CAPTAIN WRAGGE and Magdalen retraced their steps until they were again within view of North Shingles Villa before any signs appeared of Mrs. Lecount and her master. At that point the housekeeper's lavender-colored dress, the umbrella, and the feeble little figure in nankeen walking under it, became visible in the distance. The captain slackened his pace immediately, and issued his directions to Magdalen for her conduct at the coming interview in these words:
"Don't forget your smile," he said. "In all other respects you will do. The walk has improved your complexion, and the hat becomes you. Look Mrs. Lecount steadily in the face; show no embarrassment when you speak; and if Mr. Noel Vanstone pays you pointed attention, don't take too much notice of him while his housekeeper's eye is on you. Mind one thing! I have been at Joyce's Scientific Dialogues all the morning; and I am quite serious in meaning to give Mrs. Lecount the full benefit of my studies. If I can't contrive to divert her attention from you and her master, I won't give sixpence for our chance of success. Small-talk won't succeed with that woman; compliments won't succeed; jokes won't succeed -- ready-made science may recall the deceased professor, and ready-made science may do. We must establish a code of signals to let you know what I am about. Observe this camp-stool. When I shift it from my left hand to my right, I am talking Joyce. When I shift it from my right hand to my left, I am talking Wragge. In the first case, don't interrupt me -- I am leading up to my point. In the second case, say anything you like; my remarks are not of the slightest consequence. Would you like a rehearsal? Are you sure you understand? Very good -- take my arm, and look happy. Steady! here they are."
The meeting took place nearly midway between Sea-view Cottage and North Shingles. Captain Wragge took off his tall white hat and opened the interview immediately on the friendliest terms.
"Good-morning, Mrs. Lecount," he said, with the frank and cheerful politeness of a naturally sociable man. "Good-morning, Mr. Vanstone; I am sorry to see you suffering to-day. Mrs. Lecount, permit me to introduce my niece -- my niece, Miss Bygrave. My dear girl, this is Mr. Noel Vanstone, our neighbor at Sea-view Cottage. We must positively be sociable at Aldborough, Mrs. Lecount. There is only one walk in the place (as my niece remarked to me just now, Mr. Vanstone); and on that walk we must all meet every time we go out. And why not? Are we formal people on either side? Nothing of the sort; we are just the reverse. You possess the Continental facility of manner, Mr. Vanstone -- I match you with the blunt cordiality of an old-fashioned Englishman -- the ladies mingle together in harmonious variety, like flowers on the same bed -- and the result is a mutual interest in making our sojourn at the sea-side agreeable to each other. Pardon my flow of spirits; pardon my feeling so cheerful and so young. The Iodine in the sea-air, Mrs. Lecount -- the notorious effect of the Iodine in the sea-air!"
"You arrived yesterday, Miss Bygrave, did you not?" said the housekeeper, as soon as the captain's deluge of language had come to an end.
She addressed those words to Magdalen with a gentle motherly interest in her youth and beauty, chastened by the deferential amiability which became her situation in Noel Vanstone's household. Not the faintest token of suspicion or surprise betrayed itself in her face, her voice, or her manner, while she and Magdalen now looked at each other. It was plain at the outset that the true face and figure which she now saw recalled nothing to her mind of the false face and figure which she had seen in Vauxhall Walk. The disguise had evidently been complete enough even to baffle the penetration of Mrs. Lecount.
"My aunt and I came here yesterday evening," said Magdalen. "We found the latter part of the journey very fatiguing. I dare say you found it so, too?"
She designedly made her answer longer than was necessary for the purpose of discovering, at the earliest opportunity, the effect which the sound of her voice produced on Mrs. Lecount.
The housekeeper's thin lips maintained their motherly smile; the housekeeper's amiable manner lost none of its modest deference, but the expression of her eyes suddenly changed from a look of attention to a look of inquiry. Magdalen quietly said a few words more, and then waited again for results. The change spread gradually all over Mrs. Lecount's face, the motherly smile died away, and the amiable manner betrayed a slight touch of restraint. Still no signs of positive recognition appeared; the housekeeper's expression remained what it had been from the first -- an expression of inquiry, and nothing more.
"You complained of fatigue, sir, a few minutes since," she said, dropping all further conversation with Magdalen and addressing her master. "Will you go indoors and rest?"
The proprietor of Sea-view Cottage had hitherto confined himself to bowing, simpering and admiring Magdalen through his half-closed eyelids. There was no mistaking the sudden flutter and agitation in his manner, and the heightened color in his wizen little face. Even the reptile temperament of Noel Vanstone warmed under the influence of the sex: he had an undeniably appreciative eye for a handsome woman, and Magdalen's grace and beauty were not thr own away on him.
"Will you go indoors, sir, and rest?" asked the housekeeper, repeating her quest ion.
"Not yet, Lecount," said her master. "I fancy I feel stronger; I fancy I can go on a little." He turned simpering to Magdalen, and added, in a lower tone: "I have found a new interest in my walk, Miss Bygrave. Don't desert us, or you will take the interest away with you."
He smiled and smirked in the highest approval of the ingenuity of his own compliment -- from which Captain Wragge dexterously diverted the housekeeper's attention by ranging himself on her side of the path and speaking to her at the same moment. They all four walked on slowly. Mrs. Lecount said nothing more. She kept fast hold of her master's arm, and looked across him at Magdalen with the dangerous expression of inquiry more marked than ever in her handsome black eyes. That look was not lost on the wary Wragge. He shifted his indicative camp-stool from the left hand to the right, and opened his scientific batteries on the spot.
"A busy scene, Mrs. Lecount," said the captain, politely waving his camp-stool over the sea and the passing ships. "The greatness of England, ma'am -- the true greatness of England. Pray observe how heavily some of those vessels are laden! I am often inclined to wonder whether the British sailor is at all aware, when he has got his cargo on board, of the Hydrostatic importance of the operation that he has performed. If I were suddenly transported to the deck of one of those ships (which Heaven forbid, for I suffer at sea); and if I said to a member of the crew: 'Jack! you have done wonders; you have grasped the Theory of Floating Vessels' -- how the gallant fellow would stare! And yet on that theory Jack's life depends. If he loads his vessel one-thirtieth part more than he ought, what happens? He sails past Aldborough, I grant you, in safety. He enters the Thames, I grant you again, in safety. He gets on into the fresh water as far, let us say, as Greenwich; and -- down he goes! Down, ma'am, to the bottom of the river, as a matter of scientific certainty!"
Here he paused, and left Mrs. Lecount no polite alternative but to request an explanation.
"With infinite pleasure, ma'am," said the captain, drowning in the deepest notes of his voice the feeble treble in which Noel Vanstone paid his compliments to Magdalen. "We will start, if you please, with a first principle. All bodies whatever that float on the surface of the water displace as much fluid as is equal in weight to the weight of the bodies. Good. We have got our first principle. What do we deduce from it? Manifestly this: That, in order to keep a vessel above water, it is necessary to take care that the vessel and its cargo shall be of less weight than the weight of a quantity of water -- pray follow me here! -- of a quantity of water equal in bulk to that part of the vessel which it will be safe to immerse in the water. Now, ma'am, salt-water is specifically thirty times heavier than fresh or river water, and a vessel in the German Ocean will not sink so deep as a vessel in the Thames. Consequently, when we load our ship with a view to the London market, we have (Hydrostatically speaking) three alternatives. Either we load with one-thirtieth part less than we can carry at sea; or we take one-thirtieth part out at the mouth of the river; or we do neither the one nor the other, and, as I have already had the honor of remarking -- down we go! Such," said the captain, shifting the camp-stool back again from his right hand to his left, in token that Joyce was done with for the time being; "such, my dear madam, is the Theory of Floating Vessels. Permit me to add, in conclusion, you are heartily welcome to it."
"Thank you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "You have unintentionally saddened me; but the information I have received is not the less precious on that account. It is long, long ago, Mr. Bygrave, since I have heard myself addressed in the language of science. My dear husband made me his companion -- my dear husband improved my mind as you have been trying to improve it. Nobody has taken pains with my intellect since. Many thanks, sir. Your kind consideration for me is not thrown away."
She sighed with a plaintive humility, and privately opened her ears to the conversation on the other side of her.
A minute earlier she would have heard her master expressing himself in the most flattering terms on the subject of Miss Bygrave's appearance in her sea-side costume. But Magdalen had seen Captain Wragge's signal with the camp-stool, and had at once diverted Noel Vanstone to the topic of himself and his possessions by a neatly-timed question about his house at Aldborough.
"I don't wish to alarm you, Miss Bygrave," were the first words of Noel Vanstone's which caught Mrs. Lecount's attention, "but there is only one safe house in Aldborough, and that house is mine. The sea may destroy all the other houses -- it can't destroy Mine. My father took care of that; my father was a remarkable man. He had My house built on piles. I have reason to believe they are the strongest piles in England. Nothing can possibly knock them down -- I don't care what the sea does -- nothing can possibly knock them down."
"Then, if the sea invades us," said Magdalen, "we must all run for refuge to you."
Noel Vanstone saw his way to another compliment; and, at the same moment, the wary captain saw his way to another burst of science.
"I could almost wish the invasion might happen," murmured one of the gentlemen, "to give me the happiness of offering the refuge."
"I could almost swear the wind had shifted again!" exclaimed the other. "Where is a man I can ask? Oh, there he is. Boatman! How's the wind now? Nor'west and by west still -- hey? And southeast and by south yesterday evening -- ha? Is there anything more remarkable, Mrs. Lecount, than the variableness of the wind in this climate?" proceeded the captain, shifting the camp-stool to the scientific side of him. "Is there any natural phenomenon more bewildering to the scientific inquirer? You will tell me that the electric fluid which abounds in the air is the principal cause of this variableness. You will remind me of the experiment of that illustrious philosopher who measured the velocity of a great storm by a flight of small feathers. My dear madam, I grant all your propositions -- "
"I beg your pardon, sir," said Mrs. Lecount; "you kindly attribute to me a knowledge that I don't possess. Propositions, I regret to say, are quite beyond me."
"Don't misunderstand me, ma'am," continued the captain, politely unconscious of the interruption. "My remarks apply to the temperate zone only. Place me on the coasts beyond the tropics -- place me where the wind blows toward the shore in the day-time, and toward the sea by night -- and I instantly advance toward conclusive experiments. For example, I know that the heat of the sun during the day rarefies the air over the land, and so causes the wind. You challenge me to prove it. I escort you down the kitchen stairs (with your kind permission); take my largest pie-dish out of the cook's hands; I fill it with cold water. Good! that dish of cold water represents the ocean. I next provide myself with one of our most precious domestic conveniences, a hot-water plate; I fill it with hot water and I put it in the middle of the pie-dish. Good again! the hot-water plate represents the land rarefying the air over it. Bear that in mind, and give me a lighted candle. I hold my lighted candle over the cold water, and blow it out. The smoke immediately moves from the dish to the plate. Before you have time to express your satisfaction, I light the candle once more, and reverse the whole proceeding. I fill the pie-dish with hot-water, and the plate with cold; I blow the candle out again, and the smoke moves this time from the plate to the dish. The smell is disagreeable -- but the experiment is conclusive."
He shifted the camp-stool back again, and looked at Mrs. Lecount with his ingratiating smile. "You don't find me long-winded, ma'am -- do you?" he said, in his easy, cheerful way, just as the housekeeper was privately opening her e ars once more to the conversation on the other side of her.
"I am amazed, sir, by the range of y our information," replied Mrs. Lecount, observing the captain with some perplexity -- but thus far with no distrust. She thought him eccentric, even for an Englishman, and possibly a little vain of his knowledge. But he had at least paid her the implied compliment of addressing that knowledge to herself; and she felt it the more sensibly, from having hitherto found her scientific sympathies with her deceased husband treated with no great respect by the people with whom she came in contact. "Have you extended your inquiries, sir," she proceeded, after a momentary hesitation, "to my late husband's branch of science? I merely ask, Mr. Bygrave, because (though I am only a woman) I think I might exchange ideas with you on the subject of the reptile creation."
Captain Wragge was far too sharp to risk his ready-made science on the enemy's ground. The old militia-man shook his wary head.
"Too vast a subject, ma'am," he said, "for a smatterer like me. The life and labors of such a philosopher as your husband, Mrs. Lecount, warn men of my intellectual caliber not to measure themselves with a giant. May I inquire," proceeded the captain, softly smoothing the way for future intercourse with Sea-view Cottage, "whether you possess any scientific memorials of the late Professor?"
"I possess his Tank, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, modestly casting her eyes on the ground, "and one of his Subjects -- a little foreign Toad."
"His Tank!" exclaimed the captain, in tones of mournful interest; "and his Toad! Pardon my blunt way of speaking my mind, ma'am. You possess an object of public interest; and, as one of the public, I acknowledge my curiosity to see it."
Mrs. Lecount's smooth cheeks colored with pleasure. The one assailable place in that cold and secret nature was the place occupied by the memory of the Professor. Her pride in his scientific achievements, and her mortification at finding them but little known out of his own country, were genuine feelings. Never had Captain Wragge burned his adulterated incense on the flimsy altar of human vanity to better purpose than he was burning it now.
"You are very good, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "In honoring my husband's memory, you honor me. But though you kindly treat me on a footing of equality, I must not forget that I fill a domestic situation. I shall feel it a privilege to show you my relics, if you will allow me to ask my master's permission first."
She turned to Noel Vanstone; her perfectly sincere intention of making the proposed request, mingling -- in that strange complexity of motives which is found so much oftener in a woman's mind than in a man's -- with her jealous distrust of the impression which Magdalen had produced on her master.
"May I make a request, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount, after waiting a moment to catch any fragments of tenderly-personal talk that might reach her, and after being again neatly baffled by Magdalen -- thanks to the camp-stool. "Mr. Bygrave is one of the few persons in England who appreciate my husband's scientific labors. He honors me by wishing to see my little world of reptiles. May I show it to him?"
"By all means, Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, graciously. "You are an excellent creature, and I like to oblige you. Lecount's Tank, Mr. Bygrave, is the only Tank in England -- Lecount's Toad is the oldest Toad in the world. Will you come and drink tea at seven o'clock to-night? And will you prevail on Miss Bygrave to accompany you? I want her to see my house. I don't think she has any idea what a strong house it is. Come and survey my premises, Miss Bygrave. You shall have a stick and rap on the walls; you shall go upstairs and stamp on the floors, and then you shall hear what it all cost." His eyes wrinkled up cunningly at the corners, and he slipped another tender speech into Magdalen's ear, under cover of the all-predominating voice in which Captain Wragge thanked him for the invitation. "Come punctually at seven, "he whispered, "and pray wear that charming hat!"
Mrs. Lecount's lips closed ominously. She set down the captain's niece as a very serious drawback to the intellectual luxury of the captain's society.
"You are fatiguing yourself, sir," she said to her master. "This is one of your bad days. Let me recommend you to be careful; let me beg you to walk back."
Having carried his point by inviting the new acquaintances to tea, Noel Vanstone proved to be unexpectedly docile. He acknowledged that he was a little fatigued, and turned back at once in obedience to the housekeeper's advice.
"Take my arm, sir -- take my arm on the other side," said Captain Wragge, as they turned to retrace their steps. His party-colored eyes looked significantly at Magdalen while he spoke, and warned her not to stretch Mrs. Lecount's endurance too far at starting. She instantly understood him; and, in spite of Noel Vanstone's reiterated assertions that he stood in no need of the captain's arm, placed herself at once by the housekeeper's side. Mrs. Lecount recovered her good-humor, and opened another conversation with Magdalen by making the one inquiry of all others which, under existing circumstances, was the hardest to answer.
"I presume Mrs. Bygrave is too tired, after her journey, to come out to-day?" said Mrs. Lecount. "Shall we have the pleasure of seeing her tomorrow?"
"Probably not," replied Magdalen. "My aunt is in delicate health."
"A complicated case, my dear madam," added the captain; conscious that Mrs. Wragge's personal appearance (if she happened to be seen by accident) would offer the flattest of all possible contradictions to what Magdalen had just said of her. "There is some remote nervous mischief which doesn't express itself externally. You would think my wife the picture of health if you looked at her, and yet, so delusive are appearances, I am obliged to forbid her all excitement. She sees no society -- our medical attendant, I regret to say, absolutely prohibits it."
"Very sad," said Mrs. Lecount. "The poor lady must often feel lonely, sir, when you and your niece are away from her?"
"No," replied the captain. "Mrs. Bygrave is a naturally domestic woman. When she is able to employ herself, she finds unlimited resources in her needle and thread." Having reached this stage of the explanation, and having purposely skirted, as it were, round the confines of truth, in the event of the housekeeper's curiosity leading her to make any private inquiries on the subject of Mrs. Wragge, the captain wisely checked his fluent tongue from carrying him into any further details. "I have great hope from the air of this place," he remarked, in conclusion. "The Iodine, as I have already observed, does wonders."
Mrs. Lecount acknowledged the virtues of Iodine, in the briefest possible form of words, and withdrew into the innermost sanctuary of her own thoughts. "Some mystery here," said the housekeeper to herself. "A lady who looks the picture of health; a lady who suffers from a complicated nervous malady; and a lady whose hand is steady enough to use her needle and thread -- is a living mass of contradictions I don't quite understand. Do you make a long stay at Aldborough, sir?" she added aloud, her eyes resting for a moment, in steady scrutiny, on the captain's face.
"It all depends, my dear madam, on Mrs. Bygrave. I trust we shall stay through the autumn. You are settled at Sea-view Cottage, I presume, for the season?"
"You must ask my master, sir. It is for him to decide, not for me."
The answer was an unfortunate one. Noel Vanstone had been secretly annoyed by the change in the walking arrangements, which had separated him from Magdalen. He attributed that change to the meddling influence of Mrs. Lecount, and he now took the earliest opportunity of resenting it on the spot.
"I have nothing to do with our stay at Aldborough," he broke out, peevishly. "You know as well as I do, Lecount, it all depends on you. Mrs. Lecount has a brother in Switzerland," he went on, addressing himself to the captain -- "a brother who is seriously ill. If he gets worse, she will have to go the re to see him. I can't accompany her, and I can't be left in the house by myself. I shall have t o break up my establishment at Aldborough, and stay with some friends. It all depends on you, Lecount -- or on your brother, which comes to the same thing. If it depended on me," continued Mr. Noel Vanstone, looking pointedly at Magdalen across the housekeeper, "I should stay at Aldborough all through the autumn with the greatest pleasure. With the greatest pleasure," he reiterated, repeating the words with a tender look for Magdalen, and a spiteful accent for Mrs. Lecount.
Thus far Captain Wragge had remained silent; carefully noting in his mind the promising possibilities of a separation between Mrs. Lecount and her master which Noel Vanstone's little fretful outbreak had just disclosed to him. An ominous trembling in the housekeeper's thin lips, as her master openly exposed her family affairs before strangers, and openly set her jealously at defiance, now warned him to interfere. If the misunderstanding were permitted to proceed to extremities, there was a chance that the invitation for that evening to Sea-view Cottage might be put off. Now, as ever, equal to the occasion, Captain Wragge called his useful information once more to the rescue. Under the learned auspices of Joyce, he plunged, for the third time, into the ocean of science, and brought up another pearl. He was still haranguing
(on Pneumatics this time), still improving Mrs. Lecount's mind with his politest perseverance and his smoothest flow of language -- when the walking party stopped at Noel Vanstone's door.
"Bless my soul, here we are at your house, sir!" said the captain, interrupting himself in the middle of one of his graphic sentences. "I won't keep you standing a moment. Not a word of apology, Mrs. Lecount, I beg and pray! I will put that curious point in Pneumatics more clearly before you on a future occasion. In the meantime I need only repeat that you can perform the experiment I have just mentioned to your own entire satisfaction with a bladder, an exhausted receiver, and a square box. At seven o'clock this evening, sir -- at seven o'clock, Mrs. Lecount. We have had a remarkably pleasant walk, and a most instructive interchange of ideas. Now, my dear girl, your aunt is waiting for us."
While Mrs. Lecount stepped aside to open the garden gate, Noel Vanstone seized his opportunity and shot a last tender glance at Magdalen, under shelter of the umbrella, which he had taken into his own hands for that express purpose. "Don't forget," he said, with the sweetest smile; "don't forget, when you come this evening, to wear that charming hat!" Before he could add any last words, Mrs. Lecount glided back to her place, and the sheltering umbrella changed hands again immediately.
"An excellent morning's work!" said Captain Wragge, as he and Magdalen walked on together to North Shingles. "You and I and Joyce have all three done wonders. We have secured a friendly invitation at the first day's fishing for it."
He paused for an answer; and, receiving none, observed Magdalen more attentively than he had observed her yet. Her face had turned deadly pale again; her eyes looked out mechanically straight before her in heedless, reckless despair.
"What is the matter?" he asked, with the greatest surprise. "Are you ill?"
She made no reply; she hardly seemed to hear him.
"Are you getting alarmed about Mrs. Lecount?" he inquired next. "There is not the least reason for alarm. She may fancy she has heard something like your voice before, but your face evidently bewilders her. Keep your temper, and you keep her in the dark. Keep her in the dark, and you will put that two hundred pounds into my hands before the autumn is over."
He waited again for an answer, and again she remained silent. The captain tried for the third time in another direction.
"Did you get any letters this morning?" he went on. "Is there bad news again from home? Any fresh difficulties with your sister?"
"Say nothing about my sister!" she broke out passionately. "Neither you nor I are fit to speak of her."
She said those words at the garden-gate, and hurried into the house by herself. He followed her, and heard the door of her own room violently shut to, violently locked and double-locked. Solacing his indignation by an oath, Captain Wragge sullenly went into one of the parlors on the ground-floor to look after his wife. The room communicated with a smaller and darker room at the back of the house by means of a quaint little door with a window in the upper half of it. Softly approaching this door, the captain lifted the white muslin curtain which hung over the window, and looked into the inner room.
There was Mrs. Wragge, with her cap on one side, and her shoes down at heel; with a row of pins between her teeth; with the Oriental Cashmere Robe slowly slipping off the table; with her scissors suspended uncertain in one hand, and her written directions for dressmaking held doubtfully in the other -- so absorbed over the invincible difficulties of her employment as to be perfectly unconscious that she was at that moment the object of her husband's superintending eye. Under other circumstances she would have been soon brought to a sense of her situation by the sound of his voice. But Captain Wragge was too anxious about Magdalen to waste any time on his wife, after satisfying himself that she was safe in her seclusion, and that she might be trusted to remain there.
He left the parlor, and, after a little hesitation in the passage, stole upstairs and listened anxiously outside Magdalen's door. A dull sound of sobbing -- a sound stifled in her handkerchief, or stifled in the bed-clothes -- was all that caught his ear. He returned at once to the ground-floor, with some faint suspicion of the truth dawning on his mind at last.
"The devil take that sweetheart of hers!" thought the captain. "Mr. Noel Vanstone has raised the ghost of him at starting."Next