AFTER placing the second cover, Magdalen awaited the ringing of the dinner-bell, with an interest and impatience which she found it no easy task to conceal. The return of Mr. Bartram would, in all probability, produce a change in the life of the house; and from change of any kind, no matter how trifling, something might be hoped. The nephew might be accessible to influences which had failed to reach the uncle. In any case, the two would talk of their affairs over their dinner; and through that talk -- proceeding day after day in her presence -- the way to discovery, now absolutely invisible, might, sooner or later, show itself.
At last the bell rang, the door opened, and the two gentlemen entered the room together.
Magdalen was struck, as her sister had been struck, by George Bartram's resemblance to her father -- judging by the portrait at Combe-Raven, which presented the likeness of Andrew Vanstone in his younger days. The light hair and florid complexion, the bright blue eyes and hardy upright figure, familiar to her in the picture, were all recalled to her memory, as the nephew followed the uncle across the room and took his place at table. She was not prepared for this sudden revival of the lost associations of home. Her attention wandered as she tried to conceal its effect on her; and she made a blunder in waiting at table, for the first time since she had entered the house.
A quaint reprimand from the admiral, half in jest, half in earnest, gave her time to recover herself. She ventured another look at George Bartram. The impression which he produced on her this time roused her curiosity immediately. His face and manner plainly expressed anxiety and preoccupation of mind. He looked oftener at his plate than at his uncle, and at Magdalen herself(except one passing inspection of the new parlor-maid, when the admiral spoke to her) he never looked at all. Some uncertainty was evidently troubling his thoughts; some oppression was weighing on his natural freedom of manner. What uncertainty? what oppression? Would any personal revelations come out, little by little, in the course of conversation at the dinner-table?
No. One set of dishes followed another set of dishes, and nothing in the shape of a personal revelation took place. The conversation halted on irregularly, between public affairs on one side and trifling private topics on the other. Politics, home and foreign, took their turn with the small household history of St. Crux; the leaders of the revolution which expelled Louis Philippe from the throne of France marched side by side, in the dinner-table review, with old Mazey and the dogs. The dessert was put on the table, the old sailor came in, drank his loyal toast, paid his respects to "Master George," and went out again. Magdalen followed him, on her way back to the servants' offices, having heard nothing in the conversation of the slightest importance to the furtherance of her own design, from the first word of it to the last. She struggled hard not to lose heart and hope on the first day. They could hardly talk again to-morrow, they could hardly talk again the next day, of the French Revolution and the dogs. Time might do wonders yet; and time was all her own.
Left together over their wine, the uncle and nephew drew their easy-chairs on either side of the fire; and, in Magdalen's absence, began the very conversation which it was Magdalen's interest to hear.
"Claret, George?" said the admiral, pushing the bottle across the table. "You look out of spirits."
"I am a little anxious, sir," replied George, leaving his glass empty, and looking straight into the fire.
"I am glad to hear it," rejoined the admiral. "I am more than a little anxious myself, I can tell you. Here we are at the last days of March -- and nothing done! Your time comes to an end on the third of May; and there you sit, as if you had years still before you, to turn round in."
George smiled, and resignedly helped himself to some wine.
"Am I really to understand, sir," he asked, "that you are serious in what you said to me last November? Are you actually resolved to bind me to that incomprehensible condition?"
"I don't call it incomprehensible," said the admiral, irritably.
"Don't you, sir? I am to inherit your estate, unconditionally -- as you have generously settled it from the first. But I am not to touch a farthing of the fortune poor Noel left you unless I am married within a certain time. The house and lands are to be mine
(thanks to your kindness) under any circumstances. But the money with which I might improve them both is to be arbitrarily taken away from me, if I am not a married man on the third of May. I am sadly wa nting in intelligence, I dare say, but a more incomprehensible proceeding I never heard of!"
"No snapping and snarling, George! Say your say o ut. We don't understand sneering in Her Majesty's Navy!"
"I mean no offense, sir. But I think it's a little hard to astonish me by a change of proceeding on your part, entirely foreign to my experience of your character -- and then, when I naturally ask for an explanation, to turn round coolly and leave me in the dark. If you and Noel came to some private arrangement together before he made his will, why not tell me? Why set up a mystery between us, where no mystery need be?"
"I won't have it, George!" cried the admiral, angrily drumming on the table with the nutcrackers. "You are trying to draw me like a badger, but I won't be drawn! I'll make any conditions I please; and I'll be accountable to nobody for them unless I like. It's quite bad enough to have worries and responsibilities laid on my unlucky shoulders that I never bargained for -- never mind what worries: they're not yours, they're mine -- without being questioned and cross-questioned as if I was a witness in a box. Here's a pretty fellow!" continued the admiral, apostrophizing his nephew in red-hot irritation, and addressing himself to the dogs on the hearth-rug for want of a better audience. "Here's a pretty fellow? He is asked to help himself to two uncommonly comfortable things in their way -a fortune and a wife; he is allowed six months to get the wife in (we should have got her, in the Navy, bag and baggage, in six days); he has a round dozen of nice girls, to my certain knowledge, in one part of the country and another, all at his disposal to choose from, and what does he do? He sits month after month, with his lazy legs crossed before him; he leaves the girls to pine on the stem, and he bothers his uncle to know the reason why! I pity the poor unfortunate women. Men were made of flesh and blood, and plenty of it, too, in my time. They're made of machinery now."
"I can only repeat, sir, I am sorry to have offended you," said George.
"Pooh! pooh! you needn't look at me in that languishing way if you are," retorted the admiral. "Stick to your wine, and I'll forgive you. Your good health, George. I'm glad to see you again at St. Crux. Look at that plateful of sponge-cakes! The cook has sent them up in honor of your return. We can't hurt her feelings, and we can't spoil our wine. Here!" -- The admiral tossed four sponge-cakes in quick succession down the accommodating throats of the dogs. "I am sorry, George," the old gentleman gravely proceeded; "I am really sorry you haven't got your eye on one of those nice girls. You don't know what a loss you're inflicting on yourself; you don't know what trouble and mortification you're causing me by this shilly-shally conduct of yours."
"If you would only allow me to explain myself, sir, you would view my conduct in a totally different light. I am ready to marry to-morrow, if the lady will have me."
"The devil you are! So you have got a lady in your eye, after all? Why in Heaven's name couldn't you tell me so before? Never mind, I'll forgive you everything, now I know you have laid your hand on a wife. Fill your glass again. Here's her health in a bumper. By-the-by, who is she?"
"I'll tell you directly, admiral. When we began this conversation, I mentioned that I was a little anxious -- "
"She's not one of my round dozen of nice girls -- aha, Master George, I see that in your face already! Why are you anxious?"
"I am afraid you will disapprove of my choice, sir."
"Don't beat about the bush! How the deuce can I say whether I disapprove or not, if you won't tell me who she is?"
"She is the eldest daughter of Andrew Vanstone, of Combe-Raven."
"Miss Vanstone, sir."
The admiral put down his glass of wine untasted.
"You're right, George," he said. "I do disapprove of your choice -- strongly disapprove of it."
"Is it the misfortune of her birth, sir, that you object to?"
"God forbid! the misfortune of her birth is not her fault, poor thing. You know as well as I do, George, what I object to."
"You object to her sister?"
"Certainly! The most liberal man alive might object to her sister, I think."
"It's hard, sir, to make Miss Vanstone suffer for her sister's faults."
"Faults, do you call them? You have a mighty convenient memory, George, when your own interests are concerned."
"Call them crimes if you like, sir -- I say again, it's hard on Miss Vanstone. Miss Vanstone's life is pure of all reproach. From first to last she has borne her hard lot with such patience, and sweetness, and courage as not one woman in a thousand would have shown in her place. Ask Miss Garth, who has known her from childhood. Ask Mrs. Tyrrel, who blesses the day when she came into the house -"
"Ask a fiddlestick's end! I beg your pardon, George, but you are enough to try the patience of a saint. My good fellow, I don't deny Miss Vanstone's virtues. I'll admit, if you like, she's the best woman that ever put on a petticoat. That is not the question -- "
"Excuse me, admiral -- it is the question, if she is to be my wife."
"Hear me out, George; look at it from my point of view, as well as your own. What did your cousin Noel do? Your cousin Noel fell a victim, poor fellow, to one of the vilest conspiracies I ever heard of, and the prime mover of that conspiracy was Miss Vanstone's damnable sister. She deceived him in the most infamous manner; and as soon as she was down for a handsome legacy in his will, she had the poison ready to take his life. This is the truth; we know it from Mrs. Lecount, who found the bottle locked up in her own room. If you marry Miss Vanstone, you make this wretch your sister-in-law. She becomes a member of our family. All the disgrace of what she has done; all the disgrace of what she may do -- and the Devil, who possesses her, only knows what lengths she may go to next -- becomes our disgrace. Good heavens, George, consider what a position that is! Consider what pitch you touch, if you make this woman your sister-in-law."
"You have put your side of the question, admiral," said George resolutely; "now let me put mine. A certain impression is produced on me by a young lady whom I meet with under very interesting circumstances. I don't act headlong on that impression, as I might have done if I had been some years younger; I wait, and put it to the trial. Every time I see this young lady the impression strengthens; her beauty grows on me, her character grows on me; when I am away from her, I am restless and dissatisfied; when I am with her, I am the happiest man alive. All I hear of her conduct from those who know her best more than confirms the high opinion I have formed of her. The one drawback I can discover is caused by a misfortune for which she is not responsible -- the misfortune of having a sister who is utterly unworthy of her. Does this discovery -- an unpleasant discovery, I grant you -- destroy all those good qualities in Miss Vanstone for which I love and admire her? Nothing of the sort -- it only makes her good qualities all the more precious to me by contrast. If I am to have a drawback to contend with -- and who expects anything else in this world? -- I would infinitely rather have the drawback attached to my wife's sister than to my wife. My wife's sister is not essential to my happiness, but my wife is. In my opinion, sir, Mrs. Noel Vanstone has done mischief enough already. I don't see the necessity of letting her do more mischief, by depriving me of a good wife. Right or wrong, that is my point of view. I don't wish to trouble you with any questions of sentiment. All I wish to say is that I am old enough by this time to know my own mind, and that my mind is made up. If my marriage is essential to the execution of your intentions on my behalf, there is only one woman in the world whom I can marry, and that woman is Miss Vanstone."
There was no resisting this plain declaration. Admiral Bartram rose from his chair without making any reply, and walked perturbedly up and down the room.
The situation was emphatically a serious one. Mrs. Girdl estone's death had already produced the failure of one of the two objects contemplated by the Secret Trust. If the third of May arrived and found George a single man, the second (and last) of the objects would then have failed in its turn. In little more than a fortnight, at the very latest, the Banns must be published in Ossory church, or the time would fail for compliance with one of the stipulations insisted on in the Trust. Obstinate as the admiral was by nature, strongly as he felt the objections which attached to his nephew's contemplated alliance, he recoiled in spite of himself, as he paced the room and saw the facts on either side immovably staring him in the face.
"Are you engaged to Miss Vanstone?" he asked, suddenly.
"No, sir," replied George. "I thought it due to your uniform kindness to me to speak to you on the subject first."
"Much obliged, I'm sure. And you have put off speaking to me to the last moment, just as you put off everything else. Do you think Miss Vanstone will say yes when you ask her?"
"The devil take your modesty!" shouted the admiral. "This is not a time for modesty; this is a time for speaking out. Will she or won't she?"
"I think she will, sir."
The admiral laughed sardonically, and took another turn in the room. He suddenly stopped, put his hands in his pockets, and stood still in a corner, deep in thought. After an interval of a few minutes, his face cleared a little; it brightened with the dawning of a new idea. He walked round briskly to George's side of the fire, and laid his hand kindly on his nephew's shoulder.
"You're wrong, George," he said; "but it is too late now to set you right. On the sixteenth of next month the Banns must be put up in Ossory church, or you will lose the money. Have you told Miss Vanstone the position you stand in? Or have you put that off to the eleventh hour, like everything else?"
"The position is so extraordinary, sir, and it might lead to so much misapprehension of my motives, that I have felt unwilling to allude to it. I hardly know how I can tell her of it at all."
"Try the experiment of telling her friends. Let them know it's a question of money, and they will overcome her scruples, if you can't. But that is not what I had to say to you. How long do you propose stopping here this time?"
"I thought of staying a few days, and then -- "
"And then of going back to London and making your offer, I suppose? Will a week give you time enough to pick your opportunity with Miss Vanstone -- a week out of the fortnight or so that you have to spare?"
"I will stay here a week, admiral, with pleasure, if you wish it."
"I don't wish it. I want you to pack up your traps and be off to-morrow."
George looked at his uncle in silent astonishment.
"You found some letters waiting for you when you got here," proceeded the admiral. "Was one of those letters from my old friend, Sir Franklin Brock?"
"Was it an invitation to you to go and stay at the Grange?"
"To go at once?"
"At once, if I could manage it."
"Very good. I want you to manage it; I want you to start for the Grange to-morrow."
George looked back at the fire, and sighed impatiently.
"I understand you now, admiral," he said. "You are entirely mistaken in me. My attachment to Miss Vanstone is not to be shaken in that manner."
Admiral Bartram took his quarter-deck walk again, up and down the room.
"One good turn deserves another, George," said the old gentleman. "If I am willing to make concessions on my side, the least you can do is to meet me half-way, and make concessions on yours."
"I don't deny it, sir."
"Very well. Now listen to my proposal. Give me a fair hearing, George -- a fair hearing is every man's privilege. I will be perfectly just to begin with. I won't attempt to deny that you honestly believe Miss Vanstone is the only woman in the world who can make you happy. I don't question that. What I do question is, whether you really know your own mind in this matter quite so well as you think you know it yourself. You can't deny, George, that you have been in love with a good many women in your time? Among the rest of them, you have been in love with Miss Brock. No longer ago than this time last year there was a sneaking kindness between you and that young lady, to say the least of it. And quite right, too! Miss Brock is one of that round dozen of darlings I mentioned over our first glass of wine."
"You are confusing an idle flirtation, sir, with a serious attachment," said George. "You are altogether mistaken -- you are, indeed."
"Likely enough; I don't pretend to be infallible -- I leave that to my juniors. But I happen to have known you, George, since you were the height of my old telescope; and I want to have this serious attachment of yours put to the test. If you can satisfy me that your whole heart and soul are as strongly set on Miss Vanstone as you suppose them to be, I must knock under to necessity, and keep my objections to myself. But I must be satisfied first. Go to the Grange to-morrow, and stay there a week in Miss Brock's society. Give that charming girl a fair chance of lighting up the old flame again if she can, and then come back to St. Crux, and let me hear the result. If you tell me, as an honest man, that your attachment to Miss Vanstone still remains unshaken, you will have heard the last of my objections from that moment. Whatever misgivings I may feel in my own mind, I will say nothing, and do nothing, adverse to your wishes. There is my proposal. I dare say it looks like an old man's folly, in your eyes. But the old man won't trouble you much longer, George; and it may be a pleasant reflection, when you have got sons of your own, to remember that you humored him in his last days."
He came back to the fire-place as he said those words, and laid his hand once more on his nephew's shoulder. George took the hand and pressed it affectionately. In the tenderest and best sense of the word, his uncle had been a father to him.
"I will do what you ask me, sir," he replied, "if you seriously wish it. But it is only right to tell you that the experiment will be perfectly useless. However, if you prefer my passing a week at the Grange to my passing it here, to the Grange I will go."
"Thank you, George," said the admiral, bluntly. "I expected as much from you, and you have not disappointed me. -- If Miss Brock doesn't get us out of this mess," thought the wily old gentleman, as he resumed his place at the table, "my nephew's weather-cock of a head has turned steady with a vengeance! -- We'll consider the question settled for to-night, George," he continued, aloud, "and call another subject. These family anxieties don't improve the flavor of my old claret. The bottle stands with you. What are they doing at the theaters in London? We always patronized the theaters, in my time, in the Navy. We used to like a good tragedy to begin with, and a hornpipe to cheer us up at the end of the entertainment."
For the rest of the evening, the talk flowed in the ordinary channels. Admiral Bartram only returned to the forbidden subject when he and his nephew parted for the night.
"You won't forget to-morrow, George?"
"Certainly not, sir. I'll take the dog-cart, and drive myself over after breakfast."
Before noon the next day Mr. George Bartram had left the house, and the last chance in Magdalen's favor had left it with him.Next