In that part of the city of York which is situated on the western bank of the Ouse there is a narrow street, called Skeldergate, running nearly north and south, parallel with the course of the river. The postern by which Skeldergate was formerly approached no longer exists; and the few old houses left in the street are disguised in melancholy modern costume of whitewash and cement. Shops of the smaller and poorer order, intermixed here and there with dingy warehouses and joyless private residences of red brick, compose the present aspect of Skeldergate. On the river-side the houses are separated at intervals by lanes running down to the water, and disclosing lonely little plots of open ground, with the masts of sailing-barges rising beyond. At its southward extremity the street ceases on a sudden, and the broad flow of the Ouse, the trees, the meadows, the public-walk on one bank and the towing-path on the other, open to view.
Here, where the street ends, and on the side of it furthest from the river, a narrow little lane leads up to the paved footway surmounting the ancient Walls of York. The one small row of buildings, which is all that the lane possesses, is composed of cheap lodging-houses, with an opposite view, at the distance of a few feet, of a portion of the massive city wall. This place is called Rosemary Lane. Very little light enters it; very few people live in it; the floating population of Skeldergate passes it by; and visitors to the Walk on the Walls, who use it as the way up or the way down, get out of the dreary little passage as fast as they can.
The door of one of the houses in this lost corner of York opened softly on the evening of the twenty-third of September, eighteen hundred and forty-six; and a solitary individual of the male sex sauntered into Skeldergate from the seclusion of Rosemary Lane.
Turning northward, this person directed his steps toward the bridge over the Ouse and the busy center of the city. He bore the external appearance of respectable poverty; he carried a gingham umbrella, preserved in an oilskin case; he picked his steps, with the neatest avoidance of all dirty places on the pavement; and he surveyed the scene around him with eyes of two different colors — a bilious brown eye on the lookout for employment, and a bilious green eye in a similar predicament. In plainer terms, the stranger from Rosemary Lane was no other than — Captain Wragge.
Outwardly speaking, the captain had not altered for the better since the memorable spring day when he had presented himself to Miss Garth at the lodge-gate at Combe-Raven. The railway mania of that famous year had attacked even the wary Wragge; had withdrawn him from his customary pursuits; and had left him prostrate in the end, like many a better man. He had lost his clerical appearance — he had faded with the autumn leaves. His crape hat-band had put itself in brown mourning for its own bereavement of black. His dingy white collar and cravat had died the death of old linen, and had gone to their long home at the paper-maker’s, to live again one day in quires at a stationer’s shop. A gray shooting-jacket in the last stage of woolen atrophy replaced the black frockcoat of former times, and, like a faithful servant, kept the dark secret of its master’s linen from the eyes of a prying world. From top to toe every square inch of the captain’s clothing was altered for the worse; but the man himself remained unchanged — superior to all forms of moral mildew, impervious to the action of social rust. He was as courteous, as persuasive, as blandly dignified as ever. He carried his head as high without a shirt-collar as ever he had carried it with one. The threadbare black handkerchief round his neck was perfectly tied; his rotten old shoes were neatly blacked; he might have compared chins, in the matter of smooth shaving, with the highest church dignitary in York. Time, change, and poverty had all attacked the captain together, and had all failed alike to get him down on the ground. He paced the streets of York, a man superior to clothes and circumstances — his vagabond varnish as bright on him as ever.
Arrived at the bridge, Captain Wragge stopped and looked idly over the parapet at the barges in the river. It was plainly evident that he had no particular destination to reach and nothing whatever to do. While he was still loitering, the clock of York Minster chimed the half-hour past five. Cabs rattled by him over the bridge on their way to meet the train from London, at twenty minutes to six. After a moment’s hesitation, the captain sauntered after the cabs. When it is one of a man’s regular habits to live upon his fellow-creatures, that man is always more or less fond of haunting large railway stations. Captain Wragge gleaned the human field, and on that unoccupied afternoon the York terminus was as likely a corner to look about in as any other.
He reached the platform a few minutes after the train had arrived. That entire incapability of devising administrative measures for the management of large crowds, which is one of the characteristics of Englishmen in authority, is nowhere more strikingly exemplified than at York. Three different lines of railway assemble three passenger mobs, from morning to night, under one roof; and leave them to raise a traveler’s riot, with all the assistance which the bewildered servants of the company can render to increase the confusion. The customary disturbance was rising to its climax as Captain Wragge approached the platform. Dozens of different people were trying to attain dozens of different objects, in dozens of different directions, all starting from the same common point and all equally deprived of the means of information. A sudden parting of the crowd, near the second-class carriages, attracted the captain’s curiosity. He pushed his way in; and found a decently-dressed man — assisted by a porter and a policeman — attempting to pick up some printed bills scattered from a paper parcel, which his frenzied fellow-passengers had knocked out of his hand.
Offering his assistance in this emergency, with the polite alacrity which marked his character, Captain Wragge observed the three startling words, “Fifty Pounds Reward,” printed in capital letters on the bills which he assisted in recovering; and instantly secreted one of them, to be more closely examined at the first convenient opportunity. As he crumpled up the bill in the palm of his hand, his party-colored eyes fixed with hungry interest on the proprietor of the unlucky parcel. When a man happens not to be possessed of fifty pence in his own pocket, if his heart is in the right place, it bounds; if his mouth is properly constituted, it waters, at the sight of another man who carries about with him a printed offer of fifty pounds sterling, addressed to his fellow-creatures.
The unfortunate traveler wrapped up his parcel as he best might, and made his way off the platform, after addressing an inquiry to the first official victim of the day’s passenger-traffic, who was sufficiently in possession of his senses to listen to it. Leaving the station for the river-side, which was close at hand, the stranger entered the ferryboat at the North Street Postern. The captain, who had carefully dogged his steps thus far, entered the boat also; and employed the short interval of transit to the opposite bank in a perusal of the handbill which he had kept for his own private enlightenment. With his back carefully turned on the traveler, Captain Wragge now possessed his mind of the following lines:
“FIFTY POUNDS REWARD.
“Left her home, in London, early on the morning of September 23d, 1846, A YOUNG LADY. Age — eighteen. Dress — deep mourning. Personal appearance — hair of a very light brown; eyebrows and eyelashes darker; eyes light gray; complexion strikingly pale; lower part of her face large and full; tall upright figure; walks with remarkable grace and ease; speaks with openness and resolution; has the manners and habits of a refined, cultivated lady. Personal marks — two little moles, close together, on the left side of the neck. Mark on the under-clothing — ‘Magdalen Vanstone.’ Is supposed to have joined, or attempted to join, under an assumed name, a theatrical company now performing at York. Had, when she left London, one black box, and no other luggage. Whoever will give such information as will restore her to her friends shall receive the above Reward. Apply at the office of Mr. Harkness, solicitor, Coney Street, York. Or to Messrs. Wyatt, Pendril, and Gwilt, Serle Street, Lincoln’s Inn, London.”
Accustomed as Captain Wragge was to keep the completest possession of himself in all hum an emergencies, his own profound astonishment, when the course of his reading brought him to the mark on the linen of the missing young lady, betrayed him into an exclamation of surprise which even startled the ferryman. The traveler was less observant; his whole attention was fixed on the opposite bank of the river, and he left the boat hastily the moment it touched the landing-place. Captain Wragge recovered himself, pocketed the handbill, and followed his leader for the second time.
The stranger directed his steps to the nearest street which ran down to the river, compared a note in his pocketbook with the numbers of the houses on the left-hand side, stopped at one of them, and rang the bell. The captain went on to the next house; affected to ring the bell, in his turn, and stood with his back to the traveler — in appearance, waiting to be let in; in reality, listening with all his might for any scraps of dialogue which might reach his ears on the opening of the door behind him.
The door was answered with all due alacrity, and a sufficiently instructive interchange of question and answer on the threshold rewarded the dexterity of Captain Wragge.
“Does Mr. Huxtable live here?” asked the traveler.
“Yes, sir,” was the answer, in a woman’s voice.
“Is he at home?”
“Not at home now, sir; but he will be in again at eight to-night.”
“I think a young lady called here early in the day, did she not?”
“Yes; a young lady came this afternoon.”
“Exactly; I come on the same business. Did she see Mr. Huxtable?”
“No, sir; he has been away all day. The young lady told me she would come back at eight o’clock.”
“Just so. I will call and see Mr. Huxtable at the same time.”
“Any name, sir?”
“No; say a gentleman called on theatrical business — that will be enough. Wait one minute, if you please. I am a stranger in York; will you kindly tell me which is the way to Coney Street?”
The woman gave the required information, the door closed, and the stranger hastened away in the direction of Coney Street.
On this occasion Captain Wragge made no attempt to follow him. The handbill revealed plainly enough that the man’s next object was to complete the necessary arrangements with the local solicitor on the subject of the promised reward.
Having seen and heard enough for his immediate purpose, the captain retraced his steps down the street, turned to the right, and entered on the Esplanade, which, in that quarter of the city, borders the river-side between the swimming-baths and Lendal Tower. “This is a family matter,” said Captain Wragge to himself, persisting, from sheer force of habit, in the old assertion of his relationship to Magdalen’s mother; “I must consider it in all its bearings.” He tucked the umbrella under his arm, crossed his hands behind him, and lowered himself gently into the abyss of his own reflections. The order and propriety observable in the captain’s shabby garments accurately typified the order and propriety which distinguished the operations of the captain’s mind. It was his habit always to see his way before him through a neat succession of alternatives — and so he saw it now.
Three courses were open to him in connection with the remarkable discovery which he had just made. The first course was to do nothing in the matter at all. Inadmissible, on family grounds: equally inadmissible on pecuniary grounds: rejected accordingly. The second course was to deserve the gratitude of the young lady’s friends, rated at fifty pounds. The third course was, by a timely warning to deserve the gratitude of the young lady herself, rated — at an unknown figure. Between these two last alternatives the wary Wragge hesitated; not from doubt of Magdalen’s pecuniary resources — for he was totally ignorant of the circumstances which had deprived the sisters of their inheritance — but from doubt whether an obstacle in the shape of an undiscovered gentleman might not be privately connected with her disappearance from home. After mature reflection, he determined to pause, and be guided by circumstances. In the meantime, the first consideration was to be beforehand with the messenger from London, and to lay hands securely on the young lady herself.
“I feel for this misguided girl,” mused the captain, solemnly strutting backward and forward by the lonely river-side. “I always have looked upon her — I always shall look upon her — in the light of a niece.”
Where was the adopted relative at that moment? In other words, how was a young lady in Magdalen’s critical position likely to while away the hours until Mr. Huxtable ‘s return? If there was an obstructive gentleman in the background, it would be mere waste of time to pursue the question. But if the inference which the handbill suggested was correct — if she was really alone at that moment in the city of York — where was she likely to be?
Not in the crowded thoroughfares, to begin with. Not viewing the objects of interest in the Minster, for it was now past the hour at which the cathedral could be seen. Was she in the waiting-room at the railway? She would hardly run that risk. Was she in one of the hotels? Doubtful, considering that she was entirely by herself. In a pastry-cook’s shop? Far more likely. Driving about in a cab? Possible, certainly; but no more. Loitering away the time in some quiet locality, out-of-doors? Likely enough, again, on that fine autumn evening. The captain paused, weighed the relative claims on his attention of the quiet locality and the pastry-cook’s shop; and decided for the first of the two. There was time enough to find her at the pastry — cook’s, to inquire after her at the principal hotels, or, finally, to intercept her in Mr. Huxtable’s immediate neighborhood from seven to eight. While the light lasted, the wise course was to use it in looking for her out-of-doors. Where? The Esplanade was a quiet locality; but she was not there — not on the lonely road beyond, which ran back by the Abbey Wall. Where next? The captain stopped, looked across the river, brightened under the influence of a new idea, and suddenly hastened back to the ferry.
“The Walk on the Walls,” thought this judicious man, with a twinkle of his party-colored eyes. “The quietest place in York; and the place that every stranger goes to see.”
In ten minutes more Captain Wragge was exploring the new field of search. He mounted to the walls (which inclose the whole western portion of the city) by the North Street Postern, from which the walk winds round until it ends again at its southernly extremity in the narrow passage of Rosemary Lane. It was then twenty minutes to seven. The sun had set more than half an hour since; the red light lay broad and low in the cloudless western heaven; all visible objects were softening in the tender twilight, but were not darkening yet. The first few lamps lit in the street below looked like faint little specks of yellow light, as the captain started on his walk through one of the most striking scenes which England can show.
On his right hand, as he set forth, stretched the open country beyond the walls — the rich green meadows, the boundary-trees dividing them, the broad windings of the river in the distance, the scattered buildings nearer to view; all wrapped in the evening stillness, all made beautiful by the evening peace. On his left hand, the majestic west front of York Minster soared over the city and caught the last brightest light of heaven on the summits of its lofty towers. Had this noble prospect tempted the lost girl to linger and look at it? No; thus far, not a sign of her. The captain looked round him attentively, and walked on.
He reached the spot where the iron course of the railroad strikes its way through arches in the old wall. He paused at this place — where the central activity of a great railway enterprise beats, with all the pulses of its loud-clanging life, side by side with the dead majesty of the past, deep under the old historic stones which tell of fortified York and the sieges of two centuries since — he stood on this spot, and searched for her again, and searched in vain. Others were looking idly down at the desolate activity on the wilderness of the iron rails; but she was not among them. The captain glanced doubtfully at the darkening sky, and walked on.
He stopped again where the postern of Micklegate still stands, and still strengthens the city wall as of old. Here the paved walk descends a few steps, passes through the dark stone guardroom of the ancient gate, ascends again, and continues its course southward until the walls reach the river once more. He paused, and peered anxiously into the dim inner corners of the old guard-room. Was she waiting there for the darkness to come, and hide her from prying eyes? No: a solitary workman loitered through the stone chamber; but no other living creature stirred in the place. The captain mounted the steps which led out from the postern and walked on.
He advanced some fifty or sixty yards along the paved footway; the outlying suburbs of York on one side of him, a rope-walk and some patches of kitchen garden occupying a vacant strip of ground on the other. He advanced with eager eyes and quickened step; for he saw before him the lonely figure of a woman, standing by the parapet of the wall, with her face set toward the westward view. He approached cautiously, to make sure of her before she turned and observed him. There was no mistaking that tall, dark figure, as it rested against the parapet with a listless grace. There she stood, in her long black cloak and gown, the last dim light of evening falling tenderly on her pale, resolute young face. There she stood — not three months since the spoiled darling of her parents; the priceless treasure of the household, never left unprotected, never trusted alone — there she stood in the lovely dawn of her womanhood, a castaway in a strange city, wrecked on the world!
Vagabond as he was, the first sight of her staggered even the dauntless assurance of Captain Wragge. As she slowly turned her face and looked at him, he raised his hat, with the nearest approach to respect which a long life of unblushing audacity had left him capable of making.
“I think I have the honor of addressing the younger Miss Vanstone?” he began. “Deeply gratified, I am sure — for more reasons than one.”
She looked at him with a cold surprise. No recollection of the day when he had followed her sister and herself on their way home with Miss Garth rose in her memory, while he now confronted her, with his altered manner and his altered dress.
“You are mistaken,” she said, quietly. “You are a perfect stranger to me.”
“Pardon me,” replied the captain; “I am a species of relation. I had the pleasure of seeing you in the spring of the present year. I presented myself on that memorable occasion to an honored preceptress in your late father’s family. Permit me, under equally agreeable circumstances, to present myself to you. My name is Wragge.”
By this time he had recovered complete possession of his own impudence; his party-colored eyes twinkled cheerfully, and he accompanied his modest announcement of himself with a dancing-master’s bow.
Magdalen frowned, and drew back a step. The captain was not a man to be daunted by a cold reception. He tucked his umbrella under his arm and jocosely spelled his name for her further enlightenment. “W, R, A, double G, E— Wragge,” said the captain, ticking off the letters persuasively on his fingers.
“I remember your name,” said Magdalen. “Excuse me for leaving you abruptly. I have an engagement.”
She tried to pass him and walk on northward toward the railway. He instantly met the attempt by raising both hands, and displaying a pair of darned black gloves outspread in polite protest.
“Not that way,” he said; “not that way, Miss Vanstone, I beg and entreat!”
“Why not?” she asked haughtily.
“Because,” answered the captain, “that is the way which leads to Mr. Huxtable’s.”
In the ungovernable astonishment of hearing his reply she suddenly bent forward, and for the first time looked him close in the face. He sustained her suspicious scrutiny with every appearance of feeling highly gratified by it. “H, U, X— Hux,” said the captain, playfully turning to the old joke: “T, A— ta, Huxta; B, L, E— ble; Huxtable.”
“What do you know about Mr. Huxtable?” she asked. “What do you mean by mentioning him to me?”
The captain’s curly lip took a new twist upward. He immediately replied, to the best practical purpose, by producing the handbill from his pocket.
“There is just light enough left,” he said, “for young (and lovely) eyes to read by. Before I enter upon the personal statement which your flattering inquiry claims from me, pray bestow a moment’s attention on this Document.”
She took the handbill from him. By the last gleam of twilight she read the lines which set a price on her recovery — which published the description of her in pitiless print, like the description of a strayed dog. No tender consideration had prepared her for the shock, no kind word softened it to her when it came. The vagabond, whose cunning eyes watched her eagerly while she read, knew no more that the handbill which he had stolen had only been prepared in anticipation of the worst, and was only to be publicly used in the event of all more considerate means of tracing her being tried in vain — than she knew it. The bill dropped from her hand; her face flushed deeply. She turned away from Captain Wragge, as if all idea of his existence had passed out of her mind.
“Oh, Norah, Norah!” she said to herself, sorrowfully. “After the letter I wrote you — after the hard struggle I had to go away! Oh, Norah, Norah!”
“How is Norah?” inquired the captain, with the utmost politeness.
She turned upon him with an angry brightness in her large gray eyes. “Is this thing shown publicly?” she asked, stamping her foot on it. “Is the mark on my neck described all over York?”
“Pray compose yourself,” pleaded the persuasive Wragge. “At present I have every reason to believe that you have just perused the only copy in circulation. Allow me to pick it up.”
Before he could touch the bill she snatched it from the pavement, tore it into fragments, and threw them over the wall.
“Bravo!” cried the captain. “You remind me of your poor dear mother. The family spirit, Miss Vanstone. We all inherit our hot blood from my maternal grandfather.”
“How did you come by it?” she asked, suddenly.
“My dear creature, I have just told you,” remonstrated the captain. “We all come by it from my maternal grandfather.”
“How did you come by that handbill?” she repeated, passionately.
“I beg ten thousand pardons! My head was running on the family spirit. — How did I come by it? Briefly thus.” Here Captain Wragge entered on his personal statement; taking his customary vocal exercise through the longest words of the English language, with the highest elocutionary relish. Having, on this rare occasion, nothing to gain by concealment, he departed from his ordinary habits, and, with the utmost amazement at the novelty of his own situation, permitted himself to tell the unmitigated truth.
The effect of the narrative on Magdalen by no means fulfilled Captain Wragge’s anticipations in relating it. She was not startled; she was not irritated; she showed no disposition to cast herself on his mercy, and to seek his advice. She looked him steadily in the face; and all she said, when he had neatly rounded his last sentence, was — “Go on.”
“Go on?” repeated the captain. “Shocked to disappoint you, I am sure; but the fact is, I have done.”
“No, you have not,” she rejoined; “you have left out the end of your story. The end of it is, you came here to look for me; and you mean to earn the fifty pounds reward.”
Those plain words so completely staggered Captain Wragge that for the moment he stood speechless. But he had faced awkward truths of all sorts far too often to be permanently disconcerted by them. Before Magdalen could pursue her advantage, the vagabond had recovered his balance: Wragge was himself again.
“Smart,” said the captain, laughing indulgently, and drumming with his umbrella on the pavement. “Some men might take it seriously. I’m not easily offended. Try again.”
Magdalen looked at him through the gathering darkness in mute perplexity. All her little experience of society had been experience among people who possessed a common sense of honor, and a common responsibility of social position. She had hitherto seen nothing but the successful human product from the great manufactory of Civilization. Here was one of the failures, and, with all her quickness, she was puzzled how to deal with it.
“Pardon me for returning to the subject,” pursued the captain. “It has just occurred to my mind that you might actually have spoken in earnest. My poor child! how can I earn the fifty pounds before the reward is offered to me? Those handbills may not be publicly posted for a week to come. Precious as you are to all your relatives (myself included), take my word for it, the lawyers who are managing this case will not pay fifty pounds for you if they can possibly help it. Are you still persuaded that my needy pockets are gaping for the money? Very good. Button them up in spite of me with your own fair fingers. There is a train to London at nine forty-five to-night. Submit yourself to your friend’s wishes and go back by it.”
“Never!” said Magdalen, firing at the bare suggestion, exactly as the captain had intended she should. “If my mind had not been made up before, that vile handbill would have decided me. I forgive Norah,” she added, turning away and speaking to herself, “but not Mr. Pendril, and not Miss Garth.”
“Quite right!” said Captain Wragge. “The family spirit. I should have done the same myself at your age. It runs in the blood. Hark! there goes the clock again — half-past seven. Miss Vanstone, pardon this seasonable abruptness! If you are to carry out your resolution — if you are to be your own mistress much longer, you must take a course of some kind before eight o’clock. You are young, you are inexperienced, you are in imminent danger. Here is a position of emergency on one side — and here am I, on the other, with an uncle’s interest in you, full of advice. Tap me.”
“Suppose I choose to depend on nobody, and to act for myself?” said Magdalen. “What then?”
“Then,” replied the captain, “you will walk straight into one of the four traps which are set to catch you in the ancient and interesting city of York. Trap the first, at Mr. Huxtable’s house; trap the second, at all the hotels; trap the third, at the railway station; trap the fourth, at the theater. That man with the handbills has had an hour at his disposal. If he has not set those four traps (with the assistance of the local solicitor) by this time, he is not the competent lawyer’s clerk I take him for. Come, come, my dear girl! if there is somebody else in the background, whose advice you prefer to mine — ”
“You see that I am alone,” she interposed, proudly. “If you knew me better, you would know that I depend on nobody but myself.”
Those words decided the only doubt which now remained in the captain’s mind — the doubt whether the course was clear before him. The motive of her flight from home was evidently what the handbills assumed it to be — a reckless fancy for going on the stage. “One of two things,” thought Wragge to himself, in his logical way. “She’s worth more than fifty pounds to me in her present situation, or she isn’t. If she is, her friends may whistle for her. If she isn’t, I have only to keep her till the bills are posted.” Fortified by this simple plan of action, the captain returned to the charge, and politely placed Magdalen between the two inevitable alternatives of trusting herself to him, on the one hand, or of returning to her friends, on the other.
“I respect independence of character wherever I find it,” he said, with an air of virtuous severity. “In a young and lovely relative, I more than respect — I admire it. But (excuse the bold assertion), to walk on a way of your own, you must first have a way to walk on. Under existing circumstances, where is your way? Mr. Huxtable is out of the question, to begin with.”
“Out of the question for to-night,” said Magdalen; “but what hinders me from writing to Mr. Huxtable, and making my own private arrangements with him for to-morrow?”
“Granted with all my heart — a hit, a palpable hit. Now for my turn. To get to to-morrow (excuse the bold assertion, once more), you must first pass through to-night. Where are you to sleep?”
“Are there no hotels in York?”
“Excellent hotels for large families; excellent hotels for single gentlemen. The very worst hotels in the world for handsome young ladies who present themselves alone at the door without male escort, without a maid in attendance, and without a single article of luggage. Dark as it is, I think I could see a lady’s box, if there was anything of the sort in our immediate neighborhood.”
“My box is at the cloak-room. What is to prevent my sending the ticket for it?”
“Nothing — if you want to communicate your address by means of your box — nothing whatever. Think; pray think! Do you really suppose that the people who are looking for you are such fools as not to have an eye on the cloakroom? Do you think they are such fools — when they find you don’t come to Mr. Huxtable’s at eight to-night — as not to inquire at all the hotels? Do you think a young lady of your striking appearance (even if they consented to receive you) could take up her abode at an inn without becoming the subject of universal curiosity and remark? Here is night coming on as fast as it can. Don’t let me bore you; only let me ask once more — Where are you to sleep?”
There was no answer to that question: in Magdalen’s position, there was literally no answer to it on her side. She was silent.
“Where are you to sleep?” repeated the captain. “The reply is obvious — under my roof. Mrs. Wragge will be charmed to see you. Look upon her as your aunt; pray look upon her as your aunt. The landlady is a widow, the house is close by, there are no other lodgers, and there is a bedroom to let. Can anything be more satisfactory, under all the circumstances? Pray observe, I say nothing about to-morrow — I leave to-morrow to you, and confine myself exclusively to the night. I may, or may not, command theatrical facilities, which I am in a position to offer you. Sympathy and admiration may, or may not, be strong within me, when I contemplate the dash and independence of your character. Hosts of examples of bright stars of the British drama, who have begun their apprenticeship to the stage as you are beginning yours, may, or may not, crowd on my memory. These are topics for the future. For the present, I confine myself within my strict range of duty. We are within five minutes’ walk of my present address. Allow me to offer you my arm. No? You hesitate? You distrust me? Good heavens! is it possible you can have heard anything to my disadvantage?”
“Quite possible,” said Magdalen, without a moment’s flinching from the answer.
“May I inquire the particulars?” asked the captain, with the politest composure. “Don’t spare my feelings; oblige me by speaking out. In the plainest terms, now, what have you heard?”
She answered him with a woman’s desperate disregard of consequences when she is driven to bay — she answered him instantly,
“I have heard you are a Rogue.”
“Have you, indeed?” said the impenetrable Wragge. “A Rogue? Well, I waive my privilege of setting you right on that point for a fitter time. For the sake of argument, let us say I am a Rogue. What is Mr. Huxtable?”
“A respectable man, or I should not have seen him in the house where we first met.”
“Very good. Now observe! You talked of writing to Mr. Huxtable a minute ago. What do you think a respectable man is likely to do with a young lady who openly acknowledges that she has run away from her home and her friends to go on the stage? My dear girl, on your own showing, it’s not a respectable man you want in your present predicament. It’s a Rogue — like me.”
Magdalen laughed, bitterly.
“There is some truth in that,” she said. “Thank you for recalling me to myself and my circumstances. I have my end to gain — and who am I, to pick and choose the way of getting to it? It is my turn to beg pardon now. I have been talking as if I was a young lady of family and position. Absurd! We know better than that, don’t we, Captain Wragge? You are quite right. Nobody’s child must sleep under Somebody’s roof — and why not yours?”
“This way,” said the captain, dexterously profiting by the sudden change in her humor, and cunningly refraining from exasperating it by saying more himself. “This way.”
She followed him a few steps, and suddenly stopped.
“Suppose I am discovered?” she broke out, abruptly. “Who has any authority over me? Who can take me back, if I don’t choose to go? If they all find me to-morrow, what then? Can’t I say No to Mr. Pendril? Can’t I trust my own courage with Miss Garth?”
“Can you trust your courage with your sister?” whispered the captain, who had not forgotten the references to Norah which had twice escaped her already.
Her head drooped. She shivered as if the cold night air had struck her, and leaned back wearily against the parapet of the wall.
“Not with Norah,” she said, sadly. “I could trust myself with the others. Not with Norah.”
“This way,” repeated Captain Wragge. She roused herself; looked up at the darkening heaven, looked round at the darkening view. “What must be, must,” she said, and followed him.
The Minster clock struck the quarter to eight as they left the Walk on the Wall and descended the steps into Rosemary Lane. Almost at the same moment the lawyer’s clerk from London gave the last instructions to his subordinates, and took up his own position, on the opposite side of the river, within easy view of Mr. Huxtable’s door.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52