The Fifth Scene-Baliol Cottage-Dumfries-Chapter I
TOWARD eleven o'clock, on the morning of the third of November, the breakfast-table at Baliol Cottage presented that essentially comfortless appearance which is caused by a meal in a state of transition -- that is to say, by a meal prepared for two persons, which has been already eaten by one, and which has not yet been approached by the other. It must be a hardy appetite which can contemplate without a momentary discouragement the battered egg-shell, the fish half stripped to a skeleton, the crumbs in the plate, and the dregs in the cup. There is surely a wise submission to those weaknesses in human nature which must be respected and not reproved, in the sympathizing rapidity with which servants in places of public refreshment clear away all signs of the customer in the past, from the eyes of the customer in the present. Although his predecessor may have been the wife of his bosom or the child of his loins, no man can find himself confronted at table by the traces of a vanished eater, without a passing sense of injury in connection with the idea of his own meal.
Some such impression as this found its way into the mind of Mr. Noel Vanstone when he entered the lonely breakfast-parlor at Baliol Cottage shortly after eleven o'clock. He looked at the table with a frown, and rang the bell with an expression of disgust.
"Clear away this mess," he said, when the servant appeared. "Has your mistress gone?"
"Yes, sir -- nearly an hour ago."
"Is Louisa downstairs?"
"When you have put the table right, send Louisa up to me."
He walked away to the window. The momentary irritation passed away from his face; but it left an expression there which remained -- an expression of pining discontent. Personally, his marriage had altered him for the worse. His wizen little cheeks were beginning to shrink into hollows, his frail little figure had already contracted a slight stoop. The former delicacy of his complexion had gone -- the sickly paleness of it was all that remained. His thin flaxen mustaches were no longer pragmatically waxed and twisted into a curl: their weak feathery ends hung meekly pendent over the querulous corners of his mouth. If the ten or twelve weeks since his marriage had been counted by his locks, they might have reckoned as ten or twelve years. He stood at the window mechanically picking leaves from a pot of heath placed in front of it, and drearily humming the forlorn fragment of a tune.
The prospect from the window overlooked the course of the Nith at a bend of the river a few miles above Dumfries. Here and there, through wintry gaps in the wooded bank, broad tracts of the level cultivated valley met the eye. Boats passed on the river, and carts plodded along the high-road on their way to Dumfries. The sky was clear; the November sun shone as pleasantly as if the year had been younger by two good months; and the view, noted in Scotland for its bright and peaceful charm, was presented at the best which its wintry aspect could assume. If it had been hidden in mist or drenched with rain, Mr. Noel Vanstone would, to all appearance, have found it as attractive as he found it now. He waited at the window until he heard Louisa's knock at the door, then turned back sullenly to the breakfast-table and told her to come in.
"Make the tea," he said. "I know nothing about it. I'm left here neglected. Nobody helps me."
The discreet Louisa silently and submissively obeyed.
"Did your mistress leave any message for me," he asked, "before she went away?"
"No message in particular, sir. My mistress only said she should be too late if she waited breakfast any longer."
"Did she say nothing else?"
"She told me at the carriage door, sir, that she would most likely be back in a week."
"Was she in good spirits at the carriage door?"
"No, sir. I thought my mistress seemed very anxious and uneasy. Is there anything more I can do, sir?"
"I don't know. Wait a minute."
He proceeded discontentedly with his breakfast. Louisa waited resignedly at the door.
"I think your mistress has been in bad spirits lately," he resumed, with a sudden outbreak of petulance.
"My mistress has not been very cheerful, sir."
"What do you mean by not very cheerful? Do you mean to prevaricate? Am I nobody in the house? Am I to be kept in the dark about everything? Is your mistress to go away on her own affairs, and leave me at home like a child -- and am I not even to ask a question about her? Am I to be prevaricated with by a servant? I won't be prevaricated with! Not very cheerful? What do you mean by not very cheerful?"
"I only meant that my mistress was not in good spirits, sir."
"Why couldn't you say it, then? Don't you know the value of words? The most dreadful consequences sometimes happen from not knowing the value of words. Did your mistress tell you she was going to London?"
"What did you think when your mistress told you she was going to London? Did you think it odd she was going without me?"
"I did not presume to think it odd, sir. -- Is there anything more I can do for you, if you please, sir?"
"What sort of a morning is it out? Is it warm? Is the sun on the garden?"
"Have you seen the sun yourself on the garden?"
"Get me my great-coat; I'll take a little turn. Has the man brushed it? Did you see the man brush it yourself? What do you mean by saying he has brushed it, when you didn't see him? Let me look at the tails. If there's a speck of dust on the tails, I'll turn the man off! -- Help me on with it."
Louisa helped him on with his coat, and gave him his hat. He went out irritably. The coat was a large one (it had belonged to his father); the hat was a large one (it was a misfit purchased as a bargain by himself). He was submerged in his hat and coat; he looked singularly small, and frail, and miserable, as he slowly wended his way, in the wintry sunlight, down the garden walk. The path sloped gently from the back of the house to the water side, from which it was parted by a low wooden fence. After pacing backward and forward slowly for some little time, he stopped at the lower extremity of the garden, and, leaning on the fen ce, looked down listlessly at the smooth flow of the river.
His thoughts still ran on the subject of his first fretful question to Louisa -he was still brooding over the circumstances under which his wife had left the cottage that morning, and over the want of consideration toward himself implied in the manner of her departure. The longer he thought of his grievance, the more acutely he resented it. He was capable of great tenderness of feeling where any injury to his sense of his own importance was concerned. His head drooped little by little on his arms, as they rested on the fence, and, in the deep sincerity of his mortification, he sighed bitterly.
The sigh was answered by a voice close at his side.
"You were happier with me, sir," said the voice, in accents of tender regret.
He looked up with a scream -- literally, with a scream -- and confronted Mrs. Lecount.
Was it the specter of the woman, or the woman herself? Her hair was white; her face had fallen away; her eyes looked out large, bright, and haggard over her hollow cheeks. She was withered and old. Her dress hung loose round her wasted figure; not a trace of its buxom autumnal beauty remained. The quietly impenetrable resolution, the smoothly insinuating voice -- these were the only relics of the past which sickness and suffering had left in Mrs. Lecount.
"Compose yourself, Mr. Noel," she said, gently. "You have no cause to be alarmed at seeing me. Your servant, when I inquired, said you were in the garden, and I came here to find you. I have traced you out, sir, with no resentment against yourself, with no wish to distress you by so much as the shadow of a reproach. I come here on what has been, and is still, the business of my life -- your service.
He recovered himself a little, but he was still incapable of speech. He held fast by the fence, and stared at her.
"Try to possess your mind, sir, of what I say," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I have come here not as your enemy, but as your friend. I have been tried by sickness, I have been tried by distress. Nothing remains of me but my heart. My heart forgives you; my heart, in your sore need -- need which you have yet to feel -places me at your service. Take my arm, Mr. Noel. A little turn in the sun will help you to recover yourself."
She put his hand through her arm and marched him slowly up the garden walk. Before she had been five minutes in his company, she had resumed full possession of him in her own right
"Now down again, Mr. Noel," she said. "Gently down again, in this fine sunlight. I have much to say to you, sir, which you never expected to hear from me. Let me ask a little domestic question first. They told me at the house door Mrs. Noel Vanstone was gone away on a journey. Has she gone for long?"
Her master's hand trembled on her arm as she put that question. Instead of answering it, he tried faintly to plead for himself. The first words that escaped him were prompted by his first returning sense -- the sense that his housekeeper had taken him into custody. He tried to make his peace with Mrs. Lecount.
"I always meant to do something for you," he said, coaxingly. "You would have heard from me before long. Upon my word and honor, Lecount, you would have heard from me before long!"
"I don't doubt it, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount. "But for the present, never mind about Me. You and your interests first."
"How did you come here?" he asked, looking at her in astonishment. "How came you to find me out?"
"It is a long story, sir; I will tell it you some other time. Let it be enough to say now that I have found you. Will Mrs. Noel be back again at the house to-day? A little louder, sir; I can hardly hear you. So! so! Not back again for a week! And where has she gone? To London, did you say? And what for? -- I am not inquisitive, Mr. Noel; I am asking serious questions, under serious necessity. Why has your wife left you here, and gone to London by herself?"
They were down at the fence again as she made that last inquiry, and they waited, leaning against it, while Noel Vanstone answered. Her reiterated assurances that she bore him no malice were producing their effect; he was beginning to recover himself. The old helpless habit of addressing all his complaints to his housekeeper was returning already with the re-appearance of Mrs. Lecount -- returning insidiously, in company with that besetting anxiety to talk about his grievances, which had got the better of him at the breakfast-table, and which had shown the wound inflicted on his vanity to his wife's maid.
"I can't answer for Mrs. Noel Vanstone," he said, spitefully. "Mrs. Noel Vanstone has not treated me with the consideration which is my due. She has taken my permission for granted, and she has only thought proper to tell me that the object of her journey is to see her friends in London. She went away this morning without bidding me good-by. She takes her own way as if I was nobody; she treats me like a child. You may not believe it, Lecount, but I don't even know who her friends are. I am left quite in the dark; I am left to guess for myself that her friends in London are her uncle and aunt."
Mrs. Lecount privately considered the question by the help of her own knowledge obtained in London. She soon reached the obvious conclusion. After writing to her sister in the first instance, Magdalen had now, in all probability, followed the letter in person. There was little doubt that the friends she had gone to visit in London were her sister and Miss Garth.
"Not her uncle and aunt, sir," resumed Mrs. Lecount, composedly. "A secret for your private ear! She has no uncle and aunt. Another little turn before I explain myself -- another little turn to compose your spirits."
She took him into custody once more, and marched him back toward the house.
"Mr. Noel!" she said, suddenly stopping in the middle of the walk. "Do you know what was the worst mischief you ever did yourself in your life? I will tell you. That worst mischief was sending me to Zurich."
His hand began to tremble on her arm once more.
"I didn't do it!" he cried piteously. "It was all Mr. Bygrave."
"You acknowledge, sir, that Mr. Bygrave deceived me?" proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "I am glad to hear that. You will be all the readier to make the next discovery which is waiting for you -- the discovery that Mr. Bygrave has deceived you. He is not here to slip through my fingers now, and I am not the helpless woman in this place that I was at Aldborough. Thank God!"
She uttered that devout exclamation through her set teeth. All her hatred of Captain Wragge hissed out of her lips in those two words.
"Oblige me, sir, by holding one side of my traveling-bag," she resumed, "while I open it and take something out."
The interior of the bag disclosed a series of neatly-folded papers, all laid together in order, and numbered outside. Mrs. Lecount took out one of the papers, and shut up the bag again with a loud snap of the spring that closed it.
"At Aldborough, Mr. Noel, I had only my own opinion to support me," she remarked. "My own opinion was nothing against Miss Bygrave's youth and beauty, and Mr. Bygrave's ready wit. I could only hope to attack your infatuation with proofs, and at that time I had not got them. I have got them now! I am armed at all points with proofs; I bristle from head to foot with proofs; I break my forced silence, and speak with the emphasis of my proofs. Do you know this writing, sir?"
He shrank back from the paper which she offered to him.
"I don't understand this," he said, nervously. "I don't know what you want, or what you mean."
Mrs. Lecount forced the paper into his hand. "You shall know what I mean, sir, if you will give me a moment's attention," she said. "On the day after you went away to St. Crux, I obtained admission to Mr. Bygrave's house, and I had some talk in private with Mr. Bygrave's wife. That talk supplied me with the means to convince you which I had wanted to find for weeks and weeks past. I wrote you a letter to say so -- I wrote to tell you that I would forfeit my place in your service, and my expectations from your generosity, if I did not prove to you when I came back from Switzerland that my own private suspicion of Miss Bygrave was the truth. I d irected that letter to you at St. Crux, and I posted it myself. Now, Mr. Noel, read the paper which I have forced into your hand. It is Admiral Bartram's written affirmation that my letter came to St. Crux, and that he inclosed it to you, under cover to Mr. Bygrave, at your own request. Did Mr. Bygrave ever give you that letter? Don't agitate yourself, sir! One word of reply will do -- Yes or No."
He read the paper, and looked up at her with growing bewilderment and fear. She obstinately waited until he spoke. "No," he said, faintly; "I never got the letter."
"First proof!" said Mrs. Lecount, taking the paper from him, and putting it back in the bag. "One more, with your kind permission, before we come to things more serious still. I gave you a written description, sir, at Aldborough, of a person not named, and I asked you to compare it with Miss Bygrave the next time you were in her company. After having first shown the description to Mr. Bygrave -it is useless to deny it now, Mr. Noel; your friend at North Shingles is not here to help you! -- after having first shown my note to Mr. Bygrave, you made the comparison, and you found it fail in the most important particular. There were two little moles placed close together on the left side of the neck, in my description of the unknown lady, and there were no little moles at all when you looked at Miss Bygrave's neck. I am old enough to be your mother, Mr. Noel. If the question is not indelicate, may I ask what the present state of your knowledge is on the subject of your wife's neck?"
She looked at him with a merciless steadiness. He drew back a few steps, cowering under her eye. "I can't say," he stammered. "I don't know. What do you mean by these questions? I never thought about the moles afterward; I never looked. She wears her hair low -- "
"She has excellent reasons to wear it low, sir," remarked Mrs. Lecount. "We will try and lift that hair before we have done with the subject. When I came out here to find you in the garden, I saw a neat young person through the kitchen window, with her work in her hand, who looked to my eyes like a lady's maid. Is this young person your wife's maid? I beg your pardon, sir, did you say yes? In that case, another question, if you please. Did you engage her, or did your wife?"
"I engaged her -- "
"While I was away? While I was in total ignorance that you meant to have a wife, or a wife's maid?"
"Under those circumstances, Mr. Noel, you cannot possibly suspect me of conspiring to deceive you, with the maid for my instrument. Go into the house, sir, while I wait here. Ask the woman who dresses Mrs. Noel Vanstone's hair morning and night whether her mistress has a mark on the left side of her neck, and (if so) what that mark is?"
He walked a few steps toward the house without uttering a word, then stopped, and looked back at Mrs. Lecount. His blinking eyes were steady, and his wizen face had become suddenly composed. Mrs. Lecount advanced a little and joined him. She saw the change; but, with all her experience of him, she failed to interpret the true meaning of it.
"Are you in want of a pretense, sir?" she asked. "Are you at a loss to account to your wife's maid for such a question as I wish you to put to her? Pretenses are easily found which will do for persons in her station of life. Say I have come here with news of a legacy for Mrs. Noel Vanstone, and that there is a question of her identity to settle before she can receive the money."
She pointed to the house. He paid no attention to the sign. His face grew paler and paler. Without moving or speaking he stood and looked at her.
"Are you afraid?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
Those words roused him; those words lit a spark of the fire of manhood in him at last. He turned on her like a sheep on a dog.
"I won't be questioned and ordered!" he broke out, trembling violently under the new sensation of his own courage. "I won't be threatened and mystified any longer! How did you find me out at this place? What do you mean by coming here with your hints and your mysteries? What have you got to say against my wife?"
Mrs. Lecount composedly opened the traveling-bag and took out her smelling bottle, in case of emergency.
"You have spoken to me in plain words," she said. "In plain words, sir, you shall have your answer. Are you too angry to listen?"
Her looks and tones alarmed him, in spite of himself. His courage began to sink again; and, desperately as he tried to steady it, his voice trembled when he answered her.
"Give me my answer," he said, "and give it at once."
"Your commands shall be obeyed, sir, to the letter," replied Mrs. Lecount. "I have come here with two objects. To open your eyes to your own situation, and to save your fortune -- perhaps your life. Your situation is this. Miss Bygrave has married you under a false character and a false name. Can you rouse your memory? Can you call to mind the disguised woman who threatened you in Vauxhall Walk? That woman -- as certainly as I stand here -- is now your wife."
He looked at her in breathless silence, his lips falling apart, his eyes fixed in vacant inquiry. The suddenness of the disclosure had overreached its own end. It had stupefied him.
"My wife?" he repeated, and burst into an imbecile laugh.
"Your wife," reiterated Mrs. Lecount.
At the repetition of those two words the strain on his faculties relaxed. A thought dawned on him for the first time. His eyes fixed on her with a furtive alarm, and he drew back hastily. "Mad!" he said to himself, with a sudden remembrance of what his friend Mr. Bygrave had told him at Aldborough, sharpened by his own sense of the haggard change that he saw in her face.
He spoke in a whisper, but Mrs. Lecount heard him. She was close at his side again in an instant. For the first time, her self-possession failed her, and she caught him angrily by the arm.
"Will you put my madness to the proof, sir?" she asked.
He shook off her hold; he began to gather courage again, in the intense sincerity of his disbelief, courage to face the assertion which she persisted in forcing on him.
"Yes," he answered. "What must I do?"
"Do what I told you," said Mrs. Lecount. "Ask the maid that question about her mistress on the spot. And if she tells you the mark is there, do one thing more. Take me up into your wife's room, and open her wardrobe in my presence with your own hands."
"What do you want with her wardrobe?" he asked.
"You shall know when you open it."
"Very strange!" he said to himself, vacantly. "It's like a scene in a novel -it's like nothing in real life." He went slowly into the house, and Mrs. Lecount waited for him in the garden.
After an absence of a few minutes only he appeared again, on the top of the flight of steps which led into the garden from the house. He held by the iron rail with one hand, while with the other he beckoned to Mrs. Lecount to join him on the steps.
"What does the maid say?" she asked, as she approached him. "Is the mark there?"
He answered in a whisper, "Yes." What he had heard from the maid had produced a marked change in him. The horror of the coming discovery had laid its paralyzing hold on his mind. He moved mechanically; he looked and spoke like a man in a dream.
"Will you take my arm, sir?"
He shook his head, and, preceding her along the passage and up the stairs, led the way into his wife's room. When she joined him and locked the door, he stood passively waiting for his directions, without making any remark, without showing any external appearance of surprise. He had not removed either his hat or coat. Mrs. Lecount took them off for him. "Thank you," he said, with the docility of a well-trained child. "It's like a scene in a novel -- it's like nothing in real life."
The bed-chamber was not very large, and the furniture was heavy and old-fashioned. But evidences of Magdalen's natural taste and refinement were visible everywhere, in the little embellishments that graced and enlivened the aspect of the room. The perfume of dried rose-leaves hung fra grant on the cool air. Mrs. Lecount sniffed the perfume with a disparaging frown and threw the window up to its full height. "Pah!" she said, with a shudder of virtuous disgust, "the atmosphere of deceit!"
She seated herself near the window. The wardrobe stood against the wall opposite, and the bed was at the side of the room on her right hand. "Open the wardrobe, Mr. Noel," she said. "I don't go near it. I touch nothing in it myself. Take out the dresses with your own hand and put them on the bed. Take them out one by one until I tell you to stop."
He obeyed her. "I'll do it as well as I can," he said. "My hands are cold, and my head feels half asleep."
The dresses to be removed were not many, for Magdalen had taken some of them away with her. After he had put two dresses on the bed, he was obliged to search in the inner recesses of the wardrobe before he could find a third. When he produced it, Mrs. Lecount made a sign to him to stop. The end was reached already; he had found the brown Alpaca dress.
"Lay it out on the bed, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "You will see a double flounce running round the bottom of it. Lift up the outer flounce, and pass the inner one through your fingers, inch by inch. If you come to a place where there is a morsel of the stuff missing, stop and look up at me."
He passed the flounce slowly through his fingers for a minute or more, then stopped and looked up. Mrs. Lecount produced her pocket-book and opened it.
"Every word I now speak, sir, is of serious consequence to you and to me," she said. "Listen with your closest attention. When the woman calling herself Miss Garth came to see us in Vauxhall Walk, I knelt down behind the chair in which she was sitting and I cut a morsel of stuff from the dress she wore, which might help me to know that dress if I ever saw it again. I did this while the woman's whole attention was absorbed in talking to you. The morsel of stuff has been kept in my pocketbook from that time to this. See for yourself, Mr. Noel, if it fits the gap in that dress which your own hands have just taken from your wife's wardrobe."
She rose and handed him the fragment of stuff across the bed. He put it into the vacant space in the flounce as well as his trembling fingers would let him.
"Does it fit, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount.
The dress dropped from his hands, and the deadly bluish pallor -- which every doctor who attended him had warned his housekeeper to dread -- overspread his face slowly. Mrs. Lecount had not reckoned on such an answer to her question as she now saw in his cheeks. She hurried round to him, with the smelling-bottle in her hand. He dropped to his knees and caught at her dress with the grasp of a drowning man. "Save me!" he gasped, in a hoarse, breathless whisper. "Oh, Lecount, save me!"
"I promise to save you," said Mrs. Lecount; "I am here with the means and the resolution to save you. Come away from this place -- come nearer to the air." She raised him as she spoke, and led him across the room to the window. "Do you feel the chill pain again on your left side?" she asked, with the first signs of alarm that she had shown yet. "Has your wife got any eau-de-cologne, any sal-volatile in her room? Don't exhaust yourself by speaking -- point to the place!"
He pointed to a little triangular cupboard of old worm-eaten walnut-wood fixed high in a corner of the room. Mrs. Lecount tried the door: it was locked.
As she made that discovery, she saw his head sink back gradually on the easy-chair in which she had placed him. The warning of the doctors in past years -- "If you ever let him faint, you let him die" -- recurred to her memory as if it had been spoken the day before. She looked at the cupboard again. In a recess under it lay some ends of cord, placed there apparently for purposes of packing. Without an instant's hesitation, she snatched up a morsel of cord, tied one end fast round the knob of the cupboard door, and seizing the other end in both hands, pulled it suddenly with the exertion of her whole strength. The rotten wood gave way, the cupboard doors flew open, and a heap of little trifles poured out noisily on the floor. Without stopping to notice the broken china and glass at her feet, she looked into the dark recesses of the cupboard and saw the gleam of two glass bottles. One was put away at the extreme back of the shelf, the other was a little in advance, almost hiding it. She snatched them both out at once, and took them, one in each hand, to the window, where she could read their labels in the clearer light.
The bottle in her right hand was the first bottle she looked at. It was marked -- Sal-volatile.
She instantly laid the other bottle aside on the table without looking at it. The other bottle lay there, waiting its turn. It held a dark liquid, and it was labeled -- POISON.Next