Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 12
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XXI. ON THE TRACK.
The little pony-carriage drove on to the station; and Eleanor, like some traveller in a dream, saw the castle walls and turrets, the busy street and hurrying people spin past her eyes, and melt into confusion. She did not know how she entered the railway station, or how she came to be walking quietly up and down the platform with Mrs. Darrell. There was a choking sensation in her dry throat, a blinding mist before her eyes, and a confusion that was almost terrible to bear in her brain. She wanted to get away; anywhere, so long as it was away from all the world. In the meantime, she walked up and down the platform with Launcelot Darrell’s mother by her side.
“I am mad,” she thought. “I am mad. It cannot be so!”
Again and again in the course of Eleanor Vane’s brief association with the widow’s son, something, some fancy, some shadowy recollection, vague and impalpable as the faintest clouds in the summer sky above Hazlewood, had flashed across her mind, only to be blotted away before she could even try to define or understand it. But now these passing fancies all culminated in one conviction; Launcelot Darrell was the man whom she had seen lounging on the kerbstone of the Boulevard on the night of her last parting with her father.
In vain she reasoned with herself that she had no justifiable grounds for this conviction—the conviction remained, nevertheless. The only foundation for her belief that Launcelot Darrell, from amongst all other men, was the one man whom she sought to pursue, was a resemblance in his attitude as he stood lounging in the Windsor street, to the attitude of the young man on the Boulevard. Surely this was the slightest, the weakest foundation on which belief ever rested. Eleanor Vane could acknowledge this; but she could not lessen the force of that belief. At the very moment when the memory of her father, and her father’s death, had been furthest from her thoughts, this sudden conviction, rapid and forcible as inspiration, had flashed upon her.
The matter was beyond reason, beyond argument.
The young man loitering listlessly upon the kerbstone of the Windsor street, was the man who had loitered on the Boulevard; waiting, sulkily enough, while his companion tempted George Vane to his destruction.
It seemed as if the girl’s memory, suddenly endowed with a new and subtle power, took her back to that August night in the year ’53, and placed her once more face to face with her father’s enemy. Once more the dark, restless eyes, the pale, cowering face, and moustachioed lip, overshadowed by the slouched hat, flashed upon her for a moment, before the sulky stranger turned away to keep moody silence throughout his companion’s babble. And with that memory of the past, was interlinked the face and figure of Launcelot Darrell; so closely, that do what she would, Eleanor Vane could not disassociate the two images.
And she had suffered this man, of all other men, to tell her that he loved her; she had taken a romantic pleasure in his devotion; day after day, and hour after hour, she had been his companion; sharing his enjoyments, sympathising with his pursuits, admiring and believing him. This day—this very day—he had held her hand, he had looked in her face, and the words she had spoken to Richard Thornton had proved only a vain boast, after all. No instinct in her own heart had revealed to her the presence of her father’s murderer.
Mrs. Darrell looked furtively every now and then at the girl’s face. The iron rigidity of that white face almost startled the widow. Was it the expression of terrible grief restrained by a superhuman effort of will?
“Does this girl love my son, I wonder?” the widow thought; and then the answer, prompted by a mother’s pride, came quickly after the question. “Yes, how could she do otherwise than love him? How could any woman on earth be indifferent to my boy?”
Something, almost akin to pity, stirred faintly in the heart which was so cold to every creature upon earth, except this spoiled and prodigal son; and Mrs. Darrell did her best to comfort the banished girl.
“I am afraid you are ill, my dear Miss Vincent,” the widow said. “The excitement of this sudden departure has been too much for you. Pray, my dear, do not think that I submit to this necessity without very great regret. You have given me perfect satisfaction in everything you have done, ever since you entered my house. No praises I can bestow upon you in recommending you to a new home will go beyond the truth. Forgive me, forgive me, my poor child; I know I must seem very cruel; but I love my son so dearly—I love him so dearly.”
There was real feeling in the tone in which these words were spoken; but the widow’s voice sounded far away to Eleanor Vane, and the words had no meaning. The girl turned her stony face towards the speaker, and made a feeble effort to understand what was said to her; but all power of comprehension seemed lost in the bewilderment of her brain.
“I want to get back to London,” she said. “I want to get away from this place. Will it be long before the train starts, Mrs. Darrell?”
“Not five minutes. I have put up your money in this envelope, my dear, a quarter’s salary, the quarter began in June, you know, and I have paid you up to September. I have paid for your ticket, also, in order that your money might not be broken into by that expense. Your luggage will be sent to you to-morrow. You will get a cab at the station, my dear. Your friends will be very much surprised to see you, no doubt.”
“My friends!” repeated Eleanor, in an absent tone.
“Yes, the good music-mistress and her son. I have your address, Miss Vincent, and you may rely on hearing from me in a few days. I shall take care that you suffer no inconvenience from this sudden change in all our plans. Good-bye, and God bless you, my dear!”
Eleanor had taken her seat in the carriage by this time, and the train was about to move. Mrs. Darrell held out her hand; but the girl drew away from her with a sudden movement of terror. “Oh, please do not shake hands with me!” she cried, “I am very, very unhappy.”
The train moved away before the widow could reply to this strange speech, and the last thing that Eleanor saw, was the pale face of Launcelot Darrell’s mother turned towards her with a look of surprise.
“Poor child,” thought Mrs. Darrell, as she walked slowly back to the station-door, before which her pony-carriage waited. “She feels this very much, but she has acted nobly.”
The widow sighed as she remembered that the worst part of the struggle was yet to come. She would have her son’s indignation to encounter and to endure; not the stormy passion of a strong man, unfairly separated from the woman he loves; but the fretful irritation of a spoiled child who has been robbed of a favourite toy.
It was nearly dark when Eleanor Vane reached the Pilasters. She paid and dismissed the cab in Dudley Street, and made her way on foot under the familiar archway, and into the Colonnade, where the same children seemed to be playing the same games in the dusky light, the same horses peering from the stable-doors, the same cabmen drinking at the oldfashioned public-house at the corner.
The Signora was giving a singing-lesson to a stolid young person with a fat face and freckles, who was being prepared for the lyric drama, and wished to appear at one of the opera houses as Norma, after a dozen lessons or so. Eliza Picirillo was trying her hardest to simplify a difficult passage for this embryo Grisi’s comprehension, when Eleanor Vane opened the door of the little sitting-room, and appeared upon the threshold.
It would have been natural to the girl to have rushed to the piano and flung herself into the arms of the Signora at the risk of upsetting the stolid pupil; and there was something so very unnatural in her manner as she paused in the open doorway,—something so wan and ghost-like in her appearance, that Eliza Picirillo rose in alarm from her music-stool and stared aghast at this unexpected visitor.
“Eleanor!” she exclaimed, “Eleanor!”
“Yes, dear Signora, it is I! I—I know I have come back very unexpectedly; I have a great deal to tell you by-and-by. But I am tired to death. May I sit down, please, while you finish your lesson?”
“May you sit down! My darling Nelly, is that the way you talk in your old home. My dear, dear child, do you think you can ever come so unexpectedly as to fail to find a welcome from Eliza Picirillo. Here, my dear, sit down and make yourself as comfortable as you can, until I’m able to attend to you. Excuse me, Miss Dodson, we’ll go on with the duet directly.”
The music-mistress wheeled forward an old easy-chair, her own favourite seat, and Eleanor dropped wearily into it. Signora Picirillo removed the girl’s bonnet, and tenderly smoothed her tumbled hair, murmuring expressions of welcome and affection, and whispering a promise that the lesson should be very soon finished.
She went back to Norma after seeing Eleanor comfortably ensconced in the arm-chair, and hammered away sturdily and conscientiously at the “Deh, Conte” duet, in which Miss Dodson gave a very mild interpretation of the Italian composer’s meaning, and sang about Pollio, her children, and her wrongs as placidly as if she had been declaiming her wish to be a butterfly, or any other sentiment common to English ballad-singers.
But when Miss Dodson had finished singing, and had put on her bonnet and shawl, which operation occupied a good deal of unnecessary time, and had rolled up her music, and found her gloves, which had fallen off the piano and hidden themselves in an obscure and dusty corner of the room, and had further entered into a detailed and intricate explanation of her engagements and domestic circumstances, before making an appointment for the next lesson, and had been finally hustled out of the room and lighted down the stairs, and fully instructed as to the nearest way from the Pilasters to Camden Town, Eliza Picirillo was able to give her full attention to the pale-faced girl who had returned so suddenly to her old shelter. The music-mistress was almost frightened at the expression of Eleanor Vane’s face. She remembered only too well having seen that look before, upon the September night in Paris; when the girl of fifteen had sworn to be revenged upon her father’s enemies.
“Nelly, my darling,” she said, seating herself beside Eleanor’s chair, “how is it that you come home so suddenly? Nothing could be greater happiness than to have you back, my dear. But I know that something has happened; I can see it in your face, Nelly. Tell me, my dear, what is it?”
“It is nothing to be sorry about, dear Signora; I have come away because—because Mrs. Darrell wished it. Her son—her only son has come home from India, and she wants him to marry a rich woman, and—and—”
“And he has fallen in love with you, eh, Nelly?” asked the Signora. “Well, I’m not surprised to hear that, my dear; and you are honourable enough to beat a retreat, and leave the young man free to make a mercenary marriage at his mother’s bidding. Dear, dear, what strange things people are ready to do for money now-a-days. I’m sure you’ve acted very wisely, my darling; so cheer up, and let me see the bright smile that we’ve been accustomed to. There’s nothing in all this to make you look so pale, Nelly.”
“Do I look pale?”
“Yes, as pale as a ghost weary with a long night’s wandering. Nelly, dear,” said the Signora, very gently, “you weren’t in love with this young man; you didn’t return his affection, did you?”
“In love with him!” cried Eleanor Vane, with a shudder, “oh! no, no.”
“And yet you seem sorry at having left Hazlewood.”
“I am sorry—I—I had many reasons for wishing to stay there.”
“You were attached to your companion, Miss Mason?”
“Yes, I was very much attached to her,” answered Eleanor; “don’t ask me any more questions to-night, dear Signora. I’m tired out with my journey and the excitement of—all—that has happened to-day. I will explain things more fully to-morrow; I am glad to come back to you—very, very glad to see you once more, dearest friend; but I had a strong reason for wishing to stay at Hazlewood,—I have a powerful motive for wanting to go back there, if I could go back—which I fear I never can.” The girl stopped abruptly, as if absorbed in her own thoughts, and almost unconscious of her friend’s presence.
“Well, well, my dear, I won’t question you any further,” Eliza Picirillo said, soothingly. “Goodness knows, my dear, I am glad enough to have you with me, without worrying you about the why and the wherefore. But I must go and try and get your little room ready again for you, or perhaps, as it’s late, you’d better sleep with me to-night.”
“If you please, dear Signora.”
The music-mistress hurried away to make some preparations in the bed-chamber adjoining the little sitting-room, and Eleanor Vane sat staring at the guttering tallow candles on the table before her, lost in the tumult and confusion of thoughts which as yet took no distinct form in her brain.
At the very moment in which she had set a barrier between herself and Hazlewood, that might prevent her ever crossing the threshold of its gates, she had made a discovery which rendered that retired country dwelling-house the one spot upon earth to which she had need to have free access.
“I fancied that I was going away from my revenge when I left London to go into Berkshire,” she thought, “now I leave my revenge behind me at Hazlewood. And yet how can it be as I think? How can it be so? Launcelot Darrell went to India a year before my father died. Can it be only a likeness after all—an accidental likeness between that man and Mrs. Darrell’s son?”
She sat thinking of these things—reasoning with herself upon the utter improbability of the identity of the two men, yet yielding again and again to that conviction which had forced itself upon her, sudden and irresistible, in the Windsor Street,—while the Signora bustled about between the two rooms, stopping to cast a stolen glance now and then at Eleanor Vane’s thoughtful face.
Mr. Richard Thornton came in by-and-by. The Phœnix was closed as to dramatic performances, but the scene-painter’s work never stopped. The young man gave utterance to a cry of delight as he saw the figure sitting in his aunt’s easy-chair.
“Nell!” he exclaimed, “has the world come to an end, and have you dropped into your proper position in the general smash! Eleanor, how glad I am to see you.”
He held out both his hands. Miss Vane rose and mechanically put her white fingers in the weather-beaten looking palms held out to receive them.
In that moment the scene-painter saw that something had happened.
“What’s the matter, Nell?” he cried eagerly.
“Hush, Dick,” said the girl, in a whisper. “I don’t want the Signora to know.”
“You don’t want the Signora to know what?”
“I have found that man.”
“The man who caused my father’s death.”
CHAPTER XXII. IN THE SHIPBROKER’S OFFICE.
Eleanor Vane employed the morning after her arrival at the Pilasters in writing to Laura Mason. She would have written a long letter if she could, for she knew what grief her sudden departure must have caused her childish and confiding companion; but she could not write of anything except the one thought that absorbed her whole brain, leaving her for the common business of life a purposeless and powerless creature. The explanation which she gave of her sudden departure was lame and laboured; her expressions of regard were trite and meaningless. It was only when she came to that subject which was the real purpose of her letter; it was only when she came to write of Launcelot Darrell, that there was any vigour or reality in her words.
“I have a favour to ask you, dear Laura,” she wrote, “and I must beg you to use your best discretion in granting it. I want you to find out for me the date of Mr. Darrell’s departure for Calcutta, and the name of the vessel in which he sailed. Do this, Laura, and you will be serving me; perhaps serving him also.”
“If I find that he really was in India at the date of my father’s death,” Eleanor thought, “I must cease to suspect him.”
Later in the day, Miss Vane went out with Richard into the streets and squares in which all their secret conferences had taken place. She told the scene-painter very simply and briefly of what had happened, and poor Dick listened to her story with a tender respect, as he would have listened to anything from her. But he shook his head with a sad smile when she had finished.
“What do you think now, Richard?” she asked.
“I think that you are the dupe of a foolish fancy, Nelly,” the young man answered. “You are deceived by some chance resemblance between this Mr. Darrell and the man you saw upon the Boulevard. Any dark pale-faced man lounging moodily on a kerbstone would have reminded you of the figure which is so interwoven with the memories of that mournful time in Paris. Forget it, Nelly, my dear; forget that dark chapter in the history of your girlhood. Your father’s rest will be none the sweeter because the brightness of your youth is blighted by these bitter memories. Do your duty, Eleanor, in the state to which you are called. You are not called upon to sacrifice the fairest years of your life to a Quixotic scheme of vengeance.”
“Quixotic!” cried Eleanor, reproachfully, “you would not speak like this, Richard, if your father had suffered as my father suffered through the villany of a gambler and cheat. It is no use talking to me, Dick,” she added, resolutely, “if this conviction which I cannot get out of my mind is a false one, it’s falsehood must be proved; if it is true—why then it will seem to me as if Providence had flung this man across my pathway, and that I am appointed to bring punishment upon him for his wickedness.”
“Perhaps, Eleanor; but this Mr. Darrell is not the man.”
“How do you know he is not?”
“Because, according to your own account, Launcelot was in India in the year ’53.”
“Yes, they say that he was there.”
“Have you any reason to doubt the fact?” asked Richard.
“Yes,” answered Eleanor, “when Mr. Darrell first returned to Hazlewood, Laura Mason was very anxious to hear all about what she called his ‘adventures’ in India. She asked him a great many questions, and I remember—I cannot tell you, Dick, how carelessly I listened at the time, though every word comes back to me now as vividly as if I had been a prisoner on trial for my life, listening breathlessly to the evidence of the witnesses against me—I remember now how obstinately Launcelot Darrell avoided all Laura’s questions, telling her at last, almost rudely, to change the subject. The next day Mr. Monckton came to us, and he talked about India, and Mr. Darrell again avoided the question in the same sullen, disagreeable manner. You may think me weak and foolish, Richard, and I dare say I am so, but Mr. Monckton is a very clever man. He could not be easily deceived.”
“But what of him?”
“He said, ‘Launcelot Darrell has a secret, and that secret is connected with his Indian experiences.’ I thought very little of this at the time, Dick; but I think I understand it now.”
“Indeed, and the young man’s secret—?”
“Is that he never went to India.”
“Yes, Richard, I think and believe this, and you must help me to find out whether I am right or wrong.”
The scene-painter sighed. He had hoped that his beautiful adopted sister had long since abandoned or forgotten her Utopian scheme of vengeance, in the congenial society of a gay-hearted girl of her own age; and, behold, here she was, vindictive, resolute, as upon that Sunday evening, a year and a half ago, on which they had walked together in those dingy London streets.
Eleanor Vane interrupted her companion’s sigh.
“Remember your promise, Richard,” she said. “You promised to serve me, and you must do so—you will do so, won’t you, Dick?”
The avenging fury had transformed herself into a siren as she spoke, and looked archly up at her companion’s face, with her head on one side, and a soft light in her grey eyes.
“You won’t refuse to serve me, will you, Richard?”
“Refuse,” cried the young man. “Oh, Nelly, Nelly, you know very well there is nothing in the world I could refuse you.”
Miss Vane accepted this assurance with great composure. She had never been able to disassociate Richard Thornton with those early days in which she had accompanied him to Covent Garden to buy mulberry leaves for his silkworms, and learned to play “God save the Queen” upon the young musician’s violin. Nothing was further from her thoughts than the idea that poor Dick’s feelings could have undergone any change since those childish days in the King’s Road, Chelsea.
The letter which Eleanor so feverishly awaited from Laura Mason came by return of post. The young lady’s epistle was very long, and rather rambling in its nature. Three sheets of note-paper were covered with Miss Mason’s lamentations for her friend’s absence, reproachful complainings against her friend’s cruelty, and repeated entreaties that Eleanor would come back to Hazlewood.
George Vane’s daughter did not linger over this feminine missive. A few days ago she would have been touched by Laura’s innocent expressions of regard; now her eyes hurried along the lines, taking little note of all those simple words of affection and regret, and looking greedily forward to that one only passage in the letter which was likely to have any interest for her.
This passage did not occur until Eleanor had reached the very last of the twelve pages which Miss Mason had covered with flowing Italian characters, whose symmetry was here and there disfigured by sundry blots and erasures. But as her eyes rested upon the last page, Eleanor Vane’s hand tightened upon the paper in her grasp, and the hot blood rushed redly to her earnest face.
“And I have found out all you want to know, dear Nell,” wrote Miss Mason, “though I am puzzled out of my wits to know why you should want to know it—when I did exercises in composition at Bayswater, they wouldn’t let me put two ‘knows’ so near together; but you won’t mind it, will you, dear? Well, darling, I’m not very clever at beating about the bush or finding out anything in a diplomatic way; so this afternoon at tea—I am writing to catch the evening post, and Bob is going to take my letter to the village for sixpence—I asked Launcelot Darrell, who was not drinking his tea, like a Christian, but lolling in the window smoking a cigar: he has been as sulky as a bear ever since you left—oh, Nelly, Nelly, he isn’t in love with you, is he?—I should break my heart if I thought he was—I asked him, point blank, what year and what day he sailed for India. I suppose the question sounded rather impertinent, for he coloured up scarlet all in a minute, and shrugged his shoulders in that dear disdainful way of his that always reminds me of Lara or the Corsair—L. and the C. were the same person, though, weren’t they—and said, ‘I don’t keep a diary, Miss Mason, or I should be happy to afford you any information you may require as to my antecedents.’ I thought I should have dropped through the floor, Nelly,—the floor won’t let one drop through it, or else I’m sure I should,—and I couldn’t have asked another question, even for your sake, dear; when, strange to say, Mrs. Darrell got me quite out of the difficulty. ‘I am sorry you should answer Laura so very unkindly, Launcelot,’ she said, ‘there is nothing strange in her question. I remember the date of your departure from your native country only too vividly. You left this house upon the 3rd of October, ’52, and you were to sail from Gravesend on the 4th, in the Princess Alice. I have reason to remember the date, for it seemed as if my uncle chose the very worst season of the year for sending you upon a long sea voyage. But he was prompted, no doubt, by my sisters. I ought to feel no anger against him, poor old man.’”
Eleanor Vane glanced hurriedly at the concluding words of the letter. Then, with the last sheet crumpled in her hand, she sat motionless and absorbed, thinking over its contents.
“If Launcelot Darrell sailed for India upon the 4th of October, ’52, he is not likely to have been in Paris in ’53. If I can only prove to myself that he did sail upon that date, I will try and believe that I have been deluded by some foolish fancy of my own. But why did his face flush scarlet when Laura questioned him about his voyage—why did he pretend to have forgotten the date?”
Eleanor waited impatiently for the arrival of her friend and counsellor, Richard Thornton. He came in at about three o’clock in the afternoon, while his aunt was still absent amongst her out-of-door pupils, and flung himself, jaded and worn out, on the chintz-covered sofa. But, tired as he was, he aroused himself by an effort to listen to that portion of Laura Mason’s letter which related to Launcelot Darrell.
“What do you think now, Dick?” Miss Vane asked, when she had finished reading.
“Pretty much what I thought before, Nell,” answered Mr. Thornton; “this young fellow’s objection to talk of his Indian voyage is no proof that he never went upon that voyage. He may have half-a-dozen unpleasant recollections connected with that part of his life. I don’t particularly care about talking of the Phœnix; but I never committed a murder in the obscurity of the flies, or buried the body of my victim between the stage and the mezzanine floor. People have their secrets, Nell, and we have no right to pry into the small mysteries which may lurk under a change of countenance or an impatient word.”
Eleanor Vane took very little notice of the young man’s argument.
“Can you find out if Launcelot Darrell sailed in the Princess Alice, Dick?” she added.
The scene-painter rubbed his chin, reflectively.
“I can try and find out, my dear,” he said, after a pause; “that’s open to anybody. The Princess Alice! She’s one of Ward’s ships, I think. If the shipbrokers are inclined to be civil, they’ll perhaps help me; but I have no justification for bothering them upon the subject, and they may tell me to go about my business. If I could give them a good reason for my making such an inquiry, I might very likely find them willing to help me. But what can I tell them, except that a very beautiful young person with grey eyes and auburn hair has taken an absurd crotchet into her obstinate head, and that I, her faithful slave, am compelled to do her bidding?”
“Never mind what they say to you, Richard,” Miss Vane replied, authoritatively, “they must answer your question, if you only go on asking them long enough.”
Mr. Thornton smiled.
“That’s the true feminine method of obtaining information, isn’t it, Nell?” he said; “however, I’ll do my best, and if the shipbrokers are to be ‘got at,’ as sporting gentlemen say, it shall go hard if I don’t get a list of the passengers who sailed in the Princess Alice.”
“Dear, dear Dick!” cried Eleanor, holding out her hands to her young champion. The young man sighed. Alas, he knew only too well that all this pretty friendliness was as far away from any latent tenderness or hidden emotion as the bold blusterous North from the splendid sunny South.
“I wonder whether she knows what love is,” thought the scene-painter; “I wonder whether her heart has been touched ever so slightly by the fatal emotion. No; she is a bright virginal creature, all confidence and candour, and she has yet to learn the mysteries of life. I wish I could think less of her and fall in love with Miss Montalembert—her name is plain Lambert, and she has added the Monta for the sake of euphony. I wish I could fall in love with Lizzie Lambert, popularly known as Elise Montalembert, the soubrette at the Phœnix. She is a good little girl, and earns a salary of four pounds a week. She’s fond of the Signora, too, and we could leave the Pilasters and go into housekeeping upon our joint salaries.”
Mr. Thornton’s fancies might have rambled on in this wise for some time, but he was abruptly aroused from his reverie by Eleanor Vane, who had been watching him rather impatiently.
“When are you going to the shipbroker’s, Dick?” she asked.
“When am I going?”
“Yes, you’ll go at once, won’t you?”
“Eh! Well, my dear Nell, Cornhill’s a good step from here.”
“But you can take a cab,” cried the young lady. “I’ve plenty of money, Dick, and do you think I shall grudge it for such a purpose? Go at once Richard, dear, and take a cab.”
She pulled a purse from her pocket, and tried to force it into the young man’s hand, but he shook his head.
“I’m afraid the shipbroker’s office would be closed, Nelly,” he said. “We’d better wait till to-morrow morning.”
But the young lady would not hear of this. She was sure the shipbroker’s office wouldn’t close so early, she said, with as much authority as if she had been intimately acquainted with the habits of shipbrokers, and she bustled Dick down stairs and out of the house before he well knew where he was.
He returned, in about an hour and a half; very tired and dusty; having preferred his independence and an omnibus, to the cab offered by Eleanor.
“It’s no use, Nelly,” he said despondently, as he threw off his hat, and ran his dirty fingers through the rumpled shock of dusty brown hair that had been blown about his face by the hot August wind, “the office was just closing, and I couldn’t get anything out of the clerks. I was never so cruelly snubbed in my life.”
Miss Vane looked very much disappointed, and was silent for a minute or so. Then her face suddenly brightened, and she patted Richard’s shoulder with a gesture expressive of patronage and encouragement.
“Never mind, Dick,” she said smilingly, “you shall go again to-morrow morning, early; and I’ll go with you. We’ll see if these shipbroker’s clerks will snub me.”
“Snub you!” cried Richard Thornton, in a rapture of admiration. “I think that, of all the members of the human family, paid officials are the most unpleasant and repulsive; but I don’t think there’s a clerk in Christendom who could snub you, Miss Vane.”
Eleanor smiled. Perhaps for the first time in her life the young lady was guilty of a spice of that feminine sin called coquetry. Her boxes had arrived from Hazlewood upon the previous evening. She was armed therefore with all those munitions of war without which a woman can scarcely commence a siege upon the fortress of man’s indifference.
She rose early the next morning—for she was too much absorbed in the one great purpose of her life to be able to sleep very long or very soundly—and arrayed herself for her visit to the shipbroker.
She put on a bonnet of pale blue crape, which was to be the chief instrument in the siege—a feminine battering ram or Armstrong gun before which the stoutest wall must have crumbled—and smoothed her silken locks, her soft amber-dropping tresses, under this framework of diaphanous azure. Then she went into the little sitting-room where Mr. Richard Thornton was loitering over his breakfast, to try the effect of this piece of milliner’s artillery upon the unhappy young man.
“Will the clerks snub me, Dick?” she asked, archly.
The scene-painter replied with his mouth full of egg and bread-and-butter, and was more enthusiastic than intelligible.
A four-wheel cab jolted Miss Vane and her companion to Cornhill, and the young lady contrived to make her way into the sanctum sanctorum of the shipbroker himself, in a manner which took Richard Thornton’s breath away from him, in the fervour of his admiration. Every barrier gave way before the blue bonnet and glistening auburn hair, the bright grey eyes and friendly smile. Poor Dick had approached the officials with that air of suppressed enmity and lurking hate with which the Englishman generally addresses his brother Englishman; but Eleanor’s friendliness and familiarity disarmed the stoniest of the clerks, and she was conducted to the shipbroker’s private room by an usher who bowed before her as if she had been a queen.
The young lady told her story very simply. She wished to ascertain if a gentleman called Launcelot Darrell had sailed in the Princess Alice on the 4th of October, ’52.
This was all she said. Richard Thornton stood by, fingering difficult passages in his last overture on the brim of his hat, out of sheer perturbation of spirit, while he wondered at and admired Miss Vane’s placid assurance.
“I shall be extremely obliged if you can give me this information,” she said, in conclusion, “for a great deal depends upon my being able to ascertain the truth of this matter.”
The shipbroker looked through his spectacles at the earnest face turned so trustingly towards his own. He was an old man, with granddaughters as tall as Eleanor, but was nevertheless not utterly dead to the influence of a beautiful face. The auburn hair and diaphanous bonnet made a bright spot of colour in the dinginess of his dusty office.
“I should be very ungallant were I to refuse to serve a young lady,” the old man said politely. “Jarvis,” he added, turning to the clerk who had conducted Eleanor to his apartment, “do you think you could contrive to look up the list of passengers in the Princess Alice, October 4, ’52?”
Mr. Jarvis, who had told Richard to go about his business upon the day before, said he had no doubt he could, and went away to perform this errand.
Eleanor’s breath grew short and quick, and her colour rose as she waited for the clerk’s return. Richard executed impossible passages on the brim of his hat. The shipbroker watched the girl’s face, and drew his own deductions from the flutter of agitation visible in that bright countenance.
“Aha!” he thought, “a love affair, no doubt. This pretty girl in the blue bonnet has come here to look after a runaway sweetheart.”
The clerk returned, carrying a ledger, with his thumb between two of the leaves. He opened the uninteresting-looking volume, and laid it on the table before his employer, pointing with his spare forefinger to one particular entry.
“A berth was taken for a Mr. Launcelot Darrell, who was to share his cabin with a Mr. Thomas Halliday,” the shipbroker said, looking at the passage to which the clerk pointed.
Eleanor’s face crimsoned. She had wronged the widow’s son then after all.
“But the name was crossed out afterwards,” continued the old man, “and there’s another entry further down, dated October 5th. The ship sailed without Mr. Darrell.”
The crimson flush faded out of Eleanor’s face and left it deadly pale. She tottered forwards a few paces towards the table, with her hand stretched out, as if she would have taken the book from the shipbroker and examined the entry for herself. But midway between the chair she had left and the table, her strength failed her, and she would have fallen if Richard Thornton had not dashed his hat upon the ground, and caught her sinking figure in his outstretched arms.
“Dear me!” exclaimed the shipbroker, “bless my soul: a glass of water, Jarvis; this is very sad, very sad, indeed. A runaway lover, I suppose, or a brother, perhaps. These sort of things are always happening. I assure you, if I had the gift that some of you young people have, I could write half a dozen romances out of the history of this office.”
The clerk came back with the glass of water; it was rather a murky-looking fluid, but a few drops between Eleanor’s pale lips served to bring the life back to her.
She lifted her head with the proud resolution of a queen, and looked at the compassionate shipbroker with a strange smile. She had heard the old man’s suppositions about lovers and brothers. How far away his simple fancy led him from the bitter truth.
She held out her hand to him as she rose from her chair, erect and dauntless as a fair-haired Joan of Arc, ready to gird on the sword in defence of her king and country.
“I thank you very much, sir,” she said, “for what you have done for me to-day. My father was an old man; as old or older perhaps than yourself; and he died a very cruel death. I believe that your kindness of this day will help me to avenge him.”