BETWEEN nine and ten o clock the same evening, Louisa, waiting anxiously, heard the long-expected knock at the house door. She ran downstairs at once and let her mistress in.
Magdalen's face was flushed. She showed far more agitation on returning to the house than she had shown on leaving it. "Keep your place at the table," she said to Louisa, impatiently; "but lay aside your work. I want you to attend carefully to what I am going to say."
Louisa obeyed. Magdalen seated herself at the opposite side of the table, and moved the candles, so as to obtain a clear and uninterrupted view of her servant's face.
"Have you noticed a respectable elderly woman," she began, abruptly, "who has been here once or twice in the last fortnight to pay me a visit?"
"Yes, ma'am; I think I let her in the second time she came. An elderly person named Mrs. Attwood?"
"That is the person I mean. Mrs. Attwood is Mr. Loscombe's housekeeper; not the housekeeper at his private residence, but the housekeeper at his offices in Lincoln's Inn. I promised to go and drink tea with her some evening this week, and I have been to-night. It is strange of me, is it not, to be on these familiar terms with a woman in Mrs. Attwood's situation?"
Louisa made no answer in words. Her face spoke for her: she could hardly avoid thinking it strange.
"I had a motive for making friends with Mrs. Attwood," Magdalen went on. "She is a widow, with a large family of daughters. Her daughters are all in service. One of them is an under-housemaid in the service of Admiral Bartram, at St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. I found that out from Mrs. Attwood's master; and as soon as I arrived at the discovery, I privately determined to make Mrs. Attwood's acquaintance. Stranger still, is it not?"
Louisa began to look a little uneasy. Her mistress's manner was at variance with her mistress's words -- it was plainly suggestive of something startling to come.
"What attraction Mrs. Attwood finds in my society," Magdalen continued, "I cannot presume to say. I can only tell you she has seen better days; she is an educated person; and she may like my society on that account. At any rate, she has readily met my advance s toward her. What attraction I find in this good woman, on my side, is soon told. I have a great curiosity -- an unacc ountable curiosity, you will think -- about the present course of household affairs at St. Crux-in-the-Marsh. Mrs. Attwood's daughter is a good girl, and constantly writes to her mother. Her mother is proud of the letters and proud of the girl, and is ready enough to talk about her daughter and her daughter's place. That is Mrs. Attwood's attraction to me. You understand, so far?"
Yes -- Louisa understood. Magdalen went on. "Thanks to Mrs. Attwood and Mrs. Attwood's daughter," she said, "I know some curious particulars already of the household at St. Crux. Servants' tongues and servants' letters -- as I need not tell you -- are oftener occupied with their masters and mistresses than their masters and mistresses suppose. The only mistress at St. Crux is the housekeeper. But there is a master -- Admiral Bartram. He appears to be a strange old man, whose whims and fancies amuse his servants as well as his friends. One of his fancies (the only one we need trouble ourselves to notice) is, that he had men enough about him when he was living at sea, and that now he is living on shore, he will be waited on by women-servants alone. The one man in the house is an old sailor, who has been all his life with his master -- he is a kind of pensioner at St. Crux, and has little or nothing to do with the housework. The other servants, indoors, are all women; and instead of a footman to wait on him at dinner, the admiral has a parlor-maid. The parlor-maid now at St. Crux is engaged to be married, and as soon as her master can suit himself she is going away. These discoveries I made some days since. But when I saw Mrs. Attwood to-night, she had received another letter from her daughter in the interval, and that letter has helped me to find out something more. The housekeeper is at her wits' end to find a new servant. Her master insists on youth and good looks -- he leaves everything else to the housekeeper -- but he will have that. All the inquiries made in the neighborhood have failed to produce the sort of parlor-maid whom the admiral wants. If nothing can be done in the next fortnight or three weeks, the housekeeper will advertise in the Times, and will come to London herself to see the applicants, and to make strict personal inquiry into their characters."
Louisa looked at her mistress more attentively than ever. The expression of perplexity left her face, and a shade of disappointment appeared there in its stead. "Bear in mind what I have said," pursued Magdalen; "and wait a minute more, while I ask you some questions. Don't think you understand me yet -- I can assure you, you don't understand me. Have you always lived in service as lady's maid?"
"Have you ever lived as parlor-maid?"
"Only in one place, ma'am, and not for long there."
"I suppose you lived long enough to learn your duties?"
"What were your duties besides waiting at table?"
"I had to show visitors in."
"Yes; and what else?"
"I had the plate and the glass to look after; and the table-linen was all under my care. I had to answer all the bells, except in the bedrooms. There were other little odds and ends sometimes to do -- "
"But your regular duties were the duties you have just mentioned?"
"How long ago is it since you lived in service as a parlor-maid?"
"A little better than two years, ma'am."
"I suppose you have not forgotten how to wait at table, and clean plate, and the rest of it, in that time?"
At this question Louisa's attention, which had been wandering more and more during the progress of Magdalen's inquiries, wandered away altogether. Her gathering anxieties got the better of her discretion, and even of her timidity. Instead of answering her mistress, she suddenly and confusedly ventured on a question of her own.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am," she said. "Did you mean me to offer for the parlor-maid's place at St. Crux?"
"You?" replied Magdalen. "Certainly not! Have you forgotten what I said to you in this room before I went out? I mean you to be married, and go to Australia with your husband and your child. You have not waited as I told you, to hear me explain myself. You have drawn your own conclusions, and you have drawn them wrong. I asked a question just now, which you have not answered -- I asked if you had forgotten your parlor-maid's duties?"
"Oh, no, ma'am!" Louisa had replied rather unwillingly thus far. She answered readily and confidently now.
"Could you teach the duties to another servant?" asked Magdalen.
"Yes, ma'am -- easily, if she was quick and attentive."
"Could you teach the duties to Me?"
Louisa started, and changed color. "You, ma'am!" she exclaimed, half in incredulity, half in alarm.
"Yes," said Magdalen. "Could you qualify me to take the parlor-maid's place at St. Crux?"
Plain as those words were, the bewilderment which they produced in Louisa's mind seemed to render her incapable of comprehending her mistress's proposal. "You, ma'am!" she repeated, vacantly.
"I shall perhaps help you to understand this extraordinary project of mine," said Magdalen, "if I tell you plainly what the object of it is. Do you remember what I said to you about Mr. Vanstone's will when you came here from Scotland to join me?"
"Yes, ma'am. You told me you had been left out of the will altogether. I'm sure my fellow-servant would never have been one of the witnesses if she had known -"
"Never mind that now. I don't blame your fellow-servant -- I blame nobody but Mrs. Lecount. Let me go on with what I was saying. It is not at all certain that Mrs. Lecount can do me the mischief which Mrs. Lecount intended. There is a chance that my lawyer, Mr. Loscombe, may be able to gain me what is fairly my due, in spite of the will. The chance turns on my discovering a letter which Mr. Loscombe believes, and which I believe, to be kept privately in Admiral Bartram's possession. I have not the least hope of getting at that letter if I make the attempt in my own person. Mrs. Lecount has poisoned the admiral's mind against me, and Mr. Vanstone has given him a secret to keep from me. If I wrote to him, he would not answer my letter. If I went to his house, the door would be closed in my face. I must find my way into St. Crux as a stranger -- I must be in a position to look about the house, unsuspected -- I must be there with plenty of time on my hands. All the circumstances are in my favor, if I am received into the house as a servant; and as a servant I mean to go."
"But you are a lady, ma'am," objected Louisa, in the greatest perplexity. "The servants at St. Crux would find you out."
"I am not at all afraid of their finding me out," said Magdalen. "I know how to disguise myself in other people's characters more cleverly than you suppose. Leave me to face the chances of discovery -- that is my risk. Let us talk of nothing now but what concerns you. Don't decide yet whether you will, or will not, give me the help I want. Wait, and hear first what the help is. You are quick and clever at your needle. Can you make me the sort of gown which it is proper for a servant to wear -- and can you alter one of my best silk dresses so as to make it fit yourself -- in a week's time?"
"I think I could get them done in a week, ma'am. But why am I to wear -- "
"Wait a little, and you will see. I shall give the landlady her week's notice to-morrow. In the interval, while you are making the dresses, I can be learning the parlor-maid's duties. When the house-servant here has brought up the dinner, and when you and I are alone in the room -- instead of your waiting on me, as usual, I will wait on you. (I am quite serious; don't interrupt me!) Whatever I can learn besides, without hindering you, I will practice carefully at every opportunity. When the week is over, and the dresses are done, we will leave this place, and go into other lodgings -- you as the mistress and I as the maid."
"I should be found out, ma'am," interposed Louisa, trembling at the prospect before her. "I am not a lady."
"And I am," said Magdalen, b itterly. "Shall I tell you what a lady is? A lady is a woman who wears a silk gown, and has a sense of her own importanc e. I shall put the gown on your back, and the sense in your head. You speak good English; you are naturally quiet and self-restrained; if you can only conquer your timidity, I have not the least fear of you. There will be time enough in the new lodging for you to practice your character, and for me to practice mine. There will be time enough to make some more dresses -- another gown for me, and your wedding-dress (which I mean to give you) for yourself. I shall have the newspaper sent every day. When the advertisement appears, I shall answer it -in any name I can take on the spur of the moment; in your name, if you like to lend it to me; and when the housekeeper asks me for my character, I shall refer her to you. She will see you in the position of mistress, and me in the position of maid -- no suspicion can possibly enter her mind, unless you put it there. If you only have the courage to follow my instructions, and to say what I shall tell you to say, the interview will be over in ten minutes."
"You frighten me, ma'am," said Louisa, still trembling. "You take my breath away with surprise. Courage! Where shall I find courage?"
"Where I keep it for you," said Magdalen -- "in the passage-money to Australia. Look at the new prospect which gives you a husband, and restores you to your child -- and you will find your courage there."
Louisa's sad face brightened; Louisa's faint heart beat quick. A spark of her mistress's spirit flew up into her eyes as she thought of the golden future.
"If you accept my proposal," pursued Magdalen, "you can be asked in church at once, if you like. I promise you the money on the day when the advertisement appears in the newspaper. The risk of the housekeeper's rejecting me is my risk -- not yours. My good looks are sadly gone off, I know. But I think I can still hold my place against the other servants -- I think I can still look the parlor-maid whom Admiral Bartram wants. There is nothing for you to fear in this matter; I should not have mentioned it if there had been. The only danger is the danger of my being discovered at St. Crux, and that falls entirely on me. By the time I am in the admiral's house you will be married, and the ship will be taking you to your new life."
Louisa's face, now brightening with hope, now clouding again with fear, showed plain signs of the struggle which it cost her to decide. She tried to gain time; she attempted confusedly to speak a few words of gratitude; but her mistress silenced her.
"You owe me no thanks," said Magdalen. "I tell you again, we are only helping each other. I have very little money, but it is enough for your purpose, and I give it you freely. I have led a wretched life; I have made others wretched about me. I can't even make you happy, except by tempting you to a new deceit. There! there! it's not your fault. Worse women than you are will help me, if you refuse. Decide as you like, but don't be afraid of taking the money. If I succeed, I shall not want it. If I fail -- "
She stopped, rose abruptly from her chair, and hid her face from Louisa by walking away to the fire-place.
"If I fail," she resumed, warming her foot carelessly at the fender, "all the money in the world will be of no use to me. Never mind why -- never mind Me -think of yourself. I won't take advantage of the confession you have made to me; I won't influence you against your will. Do as you yourself think best. But remember one thing -- my mind is made up; nothing you can say or do will change it."
Her sudden removal from the table, the altered tones of her voice as she spoke the last words, appeared to renew Louisa's hesitation. She clasped her hands together in her lap, and wrung them hard. "This has come on me very suddenly, ma'am," said the girl. "I am sorely tempted to say Yes; and yet I am almost afraid -- "
"Take the night to consider it," interposed Magdalen, keeping her face persistently turned toward the fire; "and tell me what you have decided to do, when you come into my room to-morrow morning. I shall want no help to-night -- I can undress myself. You are not so strong as I am; you are tired, I dare say. Don't sit up on my account. Good-night, Louisa, and pleasant dreams!"
Her voice sank lower and lower as she spoke those kind words. She sighed heavily, and, leaning her arm on the mantel-piece, laid her head on it with a reckless weariness miserable to see. Louisa had not left the room, as she supposed -- Louisa came softly to her side, and kissed her hand. Magdalen started; but she made no attempt, this time, to draw her hand away. The sense of her own horrible isolation subdued her, at the touch of the servant's lips. Her proud heart melted; her eyes filled with burning tears. "Don't distress me!" she said, faintly. "The time for kindness has gone by; it only overpowers me now. Good-night!"
When the morning came, the affirmative answer which Magdalen had anticipated was the answer given.
On that day the landlady received her week's notice to quit, and Louisa's needle flew fast through the stitches of the parlor-maid's dress.Next