THE postmark and the handwriting on the address (admirably imitated from the original) warned Mrs. Lecount of the contents of the letter before she opened it.
After waiting a moment to compose herself, she read the announcement of her brother's relapse.
There was nothing in the handwriting, there was no expression in any part of the letter which could suggest to her mind the faintest suspicion of foul play. Not the shadow of a doubt occurred to her that the summons to her brother's bedside was genuine. The hand that held the letter dropped heavily into her lap; she became pale, and old, and haggard in a moment. Thoughts, far removed from her present aims and interests; remembrances that carried her back to other lands than England, to other times than the time of her life in service, prolonged their inner shadows to the surface, and showed the traces of their mysterious passage darkly on her face. The minutes followed each other, and still the servant below stairs waited vainly for the parlor bell. The minutes followed each other, and still she sat, tearless and quiet, dead to the present and the future, living in the past.
The entrance of the servant, uncalled, roused her. With a heavy sigh, the cold and secret woman folded the letter up again and addressed herself to the interests and the duties of the passing time.
She decided the question of going or not going to Zurich, after a very brief consideration of it. Before she had drawn her chair to the breakfast-table she had resolved to go.
Admirably as Captain Wragge's stratagem had worked, it might have failed -unassisted by the occurrence of the morning -- to achieve this result. The very accident against which it had been the captain's chief anxiety to guard -- the accident which had just taken place in spite of him -- was, of all the events that could have happened, the one event which falsified every previous calculation, by directly forwarding the main purpose of the conspiracy! If Mrs. Lecount had not obtained the information of which she was in search before the receipt of the letter from Zurich, the letter might have addressed her in vain. She would have hesitated before deciding to leave England, and that hesitation might have proved fatal to the captain's scheme.
As it was, with the plain proofs in her possession, with the gown discovered in Magdalen's wardrobe, with the piece cut out of it in her own pocketbook, and with the knowledge, obtained from Mrs. Wragge, of the very house in which the disguise had been put on, Mrs. Lecount had now at her command the means of warning Noel Vanstone as she had never been able to warn him yet, or, in other words, the means of guarding against any dangerous tendencies toward reconciliation with the Bygraves which might otherwise have entered his mind during her absence at Zurich. The only difficulty which now perplexed her was the difficulty of deciding whether she should communicate with her master personally or by writing, before her departure from England.
She looked again at the doctor's letter. The word "instantly," in the sentence which summoned her to her dying brother, was twice underlined. Admiral Bartram's house was at some distance from the railway; the time consumed in driving to St. Crux, and driving back again, might be time fatally lost on the journey to Zurich. Although she would infinitely have preferred a personal interview with Noel Vanstone, there was no choice on a matter of life and death but to save the precious hours by writing to him.
After sending to secure a place at once in the early coach, she sat down to write to her master.
Her first thought was to tell him all that had happened at North Shingles that morning. On reflection, however, she rejected the idea. Once already (in copying the personal description from Miss Garth's letter) she had trusted her weapons in her master's hands, and Mr. Bygrave had contrived to turn them against her. She resolved this time to keep them strictly in her own possession. The secret of the missing fragment of the Alpaca dress was known to no living creature but herself; and, until her return to England, she determined to keep it to herself. The necessary impression might be produced on Noel Vanstone's mind without venturing into details. She knew by experience the form of letter which might be trusted to produce an effect on him, and she now wrote it in these words:
"DEAR MR. NOEL -- Sad news has reached me from Switzerland. My beloved brother is dying and his medical attendant summons me instantly to Zurich. The serious necessity of availing myself of the earliest means of conveyance to the Continent leaves me but one alternative. I must profit by the permission to leave England, if necessary, which you kindly granted to me at the beginning of my brother's illness, and I must avoid all delay by going straight to London, instead of turning aside, as I should have liked, to see you first at St. Crux.
"Painfully as I am affected by the family calamity which has fallen on me, I cannot let this opportunity pass without adverting to another subject which seriously concerns your welfare, and in which (on that account) your old housekeeper feels the deepest interest.
"I am going to surprise and shock you, Mr. Noel. Pray don't be agitated! pray compose yourself!
"The impudent attempt to cheat you, which has happily opened your eyes to the true character of our neighbors at North Shingles, was not the only object which Mr. Bygrave had in forcing himself on your acquaintance. The infamous conspiracy with which you were threatened in London has been in full progress against you under Mr. Bygrave's direction, at Aldborough. Accident -- I will tell you what accident when we meet -- has put me in possession of i nformation precious to your future security. I have discovered, to an absolute certainty, that the person calling herself Miss Bygrave is no other than the woman who visited us in disguise at Vauxhall Walk.
"I suspected this from the first, but I had no evidence to support my suspicions; I had no means of combating the false impression produced on you. My hands, I thank Heaven, are tied no longer. I possess absolute proof of the assertion that I have just made -- proof that your own eyes can see -- proof that would satisfy you, if you were judge in a Court of Justice.
"Perhaps even yet, Mr. Noel, you will refuse to believe me? Be it so. Believe me or not, I have one last favor to ask, which your English sense of fair play will not deny me.
"This melancholy journey of mine will keep me away from England for a fortnight, or, at most, for three weeks. You will oblige me -- and you will certainly not sacrifice your own convenience and pleasure -- by staying through that interval with your friends at St. Crux. If, before my return, some unexpected circumstance throws you once more into the company of the Bygraves, and if your natural kindness of heart inclines you to receive the excuses which they will, in that case, certainly address to you, place one trifling restraint on yourself, for your own sake, if not for mine. Suspend your flirtation with the young lady (I beg pardon of all other young ladies for calling her so!) until my return. If, when I come back, I fail to prove to you that Miss Bygrave is the woman who wore that disguise, and used those threatening words, in Vauxhall Wall, I will engage to leave your service at a day's notice; and I will atone for the sin of bearing false witness against my neighbor by resigning every claim I have to your grateful remembrance, on your father's account as well as on your own. I make this engagement without reserves of any kind; and I promise to abide by it -- if my proofs fail -- on the faith of a good Catholic, and the word of an honest woman. Your faithful servant,
The closing sentences of this letter -- as the housekeeper well knew when she wrote them -- embodied the one appeal to Noel Vanstone which could be certainly trusted to produce a deep and lasting effect. She might have staked her oath, her life, or her reputation, on proving the assertion which she had made, and have failed to leave a permanent impression on his mind. But when she staked not only her position in his service, but her pecuniary claims on him as well, she at once absorbed the ruling passion of his life in expectation of the result. There was not a doubt of it, in the strongest of all his interests -- the interest of saving his money -- he would wait.
"Checkmate for Mr. Bygrave!" thought Mrs. Lecount, as she sealed and directed the letter. The battle is over -- the game is played out."
While Mrs. Lecount was providing for her master's future security at Sea View, events were in full progress at North Shingles.
As soon as Captain Wragge recovered his astonishment at the housekeeper's appearance on his own premises, he hurried into the house, and, guided by his own forebodings of the disaster that had happened, made straight for his wife's room.
Never, in all her former experience, had poor Mrs. Wragge felt the full weight of the captain's indignation as she felt it now. All the little intelligence she naturally possessed vanished at once in the whirlwind of her husband's rage. The only plain facts which he could extract from her were two in number. In the first place, Magdalen's rash desertion of her post proved to have no better reason to excuse it than Magdalen's incorrigible impatience: she had passed a sleepless night; she had risen feverish and wretched; and she had gone out, reckless of all consequences, to cool her burning head in the fresh air. In the second place, Mrs. Wragge had, on her own confession, seen Mrs. Lecount, had talked with Mrs. Lecount, and had ended by telling Mrs. Lecount the story of the ghost. Having made these discoveries, Captain Wragge wasted no time in contending with his wife's terror and confusion. He withdrew at once to a window which commanded an uninterrupted prospect of Noel Vanstone's house, and there established himself on the watch for events at Sea View, precisely as Mrs. Lecount had established herself on the watch for events at North Shingles.
Not a word of comment on the disaster of the morning escaped him when Magdalen returned and found him at his post. His flow of language seemed at last to have run dry. "I told you what Mrs. Wragge would do," he said, "and Mrs. Wragge has done it." He sat unflinchingly at the window with a patience which Mrs. Lecount herself could not have surpassed. The one active proceeding in which he seemed to think it necessary to engage was performed by deputy. He sent the servant to the inn to hire a chaise and a fast horse, and to say that he would call himself before noon that day and tell the hostler when the vehicle would be wanted. Not a sign of impatience escaped him until the time drew near for the departure of the early coach. Then the captain's curly lips began to twitch with anxiety, and the captain's restless fingers beat the devil's tattoo unremittingly on the window-pane.
The coach appeared at last, and drew up at Sea View. In a minute more, Captain Wragge's own observation informed him that one among the passengers who left Aldborough that morning was -- Mrs. Lecount.
The main uncertainty disposed of, a serious question -- suggested by the events of the morning -- still remained to be solved. Which was the destined end of Mrs. Lecount's journey -- Zurich or St. Crux? That she would certainly inform her master of Mrs. Wragge's ghost story, and of every other disclosure in relation to names and places which might have escaped Mrs. Wragge's lips, was beyond all doubt. But of the two ways at her disposal of doing the mischief -either personally or by letter -- it was vitally important to the captain to know which she had chosen. If she had gone to the admiral's, no choice would be left him but to follow the coach, to catch the train by which she traveled, and to outstrip her afterward on the drive from the station in Essex to St. Crux. If, on the contrary, she had been contented with writing to her master, it would only be necessary to devise measures for intercepting the letter. The captain decided on going to the post-office, in the first place. Assuming that the housekeeper had written, she would not have left the letter at the mercy of the servant -- she would have seen it safely in the letter-box before leaving Aldborough.
"Good-morning," said the captain, cheerfully addressing the postmaster. "I am Mr. Bygrave of North Shingles. I think you have a letter in the box, addressed to Mr. -- ?"
The postmaster was a short man, and consequently a man with a proper idea of his own importance. He solemnly checked Captain Wragge in full career.
"When a letter is once posted, sir," he said, "nobody out of the office has any business with it until it reaches its address."
The captain was not a man to be daunted, even by a postmaster. A bright idea struck him. He took out his pocketbook, in which Admiral Bartram's address was written, and returned to the charge.
"Suppose a letter has been wrongly directed by mistake?" he began. "And suppose the writer wants to correct the error after the letter is put into the box?"
"When a letter is once posted, sir," reiterated the impenetrable local authority, "nobody out of the office touches it on any pretense whatever."
"Granted, with all my heart," persisted the captain. "I don't want to touch it -- I only want to explain myself. A lady has posted a letter here, addressed to 'Noel Vanstone, Esq., Admiral Bartram's, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex.' She wrote in a great hurry, and she is not quite certain whether she added the name of the post-town, 'Ossory.' It is of the last importance that the delivery of the letter should not be delayed. What is to hinder your facili tating the post-office work, and obliging a lady, by adding the name of the post-town (if it happens to be left out), with your own hand? I put it to you as a zealous officer, what possible objection can there be to granting my request?"
The postmaster was compelled to acknowledge that there could be no objection, provided nothing but a necessary line was added to the address, provided nobody touched the letter but himself, and provided the precious time of the post-office was not suffered to run to waste. As there happened to be nothing particular to do at that moment, he would readily oblige the lady at Mr. Bygrave's request.
Captain Wragge watched the postmaster's hands, as they sorted the letters in the box, with breathless eagerness. Was the letter there? Would the hands of the zealous public servant suddenly stop? Yes! They stopped, and picked out a letter from the rest.
"'Noel Vanstone, Esquire,' did you say?" asked the postmaster, keeping the letter in his own hand.
"'Noel Vanstone, Esquire,'" replied the captain, "'Admiral Bartram's, St. Crux-in-the-Marsh.'"
"Ossory, Essex," chimed in the postmaster, throwing the letter back into the box. "The lady has made no mistake, sir. The address is quite right."
Nothing but a timely consideration of the heavy debt he owed to appearances prevented Captain Wragge from throwing his tall white hat up in the air as soon as he found the street once more. All further doubt was now at an end. Mrs. Lecount had written to her master -- therefore Mrs. Lecount was on her way to Zurich!
With his head higher than ever, with the tails of his respectable frock-coat floating behind him in the breeze, with his bosom's native impudence sitting lightly on its throne, the captain strutted to the inn and called for the railway time-table. After making certain calculations (in black and white, as a matter of course), he ordered his chaise to be ready in an hour -- so as to reach the railway in time for the second train running to London -- with which there happened to be no communication from Aldborough by coach.
His next proceeding was of a far more serious kind; his next proceeding implied a terrible certainty of success. The day of the week was Thursday. From the inn he went to the church, saw the clerk, and gave the necessary notice for a marriage by license on the following Monday.
Bold as he was, his nerves were a little shaken by this last achievement; his hand trembled as it lifted the latch of the garden gate. He doctored his nerves with brandy and water before he sent for Magdalen to inform her of the proceedings of the morning. Another outbreak might reasonably be expected when she heard that the last irrevocable step had been taken, and that notice had been given of the wedding-day.
The captain's watch warned him to lose no time in emptying his glass. In a few minutes he sent the necessary message upstairs. While waiting for Magdalen's appearance, he provided himself with certain materials which were now necessary to carry the enterprise to its crowning point. In the first place, he wrote his assumed name (by no means in so fine a hand as usual) on a blank visiting-card, and added underneath these words: "Not a moment is to be lost. I am waiting for you at the door -- come down to me directly." His next proceeding was to take some half-dozen envelopes out of the case, and to direct them all alike to the following address: "Thomas Bygrave, Esq., Mussared's Hotel, Salisbury Street, Strand, London." After carefully placing the envelopes and the card in his breast-pocket, he shut up the desk. As he rose from the writing-table, Magdalen came into the room.
The captain took a moment to decide on the best method of opening the interview, and determined, in his own phrase, to dash at it. In two words he told Magdalen what had happened, and informed her that Monday was to be her wedding-day.
He was prepared to quiet her, if she burst into a frenzy of passion; to reason with her, if she begged for time; to sympathize with her, if she melted into tears. To his inexpressible surprise, results falsified all his calculations. She heard him without uttering a word, without shedding a tear. When he had done, she dropped into a chair. Her large gray eyes stared at him vacantly. In one mysterious instant all her beauty left her; her face stiffened awfully, like the face of a corpse. For the first time in the captain's experience of her, fear -- all-mastering fear -- had taken possession of her, body and soul.
"You are not flinching," he said, trying to rouse her. "Surely you are not flinching at the last moment?"
No light of intelligence came into her eyes, no change passed over her face. But she heard him -- for she moved a little in the chair, and slowly shook her head.
"You planned this marriage of your own freewill," pursued the captain, with the furtive look and the faltering voice of a man ill at ease. "It was your own idea -- not mine. I won't have the responsibility laid on my shoulders -- no! not for twice two hundred pounds. If your resolution fails you; if you think better of it -- ?"
He stopped. Her face was changing; her lips were moving at last. She slowly raised her left hand, with the fingers outspread; she looked at it as if it was a hand that was strange to her; she counted the days on it, the days before the marriage.
"Friday, one," she whispered to herself; "Saturday, two; Sunday, three; Monday -- " Her hands dropped into her lap, her face stiffened again; the deadly fear fastened its paralyzing hold on her once more, and the next words died away on her lips.
Captain Wragge took out his handkerchief and wiped his forehead.
"Damn the two hundred pounds!" he said. "Two thousand wouldn't pay me for this!"
He put the handkerchief back, took the envelopes which he had addressed to himself out of his pocket, and, approaching her closely for the first time, laid his hand on her arm.
"Rouse yourself, "he said, "I have a last word to say to you. Can you listen?"
She struggled, and roused herself -- a faint tinge of color stole over her white cheeks -- she bowed her head.
"Look at these," pursued Captain Wragge, holding up the envelopes. "If I turn these to the use for which they have been written, Mrs. Lecount's master will never receive Mrs. Lecount's letter. If I tear them up, he will know by to-morrow's post that you are the woman who visited him in Vauxhall Walk. Say the word! Shall I tear the envelopes up, or shall I put them back in my pocket?"
There was a pause of dead silence. The murmur of the summer waves on the shingle of the beach and the voices of the summer idlers on the Parade floated through the open window, and filled the empty stillness of the room.
She raised her head; she lifted her hand and pointed steadily to the envelopes.
"Put them back," she said.
"Do you mean it?" he asked.
"I mean it."
As she gave that answer, there was a sound of wheels on the road outside.
"You hear those wheels?" said Captain Wragge.
"I hear them."
"You see the chaise?" said the captain, pointing through the window as the chaise which had been ordered from the inn made its appearance at the garden gate.
"I see it."
"And, of your own free-will, you tell me to go?"
Without another word he left her. The servant was waiting at the door with his traveling bag. "Miss Bygrave is not well," he said. "Tell your mistress to go to her in the parlor."
He stepped into the chaise, and started on the first stage of the journey to St. Crux.Next