw her arms round his neck. She might as well have attempted to move the house from its foundations. He took her by the shoulders and put her back in her chair. His inexorable eyes looked her into submission; and his lean forefinger shook at her warningly, as if he was quieting a fractious child.
"Hug Frank," he said; "don't hug me. I haven't done with you yet; when I have, you may shake hands with me, if you like. Wait, and compose yourself."
He left her. His hands went back into his pockets, and his monotonous march up and down the room began again.
"Ready?" he asked, stopping short after a while. She tried to answer. "Take two minutes more," he said, and resumed his walk with the regularity of clock-work. "These are the creatures," he thought to himself, "into whose keeping men otherwise sensible give the happiness of their lives. Is there any other object in creation, I wonder, which answers its end as badly as a woman does?"
He stopped before her once more. Her breathing was easier; the dark flush on her face was dying out again.
"Ready?" he repeated. "Yes; ready at last. Listen to me; and let's get it over. I don't ask you to give Frank up. I ask you to wait."
"I will wait," she said. "Patiently, willingly."
"Will you make Frank wait?"
"Will you send him to China?"
Her head drooped upon her bosom, and she clasped her hands again, in silence. Mr. Clare saw where the difficulty lay, and marched straight up to it on the spot.
"I don't pretend to enter into your feelings for Frank, or Frank's for you," he said. "The subject doesn't interest me. But I do pretend to state two plain truths. It is one plain truth that you can't be married till you have money enough to pay for the roof that shelters you, the clothes that cover you, and the victuals you eat. It is another plain truth that you can't find the money; that I can't find the money; and that Frank's only chance of finding it, is going to China. If I tell him to go, he'll sit in a corner and cry. If I insist, he'll say Yes, and deceive me. If I go a step further, and see him on board ship with my own eyes, he'll slip off in the pilot's boat, and sneak back secretly to you. That's his disposition."
"No!" said Magdalen. "It's not his disposition; it's his love for Me."
"Call it what you like," retorted Mr. Clare. "Sneak or Sweetheart--he's too slippery, in either capacity, for my fingers to hold him. My shutting the door won't keep him from coming back. Your shutting the door will. Have you the courage to shut it? Are you fond enough of him not to stand in his light?"
"Fond! I would die for him!"
"Will you send him to China?"
She sighed bitterly.
"Have a little pity for me," she said. "I have lost my father; I have lost my mother; I have lost my fortune--and now I am to lose Frank. You don't like women, I know; but try to help me with a little pity. I don't say it's not for his own interests to send him to China; I only say it's hard--very, very hard on me."
Mr. Clare had been deaf to her violence, insensible to her caresses, blind to her tears; but under the tough integument of his philosophy he had a heart--and it answered that hopeless appeal; it felt those touching words.
"I don't deny that your case is a hard one," he said. "I don't want to make it harder. I only ask you to do in Frank's interests what Frank is too weak to do for himself. It's no fault of yours; it's no fault of mine--but it's not the less true that the fortune you were to have brought him has changed owners."
She suddenly looked up, with a furtive light in her eyes, with a threatening smile on her lips.
"It may change owners again," she said.
Mr. Clare saw the alteration in her expression, and heard the tones of her voice. But the words were spoken low; spoken as if to herself--they failed to reach him across the breadth of the room. He stopped instantly in his walk and asked what she had said.
"Nothing," she answered, turning her head away toward the window, and looking out mechanically at the falling rain. "Only my own thoughts."
Mr. Clare resumed his walk, and returned to his subject.
"It's your interest," he went on, "as well as Frank's interest, that he should go. He may make money enough to marry you in China; he can't make it here. If he stops at home, he'll be the ruin of both of you. He'll shut his eyes to every consideration of prudence, and pester you to marry him; and when he has carried his point, he will be the first to turn round afterward and complain that you're a burden on him. Hear me out! You're in love with Frank--I'm not, and I know him. Put you two together often enough; give him time enough to hug, cry, pester, and plead; and I'll tell you what the end will be--you'll marry him."
He had touched the right string at last. It rung back in answer before he could add another word.
"You don't know me," she said, firmly. "You don't know what I can suffer for Frank's sake. He shall never marry me till I can be what my father said I should be--the making of his fortune. He shall take no burden, when he takes me; I promise you that! I'll be the good angel of Frank's life; I'll not go a penniless girl to him, and drag him down." She abruptly left her seat, advanced a few steps toward Mr. Clare, and stopped in the middle of the room. Her arms fell helpless on either side of her, and she burst into tears. "He shall go," she said. "If my heart breaks in doing it, I'll tell him to-morrow that we must say Good-by!"
Mr. Clare at once advanced to meet her, and held out his hand.
"I'll help you," he said. "Frank shall hear every word that has passed between us. When he comes to-morrow he shall know, beforehand, that he comes to say Good-by."
She took his hand in both her own--hesitated--looked at him--and pressed it to her bosom. "May I ask a favor of you, before you go?" she said, timidly. He tried to take his hand from her; but she knew her advantage, and held it fast. "Suppose there should be some change for the better?" she went on. "Suppose I could come to Frank, as my father said I should come to him--?"
Before she could complete the question, Mr. Clare made a second effort and withdrew his hand. "As your father said you should come to him?" he repeated, looking at her attentively.
"Yes," she replied. "Strange things happen sometimes. If strange things happen to me will you let Frank come back before the five years are out?"
What did she mean? Was she clinging desperately to the hope of melting Michael Vanstone's heart? Mr. Clare could draw no other conclusion from what she had just said to him. At the beginning of the interview he would have roughly dispelled her delusion. At the end of the interview he left her compassionately in possession of it.
"You are hoping against all hope," he said; "but if it gives you courage, hope on. If this impossible good fortune of yours ever happens, tell me, and Frank shall come back. In the meantime--"
"In the meantime," she interposed sadly, "you have my promise."
Once more Mr. Clare's sharp eyes searched her face attentively.
"I will trust your promise," he said. "You shall see Frank to-morrow."
She went back thoughtfully to her chair, and sat down again in silence. Mr. Clare made for the door before any formal leave-taking could pass between them. "Deep!" he thought to himself, as he looked back at her before he went out; "only eighteen; and too deep for my sounding!"
In the hall he found Norah, waiting anxiously to hear what had happened.
"Is it all over?" she asked. "Does Frank go to China?"
"Be careful how you manage that sister of yours," said Mr. Clare, without noticing the question. "She has one great misfortune to contend with: she's not made for the ordinary jog-trot of a woman's life. I don't say I can see straight to the end of the good or evil in her--I only warn you, her future will be no common one."
An hour later, Mr. Pendril left the house; and, by that night's post, Miss Garth dispatched a letter to her sister in London.
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
From Norah Vanstone to Mr. Pendril.
"Westmoreland House, Kensington,
"August 14th, 1846.
"DEAR MR. PENDRIL--The date of this letter will show you that the last of many hard partings is over. We have left Combe-Raven; we have said farewell to home.
"I have been thinking seriously of what you said to me on Wednesday, before you went back to town. I entirely agree with you that Miss Garth is more shaken by all she has gone through for our sakes than she is herself willing to admit; and that it is my duty, for the future, to spare her all the anxiety that I can on the subject of my sister and myself. This is very little to do for our dearest friend, for our second mother. Such as it is, I will do it with all my heart.
"But, forgive me for saying that I am as far as ever from agreeing with you about Magdalen. I am so sensible, in our helpless position, of the importance of your assistance; so anxious to be worthy of the interest of my father's trusted adviser and oldest friend, that I feel really and truly disappointed with myself for differing with you--and yet I do differ. Magdalen is very strange, very unaccountable, to those who don't know her intimately. I can understand that she has innocently misled you; and that she has presented herself, perhaps, under her least favorable aspect. But that the clew to her language and her conduct on Wednesday last is to be found in such a feeling toward the man who has ruined us, as the feeling at which you hinted, is what I can not and will not believe of my sister. If you knew, as I do, what a noble nature she has, you would not be surprised at this obstinate resistance of mine to your opinion. Will you try to alter it? I don't mind what Mr. Clare says; he believes in nothing. But I attach a very serious importance to what you say; and, kind as I know your motives to be, it distresses me to think you are doing Magdalen an injustice.
"Having relieved my mind of this confession, I may now come to the proper object of my letter. I promised, if you could not find leisure time to visit us to-day, to write and tell you all that happened after you left us. The day has passed without our seeing you. So I open my writing-case and perform my promise.
"I am sorry to say that three of the women-servants--the house-maid, the kitchen-maid, and even our own maid (to whom I am sure we have always been kind)--took advantage of your having paid them their wages to pack up and go as soon as your back was turned. They came to say good-by with as much ceremony and as little feeling as if they were leaving the house under ordinary circumstances. The cook, for all her violent temper, behaved very differently: she sent up a message to say that she would stop and help us to the last. And Thomas (who has never yet been in any other place than ours) spoke so gratefully of my dear father's unvarying kindness to him, and asked so anxiously to be allowed to go on serving us while his little savings lasted, that Magdalen and I forgot all formal considerations and both shook hands with him. The poor lad went out of the room crying. I wish him well; I hope he will find a kind master and a good place.
"The long, quiet, rainy evening out-of-doors--our last evening at Combe-Raven--was a sad trial to us. I think winter-time would have weighed less on our spirits; the drawn curtains and the bright lamps, and the companionable fires would have helped us. We were only five in the house altogether--after having once been so many! I can't tell you how dreary the gray daylight looked, toward seven o'clock, in the lonely rooms, and on the noiseless staircase. Surely, the prejudice in favor of long summer evenings is the prejudice of happy people? We did our best. We kept ourselves employed, and Miss Garth helped us. The prospect of preparing for our departure, which had seemed so dreadful earlier in the day, altered into the prospect of a refuge from ourselves as the evening came on. We each tried at first to pack up in our own rooms--but the loneliness was more than we could bear. We carried all our possessions downstairs, and heaped them on the large dining-table, and so made our preparations together in the same room. I am sure we have taken nothing away which does not properly belong to us.
"Having already mentioned to you my own conviction that Magdalen was not herself when you saw her on Wednesday, I feel tempted to stop here and give you an instance in proof of what I say. The little circumstance happened on Wednesday night, just before we went up to our rooms.
"After we had packed our dresses and our birthday presents, our books and our music, we began to sort our letters, which had got confused from being placed on the table together. Some of my letters were mixed with Magdalen's, and some of hers with mine. Among these last I found a card, which had been given to my sister early in the year by an actor who managed an amateur theatrical performance in which she took a part. The man had given her the card, containing his name and address, in the belief that she would be invited to many more amusements of the same kind, and in the hope that she would recommend him as a superintendent on future occasions. I only relate these trifling particulars to show you how little worth keeping such a card could be, in such circumstances as ours. Naturally enough, I threw it away from me across the table, meaning to throw it on the floor. It fell short, close to the place in which Magdalen was sitting. She took it up, looked at it, and immediately declared that she would not have had this perfectly worthless thing destroyed for the world. She was almost angry with me for having thrown it away; almost angry with Miss Garth for asking what she could possibly want with it! Could there be any plainer proof than this that our misfortunes--falling so much more heavily on her than on me--have quite unhinged her, and worn her out? Surely her words and looks are not to be interpreted against her, when she is not sufficiently mistress of herself to exert her natural judgment--when she shows the unreasonable petulance of a child on a question which is not of the slightest importance.
"A little after eleven we went upstairs to try if we could get some rest.
"I drew aside the curtain of my window and looked out. Oh, what a cruel last night it was: no moon, no stars; such deep darkness that not one of the dear familiar objects in the garden was visible when I looked for them; such deep stillness that even my own movements about the room almost frightened me! I tried to lie down and sleep, but the sense of loneliness came again and quite overpowered me. You will say I am old enough, at six-and-twenty, to have exerted more control over myself. I hardly know how it happened, but I stole into Magdalen's room, just as I used to steal into it years and years ago, when we were children. She was not in bed; she was sitting with her writing materials before her, thinking. I said I wanted to be with her the last night; and she kissed me, and told me to lie down, and promised soon to follow me. My mind was a little quieted and I fell asleep. It was daylight when I woke--and the first sight I saw was Magdalen, still sitting in the chair, and still thinking. She had never been to bed; she had not slept all through the night.
"'I shall sleep when we have left Combe-Raven,' she said. 'I shall be better when it is all over, and I have bid Frank good-by.' She had in her hand our father's will, and the letter he wrote to you; and when she had done speaking, she gave them into my possession. I was the eldest (she said), and those last precious relics ought to be in my keeping. I tried to propose to her that we should divide them; but she shook her head. 'I have copied for myself,' was her answer, 'all that he says of us in the will, and all that he says in the letter.' She told me this, and took from her bosom a tiny white silk bag, which she had made in the night, and in which she had put the extracts, so as to keep them always about her. 'This tells me in his own words what his last wishes were for both of us,' she said; 'and this is all I want for the future.'
"These are trifles to dwell on; and I am almost surprised at myself for not feeling ashamed to trouble you with them. But, since I have known what your early connection was with my father and mother, I have learned to think of you (and, I suppose, to write to you) as an old friend. And, besides, I have it so much at heart to change your opinion of Magdalen, that I can't help telling you the smallest things about her which may, in my judgment, end in making you think of her as I do.
"When breakfast-time came (on Thursday morning), we were surprised to find a strange letter on the table. Perhaps I ought to mention it to you, in case of any future necessity for your interference. It was addressed to Miss Garth, on paper with the deepest mourning-border round it; and the writer was the same man who followed us on our way home from a walk one day last spring--Captain Wragge. His object appears to be to assert once more his audacious claim to a family connection with my poor mother, under cover of a letter of condolence; which it is an insolence in such a person to have written at all. He expresses as much sympathy--on his discovery of our affliction in the newspaper--as if he had been really intimate with us; and he begs to know, in a postscript (being evidently in total ignorance of all that has really happened), whether it is thought desirable that he should be present, among the other relatives, at the reading of the will! The address he gives, at which letters will reach him for the next fortnight, is, 'Post-office, Birmingham.' This is all I have to tell you on the subject. Both the letter and the writer seem to me to be equally unworthy of the slightest notice, on our part or on yours.
"After breakfast Magdalen left us, and went by herself into the morning-room. The weather being still showery, we had arranged that Francis Clare should see her in that room, when he presented himself to take his leave. I was upstairs when he came; and I remained upstairs for more than half an hour afterward, sadly anxious, as you may well believe, on Magdalen's account.
"At the end of the half-hour or more, I came downstairs. As I reached the landing I suddenly heard her voice, raised entreatingly, and calling on him by his name--then loud sobs--then a frightful laughing and screaming, both together, that rang through the house. I instantly ran into the room, and found Magdalen on the sofa in violent hysterics, and Frank standing staring at her, with a lowering, angry face, biting his nails.
"I felt so indignant--without knowing plainly why, for I was ignorant, of course, of what had passed at the interview--that I took Mr. Francis Clare by the shoulders and pushed him out of the room. I am careful to tell you how I acted toward him, and what led to it; because I understand that he is excessively offended with me, and that he is likely to mention elsewhere what he calls my unladylike violence toward him. If he should mention it to you, I am anxious to acknowledge, of my own accord, that I forgot myself--not, I hope you will think, without some provocation.
"I pushed him into the hall, leaving Magdalen, for the moment, to Miss Garth's care. Instead of going away, he sat down sulkily on one of the hall chairs. 'May I ask the reason of this extraordinary violence?' he inquired, with an injured look. 'No,' I said. 'You will be good enough to imagine the reason for yourself, and to leave us immediately, if you please.' He sat doggedly in the chair, biting his nails and considering. 'What have I done to be treated in this unfeeling manner?' he asked, after a while. 'I can enter into no discussion with you,' I answered; 'I can only request you to leave us. If you persist in waiting to see my sister again, I will go to the cottage myself and appeal to your father.' He got up in a great hurry at those words. 'I have been infamously used in this business,' he said. 'All the hardships and the sacrifices have fallen to my share. I'm the only one among you who has any heart: all the rest are as hard as stones--Magdalen included. In one breath she says she loves me, and in another she tells me to go to China. What have I done to be treated with this heartless inconsistency? I am consistent myself--I only want to stop at home--and (what's the consequence?) you're all against me!' In that manner he grumbled his way down the steps, and so I saw the last of him. This was all that passed between us. If he gives you any other account of it, what he says will be false. He made no attempt to return. An hour afterward his father came alone to say good-by. He saw Miss Garth and me, but not Magdalen; and he told us he would take the necessary measures, with your assistance, for having his son properly looked after in London, and seen safely on board the vessel when the time came. It was a short visit, and a sad leave-taking. Even Mr. Clare was sorry, though he tried hard to hide it.
"We had barely two hours, after Mr. Clare had left us, before it would be time to go. I went back to Magdalen, and found her quieter and better, though terribly pale and exhausted, and oppressed, as I fancied, by thoughts which she could not prevail on herself to communicate. She would tell me nothing then--she has told me nothing since--of what passed between herself and Francis Clare. When I spoke of him angrily (feeling as I did that he had distressed and tortured her, when she ought to have had all the encouragement and comfort from him that man could give), she refused to hear me: she made the kindest allowances and the sweetest excuses for him, and laid all the blame of the dreadful state in which I had found her entirely on herself. Was I wrong in telling you that she had a noble nature? And won't you alter your opinion when you read these lines?
"We had no friends to come and bid us good-by; and our few acquaintances were too far from us--perhaps too indifferent about us--to call. We employed the little leisure left in going over the house together for the last time. We took leave of our old schoolroom, our bedrooms, the room where our mother died, the little study where our father used to settle his accounts and write his letters--feeling toward them, in our forlorn condition, as other girls might have felt at parting with old friends. From the house, in a gleam of fine weather, we went into the garden, and gathered our last nosegay; with the purpose of drying the flowers when they begin to wither, and keeping them in remembrance of the happy days that are gone. When we had said good-by to the garden, there was only half an hour left. We went together to the grave; we knelt down, side by side, in silence, and kissed the sacred ground. I thought my heart would have broken. August was the month of my mother's birthday; and, this time last year, my father and Magdalen and I were all consulting in secret what present we could make to surprise her with on the birthday morning.
"If you had seen how Magdalen suffered, you would never doubt her again. I had to take her from the last resting-place of our father and mother almost by force. Before we were out of the churchyard she broke from me and ran back. She dropped on her knees at the grave; tore up from it passionately a handful of grass; and said something to herself, at the same moment, which, though I followed her instantly, I did not get near enough to hear. She turned on me in such a frenzied manner, when I tried to raise her from the ground--she looked at me with such a fearful wildness in her eyes--that I felt absolutely terrified at the sight of her. To my relief, the paroxysm left her as suddenly as it had come. She thrust away the tuft of grass into the bosom of her dress, and took my arm and hurried with me out of the churchyard. I asked her why she had gone back--I asked what those words were which she had spoken at the grave. 'A promise to our dead father,' she answered, with a momentary return of the wild look and the frenzied manner which had startled me already. I was afraid to agitate her by saying more; I left all other questions to be asked at a fitter and a quieter time. You will understand from this how terribly she suffers, how wildly and strangely she acts under violent agitation; and you will not interpret against her what she said or did when you saw her on Wednesday last.
"We only returned to the house in time to hasten away from it to the train. Perhaps it was better for us so--better that we had only a moment left to look back before the turn in the road hid the last of Combe-Raven from our view. There was not a soul we knew at the station; nobody to stare at us, nobody to wish us good-by. The rain came on again as we took our seats in the train. What we felt at the sight of the railway--what horrible remembrances it forced on our minds of the calamity which has made us fatherless--I cannot, and dare not, tell you. I have tried anxiously not to write this letter in a gloomy tone; not to return all your kindness to us by distressing you with our grief. Perhaps I have dwelt too long already on the little story of our parting from home? I can only say, in excuse, that my heart is full of it; and what is not in my heart my pen won't write.
"We have been so short a time in our new abode that I have nothing more to tell you--except that Miss Garth's sister has received us with the heartiest kindness. She considerately leaves us to ourselves, until we are fitter than we are now to think of our future plans, and to arrange as we best can for earning our own living. The house is so large, and the position of our rooms has been so thoughtfully chosen, that I should hardly know--except when I hear the laughing of the younger girls in the garden--that we were living in a school.
"With kindest and best wishes from Miss Garth and my sister, believe me, dear Mr. Pendril, gratefully yours,
From Miss Garth to Mr. Pendril.
"Westmoreland House, Kensington,
"September 23d, 1846.
"MY DEAR SIR--I write these lines in such misery of mind as no words can describe. Magdalen has deserted us. At an early hour this morning she secretly left the house, and she has not been heard of since.
"I would come and speak to you personally; but I dare not leave Norah. I must try to control myself; I must try to write.
"Nothing happened yesterday to prepare me or to prepare Norah for this last--I had almost said, this worst--of all our afflictions. The only alteration we either of us noticed in the unhappy girl was an alteration for the better when we parted for the night. She kissed me, which she has not done latterly; and she burst out crying when she embraced her sister next. We had so little suspicion of the truth that we thought these signs of renewed tenderness and affection a promise of better things for the future.
"This morning, when her sister went into her room, it was empty, and a note in her handwriting, addressed to Norah, was lying on the dressing-table. I cannot prevail on Norah to part with the note; I can only send you the inclosed copy of it. You will see that it affords no clew to the direction she has taken.
"Knowing the value of time, in this dreadful emergency, I examined her room, and (with my sister's help) questioned the servants immediately on the news of her absence reaching me. Her wardrobe was empty; and all her boxes but one, which she has evidently taken away with her, are empty, too. We are of opinion that she has privately turned her dresses and jewelry into money; that she had the one trunk she took with her removed from the house yesterday; and that she left us this morning on foot. The answers given by one of the servants are so unsatisfactory that we believe the woman has been bribed to assist her; and has managed all those arrangements for her flight which she could not have safely undertaken by herself.
"Of the immediate object with which she has left us, I entertain no doubt.
"I have reasons (which I can tell you at a fitter time) for feeling assured that she has gone away with the intention of trying her fortune on the stage. She has in her possession the card of an actor by profession, who superintended an amateur theatrical performance at Clifton, in which she took part; and to him she has gone to help her. I saw the card at the time, and I know the actor's name to be Huxtable. The address I cannot call to mind quite so correctly; but I am almost sure it was at some theatrical place in Bow Street, Covent Garden. Let me entreat you not to lose a moment in sending to make the necessary inquiries; the first trace of her will, I firmly believe, be found at that address.
"If we had nothing worse to dread than her attempting to go on the stage, I should not feel the distress and dismay which now overpower me. Hundreds of other girls have acted as recklessly as she has acted, and have not ended ill after all. But my fears for Magdalen do not begin and end with the risk she is running at present.
"There has been something weighing on her mind ever since we left Combe-Raven--weighing far more heavily for the last six weeks than at first. Until the period when Francis Clare left England, I am persuaded she was secretly sustained by the hope that he would contrive to see her again. From the day when she knew that the measures you had taken for preventing this had succeeded; from the day when she was assured that the ship had really taken him away, nothing has roused, nothing has interested her. She has given herself up, more and more hopelessly, to her own brooding thoughts; thoughts which I believe first entered her mind on the day when the utter ruin of the prospects on which her marriage depended was made known to her. She has formed some desperate project of contesting the possession of her father's fortune with Michael Vanstone; and the stage career which she has gone away to try is nothing more than a means of freeing herself from all home dependence, and of enabling her to run what mad risks she pleases, in perfect security from all home control. What it costs me to write of her in these terms, I must leave you to imagine. The time has gone by when any consideration of distress to my own feelings can weigh with me. Whatever I can say which will open your eyes to the real danger, and strengthen your conviction of the instant necessity of averting it, I say in despite of myself, without hesitation and without reserve.
"One word more, and I have done.
"The last time you were so good as to come to this house, do you remember how Magdalen embarrassed and distressed us by questioning you about her right to bear her father's name? Do you remember her persisting in her inquiries, until she had forced you to acknowledge that, legally speaking, she and her sister had No Name? I venture to remind you of this, because you have the affairs of hundreds of clients to think of, and you might well have forgotten the circumstance. Whatever natural reluctance she might otherwise have had to deceiving us, and degrading herself, by the use of an assumed name, that conversation with you is certain to have removed. We must discover her by personal description--we can trace her in no other way.
"I can think of nothing more to guide your decision in our deplorable emergency. For God's sake, let no expense and no efforts be spared. My letter ought to reach you by ten o'clock this morning, at the latest. Let me have one line in answer, to say you will act instantly for the best. My only hope of quieting Norah is to show her a word of encouragement from your pen. Believe me, dear sir, yours sincerely and obliged,
From Magdalen to Norah (inclosed in the preceding Letter).
"MY DARLING--Try to forgive me. I have struggled against myself till I am worn out in the effort. I am the wretchedest of living creatures. Our quiet life here maddens me; I can bear it no longer; I must go. If you knew what my thoughts are; if you knew how hard I have fought against them, and how horribly they have gone on haunting me in the lonely quiet of this house, you would pity and forgive me. Oh, my love, don't feel hurt at my not opening my heart to you as I ought! I dare not open it. I dare not show myself to you as I really am.
"Pray don't send and seek after me; I will write and relieve all your anxieties. You know, Norah, we must get our living for ourselves; I have only gone to get mine in the manner which is fittest for me. Whether I succeed, or whether I fail, I can do myself no harm either way. I have no position to lose, and no name to degrade. Don't doubt I love you--don't let Miss Garth doubt my gratitude. I go away miserable at leaving you; but I must go. If I had loved you less dearly, I might have had the courage to say this in your presence--but how could I trust myself to resist your persuasions, and to bear the sight of your distress? Farewell, my darling! Take a thousand kisses from me, my own best, dearest love, till we meet again.
From Sergeant Bulmer (of the Detective Police) to Mr. Pendril.
"Scotland Yard, September 29th, 1846.
"SIR--Your clerk informs me that the parties interested in our inquiry after the missing young lady are anxious for news of the same. I went to your office to speak to you about the matter to-day. Not having found you, and not being able to return and try again to-morrow, I write these lines to save delay, and to tell you how we stand thus far.
"I am sorry to say, no advance has been made since my former report. The trace of the young lady which we found nearly a week since, still remains the last trace discovered of her. This case seems a mighty simple one looked at from a distance. Looked at close, it alters very considerably for the worse, and becomes, to speak the plain truth--a Poser.
"This is how we now stand:
"We have traced the young lady to the theatrical agent's in Bow Street. We know that at an early hour on the morning of the twenty-third the agent was called downstairs, while he was dressing, to speak to a young lady in a cab at the door. We know that, on her production of Mr. Huxtable's card, he wrote on it Mr. Huxtable's address in the country, and heard her order the cabman to drive to the Great Northern terminus. We believe she left by the nine o'clock train. We followed her by the twelve o'clock train. We have ascertained that she called at half-past two at Mr. Huxtable's lodgings; that she found he was away, and not expected back till eight in the evening; that she left word she would call again at eight; and that she never returned. Mr. Huxtable's statement is--he and the young lady have never set eyes on each other. The first consideration which follows, is this: Are we to believe Mr. Huxtable? I have carefully inquired into his character; I know as much, or more, about him than he knows about himself; and my opinion is, that we are to believe him. To the best of my knowledge, he is a perfectly honest man.
"Here, then, is the hitch in the case. The young lady sets out with a certain object before her. Instead of going on to the accomplishment of that object, she stops short of it. Why has she stopped? and where? Those are, unfortunately, just the questions which we can't answer yet.
"My own opinion of the matter is, briefly, as follows: I don't think she has met with any serious accident. Serious accidents, in nine cases out of ten, discover themselves. My own notion is, that she has fallen into the hands of some person or persons interested in hiding her away, and sharp enough to know how to set about it. Whether she is in their charge, with or without her own consent, is more than I can undertake to say at present. I don't wish to raise false hopes or false fears; I wish to stop short at the opinion I have given already.
"In regard to the future, I may tell you that I have left one of my men in daily communication with the authorities. I have also taken care to have the handbills offering a reward for the discovery of her widely circulated. Lastly, I have completed the necessary arrangements for seeing the play-bills of all country theaters, and for having the dramatic companies well looked after. Some years since, this would have cost a serious expenditure of time and money. Luckily for our purpose, the country theaters are in a bad way. Excepting the large cities, hardly one of them is open, and we can keep our eye on them, with little expense and less difficulty.
"These are the steps which I think it needful to take at present. If you are of another opinion, you have only to give me your directions, and I will carefully attend to the same. I don't by any means despair of our finding the young lady and bringing her back to her friends safe and well. Please to tell them so; and allow me to subscribe myself, yours respectfully,
Anonymous Letter addressed to Mr. Pendril.
"SIR--A word to the wise. The friends of a certain young lady are wasting time and money to no purpose. Your confidential clerk and your detective policeman are looking for a needle in a bottle of hay. This is the ninth of October, and they have not found her yet: they will as soon find the Northwest Passage. Call your dogs off; and you may hear of the young lady's safety under her own hand. The longer you look for her, the longer she will remain, what she is now--lost."
[The preceding letter is thus indorsed, in Mr. Pendril's handwriting: "No apparent means of tracing the inclosed to its source. Post-mark, 'Charing Cross.' Stationer's stamp cut off the inside of the envelope. Handwriting, probably a man's, in disguise. Writer, whoever he is, correctly informed. No further trace of the younger Miss Vanstone discovered yet."]
IN that part of the city of York which is situated on the western bank of the Ouse there is a narrow street, called Skeldergate, running nearly north and south, parallel with the course of the river. The postern by which Skeldergate was formerly approached no longer exists; and the few old houses left in the street are disguised in melancholy modern costume of whitewash and cement. Shops of the smaller and poorer order, intermixed here and there with dingy warehouses and joyless private residences of red brick, compose the present aspect of Skeldergate. On the river-side the houses are separated at intervals by lanes running down to the water, and disclosing lonely little plots of open ground, with the masts of sailing-barges rising beyond. At its southward extremity the street ceases on a sudden, and the broad flow of the Ouse, the trees, the meadows, the public-walk on one bank and the towing-path on the other, open to view.
Here, where the street ends, and on the side of it furthest from the river, a narrow little lane leads up to the paved footway surmounting the ancient Walls of York. The one small row of buildings, which is all that the lane possesses, is composed of cheap lodging-houses, with an opposite view, at the distance of a few feet, of a portion of the massive city wall. This place is called Rosemary Lane. Very little light enters it; very few people live in it; the floating population of Skeldergate passes it by; and visitors to the Walk on the Walls, who use it as the way up or the way down, get out of the dreary little passage as fast as they can.
The door of one of the houses in this lost corner of York opened softly on the evening of the twenty-third of September, eighteen hundred and forty-six; and a solitary individual of the male sex sauntered into Skeldergate from the seclusion of Rosemary Lane.
Turning northward, this person directed his steps toward the bridge over the Ouse and the busy center of the city. He bore the external appearance of respectable poverty; he carried a gingham umbrella, preserved in an oilskin case; he picked his steps, with the neatest avoidance of all dirty places on the pavement; and he surveyed the scene around him with eyes of two different colors--a bilious brown eye on the lookout for employment, and a bilious green eye in a similar predicament. In plainer terms, the stranger from Rosemary Lane was no other than--Captain Wragge.
Outwardly speaking, the captain had not altered for the better since the memorable spring day when he had presented himself to Miss Garth at the lodge-gate at Combe-Raven. The railway mania of that famous year had attacked even the wary Wragge; had withdrawn him from his customary pursuits; and had left him prostrate in the end, like many a better man. He had lost his clerical appearance--he had faded with the autumn leaves. His crape hat-band had put itself in brown mourning for its own bereavement of black. His dingy white collar and cravat had died the death of old linen, and had gone to their long home at the paper-maker's, to live again one day in quires at a stationer's shop. A gray shooting-jacket in the last stage of woolen atrophy replaced the black frockcoat of former times, and, like a faithful servant, kept the dark secret of its master's linen from the eyes of a prying world. From top to toe every square inch of the captain's clothing was altered for the worse; but the man himself remained unchanged--superior to all forms of moral mildew, impervious to the action of social rust. He was as courteous, as persuasive, as blandly dignified as ever. He carried his head as high without a shirt-collar as ever he had carried it with one. The threadbare black handkerchief round his neck was perfectly tied; his rotten old shoes were neatly blacked; he might have compared chins, in the matter of smooth shaving, with the highest church dignitary in York. Time, change, and poverty had all attacked the captain together, and had all failed alike to get him down on the ground. He paced the streets of York, a man superior to clothes and circumstances--his vagabond varnish as bright on him as ever.
Arrived at the bridge, Captain Wragge stopped and looked idly over the parapet at the barges in the river. It was plainly evident that he had no particular destination to reach and nothing whatever to do. While he was still loitering, the clock of York Minster chimed the half-hour past five. Cabs rattled by him over the bridge on their way to meet the train from London, at twenty minutes to six. After a moment's hesitation, the captain sauntered after the cabs. When it is one of a man's regular habits to live upon his fellow-creatures, that man is always more or less fond of haunting large railway stations. Captain Wragge gleaned the human field, and on that unoccupied afternoon the York terminus was as likely a corner to look about in as any other.
He reached the platform a few minutes after the train had arrived. That entire incapability of devising administrative measures for the management of large crowds, which is one of the characteristics of Englishmen in authority, is nowhere more strikingly exemplified than at York. Three different lines of railway assemble three passenger mobs, from morning to night, under one roof; and leave them to raise a traveler's riot, with all the assistance which the bewildered servants of the company can render to increase the confusion. The customary disturbance was rising to its climax as Captain Wragge approached the platform. Dozens of different people were trying to attain dozens of different objects, in dozens of different directions, all starting from the same common point and all equally deprived of the means of information. A sudden parting of the crowd, near the second-class carriages, attracted the captain's curiosity. He pushed his way in; and found a decently-dressed man--assisted by a porter and a policeman--attempting to pick up some printed bills scattered from a paper parcel, which his frenzied fellow-passengers had knocked out of his hand.
Offering his assistance in this emergency, with the polite alacrity which marked his character, Captain Wragge observed the three startling words, "Fifty Pounds Reward," printed in capital letters on the bills which he assisted in recovering; and instantly secreted one of them, to be more closely examined at the first convenient opportunity. As he crumpled up the bill in the palm of his hand, his party-colored eyes fixed with hungry interest on the proprietor of the unlucky parcel. When a man happens not to be possessed of fifty pence in his own pocket, if his heart is in the right place, it bounds; if his mouth is properly constituted, it waters, at the sight of another man who carries about with him a printed offer of fifty pounds sterling, addressed to his fellow-creatures.
The unfortunate traveler wrapped up his parcel as he best might, and made his way off the platform, after addressing an inquiry to the first official victim of the day's passenger-traffic, who was sufficiently in possession of his senses to listen to it. Leaving the station for the river-side, which was close at hand, the stranger entered the ferryboat at the North Street Postern. The captain, who had carefully dogged his steps thus far, entered the boat also; and employed the short interval of transit to the opposite bank in a perusal of the handbill which he had kept for his own private enlightenment. With his back carefully turned on the traveler, Captain Wragge now possessed his mind of the following lines:
"Left her home, in London, early on the morning of September 23d, 1846, A YOUNG LADY. Age--eighteen. Dress--deep mourning. Personal appearance--hair of a very light brown; eyebrows and eyelashes darker; eyes light gray; complexion strikingly pale; lower part of her face large and full; tall upright figure; walks with remarkable grace and ease; speaks with openness and resolution; has the manners and habits of a refined, cultivated lady. Personal marks--two little moles, close together, on the left side of the neck. Mark on the under-clothing--'Magdalen Vanstone.' Is supposed to have joined, or attempted to join, under an assumed name, a theatrical company now performing at York. Had, when she left London, one black box, and no other luggage. Whoever will give such information as will restore her to her friends shall receive the above Reward. Apply at the office of Mr. Harkness, solicitor, Coney Street, York. Or to Messrs. Wyatt, Pendril, and Gwilt, Serle Street, Lincoln's Inn, London."
Accustomed as Captain Wragge was to keep the completest possession of himself in all human emergencies, his own profound astonishment, when the course of his reading brought him to the mark on the linen of the missing young lady, betrayed him into an exclamation of surprise which even startled the ferryman. The traveler was less observant; his whole attention was fixed on the opposite bank of the river, and he left the boat hastily the moment it touched the landing-place. Captain Wragge recovered himself, pocketed the handbill, and followed his leader for the second time.
The stranger directed his steps to the nearest street which ran down to the river, compared a note in his pocketbook with the numbers of the houses on the left-hand side, stopped at one of them, and rang the bell. The captain went on to the next house; affected to ring the bell, in his turn, and stood with his back to the traveler--in appearance, waiting to be let in; in reality, listening with all his might for any scraps of dialogue which might reach his ears on the opening of the door behind him.
The door was answered with all due alacrity, and a sufficiently instructive interchange of question and answer on the threshold rewarded the dexterity of Captain Wragge.
"Does Mr. Huxtable live here?" asked the traveler.
"Yes, sir," was the answer, in a woman's voice.
"Is he at home?"
"Not at home now, sir; but he will be in again at eight to-night."
"I think a young lady called here early in the day, did she not?"
"Yes; a young lady came this afternoon."
"Exactly; I come on the same business. Did she see Mr. Huxtable?"
"No, sir; he has been away all day. The young lady told me she would come back at eight o'clock."
"Just so. I will call and see Mr. Huxtable at the same time."
"Any name, sir?"
"No; say a gentleman called on theatrical business--that will be enough. Wait one minute, if you please. I am a stranger in York; will you kindly tell me which is the way to Coney Street?"
The woman gave the required information, the door closed, and the stranger hastened away in the direction of Coney Street.
On this occasion Captain Wragge made no attempt to follow him. The handbill revealed plainly enough that the man's next object was to complete the necessary arrangements with the local solicitor on the subject of the promised reward.
Having seen and heard enough for his immediate purpose, the captain retraced his steps down the street, turned to the right, and entered on the Esplanade, which, in that quarter of the city, borders the river-side between the swimming-baths and Lendal Tower. "This is a family matter," said Captain Wragge to himself, persisting, from sheer force of habit, in the old assertion of his relationship to Magdalen's mother; "I must consider it in all its bearings." He tucked the umbrella under his arm, crossed his hands behind him, and lowered himself gently into the abyss of his own reflections. The order and propriety observable in the captain's shabby garments accurately typified the order and propriety which distinguished the operations of the captain's mind. It was his habit always to see his way before him through a neat succession of alternatives--and so he saw it now.
Three courses were open to him in connection with the remarkable discovery which he had just made. The first course was to do nothing in the matter at all. Inadmissible, on family grounds: equally inadmissible on pecuniary grounds: rejected accordingly. The second course was to deserve the gratitude of the young lady's friends, rated at fifty pounds. The third course was, by a timely warning to deserve the gratitude of the young lady herself, rated--at an unknown figure. Between these two last alternatives the wary Wragge hesitated; not from doubt of Magdalen's pecuniary resources--for he was totally ignorant of the circumstances which had deprived the sisters of their inheritance--but from doubt whether an obstacle in the shape of an undiscovered gentleman might not be privately connected with her disappearance from home. After mature reflection, he determined to pause, and be guided by circumstances. In the meantime, the first consideration was to be beforehand with the messenger from London, and to lay hands securely on the young lady herself.
"I feel for this misguided girl," mused the captain, solemnly strutting backward and forward by the lonely river-side. "I always have looked upon her--I always shall look upon her--in the light of a niece."
Where was the adopted relative at that moment? In other words, how was a young lady in Magdalen's critical position likely to while away the hours until Mr. Huxtable's return? If there was an obstructive gentleman in the background, it would be mere waste of time to pursue the question. But if the inference which the handbill suggested was correct--if she was really alone at that moment in the city of York--where was she likely to be?
Not in the crowded thoroughfares, to begin with. Not viewing the objects of interest in the Minster, for it was now past the hour at which the cathedral could be seen. Was she in the waiting-room at the railway? She would hardly run that risk. Was she in one of the hotels? Doubtful, considering that she was entirely by herself. In a pastry-cook's shop? Far more likely. Driving about in a cab? Possible, certainly; but no more. Loitering away the time in some quiet locality, out-of-doors? Likely enough, again, on that fine autumn evening. The captain paused, weighed the relative claims on his attention of the quiet locality and the pastry-cook's shop; and decided for the first of the two. There was time enough to find her at the pastry-cook's, to inquire after her at the principal hotels, or, finally, to intercept her in Mr. Huxtable's immediate neighborhood from seven to eight. While the light lasted, the wise course was to use it in looking for her out-of-doors. Where? The Esplanade was a quiet locality; but she was not there--not on the lonely road beyond, which ran back by the Abbey Wall. Where next? The captain stopped, looked across the river, brightened under the influence of a new idea, and suddenly hastened back to the ferry.
"The Walk on the Walls," thought this judicious man, with a twinkle of his party-colored eyes. "The quietest place in York; and the place that every stranger goes to see."
In ten minutes more Captain Wragge was exploring the new field of search. He mounted to the walls (which inclose the whole western portion of the city) by the North Street Postern, from which the walk winds round until it ends again at its southernly extremity in the narrow passage of Rosemary Lane. It was then twenty minutes to seven. The sun had set more than half an hour since; the red light lay broad and low in the cloudless western heaven; all visible objects were softening in the tender twilight, but were not darkening yet. The first few lamps lit in the street below looked like faint little specks of yellow light, as the captain started on his walk through one of the most striking scenes which England can show.
On his right hand, as he set forth, stretched the open country beyond the walls--the rich green meadows, the boundary-trees dividing them, the broad windings of the river in the distance, the scattered buildings nearer to view; all wrapped in the evening stillness, all made beautiful by the evening peace. On his left hand, the majestic west front of York Minster soared over the city and caught the last brightest light of heaven on the summits of its lofty towers. Had this noble prospect tempted the lost girl to linger and look at it? No; thus far, not a sign of her. The captain looked round him attentively, and walked on.
He reached the spot where the iron course of the railroad strikes its way through arches in the old wall. He paused at this place--where the central activity of a great railway enterprise beats, with all the pulses of its loud-clanging life, side by side with the dead majesty of the past, deep under the old historic stones which tell of fortified York and the sieges of two centuries since--he stood on this spot, and searched for her again, and searched in vain. Others were looking idly down at the desolate activity on the wilderness of the iron rails; but she was not among them. The captain glanced doubtfully at the darkening sky, and walked on.
He stopped again where the postern of Micklegate still stands, and still strengthens the city wall as of old. Here the paved walk descends a few steps, passes through the dark stone guardroom of the ancient gate, ascends again, and continues its course southward until the walls reach the river once more. He paused, and peered anxiously into the dim inner corners of the old guard-room. Was she waiting there for the darkness to come, and hide her from prying eyes? No: a solitary workman loitered through the stone chamber; but no other living creature stirred in the place. The captain mounted the steps which led out from the postern and walked on.
He advanced some fifty or sixty yards along the paved footway; the outlying suburbs of York on one side of him, a rope-walk and some patches of kitchen garden occupying a vacant strip of ground on the other. He advanced with eager eyes and quickened step; for he saw before him the lonely figure of a woman, standing by the parapet of the wall, with her face set toward the westward view. He approached cautiously, to make sure of her before she turned and observed him. There was no mistaking that tall, dark figure, as it rested against the parapet with a listless grace. There she stood, in her long black cloak and gown, the last dim light of evening falling tenderly on her pale, resolute young face. There she stood--not three months since the spoiled darling of her parents; the priceless treasure of the household, never left unprotected, never trusted alone--there she stood in the lovely dawn of her womanhood, a castaway in a strange city, wrecked on the world!
Vagabond as he was, the first sight of her staggered even the dauntless assurance of Captain Wragge. As she slowly turned her face and looked at him, he raised his hat, with the nearest approach to respect which a long life of unblushing audacity had left him capable of making.
"I think I have the honor of addressing the younger Miss Vanstone?" he began. "Deeply gratified, I am sure--for more reasons than one."
She looked at him with a cold surprise. No recollection of the day when he had followed her sister and herself on their way home with Miss Garth rose in her memory, while he now confronted her, with his altered manner and his altered dress.
"You are mistaken," she said, quietly. "You are a perfect stranger to me."
"Pardon me," replied the captain; "I am a species of relation. I had the pleasure of seeing you in the spring of the present year. I presented myself on that memorable occasion to an honored preceptress in your late father's family. Permit me, under equally agreeable circumstances, to present myself to you. My name is Wragge."
By this time he had recovered complete possession of his own impudence; his party-colored eyes twinkled cheerfully, and he accompanied his modest announcement of himself with a dancing-master's bow.
Magdalen frowned, and drew back a step. The captain was not a man to be daunted by a cold reception. He tucked his umbrella under his arm and jocosely spelled his name for her further enlightenment. "W, R, A, double G, E--Wragge," said the captain, ticking off the letters persuasively on his fingers.
"I remember your name," said Magdalen. "Excuse me for leaving you abruptly. I have an engagement."
She tried to pass him and walk on northward toward the railway. He instantly met the attempt by raising both hands, and displaying a pair of darned black gloves outspread in polite protest.
"Not that way," he said; "not that way, Miss Vanstone, I beg and entreat!"
"Why not?" she asked haughtily.
"Because," answered the captain, "that is the way which leads to Mr. Huxtable's."
In the ungovernable astonishment of hearing his reply she suddenly bent forward, and for the first time looked him close in the face. He sustained her suspicious scrutiny with every appearance of feeling highly gratified by it. "H, U, X--Hux," said the captain, playfully turning to the old joke: "T, A--ta, Huxta; B, L, E--ble; Huxtable."
"What do you know about Mr. Huxtable?" she asked. "What do you mean by mentioning him to me?"
The captain's curly lip took a new twist upward. He immediately replied, to the best practical purpose, by producing the handbill from his pocket.
"There is just light enough left," he said, "for young (and lovely) eyes to read by. Before I enter upon the personal statement which your flattering inquiry claims from me, pray bestow a moment's attention on this Document."
She took the handbill from him. By the last gleam of twilight she read the lines which set a price on her recovery--which published the description of her in pitiless print, like the description of a strayed dog. No tender consideration had prepared her for the shock, no kind word softened it to her when it came. The vagabond, whose cunning eyes watched her eagerly while she read, knew no more that the handbill which he had stolen had only been prepared in anticipation of the worst, and was only to be publicly used in the event of all more considerate means of tracing her being tried in vain--than she knew it. The bill dropped from her hand; her face flushed deeply. She turned away from Captain Wragge, as if all idea of his existence had passed out of her mind.
"Oh, Norah, Norah!" she said to herself, sorrowfully. "After the letter I wrote you--after the hard struggle I had to go away! Oh, Norah, Norah!"
"How is Norah?" inquired the captain, with the utmost politeness.
She turned upon him with an angry brightness in her large gray eyes. "Is this thing shown publicly?" she asked, stamping her foot on it. "Is the mark on my neck described all over York?"
"Pray compose yourself," pleaded the persuasive Wragge. "At present I have every reason to believe that you have just perused the only copy in circulation. Allow me to pick it up."
Before he could touch the bill she snatched it from the pavement, tore it into fragments, and threw them over the wall.
"Bravo!" cried the captain. "You remind me of your poor dear mother. The family spirit, Miss Vanstone. We all inherit our hot blood from my maternal grandfather."
"How did you come by it?" she asked, suddenly.
"My dear creature, I have just told you," remonstrated the captain. "We all come by it from my maternal grandfather."
"How did you come by that handbill?" she repeated, passionately.
"I beg ten thousand pardons! My head was running on the family spirit.--How did I come by it? Briefly thus." Here Captain Wragge entered on his personal statement; taking his customary vocal exercise through the longest words of the English language, with the highest elocutionary relish. Having, on this rare occasion, nothing to gain by concealment, he departed from his ordinary habits, and, with the utmost amazement at the novelty of his own situation, permitted himself to tell the unmitigated truth.
The effect of the narrative on Magdalen by no means fulfilled Captain Wragge's anticipations in relating it. She was not startled; she was not irritated; she showed no disposition to cast herself on his mercy, and to seek his advice. She looked him steadily in the face; and all she said, when he had neatly rounded his last sentence, was--"Go on."
"Go on?" repeated the captain. "Shocked to disappoint you, I am sure; but the fact is, I have done."
"No, you have not," she rejoined; "you have left out the end of your story. The end of it is, you came here to look for me; and you mean to earn the fifty pounds reward."
Those plain words so completely staggered Captain Wragge that for the moment he stood speechless. But he had faced awkward truths of all sorts far too often to be permanently disconcerted by them. Before Magdalen could pursue her advantage, the vagabond had recovered his balance: Wragge was himself again.
"Smart," said the captain, laughing indulgently, and drumming with his umbrella on the pavement. "Some men might take it seriously. I'm not easily offended. Try again."
Magdalen looked at him through the gathering darkness in mute perplexity. All her little experience of society had been experience among people who possessed a common sense of honor, and a common responsibility of social position. She had hitherto seen nothing but the successful human product from the great manufactory of Civilization. Here was one of the failures, and, with all her quickness, she was puzzled how to deal with it.
"Pardon me for returning to the subject," pursued the captain. "It has just occurred to my mind that you might actually have spoken in earnest. My poor child! how can I earn the fifty pounds before the reward is offered to me? Those handbills may not be publicly posted for a week to come. Precious as you are to all your relatives (myself included), take my word for it, the lawyers who are managing this case will not pay fifty pounds for you if they can possibly help it. Are you still persuaded that my needy pockets are gaping for the money? Very good. Button them up in spite of me with your own fair fingers. There is a train to London at nine forty-five to-night. Submit yourself to your friend's wishes and go back by it."
"Never!" said Magdalen, firing at the bare suggestion, exactly as the captain had intended she should. "If my mind had not been made up before, that vile handbill would have decided me. I forgive Norah," she added, turning away and speaking to herself, "but not Mr. Pendril, and not Miss Garth."
"Quite right!" said Captain Wragge. "The family spirit. I should have done the same myself at your age. It runs in the blood. Hark! there goes the clock again--half-past seven. Miss Vanstone, pardon this seasonable abruptness! If you are to carry out your resolution--if you are to be your own mistress much longer, you must take a course of some kind before eight o'clock. You are young, you are inexperienced, you are in imminent danger. Here is a position of emergency on one side--and here am I, on the other, with an uncle's interest in you, full of advice. Tap me."
"Suppose I choose to depend on nobody, and to act for myself?" said Magdalen. "What then?"
"Then," replied the captain, "you will walk straight into one of the four traps which are set to catch you in the ancient and interesting city of York. Trap the first, at Mr. Huxtable's house; trap the second, at all the hotels; trap the third, at the railway station; trap the fourth, at the theater. That man with the handbills has had an hour at his disposal. If he has not set those four traps (with the assistance of the local solicitor) by this time, he is not the competent lawyer's clerk I take him for. Come, come, my dear girl! if there is somebody else in the background, whose advice you prefer to mine--"
"You see that I am alone," she interposed, proudly. "If you knew me better, you would know that I depend on nobody but myself."
Those words decided the only doubt which now remained in the captain's mind--the doubt whether the course was clear before him. The motive of her flight from home was evidently what the handbills assumed it to be--a reckless fancy for going on the stage. "One of two things," thought Wragge to himself, in his logical way. "She's worth more than fifty pounds to me in her present situation, or she isn't. If she is, her friends may whistle for her. If she isn't, I have only to keep her till the bills are posted." Fortified by this simple plan of action, the captain returned to the charge, and politely placed Magdalen between the two inevitable alternatives of trusting herself to him, on the one hand, or of returning to her friends, on the other.
"I respect independence of character wherever I find it," he said, with an air of virtuous severity. "In a young and lovely relative, I more than respect--I admire it. But (excuse the bold assertion), to walk on a way of your own, you must first have a way to walk on. Under existing circumstances, where is your way? Mr. Huxtable is out of the question, to begin with."
"Out of the question for to-night," said Magdalen; "but what hinders me from writing to Mr. Huxtable, and making my own private arrangements with him for to-morrow?"
"Granted with all my heart--a hit, a palpable hit. Now for my turn. To get to to-morrow (excuse the bold assertion, once more), you must first pass through to-night. Where are you to sleep?"
"Are there no hotels in York?"
"Excellent hotels for large families; excellent hotels for single gentlemen. The very worst hotels in the world for handsome young ladies who present themselves alone at the door without male escort, without a maid in attendance, and without a single article of luggage. Dark as it is, I think I could see a lady's box, if there was anything of the sort in our immediate neighborhood."
"My box is at the cloak-room. What is to prevent my sending the ticket for it?"
"Nothing--if you want to communicate your address by means of your box--nothing whatever. Think; pray think! Do you really suppose that the people who are looking for you are such fools as not to have an eye on the cloakroom? Do you think they are such fools--when they find you don't come to Mr. Huxtable's at eight to-night--as not to inquire at all the hotels? Do you think a young lady of your striking appearance (even if they consented to receive you) could take up her abode at an inn without becoming the subject of universal curiosity and remark? Here is night coming on as fast as it can. Don't let me bore you; only let me ask once more--Where are you to sleep?"
There was no answer to that question: in Magdalen's position, there was literally no answer to it on her side. She was silent.
"Where are you to sleep?" repeated the captain. "The reply is obvious--under my roof. Mrs. Wragge will be charmed to see you. Look upon her as your aunt; pray look upon her as your aunt. The landlady is a widow, the house is close by, there are no other lodgers, and there is a bedroom to let. Can anything be more satisfactory, under all the circumstances? Pray observe, I say nothing about to-morrow--I leave to-morrow to you, and confine myself exclusively to the night. I may, or may not, command theatrical facilities, which I am in a position to offer you. Sympathy and admiration may, or may not, be strong within me, when I contemplate the dash and independence of your character. Hosts of examples of bright stars of the British drama, who have begun their apprenticeship to the stage as you are beginning yours, may, or may not, crowd on my memory. These are topics for the future. For the present, I confine myself within my strict range of duty. We are within five minutes' walk of my present address. Allow me to offer you my arm. No? You hesitate? You distrust me? Good heavens! is it possible you can have heard anything to my disadvantage?"
"Quite possible," said Magdalen, without a moment's flinching from the answer.
"May I inquire the particulars?" asked the captain, with the politest composure. "Don't spare my feelings; oblige me by speaking out. In the plainest terms, now, what have you heard?"
She answered him with a woman's desperate disregard of consequences when she is driven to bay--she answered him instantly,
"I have heard you are a Rogue."
"Have you, indeed?" said the impenetrable Wragge. "A Rogue? Well, I waive my privilege of setting you right on that point for a fitter time. For the sake of argument, let us say I am a Rogue. What is Mr. Huxtable?"
"A respectable man, or I should not have seen him in the house where we first met."
"Very good. Now observe! You talked of writing to Mr. Huxtable a minute ago. What do you think a respectable man is likely to do with a young lady who openly acknowledges that she has run away from her home and her friends to go on the stage? My dear girl, on your own showing, it's not a respectable man you want in your present predicament. It's a Rogue--like me."
Magdalen laughed, bitterly.
"There is some truth in that," she said. "Thank you for recalling me to myself and my circumstances. I have my end to gain--and who am I, to pick and choose the way of getting to it? It is my turn to beg pardon now. I have been talking as if I was a young lady of family and position. Absurd! We know better than that, don't we, Captain Wragge? You are quite right. Nobody's child must sleep under Somebody's roof--and why not yours?"
"This way," said the captain, dexterously profiting by the sudden change in her humor, and cunningly refraining from exasperating it by saying more himself. "This way."
She followed him a few steps, and suddenly stopped.
"Suppose I am discovered?" she broke out, abruptly. "Who has any authority over me? Who can take me back, if I don't choose to go? If they all find me to-morrow, what then? Can't I say No to Mr. Pendril? Can't I trust my own courage with Miss Garth?"
"Can you trust your courage with your sister?" whispered the captain, who had not forgotten the references to Norah which had twice escaped her already.
Her head drooped. She shivered as if the cold night air had struck her, and leaned back wearily against the parapet of the wall.
"Not with Norah," she said, sadly. "I could trust myself with the others. Not with Norah."
"This way," repeated Captain Wragge. She roused herself; looked up at the darkening heaven, looked round at the darkening view. "What must be, must," she said, and followed him.
The Minster clock struck the quarter to eight as they left the Walk on the Wall and descended the steps into Rosemary Lane. Almost at the same moment the lawyer's clerk from London gave the last instructions to his subordinates, and took up his own position, on the opposite side of the river, within easy view of Mr. Huxtable's door.
CAPTAIN WRAGGE stopped nearly midway in the one little row of houses composing Rosemary Lane, and let himself and his guest in at the door of his lodgings with his own key. As they entered the passage, a care-worn woman in a widow's cap made her appearance with a candle. "My niece," said the captain, presenting Magdalen; "my niece on a visit to York. She has kindly consented to occupy your empty bedroom. Consider it let, if you please, to my niece--and be very particular in airing the sheets? Is Mrs. Wragge upstairs? Very good. You may lend me your candle. My dear girl, Mrs. Wragge's boudoir is on the first floor; Mrs. Wragge is visible. Allow me to show you the way up."
As he ascended the stairs first, the care-worn widow whispered, piteously, to Magdalen, "I hope you'll pay me, miss. Your uncle doesn't."
The captain threw open the door of the front room on the first floor, and disclosed a female figure, arrayed in a gown of tarnished amber-colored satin, seated solitary on a small chair, with dingy old gloves on its hands, with a tattered old book on its knees, and with one little bedroom candle by its side. The figure terminated at its upper extremity in a large, smooth, white round face--like a moon--encircled by a cap and green ribbons, and dimly irradiated by eyes of mild and faded blue, which looked straightforward into vacancy, and took not the smallest notice of Magdalen's appearance, on the opening of the door.
"Mrs. Wragge!" cried the captain, shouting at her as if she was fast asleep. "Mrs. Wragge!"
The lady of the faded blue eyes slowly rose to an apparently interminable height. When she had at last attained an upright position, she towered to a stature of two or three inches over six feet. Giants of both sexes are, by a wise dispensation of Providence, created, for the most part, gentle. If Mrs. Wragge and a lamb had been placed side by side, comparison, under those circumstances, would have exposed the lamb as a rank impostor.
"Tea, captain?" inquired Mrs. Wragge, looking submissively down at her husband, whose head, when he stood on tiptoe, barely reached her shoulder.
"Miss Vanstone, the younger," said the captain, presenting Magdalen. "Our fair relative, whom I have met by fortunate accident. Our guest for the night. Our guest!" reiterated the captain, shouting once more as if the tall lady was still fast asleep, in spite of the plain testimony of her own eyes to the contrary.
A smile expressed itself (in faint outline) on the large vacant space of Mrs. Wragge's countenance. "Oh?" she said, interrogatively. "Oh, indeed? Please, miss, will you sit down? I'm sorry--no, I don't mean I'm sorry; I mean I'm glad--" she stopped, and consulted her husband by a helpless look.
"Glad, of course!" shouted the captain.
"Glad, of course," echoed the giantess of the amber satin, more meekly than ever.
"Mrs. Wragge is not deaf," explained the captain. "She's only a little slow. Constitutionally torpid--if I may use the expression. I am merely loud with her (and I beg you will honor me by being loud, too) as a necessary stimulant to her ideas. Shout at her--and her mind comes up to time. Speak to her--and she drifts miles away from you directly. Mrs. Wragge!"
Mrs. Wragge instantly acknowledged the stimulant. "Tea, captain?" she inquired, for the second time.
"Put your cap straight!" shouted her husband. "I beg ten thousand pardons," he resumed, again addressing himself to Magdalen. "The sad truth is, I am a martyr to my own sense of order. All untidiness, all want of system and regularity, cause me the acutest irritation. My attention is distracted, my composure is upset; I can't rest till things are set straight again. Externally speaking, Mrs. Wragge is, to my infinite regret, the crookedest woman I ever met with. More to the right!" shouted the captain, as Mrs. Wragge, like a well-trained child, presented herself with her revised head-dress for her husband's inspection.
Mrs. Wragge immediately pulled the cap to the left. Magdalen rose, and set it right for her. The moon-face of the giantess brightened for the first time. She looked admiringly at Magdalen's cloak and bonnet. "Do you like dress, miss?" she asked, suddenly, in a confidential whisper. "I do."
"Show Miss Vanstone her room," said the captain, looking as if the whole house belonged to him. "The spare-room, the landlady's spare-room, on the third floor front. Offer Miss Vanstone all articles connected with the toilet of which she may stand in need. She has no luggage with her. Supply the deficiency, and then come back and make tea."
Mrs. Wragge acknowledged the receipt of these lofty directions by a look of placid bewilderment, and led the way out of the room; Magdalen following her, with a candle presented by the attentive captain. As soon as they were alone on the landing outside, Mrs. Wragge raised the tattered old book which she had been reading when Magdalen was first presented to her, and which she had never let out of her hand since, and slowly tapped herself on the forehead with it. "Oh, my poor head!" said the tall lady, in meek soliloquy; "it's Buzzing again worse than ever!"
"Buzzing?" repeated Magdalen, in the utmost astonishment.
Mrs. Wragge ascended the stairs, without offering any explanation, stopped at one of the rooms on the second floor, and led the way in.
"This is not the third floor," said Magdalen. "This is not my room, surely?"
"Wait a bit," pleaded Mrs. Wragge. "Wait a bit, miss, before we go up any higher. I've got the Buzzing in my head worse than ever. Please wait for me till I'm a little better again."
"Shall I ask for help?" inquired Magdalen. "Shall I call the landlady?"
"Help?" echoed Mrs. Wragge. "Bless you, I don't want help! I'm used to it. I've had the Buzzing in my head, off and on--how many years?" She stopped, reflected, lost herself, and suddenly tried a question in despair. "Have you ever been at Darch's Dining-rooms in London?" she asked, with an appearance of the deepest interest.
"No," replied Magdalen, wondering at the strange inquiry.
"That's where the Buzzing in my head first began," said Mrs. Wragge, following the new clew with the deepest attention and anxiety. "I was employed to wait on the gentlemen at Darch's Dining-rooms--I was. The gentlemen all came together; the gentlemen were all hungry together; the gentlemen all gave their orders together--" She stopped, and tapped her head again, despondently, with the tattered old book.
"And you had to keep all their orders in your memory, separate one from the other?" suggested Magdalen, helping her out. "And the trying to do that confused you?"
"That's it!" said Mrs. Wragge, becoming violently excited in a moment. "Boiled pork and greens and pease-pudding, for Number One. Stewed beef and carrots and gooseberry tart, for Number Two. Cut of mutton, and quick about it, well done, and plenty of fat, for Number Three. Codfish and parsnips, two chops to follow, hot-and-hot, or I'll be the death of you, for Number Four. Five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Carrots and gooseberry tart--pease-pudding and plenty of fat--pork and beef and mutton, and cut 'em all, and quick about it--stout for one, and ale for t'other--and stale bread here, and new bread there--and this gentleman likes cheese, and that gentleman doesn't--Matilda, Tilda, Tilda, Tilda, fifty times over, till I didn't know my own name again--oh lord! oh lord!! oh lord!!! all together, all at the same time, all out of temper, all buzzing in my poor head like forty thousand million bees--don't tell the captain! don't tell the captain!" The unfortunate creature dropped the tattered old book, and beat both her hands on her head, with a look of blank terror fixed on the door.
"Hush! hush!" said Magdalen. "The captain hasn't heard you. I know what is the matter with your head now. Let me cool it."
She dipped a towel in water, and pressed it on the hot and helpless head which Mrs. Wragge submitted to her with the docility of a sick child.
"What a pretty hand you've got!" said the poor creature, feeling the relief of the coolness and taking Magdalen's hand, admiringly, in her own. "How soft and white it is! I try to be a lady; I always keep my gloves on--but I can't get my hands like yours. I'm nicely dressed, though, ain't I? I like dress; it's a comfort to me. I'm always happy when I'm looking at my things. I say--you won't be angry with me?--I should so like to try your bonnet on."
Magdalen humored her, with the ready compassion of the young. She stood smiling and nodding at herself in the glass, with the bonnet perched on the top of her head. "I had one as pretty as this, once," she said--"only it was white, not black. I wore it when the captain married me."
"Where did you meet with him?" asked Magdalen, putting the question as a chance means of increasing her scanty stock of information on the subject of Captain Wragge.
"At the Dining-rooms," said Mrs. Wragge. "He was the hungriest and the loudest to wait upon of the lot of 'em. I made more mistakes with him than I did with all the rest of them put together. He used to swear--oh, didn't he use to swear! When he left off swearing at me he married me. There was others wanted me besides him. Bless you, I had my pick. Why not? When you have a trifle of money left you that you didn't expect, if that don't make a lady of you, what does? Isn't a lady to have her pick? I had my trifle of money, and I had my pick, and I picked the captain--I did. He was the smartest and the shortest of them all. He took care of me and my money. I'm here, the money's gone. Don't you put that towel down on the table--he won't have that! Don't move his razors--don't, please, or I shall forget which is which. I've got to remember which is which to-morrow morning. Bless you, the captain don't shave himself! He had me taught. I shave him. I do his hair, and cut his nails--he's awfully particular about his nails. So he is about his trousers. And his shoes. And his newspaper in the morning. And his breakfasts, and lunches, and dinners, and teas--" She stopped, struck by a sudden recollection, looked about her, observed the tattered old book on the floor, and clasped her hands in despair. "I've lost the place!" she exclaimed helplessly. "Oh, mercy, what will become of me! I've lost the place."
"Never mind," said Magdalen; "I'll soon find the place for you again."
She picked up the book, looked into the pages, and found that the object of Mrs. Wragge's anxiety was nothing more important than an old-fashioned Treatise on the Art of Cookery, reduced under the usual heads of Fish, Flesh, and Fowl, and containing the customary series of recipes. Turning over the leaves, Magdalen came to one particular page, thickly studded with little drops of moisture half dry. "Curious!" she said. "If this was anything but a cookery-book, I should say somebody had been crying over it."
"Somebody?" echoed Mrs. Wragge, with a stare of amazement. "It isn't somebody--it's Me. Thank you kindly, that's the place, sure enough. Bless you, I'm used to crying over it. You'd cry, too, if you had to get the captain's dinners out of it. As sure as ever I sit down to this book the Buzzing in my head begins again. Who's to make it out? Sometimes I think I've got it, and it all goes away from me. Sometimes I think I haven't got it, and it all comes back in a heap. Look here! Here's what he's ordered for his breakfast to-morrow: 'Omelette with Herbs. Beat up two eggs with a little water or milk, salt, pepper, chives, and parsley. Mince small.'--There! mince small! How am I to mince small when it's all mixed up and running? 'Put a piece of butter the size of your thumb into the frying-pan.'--Look at my thumb, and look at yours! whose size does she mean? 'Boil, but not brown.'--If it mustn't be brown, what color must it be? She won't tell me; she expects me to know, and I don't. 'Pour in the omelette.'--There! I can do that. 'Allow it to set, raise it round the edge; when done, turn it over to double it.'--Oh, the number of times I turned it over and doubled it in my head, before you came in to-night! 'Keep it soft; put the dish on the frying-pan, and turn it over.' Which am I to turn over--oh, mercy, try the cold towel again, and tell me which--the dish or the frying-pan?"
"Put the dish on the frying-pan," said Magdalen; "and then turn the frying-pan over. That is what it means, I think."
"Thank you kindly," said Mrs. Wragge, "I want to get it into my head; please say it again."
Magdalen said it again.
"And then turn the frying-pan over," repeated Mrs. Wragge, with a sudden burst of energy. "I've got it now! Oh, the lots of omelettes all frying together in my head; and all frying wrong! Much obliged, I'm sure. You've put me all right again: I'm only a little tired with talking. And then turn the frying-pan, then turn the frying-pan, then turn the frying-pan over. It sounds like poetry, don't it?"
Her voice sank, and she drowsily closed her eyes. At the same moment the door of the room below opened, and the captain's mellifluous bass notes floated upstairs, charged with the customary stimulant to his wife's faculties.
"Mrs. Wragge!" cried the captain. "Mrs. Wragge!"
She started to her feet at that terrible summons. "Oh, what did he tell me to do?" she asked, distractedly. "Lots of things, and I've forgotten them all!"
"Say you have done them when he asks you," suggested Magdalen. "They were things for me--things I don't want. I remember all that is necessary. My room is the front room on the third floor. Go downstairs and say I am coming directly."
She took up the candle and pushed Mrs. Wragge out on the landing. "Say I am coming directly," she whispered again--and went upstairs by herself to the third story.
The room was small, close, and very poorly furnished. In former days Miss Garth would have hesitated to offer such a room to one of the servants at Combe-Raven. But it was quiet; it gave her a few minutes alone; and it was endurable, even welcome, on that account. She locked herself in and walked mechanically, with a woman's first impulse in a strange bedroom, to the rickety little table and the dingy little looking-glass. She waited there for a moment, and then turned away with weary contempt. "What does it matter how pale I am?" she thought to herself. "Frank can't see me--what does it matter now!"
She laid aside her cloak and bonnet, and sat down to collect herself. But the events of the day had worn her out. The past, when she tried to remember it, only made her heart ache. The future, when she tried to penetrate it, was a black void. She rose again, and stood by the uncurtained window--stood looking out, as if there was some hidden sympathy for her own desolation in the desolate night.
"Norah!" she said to herself, tenderly; "I wonder if Norah is thinking of me? Oh, if I could be as patient as she is! If I could only forget the debt we owe to Michael Vanstone!"
Her face darkened with a vindictive despair, and she paced the little cage of a room backward and forward, softly. "No: never till the debt is paid!" Her thoughts veered back again to Frank. "Still at sea, poor fellow; further and further away from me; sailing through the day, sailing through the night. Oh, Frank, love me!"
Her eyes filled with tears. She dashed them away, made for the door, and laughed with a desperate levity, as she unlocked it again.
"Any company is better than my own thoughts," she burst out, recklessly, as she left the room. "I'm forgetting my ready-made relations--my half-witted aunt, and my uncle the rogue." She descended the stairs to the landing on the first floor, and paused there in momentary hesitation. "How will it end?" she asked herself. "Where is my blindfolded journey taking me to now? Who knows, and who cares?"
She entered the room.
Captain Wragge was presiding at the tea-tray with the air of a prince in his own banqueting-hall. At one side of the table sat Mrs. Wragge, watching her husband's eye like an animal waiting to be fed. At the other side was an empty chair, toward which the captain waved his persuasive hand when Magdalen came in. "How do you like your room?" he inquired; "I trust Mrs. Wragge has made herself useful? You take milk and sugar? Try the local bread, honor the York butter, test the freshness of a new and neighboring egg. I offer my little all. A pauper's meal, my dear girl--seasoned with a gentleman's welcome."
"Seasoned with salt, pepper, chives and parsley," murmured Mrs. Wragge, catching instantly at a word in connection with cookery, and harnessing her head to the omelette for the rest of the evening.
"Sit straight at the table!" shouted the captain. "More to the left, more still--that will do. During your absence upstairs," he continued, addressing himself to Magdalen, "my mind has not been unemployed. I have been considering your position with a view exclusively to your own benefit. If you decide on being guided to-morrow by the light of my experience, that light is unreservedly at your service. You may naturally say: 'I know but little of you, captain, and that little is unfavorable.' Granted, on one condition--that you permit me to make myself and my character quite familiar to you when tea is over. False shame is foreign to my nature. You see my wife, my house, my bread, my butter, and my eggs, all exactly as they are. See me, too, my dear girl, while you are about it."
When tea was over, Mrs. Wragge, at a signal from her husband, retired to a corner of the room, with the eternal cookery-book still in her hand. "Mince small," she whispered, confidentially, as she passed Magdalen. "That's a teaser, isn't it?"
"Down at heel again!" shouted the captain, pointing to his wife's heavy flat feet as they shuffled across the room. "The right shoe. Pull it up at heel, Mrs. Wragge--pull it up at heel! Pray allow me," he continued, offering his arm to Magdalen, and escorting her to a dirty little horse-hair sofa. "You want repose--after your long journey, you really want repose." He drew his chair to the sofa, and surveyed her with a bland look of investigation--as if he had been her medical attendant, with a diagnosis on his mind.
"Very pleasant! very pleasant!" said the captain, when he had seen his guest comfortable on the sofa. "I feel quite in the bosom of my family. Shall we return to our subject--the subject of my rascally self? No! no! No apologies, no protestations, pray. Don't mince the matter on your side--and depend on me not to mince it on mine. Now come to facts; pray come to facts. Who, and what am I? Carry your mind back to our conversation on the Walls of this interesting City, and let us start once more from your point of view. I am a Rogue; and, in that capacity (as I have already pointed out), the most useful man you possibly could have met with. Now observe! There are many varieties of Rogue; let me tell you my variety, to begin with. I am a Swindler."
His entire shamelessness was really superhuman. Not the vestige of a blush varied the sallow monotony of his complexion; the smile wreathed his curly lips as pleasantly as ever; his party-colored eyes twinkled at Magdalen with the self-enjoying frankness of a naturally harmless man. Had his wife heard him? Magdalen looked over his shoulder to the corner of the room in which she was sitting behind him. No the self-taught student of cookery was absorbed in her subject. She had advanced her imaginary omelette to the critical stage at which the butter was to be thrown in--that vaguely-measured morsel of butter, the size of your thumb. Mrs. Wragge sat lost in contemplation of one of her own thumbs, and shook her head over it, as if it failed to satisfy her.
"Don't be shocked," proceeded the captain; "don't be astonished. Swindler is nothing but a word of two syllables. S, W, I, N, D--swind; L, E, R--ler; Swindler. Definition: A moral agriculturist; a man who cultivates the field of human sympathy. I am that moral agriculturist, that cultivating man. Narrow-minded mediocrity, envious of my success in my profession, calls me a Swindler. What of that? The same low tone of mind assails men in other professions in a similar manner--calls great writers scribblers--great generals, butchers--and so on. It entirely depends on the point of view. Adopting your point, I announce myself intelligibly as a Swindler. Now return the obligation, and adopt mine. Hear what I have to say for myself, in the exercise of my profession.--Shall I continue to put it frankly?"
"Yes," said Magdalen; "and I'll tell you frankly afterward what I think of it."
The captain cleared his throat; mentally assembled his entire army of words--horse, foot, artillery, and reserves; put himself at the head; and dashed into action, to carry the moral intrenchments of Society by a general charge.
"Now observe," he began. "Here am I, a needy object. Very good. Without complicating the question by asking how I come to be in that condition, I will merely inquire whether it is, or is not, the duty of a Christian community to help the needy. If you say No, you simply shock me; and there is an end of it; if you say Yes, then I beg to ask, Why am I to blame for making a Christian community do its duty? You may say, Is a careful man who has saved money bound to spend it again on a careless stranger who has saved none? Why of course he is! And on what ground, pray? Good heavens! on the ground that he has got the money, to be sure. All the world over, the man who has not got the thing, obtains it, on one pretense or another, of the man who has--and, in nine cases out of ten, the pretense is a false one. What! your pockets are full, and my pockets are empty; and you refuse to help me? Sordid wretch! do you think I will allow you to violate the sacred obligations of charity in my person? I won't allow you--I say, distinctly, I won't allow you. Those are my principles as a moral agriculturist. Principles which admit of trickery? Certainly. Am I to blame if the field of human sympathy can't be cultivated in any other way? Consult my brother agriculturists in the mere farming line--do they get their crops for the asking? No! they must circumvent arid Nature exactly as I circumvent sordid Man. They must plow, and sow, and top-dress, and bottom-dress, and deep-drain, and surface-drain, and all the rest of it. Why am I to be checked in the vast occupation of deep-draining mankind? Why am I to be persecuted for habitually exciting the noblest feelings of our common nature? Infamous!--I can characterize it by no other word--infamous! If I hadn't confidence in the future, I should despair of humanity--but I have confidence in the future. Yes! one of these days (when I am dead and gone), as ideas enlarge and enlightenment progresses, the abstract merits of the profession now called swindling will be recognized. When that day comes, don't drag me out of my grave and give me a public funeral; don't take advantage of my having no voice to raise in my own defense, and insult me by a national statue. No! do me justice on my tombstone; dash me off, in one masterly sentence, on my epitaph. Here lies Wragge, embalmed in the tardy recognition of his species: he plowed, sowed, and reaped his fellow-creatures; and enlightened posterity congratulates him on the uniform excellence of his crops."
He stopped; not from want of confidence, not from want of words--purely from want of breath. "I put it frankly, with a dash of humor," he said, pleasantly. "I don't shock you--do I?" Weary and heart-sick as she was--suspicious of others, doubtful of herself--the extravagant impudence of Captain Wragge's defense of swindling touched Magdalen's natural sense of humor, and forced a smile to her lips. "Is the Yorkshire crop a particularly rich one just at present?" she inquired, meeting him, in her neatly feminine way, with his own weapons.
"A hit--a palpable hit," said the captain, jocosely exhibiting the tails of his threadbare shooting jacket, as a practical commentary on Magdalen's remark. "My dear girl, here or elsewhere, the crop never fails--but one man can't always gather it in. The assistance of intelligent co-operation is, I regret to say, denied me. I have nothing in common with the clumsy rank and file of my profession, who convict themselves, before recorders and magistrates, of the worst of all offenses--incurable stupidity in the exercise of their own vocation. Such as you see me, I stand entirely alone. After years of successful self-dependence, the penalties of celebrity are beginning to attach to me. On my way from the North, I pause at this interesting city for the third time; I consult my Books for the customary references to past local experience; I find under the heading, 'Personal position in York,' the initials, T. W. K., signifying Too Well Known. I refer to my Index, and turn to the surrounding neighborhood. The same brief marks meet my eye. 'Leeds. T. W. K.--Scarborough. T. W. K.--Harrowgate. T. W. K.'--and so on. What is the inevitable consequence? I suspend my proceedings; my resources evaporate; and my fair relative finds me the pauper gentleman whom she now sees before her."
"Your books?" said Magdalen. "What books do you mean?"
"You shall see," replied the captain. "Trust me, or not, as you like--I trust you implicitly. You shall see."
With those words he retired into the back room. While he was gone, Magdalen stole another look at Mrs. Wragge. Was she still self-isolated from her husband's deluge of words? Perfectly self-isolated. She had advanced the imaginary omelette to the last stage of culinary progress; and she was now rehearsing the final operation of turning it over--with the palm of her hand to represent the dish, and the cookery-book to impersonate the frying-pan. "I've got it," said Mrs. Wragge, nodding across the room at Magdalen. "First put the frying-pan on the dish, and then tumble both of them over."
Captain Wragge returned, carrying a neat black dispatch-box, adorned with a bright brass lock. He produced from the box five or six plump little books, bound in commercial calf and vellum, and each fitted comfortably with its own little lock.
"Mind!" said the moral agriculturist, "I take no credit to myself for this: it is my nature to be orderly, and orderly I am. I must have everything down in black and white, or I should go mad! Here is my commercial library: Daybook, Ledger, Book of Districts, Book of Letters, Book of Remarks, and so on. Kindly throw your eye over any one of them. I flatter myself there is no such thing as a blot, or a careless entry in it, from the first page to the last. Look at this room--is there a chair out of place? Not if I know it! Look at me. Am I dusty? am I dirty? am I half shaved? Am I, in brief, a speckless pauper, or am I not? Mind! I take no credit to myself; the nature of the man, my dear girl---the nature of the man!"
He opened one of the books. Magdalen was no judge of the admirable correctness with which the accounts inside were all kept; but she could estimate the neatness of the handwriting, the regularity in the rows of figures, the mathematical exactness of the ruled lines in red and black ink, the cleanly absence of blots, stains, or erasures. Although Captain Wragge's inborn sense of order was in him--as it is in others--a sense too inveterately mechanical to exercise any elevating moral influence over his actions, it had produced its legitimate effect on his habits, and had reduced his rogueries as strictly to method and system as if they had been the commercial transactions of an honest man.
"In appearance, my system looks complicated?" pursued the captain. "In reality, it is simplicity itself. I merely avoid the errors of inferior practitioners. That is to say, I never plead for myself; and I never apply to rich people--both fatal mistakes which the inferior practitioner perpetually commits. People with small means sometimes have generous impulses in connection with money--rich people, never. My lord, with forty thousand a year; Sir John, with property in half a dozen counties--those are the men who never forgive the genteel beggar for swindling them out of a sovereign; those are the men who send for the mendicity officers; those are the men who take care of their money. Who are the people who lose shillings and sixpences by sheer thoughtlessness? Servants and small clerks, to whom shillings and sixpences are of consequence. Did you ever hear of Rothschild or Baring dropping a fourpenny-piece down a gutter-hole? Fourpence in Rothschild's pocket is safer than fourpence in the pocket of that woman who is crying stale shrimps in Skeldergate at this moment. Fortified by these sound principles, enlightened by the stores of written information in my commercial library, I have ranged through the population for years past, and have raised my charitable crops with the most cheering success. Here, in book Number One, are all my Districts mapped out, with the prevalent public feeling to appeal to in each: Military District, Clerical District, Agricultural District; et cetera, et cetera. Here, in Number Two, are my cases that I plead: Family of an officer who fell at Waterloo; Wife of a poor curate stricken down by nervous debility; Widow of a grazier in difficulties gored to death by a mad bull; et cetera, et cetera. Here, in Number Three, are the people who have heard of the officer's family, the curate's wife, the grazier's widow, and the people who haven't; the people who have said Yes, and the people who have said No; the people to try again, the people who want a fresh case to stir them up, the people who are doubtful, the people to beware of; et cetera, et cetera. Here, in Number Four, are my Adopted Handwritings of public characters; my testimonials to my own worth and integrity; my Heartrending Statements of the officer's family, the curate's wife, and the grazier's widow, stained with tears, blotted with emotion; et cetera, et cetera. Here, in Numbers Five and Six, are my own personal subscriptions to local charities, actually paid in remunerative neighborhoods, on the principle of throwing a sprat to catch a herring; also, my diary of each day's proceedings, my personal reflections and remarks, my statement of existing difficulties (such as the difficulty of finding myself T. W. K. in this interesting city); my outgivings and incomings; wind and weather; politics and public events; fluctuations in my own health; fluctuations in Mrs. Wragge's head; fluctuations in our means and meals, our payments, prospects, and principles; et cetera, et cetera. So, my dear girl, the Swindler's Mill goes. So you see me exactly as I am. You knew, before I met you, that I lived on my wits. Well! have I, or have I not, shown you that I have wits to live on?"
"I have no doubt you have done yourself full justice," said Magdalen, quietly.
"I am not at all exhausted," continued the captain. "I can go on, if necessary, for the rest of the evening.--However, if I have done myself full justice, perhaps I may leave the remaining points in my character to develop themselves at future opportunities. For the present, I withdraw myself from notice. Exit Wragge. And now to business! Permit me to inquire what effect I have produced on your own mind? Do you still believe that the Rogue who has trusted you with all his secrets is a Rogue who is bent on taking a mean advantage of a fair relative?"
"I will wait a little," Magdalen rejoined, "before I answer that question. When I came down to tea, you told me you had been employing your mind for my benefit. May I ask how?"
"By all means," said Captain Wragge. "You shall have the net result of the whole mental process. Said process ranges over the present and future proceedings of your disconsolate friends, and of the lawyers who are helping them to find you. Their present proceedings are, in all probability, assuming the following form: the lawyer's clerk has given you up at Mr. Huxtable's, and has also, by this time, given you up, after careful inquiry, at all the hotels. His last chance is that you may send for your box to the cloak-room--you don't send for it--and there the clerk is to-night (thanks to Captain Wragge and Rosemary Lane) at the end of his resources. He will forthwith communicate that fact to his employers in London; and those employers (don't be alarmed!) will apply for help to the detective police. Allowing for inevitable delays, a professional spy, with all his wits about him, and with those handbills to help him privately in identifying you, will be here certainly not later than the day after tomorrow--possibly earlier. If you remain in York, if you attempt to communicate with Mr. Huxtable, that spy will find you out. If, on the other hand, you leave the city before he comes (taking your departure by other means than the railway, of course) you put him in the same predicament as the clerk--you defy him to find a fresh trace of you. There is my brief abstract of your present position. What do you think of it?"
"I think it has one defect," said Magdalen. "It ends in nothing."
"Pardon me," retorted the captain. "It ends in an arrangement for your safe departure, and in a plan for the entire gratification of your wishes in the direction of the stage. Both drawn from the resources of my own experience, and both waiting a word from you, to be poured forth immediately in the fullest detail."
"I think I know what that word is," replied Magdalen, looking at him attentively.
"Charmed to hear it, I am sure. You have only to say, 'Captain Wragge, take charge of me'--and my plans are yours from that moment."
"I will take to-night to consider your proposal," she said, after an instant's reflection. "You shall have my answer to-morrow morning."
Captain Wragge looked a little disappointed. He had not expected the reservation on his side to be met so composedly by a reservation on hers.
"Why not decide at once?" he remonstrated, in his most persuasive tones. "You have only to consider--"
"I have more to consider than you think for," she answered. "I have another object in view besides the object you know of."
"May I ask--?"
"Excuse me, Captain Wragge--you may not ask. Allow me to thank you for your hospitality, and to wish you good-night. I am worn out. I want rest."
Once more the captain wisely adapted himself to her humor with the ready self-control of an experienced man.
"Worn out, of course!" he said, sympathetically. "Unpardonable on my part not to have thought of it before. We will resume our conversation to-morrow. Permit me to give you a candle. Mrs. Wragge!"
Prostrated by mental exertion, Mrs. Wragge was pursuing the course of the omelette in dreams. Her head was twisted one way, and her body the other. She snored meekly. At intervals one of her hands raised itself in the air, shook an imaginary frying-pan, and dropped again with a faint thump on the cookery-book in her lap. At the sound of her husband's voice, she started to her feet, and confronted him with her mind fast asleep, and her eyes wide open.
"Assist Miss Vanstone," said the captain. "And the next time you forget yourself in your chair, fall asleep straight--don't annoy me by falling asleep crooked."
Mrs. Wragge opened her eyes a little wider, and looked at Magdalen in helpless amazement.
"Is the captain breakfasting by candle-light?" she inquired, meekly. "And haven't I done the omelette?"
Before her husband's corrective voice could apply a fresh stimulant, Magdalen took her compassionately by the arm and led her out of the room.
"Another object besides the object I know of?" repeated Captain Wragge, when he was left by himself. "Is there a gentleman in the background, after all? Is there mischief brewing in the dark that I don't bargain for?"
TOWARD six o'clock the next morning, the light pouring in on her face awoke Magdalen in the bedroom in Rosemary Lane.
She started from her deep, dreamless repose of the past night with that painful sense of bewilderment, on first waking, which is familiar to all sleepers in strange beds. "Norah!" she called out mechanically, when she opened her eyes. The next instant her mind roused itself, and her senses told her the truth. She looked round the miserable room with a loathing recognition of it. The sordid contrast which the place presented to all that she had been accustomed to see in her own bed-chamber--the practical abandonment, implied in its scanty furniture, of those elegant purities of personal habit to which she had been accustomed from her childhood--shocked that sense of bodily self-respect in Magdalen which is a refined woman's second nature. Contemptible as the influence seemed, when compared with her situation at that moment, the bare sight of the jug and basin in a corner of the room decided her first resolution when she woke. She determined, then and there, to leave Rosemary Lane.
How was she to leave it? With Captain Wragge, or without him?
She dressed herself, with a dainty shrinking from everything in the room which her hands or her clothes touched in the process, and then opened the window. The autumn air felt keen and sweet; and the little patch of sky that she could see was warmly bright already with the new sunlight. Distant voices of bargemen on the river, and the chirping of birds among the weeds which topped the old city wall, were the only sounds that broke the morning silence. She sat down by the window; and searched her mind for the thoughts which she had lost, when weariness overcame her on the night before.
The first subject to which she returned was the vagabond subject of Captain Wragge.
The "moral agriculturist" had failed to remove her personal distrust of him, cunningly as he had tried to plead against it by openly confessing the impostures that he had practiced on others. He had raised her opinion of his abilities; he had amused her by his humor; he had astonished her by his assurance; but he had left her original conviction that he was a Rogue exactly where it was when he first met with her. If the one design then in her mind had been the design of going on the stage, she would, at all hazards, have rejected the more than doubtful assistance of Captain Wragge on the spot.
But the perilous journey on which she had now adventured herself had another end in view--an end, dark and distant--an end, with pitfalls hidden on the way to it, far other than the shallow pitfalls on the way to the stage. In the mysterious stillness of the morning, her mind looked on to its second and its deeper design, and the despicable figure of the swindler rose before her in a new view.
She tried to shut him out--to feel above him and beyond him again, as she had felt up to this time.
After a little trifling with her dress, she took from her bosom the white silk bag which her own hands had made on the farewell night at Combe-Raven. It drew together at the mouth with delicate silken strings. The first thing she took out, on opening it, was a lock of Frank's hair, tied with a morsel of silver thread; the next was a sheet of paper containing the extracts which she had copied from her father's will and her father's letter; the last was a closely-folded packet of bank-notes, to the value of nearly two hundred pounds--the produce (as Miss Garth had rightly conjectured) of the sale of her jewelry and her dresses, in which the servant at the boarding-school had privately assisted her. She put back the notes at once, without a second glance at them, and then sat looking thoughtfully at the lock of hair as it lay on her lap. "You are better than nothing," she said, speaking to it with a girl's fanciful tenderness. "I can sit and look at you sometimes, till I almost think I am looking at Frank. Oh, my darling! my darling!" Her voice faltered softly, and she put the lock of hair, with a languid gentleness, to her lips. It fell from her fingers into her bosom. A lovely tinge of color rose on her cheeks, and spread downward to her neck, as if it followed the falling hair. She closed her eyes, and let her fair head droop softly. The world passed from her; and, for one enchanted moment, Love opened the gates of Paradise to the daughter of Eve.
The trivial noises in the neighboring street, gathering in number as the morning advanced, forced her back to the hard realities of the passing time. She raised her head with a heavy sigh, and opened her eyes once more on the mean and miserable little room.
The extracts from the will and the letter--those last memorials of her father, now so closely associated with the purpose which had possession of her mind--still lay before her. The transient color faded from her face, as she spread the little manuscript open on her lap. The extracts from the will stood highest on the page; they were limited to those few touching words in which the dead father begged his children's forgiveness for the stain on their birth, and implored them to remember the untiring love and care by which he had striven to atone for it. The extract from the letter to Mr. Pendril came next. She read the last melancholy sentences aloud to herself: "For God's sake come on the day when you receive this--come and relieve me from the dreadful thought that my two darling girls are at this moment unprovided for. If anything happened to me, and if my desire to do their mother justice ended (through my miserable ignorance of the law) in leaving Norah and Magdalen disinherited, I should not rest in my grave!" Under these lines again, and close at the bottom of the page, was written the terrible commentary on that letter which had fallen from Mr. Pendril's lips: "Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children, and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy."
Helpless when those words were spoken--helpless still, after all that she had resolved, after all that she had sacrificed. The assertion of her natural rights and her sister's, sanctioned by the direct expression of her father's last wishes; the recall of Frank from China; the justification of her desertion of Norah--all hung on her desperate purpose of recovering the lost inheritance, at any risk, from the man who had beggared and insulted his brother's children. And that man was still a shadow to her! So little did she know of him that she was even ignorant at that moment of his place of abode.
She rose and paced the room with the noiseless, negligent grace of a wild creature of the forest in its cage. "How can I reach him in the dark?" she said to herself. "How can I find out--?" She stopped suddenly. Before the question had shaped itself to an end in her thoughts, Captain Wragge was back in her mind again.
A man well used to working in the dark; a man with endless resources of audacity and cunning; a man who would hesitate at no mean employment that could be offered to him, if it was employment that filled his pockets--was this the instrument for which, in its present need, her hand was waiting? Two of the necessities to be met, before she could take a single step in advance, were plainly present to her--the necessity of knowing more of her father's brother than she knew now; and the necessity of throwing him off his guard by concealing herself personally during the process of inquiry. Resolutely self-dependent as she was, the inevitable spy's work at the outset must be work delegated to another. In her position, was there any ready human creature within reach but the vagabond downstairs? Not one. She thought of it anxiously, she thought of it long. Not one! There the choice was, steadily confronting her: the choice of taking the Rogue, or of turning her back on the Purpose.
She paused in the middle of the room. "What can he do at his worst?" she said to herself. "Cheat me. Well! if my money governs him for me, what then? Let him have my money!" She returned mechanically to her place by the window. A moment more decided her. A moment more, and she took the first fatal step downward--she determined to face the risk, and try Captain Wragge.
At nine o'clock the landlady knocked at Magdalen's door, and informed her (with the captain's kind compliments) that breakfast was ready.
She found Mrs. Wragge alone, attired in a voluminous brown holland wrapper, with a limp cape and a trimming of dingy pink ribbon. The ex-waitress at Darch's Dining-rooms was absorbed in the contemplation of a large dish, containing a leathery-looking substance of a mottled yellow color, profusely sprinkled with little black spots.
"There it is!" said Mrs. Wragge. "Omelette with herbs. The landlady helped me. And that's what we've made of it. Don't you ask the captain for any when he comes in--don't, there's a good soul. It isn't nice. We had some accidents with it. It's been under the grate. It's been spilled on the stairs. It's scalded the landlady's youngest boy--he went and sat on it. Bless you, it isn't half as nice as it looks! Don't you ask for any. Perhaps he won't notice if you say nothing about it. What do you think of my wrapper? I should so like to have a white one. Have you got a white one? How is it trimmed? Do tell me!"
The formidable entrance of the captain suspended the next question on her lips. Fortunately for Mrs. Wragge, her husband was far too anxious for the promised expression of Magdalen's decision to pay his customary attention to questions of cookery. When breakfast was over, he dismissed Mrs. Wragge, and merely referred to the omelette by telling her that she had his full permission to "give it to the dogs."
"How does my little proposal look by daylight?" he asked, placing chairs for Magdalen and himself. "Which is it to be: 'Captain Wragge, take charge of me?' or, 'Captain Wragge, good-morning?'"
"You shall hear directly," replied Magdalen. "I have something to say first. I told you, last night, that I had another object in view besides the object of earning my living on the stage--"
"I beg your pardon," interposed Captain Wragge. "Did you say, earning your living?"
"Certainly. Both my sister and myself must depend on our own exertions to gain our daily bread."
"What!!!" cried the captain, starting to his feet. "The daughters of my wealthy and lamented relative by marriage reduced to earn their own living? Impossible--wildly, extravagantly impossible!" He sat down again, and looked at Magdalen as if she had inflicted a personal injury on him.
"You are not acquainted with the full extent of our misfortune," she said, quietly. "I will tell you what has happened before I go any further." She told him at once, in the plainest terms she could find, and with as few details as possible.
Captain Wragge's profound bewilderment left him conscious of but one distinct result produced by the narrative on his own mind. The lawyer's offer of Fifty Pounds Reward for the missing young lady ascended instantly to a place in his estimation which it had never occupied until that moment.
"Do I understand," he inquired, "that you are entirely deprived of present resources?"
"I have sold my jewelry and my dresses," said Magdalen, impatient of his mean harping on the pecuniary string. "If my want of experience keeps me back in a theater, I can afford to wait till the stage can afford to pay me."
Captain Wragge mentally appraised the rings, bracelets, and necklaces, the silks, satins, and laces of the daughter of a gentleman of fortune, at--say, a third of their real value. In a moment more, the Fifty Pounds Reward suddenly sank again to the lowest depths in the deep estimation of this judicious man.
"Just so," he said, in his most business-like manner. "There is not the least fear, my dear girl, of your being kept back in a theater, if you possess present resources, and if you profit by my assistance."
"I must accept more assistance than you have already offered--or none," said Magdalen. "I have more serious difficulties before me than the difficulty of leaving York, and the difficulty of finding my way to the stage."
"You don't say so! I am all attention; pray explain yourself!"
She considered her next words carefully before they passed her lips.
"There are certain inquiries," she said, "which I am interested in making. If I undertook them myself, I should excite the suspicion of the person inquired after, and should learn little or nothing of what I wish to know. If the inquiries could be made by a stranger, without my being seen in the matter, a service would be rendered me of much greater importance than the service you offered last night."
Captain Wragge's vagabond face became gravely and deeply attentive.
"May I ask," he said, "what the nature of the inquiries is likely to be?"
Magdalen hesitated. She had necessarily mentioned Michael Vanstone's name in informing the captain of the loss of her inheritance. She must inevitably mention it to him again if she employed his services. He would doubtless discover it for himself, by a plain process of inference, before she said many words more, frame them as carefully as she might. Under these circumstances, was there any intelligible reason for shrinking from direct reference to Michael Vanstone? No intelligible reason--and yet she shrank.
"For instance," pursued Captain Wragge, "are they inquiries about a man or a woman; inquiries about an enemy or a friend--?"
"An enemy," she answered, quickly.
Her reply might still have kept the captain in the dark--but her eyes enlightened him. "Michael Vanstone!" thought the wary Wragge. "She looks dangerous; I'll feel my way a little further."
"With regard, now, to the person who is the object of these inquiries," he resumed. "Are you thoroughly clear in your own mind about what you want to know?"
"Perfectly clear," replied Magdalen. "I want to know where he lives, to begin with."
"Yes. And after that?"
"I want to know about his habits; about who the people are whom he associates with; about what he does with his money--" She considered a little. "And one thing more," she said; "I want to know whether there is any woman about his house--a relation, or a housekeeper--who has an influence over him."
"Harmless enough, so far," said the captain. "What next?"
"Nothing. The rest is my secret."
The clouds on Captain Wragge's countenance began to clear away again. He reverted, with his customary precision, to his customary choice of alternatives. "These inquiries of hers," he thought, "mean one of two things--Mischief, or Money! If it's Mischief, I'll slip through her fingers. If it's Money, I'll make myself useful, with a view to the future."
Magdalen's vigilant eyes watched the progress of his reflections suspiciously. "Captain Wragge," she said, "if you want time to consider, say so plainly."
"I don't want a moment," replied the captain. "Place your departure from York, your dramatic career, and your private inquiries under my care. Here I am, unreservedly at your disposal. Say the word--do you take me?"
Her heart beat fast; her lips turned dry--but she said the word.
There was a pause. Magdalen sat silent, struggling with the vague dread of the future which had been roused in her mind by her own reply. Captain Wragge, on his side, was apparently absorbed in the consideration of a new set of alternatives. His hands descended into his empty pockets, and prophetically tested their capacity as receptacles for gold and silver. The brightness of the precious metals was in his face, the smoothness of the precious metals was in his voice, as he provided himself with a new supply of words, and resumed the conversation.
"The next question," he said, "is the question of time. Do these confidential investigations of ours require immediate attention--or can they wait?"
"For the present, they can wait," replied Magdalen. "I wish to secure my freedom from all interference on the part of my friends before the inquiries are made."
"Very good. The first step toward accomplishing that object is to beat our retreat--excuse a professional metaphor from a military man--to beat our retreat from York to-morrow. I see my way plainly so far; but I am all abroad, as we used to say in the militia, about my marching orders afterward. The next direction we take ought to be chosen with an eye to advancing your dramatic views. I am all ready, when I know what your views are. How came you to think of the theater at all? I see the sacred fire burning in you; tell me, who lit it?"
Magdalen could only answer him in one way. She could only look back at the days that were gone forever, and tell him the story of her first step toward the stage at Evergreen Lodge. Captain Wragge listened with his usual politeness; but he evidently derived no satisfactory impression from what he heard. Audiences of friends were audiences whom he privately declined to trust; and the opinion of the stage-manager was the opinion of a man who spoke with his fee in his pocket and his eye on a future engagement.
"Interesting, deeply interesting," he said, when Magdalen had done. "But not conclusive to a practical man. A specimen of your abilities is necessary to enlighten me. I have been on the stage myself; the comedy of the Rivals is familiar to me from beginning to end. A sample is all I want, if you have not forgotten the words--a sample of 'Lucy,' and a sample of 'Julia.'"
"I have not forgotten the words," said Magdalen, sorrowfully; "and I have the little books with me in which my dialogue was written out. I have never parted with them; they remind me of a time--" Her lip trembled, and a pang of the heart-ache silenced her.
"Nervous," remarked the captain, indulgently. "Not at all a bad sign. The greatest actresses on the stage are nervous. Follow their example, and get over it. Where are the parts? Oh, here they are! Very nicely written, and remarkably clean. I'll give you the cues--it will all be over (as the dentists say) in no time. Take the back drawing-room for the stage, and take me for the audience. Tingle goes the bell; up runs the curtain; order in the gallery, silence in the pit--enter Lucy!"
She tried hard to control herself; she forced back the sorrow--the innocent, natural, human sorrow for the absent and the dead--pleading hard with her for the tears that she refused. Resolutely, with cold, clinched hands, she tried to begin. As the first familiar words passed her lips, Frank came back to her from the sea, and the face of her dead father looked at her with the smile of happy old times. The voices of her mother and her sister talked gently in the fragrant country stillness, and the garden-walks at Combe-Raven opened once more on her view. With a faint, wailing cry, she dropped into a chair; her head fell forward on the table, and she burst passionately into tears.
Captain Wragge was on his feet in a moment. She shuddered as he came near her, and waved him back vehemently with her hand. "Leave me!" she said; "leave me a minute by myself!" The compliant Wragge retired to the front room; looked out of the window; and whistled under his breath. "The family spirit again!" he said. "Complicated by hysterics."
After waiting a minute or two he returned to make inquiries.
"Is there anything I can offer you?" he asked. "Cold water? burned feathers? smelling salts? medical assistance? Shall I summon Mrs. Wragge? Shall we put it off till to-morrow?"
She started up, wild and flushed, with a desperate self-command in her face, with an angry resolution in her manner.
"No!" she said. "I must harden myself--and I will! Sit down again and see me act."
"Bravo!" cried the captain. "Dash at it, my beauty--and it's done!"
She dashed at it, with a mad defiance of herself--with a raised voice, and a glow like fever in her cheeks. All the artless, girlish charm of the performance in happier and better days was gone. The native dramatic capacity that was in her came, hard and bold, to the surface, stripped of every softening allurement which had once adorned it. She would have saddened and disappointed a man with any delicacy of feeling. She absolutely electrified Captain Wragge. He forgot his politeness, he forgot his long words. The essential spirit of the man's whole vagabond life burst out of him irresistibly in his first exclamation. "Who the devil would have thought it? She can act, after all!" The instant the words escaped his lips he recovered himself, and glided off into his ordinary colloquial channels. Magdalen stopped him in the middle of his first compliment. "No," she said; "I have forced the truth out of you for once. I want no more."
"Pardon me," replied the incorrigible Wragge. "You want a little instruction; and I am the man to give it you."
With that answer, he placed a chair for her, and proceeded to explain himself.
She sat down in silence. A sullen indifference began to show itself in her manner; her cheeks turned pale again; and her eyes looked wearily vacant at the wall before her. Captain Wragge noticed these signs of heart-sickness and discontent with herself, after the effort she had made, and saw the importance of rousing her by speaking, for once, plainly and directly to the point. She had set a new value on herself in his mercenary eyes. She had suggested to him a speculation in her youth, her beauty, and her marked ability for the stage, which had never entered his mind until he saw her act. The old militia-man was quick at his shifts. He and his plans had both turned right about together when Magdalen sat down to hear what he had to say.
"Mr. Huxtable's opinion is my opinion," he began. "You are a born actress. But you must be trained before you can do anything on the stage. I am disengaged--I am competent--I have trained others--I can train you. Don't trust my word: trust my eye to my own interests. I'll make it my interest to take pains with you, and to be quick about it. You shall pay me for my instructions from your profits on the stage. Half your salary for the first year; a third of your salary for the second year; and half the sum you clear by your first benefit in a London theater. What do you say to that? Have I made it my interest to push you, or have I not?"
So far as appearances went, and so far as the stage went, it was plain that he had linked his interests and Magdalen's together. She briefly told him so, and waited to hear more.
"A month or six weeks' study," continued the captain, "will give me a reasonable idea of what you can do best. All ability runs in grooves; and your groove remains to be found. We can't find it here--for we can't keep you a close prisoner for weeks together in Rosemary Lane. A quiet country place, secure from all interference and interruption, is the place we want for a month certain. Trust my knowledge of Yorkshire, and consider the place found. I see no difficulties anywhere, except the difficulty of beating our retreat to-morrow."
"I thought your arrangements were made last night?" said Magdalen.
"Quite right," rejoined the captain. "They were made last night; and here they are. We can't leave by railway, because the lawyer's clerk is sure to be on the lookout for you at the York terminus. Very good; we take to the road instead, and leave in our own carriage. Where the deuce do we get it? We get it from the landlady's brother, who has a horse and chaise which he lets out for hire. That chaise comes to the end of Rosemary Lane at an early hour to-morrow morning. I take my wife and my niece out to show them the beauties of the neighborhood. We have a picnic hamper with us, which marks our purpose in the public eye. You disfigure yourself in a shawl, bonnet, and veil of Mrs. Wragge's; we turn our backs on York; and away we drive on a pleasure trip for the day--you and I on the front seat, Mrs. Wragge and the hamper behind. Good again. Once on the highroad, what do we do? Drive to the first station beyond York, northward, southward, or eastward, as may be hereafter determined. No lawyer's clerk is waiting for you there. You and Mrs. Wragge get out--first opening the hamper at a convenient opportunity. Instead of containing chickens and Champagne, it contains a carpet-bag, with the things you want for the night. You take your tickets for a place previously determined on, and I take the chaise back to York. Arrived once more in this house, I collect the luggage left behind, and send for the woman downstairs. 'Ladies so charmed with such and such a place (wrong place of course), that they have determined to stop there. Pray accept the customary week's rent, in place of a week's warning. Good day.' Is the clerk looking for me at the York terminus? Not he. I take my ticket under his very nose; I follow you with the luggage along your line of railway--and where is the trace left of your departure? Nowhere. The fairy has vanished; and the legal authorities are left in the lurch."
"Why do you talk of difficulties?" asked Magdalen. "The difficulties seem to be provided for."
"All but ONE," said Captain Wragge, with an ominous emphasis on the last word. "The Grand Difficulty of humanity from the cradle to the grave--Money." He slowly winked his green eye; sighed with deep feeling; and buried his insolvent hands in his unproductive pockets.
"What is the money wanted for?" inquired Magdalen.
"To pay my bills," replied the captain, with a touching simplicity. "Pray understand! I never was--and never shall be--personally desirous of paying a single farthing to any human creature on the habitable globe. I am speaking in your interest, not in mine."
"Certainly. You can't get safely away from York to-morrow without the chaise. And I can't get the chaise without money. The landlady's brother will lend it if he sees his sister's bill receipted, and if he gets his day's hire beforehand--not otherwise. Allow me to put the transaction in a business light. We have agreed that I am to be remunerated for my course of dramatic instruction out of your future earnings on the stage. Very good. I merely draw on my future prospects; and you, on whom those prospects depend, are naturally my banker. For mere argument's sake, estimate my share in your first year's salary at the totally inadequate value of a hundred pounds. Halve that sum; quarter that sum--"
"How much do you want?" said Magdalen, impatiently.
Captain Wragge was sorely tempted to take the Reward at the top of the handbills as his basis of calculation. But he felt the vast future importance of present moderation; and actually wanting some twelve or thirteen pounds, he merely doubled the amount, and said, "Five-and-twenty."
Magdalen took the little bag from her bosom, and gave him the money, with a contemptuous wonder at the number of words which he had wasted on her for the purpose of cheating on so small a scale. In the old days at Combe-Raven, five-and-twenty pounds flowed from a stroke of her father's pen into the hands of any one in the house who chose to ask for it.
Captain Wragge's eyes dwelt on the little bag as the eyes of lovers dwell on their mistresses. "Happy bag!" he murmured, as she put it back in her bosom. He rose; dived into a corner of the room; produced his neat dispatch-box; and solemnly unlocked it on the table between Magdalen and himself.
"The nature of the man, my dear girl--the nature of the man," he said, opening one of his plump little books bound in calf and vellum. "A transaction has taken place between us. I must have it down in black and white." He opened the book at a blank page, and wrote at the top, in a fine mercantile hand: "Miss Vanstone, the Younger: In account with Horatio Wragge, late of the Royal Militia. Dr.--Cr. Sept. 24th, 1846. Dr.: To estimated value of H. Wragge's interest in Miss V.'s first year's salary--say--£200. Cr. By paid on account, £25." Having completed the entry--and having also shown, by doubling his original estimate on the Debtor side, that Magdalen's easy compliance with his demand on her had not been thrown away on him--the captain pressed his blotting-paper over the wet ink, and put away the book with the air of a man who had done a virtuous action, and who was above boasting about it.
"Excuse me for leaving you abruptly," he said. "Time is of importance; I must make sure of the chaise. If Mrs. Wragge comes in, tell her nothing--she is not sharp enough to be trusted. If she presumes to ask questions, extinguish her immediately. You have only to be loud. Pray take my authority into your own hands, and be as loud with Mrs. Wragge as I am!" He snatched up his tall hat, bowed, smiled, and tripped out of the room.
Sensible of little else but of the relief of being alone; feeling no more distinct impression than the vague sense of some serious change having taken place in herself and her position, Magdalen let the events of the morning come and go like shadows on her mind, and waited wearily for what the day might bring forth. After the lapse of some time, the door opened softly. The giant figure of Mrs. Wragge stalked into the room, and stopped opposite Magdalen in solemn astonishment.
"Where are your Things?" asked Mrs. Wragge, with a burst of incontrollable anxiety. "I've been upstairs looking in your drawers. Where are your night-gowns and night-caps? and your petticoats and stockings? and your hair-pins and bear's grease, and all the rest of it?"
"My luggage is left at the railway station," said Magdalen.
Mrs. Wragge's moon-face brightened dimly. The ineradicable female instinct of Curiosity tried to sparkle in her faded blue eyes--flickered piteously--and died out.
"How much luggage?" she asked, confidentially. "The captain's gone out. Let's go and get it!"
"Mrs. Wragge!" cried a terrible voice at the door.
For the first time in Magdalen's experience, Mrs. Wragge was deaf to the customary stimulant. She actually ventured on a feeble remonstrance in the presence of her husband.
"Oh, do let her have her Things!" pleaded Mrs. Wragge. "Oh, poor soul, do let her have her Things!"
The captain's inexorable forefinger pointed to a corner of the room--dropped slowly as his wife retired before it--and suddenly stopped at the region of her shoes.
"Do I hear a clapping on the floor!" exclaimed Captain Wragge, with an expression of horror. "Yes; I do. Down at heel again! The left shoe this time. Pull it up, Mrs. Wragge! pull it up!--The chaise will be here to-morrow morning at nine o'clock," he continued, addressing Magdalen. "We can't possibly venture on claiming your box. There is note-paper. Write down a list of the necessaries you want. I will take it myself to the shop, pay the bill for you, and bring back the parcel. We must sacrifice the box--we must, indeed."
While her husband was addressing Magdalen, Mrs. Wragge had stolen out again from her corner, and had ventured near enough to the captain to hear the words "shop" and "parcel." She clapped her great hands together in ungovernable excitement, and lost all control over herself immediately.
"Oh, if it's shopping, let me do it!" cried Mrs. Wragge. "She's going out to buy her Things! Oh, let me go with her--please let me go with her!"
"Sit down!" shouted the captain. "Straight! more to the right--more still. Stop where you are!"
Mrs. Wragge crossed her helpless hands on her lap, and melted meekly into tears.
"I do so like shopping," pleaded the poor creature; "and I get so little of it now!"
Magdalen completed her list; and Captain Wragge at once left the room with it. "Don't let my wife bore you," he said, pleasantly, as he went out. "Cut her short, poor soul--cut her short!"
"Don't cry," said Magdalen, trying to comfort Mrs. Wragge by patting her on the shoulder. "When the parcel comes back you shall open it."
"Thank you, my dear," said Mrs. Wragge, meekly, drying her eyes; "thank you kindly. Don't notice my handkerchief, please. It's such a very little one! I had a nice lot of them once, with lace borders. They're all gone now. Never mind! It will comfort me to unpack your Things. You're very good to me. I like you. I say--you won't be angry, will you? Give us a kiss."
Magdalen stooped over her with the frank grace and gentleness of past days, and touched her faded cheek. "Let me do something harmless!" she thought, with a pang at her heart--"oh let me do something innocent and kind for the sake of old times!"
She felt her eyes moistening, and silently turned away.
That night no rest came to her. That night the roused forces of Good and Evil fought their terrible fight for her soul--and left the strife between them still in suspense when morning came. As the clock of York Minster struck nine, she followed Mrs. Wragge to the chaise, and took her seat by the captain's side. In a quarter of an hour more York was in the distance, and the highroad lay bright and open before them in the morning sunlight.
CHRONICLE OF EVENTS: PRESERVED IN
CAPTAIN WRAGGE'S DISPATCH-BOX.
Chronicle for October, 1846.
I HAVE retired into the bosom of my family. We are residing in the secluded village of Ruswarp, on the banks of the Esk, about two miles inland from Whitby. Our lodgings are comfortable, and we possess the additional blessing of a tidy landlady. Mrs. Wragge and Miss Vanstone preceded me here, in accordance with the plan I laid down for effecting our retreat from York. On the next day I followed them alone, with the luggage. On leaving the terminus, I had the satisfaction of seeing the lawyer's clerk in close confabulation with the detective officer whose advent I had prophesied. I left him in peaceable possession of the city of York, and the whole surrounding neighborhood. He has returned the compliment, and has left us in peaceable possession of the valley of the Esk, thirty miles away from him.
Remarkable results have followed my first efforts at the cultivation of Miss Vanstone's dramatic abilities.
I have discovered that she possesses extraordinary talent as a mimic. She has the flexible face, the manageable voice, and the dramatic knack which fit a woman for character-parts and disguises on the stage. All she now wants is teaching and practice, to make her sure of her own resources. The experience of her, thus gained, has revived an idea in my mind which originally occurred to me at one of the "At Homes" of the late inimitable Charles Mathews, comedian. I was in the Wine Trade at the time, I remember. We imitated the Vintage-processes of Nature in a back-kitchen at Brompton, and produced a dinner-sherry, pale and curious, tonic in character, round in the mouth, a favorite with the Court of Spain, at nineteen-and-sixpence a dozen, bottles included--Vide Prospectus of the period. The profits of myself and partners were small; we were in advance of the tastes of the age, and in debt to the bottle merchant. Being at my wits' end for want of money, and seeing what audiences Mathews drew, the idea occurred to me of starting an imitation of the great Imitator himself, in the shape of an "At Home," given by a woman. The one trifling obstacle in the way was the difficulty of finding the woman. From that time to this, I have hitherto failed to overcome it. I have conquered it at last; I have found the woman now. Miss Vanstone possesses youth and beauty as well as talent. Train her in the art of dramatic disguise; provide her with appropriate dresses for different characters; develop her accomplishments in singing and playing; give her plenty of smart talk addressed to the audience; advertise her as a Young Lady at Home; astonish the public by a dramatic entertainment which depends from first to last on that young lady's own sole exertions; commit the entire management of the thing to my care--and what follows as a necessary consequence? Fame for my fair relative, and a fortune for myself.
I put these considerations, as frankly as usual, to Miss Vanstone; offering to write the Entertainment, to manage all the business, and to share the profits. I did not forget to strengthen my case by informing her of the jealousies she would encounter, and the obstacles she would meet, if she went on the stage. And I wound up by a neat reference to the private inquiries which she is interested in making, and to the personal independence which she is desirous of securing before she acts on her information. "If you go on the stage," I said, "your services will be bought by a manager, and he may insist on his claims just at the time when you want to get free from him. If, on the contrary, you adopt my views, you will be your own mistress and your own manager, and you can settle your course just as you like." This last consideration appeared to strike her. She took a day to consider it; and, when the day was over, gave her consent.
I had the whole transaction down in black and white immediately. Our arrangement is eminently satisfactory, except in one particular. She shows a morbid distrust of writing her name at the bottom of any document which I present to her, and roundly declares she will sign nothing. As long as it is her interest to provide herself with pecuniary resources for the future, she verbally engages to go on. When it ceases to be her interest, she plainly threatens to leave off at a week's notice. A difficult girl to deal with; she has found out her own value to me already. One comfort is, I have the cooking of the accounts; and my fair relative shall not fill her pockets too suddenly if I can help it.
My exertions in training Miss Vanstone for the coming experiment have been varied by the writing of two anonymous letters in that young lady's interests. Finding her too fidgety about arranging matters with her friends to pay proper attention to my instructions, I wrote anonymously to the lawyer who is conducting the inquiry after her, recommending him, in a friendly way, to give it up. The letter was inclosed to a friend of mine in London, with instructions to post it at Charing Cross. A week later I sent a second letter, through the same channel, requesting the lawyer to inform me, in writing, whether he and his clients had or had not decided on taking my advice. I directed him, with jocose reference to the collision of interests between us, to address his letter: "Tit for Tat, Post-office, West Strand."
In a few days the answer arrived--privately forwarded, of course, to Post-office, Whitby, by arrangement with my friend in London.
The lawyer's reply was short and surly: "SIR--If my advice had been followed, you and your anonymous letter would both be treated with the contempt which they deserve. But the wishes of Miss Magdalen Vanstone's eldest sister have claims on my consideration which I cannot dispute; and at her entreaty I inform you that all further proceedings on my part are withdrawn--on the express understanding that this concession is to open facilities for written communication, at least, between the two sisters. A letter from the elder Miss Vanstone is inclosed in this. If I don't hear in a week's time that it has been received, I shall place the matter once more in the hands of the police.--WILLIAM PENDRIL." A sour man, this William Pendril. I can only say of him what an eminent nobleman once said of his sulky servant--"I wouldn't have such a temper as that fellow has got for any earthly consideration that could be offered me!"
As a matter of course, I looked into the letter which the lawyer inclosed, before delivering it. Miss Vanstone, the elder, described herself as distracted at not hearing from her sister; as suited with a governess's situation in a private family; as going into the situation in a week's time; and as longing for a letter to comfort her, before she faced the trial of undertaking her new duties. After closing the envelope again, I accompanied the delivery of the letter to Miss Vanstone, the younger, by a word of caution. "Are you more sure of your own courage now," I said, "than you were when I met you?" She was ready with her answer. "Captain Wragge, when you met me on the Walls of York I had not gone too far to go back. I have gone too far now."
If she really feels this--and I think she does--her corresponding with her sister can do no harm. She wrote at great length the same day; cried profusely over her own epistolary composition; and was remarkably ill-tempered and snappish toward me, when we met in the evening. She wants experience, poor girl--she sadly wants experience of the world. How consoling to know that I am just the man to give it her!
Chronicle for November.
We are established at Derby. The Entertainment is written; and the rehearsals are in steady progress. All difficulties are provided for, but the one eternal difficulty of money. Miss Vanstone's resources stretch easily enough to the limits of our personal wants; including piano-forte hire for practice, and the purchase and making of the necessary dresses. But the expenses of starting the Entertainment are beyond the reach of any means we possess. A theatrical friend of mine here, whom I had hoped to interest in our undertaking, proves, unhappily, to be at a crisis in his career. The field of human sympathy, out of which I might have raised the needful pecuniary crop, is closed to me from want of time to cultivate it. I see no other resource left--if we are to be ready by Christmas--than to try one of the local music-sellers in this town, who is said to be a speculating man. A private rehearsal at these lodgings, and a bargain which will fill the pockets of a grasping stranger--such are the sacrifices which dire necessity imposes on me at starting. Well! there is only one consolation: I'll cheat the music-seller.
Chronicle for December. First Fortnight.
The music-seller extorts my unwilling respect. He is one of the very few human beings I have met with in the course of my life who is not to be cheated. He has taken a masterly advantage of our helplessness; and has imposed terms on us, for performances at Derby and Nottingham, with such a business-like disregard of all interests but his own that--fond as I am of putting things down in black and white--I really cannot prevail upon myself to record the bargain. It is needless to say, I have yielded with my best grace; sharing with my fair relative the wretched pecuniary prospects offered to us. Our turn will come. In the meantime, I cordially regret not having known the local music-seller in early life.
Personally speaking, I have no cause to complain of Miss Vanstone. We have arranged that she shall regularly forward her address (at the post-office) to her friends, as we move about from place to place. Besides communicating in this way with her sister, she also reports herself to a certain Mr. Clare, residing in Somersetshire, who is to forward all letters exchanged between herself and his son. Careful inquiry has informed me that this latter individual is now in China. Having suspected from the first that there was a gentleman in the background, it is highly satisfactory to know that he recedes into the remote perspective of Asia. Long may he remain there!
The trifling responsibility of finding a name for our talented Magdalen to perform under has been cast on my shoulders. She feels no interest whatever in this part of the subject. "Give me any name you like," she said; "I have as much right to one as to another. Make it yourself." I have readily consented to gratify her wishes. The resources of my commercial library include a list of useful names to assume; and we can choose one at five minutes' notice, when the admirable man of business who now oppresses us is ready to issue his advertisements. On this point my mind is easy enough: all my anxieties center in the fair performer. I have not the least doubt she will do wonders if she is only left to herself on the first night. But if the day's post is mischievous enough to upset her by a letter from her sister, I tremble for the consequences.
Chronicle for December. Second Fortnight.
My gifted relative has made her first appearance in public, and has laid the foundation of our future fortunes.
On the first night the attendance was larger than I had ventured to hope. The novelty of an evening's entertainment, conducted from beginning to end by the unaided exertions of a young lady (see advertisement), roused the public curiosity, and the seats were moderately well filled. As good luck would have it, no letter addressed to Miss Vanstone came that day. She was in full possession of herself until she got the first dress on and heard the bell ring for the music. At that critical moment she suddenly broke down. I found her alone in the waiting-room, sobbing, and talking like a child. "Oh, poor papa! poor papa! Oh, my God, if he saw me now!" My experience in such matters at once informed me that it was a case of sal-volatile, accompanied by sound advice. We strung her up in no time to concert pitch; set her eyes in a blaze; and made her out-blush her own rouge. The curtain rose when we had got her at a red heat. She dashed at it exactly as she dashed at it in the back drawing-room at Rosemary Lane. Her personal appearance settled the question of her reception before she opened her lips. She rushed full gallop through her changes of character, her songs, and her dialogue; making mistakes by the dozen, and never stopping to set them right; carrying the people along with her in a perfect whirlwind, and never waiting for the applause. The whole thing was over twenty minutes sooner than the time we had calculated on. She carried it through to the end, and fainted on the waiting-room sofa a minute after the curtain was down. The music-seller having taken leave of his senses from sheer astonishment, and I having no evening costume to appear in, we sent the doctor to make the necessary apology to the public, who were calling for her till the place rang again. I prompted our medical orator with a neat speech from behind the curtain; and I never heard such applause, from such a comparatively small audience, before in my life. I felt the tribute--I felt it deeply. Fourteen years ago I scraped together the wretched means of existence in this very town by reading the newspaper (with explanatory comments) to the company at a public-house. And now here I am at the top of the tree.
It is needless to say that my first proceeding was to bowl out the music-seller on the spot. He called the next morning, no doubt with a liberal proposal for extending the engagement beyond Derby and Nottingham. My niece was described as not well enough to see him; and, when he asked for me, he was told I was not up. I happened to be at that moment engaged in putting the case pathetically to our gifted Magdalen. Her answer was in the highest degree satisfactory. She would permanently engage herself to nobody--least of all to a man who had taken sordid advantage of her position and mine. She would be her own mistress, and share the profits with me, while she wanted money, and while it suited her to go on. So far so good. But the reason she added next, for her flattering preference of myself, was less to my taste. "The music-seller is not the man whom I employ to make my inquiries," she said. "You are the man." I don't like her steadily remembering those inquiries, in the first bewilderment of her success. It looks ill for the future; it looks infernally ill for the future.
Chronicle for January, 1847.
She has shown the cloven foot already. I begin to be a little afraid of her.
On the conclusion of the Nottingham engagement (the results of which more than equaled the results at Derby), I proposed taking the entertainment next--now we had got it into our own hands--to Newark. Miss Vanstone raised no objection until we came to the question of time, when she amazed me by stipulating for a week's delay before we appeared in public again.
"For what possible purpose?" I asked.
"For the purpose of making the inquiries which I mentioned to you at York," she answered.
I instantly enlarged on the danger of delay, putting all the considerations before her in every imaginable form. She remained perfectly immovable. I tried to shake her on the question of expenses. She answered by handing me over her share of the proceeds at Derby and Nottingham--and there were my expenses paid, at the rate of nearly two guineas a day. I wonder who first picked out a mule as the type of obstinacy? How little knowledge that man must have had of women!
There was no help for it. I took down my instructions in black and white, as usual. My first exertions were to be directed to the discovery of Mr. Michael Vanstone's address: I was also expected to find out how long he was likely to live there, and whether he had sold Combe-Raven or not. My next inquiries were to inform me of his ordinary habits of life; of what he did with his money; of who his intimate friends were; and of the sort of terms on which his son, Mr. Noel Vanstone, was now living with him. Lastly, the investigations were to end in discovering whether there was any female relative, or any woman exercising domestic authority in the house, who was known to have an influence over either father or son.
If my long practice in cultivating the field of human sympathy had not accustomed me to private investigations into the affairs of other people, I might have found some of these queries rather difficult to deal with in the course of a week. As it was, I gave myself all the benefit of my own experience, and brought the answers back to Nottingham in a day less than the given time. Here they are, in regular order, for convenience of future reference:
(1.) Mr. Michael Vanstone is now residing at German Place, Brighton, and likely to remain there, as he finds the air suits him. He reached London from Switzerland in September last; and sold the Combe-Raven property immediately on his arrival.
(2.) His ordinary habits of life are secret and retired; he seldom visits, or receives company. Part of his money is supposed to be in the Funds, and part laid out in railway investments, which have survived the panic of eighteen hundred and forty-six, and are rapidly rising in value. He is said to be a bold speculator. Since his arrival in England he has invested, with great judgment, in house property. He has some houses in remote parts of London, and some houses in certain watering-places on the east coast, which are shown to be advancing in public repute. In all these cases he is reported to have made remarkably good bargains.
(3.) It is not easy to discover who his intimate friends are. Two names only have been ascertained. The first is Admiral Bartram; supposed to have been under friendly obligations, in past years, to Mr. Michael Vanstone. The second is Mr. George Bartram, nephew of the Admiral, and now staying on a short visit in the house at German Place. Mr. George Bartram is the son of the late Mr. Andrew Vanstone's sister, also deceased. He is therefore a cousin of Mr. Noel Vanstone's. This last--viz., Mr. Noel Vanstone--is in delicate health, and is living on excellent terms with his father in German Place.
(4.) There is no female relative in Mr. Michael Vanstone's family circle. But there is a housekeeper who has lived in his service ever since his wife's death, and who has acquired a strong influence over both father and son. She is a native of Switzerland, elderly, and a widow. Her name is Mrs. Lecount.
On placing these particulars in Miss Vanstone's hands, she made no remark, except to thank me. I endeavored to invite her confidence. No results; nothing but a renewal of civility, and a sudden shifting to the subject of the Entertainment. Very good. If she won't give me the information I want, the conclusion is obvious--I must help myself.
Business considerations claim the remainder of this page. Let me return to business.
In black and white,
Miss V..................£12 10
Miss V.....................£12 10
The next stronghold of British sympathy which we take by storm is Sheffield. We open the first week in February.
Chronicle for February.
Practice has now given my fair relative the confidence which I predicted would come with time. Her knack of disguising her own identity in the impersonation of different characters so completely staggers her audiences that the same people come twice over to find out how she does it. It is the amiable defect of the English public never to know when they have had enough of a good thing. They actually try to encore one of her characters--an old north-country lady; modeled on that honored preceptress in the late Mr. Vanstone's family to whom I presented myself at Combe-Raven. This particular performance fairly amazes the people. I don't wonder at it. Such an extraordinary assumption of age by a girl of nineteen has never been seen in public before, in the whole course of my theatrical experience.
I find myself writing in a lower tone than usual; I miss my own dash of humor. The fact is, I am depressed about the future. In the very height of our prosperity my perverse pupil sticks to her trumpery family quarrel. I feel myself at the mercy of the first whim in the Vanstone direction which may come into her head--I, the architect of her fortunes. Too bad; upon my soul, too bad.
She has acted already on the inquiries which she forced me to make for her. She has written two letters to Mr. Michael Vanstone.
To the first letter no answer came. To the second a reply was received. Her infernal cleverness put an obstacle I had not expected in the way of my intercepting it. Later in the day, after she had herself opened and read the answer, I laid another trap for her. It just succeeded, and no more. I had half a minute to look into the envelope in her absence. It contained nothing but her own letter returned. She is not the girl to put up quietly with such an insult as this. Mischief will come of it--Mischief to Michael Vanstone--which is of no earthly consequence: mischief to Me--which is a truly serious matter.
Chronicle for March.
After performing at Sheffield and Manchester, we have moved to Liverpool, Preston, and Lancaster. Another change in this weathercock of a girl. She has written no more letters to Michael Vanstone; and she has become as anxious to make money as I am myself. We are realizing large profits, and we are worked to death. I don't like this change in her: she has a purpose to answer, or she would not show such extraordinary eagerness to fill her purse. Nothing I can do--no cooking of accounts; no self-presented testimonials--can keep that purse empty. The success of the Entertainment, and her own sharpness in looking after her interests, literally force me into a course of comparative honesty. She puts into her pocket more than a third of the profits, in defiance of my most arduous exertions to prevent her. And this at my age! this after my long and successful career as a moral agriculturist! Marks of admiration are very little things; but they express my feelings, and I put them in freely.
Chronicle for April and May.
We have visited seven more large towns, and are now at Birmingham. Consulting my books, I find that Miss Vanstone has realized by the Entertainment, up to this time, the enormous sum of nearly four hundred pounds. It is quite possible that my own profits may reach one or two miserable hundred more. But I was the architect of her fortunes--the publisher, so to speak, of her book--and, if anything, I am underpaid.
I made the above discovery on the twenty-ninth of the month--anniversary of the Restoration of my royal predecessor in the field of human sympathies, Charles the Second. I had barely finished locking up my dispatch-box, when the ungrateful girl, whose reputation I have made, came into the room and told me in so many words that the business connection between us was for the present at an end.
I attempt no description of my own sensations: I merely record facts. She informed me, with an appearance of perfect composure, that she needed rest, and that she had "new objects in view." She might possibly want me to assist those objects; and she might possibly return to the Entertainment. In either case it would be enough if we exchanged addresses, at which we could write to each other in case of need. Having no desire to leave me too abruptly, she would remain the next day (which was Sunday); and would take her departure on Monday morning. Such was her explanation, in so many words.
Remonstrance, as I knew by experience, would be thrown away. Authority I had none to exert. My one sensible course to take in this emergency was to find out which way my own interests pointed, and to go that way without a moment's unnecessary hesitation.
A very little reflection has since convinced me that she has a deep-laid scheme against Michael Vanstone in view. She is young, handsome, clever, and unscrupulous; she has made money to live on, and has time at her disposal to find out the weak side of an old man; and she is going to attack Mr. Michael Vanstone unawares with the legitimate weapons of her sex. Is she likely to want me for such a purpose as this? Doubtful. Is she merely anxious to get rid of me on easy terms? Probable. Am I the sort of man to be treated in this way by my own pupil? Decidedly not: I am the man to see my way through a neat succession of alternatives; and here they are:
First alternative: To announce my compliance with her proposal; to exchange addresses with her; and then to keep my eye privately on all her future movements. Second alternative: to express fond anxiety in a paternal capacity; and to threaten giving the alarm to her sister and the lawyer, if she persists in her design. Third alternative: to turn the information I already possess to the best account, by making it a marketable commodity between Mr. Michael Vanstone and myself. At present I incline toward the last of these three courses. But my decision is far too important to be hurried. To-day is only the twenty-ninth. I will suspend my Chronicle of Events until Monday.
May 31st.--My alternatives and her plans are both overthrown together.
The newspaper came in, as usual, after breakfast. I looked it over, and discovered this memorable entry among the obituary announcements of the day:
"On the 29th inst., at Brighton, Michael Vanstone, Esq., formerly of Zurich, aged 77."
Miss Vanstone was present in the room when I read those two startling lines. Her bonnet was on; her boxes were packed; she was waiting impatiently until it was time to go to the train. I handed the paper to her, without a word on my side. Without a word on hers, she looked where I pointed, and read the news of Michael Vanstone's death.
The paper dropped out of her hand, and she suddenly pulled down her veil. I caught one glance at her face before she hid it from me. The effect on my mind was startling in the extreme. To put it with my customary dash of humor--her face informed me that the most sensible action which Michael Vanstone, Esq., formerly of Zurich, had ever achieved in his life was the action he performed at Brighton on the 29th instant.
Finding the dead silence in the room singularly unpleasant under existing circumstances, I thought I would make a remark. My regard for my own interests supplied me with a subject. I mentioned the Entertainment.
"After what has happened," I said, "I presume we go on with our performances as usual?"
"No," she answered, behind the veil. "We go on with my inquiries."
"Inquiries after a dead man?"
"Inquiries after the dead man's son."
"Mr. Noel Vanstone?"
"Yes; Mr. Noel Vanstone."
Not having a veil to put down over my own face, I stooped and picked up the newspaper. Her devilish determination quite upset me for the moment. I actually had to steady myself before I could speak to her again.
"Are the new inquiries as harmless as the old ones?" I asked.
"Quite as harmless."
"What am I expected to find out?"
"I wish to know whether Mr. Noel Vanstone remains at Brighton after the funeral."
"And if not?"
"If not, I shall want to know his new address wherever it may be."
"Yes. And what next?"
"I wish you to find out next if all the father's money goes to the son."
I began to see her drift. The word money relieved me; I felt quite on my own ground again.
"Anything more?" I asked.
"Only one thing more," she answered. "Make sure, if you please, whether Mrs. Lecount, the housekeeper, remains or not in Mr. Noel Vanstone's service."
Her voice altered a little as she mentioned Mrs. Lecount's name; she is evidently sharp enough to distrust the housekeeper already.
"My expenses are to be paid as usual?" I said.
"When am I expected to leave for Brighton?"
"As soon as you can."
She rose, and left the room. After a momentary doubt, I decided on executing the new commission. The more private inquiries I conduct for my fair relative the harder she will find it to get rid of hers truly, Horatio Wragge.
There is nothing to prevent my starting for Brighton to-morrow. So to-morrow I go. If Mr. Noel Vanstone succeeds to his father's property, he is the only human being possessed of pecuniary blessings who fails to inspire me with a feeling of unmitigated envy.
Chronicle for June.
9th.--I returned yesterday with my information. Here it is, privately noted down for convenience of future reference:
Mr. Noel Vanstone has left Brighton, and has removed, for the purpose of transacting business in London, to one of his late father's empty houses in Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth. This singularly mean selection of a place of residence on the part of a gentleman of fortune looks as if Mr. N. V. and his money were not easily parted.
Mr. Noel Vanstone has stepped into his father's shoes under the following circumstances: Mr. Michael Vanstone appears to have died, curiously enough, as Mr. Andrew Vanstone died--intestate. With this difference, however, in the two cases, that the younger brother left an informal will, and the elder brother left no will at all. The hardest men have their weaknesses; and Mr. Michael Vanstone's weakness seems to have been an insurmountable horror of contemplating the event of his own death. His son, his housekeeper, and his lawyer, had all three tried over and over again to get him to make a will; and had never shaken his obstinate resolution to put off performing the only business duty he was ever known to neglect. Two doctors attended him in his last illness; warned him that he was too old a man to hope to get over it; and warned him in vain. He announced his own positive determination not to die. His last words in this world (as I succeeded in discovering from the nurse who assisted Mrs. Lecount) were: "I'm getting better every minute; send for the fly directly and take me out for a drive." The same night Death proved to be the more obstinate of the two; and left his son (and only child) to take the property in due course of law. Nobody doubts that the result would have been the same if a will had been made. The father and son had every confidence in each other, and were known to have always lived together on the most friendly terms.
Mrs. Lecount remains with Mr. Noel Vanstone, in the same housekeeping capacity which she filled with his father, and has accompanied him to the new residence in Vauxhall Walk. She is acknowledged on all hands to have been a sufferer by the turn events have taken. If Mr. Michael Vanstone had made his will, there is no doubt she would have received a handsome legacy. She is now left dependent on Mr. Noel Vanstone's sense of gratitude; and she is not at all likely, I should imagine, to let that sense fall asleep for want of a little timely jogging. Whether my fair relative's future intentions in this quarter point toward Mischief or Money, is more than I can yet say. In either case, I venture to predict that she will find an awkward obstacle in Mrs. Lecount.
So much for my information to the present date. The manner in which it was received by Miss Vanstone showed the most ungrateful distrust of me. She confided nothing to my private ear but the expression of her best thanks. A sharp girl--a devilish sharp girl. But there is such a thing as bowling a man out once too often; especially when the name of that man happens to be Wragge.
Not a word more about the Entertainment; not a word more about moving from our present quarters. Very good. My right hand lays my left hand a wager. Ten to one, on her opening communications with the son as she opened them with the father. Ten to one, on her writing to Noel Vanstone before the month is out.
21st.--She has written by to-day's post. A long letter, apparently--for she put two stamps on the envelope. (Private memorandum, addressed to myself. Wait for the answer.)
22d, 23d, 24th.--(Private memorandum continued. Wait for the answer.)
25th.--The answer has come. As an ex-military man, I have naturally employed stratagem to get at it. The success which rewards all genuine perseverance has rewarded me--and I have got at it accordingly.
The letter is written, not by Mr. Noel Vanstone, but by Mrs. Lecount. She takes the highest moral ground, in a tone of spiteful politeness. Mr. Noel Vanstone's delicate health and recent bereavement prevent him from writing himself. Any more letters from Miss Vanstone will be returned unopened. Any personal application will produce an immediate appeal to the protection of the law. Mr. Noel Vanstone, having been expressly cautioned against Miss Magdalen Vanstone by his late lamented father, has not yet forgotten his father's advice. Considers it a reflection cast on the memory of the best of men, to suppose that his course of action toward the Misses Vanstone can be other than the course of action which his father pursued. This is what he has himself instructed Mrs. Lecount to say. She has endeavored to express herself in the most conciliatory language she could select; she had tried to avoid giving unnecessary pain, by addressing Miss Vanstone (as a matter of courtesy) by the family name; and she trusts these concessions, which speak for themselves, will not be thrown away.--Such is the substance of the letter, and so it ends.
I draw two conclusions from this little document. First--that it will lead to serious results. Secondly--that Mrs. Lecount, with all her politeness, is a dangerous woman to deal with. I wish I saw my way safe before me. I don't see it yet.
29th.--Miss Vanstone has abandoned my protection; and the whole lucrative future of the dramatic entertainment has abandoned me with her. I am swindled--I, the last man under heaven who could possibly have expected to write in those disgraceful terms of myself--I AM SWINDLED!
Let me chronicle the events. They exhibit me, for the time being, in a sadly helpless point of view. But the nature of the man prevails: I must have the events down in black and white.
The announcement of her approaching departure was intimated to me yesterday. After another civil speech about the information I had procured at Brighton, she hinted that there was a necessity for pushing our inquiries a little further. I immediately offered to undertake them, as before. "No," she said; "they are not in your way this time. They are inquiries relating to a woman; and I mean to make them myself!" Feeling privately convinced that this new resolution pointed straight at Mrs. Lecount, I tried a few innocent questions on the subject. She quietly declined to answer them. I asked next when she proposed to leave. She would leave on the twenty-eighth. For what destination? London. For long? Probably not. By herself? No. With me? No. With whom then? With Mrs. Wragge, if I had no objection. Good heavens! for what possible purpose? For the purpose of getting a respectable lodging, which she could hardly expect to accomplish unless she was accompanied by an elderly female friend. And was I, in the capacity of elderly male friend, to be left out of the business altogether? Impossible to say at present. Was I not even to forward any letters which might come for her at our present address? No: she would make the arrangement herself at the post-office; and she would ask me, at the same time, for an address, at which I could receive a letter from her, in case of necessity for future communication. Further inquiries, after this last answer, could lead to nothing but waste of time. I saved time by putting no more questions.
It was clear to me that our present position toward each other was what our position had been previously to the event of Michael Vanstone's death. I returned, as before, to my choice of alternatives. Which way did my private interests point? Toward trusting the chance of her wanting me again? Toward threatening her with the interference of her relatives and friends? Or toward making the information which I possessed a marketable commodity between the wealthy branch of the family and myself? The last of the three was the alternative I had chosen in the case of the father. I chose it once more in the case of the son.
The train started for London nearly four hours since, and took her away in it, accompanied by Mrs. Wragge.
My wife is too great a fool, poor soul, to be actively valuable in the present emergency; but she will be passively useful in keeping up Miss Vanstone's connection with me--and, in consideration of that circumstance, I consent to brush my own trousers, shave my own chin, and submit to the other inconveniences of waiting on myself for a limited period. Any faint glimmerings of sense which Mrs. Wragge may have formerly possessed appear to have now finally taken their leave of her. On receiving permission to go to London, she favored us immediately with two inquiries. Might she do some shopping? and might she leave the cookery-book behind her? Miss Vanstone said Yes to one question, and I said Yes to the other--and from that moment, Mrs. Wragge has existed in a state of perpetual laughter. I am still hoarse with vainly repeated applications of vocal stimulant; and I left her in the railway carriage, to my inexpressible disgust, with both shoes down at heel.
Under ordinary circumstances these absurd particulars would not have dwelt on my memory. But, as matters actually stand, my unfortunate wife's imbecility may, in her present position, lead to consequences which we none of us foresee. She is nothing more or less than a grown-up child; and I can plainly detect that Miss Vanstone trusts her, as she would not have trusted a sharper woman, on that very account. I know children, little and big, rather better than my fair relative does; and I say--beware of all forms of human innocence, when it happens to be your interest to keep a secret to yourself.
Let me return to business. Here I am, at two o'clock on a fine summer's afternoon, left entirely alone, to consider the safest means of approaching Mr. Noel Vanstone on my own account. My private suspicions of his miserly character produce no discouraging effect on me. I have extracted cheering pecuniary results in my time from people quite as fond of their money as he can be. The real difficulty to contend with is the obstacle of Mrs. Lecount. If I am not mistaken, this lady merits a little serious consideration on my part. I will close my chronicle for to-day, and give Mrs. Lecount her due.
Three o'clock.--I open these pages again to record a discovery which has taken me entirely by surprise.
After completing the last entry, a circumstance revived in my memory which I had noticed on escorting the ladies this morning to the railway. I then remarked that Miss Vanstone had only taken one of her three boxes with her--and it now occurred to me that a private investigation of the luggage she had left behind might possibly be attended with beneficial results. Having, at certain periods of my life been in the habit of cultivating friendly terms with strange locks, I found no difficulty in establishing myself on a familiar footing with Miss Vanstone's boxes. One of the two presented nothing to interest me. The other--devoted to the preservation of the costumes, articles of toilet, and other properties used in the dramatic Entertainment--proved to be better worth examining: for it led me straight to the discovery of one of its owner's secrets.
I found all the dresses in the box complete--with one remarkable exception. That exception was the dress of the old north-country lady; the character which I have already mentioned as the best of all my pupil's disguises, and as modeled in voice and manner on her old governess, Miss Garth. The wig; the eyebrows; the bonnet and veil; the cloak, padded inside to disfigure her back and shoulders; the paints and cosmetics used to age her face and alter her complexion--were all gone. Nothing but the gown remained; a gaudily-flowered silk, useful enough for dramatic purposes, but too extravagant in color and pattern to bear inspection by daylight. The other parts of the dress are sufficiently quiet to pass muster; the bonnet and veil are only old-fashioned, and the cloak is of a sober gray color. But one plain inference can be drawn from such a discovery as this. As certainly as I sit here, she is going to open the campaign against Noel Vanstone and Mrs. Lecount in a character which neither of those two persons can have any possible reason for suspecting at the outset--the character of Miss Garth.
What course am I to take under these circumstances? Having got her secret, what am I to do with it? These are awkward considerations; I am rather puzzled how to deal with them.
It is something more than the mere fact of her choosing to disguise herself to forward her own private ends that causes my present perplexity. Hundreds of girls take fancies for disguising themselves; and hundreds of instances of it are related year after year in the public journals. But my ex-pupil is not to be confounded for one moment with the average adventuress of the newspapers. She is capable of going a long way beyond the limit of dressing herself like a man, and imitating a man's voice and manner. She has a natural gift for assuming characters which I have never seen equaled by a woman; and she has performed in public until she has felt her own power, and trained her talent for disguising herself to the highest pitch. A girl who takes the sharpest people unawares by using such a capacity as this to help her own objects in private life, and who sharpens that capacity by a determination to fight her way to her own purpose, which has beaten down everything before it, up to this time--is a girl who tries an experiment in deception, new enough and dangerous enough to lead, one way or the other, to very serious results. This is my conviction, founded on a large experience in the art of imposing on my fellow-creatures. I say of my fair relative's enterprise what I never said or thought of it till I introduced myself to the inside of her box. The chances for and against her winning the fight for her lost fortune are now so evenly balanced that I cannot for the life of me see on which side the scale inclines. All I can discern is, that it will, to a dead certainty, turn one way or the other on the day when she passes Noel Vanstone's doors in disguise.
Which way do my interests point now? Upon my honor, I don't know.
Five o'clock.--I have effected a masterly compromise; I have decided on turning myself into a Jack-on-both-sides.
By to-day's post I have dispatched to London an anonymous letter for Mr. Noel Vanstone. It will be forwarded to its destination by the same means which I successfully adopted to mystify Mr. Pendril; and it will reach Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, by the afternoon of to-morrow at the latest.
The letter is short, and to the purpose. It warns Mr. Noel Vanstone, in the most alarming language, that he is destined to become the victim of a conspiracy; and that the prime mover of it is a young lady who has already held written communication with his father and himself. It offers him the information necessary to secure his own safety, on condition that he makes it worth the writer's while to run the serious personal risk which such a disclosure will entail on him. And it ends by stipulating that the answer shall be advertised in the Times; shall be addressed to "An Unknown Friend"; and shall state plainly what remuneration Mr. Noel Vanstone offers for the priceless service which it is proposed to render him.
Unless some unexpected complication occurs, this letter places me exactly in the position which it is my present interest to occupy. If the advertisement appears, and if the remuneration offered is large enough to justify me in going over to the camp of the enemy, over I go. If no advertisement appears, or if Mr. Noel Vanstone rates my invaluable assistance at too low a figure, here I remain, biding my time till my fair relative wants me, or till I make her want me, which comes to the same thing. If the anonymous letter falls by any accident into her hands, she will find disparaging allusions in it to myself, purposely introduced to suggest that the writer must be one of the persons whom I addressed while conducting her inquiries. If Mrs. Lecount takes the business in hand and lays a trap for me--I decline her tempting invitation by becoming totally ignorant of the whole affair the instant any second person appears in it. Let the end come as it may, here I am ready to profit by it: here I am, facing both ways, with perfect ease and security--a moral agriculturist, with his eye on two crops at once, and his swindler's sickle ready for any emergency.
For the next week to come, the newspaper will be more interesting to me than ever. I wonder which side I shall eventually belong to?
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