THE morning of her husband's return to North Shingles was a morning memorable forever in the domestic calendar of Mrs. Wragge. She dated from that occasion the first announcement which reached her of Magdalen's marriage.
It had been Mrs. Wragge's earthly lot to pass her life in a state of perpetual surprise. Never yet, however, had she wandered in such a maze of astonishment as the maze in which she lost herself when the captain coolly told her the truth. She had been sharp enough to suspect Mr. Noel Vanstone of coming to the house in the character of a sweetheart on approval; and she had dimly interpreted certain expressions of impatience which had fallen from Magdalen's lips as boding ill for the success of his suit, but her utmost penetration had never reached as far as a suspicion of the impending marriage. She rose from one climax of amazement to another, as her husband proceeded with his disclosure. A wedding in the family at a day's notice! and that wedding Magdalen's! and not a single new dress ordered for anybody, the bride included! and the Oriental Cashmere Robe totally unavailable on the occasion when she might have worn it to the greatest advantage! Mrs. Wragge dropped crookedly into a chair, and beat her disorderly hands on her unsymmetrical knees, in utter forgetfulness of the captain's presence and the captain's terrible eye. It would not have surprised her to hear that the world had come to an end, and that the only mortal whom Destiny had overlooked, in winding up the affairs of this earthly planet, was herself!
Leaving his wife to recover her composure by her own unaided efforts, Captain Wragge withdrew to wait for Magdalen's appearance in the lower regions of the house. It was close on one o'clock before the sound of footsteps in the room above warned him that she was awake and stirring. He called at once for the maid (whose name he had ascertained to be Louisa), and sent her upstairs to her mistress for the second time.
Magdalen was standing by her dressing-table when a faint tap at the door suddenly roused her. The tap was followed by the sound of a meek voice, which announced itself as the voice of "her maid," and inquired if Miss Bygrave needed any assistance that morning.
"Not at present," said Magdalen, as soon as she had recovered the surprise of finding herself unexpectedly provided with an attendant. "I will ring when I want you."
After dismissing the woman with that answer, she accidentally looked from the door to the window. Any speculations on the subject of the new servant in which she might otherwise have engaged were instantly suspended by the sight of the bottle of laudanum, still standing on the ledge of the window, where she had left it at sunrise. She took it once more in her hand, with a strange confusion of feeling -- with a vague doubt even yet, whether the sight of it reminded her of a terrible reality or a terrible dream. Her first impulse was to rid herself of it on the spot. She raised the bottle to throw the contents out of the window, and paused, in sudden distrust of the impulse that had come to her. "I have accepted my new life," she thought. "How do I know what that life may have in store for me?" She turned from the window and went back to the table. "I may be forced to drink it yet," she said, and put the laudanum into her dressing-case.
Her mind was not at ease when she had done this: there seemed to be some indefinable ingratitude in the act. Still she made no attempt to remove the bottle from its hiding-place. She hurried on her toilet; she hastened the time when she could ring for the maid, and forget herself and her waking thoughts in a new subject. After touching the bell, she took from the table her letter to Norah and her letter to the captain, put them both into her dressing-case with the laudanum, and locked it securely with the key which she kept attached to her watch-chain.
Magdalen's first impression of her attendant was not an agreeable one. She could not investigate the girl with the experienced eye of the landlady at the London hotel, who had characterized the stranger as a young person overtaken by misfortune, and who had showed plainly, by her look and manner, of what nature she suspected that misfortune to be. But with this drawback, Magdalen was perfectly competent to detect the tokens of sickness and sorrow lurking under the surface of the new maid's activity and politeness. She suspected the girl was ill-tempered; she disliked her name; and she was indisposed to welcome any servant who had been engaged by Noel Vanstone. But after the first few minutes, "Louisa" grew on her liking. She answered all the questions put to her with perfect directness; she appeared to understand her duties thoroughly; and she never spoke until she was spoken to first. After making all the inquiries that occurred to her at the time, and after determining to give the maid a fair trial, Magdalen rose to leave the room. The very air in it was still heavy to her with the oppression of the past night.
"Have you anything more to say to me?" she asked, turning to the servant, with her hand on the door.
"I beg your pardon, miss," said Louisa, very respectfully and very quietly. "I think my master told me that the marriage was to be to-morrow?"
Magdalen repressed the shudder that stole over her at that reference to the marriage on the lips of a stranger, and answered in the affirmative.
"It's a very short time, miss, to prepare in. If you would be so kind as to give me my orders about the packing before you go downstairs -- ?"
"There are no such preparations to make as you suppose," said Magdalen, hastily. "The few things I have here can be all packed at once, if you like. I shall wear the same dress to-morrow which I have on to-day. Leave out the straw bonnet and the light shawl, and put everything else into my boxes. I have no new dresses to pack; I have nothing ordered for the occasion of any sort." She tried to add some commonplace phrases of explanation, accounting as probably as might be for the absence of the usual wedding outfit and wedding-dress. But no further reference to the marriage would pass her lips, and without an other word she abruptly left the room.
The meek and melancholy Louisa stood lost in astonishment. "Somet hing wrong here," she thought. "I'm half afraid of my new place already." She sighed resignedly, shook her head, and went to the wardrobe. She first examined the drawers underneath, took out the various articles of linen laid inside, and placed them on chairs. Opening the upper part of the wardrobe next, she ranged the dresses in it side by side on the bed. Her last proceeding was to push the empty boxes into the middle of the room, and to compare the space at her disposal with the articles of dress which she had to pack. She completed her preliminary calculations with the ready self-reliance of a woman who thoroughly understood her business, and began the packing forthwith. Just as she had placed the first article of linen in the smaller box, the door of the room opened, and the house-servant, eager for gossip, came in.
"What do you want?" asked Louisa, quietly.
"Did you ever hear of anything like this!" said the house-servant, entering on her subject immediately.
"Like this marriage, to be sure. You're London bred, they tell me. Did you ever hear of a young lady being married without a single new thing to her back? No wedding veil, and no wedding breakfast, and no wedding favors for the servants. It's flying in the face of Providence -- that's what I say. I'm only a poor servant, I know. But it's wicked, downright wicked -- and I don't care who hears me!"
Louisa went on with the packing.
"Look at her dresses!" persisted the house-servant, waving her hand indignantly at the bed. "I'm only a poor girl, but I wouldn't marry the best man alive without a new gown to my back. Look here! look at this dowdy brown thing here. Alpaca! You're not going to pack this Alpaca thing, are you? Why, it's hardly fit for a servant! I don't know that I'd take a gift of it if it was offered me. It would do for me if I took it up in the skirt, and let it out in the waist -and it wouldn't look so bad with a bit of bright trimming, would it?"
"Let that dress alone, if you please," said Louisa, as quietly as ever.
"What did you say?" inquired the other, doubting whether her ears had not deceived her.
"I said, let that dress alone. It belongs to my mistress, and I have my mistress's orders to pack up everything in the room. You are not helping me by coming here -- you are very much in my way."
"Well!" said the house-servant, "you may be London bred, as they say. But if these are your London manners, give me Suffolk!" She opened the door with an angry snatch at the handle, shut it violently, opened it again, and looked in. "Give me Suffolk!" said the house-servant, with a parting nod of her head to point the edge of her sarcasm.
Louisa proceeded impenetrably with her packing up.
Having neatly disposed of the linen in the smaller box, she turned her attention to the dresses next. After passing them carefully in review, to ascertain which was the least valuable of the collection, and to place that one at the bottom of the trunk for the rest to lie on, she made her choice with very little difficulty. The first gown which she put into the box was -- the brown Alpaca dress.
Meanwhile Magdalen had joined the captain downstairs. Although he could not fail to notice the languor in her face and the listlessness of all her movements, he was relieved to find that she met him with perfect composure. She was even self-possessed enough to ask him for news of his journey, with no other signs of agitation than a passing change of color and a little trembling of the lips.
"So much for the past," said Captain Wragge, when his narrative of the expedition to London by way of St. Crux had come to an end. "Now for the present. The bridegroom -- "
"If it makes no difference," she interposed, "call him Mr. Noel Vanstone."
"With all my heart. Mr. Noel Vanstone is coming here this afternoon to dine and spend the evening. He will be tiresome in the last degree; but, like all tiresome people, he is not to be got rid of on any terms. Before he comes, I have a last word or two of caution for your private ear. By this time to-morrow we shall have parted -- without any certain knowledge, on either side, of our ever meeting again. I am anxious to serve your interests faithfully to the last; I am anxious you should feel that I have done all I could for your future security when we say good-by."
Magdalen looked at him in surprise. He spoke in altered tones. He was agitated; he was strangely in earnest. Something in his look and manner took her memory back to the first night at Aldborough, when she had opened her mind to him in the darkening solitude -- when they two had sat together alone on the slope of the martello tower. "I have no reason to think otherwise than kindly of you," she said.
Captain Wragge suddenly left his chair, and took a turn backward and forward in the room. Magdalen's last words seemed to have produced some extraordinary disturbance in him.
"Damn it!" he broke out; "I can't let you say that. You have reason to think ill of me. I have cheated you. You never got your fair share of profit from the Entertainment, from first to last. There! now the murder's out!"
Magdalen smiled, and signed to him to come back to his chair.
"I know you cheated me," she said, quietly. "You were in the exercise of your profession, Captain Wragge. I expected it when I joined you. I made no complaint at the time, and I make none now. If the money you took is any recompense for all the trouble I have given you, you are heartily welcome to it."
"Will you shake hands on that?" asked the captain, with an awkwardness and hesitation strongly at variance with his customary ease of manner.
Magdalen gave him her hand. He wrung it hard. "You are a strange girl," he said, trying to speak lightly. "You have laid a hold on me that I don't quite understand. I'm half uncomfortable at taking the money from you now; and yet you don't want it, do you?" He hesitated. "I almost wish," he said, "I had never met you on the Walls of York."
"It is too late to wish that, Captain Wragge. Say no more. You only distress me -- say no more. We have other subjects to talk about. What were those words of caution which you had for my private ear?"
The captain took another turn in the room, and struggled back again into his every-day character. He produced from his pocketbook Mrs. Lecount's letter to her master, and handed it to Magdalen.
"There is the letter that might have ruined us if it had ever reached its address," he said. "Read it carefully. I have a question to ask you when you have done."
Magdalen read the letter. "What is this proof," she inquired, "which Mrs. Lecount relies on so confidently!"
"The very question I was going to ask you," said Captain Wragge. "Consult your memory of what happened when you tried that experiment in Vauxhall Walk. Did Mrs. Lecount get no other chance against you than the chances you have told me of already?"
"She discovered that my face was disguised, and she heard me speak in my own voice."
"And nothing more?"
"Very good. Then my interpretation of the letter is clearly the right one. The proof Mrs. Lecount relies on is my wife's infernal ghost story -- which is, in plain English, the story of Miss Bygrave having been seen in Miss Vanstone's disguise; the witness being the very person who is afterward presented at Aldborough in the character of Miss Bygrave's aunt. An excellent chance for Mrs. Lecount, if she can only lay her hand at the right time on Mrs. Wragge, and no chance at all, if she can't. Make your mind easy on that point. Mrs. Lecount and my wife have seen the last of each other. In the meantime, don't neglect the warning I give you, in giving you this letter. Tear it up, for fear of accidents, but don't forget it."
"Trust me to remember it, "replied Magdalen, destroying the letter while she spoke. "Have you anything more to tell me?"
"I have some information to give you," said Captain Wragge, "which may be useful, because it relates to your future security. Mind, I want to know nothing about your proceedings when to-morrow is over; we settled that when we first discussed this matter. I ask no questions, and I make no guesses. All I want to do now is to warn you of your legal position after your marriage, and to leave you to make what use you please of your knowledge, at your own sole discretion. I took a lawyer's opinion on the point when I was in London, thinking it might be useful to you."
"It is sure to be useful. What did the lawyer say?"
"To put it plainly, this is what he said. If Mr. Noel Vanstone ever discovers that you have knowingly married him under a false name, he can apply to the Ecclesiastical Court to have his marriage declared null and void. The issue of the application would rest with the judges. But if he could prove that he had been intentionally deceived, the legal opinion is that his case would be a strong one."
"Suppose I chose to apply on my side?" said Magdalen, eagerly. "What then?"
"You might make the application," replied the captain. "But remember one thing -- you would come into Court with the acknowledgment of your own deception. I leave you to imagine what the judges would think of that."
"Did the lawyer tell you anything else?"
"One thing besides," said Captain Wragge. "Whatever the law might do with the marriage in the lifetime of both the parties to it -- on the death of either one of them, no application made by the survivor would avail; and, as to the case of that survivor, the marriage would remain valid. You understand? If he dies, or if you die -- and if no application has been made to the Court -- he the survivor, or you the survivor, would have no power of disputing the marriage. But in the lifetime of both of you, if he claimed to have the marriage dissolved, the chances are all in favor of his carrying his point."
He looked at Magdalen with a furtive curiosity as he said those words. She turned her head aside, absently tying her watch-chain into a loop and untying it again, evidently thinking with the closest attention over what he had last said to her. Captain Wragge walked uneasily to the window and looked out. The first object that caught his eye was Mr. Noel Vanstone approaching from Sea View. He returned instantly to his former place in the room, and addressed himself to Magdalen once more.
"Here is Mr. Noel Vanstone," he said. "One last caution before he comes in. Be on your guard with him about your age. He put the question to me before he got the License. I took the shortest way out of the difficulty, and told him you were twenty-one, and he made the declaration accordingly. Never mind about me; after to-morrow I am invisible. But, in your own interests, don't forget, if the subject turns up, that you were of age when you were married. There is nothing more. You are provided with every necessary warning that I can give you. Whatever happens in the future, remember I have done my best."
He hurried to the door without waiting for an answer, and went out into the garden to receive his guest.
Noel Vanstone made his appearance at the gate, solemnly carrying his bridal offering to North Shingles with both hands. The object in question was an ancient casket (one of his father's bargains); inside the casket reposed an old-fashioned carbuncle brooch, set in silver (another of his father's bargains) -- bridal presents both, possessing the inestimable merit of leaving his money undisturbed in his pocket. He shook his head portentously when the captain inquired after his health and spirits. He had passed a wakeful night; ungovernable apprehensions of Lecount's sudden re-appearance had beset him as soon as he found himself alone at Sea View. Sea View was redolent of Lecount: Sea View (though built on piles, and the strongest house in England) was henceforth odious to him. He had felt this all night; he had also felt his responsibilities. There was the lady's maid, to begin with. Now he had hired her, he began to think she wouldn't do. She might fall sick on his hands; she might have deceived him by a false character; she and the landlady of the hotel might have been in league together. Horrible! Really horrible to think of. Then there was the other responsibility -- perhaps the heavier of the two -- the responsibility of deciding where he was to go and spend his honeymoon to-morrow. He would have preferred one of his father's empty houses: But except at Vauxhall Walk (which he supposed would be objected to), and at Aldborough (which was of course out of the question) all the houses were let. He would put himself in Mr. Bygrave's hands. Where had Mr. Bygrave spent his own honeymoon? Given the British Islands to choose from, where would Mr. Bygrave pitch his tent, on a careful review of all the circumstances?
At this point the bridegroom's questions suddenly came to an end, and the bridegroom's face exhibited an expression of ungovernable astonishment. His judicious friend, whose advice had been at his disposal in every other emergency, suddenly turned round on him, in the emergency of the honeymoon, and flatly declined discussing the subject.
"No!" said the captain, as Noel Vanstone opened his lips to plead for a hearing, "you must really excuse me. My point of view in this matter is, as usual, a peculiar one. For some time past I have been living in an atmosphere of deception, to suit your convenience. That atmosphere, my good sir, is getting close; my Moral Being requires ventilation. Settle the choice of a locality with my niece, and leave me, at my particular request, in total ignorance of the subject. Mrs. Lecount is certain to come here on her return from Zurich, and is certain to ask me where you are gone. You may think it strange, Mr. Vanstone; but when I tell her I don't know, I wish to enjoy the unaccustomed luxury of feeling, for once in a way, that I am speaking the truth!"
With those words, he opened the sitting-room door, introduced Noel Vanstone to Magdalen's presence, bowed himself out of the room again, and set forth alone to while away the rest of the afternoon by taking a walk. His face showed plain tokens of anxiety, and his party-colored eyes looked hither and thither distrustfully, as he sauntered along the shore. "The time hangs heavy on our hands," thought the captain. "I wish to-morrow was come and gone."
The day passed and nothing happened; the evening and the night followed, placidly and uneventfully. Monday came, a cloudless, lovely day; Monday confirmed the captain's assertion that the marriage was a certainty. Toward ten o'clock, the clerk, ascending the church steps quoted the old proverb to the pew-opener, meeting him under the porch: "Happy the bride on whom the sun shines!"
In a quarter of an hour more the wedding-party was in the vestry, and the clergyman led the way to the altar. Carefully as the secret of the marriage had been kept, the opening of the church in the morning had been enough to betray it. A small congregation, almost entirely composed of women, were scattered here and there among the pews. Kirke's sister and her children were staying with a friend at Aldborough, and Kirke's sister was one of the congregation.
As the wedding-party entered the church, the haunting terror of Mrs. Lecount spread from Noel Vanstone to the captain. For the first few minutes, the eyes of both of them looked among the women in the pews with the same searching scrutiny, and looked away again with the same sense of relief. The clergyman noticed that look, and investigated the License more closely than usual. The clerk began to doubt privately whether the old proverb about the bride was a proverb to be always depended on. The female members of the congregation murmured among themselves at the inexcusable disregard of appearances implied in the bride's dress. Kirke's sister whispered venomously in her friend's ear, "Thank God for to-day for Robert's sake." Mrs. Wragge cried silently, with the dread of some threatening calamity she knew not what. The one person present who remained outwardly undisturbed was Magdalen herself. She stood, with tearless resignation, in her place before the altar -- stood, as if all the sources of human emotion were frozen up within her.
T he clergyman opened the Book.
It was done. The awful words which speak from earth to Heaven were pronounced. The children of the two dead brothers -- inheritors of the implacable enmity which had parted their parents -- were Man and Wife.
From that moment events hurried with a headlong rapidity to the parting scene. They were back at the house while the words of the Marriage Service seemed still ringing in their ears. Before they had been five minutes indoors the carriage drew up at the garden gate. In a minute more the opportunity came for which Magdalen and the captain had been on the watch -- the opportunity of speaking together in private for the last time. She still preserved her icy resignation; she seemed beyond all reach now of the fear that had once mastered her, of the remorse that had once tortured her soul. With a firm hand she gave him the promised money. With a firm face she looked her last at him. "I'm not to blame," he whispered, eagerly; "I have only done what you asked me." She bowed her head; she bent it toward him kindly and let him touch her fore-head with his lips. "Take care!" he said. "My last words are -- for God's sake take care when I'm gone!" She turned from him with a smile, and spoke her farewell words to his wife. Mrs. Wragge tried hard to face her loss bravely -- the loss of the friend whose presence had fallen like light from Heaven over the dim pathway of her life. "You have been very good to me, my dear; I thank you kindly; I thank you with all my heart." She could say no more; she clung to Magdalen in a passion of tears, as her mother might have clung to her, if her mother had lived to see that horrible day. "I'm frightened for you!" cried the poor creature, in a wild, wailing voice. "Oh, my darling, I'm frightened for you!" Magdalen desperately drew herself free -- kissed her -- and hurried out to the door. The expression of that artless gratitude, the cry of that guileless love, shook her as nothing else had shaken her that day. It was a refuge to get to the carriage -- a refuge, though the man she had married stood there waiting for her at the door.
Mrs. Wragge tried to follow her into the garden. But the captain had seen Magdalen's face as she ran out, and he steadily held his wife back in the passage. From that distance the last farewells were exchanged. As long as the carriage was in sight, Magdalen looked back at them; she waved her handkerchief as she turned the corner. In a moment more the last thread which bound her to them was broken; the familiar companionship of many months was a thing of the past already!
Captain Wragge closed the house door on the idlers who were looking in from the Parade. He led his wife back into the sitting-room, and spoke to her with a forbearance which she had never yet experienced from him.
"She has gone her way," he said, "and in another hour we shall have gone ours. Cry your cry out -- I don't deny she's worth crying for."
Even then -- even when the dread of Magdalen's future was at its darkest in his mind -- the ruling habit of the man's life clung to him. Mechanically he unlocked his dispatch-box. Mechanically he opened his Book of Accounts, and made the closing entry -- the entry of his last transaction with Magdalen -- in black and white. "By Rec'd from Miss Vanstone," wrote the captain, with a gloomy brow, "Two hundred pounds."
"You won't be angry with me?" said Mrs. Wragge, looking timidly at her husband through her tears. "I want a word of comfort, captain. Oh, do tell me, when shall I see her again?"
The captain closed the book, and answered in one inexorable word: "Never!"
Between eleven and twelve o'clock that night Mrs. Lecount drove into Zurich.
Her brother's house, when she stopped before it, was shut up. With some difficulty and delay the servant was aroused. She held up her hands in speechless amazement when she opened the door and saw who the visitor was.
"Is my brother alive?" asked Mrs. Lecount, entering the house.
"Alive!" echoed the servant. "He has gone holiday-making into the country, to finish his recovery in the fine fresh air."
The housekeeper staggered back against the wall of the passage. The coachman and the servant put her into a chair. Her face was livid, and her teeth chattered in her head.
"Send for my brother's doctor," she said, as soon as she could speak.
The doctor came. She handed him a letter before he could say a word.
"Did you write that letter?"
He looked it over rapidly, and answered her without hesitation,
"It is your handwriting."
"It is a forgery of my handwriting."
She rose from the chair with a new strength in her.
"When does the return mail start for Paris?" she asked.
"In half an hour."
"Send instantly and take me a place in it!"
The servant hesitated, the doctor protested. She turned a deaf ear to them both.
"Send!" she reiterated, "or I will go myself."
They obeyed. The servant went to take the place: the doctor remained and held a conversation with Mrs. Lecount. When the half-hour had passed, he helped her into her place in the mail, and charged the conductor privately to take care of his passenger.
"She has traveled from England without stopping," said the doctor; "and she is traveling back again without rest. Be careful of her, or she will break down under the double journey."
The mail started. Before the first hour of the new day was at an end Mrs. Lecount was on her way back to England.Next