No Name
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No Name

Wilkie Collins

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eBook - ePub

No Name

Wilkie Collins

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Norah and Magdalen Vanstone have an idyllic life. With loving parents, a caring governess, and an expansive estate to roam, the girls desire nothing else. But when a tragic accident claims the life of their father, and their mother dies shortly thereafter, Norah and Magdalen are left with no inheritance and, as they come to discover, no name.

As the Vanstone sisters make their way into the world with the assistance of their governess, their paths diverge as Norah pursues an honest career, and Magdalen becomes consumed with reclaiming their inheritance. Originally published as a serial in Charles Dickens's All the Year Round magazine, No Name is both tragedy and comedy, and demonstrates the skill of a writer at the peak of his craft.

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Año
2014
ISBN
9781443441001
Categoría
Literatura

The Fourth Scene

Aldborough, Suffolk

Chapter I

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, marketplaces, 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 sandhills 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 figureheads 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 figurehead 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 storehouses, 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 tomorrow 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 stagecoach 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 teatime 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 husband s 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 tonight, 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 sunburned 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 sunburned 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 tonight,” 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 seabird 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 ...

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