IT was nearly an hour past noon when Mr. Pendril left the house. Miss Garth sat down again at the table alone, and tried to face the necessity which the event of the morning now forced on her.
Her mind was not equal to the effort. She tried to lessen the strain on it -- to lose the sense of her own position -- to escape from her thoughts for a few minutes only. After a little, she opened Mr. Vanstone's letter, and mechanically set herself to read it through once more.
One by one, the last words of the dead man fastened themselves more and more firmly on her attention. The unrelieved solitude, the unbroken silence, helped their influence on her mind and opened it to those very impressions of past and present which she was most anxious to shun. As she reached the melancholy lines which closed the letter, she found herself -- insensibly, almost unconsciously, at first -- tracing the fatal chain of events, link by link backward, until she reached its beginning in the contemplated marriage between Magdalen and Francis Clare.
That marriage had taken Mr. Vanstone to his old friend, with the confession on his lips which would otherwise never have escaped them. Thence came the discovery which had sent him home to summon the lawyer to the house. That summons, again, had produced the inevitable acceleration of the Saturday's journey to Friday; the Friday of the fatal accident, the Friday when he went to his death. From his death followed the second bereavement which had made the house desolate; the helpless position of the daughters whose prosperous future had been his dearest care; the revelation of the secret which had overwhelmed her that morning; the disclosure, more terrible still, which she now stood committed to make to the orphan sisters. For the first time she saw the whole sequence of events -- saw it as plainly as the cloudless blue of the sky and the green glow of the trees in the sunlight outside.
How -- when could she tell them? Who could approach them with the disclosure of their own illegitimacy before their father and mother had been dead a week? Who could speak the dreadful words, while the first tears were wet on their cheeks, while the first pang of separation was at its keenest in their hearts, while the memory of the funeral was not a day old yet? Not their last friend left; not the faithful woman whose heart bled for them. No! silence for the present time, at all risks -- merciful silence, for many days to come!
She left the room, with the will and the letter in her hand -- with the natural, human pity at her heart which sealed her lips and shut her eyes resolutely to the future. In the hall she stopped and listened. Not a sound was audible. She softly ascended the stairs, on her way to her own room, and passed the door of Norah's bed-chamber. Voices inside, the voices of the two sisters, caught her ear. After a moment's consideration, she checked herself, turned back, and quickly descended the stairs again. Both Norah and Magdalen knew of the interview between Mr. Pendril and herself; she had felt it her duty to show them his letter making the appointment. Could she excite their suspicion by locking herself up from them in her room as soon as the lawyer had left the house? Her hand trembled on the banister; she felt that her face might betray her. The self-forgetful fortitude, which had never failed her until that day, had been tried once too often -- had been tasked beyond its powers at last.
At the hall door she reflected for a moment again, and went into the garden; directing her steps to a rustic bench and table placed out of sight of the house among the trees. In past times she had often sat there, with Mrs. Vanstone on one side, with Norah on the other, with Magdalen and the dogs romping on the grass. Alone she sat there now -- the will and the letter which she dared not trust out of her own possession, laid on the table -- her head bowed over them; her face hidden in her hands. Alone she sat there and tried to rouse her sinking courage.
Doubts thronged on her of the dark days to come; dread beset her of the hidden danger which her own silence toward Norah and Magdalen might store up in the near future. The accident of a moment might suddenly reveal the truth. Mr. Pendril might write, might personally address himself to the sisters, in the natural conviction that she had enlightened them. Complications might gather round them at a moment's notice; unforeseen necessities might arise for immediately leaving the house. She saw all these perils -- and still the cruel courage to face the worst, and speak, was as far from her as ever. Ere long the thickening conflict of her thoughts forced its way outward for relief, in words and actions. She raised her head and beat her hand helplessly on the table.
"God help me, what am I to do?" she broke out. "How am I to tell them?"
"There is no need to tell them," said a voice behind her. "They know it already."
She started to her feet and looked round. It was Magdalen who stood before her -- Magdalen who had spoken those words.
Yes, there was the graceful figure, in its mourning garments, standing out tall and black and motionless against the leafy background. There was Magdalen herself, with a changeless stillness on her white face; with an icy resignation in her steady gray eyes.
"We know it already," she repeated, in clear, measured tones. "Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children; and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy."
So, without a tear on her cheeks, without a faltering tone in her voice, she repeated the lawyer's own words, exactly as he had spoken them. Miss Garth staggered back a step and caught at the bench to support herself. Her head swam; she closed her eyes in a momentary faintness. When they opened again, Magdalen's arm was supporting her, Magdalen's breath fanned her cheek, Magdalen's cold lips kissed her. She drew back from the kiss; the touch of the girl's lips thrilled her with terror.
As soon as she could speak she put the inevitable question. "You heard us," she said. "Where?"
"Under the open window."
"All the time?"
"From beginning to end."
She had listened -- this girl of eighteen, in the first week of her orphanage, had listened to the whole terrible revelation, word by word, as it fell from the lawyer's lips; and had never once betrayed herself! From first to last, the only movements which had escaped her had been movements guarded enough and slight enough to be mistaken for the passage of the summer breeze through the leaves!
"Don't try to speak yet," she said, in softer and gentler tones. "Don't look at me with those doubting eyes. What wrong have I done? When Mr. Pendril wished to speak to you about Norah and me, his letter gave us our choice to be present at the interview, or to keep away. If my elder sister decided to keep away, how could I come? How could I hear my own story except as I did? My listening has done no harm. It has done good -- it has saved you the distress of speaking to us . You have suffered enough for us already; it is time we learned to suffer for ourselves. I have learned. And Norah is learning."
"Yes. I have done all I could to spare you. I have told Norah."
She had told Norah! Was this girl, whose courage had faced the terrible necessity from which a woman old enough to be her mother had recoiled, the girl Miss Garth had brought up? the girl whose nature she had believed to be as well known to her as her own?
"Magdalen!" she cried out, passionately, "you frighten me!"
Magdalen only sighed, and turned wearily away.
"Try not to think worse of me than I deserve," she said. "I can't cry. My heart is numbed."
She moved away slowly over the grass. Miss Garth watched the tall black figure gliding away alone until it was lost among the trees. While it was in sight she could think of nothing else. The moment it was gone, she thought of Norah. For the first time in her experience of the sisters her heart led her instinctively to the elder of the two.
Norah was still in her own room. She was sitting on the couch by the window, with her mother's old music-book -- the keepsake which Mrs. Vanstone had found in her husband's study on the day of her husband's death -- spread open on her lap. She looked up from it with such quiet sorrow, and pointed with such ready kindness to the vacant place at her side, that Miss Garth doubted for the moment whether Magdalen had spoken the truth. "See," said Norah, simply, turning to the first leaf in the music-book -- "my mother's name written in it, and some verses to my father on the next page. We may keep this for ourselves, if we keep nothing else." She put her arm round Miss Garth's neck, and a faint tinge of color stole over her cheeks. "I see anxious thoughts in your face," she whispered. "Are you anxious about me? Are you doubting whether I have heard it? I have heard the whole truth. I might have felt it bitterly, later; it is too soon to feel it now. You have seen Magdalen? She went out to find you -- where did you leave her?"
"In the garden. I couldn't speak to her; I couldn't look at her. Magdalen has frightened me."
Norah rose hurriedly; rose, startled and distressed by Miss Garth's reply.
"Don't think ill of Magdalen," she said. "Magdalen suffers in secret more than I do. Try not to grieve over what you have heard about us this morning. Does it matter who we are, or what we keep or lose? What loss is there for us after the loss of our father and mother? Oh, Miss Garth, there is the only bitterness! What did we remember of them when we laid them in the grave yesterday? Nothing but the love they gave us -- the love we must never hope for again. What else can we remember to-day? What change can the world, and the world's cruel laws make in our memory of the kindest father, the kindest mother, that children ever had!" She stopped: struggled with her rising grief; and quietly, resolutely, kept it down. "Will you wait here," she said, "while I go and bring Magdalen back? Magdalen was always your favorite: I want her to be your favorite still." She laid the music-book gently on Miss Garth's lap -- and left the room.
"Magdalen was always your favorite."
Tenderly as they had been spoken, those words fell reproachfully on Miss Garth's ear. For the first time in the long companionship of her pupils and herself a doubt whether she, and all those about her, had not been fatally mistaken in their relative estimate of the sisters, now forced itself on her mind.
She had studied the natures of her two pupils in the daily intimacy of twelve years. Those natures, which she believed herself to have sounded through all their depths, had been suddenly tried in the sharp ordeal of affliction. How had they come out from the test? As her previous experience had prepared her to see them? No: in flat contradiction to it.
What did such a result as this imply?
Thoughts came to her, as she asked herself that question, which have startled and saddened us all.
Does there exist in every human being, beneath that outward and visible character which is shaped into form by the social influences surrounding us, an inward, invisible disposition, which is part of ourselves, which education may indirectly modify, but can never hope to change? Is the philosophy which denies this and asserts that we are born with dispositions like blank sheets of paper a philosophy which has failed to remark that we are not born with blank faces -- a philosophy which has never compared together two infants of a few days old, and has never observed that those infants are not born with blank tempers for mothers and nurses to fill up at will? Are there, infinitely varying with each individual, inbred forces of Good and Evil in all of us, deep down below the reach of mortal encouragement and mortal repression -- hidden Good and hidden Evil, both alike at the mercy of the liberating opportunity and the sufficient temptation? Within these earthly limits, is earthly Circumstance ever the key; and can no human vigilance warn us beforehand of the forces imprisoned in ourselves which that key may unlock?
For the first time, thoughts such as these rose darkly -- as shadowy and terrible possibilities -- in Miss Garth's mind. For the first time, she associated those possibilities with the past conduct and characters, with the future lives and fortunes of the orphan sisters.
Searching, as in a glass darkly, into the two natures, she felt her way, doubt by doubt, from one possible truth to another. It might be that the upper surface of their characters was all that she had, thus far, plainly seen in Norah and Magdalen. It might be that the unalluring secrecy and reserve of one sister, the all-attractive openness and high spirits of the other, were more or less referable, in each case, to those physical causes which work toward the production of moral results. It might be, that under the surface so formed -- a surface which there had been nothing, hitherto, in the happy, prosperous, uneventful lives of the sisters to disturb -- forces of inborn and inbred disposition had remained concealed, which the shock of the first serious calamity in their lives had now thrown up into view. Was this so? Was the promise of the future shining with prophetic light through the surface-shadow of Norah's reserve, and darkening with prophetic gloom, under the surface-glitter of Magdalen's bright spirits? If the life of the elder sister was destined henceforth to be the ripening ground of the undeveloped Good that was in her -was the life of the younger doomed to be the battle-field of mortal conflict with the roused forces of Evil in herself?
On the brink of that terrible conclusion, Miss Garth shrank back in dismay. Her heart was the heart of a true woman. It accepted the conviction which raised Norah higher in her love: it rejected the doubt which threatened to place Magdalen lower. She rose and paced the room impatiently; she recoiled with an angry suddenness from the whole train of thought in which her mind had been engaged but the moment before. What if there were dangerous elements in the strength of Magdalen's character -- was it not her duty to help the girl against herself? How had she performed that duty? She had let herself be governed by first fears and first impressions; she had never waited to consider whether Magdalen's openly acknowledged action of that morning might not imply a self-sacrificing fortitude, which promised, in after-life, the noblest and the most enduring results. She had let Norah go and speak those words of tender remonstrance, which she should first have spoken herself. "Oh!" she thought, bitterly, "how long I have lived in the world, and how little I have known of my own weakness and wickedness until to-day!"
The door of the room opened. Norah came in, as she had gone out, alone.
"Do you remember leaving anything on the little table by the garden-seat?" she asked, quietly.
Before Miss Garth could answer the question, she held out her father's will and her father's letter.
"Magdalen came back after you went away," she said, "and found these last re lics. She heard Mr. Pendril say the y were her legacy and mine. When I went into the garden she was reading the letter. There was no need for me to speak to her; our father had spoken to her from his grave. See how she has listened to him!"
She pointed to the letter. The traces of heavy tear-drops lay thick over the last lines of the dead man's writing.
"Her tears," said Norah, softly.
Miss Garth's head drooped low over the mute revelation of Magdalen's return to her better self.
"Oh, never doubt her again!" pleaded Norah. "We are alone now -- we have our hard way through the world to walk on as patiently as we can. If Magdalen ever falters and turns back, help her for the love of old times; help her against herself."
"With all my heart and strength -- as God shall judge me, with the devotion of my whole life!" In those fervent words Miss Garth answered. She took the hand which Norah held out to her, and put it, in sorrow and humility, to her lips. "Oh, my love, forgive me! I have been miserably blind -- I have never valued you as I ought!"
Norah gently checked her before she could say more; gently whispered, "Come with me into the garden -- come, and help Magdalen to look patiently to the future."
The future! Who could see the faintest glimmer of it? Who could see anything but the ill-omened figure of Michael Vanstone, posted darkly on the verge of the present time -- and closing all the prospect that lay beyond him?Next