Except The Woman in White, none of Wilkie Collins’s novels was more widely popular at the time of its publication than No Name, though the great success of Man and Wife in its dramatized and acted form has since given that story a greater reputation and a firmer hold upon the popular mind.
IN March, 1846, at Combe-Raven, in West Somersetshire, lived a gentleman, Andrew Van-stone. His family consisted of Mrs. Vanstone, two daughters, and Miss Garth. The latter had been governess to the two girls, and since they had outgrown the schoolroom she had continued to live in the house as an honored and beloved member of the family.
Andrew Vanstone was a man of ample means, invested in the funds. He led the easy life of a country gentle-man with no great landed estate to look after. He was healthy, good-natured, and lovingly devoted to his family. Norah, the elder daughter, was a typically well brought up young English-woman. Magdalen, a girl of eighteen, was vivacious, intensely affectionate, wilful, a mimic, and the pet of the family.
Adjoining the Combe-Raven grounds, in a little cottage, lived Francis Clare, a scholar and cynic, who condemned all social conventions, and whose habit it was to speak his mind freely. His eldest son, Frank, had been Magdalen’s playmate in childhood and had now grown to be her sweetheart. He was altogether worthless, and his father never hesitated to proclaim the fact, while Andrew Vanstone obstinately disputed it. Vanstone had secured for the young man a very favorable place with an engineer. The young man’s father had wagered that he would forfeit the admirable opportunity thus offered, and “come back like a bad shilling.” The boy did so. Then Vanstone secured for him a place in a commercial house, and again Frank forfeited the trust.
In some private theatricals Magdalen dragged Frank through his part, and, herself doubling parts, carried off all the honors, chiefly by her adroit mimicry of Miss Garth and Norah, and so impressed her histrionic gifts upon the theatrical agent who managed the show that he begged her to accept and keep his card, in case she should have occasion to recommend him.
The London firm in whose service Frank Clare had failed suggested that he might have another chance if he would go out to China for five years to study the silk and tea trade and make himself valuable in the correspondence of the house. He pleaded piteously to be spared the exile, and Magdalen pleaded for him. Mr. Vanstone came to the rescue. He proposed that Frank should have another year’s trial in the London house, and said that if he did well he should marry Magdalen at the end of that time. Her fortune would be ample for their support.
A letter, postmarked New Orleans, came one morning for Mr. Vanstone. Immediately, and with some mystery, he and his wife went to London, to be gone for some weeks. In a letter Mrs. Vanstone explained to Miss Garth that finding herself, very unexpectedly, about to become a mother again, or suspecting that this was the case, she had gone to London to consult an eminent medical man. Miss Garth felt that there was something kept back, but was too polite to make any inquiry.
After they returned to Combe-Raven Mr. Vanstone summoned his solicitor, Mr. Pendril, from London, and while awaiting him, went alone on a brief railway journey. There was an accident and Andrew Vanstone was killed.
Mrs. Vanstone fell violently ill. Mr. Pendril went to Clare’s cottage and thence sent urgent word that if Mrs. Vanstone were to revive sufficiently to sign her name, it was of the utmost importance that he should see her, if only for five minutes; but she died without recovering consciousness.
Mr. Pendril then explained the mystery to Miss Garth. Mr. Vanstone had been an officer in the army in his youth. He had been stationed in Canada. There he had met and married a woman who proved to be an adventuress. When Vanstone found out her true character, he pensioned her off.
Money was all she wanted, and he gave her a sufficient income. But she remained in law his wife, and it was only when the letter from New Orleans brought news of her death that Andrew Vanstone and the mother of his daughters could be legally married. It was for the purpose of accomplishing this without publicity that the two had gone to London.
Years before that time Vanstone had made his will, giving his fortune of eighty thousand pounds to his wife and daughters. His subsequent marriage to his wife had rendered this will invalid, and, discovering the fact, he had sent for Mr. Pendril to draw another. The solicitor had arrived too late. The law of England, unlike that of other civilized countries, does not permit the belated marriage of parents to legitimize children already born. Consequently, at law, Norah and Magdalen were “nobody’s children,” and every penny of Vanstone’s wealth became the property of his elder brother, Michael Vanstone, from whom he had been bitterly estranged ever since their father’s death. Mr. Pendril had hoped that Mrs. Vanstone might sign a will giving her wife’s portion to her daughters, but she had died too soon.
Appeal was made in vain to Michael Vanstone. He declined to recognize his brother’s daughters. He contemptuously offered to give them one hundred pounds apiece to cover their expenses while seeking situations, but he would do no more.
Now that Magdalen had no fortune and no hope of one, it became necessary for Frank Clare to accept the offer made him and go out to China. Whining and whimpering, he went.
Both girls rejected Michael Vanstone’s offer of one hundred pounds apiece. Norah decided to seek a situation as governess. Magdalen suddenly disappeared. Miss Garth and Norah, believing that she had gone to seek employment on the stage, asked Mr. Pendril to institute a search for her. He issued handbills, describing her and offering a reward of fifty pounds for her discovery. One of these fell into the hands of Captain Horatio Wragge, a wholly conscienceless adventurer and swindler, remotely connected with the late Mrs. Vanstone’s family. He found Magdalen, but upon a careful calculation of chances he decided that he could make more out of her in a dramatic way than by reporting her whereabouts and collecting the reward of fifty pounds.
He took her to live with his half-imbecile wife. He trained her and devised for her a monologue entertainment. The thing succeeded; Captain Wragge deliberately swindling Magdalen in their accounts, but still leaving her an income from which she soon saved a comfortable sum.
With money in hand, Magdalen abandoned the stage and set to work to carry out her scheme, endeavoring to recover in one way or another the eighty thousand pounds of her father’s fortune.
She employed Wragge to find out facts. He learned that Michael Vanstone was dead, and that his wealth had passed to a half-imbecile, miserly, and utterly cowardly son, Noel.
Disguised to resemble her old governess, Miss Garth, Magdalen secured access to Noel Vanstone, but could make no impression upon him. He was completely under the control of his housekeeper, Mrs. Lecount, and Mrs. Lecount so far penetrated Magdalen’s disguise as to suspect the truth. She managed to cut a fragment from an under flounce of the dress Magdalen wore, and she preserved the piece for future use. In due time she wrote to Miss Garth and learned that that lady had not only not visited Noel Vanstone, but had not at any time been in the quarter of London where the visit had taken place. In brief, Miss Garth and Norah, from beginning to end, quite unintentionally served Magdalen’s wiliest enemy, Mrs. Lecount, and furnished her with precisely the information she needed in order to baffle Magdalen’s schemes.
During all this time Magdalen’s love for Frank Clare had sustained her courage and restrained her from extreme measures. Now came a letter from Frank, written at Shanghai. In it he told Magdalen that his self-respect had been affronted by the firm in whose employ he had been sent out, and that he had resigned his place. He reproached his father and Magdalen for having sent him out of England, declared himself an outcast, and coolly repudiated his marriage engagement, with-out a suggestion of consideration for the woman involved. He did not even give her an address to which she might send expressions of sympathy or of reproach. His letter was selfish, brutal, cowardly, and it broke down whatever remained of restraint on Magdalen’s part. Without revealing her whereabouts or her purposes, she exchanged letters occasionally with Miss Garth and with Norah, who had found a place as governess in the house of the Tyrrells, friends of her family.
Now that Frank Clare had repudiated her, Magdalen had no restraint upon her mad impulse to seek remedial justice by any and every means in her power. She decided to use to the full the conscienceless ingenuity and assurance of the adventurer Wragge. He learned that Noel Vanstone, with his housekeeper, Mrs. Lecount, had removed to Sea View Cottage, at Aldborough, for the summer. Captain Wragge, assuming the name of Bygrave, at once took a house a few doors away, called North Shingles. With ample supplies of money, the proceeds of Magdalen’s dramatic venture, he posed there as a gentleman of leisure, with an invalid wife and his niece, Miss BygraveMagdalen, in fact.
Then Magdalen opened her mind to him. She had deter-mined to marry Noel Vanstone. She instructed Wragge to open the way to an acquaintance, telling him what her purpose was and promising to give him two hundred pounds as soon as the marriage ceremony should be over, upon the receipt of which he was to take himself out of her life. In answer to his questions as to settlementsquestions prompted by what he knew of the miserly character of Noel Vanstoneshe bade him waive the question of settlements altogether. If once she could make herself Noel Vanstone’s wife, she trusted her own ingenuity to compel that disposition of his property upon which she was bentnamely, the restoration to her sister and herself of the eighty thousand pounds taken from her father.
On her first arrival at Aldborough, Magdalen encountered a young sea-captain, one Kirke. They did not speak, but Kirke’s admiration for her beauty was so great that his stare offended her; and when, a little later, he sailed for China, he confessed to his sister that Magdalen, whom he knew only as Miss Bygrave, was the one woman in the world whom he could love.
Mrs. Lecount was not long in suspecting Magdalen’s purpose to marry Noel Vanstone, who was deeply smitten with her. The wily housekeeper placed all manner of obstacles in the way. She believed Magdalen to be the woman who had masqueraded as Miss Garth, but as yet she had no proof. Noel Vanstone, in his weak, irresolute way, resented Mrs. Lecount’s interference, though he could not shake off her dominant influence. Captain Wragge schemed even more deeply than she. He sent his wife and Magdalen away for a time. Then he induced Noel Vanstone to join him in a conspiracy.
Mrs. Lecount had a brother in Zurich who had been ill, but was recovering. He had property, and there were other relatives about him who might influence his will to Mrs. Lecount’s disadvantage. With Noel Vanstone’s assistance, Captain Wragge forged a letter from the Zurich physician telling Mrs. Lecount that her brother had suffered a relapse, and summoning her hurriedly to Switzerland. This letter the wily captain sent to a trusted agent to be posted in Zurich. Then, just before the time when it should be received at Aldborough, he had Noel Vanstone leave on a visit to Admiral Bartram, a relative, at St. Crux, without so much as calling on the Bygraves.
Mrs. Lecount remained behind, ostensibly to pack up her master’s belongings, but really to make her way into the Bygrave cottage and secure evidence in confirmation of her suspicions. Playing upon the intellectual helplessness of the half-witted Mrs. Wragge, she succeeded. She even secured access to Magdalen’s wardrobe and found there the dress in which Magdalen had masqueraded as Miss Garth, and from which she had cut a telltale fragment.
Just then came the letter from Zurich urging Mrs. Lecount to hasten to her dying brother’s bedside.
For lack of time to go to St. Crux and lay her discoveries before Noel Vanstone, she wrote him a letter addressed to St. Crux, warning him of the conspiracy against him and promising to bring convincing proofs on her return from Switzerland.
It was the concerted scheme of Captain Wragge and Noel Vanstone that the proposed marriage should take place during this absence of Mrs. Lecount. Captain Wragge had no mind to let Noel Vanstone receive any letter from Mrs. Lecount.
He hurried to St. Crux and persuaded Vanstone to start with him at once for London, to secure the special marriage license necessary. The Captain, furthermore, left at St. Crux a number of envelops addressed to himself in London, with instructions to the servants at St. Crux to forward in them any letters that might come for Noel Vanstone. Thus it came about that Mrs. Lecount’s letter fell into the hands of Captain Wragge instead of being read by Noel Vanstone.
As the wedding-day approached, Magdalen began to shrink in horror and loathing from the execution of the scheme she had so laboriously planned. Suicide seemed the only alternative. She bought a vial of laudanum and wrote a farewell letter to Norah; but with the laudanum at her very lips her love of life prevailed. She withheld the letter, put away the poison for future use in case of need, and resolutely carried out her project. She married Noel Vanstone and immediately whisked him away to another part of the country, leaving no trace behind for Mrs. Lecount to follow, except that she wrote a letter to Norah, and the letter bore a postmark.
When Mrs. Lecount arrived at Zurich, and found that the letter summoning her thither was a forgery, she hurried back to England, learned the postmark of Magdalen’s letter and traced the newly-wedded pair to Scotland.
Following them, she arrived at Dumfries, where Vanstone was living, just after Magdalen had left for London to see her sister. Mrs. Lecount was therefore mistress of the situation, and she made the most of her opportunity. She easily frightened Noel Vanstone into telling her the terms of the will he had made. By that will he had given Magdalen, at his death, eighty thousand pounds, precisely the amount of her father’s fortune. He had wanted to give her more, but she had resolutely refused, her fixed purpose being merely to compel the righting of the wrong done to her and Norah.
Mrs. Lecount frightened Vanstone with a story of conspiracy. She told him who his wife was and offered to prove that she was the person who, disguised as Miss Garth, had visited and threatened him in London. She induced him to show her his wife’s dresses, found the gown that had served the masquerader as a disguise, showed him the piece she had cut from its flounce, and left doubt no ground to stand upon. In the course of her search she discovered the bottle of laudanum, conspicuously labeled “Poison,” and persuaded him that his wife had purchased it for his destruction.
She thus secured complete control of the half-imbecile’s cowardly mind and soul. She had ready the draft of a new will which she compelled him to execute. In it he willed her five thousand pounds, and gave the rest of his estate to his relative Admiral Bartram. But Mrs. Lecount induced him also to write a letter to Admiral Bartram, creating a secret trust. It directed the Admiral to turn over the vast fortune to his nephew and heir, George Bartramthe cousin of Magdalen and Norahon condition that that young man should be married within a brief specified time at a certain place and with certain formalities to some woman approved by the Admiral. If the young man should fail in these conditions, then the money must be given to another relative, a Mrs. Girdlestun. Neither the will nor the secret-trust letter made mention of Magdalen. Not one penny was left to her.
The excitement incident to all this killed Noel Vanstone before his wife’s return. She was left penniless. She could not even go into court to claim her dower rights without exposing the conspiracy by which she had married Vanstone under a false pretense and the assumed name Bygrave.
The will suggested, however, that it was accompanied by a letter creating a secret trust, and Magdalen’s lawyers advised her that if for any reason that secret trust had not been or could not be executed to the letter she would have a claim. Her next task, therefore, was to discover the letter constituting the secret trust, and she set about it with all the arts that she had learned how to practise during her career of conspiracy and disguise. She had herself trained in the duties of a parlor-maid, and secured employment in that capacity in Admiral Bartram’s vast establishment at St. Crux.
George Bartram had met Norah and had fallen madly in love with her. When informed that he must marry within a limited time, if he would please the Admiralwho took pains not to explain the reason for his requirementthe young man dismissed all thought of the dozen or more highly eligible young women whose claims were pressed upon his attention, and decided that he would marry Norah Vanstone or nobody. Admiral Bartram did not repudiate his choice, but he instituted inquiries, and the fact that he had done so became known to Norah. Her pride was aroused, and when George Bartram asked her to be his wife, she refused, giving no reason. He determined to wait awhile and then try again, but meanwhile the period within which the secret trust required him to marry came to an end.
Under the terms of the trust, the Admiral must now turn over the vast estate of Noel Vanstone to Mrs. Girdlestun, if that lady were living at the time. She had, in fact, died a few days before the date set, so that the Admiral himself became practically the sole inheritor under the will. As the Admiral had already determined to make George Bartram his own sole heir, the failure of the trust to put the young man in possession of Noel Vanstone’s fortune really affected him not at all.
Meanwhile Magdalen, in her disguise as parlor-maid at St. Crux, was diligently searching for the document that created the secret trust. Prowling through the vast rooms at night, with a basket of keys purloined from the Admiral’s sleeping-apartment, she explored one after another all the antique pieces of furniture until at last one night she found the paper she wanted. In her eagerness to discover what its terms were, she paused to read it and while doing so was surprised by old Mazey, a hard-drinking sailor whose sole function in life it was to guard his master and his master’s interests. Mazey was very drunk at the time, but he had intelligence enough to seize the paper, conduct Magdalen to her room and lock her in. His admiration for her, however, was so great, and in a sailor-like way so sentimental, that he determined to let her escape. Early in the morning he released her, sent her in a cart to the railway station, and permitted her to retreat to London.
Then she told her solicitor what she had discovered, but the discovery proved to be of no consequence, because just at that time Admiral Bartram died, leaving George Bartram sole heir to his entire fortune, including the great wealth bequeathed to him by Noel Vanstone.
In London Magdalen fell into sore poverty and was compelled to remove to mean lodgings in a poor quarter. There she fell ill of a fever, and as she had neither money nor friends and was herself in delirium, the owners of the place planned to send her to a charity hospital. As they were removing her from the house, in her helpless condition, Captain Kirke, of the good ship Deliverance, just in from China, caught sight of her and recognized her as the Miss Bygrave whom he had seen and admired at Aldborough, and whose face had lingered in his memory ever since. He ordered her carried back into the house. He rented the place at once, sent for an eminent surgeon, Mr. Merrick, and ordered all things done for Magdalen’s benefit, taking up his own quarters in the house and compelling every possible attention to her.
As the days passed and she grew slowly better, his tender care of her won her heart and she learned to love him as he had already learned to love her.
Finding that some great anxiety was preying on her mind, some great longing retarding her recovery, the physician and Kirke set about finding her friends. By good fortune communication was opened with Norah, and, while Magdalen slept, Captain Kirke had the pleasure of laying on the table beside her bed a letter from her sister, with a postscript from Miss Garth and an enclosure.
The letter brought the news that Norah was happily married to George Bartram and insisted in the name of both that on the next day Norah and her husband should be privileged to take her to their temporary home for complete recovery. The post-script from Miss Garth made the thoughtful suggestion that instead of going to Norah just at first, Magdalen should stay quietly for a time with herself, in a house she had taken so near to Norah’s as to permit of daily visits.
The enclosure was a note from Mr. Francis Clare, telling Magdalen that his son Frank had proved to be altogether a scoundrel, and was now married to a wealthy widow.
While Magdalen was still waiting at the lodging-house for strength enough to bear the journey to Miss Garth’s, Captain Wragge, prosperous now, appeared. He told Magdalen that he was ” living on a pill.” He explained that he had invested the money she had paid him in the manufacture and advertisement of a proprietary pill, which had already made his fortune, thanks to his gifts of successful imposture.
Norah had great news to relate to Magdalen. The paper constituting the secret trust had been found and, because of certain circumstances which need not be detailed here, its legal effect was to restore to Magdalen her full share of the fortune which had passed from her father to Michael Vanstone, thence to Noel, and at last to George Bartram. It was George Bartram’s generous purpose, even before the discovery of the paper, to make this restitution of his own accord. But now that the paper was found, the law itself made the money Magdalen’s of right, and in accepting it she placed herself under no possible obligation to her generous cousin.
Great, big-hearted sailor that he was, Captain Kirke tried hard to forbid Magdalen’s purpose of laying bare to him the story of her life before accepting his love. But Magdalen insisted, and after the tale was fully told, she asked him to tell her what was in his heartto tell the truth with his own lips.
He stooped and kissed her.