Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 2

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

CHAPTER III. THE STORY OF THE PAST.

The history of George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane was the history of many men whose lot was to shine in that brilliant orbit of which George, Prince Regent, was the ruling star. Around that dazzling royal planet how many smaller lights revolved, twinkling in humble emulation of their prince’s glory. What were fortune, friends, children, wives or creditors, when weighed in the balance, if the royal favour, the princely smile hung on the other side of the scale? If George the Fourth was pleased to bring ruin upon himself and his creditors, how should his friends and associates do less? Looking backward at the spurious glitter, the mock splendour, the hollow delight of that wonderful age which is so near us in point of time, so far away from us by reason of the wide differences which divide to-day from that foolish yesterday, we can of course afford to be very wise, and can clearly see what a very witch’s sabbath was that long revelry in which the fourth George of England led the dance. But who shall doubt that the dancers themselves saw the fantastic caperings of their leader in a very different light, and looked upon their model as worthy of all mortal praise and imitation.

The men of that frivolous era seem to have abandoned themselves to unmanly weakness, and followed the fashions set them by the fat and pale-faced Royal Adonis, as blindly as the women of to-day emulate the Imperial caprices of the Tuilleries, sacrificing themselves as burnt offerings to the Moloch of fashion, in obedience to the laws made by a lady who lives in a palace; and who, when she wears her silken robe three yards in length and six in circumference, can scarcely be expected to foresee the nervous tortures by-and-bye to be endured by Mr. John Smith, of Peckham Rye, whose wife will insist on having a hoop and train al loojénee, and sweeping her superabundant skirts into the fender and across the back of the grate every time she steers her difficult way about the worthy Smith’s fourteen feet by twelve front parlour.

Yes, if Cleopatra melts pearls in her wine, and sails in a galley of gold, we must have sham jewels to dissolve in our inferior vintages, and sham gold to adorn our galleys. If Pericles, or Charles, or George, affects splendour and ruin, the prince’s devoted subjects must ruin themselves also, never letting their master see anything but smiling faces amid the general wreck, and utterly heedless of such minor considerations as wives and children, creditors and friends.

George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane ruined himself with a grace that was only second to that of his royal model. He began life with a fair estate left him by his father, and having contrived to squander the best part of his patrimony within a few years of his coming of age, was so lucky as to marry the only daughter and heiress of a rich banker, thereby acquiring a second fortune just at that critical moment when the first was on the verge of exhaustion. He was not a bad husband to the simple girl who loved and worshipped him with a foolishly confiding worship. It was not in his nature to be wilfully bad to anybody, for he was of a genial, generous spirit, with warm affections for those who pleased him and ministered to his happiness. He introduced his young wife to very brilliant people, and led her into sacred and inner circles whither her father the banker could never have taken her; but he squandered her money foolishly and recklessly. He broke down the bulwarks of parchment with which the lawyers had hoped to protect her fortune. He made light of the settlements which were to provide for the future of his children. They were only blooming and beautiful young creatures in cambric frocks and blue sashes; and surely, Mr. Vane urged, they had nothing to complain of, for hadn’t they splendid apartments and costly dresses, nurses, governesses, masters, carriages, ponies, and indulgences of every kind? What did they want then, or in what manner did he fail in his duty towards those innocent darlings? Had not his Royal Highness, the Duke of Kent himself, come to Vandeleur to stand sponsor for Edward George? Had not Hortensia Georgina received her second name after the beautiful Duchess of Devonshire, in whose lovely arms she had been dandled when only a fortnight old.

Were there any earthly honours or splendours, within the limit of reasonable desire, which George Vane had failed to procure for his wife and children?

The gentle lady was fain to answer this question in the negative, and to accept it for what it was not; namely, an answer to the questions she had ventured to ask touching the future of those unconscious children. Mr. Vane could always persuade his simple wife to sign away any of those parchment defences the lawyers had devised for her protection; and when after an elegant little tête-a-tête dinner, in the arrangement of which the chèf had displayed his most consummate skill, the affectionate husband produced a diamond bracelet, or an emerald heart, from its morocco casket, and clasped the jewel upon his wife’s slender arm, or hung it round her delicate throat, with the tears glistening in his handsome blue eyes, gentle Margaret Vane forgot the sacrifices of the morning, and all those shadowy doubts which were wont to torment her when she contemplated the future.

Then again, Mr. Vane had an unfailing excuse for present imprudence in the expectation of a third fortune, which was to come to him from his bachelor uncle and godfather, Sir Milwood Mowbray, of Mowbray Castle, York; so there were no vulgar retrenchments either at Vandeleur Park or in Berkeley Square, and when Sir Milwood’s fortune did come, in the due course of life and death, to his nephew’s hands, it only came just in time to stave off the ruin that threatened George Vane’s household.

If Mr. Vane had then taken his wife’s advice, all might have been well; but the Mowbray fortune seemed like the other two fortunes, quite inexhaustible, the sanguine gentleman forgetting that he was in debt to full half its amount. The French chèf still prepared dinners which might have made Oude himself tremble for his laurels; the German governess and the Parisian lady’s-maids still attended upon Mr. Vane’s daughters; the old career of extravagance went on. George Vane carried his family to the continent, and plunged them into new gaieties at the court of the restored Louis. He sent his daughters to the most expensive finishing school in Paris, that very Madame Marly’s of whom mention has been made in the last chapter. He took them to Italy and Switzerland. He hired a villa by the lake of Como; a chateau on the borders of Lausanne. He followed the footsteps of Byron and D’Orsay, Madame de Stael and Lady Blessington; he affected art, literature, and music. He indulged his children’s every caprice, he gratified their wildest fancies. It was only when the sons saw themselves penniless and professionless, with the great battle of life all before them, and with no weapons wherewith to fight; and the daughters found themselves left portionless to win the best husbands they might in the matrimonial lottery; it was only at this crisis that these ungrateful children turned round upon poor indulgent Lear, and reproached him for the extravagances they had helped him to perpetrate.

This was a cruelty which George Vane could never bring himself to comprehend. Had he denied them anything, these heartless children, that they should turn upon him now in his old age—it would have been rather a dangerous thing for anyone else to have alluded to his age, though he spoke freely enough of his grey hairs when bewailing his wrongs—and be angry with him, because he could not give them fortunes? This thanklessness was worse than a serpent’s tooth. It was now that Mr. Vane began to quote “King Lear,” piteously likening himself to that too confiding monarch.

But he was sixty years old now and had lived his life. His gentle and trusting wife had died ten years before, his money was gone, and of all his six children there was not one who would say a word in his defence. The most affectionate and dutiful of them were only silent, and thought they did much in withholding their reproaches. So he let them go their ways, the two sons to fight the battle of life how they might—the two daughters to marry. They were both handsome and accomplished, and they married well. And being left quite alone in the world, with nothing left him but the traditions of a brilliant past, Mr. Vane united his misfortunes to those of a very beautiful girl who had been his daughter’s governess, and who had fallen in love with his splendid graces, in the very simplicity of her heart, thinking his grey hairs more beautiful than the raven locks of meaner men.

Yes; George Vane possessed the gift of fascination in a dangerous degree, and his second wife loved and believed in him in the day of his decline, as entirely as his first wife had done in the brighter hours of his prosperity. She loved and trusted him. She bore with a life of perpetual debt and daily difficulty. She sacrificed herself to the mean shifts and petty stratagems of a dishonest existence. She, whose nature was truth itself, humiliated herself for her husband’s sake, and helped to play that pitiful, skulking game of hide-and-seek in which George Vane hoped to escape the honest struggles of poverty.

But she died young, worn out, perhaps, by these incessant miseries, and not able to draw consolation from the sham splendour and tinselly grandeur with which George Vane tried to invest his fallen state. She died within five years of her marriage, leaving a distracted and despairing old man as the sole guardian and protector of her only child.

This calamity was the bitterest blow that George Vane had ever been called upon to endure. He had loved his second wife, the wife of his poverty and humiliation, far more dearly than he had loved the obedient partner of his splendour and prosperity. She had been more to him a thousand times, this gentle girl who had so uncomplainingly accepted the hardships of her lot, because there had been no idle vanities, no hollow glories, no Princes and Beefsteak Clubs, to stand between him and his love of her.

She was lost, and he remembered how little he had done to prove his affection for her. She had never reproached him; no word of upbraiding had ever crossed those tender lips. But how did he know that he had not wronged her as cruelly as he had wronged those noisy children who had betrayed and deserted him?

He remembered how often he had slighted her advice, her loving counsel, so pure and true, so modestly offered, so gently spoken. He remembered how many humiliations he had forced upon her, how many falsehoods he had compelled her to tell; how often he had imposed upon her affection, suffering her to slave for him in his blind selfishness.

He could remember all these things now that she was gone, and that it was too late; too late to fall at her feet and tell her that he was all unworthy of her love and goodness; too late to offer her even such poor atonement for the past as penitence and tears. A hundred tokens of her in his poor lodgings recalled her a hundred times a day, bringing the tears into this poor broken-down mourner’s eyes.

He did not need the presence of his little daughter, whose dark grey eyes looked at him like hers, whose auburn hair had the same golden glory that he had so often seen glistening in the sunshine as he sat lazily watching the low evening light upon his wife’s drooping head. It seemed only yesterday that she had stood in the window working for him—for him.

His affliction left him for a long time a broken old man. He did not care in this dull interval of despair to keep up those outward shams of prosperity which he had so persistently preserved. His fashionable coats and boots, treasured so carefully of late, were no longer objects of tender care and delight to him. He ceased to go out into that ignorant and careless world in which he could still play the fine gentleman. He shut himself up and abandoned himself to his grief, and it was a long time before his frivolous nature recovered the shock he had suffered. It is not to be wondered at that, in the agony of his bereavement, his youngest child became unspeakably dear to him. He had severed all the links which had bound him to the past, and to his elder children. His second marriage had made a new era in his life. If he thought of these elder children at all, it was only to remember that some of them were living in luxury, and that they ought to support him in his penniless old age. If he wrote to them, he wrote begging-letters, appealing to them in exactly the same spirit as he might have appealed to the Duke of Wellington or Miss Burdett Coutts.

Yes; his youngest daughter usurped the place of an only child in the old man’s heart. He indulged her as he had indulged the ungrateful elder children. He could not give her carriages and horses, liveried servants and splendid houses, but he could now and then prevail upon some weak-minded creditor to trust him, and would come home triumphant to his shabby lodging, bearing spoils for his beloved Eleanor. He would hire a brougham from a confiding livery-stable keeper, and would take his little girl for a drive in the country. He would get her fine dresses from the silk-mercers who had supplied his elder daughters, and he would compensate her for the shabby miseries of her every-day existence by chance flashes of radiance and glory.

Then, again, he would very often obtain small sums of money, loans from private friends, it may be, or fleeting treasures from a mysterious source, of which his innocent little daughter had no knowledge. So, for the first ten or eleven years of her life, Miss Vane’s existence was chequered by sudden glimpses of abnormal wealth—wonderful feast days of luxury and extravagance—which contrasted sharply with the dreary poverty of her ordinary experiences.

Thus it was no uncommon thing for this young lady to dine to-day in a tawdry and rather dirty parlour at Chelsea upon tea and red-herrings, and to-morrow to sit opposite her father in one of the sunny windows at the Crown and Sceptre, eating white-bait with the calm enjoyment of a connoisseur, and looking placidly on while Mr. Vane gave himself ducal airs to the waiters, and found fault with the icing of his sparkling hock. There was scarcely any extravagance which this little girl had not seen her father perpetrate. She had received from him a birthday present of a two-guinea wax doll, at the very time at which her schooling account, at a certain humble little seminary near Cheyne Walk, remained unpaid, and her education was brought to a dead lock by reason of this default. She had sighed for that golden-haired waxen plaything, and her father gave it to her because he loved her as he had always loved, weakly and foolishly.

She loved him in return: repaying him a hundredfold for his affection by her innocent love and trust. To her he was all that was perfect, all that was noble and generous. The big talk, the glowing and sentimental discourse by which he was wont to impose upon himself, imposed upon her. She believed in that fancy portrait which he painted of himself, and which he himself believed in as a most faithful and unflattered likeness. She believed in that highly-coloured picture, and thought that George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane was indeed what he represented himself, and thought himself to be, an injured old man, a sainted martyr to the forgetfulness of the world, and the ingratitude of his children.

Poor Eleanor was never weary of listening to her father’s stories about the Prince Regent, and all the lesser planets of the darkened sky in which Mr. Vane’s light had once shone. She used to walk in the park with the old man in the sunny summer evenings, proud to see him bow to great people, who returned his recognition with friendly courtesy. She liked to fancy him in the days that were gone, riding side by side with those mighty ones of the earth, whom he was now content to watch wistfully across the iron railings. She was pleased to stroll in the dusky gloaming of the soft May night, and to look up at the lights in that princely mansion in Berkeley Square which George Vane had once occupied. He showed her the windows which had belonged to this and that apartment, the drawing-room, the first Mrs. Vane’s boudoir, the little girls’ nursery and morning room. She fancied all those fairy chambers radiant with light and splendour, and then remembering the shabby rooms at Chelsea, clung closer to her father’s arm, in her tender sorrow for his fallen state.

But she had inherited much of George Vane’s sanguine temperament, and almost as firm as her belief in the past, which had been a reality, was her confidence in the splendid future, which her father hoped in. Nothing could have been more shadowy than the foundations upon which Mr. Vane had built for himself an airy castle. In his youth and middle age his most intimate friend and companion had been a certain Maurice de Crespigny, the owner of a noble estate in Berkshire, and not a friend of the Prince Regent’s. So, while George Vane’s two estates had melted away, and his three fortunes had been expended, Mr. de Crespigny, who was an invalid and a bachelor, had contrived to keep his land and his money.

There was only the difference of two or three years between the ages of the two friends. I believe that Maurice de Crespigny was the younger of the two. And it was during their early college life that the young men had entered into a romantic alliance, very chivalrous and honourable in its nature, but scarcely likely to stand the wear and tear of worldly experience.

They were to be friends through life and until death. They were to have no secrets from each other. If by any chance they should happen to fall in love with the same person—and I really think these sentimental collegians rather wished that such a contingency might arise—one of them, the most noble, the most heroic, was quietly to fall back and suffer in silence, while the weaker won the prize. If either died a bachelor, he was to leave his fortune to the other, whatever less noble and more common-place claimants, in the way of heirs presumptive, might press upon him.

These vows had been made at least five-and-forty years ago, but out of this folly of the past George Vane built his hope in the future. Maurice de Crespigny was now a soured and hypochondriacal old bachelor, shut in and defended on every side by greedy and sycophantic relations, and utterly unapproachable to his shabby old bosom friend; who could as easily have made his way out of one of the lowest dungeons of the Bastille as he could force an entrance into that closely-guarded citadel within which his college companion sat, lonely and dismal, a desolate old man, watched over by sharp eyes, greedily noteful of every token of his decay, ministered to by hands that would have worked eagerly at his winding-sheet, if by so doing they could have hastened the hour of his death.

If George Vane—remembering his old friend, perhaps, with some latent feeling of tenderness intermingled with his mercenary hopes—made an effort to penetrate the cruel barriers about him, he was repulsed with ignominy by the two maiden nieces who kept watch and ward at Woodlands. If he wrote to Mr. de Crespigny, his missive was returned unopened, with a satirical intimation that the dear invalid’s health was not in a state to endure the annoyance of begging letters. He had made a hundred attempts to cross the lines of the enemy, and had been mortified by a hundred failures; but his sanguine nature was not to be subdued by any humiliation, and he still believed, firmly and entirely, that whenever Maurice de Crespigny’s will came to be opened, his name, and his alone, would appear as sole heir to his old friend’s wealth. He forgot that Maurice de Crespigny was his junior by some two or three years; for he had always heard of him of late as a feeble invalid tottering upon the verge of the grave, while he himself was erect and stalwart, broad chested, and soldierly-looking, so very soldierly in appearance that the sentinels on guard in the park were wont to salute him as he passed them, believing him to be some military magnate.

Yes, he believed the day would come when poor De Crespigny—he always spoke of his friend with a certain pitiful tenderness—would drop quietly into his grave, and when he would reign at Woodlands with his darling Eleanor, avenging himself upon his ungrateful elder children, reopening accounts with his old creditors—in all his visions of grandeur and patronage he never thought of paying his debts—and arising from the dull ashes of his poverty, a splendid phœnix, golden plumed and exultant.

He taught his daughter this belief as religiously as he taught her the simple prayers which she said nightly at his knee. With all his faults he was no unbeliever, though the time which he devoted to religious observances made a very small portion of his existence. He taught Eleanor to believe in the day that was to come, and the little girl saw the light of future splendour gleaming athwart the dreary swamp of difficulty through which she waded patiently by her father’s side.

But the day came when George Vane and his child were to be separated, for a time at least. Eleanor’s twelfth birthday was very near at hand, and she had as yet received no better education than the rather limited course of instruction which was to be obtained for a guinea and a half a quarter at the day school near Cheyne Walk. For nearly six years, inclusive of many intervals of non-attendance consequent upon non-payment, Miss Vane had frequented this humble seminary, in company with the daughters of the butchers and bakers and other plebeian inhabitants of the district; but by the time she was twelve years old the various sources from which her father’s very desultory income had been drawn had one by one run dry and failed him. The weakest and most long-suffering of his creditors had crossed his name out of their ledgers; his friends had ceased to believe in the fiction of delayed remittances, urgent temporary need, and early repayment, and he could no longer count upon an occasional five-pound note when the Chelsea landlady became clamorous, and the Chelsea general dealer refused to send home another ounce of tea, except on payment of ready money.

A desperate crisis had come, and in his despair the old man forgot his pride. For Eleanor’s sake, if not for his own, he must endure humiliation. He must appeal to his eldest daughter, the hard-hearted but wealthy Hortensia Bannister, who had lost her stockbroker husband a twelvemonth before, and was now a rich and childless widow. Yes—he wiped the tears of humiliation away from his faded cheeks as he arrived at this resolution—he would try and forget the past, and would take Eleanor with him to Hyde Park Gardens, and appeal to her cruel sister in her behalf. His determination was speedily carried out, for he went to work with something of that desperate courage which a condemned criminal may feel when he goes to execution, and one sunny morning in the early June of 1850, he and his daughter sat in Mrs. Bannister’s handsome drawing-room, fearfully awaiting the advent of that lady. She came to them after a very brief delay, for she was business-like and uncompromising in her habits, and she had been prepared for this visit by a long, pitiful, explanatory letter from her father, in reply to which she had written very coldly and concisely, appointing an early interview.

She was a severe-looking woman of about five-and-thirty, with a hard face, and heavy black eyebrows, which met over her handsome aquiline nose when she frowned, which she did a great deal too often, poor Eleanor thought. Her features were like those of her father, but her grim and stony expression was entirely her own, and was perhaps the result of that early and bitter disappointment of finding herself a portionless girl, deserted by the man she loved, who fell away from her when he discovered the state of her father’s fortunes, and compelled to marry for money, or to accept the wretched alternative of a life of poverty and drudgery.

This harsh, disappointed woman affected no pretence of tender feeling for her half-sister. Perhaps the sight of Eleanor’s childish beauty was scarcely pleasant to her. She herself had drawn a dreary blank in the great lottery of life in spite of her wealth, and she may have envied this child her unknown future, which could not well be so dismal as the childless widow’s empty existence.

But Mrs. Bannister was a religious woman, and tried to do her duty in a hard, uncompromising way, in which good works were not beautified by any such flimsy adornments as love and tenderness. So when she heard that her father lived from day to day a wretched hand-to-mouth existence, haunted by the grim phantom of starvation, she was seized with a sudden sense that she had been very wicked to this weak old man, and she agreed to allow him a decent pittance, which would enable him to live about as comfortably as a half-pay officer or a small annuitant. She made this concession sternly enough, and lectured her father so severely that he may be perhaps forgiven if he was not very grateful for his daughter’s bounty, so far as he himself went; but he did make a feeble protestation of his thankfulness when Mrs. Bannister further declared her willingness to pay a certain premium in consideration of which Eleanor Vane might be received in a respectable boarding-school as an apprentice or pupil teacher.

It was thus that the little girl became acquainted with the Misses Bennett of Wilmington House, Brixton; and it was in the household of these ladies that three years of her life had been passed. Three quiet and monotonous years of boarding-school drudgery, which had only been broken by two brief visits to her father, who had taken up his abode in Paris; where he lived secure from the persecution of a few of his latter-day creditors—not the west-end tradesmen who had known him in his prime, they were resigned and patient enough under their losses—but a few small dealers who had trusted him in his decline, and who were not rendered lenient by the memory of former profits.

In Paris, Mr. Vane had very little chance of obtaining any information about his friend Maurice de Crespigny, but he still looked forward confidently to that visionary future in which he was to be master of the Woodlands estate. He had taken care to write a letter, soon after Eleanor’s birth, which had happened to reach his friend, announcing the advent of this youngest child, and dwelling much on his love for her. He cherished some visionary notion that, in the event of his death occurring before that of Maurice de Crespigny, the old man might leave his wealth to Eleanor. The contumely with which he had been treated by the maiden harpies who kept watch over his old friend had been pleasant to him rather than otherwise, for in the anger of these elderly damsels he saw an evidence of their fear.

“If they knew that poor De Crespigny’s money was left to them, they wouldn’t be so savage,” he thought. “It’s evident they’re by no means too confident about the future.”

But there were other relatives of the old man’s, less fortunate than the maiden sisters, who had found their way into the citadel, and planted themselves en permanence at Woodlands. There was a married niece, who had once been a beauty. This lady had been so foolish as to marry against her rich uncle’s wishes, and was now a widow, living in the neighbourhood of Woodlands upon an income of two hundred a year. This lady’s only son, Launcelot Darrel, was heir-at-law to Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune. But the maiden sisters were patient and indefatigable women. No sacred fire was ever watched more carefully by classic vestal than was the ireful flame which burned in Maurice de Crespigny’s heart when he remembered his married niece’s ingratitude and disobedience. The unwearying old maids kept his indignation alive by every feminine subtlety, by every diplomatic device. Heaven knows what they wanted with their uncle’s money, for they were prim damsels who wore stuff shoes and scanty dresses made in the fashion of their youth. They had outlived the very faculty of enjoyment, and their wants were almost as simple as those of the robins that perched upon their window-sills; but for all this they were as eager to become possessors of the old man’s wealth as the most heartless and spend-thrift heir, tormented by Israelitish creditors, and subsisting entirely upon post obits.