The most striking spectacle presented to a stranger by the shores of Suffolk is the extraordinary defenselessness of the land against the encroachments of the sea.
At Aldborough, as elsewhere on this coast, local traditions are, for the most part, traditions which have been literally drowned. The site of the old town, once a populous and thriving port, has almost entirely disappeared in the sea. The German Ocean has swallowed up streets, market-places, jetties, and public walks; and the merciless waters, consummating their work of devastation, closed, no longer than eighty years since, over the salt-master’s cottage at Aldborough, now famous in memory only as the birthplace of the poet CRABBE.
Thrust back year after year by the advancing waves, the inhabitants have receded, in the present century, to the last morsel of land which is firm enough to be built on — a strip of ground hemmed in between a marsh on one side and the sea on the other. Here, trusting for their future security to certain sand-hills which the capricious waves have thrown up to encourage them, the people of Aldborough have boldly established their quaint little watering-place. The first fragment of their earthly possessions is a low natural dike of shingle, surmounted by a public path which runs parallel with the sea. Bordering this path, in a broken, uneven line, are the villa residences of modern Aldborough — fanciful little houses, standing mostly in their own gardens, and possessing here and there, as horticultural ornaments, staring figure — heads of ships doing duty for statues among the flowers. Viewed from the low level on which these villas stand, the sea, in certain conditions of the atmosphere, appears to be higher than the land: coasting-vessels gliding by assume gigantic proportions, and look alarmingly near the windows. Intermixed with the houses of the better sort are buildings of other forms and periods. In one direction the tiny Gothic town-hall of old Aldborough — once the center of the vanished port and borough — now stands, fronting the modern villas close on the margin of the sea. At another point, a wooden tower of observation, crowned by the figure-head of a wrecked Russian vessel, rises high above the neighboring houses, and discloses through its scuttle-window grave men in dark clothing seated on the topmost story, perpetually on the watch — the pilots of Aldborough looking out from their tower for ships in want of help. Behind the row of buildings thus curiously intermingled runs the one straggling street of the town, with its sturdy pilots’ cottages, its mouldering marine store-houses, and its composite shops. Toward the northern end this street is bounded by the one eminence visible over all the marshy flat — a low wooded hill, on which the church is built. At its opposite extremity the street leads to a deserted martello tower, and to the forlorn outlying suburb of Slaughden, between the river Alde and the sea. Such are the main characteristics of this curious little outpost on the shores of England as it appears at the present time.
On a hot and cloudy July afternoon, and on the second day which had elapsed since he had written to Magdalen, Captain Wragge sauntered through the gate of North Shingles Villa to meet the arrival of the coach, which then connected Aldborough with the Eastern Counties Railway. He reached the principal inn as the coach drove up, and was ready at the door to receive Magdalen and Mrs. Wragge, on their leaving the vehicle.
The captain’s reception of his wife was not characterized by an instant’s unnecessary waste of time. He looked distrustfully at her shoes — raised himself on tiptoe — set her bonnet straight for her with a sharp tug —— said, in a loud whisper, “hold your tongue” — and left her, for the time being, without further notice. His welcome to Magdalen, beginning with the usual flow of words, stopped suddenly in the middle of the first sentence. Captain Wragge’s eye was a sharp one, and it instantly showed him something in the look and manner of his old pupil which denoted a serious change.
There was a settled composure on her face which, except when she spoke, made it look as still and cold as marble. Her voice was softer and more equable, her eyes were steadier, her step was slower than of old. When she smiled, the smile came and went suddenly, and showed a little nervous contraction on one side of her mouth never visible there before. She was perfectly patient with Mrs. Wragge; she treated the captain with a courtesy and consideration entirely new in his experience of her — but she was interested in nothing. The curious little shops in the back street; the high impending sea; the old town-hall on the beach; the pilots, the fishermen, the passing ships — she noticed all these objects as indifferently as if Aldborough had been familiar to her from her infancy. Even when the captain drew up at the garden-gate of North Shingles, and introduced her triumphantly to the new house, she hardly looked at it. The first question she asked related not to her own residence, but to Noel Vanstone’s.
“How near to us does he live?” she inquired, with the only betrayal of emotion which had escaped her yet.
Captain Wragge answered by pointing to the fifth villa from North Shingles, on the Slaughden side of Aldborough. Magdalen suddenly drew back from the garden-gate as he indicated the situation, and walked away by herself to obtain a nearer view of the house. Captain Wragge looked after her, and shook his head, discontentedly.
“May I speak now?” inquired a meek voice behind him, articulating respectfully ten inches above the top of his straw hat.
The captain turned round, and confronted his wife. The more than ordinary bewilderment visible in her face at once suggested to him that Magdalen had failed to carry out the directions in his letter; and that Mrs. Wragge had arrived at Aldborough without being properly aware of the total transformation to be accomplished in her identity and her name. The necessity of setting this doubt at rest was too serious to be trifled with; and Captain Wragge instituted the necessary inquiries without a moment’s delay.
“Stand straight, and listen to me,” he began. “I have a question to ask you. Do you know whose Skin you are in at this moment? Do you know that you are dead and buried in London; and that you have risen like a phoenix from the ashes of Mrs. Wragge? No! you evidently don’t know it. This is perfectly disgraceful. What is your name?”
“Matilda,” answered Mrs. Wragge, in a state of the densest bewilderment.
“Nothing of the sort!” cried the captain, fiercely. “How dare you tell me your name’s Matilda? Your name is Julia. Who am I? — Hold that basket of sandwiches straight, or I’ll pitch it into the sea! — Who am I?”
“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Wragge, meekly taking refuge in the negative side of the question this time.
“Sit down!” said her husband, pointing to the low garden wall of North Shingles Villa. “More to the right! More still! That will do. You don’t know?” repeated the captain, sternly confronting his wife as soon as he had contrived, by seating her, to place her face on a level with his own. “Don’t let me hear you say that a second time. Don’t let me have a woman who doesn’t know who I am to operate on my beard to-morrow morning. Look at me! More to the left — more still — that will do. Who am I? I’m Mr. Bygrave — Christian name, Thomas. Who are you? You’re Mrs. Bygrave — Christian name, Julia. Who is that young lady who traveled with you from London? That young lady is Miss Bygrave — Christian name, Susan. I’m her clever uncle Tom; and you’re her addle-headed aunt Julia. Say it all over to me instantly, like the Catechism! What is your name?”
“Spare my poor head!” pleaded Mrs. Wragge. “Oh, please spare my poor head till I’ve got the stage-coach out of it!”
“Don’t distress her,” said Magdalen, joining them at that moment. “She will learn it in time. Come into the house.”
Captain Wragge shook his wary head once more. “We are beginning badly,” he said, with less politeness than usual . “My wife’s stupidity stands in our way already.”
They went into the house. Magdalen was perfectly satisfied with all the captain’s arrangements; she accepted the room which he had set apart for her; approved of the woman servant whom he had engaged; presented herself at tea-time the moment she was summoned but still showed no interest whatever in the new scene around her. Soon after the table was cleared, although the daylight had not yet faded out, Mrs. Wragge’s customary drowsiness after fatigue of any kind overcame her, and she received her husbands orders to leave the room (taking care that she left it “up at heel”), and to betake herself (strictly in the character of Mrs. Bygrave) to bed. As soon as they were left alone, the captain looked hard at Magdalen, and waited to be spoken to. She said nothing. He ventured next on opening the conversation by a polite inquiry after the state of her health. “You look fatigued,” he remarked, in his most insinuating manner. “I am afraid the journey has been too much for you.”
“No,” she said, looking out listlessly through the window; “I am not more tired than usual. I am always weary now; weary at going to bed, weary at getting up. If you would like to hear what I have to say to you to-night, I am willing and ready to say it. Can’t we go out? It is very hot here; and the droning of those men’s voices is beyond all endurance.” She pointed through the window to a group of boatmen idling, as only nautical men can idle, against the garden wall. “Is there no quiet walk in this wretched place?” she asked, impatiently. “Can’t we breathe a little fresh air, and escape being annoyed by strangers?”
“There is perfect solitude within half an hour’s walk of the house,” replied the ready captain.
“Very well. Come out, then.”
With a weary sigh she took up her straw bonnet and her light muslin scarf from the side-table upon which she had thrown them on coming in, and carelessly led the way to the door. Captain Wragge followed her to the garden gate, then stopped, struck by a new idea.
“Excuse me,” he whispered, confidentially. “In my wife’s existing state of ignorance as to who she is, we had better not trust her alone in the house with a new servant. I’ll privately turn the key on her, in case she wakes before we come back. Safe bind, safe find — you know the proverb! — I will be with you again in a moment.”
He hastened back to the house, and Magdalen seated herself on the garden wall to await his return.
She had hardly settled herself in that position when two gentlemen walking together, whose approach along the public path she had not previously noticed, passed close by her.
The dress of one of the two strangers showed him to be a clergyman. His companion’s station in life was less easily discernible to ordinary observation. Practiced eyes would probably have seen enough in his look, his manner, and his walk to show that he was a sailor. He was a man in the prime of life; tall, spare, and muscular; his face sun-burned to a deep brown; his black hair just turning gray; his eyes dark, deep and firm — the eyes of a man with an iron resolution and a habit of command. He was the nearest of the two to Magdalen, as he and his friend passed the place where she was sitting; and he looked at her with a sudden surprise at her beauty, with an open, hearty, undisguised admiration, which was too evidently sincere, too evidently beyond his own control, to be justly resented as insolent; and yet, in her humor at that moment, Magdalen did resent it. She felt the man’s resolute black eyes strike through her with an electric suddenness; and frowning at him impatiently, she turned away her head and looked back at the house.
The next moment she glanced round again to see if he had gone on. He had advanced a few yards — had then evidently stopped — and was now in the very act of turning to look at her once more. His companion, the clergyman, noticing that Magdalen appeared to be annoyed, took him familiarly by the arm, and, half in jest, half in earnest, forced him to walk on. The two disappeared round the corner of the next house. As they turned it, the sun-burned sailor twice stopped his companion again, and twice looked back.
“A friend of yours?” inquired Captain Wragge, joining Magdalen at that moment.
“Certainly not,” she replied; “a perfect stranger. He stared at me in the most impertinent manner. Does he belong to this place?”
“I’ll find out in a moment,” said the compliant captain, joining the group of boatmen, and putting his questions right and left, with the easy familiarity which distinguished him. He returned in a few minutes with a complete budget of information. The clergyman was well known as the rector of a place situated some few miles inland. The dark man with him was his wife’s brother, commander of a ship in the merchant-service. He was supposed to be staying with his relatives, as their guest for a short time only, preparatory to sailing on another voyage. The clergyman’s name was Strickland, and the merchant-captain’s name was Kirke; and that was all the boatmen knew about either of them.
“It is of no consequence who they are,” said Magdalen, carelessly. “The man’s rudeness merely annoyed me for the moment. Let us have done with him. I have something else to think of, and so have you. Where is the solitary walk you mentioned just now? Which way do we go?”
The captain pointed southward toward Slaughden, and offered his arm.
Magdalen hesitated before she took it. Her eyes wandered away inquiringly to Noel Vanstone’s house. He was out in the garden, pacing backward and forward over the little lawn, with his head high in the air, and with Mrs. Lecount demurely in attendance on him, carrying her master’s green fan. Seeing this, Magdalen at once took Captain Wragge’s right arm, so as to place herself nearest to the garden when they passed it on their walk.
“The eyes of our neighbors are on us; and the least your niece can do is to take your arm,” she said, with a bitter laugh. “Come! let us go on.”
“They are looking this way,” whispered the captain. “Shall I introduce you to Mrs. Lecount?”
“Not to-night,” she answered. “Wait, and hear what I have to say to you first.”
They passed the garden wall. Captain Wragge took off his hat with a smart flourish, and received a gracious bow from Mrs. Lecount in return. Magdalen saw the housekeeper survey her face, her figure, and her dress, with that reluctant interest, that distrustful curiosity, which women feel in observing each other. As she walked on beyond the house, the sharp voice of Noel Vanstone reached her through the evening stillness. “A fine girl, Lecount,” she heard him say. “You know I am a judge of that sort of thing — a fine girl!”
As those words were spoken, Captain Wragge looked round at his companion in sudden surprise. Her hand was trembling violently on his arm, and her lips were fast closed with an expression of speechless pain.
Slowly and in silence the two walked on until they reached the southern limit of the houses, and entered on a little wilderness of shingle and withered grass — the desolate end of Aldborough, the lonely beginning of Slaughden.
It was a dull, airless evening. Eastward, was the gray majesty of the sea, hushed in breathless calm; the horizon line invisibly melting into the monotonous, misty sky; the idle ships shadowy and still on the idle water. Southward, the high ridge of the sea dike, and the grim, massive circle of a martello tower reared high on its mound of grass, closed the view darkly on all that lay beyond. Westward, a lurid streak of sunset glowed red in the dreary heaven, blackened the fringing trees on the far borders of the great inland marsh, and turned its little gleaming water-pools to pools of blood. Nearer to the eye, the sullen flow of the tidal river Alde ebbed noiselessly from the muddy banks; and nearer still, lonely and unprosperous by the bleak water-side, lay the lost little port of Slaughden, with its forlorn wharfs and warehouses of decaying wood, and its few scattered coasting-vessels deserted on the oozy river-shore. No fall of waves was heard on the beach, no trickling of waters bubbled audibly from the idle stream. Now and then the cry of a sea-bird rose from the region of the marsh; and at intervals, from farmhouses far in the inland waste, the faint winding of horns to call the cattle home traveled mournfully through the evening calm.
Magdalen drew her hand from the captain’s arm, and led the way to the mound of the martello tower. “I am weary of walking,” she said. “Let us stop and rest here.”
She seated herself on the slope, and resting on her elbow, mechanically pulled up and scattered from her into the air the tufts of grass growing under her hand. After silently occupying herself in this way for some minutes, she turned suddenly on Captain Wragge. “Do I surprise you?” she asked, with a startling abruptness. “Do you find me changed?”
The captain’s ready tact warned him that the time had come to be plain with her, and to reserve his flowers of speech for a more appropriate occasion.
“If you ask the question, I must answer it,” he replied. “Yes, I do find you changed.”
She pulled up another tuft of grass. “I suppose you can guess the reason?” she said.
The captain was wisely silent. He only answered by a bow.
“I have lost all care for myself,” she went on, tearing faster and faster at the tufts of grass. “Saying that is not saying much, perhaps, but it may help you to understand me. There are things I would have died sooner than do at one time — things it would have turned me cold to think of. I don’t care now whether I do them or not. I am nothing to myself; I am no more interested in myself than I am in these handfuls of grass. I suppose I have lost something. What is it? Heart? Conscience? I don’t know. Do you? What nonsense I am talking! Who cares what I have lost? It has gone; and there’s an end of it. I suppose my outside is the best side of me — and that’s left, at any rate. I have not lost my good looks, have I? There! there! never mind answering; don’t trouble yourself to pay me compliments. I have been admired enough to-day. First the sailor, and then Mr. Noel Vanstone — enough for any woman’s vanity, surely! Have I any right to call myself a woman? Perhaps not: I am only a girl in my teens. Oh, me, I feel as if I was forty!” She scattered the last fragments of grass to the winds; and turning her back on the captain, let her head droop till her cheek touched the turf bank. “It feels soft and friendly,” she said, nestling to it with a hopeless tenderness horrible to see. “It doesn’t cast me off. Mother Earth! The only mother I have left!”
Captain Wragge looked at her in silent surprise. Such experience of humanity as he possessed was powerless to sound to its depths the terrible self-abandonment which had burst its way to the surface in her reckless words — which was now fast hurrying her to actions more reckless still. “Devilish odd!” he thought to himself, uneasily. “Has the loss of her lover turned her brain?” He considered for a minute longer and then spoke to her. “Leave it till to-morrow,” suggested the captain confidentially. “You are a little tired to-night. No hurry, my dear girl — no hurry.”
She raised her head instantly, and looked round at him with the same angry resolution, with the same desperate defiance of herself, which he had seen in her face on the memorable day at York when she had acted before him for the first time. “I came here to tell you what is in my mind,” she said; “and I will tell it!” She seated herself upright on the slope; and clasping her hands round her knees, looked out steadily, straight before her, at the slowly darkening view. In that strange position, she waited until she had composed herself, and then addressed the captain, without turning her head to look round at him, in these words:
“When you and I first met,” she began, abruptly, “I tried hard to keep my thoughts to myself. I know enough by this time to know that I failed. When I first told you at York that Michael Vanstone had ruined us, I believe you guessed for yourself that I, for one, was determined not to submit to it. Whether you guessed or not, it is so. I left my friends with that determination in my mind; and I feel it in me now stronger, ten times stronger, than ever.”
“Ten times stronger than ever,” echoed the captain. “Exactly so — the natural result of firmness of character.”
“No — the natural result of having nothing else to think of. I had something else to think of before you found me ill in Vauxhall Walk. I have nothing else to think of now. Remember that, if you find me for the future always harping on the same string. One question first. Did you guess what I meant to do on that morning when you showed me the newspaper, and when I read the account of Michael Vanstone’s death?”
“Generally,” replied Captain Wragge — “I guessed, generally, that you proposed dipping your hand into his purse and taking from it (most properly) what was your own. I felt deeply hurt at the time by your not permitting me to assist you. Why is she so reserved with me? (I remarked to myself) — why is she so unreasonably reserved?”
“You shall have no reserve to complain of now,” pursued Magdalen. “I tell you plainly, if events had not happened as they did, you would have assisted me. If Michael Vanstone had not died, I should have gone to Brighton, and have found my way safely to his acquaintance under an assumed name. I had money enough with me to live on respectably for many months together. I would have employed that time — I would have waited a whole year, if necessary, to destroy Mrs. Lecount’s influence over him — and I would have ended by getting that influence, on my own terms, into my own hands. I had the advantage of years, the advantage of novelty, the advantage of downright desperation, all on my side, and I should have succeeded. Before the year was out — before half the year was out — you should have seen Mrs. Lecount dismissed by her master, and you should have seen me taken into the house in her place, as Michael Vanstone’s adopted daughter — as the faithful friend — who had saved him from an adventuress in his old age. Girls no older than I am have tried deceptions as hopeless in appearance as mine, and have carried them through to the end. I had my story ready; I had my plans all considered; I had the weak point in that old man to attack in my way, which Mrs. Lecount had found out before me to attack in hers, and I tell you again I should have succeeded.”
“I think you would,” said the captain. “And what next?”
“Mr. Michael Vanstone would have changed his man of business next. You would have succeeded to the place; and those clever speculations on which he was so fond of venturing would have cost him the fortunes of which he had robbed my sister and myself. To the last farthing, Captain Wragge, as certainly as you sit there, to the last farthing! A bold conspiracy, a shocking deception — wasn’t it? I don’t care! Any conspiracy, any deception, is justified to my conscience by the vile law which has left us helpless. You talked of my reserve just now. Have I dropped it at last? Have I spoken out at the eleventh hour?”
The captain laid his hand solemnly on his heart, and launched himself once more on his broadest flow of language.
“You fill me with unavailing regret,” he said. “If that old man had lived, what a crop I might have reaped from him! What enormous transactions in moral agriculture it might have been my privilege to carry on! Ars longa,” said Captain Wragge, pathetically drifting into Latin — “vita brevis! Let us drop a tear on the lost opportunities of the past, and try what the present can do to console us. One conclusion is clear to my mind — the experiment you proposed to try with Mr. Michael Vanstone is totally hopeless, my dear girl, in the case of his son. His son is impervious to all common forms of pecuniary temptation. You may trust my solemn assurance,” continued the captain, speaking with an indignant recollection of the answer to his advertisement in the Times, “when I inform you that Mr. Noel Vanstone is emphatically the meanest of mankind.”
“I can trust my own experience as well,” said Magdalen. “I have seen him, and spoken to him — I know him better than you do. Another disclosure, Captain Wragge, for your private ear! I sent you back certain articles of costume when they had served the purpose for which I took them to London. That purpose was to find my way to Noel Vanstone in disguise, and to judge for myself of Mrs. Lecount and her master. I gained my object; and I tell you again, I know the two people in that house yonder whom we have now to deal with better than you do.”
Captain Wragge expressed the profound astonishment, and asked the innocent questions appropriate to the mental condition of a person taken completely by surprise.
“Well,” he resumed, when Magdalen had briefly answered him, “and what is the result on your own mind? There must be a result, or we should not be here. You see your way? Of course, my dear girl, you see your way?”
“Yes,” she said, quickly. “I see my way.”
The captain drew a little nearer to her, with eager curiosity expressed in every line of his vagabond face.
“Go on,” he said, in an anxious whisper; “pray go on.”
She looked out thoughtfully into the gathering darkness, without answering, without appearing to have heard him. Her lips closed, and her clasped hands tightened mechanically round her knees.
“There is no disguising the fact,” said Captain Wragge, warily rousing her into speaking to him. “The son is harder to deal with than the father — ”
“Not in my way,” she interposed, suddenly.
“Indeed!” said the captain. “Well! they say there is a short cut to everything, if we only look long enough to find it. You have looked long enough, I suppose, and the natural result has followed — you have found it.”
“I have not troubled myself to look; I have found it without looking.”
“The deuce you have!” cried Captain Wragge, in great perplexity. “My dear girl, is my view of your present position leading me altogether astray? As I understand it, here is Mr. Noel Vanstone in possession of your fortune and your sister’s, as his father was, and determined to keep it, as his father was?”
“And here are you — quite helpless to get it by persuasion — quite helpless to get it by law — just as resolute in his ease as you were in his father’s, to take it by stratagem in spite of him?”
“Just as resolute. Not for the sake of the fortune — mind that! For the sake of the right.”
“Just so. And the means of coming at that right which were hard with the father — who was not a miser — are easy with the son, who is?”
“Write me down an Ass for the first time in my life!” cried the captain, at the end of his patience. “Hang me if I know what you mean!”
She looked round at him for the first time — looked him straight and steadily in the face.
“I will tell you what I mean,” she said. “I mean to marry him.”
Captain Wragge started up on his knees, and stopped on them, petrified by astonishment.
“Remember what I told you,” said Magdalen, looking away from him again. “I have lost all care for myself. I have only one end in life now, and the sooner I reach it — and die — the better. If — “ She stopped, altered her position a little, and pointed with one hand to the fast-ebbing stream beneath her, gleaming dim in the darkening twilight — “if I had been what I once was, I would have thrown myself into that river sooner than do what I am going to do now. As it is, I trouble myself no longer; I weary my mind with no more schemes. The short way and the vile way lies before me. I take it, Captain Wragge, and marry him.”
“Keeping him in total ignorance of who you are?” said the captain, slowly rising to his feet, and slowly moving round, so as to see her face. “Marrying him as my niece, Miss Bygrave?”
“As your niece, Miss Bygrave.”
“And after the marriage —?” His voice faltered, as he began the question, and he left it unfinished.
“After the marriage,” she said, “I shall stand in no further need of your assistance.”
The captain stooped as she gave him that answer, looked close at her, and suddenly drew back, without uttering a word. He walked away some paces, and sat down again doggedly on the grass. If Magdalen could have seen his face in the dying light, his face would have startled her. For the first time, probably, since his boyhood, Captain Wragge had changed color. He was deadly pale.
“Have you nothing to say to me?” she asked. “Perhaps you are waiting to hear what terms I have to offer? These are my terms; I pay all our expenses here; and when we part, on the day of the marriage, you take a farewell gift away with you of two hundred pounds. Do you promise me your assistance on those conditions?”
“What am I expected to do?” he asked, with a furtive glance at her, and a sudden distrust in his voice.
“You are expected to preserve my assumed character and your own,” she answered, “and you are to prevent any inquiries of Mrs. Lecount’s from discovering who I really am. I ask no more. The rest is my responsibility — not yours.”
“I have nothing to do with what happens — at any time, or in any place — after the marriage?”
“I may leave you at the church door if I please?”
“At the church door, with your fee in your pocket.”
“Paid from the money in your own possession?”
“Certainly! How else should I pay it?”
Captain Wragge took off his hat, and passed his handkerchief over his face with an air of relief.
“Give me a minute to consider it,” he said.
“As many minutes as you like,” she rejoined, reclining on the bank in her former position, and returning to her former occupation of tearing up the tufts of grass and flinging them out into the air.
The captain’s reflections were not complicated by any unnecessary divergences from the contemplation of his own position to the contemplation of Magdalen’s. Utterly incapable of appreciating the injury done her by Frank’s infamous treachery to his engagement — an injury which had severed her, at one cruel blow, from the aspiration which, delusion though it was, had been the saving aspiration of her life — Captain Wragge accepted the simple fact of her despair just as he found it, and then looked straight to the consequences of the proposal which she had made to him.
In the prospect before the marriage he saw nothing more serious involved than the practice of a deception, in no important degree different — except in the end to be attained by it — from the deceptions which his vagabond life had long since accustomed him to contemplate and to carry out. In the prospect after the marriage he dimly discerned, through the ominous darkness of the future, the lurking phantoms of Terror and Crime, and the black gulfs behind them of Ruin and Death. A man of boundless audacity and resource, within his own mean limits; beyond those limits, the captain was as deferentially submissive to the majesty of the law as the most harmless man in existence; as cautious in looking after his own personal safety as the veriest coward that ever walked the earth. But one serious question now filled his mind. Could he, on the terms proposed to him, join the conspiracy against Noel Vanstone up to the point of the marriage, and then withdraw from it, without risk of involving himself in the consequences which his experience told him must certainly ensue?
Strange as it may seem, his decision in this emergency was mainly influenced by no less a person than Noel Vanstone himself. The captain might have resisted the money-offer which Magdalen had made to him — for the profits of the Entertainment had filled his pockets with more than three times two hundred pounds. But the prospect of dealing a blow in the dark at the man who had estimated his information and himself at the value of a five pound note proved too much for his caution and his self-control. On the small neutral ground of self-importance, the best men and the worst meet on the same terms. Captain Wragge’s indignation, when he saw the answer to his advertisement, stooped to no retrospective estimate of his own conduct; he was as deeply offended, as sincerely angry as if he had made a perfectly honorable proposal, and had been rewarded for it by a personal insult. He had been too full of his own grievance to keep it out of his first letter to Magdalen. He had more or less forgotten himself on every subsequent occasion when Noel Vanstone’s name was mentioned. And in now finally deciding the course he should take, it is not too much to say that the motive of money receded, for the first time in his life, into the second place, and the motive of malice carried the day.
“I accept the terms,” said Captain Wragge, getting briskly on his legs again. “Subject, of course, to the conditions agreed on between us. We part on the wedding-day. I don’t ask where you go: you don’t ask where I go. From that time forth we are strangers to each other.”
Magdalen rose slowly from the mound. A hopeless depression, a sullen despair, showed itself in her look and manner. She refused the captain’s offered hand; and her tones, when she answered him, were so low that he could hardly hear her.
“We understand each other,” she said; “and we can now go back. You may introduce me to Mrs. Lecount to-morrow.”
“I must ask a few questions first,” said the captain, gravely. “There are more risks to be run in this matter, and more pitfalls in our way, than you seem to suppose. I must know the whole history of your morning call on Mrs. Lecount before I put you and that woman on speaking terms with each other.”
“Wait till to-morrow,” she broke out impatiently. “Don’t madden me by talking about it to-night.”
The captain said no more. They turned their faces toward Aldborough, and walked slowly back.
By the time they reached the houses night had overtaken them. Neither moon nor stars were visible. A faint noiseless breeze blowing from the land had come with the darkness. Magdalen paused on the lonely public walk to breathe the air more freely. After a while she turned her face from the breeze and looked out toward the sea. The immeasurable silence of the calm waters, lost in the black void of night, was awful. She stood looking into the darkness, as if its mystery had no secrets for her — she advanced toward it slowly, as if it drew her by some hidden attraction into itself.
“I am going down to the sea,” she said to her companion. “Wait here, and I will come back.”
He lost sight of her in an instant; it was as if the night had swallowed her up. He listened, and counted her footsteps by the crashing of them on the shingle in the deep stillness. They retreated slowly, further and further away into the night. Suddenly the sound of them ceased. Had she paused on her course or had she reached one of the strips of sand left bare by the ebbing tide?
He waited, and listened anxiously. The time passed, and no sound reached him. He still listened, with a growing distrust of the darkness. Another moment, and there came a sound from the invisible shore. Far and faint from the beach below, a long cry moaned through the silence. Then all was still once more.
In sudden alarm, he stepped forward to descend to the beach, and to call to her. Before he could cross the path, footsteps rapidly advancing caught his ear. He waited an instant, and the figure of a man passed quickly along the walk between him and the sea. It was too dark to discern anything of the stranger’s face; it was only possible to see that he was a tall man — as tall as that officer in the merchant-service whose name was Kirke.
The figure passed on northward, and was instantly lost to view. Captain Wragge crossed the path, and, advancing a few steps down the beach, stopped and listened again. The crash of footsteps on the shingle caught his ear once more. Slowly, as the sound had left him, that sound now came back. He called, to guide her to him. She came on till he could just see her — a shadow ascending the shingly slope, and growing out of the blackness of the night.
“You alarmed me,” he whispered, nervously. “I was afraid something had happened. I heard you cry out as if you were in pain.”
“Did you?” she said, carelessly. “I was in pain. It doesn’t matter — it’s over now.”
Her hand mechanically swung something to and fro as she answered him. It was the little white silk bag which she had always kept hidden in her bosom up to this time. One of the relics which it held — one of the relics which she had not had the heart to part with before — was gone from its keeping forever. Alone, on a strange shore, she had torn from her the fondest of her virgin memories, the dearest of her virgin hopes. Alone, on a strange shore, she had taken the lock of Frank’s hair from its once-treasured place, and had cast it away from her to the sea and the night.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06