No letters came that morning. Toward noon the weather changed for the worse, and all idea of walking out as usual was abandoned. Hour after hour, while her master sat in one of the parlors, Mrs. Lecount kept watch in the other, with the door into the passage open, and with a full view of North Shingles through the convenient side-window at which she had established herself. Not a sign that was suspicious appeared, not a sound that was suspicious caught her ear. As the evening closed in, her master's hesitation came to an end. He was disgusted with the weather; he hated the place; he foresaw the annoyance of more meetings with Mr. Bygrave, and he was determined to go to St. Crux the first thing the next morning. Lecount could stay behind to pack up the curiosities and settle with the trades-people, and could follow him to the admiral's on the next day. The housekeeper was a little staggered by the tone and manner in which he gave these orders. He had, to her own certain knowledge, effected no communication of any sort with North Shingles, and yet he seemed determined to leave Aldborough at the earliest possible opportunity. For the first time she hesitated in her adherence to her own conclusions. She remembered that her master had complained of the Bygraves before they returned to Aldborough; and she was conscious that her own incredulity had once already misled her when the appearance of the traveling-carriage at the door had proved even Mr. Bygrave himself to be as good as his word.
Still Mrs. Lecount determined to act with unrelenting caution to the last. That night, when the doors were closed, she privately removed the keys from the door in front and the door at the back. She then softly opened her bedroom window and sat down by it, with her bonnet and cloak on, to prevent her taking cold. Noel Vanstone's window was on the same side of the house as her own. If any one came in the dark to speak to him from the garden beneath, they would speak to his housekeeper as well. Prepared at all points to intercept every form of clandestine communication which stratagem could invent, Mrs. Lecount watched through the quiet night. When morning came, she stole downstairs before the servant was up, restored the keys to their places, and re-occupied her position in the parlor until Noel Vanstone made his appearance at the breakfast-table. Had he altered his mind? No. He declined posting to the railway on account of the expense, but he was as firm as ever in his resolution to go to St. Crux. He desired that an inside place might be secured for him in the early coach. Suspicious to the last, Mrs. Lecount sent the baker's man to take the place. He was a public servant, and Mr. Bygrave would not suspect him of performing a private errand.
The coach called at Sea View. Mrs. Lecount saw her master established in his place, and ascertained that the other three inside seats were already occupied by strangers. She inquired of the coachman if the outside places (all of which were not yet filled up) had their full complement of passengers also. The man replied in the affirmative. He had two gentlemen to call for in the town, and the others would take their places at the inn. Mrs. Lecount forthwith turned her steps toward the inn, and took up her position on the Parade opposite from a point of view which would enable her to see the last of the coach on its departure. In ten minutes more it rattled away, full outside and in; and the housekeeper's own eyes assured her that neither Mr. Bygrave himself, nor any one belonging to North Shingles, was among the passengers.
There was only one more precaution to take, and Mrs. Lecount did not neglect it. Mr. Bygrave had doubtless seen the coach call at Sea View. He might hire a carriage and follow it to the railway on pure speculation. Mrs. Lecount remained within view of the inn (the only place at which a carriage could be obtained) for nearly an hour longer, waiting for events. Nothing happened; no carriage made its appearance; no pursuit of Noel Vanstone was now within the range of human possibility. The long strain on Mrs. Lecount's mind relaxed at last. She left her seat on the Parade, and returned in higher spirits than usual, to perform the closing household ceremonies at Sea View.
She sat down alone in the parlor and drew a long breath of relief. Captain Wragge's calculations had not deceived him. The evidence of her own senses had at last conquered the housekeeper's incredulity, and had literally forced her into the opposite extreme of belief.
Estimating the events of the last three days from her own experience of them; knowing (as she certainly knew) that the first idea of going to St. Crux had been started by herself, and that her master had found no opportunity and shown no inclination to inform the family at North Shingles that he had accepted her proposal, Mrs. Lecount was fairly compelled to acknowledge that not a fragment of foundation remained to justify the continued suspicion of treachery in her own mind. Looking at the succession of circumstances under the new light thrown on them by results, she could see nothing unaccountable, nothing contradictory anywhere. The attempt to pass off the forged pictures as originals was in perfect harmony with the character of such a man as Mr. Bygrave. Her master's indignation at the attempt to impose on him; his plainly-expressed suspicion that Miss Bygrave was privy to it; his disappointment in the niece; his contemptuous treatment of the uncle on the Parade; his weariness of the place which had been the scene of his rash intimacy with strangers, and his readiness to quit it that morning, all commended themselves as genuine realities to the housekeeper's mind, for one sufficient reason. Her own eyes had seen Noel Vanstone take his departure from Aldborough without leaving, or attempting to leave, a single trace behind him for the Bygraves to follow.
Thus far the housekeeper's conclusions led her, but no further. She was too shrewd a woman to trust the future to chance and fortune. Her master's variable temper might relent. Accident might at any time give Mr. Bygrave an opportunity of repairing the error that he had committed, and of artfully regaining his lost place in Noel Vanstone's estimation. Admitting that circumstances had at last declared themselves unmistakably in her favor, Mrs. Lecount was not the less convinced that nothing would permanently assure her master's security for the future but the plain exposure of the conspiracy which she had striven to accomplish from the first—which she was resolved to accomplish still.
"I always enjoy myself at St. Crux," thought Mrs. Lecount, opening her account-books, and sorting the tradesmen's bills. "The admiral is a gentleman, the house is noble, the table is excellent. No matter! Here at Sea View I stay by myself till I have seen the inside of Miss Bygrave's wardrobe."
She packed her master's collection of curiosities in their various cases, settled the claims of the trades-people, and superintended the covering of the furniture in the course of the day. Toward nightfall she went out, bent on investigation, and ventured into the garden at North Shingles under cover of the darkness. She saw the light in the parlor window, and the lights in the windows of the rooms upstairs, as usual. After an instant's hesitation she stole to the house door, and noiselessly tried the handle from the outside. It turned the lock as she had expected, from her experience of houses at Aldborough and at other watering-places, but the door resisted her; the door was distrustfully bolted on the inside. After making that discovery, she went round to the back of the house, and ascertained that the door on that side was secured in the same manner. "Bolt your doors, Mr. Bygrave, as fast as you like," said the housekeeper, stealing back again to the Parade. "You can't bolt the entrance to your servant's pocket. The best lock you have may be opened by a golden key."
She went back to bed. The ceaseless watching, the unrelaxing excitement of the last two days, had worn her out.
The next morning she rose at seven o'clock. In half an hour more she saw the punctual Mr. Bygrave—as she had seen him on many previous mornings at the same time—issue from the gate of North Shingles, with his towels under his arm, and make his way to a boat that was waiting for him on the beach. Swimming was one among the many personal accomplishments of which the captain was master. He was rowed out to sea every morning, and took his bath luxuriously in the deep blue water. Mrs. Lecount had already computed the time consumed in this recreation by her watch, and had discovered that a full hour usually elapsed from the moment when he embarked on the beach to the moment when he returned.
During that period she had never seen any other inhabitant of North Shingles leave the house. The servant was no doubt at her work in the kitchen; Mrs. Bygrave was probably still in her bed; and Miss Bygrave (if she was up at that early hour) had perhaps received directions not to venture out in her uncle's absence. The difficulty of meeting the obstacle of Magdalen's presence in the house had been, for some days past, the one difficulty which all Mrs. Lecount's ingenuity had thus far proved unable to overcome.
She sat at the window for a quarter of an hour after the captain's boat had left the beach with her mind hard at work, and her eyes fixed mechanically on North Shingles—she sat considering what written excuse she could send to her master for delaying her departure from Aldborough for some days to come—when the door of the house she was watching suddenly opened, and Magdalen herself appeared in the garden. There was no mistaking her figure and her dress. She took a few steps hastily toward the gate, stopped and pulled down the veil of her garden hat as if she felt the clear morning light too much for her, then hurried out on the Parade and walked away northward, in such haste, or in such pre-occupation of mind, that she went through the garden gate without closing it after her.
Mrs. Lecount started up from her chair with a moment's doubt of the evidence of her own eyes. Had the opportunity which she had been vainly plotting to produce actually offered itself to her of its own accord? Had the chances declared themselves at last in her favor, after steadily acting against her for so long? There was no doubt of it: in the popular phrase, "her luck had turned." She snatched up her bonnet and mantilla, and made for North Shingles without an instant's hesitation. Mr. Bygrave out at sea; Miss Bygrave away for a walk; Mrs. Bygrave and the servant both at home, and both easily dealt with—the opportunity was not to be lost; the risk was well worth running!
This time the house door was easily opened: no one had bolted it again after Magdalen's departure. Mrs. Lecount closed the door softly, listened for a moment in the passage, and heard the servant noisily occupied in the kitchen with her pots and pans. "If my lucky star leads me straight into Miss Bygrave's room," thought the housekeeper, stealing noiselessly up the stairs, "I may find my way to her wardrobe without disturbing anybody."
She tried the door nearest to the front of the house on the right-hand side of the landing. Capricious chance had deserted her already. The lock was turned. She tried the door opposite, on her left hand. The boots ranged symmetrically in a row, and the razors on the dressing-table, told her at once that she had not found the right room yet. She returned to the right-hand side of the landing, walked down a little passage leading to the back of the house, and tried a third door. The door opened, and the two opposite extremes of female humanity, Mrs. Wragge and Mrs. Lecount, stood face to face in an instant!
"I beg ten thousand pardons!" said Mrs. Lecount, with the most consummate self-possession.
"Lord bless us and save us!" cried Mrs. Wragge, with the most helpless amazement.
The two exclamations were uttered in a moment, and in that moment Mrs. Lecount took the measure of her victim. Nothing of the least importance escaped her. She noticed the Oriental Cashmere Robe lying half made, and half unpicked again, on the table; she noticed the imbecile foot of Mrs. Wragge searching blindly in the neighborhood of her chair for a lost shoe; she noticed that there was a second door in the room besides the door by which she had entered, and a second chair within easy reach, on which she might do well to seat herself in a friendly and confidential way. "Pray don't resent my intrusion," pleaded Mrs. Lecount, taking the chair. "Pray allow me to explain myself!"
Speaking in her softest voice, surveying Mrs. Wragge with a sweet smile on her insinuating lips, and a melting interest in her handsome black eyes, the housekeeper told her little introductory series of falsehoods with an artless truthfulness of manner which the Father of Lies himself might have envied. She had heard from Mr. Bygrave that Mrs. Bygrave was a great invalid; she had constantly reproached herself, in her idle half-hours at Sea View (where she filled the situation of Mr. Noel Vanstone's housekeeper), for not having offered her friendly services to Mrs. Bygrave; she had been directed by her master (doubtless well known to Mrs. Bygrave, as one of her husband's friends, and, naturally, one of her charming niece's admirers), to join him that day at the residence to which he had removed from Aldborough; she was obliged to leave early, but she could not reconcile it to her conscience to go without calling to apologize for her apparent want of neighborly consideration; she had found nobody in the house; she had not been able to make the servant hear; she had presumed (not discovering that apartment downstairs) that Mrs. Bygrave's boudoir might be on the upper story; she had thoughtlessly committed an intrusion of which she was sincerely ashamed, and she could now only trust to Mrs. Bygrave's indulgence to excuse and forgive her.
A less elaborate apology might have served Mrs. Lecount's purpose. As soon as Mrs. Wragge's struggling perceptions had grasped the fact that her unexpected visitor was a neighbor well known to her by repute, her whole being became absorbed in admiration of Mrs. Lecount's lady-like manners, and Mrs. Lecount's perfectly-fitting gown! "What a noble way she has of talking!" thought poor Mrs. Wragge, as the housekeeper reached her closing sentence. "And, oh my heart alive, how nicely she's dressed!"
"I see I disturb you," pursued Mrs. Lecount, artfully availing herself of the Oriental Cashmere Robe as a means ready at hand of reaching the end she had in view—"I see I disturb you, ma'am, over an occupation which, I know by experience, requires the closest attention. Dear, dear me, you are un picking the dress again, I see, after it has been made! This is my own experience again, Mrs. Bygrave. Some dresses are so obstinate! Some dresses seem to say to one, in so many words, 'No! you may do what you like with me; I won't fit!'"
Mrs. Wragge was greatly struck by this happy remark. She burst out laughing, and clapped her great hands in hearty approval.
"That's what this gown has been saying to me ever since I first put the scissors into it," she exclaimed, cheerfully. "I know I've got an awful big back, but that's no reason. Why should a gown be weeks on hand, and then not meet behind you after all? It hangs over my Boasom like a sack—it does. Look here, ma'am, at the skirt. It won't come right. It draggles in front, and cocks up behind. It shows my heels—and, Lord knows, I get into scrapes enough about my heels, without showing them into the bargain!"
"May I ask a favor?" inquired Mrs. Lecount, confidentially. "May I try, Mrs. Bygrave, if I can make my experience of any use to you? I think our bosoms, ma'am, are our great difficulty. Now, this bosom of yours?—Shall I say in plain words what I think? This bosom of yours is an Enormous Mistake!"
"Don't say that!" cried Mrs. Wragge, imploringly. "Don't please, there's a good soul! It's an awful big one, I know; but it's modeled, for all that, from one of Magdalen's own."
She was far too deeply interested on the subject of the dress to notice that she had forgotten herself already, and that she had referred to Magdalen by her own name. Mrs. Lecount's sharp ears detected the mistake the instant it was committed. "So! so!" she thought. "One discovery already. If I had ever doubted my own suspicions, here is an estimable lady who would now have set me right.—I beg your pardon," she proceeded, aloud, "did you say this was modeled from one of your niece's dresses?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Wragge. "It's as like as two peas."
"Then," replied Mrs. Lecount, adroitly, "there must be some serious mistake in the making of your niece's dress. Can you show it to me?"
"Bless your heart—yes!" cried Mrs. Wragge. "Step this way, ma'am; and bring the gown along with you, please. It keeps sliding off, out of pure aggravation, if you lay it out on the table. There's lots of room on the bed in here."
She opened the door of communication and led the way eagerly into Magdalen's room. As Mrs. Lecount followed, she stole a look at her watch. Never before had time flown as it flew that morning! In twenty minutes more Mr. Bygrave would be back from his bath.
"There!" said Mrs. Wragge, throwing open the wardrobe, and taking a dress down from one of the pegs. "Look there! There's plaits on her Boasom, and plaits on mine. Six of one and half a dozen of the other; and mine are the biggest—that's all!"
Mrs. Lecount shook her head gravely, and entered forthwith into subtleties of disquisition on the art of dressmaking which had the desired effect of utterly bewildering the proprietor of the Oriental Cashmere Robe in less than three minutes.
"Don't!" cried Mrs. Wragge, imploringly. "Don't go on like that! I'm miles behind you; and my head's Buzzing already. Tell us, like a good soul, what's to be done. You said something about the pattern just now. Perhaps I'm too big for the pattern? I can't help it if I am. Many's the good cry I had, when I was a growing girl, over my own size! There's half too much of me, ma'am—measure me along or measure me across, I don't deny it—there's half too much of me, anyway."
"My dear madam," protested Mrs. Lecount, "you do yourself a wrong! Permit me to assure you that you possess a commanding figure—a figure of Minerva. A majestic simplicity in the form of a woman imperatively demands a majestic simplicity in the form of that woman's dress. The laws of costume are classical; the laws of costume must not be trifled with! Plaits for Venus, puffs for Juno, folds for Minerva. I venture to suggest a total change of pattern. Your niece has other dresses in her collection. Why may we not find a Minerva pattern among them?"
As she said those words, she led the way back to the wardrobe.
Mrs. Wragge followed, and took the dresses out one by one, shaking her head despondently. Silk dresses appeared, muslin dresses appeared. The one dress which remained invisible was the dress of which Mrs. Lecount was in search.
"There's the lot of 'em," said Mrs. Wragge. "They may do for Venus and the two other Ones (I've seen 'em in picters without a morsel of decent linen among the three), but they won't do for Me."
"Surely there is another dress left?" said Mrs. Lecount, pointing to the wardrobe, but touching nothing in it. "Surely I see something hanging in the corner behind that dark shawl?"
Mrs. Wragge removed the shawl; Mrs. Lecount opened the door of the wardrobe a little wider. There—hitched carelessly on the innermost peg—there, with its white spots, and its double flounce, was the brown Alpaca dress!
The suddenness and completeness of the discovery threw the housekeeper, practiced dissembler as she was, completely off her guard. She started at the sight of the dress. The instant afterward her eyes turned uneasily toward Mrs. Wragge. Had the start been observed? It had passed entirely unnoticed. Mrs. Wragge's whole attention was fixed on the Alpaca dress: she was staring at it incomprehensibly, with an expression of the utmost dismay.
"You seem alarmed, ma'am," said Mrs. Lecount. "What is there in the wardrobe to frighten you?"
"I'd have given a crown piece out of my pocket," said Mrs. Wragge, "not to have set my eyes on that gown. It had gone clean out of my head, and now it's come back again. Cover it up!" cried Mrs. Wragge, throwing the shawl over the dress in a sudden fit of desperation. "If I look at it much longer, I shall think I'm back again in Vauxhall Walk!"
Vauxhall Walk! Those two words told Mrs. Lecount she was on the brink of another discovery. She stole a second look at her watch. There was barely ten minutes to spare before the time when Mr. Bygrave might return; there was not one of those ten minutes which might not bring his niece back to the house. Caution counseled Mrs. Lecount to go, without running any more risks. Curiosity rooted her to the spot, and gave the courage to stay at all hazards until the time was up. Her amiable smile began to harden a little as she probed her way tenderly into Mrs. Wragge's feeble mind.
"You have some unpleasant remembrances of Vauxhall Walk?" she said, with the gentlest possible tone of inquiry in her voice. "Or perhaps I should say, unpleasant remembrances of that dress belonging to your niece?"
"The last time I saw her with that gown on," said Mrs. Wragge, dropping into a chair and beginning to tremble, "was the time when I came back from shopping and saw the Ghost."
"The Ghost?" repeated Mrs. Lecount, clasping her hands in graceful astonishment. "Dear madam, pardon me! Is there such a thing in the world? Where did you see it? In Vauxhall Walk? Tell me—you are the first lady I ever met with who has seen a ghost—pray tell me!"
Flattered by the position of importance which she had suddenly assumed in the housekeeper's eyes, Mrs. Wragge entered at full length into the narrative of her supernatural adventure. The breathless eagerness with which Mrs. Lecount listened to her description of the specter's costume, the specter's hurry on the stairs, and the specter's disappearance in the bedroom; the extraordinary interest which Mrs. Lecount displayed on hearing that the dress in the wardrobe was the very dress in which Magdalen happened to be attired at the awful moment when the ghost vanished, encouraged Mrs. Wragge to wade deeper and deeper into details, and to involve herself in a confusion of collateral circumstances out of which there seemed to be no prospect of her emerging for hours to come. Faster and faster the inexorable minutes flew by; nearer and nearer came the fatal moment of Mr. Bygrave's return. Mrs. Lecount looked at her watch for the third time, without an attempt on this occasion to conceal the action from her companion's notice. There were literally two minutes left for her to get clear of North Shingles. Two minutes would be enough, if no accident happened. She had discovered the Alpaca dress; she had heard the whole story of the adventure in Vauxhall Walk; and, more than that, she had even informed herself of the number of the house—which Mrs. Wragge happened to remember, because it answered to the number of years in her own age. All that was necessary to her master's complete enlightenment she had now accomplished. Even if there had been time to stay longer, there was nothing worth staying for. "I'll strike this worthy idiot dumb with a coup d'etat," thought the housekeeper, "and vanish before she recovers herself."
"Horrible!" cried Mrs. Lecount, interrupting the ghostly narrative by a shrill little scream and making for the door, to Mrs. Wragge's unutterable astonishment, without the least ceremony. "You freeze the very marrow of my bones. Good-morning!" She coolly tossed the Oriental Cashmere Robe into Mrs. Wragge's expansive lap and left the room in an instant.
As she swiftly descended the stairs, she heard the door of the bedroom open.
"Where are your manners?" cried a voice from above, hailing her feebly over the banisters. "What do you mean by pitching my gown at me in that way? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" pursued Mrs. Wragge, turning from a lamb to a lioness, as she gradually realized the indignity offered to the Cashmere Robe. "You nasty foreigner, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Pursued by this valedictory address, Mrs. Lecount reached the house door, and opened it without interruption. She glided rapidly along the garden path, passed through the gate, and finding herself safe on the Parade, stopped, and looked toward the sea.
The first object which her eyes encountered was the figure of Mr. Bygrave standing motionless on the beach—a petrified bather, with his towels in his hand! One glance at him was enough to show that he had seen the housekeeper passing out through his garden gate.
Rightly conjecturing that Mr. Bygrave's first impulse would lead him to make instant inquiries in his own house, Mrs. Lecount pursued her way back to Sea View as composedly as if nothing had happened. When she entered the parlor where her solitary breakfast was waiting for her, she was surprised to see a letter lying on the table. She approached to take it up with an expression of impatience, thinking it might be some tradesman's bill which she had forgotten.
It was the forged letter from Zurich.
THE postmark and the handwriting on the address (admirably imitated from the original) warned Mrs. Lecount of the contents of the letter before she opened it.
After waiting a moment to compose herself, she read the announcement of her brother's relapse.
There was nothing in the handwriting, there was no expression in any part of the letter which could suggest to her mind the faintest suspicion of foul play. Not the shadow of a doubt occurred to her that the summons to her brother's bedside was genuine. The hand that held the letter dropped heavily into her lap; she became pale, and old, and haggard in a moment. Thoughts, far removed from her present aims and interests; remembrances that carried her back to other lands than England, to other times than the time of her life in service, prolonged their inner shadows to the surface, and showed the traces of their mysterious passage darkly on her face. The minutes followed each other, and still the servant below stairs waited vainly for the parlor bell. The minutes followed each other, and still she sat, tearless and quiet, dead to the present and the future, living in the past.
The entrance of the servant, uncalled, roused her. With a heavy sigh, the cold and secret woman folded the letter up again and addressed herself to the interests and the duties of the passing time.
She decided the question of going or not going to Zurich, after a very brief consideration of it. Before she had drawn her chair to the breakfast-table she had resolved to go.
Admirably as Captain Wragge's stratagem had worked, it might have failed—unassisted by the occurrence of the morning—to achieve this result. The very accident against which it had been the captain's chief anxiety to guard—the accident which had just taken place in spite of him—was, of all the events that could have happened, the one event which falsified every previous calculation, by directly forwarding the main purpose of the conspiracy! If Mrs. Lecount had not obtained the information of which she was in search before the receipt of the letter from Zurich, the letter might have addressed her in vain. She would have hesitated before deciding to leave England, and that hesitation might have proved fatal to the captain's scheme.
As it was, with the plain proofs in her possession, with the gown discovered in Magdalen's wardrobe, with the piece cut out of it in her own pocketbook, and with the knowledge, obtained from Mrs. Wragge, of the very house in which the disguise had been put on, Mrs. Lecount had now at her command the means of warning Noel Vanstone as she had never been able to warn him yet, or, in other words, the means of guarding against any dangerous tendencies toward reconciliation with the Bygraves which might otherwise have entered his mind during her absence at Zurich. The only difficulty which now perplexed her was the difficulty of deciding whether she should communicate with her master personally or by writing, before her departure from England.
She looked again at the doctor's letter. The word "instantly," in the sentence which summoned her to her dying brother, was twice underlined. Admiral Bartram's house was at some distance from the railway; the time consumed in driving to St. Crux, and driving back again, might be time fatally lost on the journey to Zurich. Although she would infinitely have preferred a personal interview with Noel Vanstone, there was no choice on a matter of life and death but to save the precious hours by writing to him.
After sending to secure a place at once in the early coach, she sat down to write to her master.
Her first thought was to tell him all that had happened at North Shingles that morning. On reflection, however, she rejected the idea. Once already (in copying the personal description from Miss Garth's letter) she had trusted her weapons in her master's hands, and Mr. Bygrave had contrived to turn them against her. She resolved this time to keep them strictly in her own possession. The secret of the missing fragment of the Alpaca dress was known to no living creature but herself; and, until her return to England, she determined to keep it to herself. The necessary impression might be produced on Noel Vanstone's mind without venturing into details. She knew by experience the form of letter which might be trusted to produce an effect on him, and she now wrote it in these words:
"DEAR MR. NOEL—Sad news has reached me from Switzerland. My beloved brother is dying and his medical attendant summons me instantly to Zurich. The serious necessity of availing myself of the earliest means of conveyance to the Continent leaves me but one alternative. I must profit by the permission to leave England, if necessary, which you kindly granted to me at the beginning of my brother's illness, and I must avoid all delay by going straight to London, instead of turning aside, as I should have liked, to see you first at St. Crux.
"Painfully as I am affected by the family calamity which has fallen on me, I cannot let this opportunity pass without adverting to another subject which seriously concerns your welfare, and in which (on that account) your old housekeeper feels the deepest interest.
"I am going to surprise and shock you, Mr. Noel. Pray don't be agitated! pray compose yourself!
"The impudent attempt to cheat you, which has happily opened your eyes to the true character of our neighbors at North Shingles, was not the only object which Mr. Bygrave had in forcing himself on your acquaintance. The infamous conspiracy with which you were threatened in London has been in full progress against you under Mr. Bygrave's direction, at Aldborough. Accident—I will tell you what accident when we meet—has put me in possession of information precious to your future security. I have discovered, to an absolute certainty, that the person calling herself Miss Bygrave is no other than the woman who visited us in disguise at Vauxhall Walk.
"I suspected this from the first, but I had no evidence to support my suspicions; I had no means of combating the false impression produced on you. My hands, I thank Heaven, are tied no longer. I possess absolute proof of the assertion that I have just made—proof that your own eyes can see—proof that would satisfy you, if you were judge in a Court of Justice.
"Perhaps even yet, Mr. Noel, you will refuse to believe me? Be it so. Believe me or not, I have one last favor to ask, which your English sense of fair play will not deny me.
"This melancholy journey of mine will keep me away from England for a fortnight, or, at most, for three weeks. You will oblige me—and you will certainly not sacrifice your own convenience and pleasure—by staying through that interval with your friends at St. Crux. If, before my return, some unexpected circumstance throws you once more into the company of the Bygraves, and if your natural kindness of heart inclines you to receive the excuses which they will, in that case, certainly address to you, place one trifling restraint on yourself, for your own sake, if not for mine. Suspend your flirtation with the young lady (I beg pardon of all other young ladies for calling her so!) until my return. If, when I come back, I fail to prove to you that Miss Bygrave is the woman who wore that disguise, and used those threatening words, in Vauxhall Wall, I will engage to leave your service at a day's notice; and I will atone for the sin of bearing false witness against my neighbor by resigning every claim I have to your grateful remembrance, on your father's account as well as on your own. I make this engagement without reserves of any kind; and I promise to abide by it—if my proofs fail—on the faith of a good Catholic, and the word of an honest woman. Your faithful servant,
The closing sentences of this letter—as the housekeeper well knew when she wrote them—embodied the one appeal to Noel Vanstone which could be certainly trusted to produce a deep and lasting effect. She might have staked her oath, her life, or her reputation, on proving the assertion which she had made, and have failed to leave a permanent impression on his mind. But when she staked not only her position in his service, but her pecuniary claims on him as well, she at once absorbed the ruling passion of his life in expectation of the result. There was not a doubt of it, in the strongest of all his interests—the interest of saving his money—he would wait.
"Checkmate for Mr. Bygrave!" thought Mrs. Lecount, as she sealed and directed the letter. "The battle is over—the game is played out."
While Mrs. Lecount was providing for her master's future security at Sea View, events were in full progress at North Shingles.
As soon as Captain Wragge recovered his astonishment at the housekeeper's appearance on his own premises, he hurried into the house, and, guided by his own forebodings of the disaster that had happened, made straight for his wife's room.
Never, in all her former experience, had poor Mrs. Wragge felt the full weight of the captain's indignation as she felt it now. All the little intelligence she naturally possessed vanished at once in the whirlwind of her husband's rage. The only plain facts which he could extract from her were two in number. In the first place, Magdalen's rash desertion of her post proved to have no better reason to excuse it than Magdalen's incorrigible impatience: she had passed a sleepless night; she had risen feverish and wretched; and she had gone out, reckless of all consequences, to cool her burning head in the fresh air. In the second place, Mrs. Wragge had, on her own confession, seen Mrs. Lecount, had talked with Mrs. Lecount, and had ended by telling Mrs. Lecount the story of the ghost. Having made these discoveries, Captain Wragge wasted no time in contending with his wife's terror and confusion. He withdrew at once to a window which commanded an uninterrupted prospect of Noel Vanstone's house, and there established himself on the watch for events at Sea View, precisely as Mrs. Lecount had established herself on the watch for events at North Shingles.
Not a word of comment on the disaster of the morning escaped him when Magdalen returned and found him at his post. His flow of language seemed at last to have run dry. "I told you what Mrs. Wragge would do," he said, "and Mrs. Wragge has done it." He sat unflinchingly at the window with a patience which Mrs. Lecount herself could not have surpassed. The one active proceeding in which he seemed to think it necessary to engage was performed by deputy. He sent the servant to the inn to hire a chaise and a fast horse, and to say that he would call himself before noon that day and tell the hostler when the vehicle would be wanted. Not a sign of impatience escaped him until the time drew near for the departure of the early coach. Then the captain's curly lips began to twitch with anxiety, and the captain's restless fingers beat the devil's tattoo unremittingly on the window-pane.
The coach appeared at last, and drew up at Sea View. In a minute more, Captain Wragge's own observation informed him that one among the passengers who left Aldborough that morning was—Mrs. Lecount.
The main uncertainty disposed of, a serious question—suggested by the events of the morning—still remained to be solved. Which was the destined end of Mrs. Lecount's journey—Zurich or St. Crux? That she would certainly inform her master of Mrs. Wragge's ghost story, and of every other disclosure in relation to names and places which might have escaped Mrs. Wragge's lips, was beyond all doubt. But of the two ways at her disposal of doing the mischief—either personally or by letter—it was vitally important to the captain to know which she had chosen. If she had gone to the admiral's, no choice would be left him but to follow the coach, to catch the train by which she traveled, and to outstrip her afterward on the drive from the station in Essex to St. Crux. If, on the contrary, she had been contented with writing to her master, it would only be necessary to devise measures for intercepting the letter. The captain decided on going to the post-office, in the first place. Assuming that the housekeeper had written, she would not have left the letter at the mercy of the servant—she would have seen it safely in the letter-box before leaving Aldborough.
"Good-morning," said the captain, cheerfully addressing the postmaster. "I am Mr. Bygrave of North Shingles. I think you have a letter in the box, addressed to Mr.—?"
The postmaster was a short man, and consequently a man with a proper idea of his own importance. He solemnly checked Captain Wragge in full career.
"When a letter is once posted, sir," he said, "nobody out of the office has any business with it until it reaches its address."
The captain was not a man to be daunted, even by a postmaster. A bright idea struck him. He took out his pocketbook, in which Admiral Bartram's address was written, and returned to the charge.
"Suppose a letter has been wrongly directed by mistake?" he began. "And suppose the writer wants to correct the error after the letter is put into the box?"
"When a letter is once posted, sir," reiterated the impenetrable local authority, "nobody out of the office touches it on any pretense whatever."
"Granted, with all my heart," persisted the captain. "I don't want to touch it—I only want to explain myself. A lady has posted a letter here, addressed to 'Noel Vanstone, Esq., Admiral Bartram's, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex.' She wrote in a great hurry, and she is not quite certain whether she added the name of the post-town, 'Ossory.' It is of the last importance that the delivery of the letter should not be delayed. What is to hinder your facilitating the post-office work, and obliging a lady, by adding the name of the post-town (if it happens to be left out), with your own hand? I put it to you as a zealous officer, what possible objection can there be to granting my request?"
The postmaster was compelled to acknowledge that there could be no objection, provided nothing but a necessary line was added to the address, provided nobody touched the letter but himself, and provided the precious time of the post-office was not suffered to run to waste. As there happened to be nothing particular to do at that moment, he would readily oblige the lady at Mr. Bygrave's request.
Captain Wragge watched the postmaster's hands, as they sorted the letters in the box, with breathless eagerness. Was the letter there? Would the hands of the zealous public servant suddenly stop? Yes! They stopped, and picked out a letter from the rest.
"'Noel Vanstone, Esquire,' did you say?" asked the postmaster, keeping the letter in his own hand.
"'Noel Vanstone, Esquire,'" replied the captain, "'Admiral Bartram's, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh.'"
"Ossory, Essex," chimed in the postmaster, throwing the letter back into the box. "The lady has made no mistake, sir. The address is quite right."
Nothing but a timely consideration of the heavy debt he owed to appearances prevented Captain Wragge from throwing his tall white hat up in the air as soon as he found the street once more. All further doubt was now at an end. Mrs. Lecount had written to her master—therefore Mrs. Lecount was on her way to Zurich!
With his head higher than ever, with the tails of his respectable frock-coat floating behind him in the breeze, with his bosom's native impudence sitting lightly on its throne, the captain strutted to the inn and called for the railway time-table. After making certain calculations (in black and white, as a matter of course), he ordered his chaise to be ready in an hour—so as to reach the railway in time for the second train running to London—with which there happened to be no communication from Aldborough by coach.
His next proceeding was of a far more serious kind; his next proceeding implied a terrible certainty of success. The day of the week was Thursday. From the inn he went to the church, saw the clerk, and gave the necessary notice for a marriage by license on the following Monday.
Bold as he was, his nerves were a little shaken by this last achievement; his hand trembled as it lifted the latch of the garden gate. He doctored his nerves with brandy and water before he sent for Magdalen to inform her of the proceedings of the morning. Another outbreak might reasonably be expected when she heard that the last irrevocable step had been taken, and that notice had been given of the wedding-day.
The captain's watch warned him to lose no time in emptying his glass. In a few minutes he sent the necessary message upstairs. While waiting for Magdalen's appearance, he provided himself with certain materials which were now necessary to carry the enterprise to its crowning point. In the first place, he wrote his assumed name (by no means in so fine a hand as usual) on a blank visiting-card, and added underneath these words: "Not a moment is to be lost. I am waiting for you at the door—come down to me directly." His next proceeding was to take some half-dozen envelopes out of the case, and to direct them all alike to the following address: "Thomas Bygrave, Esq., Mussared's Hotel, Salisbury Street, Strand, London." After carefully placing the envelopes and the card in his breast-pocket, he shut up the desk. As he rose from the writing-table, Magdalen came into the room.
The captain took a moment to decide on the best method of opening the interview, and determined, in his own phrase, to dash at it. In two words he told Magdalen what had happened, and informed her that Monday was to be her wedding-day.
He was prepared to quiet her, if she burst into a frenzy of passion; to reason with her, if she begged for time; to sympathize with her, if she melted into tears. To his inexpressible surprise, results falsified all his calculations. She heard him without uttering a word, without shedding a tear. When he had done, she dropped into a chair. Her large gray eyes stared at him vacantly. In one mysterious instant all her beauty left her; her face stiffened awfully, like the face of a corpse. For the first time in the captain's experience of her, fear—all-mastering fear—had taken possession of her, body and soul.
"You are not flinching," he said, trying to rouse her. "Surely you are not flinching at the last moment?"
No light of intelligence came into her eyes, no change passed over her face. But she heard him—for she moved a little in the chair, and slowly shook her head.
"You planned this marriage of your own freewill," pursued the captain, with the furtive look and the faltering voice of a man ill at ease. "It was your own idea—not mine. I won't have the responsibility laid on my shoulders—no! not for twice two hundred pounds. If your resolution fails you; if you think better of it—?"
He stopped. Her face was changing; her lips were moving at last. She slowly raised her left hand, with the fingers outspread; she looked at it as if it was a hand that was strange to her; she counted the days on it, the days before the marriage.
"Friday, one," she whispered to herself; "Saturday, two; Sunday, three; Monday—" Her hands dropped into her lap, her face stiffened again; the deadly fear fastened its paralyzing hold on her once more, and the next words died away on her lips.
Captain Wragge took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"Damn the two hundred pounds!" he said. "Two thousand wouldn't pay me for this!"
He put the handkerchief back, took the envelopes which he had addressed to himself out of his pocket, and, approaching her closely for the first time, laid his hand on her arm.
"Rouse yourself," he said, "I have a last word to say to you. Can you listen?"
She struggled, and roused herself—a faint tinge of color stole over her white cheeks—she bowed her head.
"Look at these," pursued Captain Wragge, holding up the envelopes. "If I turn these to the use for which they have been written, Mrs. Lecount's master will never receive Mrs. Lecount's letter. If I tear them up, he will know by to-morrow's post that you are the woman who visited him in Vauxhall Walk. Say the word! Shall I tear the envelopes up, or shall I put them back in my pocket?"
There was a pause of dead silence. The murmur of the summer waves on the shingle of the beach and the voices of the summer idlers on the Parade floated through the open window, and filled the empty stillness of the room.
She raised her head; she lifted her hand and pointed steadily to the envelopes.
"Put them back," she said.
"Do you mean it?" he asked.
"I mean it."
As she gave that answer, there was a sound of wheels on the road outside.
"You hear those wheels?" said Captain Wragge.
"I hear them."
"You see the chaise?" said the captain, pointing through the window as the chaise which had been ordered from the inn made its appearance at the garden gate.
"I see it."
"And, of your own free-will, you tell me to go?"
Without another word he left her. The servant was waiting at the door with his traveling bag. "Miss Bygrave is not well," he said. "Tell your mistress to go to her in the parlor."
He stepped into the chaise, and started on the first stage of the journey to St. Crux.
TOWARD three o'clock in the afternoon Captain Wragge stopped at the nearest station to Ossory which the railway passed in its course through Essex. Inquiries made on the spot informed him that he might drive to St. Crux, remain there for a quarter of an hour, and return to the station in time for an evening train to London. In ten minutes more the captain was on the road again, driving rapidly in the direction of the coast.
After proceeding some miles on the highway, the carriage turned off, and the coachman involved himself in an intricate network of cross-roads.
"Are we far from St. Crux?" asked the captain, growing impatient, after mile on mile had been passed without a sign of reaching the journey's end.
"You'll see the house, sir, at the next turn in the road," said the man.
The next turn in the road brought them within view of the open country again. Ahead of the carriage, Captain Wragge saw a long dark line against the sky—the line of the sea-wall which protects the low coast of Essex from inundation. The flat intermediate country was intersected by a labyrinth of tidal streams, winding up from the invisible sea in strange fantastic curves—rivers at high water, and channels of mud at low. On his right hand was a quaint little village, mostly composed of wooden houses, straggling down to the brink of one of the tidal streams. On his left hand, further away, rose the gloomy ruins of an abbey, with a desolate pile of buildings, which covered two sides of a square attached to it. One of the streams from the sea (called, in Essex, "backwaters") curled almost entirely round the house. Another, from an opposite quarter, appeared to run straight through the grounds, and to separate one side of the shapeless mass of buildings, which was in moderate repair, from another, which was little better than a ruin. Bridges of wood and bridges of brick crossed the stream, and gave access to the house from all points of the compass. No human creature appeared in the neighborhood, and no sound was heard but the hoarse barking of a house-dog from an invisible courtyard.
"Which door shall I drive to, sir?" asked the coachman. "The front or the back?"
"The back," said Captain Wragge, feeling that the less notice he attracted in his present position, the safer that position might be.
The carriage twice crossed the stream before the coachman made his way through the grounds into a dreary inclosure of stone. At an open door on the inhabited side of the place sat a weather-beaten old man, busily at work on a half-finished model of a ship. He rose and came to the carriage door, lifting up his spectacles on his forehead, and looking disconcerted at the appearance of a stranger.
"Is Mr. Noel Vanstone staying here?" asked Captain Wragge.
"Yes, sir," replied the old man. "Mr. Noel came yesterday."
"Take that card to Mr. Vanstone, if you please," said the captain, "and say I am waiting here to see him."
In a few minutes Noel Vanstone made his appearance, breathless and eager—absorbed in anxiety for news from Aldborough. Captain Wragge opened the carriage door, seized his outstretched hand, and pulled him in without ceremony.
"Your housekeeper has gone," whispered the captain, "and you are to be married on Monday. Don't agitate yourself, and don't express your feelings—there isn't time for it. Get the first active servant you can find in the house to pack your bag in ten minutes, take leave of the admiral, and come back at once with me to the London train."
Noel Vanstone faintly attempted to ask a question. The captain declined to hear it.
"As much talk as you like on the road," he said. "Time is too precious for talking here. How do we know Lecount may not think better of it? How do we know she may not turn back before she gets to Zurich?"
That startling consideration terrified Noel Vanstone into instant submission.
"What shall I say to the admiral?" he asked, helplessly.
"Tell him you are going to be married, to be sure! What does it matter, now Lecount's back is turned? If he wonders you didn't tell him before, say it's a runaway match, and the bride is waiting for you. Stop! Any letters addressed to you in your absence will be sent to this place, of course? Give the admiral these envelopes, and tell him to forward your letters under cover to me. I am an old customer at the hotel we are going to; and if we find the place full, the landlord may be depended on to take care of any letters with my name on them. A safe address in London for your correspondence may be of the greatest importance. How do we know Lecount may not write to you on her way to Zurich?"
"What a head you have got!" cried Noel Vanstone, eagerly taking the envelopes. "You think of everything."
He left the carriage in high excitement, and ran back into the house. In ten minutes more Captain Wragge had him in safe custody, and the horses started on their return journey.
The travelers reached London in good time that evening, and found accommodation at the hotel.
Knowing the restless, inquisitive nature of the man he had to deal with, Captain Wragge had anticipated some little difficulty and embarrassment in meeting the questions which Noel Vanstone might put to him on the way to London. To his great relief, a startling domestic discovery absorbed his traveling companion's whole attention at the outset of the journey. By some extraordinary oversight, Miss Bygrave had been left, on the eve of her marriage, unprovided with a maid. Noel Vanstone declared that he would take the whole responsibility of correcting this deficiency in the arrangements, on his own shoulders; he would not trouble Mr. Bygrave to give him any assistance; he would confer, when they got to their journey's end, with the landlady of the hotel, and would examine the candidates for the vacant office himself. All the way to London, he returned again and again to the same subject; all the evening, at the hotel, he was in and out of the landlady's sitting-room, until he fairly obliged her to lock the door. In every other proceeding which related to his marriage, he had been kept in the background; he had been compelled to follow in the footsteps of his ingenious friend. In the matter of the lady's maid he claimed his fitting position at last—he followed nobody; he took the lead!
The forenoon of the next day was devoted to obtaining the license—the personal distinction of making the declaration on oath being eagerly accepted by Noel Vanstone, who swore, in perfect good faith (on information previously obtained from the captain) that the lady was of age. The document procured, the bridegroom returned to examine the characters and qualifications of the women-servants out of the place whom the landlady had engaged to summon to the hotel, while Captain Wragge turned his steps, "on business personal to himself," toward the residence of a friend in a distant quarter of London.
The captain's friend was connected with the law, and the captain's business was of a twofold nature. His first object was to inform himself of the legal bearings of the approaching marriage on the future of the husband and the wife. His second object was to provide beforehand for destroying all traces of the destination to which he might betake himself when he left Aldborough on the wedding-day. Having reached his end successfully in both these cases, he returned to the hotel, and found Noel Vanstone nursing his offended dignity in the landlady's sitting-room. Three ladies' maids had appeared to pass their examination, and had all, on coming to the question of wages, impudently declined accepting the place. A fourth candidate was expected to present herself on the next day; and, until she made her appearance, Noel Vanstone positively declined removing from the metropolis. Captain Wragge showed his annoyance openly at the unnecessary delay thus occasioned in the return to Aldborough, but without producing any effect. Noel Vanstone shook his obstinate little head, and solemnly refused to trifle with his responsibilities.
The first event which occurred on Saturday morning was the arrival of Mrs. Lecount's letter to her master, inclosed in one of the envelopes which the captain had addressed to himself. He received it (by previous arrangement with the waiter) in his bedroom—read it with the closest attention—and put it away carefully in his pocketbook. The letter was ominous of serious events to come when the housekeeper returned to England; and it was due to Magdalen—who was the person threatened—to place the warning of danger in her own possession.
Later in the day the fourth candidate appeared for the maid's situation—a young woman of small expectations and subdued manners, who looked (as the landlady remarked) like a person overtaken by misfortune. She passed the ordeal of examination successfully, and accepted the wages offered with out a murmur. The engagement having been ratified on both sides, fresh delays ensued, of which Noel Vanstone was once more the cause. He had not yet made up his mind whether he would, or would not, give more than a guinea for the wedding-ring; and he wasted the rest of the day to such disastrous purpose in one jeweler's shop after another, that he and the captain, and the new lady's maid (who traveled with them), were barely in time to catch the last train from London that evening. It was late at night when they left the railway at the nearest station to Aldborough. Captain Wragge had been strangely silent all through the journey. His mind was ill at ease. He had left Magdalen, under very critical circumstances, with no fit person to control her, and he was wholly ignorant of the progress of events in his absence at North Shingles.
WHAT had happened at Aldborough in Captain Wragge's absence? Events had occurred which the captain's utmost dexterity might have found it hard to remedy.
As soon as the chaise had left North Shingles, Mrs. Wragge received the message which her husband had charged the servant to deliver. She hastened into the parlor, bewildered by her stormy interview with the captain, and penitently conscious that she had done wrong, without knowing what the wrong was. If Magdalen's mind had been unoccupied by the one idea of the marriage which now filled it—if she had possessed composure enough to listen to Mrs. Wragge's rambling narrative of what had happened during her interview with the housekeeper—Mrs. Lecount's visit to the wardrobe must, sooner or later, have formed part of the disclosure; and Magdalen, although she might never have guessed the truth, must at least have been warned that there was some element of danger lurking treacherously in the Alpaca dress. As it was, no such consequence as this followed Mrs. Wragge's appearance in the parlor; for no such consequence was now possible.
Events which had happened earlier in the morning, events which had happened for days and weeks past, had vanished as completely from Magdalen's mind as if they had never taken place. The horror of the coming Monday—the merciless certainty implied in the appointment of the day and hour—petrified all feeling in her, and annihilated all thought. Mrs. Wragge made three separate attempts to enter on the subject of the housekeeper's visit. The first time she might as well have addressed herself to the wind, or to the sea. The second attempt seemed likely to be more successful. Magdalen sighed, listened for a moment indifferently, and then dismissed the subject. "It doesn't matter," she said. "The end has come all the same. I'm not angry with you. Say no more." Later in the day, from not knowing what else to talk about, Mrs. Wragge tried again. This time Magdalen turned on her impatiently. "For God's sake, don't worry me about trifles! I can't bear it." Mrs. Wragge closed her lips on the spot, and returned to the subject no more. Magdalen, who had been kind to her at all other times, had angrily forbidden it. The captain—utterly ignorant of Mrs. Lecount's interest in the secrets of the wardrobe—had never so much as approached it. All the information that he had extracted from his wife's mental confusion, he had extracted by putting direct questions, derived purely from the resources of his own knowledge. He had insisted on plain answers, without excuses of any kind; he had carried his point as usual; and his departure the same morning had left him no chance of re-opening the question, even if his irritation against his wife had permitted him to do so. There the Alpaca dress hung, neglected in the dark—the unnoticed, unsuspected center of dangers that were still to come.
Toward the afternoon Mrs. Wragge took courage to start a suggestion of her own—she pleaded for a little turn in the fresh air.
Magdalen passively put on her hat; passively accompanied her companion along the public walk, until they reached its northward extremity. Here the beach was left solitary, and here they sat down, side by side, on the shingle. It was a bright, exhilarating day; pleasure-boats were sailing on the calm blue water; Aldborough was idling happily afloat and ashore. Mrs. Wragge recovered her spirits in the gayety of the prospect—she amused herself like a child, by tossing pebbles into the sea. From time to time she stole a questioning glance at Magdalen, and saw no encouragement in her manner, no change to cordiality in her face. She sat silent on the slope of the shingle, with her elbow on her knee, and her head resting on her hand, looking out over the sea—looking with rapt attention, and yet with eyes that seemed to notice nothing. Mrs. Wragge wearied of the pebbles, and lost her interest in looking at the pleasure-boats. Her great head began to nod heavily, and she dozed in the warm, drowsy air. When she woke, the pleasure-boats were far off; their sails were white specks in the distance. The idlers on the beach were thinned in number; the sun was low in the heaven; the blue sea was darker, and rippled by a breeze. Changes on sky and earth and ocean told of the waning day; change was everywhere—except close at her side. There Magdalen sat, in the same position, with weary eyes that still looked over the sea, and still saw nothing.
"Oh, do speak to me!" said Mrs. Wragge.
Magdalen started, and looked about her vacantly.
"It's late," she said, shivering under the first sensation that reached her of the rising breeze. "Come home; you want your tea." They walked home in silence.
"Don't be angry with me for asking," said Mrs. Wragge, as they sat together at the tea-table. "Are you troubled, my dear, in your mind?"
"Yes," replied Magdalen. "Don't notice me. My trouble will soon be over."
She waited patiently until Mrs. Wragge had made an end of the meal, and then went upstairs to her own room.
"Monday!" she said, as she sat down at her toilet-table. "Something may happen before Monday comes!"
Her fingers wandered mechanically among the brushes and combs, the tiny bottles and cases placed on the table. She set them in order, now in one way, and now in another—then on a sudden pushed them away from her in a heap. For a minute or two her hands remained idle. That interval passed, they grew restless again, and pulled the two little drawers backward and forward in their grooves. Among the objects laid in one of them was a Prayer-book which had belonged to her at Combe-Raven, and which she had saved with her other relics of the past, when she and her sister had taken their farewell of home. She opened the Prayer-book, after a long hesitation, at the Marriage Service, shut it again before she had read a line, and put it back hurriedly in one of the drawers. After turning the key in the locks, she rose and walked to the window. "The horrible sea!" she said, turning from it with a shudder of disgust—"the lonely, dreary, horrible sea!"
She went back to the drawer, and took the Prayer-book out for the second time, half opened it again at the Marriage Service, and impatiently threw it back into the drawer. This time, after turning the lock, she took the key away, walked with it in her hand to the open window, and threw it violently from her into the garden. It fell on a bed thickly planted with flowers. It was invisible; it was lost. The sense of its loss seemed to relieve her.
"Something may happen on Friday; something may happen on Saturday; something may happen on Sunday. Three days still!"
She closed the green shutters outside the window and drew the curtains to darken the room still more. Her head felt heavy; her eyes were burning hot. She threw herself on her bed, with a sullen impulse to sleep away the time. The quiet of the house helped her; the darkness of the room helped her; the stupor of mind into which she had fallen had its effect on her senses; she dropped into a broken sleep. Her restless hands moved incessantly, her head tossed from side to side of the pillow, but still she slept. Ere long words fell by ones and twos from her lips; words whispered in her sleep, growing more and more continuous, more and more articulate, the longer the sleep lasted—words which seemed to calm her restlessness and to hush her into deeper repose. She smiled; she was in the happy land of dreams; Frank's name escaped her. "Do you love me, Frank?" she whispered. "Oh, my darling, say it again! say it again!"
The time passed, the room grew darker; and still she slumbered and dreamed. Toward sunset—without any noise inside the house or out to account for it—she started up on the bed, awake again in an instant. The drowsy obscurity of the room struck her with terror. She ran to the window, pushed open the shutters, and leaned far out into the evening air and the evening light. Her eyes devoured the trivial sights on the beach; her ears drank in the welcome murmur of the sea. Anything to deliver her from the waking impression which her dreams had left! No more darkness, no more repose. Sleep that came mercifully to others came treacherously to her. Sleep had only closed her eyes on the future, to open them on the past.
She went down again into the parlor, eager to talk—no matter how idly, no matter on what trifles. The room was empty. Perhaps Mrs. Wragge had gone to her work—perhaps she was too tired to talk. Magdalen took her hat from the table and went out. The sea that she had shrunk from, a few hours since, looked friendly now. How lovely it was in its cool evening blue! What a god-like joy in the happy multitude of waves leaping up to the light of heaven!
She stayed out until the night fell and the stars appeared. The night steadied her.
By slow degrees her mind recovered its balance and she looked her position unflinchingly in the face. The vain hope that accident might defeat the very end for which, of her own free-will, she had ceaselessly plotted and toiled, vanished and left her; self-dissipated in its own weakness. She knew the true alternative, and faced it. On one side was the revolting ordeal of the marriage; on the other, the abandonment of her purpose. Was it too late to choose between the sacrifice of the purpose and the sacrifice of herself? Yes! too late. The backward path had closed behind her. Time that no wish could change, Time that no prayers could recall, had made her purpose a part of herself: once she had governed it; now it governed her. The more she shrank, the harder she struggled, the more mercilessly it drove her on. No other feeling in her was strong enough to master it—not even the horror that was maddening her—the horror of her marriage.
Toward nine o'clock she went back to the house.
"Walking again!" said Mrs. Wragge, meeting her at the door. "Come in and sit down, my dear. How tired you must be!"
Magdalen smiled, and patted Mrs. Wragge kindly on the shoulder.
"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me."
She lit her candle and went upstairs again into her room. As she returned to the old place by her toilet-table, the vain hope in the three days of delay, the vain hope of deliverance by accident, came back to her—this time in a form more tangible than the form which it had hitherto worn.
"Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Something may happen to him; something may happen to me. Something serious; something fatal. One of us may die."
A sudden change came over her face. She shivered, though there was no cold in the air. She started, though there was no noise to alarm her.
"One of us may die. I may be the one."
She fell into deep thought, roused herself after a while, and, opening the door, called to Mrs. Wragge to come and speak to her.
"You were right in thinking I should fatigue myself," she said. "My walk has been a little too much for me. I feel tired, and I am going to bed. Good-night." She kissed Mrs. Wragge and softly closed the door again.
After a few turns backward and forward in the room, she abruptly opened her writing-case and began a letter to her sister. The letter grew and grew under her hands; she filled sheet after sheet of note-paper. Her heart was full of her subject: it was her own story addressed to Norah. She shed no tears; she was composed to a quiet sadness. Her pen ran smoothly on. After writing for more than two hours, she left off while the letter was still unfinished. There was no signature attached to it—there was a blank space reserved, to be filled up at some other time. After putting away the case, with the sheets of writing secured inside it, she walked to the window for air, and stood there looking out.
The moon was waning over the sea. The breeze of the earlier hours had died out. On earth and ocean, the spirit of the Night brooded in a deep and awful calm.
Her head drooped low on her bosom, and all the view waned before her eyes with the waning moon. She saw no sea, no sky. Death, the Tempter, was busy at her heart. Death, the Tempter, pointed homeward, to the grave of her dead parents in Combe-Raven churchyard.
"Nineteen last birthday," she thought. "Only nineteen!" She moved away from the window, hesitated, and then looked out again at the view. "The beautiful night!" she said, gratefully. "Oh, the beautiful night!"
She left the window and lay down on her bed. Sleep, that had come treacherously before, came mercifully now; came deep and dreamless, the image of her last waking thought—the image of Death.
Early the next morning Mrs. Wragge went into Magdalen's room, and found that she had risen betimes. She was sitting before the glass, drawing the comb slowly through and through her hair—thoughtful and quiet.
"How do you feel this morning, my dear?" asked Mrs. Wragge. "Quite well again?"
After replying in the affirmative, she stopped, considered for a moment, and suddenly contradicted herself.
"No," she said, "not quite well. I am suffering a little from toothache."
As she altered her first answer in those words she gave a twist to her hair with the comb, so that it fell forward and hid her face.
At breakfast she was very silent, and she took nothing but a cup of tea.
"Let me go to the chemist's and get something," said Mrs. Wragge.
"No, thank you."
"Do let me!"
She refused for the second time, sharply and angrily. As usual, Mrs. Wragge submitted, and let her have her own way. When breakfast was over, she rose, without a word of explanation, and went out. Mrs. Wragge watched her from the window and saw that she took the direction of the chemist's shop.
On reaching the chemist's door she stopped—paused before entering the shop, and looked in at the window—hesitated, and walked away a little—hesitated again, and took the first turning which led back to the beach.
Without looking about her, without caring what place she chose, she seated herself on the shingle. The only persons who were near to her, in the position she now occupied, were a nursemaid and two little boys. The youngest of the two had a tiny toy-ship in his hand. After looking at Magdalen for a little while with the quaintest gravity and attention, the boy suddenly approached her, and opened the way to an acquaintance by putting his toy composedly on her lap.
"Look at my ship," said the child, crossing his hands on Magdalen's knee.
She was not usually patient with children. In happier days she would not have met the boy's advance toward her as she met it now. The hard despair in her eyes left them suddenly; her fast-closed lips parted and trembled. She put the ship back into the child's hands and lifted him on her lap.
"Will you give me a kiss?" she said, faintly. The boy looked at his ship as if he would rather have kissed the ship.
She repeated the question—repeated it almost humbly. The child put his hand up to her neck and kissed her.
"If I was your sister, would you love me?" All the misery of her friendless position, all the wasted tenderness of her heart, poured from her in those words.
"Would you love me?" she repeated, hiding her face on the bosom of the child's frock.
"Yes," said the boy. "Look at my ship."
She looked at the ship through her gathering tears.
"What do you call it?" she asked, trying ha rd to find her way even to the interest of a child.
"I call it Uncle Kirke's ship," said the boy. "Uncle Kirke has gone away."
The name recalled nothing to her memory. No remembrances but old remembrances lived in her now. "Gone?" she repeated absently, thinking what she should say to her little friend next.
"Yes," said the boy. "Gone to China."
Even from the lips of a child that word struck her to the heart. She put Kirke's little nephew off her lap, and instantly left the beach.
As she turned back to the house, the struggle of the past night renewed itself in her mind. But the sense of relief which the child had brought to her, the reviving tenderness which she had felt while he sat on her knee, influenced her still. She was conscious of a dawning hope, opening freshly on her thoughts, as the boy's innocent eyes had opened on her face when he came to her on the beach. Was it too late to turn back? Once more she asked herself that question, and now, for the first time, she asked it in doubt.
She ran up to her own room with a lurking distrust in her changed self which warned her to act, and not to think. Without waiting to remove her shawl or to take off her hat, she opened her writing-case and addressed these lines to Captain Wragge as fast as her pen could trace them:
"You will find the money I promised you inclosed in this. My resolution has failed me. The horror of marrying him is more than I can face. I have left Aldborough. Pity my weakness, and forget me. Let us never meet again."
With throbbing heart, with eager, trembling fingers, she drew her little white silk bag from her bosom and took out the banknotes to inclose them in the letter. Her hand searched impetuously; her hand had lost its discrimination of touch. She grasped the whole contents of the bag in one handful of papers, and drew them out violently, tearing some and disarranging the folds of others. As she threw them down before her on the table, the first object that met her eye was her own handwriting, faded already with time. She looked closer, and saw the words she had copied from her dead father's letter—saw the lawyer's brief and terrible commentary on them confronting her at the bottom of the page:
Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children, and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy.
Her throbbing heart stopped; her trembling hands grew icily quiet. All the Past rose before her in mute, overwhelming reproach. She took up the lines which her own hand had written hardly a minute since, and looked at the ink, still wet on the letters, with a vacant incredulity.
The color that had risen on her cheeks faded from them once more. The hard despair looked out again, cold and glittering, in her tearless eyes. She folded the banknotes carefully, and put them back in her bag. She pressed the copy of her father's letter to her lips, and returned it to its place with the banknotes. When the bag was in her bosom again, she waited a little, with her face hidden in her hands, then deliberately tore up the lines addressed to Captain Wragge. Before the ink was dry, the letter lay in fragments on the floor.
"No!" she said, as the last morsel of the torn paper dropped from her hand. "On the way I go there is no turning back."
She rose composedly and left the room. While descending the stairs, she met Mrs. Wragge coming up. "Going out again, my dear?" asked Mrs. Wragge. "May I go with you?"
Magdalen's attention wandered. Instead of answering the question, she absently answered her own thoughts.
"Thousands of women marry for money," she said. "Why shouldn't I?"
The helpless perplexity of Mrs. Wragge's face as she spoke those words roused her to a sense of present things. "My poor dear!" she said; "I puzzle you, don't I? Never mind what I say—all girls talk nonsense, and I'm no better than the rest of them. Come! I'll give you a treat. You shall enjoy yourself while the captain is away. We will have a long drive by ourselves. Put on your smart bonnet, and come with me to the hotel. I'll tell the landlady to put a nice cold dinner into a basket. You shall have all the things you like, and I'll wait on you. When you are an old, old woman, you will remember me kindly, won't you? You will say: 'She wasn't a bad girl; hundreds worse than she was live and prosper, and nobody blames them.' There! there! go and put your bonnet on. Oh, my God, what is my heart made of! How it lives and lives, when other girls' hearts would have died in them long ago!"
In half an hour more she and Mrs. Wragge were seated together in the carriage. One of the horses was restive at starting. "Flog him," she cried angrily to the driver. "What are you frightened about? Flog him! Suppose the carriage was upset," she said, turning suddenly to her companion; "and suppose I was thrown out and killed on the spot? Nonsense! don't look at me in that way. I'm like your husband; I have a dash of humor, and I'm only joking."
They were out the whole day. When they reached home again, it was after dark. The long succession of hours passed in the fresh air left them both with the same sense of fatigue. Again that night Magdalen slept the deep dreamless sleep of the night before. And so the Friday closed.
Her last thought at night had been the thought which had sustained her throughout the day. She had laid her head on the pillow with the same reckless resolution to submit to the coming trial which had already expressed itself in words when she and Mrs. Wragge met by accident on the stairs. When she woke on the morning of Saturday, the resolution was gone. The Friday's thoughts—the Friday's events even—were blotted out of her mind. Once again, creeping chill through the flow of her young blood, she felt the slow and deadly prompting of despair which had come to her in the waning moonlight, which had whispered to her in the awful calm.
"I saw the end as the end must be," she said to herself, "on Thursday night. I have been wrong ever since."
When she and her companion met that morning, she reiterated her complaint of suffering from the toothache; she repeated her refusal to allow Mrs. Wragge to procure a remedy; she left the house after breakfast, in the direction of the chemist's shop, exactly as she had left it on the morning before.
This time she entered the shop without an instant's hesitation.
"I have got an attack of toothache," she said, abruptly, to an elderly man who stood behind the counter.
"May I look at the tooth, miss?"
"There is no necessity to look. It is a hollow tooth. I think I have caught cold in it."
The chemist recommended various remedies which were in vogue fifteen years since. She declined purchasing any of them.
"I have always found Laudanum relieve the pain better than anything else," she said, trifling with the bottles on the counter, and looking at them while she spoke, instead of looking at the chemist. "Let me have some Laudanum."
"Certainly, miss. Excuse my asking the question—it is only a matter of form. You are staying at Aldborough, I think?"
"Yes. I am Miss Bygrave, of North Shingles."
The chemist bowed; and, turning to his shelves, filled an ordinary half-ounce bottle with laudanum immediately. In ascertaining his customer's name and address beforehand, the owner of the shop had taken a precaution which was natural to a careful man, but which was by no means universal, under similar circumstances, in the state of the law at that time.
"Shall I put you up a little cotton wool with the laudanum?" he asked, after he had placed a label on the bottle, and had written a word on it in large letters.
"If you please. What have you just written on the bottle?" She put the question sharply, with something of distrust as well as curiosity in her manner.
The chemist answered the question by turning the label toward her. She saw written on it, in large letters—POISON.
"I like to be on the safe side, miss," said the old man, smiling. "Very worthy people in other respects are often sadly careless where poisons are concerned."
She began trifling again with the bottles on the counter, and put another question, with an ill-concealed anxiety to hear the answer.
"Is there danger," she asked, "in such a little drop of Laudanum as that?"
"There is Death in it, miss," replied the chemist, quietly.
"Death to a child, or to a person in delicate health?"
"Death to the strongest man in England, let him be who he may."
With that answer, the chemist sealed up the bottle in its wrapping of white paper and handed the laudanum to Magdalen across the counter. She laughed as she took it from him, and paid for it.
"There will be no fear of accidents at North Shingles," she said. "I shall keep the bottle locked up in my dressing-case. If it doesn't relieve the pain, I must come to you again, and try some other remedy. Good-morning."
She went straight back to the house without once looking up, without noticing any one who passed her. She brushed by Mrs. Wragge in the passage as she might have brushed by a piece of furniture. She ascended the stairs, and caught her foot twice in her dress, from sheer inattention to the common precaution of holding it up. The trivial daily interests of life had lost their hold on her already.
In the privacy of her own room, she took the bottle from its wrapping, and threw the paper and the cotton wool into the fire-place. At the moment when she did this there was a knock at the door. She hid the little bottle, and looked up impatiently. Mrs. Wragge came into the room.
"Have you got something for your toothache, my dear?"
"Can I do anything to help you?"
Mrs. Wragge still lingered uneasily near the door. Her manner showed plainly that she had something more to say.
"What is it?" asked Magdalen, sharply.
"Don't be angry," said Mrs. Wragge. "I'm not settled in my mind about the captain. He's a great writer, and he hasn't written. He's as quick as lightning, and he hasn't come back. Here's Saturday, and no signs of him. Has he run away, do you think? Has anything happened to him?"
"I should think not. Go downstairs; I'll come and speak to you about it directly."
As soon as she was alone again, Magdalen rose from her chair, advanced toward a cupboard in the room which locked, and paused for a moment, with her hand on the key, in doubt. Mrs. Wragge's appearance had disturbed the whole current of her thoughts. Mrs. Wragge's last question, trifling as it was, had checked her on the verge of the precipice—had roused the old vain hope in her once more of release by accident.
"Why not?" she said. "Why may something not have happened to one of them?"
She placed the laudanum in the cupboard, locked it, and put the key in her packet. "Time enough still," she thought, "before Monday. I'll wait till the captain comes back."
After some consultation downstairs, it was agreed that the servant should sit up that night, in expectation of her master's return. The day passed quietly, without events of any kind. Magdalen dreamed away the hours over a book. A weary patience of expectation was all she felt now—the poignant torment of thought was dulled and blunted at last. She passed the day and the evening in the parlor, vaguely conscious of a strange feeling of aversion to going back to her own room. As the night advanced, as the noises ceased indoors and out, her restlessness began to return. She endeavored to quiet herself by reading. Books failed to fix her attention. The newspaper was lying in a corner of the room: she tried the newspaper next.
She looked mechanically at the headings of the articles; she listlessly turned over page after page, until her wandering attention was arrested by the narrative of an Execution in a distant part of England. There was nothing to strike her in the story of the crime, and yet she read it. It was a common, horribly common, act of bloodshed—the murder of a woman in farm-service by a man in the same employment who was jealous of her. He had been convicted on no extraordinary evidence, he had been hanged under no unusual circumstances. He had made his confession, when he knew there was no hope for him, like other criminals of his class, and the newspaper had printed it at the end of the article, in these terms:
"I kept company with the deceased for a year or thereabouts. I said I would marry her when I had money enough. She said I had money enough now. We had a quarrel. She refused to walk out with me any more; she wouldn't draw me my beer; she took up with my fellow-servant, David Crouch. I went to her on the Saturday, and said I would marry her as soon as we could be asked in church if she would give up Crouch. She laughed at me. She turned me out of the wash-house, and the rest of them saw her turn me out. I was not easy in my mind. I went and sat on the gate—the gate in the meadow they call Pettit's Piece. I thought I would shoot her. I went and fetched my gun and loaded it. I went out into Pettit's Piece again. I was hard put to it to make up my mind. I thought I would try my luck—I mean try whether to kill her or not—-by throwing up the Spud of the plow into the air. I said to myself, if it falls flat, I'll spare her; if it falls point in the earth, I'll kill her. I took a good swing with it, and shied it up. It fell point in the earth. I went and shot her. It was a bad job, but I did it. I did it, as they said I did it at the trial. I hope the Lord will have mercy on me. I wish my mother to have my old clothes. I have no more to say."
In the happier days of her life, Magdalen would have passed over the narrative of the execution, and the printed confession which accompanied it unread; the subject would have failed to attract her. She read the horrible story now—read it with an interest unintelligible to herself. Her attention, which had wandered over higher and better things, followed every sentence of the murderer's hideously direct confession from beginning to end. If the man or the woman had been known to her, if the place had been familiar to her memory, she could hardly have followed the narrative more closely, or have felt a more distinct impression of it left on her mind. She laid down the paper, wondering at herself; she took it up once more, and tried to read some other portion of the contents. The effort was useless; her attention wandered again. She threw the paper away, and went out into the garden. The night was dark; the stars were few and faint. She could just see the gravel-walk—she could just pace backward and forward between the house door and the gate.