Noel Vanstone expressed his high approval of the Crucial Test by smirking and simpering for the first time that morning.
"Of looking at her neck," repeated the captain, returning the note to his visitor, and then making for the door. "I will go upstairs myself, Mr. Vanstone," he continued, "and inspect Miss Bygrave's walking-dress. If she has innocently placed any obstacles in your way, if her hair is a little too low, or her frill is a little too high, I will exert my authority, on the first harmless pretext I can think of, to have those obstacles removed. All I ask is, that you will choose your opportunity discreetly, and that you will not allow my niece to suppose that her neck is the object of a gentleman's inspection."
The moment he was out of the parlor Captain Wragge ascended the stairs at the top of his speed and knocked at Magdalen's door. She opened it to him in her walking-dress, obedient to the signal agreed on between them which summoned her downstairs.
"What have you done with your paints and powders?" asked the captain, without wasting a word in preliminary explanations. "They were not in the box of costumes which I sold for you at Birmingham. Where are they?"
"I have got them here," replied Magdalen. "What can you possibly mean by wanting them now?"
"Bring them instantly into my dressing-room—the whole collection, brushes, palette, and everything. Don't waste time in asking questions; I'll tell you what has happened as we go on. Every moment is precious to us. Follow me instantly!"
His face plainly showed that there was a serious reason for his strange proposal. Magdalen secured her collection of cosmetics and followed him into the dressing-room. He locked the door, placed her on a chair close to the light, and then told her what had happened.
"We are on the brink of detection," proceeded the captain, carefully mixing his colors with liquid glue, and with a strong "drier" added from a bottle in his own possession. "There is only one chance for us (lift up your hair from the left side of your neck)—I have told Mr. Noel Vanstone to take a private opportunity of looking at you; and I am going to give the lie direct to that she-devil Lecount by painting out your moles."
"They can't be painted out," said Magdalen. "No color will stop on them."
"My color will," remarked Captain Wragge. "I have tried a variety of professions in my time—the profession of painting among the rest. Did you ever hear of such a thing as a Black Eye? I lived some months once in the neighborhood of Drury Lane entirely on Black Eyes. My flesh-color stood on bruises of all sorts, shades, and sizes, and it will stand, I promise you, on your moles."
With this assurance, the captain dipped his brush into a little lump of opaque color which he had mixed in a saucer, and which he had graduated as nearly as the materials would permit to the color of Magdalen's skin. After first passing a cambric handkerchief, with some white powder on it, over the part of her neck on which he designed to operate, he placed two layers of color on the moles with the tip of the brush. The process was performed in a few moments, and the moles, as if by magic, disappeared from view. Nothing but the closest inspection could have discovered the artifice by which they had been concealed; at the distance of two or three feet only, it was perfectly invisible.
"Wait here five minutes," said Captain Wragge, "to let the paint dry—and then join us in the parlor. Mrs. Lecount herself would be puzzled if she looked at you now."
"Stop!" said Magdalen. "There is one thing you have not told me yet. How did Mrs. Lecount get the description which you read downstairs? Whatever else she has seen of me, she has not seen the mark on my neck—it is too far back, and too high up; my hair hides it."
"Who knows of the mark?" asked Captain Wragge.
She turned deadly pale under the anguish of a sudden recollection of Frank.
"My sister knows it," s he said, faintly.
"Mrs. Lecount may have written to your sister," suggested the captain:
"Do you think my sister would tell a stranger what no stranger has a right to know? Never! never!"
"Is there nobody else who could tell Mrs. Lecount? The mark was mentioned in the handbills at York. Who put it there?"
"Not Norah! Perhaps Mr. Pendril. Perhaps Miss Garth."
"Then Mrs. Lecount has written to Mr. Pendril or Miss Garth—more likely to Miss Garth. The governess would be easier to deal with than the lawyer."
"What can she have said to Miss Garth?"
Captain Wragge considered a little.
"I can't say what Mrs. Lecount may have written," he said, "but I can tell you what I should have written in Mrs. Lecount's place. I should have frightened Miss Garth by false reports about you, to begin with, and then I should have asked for personal particulars, to help a benevolent stranger in restoring you to your friends." The angry glitter flashed up instantly in Magdalen's eyes.
"What you would have done is what Mrs. Lecount has done," she said, indignantly. "Neither lawyer nor governess shall dispute my right to my own will and my own way. If Miss Garth thinks she can control my actions by corresponding with Mrs. Lecount, I will show Miss Garth she is mistaken! It is high time, Captain Wragge, to have done with these wretched risks of discovery. We will take the short way to the end we have in view sooner than Mrs. Lecount or Miss Garth think for. How long can you give me to wring an offer of marriage out of that creature downstairs?"
"I dare not give you long," replied Captain Wragge. "Now your friends know where you are, they may come down on us at a day's notice. Could you manage it in a week?"
"I'll manage it in half the time," she said, with a hard, defiant laugh. "Leave us together this morning as you left us at Dunwich, and take Mrs. Wragge with you, as an excuse for parting company. Is the paint dry yet? Go downstairs and tell him I am coming directly."
So, for the second time, Miss Garth's well-meant efforts defeated their own end. So the fatal force of circumstance turned the hand that would fain have held Magdalen back into the hand that drove her on.
The captain returned to his visitor in the parlor, after first stopping on his way to issue his orders for the walking excursion to Mrs. Wragge.
"I am shocked to have kept you waiting," he said, sitting down again confidentially by Noel Vanstone's side. "My only excuse is, that my niece had accidentally dressed her hair so as to defeat our object. I have been persuading her to alter it, and young ladies are apt to be a little obstinate on questions relating to their toilet. Give her a chair on that side of you when she comes in, and take your look at her neck comfortably before we start for our walk."
Magdalen entered the room as he said those words, and after the first greetings were exchanged, took the chair presented to her with the most unsuspicious readiness. Noel Vanstone applied the Crucial Test on the spot, with the highest appreciation of the fair material which was the subject of experiment. Not the vestige of a mole was visible on any part of the smooth white surface of Miss Bygrave's neck. It mutely answered the blinking inquiry of Noel Vanstone's half-closed eyes by the flattest practical contradiction of Mrs. Lecount. That one central incident in the events of the morning was of all the incidents that had hitherto occurred, the most important in its results. That one discovery shook the housekeeper's hold on her master as nothing had shaken it yet.
In a few minutes Mrs. Wragge made her appearance, and excited as much surprise in Noel Vanstone's mind as he was capable of feeling while absorbed in the enjoyment of Magdalen's society. The walking-party left the house at once, directing their steps northward, so as not to pass the windows of Sea-view Cottage. To Mrs. Wragge's unutterable astonishment, her husband, for the first time in the course of their married life, politely offered her his arm, and led her on in advance of the young people, as if the privilege of walking alone with her presented some special attraction to him! "Step out!" whispered the captain, fiercely. "Leave your niece and Mr. Vanstone alone! If I catch you looking back at them, I'll put the Oriental Cashmere Robe on the top of the kitchen fire! Turn your toes out, and keep step—confound you, keep step!" Mrs. Wragge kept step to the best of her limited ability. Her sturdy knees trembled under her. She firmly believed the captain was intoxicated.
The walk lasted for rather more than an hour. Before nine o'clock they were all back again at North Shingles. The ladies went at once into the house. Noel Vanstone remained with Captain Wragge in the garden. "Well," said the captain, "what do you think now of Mrs. Lecount?"
"Damn Lecount!" replied Noel Vanstone, in great agitation. "I'm half inclined to agree with you. I'm half inclined to think my infernal housekeeper is mad."
He spoke fretfully and unwillingly, as if the merest allusion to Mrs. Lecount was distasteful to him. His color came and went; his manner was absent and undecided; he fidgeted restlessly about the garden walk. It would have been plain to a far less acute observation than Captain Wragge's, that Magdalen had met his advances by an unexpected grace and readiness of encouragement which had entirely overthrown his self-control.
"I never enjoyed a walk so much in my life!" he exclaimed, with a sudden outburst of enthusiasm. "I hope Miss Bygrave feels all the better, for it. Do you go out at the same time to-morrow morning? May I join you again?"
"By all means, Mr. Vanstone," said the Captain, cordially. "Excuse me for returning to the subject—but what do you propose saying to Mrs. Lecount?"
"I don't know. Lecount is a perfect nuisance! What would you do, Mr. Bygrave, if you were in my place?"
"Allow me to ask a question, my dear sir, before I tell you. What is your breakfast-hour?"
"Is Mrs. Lecount an early riser?"
"No. Lecount is lazy in the morning. I hate lazy women! If you were in my place, what should you say to her?"
"I should say nothing," replied Captain Wragge. "I should return at once by the back way; I should let Mrs. Lecount see me in the front garden as if I was taking a turn before breakfast; and I should leave her to suppose that I was only just out of my room. If she asks you whether you mean to come here today, say No. Secure a quiet life until circumstances force you to give her an answer. Then tell the plain truth—say that Mr. Bygrave's niece and Mrs. Lecount's description are at variance with each other in the most important particular, and beg that the subject may not be mentioned again. There is my advice. What do you think of it?"
If Noel Vanstone could have looked into his counselor's mind, he might have thought the captain's advice excellently adapted to serve the captain's interests. As long as Mrs. Lecount could be kept in ignorance of her master's visits to North Shingles, so long she would wait until the opportunity came for trying her experiment, and so long she might be trusted not to endanger the conspiracy by any further proceedings. Necessarily incapable of viewing Captain Wragge's advice under this aspect, Noel Vanstone simply looked at it as offering him a temporary means of escape from an explanation with his housekeeper. He eagerly declared that the course of action suggested to him should be followed to the letter, and returned to Sea View without further delay.
On this occasion Captain Wragge's anticipations were in no respect falsified by Mrs. Lecount's conduct. She had no suspicion of her master's visit to North Shingles: she had made up her mind, if necessary, to wait patiently for his interview with Miss Bygrave until the end of the week; and she did not embarrass him by any unexpected questions when he announced his intention of holding no personal communication with the Bygraves on that day. All she said was, "Don't you feel well enough, Mr. Noel? or don't you feel inclined?" He answered, shortly, "I don't feel well enough"; and there the conversation ended.
The next day the proceedings of the previous morning were exactly repeated. This time Noel Vanstone went home rapturously with a keepsake in his breast-pocket; he had taken tender possession of one of Miss Bygrave's gloves. At intervals during the day, whenever he was alone, he took out the glove and kissed it with a devotion which was almost passionate in its fervor. The miserable little creature luxuriated in his moments of stolen happiness with a speechless and stealthy delight which was a new sensation to him. The few young girls whom he had met with, in his father's narrow circle at Zurich, had felt a mischievous pleasure in treating him like a quaint little plaything; the strongest impression he could make on their hearts was an impression in which their lap-dogs might have rivaled him; the deepest interest he could create in them was the interest they might have felt in a new trinket or a new dress. The only women who had hitherto invited his admiration, and taken his compliments seriously had been women whose charms were on the wane, and whose chances of marriage were fast failing them. For the first time in his life he had now passed hours of happiness in the society of a beautiful girl, who had left him to think of her afterward without a single humiliating remembrance to lower him in his own esteem.
Anxiously as he tried to hide it, the change produced in his look and manner by the new feeling awakened in him was not a change which could be concealed from Mrs. Lecount. On the second day she pointedly asked him whether he had not made an arrangement to call on the Bygraves. He denied it as before. "Perhaps you are going to-morrow, Mr. Noel?" persisted the housekeeper. He was at the end of his resources; he was impatient to be rid of her inquiries; he trusted to his friend at North Shingles to help him; and this time he answered Yes. "If you see the young lady," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, "don't forget that note of mine, sir, which you have in your waistcoat-pocket." No more was said on either side, but by that night's post the housekeeper wrote to Miss Garth. The letter merely acknowledged, with thanks, the receipt of Miss Garth's communication, and informed her that in a few days Mrs. Lecount hoped to be in a position to write again and summon Mr. Pendril to Aldborough.
Late in the evening, when the parlor at North Shingles began to get dark, and when the captain rang the bell for candles as usual, he was surprised by hearing Magdalen's voice in the passage telling the servant to take the lights downstairs again. She knocked at the door immediately afterward, and glided into the obscurity of the room like a ghost.
"I have a question to ask you about your plans for to-morrow," she said. "My eyes are very weak this evening, and I hope you will not object to dispense with the candles for a few minutes."
She spoke in low, stifled tones, and felt her way noiselessly to a chair far removed from the captain in the darkest part of the room. Sitting near the window, he could just discern the dim outline of her dress, he could just hear the faint accents of her voice. For the last two days he had seen nothing of her except during their morning walk. On that afternoon he had found his wife crying in the little backroom down-stairs. She could only tell him that Magdalen had frightened her—that Magdalen was going the way again which she had gone when the letter came from China in the terrible past time at Vauxhall Walk.
"I was sorry to her that you were ill to-day, from Mrs. Wragge," said the captain, unconsciously dropping his voice almost to a whisper as he spoke.
"It doesn't matter," she answered quietly, out of the darkness. "I am strong enough to suffer, and live. Other girls in my place would have been happier—they would have suffered, and died. It doesn't matter; it will be all the same a hundred years hence. Is he coming again tomorrow morning at seven o'clock?"
"He is coming, if you feel no objection to it."
"I have no objection to make; I have done with objecting. But I should like to have the time altered. I don't look my best in the early morning—-I have bad nights, and I rise haggard and worn. Write him a note this evening, and tell him to come at twelve o'clock."
"Twelve is rather late, under the circumstances, for you to be seen out walking."
"I have no intention of walking. Let him be shown into the parlor—"
Her voice died away in silence before she ended the sentence.
"Yes?" said Captain Wragge.
"And leave me alone in the parlor to receive him."
"I understand," said the captain. "An admirable idea. I'll be out of the way in the dining-room while he is here, and you can come and tell me about it when he has gone."
There was another moment of silence.
"Is there no way but telling you?" she asked, suddenly. "I can control myself while he is with me, but I can't answer for what I may say or do afterward. Is there no other way?"
"Plenty of ways," said the captain. "Here is the first that occurs to me. Leave the blind down over the window of your room upstairs before he comes. I will go out on the beach, and wait there within sight of the house. When I see him come out again, I will look at the window. If he has said nothing, leave the blind down. If he has made you an offer, draw the blind up. The signal is simplicity itself; we can't misunderstand each other. Look your best to-morrow! Make sure of him, my dear girl—make sure of him, if you possibly can."
He had spoken loud enough to feel certain that she had heard him, but no answering word came from her. The dead silence was only disturbed by the rustling of her dress, which told him she had risen from her chair. Her shadowy presence crossed the room again; the door shut softly; she was gone. He rang the bell hurriedly for the lights. The servant found him standing close at the window, looking less self-possessed than usual. He told her he felt a little poorly, and sent her to the cupboard for the brandy.
At a few minutes before twelve the next day Captain Wragge withdrew to his post of observation, concealing himself behind a fishing-boat drawn up on the beach. Punctually as the hour struck, he saw Noel Vanstone approach North Shingles and open the garden gate. When the house door had closed on the visitor, Captain Wragge settled himself comfortably against the side of the boat and lit his cigar.
He smoked for half an hour—for ten minutes over the half-hour, by his watch. He finished the cigar down to the last morsel of it that he could hold in his lips. Just as he had thrown away the end, the door opened again and Noel Vanstone came out.
The captain looked up instantly at Magdalen's window. In the absorbing excitement of the moment, he counted the seconds. She might get from the parlor to her own room in less than a minute. He counted to thirty, and nothing happened. He counted to fifty, and nothing happened. He gave up counting, and left the boat impatiently, to return to the house.
As he took his first step forward he saw the signal.
The blind was drawn up.
Cautiously ascending the eminence of the beach, Captain Wragge looked toward Sea-view Cottage before he showed himself on the Parade. Noel Vanstone had reached home again; he was just entering his own door.
"If all your money was offered me to stand in your shoes," said the captain, looking after him—"rich as you are, I wouldn't take it!"
ON returning to the house, Captain Wragge received a significant message from the servant. "Mr. Noel Vanstone would call again at two o'clock that afternoon, when he hoped to have the pleasure of finding Mr. Bygrave at home."
The captain's first inquiry after hearing this message referred to Magdalen. "Where was Miss Bygrave?" "In her own room." "Where was Mrs. Bygrave?" "In the back parlor." Captain Wragge turned his steps at once in the latter direction, and found his wife, for the second time, in tears. She had been sent out of Magdalen's room for the whole day, and she was at her wits' end to know what she had done to deserve it. Shortening her lamentations without ceremony, her husband sent her upstairs on t he spot, with instructions to knock at the door, and to inquire whether Magdalen could give five minutes' attention to a question of importance which must be settled before two o'clock.
The answer returned was in the negative. Magdalen requested that the subject on which she was asked to decide might be mentioned to her in writing. She engaged to reply in the same way, on the understanding that Mrs. Wragge, and not the servant, should be employed to deliver the note and to take back the answer.
Captain Wragge forthwith opened his paper-case and wrote these lines: "Accept my warmest congratulations on the result of your interview with Mr. N. V. He is coming again at two o'clock—no doubt to make his proposals in due form. The question to decide is, whether I shall press him or not on the subject of settlements. The considerations for your own mind are two in number. First, whether the said pressure (without at all underrating your influence over him) may not squeeze for a long time before it squeezes money out of Mr. N. V. Secondly, whether we are altogether justified—considering our present position toward a certain sharp practitioner in petticoats—in running the risk of delay. Consider these points, and let me have your decision as soon as convenient."
The answer returned to this note was written in crooked, blotted characters, strangely unlike Magdalen's usually firm and clear handwriting. It only contained these words: "Give yourself no trouble about settlements. Leave the use to which he is to put his money for the future in my hands."
"Did you see her?" asked the captain, when his wife had delivered the answer.
"I tried," said Mrs. Wragge, with a fresh burst of tears—"but she only opened the door far enough to put out her hand. I took and gave it a little squeeze—and, oh poor soul, it felt so cold in mine!"
When Mrs. Lecount's master made his appearance at two o'clock, he stood alarmingly in need of an anodyne application from Mrs. Lecount's green fan. The agitation of making his avowal to Magdalen; the terror of finding himself discovered by the housekeeper; the tormenting suspicion of the hard pecuniary conditions which Magdalen's relative and guardian might impose on him—all these emotions, stirring in conflict together, had overpowered his feebly-working heart with a trial that strained it sorely. He gasped for breath as he sat down in the parlor at North Shingles, and that ominous bluish pallor which always overspread his face in moments of agitation now made its warning appearance again. Captain Wragge seized the brandy bottle in genuine alarm, and forced his visitor to drink a wine-glassful of the spirit before a word was said between them on either side.
Restored by the stimulant, and encouraged by the readiness with which the captain anticipated everything that he had to say, Noel Vanstone contrived to state the serious object of his visit in tolerably plain terms. All the conventional preliminaries proper to the occasion were easily disposed of. The suitor's family was respectable; his position in life was undeniably satisfactory; his attachment, though hasty, was evidently disinterested and sincere. All that Captain Wragge had to do was to refer to these various considerations with a happy choice of language in a voice that trembled with manly emotion, and this he did to perfection. For the first half-hour of the interview, no allusion whatever was made to the delicate and dangerous part of the subject. The captain waited until he had composed his visitor, and when that result was achieved came smoothly to the point in these terms:
"There is one little difficulty, Mr. Vanstone, which I think we have both overlooked. Your housekeeper's recent conduct inclines me to fear that she will view the approaching change in your life with anything but a friendly eye. Probably you have not thought it necessary yet to inform her of the new tie which you propose to form?"
Noel Vanstone turned pale at the bare idea of explaining himself to Mrs. Lecount.
"I can't tell what I'm to do," he said, glancing aside nervously at the window, as if he expected to see the housekeeper peeping in. "I hate all awkward positions, and this is the most unpleasant position I ever was placed in. You don't know what a terrible woman Lecount is. I'm not afraid of her; pray don't suppose I'm afraid of her—"
At those words his fears rose in his throat, and gave him the lie direct by stopping his utterance.
"Pray don't trouble yourself to explain," said Captain Wragge, coming to the rescue. "This is the common story, Mr. Vanstone. Here is a woman who has grown old in your service, and in your father's service before you; a woman who has contrived, in all sorts of small, underhand ways, to presume systematically on her position for years and years past; a woman, in short, whom your inconsiderate but perfectly natural kindness has allowed to claim a right of property in you—"
"Property!" cried Noel Vanstone, mistaking the captain, and letting the truth escape him through sheer inability to conceal his fears any longer. "I don't know what amount of property she won't claim. She'll make me pay for my father as well as for myself. Thousands, Mr. Bygrave—thousands of pounds sterling out of my pocket!!!" He clasped his hands in despair at the picture of pecuniary compulsion which his fancy had conjured up—his own golden life-blood spouting from him in great jets of prodigality, under the lancet of Mrs. Lecount.
"Gently, Mr. Vanstone—gently! The woman knows nothing so far, and the money is not gone yet."
"No, no; the money is not gone, as you say. I'm only nervous about it; I can't help being nervous. You were saying something just now; you were going to give me advice. I value your advice; you don't know how highly I value your advice." He said those words with a conciliatory smile which was more than helpless; it was absolutely servile in its dependence on his judicious friend.
"I was only assuring you, my dear sir, that I understood your position," said the captain. "I see your difficulty as plainly as you can see it yourself. Tell a woman like Mrs. Lecount that she must come off her domestic throne, to make way for a young and beautiful successor, armed with the authority of a wife, and an unpleasant scene must be the inevitable result. An unpleasant scene, Mr. Vanstone, if your opinion of your housekeeper's sanity is well founded. Something far more serious, if my opinion that her intellect is unsettled happens to turn out the right one."
"I don't say it isn't my opinion, too," rejoined Noel Vanstone. "Especially after what has happened to-day."
Captain Wragge immediately begged to know what the event alluded to might be.
Noel Vanstone thereupon explained—with an infinite number of parentheses all referring to himself—that Mrs. Lecount had put the dreaded question relating to the little note in her master's pocket barely an hour since. He had answered her inquiry as Mr. Bygrave had advised him. On hearing that the accuracy of the personal description had been fairly put to the test, and had failed in the one important particular of the moles on the neck, Mrs. Lecount had considered a little, and had then asked him whether he had shown her note to Mr. Bygrave before the experiment was tried. He had answered in the negative, as the only safe form of reply that he could think of on the spur of the moment, and the housekeeper had then addressed him in these strange and startling words: "You are keeping the truth from me, Mr. Noel. You are trusting strangers, and doubting your old servant and your old friend. Every time you go to Mr. Bygrave's house, every time you see Miss Bygrave, you are drawing nearer and nearer to your destruction. They have got the bandage over your eyes in spite of me; but I tell them, and tell you, before many days are over I will take it off!" To this extraordinary outbreak—accompanied as it was by an expression in Mrs. Lecount's face which he had never seen there before—Noel Vanstone had made no reply. Mr. Bygrave's conviction that there was a lurking taint of insanity in the housekeeper's blood had recurred to his memory, and he had left the room at the first opportunity.
Captain Wragge listened with the closest attention to the narrative thus presented to him. But one conclusion could be drawn from it—it was a plain warning to him to hasten the end.
"I am not surprised," he said, gravely, "to hear that you are inclining more favorably to my opinion. After what you have just told me, Mr. Vanstone, no sensible man could do otherwise. This is becoming serious. I hardly know what results may not be expected to follow the communication of your approaching change in life to Mrs. Lecount. My niece may be involved in those results. She is nervous; she is sensitive in the highest degree; she is the innocent object of this woman's unreasoning hatred and distrust. You alarm me, sir! I am not easily thrown off my balance, but I acknowledge you alarm me for the future." He frowned, shook his head, and looked at his visitor despondently.
Noel Vanstone began to feel uneasy. The change in Mr. Bygrave's manner seemed ominous of a reconsideration of his proposals from a new and unfavorable point of view. He took counsel of his inborn cowardice and his inborn cunning, and proposed a solution of the difficulty discovered by himself.
"Why should we tell Lecount at all?" he asked. "What right has Lecount to know? Can't we be married without letting her into the secret? And can't somebody tell her afterward when we are both out of her reach?"
Captain Wragge received this proposal with an expression of surprise which did infinite credit to his power of control over his own countenance. His foremost object throughout the interview had been to conduct it to this point, or, in other words, to make the first idea of keeping the marriage a secret from Mrs. Lecount emanate from Noel Vanstone instead of from himself. No one knew better than the captain that the only responsibilities which a weak man ever accepts are responsibilities which can be perpetually pointed out to him as resting exclusively on his own shoulders.
"I am accustomed to set my face against clandestine proceedings of all kinds," said Captain Wragge. "But there are exceptions to the strictest rules; and I am bound to admit, Mr. Vanstone, that your position in this matter is an exceptional position, if ever there was one yet. The course you have just proposed—however unbecoming I may think it, however distasteful it may be to myself—would not only spare you a very serious embarrassment (to say the least of it), but would also protect you from the personal assertion of those pecuniary claims on the part of your housekeeper to which you have already adverted. These are both desirable results to achieve—to say nothing of the removal, on my side, of all apprehension of annoyance to my niece. On the other hand, however, a marriage solemnized with such privacy as you propose must be a hasty marriage; for, as we are situated, the longer the delay the greater will be the risk that our secret may escape our keeping. I am not against hasty marriages where a mutual flame is fanned by an adequate income. My own was a love-match contracted in a hurry. There are plenty of instances in the experience of every one, of short courtships and speedy marriages, which have turned up trumps—I beg your pardon—which have turned out well after all. But if you and my niece, Mr. Vanstone, are to add one to the number of these eases, the usual preliminaries of marriage among the higher classes must be hastened by some means. You doubtless understand me as now referring to the subject of settlements."
"I'll take another teaspoonful of brandy," said Noel Vanstone, holding out his glass with a trembling hand as the word "settlements" passed Captain Wragge's lips.
"I'll take a teaspoonful with you," said the captain, nimbly dismounting from the pedestal of his respectability, and sipping his brandy with the highest relish. Noel Vanstone, after nervously following his host's example, composed himself to meet the coming ordeal, with reclining head and grasping hands, in the position familiarly associated to all civilized humanity with a seat in a dentist's chair.
The captain put down his empty glass and got up again on his pedestal.
"We were talking of settlements," he resumed. "I have already mentioned, Mr. Vanstone, at an early period of our conversation, that my niece presents the man of her choice with no other dowry than the most inestimable of all gifts—the gift of herself. This circumstance, however (as you are no doubt aware), does not disentitle me to make the customary stipulations with her future husband. According to the usual course in this matter, my lawyer would see yours—consultations would take place—delays would occur—strangers would be in possession of your intentions—and Mrs. Lecount would, sooner or later, arrive at that knowledge of the truth which you are anxious to keep from her. Do you agree with me so far?"
Unutterable apprehension closed Noel Vanstone's lips. He could only reply by an inclination of the head.
"Very good," said the captain. "Now, sir, you may possibly have observed that I am a man of a very original turn of mind. If I have not hitherto struck you in that light, it may then be necessary to mention that there are some subjects on which I persist in thinking for myself. The subject of marriage settlements is one of them. What, let me ask you, does a parent or guardian in my present condition usually do? After having trusted the man whom he has chosen for his son-in-law with the sacred deposit of a woman's happiness, he turns round on that man, and declines to trust him with the infinitely inferior responsibility of providing for her pecuniary future. He fetters his son-in-law with the most binding document the law can produce, and employs with the husband of his own child the same precautions which he would use if he were dealing with a stranger and a rogue. I call such conduct as this inconsistent and unbecoming in the last degree. You will not find it my course of conduct, Mr. Vanstone—you will not find me preaching what I don't practice. If I trust you with my niece, I trust you with every inferior responsibility toward her and toward me. Give me your hand, sir; tell me, on your word of honor, that you will provide for your wife as becomes her position and your means, and the question of settlements is decided between us from this moment at once and forever!" Having carried out Magdalen's instructions in this lofty tone, he threw open his respectable frockcoat, and sat with head erect and hand extended, the model of parental feeling and the picture of human integrity.
For one moment Noel Vanstone remained literally petrified by astonishment. The next, he started from his chair and wrung the hand of his magnanimous friend in a perfect transport of admiration. Never yet, throughout his long and varied career, had Captain Wragge felt such difficulty in keeping his countenance as he felt now. Contempt for the outburst of miserly gratitude of which he was the object; triumph in the sense of successful conspiracy against a man who had rated the offer of his protection at five pounds; regret at the lost opportunity of effecting a fine stroke of moral agriculture, which his dread of involving himself in coming consequences had forced him to let slip—all these varied emotions agitated the captain's mind; all strove together to find their way to the surface through the outlets of his face or his tongue. He allowed Noel Vanstone to keep possession of his hand, and to heap one series of shrill protestations and promises on another, until he had regained his usual mastery over himself. That result achieved, he put the little man back in his chair, and returned forthwith to the subject of Mrs. Lecount.
"Suppose we now revert to the difficulty which we have not conquered yet," said the captain. "Let us say that I do violence to my own habits and feelings; that I allow the considerations I have already mentioned to weigh with me; and that I sanction your wish to be united to my niece without the knowledge of Mrs. Lecount. Allow me to inquire in that case what means you can suggest for the accomplishment of your end?"
"I can't suggest anything," replied Noel Vanstone, helplessly. "Would you object to suggest for me?"
"You are making a bolder request than you think, Mr. Vanstone. I never do things by halves. When I am acting with my customary candor, I am frank (as you know already) to the utmost verge of imprudence. When exceptional circumstances compel me to take an opposite course, there isn't a slyer fox alive than I am. If, at your express request, I take off my honest English coat here and put on a Jesuit's gown—if, purely out of sympathy for your awkward position, I consent to keep your secret for you from Mrs. Lecount—I must have no unseasonable scruples to contend with on your part. If it is neck or nothing on my side, sir, it must be neck or nothing on yours also."
"Neck or nothing, by all means," said Noel Vanstone, briskly—"on the understanding that you go first. I have no scruples about keeping Lecount in the dark. But she is devilish cunning, Mr. Bygrave. How is it to be done?"
"You shall hear directly," replied the captain. "Before I develop my views, I should like to have your opinion on an abstract question of morality. What do you think, my dear sir, of pious frauds in general?"
Noel Vanstone looked a little embarrassed by the question.
"Shall I put it more plainly?" continued Captain Wragge. "What do you say to the universally-accepted maxim that 'all stratagems are fair in love and war'?—Yes or No?"
"Yes!" answered Noel Vanstone, with the utmost readiness.
"One more question and I have done," said the captain. "Do you see any particular objection to practicing a pious fraud on Mrs. Lecount?"
Noel Vanstone's resolution began to falter a little.
"Is Lecount likely to find it out?" he asked cautiously.
"She can't possibly discover it until you are married and out of her reach."
"You are sure of that?"
"Play any trick you like on Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, with an air of unutterable relief. "I have had my suspicions lately that she is trying to domineer over me; I am beginning to feel that I have borne with Lecount long enough. I wish I was well rid of her."
"You shall have your wish," said Captain Wragge. "You shall be rid of her in a week or ten days."
Noel Vanstone rose eagerly and approached the captain's chair.
"You don't say so!" he exclaimed. "How do you mean to send her away?"
"I mean to send her on a journey," replied Captain Wragge.
"From your house at Aldborough to her brother's bedside at Zurich."
Noel Vanstone started back at the answer, and returned suddenly to his chair.
"How can you do that?" he inquired, in the greatest perplexity. "Her brother (hang him!) is much better. She had another letter from Zurich to say so, this morning."
"Did you see the letter?"
"Yes. She always worries about her brother—she would show it to me."
"Who was it from? and what did it say?"
"It was from the doctor—he always writes to her. I don't care two straws about her brother, and I don't remember much of the letter, except that it was a short one. The fellow was much better; and if the doctor didn't write again, she might take it for granted that he was getting well. That was the substance of it."
"Did you notice where she put the letter when you gave it her back again?"
"Yes. She put it in the drawer where she keeps her account-books."
"Can you get at that drawer?"
"Of course I can. I have got a duplicate key—I always insist on a duplicate key of the place where she keeps her account books. I never allow the account-books to be locked up from my inspection: it's a rule of the house."
"Be so good as to get that letter to-day, Mr. Vanstone, without your housekeeper's knowledge, and add to the favor by letting me have it here privately for an hour or two."
"What do you want it for?"
"I have some more questions to ask before I tell you. Have you any intimate friend at Zurich whom you could trust to help you in playing a trick on Mrs. Lecount?"
"What sort of help do you mean?" asked Noel Vanstone.
"Suppose," said the captain, "you were to send a letter addressed to Mrs. Lecount at Aldborough, inclosed in another letter addressed to one of your friends abroad? And suppose you were to instruct that friend to help a harmless practical joke by posting Mrs. Lecount's letter at Zurich? Do you know any one who could be trusted to do that?"
"I know two people who could be trusted!" cried Noel Vanstone. "Both ladies—both spinsters—both bitter enemies of Lecount's. But what is your drift, Mr. Bygrave? Though I am not usually wanting in penetration, I don't altogether see your drift."
"You shall see it directly, Mr. Vanstone."
With those words he rose, withdrew to his desk in the corner of the room, and wrote a few lines on a sheet of note-paper. After first reading them carefully to himself, he beckoned to Noel Vanstone to come and read them too.
"A few minutes since," said the captain, pointing complacently to his own composition with the feather end of his pen, "I had the honor of suggesting a pious fraud on Mrs. Lecount. There it is!"
He resigned his chair at the writing-table to his visitor. Noel Vanstone sat down, and read these lines:
"MY DEAR MADAM—Since I last wrote, I deeply regret to inform you that your brother has suffered a relapse. The symptoms are so serious, that it is my painful duty to summon you instantly to his bedside. I am making every effort to resist the renewed progress of the malady, and I have not yet lost all hope of success. But I cannot reconcile it to my conscience to leave you in ignorance of a serious change in my patient for the worse, which may be attended by fatal results. With much sympathy, I remain, etc. etc."
Captain Wragge waited with some anxiety for the effect which this letter might produce. Mean, selfish, and cowardly as he was, even Noel Vanstone might feel some compunction at practicing such a deception as was here suggested on a woman who stood toward him in the position of Mrs. Lecount. She had served him faithfully, however interested her motives might be—she had lived since he was a lad in the full possession of his father's confidence—she was living now under the protection of his own roof. Could be fail to remember this; and, remembering it, could he lend his aid without hesitation to the scheme which was now proposed to him? Captain Wragge unconsciously retained belief enough in human nature to doubt it. To his surprise, and, it must be added, to his relief, also, his apprehensions proved to be groundless. The only emotions aroused in Noel Vanstone's mind by a perusal of the letter were a hearty admiration of his friend's idea, and a vainglorious anxiety to claim the credit to himself of being the person who carried it out. Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.
"Perfect!" cried Noel Vanstone, clapping his hands. "Mr. Bygrave, you are as good as Figaro in the French comedy. Talking of French, there is one serious mistake in this clever letter of yours—it is written in the wrong language. When the doctor writes to Lecount, he writes in French. Perhaps you meant me to translate it? You can't manage without my help, can you? I write French as fluently as I write English. Just look at me! I'll translate it, while I sit here, in two strokes of the pen."
He completed the translation almost as rapidly as Captain Wragge had produced the original. "Wait a minute!" he cried, in high critical triumph at discovering another defect in the composition of his ingenious friend. "The doctor always dates his letters. Here is no date to yours."
"I leave the date to you," said the captain, with a sardonic smile. "You have discovered the fault, my dear sir—pray correct it!"
Noel Vanstone mentally looked into the great gulf which separates the faculty that can discover a defect, from the faculty that can apply a remedy, and, following the example of many a wiser man, declined to cross over it.
"I couldn't think of ta king the liberty," he said, politely. "Perhaps you had a motive for leaving the date out?"
"Perhaps I had," replied Captain Wragge, with his easiest good-humor. "The date must depend on the time a letter takes to get to Zurich. I have had no experience on that point—you must have had plenty of experience in your father's time. Give me the benefit of your information, and we will add the date before you leave the writing-table."
Noel Vanstone's experience was, as Captain Wragge had anticipated, perfectly competent to settle the question of time. The railway resources of the Continent (in the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven) were but scanty; and a letter sent at that period from England to Zurich, and from Zurich back again to England, occupied ten days in making the double journey by post.
"Date the letter in French five days on from to-morrow," said the captain, when he had got his information. "Very good. The next thing is to let me have the doctor's note as soon as you can. I may be obliged to practice some hours before I can copy your translation in an exact imitation of the doctor's handwriting. Have you got any foreign note-paper? Let me have a few sheets, and send, at the same time, an envelope addressed to one of those lady-friends of yours at Zurich, accompanied by the necessary request to post the inclosure. This is all I need trouble you to do, Mr. Vanstone. Don't let me seem inhospitable; but the sooner you can supply me with my materials, the better I shall be pleased. We entirely understand each other, I suppose? Having accepted your proposal for my niece's hand, I sanction a private marriage in consideration of the circumstances on your side. A little harmless stratagem is necessary to forward your views. I invent the stratagem at your request, and you make use of it without the least hesitation. The result is, that in ten days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will be on her way to Switzerland; in fifteen days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will reach Zurich, and discover the trick we have played her; in twenty days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will be back at Aldborough, and will find her master's wedding-cards on the table, and her master himself away on his honey-moon trip. I put it arithmetically, for the sake of putting it plain. God bless you. Good-morning!"
"I suppose I may have the happiness of seeing Miss Bygrave to-morrow?" said Noel Vanstone, turning round at the door.
"We must be careful," replied Captain Wragge. "I don't forbid to-morrow, but I make no promise beyond that. Permit me to remind you that we have got Mrs. Lecount to manage for the next ten days."
"I wish Lecount was at the bottom of the German Ocean!" exclaimed Noel Vanstone, fervently. "It's all very well for you to manage her—you don't live in the house. What am I to do?"
"I'll tell you to-morrow," said the captain. "Go out for your walk alone, and drop in here, as you dropped in to-day, at two o'clock. In the meantime, don't forget those things I want you to send me. Seal them up together in a large envelope. When you have done that, ask Mrs. Lecount to walk out with you as usual; and while she is upstairs putting her bonnet on, send the servant across to me. You understand? Good-morning."
An hour afterward, the sealed envelope, with its inclosures, reached Captain Wragge in perfect safety. The double task of exactly imitating a strange handwriting, and accurately copying words written in a language with which he was but slightly acquainted, presented more difficulties to be overcome than the captain had anticipated. It was eleven o'clock before the employment which he had undertaken was successfully completed, and the letter to Zurich ready for the post.
Before going to bed, he walked out on the deserted Parade to breathe the cool night air. All the lights were extinguished in Sea-view Cottage, when he looked that way, except the light in the housekeeper's window. Captain Wragge shook his head suspiciously. He had gained experience enough by this time to distrust the wakefulness of Mrs. Lecount.
IF Captain Wragge could have looked into Mrs. Lecount's room while he stood on the Parade watching the light in her window, he would have seen the housekeeper sitting absorbed in meditation over a worthless little morsel of brown stuff which lay on her toilet-table.
However exasperating to herself the conclusion might be, Mrs. Lecount could not fail to see that she had been thus far met and baffled successfully at every point. What was she to do next? If she sent for Mr. Pendril when he came to Aldborough (with only a few hours spared from his business at her disposal), what definite course would there be for him to follow? If she showed Noel Vanstone the original letter from which her note had been copied, he would apply instantly to the writer for an explanation: would expose the fabricated story by which Mrs. Lecount had succeeded in imposing on Miss Garth; and would, in any event, still declare, on the evidence of his own eyes, that the test by the marks on the neck had utterly failed. Miss Vanstone, the elder, whose unexpected presence at Aldborough might have done wonders—whose voice in the hall at North Shingles, even if she had been admitted no further, might have reached her sister's ears and led to instant results—Miss Vanstone, the elder, was out of the country, and was not likely to return for a month at least. Look as anxiously as Mrs. Lecount might along the course which she had hitherto followed, she failed to see her way through the accumulated obstacles which now barred her advance.
Other women in this position might have waited until circumstances altered, and helped them. Mrs. Lecount boldly retraced her steps, and determined to find her way to her end in a new direction. Resigning for the present all further attempt to prove that the false Miss Bygrave was the true Magdalen Vanstone, she resolved to narrow the range of her next efforts; to leave the actual question of Magdalen's identity untouched; and to rest satisfied with convincing her master of this simple fact—that the young lady who was charming him at North Shingles, and the disguised woman who had terrified him in Vauxhall Walk, were one and the same person.
The means of effecting this new object were, to all appearance, far less easy of attainment than the means of effecting the object which Mrs. Lecount had just resigned. Here no help was to be expected from others, no ostensibly benevolent motives could be put forward as a blind—no appeal could be made to Mr. Pendril or to Miss Garth. Here the housekeeper's only chance of success depended, in the first place, on her being able to effect a stolen entrance into Mr. Bygrave's house, and, in the second place, on her ability to discover whether that memorable alpaca dress from which she had secretly cut the fragment of stuff happened to form part of Miss Bygrave's wardrobe.
Taking the difficulties now before her in their order as they occurred, Mrs. Lecount first resolved to devote the next few days to watching the habits of the inmates of North Shingles, from early in the morning to late at night, and to testing the capacity of the one servant in the house to resist the temptation of a bribe. Assuming that results proved successful, and that, either by money or by stratagem, she gained admission to North Shingles (without the knowledge of Mr. Bygrave or his niece), she turned next to the second difficulty of the two—the difficulty of obtaining access to Miss Bygrave's wardrobe.
If the servant proved corruptible, all obstacles in this direction might be considered as removed beforehand. But if the servant proved honest, the new problem was no easy one to solve.
Long and careful consideration of the question led the housekeeper at last to the bold resolution of obtaining an interview—if the servant failed her—with Mrs. Bygrave herself. What was the true cause of this lady's mysterious seclusion? Was she a person of the strictest and the most inconvenient integrity? or a person who could not be depended on to preserve a secret? or a person who was as artful as Mr. Bygrave himself, and who was kept in reserve to forward the object of some new deception which was yet to come? In the first two cases, Mrs. Lecount could trust in her own powers of dissimulation, and in the results which they might achieve. In the last case (if no other end was gained), it might be of vital importance to her to discover an enemy hidden in the dark. In any event, she determined to run the risk. Of the three chances in her favor on which she had reckoned at the outset of the struggle—the chance of entrapping Magdalen by word of mouth, the chance of entrapping her by the help of her friends, and the chance of entrapping her by means of Mrs. Bygrave—two had been tried, and two had failed. The third remained to be tested yet; and the third might succeed.
So, the captain's enemy plotted against him in the privacy of her own chamber, while the captain watched the light in her window from the beach outside.
Before breakfast the next morning, Captain Wragge posted the forged letter to Zurich with his own hand. He went back to North Shingles with his mind not quite decided on the course to take with Mrs. Lecount during the all-important interval of the next ten days.
Greatly to his surprise, his doubts on this point were abruptly decided by Magdalen herself.
He found her waiting for him in the room where the breakfast was laid. She was walking restlessly to and fro, with her head drooping on her bosom and her hair hanging disordered over her shoulders. The moment she looked up on his entrance, the captain felt the fear which Mrs. Wragge had felt before him—the fear that her mind would be struck prostrate again, as it had been struck once already, when Frank's letter reached her in Vauxhall Walk.
"Is he coming again to-day?" she asked, pushing away from her the chair which Captain Wragge offered, with such violence that she threw it on the floor.
"Yes," said the captain, wisely answering her in the fewest words. "He is coming at two o'clock."
"Take me away!" she exclaimed, tossing her hair back wildly from her face. "Take me away before he comes. I can't get over the horror of marrying him while I am in this hateful place; take me somewhere where I can forget it, or I shall go mad! Give me two days' rest—two days out of sight of that horrible sea—two days out of prison in this horrible house—two days anywhere in the wide world away from Aldborough. I'll come back with you! I'll go through with it to the end! Only give me two days' escape from that man and everything belonging to him! Do you hear, you villain?" she cried, seizing his arm and shaking it in a frenzy of passion; "I have been tortured enough—I can bear it no longer!"
There was but one way of quieting her, and the captain instantly took it.
"If you will try to control yourself," he said, "you shall leave Aldborough in an hour's time."
She dropped his arm, and leaned back heavily against the wall behind her.
"I'll try," she answered, struggling for breath, but looking at him less wildly. "You shan't complain of me, if I can help it." She attempted confusedly to take her handkerchief from her apron pocket, and failed to find it. The captain took it out for her. Her eyes softened, and she drew her breath more freely as she received the handkerchief from him. "You are a kinder man than I thought you were," she said; "I am sorry I spoke so passionately to you just now—I am very, very sorry." The tears stole into her eyes, and she offered him her hand with the native grace and gentleness of happier days. "Be friends with me again," she said, pleadingly. "I'm only a girl, Captain Wragge—I'm only a girl!"
He took her hand in silence, patted it for a moment, and then opened the door for her to go back to her own room again. There was genuine regret in his face as he showed her that trifling attention. He was a vagabond and a cheat; he had lived a mean, shuffling, degraded life, but he was human; and she had found her way to the lost sympathies in him which not even the self-profanation of a swindler's existence could wholly destroy. "Damn the breakfast!" he said, when the servant came in for her orders. "Go to the inn directly, and say I want a carriage and pair at the door in an hour's time." He went out into the passage, still chafing under a sense of mental disturbance which was new to him, and shouted to his wife more fiercely than ever—"Pack up what we want for a week's absence, and be ready in half an hour!" Having issued those directions, he returned to the breakfast-room, and looked at the half-spread table with an impatient wonder at his disinclination to do justice to his own meal. "She has rubbed off the edge of my appetite," he said to himself, with a forced laugh. "I'll try a cigar, and a turn in the fresh air."
If he had been twenty years younger, those remedies might have failed him. But where is the man to be found whose internal policy succumbs to revolution when that man is on the wrong side of fifty? Exercise and change of place gave the captain back into the possession of himself. He recovered the lost sense of the flavor of his cigar, and recalled his wandering attention to the question of his approaching absence from Aldborough. A few minutes' consideration satisfied his mind that Magdalen's outbreak had forced him to take the course of all others which, on a fair review of existing emergencies, it was now most desirable to adopt.
Captain Wragge's inquiries on the evening when he and Magdalen had drunk tea at Sea View had certainly informed him that the housekeeper's brother possessed a modest competence; that his sister was his nearest living relative; and that there were some unscrupulous cousins on the spot who were anxious to usurp the place in his will which properly belonged to Mrs. Lecount. Here were strong motives to take the housekeeper to Zurich when the false report of her brother's relapse reached England. But if any idea of Noel Vanstone's true position dawned on her in the meantime, who could say whether she might not, at the eleventh hour, prefer asserting her large pecuniary interest in her master, to defending her small pecuniary interest at her brother's bedside? While that question remained undecided, the plain necessity of checking the growth of Noel Vanstone's intimacy with the family at North Shingles did not admit of a doubt; and of all means of effecting that object, none could be less open to suspicion than the temporary removal of the household from their residence at Aldborough. Thoroughly satisfied with the soundness of this conclusion, Captain Wragge made straight for Sea-view Cottage, to apologize and explain before the carriage came and the departure took place.
Noel Vanstone was easily accessible to visitors; he was walking in the garden before breakfast. His disappointment and vexation were freely expressed when he heard the news which his friend had to communicate. The captain's fluent tongue, however, soon impressed on him the necessity of resignation to present circumstances. The bare hint that the "pious fraud" might fail after all, if anything happened in the ten days' interval to enlighten Mrs. Lecount, had an instant effect in making Noel Vanstone as patient and as submissive as could be wished.
"I won't tell you where we are going, for two good reasons," said Captain Wragge, when his preliminary explanations were completed. "In the first place, I haven't made up my mind yet; and, in the second place, if you don't know where our destination is, Mrs. Lecount can't worm it out of you. I have not the least doubt she is watching us at this moment from behind her window-curtain. When she asks what I wanted with you this morning, tell her I came to say good-by for a few days, finding my niece not so well again, and wishing to take her on a short visit to some friends to try change of air. If you could produce an impression on Mrs. Lecount's mind (without overdoing it), that you are a little disappointed in me, and that you are rather inclined to doubt my heartiness in cultivating your acquaintance, you will greatly help our present object. You may depend on our return to North Shingles in four or five days at furthest. If anything strikes me in the meanwhile, the post is always at our service, and I won't fail to write to you."
"Won't Miss Bygrave write to me?" inquired Noel Vanstone, piteously. "Did she know you were coming here? Did she send me no message?"
"Unpardonable on my part to have forgotten it!" cried the captain. "She sent you her love."
Noel Vanstone closed his eyes in silent ecstasy.
When he opened them again Captain Wragge had passed through the garden gate and was on his way back to North Shingles. As soon as his own door had closed on him, Mrs. Lecount descended from the post of observation which the captain had rightly suspected her of occupying, and addressed the inquiry to her master which the captain had rightly foreseen would follow his departure. The reply she received produced but one impression on her mind. She at once set it down as a falsehood, and returned to her own window to keep watch over North Shingles more vigilantly than ever.
To her utter astonishment, after a lapse of less than half an hour she saw an empty carriage draw up at Mr. Bygrave's door. Luggage was brought out and packed on the vehicle. Miss Bygrave appeared, and took her seat in it. She was followed into the carriage by a lady of great size and stature, whom the housekeeper conjectured to be Mrs. Bygrave. The servant came next, and stood waiting on the path. The last person to appear was Mr. Bygrave. He locked the house door, and took the key away with him to a cottage near at hand, which was the residence of the landlord of North Shingles. On his return, he nodded to the servant, who walked away by herself toward the humbler quarter of the little town, and joined the ladies in the carriage. The coachman mounted the box, and the vehicle disappeared.
Mrs. Lecount laid down the opera-glass, through which she had been closely investigating these proceedings, with a feeling of helpless perplexity which she was almost ashamed to acknowledge to herself. The secret of Mr. Bygrave's object in suddenly emptying his house at Aldborough of every living creature in it was an impenetrable mystery to her.
Submitting herself to circumstances with a ready resignation which Captain Wragge had not shown, on his side, in a similar situation, Mrs. Lecount wasted neither time nor temper in unprofitable guess-work. She left the mystery to thicken or to clear, as the future might decide, and looked exclusively at the uses to which she might put the morning's event in her own interests. Whatever might have become of the family at North Shingles, the servant was left behind, and the servant was exactly the person whose assistance might now be of vital importance to the housekeeper's projects. Mrs. Lecount put on her bonnet, inspected the collection of loose silver in her purse, and set forth on the spot to make the servant's acquaintance.
She went first to the cottage at which Mr. Bygrave had left the key of North Shingles, to discover the servant's present address from the landlord. So far as this object was concerned, her errand proved successful. The landlord knew that the girl had been allowed to go home for a few days to her friends, and knew in what part of Aldborough her friends lived. But here his sources of information suddenly dried up. He knew nothing of the destination to which Mr. Bygrave and his family had betaken themselves, and he was perfectly ignorant of the number of days over which their absence might be expected to extend. All he could say was, that he had not received a notice to quit from his tenant, and that he had been requested to keep the key of the house in his possession until Mr. Bygrave returned to claim it in his own person.
Baffled, but not discouraged, Mrs. Lecount turned her steps next toward the back street of Aldborough, and astonished the servant's relatives by conferring on them the honor of a morning call.
Easily imposed on at starting by Mrs. Lecount's pretense of calling to engage her, under the impression that she had left Mr. Bygrave's service, the servant did her best to answer the questions put to her. But she knew as little as the landlord of her master's plans. All she could say about them was, that she had not been dismissed, and that she was to await the receipt of a note recalling her when necessary to her situation at North Shingles. Not having expected to find her better informed on this part of the subject, Mrs. Lecount smoothly shifted her ground, and led the woman into talking generally of the advantages and defects of her situation in Mr. Bygrave's family.
Profiting by the knowledge gained, in this indirect manner, of the little secrets of the household, Mrs. Lecount made two discoveries. She found out, in the first place, that the servant (having enough to do in attending to the coarser part of the domestic work) was in no position to disclose the secrets of Miss Bygrave's wardrobe, which were known only to the young lady herself and to her aunt. In the second place, the housekeeper ascertained that the true reason of Mrs. Bygrave's rigid seclusion was to be found in the simple fact that she was little better than an idiot, and that her husband was probably ashamed of allowing her to be seen in public. These apparently trivial discoveries enlightened Mrs. Lecount on a very important point which had been previously involved in doubt. She was now satisfied that the likeliest way to obtaining a private investigation of Magdalen's wardrobe lay through deluding the imbecile lady, and not through bribing the ignorant servant.
Having reached that conclusion—pregnant with coming assaults on the weakly-fortified discretion of poor Mrs. Wragge—the housekeeper cautiously abstained from exhibiting herself any longer under an inquisitive aspect. She changed the conversation to local topics, waited until she was sure of leaving an excellent impression behind her, and then took her leave.
Three days passed; and Mrs. Lecount and her master—each with their widely-different ends in view—watched with equal anxiety for the first signs of returning life in the direction of North Shingles. In that interval, no letter either from the uncle or the niece arrived for Noel Vanstone. His sincere feeling of irritation under this neglectful treatment greatly assisted the effect of those feigned doubts on the subject of his absent friends which the captain had recommended him to express in the housekeeper's presence. He confessed his apprehensions of having been mistaken, not in Mr. Bygrave only, but even in his niece as well, with such a genuine air of annoyance that he actually contributed a new element of confusion to the existing perplexities of Mrs. Lecount.
On the morning of the fourth day Noel Vanstone met the postman in the garden; and, to his great relief, discovered among the letters delivered to him a note from Mr. Bygrave.
The date of the note was "Woodbridge," and it contained a few lines only. Mr. Bygrave mentioned that his niece was better, and that she sent her love as before. He proposed returning to Aldborough on the next day, when he would have some new considerations of a strictly private nature to present to Mr. Noel Vanstone's mind. In the meantime he would beg Mr. Vanstone not to call at North Shingles until he received a special invitation to do so—which invitation should certainly be given on the day when the family returned. The motive of this apparently strange request should be explained to Mr. Vanstone's perfect satisfaction when he was once more united to his friends. Until that period arrived, the strictest caution was enjoined on him in all his communications with Mrs. Lecount; and the instant destruction of Mr. Bygrave's letter, after due perusal of it, was (if the classical phrase might be pardoned) a sine qua non.
The fifth day came. Noel Vanstone (after submitting himself to the sine qua non, and destroying the letter) waited anxiously for results; while Mrs. Lecount, on her side, watched patiently for events. Toward three o'clock in the afternoon th e carriage appeared again at the gate of North Shingles. Mr. Bygrave got out and tripped away briskly to the landlord's cottage for the key. He returned with the servant at his heels. Miss Bygrave left the carriage; her giant relative followed her example; the house door was opened; the trunks were taken off; the carriage disappeared, and the Bygraves were at home again!
Four o'clock struck, five o'clock, six o'clock, and nothing happened. In half an hour more, Mr. Bygrave—spruce, speckless, and respectable as ever—appeared on the Parade, sauntering composedly in the direction of Sea View.
Instead of at once entering the house, he passed it; stopped, as if struck by a sudden recollection; and, retracing his steps, asked for Mr. Vanstone at the door. Mr. Vanstone came out hospitably into the passage. Pitching his voice to a tone which could be easily heard by any listening individual through any open door in the bedroom regions, Mr. Bygrave announced the object of his visit on the door-mat in the fewest possible words. He had been staying with a distant relative. The distant relative possessed two pictures—Gems by the Old Masters—which he was willing to dispose of, and which he had intrusted for that purpose to Mr. Bygrave's care. If Mr. Noel Vanstone, as an amateur in such matters, wished to see the Gems, they would be visible in half an hour's time, when Mr. Bygrave would have returned to North Shingles.
Having delivered himself of this incomprehensible announcement, the arch-conspirator laid his significant forefinger along the side of his short Roman nose, said, "Fine weather, isn't it? Good-afternoon!" and sauntered out inscrutably to continue his walk on the Parade.
On the expiration of the half-hour Noel Vanstone presented himself at North Shingles, with the ardor of a lover burning inextinguishably in his bosom, through the superincumbent mental fog of a thoroughly bewildered man. To his inexpressible happiness, he found Magdalen alone in the parlor. Never yet had she looked so beautiful in his eyes. The rest and relief of her four days' absence from Aldborough had not failed to produce their results; she had more than recovered her composure. Vibrating perpetually from one violent extreme to another, she had now passed from the passionate despair of five days since to a feverish exaltation of spirits which defied all remorse and confronted all consequences. Her eyes sparkled; her cheeks were bright with color; she talked incessantly, with a forlorn mockery of the girlish gayety of past days; she laughed with a deplorable persistency in laughing; she imitated Mrs. Lecount's smooth voice, and Mrs. Lecount's insinuating graces of manner with an overcharged resemblance to the original, which was but the coarse reflection of the delicately-accurate mimicry of former times. Noel Vanstone, who had never yet seen her as he saw her now, was enchanted; his weak head whirled with an intoxication of enjoyment; his wizen cheeks flushed as if they had caught the infection from hers. The half-hour during which he was alone with her passed like five minutes to him. When that time had elapsed, and when she suddenly left him—to obey a previously-arranged summons to her aunt's presence—miser as he was, he would have paid at that moment five golden sovereigns out of his pocket for five golden minutes more passed in her society.
The door had hardly closed on Magdalen before it opened again, and the captain walked in. He entered on the explanations which his visitor naturally expected from him with the unceremonious abruptness of a man hard pressed for time, and determined to make the most of every moment at his disposal.
"Since we last saw each other," he began, "I have been reckoning up the chances for and against us as we stand at present. The result on my own mind is this: If you are still at Aldborough when that letter from Zurich reaches Mrs. Lecount, all the pains we have taken will have been pains thrown away. If your housekeeper had fifty brothers all dying together, she would throw the whole fifty over sooner than leave you alone at Sea View while we are your neighbors at North Shingles."
Noel Vanstone's flushed cheek turned pale with dismay. His own knowledge of Mrs. Lecount told him that this view of the case was the right one.
"If we go away again," proceeded the captain, "nothing will be gained, for nothing would persuade your housekeeper, in that case, that we have not left you the means of following us. You must leave Aldborough this time; and, what is more, you must go without leaving a single visible trace behind you for us to follow. If we accomplish this object in the course of the next five days, Mrs. Lecount will take the journey to Zurich. If we fail, she will be a fixture at Sea View, to a dead certainty. Don't ask questions! I have got your instructions ready for you, and I want your closest attention to them. Your marriage with my niece depends on your not forgetting a word of what I am now going to tell you.—One question first. Have you followed my advice? Have you told Mrs. Lecount you are beginning to think yourself mistaken in me?"
"I did worse than that," replied Noel Vanstone penitently. "I committed an outrage on my own feelings. I disgraced myself by saying that I doubted Miss Bygrave!"
"Go on disgracing yourself, my dear sir! Doubt us both with all your might, and I'll help you. One question more. Did I speak loud enough this afternoon? Did Mrs. Lecount hear me?"
"Yes. Lecount opened her door; Lecount heard you. What made you give me that message? I see no pictures here. Is this another pious fraud, Mr. Bygrave?"
"Admirably guessed, Mr. Vanstone! You will see the object of my imaginary picture-dealing in the very next words which I am now about to address to you. When you get back to Sea View, this is what you are to say to Mrs. Lecount. Tell her that my relative's works of Art are two worthless pictures—copies from the Old Masters, which I have tried to sell you as originals at an exorbitant price. Say you suspect me of being little better than a plausible impostor, and pity my unfortunate niece for being associated with such a rascal as I am. There is your text to speak from. Say in many words what I have just said in a few. You can do that, can't you?"
"Of course I can do it," said Noel Vanstone. "But I can tell you one thing—Lecount won't believe me."
"Wait a little, Mr. Vanstone; I have not done with my instructions yet. You understand what I have just told you? Very good. We may get on from to-day to to-morrow. Go out to-morrow with Mrs. Lecount at your usual time. I will meet you on the Parade, and bow to you. Instead of returning my bow, look the other way. In plain English, cut me! That is easy enough to do, isn't it?"
"She won't believe me, Mr. Bygrave—she won't believe me!"
"Wait a little again, Mr. Vanstone. There are more instructions to come. You have got your directions for to-day, and you have got your directions for to-morrow. Now for the day after. The day after is the seventh day since we sent the letter to Zurich. On the seventh day decline to go out walking as before, from dread of the annoyance of meeting me again. Grumble about the smallness of the place; complain of your health; wish you had never come to Aldborough, and never made acquaintances with the Bygraves; and when you have well worried Mrs. Lecount with your discontent, ask her on a sudden if she can't suggest a change for the better. If you put that question to her naturally, do you think she can be depended on to answer it?"
"She won't want to be questioned at all," replied Noel Vanstone, irritably. "I have only got to say I am tired of Aldborough; and, if she believes me—which she won't; I'm quite positive, Mr. Bygrave, she won't!—she will have her suggestion ready before I can ask for it."
"Ay! ay!" said the captain eagerly. "There is some place, then, that Mrs. Lecount wants to go to this autumn?"
"She wants to go there (hang her!) every autumn."
"To go where?"
"To Admiral Bartram's—you don't know him, do you?—at St. Crux-in-the-Marsh."
"Don't lose your patience, Mr. Vanstone! What you are now telling me is of the most vital importance to the object we ha ve in view. Who is Admiral Bartram?"
"An old friend of my father's. My father laid him under obligations—my father lent him money when they were both young men. I am like one of the family at St. Crux; my room is always kept ready for me. Not that there's any family at the admiral's except his nephew, George Bartram. George is my cousin; I'm as intimate with George as my father was with the admiral; and I've been sharper than my father, for I haven't lent my friend any money. Lecount always makes a show of liking George—I believe to annoy me. She likes the admiral, too; he flatters her vanity. He always invites her to come with me to St. Crux. He lets her have one of the best bedrooms, and treats her as if she was a lady. She is as proud as Lucifer—she likes being treated like a lady—and she pesters me every autumn to go to St. Crux. What's the matter? What are you taking out your pocketbook for?"
"I want the admiral's address, Mr. Vanstone, for a purpose which I will explain immediately."
With those words, Captain Wragge opened his pocketbook and wrote down the address from Noel Vanstone's dictation, as follows: "Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, near Ossory, Essex."
"Good!" cried the captain, closing his pocketbook again. "The only difficulty that stood in our way is now cleared out of it. Patience, Mr. Vanstone—patience! Let us take up my instructions again at the point where we dropped them. Give me five minutes' more attention, and you will see your way to your marriage as plainly as I see it. On the day after to-morrow you declare you are tired of Aldborough, and Mrs. Lecount suggests St. Crux. You don't say yes or no on the spot; you take the next day to consider it, and you make up your mind the last thing at night to go to St. Crux the first thing in the morning. Are you in the habit of superintending your own packing up, or do you usually shift all the trouble of it on Mrs. Lecount's shoulders?"
"Lecount has all the trouble, of course; Lecount is paid for it! But I don't really go, do I?"
"You go as fast as horses can take you to the railway without having held any previous communication with this house, either personally or by letter. You leave Mrs. Lecount behind to pack up your curiosities, to settle with the tradespeople, and to follow you to St. Crux the next morning. The next morning is the tenth morning. On the tenth morning she receives the letter from Zurich; and if you only carry out my instructions, Mr. Vanstone, as sure as you sit there, to Zurich she goes."
Noel Vanstone's color began to rise again, as the captain's stratagem dawned on him at last in its true light.
"And what am I to do at St. Crux?" he inquired.
"Wait there till I call for you," replied the captain. "As soon as Mrs. Lecount's back is turned, I will go to the church here and give the necessary notice of the marriage. The same day or the next, I will travel to the address written down in my pocketbook, pick you up at the admiral's, and take you on to London with me to get the license. With that document in our possession, we shall be on our way back to Aldborough while Mrs. Lecount is on her way out to Zurich; and before she starts on her return journey, you and my niece will be man and wife! There are your future prospects for you. What do you think of them?"
"What a head you have got!" cried Noel Vanstone, in a sudden outburst of enthusiasm. "You're the most extraordinary man I ever met with. One would think you had done nothing all your life but take people in."
Captain Wragge received that unconscious tribute to his native genius with the complacency of a man who felt that he thoroughly deserved it.
"I have told you already, my dear sir," he said, modestly, "that I never do things by halves. Pardon me for reminding you that we have no time for exchanging mutual civilities. Are you quite sure about your instructions? I dare not write them down for fear of accidents. Try the system of artificial memory; count your instructions off after me, on your thumb and your four fingers. To-day you tell Mrs. Lecount I have tried to take you in with my relative's works of Art. To-morrow you cut me on the Parade. The day after you refuse to go out, you get tired of Aldborough, and you allow Mrs. Lecount to make her suggestion. The next day you accept the suggestion. And the next day to that you go to St. Crux. Once more, my dear sir! Thumb—works of Art. Forefinger—cut me on the Parade. Middle finger—tired of Aldborough. Third finger—take Lecount's advice. Little finger—off to St. Crux. Nothing can be clearer—nothing can be easier to do. Is there anything you don't understand? Anything that I can explain over again before you go?"
"Only one thing," said Noel Vanstone. "Is it settled that I am not to come here again before I go to St. Crux?"
"Most decidedly!" answered the captain. "The whole success of the enterprise depends on your keeping away. Mrs. Lecount will try the credibility of everything you say to her by one test—the test of your communicating, or not, with this house. She will watch you night and day! Don't call here, don't send messages, don't write letters; don't even go out by yourself. Let her see you start for St. Crux on her suggestion, with the absolute certainty in her own mind that you have followed her advice without communicating it in any form whatever to me or to my niece. Do that, and she must believe you, on the best of all evidence for our interests, and the worst for hers—the evidence of her own senses."
With those last words of caution, he shook the little man warmly by the hand and sent him home on the spot.
ON returning to Sea View, Noel Vanstone executed the instructions which prescribed his line of conduct for the first of the five days with unimpeachable accuracy. A faint smile of contempt hovered about Mrs. Lecount's lips while the story of Mr. Bygrave's attempt to pass off his spurious pictures as originals was in progress, but she did not trouble herself to utter a single word of remark when it had come to an end. "Just what I said!" thought Noel Vanstone, cunningly watching her face; "she doesn't believe a word of it!"
The next day the meeting occurred on the Parade. Mr. Bygrave took off his hat, and Noel Vanstone looked the other way. The captain's start of surprise and scowl of indignation were executed to perfection, but they plainly failed to impose on Mrs. Lecount. "I am afraid, sir, you have offended Mr. Bygrave to-day," she ironically remarked. "Happily for you, he is an excellent Christian! and I venture to predict that he will forgive you to-morrow."
Noel Vanstone wisely refrained from committing himself to an answer. Once more he privately applauded his own penetration; once more he triumphed over his ingenious friend.
Thus far the captain's instructions had been too clear and simple to be mistaken by any one. But they advanced in complication with the advance of time, and on the third day Noel Vanstone fell confusedly into the commission of a slight error. After expressing the necessary weariness of Aldborough, and the consequent anxiety for change of scene, he was met (as he had anticipated) by an immediate suggestion from the housekeeper, recommending a visit to St. Crux. In giving his answer to the advice thus tendered, he made his first mistake. Instead of deferring his decision until the next day, he accepted Mrs. Lecount's suggestion on the day when it was offered to him.
The consequences of this error were of no great importance. The housekeeper merely set herself to watch her master one day earlier than had been calculated on—a result which had been already provided for by the wise precautionary measure of forbidding Noel Vanstone all communication with North Shingles. Doubting, as Captain Wragge had foreseen, the sincerity of her master's desire to break off his connection with the Bygraves by going to St. Crux, Mrs. Lecount tested the truth or falsehood of the impression produced on her own mind by vigilantly watching for sign s of secret communication on one side or on the other. The close attention with which she had hitherto observed the out-goings and in-comings at North Shingles was now entirely transferred to her master. For the rest of that third day she never let him out of her sight; she never allowed any third person who came to the house, on any pretense whatever, a minute's chance of private communication with him. At intervals through the night she stole to the door of his room, to listen and assure herself that he was in bed; and before sunrise the next morning, the coast-guardsman going his rounds was surprised to see a lady who had risen as early as himself engaged over her work at one of the upper windows of Sea View.
On the fourth morning Noel Vanstone came down to breakfast conscious of the mistake that he had committed on the previous day. The obvious course to take, for the purpose of gaining time, was to declare that his mind was still undecided. He made the assertion boldly when the housekeeper asked him if he meant to move that day. Again Mrs. Lecount offered no remark, and again the signs and tokens of incredulity showed themselves in her face. Vacillation of purpose was not at all unusual in her experience of her master. But on this occasion she believed that his caprice of conduct was assumed for the purpose of gaining time to communicate with North Shingles, and she accordingly set her watch on him once more with doubled and trebled vigilance.