MAGDALEN'S first glance round the empty room showed her the letter on the table. The address, as the doctor had predicted, broke the news the moment she looked at it.
Not a word escaped her. She sat down by the table, pale and silent, with the letter in her lap. Twice she attempted to open it, and twice she put it back again. The bygone time was not alone in her mind as she looked at her sister's handwriting: the fear of Kirke was there with it. "My past life!" she thought. "What will he think of me when he knows my past life?"
She made another effort, and broke the seal. A second letter dropped out of the inclosure, addressed to her in a handwriting with which she was not familiar. She put the second letter aside and read the lines which Norah had written:
"Ventnor, Isle of Wight, August 24th.
"MY DEAREST MAGDALEN -- When you read this letter, try to think we have only been parted since yesterday; and dismiss from your mind (as I have dismissed from mine) the past and all that belongs to it.
"I am strictly forbidden to agitate you, or to weary you by writing a long letter. Is it wrong to tell you that I am the happiest woman living? I hope not, for I can't keep the secret to myself.
"My darling, prepare yourself for the greatest surprise I have ever caused you. I am married. It is only a week to-day since I parted with my old name -- it is only a week since I have been the happy wife of George Bartram, of St. Crux.
"There were difficulties at first in the way of our marriage, some of them, I am afraid, of my making. Happily for me, my husband knew from the beginning that I really loved him: he gave me a second chance of telling him so, after I had lost the first, and, as you see, I was wise enough to take it. You ought to be especially interested, my love, in this marriage, for you are the cause of it. If I had not gone to Aldborough to search for the lost trace of you -- if George had not been brought there at the same time by circumstances in which you were concerned, my husband and I might never have met. When we look back to our first impressions of each other, we look back to you.
"I must keep my promise not to weary you; I must bring this letter (sorely against my will) to an end. Patience! patience! I shall see you soon. George and I are both coming to London to take you back with us to Ventnor. This is my husband's invitation, mind, as well as mine. Don't suppose I married him, Magdalen, until I had taught him to think of you as I think -- to wish with my wishes, and to hope with my hopes. I could say so much more about this, so much more about George, if I might only give my thoughts and my pen their own way; but I must leave Miss Garth (at her own special request) a blank space to fill up on the last page of this letter; and I must only add one word more before I say good-by -- a word to warn you that I have another surprise in store, which I am keeping in reserve until we meet. Don't attempt to guess what it is. You might guess for ages, and be no nearer than you are now to the discovery of the truth. Your affectionate sister,
(Added by Miss Garth.)
"MY DEAR CHILD -- If I had ever lost my old loving recollection of you, I should feel it in my heart again now, when I know that it has pleased God to restore you to us from the brink of the grave. I add these lines to your sister's letter because I am not sure that you are quite so fit yet, as she thinks you, to accept her proposal. She has not said a word of her husband or herself which is not true. But Mr. Bartram is a stranger to you; and if you think you can recover more easily and more pleasantly to yourself under the wing of your old governess than under the protection of your new brother-in-law, come to me first, and trust to my reconciling Norah to the change of plans. I have secured the refusal of a little cottage at Shanklin, near enough to your sister to allow of your seeing each other whenever you like, and far enough away, at the same time, to secure you the privilege, when you wish it, of being alone. Send me one line before we meet to say Yes or No, and I will write to Shanklin by the next post.
"Always yours affectionately,
The letter dropped from Magdalen's hand. Thoughts which had never risen in her mind yet rose in it now.
Norah, whose courage under undeserved calamity had been the courage of resignation -- Norah, who had patiently accepted her hard lot; who from first to last had meditated no vengeance and stooped to no deceit -- Norah had reached the end which all her sister's ingenuity, all her sister's resolution, and all her sister's daring had failed to achieve. Openly and honorably, with love on one side and love on the other, Norah had married the man who possessed the Combe-Raven money -- and Magdalen's own scheme to recover it had opened the way to the event which had brought husband and wife together.
As the light of that overwhelming discovery broke on her mind, the old strife was renewed; and Good and Evil struggled once more which should win her -- but with added forces this time; with the new spirit that had been breathed into her new life; with the nobler sense that had grown with the growth of her gratitude to the man who had saved her, fighting on the better side. All the higher impulses of her nature, which had never, from first to last, let her err with impunity -- which had tortured her, before her marriage and after it, with the remorse that no woman inherently heartless and inherently wicked can feel -- all the nobler elements in her character, gathered their forces for the crowning struggle and strengthened her to meet, with no unworthy shrinking, the revelation that had opened on her view. Clearer and clearer, in the light of its own immortal life, the truth rose before her from the ashes of her dead passions, from the grave of her buried hopes. When she looked at the letter again -- when she read the words once more which told her that the recovery of the lost fortune was her sister's triumph, not hers, she had victoriously trampled down all little jealousies and all mean regrets; she could say in he r hearts of hearts, "Norah has deserved it!"
The day wore on. She sat absorbed in her own thoughts, and heedless of the second letter which she had not opened yet, until Kirke's return.
He stopped on the landing outside, and, opening the door a little way only, asked, without entering the room, if she wanted anything that he could send her. She begged him to come in. His face was worn and weary; he looked older than she had seen him look yet. "Did you put my letter on the table for me?" she asked.
"Yes. I put it there at the doctor's request."
"I suppose the doctor told you it was from my sister? She is coming to see me, and Miss Garth is coming to see me. They will thank you for all your goodness to me better than I can."
"I have no claim on their thanks," he answered, sternly. "What I have done was not done for them, but for you." He waited a little, and looked at her. His face would have betrayed him in that look, his voice would have betrayed him in the next words he spoke, if she had not guessed the truth already. "When your friends come here," he resumed, "they will take you away, I suppose, to some better place than this."
"They can take me to no place," she said, gently, "which I shall think of as I think of the place where you found me. They can take me to no dearer friend than the friend who saved my life."
There was a moment's silence between them.
"We have been very happy here, " he went on, in lower and lower tones. "You won't forget me when we have said good-by?"
She turned pale as the words passed his lips, and, leaving her chair, knelt down at the table, so as to look up into his face, and to force him to look into hers.
"Why do you talk of it?" she asked. "We are not going to say good-by, at least not yet."
"I thought -- " he began.
"I thought your friends were coming here -- "
She eagerly interrupted him. "Do you think I would go away with anybody," she said, "even with the dearest relation I have in the world, and leave you here, not knowing and not caring whether I ever saw you again? Oh, you don't think that of me!" she exclaimed, with the passionate tears springing into her eyes -"I'm sure you don't think that of me!"
"No," he said; "I never have thought, I never can think, unjustly or unworthily of you."
Before he could add another word she left the table as suddenly as she had approached it, and returned to her chair. He had unconsciously replied in terms that reminded her of the hard necessity which still remained unfulfilled -- the necessity of telling him the story of the past. Not an idea of concealing that story from his knowledge crossed her mind. "Will he love me, when he knows the truth, as he loves me now?" That was her only thought as she tried to approach the subject in his presence without shrinking from it.
"Let us put my own feelings out of the question," she said. "There is a reason for my not going away, unless I first have the assurance of seeing you again. You have a claim -- the strongest claim of any one -- to know how I came here, unknown to my friends, and how it was that you found me fallen so low."
"I make no claim," he said, hastily. "I wish to know nothing which distresses you to tell me."
"You have always done your duty," she rejoined, with a faint smile. "Let me take example from you, if I can, and try to do mine."
"I am old enough to be your father," he said, bitterly. "Duty is more easily done at my age than it is at yours."
His age was so constantly in his mind now that he fancied it must be in her mind too. She had never given it a thought. The reference he had just made to it did not divert her for a moment from the subject on which she was speaking to him.
"You don't know how I value your good opinion of me," she said, struggling resolutely to sustain her sinking courage. "How can I deserve your kindness, how can I feel that I am worthy of your regard, until I have opened my heart to you? Oh, don't encourage me in my own miserable weakness! Help me to tell the truth -- force me to tell it, for my own sake if not for yours!"
He was deeply moved by the fervent sincerity of that appeal.
"You shall tell it," he said. "You are right -- and I was wrong." He waited a little, and considered. "Would it be easier to you," he asked, with delicate consideration for her, "to write it than to tell it?"
She caught gratefully at the suggestion. "Far easier," she replied. "I can be sure of myself -- I can be sure of hiding nothing from you, if I write it. Don't write to me on your side!" she added, suddenly, seeing with a woman's instinctive quickness of penetration the danger of totally renouncing her personal influence over him. "Wait till we meet, and tell me with your own lips what you think."
"Where shall I tell it?"
"Here!" she said eagerly. "Here, where you found me helpless -- here, where you have brought me back to life, and where I have first learned to know you. I can bear the hardest words you say to me if you will only say them in this room. It is impossible I can be away longer than a month; a month will be enough and more than enough. If I come back -- " She stopped confusedly. "I am thinking of myself," she said, "when I ought to be thinking of you. You have your own occupations and your own friends. Will you decide for us? Will you say how it shall be?"
"It shall be as you wish. If you come back in a month, you will find me here."
"Will it cause you no sacrifice of your own comfort and your own plans?"
"It will cause me nothing," he replied, "but a journey back to the City." He rose and took his hat. "I must go there at once," he added, "or I shall not be in time."
"It is a promise between us?" she said, and held out her hand.
"Yes," he answered, a little sadly; "it is a promise."
Slight as it was, the shade of melancholy in his manner pained her. Forgetting all other anxieties in the anxiety to cheer him, she gently pressed the hand he gave her. "If that won't tell him the truth," she thought, "nothing will."
It failed to tell him the truth; but it forced a question on his mind which he had not ventured to ask himself before. "Is it her gratitude, or her love; that is speaking to me?" he wondered. "If I was only a younger man, I might almost hope it was her love." That terrible sum in subtraction which had first presented itself on the day when she told him her age began to trouble him again as he left the house. He took twenty from forty-one, at intervals, all the way back to the ship-owners' office in Cornhill.
Left by herself, Magdalen approached the table to write the line of answer which Miss Garth requested, and gratefully to accept the proposal that had been made to her.
The second letter which she had laid aside and forgotten was the first object that caught her eye on changing her place. She opened it immediately, and, not recognizing the handwriting, looked at the signature. To her unutterable astonishment, her correspondent proved to be no less a person than -- old Mr. Clare!
The philosopher's letter dispensed with all the ordinary forms of address, and entered on the subject without prefatory phrases of any kind, in these uncompromising terms:
"I have more news for you of that contemptible cur, my son. Here it is in the fewest possible words.
"I always told you, if you remember, that Frank was a Sneak. The very first trace recovered of him, after his running away from his employers in China, presents him in that character. Where do you think he turns up next? He turns up, hidden behind a couple of flour barrels, on board an English vessel bound homeward from Hong-Kong to London.
"The name of the ship was the Deliverance, and the commander was one Captain Kirke. Instead of acting like a sensible man, and throwing Frank overboard, Captain Kirke was fool enough to listen to his story. He made the most of his misfortunes, you may be sure. He was half starved; he was an Englishman lost in a strange country, without a friend to help him; his only chance of getting home was to sneak into the hold of an English vessel -- and he had sneaked in, accordingly, at Hong-Kong, two days since. That was his story. Any other l out in Frank's situation would have been rope's ended by any other captain. Deserving no pity from anybody, Frank was, as a matter of course, coddle d and compassionated on the spot. The captain took him by the hand, the crew pitied him, and the passengers patted him on the back. He was fed, clothed, and presented with his passage home. Luck enough so far, you will say. Nothing of the sort; nothing like luck enough for my despicable son.
"The ship touched at the Cape of Good Hope. Among his other acts of folly Captain Kirke took a woman passenger on board at that place -- not a young woman by any means -- the elderly widow of a rich colonist. Is it necessary to say that she forthwith became deeply interested in Frank and his misfortunes? Is it necessary to tell you what followed? Look back at my son's career, and you will see that what followed was all of a piece with what went before. He didn't deserve your poor father's interest in him -- and he got it. He didn't deserve your attachment -- and he got it. He didn't deserve the best place in one of the best offices in London; he didn't deserve an equally good chance in one of the best mercantile houses in China; he didn't deserve food, clothing, pity, and a free passage home -- and he got them all. Last, not least, he didn't even deserve to marry a woman old enough to be his grandmother -- and he has done it! Not five minutes since I sent his wedding-cards out to the dust-hole, and tossed the letter that came with them into the fire. The last piece of information which that letter contains is that he and his wife are looking out for a house and estate to suit them. Mark my words! Frank will get one of the best estates in England; a seat in the House of Commons will follow as a matter of course; and one of the legislators of this Ass-ridden country will be -- MY LOUT!
"If you are the sensible girl I have always taken you for, you have long since learned to rate Frank at his true value, and the news I send you will only confirm your contempt for him. I wish your poor father could but have lived to see this day! Often as I have missed my old gossip, I don't know that I ever felt the loss of him so keenly as I felt it when Frank's wedding-cards and Frank's letter came to this house. Your friend, if you ever want one,
"FRANCIS CLARE, Sen."
With one momentary disturbance of her composure, produced by the appearance of Kirke's name in Mr. Clare's singular narrative, Magdalen read the letter steadily through from beginning to end. The time when it could have distressed her was gone by; the scales had long since fallen from her eyes. Mr. Clare himself would have been satisfied if he had seen the quiet contempt on her face as she laid aside his letter. The only serious thought it cost her was a thought in which Kirke was concerned. The careless manner in which he had referred in her presence to the passengers on board his ship, without mentioning any of them by their names, showed her that Frank must have kept silence on the subject of the engagement once existing between them. The confession of that vanished delusion was left for her to make, as part of the story of the past which she had pledged herself unreservedly to reveal.
She wrote to Miss Garth, and sent the letter to the post immediately.
The next morning brought a line of rejoinder. Miss Garth had written to secure the cottage at Shanklin, and Mr. Merrick had consented to Magdalen's removal on the following day. Norah would be the first to arrive at the house; and Miss Garth would follow, with a comfortable carriage to take the invalid to the railway. Every needful arrangement had been made for her; the effort of moving was the one effort she would have to make.
Magdalen read the letter thankfully, but her thoughts wandered from it, and followed Kirke on his return to the City. What was the business which had once already taken him there in the morning? And why had the promise exchanged between them obliged him to go to the City again, for the second time in one day?
Was it by any chance business relating to the sea? Were his employers tempting him to go back to his ship?Next