There was a settled composure on her face which, except when she spoke, made it look as still and cold as marble. Her voice was softer and more equable, her eyes were steadier, her step was slower than of old. When she smiled, the smile came and went suddenly, and showed a little nervous contraction on one side of her mouth never visible there before. She was perfectly patient with Mrs. Wragge; she treated the captain with a courtesy and consideration entirely new in his experience of her—but she was interested in nothing. The curious little shops in the back street; the high impending sea; the old town-hall on the beach; the pilots, the fishermen, the passing ships—she noticed all these objects as indifferently as if Aldborough had been familiar to her from her infancy. Even when the captain drew up at the garden-gate of North Shingles, and introduced her triumphantly to the new house, she hardly looked at it. The first question she asked related not to her own residence, but to Noel Vanstone's.
"How near to us does he live?" she inquired, with the only betrayal of emotion which had escaped her yet.
Captain Wragge answered by pointing to the fifth villa from North Shingles, on the Slaughden side of Aldborough. Magdalen suddenly drew back from the garden-gate as he indicated the situation, and walked away by herself to obtain a nearer view of the house. Captain Wragge looked after her, and shook his head, discontentedly.
"May I speak now?" inquired a meek voice behind him, articulating respectfully ten inches above the top of his straw hat.
The captain turned round, and confronted his wife. The more than ordinary bewilderment visible in her face at once suggested to him that Magdalen had failed to carry out the directions in his letter; and that Mrs. Wragge had arrived at Aldborough without being properly aware of the total transformation to be accomplished in her identity and her name. The necessity of setting this doubt at rest was too serious to be trifled with; and Captain Wragge instituted the necessary inquiries without a moment's delay.
"Stand straight, and listen to me," he began. "I have a question to ask you. Do you know whose Skin you are in at this moment? Do you know that you are dead and buried in London; and that you have risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Mrs. Wragge? No! you evidently don't know it. This is perfectly disgraceful. What is your name?"
"Matilda," answered Mrs. Wragge, in a state of the densest bewilderment.
"Nothing of the sort!" cried the captain, fiercely. "How dare you tell me your name's Matilda? Your name is Julia. Who am I?—Hold that basket of sandwiches straight, or I'll pitch it into the sea!—Who am I?"
"I don't know," said Mrs. Wragge, meekly taking refuge in the negative side of the question this time.
"Sit down!" said her husband, pointing to the low garden wall of North Shingles Villa. "More to the right! More still! That will do. You don't know?" repeated the captain, sternly confronting his wife as soon as he had contrived, by seating her, to place her face on a level with his own. "Don't let me hear you say that a second time. Don't let me have a woman who doesn't know who I am to operate on my beard to-morrow morning. Look at me! More to the left—more still—that will do. Who am I? I'm Mr. Bygrave—Christian name, Thomas. Who are you? You're Mrs. Bygrave—Christian name, Julia. Who is that young lady who traveled with you from London? That young lady is Miss Bygrave—Christian name, Susan. I'm her clever uncle Tom; and you're her addle-headed aunt Julia. Say it all over to me instantly, like the Catechism! What is your name?"
"Spare my poor head!" pleaded Mrs. Wragge. "Oh, please spare my poor head till I've got the stage-coach out of it!"
"Don't distress her," said Magdalen, joining them at that moment. "She will learn it in time. Come into the house."
Captain Wragge shook his wary head once more. "We are beginning badly," he said, with less politeness than usual. "My wife's stupidity stands in our way already."
They went into the house. Magdalen was perfectly satisfied with all the captain's arrangements; she accepted the room which he had set apart for her; approved of the woman servant whom he had engaged; presented herself at tea-time the moment she was summoned but still showed no interest whatever in the new scene around her. Soon after the table was cleared, although the daylight had not yet faded out, Mrs. Wragge's customary drowsiness after fatigue of any kind overcame her, and she received her husband s orders to leave the room (taking care that she left it "up at heel"), and to betake herself (strictly in the character of Mrs. Bygrave) to bed. As soon as they were left alone, the captain looked hard at Magdalen, and waited to be spoken to. She said nothing. He ventured next on opening the conversation by a polite inquiry after the state of her health. "You look fatigued," he remarked, in his most insinuating manner. "I am afraid the journey has been too much for you."
"No," she said, looking out listlessly through the window; "I am not more tired than usual. I am always weary now; weary at going to bed, weary at getting up. If you would like to hear what I have to say to you to-night, I am willing and ready to say it. Can't we go out? It is very hot here; and the droning of those men's voices is beyond all endurance." She pointed through the window to a group of boatmen idling, as only nautical men can idle, against the garden wall. "Is there no quiet walk in this wretched place?" she asked, impatiently. "Can't we breathe a little fresh air, and escape being annoyed by strangers?"
"There is perfect solitude within half an hour's walk of the house," replied the ready captain.
"Very well. Come out, then."
With a weary sigh she took up her straw bonnet and her light muslin scarf from the side-table upon which she had thrown them on coming in, and carelessly led the way to the door. Captain Wragge followed her to the garden gate, then stopped, struck by a new idea.
"Excuse me," he whispered, confidentially. "In my wife's existing state of ignorance as to who she is, we had better not trust her alone in the house with a new servant. I'll privately turn the key on her, in case she wakes before we come back. Safe bind, safe find—you know the proverb!—I will be with you again in a moment."
He hastened back to the house, and Magdalen seated herself on the garden wall to await his return.
She had hardly settled herself in that position when two gentlemen walking together, whose approach along the public path she had not previously noticed, passed close by her.
The dress of one of the two strangers showed him to be a clergyman. His companion's station in life was less easily discernible to ordinary observation. Practiced eyes would probably have seen enough in his look, his manner, and his walk to show that he was a sailor. He was a man in the prime of life; tall, spare, and muscular; his face sun-burned to a deep brown; his black hair just turning gray; his eyes dark, deep and firm—the eyes of a man with an iron resolution and a habit of command. He was the nearest of the two to Magdalen, as he and his friend passed the place where she was sitting; and he looked at her with a sudden surprise at her beauty, with an open, hearty, undisguised admiration, which was too evidently sincere, too evidently beyond his own control, to be justly resented as insolent; and yet, in her humor at that moment, Magdalen did resent it. She felt the man's resolute black eyes strike through her with an electric suddenness; and frowning at him impatiently, she turned away her head and looked back at the house.
The next moment she glanced round again to see if he had gone on. He had advanced a few yards—had then evidently stopped—and was now in the very act of turning to look at her once more. His companion, the clergyman, noticing that Magdalen appeared to be annoyed, took him familiarly by the arm, and, half in jest, half in earnest, forced him to walk on. The two disappeared round the corner of the next house. As they turned it, the sun-burned sailor twice stopped his companion again, and twice looked back.
"A friend of yours?" inquired Captain Wragge, joining Magdalen at that moment.
"Certainly not," she replied; "a perfect stranger. He stared at me in the most impertinent manner. Does he belong to this place?"
"I'll find out in a moment," said the compliant captain, joining the group of boatmen, and putting his questions right and left, with the easy familiarity which distinguished him. He returned in a few minutes with a complete budget of information. The clergyman was well known as the rector of a place situated some few miles inland. The dark man with him was his wife's brother, commander of a ship in the merchant-service. He was supposed to be staying with his relatives, as their guest for a short time only, preparatory to sailing on another voyage. The clergyman's name was Strickland, and the merchant-captain's name was Kirke; and that was all the boatmen knew about either of them.
"It is of no consequence who they are," said Magdalen, carelessly. "The man's rudeness merely annoyed me for the moment. Let us have done with him. I have something else to think of, and so have you. Where is the solitary walk you mentioned just now? Which way do we go?"
The captain pointed southward toward Slaughden, and offered his arm.
Magdalen hesitated before she took it. Her eyes wandered away inquiringly to Noel Vanstone's house. He was out in the garden, pacing backward and forward over the little lawn, with his head high in the air, and with Mrs. Lecount demurely in attendance on him, carrying her master's green fan. Seeing this, Magdalen at once took Captain Wragge's right arm, so as to place herself nearest to the garden when they passed it on their walk.
"The eyes of our neighbors are on us; and the least your niece can do is to take your arm," she said, with a bitter laugh. "Come! let us go on."
"They are looking this way," whispered the captain. "Shall I introduce you to Mrs. Lecount?"
"Not to-night," she answered. "Wait, and hear what I have to say to you first."
They passed the garden wall. Captain Wragge took off his hat with a smart flourish, and received a gracious bow from Mrs. Lecount in return. Magdalen saw the housekeeper survey her face, her figure, and her dress, with that reluctant interest, that distrustful curiosity, which women feel in observing each other. As she walked on beyond the house, the sharp voice of Noel Vanstone reached her through the evening stillness. "A fine girl, Lecount," she heard him say. "You know I am a judge of that sort of thing—a fine girl!"
As those words were spoken, Captain Wragge looked round at his companion in sudden surprise. Her hand was trembling violently on his arm, and her lips were fast closed with an expression of speechless pain.
Slowly and in silence the two walked on until they reached the southern limit of the houses, and entered on a little wilderness of shingle and withered grass—the desolate end of Aldborough, the lonely beginning of Slaughden.
It was a dull, airless evening. Eastward, was the gray majesty of the sea, hushed in breathless calm; the horizon line invisibly melting into the monotonous, misty sky; the idle ships shadowy and still on the idle water. Southward, the high ridge of the sea dike, and the grim, massive circle of a martello tower reared high on its mound of grass, closed the view darkly on all that lay beyond. Westward, a lurid streak of sunset glowed red in the dreary heaven, blackened the fringing trees on the far borders of the great inland marsh, and turned its little gleaming water-pools to pools of blood. Nearer to the eye, the sullen flow of the tidal river Alde ebbed noiselessly from the muddy banks; and nearer still, lonely and unprosperous by the bleak water-side, lay the lost little port of Slaughden, with its forlorn wharfs and warehouses of decaying wood, and its few scattered coasting-vessels deserted on the oozy river-shore. No fall of waves was heard on the beach, no trickling of waters bubbled audibly from the idle stream. Now and then the cry of a sea-bird rose from the region of the marsh; and at intervals, from farmhouses far in the inland waste, the faint winding of horns to call the cattle home traveled mournfully through the evening calm.
Magdalen drew her hand from the captain's arm, and led the way to the mound of the martello tower. "I am weary of walking," she said. "Let us stop and rest here."
She seated herself on the slope, and resting on her elbow, mechanically pulled up and scattered from her into the air the tufts of grass growing under her hand. After silently occupying herself in this way for some minutes, she turned suddenly on Captain Wragge. "Do I surprise you?" she asked, with a startling abruptness. "Do you find me changed?"
The captain's ready tact warned him that the time had come to be plain with her, and to reserve his flowers of speech for a more appropriate occasion.
"If you ask the question, I must answer it," he replied. "Yes, I do find you changed."
She pulled up another tuft of grass. "I suppose you can guess the reason?" she said.
The captain was wisely silent. He only answered by a bow.
"I have lost all care for myself," she went on, tearing faster and faster at the tufts of grass. "Saying that is not saying much, perhaps, but it may help you to understand me. There are things I would have died sooner than do at one time—things it would have turned me cold to think of. I don't care now whether I do them or not. I am nothing to myself; I am no more interested in myself than I am in these handfuls o f grass. I suppose I have lost something. What is it? Heart? Conscience? I don't know. Do you? W hat nonsense I am talking! Who cares what I have lost? It has gone; and there's an end of it. I suppose my outside is the best side of me—and that's left, at any rate. I have not lost my good looks, have I? There! there! never mind answering; don't trouble yourself to pay me compliments. I have been admired enough to-day. First the sailor, and then Mr. Noel Vanstone—enough for any woman's vanity, surely! Have I any right to call myself a woman? Perhaps not: I am only a girl in my teens. Oh, me, I feel as if I was forty!" She scattered the last fragments of grass to the winds; and turning her back on the captain, let her head droop till her cheek touched the turf bank. "It feels soft and friendly," she said, nestling to it with a hopeless tenderness horrible to see. "It doesn't cast me off. Mother Earth! The only mother I have left!"
Captain Wragge looked at her in silent surprise. Such experience of humanity as he possessed was powerless to sound to its depths the terrible self-abandonment which had burst its way to the surface in her reckless words—which was now fast hurrying her to actions more reckless still. "Devilish odd!" he thought to himself, uneasily. "Has the loss of her lover turned her brain?" He considered for a minute longer and then spoke to her. "Leave it till to-morrow," suggested the captain confidentially. "You are a little tired to-night. No hurry, my dear girl—no hurry."
She raised her head instantly, and looked round at him with the same angry resolution, with the same desperate defiance of herself, which he had seen in her face on the memorable day at York when she had acted before him for the first time. "I came here to tell you what is in my mind," she said; "and I will tell it!" She seated herself upright on the slope; and clasping her hands round her knees, looked out steadily, straight before her, at the slowly darkening view. In that strange position, she waited until she had composed herself, and then addressed the captain, without turning her head to look round at him, in these words:
"When you and I first met," she began, abruptly, "I tried hard to keep my thoughts to myself. I know enough by this time to know that I failed. When I first told you at York that Michael Vanstone had ruined us, I believe you guessed for yourself that I, for one, was determined not to submit to it. Whether you guessed or not, it is so. I left my friends with that determination in my mind; and I feel it in me now stronger, ten times stronger, than ever."
"Ten times stronger than ever," echoed the captain. "Exactly so—the natural result of firmness of character."
"No—the natural result of having nothing else to think of. I had something else to think of before you found me ill in Vauxhall Walk. I have nothing else to think of now. Remember that, if you find me for the future always harping on the same string. One question first. Did you guess what I meant to do on that morning when you showed me the newspaper, and when I read the account of Michael Vanstone's death?"
"Generally," replied Captain Wragge—"I guessed, generally, that you proposed dipping your hand into his purse and taking from it (most properly) what was your own. I felt deeply hurt at the time by your not permitting me to assist you. Why is she so reserved with me? (I remarked to myself)—why is she so unreasonably reserved?"
"You shall have no reserve to complain of now," pursued Magdalen. "I tell you plainly, if events had not happened as they did, you would have assisted me. If Michael Vanstone had not died, I should have gone to Brighton, and have found my way safely to his acquaintance under an assumed name. I had money enough with me to live on respectably for many months together. I would have employed that time—I would have waited a whole year, if necessary, to destroy Mrs. Lecount's influence over him—and I would have ended by getting that influence, on my own terms, into my own hands. I had the advantage of years, the advantage of novelty, the advantage of downright desperation, all on my side, and I should have succeeded. Before the year was out—before half the year was out—you should have seen Mrs. Lecount dismissed by her master, and you should have seen me taken into the house in her place, as Michael Vanstone's adopted daughter—as the faithful friend—who had saved him from an adventuress in his old age. Girls no older than I am have tried deceptions as hopeless in appearance as mine, and have carried them through to the end. I had my story ready; I had my plans all considered; I had the weak point in that old man to attack in my way, which Mrs. Lecount had found out before me to attack in hers, and I tell you again I should have succeeded."
"I think you would," said the captain. "And what next?"
"Mr. Michael Vanstone would have changed his man of business next. You would have succeeded to the place; and those clever speculations on which he was so fond of venturing would have cost him the fortunes of which he had robbed my sister and myself. To the last farthing, Captain Wragge, as certainly as you sit there, to the last farthing! A bold conspiracy, a shocking deception—wasn't it? I don't care! Any conspiracy, any deception, is justified to my conscience by the vile law which has left us helpless. You talked of my reserve just now. Have I dropped it at last? Have I spoken out at the eleventh hour?"
The captain laid his hand solemnly on his heart, and launched himself once more on his broadest flow of language.
"You fill me with unavailing regret," he said. "If that old man had lived, what a crop I might have reaped from him! What enormous transactions in moral agriculture it might have been my privilege to carry on! Ars longa," said Captain Wragge, pathetically drifting into Latin—"vita brevis! Let us drop a tear on the lost opportunities of the past, and try what the present can do to console us. One conclusion is clear to my mind—the experiment you proposed to try with Mr. Michael Vanstone is totally hopeless, my dear girl, in the case of his son. His son is impervious to all common forms of pecuniary temptation. You may trust my solemn assurance," continued the captain, speaking with an indignant recollection of the answer to his advertisement in the Times, "when I inform you that Mr. Noel Vanstone is emphatically the meanest of mankind."
"I can trust my own experience as well," said Magdalen. "I have seen him, and spoken to him—I know him better than you do. Another disclosure, Captain Wragge, for your private ear! I sent you back certain articles of costume when they had served the purpose for which I took them to London. That purpose was to find my way to Noel Vanstone in disguise, and to judge for myself of Mrs. Lecount and her master. I gained my object; and I tell you again, I know the two people in that house yonder whom we have now to deal with better than you do."
Captain Wragge expressed the profound astonishment, and asked the innocent questions appropriate to the mental condition of a person taken completely by surprise.
"Well," he resumed, when Magdalen had briefly answered him, "and what is the result on your own mind? There must be a result, or we should not be here. You see your way? Of course, my dear girl, you see your way?"
"Yes," she said, quickly. "I see my way."
The captain drew a little nearer to her, with eager curiosity expressed in every line of his vagabond face.
"Go on," he said, in an anxious whisper; "pray go on."
She looked out thoughtfully into the gathering darkness, without answering, without appearing to have heard him. Her lips closed, and her clasped hands tightened mechanically round her knees.
"There is no disguising the fact," said Captain Wragge, warily rousing her into speaking to him. "The son is harder to deal with than the father—"
"Not in my way," she interposed, suddenly.
"Indeed!" said the captain. "Well! they say there is a short cut to everything, if we only look long enough to find it. You have looked long enough, I suppose, and the natural result has followed—you have found it."
"I have not troubled myself to look; I have found it without looking."
"The deuce you have!" cried Captain Wragge, in great perplexity. "My dear girl, is my view of your present position leading me altogether astray? As I understand it, here is Mr. Noel Vanstone in possession of your fortune and your sister's, as his father was, and determined to keep it, as his father was?"
"And here are you—quite helpless to get it by persuasion—quite helpless to get it by law—just as resolute in his ease as you were in his father's, to take it by stratagem in spite of him?"
"Just as resolute. Not for the sake of the fortune—mind that! For the sake of the right."
"Just so. And the means of coming at that right which were hard with the father—who was not a miser—are easy with the son, who is?"
"Write me down an Ass for the first time in my life!" cried the captain, at the end of his patience. "Hang me if I know what you mean!"
She looked round at him for the first time—looked him straight and steadily in the face.
"I will tell you what I mean," she said. "I mean to marry him."
Captain Wragge started up on his knees, and stopped on them, petrified by astonishment.
"Remember what I told you," said Magdalen, looking away from him again. "I have lost all care for myself. I have only one end in life now, and the sooner I reach it—and die—the better. If—" She stopped, altered her position a little, and pointed with one hand to the fast-ebbing stream beneath her, gleaming dim in the darkening twilight—"if I had been what I once was, I would have thrown myself into that river sooner than do what I am going to do now. As it is, I trouble myself no longer; I weary my mind with no more schemes. The short way and the vile way lies before me. I take it, Captain Wragge, and marry him."
"Keeping him in total ignorance of who you are?" said the captain, slowly rising to his feet, and slowly moving round, so as to see her face. "Marrying him as my niece, Miss Bygrave?"
"As your niece, Miss Bygrave."
"And after the marriage—?" His voice faltered, as he began the question, and he left it unfinished.
"After the marriage," she said, "I shall stand in no further need of your assistance."
The captain stooped as she gave him that answer, looked close at her, and suddenly drew back, without uttering a word. He walked away some paces, and sat down again doggedly on the grass. If Magdalen could have seen his face in the dying light, his face would have startled her. For the first time, probably, since his boyhood, Captain Wragge had changed color. He was deadly pale.
"Have you nothing to say to me?" she asked. "Perhaps you are waiting to hear what terms I have to offer? These are my terms; I pay all our expenses here; and when we part, on the day of the marriage, you take a farewell gift away with you of two hundred pounds. Do you promise me your assistance on those conditions?"
"What am I expected to do?" he asked, with a furtive glance at her, and a sudden distrust in his voice.
"You are expected to preserve my assumed character and your own," she answered, "and you are to prevent any inquiries of Mrs. Lecount's from discovering who I really am. I ask no more. The rest is my responsibility—not yours."
"I have nothing to do with what happens—at any time, or in any place—after the marriage?"
"I may leave you at the church door if I please?"
"At the church door, with your fee in your pocket."
"Paid from the money in your own possession?"
"Certainly! How else should I pay it?"
Captain Wragge took off his hat, and passed his handkerchief over his face with an air of relief.
"Give me a minute to consider it," he said.
"As many minutes as you like," she rejoined, reclining on the bank in her former position, and returning to her former occupation of tearing up the tufts of grass and flinging them out into the air.
The captain's reflections were not complicated by any unnecessary divergences from the contemplation of his own position to the contemplation of Magdalen's. Utterly incapable of appreciating the injury done her by Frank's infamous treachery to his engagement—an injury which had severed her, at one cruel blow, from the aspiration which, delusion though it was, had been the saving aspiration of her life—Captain Wragge accepted the simple fact of her despair just as he found it, and then looked straight to the consequences of the proposal which she had made to him.
In the prospect before the marriage he saw nothing more serious involved than the practice of a deception, in no important degree different—except in the end to be attained by it—from the deceptions which his vagabond life had long since accustomed him to contemplate and to carry out. In the prospect after the marriage he dimly discerned, through the ominous darkness of the future, the lurking phantoms of Terror and Crime, and the black gulfs behind them of Ruin and Death. A man of boundless audacity and resource, within his own mean limits; beyond those limits, the captain was as deferentially submissive to the majesty of the law as the most harmless man in existence; as cautious in looking after his own personal safety as the veriest coward that ever walked the earth. But one serious question now filled his mind. Could he, on the terms proposed to him, join the conspiracy against Noel Vanstone up to the point of the marriage, and then withdraw from it, without risk of involving himself in the consequences which his experience told him must certainly ensue?
Strange as it may seem, his decision in this emergency was mainly influenced by no less a person than Noel Vanstone himself. The captain might have resisted the money-offer which Magdalen had made to him—for the profits of the Entertainment had filled his pockets with more than three times two hundred pounds. But the prospect of dealing a blow in the dark at the man who had estimated his information and himself at the value of a five pound note proved too much for his caution and his self-control. On the small neutral ground of self-importance, the best men and the worst meet on the same terms. Captain Wragge's indignation, when he saw the answer to his advertisement, stooped to no retrospective estimate of his own conduct; he was as deeply offended, as sincerely angry as if he had made a perfectly honorable proposal, and had been rewarded for it by a personal insult. He had been too full of his own grievance to keep it out of his first letter to Magdalen. He had more or less forgotten himself on every subsequent occasion when Noel Vanstone's name was mentioned. And in now finally deciding the course he should take, it is not too much to say that the motive of money receded, for the first time in his life, into the second place, and the motive of malice carried the day.
"I accept the terms," said Captain Wragge, getting briskly on his legs again. "Subject, of course, to the conditions agreed on between us. We part on the wedding-day. I don't ask where you go: you don't ask where I go. From that time forth we are strangers to each other."
Magdalen rose slowly from the mound. A hopeless depression, a sullen despair, showed itself in her look and manner. She refused the captain's offered hand; and her tones, when she answered him, were so low that he could hardly hear her.
"We understand each other," she said; "and we can now go back. You may introduce me to Mrs. Lecount to-morrow."
"I must ask a few questions first," said the captain, gravely. "There are more risks to be run in this matter, and more pitfalls in our way, than you seem to suppose. I must know the whole history of your morning call on Mrs. Lecount before I put you and that woman on speaking terms with each other."
"Wait till to-morrow," she broke out impatiently. "Don't madden me by talking about it to-night."
The captain said no more. They turned their faces toward Aldborough, and walked slowly back.
By the time they reached the houses night had overtaken them. Neither moon nor stars were visible. A faint noiseless breeze blowing from the land had come with the darkness. Magdalen paused on the lonely public walk to breathe the air more freely. After a while she turned her face from the breeze and looked out toward the sea. The immeasurable silence of the calm waters, lost in the black void of night, was awful. She stood looking into the darkness, as if its mystery had no secrets for her—she advanced toward it slowly, as if it drew her by some hidden attraction into itself.
"I am going down to the sea," she said to her companion. "Wait here, and I will come back."
He lost sight of her in an instant; it was as if the night had swallowed her up. He listened, and counted her footsteps by the crashing of them on the shingle in the deep stillness. They retreated slowly, further and further away into the night. Suddenly the sound of them ceased. Had she paused on her course or had she reached one of the strips of sand left bare by the ebbing tide?
He waited, and listened anxiously. The time passed, and no sound reached him. He still listened, with a growing distrust of the darkness. Another moment, and there came a sound from the invisible shore. Far and faint from the beach below, a long cry moaned through the silence. Then all was still once more.
In sudden alarm, he stepped forward to descend to the beach, and to call to her. Before he could cross the path, footsteps rapidly advancing caught his ear. He waited an instant, and the figure of a man passed quickly along the walk between him and the sea. It was too dark to discern anything of the stranger's face; it was only possible to see that he was a tall man—as tall as that officer in the merchant-service whose name was Kirke.
The figure passed on northward, and was instantly lost to view. Captain Wragge crossed the path, and, advancing a few steps down the beach, stopped and listened again. The crash of footsteps on the shingle caught his ear once more. Slowly, as the sound had left him, that sound now came back. He called, to guide her to him. She came on till he could just see her—a shadow ascending the shingly slope, and growing out of the blackness of the night.
"You alarmed me," he whispered, nervously. "I was afraid something had happened. I heard you cry out as if you were in pain."
"Did you?" she said, carelessly. "I was in pain. It doesn't matter—it's over now."
Her hand mechanically swung something to and fro as she answered him. It was the little white silk bag which she had always kept hidden in her bosom up to this time. One of the relics which it held—one of the relics which she had not had the heart to part with before—was gone from its keeping forever. Alone, on a strange shore, she had torn from her the fondest of her virgin memories, the dearest of her virgin hopes. Alone, on a strange shore, she had taken the lock of Frank's hair from its once-treasured place, and had cast it away from her to the sea and the night.
THE tall man who had passed Captain Wragge in the dark proceeded rapidly along the public walk, struck off across a little waste patch of ground, and entered the open door of the Aldborough Hotel. The light in the passage, falling full on his face as he passed it, proved the truth of Captain Wragge's surmise, and showed the stranger to be Mr. Kirke, of the merchant service.
Meeting the landlord in the passage, Mr. Kirke nodded to him with the familiarity of an old customer. "Have you got the paper?" he asked; "I want to look at the visitors' list."
"I have got it in my room, sir," said the landlord, leading the way into a parlor at the back of the house. "Are there any friends of yours staying here, do you think?"
Without replying, the seaman turned to the list as soon as the newspaper was placed in his hand, and ran his finger down it, name by name. The finger suddenly stopped at this line: "Sea-view Cottage; Mr. Noel Vanstone." Kirke of the merchant-service repeated the name to himself, and put down the paper thoughtfully.
"Have you found anybody you know, captain?" asked the landlord.
"I have found a name I know—a name my father used often to speak of in his time. Is this Mr. Vanstone a family man? Do you know if there is a young lady in the house?"
"I can't say, captain. My wife will be here directly; she is sure to know. It must have been some time ago, if your father knew this Mr. Vanstone?"
"It was some time ago. My father knew a subaltern officer of that name when he was with his regiment in Canada. It would be curious if the person here turned out to be the same man, and if that young lady was his daughter."
"Excuse me, captain—but the young lady seems to hang a little on your mind," said the landlord, with a pleasant smile.
Mr. Kirke looked as if the form which his host's good-humor had just taken was not quite to his mind. He returned abruptly to the subaltern officer and the regiment in Canada. "That poor fellow's story was as miserable a one as ever I heard," he said, looking back again absently at the visitors' list.
"Would there be any harm in telling it, sir?" asked the landlord. "Miserable or not, a story's a story, when you know it to be true."
Mr. Kirke hesitated. "I hardly think I should be doing right to tell it," he said. "If this man, or any relations of his, are still alive, it is not a story they might like strangers to know. All I can tell you is, that my father was the salvation of that young officer under very dreadful circumstances. They parted in Canada. My father remained with his regiment; the young officer sold out and returned to England, and from that moment they lost sight of each other. It would be curious if this Vanstone here was the same man. It would be curious—"
He suddenly checked himself just as another reference to "the young lady" was on the point of passing his lips. At the same moment the landlord's wife came in, and Mr. Kirke at once transferred his inquiries to the higher authority in the house.
"Do you know anything of this Mr. Vanstone who is down here on the visitors' list?" asked the sailor. "Is he an old man?"
"He's a miserable little creature to look at," replied the landlady; "but he's not old, captain."
"Then he's not the man I mean. Perhaps he is the man's son? Has he got any ladies with him?"
The landlady tossed her head, and pursed up her lips disparagingly.
"He has a housekeeper with him," she said. "A middle-aged person—not one of my sort. I dare say I'm wrong—but I don't like a dressy woman in her station of life."
Mr. Kirke began to look puzzled. "I must have made some mistake about the house," he said. "Surely there's a lawn cut octagon-shape at Sea-view Cottage, and a white flag-staff in the middle of the gravel-walk?"
"That's not Sea-view, sir! It's North Shingles you're talking of. Mr. Bygrave's. His wife and his niece came here by the coach to-day. His wife's tall enough to be put in a show, and the worst-dressed woman I ever set eyes on. But Miss Bygrave is worth looking at, if I may venture to say so. She's the finest girl, to my mind, we've had at Aldborough for many a long day. I wonder who they are! Do you know the name, captain?"
"No," said Mr. Kirke, with a shade of disappointment on his dark, weather-beaten face; "I never heard the name before."
After replying in those words, he rose to take his leave. The landlord vainly invited him to drink a parting glass; the landlady vainly pressed him to stay another ten minutes and try a cup of tea. He only replied that his sister expected him, and that he must return to the parsonage immediately.
On leaving the hotel Mr. Kirke set his face westward, and walked inland along the highroad as fast as the darkness would let him.
"Bygrave?" he thought to himself. "Now I know her name, how much am I the wiser for it! If it had been Vanstone, my father's son might have had a chance of making acquaintance with her." He stopped, and looked back in the direction of Aldborough. "What a fool I am!" he burst out suddenly, striking his stick on the ground. "I was forty last birthday." He turned and went on again faster than ever—his head down; his resolute black eyes searching the darkness on the land as they had searched it many a time on the sea from the deck of his ship.
After more than an hour's walking he reached a village, with a primitive little church and parsonage nestled together in a hollow. He entered the house by the back way, and found his sister, the clergyman's wife, sitting alone over her work in the parlor.
"Where is your husband, Lizzie?" he asked, taking a chair in a corner.
"William has gone out to see a sick person. He had just time enough before he went," she added, with a smile, "to tell me about the young lady; and he declares he will never trust himself at Aldborough with you again until you are a steady, married man." She stopped, and looked at her brother more attentively than she had looked at him yet. "Robert!" she said, laying aside her work, and suddenly crossing the room to him. "You look anxious, you look distressed. William only laughed about your meeting with the young lady. Is it serious? Tell me; what is she like?"
He turned his head away at the question.
She took a stool at his feet, and persisted in looking up at him. "Is it serious, Robert?" she repeated, softly.
Kirke's weather-beaten face was accustomed to no concealments—it answered for him before he spoke a word. "Don't tell your husband till I am gone," he said, with a roughness quite new in his sister's experience of him. "I know I only deserve to be laughed at; but it hurts me, for all that."
"Hurts you?" she repeated, in astonishment.
"You can't think me half such a fool, Lizzie, as I think myself," pursued Kirke, bitterly. "A man at my age ought to know better. I didn't set eyes on her for as much as a minute altogether; and there I have been hanging about the place till after nightfall on the chance of seeing her again—skulking, I should have called it, if I had found one of my men doing what I have been doing myself. I believe I'm bewitched. She's a mere girl, Lizzie—I doubt if she's out of her teens—I'm old enough to be her father. It's all one; she stops in my mind in spite of me. I've had her face looking at me, through the pitch darkness, every step of the way to this house; and it's looking at me now—as plain as I see yours, and plainer."
He rose impatiently, and began to walk backward and forward in the room. His sister looked after him, with surprise as well as sympathy expressed in her face. From his boyhood upward she had always been accustomed to see him master of himself. Years since, in the failing fortunes of the family, he had been their example and their support. She had heard of him in the desperate emergencies of a life at sea, when hundreds of his fellow-creatures had looked to his steady self-possession for rescue from close-threatening death—and had not looked in vain. Never, in all her life before, had his sister seen the balance of that calm and equal mind lost as she saw it lost now.
"How can you talk so unreasonably about your age and yourself?" she said. "There is not a woman alive, Robert, who is good enough for you. What is her name?"
"Bygrave. Do you know it?"
"No. But I might soon make acquaintance with her. If we only had a little time before us; if I could only get to Aldborough and see her—but you are going away to-morrow; your ship sails at the end of the week."
"Thank God for that!" said Kirke, fervently.
"Are you glad to be going away?" she asked, more and more amazed at him.
"Right glad, Lizzie, for my own sake. If I ever get to my senses again, I shall find my way back to them on the deck of my ship. This girl has got between me and my thoughts already: she shan't go a step further, and get between me and my duty. I'm determined on that. Fool as I am, I have sense enough left not to trust myself within easy hail of Aldborough to-morrow morning. I'm good for another twenty miles of walking, and I'll begin my journey back tonight."
His sister started up, and caught him fast by the arm. "Robert!" she exclaimed; "you're not serious? You don't mean to leave us on foot, alone in the dark?"
"It's only saying good-by, my dear, the last thing at night instead of the first thing in the morning," he answered, with a smile. "Try and make allowances for me, Lizzie. My life has been passed at sea; and I'm not used to having my mind upset in this way. Men ashore are used to it; men ashore can take it easy. I can't. If I stopped here I shouldn't rest. If I waited till to-morrow, I should only be going back to have another look at her. I don't want to feel more ashamed of myself than I do already. I want to fight my way back to my duty and myself, without stopping to think twice about it. Darkness is nothing to me—I'm used to darkness. I have got the high-road to walk on, and I can't lose my way. Let me go, Lizzie! The only sweetheart I have any business with at my age is my ship. Let me get back to her!"
His sister still kept her hold of his arm, and still pleaded with him to stay till the morning. He listened to her with perfect patience and kindness, but she never shook his determination for an instant.
"What am I to say to William?" she pleaded. "What will he think when he comes back and finds you gone?"
"Tell him I have taken the advice he gave us in his sermon last Sunday. Say I have turned my back on the world, the flesh, and the devil."
"How can you talk so, Robert! And the boys, too—you promised not to go without bidding the boys good-by."
"That's true. I made my little nephews a promise, and I'll keep it." He kicked off his shoes as he spoke, on the mat outside the door. "Light me upstairs, Lizzie; I'll bid the two boys good-by without waking them."
She saw the uselessness of resisting him any longer; and, taking the candle, went before him upstairs.
The boys—both young children—were sleeping together in the same bed. The youngest was his uncle's favorite, and was called by his uncle's name. He lay peacefully asleep, with a rough little toy ship hugged fast in his arms. Kirke's eyes softened as he stole on tiptoe to the child's side, and kissed him with the gentleness of a woman. "Poor little man!" said the sailor, tenderly. "He is as fond of his ship as I was at his age. I'll cut him out a better one when I come back. Will you give me my nephew one of these days, Lizzie, and will you let me make a sailor of him?"
"Oh, Robert, if you were only married and happy, as I am!"
"The time has gone by, my dear. I must make the best of it as I am, with my little nephew there to help me."
He left the room. His sister's tears fell fast as she followed him into the parlor. "There is something so forlorn and dreadful in your leaving us like this," she said. "Shall I go to Aldborough to-morrow, Robert, and try if I can get acquainted with her for your sake?"
"No!" he replied. "Let her be. If it's ordered that I am to see that girl again, I shall see her. Leave it to the future, and you leave it right." He put on his shoes, and took up his hat and stick. "I won't overwalk myself," he said, cheerfully. "If the coach doesn't overtake me on the road, I can wait for it where I stop to breakfast. Dry your eyes, my dear, and give me a kiss."
She was like her brother in features and complexion, and she had a touch of her brother's spirit; she dashed away the tears, and took her leave of him bravely.
"I shall be back in a year's time," said Kirke, falling into his old sailor-like way at the door. "I'll bring you a China shawl, Lizzie, and a chest of tea for your store-room. Don't let the boys forget me, and don't think I'm doing wrong to leave you in this way. I know I am doing right. God bless you and keep you, my dear—and your husband, and your children! Good-by!"
He stooped and kissed her. She ran to the door to look after him. A puff of air extinguished the candle, and the black night shut him out from her in an instant.
Three days afterward the first-class merchantman Deliverance, Kirke, commander, sailed from London for the China Sea.
THE threatening of storm and change passed away with the night. When morning rose over Aldborough, the sun was master in the blue heaven, and the waves were rippling gayly under the summer breeze.
At an hour when no other visitors to the watering—place were yet astir, the indefatigable Wragge appeared at the door of North Shingles Villa, and directed his steps northward, with a neatly-bound copy of "Joyce's Scientific Dialogues" in his hand. Arriving at the waste ground beyond the houses, he descended to the beach and opened his book. The interview of the past night had sharpened his perception of the difficulties to be encountered in the coming enterprise. He was now doubly determined to try the characteristic experiment at which he had hinted in his letter to Magdalen, and to concentrate on himself—in the character of a remarkably well-informed man—the entire interest and attention of the formidable Mrs. Lecount.
Having taken his dose of ready-made science (to use his own expression) the first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, Captain Wragge joined his small family circle at breakfast-time, inflated with information for the day. He observed that Magdalen's face showed plain signs of a sleepless night. She made no complaint: her manner was composed, and her temper perfectly under control. Mrs. Wragge—refreshed by some thirteen consecutive hours of uninterrupted repose—was in excellent spirits, and up at heel (for a wonder) with both shoes. She brought with her into the room several large sheets of tissue-paper, cut crisply into mysterious and many-varying forms, which immediately provoked from her husband the short and sharp question, "What have you got there?"
"Patterns, captain," said Mrs. Wragge, in timidly conciliating tones. "I went shopping in London, and bought an Oriental Cashmere Robe. It cost a deal of money; and I'm going to try and save, by making it myself. I've got my patterns, and my dress-making directions written out as plain as print. I'll be very tidy, captain; I'll keep in my own corner, if you'll please to give me one; and whether my head Buzzes, or whether it don't, I'll sit straight at my work all the same."
"You will do your work," said the captain, sternly, "when you know who you are, who I am, and who that young lady is—not before. Show me your shoes! Good. Show me you cap! Good. Make the breakfast."
When breakfast was over, Mrs. Wragge received her orders to retire into an adjoining room, and to wait there until her husband came to release her. As soon as her back was turned, Captain Wragge at once resumed the conversation which had been suspended, by Magdalen's own desire, on the preceding night. The questions he now put to her all related to the subject of her visit in disguise to Noel Vanstone's house. They were the questions of a thoroughly clear-headed man—short, searching, and straight to the point. In less than half an hour's time he had made himself acquainted with every incident that had happened in Vauxhall Walk.
The conclusions which the captain drew, after gaining his information, were clear and easily stated.
On the adverse side of the question, he expressed his conviction that Mrs. Lecount had certainly detected her visitor to be disguised; that she had never really left the room, though she might have opened and shut the door; and that on both the occasions, therefore, when Magdalen had been betrayed into speaking in her own voice, Mrs. Lecount had heard her. On the favorable side of the question, he was perfectly satisfied that the painted face and eyelids, the wig, and the padded cloak had so effectually concealed Magdalen's identity, that she might in her own person defy the housekeeper's closest scrutiny, so far as the matter of appearance was concerned. The difficulty of deceiving Mrs. Lecount's ears, as well as her eyes, was, he readily admitted, not so easily to be disposed of. But looking to the fact that Magdalen, on both the occasions when she had forgotten herself, had spoken in the heat of anger, he was of opinion that her voice had every reasonable chance of escaping detection, if she carefully avoided all outbursts of temper for the future, and spoke in those more composed and ordinary tones which Mrs. Lecount had not yet heard. Upon the whole, the captain was inclined to pronounce the prospect hopeful, if one serious obstacle were cleared away at the outset—that obstacle being nothing less than the presence on the scene of action of Mrs. Wragge.
To Magdalen's surprise, when the course of her narrative brought her to the story of the ghost, Captain Wragge listened with the air of a man who was more annoyed than amused by what he heard. When she had done, he plainly told her that her unlucky meeting on the stairs of the lodging-house with Mrs. Wragge was, in his opinion, the most serious of all the accidents that had happened in Vauxhall Walk.
"I can deal with the difficulty of my wife's stupidity," he said, "as I have often dealt with it before. I can hammer her new identity into her head, but I can't hammer the ghost out of it. We have no security that the woman in the gray cloak and poke bonnet may not come back to her recollection at the most critical time, and under the most awkward circumstances. In plain English, my dear girl, Mrs. Wragge is a pitfall under our feet at every step we take."
"If we are aware of the pitfall," said Magdalen, "we can take our measures for avoiding it. What do you propose?"
"I propose," replied the captain, "the temporary removal of Mrs. Wragge. Speaking purely in a pecuniary point of view, I can't afford a total separation from her. You have often read of very poor people being suddenly enriched by legacies reaching them from remote and unexpected quarters? Mrs. Wragge's case, when I married her, was one of these. An elderly female relative shared the favors of fortune on that occasion with my wife; and if I only keep up domestic appearances, I happen to know that Mrs. Wragge will prove a second time profitable to me on that elderly relative's death. But for this circumstance, I should probably long since have transferred my wife to the care of society at large—in the agreeable conviction that if I didn't support her, somebody else would. Although I can't afford to take this course, I see no objection to having her comfortably boarded and lodged out of our way for the time being—say, at a retired farm-house, in the character of a lady in infirm mental health. You would find the expense trifling; I should find the relief unutterable. What do you say? Shall I pack her up at once, and take her away by the next coach?"
"No!" replied Magdalen, firmly. "The poor creature's life is hard enough already; I won't help to make it harder. She was affectionately and truly kind to me when I was ill, and I won't allow her to be shut up among strangers while I can help it. The risk of keeping her here is only one risk more. I will face it, Captain Wragge, if you won't."
"Think twice," said the captain, gravely, "before you decide on keeping Mrs. Wragge."
"Once is enough," rejoined Magdalen. "I won't have her sent away."
"Very good," said the captain, resignedly. "I never interfere with questions of sentiment. But I have a word to say on my own behalf. If my services are to be of any use to you, I can't have my hands tied at starting. This is serious. I won't trust my wife and Mrs. Lecount together. I'm afraid, if you're not, and I make it a condition that, if Mrs. Wragge stops here, she keeps her room. If you think her health requires it, you can take her for a walk early in the morning, or late in the evening; but you must never trust her out with the servant, and never trust her out by herself. I put the matter plainly, it is too important to be trifled with. What do you say—yes or no?"
"I say yes," replied Magdalen, after a moment's consideration. "On the understanding that I am to take her out walking, as you propose."
Captain Wragge bowed, and recovered his suavity of manner. "What are our plans?" he inquired. "Shall we start our enterprise this afternoon? Are you ready for your introduction to Mrs. Lecount and her master?"
"Good again. We will meet them on the Parade, at their usual hour for going out—two o'clock. It is no t twelve yet. I have two hours before me—just time enough to fit my wife into her new Skin. The process is absolutely necessary, to prevent her compromising us with the servant. Don't be afraid about the results; Mrs. Wragge has had a copious selection of assumed names hammered into her head in the course of her matrimonial career. It is merely a question of hammering hard enough—nothing more. I think we have settled everything now. Is there anything I can do before two o'clock? Have you any employment for the morning?"
"No," said Magdalen. "I shall go back to my own room, and try to rest."
"You had a disturbed night, I am afraid?" said the captain, politely opening the door for her.
"I fell asleep once or twice," she answered, carelessly. "I suppose my nerves are a little shaken. The bold black eyes of that man who stared so rudely at me yesterday evening seemed to be looking at me again in my dreams. If we see him to-day, and if he annoys me any more, I must trouble you to speak to him. We will meet here again at two o'clock. Don't be hard with Mrs. Wragge; teach her what she must learn as tenderly as you can."
With those words she left him, and went upstairs.
She lay down on her bed with a heavy sigh, and tried to sleep. It was useless. The dull weariness of herself which now possessed her was not the weariness which finds its remedy in repose. She rose again and sat by the window, looking out listlessly over the sea.
A weaker nature than hers would not have felt the shock of Frank's desertion as she had felt it—as she was feeling it still. A weaker nature would have found refuge in indignation and comfort in tears. The passionate strength of Magdalen's love clung desperately to the sinking wreck of its own delusion-clung, until she tore herself from it, by plain force of will. All that her native pride, her keen sense of wrong could do, was to shame her from dwelling on the thoughts which still caught their breath of life from the undying devotion of the past; which still perversely ascribed Frank's heartless farewell to any cause but the inborn baseness of the man who had written it. The woman never lived yet who could cast a true-love out of her heart because the object of that love was unworthy of her. All she can do is to struggle against it in secret—to sink in the contest if she is weak; to win her way through it if she is strong, by a process of self-laceration which is, of all moral remedies applied to a woman's nature, the most dangerous and the most desperate; of all moral changes, the change that is surest to mark her for life. Magdalen's strong nature had sustained her through the struggle; and the issue of it had left her what she now was.
After sitting by the window for nearly an hour, her eyes looking mechanically at the view, her mind empty of all impressions, and conscious of no thoughts, she shook off the strange waking stupor that possessed her, and rose to prepare herself for the serious business of the day.
She went to the wardrobe and took down from the pegs two bright, delicate muslin dresses, which had been made for summer wear at Combe-Raven a year since, and which had been of too little value to be worth selling when she parted with her other possessions. After placing these dresses side by side on the bed, she looked into the wardrobe once more. It only contained one other summer dress—the plain alpaca gown which she had worn during her memorable interview with Noel Vanstone and Mrs. Lecount. This she left in its place, resolving not to wear it—less from any dread that the housekeeper might recognize a pattern too quiet to be noticed, and too common to be remembered, than from the conviction that it was neither gay enough nor becoming enough for her purpose. After taking a plain white muslin scarf, a pair of light gray kid gloves, and a garden-hat of Tuscan straw, from the drawers of the wardrobe, she locked it, and put the key carefully in her pocket.
Instead of at once proceeding to dress herself, she sat idly looking at the two muslin gowns; careless which she wore, and yet inconsistently hesitating which to choose. "What does it matter!" she said to herself, with a reckless laugh; "I am equally worthless in my own estimation, whichever I put on." She shuddered, as if the sound of her own laughter had startled her, and abruptly caught up the dress which lay nearest to her hand. Its colors were blue and white—the shade of blue which best suited her fair complexion. She hurriedly put on the gown, without going near her looking-glass. For the first time in her life she shrank from meeting the reflection of herself—except for a moment, when she arranged her hair under her garden-hat, leaving the glass again immediately. She drew her scarf over her shoulders and fitted on her gloves, with her back to the toilet-table. "Shall I paint?" she asked herself, feeling instinctively that she was turning pale. "The rouge is still left in my box. It can't make my face more false than it is already." She looked round toward the glass, and again turned away from it. "No!" she said. "I have Mrs. Lecount to face as well as her master. No paint." After consulting her watch, she left the room and went downstairs again. It wanted ten minutes only of two o'clock.
Captain Wragge was waiting for her in the parlor—respectable, in a frock-coat, a stiff summer cravat, and a high white hat; specklessly and cheerfully rural, in a buff waistcoat, gray trousers, and gaiters to match. His collars were higher than ever, and he carried a brand-new camp-stool in his hand. Any tradesman in England who had seen him at that moment would have trusted him on the spot.
"Charming!" said the captain, paternally surveying Magdalen when she entered the room. "So fresh and cool! A little too pale, my dear, and a great deal too serious. Otherwise perfect. Try if you can smile."
"When the time comes for smiling," said Magdalen, bitterly, "trust my dramatic training for any change of face that may be necessary. Where is Mrs. Wragge?"
"Mrs. Wragge has learned her lesson," replied the captain, "and is rewarded by my permission to sit at work in her own room. I sanction her new fancy for dressmaking, because it is sure to absorb all her attention, and to keep her at home. There is no fear of her finishing the Oriental Robe in a hurry, for there is no mistake in the process of making it which she is not certain to commit. She will sit incubating her gown—pardon the expression—like a hen over an addled egg. I assure you, her new whim relieves me. Nothing could be more convenient, under existing circumstances."
He strutted away to the window, looked out, and beckoned to Magdalen to join him. "There they are!" he said, and pointed to the Parade.
Noel Vanstone slowly walked by, as she looked, dressed in a complete suit of old-fashioned nankeen. It was apparently one of the days when the state of his health was at the worst. He leaned on Mrs. Lecount's arm, and was protected from the sun by a light umbrella which she held over him. The housekeeper—dressed to perfection, as usual, in a quiet, lavender-colored summer gown, a black mantilla, an unassuming straw bonnet, and a crisp blue veil—escorted her invalid master with the tenderest attention; sometimes directing his notice respectfully to the various objects of the sea view; sometimes bending her head in graceful acknowledgment of the courtesy of passing strangers on the Parade, who stepped aside to let the invalid pass by. She produced a visible effect among the idlers on the beach. They looked after her with unanimous interest, and exchanged confidential nods of approval which said, as plainly as words could have expressed it, "A very domestic person! a truly superior woman!"
Captain Wragge's party-colored eyes followed Mrs. Lecount with a steady, distrustful attention. "Tough work for us there," he whispered in Magdalen's ear; "tougher work than you think, before we turn that woman out of her place."
"Wait," said Magdalen, quietly. "Wait and see."
She walked to the door. The captain followed her without making any further remark. "I'll wait till you're married," he thought to himself—"not a moment longer, offer me what you may."
At the h ouse door Magdalen addressed him again.
"We will go that way," she said, pointing southward, "then turn, and meet them as they come back."
Captain Wragge signified his approval of the arrangement, and followed Magdalen to the garden gate. As she opened it to pass through, her attention was attracted by a lady, with a nursery-maid and two little boys behind her, loitering on the path outside the garden wall. The lady started, looked eagerly, and smiled to herself as Magdalen came out. Curiosity had got the better of Kirke's sister, and she had come to Aldborough for the express purpose of seeing Miss Bygrave.
Something in the shape of the lady's face, something in the expression of her dark eyes, reminded Magdalen of the merchant-captain whose uncontrolled admiration had annoyed her on the previous evening. She instantly returned the stranger's scrutiny by a frowning, ungracious look. The lady colored, paid the look back with interest, and slowly walked on.
"A hard, bold, bad girl," thought Kirke's sister. "What could Robert be thinking of to admire her? I am almost glad he is gone. I hope and trust he will never set eyes on Miss Bygrave again."
"What boors the people are here!" said Magdalen to Captain Wragge. "That woman was even ruder than the man last night. She is like him in the face. I wonder who she is?"
"I'll find out directly," said the captain. "We can't be too cautious about strangers." He at once appealed to his friends, the boatmen. They were close at hand, and Magdalen heard the questions and answers plainly.
"How are you all this morning?" said Captain Wragge, in his easy jocular way. "And how's the wind? Nor'-west and by west, is it? Very good. Who is that lady?"
"That's Mrs. Strickland, sir."
"Ay! ay! The clergyman's wife and the captain's sister. Where's the captain to-day?"
"On his way to London, I should think, sir. His ship sails for China at the end of the week."
China! As that one word passed the man's lips, a pang of the old sorrow struck Magdalen to the heart. Stranger as he was, she began to hate the bare mention of the merchant-captain's name. He had troubled her dreams of the past night; and now, when she was most desperately and recklessly bent on forgetting her old home-existence, he had been indirectly the cause of recalling her mind to Frank.
"Come!" she said, angrily, to her companion. "What do we care about the man or his ship? Come away."
"By all means," said Captain Wragge. "As long as we don't find friends of the Bygraves, what do we care about anybody?"
They walked on southward for ten minutes or more, then turned and walked back again to meet Noel Vanstone and Mrs. Lecount.
CAPTAIN WRAGGE and Magdalen retraced their steps until they were again within view of North Shingles Villa before any signs appeared of Mrs. Lecount and her master. At that point the housekeeper's lavender-colored dress, the umbrella, and the feeble little figure in nankeen walking under it, became visible in the distance. The captain slackened his pace immediately, and issued his directions to Magdalen for her conduct at the coming interview in these words:
"Don't forget your smile," he said. "In all other respects you will do. The walk has improved your complexion, and the hat becomes you. Look Mrs. Lecount steadily in the face; show no embarrassment when you speak; and if Mr. Noel Vanstone pays you pointed attention, don't take too much notice of him while his housekeeper's eye is on you. Mind one thing! I have been at Joyce's Scientific Dialogues all the morning; and I am quite serious in meaning to give Mrs. Lecount the full benefit of my studies. If I can't contrive to divert her attention from you and her master, I won't give sixpence for our chance of success. Small-talk won't succeed with that woman; compliments won't succeed; jokes won't succeed—ready-made science may recall the deceased professor, and ready-made science may do. We must establish a code of signals to let you know what I am about. Observe this camp-stool. When I shift it from my left hand to my right, I am talking Joyce. When I shift it from my right hand to my left, I am talking Wragge. In the first case, don't interrupt me—I am leading up to my point. In the second case, say anything you like; my remarks are not of the slightest consequence. Would you like a rehearsal? Are you sure you understand? Very good—take my arm, and look happy. Steady! here they are."
The meeting took place nearly midway between Sea-view Cottage and North Shingles. Captain Wragge took off his tall white hat and opened the interview immediately on the friendliest terms.
"Good-morning, Mrs. Lecount," he said, with the frank and cheerful politeness of a naturally sociable man. "Good-morning, Mr. Vanstone; I am sorry to see you suffering to-day. Mrs. Lecount, permit me to introduce my niece—my niece, Miss Bygrave. My dear girl, this is Mr. Noel Vanstone, our neighbor at Sea-view Cottage. We must positively be sociable at Aldborough, Mrs. Lecount. There is only one walk in the place (as my niece remarked to me just now, Mr. Vanstone); and on that walk we must all meet every time we go out. And why not? Are we formal people on either side? Nothing of the sort; we are just the reverse. You possess the Continental facility of manner, Mr. Vanstone—I match you with the blunt cordiality of an old-fashioned Englishman—the ladies mingle together in harmonious variety, like flowers on the same bed—and the result is a mutual interest in making our sojourn at the sea-side agreeable to each other. Pardon my flow of spirits; pardon my feeling so cheerful and so young. The Iodine in the sea-air, Mrs. Lecount—the notorious effect of the Iodine in the sea-air!"
"You arrived yesterday, Miss Bygrave, did you not?" said the housekeeper, as soon as the captain's deluge of language had come to an end.
She addressed those words to Magdalen with a gentle motherly interest in her youth and beauty, chastened by the deferential amiability which became her situation in Noel Vanstone's household. Not the faintest token of suspicion or surprise betrayed itself in her face, her voice, or her manner, while she and Magdalen now looked at each other. It was plain at the outset that the true face and figure which she now saw recalled nothing to her mind of the false face and figure which she had seen in Vauxhall Walk. The disguise had evidently been complete enough even to baffle the penetration of Mrs. Lecount.
"My aunt and I came here yesterday evening," said Magdalen. "We found the latter part of the journey very fatiguing. I dare say you found it so, too?"
She designedly made her answer longer than was necessary for the purpose of discovering, at the earliest opportunity, the effect which the sound of her voice produced on Mrs. Lecount.
The housekeeper's thin lips maintained their motherly smile; the housekeeper's amiable manner lost none of its modest deference, but the expression of her eyes suddenly changed from a look of attention to a look of inquiry. Magdalen quietly said a few words more, and then waited again for results. The change spread gradually all over Mrs. Lecount's face, the motherly smile died away, and the amiable manner betrayed a slight touch of restraint. Still no signs of positive recognition appeared; the housekeeper's expression remained what it had been from the first—an expression of inquiry, and nothing more.
"You complained of fatigue, sir, a few minutes since," she said, dropping all further conversation with Magdalen and addressing her master. "Will you go indoors and rest?"
The proprietor of Sea-view Cottage had hitherto confined himself to bowing, simpering and admiring Magdalen through his half-closed eyelids. There was no mistaking the sudden flutter and agitation in his manner, and the heightened color in his wizen little face. Even the reptile temperament of Noel Vanstone warmed under the influence of the sex: he had an undeniably appreciative eye for a handsome woman, and Magdalen's grace and beauty were not thrown away on him.
"Will you go indoors, sir, and rest?" asked the housekeeper, repeating her quest ion.
"Not yet, Lecount," said her master. "I fancy I feel stronger; I fancy I can go on a little." He turned simpering to Magdalen, and added, in a lower tone: "I have found a new interest in my walk, Miss Bygrave. Don't desert us, or you will take the interest away with you."
He smiled and smirked in the highest approval of the ingenuity of his own compliment—from which Captain Wragge dexterously diverted the housekeeper's attention by ranging himself on her side of the path and speaking to her at the same moment. They all four walked on slowly. Mrs. Lecount said nothing more. She kept fast hold of her master's arm, and looked across him at Magdalen with the dangerous expression of inquiry more marked than ever in her handsome black eyes. That look was not lost on the wary Wragge. He shifted his indicative camp-stool from the left hand to the right, and opened his scientific batteries on the spot.
"A busy scene, Mrs. Lecount," said the captain, politely waving his camp-stool over the sea and the passing ships. "The greatness of England, ma'am—the true greatness of England. Pray observe how heavily some of those vessels are laden! I am often inclined to wonder whether the British sailor is at all aware, when he has got his cargo on board, of the Hydrostatic importance of the operation that he has performed. If I were suddenly transported to the deck of one of those ships (which Heaven forbid, for I suffer at sea); and if I said to a member of the crew: 'Jack! you have done wonders; you have grasped the Theory of Floating Vessels'—how the gallant fellow would stare! And yet on that theory Jack's life depends. If he loads his vessel one-thirtieth part more than he ought, what happens? He sails past Aldborough, I grant you, in safety. He enters the Thames, I grant you again, in safety. He gets on into the fresh water as far, let us say, as Greenwich; and—down he goes! Down, ma'am, to the bottom of the river, as a matter of scientific certainty!"
Here he paused, and left Mrs. Lecount no polite alternative but to request an explanation.
"With infinite pleasure, ma'am," said the captain, drowning in the deepest notes of his voice the feeble treble in which Noel Vanstone paid his compliments to Magdalen. "We will start, if you please, with a first principle. All bodies whatever that float on the surface of the water displace as much fluid as is equal in weight to the weight of the bodies. Good. We have got our first principle. What do we deduce from it? Manifestly this: That, in order to keep a vessel above water, it is necessary to take care that the vessel and its cargo shall be of less weight than the weight of a quantity of water—pray follow me here!—of a quantity of water equal in bulk to that part of the vessel which it will be safe to immerse in the water. Now, ma'am, salt-water is specifically thirty times heavier than fresh or river water, and a vessel in the German Ocean will not sink so deep as a vessel in the Thames. Consequently, when we load our ship with a view to the London market, we have (Hydrostatically speaking) three alternatives. Either we load with one-thirtieth part less than we can carry at sea; or we take one-thirtieth part out at the mouth of the river; or we do neither the one nor the other, and, as I have already had the honor of remarking—down we go! Such," said the captain, shifting the camp-stool back again from his right hand to his left, in token that Joyce was done with for the time being; "such, my dear madam, is the Theory of Floating Vessels. Permit me to add, in conclusion, you are heartily welcome to it."
"Thank you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "You have unintentionally saddened me; but the information I have received is not the less precious on that account. It is long, long ago, Mr. Bygrave, since I have heard myself addressed in the language of science. My dear husband made me his companion—my dear husband improved my mind as you have been trying to improve it. Nobody has taken pains with my intellect since. Many thanks, sir. Your kind consideration for me is not thrown away."
She sighed with a plaintive humility, and privately opened her ears to the conversation on the other side of her.
A minute earlier she would have heard her master expressing himself in the most flattering terms on the subject of Miss Bygrave's appearance in her sea-side costume. But Magdalen had seen Captain Wragge's signal with the camp-stool, and had at once diverted Noel Vanstone to the topic of himself and his possessions by a neatly-timed question about his house at Aldborough.
"I don't wish to alarm you, Miss Bygrave," were the first words of Noel Vanstone's which caught Mrs. Lecount's attention, "but there is only one safe house in Aldborough, and that house is mine. The sea may destroy all the other houses—it can't destroy Mine. My father took care of that; my father was a remarkable man. He had My house built on piles. I have reason to believe they are the strongest piles in England. Nothing can possibly knock them down—I don't care what the sea does—nothing can possibly knock them down."
"Then, if the sea invades us," said Magdalen, "we must all run for refuge to you."
Noel Vanstone saw his way to another compliment; and, at the same moment, the wary captain saw his way to another burst of science.
"I could almost wish the invasion might happen," murmured one of the gentlemen, "to give me the happiness of offering the refuge."
"I could almost swear the wind had shifted again!" exclaimed the other. "Where is a man I can ask? Oh, there he is. Boatman! How's the wind now? Nor'west and by west still—hey? And southeast and by south yesterday evening—ha? Is there anything more remarkable, Mrs. Lecount, than the variableness of the wind in this climate?" proceeded the captain, shifting the camp-stool to the scientific side of him. "Is there any natural phenomenon more bewildering to the scientific inquirer? You will tell me that the electric fluid which abounds in the air is the principal cause of this variableness. You will remind me of the experiment of that illustrious philosopher who measured the velocity of a great storm by a flight of small feathers. My dear madam, I grant all your propositions—"
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Mrs. Lecount; "you kindly attribute to me a knowledge that I don't possess. Propositions, I regret to say, are quite beyond me."
"Don't misunderstand me, ma'am," continued the captain, politely unconscious of the interruption. "My remarks apply to the temperate zone only. Place me on the coasts beyond the tropics—place me where the wind blows toward the shore in the day-time, and toward the sea by night—and I instantly advance toward conclusive experiments. For example, I know that the heat of the sun during the day rarefies the air over the land, and so causes the wind. You challenge me to prove it. I escort you down the kitchen stairs (with your kind permission); take my largest pie-dish out of the cook's hands; I fill it with cold water. Good! that dish of cold water represents the ocean. I next provide myself with one of our most precious domestic conveniences, a hot-water plate; I fill it with hot water and I put it in the middle of the pie-dish. Good again! the hot-water plate represents the land rarefying the air over it. Bear that in mind, and give me a lighted candle. I hold my lighted candle over the cold water, and blow it out. The smoke immediately moves from the dish to the plate. Before you have time to express your satisfaction, I light the candle once more, and reverse the whole proceeding. I fill the pie-dish with hot-water, and the plate with cold; I blow the candle out again, and the smoke moves this time from the plate to the dish. The smell is disagreeable—but the experiment is conclusive."
He shifted the camp-stool back again, and looked at Mrs. Lecount with his ingratiating smile. "You don't find me long-winded, ma'am—do you?" he said, in his easy, cheerful way, just as the housekeeper was privately opening her e ars once more to the conversation on the other side of her.
"I am amazed, sir, by the range of y our information," replied Mrs. Lecount, observing the captain with some perplexity—but thus far with no distrust. She thought him eccentric, even for an Englishman, and possibly a little vain of his knowledge. But he had at least paid her the implied compliment of addressing that knowledge to herself; and she felt it the more sensibly, from having hitherto found her scientific sympathies with her deceased husband treated with no great respect by the people with whom she came in contact. "Have you extended your inquiries, sir," she proceeded, after a momentary hesitation, "to my late husband's branch of science? I merely ask, Mr. Bygrave, because (though I am only a woman) I think I might exchange ideas with you on the subject of the reptile creation."
Captain Wragge was far too sharp to risk his ready-made science on the enemy's ground. The old militia-man shook his wary head.
"Too vast a subject, ma'am," he said, "for a smatterer like me. The life and labors of such a philosopher as your husband, Mrs. Lecount, warn men of my intellectual caliber not to measure themselves with a giant. May I inquire," proceeded the captain, softly smoothing the way for future intercourse with Sea-view Cottage, "whether you possess any scientific memorials of the late Professor?"
"I possess his Tank, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, modestly casting her eyes on the ground, "and one of his Subjects—a little foreign Toad."
"His Tank!" exclaimed the captain, in tones of mournful interest; "and his Toad! Pardon my blunt way of speaking my mind, ma'am. You possess an object of public interest; and, as one of the public, I acknowledge my curiosity to see it."
Mrs. Lecount's smooth cheeks colored with pleasure. The one assailable place in that cold and secret nature was the place occupied by the memory of the Professor. Her pride in his scientific achievements, and her mortification at finding them but little known out of his own country, were genuine feelings. Never had Captain Wragge burned his adulterated incense on the flimsy altar of human vanity to better purpose than he was burning it now.
"You are very good, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "In honoring my husband's memory, you honor me. But though you kindly treat me on a footing of equality, I must not forget that I fill a domestic situation. I shall feel it a privilege to show you my relics, if you will allow me to ask my master's permission first."
She turned to Noel Vanstone; her perfectly sincere intention of making the proposed request, mingling—in that strange complexity of motives which is found so much oftener in a woman's mind than in a man's—with her jealous distrust of the impression which Magdalen had produced on her master.
"May I make a request, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount, after waiting a moment to catch any fragments of tenderly-personal talk that might reach her, and after being again neatly baffled by Magdalen—thanks to the camp-stool. "Mr. Bygrave is one of the few persons in England who appreciate my husband's scientific labors. He honors me by wishing to see my little world of reptiles. May I show it to him?"