Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 1
CHAPTER I. GOING HOME.
The craggy cliffs upon the Norman coast looked something like the terraced walls and turreted roofs of a ruined city in the hot afternoon sunshine, as the Empress steamer sped swiftly onward towards Dieppe. At least they looked thus in the eyes of a very young lady, who stood alone on the deck of the steam-packet, with yearning eyes fixed upon that foreign shore.
It was four o'clock upon a burning August afternoon in the year 1853. The steamer was fast approaching the harbour. Several moustachioed gentlemen, of various ages, costumes, and manners, were busy getting together carpet-bags, railway-rugs, camp-stools, newspapers, and umbrellas, preparatory to that eager rush towards the shore by which almost all marine voyagers are apt to testify their contempt for Neptune, when they have no longer need of his service or fear of his vengeance. Two or three English families were collected in groups, holding guard over small mounds or barrows of luggage, having made all preparation for landing at first sight of the Norman shore dim in the distance; and of course about two hours too soon.
Several blooming young English damsels, gathered under maternal wings, were looking forward to sea-bathing in a foreign watering-place. The Établissement des Bains had not yet been built, and Dieppe was not so popular, perhaps, among English pleasure-seekers as it now is. There were several comfortable-looking British families on board the steamer, but, of all the friendly matrons and pretty daughters assembled on the deck, there seemed no one in any way connected with that lonely young lady who leant against the bulwark with a cloak across her arm and a rather shabby carpet-bag at her feet.
She was very young—indeed of that age which in the other sex is generally called the period of hobbledehoyhood. There was more ankle to be seen below the hem of her neat muslin frock than is quite consistent with elegance of attire in a young lady of fifteen; but, as the ankle so revealed was rounded and slender, it would have been hypercritical to have objected to the shortness of the skirt, which had evidently been outgrown by its wearer.
Then, again, this lonely traveller was not only young but pretty. In spite of the shortness of her frock, and the shabbiness of her straw bonnet, it was impossible for the most spiteful of the British misses to affirm the contrary. She was very pretty: so pretty that it was a pleasure to look at her, in her unconscious innocence, and to think how beautiful she would be by-and-bye, when that bright, budding, girlish loveliness bloomed out in its womanly splendour.
Her skin was fair but pale,—not a sentimental or sickly pallor, but a beautiful alabaster clearness of tint. Her eyes were grey, large, and dark, or rendered dark by the shadow of long black lashes. I would rather not catalogue her other features too minutely; for, though they were regular, and even beautiful, there is something low and material in all the other features as compared to the eyes. Her hair was of a soft golden brown, bright and rippling like a sunlit river. The brightness of that luxuriant hair, the light in her grey eyes, and the vivacity of a very beautiful smile, made her face seem almost luminous as she looked at you. It was difficult to imagine that she could ever look unhappy. She seemed an animated, radiant, and exuberant creature, who made an atmosphere of brightness and happiness about her. Other girls of her age would have crept to a corner of the deck, perhaps to hide their loneliness, or would have clung to the outer fringe of one of the family groups, making believe not to be alone; but this young lady had taken her stand boldly against the bulwark, choosing the position from which she might soonest hope to see Dieppe harbour, and apparently quite indifferent to observation, though many a furtive glance was cast towards the tall but girlish figure and the handsome profile so sharply defined against a blue background of summer sky.
But there was nothing unfeminine in all this; nothing bold or defiant; it was only the innocent unconsciousness of a light-hearted girl, ignorant of any perils which could assail her loneliness, and fearless in her ignorance. Throughout the brief sea-voyage she had displayed no symptoms of shyness or perplexity. She had suffered none of the tortures common to many travellers in their marine experiences. She had not been sea-sick; and indeed she did not look like a person who could be subject to any of the common ills this weak flesh inherits. You could almost as easily have pictured to yourself the Goddess Hygeia suffering from a bilious headache, or Hebe laid up with the influenza, as this auburn-haired, grey-eyed young lady under any phase of mortal suffering. Eyes, dim in the paroxysms of sea-sickness, had looked almost spitefully towards this happy, radiant creature, as she flitted hither and thither about the deck, courting the balmy ocean breezes that made themselves merry with her rippling hair. Lips, blue with suffering, had writhed as their owners beheld the sandwiches which this young schoolgirl devoured, the stale buns, the flat raspberry tarts, the hideous, bilious, revolting three-cornered puffs which she produced at different stages of the voyage from her shabby carpet-bag.
She had an odd volume of a novel, and a long dreary desert of crochet-work, whose white cotton monotony was only broken by occasional dingy oases bearing witness of the worker’s dirty hands; they were such pretty hands, too, that it was a shame they should ever be dirty; and she had a bunch of flabby, faded flowers, sheltered by a great fan-like shield of newspaper; and she had a smelling-bottle, which she sniffed at perpetually, though she had no need of any such restorative, being as fresh and bright from first to last as the sea breezes themselves, and as little subject to any marine malady as the Lurleis whose waving locks could scarcely have been brighter than her own.
I think, if the feminine voyagers on board the Empress were cruel to this solitary young traveller in not making themselves friendly with her in her loneliness, the unkindness must be put down very much to that unchristian frame of mind in which people who are sea-sick are apt to regard those who are not. This bouncing, bright-faced girl seemed to have little need of kindness from the miserable sufferers around her; so she was left to wander about the deck, now reading three pages of her novel, now doing half-a-dozen stitches of her work, now talking to the man at the wheel, in spite of all injunctions to the contrary, now making herself acquainted with stray pet dogs; always contented, always happy, and no one troubled themselves about her.
It was only now, when they were nearing Dieppe that one of the passengers, an elderly, grey-headed Englishman, spoke to her.
“You are very anxious to arrive,” he said, smiling at her eager face.
“Oh, yes, very anxious, sir. We are nearly there, are we not?”
“Yes, we shall enter the harbour presently. You will have some one to meet you there, I suppose?”
“Oh, no,” the young lady answered, lifting her arched brown eyebrows, “not at Dieppe. Papa will meet me at Paris; but he could never come all the way to Dieppe, just to take me back to Paris. He could never afford such an expense as that.”
“No, to be sure; and you know no one at Dieppe.”
“Oh, no, I don’t know any one in all France except papa.”
Her face, bright as it was even in repose, was lit up with a new brightness as she spoke of her father.
“You are very fond of your papa, I think,” the Englishman said.
“Oh, yes, I love him very, very much. I have not seen him for more than a year. The journey costs so much between England and France, and I have been at school near London, at Brixton; I dare say you know Brixton; but I am going to France now, for good.”
“Indeed! You seem very young to leave school.”
“But I’m not going to leave school,” the young lady answered, eagerly. “I am going to a very expensive school in Paris, to finish my education; and then—”
She paused here, hesitating and blushing a little.
“And then what?”
“I am going to be a governess. Papa is not rich. He has no fortune now.”
“He has had a fortune, then?”
“He has had three.”
The young lady’s grey eyes were lit up with a certain look of triumph as she said this.
“He has been very extravagant, poor dear,” she continued, apologetically; “and he has spent three fortunes, altogether. But he has been always so courted and admired, you know, that it is not to be wondered at. He knew the Prince Regent, and Mr. Sheridan, and Mr. Brummel, and the Duke of York, and—oh, all sorts of people, ever so intimately; and he was a member of the Beefsteak Club, and wore a silver gridiron in his button-hole, and he is the most delightful man in society, even now, though he is very old.”
“Very old! And you are so young.”
The Englishman looked almost incredulously at his animated companion.
“Yes, I am papa’s youngest child. He has been married twice. I have no real brothers and sisters. I have only half-brothers and sisters, who don’t really and truly care for me, you know. How should they? They were grown up when I was born, and I have scarcely ever seen them. I have only papa in all the world.”
“You have no mother, then?”
“No, mamma died when I was three years old.”
The “Empress” packet was entering the harbour by this time. The grey-headed Englishman went away to look after his portmanteaus and hat-boxes, but he returned presently to the fair-haired school-girl.
“Will you let me help you with your luggage,” he said. “I will go and look after it if you will tell me for what to inquire.”
“You are very kind. I have only one box. It is directed to Miss Vane, Paris.”
“Very well, Miss Vane, I will go and find your box. Stay,” he said, taking out his card-case, “this is my name, and if you will permit me, I will see you safely to Paris.”
“Thank you, sir. You are very kind.”
The young lady accepted her new friend’s service as frankly as it was offered. He had grey hair, and in that one particular at least resembled her father. That was almost enough to make her like him.
There was the usual confusion and delay at the Custom-house—a little squabbling and a good deal of bribery; but everything was managed, upon the whole, pretty comfortably. Most of the passengers dropped in at the Hôtel de l’Europe, or some of the other hotels upon the stony quay; a few hurried off to the market-place to stare at the cathedral church of Saint Jacques, or the great statue of Abraham Duquesne, the rugged sea-king, with broad-brimmed hat and waving plumes, high boots and flowing hair, and to buy peaches and apricots of the noisy market women. Others wandered in the slimy and slippery fish-market, fearfully and wonderingly contemplative of those hideous conger-eels, dog-fish, and other piscatorial monstrosities which seem peculiar to Dieppe. Miss Vane and her companion strolled into the dusky church of Saint Jacques by a little wooden door in a shady nook of the edifice. A few solitary women were kneeling here and there, half-hidden behind their high-backed rush chairs. A fisherman was praying upon the steps of a little chapel, in the solemn obscurity.
“I have never been here before,” Miss Vane whispered. “I came by Dover and Calais the last time; but this way is so much cheaper, and I don’t mind the long sea voyage a bit. Thank you for bringing me to see this cathedral.”
Half-an-hour after this the two travellers were seated in a first-class carriage, with other railway passengers, French and English, hurrying through the fair Norman landscape.
Miss Vane looked out at the bright hills and woods, the fruitful orchards, and white-roofed cottages, so villa-like, fantastical, and beautiful; and her face brightened with the brightening of the landscape under the hot radiance of the sun. The grey-headed gentleman felt a quiet pleasure in watching that earnest, hopeful, candid face; the grey eyes, illumined with gladness; the parted lips, almost tremulous with delight, as the sunny panorama glided by the open window.
The quiet old bachelor’s heart had been won by his companion’s frank acceptance of his simple service.
“Another girl of her age would have been as frightened of a masculine stranger as of a wild beast,” he thought, “and would have given herself all manner of missish airs; but this young damsel smiles in my face, and trusts me with almost infantile simplicity. I hope her father is a good man. I don’t much like that talk of Sheridan and Beau Brummel and the Beefsteak Club. No very good school for fathers, that, I should fancy. I wish her mother had been alive, poor child. I hope she is going to a happy home, and a happy future.”
The train stopped at Rouen, and Miss Vane accepted a cup of coffee and some brioches from her companion. The red August sunset was melting into grey mistiness by this time, and the first shimmer of the moonlight was silvery on the water as they crossed the Seine and left the lighted city behind them. The grey-headed Englishman fell asleep soon after this, and before long there was a low chorus of snoring, masculine and feminine, audible in the comfortable carriage; only broken now and then, when the train stopped with a jerk at some fantastic village that looked like a collection of Swiss toy cottages in the dim summer night.
But, let these matter-of-fact people snore and slumber as they might, there was no such thing as sleep for Eleanor Vane. It would have been utter sacrilege to have slept in the face of all that moonlighted beauty, to have been carried sleeping through that fairy landscape. The eager school-girl’s watchful eyes drank in the loveliness of every hill and valley, the low scattered woodland, the wandering streams, and that perplexing Seine, which the rumbling carriage crossed so often with a dismal hollow sound in the stillness of the night.
No; Miss Vane’s bright grey eyes were not closed once in that evening journey; and at last, when the train entered the great Parisian station, when all the trouble and confusion of arrival began—that wearisome encounter of difficulty which makes cowardly travellers wish the longest journey longer than it is—the young lady’s head was thrust out of the window, and her eager eyes wandered hither and thither amongst the faces of the crowd.
Yes, he was there—her father. That white-haired old man, with the gold-headed cane, and the aristocratic appearance. She pointed him out eagerly to her fellow-passenger.
“That is papa—you see,—the handsome man. He is coming this way, but he doesn’t see us. Oh, let me out, please; let me go to him!”
She trembled in her eagerness, and her fair face flushed crimson with excitement. She forgot her carpet-bag, her novel, her crochet, her smelling-bottle, her cloak, her parasol—all her paraphernalia; and left her companion to collect them as best he might. She was out of the carriage and in her father’s arms she scarcely knew how. The platform seemed deserted all in a moment, for the passengers had rushed away to a great dreary salle d’attente, there to await the inspection of their luggage. Miss Vane, her fellow-traveller, and her father were almost alone, and she was looking up at the old man’s face in the lamplight.
“Papa, dear, papa, darling, how well you are looking; as well as ever, as well as ever, I think!”
Her father drew himself up proudly. He was past seventy years of age, but he was a very handsome man. His beauty was of that patrician type which loses little by age. He was tall and broad-chested, erect as a Grenadier, but not fat. The Prince Regent might become corpulent, and lay himself open to the insolent sneers of his sometime boon companion and friend; but Mr. George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane held himself on his guard against that insidious foe which steals away the graces of so many elderly gentlemen. Mr. Vane’s aristocratic bearing imparted such a stamp to his clothes, that it was not easy to see the shabbiness of his garments; but those garments were shabby; carefully as they had been brushed, they bore the traces of that slow decay which is not to be entirely concealed, whatever the art of the wearer.
Miss Vane’s travelling companion saw all this. He had been so much interested by the young lady’s frank and fearless manner, that he would fain have lingered in the hope of learning something of her father’s character, but he felt that he had no excuse for delaying his departure.
“I will wish you good night, now, Miss Vane,” he said, kindly, “since you are safely restored to your papa.”
Mr. Vane lifted his grey eyebrows, looked at his daughter interrogatively; rather suspiciously, the traveller thought.
“Oh, papa, dear,” the young lady answered, in reply to that questioning look, “this gentleman was on board the boat with me, and he has been so very kind.”
She searched in her pocket for the card which her acquaintance had given her, and produced that document, rather limp and crumpled. Her father looked at it, murmured the name inscribed upon it twice or thrice, as if trying to attach some importance thereto, but evidently failed in doing so.
“I have not the honour of—a—haw—knowing this name sir,” he said, lifting his hat stiffly about half a yard from his silvered head; “but for your courtesy and kindness to my child, I hope you will accept my best thanks. I was prevented by important business of—a—haw—not altogether undiplomatic character—from crossing the Channel to fetch my daughter; and—aw—also—prevented from sending my servant—by—aw—I thank you for your politeness, sir. You are a stranger, by the way. Can I do anything for you in Paris? Lord Cowley is my very old friend; any service that I can render you in that quarter—I—”
The traveller bowed and smiled.
“Thank you very much,” he said, “I am no stranger in Paris. I will wish you good night; good night, Miss Vane.”
But Mr. Vane was not going to let his daughter’s friend off so easily. He produced his card-case, murmured more pompous assurances of his gratitude, and tendered further offers of patronage to the quiet traveller, who found something rather oppressive in Mr. Vane’s civility. But it was all over at last, and the old man led his daughter off to look for the trunk which contained all her worldly possessions.
The stranger looked wistfully after the father and child.
“I hope she may have a happy future,” he thought, rather despondingly; “the old man is poor and pompous. He tells lies which bring hot blushes into his daughter’s beautiful face. I am very sorry for her.”
CHAPTER II. THE ENTRESOL IN THE RUE L’ARCHEVÈQUE.
Mr. Vane took his daughter away from the station in one of those secondary and cheaper vehicles which are distinguished by the discriminating Parisian by some mysterious difference of badge. The close, stifling carriage rattled over the uneven stones of long streets which were unfamiliar to Eleanor Vane, until it emerged into the full glory of the lighted Boulevard. The light-hearted school-girl could not suppress a cry of rapture as she looked once more at the broad thoroughfare, the dazzling lamps, the crowd, the theatres, the cafés, the beauty and splendour, although she had spent her summer holiday in Paris only a year before.
“It seems so beautiful again, papa,” she said, “just as if I’d never seen it before; and I’m to stop here now, and never, never to leave you again, to go away for such a cruel distance. You don’t know how unhappy I’ve been, sometimes, papa dear. I wouldn’t tell you then, for fear of making you uneasy; but I can tell you now, now that it’s all over.”
“Unhappy!” gasped the old man, clenching his fist, “they’ve not been unkind to you—they’ve not dared—”
“Oh, no, dearest father. They’ve been very, very good. I was quite a favourite, papa. Yes, though there were so many rich girls in the school, and I was only a half-boarder, I was quite a favourite with Miss Bennett and Miss Lavinia; though I know I was careless and lazy sometimes, not on purpose, you know, papa, for I tried hard to get on with my education, for your sake, darling. No, everybody was very kind to me, papa; but I used to think sometimes how far I was from you; what miles and miles and miles of sea and land there were between us, and that if you should be ill—I—”
Eleanor Vane broke down, and her father clasped her in his arms, and cried over her silently. The tears came with very little provocation to the old man’s handsome blue eyes. He was of that sanguine temperament which to the last preserves the fondest delusions of youth. At seventy-five years of age he hoped and dreamed and deluded himself as foolishly as he had done at seventeen. His sanguine temperament had been for ever leading him astray for more than sixty years. Severe judges called George Vane a liar; but perhaps his shallow romances, his pitiful boasts, were very often highly-coloured versions of the truth, rather than actual falsehood.
It was past twelve o’clock when the carriage drove away from the lights and splendour into the darkness of a labyrinth of quiet streets behind the Madeleine. The Rue l’Archevèque was one of these dingy and quiet streets, very narrow, very close and stifling in the hot August midnight. The vehicle stopped abruptly at a corner, before a little shop, the shutters of which were closed, of course, at this hour.
“It is a butcher’s shop, I am sorry to say, my love,” Mr. Vane said, apologetically, as he handed his daughter on to the pavement; “but I find myself very comfortable here, and it is conveniently adjacent to the Boulevards.”
The old man paid the driver, who had deposited mademoiselle’s box upon the threshold of the little door beside the butcher’s shop. The pour-boire was not a very large one, but Mr. Vane bestowed it with the air of a prince. He pushed open the low door, and took his daughter into a narrow passage. There was no porter or portress, for the butcher’s shop and the apartments belonging to it were abnormal altogether; but there was a candle and box of matches on a shelf in a corner of the steep corkscrew staircase. The driver carried Eleanor’s box as far as the entresol in consideration of his pour-boire, but departed while Mr. Vane was opening the door of an apartment facing the staircase.
The entresol consisted of three little rooms, opening one out of another, and so small and low that Miss Vane almost fancied herself in a doll’s house. Every article of furniture in the stifling little apartment bore the impress of its nationality. Tawdry curtains of figured damask, resplendent with dirty tulips and monster roses, tarnished ormolu mouldings, a gilded clock with a cracked dial and a broken shade, a pair of rickety bronze candlesticks, a couple of uncompromising chairs covered with dusty green velvet and relieved by brass-headed nails, and a square table with a long trailing cover of the same material as the curtains completed the adornments of the sitting-room. The bed-chambers were smaller, closer, and hotter. Voluminous worsted curtains falling before the narrow windows, and smothering the little beds, made the stifling atmosphere yet more stifling. The low ceilings seemed to rest on the top of poor Eleanor’s head. She had been accustomed to large, airy rooms and broad, uncurtained open windows.
“How hot it is here, papa,” she said, drawing a long breath.
“It always is hot in Paris at this time of year, my dear,” Mr. Vane answered; “the rooms are small you see, but convenient. That is to be your bed-room, my love,” he added, indicating one of the little chambers.
He was evidently habituated to Parisian lodging houses, and saw no discomfort in the tawdry grandeur, the shabby splendour, the pitiful attempt to substitute scraps of gilding and patches of velvet for the common necessaries and decencies of life.
“And now let me look at you, my dear; let me look at you, Eleanor.”
George Mowbray Vane set the candlestick upon the rusty velvet cover of the low mantelpiece, and drew his daughter towards him. She had thrown off her bonnet and loose grey cloak, and stood before her father in her scanty muslin frock with all her auburn hair hanging about her face and shoulders, and glittering in the dim light of that one scrap of wax candle.
“My pet, how beautiful you have grown, how beautiful!” the old man said, with an accent of fond tenderness. “We’ll teach Mrs. Bannister a lesson some of these days, Eleanor. Yes, our turn will come, my love; I know that I shall die a rich man.”
Miss Vane was accustomed to hear this remark from her father. She inherited something of his sanguine nature, and she loved him very dearly, so she may be forgiven if she believed in his vague visions of future grandeur. She had never seen anything in her life but chaotic wrecks of departed splendour, confusion, debt, and difficulty. She had not been called upon to face poverty in the fair hand-to-hand struggle which ennobles and elevates the sturdy wrestler in the battle of life. No, she had rather been compelled to play at hide-and-seek with the grim enemy. She had never gone out into the open, and looked her foe full in the eyes, hardy, resolute, patient, and steadfast. She was familiar with all those debasing tricks and pitiful subterfuges whereby the weak and faint-hearted seek to circumvent the enemy; but she had never been taught the use of those measures by which he may be honestly beaten.
The Mrs. Bannister of whom George Vane had spoken, was one of his elder daughters, who had been very, very ungrateful to him, he declared, and who now in his old age doled him out the pitiful allowance which enabled him to occupy an entresol over a butcher’s shop, and dine daily at one of the cheap restaurants in the Palais Royal.
Mr. Vane was wont to lament his daughter’s cruel lack of affection in very bitter language, freely interspersed with quotations from “King Lear;” indeed I believe he considered his case entirely parallel with that of the injured British monarch and father; ignoring the one rather important fact that, whereas Lear’s folly had been the too generous division of his own fortune between his recreant daughters, his weakness had been the reckless waste and expenditure of the portions which his children had inherited from their mother.
Mrs. Bannister, instigated thereto by her husband, had protested some years before against the several acts of folly and extravagance by which the fortune which ought to have been hers had been fooled away. She declined to allow her father more than the pittance alluded to above; although, as she was now a rich widow, and of course entirely her own mistress, she might have done much more.
“Yes, my darling,” Mr. Vane said, as he proudly contemplated his youngest child’s beauty, “we will turn the tables upon Mrs. Bannister and the rest of them, yet, please God. My Benjamin, my youngest, brightest darling, we’ll teach them a lesson. They may poke their old father away in a foreign lodging, and stint him of money for any little innocent pleasure; but the day will come, my love, the day will come.”
The old man nodded his head two or three times with solemn significance. I don’t think his daughter had the remotest idea what vision it was that lured him onward through all present miseries, cheating him with some shadowy hope, far away in the future. I think that even he could scarcely have explained what it was he looked forward to in the day that was to come; but the sanguine, impulsive nature, dwarfed and fettered by the cruel bonds of poverty, was too elastic to be entirely repressed even by those galling chains; and having hoped all his life, and having enjoyed such successes and good fortune as fall to the lot of very few men, he went on hoping in his old age, blindly confident that some unlooked-for and undreamed-of revolution in the wheel of life would lift him out of his obscurity and set him again on the pinnacle he had once occupied so proudly.
He had had a host of friends and many children, and he had squandered more than one fortune, not being any more careful of other people’s money than of his own; and now, in his poverty and desolation, the child of his old age was the only one who clung to him and loved him and believed in him; the only one whom he loved, perhaps, truly and unreservedly, though he wept frequently over the ingratitude of the others. It may be that Eleanor was the only one whom he could love with any comfort to himself, because the only one he had never injured.
“But, papa, dear,” this youngest and best loved of the old man’s children pleaded gently, “Mrs. Bannister, Hortensia, has been very good—has she not?—in sending the money for my education at Madame Marly’s, where she was finished herself. That was very generous of her, wasn’t it, papa?”
Mr. Vane shook his head, and lifted his grey eyebrows with a deprecating expression.
“Hortensia Bannister cannot perform a generous act in a generous manner, my dear. You recognise the viper by the reptile’s sting: you may recognise Hortensia in pretty much the same manner. She gives, but she insults the recipients of her—ahem—bounty. Shall I read you her letter, Eleanor?”
“If you please, dear papa.”
The young lady had seated herself, in a somewhat hoydenish manner, upon the elbow of her father’s chair, and had wound her soft round arm about his neck. She loved him and believed in him. The world which had courted and admired him while he had money and could boast such acquaintance as the Prince and Sheridan, Sir Francis Burdett, Lord Castlereagh, Mr. Pitt, and the Duke of York, had fallen away from him of late; and the few old associates who yet remained of that dead-and-gone cycle were apt to avoid him, influenced perhaps by the recollection of small loans of an occasional five-pound note, and “a little silver,” which had not been repaid. Yes, the world had fallen away from George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane, once of Vandeleur Park, Cheshire, and Mowbray Castle, near York. The tradesmen who had helped to squander his money had let him get very deep in their books before they closed those cruel ledgers, and stopped all supplies. He had existed for a long time—he had lived as a gentleman, he said himself—upon the traditions of the past, the airy memories of the fortunes he had wasted. But this was all over now, and he had emigrated to the city in which he had played the Grand Seigneur in those glorious early days of the Restoration, and he was compelled to lead a low and vulgar life, disgracing himself by pettifogging ready-money dealings, utterly degrading to a gentleman.
He could not bring himself to own that he was better and happier in this new life, and that it was pleasant to be able to walk erect and defiant upon the Boulevards, rather than to be compelled to plunge down dark alleys, and dive into sinuous byways, for the avoidance of importunate creditors, as he had been in free England.
He took his wealthy daughter’s letter from the breast-pocket of his coat; a fashionable coat, though shabby now, for it had been made for him by a sentimental German tailor, who had wept over his late patron’s altered fortunes, and given him credit for a suit of clothes. That compassionate German tailor never expected to be paid; and the clothes were a benefaction, a gift as purely and generously given as any Christian dole offered in the holy name of charity; but Mr. Vane was pleased with the fiction of an expected payment, and would have revolted against the idea of receiving a present from the good-natured tradesman.
The letter from Hortensia Bannister was not a long one. It was written in sharp and decisive paragraphs, and in a neat, firm hand. Rather a cruel-looking hand, Eleanor Vane thought.
The old man put a double gold eyeglass over his nose, and began to read.
Hyde Park Gardens, August 13, 1853.
“My dear Father,—In compliance with your repeated solicitations I have determined upon taking measures by which I hope the future welfare of your youngest daughter may be secured.
“I must, however, remind you that Eleanor Vane and I are the children of different mothers; that she has therefore less claim upon me than a sister usually has; and I freely confess I never heard of one sister being called upon to provide for another.
“You must also remember that I never entertained any degree of friendship or affection for Eleanor’s mother, who was much below you in station—“
Eleanor started; she was too impetuous to listen quite passively to this letter. Her father felt the sudden movement of the arm about his neck.
“Your mother was an angel, my dear,” he said; “and this woman is—never mind what. My daughters chose to give themselves airs to your poor mother because she had been their governess, and because her father had failed as a sugar-broker.”
He went back to the letter, groping nervously for the place at which he had left off, with the point of his well-shaped finger—
“And who also was the indirect cause of injury to myself and my sisters, as she participated in the extravagant expenditure, of at least some part of the money which by every legal and moral claim belonged to us.
“But you tell me that you have no power to make any provision whatsoever for your daughter; and that, unless I assist you, this unhappy girl may, in the event of your death, be flung penniless upon the world, imperfectly educated, and totally incompetent to get her living.”
“She speaks of my death very freely,” the old man murmured, “but she’s right enough. I shan’t trouble anybody long, my dear; I shan’t trouble anybody long.”
The tender arms wound themselves more closely about George Vane’s neck.
“Papa, darling,” the soft voice whispered, “you have never troubled me. Don’t go on with that horrid letter, papa. We won’t accept any favours from such a woman.”
“Yes, yes, my love, for your sake; if I stoop, it is for your sake, Eleanor.”
The old man went on reading.
“Under these circumstances,” the writer continued, “I have come to the following determination. I will give you a hundred pounds, to be paid to Madame Marly, who knows you, and has received a great deal of money from you for my education and that of my sisters, and who will, therefore, be inclined to receive Eleanor upon advantageous terms. For this sum of money Madame Marly will, I feel assured, consent to prepare my half-sister for the situation of governess in a gentleman’s family; that is, of course, premising that Eleanor has availed herself conscientiously of the advantages afforded her by her residence with the Misses Bennett.
“I shall write to Madame Marly by this post, using my best influence with her for Eleanor’s benefit; and, should I receive a favourable reply to this letter, I will immediately send you a hundred pounds, to be paid by you to Madame Marly.
“I do this in order that you may not appear to my old instructress—who remembers you as a rich man—in the position of a pauper; but in thus attempting to spare your feelings, and perhaps my own, I fear that I run some risk.
“Let me therefore warn you that this money is the last I will ever pay for my half-sister’s benefit. Squander or misuse it if you please. You have robbed me often, and would not perhaps hesitate to do so again. But bear in mind, that this time it is Eleanor you will rob and not me.
“The only chance she will have of completing her education is the chance I now give her. Rob her of this and you rob her of an honourable future. Deprive her of this and you make yourself answerable for any misfortunes which may befall her when you are dead and gone.
“Forgive me if I have spoken harshly, or even undutifully; my excuse lies in your past follies. I have spoken strongly because I wished to make a strong impression, and I believe that I have acted for the best.
“Once for all, remember that I will attend to no future solicitations on Eleanor’s behalf. If she makes good use of the help I now afford her, I may perhaps be tempted to render her further services—unsolicited—in the future. If she or you make a bad use of this one chance, I wash my hands of all concern in your future miseries.
“The money will be made payable at Messrs. Blount’s, Rue de la Paix.
“I trust you attend the Protestant Church in the Rue Rivoli.
“With best wishes for your welfare, temporal and eternal,
“I remain, my dear father,
“Your affectionate daughter,
George Vane burst into tears as he finished the letter. How cruelly she had stabbed him, this honourable, conscientious daughter, whom he had robbed certainly, but in a generous, magnanimous, reckless fashion, that made robbery rather a princely virtue than a sordid vice. How cruelly the old heart was lacerated by that bitter letter!
“As if I would touch the money,” cried Mr. Vane, elevating his trembling hands to the low ceiling with a passionate and tragic gesture. “Have I been such a wretch to you, Eleanor, that this woman should accuse me of wishing to snatch the bread from your innocent lips?”
“Have I been such an unnatural father, such a traitor, liar, swindler, and cheat, that my own daughter should say these things to me?”
His voice rose higher with each sentence, and the tears streamed down his wrinkled cheeks.
Eleanor tried to kiss away those tears; but he pushed her from him with passionate vehemence.
“Go away from me, my child, I am a wretch, a robber, a scoundrel, a——”
“No, no, no, papa,” cried Eleanor, “you are all that is good, you have always been good to me, dear, dear papa.”
“By what right then does this woman insult me with such a letter as that?” asked the old man, drying his eyes, and pointing to the crumpled letter which he had flung upon the ground.
“She has no right, papa,” answered Eleanor. “She is a wicked, cruel woman. But we’ll send back her money. I’d rather go out into the world at once, papa, and work for you: I’d rather be a dressmaker. I could learn soon if I tried very hard. I do know a little about dressmaking. I made this dress, and it fits very well, only I cut out both the backs for one side, and both sleeves for one arm, and that wasted the stuff you know, and made the skirt a little scanty. I’d rather do anything, papa, than accept this money,—I would indeed. I don’t want to go to this grand Parisian school, except to be near you, papa, darling. That was the only thing I ever cared for. The Miss Bennetts would take me as a pupil teacher, and give me fifteen pounds a-year, and I’d send every shilling of it to you, papa, and then you needn’t live over a wretched shop where the meat smells nasty in the warm weather. We won’t take the money, will we, papa?”
The old man shook his head, and made a motion with his lips and throat, as if he had been gulping down some bitter draught.
“Yes, my dear,” he said, in a tone of ineffable resignation, “for your sake I would suffer many humiliations; for your sake I will endure this. We will take no notice of this woman’s letter; though I could write her a reply that—but no matter. We will let her insolence pass, and she shall never know how keenly it has stung me, here, here!”
He tapped his breast as he spoke, and the tears rose again to his eyes.
“We will accept this money, Eleanor,” he continued, “we will accept her bounty; and the day may come when you will have ample power to retaliate—ample power, my dear. She has called me a thief, Eleanor,” exclaimed the old man, suddenly returning to his own wrongs,—“a thief! My own daughter has called me a thief, and accused me of the baseness of robbing you.”
“Papa, papa, darling!”
“As if your father could rob you of this money, Eleanor; as if I could touch a penny of it. No, so help me Heaven! not a penny of it to save me from starving.”
His head sank forward upon his breast, and he sat for some minutes muttering to himself in broken sentences, as if almost unconscious of his daughter’s presence. In that time he looked older than he had looked at any moment since his daughter had met him at the station. Looking at him now, wistfully and sorrowfully, Eleanor Vane saw that her father was indeed an old man, vacillating and weak of purpose, and with ample need of all the compassionate tenderness, the fond affection which overflowed her girlish heart as she looked at him. She knelt down on the slippery oaken floor at his feet, and took his tremulous hand in both of hers.
He started as she touched him, and looked at her.
“My darling,” he cried, “you’ve had nothing to eat; you’ve been nearly an hour in the house, and you’ve had nothing to eat. But I’ve not forgotten you, Nell, you’ll find I’ve not forgotten you.”
He rose from his chair, and went over to a buffet, from which he took a couple of plates and tumblers, some knives and forks, and two or three parcels wrapped in white paper, and neatly tied with narrow red tape. He put these on the table, and going a second time to the buffet produced a pint bottle of claret, in a basket; very dusty and cobwebby; and therefore, no doubt, very choice.
The white paper parcels contained very recherché comestibles. A slender wedge of truffled turkey, some semi-transparent slices of German sausage, and an open plum tart, with a great deal of rich ruby coloured syrup, and an utterly uneatable crust.
Miss Vane partook very freely of this little collation, praising her father for his goodness and indulgence as she eat the simple feast he had prepared for her. But she did not like the Burgundy in the dusty basket, and preferred to drink some water out of one of the toilette bottles.
Her father, however, enjoyed the pint of good wine, and recovered his equanimity under its generous influence. He had never been a drunkard; he had indeed one of those excitable natures which cannot endure the influence of strong drinks, and a very little wine had considerable effect upon him.
He talked a good deal, therefore, to his daughter, told her some of his delusive hopes in the future, tried to explain some of the plans which he had formed for his and her advancement, and was altogether very happy and social. The look of age which had been so strong upon him half an hour before faded out like a gray morning shadow under the broadening sunlight. He was a young man again, proud, hopeful, defiant, handsome, ready to run through three more fortunes, if they should fall to his lot.
It was past two o’clock when Eleanor Vane lay down, thoroughly exhausted, but not weary—she had one of those natures which seem never to grow weary—to fall asleep for the first time in four-and-twenty hours.
Her father did not quite so quickly fall into a peaceful slumber. He lay awake for upwards of an hour, tumbling and tossing to and fro upon the narrow spring mattress, and muttering to himself.
And even in his sleep, though the early summer dawn was gray in the room when he fell into a fitful and broken slumber, the trouble of his eldest daughter’s letter was heavy upon him, for every now and then he muttered, disjointedly,—
“Thief—swindler. As if—as if—I would—rob—my own daughter.”