No Name, by Wilkie Collins

The Third Scene.

Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth.

Chapter 21

The old Archiepiscopal Palace of Lambeth, on the southern bank of the Thames — with its Bishop’s Walk and Garden, and its terrace fronting the river — is an architectural relic of the London of former times, precious to all lovers of the picturesque, in the utilitarian London of the present day. Southward of this venerable structure lies the street labyrinth of Lambeth; and nearly midway, in that part of the maze of houses which is placed nearest to the river, runs the dingy double row of buildings now, as in former days, known by the name of Vauxhall Walk.

The network of dismal streets stretching over the surrounding neighborhood contains a population for the most part of the poorer order. In the thoroughfares where shops abound, the sordid struggle with poverty shows itself unreservedly on the filthy pavement; gathers its forces through the week; and, strengthening to a tumult on Saturday night, sees the Sunday morning dawn in murky gaslight. Miserable women, whose faces never smile, haunt the butchers’ shops in such London localities as these, with relics of the men’s wages saved from the public-house clutched fast in their hands, with eyes that devour the meat they dare not buy, with eager fingers that touch it covetously, as the fingers of their richer sisters touch a precious stone. In this district, as in other districts remote from the wealthy quarters of the metropolis, the hideous London vagabond — with the filth of the street outmatched in his speech, with the mud of the street outdirtied in his clothes — lounges, lowering and brutal, at the street corner and the gin-shop door; the public disgrace of his country, the unheeded warning of social troubles that are yet to come. Here, the loud self-assertion of Modern Progress — which has reformed so much in manners, and altered so little in men — meets the flat contradiction that scatters its pretensions to the winds. Here, while the national prosperity feasts, like another Belshazzar, on the spectacle of its own magnificence, is the Writing on the Wall, which warns the monarch, Money, that his glory is weighed in the balance, and his power found wanting.

Situated in such a neighborhood as this, Vauxhall Walk gains by comparison, and establishes claims to respectability which no impartial observation can fail to recognize. A large proportion of the Walk is still composed of private houses. In the scattered situations where shops appear, those shops are not besieged by the crowds of more populous thoroughfares. Commerce is not turbulent, nor is the public consumer besieged by loud invitations to “buy.” Bird-fanciers have sought the congenial tranquillity of the scene; and pigeons coo, and canaries twitter, in Vauxhall Walk. Second-hand carts and cabs, bedsteads of a certain age, detached carriage-wheels for those who may want one to make up a set, are all to be found here in the same repository. One tributary stream, in the great flood of gas which illuminates London, tracks its parent source to Works established in this locality. Here the followers of John Wesley have set up a temple, built before the period of Methodist conversion to the principles of architectural religion. And here — most striking object of all — on the site where thousands of lights once sparkled; where sweet sounds of music made night tuneful till morning dawned; where the beauty and fashion of London feasted and danced through the summer seasons of a century — spreads, at this day, an awful wilderness of mud and rubbish; the deserted dead body of Vauxhall Gardens mouldering in the open air.

On the same day when Captain Wragge completed the last entry in his Chronicle of Events, a woman appeared at the window of one of the houses in Vauxhall Walk, and removed from the glass a printed paper which had been wafered to it announcing that Apartments were to be let. The apartments consisted of two rooms on the first floor. They had just been taken for a week certain by two ladies who had paid in advance — those two ladies being Magdalen and Mrs. Wragge.

As soon as the mistress of the house had left the room, Magdalen walked to the window, and cautiously looked out from it at the row of buildings opposite. They were of superior pretensions in size and appearance to the other houses in the Walk: the date at which they had been erected was inscribed on one of them, and was stated to be the year 1759. They stood back from the pavement, separated from it by little strips of garden-ground. This peculiarity of position, added to the breadth of the roadway interposing between them and the smaller houses opposite, made it impossible for Magdalen to see the numbers on the doors, or to observe more of any one who might come to the windows than the bare general outline of dress and figure. Nevertheless, there she stood, anxiously fixing her eyes on one house in the row, nearly opposite to her — the house she had looked for before entering the lodgings; the house inhabited at that moment by Noel Vanstone and Mrs. Lecount.

After keeping watch at the window in silence for ten minutes or more, she suddenly looked back into the room, to observe the effect which her behavior might have produced on her traveling companion.

Not the slightest cause appeared for any apprehension in that quarter. Mrs. Wragge was seated at the table absorbed in the arrangement of a series of smart circulars and tempting price-lists, issued by advertising trades-people, and flung in at the cab-windows as they left the London terminus. “I’ve often heard tell of light reading,” said Mrs. Wragge, restlessly shifting the positions of the circulars as a child restlessly shifts the position of a new set of toys. “Here’s light reading, printed in pretty colors. Here’s all the Things I’m going to buy when I’m out shopping to-morrow. Lend us a pencil, please — you won’t be angry, will you? I do so want to mark ’em off.” She looked up at Magdalen, chuckled joyfully over her own altered circumstances, and beat her great hands on the table in irrepressible delight. “No cookery-book!” cried Mrs. Wragge. “No Buzzing in my head! no captain to shave to-morrow! I’m all down at heel; my cap’s on one side; and nobody bawls at me. My heart alive, here is a holiday and no mistake!” Her hands began to drum on the table louder than ever, until Magdalen quieted them by presenting her with a pencil. Mrs. Wragge instantly recovered her dignity, squared her elbows on the table, and plunged into imaginary shopping for the rest of the evening.

Magdalen returned to the window. She took a chair, seated herself behind the curtain, and steadily fixed her eyes once more on the house opposite.

The blinds were down over the windows of the first floor and the second. The window of the room on the ground-floor was uncovered and partly open, but no living creature came near it. Doors opened, and people came and went, in the houses on either side; children by the dozen poured out on the pavement to play, and invaded the little strips of garden-ground to recover lost balls and shuttlecocks; streams of people passed backward and forward perpetually; heavy wagons piled high with goods lumbered along the road on their way to, or their way from, the railway station near; all the daily life of the district stirred with its ceaseless activity in every direction but one. The hours passed — and there was the house opposite still shut up, still void of any signs of human existence inside or out. The one object which had decided Magdalen on personally venturing herself in Vauxhall Walk — the object of studying the looks, manners and habits of Mrs. Lecount and her master from a post of observation known only to herself — was thus far utterly defeated. After three hours’ watching at the window, she had not even discovered enough to show her that the house was inhabited at all.

Shortly after six o’clock, the landlady disturbed Mrs. Wragge’s studies by spreading the cloth for dinner. Magdalen placed herself at the table in a position which still enabled her to command the view from the window. Nothing happened. The dinner came to an end; Mrs. Wragge (lulled by the narcotic influence of annotating circulars, and eating and drinking with an appetite sharpened by the captain’s absence) withdrew to an arm-chair, and fell asleep in an attitude which would have caused her husband the acutest mental suffering; seven o’clock struck; the shadows of the summer evening lengthened stealthily on the gray pavement and the brown house-walls — and still the closed door opposite remained shut; still the one window open showed nothing but the black blank of the room inside, lifeless and changeless as if that room had been a tomb.

Mrs. Wragge’s meek snoring deepened in tone; the evening wore on drearily; it was close on eight o’clock — when an event happened at last. The street door opposite opened for the first time, and a woman appeared on the threshold.

Was the woman Mrs. Lecount? No. As she came nearer, her dress showed her to be a servant. She had a large door-key in her hand, and was evidently going out to perform an errand. Roused partly by curiosity, partly by the impulse of the moment, which urged her impetuous nature into action after the passive endurance of many hours past, Magdalen snatched up her bonnet, and determined to follow the servant to her destination, wherever it might be.

The woman led her to the great thoroughfare of shops close at hand, called Lambeth Walk. After proceeding some little distance, and looking about her with the hesitation of a person not well acquainted with the neighborhood, the servant crossed the road and entered a stationer’s shop. Magdalen crossed the road after her and followed her in.

The inevitable delay in entering the shop under these circumstances made Magdalen too late to hear what the woman asked for. The first words spoken, however, by the man behind the counter reached her ears, and informed her that the servant’s object was to buy a railway guide.

“Do you mean a Guide for this month or a Guide for July?” asked the shopman, addressing his customer.

“Master didn’t tell me which,” answered the woman. “All I know is, he’s going into the country the day after to-morrow.”

“The day after to-morrow is the first of July,” said the shopman. “The Guide your master wants is the Guide for the new month. It won’t be published till to-morrow.”

Engaging to call again on the next day, the servant left the shop, and took the way that led back to Vauxhall Walk.

Magdalen purchased the first trifle she saw on the counter, and hastily returned in the same direction. The discovery she had just made was of very serious importance to her; and she felt the necessity of acting on it with as little delay as possible.

On entering the front room at the lodgings she found Mrs. Wragge just awake, lost in drowsy bewilderment, with her cap fallen off on her shoulders, and with one of her shoes missing altogether. Magdalen endeavored to persuade her that she was tired after her journey, and that her wisest proceeding would be to go to bed. Mrs. Wragge was perfectly willing to profit by this suggestion, provided she could find her shoe first. In looking for the shoe, she unfortunately discovered the circulars, put by on a side-table, and forthwith recovered her recollection of the earlier proceedings of the evening.

“Give us the pencil,” said Mrs. Wragge, shuffling the circulars in a violent hurry. “I can’t go to bed yet — I haven’t half done marking down the things I want. Let’s see; where did I leave off? Try Finch’s feeding-bottle for Infants. No! there’s a cross against that: the cross means I don’t want it. Comfort in the Field. Buckler’s Indestructible Hunting-breeches. Oh dear, dear! I’ve lost the place. No, I haven’t. Here it is; here’s my mark against it. Elegant Cashmere Robes; strictly Oriental, very grand; reduced to one pound nineteen-and-sixpence. Be in time. Only three left. Only three! Oh, do lend us the money, and let’s go and get one!”

“Not to-night,” said Magdalen. “Suppose you go to bed now, and finish the circulars tomorrow? I will put them by the bedside for you, and you can go on with them as soon as you wake the first thing in the morning.”

This suggestion met with Mrs. Wragge’s immediate approval. Magdalen took her into the next room and put her to bed like a child — with her toys by her side. The room was so narrow, and the bed was so small; and Mrs. Wragge, arrayed in the white apparel proper for the occasion, with her moon-face framed round by a spacious halo of night-cap, looked so hugely and disproportionately large, that Magdalen, anxious as she was, could not repress a smile on taking leave of her traveling companion for the night.

“Aha!” cried Mrs. Wragge, cheerfully; “we’ll have that Cashmere Robe to-morrow. Come here! I want to whisper something to you. Just you look at me — I’m going to sleep crooked, and the captain’s not here to bawl at me!”

The front room at the lodgings contained a sofa-bedstead which the landlady arranged betimes for the night. This done, and the candles brought in, Magdalen was left alone to shape the future course as her own thoughts counseled her.

The questions and answers which had passed in her presence that evening at the stationer’s shop led plainly to the conclusion that one day more would bring Noel Vanstone’s present term of residence in Vauxhall Walk to an end. Her first cautious resolution to pass many days together in unsuspected observation of the house opposite before she ventured herself inside was entirely frustrated by the turn events had taken. She was placed in the dilemma of running all risks headlong on the next day, or of pausing for a future opportunity which might never occur. There was no middle course open to her. Until she had seen Noel Vanstone with her own eyes, and had discovered the worst there was to fear from Mrs. Lecount — until she had achieved this double object, with the needful precaution of keeping her own identity carefully in the dark — not a step could she advance toward the accomplishment of the purpose which had brought her to London.

One after another the minutes of the night passed away; one after another the thronging thoughts followed each other over her mind — and still she reached no conclusion; still she faltered and doubted, with a hesitation new to her in her experience of herself. At last she crossed the room impatiently to seek the trivial relief of unlocking her trunk and taking from it the few things that she wanted for the night. Captain Wragge’s suspicions had not misled him. There, hidden between two dresses, were the articles of costume which he had missed from her box at Birmingham. She turned them over one by one, to satisfy herself that nothing she wanted had been forgotten, and returned once more to her post of observation by the window.

The house opposite was dark down to the parlor. There the blind, previously raised, was now drawn over the window: the light burning behind it showed her for the first time that the room was inhabited. Her eyes brightened, and her color rose as she looked at it.

“There he is!” she said to herself, in a low, angry whisper. “There he lives on our money, in the house that his father’s warning has closed against me!” She dropped the blind which she had raised to look out, returned to her trunk, and took from it the gray wig which was part of her dramatic costume in the character of the North-country lady. The wig had been crumpled in packing; she put it on and went to the toilet-table to comb it out. “His father has warned him against Magdalen Vanstone,” she said, repeating the passage in Mrs. Lecount’s letter, and laughing bitterly, as she looked at herself in the glass. “I wonder whether his father has warned him against Miss Garth? To-morrow is sooner than I bargained for. No matter: to-morrow shall show.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30