Between The Scenes-Progress Of The Story Through The Post
From George Bartram to Noel Vanstone.
"St. Crux, September 4th, 1847.
"MY DEAR NOEL -- Here are two plain questions at starting. In the name of all that is mysterious, what are you hiding for? And why is everything relating to your marriage kept an impenetrable secret from your oldest friends?
"I have been to Aldborough to try if I could trace you from that place, and have come back as wise as I went. I have applied to your lawyer in London, and have been told, in reply, that you have forbidden him to disclose the place of your retreat to any one without first receiving your permission to do so. All I could prevail on him to say was, that he would forward any letter which might be sent to his care. I write accordingly, and mind this, I expect an answer.
"You may ask, in your ill-tempered way, what business I have to meddle with affairs of yours which it is your pleasure to keep private. My dear Noel, there is a serious reason for our opening communications with you from this house. You don't know what events have taken place at St. Crux since you ran away to get married; and though I detest writing letters, I must lose an hour's shooting to-day in trying to enlighten you.
"On the twenty-third of last month, the admiral and I were disturbed over our wine after dinner by the announcement that a visitor had unexpectedly arrived at St. Crux. Who do you think the visitor was? Mrs. Lecount!
"My uncle, with that old-fashioned bachelor gallantry of his which pays equal respect to all wearers of petticoats, left the table directly to welcome Mrs. Lecount. While I was debating whether I should follow him or not, my meditations were suddenly brought to an end by a loud call from the admiral. I ran into the morning-room, and there was your unfortunate housekeeper on the sofa, with all the women servants about her, more dead than alive. She had traveled from England to Zurich, and from Zurich back again to England, without stopping; and she looked, seriously and literally, at death's door. I immediately agreed with my uncle that the first thing to be done was to send for medical help. We dispatched a groom on the spot, and, at Mrs. Lecount's own request, sent all the servants in a body out of the room.
"As soon as we were alone, Mrs. Lecount surprised us by a singular question. She asked if you had received a letter which she had addressed to you before leaving England at this house. When we told her that the letter had been forwarded, under cover to your friend Mr. Bygrave, by your own particular request, she turned as pale as ashes; and when we added that you had left us in company with this same Mr. Bygrave, she clasped her hands and stared at us as if she had taken leave of her senses. Her next question was, 'Where is Mr. Noel now?' We could only give her one reply -- Mr. Noel had not informed us. She looked perfectly thunderstruck at that answer. 'He has gone to his ruin!' she said. 'He has gone away in company with the greatest villain in England. I must find him! I tell you I must find Mr. Noel! If I don't find him at once, it will be too late. He will be married!' she burst out quite frantically. 'On my honor and my oath, he will be married!' The admiral, incautiously perhaps, but with the best intentions, told her you were married already. She gave a scream that made the windows ring again and dropped back on the sofa in a fainting-fit. The doctor came in the nick of time, and soon brought her to. But she was taken ill the same night; she has grown worse and worse ever since; and the last medical report is, that the fever from which she has been suffering is in a fair way to settle on her brain.
"Now, my dear Noel, neither my uncle nor I have any wish to intrude ourselves on your confidence. We are naturally astonished at the extraordinary mystery which hangs over you and your marriage, and we cannot be blind to the fact that your housekeeper has, apparently, some strong reason of her own for viewing Mrs. Noel Vanstone with an enmity and distrust which we are quite ready to believe that lady has done nothing to deserve. Whatever strange misunderstanding there may have been in your household, is your business (if you choose to keep it to yourself), and not ours. All we have any right to do is to tell you what the doctor says. His patient has been delirious; he declines to answer for her life if she goes on as she is going on now; and he thinks -- finding that she is perpetually talking of her master -- that your presence would be useful in quieting her, if you could come here at once, and exert your influence before it is too late.
"What do you say? Will you emerge from the darkness that surrounds you and come to St. Crux? If this was the case of an ordinary servant, I could understand your hesitating to leave the delights of your honeymoon for any such object as is here proposed to you. But, my dear fellow, Mrs. Lecount is not an ordinary servant. You are under obligations to her fidelity and attachment in your father's time, as well as in your own; and if you can quiet the anxieties which seem to be driving this unfortunate woman mad, I really think you ought to come here and do so. Your leaving Mrs. Noel Vanstone is of course out of the question. There is no necessity for any such hard-hearted proceeding. The admiral desires me to remind you that he is your oldest friend living, and that his house is at your wife's disposal, as it has always been at yours. In this great rambling-place she need dread no near association with the sick-room; and, with all my uncle's oddities, I am sure she will not think the offer of his friendship an offer to be despised.
"Have I told you already that I went to Aldborough to try and find a clew to your whereabouts? I can't be at the trouble of looking back to see; so, if I have told you, I tell you again. The truth is, I made an acquaintance at Aldborough of whom you know something -- at least by report.
"After applying vainly at Sea View, I went to the hotel to inquire about you. The landlady could give me no information; but the moment I mentioned your name, she asked if I was related to you; and when I told her I was your cousin, she said there was a young lady then at the hotel whose name was Vanstone also, who was in great distress about a missing relative, and who might prove of some use to me -- or I to her -- if we knew of each other's errand at Aldborough. I had not the least idea who she was, but I sent in my card at a venture; and in five minutes afterward I found myself in the presence of one of the most charming women these eyes ever looked on.
"Our first words of explanation informed me that my family name was known to her by repute. Who do you think she was? The eldest daughter of my uncle and yours -- Andrew Vanstone. I had often heard my poor mother in past years speak of her brother Andrew, and I knew of that sad story at Combe-Raven. But our families, as you are aware, had always been estranged, and I had never seen my charming cousin before. She has the dark eyes and hair, and the gentle, retiring manners that I always admire in a woman. I don't want to renew our old disagreement about your father's conduct to those two sisters, or to deny that his brother Andrew may have behaved badly to him; I am willing to admit that the high moral position he took in the matter is quite unassailable by such a miserable sinner as I am; and I will not dispute that my own spendthrift habits incapacitate me from offering any opinion on the conduct of other people's pecuniary affairs. But, with all these allowances and drawbacks, I can tell you one thing, Noel. If you ever see the elder Miss Vanstone, I venture to prophesy that, for the first time in your life, you will doubt the propriety of following your father's example.
"She told me her little story, poor thing, most simply and unaffectedly. She is now occupying her second situation as a governess -- and, as usual, I, who know everybody, know the family. They are friends of my uncle's, whom he has lost sight of latterly -- the Tyrrels of Portland Place -- and they treat Miss Vanstone with as much kindness and consideration as if she was a member of the family. One of their old servants accompanied her to Aldborough, her object in traveling to that place being what the landlady of the hotel had stated it to be. The family reverses have, it seems, had a serious effect on Miss Vanstone's younger sister, who has left her friends and who has been missing from home for some time. She had been last heard of at Aldborough; and her elder sister, on her return from the Continent with the Tyrrels, had instantly set out to make inquiries at that place.
"This was all Miss Vanstone told me. She asked whether you had seen anything of her sister, or whether Mrs. Lecount knew anything of her sister -- I suppose because she was aware you had been at Aldborough. Of course I could tell her nothing. She entered into no details on the subject, and I could not presume to ask her for any. All I did was to set to work with might and main to assist her inquiries. The attempt was an utter failure; nobody could give us any information. We tried personal description of course; and strange to say, the only young lady formerly staying at Aldborough who answered the description was, of all the people in the world, the lady you have married! If she had not had an uncle and aunt (both of whom have left the place), I should have begun to suspect that you had married your cousin without knowing it! Is this the clew to the mystery? Don't be angry; I must have my little joke, and I can't help writing as carelessly as I talk. The end of it was, our inquiries were all baffled, and I traveled back with Miss Vanstone and her attendant as far as our station here. I think I shall call on the Tyrrels when I am next in London. I have certainly treated that family with the most inexcusable neglect.
"Here I am at the end of my third sheet of note-paper! I don't often take the pen in hand; but when I do, you will agree with me that I am in no hurry to lay it aside again. Treat the rest of my letter as you like, but consider what I have told you about Mrs. Lecount, and remember that time is of consequence.