"I looked at the tank while you were out of the room," said Magdalen.
"Did you? You take no interest in the subject, I dare say? Quite natural. I took no interest either until I was married. My dear husband—dead many years since—formed my tastes and elevated me to himself. You have heard of the late Professor Lecomte, the eminent Swiss naturalist? I am his widow. The English circle at Zurich (where I lived in my late master's service) Anglicized my name to Lecount. Your generous country people will have nothing foreign about them—not even a name, if they can help it. But I was speaking of my husband—my dear husband, who permitted me to assist him in his pursuits. I have had only one interest since his death—an interest in science. Eminent in many things, the professor was great at reptiles. He left me his Subjects and his Tank. I had no other legacy. There is the Tank. All the Subjects died but this quiet little fellow—this nice little toad. Are you surprised at my liking him? There is nothing to be surprised at. The professor lived long enough to elevate me above the common prejudice against the reptile creation. Properly understood, the reptile creation is beautiful. Properly dissected, the reptile creation is instructive in the last degree." She stretched out her little finger, and gently stroked the toad's back with the tip of it. "So refreshing to the touch," said Mrs. Lecount—"so nice and cool this summer weather!"
The bell from the parlor rang. Mrs. Lecount rose, bent fondly over the Aquarium, and chirruped to the toad at parting as if it had been a bird. "Mr. Vanstone is ready to receive you. Follow me, if you please, Miss Garth." With these words she opened the door, and led the way out of the room.
"MISS GARTH, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, opening the parlor door, and announcing the visitor's appearance with the tone and manner of a well-bred servant.
Magdalen found herself in a long, narrow room, consisting of a back parlor and a front parlor, which had been thrown into one by opening the folding-doors between them. Seated not far from the front window, with his back to the light, she saw a frail, flaxen-haired, self-satisfied little man, clothed in a fair white dressing-gown many sizes too large for him, with a nosegay of violets drawn neatly through the button-hole over his breast. He looked from thirty to five-and-thirty years old. His complexion was as delicate as a young girl's, his eyes were of the lightest blue, his upper lip was adorned by a weak little white mustache, waxed and twisted at either end into a thin spiral curl. When any object specially attracted his attention he half closed his eyelids to look at it. When he smiled, the skin at his temples crumpled itself up into a nest of wicked little wrinkles. He had a plate of strawberries on his lap, with a napkin under them to preserve the purity of his white dressing-gown. At his right hand stood a large round table, covered with a collection of foreign curiosities, which seemed to have been brought together from the four quarters of the globe. Stuffed birds from Africa, porcelain monsters from China, silver ornaments and utensils from India and Peru, mosaic work from Italy, and bronzes from France, were all heaped together pell-mell with the coarse deal boxes and dingy leather cases which served to pack them for traveling. The little man apologized, with a cheerful and simpering conceit, for his litter of curiosities, his dressing-gown, and his delicate health; and, waving his hand toward a chair, placed his attention, with pragmatical politeness, at the visitor's disposal. Magdalen looked at him with a momentary doubt whether Mrs. Lecount had not deceived her. Was this the man who mercilessly followed the path on which his merciless father had walked before him? She could hardly believe it. "Take a seat, Miss Garth," he repeated, observing her hesitation, and announcing his own name in a high, thin, fretfully-consequential voice: "I am Mr. Noel Vanstone. You wished to see me—here I am!"
"May I be permitted to retire, sir?" inquired Mrs. Lecount.
"Certainly not!" replied her master. "Stay here, Lecount, and keep us company. Mrs. Lecount has my fullest confidence," he continued, addressing Magdalen. "Whatever you say to me, ma'am, you say to her. She is a domestic treasure. There is not another house in England has such a treasure as Mrs. Lecount."
The housekeeper listened to the praise of her domestic virtues with eyes immovably fixed on her elegant chemisette. But Magdalen's quick penetration had previously detected a look that passed between Mrs. Lecount and her master, which suggested that Noel Vanstone had been instructed beforehand what to say and do in his visitor's presence. The suspicion of this, and the obstacles which the room presented to arranging her position in it so as to keep her face from the light, warned Magdalen to be on her guard.
She had taken her chair at first nearly midway in the room. An instant's after-reflection induced her to move her seat toward the left hand, so as to place herself just inside, and close against, the left post of the folding-door. In this position she dexterously barred the only passage by which Mrs. Lecount could have skirted round the large table and contrived to front Magdalen by taking a chair at her master's side. On the right hand of the table the empty space was well occupied by the fireplace and fender, by some traveling-trunks, and a large packing-case. There was no alternative left for Mrs. Lecount but to place herself on a line with Magdalen against the opposite post of the folding-door, or to push rudely past the visitor with the obvious intention of getting in front of her. With an expressive little cough, and with one steady look at her master, the housekeeper conceded the point, and took her seat against the right-hand door-post. "Wait a little," thought Mrs. Lecount; "my turn next!"
"Mind what you are about, ma'am!" cried Noel Vanstone, as Magdalen accidentally approached the table in moving her chair. "Mind the sleeve of your cloak! Excuse me, you nearly knocked down that silver candlestick. Pray don't suppose it's a common candlestick. It's nothing of the sort—it's a Peruvian candlestick. There are only three of that pattern in the world. One is in the possession of the President of Peru; one is locked up in the Vatican; and one is on My table. It cost ten pounds; it's worth fifty. One of my father's bargains, ma'am. All these things are my father's bargains. There is not another house in England which has such curiosities as these. Sit down, Lecount; I beg you will make yourself comfortable. Mrs. Lecount is like the curiosities, Miss Garth—she is one of my father's bargains. You are one of my father's bargains, are you not, Lecount? My father was a remarkable man, ma'am. You will be reminded of him here at every turn. I have got his dressing-gown on at this moment. No such linen as this is made now—you can't get it for love or money. Would you like to feel the texture? Perhaps you're no judge of texture? Perhaps you would prefer talking to me about these two pupils of yours? They are two, are they not? Are they fine girls? Plump, fresh, full-blown English beauties?"
"Excuse me, sir," interposed Mrs. Lecount, sorrowfully. "I must really beg permission to retire if you speak of the poor things in that way. I can't sit by, sir, and hear them turned into ridicule. Consider their position; consider Miss Garth."
"You good creature!" said Noel Vanstone, surveying the housekeeper through his half-closed eyelids. "You excellent Lecount! I assure you, ma'am, Mrs. Lecount is a worthy creature. You will observe that she pities the two girls. I don't go so far as that myself, but I can make allowances for them. I am a large-minded man. I can make allowances for them and for you." He smiled with the most cordial politeness, and helped himself to a strawberry from the dish on his lap.
"You shock Miss Garth; indeed, sir, without meaning it, you shock Miss Garth," remonstrated Mrs. Lecount. "She is not accustomed to you as I am. Consider Miss Garth, sir. As a favor to me, consider Miss Garth."
Thus far Magdalen had resolutely kept silence. The burning anger, which would have betrayed her in an instant if she had let it flash its way to the surface, throbbed fast and fiercely at her heart, and warned her, while Noel Vanstone was speaking, to close her lips. She would have allowed him to talk on uninterruptedly for some minutes more if Mrs. Lecount had not interfered for the second time. The refined insolence of the housekeeper's pity was a woman's insolence; and it stung her into instantly controlling herself. She had never more admirably imitated Miss Garth's voice and manner than when she spoke her next words.
"You are very good," she said to Mrs. Lecount. "I make no claim to be treated with any extraordinary consideration. I am a governess, and I don't expect it. I have only one favor to ask. I beg Mr. Noel Vanstone, for his own sake, to hear what I have to say to him."
"You understand, sir?" observed Mrs. Lecount. "It appears that Miss Garth has some serious warning to give you. She says you are to hear her, for your own sake."
Mr. Noel Vanstone's fair complexion suddenly turned white. He put away the plate of strawberries among his father's bargains. His hand shook and his little figure twisted itself uneasily in the chair. Magdalen observed him attentively. "One discovery already," she thought; "he is a coward!"
"What do you mean, ma'am?" asked Noel Vanstone, with visible trepidation of look and manner. "What do you mean by telling me I must listen to you for my own sake? If you come her to intimidate me, you come to the wrong man. My strength of character was universally noticed in our circle at Zurich—wasn't it, Lecount?"
"Universally, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "But let us hear Miss Garth. Perhaps I have misinterpreted her meaning."
"On the contrary," replied Magdalen, "you have exactly expressed my meaning. My object in coming here is to warn Mr. Noel Vanstone against the course which he is now taking."
"Don't!" pleaded Mrs. Lecount. "Oh, if you want to help these poor girls, don't talk in that way! Soften his resolution, ma'am, by entreaties; don't strengthen it by threats!" She a little overstrained the tone of humility in which she spoke those words—a little overacted the look of apprehension which accompanied them. If Magdalen had not seen plainly enough already that it was Mrs. Lecount's habitual practice to decide everything for her master in the first instance, and then to persuade him that he was not acting under his housekeeper's resolution but under his own, she would have seen it now.
"You hear what Lecount has just said?" remarked Noel Vanstone. "You hear the unsolicited testimony of a person who has known me from childhood? Take care, Miss Garth—take care!" He complacently arranged the tails of his white dressing-gown over his knees and took the plate of strawberries back on his lap.
"I have no wish to offend you," said Magdalen. "I am only anxious to open your eyes to the truth. You are not acquainted with the characters of the two sisters whose fortunes have fallen into your possession. I have known them from childhood; and I come to give you the benefit of my experience in their interests and in yours. You have nothing to dread from the elder of the two; she patiently accepts the hard lot which you, and your father before you, have forced on her. The younger sister's conduct is the very opposite of this. She has already declined to submit to your father's decision, and she now refuses to be silenced by Mrs. Lecount's letter. Take my word for it, she is capable of giving you serious trouble if you persist in making an enemy of her."
Noel Vanstone changed color once more, and began to fidget again in his chair. "Serious trouble," he repeated, with a blank look. "If you mean writing letters, ma'am, she has given trouble enough already. She has written once to me, and twice to my father. One of the letters to my father was a threatening letter—wasn't it, Lecount?"
"She expressed her feelings, poor child," said Mrs. Lecount. "I thought it hard to send her back her letter, but your dear father knew best. What I said at the time was, Why not let her express her feelings? What are a few threatening words, after all? In her position, poor creature, they are words, and nothing more."
"I advise you not to be too sure of that," said Magdalen. "I know her better than you do."
She paused at those words—paused in a momentary terror. The sting of Mrs. Lecount's pity had nearly irritated her into forgetting her assumed character, and speaking in her own voice.
"You have referred to the letters written by my pupil," she resumed, addressing Noel Vanstone as soon as she felt sure of herself again. "We will say nothing about what she has written to your father; we will only speak of what she has written to you. Is there anything unbecoming in her letter, anything said in it that is false? Is it not true that these two sisters have been cruelly deprived of the provision which their father made for them? His will to this day speaks for him and for them; and it only speaks to no purpose, because he was not aware that his marriage obliged him to make it again, and because he died before he could remedy the error. Can you deny that?"
Noel Vanstone smiled, and helped himself to a strawberry. "I don't attempt to deny it," he said. "Go on, Miss Garth."
"Is it not true," persisted Magdalen, "that the law which has taken the money from these sisters, whose father made no second will, has now given that very money to you, whose father made no will at all? Surely, explain it how you may, this is hard on those orphan girls?"
"Very hard," replied Noel Vanstone. "It strikes you in that light, too—doesn't it, Lecount?"
Mrs. Lecount shook her head, and closed her handsome black eyes. "Harrowing," she said; "I can characterize it, Miss Garth, by no other word—harrowing. How the young person—no! how Miss Vanstone, the younger—discovered that my late respected master made no will I am at a loss to understand. Perhaps it was put in the papers? But I am interrupting you, Miss Garth. Do have something more to say about your pupil's letter?" She noiselessly drew her chair forward, as she said these words, a few inches beyond the line of the visitor's chair. The attempt was neatly made, but it proved useless. Magdalen only kept her head more to the left, and the packing-case on the floor prevented Mrs. Lecount from advancing any further.
"I have only one more question to put," said Magdalen. "My pupil's letter addressed a proposal to Mr. Noel Vanstone. I beg him to inform me why he has refused to consider it."
"My good lady!" cried Noel Vanstone, arching his white eyebrows in satirical astonishment. "Are you really in earnest? Do you know what the proposal is? Have you seen the letter?"
"I am quite in earnest," said Magdalen, "and I have seen the letter. It entreats you to remember how Mr. Andrew Vanstone's fortune has come into your hands; it informs you that one-half of that fortune, divided between his daughters, was what his will intended them to have; and it asks of your sense of justice to do for his children what he would have done for them himself if he had lived. In plainer words still, it asks you to give one-half of the money to the daughters, and it leaves you free to keep the other half yourself. That is the proposal. Why have you refused to consider it?"
"For the simplest possible reason, Miss Garth," said Noel Vanstone, in high good-humor. "Allow me to remind you of a well-known proverb: A fool and his money are soon parted. Whatever else I may be, ma'am, I'm not a fool."
"Don't put it in that way, sir!" remonstrated Mrs. Lecount. "Be serious—pray be serious!"
"Quite impossible, Lecount," rejoined her master. "I can't be serious. My poor father, Miss Garth, took a high moral point of view in this matter. Lecount, there, takes a high moral point of view—don't you, Lecount? I do nothing of the sort. I have lived too long in the Continental atmosphere to trouble myself about moral points of view. My course in this business is as plain as two and two make four. I have got the money, and I should be a born idiot if I parted with it. There is my point of view! Simple enough, isn't it? I don't stand on my dignity; I don't meet you with the law, which is all on my side; I don't blame your coming here, as a total stranger, to try and alter my resolution; I don't blame the two girls for wanting to dip their fingers into my purse. All I say is, I am not fool enough to open it. Pas si bete, as we used to say in the English circle at Zurich. You understand French, Miss Garth? Pas si bete!" He set aside his plate of strawberries once more, and daintily dried his fingers on his fine white napkin.
Magdalen kept her temper. If she could have struck him dead by lifting her hand at that moment, it is probable she would have lifted it. But she kept her temper.
"Am I to understand," she asked, "that the last words you have to say in this matter are the words said for you in Mrs. Lecount's letter!"
"Precisely so," replied Noel Vanstone.
"You have inherited your own father's fortune, as well as the fortune of Mr. Andrew Vanstone, and yet you feel no obligation to act from motives of justice or generosity toward these two sisters? All you think it necessary to say to them is, you have got the money, and you refuse to part with a single farthing of it?"
"Most accurately stated! Miss Garth, you are a woman of business. Lecount, Miss Garth is a woman of business."
"Don't appeal to me, sir," cried Mrs. Lecount, gracefully wringing her plump white hands. "I can't bear it! I must interfere! Let me suggest—oh, what do you call it in English?—a compromise. Dear Mr. Noel, you are perversely refusing to do yourself justice; you have better reasons than the reason you have given to Miss Garth. You follow your honored father's example; you feel it due to his memory to act in this matter as he acted before you. That is his reason, Miss Garth—— I implore you on my knees to take that as his reason. He will do what his dear father did; no more, no less. His dear father made a proposal, and he himself will now make that proposal over again. Yes, Mr. Noel, you will remember what this poor girl says in her letter to you. Her sister has been obliged to go out as a governess; and she herself, in losing her fortune, has lost the hope of her marriage for years and years to come. You will remember this—and you will give the hundred pounds to one, and the hundred pounds to the other, which your admirable father offered in the past time? If he does this, Miss Garth, will he do enough? If he gives a hundred pounds each to these unfortunate sisters—?"
"He will repent the insult to the last hour of his life," said Magdalen.
The instant that answer passed her lips she would have given worlds to recall it. Mrs. Lecount had planted her sting in the right place at last. Those rash words of Magdalen's had burst from her passionately, in her own voice.
Nothing but the habit of public performance saved her from making the serious error that she had committed more palpable still, by attempting to set it right. Here her past practice in the Entertainment came to her rescue, and urged her to go on instantly in Miss Garth's voice as if nothing had happened.
"You mean well, Mrs. Lecount," she continued, "but you are doing harm instead of good. My pupils will accept no such compromise as you propose. I am sorry to have spoken violently just now; I beg you will excuse me." She looked hard for information in the housekeeper's face while she spoke those conciliatory words. Mrs. Lecount baffled the look by putting her handkerchief to her eyes. Had she, or had she not, noticed the momentary change in Magdalen's voice from the tones that were assumed to the tones that were natural? Impossible to say.
"What more can I do!" murmured Mrs. Lecount behind her handkerchief. "Give me time to think—give me time to recover myself. May I retire, sir, for a moment? My nerves are shaken by this sad scene. I must have a glass of water, or I think I shall faint. Don't go yet, Miss Garth. I beg you will give us time to set this sad matter right, if we can—I beg you will remain until I come back."
There were two doors of entrance to the room. One, the door into the front parlor, close at Magdalen's left hand. The other, the door into the back parlor, situated behind her. Mrs. Lecount politely retired—through the open folding-doors—by this latter means of exit, so as not to disturb the visitor by passing in front of her. Magdalen waited until she heard the door open and close again behind her, and then resolved to make the most of the opportunity which left her alone with Noel Vanstone. The utter hopelessness of rousing a generous impulse in that base nature had now been proved by her own experience. The last chance left was to treat him like the craven creature he was, and to influence him through his fears.
Before she could speak, Noel Vanstone himself broke the silence. Cunningly as he strove to hide it, he was half angry, half alarmed at his housekeeper's desertion of him. He looked doubtingly at his visitor; he showed a nervous anxiety to conciliate her until Mrs. Lecount's return.
"Pray remember, ma'am, I never denied that this case was a hard one," he began. "You said just now you had no wish to offend me—and I'm sure I don't want to offend you. May I offer you some strawberries? Would you like to look at my father's bargains? I assure you, ma'am, I am naturally a gallant man; and I feel for both these sisters—especially the younger one. Touch me on the subject of the tender passion, and you touch me on a weak place. Nothing would please me more than to hear that Miss Vanstone's lover (I'm sure I always call her Miss Vanstone, and so does Lecount)—I say, ma'am, nothing would please me more than to hear that Miss Vanstone's lover had come back and married her. If a loan of money would be likely to bring him back, and if the security offered was good, and if my lawyer thought me justified—"
"Stop, Mr. Vanstone," said Magdalen. "You are entirely mistaken in your estimate of the person you have to deal with. You are seriously wrong in supposing that the marriage of the younger sister—if she could be married in a week's time—would make any difference in the convictions which induced her to write to your father and to you. I don't deny that she may act from a mixture of motives. I don't deny that she clings to the hope of hastening her marriage, and to the hope of rescuing her sister from a life of dependence. But if both those objects were accomplished by other means, nothing would induce her to leave you in possession of the inheritance which her father meant his children to have. I know her, Mr. Vanstone! She is a nameless, homeless, friendless wretch. The law which takes care of you, the law which takes care of all legitimate children, casts her like carrion to the winds. It is your law—not hers. She only knows it as the instrument of a vile oppression, an insufferable wrong. The sense of that wrong haunts her like a possession of the devil. The resolution to right that wrong burns in her like fire. If that miserable girl was married and rich, with millions tomorrow, do you think she would move an inch from her purpose? I tell you she would resist, to the last breath in her body, the vile injustice which has struck at the helpless children, through the calamity of their father's death! I tell you she would shrink from no means which a desperate woman can employ to force that closed hand of yours open, or die in the attempt!"
She stopped abruptly. Once more her own indomitable earnestness had betrayed her. Once more the inborn nobility of that perverted nature had risen superior to the deception which it had stooped to practice. The scheme of the moment vanished from her mind's view; and the resolution of her life burst its way outward in her own words, in her own tones, pouring hotly and more hotly from her heart. She saw the abject manikin before her cowering, silent, in his chair. Had his fears left him sense enough to perceive the change in her voice? No: his face spoke the truth—his fears had bewildered him. This time the chance of the moment had befriended her. The door behind her chair had not opened again yet. "No ears but his have heard me," she thought, with a sense of unutterable relief. "I have escaped Mrs. Lecount."
She had done nothing of the kind. Mrs. Lecount had never left the room.
After opening the door and closing it again, without going out, the housekeeper had noiselessly knelt down behind Magdalen's chair. Steadying herself against the post of the folding-door, she took a pair of scissors from her pocket, waited until Noel Vanstone (from whose view she was entirely hidden) had attracted Magdalen's attention by speaking to her, and then bent forward, with the scissors ready in her hand. The skirt of the false Miss Garth's gown—the brown alpaca dress, with the white spots on it—touched the floor, within the housekeeper's reach. Mrs. Lecount lifted the outer of the two flounces which ran round the bottom of the dress one over the other, softly cut away a little irregular fragment of stuff from the inner flounce, and neatly smoothed the outer one over it again, so as to hide the gap. By the time she had put the scissors back in her pocket, and had risen to her feet (sheltering herself behind the post of the folding-door), Magdalen had spoken her last words. Mrs. Lecount quietly repeated the ceremony of opening and shutting the back parlor door; and returned to her place.
"What has happened, sir, in my absence?" she inquired, addressing her master with a look of alarm. "You are pale; you are agitated! Oh, Miss Garth, have you forgotten the caution I gave you in the other room?"
"Miss Garth has forgotten everything," cried Noel Vanstone, recovering his lost composure on the re-appearance of Mrs. Lecount. "Miss Garth has threatened me in the most outrageous manner. I forbid you to pity either of those two girls any more, Lecount—especially the younger one. She is the most desperate wretch I ever heard of! If she can't get my money by fair means, she threatens to have it by foul. Miss Garth has told me that to my face. To my face!" he repeated, folding his arms, and looking mortally insulted.
"Compose yourself, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "Pray compose yourself, and leave me to speak to Miss Garth. I regret to hear, ma'am, that you have forgotten what I said to you in the next room. You have agitated Mr. Noel; you have compromised the interests you came here to plead; and you have only repeated what we knew before. The language you have allowed yourself to use in my absence is the same language which your pupil was foolish enough to employ when she wrote for the second time to my late master. How can a lady of your years and experience seriously repeat such nonsense? This girl boasts and threatens. She will do this; she will do that. You have her confidence, ma'am. Tell me, if you please, in plain words, what can she do?"
Sharply as the taunt was pointed, it glanced off harmless. Mrs. Lecount had planted her sting once too often. Magdalen rose in complete possession of her assumed character and composedly terminated the interview. Ignorant as she was of what had happened behind her chair, she saw a change in Mrs. Lecount's look and manner which warned her to run no more risks, and to trust herself no longer in the house.
"I am not in my pupil's confidence," she said. "Her own acts will answer your question when the time comes. I can only tell you, from my own knowledge of her, that she is no boaster. What she wrote to Mr. Michael Vanstone was what she was prepared to do—-what, I have reason to think, she was actually on the point of doing, when her plans were overthrown by his death. Mr. Michael Vanstone's son has only to persist in following his father's course to find, before long, that I am not mistaken in my pupil, and that I have not come here to intimidate him by empty threats. My errand is done. I leave Mr. Noel Vanstone with two alternatives to choose from. I leave him to share Mr. Andrew Vanstone's fortune with Mr. Andrew Vanstone's daughters—or to persist in his present refusal and face the consequences." She bowed, and walked to the door.
Noel Vanstone started to his feet, with anger and alarm struggling which should express itself first in his blank white face. Before he could open his lips, Mrs. Lecount's plump hands descended on his shoulders, put him softly back in his chair, and restored the plate of strawberries to its former position on his lap.
"Refresh yourself, Mr. Noel, with a few more strawberries," she said, "and leave Miss Garth to me."
She followed Magdalen into the passage, and closed the door of the room after her.
"Are you residing in London, ma'am?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
"No," replied Magdalen. "I reside in the country."
"If I want to write to you, where can I address my letter?"
"To the post-office, Birmingham," said Magdalen, mentioning the place which she had last left, and at which all letters were still addressed to her.
Mrs. Lecount repeated the direction to fix it in her memory, advanced two steps in the passage, and quietly laid her right hand on Magdalen's arm.
"A word of advice, ma'am," she said; "one word at parting. You are a bold woman and a clever woman. Don't be too bold; don't be too clever. You are risking more than you think for." She suddenly raised herself on tiptoe and whispered the next words in Magdalen's ear. "I hold you in the hollow of my hand!" said Mrs. Lecount, with a fierce hissing emphasis on every syllable. Her left hand clinched itself stealthily as she spoke. It was the hand in which she had concealed the fragment of stuff from Magdalen's gown—the hand which held it fast at that moment.
"What do you mean?" asked Magdalen, pushing her back.
Mrs. Lecount glided away politely to open the house door.
"I mean nothing now," she said; "wait a little, and time may show. One last question, ma'am, before I bid you good-by. When your pupil was a little innocent child, did she ever amuse herself by building a house of cards?"
Magdalen impatiently answered by a gesture in the affirmative.
"Did you ever see her build up the house higher and higher," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, "till it was quite a pagoda of cards? Did you ever see her open her little child's eyes wide and look at it, and feel so proud of what she had done already that she wanted to do more? Did you ever see her steady her pretty little hand, and hold her innocent breath, and put one other card on the top, and lay the whole house, the instant afterward, a heap of ruins on the table? Ah, you have seen that. Give her, if you please, a friendly message from me. I venture to say she has built the house high enough already; and I recommend her to be careful before she puts on that other card."
"She shall have your message," said Magdalen, with Miss Garth's bluntness, and Miss Garth's emphatic nod of the head. "But I doubt her minding it. Her hand is rather steadier than you suppose, and I think she will put on the other card."
"And bring the house down," said Mrs. Lecount.
"And build it up again," rejoined Magdalen. "I wish you good-morning."
"Good-morning," said Mrs. Lecount, opening the door. "One last word, Miss Garth. Do think of what I said in the back room! Do try the Golden Ointment for that sad affliction in your eyes!"
As Magdalen crossed the threshold of the door she was met by the postman ascending the house steps with a letter picked out from the bundle in his hand. "Noel Vanstone, Esquire?" she heard the man say, interrogatively, as she made her way down the front garden to the street.
She passed through the garden gates little thinking from what new difficulty and new danger her timely departure had saved her. The letter which the postman had just delivered into the housekeeper's hands was no other than the anonymous letter addressed to Noel Vanstone by Captain Wragge.
MRS. LECOUNT returned to the parlor, with the fragment of Magdalen's dress in one hand, and with Captain Wragge's letter in the other.
"Have you got rid of her?" asked Noel Vanstone. "Have you shut the door at last on Miss Garth?"
"Don't call her Miss Garth, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, smiling contemptuously. "She is as much Miss Garth as you are. We have been favored by the performance of a clever masquerade; and if we had taken the disguise off our visitor, I think we should have found under it Miss Vanstone herself.—Here is a letter for you, sir, which the postman has just left."
She put the letter on the table within her master's reach. Noel Vanstone's amazement at the discovery just communicated to him kept his whole attention concentrated on the housekeeper's face. He never so much as looked at the letter when she placed it before him.
"Take my word for it, sir," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, composedly taking a chair. "When our visitor gets home she will put her gray hair away in a box, and will cure that sad affliction in her eyes with warm water and a sponge. If she had painted the marks on her face, as well as she painted the inflammation in her eyes, the light would have shown me nothing, and I should certainly have been deceived. But I saw the marks; I saw a young woman's skin under that dirty complexion of hers; I heard in this room a true voice in a passion, as well as a false voice talking with an accent, and I don't believe in one morsel of that lady's personal appearance from top to toe. The girl herself, in my opinion, Mr. Noel—and a bold girl too."
"Why didn't you lock the door and send for the police?" asked Mr. Noel. "My father would have sent for the police. You know, as well as I do, Lecount, my father would have sent for the police."
"Pardon me, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "I think your father would have waited until he had got something more for the police to do than we have got for them yet. We shall see this lady again, sir. Perhaps she will come here next time with her own face and her own voice. I am curious to see what her own face is like. I am curious to know whether what I have heard of her voice in a passion is enough to make me recognize her voice when she is calm. I possess a little memorial of her visit of which she is not aware, and she will not escape me so easily as she thinks. If it turns out a useful memorial, you shall know what it is. If not, I will abstain from troubling you on so trifling a subject.—Allow me to remind you, sir, of the letter under your hand. You have not looked at it yet."
Noel Vanstone opened the letter. He started as his eye fell on the first lines—hesitated—and then hurriedly read it through. The paper dropped from his hand, and he sank back in his chair. Mrs. Lecount sprang to her feet with the alacrity of a young woman and picked up the letter.
"What has happened, sir?" she asked. Her face altered as she put the question, and her large black eyes hardened fiercely, in genuine astonishment and alarm.
"Send for the police," exclaimed her master. "Lecount, I insist on being protected. Send for the police!"
"May I read the letter, sir?"
He feebly waved his hand. Mrs. Lecount read the letter attentively, and put it aside on the table, without a word, when she had done.
"Have you nothing to say to me?" asked Noel Vanstone, staring at his housekeeper in blank dismay. "Lecount, I'm to be robbed! The scoundrel who wrote that letter knows all about it, and won't tell me anything unless I pay him. I'm to be robbed! Here's property on this table worth thousands of pounds—property that can never be replaced—property that all the crowned heads in Europe could not produce if they tried. Lock me in, Lecount, and send for the police!"
Instead of sending for the police, Mrs. Lecount took a large green paper fan from the chimney-piece, and seated herself opposite her master.
"You are agitated, Mr. Noel," she said, "you are heated. Let me cool you."
With her face as hard as ever—with less tenderness of look and manner than most women would have shown if they had been rescuing a half-drowned fly from a milk-jug—she silently and patiently fanned him for five minutes or more. No practiced eye observing the peculiar bluish pallor of his complexion, and the marked difficulty with which he drew his breath, could have failed to perceive that the great organ of life was in this man, what the housekeeper had stated it to be, too weak for the function which it was called on to perform. The heart labored over its work as if it had been the heart of a worn-out old man.
"Are you relieved, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Can you think a little? Can you exercise your better judgment?"
She rose and put her hand over his heart with as much mechanical attention and as little genuine interest as if she had been feeling the plates at dinner to ascertain if they had been properly warmed. "Yes," she went on, seating herself again, and resuming the exercise of the fan; "you are getting better already, Mr. Noel.—Don't ask me about this anonymous letter until you have thought for yourself, and have given your own opinion first." She went on with the fanning, and looked him hard in the face all the time. "Think," she said; "think, sir, without troubling yourself to express your thoughts. Trust to my intimate sympathy with you to read them. Yes, Mr. Noel, this letter is a paltry attempt to frighten you. What does it say? It says you are the object of a conspiracy directed by Miss Vanstone. We know that already—the lady of the inflamed eyes has told us. We snap our fingers at the conspiracy. What does the letter say next? It says the writer has valuable information to give you if you will pay for it. What did you call this person yourself just now, sir?"
"I called him a scoundrel," said Noel Vanstone, recovering his self-importance, and raising himself gradually in his chair.
"I agree with you in that, sir, as I agree in everything else," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "He is a scoundrel who really has this information and who means what he says, or he is a mouthpiece of Miss Vanstone's, and she has caused this letter to be written for the purpose of puzzling us by another form of disguise. Whether the letter is true, or whether the letter is false—am I not reading your own wiser thoughts now, Mr. Noel?—you know better than to put your enemies on their guard by employing the police in this matter too soon. I quite agree with you—no police just yet. You will allow this anonymous man, or anonymous woman, to suppose you are easily frightened; you will lay a trap for the information in return for the trap laid for your money; you will answer the letter, and see what comes of the answer; and you will only pay the expense of employing the police when you know the expense is necessary. I agree with you again—no expense, if we can help it. In every particular, Mr. Noel, my mind and your mind in this matter are one."
"It strikes you in that light, Lecount—does it?" said Noel Vanstone. "I think so myself; I certainly think so. I won't pay the police a farthing if I can possibly help it." He took up the letter again, and became fretfully perplexed over a second reading of it. "But the man wants money!" he broke out, impatiently. "You seem to forget, Lecount, that the man wants money."
"Money which you offer him, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount; "but—as your thoughts have already anticipated—money which you don't give him. No! no! you say to this man: 'Hold out your hand, sir;' and when he has held it, you give him a smack for his pains, and put your own hand back in your pocket.—I am so glad to see you laughing, Mr. Noel! so glad to see you getting back your good spirits. We will answer the letter by advertisement, as the writer directs—advertisement is so cheap! Your poor hand is trembling a little—shall I hold the pen for you? I am not fit to do more; but I can always promise to hold the pen."
Without waiting for his reply she went into the back parlor, and returned with pen, ink, and paper. Arranging a blotting-book on her knees, and looking a model of cheerful submission, she placed herself once more in front of her master's chair.
"Shall I write from your dictation, sir?" she inquired. "Or shall I make a little sketch, and will you correct it afterward? I will make a little sketch. Let me see the letter. We are to advertise in the Times, and we are to address 'An Unknown Friend.' What shall I say, Mr. Noel? Stay; I will write it, and then you can see for yourself: 'An Unknown Friend is requested to mention (by advertisement) an address at which a letter can reach him. The receipt of the information which he offers will be acknowledged by a reward of—' What sum of money do you wish me to set down, sir?"
"Set down nothing," said Noel Vanstone, with a sudden outbreak of impatience. "Money matters are my business—I say money matters are my business, Lecount. Leave it to me."
"Certainly, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount, handing her master the blotting-book. "You will not forget to be liberal in offering money when you know beforehand you don't mean to part with it?"
"Don't dictate, Lecount! I won't submit to dictation!" said Noel Vanstone, asserting his own independence more and more impatiently. "I mean to conduct this business for myself. I am master, Lecount!"
"You are master, sir."
"My father was master before me. And I am my father's son. I tell you, Lecount, I am my father's son!"
Mrs. Lecount bowed submissively.
"I mean to set down any sum of money I think right," pursued Noel Vanstone, nodding his little flaxen head vehemently. "I mean to send this advertisement myself. The servant shall take it to the stationer's to be put into the Times. When I ring the bell twice, send the servant. You understand, Lecount? Send the servant."
Mrs. Lecount bowed again and walked slowly to the door. She knew to a nicety when to lead her master and when to let him go alone. Experience had taught her to govern him in all essential points by giving way to him afterward on all points of minor detail. It was a characteristic of his weak nature—as it is of all weak natures—to assert itself obstinately on trifles. The filling in of the blank in the advertisement was the trifle in this case; and Mrs. Lecount quieted her master's suspicions that she was leading him by instantly conceding it. "My mule has kicked," she thought to herself, in her own language, as she opened the door. "I can do no more with him to-day."
"Lecount!" cried her master, as she stepped into the passage. "Come back."
Mrs. Lecount came back.
"You're not offended with me, are you?" asked Noel Vanstone, uneasily.
"Certainly not, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount. "As you said just now—you are master."
"Good creature! Give me your hand." He kissed her hand, and smiled in high approval of his own affectionate proceeding. "Lecount, you are a worthy creature!"
"Thank you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. She courtesied and went out. "If he had any brains in that monkey head of his," she said to herself in the passage, "what a rascal he would be!"
Left by himself, Noel Vanstone became absorbed in anxious reflection over the blank space in the advertisement. Mrs. Lecount's apparently superfluous hint to him to be liberal in offering money when he knew he had no intention of parting with it, had been founded on an intimate knowledge of his character. He had inherited his father's sordid love of money, without inheriting his father's hard-headed capacity for seeing the uses to which money can be put. His one idea in connection with his wealth was the idea of keeping it. He was such an inborn miser that the bare prospect of being liberal in theory only daunted him. He took up the pen; laid it down again; and read the anonymous letter for the third time, shaking his head over it suspiciously. "If I offer this man a large sum of money," he thought, on a sudden, "how do I know he may not find a means of actually making me pay it? Women are always in a hurry. Lecount is always in a hurry. I have got the afternoon before me—I'll take the afternoon to consider it."
He fretfully put away the blotting-book and the sketch of the advertisement on the chair which Mrs. Lecount had just left. As he returned to his own seat, he shook his little head solemnly, and arranged his white dressing-gown over his knees with the air of a man absorbed in anxious thought. Minute after minute passed away; the quarters and the half-hours succeeded each other on the dial of Mrs. Lecount's watch, and still Noel Vanstone remained lost in doubt; still no summons for the servants disturbed the tranquillity of the parlor bell.
* * * * *
Meanwhile, after parting with Mrs. Lecount, Magdalen had cautiously abstained from crossing the road to her lodgings, and had only ventured to return after making a circuit in the neighborhood. When she found herself once more in Vauxhall Walk, the first object which attracted her attention was a cab drawn up before the door of the lodgings. A few steps more in advance showed her the landlady's daughter standing at the cab door engaged in a dispute with the driver on the subject of his fare. Noticing that the girl's back was turned toward her, Magdalen instantly profited by that circumstance and slipped unobserved into the house.
She glided along the passage, ascended the stairs, and found herself, on the first landing, face to face with her traveling companion! There stood Mrs. Wragge, with a pile of small parcels hugged up in her arms, anxiously waiting the issue of the dispute with the cabman in the street. To return was impossible—the sound of the angry voices below was advancing into the passage. To hesitate was worse than useless. But one choice was left—the choice of going on—and Magdalen desperately took it. She pushed by Mrs. Wragge without a word, ran into her own room, tore off her cloak, bonnet and wig, and threw them down out of sight in the blank space between the sofa-bedstead and the wall.
For the first few moments, astonishment bereft Mrs. Wragge of the power of speech, and rooted her to the spot where she stood. Two out of the collection of parcels in her arms fell from them on the stairs. The sight of that catastrophe roused her. "Thieves!" cried Mrs. Wragge, suddenly struck by an idea. "Thieves!"
Magdalen heard her through the room door, which she had not had time to close completely. "Is that you, Mrs. Wragge?" she called out in her own voice. "What is the matter?" She snatched up a towel while she spoke, dipped it in water, and passed it rapidly over the lower part of her face. At the sound of the familiar voice Mrs. Wragge turned round—dropped a third parcel—and, forgetting it in her astonishment, ascended the second flight of stairs. Magdalen stepped out on the first-floor landing, with the towel held over her forehead as if she was suffering from headache. Her false eyebrows required time for their removal, and a headache assumed for the occasion suggested the most convenient pretext she could devise for hiding them as they were hidden now.
"What are you disturbing the house for?" she asked. "Pray be quiet; I am half blind with the headache."
"Anything wrong, ma'am?" inquired the landlady from the passage.
"Nothing whatever," replied Magdalen. "My friend is timid; and the dispute with the cabman has frightened her. Pay the man what he wants, and let him go."
"Where is She?" asked Mrs. Wragge, in a tremulous whisper. "Where's the woman who scuttled by me into your room?"
"Pooh!" said Magdalen. "No woman scuttled by you—as you call it. Look in and see for yourself."
She threw open the door. Mrs. Wragge walked into the room—looked all over it—saw nobody—and indicated her astonishment at the result by dropping a fourth parcel, and trembling helplessly from head to foot.
"I saw her go in here," said Mrs. Wragge, in awestruck accents. "A woman in a gray cloak and a poke bonnet. A rude woman. She scuttled by me on the stairs—she did. Here's the room, and no woman in it. Give us a Prayer-book!" cried Mrs. Wragge, turning deadly pale, and letting her whole remaining collection of parcels fall about her in a little cascade of commodities. "I want to read something Good. I want to think of my latter end. I've seen a Ghost!"
"Nonsense!" said Magdalen. "You're dreaming; the shopping has been too much for you. Go into your own room and take your bonnet off."
"I've heard tell of ghosts in night-gowns, ghosts in sheets, and ghosts in chains," proceeded Mrs. Wragge, standing petrified in her own magic circle of linen-drapers' parcels. "Here's a worse ghost than any of 'em—a ghost in a gray cloak and a poke bonnet. I know what it is," continued Mrs. Wragge, melting into penitent tears. "It's a judgment on me for being so happy away from the captain. It's a judgment on me for having been down at heel in half the shops in London, first with one shoe and then with the other, all the time I've been out. I'm a sinful creature. Don't let go of me—whatever you do, my dear, don't let go of me!" She caught Magdalen fast by the arm and fell into another trembling fit at the bare idea of being left by herself.
The one remaining chance in such an emergency as this was to submit to circumstances. Magdalen took Mrs. Wragge to a chair; having first placed it in such a position as might enable her to turn her back on her traveling-companion, while she removed the false eyebrows by the help of a little water. "Wait a minute there," she said, "and try if you can compose yourself while I bathe my head."
"Compose myself?" repeated Mrs. Wragge. "How am I to compose myself when my head feels off my shoulders? The worst Buzzing I ever had with the Cookery-book was nothing to the Buzzing I've got now with the Ghost. Here's a miserable end to a holiday! You may take me back again, my dear, whenever you like—I've had enough of it already!"
Having at last succeeded in removing the eyebrows, Magdalen was free to combat the unfortunate impression produced on her companion's mind by every weapon of persuasion which her ingenuity could employ.
The attempt proved useless. Mrs. Wragge persisted—on evidence which, it may be remarked in parenthesis, would have satisfied many wiser ghost-seers than herself—in believing that she had been supernaturally favored by a visitor from the world of spirits. All that Magdalen could do was to ascertain, by cautious investigation, that Mrs. Wragge had not been quick enough to identify the supposed ghost with the character of the old North-country lady in the Entertainment. Having satisfied herself on this point, she had no resource but to leave the rest to the natural incapability of retaining impressions—unless those impressions were perpetually renewed—which was one of the characteristic infirmities of her companion's weak mind. After fortifying Mrs. Wragge by reiterated assurances that one appearance (according to all the laws and regulations of ghosts) meant nothing unless it was immediately followed by two more—after patiently leading back her attention to the parcels dropped on the floor and on the stairs—and after promising to keep the door of communication ajar between the two rooms if Mrs. Wragge would engage on her side to retire to her own chamber, and to say no more on the terrible subject of the ghost—Magdalen at last secured the privilege of reflecting uninterruptedly on the events of that memorable day.
Two serious consequences had followed her first step forward. Mrs. Lecount had entrapped her into speaking in her own voice, and accident had confronted her with Mrs. Wragge in disguise.
What advantage had she gained to set against these disasters? The advantage of knowing more of Noel Vanstone and of Mrs. Lecount than she might have discovered in months if she had trusted to inquiries made for her by others. One uncertainty which had hitherto perplexed her was set at rest already. The scheme she had privately devised against Michael Vanstone—which Captain Wragge's sharp insight had partially penetrated when she first warned him that their partnership must be dissolved—was a scheme which she could now plainly see must be abandoned as hopeless, in the case of Michael Vanstone's son. The father's habits of speculation had been the pivot on which the whole machinery of her meditated conspiracy had been constructed to turn. No such vantage-ground was discoverable in the doubly sordid character of the son. Noel Vanstone was invulnerable on the very point which had presented itself in his father as open to attack.
Having reached this conclusion, how was she to shape her future course? What new means could she discover which would lead her secretly to her end, in defiance of Mrs. Lecount's malicious vigilance and Noel Vanstone's miserly distrust?
She was seated before the looking-glass, mechanically combing out her hair, while that all-important consideration occupied her mind. The agitation of the moment had raised a feverish color in her cheeks, and had brightened the light in her large gray eyes. She was conscious of looking her best; conscious how her beauty gained by contrast, after the removal of the disguise. Her lovely light brown hair looked thicker and softer than ever, now that it had escaped from its imprisonment under the gray wig. She twisted it this way and that, with quick, dexterous fingers; she laid it in masses on her shoulders; she threw it back from them in a heap and turned sidewise to see how it fell—to see her back and shoulders freed from the artificial deformities of the padded cloak. After a moment she faced the looking-glass once more; plunged both hands deep in her hair; and, resting her elbows on the table, looked closer and closer at the reflection of herself, until her breath began to dim the glass. "I can twist any man alive round my finger," she thought, with a smile of superb triumph, "as long as I keep my looks! If that contemptible wretch saw me now—" She shrank from following that thought to its end, with a sudden horror of herself: she drew back from the glass, shuddering, and put her hands over her face. "Oh, Frank!" she murmured, "but for you, what a wretch I might be!" Her eager fingers snatched the little white silk bag from its hiding-place in her bosom; her lips devoured it with silent kisses. "My darling! my angel! Oh, Frank, how I love you!" The tears gushed into her eyes. She passionately dried them, restored the bag to its place, and turned her back on the looking-glass. "No more of myself," she thought; "no more of my mad, miserable self for to-day!"
Shrinking from all further contemplation of her next step in advance—shrinking from the fast-darkening future, with which Noel Vanstone was now associated in her inmost thoughts—she looked impatiently about the room for some homely occupation which might take her out of herself. The disguise which she had flung down between the wall and the bed recurred to her memory. It was impossible to leave it there. Mrs. Wragge (now occupied in sorting her parcels) might weary of her employment, might come in again at a moment's notice, might pass near the bed, and see the gray cloak. What was to be done?
Her first thought was to put the disguise back in her trunk. But after what had happened, there was danger in trusting it so near to herself while she and Mrs. Wragge were together under the same roof. She resolved to be rid of it that evening, and boldly determined on sending it back to Birmingham. Her bonnet-box fitted into her trunk. She took the box out, thrust in the wig and cloak, and remorselessly flattened down the bonnet at the top. The gown (which she had not yet taken off) was her own; Mrs. Wragge had been accustomed to see her in it—there was no need to send the gown back. Before closing the box, she hastily traced these lines on a sheet of paper: "I took the inclosed things away by mistake. Please keep them for me, with the rest of my luggage in your possession, until you hear from me again." Putting the paper on the top of the bonnet, she directed the box to Captain Wragge at Birmingham, took it downstairs immediately, and sent the landlady's daughter away with it to the nearest Receiving-house. "That difficulty is disposed of," she thought, as she went back to her own room again.
Mrs. Wragge was still occupied in sorting her parcels on her narrow little bed. She turned round with a faint scream when Magdalen looked in at her. "I thought it was the ghost again," said Mrs. Wragge. "I'm trying to take warning, my dear, by what's happened to me. I've put all my parcels straight, just as the captain would like to see 'em. I'm up at heel with both shoes. If I close my eyes to-night—which I don't think I shall—I'll go to sleep as straight as my legs will let me. And I'll never have another holiday as long as I live. I hope I shall be forgiven," said Mrs. Wragge, mournfully shaking her head. "I humbly hope I shall be forgiven."
"Forgiven!" repeated Magdalen. "If other women wanted as little forgiving as you do—Well! well! Suppose you open some of these parcels. Come! I want to see what you have been buying to-day."
Mrs. Wragge hesitated, sighed penitently, considered a little, stretched out her hand timidly toward one of the parcels, thought of the supernatural warning, and shrank back from her own purchases with a desperate exertion of self-control.
"Open this one." said Magdalen, to encourage her: "what is it?"
Mrs. Wragge's faded blue eyes began to brighten dimly, in spite of her remorse; but she self-denyingly shook her head. The master-passion of shopping might claim his own again—but the ghost was not laid yet.
"Did you get it at a bargain?" asked Magdalen, confidentially.
"Dirt cheap!" cried poor Mrs. Wragge, falling headlong into the snare, and darting at the parcel as eagerly as if nothing had happened.
Magdalen kept her gossiping over her purchases for an hour or more, and then wisely determined to distract her attention from all ghostly recollections in another way by taking her out for a walk.
As they left the lodgings, the door of Noel Vanstone's house opened, and the woman-servant appeared, bent on another errand. She was apparently charged with a letter on this occasion which she carried carefully in her hand. Conscious of having formed no plan yet either for attack or defense, Magdalen wondered, with a momentary dread, whether Mrs. Lecount had decided already on opening fresh communications, and whether the letter was directed to "Miss Garth."
The let ter bore no such address. Noel Vanstone had solved his pecuniary problem at last. The blank space in the advertisement was filled up, and Mrs. Lecount's acknowledgment of the captain's anonymous warning was now on its way to insertion in the Times.
THE END OF THE THIRD SCENE.
BETWEEN THE SCENES.
PROGRESS OF THE STORY THROUGH THE POST.
Extract from the Advertising Columns of "The Times."
"AN UNKNOWN FRIEND is requested to mention (by advertisement) an address at which a letter can reach him. The receipt of the information which he offers will be acknowledged by a reward of Five Pounds."
From Captain Wragge to Magdalen.
"Birmingham, July 2d, 1847.
"MY DEAR GIRL—The box containing the articles of costumes which you took away by mistake has come safely to hand. Consider it under my special protection until I hear from you again.
"I embrace this opportunity to assure you once more of my unalterable fidelity to your interests. Without attempting to intrude myself into your confidence, may I inquire whether Mr. Noel Vanstone has consented to do you justice? I greatly fear he has declined—in which case I can lay my hand on my heart, and solemnly declare that his meanness revolts me. Why do I feel a foreboding that you have appealed to him in vain? Why do I find myself viewing this fellow in the light of a noxious insect? We are total strangers to each other; I have no sort of knowledge of him, except the knowledge I picked up in making your inquiries. Has my intense sympathy with your interests made my perceptions prophetic? or, to put it fancifully, is there really such a thing as a former state of existence? and has Mr. Noel Vanstone mortally insulted me—say, in some other planet?
"I write, my dear Magdalen, as you see, with my customary dash of humor. But I am serious in placing my services at your disposal. Don't let the question of terms cause you an instant's hesitation. I accept beforehand any terms you like to mention. If your present plans point that way, I am ready to squeeze Mr. Noel Vanstone, in your interests, till the gold oozes out of him at every pore. Pardon the coarseness of this metaphor. My anxiety to be of service to you rushes into words; lays my meaning, in the rough, at your feet; and leaves your taste to polish it with the choicest ornaments of the English language.
"How is my unfortunate wife? I am afraid you find it quite impossible to keep her up at heel, or to mold her personal appearance into harmony with the eternal laws of symmetry and order. Does she attempt to be too familiar with you? I have always been accustomed to check her, in this respect. She has never been permitted to call me anything but Captain; and on the rare occasions since our union, when circumstances may have obliged her to address me by letter, her opening form of salutation has been rigidly restricted to 'Dear Sir.' Accept these trifling domestic particulars as suggesting hints which may be useful to you in managing Mrs. Wragge; and believe me, in anxious expectation of hearing from you again,
From Norah to Magdalen.
[Forwarded, with the Two Letters that follow it, from the Post-office, Birmingham.]
"Westmoreland House, Kensington, July 1st.
"MY DEAREST MAGDALEN—When you write next (and pray write soon!) address your letter to me at Miss Garth's. I have left my situation; and some little time may elapse before I find another.
"Now it is all over I may acknowledge to you, my darling, that I was not happy. I tried hard to win the affection of the two little girls I had to teach; but they seemed, I am sure I can't tell why, to dislike me from the first. Their mother I have no reason to complain of. But their grandmother, who was really the ruling power in the house, made my life very hard to me. My inexperience in teaching was a constant subject of remark with her; and my difficulties with the children were always visited on me as if they had been entirely of my own making. I tell you this, so that you may not suppose I regret having left my situation. Far from it, my love—I am glad to be out of the house.
"I have saved a little money, Magdalen; and I should so like to spend it in staying a few days with you. My heart aches for a sight of my sister; my ears are weary for the sound of her voice. A word from you telling me where we can meet, is all I want. Think of it—pray think of it.
"Don't suppose I am discouraged by this first check. There are many kind people in the world; and some of them may employ me next time. The way to happiness is often very hard to find; harder, I almost think, for women than for men. But if we only try patiently, and try long enough, we reach it at last—in heaven, if not on earth. I think my way now is the way which leads to seeing you again. Don't forget that, my love, the next time you think of
From Miss Garth to Magdalen.
"Westmoreland House, July 1st.
"MY DEAR MAGDALEN—You have no useless remonstrances to apprehend at the sight of my handwriting. My only object in this letter is to tell you something which I know your sister will not tell you of her own accord. She is entirely ignorant that I am writing to you. Keep her in ignorance, if you wish to spare her unnecessary anxiety, and me unnecessary distress.
"Norah's letter, no doubt, tells you that she has left her situation. I feel it my painful duty to add that she has left it on your account.
"The matter occurred in this manner. Messrs. Wyatt, Pendril, and Gwilt are the solicitors of the gentleman in whose family Norah was employed. The life which you have chosen for yourself was known as long ago as December last to all the partners. You were discovered performing in public at Derby by the person who had been employed to trace you at York; and that discovery was communicated by Mr. Wyatt to Norah's employer a few days since, in reply to direct inquiries about you on that gentleman's part. His wife and his mother (who lives with him) had expressly desired that he would make those inquiries; their doubts having been aroused by Norah's evasive answers when they questioned her about her sister. You know Norah too well to blame her for this. Evasion was the only escape your present life had left her, from telling a downright falsehood.
"That same day, the two ladies of the family, the elder and the younger, sent for your sister, and told her they had discovered that you were a public performer, roaming from place to place in the country under an assumed name. They were just enough not to blame Norah for this; they were just enough to acknowledge that her conduct had been as irreproachable as I had guaranteed it should be when I got her the situation. But, at the same time, they made it a positive condition of her continuing in their employment that she should never permit you to visit her at their house, or to meet her and walk out with her when she was in attendance on the children. Your sister—who has patiently borne all hardships that fell on herself—instantly resented the slur cast on you. She gave her employers warning on the spot. High words followed, and she left the house that evening.
"I have no wish to distress you by representing the loss of this situation in the light of a disaster. Norah was not so happy in it as I had hoped and believed she would be. It was impossible for me to know beforehand that the children were sullen and intractable, or that the husband's mother was accustomed to make her domineering disposition felt by every one in the house. I will readily admit that Norah is well out of this situation. But the harm does not stop here. For all you and I know to the contrary, the harm may go on. What has happened in this situation may happen in another. Your way of life, however pure your conduct may be—and I will do you the justice to believe it pure—is a suspicious way of life to all respectable people. I have lived long enough in this world to know that the sense of Propriety, in nine Englishwomen out of ten, makes no allowances and feels no pity. Norah's next employers may discover you; and Norah may throw up a situation next time which we may never be able to find for her again.
"I leave you to consider this. My child, don't think I am hard on you. I am jealous for your sister's tranquillity. If you will forget the past, Magdalen, and come back, trust to your old governess to forget it too, and to give you the home which your father and mother once gave her. Your friend, my dear, always,
From Francis Clare, Jun., to Magdalen.
"Shanghai, China, April 23d, 1847.
"MY DEAR MAGDALEN—I have deferred answering your letter, in consequence of the distracted state of my mind, which made me unfit to write to you. I am still unfit, but I feel I ought to delay no longer. My sense of honor fortifies me, and I undergo the pain of writing this letter.
"My prospects in China are all at an end. The Firm to which I was brutally consigned, as if I was a bale of merchandise, has worn out my patience by a series of petty insults; and I have felt compelled, from motives of self-respect, to withdraw my services, which were undervalued from the first. My returning to England under these circumstances is out of the question. I have been too cruelly used in my own country to wish to go back to it, even if I could. I propose embarking on board a private trading-vessel in these seas in a mercantile capacity, to make my way, if I can, for myself. How it will end, or what will happen to me next, is more than I can say. It matters little what becomes of me. I am a wanderer and an exile, entirely through the fault of others. The unfeeling desire at home to get rid of me has accomplished its object. I am got rid of for good.
"There is only one more sacrifice left for me to make—the sacrifice of my heart's dearest feelings. With no prospects before me, with no chance of coming home, what hope can I feel of performing my engagement to yourself? None! A more selfish man than I am might hold you to that engagement; a less considerate man than I am might keep you waiting for years—and to no purpose after all. Cruelly as they have been trampled on, my feelings are too sensitive to allow me to do this. I write it with the tears in my eyes—you shall not link your fate to an outcast. Accept these heart-broken lines as releasing you from your promise. Our engagement is at an end.
"The one consolation which supports me in bidding you farewell is, that neither of us is to blame. You may have acted weakly, under my father's influence, but I am sure you acted for the best. Nobody knew what the fatal consequences of driving me out of England would be but myself—and I was not listened to. I yielded to my father, I yielded to you; and this is the end of it!
"I am suffering too acutely to write more. May you never know what my withdrawal from our engagement has cost me! I beg you will not blame yourself. It is not your fault that I have had all my energies misdirected by others—it is not your fault that I have never had a fair chance of getting on in life. Forget the deserted wretch who breathes his heartfelt prayers for your happiness, and who will ever remain your friend and well-wisher.
"FRANCIS CLARE, Jun."
From Francis Clare, Sen., to Magdalen.
[Inclosing the preceding Letter.]
"I always told your poor father my son was a Fool, but I never knew he was a Scoundrel until the mail came in from China. I have every reason to believe that he has left his employers under the most disgraceful circumstances. Forget him from this time forth, as I do. When you and I last set eyes on each other, you behaved well to me in this business. All I can now say in return, I do say. My girl, I am sorry for you,
From Mrs. Wragge to her Husband.
"Dear sir for mercy's sake come here and help us She had a dreadful letter I don't know what yesterday but she read it in bed and when I went in with her breakfast I found her dead and if the doctor had not been two doors off nobody else could have brought her to life again and she sits and looks dreadful and won't speak a word her eyes frighten me so I shake from head to foot oh please do come I keep things as tidy as I can and I do like her so and she used to be so kind to me and the landlord says he's afraid she'll destroy herself I wish I could write straight but I do shake so your dutiful wife matilda wragge excuse faults and beg you on my knees come and help us the Doctor good man will put some of his own writing into this for fear you can't make out mine and remain once more your dutiful wife matilda wragge."
Added by the Doctor.
"SIR—I beg to inform you that I was yesterday called into a neighbor's in Vauxhall Walk to attend a young lady who had been suddenly taken ill. I recovered her with great difficulty from one of the most obstinate fainting-fits I ever remember to have met with. Since that time she has had no relapse, but there is apparently some heavy distress weighing on her mind which it has hitherto been found impossible to remove. She sits, as I am informed, perfectly silent, and perfectly unconscious of what goes on about her, for hours together, with a letter in her hand which she will allow nobody to take from her. If this state of depression continues, very distressing mental consequences may follow; and I only do my duty in suggesting that some relative or friend should interfere who has influence enough to rouse her. Your obedient servant,
"RICHARD JARVIS, M.R.C.S."
From Norah to Magdalen.
"For God's sake, write me one line to say if you are still at Birmingham, and where I can find you there! I have just heard from old Mr. Clare. Oh, Magdalen, if you have no pity on yourself, have some pity on me! The thought of you alone among strangers, the thought of you heart-broken under this dreadful blow, never leaves me for an instant. No words can tell how I feel for you! My own love, remember the better days at home before that cowardly villain stole his way into your heart; remember the happy time at Combe-Raven when we were always together. Oh, don't, don't treat me like a stranger! We are alone in the world now—let me come and comfort you, let me be more than a sister to you, if I can. One line—only one line to tell me where I can find you!"
From Magdalen to Norah.
"MY DEAREST NORAH—All that your love for me can wish your letter has done. You, and you alone, have found your way to my heart. I could think again, I could feel again, after reading what you have written to me. Let this assurance quiet your anxieties. My mind lives and breathes once more—it was dead until I got your letter.
"The shock I have suffered has left a strange quietness in me. I feel as if I had parted from my former self—as if the hopes once so dear to me had all gone back to some past time from which I am now far removed. I can look at the wreck of my life more calmly, Norah, than you could look at it if we were both together again. I can trust myself already to write to Frank.
"My darling, I think no woman ever knows how utterly she has given herself up to the man she loves—until that man has ill-treated her. Can you pity my weakness if I confess to having felt a pang at my heart when I read that part of your letter which calls Frank a coward and a villain? Nobody can despise me for this as I despise myself. I am like a dog who crawls back and licks the master's hand that has beaten him. But it is so—I would confess it to nobody but you—indeed, indeed it is so. He has deceived and deserted me; he has written me a cruel farewell —but don't call him a villain! If he repented and came back to me, I would die rather than marry him now—but it grates on me to see that word coward written against him in your hand! If he is weak of purpose, who tried his weakness beyond what it could bear? Do you think this would have happened if Michael Vanstone had not robbed us of our own, and forced Frank away from me to China? In a week from to-day the year of waiting would have come to an end, and I should have been Frank's wife, if my marriage portion had not been taken from me.
"You will say, after what has hap pened, it is well that I have escaped. My love! there is something perverse in my heart which answers, No! Better have been Frank's wretched wife than the free woman I am now.
"I have not written to him. He sends me no address at which I could write, even if I would. But I have not the wish. I will wait before I send him my farewell. If a day ever comes when I have the fortune which my father once promised I should bring to him, do you know what I would do with it? I would send it all to Frank, as my revenge on him for his letter; as the last farewell word on my side to the man who has deserted me. Let me live for that day! Let me live, Norah, in the hope of better times for you, which is all the hope I have left. When I think of your hard life, I can almost feel the tears once more in my weary eyes. I can almost think I have come back again to my former self.
"You will not think me hard-hearted and ungrateful if I say that we must wait a little yet before we meet. I want to be more fit to see you than I am now. I want to put Frank further away from me, and to bring you nearer still. Are these good reasons? I don't know—don't ask me for reasons. Take the kiss I have put for you here, where the little circle is drawn on the paper; and let that bring us together for the present till I write again. Good-by, my love. My heart is true to you, Norah, but I dare not see you yet.
From Magdalen to Miss Garth.
"MY DEAR MISS GARTH—I have been long in answering your letter; but you know what has happened, and you will forgive me.
"All that I have to say may be said in a few words. You may depend on my never making the general Sense of Propriety my enemy again: I am getting knowledge enough of the world to make it my accomplice next time. Norah will never leave another situation on my account—my life as a public performer is at an end. It was harmless enough, God knows—I may live, and so may you, to mourn the day when I parted from it—but I shall never return to it again. It has left me, as Frank has left me, as all my better thoughts have left me except my thoughts of Norah.
"Enough of myself! Shall I tell you some news to brighten this dull letter? Mr. Michael Vanstone is dead, and Mr. Noel Vanstone has succeeded to the possession of my fortune and Norah's. He is quite worthy of his inheritance. In his father's place, he would have ruined us as his father did.
"I have no more to say that you would care to know. Don't be distressed about me. I am trying to recover my spirits—I am trying to forget the poor deluded girl who was foolish enough to be fond of Frank in the old days at Combe-Raven. Sometimes a pang comes which tells me the girl won't be forgotten—but not often.
"It was very kind of you, when you wrote to such a lost creature as I am, to sign yourself—always my friend. 'Always' is a bold word, my dear old governess! I wonder whether you will ever want to recall it? It will make no difference if you do, in the gratitude I shall always feel for the trouble you took with me when I was a little girl. I have ill repaid that trouble—ill repaid your kindness to me in after life. I ask your pardon and your pity. The best thing you can do for both of us is to forget me. Affectionately yours,
"P.S.—I open the envelope to add one line. For God's sake, don't show this letter to Norah!"
From Magdalen to Captain Wragge.
"Vauxhall Walk, July 17th.
"If I am not mistaken, it was arranged that I should write to you at Birmingham as soon as I felt myself composed enough to think of the future. My mind is settled at last, and I am now able to accept the services which you have so unreservedly offered to me.
"I beg you will forgive the manner in which I received you on your arrival in this house, after hearing the news of my sudden illness. I was quite incapable of controlling myself—I was suffering an agony of mind which for the time deprived me of my senses. It is only your due that I should now thank you for treating me with great forbearance at a time when forbearance was mercy.
"I will mention what I wish you to do as plainly and briefly as I can.
"In the first place, I request you to dispose (as privately as possible) of every article of costume used in the dramatic Entertainment. I have done with our performances forever; and I wish to be set free from everything which might accidentally connect me with them in the future. The key of my box is inclosed in this letter.
"The other box, which contains my own dresses, you will be kind enough to forward to this house. I do not ask you to bring it yourself, because I have a far more important commission to intrust to you.
"Referring to the note which you left for me at your departure, I conclude that you have by this time traced Mr. Noel Vanstone from Vauxhall Walk to the residence which he is now occupying. If you have made the discovery—and if you are quite sure of not having drawn the attention either of Mrs. Lecount or her master to yourself—I wish you to arrange immediately for my residing (with you and Mrs. Wragge) in the same town or village in which Mr. Noel Vanstone has taken up his abode. I write this, it is hardly necessary to say, under the impression that, wherever he may now be living, he is settled in the place for some little time.
"If you can find a small furnished house for me on these conditions which is to be let by the month, take it for a month certain to begin with. Say that it is for your wife, your niece, and yourself, and use any assumed name you please, as long as it is a name that can be trusted to defeat the most suspicious inquiries. I leave this to your experience in such matters. The secret of who we really are must be kept as strictly as if it was a secret on which our lives depend.
"Any expenses to which you may be put in carrying out my wishes I will immediately repay. If you easily find the sort of house I want, there is no need for your returning to London to fetch us. We can join you as soon as we know where to go. The house must be perfectly respectable, and must be reasonably near to Mr. Noel Vanstone's present residence, wherever that is.
"You must allow me to be silent in this letter as to the object which I have now in view. I am unwilling to risk an explanation in writing. When all our preparations are made, you shall hear what I propose to do from my own lips; and I shall expect you to tell me plainly, in return, whether you will or will not give me the help I want on the best terms which I am able to offer you.
"One word more before I seal up this letter.
"If any opportunity falls in your way after you have taken the house, and before we join you, of exchanging a few civil words either with Mr. Noel Vanstone or Mrs. Lecount, take advantage of it. It is very important to my present object that we should become acquainted with each other—as the purely accidental result of our being near neighbors. I want you to smooth the way toward this end if you can, before Mrs. Wragge and I come to you. Pray throw away no chance of observing Mrs. Lecount, in particular, very carefully. Whatever help you can give me at the outset in blindfolding that woman's sharp eyes will be the most precious help I have ever received at your hands.
"There is no need to answer this letter immediately—unless I have written it under a mistaken impression of what you have accomplished since leaving London. I have taken our lodgings on for another week; and I can wait to hear from you until you are able to send me such news as I wish to receive. You may be quite sure of my patience for the future, under all possible circumstances. My caprices are at an end, and my violent temper has tried your forbearance for the last time.
From Captain Wragge to Magdalen.
"North Shingles Villa, Aldborough, Suffolk, July 22d.
"MY DEAR GIRL—Your letter has charmed and touched me. Your excuses have gone straight to my heart; and your confidence in my humble abilities has followed in the sa me direction. The pulse of the old militia-man throbs with pride as he thinks of the trust you have placed in him, and vows to deserve it. Don't be surprised at this genial outburst. All enthusiastic natures must explode occasionally; and my form of explosion is—Words.
"Everything you wanted me to do is done. The house is taken; the name is found; and I am personally acquainted with Mrs. Lecount. After reading this general statement, you will naturally be interested in possessing your mind next of the accompanying details. Here they are, at your service:
"The day after leaving you in London, I traced Mr. Noel Vanstone to this curious little seaside snuggery. One of his father's innumerable bargains was a house at Aldborough—a rising watering-place, or Mr. Michael Vanstone would not have invested a farthing in it. In this house the despicable little miser, who lived rent free in London, now lives, rent free again, on the coast of Suffolk. He is settled in his present abode for the summer and autumn; and you and Mrs. Wragge have only to join me here, to be established five doors away from him in this elegant villa. I have got the whole house for three guineas a week, with the option of remaining through the autumn at the same price. In a fashionable watering-place, such a residence would have been cheap at double the money.
"Our new name has been chosen with a wary eye to your suggestions. My books—I hope you have not forgotten my Books?—contain, under the heading of Skins To Jump Into, a list of individuals retired from this mortal scene, with whose names, families, and circumstances I am well acquainted. Into some of those Skins I have been compelled to Jump, in the exercise of my profession, at former periods of my career. Others are still in the condition of new dresses and remain to be tried on. The Skin which will exactly fit us originally clothed the bodies of a family named Bygrave. I am in Mr. Bygrave's skin at this moment-and it fits without a wrinkle. If you will oblige me by slipping into Miss Bygrave (Christian name, Susan); and if you will afterward push Mrs. Wragge—anyhow; head foremost if you like—into Mrs. Bygrave (Christian name, Julia), the transformation will be complete. Permit me to inform you that I am your paternal uncle. My worthy brother was established twenty years ago in the mahogany and logwood trade at Belize, Honduras. He died in that place; and is buried on the south-west side of the local cemetery, with a neat monument of native wood carved by a self-taught negro artist. Nineteen months afterward his widow died of apoplexy at a boarding-house in Cheltenham. She was supposed to be the most corpulent woman in England, and was accommodated on the ground-floor of the house in consequence of the difficulty of getting her up and down stairs. You are her only child; you have been under my care since the sad event at Cheltenham; you are twenty-one years old on the second of August next; and, corpulence excepted, you are the living image of your mother. I trouble you with these specimens of my intimate knowledge of our new family Skin, to quiet your mind on the subject of future inquiries. Trust to me and my books to satisfy any amount of inquiry. In the meantime write down our new name and address, and see how they strike you: 'Mr. Bygrave, Mrs. Bygrave, Miss Bygrave; North Shingles Villa, Aldborough.' Upon my life, it reads remarkably well!
"The last detail I have to communicate refers to my acquaintance with Mrs. Lecount.
"We met yesterday, in the grocer's shop here. Keeping my ears open, I found that Mrs. Lecount wanted a particular kind of tea which the man had not got, and which he believed could not be procured any nearer than Ipswich. I instantly saw my way to beginning an acquaintance, at the trifling expense of a journey to that flourishing city. 'I have business to-day in Ipswich,' I said, 'and I propose returning to Aldborough (if I can get back in time) this evening. Pray allow me to take your order for the tea, and to bring it back with my own parcels.' Mrs. Lecount politely declined giving me the trouble—I politely insisted on taking it. We fell into conversation. There is no need to trouble you with our talk. The result of it on my mind is—that Mrs. Lecount's one weak point, if she has such a thing at all, is a taste for science, implanted by her deceased husband, the professor. I think I see a chance here of working my way into her good graces, and casting a little needful dust into those handsome black eyes of hers. Acting on this idea when I purchased the lady's tea at Ipswich, I also bought on my own account that far-famed pocket-manual of knowledge, 'Joyce's Scientific Dialogues.' Possessing, as I do, a quick memory and boundless confidence in myself, I propose privately inflating my new skin with as much ready-made science as it will hold, and presenting Mr. Bygrave to Mrs. Lecount's notice in the character of the most highly informed man she has met with since the professor's death. The necessity of blindfolding that woman (to use your own admirable expression) is as clear to me as to you. If it is to be done in the way I propose, make your mind easy—Wragge, inflated by Joyce, is the man to do it.
"You now have my whole budget of news. Am I, or am I not, worthy of your confidence in me? I say nothing of my devouring anxiety to know what your objects really are—that anxiety will be satisfied when we meet. Never yet, my dear girl, did I long to administer a productive pecuniary Squeeze to any human creature, as I long to administer it to Mr. Noel Vanstone. I say no more. Verbum sap. Pardon the pedantry of a Latin quotation, and believe me,
"P.S.—I await my instructions, as you requested. You have only to say whether I shall return to London for the purpose of escorting you to this place, or whether I shall wait here to receive you. The house is in perfect order, the weather is charming, and the sea is as smooth as Mrs. Lecount's apron. She has just passed the window, and we have exchanged bows. A sharp woman, my dear Magdalen; but Joyce and I together may prove a trifle too much for her."
Extract from the "East Suffolk Argus."
"ALDBOROUGH.—We notice with pleasure the arrival of visitors to this healthful and far-famed watering-place earlier in the season than usual during the present year. Esto Perpetua is all we have to say.
"VISITORS' LIST.—Arrivals since our last. North Shingles Villa—Mrs. Bygrave; Miss Bygrave."
THE FOURTH SCENE.
THE most striking spectacle presented to a stranger by the shores of Suffolk is the extraordinary defenselessness of the land against the encroachments of the sea.
At Aldborough, as elsewhere on this coast, local traditions are, for the most part, traditions which have been literally drowned. The site of the old town, once a populous and thriving port, has almost entirely disappeared in the sea. The German Ocean has swallowed up streets, market-places, jetties, and public walks; and the merciless waters, consummating their work of devastation, closed, no longer than eighty years since, over the salt-master's cottage at Aldborough, now famous in memory only as the birthplace of the poet CRABBE.
Thrust back year after year by the advancing waves, the inhabitants have receded, in the present century, to the last morsel of land which is firm enough to be built on—a strip of ground hemmed in between a marsh on one side and the sea on the other. Here, trusting for their future security to certain sand-hills which the capricious waves have thrown up to encourage them, the people of Aldborough have boldly established their quaint little watering-place. The first fragment of their earthly possessions is a low natural dike of shingle, surmounted by a public path which runs parallel with the sea. Bordering this path, in a broken, uneven line, are the villa residences of modern Aldborough—fanciful little houses, standing mostly in their own gardens, and possessing here and there, as horticultural ornaments, staring figure-heads of ships doing duty for statues among the flowers. Viewed from the low level on which th ese villas stand, the sea, in certain conditions of the atmosphere, appears to be higher than the land: coasting-vessels gliding by assume gigantic proportions, and look alarmingly near the windows. Intermixed with the houses of the better sort are buildings of other forms and periods. In one direction the tiny Gothic town-hall of old Aldborough—once the center of the vanished port and borough—now stands, fronting the modern villas close on the margin of the sea. At another point, a wooden tower of observation, crowned by the figure-head of a wrecked Russian vessel, rises high above the neighboring houses, and discloses through its scuttle-window grave men in dark clothing seated on the topmost story, perpetually on the watch—the pilots of Aldborough looking out from their tower for ships in want of help. Behind the row of buildings thus curiously intermingled runs the one straggling street of the town, with its sturdy pilots' cottages, its mouldering marine store-houses, and its composite shops. Toward the northern end this street is bounded by the one eminence visible over all the marshy flat—a low wooded hill, on which the church is built. At its opposite extremity the street leads to a deserted martello tower, and to the forlorn outlying suburb of Slaughden, between the river Alde and the sea. Such are the main characteristics of this curious little outpost on the shores of England as it appears at the present time.
On a hot and cloudy July afternoon, and on the second day which had elapsed since he had written to Magdalen, Captain Wragge sauntered through the gate of North Shingles Villa to meet the arrival of the coach, which then connected Aldborough with the Eastern Counties Railway. He reached the principal inn as the coach drove up, and was ready at the door to receive Magdalen and Mrs. Wragge, on their leaving the vehicle.
The captain's reception of his wife was not characterized by an instant's unnecessary waste of time. He looked distrustfully at her shoes—raised himself on tiptoe—set her bonnet straight for her with a sharp tug—-said, in a loud whisper, "hold your tongue"—and left her, for the time being, without further notice. His welcome to Magdalen, beginning with the usual flow of words, stopped suddenly in the middle of the first sentence. Captain Wragge's eye was a sharp one, and it instantly showed him something in the look and manner of his old pupil which denoted a serious change.