THE first week passed, the second week passed, and Magdalen was, to all appearance, no nearer to the discovery of the Secret Trust than on the day when she first entered on her service at St. Crux.
But the fortnight, uneventful as it was, had not been a fortnight lost. Experience had already satisfied her on one important point -- experience had shown that she could set the rooted distrust of the other servants safely at defiance. Time had accustomed the women to her presence in the house, without shaking the vague conviction which possessed them all alike, that the newcomer was not one of themselves. All that Magdalen could do in her own defense was to keep the instinctive female suspicion of her confined within those purely negative limits which it had occupied from the first, and this she accomplished.
Day after day the women watched her with the untiring vigilance of malice and distrust, and day after day not the vestige of a discovery rewarded them for their pains. Silently, intelligently, and industriously -- with an ever-present remembrance of herself and her place -- the new parlor-maid did her work. Her only intervals of rest and relaxation were the intervals passed occasionally in the day with old Mazey and the dogs, and the precious interval of the night during which she was secure from observation in the solitude of her room. Thanks to the superfluity of bed-chambers at St. Crux, each one of the servants had the choice, if she pleased, of sleeping in a room of her own. Alone in the night, Magdalen might dare to be herself again -- might dream of the past, and wake from the dream, encountering no curious eyes to notice that she was in tears -might ponder over the future, and be roused by no whisperings in corners, which tainted her with the suspicion of "having something on her mind."
Satisfied, thus far, of the perfect security of her position in the house, she profited next by a second chance in her favor, which -- before the fortnight was at an end -- relieved her mind of all doubt on the formidable subject of Mrs. Lecount.
Partly from the accidental gossip of the women at the table in the servants' hall; partly from a marked paragraph in a Swiss newspaper, which she had found one morning lying open on the admiral's easy-chair -- she gained the welcome assurance that no danger was to be dreaded, this time, from the housekeeper's presence on the scene. Mrs. Lecount had, as it appeared, passed a week or more at St. Crux after the date of her master's death, and had then left England, to live on the interest of her legacy, in honorable and prosperous retirement, in her native place. The paragraph in the Swiss newspaper described the fulfillment of this laudable project. Mrs. Lecount had not only established herself at Zurich, but (wisely mindful of the uncertainty of life) had also settled the charitable uses to which her fortune was to be applied after her death. One half of it was to go to the founding of a "Lecompte Scholarship" for poor students in the University of Geneva. The other half was to be employed by the municipal authorities of Zurich in the maintenance and education of a certain number of orphan girls, natives of the city, who were to be trained for domestic service in later life. The Swiss journalist adverted to these philanthropic bequests in terms of extravagant eulogy. Zurich was congratulated on the possession of a Paragon of public virtue; and William Tell, in the character of benefactor to Switzerland, was compared disadvantageously with Mrs. Lecount.
The third week began, and Magdalen was now at liberty to take her first step forward on the way to the discovery of the Secret Trust.
She ascertained from old Mazey that it was his master's custom, during the winter and spring months, to occupy the rooms in the north wing; and during the summer and autumn to cross the Arctic passage of "Freeze-your-Bones," and live in the eastward apartments which looked out on the garden. While the Banqueting-Hall remained -- owing to the admiral's inadequate pecuniary resources -- in its damp and dismantled state, and while the interior of St. Crux was thus comfortlessly divided into two separate residences, no more convenient arrangement than this could well have been devised. Now and then (as Magdalen understood from her informant) there were days, both in winter and summer, when the admiral became anxious about the condition of the rooms which he was not occupying at the time, and when he insisted on investigating the state of the furniture, the pictures, and the books with his own eyes. On these occasions, in summer as in winter, a blazing fire was kindled for some days previously in the large grate, and the charcoal was lighted in the tripod-pan, to keep the Banqueting-Hall as warm as circumstances would admit. As soon as the old gentleman's anxieties were set at rest the rooms were shut up again, and "Freeze-your-Bones" was once more abandoned for weeks and weeks together to damp, desolation, and decay . The last of these temporary migrations had taken place only a few days since; the admiral had satisfied himself that the rooms in the east wing were none the worse for the absence of their master, and he might now be safely reckoned on as settled in the north wing for weeks, and perhaps, if the season was cold, for months to come.
Trifling as they might be in themselves, these particulars were of serious importance to Magdalen, for they helped her to fix the limits of the field of search. Assuming that the admiral was likely to keep all his important documents within easy reach of his own hand, she might now feel certain that the Secret Trust was secured in one or other of the rooms in the north wing.
In which room? That question was not easy to answer.
Of the four inhabitable rooms which were all at the admiral's disposal during the day -- that is to say, of the dining-room, the library, the morning-room, and the drawing-room opening out of the vestibule -- the library appeared to be the apartment in which, if he had a preference, he passed the greater part of his time. There was a table in this room, with drawers that locked; there was a magnificent Italian cabinet, with doors that locked; there were five cupboards under the book-cases, every one of which locked. There were receptacles similarly secured in the other rooms; and in all or any of these papers might be kept.
She had answered the bell, and had seen him locking and unlocking, now in one room, now in another, but oftenest in the library. She had noticed occasionally that his expression was fretful and impatient when he looked round at her from an open cabinet or cupboard and gave his orders; and she inferred that something in connection with his papers and possessions -- it might or might not be the Secret Trust -- irritated and annoyed him from time to time. She had heard him more than once lock something up in one of the rooms, come out and go into another room, wait there a few minutes, then return to the first room with his keys in his hand, and sharply turn the locks and turn them again. This fidgety anxiety about his keys and his cupboards might be the result of the inbred restlessness of his disposition, aggravated in a naturally active man by the aimless indolence of a life in retirement -- a life drifting backward and forward among trifles, with no regular employment to steady it at any given hour of the day. On the other hand, it was just as probable that these comings and goings, these lockings and unlockings, might be attributable to the existence of some private responsibility which had unexpectedly intruded itself into the old man's easy existence, and which tormented him with a sense of oppression new to the experience of his later years. Either one of these interpretations might explain his conduct as reasonably and as probably as the other. Which was the right interpretation of the two, it was, in Magdalen's position, impossible to say.
The one certain discovery at which she arrived was made in her first day's observation of him. The admiral was a rigidly careful man with his keys.
All the smaller keys he kept on a ring in the breast-pocket of his coat. The larger he locked up together; generally, but not always, in one of the drawers of the library table. Sometimes he left them secured in this way at night; sometimes he took them up to the bedroom with him in a little basket. He had no regular times for leaving them or for taking them away with him; he had no discoverable reason for now securing them in the library-table drawer, and now again locking them up in some other place. The inveterate willfulness and caprice of his proceedings in these particulars defied every effort to reduce them to a system, and baffled all attempts at calculating on them beforehand.
The hope of gaining positive information to act on, by laying artful snares for him which he might fall into in his talk, proved, from the outset, to be utterly futile.
In Magdalen's situation all experiments of this sort would have been in the last degree difficult and dangerous with any man. With the admiral they were simply impossible. His tendency to veer about from one subject to another; his habit of keeping his tongue perpetually going, so long as there was anybody, no matter whom, within reach of the sound of his voice; his comical want of all dignity and reserve with his servants, promised, in appearance, much, and performed in reality nothing. No matter how diffidently or how respectfully Magdalen might presume on her master's example, and on her master's evident liking for her, the old man instantly discovered the advance she was making from her proper position, and instantly put her back in it again, with a quaint good humor which inflicted no pain, but with a blunt straightforwardness of purpose which permitted no escape. Contradictory as it may sound, Admiral Bartram was too familiar to be approached; he kept the distance between himself and his servant more effectually than if he had been the proudest man in England. The systematic reserve of a superior toward an inferior may be occasionally overcome -- the systematic familiarity never.
Slowly the time dragged on. The fourth week came; and Magdalen had made no new discoveries. The prospect was depressing in the last degree. Even in the apparently hopeless event of her devising a means of getting at the admiral's keys, she could not count on retaining possession of them unsuspected more than a few hours -- hours which might be utterly wasted through her not knowing in what direction to begin the search. The Trust might be locked up in any one of some twenty receptacles for papers, situated in four different rooms; and which room was the likeliest to look in, which receptacle was the most promising to begin with, which position among other heaps of papers the one paper needful might be expected to occupy, was more than she could say. Hemmed in by immeasurable uncertainties on every side; condemned, as it were, to wander blindfold on the very brink of success, she waited for the chance that never came, for the event that never happened, with a patience which was sinking already into the patience of despair.
Night after night she looked back over the vanished days, and not an event rose on her memory to distinguish them one from the other. The only interruptions to the weary uniformity of the life at St. Crux were caused by the characteristic delinquencies of old Mazey and the dogs.
At certain intervals, the original wildness broke out in the natures of Brutus and Cassius. The modest comforts of home, the savory charms of made dishes, the decorous joy of digestions accomplished on hearth-rugs, lost all their attractions, and the dogs ungratefully left the house to seek dissipation and adventure in the outer world. On these occasions the established after-dinner formula of question and answer between old Mazey and his master varied a little in one particular. "God bless the Queen, Mazey," and "How's the wind, Mazey?" were followed by a new inquiry: "Where are the dogs, Mazey?" "Out on the loose, your honor, and be damned to 'em," was the veteran's unvarying answer. The admiral always sighed and shook his head gravely at the news, as if Brutus and Cassius had been sons of his own, who treated him with a want of proper filial respect. In two or three days' time the dogs always returned, lean, dirty, and heartily ashamed of themselves. For the whole of the next day they were invariably tied up in disgrace. On the day after they were scrubbed clean, and were formally re-admitted to the dining-room. There, Civilization, acting through the subtle medium of the Saucepan, recovered its hold on them; and the admiral's two prodigal sons, when they saw the covers removed, watered at the mouth as copiously as ever.
Old Mazey, in his way, proved to be just as disreputably inclined on certain occasions as the dogs. At intervals, the original wildness in his nature broke out; he, too, lost all re lish for the comforts of home, and ungratefully left the house. He usually disappeared in the afternoon, and returned at night as drunk as liquo r could make him. He was by many degrees too seasoned a vessel to meet with any disasters on these occasions. His wicked old legs might take roundabout methods of progression, but they never failed him; his wicked old eyes might see double, but they always showed him the way home. Try as hard as they might, the servants could never succeed in persuading him that he was drunk; he always scorned the imputation. He even declined to admit the idea privately into his mind, until he had first tested his condition by an infallible criterion of his own.
It was his habit, in these cases of Bacchanalian emergency, to stagger obstinately into his room on the ground-floor, to take the model-ship out of the cupboard, and to try if he could proceed with the never-to-be-completed employment of setting up the rigging. When he had smashed the tiny spars, and snapped asunder the delicate ropes -- then, and not till then, the veteran admitted facts as they were, on the authority of practical evidence. "Ay! ay!" he used to say confidentially to himself, "the women are right. Drunk again, Mazey -- drunk again!" Having reached this discovery, it was his habit to wait cunningly in the lower regions until the admiral was safe in his room, and then to ascend in discreet list slippers to his post. Too wary to attempt getting into the truckle-bed (which would have been only inviting the catastrophe of a fall against his master's door), he always walked himself sober up and down the passage. More than once Magdalen had peeped round the screen, and had seen the old sailor unsteadily keeping his watch, and fancying himself once more at his duty on board ship. "This is an uncommonly lively vessel in a sea-way," he used to mutter under his breath, when his legs took him down the passage in zigzag directions, or left him for the moment studying the "Pints of the Compass" on his own system, with his back against the wall. "A nasty night, mind you," he would maunder on, taking another turn. "As dark as your pocket, and the wind heading us again from the old quarter." On the next day old Mazey, like the dogs, was kept downstairs in disgrace. On the day after, like the dogs again, he was reinstated in his privileges; and another change was introduced in the after-dinner formula. On entering the room, the old sailor stopped short and made his excuses in this brief yet comprehensive form of words, with his back against the door: "Please your honor, I'm ashamed of myself." So the apology began and ended. "This mustn't happen again, Mazey," the admiral used to answer. "It shan't happen again, your honor." "Very good. Come here, and drink your glass of wine. God bless the Queen, Mazey." The veteran tossed off his port, and the dialogue ended as usual.
So the days passed, with no incidents more important than these to relieve their monotony, until the end of the fourth week was at hand.
On the last day, an event happened; on the last day, the long deferred promise of the future unexpectedly began to dawn. While Magdalen was spreading the cloth in the dining-room, as usual, Mrs. Drake looked in, and instructed her on this occasion, for the first time, to lay the table for two persons. The admiral had received a letter from his nephew. Early that evening Mr. George Bartram was expected to return to St. Crux.Next