Was it by any chance business relating to the sea? Were his employers tempting him to go back to his ship?
THE first agitation of the meeting between the sisters was over; the first vivid impressions, half pleasurable, half painful, had softened a little, and Norah and Magdalen sat together hand in hand, each rapt in the silent fullness of her own joy. Magdalen was the first to speak.
"You have something to tell me, Norah?"
"I have a thousand things to tell you, my love; and you have ten thousand things to tell me.—Do you mean that second surprise which I told you of in my letter?"
"Yes. I suppose it must concern me very nearly, or you would hardly have thought of mentioning it in your first letter?"
"It does concern you very nearly. You have heard of George's house in Essex? You must be familiar, at least, with the name of St. Crux?—What is there to start at, my dear? I am afraid you are hardly strong enough for any more surprises just yet?"
"Quite strong enough, Norah. I have something to say to you about St. Crux—I have a surprise, on my side, for you."
"Will you tell it me now?"
"Not now. You shall know it when we are at the seaside; you shall know it before I accept the kindness which has invited me to your husband's house."
"What can it be? Why not tell me at once?"
"You used often to set me the example of patience, Norah, in old times; will you set me the example now?"
"With all my heart. Shall I return to my own story as well? Yes? Then we will go back to it at once. I was telling you that St. Crux is George's house, in Essex, the house he inherited from his uncle. Knowing that Miss Garth had a curiosity to see the place, he left word (when he went abroad after the admiral's death) that she and any friends who came with her were to be admitted, if she happened to find herself in the neighborhood during his absence. Miss Garth and I, and a large party of Mr. Tyrrel's friends, found ourselves in the neighborhood not long after George's departure. We had all been invited to see the launch of Mr. Tyrrel's new yacht from the builder's yard at Wivenhoe, in Essex. When the launch was over, the rest of the company returned to Colchester to dine. Miss Garth and I contrived to get into the same carriage together, with nobody but my two little pupils for our companions. We gave the coachman his orders, and drove round by St. Crux. The moment Miss Garth mentioned her name we were let in, and shown all over the house. I don't know how to describe it to you. It is the most bewildering place I ever saw in my life—"
"Don't attempt to describe it, Norah. Go on with your story instead."
"Very well. My story takes me straight into one of the rooms at St. Crux—a room about as long as your street here—so dreary, so dirty, and so dreadfully cold that I shiver at the bare recollection of it. Miss Garth was for getting out of it again as speedily as possible, and so was I. But the housekeeper declined to let us off without first looking at a singular piece of furniture, the only piece of furniture in the comfortless place. She called it a tripod, I think. (There is nothing to be alarmed at, Magdalen; I assure you there is nothing to be alarmed at!) At any rate, it was a strange, three-legged thing, which supported a great panful of charcoal ashes at the top. It was considered by all good judges (the housekeeper told us) a wonderful piece of chasing in metal; and she especially pointed out the beauty of some scroll-work running round the inside of the pan, with Latin mottoes on it, signifying—I forget what. I felt not the slightest interest in the thing myself, but I looked close at the scroll-work to satisfy the housekeeper. To confess the truth, she was rather tiresome with her mechanically learned lecture on fine metal work; and, while she was talking, I found myself idly stirring the soft feathery white ashes backward and forward with my hand, pretending to listen, with my mind a hundred miles away from her. I don't know how long or how short a time I had been playing with the ashes, when my fingers suddenly encountered a piece of crumpled paper hidden deep among them. When I brought it to the surface, it proved to be a letter—a long letter full of cramped, close writing.—You have anticipated my story, Magdalen, before I can end it! You know as well as I do that the letter which my idle fingers found was the Secret Trust. Hold out your hand, my dear. I have got George's permission to show it to you, and there it is!"
She put the Trust into her sister's hand. Magdalen took it from her mechanically. "You!" she said, looking at her sister with the remembrance of all that she had vainly ventured, of all that she had vainly suffered, at St. Crux—"you have found it!"
"Yes," said Norah, gayly; "the Trust has proved no exception to the general perversity of all lost things. Look for them, and they remain invisible. Leave them alone, and they reveal themselves! You and your lawyer, Magdalen, were both justified in supposing that your interest in this discovery was an interest of no common kind. I spare you all our consultations after I had produced the crumpled paper from the ashes. It ended in George's lawyer being written to, and in George himself being recalled from the Continent. Miss Garth and I both saw him immediately on his return. He did what neither of us could do—he solved the mystery of the Trust being hidden in the charcoal ashes. Admiral Bartram, you must know, was all his life subject to fits of somnambulism. He had been found walking in his sleep not long before his death—just at the time, too, when he was sadly troubled in his mind on the subject of that very letter in your hand. George's idea is that he must have fancied he was doing in his sleep what he would have died rather than do in his waking moments—destroying the Trust. The fire had been lighted in the pan not long before, and he no doubt saw it still burning in his dream. This was George's explanation of the strange position of the letter when I discovered it. The question of what was to be done with the letter itself came next, and was no easy question for a woman to understand. But I determined to master it, and I did master it, because it related to you."
"Let me try to master it, in my turn," said Magdalen. "I have a particular reason for wishing to know as much about this letter as you know yourself. What has it done for others, and what is it to do for me?"
"My dear Magdalen, how strangely you look at it! how strangely you talk of it! Worthless as it may appear, that morsel of paper gives you a fortune."
"Is my only claim to the fortune the claim which this letter gives me?"
"Yes; the letter is your only claim. Shall I try if I can explain it in two words? Taken by itself, the letter might, in the lawyer's opinion, have been made a matter for dispute, though I am sure George would have sanctioned no proceeding of that sort. Taken, however, with the postscript which Admiral Bartram attached to it (you will see the lines if you look under the signature on the third page), it becomes legally binding, as well as morally binding, on the admiral's representatives. I have exhausted my small stock of legal words, and must go on in my own language instead of in the lawyer's. The end of the thing was simply this. All the money went back to Mr. Noel Vanstone's estate (another legal word! my vocabulary is richer than I thought), for one plain reason—that it had not been employed as Mr. Noel Vanstone directed. If Mrs. Girdlestone had lived, or if George had married me a few months earlier, results would have been just the other way. As it is, half the money has been already divided between Mr. Noel Vanstone's next of kin; which means, translated into plain English, my husband, and his poor bedridden sister—who took the money formally, one day, to satisfy the lawyer, and who gave it back again generously, the next, to satisfy herself. So much for one half of this legacy. The other half, my dear, is all yours. How strangely events happen, Magdalen! It is only two years since you and I were left disinherited orphans—and we are sharing our poor father's fortune between us, after all!"
"Wait a little, Norah. Our shares come to us in very different ways."
"Do they? Mine comes to me by my husband. Yours comes to you—" She stopped confusedly, and changed color. "Forgive me, my own love!" she said, putting Magdalen's hand to her lips. "I have forgotten what I ought to have remembered. I have thoughtlessly distressed you!"
"No!" said Magdalen; "you have encouraged me."
"You shall see."
With those words, she rose quietly from the sofa, and walked to the open window. Before Norah could follow her, she had torn the Trust to pieces, and had cast the fragments into the street.
She came back to the sofa and laid her head, with a deep sigh of relief, on Norah's bosom. "I will owe nothing to my past life," she said. "I have parted with it as I have parted with those torn morsels of paper. All the thoughts and all the hopes belonging to it are put away from me forever!"
"Magdalen, my husband will never allow you! I will never allow you myself—"
"Hush! hush! What your husband thinks right, Norah, you and I will think right too. I will take from you what I would never have taken if that letter had given it to me. The end I dreamed of has come. Nothing is changed but the position I once thought we might hold toward each other. Better as it is, my love—far, far better as it is!"
So she made the last sacrifice of the old perversity and the old pride. So she entered on the new and nobler life.
* * * * * *
A month had passed. The autumn sunshine was bright even in the murky streets, and the clocks in the neighborhood were just striking two, as Magdalen returned alone to the house in Aaron's Buildings.
"Is he waiting for me?" she asked, anxiously, when the landlady let her in.
He was waiting in the front room. Magdalen stole up the stairs and knocked at the door. He called to her carelessly and absently to come in, plainly thinking that it was only the servant who applied for permission to enter the room.
"You hardly expected me so soon?" she said speaking on the threshold, and pausing there to enjoy his surprise as he started to his feet and looked at her.
The only traces of illness still visible in her face left a delicacy in its outline which added refinement to her beauty. She was simply dressed in muslin. Her plain straw bonnet had no other ornament than the white ribbon with which it was sparingly trimmed. She had never looked lovelier in her best days than she looked now, as she advanced to the table at which he had been sitting, with a little basket of flowers that she had brought with her from the country, and offered him her hand.
He looked anxious and careworn when she saw him closer. She interrupted his first inquiries and congratulations to ask if he had remained in London since they had parted—if he had not even gone away, for a few days only, to see his friends in Suffolk? No; he had been in London ever since. He never told her that the pretty parsonage house in Suffolk wanted all those associations with herself in which the poor four walls at Aaron's Buildings were so rich. He only said he had been in London ever since.
"I wonder," she asked, looking him attentively in the face, "if you are as happy to see me again as I am to see you?"
"Perhaps I am even happier, in my different way," he answered, with a smile.
She took off her bonnet and scarf, and seated herself once more in her own arm-chair. "I suppose this street is very ugly," she said; "and I am sure nobody can deny that the house is very small. And yet—and yet it feels like coming home again. Sit there where you used to sit; tell me about yourself. I want to know all that you have done, all that you have thought even, while I have been away." She tried to resume the endless succession of questions by means of which she was accustomed to lure him into speaking of himself. But she put them far less spontaneously, far less adroitly, than usual. Her one all-absorbing anxiety in entering that room was not an anxiety to be trifled with. After a quarter of an hour wasted in constrained inquiries on one side, in reluctant replies on the other, she ventured near the dangerous subject at last.
"Have you received the letters I wrote to you from the seaside?" she asked, suddenly looking away from him for the first time.
"Yes," he said; "all."
"Have you read them?"
"Every one of them—many times over."
Her heart beat as if it would suffocate her. She had kept her promise bravely. The whole story of her life, from the time of the home-wreck at Combe-Raven to the time when she had destroyed the Secret Trust in her sister's presence, had been all laid before him. Nothing that she had done, nothing even that she had thought, had been concealed from his knowledge. As he would have kept a pledged engagement with her, so she had kept her pledged engagement with him. She had not faltered in the resolution to do this; and now she faltered over the one decisive question which she had come there to ask. Strong as the desire in her was to know if she had lost or won him, the fear of knowing was at that moment stronger still. She waited and trembled; she waited, and said no more.
"May I speak to you about your letters?" he asked. "May I tell you—?"
If she had looked at him as he said those few words, she would have seen what he thought of her in his face. She would have seen, innocent as he was in this world's knowledge, that he knew the priceless value, the all-ennobling virtue, of a woman who speaks the truth. But she had no courage to look at him—no courage to raise her eyes from her lap.
"Not just yet," she said, faintly. "Not quite so soon after we have met again."
She rose hurriedly from her chair, and walked to the window, turned back again into the room, and approached the table, close to where he was sitting. The writing materials scattered near him offered her a pretext for changing the subject, and she seized on it directly. "Were you writing a letter," she asked, "when I came in?"
"I was thinking about it," he replied. "It was not a letter to be written without thinking first." He rose as he answered her to gather the writing materials together and put them away.
"Why should I interrupt you?" she said. "Why not let me try whether I can't help you instead? Is it a secret?"
"No, not a secret."
He hesitated as he answered her. She instantly guessed the truth.
"Is it about your ship?"
He little knew how she had been thinking in her absence from him of the business which he believed that he had concealed from her. He little knew that she had learned already to be jealous of his ship. "Do they want you to return to your old life?" she went on. "Do they want you to go back to the sea? Must you say Yes or No at once?"
"If I had not come in when I did would you have said Yes?"
She unconsciously laid her hand on his arm, forgetting all inferior considerations in her breathless anxiety to hear his next words. The confession of his love was within a hair-breadth of escaping him; but he checked the utterance of it even yet. "I don't care for myself," he thought; "but how can I be certain of not distressing her?"
"Would you have said Yes?" she repeated.
"I was doubting," he answered—"I was doubting between Yes and No."
Her hand tightened on his arm; a sudden trembling seized her in every limb, she could bear it no longer. All her heart went out to him in her next words:
"Were you doubting for my sake?"
"Yes," he said. "Take my confession in return for yours—I was doubting for your sake."
She said no more; she only looked at him. In that look the truth reached him at last. The next instant she was folded in his arms, and was shedding delicious tears of joy, with her face hidden on his bosom.
"Do I deserve my happiness?" she murmured, asking the one question at last. "Oh, I know how the poor narrow people who have never felt and never suffered would answer me if I asked them what I ask you. If they knew my story, they would forget all the provocation, and only remember the offense; they would fasten on my sin, and pass all my suffering by. But you are not one of them! Tell me if you have any shadow of a misgiving! Tell me if you doubt that the one dear object of all my life to come is to live worthy of you! I asked you to wait and see me; I asked you, if there was any hard truth to be told, to tell it me here with your own lips. Tell it, my love, my husband!—tell it me now!"
She looked up, still clinging to him as she clung to the hope of her better life to come.
"Tell me the truth!" she repeated.
"With my own lips?"
"Yes!" she answered, eagerly. "Say what you think of me with your own lips."
He stooped and kissed her.