THERE was a pause of a few minutes while Mrs. Lecount opened the second of the two papers which lay before her on the table, and refreshed her memory by looking it rapidly through. This done, she once more addressed herself to Noel Vanstone, carefully lowering her voice, so as to render it inaudible to any one who might be listening in the passage outside.
"I must beg your permission, sir," she began, "to return to the subject of your wife. I do so most unwillingly; and I promise you that what I have now to say about her shall be said, for your sake and for mine, in the fewest words. What do we know of this woman, Mr. Noel -- judging her by her own confession when she came to us in the character of Miss Garth, and by her own acts afterward at Aldborough? We know that, if death had not snatched your father out of her reach, she was ready with her plot to rob him of the Combe-Raven money. We know that, when you inherited the money in your turn, she was ready with her plot to rob you. We know how she carried that plot through to the end; and we know that nothing but your death is wanted, at this moment, to crown her rapacity and her deception with success. We are sure of these things. We are sure that she is young, bold, and clever -- that she has neither doubts, scruples, nor pity -and that she possesses the personal qualities which men in general (quite incomprehensibly to me!) are weak enough to admire. These are not fancies, Mr. Noel, but facts; you know them as well as I do."
He made a sign in the affirmative, and Mrs. Lecount went on:
"Keep in your mind what I have said of the past, sir, and now look with me to the future. I hope and trust you have a long life still before you; but let us, for the moment only, suppose the case of your death -- your death leaving this will behind you, which gives your fortune to your cousin George. I am told there is an office in London in which copies of all wills must be kept. Any curious stranger who chooses to pay a shilling for the privilege may enter that office, and may read any will in the place at his or her discretion. Do you see what I am coming to, Mr. Noel? Your disinherited widow pays her shilling, and reads your will. Your disinherited widow sees that the Combe-Raven money, which has gone from your father to you, goes next from you to Mr. George Bartram. What is the certain end of that discovery? The end is, that you leave to your cousin and your friend the legacy of this woman's vengeance and this woman's deceit -vengeance made more resolute, deceit made more devilish than ever, by her exasperation at her own failure. What is your cousin George? He is a generous, unsuspicious man; incapable of deceit himself, and fearing no deception in others. Leave him at the mercy of your wife's unscrupulous fascinations and your wife's unfathomable deceit, and I see the end as certainly as I see you sitting there! She will blind his eyes, as she blinded yours; and, in spite of you, in spite of me, she will have the money!"
She stopped, and left her last words time to gain their hold on his mind. The circumstances had been stated so clearly, the conclusion from them had been so plainly drawn, that he seized her meaning without an effort, and seized it at once.
"I see!" he said, vindictively clinching his hands. "I understand, Lecount! She shan't have a farthing. What shall I do? Shall I leave the money to the admiral?" He paused, and considered a little. "No," he resumed; "there's the same danger in leaving it to the admiral that there is in leaving it to George."
"There is no danger, Mr. Noel, if you take my advice."
"What is your advice?"
" Follow your own idea, sir. Take the pen in hand again, and leave the money to Admiral Bartram."
He mechanica lly dipped the pen in the ink, and then hesitated.
"You shall know where I am leading you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "before you sign your will. In the meantime, let us gain every inch of ground we can, as we go on. I want the will to be all written out before we advance a single step beyond it. Begin your third paragraph, Mr. Noel, under the lines which leave me my legacy of five thousand pounds."
She dictated the last momentous sentence of the will (from the rough draft in her own possession) in these words:
"The whole residue of my estate, after payment of my burial expenses and my lawful debts, I give and bequeath to Rear-Admiral Arthur Everard Bartram, my Executor aforesaid; to be by him applied to such uses as he may think fit.
"Signed, sealed, and delivered, this third day of November, eighteen hundred and forty-seven, by Noel Vanstone, the within-named testator, as and for his last Will and Testament, in the presence of us -- "
"Is that all?" asked Noel Vanstone, in astonishment.
"That is enough, sir, to bequeath your fortune to the admiral; and therefore that is all. Now let us go back to the case which we have supposed already. Your widow pays her shilling, and sees this will. There is the Combe-Raven money left to Admiral Bartram, with a declaration in plain words that it is his, to use as he likes. When she sees this, what does she do? She sets her trap for the admiral. He is a bachelor, and he is an old man. Who is to protect him against the arts of this desperate woman? Protect him yourself, sir, with a few more strokes of that pen which has done such wonders already. You have left him this legacy in your will -- which your wife sees. Take the legacy away again, in a letter -- which is a dead secret between the admiral and you. Put the will and the letter under one cover, and place them in the admiral's possession, with your written directions to him to break the seal on the day of your death. Let the will say what it says now; and let the letter (which is your secret and his) tell him the truth. Say that, in leaving him your fortune, you leave it with the request that he will take his legacy with one hand from you, and give it with the other to his nephew George. Tell him that your trust in this matter rests solely on your confidence in his honor, and on your belief in his affectionate remembrance of your father and yourself. You have known the admiral since you were a boy. He has his little whims and oddities; but he is a gentleman from the crown of his head to the sole of his foot; and he is utterly incapable of proving false to a trust in his honor, reposed by his dead friend. Meet the difficulty boldly, by such a stratagem as this; and you save these two helpless men from your wife's snare, one by means of the other. Here, on one side, is your will, which gives the fortune to the admiral, and sets her plotting accordingly. And there, on the other side, is your letter, which privately puts the money into the nephew's hands!"
The malicious dexterity of this combination was exactly the dexterity which Noel Vanstone was most fit to appreciate. He tried to express his approval and admiration in words. Mrs. Lecount held up her hand warningly and closed his lips.
"Wait, sir, before you express your opinion," she went on. "Half the difficulty is all that we have conquered yet. Let us say, the admiral has made the use of your legacy which you have privately requested him to make of it. Sooner or later, however well the secret may be kept, your wife will discover the truth. What follows that discovery! She lays siege to Mr. George. All you have done is to leave him the money by a roundabout way. There he is, after an interval of time, as much at her mercy as if you had openly mentioned him in your will. What is the remedy for this? The remedy is to mislead her, if we can, for the second time -- to set up an obstacle between her and the money, for the protection of your cousin George. Can you guess for yourself, Mr. Noel, what is the most promising obstacle we can put in her way?"
He shook his head. Mrs. Lecount smiled, and startled him into close attention by laying her hand on his arm.
"Put a Woman in her way, sir!" she whispered in her wiliest tones. "We don't believe in that fascinating beauty of hers -- whatever you may do. Our lips don't burn to kiss those smooth cheeks. Our arms don't long to be round that supple waist. We see through her smiles and her graces, and her stays and her padding -- she can't fascinate us! Put a woman in her way, Mr. Noel! Not a woman in my helpless situation, who is only a servant, but a woman with the authority and the jealousy of a Wife. Make it a condition, in your letter to the admiral, that if Mr. George is a bachelor at the time of your death, he shall marry within a certain time afterward, or he shall not have the legacy. Suppose he remains single in spite of your condition, who is to have the money then? Put a woman in your wife's way, sir, once more -- and leave the fortune, in that case, to the married sister of your cousin George."
She paused. Noel Vanstone again attempted to express his opinion, and again Mrs. Lecount's hand extinguished him in silence.
"If you approve, Mr. Noel," she said, "I will take your approval for granted. If you object, I will meet your objection before it is out of your mouth. You may say: Suppose this condition is sufficient to answer the purpose, why hide it in a private letter to the admiral? Why not openly write it down, with my cousin's name, in the will? Only for one reason, sir. Only because the secret way is the sure way, with such a woman as your wife. The more secret you can keep your intentions, the more time you force her to waste in finding them out for herself. That time which she loses is time gained from her treachery by the admiral -- time gained by Mr. George (if he is still a bachelor) for his undisturbed choice of a lady -- time gained, for her own security, by the object of his choice, who might otherwise be the first object of your wife's suspicion and your wife's hostility. Remember the bottle we have discovered upstairs; and keep this desperate woman ignorant, and therefore harmless, as long as you can. There is my advice, Mr. Noel, in the fewest and plainest words. What do you say, sir? Am I almost as clever in my way as your friend Mr. Bygrave? Can I, too, conspire a little, when the object of my conspiracy is to assist your wishes and to protect your friends?"
Permitted the use of his tongue at last, Noel Vanstone's admiration of Mrs. Lecount expressed itself in terms precisely similar to those which he had used on a former occasion, in paying his compliments to Captain Wragge. "What a head you have got!" were the grateful words which he had once spoken to Mrs. Lecount's bitterest enemy. "What a head you have got!" were the grateful words which he now spoke again to Mrs. Lecount herself. So do extremes meet; and such is sometimes the all-embracing capacity of the approval of a fool!
"Allow my head, sir, to deserve the compliment which you have paid to it," said Mrs. Lecount. "The letter to the admiral is not written yet. Your will there is a body without a soul -- an Adam without an Eve -- until the letter is completed and laid by its side. A little more dictation on my part, a little more writing on yours, and our work is done. Pardon me. The letter will be longer than the will; we must have larger paper than the note-paper this time."
The writing-case was searched, and some letter paper was found in it of the size required. Mrs. Lecount resumed her dictation; and Noel Vanstone resumed his pen.
"Baliol Cottage, Dumfries,
"November 3d, 1847.
"DEAR ADMIRAL BARTRAM -- When you open my Will (in which you are named my sole executor), you will find that I have bequeathed the whole residue of my estate -- after payment of one legacy of five thousand pounds -- to yourself. It is the purpose of my letter to tell you privately what the object is for which I have left you the fortune which is now placed in your hands.
"I beg you to consider this large legacy as intended, under certain conditions,to be given by you to your nephew George. If your nephew is married at the time of my death, and if his wife is living, I request you to put him at once in possession of your legacy; accompanying it by the expression of my desire (which I am sure he will consider a sacred and binding obligation on him) that he will settle the money on his wife -- and on his children, if he has any. If, on the other hand, he is unmarried at the time of my death, or if he is a widower -- in either of those cases, I make it a condition of his receiving the legacy, that he shall be married within the period of -- "
Mrs. Lecount laid down the Draft letter from which she had been dictating thus far, and informed Noel Vanstone by a sign that his pen might rest.
"We have come to the question of time, sir," she observed. "How long will you give your cousin to marry, if he is single, or a widower, at the time of your death?"
"Shall I give him a year?" inquired Noel Vanstone.
"If we had nothing to consider but the interests of Propriety," said Mrs. Lecount, "I should say a year too, sir -- especially if Mr. George should happen to be a widower. But we have your wife to consider, as well as the interests of Propriety. A year of delay, between your death and your cousin's marriage, is a dangerously long time to leave the disposal of your fortune in suspense. Give a determined woman a year to plot and contrive in, and there is no saying what she may not do."
"Six months?" suggested Noel Vanstone.
"Six months, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "is the preferable time of the two. A six months' interval from the day of your death is enough for Mr. George. You look discomposed, sir; what is the matter?"
"I wish you wouldn't talk so much about my death," he broke out, petulantly. "I don't like it! I hate the very sound of the word!"
Mrs. Lecount smiled resignedly, and referred to her Draft.
"I see the word 'decease' written here," she remarked. "Perhaps, Mr. Noel, you would prefer it?"
"Yes," he said; "I prefer 'Decease.' It doesn't sound so dreadful as 'Death.'"
"Let us go on with the letter, sir."
She resumed her dictation, as follows:
".....in either of those cases, I make it a condition of his receiving the legacy that he shall be married within the period of Six calendar months from the day of my decease; that the woman he marries shall not be a widow; and that his marriage shall be a marriage by Banns, publicly celebrated in the parish church of Ossory -- where he has been known from his childhood, and where the family and circumstances of his future wife are likely to be the subject of public interest and inquiry."
"This," said Mrs. Lecount, quietly looking up from the Draft, "is to protect Mr. George, sir, in case the same trap is set for him which was successfully set for you. She will not find her false character and her false name fit quite so easily next time -- no, not even with Mr. Bygrave to help her! Another dip of ink, Mr. Noel; let us write the next paragraph. Are you ready?"
Mrs. Lecount went on.
"If your nephew fails to comply with these conditions -- that is to say, if being either a bachelor or a widower at the time of my decease, he fails to marry in all respects as I have here instructed him to marry, within Six calendar months from that time -- it is my desire that he shall not receive the legacy, or any part of it. I request you, in the case here supposed, to pass him over altogether; and to give the fortune left you in my will to his married sister, Mrs. Girdlestone.
"Having now put you in possession of my motives and intentions, I come to the next question which it is necessary to consider. If, when you open this letter, your nephew is an unmarried man, it is clearly indispensable that he should know of the conditions here imposed on him, as soon, if possible, as you know of them yourself. Are you, under these circumstances, freely to communicate to him what I have here written to you? Or are you to leave him under the impression that no such private expression of my wishes as this is in existence; and are you to state all the conditions relating to his marriage, as if they emanated entirely from yourself?
"If you will adopt this latter alternative, you will add one more to the many obligations under which your friendship has placed me.
"I have serious reason to believe that the possession of my money, and the discovery of any peculiar arrangements relating to the disposal of it, will be objects (after my decease) of the fraud and conspiracy of an unscrupulous person. I am therefore anxious -- for your sake, in the first place -- that no suspicion of the existence of this letter should be conveyed to the mind of the person to whom I allude. And I am equally desirous -- for Mrs. Girdlestone's sake, in the second place -- that this same person should be entirely ignorant that the legacy will pass into Mrs. Girdlestone's possession, if your nephew is not married in the given time. I know George's easy, pliable disposition; I dread the attempts that will be made to practice on it; and I feel sure that the prudent course will be, to abstain from trusting him with secrets, the rash revelation of which might be followed by serious, and even dangerous results.
"State the conditions, therefore, to your nephew, as if they were your own. Let him think they have been suggested to your mind by the new responsibilities imposed on you as a man of property, by your position in my will, and by your consequent anxiety to provide for the perpetuation of the family name. If these reasons are not sufficient to satisfy him, there can be no objection to your referring him, for any further explanations which he may desire, to his wedding-day.
"I have done. My last wishes are now confided to you, in implicit reliance on your honor, and on your tender regard for the memory of your friend. Of the miserable circumstances which compel me to write as I have written here, I say nothing. You will hear of them, if my life is spared, from my own lips -- for you will be the first friend whom I shall consult in my difficulty and distress. Keep this letter strictly secret, and strictly in your own possession, until my requests are complied with. Let no human being but yourself know where it is, on any pretense whatever.
"Believe me, dear Admiral Bartram, affectionately yours,
"Have you signed, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Let me look the letter over, if you please, before we seal it up."
She read the letter carefully. In Noel Vanstone's close, cramped handwriting, it filled two pages of letter-paper, and ended at the top of the third page. Instead of using an envelope, Mrs. Lecount folded it, neatly and securely, in the old-fashioned way. She lit the taper in the ink-stand, and returned the letter to the writer.
"Seal it, Mr. Noel," she said, "with your own hand, and your own seal." She extinguished the taper, and handed him the pen again. "Address the letter, sir," she proceeded, "to Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex. Now, add these words, and sign them, above the address: To be kept in your own possession, and to be opened by yourself only, on the day of my death -- or
'Decease,' if you prefer it -- Noel Vanstone. Have you done? Let me look at it again. Quite right in every particular. Accept my congratulations, sir. If your wife has not plotted her last plot for the Combe-Raven money, it is not your fault, Mr. Noel -- and not mine!"
Finding his attention released by the completion of the letter, Noel Vanstone reverted at once to purely personal considerations. "There is my packing-up to be thought of now," he said. "I can't go away without my warm things."
"Excuse me, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "there is the Will to be signed first; and there must be two persons found to witness your signature." She looked out of the front window, and saw the carriage waiting at the door. "The coachman
will do for one of the witnesses," she said. "He is in respectable service at Dumfries, and he can be found if he hap pens to be wanted. We must have one of your own servants, I suppose, for the other witness. They are all de testable women; but the cook is the least ill-looking of the three. Send for the cook, sir; while I go out and call the coachman. When we have got our witnesses here, you have only to speak to them in these words: 'I have a document here to sign, and I wish you to write your names on it, as witnesses of my signature.' Nothing more, Mr. Noel! Say those few words in your usual manner -- and, when the signing is over, I will see myself to your packing-up, and your warm things."
She went to the front door, and summoned the coachman to the parlor. On her return, she found the cook already in the room. The cook looked mysteriously offended, and stared without intermission at Mrs. Lecount. In a minute more the coachman -- an elderly man -- came in. He was preceded by a relishing odor of whisky; but his head was Scotch; and nothing but his odor betrayed him.
"I have a document here to sign," said Noel Vanstone, repeating his lesson; "and I wish you to write your names on it, as witnesses of my signature."
The coachman looked at the will. The cook never removed her eyes from Mrs. Lecount.
"Ye'll no object, sir," said the coachman, with the national caution showing itself in every wrinkle on his face -- "ye'll no object, sir, to tell me, first, what the Doecument may be?"
Mrs. Lecount interposed before Noel Vanstone's indignation could express itself in words.
"You must tell the man, sir, that this is your Will," she said. "When he witnesses your signature, he can see as much for himself if he looks at the top of the page."
"Ay, ay," said the coachman, looking at the top of the page immediately. "His last Will and Testament. Hech, sirs! there's a sair confronting of Death in a Doecument like yon! A' flesh is grass," continued the coachman, exhaling an additional puff of whisky, and looking up devoutly at the ceiling. "Tak' those words in connection with that other Screepture: Many are ca'ad, but few are chosen. Tak' that again, in connection with Rev'lations, Chapter the First, verses One to Fefteen. Lay the whole to heart; and what's your Walth, then? Dross, sirs! And your body?
(Screepture again.) Clay for the potter! And your life?
(Screepture once more.) The Breeth o' your Nostrils!"
The cook listened as if the cook was at church: but she never removed her eyes from Mrs. Lecount.
"You had better sign, sir. This is apparently some custom prevalent in Dumfries during the transaction of business," said Mrs. Lecount, resignedly. "The man means well, I dare say."
She added those last words in a soothing tone, for she saw that Noel Vanstone's indignation was fast merging into alarm. The coachman's outburst of exhortation seemed to have inspired him with fear, as well as disgust.
He dipped the pen in the ink, and signed the Will without uttering a word. The coachman (descending instantly from Theology to Business) watched the signature with the most scrupulous attention; and signed his own name as witness, with an implied commentary on the proceeding, in the form of another puff of whisky, exhaled through the medium of a heavy sigh. The cook looked away from Mrs. Lecount with an effort -- signed her name in a violent hurry -- and looked back again with a start, as if she expected to see a loaded pistol (produced in the interval) in the housekeeper's hands. "Thank you," said Mrs. Lecount, in her friendliest manner. The cook shut up her lips aggressively and looked at her master. "You may go!" said her master. The cook coughed contemptuously, and went.
"We shan't keep you long," said Mrs. Lecount, dismissing the coachman. "In half an hour, or less, we shall be ready for the journey back."
The coachman's austere countenance relaxed for the first time. He smiled mysteriously, and approached Mrs. Lecount on tiptoe.
"Ye'll no forget one thing, my leddy," he said, with the most ingratiating politeness. "Ye'll no forget the witnessing as weel as the driving, when ye pay me for my day's wark!" He laughed with guttural gravity; and, leaving his atmosphere behind him, stalked out of the room.
"Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, as soon as the coachman closed the door, "did I hear you tell that man we should be ready in half an hour?"
"Are you blind?"
He asked the question with an angry stamp of his foot. Mrs. Lecount looked at him in astonishment.
"Can't you see the brute is drunk?" he went on, more and more irritably. "Is my life nothing? Am I to be left at the mercy of a drunken coachman? I won't trust that man to drive me, for any consideration under heaven! I'm surprised you could think of it, Lecount."
"The man has been drinking, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "It is easy to see and to smell that. But he is evidently used to drinking. If he is sober enough to walk quite straight -- which he certainly does -- and to sign his name in an excellent handwriting -- which you may see for yourself on the Will -- I venture to think he is sober enough to drive us to Dumfries."
"Nothing of the sort! You're a foreigner, Lecount; you don't understand these people. They drink whisky from morning to night. Whisky is the strongest spirit that's made; whisky is notorious for its effect on the brain. I tell you, I won't run the risk. I never was driven, and I never will be driven, by anybody but a sober man."
"Must I go back to Dumfries by myself, sir?"
"And leave me here? Leave me alone in this house after what has happened? How do I know my wife may not come back to-night? How do I know her journey is not a blind to mislead me? Have you no feeling, Lecount? Can you leave me in my miserable situation --
?" He sank into a chair and burst out crying over his own idea, before he had completed the expression of it in words. "Too bad!" he said, with his handkerchief over his face -- "too bad!"
It was impossible not to pity him. If ever mortal was pitiable, he was the man. He had broken down at last, under the conflict of violent emotions which had been roused in him since the morning. The effort to follow Mrs. Lecount along the mazes of intricate combination through which she had steadily led the way, had upheld him while that effort lasted: the moment it was at an end, he dropped. The coachman had hastened a result -- of which the coachman was far from being the cause.
"You surprise me -- you distress me, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "I entreat you to compose yourself. I will stay here, if you wish it, with pleasure -- I will stay here to-night, for your sake. You want rest and quiet after this dreadful day. The coachman shall be instantly sent away, Mr. Noel. I will give him a note to the landlord of the hotel, and the carriage shall come back for us to-morrow morning, with another man to drive it."
The prospect which those words presented cheered him. He wiped his eyes, and kissed Mrs. Lecount's hand. "Yes!" he said, faintly; "send the coachman away -and you stop here. You good creature! You excellent Lecount! Send the drunken brute away, and come back directly. We will be comfortable by the fire, Lecount -- and have a nice little dinner -- and try to make it like old times." His weak voice faltered; he returned to the fire side, and melted into tears again under the pathetic influence of his own idea.
Mrs. Lecount left him for a minute to dismiss the coachman. When she returned to the parlor she found him with his hand on the bell.
"What do you want, sir?" she asked.
"I want to tell the servants to get your room ready," he answered. "I wish to show you every attention, Lecount."
"You are all kindness, Mr. Noel; but wait one moment. It may be well to have these papers put out of the way before the servant comes in again. If you will place the Will and the Sealed Letter together in one envelope -- and if you will direct it to the admiral -- I will take care that the inclosure so addressed is safely placed in his own hands. Will you come to the table, Mr. Noel, only for one minute more?"
No! He was obstinate; he refused to move from the fire; he was sick and tired of writing: he wished he had never been born, and he loathed the sight of pen and ink. All Mrs. Lecount's patience and all Mrs. Lecount's persuasion were required to induce him to write t he admiral's address for the second time. She only succeeded by bringing the blank envelope to him upon the paper-case, and putting it coaxingly on his lap. He grumbled, he even swore, but he directed the envelope at last, in these terms: "To Admiral Bartram, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. Favored by Mrs. Lecount." With that final act of compliance his docility came to an end. He refused, in the fiercest terms, to seal the envelope. There was no need to press this proceeding on him. His seal lay ready on the table, and it mattered nothing whether he used it, or whether a person in his confidence used it for him. Mrs. Lecount sealed the envelope, with its two important inclosures placed safely inside.
She opened her traveling-bag for the last time, and pausing for a moment before she put the sealed packet away, looked at it with a triumph too deep for words. She smiled as she dropped it into the bag. Not the shadow of a suspicion that the Will might contain superfluous phrases and expressions which no practical lawyer would have used; not the vestige of a doubt whether the Letter was quite as complete a document as a practical lawyer might have made it, troubled her mind. In blind reliance -- born of her hatred for Magdalen and her hunger for revenge -- in blind reliance on her own abilities and on her friend's law, she trusted the future implicitly to the promise of the morning's work.
As she locked her traveling-bag Noel Vanstone rang the bell. On this occasion, the summons was answered by Louisa.
"Get the spare room ready," said her master; "this lady will sleep here to-night. And air my warm things; this lady and I are going away to-morrow morning."
The civil and submissive Louisa received her orders in sullen silence -- darted an angry look at her master's impenetrable guest -- and left the room. The servants were evidently all attached to their mistress's interests, and were all of one opinion on the subject of Mrs. Lecount.
"That's done!" said Noel Vanstone, with a sigh of infinite relief. "Come and sit down, Lecount. Let's be comfortable -- let's gossip over the fire."
Mrs. Lecount accepted the invitation and drew an easy-chair to his side. He took her hand with a confidential tenderness, and held it in his while the talk went on. A stranger, looking in through the window, would have taken them for mother and son, and would have thought to himself: "What a happy home!"
The gossip, led by Noel Vanstone, consisted as usual of an endless string of questions, and was devoted entirely to the subject of himself and his future prospects. Where would Lecount take him to when they went away the next morning? Why to London? Why should he be left in London, while Lecount went on to St. Crux to give the admiral the Letter and the Will? Because his wife might follow him, if he went to the admiral's? Well, there was something in that. And because he ought to be safely concealed from her, in some comfortable lodging, near Mr. Loscombe? Why near Mr. Loscombe? Ah, yes, to be sure -- to know what the law would do to help him. Would the law set him free from the Wretch who had deceived him? How tiresome of Lecount not to know! Would the law say he had gone and married himself a second time, because he had been living with the Wretch, like husband and wife, in Scotland? Anything that publicly assumed to be a marriage was a marriage (he had heard) in Scotland. How excessively tiresome of Lecount to sit there and say she knew nothing about it! Was he to stay long in London by himself, with nobody but Mr. Loscombe to speak to? Would Lecount come back to him as soon as she had put those important papers in the admiral's own hands? Would Lecount consider herself still in his service? The good Lecount! the excellent Lecount! And after all the law-business was over -- what then? Why not leave this horrid England and go abroad again? Why not go to France, to some cheap place near Paris? Say Versailles? say St. Germain? In a nice little French house -- cheap? With a nice French bonne to cook -- who wouldn't waste his substance in the grease-pot? With a nice little garden -- where he could work himself, and get health, and save the expense of keeping a gardener? It wasn't a bad idea. And it seemed to promise well for the future -- didn't it, Lecount?
So he ran on -- the poor weak creature! the abject, miserable little man!
As the darkness gathered at the close of the short November day he began to grow drowsy -- his ceaseless questions came to an end at last -- he fell asleep. The wind outside sang its mournful winter-song; the tramp of passing footsteps, the roll of passing wheels on the road ceased in dreary silence. He slept on quietly. The firelight rose and fell on his wizen little face and his nervous, drooping hands. Mrs. Lecount had not pitied him yet. She began to pity him now. Her point was gained; her interest in his will was secured; he had put his future life, of his own accord, under her fostering care -- the fire was comfortable; the circumstances were favorable to the growth of Christian feeling. "Poor wretch!" said Mrs. Lecount, looking at him with a grave compassion -- "poor wretch!"
The dinner-hour roused him. He was cheerful at dinner; he reverted to the idea of the cheap little house in France; he smirked and simpered; and talked French to Mrs. Lecount, while the house-maid and Louisa waited, turn and turn about, under protest. When dinner was over, he returned to his comfortable chair before the fire, and Mrs. Lecount followed him. He resumed the conversation -- which meant, in his case, repeating his questions. But he was not so quick and ready with them as he had been earlier in the day. They began to flag -- they continued, at longer and longer intervals -- they ceased altogether. Toward nine o'clock he fell asleep again.
It was not a quiet sleep this time. He muttered, and ground his teeth, and rolled his head from side to side of the chair. Mrs. Lecount purposely made noise enough to rouse him. He woke, with a vacant eye and a flushed cheek. He walked about the room restlessly, with a new idea in his mind -- the idea of writing a terrible letter; a letter of eternal farewell to his wife. How was it to be written? In what language should he express his feelings? The powers of Shakespeare himself would be unequal to the emergency! He had been the victim of an outrage entirely without parallel. A wretch had crept into his bosom! A viper had hidden herself at his fireside! Where could words be found to brand her with the infamy she deserved? He stopped, with a suffocating sense in him of his own impotent rage -- he stopped, and shook his fist tremulously in the empty air.
Mrs. Lecount interfered with an energy and a resolution inspired by serious alarm. After the heavy strain that had been laid on his weakness already, such an outbreak of passionate agitation as was now bursting from him might be the destruction of his rest that night and of his strength to travel the next day. With infinite difficulty, with endless promises to return to the subject, and to advise him about it in the morning, she prevailed on him, at last, to go upstairs and compose himself for the night. She gave him her arm to assist him. On the way upstairs his attention, to her great relief, became suddenly absorbed by a new fancy. He remembered a certain warm and comfortable mixture of wine, eggs, sugar, and spices, which she had often been accustomed to make for him in former times, and which he thought he should relish exceedingly before he went to bed. Mrs. Lecount helped him on with his dressing-gown -- then went down-stairs again to make his warm drink for him at the parlor fire.
She rang the bell and ordered the necessary ingredients for the mixture, in Noel Vanstone's name. The servants, with the small ingenious malice of their race, brought up the materials one by one, and kept her waiting for each of them as long as possible. She had got the saucepan, and the spoon, and the tumbler, and the nutmeg-grater, and the wine -- but not the egg, the sugar, or the spices -when she heard him above, walking backward and forward noisily in his room; exciting hi mself on the old subject again, beyond all doubt.
She went upstairs once more; but he was too quick for her -- he heard her outside the door; and when she opened it, she found him in his chair, with his back cunningly turned toward her. Knowing him too well to attempt any remonstrance, she merely announced the speedy arrival of the warm drink and turned to leave the room. On her way out, she noticed a table in a corner, with an inkstand and a paper-case on it, and tried, without attracting his attention, to take the writing materials away. He was too quick for her again. He asked, angrily, if she doubted his promise. She put the writing materials back on the table, for fear of offending him, and left the room.
In half an hour more the mixture was ready. She carried it up to him, foaming and fragrant, in a large tumbler. "He will sleep after this," she thought to herself, as she opened the door; "I have made it stronger than usual on purpose."
He had changed his place. He was sitting at the table in the corner -- still with his back to her, writing. This time his quick ears had not served him; this time she caught him in the fact.
"Oh, Mr. Noel! Mr. Noel!" she said, reproachfully, "what is your promise worth?"
He made no answer. He was sitting with his left elbow on the table, and with his head resting on his left hand. His right hand lay back on the paper, with the pen lying loose in it. "Your drink, Mr. Noel," she said, in a kinder tone, feeling unwilling to offend him. He took no notice of her. She went to the table to rouse him. Was he deep in thought?
He was dead!Next