BALIOL COTTAGE, DUMFRIES.
TOWARD eleven o'clock, on the morning of the third of November, the breakfast-table at Baliol Cottage presented that essentially comfortless appearance which is caused by a meal in a state of transition--that is to say, by a meal prepared for two persons, which has been already eaten by one, and which has not yet been approached by the other. It must be a hardy appetite which can contemplate without a momentary discouragement the battered egg-shell, the fish half stripped to a skeleton, the crumbs in the plate, and the dregs in the cup. There is surely a wise submission to those weaknesses in human nature which must be respected and not reproved, in the sympathizing rapidity with which servants in places of public refreshment clear away all signs of the customer in the past, from the eyes of the customer in the present. Although his predecessor may have been the wife of his bosom or the child of his loins, no man can find himself confronted at table by the traces of a vanished eater, without a passing sense of injury in connection with the idea of his own meal.
Some such impression as this found its way into the mind of Mr. Noel Vanstone when he entered the lonely breakfast-parlor at Baliol Cottage shortly after eleven o'clock. He looked at the table with a frown, and rang the bell with an expression of disgust.
"Clear away this mess," he said, when the servant appeared. "Has your mistress gone?"
"Yes, sir--nearly an hour ago."
"Is Louisa downstairs?"
"When you have put the table right, send Louisa up to me."
He walked away to the window. The momentary irritation passed away from his face; but it left an expression there which remained--an expression of pining discontent. Personally, his marriage had altered him for the worse. His wizen little cheeks were beginning to shrink into hollows, his frail little figure had already contracted a slight stoop. The former delicacy of his complexion had gone--the sickly paleness of it was all that remained. His thin flaxen mustaches were no longer pragmatically waxed and twisted into a curl: their weak feathery ends hung meekly pendent over the querulous corners of his mouth. If the ten or twelve weeks since his marriage had been counted by his locks, they might have reckoned as ten or twelve years. He stood at the window mechanically picking leaves from a pot of heath placed in front of it, and drearily humming the forlorn fragment of a tune.
The prospect from the window overlooked the course of the Nith at a bend of the river a few miles above Dumfries. Here and there, through wintry gaps in the wooded bank, broad tracts of the level cultivated valley met the eye. Boats passed on the river, and carts plodded along the high-road on their way to Dumfries. The sky was clear; the November sun shone as pleasantly as if the year had been younger by two good months; and the view, noted in Scotland for its bright and peaceful charm, was presented at the best which its wintry aspect could assume. If it had been hidden in mist or drenched with rain, Mr. Noel Vanstone would, to all appearance, have found it as attractive as he found it now. He waited at the window until he heard Louisa's knock at the door, then turned back sullenly to the breakfast-table and told her to come in.
"Make the tea," he said. "I know nothing about it. I'm left here neglected. Nobody helps me."
The discreet Louisa silently and submissively obeyed.
"Did your mistress leave any message for me," he asked, "before she went away?"
"No message in particular, sir. My mistress only said she should be too late if she waited breakfast any longer."
"Did she say nothing else?"
"She told me at the carriage door, sir, that she would most likely be back in a week."
"Was she in good spirits at the carriage door?"
"No, sir. I thought my mistress seemed very anxious and uneasy. Is there anything more I can do, sir?"
"I don't know. Wait a minute."
He proceeded discontentedly with his breakfast. Louisa waited resignedly at the door.
"I think your mistress has been in bad spirits lately," he resumed, with a sudden outbreak of petulance.
"My mistress has not been very cheerful, sir."
"What do you mean by not very cheerful? Do you mean to prevaricate? Am I nobody in the house? Am I to be kept in the dark about everything? Is your mistress to go away on her own affairs, and leave me at home like a child--and am I not even to ask a question about her? Am I to be prevaricated with by a servant? I won't be prevaricated with! Not very cheerful? What do you mean by not very cheerful?"
"I only meant that my mistress was not in good spirits, sir."
"Why couldn't you say it, then? Don't you know the value of words? The most dreadful consequences sometimes happen from not knowing the value of words. Did your mistress tell you she was going to London?"
"What did you think when your mistress told you she was going to London? Did you think it odd she was going without me?"
"I did not presume to think it odd, sir.--Is there anything more I can do for you, if you please, sir?"
"What sort of a morning is it out? Is it warm? Is the sun on the garden?"
"Have you seen the sun yourself on the garden?"
"Get me my great-coat; I'll take a little turn. Has the man brushed it? Did you see the man brush it yourself? What do you mean by saying he has brushed it, when you didn't see him? Let me look at the tails. If there's a speck of dust on the tails, I'll turn the man off!--Help me on with it."
Louisa helped him on with his coat, and gave him his hat. He went out irritably. The coat was a large one (it had belonged to his father); the hat was a large one (it was a misfit purchased as a bargain by himself). He was submerged in his hat and coat; he looked singularly small, and frail, and miserable, as he slowly wended his way, in the wintry sunlight, down the garden walk. The path sloped gently from the back of the house to the water side, from which it was parted by a low wooden fence. After pacing backward and forward slowly for some little time, he stopped at the lower extremity of the garden, and, leaning on the fence, looked down listlessly at the smooth flow of the river.
His thoughts still ran on the subject of his first fretful question to Louisa--he was still brooding over the circumstances under which his wife had left the cottage that morning, and over the want of consideration toward himself implied in the manner of her departure. The longer he thought of his grievance, the more acutely he resented it. He was capable of great tenderness of feeling where any injury to his sense of his own importance was concerned. His head drooped little by little on his arms, as they rested on the fence, and, in the deep sincerity of his mortification, he sighed bitterly.
The sigh was answered by a voice close at his side.
"You were happier with me, sir," said the voice, in accents of tender regret.
He looked up with a scream--literally, with a scream--and confronted Mrs. Lecount.
Was it the specter of the woman, or the woman herself? Her hair was white; her face had fallen away; her eyes looked out large, bright, and haggard over her hollow cheeks. She was withered and old. Her dress hung loose round her wasted figure; not a trace of its buxom autumnal beauty remained. The quietly impenetrable resolution, the smoothly insinuating voice--these were the only relics of the past which sickness and suffering had left in Mrs. Lecount.
"Compose yourself, Mr. Noel," she said, gently. "You have no cause to be alarmed at seeing me. Your servant, when I inquired, said you were in the garden, and I came here to find you. I have traced you out, sir, with no resentment against yourself, with no wish to distress you by so much as the shadow of a reproach. I come here on what has been, and is still, the business of my life--your service."
He recovered himself a little, but he was still incapable of speech. He held fast by the fence, and stared at her.
"Try to possess your mind, sir, of what I say," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I have come here not as your enemy, but as your friend. I have been tried by sickness, I have been tried by distress. Nothing remains of me but my heart. My heart forgives you; my heart, in your sore need--need which you have yet to feel--places me at your service. Take my arm, Mr. Noel. A little turn in the sun will help you to recover yourself."
She put his hand through her arm and marched him slowly up the garden walk. Before she had been five minutes in his company, she had resumed full possession of him in her own right.
"Now down again, Mr. Noel," she said. "Gently down again, in this fine sunlight. I have much to say to you, sir, which you never expected to hear from me. Let me ask a little domestic question first. They told me at the house door Mrs. Noel Vanstone was gone away on a journey. Has she gone for long?"
Her master's hand trembled on her arm as she put that question. Instead of answering it, he tried faintly to plead for himself. The first words that escaped him were prompted by his first returning sense--the sense that his housekeeper had taken him into custody. He tried to make his peace with Mrs. Lecount.
"I always meant to do something for you," he said, coaxingly. "You would have heard from me before long. Upon my word and honor, Lecount, you would have heard from me before long!"
"I don't doubt it, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount. "But for the present, never mind about Me. You and your interests first."
"How did you come here?" he asked, looking at her in astonishment. "How came you to find me out?"
"It is a long story, sir; I will tell it you some other time. Let it be enough to say now that I have found you. Will Mrs. Noel be back again at the house to-day? A little louder, sir; I can hardly hear you. So! so! Not back again for a week! And where has she gone? To London, did you say? And what for?--I am not inquisitive, Mr. Noel; I am asking serious questions, under serious necessity. Why has your wife left you here, and gone to London by herself?"
They were down at the fence again as she made that last inquiry, and they waited, leaning against it, while Noel Vanstone answered. Her reiterated assurances that she bore him no malice were producing their effect; he was beginning to recover himself. The old helpless habit of addressing all his complaints to his housekeeper was returning already with the re-appearance of Mrs. Lecount--returning insidiously, in company with that besetting anxiety to talk about his grievances, which had got the better of him at the breakfast-table, and which had shown the wound inflicted on his vanity to his wife's maid.
"I can't answer for Mrs. Noel Vanstone," he said, spitefully. "Mrs. Noel Vanstone has not treated me with the consideration which is my due. She has taken my permission for granted, and she has only thought proper to tell me that the object of her journey is to see her friends in London. She went away this morning without bidding me good-by. She takes her own way as if I was nobody; she treats me like a child. You may not believe it, Lecount, but I don't even know who her friends are. I am left quite in the dark; I am left to guess for myself that her friends in London are her uncle and aunt."
Mrs. Lecount privately considered the question by the help of her own knowledge obtained in London. She soon reached the obvious conclusion. After writing to her sister in the first instance, Magdalen had now, in all probability, followed the letter in person. There was little doubt that the friends she had gone to visit in London were her sister and Miss Garth.
"Not her uncle and aunt, sir," resumed Mrs. Lecount, composedly. "A secret for your private ear! She has no uncle and aunt. Another little turn before I explain myself--another little turn to compose your spirits."
She took him into custody once more, and marched him back toward the house.
"Mr. Noel!" she said, suddenly stopping in the middle of the walk. "Do you know what was the worst mischief you ever did yourself in your life? I will tell you. That worst mischief was sending me to Zurich."
His hand began to tremble on her arm once more.
"I didn't do it!" he cried piteously. "It was all Mr. Bygrave."
"You acknowledge, sir, that Mr. Bygrave deceived me?" proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I am glad to hear that. You will be all the readier to make the next discovery which is waiting for you--the discovery that Mr. Bygrave has deceived you. He is not here to slip through my fingers now, and I am not the helpless woman in this place that I was at Aldborough. Thank God!"
She uttered that devout exclamation through her set teeth. All her hatred of Captain Wragge hissed out of her lips in those two words.
"Oblige me, sir, by holding one side of my traveling-bag," she resumed, "while I open it and take something out."
The interior of the bag disclosed a series of neatly-folded papers, all laid together in order, and numbered outside. Mrs. Lecount took out one of the papers, and shut up the bag again with a loud snap of the spring that closed it.
"At Aldborough, Mr. Noel, I had only my own opinion to support me," she remarked. "My own opinion was nothing against Miss Bygrave's youth and beauty, and Mr. Bygrave's ready wit. I could only hope to attack your infatuation with proofs, and at that time I had not got them. I have got them now! I am armed at all points with proofs; I bristle from head to foot with proofs; I break my forced silence, and speak with the emphasis of my proofs. Do you know this writing, sir?"
He shrank back from the paper which she offered to him.
"I don't understand this," he said, nervously. "I don't know what you want, or what you mean."
Mrs. Lecount forced the paper into his hand. "You shall know what I mean, sir, if you will give me a moment's attention," she said. "On the day after you went away to St. Crux, I obtained admission to Mr. Bygrave's house, and I had some talk in private with Mr. Bygrave's wife. That talk supplied me with the means to convince you which I had wanted to find for weeks and weeks past. I wrote you a letter to say so--I wrote to tell you that I would forfeit my place in your service, and my expectations from your generosity, if I did not prove to you when I came back from Switzerland that my own private suspicion of Miss Bygrave was the truth. I directed that letter to you at St. Crux, and I posted it myself. Now, Mr. Noel, read the paper which I have forced into your hand. It is Admiral Bartram's written affirmation that my letter came to St. Crux, and that he inclosed it to you, under cover to Mr. Bygrave, at your own request. Did Mr. Bygrave ever give you that letter? Don't agitate yourself, sir! One word of reply will do--Yes or No."
He read the paper, and looked up at her with growing bewilderment and fear. She obstinately waited until he spoke. "No," he said, faintly; "I never got the letter."
"First proof!" said Mrs. Lecount, taking the paper from him, and putting it back in the bag. "One more, with your kind permission, before we come to things more serious still. I gave you a written description, sir, at Aldborough, of a person not named, and I asked you to compare it with Miss Bygrave the next time you were in her company. After having first shown the description to Mr. Bygrave--it is useless to deny it now, Mr. Noel; your friend at North Shingles is not here to help you!--after having first shown my note to Mr. Bygrave, you made the comparison, and you found it fail in the most important particular. There were two little moles placed close together on the left side of the neck, in my description of the unknown lady, and there were no little moles at all when you looked at Miss Bygrave's neck. I am old enough to be your mother, Mr. Noel. If the question is not indelicate, may I ask what the present state of your knowledge is on the subject of your wife's neck?"
She looked at him with a merciless steadiness. He drew back a few steps, cowering under her eye. "I can't say," he stammered. "I don't know. What do you mean by these questions? I never thought about the moles afterward; I never looked. She wears her hair low--"
"She has excellent reasons to wear it low, sir," remarked Mrs. Lecount. "We will try and lift that hair before we have done with the subject. When I came out here to find you in the garden, I saw a neat young person through the kitchen window, with her work in her hand, who looked to my eyes like a lady's maid. Is this young person your wife's maid? I beg your pardon, sir, did you say yes? In that case, another question, if you please. Did you engage her, or did your wife?"
"I engaged her--"
"While I was away? While I was in total ignorance that you meant to have a wife, or a wife's maid?"
"Under those circumstances, Mr. Noel, you cannot possibly suspect me of conspiring to deceive you, with the maid for my instrument. Go into the house, sir, while I wait here. Ask the woman who dresses Mrs. Noel Vanstone's hair morning and night whether her mistress has a mark on the left side of her neck, and (if so) what that mark is?"
He walked a few steps toward the house without uttering a word, then stopped, and looked back at Mrs. Lecount. His blinking eyes were steady, and his wizen face had become suddenly composed. Mrs. Lecount advanced a little and joined him. She saw the change; but, with all her experience of him, she failed to interpret the true meaning of it.
"Are you in want of a pretense, sir?" she asked. "Are you at a loss to account to your wife's maid for such a question as I wish you to put to her? Pretenses are easily found which will do for persons in her station of life. Say I have come here with news of a legacy for Mrs. Noel Vanstone, and that there is a question of her identity to settle before she can receive the money."
She pointed to the house. He paid no attention to the sign. His face grew paler and paler. Without moving or speaking he stood and looked at her.
"Are you afraid?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
Those words roused him; those words lit a spark of the fire of manhood in him at last. He turned on her like a sheep on a dog.
"I won't be questioned and ordered!" he broke out, trembling violently under the new sensation of his own courage. "I won't be threatened and mystified any longer! How did you find me out at this place? What do you mean by coming here with your hints and your mysteries? What have you got to say against my wife?"
Mrs. Lecount composedly opened the traveling-bag and took out her smelling bottle, in case of emergency.
"You have spoken to me in plain words," she said. "In plain words, sir, you shall have your answer. Are you too angry to listen?"
Her looks and tones alarmed him, in spite of himself. His courage began to sink again; and, desperately as he tried to steady it, his voice trembled when he answered her.
"Give me my answer," he said, "and give it at once."
"Your commands shall be obeyed, sir, to the letter," replied Mrs. Lecount. "I have come here with two objects. To open your eyes to your own situation, and to save your fortune--perhaps your life. Your situation is this. Miss Bygrave has married you under a false character and a false name. Can you rouse your memory? Can you call to mind the disguised woman who threatened you in Vauxhall Walk? That woman--as certainly as I stand here--is now your wife."
He looked at her in breathless silence, his lips falling apart, his eyes fixed in vacant inquiry. The suddenness of the disclosure had overreached its own end. It had stupefied him.
"My wife?" he repeated, and burst into an imbecile laugh.
"Your wife," reiterated Mrs. Lecount.
At the repetition of those two words the strain on his faculties relaxed. A thought dawned on him for the first time. His eyes fixed on her with a furtive alarm, and he drew back hastily. "Mad!" he said to himself, with a sudden remembrance of what his friend Mr. Bygrave had told him at Aldborough, sharpened by his own sense of the haggard change that he saw in her face.
He spoke in a whisper, but Mrs. Lecount heard him. She was close at his side again in an instant. For the first time, her self-possession failed her, and she caught him angrily by the arm.
"Will you put my madness to the proof, sir?" she asked.
He shook off her hold; he began to gather courage again, in the intense sincerity of his disbelief, courage to face the assertion which she persisted in forcing on him.
"Yes," he answered. "What must I do?"
"Do what I told you," said Mrs. Lecount. "Ask the maid that question about her mistress on the spot. And if she tells you the mark is there, do one thing more. Take me up into your wife's room, and open her wardrobe in my presence with your own hands."
"What do you want with her wardrobe?" he asked.
"You shall know when you open it."
"Very strange!" he said to himself, vacantly. "It's like a scene in a novel--it's like nothing in real life." He went slowly into the house, and Mrs. Lecount waited for him in the garden.
After an absence of a few minutes only he appeared again, on the top of the flight of steps which led into the garden from the house. He held by the iron rail with one hand, while with the other he beckoned to Mrs. Lecount to join him on the steps.
"What does the maid say?" she asked, as she approached him. "Is the mark there?"
He answered in a whisper, "Yes." What he had heard from the maid had produced a marked change in him. The horror of the coming discovery had laid its paralyzing hold on his mind. He moved mechanically; he looked and spoke like a man in a dream.
"Will you take my arm, sir?"
He shook his head, and, preceding her along the passage and up the stairs, led the way into his wife's room. When she joined him and locked the door, he stood passively waiting for his directions, without making any remark, without showing any external appearance of surprise. He had not removed either his hat or coat. Mrs. Lecount took them off for him. "Thank you," he said, with the docility of a well-trained child. "It's like a scene in a novel--it's like nothing in real life."
The bed-chamber was not very large, and the furniture was heavy and old-fashioned. But evidences of Magdalen's natural taste and refinement were visible everywhere, in the little embellishments that graced and enlivened the aspect of the room. The perfume of dried rose-leaves hung fragrant on the cool air. Mrs. Lecount sniffed the perfume with a disparaging frown and threw the window up to its full height. "Pah!" she said, with a shudder of virtuous disgust, "the atmosphere of deceit!"
She seated herself near the window. The wardrobe stood against the wall opposite, and the bed was at the side of the room on her right hand. "Open the wardrobe, Mr. Noel," she said. "I don't go near it. I touch nothing in it myself. Take out the dresses with your own hand and put them on the bed. Take them out one by one until I tell you to stop."
He obeyed her. "I'll do it as well as I can," he said. "My hands are cold, and my head feels half asleep."
The dresses to be removed were not many, for Magdalen had taken some of them away with her. After he had put two dresses on the bed, he was obliged to search in the inner recesses of the wardrobe before he could find a third. When he produced it, Mrs. Lecount made a sign to him to stop. The end was reached already; he had found the brown Alpaca dress.
"Lay it out on the bed, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "You will see a double flounce running round the bottom of it. Lift up the outer flounce, and pass the inner one through your fingers, inch by inch. If you come to a place where there is a morsel of the stuff missing, stop and look up at me."
He passed the flounce slowly through his fingers for a minute or more, then stopped and looked up. Mrs. Lecount produced her pocket-book and opened it.
"Every word I now speak, sir, is of serious consequence to you and to me," she said. "Listen with your closest attention. When the woman calling herself Miss Garth came to see us in Vauxhall Walk, I knelt down behind the chair in which she was sitting and I cut a morsel of stuff from the dress she wore, which might help me to know that dress if I ever saw it again. I did this while the woman's whole attention was absorbed in talking to you. The morsel of stuff has been kept in my pocketbook from that time to this. See for yourself, Mr. Noel, if it fits the gap in that dress which your own hands have just taken from your wife's wardrobe."
She rose and handed him the fragment of stuff across the bed. He put it into the vacant space in the flounce as well as his trembling fingers would let him.
"Does it fit, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
The dress dropped from his hands, and the deadly bluish pallor--which every doctor who attended him had warned his housekeeper to dread--overspread his face slowly. Mrs. Lecount had not reckoned on such an answer to her question as she now saw in his cheeks. She hurried round to him, with the smelling-bottle in her hand. He dropped to his knees and caught at her dress with the grasp of a drowning man. "Save me!" he gasped, in a hoarse, breathless whisper. "Oh, Lecount, save me!"
"I promise to save you," said Mrs. Lecount; "I am here with the means and the resolution to save you. Come away from this place--come nearer to the air." She raised him as she spoke, and led him across the room to the window. "Do you feel the chill pain again on your left side?" she asked, with the first signs of alarm that she had shown yet. "Has your wife got any eau-de-cologne, any sal-volatile in her room? Don't exhaust yourself by speaking--point to the place!"
He pointed to a little triangular cupboard of old worm-eaten walnut-wood fixed high in a corner of the room. Mrs. Lecount tried the door: it was locked.
As she made that discovery, she saw his head sink back gradually on the easy-chair in which she had placed him. The warning of the doctors in past years--"If you ever let him faint, you let him die"--recurred to her memory as if it had been spoken the day before. She looked at the cupboard again. In a recess under it lay some ends of cord, placed there apparently for purposes of packing. Without an instant's hesitation, she snatched up a morsel of cord, tied one end fast round the knob of the cupboard door, and seizing the other end in both hands, pulled it suddenly with the exertion of her whole strength. The rotten wood gave way, the cupboard doors flew open, and a heap of little trifles poured out noisily on the floor. Without stopping to notice the broken china and glass at her feet, she looked into the dark recesses of the cupboard and saw the gleam of two glass bottles. One was put away at the extreme back of the shelf, the other was a little in advance, almost hiding it. She snatched them both out at once, and took them, one in each hand, to the window, where she could read their labels in the clearer light.
The bottle in her right hand was the first bottle she looked at. It was marked--Sal-volatile.
She instantly laid the other bottle aside on the table without looking at it. The other bottle lay there, waiting its turn. It held a dark liquid, and it was labeled--POISON.
MRS. LECOUNT mixed the sal-volatile with water, and administered it immediately. The stimulant had its effect. In a few minutes Noel Vanstone was able to raise himself in the chair without assistance; his color changed again for the better, and his breath came and went more freely.
"How do you feel now, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Are you warm again on your left side?"
He paid no attention to that inquiry; his eyes, wandering about the room, turned by chance toward the table. To Mrs. Lecount's surprise, instead of answering her, he bent forward in his chair, and looked with staring eyes and pointing hand at the second bottle which she had taken from the cupboard, and which she had hastily laid aside without paying attention to it. Seeing that some new alarm possessed him, she advanced to the table, and looked where he looked. The labeled side of the bottle was full in view; and there, in the plain handwriting of the chemist at Aldborough, was the one startling word confronting them both--"Poison."
Even Mrs. Lecount's self-possession was shaken by that discovery. She was not prepared to see her own darkest forebodings--the unacknowledged offspring of her hatred for Magdalen--realized as she saw them realized now. The suicide-despair in which the poison had been procured; the suicide-purpose for which, in distrust of the future, the poison had been kept, had brought with them their own retribution. There the bottle lay, in Magdalen's absence, a false witness of treason which had never entered her mind--treason against her husband's life!
With his hand still mechanically pointing at the table Noel Vanstone raised his head and looked up at Mrs. Lecount.
"I took it from the cupboard," she said, answering the look. "I took both bottles out together, not knowing which might be the bottle I wanted. I am as much shocked, as much frightened, as you are."
"Poison!" he said to himself, slowly. "Poison locked up by my wife in the cupboard in her own room." He stopped, and looked at Mrs. Lecount once more. "For me?" he asked, in a vacant, inquiring tone.
"We will not talk of it, sir, until your mind is more at ease," said Mrs. Lecount. "In the meantime, the danger that lies waiting in this bottle shall be instantly destroyed in your presence." She took out the cork, and threw the laudanum out of window, and the empty bottle after it. "Let us try to forget this dreadful discovery for the present," she resumed; "let us go downstairs at once. All that I have now to say to you can be said in another room."
She helped him to rise from the chair, and took his arm in her own. "It is well for him; it is well for me," she thought, as they went downstairs together, "that I came when I did."
On crossing the passage, she stepped to the front door, where the carriage was waiting which had brought her from Dumfries, and instructed the coachman to put up his horses at the nearest inn, and to call again for her in two hours' time. This done, she accompanied Noel Vanstone into the sitting-room, stirred up the fire, and placed him before it comfortably in an easy-chair. He sat for a few minutes, warming his hands feebly like an old man, and staring straight into the flame. Then he spoke.
"When the woman came and threatened me in Vauxhall Walk," he began, still staring into the fire, "you came back to the parlor after she was gone, and you told me--?" He stopped, shivered a little, and lost the thread of his recollections at that point.
"I told you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "that the woman was, in my opinion, Miss Vanstone herself. Don't start, Mr. Noel! Your wife is away, and I am here to take care of you. Say to yourself, if you feel frightened, 'Lecount is here; Lecount will take care of me.' The truth must be told, sir, however hard to bear the truth may be. Miss Magdalen Vanstone was the woman who came to you in disguise; and the woman who came to you in disguise is the woman you have married. The conspiracy which she threatened you with in London is the conspiracy which has made her your wife. That is the plain truth. You have seen the dress upstairs. If that dress had been no longer in existence, I should still have had my proofs to convince you. Thanks to my interview with Mrs. Bygrave I have discovered the house your wife lodged at in London; it was opposite our house in Vauxhall Walk. I have laid my hand on one of the landlady's daughters, who watched your wife from an inner room, and saw her put on the disguise; who can speak to her identity, and to the identity of her companion, Mrs. Bygrave; and who has furnished me, at my own request, with a written statement of facts, which she is ready to affirm on oath if any person ventures to contradict her. You shall read the statement, Mr. Noel, if you like, when you are fitter to understand it. You shall also read a letter in the handwriting of Miss Garth--who will repeat to you personally every word she has written to me--a letter formally denying that she was ever in Vauxhall Walk, and formally asserting that those moles on your wife's neck are marks peculiar to Miss Magdalen Vanstone, whom she has known from childhood. I say it with a just pride--you will find no weak place anywhere in the evidence which I bring you. If Mr. Bygrave had not stolen my letter, you would have had your warning before I was cruelly deceived into going to Zurich; and the proofs which I now bring you, after your marriage, I should then have offered to you before it. Don't hold me responsible, sir, for what has happened since I left England. Blame your uncle's bastard daughter, and blame that villain with the brown eye and the green!"
She spoke her last venomous words as slowly and distinctly as she had spoken all the rest. Noel Vanstone made no answer--he still sat cowering over the fire. She looked round into his face. He was crying silently. "I was so fond of her!" said the miserable little creature; "and I thought she was so fond of Me!"
Mrs. Lecount turned her back on him in disdainful silence. "Fond of her!" As she repeated those words to herself, her haggard face became almost handsome again in the magnificent intensity of its contempt.
She walked to a book-case at the lower end of the room, and began examining the volumes in it. Before she had been long engaged in this way, she was startled by the sound of his voice, affrightedly calling her back. The tears were gone from his face; it was blank again with terror when he now turned it toward her.
"Lecount!" he said, holding to her with both hands. "Can an egg be poisoned? I had an egg for breakfast this morning, and a little toast."
"Make your mind easy, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "The poison of your wife's deceit is the only poison you have taken yet. If she had resolved already on making you pay the price of your folly with your life, she would not be absent from the house while you were left living in it. Dismiss the thought from your mind. It is the middle of the day; you want refreshment. I have more to say to you in the interests of your own safety--I have something for you to do, which must be done at once. Recruit your strength, and you will do it. I will set you the example of eating, if you still distrust the food in this house. Are you composed enough to give the servant her orders, if I ring the bell? It is necessary to the object I have in view for you, that nobody should think you ill in body or troubled in mind. Try first with me before the servant comes in. Let us see how you look and speak when you say, 'Bring up the lunch.'"
After two rehearsals, Mrs. Lecount considered him fit to give the order, without betraying himself.
The bell was answered by Louisa--Louisa looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. The luncheon was brought up by the house-maid--the house-maid looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. When luncheon was over, the table was cleared by the cook--the cook looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. The three servants were plainly suspicious that something extraordinary was going on in the house. It was hardly possible to doubt that they had arranged to share among themselves the three opportunities which the service of the table afforded them of entering the room.
The curiosity of which she was the object did not escape the penetration of Mrs. Lecount. "I did well," she thought, "to arm myself in good time with the means of reaching my end. If I let the grass grow under my feet, one or the other of those women might get in my way." Roused by this consideration, she produced her traveling-bag from a corner, as soon as the last of the servants had entered the room; and seating herself at the end of the table opposite Noel Vanstone, looked at him for a moment, with a steady, investigating attention. She had carefully regulated the quantity of wine which he had taken at luncheon--she had let him drink exactly enough to fortify, without confusing him; and she now examined his face critically, like an artist examining his picture at the end of the day's work. The result appeared to satisfy her, and she opened the serious business of the interview on the spot.
"Will you look at the written evidence I have mentioned to you, Mr. Noel, before I say any more?" she inquired. "Or are you sufficiently persuaded of the truth to proceed at once to the suggestion which I have now to make to you?"
"Let me hear your suggestion," he said, sullenly resting his elbows on the table, and leaning his head on his hands.
Mrs. Lecount took from her traveling-bag the written evidence to which she had just alluded, and carefully placed the papers on one side of him, within easy reach, if he wished to refer to them. Far from being daunted, she was visibly encouraged by the ungraciousness of his manner. Her experience of him informed her that the sign was a promising one. On those rare occasions when the little resolution that he possessed was roused in him, it invariably asserted itself--like the resolution of most other weak men--aggressively. At such times, in proportion as he was outwardly sullen and discourteous to those about him, his resolution rose; and in proportion as he was considerate and polite, it fell. The tone of the answer he had just given, and the attitude he assumed at the table, convinced Mrs. Lecount that Spanish wine and Scotch mutton had done their duty, and had rallied his sinking courage.
"I will put the question to you for form's sake, sir, if you wish it," she proceeded. "But I am already certain, without any question at all, that you have made your will?"
He nodded his head without looking at her.
"You have made it in your wife's favor?"
He nodded again.
"You have left her everything you possess?"
Mrs. Lecount looked surprised.
"Did you exercise a reserve toward her, Mr. Noel, of your own accord?" she inquired; "or is it possible that your wife put her own limits to her interest in your will?"
He was uneasily silent--he was plainly ashamed to answer the question. Mrs. Lecount repeated it in a less direct form.
"How much have you left your widow, Mr. Noel, in the event of your death?"
"Eighty thousand pounds."
That reply answered the question. Eighty thousand pounds was exactly the fortune which Michael Vanstone had taken from his brother's orphan children at his brother's death--exactly the fortune of which Michael Vanstone's son had kept possession, in his turn, as pitilessly as his father before him. Noel Vanstone's silence was eloquent of the confession which he was ashamed to make. His doting weakness had, beyond all doubt, placed his whole property at the feet of his wife. And this girl, whose vindictive daring had defied all restraints--this girl, who had not shrunk from her desperate determination even at the church door--had, in the very hour of her triumph, taken part only from the man who would willingly have given all!--had rigorously exacted her father's fortune from him to the last farthing; and had then turned her back on the hand that was tempting her with tens of thousands more! For the moment, Mrs. Lecount was fairly silenced by her own surprise; Magdalen had forced the astonishment from her which is akin to admiration, the astonishment which her enmity would fain have refused. She hated Magdalen with a tenfold hatred from that time.
"I have no doubt, sir," she resumed, after a momentary silence, "that Mrs. Noel gave you excellent reasons why the provision for her at your death should be no more, and no less, than eighty thousand pounds. And, on the other hand, I am equally sure that you, in your innocence of all suspicion, found those reasons conclusive at the time. That time has now gone by. Your eyes are opened, sir; and you will not fail to remark (as I remark) that the Combe-Raven property happens to reach the same sum exactly, as the legacy which your wife's own instructions directed you to leave her. If you are still in any doubt of the motive for which she married you, look in your own will--and there the motive is!"
He raised his head from his hands, and became closely attentive to what she was saying to him, for the first time since they had faced each other at the table. The Combe-Raven property had never been classed by itself in his estimation. It had come to him merged in his father's other possessions, at his father's death. The discovery which had now opened before him was one to which his ordinary habits of thought, as well as his innocence of suspicion, had hitherto closed his eyes. He said nothing; but he looked less sullenly at Mrs. Lecount. His manner was more ingratiating; the high tide of his courage was already on the ebb.
"Your position, sir, must be as plain by this time to you as it is to me," said Mrs. Lecount. "There is only one obstacle now left between this woman and the attainment of her end. That obstacle is your life. After the discovery we have made upstairs, I leave you to consider for yourself what your life is worth."
At those terrible words, the ebbing resolution in him ran out to the last drop. "Don't frighten me!" he pleaded; "I have been frightened enough already." He rose, and dragged his chair after him, round the table to Mrs. Lecount's side. He sat down and caressingly kissed her hand. "You good creature!" he said, in a sinking voice. "You excellent Lecount! Tell me what to do. I'm full of resolution--I'll do anything to save my life!"
"Have you got writing materials in the room, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Will you put them on the table, if you please?"
While the writing materials were in process of collection, Mrs. Lecount made a new demand on the resources of her traveling-bag. She took two papers from it, each indorsed in the same neat commercial handwriting. One was described as "Draft for proposed Will," and the other as "Draft for proposed Letter." When she placed them before her on the table, her hand shook a little; and she applied the smelling-salts, which she had brought with her in Noel Vanstone's interests, to her own nostrils.
"I had hoped, when I came here, Mr. Noel," she proceeded, "to have given you more time for consideration than it seems safe to give you now. When you first told me of your wife's absence in London, I thought it probable that the object of her journey was to see her sister and Miss Garth. Since the horrible discovery we have made upstairs, I am inclined to alter that opinion. Your wife's determination not to tell you who the friends are whom she has gone to see, fills me with alarm. She may have accomplices in London--accomplices, for anything we know to the contrary, in this house. All three of your servants, sir, have taken the opportunity, in turn, of coming into the room and looking at me. I don't like their looks! Neither you nor I know what may happen from day to day, or even from hour to hour. If you take my advice, you will get the start at once of all possible accidents; and, when the carriage comes back, you will leave this house with me!"
"Yes, yes!" he said, eagerly; "I'll leave the house with you. I wouldn't stop here by myself for any sum of money that could be offered me. What do we want the pen and ink for? Are you to write, or am I?"
"You are to write, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "The means taken for promoting your own safety are to be means set in motion, from beginning to end, by yourself. I suggest, Mr. Noel--and you decide. Recognize your own position, sir. What is your first and foremost necessity? It is plainly this. You must destroy your wife's interest in your death by making another will."
He vehemently nodded his approval; his color rose, and his blinking eyes brightened in malicious triumph. "She shan't have a farthing," he said to himself, in a whisper--"she shan't have a farthing!"
"When your will is made, sir," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, "you must place it in the hands of a trustworthy person--not my hands, Mr. Noel; I am only your servant! Then, when the will is safe, and when you are safe, write to your wife at this house. Tell her her infamous imposture is discovered; tell her you have made a new will, which leaves her penniless at your death; tell her, in your righteous indignation, that she enters your doors no more. Place yourself in that strong position, and it is no longer you who are at your wife's mercy, but your wife who is at yours. Assert your own power, sir, with the law to help you, and crush this woman into submission to any terms for the future that you please to impose."
He eagerly took up the pen. "Yes," he said, with a vindictive self-importance, "any terms I please to impose." He suddenly checked himself and his face became dejected and perplexed. "How can I do it now?" he asked, throwing down the pen as quickly as he had taken it up.
"Do what, sir?" inquired Mrs. Lecount.
"How can I make my will, with Mr. Loscombe away in London, and no lawyer here to help me?"
Mrs. Lecount gently tapped the papers before her on the table with her forefinger.
"All the help you need, sir, is waiting for you here," she said. "I considered this matter carefully before I came to you; and I provided myself with the confidential assistance of a friend to guide me through those difficulties which I could not penetrate for myself. The friend to whom I refer is a gentleman of Swiss extraction, but born and bred in England. He is not a lawyer by profession--but he has had his own sufficient experience of the law, nevertheless; and he has supplied me, not only with a model by which you may make your will, but with the written sketch of a letter which it is as important for us to have, as the model of the will itself. There is another necessity waiting for you, Mr. Noel, which I have not mentioned yet, but which is no less urgent in its way than the necessity of the will."
"What is it?" he asked, with roused curiosity.
"We will take it in its turn, sir," answered Mrs. Lecount. "Its turn has not come yet. The will, if you please, first. I will dictate from the model in my possession and you will write."
Noel Vanstone looked at the draft for the Will and the draft for the Letter with suspicious curiosity.
"I think I ought to see the papers myself, before you dictate," he said. "It would be more satisfactory to my own mind, Lecount."
"By all means, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, handing him the papers immediately.
He read the draft for the Will first, pausing and knitting his brows distrustfully, wherever he found blank spaces left in the manuscript to be filled in with the names of persons and the enumeration of sums bequeathed to them. Two or three minutes of reading brought him to the end of the paper. He gave it back to Mrs. Lecount without making any objection to it.
The draft for the Letter was a much longer document. He obstinately read it through to the end, with an expression of perplexity and discontent which showed that it was utterly unintelligible to him. "I must have this explained," he said, with a touch of his old self-importance, "before I take any steps in the matter."
"It shall be explained, sir, as we go on," said Mrs. Lecount.
"Every word of it?"
"Every word of it, Mr. Noel, when its turn comes. You have no objection to the will? To the will, then, as I said before, let us devote ourselves first. You have seen for yourself that it is short enough and simple enough for a child to understand it. But if any doubts remain on your mind, by all means compose those doubts by showing your will to a lawyer by profession. In the meantime, let me not be considered intrusive if I remind you that we are all mortal, and that the lost opportunity can never be recalled. While your time is your own, sir, and while your enemies are unsuspicious of you, make your will!"
She opened a sheet of note-paper and smoothed it out before him; she dipped the pen in ink, and placed it in his hands. He took it from her without speaking--he was, to all appearance, suffering under some temporary uneasiness of mind. But the main point was gained. There he sat, with the paper before him, and the pen in his hand; ready at last, in right earnest, to make his will.
"The first question for you to decide, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, after a preliminary glance at her Draft, "is your choice of an executor. I have no desire to influence your decision; but I may, without impropriety, remind you that a wise choice means, in other words, the choice of an old and tried friend whom you know that you can trust."
"It means the admiral, I suppose?" said Noel Vanstone.
Mrs. Lecount bowed.
"Very well," he continued. "The admiral let it be."
There was plainly some oppression still weighing on his mind. Even under the trying circumstances in which he was placed it was not in his nature to take Mrs. Lecount's perfectly sensible and disinterested advice without a word of cavil, as he had taken it now.
"Are you ready, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount dictated the first paragraph from the Draft, as follows:
"This is the last Will and Testament of me, Noel Vanstone, now living at Baliol Cottage, near Dumfries. I revoke, absolutely and in every particular, my former will executed on the thirtieth of September, eighteen hundred and forty-seven; and I hereby appoint Rear-Admiral Arthur Everard Bartram, of St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex, sole executor of this my will."
"Have you written those words, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount laid down the Draft; Noel Vanstone laid down the pen. They neither of them looked at each other. There was a long silence.
"I am waiting, Mr. Noel," said Mrs. Lecount, at last, "to hear what your wishes are in respect to the disposal of your fortune. Your large fortune," she added, with merciless emphasis.
He took up the pen again, and began picking the feathers from the quill in dead silence.
"Perhaps your existing will may help you to instruct me, sir," pursued Mrs. Lecount. "May I inquire to whom you left all your surplus money, after leaving the eighty thousand pounds to your wife?"
If he had answered that question plainly, he must have said: "I have left the whole surplus to my cousin, George Bartram"--and the implied acknowledgment that Mrs. Lecount's name was not mentioned in the will must then have followed in Mrs. Lecount's presence. A much bolder man, in his situation, might have felt the same oppression and the same embarrassment which he was feeling now. He picked the last morsel of feather from the quill; and, desperately leaping the pitfall under his feet, advanced to meet Mrs. Lecount's claims on him of his own accord.
"I would rather not talk of any will but the will I am making now," he said uneasily. "The first thing, Lecount--" He hesitated--put the bare end of the quill into his mouth--gnawed at it thoughtfully--and said no more.
"Yes, sir?" persisted Mrs. Lecount.
"The first thing is--"
"The first thing is, to--to make some provision for You?"
He spoke the last words in a tone of plaintive interrogation--as if all hope of being met by a magnanimous refusal had not deserted him even yet. Mrs. Lecount enlightened his mind on this point, without a moment's loss of time.
"Thank you, Mr. Noel," she said, with the tone and manner of a woman who was not acknowledging a favor, but receiving a right.
He took another bite at the quill. The perspiration began to appear on his face.
"The difficulty is," he remarked, "to say how much."
"Your lamented father, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "met that difficulty (if you remember) at the time of his last illness?"
"I don't remember," said Noel Vanstone, doggedly.
"You were on one side of his bed, sir, and I was on the other. We were vainly trying to persuade him to make his will. After telling us he would wait and make his will when he was well again, he looked round at me, and said some kind and feeling words which my memory will treasure to my dying day. Have you forgotten those words, Mr. Noel?"
"Yes," said Mr. Noel, without hesitation.
"In my present situation, sir," retorted Mrs. Lecount, "delicacy forbids me to improve your memory."
She looked at her watch, and relapsed into silence. He clinched his hands, and writhed from side to side of his chair in an agony of indecision. Mrs. Lecount passively refused to take the slightest notice of him.
"What should you say--?" he began, and suddenly stopped again.
"What should you say to--a thousand pounds?"
Mrs. Lecount rose from her chair, and looked him full in the face, with the majestic indignation of an outraged woman.
"After the service I have rendered you to-day, Mr. Noel," she said, "I have at least earned a claim on your respect, if I have earned nothing more. I wish you good-morning."
"Two thousand!" cried Noel Vanstone, with the courage of despair.
Mrs. Lecount folded up her papers and hung her traveling-bag over her arm in contemptuous silence.
Mrs. Lecount moved with impenetrable dignity from the table to the door.
Mrs. Lecount gathered her shawl round her with a shudder, and opened the door.
He clasped his hands, and wrung them at her in a frenzy of rage and suspense. "Five thousand" was the death-cry of his pecuniary suicide.
Mrs. Lecount softly shut the door again, and came back a step.
"Free of legacy duty, sir?" she inquired.
Mrs. Lecount turned on her heel and opened the door again.
Mrs. Lecount came back, and resumed her place at the table as if nothing had happened.
"Five thousand pounds, free of legacy duty, was the sum, sir, which your father's grateful regard promised me in his will," she said, quietly. "If you choose to exert your memory, as you have not chosen to exert it yet, your memory will tell you that I speak the truth. I accept your filial performance of your father's promise, Mr. Noel--and there I stop. I scorn to take a mean advantage of my position toward you; I scorn to grasp anything from your fears. You are protected by my respect for myself, and for the Illustrious Name I bear. You are welcome to all that I have done, and to all that I have suffered in your service. The widow of Professor Lecompte, sir, takes what is justly hers--and takes no more!"
As she spoke those words, the traces of sickness seemed, for the moment, to disappear from her face; her eyes shone with a steady inner light; all the woman warmed and brightened in the radiance of her own triumph--the triumph, trebly won, of carrying her point, of vindicating her integrity, and of matching Magdalen's incorruptible self-denial on Magdalen's own ground.
"When you are yourself again, sir, we will proceed. Let us wait a little first."
She gave him time to compose himself; and then, after first looking at her Draft, dictated the second paragraph of the will, in these terms:
"I give and bequeath to Madame Virginie Lecompte (widow of Professor Lecompte, late of Zurich) the sum of Five Thousand Pounds, free of Legacy Duty. And, in making this bequest, I wish to place it on record that I am not only expressing my own sense of Madame Lecompte's attachment and fidelity in the capacity of my housekeeper, but that I also believe myself to be executing the intentions of my deceased father, who, but for the circumstance of his dying intestate, would have left Madame Lecompte, in his will, the same token of grateful regard for her services which I now leave her in mine."
"Have you written the last words, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount leaned across the table and offered Noel Vanstone her hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Noel," she said. "The five thousand pounds is the acknowledgment on your father's side of what I have done for him. The words in the will are the acknowledgment on yours."
A faint smile flickered over his face for the first time. It comforted him, on reflection, to think that matters might have been worse. There was balm for his wounded spirit in paying the debt of gratitude by a sentence not negotiable at his banker's. Whatever his father might have done, he had got Lecount a bargain, after all!
"A little more writing, sir," resumed Mrs. Lecount, "and your painful but necessary duty will be performed. The trifling matter of my legacy being settled, we may come to the important question that is left. The future direction of a large fortune is now waiting your word of command. To whom is it to go?"
He began to writhe again in his chair. Even under the all-powerful fascination of his wife the parting with his money on paper had not been accomplished without a pang. He had endured the pang; he had resigned himself to the sacrifice. And now here was the dreaded ordeal again, awaiting him mercilessly for the second time!
"Perhaps it may assist your decision, sir, if I repeat a question which I have put to you already," observed Mrs. Lecount. "In the will that you made under your wife's influence, to whom did you leave the surplus money which remained at your own disposal?"
There was no harm in answering the question now. He acknowledged that he had left the money to his cousin George.
"You could have done nothing better, Mr. Noel; and you can do nothing better now," said Mrs. Lecount. "Mr. George and his two sisters are your only relations left. One of those sisters is an incurable invalid, with more than money enough already for all the wants which her affliction allows her to feel. The other is the wife of a man even richer than yourself. To leave the money to these sisters is to waste it. To leave the money to their brother George is to give your cousin exactly the assistance which he will want when he one day inherits his uncle's dilapidated house and his uncle's impoverished estate. A will which names the admiral your executor and Mr. George your heir is the right will for you to make. It does honor to the claims of friendship, and it does justice to the claims of blood."
She spoke warmly; for she spoke with a grateful remembrance of all that she herself owed to the hospitality of St. Crux. Noel Vanstone took up another pen and began to strip the second quill of its feathers as he had stripped the first.
"Yes," he said, reluctantly, "I suppose George must have it--I suppose George has the principal claim on me." He hesitated: he looked at the door, he looked at the window, as if he longed to make his escape by one way or the other. "Oh, Lecount," he cried, piteously, "it's such a large fortune! Let me wait a little before I leave it to anybody."
To his surprise, Mrs. Lecount at once complied with this characteristic request.
"I wish you to wait, sir," she replied. "I have something important to say, before you add another line to your will. A little while since, I told you there was a second necessity connected with your present situation, which had not been provided for yet, but which must be provided for, when the time came. The time has come now. You have a serious difficulty to meet and conquer before you can leave your fortune to your cousin George."
"What difficulty?" he asked.
Mrs. Lecount rose from her chair without answering, stole to the door, and suddenly threw it open. No one was listening outside; the passage was a solitude, from one end to the other.
"I distrust all servants," she said, returning to her place--"your servants particularly. Sit closer, Mr. Noel. What I have now to say to you must be heard by no living creature but ourselves."
THERE was a pause of a few minutes while Mrs. Lecount opened the second of the two papers which lay before her on the table, and refreshed her memory by looking it rapidly through. This done, she once more addressed herself to Noel Vanstone, carefully lowering her voice, so as to render it inaudible to any one who might be listening in the passage outside.
"I must beg your permission, sir," she began, "to return to the subject of your wife. I do so most unwillingly; and I promise you that what I have now to say about her shall be said, for your sake and for mine, in the fewest words. What do we know of this woman, Mr. Noel--judging her by her own confession when she came to us in the character of Miss Garth, and by her own acts afterward at Aldborough? We know that, if death had not snatched your father out of her reach, she was ready with her plot to rob him of the Combe-Raven money. We know that, when you inherited the money in your turn, she was ready with her plot to rob you. We know how she carried that plot through to the end; and we know that nothing but your death is wanted, at this moment, to crown her rapacity and her deception with success. We are sure of these things. We are sure that she is young, bold, and clever--that she has neither doubts, scruples, nor pity--and that she possesses the personal qualities which men in general (quite incomprehensibly to me!) are weak enough to admire. These are not fancies, Mr. Noel, but facts; you know them as well as I do."
He made a sign in the affirmative, and Mrs. Lecount went on:
"Keep in your mind what I have said of the past, sir, and now look with me to the future. I hope and trust you have a long life still before you; but let us, for the moment only, suppose the case of your death--your death leaving this will behind you, which gives your fortune to your cousin George. I am told there is an office in London in which copies of all wills must be kept. Any curious stranger who chooses to pay a shilling for the privilege may enter that office, and may read any will in the place at his or her discretion. Do you see what I am coming to, Mr. Noel? Your disinherited widow pays her shilling, and reads your will. Your disinherited widow sees that the Combe-Raven money, which has gone from your father to you, goes next from you to Mr. George Bartram. What is the certain end of that discovery? The end is, that you leave to your cousin and your friend the legacy of this woman's vengeance and this woman's deceit--vengeance made more resolute, deceit made more devilish than ever, by her exasperation at her own failure. What is your cousin George? He is a generous, unsuspicious man; incapable of deceit himself, and fearing no deception in others. Leave him at the mercy of your wife's unscrupulous fascinations and your wife's unfathomable deceit, and I see the end as certainly as I see you sitting there! She will blind his eyes, as she blinded yours; and, in spite of you, in spite of me, she will have the money!"
She stopped, and left her last words time to gain their hold on his mind. The circumstances had been stated so clearly, the conclusion from them had been so plainly drawn, that he seized her meaning without an effort, and seized it at once.
"I see!" he said, vindictively clinching his hands. "I understand, Lecount! She shan't have a farthing. What shall I do? Shall I leave the money to the admiral?" He paused, and considered a little. "No," he resumed; "there's the same danger in leaving it to the admiral that there is in leaving it to George."
"There is no danger, Mr. Noel, if you take my advice."
"What is your advice?"
"Follow your own idea, sir. Take the pen in hand again, and leave the money to Admiral Bartram."
He mechanically dipped the pen in the ink, and then hesitated.
"You shall know where I am leading you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "before you sign your will. In the meantime, let us gain every inch of ground we can, as we go on. I want the will to be all written out before we advance a single step beyond it. Begin your third paragraph, Mr. Noel, under the lines which leave me my legacy of five thousand pounds."
She dictated the last momentous sentence of the will (from the rough draft in her own possession) in these words:
"The whole residue of my estate, after payment of my burial expenses and my lawful debts, I give and bequeath to Rear-Admiral Arthur Everard Bartram, my Executor aforesaid; to be by him applied to such uses as he may think fit.
"Signed, sealed, and delivered, this third day of November, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, by Noel Vanstone, the within-named testator, as and for his last Will and Testament, in the presence of us--"
"Is that all?" asked Noel Vanstone, in astonishment.
"That is enough, sir, to bequeath your fortune to the admiral; and therefore that is all. Now let us go back to the case which we have supposed already. Your widow pays her shilling, and sees this will. There is the Combe-Raven money left to Admiral Bartram, with a declaration in plain words that it is his, to use as he likes. When she sees this, what does she do? She sets her trap for the admiral. He is a bachelor, and he is an old man. Who is to protect him against the arts of this desperate woman? Protect him yourself, sir, with a few more strokes of that pen which has done such wonders already. You have left him this legacy in your will--which your wife sees. Take the legacy away again, in a letter--which is a dead secret between the admiral and you. Put the will and the letter under one cover, and place them in the admiral's possession, with your written directions to him to break the seal on the day of your death. Let the will say what it says now; and let the letter (which is your secret and his) tell him the truth. Say that, in leaving him your fortune, you leave it with the request that he will take his legacy with one hand from you, and give it with the other to his nephew George. Tell him that your trust in this matter rests solely on your confidence in his honor, and on your belief in his affectionate remembrance of your father and yourself. You have known the admiral since you were a boy. He has his little whims and oddities; but he is a gentleman from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot; and he is utterly incapable of proving false to a trust in his honor, reposed by his dead friend. Meet the difficulty boldly, by such a stratagem as this; and you save these two helpless men from your wife's snare, one by means of the other. Here, on one side, is your will, which gives the fortune to the admiral, and sets her plotting accordingly. And there, on the other side, is your letter, which privately puts the money into the nephew's hands!"
The malicious dexterity of this combination was exactly the dexterity which Noel Vanstone was most fit to appreciate. He tried to express his approval and admiration in words. Mrs. Lecount held up her hand warningly and closed his lips.
"Wait, sir, before you express your opinion," she went on. "Half the difficulty is all that we have conquered yet. Let us say, the admiral has made the use of your legacy which you have privately requested him to make of it. Sooner or later, however well the secret may be kept, your wife will discover the truth. What follows that discovery! She lays siege to Mr. George. All you have done is to leave him the money by a roundabout way. There he is, after an interval of time, as much at her mercy as if you had openly mentioned him in your will. What is the remedy for this? The remedy is to mislead her, if we can, for the second time--to set up an obstacle between her and the money, for the protection of your cousin George. Can you guess for yourself, Mr. Noel, what is the most promising obstacle we can put in her way?"
He shook his head. Mrs. Lecount smiled, and startled him into close attention by laying her hand on his arm.
"Put a Woman in her way, sir!" she whispered in her wiliest tones. "We don't believe in that fascinating beauty of hers--whatever you may do. Our lips don't burn to kiss those smooth cheeks. Our arms don't long to be round that supple waist. We see through her smiles and her graces, and her stays and her padding--she can't fascinate us! Put a woman in her way, Mr. Noel! Not a woman in my helpless situation, who is only a servant, but a woman with the authority and the jealousy of a Wife. Make it a condition, in your letter to the admiral, that if Mr. George is a bachelor at the time of your death, he shall marry within a certain time afterward, or he shall not have the legacy. Suppose he remains single in spite of your condition, who is to have the money then? Put a woman in your wife's way, sir, once more--and leave the fortune, in that case, to the married sister of your cousin George."
She paused. Noel Vanstone again attempted to express his opinion, and again Mrs. Lecount's hand extinguished him in silence.
"If you approve, Mr. Noel," she said, "I will take your approval for granted. If you object, I will meet your objection before it is out of your mouth. You may say: Suppose this condition is sufficient to answer the purpose, why hide it in a private letter to the admiral? Why not openly write it down, with my cousin's name, in the will? Only for one reason, sir. Only because the secret way is the sure way, with such a woman as your wife. The more secret you can keep your intentions, the more time you force her to waste in finding them out for herself. That time which she loses is time gained from her treachery by the admiral--time gained by Mr. George (if he is still a bachelor) for his undisturbed choice of a lady--time gained, for her own security, by the object of his choice, who might otherwise be the first object of your wife's suspicion and your wife's hostility. Remember the bottle we have discovered upstairs; and keep this desperate woman ignorant, and therefore harmless, as long as you can. There is my advice, Mr. Noel, in the fewest and plainest words. What do you say, sir? Am I almost as clever in my way as your friend Mr. Bygrave? Can I, too, conspire a little, when the object of my conspiracy is to assist your wishes and to protect your friends?"
Permitted the use of his tongue at last, Noel Vanstone's admiration of Mrs. Lecount expressed itself in terms precisely similar to those which he had used on a former occasion, in paying his compliments to Captain Wragge. "What a head you have got!" were the grateful words which he had once spoken to Mrs. Lecount's bitterest enemy. "What a head you have got!" were the grateful words which he now spoke again to Mrs. Lecount herself. So do extremes meet; and such is sometimes the all-embracing capacity of the approval of a fool!
"Allow my head, sir, to deserve the compliment which you have paid to it," said Mrs. Lecount. "The letter to the admiral is not written yet. Your will there is a body without a soul--an Adam without an Eve--until the letter is completed and laid by its side. A little more dictation on my part, a little more writing on yours, and our work is done. Pardon me. The letter will be longer than the will; we must have larger paper than the note-paper this time."
The writing-case was searched, and some letter paper was found in it of the size required. Mrs. Lecount resumed her dictation; and Noel Vanstone resumed his pen.
"Baliol Cottage, Dumfries,
"DEAR ADMIRAL BARTRAM--When you open my Will (in which you are named my sole executor), you will find that I have bequeathed the whole residue of my estate--after payment of one legacy of five thousand pounds--to yourself. It is the purpose of my letter to tell you privately what the object is for which I have left you the fortune which is now placed in your hands.
"I beg you to consider this large legacy as intended, under certain conditions, to be given by you to your nephew George. If your nephew is married at the time of my death, and if his wife is living, I request you to put him at once in possession of your legacy; accompanying it by the expression of my desire (which I am sure he will consider a sacred and binding obligation on him) that he will settle the money on his wife--and on his children, if he has any. If, on the other hand, he is unmarried at the time of my death, or if he is a widower--in either of those cases, I make it a condition of his receiving the legacy, that he shall be married within the period of--"
Mrs. Lecount laid down the Draft letter from which she had been dictating thus far, and informed Noel Vanstone by a sign that his pen might rest.
"We have come to the question of time, sir," she observed. "How long will you give your cousin to marry, if he is single, or a widower, at the time of your death?"
"Shall I give him a year?" inquired Noel Vanstone.
"If we had nothing to consider but the interests of Propriety," said Mrs. Lecount, "I should say a year too, sir--especially if Mr. George should happen to be a widower. But we have your wife to consider, as well as the interests of Propriety. A year of delay, between your death and your cousin's marriage, is a dangerously long time to leave the disposal of your fortune in suspense. Give a determined woman a year to plot and contrive in, and there is no saying what she may not do."
"Six months?" suggested Noel Vanstone.
"Six months, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "is the preferable time of the two. A six months' interval from the day of your death is enough for Mr. George. You look discomposed, sir; what is the matter?"
"I wish you wouldn't talk so much about my death," he broke out, petulantly. "I don't like it! I hate the very sound of the word!"
Mrs. Lecount smiled resignedly, and referred to her Draft.
"I see the word 'decease' written here," she remarked. "Perhaps, Mr. Noel, you would prefer it?"
"Yes," he said; "I prefer 'Decease.' It doesn't sound so dreadful as 'Death.'"
"Let us go on with the letter, sir."
She resumed her dictation, as follows:
".....in either of those cases, I make it a condition of his receiving the legacy that he shall be married within the period of Six calendar months from the day of my decease; that the woman he marries shall not be a widow; and that his marriage shall be a marriage by Banns, publicly celebrated in the parish church of Ossory--where he has been known from his childhood, and where the family and circumstances of his future wife are likely to be the subject of public interest and inquiry."
"This," said Mrs. Lecount, quietly looking up from the Draft, "is to protect Mr. George, sir, in case the same trap is set for him which was successfully set for you. She will not find her false character and her false name fit quite so easily next time--no, not even with Mr. Bygrave to help her! Another dip of ink, Mr. Noel; let us write the next paragraph. Are you ready?"
Mrs. Lecount went on.
"If your nephew fails to comply with these conditions--that is to say, if being either a bachelor or a widower at the time of my decease, he fails to marry in all respects as I have here instructed him to marry, within Six calendar months from that time--it is my desire that he shall not receive the legacy, or any part of it. I request you, in the case here supposed, to pass him over altogether; and to give the fortune left you in my will to his married sister, Mrs. Girdlestone.
"Having now put you in possession of my motives and intentions, I come to the next question which it is necessary to consider. If, when you open this letter, your nephew is an unmarried man, it is clearly indispensable that he should know of the conditions here imposed on him, as soon, if possible, as you know of them yourself. Are you, under these circumstances, freely to communicate to him what I have here written to you? Or are you to leave him under the impression that no such private expression of my wishes as this is in existence; and are you to state all the conditions relating to his marriage, as if they emanated entirely from yourself?
"If you will adopt this latter alternative, you will add one more to the many obligations under which your friendship has placed me.
"I have serious reason to believe that the possession of my money, and the discovery of any peculiar arrangements relating to the disposal of it, will be objects (after my decease) of the fraud and conspiracy of an unscrupulous person. I am therefore anxious--for your sake, in the first place--that no suspicion of the existence of this letter should be conveyed to the mind of the person to whom I allude. And I am equally desirous--for Mrs. Girdlestone's sake, in the second place--that this same person should be entirely ignorant that the legacy will pass into Mrs. Girdlestone's possession, if your nephew is not married in the given time. I know George's easy, pliable disposition; I dread the attempts that will be made to practice on it; and I feel sure that the prudent course will be, to abstain from trusting him with secrets, the rash revelation of which might be followed by serious, and even dangerous results.
"State the conditions, therefore, to your nephew, as if they were your own. Let him think they have been suggested to your mind by the new responsibilities imposed on you as a man of property, by your position in my will, and by your consequent anxiety to provide for the perpetuation of the family name. If these reasons are not sufficient to satisfy him, there can be no objection to your referring him, for any further explanations which he may desire, to his wedding-day.
"I have done. My last wishes are now confided to you, in implicit reliance on your honor, and on your tender regard for the memory of your friend. Of the miserable circumstances which compel me to write as I have written here, I say nothing. You will hear of them, if my life is spared, from my own lips--for you will be the first friend whom I shall consult in my difficulty and distress. Keep this letter strictly secret, and strictly in your own possession, until my requests are complied with. Let no human being but yourself know where it is, on any pretense whatever.
"Believe me, dear Admiral Bartram, affectionately yours,
"Have you signed, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Let me look the letter over, if you please, before we seal it up."
She read the letter carefully. In Noel Vanstone's close, cramped handwriting, it filled two pages of letter-paper, and ended at the top of the third page. Instead of using an envelope, Mrs. Lecount folded it, neatly and securely, in the old-fashioned way. She lit the taper in the ink-stand, and returned the letter to the writer.
"Seal it, Mr. Noel," she said, "with your own hand, and your own seal." She extinguished the taper, and handed him the pen again. "Address the letter, sir," she proceeded, "to Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex. Now, add these words, and sign them, above the address: To be kept in your own possession, and to be opened by yourself only, on the day of my death--or 'Decease,' if you prefer it--Noel Vanstone. Have you done? Let me look at it again. Quite right in every particular. Accept my congratulations, sir. If your wife has not plotted her last plot for the Combe-Raven money, it is not your fault, Mr. Noel--and not mine!"
Finding his attention released by the completion of the letter, Noel Vanstone reverted at once to purely personal considerations. "There is my packing-up to be thought of now," he said. "I can't go away without my warm things."
"Excuse me, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "there is the Will to be signed first; and there must be two persons found to witness your signature." She looked out of the front window, and saw the carriage waiting at the door. "The coachman will do for one of the witnesses," she said. "He is in respectable service at Dumfries, and he can be found if he happens to be wanted. We must have one of your own servants, I suppose, for the other witness. They are all detestable women; but the cook is the least ill-looking of the three. Send for the cook, sir; while I go out and call the coachman. When we have got our witnesses here, you have only to speak to them in these words: 'I have a document here to sign, and I wish you to write your names on it, as witnesses of my signature.' Nothing more, Mr. Noel! Say those few words in your usual manner--and, when the signing is over, I will see myself to your packing-up, and your warm things."
She went to the front door, and summoned the coachman to the parlor. On her return, she found the cook already in the room. The cook looked mysteriously offended, and stared without intermission at Mrs. Lecount. In a minute more the coachman--an elderly man--came in. He was preceded by a relishing odor of whisky; but his head was Scotch; and nothing but his odor betrayed him.
"I have a document here to sign," said Noel Vanstone, repeating his lesson; "and I wish you to write your names on it, as witnesses of my signature."
The coachman looked at the will. The cook never removed her eyes from Mrs. Lecount.
"Ye'll no object, sir," said the coachman, with the national caution showing itself in every wrinkle on his face--"ye'll no object, sir, to tell me, first, what the Doecument may be?"
Mrs. Lecount interposed before Noel Vanstone's indignation could express itself in words.
"You must tell the man, sir, that this is your Will," she said. "When he witnesses your signature, he can see as much for himself if he looks at the top of the page."
"Ay, ay," said the coachman, looking at the top of the page immediately. "His last Will and Testament. Hech, sirs! there's a sair confronting of Death in a Doecument like yon! A' flesh is grass," continued the coachman, exhaling an additional puff of whisky, and looking up devoutly at the ceiling. "Tak' those words in connection with that other Screepture: Many are ca'ad, but few are chosen. Tak' that again, in connection with Rev'lations, Chapter the First, verses One to Fefteen. Lay the whole to heart; and what's your Walth, then? Dross, sirs! And your body? (Screepture again.) Clay for the potter! And your life? (Screepture once more.) The Breeth o' your Nostrils!"
The cook listened as if the cook was at church: but she never removed her eyes from Mrs. Lecount.
"You had better sign, sir. This is apparently some custom prevalent in Dumfries during the transaction of business," said Mrs. Lecount, resignedly. "The man means well, I dare say."
She added those last words in a soothing tone, for she saw that Noel Vanstone's indignation was fast merging into alarm. The coachman's outburst of exhortation seemed to have inspired him with fear, as well as disgust.
He dipped the pen in the ink, and signed the Will without uttering a word. The coachman (descending instantly from Theology to Business) watched the signature with the most scrupulous attention; and signed his own name as witness, with an implied commentary on the proceeding, in the form of another puff of whisky, exhaled through the medium of a heavy sigh. The cook looked away from Mrs. Lecount with an effort--signed her name in a violent hurry--and looked back again with a start, as if she expected to see a loaded pistol (produced in the interval) in the housekeeper's hands. "Thank you," said Mrs. Lecount, in her friendliest manner. The cook shut up her lips aggressively and looked at her master. "You may go!" said her master. The cook coughed contemptuously, and went.
"We shan't keep you long," said Mrs. Lecount, dismissing the coachman. "In half an hour, or less, we shall be ready for the journey back."
The coachman's austere countenance relaxed for the first time. He smiled mysteriously, and approached Mrs. Lecount on tiptoe.
"Ye'll no forget one thing, my leddy," he said, with the most ingratiating politeness. "Ye'll no forget the witnessing as weel as the driving, when ye pay me for my day's wark!" He laughed with guttural gravity; and, leaving his atmosphere behind him, stalked out of the room.
"Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, as soon as the coachman closed the door, "did I hear you tell that man we should be ready in half an hour?"
"Are you blind?"
He asked the question with an angry stamp of his foot. Mrs. Lecount looked at him in astonishment.
"Can't you see the brute is drunk?" he went on, more and more irritably. "Is my life nothing? Am I to be left at the mercy of a drunken coachman? I won't trust that man to drive me, for any consideration under heaven! I'm surprised you could think of it, Lecount."
"The man has been drinking, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "It is easy to see and to smell that. But he is evidently used to drinking. If he is sober enough to walk quite straight--which he certainly does--and to sign his name in an excellent handwriting--which you may see for yourself on the Will--I venture to think he is sober enough to drive us to Dumfries."
"Nothing of the sort! You're a foreigner, Lecount; you don't understand these people. They drink whisky from morning to night. Whisky is the strongest spirit that's made; whisky is notorious for its effect on the brain. I tell you, I won't run the risk. I never was driven, and I never will be driven, by anybody but a sober man."
"Must I go back to Dumfries by myself, sir?"
"And leave me here? Leave me alone in this house after what has happened? How do I know my wife may not come back to-night? How do I know her journey is not a blind to mislead me? Have you no feeling, Lecount? Can you leave me in my miserable situation--?" He sank into a chair and burst out crying over his own idea, before he had completed the expression of it in words. "Too bad!" he said, with his handkerchief over his face--"too bad!"
It was impossible not to pity him. If ever mortal was pitiable, he was the man. He had broken down at last, under the conflict of violent emotions which had been roused in him since the morning. The effort to follow Mrs. Lecount along the mazes of intricate combination through which she had steadily led the way, had upheld him while that effort lasted: the moment it was at an end, he dropped. The coachman had hastened a result--of which the coachman was far from being the cause.
"You surprise me--you distress me, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "I entreat you to compose yourself. I will stay here, if you wish it, with pleasure--I will stay here to-night, for your sake. You want rest and quiet after this dreadful day. The coachman shall be instantly sent away, Mr. Noel. I will give him a note to the landlord of the hotel, and the carriage shall come back for us to-morrow morning, with another man to drive it."
The prospect which those words presented cheered him. He wiped his eyes, and kissed Mrs. Lecount's hand. "Yes!" he said, faintly; "send the coachman away--and you stop here. You good creature! You excellent Lecount! Send the drunken brute away, and come back directly. We will be comfortable by the fire, Lecount--and have a nice little dinner--and try to make it like old times." His weak voice faltered; he returned to the fire side, and melted into tears again under the pathetic influence of his own idea.
Mrs. Lecount left him for a minute to dismiss the coachman. When she returned to the parlor she found him with his hand on the bell.
"What do you want, sir?" she asked.
"I want to tell the servants to get your room ready," he answered. "I wish to show you every attention, Lecount."
"You are all kindness, Mr. Noel; but wait one moment. It may be well to have these papers put out of the way before the servant comes in again. If you will place the Will and the Sealed Letter together in one envelope--and if you will direct it to the admiral--I will take care that the inclosure so addressed is safely placed in his own hands. Will you come to the table, Mr. Noel, only for one minute more?"
No! He was obstinate; he refused to move from the fire; he was sick and tired of writing: he wished he had never been born, and he loathed the sight of pen and ink. All Mrs. Lecount's patience and all Mrs. Lecount's persuasion were required to induce him to write the admiral's address for the second time. She only succeeded by bringing the blank envelope to him upon the paper-case, and putting it coaxingly on his lap. He grumbled, he even swore, but he directed the envelope at last, in these terms: "To Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. Favored by Mrs. Lecount." With that final act of compliance his docility came to an end. He refused, in the fiercest terms, to seal the envelope. There was no need to press this proceeding on him. His seal lay ready on the table, and it mattered nothing whether he used it, or whether a person in his confidence used it for him. Mrs. Lecount sealed the envelope, with its two important inclosures placed safely inside.
She opened her traveling-bag for the last time, and pausing for a moment before she put the sealed packet away, looked at it with a triumph too deep for words. She smiled as she dropped it into the bag. Not the shadow of a suspicion that the Will might contain superfluous phrases and expressions which no practical lawyer would have used; not the vestige of a doubt whether the Letter was quite as complete a document as a practical lawyer might have made it, troubled her mind. In blind reliance--born of her hatred for Magdalen and her hunger for revenge--in blind reliance on her own abilities and on her friend's law, she trusted the future implicitly to the promise of the morning's work.
As she locked her traveling-bag Noel Vanstone rang the bell. On this occasion, the summons was answered by Louisa.
"Get the spare room ready," said her master; "this lady will sleep here to-night. And air my warm things; this lady and I are going away to-morrow morning."
The civil and submissive Louisa received her orders in sullen silence--darted an angry look at her master's impenetrable guest--and left the room. The servants were evidently all attached to their mistress's interests, and were all of one opinion on the subject of Mrs. Lecount.
"That's done!" said Noel Vanstone, with a sigh of infinite relief. "Come and sit down, Lecount. Let's be comfortable--let's gossip over the fire."
Mrs. Lecount accepted the invitation and drew an easy-chair to his side. He took her hand with a confidential tenderness, and held it in his while the talk went on. A stranger, looking in through the window, would have taken them for mother and son, and would have thought to himself: "What a happy home!"
The gossip, led by Noel Vanstone, consisted as usual of an endless string of questions, and was devoted entirely to the subject of himself and his future prospects. Where would Lecount take him to when they went away the next morning? Why to London? Why should he be left in London, while Lecount went on to St. Crux to give the admiral the Letter and the Will? Because his wife might follow him, if he went to the admiral's? Well, there was something in that. And because he ought to be safely concealed from her, in some comfortable lodging, near Mr. Loscombe? Why near Mr. Loscombe? Ah, yes, to be sure--to know what the law would do to help him. Would the law set him free from the Wretch who had deceived him? How tiresome of Lecount not to know! Would the law say he had gone and married himself a second time, because he had been living with the Wretch, like husband and wife, in Scotland? Anything that publicly assumed to be a marriage was a marriage (he had heard) in Scotland. How excessively tiresome of Lecount to sit there and say she knew nothing about it! Was he to stay long in London by himself, with nobody but Mr. Loscombe to speak to? Would Lecount come back to him as soon as she had put those important papers in the admiral's own hands? Would Lecount consider herself still in his service? The good Lecount! the excellent Lecount! And after all the law-business was over--what then? Why not leave this horrid England and go abroad again? Why not go to France, to some cheap place near Paris? Say Versailles? say St. Germain? In a nice little French house--cheap? With a nice French bonne to cook--who wouldn't waste his substance in the grease-pot? With a nice little garden--where he could work himself, and get health, and save the expense of keeping a gardener? It wasn't a bad idea. And it seemed to promise well for the future--didn't it, Lecount?
So he ran on--the poor weak creature! the abject, miserable little man!
As the darkness gathered at the close of the short November day he began to grow drowsy--his ceaseless questions came to an end at last--he fell asleep. The wind outside sang its mournful winter-song; the tramp of passing footsteps, the roll of passing wheels on the road ceased in dreary silence. He slept on quietly. The firelight rose and fell on his wizen little face and his nervous, drooping hands. Mrs. Lecount had not pitied him yet. She began to pity him now. Her point was gained; her interest in his will was secured; he had put his future life, of his own accord, under her fostering care--the fire was comfortable; the circumstances were favorable to the growth of Christian feeling. "Poor wretch!" said Mrs. Lecount, looking at him with a grave compassion--"poor wretch!"
The dinner-hour roused him. He was cheerful at dinner; he reverted to the idea of the cheap little house in France; he smirked and simpered; and talked French to Mrs. Lecount, while the house-maid and Louisa waited, turn and turn about, under protest. When dinner was over, he returned to his comfortable chair before the fire, and Mrs. Lecount followed him. He resumed the conversation--which meant, in his case, repeating his questions. But he was not so quick and ready with them as he had been earlier in the day. They began to flag--they continued, at longer and longer intervals--they ceased altogether. Toward nine o'clock he fell asleep again.
It was not a quiet sleep this time. He muttered, and ground his teeth, and rolled his head from side to side of the chair. Mrs. Lecount purposely made noise enough to rouse him. He woke, with a vacant eye and a flushed cheek. He walked about the room restlessly, with a new idea in his mind--the idea of writing a terrible letter; a letter of eternal farewell to his wife. How was it to be written? In what language should he express his feelings? The powers of Shakespeare himself would be unequal to the emergency! He had been the victim of an outrage entirely without parallel. A wretch had crept into his bosom! A viper had hidden herself at his fireside! Where could words be found to brand her with the infamy she deserved? He stopped, with a suffocating sense in him of his own impotent rage--he stopped, and shook his fist tremulously in the empty air.
Mrs. Lecount interfered with an energy and a resolution inspired by serious alarm. After the heavy strain that had been laid on his weakness already, such an outbreak of passionate agitation as was now bursting from him might be the destruction of his rest that night and of his strength to travel the next day. With infinite difficulty, with endless promises to return to the subject, and to advise him about it in the morning, she prevailed on him, at last, to go upstairs and compose himself for the night. She gave him her arm to assist him. On the way upstairs his attention, to her great relief, became suddenly absorbed by a new fancy. He remembered a certain warm and comfortable mixture of wine, eggs, sugar, and spices, which she had often been accustomed to make for him in former times, and which he thought he should relish exceedingly before he went to bed. Mrs. Lecount helped him on with his dressing-gown--then went down-stairs again to make his warm drink for him at the parlor fire.
She rang the bell and ordered the necessary ingredients for the mixture, in Noel Vanstone's name. The servants, with the small ingenious malice of their race, brought up the materials one by one, and kept her waiting for each of them as long as possible. She had got the saucepan, and the spoon, and the tumbler, and the nutmeg-grater, and the wine--but not the egg, the sugar, or the spices--when she heard him above, walking backward and forward noisily in his room; exciting himself on the old subject again, beyond all doubt.
She went upstairs once more; but he was too quick for her--he heard her outside the door; and when she opened it, she found him in his chair, with his back cunningly turned toward her. Knowing him too well to attempt any remonstrance, she merely announced the speedy arrival of the warm drink and turned to leave the room. On her way out, she noticed a table in a corner, with an inkstand and a paper-case on it, and tried, without attracting his attention, to take the writing materials away. He was too quick for her again. He asked, angrily, if she doubted his promise. She put the writing materials back on the table, for fear of offending him, and left the room.
In half an hour more the mixture was ready. She carried it up to him, foaming and fragrant, in a large tumbler. "He will sleep after this," she thought to herself, as she opened the door; "I have made it stronger than usual on purpose."
He had changed his place. He was sitting at the table in the corner--still with his back to her, writing. This time his quick ears had not served him; this time she caught him in the fact.
"Oh, Mr. Noel! Mr. Noel!" she said, reproachfully, "what is your promise worth?"
He made no answer. He was sitting with his left elbow on the table, and with his head resting on his left hand. His right hand lay back on the paper, with the pen lying loose in it. "Your drink, Mr. Noel," she said, in a kinder tone, feeling unwilling to offend him. He took no notice of her. She went to the table to rouse him. Was he deep in thought?
He was dead!
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
From Mrs. Noel Vanstone to Mr. Loscombe.
"Park Terrace, St. John's Wood, November 5th.
"DEAR SIR--I came to London yesterday for the purpose of seeing a relative, leaving Mr. Vanstone at Baliol Cottage, and proposing to return to him in the course of the week. I reached London late last night, and drove to these lodgings, having written to secure accommodation beforehand.
"This morning's post has brought me a letter from my own maid, whom I left at Baliol Cottage, with instructions to write to me if anything extraordinary took place in my absence. You will find the girl's letter inclosed in this. I have had some experience of her; and I believe she is to be strictly depended on to tell the truth.
"I purposely abstain from troubling you by any useless allusions to myself. When you have read my maid's letter, you will understand the shock which the news contained in it has caused me. I can only repeat that I place implicit belief in her statement. I am firmly persuaded that my husband's former housekeeper has found him out, has practiced on his weakness in my absence, and has prevailed on him to make another Will. From what I know of this woman, I feel no doubt that she has used her influence over Mr. Vanstone to deprive me, if possible, of all future interests in my husband's fortune.
"Under such circumstances as these, it is in the last degree important--for more reasons than I need mention here--that I should see Mr. Vanstone, and come to an explanation with him, at the earliest possible opportunity. You will find that my maid thoughtfully kept her letter open until the last moment before post-time--without, however, having any later news to give me than that Mrs. Lecount was to sleep at the cottage last night and that she and Mr. Vanstone were to leave together this morning. But for that last piece of intelligence, I should have been on my way back to Scotland before now. As it is, I cannot decide for myself what I ought to do next. My going back to Dumfries, after Mr. Vanstone has left it, seems like taking a journey for nothing--and my staying in London appears to be almost equally useless.
"Will you kindly advise me in this difficulty? I will come to you at Lincoln's Inn at any time this afternoon or to-morrow which you may appoint. My next few hours are engaged. As soon as this letter is dispatched, I am going to Kensington, with the object of ascertaining whether certain doubts I feel about the means by which Mrs. Lecount may have accomplished her discovery are well founded or not. If you will let me have your answer by return of post, I will not fail to get back to St. John's Wood in time to receive it. Believe me, dear sir, yours sincerely,
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Lincoln's Inn, November 5th.
"DEAR MADAM--Your letter and its inclosure have caused me great concern and surprise. Pressure of business allows me no hope of being able to see you either to-day or to-morrow morning. But if three o'clock to-morrow afternoon will suit you, at that hour you will find me at your service.
"I cannot pretend to offer a positive opinion until I know more of the particulars connected with this extraordinary business than I find communicated either in your letter or in your maid's. But with this reserve, I venture to suggest that your remaining in London until to-morrow may possibly lead to other results besides your consultation at my chambers. There is at least a chance that you or I may hear something further in this strange matter by the morning's post. I remain, dear madam, faithfully yours,
From Mrs. Noel Vanstone to Miss Garth.
"November 5th, Two o'Clock.
"I have just returned from Westmoreland House--after purposely leaving it in secret, and purposely avoiding you under your own roof. You shall know why I came, and why I went away. It is due to my remembrance of old times not to treat you like a stranger, although I can never again treat you like a friend.
"I set forth on the third from the North to London. My only object in taking this long journey was to see Norah. I had been suffering for many weary weeks past such remorse as only miserable women like me can feel. Perhaps the suffering weakened me; perhaps it roused some old forgotten tenderness--God knows!--I can't explain it; I can only tell you that I began to think of Norah by day, and to dream of Norah by night, till I was almost heartbroken. I have no better reason than this to give for running all the risks which I ran, and coming to London to see her. I don't wish to claim more for myself than I deserve; I don't wish to tell you I was the reformed and repenting creature whom you might have approved. I had only one feeling in me that I know of. I wanted to put my arms round Norah's neck, and cry my heart out on Norah's bosom. Childish enough, I dare say. Something might have come of it; nothing might have come of it--who knows?
"I had no means of finding Norah without your assistance. However you might disapprove of what I had done, I thought you would not refuse to help me to find my sister. When I lay down last night in my strange bed, I said to myself, 'I will ask Miss Garth, for my father's sake and my mother's sake, to tell me.' You don't know what a comfort I felt in that thought. How should you? What do good women like you know of miserable sinners like me? All you know is that you pray for us at church.
"Well, I fell asleep happily that night--for the first time since my marriage. When the morning came, I paid the penalty of daring to be happy only for one night. When the morning came, a letter came with it, which told me that my bitterest enemy on earth (you have meddled sufficiently with my affairs to know what enemy I mean) had revenged herself on me in my absence. In following the impulse which led me to my sister, I had gone to my ruin.
"The mischief was beyond all present remedy, when I received the news of it. Whatever had happened, whatever might happen, I made up my mind to persist in my resolution of seeing Norah before I did anything else. I suspected you of being concerned in the disaster which had overtaken me--because I felt positively certain at Aldborough that you and Mrs. Lecount had written to each other. But I never suspected Norah. If I lay on my death-bed at this moment I could say with a safe conscience I never suspected Norah.
"So I went this morning to Westmoreland House to ask you for my sister's address, and to acknowledge plainly that I suspected you of being again in correspondence with Mrs. Lecount.
"When I inquired for you at the door, they told me you had gone out, but that you were expected back before long. They asked me if I would see your sister, who was then in the school-room. I desired that your sister should on no account be disturbed: my business was not with her, but with you. I begged to be allowed to wait in a room by myself until you returned.
"They showed me into the double room on the ground-floor, divided by curtains--as it was when I last remember it. There was a fire in the outer division of the room, but none in the inner; and for that reason, I suppose, the curtains were drawn. The servant was very civil and attentive to me. I have learned to be thankful for civility and attention, and I spoke to her as cheerfully as I could. I said to her, 'I shall see Miss Garth here, as she comes up to the door, and I can beckon her in through the long window.' The servant said I could do so, if you came that way, but that you let yourself in sometimes with your own key by the back-garden gate; and if you did this, she would take care to let you know of my visit. I mention these trifles, to show you that there was no pre-meditated deceit in my mind when I came to the house.
"I waited a weary time, and you never came: I don't know whether my impatience made me think so, or whether the large fire burning made the room really as hot as I felt it to be--I only know that, after a while, I passed through the curtains into the inner room, to try the cooler atmosphere.
"I walked to the long window which leads into the back garden, to look out, and almost at the same time I heard the door opened--the door of the room I had just left, and your voice and the voice of some other woman, a stranger to me, talking. The stranger was one of the parlor-boarders, I dare say. I gathered from the first words you exchanged together, that you had met in the passage--she on her way downstairs, and you on your way in from the back garden. Her next question and your next answer informed me that this person was a friend of my sister's, who felt a strong interest in her, and who knew that you had just returned from a visit to Norah. So far, I only hesitated to show myself, because I shrank, in my painful situation, from facing a stranger. But when I heard my own name immediately afterward on your lips and on hers, then I purposely came nearer to the curtain between us, and purposely listened.
"A mean action, you will say? Call it mean, if you like. What better can you expect from such a woman as I am?
"You were always famous for your memory. There is no necessity for my repeating the words you spoke to your friend, and the words your friend spoke to you, hardly an hour since. When you read these lines, you will know, as well as I know, what those words told me. I ask for no particulars; I will take all your reasons and all your excuses for granted. It is enough for me to know that you and Mr. Pendril have been searching for me again, and that Norah is in the conspiracy this time, to reclaim me in spite of myself. It is enough for me to know that my letter to my sister has been turned into a trap to catch me, and that Mrs. Lecount's revenge has accomplished its object by means of information received from Norah's lips.
"Shall I tell you what I suffered when I heard these things? No; it would only be a waste of time to tell you. Whatever I suffer, I deserve it--don't I?
"I waited in that inner room--knowing my own violent temper, and not trusting myself to see you, after what I had heard--I waited in that inner room, trembling lest the servant should tell you of my visit before I could find an opportunity of leaving the house. No such misfortune happened. The servant, no doubt, heard the voices upstairs, and supposed that we had met each other in the passage. I don't know how long or how short a time it was before you left the room to go and take off your bonnet--you went, and your friend went with you. I raised the long window softly, and stepped into the back garden. The way by which you returned to the house was the way by which I left it. No blame attaches to the servant. As usual, where I am concerned, nobody is to blame but me.
"Time enough has passed now to quiet my mind a little. You know how strong I am? You remember how I used to fight against all my illnesses when I was a child? Now I am a woman, I fight against my miseries in the same way. Don't pity me, Miss Garth! Don't pity me!
"I have no harsh feeling against Norah. The hope I had of seeing her is a hope taken from me; the consolation I had in writing to her is a consolation denied me for the future. I am cut to the heart; but I have no angry feeling toward my sister. She means well, poor soul--I dare say she means well. It would distress her, if she knew what has happened. Don't tell her. Conceal my visit, and burn my letter.
"A last word to yourself and I have done:
"If I rightly understand my present situation, your spies are still searching for me to just as little purpose as they searched at York. Dismiss them--you are wasting your money to no purpose. If you discovered me to-morrow, what could you do? My position has altered. I am no longer the poor outcast girl, the vagabond public performer, whom you once hunted after. I have done what I told you I would do--I have made the general sense of propriety my accomplice this time. Do you know who I am? I am a respectable married woman, accountable for my actions to nobody under heaven but my husband. I have got a place in the world, and a name in the world, at last. Even the law, which is the friend of all you respectable people, has recognized my existence, and has become my friend too! The Archbishop of Canterbury gave me his license to be married, and the vicar of Aldborough performed the service. If I found your spies following me in the street, and if I chose to claim protection from them, the law would acknowledge my claim. You forget what wonders my wickedness has done for me. It has made Nobody's Child Somebody's Wife.
"If you will give these considerations their due weight; if you will exert your excellent common sense, I have no fear of being obliged to appeal to my newly-found friend and protector--the law. You will feel, by this time, that you have meddled with me at last to some purpose. I am estranged from Norah--I am discovered by my husband--I am defeated by Mrs. Lecount. You have driven me to the last extremity; you have strengthened me to fight the battle of my life with the resolution which only a lost and friendless woman can feel. Badly as your schemes have prospered, they have not proved totally useless after all!
"I have no more to say. If you ever speak about me to Norah, tell her that a day may come when she will see me again--the day when we two sisters have recovered our natural rights; the day when I put Norah's fortune into Norah's hand.
"Those are my last words. Remember them the next time you feel tempted to meddle with me again.
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Lincoln's Inn, November 6th.
"DEAR MADAM--This morning's post has doubtless brought you the same shocking news which it has brought to me. You must know by this time that a terrible affliction has befallen you--the affliction of your husband's sudden death.
"I am on the point of starting for the North, to make all needful inquiries, and to perform whatever duties I may with propriety undertake, as solicitor to the deceased gentleman. Let me earnestly recommend you not to follow me to Baliol Cottage, until I have had time to write to you first, and to give you such advice as I cannot, through ignorance of all the circumstances, pretend to offer now. You may rely on my writing, after my arrival in Scot-land, by the first post. I remain, dear madam, faithfully yours,
From Mr. Pendril to Miss Garth.
"Serle Street, November 6th.
"DEAR MISS GARTH--I return you Mrs. Noel Vanstone's letter. I can understand your mortification at the tone in which it is written, and your distress at the manner in which this unhappy woman has interpreted the conversation that she overheard at your house. I cannot honestly add that I lament what has happened. My opinion has never altered since the Combe-Raven time. I believe Mrs. Noel Vanstone to be one of the most reckless, desperate, and perverted women living; and any circumstances that estrange her from her sister are circumstances which I welcome, for her sister's sake.
"There cannot be a moment's doubt on the course you ought to follow in this matter. Even Mrs. Noel Vanstone herself acknowledges the propriety of sparing her sister additional and unnecessary distress. By all means, keep Miss Vanstone in ignorance of the visit to Kensington, and of the letter which has followed it. It would be not only unwise, but absolutely cruel, to enlighten her. If we had any remedy to apply, or even any hope to offer, we might feel some hesitation in keeping our secret. But there is no remedy, and no hope. Mrs. Noel Vanstone is perfectly justified in the view she takes of her own position. Neither you nor I can assert the smallest right to control her.
"I have already taken the necessary measures for putting an end to our useless inquiries. In a few days I will write to Miss Vanstone, and will do my best to tranquilize her mind on the subject of her sister. If I can find no sufficient excuse to satisfy her, it will be better she should think we have discovered nothing than that she should know the truth. Believe me most truly yours,
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Private."Lincoln's Inn, November 15th.
"DEAR MADAM--In compliance with your request, I now proceed to communicate to you in writing what (but for the calamity which has so recently befallen you) I should have preferred communicating by word of mouth. Be pleased to consider this letter as strictly confidential between yourself and me.
"I inclose, as you desire, a copy of the Will executed by your late husband on the third of this month. There can be no question of the genuineness of the original document. I protested, as a matter of form, against Admiral Bartram's solicitor assuming a position of authority at Baliol Cottage. But he took the position, nevertheless; acting as legal representative of the sole Executor under the second Will. I am bound to say I should have done the same myself in his place.
"The serious question follows, What can we do for the best in your interests? The Will executed under my professional superintendence, on the thirtieth of September last, is at present superseded and revoked by the second and later Will, executed on the third of November. Can we dispute this document?
"I doubt the possibility of disputing the new Will on the face of it. It is no doubt irregularly expressed; but it is dated, signed, and witnessed as the law directs; and the perfectly simple and straightforward provisions that it contains are in no respect, that I can see, technically open to attack.
"This being the case, can we dispute the Will on the ground that it has been executed when the Testator was not in a fit state to dispose of his own property? or when the Testator was subjected to undue and improper influence?
"In the first of these cases, the medical evidence would put an obstacle in our way. We cannot assert that previous illness had weakened the Testator's mind. It is clear that he died suddenly, as the doctors had all along declared he would die, of disease of the heart. He was out walking in his garden, as usual, on the day of his death; he ate a hearty dinner; none of the persons in his service noticed any change in him; he was a little more irritable with them than usual, but that was all. It is impossible to attack the state of his faculties: there is no case to go into court with, so far.
"Can we declare that he acted under undue influence; or, in plainer terms, under the influence of Mrs. Lecount?
"There are serious difficulties, again, in the way of taking this course. We cannot assert, for example, that Mrs. Lecount has assumed a place in the will which she has no fair claim to occupy. She has cunningly limited her own legacy, not only to what is fairly due her, but to what the late Mr. Michael Vanstone himself had the intention of leaving her. If I were examined on the subject, I should be compelled to acknowledge that I had heard him express this intention myself. It is only the truth to say that I have heard him express it more than once. There is no point of attack in Mrs. Lecount's legacy, and there is no point of attack in your late husband's choice of an executor. He has made the wise choice, and the natural choice, of the oldest and trustiest friend he had in the world.
"One more consideration remains--the most important which I have yet approached, and therefore the consideration which I have reserved to the last. On the thirtieth of September, the Testator executes a will, leaving his widow sole executrix, with a legacy of eighty thousand pounds. On the third of November following, he expressly revokes this will, and leaves another in its stead, in which his widow is never once mentioned, and in which the whole residue of his estate, after payment of one comparatively trifling legacy, is left to a friend.
"It rests entirely with you to say whether any valid reason can or can not be produced to explain such an extraordinary proceeding as this. If no reason can be assigned--and I know of none myself--I think we have a point here which deserves our careful consideration; for it may be a point which is open to attack. Pray understand that I am now appealing to you solely as a lawyer, who is obliged to look all possible eventualities in the face. I have no wish to intrude on your private affairs; I have no wish to write a word which could be construed into any indirect reflection on yourself.
"If you tell me that, so far as you know, your husband capriciously struck you out of his will, without assignable reason or motive for doing so, and without other obvious explanation of his conduct than that he acted in this matter entirely under the influence of Mrs. Lecount, I will immediately take Counsel's opinion touching the propriety of disputing the will on this ground. If, on the other hand, you tell me that there are reasons (known to yourself, though unknown to me) for not taking the course I propose, I will accept that intimation without troubling you, unless you wish it, to explain yourself further. In this latter event, I will write to you again; for I shall then have something more to say, which may greatly surprise you, on the subject of the Will.
From Mrs. Noel Vanstone to Mr. Loscombe.
"DEAR SIR--Accept my best thanks for the kindness and consideration with which you have treated me; and let the anxieties under which I am now suffering plead my excuse, if I reply to your letter without ceremony, in the fewest possible words.
"I have my own reasons for not hesitating to answer your question in the negative. It is impossible for us to go to law, as you propose, on the subject of the Will.
"Believe me, dear sir, yours gratefully,
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Lincoln's Inn. November 17th.
"DEAR MADAM--I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, answering my proposal in the negative, for reasons of your own. Under these circumstances--on which I offer no comment--I beg to perform my promise of again communicating with you on the subject of your late husband's Will.
"Be so kind as to look at your copy of the document. You will find that the clause which devises the whole residue of your husband's estate to Admiral Bartram ends in these terms: to be by him applied to such uses as he may think fit.
"Simple as they may seem to you, these are very remarkable words. In the first place, no practical lawyer would have used them in drawing your husband's will. In the second place, they are utterly useless to serve any plain straightforward purpose. The legacy is left unconditionally to the admiral; and in the same breath he is told that he may do what he likes with it! The phrase points clearly to one of two conclusions. It has either dropped from the writer's pen in pure ignorance, or it has been carefully set where it appears to serve the purpose of a snare. I am firmly persuaded that the latter explanation is the right one. The words are expressly intended to mislead some person--yourself in all probability--and the cunning which has put them to that use is a cunning which (as constantly happens when uninstructed persons meddle with law) has overreached itself. My thirty years' experience reads those words in a sense exactly opposite to the sense which they are intended to convey. I say that Admiral Bartram is not free to apply his legacy to such purposes as he may think fit; I believe he is privately controlled by a supplementary document in the shape of a Secret Trust.
"I can easily explain to you what I mean by a Secret Trust. It is usually contained in the form of a letter from a Testator to his Executors, privately informing them of testamentary intentions on his part which he has not thought proper openly to acknowledge in his will. I leave you a hundred pounds; and I write a private letter enjoining you, on taking the legacy, not to devote it to your own purposes, but to give it to some third person, whose name I have my own reasons for not mentioning in my will. That is a Secret Trust.
"If I am right in my own persuasion that such a document as I here describe is at this moment in Admiral Bartram's possession--a persuasion based, in the first instance, on the extraordinary words that I have quoted to you; and, in the second instance, on purely legal considerations with which it is needless to incumber my letter--if I am right in this opinion, the discovery of the Secret Trust would be, in all probability, a most important discovery to your interests. I will not trouble you with technical reasons, or with references to my experience in these matters, which only a professional man could understand. I will merely say that I don't give up your cause as utterly lost, until the conviction now impressed on my own mind is proved to be wrong.
"I can add no more, while this important question still remains involved in doubt; neither can I suggest any means of solving that doubt. If the existence of the Trust was proved, and if the nature of the stipulations contained in it was made known to me, I could then say positively what the legal chances were of your being able to set up a Case on the strength of it: and I could also tell you whether I should or should not feel justified in personally undertaking that Case under a private arrangement with yourself.
"As things are, I can make no arrangement, and offer no advice. I can only put you confidentially in possession of my private opinion, leaving you entirely free to draw your own inferences from it, and regretting that I cannot write more confidently and more definitely than I have written here. All that I could conscientiously say on this very difficult and delicate subject, I have said.
"Believe me, dear madam, faithfully yours,
"P.S.--I omitted one consideration in my last letter, which I may mention here, in order to show you that no point in connection with the case has escaped me. If it had been possible to show that Mr. Vanstone was domiciled in Scotland at the time of his death, we might have asserted your interests by means of the Scotch law, which does not allow a husband the power of absolutely disinheriting his wife. But it is impossible to assert that Mr. Vanstone was legally domiciled in Scotland. He came there as a visitor only; he occupied a furnished house for the season; and he never expressed, either by word or deed, the slightest intention of settling permanently in the North."
From Mrs. Noel Vanstone to Mr. Loscombe.
"DEAR SIR--I have read your letter more than once, with the deepest interest and attention; and the oftener I read it, the more firmly I believe that there is really such a Letter as you mention in Admiral Bartram's hands.
"It is my interest that the discovery should be made, and I at once acknowledge to you that I am determined to find the means of secretly and certainly making it. My resolution rests on other motives than the motives which you might naturally suppose would influence me. I only tell you this, in case you feel inclined to remonstrate. There is good reason for what I say, when I assure you that remonstrance will be useless.
"I ask for no assistance in this matter; I will trouble nobody for advice. You shall not be involved in any rash proceedings on my part. Whatever danger there may be, I will risk it. Whatever delays may happen, I will bear them patiently. I am lonely and friendless, and surely troubled in mind, but I am strong enough to win my way through worse trials than these. My spirits will rise again, and my time will come. If that Secret Trust is in Admiral Bartram's possession--when you next see me, you shall see me with it in my own hands. Yours gratefully,
ST. JOHN'S WOOD.
IT wanted little more than a fortnight to Christmas; but the weather showed no signs yet of the frost and snow, conventionally associated with the coming season. The atmosphere was unnaturally warm, and the old year was dying feebly in sapping rain and enervating mist.
Toward the close of the December afternoon, Magdalen sat alone in the lodging which she had occupied since her arrival in London. The fire burned sluggishly in the narrow little grate; the view of the wet houses and soaking gardens opposite was darkening fast; and the bell of the suburban muffin-boy tinkled in the distance drearily. Sitting close over the fire, with a little money lying loose in her lap, Magdalen absently shifted the coins to and fro on the smooth surface of her dress, incessantly altering their positions toward each other, as if they were pieces of a "child's puzzle" which she was trying to put together. The dim fire-light flaming up on her faintly from time to time showed changes which would have told their own tale sadly to friends of former days. Her dress had become loose through the wasting of her figure; but she had not cared to alter it. The old restlessness in her movements, the old mobility in her expression, appeared no more. Her face passively maintained its haggard composure, its changeless unnatural calm. Mr. Pendril might have softened his hard sentence on her, if he had seen her now; and Mrs. Lecount, in the plenitude of her triumph, might have pitied her fallen enemy at last.
Hardly four months had passed since the wedding-day at Aldborough, and the penalty for that day was paid already--paid in unavailing remorse, in hopeless isolation, in irremediable defeat! Let this be said for her; let the truth which has been told of the fault be told of the expiation as well. Let it be recorded of her that she enjoyed no secret triumph on the day of her success. The horror of herself with which her own act had inspired her, had risen to its climax when the design of her marriage was achieved. She had never suffered in secret as she suffered when the Combe-Raven money was left to her in her husband's will. She had never felt the means taken to accomplish her end so unutterably degrading to herself, as she felt them on the day when the end was reached. Out of that feeling had grown the remorse which had hurried her to seek pardon and consolation in her sister's love. Never since it had first entered her heart, never since she had first felt it sacred to her at her father's grave, had the Purpose to which she had vowed herself, so nearly lost its hold on her as at this time. Never might Norah's influence have achieved such good as on the day when that influence was lost--the day when the fatal words were overheard at Miss Garth's--the day when the fatal letter from Scotland told of Mrs. Lecount's revenge.
The harm was done; the chance was gone. Time and Hope alike had both passed her by.
Faintly and more faintly the inner voices now pleaded with her to pause on the downward way. The discovery which had poisoned her heart with its first distrust of her sister; the tidings which had followed it of her husband's death; the sting of Mrs. Lecount's triumph, felt through all, had done their work. The remorse which had embittered her married life was deadened now to a dull despair. It was too late to make the atonement of confession--too late to lay bare to the miserable husband the deeper secrets that had once lurked in the heart of the miserable wife. Innocent of all thought of the hideous treachery which Mrs. Lecount had imputed to her--she was guilty of knowing how his health was broken when she married him; guilty of knowing, when he left her the Combe-Raven money, that the accident of a moment, harmless to other men, might place his life in jeopardy, and effect her release. His death had told her this--had told her plainly what she had shrunk, in his lifetime, from openly acknowledging to herself. From the dull torment of that reproach; from the dreary wretchedness of doubting everybody, even to Norah herself; from the bitter sense of her defeated schemes; from the blank solitude of her friendless life--what refuge was left? But one refuge now. She turned to the relentless Purpose which was hurrying her to her ruin, and cried to it with the daring of her despair--Drive me on!
For days and days together she had bent her mind on the one object which occupied it since she had received the lawyer's letter. For days and days together she had toiled to meet the first necessity of her position--to find a means of discovering the Secret Trust. There was no hope, this time, of assistance from Captain Wragge. Long practice had made the old militia-man an adept in the art of vanishing. The plow of the moral agriculturist left no furrows--not a trace of him was to be found! Mr. Loscombe was too cautious to commit himself to an active course of any kind; he passively maintained his opinions and left the rest to his client--he desired to know nothing until the Trust was placed in his hands. Magdalen's interests were now in Magdalen's own sole care. Risk or no risk, what she did next she must do by herself.
The prospect had not daunted her. Alone she had calculated the chances that might be tried. Alone she was now determined to make the attempt.
"The time has come," she said to herself, as she sat over the fire. "I must sound Louisa first."
She collected the scattered coins in her lap, and placed them in a little heap on the table, then rose and rang the bell. The landlady answered it.
"Is my servant downstairs?" inquired Magdalen.
"Yes, ma'am. She is having her tea."
"When she has done, say I want her up here. Wait a moment. You will find your money on the table--the money I owe you for last week. Can you find it? or would you like to have a candle?"
"It's rather dark, ma'am."
Magdalen lit a candle. "What notice must I give you," she asked, as she put the candle on the table, "before I leave?"
"A week is the usual notice, ma'am. I hope you have no objection to make to the house?"
"None whatever. I only ask the question, because I may be obliged to leave these lodgings rather sooner than I anticipated. Is the money right?"
"Quite right, ma'am. Here is your receipt."
"Thank you. Don't forget to send Louisa to me as soon as she has done her tea."
The landlady withdrew. As soon as she was alone again, Magdalen extinguished the candle, and drew an empty chair close to her own chair on the hearth. This done, she resumed her former place, and waited until Louisa appeared. There was doubt in her face as she sat looking mechanically into the fire. "A poor chance," she thought to herself; "but, poor as it is, a chance that I must try."
In ten minutes more, Louisa's meek knock was softly audible outside. She was surprised, on entering the room, to find no other light in it than the light of the fire.
"Will you have the candles, ma'am?" she inquired, respectfully.
"We will have candles if you wish for them yourself," replied Magdalen; "not otherwise. I have something to say to you. When I have said it, you shall decide whether we sit together in the dark or in the light."
Louisa waited near the door, and listened to those strange words in silent astonishment.
"Come here," said Magdalen, pointing to the empty chair; "come here and sit down."
Louisa advanced, and timidly removed the chair from its position at her mistress's side. Magdalen instantly drew it back again. "No!" she said. "Come closer--come close by me." After a moment's hesitation, Louisa obeyed.
"I ask you to sit near me," pursued Magdalen, "because I wish to speak to you on equal terms. Whatever distinctions there might once have been between us are now at an end. I am a lonely woman thrown helpless on my own resources, without rank or place in the world. I may or may not keep you as my friend. As mistress and maid the connection between us must come to an end."
"Oh, ma'am, don't, don't say that!" pleaded Louisa, faintly.
Magdalen sorrowfully and steadily went on.
"When you first came to me," she resumed, "I thought I should not like you. I have learned to like you--I have learned to be grateful to you. From first to last you have been faithful and good to me. The least I can do in return is not to stand in the way of your future prospects."
"Don't send me away, ma'am!" said Louisa, imploringly. "If you can only help me with a little money now and then, I'll wait for my wages--I will, indeed."
Magdalen took her hand and went on, as sorrowfully and as steadily as before.
"My future life is all darkness, all uncertainty," she said. "The next step I may take may lead me to my prosperity or may lead me to my ruin. Can I ask you to share such a prospect as this? If your future was as uncertain as mine is--if you, too, were a friendless woman thrown on the world--my conscience might be easy in letting you cast your lot with mine. I might accept your attachment, for I might feel I was not wronging you. How can I feel this in your case? You have a future to look to. You are an excellent servant; you can get another place--a far better place than mine. You can refer to me; and if the character I give is not considered sufficient, you can refer to the mistress you served before me--"
At the instant when that reference to the girl's last employer escaped Magdalen's lips, Louisa snatched her hand away and started up affrightedly from her chair. There was a moment's silence. Both mistress and maid were equally taken by surprise.
Magdalen was the first to recover herself.
"Is it getting too dark?" she asked, significantly. "Are you going to light the candles, after all?"
Louisa drew back into the dimmest corner of the room.
"You suspect me, ma'am!" she answered out of the darkness, in a breathless whisper. "Who has told you? How did you find out--?" She stopped, and burst into tears. "I deserve your suspicion," she said, struggling to compose herself. "I can't deny it to you. You have treated me so kindly; you have made me so fond of you! Forgive me, Mrs. Vanstone--I am a wretch; I have deceived you."
"Come here and sit down by me again," said Magdalen. "Come--or I will get up myself and bring you back."
Louisa slowly returned to her place. Dim as the fire-light was, she seemed to fear it. She held her handkerchief over her face, and shrank from her mistress as she seated herself again in the chair.
"You are wrong in thinking that any one has betrayed you to me," said Magdalen. "All that I know of you is, what your own looks and ways have told me. You have had some secret trouble weighing on your mind ever since you have been in my service. I confess I have spoken with the wish to find out more of you and your past life than I have found out yet--not because I am curious, but because I have my secret troubles too. Are you an unhappy woman, like me? If you are, I will take you into my confidence. If you have nothing to tell me--if you choose to keep your secret--I don't blame you; I only say, Let us part. I won't ask how you have deceived me. I will only remember that you have been an honest and faithful and competent servant while I have employed you; and I will say as much in your favor to any new mistress you like to send to me."
She waited for the reply. For a moment, and only for a moment, Louisa hesitated. The girl's nature was weak, but not depraved. She was honestly attached to her mistress; and she spoke with a courage which Magdalen had not expected from her.
"If you send me away, ma'am," she said, "I won't take my character from you till I have told you the truth; I won't return your kindness by deceiving you a second time. Did my master ever tell you how he engaged me?"
"No. I never asked him, and he never told me."
"He engaged me, ma'am, with a written character--"
"The character was a false one."
Magdalen drew back in amazement. The confession she heard was not the confession she had anticipated.
"Did your mistress refuse to give you a character?" she asked. "Why?"
Louisa dropped on her knees and hid her face in her mistress's lap. "Don't ask me!" she said. "I'm a miserable, degraded creature; I'm not fit to be in the same room with you!" Magdalen bent over her, and whispered a question in her ear. Louisa whispered back the one sad word of reply.
"Has he deserted you?" asked Magdalen, after waiting a moment, and thinking first.
"Do you love him?"
The remembrance of her own loveless marriage stung Magdalen to the quick.
"For God's sake, don't kneel to me!" she cried, passionately. "If there is a degraded woman in this room, I am the woman--not you!"
She raised the girl by main force from her knees, and put her back in the chair. They both waited a little in silence. Keeping her hand on Louisa's shoulder, Magdalen seated herself again, and looked with unutterable bitterness of sorrow into the dying fire. "Oh," she thought, "what happy women there are in the world! Wives who love their husbands! Mothers who are not ashamed to own their children! Are you quieter?" she asked, gently addressing Louisa once more. "Can you answer me, if I ask you something else? Where is the child?"
"The child is out at nurse."
"Does the father help to support it?"
"He does all he can, ma'am."
"What is he? Is he in service? Is he in a trade?"
"His father is a master-carpenter--he works in his father's yard."
"If he has got work, why has he not married you?"
"It is his father's fault, ma'am--not his. His father has no pity on us. He would be turned out of house and home if he married me."
"Can he get no work elsewhere?"
"It's hard to get good work in London, ma'am. There are so many in London--they take the bread out of each other's mouths. If we had only had the money to emigrate, he would have married me long since."
"Would he marry you if you had the money now?"
"I am sure he would, ma'am. He could get plenty of work in Australia, and double and treble the wages he gets here. He is trying hard, and I am trying hard, to save a little toward it--I put by all I can spare from my child. But it is so little! If we live for years to come, there seems no hope for us. I know I have done wrong every way--I know I don't deserve to be happy. But how could I let my child suffer?--I was obliged to go to service. My mistress was hard on me, and my health broke down in trying to live by my needle. I would never have deceived anybody by a false character, if there had been another chance for me. I was alone and helpless, ma'am; and I can only ask you to forgive me."
"Ask better women than I am," said Magdalen, sadly. "I am only fit to feel for you, and I do feel for you with all my heart. In your place I should have gone into service with a false character, too. Say no more of the past--you don't know how you hurt me in speaking of it. Talk of the future. I think I can help you, and do you no harm. I think you can help me, and do me the greatest of all services in return. Wait, and you shall hear what I mean. Suppose you were married--how much would it cost for you and your husband to emigrate?"
Louisa mentioned the cost of a steerage passage to Australia for a man and his wife. She spoke in low, hopeless tones. Moderate as the sum was, it looked like unattainable wealth in her eyes.
Magdalen started in her chair, and took the girl's hand once more.
"Louisa!" she said, earnestly; "if I gave you the money, what would you do for me in return?"
The proposal seemed to strike Louisa speechless with astonishment. She trembled violently, and said nothing. Magdalen repeated her words.
"Oh, ma'am, do you mean it?" said the girl. "Do you really mean it?"
"Yes," replied Magdalen; "I really mean it. What would you do for me in return?"
"Do?" repeated Louisa. "Oh what is there I would not do!" She tried to kiss her mistress's hand; but Magdalen would not permit it. She resolutely, almost roughly, drew her hand away.
"I am laying you under no obligation," she said. "We are serving each other--that is all. Sit quiet, and let me think."
For the next ten minutes there was silence in the room. At the end of that time Magdalen took out her watch and held it close to the grate. There was just firelight enough to show her the hour. It was close on six o'clock.
"Are you composed enough to go downstairs and deliver a message?" she asked, rising from her chair as she spoke to Louisa again. "It is a very simple message--it is only to tell the boy that I want a cab as soon as he can get me one. I must go out immediately. You shall know why later in the evening. I have much more to say to you; but there is no time to say it now. When I am gone, bring your work up here, and wait for my return. I shall be back before bed-time."
Without another word of explanation, she hurriedly lit a candle and withdrew into the bedroom to put on her bonnet and shawl.
BETWEEN nine and ten o'clock the same evening, Louisa, waiting anxiously, heard the long-expected knock at the house door. She ran downstairs at once and let her mistress in.
Magdalen's face was flushed. She showed far more agitation on returning to the house than she had shown on leaving it. "Keep your place at the table," she said to Louisa, impatiently; "but lay aside your work. I want you to attend carefully to what I am going to say."
Louisa obeyed. Magdalen seated herself at the opposite side of the table, and moved the candles, so as to obtain a clear and uninterrupted view of her servant's face.
"Have you noticed a respectable elderly woman," she began, abruptly, "who has been here once or twice in the last fortnight to pay me a visit?"
"Yes, ma'am; I think I let her in the second time she came. An elderly person named Mrs. Attwood?"
"That is the person I mean. Mrs. Attwood is Mr. Loscombe's housekeeper; not the housekeeper at his private residence, but the housekeeper at his offices in Lincoln's Inn. I promised to go and drink tea with her some evening this week, and I have been to-night. It is strange of me, is it not, to be on these familiar terms with a woman in Mrs. Attwood's situation?"
Louisa made no answer in words. Her face spoke for her: she could hardly avoid thinking it strange.
"I had a motive for making friends with Mrs. Attwood," Magdalen went on. "She is a widow, with a large family of daughters. Her daughters are all in service. One of them is an under-housemaid in the service of Admiral Bartram, at St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. I found that out from Mrs. Attwood's master; and as soon as I arrived at the discovery, I privately determined to make Mrs. Attwood's acquaintance. Stranger still, is it not?"
Louisa began to look a little uneasy. Her mistress's manner was at variance with her mistress's words--it was plainly suggestive of something startling to come.
"What attraction Mrs. Attwood finds in my society," Magdalen continued, "I cannot presume to say. I can only tell you she has seen better days; she is an educated person; and she may like my society on that account. At any rate, she has readily met my advances toward her. What attraction I find in this good woman, on my side, is soon told. I have a great curiosity--an unaccountable curiosity, you will think--about the present course of household affairs at St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. Mrs. Attwood's daughter is a good girl, and constantly writes to her mother. Her mother is proud of the letters and proud of the girl, and is ready enough to talk about her daughter and her daughter's place. That is Mrs. Attwood's attraction to me. You understand, so far?"
Yes--Louisa understood. Magdalen went on. "Thanks to Mrs. Attwood and Mrs. Attwood's daughter," she said, "I know some curious particulars already of the household at St. Crux. Servants' tongues and servants' letters--as I need not tell you--are oftener occupied with their masters and mistresses than their masters and mistresses suppose. The only mistress at St. Crux is the housekeeper. But there is a master--Admiral Bartram. He appears to be a strange old man, whose whims and fancies amuse his servants as well as his friends. One of his fancies (the only one we need trouble ourselves to notice) is, that he had men enough about him when he was living at sea, and that now he is living on shore, he will be waited on by women-servants alone. The one man in the house is an old sailor, who has been all his life with his master--he is a kind of pensioner at St. Crux, and has little or nothing to do with the housework. The other servants, indoors, are all women; and instead of a footman to wait on him at dinner, the admiral has a parlor-maid. The parlor-maid now at St. Crux is engaged to be married, and as soon as her master can suit himself she is going away. These discoveries I made some days since. But when I saw Mrs. Attwood to-night, she had received another letter from her daughter in the interval, and that letter has helped me to find out something more. The housekeeper is at her wits' end to find a new servant. Her master insists on youth and good looks--he leaves everything else to the housekeeper--but he will have that. All the inquiries made in the neighborhood have failed to produce the sort of parlor-maid whom the admiral wants. If nothing can be done in the next fortnight or three weeks, the housekeeper will advertise in the Times, and will come to London herself to see the applicants, and to make strict personal inquiry into their characters."
Louisa looked at her mistress more attentively than ever. The expression of perplexity left her face, and a shade of disappointment appeared there in its stead. "Bear in mind what I have said," pursued Magdalen; "and wait a minute more, while I ask you some questions. Don't think you understand me yet--I can assure you, you don't understand me. Have you always lived in service as lady's maid?"
"Have you ever lived as parlor-maid?"
"Only in one place, ma'am, and not for long there."
"I suppose you lived long enough to learn your duties?"
"What were your duties besides waiting at table?"
"I had to show visitors in."
"Yes; and what else?"
"I had the plate and the glass to look after; and the table-linen was all under my care. I had to answer all the bells, except in the bedrooms. There were other little odds and ends sometimes to do--"
"But your regular duties were the duties you have just mentioned?"
"How long ago is it since you lived in service as a parlor-maid?"
"A little better than two years, ma'am."
"I suppose you have not forgotten how to wait at table, and clean plate, and the rest of it, in that time?"
At this question Louisa's attention, which had been wandering more and more during the progress of Magdalen's inquiries, wandered away altogether. Her gathering anxieties got the better of her discretion, and even of her timidity. Instead of answering her mistress, she suddenly and confusedly ventured on a question of her own.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," she said. "Did you mean me to offer for the parlor-maid's place at St. Crux?"
"You?" replied Magdalen. "Certainly not! Have you forgotten what I said to you in this room before I went out? I mean you to be married, and go to Australia with your husband and your child. You have not waited as I told you, to hear me explain myself. You have drawn your own conclusions, and you have drawn them wrong. I asked a question just now, which you have not answered--I asked if you had forgotten your parlor-maid's duties?"
"Oh, no, ma'am!" Louisa had replied rather unwillingly thus far. She answered readily and confidently now.
"Could you teach the duties to another servant?" asked Magdalen.
"Yes, ma'am--easily, if she was quick and attentive."
"Could you teach the duties to Me?"
Louisa started, and changed color. "You, ma'am!" she exclaimed, half in incredulity, half in alarm.
"Yes," said Magdalen. "Could you qualify me to take the parlor-maid's place at St. Crux?"
Plain as those words were, the bewilderment which they produced in Louisa's mind seemed to render her incapable of comprehending her mistress's proposal. "You, ma'am!" she repeated, vacantly.
"I shall perhaps help you to understand this extraordinary project of mine," said Magdalen, "if I tell you plainly what the object of it is. Do you remember what I said to you about Mr. Vanstone's will when you came here from Scotland to join me?"
"Yes, ma'am. You told me you had been left out of the will altogether. I'm sure my fellow-servant would never have been one of the witnesses if she had known--"
"Never mind that now. I don't blame your fellow-servant--I blame nobody but Mrs. Lecount. Let me go on with what I was saying. It is not at all certain that Mrs. Lecount can do me the mischief which Mrs. Lecount intended. There is a chance that my lawyer, Mr. Loscombe, may be able to gain me what is fairly my due, in spite of the will. The chance turns on my discovering a letter which Mr. Loscombe believes, and which I believe, to be kept privately in Admiral Bartram's possession. I have not the least hope of getting at that letter if I make the attempt in my own person. Mrs. Lecount has poisoned the admiral's mind against me, and Mr. Vanstone has given him a secret to keep from me. If I wrote to him, he would not answer my letter. If I went to his house, the door would be closed in my face. I must find my way into St. Crux as a stranger--I must be in a position to look about the house, unsuspected--I must be there with plenty of time on my hands. All the circumstances are in my favor, if I am received into the house as a servant; and as a servant I mean to go."
"But you are a lady, ma'am," objected Louisa, in the greatest perplexity. "The servants at St. Crux would find you out."
"I am not at all afraid of their finding me out," said Magdalen. "I know how to disguise myself in other people's characters more cleverly than you suppose. Leave me to face the chances of discovery--that is my risk. Let us talk of nothing now but what concerns you. Don't decide yet whether you will, or will not, give me the help I want. Wait, and hear first what the help is. You are quick and clever at your needle. Can you make me the sort of gown which it is proper for a servant to wear--and can you alter one of my best silk dresses so as to make it fit yourself--in a week's time?"
"I think I could get them done in a week, ma'am. But why am I to wear--"
"Wait a little, and you will see. I shall give the landlady her week's notice to-morrow. In the interval, while you are making the dresses, I can be learning the parlor-maid's duties. When the house-servant here has brought up the dinner, and when you and I are alone in the room--instead of your waiting on me, as usual, I will wait on you. (I am quite serious; don't interrupt me!) Whatever I can learn besides, without hindering you, I will practice carefully at every opportunity. When the week is over, and the dresses are done, we will leave this place, and go into other lodgings--you as the mistress and I as the maid."
"I should be found out, ma'am," interposed Louisa, trembling at the prospect before her. "I am not a lady."
"And I am," said Magdalen, bitterly. "Shall I tell you what a lady is? A lady is a woman who wears a silk gown, and has a sense of her own importance. I shall put the gown on your back, and the sense in your head. You speak good English; you are naturally quiet and self-restrained; if you can only conquer your timidity, I have not the least fear of you. There will be time enough in the new lodging for you to practice your character, and for me to practice mine. There will be time enough to make some more dresses--another gown for me, and your wedding-dress (which I mean to give you) for yourself. I shall have the newspaper sent every day. When the advertisement appears, I shall answer it--in any name I can take on the spur of the moment; in your name, if you like to lend it to me; and when the housekeeper asks me for my character, I shall refer her to you. She will see you in the position of mistress, and me in the position of maid--no suspicion can possibly enter her mind, unless you put it there. If you only have the courage to follow my instructions, and to say what I shall tell you to say, the interview will be over in ten minutes."
"You frighten me, ma'am," said Louisa, still trembling. "You take my breath away with surprise. Courage! Where shall I find courage?"
"Where I keep it for you," said Magdalen--"in the passage-money to Australia. Look at the new prospect which gives you a husband, and restores you to your child--and you will find your courage there."
Louisa's sad face brightened; Louisa's faint heart beat quick. A spark of her mistress's spirit flew up into her eyes as she thought of the golden future.
"If you accept my proposal," pursued Magdalen, "you can be asked in church at once, if you like. I promise you the money on the day when the advertisement appears in the newspaper. The risk of the housekeeper's rejecting me is my risk--not yours. My good looks are sadly gone off, I know. But I think I can still hold my place against the other servants--I think I can still look the parlor-maid whom Admiral Bartram wants. There is nothing for you to fear in this matter; I should not have mentioned it if there had been. The only danger is the danger of my being discovered at St. Crux, and that falls entirely on me. By the time I am in the admiral's house you will be married, and the ship will be taking you to your new life."
Louisa's face, now brightening with hope, now clouding again with fear, showed plain signs of the struggle which it cost her to decide. She tried to gain time; she attempted confusedly to speak a few words of gratitude; but her mistress silenced her.
"You owe me no thanks," said Magdalen. "I tell you again, we are only helping each other. I have very little money, but it is enough for your purpose, and I give it you freely. I have led a wretched life; I have made others wretched about me. I can't even make you happy, except by tempting you to a new deceit. There! there! it's not your fault. Worse women than you are will help me, if you refuse. Decide as you like, but don't be afraid of taking the money. If I succeed, I shall not want it. If I fail--"
She stopped, rose abruptly from her chair, and hid her face from Louisa by walking away to the fire-place.
"If I fail," she resumed, warming her foot carelessly at the fender, "all the money in the world will be of no use to me. Never mind why--never mind Me--think of yourself. I won't take advantage of the confession you have made to me; I won't influence you against your will. Do as you yourself think best. But remember one thing--my mind is made up; nothing you can say or do will change it."
Her sudden removal from the table, the altered tones of her voice as she spoke the last words, appeared to renew Louisa's hesitation. She clasped her hands together in her lap, and wrung them hard. "This has come on me very suddenly, ma'am," said the girl. "I am sorely tempted to say Yes; and yet I am almost afraid--"
"Take the night to consider it," interposed Magdalen, keeping her face persistently turned toward the fire; "and tell me what you have decided to do, when you come into my room to-morrow morning. I shall want no help to-night--I can undress myself. You are not so strong as I am; you are tired, I dare say. Don't sit up on my account. Good-night, Louisa, and pleasant dreams!"
Her voice sank lower and lower as she spoke those kind words. She sighed heavily, and, leaning her arm on the mantel-piece, laid her head on it with a reckless weariness miserable to see. Louisa had not left the room, as she supposed--Louisa came softly to her side, and kissed her hand. Magdalen started; but she made no attempt, this time, to draw her hand away. The sense of her own horrible isolation subdued her, at the touch of the servant's lips. Her proud heart melted; her eyes filled with burning tears. "Don't distress me!" she said, faintly. "The time for kindness has gone by; it only overpowers me now. Good-night!"
When the morning came, the affirmative answer which Magdalen had anticipated was the answer given.
On that day the landlady received her week's notice to quit, and Louisa's needle flew fast through the stitches of the parlor-maid's dress.
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
From Miss Garth to Mr. Pendril.
"Westmoreland House, January 3d, 1848.
"DEAR MR. PENDRIL--I write, as you kindly requested, to report how Norah is going on, and to tell you what changes I see for the better in the state of her mind on the subject of her sister.
"I cannot say that she is becoming resigned to Magdalen's continued silence--I know her faithful nature too well to say it. I can only tell you that she is beginning to find relief from the heavy pressure of sorrow and suspense in new thoughts and new hopes. I doubt if she has yet realized this in her own mind; but I see the result, although she is not conscious of it herself. I see her heart opening to the consolation of another interest and another love. She has not said a word to me on the subject, nor have I said a word to her. But as certainly as I know that Mr. George Bartram's visits have lately grown more and more frequent to the family at Portland Place--so certainly I can assure you that Norah is finding a relief under her suspense, which is not of my bringing, and a hope in the future, which I have not taught her to feel.
"It is needless for me to say that I tell you this in the strictest confidence. God knows whether the happy prospect which seems to me to be just dawning will grow brighter or not as time goes on. The oftener I see Mr. George Bartram--and he has called on me more than once--the stronger my liking for him grows. To my poor judgment he seems to be a gentleman in the highest and truest sense of the word. If I could live to see Norah his wife, I should almost feel that I had lived long enough. But who can discern the future? We have suffered so much that I am afraid to hope.
"Have you heard anything of Magdalen? I don't know why or how it is; but since I have known of her husband's death, my old tenderness for her seems to cling to me more obstinately than ever. Always yours truly,
From Mr. Pendril to Miss Garth.
"Serle Street, January 4th, 1848.
"DEAR MISS GARTH--Of Mrs. Noel Vanstone herself I have heard nothing. But I have learned, since I saw you, that the report of the position in which she is left by the death of her husband may be depended upon as the truth. No legacy of any kind is bequeathed to her. Her name is not once mentioned in her husband's will.
"Knowing what we know, it is not to be concealed that this circumstance threatens us with more embarrassment, and perhaps with more distress. Mrs. Noel Vanstone is not the woman to submit, without a desperate resistance, to the total overthrow of all her schemes and all her hopes. The mere fact that nothing whatever has been heard of her since her husband's death is suggestive to my mind of serious mischief to come. In her situation, and with her temper, the quieter she is now, the more inveterately I, for one, distrust her in the future. It is impossible to say to what violent measures her present extremity may not drive her. It is impossible to feel sure that she may not be the cause of some public scandal this time, which may affect her innocent sister as well as herself.
"I know you will not misinterpret the motive which has led me to write these lines; I know you will not think that I am inconsiderate enough to cause you unnecessary alarm. My sincere anxiety to see that happy prospect realized to which your letter alludes has caused me to write far less reservedly than I might otherwise have written. I strongly urge you to use your influence, on every occasion when you can fairly exert it, to strengthen that growing attachment, and to place it beyond the reach of any coming disasters, while you have the opportunity of doing so. When I tell you that the fortune of which Mrs. Noel Vanstone has been deprived is entirely bequeathed to Admiral Bartram; and when I add that Mr. George Bartram is generally understood to be his uncle's heir--you will, I think, acknowledge that I am not warning you without a cause. Yours most truly,
From Admiral Bartram to Mrs. Drake
(housekeeper at St. Crux).
"St. Crux, January 10th, 1848.
"MRS. DRAKE--I have received your letter from London, stating that you have found me a new parlor-maid at last, and that the girl is ready to return with you to St. Crux when your other errands in town allow you to come back.
"This arrangement must be altered immediately, for a reason which I am heartily sorry to have to write.
"The illness of my niece, Mrs. Girdlestone--which appeared to be so slight as to alarm none of us, doctors included--has ended fatally. I received this morning the shocking news of her death. Her husband is said to be quite frantic with grief. Mr. George has already gone to his brother-in-law's, to superintend the last melancholy duties and I must follow him before the funeral takes place. We propose to take Mr. Girdlestone away afterward, and to try the effect on him of change of place and new scenes. Under these sad circumstances, I may be absent from St. Crux a month or six weeks at least; the house will be shut up, and the new servant will not be wanted until my return.
"You will therefore tell the girl, on receiving this letter, that a death in the family has caused a temporary change in our arrangements. If she is willing to wait, you may safely engage her to come here in six weeks' time; I shall be back then, if Mr. George is not. If she refuses, pay her what compensation is right, and so have done with her. Yours,
From Mrs. Drake to Admiral Bartram.
"HONORED SIR--I hope to get my errands done, and to return to St. Crux to-morrow, but write to save you anxiety, in case of delay.
"The young woman whom I have engaged (Louisa by name) is willing to wait your time; and her present mistress, taking an interest in her welfare, will provide for her during the interval. She understands that she is to enter on her new service in six weeks from the present date--namely, on the twenty-fifth of February next.
"Begging you will accept my respectful sympathy under the sad bereavement which has befallen the family,
"I remain, honored sir, your humble servant,
"THIS is where you are to sleep. Put yourself tidy, and then come down again to my room. The admiral has returned, and you will have to begin by waiting on him at dinner to-day."
With those words, Mrs. Drake, the housekeeper, closed the door; and the new parlor-maid was left alone in her bed-chamber at St. Crux.
That day was the eventful twenty-fifth of February. In barely four months from the time when Mrs. Lecount had placed her master's private Instructions in his Executor's hands, the one combination of circumstances against which it had been her first and foremost object to provide was exactly the combination which had now taken place. Mr. Noel Vanstone's widow and Admiral Bartram's Secret Trust were together in the same house.
Thus far, events had declared themselves without an exception in Magdalen's favor. Thus far, the path which had led her to St. Crux had been a path without an obstacle: Louisa, whose name she had now taken, had sailed three days since for Australia, with her husband and her child; she was the only living creature whom Magdalen had trusted with her secret, and she was by this time out of sight of the English land. The girl had been careful, reliable and faithfully devoted to her mistress's interests to the last. She had passed the ordeal of her interview with the housekeeper, and had forgotten none of the instructions by which she had been prepared to meet it. She had herself proposed to turn the six weeks' delay, caused by the death in the admiral's family, to good account, by continuing the all-important practice of those domestic lessons, on the perfect acquirement of which her mistress's daring stratagem depended for its success. Thanks to the time thus gained, when Louisa's marriage was over, and the day of parting had come, Magdalen had learned and mastered, in the nicest detail, everything that her former servant could teach her. On the day when she passed the doors of St. Crux she entered on her desperate venture, strong in the ready presence of mind under emergencies which her later life had taught her, stronger still in the trained capacity that she possessed for the assumption of a character not her own, strongest of all in her two months' daily familiarity with the practical duties of the position which she had undertaken to fill.
As soon as Mrs. Drake's departure had left her alone, she unpacked her box, and dressed herself for the evening.
She put on a lavender-colored stuff-gown--half-mourning for Mrs. Girdlestone; ordered for all the servants, under the admiral's instructions--a white muslin apron, and a neat white cap and collar, with ribbons to match the gown. In this servant's costume--in the plain gown fastening high round her neck, in the neat little white cap at the back of her head--in this simple dress, to the eyes of all men, not linen-drapers, at once the most modest and the most alluring that a woman can wear, the sad changes which mental suffering had wrought in her beauty almost disappeared from view. In the evening costume of a lady, with her bosom uncovered, with her figure armed, rather than dressed, in unpliable silk, the admiral might have passed her by without notice in his own drawing-room. In the evening costume of a servant, no admirer of beauty could have looked at her once and not have turned again to look at her for the second time.
Descending the stairs, on her way to the house-keeper's room, she passed by the entrances to two long stone corridors, with rows of doors opening on them; one corridor situated on the second, and one on the first floor of the house. "Many rooms!" she thought, as she looked at the doors. "Weary work searching here for what I have come to find!"
On reaching the ground-floor she was met by a weather-beaten old man, who stopped and stared at her with an appearance of great interest. He was the same old man whom Captain Wragge had seen in the backyard at St. Crux, at work on the model of a ship. All round the neighborhood he was known, far and wide, as "the admiral's coxswain." His name was Mazey. Sixty years had written their story of hard work at sea, and hard drinking on shore, on the veteran's grim and wrinkled face. Sixty years had proved his fidelity, and had brought his battered old carcass, at the end of the voyage, into port in his master's house.
Seeing no one else of whom she could inquire, Magdalen requested the old man to show her the way that led to the housekeeper's room.
"I'll show you, my dear," said old Mazey, speaking in the high and hollow voice peculiar to the deaf. "You're the new maid--eh? And a fine-grown girl, too! His honor, the admiral, likes a parlor-maid with a clean run fore and aft. You'll do, my dear--you'll do."
"You must not mind what Mr. Mazey says to you," remarked the housekeeper, opening her door as the old sailor expressed his approval of Magdalen in these terms. "He is privileged to talk as he pleases; and he is very tiresome and slovenly in his habits; but he means no harm."
With that apology for the veteran, Mrs. Drake led Magdalen first to the pantry, and next to the linen-room, installing her, with all due formality, in her own domestic dominions. This ceremony completed, the new parlor-maid was taken upstairs, and was shown the dining-room, which opened out of the corridor on the first floor. Here she was directed to lay the cloth, and to prepare the table for one person only--Mr. George Bartram not having returned with his uncle to St. Crux. Mrs. Drake's sharp eyes watched Magdalen attentively as she performed this introductory duty; and Mrs. Drake's private convictions, when the table was spread, forced her to acknowledge, so far, that the new servant thoroughly understood her work.
An hour later the soup-tureen was placed on the table; and Magdalen stood alone behind the admiral's empty chair, waiting her master's first inspection of her when he entered the dining-room.
A large bell rang in the lower regions--quick, shambling footsteps pattered on the stone corridor outside--the door opened suddenly--and a tall lean yellow old man, sharp as to his eyes, shrewd as to his lips, fussily restless as to all his movements, entered the room, with two huge Labrador dogs at his heels, and took his seat in a violent hurry. The dogs followed him, and placed themselves, with the utmost gravity and composure, one on each side of his chair. This was Admiral Bartram, and these were the companions of his solitary meal.
"Ay! ay! ay! here's the new parlor-maid, to be sure!" he began, looking sharply, but not at all unkindly, at Magdalen. "What's your name, my good girl? Louisa, is it? I shall call you Lucy, if you don't mind. Take off the cover, my dear--I'm a minute or two late to-day. Don't be unpunctual to-morrow on that account; I am as regular as clock-work generally. How are you after your journey? Did my spring-cart bump you about much in bringing you from the station? Capital soup this--hot as fire--reminds me of the soup we used to have in the West Indies in the year Three. Have you got your half-mourning on? Stand there, and let me see. Ah, yes, very neat, and nice, and tidy. Poor Mrs. Girdlestone! Oh dear, dear, dear, poor Mrs. Girdlestone! You're not afraid of dogs, are you, Lucy? Eh? What? You like dogs? That's right! Always be kind to dumb animals. These two dogs dine with me every day, except when there's company. The dog with the black nose is Brutus, and the dog with the white nose is Cassius. Did you ever hear who Brutus and Cassius were? Ancient Romans? That's right--good girl. Mind your book and your needle, and we'll get you a good husband one of these days. Take away the soup, my dear, take away the soup!"
This was the man whose secret it was now the one interest of Magdalen's life to surprise! This was the man whose name had supplanted hers in Noel Vanstone's will!
The fish and the roast meat followed; and the admiral's talk rambled on--now in soliloquy, now addressed to the parlor-maid, and now directed to the dogs--as familiarly and as discontentedly as ever. Magdalen observed with some surprise that the companions of the admiral's dinner had, thus far, received no scraps from their master's plate. The two magnificent brutes sat squatted on their haunches, with their great heads over the table, watching the progress of the meal, with the profoundest attention, but apparently expecting no share in it. The roast meat was removed, the admiral's plate was changed, and Magdalen took the silver covers off the two made-dishes on either side of the table. As she handed the first of the savory dishes to her master, the dogs suddenly exhibited a breathless personal interest in the proceedings. Brutus gluttonously watered at the mouth; and the tongue of Cassius, protruding in unutterable expectation, smoked again between his enormous jaws.
The admiral helped himself liberally from the dish; sent Magdalen to the side-table to get him some bread; and, when he thought her eye was off him, furtively tumbled the whole contents of his plate into Brutus's mouth. Cassius whined faintly as his fortunate comrade swallowed the savory mess at a gulp. "Hush! you fool," whispered the admiral. "Your turn next!"
Magdalen presented the second dish. Once more the old gentleman helped himself largely--once more he sent her away to the side-table--once more he tumbled the entire contents of the plate down the dog's throat, selecting Cassius this time, as became a considerate master and an impartial man. When the next course followed--consisting of a plain pudding and an unwholesome "cream"--Magdalen's suspicion of the function of the dogs at the dinner-table was confirmed. While the master took the simple pudding, the dogs swallowed the elaborate cream. The admiral was plainly afraid of offending his cook on the one hand, and of offending his digestion on the other--and Brutus and Cassius were the two trained accomplices who regularly helped him every day off the horns of his dilemma. "Very good! very good!" said the old gentleman, with the most transparent duplicity. "Tell the cook, my dear, a capital cream!"
Having placed the wine and dessert on the table, Magdalen was about to withdraw. Before she could leave the room, her master called her back.
"Stop, stop!" said the admiral; "you don't know the ways of the house yet, Lucy. Put another wine-glass here, at my right hand--the largest you can find, my dear. I've got a third dog, who comes in at dessert--a drunken old sea-dog who has followed my fortunes, afloat and ashore, for fifty years and more. Yes, yes, that's the sort of glass we want. You're a good girl--you're a neat, handy girl. Steady, my dear! there's nothing to be frightened at!"
A sudden thump on the outside of the door, followed by one mighty bark from each of the dogs, had made Magdalen start. "Come in!" shouted the admiral. The door opened; the tails of Brutus and Cassius cheerfully thumped the floor; and old Mazey marched straight up to the right-hand side of his master's chair. The veteran stood there, with his legs wide apart and his balance carefully adjusted, as if the dining-room had been a cabin, and the house a ship pitching in a sea-way.
The admiral filled the large glass with port, filled his own glass with claret, and raised it to his lips.
"God bless the Queen, Mazey," said the admiral.
"God bless the Queen, your honor," said old Mazey, swallowing his port, as the dogs swallowed the made-dishes, at a gulp.
"How's the wind, Mazey?"
"West and by Noathe, your honor."
"Any report to-night, Mazey!"
"No report, your honor."
"Good-evening, your honor."
The after-dinner ceremony thus completed, old Mazey made his bow, and walked out of the room again. Brutus and Cassius stretched themselves on the rug to digest mushrooms and made gravies in the lubricating heat of the fire. "For what we have received, the Lord make us truly thankful," said the admiral. "Go downstairs, my good girl, and get your supper. A light meal, Lucy, if you take my advice--a light meal, or you will have the nightmare. Early to bed, my dear, and early to rise, makes a parlor-maid healthy and wealthy and wise. That's the wisdom of your ancestors--you mustn't laugh at it. Good-night." In those words Magdalen was dismissed; and so her first day's experience of Admiral Bartram came to an end.
After breakfast the next morning, the admiral's directions to the new parlor-maid included among them one particular order which, in Magdalen's situation, it was especially her interest to receive. In the old gentleman's absence from home that day, on local business which took him to Ossory, she was directed to make herself acquainted with the whole inhabited quarter of the house, and to learn the positions of the various rooms, so as to know where the bells called her when the bells rang. Mrs. Drake was charged with the duty of superintending the voyage of domestic discovery, unless she happened to be otherwise engaged--in which case any one of the inferior servants would be equally competent to act as Magdalen's guide.
At noon the admiral left for Ossory, and Magdalen presented herself in Mrs. Drake's room, to be shown over the house. Mrs. Drake happened to be otherwise engaged, and referred her to the head house-maid. The head house-maid happened on that particular morning to be in the same condition as Mrs. Drake, and referred her to the under-house-maids. The under-house-maids declared they were all behindhand and had not a minute to spare--they suggested, not too civilly, that old Mazey had nothing on earth to do, and that he knew the house as well, or better, than he knew his A B C. Magdalen took the hint, with a secret indignation and contempt which it cost her a hard struggle to conceal. She had suspected, on the previous night, and she was certain now, that the women-servants all incomprehensibly resented her presence among them with the same sullen unanimity of distrust. Mrs. Drake, as she had seen for herself, was really engaged that morning over her accounts. But of all the servants under her who had made their excuses not one had even affected to be more occupied than usual. Their looks said plainly, "We don't like you; and we won't show you over the house."
She found her way to old Mazey, not by the scanty directions given her, but by the sound of the veteran's cracked and quavering voice, singing in some distant seclusion a verse of the immortal sea-song--"Tom Bowling." Just as she stopped among the rambling stone passages on the basement story of the house, uncertain which way to turn next, she heard the tuneless old voice in the distance, singing these lines:
"His form was of the manliest beau-u-u-uty, His heart was ki-i-ind and soft; Faithful below Tom did his duty, But now he's gone alo-o-o-o-oft-- But now he's go-o-o-one aloft!"
Magdalen followed in the direction of the quavering voice, and found herself in a little room looking out on the back yard. There sat old Mazey, with his spectacles low on his nose, and his knotty old hands blundering over the rigging of his model ship. There were Brutus and Cassius digesting before the fire again, and snoring as if they thoroughly enjoyed it. There was Lord Nelson on one wall, in flaming watercolors; and there, on the other, was a portrait of Admiral Bartram's last flagship, in full sail on a sea of slate, with a salmon-colored sky to complete the illusion.
"What, they won't show you over the house--won't they?" said old Mazey. "I will, then! That head house-maid's a sour one, my dear--if ever there was a sour one yet. You're too young and good-looking to please 'em--that's what you are." He rose, took off his spectacles, and feebly mended the fire. "She's as straight as a poplar," said old Mazey, considering Magdalen's figure in drowsy soliloquy. "I say she's as straight as a poplar, and his honor the admiral says so too! Come along, my dear," he proceeded, addressing himself to Magdalen again. "I'll teach you your Pints of the Compass first. When you know your Pints, blow high, blow low, you'll find it plain sailing all over the house."
He led the way to the door--stopped, and suddenly bethinking himself of his miniature ship, went back to put his model away in an empty cupboard--led the way to the door again--stopped once more--remembered that some of the rooms were chilly--and pottered about, swearing and grumbling, and looking for his hat. Magdalen sat down patiently to wait for him. She gratefully contrasted his treatment of her with the treatment she had received from the women. Resist it as firmly, despise it as proudly as we may, all studied unkindness--no matter how contemptible it may be--has a stinging power in it which reaches to the quick. Magdalen only knew how she had felt the small malice of the female servants, by the effect which the rough kindness of the old sailor produced on her afterward. The dumb welcome of the dogs, when the movements in the room had roused them from their sleep, touched her more acutely still. Brutus pushed his mighty muzzle companionably into her hand; and Cassius laid his friendly fore-paw on her lap. Her heart yearned over the two creatures as she patted and caressed them. It seemed only yesterday since she and the dogs at Combe-Raven had roamed the garden together, and had idled away the summer mornings luxuriously on the shady lawn.
Old Mazey found his hat at last, and they started on their exploring expedition, with the dogs after them.
Leaving the basement story of the house, which was entirely devoted to the servants' offices, they ascended to the first floor, and entered the long corridor, with which Magdalen's last night's experience had already made her acquainted. "Put your back ag'in this wall," said old Mazey, pointing to the long wall--pierced at irregular intervals with windows looking out over a courtyard and fish-pond--which formed the right-hand side of the corridor, as Magdalen now stood. "Put your back here," said the veteran, "and look straight afore you. What do you see?"--"The opposite wall of the passage," said Magdalen.--"Ay! ay! what else?"--"The doors leading into the rooms."--"What else?"--"I see nothing else." Old Mazey chuckled, winked, and shook his knotty forefinger at Magdalen, impressively. "You see one of the Pints of the Compass, my dear. When you've got your back ag'in this wall, and when you look straight afore you, you look Noathe. If you ever get lost hereaway, put your back ag'in the wall, look out straight afore you, and say to yourself: 'I look Noathe!' You do that like a good girl, and you won't lose your bearings."
After administering this preliminary dose of instruction, old Mazey opened the first of the doors on the left-hand side of the passage. It led into the dining-room, with which Magdalen was already familiar. The second room was fitted up as a library; and the third, as a morning-room. The fourth and fifth doors--both belonging to dismantled and uninhabited rooms, and both locked--brought them to the end of the north wing of the house, and to the opening of a second and shorter passage, placed at a right angle to the first. Here old Mazey, who had divided his time pretty equally during the investigation of the rooms, in talking of "his honor the Admiral," and whistling to the dogs, returned with all possible expedition to the points of the compass, and gravely directed Magdalen to repeat the ceremony of putting her back against the wall. She attempted to shorten the proceedings, by declaring (quite correctly) that in her present position she knew she was looking east. "Don't you talk about the east, my dear," said old Mazey, proceeding unmoved with his own system of instruction, "till you know the east first. Put your back ag'in this wall, and look straight afore you. What do you see?" The remainder of the catechism proceeded as before. When the end was reached, Magdalen's instructor was satisfied. He chuckled and winked at her once more. "Now you may talk about the east, my dear," said the veteran, "for now you know it."
The east passage, after leading them on for a few yards only, terminated in a vestibule, with a high door in it which faced them as they advanced. The door admitted them to a large and lofty drawing-room, decorated, like all the other apartments, with valuable old-fashioned furniture. Leading the way across this room, Magdalen's conductor pushed back a heavy sliding-door, opposite the door of entrance. "Put your apron over your head," said old Mazey. "We are coming to the Banqueting-Hall now. The floor's mortal cold, and the damp sticks to the place like cockroaches to a collier. His honor the admiral calls it the Arctic Passage. I've got my name for it, too--I call it, Freeze-your-Bones."
Magdalen passed through the doorway, and found herself in the ancient Banqueting-Hall of St. Crux.
On her left hand she saw a row of lofty windows, set deep in embrasures, and extending over a frontage of more than a hundred feet in length. On her right hand, ranged in one long row from end to end of the opposite wall, hung a dismal collection of black, begrimed old pictures, rotting from their frames, and representing battle-scenes by sea and land. Below the pictures, midway down the length of the wall, yawned a huge cavern of a fireplace, surmounted by a towering mantel-piece of black marble. The one object of furniture (if furniture it might be called) visible far or near in the vast emptiness of the place, was a gaunt ancient tripod of curiously chased metal, standing lonely in the middle of the hall, and supporting a wide circular pan, filled deep with ashes from an extinct charcoal fire. The high ceiling, once finely carved and gilt, was foul with dirt and cobwebs; the naked walls at either end of the room were stained with damp; and the cold of the marble floor struck through the narrow strip of matting laid down, parallel with the windows, as a foot-path for passengers across the wilderness of the room. No better name for it could have been devised than the name which old Mazey had found. "Freeze-your-Bones" accurately described, in three words, the Banqueting-Hall at St. Crux.
"Do you never light a fire in this dismal place?" asked Magdalen.
"It all depends on which side of Freeze-your-Bones his honor the admiral lives," said old Mazey. "His honor likes to shift his quarters, sometimes to one side of the house, sometimes to the other. If he lives Noathe of Freeze-your-Bones--which is where you've just come from--we don't waste our coals here. If he lives South of Freeze-your-Bones--which is where we are going to next--we light the fire in the grate and the charcoal in the pan. Every night, when we do that, the damp gets the better of us: every morning, we turn to again, and get the better of the damp."
With this remarkable explanation, old Mazey led the way to the lower end of the Hall, opened more doors, and showed Magdalen through another suite of rooms, four in number, all of moderate size, and all furnished in much the same manner as the rooms in the northern wing. She looked out of the windows, and saw the neglected gardens of St. Crux, overgrown with brambles and weeds. Here and there, at no great distance in the grounds, the smoothly curving line of one of the tidal streams peculiar to the locality wound its way, gleaming in the sunlight, through gaps in the brambles and trees. The more distant view ranged over the flat eastward country beyond, speckled with its scattered little villages; crossed and recrossed by its network of "back-waters"; and terminated abruptly by the long straight line of sea-wall which protects the defenseless coast of Essex from invasion by the sea.
"Have we more rooms still to see?" asked Magdalen, turning from the view of the garden, and looking about her for another door.
"No more, my dear--we've run aground here, and we may as well wear round and put back again," said old Mazey. "There's another side of the house--due south of you as you stand now--which is all tumbling about our ears. You must go out into the garden if you want to see it; it's built off from us by a brick bulkhead, t'other side of this wall here. The monks lived due south of us, my dear, hundreds of years afore his honor the admiral was born or thought of, and a fine time of it they had, as I've heard. They sang in the church all the morning, and drank grog in the orchard all the afternoon. They slept off their grog on the best of feather-beds, and they fattened on the neighborhood all the year round. Lucky beggars! lucky beggars!"
Apostrophizing the monks in these terms, and evidently regretting that he had not lived himself in those good old times, the veteran led the way back through the rooms. On the return passage across "Freeze-your-Bones," Magdalen preceded him. "She's as straight as a poplar," mumbled old Mazey to himself, hobbling along after his youthful companion, and wagging his venerable head in cordial approval. "I never was particular what nation they belonged to; but I always did like 'em straight and fine grown, and I always shall like 'em straight and fine grown, to my dying day."
"Are there more rooms to see upstairs, on the second floor?" asked Magdalen, when they had returned to the point from which they had started.
The naturally clear, distinct tones of her voice had hitherto reached the old sailor's imperfect sense of hearing easily enough. Rather to her surprise, he became stone deaf on a sudden, to her last question.
"Are you sure of your Pints of the Compass?" he inquired. "If you're not sure, put your back ag'in the wall, and we'll go all over 'em again, my dear, beginning with the Noathe."
Magdalen assured him that she felt quite familiar, by this time, with all the points, the "Noathe" included; and then repeated her question in louder tones. The veteran obstinately matched her by becoming deafer than ever.
"Yes, my dear," he said, "you're right; it is chilly in these passages; and unless I go back to my fire, my fire'll go out--won't it? If you don't feel sure of your Pints of the Compass, come in to me and I'll put you right again." He winked benevolently, whistled to the dogs, and hobbled off. Magdalen heard him chuckle over his own success in balking her curiosity on the subject of the second floor. "I know how to deal with 'em!" said old Mazey to himself, in high triumph. "Tall and short, native and foreign, sweethearts and wives--I know how to deal with 'em!"
Left by herself, Magdalen exemplified the excellence of the old sailor's method of treatment, in her particular case, by ascending the stairs immediately, to make her own observations on the second floor. The stone passage here was exactly similar, except that more doors opened out of it, to the passage on the first floor. She opened the two nearest doors, one after another, at a venture, and discovered that both rooms were bed-chambers. The fear of being discovered by one of the woman-servants in a part of the house with which she had no concern, warned her not to push her investigations on the bedroom floor too far at starting. She hurriedly walked down the passage to see where it ended, discovered that it came to its termination in a lumber-room, answering to the position of the vestibule downstairs, and retraced her steps immediately.
On her way back she noticed an object which had previously escaped her attention. It was a low truckle-bed, placed parallel with the wall, and close to one of the doors on the bedroom side. In spite of its strange and comfortless situation, the bed was apparently occupied at night by a sleeper; the sheets were on it, and the end of a thick red fisherman's cap peeped out from under the pillow. She ventured on opening the door near which the bed was placed, and found herself, as she conjectured from certain signs and tokens, in the admiral's sleeping chamber. A moment's observation of the room was all she dared risk, and, softly closing the door again, she returned to the kitchen regions.
The truckle-bed, and the strange position in which it was placed, dwelt on her mind all through the afternoon. Who could possibly sleep in it? The remembrance of the red fisherman's cap, and the knowledge she had already gained of Mazey's dog-like fidelity to his master, helped her to guess that the old sailor might be the occupant of the truckle-bed. But why, with bedrooms enough and to spare, should he occupy that cold and comfortless situation at night? Why should he sleep on guard outside his master's door? Was there some nocturnal danger in the house of which the admiral was afraid? The question seemed absurd, and yet the position of the bed forced it irresistibly on her mind.
Stimulated by her own ungovernable curiosity on this subject, Magdalen ventured to question the housekeeper. She acknowledged having walked from end to end of the passage on the second floor, to see if it was as long as the passage on the first; and she mentioned having noticed with astonishment the position of the truckle-bed. Mrs. Drake answered her implied inquiry shortly and sharply. "I don't blame a young girl like you," said the old lady, "for being a little curious when she first comes into such a strange house as this. But remember, for the future, that your business does not lie on the bedroom story. Mr. Mazey sleeps on that bed you noticed. It is his habit at night to sleep outside his master's door." With that meager explanation Mrs. Drake's lips closed, and opened no more.
Later in the day Magdalen found an opportunity of applying to old Mazey himself. She discovered the veteran in high good humor, smoking his pipe, and warming a tin mug of ale at his own snug fire.
"Mr. Mazey," she asked, boldly, "why do you put your bed in that cold passage?"
"What! you have been upstairs, you young jade, have you?" said old Mazey, looking up from his mug with a leer.
Magdalen smiled and nodded. "Come! come! tell me," she said, coaxingly. "Why do you sleep outside the admiral's door?"
"Why do you part your hair in the middle, my dear?" asked old Mazey, with another leer.
"I suppose, because I am accustomed to do it," answered Magdalen.
"Ay! ay!" said the veteran. "That's why, is it? Well, my dear, the reason why you part your hair in the middle is the reason why I sleep outside the admiral's door. I know how to deal with 'em!" chuckled old Mazey, lapsing into soliloquy, and stirring up his ale in high triumph. "Tall and short, native and foreign, sweethearts and wives--I know how to deal with 'em!"
Magdalen's third and last attempt at solving the mystery of the truckle-bed was made while she was waiting on the admiral at dinner. The old gentleman's questions gave her an opportunity of referring to the subject, without any appearance of presumption or disrespect; but he proved to be quite as impenetrable, in his way, as old Mazey and Mrs. Drake had been in theirs. "It doesn't concern you, my dear," said the admiral, bluntly. "Don't be curious. Look in your Old Testament when you go downstairs, and see what happened in the Garden of Eden through curiosity. Be a good girl, and don't imitate your mother Eve."
Late at night, as Magdalen passed the end of the second-floor passage, proceeding alone on her way up to her own room, she stopped and listened. A screen was placed at the entrance of the corridor, so as to hide it from the view of persons passing on the stairs. The snoring she heard on the other side of the screen encouraged her to slip round it, and to advance a few steps. Shading the light of her candle with her hand, she ventured close to the admiral's door, and saw, to her surprise, that the bed had been moved since she had seen it in the day-time, so as to stand exactly across the door, and to bar the way entirely to any one who might attempt to enter the admiral's room. After this discovery, old Mazey himself, snoring lustily, with the red fisherman's cap pulled down to his eyebrows, and the blankets drawn up to his nose, became an object of secondary importance only, by comparison with his bed. That the veteran did actually sleep on guard before his master's door, and that he and the admiral and the housekeeper were in the secret of this unaccountable proceeding, was now beyond all doubt.
"A strange end," thought Magdalen, pondering over her discovery as she stole upstairs to her own sleeping-room--"a strange end to a strange day!"
THE first week passed, the second week passed, and Magdalen was, to all appearance, no nearer to the discovery of the Secret Trust than on the day when she first entered on her service at St. Crux.
But the fortnight, uneventful as it was, had not been a fortnight lost. Experience had already satisfied her on one important point--experience had shown that she could set the rooted distrust of the other servants safely at defiance. Time had accustomed the women to her presence in the house, without shaking the vague conviction which possessed them all alike, that the newcomer was not one of themselves. All that Magdalen could do in her own defense was to keep the instinctive female suspicion of her confined within those purely negative limits which it had occupied from the first, and this she accomplished.
Day after day the women watched her with the untiring vigilance of malice and distrust, and day after day not the vestige of a discovery rewarded them for their pains. Silently, intelligently, and industriously--with an ever-present remembrance of herself and her place--the new parlor-maid did her work. Her only intervals of rest and relaxation were the intervals passed occasionally in the day with old Mazey and the dogs, and the precious interval of the night during which she was secure from observation in the solitude of her room. Thanks to the superfluity of bed-chambers at St. Crux, each one of the servants had the choice, if she pleased, of sleeping in a room of her own. Alone in the night, Magdalen might dare to be herself again--might dream of the past, and wake from the dream, encountering no curious eyes to notice that she was in tears--might ponder over the future, and be roused by no whisperings in corners, which tainted her with the suspicion of "having something on her mind."
Satisfied, thus far, of the perfect security of her position in the house, she profited next by a second chance in her favor, which--before the fortnight was at an end--relieved her mind of all doubt on the formidable subject of Mrs. Lecount.
Partly from the accidental gossip of the women at the table in the servants' hall; partly from a marked paragraph in a Swiss newspaper, which she had found one morning lying open on the admiral's easy-chair--she gained the welcome assurance that no danger was to be dreaded, this time, from the housekeeper's presence on the scene. Mrs. Lecount had, as it appeared, passed a week or more at St. Crux after the date of her master's death, and had then left England, to live on the interest of her legacy, in honorable and prosperous retirement, in her native place. The paragraph in the Swiss newspaper described the fulfillment of this laudable project. Mrs. Lecount had not only established herself at Zurich, but (wisely mindful of the uncertainty of life) had also settled the charitable uses to which her fortune was to be applied after her death. One half of it was to go to the founding of a "Lecompte Scholarship" for poor students in the University of Geneva. The other half was to be employed by the municipal authorities of Zurich in the maintenance and education of a certain number of orphan girls, natives of the city, who were to be trained for domestic service in later life. The Swiss journalist adverted to these philanthropic bequests in terms of extravagant eulogy. Zurich was congratulated on the possession of a Paragon of public virtue; and William Tell, in the character of benefactor to Switzerland, was compared disadvantageously with Mrs. Lecount.
The third week began, and Magdalen was now at liberty to take her first step forward on the way to the discovery of the Secret Trust.
She ascertained from old Mazey that it was his master's custom, during the winter and spring months, to occupy the rooms in the north wing; and during the summer and autumn to cross the Arctic passage of "Freeze-your-Bones," and live in the eastward apartments which looked out on the garden. While the Banqueting-Hall remained--owing to the admiral's inadequate pecuniary resources--in its damp and dismantled state, and while the interior of St. Crux was thus comfortlessly divided into two separate residences, no more convenient arrangement than this could well have been devised. Now and then (as Magdalen understood from her informant) there were days, both in winter and summer, when the admiral became anxious about the condition of the rooms which he was not occupying at the time, and when he insisted on investigating the state of the furniture, the pictures, and the books with his own eyes. On these occasions, in summer as in winter, a blazing fire was kindled for some days previously in the large grate, and the charcoal was lighted in the tripod-pan, to keep the Banqueting-Hall as warm as circumstances would admit. As soon as the old gentleman's anxieties were set at rest the rooms were shut up again, and "Freeze-your-Bones" was once more abandoned for weeks and weeks together to damp, desolation, and decay. The last of these temporary migrations had taken place only a few days since; the admiral had satisfied himself that the rooms in the east wing were none the worse for the absence of their master, and he might now be safely reckoned on as settled in the north wing for weeks, and perhaps, if the season was cold, for months to come.
Trifling as they might be in themselves, these particulars were of serious importance to Magdalen, for they helped her to fix the limits of the field of search. Assuming that the admiral was likely to keep all his important documents within easy reach of his own hand, she might now feel certain that the Secret Trust was secured in one or other of the rooms in the north wing.
In which room? That question was not easy to answer.
Of the four inhabitable rooms which were all at the admiral's disposal during the day--that is to say, of the dining-room, the library, the morning-room, and the drawing-room opening out of the vestibule--the library appeared to be the apartment in which, if he had a preference, he passed the greater part of his time. There was a table in this room, with drawers that locked; there was a magnificent Italian cabinet, with doors that locked; there were five cupboards under the book-cases, every one of which locked. There were receptacles similarly secured in the other rooms; and in all or any of these papers might be kept.
She had answered the bell, and had seen him locking and unlocking, now in one room, now in another, but oftenest in the library. She had noticed occasionally that his expression was fretful and impatient when he looked round at her from an open cabinet or cupboard and gave his orders; and she inferred that something in connection with his papers and possessions--it might or might not be the Secret Trust--irritated and annoyed him from time to time. She had heard him more than once lock something up in one of the rooms, come out and go into another room, wait there a few minutes, then return to the first room with his keys in his hand, and sharply turn the locks and turn them again. This fidgety anxiety about his keys and his cupboards might be the result of the inbred restlessness of his disposition, aggravated in a naturally active man by the aimless indolence of a life in retirement--a life drifting backward and forward among trifles, with no regular employment to steady it at any given hour of the day. On the other hand, it was just as probable that these comings and goings, these lockings and unlockings, might be attributable to the existence of some private responsibility which had unexpectedly intruded itself into the old man's easy existence, and which tormented him with a sense of oppression new to the experience of his later years. Either one of these interpretations might explain his conduct as reasonably and as probably as the other. Which was the right interpretation of the two, it was, in Magdalen's position, impossible to say.
The one certain discovery at which she arrived was made in her first day's observation of him. The admiral was a rigidly careful man with his keys.
All the smaller keys he kept on a ring in the breast-pocket of his coat. The larger he locked up together; generally, but not always, in one of the drawers of the library table. Sometimes he left them secured in this way at night; sometimes he took them up to the bedroom with him in a little basket. He had no regular times for leaving them or for taking them away with him; he had no discoverable reason for now securing them in the library-table drawer, and now again locking them up in some other place. The inveterate willfulness and caprice of his proceedings in these particulars defied every effort to reduce them to a system, and baffled all attempts at calculating on them beforehand.
The hope of gaining positive information to act on, by laying artful snares for him which he might fall into in his talk, proved, from the outset, to be utterly futile.
In Magdalen's situation all experiments of this sort would have been in the last degree difficult and dangerous with any man. With the admiral they were simply impossible. His tendency to veer about from one subject to another; his habit of keeping his tongue perpetually going, so long as there was anybody, no matter whom, within reach of the sound of his voice; his comical want of all dignity and reserve with his servants, promised, in appearance, much, and performed in reality nothing. No matter how diffidently or how respectfully Magdalen might presume on her master's example, and on her master's evident liking for her, the old man instantly discovered the advance she was making from her proper position, and instantly put her back in it again, with a quaint good humor which inflicted no pain, but with a blunt straightforwardness of purpose which permitted no escape. Contradictory as it may sound, Admiral Bartram was too familiar to be approached; he kept the distance between himself and his servant more effectually than if he had been the proudest man in England. The systematic reserve of a superior toward an inferior may be occasionally overcome--the systematic familiarity never.
Slowly the time dragged on. The fourth week came; and Magdalen had made no new discoveries. The prospect was depressing in the last degree. Even in the apparently hopeless event of her devising a means of getting at the admiral's keys, she could not count on retaining possession of them unsuspected more than a few hours--hours which might be utterly wasted through her not knowing in what direction to begin the search. The Trust might be locked up in any one of some twenty receptacles for papers, situated in four different rooms; and which room was the likeliest to look in, which receptacle was the most promising to begin with, which position among other heaps of papers the one paper needful might be expected to occupy, was more than she could say. Hemmed in by immeasurable uncertainties on every side; condemned, as it were, to wander blindfold on the very brink of success, she waited for the chance that never came, for the event that never happened, with a patience which was sinking already into the patience of despair.
Night after night she looked back over the vanished days, and not an event rose on her memory to distinguish them one from the other. The only interruptions to the weary uniformity of the life at St. Crux were caused by the characteristic delinquencies of old Mazey and the dogs.
At certain intervals, the original wildness broke out in the natures of Brutus and Cassius. The modest comforts of home, the savory charms of made dishes, the decorous joy of digestions accomplished on hearth-rugs, lost all their attractions, and the dogs ungratefully left the house to seek dissipation and adventure in the outer world. On these occasions the established after-dinner formula of question and answer between old Mazey and his master varied a little in one particular. "God bless the Queen, Mazey," and "How's the wind, Mazey?" were followed by a new inquiry: "Where are the dogs, Mazey?" "Out on the loose, your honor, and be damned to 'em," was the veteran's unvarying answer. The admiral always sighed and shook his head gravely at the news, as if Brutus and Cassius had been sons of his own, who treated him with a want of proper filial respect. In two or three days' time the dogs always returned, lean, dirty, and heartily ashamed of themselves. For the whole of the next day they were invariably tied up in disgrace. On the day after they were scrubbed clean, and were formally re-admitted to the dining-room. There, Civilization, acting through the subtle medium of the Saucepan, recovered its hold on them; and the admiral's two prodigal sons, when they saw the covers removed, watered at the mouth as copiously as ever.
Old Mazey, in his way, proved to be just as disreputably inclined on certain occasions as the dogs. At intervals, the original wildness in his nature broke out; he, too, lost all relish for the comforts of home, and ungratefully left the house. He usually disappeared in the afternoon, and returned at night as drunk as liquor could make him. He was by many degrees too seasoned a vessel to meet with any disasters on these occasions. His wicked old legs might take roundabout methods of progression, but they never failed him; his wicked old eyes might see double, but they always showed him the way home. Try as hard as they might, the servants could never succeed in persuading him that he was drunk; he always scorned the imputation. He even declined to admit the idea privately into his mind, until he had first tested his condition by an infallible criterion of his own.
It was his habit, in these cases of Bacchanalian emergency, to stagger obstinately into his room on the ground-floor, to take the model-ship out of the cupboard, and to try if he could proceed with the never-to-be-completed employment of setting up the rigging. When he had smashed the tiny spars, and snapped asunder the delicate ropes--then, and not till then, the veteran admitted facts as they were, on the authority of practical evidence. "Ay! ay!" he used to say confidentially to himself, "the women are right. Drunk again, Mazey--drunk again!" Having reached this discovery, it was his habit to wait cunningly in the lower regions until the admiral was safe in his room, and then to ascend in discreet list slippers to his post. Too wary to attempt getting into the truckle-bed (which would have been only inviting the catastrophe of a fall against his master's door), he always walked himself sober up and down the passage. More than once Magdalen had peeped round the screen, and had seen the old sailor unsteadily keeping his watch, and fancying himself once more at his duty on board ship. "This is an uncommonly lively vessel in a sea-way," he used to mutter under his breath, when his legs took him down the passage in zigzag directions, or left him for the moment studying the "Pints of the Compass" on his own system, with his back against the wall. "A nasty night, mind you," he would maunder on, taking another turn. "As dark as your pocket, and the wind heading us again from the old quarter." On the next day old Mazey, like the dogs, was kept downstairs in disgrace. On the day after, like the dogs again, he was reinstated in his privileges; and another change was introduced in the after-dinner formula. On entering the room, the old sailor stopped short and made his excuses in this brief yet comprehensive form of words, with his back against the door: "Please your honor, I'm ashamed of myself." So the apology began and ended. "This mustn't happen again, Mazey," the admiral used to answer. "It shan't happen again, your honor." "Very good. Come here, and drink your glass of wine. God bless the Queen, Mazey." The veteran tossed off his port, and the dialogue ended as usual.
So the days passed, with no incidents more important than these to relieve their monotony, until the end of the fourth week was at hand.
On the last day, an event happened; on the last day, the long deferred promise of the future unexpectedly began to dawn. While Magdalen was spreading the cloth in the dining-room, as usual, Mrs. Drake looked in, and instructed her on this occasion, for the first time, to lay the table for two persons. The admiral had received a letter from his nephew. Early that evening Mr. George Bartram was expected to return to St. Crux.
AFTER placing the second cover, Magdalen awaited the ringing of the dinner-bell, with an interest and impatience which she found it no easy task to conceal. The return of Mr. Bartram would, in all probability, produce a change in the life of the house; and from change of any kind, no matter how trifling, something might be hoped. The nephew might be accessible to influences which had failed to reach the uncle. In any case, the two would talk of their affairs over their dinner; and through that talk--proceeding day after day in her presence--the way to discovery, now absolutely invisible, might, sooner or later, show itself.
At last the bell rang, the door opened, and the two gentlemen entered the room together.
Magdalen was struck, as her sister had been struck, by George Bartram's resemblance to her father--judging by the portrait at Combe-Raven, which presented the likeness of Andrew Vanstone in his younger days. The light hair and florid complexion, the bright blue eyes and hardy upright figure, familiar to her in the picture, were all recalled to her memory, as the nephew followed the uncle across the room and took his place at table. She was not prepared for this sudden revival of the lost associations of home. Her attention wandered as she tried to conceal its effect on her; and she made a blunder in waiting at table, for the first time since she had entered the house.
A quaint reprimand from the admiral, half in jest, half in earnest, gave her time to recover herself. She ventured another look at George Bartram. The impression which he produced on her this time roused her curiosity immediately. His face and manner plainly expressed anxiety and preoccupation of mind. He looked oftener at his plate than at his uncle, and at Magdalen herself (except one passing inspection of the new parlor-maid, when the admiral spoke to her) he never looked at all. Some uncertainty was evidently troubling his thoughts; some oppression was weighing on his natural freedom of manner. What uncertainty? what oppression? Would any personal revelations come out, little by little, in the course of conversation at the dinner-table?
No. One set of dishes followed another set of dishes, and nothing in the shape of a personal revelation took place. The conversation halted on irregularly, between public affairs on one side and trifling private topics on the other. Politics, home and foreign, took their turn with the small household history of St. Crux; the leaders of the revolution which expelled Louis Philippe from the throne of France marched side by side, in the dinner-table review, with old Mazey and the dogs. The dessert was put on the table, the old sailor came in, drank his loyal toast, paid his respects to "Master George," and went out again. Magdalen followed him, on her way back to the servants' offices, having heard nothing in the conversation of the slightest importance to the furtherance of her own design, from the first word of it to the last. She struggled hard not to lose heart and hope on the first day. They could hardly talk again to-morrow, they could hardly talk again the next day, of the French Revolution and the dogs. Time might do wonders yet; and time was all her own.
Left together over their wine, the uncle and nephew drew their easy-chairs on either side of the fire; and, in Magdalen's absence, began the very conversation which it was Magdalen's interest to hear.
"Claret, George?" said the admiral, pushing the bottle across the table. "You look out of spirits."
"I am a little anxious, sir," replied George, leaving his glass empty, and looking straight into the fire.
"I am glad to hear it," rejoined the admiral. "I am more than a little anxious myself, I can tell you. Here we are at the last days of March--and nothing done! Your time comes to an end on the third of May; and there you sit, as if you had years still before you, to turn round in."
George smiled, and resignedly helped himself to some wine.
"Am I really to understand, sir," he asked, "that you are serious in what you said to me last November? Are you actually resolved to bind me to that incomprehensible condition?"
"I don't call it incomprehensible," said the admiral, irritably.
"Don't you, sir? I am to inherit your estate, unconditionally--as you have generously settled it from the first. But I am not to touch a farthing of the fortune poor Noel left you unless I am married within a certain time. The house and lands are to be mine (thanks to your kindness) under any circumstances. But the money with which I might improve them both is to be arbitrarily taken away from me, if I am not a married man on the third of May. I am sadly wanting in intelligence, I dare say, but a more incomprehensible proceeding I never heard of!"
"No snapping and snarling, George! Say your say out. We don't understand sneering in Her Majesty's Navy!"
"I mean no offense, sir. But I think it's a little hard to astonish me by a change of proceeding on your part, entirely foreign to my experience of your character--and then, when I naturally ask for an explanation, to turn round coolly and leave me in the dark. If you and Noel came to some private arrangement together before he made his will, why not tell me? Why set up a mystery between us, where no mystery need be?"
"I won't have it, George!" cried the admiral, angrily drumming on the table with the nutcrackers. "You are trying to draw me like a badger, but I won't be drawn! I'll make any conditions I please; and I'll be accountable to nobody for them unless I like. It's quite bad enough to have worries and responsibilities laid on my unlucky shoulders that I never bargained for--never mind what worries: they're not yours, they're mine--without being questioned and cross-questioned as if I was a witness in a box. Here's a pretty fellow!" continued the admiral, apostrophizing his nephew in red-hot irritation, and addressing himself to the dogs on the hearth-rug for want of a better audience. "Here's a pretty fellow? He is asked to help himself to two uncommonly comfortable things in their way--a fortune and a wife; he is allowed six months to get the wife in (we should have got her, in the Navy, bag and baggage, in six days); he has a round dozen of nice girls, to my certain knowledge, in one part of the country and another, all at his disposal to choose from, and what does he do? He sits month after month, with his lazy legs crossed before him; he leaves the girls to pine on the stem, and he bothers his uncle to know the reason why! I pity the poor unfortunate women. Men were made of flesh and blood, and plenty of it, too, in my time. They're made of machinery now."
"I can only repeat, sir, I am sorry to have offended you," said George.
"Pooh! pooh! you needn't look at me in that languishing way if you are," retorted the admiral. "Stick to your wine, and I'll forgive you. Your good health, George. I'm glad to see you again at St. Crux. Look at that plateful of sponge-cakes! The cook has sent them up in honor of your return. We can't hurt her feelings, and we can't spoil our wine. Here!"--The admiral tossed four sponge-cakes in quick succession down the accommodating throats of the dogs. "I am sorry, George," the old gentleman gravely proceeded; "I am really sorry you haven't got your eye on one of those nice girls. You don't know what a loss you're inflicting on yourself; you don't know what trouble and mortification you're causing me by this shilly-shally conduct of yours."
"If you would only allow me to explain myself, sir, you would view my conduct in a totally different light. I am ready to marry to-morrow, if the lady will have me."
"The devil you are! So you have got a lady in your eye, after all? Why in Heaven's name couldn't you tell me so before? Never mind, I'll forgive you everything, now I know you have laid your hand on a wife. Fill your glass again. Here's her health in a bumper. By-the-by, who is she?"
"I'll tell you directly, admiral. When we began this conversation, I mentioned that I was a little anxious--"
"She's not one of my round dozen of nice girls--aha, Master George, I see that in your face already! Why are you anxious?"
"I am afraid you will disapprove of my choice, sir."
"Don't beat about the bush! How the deuce can I say whether I disapprove or not, if you won't tell me who she is?"
"She is the eldest daughter of Andrew Vanstone, of Combe-Raven."
"Miss Vanstone, sir."
The admiral put down his glass of wine untasted.
"You're right, George," he said. "I do disapprove of your choice--strongly disapprove of it."
"Is it the misfortune of her birth, sir, that you object to?"
"God forbid! the misfortune of her birth is not her fault, poor thing. You know as well as I do, George, what I object to."
"You object to her sister?"
"Certainly! The most liberal man alive might object to her sister, I think."
"It's hard, sir, to make Miss Vanstone suffer for her sister's faults."
"Faults, do you call them? You have a mighty convenient memory, George, when your own interests are concerned."
"Call them crimes if you like, sir--I say again, it's hard on Miss Vanstone. Miss Vanstone's life is pure of all reproach. From first to last she has borne her hard lot with such patience, and sweetness, and courage as not one woman in a thousand would have shown in her place. Ask Miss Garth, who has known her from childhood. Ask Mrs. Tyrrel, who blesses the day when she came into the house--"
"Ask a fiddlestick's end! I beg your pardon, George, but you are enough to try the patience of a saint. My good fellow, I don't deny Miss Vanstone's virtues. I'll admit, if you like, she's the best woman that ever put on a petticoat. That is not the question--"
"Excuse me, admiral--it is the question, if she is to be my wife."
"Hear me out, George; look at it from my point of view, as well as your own. What did your cousin Noel do? Your cousin Noel fell a victim, poor fellow, to one of the vilest conspiracies I ever heard of, and the prime mover of that conspiracy was Miss Vanstone's damnable sister. She deceived him in the most infamous manner; and as soon as she was down for a handsome legacy in his will, she had the poison ready to take his life. This is the truth; we know it from Mrs. Lecount, who found the bottle locked up in her own room. If you marry Miss Vanstone, you make this wretch your sister-in-law. She becomes a member of our family. All the disgrace of what she has done; all the disgrace of what she may do--and the Devil, who possesses her, only knows what lengths she may go to next--becomes our disgrace. Good heavens, George, consider what a position that is! Consider what pitch you touch, if you make this woman your sister-in-law."
"You have put your side of the question, admiral," said George resolutely; "now let me put mine. A certain impression is produced on me by a young lady whom I meet with under very interesting circumstances. I don't act headlong on that impression, as I might have done if I had been some years younger; I wait, and put it to the trial. Every time I see this young lady the impression strengthens; her beauty grows on me, her character grows on me; when I am away from her, I am restless and dissatisfied; when I am with her, I am the happiest man alive. All I hear of her conduct from those who know her best more than confirms the high opinion I have formed of her. The one drawback I can discover is caused by a misfortune for which she is not responsible--the misfortune of having a sister who is utterly unworthy of her. Does this discovery--an unpleasant discovery, I grant you--destroy all those good qualities in Miss Vanstone for which I love and admire her? Nothing of the sort--it only makes her good qualities all the more precious to me by contrast. If I am to have a drawback to contend with--and who expects anything else in this world?--I would infinitely rather have the drawback attached to my wife's sister than to my wife. My wife's sister is not essential to my happiness, but my wife is. In my opinion, sir, Mrs. Noel Vanstone has done mischief enough already. I don't see the necessity of letting her do more mischief, by depriving me of a good wife. Right or wrong, that is my point of view. I don't wish to trouble you with any questions of sentiment. All I wish to say is that I am old enough by this time to know my own mind, and that my mind is made up. If my marriage is essential to the execution of your intentions on my behalf, there is only one woman in the world whom I can marry, and that woman is Miss Vanstone."
There was no resisting this plain declaration. Admiral Bartram rose from his chair without making any reply, and walked perturbedly up and down the room.
The situation was emphatically a serious one. Mrs. Girdlestone's death had already produced the failure of one of the two objects contemplated by the Secret Trust. If the third of May arrived and found George a single man, the second (and last) of the objects would then have failed in its turn. In little more than a fortnight, at the very latest, the Banns must be published in Ossory church, or the time would fail for compliance with one of the stipulations insisted on in the Trust. Obstinate as the admiral was by nature, strongly as he felt the objections which attached to his nephew's contemplated alliance, he recoiled in spite of himself, as he paced the room and saw the facts on either side immovably staring him in the face.
"Are you engaged to Miss Vanstone?" he asked, suddenly.
"No, sir," replied George. "I thought it due to your uniform kindness to me to speak to you on the subject first."
"Much obliged, I'm sure. And you have put off speaking to me to the last moment, just as you put off everything else. Do you think Miss Vanstone will say yes when you ask her?"
"The devil take your modesty!" shouted the admiral. "This is not a time for modesty; this is a time for speaking out. Will she or won't she?"
"I think she will, sir."
The admiral laughed sardonically, and took another turn in the room. He suddenly stopped, put his hands in his pockets, and stood still in a corner, deep in thought. After an interval of a few minutes, his face cleared a little; it brightened with the dawning of a new idea. He walked round briskly to George's side of the fire, and laid his hand kindly on his nephew's shoulder.
"You're wrong, George," he said; "but it is too late now to set you right. On the sixteenth of next month the Banns must be put up in Ossory church, or you will lose the money. Have you told Miss Vanstone the position you stand in? Or have you put that off to the eleventh hour, like everything else?"
"The position is so extraordinary, sir, and it might lead to so much misapprehension of my motives, that I have felt unwilling to allude to it. I hardly know how I can tell her of it at all."
"Try the experiment of telling her friends. Let them know it's a question of money, and they will overcome her scruples, if you can't. But that is not what I had to say to you. How long do you propose stopping here this time?"
"I thought of staying a few days, and then--"
"And then of going back to London and making your offer, I suppose? Will a week give you time enough to pick your opportunity with Miss Vanstone--a week out of the fortnight or so that you have to spare?"
"I will stay here a week, admiral, with pleasure, if you wish it."
"I don't wish it. I want you to pack up your traps and be off to-morrow."
George looked at his uncle in silent astonishment.
"You found some letters waiting for you when you got here," proceeded the admiral. "Was one of those letters from my old friend, Sir Franklin Brock?"
"Was it an invitation to you to go and stay at the Grange?"
"To go at once?"
"At once, if I could manage it."
"Very good. I want you to manage it; I want you to start for the Grange to-morrow."
George looked back at the fire, and sighed impatiently.
"I understand you now, admiral," he said. "You are entirely mistaken in me. My attachment to Miss Vanstone is not to be shaken in that manner."
Admiral Bartram took his quarter-deck walk again, up and down the room.
"One good turn deserves another, George," said the old gentleman. "If I am willing to make concessions on my side, the least you can do is to meet me half-way, and make concessions on yours."
"I don't deny it, sir."
"Very well. Now listen to my proposal. Give me a fair hearing, George--a fair hearing is every man's privilege. I will be perfectly just to begin with. I won't attempt to deny that you honestly believe Miss Vanstone is the only woman in the world who can make you happy. I don't question that. What I do question is, whether you really know your own mind in this matter quite so well as you think you know it yourself. You can't deny, George, that you have been in love with a good many women in your time? Among the rest of them, you have been in love with Miss Brock. No longer ago than this time last year there was a sneaking kindness between you and that young lady, to say the least of it. And quite right, too! Miss Brock is one of that round dozen of darlings I mentioned over our first glass of wine."
"You are confusing an idle flirtation, sir, with a serious attachment," said George. "You are altogether mistaken--you are, indeed."
"Likely enough; I don't pretend to be infallible--I leave that to my juniors. But I happen to have known you, George, since you were the height of my old telescope; and I want to have this serious attachment of yours put to the test. If you can satisfy me that your whole heart and soul are as strongly set on Miss Vanstone as you suppose them to be, I must knock under to necessity, and keep my objections to myself. But I must be satisfied first. Go to the Grange to-morrow, and stay there a week in Miss Brock's society. Give that charming girl a fair chance of lighting up the old flame again if she can, and then come back to St. Crux, and let me hear the result. If you tell me, as an honest man, that your attachment to Miss Vanstone still remains unshaken, you will have heard the last of my objections from that moment. Whatever misgivings I may feel in my own mind, I will say nothing, and do nothing, adverse to your wishes. There is my proposal. I dare say it looks like an old man's folly, in your eyes. But the old man won't trouble you much longer, George; and it may be a pleasant reflection, when you have got sons of your own, to remember that you humored him in his last days."
He came back to the fire-place as he said those words, and laid his hand once more on his nephew's shoulder. George took the hand and pressed it affectionately. In the tenderest and best sense of the word, his uncle had been a father to him.
"I will do what you ask me, sir," he replied, "if you seriously wish it. But it is only right to tell you that the experiment will be perfectly useless. However, if you prefer my passing a week at the Grange to my passing it here, to the Grange I will go."
"Thank you, George," said the admiral, bluntly. "I expected as much from you, and you have not disappointed me.--If Miss Brock doesn't get us out of this mess," thought the wily old gentleman, as he resumed his place at the table, "my nephew's weather-cock of a head has turned steady with a vengeance!--We'll consider the question settled for to-night, George," he continued, aloud, "and call another subject. These family anxieties don't improve the flavor of my old claret. The bottle stands with you. What are they doing at the theaters in London? We always patronized the theaters, in my time, in the Navy. We used to like a good tragedy to begin with, and a hornpipe to cheer us up at the end of the entertainment."
For the rest of the evening, the talk flowed in the ordinary channels. Admiral Bartram only returned to the forbidden subject when he and his nephew parted for the night.
"You won't forget to-morrow, George?"
"Certainly not, sir. I'll take the dog-cart, and drive myself over after breakfast."
Before noon the next day Mr. George Bartram had left the house, and the last chance in Magdalen's favor had left it with him.
WHEN the servants' dinner-bell at St. Crux rang as usual on the day of George Bartram's departure, it was remarked that the new parlor-maid's place at table remained empty. One of the inferior servants was sent to her room to make inquiries, and returned with the information that "Louisa" felt a little faint, and begged that her attendance at table might be excused for that day. Upon this, the superior authority of the housekeeper was invoked, and Mrs. Drake went upstairs immediately to ascertain the truth for herself. Her first look of inquiry satisfied her that the parlor-maid's indisposition, whatever the cause of it might be, was certainly not assumed to serve any idle or sullen purpose of her own. She respectfully declined taking any of the remedies which the housekeeper offered, and merely requested permission to try the efficacy of a walk in the fresh air.
"I have been accustomed to more exercise, ma'am, than I take here," she said. "Might I go into the garden, and try what the air will do for me?"
"Certainly. Can you walk by yourself, or shall I send some one with you?"
"I will go by myself, if you please, ma'am."
"Very well. Put on your bonnet and shawl, and, when you get out, keep in the east garden. The admiral sometimes walks in the north garden, and he might feel surprised at seeing you there. Come to my room, when you have had air and exercise enough, and let me see how you are."
In a few minutes more Magdalen was out in the east garden. The sky was clear and sunny; but the cold shadow of the house rested on the garden walk and chilled the midday air. She walked toward the ruins of the old monastery, situated on the south side of the more modern range of buildings. Here there were lonely open spaces to breathe in freely; here the pale March sunshine stole through the gaps of desolation and decay, and met her invitingly with the genial promise of spring.
She ascended three or four riven stone steps, and seated herself on some ruined fragments beyond them, full in the sunshine. The place she had chosen had once been the entrance to the church. In centuries long gone by, the stream of human sin and human suffering had flowed, day after day, to the confessional, over the place where she now sat. Of all the miserable women who had trodden those old stones in the bygone time, no more miserable creature had touched them than the woman whose feet rested on them now.
Her hands trembled as she placed them on either side of her, to support herself on the stone seat. She laid them on her lap; they trembled there. She held them out, and looked at them wonderingly; they trembled as she looked. "Like an old woman!" she said, faintly, and let them drop again at her side.
For the first time, that morning, the cruel discovery had forced itself on her mind--the discovery that her strength was failing her, at the time when she had most confidently trusted to it, at the time when she wanted it most. She had felt the surprise of Mr. Bartram's unexpected departure, as if it had been the shock of the severest calamity that could have befallen her. That one check to her hopes--a check which at other times would only have roused the resisting power in her to new efforts--had struck her with as suffocating a terror, had prostrated her with as all-mastering a despair, as if she had been overwhelmed by the crowning disaster of expulsion from St. Crux. But one warning could be read in such a change as this. Into the space of little more than a year she had crowded the wearing and wasting emotions of a life. The bountiful gifts of health and strength, so prodigally heaped on her by Nature, so long abused with impunity, were failing her at last.
She looked up at the far faint blue of the sky. She heard the joyous singing of birds among the ivy that clothed the ruins. Oh the cold distance of the heavens! Oh the pitiless happiness of the birds! Oh the lonely horror of sitting there, and feeling old and weak and worn, in the heyday of her youth! She rose with a last effort of resolution, and tried to keep back the hysterical passion swelling at her heart by moving and looking about her. Rapidly and more rapidly she walked to and fro in the sunshine. The exercise helped her, through the very fatigue that she felt from it. She forced the rising tears desperately back to their sources; she fought with the clinging pain, and wrenched it from its hold. Little by little her mind began to clear again: the despairing fear of herself grew less vividly present to her thoughts. There were reserves of youth and strength in her still to be wasted; there was a spirit sorely wounded, but not yet subdued.
She gradually extended the limits of her walk; she gradually recovered the exercise of her observation.
At the western extremity the remains of the monastery were in a less ruinous condition than at the eastern. In certain places, where the stout old walls still stood, repairs had been made at some former time. Roofs of red tile had been laid roughly over four of the ancient cells; wooden doors had been added; and the old monastic chambers had been used as sheds to hold the multifarious lumber of St. Crux. No padlocks guarded any of the doors. Magdalen had only to push them to let the daylight in on the litter inside. She resolved to investigate the sheds one after the other--not from curiosity, not with the idea of making discoveries of any sort. Her only object was to fill up the vacant time, and to keep the thoughts that unnerved her from returning to her mind.
The first shed she opened contained the gardener's utensils, large and small. The second was littered with fragments of broken furniture, empty picture-frames of worm-eaten wood, shattered vases, boxes without covers, and books torn from their bindings. As Magdalen turned to leave the shed, after one careless glance round her at the lumber that it contained, her foot struck something on the ground which tinkled against a fragment of china lying near it. She stooped, and discovered that the tinkling substance was a rusty key.
She picked up the key and looked at it. She walked out into the air, and considered a little. More old forgotten keys were probably lying about among the lumber in the sheds. What if she collected all she could find, and tried them, one after another, in the locks of the cabinets and cupboards now closed against her? Was there chance enough that any one of them might fit to justify her in venturing on the experiment? If the locks at St. Crux were as old-fashioned as the furniture--if there were no protective niceties of modern invention to contend against--there was chance enough beyond all question. Who could say whether the very key in her hand might not be the lost duplicate of one of the keys on the admiral's bunch? In the dearth of all other means of finding the way to her end, the risk was worth running. A flash of the old spirit sparkled in her weary eyes as she turned and re-entered the shed.
Half an hour more brought her to the limits of the time which she could venture to allow herself in the open air. In that interval she had searched the sheds from first to last, and had found five more keys. "Five more chances!" she thought to herself, as she hid the keys, and hastily returned to the house.
After first reporting herself in the housekeeper's room, she went upstairs to remove her bonnet and shawl; taking that opportunity to hide the keys in her bed-chamber until night came. They were crusted thick with rust and dirt; but she dared not attempt to clean them until bed-time secluded her from the prying eyes of the servants in the solitude of her room.
When the dinner hour brought her, as usual, into personal contact with the admiral, she was at once struck by a change in him. For the first time in her experience the old gentleman was silent and depressed. He ate less than usual, and he hardly said five words to her from the beginning of the meal to the end. Some unwelcome subject of reflection had evidently fixed itself on his mind, and remained there persistently, in spite of his efforts to shake it off. At intervals through the evening, she wondered with an ever-growing perplexity what the subject could be.
At last the lagging hours reached their end, and bed-time came. Before she slept that night Magdalen had cleaned the keys from all impurities, and had oiled the wards, to help them smoothly into the locks. The last difficulty that remained was the difficulty of choosing the time when the experiment might be tried with the least risk of interruption and discovery. After carefully considering the question overnight, Magdalen could only resolve to wait and be guided by the events of the next day.
The morning came, and for the first time at St. Crux events justified the trust she had placed in them. The morning came, and the one remaining difficulty that perplexed her was unexpectedly smoothed away by no less a person than the admiral himself! To the surprise of every one in the house, he announced at breakfast that he had arranged to start for London in an hour; that he should pass the night in town; and that he might be expected to return to St. Crux in time for dinner on the next day. He volunteered no further explanations to the housekeeper or to any one else, but it was easy to see that his errand to London was of no ordinary importance in his own estimation. He swallowed his breakfast in a violent hurry, and he was impatiently ready for the carriage before it came to the door.
Experience had taught Magdalen to be cautious. She waited a little, after Admiral Bartram's departure, before she ventured on trying her experiment with the keys. It was well she did so. Mrs. Drake took advantage of the admiral's absence to review the condition of the apartments on the first floor. The results of the investigation by no means satisfied her; brooms and dusters were set to work; and the house-maids were in and out of the rooms perpetually, as long as the daylight lasted.
The evening passed, and still the safe opportunity for which Magdalen was on the watch never presented itself. Bed-time came again, and found her placed between the two alternatives of trusting to the doubtful chances of the next morning, or of trying the keys boldly in the dead of night. In former times she would have made her choice without hesitation. She hesitated now; but the wreck of her old courage still sustained her, and she determined to make the venture at night.
They kept early hours at St. Crux. If she waited in her room until half-past eleven, she would wait long enough. At that time she stole out on to the staircase, with the keys in her pocket, and the candle in her hand.
On passing the entrance to the corridor on the bedroom floor, she stopped and listened. No sound of snoring, no shuffling of infirm footsteps was to be heard on the other side of the screen. She looked round it distrustfully. The stone passage was a solitude, and the truckle-bed was empty. Her own eyes had shown her old Mazey on his way to the upper regions, more than an hour since, with a candle in his hand. Had he taken advantage of his master's absence to enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of sleeping in a room? As the thought occurred to her, a sound from the further end of the corridor just caught her ear. She softly advanced toward it, and heard through the door of the last and remotest of the spare bed-chambers the veteran's lusty snoring in the room inside. The discovery was startling, in more senses than one. It deepened the impenetrable mystery of the truckle-bed; for it showed plainly that old Mazey had no barbarous preference of his own for passing his nights in the corridor; he occupied that strange and comfortless sleeping-place purely and entirely on his master's account.
It was no time for dwelling on the reflections which this conclusion might suggest. Magdalen retraced her steps along the passage, and descended to the first floor. Passing the doors nearest to her, she tried the library first. On the staircase and in the corridors she had felt her heart throbbing fast with an unutterable fear; but a sense of security returned to her when she found herself within the four walls of the room, and when she had closed the door on the ghostly quiet outside.
The first lock she tried was the lock of the table-drawer. None of the keys fitted it. Her next experiment was made on the cabinet. Would the second attempt fail, like the first?
No! One of the keys fitted; one of the keys, with a little patient management, turned the lock. She looked in eagerly. There were open shelves above, and one long drawer under them. The shelves were devoted to specimens of curious minerals, neatly labeled and arranged. The drawer was divided into compartments. Two of the compartments contained papers. In the first, she discovered nothing but a collection of receipted bills. In the second, she found a heap of business documents; but the writing, yellow with age, was enough of itself to warn her that the Trust was not there. She shut the doors of the cabinet, and, after locking them again with some little difficulty, proceeded to try the keys in the bookcase cupboards next, before she continued her investigations in the other rooms.
The bookcase cupboards were unassailable, the drawers and cupboards in all the other rooms were unassailable. One after another she tried them patiently in regular succession. It was useless. The chance which the cabinet in the library had offered in her favor was the first chance and the last.
She went back to her room, seeing nothing but her own gliding shadow, hearing nothing but her own stealthy footfall in the midnight stillness of the house. After mechanically putting the keys away in their former hiding-place, she looked toward her bed, and turned away from it, shuddering. The warning remembrance of what she had suffered that morning in the garden was vividly present to her mind. "Another chance tried," she thought to herself, "and another chance lost! I shall break down again if I think of it; and I shall think of it if I lie awake in the dark." She had brought a work-box with her to St. Crux, as one of the many little things which in her character of a servant it was desirable to possess; and she now opened the box and applied herself resolutely to work. Her want of dexterity with her needle assisted the object she had in view; it obliged her to pay the closest attention to her employment; it forced her thoughts away from the two subjects of all others which she now dreaded most--herself and the future.
The next day, as he had arranged, the admiral returned. His visit to London had not improved his spirits. The shadow of some unconquerable doubt still clouded his face; his restless tongue was strangely quiet, while Magdalen waited on him at his solitary meal. That night the snoring resounded once more on the inner side of the screen, and old Mazey was back again in the comfortless truckle-bed.
Three more days passed--April came. On the second of the month--returning as unexpectedly as he had departed a week before--Mr. George Bartram re-appeared at St. Crux.
He came back early in the afternoon, and had an interview with his uncle in the library. The interview over, he left the house again, and was driven to the railway by the groom in time to catch the last train to London that night. The groom noticed, on the road, that "Mr. George seemed to be rather pleased than otherwise at leaving St. Crux." He also remarked, on his return, that the admiral swore at him for overdriving the horses--an indication of ill-temper, on the part of his master, which he described as being entirely without precedent in all his former experience. Magdalen, in her department of service, had suffered in like manner under the old man's irritable humor: he had been dissatisfied with everything she did in the dining-room; and he had found fault with all the dishes, one after another, from the mutton-broth to the toasted cheese.
The next two days passed as usual. On the third day an event happened. In appearance, it was nothing more important than a ring at the drawing-room bell. In reality, it was the forerunner of approaching catastrophe--the formidable herald of the end.
It was Magdalen's business to answer the bell. On reaching the drawing-room door, she knocked as usual. There was no reply. After again knocking, and again receiving no answer, she ventured into the room, and was instantly met by a current of cold air flowing full on her face. The heavy sliding door in the opposite wall was pushed back, and the Arctic atmosphere of Freeze-your-Bones was pouring unhindered into the empty room.
She waited near the door, doubtful what to do next; it was certainly the drawing-room bell that had rung, and no other. She waited, looking through the open doorway opposite, down the wilderness of the dismantled Hall.
A little consideration satisfied her that it would be best to go downstairs again, and wait there for a second summons from the bell. On turning to leave the room, she happened to look back once more, and exactly at that moment she saw the door open at the opposite extremity of the Banqueting-Hall--the door leading into the first of the apartments in the east wing. A tall man came out, wearing his great coat and his hat, and rapidly approached the drawing-room. His gait betrayed him, while he was still too far off for his features to be seen. Before he was quite half-way across the Hall, Magdalen had recognized--the admiral.
He looked, not irritated only, but surprised as well, at finding his parlor-maid waiting for him in the drawing-room, and inquired, sharply and suspiciously, what she wanted there? Magdalen replied that she had come there to answer the bell. His face cleared a little when he heard the explanation. "Yes, yes; to be sure," he said. "I did ring, and then I forgot it." He pulled the sliding door back into its place as he spoke. "Coals," he resumed, impatiently, pointing to the empty scuttle. "I rang for coals."
Magdalen went back to the kitchen regions. After communicating the admiral's order to the servant whose special duty it was to attend to the fires, she returned to the pantry, and, gently closing the door, sat down alone to think.
It had been her impression in the drawing-room--and it was her impression still--that she had accidentally surprised Admiral Bartram on a visit to the east rooms, which, for some urgent reason of his own, he wished to keep a secret. Haunted day and night by the one dominant idea that now possessed her, she leaped all logical difficulties at a bound, and at once associated the suspicion of a secret proceeding on the admiral's part with the kindred suspicion which pointed to him as the depositary of the Secret Trust. Up to this time it had been her settled belief that he kept all his important documents in one or other of the suite of rooms which he happened to be occupying for the time being. Why--she now asked herself, with a sudden distrust of the conclusion which had hitherto satisfied her mind--why might he not lock some of them up in the other rooms as well? The remembrance of the keys still concealed in their hiding-place in her room sharpened her sense of the reasonableness of this new view. With one unimportant exception, those keys had all failed when she tried them in the rooms on the north side of the house. Might they not succeed with the cabinets and cupboards in the east rooms, on which she had never tried them, or thought of trying them, yet? If there was a chance, however small, of turning them to better account than she had turned them thus far, it was a chance to be tried. If there was a possibility, however remote, that the Trust might be hidden in any one of the locked repositories in the east wing, it was a possibility to be put to the test. When? Her own experience answered the question. At the time when no prying eyes were open, and no accidents were to be feared--when the house was quiet--in the dead of night.
She knew enough of her changed self to dread the enervating influence of delay. She determined to run the risk headlong that night.
More blunders escaped her when dinner-time came; the admiral's criticisms on her waiting at table were sharper than ever. His hardest words inflicted no pain on her; she scarcely heard him--her mind was dull to every sense but the sense of the coming trial. The evening which had passed slowly to her on the night of her first experiment with the keys passed quickly now. When bed-time came, bed-time took her by surprise.
She waited longer on this occasion than she had waited before. The admiral was at home; he might alter his mind and go downstairs again, after he had gone up to his room; he might have forgotten something in the library and might return to fetch it. Midnight struck from the clock in the servants' hall before she ventured out of her room, with the keys again in her pocket, with the candle again in her hand.
At the first of the stairs on which she set her foot to descend, an all-mastering hesitation, an unintelligible shrinking from some peril unknown, seized her on a sudden. She waited, and reasoned with herself. She had recoiled from no sacrifices, she had yielded to no fears, in carrying out the stratagem by which she had gained admission to St. Crux; and now, when the long array of difficulties at the outset had been patiently conquered, now, when by sheer force of resolution the starting-point was gained, she hesitated to advance. "I shrank from nothing to get here," she said to herself. "What madness possesses me that I shrink now?"
Every pulse in her quickened at the thought, with an animating shame that nerved her to go on. She descended the stairs, from the third floor to the second, from the second to the first, without trusting herself to pause again within easy reach of her own room. In another minute, she had reached the end of the corridor, had crossed the vestibule, and had entered the drawing-room. It was only when her grasp was on the heavy brass handle of the sliding door--it was only at the moment before she pushed the door back--that she waited to take breath. The Banqueting-Hall was close on the other side of the wooden partition against which she stood; her excited imagination felt the death-like chill of it flowing over her already.
She pushed back the sliding door a few inches--and stopped in momentary alarm. When the admiral had closed it in her presence that day, she had heard no noise. When old Mazey had opened it to show her the rooms in the east wing, she had heard no noise. Now, in the night silence, she noticed for the first time that the door made a sound--a dull, rushing sound, like the wind.
She roused herself, and pushed it further back--pushed it halfway into the hollow chamber in the wall constructed to receive it. She advanced boldly into the gap, and met the night view of the Banqueting-Hall face to face.
The moon was rounding the southern side of the house. Her paling beams streamed through the nearer windows, and lay in long strips of slanting light on the marble pavement of the Hall. The black shadows of the pediments between each window, alternating with the strips of light, heightened the wan glare of the moonshine on the floor. Toward its lower end, the Hall melted mysteriously into darkness. The ceiling was lost to view; the yawning fire-place, the overhanging mantel-piece, the long row of battle pictures above, were all swallowed up in night. But one visible object was discernible, besides the gleaming windows and the moon-striped floor. Midway in the last and furthest of the strips of light, the tripod rose erect on its gaunt black legs, like a monster called to life by the moon--a monster rising through the light, and melting invisibly into the upper shadows of the Hall. Far and near, all sound lay dead, drowned in the stagnant cold. The soothing hush of night was awful here. The deep abysses of darkness hid abysses of silence more immeasurable still.
She stood motionless in the door-way, with straining eyes, with straining ears. She looked for some moving thing, she listened for some rising sound, and looked and listened in vain. A quick ceaseless shivering ran through her from head to foot. The shivering of fear, or the shivering of cold? The bare doubt roused her resolute will. "Now," she thought, advancing a step through the door-way, "or never! I'll count the strips of moonlight three times over, and cross the Hall."
"One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five. One, two, three, four, five."
As the final number passed her lips at the third time of counting, she crossed the Hall. Looking for nothing, listening for nothing, one hand holding the candle, the other mechanically grasping the folds of her dress, she sped, ghost-like, down the length of the ghostly place. She reached the door of the first of the eastern rooms, opened it, and ran in. The sudden relief of attaining a refuge, the sudden entrance into a new atmosphere, overpowered her for the moment. She had just time to put the candle safely on a table before she dropped giddy and breathless into the nearest chair.
Little by little she felt the rest quieting her. In a few minutes she became conscious of the triumph of having won her way to the east rooms. In a few minutes she was strong enough to rise from the chair, to take the keys from her pocket, and to look round her.
The first objects of furniture in the room which attracted her attention were an old bureau of carved oak, and a heavy buhl table with a cabinet attached. She tried the bureau first; it looked the likeliest receptacle for papers of the two. Three of the keys proved to be of a size to enter the lock, but none of them would turn it. The bureau was unassailable. She left it, and paused to trim the wick of the candle before she tried the buhl cabinet next.
At the moment when she raised her hand to the candle, she heard the stillness of the Banqueting-Hall shudder with the terror of a sound--a sound faint and momentary, like the distant rushing of the wind.
The sliding door in the drawing-room had moved.
Which way had it moved? Had an unknown hand pushed it back in its socket further than she had pushed it, or pulled it to again, and closed it? The horror of being shut out all night, by some undiscoverable agency, from the life of the house, was stronger in her than the horror of looking across the Banqueting-Hall. She made desperately for the door of the room.
It had fallen to silently after her when she had come in, but it was not closed. She pulled it open, and looked.
The sight that met her eyes rooted her, panic-stricken, to the spot.
Close to the first of the row of windows, counting from the drawing-room, and full in the gleam of it, she saw a solitary figure. It stood motionless, rising out of the furthest strip of moonlight on the floor. As she looked, it suddenly disappeared. In another instant she saw it again, in the second strip of moonlight--lost it again--saw it in the third strip--lost it once more--and saw it in the fourth. Moment by moment it advanced, now mysteriously lost in the shadow, now suddenly visible again in the light, until it reached the fifth and nearest strip of moonlight. There it paused, and strayed aside slowly to the middle of the Hall. It stopped at the tripod, and stood, shivering audibly in the silence, with its hands raised over the dead ashes, in the action of warming them at a fire. It turned back again, moving down the path of the moonlight, stopped at the fifth window, turned once more, and came on softly through the shadow straight to the place where Magdalen stood.
Her voice was dumb, her will was helpless. Every sense in her but the seeing sense was paralyzed. The seeing sense--held fast in the fetters of its own terror--looked unchangeably straightforward, as it had looked from the first. There she stood in the door-way, full in the path of the figure advancing on her through the shadow, nearer and nearer, step by step.
It came close.
The bonds of horror that held her burst asunder when it was within arm's-length. She started back. The light of the candle on the table fell full on its face, and showed her--Admiral Bartram.
A long, gray dressing-gown was wrapped round him. His head was uncovered; his feet were bare. In his left hand he carried his little basket of keys. He passed Magdalen slowly, his lips whispering without intermission, his open eyes staring straight before him with the glassy stare of death. His eyes revealed to her the terrifying truth. He was walking in his sleep.
The terror of seeing him as she saw him now was not the terror she had felt when her eyes first lighted on him--an apparition in the moon-light, a specter in the ghostly Hall. This time she could struggle against the shock; she could feel the depth of her own fear.
He passed her, and stopped in the middle of the room. Magdalen ventured near enough to him to be within reach of his voice as he muttered to himself. She ventured nearer still, and heard the name of her dead husband fall distinctly from the sleep-walker's lips.
"Noel!" he said, in the low monotonous tones of a dreamer talking in his sleep, "my good fellow, Noel, take it back again! It worries me day and night. I don't know where it's safe; I don't know where to put it. Take it back, Noel--take it back!"
As those words escaped him, he walked to the buhl cabinet. He sat down in the chair placed before it, and searched in the basket among his keys. Magdalen softly followed him, and stood behind his chair, waiting with the candle in her hand. He found the key, and unlocked the cabinet. Without an instant's hesitation, he drew out a drawer, the second of a row. The one thing in the drawer was a folded letter. He removed it, and put it down before him on the table. "Take it back, Noel!" he repeated, mechanically; "take it back!"
Magdalen looked over his shoulder and read these lines, traced in her husband's handwriting, at the top of the letter: To be kept in your own possession, and to be opened by yourself only on the day of my decease. Noel Vanstone. She saw the words plainly, with the admiral's name and the admiral's address written under them.
The Trust within reach of her hand! The Trust traced to its hiding-place at last!
She took one step forward, to steal round his chair and to snatch the letter from the table. At the instant when she moved, he took it up once more, locked the cabinet, and, rising, turned and faced her.
In the impulse of the moment, she stretched out her hand toward the hand in which he held the letter. The yellow candle-light fell full on him. The awful death-in-life of his face--the mystery of the sleeping body, moving in unconscious obedience to the dreaming mind--daunted her. Her hand trembled, and dropped again at her side.
He put the key of the cabinet back in the basket, and crossed the room to the bureau, with the basket in one hand and the letter in the other. Magdalen set the candle on the table again, and watched him. As he had opened the cabinet, so he now opened the bureau. Once more Magdalen stretched out her hand, and once more she recoiled before the mystery and the terror of his sleep. He put the letter in a drawer at the back of the bureau, and closed the heavy oaken lid again. "Yes," he said. "Safer there, as you say, Noel--safer there." So he spoke. So, time after time, the words that betrayed him revealed the dead man living and speaking again in the dream.
Had he locked the bureau? Magdalen had not heard the lock turn. As he slowly moved away, walking back once more toward the middle of the room, she tried the lid. It was locked. That discovery made, she looked to see what he was doing next. He was leaving the room again, with the basket of keys in his hand. When her first glance overtook him, he was crossing the threshold of the door.
Some inscrutable fascination possessed her, some mysterious attraction drew her after him, in spite of herself. She took up the candle and followed him mechanically, as if she too were walking in her sleep. One behind the other, in slow and noiseless progress, they crossed the Banqueting-Hall. One behind the other, they passed through the drawing-room, and along the corridor, and up the stairs. She followed him to his own door. He went in, and shut it behind him softly. She stopped, and looked toward the truckle-bed. It was pushed aside at the foot, some little distance away from the bedroom door. Who had moved it? She held the candle close and looked toward the pillow, with a sudden curiosity and a sudden doubt.
The truckle-bed was empty.
The discovery startled her for the moment, and for the moment only. Plain as the inferences were to be drawn from it, she never drew them. Her mind, slowly recovering the exercise of its faculties, was still under the influence of the earlier and the deeper impressions produced on it. Her mind followed the admiral into his room, as her body had followed him across the Banqueting-Hall.
Had he lain down again in his bed? Was he still asleep? She listened at the door. Not a sound was audible in the room. She tried the door, and, finding it not locked, softly opened it a few inches and listened again. The rise and fall of his low, regular breathing instantly caught her ear. He was still asleep.
She went into the room, and, shading the candle-light with her hand, approached the bedside to look at him. The dream was past; the old man's sleep was deep and peaceful; his lips were still; his quiet hand was laid over the coverlet in motionless repose. He lay with his face turned toward the right-hand side of the bed. A little table stood there within reach of his hand. Four objects were placed on it; his candle, his matches, his customary night drink of lemonade, and his basket of keys.
The idea of possessing herself of his keys that night (if an opportunity offered when the basket was not in his hand) had first crossed her mind when she saw him go into his room. She had lost it again for the moment, in the surprise of discovering the empty truckle-bed. She now recovered it the instant the table attracted her attention. It was useless to waste time in trying to choose the one key wanted from the rest--the one key was not well enough known to her to be readily identified. She took all the keys from the table, in the basket as they lay, and noiselessly closed the door behind her on leaving the room.
The truckle-bed, as she passed it, obtruded itself again on her attention, and forced her to think of it. After a moment's consideration, she moved the foot of the bed back to its customary position across the door. Whether he was in the house or out of it, the veteran might return to his deserted post at any moment. If he saw the bed moved from its usual place, he might suspect something wrong, he might rouse his master, and the loss of the keys might be discovered.
Nothing happened as she descended the stairs, nothing happened as she passed along the corridor; the house was as silent and as solitary as ever. She crossed the Banqueting-Hall this time without hesitation; the events of the night had hardened her mind against all imaginary terrors. "Now, I have got it!" she whispered to herself, in an irrepressible outburst of exaltation, as she entered the first of the east rooms and put her candle on the top of the old bureau.
Even yet there was a trial in store for her patience. Some minutes elapsed--minutes that seemed hours--before she found the right key and raised the lid of the bureau. At last she drew out the inner drawer! At last she had the letter in her hand!
It had been sealed, but the seal was broken. She opened it on the spot, to make sure that she had actually possessed herself of the Trust before leaving the room. The end of the letter was the first part of it she turned to. It came to its conclusion high on the third page, and it was signed by Noel Vanstone. Below the name these lines were added in the admiral's handwriting:
"This letter was received by me at the same time with the will of my friend, Noel Vanstone. In the event of my death, without leaving any other directions respecting it, I beg my nephew and my executors to understand that I consider the requests made in this document as absolutely binding on me.
She left those lines unread. She just noticed that they were not in Noel Vanstone's handwriting; and, passing over them instantly, as immaterial to the object in view, turned the leaves of the letter, and transferred her attention to the opening sentences on the first page. She read these words:
"DEAR ADMIRAL BARTRAM--When you open my Will (in which you are named my sole executor), you will find that I have bequeathed the whole residue of my estate--after payment of one legacy of five thousand pounds--to yourself. It is the purpose of my letter to tell you privately what the object is for which I have left you the fortune which is now placed in your hands.
"I beg you to consider this large legacy as intended--"
She had proceeded thus far with breathless curiosity and interest, when her attention suddenly failed her. Something--she was too deeply absorbed to know what--had got between her and the letter. Was it a sound in the Banqueting-Hall again? She looked over her shoulder at the door behind her, and listened. Nothing was to be heard, nothing was to be seen. She returned to the letter.
The writing was cramped and close. In her impatient curiosity to read more, she failed to find the lost place again. Her eyes, attracted by a blot, lighted on a sentence lower in the page than the sentence at which she had left off. The first three words she saw riveted her attention anew--they were the first words she had met with in the letter which directly referred to George Bartram. In the sudden excitement of that discovery, she read the rest of the sentence eagerly, before she made any second attempt to return to the lost place:
"If your nephew fails to comply with these conditions--that is to say, if, being either a bachelor or a widower at the time of my decease, he fails to marry in all respects as I have here instructed him to marry, within six calendar months from that time--it is my desire that he shall not receive--"
She had read to that point, to that last word and no further, when a hand passed suddenly from behind her between the letter and her eye, and gripped her fast by the wrist in an instant.
She turned with a shriek of terror, and found herself face to face with old Mazey.
The veteran's eyes were bloodshot; his hand was heavy; his list slippers were twisted crookedly on his feet; and his body swayed to and fro on his widely parted legs. If he had tested his condition that night by the unfailing criterion of the model ship, he must have inevitably pronounced sentence on himself in the usual form: "Drunk again, Mazey; drunk again."
"You young Jezebel!" said the old sailor, with a leer on one side of his face, and a frown on the other. "The next time you take to night-walking in the neighborhood of Freeze-your-Bones, use those sharp eyes of yours first, and make sure there's nobody else night walking in the garden outside. Drop it, Jezebel! drop it!"
Keeping fast hold of Magdalen's arm with one hand, he took the letter from her with the other, put it back into the open drawer, and locked the bureau. She never struggled with him, she never spoke. Her energy was gone; her powers of resistance were crushed. The terrors of that horrible night, following one close on the other in reiterated shocks, had struck her down at last. She yielded as submissively, she trembled as helplessly, as the weakest woman living.
Old Mazey dropped her arm, and pointed with drunken solemnity to a chair in an inner corner of the room. She sat down, still without uttering a word. The veteran (breathing very hard over it) steadied himself on both elbows against the slanting top of the bureau, and from that commanding position addressed Magdalen once more.
"Come and be locked up!" said old Mazey, wagging his venerable head with judicial severity. "There'll be a court of inquiry to-morrow morning, and I'm witness--worse luck!--I'm witness. You young jade, you've committed burglary--that's what you've done. His honor the admiral's keys stolen; his honor the admiral's desk ransacked; and his honor the admiral's private letters broke open. Burglary! Burglary! Come and be locked up!" He slowly recovered an upright position, with the assistance of his hands, backed by the solid resisting power of the bureau; and lapsed into lachrymose soliloquy. "Who'd have thought it?" said old Mazey, paternally watering at the eyes. "Take the outside of her, and she's as straight as a poplar; take the inside of her, and she's as crooked as Sin. Such a fine-grown girl, too. What a pity! what a pity!"
"Don't hurt me!" said Magdalen, faintly, as old Mazey staggered up to the chair, and took her by the wrist again. "I'm frightened, Mr. Mazey--I'm dreadfully frightened."
"Hurt you?" repeated the veteran. "I'm a deal too fond of you--and more shame for me at my age!--to hurt you. If I let go of your wrist, will you walk straight before me, where I can see you all the way? Will you be a good girl, and walk straight up to your own door?"
Magdalen gave the promise required of her--gave it with an eager longing to reach the refuge of her room. She rose, and tried to take the candle from the bureau, but old Mazey's cunning hand was too quick for her. "Let the candle be," said the veteran, winking in momentary forgetfulness of his responsible position. "You're a trifle quicker on your legs than I am, my dear, and you might leave me in the lurch, if I don't carry the light."
They returned to the inhabited side of the house. Staggering after Magdalen, with the basket of keys in one hand and the candle in the other, old Mazey sorrowfully compared her figure with the straightness of the poplar, and her disposition with the crookedness of Sin, all the way across "Freeze-your-Bones," and all the way upstairs to her own door. Arrived at that destination, he peremptorily refused to give her the candle until he had first seen her safely inside the room. The conditions being complied with, he resigned the light with one hand, and made a dash with the other at the key, drew it from the inside of the lock, and instantly closed the door. Magdalen heard him outside chuckling over his own dexterity, and fitting the key into the lock again with infinite difficulty. At last he secured the door, with a deep grunt of relief. "There she is safe!" Magdalen heard him say, in regretful soliloquy. "As fine a girl as ever I sat eyes on. What a pity! what a pity!"
The last sounds of his voice died out in the distance; and she was left alone in her room.
Holding fast by the banister, old Mazey made his way down to the corridor on the second floor, in which a night light was always burning. He advanced to the truckle-bed, and, steadying himself against the opposite wall, looked at it attentively. Prolonged contemplation of his own resting-place for the night apparently failed to satisfy him. He shook his head ominously, and, taking from the side-pocket of his great-coat a pair of old patched slippers, surveyed them with an aspect of illimitable doubt. "I'm all abroad to-night," he mumbled to himself. "Troubled in my mind--that's what it is--troubled in my mind."
The old patched slippers and the veteran's existing perplexities happened to be intimately associated one with the other, in the relation of cause and effect. The slippers belonged to the admiral, who had taken one of his unreasonable fancies to this particular pair, and who still persisted in wearing them long after they were unfit for his service. Early that afternoon old Mazey had taken the slippers to the village cobbler to get them repaired on the spot, before his master called for them the next morning; he sat superintending the progress and completion of the work until evening came, when he and the cobbler betook themselves to the village inn to drink each other's healths at parting. They had prolonged this social ceremony till far into the night, and they had parted, as a necessary consequence, in a finished and perfect state of intoxication on either side.
If the drinking-bout had led to no other result than those night wanderings in the grounds of St. Crux, which had shown old Mazey the light in the east windows, his memory would unquestionably have presented it to him the next morning in the aspect of one of the praiseworthy achievements of his life. But another consequence had sprung from it, which the old sailor now saw dimly, through the interposing bewilderment left in his brain by the drink. He had committed a breach of discipline, and a breach of trust. In plainer words, he had deserted his post.
The one safeguard against Admiral Bartram's constitutional tendency to somnambulism was the watch and ward which his faithful old servant kept outside his door. No entreaties had ever prevailed on him to submit to the usual precaution taken in such cases. He peremptorily declined to be locked into his room; he even ignored his own liability, whenever a dream disturbed him, to walk in his sleep. Over and over again, old Mazey had been roused by the admiral's attempts to push past the truckle-bed, or to step over it, in his sleep; and over and over again, when the veteran had reported the fact the next morning, his master had declined to believe him. As the old sailor now stood, staring in vacant inquiry at the bed-chamber door, these incidents of the past rose confusedly on his memory, and forced on him the serious question whether the admiral had left his room during the earlier hours of the night. If by any mischance the sleep-walking fit had seized him, the slippers in old Mazey's hand pointed straight to the conclusion that followed--his master must have passed barefoot in the cold night over the stone stairs and passages of St. Crux. "Lord send he's been quiet!" muttered old Mazey, daunted, bold as he was and drunk as he was, by the bare contemplation of that prospect. "If his honor's been walking to-night, it will be the death of him!"
He roused himself for the moment by main force--strong in his dog-like fidelity to the admiral, though strong in nothing else--and fought off the stupor of the drink. He looked at the bed with steadier eyes and a clearer mind. Magdalen's precaution in returning it to its customary position presented it to him necessarily in the aspect of a bed which had never been moved from its place. He next examined the counterpane carefully. Not the faintest vestige appeared of the indentation which must have been left by footsteps passing over it. There was the plain evidence before him--the evidence recognizable at last by his own bewildered eyes--that the admiral had never moved from his room.
"I'll take the Pledge to-morrow!" mumbled old Mazey, in an outburst of grateful relief. The next moment the fumes of the liquor floated back insidiously over his brain; and the veteran, returning to his customary remedy, paced the passage in zigzag as usual, and kept watch on the deck of an imaginary ship.
Soon after sunrise, Magdalen suddenly heard the grating of the key from outside in the lock of the door. The door opened, and old Mazey re-appeared on the threshold. The first fever of his intoxication had cooled, with time, into a mild, penitential glow. He breathed harder than ever, in a succession of low growls, and wagged his venerable head at his own delinquencies without intermission.
"How are you now, you young land-shark in petticoats?" inquired the old sailor. "Has your conscience been quiet enough to let you go to sleep?"
"I have not slept," said Magdalen, drawing back from him in doubt of what he might do next. "I have no remembrance of what happened after you locked the door--I think I must have fainted. Don't frighten me again, Mr. Mazey! I feel miserably weak and ill. What do you want?"
"I want to say something serious," replied old Mazey, with impenetrable solemnity. "It's been on my mind to come here and make a clean breast of it, for the last hour or more. Mark my words, young woman. I'm going to disgrace myself."
Magdalen drew further and further back, and looked at him in rising alarm.
"I know my duty to his honor the admiral," proceeded old Mazey, waving his hand drearily in the direction of his master's door. "But, try as hard as I may, I can't find it in my heart, you young jade, to be witness against you. I liked the make of you (especially about the waist) when you first came into the house, and I can't help liking the make of you still--though you have committed burglary, and though you are as crooked as Sin. I've cast the eyes of indulgence on fine-grown girls all my life, and it's too late in the day to cast the eyes of severity on 'em now. I'm seventy-seven, or seventy-eight, I don't rightly know which. I'm a battered old hulk, with my seams opening, and my pumps choked, and the waters of Death powering in on me as fast as they can. I'm as miserable a sinner as you'll meet with anywhere in these parts--Thomas Nagle, the cobbler, only excepted; and he's worse than I am, for he's the younger of the two, and he ought to know better. But the long and short or it is, I shall go down to my grave with an eye of indulgence for a fine-grown girl. More shame for me, you young Jezebel--more shame for me!"
The veteran's unmanageable eyes began to leer again in spite of him, as he concluded his harangue in these terms: the last reserves of austerity left in his face entrenched themselves dismally round the corners of his mouth. Magdalen approached him again, and tried to speak. He solemnly motioned her back with another dreary wave of his hand.
"No carneying!" said old Mazey; "I'm bad enough already, without that. It's my duty to make my report to his honor the admiral, and I will make it. But if you like to give the house the slip before the burglary's reported, and the court of inquiry begins, I'll disgrace myself by letting you go. It's market morning at Ossory, and Dawkes will be driving the light cart over in a quarter of an hour's time. Dawkes will take you if I ask him. I know my duty--my duty is to turn the key on you, and see Dawkes damned first. But I can't find it in my heart to be hard on a fine girl like you. It's bred in the bone, and it wunt come out of the flesh. More shame for me, I tell you again--more shame for me!"
The proposal thus strangely and suddenly presented to her took Magdalen completely by surprise. She had been far too seriously shaken by the events of the night to be capable of deciding on any subject at a moment's notice. "You are very good to me, Mr. Mazey," she said. "May I have a minute by myself to think?"
"Yes, you may," replied the veteran, facing about forthwith and leaving the room. "They're all alike," proceeded old Mazey, with his head still running on the sex. "Whatever you offer 'em, they always want something more. Tall and short, native and foreign, sweethearts and wives, they're all alike!"
Left by herself, Magdalen reached her decision with far less difficulty than she had anticipated.
If she remained in the house, there were only two courses before her--to charge old Mazey with speaking under the influence of a drunken delusion, or to submit to circumstances. Though she owed to the old sailor her defeat in the very hour of success, his consideration for her at that moment forbade the idea of defending herself at his expense--even supposing, what was in the last degree improbable, that the defense would be credited. In the second of the two cases (the case of submission to circumstances), but one result could be expected--instant dismissal, and perhaps discovery as well. What object was to be gained by braving that degradation--by leaving the house publicly disgraced in the eyes of the servants who had hated and distrusted her from the first? The accident which had literally snatched the Trust from her possession when she had it in her hand was irreparable. The one apparent compensation under the disaster--in other words, the discovery that the Trust actually existed, and that George Bartram's marriage within a given time was one of the objects contained in it--was a compensation which could only be estimated at its true value by placing it under the light of Mr. Loscombe's experience. Every motive of which she was conscious was a motive which urged her to leave the house secretly while the chance was at her disposal. She looked out into the passage, and called softly to old Mazey to come back.
"I accept your offer thankfully, Mr. Mazey," she said. "You don't know what hard measure you dealt out to me when you took that letter from my hand. But you did your duty, and I can be grateful to you for sparing me this morning, hard as you were upon me last night. I am not such a bad girl as you think me--I am not, indeed."
Old Mazey dismissed the subject with another dreary wave of his hand.
"Let it be," said the veteran; "let it be! It makes no difference, my girl, to such an old rascal as I am. If you were fifty times worse than you are, I should let you go all the same. Put on your bonnet and shawl, and come along. I'm a disgrace to myself and a warning to others--that's what I am. No luggage, mind! Leave all your rattle-traps behind you: to be overhauled, if necessary, at his honor the admiral's discretion. I can be hard enough on your boxes, you young Jezebel, if I can't be hard on you."
With these words, old Mazey led the way out of the room. "The less I see of her the better--especially about the waist," he said to himself, as he hobbled downstairs with the help of the banisters.
The cart was standing in the back yard when they reached the lower regions of the house, and Dawkes (otherwise the farm-bailiff's man) was fastening the last buckle of the horse's harness. The hoar-frost of the morning was still white in the shade. The sparkling points of it glistened brightly on the shaggy coats of Brutus and Cassius, as they idled about the yard, waiting, with steaming mouths and slowly wagging tails, to see the cart drive off. Old Mazey went out alone and used his influence with Dawkes, who, staring in stolid amazement, put a leather cushion on the cart-seat for his fellow-traveler. Shivering in the sharp morning air, Magdalen waited, while the preliminaries of departure were in progress, conscious of nothing but a giddy bewilderment of thought, and a helpless suspension of feeling. The events of the night confused themselves hideously with the trivial circumstances passing before her eyes in the courtyard. She started with the sudden terror of the night when old Mazey re-appeared to summon her out to the cart. She trembled with the helpless confusion of the night when the veteran cast the eyes of indulgence on her for the last time, and gave her a kiss on the cheek at parting. The next minute she felt him help her into the cart, and pat her on the back. The next, she heard him tell her in a confidential whisper that, sitting or standing, she was as straight as a poplar either way. Then there was a pause, in which nothing was said, and nothing done; and then the driver took the reins in hand and mounted to his place.
She roused herself at the parting moment and looked back. The last sight she saw at St. Crux was old Mazey wagging his head in the courtyard, with his fellow-profligates, the dogs, keeping time to him with their tails. The last words she heard were the words in which the veteran paid his farewell tribute to her charms:
"Burglary or no burglary," said old Mazey, "she's a fine-grown girl, if ever there was a fine one yet. What a pity! what a pity!"
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
From George Bartram to Admiral Bartram.
"London, April 3d, 1848.
"MY DEAR UNCLE--One hasty line, to inform you of a temporary obstacle, which we neither of us anticipated when we took leave of each other at St. Crux. While I was wasting the last days of the week at the Grange, the Tyrrels must have been making their arrangements for leaving London. I have just come from Portland Place. The house is shut up, and the family (Miss Vanstone, of course, included) left England yesterday, to pass the season in Paris.
"Pray don't let yourself be annoyed by this little check at starting. It is of no serious importance whatever. I have got the address at which the Tyrrels are living, and I mean to cross the Channel after them by the mail to-night. I shall find my opportunity in Paris just as soon as I could have found it in London. The grass shall not grow under my feet, I promise you. For once in my life, I will take Time as fiercely by the forelock as if I was the most impetuous man in England; and, rely on it, the moment I know the result, you shall know the result, too. Affectionately yours,
From George Bartram to Miss Garth.
"Paris, April 13th.
"DEAR MISS GARTH--I have just written, with a heavy heart, to my uncle, and I think I owe it to your kind interest in me not to omit writing next to you.
"You will feel for my disappointment, I am sure, when I tell you, in the fewest and plainest words, that Miss Vanstone has refused me.
"My vanity may have grievously misled me, but I confess I expected a very different result. My vanity may be misleading me still; for I must acknowledge to you privately that I think Miss Vanstone was sorry to refuse me. The reason she gave for her decision--no doubt a sufficient reason in her estimation--did not at the time, and does not now, seem sufficient to me. She spoke in the sweetest and kindest manner, but she firmly declared that 'her family misfortunes' left her no honorable alternative--but to think of my own interests as I had not thought of them myself--and gratefully to decline accepting my offer.
"She was so painfully agitated that I could not venture to plead my own cause as I might otherwise have pleaded it. At the first attempt I made to touch the personal question, she entreated me to spare her, and abruptly left the room. I am still ignorant whether I am to interpret the 'family misfortunes' which have set up this barrier between us, as meaning the misfortune for which her parents alone are to blame, or the misfortune of her having such a woman as Mrs. Noel Vanstone for her sister. In whichever of these circumstances the obstacle lies, it is no obstacle in my estimation. Can nothing remove it? Is there no hope? Forgive me for asking these questions. I cannot bear up against my bitter disappointment. Neither she, nor you, nor any one but myself, can know how I love her.
Ever most truly yours,
"P. S.--I shall leave for England in a day or two, passing through London on my way to St. Crux. There are family reasons, connected with the hateful subject of money, which make me look forward with anything but pleasure to my next interview with my uncle. If you address your letter to Long's Hotel, it will be sure to reach me."
From Miss Garth to George Bartram.
"Westmoreland House, April 16th.
"DEAR MR. BARTRAM--You only did me justice in supposing that your letter would distress me. If you had supposed that it would make me excessively angry as well, you would not have been far wrong. I have no patience with the pride and perversity of the young women of the present day.
"I have heard from Norah. It is a long letter, stating the particulars in full detail. I am now going to put all the confidence in your honor and your discretion which I really feel. For your sake, and for Norah's, I am going to let you know what the scruple really is which has misled her into the pride and folly of refusing you. I am old enough to speak out; and I can tell you, if she had only been wise enough to let her own wishes guide her, she would have said Yes--and gladly, too.
"The original cause of all the mischief is no less a person than your worthy uncle--Admiral Bartram.
"It seems that the admiral took it into his head (I suppose during your absence) to go to London by himself and to satisfy some curiosity of his own about Norah by calling in Portland Place, under pretense of renewing his old friendship with the Tyrrels. He came at luncheon-time, and saw Norah; and, from all I can hear, was apparently better pleased with her than he expected or wished to be when he came into the house.
"So far, this is mere guess-work; but it is unluckily certain that he and Mrs. Tyrrel had some talk together alone when luncheon was over. Your name was not mentioned; but when their conversation fell on Norah, you were in both their minds, of course. The admiral (doing her full justice personally) declared himself smitten with pity for her hard lot in life. The scandalous conduct of her sister must always stand (he feared) in the way of her future advantage. Who could marry her, without first making it a condition that she and her sister were to be absolute strangers to each other? And even then, the objection would remain--the serious objection to the husband's family--of being connected by marriage with such a woman as Mrs. Noel Vanstone. It was very sad; it was not the poor girl's fault, but it was none the less true that her sister was her rock ahead in life. So he ran on, with no real ill-feeling toward Norah, but with an obstinate belief in his own prejudices which bore the aspect of ill-feeling, and which people with more temper than judgment would be but too readily disposed to resent accordingly.
"Unfortunately, Mrs. Tyrrel is one of those people. She is an excellent, warm-hearted woman, with a quick temper and very little judgment; strongly attached to Norah, and heartily interested in Norah's welfare. From all I can learn, she first resented the expression of the admiral's opinion, in his presence, as worldly and selfish in the last degree; and then interpreted it, behind his back, as a hint to discourage his nephew's visits, which was a downright insult offered to a lady in her own house. This was foolish enough so far; but worse folly was to come.
"As soon as your uncle was gone, Mrs. Tyrrel, most unwisely and improperly, sent for Norah, and, repeating the conversation that had taken place, warned her of the reception she might expect from the man who stood toward you in the position of a father, if she accepted an offer of marriage on your part. When I tell you that Norah's faithful attachment to her sister still remains unshaken, and that there lies hidden under her noble submission to the unhappy circumstances of her life a proud susceptibility to slights of all kinds, which is deeply seated in her nature--you will understand the true motive of the refusal which has so naturally and so justly disappointed you. They are all three equally to blame in this matter. Your uncle was wrong to state his objections so roundly and inconsiderately as he did. Mrs. Tyrrel was wrong to let her temper get the better of her, and to suppose herself insulted where no insult was intended. And Norah was wrong to place a scruple of pride, and a hopeless belief in her sister which no strangers can be expected to share, above the higher claims of an attachment which might have secured the happiness and the prosperity of her future life.
"But the mischief has been done. The next question is, can the harm be remedied?
"I hope and believe it can. My advice is this: Don't take No for an answer. Give her time enough to reflect on what she has done, and to regret it (as I believe she will regret it) in secret; trust to my influence over her to plead your cause for you at every opportunity I can find; wait patiently for the right moment, and ask her again. Men, being accustomed to act on reflection themselves, are a great deal too apt to believe that women act on reflection, too. Women do nothing of the sort. They act on impulse; and, in nine cases out of ten, they are heartily sorry for it afterward.
"In the meanwhile, you must help your own interests by inducing your uncle to alter his opinion, or at least to make the concession of keeping his opinion to himself. Mrs. Tyrrel has rushed to the conclusion that the harm he has done he did intentionally--which is as much as to say, in so many words, that he had a prophetic conviction, when he came into the house, of what she would do when he left it. My explanation of the matter is a much simpler one. I believe that the knowledge of your attachment naturally aroused his curiosity to see the object of it, and that Mrs. Tyrrel's injudicious praises of Norah irritated his objections into openly declaring themselves. Anyway, your course lies equally plain before you. Use your influence over your uncle to persuade him into setting matters right again; trust my settled resolution to see Norah your wife before six months more are over our heads; and believe me, your friend and well-wisher,
From Mrs. Drake to George Bartram.
"St. Crux, April 17th.
"SIR--I direct these lines to the hotel you usually stay at in London, hoping that you may return soon enough from foreign parts to receive my letter without delay.
"I am sorry to say that some unpleasant events have taken place at St. Crux since you left it, and that my honored master, the admiral, is far from enjoying his usual good health. On both these accounts, I venture to write to you on my own responsibility, for I think your presence is needed in the house.
"Early in the month a most regrettable circumstance took place. Our new parlor-maid was discovered by Mr. Mazey, at a late hour of the night (with her master's basket of keys in her possession), prying into the private documents kept in the east library. The girl removed herself from the house the next morning before we were any of us astir, and she has not been heard of since. This event has annoyed and alarmed my master very seriously; and to make matters worse, on the day when the girl's treacherous conduct was discovered, the admiral was seized with the first symptoms of a severe inflammatory cold. He was not himself aware, nor was any one else, how he had caught the chill. The doctor was sent for, and kept the inflammation down until the day before yesterday, when it broke out again, under circumstances which I am sure you will be sorry to hear, as I am truly sorry to write of them.
"On the date I have just mentioned--I mean the fifteenth of the month--my master himself informed me that he had been dreadfully disappointed by a letter received from you, which had come in the morning from foreign parts, and had brought him bad news. He did not tell me what the news was--but I have never, in all the years I have passed in the admiral's service, seen him so distressingly upset, and so unlike himself, as he was on that day. At night his uneasiness seemed to increase. He was in such a state of irritation that he could not bear the sound of Mr. Mazey's hard breathing outside his door, and he laid his positive orders on the old man to go into one of the bedrooms for that night. Mr. Mazey, to his own great regret, was of course obliged to obey.
"Our only means of preventing the admiral from leaving his room in his sleep, if the fit unfortunately took him, being now removed, Mr. Mazey and I agreed to keep watch by turns through the night, sitting, with the door ajar, in one of the empty rooms near our master's bed-chamber. We could think of nothing better to do than this, knowing he would not allow us to lock him in, and not having the door key in our possession, even if we could have ventured to secure him in his room without his permission. I kept watch for the first two hours, and then Mr. Mazey took my place. After having been some little time in my own room, it occurred to me that the old man was hard of hearing, and that if his eyes grew at all heavy in the night, his ears were not to be trusted to warn him if anything happened. I slipped on my clothes again, and went back to Mr. Mazey. He was neither asleep nor awake--he was between the two. My mind misgave me, and I went on to the admiral's room. The door was open, and the bed was empty.
"Mr. Mazey and I went downstairs instantly. We looked in all the north rooms, one after another, and found no traces of him. I thought of the drawing-room next, and, being the more active of the two, went first to examine it. The moment I turned the sharp corner of the passage, I saw my master coming toward me through the open drawing-room door, asleep and dreaming, with his keys in his hands. The sliding door behind him was open also; and the fear came to me then, and has remained with me ever since, that his dream had led him through the Banqueting-Hall into the east rooms. We abstained from waking him, and followed his steps until he returned of his own accord to his bed-chamber. The next morning, I grieve to say, all the bad symptoms came back; and none of the remedies employed have succeeded in getting the better of them yet. By the doctor's advice, we refrained from telling the admiral what had happened. He is still under the impression that he passed the night as usual in his own room.
"I have been careful to enter into all the particulars of this unfortunate accident, because neither Mr. Mazey nor myself desire to screen ourselves from blame, if blame we have deserved. We both acted for the best, and we both beg and pray you will consider our responsible situation, and come as soon as possible to St. Crux. Our honored master is very hard to manage; and the doctor thinks, as we do, that your presence is wanted in the house.
"I remain, sir, with Mr. Mazey's respects and my own, your humble servant,
From George Bartram to Miss Garth.
"St. Crux, April 22d.
"DEAR MISS GARTH--Pray excuse my not thanking you sooner for your kind and consoling letter. We are in sad trouble at St. Crux. Any little irritation I might have felt at my poor uncle's unlucky interference in Portland Place is all forgotten in the misfortune of his serious illness. He is suffering from internal inflammation, produced by cold; and symptoms have shown themselves which are dangerous at his age. A physician from London is now in the house. You shall hear more in a few days. Meantime, believe me, with sincere gratitude,
"Yours most truly,
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Lincoln's Inn Fields, May 6th.
"DEAR MADAM--I have unexpectedly received some information which is of the most vital importance to your interests. The news of Admiral Bartram's death has reached me this morning. He expired at his own house, on the fourth of the present month.
"This event at once disposes of the considerations which I had previously endeavored to impress on you, in relation to your discovery at St. Crux. The wisest course we can now follow is to open communications at once with the executors of the deceased gentleman; addressing them through the medium of the admiral's legal adviser, in the first instance.
"I have dispatched a letter this day to the solicitor in question. It simply warns him that we have lately become aware of the existence of a private Document, controlling the deceased gentleman in his use of the legacy devised to him by Mr. Noel Vanstone's will. My letter assumes that the document will be easily found among the admiral's papers; and it mentions that I am the solicitor appointed by Mrs. Noel Vanstone to receive communications on her behalf. My object in taking this step is to cause a search to be instituted for the Trust--in the very probable event of the executors not having met with it yet--before the usual measures are adopted for the administration of the admiral's estate. We will threaten legal proceedings, if we find that the object does not succeed. But I anticipate no such necessity. Admiral Bartram's executors must be men of high standing and position; and they will do justice to you and to themselves in this matter by looking for the Trust.
"Under these circumstances, you will naturally ask, 'What are our prospects when the document is found?' Our prospects have a bright side and a dark side. Let us take the bright side to begin with.
"What do we actually know?
"We know, first, that the Trust does really exist. Secondly, that there is a provision in it relating to the marriage of Mr. George Bartram in a given time. Thirdly, that the time (six months from the date of your husband's death) expired on the third of this month. Fourthly, that Mr. George Bartram (as I have found out by inquiry, in the absence of any positive information on the subject possessed by yourself) is, at the present moment, a single man. The conclusion naturally follows, that the object contemplated by the Trust, in this case, is an object that has failed.
"If no other provisions have been inserted in the document--or if, being inserted, those other provisions should be discovered to have failed also--I believe it to be impossible (especially if evidence can be found that the admiral himself considered the Trust binding on him) for the executors to deal with your husband's fortune as legally forming part of Admiral Bartram's estate. The legacy is expressly declared to have been left to him, on the understanding that he applies it to certain stated objects--and those objects have failed. What is to be done with the money? It was not left to the admiral himself, on the testator's own showing; and the purposes for which it was left have not been, and cannot be, carried out. I believe (if the case here supposed really happens) that the money must revert to the testator's estate. In that event the Law, dealing with it as a matter of necessity, divides it into two equal portions. One half goes to Mr. Noel Vanstone's childless widow, and the other half is divided among Mr. Noel Vanstone's next of kin.
"You will no doubt discover the obvious objection to the case in our favor, as I have here put it. You will see that it depends for its practical realization not on one contingency, but on a series of contingencies, which must all happen exactly as we wish them to happen. I admit the force of the objection; but I can tell you, at the same time, that these said contingencies are by no means so improbable as they may look on the face of them.
"We have every reason to believe that the Trust, like the Will, was not drawn by a lawyer. That is one circumstance in our favor that is enough of itself to cast a doubt on the soundness of all, or any, of the remaining provisions which we may not be acquainted with. Another chance which we may count on is to be found, as I think, in that strange handwriting, placed under the signature on the third page of the Letter, which you saw, but which you, unhappily, omitted to read. All the probabilities point to those lines as written by Admiral Bartram: and the position which they occupy is certainly consistent with the theory that they touch the important subject of his own sense of obligation under the Trust.
"I wish to raise no false hopes in your mind. I only desire to satisfy you that we have a case worth trying.
"As for the dark side of the prospect, I need not enlarge on it. After what I have already written, you will understand that the existence of a sound provision, unknown to us, in the Trust, which has been properly carried out by the admiral--or which can be properly carried out by his representatives--would be necessarily fatal to our hopes. The legacy would be, in this case, devoted to the purpose or purposes contemplated by your husband--and, from that moment, you would have no claim.
"I have only to add, that as soon as I hear from the late admiral's man of business, you shall know the result.
"Believe me, dear madam, faithfully yours,
From George Bartram to Miss Garth.
"St. Crux, May 15th.
"DEAR MISS GARTH--I trouble you with another letter: partly to thank you for your kind expression of sympathy with me, under the loss that I have sustained; and partly to tell you of an extraordinary application made to my uncle's executors, in which you and Miss Vanstone may both feel interested, as Mrs. Noel Vanstone is directly concerned in it.
"Knowing my own ignorance of legal technicalities, I inclose a copy of the application, instead of trying to describe it. You will notice as suspicious, that no explanation is given of the manner in which the alleged discovery of one of my uncle's secrets was made, by persons who are total strangers to him.
"On being made acquainted with the circumstances, the executors at once applied to me. I could give them no positive information--for my uncle never consulted me on matters of business. But I felt in honor bound to tell them, that during the last six months of his life, the admiral had occasionally let fall expressions of impatience in my hearing, which led to the conclusion that he was annoyed by a private responsibility of some kind. I also mentioned that he had imposed a very strange condition on me--a condition which, in spite of his own assurances to the contrary, I was persuaded could not have emanated from himself--of marrying within a given time (which time has now expired), or of not receiving from him a certain sum of money, which I believed to be the same in amount as the sum bequeathed to him in my cousin's will. The executors agreed with me that these circumstances gave a color of probability to an otherwise incredible story; and they decided that a search should be instituted for the Secret Trust, nothing in the slightest degree resembling this same Trust having been discovered, up to that time, among the admiral's papers.
"The search (no trifle in such a house as this) has now been in full progress for a week. It is superintended by both the executors, and by my uncle's lawyer, who is personally, as well as professionally, known to Mr. Loscombe (Mrs. Noel Vanstone's solicitor), and who has been included in the proceedings at the express request of Mr. Loscombe himself. Up to this time, nothing whatever has been found. Thousands and thousands of letters have been examined, and not one of them bears the remotest resemblance to the letter we are looking for.
"Another week will bring the search to an end. It is only at my express request that it will be persevered with so long. But as the admiral's generosity has made me sole heir to everything he possessed, I feel bound to do the fullest justice to the interests of others, however hostile to myself those interests may be.
"With this view, I have not hesitated to reveal to the lawyer a constitutional peculiarity of my poor uncle's, which was always kept a secret among us at his own request--I mean his tendency to somnambulism. I mentioned that he had been discovered (by the housekeeper and his old servant) walking in his sleep, about three weeks before his death, and that the part of the house in which he had been seen, and the basket of keys which he was carrying in his hand, suggested the inference that he had come from one of the rooms in the east wing, and that he might have opened some of the pieces of furniture in one of them. I surprised the lawyer (who seemed to be quite ignorant of the extraordinary actions constantly performed by somnambulists), by informing him that my uncle could find his way about the house, lock and unlock doors, and remove objects of all kinds from one place to another, as easily in his sleep as in his waking hours. And I declared that, while I felt the faintest doubt in my own mind whether he might not have been dreaming of the Trust on the night in question, and putting the dream in action in his sleep, I should not feel satisfied unless the rooms in the east wing were searched again.
"It is only right to add that there is not the least foundation in fact for this idea of mine. During the latter part of his fatal illness, my poor uncle was quite incapable of speaking on any subject whatever. From the time of my arrival at St. Crux, in the middle of last month, to the time of his death, not a word dropped from him which referred in the remotest way to the Secret Trust.
"Here then, for the present, the matter rests. If you think it right to communicate the contents of this letter to Miss Vanstone, pray tell her that it will not be my fault if her sister's assertion (however preposterous it may seem to my uncle's executors) is not fairly put to the proof.
"Believe me, dear Miss Garth, always truly yours,
"P. S.--As soon as all business matters are settled, I am going abroad for some months, to try the relief of change of scene. The house will be shut up, and left under the charge of Mrs. Drake. I have not forgotten your once telling me that you should like to see St. Crux, if you ever found yourself in this neighborhood. If you are at all likely to be in Essex during the time when I am abroad, I have provided against the chance of your being disappointed, by leaving instructions with Mrs. Drake to give you, and any friends of yours, the freest admission to the house and grounds."
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Noel Vanstone.
"Lincoln's Inn Fields, May 24th.
"DEAR MADAM--After a whole fortnight's search--conducted, I am bound to admit, with the most conscientious and unrelaxing care--no such document as the Secret Trust has been found among the papers left at St. Crux by the late Admiral Bartram.
"Under these circumstances, the executors have decided on acting under the only recognizable authority which they have to guide them--the admiral's own will. This document (executed some years since) bequeaths the whole of his estate, both real and personal (that is to say, all the lands he possesses, and all the money he possesses, at the time of his death), to his nephew. The will is plain, and the result is inevitable. Your husband's fortune is lost to you from this moment. Mr. George Bartram legally inherits it, as he legally inherits the house and estate of St. Crux.
"I make no comment upon this extraordinary close to the proceedings. The Trust may have been destroyed, or the Trust may be hidden in some place of concealment inaccessible to discovery. Either way, it is, in my opinion, impossible to found any valid legal declaration on a knowledge of the document so fragmentary and so incomplete as the knowledge which you possess. If other lawyers differ from me on this point, by all means consult them. I have devoted money enough and time enough to the unfortunate attempt to assert your interests; and my connection with the matter must, from this moment, be considered at an end.
"Your obedient servant,
From Mrs. Ruddock (Lodging-house Keeper)
to Mr. Loscombe.
"Park Terrace, St. John's Wood, June 2d.
"SIR--Having, by Mrs. Noel Vanstone's directions, taken letters for her to the post, addressed to you--and knowing no one else to apply to--I beg to inquire whether you are acquainted with any of her friends; for I think it right that they should be stirred up to take some steps about her.
"Mrs. Vanstone first came to me in November last, when she and her maid occupied my apartments. On that occasion, and again on this, she has given me no cause to complain of her. She has behaved like a lady, and paid me my due. I am writing, as a mother of a family, under a sense of responsibility--I am not writing with an interested motive.
"After proper warning given, Mrs. Vanstone (who is now quite alone) leaves me to-morrow. She has not concealed from me that her circumstances are fallen very low, and that she cannot afford to remain in my house. This is all she has told me--I know nothing of where she is going, or what she means to do next. But I have every reason to believe she desires to destroy all traces by which she might be found, after leaving this place--for I discovered her in tears yesterday, burning letters which were doubtless letters from her friends. In looks and conduct she has altered most shockingly in the last week. I believe there is some dreadful trouble on her mind; and I am afraid, from what I see of her, that she is on the eve of a serious illness. It is very sad to see such a young woman so utterly deserted and friendless as she is now.
"Excuse my troubling you with this letter; it is on my conscience to write it. If you know any of her relations, please warn them that time is not to be wasted. If they lose to-morrow, they may lose the last chance of finding her.
"Your humble servant,
From Mr. Loscombe to Mrs. Ruddock.
"Lincoln's Inn Fields, June 2d.
"MADAM--MY only connection with Mrs. Noel Vanstone was a professional one, and that connection is now at an end. I am not acquainted with any of her friends; and I cannot undertake to interfere personally, either with her present or future proceedings.
"Regretting my inability to afford you any assistance, I remain, your obedient servant,
ON the seventh of June, the owners of the merchantman Deliverance received news that the ship had touched at Plymouth to land passengers, and had then continued her homeward voyage to the Port of London. Five days later, the vessel was in the river, and was towed into the East India Docks.
Having transacted the business on shore for which he was personally responsible, Captain Kirke made the necessary arrangements, by letter, for visiting his brother-in-law's parsonage in Suffolk, on the seventeenth of the month. As usual in such cases, he received a list of commissions to execute for his sister on the day before he left London. One of these commissions took him into the neighborhood of Camden Town. He drove to his destination from the Docks; and then, dismissing the vehicle, set forth to walk back southward, toward the New Road.
He was not well acquainted with the district; and his attention wandered further and further away from the scene around him as he went on. His thoughts, roused by the prospect of seeing his sister again, had led his memory back to the night when he had parted from her, leaving the house on foot. The spell so strangely laid on him, in that past time, had kept its hold through all after-events. The face that had haunted him on the lonely road had haunted him again on the lonely sea. The woman who had followed him, as in a dream, to his sister's door, had followed him--thought of his thought, and spirit of his spirit--to the deck of his ship. Through storm and calm on the voyage out, through storm and calm on the voyage home, she had been with him. In the ceaseless turmoil of the London streets, she was with him now. He knew what the first question on his lips would be, when he had seen his sister and her boys. "I shall try to talk of something else," he thought; "but when Lizzie and I am alone, it will come out in spite of me."
The necessity of waiting to let a string of carts pass at a turning before he crossed awakened him to present things. He looked about in a momentary confusion. The street was strange to him; he had lost his way.
The first foot passenger of whom he inquired appeared to have no time to waste in giving information. Hurriedly directing him to cross to the other side of the road, to turn down the first street he came to on his right hand, and then to ask again, the stranger unceremoniously hastened on without waiting to be thanked.
Kirke followed his directions and took the turning on his right. The street was short and narrow, and the houses on either side were of the poorer order. He looked up as he passed the corner to see what the name of the place might be. It was called "Aaron's Buildings."
Low down on the side of the "Buildings" along which he was walking, a little crowd of idlers was assembled round two cabs, both drawn up before the door of the same house. Kirke advanced to the crowd, to ask his way of any civil stranger among them who might not be in a hurry this time. On approaching the cabs, he found a woman disputing with the drivers; and heard enough to inform him that two vehicles had been sent for by mistake, where only one was wanted.
The house door was open; and when he turned that way next, he looked easily into the passage, over the heads of the people in front of him.
The sight that met his eyes should have been shielded in pity from the observation of the street. He saw a slatternly girl, with a frightened face, standing by an old chair placed in the middle of the passage, and holding a woman on the chair, too weak and helpless to support herself--a woman apparently in the last stage of illness, who was about to be removed, when the dispute outside was ended, in one of the cabs. Her head was drooping when he first saw her, and an old shawl which covered it had fallen forward so as to hide the upper part of her face.
Before he could look away again, the girl in charge of her raised her head and restored the shawl to its place. The action disclosed her face to view, for an instant only, before her head drooped once more on her bosom. In that instant he saw the woman whose beauty was the haunting remembrance of his life--whose image had been vivid in his mind not five minutes since.
The shock of the double recognition--the recognition, at the same moment, of the face, and of the dreadful change in it--struck him speechless and helpless. The steady presence of mind in all emergencies which had become a habit of his life, failed him for the first time. The poverty-stricken street, the squalid mob round the door, swam before his eyes. He staggered back and caught at the iron railings of the house behind him.
"Where are they taking her to?" he heard a woman ask, close at his side.
"To the hospital, if they will have her," was the reply. "And to the work-house, if they won't."
That horrible answer roused him. He pushed his way through the crowd and entered the house.
The misunderstanding on the pavement had been set right, and one of the cabs had driven off.
As he crossed the threshold of the door he confronted the people of the house at the moment when they were moving her. The cabman who had remained was on one side of the chair, and the woman who had been disputing with the two drivers was on the other. They were just lifting her, when Kirke's tall figure darkened the door.
"What are you doing with that lady?" he asked.
The cabman looked up with the insolence of his reply visible in his eyes, before his lips could utter it. But the woman, quicker than he, saw the suppressed agitation in Kirke's face, and dropped her hold of the chair in an instant.
"Do you know her, sir?" asked the woman, eagerly. "Are you one of her friends?"
"Yes," said Kirke, without hesitation.
"It's not my fault, sir," pleaded the woman, shirking under the look he fixed on her. "I would have waited patiently till her friends found her--I would, indeed!"
Kirke made no reply. He turned, and spoke to the cabman.
"Go out," he said, "and close the door after you. I'll send you down your money directly. What room in the house did you take her from, when you brought her here?" he resumed, addressing himself to the woman again.
"The first floor back, sir."
"Show me the way to it."
He stooped, and lifted Magdalen in his arms. Her head rested gently on the sailor's breast; her eyes looked up wonderingly into the sailor's face. She smiled, and whispered to him vacantly. Her mind had wandered back to old days at home; and her few broken words showed that she fancied herself a child again in her father's arms. "Poor papa!" she said, softly. "Why do you look so sorry? Poor papa!"
The woman led the way into the back room on the first floor. It was very small; it was miserably furnished. But the little bed was clean, and the few things in the room were neatly kept. Kirke laid her tenderly on the bed. She caught one of his hands in her burning fingers. "Don't distress mamma about me," she said. "Send for Norah." Kirke tried gently to release his hand; but she only clasped it the more eagerly. He sat down by the bedside to wait until it pleased her to release him. The woman stood looking at them and crying, in a corner of the room. Kirke observed her attentively. "Speak," he said, after an interval, in low, quiet tones. "Speak in her presence; and tell me the truth."
With many words, with many tears, the woman spoke.
She had let her first floor to the lady a fortnight since. The lady had paid a week's rent, and had given the name of Gray. She had been out from morning till night, for the first three days, and had come home again, on every occasion, with a wretchedly weary, disappointed look. The woman of the house had suspected that she was in hiding from her friends, under a false name; and that she had been vainly trying to raise money, or to get some employment, on the three days when she was out for so long, and when she looked so disappointed on coming home. However that might be, on the fourth day she had fallen ill, with shivering fits and hot fits, turn and turn about. On the fifth day she was worse; and on the sixth, she was too sleepy at one time, and too light-headed at another, to be spoken to. The chemist (who did the doctoring in those parts) had come and looked at her, and had said he thought it was a bad fever. He had left a "saline draught," which the woman of the house had paid for out of her own pocket, and had administered without effect. She had ventured on searching the only box which the lady had brought with her; and had found nothing in it but a few necessary articles of linen--no dresses, no ornaments, not so much as the fragment of a letter which might help in discovering her friends. Between the risk of keeping her under these circumstances, and the barbarity of turning a sick woman into the street, the landlady herself had not hesitated. She would willingly have kept her tenant, on the chance of the lady's recovery, and on the chance of her friends turning up. But not half an hour since, her husband--who never came near the house, except to take her money--had come to rob her of her little earnings, as usual. She had been obliged to tell him that no rent was in hand for the first floor, and that none was likely to be in hand until the lady recovered, or her friends found her. On hearing this, he had mercilessly insisted--well or ill--that the lady should go. There was the hospital to take her to; and if the hospital shut its doors, there was the workhouse to try next. If she was not out of the place in an hour's time, he threatened to come back and take her out himself. His wife knew but too well that he was brute enough to be as good as his word; and no other choice had been left her but to do as she had done, for the sake of the lady herself.
The woman told her shocking story, with every appearance of being honestly ashamed of it. Toward the end, Kirke felt the clasp of the burning fingers slackening round his hand. He looked back at the bed again. Her weary eyes were closing; and, with her face still turned toward the sailor, she was sinking into sleep.
"Is there any one in the front room?" said Kirke, in a whisper. "Come in there; I have something to say to you."
The woman followed him through the door of communication between the rooms.
"How much does she owe you?" he asked.
The landlady mentioned the sum. Kirke put it down before her on the table.
"Where is your husband?" was his next question.
"Waiting at the public-house, sir, till the hour is up."
"You can take him the money or not, as you think right," said Kirke, quietly. "I have only one thing to tell you, as far as your husband is concerned. If you want to see every bone in his skin broken, let him come to the house while I am in it. Stop! I have something more to say. Do you know of any doctor in the neighborhood who can be depended on?"
"Not in our neighborhood, sir. But I know of one within half an hour's walk of us."
"Take the cab at the door; and, if you find him at home, bring him back in it. Say I am waiting here for his opinion on a very serious case. He shall be well paid, and you shall be well paid. Make haste!"
The woman left the room.
Kirke sat down alone, to wait for her return. He hid his face in his hands, and tried to realize the strange and touching situation in which the accident of a moment had placed him.
Hidden in the squalid by-ways of London under a false name; cast, friendless and helpless, on the mercy of strangers, by illness which had struck her prostrate, mind and body alike--so he met her again, the woman who had opened a new world of beauty to his mind; the woman who had called Love to life in him by a look! What horrible misfortune had struck her so cruelly, and struck her so low? What mysterious destiny had guided him to the last refuge of her poverty and despair, in the hour of her sorest need? "If it is ordered that I am to see her again, I shall see her." Those words came back to him now--the memorable words that he had spoken to his sister at parting. With that thought in his heart, he had gone where his duty called him. Months and months had passed; thousands and thousands of miles, protracting their desolate length on the unresting waters had rolled between them. And through the lapse of time, and over the waste of oceans--day after day, and night after night, as the winds of heaven blew, and the good ship toiled on before them--he had advanced nearer and nearer to the end that was waiting for him; he had journeyed blindfold to the meeting on the threshold of that miserable door. "What has brought me here?" he said to himself in a whisper. "The mercy of chance? No. The mercy of God."
He waited, unregardful of the place, unconscious of the time, until the sound of footsteps on the stairs came suddenly between him and his thoughts. The door opened, and the doctor was shown into the room.
"Dr. Merrick," said the landlady, placing a chair for him.
"Mr. Merrick," said the visitor, smiling quietly as he took the chair. "I am not a physician--I am a surgeon in general practice."
Physician or surgeon, there was something in his face and manner which told Kirke at a glance that he was a man to be relied on.
After a few preliminary words on either side, Mr. Merrick sent the landlady into the bedroom to see if his patient was awake or asleep. The woman returned, and said she was "betwixt the two, light in the head again, and burning hot." The doctor went at once into the bedroom, telling the landlady to follow him, and to close the door behind her.
A weary time passed before he came back into the front room. When he re-appeared, his face spoke for him, before any question could be asked.
"Is it a serious illness?" said Kirke his voice sinking low, his eyes anxiously fixed on the doctor's face.
"It is a dangerous illness," said Mr. Merrick, with an emphasis on the word.
He drew his chair nearer to Kirke and looked at him attentively.
"May I ask you some questions which are not strictly medical?" he inquired.
"Can you tell me what her life has been before she came into this house, and before she fell ill?"
"I have no means of knowing. I have just returned to England after a long absence."
"Did you know of her coming here?"
"I only discovered it by accident."
"Has she no female relations? No mother? no sister? no one to take care of her but yourself?"
"No one--unless I can succeed in tracing her relations. No one but myself."
Mr. Merrick was silent. He looked at Kirke more attentively than ever. "Strange!" thought the doctor. "He is here, in sole charge of her--and is this all he knows?"
Kirke saw the doubt in his face; and addressed himself straight to that doubt, before another word passed between them.
"I see my position here surprises you," he said, simply. "Will you consider it the position of a relation--the position of her brother or her father--until her friends can be found?" His voice faltered, and he laid his hand earnestly on the doctor's arm. "I have taken this trust on myself," he said; "and as God shall judge me, I will not be unworthy of it!"
The poor weary head lay on his breast again, the poor fevered fingers clasped his hand once more, as he spoke those words.
"I believe you," said the doctor, warmly. "I believe you are an honest man.--Pardon me if I have seemed to intrude myself on your confidence. I respect your reserve--from this moment it is sacred to me. In justice to both of us, let me say that the questions I have asked were not prompted by mere curiosity. No common cause will account for the illness which has laid my patient on that bed. She has suffered some long-continued mental trial, some wearing and terrible suspense--and she has broken down under it. It might have helped me if I could have known what the nature of the trial was, and how long or how short a time elapsed before she sank under it. In that hope I spoke."
"When you told me she was dangerously ill," said Kirke, "did you mean danger to her reason or to her life?"
"To both," replied Mr. Merrick. "Her whole nervous system has given way; all the ordinary functions of her brain are in a state of collapse. I can give you no plainer explanation than that of the nature of the malady. The fever which frightens the people of the house is merely the effect. The cause is what I have told you. She may lie on that bed for weeks to come; passing alternately, without a gleam of consciousness, from a state of delirium to a state of repose. You must not be alarmed if you find her sleep lasting far beyond the natural time. That sleep is a better remedy than any I can give, and nothing must disturb it. All our art can accomplish is to watch her, to help her with stimulants from time to time, and to wait for what Nature will do."
"Must she remain here? Is there no hope of our being able to remove her to a better place?"
"No hope whatever, for the present. She has already been disturbed, as I understand, and she is seriously the worse for it. Even if she gets better, even if she comes to herself again, it would still be a dangerous experiment to move her too soon--the least excitement or alarm would be fatal to her. You must make the best of this place as it is. The landlady has my directions; and I will send a good nurse to help her. There is nothing more to be done. So far as her life can be said to be in any human hands, it is as much in your hands now as in mine. Everything depends on the care that is taken of her, under your direction, in this house." With those farewell words he rose and quitted the room.
Left by himself, Kirke walked to the door of communication, and, knocking at it softly, told the landlady he wished to speak with her.
He was far more composed, far more like his own resolute self, after his interview with the doctor, than he had been before it. A man living in the artificial social atmosphere which this man had never breathed would have felt painfully the worldly side of the situation--its novelty and strangeness; the serious present difficulty in which it placed him; the numberless misinterpretations in the future to which it might lead. Kirke never gave the situation a thought. He saw nothing but the duty it claimed from him--a duty which the doctor's farewell words had put plainly before his mind. Everything depended on the care taken of her, under his direction, in that house. There was his responsibility, and he unconsciously acted under it, exactly as he would have acted in a case of emergency with women and children on board his own ship. He questioned the landlady in short, sharp sentences; the only change in him was in the lowered tone of his voice, and in the anxious looks which he cast, from time to time, at the room where she lay.
"Do you understand what the doctor has told you?"
"The house must be kept quiet. Who lives in the house?"
"Only me and my daughter, sir; we live in the parlors. Times have gone badly with us since Lady Day. Both the rooms above this are to let."
"I will take them both, and the two rooms down here as well. Do you know of any active trustworthy man who can run on errands for me?"
"Yes, sir. Shall I go--?"
"No; let your daughter go. You must not leave the house until the nurse comes. Don't send the messenger up here. Men of that sort tread heavily. I'll go down, and speak to him at the door."
He went down when the messenger came, and sent him first to purchase pen, ink, and paper. The man's next errand dispatched him to make inquiries for a person who could provide for deadening the sound of passing wheels in the street by laying down tan before the house in the usual way. This object accomplished, the messenger received two letters to post. The first was addressed to Kirke's brother-in-law. It told him, in few and plain words, what had happened; and left him to break the news to his wife as he thought best. The second letter was directed to the landlord of the Aldborough Hotel. Magdalen's assumed name at North Shingles was the only name by which Kirke knew her; and the one chance of tracing her relatives that he could discern was the chance of discovering her reputed uncle and aunt by means of inquiries starting from Aldborough.
Toward the close of the afternoon a decent middle-aged woman came to the house, with a letter from Mr. Merrick. She was well known to the doctor as a trustworthy and careful person, who had nursed his own wife; and she would be assisted, from time to time, by a lady who was a member of a religious Sisterhood in the district, and whose compassionate interest had been warmly aroused in the case. Toward eight o'clock that evening the doctor himself would call and see that his patient wanted for nothing.
The arrival of the nurse, and the relief of knowing that she was to be trusted, left Kirke free to think of himself. His luggage was ready packed for his contemplated journey to Suffolk the next day. It was merely necessary to transport it from the hotel to the house in Aaron's Buildings.
He stopped once only on his way to the hotel to look at a toyshop in one of the great thoroughfares. The miniature ships in the window reminded him of his nephew. "My little name-sake will be sadly disappointed at not seeing me to-morrow," he thought. "I must make it up to the boy by sending him something from his uncle." He went into the shop and bought one of the ships. It was secured in a box, and packed and directed in his presence. He put a card on the deck of the miniature vessel before the cover of the box was nailed on, bearing this inscription: "A ship for the little sailor, with the big sailor's love."--"Children like to be written to, ma'am," he said, apologetically, to the woman behind the counter. "Send the box as soon as you can--I am anxious the boy should get it to-morrow."
Toward the dusk of the evening he returned with his luggage to Aaron's Buildings. He took off his boots in the passage and carried his trunk upstairs himself; stopping, as he passed the first floor, to make his inquiries. Mr. Merrick was present to answer them.
"She was awake and wandering," said the doctor, "a few minutes since. But we have succeeded in composing her, and she is sleeping now."
"Have no words escaped her, sir, which might help us to find her friends?"
Mr. Merrick shook his head.
"Weeks and weeks may pass yet," he said, "and that poor girl's story may still be a sealed secret to all of us. We can only wait."
So the day ended--the first of many days that were to come.
THE warm sunlight of July shining softly through a green blind; an open window with fresh flowers set on the sill; a strange bed, in a strange room; a giant figure of the female sex (like a dream of Mrs. Wragge) towering aloft on one side of the bed, and trying to clap its hands; another woman (quickly) stopping the hands before they could make any noise; a mild expostulating voice (like a dream of Mrs. Wragge again) breaking the silence in these words, "She knows me, ma'am, she knows me; if I mustn't be happy, it will be the death of me!"--such were the first sights, such were the first sounds, to which, after six weeks of oblivion, Magdalen suddenly and strangely awoke.
After a little, the sights grew dim again, and the sounds sank into silence. Sleep, the merciful, took her once more, and hushed her back to repose.
Another day--and the sights were clearer, the sounds were louder. Another--and she heard a man's voice, through the door, asking for news from the sick-room. The voice was strange to her; it was always cautiously lowered to the same quiet tone. It inquired after her, in the morning, when she woke--at noon, when she took her refreshment--in the evening, before she dropped asleep again. "Who is so anxious about me?" That was the first thought her mind was strong enough to form--"Who is so anxious about me?"
More days--and she could speak to the nurse at her bedside; she could answer the questions of an elderly man, who knew far more about her than she knew about herself, and who told her he was Mr. Merrick, the doctor; she could sit up in bed, supported by pillows, wondering what had happened to her, and where she was; she could feel a growing curiosity about that quiet voice, which still asked after her, morning, noon, and night, on the other side of the door.
Another day's delay--and Mr. Merrick asked her if she was strong enough to see an old friend. A meek voice, behind him, articulating high in the air, said, "It's only me." The voice was followed by the prodigious bodily apparition of Mrs. Wragge, with her cap all awry, and one of her shoes in the next room. "Oh, look at her! look at her!" cried Mrs. Wragge, in an ecstasy, dropping on her knees at Magdalen's bedside, with a thump that shook the house. "Bless her heart, she's well enough to laugh at me already. 'Cheer, boys, cheer--!' I beg your pardon, doctor, my conduct isn't ladylike, I know. It's my head, sir; it isn't me. I must give vent somehow, or my head will burst!" No coherent sentence, in answer to any sort of question put to her, could be extracted that morning from Mrs. Wragge. She rose from one climax of verbal confusion to another--and finished her visit under the bed, groping inscrutably for the second shoe.
The morrow came--and Mr. Merrick promised that she should see another old friend on the next day. In the evening, when the inquiring voice asked after her, as usual, and when the door was opened a few inches to give the reply, she answered faintly for herself: "I am better, thank you." There was a moment of silence--and then, just as the door was shut again, the voice sank to a whisper, and said, fervently, "Thank God!" Who was he? She had asked them all, and no one would tell her. Who was he?
The next day came; and she heard her door opened softly. Brisk footsteps tripped into the room; a lithe little figure advanced to the bed-side. Was it a dream again? No! There he was in his own evergreen reality, with the copious flow of language pouring smoothly from his lips; with the lambent dash of humor twinkling in his party-colored eyes--there he was, more audacious, more persuasive, more respectable than ever, in a suit of glossy black, with a speckless white cravat, and a rampant shirt frill--the unblushing, the invincible, unchangeable Wragge!
"Not a word, my dear girl!" said the captain, seating himself comfortably at the bedside, in his old confidential way. "I am to do all the talking; and, I think you will own, a more competent man for the purpose could not possibly have been found. I am really delighted--honestly delighted, if I may use such an apparently inappropriate word--to see you again, and to see you getting well. I have often thought of you; I have often missed you; I have often said to myself--never mind what! Clear the stage, and drop the curtain on the past. Dum vivimus, vivamus! Pardon the pedantry of a Latin quotation, my dear, and tell me how I look. Am I, or am I not, the picture of a prosperous man?"
Magdalen attempted to answer him. The captain's deluge of words flowed over her again in a moment.
"Don't exert yourself," he said. "I'll put all your questions for you. What have I been about? Why do I look so remarkably well off? And how in the world did I find my way to this house? My dear girl, I have been occupied, since we last saw each other, in slightly modifying my old professional habits. I have shifted from Moral Agriculture to Medical Agriculture. Formerly I preyed on the public sympathy, now I prey on the public stomach. Stomach and sympathy, sympathy and stomach--look them both fairly in the face when you reach the wrong side of fifty, and you will agree with me that they come to much the same thing. However that may be, here I am--incredible as it may appear--a man with an income, at last. The founders of my fortune are three in number. Their names are Aloes, Scammony, and Gamboge. In plainer words, I am now living--on a Pill. I made a little money (if you remember) by my friendly connection with you. I made a little more by the happy decease (Requiescat in Pace!) of that female relative of Mrs. Wragge's from whom, as I told you, my wife had expectations. Very good. What do you think I did? I invested the whole of my capital, at one fell swoop, in advertisements, and purchased my drugs and my pill-boxes on credit. The result is now before you. Here I am, a Grand Financial Fact. Here I am, with my clothes positively paid for; with a balance at my banker's; with my servant in livery, and my gig at the door; solvent, flourishing, popular--and all on a Pill."
Magdalen smiled. The captain's face assumed an expression of mock gravity; he looked as if there was a serious side to the question, and as if he meant to put it next.
"It's no laughing matter to the public, my dear," he said. "They can't get rid of me and my Pill; they must take us. There is not a single form of appeal in the whole range of human advertisement which I am not making to the unfortunate public at this moment. Hire the last new novel, there I am, inside the boards of the book. Send for the last new Song--the instant you open the leaves, I drop out of it. Take a cab--I fly in at the window in red. Buy a box of tooth-powder at the chemist's--I wrap it up for you in blue. Show yourself at the theater--I flutter down on you in yellow. The mere titles of my advertisements are quite irresistible. Let me quote a few from last week's issue. Proverbial Title: 'A Pill in time saves Nine.' Familiar Title: 'Excuse me, how is your Stomach?' Patriotic Title: 'What are the three characteristics of a true-born Englishman? His Hearth, his Home, and his Pill.' Title in the form of a nursery dialogue: 'Mamma, I am not well.' 'What is the matter, my pet?' 'I want a little Pill.' Title in the form of a Historical Anecdote: 'New Discovery in the Mine of English History. When the Princes were smothered in the Tower, their faithful attendant collected all their little possessions left behind them. Among the touching trifles dear to the poor boys, he found a tiny Box. It contained the Pill of the Period. Is it necessary to say how inferior that Pill was to its Successor, which prince and peasant alike may now obtain?'--Et cetera, et cetera. The place in which my Pill is made is an advertisement in itself. I have got one of the largest shops in London. Behind one counter (visible to the public through the lucid medium of plate-glass) are four-and-twenty young men, in white aprons, making the Pill. Behind another counter are four-and-twenty young men, in white cravats, making the boxes. At the bottom of the shop are three elderly accountants, posting the vast financial transactions accruing from the Pill in three enormous ledgers. Over the door are my name, portrait, and autograph, expanded to colossal proportions, and surrounded in flowing letters, by the motto of the establishment, 'Down with the Doctors!' Even Mrs. Wragge contributes her quota to this prodigious enterprise. She is the celebrated woman whom I have cured of indescribable agonies from every complaint under the sun. Her portrait is engraved on all the wrappers, with the following inscription beneath it: 'Before she took the Pill you might have blown this patient away with a feather. Look at her now!!!' Last, not least, my dear girl, the Pill is the cause of my finding my way to this house. My department in the prodigious Enterprise already mentioned is to scour the United Kingdom in a gig, establishing Agencies everywhere. While founding one of those Agencies, I heard of a certain friend of mine, who had lately landed in England, after a long sea-voyage. I got his address in London--he was a lodger in this house. I called on him forthwith, and was stunned by the news of your illness. Such, in brief, is the history of my existing connection with British Medicine; and so it happens that you see me at the present moment sitting in the present chair, now as ever, yours truly, Horatio Wragge." In these terms the captain brought his personal statement to a close. He looked more and more attentively at Magdalen, the nearer he got to the conclusion. Was there some latent importance attaching to his last words which did not appear on the face of them? There was. His visit to the sick-room had a serious object, and that object he had now approached.
In describing the circumstances under which he had become acquainted with Magdalen's present position, Captain Wragge had skirted, with his customary dexterity, round the remote boundaries of truth. Emboldened by the absence of any public scandal in connection with Noel Vanstone's marriage, or with the event of his death as announced in the newspaper obituary, the captain, roaming the eastern circuit, had ventured back to Aldborough a fortnight since, to establish an agency there for the sale of his wonderful Pill. No one had recognized him but the landlady of the hotel, who at once insisted on his entering the house and reading Kirke's letter to her husband. The same night Captain Wragge was in London, and was closeted with the sailor in the second-floor room at Aaron's Buildings.
The serious nature of the situation, the indisputable certainty that Kirke must fail in tracing Magdalen's friends unless he first knew who she really was, had decided the captain on disclosing part, at least, of the truth. Declining to enter into any particulars--for family reasons, which Magdalen might explain on her recovery, if she pleased--he astounded Kirke by telling him that the friendless woman whom he had rescued, and whom he had only known up to that moment as Miss Bygrave--was no other than the youngest daughter of Andrew Vanstone. The disclosure, on Kirke's side, of his father's connection with the young officer in Canada, had followed naturally on the revelation of Magdalen's real name. Captain Wragge had expressed his surprise, but had made no further remark at the time. A fortnight later, however, when the patient's recovery forced the serious difficulty on the doctor of meeting the questions which Magdalen was sure to ask, the captain's ingenuity had come, as usual, to the rescue.
"You can't tell her the truth," he said, "without awakening painful recollections of her stay at Aldborough, into which I am not at liberty to enter. Don't acknowledge just yet that Mr. Kirke only knew her as Miss Bygrave of North Shingles when he found her in this house. Tell her boldly that he knew who she was, and that he felt (what she must feel) that he had a hereditary right to help and protect her as his father's son. I am, as I have already told you," continued the captain, sticking fast to his old assertion, "a distant relative of the Combe-Raven family; and, if there is nobody else at hand to help you through this difficulty, my services are freely at your disposal."
No one else was at hand, and the emergency was a serious one. Strangers undertaking the responsibility might ignorantly jar on past recollections, which it would, perhaps, be the death of her to revive too soon. Near relatives might, by their premature appearance at the bedside, produce the same deplorable result. The alternative lay between irritating and alarming her by leaving her inquiries unanswered, or trusting Captain Wragge. In the doctor's opinion, the second risk was the least serious risk of the two--and the captain was now seated at Magdalen's bedside in discharge of the trust confided to him.
Would she ask the question which it had been the private object of all Captain Wragge's preliminary talk lightly and pleasantly to provoke? Yes; as soon as his silence gave her the opportunity, she asked it: "Who was that friend of his living in the house?"
"You ought by rights to know him as well as I do," said the captain. "He is the son of one of your father's old military friends, when your father was quartered with his regiment in Canada. Your cheeks mustn't flush up! If they do, I shall go away."
She was astonished, but not agitated. Captain Wragge had begun by interesting her in the remote past, which she only knew by hearsay, before he ventured on the delicate ground of her own experience.
In a moment more she advanced to her next question: "What was his name?"
"Kirke," proceeded the captain. "Did you never hear of his father, Major Kirke, commanding officer of the regiment in Canada? Did you never hear that the major helped your father through a great difficulty, like the best of good fellows and good friends?"
Yes; she faintly fancied she had heard something about her father and an officer who had once been very good to him when he was a young man. But she could not look back so long. "Was Mr. Kirke poor?" Even Captain Wragge's penetration was puzzled by that question. He gave the true answer at hazard. "No," he said, "not poor."
Her next inquiry showed what she had been thinking of. "If Mr. Kirke was not poor, why did he come to live in that house?"
"She has caught me!" thought the captain. "There is only one way out of it--I must administer another dose of truth. Mr. Kirke discovered you here by chance," he proceeded, aloud, "very ill, and not nicely attended to. Somebody was wanted to take care of you while you were not able to take care of yourself. Why not Mr. Kirke? He was the son of your father's old friend--which is the next thing to being your old friend. Who had a better claim to send for the right doctor, and get the right nurse, when I was not here to cure you with my wonderful Pill? Gently! gently! you mustn't take hold of my superfine black coat-sleeve in that unceremonious manner."
He put her hand back on the bed, but she was not to be checked in that way. She persisted in asking another question.--How came Mr. Kirke to know her? She had never seen him; she had never heard of him in her life.
"Very likely," said Captain Wragge. "But your never having seen him is no reason why he should not have seen you."
"When did he see me?"
The captain corked up his doses of truth on the spot without a moment's hesitation. "Some time ago, my dear. I can't exactly say when."
Captain Wragge suddenly saw his way to the administration of another dose. "Yes," he said, "only once."
She reflected a little. The next question involved the simultaneous expression of two ideas, and the next question cost her an effort.
"He only saw me once," she said, "and he only saw me some time ago. How came he to remember me when he found me here?"
"Aha!" said the captain. "Now you have hit the right nail on the head at last. You can't possibly be more surprised at his remembering you than I am. A word of advice, my dear. When you are well enough to get up and see Mr. Kirke, try how that sharp question of yours sounds in his ears, and insist on his answering it himself." Slipping out of the dilemma in that characteristically adroit manner, Captain Wragge got briskly on his legs again and took up his hat.
"Wait!" she pleaded. "I want to ask you--"
"Not another word," said the captain. "I have given you quite enough to think of for one day. My time is up, and my gig is waiting for me. I am off, to scour the country as usual. I am off, to cultivate the field of public indigestion with the triple plowshare of aloes, scammony and gamboge." He stopped and turned round at the door. "By-the-by, a message from my unfortunate wife. If you will allow her to come and see you again, Mrs. Wragge solemnly promises not to lose her shoe next time. I don't believe her. What do you say? May she come?"
"Yes; whenever she likes," said Magdalen. "If I ever get well again, may poor Mrs. Wragge come and stay with me?"
"Certainly, my dear. If you have no objection, I will provide her beforehand with a few thousand impressions in red, blue, and yellow of her own portrait ('You might have blown this patient away with a feather before she took the Pill. Look at her now!'). She is sure to drop herself about perpetually wherever she goes, and the most gratifying results, in an advertising point of view, must inevitably follow. Don't think me mercenary--I merely understand the age I live in." He stopped on his way out, for the second time, and turned round once more at the door. "You have been a remarkably good girl," he said, "and you deserve to be rewarded for it. I'll give you a last piece of information before I go. Have you heard anybody inquiring after you, for the last day or two, outside your door? Ah! I see you have. A word in your ear, my dear. That's Mr. Kirke." He tripped away from the bedside as briskly as ever. Magdalen heard him advertising himself to the nurse before he closed the door. "If you are ever asked about it," he said, in a confidential whisper, "the name is Wragge, and the Pill is to be had in neat boxes, price thirteen pence half-penny, government stamp included. Take a few copies of the portrait of a female patient, whom you might have blown away with a feather before she took the Pill, and whom you are simply requested to contemplate now. Many thanks. Good-morning."
The door closed and Magdalen was alone again. She felt no sense of solitude; Captain Wragge had left her with something new to think of. Hour after hour her mind dwelt wonderingly on Mr. Kirke, until the evening came, and she heard his voice again through the half-opened door.
"I am very grateful," she said to him, before the nurse could answer his inquiries--"very, very grateful for all your goodness to me."
"Try to get well," he replied, kindly. "You will more than reward me, if you try to get well."
The next morning Mr. Merrick found her impatient to leave her bed, and be moved to the sofa in the front room. The doctor said he supposed she wanted a change. "Yes," she replied; "I want to see Mr. Kirke." The doctor consented to move her on the next day, but he positively forbade the additional excitement of seeing anybody until the day after. She attempted a remonstrance--Mr. Merrick was impenetrable. She tried, when he was gone, to win the nurse by persuasion--the nurse was impenetrable, too.
On the next day they wrapped her in shawls, and carried her in to the sofa, and made her a little bed on it. On the table near at hand were some flowers and a number of an illustrated paper. She immediately asked who had put them there. The nurse (failing to notice a warning look from the doctor) said Mr. Kirke had thought that she might like the flowers, and that the pictures in the paper might amuse her. After that reply, her anxiety to see Mr. Kirke became too ungovernable to be trifled with. The doctor left the room at once to fetch him.
She looked eagerly at the opening door. Her first glance at him as he came in raised a doubt in her mind whether she now saw that tall figure and that open sun-burned face for the first time. But she was too weak and too agitated to follow her recollections as far back as Aldborough. She resigned the attempt, and only looked at him. He stopped at the foot of the sofa and said a few cheering words. She beckoned to him to come nearer, and offered him her wasted hand. He tenderly took it in his, and sat down by her. They were both silent. His face told her of the sorrow and the sympathy which his silence would fain have concealed. She still held his hand--consciously now--as persistently as she had held it on the day when he found her. Her eyes closed, after a vain effort to speak to him, and the tears rolled slowly over her wan white cheeks.
The doctor signed to Kirke to wait and give her time. She recovered a little and looked at him. "How kind you have been to me!" she murmured. "And how little I have deserved it!"
"Hush! hush!" he said. "You don't know what a happiness it was to me to help you."
The sound of his voice seemed to strengthen her, and to give her courage. She lay looking at him with an eager interest, with a gratitude which artlessly ignored all the conventional restraints that interpose between a woman and a man. "Where did you see me," she said, suddenly, "before you found me here?"
Kirke hesitated. Mr. Merrick came to his assistance.
"I forbid you to say a word about the past to Mr. Kirke," interposed the doctor; "and I forbid Mr. Kirke to say a word about it to you. You are beginning a new life to-day, and the only recollections I sanction are recollections five minutes old."
She looked at the doctor and smiled. "I must ask him one question," she said, and turned back again to Kirke. "Is it true that you had only seen me once before you came to this house?"
"Quite true!" He made the reply with a sudden change of color which she instantly detected. Her brightening eyes looked at him more earnestly than ever, as she put her next question.
"How came you to remember me after only seeing me once?"
His hand unconsciously closed on hers, and pressed it for the first time. He attempted to answer, and hesitated at the first word. "I have a good memory," he said at last; and suddenly looked away from her with a confusion so strangely unlike his customary self-possession of manner that the doctor and the nurse both noticed it.
Every nerve in her body felt that momentary pressure of his hand, with the exquisite susceptibility which accompanies the first faltering advance on the way to health. She looked at his changing color, she listened to his hesitating words, with every sensitive perception of her sex and age quickened to seize intuitively on the truth. In the moment when he looked away from her, she gently took her hand from him, and turned her head aside on the pillow. "Can it be?" she thought, with a flutter of delicious fear at her heart, with a glow of delicious confusion burning on her cheeks. "Can it be?"
The doctor made another sign to Kirke. He understood it, and rose immediately. The momentary discomposure in his face and manner had both disappeared. He was satisfied in his own mind that he had successfully kept his secret, and in the relief of feeling that conviction he had become himself again.
"Good-by till to-morrow," he said, as he left the room.
"Good-by," she answered, softly, without looking at him.
Mr. Merrick took the chair which Kirke had resigned, and laid his hand on her pulse. "Just what I feared," remarked the doctor; "too quick by half."
She petulantly snatched away her wrist. "Don't!" she said, shrinking from him. "Pray don't touch me!"
Mr. Merrick good-humoredly gave up his place to the nurse. "I'll return in half an hour," he whispered, "and carry her back to bed. Don't let her talk. Show her the pictures in the newspaper, and keep her quiet in that way."
When the doctor returned, the nurse reported that the newspaper had not been wanted. The patient's conduct had been exemplary. She had not been at all restless, and she had never spoken a word.
The days passed, and the time grew longer and longer which the doctor allowed her to spend in the front room. She was soon able to dispense with the bed on the sofa--she could be dressed, and could sit up, supported by pillows, in an arm-chair. Her hours of emancipation from the bedroom represented the great daily event of her life. They were the hours she passed in Kirke's society.
She had a double interest in him now--her interest in the man whose protecting care had saved her reason and her life; her interest in the man whose heart's deepest secret she had surprised. Little by little they grew as easy and familiar with each other as old friends; little by little she presumed on all her privileges, and wound her way unsuspected into the most intimate knowledge of his nature.
Her questions were endless. Everything that he could tell her of himself and his life she drew from him delicately and insensibly: he, the least self-conscious of mankind, became an egotist in her dexterous hands. She found out his pride in his ship, and practiced on it without remorse. She drew him into talking of the fine qualities of the vessel, of the great things the vessel had done in emergencies, as he had never in his life talked yet to any living creature on shore. She found him out in private seafaring anxieties and unutterable seafaring exultations which he had kept a secret from his own mate. She watched his kindling face with a delicious sense of triumph in adding fuel to the fire; she trapped him into forgetting all considerations of time and place, and striking as hearty a stroke on the rickety little lodging-house table, in the fervor of his talk, as if his hand had descended on the solid bulwark of his ship. His confusion at the discovery of his own forgetfulness secretly delighted her; she could have cried with pleasure when he penitently wondered what he could possibly have been thinking of.
At other times she drew him from dwelling on the pleasures of his life, and led him into talking of its perils--the perils of that jealous mistress the sea, which had absorbed so much of his existence, which had kept him so strangely innocent and ignorant of the world on shore. Twice he had been shipwrecked. Times innumerable he and all with him had been threatened with death, and had escaped their doom by the narrowness of a hair-breadth. He was always unwilling at the outset to speak of this dark and dreadful side of his life: it was only by adroitly tempting him, by laying little snares for him in his talk, that she lured him into telling her of the terrors of the great deep. She sat listening to him with a breathless interest, looking at him with a breathless wonder, as those fearful stories--made doubly vivid by the simple language in which he told them--fell, one by one, from his lips. His noble unconsciousness of his own heroism--the artless modesty with which he described his own acts of dauntless endurance and devoted courage, without an idea that they were anything more than plain acts of duty to which he was bound by the vocation that he followed--raised him to a place in her estimation so hopelessly high above her that she became uneasy and impatient until she had pulled down the idol again which she herself had set up. It was on these occasions that she most rigidly exacted from him all those little familiar attentions so precious to women in their intercourse with men. "This hand," she thought, with an exquisite delight in secretly following the idea while he was close to her--"this hand that has rescued the drowning from death is shifting my pillows so tenderly that I hardly know when they are moved. This hand that has seized men mad with mutiny, and driven them back to their duty by main force, is mixing my lemonade and peeling my fruit more delicately and more neatly than I could do it for myself. Oh, if I could be a man, how I should like to be such a man as this!"
She never allowed her thoughts, while she was in his presence, to lead her beyond that point. It was only when the night had separated them that she ventured to let her mind dwell on the self-sacrificing devotion which had so mercifully rescued her. Kirke little knew how she thought of him, in the secrecy of her own chamber, during the quiet hours that elapsed before she sank to sleep. No suspicion crossed his mind of the influence which he was exerting over her--of the new spirit which he was breathing into that new life, so sensitively open to impression in the first freshness of its recovered sense. "She has nobody else to amuse her, poor thing," he used to think, sadly, sitting alone in his small second-floor room. "If a rough fellow like me can beguile the weary hours till her friends come here, she is heartily welcome to all that I can tell her."
He was out of spirits and restless now whenever he was by himself. Little by little he fell into a habit of taking long, lonely walks at night, when Magdalen thought he was sleeping upstairs. Once he went away abruptly in the day-time--on business, as he said. Something had passed between Magdalen and himself the evening before which had led her into telling him her age. "Twenty last birthday," he thought. "Take twenty from forty-one. An easy sum in subtraction--as easy a sum as my little nephew could wish for." He walked to the Docks, and looked bitterly at the shipping. "I mustn't forget how a ship is made," he said. "It won't be long before I am back at the old work again." On leaving the Docks he paid a visit to a brother sailor--a married man. In the course of conversation he asked how much older his friend might be than his friend's wife. There was six years' difference between them. "I suppose that's difference enough?" said Kirke. "Yes," said his friend; "quite enough. Are you looking out for a wife at last? Try a seasoned woman of thirty-five--that's your mark, Kirke, as near as I can calculate."
The time passed smoothly and quickly--the present time, in which she was recovering so happily--the present time, which he was beginning to distrust already.
Early one morning Mr. Merrick surprised Kirke by a visit in his little room on the second floor.
"I came to the conclusion yesterday," said the doctor, entering abruptly on his business, "that our patient was strong enough to justify us at last in running all risks, and communicating with her friends; and I have accordingly followed the clew which that queer fellow, Captain Wragge, put into our hands. You remember he advised us to apply to Mr. Pendril, the lawyer? I saw Mr. Pendril two days ago, and was referred by him--not overwillingly, as I thought--to a lady named Miss Garth. I heard enough from her to satisfy me that we have exercised a wise caution in acting as we have done. It is a very, very sad story; and I am bound to say that I, for one, make great allowances for the poor girl downstairs. Her only relation in the world is her elder sister. I have suggested that the sister shall write to her in the first instance, and then, if the letter does her no harm, follow it personally in a day or two. I have not given the address, by way of preventing any visits from being paid here without my permission. All I have done is to undertake to forward the letter, and I shall probably find it at my house when I get back. Can you stop at home until I send my man with it? There is not the least hope of my being able to bring it myself. All you need do is to watch for an opportunity when she is not in the front room, and to put the letter where she can see it when she comes in. The handwriting on the address will break the news before she opens the letter. Say nothing to her about it--take care that the landlady is within call--and leave her to herself. I know I can trust you to follow my directions, and that is why I ask you to do us this service. You look out of spirits this morning. Natural enough. You're used to plenty of fresh air, captain, and you're beginning to pine in this close place."
"May I ask a question, doctor? Is she pining in this close place, too? When her sister comes, will her sister take her away?"
"Decidedly, if my advice is followed. She will be well enough to be moved in a week or less. Good-day. You are certainly out of spirits, and your hand feels feverish. Pining for the blue water, captain--pining for the blue water!" With that expression of opinion, the doctor cheerfully went out.
In an hour the letter arrived. Kirke took it from the landlady reluctantly, and almost roughly, without looking at it. Having ascertained that Magdalen was still engaged at her toilet, and having explained to the landlady the necessity of remaining within call, he went downstairs immediately, and put the letter on the table in the front room. Magdalen heard the sound of the familiar step on the floor. "I shall soon be ready," she called to him, through the door.
He made no reply; he took his hat and went out. After a momentary hesitation, he turned his face eastward, and called on the ship-owners who employed him, at their office in Cornhill.
MAGDALEN'S first glance round the empty room showed her the letter on the table. The address, as the doctor had predicted, broke the news the moment she looked at it.
Not a word escaped her. She sat down by the table, pale and silent, with the letter in her lap. Twice she attempted to open it, and twice she put it back again. The bygone time was not alone in her mind as she looked at her sister's handwriting: the fear of Kirke was there with it. "My past life!" she thought. "What will he think of me when he knows my past life?"
She made another effort, and broke the seal. A second letter dropped out of the inclosure, addressed to her in a handwriting with which she was not familiar. She put the second letter aside and read the lines which Norah had written:
"Ventnor, Isle of Wight, August 24th.
"I am strictly forbidden to agitate you, or to weary you by writing a long letter. Is it wrong to tell you that I am the happiest woman living? I hope not, for I can't keep the secret to myself.
"My darling, prepare yourself for the greatest surprise I have ever caused you. I am married. It is only a week to-day since I parted with my old name--it is only a week since I have been the happy wife of George Bartram, of St. Crux.
"There were difficulties at first in the way of our marriage, some of them, I am afraid, of my making. Happily for me, my husband knew from the beginning that I really loved him: he gave me a second chance of telling him so, after I had lost the first, and, as you see, I was wise enough to take it. You ought to be especially interested, my love, in this marriage, for you are the cause of it. If I had not gone to Aldborough to search for the lost trace of you--if George had not been brought there at the same time by circumstances in which you were concerned, my husband and I might never have met. When we look back to our first impressions of each other, we look back to you.
"I must keep my promise not to weary you; I must bring this letter (sorely against my will) to an end. Patience! patience! I shall see you soon. George and I are both coming to London to take you back with us to Ventnor. This is my husband's invitation, mind, as well as mine. Don't suppose I married him, Magdalen, until I had taught him to think of you as I think--to wish with my wishes, and to hope with my hopes. I could say so much more about this, so much more about George, if I might only give my thoughts and my pen their own way; but I must leave Miss Garth (at her own special request) a blank space to fill up on the last page of this letter; and I must only add one word more before I say good-by--a word to warn you that I have another surprise in store, which I am keeping in reserve until we meet. Don't attempt to guess what it is. You might guess for ages, and be no nearer than you are now to the discovery of the truth. Your affectionate sister,
"MY DEAR CHILD--If I had ever lost my old loving recollection of you, I should feel it in my heart again now, when I know that it has pleased God to restore you to us from the brink of the grave. I add these lines to your sister's letter because I am not sure that you are quite so fit yet, as she thinks you, to accept her proposal. She has not said a word of her husband or herself which is not true. But Mr. Bartram is a stranger to you; and if you think you can recover more easily and more pleasantly to yourself under the wing of your old governess than under the protection of your new brother-in-law, come to me first, and trust to my reconciling Norah to the change of plans. I have secured the refusal of a little cottage at Shanklin, near enough to your sister to allow of your seeing each other whenever you like, and far enough away, at the same time, to secure you the privilege, when you wish it, of being alone. Send me one line before we meet to say Yes or No, and I will write to Shanklin by the next post.
"Always yours affectionately,
The letter dropped from Magdalen's hand. Thoughts which had never risen in her mind yet rose in it now.
Norah, whose courage under undeserved calamity had been the courage of resignation--Norah, who had patiently accepted her hard lot; who from first to last had meditated no vengeance and stooped to no deceit--Norah had reached the end which all her sister's ingenuity, all her sister's resolution, and all her sister's daring had failed to achieve. Openly and honorably, with love on one side and love on the other, Norah had married the man who possessed the Combe-Raven money--and Magdalen's own scheme to recover it had opened the way to the event which had brought husband and wife together.
As the light of that overwhelming discovery broke on her mind, the old strife was renewed; and Good and Evil struggled once more which should win her--but with added forces this time; with the new spirit that had been breathed into her new life; with the nobler sense that had grown with the growth of her gratitude to the man who had saved her, fighting on the better side. All the higher impulses of her nature, which had never, from first to last, let her err with impunity--which had tortured her, before her marriage and after it, with the remorse that no woman inherently heartless and inherently wicked can feel--all the nobler elements in her character, gathered their forces for the crowning struggle and strengthened her to meet, with no unworthy shrinking, the revelation that had opened on her view. Clearer and clearer, in the light of its own immortal life, the truth rose before her from the ashes of her dead passions, from the grave of her buried hopes. When she looked at the letter again--when she read the words once more which told her that the recovery of the lost fortune was her sister's triumph, not hers, she had victoriously trampled down all little jealousies and all mean regrets; she could say in her heart of hearts, "Norah has deserved it!"
The day wore on. She sat absorbed in her own thoughts, and heedless of the second letter which she had not opened yet, until Kirke's return.
He stopped on the landing outside, and, opening the door a little way only, asked, without entering the room, if she wanted anything that he could send her. She begged him to come in. His face was worn and weary; he looked older than she had seen him look yet. "Did you put my letter on the table for me?" she asked.
"Yes. I put it there at the doctor's request."
"I suppose the doctor told you it was from my sister? She is coming to see me, and Miss Garth is coming to see me. They will thank you for all your goodness to me better than I can."
"I have no claim on their thanks," he answered, sternly. "What I have done was not done for them, but for you." He waited a little, and looked at her. His face would have betrayed him in that look, his voice would have betrayed him in the next words he spoke, if she had not guessed the truth already. "When your friends come here," he resumed, "they will take you away, I suppose, to some better place than this."
"They can take me to no place," she said, gently, "which I shall think of as I think of the place where you found me. They can take me to no dearer friend than the friend who saved my life."
There was a moment's silence between them.
"We have been very happy here," he went on, in lower and lower tones. "You won't forget me when we have said good-by?"
She turned pale as the words passed his lips, and, leaving her chair, knelt down at the table, so as to look up into his face, and to force him to look into hers.
"Why do you talk of it?" she asked. "We are not going to say good-by, at least not yet."
"I thought--" he began.
"I thought your friends were coming here--"
She eagerly interrupted him. "Do you think I would go away with anybody," she said, "even with the dearest relation I have in the world, and leave you here, not knowing and not caring whether I ever saw you again? Oh, you don't think that of me!" she exclaimed, with the passionate tears springing into her eyes--"I'm sure you don't think that of me!"
"No," he said; "I never have thought, I never can think, unjustly or unworthily of you."
Before he could add another word she left the table as suddenly as she had approached it, and returned to her chair. He had unconsciously replied in terms that reminded her of the hard necessity which still remained unfulfilled--the necessity of telling him the story of the past. Not an idea of concealing that story from his knowledge crossed her mind. "Will he love me, when he knows the truth, as he loves me now?" That was her only thought as she tried to approach the subject in his presence without shrinking from it.
"Let us put my own feelings out of the question," she said. "There is a reason for my not going away, unless I first have the assurance of seeing you again. You have a claim--the strongest claim of any one--to know how I came here, unknown to my friends, and how it was that you found me fallen so low."
"I make no claim," he said, hastily. "I wish to know nothing which distresses you to tell me."
"You have always done your duty," she rejoined, with a faint smile. "Let me take example from you, if I can, and try to do mine."
"I am old enough to be your father," he said, bitterly. "Duty is more easily done at my age than it is at yours."
His age was so constantly in his mind now that he fancied it must be in her mind too. She had never given it a thought. The reference he had just made to it did not divert her for a moment from the subject on which she was speaking to him.
"You don't know how I value your good opinion of me," she said, struggling resolutely to sustain her sinking courage. "How can I deserve your kindness, how can I feel that I am worthy of your regard, until I have opened my heart to you? Oh, don't encourage me in my own miserable weakness! Help me to tell the truth--force me to tell it, for my own sake if not for yours!"
He was deeply moved by the fervent sincerity of that appeal.
"You shall tell it," he said. "You are right--and I was wrong." He waited a little, and considered. "Would it be easier to you," he asked, with delicate consideration for her, "to write it than to tell it?"
She caught gratefully at the suggestion. "Far easier," she replied. "I can be sure of myself--I can be sure of hiding nothing from you, if I write it. Don't write to me on your side!" she added, suddenly, seeing with a woman's instinctive quickness of penetration the danger of totally renouncing her personal influence over him. "Wait till we meet, and tell me with your own lips what you think."
"Where shall I tell it?"
"Here!" she said eagerly. "Here, where you found me helpless--here, where you have brought me back to life, and where I have first learned to know you. I can bear the hardest words you say to me if you will only say them in this room. It is impossible I can be away longer than a month; a month will be enough and more than enough. If I come back--" She stopped confusedly. "I am thinking of myself," she said, "when I ought to be thinking of you. You have your own occupations and your own friends. Will you decide for us? Will you say how it shall be?"
"It shall be as you wish. If you come back in a month, you will find me here."
"Will it cause you no sacrifice of your own comfort and your own plans?"
"It will cause me nothing," he replied, "but a journey back to the City." He rose and took his hat. "I must go there at once," he added, "or I shall not be in time."
"It is a promise between us?" she said, and held out her hand.
"Yes," he answered, a little sadly; "it is a promise."
Slight as it was, the shade of melancholy in his manner pained her. Forgetting all other anxieties in the anxiety to cheer him, she gently pressed the hand he gave her. "If that won't tell him the truth," she thought, "nothing will."
It failed to tell him the truth; but it forced a question on his mind which he had not ventured to ask himself before. "Is it her gratitude, or her love, that is speaking to me?" he wondered. "If I was only a younger man, I might almost hope it was her love." That terrible sum in subtraction which had first presented itself on the day when she told him her age began to trouble him again as he left the house. He took twenty from forty-one, at intervals, all the way back to the ship-owners' office in Cornhill.
Left by herself, Magdalen approached the table to write the line of answer which Miss Garth requested, and gratefully to accept the proposal that had been made to her.
The second letter which she had laid aside and forgotten was the first object that caught her eye on changing her place. She opened it immediately, and, not recognizing the handwriting, looked at the signature. To her unutterable astonishment, her correspondent proved to be no less a person than--old Mr. Clare!
The philosopher's letter dispensed with all the ordinary forms of address, and entered on the subject without prefatory phrases of any kind, in these uncompromising terms:
"I have more news for you of that contemptible cur, my son. Here it is in the fewest possible words.
"I always told you, if you remember, that Frank was a Sneak. The very first trace recovered of him, after his running away from his employers in China, presents him in that character. Where do you think he turns up next? He turns up, hidden behind a couple of flour barrels, on board an English vessel bound homeward from Hong-Kong to London.
"The name of the ship was the Deliverance, and the commander was one Captain Kirke. Instead of acting like a sensible man, and throwing Frank overboard, Captain Kirke was fool enough to listen to his story. He made the most of his misfortunes, you may be sure. He was half starved; he was an Englishman lost in a strange country, without a friend to help him; his only chance of getting home was to sneak into the hold of an English vessel--and he had sneaked in, accordingly, at Hong-Kong, two days since. That was his story. Any other lout in Frank's situation would have been rope's ended by any other captain. Deserving no pity from anybody, Frank was, as a matter of course, coddled and compassionated on the spot. The captain took him by the hand, the crew pitied him, and the passengers patted him on the back. He was fed, clothed, and presented with his passage home. Luck enough so far, you will say. Nothing of the sort; nothing like luck enough for my despicable son.
"The ship touched at the Cape of Good Hope. Among his other acts of folly Captain Kirke took a woman passenger on board at that place--not a young woman by any means--the elderly widow of a rich colonist. Is it necessary to say that she forthwith became deeply interested in Frank and his misfortunes? Is it necessary to tell you what followed? Look back at my son's career, and you will see that what followed was all of a piece with what went before. He didn't deserve your poor father's interest in him--and he got it. He didn't deserve your attachment--and he got it. He didn't deserve the best place in one of the best offices in London; he didn't deserve an equally good chance in one of the best mercantile houses in China; he didn't deserve food, clothing, pity, and a free passage home--and he got them all. Last, not least, he didn't even deserve to marry a woman old enough to be his grandmother--and he has done it! Not five minutes since I sent his wedding-cards out to the dust-hole, and tossed the letter that came with them into the fire. The last piece of information which that letter contains is that he and his wife are looking out for a house and estate to suit them. Mark my words! Frank will get one of the best estates in England; a seat in the House of Commons will follow as a matter of course; and one of the legislators of this Ass-ridden country will be--MY LOUT!
"If you are the sensible girl I have always taken you for, you have long since learned to rate Frank at his true value, and the news I send you will only confirm your contempt for him. I wish your poor father could but have lived to see this day! Often as I have missed my old gossip, I don't know that I ever felt the loss of him so keenly as I felt it when Frank's wedding-cards and Frank's letter came to this house. Your friend, if you ever want one,
"FRANCIS CLARE, Sen."
With one momentary disturbance of her composure, produced by the appearance of Kirke's name in Mr. Clare's singular narrative, Magdalen read the letter steadily through from beginning to end. The time when it could have distressed her was gone by; the scales had long since fallen from her eyes. Mr. Clare himself would have been satisfied if he had seen the quiet contempt on her face as she laid aside his letter. The only serious thought it cost her was a thought in which Kirke was concerned. The careless manner in which he had referred in her presence to the passengers on board his ship, without mentioning any of them by their names, showed her that Frank must have kept silence on the subject of the engagement once existing between them. The confession of that vanished delusion was left for her to make, as part of the story of the past which she had pledged herself unreservedly to reveal.
She wrote to Miss Garth, and sent the letter to the post immediately.
The next morning brought a line of rejoinder. Miss Garth had written to secure the cottage at Shanklin, and Mr. Merrick had consented to Magdalen's removal on the following day. Norah would be the first to arrive at the house; and Miss Garth would follow, with a comfortable carriage to take the invalid to the railway. Every needful arrangement had been made for her; the effort of moving was the one effort she would have to make.
Magdalen read the letter thankfully, but her thoughts wandered from it, and followed Kirke on his return to the City. What was the business which had once already taken him there in the morning? And why had the promise exchanged between them obliged him to go to the City again, for the second time in one day?
Was it by any chance business relating to the sea? Were his employers tempting him to go back to his ship?
THE first agitation of the meeting between the sisters was over; the first vivid impressions, half pleasurable, half painful, had softened a little, and Norah and Magdalen sat together hand in hand, each rapt in the silent fullness of her own joy. Magdalen was the first to speak.
"You have something to tell me, Norah?"
"I have a thousand things to tell you, my love; and you have ten thousand things to tell me.--Do you mean that second surprise which I told you of in my letter?"
"Yes. I suppose it must concern me very nearly, or you would hardly have thought of mentioning it in your first letter?"
"It does concern you very nearly. You have heard of George's house in Essex? You must be familiar, at least, with the name of St. Crux?--What is there to start at, my dear? I am afraid you are hardly strong enough for any more surprises just yet?"
"Quite strong enough, Norah. I have something to say to you about St. Crux--I have a surprise, on my side, for you."
"Will you tell it me now?"
"Not now. You shall know it when we are at the seaside; you shall know it before I accept the kindness which has invited me to your husband's house."
"What can it be? Why not tell me at once?"
"You used often to set me the example of patience, Norah, in old times; will you set me the example now?"
"With all my heart. Shall I return to my own story as well? Yes? Then we will go back to it at once. I was telling you that St. Crux is George's house, in Essex, the house he inherited from his uncle. Knowing that Miss Garth had a curiosity to see the place, he left word (when he went abroad after the admiral's death) that she and any friends who came with her were to be admitted, if she happened to find herself in the neighborhood during his absence. Miss Garth and I, and a large party of Mr. Tyrrel's friends, found ourselves in the neighborhood not long after George's departure. We had all been invited to see the launch of Mr. Tyrrel's new yacht from the builder's yard at Wivenhoe, in Essex. When the launch was over, the rest of the company returned to Colchester to dine. Miss Garth and I contrived to get into the same carriage together, with nobody but my two little pupils for our companions. We gave the coachman his orders, and drove round by St. Crux. The moment Miss Garth mentioned her name we were let in, and shown all over the house. I don't know how to describe it to you. It is the most bewildering place I ever saw in my life--"
"Don't attempt to describe it, Norah. Go on with your story instead."
"Very well. My story takes me straight into one of the rooms at St. Crux--a room about as long as your street here--so dreary, so dirty, and so dreadfully cold that I shiver at the bare recollection of it. Miss Garth was for getting out of it again as speedily as possible, and so was I. But the housekeeper declined to let us off without first looking at a singular piece of furniture, the only piece of furniture in the comfortless place. She called it a tripod, I think. (There is nothing to be alarmed at, Magdalen; I assure you there is nothing to be alarmed at!) At any rate, it was a strange, three-legged thing, which supported a great panful of charcoal ashes at the top. It was considered by all good judges (the housekeeper told us) a wonderful piece of chasing in metal; and she especially pointed out the beauty of some scroll-work running round the inside of the pan, with Latin mottoes on it, signifying--I forget what. I felt not the slightest interest in the thing myself, but I looked close at the scroll-work to satisfy the housekeeper. To confess the truth, she was rather tiresome with her mechanically learned lecture on fine metal work; and, while she was talking, I found myself idly stirring the soft feathery white ashes backward and forward with my hand, pretending to listen, with my mind a hundred miles away from her. I don't know how long or how short a time I had been playing with the ashes, when my fingers suddenly encountered a piece of crumpled paper hidden deep among them. When I brought it to the surface, it proved to be a letter--a long letter full of cramped, close writing.--You have anticipated my story, Magdalen, before I can end it! You know as well as I do that the letter which my idle fingers found was the Secret Trust. Hold out your hand, my dear. I have got George's permission to show it to you, and there it is!"
She put the Trust into her sister's hand. Magdalen took it from her mechanically. "You!" she said, looking at her sister with the remembrance of all that she had vainly ventured, of all that she had vainly suffered, at St. Crux--"you have found it!"
"Yes," said Norah, gayly; "the Trust has proved no exception to the general perversity of all lost things. Look for them, and they remain invisible. Leave them alone, and they reveal themselves! You and your lawyer, Magdalen, were both justified in supposing that your interest in this discovery was an interest of no common kind. I spare you all our consultations after I had produced the crumpled paper from the ashes. It ended in George's lawyer being written to, and in George himself being recalled from the Continent. Miss Garth and I both saw him immediately on his return. He did what neither of us could do--he solved the mystery of the Trust being hidden in the charcoal ashes. Admiral Bartram, you must know, was all his life subject to fits of somnambulism. He had been found walking in his sleep not long before his death--just at the time, too, when he was sadly troubled in his mind on the subject of that very letter in your hand. George's idea is that he must have fancied he was doing in his sleep what he would have died rather than do in his waking moments--destroying the Trust. The fire had been lighted in the pan not long before, and he no doubt saw it still burning in his dream. This was George's explanation of the strange position of the letter when I discovered it. The question of what was to be done with the letter itself came next, and was no easy question for a woman to understand. But I determined to master it, and I did master it, because it related to you."
"Let me try to master it, in my turn," said Magdalen. "I have a particular reason for wishing to know as much about this letter as you know yourself. What has it done for others, and what is it to do for me?"
"My dear Magdalen, how strangely you look at it! how strangely you talk of it! Worthless as it may appear, that morsel of paper gives you a fortune."
"Is my only claim to the fortune the claim which this letter gives me?"
"Yes; the letter is your only claim. Shall I try if I can explain it in two words? Taken by itself, the letter might, in the lawyer's opinion, have been made a matter for dispute, though I am sure George would have sanctioned no proceeding of that sort. Taken, however, with the postscript which Admiral Bartram attached to it (you will see the lines if you look under the signature on the third page), it becomes legally binding, as well as morally binding, on the admiral's representatives. I have exhausted my small stock of legal words, and must go on in my own language instead of in the lawyer's. The end of the thing was simply this. All the money went back to Mr. Noel Vanstone's estate (another legal word! my vocabulary is richer than I thought), for one plain reason--that it had not been employed as Mr. Noel Vanstone directed. If Mrs. Girdlestone had lived, or if George had married me a few months earlier, results would have been just the other way. As it is, half the money has been already divided between Mr. Noel Vanstone's next of kin; which means, translated into plain English, my husband, and his poor bedridden sister--who took the money formally, one day, to satisfy the lawyer, and who gave it back again generously, the next, to satisfy herself. So much for one half of this legacy. The other half, my dear, is all yours. How strangely events happen, Magdalen! It is only two years since you and I were left disinherited orphans--and we are sharing our poor father's fortune between us, after all!"
"Wait a little, Norah. Our shares come to us in very different ways."
"Do they? Mine comes to me by my husband. Yours comes to you--" She stopped confusedly, and changed color. "Forgive me, my own love!" she said, putting Magdalen's hand to her lips. "I have forgotten what I ought to have remembered. I have thoughtlessly distressed you!"
"No!" said Magdalen; "you have encouraged me."
"You shall see."
With those words, she rose quietly from the sofa, and walked to the open window. Before Norah could follow her, she had torn the Trust to pieces, and had cast the fragments into the street.
She came back to the sofa and laid her head, with a deep sigh of relief, on Norah's bosom. "I will owe nothing to my past life," she said. "I have parted with it as I have parted with those torn morsels of paper. All the thoughts and all the hopes belonging to it are put away from me forever!"
"Magdalen, my husband will never allow you! I will never allow you myself--"
"Hush! hush! What your husband thinks right, Norah, you and I will think right too. I will take from you what I would never have taken if that letter had given it to me. The end I dreamed of has come. Nothing is changed but the position I once thought we might hold toward each other. Better as it is, my love--far, far better as it is!"
So she made the last sacrifice of the old perversity and the old pride. So she entered on the new and nobler life.
A month had passed. The autumn sunshine was bright even in the murky streets, and the clocks in the neighborhood were just striking two, as Magdalen returned alone to the house in Aaron's Buildings.
"Is he waiting for me?" she asked, anxiously, when the landlady let her in.
He was waiting in the front room. Magdalen stole up the stairs and knocked at the door. He called to her carelessly and absently to come in, plainly thinking that it was only the servant who applied for permission to enter the room.
"You hardly expected me so soon?" she said speaking on the threshold, and pausing there to enjoy his surprise as he started to his feet and looked at her.
The only traces of illness still visible in her face left a delicacy in its outline which added refinement to her beauty. She was simply dressed in muslin. Her plain straw bonnet had no other ornament than the white ribbon with which it was sparingly trimmed. She had never looked lovelier in her best days than she looked now, as she advanced to the table at which he had been sitting, with a little basket of flowers that she had brought with her from the country, and offered him her hand.
He looked anxious and careworn when she saw him closer. She interrupted his first inquiries and congratulations to ask if he had remained in London since they had parted--if he had not even gone away, for a few days only, to see his friends in Suffolk? No; he had been in London ever since. He never told her that the pretty parsonage house in Suffolk wanted all those associations with herself in which the poor four walls at Aaron's Buildings were so rich. He only said he had been in London ever since.
"I wonder," she asked, looking him attentively in the face, "if you are as happy to see me again as I am to see you?"
"Perhaps I am even happier, in my different way," he answered, with a smile.
She took off her bonnet and scarf, and seated herself once more in her own arm-chair. "I suppose this street is very ugly," she said; "and I am sure nobody can deny that the house is very small. And yet--and yet it feels like coming home again. Sit there where you used to sit; tell me about yourself. I want to know all that you have done, all that you have thought even, while I have been away." She tried to resume the endless succession of questions by means of which she was accustomed to lure him into speaking of himself. But she put them far less spontaneously, far less adroitly, than usual. Her one all-absorbing anxiety in entering that room was not an anxiety to be trifled with. After a quarter of an hour wasted in constrained inquiries on one side, in reluctant replies on the other, she ventured near the dangerous subject at last.
"Have you received the letters I wrote to you from the seaside?" she asked, suddenly looking away from him for the first time.
"Yes," he said; "all."
"Have you read them?"
"Every one of them--many times over."
Her heart beat as if it would suffocate her. She had kept her promise bravely. The whole story of her life, from the time of the home-wreck at Combe-Raven to the time when she had destroyed the Secret Trust in her sister's presence, had been all laid before him. Nothing that she had done, nothing even that she had thought, had been concealed from his knowledge. As he would have kept a pledged engagement with her, so she had kept her pledged engagement with him. She had not faltered in the resolution to do this; and now she faltered over the one decisive question which she had come there to ask. Strong as the desire in her was to know if she had lost or won him, the fear of knowing was at that moment stronger still. She waited and trembled; she waited, and said no more.
"May I speak to you about your letters?" he asked. "May I tell you--?"
If she had looked at him as he said those few words, she would have seen what he thought of her in his face. She would have seen, innocent as he was in this world's knowledge, that he knew the priceless value, the all-ennobling virtue, of a woman who speaks the truth. But she had no courage to look at him--no courage to raise her eyes from her lap.
"Not just yet," she said, faintly. "Not quite so soon after we have met again."
She rose hurriedly from her chair, and walked to the window, turned back again into the room, and approached the table, close to where he was sitting. The writing materials scattered near him offered her a pretext for changing the subject, and she seized on it directly. "Were you writing a letter," she asked, "when I came in?"
"I was thinking about it," he replied. "It was not a letter to be written without thinking first." He rose as he answered her to gather the writing materials together and put them away.
"Why should I interrupt you?" she said. "Why not let me try whether I can't help you instead? Is it a secret?"
"No, not a secret."
He hesitated as he answered her. She instantly guessed the truth.
"Is it about your ship?"
He little knew how she had been thinking in her absence from him of the business which he believed that he had concealed from her. He little knew that she had learned already to be jealous of his ship. "Do they want you to return to your old life?" she went on. "Do they want you to go back to the sea? Must you say Yes or No at once?"
"If I had not come in when I did would you have said Yes?"
She unconsciously laid her hand on his arm, forgetting all inferior considerations in her breathless anxiety to hear his next words. The confession of his love was within a hair-breadth of escaping him; but he checked the utterance of it even yet. "I don't care for myself," he thought; "but how can I be certain of not distressing her?"
"Would you have said Yes?" she repeated.
"I was doubting," he answered--"I was doubting between Yes and No."
Her hand tightened on his arm; a sudden trembling seized her in every limb, she could bear it no longer. All her heart went out to him in her next words:
"Were you doubting for my sake?"
"Yes," he said. "Take my confession in return for yours--I was doubting for your sake."
She said no more; she only looked at him. In that look the truth reached him at last. The next instant she was folded in his arms, and was shedding delicious tears of joy, with her face hidden on his bosom.
"Do I deserve my happiness?" she murmured, asking the one question at last. "Oh, I know how the poor narrow people who have never felt and never suffered would answer me if I asked them what I ask you. If they knew my story, they would forget all the provocation, and only remember the offense; they would fasten on my sin, and pass all my suffering by. But you are not one of them! Tell me if you have any shadow of a misgiving! Tell me if you doubt that the one dear object of all my life to come is to live worthy of you! I asked you to wait and see me; I asked you, if there was any hard truth to be told, to tell it me here with your own lips. Tell it, my love, my husband!--tell it me now!"
She looked up, still clinging to him as she clung to the hope of her better life to come.
"Tell me the truth!" she repeated.
"With my own lips?"
"Yes!" she answered, eagerly. "Say what you think of me with your own lips."
He stooped and kissed her.
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