Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 16

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

CHAPTER XXIX. KEEPING WATCH.

Two pair of jealous eyes kept constant watch upon Eleanor Monckton, for some time after that October afternoon on which the lawyer and Miss Mason had stood side by side, looking at the two figures by the sun-dial.

Gilbert Monckton was too proud to complain. He laid down the fair hopes of his manhood in the grave that already held the broken dreams of his youth. He bowed his head, and resigned himself to his fate.

“I was mistaken,” he thought; “it was too preposterous to suppose that at forty I could win the love of a girl of eighteen. My wife is good and true, but—”

But what? Could this girl be good and true? Had she not deceived her lover most cruelly, most deliberately, in her declaration of utter indifference towards Launcelot Darrell?

Mr. Monckton remembered her very words, her sudden look of astonishment, her almost shuddering gesture of surprise, as he asked the important question—

“And you do not love Launcelot Darrell?”

“Love him! oh, no, no, no!”

And in spite of this emphatic denial, Mrs. Monckton had, ever since her arrival at Tolldale Priory, betrayed an intense, an almost feverish interest in the young scapegrace artist.

“If she is capable of falsehood,” thought the lawyer, “there must surely be no truth upon this earth. Shall I trust her, and wait patiently for the solution of the mystery? No; between man and wife there should be no mystery! She has no right to keep any secret from me.”

So Mr. Monckton hardened his heart against his beautiful young wife, and set himself sternly and indefatigably to watch her every look, to listen to every intonation of her voice, to keep a rigorous guard over his own honour and dignity.

Poor Eleanor was too innocent to read all these signs aright; she only thought that her husband was changed; that this stern and gloomy companion was not the same Gilbert Monckton whom she had known at Hazlewood; not the patient “guide, philosopher, and friend,” whose subdued bass voice, eloquent in the dusky evenings, long ago—a year is very long to a girl of eighteen—in Mrs. Darrell’s simple drawing-room, had seemed a kind of intellectual music to her.

Had she not been absorbed always by that one thought, whose intensity had reduced the compass of her mind to a monotone, the young wife would have very bitterly felt this change in her husband. As it was, she looked upon her disappointment as something very far away from her; something to be considered and regretted by-and-by; by-and-by, when the grand business of her life was done.

But while the gulf between the young wife and her husband every day grew wider, this grand business made no progress. Day after day, week after week, passed by, and Eleanor Monckton found herself no nearer the end.

She had paid several visits to Hazlewood; she had acted her part to the best of her abilities, which were very mediocre in all matters where deception is necessary; she had watched and questioned Launcelot Darrell; but she had obtained no vestige of proof which she might set before Maurice de Crespigny when she denounced his niece’s son.

No: whatever secrets were hidden in the young man’s breast, he was so guarded as to baffle Eleanor Monckton at every point. He was so thoroughly self-possessed as to avoid betraying himself by so much as a look or a tone.

He was, however, thrown a good deal in Eleanor’s society; for Mr. Monckton, with a strange persistance, encouraged the penniless artist’s attentions to Laura Mason: while Launcelot Darrell, too shallow to hold long to any infatuation, influenced upon one side by his mother, and flattered upon the other by Laura’s unconcealed admiration, was content, by-and-by, to lay down his allegiance at this new shrine, and to forgive Mrs. Monckton for her desertion.

“Eleanor and my mother were both right, I dare say,” the young man reflected, contemplating his fate with a feeling of despondent languor. “They were wiser than me, I dare say. I ought to marry a rich woman. I could never drag out an existence of poverty. Bachelor poverty is bad enough, but, at least, there’s something artistic and Bohemian about that. Chambertin one day, and vin ordinaire the next; Veuve Cliquot at the Trois Frères or the Café de Paris to-night, and small beer in a garret to-morrow morning. But married poverty, squalid desolation, instead of reckless gaiety; a sick wife and lean hungry children, and the husband carrying wet canvasses to the pawnbroker! Bah! Eleanor was right; she has done a good thing for herself; and I’d better go in and win the heiress, and make myself secure against any caprice of my worthy great-uncle.”

It was thus that Launcelot Darrell became a frequent visitor at Tolldale Priory, and as, at about this time, Mr. Monckton’s business became so unimportant as to be easily flung entirely into the hands of the two junior partners, the lawyer was almost always at home to receive his guest.

Nothing could have been more antagonistic than the characters of the two men. There was no possibility of sympathy or assimilation between them. The weakness of one was rendered more evident by the strength of the other. The decided character of the lawyer seemed harsh and rigid when contrasted with the easy-going, languid good-nature of the artist.

Eleanor Monckton, perceiving this wide difference between the two men, admired her husband as much as she despised Launcelot Darrell.

If the lawyer could have known this,—if he could have known that when his wife’s earnest eyes followed every change of expression in the young man’s face, when she listened most intently to his careless and rambling, yet sometimes almost brilliant talk, she read his shallow nature and its worthlessness better than that nature had ever yet been read by the closest observer,—if Gilbert Monckton could have understood these things, what wasted agonies, what futile tortures, might have been spared him!

“What would have become of me if I had loved this man?” Eleanor thought, as day by day, with an intellect rendered preternaturally clear by the intensity of her one desire, she grew more familiar with Launcelot Darrell’s character.

In the meanwhile, Laura Mason walked along a pathway of roses, whose only thorns were those jealous twinges which the young lady experienced on account of Eleanor Monckton.

“He loved her first,” the heiress thought, despondently, “I know he did, and he made her an offer upon the day the dressmaker brought home my blue silk, and it was so short-waisted I was obliged to make her take it back for alteration. And that was why she—I mean Eleanor, not the dressmaker—left Hazlewood. And it’s not pleasant to think that the man one idolises has idolised somebody else not three months before he proposes to one; and I don’t think it was right of Eleanor to lead him on.”

It was by this latter very vague phrase that Miss Mason was in the habit of excusing her lover’s delinquency. Eleanor had led him on; and he was thereby in a manner justified for that brief infatuation which had beguiled him from poor Laura. In what this “leading on” had consisted the young lady did not seek to understand. She wanted to forgive her lover, and she wanted reasons for her forgiveness; as weak women do when they deliver themselves up to the bondage of a sentimental affection for a handsome face. But although Launcelot Darrell had made his peace with Mr. Monckton’s ward, wooing her with a great many tender words and pretty stereotyped phrases under the gloomy shadow of the yew trees in the old-fashioned priory garden, and although he had formally demanded her hand, and had been accepted by her guardian and herself, Laura was not yet quite satisfied. Some lingering sentiment of distrust still held its place in her breast, and the jealous twinges, which, as I have said, constituted the thorns upon her rose-bestrewn pathway, were very sharp and numerous.

Nor was Mr. Monckton wholly free from anxiety on his ward’s account. He had consented to her engagement with Launcelot Darrell. He had done even more; he had encouraged the young man’s suit, and now that it was too late to undo his work, he began to argue with himself as to the wisdom of his conduct.

He tried to palter with his conscience; but he could not disguise from himself that the leading motive which had induced him to consent to his ward’s engagement was his desire to remove Launcelot Darrell out of the society of his wife. He could not be so blind to his own weakness as to be unaware of the secret pleasure he felt in being able to demonstrate to Eleanor the worthlessness of an affection which could be so easily transferred from one object to another.

Apart from this, Gilbert Monckton tried to believe that he had taken the best course within his power of choice, for the frivolous girl whom it was his duty to protect. To have opposed Laura’s attachment would have been to cause her great unhappiness. The young man was clever and agreeable. He was the descendant of a race which was almost noble by right of its origin. His character would grow stronger with time, and it would be the guardian’s duty to foster all that was good in the nature of his ward’s husband; and to put him in a fair way of occupying an honourable position.

“I will try and develope his talent—his genius, perhaps,” Gilbert Monckton thought; “he shall go to Italy, and study the old masters.”

So it was settled that the marriage should take place early in the spring, and that Launcelot and his wife should start immediately afterwards upon a tour through the great art cities of the continent. It was arranged that they should remain away for at least a twelvemonth, and that they should spend the winter in Rome.

Eleanor Monckton grew deathly pale when her husband announced to her the probable date of the marriage.

“So soon!” she said, in a low, half-stifled voice. “So soon! why December has already begun—the spring will be here directly.”

Gilbert Monckton watched her face with a thoughtful frown.

“What is there to wait for?” he said.

Eleanor was silent for a few moments. What could she say? Could she suffer this engagement to continue? Could she allow Launcelot Darrell to hold his place amongst these people who so ignorantly trusted in him? She would have spoken, perhaps, and confided at least some part of her secret to her husband, but she refrained from doing so: for might not he too laugh at her, as Richard Thornton had done? Might not he, who had grown lately cold and reserved in his manner towards her, sometimes even sarcastic and severe—might not he sternly reprobate her mad desire for vengeance, and in some manner or other frustrate the great purpose of her life?

She had trusted Richard Thornton, and had implored his help. No good had ever come of that confidence: nothing but remonstrances, reproaches, entreaties; even ridicule. Why, then, should she trust any one else? No, she was resolved henceforward to hold her secret in her own keeping, and to look to herself alone for victory.

“Why should the marriage be delayed?” Mr. Monckton demanded, rather sharply, for the second time, “is there any reason for delay?”

“No,” Eleanor faltered, “not if you think Mr. Darrell worthy of Laura’s confidence; not if you think him a good man?”

“Have you any reason to think otherwise of him?”

Mrs. Monckton evaded a direct answer to this question.

“It was you who first taught me to doubt him,” she said.

“Indeed!” answered her husband, “I had quite forgotten that. I wonder, Eleanor, that you should appear so much interested in this young man, since you have so bad an opinion of him.”

Mr. Monckton left the room after launching this dart at the breast which he believed was guilty of hiding from him a secret regard for another.

“God help her, poor child!” thought the lawyer, “she married me for my position; and perhaps thought that it would be an easy thing to conquer some slight sentimental predilection for Launcelot Darrell. She tries to do her duty, I believe; and when this young man is safely out of the way she may learn to love me, perhaps.”

Such reflections as these were generally followed by a change in the lawyer’s manner, and Eleanor’s failing spirits revived in the new sunshine of his affection. George Vane’s daughter had already learned to love her husband. No difficult task lay before her; there was no sentiment of repulsion or dislike to be overcome. She had respected and admired Gilbert Monckton from the hour of her meeting with him at the Great Western Terminus; and she was ready to love him truly and cordially whenever she could succeed in her great purpose, and disengage her mind from its one absorbing idea.

CHAPTER XXX. AN OLD MAN’S FANCY.

Although Eleanor Monckton’s utmost watchfulness revealed to her nothing that could be twisted into a proof of Launcelot Darrell’s identity with the man who had been the indirect cause of her father’s death, she made some progress in another quarter, very much to the annoyance of several people, amongst whom must be included the young painter.

Maurice de Crespigny, who for some years past had not been known to take an interest in anything, exhibited a very great interest in Gilbert Monckton’s young wife.

The old man had never forgotten the day upon which he had been suddenly carried back to the past, by the apparition of a fair-haired girl who seemed to him the living image of his lost friend. He had never forgotten this; and, when, a few days after Eleanor’s arrival at Tolldale, he happened to encounter her in one of his airings, he had insisted on stopping to talk to her, much to the aggravation of his two maiden warders.

Eleanor caught eagerly at any chance of becoming familiar with her father’s friend. It was to him she looked for her promised vengeance. The law could give her no redress; but Maurice de Crespigny held in his hand the disposition of that wealth for which his young kinsman hoped, and thus possessed power to punish the cheat and traitor who had robbed a helpless old man.

Even if this motive had not existed, Eleanor’s love for her dead father would have been sufficient to inspire her with every tender feeling towards the owner of Woodlands. Her manner, modified by this tenderness, acted almost like a spell upon Maurice de Crespigny. He insisted upon coming, in the course of his daily airing, to that part of the grounds where the two estates were only divided by a slender wire fence, and where he might hope to meet Eleanor. By-and-by he extorted from her the promise to meet him on every fine day at a particular hour, and it was in vain that the maiden sisters endeavoured by every stratagem they could devise, to detain him in-doors at this appointed time. They were fain to pray for perpetual wet weather, for storms and fogs, whirlwinds, and other caprices of nature, which might keep the invalid a prisoner to the house.

But at last even rain and tempest ceased to be of any avail to these distressed and expectant spinsters, for Maurice de Crespigny insisted upon inviting Mr. and Mrs. Monckton to Woodlands. They were to come whenever they could, every day if they could, the old man wrote, with a tremulous hand that was apt to go a little astray over the paper; but which was yet strong enough and firm enough to inscribe a decent signature at the foot of a Will.

The two sisters never saw him write without thinking of this document. Was it made, and made in their favour? Was it yet to make? or was it never to be made? and was Launcelot Darrell to succeed to that coveted fortune, as heir-at-law?

Lavinia and Sarah de Crespigny were agonised by the mere thought of this latter possibility. It was not the money alone that they thought of, the lands and tenements alone that they considered. There was the familiar house in which they had lived so long, the household treasures which their own careful hands had dusted, as things too sacred to be approached by meaner fingers.

There were the old silver salvers, the antique tea and coffee services, the great dragon-china jars on the staircase, the inlaid card-tables in the green parlour,—would the ruthless heir-at-law come into possession, and seize even upon those particular household gods which were most sacred to the maiden sisters?

They knew that they had no claim to any great mercy from Launcelot Darrell. Had they not urged his Indian voyage, and for ever offended him by so doing? It would have been better perhaps to have been friendly towards him, and to have suffered him to remain in England, and to be as much at Woodlands as he pleased, thereby affording him ample opportunity for giving offence to his great-uncle.

“Who can count upon an old man’s caprices,” thought the maiden sisters, “perhaps because our uncle has seen very little of Launcelot, he may be all the more kindly disposed towards him.”

On the other hand there was now the more imminent danger of this sudden fancy with which Eleanor Monckton had inspired the invalid; and the sisters grew paler and more lugubrious every day as they watched the progress of this eccentric friendship.

Gilbert Monckton placed no obstacle in the way of his wife’s visits to Woodlands. He knew how sternly the doors of Mr. de Crespigny’s house were guarded against his widowed niece and her son; and he knew that there at least Eleanor was not likely to meet Launcelot Darrell.

Mrs. Monckton was therefore free to visit her dead father’s friend when she pleased; and she was not slow to avail herself of this privilege. It was of vital importance to her to be on familiar terms with Maurice de Crespigny, to be able to enter his house when and how she would. She saw enough in the old man’s face, in the fearful uncertainty of his health—which one day suffered him to be bright and cheerful, and on the next laid him prostrate and helpless upon a sick bed—to convince her that his state was terribly precarious. He might linger for years. He might die suddenly. He might die leaving his fortune to fall into the hands of Launcelot Darrell.

The sisters watched, with ever-increasing alarm, the progress that Mrs. Monckton was making in their uncle’s favour. The old man seemed to brighten under the influence of Eleanor’s society. He had no glimmering idea of the truth; he fully believed that the likeness which the lawyer’s young wife bore to George Vane was one of those accidental resemblances so common to the experience of every one. He believed this; and yet in spite of this he felt as if Eleanor’s presence brought back something of his lost youth. Even his memory was revivified by the companionship of his dead friend’s daughter; and he would sit for hours together, talking, as his nieces had not heard him talk in many monotonous years; telling familiar stories of that past in which George Vane had figured so prominently.

To Eleanor these old memories were never wearisome; and Maurice de Crespigny felt the delight of talking to a listener who was really interested. He was accustomed to the polite attention of his nieces, whose suppressed yawns sometimes broke in unpleasantly at the very climax of a story, and whose wooden-faced stolidity had at best something unpleasantly suggestive of being listened to and stared at by two Dutch clocks. But he was not accustomed to see a beautiful and earnest face turned towards him as he spoke; a pair of bright grey eyes lighting up with new radiance at every crisis in the narrative; and lovely lips half parted through intensity of interest.

These things the old man was not accustomed to, and he became entirely Eleanor’s slave and adorer. Indeed, the elderly damsels congratulated themselves upon Miss Vincent’s marriage with Gilbert Monckton; otherwise, Maurice de Crespigny being besotted and infatuated, and the young woman mercenary, there might have been a new mistress brought home to Woodlands instead of to Tolldale Priory.

Happily for Eleanor, the anxious minds of the maiden sisters were set in some degree at rest by a few words which Maurice de Crespigny let drop in a conversation with Mrs. Monckton. Amongst the treasures possessed by the old man—the relics of a past life, whose chief value lay in association—there was one object that was peculiarly precious to Eleanor. This was a miniature portrait of George Vane, in the cap and gown which he had worn sixty years before, at Magdalen College, Oxford.

This picture was very dear to Eleanor Monckton. It was no very wonderful work of art, perhaps, but a laborious and patient performance, whose production had cost more time and money than the photographic representations of half the members of the Lower House would cost to day. It showed Eleanor a fair-haired stripling with bright hopeful blue eyes. It was the shadow of her dead father’s youth.

Her eyes filled with tears as she looked at the little ivory portrait in its oval case of slippery red morocco.

“Crocodile!” thought one of the maiden sisters.

“Sycophant!” muttered the other.

But this very miniature gave rise to that speech which had so much effect in calming the terrors of the two ladies.

“Yes, my dear,” Maurice de Crespigny said; “that portrait was painted sixty years ago. George Vane would have been close upon eighty if he had lived. Yes, close upon eighty, my love. You don’t see your own likeness to that picture, perhaps; people seldom do see resemblances of that kind. But the lad’s face is like yours, my dear, and you bring back the memory of my youth, just as the scent of some old-fashioned flower, that our advanced horticulture has banished to a cottager’s garden, brings back the grass-plot upon which I played at my mother’s knees. Do you know what I mean to do, Mrs. Monckton?”

Eleanor lifted her eyebrows with an arch smile, as who should say, “Your caprices are quite beyond my power of divination.”

“I mean to leave that miniature to you in my Will, my dear.”

The maiden sisters started simultaneously, agitated by the same emotion, and their eyes met.

The old man had made a Will, or meant to make a Will, then. That admission, at least, was something. They had suffered so much from the apprehension that their uncle would die without a Will, and that Launcelot Darrell would inherit the estate.

“Yes, my dear,” Maurice de Crespigny repeated, “I shall leave that miniature to you when I die. It’s not worth anything intrinsically; but I don’t want you to be reminded of me, when I’m dead and gone, except through your own tender feelings. You’ve been interested in my stories of George Vane—who, with all his faults, and I’m not slow to acknowledge them, was a brighter and a better man than me—and it may please you sometimes to look at that picture. You’ve brought a ray of sunlight across a very dismal pathway, my love,” added the invalid, quite indifferent to the fact that this remark was by no means complimentary to his devoted nurses and guardians, “and I am very grateful to you. If you were poor, I should leave you money. But you are the wife of a rich man; and, beyond that, my fortune is already disposed of. I am not free to leave it as I might wish; I have a duty to perform, my dear; a duty which I consider sacred and imperative; and I shall fulfil that duty.”

The old man had never before spoken so freely of his intentions with regard to his money. The sisters sat staring blankly at each other, with quickened breaths and pale faces.

What could this speech mean? Why, clearly that the money must be left to them. What other duty could Maurice de Crespigny owe to any one? Had they not kept guard over him for years, shutting him in, and separating him from every living creature? What right had he to be grateful to any one but them, inasmuch as they had taken good care that no one else should ever do him a service?

But to the ears of Eleanor Monckton, the old man’s speech had another signification; the blood mounted to her face, and her heart beat violently. “He is thinking of Launcelot Darrell,” she thought; “he will leave his fortune to Launcelot Darrell. He will die before he learns the secret of my father’s wrongs. His Will is already made, no doubt, and he will die before I can dare to say to him, ‘Your niece’s son is a trickster and a villain!

This was the only occasion upon which Maurice de Crespigny ever spoke of his intentions with regard to the fortune that he must leave behind him. He said, plainly enough, that Eleanor was to have none of his money; and the sisters, who had until now kept a jealous watch upon the old man and his favourite, were henceforward content to let Mrs. Monckton come and go as she pleased. But for all this Eleanor was no nearer the accomplishment of her great purpose.

Launcelot Darrell came to Tolldale, and in a certain easy and somewhat indifferent manner paid his homage to his affianced wife. Laura was happy by fits and starts; and by fits and starts utterly miserable, when the horrible pangs of jealousy—jealousy of Eleanor, and jealous doubts of her lover’s truth—tortured her breast. Gilbert Monckton sat day after day in the library or the drawing-room, or Eleanor’s morning-room, as the case might be, keeping watch over his wife and the lovers.

But though the days and weeks went by with an unnatural rapidity, as it seemed to Mrs. Monckton, with a wearisome slowness in the opinion of her husband—the progress of time brought George Vane’s daughter no further onward, by so much as one step, upon the pathway which she had chosen for herself.

Christmas came; and the girl whose youth had been spent in the shabby lodgings in which her father had hidden the poverty of his decline, the patient young housekeeper who had been used to eke out ounces of tea, and to entreat for brief respite and grace from aggrieved chandlers, was called upon to play my Lady Bountiful at Tolldale Priory, and to dole out beef and bread, blankets and brandy, coals and flannels, to a host of hungry and shivering claimants.

Christmas passed, and the new year struggled into life under every disadvantage of bad weather; while the spring, the dreaded early spring, which was to witness Laura’s marriage, approached with a stealthy footfall, creeping day by day nearer and nearer.

Eleanor, in very despair, appealed to Richard Thornton.

She appealed to him from the force of habit, perhaps: as a fretful child complains to its mother, rather than from any hope that he could aid her in her great scheme.

“Oh, Richard,” she wrote, despairingly, “help me, help me, help me! I thought all would be so easy if I could once come to this place. But I am here, and I see Launcelot Darrell every day, and yet I am no nearer the end. What am I to do? January is nearly over; and in March, Laura Mason is to marry that man. Mr. de Crespigny is very ill, and may die at any moment, leaving his money to his niece’s son. Is this man, who caused my father’s death, to have all the brightest and best things this world can give? Is he to have a noble fortune and an amiable wife? and am I to stand by and permit him to be happy; remembering what happened upon that dreadful night in Paris—remembering that my father lies in his unconsecrated grave, and that his blood is upon this man’s head? Help me, Richard. Come to me; help me to find proof positive of Launcelot Darrell’s guilt. You can help me, if you please. Your brain is clearer, your perception quicker, than mine. I am carried away by my own passion—blinded by my indignation. You were right when you said I should never succeed in this work. I look to you to avenge my father’s death.”