(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

The Vanstone house at Combe Raven was one of contentment and ease. In it were Andrew Vanstone and his wife, their two lovely and charming daughters—Norah and Magdalen—and a wise, kindly nurse and governess, Miss Garth. It was a household in which cook and servants enjoyed immunity from scolding, pets were allowed to range freely, and the affairs of the house ran as smoothly as an old but trustworthy clock.

One morning, Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone broke the quiet routine of the household with the announcement that they must go immediately to London on urgent but secret business. This announcement came after the arrival of a letter postmarked New Orleans. They were gone for almost a month. On their return, they refused to reveal by any statement or hint the nature of their trip.

Shortly after their return, a stranger made his appearance in the neighborhood. The girls learned only that his name was Captain Wragge and that he was distantly connected with Mrs. Vanstone’s family. She sent him away without revealing to her husband the circumstances of his arrival or departure. It was apparent that Captain Wragge was attempting to obtain money from his kinswoman.

The Vanstones had an eccentric and surly neighbor, Mr. Clare, a scholar and cynic who frequently asserted that he hated most of mankind. Frank, his son, had been the childhood playmate of Magdalen Vanstone, and Mr. Vanstone had secured a position for him in a commercial house in London. Mr. Clare held a low opinion of his son’s abilities; consequently, he was not disappointed when Frank was dismissed by his employers as being of little account in the business. Despite his shortcomings, however, Magdalen was still attracted to her old playmate. Mr. Clare commented ironically that some people always flocked after the worthless of the world—a view he felt confirmed when Mr. Vanstone arranged to have Frank given another chance in the business firm in London rather than have him sent to China to work in the tea and silk trade.

Magdalen and Frank played in some private theatricals given in one of the country houses nearby. Magdalen did so well in her role that a theatrical agent who saw her performance gave her his card as a reference in case she should ever decide upon a career in the theater.

Mr. Vanstone was unexpectedly killed in a train wreck. His wife was overcome by grief and died before she could put her name to a paper that her husband’s lawyer was anxious to have her sign.

Then the mystery of the Vanstones came to light. Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone had been married during their hurried trip to London. They had not been able to do so before because of Mr. Vanstone’s earlier marriage to an adventuress whose death had been reported at last from New Orleans. Because Mr. Vanstone had died before he could make a new will, the legitimacy of his daughters was not recognized in the English courts; therefore, the Vanstone fortune reverted to an uncle, a selfish and bad-tempered old man who refused to recognize his brother’s daughters or to share the inheritance with them.

Frank Clare could no longer look forward to marriage with Magdalen after she had lost her fortune. Without Mr. Vanstone to back him, he was forced to take the offer of work in China.

Miss Garth took Norah and Magdalen with her to her sister’s home for a time. It was decided that the girls should find...

(The entire section is 1394 words.)