MRS. LECOUNT returned to the parlor, with the fragment of Magdalen's dress in one hand, and with Captain Wragge's letter in the other.
"Have you got rid of her?" asked Noel Vanstone. "Have you shut the door at last on Miss Garth?"
"Don't call her Miss Garth, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, smiling contemptuously. "She is as much Miss Garth as you are. We have been favored by the performance of a clever masquerade; and if we had taken the disguise off our visitor, I think we should have found under it Miss Vanstone herself. -- Here is a letter for you, sir, which the postman has just left."
She put the letter on the table within her master's reach. Noel Vanstone's amazement at the discovery just communicated to him kept his whole attention concentrated on the housekeeper's face. He never so much as looked at the letter when she placed it before him.
"Take my word for it, sir," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, composedly taking a chair. "When our visitor gets home she will put her gray hair away in a box, and will cure that sad affliction in her eyes with warm water and a sponge. If she had painted the marks on her face, as well as she painted the inflammation in her eyes, the light would have shown me nothing, and I should certainly have been deceived. But I saw the marks; I saw a young woman's skin under that dirty complexion of hers; I heard in this room a true voice in a passion, as well as a false voice talking with an accent, and I don't believe in one morsel of that lady's personal appearance from top to toe. The girl herself, in my opinion, Mr. Noel -- and a bold girl too."
"Why didn't you lock the door and send for the police?" asked Mr. Noel. "My father would have sent for the police. You know, as well as I do, Lecount, my father would have sent for the police."
"Pardon me, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "I think your father would have waited until he had got something more for the police to do than we have got for them yet. We shall see this lady again, sir. Perhaps she will come here next time with her own face and her own voice. I am curious to see what her own face is like. I am curious to know whether what I have heard of her voice in a passion is enough to make me recognize her voice when she is calm. I possess a little memorial of her visit of which she is not aware, and she will not escape me so easily as she thinks. If it turns out a useful memorial, you shall know what it is. If not, I will abstain from troubling you on so trifling a subject. -- Allow me to remind you, sir, of the letter under your hand. You have not looked at it yet."
Noel Vanstone opened the letter. He started as his eye fell on the first lines -- hesitated -- and then hurriedly read it through. The paper dropped from his hand, and he sank back in his chair. Mrs. Lecount sprang to her feet with the alacrity of a young woman and picked up the letter.
"What has happened, sir?" she asked. Her face altered as she put the question, and her large black eyes hardened fiercely, in genuine astonishment and alarm.
"Send for the police," exclaimed her master. "Lecount, I insist on being protected. Send for the police!"
"May I read the letter, sir?"
He feebly waved his hand. Mrs. Lecount read the letter attentively, and put it aside on the table, without a word, when she had done.
"Have you nothing to say to me?" asked Noel Vanstone, staring at his housekeeper in blank dismay. "Lecount, I'm to be robbed! The scoundrel who wrote that letter knows all about it, and won't tell me anything unless I pay him. I'm to be robbed! Here's property on this table worth thousands of pounds -- property that can never be replaced -- property that all the crowned heads in Europe could not produce if they tried. Lock me in, Lecount, and send for the police!"
Instead of sending for the police, Mrs. Lecount took a large green paper fan from the chimney-piece, and seated herself opposite her master.
"You are agitated, Mr. Noel," she said, "you are heated. Let me cool you."
With her face as hard as ever -- with less tenderness of look and manner than most women would have shown if they had been rescuing a half-drowned fly from a milk-jug -- she silently and patiently fanned him for five minutes or more. No practiced eye observing the peculiar bluish pallor of his complexion, and the marked difficulty with which he drew his breath, could have failed to perceive that the great organ of life was in this man, what the housekeeper had stated it to be, too weak for the function which it was called on to perform. The heart labored over its work as if it had been the heart of a worn-out old man.
"Are you relieved, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Can you think a little? Can you exercise your better judgment?"
She rose and put her hand over his heart with as much mechanical attention and as little genuine interest as if she had been feeling the plates at dinner to ascertain if they had been properly warmed. "Yes," she went on, seating herself again, and resuming the exercise of the fan; "you are getting better already, Mr. Noel. -- Don't ask me about this anonymous letter until you have thought for yourself, and have given your own opinion first." She went on with the fanning, and looked him hard in the face all the time. Think," she said; "think, sir, without troubling yourself to express your thoughts. Trust to my intimate sympathy with you to read them. Yes, Mr. Noel, this letter is a paltry attempt to frighten you. What does it say? It says you are the object of a conspiracy directed by Miss Vanstone. We know that already -- the lady of the inflamed eyes has told us. We snap our fingers at the conspiracy. What does the letter say next? It says the writer has valuable information to give you if you will pay for it. What did you call this person yourself just now, sir?"
"I called him a scoundrel," said Noel Vanstone, recovering his self-importance, and raising himself gradually in his chair.
"I agree with you in that, sir, as I agree in everything else," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "He is a scoundrel who really has this information and who means what he says, or he is a mouthpiece of Miss Vanstone's, and she has caused this letter to be written for the purpose of puzzling us by another form of disguise. Whether the letter is true, or whether the letter is false -- am I not reading your own wiser thoughts now, Mr. Noel? -- you know better than to put your enemies on their guard by employing the police in this matter too soon. I quite agree with you -- no police just yet. You will allow this anonymous man, or anonymous woman, to suppose you are easily frightened; you will lay a trap for the information in return for the trap laid for your money; you will answer the letter, and see what comes of the answer; and you will only pay the expense of employing the police when you know the expense is necessary. I agree with you again -- no expense, if we can help it. In every particular, Mr. Noel, my mind and your mind in this matter are one."
"It strikes you in that light, Lecount -- does it?" said Noel Vanstone. "I think so myself; I certainly think so. I won't pay the police a farthing if I can possibly help it. "He took up the letter again, and became fretfully perplexed over a second reading of it. "But the man wants money!" he broke out, impatiently. "You seem to forget, Lecount, that the man wants money."
"Money which you offer him, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount; "but -- as your thoughts have already anticipated -- money which you don't give him. No! no! you say to this man: 'Hold out your hand, sir;' and when he has held it, you give him a smack for his pains, and put your own hand back in your pocket. -- I am so glad to see you laughing, Mr. Noel! so glad to see you getting back your good spirits. We will answer the letter by advertisement, as the writer directs -advertisement is so cheap! Your poor hand is trembling a little -- shall I hold the pen for you? I am not fit to do more; but I can always promise to hold the pen."
Without waiting for his reply she went into the back parlor, and returned with pen, ink, and paper. Arranging a blotting-book on her knees, and looking a model of cheerful submission, she placed herself once more in front of her master's chair.
"Shall I write from your dictation, sir?" she inquired. "Or shall I make a little sketch, and will you correct it afterward? I will make a little sketch. Let me see the letter. We are to advertise in the Times, and we are to address 'An Unknown Friend.' What shall I say, Mr. Noel? Stay; I will write it, and then you can see for yourself: 'An Unknown Friend is requested to mention (by advertisement) an address at which a letter can reach him. The receipt of the information which he offers will be acknowledged by a reward of -- ' What sum of money do you wish me to set down, sir?"
"Set down nothing," said Noel Vanstone, with a sudden outbreak of impatience. "Money matters are my business -- I say money matters are my business, Lecount. Leave it to me."
"Certainly, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount, handing her master the blotting-book. "You will not forget to be liberal in offering money when you know beforehand you don't mean to part with it?"
"Don't dictate, Lecount! I won't submit to dictation!" said Noel Vanstone, asserting his own independence more and more impatiently. "I mean to conduct this business for myself. I am master, Lecount!"
"You are master, sir."
"My father was master before me. And I am my father's son. I tell you, Lecount, I am my father's son!"
Mrs. Lecount bowed submissively.
"I mean to set down any sum of money I think right, "pursued Noel Vanstone, nodding his little flaxen head vehemently. "I mean to send this advertisement myself. The servant shall take it to the stationer's to be put into the Times. When I ring the bell twice, send the servant. You understand, Lecount? Send the servant."
Mrs. Lecount bowed again and walked slowly to the door. She knew to a nicety when to lead her master and when to let him go alone. Experience had taught her to govern him in all essential points by giving way to him afterward on all points of minor detail. It was a characteristic of his weak nature -- as it is of all weak natures -- to assert itself obstinately on trifles. The f illing in of the blank in the advertisement was the trifle in this case; and Mrs. Lecoun t quieted her master's suspicions that she was leading him by instantly conceding it. "My mule has kicked," she thought to herself, in her own language, as she opened the door. "I can do no more with him to-day."
"Lecount!" cried her master, as she stepped into the passage. "Come back."
Mrs. Lecount came back.
"You're not offended with me, are you?" asked Noel Vanstone, uneasily.
"Certainly not, sir," replied Mrs. Lecount. "As you said just now -- you are master."
"Good creature! Give me your hand." He kissed her hand, and smiled in high approval of his own affectionate proceeding. "Lecount, you are a worthy creature!"
"Thank you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. She courtesied and went out. "If he had any brains in that monkey head of his," she said to herself in the passage, "what a rascal he would be!"
Left by himself, Noel Vanstone became absorbed in anxious reflection over the blank space in the advertisement. Mrs. Lecount's apparently superfluous hint to him to be liberal in offering money when he knew he had no intention of parting with it, had been founded on an intimate knowledge of his character. He had inherited his father's sordid love of money, without inheriting his father's hard-headed capacity for seeing the uses to which money can be put. His one idea in connection with his wealth was the idea of keeping it. He was such an inborn miser that the bare prospect of being liberal in theory only daunted him. He took up the pen; laid it down again; and read the anonymous letter for the third time, shaking his head over it suspiciously. "If I offer this man a large sum of money," he thought, on a sudden, "how do I know he may not find a means of actually making me pay it? Women are always in a hurry. Lecount is always in a hurry. I have got the afternoon before me -- I'll take the afternoon to consider it."
He fretfully put away the blotting-book and the sketch of the advertisement on the chair which Mrs. Lecount had just left. As he returned to his own seat, he shook his little head solemnly, and arranged his white dressing-gown over his knees with the air of a man absorbed in anxious thought. Minute after minute passed away; the quarters and the half-hours succeeded each other on the dial of Mrs. Lecount's watch, and still Noel Vanstone remained lost in doubt; still no summons for the servants disturbed the tranquillity of the parlor bell.
Meanwhile, after parting with Mrs. Lecount, Magdalen had cautiously abstained from crossing the road to her lodgings, and had only ventured to return after making a circuit in the neighborhood. When she found herself once more in Vauxhall Walk, the first object which attracted her attention was a cab drawn up before the door of the lodgings. A few steps more in advance showed her the landlady's daughter standing at the cab door engaged in a dispute with the driver on the subject of his fare. Noticing that the girl's back was turned toward her, Magdalen instantly profited by that circumstance and slipped unobserved into the house.
She glided along the passage, ascended the stairs, and found herself, on the first landing, face to face with her traveling companion! There stood Mrs. Wragge, with a pile of small parcels hugged up in her arms, anxiously waiting the issue of the dispute with the cabman in the street. To return was impossible -- the sound of the angry voices below was advancing into the passage. To hesitate was worse than useless. But one choice was left -- the choice of going on -- and Magdalen desperately took it. She pushed by Mrs. Wragge without a word, ran into her own room, tore off her cloak, bonnet and wig, and threw them down out of sight in the blank space between the sofa-bedstead and the wall.
For the first few moments, astonishment bereft Mrs. Wragge of the power of speech, and rooted her to the spot where she stood. Two out of the collection of parcels in her arms fell from them on the stairs. The sight of that catastrophe roused her. "Thieves!" cried Mrs. Wragge, suddenly struck by an idea. "Thieves!"
Magdalen heard her through the room door, which she had not had time to close completely. "Is that you, Mrs. Wragge?" she called out in her own voice. "What is the matter?" She snatched up a towel while she spoke, dipped it in water, and passed it rapidly over the lower part of her face. At the sound of the familiar voice Mrs. Wragge turned round -- dropped a third parcel -- and, forgetting it in her astonishment, ascended the second flight of stairs. Magdalen stepped out on the first-floor landing, with the towel held over her forehead as if she was suffering from headache. Her false eyebrows required time for their removal, and a headache assumed for the occasion suggested the most convenient pretext she could devise for hiding them as they were hidden now.
"What are you disturbing the house for?" she asked. "Pray be quiet; I am half blind with the headache."
"Anything wrong, ma'am?" inquired the landlady from the passage.
"Nothing whatever," replied Magdalen. "My friend is timid; and the dispute with the cabman has frightened her. Pay the man what he wants, and let him go."
"Where is She?" asked Mrs. Wragge, in a tremulous whisper. "Where's the woman who scuttled by me into your room?"
"Pooh!" said Magdalen. "No woman scuttled by you -- as you call it. Look in and see for yourself."
She threw open the door. Mrs. Wragge walked into the room -- looked all over it -- saw nobody -- and indicated her astonishment at the result by dropping a fourth parcel, and trembling helplessly from head to foot.
"I saw her go in here," said Mrs. Wragge, in awestruck accents. "A woman in a gray cloak and a poke bonnet. A rude woman. She scuttled by me on the stairs -she did. Here's the room, and no woman in it. Give us a Prayer-book!" cried Mrs. Wragge, turning deadly pale, and letting her whole remaining collection of parcels fall about her in a little cascade of commodities. "I want to read something Good. I want to think of my latter end. I've seen a Ghost!"
"Nonsense!" said Magdalen. "You're dreaming; the shopping has been too much for you. Go into your own room and take your bonnet off."
"I've heard tell of ghosts in night-gowns, ghosts in sheets, and ghosts in chains," proceeded Mrs. Wragge, standing petrified in her own magic circle of linen-drapers' parcels. "Here's a worse ghost than any of 'em -- a ghost in a gray cloak and a poke bonnet. I know what it is," continued Mrs. Wragge, melting into penitent tears. "It's a judgment on me for being so happy away from the captain. It's a judgment on me for having been down at heel in half the shops in London, first with one shoe and then with the other, all the time I've been out. I'm a sinful creature. Don't let go of me -- whatever you do, my dear, don't let go of me!" She caught Magdalen fast by the arm and fell into another trembling fit at the bare idea of being left by herself.
The one remaining chance in such an emergency as this was to submit to circumstances. Magdalen took Mrs. Wragge to a chair; having first placed it in such a position as might enable her to turn her back on her traveling-companion, while she removed the false eyebrows by the help of a little water. "Wait a minute there," she said, "and try if you can compose yourself while I bathe my head."
"Compose myself?" repeated Mrs. Wragge. "How am I to compose myself when my head feels off my shoulders? The worst Buzzing I ever had with the Cookery-book was nothing to the Buzzing I've got now with the Ghost. Here's a miserable end to a holiday! You may take me back again, my dear, whenever you like -- I've had enough of it already!"
Having at last succeeded in removing the eyebrows, Magdalen was free to combat the unfortunate impression produced on her companion's mind by every weapon of persuasion which her ingenuity could employ.
The attempt proved useless. Mrs. Wragge persisted -- on evidence which, it may be remarked in parenthesis, would have satisfied many wiser ghost-seers than herself -- in believing that she had been supernat urally favored by a visitor from the world of spirits. All that Magdalen could do was to ascertain, by cautious investigation, that Mrs. Wragge had not been quick enough to identify the supposed ghost with the character of the old North-country lady in the Entertainment. Having satisfied herself on this point, she had no resource but to leave the rest to the natural incapability of retaining impressions -- unless those impressions were perpetually renewed -- which was one of the characteristic infirmities of her companion's weak mind. After fortifying Mrs. Wragge by reiterated assurances that one appearance (according to all the laws and regulations of ghosts) meant nothing unless it was immediately followed by two more -- after patiently leading back her attention to the parcels dropped on the floor and on the stairs -- and after promising to keep the door of communication ajar between the two rooms if Mrs. Wragge would engage on her side to retire to her own chamber, and to say no more on the terrible subject of the ghost -- Magdalen at last secured the privilege of reflecting uninterruptedly on the events of that memorable day.
Two serious consequences had followed her first step forward. Mrs. Lecount had entrapped her into speaking in her own voice, and accident had confronted her with Mrs. Wragge in disguise.
What advantage had she gained to set against these disasters? The advantage of knowing more of Noel Vanstone and of Mrs. Lecount than she might have discovered in months if she had trusted to inquiries made for her by others. One uncertainty which had hitherto perplexed her was set at rest already. The scheme she had privately devised against Michael Vanstone -- which Captain Wragge's sharp insight had partially penetrated when she first warned him that their partnership must be dissolved -- was a scheme which she could now plainly see must be abandoned as hopeless, in the case of Michael Vanstone's son. The father's habits of speculation had been the pivot on which the whole machinery of her meditated conspiracy had been constructed to turn. No such vantage-ground was discoverable in the doubly sordid character of the son. Noel Vanstone was invulnerable on the very point which had presented itself in his father as open to attack.
Having reached this conclusion, how was she to shape her future course? What new means could she discover which would lead her secretly to her end, in defiance of Mrs. Lecount's malicious vigilance and Noel Vanstone's miserly distrust?
She was seated before the looking-glass, mechanically combing out her hair, while that all-important consideration occupied her mind. The agitation of the moment had raised a feverish color in her cheeks, and had brightened the light in her large gray eyes. She was conscious of looking her best; conscious how her beauty gained by contrast, after the removal of the disguise. Her lovely light brown hair looked thicker and softer than ever, now that it had escaped from its imprisonment under the gray wig. She twisted it this way and that, with quick, dexterous fingers; she laid it in masses on her shoulders; she threw it back from them in a heap and turned sidewise to see how it fell -- to see her back and shoulders freed from the artificial deformities of the padded cloak. After a moment she faced the looking-glass once more; plunged both hands deep in her hair; and, resting her elbows on the table, looked closer and closer at the reflection of herself, until her breath began to dim the glass. "I can twist any man alive round my finger," she thought, with a smile of superb triumph, "as long as I keep my looks! If that contemptible wretch saw me now -- " She shrank from following that thought to its end, with a sudden horror of herself: she drew back from the glass, shuddering, and put her hands over her face. "Oh, Frank!" she murmured, "but for you, what a wretch I might be!" Her eager fingers snatched the little white silk bag from its hiding-place in her bosom; her lips devoured it with silent kisses. "My darling! my angel! Oh, Frank, how I love you!" The tears gushed into her eyes. She passionately dried them, restored the bag to its place, and turned her back on the looking-glass. "No more of myself," she thought; "no more of my mad, miserable self for to-day!"
Shrinking from all further contemplation of her next step in advance -shrinking from the fast-darkening future, with which Noel Vanstone was now associated in her inmost thoughts -- she looked impatiently about the room for some homely occupation which might take her out of herself. The disguise which she had flung down between the wall and the bed recurred to her memory. It was impossible to leave it there. Mrs. Wragge (now occupied in sorting her parcels) might weary of her employment, might come in again at a moment's notice, might pass near the bed, and see the gray cloak. What was to be done?
Her first thought was to put the disguise back in her trunk. But after what had happened, there was danger in trusting it so near to herself while she and Mrs. Wragge were together under the same roof. She resolved to be rid of it that evening, and boldly determined on sending it back to Birmingham. Her bonnet-box fitted into her trunk. She took the box out, thrust in the wig and cloak, and remorselessly flattened down the bonnet at the top. The gown (which she had not yet taken off) was her own; Mrs. Wragge had been accustomed to see her in it -there was no need to send the gown back. Before closing the box, she hastily traced these lines on a sheet of paper: "I took the inclosed things away by mistake. Please keep them for me, with the rest of my luggage in your possession, until you hear from me again." Putting the paper on the top of the bonnet, she directed the box to Captain Wragge at Birmingham, took it downstairs immediately, and sent the landlady's daughter away with it to the nearest Receiving- house. "That difficulty is disposed of," she thought, as she went back to her own room again.
Mrs. Wragge was still occupied in sorting her parcels on her narrow little bed. She turned round with a faint scream when Magdalen looked in at her. "I thought it was the ghost again," said Mrs. Wragge. "I'm trying to take warning, my dear, by what's happened to me. I've put all my parcels straight, just as the captain would like to see 'em. I'm up at heel with both shoes. If I close my eyes to-night -- which I don't think I shall -- I'll go to sleep as straight as my legs will let me. And I'll never have another holiday as long as I live. I hope I shall be forgiven," said Mrs. Wragge, mournfully shaking her head. "I humbly hope I shall be forgiven."
"Forgiven!" repeated Magdalen. "If other women wanted as little forgiving as you do -- Well! well! Suppose you open some of these parcels. Come! I want to see what you have been buying to-day."
Mrs. Wragge hesitated, sighed penitently, considered a little, stretched out her hand timidly toward one of the parcels, thought of the supernatural warning, and shrank back from her own purchases with a desperate exertion of self-control.
"Open this one." said Magdalen, to encourage her: "what is it?"
Mrs. Wragge's faded blue eyes began to brighten dimly, in spite of her remorse; but she self-denyingly shook her head. The master-passion of shopping might claim his own again -- but the ghost was not laid yet.
"Did you get it at a bargain?" asked Magdalen, confidentially.
"Dirt cheap!" cried poor Mrs. Wragge, falling headlong into the snare, and darting at the parcel as eagerly as if nothing had happened.
Magdalen kept her gossiping over her purchases for an hour or more, and then wisely determined to distract her attention from all ghostly recollections in another way by taking her out for a walk.
As they left the lodgings, the door of Noel Vanstone's house opened, and the woman-servant appeared, bent on another errand. She was apparently charged with a letter on this occasion which she carried carefully in her hand. Conscious of having formed no plan yet either for attack or defense, Magdalen wondered, with a momentary dread, whether Mrs. Lecount had decided already on opening fresh communications, and whether the letter was directed to "Miss Garth."
The let ter bore no such address. Noel Vanstone had solved his pecuniary problem at last. The blank space in the advertisement was filled up, and Mrs. Lecount's acknowledgment of the captain's anonymous warning was now on its way to insertion in the Times.Next