The confession in the newspaper had taken a fearful hold on her mind. As she paced the walk, the black night opened over the sea, and showed her the murderer in the field hurling the Spud of the plow into the air. She ran, shuddering, back to the house. The murderer followed her into the parlor. She seized the candle and went up into her room. The vision of her own distempered fancy followed her to the place where the laudanum was hidden, and vanished there.
It was midnight, and there was no sign yet of the captain's return.
She took from the writing-case the long letter which she had written to Norah, and slowly read it through. The letter quieted her. When she reached the blank space left at the end, she hurriedly turned back and began it over again.
One o'clock struck from the church clock, and still the captain never appeared.
She read the letter for the second time; she turned back obstinately, despairingly, and began it for the third time. As she once more reached the last page, she looked at her watch. It was a quarter to two. She had just put the watch back in the belt of her dress, when there came to her—far off in the stillness of the morning—a sound of wheels.
She dropped the letter and clasped her cold hands in her lap and listened. The sound came on, faster and faster, nearer and nearer—the trivial sound to all other ears; the sound of Doom to hers. It passed the side of the house; it traveled a little further on; it stopped. She heard a loud knocking—then the opening of a window—then voices—then a long silence—than the wheels again coming back—then the opening of the door below, and the sound of the captain's voice in the passage.
She could endure it no longer. She opened her door a little way and called to him.
He ran upstairs instantly, astonish ed that she was not in bed. She spoke to him through the narrow opening of the door, keeping herself hidden behind it, for she was afraid to let him see her face.
"Has anything gone wrong?" she asked.
"Make your mind easy," he answered. "Nothing has gone wrong."
"Is no accident likely to happen between this and Monday?"
"None whatever. The marriage is a certainty."
She put her hand out through the door. He took it with some little surprise; it was not often in his experience that she gave him her hand of her own accord.
"You have sat up too long," he said, as he felt the clasp of her cold fingers. "I am afraid you will have a bad night—I'm afraid you will not sleep."
She softly closed the door.
"I shall sleep," she said, "sounder than you think for."
It was past two o'clock when she shut herself up alone in her room. Her chair stood in its customary place by the toilet-table. She sat down for a few minutes thoughtfully, then opened her letter to Norah, and turned to the end where the blank space was left. The last lines written above the space ran thus: "... I have laid my whole heart bare to you; I have hidden nothing. It has come to this. The end I have toiled for, at such terrible cost to myself, is an end which I must reach or die. It is wickedness, madness, what you will—but it is so. There are now two journeys before me to choose between. If I can marry him—the journey to the church. If the profanation of myself is more than I can bear—the journey to the grave!"
Under that last sentence, she wrote these lines:
"My choice is made. If the cruel law will let you, lay me with my father and mother in the churchyard at home. Farewell, my love! Be always innocent; be always happy. If Frank ever asks about me, say I died forgiving him. Don't grieve long for me, Norah—I am not worth it."
She sealed the letter, and addressed it to her sister. The tears gathered in her eyes as she laid it on the table. She waited until her sight was clear again, and then took the banknotes once more from the little bag in her bosom. After wrapping them in a sheet of note paper, she wrote Captain Wragge's name on the inclosure, and added these words below it: "Lock the door of my room, and leave me till my sister comes. The money I promised you is in this. You are not to blame; it is my fault, and mine only. If you have any friendly remembrance of me, be kind to your wife for my sake."
After placing the inclosure by the letter to Norah, she rose and looked round the room. Some few little things in it were not in their places. She set them in order, and drew the curtains on either side at the head of her bed. Her own dress was the next object of her scrutiny. It was all as neat, as pure, as prettily arranged as ever. Nothing about her was disordered but her hair. Some tresses had fallen loose on one side of her head; she carefully put them back in their places with the help of her glass. "How pale I look!" she thought, with a faint smile. "Shall I be paler still when they find me in the morning?"
She went straight to the place where the laudanum was hidden, and took it out. The bottle was so small that it lay easily in the palm of her hand. She let it remain there for a little while, and stood looking at it.
"DEATH!" she said. "In this drop of brown drink—DEATH!"
As the words passed her lips, an agony of unutterable horror seized on her in an instant. She crossed the room unsteadily, with a maddening confusion in her head, with a suffocating anguish at her heart. She caught at the table to support herself. The faint clink of the bottle, as it fell harmlessly from her loosened grasp and rolled against some porcelain object on the table, struck through her brain like the stroke of a knife. The sound of her own voice, sunk to a whisper—her voice only uttering that one word, Death—rushed in her ears like the rushing of a wind. She dragged herself to the bedside, and rested her head against it, sitting on the floor. "Oh, my life! my life!" she thought; "what is my life worth, that I cling to it like this?"
An interval passed, and she felt her strength returning. She raised herself on her knees and hid her face on the bed. She tried to pray—to pray to be forgiven for seeking the refuge of death. Frantic words burst from her lips—words which would have risen to cries, if she had not stifled them in the bed-clothes. She started to her feet; despair strengthened her with a headlong fury against herself. In one moment she was back at the table; in another, the poison was once more in her hand.
She removed the cork and lifted the bottle to her mouth.
At the first cold touch of the glass on her lips, her strong young life leaped up in her leaping blood, and fought with the whole frenzy of its loathing against the close terror of Death. Every active power in the exuberant vital force that was in her rose in revolt against the destruction which her own will would fain have wreaked on her own life. She paused: for the second time, she paused in spite of herself. There, in the glorious perfection of her youth and health—there, trembling on the verge of human existence, she stood; with the kiss of the Destroyer close at her lips, and Nature, faithful to its sacred trust, fighting for the salvation of her to the last.
No word passed her lips. Her cheeks flushed deep; her breath came thick and fast. With the poison still in her hand, with the sense that she might faint in another moment, she made for the window, and threw back the curtain that covered it.
The new day had risen. The broad gray dawn flowed in on her, over the quiet eastern sea.
She saw the waters heaving, large and silent, in the misty calm; she felt the fresh breath of the morning flutter cool on her face. Her strength returned; her mind cleared a little. At the sight of the sea, her memory recalled the walk in the garden overnight, and the picture which her distempered fancy had painted on the black void. In thought, she saw the picture again—the murderer hurling the Spud of the plow into the air, and setting the life or death of the woman who had deserted him on the hazard of the falling point. The infection of that terrible superstition seized on her mind as suddenly as the new day had burst on her view. The premise of release which she saw in it from the horror of her own hesitation roused the last energies of her despair. She resolved to end the struggle by setting her life or death on the hazard of a chance.
On what chance?
The sea showed it to her. Dimly distinguishable through the mist, she saw a little fleet of coasting-vessels slowly drifting toward the house, all following the same direction with the favoring set of the tide. In half an hour—perhaps in less—the fleet would have passed her window. The hands of her watch pointed to four o'clock. She seated herself close at the side of the window, with her back toward the quarter from which the vessels were drifting down on her—with the poison placed on the window-sill and the watch on her lap. For one half-hour to come she determined to wait there and count the vessels as they went by. If in that time an even number passed her, the sign given should be a sign to live. If the uneven number prevailed, the end should be Death.
With that final resolution, she rested her head against the window and waited for the ships to pass.
The first came, high, dark and near in the mist, gliding silently over the silent sea. An interval—and the second followed, with the third close after it. Another interval, longer and longer drawn out—and nothing passed. She looked at her watch. Twelve minutes, and three ships. Three.
The fourth came, slower than the rest, larger than the rest, further off in the mist than the rest. The interval followed; a long interval once more. Then the next vessel passed, darkest and nearest of all. Five. The next uneven number—
She looked at her watch again. Nineteen minutes, and five ships. Twenty minutes. Twenty-one, two, three—and no sixth vessel. Twenty-four, and the sixth came by. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight, and the next uneven number—the fatal Seven—glided into view. Two minutes to the end of the half-hour. And seven ships.
Twenty-nine, and nothing followed in the wake of the seventh ship. The minute-hand of the watch moved on half-way to thirty, and still the white heaving sea was a misty blank. Without moving her head from the window, she took the poison in one hand, and raised the watch in the other. As the quick seconds counted each other out, her eyes, as quick as they, looked from the watch to the sea, from the sea to the watch—looked for the last time at the sea—and saw the EIGHTH ship.
She never moved, she never spoke. The death of thought, the death of feeling, seemed to have come to her already. She put back the poison mechanically on the ledge of the window and watched, as in a dream, the ship gliding smoothly on its silent way—gliding till it melted dimly into shadow—gliding till it was lost in the mist.
The strain on her mind relaxed when the Messenger of Life had passed from her sight.
"Providence?" she whispered faintly to herself. "Or chance?"
Her eyes closed, and her head fell back. When the sense of life returned to her, the morning sun was warm on her face—the blue heaven looked down on her—and the sea was a sea of gold.
She fell on her knees at the window and burst into tears.
* * * * *
Toward noon that day, the captain, waiting below stairs, and hearing no movement in Magdalen's room, felt uneasy at the long silence. He desired the new maid to follow him upstairs, and, pointing to the door, told her to go in softly and see whether her mistress was awake.
The maid entered the room, remained there a moment, and came out again, closing the door gently.
"She looks beautiful, sir," said the girl; "and she's sleeping as quietly as a new-born child."
THE morning of her husband's return to North Shingles was a morning memorable forever in the domestic calendar of Mrs. Wragge. She dated from that occasion the first announcement which reached her of Magdalen's marriage.
It had been Mrs. Wragge's earthly lot to pass her life in a state of perpetual surprise. Never yet, however, had she wandered in such a maze of astonishment as the maze in which she lost herself when the captain coolly told her the truth. She had been sharp enough to suspect Mr. Noel Vanstone of coming to the house in the character of a sweetheart on approval; and she had dimly interpreted certain expressions of impatience which had fallen from Magdalen's lips as boding ill for the success of his suit, but her utmost penetration had never reached as far as a suspicion of the impending marriage. She rose from one climax of amazement to another, as her husband proceeded with his disclosure. A wedding in the family at a day's notice! and that wedding Magdalen's! and not a single new dress ordered for anybody, the bride included! and the Oriental Cashmere Robe totally unavailable on the occasion when she might have worn it to the greatest advantage! Mrs. Wragge dropped crookedly into a chair, and beat her disorderly hands on her unsymmetrical knees, in utter forgetfulness of the captain's presence and the captain's terrible eye. It would not have surprised her to hear that the world had come to an end, and that the only mortal whom Destiny had overlooked, in winding up the affairs of this earthly planet, was herself!
Leaving his wife to recover her composure by her own unaided efforts, Captain Wragge withdrew to wait for Magdalen's appearance in the lower regions of the house. It was close on one o'clock before the sound of footsteps in the room above warned him that she was awake and stirring. He called at once for the maid (whose name he had ascertained to be Louisa), and sent her upstairs to her mistress for the second time.
Magdalen was standing by her dressing-table when a faint tap at the door suddenly roused her. The tap was followed by the sound of a meek voice, which announced itself as the voice of "her maid," and inquired if Miss Bygrave needed any assistance that morning.
"Not at present," said Magdalen, as soon as she had recovered the surprise of finding herself unexpectedly provided with an attendant. "I will ring when I want you."
After dismissing the woman with that answer, she accidentally looked from the door to the window. Any speculations on the subject of the new servant in which she might otherwise have engaged were instantly suspended by the sight of the bottle of laudanum, still standing on the ledge of the window, where she had left it at sunrise. She took it once more in her hand, with a strange confusion of feeling—with a vague doubt even yet, whether the sight of it reminded her of a terrible reality or a terrible dream. Her first impulse was to rid herself of it on the spot. She raised the bottle to throw the contents out of the window, and paused, in sudden distrust of the impulse that had come to her. "I have accepted my new life," she thought. "How do I know what that life may have in store for me?" She turned from the window and went back to the table. "I may be forced to drink it yet," she said, and put the laudanum into her dressing-case.
Her mind was not at ease when she had done this: there seemed to be some indefinable ingratitude in the act. Still she made no attempt to remove the bottle from its hiding-place. She hurried on her toilet; she hastened the time when she could ring for the maid, and forget herself and her waking thoughts in a new subject. After touching the bell, she took from the table her letter to Norah and her letter to the captain, put them both into her dressing-case with the laudanum, and locked it securely with the key which she kept attached to her watch-chain.
Magdalen's first impression of her attendant was not an agreeable one. She could not investigate the girl with the experienced eye of the landlady at the London hotel, who had characterized the stranger as a young person overtaken by misfortune, and who had showed plainly, by her look and manner, of what nature she suspected that misfortune to be. But with this drawback, Magdalen was perfectly competent to detect the tokens of sickness and sorrow lurking under the surface of the new maid's activity and politeness. She suspected the girl was ill-tempered; she disliked her name; and she was indisposed to welcome any servant who had been engaged by Noel Vanstone. But after the first few minutes, "Louisa" grew on her liking. She answered all the questions put to her with perfect directness; she appeared to understand her duties thoroughly; and she never spoke until she was spoken to first. After making all the inquiries that occurred to her at the time, and after determining to give the maid a fair trial, Magdalen rose to leave the room. The very air in it was still heavy to her with the oppression of the past night.
"Have you anything more to say to me?" she asked, turning to the servant, with her hand on the door.
"I beg your pardon, miss," said Louisa, very respectfully and very quietly. "I think my master told me that the marriage was to be to-morrow?"
Magdalen repressed the shudder that stole over her at that reference to the marriage on the lips of a stranger, and answered in the affirmative.
"It's a very short time, miss, to prepare in. If you would be so kind as to give me my orders about the packing before you go downstairs—?"
"There are no such preparations to make as you suppose," said Magdalen, hastily. "The few things I have here can be all packed at once, if you like. I shall wear the same dress to-morrow which I have on to-day. Leave out the straw bonnet and the light shawl, and put everything else into my boxes. I have no new dresses to pack; I have nothing ordered for the occasion of any sort." She tried to add some commonplace phrases of explanation, accounting as probably as might be for the absence of the usual wedding outfit and wedding-dress. But no further reference to the marriage would pass her lips, and without an other word she abruptly left the room.
The meek and melancholy Louisa stood lost in astonishment. "Something wrong here," she thought. "I'm half afraid of my new place already." She sighed resignedly, shook her head, and went to the wardrobe. She first examined the drawers underneath, took out the various articles of linen laid inside, and placed them on chairs. Opening the upper part of the wardrobe next, she ranged the dresses in it side by side on the bed. Her last proceeding was to push the empty boxes into the middle of the room, and to compare the space at her disposal with the articles of dress which she had to pack. She completed her preliminary calculations with the ready self-reliance of a woman who thoroughly understood her business, and began the packing forthwith. Just as she had placed the first article of linen in the smaller box, the door of the room opened, and the house-servant, eager for gossip, came in.
"What do you want?" asked Louisa, quietly.
"Did you ever hear of anything like this!" said the house-servant, entering on her subject immediately.
"Like this marriage, to be sure. You're London bred, they tell me. Did you ever hear of a young lady being married without a single new thing to her back? No wedding veil, and no wedding breakfast, and no wedding favors for the servants. It's flying in the face of Providence—that's what I say. I'm only a poor servant, I know. But it's wicked, downright wicked—and I don't care who hears me!"
Louisa went on with the packing.
"Look at her dresses!" persisted the house-servant, waving her hand indignantly at the bed. "I'm only a poor girl, but I wouldn't marry the best man alive without a new gown to my back. Look here! look at this dowdy brown thing here. Alpaca! You're not going to pack this Alpaca thing, are you? Why, it's hardly fit for a servant! I don't know that I'd take a gift of it if it was offered me. It would do for me if I took it up in the skirt, and let it out in the waist—and it wouldn't look so bad with a bit of bright trimming, would it?"
"Let that dress alone, if you please," said Louisa, as quietly as ever.
"What did you say?" inquired the other, doubting whether her ears had not deceived her.
"I said, let that dress alone. It belongs to my mistress, and I have my mistress's orders to pack up everything in the room. You are not helping me by coming here—you are very much in my way."
"Well!" said the house-servant, "you may be London bred, as they say. But if these are your London manners, give me Suffolk!" She opened the door with an angry snatch at the handle, shut it violently, opened it again, and looked in. "Give me Suffolk!" said the house-servant, with a parting nod of her head to point the edge of her sarcasm.
Louisa proceeded impenetrably with her packing up.
Having neatly disposed of the linen in the smaller box, she turned her attention to the dresses next. After passing them carefully in review, to ascertain which was the least valuable of the collection, and to place that one at the bottom of the trunk for the rest to lie on, she made her choice with very little difficulty. The first gown which she put into the box was—the brown Alpaca dress.
Meanwhile Magdalen had joined the captain downstairs. Although he could not fail to notice the languor in her face and the listlessness of all her movements, he was relieved to find that she met him with perfect composure. She was even self-possessed enough to ask him for news of his journey, with no other signs of agitation than a passing change of color and a little trembling of the lips.
"So much for the past," said Captain Wragge, when his narrative of the expedition to London by way of St. Crux had come to an end. "Now for the present. The bridegroom—"
"If it makes no difference," she interposed, "call him Mr. Noel Vanstone."
"With all my heart. Mr. Noel Vanstone is coming here this afternoon to dine and spend the evening. He will be tiresome in the last degree; but, like all tiresome people, he is not to be got rid of on any terms. Before he comes, I have a last word or two of caution for your private ear. By this time to-morrow we shall have parted—without any certain knowledge, on either side, of our ever meeting again. I am anxious to serve your interests faithfully to the last; I am anxious you should feel that I have done all I could for your future security when we say good-by."
Magdalen looked at him in surprise. He spoke in altered tones. He was agitated; he was strangely in earnest. Something in his look and manner took her memory back to the first night at Aldborough, when she had opened her mind to him in the darkening solitude—when they two had sat together alone on the slope of the martello tower. "I have no reason to think otherwise than kindly of you," she said.
Captain Wragge suddenly left his chair, and took a turn backward and forward in the room. Magdalen's last words seemed to have produced some extraordinary disturbance in him.
"Damn it!" he broke out; "I can't let you say that. You have reason to think ill of me. I have cheated you. You never got your fair share of profit from the Entertainment, from first to last. There! now the murder's out!"
Magdalen smiled, and signed to him to come back to his chair.
"I know you cheated me," she said, quietly. "You were in the exercise of your profession, Captain Wragge. I expected it when I joined you. I made no complaint at the time, and I make none now. If the money you took is any recompense for all the trouble I have given you, you are heartily welcome to it."
"Will you shake hands on that?" asked the captain, with an awkwardness and hesitation strongly at variance with his customary ease of manner.
Magdalen gave him her hand. He wrung it hard. "You are a strange girl," he said, trying to speak lightly. "You have laid a hold on me that I don't quite understand. I'm half uncomfortable at taking the money from you now; and yet you don't want it, do you?" He hesitated. "I almost wish," he said, "I had never met you on the Walls of York."
"It is too late to wish that, Captain Wragge. Say no more. You only distress me—say no more. We have other subjects to talk about. What were those words of caution which you had for my private ear?"
The captain took another turn in the room, and struggled back again into his every-day character. He produced from his pocketbook Mrs. Lecount's letter to her master, and handed it to Magdalen.
"There is the letter that might have ruined us if it had ever reached its address," he said. "Read it carefully. I have a question to ask you when you have done."
Magdalen read the letter. "What is this proof," she inquired, "which Mrs. Lecount relies on so confidently!"
"The very question I was going to ask you," said Captain Wragge. "Consult your memory of what happened when you tried that experiment in Vauxhall Walk. Did Mrs. Lecount get no other chance against you than the chances you have told me of already?"
"She discovered that my face was disguised, and she heard me speak in my own voice."
"And nothing more?"
"Very good. Then my interpretation of the letter is clearly the right one. The proof Mrs. Lecount relies on is my wife's infernal ghost story—which is, in plain English, the story of Miss Bygrave having been seen in Miss Vanstone's disguise; the witness being the very person who is afterward presented at Aldborough in the character of Miss Bygrave's aunt. An excellent chance for Mrs. Lecount, if she can only lay her hand at the right time on Mrs. Wragge, and no chance at all, if she can't. Make your mind easy on that point. Mrs. Lecount and my wife have seen the last of each other. In the meantime, don't neglect the warning I give you, in giving you this letter. Tear it up, for fear of accidents, but don't forget it."
"Trust me to remember it," replied Magdalen, destroying the letter while she spoke. "Have you anything more to tell me?"
"I have some information to give you," said Captain Wragge, "which may be useful, because it relates to your future security. Mind, I want to know nothing about your proceedings when to-morrow is over; we settled that when we first discussed this matter. I ask no questions, and I make no guesses. All I want to do now is to warn you of your legal position after your marriage, and to leave you to make what use you please of your knowledge, at your own sole discretion. I took a lawyer's opinion on the point when I was in London, thinking it might be useful to you."
"It is sure to be useful. What did the lawyer say?"
"To put it plainly, this is what he said. If Mr. Noel Vanstone ever discovers that you have knowingly married him under a false name, he can apply to the Ecclesiastical Court to have his marriage declared null and void. The issue of the application would rest with the judges. But if he could prove that he had been intentionally deceived, the legal opinion is that his case would be a strong one."
"Suppose I chose to apply on my side?" said Magdalen, eagerly. "What then?"
"You might make the application," replied the captain. "But remember one thing—you would come into Court with the acknowledgment of your own deception. I leave you to imagine what the judges would think of that."
"Did the lawyer tell you anything else?"
"One thing besides," said Captain Wragge. "Whatever the law might do with the marriage in the lifetime of both the parties to it—on the death of either one of them, no application made by the survivor would avail; and, as to the case of that survivor, the marriage would remain valid. You understand? If he dies, or if you die—and if no application has been made to the Court—he the survivor, or you the survivor, would have no power of disputing the marriage. But in the lifetime of both of you, if he claimed to have the marriage dissolved, the chances are all in favor of his carrying his point."
He looked at Magdalen with a furtive curiosity as he said those words. She turned her head aside, absently tying her watch-chain into a loop and untying it again, evidently thinking with the closest attention over what he had last said to her. Captain Wragge walked uneasily to the window and looked out. The first object that caught his eye was Mr. Noel Vanstone approaching from Sea View. He returned instantly to his former place in the room, and addressed himself to Magdalen once more.
"Here is Mr. Noel Vanstone," he said. "One last caution before he comes in. Be on your guard with him about your age. He put the question to me before he got the License. I took the shortest way out of the difficulty, and told him you were twenty-one, and he made the declaration accordingly. Never mind about me; after to-morrow I am invisible. But, in your own interests, don't forget, if the subject turns up, that you were of age when you were married. There is nothing more. You are provided with every necessary warning that I can give you. Whatever happens in the future, remember I have done my best."
He hurried to the door without waiting for an answer, and went out into the garden to receive his guest.
Noel Vanstone made his appearance at the gate, solemnly carrying his bridal offering to North Shingles with both hands. The object in question was an ancient casket (one of his father's bargains); inside the casket reposed an old-fashioned carbuncle brooch, set in silver (another of his father's bargains)—bridal presents both, possessing the inestimable merit of leaving his money undisturbed in his pocket. He shook his head portentously when the captain inquired after his health and spirits. He had passed a wakeful night; ungovernable apprehensions of Lecount's sudden re-appearance had beset him as soon as he found himself alone at Sea View. Sea View was redolent of Lecount: Sea View (though built on piles, and the strongest house in England) was henceforth odious to him. He had felt this all night; he had also felt his responsibilities. There was the lady's maid, to begin with. Now he had hired her, he began to think she wouldn't do. She might fall sick on his hands; she might have deceived him by a false character; she and the landlady of the hotel might have been in league together. Horrible! Really horrible to think of. Then there was the other responsibility—perhaps the heavier of the two—the responsibility of deciding where he was to go and spend his honeymoon to-morrow. He would have preferred one of his father's empty houses: But except at Vauxhall Walk (which he supposed would be objected to), and at Aldborough (which was of course out of the question) all the houses were let. He would put himself in Mr. Bygrave's hands. Where had Mr. Bygrave spent his own honeymoon? Given the British Islands to choose from, where would Mr. Bygrave pitch his tent, on a careful review of all the circumstances?
At this point the bridegroom's questions suddenly came to an end, and the bridegroom's face exhibited an expression of ungovernable astonishment. His judicious friend, whose advice had been at his disposal in every other emergency, suddenly turned round on him, in the emergency of the honeymoon, and flatly declined discussing the subject.
"No!" said the captain, as Noel Vanstone opened his lips to plead for a hearing, "you must really excuse me. My point of view in this matter is, as usual, a peculiar one. For some time past I have been living in an atmosphere of deception, to suit your convenience. That atmosphere, my good sir, is getting close; my Moral Being requires ventilation. Settle the choice of a locality with my niece, and leave me, at my particular request, in total ignorance of the subject. Mrs. Lecount is certain to come here on her return from Zurich, and is certain to ask me where you are gone. You may think it strange, Mr. Vanstone; but when I tell her I don't know, I wish to enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of feeling, for once in a way, that I am speaking the truth!"
With those words, he opened the sitting-room door, introduced Noel Vanstone to Magdalen's presence, bowed himself out of the room again, and set forth alone to while away the rest of the afternoon by taking a walk. His face showed plain tokens of anxiety, and his party-colored eyes looked hither and thither distrustfully, as he sauntered along the shore. "The time hangs heavy on our hands," thought the captain. "I wish to-morrow was come and gone."
The day passed and nothing happened; the evening and the night followed, placidly and uneventfully. Monday came, a cloudless, lovely day; Monday confirmed the captain's assertion that the marriage was a certainty. Toward ten o'clock, the clerk, ascending the church steps quoted the old proverb to the pew-opener, meeting him under the porch: "Happy the bride on whom the sun shines!"
In a quarter of an hour more the wedding-party was in the vestry, and the clergyman led the way to the altar. Carefully as the secret of the marriage had been kept, the opening of the church in the morning had been enough to betray it. A small congregation, almost entirely composed of women, were scattered here and there among the pews. Kirke's sister and her children were staying with a friend at Aldborough, and Kirke's sister was one of the congregation.
As the wedding-party entered the church, the haunting terror of Mrs. Lecount spread from Noel Vanstone to the captain. For the first few minutes, the eyes of both of them looked among the women in the pews with the same searching scrutiny, and looked away again with the same sense of relief. The clergyman noticed that look, and investigated the License more closely than usual. The clerk began to doubt privately whether the old proverb about the bride was a proverb to be always depended on. The female members of the congregation murmured among themselves at the inexcusable disregard of appearances implied in the bride's dress. Kirke's sister whispered venomously in her friend's ear, "Thank God for to-day for Robert's sake." Mrs. Wragge cried silently, with the dread of some threatening calamity she knew not what. The one person present who remained outwardly undisturbed was Magdalen herself. She stood, with tearless resignation, in her place before the altar—stood, as if all the sources of human emotion were frozen up within her.
The clergyman opened the Book.
* * * * *
It was done. The awful words which speak from earth to Heaven were pronounced. The children of the two dead brothers—inheritors of the implacable enmity which had parted their parents—were Man and Wife.
From that moment events hurried with a headlong rapidity to the parting scene. They were back at the house while the words of the Marriage Service seemed still ringing in their ears. Before they had been five minutes indoors the carriage drew up at the garden gate. In a minute more the opportunity came for which Magdalen and the captain had been on the watch—the opportunity of speaking together in private for the last time. She still preserved her icy resignation; she seemed beyond all reach now of the fear that had once mastered her, of the remorse that had once tortured her soul. With a firm hand she gave him the promised money. With a firm face she looked her last at him. "I'm not to blame," he whispered, eagerly; "I have only done what you asked me." She bowed her head; she bent it toward him kindly and let him touch her fore-head with his lips. "Take care!" he said. "My last words are—for God's sake take care when I'm gone!" She turned from him with a smile, and spoke her farewell words to his wife. Mrs. Wragge tried hard to face her loss bravely—the loss of the friend whose presence had fallen like light from Heaven over the dim pathway of her life. "You have been very good to me, my dear; I thank you kindly; I thank you with all my heart." She could say no more; she clung to Magdalen in a passion of tears, as her mother might have clung to her, if her mother had lived to see that horrible day. "I'm frightened for you!" cried the poor creature, in a wild, wailing voice. "Oh, my darling, I'm frightened for you!" Magdalen desperately drew herself free—kissed her—and hurried out to the door. The expression of that artless gratitude, the cry of that guileless love, shook her as nothing else had shaken her that day. It was a refuge to get to the carriage—a refuge, though the man she had married stood there waiting for her at the door.
Mrs. Wragge tried to follow her into the garden. But the captain had seen Magdalen's face as she ran out, and he steadily held his wife back in the passage. From that distance the last farewells were exchanged. As long as the carriage was in sight, Magdalen looked back at them; she waved her handkerchief as she turned the corner. In a moment more the last thread which bound her to them was broken; the familiar companionship of many months was a thing of the past already!
Captain Wragge closed the house door on the idlers who were looking in from the Parade. He led his wife back into the sitting-room, and spoke to her with a forbearance which she had never yet experienced from him.
"She has gone her way," he said, "and in another hour we shall have gone ours. Cry your cry out—I don't deny she's worth crying for."
Even then—even when the dread of Magdalen's future was at its darkest in his mind—the ruling habit of the man's life clung to him. Mechanically he unlocked his dispatch-box. Mechanically he opened his Book of Accounts, and made the closing entry—the entry of his last transaction with Magdalen—in black and white. "By Rec'd from Miss Vanstone," wrote the captain, with a gloomy brow, "Two hundred pounds."
"You won't be angry with me?" said Mrs. Wragge, looking timidly at her husband through her tears. "I want a word of comfort, captain. Oh, do tell me, when shall I see her again?"
The captain closed the book, and answered in one inexorable word: "Never!"
Between eleven and twelve o'clock that night Mrs. Lecount drove into Zurich.
Her brother's house, when she stopped before it, was shut up. With some difficulty and delay the servant was aroused. She held up her hands in speechless amazement when she opened the door and saw who the visitor was.
"Is my brother alive?" asked Mrs. Lecount, entering the house.
"Alive!" echoed the servant. "He has gone holiday-making into the country, to finish his recovery in the fine fresh air."
The housekeeper staggered back against the wall of the passage. The coachman and the servant put her into a chair. Her face was livid, and her teeth chattered in her head.
"Send for my brother's doctor," she said, as soon as she could speak.
The doctor came. She handed him a letter before he could say a word.
"Did you write that letter?"
He looked it over rapidly, and answered her without hesitation,
"It is your handwriting."
"It is a forgery of my handwriting."
She rose from the chair with a new strength in her.
"When does the return mail start for Paris?" she asked.
"In half an hour."
"Send instantly and take me a place in it!"
The servant hesitated, the doctor protested. She turned a deaf ear to them both.
"Send!" she reiterated, "or I will go myself."
They obeyed. The servant went to take the place: the doctor remained and held a conversation with Mrs. Lecount. When the half-hour had passed, he helped her into her place in the mail, and charged the conductor privately to take care of his passenger.
"She has traveled from England without stopping," said the doctor; "and she is traveling back again without rest. Be careful of her, or she will break down under the double journey."
The mail started. Before the first hour of the new day was at an end Mrs. Lecount was on her way back to England.
THE END OF THE FOURTH SCENE.
BETWEEN THE SCENES.
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
From George Bartram to Noel Vanstone.
"St. Crux, September 4th, 1847.
"MY DEAR NOEL—Here are two plain questions at starting. In the name of all that is mysterious, what are you hiding for? And why is everything relating to your marriage kept an impenetrable secret from your oldest friends?
"I have been to Aldborough to try if I could trace you from that place, and have come back as wise as I went. I have applied to your lawyer in London, and have been told, in reply, that you have forbidden him to disclose the place of your retreat to any one without first receiving your permission to do so. All I could prevail on him to say was, that he would forward any letter which might be sent to his care. I write accordingly, and mind this, I expect an answer.
"You may ask, in your ill-tempered way, what business I have to meddle with affairs of yours which it is your pleasure to keep private. My dear Noel, there is a serious reason for our opening communications with you from this house. You don't know what events have taken place at St. Crux since you ran away to get married; and though I detest writing letters, I must lose an hour's shooting to-day in trying to enlighten you.
"On the twenty-third of last month, the admiral and I were disturbed over our wine after dinner by the announcement that a visitor had unexpectedly arrived at St. Crux. Who do you think the visitor was? Mrs. Lecount!
"My uncle, with that old-fashioned bachelor gallantry of his which pays equal respect to all wearers of petticoats, left the table directly to welcome Mrs. Lecount. While I was debating whether I should follow him or not, my meditations were suddenly brought to an end by a loud call from the admiral. I ran into the morning-room, and there was your unfortunate housekeeper on the sofa, with all the women servants about her, more dead than alive. She had traveled from England to Zurich, and from Zurich back again to England, without stopping; and she looked, seriously and literally, at death's door. I immediately agreed with my uncle that the first thing to be done was to send for medical help. We dispatched a groom on the spot, and, at Mrs. Lecount's own request, sent all the servants in a body out of the room.
"As soon as we were alone, Mrs. Lecount surprised us by a singular question. She asked if you had received a letter which she had addressed to you before leaving England at this house. When we told her that the letter had been forwarded, under cover to your friend Mr. Bygrave, by your own particular request, she turned as pale as ashes; and when we added that you had left us in company with this same Mr. Bygrave, she clasped her hands and stared at us as if she had taken leave of her senses. Her next question was, 'Where is Mr. Noel now?' We could only give her one reply—Mr. Noel had not informed us. She looked perfectly thunderstruck at that answer. 'He has gone to his ruin!' she said. 'He has gone away in company with the greatest villain in England. I must find him! I tell you I must find Mr. Noel! If I don't find him at once, it will be too late. He will be married!' she burst out quite frantically. 'On my honor and my oath, he will be married!' The admiral, incautiously perhaps, but with the best intentions, told her you were married already. She gave a scream that made the windows ring again and dropped back on the sofa in a fainting-fit. The doctor came in the nick of time, and soon brought her to. But she was taken ill the same night; she has grown worse and worse ever since; and the last medical report is, that the fever from which she has been suffering is in a fair way to settle on her brain.
"Now, my dear Noel, neither my uncle nor I have any wish to intrude ourselves on your confidence. We are naturally astonished at the extraordinary mystery which hangs over you and your marriage, and we cannot be blind to the fact that your housekeeper has, apparently, some strong reason of her own for viewing Mrs. Noel Vanstone with an enmity and distrust which we are quite ready to believe that lady has done nothing to deserve. Whatever strange misunderstanding there may have been in your household, is your business (if you choose to keep it to yourself), and not ours. All we have any right to do is to tell you what the doctor says. His patient has been delirious; he declines to answer for her life if she goes on as she is going on now; and he thinks—finding that she is perpetually talking of her master—that your presence would be useful in quieting her, if you could come here at once, and exert your influence before it is too late.
"What do you say? Will you emerge from the darkness that surrounds you and come to St. Crux? If this was the case of an ordinary servant, I could understand your hesitating to leave the delights of your honeymoon for any such object as is here proposed to you. But, my dear fellow, Mrs. Lecount is not an ordinary servant. You are under obligations to her fidelity and attachment in your father's time, as well as in your own; and if you can quiet the anxieties which seem to be driving this unfortunate woman mad, I really think you ought to come here and do so. Your leaving Mrs. Noel Vanstone is of course out of the question. There is no necessity for any such hard-hearted proceeding. The admiral desires me to remind you that he is your oldest friend living, and that his house is at your wife's disposal, as it has always been at yours. In this great rambling-place she need dread no near association with the sick-room; and, with all my uncle's oddities, I am sure she will not think the offer of his friendship an offer to be despised.
"Have I told you already that I went to Aldborough to try and find a clew to your whereabouts? I can't be at the trouble of looking back to see; so, if I have told you, I tell you again. The truth is, I made an acquaintance at Aldborough of whom you know something—at least by report.
"After applying vainly at Sea View, I went to the hotel to inquire about you. The landlady could give me no information; but the moment I mentioned your name, she asked if I was related to you; and when I told her I was your cousin, she said there was a young lady then at the hotel whose name was Vanstone also, who was in great distress about a missing relative, and who might prove of some use to me—or I to her—if we knew of each other's errand at Aldborough. I had not the least idea who she was, but I sent in my card at a venture; and in five minutes afterward I found myself in the presence of one of the most charming women these eyes ever looked on.
"Our first words of explanation informed me that my family name was known to her by repute. Who do you think she was? The eldest daughter of my uncle and yours—Andrew Vanstone. I had often heard my poor mother in past years speak of her brother Andrew, and I knew of that sad story at Combe-Raven. But our families, as you are aware, had always been estranged, and I had never seen my charming cousin before. She has the dark eyes and hair, and the gentle, retiring manners that I always admire in a woman. I don't want to renew our old disagreement about your father's conduct to those two sisters, or to deny that his brother Andrew may have behaved badly to him; I am willing to admit that the high moral position he took in the matter is quite unassailable by such a miserable sinner as I am; and I will not dispute that my own spendthrift habits incapacitate me from offering any opinion on the conduct of other people's pecuniary affairs. But, with all these allowances and drawbacks, I can tell you one thing, Noel. If you ever see the elder Miss Vanstone, I venture to prophesy that, for the first time in your life, you will doubt the propriety of following your father's example.
"She told me her little story, poor thing, most simply and unaffectedly. She is now occupying her second situation as a governess—and, as usual, I, who know everybody, know the family. They are friends of my uncle's, whom he has lost sight of latterly—the Tyrrels of Portland Place—and they treat Miss Vanstone with as much kindness and consideration as if she was a member of the family. One of their old servants accompanied her to Aldborough, her object in traveling to that place being what the landlady of the hotel had stated it to be. The family reverses have, it seems, had a serious effect on Miss Vanstone's younger sister, who has left her friends and who has been missing from home for some time. She had been last heard of at Aldborough; and her elder sister, on her return from the Continent with the Tyrrels, had instantly set out to make inquiries at that place.
"This was all Miss Vanstone told me. She asked whether you had seen anything of her sister, or whether Mrs. Lecount knew anything of her sister—I suppose because she was aware you had been at Aldborough. Of course I could tell her nothing. She entered into no details on the subject, and I could not presume to ask her for any. All I did was to set to work with might and main to assist her inquiries. The attempt was an utter failure; nobody could give us any information. We tried personal description of course; and strange to say, the only young lady formerly staying at Aldborough who answered the description was, of all the people in the world, the lady you have married! If she had not had an uncle and aunt (both of whom have left the place), I should have begun to suspect that you had married your cousin without knowing it! Is this the clew to the mystery? Don't be angry; I must have my little joke, and I can't help writing as carelessly as I talk. The end of it was, our inquiries were all baffled, and I traveled back with Miss Vanstone and her attendant as far as our station here. I think I shall call on the Tyrrels when I am next in London. I have certainly treated that family with the most inexcusable neglect.
"Here I am at the end of my third sheet of note-paper! I don't often take the pen in hand; but when I do, you will agree with me that I am in no hurry to lay it aside again. Treat the rest of my letter as you like, but consider what I have told you about Mrs. Lecount, and remember that time is of consequence.
From Norah Vanstone to Miss Garth.
"MY DEAR MISS GARTH—More sorrow, more disappointment! I have just returned from Aldborough, without making any discovery. Magdalen is still lost to us.
"I cannot attribute this new overthrow of my hopes to any want of perseverance or penetration in making the necessary inquiries. My inexperience in such matters was most kindly and unexpectedly assisted by Mr. George Bartram. By a strange coincidence, he happened to be at Aldborough, inquiring after Mr. Noel Vanstone, at the very time when I was there inquiring aft er Magdalen. He sent in his card, and knowing, when I looked at the name, that he was my cousin—if I may call him so—I thought there would be no impropriety in my seeing him and asking his advice. I abstained from entering into particulars for Magdalen's sake, and I made no allusion to that letter of Mrs. Lecount's which you answered for me. I only told him Magdalen was missing, and had been last heard of at Aldborough. The kindness which he showed in devoting himself to my assistance exceeds all description. He treated me, in my forlorn situation, with a delicacy and respect which I shall remember gratefully long after he has himself perhaps forgotten our meeting altogether. He is quite young—not more than thirty, I should think. In face and figure, he reminded me a little of the portrait of my father at Combe-Raven—I mean the portrait in the dining-room, of my father when he was a young man.
"Useless as our inquiries were, there is one result of them which has left a very strange and shocking impression on my mind.
"It appears that Mr. Noel Vanstone has lately married, under mysterious circumstances, a young lady whom he met with at Aldborough, named Bygrave. He has gone away with his wife, telling nobody but his lawyer where he has gone to. This I heard from Mr. George Bartram, who was endeavoring to trace him, for the purpose of communicating the news of his housekeeper's serious illness—the housekeeper being the same Mrs. Lecount whose letter you answered. So far, you may say, there is nothing which need particularly interest either of us. But I think you will be as much surprised as I was when I tell you that the description given by the people at Aldborough of Miss Bygrave's appearance is most startlingly and unaccountably like the description of Magdalen's appearance. This discovery, taken in connection with all the circumstances we know of, has had an effect on my mind which I cannot describe to you—which I dare not realize to myself. Pray come and see me! I have never felt so wretched about Magdalen as I feel now. Suspense must have weakened my nerves in some strange way. I feel superstitious about the slightest things. This accidental resemblance of a total stranger to Magdalen fills me every now and then with the most horrible misgivings—merely because Mr. Noel Vanstone's name happens to be mixed up with it. Once more, pray come to me; I have so much to say to you that I cannot, and dare not, say in writing.
"Gratefully and affectionately yours,
From Mr. John Loscombe (Solicitor) to George Bartram, Esq.
"Lincoln's Inn, London, September 6th, 1847.
"SIR—I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your note, inclosing a letter addressed to my client, Mr. Noel Vanstone, and requesting that I will forward the same to Mr. Vanstone's present address.
"Since I last had the pleasure of communicating with you on this subject, my position toward my client is entirely altered. Three days ago I received a letter from him, which stated his intention of changing his place of residence on the next day then ensuing, but which left me entirely in ignorance on the subject of the locality to which it was his intention to remove. I have not heard from him since; and, as he had previously drawn on me for a larger sum of money than usual, there would be no present necessity for his writing to me again—assuming that it is his wish to keep his place of residence concealed from every one, myself included.
"Under these circumstances, I think it right to return you your letter, with the assurance that I will let you know, if I happen to be again placed in a position to forward it to its destination.
"Your obedient servant,
From Norah Vanstone to Miss Garth.
"MY DEAR MISS GARTH—Forget the letter I wrote to you yesterday, and all the gloomy forebodings that it contains. This morning's post has brought new life to me. I have just received a letter, addressed to me at your house, and forwarded here, in your absence from home yesterday, by your sister. Can you guess who the writer is?—Magdalen!
"The letter is very short; it seems to have been written in a hurry. She says she has been dreaming of me for some nights past, and the dreams have made her fear that her long silence has caused me more distress on her account than she is worth. She writes, therefore, to assure me that she is safe and well—that she hopes to see me before long—and that she has something to tell me, when we meet, which will try my sisterly love for her as nothing has tried it yet. The letter is not dated; but the postmark is 'Allonby,' which I have found, on referring to the Gazetteer, to be a little sea-side place in Cumberland. There is no hope of my being able to write back, for Magdalen expressly says that she is on the eve of departure from her present residence, and that she is not at liberty to say where she is going to next, or to leave instructions for forwarding any letters after her.
"In happier times I should have thought this letter very far from being a satisfactory one, and I should have been seriously alarmed by that allusion to a future confidence on her part which will try my love for her as nothing has tried it yet. But after all the suspense I have suffered, the happiness of seeing her handwriting again seems to fill my heart and to keep all other feelings out of it. I don't send you her letter, because I know you are coming to me soon, and I want to have the pleasure of seeing you read it.
"Ever affectionately yours,
"P.S.—Mr. George Bartram called on Mrs. Tyrrel to-day. He insisted on being introduced to the children. When he was gone, Mrs. Tyrrel laughed in her good-humored way, and said that his anxiety to see the children looked, to her mind, very much like an anxiety to see me. You may imagine how my spirits are improved when I can occupy my pen in writing such nonsense as this!"
From Mrs. Lecount to Mr. de Bleriot, General Agent, London.
"St. Crux, October 23d, 1847.
"DEAR SIR—I have been long in thanking you for the kind letter which promises me your assistance, in friendly remembrance of the commercial relations formerly existing between my brother and yourself. The truth is, I have over-taxed my strength on my recovery from a long and dangerous illness; and for the last ten days I have been suffering under a relapse. I am now better again, and able to enter on the business which you so kindly offer to undertake for me.
"The person whose present place of abode it is of the utmost importance to me to discover is Mr. Noel Vanstone. I have lived, for many years past, in this gentleman's service as house-keeper; and not having received my formal dismissal, I consider myself in his service still. During my absence on the Continent he was privately married at Aldborough, in Suffolk, on the eighteenth of August last. He left Aldborough the same day, taking his wife with him to some place of retreat which was kept a secret from everybody except his lawyer, Mr. Loscombe, of Lincoln's Inn. After a short time he again removed, on the 4th of September, without informing Mr. Loscombe, on this occasion, of his new place of abode. From that date to this the lawyer has remained (or has pretended to remain) in total ignorance of where he now is. Application has been made to Mr. Loscombe, under the circumstances, to mention what that former place of residence was, of which Mr. Vanstone is known to have informed him. Mr. Loscombe has declined acceding to this request, for want of formal permission to disclose his client's proceedings after leaving Aldborough. I have all these latter particulars from Mr. Loscombe's correspondent—the nephew of the gentleman who owns this house, and whose charity has given me an asylum, during the heavy affliction of my sickness, under his own roof.
"I believe the reasons which have induced Mr. Noel Vanstone to keep himself and his wife in hiding are reasons which relate entirely to myself. In the first p lace, he is aware that the circumstances under which he has married are such as to give me the right of regarding him with a just indignation. In the second place, he knows that my faithful services, rendered through a period of twenty years, to his father and to himself, forbid him, in common decency, to cast me out helpless on the world without a provision for the end of my life. He is the meanest of living men, and his wife is the vilest of living women. As long as he can avoid fulfilling his obligations to me, he will; and his wife's encouragement may be trusted to fortify him in his ingratitude.
"My object in determining to find him out is briefly this. His marriage has exposed him to consequences which a man of ten times his courage could not face without shrinking. Of those consequences he knows nothing. His wife knows, and keeps him in ignorance. I know, and can enlighten him. His security from the danger that threatens him is in my hands alone; and he shall pay the price of his rescue to the last farthing of the debt that justice claims for me as my due—no more, and no less.
"I have now laid my mind before you, as you told me, without reserve. You know why I want to find this man, and what I mean to do when I find him. I leave it to your sympathy for me to answer the serious question that remains: How is the discovery to be made? If a first trace of them can be found, after their departure from Aldborough, I believe careful inquiry will suffice for the rest. The personal appearance of the wife, and the extraordinary contrast between her husband and herself, are certain to be remarked, and remembered, by every stranger who sees them.
"When you favor me with your answer, please address it to 'Care of Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in the-Marsh, near Ossory, Essex'. Your much obliged
From Mr. de Bleriot to Mrs. Lecount.
"Dark's Buildings, Kingsland,
"October 25th, 1847.
"Private and Confidential.
"DEAR MADAM—I hasten to reply to your favor of Saturday's date. Circumstances have enabled me to forward your interests, by consulting a friend of mine possessing great experience in the management of private inquiries of all sorts. I have placed your case before him (without mentioning names); and I am happy to inform you that my views and his views of the proper course to take agree in every particular.
"Both myself and friend, then, are of opinion that little or nothing can be done toward tracing the parties you mention, until the place of their temporary residence after they left Aldborough has been discovered first. If this can be done, the sooner it is done the better. Judging from your letter, some weeks must have passed since the lawyer received his information that they had shifted their quarters. As they are both remarkable-looking people, the strangers who may have assisted them on their travels have probably not forgotten them yet. Nevertheless, expedition is desirable.
"The question for you to consider is, whether they may not possibly have communicated the address of which we stand in need to some other person besides the lawyer. The husband may have written to members of his family, or the wife may have written to members of her family. Both myself and friend are of opinion that the latter chance is the likelier of the two. If you have any means of access in the direction of the wife's family, we strongly recommend you to make use of them. If not, please supply us with the names of any of her near relations or intimate female friends whom you know, and we will endeavor to get access for you.
"In any case, we request you will at once favor us with the most exact personal description that can be written of both the parties. We may require your assistance, in this important particular, at five minutes' notice. Favor us, therefore, with the description by return of post. In the meantime, we will endeavor to ascertain on our side whether any information is to be privately obtained at Mr. Loscombe's office. The lawyer himself is probably altogether beyond our reach. But if any one of his clerks can be advantageously treated with on such terms as may not overtax your pecuniary resources, accept my assurance that the opportunity shall be made the most of by, dear madam, your faithful servant,
"ALFRED DE BLERIOT."
From Mr. Pendril to Norah Vanstone.
"Serle Street, October 27th. 1847.
"MY DEAR MISS VANSTONE—A lady named Lecount (formerly attached to Mr. Noel Vanstone's service in the capacity of housekeeper) has called at my office this morning, and has asked me to furnish her with your address. I have begged her to excuse my immediate compliance with her request, and to favor me with a call to-morrow morning, when I shall be prepared to meet her with a definite answer.
"My hesitation in this matter does not proceed from any distrust of Mrs. Lecount personally, for I know nothing whatever to her prejudice. But in making her request to me, she stated that the object of the desired interview was to speak to you privately on the subject of your sister. Forgive me for acknowledging that I determined to withhold the address as soon as I heard this. You will make allowances for your old friend, and your sincere well-wisher? You will not take it amiss if I express my strong disapproval of your allowing yourself, on any pretense whatever, to be mixed up for the future with your sister's proceedings.
"I will not distress you by saying more than this. But I feel too deep an interest in your welfare, and too sincere an admiration of the patience with which you have borne all your trials, to say less.
"If I cannot prevail on you to follow my advice, you have only to say so, and Mrs. Lecount shall have your address to-morrow. In this case (which I cannot contemplate without the greatest unwillingness), let me at least recommend you to stipulate that Miss Garth shall be present at the interview. In any matter with which your sister is concerned, you may want an old friend's advice, and an old friend's protection against your own generous impulses. If I could have helped you in this way, I would; but Mrs. Lecount gave me indirectly to understand that the subject to be discussed was of too delicate a nature to permit of my presence. Whatever this objection may be really worth, it cannot apply to Miss Garth, who has brought you both up from childhood. I say, again, therefore, if you see Mrs. Lecount, see her in Miss Garth's company.
"Always most truly yours,
From Norah Vanstone to Mr. Pendril.
"Portland Place, Wednesday.
"DEAR MR. PENDRIL—Pray don't think I am ungrateful for your kindness. Indeed, indeed I am not! But I must see Mrs. Lecount. You were not aware when you wrote to me that I had received a few lines from Magdalen—not telling me where she is, but holding out the hope of our meeting before long. Perhaps Mrs. Lecount may have something to say to me on this very subject. Even if it should not be so, my sister—do what she may—is still my sister. I can't desert her; I can't turn my back on any one who comes to me in her name. You know, dear Mr. Pendril, I have always been obstinate on this subject, and you have always borne with me. Let me owe another obligation to you which I can never return, and bear with me still!
"Need I say that I willingly accept that part of your advice which refers to Miss Garth? I have already written to beg that she will come here at four to-morrow afternoon. When you see Mrs. Lecount, please inform her that Miss Garth will be with me, and that she will find us both ready to receive her here to-morrow at four o'clock. Gratefully yours,
From Mr. de Bleriot to Mrs. Lecount.
"Dark's Buildings, October 28th.
"DEAR MADAM—One of Mr. Loscombe's clerks has proved amenable to a small pecuniary consideration, and has mentioned a circumstance which it may be of some importance to you to know.
"Nearly a month since, accident gave the clerk in question an opportunity of looking into one of the documents on his master's table, which had attracted his attention from a slight peculiar ity in the form and color of the paper. He had only time, during Mr. Loscombe's momentary absence, to satisfy his curiosity by looking at the beginning of the document and at the end. At the beginning he saw the customary form used in making a will; at the end he discovered the signature of Mr. Noel Vanstone, with the names of two attesting witnesses, and the date (of which he is quite certain)—the thirtieth of September last.
"Before the clerk had time to make any further investigations, his master returned, sorted the papers on the table, and carefully locked up the will in the strong box devoted to the custody of Mr. Noel Vanstone's documents. It has been ascertained that, at the close of September, Mr. Loscombe was absent from the office. If he was then employed in superintending the execution of his client's will—which is quite possible—it follows clearly that he was in the secret of Mr. Vanstone's address after the removal of the 4th of September; and if you can do nothing on your side, it may be desirable to have the lawyer watched on ours. In any case, it is certainly ascertained that Mr. Noel Vanstone has made his will since his marriage. I leave you to draw your own conclusions from that fact, and remain, in the hope of hearing from you shortly,
"Your faithful servant,
"ALFRED DE BLERIOT."
From Miss Garth to Mr. Pendril.
"Portland Place, October 28th.
"MY DEAR SIR—Mrs. Lecount has just left us. If it was not too late to wish, I should wish, from the bottom of my heart, that Norah had taken your advice, and had refused to see her.
"I write in such distress of mind that I cannot hope to give you a clear and complete account of the interview. I can only tell you briefly what Mrs. Lecount has done, and what our situation now is. The rest must be left until I am more composed, and until I can speak to you personally.
"You will remember my informing you of the letter which Mrs. Lecount addressed to Norah from Aldborough, and which I answered for her in her absence. When Mrs. Lecount made her appearance to-day, her first words announced to us that she had come to renew the subject. As well as I can remember it, this is what she said, addressing herself to Norah:
"'I wrote to you on the subject of your sister, Miss Vanstone, some little time since, and Miss Garth was so good as to answer the letter. What I feared at that time has come true. Your sister has defied all my efforts to check her; she has disappeared in company with my master, Mr. Noel Vanstone; and she is now in a position of danger which may lead to her disgrace and ruin at a moment's notice. It is my interest to recover my master, it is your interest to save your sister. Tell me—for time is precious—have you any news of her?'
"Norah answered, as well as her terror and distress would allow her, 'I have had a letter, but there was no address on it.'
"Mrs. Lecount asked, 'Was there no postmark on the envelope?'
"Norah said, 'Yes; Allonby.'
"'Allonby is better than nothing,' said Mrs. Lecount. 'Allonby may help you to trace her. Where is Allonby?'
"Norah told her. It all passed in a minute. I had been too much confused and startled to interfere before, but I composed myself sufficiently to interfere now.
"'You have entered into no particulars,' I said. 'You have only frightened us—you have told us nothing.'
"'You shall hear the particulars, ma'am,' said Mrs. Lecount; 'and you and Miss Vanstone shall judge for yourselves if I have frightened you without a cause.'
"Upon this, she entered at once upon a long narrative, which I cannot—I might almost say, which I dare not—repeat. You will understand the horror we both felt when I tell you the end. If Mrs. Lecount's statement is to be relied on, Magdalen has carried her mad resolution of recovering her father's fortune to the last and most desperate extremity—she has married Michael Vanstone's son under a false name. Her husband is at this moment still persuaded that her maiden name was Bygrave, and that she is really the niece of a scoundrel who assisted her imposture, and whom I recognize, by the description of him, to have been Captain Wragge.
"I spare you Mrs. Lecount's cool avowal, when she rose to leave us, of her own mercenary motives in wishing to discover her master and to enlighten him. I spare you the hints she dropped of Magdalen's purpose in contracting this infamous marriage. The one aim and object of my letter is to implore you to assist me in quieting Norah's anguish of mind. The shock she has received at hearing this news of her sister is not the worst result of what has happened. She has persuaded herself that the answers she innocently gave, in her distress, to Mrs. Lecount's questions on the subject of her letter—the answers wrung from her under the sudden pressure of confusion and alarm—may be used to Magdalen's prejudice by the woman who purposely startled her into giving the information. I can only prevent her from taking some desperate step on her side—some step by which she may forfeit the friendship and protection of the excellent people with whom she is now living—by reminding her that if Mrs. Lecount traces her master by means of the postmark on the letter, we may trace Magdalen at the same time, and by the same means. Whatever objection you may personally feel to renewing the efforts for the rescue of this miserable girl which failed so lamentably at York, I entreat you, for Norah's sake, to take the same steps now which we took then. Send me the only assurance which will quiet her—the assurance, under your own hand, that the search on our side has begun. If you will do this, you may trust me, when the time comes, to stand between these two sisters, and to defend Norah's peace, character, and future prosperity at any price.
"Most sincerely yours,
From Mrs. Lecount to Mr. de Bleriot.
"DEAR SIR—I have found the trace you wanted. Mrs. Noel Vanstone has written to her sister. The letter contains no address, but the postmark is Allonby, in Cumberland. From Allonby, therefore, the inquiries must begin. You have already in your possession the personal description of both husband and wife. I urgently recommend you not to lose one unnecessary moment. If it is possible to send to Cumberland immediately on receipt of this letter, I beg you will do so.
"I have another word to say before I close my note—a word about the discovery in Mr. Loscombe's office.
"It is no surprise to me to hear that Mr. Noel Vanstone has made his will since his marriage, and I am at no loss to guess in whose favor the will is made. If I succeed in finding my master, let that person get the money if that person can. A course to follow in this matter has presented itself to my mind since I received your letter, but my ignorance of details of business and intricacies of law leaves me still uncertain whether my idea is capable of ready and certain execution. I know no professional person whom I can trust in this delicate and dangerous business. Is your large experience in other matters large enough to help me in this? I will call at your office to-morrow at two o'clock, for the purpose of consulting you on the subject. It is of the greatest importance, when I next see Mr. Noel Vanstone, that he should find me thoroughly prepared beforehand in this matter of the will. Your much obliged servant,
From Mr. Pendril to Miss Garth.
"Serle Street, October 29th.
"DEAR MISS GARTH—I have only a moment to assure you of the sorrow with which I have read your letter. The circumstances under which you urge your request, and the reasons you give for making it, are sufficient to silence any objection I might otherwise feel to the course you propose. A trustworthy person, whom I have myself instructed, will start for Allonby to-day, and as soon as I receive any news from him, you shall hear of it by special messenger. Tell Miss Vanstone this, and pray add the sincere expression of my sympathy and regard.
From Mr. de Bleriot to Mrs. Lecount.
"Dark's Buildings. November 1st.
"DEAR MADAM—I have the pleasure of informing you that the discovery has been made with far less trouble than I had anticipated.
"Mr. and Mrs. Noel Vanstone have been traced across the Solway Firth to Dumfries, and thence to a cottage a few miles from the town, on the banks of the Nith. The exact address is Baliol Cottage, near Dumfries.
"This information, though easily hunted up, has nevertheless been obtained under rather singular circumstances.
"Before leaving Allonby, the persons in my employ discovered, to their surprise, that a stranger was in the place pursuing the same inquiry as themselves. In the absence of any instructions preparing them for such an occurrence as this, they took their own view of the circumstance. Considering the man as an intruder on their business, whose success might deprive them of the credit and reward of making the discovery, they took advantage of their superiority in numbers, and of their being first in the field, and carefully misled the stranger before they ventured any further with their own investigations. I am in possession of the details of their proceedings, with which I need not trouble you. The end is, that this person, whoever he may be, was cleverly turned back southward on a false scent before the men in my employment crossed the Firth.
"I mention the circumstance, as you may be better able than I am to find a clew to it, and as it may possibly be of a nature to induce you to hasten your journey.
"Your faithful servant,
"ALFRED DE BLERIOT."
From Mrs. Lecount to Mr. de Bleriot.
"DEAR SIR—One line to say that your letter has just reached me at my lodging in London. I think I know who sent the strange man to inquire at Allonby. It matters little. Before he finds out his mistake, I shall be at Dumfries. My luggage is packed, and I start for the North by the next train.
"Your deeply obliged
THE FIFTH SCENE
BALIOL COTTAGE, DUMFRIES.
TOWARD eleven o'clock, on the morning of the third of November, the breakfast-table at Baliol Cottage presented that essentially comfortless appearance which is caused by a meal in a state of transition—that is to say, by a meal prepared for two persons, which has been already eaten by one, and which has not yet been approached by the other. It must be a hardy appetite which can contemplate without a momentary discouragement the battered egg-shell, the fish half stripped to a skeleton, the crumbs in the plate, and the dregs in the cup. There is surely a wise submission to those weaknesses in human nature which must be respected and not reproved, in the sympathizing rapidity with which servants in places of public refreshment clear away all signs of the customer in the past, from the eyes of the customer in the present. Although his predecessor may have been the wife of his bosom or the child of his loins, no man can find himself confronted at table by the traces of a vanished eater, without a passing sense of injury in connection with the idea of his own meal.
Some such impression as this found its way into the mind of Mr. Noel Vanstone when he entered the lonely breakfast-parlor at Baliol Cottage shortly after eleven o'clock. He looked at the table with a frown, and rang the bell with an expression of disgust.
"Clear away this mess," he said, when the servant appeared. "Has your mistress gone?"
"Yes, sir—nearly an hour ago."
"Is Louisa downstairs?"
"When you have put the table right, send Louisa up to me."
He walked away to the window. The momentary irritation passed away from his face; but it left an expression there which remained—an expression of pining discontent. Personally, his marriage had altered him for the worse. His wizen little cheeks were beginning to shrink into hollows, his frail little figure had already contracted a slight stoop. The former delicacy of his complexion had gone—the sickly paleness of it was all that remained. His thin flaxen mustaches were no longer pragmatically waxed and twisted into a curl: their weak feathery ends hung meekly pendent over the querulous corners of his mouth. If the ten or twelve weeks since his marriage had been counted by his locks, they might have reckoned as ten or twelve years. He stood at the window mechanically picking leaves from a pot of heath placed in front of it, and drearily humming the forlorn fragment of a tune.
The prospect from the window overlooked the course of the Nith at a bend of the river a few miles above Dumfries. Here and there, through wintry gaps in the wooded bank, broad tracts of the level cultivated valley met the eye. Boats passed on the river, and carts plodded along the high-road on their way to Dumfries. The sky was clear; the November sun shone as pleasantly as if the year had been younger by two good months; and the view, noted in Scotland for its bright and peaceful charm, was presented at the best which its wintry aspect could assume. If it had been hidden in mist or drenched with rain, Mr. Noel Vanstone would, to all appearance, have found it as attractive as he found it now. He waited at the window until he heard Louisa's knock at the door, then turned back sullenly to the breakfast-table and told her to come in.
"Make the tea," he said. "I know nothing about it. I'm left here neglected. Nobody helps me."
The discreet Louisa silently and submissively obeyed.
"Did your mistress leave any message for me," he asked, "before she went away?"
"No message in particular, sir. My mistress only said she should be too late if she waited breakfast any longer."
"Did she say nothing else?"
"She told me at the carriage door, sir, that she would most likely be back in a week."
"Was she in good spirits at the carriage door?"
"No, sir. I thought my mistress seemed very anxious and uneasy. Is there anything more I can do, sir?"
"I don't know. Wait a minute."
He proceeded discontentedly with his breakfast. Louisa waited resignedly at the door.
"I think your mistress has been in bad spirits lately," he resumed, with a sudden outbreak of petulance.
"My mistress has not been very cheerful, sir."
"What do you mean by not very cheerful? Do you mean to prevaricate? Am I nobody in the house? Am I to be kept in the dark about everything? Is your mistress to go away on her own affairs, and leave me at home like a child—and am I not even to ask a question about her? Am I to be prevaricated with by a servant? I won't be prevaricated with! Not very cheerful? What do you mean by not very cheerful?"
"I only meant that my mistress was not in good spirits, sir."
"Why couldn't you say it, then? Don't you know the value of words? The most dreadful consequences sometimes happen from not knowing the value of words. Did your mistress tell you she was going to London?"
"What did you think when your mistress told you she was going to London? Did you think it odd she was going without me?"
"I did not presume to think it odd, sir.—Is there anything more I can do for you, if you please, sir?"
"What sort of a morning is it out? Is it warm? Is the sun on the garden?"
"Have you seen the sun yourself on the garden?"
"Get me my great-coat; I'll take a little turn. Has the man brushed it? Did you see the man brush it yourself? What do you mean by saying he has brushed it, when you didn't see him? Let me look at the tails. If there's a speck of dust on the tails, I'll turn the man off!—Help me on with it."
Louisa helped him on with his coat, and gave him his hat. He went out irritably. The coat was a large one (it had belonged to his father); the hat was a large one (it was a misfit purchased as a bargain by himself). He was submerged in his hat and coat; he looked singularly small, and frail, and miserable, as he slowly wended his way, in the wintry sunlight, down the garden walk. The path sloped gently from the back of the house to the water side, from which it was parted by a low wooden fence. After pacing backward and forward slowly for some little time, he stopped at the lower extremity of the garden, and, leaning on the fen ce, looked down listlessly at the smooth flow of the river.
His thoughts still ran on the subject of his first fretful question to Louisa—he was still brooding over the circumstances under which his wife had left the cottage that morning, and over the want of consideration toward himself implied in the manner of her departure. The longer he thought of his grievance, the more acutely he resented it. He was capable of great tenderness of feeling where any injury to his sense of his own importance was concerned. His head drooped little by little on his arms, as they rested on the fence, and, in the deep sincerity of his mortification, he sighed bitterly.
The sigh was answered by a voice close at his side.
"You were happier with me, sir," said the voice, in accents of tender regret.
He looked up with a scream—literally, with a scream—and confronted Mrs. Lecount.
Was it the specter of the woman, or the woman herself? Her hair was white; her face had fallen away; her eyes looked out large, bright, and haggard over her hollow cheeks. She was withered and old. Her dress hung loose round her wasted figure; not a trace of its buxom autumnal beauty remained. The quietly impenetrable resolution, the smoothly insinuating voice—these were the only relics of the past which sickness and suffering had left in Mrs. Lecount.
"Compose yourself, Mr. Noel," she said, gently. "You have no cause to be alarmed at seeing me. Your servant, when I inquired, said you were in the garden, and I came here to find you. I have traced you out, sir, with no resentment against yourself, with no wish to distress you by so much as the shadow of a reproach. I come here on what has been, and is still, the business of my life—your service."
He recovered himself a little, but he was still incapable of speech. He held fast by the fence, and stared at her.
"Try to possess your mind, sir, of what I say," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I have come here not as your enemy, but as your friend. I have been tried by sickness, I have been tried by distress. Nothing remains of me but my heart. My heart forgives you; my heart, in your sore need—need which you have yet to feel-places me at your service. Take my arm, Mr. Noel. A little turn in the sun will help you to recover yourself."
She put his hand through her arm and marched him slowly up the garden walk. Before she had been five minutes in his company, she had resumed full possession of him in her own right.
"Now down again, Mr. Noel," she said. "Gently down again, in this fine sunlight. I have much to say to you, sir, which you never expected to hear from me. Let me ask a little domestic question first. They told me at the house door Mrs. Noel Vanstone was gone away on a journey. Has she gone for long?"
Her master's hand trembled on her arm as she put that question. Instead of answering it, he tried faintly to plead for himself. The first words that escaped him were prompted by his first returning sense—the sense that his housekeeper had taken him into custody. He tried to make his peace with Mrs. Lecount.
"I always meant to do something for you," he said, coaxingly. "You would have heard from me before long. Upon my word and honor, Lecount, you would have heard from me before long!"
"I don't doubt it, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount. "But for the present, never mind about Me. You and your interests first."
"How did you come here?" he asked, looking at her in astonishment. "How came you to find me out?"
"It is a long story, sir; I will tell it you some other time. Let it be enough to say now that I have found you. Will Mrs. Noel be back again at the house to-day? A little louder, sir; I can hardly hear you. So! so! Not back again for a week! And where has she gone? To London, did you say? And what for?—I am not inquisitive, Mr. Noel; I am asking serious questions, under serious necessity. Why has your wife left you here, and gone to London by herself?"
They were down at the fence again as she made that last inquiry, and they waited, leaning against it, while Noel Vanstone answered. Her reiterated assurances that she bore him no malice were producing their effect; he was beginning to recover himself. The old helpless habit of addressing all his complaints to his housekeeper was returning already with the re-appearance of Mrs. Lecount—returning insidiously, in company with that besetting anxiety to talk about his grievances, which had got the better of him at the breakfast-table, and which had shown the wound inflicted on his vanity to his wife's maid.
"I can't answer for Mrs. Noel Vanstone," he said, spitefully. "Mrs. Noel Vanstone has not treated me with the consideration which is my due. She has taken my permission for granted, and she has only thought proper to tell me that the object of her journey is to see her friends in London. She went away this morning without bidding me good-by. She takes her own way as if I was nobody; she treats me like a child. You may not believe it, Lecount, but I don't even know who her friends are. I am left quite in the dark; I am left to guess for myself that her friends in London are her uncle and aunt."
Mrs. Lecount privately considered the question by the help of her own knowledge obtained in London. She soon reached the obvious conclusion. After writing to her sister in the first instance, Magdalen had now, in all probability, followed the letter in person. There was little doubt that the friends she had gone to visit in London were her sister and Miss Garth.
"Not her uncle and aunt, sir," resumed Mrs. Lecount, composedly. "A secret for your private ear! She has no uncle and aunt. Another little turn before I explain myself—another little turn to compose your spirits."
She took him into custody once more, and marched him back toward the house.
"Mr. Noel!" she said, suddenly stopping in the middle of the walk. "Do you know what was the worst mischief you ever did yourself in your life? I will tell you. That worst mischief was sending me to Zurich."
His hand began to tremble on her arm once more.
"I didn't do it!" he cried piteously. "It was all Mr. Bygrave."
"You acknowledge, sir, that Mr. Bygrave deceived me?" proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I am glad to hear that. You will be all the readier to make the next discovery which is waiting for you—the discovery that Mr. Bygrave has deceived you. He is not here to slip through my fingers now, and I am not the helpless woman in this place that I was at Aldborough. Thank God!"
She uttered that devout exclamation through her set teeth. All her hatred of Captain Wragge hissed out of her lips in those two words.
"Oblige me, sir, by holding one side of my traveling-bag," she resumed, "while I open it and take something out."
The interior of the bag disclosed a series of neatly-folded papers, all laid together in order, and numbered outside. Mrs. Lecount took out one of the papers, and shut up the bag again with a loud snap of the spring that closed it.
"At Aldborough, Mr. Noel, I had only my own opinion to support me," she remarked. "My own opinion was nothing against Miss Bygrave's youth and beauty, and Mr. Bygrave's ready wit. I could only hope to attack your infatuation with proofs, and at that time I had not got them. I have got them now! I am armed at all points with proofs; I bristle from head to foot with proofs; I break my forced silence, and speak with the emphasis of my proofs. Do you know this writing, sir?"
He shrank back from the paper which she offered to him.
"I don't understand this," he said, nervously. "I don't know what you want, or what you mean."
Mrs. Lecount forced the paper into his hand. "You shall know what I mean, sir, if you will give me a moment's attention," she said. "On the day after you went away to St. Crux, I obtained admission to Mr. Bygrave's house, and I had some talk in private with Mr. Bygrave's wife. That talk supplied me with the means to convince you which I had wanted to find for weeks and weeks past. I wrote you a letter to say so—I wrote to tell you that I would forfeit my place in your service, and my expectations from your generosity, if I did not prove to you when I came back from Switzerland that my own private suspicion of Miss Bygrave was the truth. I directed that letter to you at St. Crux, and I posted it myself. Now, Mr. Noel, read the paper which I have forced into your hand. It is Admiral Bartram's written affirmation that my letter came to St. Crux, and that he inclosed it to you, under cover to Mr. Bygrave, at your own request. Did Mr. Bygrave ever give you that letter? Don't agitate yourself, sir! One word of reply will do—Yes or No."
He read the paper, and looked up at her with growing bewilderment and fear. She obstinately waited until he spoke. "No," he said, faintly; "I never got the letter."
"First proof!" said Mrs. Lecount, taking the paper from him, and putting it back in the bag. "One more, with your kind permission, before we come to things more serious still. I gave you a written description, sir, at Aldborough, of a person not named, and I asked you to compare it with Miss Bygrave the next time you were in her company. After having first shown the description to Mr. Bygrave—it is useless to deny it now, Mr. Noel; your friend at North Shingles is not here to help you!—after having first shown my note to Mr. Bygrave, you made the comparison, and you found it fail in the most important particular. There were two little moles placed close together on the left side of the neck, in my description of the unknown lady, and there were no little moles at all when you looked at Miss Bygrave's neck. I am old enough to be your mother, Mr. Noel. If the question is not indelicate, may I ask what the present state of your knowledge is on the subject of your wife's neck?"
She looked at him with a merciless steadiness. He drew back a few steps, cowering under her eye. "I can't say," he stammered. "I don't know. What do you mean by these questions? I never thought about the moles afterward; I never looked. She wears her hair low—"
"She has excellent reasons to wear it low, sir," remarked Mrs. Lecount. "We will try and lift that hair before we have done with the subject. When I came out here to find you in the garden, I saw a neat young person through the kitchen window, with her work in her hand, who looked to my eyes like a lady's maid. Is this young person your wife's maid? I beg your pardon, sir, did you say yes? In that case, another question, if you please. Did you engage her, or did your wife?"
"I engaged her—"
"While I was away? While I was in total ignorance that you meant to have a wife, or a wife's maid?"
"Under those circumstances, Mr. Noel, you cannot possibly suspect me of conspiring to deceive you, with the maid for my instrument. Go into the house, sir, while I wait here. Ask the woman who dresses Mrs. Noel Vanstone's hair morning and night whether her mistress has a mark on the left side of her neck, and (if so) what that mark is?"
He walked a few steps toward the house without uttering a word, then stopped, and looked back at Mrs. Lecount. His blinking eyes were steady, and his wizen face had become suddenly composed. Mrs. Lecount advanced a little and joined him. She saw the change; but, with all her experience of him, she failed to interpret the true meaning of it.
"Are you in want of a pretense, sir?" she asked. "Are you at a loss to account to your wife's maid for such a question as I wish you to put to her? Pretenses are easily found which will do for persons in her station of life. Say I have come here with news of a legacy for Mrs. Noel Vanstone, and that there is a question of her identity to settle before she can receive the money."
She pointed to the house. He paid no attention to the sign. His face grew paler and paler. Without moving or speaking he stood and looked at her.
"Are you afraid?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
Those words roused him; those words lit a spark of the fire of manhood in him at last. He turned on her like a sheep on a dog.
"I won't be questioned and ordered!" he broke out, trembling violently under the new sensation of his own courage. "I won't be threatened and mystified any longer! How did you find me out at this place? What do you mean by coming here with your hints and your mysteries? What have you got to say against my wife?"
Mrs. Lecount composedly opened the traveling-bag and took out her smelling bottle, in case of emergency.