TOWARD three o'clock in the afternoon Captain Wragge stopped at the nearest station to Ossory which the railway passed in its course through Essex. Inquiries made on the spot informed him that he might drive to St. Crux, remain there for a quarter of an hour, and return to the station in time for an evening train to London. In ten minutes more the captain was on the road again, driving rapidly in the direction of the coast.
After proceeding some miles on the highway, the carriage turned off, and the coachman involved himself in an intricate network of cross-roads.
"Are we far from St. Crux?" asked the captain, growing impat ient, after mile on mile had been passed without a sign of reaching the journey's end.
"You'll see the house, sir, at the next turn in the road," said the man.
The next turn in the road brought them within view of the open country again. Ahead of the carriage, Captain Wragge saw a long dark line against the sky -the line of the sea-wall which protects the low coast of Essex from inundation. The flat intermediate country was intersected by a labyrinth of tidal streams, winding up from the invisible sea in strange fantastic curves -- rivers at high water, and channels of mud at low. On his right hand was a quaint little village, mostly composed of wooden houses, straggling down to the brink of one of the tidal streams. On his left hand, further away, rose the gloomy ruins of an abbey, with a desolate pile of buildings, which covered two sides of a square attached to it. One of the streams from the sea
(called, in Essex, "backwaters") curled almost entirely round the house. Another, from an opposite quarter, appeared to run straight through the grounds, and to separate one side of the shapeless mass of buildings, which was in moderate repair, from another, which was little better than a ruin. Bridges of wood and bridges of brick crossed the stream, and gave access to the house from all points of the compass. No human creature appeared in the neighborhood, and no sound was heard but the hoarse barking of a house-dog from an invisible courtyard.
"Which door shall I drive to, sir?" asked the coachman. "The front or the back?"
"The back," said Captain Wragge, feeling that the less notice he attracted in his present position, the safer that position might be.
The carriage twice crossed the stream before the coachman made his way through the grounds into a dreary inclosure of stone. At an open door on the inhabited side of the place sat a weather-beaten old man, busily at work on a half-finished model of a ship. He rose and came to the carriage door, lifting up his spectacles on his forehead, and looking disconcerted at the appearance of a stranger.
"Is Mr. Noel Vanstone staying here?" asked Captain Wragge.
"Yes, sir," replied the old man. "Mr. Noel came yesterday."
"Take that card to Mr. Vanstone, if you please," said the captain, "and say I am waiting here to see him."
In a few minutes Noel Vanstone made his appearance, breathless and eager -absorbed in anxiety for news from Aldborough. Captain Wragge opened the carriage door, seized his outstretched hand, and pulled him in without ceremony.
"Your housekeeper has gone," whispered the captain, "and you are to be married on Monday. Don't agitate yourself, and don't express your feelings -- there isn't time for it. Get the first active servant you can find in the house to pack your bag in ten minutes, take leave of the admiral, and come back at once with me to the London train."
Noel Vanstone faintly attempted to ask a question. The captain declined to hear it.
"As much talk as you like on the road," he said. "Time is too precious for talking here. How do we know Lecount may not think better of it? How do we know she may not turn back before she gets to Zurich?"
That startling consideration terrified Noel Vanstone into instant submission.
"What shall I say to the admiral?" he asked, helplessly.
"Tell him you are going to be married, to be sure! What does it matter, now Lecount's back is turned? If he wonders you didn't tell him before, say it's a runaway match, and the bride is waiting for you. Stop! Any letters addressed to you in your absence will be sent to this place, of course? Give the admiral these envelopes, and tell him to forward your letters under cover to me. I am an old customer at the hotel we are going to; and if we find the place full, the landlord may be depended on to take care of any letters with my name on them. A safe address in London for your correspondence may be of the greatest importance. How do we know Lecount may not write to you on her way to Zurich?"
"What a head you have got!" cried Noel Vanstone, eagerly taking the envelopes. "You think of everything."
He left the carriage in high excitement, and ran back into the house. In ten minutes more Captain Wragge had him in safe custody, and the horses started on their return journey.
The travelers reached London in good time that evening, and found accommodation at the hotel.
Knowing the restless, inquisitive nature of the man he had to deal with, Captain Wragge had anticipated some little difficulty and embarrassment in meeting the questions which Noel Vanstone might put to him on the way to London. To his great relief, a startling domestic discovery absorbed his traveling companion's whole attention at the outset of the journey. By some extraordinary oversight, Miss Bygrave had been left, on the eve of her marriage, unprovided with a maid. Noel Vanstone declared that he would take the whole responsibility of correcting this deficiency in the arrangements, on his own shoulders; he would not trouble Mr. Bygrave to give him any assistance; he would confer, when they got to their journey's end, with the landlady of the hotel, and would examine the candidates for the vacant office himself. All the way to London, he returned again and again to the same subject; all the evening, at the hotel, he was in and out of the landlady's sitting-room, until he fairly obliged her to lock the door. In every other proceeding which related to his marriage, he had been kept in the background; he had been compelled to follow in the footsteps of his ingenious friend. In the matter of the lady's maid he claimed his fitting position at last -- he followed nobody; he took the lead!
The forenoon of the next day was devoted to obtaining the license -- the personal distinction of making the declaration on oath being eagerly accepted by Noel Vanstone, who swore, in perfect good faith (on information previously obtained from the captain) that the lady was of age. The document procured, the bridegroom returned to examine the characters and qualifications of the women-servants out of the place whom the landlady had engaged to summon to the hotel, while Captain Wragge turned his steps, "on business personal to himself," toward the residence of a friend in a distant quarter of London.
The captain's friend was connected with the law, and the captain's business was of a twofold nature. His first object was to inform himself of the legal bearings of the approaching marriage on the future of the husband and the wife. His second object was to provide beforehand for destroying all traces of the destination to which he might betake himself when he left Aldborough on the wedding-day. Having reached his end successfully in both these cases, he returned to the hotel, and found Noel Vanstone nursing his offended dignity in the landlady's sitting-room. Three ladies' maids had appeared to pass their examination, and had all, on coming to the question of wages, impudently declined accepting the place. A fourth candidate was expected to present herself on the next day; and, until she made her appearance, Noel Vanstone positively declined removing from the metropolis. Captain Wragge showed his annoyance openly at the unnecessary delay thus occasioned in the return to Aldborough, but without producing any effect. Noel Vanstone shook his obstinate little head, and solemnly refused to trifle with his responsibilities.
The first event which occurred on Saturday morning was the arrival of Mrs. Lecount's letter to her master, inclosed in one of the envelopes which the captain had addressed to himself. He received it (by previous arrangement with the waiter) in his bedroom -- read it with the closest attention -- and put it away carefully in his pocketbook. The letter was ominous of serious events to come when the housekeeper returned to England; and it was due to Magdalen -- who was the person threatened -- to place the warning of danger in her own possession.
Later in the day the fourth candidate appeared for the maid's situation -- a young woman of small expectations and subdued manners, who looked (as the landlady remarked) like a person overtaken by misfortune. She passed the ordeal of examination successfully, and accepted the wages offered with out a murmur. The engagement having been ratified on both sides, fresh delays ensued, of which Noel Vanstone was once more the cause. He had not yet made up his mind whether he would, or would not, give more than a guinea for the wedding-ring; and he wasted the rest of the day to such disastrous purpose in one jeweler's shop after another, that he and the captain, and the new lady's maid (who traveled with them), were barely in time to catch the last train from London that evening. It was late at night when they left the railway at the nearest station to Aldborough. Captain Wragge had been strangely silent all through the journey. His mind was ill at ease. He had left Magdalen, under very critical circumstances, with no fit person to control her, and he was wholly ignorant of the progress of events in his absence at North Shingles.Next