ON returning to the house, Magdalen felt her shoulder suddenly touched from behind as she crossed the hall. She turned and confronted her sister. Before she could ask any questions, Norah confusedly addressed her, in these words: "I beg your pardon; I beg you to forgive me."
Magdalen looked at her sister in astonishment. All memory, on her side, of the sharp words which had passed between them in the shrubbery was lost in the new interests that now absorbed her; lost as completely as if the angry interview had never taken place. "Forgive you!" she repeated, amazedly. "What for?"
"I have heard of your new prospects," pursued Norah, speaking with a mechanical submissiveness of manner which seemed almost ungracious; "I wished to set things right between us; I wished to say I was sorry for what happened. Will you forget it? Will you forget and forgive what happened in the shrubbery?" She tried to proceed; but her inveterate reserve -- or, perhaps, her obstinate reliance on her own opinions -- silenced her at those last words. Her face clouded over on a sudden. Before her sister could answer her, she turned away abruptly and ran upstairs.
The door of the library opened, before Magdalen could follow her; and Miss Garth advanced to express the sentiments proper to the occasion.
They were not the mechanically-submissive sentiments which Magdalen had just heard. Norah had struggled against her rooted distrust of Frank, in deference to the unanswerable decision of both her parents in his favor; and had suppressed the open expression of her antipathy, though the feeling itself remained unconquered. Miss Garth had made no such concession to the master and mistress of the house. She had hitherto held the position of a high authority on all domestic questions; and she flatly declined to get off her pedestal in deference to any change in the family circumstances, no matter how amazing or how unexpected that change might be.
"Pray accept my congratulations," said Miss Garth, bristling all over with implied objections to Frank -- "my congratulations, and my apologies. When I caught you kissing Mr. Francis Clare in the summer-house, I had no idea you were engaged in carrying out the intentions of your parents. I offer no opinion on the subject. I merely regret my own accidental appearance in the character of an Obstacle to the course of true-love -- which appears to run smooth in summer-houses, whatever Shakespeare may say to the contrary. Consider me for the future, if you please, as an Obstacle removed. May you be happy!" Miss Garth's lips closed on that last sentence like a trap, and Miss Garth's eyes looked ominously prophetic into the matrimonial future.
If Magdalen's anxieties had not been far too serious to allow her the customary free use of her tongue, she would have been ready on the instant with an appropriately satirical answer. As it was, Miss Garth simply irritated her. "Pooh!" she said -- and ran upstairs to her sister's room.
She knocked at the door, and there was no answer. She tried the door, and it resisted her from the inside. The sullen, unmanageable Norah was locked in.
Under other circumstances, Magdalen would not have been satisfied with knocking -- she would have called through the door loudly and more loudly, till the house was disturbed and she had carried her point. But the doubts and fears of the morning had unnerved her already. She went downstairs again softly, and took her hat from the stand in the hall. "He told me to put my hat on," she said to herself, with a meek filial docility which was totally out of her character.
She went into the garden, on the shrubbery side; and waited there to catch the first sight of her father on his return. Half an hour passed; forty minutes passed -- and then his voice reached her from among the distant trees. "Come in to heel!" she heard him call out loudly to the dog. Her face turned pale. "He's angry with Snap!" she exclaimed to herself in a whisper. The next minute he appeared in view; walking rapidly, with his head down and Snap at his heels in disgrace. The sudden excess of her alarm as she observed those ominous signs of something wrong rallied her natural energy, and determined her desperately on knowing the worst. She walked straight forward to meet her father.
"Your face tells your news," she said faintly. "Mr. Clare has been as heartless as usual -- Mr. Clare has said No?"
Her father turned on her with a sudden severity, so entirely unparalleled in her experience of him that she started back in downright terror.
"Magdalen!" he said; "whenever you speak of my old friend and neighbor again, bear this in mind: Mr. Clare has just laid me under an obligation which I shall remember gratefully to the end of my life."
He stopped suddenly after saying those remarkable words. Seeing that he had startled her, his natural kindness prompted him instantly to soften the reproof, and to end the suspense from which she was plainly suffering. "Give me a kiss, my love," he resumed; "and I'll tell you in return that Mr. Clare has said -YES."
She attempted to thank him; but the sudden luxury of relief was too much for her. She could only cling round his neck in silence. He felt her trembling from head to foot, and said a few words to calm her. At the altered tones of his master's voice, Snap's meek tail re-appeared fiercely from between his legs; and Snap's lungs modestly tested his position with a brief, experimental bark. The dog's quaintly appropriate assertion of himself on his old footing was the interruption of all others which was best fitted to restore Magdalen to herself. She caught the shaggy little terrier up in her arms and kissed him next. "You darling," she exclaimed, "you're almost as glad as I am!" She turned again to her father, with a look of tender reproach. "You frightened me, papa," she said. "You were so unlike yourself."
"I shall be right again to-morrow, my dear. I am a little upset to-day."
"Not by me?"
"By something you have heard at Mr. Clare's?"
"Yes -- nothing you need alarm yourself about ; nothing that won't wear off by to-morrow. Let me go now, my dear; I have a letter to write; and I want to speak to your mother."
He left her and went on to the house. Magdalen lingered a little on the lawn, to feel all the happiness of her new sensations -- then turned away toward the shrubbery to enjoy the higher luxury of communicating them. The dog followed her. She whistled, and clapped her hands. "Find him!" she said, with beaming eyes. "Find Frank!" Snap scampered into the shrubbery, with a bloodthirsty snarl at starting. Perhaps he had mistaken his young mistress and considered himself her emissary in search of a rat?
Meanwhile, Mr. Vanstone entered the house. He met his wife slowly descending the stairs, and advanced to give her his arm. "How has it ended?" she asked, anxiously, as he led her to the sofa.
"Happily -- as we hoped it would," answered her husband. "My old friend has justified my opinion of him."
"Thank God!" said Mrs. Vanstone, fervently. "Did you feel it, love?" she asked, as her husband arranged the sofa pillows -- "did you feel it as painfully as I feared you would?"
"I had a duty to do, my dear -- and I did it."
After replying in those terms, he hesitated. Apparently, he had something more to say -- something, perhaps, on the subject of that passing uneasiness of mind which had been produced by his interview with Mr. Clare, and which Magdalen's questions had obliged him to acknowledge. A look at his wife decided his doubts in the negative. He only asked if she felt comfortable; and then turned away to leave the room.
"Must you go?" she asked.
"I have a letter to write, my dear."
"Anything about Frank?"
"No: to-morrow will do for that. A letter to Mr. Pendril. I want him here immediately."
"Business, I suppose?"
"Yes, my dear -- business."
He went out, and shut himself into the little front room, close to the hall door, which was called his study. By nature and habit the most procrastinating of letter-writers, he now inconsistently opened his desk and took up the pen without a moment's delay. His letter was long enough to occupy three pages of note-paper; it was written with a readiness of expression and a rapidity of hand which seldom characterized his proceedings when engaged over his ordinary correspondence. He wrote the address as follows: "Immediate -- William Pendril, Esq., Serle Street, Lincoln's Inn, London" -- then pushed the letter away from him, and sat at the table, drawing lines on the blotting-paper with his pen, lost in thought. "No," he said to himself; "I can do nothing more till Pendril comes." He rose; his face brightened as he put the stamp on the envelope. The writing of the letter had sensibly relieved him, and his whole bearing showed it as he left the room.
On the doorstep he found Norah and Miss Garth, setting forth together for a walk.
"Which way are you going?" he asked. "Anywhere near the post-office? I wish you would post this letter for me, Norah. It is very important -- so important that I hardly like to trust it to Thomas, as usual."
Norah at once took charge of the letter.
"If you look, my dear," continued her father, "you will see that I am writing to Mr. Pendril. I expect him here to-morrow afternoon. Will you give the necessary directions, Miss Garth? Mr. Pendril will sleep here to-morrow night, and stay over Sunday. -- Wait a minute! Today is Friday. Surely I had an engagement for Saturday afternoon?" He consulted his pocketbook and read over one of the entries, with a look of annoyance. "Grailsea Mill, three o'clock, Saturday. Just the time when Pendril will be here; and I must be at home to see him. How can I manage it? Monday will be too late for my business at Grailsea. I'll go to-day, instead; and take my chance of catching the miller at his dinner-time." He looked at his watch. "No time for driving; I must do it by railway. If I go at once, I shall catch the down train at our station, and get on to Grailsea. Take care of the letter, Norah. I won't keep dinner waiting; if the return train doesn't suit, I'll borrow a gig and get back in that way."
As he took up his hat, Magdalen appeared at the door, returning from her interview with Frank. The hurry of her father's movements attracted her attention; and she asked him where he was going.
"To Grailsea," replied Mr. Vanstone. "Your business, Miss Magdalen, has got in the way of mine -- and mine must give way to it."
He spoke those parting words in his old hearty manner; and left them, with the old characteristic flourish of his trusty stick.
"My business!" said Magdalen. "I thought my business was done."
Miss Garth pointed significantly to the letter in Norah's hand. "Your business, beyond all doubt," she said. "Mr. Pendril is coming tomorrow; and Mr. Vanstone seems remarkably anxious about it. Law, and its attendant troubles already! Governesses who look in at summer-house doors are not the only obstacles to the course of true-love. Parchment is sometimes an obstacle. I hope you may find Parchment as pliable as I am -- I wish you well through it. Now, Norah!"
Miss Garth's second shaft struck as harmless as the first. Magdalen had returned to the house, a little vexed; her interview with Frank having been interrupted by a messenger from Mr. Clare, sent to summon the son into the father's presence. Although it had been agreed at the private interview between Mr. Vanstone and Mr. Clare that the questions discussed that morning should not be communicated to the children until the year of probation was at an end -- -and although under these circumstances Mr. Clare had nothing to tell Frank which Magdalen could not communicate to him much more agreeably -- the philosopher was not the less resolved on personally informing his son of the parental concession which rescued him from Chinese exile. The result was a sudden summons to the cottage, which startled Magdalen, but which did not appear to take Frank by surprise. His filial experience penetrated the mystery of Mr. Clare's motives easily enough. "When my father's in spirits," he said, sulkily, "he likes to bully me about my good luck. This message means that he's going to bully me now."
"Don't go," suggested Magdalen.
"I must," rejoined Frank. "I shall never hear the last of it if I don't. He's primed and loaded, and he means to go off. He went off, once, when the engineer took me; he went off, twice, when the office in the City took me; and he's going off, thrice, now you've taken me. If it wasn't for you, I should wish I had never been born. Yes; your father's been kind to me, I know -- and I should have gone to China, if it hadn't been for him. I'm sure I'm very much obliged. Of course, we have no right to expect anything else -- still it's discouraging to keep us waiting a year, isn't it?"
Magdalen stopped his mouth by a summary process, to which even Frank submitted gratefully. At the same time, she did not forget to set down his discontent to the right side. "How fond he is of me!" she thought. "A year's waiting is quite a hardship to him." She returned to the house, secretly regretting that she had not heard more of Frank's complimentary complaints. Miss Garth's elaborate satire, addressed to her while she was in this frame of mind, was a purely gratuitous waste of Miss Garth's breath. What did Magdalen care for satire? What do Youth and Love ever care for except themselves? She never even said as much as "Pooh!" this time. She laid aside her hat in serene silence, and sauntered languidly into the morning-room to keep her mother company. She lunched on dire forebodings of a quarrel between Frank and his father, with accidental interruptions in the shape of cold chicken and cheese-cakes. She trifled away half an hour at the piano; and played, in that time, selections from the Songs of Mendelssohn, the Mazurkas of Chopin, the Operas of Verdi, and the Sonatas of Mozart -- all of whom had combined together on this occasion and produced one immortal work, entitled "Frank." She closed the piano and went up to her room, to dream away the hours luxuriously in visions of her married future. The green shutters were closed, the easy-chair was pushed in front of the glass, the maid w as summoned as usual; and the comb assisted the mistress's reflections, through the medium of the mistress's hair, till heat and idleness asserted their narcotic influences together, and Magdalen fell asleep.
It was past three o'clock when she woke. On going downstairs again she found her mother, Norah and Miss Garth all sitting together enjoying the shade and the coolness under the open portico in front of the house.
Norah had the railway time-table in her hand. They had been discussing the chances of Mr. Vanstone's catching the return train and getting back in good time. That topic had led them, next, to his business errand at Grailsea -- an errand of kindness, as usual; undertaken for the benefit of the miller, who had been his old farm-servant, and who was now hard pressed by serious pecuniary difficulties. From this they had glided insensibly into a subject often repeated among them, and never exhausted by repetition -- the praise of Mr. Vanstone himself. Each one of the three had some experience of her own to relate of his simple, generous nature. The conversation seemed to be almost painfully interesting to his wife. She was too near the time of her trial now not to feel nervously sensitive to the one subject which always held the foremost place in her heart. Her eyes overflowed as Magdalen joined the little group under the portico; her frail hand trembled as it signed to her youngest daughter to take the vacant chair by her side. "We were talking of your father," she said, softly. "Oh, my love, if your married life is only as happy -- " Her voice failed her; she put her handkerchief hurriedly over her face and rested her head on Magdalen's shoulder. Norah looked appealingly to Miss Garth, who at once led the conversation back to the more trivial subject of Mr. Vanstone's return. "We have all been wondering," she said, with a significant look at Magdalen, "whether your father will leave Grailsea in time to catch the train -- or whether he will miss it and be obliged to drive back. What do you say?"
"I say, papa will miss the train," replied Magdalen, taking Miss Garth's hint with her customary quickness. "The last thing he attends to at Grailsea will be the business that brings him there. Whenever he has business to do, he always puts it off to the last moment, doesn't he, mamma?"
The question roused her mother exactly as Magdalen had intended it should. "Not when his errand is an errand of kindness," said Mrs. Vanstone. "He has gone to help the miller in a very pressing difficulty -- "
"And don't you know what he'll do?" persisted Magdalen. "He'll romp with the miller's children, and gossip with the mother, and hob-and-nob with the father. At the last moment when he has got five minutes left to catch the train, he'll say: 'Let's go into the counting-house and look at the books.' He'll find the books dreadfully complicated; he'll suggest sending for an accountant; he'll settle the business off hand, by lending the money in the meantime; he'll jog back comfortably in the miller's gig; and he'll tell us all how pleasant the lanes were in the cool of the evening."
The little character-sketch which these words drew was too faithful a likeness not to be recognized. Mrs. Vanstone showed her appreciation of it by a smile. "When your father returns," she said, "we will put your account of his proceedings to the test. I think," she continued, rising languidly from her chair, "I had better go indoors again now and rest on the sofa till he comes back."
The little group under the portico broke up. Magdalen slipped away into the garden to hear Frank's account of the interview with his father. The other three ladies entered the house together. When Mrs. Vanstone was comfortably established on the sofa, Norah and Miss Garth left her to repose, and withdrew to the library to look over the last parcel of books from London.
It was a quiet, cloudless summer's day. The heat was tempered by a light western breeze; the voices of laborers at work in a field near reached the house cheerfully; the clock-bell of the village church as it struck the quarters floated down the wind with a clearer ring, a louder melody than usual. Sweet odors from field and flower-garden, stealing in at the open windows, filled the house with their fragrance; and the birds in Norah's aviary upstairs sang the song of their happiness exultingly in the sun.
As the church clock struck the quarter past four, the morning-room door opened; and Mrs. Vanstone crossed the hall alone. She had tried vainly to compose herself. She was too restless to lie still and sleep. For a moment she directed her steps toward the portico -- then turned, and looked about her, doubtful where to go, or what to do next. While she was still hesitating, the half-open door of her husband's study attracted her attention. The room seemed to be in sad confusion. Drawers were left open; coats and hats, account-books and papers, pipes and fishing-rods were all scattered about together. She went in, and pushed the door to -- but so gently that she still left it ajar. "It will amuse me to put his room to rights," she thought to herself. "I should like to do something for him before I am down on my bed, helpless." She began to arrange his drawers, and found his banker's book lying open in one of them. "My poor dear, how careless he is! The servants might have seen all his affairs, if I had not happened to have looked in." She set the drawers right; and then turned to the multifarious litter on a side-table. A little old-fashioned music-book appeared among the scattered papers, with her name written in it, in faded ink. She blushed like a young girl in the first happiness of the discovery. "How good he is to me! He remembers my poor old music-book, and keeps it for my sake." As she sat down by the table and opened the book, the bygone time came back to her in all its tenderness. The clock struck the half-hour, struck the three-quarters -- and still she sat there, with the music-book on her lap, dreaming happily over the old songs; thinking gratefully of the golden days when his hand had turned the pages for her, when his voice had whispered the words which no woman's memory ever forgets.
Norah roused herself from the volume she was reading, and glanced at the clock on the library mantel-piece.
"If papa comes back by the railway," she said, "he will be here in ten minutes."
Miss Garth started, and looked up drowsily from the book which was just dropping out of her hand.
"I don't think he will come by train," she replied. "He will jog back -- as Magdalen flippantly expressed it -- in the miller's gig."
As she said the words, there was a knock at the library door. The footman appeared, and addressed himself to Miss Garth.
"A person wishes to see you, ma'am."
"Who is it?"
"I don't know, ma'am. A stranger to me -- a respectable-looking man -- and he said he particularly wished to see you."
Miss Garth went out into the hall. The footman closed the library door after her, and withdrew down the kitchen stairs.
The man stood just inside the door, on the mat. His eyes wandered, his face was pale -- he looked ill; he looked frightened. He trifled nervously with his cap, and shifted it backward and forward, from one hand to the other.
"You wanted to see me?" said Miss Garth.
"I beg your pardon, ma'am. -- You are not Mrs. Vanstone, are you?"
"Certainly not. I am Miss Garth. Why do you ask the question?"
"I am employed in the clerk's office at Grailsea Station -- "
"I am sent here -- "
He stopped again. His wandering eyes looked down at the mat, and his restless hands wrung his cap harder and harder. He moistened his dry lips, and tried once more.
"I am sent here on a very serious errand."
"Serious to me?"
"Serious to all in this house."
Miss Garth took one step nearer to him -- took one steady look at his face. She turned cold in the summer heat. "Stop!" she said, with a sudden distrust, and glanced aside anxiously at the door of the morning-room. It was safely closed. "Tell me the worst; and don't speak loud. There has been an accident. Where?"
"On the rai lway. Close to Grailsea Station ."
"The up-train to London?"
"No: the down-train at one-fifty -- "
"God Almighty help us! The train Mr. Vanstone traveled by to Grailsea?"
"The same. I was sent here by the up-train; the line was just cleared in time for it. They wouldn't write -- they said I must see 'Miss Garth,' and tell her. There are seven passengers badly hurt; and two -- "
The next word failed on his lips; he raised his hand in the dead silence. With eyes that opened wide in horror, he raised his hand and pointed over Miss Garth's shoulder.
She turned a little, and looked back.
Face to face with her, on the threshold of the study door, stood the mistress of the house. She held her old music-book clutched fast mechanically in both hands. She stood, the specter of herself. With a dreadful vacancy in her eyes, with a dreadful stillness in her voice, she repeated the man's last words:
"Seven passengers badly hurt; and two -- "
Her tortured fingers relaxed their hold; the book dropped from them; she sank forward heavily. Miss Garth caught her before she fell -- caught her, and turned upon the man, with the wife's swooning body in her arms, to hear the husband's fate.
"The harm is done," she said; "you may speak out. Is he wounded, or dead?"