ON returning to Sea View, Noel Vanstone executed the instructions which prescribed his line of conduct for the first of the five days with unimpeachable accuracy. A faint smile of contempt hovered about Mrs. Lecount's lips while the story of Mr. Bygrave's attempt to pass off his spurious pictures as originals was in progress, but she did not trouble herself to utter a single word of remark when it had come to an end. "Just what I said!" thought Noel Vanstone, cunningly watching her face; "she doesn't believe a word of it!"
The next day the meeting occurred on the Parade. Mr. Bygrave took off his hat, and Noel Vanstone looked the other way. The captain's start of surprise and scowl of indignation were executed to perfection, but they plainly failed to impose on Mrs. Lecount. "I am afraid, sir, you have offended Mr. Bygrave to-day," she ironically remarked. "Happily for you, he is an excellent Christian! and I venture to predict that he will forgive you to-morrow."
Noel Vanstone wisely refrained from committing himself to an answer. Once more he privately applauded his own penetration; once more he triumphed over his ingenious friend.
Thus far the captain's instructions had been too clear and simple to be mistaken by any one. But they advanced in complication with the advance of time, and on the third day Noel Vanstone fell confusedly into the commission of a slight error. After expressing the necessary weariness of Aldborough, and the consequent anxiety for change of scene, he was met (as he had anticipated) by an immediate suggestion from the housekeeper, recommending a visit to St. Crux. In giving his answer to the advice thus tendered, he made his first mistake. Instead of deferring his decision until the next day, he accepted Mrs. Lecount's suggestion on the day when it was offered to him.
The consequences of this error were of no great importance. The housekeeper merely set herself to watch her master one day earlier than had been calculated on -- a result which had been already provided for by the wise precautionary measure of forbidding Noel Vanstone all communication with North Shingles. Doubting, as Captain Wragge had foreseen, the sincerity of her master's desire to break off his connection with the Bygraves by going to St. Crux, Mrs. Lecount tested the truth or falsehood of the impression produced on her own mind by vigilantly watching for sign s of secret communication on one side or on the other. The close attention with which she had hit herto observed the out-goings and in-comings at North Shingles was now entirely transferred to her master. For the rest of that third day she never let him out of her sight; she never allowed any third person who came to the house, on any pretense whatever, a minute's chance of private communication with him. At intervals through the night she stole to the door of his room, to listen and assure herself that he was in bed; and before sunrise the next morning, the coast-guardsman going his rounds was surprised to see a lady who had risen as early as himself engaged over her work at one of the upper windows of Sea View.
On the fourth morning Noel Vanstone came down to breakfast conscious of the mistake that he had committed on the previous day. The obvious course to take, for the purpose of gaining time, was to declare that his mind was still undecided. He made the assertion boldly when the housekeeper asked him if he meant to move that day. Again Mrs. Lecount offered no remark, and again the signs and tokens of incredulity showed themselves in her face. Vacillation of purpose was not at all unusual in her experience of her master. But on this occasion she believed that his caprice of conduct was assumed for the purpose of gaining time to communicate with North Shingles, and she accordingly set her watch on him once more with doubled and trebled vigilance.
No letters came that morning. Toward noon the weather changed for the worse, and all idea of walking out as usual was abandoned. Hour after hour, while her master sat in one of the parlors, Mrs. Lecount kept watch in the other, with the door into the passage open, and with a full view of North Shingles through the convenient side-window at which she had established herself. Not a sign that was suspicious appeared, not a sound that was suspicious caught her ear. As the evening closed in, her master's hesitation came to an end. He was disgusted with the weather; he hated the place; he foresaw the annoyance of more meetings with Mr. Bygrave, and he was determined to go to St. Crux the first thing the next morning. Lecount could stay behind to pack up the curiosities and settle with the trades-people, and could follow him to the admiral's on the next day. The housekeeper was a little staggered by the tone and manner in which he gave these orders. He had, to her own certain knowledge, effected no communication of any sort with North Shingles, and yet he seemed determined to leave Aldborough at the earliest possible opportunity. For the first time she hesitated in her adherence to her own conclusions. She remembered that her master had complained of the Bygraves before they returned to Aldborough; and she was conscious that her own incredulity had once already misled her when the appearance of the traveling-carriage at the door had proved even Mr. Bygrave himself to be as good as his word.
Still Mrs. Lecount determined to act with unrelenting caution to the last. That night, when the doors were closed, she privately removed the keys from the door in front and the door at the back. She then softly opened her bedroom window and sat down by it, with her bonnet and cloak on, to prevent her taking cold. Noel Vanstone's window was on the same side of the house as her own. If any one came in the dark to speak to him from the garden beneath, they would speak to his housekeeper as well. Prepared at all points to intercept every form of clandestine communication which stratagem could invent, Mrs. Lecount watched through the quiet night. When morning came, she stole downstairs before the servant was up, restored the keys to their places, and re-occupied her position in the parlor until Noel Vanstone made his appearance at the breakfast-table. Had he altered his mind? No. He declined posting to the railway on account of the expense, but he was as firm as ever in his resolution to go to St. Crux. He desired that an inside place might be secured for him in the early coach. Suspicious to the last, Mrs. Lecount sent the baker's man to take the place. He was a public servant, and Mr. Bygrave would not suspect him of performing a private errand.
The coach called at Sea View. Mrs. Lecount saw her master established in his place, and ascertained that the other three inside seats were already occupied by strangers. She inquired of the coachman if the outside places (all of which were not yet filled up) had their full complement of passengers also. The man replied in the affirmative. He had two gentlemen to call for in the town, and the others would take their places at the inn. Mrs. Lecount forthwith turned her steps toward the inn, and took up her position on the Parade opposite from a point of view which would enable her to see the last of the coach on its departure. In ten minutes more it rattled away, full outside and in; and the housekeeper's own eyes assured her that neither Mr. Bygrave himself, nor any one belonging to North Shingles, was among the passengers.
There was only one more precaution to take, and Mrs. Lecount did not neglect it. Mr. Bygrave had doubtless seen the coach call at Sea View. He might hire a carriage and follow it to the railway on pure speculation. Mrs. Lecount remained within view of the inn
(the only place at which a carriage could be obtained) for nearly an hour longer, waiting for events. Nothing happened; no carriage made its appearance; no pursuit of Noel Vanstone was now within the range of human possibility. The long strain on Mrs. Lecount's mind relaxed at last. She left her seat on the Parade, and returned in higher spirits than usual, to perform the closing household ceremonies at Sea View.
She sat down alone in the parlor and drew a long breath of relief. Captain Wragge's calculations had not deceived him. The evidence of her own senses had at last conquered the housekeeper's incredulity, and had literally forced her into the opposite extreme of belief.
Estimating the events of the last three days from her own experience of them; knowing (as she certainly knew) that the first idea of going to St. Crux had been started by herself, and that her master had found no opportunity and shown no inclination to inform the family at North Shingles that he had accepted her proposal, Mrs. Lecount was fairly compelled to acknowledge that not a fragment of foundation remained to justify the continued suspicion of treachery in her own mind. Looking at the succession of circumstances under the new light thrown on them by results, she could see nothing unaccountable, nothing contradictory anywhere. The attempt to pass off the forged pictures as originals was in perfect harmony with the character of such a man as Mr. Bygrave. Her master's indignation at the attempt to impose on him; his plainly-expressed suspicion that Miss Bygrave was privy to it; his disappointment in the niece; his contemptuous treatment of the uncle on the Parade; his weariness of the place which had been the scene of his rash intimacy with strangers, and his readiness to quit it that morning, all commended themselves as genuine realities to the housekeeper's mind, for one sufficient reason. Her own eyes had seen Noel Vanstone take his departure from Aldborough without leaving, or attempting to leave, a single trace behind him for the Bygraves to follow.
Thus far the housekeeper's conclusions led her, but no further. She was too shrewd a woman to trust the future to chance and fortune. Her master's variable temper might relent. Accident might at any time give Mr. Bygrave an opportunity of repairing the error that he had committed, and of artfully regaining his lost place in Noel Vanstone's estimation. Admitting that circumstances had at last declared themselves unmistakably in her favor, Mrs. Lecount was not the less convinced that nothing would permanently assure her master's security for the future but the plain exposure of the conspiracy which she had striven to accomplish from the first -- which she was resolved to accomplish still.
"I always enjoy myself at St. Crux," thought Mrs. Lecount, opening her account-bo oks, and sorting the tradesmen's bills. "The admiral is a gentleman, the house is noble, the tab le is excellent. No matter! Here at Sea View I stay by myself till I have seen the inside of Miss Bygrave's wardrobe."
She packed her master's collection of curiosities in their various cases, settled the claims of the trades-people, and superintended the covering of the furniture in the course of the day. Toward nightfall she went out, bent on investigation, and ventured into the garden at North Shingles under cover of the darkness. She saw the light in the parlor window, and the lights in the windows of the rooms upstairs, as usual. After an instant's hesitation she stole to the house door, and noiselessly tried the handle from the outside. It turned the lock as she had expected, from her experience of houses at Aldborough and at other watering-places, but the door resisted her; the door was distrustfully bolted on the inside. After making that discovery, she went round to the back of the house, and ascertained that the door on that side was secured in the same manner. "Bolt your doors, Mr. Bygrave, as fast as you like," said the housekeeper, stealing back again to the Parade. "You can't bolt the entrance to your servant's pocket. The best lock you have may be opened by a golden key."
She went back to bed. The ceaseless watching, the unrelaxing excitement of the last two days, had worn her out.
The next morning she rose at seven o'clock. In half an hour more she saw the punctual Mr. Bygrave -- as she had seen him on many previous mornings at the same time -- issue from the gate of North Shingles, with his towels under his arm, and make his way to a boat that was waiting for him on the beach. Swimming was one among the many personal accomplishments of which the captain was master. He was rowed out to sea every morning, and took his bath luxuriously in the deep blue water. Mrs. Lecount had already computed the time consumed in this recreation by her watch, and had discovered that a full hour usually elapsed from the moment when he embarked on the beach to the moment when he returned.
During that period she had never seen any other inhabitant of North Shingles leave the house. The servant was no doubt at her work in the kitchen; Mrs. Bygrave was probably still in her bed; and Miss Bygrave (if she was up at that early hour) had perhaps received directions not to venture out in her uncle's absence. The difficulty of meeting the obstacle of Magdalen's presence in the house had been, for some days past, the one difficulty which all Mrs. Lecount's ingenuity had thus far proved unable to overcome.
She sat at the window for a quarter of an hour after the captain's boat had left the beach with her mind hard at work, and her eyes fixed mechanically on North Shingles -- she sat considering what written excuse she could send to her master for delaying her departure from Aldborough for some days to come -- when the door of the house she was watching suddenly opened, and Magdalen herself appeared in the garden. There was no mistaking her figure and her dress. She took a few steps hastily toward the gate, stopped and pulled down the veil of her garden hat as if she felt the clear morning light too much for her, then hurried out on the Parade and walked away northward, in such haste, or in such pre-occupation of mind, that she went through the garden gate without closing it after her.
Mrs. Lecount started up from her chair with a moment's doubt of the evidence of her own eyes. Had the opportunity which she had been vainly plotting to produce actually offered itself to her of its own accord? Had the chances declared themselves at last in her favor, after steadily acting against her for so long? There was no doubt of it: in the popular phrase, "her luck had turned." She snatched up her bonnet and mantilla, and made for North Shingles without an instant's hesitation. Mr. Bygrave out at sea; Miss Bygrave away for a walk; Mrs. Bygrave and the servant both at home, and both easily dealt with -- the opportunity was not to be lost; the risk was well worth running!
This time the house door was easily opened: no one had bolted it again after Magdalen's departure. Mrs. Lecount closed the door softly, listened for a moment in the passage, and heard the servant noisily occupied in the kitchen with her pots and pans. "If my lucky star leads me straight into Miss Bygrave's room," thought the housekeeper, stealing noiselessly up the stairs, "I may find my way to her wardrobe without disturbing anybody."
She tried the door nearest to the front of the house on the right-hand side of the landing. Capricious chance had deserted her already. The lock was turned. She tried the door opposite, on her left hand. The boots ranged symmetrically in a row, and the razors on the dressing-table, told her at once that she had not found the right room yet. She returned to the right-hand side of the landing, walked down a little passage leading to the back of the house, and tried a third door. The door opened, and the two opposite extremes of female humanity, Mrs. Wragge and Mrs. Lecount, stood face to face in an instant!
"I beg ten thousand pardons!" said Mrs. Lecount, with the most consummate self-possession.
"Lord bless us and save us!" cried Mrs. Wragge, with the most helpless amazement.
The two exclamations were uttered in a moment, and in that moment Mrs. Lecount took the measure of her victim. Nothing of the least importance escaped her. She noticed the Oriental Cashmere Robe lying half made, and half unpicked again, on the table; she noticed the imbecile foot of Mrs. Wragge searching blindly in the neighborhood of her chair for a lost shoe; she noticed that there was a second door in the room besides the door by which she had entered, and a second chair within easy reach, on which she might do well to seat herself in a friendly and confidential way. "Pray don't resent my intrusion," pleaded Mrs. Lecount, taking the chair. "Pray allow me to explain myself!"
Speaking in her softest voice, surveying Mrs. Wragge with a sweet smile on her insinuating lips, and a melting interest in her handsome black eyes, the housekeeper told her little introductory series of falsehoods with an artless truthfulness of manner which the Father of Lies himself might have envied. She had heard from Mr. Bygrave that Mrs. Bygrave was a great invalid; she had constantly reproached herself, in her idle half-hours at Sea View
(where she filled the situation of Mr. Noel Vanstone's housekeeper), for not having offered her friendly services to Mrs. Bygrave; she had been directed by her master (doubtless well known to Mrs. Bygrave, as one of her husband's friends, and, naturally, one of her charming niece's admirers), to join him that day at the residence to which he had removed from Aldborough; she was obliged to leave early, but she could not reconcile it to her conscience to go without calling to apologize for her apparent want of neighborly consideration; she had found nobody in the house; she had not been able to make the servant hear; she had presumed (not discovering that apartment downstairs) that Mrs. Bygrave's boudoir might be on the upper story; she had thoughtlessly committed an intrusion of which she was sincerely ashamed, and she could now only trust to Mrs. Bygrave's indulgence to excuse and forgive her.
A less elaborate apology might have served Mrs. Lecount's purpose. As soon as Mrs. Wragge's struggling perceptions had grasped the fact that her unexpected visitor was a neighbor well known to her by repute, her whole being became absorbed in admiration of Mrs. Lecount's lady-like manners, and Mrs. Lecount's perfectly-fitting gown! "What a noble way she has of talking!" thought poor Mrs. Wragge, as the housekeeper reached her closing sentence. "And, oh my heart alive, how nicely she's dressed!"
"I see I disturb you," pursued Mrs. Lecount, artfully availing herself of the Oriental Cashmere Robe as a means ready at hand of reaching the end she had in view -- "I see I disturb you, ma'am, over an occupation which, I know by experience, requires the closest attention. Dear, dear me, you are un picking the dress again, I see, after it has been made! This is my own experience again, Mrs. B ygrave. Some dresses are so obstinate! Some dresses seem to say to one, in so many words, 'No! you may do what you like with me; I won't fit!'"
Mrs. Wragge was greatly struck by this happy remark. She burst out laughing, and clapped her great hands in hearty approval.
"That's what this gown has been saying to me ever since I first put the scissors into it," she exclaimed, cheerfully. "I know I've got an awful big back, but that's no reason. Why should a gown be weeks on hand, and then not meet behind you after all? It hangs over my Boasom like a sack -- it does. Look here, ma'am, at the skirt. It won't come right. It draggles in front, and cocks up behind. It shows my heels -- and, Lord knows, I get into scrapes enough about my heels, without showing them into the bargain!"
"May I ask a favor?" inquired Mrs. Lecount, confidentially. "May I try, Mrs. Bygrave, if I can make my experience of any use to you? I think our bosoms, ma'am, are our great difficulty. Now, this bosom of yours? -- Shall I say in plain words what I think? This bosom of yours is an Enormous Mistake!"
"Don't say that!" cried Mrs. Wragge, imploringly. "Don't please, there's a good soul! It's an awful big one, I know; but it's modeled, for all that, from one of Magdalen's own."
She was far too deeply interested on the subject of the dress to notice that she had forgotten herself already, and that she had referred to Magdalen by her own name. Mrs. Lecount's sharp ears detected the mistake the instant it was committed. "So! so!" she thought. "One discovery already. If I had ever doubted my own suspicions, here is an estimable lady who would now have set me right. -I beg your pardon," she proceeded, aloud, "did you say this was modeled from one of your niece's dresses?"
"Yes," said Mrs. Wragge. "It's as like as two peas."
"Then," replied Mrs. Lecount, adroitly, "there must be some serious mistake in the making of your niece's dress. Can you show it to me?"
"Bless your heart -- yes!" cried Mrs. Wragge. "Step this way, ma'am; and bring the gown along with you, please. It keeps sliding off, out of pure aggravation, if you lay it out on the table. There's lots of room on the bed in here."
She opened the door of communication and led the way eagerly into Magdalen's room. As Mrs. Lecount followed, she stole a look at her watch. Never before had time flown as it flew that morning! In twenty minutes more Mr. Bygrave would be back from his bath.
"There!" said Mrs. Wragge, throwing open the wardrobe, and taking a dress down from one of the pegs. "Look there! There's plaits on her Boasom, and plaits on mine. Six of one and half a dozen of the other; and mine are the biggest -that's all!"
Mrs. Lecount shook her head gravely, and entered forthwith into subtleties of disquisition on the art of dressmaking which had the desired effect of utterly bewildering the proprietor of the Oriental Cashmere Robe in less than three minutes.
"Don't!" cried Mrs. Wragge, imploringly. "Don't go on like that! I'm miles behind you; and my head's Buzzing already. Tell us, like a good soul, what's to be done. You said something about the pattern just now. Perhaps I'm too big for the pattern? I can't help it if I am. Many's the good cry I had, when I was a growing girl, over my own size! There's half too much of me, ma'am -- measure me along or measure me across, I don't deny it -- there's half too much of me, anyway."
"My dear madam," protested Mrs. Lecount, "you do yourself a wrong! Permit me to assure you that you possess a commanding figure -- a figure of Minerva. A majestic simplicity in the form of a woman imperatively demands a majestic simplicity in the form of that woman's dress. The laws of costume are classical; the laws of costume must not be trifled with! Plaits for Venus, puffs for Juno, folds for Minerva. I venture to suggest a total change of pattern. Your niece has other dresses in her collection. Why may we not find a Minerva pattern among them?"
As she said those words, she led the way back to the wardrobe.
Mrs. Wragge followed, and took the dresses out one by one, shaking her head despondently. Silk dresses appeared, muslin dresses appeared. The one dress which remained invisible was the dress of which Mrs. Lecount was in search.
"There's the lot of 'em," said Mrs. Wragge. "They may do for Venus and the two other Ones (I've seen 'em in picters without a morsel of decent linen among the three), but they won't do for Me."
"Surely there is another dress left?" said Mrs. Lecount, pointing to the wardrobe, but touching nothing in it. "Surely I see something hanging in the corner behind that dark shawl?"
Mrs. Wragge removed the shawl; Mrs. Lecount opened the door of the wardrobe a little wider. There -- hitched carelessly on the innermost peg -- there, with its white spots, and its double flounce, was the brown Alpaca dress!
The suddenness and completeness of the discovery threw the housekeeper, practiced dissembler as she was, completely off her guard. She started at the sight of the dress. The instant afterward her eyes turned uneasily toward Mrs. Wragge. Had the start been observed? It had passed entirely unnoticed. Mrs. Wragge's whole attention was fixed on the Alpaca dress: she was staring at it incomprehensibly, with an expression of the utmost dismay.
"You seem alarmed, ma'am," said Mrs. Lecount. "What is there in the wardrobe to frighten you?"
"I'd have given a crown piece out of my pocket," said Mrs. Wragge, "not to have set my eyes on that gown. It had gone clean out of my head, and now it's come back again. Cover it up!" cried Mrs. Wragge, throwing the shawl over the dress in a sudden fit of desperation. "If I look at it much longer, I shall think I'm back again in Vauxhall Walk!"
Vauxhall Walk! Those two words told Mrs. Lecount she was on the brink of another discovery. She stole a second look at her watch. There was barely ten minutes to spare before the time when Mr. Bygrave might return; there was not one of those ten minutes which might not bring his niece back to the house. Caution counseled Mrs. Lecount to go, without running any more risks. Curiosity rooted her to the spot, and gave the courage to stay at all hazards until the time was up. Her amiable smile began to harden a little as she probed her way tenderly into Mrs. Wragge's feeble mind.
"You have some unpleasant remembrances of Vauxhall Walk?" she said, with the gentlest possible tone of inquiry in her voice. "Or perhaps I should say, unpleasant remembrances of that dress belonging to your niece?"
"The last time I saw her with that gown on," said Mrs. Wragge, dropping into a chair and beginning to tremble, "was the time when I came back from shopping and saw the Ghost."
"The Ghost?" repeated Mrs. Lecount, clasping her hands in graceful astonishment. "Dear madam, pardon me! Is there such a thing in the world? Where did you see it? In Vauxhall Walk? Tell me -- you are the first lady I ever met with who has seen a ghost -- pray tell me!"
Flattered by the position of importance which she had suddenly assumed in the housekeeper's eyes, Mrs. Wragge entered at full length into the narrative of her supernatural adventure. The breathless eagerness with which Mrs. Lecount listened to her description of the specter's costume, the specter's hurry on the stairs, and the specter's disappearance in the bedroom; the extraordinary interest which Mrs. Lecount displayed on hearing that the dress in the wardrobe was the very dress in which Magdalen happened to be attired at the awful moment when the ghost vanished, encouraged Mrs. Wragge to wade deeper and deeper into details, and to involve herself in a confusion of collateral circumstances out of which there seemed to be no prospect of her emerging for hours to come. Faster and faster the inexorable minutes flew by; nearer and nearer came the fatal moment of Mr. Bygrave's return. Mrs. Lecount looked at her watch for the third time, without an attempt on this occasion to conceal the action from her companion's notice. There were literally two minutes left for her to get clear of North Shingles. Two minutes would be enough, if no accident happened. She had discov ered the Alpaca dress; she had heard the whole story of the adventure in Vauxhall Walk; and, more than that, she had even informed herself of the number of the house -- which Mrs. Wragge happened to remember, because it answered to the number of years in her own age. All that was necessary to her master's complete enlightenment she had now accomplished. Even if there had been time to stay longer, there was nothing worth staying for. "I'll strike this worthy idiot dumb with a coup d'etat," thought the housekeeper, "and vanish before she recovers herself."
"Horrible!" cried Mrs. Lecount, interrupting the ghostly narrative by a shrill little scream and making for the door, to Mrs. Wragge's unutterable astonishment, without the least ceremony. "You freeze the very marrow of my bones. Good-morning!" She coolly tossed the Oriental Cashmere Robe into Mrs. Wragge's expansive lap and left the room in an instant.
As she swiftly descended the stairs, she heard the door of the bedroom open.
"Where are your manners?" cried a voice from above, hailing her feebly over the banisters. "What do you mean by pitching my gown at me in that way? You ought to be ashamed of yourself!" pursued Mrs. Wragge, turning from a lamb to a lioness, as she gradually realized the indignity offered to the Cashmere Robe. "You nasty foreigner, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!"
Pursued by this valedictory address, Mrs. Lecount reached the house door, and opened it without interruption. She glided rapidly along the garden path, passed through the gate, and finding herself safe on the Parade, stopped, and looked toward the sea.
The first object which her eyes encountered was the figure of Mr. Bygrave standing motionless on the beach -- a petrified bather, with his towels in his hand! One glance at him was enough to show that he had seen the housekeeper passing out through his garden gate.
Rightly conjecturing that Mr. Bygrave's first impulse would lead him to make instant inquiries in his own house, Mrs. Lecount pursued her way back to Sea View as composedly as if nothing had happened. When she entered the parlor where her solitary breakfast was waiting for her, she was surprised to see a letter lying on the table. She approached to take it up with an expression of impatience, thinking it might be some tradesman's bill which she had forgotten.
It was the forged letter from Zurich.Next