"By all means, Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, graciously. "You are an excellent creature, and I like to oblige you. Lecount's Tank, Mr. Bygrave, is the only Tank in England—Lecount's Toad is the oldest Toad in the world. Will you come and drink tea at seven o'clock to-night? And will you prevail on Miss Bygrave to accompany you? I want her to see my house. I don't think she has any idea what a strong house it is. Come and survey my premises, Miss Bygrave. You shall have a stick and rap on the walls; you shall go upstairs and stamp on the floors, and then you shall hear what it all cost." His eyes wrinkled up cunningly at the corners, and he slipped another tender speech into Magdalen's ear, under cover of the all-predominating voice in which Captain Wragge thanked him for the invitation. "Come punctually at seven," he whispered, "and pray wear that charming hat!"
Mrs. Lecount's lips closed ominously. She set down the captain's niece as a very serious drawback to the intellectual luxury of the captain's society.
"You are fatiguing yourself, sir," she said to her master. "This is one of your bad days. Let me recommend you to be careful; let me beg you to walk back."
Having carried his point by inviting the new acquaintances to tea, Noel Vanstone proved to be unexpectedly docile. He acknowledged that he was a little fatigued, and turned back at once in obedience to the housekeeper's advice.
"Take my arm, sir—take my arm on the other side," said Captain Wragge, as they turned to retrace their steps. His party-colored eyes looked significantly at Magdalen while he spoke, and warned her not to stretch Mrs. Lecount's endurance too far at starting. She instantly understood him; and, in spite of Noel Vanstone's reiterated assertions that he stood in no need of the captain's arm, placed herself at once by the housekeeper's side. Mrs. Lecount recovered her good-humor, and opened another conversation with Magdalen by making the one inquiry of all others which, under existing circumstances, was the hardest to answer.
"I presume Mrs. Bygrave is too tired, after her journey, to come out to-day?" said Mrs. Lecount. "Shall we have the pleasure of seeing her tomorrow?"
"Probably not," replied Magdalen. "My aunt is in delicate health."
"A complicated case, my dear madam," added the captain; conscious that Mrs. Wragge's personal appearance (if she happened to be seen by accident) would offer the flattest of all possible contradictions to what Magdalen had just said of her. "There is some remote nervous mischief which doesn't express itself externally. You would think my wife the picture of health if you looked at her, and yet, so delusive are appearances, I am obliged to forbid her all excitement. She sees no society—our medical attendant, I regret to say, absolutely prohibits it."
"Very sad," said Mrs. Lecount. "The poor lady must often feel lonely, sir, when you and your niece are away from her?"
"No," replied the captain. "Mrs. Bygrave is a naturally domestic woman. When she is able to employ herself, she finds unlimited resources in her needle and thread." Having reached this stage of the explanation, and having purposely skirted, as it were, round the confines of truth, in the event of the housekeeper's curiosity leading her to make any private inquiries on the subject of Mrs. Wragge, the captain wisely checked his fluent tongue from carrying him into any further details. "I have great hope from the air of this place," he remarked, in conclusion. "The Iodine, as I have already observed, does wonders."
Mrs. Lecount acknowledged the virtues of Iodine, in the briefest possible form of words, and withdrew into the innermost sanctuary of her own thoughts. "Some mystery here," said the housekeeper to herself. "A lady who looks the picture of health; a lady who suffers from a complicated nervous malady; and a lady whose hand is steady enough to use her needle and thread—is a living mass of contradictions I don't quite understand. Do you make a long stay at Aldborough, sir?" she added aloud, her eyes resting for a moment, in steady scrutiny, on the captain's face.
"It all depends, my dear madam, on Mrs. Bygrave. I trust we shall stay through the autumn. You are settled at Sea-view Cottage, I presume, for the season?"
"You must ask my master, sir. It is for him to decide, not for me."
The answer was an unfortunate one. Noel Vanstone had been secretly annoyed by the change in the walking arrangements, which had separated him from Magdalen. He attributed that change to the meddling influence of Mrs. Lecount, and he now took the earliest opportunity of resenting it on the spot.
"I have nothing to do with our stay at Aldborough," he broke out, peevishly. "You know as well as I do, Lecount, it all depends on you. Mrs. Lecount has a brother in Switzerland," he went on, addressing himself to the captain—"a brother who is seriously ill. If he gets worse, she will have to go the re to see him. I can't accompany her, and I can't be left in the house by myself. I shall have t o break up my establishment at Aldborough, and stay with some friends. It all depends on you, Lecount—or on your brother, which comes to the same thing. If it depended on me," continued Mr. Noel Vanstone, looking pointedly at Magdalen across the housekeeper, "I should stay at Aldborough all through the autumn with the greatest pleasure. With the greatest pleasure," he reiterated, repeating the words with a tender look for Magdalen, and a spiteful accent for Mrs. Lecount.
Thus far Captain Wragge had remained silent; carefully noting in his mind the promising possibilities of a separation between Mrs. Lecount and her master which Noel Vanstone's little fretful outbreak had just disclosed to him. An ominous trembling in the housekeeper's thin lips, as her master openly exposed her family affairs before strangers, and openly set her jealously at defiance, now warned him to interfere. If the misunderstanding were permitted to proceed to extremities, there was a chance that the invitation for that evening to Sea-view Cottage might be put off. Now, as ever, equal to the occasion, Captain Wragge called his useful information once more to the rescue. Under the learned auspices of Joyce, he plunged, for the third time, into the ocean of science, and brought up another pearl. He was still haranguing (on Pneumatics this time), still improving Mrs. Lecount's mind with his politest perseverance and his smoothest flow of language—when the walking party stopped at Noel Vanstone's door.
"Bless my soul, here we are at your house, sir!" said the captain, interrupting himself in the middle of one of his graphic sentences. "I won't keep you standing a moment. Not a word of apology, Mrs. Lecount, I beg and pray! I will put that curious point in Pneumatics more clearly before you on a future occasion. In the meantime I need only repeat that you can perform the experiment I have just mentioned to your own entire satisfaction with a bladder, an exhausted receiver, and a square box. At seven o'clock this evening, sir—at seven o'clock, Mrs. Lecount. We have had a remarkably pleasant walk, and a most instructive interchange of ideas. Now, my dear girl, your aunt is waiting for us."
While Mrs. Lecount stepped aside to open the garden gate, Noel Vanstone seized his opportunity and shot a last tender glance at Magdalen, under shelter of the umbrella, which he had taken into his own hands for that express purpose. "Don't forget," he said, with the sweetest smile; "don't forget, when you come this evening, to wear that charming hat!" Before he could add any last words, Mrs. Lecount glided back to her place, and the sheltering umbrella changed hands again immediately.
"An excellent morning's work!" said Captain Wragge, as he and Magdalen walked on together to North Shingles. "You and I and Joyce have all three done wonders. We have secured a friendly invitation at the first day's fishing for it."
He paused for an answer; and, receiving none, observed Magdalen more attentively than he had observed her yet. Her face had turned deadly pale again; her eyes looked out mechanically straight before her in heedless, reckless despair.
"What is the matter?" he asked, with the greatest surprise. "Are you ill?"
She made no reply; she hardly seemed to hear him.
"Are you getting alarmed about Mrs. Lecount?" he inquired next. "There is not the least reason for alarm. She may fancy she has heard something like your voice before, but your face evidently bewilders her. Keep your temper, and you keep her in the dark. Keep her in the dark, and you will put that two hundred pounds into my hands before the autumn is over."
He waited again for an answer, and again she remained silent. The captain tried for the third time in another direction.
"Did you get any letters this morning?" he went on. "Is there bad news again from home? Any fresh difficulties with your sister?"
"Say nothing about my sister!" she broke out passionately. "Neither you nor I are fit to speak of her."
She said those words at the garden-gate, and hurried into the house by herself. He followed her, and heard the door of her own room violently shut to, violently locked and double-locked. Solacing his indignation by an oath, Captain Wragge sullenly went into one of the parlors on the ground-floor to look after his wife. The room communicated with a smaller and darker room at the back of the house by means of a quaint little door with a window in the upper half of it. Softly approaching this door, the captain lifted the white muslin curtain which hung over the window, and looked into the inner room.
There was Mrs. Wragge, with her cap on one side, and her shoes down at heel; with a row of pins between her teeth; with the Oriental Cashmere Robe slowly slipping off the table; with her scissors suspended uncertain in one hand, and her written directions for dressmaking held doubtfully in the other—so absorbed over the invincible difficulties of her employment as to be perfectly unconscious that she was at that moment the object of her husband's superintending eye. Under other circumstances she would have been soon brought to a sense of her situation by the sound of his voice. But Captain Wragge was too anxious about Magdalen to waste any time on his wife, after satisfying himself that she was safe in her seclusion, and that she might be trusted to remain there.
He left the parlor, and, after a little hesitation in the passage, stole upstairs and listened anxiously outside Magdalen's door. A dull sound of sobbing—a sound stifled in her handkerchief, or stifled in the bed-clothes—was all that caught his ear. He returned at once to the ground-floor, with some faint suspicion of the truth dawning on his mind at last.
"The devil take that sweetheart of hers!" thought the captain. "Mr. Noel Vanstone has raised the ghost of him at starting."
WHEN Magdalen appeared in the parlor shortly before seven o'clock, not a trace of discomposure was visible in her manner. She looked and spoke as quietly and unconcernedly as usual.
The lowering distrust on Captain Wragge's face cleared away at the sight of her. There had been moments during the afternoon when he had seriously doubted whether the pleasure of satisfying the grudge he owed to Noel Vanstone, and the prospect of earning the sum of two hundred pounds, would not be dearly purchased by running the risk of discovery to which Magdalen's uncertain temper might expose him at any hour of the day. The plain proof now before him of her powers of self-control relieved his mind of a serious anxiety. It mattered little to the captain what she suffered in the privacy of her own chamber, as long as she came out of it with a face that would bear inspection, and a voice that betrayed nothing.
On the way to Sea-view Cottage, Captain Wragge expressed his intention of asking the housekeeper a few sympathizing questions on the subject of her invalid brother in Switzerland. He was of opinion that the critical condition of this gentleman's health might exercise an important influence on the future progress of the conspiracy. Any chance of a separation, he remarked, between the housekeeper and her master was, under existing circumstances, a chance which merited the closest investigation. "If we can only get Mrs. Lecount out of the way at the right time," whispered the captain, as he opened his host's garden gate, "our man is caught!"
In a minute more Magdalen was again under Noel Vanstone's roof; this time in the character of his own invited guest.
The proceedings of the evening were for the most part a repetition of the proceedings during the morning walk. Noel Vanstone vibrated between his admiration of Magdalen's beauty and his glorification of his own possessions. Captain Wragge's inexhaustible outbursts of information—relieved by delicately-indirect inquiries relating to Mrs. Lecount's brother—perpetually diverted the housekeeper's jealous vigilance from dwelling on the looks and language of her master. So the evening passed until ten o'clock. By that time the captain's ready-made science was exhausted, and the housekeeper's temper was forcing its way to the surface. Once more Captain Wragge warned Magdalen by a look, and, in spite of Noel Vanstone's hospitable protest, wisely rose to say good-night.
"I have got my information," remarked the captain on the way back. "Mrs. Lecount's brother lives at Zurich. He is a bachelor; he possesses a little money, and his sister is his nearest relation. If he will only be so obliging as to break up altogether, he will save us a world of trouble with Mrs. Lecount."
It was a fine moonlight night. He looked round at Magdalen, as he said those words, to see if her intractable depression of spirits had seized on her again.
No! her variable humor had changed once more. She looked about her with a flaunting, feverish gayety; she scoffed at the bare idea of any serious difficulty with Mrs. Lecount; she mimicked Noel Vanstone's high-pitched voice, and repeated Noel Vanstone's high-flown compliments, with a bitter enjoyment of turning him into ridicule. Instead of running into the house as before, she sauntered carelessly by her companion's side, humming little snatches of song, and kicking the loose pebbles right and left on the garden-walk. Captain Wragge hailed the change in her as the best of good omens. He thought he saw plain signs that the family spirit was at last coming back again.
"Well," he said, as he lit her bedroom candle for her, "when we all meet on the Parade tomorrow, we shall see, as our nautical friends say, how the land lies. One thing I can tell you, my dear girl—I have used my eyes to very little purpose if there is not a storm brewing tonight in Mr. Noel Vanstone's domestic atmosphere."
The captain's habitual penetration had not misled him. As soon as the door of Sea-view Cottage was closed on the parting guests, Mrs. Lecount made an effort to assert the authority which Magdalen's influence was threatening already.
She employed every artifice of which she was mistress to ascertain Magdalen's true position in Noel Vanstone's estimation. She tried again and again to lure him into an unconscious confession of the pleasure which he felt already in the society of the beautiful Miss Bygrave; she twined herself in and out of every weakness in his character, as the frogs and efts twined themselves in and out of the rock-work of her Aquarium. But she made one serious mistake which very clever people in their intercourse with their intellectual inferiors are almost universally apt to commit—she trusted implicitly to the folly of a fool. She forgot that one of the lowest of human qualities—cunning—is exactly the capacity which is often most largely developed in the lowest of intellectual natures. If she had been honestly angry with her master, she would probably have frightened him. If she had opened her mind plainly to his view, she would have astonished him by presenting a chain of ideas to his limited perceptions which they were not strong enough to grasp; his curiosity would have led him to ask for an explanation; and by practicing on that curiosity, she might have had him at her mercy. As it was, she set her cunning against his, and the fool proved a match for her. Noel Vanstone, to whom all large-minded motives under heaven were inscrutable mysteries, saw the small-minded motive at the bottom of his housekeeper's conduct with as instantaneous a penetration as if he had been a man of the highest ability. Mrs. Lecount left him for the night, foiled, and knowing she was foiled—left him, with the tigerish side of her uppermost, and a low-lived longing in her elegant finger-nails to set them in her master's face.
She was not a woman to be beaten by one defeat or by a hundred. She was positively determined to think, and think again, until she had found a means of checking the growing intimacy with the Bygraves at once and forever. In the solitude of her own room she recovered her composure, and set herself for the first time to review the conclusions which she had gathered from the events of the day.
There was something vaguely familiar to her in the voice of this Miss Bygrave, and, at the same time, in unaccountable contradiction, something strange to her as well. The face and figure of the young lady were entirely new to her. It was a striking face, and a striking figure; and if she had seen either at any former period, she would certainly have remembered it. Miss Bygrave was unquestionably a stranger; and yet—
She had got no further than this during the day; she could get no further now: the chain of thought broke. Her mind took up the fragments, and formed another chain which attached itself to the lady who was kept in seclusion—to the aunt, who looked well, and yet was nervous; who was nervous, and yet able to ply her needle and thread. An incomprehensible resemblance to some unremembered voice in the niece; an unintelligible malady which kept the aunt secluded from public view; an extraordinary range of scientific cultivation in the uncle, associated with a coarseness and audacity of manner which by no means suggested the idea of a man engaged in studious pursuits—were the members of this small family of three what they seemed on the surface of them?
With that question on her mind, she went to bed.
As soon as the candle was out, the darkness seemed to communicate some inexplicable perversity to her thoughts. They wandered back from present things to past, in spite of her. They brought her old master back to life again; they revived forgotten sayings and doings in the English circle at Zurich; they veered away to the old man's death-bed at Brighton; they moved from Brighton to London; they entered the bare, comfortless room at Vauxhall Walk; they set the Aquarium back in its place on the kitchen table, and put the false Miss Garth in the chair by the side of it, shading her inflamed eyes from the light; they placed the anonymous letter, the letter which glanced darkly at a conspiracy, in her hand again, and brought her with it into her master's presence; they recalled the discussion about filling in the blank space in the advertisement, and the quarrel that followed when she told Noel Vanstone that the sum he had offered was preposterously small; they revived an old doubt which had not troubled her for weeks past—a doubt whether the threatened conspiracy had evaporated in mere words, or whether she and her master were likely to hear of it again. At this point her thoughts broke off once more, and there was a momentary blank. The next instant she started up in bed; her heart beating violently, her head whirling as if she had lost her senses. With electric suddenness her mind pieced together its scattered multitude of thoughts, and put them before her plainly under one intelligible form. In the all-mastering agitation of the moment, she clapped her hands together, and cried out suddenly in the darkness:
"Miss Vanstone again!!!"
She got out of bed and kindled the light once more. Steady as her nerves were, the shock of her own suspicion had shaken them. Her firm hand trembled as she opened her dressing-case and took from it a little bottle of sal-volatile. In spite of her smooth cheeks and her well-preserved hair, she looked every year of her age as she mixed the spirit with water, greedily drank it, and, wrapping her dressing-gown round her, sat down on the bedside to get possession again of her calmer self.
She was quite incapable of tracing the mental process which had led her to discovery. She could not get sufficiently far from herself to see that her half-formed conclusions on the subject of the Bygraves had ended in making that family objects of suspicion to her; that the association of ideas had thereupon carried her mind back to that other object of suspicion which was represented by the conspiracy against her master; and that the two ideas of those two separate subjects of distrust, coming suddenly in contact, had struck the light. She was not able to reason back in this way from the effect to the cause. She could only feel that the suspicion had become more than a suspicion already: conviction itself could not have been more firmly rooted in her mind.
Looking back at Magdalen by the new light now thrown on her, Mrs. Lecount would fain have persuaded herself that she recognized some traces left of the false Miss Garth's face and figure in the graceful and beautiful girl who had sat at her master's table hardly an hour since—that she found resemblances now, which she had never thought of before, between the angry voice she had heard in Vauxhall Walk and the smooth, well-bred tones which still hung on her ears after the evening's experience downstairs. She would fain have persuaded herself that she had reached these results with no undue straining of the truth as she really knew it, but the effort was in vain.
Mrs. Lecount was not a woman to waste time and thought in trying to impose on herself. She accepted the inevitable conclusion that the guesswork of a moment had led her to discovery. And, more than that, she recognized the plain truth—unwelcome as it was—that the conviction now fixed in her own mind was thus far unsupported by a single fragment of producible evidence to justify it to the minds of others.
Under these circumstances, what was the safe course to take with her master?
If she candidly told him, when they met the next morning, what had passed through her mind that night, her knowledge of Noel Vanstone warned her that one of two results would certainly happen. Either he would be angry and disputatious; would ask for proofs; and, finding none forthcoming, would accuse her of alarming him without a cause, to serve her own jealous end of keeping Magdalen out of the house; or he would be seriously startled, would clamor for the protection of the law, and would warn the Bygraves to stand on their defense at the outset. If Magdalen only had been concerned in the plot this latter consequence would have assumed no great importance in the housekeeper's mind. But seeing the deception as she now saw it, she was far too clever a woman to fail in estimating the captain's inexhaustible fertility of resource at its true value. "If I can't meet this impudent villain with plain proofs to help me," thought Mrs. Lecount, "I may open my master s eyes to-morrow morning, and Mr. Bygrave will shut them up again before night. The rascal is playing with all his own cards under the table, and he will win the game to a certainty, if he sees my hand at starting."
This policy of waiting was so manifestly the wise policy—the wily Mr. Bygrave was so sure to have provided himself, in case of emergency, with evidence to prove the identity which he and his niece had assumed for their purpose—that Mrs. Lecount at once decided to keep her own counsel the next morning, and to pause before attacking the conspiracy until she could produce unanswerable facts to help her. Her master's acquaintance with the Bygraves was only an acquaintance of one day's standing. There was no fear of its developing into a dangerous intimacy if she merely allowed it to continue for a few days more, and if she permanently checked it, at the latest, in a week's time.
In that period what measures could she take to remove the obstacles which now stood in her way, and to provide herself with the weapons which she now wanted?
Reflection showed her three different chances in her favor—three different ways of arriving at the necessary discovery.
The first chance was to cultivate friendly terms with Magdalen, and then, taking her unawares, to entrap her into betraying herself in Noel Vanstone's presence. The second chance was to write to the elder Miss Vanstone, and to ask (with some alarming reason for putting the question) for information on the subject of her younger sister's whereabouts, and of any peculiarities in her personal appearance which might enable a stranger to identify her. The third chance was to penetrate the mystery of Mrs. Bygrave's seclusion, and to ascertain at a personal interview whether the invalid lady's real complaint might not possibly be a defective capacity for keeping her husband's secrets. Resolving to try all three chances, in the order in which they are here enumerated, and to set her snares for Magdalen on the day that was now already at hand, Mrs. Lecount at last took off her dressing-gown and allowed her weaker nature to plead with her for a little sleep.
The dawn was breaking over the cold gray sea as she lay down in her bed again. The last idea in her mind before she fell asleep was characteristic of the woman—it was an idea that threatened the captain. "He has trifled with the sacred memory of my husband," thought the Professor's widow. "On my life and honor, I will make him pay for it."
Early the next morning Magdalen began the day, according to her agreement with the captain, by taking Mrs. Wragge out for a little exercise at an hour when there was no fear of her attracting the public attention. She pleaded hard to be left at home; having the Oriental Cashmere Robe still on her mind, and feeling it necessary to read her directions for dressmaking, for the hundredth time at least, before (to use her own expression) she could "screw up her courage to put the scissors into the stuff." But her companion would take no denial, and she was forced to go out. The one guileless purpose of the life which Magdalen now led was the resolution that poor Mrs. Wragge should not be made a prisoner on her account; and to that resolution she mechanically clung, as the last token left her by which she knew her better-self.
They returned later than usual to breakfast. While Mrs. Wragge was upstairs, straightening herself from head to foot to meet the morning inspection of her husband's orderly eye; and while Magdalen and the captain were waiting for her in the parlor, the servant came in with a note from Sea-view Cottage. The messenger was waiting for an answer, and the note was addressed to Captain Wragge.
The captain opened the note and read these lines:
"DEAR SIR—Mr. Noel Vanstone desires me to write and tell you that he proposes enjoying this fine day by taking a long drive to a place on the coast here called Dunwich. He is anxious to know if you will share the expense of a carriage, and give him the pleasure of your company and Miss Bygrave's company on this excursion. I am kindly permitted to be one of the party; and if I may say so without impropriety, I would venture to add that I shall feel as much pleasure as my master if you and your young lady will consent to join us. We propose leaving Aldborough punctually at eleven o'clock. Believe me, dear sir, your humble servant,
"Who is the letter from?" asked Magdalen, noticing a change in Captain Wragge's face as he read it. "What do they want with us at Sea-view Cottage?"
"Pardon me," said the captain, gravely, "this requires consideration. Let me have a minute or two to think."
He took a few turns up and down the room, then suddenly stepped aside to a table in a corner on which his writing materials were placed. "I was not born yesterday, ma'am!" said the captain, speaking jocosely to himself. He winked his brown eye, took up his pen, and wrote the answer.
"Can you speak now?" inquired Magdalen, when the servant had left the room. "What does that letter say, and how have you answered it?"
The captain placed the letter in her hand. "I have accepted the invitation," he replied, quietly.
Magdalen read the letter. "Hidden enmity yesterday," she said, "and open friendship to-day. What does it mean?"
"It means," said Captain Wragge, "that Mrs. Lecount is even sharper than I thought her. She has found you out."
"Impossible," cried Magdalen. "Quite impossible in the time."
"I can't say how she has found you out," proceeded the captain, with perfect composure. "She may know more of your voice than we supposed she knew. Or she may have thought us, on reflection, rather a suspicious family; and anything suspicious in which a woman was concerned may have taken her mind back to that morning call of yours in Vauxhall Walk. Whichever way it may be, the meaning of this sudden change is clear enough. She has found you out; and she wants to put her discovery to the proof by slipping in an awkward question or two, under cover of a little friendly talk. My experience of humanity has been a varied one, and Mrs. Lecount is not the first sharp practitioner in petticoats whom I have had to deal with. All the world's a stage, my dear girl, and one of the scenes on our little stage is shut in from this moment."
With those words he took his copy of Joyce's Scientific Dialogues out of his pocket. "You're done with already, my friend!" said the captain, giving his useful information a farewell smack with his hand, and locking it up in the cupboard. "Such is human popularity!" continued the indomitable vagabond, putting the key cheerfully in his pocket. "Yesterday Joyce was my all-in-all. To-day I don't care that for him!" He snapped his fingers and sat down to breakfast.
"I don't understand you," said Magdalen, looking at him angrily. "Are you leaving me to my own resources for the future?"
"My dear girl!" cried Captain Wragge, "can't you accustom yourself to my dash of humor yet? I have done with my ready-made science simply because I am quite sure that Mrs. Lecount has done believing in me. Haven't I accepted the invitation to Dunwich? Make your mind easy. The help I have given you already counts for nothing compared with the help I am going to give you now. My honor is concerned in bowling out Mrs. Lecount. This last move of hers has made it a personal matter between us. The woman actually thinks she can take me in!!!" cried the captain, striking his knife-handle on the table in a transport of virtuous indignation. "By heavens, I never was so insulted before in my life! Draw your chair in to the table, my dear, and give me half a minute's attention to what I have to say next."
Magdalen obeyed him. Captain Wragge cautiously lowered his voice before he went on.
"I have told you all along," he said, "the one thing needful is never to let Mrs. Lecount catch you with your wits wool-gathering. I say the same after what has happened this morning. Let her suspect you! I defy her to find a fragment of foundation for her suspicions, unless we help her. We shall see to-day if she has been foolish enough to betray herself to her master before she has any facts to support her. I doubt it. If she has told him, we will rain down proofs of our identity with the Bygraves on his feeble little head till it absolutely aches with conviction. You have two things to do on this excursion. First, to distrust every word Mrs. Lecount says to you. Secondly, to exert all your fascinations, and make sure of Mr. Noel Vanstone, dating from to-day. I will give you the opportunity when we leave the carriage and take our walk at Dunwich. Wear your hat, wear your smile; do your figure justice, lace tight; put on your neatest boots and brightest gloves; tie the miserable little wretch to your apron-string—tie him fast; and leave the whole management of the matter after that to me. Steady! here is Mrs. Wragge: we must be doubly careful in looking after her now. Show me your cap, Mrs. Wragge! show me your shoes! What do I see on your apron? A spot? I won't have spots! Take it off after breakfast, and put on another. Pull your chair to the middle of the table—more to the left—more still. Make the breakfast."
At a quarter before eleven Mrs. Wragge (with her own entire concurrence) was dismissed to the back room, to bewilder herself over the science of dressmaking for the rest of the day. Punctually as the clock struck the hour, Mrs. Lecount and her master drove up to the gate of North Shingles, and found Magdalen and Captain Wragge waiting for them in the garden.
On the way to Dunwich nothing occurred to disturb the enjoyment of the drive. Noel Vanstone was in excellent health and high good-humor. Lecount had apologized for the little misunderstanding of the previous night; Lecount had petitioned for the excursion as a treat to herself. He thought of these concessions, and looked at Magdalen, and smirked and simpered without intermission. Mrs. Lecount acted her part to perfection. She was motherly with Magdalen and tenderly attentive to Noel Vanstone. She was deeply interested in Captain Wragge's conversation, and meekly disappointed to find it turn on general subjects, to the exclusion of science. Not a word or look escaped her which hinted in the remotest degree at her real purpose. She was dressed with her customary elegance and propriety; and she was the only one of the party on that sultry summer's day who was perfectly cool in the hottest part of the journey.
As they left the carriage on their arrival at Dunwich, the captain seized a moment when Mrs. Lecount's eye was off him and fortified Magdalen by a last warning word.
"'Ware the cat!" he whispered. "She will show her claws on the way back."
They left the village and walked to the ruins of a convent near at hand—the last relic of the once populous city of Dunwich which has survived the destruction of the place, centuries since, by the all-devouring sea. After looking at the ruins, they sought the shade of a little wood between the village and the low sand-hills which overlook the German Ocean. Here Captain Wragge maneuvered so as to let Magdalen and Noel Vanstone advance some distance in front of Mrs. Lecount and himself, took the wrong path, and immediately lost his way with the most consummate dexterity. After a few minutes' wandering (in the wrong direction), he reached an open space near the sea; and politely opening his camp-stool for the housekeeper's accommodation, proposed waiting where they were until the missing members of the party came that way and discovered them.
Mrs. Lecount accepted the proposal. She was perfectly well aware that her escort had lost himself on purpose, but that discovery exercised no disturbing influence on the smooth amiability of her manner. Her day of reckoning with the captain had not come yet—she merely added the new item to her list, and availed herself of the camp-stool. Captain Wragge stretched himself in a romantic attitude at her feet, and the two determined enemies (grouped like two lovers in a picture) fell into as easy and pleasant a conversation as if they had been friends of twenty years' standing.
"I know you, ma'am!" thought the captain, while Mrs. Lecount was talking to him. "You would like to catch me tripping in my ready-made science, and you wouldn't object to drown me in the Professor's Tank!"
"You villain with the brown eye and the green!" thought Mrs. Lecount, as the captain caught the ball of conversation in his turn; "thick as your skin is, I'll sting you through it yet!"
In this frame of mind toward each other they talked fluently on general subjects, on public affairs, on local scenery, on society in England and society in Switzerland, on health, climate, books, marriage and money—talked, without a moment's pause, without a single misunderstanding on either side for nearly an hour, before Magdalen and Noel Vanstone strayed that way and made the party of four complete again.
When they reached the inn at which the carriage was waiting for them, Captain Wragge left Mrs. Lecount in undisturbed possession of her master, and signed to Magdalen to drop back for a moment and speak to him.
"Well?" asked the captain, in a whisper, "is he fast to your apron-string?"
She shuddered from head to foot as she answered.
"He has kissed my hand," she said. "Does that tell you enough? Don't let him sit next me on the way home! I have borne all I can bear—spare me for the rest of the day."
"I'll put you on the front seat of the carriage," replied the captain, "side by side with me."
On the journey back Mrs. Lecount verified Captain Wragge's prediction. She showed her claws.
The time could not have been better chosen; the circumstances could hardly have favored her more. Magdalen's spirits were depressed: she was weary in body and mind; and she sat exactly opposite the housekeeper, who had been compelled, by the new arrangement, to occupy the seat of honor next her master. With every facility for observing the slightest changes that passed over Magdalen's face, Mrs. Lecount tried he r first experiment by leading the conversation to the subject of London, and to the relative advantages offered to residents by the various quarters of the metropolis on both sides of the river. The ever-ready Wragge penetrated her intention sooner than she had anticipated, and interposed immediately. "You're coming to Vauxhall Walk, ma'am," thought the captain; "I'll get there before you."
He entered at once into a purely fictitious description of the various quarters of London in which he had himself resided; and, adroitly mentioning Vauxhall Walk as one of them, saved Magdalen from the sudden question relating to that very locality with which Mrs. Lecount had proposed startling her, to begin with. From his residences he passed smoothly to himself, and poured his whole family history (in the character of Mr. Bygrave) into the housekeeper's ears—not forgetting his brother's grave in Honduras, with the monument by the self-taught negro artist, and his brother's hugely corpulent widow, on the ground-floor of the boarding-house at Cheltenham. As a means of giving Magdalen time to compose herself, this outburst of autobiographical information attained its object, but it answered no other purpose. Mrs. Lecount listened, without being imposed on by a single word the captain said to her. He merely confirmed her conviction of the hopelessness of taking Noel Vanstone into her confidence before she had facts to help her against Captain Wragge's otherwise unassailable position in the identity which he had assumed. She quietly waited until he had done, and then returned to the charge.
"It is a coincidence that your uncle should have once resided in Vauxhall Walk," she said, addressing herself to Magdalen. "Mr. Noel has a house in the same place, and we lived there before we came to Aldborough. May I inquire, Miss Bygrave, whether you know anything of a lady named Miss Garth?"
This time she put the question before the captain could interfere. Magdalen ought to have been prepared for it by what had already passed in her presence, but her nerves had been shaken by the earlier events of the day; and she could only answer the question in the negative, after an instant's preliminary pause to control herself. Her hesitation was of too momentary a nature to attract the attention of any unsuspicious person. But it lasted long enough to confirm Mrs. Lecount's private convictions, and to encourage her to advance a little further.
"I only asked," she continued, steadily fixing her eyes on Magdalen, steadily disregarding the efforts which Captain Wragge made to join in the conversation, "because Miss Garth is a stranger to me, and I am curious to find out what I can about her. The day before we left town, Miss Bygrave, a person who presented herself under the name I have mentioned paid us a visit under very extraordinary circumstances."
With a smooth, ingratiating manner, with a refinement of contempt which was little less than devilish in its ingenious assumption of the language of pity, she now boldly described Magdalen's appearance in disguise in Magdalen's own presence. She slightingly referred to the master and mistress of Combe-Raven as persons who had always annoyed the elder and more respectable branch of the family; she mourned over the children as following their parents' example, and attempting to take a mercenary advantage of Mr. Noel Vanstone, under the protection of a respectable person's character and a respectable person's name. Cleverly including her master in the conversation, so as to prevent the captain from effecting a diversion in that quarter; sparing no petty aggravation; striking at every tender place which the tongue of a spiteful woman can wound, she would, beyond all doubt, have carried her point, and tortured Magdalen into openly betraying herself, if Captain Wragge had not checked her in full career by a loud exclamation of alarm, and a sudden clutch at Magdalen's wrist.
"Ten thousand pardons, my dear madam!" cried the captain. "I see in my niece's face, I feel in my niece's pulse, that one of her violent neuralgic attacks has come on again. My dear girl, why hesitate among friends to confess that you are in pain? What mistimed politeness! Her face shows she is suffering—doesn't it Mrs. Lecount? Darting pains, Mr. Vanstone, darting pains on the left side of the head. Pull down your veil, my dear, and lean on me. Our friends will excuse you; our excellent friends will excuse you for the rest of the day."
Before Mrs. Lecount could throw an instant's doubt on the genuineness of the neuralgic attack, her master's fidgety sympathy declared itself exactly as the captain had anticipated, in the most active manifestations. He stopped the carriage, and insisted on an immediate change in the arrangement of the places—the comfortable back seat for Miss Bygrave and her uncle, the front seat for Lecount and himself. Had Lecount got her smelling-bottle? Excellent creature! let her give it directly to Miss Bygrave, and let the coachman drive carefully. If the coachman shook Miss Bygrave he should not have a half-penny for himself. Mesmerism was frequently useful in these cases. Mr. Noel Vanstone's father had been the most powerful mesmerist in Europe, and Mr. Noel Vanstone was his father's son. Might he mesmerize? Might he order that infernal coachman to draw up in a shady place adapted for the purpose? Would medical help be preferred? Could medical help be found any nearer than Aldborough? That ass of a coachman didn't know. Stop every respectable man who passed in a gig, and ask him if he was a doctor! So Mr. Noel Vanstone ran on, with brief intervals for breathing-time, in a continually-ascending scale of sympathy and self-importance, throughout the drive home.
Mrs. Lecount accepted her defeat without uttering a word. From the moment when Captain Wragge interrupted her, her thin lips closed and opened no more for the remainder of the journey. The warmest expressions of her master's anxiety for the suffering young lady provoked from her no outward manifestations of anger. She took as little notice of him as possible. She paid no attention whatever to the captain, whose exasperating consideration for his vanquished enemy made him more polite to her than ever. The nearer and the nearer they got to Aldborough the more and more fixedly Mrs. Lecount's hard black eyes looked at Magdalen reclining on the opposite seat, with her eyes closed and her veil down.
It was only when the carriage stopped at North Shingles, and when Captain Wragge was handing Magdalen out, that the housekeeper at last condescended to notice him. As he smiled and took off his hat at the carriage door, the strong restraint she had laid on herself suddenly gave way, and she flashed one look at him which scorched up the captain's politeness on the spot. He turned at once, with a hasty acknowledgment of Noel Vanstone's last sympathetic inquiries, and took Magdalen into the house. "I told you she would show her claws," he said. "It is not my fault that she scratched you before I could stop her. She hasn't hurt you, has she?"
"She has hurt me, to some purpose," said Magdalen—"she has given me the courage to go on. Say what must be done to-morrow, and trust me to do it." She sighed heavily as she said those words, and went up to her room.
Captain Wragge walked meditatively into the parlor, and sat down to consider. He felt by no means so certain as he could have wished of the next proceeding on the part of the enemy after the defeat of that day. The housekeeper's farewell look had plainly informed him that she was not at the end of her resources yet, and the old militia-man felt the full importance of preparing himself in good time to meet the next step which she took in advance. He lit a cigar, and bent his wary mind on the dangers of the future.
While Captain Wragge was considering in the parlor at North Shingles, Mrs. Lecount was meditating in her bedroom at Sea View. Her exasperation at the failure of her first attempt to expose the conspiracy had not blinded her to the instant necessity of making a second effort before Noel Vanstone's growing infatuation got beyond her control. The snare set for Magdalen having failed, the chance of entrapping Magdalen's sister was the next chance to try. Mrs. Lecount ordered a cup of tea, opened her writing-case, and began the rough draft of a letter to be sent to Miss Vanstone, the elder, by the morrow's post.
So the day's skirmish ended. The heat of the battle was yet to come.
ALL human penetration has its limits. Accurately as Captain Wragge had seen his way hitherto, even his sharp insight was now at fault. He finished his cigar with the mortifying conviction that he was totally unprepared for Mrs. Lecount's next proceeding. In this emergency, his experience warned him that there was one safe course, and one only, which he could take. He resolved to try the confusing effect on the housekeeper of a complete change of tactics before she had time to press her advantage and attack him in the dark. With this view he sent the servant upstairs to request that Miss Bygrave would come down and speak to him.
"I hope I don't disturb you," said the captain, when Magdalen entered the room. "Allow me to apologize for the smell of tobacco, and to say two words on the subject of our next proceedings. To put it with my customary frankness, Mrs. Lecount puzzles me, and I propose to return the compliment by puzzling her. The course of action which I have to suggest is a very simple one. I have had the honor of giving you a severe neuralgic attack already, and I beg your permission (when Mr. Noel Vanstone sends to inquire to-morrow morning) to take the further liberty of laying you up altogether. Question from Sea-view Cottage: 'How is Miss Bygrave this morning?' Answer from North Shingles: 'Much worse: Miss Bygrave is confined to her room.' Question repeated every day, say for a fortnight: 'How is Miss Bygrave?' Answer repeated, if necessary, for the same time: 'No better.' Can you bear the imprisonment? I see no objection to your getting a breath of fresh air the first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night. But for the whole of the day, there is no disguising it, you must put yourself in the same category with Mrs. Wragge—you must keep your room."
"What is your object in wishing me to do this?" inquired Magdalen.
"My object is twofold," replied the captain. "I blush for my own stupidity; but the fact is, I can't see my way plainly to Mrs. Lecount's next move. All I feel sure of is, that she means to make another attempt at opening her master's eyes to the truth. Whatever means she may employ to discover your identity, personal communication with you must be necessary to the accomplishment of her object. Very good. If I stop that communication, I put an obstacle in her way at starting—or, as we say at cards, I force her hand. Do you see the point?"
Magdalen saw it plainly. The captain went on.
"My second reason for shutting you up," he said, "refers entirely to Mrs. Lecount's master. The growth of love, my dear girl, is, in one respect, unlike all other growths—it flourishes under adverse circumstances. Our first course of action is to make Mr. Noel Vanstone feel the charm of your society. Our next is to drive him distracted by the loss of it. I should have proposed a few more meetings, with a view to furthering this end, but for our present critical position toward Mrs. Lecount. As it is, we must trust to the effect you produced yesterday, and try the experiment of a sudden separation rather sooner than I could have otherwise wished. I shall see Mr. Noel Vanstone, though you don't; and if there is a raw place established anywhere about the region of that gentleman's heart, trust me to hit him on it! You are now in full possession of my views. Take your time to consider, and give me your answer—Yes or no."
"Any change is for the better," said Magdalen "which keeps me out of the company of Mrs. Lecount and her master! Let it be as you wish."
She had hitherto answered faintly and wearily; but she spoke those last words with a heightened tone and a rising color—signs which warned Captain Wragge not to press her further.
"Very good," said the captain. "As usual, we understand each other. I see you are tired; and I won't detain you any longer."
He rose to open the door, stopped half-way to it, and came back again. "Leave me to arrange matters with the servant downstairs," he continued. "You can't absolutely keep your bed, and we must purchase the girl's discretion when she answers the door, without taking her into our confidence, of course. I will make her understand that she is to say you are ill, just as she might say you are not at home, as a way of keeping unwelcome acquaintances out of the house. Allow me to open the door for you—I beg your pardon, you are going into Mrs. Wragge's work-room instead of going to your own."
"I know I am," said Magdalen. "I wish to remove Mrs. Wragge from the miserable room she is in now, and to take her upstairs with me."
"For the evening?"
"For the whole fortnight."
Captain Wragge followed her into the dining-room, and wisely closed the door before he spoke again.
"Do you seriously mean to inflict my wife's society on yourself for a fortnight?" he asked, in great surprise.
"Your wife is the only innocent creature in this guilty house," she burst out vehemently. "I must and will have her with me!"
"Pray don't agitate yourself," said the captain. "Take Mrs. Wragge, by all means. I don't want her." Having resigned the partner of his existence in those terms, he discreetly returned to the parlor. "The weakness of the sex!" thought the captain, tapping his sagacious head. "Lay a strain on the female intellect, and the female temper gives way directly."
The strain to which the captain alluded was not confined that evening to the female intellect at North Shingles: it extended to the female intellect at Sea View. For nearly two hours Mrs. Lecount sat at her desk writing, correcting, and writing again, before she could produce a letter to Miss Vanstone, the elder, which exactly accomplished the object she wanted to attain. At last the rough draft was completed to her satisfaction; and she made a fair copy of it forthwith, to be posted the next day.
Her letter thus produced was a masterpiece of ingenuity. After the first preliminary sentences, the housekeeper plainly informed Norah of the appearance of the visitor in disguise at Vauxhall Walk; of the conversation which passed at the interview; and of her own suspicion that the person claiming to be Miss Garth was, in all probability, the younger Miss Vanstone herself. Having told the truth thus far, Mrs. Lecount next proceeded to say that her master was in possession of evidence which would justify him in putting the law in force; that he knew the conspiracy with which he was threatened to be then in process of direction against him at Aldborough; and that he only hesitated to protect himself in deference to family considerations, and in the hope that the elder Miss Vanstone might so influence her sister as to render it unnecessary to proceed to extremities.
Under these circumstances (the letter continued) it was plainly necessary that the disguised visitor to Vauxhall Walk should be properly identified; for if Mrs. Lecount's guess proved to be wrong, and if the person turned out to be a stranger, Mr. Noel Vanstone was positively resolved to prosecute in his own defense. Events at Aldborough, on which it was not necessary to dwell, would enable Mrs. Lecount in a few days to gain sight of the suspected person in her own character. But as the housekeeper was entirely unacquainted with the younger Miss Vanstone, it was obviously desirable that some better informed person should, in this particular, take the matter in hand. If the elder Miss Vanstone happened to be at liberty to come to Aldborough herself, would she kindly write and say so? and Mrs. Lecount would write back again to appoint a day. If, on the other hand, Miss Vanstone was prevented from taking the journey, Mrs. Lecount suggested that her reply should contain the fullest description of her sister's personal appearance—should mention any little peculiarities which might exist in the way of marks on her face or her hands—and should state (in case she had written lately) what the address was in her last letter, and failing that, what the post-mark was on the envelope. With this information to help her, Mrs. Lecount would, in the interest of the misguided young lady herself, accept the responsibility of privately identifying her, and would write back immediately to acquaint the elder Miss Vanstone with the result.
The difficulty of sending this letter to the right address gave Mrs. Lecount very little trouble. Remembering the name of the lawyer who had pleaded the cause of the two sisters in Michael Vanstone's time, she directed her letter to "Miss Vanstone, care of——Pendril, Esquire, London." This she inclosed in a second envelope, addressed to Mr. Noel Vanstone's solicitor, with a line inside, requesting that gentleman to send it at once to the office of Mr. Pendril.
"Now," thought Mrs. Lecount, as she locked the letter up in her desk, preparatory to posting it the next day with her own hand, "now I have got her!"
The next morning the servant from Sea View came, with her master's compliments, to make inquiries after Miss Bygrave's health. Captain Wragge's bulletin was duly announced—Miss Bygrave was so ill as to be confined to her room.
On the reception of this intelligence, Noel Vanstone's anxiety led him to call at North Shingles himself when he went out for his afternoon walk. Miss Bygrave was no better. He inquired if he could see Mr. Bygrave. The worthy captain was prepared to meet this emergency. He thought a little irritating suspense would do Noel Vanstone no harm, and he had carefully charged the servant, in case of necessity, with her answer: "Mr. Bygrave begged to be excused; he was not able to see any one."
On the second day inquiries were made as before, by message in the morning, and by Noel Vanstone himself in the afternoon. The morning answer (relating to Magdalen) was, "a shade better." The afternoon answer (relating to Captain Wragge) was, "Mr. Bygrave has just gone out." That evening Noel Vanstone's temper was very uncertain, and Mrs. Lecount's patience and tact were sorely tried in the effort to avoid offending him.
On the third morning the report of the suffering young lady was less favorable—"Miss Bygrave was still very poorly, and not able to leave her bed." The servant returning to Sea View with this message, met the postman, and took into the breakfast-room with her two letters addressed to Mrs. Lecount.
The first letter was in a handwriting familiar to the housekeeper. It was from the medical attendant on her invalid brother at Zurich; and it announced that the patient's malady had latterly altered in so marked a manner for the better that there was every hope now of preserving his life.
The address on the second letter was in a strange handwriting. Mrs. Lecount, concluding that it was the answer from Miss Vanstone, waited to read it until breakfast was over, and she could retire to her own room.
She opened the letter, looked at once for the name at the end, and started a little as she read it. The signature was not "Norah Vanstone," but "Harriet Garth."
Miss Garth announced that the elder Miss Vanstone had, a week since, accepted an engagement as governess, subject to the condition of joining the family of her employer at their temporary residence in the south of France, and of returning with them when they came back to England, probably in a month or six weeks' time. During the interval of this necessary absence Miss Vanstone had requested Miss Garth to open all her letters, her main object in making that arrangement being to provide for the speedy answering of any communication which might arrive for her from her sister. Miss Magdalen Vanstone had not written since the middle of July—on which occasion the postmark on the letter showed that it must have been posted in London, in the district of Lambeth—and her elder sister had left England in a state of the most distressing anxiety on her account.
Having completed this explanation, Miss Garth then mentioned that family circumstances prevented her from traveling personally to Aldborough to assist Mrs. Lecount's object, but that she was provided with a substitute; in every way fitter for the purpose, in the person of Mr. Pendril. That gentleman was well acquainted with Miss Magdalen Vanstone, and his professional experience and discretion would render his assistance doubly valuable. He had kindly consented to travel to Aldborough whenever it might be thought necessary. But as his time was very valuable, Miss Garth specially requested that he might not be sent for until Mrs. Lecount was quite sure of the day on which his services might be required.
While proposing this arrangement, Miss Garth added that she thought it right to furnish her correspondent with a written description of the younger Miss Vanstone as well. An emergency might happen which would allow Mrs. Lecount no time for securing Mr. Pendril's services; and the execution of Mr. Noel Vanstone's intentions toward the unhappy girl who was the object of his forbearance might be fatally delayed by an unforeseen difficulty in establishing her identity. The personal description, transmitted under these circumstances, then followed. It omitted no personal peculiarity by which Magdalen could be recognized, and it included the "two little moles close together on the left side of the neck," which had been formerly mentioned in the printed handbills sent to York.
In conclusion, Miss Garth expressed her fears that Mrs. Lecount's suspicions were only too likely to be proved true. While, however, there was the faintest chance that the conspiracy might turn out to be directed by a stranger, Miss Garth felt bound, in gratitude toward Mr. Noel Vanstone, to assist the legal proceedings which would in that case be instituted. She accordingly appended her own formal denial—which she would personally repeat if necessary—of any identity between herself and the person in disguise who had made use of her name. She was the Miss Garth who had filled the situation of the late Mr. Andrew Vanstone's governess, and she had never in her life been in, or near, the neighborhood of Vauxhall Wall.
With this disclaimer, and with the writer's fervent assurances that she would do all for Magdalen's advantage which her sister might have done if her sister had been in England, the letter concluded. It was signed in full, and was dated with the business-like accuracy in such matters which had always distinguished Miss Garth's character.
This letter placed a formidable weapon in the housekeeper's hands.
It provided a means of establishing Magdalen's identity through the intervention of a lawyer by profession. It contained a personal description minute enough to be used to advantage, if necessary, before Mr. Pendril's appearance. It presented a signed exposure of the false Miss Garth under the hand of the true Miss Garth; and it established the fact that the last letter received by the elder Miss Vanstone from the younger had been posted (and therefore probably written) in the neighborhood of Vauxhall Walk. If any later letter had been received with the Aldborough postmark, the chain of evidence, so far as the question of localities was concerned, might doubtless have been more complete. But as it was, there was testimony enough (aided as that testimony might be by the fragment of the brown alpaca dress still in Mrs. Lecount's possession) to raise the veil which hung over the conspiracy, and to place Mr. Noel Vanstone face to face with the plain and startling truth.
The one obstacle which now stood in the way of immediate action on the housekeeper's part was the obstacle of Miss Bygrave's present seclusion within the limits of her own room. The question of gaining personal access to her was a question which must be decided before any communication could be opened with Mr. Pendril. Mrs. Lecount put on her bonnet at once, and called at North Shingles to try what discoveries she could make for herself before post-time.
On this occasion Mr. Bygrave was at home, and she was admitted without the least difficulty.
Careful consideration that morning had dec ided Captain Wragge on advancing matters a little nearer to the crisis. The means by which he proposed achieving this result made it necessary for him to see the housekeeper and her master separately, and to set them at variance by producing two totally opposite impressions relating to himself on their minds. Mrs. Lecount's visit, therefore, instead of causing him any embarrassment, was the most welcome occurrence he could have wished for. He received her in the parlor with a marked restraint of manner for which she was quite unprepared. His ingratiating smile was gone, and an impenetrable solemnity of countenance appeared in its stead.
"I have ventured to intrude on you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "to express the regret with which both my master and I have heard of Miss Bygrave's illness. Is there no improvement?"
"No, ma'am," replied the captain, as briefly as possible. "My niece is no better."
"I have had some experience, Mr. Bygrave, in nursing. If I could be of any use—"
"Thank you, Mrs. Lecount. There is no necessity for our taking advantage of your kindness."
This plain answer was followed by a moment's silence. The housekeeper felt some little perplexity. What had become of Mr. Bygrave's elaborate courtesy, and Mr. Bygrave's many words? Did he want to offend her? If he did, Mrs. Lecount then and there determined that he should not gain his object.
"May I inquire the nature of the illness?" she persisted. "It is not connected, I hope, with our excursion to Dunwich?"
"I regret to say, ma'am," replied the captain, "it began with that neuralgic attack in the carriage."
"So! so!" thought Mrs. Lecount. "He doesn't even try to make me think the illness a real one; he throws off the mask at starting.—Is it a nervous illness, sir?" she added, aloud.
The captain answered by a solemn affirmative inclination of the head.
"Then you have two nervous sufferers in the house, Mr. Bygrave?"
"Yes, ma'am—two. My wife and my niece."
"That is rather a strange coincidence of misfortunes."
"It is, ma'am. Very strange."
In spite of Mrs. Lecount's resolution not to be offended, Captain Wragge's exasperating insensibility to every stroke she aimed at him began to ruffle her. She was conscious of some little difficulty in securing her self-possession before she could say anything more.
"Is there no immediate hope," she resumed, "of Miss Bygrave being able to leave her room?"
"None whatever, ma'am."
"You are satisfied, I suppose, with the medical attendance?"
"I have no medical attendance," said the captain, composedly. "I watch the case myself."
The gathering venom in Mrs. Lecount swelled up at that reply, and overflowed at her lips.
"Your smattering of science, sir," she said, with a malicious smile, "includes, I presume, a smattering of medicine as well?"
"It does, ma'am," answered the captain, without the slightest disturbance of face or manner. "I know as much of one as I do of the other."
The tone in which he spoke those words left Mrs. Lecount but one dignified alternative. She rose to terminate the interview. The temptation of the moment proved too much for her, and she could not resist casting the shadow of a threat over Captain Wragge at parting.
"I defer thanking you, sir, for the manner in which you have received me," she said, "until I can pay my debt of obligation to some purpose. In the meantime I am glad to infer, from the absence of a medical attendant in the house, that Miss Bygrave's illness is much less serious than I had supposed it to be when I came here."
"I never contradict a lady, ma'am," rejoined the incorrigible captain. "If it is your pleasure, when we next meet to think my niece quite well, I shall bow resignedly to the expression of your opinion." With those words, he followed the housekeeper into the passage, and politely opened the door for her. "I mark the trick, ma'am!" he said to himself, as he closed it again. "The trump-card in your hand is a sight of my niece, and I'll take care you don't play it!"
He returned to the parlor, and composedly awaited the next event which was likely to happen—a visit from Mrs. Lecount's master. In less than an hour results justified Captain Wragge's anticipations, and Noel Vanstone walked in.
"My dear sir!" cried the captain, cordially seizing his visitor's reluctant hand, "I know what you have come for. Mrs. Lecount has told you of her visit here, and has no doubt declared that my niece's illness is a mere subterfuge. You feel surprised—you feel hurt—you suspect me of trifling with your kind sympathies—in short, you require an explanation. That explanation you shall have. Take a seat. Mr. Vanstone. I am about to throw myself on your sense and judgment as a man of the world. I acknowledge that we are in a false position, sir; and I tell you plainly at the outset—your housekeeper is the cause of it."
For once in his life, Noel Vanstone opened his eyes. "Lecount!" he exclaimed, in the utmost bewilderment.
"The same, sir," replied Captain Wragge. "I am afraid I offended Mrs. Lecount, when she came here this morning, by a want of cordiality in my manner. I am a plain man, and I can't assume what I don't feel. Far be it from me to breathe a word against your housekeeper's character. She is, no doubt, a most excellent and trustworthy woman, but she has one serious failing common to persons at her time of life who occupy her situation—she is jealous of her influence over her master, although you may not have observed it."
"I beg your pardon," interposed Noel Vanstone; "my observation is remarkably quick. Nothing escapes me."
"In that case, sir," resumed the captain, "you cannot fail to have noticed that Mrs. Lecount has allowed her jealousy to affect her conduct toward my niece?"
Noel Vanstone thought of the domestic passage at arms between Mrs. Lecount and himself when his guests of the evening had left Sea View, and failed to see his way to any direct reply. He expressed the utmost surprise and distress—he thought Lecount had done her best to be agreeable on the drive to Dunwich—he hoped and trusted there was some unfortunate mistake.
"Do you mean to say, sir," pursued the captain, severely, "that you have not noticed the circumstance yourself? As a man of honor and a man of observation, you can't tell me that! Your housekeeper's superficial civility has not hidden your housekeeper's real feeling. My niece has seen it, and so have you, and so have I. My niece, Mr. Vanstone, is a sensitive, high-spirited girl; and she has positively declined to cultivate Mrs. Lecount's society for the future. Don't misunderstand me! To my niece as well as to myself, the attraction of your society, Mr. Vanstone, remains the same. Miss Bygrave simply declines to be an apple of discord (if you will permit the classical allusion) cast into your household. I think she is right so far, and I frankly confess that I have exaggerated a nervous indisposition, from which she is really suffering, into a serious illness—purely and entirely to prevent these two ladies for the present from meeting every day on the Parade, and from carrying unpleasant impressions of each other into your domestic establishment and mine."
"I allow nothing unpleasant in my establishment," remarked Noel Vanstone. "I'm master—you must have noticed that already, Mr. Bygrave—I'm master."
"No doubt of it, my dear sir. But to live morning, noon, and night in the perpetual exercise of your authority is more like the life of a governor of a prison than the life of a master of a household. The wear and tear—consider the wear and tear."
"It strikes you in that light, does it?" said Noel Vanstone, soothed by Captain Wragge's ready recognition of his authority. "I don't know that you're not right. But I must take some steps directly. I won't be made ridiculous—I'll send Lecount away altogether, sooner than be made ridiculous." His color rose, and he folded his little arms fiercely. Captain Wragge's artfully irritating explanation had awakened that dormant suspicion of his housekeeper's influence over him which habitually lay hidden in his mind, and which Mrs. Lecount was now not present to charm back to repose as usual. "What must Miss Bygrave think of me!" he exclaimed, with a sudden outburst of vexation. "I'll send Lecount away. Damme, I'll send Lecount away on the spot!"
"No, no, no!" said the captain, whose interest it was to avoid driving Mrs. Lecount to any desperate extremities. "Why take strong measures when mild measures will do? Mrs. Lecount is an old servant; Mrs. Lecount is attached and useful. She has this little drawback of jealousy—jealousy of her domestic position with her bachelor master. She sees you paying courteous attention to a handsome young lady; she sees that young lady properly sensible of your politeness; and, poor soul, she loses her temper! What is the obvious remedy? Humor her—make a manly concession to the weaker sex. If Mrs. Lecount is with you, the next time we meet on the Parade, walk the other way. If Mrs. Lecount is not with you, give us the pleasure of your company by all means. In short, my dear sir, try the suaviter in modo (as we classical men say) before you commit yourself to the fortiter in re!"
There was one excellent reason why Noel Vanstone should take Captain Wragge's conciliatory advice. An open rupture with Mrs. Lecount—even if he could have summoned the courage to face it—would imply the recognition of her claims to a provision, in acknowledgment of the services she had rendered to his father and to himself. His sordid nature quailed within him at the bare prospect of expressing the emotion of gratitude in a pecuniary form; and, after first consulting appearances by a show of hesitation, he consented to adopt the captain's suggestion, and to humor Mrs. Lecount.
"But I must be considered in this matter," proceeded Noel Vanstone. "My concession to Lecount's weakness must not be misunderstood. Miss Bygrave must not be allowed to suppose I am afraid of my housekeeper."
The captain declared that no such idea ever had entered, or ever could enter, Miss Bygrave's mind. Noel Vanstone returned to the subject nevertheless, again and again, with his customary pertinacity. Would it be indiscreet if he asked leave to set himself right personally with Miss Bygrave? Was there any hope that he might have the happiness of seeing her on that day? or, if not, on the next day? or if not, on the day after? Captain Wragge answered cautiously: he felt the importance of not rousing Noel Vanstone's distrust by too great an alacrity in complying with his wishes.
"An interview to-day, my dear sir, is out of the question," he said. "She is not well enough; she wants repose. To-morrow I propose taking her out before the heat of the day begins—not merely to avoid embarrassment, after what has happened with Mrs. Lecount, but because the morning air and the morning quiet are essential in these nervous cases. We are early people here—we shall start at seven o'clock. If you are early, too, and if you would like to join us, I need hardly say that we can feel no objection to your company on our morning walk. The hour, I am aware, is an unusual one—but later in the day my niece may be resting on the sofa, and may not be able to see visitors."
Having made this proposal purely for the purpose of enabling Noel Vanstone to escape to North Shingles at an hour in the morning when his housekeeper would be probably in bed, Captain Wragge left him to take the hint, if he could, as indirectly as it had been given. He proved sharp enough (the case being one in which his own interests were concerned) to close with the proposal on the spot. Politely declaring that he was always an early man when the morning presented any special attraction to him, he accepted the appointment for seven o'clock, and rose soon afterward to take his leave.
"One word at parting," said Captain Wragge. "This conversation is entirely between ourselves. Mrs. Lecount must know nothing of the impression she has produced on my niece. I have only mentioned it to you to account for my apparently churlish conduct and to satisfy your own mind. In confidence, Mr. Vanstone—strictly in confidence. Good-morning!"
With these parting words, the captain bowed his visitor out. Unless some unexpected disaster occurred, he now saw his way safely to the end of the enterprise. He had gained two important steps in advance that morning. He had sown the seeds of variance between the housekeeper and her master, and he had given Noel Vanstone a common interest with Magdalen and himself, in keeping a secret from Mrs. Lecount. "We have caught our man," thought Captain Wragge, cheerfully rubbing his hands—"we have caught our man at last!"
On leaving North Shingles Noel Vanstone walked straight home, fully restored to his place in his own estimation, and sternly determined to carry matters with a high hand if he found himself in collision with Mrs. Lecount.
The housekeeper received her master at the door with her mildest manner and her gentlest smile. She addressed him with downcast eyes; she opposed to his contemplated assertion of independence a barrier of impenetrable respect.
"May I venture to ask, sir," she began, "if your visit to North Shingles has led you to form the same conclusion as mine on the subject of Miss Bygrave's illness?"
"Certainly not, Lecount. I consider your conclusion to have been both hasty and prejudiced."
"I am sorry to hear it, sir. I felt hurt by Mr. Bygrave's rude reception of me, but I was not aware that my judgment was prejudiced by it. Perhaps he received you, sir, with a warmer welcome?"
"He received me like a gentleman—that is all I think it necessary to say, Lecount—he received me like a gentleman."
This answer satisfied Mrs. Lecount on the one doubtful point that had perplexed her. Whatever Mr. Bygrave's sudden coolness toward herself might mean, his polite reception of her master implied that the risk of detection had not daunted him, and that the plot was still in full progress. The housekeeper's eyes brightened; she had expressly calculated on this result. After a moment's thinking, she addressed her master with another question: "You will probably visit Mr. Bygrave again, sir?"
"Of course I shall visit him—if I please."
"And perhaps see Miss Bygrave, if she gets better?"
"Why not? I should be glad to know why not? Is it necessary to ask your leave first, Lecount?"
"By no means, sir. As you have often said (and as I have often agreed with you), you are master. It may surprise you to hear it, Mr. Noel, but I have a private reason for wishing that you should see Miss Bygrave again."
Mr. Noel started a little, and looked at his housekeeper with some curiosity.
"I have a strange fancy of my own, sir, about that young lady," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "If you will excuse my fancy, and indulge it, you will do me a favor for which I shall be very grateful."
"A fancy?" repeated her master, in growing surprise. "What fancy?"
"Only this, sir," said Mrs. Lecount.
She took from one of the neat little pockets of her apron a morsel of note-paper, carefully folded into the smallest possible compass, and respectfully placed it in Noel Vanstone's hands.
"If you are willing to oblige an old and faithful servant, Mr. Noel," she said, in a very quiet and very impressive manner, "you will kindly put that morsel of paper into your waistcoat pocket; you will open and read it, for the first time, when you are next in Miss Bygrave's company, and you will say nothing of what has now passed between us to any living creature, from this time to that. I promise to explain my strange request, sir, when you have done what I ask, and when your next interview with Miss Bygrave has come to an end."
She courtesied with her best grace, and quietly left the room.
Noel Vanstone looked from the folded paper to the door, and from the door back to the folded paper, in unutterable astonishment. A mystery in his own house! under his own nose! What did it mean?
It meant that Mrs. Lecount had not wasted her time that morning. While the captain was casting the net over his visitor at North Shingles, the housekeeper was steadily mining the ground under his feet. The folded paper contained nothing less than a carefully written extract from the personal description of Magdalen in Miss Garth's letter. With a daring ingenuity which even Captain Wragge might have envied, Mrs. Lecount had found her instrument for exposing the conspiracy in the unsuspecting person of the victim himself!
LATE that evening, when Magdalen and Mrs. Wragge came back from their walk in the dark, the captain stopped Magdalen on her way upstairs to inform her of the proceedings of the day. He added the expression of his opinion that the time had come for bringing Noel Vanstone, with the least possible delay, to the point of making a proposal. She merely answered that she understood him, and that she would do what was required of her. Captain Wragge requested her in that case to oblige him by joining a walking excursion in Mr. Noel Vanstone's company at seven o'clock the next morning. "I will be ready," she replied. "Is there anything more?" There was nothing more. Magdalen bade him good-night and returned to her own room.
She had shown the same disinclination to remain any longer than was necessary in the captain's company throughout the three days of her seclusion in the house.
During all that time, instead of appearing to weary of Mrs. Wragge's society, she had patiently, almost eagerly, associated herself with her companion's one absorbing pursuit. She who had often chafed and fretted in past days under the monotony of her life in the freedom of Combe-Raven, now accepted without a murmur the monotony of her life at Mrs. Wragge's work-table. She who had hated the sight of her needle and thread in old times—who had never yet worn an article of dress of her own making—now toiled as anxiously over the making of Mrs. Wragge's gown, and bore as patiently with Mrs. Wragge's blunders, as if the sole object of her existence had been the successful completion of that one dress. Anything was welcome to her—the trivial difficulties of fitting a gown: the small, ceaseless chatter of the poor half-witted creature who was so proud of her assistance, and so happy in her company—anything was welcome that shut her out from the coming future, from the destiny to which she stood self-condemned. That sorely-wounded nature was soothed by such a trifle now as the grasp of her companion's rough and friendly hand—that desolate heart was cheered, when night parted them, by Mrs. Wragge's kiss.
The captain's isolated position in the house produced no depressing effect on the captain's easy and equal spirits. Instead of resenting Magdalen's systematic avoidance of his society, he looked to results, and highly approved of it. The more she neglected him for his wife the more directly useful she became in the character of Mrs. Wragge's self-appointed guardian. He had more than once seriously contemplated revoking the concession which had been extorted from him, and removing his wife, at his own sole responsibility, out of harm's way; and he had only abandoned the idea on discovering that Magdalen's resolution to keep Mrs. Wragge in her own company was really serious. While the two were together, his main anxiety was set at rest. They kept their door locked by his own desire while he was out of the house, and, whatever Mrs. Wragge might do, Magdalen was to be trusted not to open it until he came back. That night Captain Wragge enjoyed his cigar with a mind at ease, and sipped his brandy-and-water in happy ignorance of the pitfall which Mrs. Lecount had prepared for him in the morning.
Punctually at seven o'clock Noel Vanstone made his appearance. The moment he entered the room Captain Wragge detected a change in his visitor's look and manner. "Something wrong!" thought the captain. "We have not done with Mrs. Lecount yet."
"How is Miss Bygrave this morning?" asked Noel Vanstone. "Well enough, I hope, for our early walk?" His half-closed eyes, weak and watery with the morning light and the morning air, looked about the room furtively, and he shifted his place in a restless manner from one chair to another, as he made those polite inquiries.
"My niece is better—she is dressing for the walk," replied the captain, steadily observing his restless little friend while he spoke. "Mr. Vanstone!" he added, on a sudden, "I am a plain Englishman—excuse my blunt way of speaking my mind. You don't meet me this morning as cordially as you met me yesterday. There is something unsettled in your face. I distrust that housekeeper of yours, sir! Has she been presuming on your forbearance? Has she been trying to poison your mind against me or my niece?"
If Noel Vanstone had obeyed Mrs. Lecount's injunctions, and had kept her little morsel of note-paper folded in his pocket until the time came to use it, Captain Wragge's designedly blunt appeal might not have found him unprepared with an answer. But curiosity had got the better of him; he had opened the note at night, and again in the morning; it had seriously perplexed and startled him; and it had left his mind far too disturbed to allow him the possession of his ordinary resources. He hesitated; and his answer, when he succeeded in making it, began with a prevarication.
Captain Wragge stopped him before he had got beyond his first sentence.
"Pardon me, sir," said the captain, in his loftiest manner. "If you have secrets to keep, you have only to say so, and I have done. I intrude on no man's secrets. At the same time, Mr. Vanstone, you must allow me to recall to your memory that I met you yesterday without any reserves on my side. I admitted you to my frankest and fullest confidence, sir—and, highly as I prize the advantages of your society, I can't consent to cultivate your friendship on any other than equal terms." He threw open his respectable frock-coat and surveyed his visitor with a manly and virtuous severity.
"I mean no offense!" cried Noel Vanstone, piteously. "Why do you interrupt me, Mr. Bygrave? Why don't you let me explain? I mean no offense."
"No offense is taken, sir," said the captain. "You have a perfect right to the exercise of your own discretion. I am not offended—I only claim for myself the same privilege which I accord to you." He rose with great dignity and rang the bell. "Tell Miss Bygrave," he said to the servant, "that our walk this morning is put off until another opportunity, and that I won't trouble her to come downstairs."
This strong proceeding had the desired effect. Noel Vanstone vehemently pleaded for a moment's private conversation before the message was delivered. Captain Wragge's severity partially relaxed. He sent the servant downstairs again, and, resuming his chair, waited confidently for results. In calculating the facilities for practicing on his visitor's weakness, he had one great superiority over Mrs. Lecount. His judgment was not warped by latent female jealousies, and he avoided the error into which the housekeeper had fallen, self-deluded—the error of underrating the impression on Noel Vanstone that Magdalen had produced. One of the forces in this world which no middle-aged woman is capable of estimating at its full value, when it acts against her, is the force of beauty in a woman younger than herself.
"You are so hasty, Mr. Bygrave—you won't give me time—you won't wait and hear what I have to say!" cried Noel Vanstone, piteously, when the servant had closed the parlor door.
"My family failing, sir—the blood of the Bygraves. Accept my excuses. We are alone, as you wished; pray proceed."
Placed between the alternatives of losing Magdalen's society or betraying Mrs. Lecount, unenlightened by any suspicion of the housekeeper's ultimate object, cowed by the immovable scrutiny of Captain Wragge's inquiring eye, Noel Vanstone was not long in making his choice. He confusedly described his singular interview of the previous evening with Mrs. Lecount, and, taking the folded paper from his pocket, placed it in the captain's hand.
A suspicion of the truth dawned on Captain Wragge's mind the moment he saw the mysterious note. He withdrew to the window before he opened it. The first lines that attracted his attention were these: "Oblige me, Mr. Noel, by comparing the young lady who is now in your company with the personal description which follows these lines, and which has been communicated to me by a friend. You shall know the name of the person described—which I have left a blank—as soon as the evidence of your own eyes has forced you to believe what you would refuse to credit on the unsupported testimony of Virginie Lecount."
That was enough for the captain. Before he had read a word of the description itself, he knew what Mrs. Lecount had done, and felt, with a profound sense of humiliation, that his female enemy had taken him by surprise.
There was no time to think; the whole enterprise was threatened with irrevocable overthrow. The one resource in Captain Wragge's present situation was to act instantly on the first impulse of his own audacity. Line by line he read on, and still the ready inventiveness which had never deserted him yet failed to answer the call made on it now. He came to the closing sentence—to the last words which mentioned the two little moles on Magdalen's neck. At that crowning point of the description, an idea crossed his mind; his party-colored eyes twinkled; his curly lips twisted up at the corners; Wragge was himself again. He wheeled round suddenly from the window, and looked Noel Vanstone straight in the face with a grimly-quiet suggestiveness of something serious to come.
"Pray, sir, do you happen to know anything of Mrs. Lecount's family?" he inquired.
"A respectable family," said Noel Vanstone—"that's all I know. Why do you ask?"
"I am not usually a betting man," pursued Captain Wragge. "But on this occasion I will lay you any wager you like there is madness in your housekeeper's family."
"Madness!" repeated Noel Vanstone, amazedly
"Madness!" reiterated the captain, sternly tapping the note with his forefinger. "I see the cunning of insanity, the suspicion of insanity, the feline treachery of insanity in every line of this deplorable document. There is a far more alarming reason, sir, than I had supposed for Mrs. Lecount's behavior to my niece. It is clear to me that Miss Bygrave resembles some other lady who has seriously offended your housekeeper—who has been formerly connected, perhaps, with an outbreak of insanity in your housekeeper—and who is now evidently confused with my niece in your housekeeper's wandering mind. That is my conviction, Mr. Vanstone. I may be right, or I may be wrong. All I say is this—neither you, nor any man, can assign a sane motive for the production of that incomprehensible document, and for the use which you are requested to make of it."
"I don't think Lecount's mad," said Noel Vanstone, with a very blank look, and a very discomposed manner. "It couldn't have escaped me, with my habits of observation; it couldn't possibly have escaped me if Lecount had been mad."
"Very good, my dear sir. In my opinion, she is the subject of an insane delusion. In your opinion, she is in possession of her senses, and has some mysterious motive which neither you nor I can fathom. Either way, there can be no harm in putting Mrs. Lecount's description to the test, not only as a matter of curiosity, but for our own private satisfaction on both sides. It is of course impossible to tell my niece that she is to be made the subject of such a preposterous experiment as that note of yours suggests. But you can use your own eyes, Mr. Vanstone; you can keep your own counsel; and—mad or not—you can at least tell your housekeeper, on the testimony of your own senses, that she is wrong. Let me look at the description again. The greater part of it is not worth two straws for any purpose of identification; hundreds of young ladies have tall figures, fair complexions, light brown hair, and light gray eyes. You will say, on the other hand, hundreds of young ladies have not got two little moles close together on the left side of the neck. Quite true. The moles supply us with what we scientific men call a Crucial Test. When my niece comes downstairs, sir, you have my full permission to take the liberty of looking at her neck."