Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 13
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XXIII. RESOLVED.
Launcelot Darrell had not sailed for Calcutta in the Princess Alice. This point once established, it was utterly vain for Richard Thornton to argue against that sudden conviction, that indomitable belief which had taken possession of Eleanor Vane’s mind, respecting the identity between the man who had won her father’s money at écarté, and Mrs. Darrell’s only son.
“I tell you, Richard,” she said, when the scene-painter argued with her, “that nothing but proof positive of Launcelot Darrell’s absence in India at the date of my father’s death would have dispossessed me of the idea that flashed upon me on the day I left Berkshire. He was not in India at that time. He deceived his mother and his friends. He remained in Europe; and led, no doubt, an idle, dissipated life. He must have lived by his wits, for he had no money from his mother; no one to help him—no profession to support him. What is more likely than that he went to Paris,—the paradise of scoundrels, I have heard you say, Richard,—under an assumed name? What more likely? Why, he was there! The man I saw on the Boulevard, and the man I saw in the Windsor Street, are one and the same. You cannot argue me out of that settled idea, Richard Thornton, for it is the truth. It is the truth, and it shall be the business of my life to prove that it is so.”
“And what then, Eleanor?” Mr. Thornton asked gravely. “Supposing you can prove this; by such evidences as will be very difficult to get at; by such an investigation as will waste your life, blight your girlhood, warp your nature, unsex your mind, and transform you from a candid and confiding woman into an amateur detective? Suppose you do all this,—and you little guess, my dear, the humiliating falsehoods, the pitiful deceptions, the studied basenesses, you must practise if you are to tread that sinuous pathway,—what then? What good is effected; what end is gained? Are you any nearer to the accomplishment of the vow you uttered in the Rue l’Archevêque?”
“What do you mean, Richard?”
“I mean that to prove this man’s guilt is not to avenge your father’s death. Neither you nor the law have any power to punish him. He may or may not have cheated your poor father. At this distance of time you can prove nothing against him, except that he played écarté in the private room of a café, and that he won all your father’s money. He would only laugh in your face, my poor Nelly, if you were to bring such a charge as this against him.”
“If I can once prove that, which I now believe as firmly as if every mortal proof had demonstrated its truth, I know how to punish Launcelot Darrell,” replied the girl.
“You know how to punish him?”
“Yes. His uncle—that is to say, his great uncle—Maurice de Crespigny, was my father’s firmest friend. I need not tell you that story, Dick, for you have heard it often enough from my poor father’s own lips. Launcelot Darrell expects to inherit the old man’s money, and will do so if Mr. de Crespigny dies without making a will. But if I could prove to the old man that my father died a melancholy and untimely death through his nephew’s treachery, Launcelot Darrell would never inherit a sixpence of that money. I know how eagerly he looks forward to it, though he affects indifference.”
“And you would do this, Eleanor?” asked Richard, staring aghast at his companion; “you would betray the secrets of this young man’s youth to his uncle, and compass his ruin by that revelation?”
“I would do what I swore to do in the Rue l’Archevêque. I would avenge my father’s death. The last words my poor father ever wrote appealed to me to do that. I have never forgotten those words. There may have been a deeper treachery in that night’s work than you or I know of, Richard. Launcelot Darrell knew who my father was—he knew of the friendship between him and Mr. de Crespigny. How do we know that he did not try to goad the poor old man to that last act of his despair; how do we know that he did not plan those losses at cards, in order to remove his uncle’s friend from his pathway? Oh, God! Richard, if I thought that——”
The girl rose from her chair in a sudden tumult of passion, with her hands clenched and her eyes flashing.
“If I could think that his treachery went beyond the baseness of cheating my father of his money for the money’s sake, I would take his life for that dear life as freely and as unhesitatingly as I lift my hand up now.”
She raised her clenched hand towards the ceiling as she spoke, as if to register some unuttered vow. Then, turning abruptly to the scene-painter, she said, almost imploringly:
“It can’t be, Richard; he cannot have been so base as that. He held my hand in his only a few days ago. I would cut off that hand if I could think that Launcelot Darrell had planned my father’s death.”
“But you cannot think it, my dear Eleanor,” Richard answered, earnestly. “How should the young man know that your father would take his loss so deeply to heart? We none of us calculate the consequences of our sins, my dear. If this man cheated, he cheated because he wanted money. For Heaven’s sake, Nelly, leave him and his sin in the hands of Providence. The future is not a blank sheet of paper, Nelly, for us to write any story we please upon; but a wonderful chart mapped out by a divine and unerring hand. Launcelot Darrell will not go unpunished, Nelly. ‘My faith is strong in Time,’ as the poet says. Leave the young man to Time—and to Providence.”
Eleanor Vane shook her head, smiling bitterly at her friend’s philosophy. Poor mad Constance’s reply always rose, in some shape or other, to the girl’s lips in answer to Richard’s arguments. The Cardinal reasons with wonderful discretion, but the bereaved mother utters one sentence that is more powerful than all the worthy man’s prim moralities:
“He talks to me, that never had a son!”
“It is no use preaching to me,” Miss Vane said. “If your father had died by this man’s treachery, you would not feel so charitably disposed towards him. I will keep the promise made three years ago. I will prove Launcelot Darrell’s guilt; and that guilt shall stand between him and Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune.”
“You forget one point in this business, Eleanor.”
“It may take you a very long time to obtain the proof you want. Mr. de Crespigny is an old man, and an invalid. He may die before you are in a position to denounce his nephew’s treachery to your poor father.”
Eleanor was silent for a few moments. Her arched brows contracted, and her mouth grew compressed and rigid.
“I must go back to Hazlewood, Dick,” she said, slowly. “Yes, you are right; there is no time to be lost. I must go back to Hazlewood.”
“That is not very practicable, is it, Nell?”
“I must go back. If I go in some disguise—if I go and hide myself in the village, and watch Launcelot Darrell when he least thinks he is observed. I don’t care how I go, Richard, but I must be there. It can only be from the discoveries I make in the present, that I shall be able to trace my way back to the history of the past. I must go there.”
“And begin at once upon the business of a detective? Eleanor, you shall not do this, if I can prevent you.”
Richard Thornton’s unavowed love gave him a certain degree of authority over the impulsive girl. There is always a dignity and power in every feeling that is really true. Throughout the story of Notre Dame de Paris, the hunchback’s love for Esmeralda is never once contemptible. It is only Phœbus, handsome, glittering, false, and hollow, who provokes our scorn.
Eleanor Vane did not rebel against the young man’s tone of authority.
“Oh, Dick, Dick,” she cried, piteously, “I know how wicked I am. I have been nothing but a trouble to you and the dear Signora. But I cannot forget my father’s death. I cannot forget the letter he wrote to me. I must be true to the vow I made then, Richard, if I sacrifice my life in keeping my word.”
Eliza Picirillo came in before the scene-painter could reply to this speech. It had been agreed between the two young people that the Signora should know nothing of Miss Vane’s discoveries; so Eleanor and Richard saluted the music-mistress in that strain of factitious gaiety generally adopted under such circumstances.
Signora Picirillo’s perceptions were perhaps a little blunted by the wear and tear of half-a-dozen hours’ labour amongst her out-door pupils, and as Eleanor bustled about the room preparing the tea-table and making the tea, the good music-mistress fully believed in her protégée’s simulated liveliness. When the table had been cleared, and Richard had gone to smoke his short meerschaum amongst the damp straw and invalid cabs in the promenade before the Pilasters, Eleanor seated herself at the piano and practised. Her fingers flew over the keys in a thousand complexities of harmony, but her mind, for ever true to one idea, brooded upon the dark scheme of vengeance which she had planned for herself.
“Come what may,” she thought, again and again, “at any price I must go back to Hazlewood.”
CHAPTER XXIV. THE ONE CHANCE.
Eleanor Vane lay awake through the greater part of the night which succeeded her interview with the shipbroker. She lay awake, trying to fashion for herself some scheme by which she might go back to Hazlewood. The discovery which she had to make, the proof positive that she wanted to obtain of Launcelot Darrell’s guilt, could only be procured by long and patient watchfulness of the young man himself. The evidence that was to condemn him must come from his own lips. Some chance admission, some accidental word, might afford a clue that would guide her back to the secret of the past. But to obtain this clue she must be in intimate association with the man whom she suspected. In the careless confidence of daily life, in the freedom of social intercourse, a hundred chances might occur which could never be brought about while the gates of Hazlewood were closed upon her.
There was one other chance, it was true. Launcelot Darrell had asked her to become his wife. His love, however feeble to withstand the wear and tear of time, must for the moment, at least, be real. A line from her would no doubt bring him to her side. She could lure him on by affecting to return his affection, and in the entire confidence of such an association she might discover.
No! not for the wide world—not even to be true to her dead father—could she be so false to every sentiment of womanly honour.
“Richard was right,” she thought, as she dismissed this idea with a humiliating sense of her own baseness in having even for one brief moment entertained it. “He was right. What shame and degradation I must wade through before I can keep my promise.”
And to keep her promise she must go back to Hazlewood. This was the point to which she always returned. But was it possible for her to regain her old position in Mrs. Darrell’s house? Would not Mrs. Darrell take care to keep her away, having once succeeded in banishing her from Launcelot’s society?
Miss Vane was not a good schemer. Transparent, ingenuous, and impulsive, she had the will and the courage which would have prompted her to denounce Launcelot Darrell as a traitor and a cheat; but not the slow and patient attributes which are necessary for the watcher who hopes to trace a shameful secret through all the dark intricacies of the hidden pathway that leads to it.
It was long after daylight when the young lady fell asleep, worn out, harassed, and baffled. The night had brought no counsel. Eleanor Vane dropped off into a fitful slumber, with a passionate prayer upon her lips,—a prayer that Providence would set her in the way of bringing vengeance upon her father’s destroyer.
She flung herself upon Providence—after the manner of a great many persons—when she found her own intellect powerless to conduct her to the end she wanted to gain.
Throughout the next day Miss Vane sat alone on the chintz-covered sofa by the window, looking down at the children playing hop-scotch and gambling for marbles upon the rugged flags below; “weary of the rolling hours,” and unable to bring herself to the frame of mind necessary for the ordinary purposes of life. Upon any other occasion she would have tried to do something whereby she might lighten the Signora’s burden, being quite competent to take the pupils off her friend’s hands; but to-day she had suffered Eliza Picirillo to trudge out under the broiling August sky, through the stifling London streets, and had made no attempt to lessen her labours. She seemed even incapable of performing the little domestic offices which she had been in the habit of doing. She let the London dust accumulate upon the piano; she left the breakfast-table scattered with the débris of the morning’s meal; she made no effort to collect the stray sheets of music, the open books, the scraps of needlework that littered the room; but with her elbow on the smoky sill of the window, and her head resting on her hand, she sat, looking wearily out, with eyes that saw nothing but vacancy.
Richard had gone out early, and neither he nor his aunt were expected to return till dusk.
“I can have everything ready for them when they come back,” she thought, looking listlessly at the unwashed tea-things, which seemed to stare at her in mute reproachfulness; and then her eyes wandered back to the sunny window, and her mind returned with a cruel constancy to the one idea that occupied it.
Had she been really looking at the objects on which her eyes seemed to be fixed, she must have been surprised by the advent of a tall and rather distinguished-looking stranger, who made his way along the straw-littered promenade between the colonnade and the stables, erasing the chalk plans of the hop-scotch players with the soles of his boots, and rendering himself otherwise objectionable to the juvenile population.
This stranger came straight to the shop of the shoemaker with whom Signora Picirillo lodged, and inquired for Miss Vincent.
The shoemaker had only heard Eleanor’s assumed name a day or two before, when Laura’s letter had arrived at the Pilasters. He had a vague idea that the beautiful, golden-haired young woman, who had first entered his dwelling in the early freshness of budding girlhood, was going to distinguish herself as a great musical genius, and intended to astonish the professional world under a false name.
“It’s Miss Eleanor you want, I suppose, sir?” the man said, in answer to the stranger’s question.
“Then, if you’ll please to step up-stairs, sir. The young lady’s all alone to-day, for Mr. Richard he’s over the water a scene-paintin’ away for dear life, and the S’nora she’s out givin’ lessons; so poor young miss is alone, and dismal enough she must be, cooped in-doors this fine weather. It’s bad enough when one’s obliged to it, you know, sir,” the man added, rather obscurely. “Will you please to walk up, sir? It’s the door facing you at the top of the stairs.”
The shoemaker opened a half-glass door communicating with a tiny back parlour and a steep staircase that twisted corkscrew-wise up to the first floor. The visitor waited for no further invitation, but ascended the stairs in a few strides, and paused for a moment before the door of Signora Picirillo’s sitting-room.
“He’s one of these here London managers, I dessay,” thought the simple cordwainer, as he went back to his work. “Mr. Cromshaw come here one day after Mr. Richard, in a pheeaton and pair, and no end of diamond rings and breast-pins.”
Eleanor Vane had not noticed the stranger’s footsteps on the uncarpeted stair, but she started when the door opened, and looked round. Her unexpected visitor was Mr. Monckton.
She rose in confusion, and stood with her back to the window, looking at the lawyer. She was too much absorbed by her one idea to be troubled by the untidiness of the shabby chamber, by the disorder of her own hair or dress, or by any of those external circumstances which are generally so embarrassing to a woman. She only thought of Gilbert Monckton as a link between herself and Hazlewood. She did not even wonder why he had come to see her.
“I may find out something; I may learn something from him,” she thought. Against the great purpose of her life, even this man, who of all others she most respected and esteemed, sank into utter insignificance. She never cared to consider what he might think. She only regarded him as an instrument which might happen to be of use to her.
“You are very much surprised to see me, Miss Vincent,” the lawyer said, holding out his hand.
The girl put her hand loosely in his, and Gilbert Monckton started as he felt the feverish heat of the slim fingers that touched his so lightly. He looked into Eleanor’s face. The intense excitement of the last three days had left its traces on her countenance.
Mrs. Darrell had made a confidant of the lawyer. It had been absolutely necessary to explain Eleanor’s absence. Mrs. Darrell had given her own version of the business, telling the truth, with sundry reservations. Miss Vincent was a handsome and agreeable girl, she said; it was of vital consequence to Launcelot that he should not form any attachment, or entertain any passing fancy, that might militate against his future prospects. An imprudent marriage had separated her, Mrs. Darrell, from her uncle, Maurice de Crespigny. An imprudent marriage might ruin the young man’s chance of inheriting the Woodlands estate. Under these circumstances it was advisable that Miss Vincent should leave Hazlewood; and the young lady had very generously resigned her situation, upon the matter being put before her in a proper light.
Mrs. Darrell took very good care not to make any allusion to that declaration of love which she had overheard through the half-open door of her son’s painting-room.
Mr. Monckton had expressed no little vexation at the sudden departure of his ward’s companion; but his annoyance was of course felt solely on account of Miss Mason, who told him, with her eyes streaming, and her voice broken by sobs, that she could never, never be happy without her darling Eleanor.
The lawyer said very little in reply to these lamentations, but took care to get Miss Vincent’s address from his ward, and on the day after his visit to Hazlewood went straight from his office to the Pilasters.
Looking at the change in Eleanor Vane’s face, Mr. Monckton began to wonder very seriously if the departure from Hazlewood had been a matter of great grief to her; and whether it might not be that Mrs. Darrell’s alarms about her son’s possible admiration for the penniless companion were founded on stronger grounds than the widow had cared to reveal to him.
“I was afraid that Laura’s frivolous fancy might be caught by this young fellow,” he thought, “but I could never have believed that this girl, who has ten times Laura’s intellect, would fall in love with Launcelot Darrell.”
He thought this, while Eleanor’s feverish hand lay, loose and passive, in his own.
“It was not quite kind of you to leave Hazlewood without seeing me, or consulting me, Miss Vincent,” he said: “you must remember that I confided to you a trust.”
“Yes. You promised that you would look after my foolish young ward, and take care that she did not fall in love with Mr. Darrell.”
Mr. Monckton watched the girl’s face very closely while he pronounced Launcelot Darrell’s name, but there was no revelation in that pale and wearied countenance. The gray eyes returned his gaze, frankly and unhesitatingly. Their brightness was faded, but their innocent candour remained in all its virginal beauty.
“I tried to do what you wished,” Miss Vane answered. “I am afraid that Laura does admire Mr. Darrell. But I can’t quite understand whether she is serious or not, and in any case nothing I could say would influence her much, though I know she loves me.”
“No, I suppose not,” said Mr. Monckton, rather bitterly, “women are not easily to be influenced in these matters. A woman’s love is the sublimation of selfishness, Miss Vincent. It is delightful to a woman to throw herself away; and she is perfectly indifferent as to how many unoffending victims she drags to destruction in her downfall. An Indian woman sacrifices herself out of respect to her dead husband. An English woman offers up her husband and children on the altar of a living lover. Pardon me if I speak too plainly. We lawyers become acquainted with strange stories. I should not at all wonder if my ward were to insist upon making herself miserable for life because Launcelot Darrell has a Grecian nose.”
Mr. Monckton seated himself, uninvited, by the table on which the unwashed tea-things bore testimonies to Eleanor’s neglect. He looked round the room, not rudely, for in one brief observant glance he was able to see everything, and to understand everything.
“Have you ever lived here, Miss Vincent?” he asked.
“Yes, I lived here a year and a half before I went to Hazlewood. I was very happy,” Eleanor added hastily, as if in deprecation of the lawyer’s look, which betrayed a half-compassionate interest. “My friends are very good to me, and I never wish for a better home.”
“But you have been accustomed to a better home, in your childhood?”
“No, not very much better. I always lived in lodgings, with my poor father.”
“Your father was not rich then?”
“No, not at all rich.”
“He was a professional man, I suppose?”
“No, he had no profession. He had been rich—very rich—once.”
The colour rose to Eleanor’s face as she spoke, for she suddenly recollected that she had a secret to keep. The lawyer might recognise George Vane by this description, she thought.
Gilbert Monckton fancied that sudden blush arose from wounded pride.
“Forgive me for asking you so many questions, Miss Vincent,” he said gently. “I am very much interested in you. I have been very much interested in you for a long time.”
He was silent for some minutes. Eleanor had resumed her seat near the window, and sat in a thoughtful attitude, with her eyes cast upon the ground. She was wondering how she was to make good use of this interview in discovering as much as possible of Launcelot Darrell’s antecedents.
“Will you forgive me if I ask you a few more questions, Miss Vincent?” the lawyer asked, after this brief silence.
Eleanor raised her eyes, and looked him full in the face. That bright, straight, unfaltering gaze was perhaps the greatest charm which Miss Vane possessed. She had no reason to complain that Nature had gifted her with a niggardly hand; she had beauty of feature, of outline, of colour; but this exquisitely candid expression was a rarer beauty, and a higher gift.
“Believe me,” said Mr. Monckton, “that I am actuated by no unworthy motive when I ask you to deal frankly with me. You will understand, by-and-bye, why and by what right I presume to question you. In the meantime I ask you to confide in me. You left Hazlewood at Mrs. Darrell’s wish, did you not?”
“Yes, it was at her wish that I left.”
“Her son had made you an offer of his hand?”
The question would have brought a blush to the face of an ordinary girl. But Eleanor Vane was removed from ordinary women by the exceptional story of her life. From the moment of her discovery of Launcelot Darrell’s identity, all thoughts of him as a lover, or an admirer, had been blotted out of her mind. He was removed from other men by the circumstances of his guilt; as she was set apart from other women by the revengeful purpose in her breast.
“Yes,” she said. “Mr. Darrell asked me to be his wife.”
“And did you—did you refuse him?”
“No; I gave him no answer.”
“You did not love him then?”
“Love him! Oh, no, no!”
Her eyes dilated with a look of surprise as she spoke, as if it was most astounding to her that Gilbert Monckton should ask her such a question.
“Perhaps you do not think Launcelot Darrell worthy of a good woman’s love?”
“I do not,” answered Eleanor. “Don’t talk of him, please. At least, I mean, don’t talk of him, and of—love,” she added hastily, remembering that the very thing she wished was that the lawyer should talk of Launcelot Darrell. “You—you must know a great deal of his youth. He was idle and dissipated, was he not; and—and—a card-player?”
“Yes—a gambler; a man who plays cards for the sake of winning money?”
“I never heard any one say so. He was idle, no doubt, and loitered away his time in London under the pretence of studying art; but I never remember hearing that gambling was one of his vices. However, I don’t come here to speak of him, but of you. What are you going to do, now that you have left Hazlewood?”
Eleanor was cruelly embarrassed by this question. Her most earnest wish was to return to Hazlewood, or at least to the neighbourhood. Absorbed by this wish she had formed no scheme for the future. She had not even remembered that she stood alone in the world, with only a few pounds saved out of her slender salary, unprovided with that which is the most necessary of all weapons in any warfare, Money!
“I—I scarcely know what I shall do,” she said. “Mrs. Darrell promised to procure me a situation.”
But as she spoke she remembered that to accept a situation of Mrs. Darrell’s getting would be in some manner to eat bread provided by the kinswoman of her father’s foe, and she made a mental vow to starve rather than to receive the widow’s patronage.
“I do not put much confidence in Mrs. Darrell’s friendship when her own end is gained,” Gilbert Monckton said thoughtfully. “Ellen Darrell is only capable of loving one person, and that person is, according to the fashion of the world, the one who has used her worst. She loves her son, Launcelot, and would sacrifice a hecatomb of her fellow-creatures for his advantage. If she can get you a new home, I dare say she will do so. If she cannot, she has succeeded in removing you from her son’s pathway, and will trouble herself very little about your future.”
Eleanor Vane lifted her head with a sudden gesture of pride.
“I do not want Mrs. Darrell’s help,” she said.
“But you would not refuse the counsel, or even the help of any one you liked, would you, Eleanor?” returned the lawyer. “You are very young, very inexperienced,—the life at Hazlewood suited you, and it might have gone on for years without danger of unhappiness or disquiet, but for the coming of Launcelot Darrell. I have known you for a year and a half, Miss Vincent, and I have watched you very closely. I think I know you very well. Yes, if a lawyer’s powers of penetration and habit of observation are to go for anything, I must know you by this time. I may have been an egregious fool twenty years ago; but I must be wise enough now to understand a girl of eighteen.”
He said this rather as if reasoning with himself than talking to Eleanor. Miss Vane looked at him, wondering what all this talk would lead to, and what motive, under heaven, could have induced a lawyer of high standing to leave his chambers in the middle of the business day, for the purpose of sitting in a shabby lodging-house chamber, with his elbow resting upon a dirty table-cloth amid the confusion of unwashed breakfast cups and saucers.
“Eleanor Vincent,” Mr. Monckton said by-and-bye, after a very long pause, “country people are most intolerable gossips. You cannot have lived at Hazlewood for a year and a half without having heard something of my history.”
“Yes, you heard that there was some secret trouble in the early part of my life—that there were some unpleasant circumstances connected with my purchase of Tolldale.”
Eleanor Vane was utterly unskilled in the art of prevarication. She could not give an evasive answer to a straight question.
“Yes,” she said, “I have heard people say that.”
“And you have no doubt heard them say that my trouble—like every other trouble upon this earth, as it seems to me—was caused by a woman.”
“Yes, I heard that.”
“I was very young when that sorrow came to me, Eleanor Vincent, and very ready to believe in a beautiful face. I was deceived. My story is all told in those three words, and it is a very old story after all. Great tragedies and epic poems have been written upon the same theme until it has become so hackneyed that I have no need to enlarge upon it. I was deceived, Miss Vincent, and for twenty years I have profited by that bitter lesson. Heaven help me if I feel inclined to forget it now. I am forty years of age, but I do not think that the brightness of my life has quite gone yet. Twenty years ago I was in love, and in the ardour and freshness of my youth, I dare say I talked a great deal of nonsense. I am in love once more, Eleanor. Will you forgive me if all my faculty for sentimental talk is lost? Will you let me tell you, in very few and simple words, that I love you; that I have loved you for a very long time; and that you will make me unspeakably happy if you can think my earnest devotion worthy of some return?”
Every vestige of colour faded slowly from Eleanor’s face. There had been a time—before the return of Launcelot Darrell—when a word of praise, an expression of friendliness or regard from Gilbert Monckton, had been very precious to her. She had never taken the trouble to analyse her feelings. That time, before the coming of the young man, had been the sunniest and most careless period of her youth. She had during that interval been false to the memory of her father—she had suffered herself to be happy. But now a gulf yawned between her and that lapse of forgetfulness. She could not look back clearly; she could not remember or recall her former feelings. Gilbert Monckton’s offer might then have awakened some answering sentiment in her own breast. Now his hand struck upon the slackened chords of a shattered instrument; and there was no music to respond harmoniously to the player’s touch.
“Can you love me, Eleanor? Can you love me?” the lawyer asked, imploringly, taking the girl’s hands in his own. “Your heart is free: yes, I know that; and that at least is something. Heaven forgive me if I try to bribe you. But my youth is passed, and I can scarcely expect to be loved for myself alone. Think how dreary and undefended your life must be, if you refuse my love and protection. Think of that, Eleanor. Ah! if you knew what a woman is when thrown upon the world without the shelter of a husband’s love, you would think seriously. I want you to be more than my wife, Eleanor. I want you to be the guardian and protectress of that poor frivolous girl whose future has been trusted to my care. I want you to come and live at Tolldale, my darling, so as to be near that poor child at Hazlewood.”
Near Hazlewood! The hot blood rushed into Eleanor’s face at the sound of those two words, then faded suddenly away and left her deadly white, trembling and clinging to the back of her chair for support. To all else that Gilbert Monckton had said she had listened in a dull stupor. But now her intellect arose and grasped the full importance of the lawyer’s supplication. In a moment she understood that the one chance which of all other things upon this earth she had most desired, and which of all other things had seemed furthest removed from her, was now within her reach.
She might go back to Hazlewood. She might return as Gilbert Monckton’s wife. She did not stop to consider how much was involved in this. It was her nature to be ruled by impulse, and impulse only; and she had yet to learn submission to a better guidance. She could go back to Hazlewood. She would have returned there as a kitchen-maid, had the opportunity of so doing offered itself to her; and she was ready to return as Gilbert Monckton’s wife.
“My prayers have been heard,” she thought. “My prayers have been heard: Providence will give me power to keep my promise. Providence will set me face to face with that man.”
Eleanor Vane stood with her hands clasped upon the back of her chair, thinking of this, and looking straight before her, in utter unconsciousness of the earnest eyes that were fixed upon her face, while the lawyer waited breathlessly to hear her decision.
“Eleanor,” he cried, entreatingly, “Eleanor, I have been deceived once; do not let me be a woman’s dupe, now that there are streaks of grey amongst my hair. I love you, my dear. I can make you independent and secure; but I do not offer you a fortune or a position of sufficient magnitude or grandeur to tempt an ambitious woman. For God’s sake, do not trifle with me. If you love me now, or can hope to love me in the future, be my wife. But if any other image holds the smallest place in your heart—if there is one memory, or one regret, that can come between us, Eleanor, dismiss me from you unhesitatingly. It will be merciful to me—to you also, perhaps—to do so. I have seen a union in which there was love on one side, and indifference—or something worse than indifference—upon the other. Eleanor, think of all this, and then tell me, frankly, if you can after all be my wife.”
Eleanor Vane dimly comprehended that there was a depth of passionate feeling beneath the quiet earnestness of the lawyer’s manner. She tried to listen, she tried to comprehend; but she could not. The one idea which held possession of her mind, kept that mind locked against every other impression. It was not his love, it was not his name, or his fortune, that Gilbert Monckton offered her—he offered her the chance of returning to Hazlewood.
“You are very good,” she said. “I will be your wife. I will go back to Hazlewood.”
She held out her hand to him. No trace of womanly confusion, or natural coquetry, betrayed itself in her manner. Pale and absorbed she held out her hand, and offered up her future as a small and unconsidered matter, when set against the one idea of her life—the promise to her dead father.