THE early morning, when Magdalen rose and looked out, was cloudy and overcast. But as time advanced to the breakfast hour the threatening of rain passed away; and she was free to provide, without hinderance from the weather, for the first necessity of the day -- the necessity of securing the absence of her traveling companion from the house.
Mrs. Wragge was dressed, armed at all points with her collection of circulars, and eager to be away by ten o'clock. At an earlier hour Magdalen had provided for her being properly taken care of by the landlady's eldest daughter -- a quiet, well-conducted girl, whose interest in the shopping expedition was readily secured by a little present of money for the purchase, on her own account, of a parasol and a muslin dress. Shortly after ten o'clock Magdalen dismissed Mrs. Wragge and her attendant in a cab. She then joined the landlady -- who was occupied in setting the rooms in order upstairs -- with the object of ascertaining, by a little well-timed gossip, what the daily habits might be of the inmates of the house.
She discovered that there were no other lodgers but Mrs. Wragge and herself. The landlady's husband was away all day, employed at a railway station. Her second daughter was charged with the care of the kitchen in the elder sister's absence. The younger children were at school, and would be back at one o'clock to dinner. The landlady herself "got up fine linen for ladies," and expected to be occupied over her work all that morning in a little room built out at the back of the premises. Thus there was every facility for Magdalen's leaving the house in disguise, and leaving it unobserved, provided she went out before the children came back to dinner at one o'clock.
By eleven o'clock the apartments were set in order, and the landlady had retired to pursue her own employments. Magdalen softly locked the door of her room, drew the blind over the window, and entered at once on her preparations for the perilous experiment of the day.
The same quick perception of dangers to be avoided and difficulties to be overcome which had warned her to leave the extravagant part of her character costume in the box at Birmingham now kept her mind fully alive to the vast difference between a disguise worn by gas-light for the amusement of an audience and a disguise assumed by daylight to deceive the searching eyes of two strangers. The first article of dress which she put on was an old gown of her own (made of the material called "alpaca"), of a dark-brown color, with a neat pattern of little star-shaped spots in white. A double flounce running round the bottom of this dress was the only milliner's ornament which it presented -- an ornament not at all out of character with the costume appropriated to an elderly lady. The disguise of her head and face was the next object of her attention. She fitted and arranged the gray wig with the dexterity which constant practice had given her; fixed the false eyebrows (made rather large, and of hair darker than the wig) carefully in their position with the gum she had with her for the purpose, and stained her face with the customary stage materials, so as to change the transparent fairness of her complexion to the dull, faintly opaque color of a woman in ill health. The lines and markings of age followed next; and here the first obstacles presented themselves. The art which succeeded by gas-light failed by day: the difficulty of hiding the plainly artificial nature of the marks was almost insuperable. She turned to her trunk; took from it two veils; and putting on her old-fashioned bonnet, tried the effect of them in succession. One of the veils (of black lace) was too thick to be worn over the face at that summer season without exciting remark. The other, of plain net, allowed her features to be seen through it, just indistinctly enough to permit the safe introduction of certain lines (many fewer than she was accustomed to use in performing the character) on the forehead and at the sides of the mouth. But the obstacle thus set aside only opened the way to a new difficulty -- the difficulty of keeping her veil down while she was speaking to other persons, without any obvious reason for doing so. An instant's consideration, and a chance look at her little china palette of stage colors, suggested to her ready invention the production of a visible excuse for wearing her veil. She deliberately disfigured herself by artificially reddening the insides of her eyelids so as to produce an appearance of inflammation which no human creature but a doctor -- and that doctor at close quarters -- could have detected as false. She sprang to her feet and looked triumphantly at the hideous transformation of herself reflected in the glass. Who could think it strange now if she wore her veil down, and if she begged Mrs. Lecount's permission to sit with her back to the light?
Her last proceeding was to put on the quiet gray cloak which she had brought from Birmingham, and which had been padded inside by Captain Wragge's own experienced hands, so as to hide the youthful grace and beauty of her back and shoulders. Her costume being now complete, she practiced the walk which had been originally taught her as appropriate to the character -- a walk with a slight limp -- and, returning to the glass after a minute's trial, exercised herself next in the disguise of her voice and manner. This was the only part of the character in which it had been possible, with her physical peculiarities, to produce an imitation of Miss Garth; and here the resemblance was perfect. The harsh voice, the blunt manner, the habit of accompanying certain phrases by an emphatic nod of the head, the Northumbrian burr expressing itself in every word which contained the letter "r" -- all these personal peculiarities of the old North-country governess were reproduced to the life. The personal transformation thus completed was literally what Captain Wragge had described it to be -- a triumph in the art of self-disguise. Excepting the one case of seeing her face close, with a strong light on it, nobody who now looked at Magdalen could have suspected for an instant that she was other t han an ailing, ill-made, unattractive woman of fifty years old at least.
Before unl ocking the door, she looked about her carefully, to make sure that none of her stage materials were exposed to view in case the landlady entered the room in her absence. The only forgotten object belonging to her that she discovered was a little packet of Norah's letters which she had been reading overnight, and which had been accidentally pushed under the looking-glass while she was engaged in dressing herself. As she took up the letters to put them away, the thought struck her for the first time, "Would Norah know me now if we met each other in the street?" She looked in the glass, and smiled sadly. "No," she said, "not even Norah."
She unlocked the door, after first looking at her watch. It was close on twelve o'clock. There was barely an hour left to try her desperate experiment, and to return to the lodging before the landlady's children came back from school.
An instant's listening on the landing assured her that all was quiet in the passage below. She noiselessly descended the stairs and gained the street without having met any living creature on her way out of the house. In another minute she had crossed the road, and had knocked at Noel Vanstone's door.
The door was opened by the same woman-servant whom she had followed on the previous evening to the stationer's shop. With a momentary tremor, which recalled the memorable first night of her appearance in public, Magdalen inquired (in Miss Garth's voice, and with Miss Garth's manner) for Mrs. Lecount.
"Mrs. Lecount has gone out, ma'am," said the servant.
"Is Mr. Vanstone at home?" asked Magdalen, her resolution asserting itself at once against the first obstacle that opposed it.
"My master is not up yet, ma'am."
Another check! A weaker nature would have accepted the warning. Magdalen's nature rose in revolt against it.
"What time will Mrs. Lecount be back?" she asked.
"About one o'clock, ma'am."
"Say, if you please, that I will call again as soon after one o'clock as possible. I particularly wish to see Mrs. Lecount. My name is Miss Garth."
She turned and left the house. Going back to her own room was out of the question. The servant (as Magdalen knew by not hearing the door close) was looking after her; and, moreover, she would expose herself, if she went indoors, to the risk of going out again exactly at the time when the landlady's children were sure to be about the house. She turned mechanically to the right, walked on until she recalled Vauxhall Bridge, and waited there, looking out over the river.
The interval of unemployed time now before her was nearly an hour. How should she occupy it?
As she asked herself the question, the thought which had struck her when she put away the packet of Norah's letters rose in her mind once more. A sudden impulse to test the miserable completeness of her disguise mixed with the higher and purer feeling at her heart, and strengthened her natural longing to see her sister's face again, though she dare not discover herself and speak. Norah's later letters had described, in the fullest details, her life as a governess -her hours for teaching, her hours of leisure, her hours for walking out with her pupils. There was just time, if she could find a vehicle at once, for Magdalen to drive to the house of Norah's employer, with the chance of getting there a few minutes before the hour when her sister would be going out. "One look at her will tell me more than a hundred letters!" With that thought in her heart, with the one object of following Norah on her daily walk, under protection of the disguise, Magdalen hastened over the bridge, and made for the northern bank of the river.
So, at the turning-point of her life -- so, in the interval before she took the irrevocable step, and passed the threshold of Noel Vanstone's door -- the forces of Good triumphing in the strife for her over the forces of Evil, turned her back on the scene of her meditated deception, and hurried her mercifully further and further away from the fatal house.
She stopped the first empty cab that passed her; told the driver to go to New Street, Spring Gardens; and promised to double his fare if he reached his destination by a given time. The man earned the money -- more than earned it, as the event proved. Magdalen had not taken ten steps in advance along New Street, walking toward St. James's Park, before the door of a house beyond her opened, and a lady in mourning came out, accompanied by two little girls. The lady also took the direction of the Park, without turning her head toward Magdalen as she descended the house step. It mattered little; Magdalen's heart looked through her eyes, and told her that she saw Norah.
She followed them into St. James's Park, and thence (along the Mall) into the Green Park, venturing closer and closer as they reached the grass and ascended the rising ground in the direction of Hyde Park Corner. Her eager eyes devoured every detail in Norah's dress, and detected the slightest change that had taken place in her figure and her bearing. She had become thinner since the autumn -her head drooped a little; she walked wearily. Her mourning dress, worn with the modest grace and neatness which no misfortune could take from her, was suited to her altered station; her black gown was made of stuff; her black shawl and bonnet were of the plainest and cheapest kind. The two little girls, walking on either side of her, were dressed in silk. Magdalen instinctively hated them.
She made a wide circuit on the grass, so as to turn gradually and meet her sister without exciting suspicion that the meeting was contrived. Her heart beat fast; a burning heat glowed in her as she thought of her false hair, her false color, her false dress, and saw the dear familiar face coming nearer and nearer. They passed each other close. Norah's dark gentle eyes looked up, with a deeper light in them, with a sadder beauty than of old -- rested, all unconscious of the truth, on her sister's face -- and looked away from it again as from the face of a stranger. That glance of an instant struck Magdalen to the heart. She stood rooted to the ground after Norah had passed by. A horror of the vile disguise that concealed her; a yearning to burst its trammels and hide her shameful painted face on Norah's bosom, took possession of her, body and soul. She turned and looked back.
Norah and the two children had reached the higher ground, and were close to one of the gates in the iron railing which fenced the Park from the street. Drawn by an irresistible fascination, Magdalen followed them again, gained on them as they reached the gate, and heard the voices of the two children raised in angry dispute which way they wanted to walk next. She saw Norah take them through the gate, and then stoop and speak to them, while waiting for an opportunity to cross the road. They only grew the louder and the angrier for what she said. The youngest -- a girl of eight or nine years old -- flew into a child's vehement passion, cried, screamed, and even kicked at the governess. The people in the street stopped and laughed; some of them jestingly advised a little wholesome correction; one woman asked Norah if she was the child's mother; another pitied her audibly for being the child's governess. Before Magdalen could push her way through the crowd -- before her all-mastering anxiety to help her sister had blinded her to every other consideration, and had brought her, self-betrayed, to Norah's side -- an open carriage passed the pavement slowly, hindered in its progress by the press of vehicles before it. An old lady seated inside heard the child's cries, recognized Norah, and called to her immediately. The footman parted the crowd, and the children were put into the carriage. "It's lucky I happened to pass this way," said the old lady, beckoning contemptuously to Norah to take her place on the front seat; "you never could manage my daughter's children, and you never will." The footman put up the steps, the carriage drove on with the children and the governess, the crowd dispersed, and Magdalen was alone again.
"So be it!" she thought, bitterly. "I should only have distressed her. We should only
have had the misery of parting to suffer again."
She mechanically retraced her steps; she returned, as in a dream, to the open space of the Park. Arming itself treacherously with the strength of her love for her sister, with the vehemence of the indignation that she felt for her sister's sake, the terrible temptation of her life fastened its hold on her more firmly than ever. Through all the paint and disfigurement of the disguise, the fierce despair of that strong and passionate nature lowered, haggard and horrible. Norah made an object of public curiosity and amusement; Norah reprimanded in the open street; Norah, the hired victim of an old woman's insolence and a child's ill-temper, and the same man to thank for it who had sent Frank to China! -- and that man's son to thank after him! The thought of her sister, which had turned her from the scene of her meditated deception, which had made the consciousness of her own disguise hateful to her, was now the thought which sanctioned that means, or any means, to compass her end; the thought which set wings to her feet, and hurried her back nearer and nearer to the fatal house.
She left the Park again, and found herself in the streets without knowing where. Once more she hailed the first cab that passed her, and told the man to drive to Vauxhall Walk.
The change from walking to riding quieted her. She felt her attention returning to herself and her dress. The necessity of making sure that no accident had happened to her disguise in the interval since she had left her own room impressed itself immediately on her mind. She stopped the driver at the first pastry-cook's shop which he passed, and there obtained the means of consulting a looking-glass before she ventured back to Vauxhall Walk.
Her gray head-dress was disordered, and the old-fashioned bonnet was a little on one side. Nothing else had suffered. She set right the few defects in her costume, and returned to the cab. It was half-past one when she approached the house and knocked, for the second time, at Noel Vanstone's door. The woman-servant opened it as before.
"Has Mrs. Lecount come back?"
"Yes, ma'am. Step this way, if you please."
The servant preceded Magdalen along an empty passage, and, leading her past an uncarpeted staircase, opened the door of a room at the back of the house. The room was lighted by one window looking out on a yard; the walls were bare; the boarded floor was uncovered. Two bedroom chairs stood against the wall, and a kitchen-table was placed under the window. On the table stood a glass tank filled with water, and ornamented in the middle by a miniature pyramid of rock-work interlaced with weeds. Snails clung to the sides of the tank; tadpoles and tiny fish swam swiftly in the green water, slippery efts and slimy frogs twined their noiseless way in and out of the weedy rock-work; and on top of the pyramid there sat solitary, cold as the stone, brown as the stone, motionless as the stone, a little bright-eyed toad. The art of keeping fish and reptiles as domestic pets had not at that time been popularized in England; and Magdalen, on entering the room, started back, in irrepressible astonishment and disgust, from the first specimen of an Aquarium that she had ever seen.
"Don't be alarmed," said a woman's voice behind her. "My pets hurt nobody."
Magdalen turned, and confronted Mrs. Lecount. She had expected -- founding her anticipations on the letter which the housekeeper had written to her -- to see a hard, wily, ill-favored, insolent old woman. She found herself in the presence of a lady of mild, ingratiating manners, whose dress was the perfection of neatness, taste, and matronly simplicity, whose personal appearance was little less than a triumph of physical resistance to the deteriorating influence of time. If Mrs. Lecount had struck some fifteen or sixteen years off her real age, and had asserted herself to be eight-and-thirty, there would not have been one man in a thousand, or one woman in a hundred, who would have hesitated to believe her. Her dark hair was just turning to gray, and no more. It was plainly parted under a spotless lace cap, sparingly ornamented with mourning ribbons. Not a wrinkle appeared on her smooth white forehead, or her plump white cheeks. Her double chin was dimpled, and her teeth were marvels of whiteness and regularity. Her lips might have been critically considered as too thin, if they had not been accustomed to make the best of their defects by means of a pleading and persuasive smile. Her large black eyes might have looked fierce if they had been set in the face of another woman, they were mild and melting in the face of Mrs. Lecount; they were tenderly interested in everything she looked at -- in Magdalen, in the toad on the rock-work, in the back-yard view from the window; in her own plump fair hands, -- which she rubbed softly one over the other while she spoke; in her own pretty cambric chemisette, which she had a habit of looking at complacently while she listened to others. The elegant black gown in which she mourned the memory of Michael Vanstone was not a mere dress -- it was a well-made compliment paid to Death. Her innocent white muslin apron was a little domestic poem in itself. Her jet earrings were so modest in their pretensions that a Quaker might have looked at them and committed no sin. The comely plumpness of her face was matched by the comely plumpness of her figure; it glided smoothly over the ground; it flowed in sedate undulations when she walked. There are not many men who could have observed Mrs. Lecount entirely from the Platonic point of view -- lads in their teens would have found her irresistible -- women only could have hardened their hearts against her, and mercilessly forced their way inward through that fair and smiling surface. Magdalen's first glance at this Venus of the autumn period of female life more than satisfied her that she had done well to feel her ground in disguise before she ventured on matching herself against Mrs. Lecount.
"Have I the pleasure of addressing the lady who called this morning?" inquired the housekeeper. "Am I speaking to Miss Garth?"
Something in the expression of her eyes, as she asked that question, warned Magdalen to turn her face further inward from the window than she had turned it yet. The bare doubt whether the housekeeper might not have seen her already under too strong a light shook her self-possession for the moment. She gave herself time to recover it, and merely answered by a bow.
"Accept my excuses, ma'am, for the place in which I am compelled to receive you," proceeded Mrs. Lecount in fluent English, spoken with a foreign accent. "Mr. Vanstone is only here for a temporary purpose. We leave for the sea-side to-morrow afternoon, and it has not been thought worth while to set the house in proper order. Will you take a seat, and oblige me by mentioning the object of your visit?"
She glided imperceptibly a step or two nearer to Magdalen, and placed a chair for her exactly opposite the light from the window. "Pray sit down," said Mrs. Lecount, looking with the tenderest interest at the visitor's inflamed eyes through the visitor's net veil.
"I am suffering, as you see, from a complaint in the eyes," replied Magdalen, steadily keeping her profile toward the window, and carefully pitching her voice to the tone of Miss Garth's. "I must beg your permission to wear my veil down, and to sit away from the light." She said those words, feeling mistress of herself again. With perfect composure she drew the chair back into the corner of the room beyond the window and seated herself, keeping the shadow of her bonnet well over her face. Mrs. Lecount's persuasive lips murmured a polite expression of sympathy; Mrs. Lecount's amiable black eyes looked more interested in the strange lady than ever. She placed a chair for herself exactly on a line with Magdalen's, and sat so close to the wall as to force her visitor either to turn her head a little further round toward the window, or to fail in politeness by not looking at the person whom she addressed. "Yes," said Mrs. Lecount, with a confidential little c ough. "And to what circumstances am I indebted for the honor of this visit?"
"May I inquire, first, if my name happens to be familiar to you?" said Magdalen, turning toward her as a matter of necessity, but coolly holding up her handkerchief at the same time between her face and the light.
"No," answered Mrs. Lecount, with another little cough, rather harsher than the first. "The name of Miss Garth is not familiar to me."
"In that case," pursued Magdalen, "I shall best explain the object that causes me to intrude on you by mentioning who I am. I lived for many years as governess in the family of the late Mr. Andrew Vanstone, of Combe-Raven, and I come here in the interest of his orphan daughters."
Mrs. Lecount's hands, which had been smoothly sliding one over the other up to this time, suddenly stopped; and Mrs. Lecount's lips, self-forgetfully shutting up, owned they were too thin at the very outset of the interview.
"I am surprised you can bear the light out-of-doors without a green shade," she quietly remarked; leaving the false Miss Garth's announcement of herself as completely unnoticed as it she had not spoken at all.
"I find a shade over my eyes keeps them too hot at this time of the year," rejoined Magdalen, steadily matching the housekeeper's composure. "May I ask whether you heard what I said just now on the subject of my errand in this house?"
"May I inquire on my side, ma'am, in what way that errand can possibly concern me?" retorted Mrs. Lecount.
"Certainly," said Magdalen. "I come to you because Mr. Noel Vanstone's intentions toward the two young ladies were made known to them in the form of a letter from yourself."
That plain answer had its effect. It warned Mrs. Lecount that the strange lady was better informed than she had at first suspected, and that it might hardly be wise, under the circumstances, to dismiss her unheard.
"Pray pardon me," said the housekeeper, "I scarcely understood before; I perfectly understand now. You are mistaken, ma'am, in supposing that I am of any importance, or that I exercise any influence in this painful matter. I am the mouth-piece of Mr. Noel Vanstone; the pen he holds, if you will excuse the expression -- nothing more. He is an invalid, and like other invalids, he has his bad days and his good. It was his bad day when that answer was written to the young person -- shall I call her Miss Vanstone? I will, with pleasure, poor girl; for who am I to make distinctions, and what is it to me whether her parents were married or not? As I was saying, it was one of Mr. Noel Vanstone's bad days when that answer was sent, and therefore I had to write it; simply as his secretary, for want of a better. If you wish to speak on the subject of these young ladies -- shall I call them young ladies, as you did just now? no, poor things, I will call them the Misses Vanstone. -- If you wish to speak on the subject of these Misses Vanstone, I will mention your name, and your object in favoring me with this call, to Mr. Noel Vanstone. He is alone in the parlor, and this is one of his good days. I have the influence of an old servant over him, and I will use that influence with pleasure in your behalf. Shall I go at once?" asked Mrs. Lecount, rising, with the friendliest anxiety to make herself useful.
"If you please," replied Magdalen; "and if I am not taking any undue advantage of your kindness."
"On the contrary," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "you are laying me under an obligation -- you are permitting me, in my very limited way, to assist the performance of a benevolent action." She bowed, smiled, and glided out of the room.
Left by herself, Magdalen allowed the anger which she had suppressed in Mrs. Lecount's presence to break free from her. For want of a nobler object to attack, it took the direction of the toad. The sight of the hideous little reptile sitting placid on his rock throne, with his bright eyes staring impenetrably into vacancy, irritated every nerve in her body. She looked at the creature with a shrinking intensity of hatred; she whispered at it maliciously through her set teeth. "I wonder whose blood runs coldest," she said, "yours, you little monster, or Mrs. Lecount's? I wonder which is the slimiest, her heart or your back? You hateful wretch, do you know what your mistress is? Your mistress is a devil!"
The speckled skin under the toad's mouth mysteriously wrinkled itself, then slowly expanded again, as if he had swallowed the words just addressed to him. Magdalen started back in disgust from the first perceptible movement in the creature's body, trifling as it was, and returned to her chair. She had not seated herself again a moment too soon. The door opened noiselessly, and Mrs. Lecount appeared once more.
"Mr. Vanstone will see you," she said, "if you will kindly wait a few minutes. He will ring the parlor bell when his present occupation is at an end, and he is ready to receive you. Be careful, ma'am, not to depress his spirits, nor to agitate him in any way. His heart has been a cause of serious anxiety to those about him, from his earliest years. There is no positive disease; there is only a chronic feebleness -- a fatty degeneration -- a want of vital power in the organ itself. His heart will go on well enough if you don't give his heart too much to do -- that is the advice of all the medical men who have seen him. You will not forget it, and you will keep a guard over your conversation accordingly. Talking of medical men, have you ever tried the Golden Ointment for that sad affliction in your eyes? It has been described to me as an excellent remedy."
"It has not succeeded in my case," replied Magdalen, sharply. "Before I see Mr. Noel Vanstone," she continued, "may I inquire -- "
"I beg your pardon," interposed Mrs. Lecount. "Does your question refer in any way to those two poor girls?"
"It refers to the Misses Vanstone."
"Then I can't enter into it. Excuse me, I really can't discuss these poor girls (I am so glad to hear you call them the Misses Vanstone!) except in my master's presence, and by my master's express permission. Let us talk of something else while we are waiting here. Will you notice my glass Tank? I have every reason to believe that it is a perfect novelty in England."
"I looked at the tank while you were out of the room," said Magdalen.
"Did you? You take no interest in the subject, I dare say? Quite natural. I took no interest either until I was married. My dear husband -- dead many years since -- formed my tastes and elevated me to himself. You have heard of the late Professor Lecomte, the eminent Swiss naturalist? I am his widow. The English circle at Zurich (where I lived in my late master's service) Anglicized my name to Lecount. Your generous country people will have nothing foreign about them -not even a name, if they can help it. But I was speaking of my husband -- my dear husband, who permitted me to assist him in his pursuits. I have had only one interest since his death -- an interest in science. Eminent in many things, the professor was great at reptiles. He left me his Subjects and his Tank. I had no other legacy. There is the Tank. All the Subjects died but this quiet little fellow -- this nice little toad. Are you surprised at my liking him? There is nothing to be surprised at. The professor lived long enough to elevate me above the common prejudice against the reptile creation. Properly understood, the reptile creation is beautiful. Properly dissected, the reptile creation is instructive in the last degree." She stretched out her little finger, and gently stroked the toad's back with the tip of it. "So refreshing to the touch," said Mrs. Lecount -- "so nice and cool this summer weather!"
The bell from the parlor rang. Mrs. Lecount rose, bent fondly over the Aquarium, and chirruped to the toad at parting as if it had been a bird. "Mr. Vanstone is ready to receive you. Follow me, if you please, Miss Garth." With these words she opened the door, and led the way out of the room.Next