[editorial note: italics are indicated by the underscore
character; accent marks in the few words in French are omitted;
the umlaut in Zurich is omitted]
THE main purpose of this story is to appeal to the reader's
interest in a subject which has been the theme of some of the
greatest writers living and dead -- but which has never been
and can never be exhausted because it is a subject eternally
interesting to all mankind. Here is one more book that depicts
the struggle of a human creature under those opposing influences
of Good and Evil which we have all felt which we have all
known. It has been my aim to make the character of "Magdalen"
which personifies this struggle a pathetic character even in its
perversity and its error; and I have tried hard to attain this
result by the least obtrusive and the least artificial of all
means -- by a resolute adherence throughout to the truth as it is
in Nature. This design was no easy one to accomplish; and it has
been a great encouragement to me (during the publication of my
story in its periodical form) to know on the authority of many
readers that the object which I had proposed to myself I might
in some degree consider as an object achieved.
Round the central figure in the narrative other characters will
be found grouped in sharp contrast -- contrast for the most
part in which I have endeavored to make the element of humor
mainly predominant. I have sought to impart this relief to the
more serious passages in the book not only because I believe
myself to be justified in doing so by the laws of Art -- but
because experience has taught me (what the experience of my
readers will doubtless confirm) that there is no such moral
phenomenon as unmixed tragedy to be found in the world around us.
Look where we may the dark threads and the light cross each
other perpetually in the texture of human life.
To pass from the Characters to the Story it will be seen that
the narrative related in these pages has been constructed on a
plan which differs from the plan followed in my last novel and
in some other of my works published at an earlier date. The only
Secret contained in this book is revealed midway in the first
volume. From that point all the main events of the story are
purposely foreshadowed before they take place -- my present
design being to rouse the reader's interest in following the
train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought
about. In trying this new ground I am not turning my back in
doubt on the ground which I have passed over already. My one
object in following a new course is to enlarge the range of my
studies in the art of writing fiction and to vary the form in
which I make my appeal to the reader as attractively as I can.
There is no need for me to add more to these few prefatory words
than is here written. What I might otherwise have wished to say
in this place I have endeavored to make the book itself say for
FRANCIS CARR BEARD
(FELLOW OF THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF SURGEONS OF ENGLAND)
IN REMEMBRANCE OF THE TIME WHEN
THE CLOSING SCENES OF THIS STORY WERE WRITTEN.
THE FIRST SCENE.
THE hands on the hall-clock pointed to half-past six in the
morning. The house was a country residence in West Somersetshire
called Combe-Raven. The day was the fourth of March and the year
was eighteen hundred and forty-six.
No sounds but the steady ticking of the clock and the lumpish
snoring of a large dog stretched on a mat outside the dining-room
door disturbed the mysterious morning stillness of hall and
staircase. Who were the sleepers hidden in the upper regions? Let
the house reveal its own secrets; and one by one as they
descend the stairs from their beds let the sleepers disclose
As the clock pointed to a quarter to seven the dog woke and
shook himself. After waiting in vain for the footman who was
accustomed to let him out the animal wandered restlessly from
one closed door to another on the ground-floor; and returning to
his mat in great perplexity appealed to the sleeping family with
a long and melancholy howl.
Before the last notes of the dog's remonstrance had died away
the oaken stairs in the higher regions of the house creaked under
slowly-descending footsteps. In a minute more the first of the
female servants made her appearance with a dingy woolen shawl
over her shoulders -- for the March morning was bleak; and
rheumatism and the cook were old acquaintances.
Receiving the dog's first cordial advances with the worst
possible grace the cook slowly opened the hall door and let the
animal out. It was a wild morning. Over a spacious lawn and
behind a black plantation of firs the rising sun rent its way
upward through piles of ragged gray cloud; heavy drops of rain
fell few and far between; the March wind shuddered round the
corners of the house and the wet trees swayed wearily.
Seven o'clock struck; and the signs of domestic life began to
show themselves in more rapid succession.
The housemaid came down -- tall and slim with the state of the
spring temperature written redly on her nose. The lady's-maid
followed -- young smart plump and sleepy. The kitchen-maid
came next -- afflicted with the face-ache and making no secret
of her sufferings. Last of all the footman appeared yawning
disconsolately; the living picture of a man who felt that he had
been defrauded of his fair night's rest.
The conversation of the servants when they assembled before the
slowly lighting kitchen fire referred to a recent family event
and turned at starting on this question: Had Thomas the footman
seen anything of the concert at Clifton at which his master and
the two young ladies had been present on the previous night? Yes;
Thomas had heard the concert; he had been paid for to go in at
the back; it was a loud concert; it was a hot concert; it was
described at the top of the bills as Grand; whether it was worth
traveling sixteen miles to hear by railway with the additional
hardship of going back nineteen miles by road at half-past one
in the morning -- was a question which he would leave his master
and the young ladies to decide; his own opinion in the meantime
being unhesitatingly No. Further inquiries on the part of all
the female servants in succession elicited no additional
information of any sort. Thomas could hum none of the songs and
could describe none of the ladies' dresses. His audience
accordingly gave him up in despair; and the kitchen small-talk
flowed back into its ordinary channels until the clock struck
eight and startled the assembled servants into separating for
their morning's work.
A quarter past eight and nothing happened. Half-past -- and more
signs of life appeared from the bedroom regions. The next member
of the family who came downstairs was Mr. Andrew Vanstone the
master of the house.
Tall stout and upright -- with bright blue eyes and healthy
florid complexion -- his brown plush shooting-jacket carelessly
buttoned awry; his vixenish little Scotch terrier barking
unrebuked at his heels; one hand thrust into his waistcoat
pocket and the other smacking the banisters cheerfully as he
came downstairs humming a tune -- Mr. Vanstone showed his
character on the surface of him freely to all men. An easy
hearty handsome good-humored gentleman who walked on the sunny
side of the way of life and who asked nothing better than to
meet all his fellow-passengers in this world on the sunny side
too. Estimating him by years he had turned fifty. Judging him by
lightness of heart strength of constitution and capacity for
enjoyment he was no older than most men who have only turned
"Thomas!" cried Mr. Vanstone taking up his old felt hat and his
thick walking stick from the hall table. "Breakfast this
morning at ten. The young ladies are not likely to be down
earlier after the concert last night. -- By-the-by how did you
like the concert yourself eh? You thought it was grand? Quite
right; so it was. Nothing but crash-ban
g varied now and then by bang-crash; all the women dressed
within an inch of their lives; smothering heat blazing gas and
no room for anybody -- yes yes Thomas; grand's the word for it
and comfortable isn't." With that expression of opinion Mr.
Vanstone whistled to his vixenish terrier; flourished his stick
at the hall door in cheerful defiance of the rain; and set off
through wind and weather for his morning walk.
The hands stealing their steady way round the dial of the clock
pointed to ten minutes to nine. Another member of the family
appeared on the stairs -- Miss Garth the governess.
No observant eyes could have surveyed Miss Garth without seeing
at once that she was a north-countrywoman. Her hard featured
face; her masculine readiness and decision of movement; her
obstinate honesty of look and manner all proclaimed her border
birth and border training. Though little more than forty years of
age her hair was quite gray; and she wore over it the plain cap
of an old woman. Neither hair nor head-dress was out of harmony
with her face -- it looked older than her years: the hard
handwriting of trouble had scored it heavily at some past time.
The self-possession of her progress downstairs and the air of
habitual authority with which she looked about her spoke well
for her position in Mr. Vanstone's family. This was evidently not
one of the forlorn persecuted pitiably dependent order of
governesses. Here was a woman who lived on ascertained and
honorable terms with her employers -- a woman who looked capable
of sending any parents in England to the right-about if they
failed to rate her at her proper value.
"Breakfast at ten?" repeated Miss Garth when the footman had
answered the bell and had mentioned his master's orders. "Ha! I
thought what would come of that concert last night. When people
who live in the country patronize public amusements public
amusements return the compliment by upsetting the family
afterward for days together. _You're_ upset Thomas I can see --
your eyes are as red as a ferret's and your cravat looks as if
you had slept in it. Bring the kettle at a quarter to ten -- and
if you don't get better in the course of the day come to me and
I'll give you a dose of physic. That's a well-meaning lad if you
only let him alone" continued Miss Garth in soliloquy when
Thomas had retired; "but he's not strong enough for concerts
twenty miles off. They wanted _me_ to go with them last night.
Yes: catch me!"
Nine o'clock struck; and the minute-hand stole on to twenty
minutes past the hour before any more footsteps were heard on
the stairs. At the end of that time two ladies appeared
descending to the breakfast-room together -- Mrs. Vanstone and
her eldest daughter.