ON returning to the house, Captain Wragge received a significant message from the servant. "Mr. Noel Vanstone would call again at two o'clock that afternoon, when he hoped to have the pleasure of finding Mr. Bygrave at home."
The captain's first inquiry after hearing this message referred to Magdalen. "Where was Miss Bygrave?" "In her own room." "Where was Mrs. Bygrave?" "In the back parlor." Captain Wragge turned his steps at once in the latter direction, and found his wife, for the second time, in tears. She had been sent out of Magdalen's room for the whole day, and she was at her wits' end to know what she had done to deserve it. Shortening her lamentations without ceremony, her husband sent her upstairs on t he spot, with instructions to knock at the door, and to inquire whether Magdalen could give five minutes' attention to a question of importance which must be settled before two o'clock.
The answer returned was in the negative. Magdalen requested that the subject on which she was asked to decide might be mentioned to her in writing. She engaged to reply in the same way, on the understanding that Mrs. Wragge, and not the servant, should be employed to deliver the note and to take back the answer.
Captain Wragge forthwith opened his paper-case and wrote these lines: "Accept my warmest congratulations on the result of your interview with Mr. N. V. He is coming again at two o'clock -- no doubt to make his proposals in due form. The question to decide is, whether I shall press him or not on the subject of settlements. The considerations for your own mind are two in number. First, whether the said pressure (without at all underrating your influence over him) may not squeeze for a long time before it squeezes money out of Mr. N. V. Secondly, whether we are altogether justified -- considering our present position toward a certain sharp practitioner in petticoats -- in running the risk of delay. Consider these points, and let me have your decision as soon as convenient."
The answer returned to this note was written in crooked, blotted characters, strangely unlike Magdalen's usually firm and clear handwriting. It only contained these words: "Give yourself no trouble about settlements. Leave the use to which he is to put his money for the future in my hands."
"Did you see her?" asked the captain, when his wife had delivered the answer.
"I tried," said Mrs. Wragge, with a fresh burst of tears -- "but she only opened the door far enough to put out her hand. I took and gave it a little squeeze -and, oh poor soul, it felt so cold in mine!"
When Mrs. Lecount's master made his appearance at two o'clock, he stood alarmingly in need of an anodyne application from Mrs. Lecount's green fan. The agitation of making his avowal to Magdalen; the terror of finding himself discovered by the housekeeper; the tormenting suspicion of the hard pecuniary conditions which Magdalen's relative and guardian might impose on him -- all these emotions, stirring in conflict together, had overpowered his feebly-working heart with a trial that strained it sorely. He gasped for breath as he sat down in the parlor at North Shingles, and that ominous bluish pallor which always overspread his face in moments of agitation now made its warning appearance again. Captain Wragge seized the brandy bottle in genuine alarm, and forced his visitor to drink a wine-glassful of the spirit before a word was said between them on either side.
Restored by the stimulant, and encouraged by the readiness with which the captain anticipated everything that he had to say, Noel Vanstone contrived to state the serious object of his visit in tolerably plain terms. All the conventional preliminaries proper to the occasion were easily disposed of. The suitor's family was respectable; his position in life was undeniably satisfactory; his attachment, though hasty, was evidently disinterested and sincere. All that Captain Wragge had to do was to refer to these various considerations with a happy choice of language in a voice that trembled with manly emotion, and this he did to perfection. For the first half-hour of the interview, no allusion whatever was made to the delicate and dangerous part of the subject. The captain waited until he had composed his visitor, and when that result was achieved came smoothly to the point in these terms:
"There is one little difficulty, Mr. Vanstone, which I think we have both overlooked. Your housekeeper's recent conduct inclines me to fear that she will view the approaching change in your life with anything but a friendly eye. Probably you have not thought it necessary yet to inform her of the new tie which you propose to form?"
Noel Vanstone turned pale at the bare idea of explaining himself to Mrs. Lecount.
"I can't tell what I'm to do," he said, glancing aside nervously at the window, as if he expected to see the housekeeper peeping in. "I hate all awkward positions, and this is the most unpleasant position I ever was placed in. You don't know what a terrible woman Lecount is. I'm not afraid of her; pray don't suppose I'm afraid of her -- "
At those words his fears rose in his throat, and gave him the lie direct by stopping his utterance.
"Pray don't trouble yourself to explain," said Captain Wragge, coming to the rescue. "This is the common story, Mr. Vanstone. Here is a woman who has grown old in your service, and in your father's service before you; a woman who has contrived, in all sorts of small, underhand ways, to presume systematically on her position for years and years past; a woman, in short, whom your inconsiderate but perfectly natural kindness has allowed to claim a right of property in you -- "
"Property!" cried Noel Vanstone, mistaking the captain, and letting the truth escape him through sheer inability to conceal his fears any longer. "I don't know what amount of property she won't claim. She'll make me pay for my father as well as for myself. Thousands, Mr. Bygrave -- thousands of pounds sterling out of my pocket!!!" He clasped his hands in despair at the picture of pecuniary compulsion which his fancy had conjured up -- his own golden life-blood spouting from him in great jets of prodigality, under the lancet of Mrs. Lecount.
"Gently, Mr. Vanstone -- gently! The woman knows nothing so far, and the money is not gone yet."
"No, no; the money is not gone, as you say. I'm only nervous about it; I can't help being nervous. You were saying something just now; you were going to give me advice. I value your advice; you don't know how highly I value your advice." He said those words with a conciliatory smile which was more than helpless; it was absolutely servile in its dependence on his judicious friend.
"I was only assuring you, my dear sir, that I understood your position," said the captain. "I see your difficulty as plainly as you can see it yourself. Tell a woman like Mrs. Lecount that she must come off her domestic throne, to make way for a young and beautiful successor, armed with the authority of a wife, and an unpleasant scene must be the inevitable result. An unpleasant scene, Mr. Vanstone, if your opinion of your housekeeper's sanity is well founded. Something far more serious, if my opinion that her intellect is unsettled happens to turn out the right one."
"I don't say it isn't my opinion, too," rejoined Noel Vanstone. "Especially after what has happened to-day."
Captain Wragge immediately begged to know what the event alluded to might be.
Noel Vanstone thereupon explained -- with an infinite number of parentheses all referring to himself -- that Mrs. Lecount had put the dreaded question relating to the little note in her master's pocket barely an hour since. He had answered her inquiry as Mr. Bygrave had advised him. On hearing that the accuracy of the personal description had been fairly put to the test, and had failed in the one important particular of the moles on the neck, Mrs. Lecount had considered a little, and had then asked him whether he had shown her note to Mr. Bygrave before the experiment was tried. He had answered in the negative, as the only safe form of reply that he could think of on the spur of the moment, and the housekeeper had then addressed him in these strange and startling words: "You are keeping the truth from me, Mr. Noel. You are trusting strangers, and doubting your old servant and your old friend. Every time you go to Mr. Bygrave's house, every time you see Miss Bygrave, you are drawing nearer and nearer to your destruction. They have got the bandage over your eyes in spite of me; but I tell them, and tell you, before many days are over I will take it off!" To this extraordinary outbreak -- accompanied as it was by an expression in Mrs. Lecount's face which he had never seen there before -- Noel Vanstone had made no reply. Mr. Bygrave's conviction that there was a lurking taint of insanity in the hou sekeeper's blood had recurred to his memory, and he had left the room at the first opportun ity.
Captain Wragge listened with the closest attention to the narrative thus presented to him. But one conclusion could be drawn from it -- it was a plain warning to him to hasten the end.
"I am not surprised," he said, gravely, "to hear that you are inclining more favorably to my opinion. After what you have just told me, Mr. Vanstone, no sensible man could do otherwise. This is becoming serious. I hardly know what results may not be expected to follow the communication of your approaching change in life to Mrs. Lecount. My niece may be involved in those results. She is nervous; she is sensitive in the highest degree; she is the innocent object of this woman's unreasoning hatred and distrust. You alarm me, sir! I am not easily thrown off my balance, but I acknowledge you alarm me for the future." He frowned, shook his head, and looked at his visitor despondently.
Noel Vanstone began to feel uneasy. The change in Mr. Bygrave's manner seemed ominous of a reconsideration of his proposals from a new and unfavorable point of view. He took counsel of his inborn cowardice and his inborn cunning, and proposed a solution of the difficulty discovered by himself.
"Why should we tell Lecount at all?" he asked. "What right has Lecount to know? Can't we be married without letting her into the secret? And can't somebody tell her afterward when we are both out of her reach?"
Captain Wragge received this proposal with an expression of surprise which did infinite credit to his power of control over his own countenance. His foremost object throughout the interview had been to conduct it to this point, or, in other words, to make the first idea of keeping the marriage a secret from Mrs. Lecount emanate from Noel Vanstone instead of from himself. No one knew better than the captain that the only responsibilities which a weak man ever accepts are responsibilities which can be perpetually pointed out to him as resting exclusively on his own shoulders.
"I am accustomed to set my face against clandestine proceedings of all kinds," said Captain Wragge. "But there are exceptions to the strictest rules; and I am bound to admit, Mr. Vanstone, that your position in this matter is an exceptional position, if ever there was one yet. The course you have just proposed -- however unbecoming I may think it, however distasteful it may be to myself -- would not only spare you a very serious embarrassment(to say the least of it), but would also protect you from the personal assertion of those pecuniary claims on the part of your housekeeper to which you have already adverted. These are both desirable results to achieve -- to say nothing of the removal, on my side, of all apprehension of annoyance to my niece. On the other hand, however, a marriage solemnized with such privacy as you propose must be a hasty marriage; for, as we are situated, the longer the delay the greater will be the risk that our secret may escape our keeping. I am not against hasty marriages where a mutual flame is fanned by an adequate income. My own was a love-match contracted in a hurry. There are plenty of instances in the experience of every one, of short courtships and speedy marriages, which have turned up trumps -- I beg your pardon -- which have turned out well after all. But if you and my niece, Mr. Vanstone, are to add one to the number of these eases, the usual preliminaries of marriage among the higher classes must be hastened by some means. You doubtless understand me as now referring to the subject of settlements."
"I'll take another teaspoonful of brandy," said Noel Vanstone, holding out his glass with a trembling hand as the word "settlements" passed Captain Wragge's lips.
"I'll take a teaspoonful with you," said the captain, nimbly dismounting from the pedestal of his respectability, and sipping his brandy with the highest relish. Noel Vanstone, after nervously following his host's example, composed himself to meet the coming ordeal, with reclining head and grasping hands, in the position familiarly associated to all civilized humanity with a seat in a dentist's chair.
The captain put down his empty glass and got up again on his pedestal.
"We were talking of settlements," he resumed. "I have already mentioned, Mr. Vanstone, at an early period of our conversation, that my niece presents the man of her choice with no other dowry than the most inestimable of all gifts -- the gift of herself. This circumstance, however (as you are no doubt aware), does not disentitle me to make the customary stipulations with her future husband. According to the usual course in this matter, my lawyer would see yours -consultations would take place -- delays would occur -- strangers would be in possession of your intentions -- and Mrs. Lecount would, sooner or later, arrive at that knowledge of the truth which you are anxious to keep from her. Do you agree with me so far?"
Unutterable apprehension closed Noel Vanstone's lips. He could only reply by an inclination of the head.
"Very good," said the captain. "Now, sir, you may possibly have observed that I am a man of a very original turn of mind. If I have not hitherto struck you in that light, it may then be necessary to mention that there are some subjects on which I persist in thinking for myself. The subject of marriage settlements is one of them. What, let me ask you, does a parent or guardian in my present condition usually do? After having trusted the man whom he has chosen for his son-in-law with the sacred deposit of a woman's happiness, he turns round on that man, and declines to trust him with the infinitely inferior responsibility of providing for her pecuniary future. He fetters his son-in-law with the most binding document the law can produce, and employs with the husband of his own child the same precautions which he would use if he were dealing with a stranger and a rogue. I call such conduct as this inconsistent and unbecoming in the last degree. You will not find it my course of conduct, Mr. Vanstone -- you will not find me preaching what I don't practice. If I trust you with my niece, I trust you with every inferior responsibility toward her and toward me. Give me your hand, sir; tell me, on your word of honor, that you will provide for your wife as becomes her position and your means, and the question of settlements is decided between us from this moment at once and forever!" Having carried out Magdalen's instructions in this lofty tone, he threw open his respectable frockcoat, and sat with head erect and hand extended, the model of parental feeling and the picture of human integrity.
For one moment Noel Vanstone remained literally petrified by astonishment. The, next, he started from his chair and wrung the hand of his magnanimous friend in a perfect transport of admiration. Never yet, throughout his long and varied career, had Captain Wragge felt such difficulty in keeping his countenance as he felt now. Contempt for the outburst of miserly gratitude of which he was the object; triumph in the sense of successful conspiracy against a man who had rated the offer of his protection at five pounds; regret at the lost opportunity of effecting a fine stroke of moral agriculture, which his dread of involving himself in coming consequences had forced him to let slip -- all these varied emotions agitated the captain's mind; all strove together to find their way to the surface through the outlets of his face or his tongue. He allowed Noel Vanstone to keep possession of his hand, and to heap one series of shrill protestations and promises on another, until he had regained his usual mastery over himself. That result achieved, he put the little man back in his chair, and returned forthwith to the subject of Mrs. Lecount.
"Suppose we now revert to the difficulty which we have not conquered yet," said the captain. "Let us say that I do violence to my own habits and feelings; that I allow the considerations I have already mentioned to weigh with me; and that I sanction your wish to be united to my niece without the knowledge of Mrs. Lecount. Allow me to inquire in that case what means you can suggest for the accomplishment of your end?"
"I can't suggest anything," replied Noel Vanstone, helplessly. "Would you object to suggest for me?"
"You are making a bolder request than you think, Mr. Vanstone. I never do things by halves. When I am acting with my customary candor, I am frank (as you know already) to the utmost verge of imprudence. When exceptional circumstances compel me to take an opposite course, there isn't a slyer fox alive than I am. If, at your express request, I take off my honest English coat here and put on a Jesuit's gown -- if, purely out of sympathy for your awkward position, I consent to keep your secret for you from Mrs. Lecount -- I must have no unseasonable scruples to contend with on your part. If it is neck or nothing on my side, sir, it must be neck or nothing on yours also."
"Neck or nothing, by all means," said Noel Vanstone, briskly -- "on the understanding that you go first. I have no scruples about keeping Lecount in the dark. But she is devilish cunning, Mr. Bygrave. How is it to be done?"
"You shall hear directly," replied the captain. "Before I develop my views, I should like to have your opinion on an abstract question of morality. What do you think, my dear sir, of pious frauds in general?"
Noel Vanstone looked a little embarrassed by the question.
"Shall I put it more plainly?" continued Captain Wragge. "What do you say to the universally-accepted maxim that 'all stratagems are fair in love and war'? -Yes or No?"
"Yes!" answered Noel Vanstone, with the utmost readiness.
"One more question and I have done," said the captain. "Do you see any particular objection to practicing a pious fraud on Mrs. Lecount?"
Noel Vanstone's resolution began to falter a little.
"Is Lecount likely to find it out?" he asked cautiously.
"She can't possibly discover it until you are married and out of her reach."
"You are sure of that?"
"Play any trick you like on Lecount," said Noel Vanstone, with an air of unutterable relief. "I have had my suspicions lately that she is trying to domineer over me; I am beginning to feel that I have borne with Lecount long enough. I wish I was well rid of her."
"You shall have your wish," said Captain Wragge. "You shall be rid of her in a week or ten days."
Noel Vanstone rose eagerly and approached the captain's chair.
"You don't say so!" he exclaimed. "How do you mean to send her away?"
"I mean to send her on a journey," replied Captain Wragge.
"From your house at Aldborough to her brother's bedside at Zurich."
Noel Vanstone started back at the answer, and returned suddenly to his chair.
"How can you do that?" he inquired, in the greatest perplexity. "Her brother (hang him!) is much better. She had another letter from Zurich to say so, this morning."
"Did you see the letter?"
"Yes. She always worries about her brother -- she would show it to me."
"Who was it from? and what did it say?"
"It was from the doctor -- he always writes to her. I don't care two straws about her brother, and I don't remember much of the letter, except that it was a short one. The fellow was much better; and if the doctor didn't write again, she might take it for granted that he was getting well. That was the substance of it."
"Did you notice where she put the letter when you gave it her back again?"
"Yes. She put it in the drawer where she keeps her account-books."
"Can you get at that drawer?"
"Of course I can. I have got a duplicate key -- I always insist on a duplicate key of the place where she keeps her account books. I never allow the account-books to be locked up from my inspection: it's a rule of the house."
"Be so good as to get that letter to-day, Mr. Vanstone, without your housekeeper's knowledge, and add to the favor by letting me have it here privately for an hour or two."
"What do you want it for?"
"I have some more questions to ask before I tell you. Have you any intimate friend at Zurich whom you could trust to help you in playing a trick on Mrs. Lecount?"
"What sort of help do you mean?" asked Noel Vanstone.
"Suppose," said the captain, "you were to send a letter addressed to Mrs. Lecount at Aldborough, inclosed in another letter addressed to one of your friends abroad? And suppose you were to instruct that friend to help a harmless practical joke by posting Mrs. Lecount's letter at Zurich? Do you know any one who could be trusted to do that?"
"I know two people who could be trusted!" cried Noel Vanstone. "Both ladies -both spinsters -- both bitter enemies of Lecount's. But what is your drift, Mr. Bygrave? Though I am not usually wanting in penetration, I don't altogether see your drift."
"You shall see it directly, Mr. Vanstone."
With those words he rose, withdrew to his desk in the corner of the room, and wrote a few lines on a sheet of note-paper. After first reading them carefully to himself, he beckoned to Noel Vanstone to come and read them too.
"A few minutes since," said the captain, pointing complacently to his own composition with the feather end of his pen, "I had the honor of suggesting a pious fraud on Mrs. Lecount. There it is!"
He resigned his chair at the writing-table to his visitor. Noel Vanstone sat down, and read these lines:
MY DEAR MADAM -- Since I last wrote, I deeply regret to inform you that your brother has suffered a relapse. The symptoms are so serious, that it is my painful duty to summon you instantly to his bedside. I am making every effort to resist the renewed progress of the malady, and I have not yet lost all hope of success. But I cannot reconcile it to my conscience to leave you in ignorance of a serious change in my patient for the worse, which may be attended by fatal results. With much sympathy, I remain, etc. etc."
Captain Wragge waited with some anxiety for the effect which this letter might produce. Mean, selfish, and cowardly as he was, even Noel Vanstone might feel some compunction at practicing such a deception as was here suggested on a woman who stood toward him in the position of Mrs. Lecount. She had served him faithfully, however interested her motives might be -- she had lived since he was a lad in the full possession of his father's confidence -- she was living now under the protection of his own roof. Could be fail to remember this; and, remembering it, could he lend his aid without hesitation to the scheme which was now proposed to him? Captain Wragge unconsciously retained belief enough in human nature to doubt it. To his surprise, and, it must be added, to his relief, also, his apprehensions proved to be groundless. The only emotions aroused in Noel Vanstone's mind by a perusal of the letter were a hearty admiration of his friend's idea, and a vainglorious anxiety to claim the credit to himself of being the person who carried it out. Examples may be found every day of a fool who is no coward; examples may be found occasionally of a fool who is not cunning; but it may reasonably be doubted whether there is a producible instance anywhere of a fool who is not cruel.
"Perfect!" cried Noel Vanstone, clapping his hands. "Mr. Bygrave, you are as good as Figaro in the French comedy. Talking of French, there is one serious mistake in this clever letter of yours -- it is written in the wrong language. When the doctor writes to Lecount, he writes in French. Perhaps you meant me to translate it? You can't manage without my help, can you? I write French as fluently as I write English. Just look at me! I'll translate it, while I sit here, in two strokes of the pen."
He completed the translation almost as rapidly as Captain Wragge had produced the original. "Wait a minute!" he cried, in high critical triumph at discovering another defect in the composition of his ingenious friend. "The doctor always dates his letters. Here is no date to yours."
"I leave the date to you," said the captain, with a sardonic smile. "You have discovered the fault, my dear sir -- pray correct it!"
Noel Vanstone mentally looked into the great gulf which separates the faculty that can discover a defect, from the faculty that can apply a remedy, and, following the example of many a wiser man, declined to cross over it.
"I couldn't think of ta king the liberty," he said, politely. "Perhaps you had a motive for leaving the date out?"
"Perhaps I had," replied Captain Wragge, with his easiest good-humor. "The date must depend on the time a letter takes to get to Zurich. I have had no experience on that point -- you must have had plenty of experience in your father's time. Give me the benefit of your information, and we will add the date before you leave the writing-table."
Noel Vanstone's experience was, as Captain Wragge had anticipated, perfectly competent to settle the question of time. The railway resources of the Continent (in the year eighteen hundred and forty-seven) were but scanty; and a letter sent at that period from England to Zurich, and from Zurich back again to England, occupied ten days in making the double journey by post.
"Date the letter in French five days on from to-morrow," said the captain, when he had got his information. "Very good. The next thing is to let me have the doctor's note as soon as you can. I may be obliged to practice some hours before I can copy your translation in an exact imitation of the doctor's handwriting. Have you got any foreign note-paper? Let me have a few sheets, and send, at the same time, an envelope addressed to one of those lady-friends of yours at Zurich, accompanied by the necessary request to post the inclosure. This is all I need trouble you to do, Mr. Vanstone. Don't let me seem inhospitable; but the sooner you can supply me with my materials, the better I shall be pleased. We entirely understand each other, I suppose? Having accepted your proposal for my niece's hand, I sanction a private marriage in consideration of the circumstances on your side. A little harmless stratagem is necessary to forward your views. I invent the stratagem at your request, and you make use of it without the least hesitation. The result is, that in ten days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will be on her way to Switzerland; in fifteen days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will reach Zurich, and discover the trick we have played her; in twenty days from to-morrow Mrs. Lecount will be back at Aldborough, and will find her master's wedding-cards on the table, and her master himself away on his honey-moon trip. I put it arithmetically, for the sake of putting it plain. God bless you. Good-morning!"
"I suppose I may have the happiness of seeing Miss Bygrave to-morrow?" said Noel Vanstone, turning round at the door.
"We must be careful," replied Captain Wragge. "I don't forbid to-morrow, but I make no promise beyond that. Permit me to remind you that we have got Mrs. Lecount to manage for the next ten days."
"I wish Lecount was at the bottom of the German Ocean!" exclaimed Noel Vanstone, fervently. "It's all very well for you to manage her -- you don't live in the house. What am I to do?"
"I'll tell you to-morrow," said the captain. "Go out for your walk alone, and drop in here, as you dropped in to-day, at two o'clock. In the meantime, don't forget those things I want you to send me. Seal them up together in a large envelope. When you have done that, ask Mrs. Lecount to walk out with you as usual; and while she is upstairs putting her bonnet on, send the servant across to me. You understand? Good-morning.
"An hour afterward, the sealed envelope, with its inclosures, reached Captain Wragge in perfect safety. The double task of exactly imitating a strange handwriting, and accurately copying words written in a language with which he was but slightly acquainted, presented more difficulties to be overcome than the captain had anticipated. It was eleven o'clock before the employment which he had undertaken was successfully completed, and the letter to Zurich ready for the post.
Before going to bed, he walked out on the deserted Parade to breathe the cool night air. All the lights were extinguished in Sea-view Cottage, when he looked that way, except the light in the housekeeper's window. Captain Wragge shook his head suspiciously. He had gained experience enough by this time to distrust the wakefulness of Mrs. Lecount.Next