ALL human penetration has its limits. Accurately as Captain Wragge had seen his way hitherto, even his sharp insight was now at fault. He finished his cigar with the mortifying conviction that he was totally unprepared for Mrs. Lecount's next proceeding. In this emergency, his experience warned him that there was one safe course, and one only, which he could take. He resolved to try the confusing effect on the housekeeper of a complete change of tactics before she had time to press her advantage and attack him in the dark. With this view he sent the servant upstairs to request that Miss Bygrave would come down and speak to him.
"I hope I don't disturb you," said the captain, when Magdalen entered the room. "Allow me to apologize for the smell of tobacco, and to say two words on the subject of our next proceedings. To put it with my customary frankness, Mrs. Lecount puzzles me, and I propose to return the compliment by puzzling her. The course of action which I have to suggest is a very simple one. I have had the honor of giving you a severe neuralgic attack already, and I beg your permission (when Mr. Noel Vanstone sends to inquire to-morrow morning) to take the further liberty of laying you up altogether. Question from Sea-view Cottage: 'How is Miss Bygrave this morning?' Answer from North Shingles: 'Much worse: Miss Bygrave is confined to her room.' Question repeated every day, say for a fortnight: 'How is Miss Bygrave?' Answer repeated, if necessary, for the same time: 'No better.' Can you bear the imprisonment? I see no objection to your getting a breath of fresh air the first thing in the morning, or the last thing at night. But for the whole of the day, there is no disguising it, you must put yourself in the same category with Mrs. Wragge -- you must keep your room."
"What is your object in wishing me to do this?" inquired Magdalen.
"My object is twofold," replied the captain. "I blush for my own stupidity; but the fact is, I can't see my way plainly to Mrs. Lecount's next move. All I feel sure of is, that she means to make another attempt at opening her master's eyes to the truth. Whatever means she may employ to discover your identity, personal communication with you must be necessary to the accomplishment of her object. Very good. If I stop that communication, I put an obstacle in her way at starting -- or, as we say at cards, I force her hand. Do you see the point?"
Magdalen saw it plainly. The captain went on.
"My second reason for shutting you up," he said, "refers entirely to Mrs. Lecount's master. The growth of love, my dear girl, is, in one respect, unlike all other growths -- it flourishes under adverse circumstances. Our first course of action is to make Mr. Noel Vanstone feel the charm of your society. Our next is to drive him distracted by the loss of it. I should have proposed a few more meetings, with a view to furthering this end, but for our present critical position toward Mrs. Lecount. As it is, we must trust to the effect you produced yesterday, and try the experiment of a sudden separation rather sooner than I could have otherwise wished. I shall see Mr. Noel Vanstone, though you don't; and if there is a raw place established anywhere about the region of that gentleman's heart, trust me to hit him on it! You are now in full possession of my views. Take your time to consider, and give me your answer -- Yes or no."
"Any change is for the better," said Magdalen "which keeps me out of the company of Mrs. Lecount and her master! Let it be as you wish."
She had hitherto answered faintly and wearily; but she spoke those last words with a heightened tone and a rising color -- signs which warned Captain Wragge not to press her further.
"Very good," said the captain. "As usual, we understand each other. I see you are tired; and I won't detain you any longer."
He rose to open the door, stopped half-way to it, and came back again. "Leave me to arrange matters with the servant downstairs," he continued. "You can't absolutely keep your bed, and we must purchase the girl's discretion when she answers the door, without taking her into our confidence, of course. I will make her understand that she is to say you are ill, just as she might say you are not at home, as a way of keeping unwelcome acquaintances out of the house. Allow me to open the door for you -- I beg your pardon, you are going into Mrs. Wragge's work-room instead of going to your own."
"I know I am," said Magdalen. "I wish to remove Mrs. Wragge from the miserable room she is in now, and to take her upstairs with me."
"For the evening?"
"For the whole fortnight."
Captain Wragge followed her into the dining-room, and wisely closed the door before he spoke again.
"Do you seriously mean to inflict my wife's society on yourself for a fortnight?" he asked, in great surprise.
"Your wife is the only innocent creature in this guilty house," she burst out vehemently. "I must and will have her with me!"
"Pray don't agitate yourself," said the captain. "Take Mrs. Wragge, by all means. I don't want her." Having resigned the partner of his existence in those terms, he discreetly returned to the parlor. "The weakness of the sex!" thought the captain, tapping his sagacious head. "Lay a strain on the female intellect, and the female temper gives way directly."
The strain to which the captain alluded was not confined that evening to the female intellect at North Shingles: it extended to the female intellect at Sea View. For nearly two hours Mrs. Lecount sat at her desk writing, correcting, and writing again, before she could produce a letter to Miss Vanstone, the elder, which exactly accomplished the object she wanted to attain. At last the rough draft was completed to her satisfaction; and she made a fair copy of it forthwith, to be posted the next day.
Her letter thus produced was a masterpiece of ingenuity. After the first preliminary sentences, the housekeeper plainly informed Norah of the appearance of the visitor in disguise at Vauxhall Walk; of the conversation which passed at the interview; and of her own suspicion that the person claiming to be Miss Garth was, in all probability, the younger Miss Vanstone herself. Having told the truth thus far, Mrs. Lecount next proceeded to say that her master was in possession of evidence which would justify him in putting the law in force; that he knew the conspiracy with which he was threatened to be then in process of direction against him at Aldborough; and that he only hesitated to protect himself in deference to family considerations, and in the hope that the elder Miss Vanstone might so influence her sister as to render it unnecessary to proceed to extremities.
Under these circumstances (the letter continued) it was plainly necessary that the disguised visitor to Vauxhall Walk should be properly identified; for if Mrs. Lecount's guess proved to be wrong, and if the person turned out to be a stranger, Mr. Noel Vanstone was positively resolved to prosecute in his own defense. Events at Aldborough, on which it was not necessary to dwell, would enable Mrs. Lecount in a few days to gain sight of the suspected person in her own character. But as the housekeeper was entirely unacquainted with the younger Miss Vanstone, it was obviously desirable that some better informed person should, in this particular, take the matter in hand. If the elder Miss Vanstone happened to be at liberty to come to Aldborough herself, would she kindly write and say so? and Mrs. Lecount would write back again to appoint a day. If, on the other hand, Miss Vanstone was prevented from taking the journey, Mrs. Lecount suggested that her reply should contain the fullest description of her sister's personal appearance -- should mention any little peculiarities which might exist in the way of marks on her face or her hands -- and should state (in case she had written lately) what the address was in her last letter, and failing that, what the post-mark was on the envelope. With this information to help her, Mrs. Lecount would, in the interest of the misguided young lady herself, accept the responsibility of privately identifying her, and would write back immediately to acquaint the elder Miss Vanstone with the result.
The difficulty of sending this letter to the right address gave Mrs. Lecount very little trouble. Remembering the name of the lawyer who had pleaded the cause of the two sisters in Michael Vanstone's time, she directed her letter to "Miss Vanstone, care of -- -- Pendril, Esquire, London." This she inclosed in a second envelope, addressed to Mr. Noel Vanstone's solicitor, with a line inside, requesting that gentleman to send it at once to the office of Mr. Pendril.
"Now," thought Mrs. Lecount, as she locked the letter up in her desk, preparatory to posting it the next day with her own hand, "now I have got her!"
The next morning the servant from Sea View came, with her master's compliments, to make inquiries after Miss Bygrave's health. Captain Wragge's bulletin was duly announced -- Miss Bygrave was so ill as to be confined to her room.
On the reception of this intelligence, Noel Vanstone's anxiety led him to call at North Shingles himself when he went out for his afternoon walk. Miss Bygrave was no better. He inquired if he could see Mr. Bygrave. The worthy captain was prepared to meet this emergency. He thought a little irritating suspense would do Noel Vanstone no harm, and he had carefully charged the servant, in case of necessity, with her answer: "Mr. Bygrave begged to be excused; he was not able to see any one."
On the second day inquiries were made as before, by message in the morning, and by Noel Vanstone himself in the afternoon. The morning answer (relating to Magdalen) was, "a shade better." The afternoon answer (relating to Captain Wragge) was, "Mr. Bygrave has just gone out." That evening Noel Vanstone's temper was very uncertain, and Mrs. Lecount's patience and tact were sorely tried in the effort to avoid offending him.
On the third morning the report of the suffering young lady was less favorable -- "Miss Bygrave was still very poorly, and not able to leave her bed." The servant returning to Sea View with this message, met the postman, and took into the breakfast-room with her two letters addressed to Mrs. Lecount.
The first letter was in a handwriting familiar to the housekeeper. It was from the medical attendant on her invalid brother at Zurich; and it announced that the patient's malady had latterly altered in so marked a manner for the better that there was every hope now of preserving his life.
The address on the second letter was in a strange handwriting. Mrs. Lecount, concluding that it was the answer from Miss Vanstone, waited to read it until breakfast was over, and she could retire to her own room.
She opened the letter, looked at once for the name at the end, and started a little as she read it. The signature was not "Norah Vanstone," but "Harriet Garth."
Miss Garth announced that the elder Miss Vanstone had, a week since, accepted an engagement as governess, subject to the condition of joining the family of her employer at their temporary residence in the south of France, and of returning with them when they came back to England, probably in a month or six weeks' time. During the interval of this necessary absence Miss Vanstone had requested Miss Garth to open all her letters, her main object in making that arrangement being to provide for the speedy answering of any communication which might arrive for her from her sister. Miss Magdalen Vanstone had not written since the middle of July -- on which occasion the postmark on the letter showed that it must have been posted in London, in the district of Lambeth -- and her elder sister had left England in a state of the most distressing anxiety on her account.
Having completed this explanation, Miss Garth then mentioned that family circumstances prevented her from traveling personally to Aldborough to assist Mrs. Lecount's object, but that she was provided with a substitute; in every way fitter for the purpose, in the person of Mr. Pendril. That gentleman was well acquainted with Miss Magdalen Vanstone, and his professional experience and discretion would render his assistance doubly valuable. He had kindly consented to travel to Aldborough whenever it might be thought necessary. But as his time was very valuable, Miss Garth specially requested that he might not be sent for until Mrs. Lecount was quite sure of the day on which his services might be required.
While proposing this arrangement, Miss Garth added that she thought it right to furnish her correspondent with a written description of the younger Miss Vanstone as well. An emergency might happen which would allow Mrs. Lecount no time for securing Mr. Pendril's services; and the execution of Mr. Noel Vanstone's intentions toward the unhappy girl who was the object of his forbearance might be fatally delayed by an unforeseen difficulty in establishing her identity. The personal description, transmitted under these circumstances, then followed. It omitted no personal peculiarity by which Magdalen could be recognized, and it included the "two little moles close together on the left side of the neck," which had been formerly mentioned in the printed handbills sent to York.
In conclusion, Miss Garth expressed her fears that Mrs. Lecount's suspicions were only too likely to be proved true. While, however, there was the faintest chance that the conspiracy might turn out to be directed by a stranger, Miss Garth felt bound, in gratitude toward Mr. Noel Vanstone, to assist the legal proceedings which would in that case be instituted. She accordingly appended her own formal denial -- which she would personally repeat if necessary -- of any identity between herself and the person in disguise who had made use of her name. She was the Miss Garth who had filled the situation of the late Mr. Andrew Vanstone's governess, and she had never in her life been in, or near, the neighborhood of Vauxhall Wall.
With this disclaimer, and with the writer's fervent assurances that she would do all for Magdalen's advantage which her sister might have done if her sister had been in England, the letter concluded. It was signed in full, and was dated with the business-like accuracy in such matters which had always distinguished Miss Garth's character.
This letter placed a formidable weapon in the housekeeper's hands.
It provided a means of establishing Magdalen's identity through the intervention of a lawyer by profession. It contained a personal description minute enough to be used to advantage, if necessary, before Mr. Pendril's appearance. It presented a signed exposure of the false Miss Garth under the hand of the true Miss Garth; and it established the fact that the last letter received by the elder Miss Vanstone from the younger had been posted (and therefore probably written) in the neighborhood of Vauxhall Walk. If any later letter had been received with the Aldborough postmark, the chain of evidence, so far as the question of localities was concerned, might doubtless have been more complete. But as it was, there was testimony enough (aided as that testimony might be by the fragment of the brown alpaca dress still in Mrs. Lecount's possession) to raise the veil which hung over the conspiracy, and to place Mr. Noel Vanstone face to face with the plain and startling truth.
The one obstacle which now stood in the way of immediate action on the housekeeper's part was the obstacle of Miss Bygrave's present seclusion within the limits of her own room. The question of gaining personal access to her was a question which must be decided before any communication could be opened with Mr. Pendril. Mrs. Lecount put on her bonnet at once, and called at North Shingles to try what discoveries she could make for herself before post-time
On this occasion Mr. Bygrave was at home, and she was admitted without the least difficulty.
Careful consideration that morning had dec ided Captain Wragge on advancing matters a little nearer to the crisis. The means by which he proposed achieving this result made it necessary for him to see the housekeeper and her master separately, and to set them at variance by producing two totally opposite impressions relating to himself on their minds. Mrs. Lecount's visit, therefore, instead of causing him any embarrassment, was the most welcome occurrence he could have wished for. He received her in the parlor with a marked restraint of manner for which she was quite unprepared. His ingratiating smile was gone, and an impenetrable solemnity of countenance appeared in its stead.
"I have ventured to intrude on you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "to express the regret with which both my master and I have heard of Miss Bygrave's illness. Is there no improvement?"
"No, ma'am," replied the captain, as briefly as possible. "My niece is no better."
"I have had some experience, Mr. Bygrave, in nursing. If I could be of any use -- "
"Thank you, Mrs. Lecount. There is no necessity for our taking advantage of your kindness."
This plain answer was followed by a moment's silence. The housekeeper felt some little perplexity. What had become of Mr. Bygrave's elaborate courtesy, and Mr. Bygrave's many words? Did he want to offend her? If he did, Mrs. Lecount then and there determined that he should not gain his object.
"May I inquire the nature of the illness?" she persisted. "It is not connected, I hope, with our excursion to Dunwich?"
"I regret to say, ma'am," replied the captain, "it began with that neuralgic attack in the carriage."
"So! so!" thought Mrs. Lecount. "He doesn't even try to make me think the illness a real one; he throws off the mask at starting. -- Is it a nervous illness, sir?" she added, aloud.
The captain answered by a solemn affirmative inclination of the head.
"Then you have two nervous sufferers in the house, Mr. Bygrave?"
"Yes, ma'am -- two. My wife and my niece."
"That is rather a strange coincidence of misfortunes."
"It is, ma'am. Very strange."
In spite of Mrs. Lecount's resolution not to be offended, Captain Wragge's exasperating insensibility to every stroke she aimed at him began to ruffle her. She was conscious of some little difficulty in securing her self-possession before she could say anything more.
"Is there no immediate hope," she resumed, "of Miss Bygrave being able to leave her room?"
"None whatever, ma'am."
"You are satisfied, I suppose, with the medical attendance?"
"I have no medical attendance," said the captain, composedly. "I watch the case myself."
The gathering venom in Mrs. Lecount swelled up at that reply, and overflowed at her lips.
"Your smattering of science, sir," she said, with a malicious smile, "includes, I presume, a smattering of medicine as well?"
"It does, ma'am," answered the captain, without the slightest disturbance of face or manner. "I know as much of one as I do of the other."
The tone in which he spoke those words left Mrs. Lecount but one dignified alternative. She rose to terminate the interview. The temptation of the moment proved too much for her, and she could not resist casting the shadow of a threat over Captain Wragge at parting.
"I defer thanking you, sir, for the manner in which you have received me," she said, "until I can pay my debt of obligation to some purpose. In the meantime I am glad to infer, from the absence of a medical attendant in the house, that Miss Bygrave's illness is much less serious than I had supposed it to be when I came here."
"I never contradict a lady, ma'am," rejoined the incorrigible captain. "If it is your pleasure, when we next meet to think my niece quite well, I shall bow resignedly to the expression of your opinion." With those words, he followed the housekeeper into the passage, and politely opened the door for her. "I mark the trick, ma'am!" he said to himself, as he closed it again. "The trump-card in your hand is a sight of my niece, and I'll take care you don't play it!"
He returned to the parlor, and composedly awaited the next event which was likely to happen -- a visit from Mrs. Lecount's master. In less than an hour results justified Captain Wragge's anticipations, and Noel Vanstone walked in.
"My dear sir!" cried the captain, cordially seizing his visitor's reluctant hand, "I know what you have come for. Mrs. Lecount has told you of her visit here, and has no doubt declared that my niece's illness is a mere subterfuge. You feel surprised -- you feel hurt -- you suspect me of trifling with your kind sympathies -- in short, you require an explanation. That explanation you shall have. Take a seat. Mr. Vanstone. I am about to throw myself on your sense and judgment as a man of the world. I acknowledge that we are in a false position, sir; and I tell you plainly at the outset -- your housekeeper is the cause of it."
For once in his life, Noel Vanstone opened his eyes. "Lecount!" he exclaimed, in the utmost bewilderment.
"The same, sir," replied Captain Wragge. "I am afraid I offended Mrs. Lecount, when she came here this morning, by a want of cordiality in my manner. I am a plain man, and I can't assume what I don't feel. Far be it from me to breathe a word against your housekeeper's character. She is, no doubt, a most excellent and trustworthy woman, but she has one serious failing common to persons at her time of life who occupy her situation -- she is jealous of her influence over her master, although you may not have observed it."
"I beg your pardon," interposed Noel Vanstone; "my observation is remarkably quick. Nothing escapes me."
"In that case, sir," resumed the captain, "you cannot fail to have noticed that Mrs. Lecount has allowed her jealousy to affect her conduct toward my niece?"
Noel Vanstone thought of the domestic passage at arms between Mrs. Lecount and himself when his guests of the evening had left Sea View, and failed to see his way to any direct reply. He expressed the utmost surprise and distress -- he thought Lecount had done her best to be agreeable on the drive to Dunwich -- he hoped and trusted there was some unfortunate mistake.
"Do you mean to say, sir," pursued the captain, severely, "that you have not noticed the circumstance yourself? As a man of honor and a man of observation, you can't tell me that! Your housekeeper's superficial civility has not hidden your housekeeper's real feeling. My niece has seen it, and so have you, and so have I. My niece, Mr. Vanstone, is a sensitive, high-spirited girl; and she has positively declined to cultivate Mrs. Lecount's society for the future. Don't misunderstand me! To my niece as well as to myself, the attraction of your society, Mr. Vanstone, remains the same. Miss Bygrave simply declines to be an apple of discord (if you will permit the classical allusion) cast into your household. I think she is right so far, and I frankly confess that I have exaggerated a nervous indisposition, from which she is really suffering, into a serious illness -- purely and entirely to prevent these two ladies for the present from meeting every day on the Parade, and from carrying unpleasant impressions of each other into your domestic establishment and mine."
"I allow nothing unpleasant in my establishment," remarked Noel Vanstone. "I'm master -- you must have noticed that already, Mr. Bygrave -- I'm master."
"No doubt of it, my dear sir. But to live morning, noon, and night in the perpetual exercise of your authority is more like the life of a governor of a prison than the life of a master of a household. The wear and tear -- consider the wear and tear."
"It strikes you in that light, does it?" said Noel Vanstone, soothed by Captain Wragge's ready recognition of his authority. "I don't know that you're not right. But I must take some steps directly. I won't be made ridiculous -- I'll send Lecount away altogether, sooner than be made ridiculous." His color rose, and he folded his little arms fiercely. Captain Wragge's artfullyirritating explanation had awakened that dormant suspicion of his housekee per's influence over him which habitually lay hidden in his mind, and which Mrs. Lecount was n ow not present to charm back to repose as usual. "What must Miss Bygrave think of me!" he exclaimed, with a sudden outburst of vexation. "I'll send Lecount away. Damme, I'll send Lecount away on the spot!"
"No, no, no!" said the captain, whose interest it was to avoid driving Mrs. Lecount to any desperate extremities. "Why take strong measures when mild measures will do? Mrs. Lecount is an old servant; Mrs. Lecount is attached and useful. She has this little drawback of jealousy -- jealousy of her domestic position with her bachelor master. She sees you paying courteous attention to a handsome young lady; she sees that young lady properly sensible of your politeness; and, poor soul, she loses her temper! What is the obvious remedy? Humor her -- make a manly concession to the weaker sex. If Mrs. Lecount is with you, the next time we meet on the Parade, walk the other way. If Mrs. Lecount is not with you, give us the pleasure of your company by all means. In short, my dear sir, try the suaviter in modo (as we classical men say) before you commit yourself to the fortiter in re!"
There was one excellent reason why Noel Vanstone should take Captain Wragge's conciliatory advice. An open rupture with Mrs. Lecount -- even if he could have summoned the courage to face it -- would imply the recognition of her claims to a provision, in acknowledgment of the services she had rendered to his father and to himself. His sordid nature quailed within him at the bare prospect of expressing the emotion of gratitude in a pecuniary form; and, after first consulting appearances by a show of hesitation, he consented to adopt the captain's suggestion, and to humor Mrs. Lecount.
"But I must be considered in this matter," proceeded Noel Vanstone. "My concession to Lecount's weakness must not be misunderstood. Miss Bygrave must not be allowed to suppose I am afraid of my housekeeper."
The captain declared that no such idea ever had entered, or ever could enter, Miss Bygrave's mind. Noel Vanstone returned to the subject nevertheless, again and again, with his customary pertinacity. Would it be indiscreet if he asked leave to set himself right personally with Miss Bygrave? Was there any hope that he might have the happiness of seeing her on that day? or, if not, on the next day? or if not, on the day after? Captain Wragge answered cautiously: he felt the importance of not rousing Noel Vanstone's distrust by too great an alacrity in complying with his wishes.
"An interview to-day, my dear sir, is out of the question," he said. "She is not well enough; she wants repose. To-morrow I propose taking her out before the heat of the day begins -- not merely to avoid embarrassment, after what has happened with Mrs. Lecount, but because the morning air and the morning quiet are essential in these nervous cases. We are early people here -- we shall start at seven o'clock. If you are early, too, and if you would like to join us, I need hardly say that we can feel no objection to your company on our morning walk. The hour, I am aware, is an unusual one -- but later in the day my niece may be resting on the sofa, and may not be able to see visitors."
Having made this proposal purely for the purpose of enabling Noel Vanstone to escape to North Shingles at an hour in the morning when his housekeeper would be probably in bed, Captain Wragge left him to take the hint, if he could, as indirectly as it had been given. He proved sharp enough (the case being one in which his own interests were concerned) to close with the proposal on the spot. Politely declaring that he was always an early man when the morning presented any special attraction to him, he accepted the appointment for seven o'clock, and rose soon afterward to take his leave.
"One word at parting," said Captain Wragge. "This conversation is entirely between ourselves. Mrs. Lecount must know nothing of the impression she has produced on my niece. I have only mentioned it to you to account for my apparently churlish conduct and to satisfy your own mind. In confidence, Mr. Vanstone -- strictly in confidence. Good-morning!"
With these parting words, the captain bowed his visitor out. Unless some unexpected disaster occurred, he now saw his way safely to the end of the enterprise. He had gained two important steps in advance that morning. He had sown the seeds of variance between the housekeeper and her master, and he had given Noel Vanstone a common interest with Magdalen and himself, in keeping a secret from Mrs. Lecount. "We have caught our man," thought Captain Wragge, cheerfully rubbing his hands -- "we have caught our man at last!"
On leaving North Shingles Noel Vanstone walked straight home, fully restored to his place in his own estimation, and sternly determined to carry matters with a high hand if he found himself in collision with Mrs. Lecount.
The housekeeper received her master at the door with her mildest manner and her gentlest smile. She addressed him with downcast eyes; she opposed to his contemplated assertion of independence a barrier of impenetrable respect.
"May I venture to ask, sir," she began, "if your visit to North Shingles has led you to form the same conclusion as mine on the subject of Miss Bygrave's illness?"
"Certainly not, Lecount. I consider your conclusion to have been both hasty and prejudiced."
"I am sorry to hear it, sir. I felt hurt by Mr. Bygrave's rude reception of me, but I was not aware that my judgment was prejudiced by it. Perhaps he received you, sir, with a warmer welcome?"
"He received me like a gentleman -- that is all I think it necessary to say, Lecount -- he received me like a gentleman."
This answer satisfied Mrs. Lecount on the one doubtful point that had perplexed her. Whatever Mr. Bygrave's sudden coolness toward herself might mean, his polite reception of her master implied that the risk of detection had not daunted him, and that the plot was still in full progress. The housekeeper's eyes brightened; she had expressly calculated on this result. After a moment's thinking, she addressed her master with another question: "You will probably visit Mr. Bygrave again, sir?"
"Of course I shall visit him -- if I please."
"And perhaps see Miss Bygrave, if she gets better?"
"Why not? I should be glad to know why not? Is it necessary to ask your leave first, Lecount?"
"By no means, sir. As you have often said (and as I have often agreed with you), you are master. It may surprise you to hear it, Mr. Noel, but I have a private reason for wishing that you should see Miss Bygrave again."
Mr. Noel started a little, and looked at his housekeeper with some curiosity.
"I have a strange fancy of my own, sir, about that young lady," proceeded Mrs. Lecount. "If you will excuse my fancy, and indulge it, you will do me a favor for which I shall be very grateful."
"A fancy?" repeated her master, in growing surprise. "What fancy?"
"Only this, sir," said Mrs. Lecount.
She took from one of the neat little pockets of her apron a morsel of note-paper, carefully folded into the smallest possible compass, and respectfully placed it in Noel Vanstone's hands.
"If you are willing to oblige an old and faithful servant, Mr. Noel," she said, in a very quiet and very impressive manner, "you will kindly put that morsel of paper into your waistcoat pocket; you will open and read it, for the first time, when you are next in Miss Bygrave's company, and you will say nothing of what has now passed between us to any living creature, from this time to that. I promise to explain my strange request, sir, when you have done what I ask, and when your next interview with Miss Bygrave has come to an end."
She courtesied with her best grace, and quietly left the room.
Noel Vanstone looked from the folded paper to the door, and from the door back to the folded paper, in unutterable astonishment. A mystery in his own house! under his own nose! What did it mean?"
It meant that Mrs. Lecount had not wasted her time that morning. While the captain was casting the net over his visitor at North Shingles, the housekeeper was steadily mining the ground under his feet. The folded paper contained nothin g less than a carefully written extract from the personal description of Magdalen in Miss Garth's letter. With a daring ingenuity which even Captain Wragge might have envied, Mrs. Lecount had found her instrument for exposing the conspiracy in the unsuspecting person of the victim himself!Next