Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 10

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.

CHAPTER XVII. THE SHADOW ON GILBERT MONCKTON’S LIFE.

Tolldale Priory was a red brick mansion, lying deep in a valley, almost hidden amidst the thick woodland that surrounded it: a stately dwelling-place, shrouded and well-nigh entombed by the old trees that shut it in on every side, and made a screen through which only a glimpse of crimson brick could be seen from the bye-road or lane that approached the great iron gates.

From the hill-tops, high above that wooded valley, looking down into the sombre depths of verdure, one could see the gabled roof of the mansion, glimmering amid the woodland, like some rich jewel in its casket; and, at a little distance, the massive square tower of an ivy-grown old church, at which a few tenant-farmers about Tolldale, and the lords of the Priory and their retainers, were wont to worship.

The house was large and handsome; there was a long banqueting hall with a roof of black oak, rich in quaint and monstrous carvings, and a gloomy corridor, that were said to belong to the reign of Henry the Second; but the rest of the mansion had been built in the time of Queen Anne, and was of that prim and square order of architecture which Sir John Vanbrugh and his followers affected.

The garden was prim and square, like the house, and shut in from the road by high red brick walls, over some part of which the stone-moss had crept, and the ivy trailed for centuries; but the garden had grown out of the stiffness of Queen Anne’s day, for every tree and shrub, every flower and weed, patch of grass, or cluster of ivy, grew so luxuriantly in this fertile valley, that it would have needed three times the number of gardeners that had been kept at Tolldale for the last twenty years, to preserve the neat order of the flower-beds and pathways, the holly hedges, the huge bushes of boxwood that had once been fashioned into the grim semblances of lions, swans, bears, and elephants, and all the other stiff beauties of the pleasure-grounds.

Behind the house a couple of peacocks stalked moodily about a stony courtyard, and a great watch-dog showed his sulky head at the mouth of his kennel, and barked incessantly at the advent of any visitor, as if the Priory had been some weird and enchanted dwelling to which no stranger had right of approach. The entrance to the house most commonly used, opened into this stony courtyard; and in the dusky, flagged hall, hung the ponderous and roomy riding-boots and the heavy saddle of some Tolldale who had distinguished himself in the civil wars.

The rainbow colours that glimmered on the stone pavement of this dusky entrance-hall were reflected from the crests and coats of arms, the interlaced ciphers, the coronets and bloody hands, emblazoned on the mullioned windows, whose splendour chastened and subdued the daylight, tempering the garish glory of heaven for the benefit of aristocratic eyes. But of all these crests and ciphers, of all these honourable insignia, not one belonged to the present owner of the house—Mr. Gilbert Monckton, the lawyer.

Tolldale Priory had changed hands several times since the monkish days in which the older part of the house had been built. Gilbert Monckton had bought the estate twenty years before of a Mr. Ravenshaw, a reckless and extravagant gentleman, with an only daughter, whose beauty had been very much talked about in the neighbourhood. Indeed, report had gone so far as to declare that Gilbert Monckton had been desperately in love with this Margaret Ravenshaw, and that it was for her sake he had invested a great part of the splendid fortune left him by his father in the purchase of the Tolldale estate; thereby freeing the young lady’s father from very terrible embarrassments, and enabling him to retire to the Continent with his only child.

There had been, certainly, considerable grounds for this report, as immediately after the transfer of the property, Gilbert Monckton quitted England, leaving his business in the hands of the two junior partners of the house—both much older men than himself, by-the-bye. He remained abroad for nearly two years, during which time everybody believed him to be travelling with Mr. Ravenshaw and his daughter, and at the end of that time returned; an altered man.

Yes, every one who had been intimate with Gilbert Monckton declared that a blight had fallen upon his life, and it was only natural that they should go a little further than this, and conclude that this change had been brought about by an unhappy attachment; or, in plainer words, that Margaret Ravenshaw had jilted him.

However this might be, the lawyer kept his secret. There was no unmanly sentimentalism in his nature. Whatever his sorrow was, he bore it very quietly, keeping it entirely to himself, and asking sympathy from no living creature. But from the hour of his return to England, he devoted himself to his profession with a determination and an assiduity that he had never before displayed.

This was the great change that his disappointment—whatever that disappointment may have been—had made in him. He did not become either a misanthrope or a bore. He became purely and simply a man of business. The frank, light-hearted young squire, who had shunned his father’s office as if every sheet of parchment or scrap of red tape had been infected by the pestilent vapours of a plague-stricken city, was transformed into the patient and plodding lawyer, whose gigantic grasp of thought and unfailing foresight were almost akin to genius.

For ten years Tolldale Priory was uninhabited by its new master, and left in the care of a snuff-taking old housekeeper and a deaf gardener, who effectually kept all visitors at bay by a systematic habit of failing to hear the great bell at the iron gates; which might clang never so loudly under the shadow of its wooden pent-house without apparently producing the faintest impression upon the aural nerves of the two superannuated guardians of the mansion. But at last the day came upon which Mr. Monckton grew tired of his London dwelling-place in a dingy square in Bloomsbury, and determined to take possession of his Berkshire estate. He sent a couple of upholsterers to Tolldale Priory, with strict injunctions to set the old furniture in order, but to do nothing more; not so much as to alter the adjustment of a curtain or the accustomed position of a chair or table.

Perhaps he wished to see the familiar rooms looking exactly as they had looked when he had sat by Margaret Ravenshaw’s side, a bright and hopeful lad of twenty. He kept the snuff-taking old housekeeper and the deaf gardener, and brought his own small staff of well-trained servants from London. The town-bred servants would have willingly rebelled against their new dwelling-place, and the verdant shades that seemed to shut them in from the outer world; but their wages were too liberal to be resigned for any but a very powerful reason, and they submitted as best they could to the dreary solitude of their new abode:

Mr. Monckton travelled backwards and forwards between Tolldale and London almost every day, driving to the station in his phaeton in the morning, and being met by his groom on his return in the evening. The lawyer’s professional duties had taxed his strength to the utmost, and grave physicians had prescribed country air and occasional repose as absolutely necessary to him. For nearly ten years, therefore, he had lived at the Priory, forming few acquaintances, and positively no friends. His most intimate associates had been the De Crespignys. This had no doubt arisen from the circumstance of the Woodlands estate adjoining Tolldale. Mr. Monckton accepted the acquaintances whom accident forced upon him, but he sought none. Those who knew him best said that the shadow which had so early fallen upon his life had never passed away.

Of course Eleanor Vane had heard these things during her residence at Hazlewood. The knowledge of them invested the grave lawyer with a halo of romance in her girlish eyes. He, like herself, had his secret, and kept it faithfully.

CHAPTER XVIII. UNFORGOTTEN.

Mrs. Darrell drove her son and the two girls to Tolldale Priory in accordance with Mr. Monckton’s wish. The widow had no particular desire to bring either Laura or Eleanor into contact with her uncle, Maurice de Crespigny, for she nourished that intense jealousy of all visitors who crossed the threshold of the old man’s house, which is only known to expectant heirs whose chances of a fortune tremble in the wavering balance of an invalid’s caprice. But Mrs. Darrell could not afford to offend Mr. Monckton. He paid a high price for her protection of his ward, and was by no means the sort of man to be thwarted with impunity.

Launcelot Darrell lolled by his mother’s side, smoking a cigar and taking very little notice of the blossoming hedgerows and glimpses of luxuriant pastoral landscape. The two young ladies sat upon a low seat, with their backs to the ponies, and had therefore ample opportunity of observing the prodigal son’s face.

For the first time since Mr. Darrell’s return Eleanor Vane did watch that handsome face, seeking in it for some evidence of those words which Gilbert Monckton had spoken to her the day before.

“He is selfish, and shallow, and frivolous; false, I think, as well; more than this, he has a secret—a secret connected with his Indian experiences.”

This is what Mr. Monckton had said. Eleanor asked herself what right he had to say so much?

It was scarcely likely that a girl of Eleanor’s age, so unaccustomed to all society, so shut in from the outer world by her narrow and secluded life, could fail to be a little interested in the handsome stranger, whose advent had not been without a tinge of romance. She was interested in him, and all the more so because of that which Gilbert Monckton had said to her. There was a secret in Launcelot Darrell’s life. How strange this was! Had every creature a secret, part of themselves, hidden deep in their breasts, like that dark purpose of her own that had grown out of the misery of her father’s untimely death—some buried memory, whose influence was to overshadow all their lives?

She looked at the young man’s face. It had an expression of half-defiant recklessness which seemed almost habitual to it; but it was not the face of a happy man.

Laura Mason was the only person who talked much during that drive to Tolldale. That young lady’s tongue ran on in a pretty, incessant babble, about nothing in particular. The wild flowers in the hedgerows, the distant glimpses of country, the light clouds floating in the summer sky, the flaming poppies in the yellowing corn, the noisy fowl upon the margin of a pond, the shaggy horses looking over farm-yard gates,—every object, animate and inanimate, between Hazlewood and Tolldale was the subject of Miss Mason’s remark. Launcelot Darrell looked at her now and then with an expression of half-admiring amusement, and sometimes aroused himself to talk to her; but only to relapse very quickly into a half-contemptuous, half-sulky silence.

Mr. Monckton received his guests in a long low library, looking out into the neglected garden; a dusky chamber, darkened by the shadows of trailing parasites that hung over the narrow windows. But this room was an especial favourite with the grave master of the house. It was here he sat during the long lonely evenings that he spent at home. The drawing-rooms on the first-floor were only used upon those rare occasions when the lawyer opened his house to his friends of long standing, dashing clients, who were very well pleased to get a week’s shooting in the woody coverts about the Priory.

Neither Laura nor Eleanor felt very enthusiastic about the Raphael, which seemed to the two girls to represent an angular and rather repellent type of female beauty, but Launcelot Darrell and his host entered into an artistic discussion that lasted until luncheon was announced by the lawyer’s grey-haired butler, a ponderous and dignified individual who had lived with Gilbert Monckton’s father, and who was said to know more about his master’s history than was known by Gilbert’s most intimate friends.

It was nearly three o’clock in the afternoon when luncheon was finished, and the party set out to attempt an invasion upon Woodlands. Launcelot Darrell gave his arm to his mother, who in a manner took possession of her son, and the two girls walked behind with the lawyer.

“You have never seen Mr. de Crespigny, I suppose, Miss Vincent?” Gilbert Monckton said, as they went out of the iron gates and struck into a narrow pathway leading through the wood.

“Never! But I am very anxious to see him.”

“Why so?”

Eleanor hesitated. She was for ever being reminded of her assumed name, and the falsehood to which she had submitted out of deference to her half-sister’s pride.

Fortunately the lawyer did not wait for an answer to his question.

“Maurice de Crespigny is a strange old man,” he said; “a very strange old man. I sometimes think there is a disappointment in store for Launcelot Darrell; and for his maiden aunts as well.”

“A disappointment!”

“Yes, I doubt very much if either the maiden ladies or their nephew will get Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune.”

“But to whom will he leave it, then?”

The lawyer shrugged his shoulders.

“It is not for me to answer that question, Miss Vincent,” he said. “I merely speculate upon the chances, in perfect ignorance as to facts. Were I Mr. de Crespigny’s legal adviser, I should have no right to say as much as this; but as I am not, I am free to discuss the business.”

Mr. Monckton and Eleanor were alone by this time, for Laura Mason had flitted on to the party in advance, and was talking to Launcelot Darrell. The lawyer’s face clouded as he watched his ward and the young man.

“You remember what I said to you yesterday, Miss Vincent?” he said, after a pause.

“Perfectly.”

“I am very much afraid of the influence that young man’s handsome face may have upon my poor frivolous ward; I would move her out of the way of that influence if I could, but where could I remove her? Poor child! she has been shifted about enough already. She seems happy at Hazlewood; very happy, with you.”

“Yes,” Eleanor answered, frankly; “we love each other very dearly.”

“And you would do anything to serve her?”

“Anything in the world.”

Mr. Monckton sighed.

“There is one way in which you might serve her,” he said, in a low voice, as if speaking to himself rather than to Eleanor, “and yet—”

He did not finish the sentence, but walked on in silence, with his eyes bent upon the ground. He only looked up now and then to listen, with an uneasy expression, to the animated conversation of Launcelot and Laura. They walked thus through the shadowy woodland, where the rustling sound of a pheasant’s flight amongst the brushwood and the gay tones of Laura’s voice only broke the silence.

Beyond the wood they came to a grassy slope dotted by groups of trees, and bounded by an invisible fence.

Here, on the summit of a gentle elevation, stood a low white villa—a large and important house—but built in the modern style, and very inferior to Tolldale Priory in dignity and grandeur.

This was Woodlands, the house which Maurice de Crespigny had built for himself some twenty years before, and the house whose threshold had so long been jealously guarded by the two maiden nieces of the invalid.

Mr. Monckton looked at his watch as he and Eleanor joined Mrs. Darrell.

“Half-past three o’clock,” he said; “Mr. de Crespigny generally takes an airing in his Bath-chair at about this time in the afternoon. You see, I know the habits of the Citadel, and know therefore how to effect a surprise. If we strike across the park we are almost sure to meet him.”

He led the way to a little gate in the fence. It was only fastened by a latch, and the party entered the grassy enclosure.

Eleanor Vane’s heart beat violently. She was about to see her father’s old and early friend, that friend whom he had never been suffered to approach, to whom he had been forbidden to appeal in the hour of his distress.

“If my poor father could have written to Mr. de Crespigny for help when he lost that wretched hundred pounds, he might have been saved from a cruel death,” Eleanor thought.

Fortune seemed to favour the invaders. In a shady avenue that skirted one side of the slope, they came upon the old man and the two sisters. The maiden ladies walked on either side of their uncle’s Bath-chair, erect and formidable-looking as a couple of grenadiers.

Maurice de Crespigny looked twenty years older than his spendthrift friend had looked up to the hour of his death. His bent head nodded helplessly forward. His faded eyes seemed dim and sightless. The withered hand lying idle upon the leathern apron of the Bath-chair, trembled like a leaf shaken by the autumn wind. The shadow of approaching death seemed to hover about this feeble creature, separating him from his fellow-mortals.

The two maiden ladies greeted their sister with no very demonstrative cordiality.

“Ellen!” exclaimed Miss Lavinia, the elder of the two, “this is an unexpected pleasure. I am sure that both Susan and myself are charmed to see you; but as this is one of our poor dear invalid’s worst days, your visit is rather unfortunately timed. If you had written, and given us notice of your coming—”

“You would have shut the door in my face,” Mrs. Darrell said, resolutely. “Pray do not put yourself to the trouble of inventing any polite fictions on my account, Lavinia. We understand each other perfectly. I came here by the back way, because I knew I should be refused admittance at the front door. You keep watch well, Lavinia, and I beg to compliment you upon your patience.”

The widow had approached her uncle’s chair, leaving the rest of the party in the background. Pale and defiant, she did battle with her two sisters, fighting sturdily in the cause of her idolised son; who seemed a great deal too listless and indifferent to look after his own interests.

The ladies in possession glared at their sister’s pale face with spiteful eyes; they were a little daunted by the widow’s air of resolution.

“Who are those people, Ellen Darrell?” asked the younger of the two old maids. “Do you want to kill my uncle, that you bring a crowd of strangers to intrude upon him at a time when his nerves are at their worst?”

“I have not brought a crowd of strangers. One of those people is my son, who has come to pay his respects to his uncle after his return from India.”

“Launcelot Darrell returned!” exclaimed the two ladies, simultaneously.

“Yes, returned to look after his own interests; returned with very grateful feelings towards those who prompted his being sent away from his native country to waste his youth in an unhealthy climate.”

Some people get on in India,” Miss Lavinia de Crespigny said, spitefully; “but I never thought Launcelot Darrell would do any good there.”

“How kind it was in you to advise his going, then,” Mrs. Darrell answered promptly. Then passing by the astonished Miss Lavinia, she went up to her uncle, and bent over him.

The old man looked up at his niece, but with no glance of recognition in his blue eyes, which had grown pale with age.

“Uncle Maurice,” said Mrs. Darrell, “don’t you know me?”

The invalid nodded his head.

“Yes, yes, yes!” he said; but there was a vacant smile upon his face, and it seemed as if the words were uttered mechanically.

“And are you glad to see me, dear uncle?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” the old man answered, in exactly the same tone.

Mrs. Darrell looked up hopelessly.

“Is he always like this?” she asked.

“No,” answered Miss Susan, briskly, “he is only so when he is intruded upon and annoyed. We told you it was one of your uncle’s bad days, Ellen; and yet you are heartless enough to insist on persecuting him.

Mrs. Darrell turned upon her sister with suppressed rage.

“When will the day come in which I shall be welcome to this place, Susan de Crespigny?” she said. “I choose my own time, and seize any chance I can of speaking to my uncle.”

She looked back at the group she had left behind her, and beckoned to her son.

Launcelot Darrell came straight to his uncle’s chair.

“You remember Launcelot, Uncle Maurice,” Mrs. Darrell said, entreatingly; “I’m sure you remember Launcelot.”

The two maiden sisters watched their uncle’s face with eager and jealous glances. It seemed as if the thick clouds were fading away from the old man’s memory, for a faint light kindled in his faded eyes.

“Launcelot!” he said; “yes, I remember Launcelot. In India, poor lad, in India.”

“He went to India, dear uncle, and he has been away some years. You remember how unfortunate he was; the indigo planter to whom he was to have gone failed before he got to Calcutta, so that my poor boy could not even deliver the one letter of introduction which he took with him to a strange country. He was thrown upon his own resources, therefore, and had to get a living as he could. The climate never agreed with him, Uncle Maurice, and he was altogether very unhappy. He stayed as long as he could endure a life that was utterly unsuited to him; and then flung everything up for the sake of returning to England. You must not be angry with my poor boy, dear Uncle Maurice.”

The old man seemed to have brightened up a good deal by this time. He nodded perpetually as his niece talked to him, but there was a look of intelligence in his face now.

“I am not angry with him,” he said; “he was free to go, or free to return. I did the best I could for him; but of course he was free to choose his own career, and is so still. I don’t expect him to defer to me.”

Mrs. Darrell turned pale. This speech appeared to express a renunciation of all interest in her son. She would almost rather that her uncle had been angry and indignant at the young man’s return.

“But Launcelot wishes to please you in all he does, dear uncle,” pleaded the widow. “He will be very, very sorry if he has offended you.”

“He is very good,” the old man answered; “he has not offended me. He is quite free, quite free to act for himself. I did the best I could for him—I did the best; but he is perfectly free.”

The two maiden sisters exchanged a look of triumph. In this hand-to-hand contest for the rich man’s favour, it did not seem as if either Ellen Darrell or her son were gaining any great advantage.

Launcelot bent over his great-uncle’s chair.

“I am very happy to find you alive and well, sir, on my return,” he said, respectfully.

The old man lifted his eyes, and looked earnestly at the handsome face bent over him.

“You are very good, nephew,” he said; “I sometimes think that, because I have a little money to leave behind me, everybody wishes for my death. It’s hard to fancy that every breath one draws is grudged by those who live with us. That’s very hard.”

“Uncle!” cried the maiden nieces, simultaneously, with a little shriek of lady-like horror. “When have you ever fancied that?”

The old man shook his head, with a feeble smile upon his tremulous lips.

“You are very good to me, my dears,” he said; “very good; but sick men have strange fancies. I sometimes think I’ve lived too long for myself and others. But never mind that; never mind that. Who are those people there?” he asked, in a different tone.

“Friends of mine, uncle,” Mrs. Darrell answered; “and one of them is a friend of yours. You know Mr. Monckton?”

“Monckton! O, yes—yes! Monckton, the lawyer,” muttered the old man; “and who is that girl yonder?” he cried suddenly, with quite an altered voice and manner, almost as if the shock of some great surprise had galvanised him into new life. “Who is that girl yonder, with fair hair and her face turned this way? Tell me who she is, Ellen Darrell?”

He pointed to Eleanor Vane as he spoke. She was standing a little way apart from Gilbert Monckton and Laura; she had taken off her broad straw hat and slung it across her arm, and the warm summer breeze had swept the bright auburn hair from her forehead. Forgetful of every necessity for caution, in the intensity of her desire to see her dead father’s dearest friend, she had advanced a few paces from her companions, and stood watching the group about the old man’s chair.

“Who is she, Ellen Darrell?” repeated Mr. de Crespigny.

Mrs. Darrell looked almost frightened by her uncle’s eagerness.

“That young lady is only the musical instructress of another young lady I have in my care, Uncle Maurice,” she answered. “What is there in her that attracts your attention?”

The old man’s eyes filled with tears that rolled slowly down his withered cheeks.

“When George Vane and I were students together at Maudlin,” answered Maurice de Crespigny, “my friend was the living image of that girl.”

Mrs. Darrell turned sharply round, and looked at Eleanor as if she would have almost annihilated the girl for daring to resemble George Vane.

“I think your eyes must deceive you, my dear uncle,” said the widow; “I knew Mr. George Vane well enough, and I never saw any likeness to him in this Miss Vincent.”

Maurice de Crespigny shook his head.

“My eyes do not deceive me,” he said. “It’s my memory that’s weak sometimes; my eyesight is good enough. When you knew George Vane his hair was grey, and his handsome looks faded; when I first knew him he was as young as that girl yonder, and he was like her. Poor George! poor George!”

The three sisters looked at each other. Whatever enmity might exist between Mrs. Darrell and the two maiden ladies, the three were perfectly agreed upon one point—namely, that the recollection of George Vane and his family must, at any price, be kept out of Maurice de Crespigny’s mind.

The old man had not spoken of his friend for years, and the maiden sisters had triumphed in the thought that all memories of their uncle’s youth had become obscured and obliterated by the gathering shadows of age. But now, at the sight of a fair-haired girl of eighteen, the old memories came back in all their force. The sudden outburst of feeling came upon the sisters like a thunderbolt, and they lost that common instinct of self-preservation, that ordinary presence of mind, which would have prompted them to hustle the old man off, and carry him at once out of the way of this tiresome, intrusive, fair-haired young woman who had the impertinence to resemble George Vane.

The sisters had never heard of the birth of Mr. Vane’s youngest daughter. Many years had elapsed since the intercourse between Mrs. Darrell and Hortensia Bannister had extended to more than an occasional epistolary communication, and the stockbroker’s widow had not thought it necessary to make any formal announcement of her half-sister’s birth.

“Tell that girl to come here,” cried Maurice de Crespigny, pointing with a trembling hand to Eleanor. “Let her come here, I want to look at her.”

Mrs. Darrell thought it would be scarcely wise to oppose her uncle.

“Miss Vincent!” she called, sharply, to the girl; “come here, if you please, my uncle wishes to speak to you.”

Eleanor Vane was startled by the widow’s summons, but she came eagerly to the old man’s chair. She was very anxious to see the friend of her dead father. She went close up to the Bath-chair, and stood beside the old man.

Maurice de Crespigny laid his hand upon hers.

“Yes,” he said; “yes, yes. It’s almost the same face—almost the same. God bless you, my dear! It makes me fifty years younger to look at you. You are like a friend who was once very dear to me—very dear to me. God bless you!”

The girl’s face grew pale with the intensity of her feeling. Oh! that her father had been alive; that she might have pleaded for him with this old man, and have reunited the broken links of the past. But of what avail now were Maurice de Crespigny’s compassionate words? They could not recal the dead. They could not blot out the misery of that dreadful eleventh of August—that horrible night upon which the loss of a pitiful sum of money had driven George Vane to the commission of the fatal act which had ended his life. No! His old friend could do nothing for him, his loving daughter could do nothing for him now—except to avenge his death.

Carried away by her feelings, forgetful of her assumed character, forgetful of everything except that the hand now clasped in hers was the same that had been linked in that of her father, years and years ago, in the warm grasp of friendship, Eleanor Vane knelt down beside the old man’s chair, and pressed his thin fingers to her lips.