WHAT had happened at Aldborough in Captain Wragge's absence? Events had occurred which the captain's utmost dexterity might have found it hard to remedy.
As soon as the chaise had left North Shingles, Mrs. Wragge received the message which her husband had charged the servant to deliver. She hastened into the parlor, bewildered by her stormy interview with the captain, and penitently conscious that she had done wrong, without knowing what the wrong was. If Magdalen's mind had been unoccupied by the one idea of the marriage which now filled it -- if she had possessed composure enough to listen to Mrs. Wragge's rambling narrative of what had happened during her interview with the housekeeper -- Mrs. Lecount's visit to the wardrobe must, sooner or later, have formed part of the disclosure; and Magdalen, although she might never have guessed the truth, must at least have been warned that there was some element of danger lurking treacherously in the Alpaca dress. As it was, no such consequence as this followed Mrs. Wragge's appearance in the parlor; for no such consequence was now possible.
Events which had happened earlier in the morning, events which had happened for days and weeks past, had vanished as completely from Magdalen's mind as if they had never taken place. The horror of the coming Monday -- the merciless certainty implied in the appointment of the day and hour -- petrified all feeling in her, and annihilated all thought. Mrs. Wragge made three separate attempts to enter on the subject of the housekeeper's visit. The first time she might as well have addressed herself to the wind, or to the sea. The second attempt seemed likely to be more successful. Magdalen sighed, listened for a moment indifferently, and then dismissed the subject. "It doesn't matter," she said. "The end has come all the same. I'm not angry with you. Say no more." Later in the day, from not knowing what else to talk about, Mrs. Wragge tried again. This time Magdalen turned on her impatiently. "For God's sake, don't worry me about trifles! I can't bear it." Mrs. Wragge closed her lips on the spot, and returned to the subject no more. Magdalen, who had been kind to her at all other times, had angrily forbidden it. The captain -- utterly ignorant of Mrs. Lecount's interest in the secrets of the wardrobe -- had never so much as approached it. All the information that he had extracted from his wife's mental confusion, he had extracted by putting direct questions, derived purely from the resources of his own knowledge. He had insisted on plain answers, without excuses of any kind; he had carried his point as usual; and his departure the same morning had left him no chance of re-opening the question, even if his irritation against his wife had permitted him to do so. There the Alpaca dress hung, neglected in the dark -- the unnoticed, unsuspected center of dangers that were still to come.
Toward the afternoon Mrs. Wragge took courage to start a suggestion of her own -- she pleaded for a little turn in the fresh air.
Magdalen passively put on her hat; passively accompanied her companion along the public walk, until they reached its northward extremity. Here the beach was left solitary, and here they sat down, side by side, on the shingle. It was a bright, exhilarating day; pleasure-boats were sailing on the calm blue water; Aldborough was idling happily afloat and ashore. Mrs. Wragge recovered her spirits in the gayety of the prospect -- she amused herself like a child, by tossing pebbles into the sea. From time to time she stole a questioning glance at Magdalen, and saw no encouragement in her manner, no change to cordiality in her face. She sat silent on the slope of the shingle, with her elbow on her knee, and her head resting on her hand, looking out over the sea -- looking with rapt attention, and yet with eyes that seemed to notice nothing. Mrs. Wragge wearied of the pebbles, and lost her interest in looking at the pleasure-boats. Her great head began to nod heavily, and she dozed in the warm, drowsy air. When she woke, the pleasure-boats were far off; their sails were white specks in the distance. The idlers on the beach were thinned in number; the sun was low in the heaven; the blue sea was darker, and rippled by a breeze. Changes on sky and earth and ocean told of the waning day; change was everywhere -- except close at her side. There Magdalen sat, in the same position, with weary eyes that still looked over the sea, and still saw nothing.
"Oh, do speak to me!" said Mrs. Wragge.
Magdalen started, and looked about her vacantly.
"It's late," she said, shivering under the first sensation that reached her of the rising breeze. "Come home; you want your tea." They walked home in silence.
"Don't be angry with me for asking," said Mrs. Wragge, as they sat together at the tea-table. "Are you troubled, my dear, in your mind?"
"Yes," replied Magdalen. "Don't notice me. My trouble will soon be over."
She waited patiently until Mrs. Wragge had made an end of the meal, and then went upstairs to her own room.
"Monday!" she said, as she sat down at her toilet-table. "Something may happen before Monday comes!"
Her fingers wandered mechanically among the brushes and combs, the tiny bottles and cases placed on the table. She set them in order, now in one way, and now in another -- then on a sudden pushed them away from her in a heap. For a minute or two her hands remained idle. That interval passed, they grew restless again, and pulled the two little drawers backward and forward in their grooves. Among the objects laid in one of them was a Prayer-book which had belonged to her at Combe-Raven, and which she had saved with her other relics of the past, when she and her sister had taken their farewell of home. She opened the Prayer-book, after a long hesitation, at the Marriage Service, shut it again before she had read a line, and put it back hurriedly in one of the drawers. After turning the key in the locks, she rose and walked to the window. "The horrible sea!" she said, turning from it with a shudder of disgust -- "the lonely, dreary, horrible sea!"
She went back to the drawer, and took the Prayer-book out for the second time, half opened it again at the Marriage Service, and impatiently threw it back into the drawer. This time, after turning the lock, she took the key away, walked with it in her hand to the open window, and threw it violently from her into the garden. It fell on a bed thickly planted with flowers. It was invisible; it was lost. The sense of its loss seemed to relieve her.
"Something may happen on Friday; something may happen on Saturday; something may happen on Sunday. Three days still!"
She closed the green shutters outside the window and drew the curtains to darken the room still more. Her head felt heavy; her eyes were burning hot. She threw herself on her bed, with a sullen impulse to sleep away the time. The quiet of the house helped her; the darkness of the room helped her; the stupor of mind into which she had fallen had its effect on her senses; she dropped into a broken sleep. Her restless hands moved incessantly, her head tossed from side to side of the pillow, but still she slept. Ere long words fell by ones and twos from her lips; words whispered in her sleep, growing more and more co ntinuous, more and more articulate, the longer the sleep lasted -- words which seemed to calm her restlessness and to hush her into deeper repose. She smiled; she was in the happy land of dreams; Frank's name escaped her. "Do you love me, Frank?" she whispered. "Oh, my darling, say it again! say it again!"
The time passed, the room grew darker; and still she slumbered and dreamed. Toward sunset -- without any noise inside the house or out to account for it -she started up on the bed, awake again in an instant. The drowsy obscurity of the room struck her with terror. She ran to the window, pushed open the shutters, and leaned far out into the evening air and the evening light. Her eyes devoured the trivial sights on the beach; her ears drank in the welcome murmur of the sea. Anything to deliver her from the waking impression which her dreams had left! No more darkness, no more repose. Sleep that came mercifully to others came treacherously to her. Sleep had only closed her eyes on the future, to open them on the past.
She went down again into the parlor, eager to talk -- no matter how idly, no matter on what trifles. The room was empty. Perhaps Mrs. Wragge had gone to her work -- perhaps she was too tired to talk. Magdalen took her hat from the table and went out. The sea that she had shrunk from, a few hours since, looked friendly now. How lovely it was in its cool evening blue! What a god-like joy in the happy multitude of waves leaping up to the light of heaven!
She stayed out until the night fell and the stars appeared. The night steadied her.
By slow degrees her mind recovered its balance and she looked her position unflinchingly in the face. The vain hope that accident might defeat the very end for which, of her own free-will, she had ceaselessly plotted and toiled, vanished and left her; self-dissipated in its own weakness. She knew the true alternative, and faced it. On one side was the revolting ordeal of the marriage; on the other, the abandonment of her purpose. Was it too late to choose between the sacrifice of the purpose and the sacrifice of herself? Yes! too late. The backward path had closed behind her. Time that no wish could change, Time that no prayers could recall, had made her purpose a part of herself: once she had governed it; now it governed her. The more she shrank, the harder she struggled, the more mercilessly it drove her on. No other feeling in her was strong enough to master it -- not even the horror that was maddening her -- the horror of her marriage.
Toward nine o'clock she went back to the house.
"Walking again!" said Mrs. Wragge, meeting her at the door. "Come in and sit down, my dear. How tired you must be!"
Magdalen smiled, and patted Mrs. Wragge kindly on the shoulder.
"You forget how strong I am," she said. "Nothing hurts me."
She lit her candle and went upstairs again into her room. As she returned to the old place by her toilet-table, the vain hope in the three days of delay, the vain hope of deliverance by accident, came back to her -- this time in a form more tangible than the form which it had hitherto worn.
"Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Something may happen to him; something may happen to me. Something serious; something fatal. One of us may die."
A sudden change came over her face. She shivered, though there was no cold in the air. She started, though there was no noise to alarm her.
"One of us may die. I may be the one."
She fell into deep thought, roused herself after a while, and, opening the door, called to Mrs. Wragge to come and speak to her.
"You were right in thinking I should fatigue myself," she said. "My walk has been a little too much for me. I feel tired, and I am going to bed. Good-night." She kissed Mrs. Wragge and softly closed the door again.
After a few turns backward and forward in the room, she abruptly opened her writing-case and began a letter to her sister. The letter grew and grew under her hands; she filled sheet after sheet of note-paper. Her heart was full of her subject: it was her own story addressed to Norah. She shed no tears; she was composed to a quiet sadness. Her pen ran smoothly on. After writing for more than two hours, she left off while the letter was still unfinished. There was no signature attached to it -- there was a blank space reserved, to be filled up at some other time. After putting away the case, with the sheets of writing secured inside it, she walked to the window for air, and stood there looking out.
The moon was waning over the sea. The breeze of the earlier hours had died out. On earth and ocean, the spirit of the Night brooded in a deep and awful calm.
Her head drooped low on her bosom, and all the view waned before her eyes with the waning moon. She saw no sea, no sky. Death, the Tempter, was busy at her heart. Death, the Tempter, pointed homeward, to the grave of her dead parents in Combe-Raven churchyard.
"Nineteen last birthday," she thought. "Only nineteen!" She moved away from the window, hesitated, and then looked out again at the view. "The beautiful night!" she said, gratefully. "Oh, the beautiful night!"
She left the window and lay down on her bed. Sleep, that had come treacherously before, came mercifully now; came deep and dreamless, the image of her last waking thought -- the image of Death.
Early the next morning Mrs. Wragge went into Magdalen's room, and found that she had risen betimes. She was sitting before the glass, drawing the comb slowly through and through her hair -- thoughtful and quiet.
"How do you feel this morning, my dear?" asked Mrs. Wragge. "Quite well again?"
After replying in the affirmative, she stopped, considered for a moment, and suddenly contradicted herself.
"No," she said, "not quite well. I am suffering a little from toothache."
As she altered her first answer in those words she gave a twist to her hair with the comb, so that it fell forward and hid her face.
At breakfast she was very silent, and she took nothing but a cup of tea.
"Let me go to the chemist's and get something," said Mrs. Wragge.
"No, thank you."
"Do let me!"
She refused for the second time, sharply and angrily. As usual, Mrs. Wragge submitted, and let her have her own way. When breakfast was over, she rose, without a word of explanation, and went out. Mrs. Wragge watched her from the window and saw that she took the direction of the chemist's shop.
On reaching the chemist's door she stopped -- paused before entering the shop, and looked in at the window -- hesitated, and walked away a little -- hesitated again, and took the first turning which led back to the beach.
Without looking about her, without caring what place she chose, she seated herself on the shingle. The only persons who were near to her, in the position she now occupied, were a nursemaid and two little boys. The youngest of the two had a tiny toy-ship in his hand. After looking at Magdalen for a little while with the quaintest gravity and attention, the boy suddenly approached her, and opened the way to an acquaintance by putting his toy composedly on her lap.
"Look at my ship," said the child, crossing his hands on Magdalen's knee.
She was not usually patient with children. In happier days she would not have met the boy's advance toward her as she met it now. The hard despair in her eyes left them suddenly; her fast-closed lips parted and trembled. She put the ship back into the child's hands and lifted him on her lap.
"Will you give me a kiss?" she said, faintly. The boy looked at his ship as if he would rather have kissed the ship.
She repeated the question -- repeated it almost humbly. The child put his hand up to her neck and kissed her.
"If I was your sister, would you love me?" All the misery of her friendless position, all the wasted tenderness of her heart, poured from her in those words.
"Would you love me?" she repeated, hiding her face on the bosom of the child's frock.
"Yes," said the boy. "Look at my ship."
She looked at the ship through her gathering tears.
"What do you call it?" she asked, trying ha rd to find her way even to the interest of a child.
"I call it Uncle Kirke's ship," said the boy. "Un cle Kirke has gone away."
The name recalled nothing to her memory. No remembrances but old remembrances lived in her now. "Gone?" she repeated absently, thinking what she should say to her little friend next.
"Yes," said the boy. "Gone to China."
Even from the lips of a child that word struck her to the heart. She put Kirke's little nephew off her lap, and instantly left the beach.
As she turned back to the house, the struggle of the past night renewed itself in her mind. But the sense of relief which the child had brought to her, the reviving tenderness which she had felt while he sat on her knee, influenced her still. She was conscious of a dawning hope, opening freshly on her thoughts, as the boy's innocent eyes had opened on her face when he came to her on the beach. Was it too late to turn back? Once more she asked herself that question, and now, for the first time, she asked it in doubt.
She ran up to her own room with a lurking distrust in her changed self which warned her to act, and not to think. Without waiting to remove her shawl or to take off her hat, she opened her writing-case and addressed these lines to Captain Wragge as fast as her pen could trace them:
"You will find the money I promised you inclosed in this. My resolution has failed me. The horror of marrying him is more than I can face. I have left Aldborough. Pity my weakness, and forget me. Let us never meet again."
With throbbing heart, with eager, trembling fingers, she drew her little white silk bag from her bosom and took out the banknotes to inclose them in the letter. Her hand searched impetuously; her hand had lost its discrimination of touch. She grasped the whole contents of the bag in one handful of papers, and drew them out violently, tearing some and disarranging the folds of others. As she threw them down before her on the table, the first object that met her eye was her own handwriting, faded already with time. She looked closer, and saw the words she had copied from her dead father's letter -- saw the lawyer's brief and terrible commentary on them confronting her at the bottom of the page:
Mr. Vanstone's daughters are Nobody's Children, and the law leaves them helpless at their uncle's mercy.
Her throbbing heart stopped; her trembling hands grew icily quiet. All the Past rose before her in mute, overwhelming reproach. She took up the lines which her own hand had written hardly a minute since, and looked at the ink, still wet on the letters, with a vacant incredulity.
The color that had risen on her cheeks faded from them once more. The hard despair looked out again, cold and glittering, in her tearless eyes. She folded the banknotes carefully, and put them back in her bag. She pressed the copy of her father's letter to her lips, and returned it to its place with the banknotes. When the bag was in her bosom again, she waited a little, with her face hidden in her hands, then deliberately tore up the lines addressed to Captain Wragge. Before the ink was dry, the letter lay in fragments on the floor.
"No!" she said, as the last morsel of the torn paper dropped from her hand. "On the way I go there is no turning back."
She rose composedly and left the room. While descending the stairs, she met Mrs. Wragge coming up. "Going out again, my dear?" asked Mrs. Wragge. "May I go with you?"
Magdalen's attention wandered. Instead of answering the question, she absently answered her own thoughts.
"Thousands of women marry for money," she said. "Why shouldn't I?"
The helpless perplexity of Mrs. Wragge's face as she spoke those words roused her to a sense of present things. "My poor dear!" she said; "I puzzle you, don't I? Never mind what I say -- all girls talk nonsense, and I'm no better than the rest of them. Come! I'll give you a treat. You shall enjoy yourself while the captain is away. We will have a long drive by ourselves. Put on your smart bonnet, and come with me to the hotel. I'll tell the landlady to put a nice cold dinner into a basket. You shall have all the things you like, and I'll wait on you. When you are an old, old woman, you will remember me kindly, won't you? You will say: 'She wasn't a bad girl; hundreds worse than she was live and prosper, and nobody blames them.' There! there! go and put your bonnet on. Oh, my God, what is my heart made of! How it lives and lives, when other girls' hearts would have died in them long ago!"
In half an hour more she and Mrs. Wragge were seated together in the carriage. One of the horses was restive at starting. "Flog him," she cried angrily to the driver. "What are you frightened about? Flog him! Suppose the carriage was upset," she said, turning suddenly to her companion; "and suppose I was thrown out and killed on the spot? Nonsense! don't look at me in that way. I'm like your husband; I have a dash of humor, and I'm only joking."
They were out the whole day. When they reached home again, it was after dark. The long succession of hours passed in the fresh air left them both with the same sense of fatigue. Again that night Magdalen slept the deep dreamless sleep of the night before. And so the Friday closed.
Her last thought at night had been the thought which had sustained her throughout the day. She had laid her head on the pillow with the same reckless resolution to submit to the coming trial which had already expressed itself in words when she and Mrs. Wragge met by accident on the stairs. When she woke on the morning of Saturday, the resolution was gone. The Friday's thoughts -- the Friday's events even -- were blotted out of her mind. Once again, creeping chill through the flow of her young blood, she felt the slow and deadly prompting of despair which had come to her in the waning moonlight, which had whispered to her in the awful calm.
"I saw the end as the end must be," she said to herself, "on Thursday night. I have been wrong ever since."
When she and her companion met that morning, she reiterated her complaint of suffering from the toothache; she repeated her refusal to allow Mrs. Wragge to procure a remedy; she left the house after breakfast, in the direction of the chemist's shop, exactly as she had left it on the morning before.
This time she entered the shop without an instant's hesitation.
"I have got an attack of toothache," she said, abruptly, to an elderly man who stood behind the counter.
"May I look at the tooth, miss?"
"There is no necessity to look. It is a hollow tooth. I think I have caught cold in it."
The chemist recommended various remedies which were in vogue fifteen years since. She declined purchasing any of them.
"I have always found Laudanum relieve the pain better than anything else," she said, trifling with the bottles on the counter, and looking at them while she spoke, instead of looking at the chemist. "Let me have some Laudanum."
"Certainly, miss. Excuse my asking the question -- it is only a matter of form. You are staying at Aldborough, I think?"
"Yes. I am Miss Bygrave, of North Shingles."
The chemist bowed; and, turning to his shelves, filled an ordinary half-ounce bottle with laudanum immediately. In ascertaining his customer's name and address beforehand, the owner of the shop had taken a precaution which was natural to a careful man, but which was by no means universal, under similar circumstances, in the state of the law at that time.
"Shall I put you up a little cotton wool with the laudanum?" he asked, after he had placed a label on the bottle, and had written a word on it in large letters.
"If you please. What have you just written on the bottle?" She put the question sharply, with something of distrust as well as curiosity in her manner.
The chemist answered the question by turning the label toward her. She saw written on it, in large letters -- POISON.
"I like to be on the safe side, miss," said the old man, smiling. "Very worthy people in other respects are often sadly careless where poisons are concerned."
She began trifling again with the bottles on the counter, and put another question, with an ill-concealed anxiety to hear the answer.
"Is there danger," she asked, "in such a little drop of Laudanum as that?"
"Ther e is Death in it, miss," replied the chemist, quietly.
"Death to a child, or to a person in delicate health?"
"Death to the strongest man in England, let him be who he may."
With that answer, the chemist sealed up the bottle in its wrapping of white paper and handed the laudanum to Magdalen across the counter. She laughed as she took it from him, and paid for it.
"There will be no fear of accidents at North Shingles," she said. "I shall keep the bottle locked up in my dressing-case. If it doesn't relieve the pain, I must come to you again, and try some other remedy. Good-morning."
She went straight back to the house without once looking up, without noticing any one who passed her. She brushed by Mrs. Wragge in the passage as she might have brushed by a piece of furniture. She ascended the stairs, and caught her foot twice in her dress, from sheer inattention to the common precaution of holding it up. The trivial daily interests of life had lost their hold on her already.
In the privacy of her own room, she took the bottle from its wrapping, and threw the paper and the cotton wool into the fire-place. At the moment when she did this there was a knock at the door. She hid the little bottle, and looked up impatiently. Mrs. Wragge came into the room.
"Have you got something for your toothache, my dear?"
"Can I do anything to help you?"
Mrs. Wragge still lingered uneasily near the door. Her manner showed plainly that she had something more to say.
"What is it?" asked Magdalen, sharply.
"Don't be angry," said Mrs. Wragge. "I'm not settled in my mind about the captain. He's a great writer, and he hasn't written. He's as quick as lightning, and he hasn't come back. Here's Saturday, and no signs of him. Has he run away, do you think? Has anything happened to him?"
"I should think not. Go downstairs; I'll come and speak to you about it directly."
As soon as she was alone again, Magdalen rose from her chair, advanced toward a cupboard in the room which locked, and paused for a moment, with her hand on the key, in doubt. Mrs. Wragge's appearance had disturbed the whole current of her thoughts. Mrs. Wragge's last question, trifling as it was, had checked her on the verge of the precipice -- had roused the old vain hope in her once more of release by accident.
"Why not?" she said. "Why may something not have happened to one of them?"
She placed the laudanum in the cupboard, locked it, and put the key in her packet. "Time enough still," she thought, "before Monday. I'll wait till the captain comes back."
After some consultation downstairs, it was agreed that the servant should sit up that night, in expectation of her master's return. The day passed quietly, without events of any kind. Magdalen dreamed away the hours over a book. A weary patience of expectation was all she felt now -- the poignant torment of thought was dulled and blunted at last. She passed the day and the evening in the parlor, vaguely conscious of a strange feeling of aversion to going back to her own room. As the night advanced, as the noises ceased indoors and out, her restlessness began to return. She endeavored to quiet herself by reading. Books failed to fix her attention. The newspaper was lying in a corner of the room: she tried the newspaper next.
She looked mechanically at the headings of the articles; she listlessly turned over page after page, until her wandering attention was arrested by the narrative of an Execution in a distant part of England. There was nothing to strike her in the story of the crime, and yet she read it. It was a common, horribly common, act of bloodshed -- the murder of a woman in farm-service by a man in the same employment who was jealous of her. He had been convicted on no extraordinary evidence, he had been hanged under no unusual circumstances. He had made his confession, when he knew there was no hope for him, like other criminals of his class, and the newspaper had printed it at the end of the article, in these terms:
"I kept company with the deceased for a year or thereabouts. I said I would marry her when I had money enough. She said I had money enough now. We had a quarrel. She refused to walk out with me any more; she wouldn't draw me my beer; she took up with my fellow-servant, David Crouch. I went to her on the Saturday, and said I would marry her as soon as we could be asked in church if she would give up Crouch. She laughed at me. She turned me out of the wash-house, and the rest of them saw her turn me out. I was not easy in my mind. I went and sat on the gate -- the gate in the meadow they call Pettit's Piece. I thought I would shoot her. I went and fetched my gun and loaded it. I went out into Pettit's Piece again. I was hard put to it to make up my mind. I thought I would try my luck -- I mean try whether to kill her or not -- -by throwing up the Spud of the plow into the air. I said to myself, if it falls flat, I'll spare her; if it falls point in the earth, I'll kill her. I took a good swing with it, and shied it up. It fell point in the earth. I went and shot her. It was a bad job, but I did it. I did it, as they said I did it at the trial. I hope the Lord will have mercy on me. I wish my mother to have my old clothes. I have no more to say."
In the happier days of her life, Magdalen would have passed over the narrative of the execution, and the printed confession which accompanied it unread; the subject would have failed to attract her. She read the horrible story now -read it with an interest unintelligible to herself. Her attention, which had wandered over higher and better things, followed every sentence of the murderer's hideously direct confession from beginning to end. If the man or the woman had been known to her, if the place had been familiar to her memory, she could hardly have followed the narrative more closely, or have felt a more distinct impression of it left on her mind. She laid down the paper, wondering at herself; she took it up once more, and tried to read some other portion of the contents. The effort was useless; her attention wandered again. She threw the paper away, and went out into the garden. The night was dark; the stars were few and faint. She could just see the gravel-walk -- she could just pace backward and forward between the house door and the gate.
The confession in the newspaper had taken a fearful hold on her mind. As she paced the walk, the black night opened over the sea, and showed her the murderer in the field hurling the Spud of the plow into the air. She ran, shuddering, back to the house. The murderer followed her into the parlor. She seized the candle and went up into her room. The vision of her own distempered fancy followed her to the place where the laudanum was hidden, and vanished there.
It was midnight, and there was no sign yet of the captain's return.
She took from the writing-case the long letter which she had written to Norah, and slowly read it through. The letter quieted her. When she reached the blank space left at the end, she hurriedly turned back and began it over again.
One o'clock struck from the church clock, and still the captain never appeared.
She read the letter for the second time; she turned back obstinately, despairingly, and began it for the third time. As she once more reached the last page, she looked at her watch. It was a quarter to two. She had just put the watch back in the belt of her dress, when there came to her -- far off in the stillness of the morning -- a sound of wheels.
She dropped the letter and clasped her cold hands in her lap and listened. The sound came on, faster and faster, nearer and nearer -- the trivial sound to all other ears; the sound of Doom to hers. It passed the side of the house; it traveled a little further on; it stopped. She heard a loud knocking -- then the opening of a window -- then voices -- then a long silence -- than the wheels again coming back -- then the opening of the door below, and the sound of the captain's voice in the passage.
She could endure it no longer. She opened her door a little way and called to him.
He ran upstairs instantly, astonish ed that she was not in bed. She spoke to him through the narrow opening of the door, keeping herself hidden behind it, for she was afraid to let him see her face.
"Has anything gone wrong?" she asked.
"Make your mind easy," he answered. "Nothing has gone wrong."
"Is no accident likely to happen between this and Monday?"
"None whatever. The marriage is a certainty."
She put her hand out through the door. He took it with some little surprise; it was not often in his experience that she gave him her hand of her own accord.
"You have sat up too long," he said, as he felt the clasp of her cold fingers. "I am afraid you will have a bad night -- I'm afraid you will not sleep."
She softly closed the door.
"I shall sleep," she said, "sounder than you think for."
It was past two o'clock when she shut herself up alone in her room. Her chair stood in its customary place by the toilet-table. She sat down for a few minutes thoughtfully, then opened her letter to Norah, and turned to the end where the blank space was left. The last lines written above the space ran thus: ". . . I have laid my whole heart bare to you; I have hidden nothing. It has come to this. The end I have toiled for, at such terrible cost to myself, is an end which I must reach or die. It is wickedness, madness, what you will -- but it is so. There are now two journeys before me to choose between. If I can marry him -- the journey to the church. If the profanation of myself is more than I can bear -- the journey to the grave!"
Under that last sentence, she wrote these lines:
"My choice is made. If the cruel law will let you, lay me with my father and mother in the churchyard at home. Farewell, my love! Be always innocent; be always happy. If Frank ever asks about me, say I died forgiving him. Don't grieve long for me, Norah -- I am not worth it."
She sealed the letter, and addressed it to her sister. The tears gathered in her eyes as she laid it on the table. She waited until her sight was clear again, and then took the banknotes once more from the little bag in her bosom. After wrapping them in a sheet of note paper, she wrote Captain Wragge's name on the inclosure, and added these words below it: "Lock the door of my room, and leave me till my sister comes. The money I promised you is in this. You are not to blame; it is my fault, and mine only. If you have any friendly remembrance of me, be kind to your wife for my sake."
After placing the inclosure by the letter to Norah, she rose and looked round the room. Some few little things in it were not in their places. She set them in order, and drew the curtains on either side at the head of her bed. Her own dress was the next object of her scrutiny. It was all as neat, as pure, as prettily arranged as ever. Nothing about her was disordered but her hair. Some tresses had fallen loose on one side of her head; she carefully put them back in their places with the help of her glass. "How pale I look!" she thought, with a faint smile. "Shall I be paler still when they find me in the morning?"
She went straight to the place where the laudanum was hidden, and took it out. The bottle was so small that it lay easily in the palm of her hand. She let it remain there for a little while, and stood looking at it.
"DEATH!" she said. "In this drop of brown drink -- DEATH!"
As the words passed her lips, an agony of unutterable horror seized on her in an instant. She crossed the room unsteadily, with a maddening confusion in her head, with a suffocating anguish at her heart. She caught at the table to support herself. The faint clink of the bottle, as it fell harmlessly from her loosened grasp and rolled against some porcelain object on the table, struck through her brain like the stroke of a knife. The sound of her own voice, sunk to a whisper -- her voice only uttering that one word, Death -- rushed in her ears like the rushing of a wind. She dragged herself to the bedside, and rested her head against it, sitting on the floor. "Oh, my life! my life!" she thought; "what is my life worth, that I cling to it like this?"
An interval passed, and she felt her strength returning. She raised herself on her knees and hid her face on the bed. She tried to pray -- to pray to be forgiven for seeking the refuge of death. Frantic words burst from her lips -words which would have risen to cries, if she had not stifled them in the bed-clothes. She started to her feet; despair strengthened her with a headlong fury against herself. In one moment she was back at the table; in another, the poison was once more in her hand.
She removed the cork and lifted the bottle to her mouth.
At the first cold touch of the glass on her lips, her strong young life leaped up in her leaping blood, and fought with the whole frenzy of its loathing against the close terror of Death. Every active power in the exuberant vital force that was in her rose in revolt against the destruction which her own will would fain have wreaked on her own life. She paused: for the second time, she paused in spite of herself. There, in the glorious perfection of her youth and health -- there, trembling on the verge of human existence, she stood; with the kiss of the Destroyer close at her lips, and Nature, faithful to its sacred trust, fighting for the salvation of her to the last.
No word passed her lips. Her cheeks flushed deep; her breath came thick and fast. With the poison still in her hand, with the sense that she might faint in another moment, she made for the window, and threw back the curtain that covered it.
The new day had risen. The broad gray dawn flowed in on her, over the quiet eastern sea.
She saw the waters heaving, large and silent, in the misty calm; she felt the fresh breath of the morning flutter cool on her face. Her strength returned; her mind cleared a little. At the sight of the sea, her memory recalled the walk in the garden overnight, and the picture which her distempered fancy had painted on the black void. In thought, she saw the picture again -- the murderer hurling the Spud of the plow into the air, and setting the life or death of the woman who had deserted him on the hazard of the falling point. The infection of that terrible superstition seized on her mind as suddenly as the new day had burst on her view. The premise of release which she saw in it from the horror of her own hesitation roused the last energies of her despair. She resolved to end the struggle by setting her life or death on the hazard of a chance.
On what chance?
The sea showed it to her. Dimly distinguishable through the mist, she saw a little fleet of coasting-vessels slowly drifting toward the house, all following the same direction with the favoring set of the tide. In half an hour -- perhaps in less -- the fleet would have passed her window. The hands of her watch pointed to four o'clock. She seated herself close at the side of the window, with her back toward the quarter from which the vessels were drifting down on her -- with the poison placed on the window-sill and the watch on her lap. For one half-hour to come she determined to wait there and count the vessels as they went by. If in that time an even number passed her, the sign given should be a sign to live. If the uneven number prevailed, the end should be Death.
With that final resolution, she rested her head against the window and waited for the ships to pass.
The first came, high, dark and near in the mist, gliding silently over the silent sea. An interval -- and the second followed, with the third close after it. Another interval, longer and longer drawn out -- and nothing passed. She looked at her watch. Twelve minutes, and three ships. Three.
The fourth came, slower than the rest, larger than the rest, further off in the mist than the rest. The interval followed; a long interval once more. Then the next vessel passed, darkest and nearest of all. Five. The next uneven number -
She looked at her watch again. Nineteen minutes, and five ships. Twenty minutes. Twenty-one, two, three -- and no sixth vessel. Twenty-four, and the sixth came by. Twenty-five, twenty-six, twenty- seven, twenty-eight, and the next uneven number -- the fatal Seven -- glided into view. Two minutes to the end of the half-hour. And seven ships.
Twenty-nine, and nothing followed in the wake of the seventh ship. The minute-hand of the watch moved on half-way to thirty, and still the white heaving sea was a misty blank. Without moving her head from the window, she took the poison in one hand, and raised the watch in the other. As the quick seconds counted each other out, her eyes, as quick as they, looked from the watch to the sea, from the sea to the watch -- looked for the last time at the sea -- and saw the EIGHTH ship.
She never moved, she never spoke. The death of thought, the death of feeling, seemed to have come to her already. She put back the poison mechanically on the ledge of the window and watched, as in a dream, the ship gliding smoothly on its silent way -- gliding till it melted dimly into shadow -- gliding till it was lost in the mist.
The strain on her mind relaxed when the Messenger of Life had passed from her sight.
"Providence?" she whispered faintly to herself. "Or chance?"
Her eyes closed, and her head fell back. When the sense of life returned to her, the morning sun was warm on her face -- the blue heaven looked down on her -and the sea was a sea of gold.
She fell on her knees at the window and burst into tears.
* * * * * * * * *
Toward noon that day, the captain, waiting below stairs, and hearing no movement in Magdalen's room, felt uneasy at the long silence. He desired the new maid to follow him upstairs, and, pointing to the door, told her to go in softly and see whether her mistress was awake.
The maid entered the room, remained there a moment, and came out again, closing the door gently.
"She looks beautiful, sir," said the girl; "and she's sleeping as quietly as a new-born child."Next