No Name/Scene 5/Chapter II
MRS. LECOUNT mixed the sal-volatile with water, and administered it immediately. The stimulant had its effect. In a few minutes Noel Vanstone was able to raise himself in the chair without assistance; his color changed again for the better, and his breath came and went more freely.
"How do you feel now, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Are you warm again on your left side?"
He paid no attention to that inquiry; his eyes, wandering about the room, turned by chance toward the table. To Mrs. Lecount's surprise, instead of answering her, he bent forward in his chair, and looked with staring eyes and pointing hand at the second bottle which she had taken from the cupboard, and which she had hastily laid aside without paying attention to it. Seeing that some new alarm possessed him, she advanced to the table, and looked where he looked. The labeled side of the bottle was full in view; and there, in the plain handwriting of the chemist at Aldborough, was the one startling word confronting them both—"Poison."
Even Mrs. Lecount's self-possession was shaken by that discovery. She was not prepared to see her own darkest forebodings—the unacknowledged offspring of her hatred for Magdalen—realized as she saw them realized now. The suicide-despair in which the poison had been procured; the suicide-purpose for which, in distrust of the future, the poison had been kept, had brought with them their own retribution. There the bottle lay, in Magdalen's absence, a false witness of treason which had never entered her mind—treason against her husband's life!
With his hand still mechanically pointing at the table Noel Vanstone raised his head and looked up at Mrs. Lecount.
"I took it from the cupboard," she said, answering the look. "I took both bottles out together, not knowing which might be the bottle I wanted. I am as much shocked, as much frightened, as you are."
"Poison!" he said to himself, slowly. "Poison locked up by my wife in the cupboard in her own room." He stopped, and looked at Mrs. Lecount once more. "For me?" he asked, in a vacant, inquiring tone.
"We will not talk of it, sir, until your mind is more at ease," said Mrs. Lecount. "In the meantime, the danger that lies waiting in this bottle shall be instantly destroyed in your presence." She took out the cork, and threw the laudanum out of window, and the empty bottle after it. "Let us try to forget this dreadful discovery for the present," she resumed; "let us go downstairs at once. All that I have now to say to you can be said in another room."
She helped him to rise from the chair, and took his arm in her own. "It is well for him; it is well for me," she thought, as they went downstairs together, "that I came when I did."
On crossing the passage, she stepped to the front door, where the carriage was waiting which had brought her from Dumfries, and instructed the coachman to put up his horses at the nearest inn, and to call again for her in two hours' time. This done, she accompanied Noel Vanstone into the sitting-room, stirred up the fire, and placed him before it comfortably in an easy-chair. He sat for a few minutes, warming his hands feebly like an old man, and staring straight into the flame. Then he spoke.
"When the woman came and threatened me in Vauxhall Walk," he began, still staring into the fire, "you came back to the parlor after she was gone, and you told me—?" He stopped, shivered a little, and lost the thread of his recollections at that point.
"I told you, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, "that the woman was, in my opinion, Miss Vanstone herself. Don't start, Mr. Noel! Your wife is away, and I am here to take care of you. Say to yourself, if you feel frightened, 'Lecount is here; Lecount will take care of me.' The truth must be told, sir, however hard to bear the truth may be. Miss Magdalen Vanstone was the woman who came to you in disguise; and the woman who came to you in disguise is the woman you have married. The conspiracy which she threatened you with in London is the conspiracy which has made her your wife. That is the plain truth. You have seen the dress upstairs. If that dress had been no longer in existence, I should still have had my proofs to convince you. Thanks to my interview with Mrs. Bygrave I have discovered the house your wife lodged at in London; it was opposite our house in Vauxhall Walk. I have laid my hand on one of the landlady's daughters, who watched your wife from an inner room, and saw her put on the disguise; who can speak to her identity, and to the identity of her companion, Mrs. Bygrave; and who has furnished me, at my own request, with a written statement of facts, which she is ready to affirm on oath if any person ventures to contradict her. You shall read the statement, Mr. Noel, if you like, when you are fitter to understand it. You shall also read a letter in the handwriting of Miss Garth—who will repeat to you personally every word she has written to me—a letter formally denying that she was ever in Vauxhall Walk, and formally asserting that those moles on your wife's neck are marks peculiar to Miss Magdalen Vanstone, whom she has known from childhood. I say it with a just pride—you will find no weak place anywhere in the evidence which I bring you. If Mr. Bygrave had not stolen my letter, you would have had your warning before I was cruelly deceived into going to Zurich; and the proofs which I now bring you, after your marriage, I should then have offered to you before it. Don't hold me responsible, sir, for what has happened since I left England. Blame your uncle's bastard daughter, and blame that villain with the brown eye and the green!"
She spoke her last venomous words as slowly and distinctly as she had spoken all the rest. Noel Vanstone made no answer—he still sat cowering over the fire. She looked round into his face. He was crying silently. "I was so fond of her!" said the miserable little creature; "and I thought she was so fond of Me!"
Mrs. Lecount turned her back on him in disdainful silence. "Fond of her!" As she repeated those words to herself, her haggard face became almost handsome again in the magnificent intensity of its contempt.
She walked to a book-case at the lower end of the room, and began examining the volumes in it. Before she had been long engaged in this way, she was startled by the sound of his voice, affrightedly calling her back. The tears were gone from his face; it was blank again with terror when he now turned it toward her.
"Lecount!" he said, holding to her with both hands. "Can an egg be poisoned? I had an egg for breakfast this morning, and a little toast."
"Make your mind easy, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "The poison of your wife's deceit is the only poison you have taken yet. If she had resolved already on making you pay the price of your folly with your life, she would not be absent from the house while you were left living in it. Dismiss the thought from your mind. It is the middle of the day; you want refreshment. I have more to say to you in the interests of your own safety—I have something for you to do, which must be done at once. Recruit your strength, and you will do it. I will set you the example of eating, if you still distrust the food in this house. Are you composed enough to give the servant her orders, if I ring the bell? It is necessary to the object I have in view for you, that nobody should think you ill in body or troubled in mind. Try first with me before the servant comes in. Let us see how you look and speak when you say, 'Bring up the lunch.'"
After two rehearsals, Mrs. Lecount considered him fit to give the order, without betraying himself.
The bell was answered by Louisa—Louisa looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. The luncheon was brought up by the house-maid—the house-maid looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. When luncheon was over, the table was cleared by the cook—the cook looked hard at Mrs. Lecount. The three servants were plainly suspicious that something extraordinary was going on in the house. It was hardly possible to doubt that they had arranged to share among themselves the three opportunities which the service of the table afforded them of entering the room.
The curiosity of which she was the object did not escape the penetration of Mrs. Lecount. "I did well," she thought, "to arm myself in good time with the means of reaching my end. If I let the grass grow under my feet, one or the other of those women might get in my way." Roused by this consideration, she produced her traveling-bag from a corner, as soon as the last of the servants had entered the room; and seating herself at the end of the table opposite Noel Vanstone, looked at him for a moment, with a steady, investigating attention. She had carefully regulated the quantity of wine which he had taken at luncheon—she had let him drink exactly enough to fortify, without confusing him; and she now examined his face critically, like an artist examining his picture at the end of the day's work. The result appeared to satisfy her, and she opened the serious business of the interview on the spot.
"Will you look at the written evidence I have mentioned to you, Mr. Noel, before I say any more?" she inquired. "Or are you sufficiently persuaded of the truth to proceed at once to the suggestion which I have now to make to you?"
"Let me hear your suggestion," he said, sullenly resting his elbows on the table, and leaning his head on his hands.
Mrs. Lecount took from her traveling-bag the written evidence to which she had just alluded, and carefully placed the papers on one side of him, within easy reach, if he wished to refer to them. Far from being daunted, she was visibly encouraged by the ungraciousness of his manner. Her experience of him informed her that the sign was a promising one. On those rare occasions when the little resolution that he possessed was roused in him, it invariably asserted itself—like the resolution of most other weak men—aggressively. At such times, in proportion as he was outwardly sullen and discourteous to those about him, his resolution rose; and in proportion as he was considerate and polite, it fell. The tone of the answer he had just given, and the attitude he assumed at the table, convinced Mrs. Lecount that Spanish wine and Scotch mutton had done their duty, and had rallied his sinking courage.
"I will put the question to you for form's sake, sir, if you wish it," she proceeded. "But I am already certain, without any question at all, that you have made your will?"
He nodded his head without looking at her.
"You have made it in your wife's favor?"
He nodded again.
"You have left her everything you possess?"
Mrs. Lecount looked surprised.
"Did you exercise a reserve toward her, Mr. Noel, of your own accord?" she inquired; "or is it possible that your wife put her own limits to her interest in your will?"
He was uneasily silent—he was plainly ashamed to answer the question. Mrs. Lecount repeated it in a less direct form.
"How much have you left your widow, Mr. Noel, in the event of your death?"
"Eighty thousand pounds."
That reply answered the question. Eighty thousand pounds was exactly the fortune which Michael Vanstone had taken from his brother's orphan children at his brother's death—exactly the fortune of which Michael Vanstone's son had kept possession, in his turn, as pitilessly as his father before him. Noel Vanstone's silence was eloquent of the confession which he was ashamed to make. His doting weakness had, beyond all doubt, placed his whole property at the feet of his wife. And thi s girl, whose vindictive daring had defied all restraints—this girl, who had not shrunk from her desperate determination even at the church door—had, in the very hour of her triumph, taken part only from the man who would willingly have given all!—had rigorously exacted her father's fortune from him to the last farthing; and had then turned her back on the hand that was tempting her with tens of thousands more! For the moment, Mrs. Lecount was fairly silenced by her own surprise; Magdalen had forced the astonishment from her which is akin to admiration, the astonishment which her enmity would fain have refused. She hated Magdalen with a tenfold hatred from that time.
"I have no doubt, sir," she resumed, after a momentary silence, "that Mrs. Noel gave you excellent reasons why the provision for her at your death should be no more, and no less, than eighty thousand pounds. And, on the other hand, I am equally sure that you, in your innocence of all suspicion, found those reasons conclusive at the time. That time has now gone by. Your eyes are opened, sir; and you will not fail to remark (as I remark) that the Combe-Raven property happens to reach the same sum exactly, as the legacy which your wife's own instructions directed you to leave her. If you are still in any doubt of the motive for which she married you, look in your own will—and there the motive is!"
He raised his head from his hands, and became closely attentive to what she was saying to him, for the first time since they had faced each other at the table. The Combe-Raven property had never been classed by itself in his estimation. It had come to him merged in his father's other possessions, at his father's death. The discovery which had now opened before him was one to which his ordinary habits of thought, as well as his innocence of suspicion, had hitherto closed his eyes. He said nothing; but he looked less sullenly at Mrs. Lecount. His manner was more ingratiating; the high tide of his courage was already on the ebb.
"Your position, sir, must be as plain by this time to you as it is to me," said Mrs. Lecount. "There is only one obstacle now left between this woman and the attainment of her end. That obstacle is your life. After the discovery we have made upstairs, I leave you to consider for yourself what your life is worth."
At those terrible words, the ebbing resolution in him ran out to the last drop. "Don't frighten me!" he pleaded; "I have been frightened enough already." He rose, and dragged his chair after him, round the table to Mrs. Lecount's side. He sat down and caressingly kissed her hand. "You good creature!" he said, in a sinking voice. "You excellent Lecount! Tell me what to do. I'm full of resolution—I'll do anything to save my life!"
"Have you got writing materials in the room, sir?" asked Mrs. Lecount. "Will you put them on the table, if you please?"
While the writing materials were in process of collection, Mrs. Lecount made a new demand on the resources of her traveling-bag. She took two papers from it, each indorsed in the same neat commercial handwriting. One was described as "Draft for proposed Will," and the other as "Draft for proposed Letter." When she placed them before her on the table, her hand shook a little; and she applied the smelling-salts, which she had brought with her in Noel Vanstone's interests, to her own nostrils.
"I had hoped, when I came here, Mr. Noel," she proceeded, "to have given you more time for consideration than it seems safe to give you now. When you first told me of your wife's absence in London, I thought it probable that the object of her journey was to see her sister and Miss Garth. Since the horrible discovery we have made upstairs, I am inclined to alter that opinion. Your wife's determination not to tell you who the friends are whom she has gone to see, fills me with alarm. She may have accomplices in London—accomplices, for anything we know to the contrary, in this house. All three of your servants, sir, have taken the opportunity, in turn, of coming into the room and looking at me. I don't like their looks! Neither you nor I know what may happen from day to day, or even from hour to hour. If you take my advice, you will get the start at once of all possible accidents; and, when the carriage comes back, you will leave this house with me!"
"Yes, yes!" he said, eagerly; "I'll leave the house with you. I wouldn't stop here by myself for any sum of money that could be offered me. What do we want the pen and ink for? Are you to write, or am I?"
"You are to write, sir," said Mrs. Lecount. "The means taken for promoting your own safety are to be means set in motion, from beginning to end, by yourself. I suggest, Mr. Noel—and you decide. Recognize your own position, sir. What is your first and foremost necessity? It is plainly this. You must destroy your wife's interest in your death by making another will."
He vehemently nodded his approval; his color rose, and his blinking eyes brightened in malicious triumph. "She shan't have a farthing," he said to himself, in a whisper—"she shan't have a farthing!"
"When your will is made, sir," proceeded Mrs. Lecount, "you must place it in the hands of a trustworthy person—not my hands, Mr. Noel; I am only your servant! Then, when the will is safe, and when you are safe, write to your wife at this house. Tell her her infamous imposture is discovered; tell her you have made a new will, which leaves her penniless at your death; tell her, in your righteous indignation, that she enters your doors no more. Place yourself in that strong position, and it is no longer you who are at your wife's mercy, but your wife who is at yours. Assert your own power, sir, with the law to help you, and crush this woman into submission to any terms for the future that you please to impose."
He eagerly took up the pen. "Yes," he said, with a vindictive self-importance, "any terms I please to impose." He suddenly checked himself and his face became dejected and perplexed. "How can I do it now?" he asked, throwing down the pen as quickly as he had taken it up.
"Do what, sir?" inquired Mrs. Lecount.
"How can I make my will, with Mr. Loscombe away in London, and no lawyer here to help me?"
Mrs. Lecount gently tapped the papers before her on the table with her forefinger.
"All the help you need, sir, is waiting for you here," she said. "I considered this matter carefully before I came to you; and I provided myself with the confidential assistance of a friend to guide me through those difficulties which I could not penetrate for myself. The friend to whom I refer is a gentleman of Swiss extraction, but born and bred in England. He is not a lawyer by profession—but he has had his own sufficient experience of the law, nevertheless; and he has supplied me, not only with a model by which you may make your will, but with the written sketch of a letter which it is as important for us to have, as the model of the will itself. There is another necessity waiting for you, Mr. Noel, which I have not mentioned yet, but which is no less urgent in its way than the necessity of the will."
"What is it?" he asked, with roused curiosity.
"We will take it in its turn, sir," answered Mrs. Lecount. "Its turn has not come yet. The will, if you please, first. I will dictate from the model in my possession and you will write."
Noel Vanstone looked at the draft for the Will and the draft for the Letter with suspicious curiosity.
"I think I ought to see the papers myself, before you dictate," he said. "It would be more satisfactory to my own mind, Lecount."
"By all means, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, handing him the papers immediately.
He read the draft for the Will first, pausing and knitting his brows distrustfully, wherever he found blank spaces left in the manuscript to be filled in with the names of persons and the enumeration of sums bequeathed to them. Two or three minutes of reading brought him to the end of the paper. He gave it back to Mrs. Lecount without making any objection to it.
The draft for the Letter was a much longer document. He obstinately read it through to the end, with an expression of perplexity and discontent which showed that it was utterly unintelligible to him. "I must have this explained," he said, with a touch of his old self-importance, "before I take any steps in the matter."
"It shall be explained, sir, as we go on," said Mrs. Lecount.
"Every word of it?"
"Every word of it, Mr. Noel, when its turn comes. You have no objection to the will? To the will, then, as I said before, let us devote ourselves first. You have seen for yourself that it is short enough and simple enough for a child to understand it. But if any doubts remain on your mind, by all means compose those doubts by showing your will to a lawyer by profession. In the meantime, let me not be considered intrusive if I remind you that we are all mortal, and that the lost opportunity can never be recalled. While your time is your own, sir, and while your enemies are unsuspicious of you, make your will!"
She opened a sheet of note-paper and smoothed it out before him; she dipped the pen in ink, and placed it in his hands. He took it from her without speaking—he was, to all appearance, suffering under some temporary uneasiness of mind. But the main point was gained. There he sat, with the paper before him, and the pen in his hand; ready at last, in right earnest, to make his will.
"The first question for you to decide, sir," said Mrs. Lecount, after a preliminary glance at her Draft, "is your choice of an executor. I have no desire to influence your decision; but I may, without impropriety, remind you that a wise choice means, in other words, the choice of an old and tried friend whom you know that you can trust."
"It means the admiral, I suppose?" said Noel Vanstone.
Mrs. Lecount bowed.
"Very well," he continued. "The admiral let it be."
There was plainly some oppression still weighing on his mind. Even under the trying circumstances in which he was placed it was not in his nature to take Mrs. Lecount's perfectly sensible and disinterested advice without a word of cavil, as he had taken it now.
"Are you ready, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount dictated the first paragraph from the Draft, as follows:
"This is the last Will and Testament of me, Noel Vanstone, now living at Baliol Cottage, near Dumfries. I revoke, absolutely and in every particular, my former will executed on the thirtieth of September, eighteen hundred and forty-seven; and I hereby appoint Rear-Admiral Arthur Everard Bartram, of St. Crux-in-the-Marsh, Essex, sole executor of this my will."
"Have you written those words, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount laid down the Draft; Noel Vanstone laid down the pen. They neither of them looked at each other. There was a long silence.
"I am waiting, Mr. Noel," said Mrs. Lecount, at last, "to hear what your wishes are in respect to the disposal of your fortune. Your large fortune," she added, with merciless emphasis.
He took up the pen again, and began picking the feathers from the quill in dead silence.
"Perhaps your existing will may help you to instruct me, sir," pursued Mrs. Lecount. "May I inquire to whom you left all your surplus money, after leaving the eighty thousand pounds to your wife?"
If he had answered that question plainly, he must have said: "I have left the whole surplus to my cousin, George Bartram"—and the implied acknowledgment that Mrs. Lecount's name was not mentioned in the will must then have followed in Mrs. Lecount's presence. A much bolder man, in his situation, might have felt the same oppression and the same embarrassment which he was feeling now. He picked the last morsel of feather from the quill; and, desperately leaping the pitfall under his feet, advanced to meet Mrs. Lecount's claims on him of his own accord.
"I would rather not talk of any will but the will I am making now," he said uneasily. "The first thing, Lecount—" He hesitated—put the bare end of the quill into his mouth—gnawed at it thoughtfully—and said no more.
"Yes, sir?" persisted Mrs. Lecount.
"The first thing is—"
"The first thing is, to—to make some provision for You?"
He spoke the last words in a tone of plaintive interrogation—as if all hope of being met by a magnanimous refusal had not deserted him even yet. Mrs. Lecount enlightened his mind on this point, without a moment's loss of time.
"Thank you, Mr. Noel," she said, with the tone and manner of a woman who was not acknowledging a favor, but receiving a right.
He took another bite at the quill. The perspiration began to appear on his face.
"The difficulty is," he remarked, "to say how much."
"Your lamented father, sir," rejoined Mrs. Lecount, "met that difficulty (if you remember) at the time of his last illness?"
"I don't remember," said Noel Vanstone, doggedly.
"You were on one side of his bed, sir, and I was on the other. We were vainly trying to persuade him to make his will. After telling us he would wait and make his will when he was well again, he looked round at me, and said some kind and feeling words which my memory will treasure to my dying day. Have you forgotten those words, Mr. Noel?"
"Yes," said Mr. Noel, without hesitation.
"In my present situation, sir," retorted Mrs. Lecount, "delicacy forbids me to improve your memory."
She looked at her watch, and relapsed into silence. He clinched his hands, and writhed from side to side of his chair in an agony of indecision. Mrs. Lecount passively refused to take the slightest notice of him.
"What should you say—?" he began, and suddenly stopped again.
"What should you say to—a thousand pounds?"
Mrs. Lecount rose from her chair, and looked him full in the face, with the majestic indignation of an outraged woman.
"After the service I have rendered you to-day, Mr. Noel," she said, "I have at least earned a claim on your respect, if I have earned nothing more. I wish you good-morning."
"Two thousand!" cried Noel Vanstone, with the courage of despair.
Mrs. Lecount folded up her papers and hung her traveling-bag over her arm in contemptuous silence.
Mrs. Lecount moved with impenetrable dignity from the table to the door.
Mrs. Lecount gathered her shawl round her with a shudder, and opened the door.
He clasped his hands, and wrung them at her in a frenzy of rage and suspense. "Five thousand" was the death-cry of his pecuniary suicide.
Mrs. Lecount softly shut the door again, and came back a step.
"Free of legacy duty, sir?" she inquired.
Mrs. Lecount turned on her heel and opened the door again.
Mrs. Lecount came back, and resumed her place at the table as if nothing had happened.
"Five thousand pounds, free of legacy duty, was the sum, sir, which your father's grateful regard promised me in his will," she said, quietly. "If you choose to exert your memory, as you have not chosen to exert it yet, your memory will tell you that I speak the truth. I accept your filial performance of your father's promise, Mr. Noel—and there I stop. I scorn to take a mean advantage of my position toward you; I scorn to grasp anything from your fears. You are protected by my respect for myself, and for the Illustrious Name I bear. You are welcome to all that I have done, and to all that I have suffered in your service. The widow of Professor Lecompte, sir, takes what is justly hers—and takes no more!"
As she spoke those words, the traces of sickness seemed, for the moment, to disappear from her face; her eyes shone with a steady inner light; all the woman warmed and brightened in the radiance of her own triumph—the triumph, trebly won, of carrying her point, of vindicating her integrity, and of matching Magdalen's incorruptible self-denial on Magdalen's own ground.
"When you are yourself again, sir, we will proceed. Let us wait a little first."
She gave him time to compose himself; and then, after first looking at her Draft, dictated the second paragraph of the will, in these terms:
"I give and bequeath to Madame Virginie Lecompte (widow of Professor Lecompt e, late of Zurich) the sum of Five Thousand Pounds, free of Legacy Duty. And, in making this bequest, I wi sh to place it on record that I am not only expressing my own sense of Madame Lecompte's attachment and fidelity in the capacity of my housekeeper, but that I also believe myself to be executing the intentions of my deceased father, who, but for the circumstance of his dying intestate, would have left Madame Lecompte, in his will, the same token of grateful regard for her services which I now leave her in mine."
"Have you written the last words, sir?"
Mrs. Lecount leaned across the table and offered Noel Vanstone her hand.
"Thank you, Mr. Noel," she said. "The five thousand pounds is the acknowledgment on your father's side of what I have done for him. The words in the will are the acknowledgment on yours."
A faint smile flickered over his face for the first time. It comforted him, on reflection, to think that matters might have been worse. There was balm for his wounded spirit in paying the debt of gratitude by a sentence not negotiable at his banker's. Whatever his father might have done, he had got Lecount a bargain, after all!
"A little more writing, sir," resumed Mrs. Lecount, "and your painful but necessary duty will be performed. The trifling matter of my legacy being settled, we may come to the important question that is left. The future direction of a large fortune is now waiting your word of command. To whom is it to go?"
He began to writhe again in his chair. Even under the all-powerful fascination of his wife the parting with his money on paper had not been accomplished without a pang. He had endured the pang; he had resigned himself to the sacrifice. And now here was the dreaded ordeal again, awaiting him mercilessly for the second time!
"Perhaps it may assist your decision, sir, if I repeat a question which I have put to you already," observed Mrs. Lecount. "In the will that you made under your wife's influence, to whom did you leave the surplus money which remained at your own disposal?"
There was no harm in answering the question now. He acknowledged that he had left the money to his cousin George.
"You could have done nothing better, Mr. Noel; and you can do nothing better now," said Mrs. Lecount. "Mr. George and his two sisters are your only relations left. One of those sisters is an incurable invalid, with more than money enough already for all the wants which her affliction allows her to feel. The other is the wife of a man even richer than yourself. To leave the money to these sisters is to waste it. To leave the money to their brother George is to give your cousin exactly the assistance which he will want when he one day inherits his uncle's dilapidated house and his uncle's impoverished estate. A will which names the admiral your executor and Mr. George your heir is the right will for you to make. It does honor to the claims of friendship, and it does justice to the claims of blood."
She spoke warmly; for she spoke with a grateful remembrance of all that she herself owed to the hospitality of St. Crux. Noel Vanstone took up another pen and began to strip the second quill of its feathers as he had stripped the first.
"Yes," he said, reluctantly, "I suppose George must have it—I suppose George has the principal claim on me." He hesitated: he looked at the door, he looked at the window, as if he longed to make his escape by one way or the other. "Oh, Lecount," he cried, piteously, "it's such a large fortune! Let me wait a little before I leave it to anybody."
To his surprise; Mrs. Lecount at once complied with this characteristic request.
"I wish you to wait, sir," she replied. "I have something important to say, before you add another line to your will. A little while since, I told you there was a second necessity connected with your present situation, which had not been provided for yet, but which must be provided for, when the time came. The time has come now. You have a serious difficulty to meet and conquer before you can leave your fortune to your cousin George."
"What difficulty?" he asked.
Mrs. Lecount rose from her chair without answering, stole to the door, and suddenly threw it open. No one was listening outside; the passage was a solitude, from one end to the other.
"I distrust all servants," she said, returning to her place—"your servants particularly. Sit closer, Mr. Noel. What I have now to say to you must be heard by no living creature but ourselves."