IT wanted little more than a fortnight to Christmas; but the weather showed no signs yet of the frost and snow, conventionally associated with the coming season. The atmosphere was unnaturally warm, and the old year was dying feebly in sapping rain and enervating mist.
Toward the close of the December afternoon, Magdalen sat alone in the lodging which she had occupied since her arrival in London. The fire burned sluggishly in the narrow little grate; the view of the wet houses and soaking gardens opposite was darkening fast; and the bell of the suburban muffin-boy tinkled in the distance drearily. Sitting close over the fire, with a little money lying loose in her lap, Magdalen absently shifted the coins to and fro on the smooth surface of her dress, incessantly altering their positions toward each other, as if they were pieces of a “child’s puzzle” which she was trying to put together. The dim fire-light flaming up on her faintly from time to time showed changes which would have told their own tale sadly to friends of former days. Her dress had become loose through the wasting of her figure; but she had not cared to alter it. The old restlessness in her movements, the old mobility in her expression, appeared no more. Her face passively maintained its haggard composure, its changeless unnatural calm. Mr. Pendril might have softened his hard sentence on her, if he had seen her now; and Mrs. Lecount, in the plenitude of her triumph, might have pitied her fallen enemy at last.
Hardly four months had passed since the wedding-day at Aldborough, and the penalty for that day was paid already — paid in unavailing remorse, in hopeless isolation, in irremediable defeat! Let this be said for her; let the truth which has been told of the fault be told of the expiation as well. Let it be recorded of her that she enjoyed no secret triumph on the day of her success. The horror of herself with which her own act had inspired her, had risen to its climax when the design of her marriage was achieved. She had never suffered in secret as she suffered when the Combe-Raven money was left to her in her husband’s will. She had never felt the means taken to accomplish her end so unutterably degrading to herself, as she felt them on the day when the end was reached. Out of that feeling had grown the remorse which had hurried her to seek pardon and consolation in her sister’s love. Never since it had first entered her heart, never since she had first felt it sacred to her at her father’s grave, had the Purpose to which she had vowed herself, so nearly lost its hold on her as at this time. Never might Norah’s influence have achieved such good as on the day when that influence was lost — the day when the fatal words were overheard at Miss Garth’s — the day when the fatal letter from Scotland told of Mrs. Lecount’s revenge.
The harm was done; the chance was gone. Time and Hope alike had both passed her by.
Faintly and more faintly the inner voices now pleaded with her to pause on the downward way. The discovery which had poisoned her heart with its first distrust of her sister; the tidings which had followed it of her husband’s death; the sting of Mrs. Lecount’s triumph, felt through all, had done their work. The remorse which had embittered her married life was deadened now to a dull despair. It was too late to make the atonement of confession — too late to lay bare to the miserable husband the deeper secrets that had once lurked in the heart of the miserable wife. Innocent of all thought of the hideous treachery which Mrs. Lecount had imputed to her — she was guilty of knowing how his health was broken when she married him; guilty of knowing, when he left her the Combe-Raven money, that the accident of a moment, harmless to other men, might place his life in jeopardy, and effect her release. His death had told her this — had told her plainly what she had shrunk, in his lifetime, from openly acknowledging to herself. From the dull torment of that reproach; from the dreary wretchedness of doubting everybody, even to Norah herself; from the bitter sense of her defeated schemes; from the blank solitude of her friendless life — what refuge was left? But one refuge now. She turned to the relentless Purpose which was hurrying her to her ruin, and cried to it with the daring of her despair — Drive me on!
For days and days together she had bent her mind on the one object which occupied it since she had received the lawyer’s letter. For days and days together she had toiled to meet the first necessity of her position — to find a means of discovering the Secret Trust. There was no hope, this time, of assistance from Captain Wragge. Long practice had made the old militia-man an adept in the art of vanishing. The plow of the moral agriculturist left no furrows — not a trace of him was to be found! Mr. Loscombe was too cautious to commit himself to an active course of any kind; he passively maintained his opinions and left the rest to his client —— he desired to know nothing until the Trust was placed in his hands. Magdalen’s interests were now in Magdalen’s own sole care. Risk or no risk, what she did next she must do by herself.
The prospect had not daunted her. Alone she had calculated the chances that might be tried. Alone she was now determined to make the attempt.
“The time has come,” she said to herself, as she sat over the fire. “I must sound Louisa first.”
She collected the scattered coins in her lap, and placed them in a little heap on the table, then rose and rang the bell. The landlady answered it.
“Is my servant downstairs?” inquired Magdalen.
“Yes, ma’am. She is having her tea.”
“When she has done, say I want her up here. Wait a moment. You will find your money on the table — the money I owe you for last week. Can you find it? or would you like to have a candle?”
“It’s rather dark, ma’am.”
Magdalen lit a candle. “What notice must I give you,” she asked, as she put the candle on the table, “before I leave?”
“A week is the usual notice, ma’am. I hope you have no objection to make to the house?”
“None whatever. I only ask the question, because I may be obliged to leave these lodgings rather sooner than I anticipated. Is the money right?”
“Quite right, ma’am. Here is your receipt.”
“Thank you. Don’t forget to send Louisa to me as soon as she has done her tea.”
The landlady withdrew. As soon as she was alone again, Magdalen extinguished the candle, and drew an empty chair close to her own chair on the hearth. This done, she resumed her former place, and waited until Louisa appeared. There was doubt in her face as she sat looking mechanically into the fire. “A poor chance,” she thought to herself; “but, poor as it is, a chance that I must try.”
In ten minutes more, Louisa’s meek knock was softly audible outside. She was surprised, on entering the room, to find no other light in it than the light of the fire.
“Will you have the candles, ma’am?” she inquired, respectfully.
“We will have candles if you wish for them yourself,” replied Magdalen; “not otherwise. I have something to say to you. When I have said it, you shall decide whether we sit together in the dark or in the light.”
Louisa waited near the door, and listened to those strange words in silent astonishment.
“Come here,” said Magdalen, pointing to the empty chair; “come here and sit down.”
Louisa advanced, and timidly removed the chair from its position at her mistress’s side. Magdalen instantly drew it back again. “No!” she said. “Come closer — come close by me.” After a moment’s hesitation, Louisa obeyed.
“I ask you to sit near me,” pursued Magdalen, “because I wish to speak to you on equal terms. Whatever distinctions there might once have been between us are now at an end. I am a lonely woman thrown helpless on my own resources, without rank or place in the world. I may or may not keep you as my friend. As mistress and maid the connection between us must come to an end.”
“Oh, ma’am, don’t, don’t say that!” pleaded Louisa, faintly.
Magdalen sorrowfully and steadily went on.
“When you first came to me,” she resumed, “I thought I should not like you. I have learned to like you — I have learned to be grateful to you. From first to last you have been faithful and good to me. The least I can do in return is not to stand in the way of your future prospects.”
“Don’t send me away, ma’am!” said Louisa, imploringly. “If you can only help me with a little money now and then, I’ll wait for my wages — I will, indeed.”
Magdalen took her hand and went on, as sorrowfully and as steadily as before.
“My future life is all darkness, all uncertainty,” she said. “The next step I may take may lead me to my prosperity or may lead me to my ruin. Can I ask you to share such a prospect as this? If your future was as uncertain as mine is — if you, too, were a friendless woman thrown on the world — my conscience might be easy in letting you cast your lot with mine. I might accept your attachment, for I might feel I was not wronging you. How can I feel this in your case? You have a future to look to. You are an excellent servant; you can get another place — a far better place than mine. You can refer to me; and if the character I give is not considered sufficient, you can refer to the mistress you served before me — ”
At the instant when that reference to the girl’s last employer escaped Magdalen’s lips, Louisa snatched her hand away and started up affrightedly from her chair. There was a moment’s silence. Both mistress and maid were equally taken by surprise.
Magdalen was the first to recover herself.
“Is it getting too dark?” she asked, significantly. “Are you going to light the candles, after all?”
Louisa drew back into the dimmest corner of the room.
“You suspect me, ma’am!” she answered out of the darkness, in a breathless whisper. “Who has told you? How did you find out —?” She stopped, and burst into tears. “I deserve your suspicion,” she said, struggling to compose herself. “I can’t deny it to you. You have treated me so kindly; you have made me so fond of you! Forgive me, Mrs. Vanstone — I am a wretch; I have deceived you.”
“Come here and sit down by me again,” said Magdalen. “Come — or I will get up myself and bring you back.”
Louisa slowly returned to her place. Dim as the fire-light was, she seemed to fear it. She held her handkerchief over her face, and shrank from her mistress as she seated herself again in the chair.
“You are wrong in thinking that any one has betrayed you to me,” said Magdalen. “All that I know of you is, what your own looks and ways have told me. You have had some secret trouble weighing on your mind ever since you have been in my service. I confess I have spoken with the wish to find out more of you and your past life than I have found out yet — not because I am curious, but because I have my secret troubles too. Are you an unhappy woman, like me? If you are, I will take you into my confidence. If you have nothing to tell me — if you choose to keep your secret — I don’t blame you; I only say, Let us part. I won’t ask how you have deceived me. I will only remember that you have been an honest and faithful and competent servant while I have employed you; and I will say as much in your favor to any new mistress you like to send to me.”
She waited for the reply. For a moment, and only for a moment, Louisa hesitated. The girl’s nature was weak, but not depraved. She was honestly attached to her mistress; and she spoke with a courage which Magdalen had not expected from her.
“If you send me away, ma’am,” she said, “I won’t take my character from you till I have told you the truth; I won’t return your kindness by deceiving you a second time. Did my master ever tell you how he engaged me?”
“No. I never asked him, and he never told me.”
“He engaged me, ma’am, with a written character — ”
“The character was a false one.”
Magdalen drew back in amazement. The confession she heard was not the confession she had anticipated.
“Did your mistress refuse to give you a character?” she asked. “Why?”
Louisa dropped on her knees and hid her face in her mistress’s lap. “Don’t ask me!” she said. “I’m a miserable, degraded creature; I’m not fit to be in the same room with you!” Magdalen bent over her, and whispered a question in her ear. Louisa whispered back the one sad word of reply.
“Has he deserted you?” asked Magdalen, after waiting a moment, and thinking first.
“Do you love him?”
The remembrance of her own loveless marriage stung Magdalen to the quick.
“For God’s sake, don’t kneel to me!” she cried, passionately. “If there is a degraded woman in this room, I am the woman — not you!”
She raised the girl by main force from her knees, and put her back in the chair. They both waited a little in silence. Keeping her hand on Louisa’s shoulder, Magdalen seated herself again, and looked with unutterable bitterness of sorrow into the dying fire. “Oh,” she thought, “what happy women there are in the world! Wives who love their husbands! Mothers who are not ashamed to own their children! Are you quieter?” she asked, gently addressing Louisa once more. “Can you answer me, if I ask you something else? Where is the child?”
“The child is out at nurse.”
“Does the father help to support it?”
“He does all he can, ma’am.”
“What is he? Is he in service? Is he in a trade?”
“His father is a master-carpenter — he works in his father’s yard.”
“If he has got work, why has he not married you?”
“It is his father’s fault, ma’am — not his. His father has no pity on us. He would be turned out of house and home if he married me.”
“Can he get no work elsewhere?”
“It’s hard to get good work in London, ma’am. There are so many in London — they take the bread out of each other’s mouths. If we had only had the money to emigrate, he would have married me long since.”
“Would he marry you if you had the money now?”
“I am sure he would, ma’am. He could get plenty of work in Australia, and double and treble the wages he gets here. He is trying hard, and I am trying hard, to save a little toward it — I put by all I can spare from my child. But it is so little! If we live for years to come, there seems no hope for us. I know I have done wrong every way — I know I don’t deserve to be happy. But how could I let my child suffer? — I was obliged to go to service. My mistress was hard on me, and my health broke down in trying to live by my needle. I would never have deceived anybody by a false character, if there had been another chance for me. I was alone and helpless, ma’am; and I can only ask you to forgive me.”
“Ask better women than I am,” said Magdalen, sadly. “I am only fit to feel for you, and I do feel for you with all my heart. In your place I should have gone into service with a false character, too. Say no more of the past — you don’t know how you hurt me in speaking of it. Talk of the future. I think I can help you, and do you no harm. I think you can help me, and do me the greatest of all services in return. Wait, and you shall hear what I mean. Suppose you were married — how much would it cost for you and your husband to emigrate?”
Louisa mentioned the cost of a steerage passage to Australia for a man and his wife. She spoke in low, hopeless tones. Moderate as the sum was, it looked like unattainable wealth in her eyes.
Magdalen started in her chair, and took the girl’s hand once more.
“Louisa!” she said, earnestly; “if I gave you the money, what would you do for me in return?”
The proposal seemed to strike Louisa speechless with astonishment. She trembled violently, and said nothing. Magdalen repeated her words.
“Oh, ma’am, do you mean it?” said the girl. “Do you really mean it?”
“Yes,” replied Magdalen; “I really mean it. What would you do for me in return?”
“Do?” repeated Louisa. “Oh what is there I would not do!” She tried to kiss her mistress’s hand; but Magdalen would not permit it. She resolutely, almost roughly, drew her hand away.
“I am laying you under no obligation,” she said. “We are serving each other — that is all. Sit quiet, and let me think.”
For the next ten minutes there was silence in the room. At the end of that time Magdalen took out her watch and held it close to the grate. There was just firelight enough to show her the hour. It was close on six o’clock.
“Are you composed enough to go downstairs and deliver a message?” she asked, rising from her chair as she spoke to Louisa again. “It is a very simple message — it is only to tell the boy that I want a cab as soon as he can get me one. I must go out immediately. You shall know why later in the evening. I have much more to say to you; but there is no time to say it now. When I am gone, bring your work up here, and wait for my return. I shall be back before bed-time.”
Without another word of explanation, she hurriedly lit a candle and withdrew into the bedroom to put on her bonnet and shawl.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:06