Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 5
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER VII. SUSPENSE.
Eleanor Vane and the scene-painter stood upon the bridge looking at each other for a few moments after Richard’s cry of mingled terror and astonishment.
Had not Eleanor’s mind been entirely absorbed by one cruel anxiety, she would have wondered at her old friend’s strange greeting. As it was, she took no heed of his manner. The shadows of the summer night were gathering over the city and upon the quiet river; the towers of Notre Dame loomed dimly through the twilight.
“Oh, Richard!” Eleanor cried, “I have been so unhappy. Papa didn’t come home all last night, nor yet to-day. I waited for him hour after hour until late in the afternoon; and then the house seemed unbearable; I couldn’t stay in any longer, and I came out to look for him. I have been far up on the Boulevard where I parted with him last night, and all the way along the crowded streets about there: and then through other streets, till I found myself down here by the water, and I’m so tired. Oh, Dick, Dick, how unkind of papa not to come home. How unkind of my darling father to give me this misery.”
She clasped her hands convulsively upon her companion’s arm, and bending her head, burst into tears. Those tears were the first which she had shed in all her trouble; the first relief after long hours of agonising suspense, of weary watching.
“Oh, how can papa treat me so?” she cried, amid her sobbing. “How can he treat me so?”
Then, suddenly raising her head, she looked at Richard Thornton, her clear grey eyes dilated with a wild terror, which gave her face a strange and awful beauty.
“Richard!” she cried; “Richard! you don’t think that there—that there is—anything wrong—that anything has happened to my father?”
She did not wait for him to answer, but cried out directly, as if shrinking in terror from the awful suggestion in her own words:—
“What should happen to him? he is so well and strong, poor darling. If he is old, he is not like an old man, you know. The people of the house in the Rue de l’Archevêque have been very kind to me; they say I am quite foolish to be frightened, and they told me that papa stopped out all night once last summer. He went to Versailles to see some friends, and stayed away all night without giving any notice that he was going to do so. I know it’s very silly of me to be so frightened, Richard. But I always was frightened at Chelsea if he stayed out. I used to fancy all sorts of things. I thought of all kinds of dreadful things last night, Dick, and to-day, until my fancies almost drove me mad.”
During all this time the scene-painter had not spoken. He seemed utterly unable to offer any word of comfort to the poor girl who clung to him in her distress, looking to him for consolation and hope.
She looked wonderingly into his face, puzzled by his silence, which seemed unfeeling, and it was not like Richard to be unfeeling.
“Richard!” she cried, almost impatiently. “Richard, speak to me! You see how much misery I’ve suffered, and you don’t say a word! You’ll help me to find papa, won’t you?”
The young man looked down at her. Heaven knows she would have seen no lack of tenderness or compassion in his face, if it had not been hidden by the gathering gloom of the August evening. He drew her hand through his arm, and led her away towards the other side of the water, leaving the black roof of the dead-house behind him.
“There is nothing I would not do to help you, Eleanor,” he said, gently. “God knows my heart, my dear, and He knows how faithfully I will try to help you.”
“And you will look for papa, Richard, if he should not come home to-night—he may be at home now, you know, and he may be angry with me for coming out alone, instead of waiting quietly at home till he returned; but if he should not come to-night, you’ll look for him, won’t you, Richard? You’ll search all Paris till you find him?”
“I’ll do everything that I could do for you if I were your brother, Eleanor,” the young man answered gravely; “there are times in our lives when nobody but God can help us, my dear, and when we must turn to Him. It’s in the day of trouble that we want His help, Nelly.”
“Yes, yes, I know. I prayed, last night, again, and again, and again, that papa might come back soon. I have been saying the same prayer all to-day, Richard; even just now, when you found me standing by the parapet of the bridge, I was praying for my dear father. I saw the church towers looking so grand and solemn in the twilight, and the sight of them made me remember how powerful God is, and that He can always grant our prayers.”
“If it seems best and wisest in His sight, Nell.”
“Yes, of course; sometimes we pray for foolish things, but there could be nothing foolish in wishing my darling father to come back to me. Where are you taking me, Dick?”
Eleanor stopped suddenly, and looked at her companion. She had need to ask the question, for Richard Thornton was leading her into a labyrinth of streets in the direction of the Luxembourg, and seemed to have very little notion whither he was going.
“This is not the way home, Richard,” Eleanor said; “I don’t know where we are, but we seem to be going further and further away from home. Will you take me back to the Rue de l’Archevêque, Dick? We must cross the river again, you know, to get there. I want to go home at once. Papa may have come home, and he’ll be angry, perhaps, if he finds me absent. Take me home, Dick.”
“I will, my dear. We’ll cross the water further on, by the Louvre; and now tell me, Eleanor—I—I can’t very well make inquiries about your father, unless I fully understand the circumstances under which you parted from him last night. How was it, my dear? What happened when Mr. Vane left you upon the Boulevard?”
They were walking in a broad, quiet street in which there were very few passers-by. The houses stood back behind ponderous gates, and were hidden by sheltering walls. The stately mansions between court and garden had rather a decayed aspect, which gave a certain dreariness to their grandeur. The fashionable world seemed to have deserted this quiet quarter for the leafy avenues leading away from the Champs Elysées.
Richard and Eleanor walked slowly along the broad footway. The stillness of the soft summer night had some effect upon the school-girl’s fever of impatience. The grave, compassionate tones of her friend’s voice soothed her. The burst of passionate weeping which had almost convulsed her slight frame half an hour before, had been an unspeakable relief to her. She clung to her companion’s arm confidingly, and walked patiently by his side, without questioning him as to where he was leading her, though she had a vague idea that he was not taking her homewards.
“I will not be foolish about papa,” she said; “I will do as you tell me, Richard, I will trust in God. I am sure my dear father will return to me. We are so fond of each other; you know, Richard, we are all the world to each other; and my poor darling looks so hopefully forward to the day in which he will have Mr. de Crespigny’s fortune. I don’t hope for that quite so much as papa does, Dick; for Mr. de Crespigny may live to be a very, very old man, and it seems so wicked to wish for any one’s death. The day I look forward to is the day when I shall have finished my education, and be able to work for papa. That must be almost better than being rich, I should think, Dick. I can’t imagine any happier fate than to work for those we love.”
Her face brightened as she talked, and she turned to her companion, looking to him for sympathy; but Richard’s head was averted, and he seemed to be staring absently at the houses upon the opposite side of the way.
He was silent for some moments after Eleanor had left off speaking; and then he said, rather abruptly:
“Tell me, my dear, how did you part with your father last night?”
“Why, we had been dining on the Boulevard; and after dinner, papa took me for a long walk, ever so far, past all the theatres, and he had promised to take me to the Ambigu or the Porte Saint Martin; but as we were coming back we met two gentlemen, friends of papa’s, who stopped him and said they had an appointment with him, and persuaded him to go back with them.”
“Back with them! Back where?”
“I mean back towards a big stone gateway we had passed a little time before. I only know they turned that way, but I don’t know where they went. I stood and watched them till they were out of sight.”
“And the two men, what were they like?”
“One of them was a little Frenchman, stout and rosy-faced, with a light moustache and beard like the Emperor’s. He was smartly dressed, and had a cane, which he kept twirling when he talked to papa.”
“Did you hear what he said?”
“No, he spoke in a low voice, and he talked French.”
“But you speak French, Eleanor?”
“Yes, but not as they speak it here. The people seem to talk so fast here, it’s quite difficult to understand them.”
“But the other man, Nell, what was he like?”
“Oh, he was a disagreeable-looking man, and seemed to have a sulky manner, as if he was offended with papa for breaking his appointment, and didn’t care how the matter ended. I scarcely saw his face, at least only for a moment, just long enough to see that he had black eyes, and a thick black moustache. He was tall, and shabbily dressed, and I fancied he was an Englishman, though he never once spoke.”
“He never spoke! It was the Frenchman, then, who persuaded your father to go away with him?”
“And he seemed very anxious?”
“Oh, yes, very anxious.”
Richard Thornton muttered something between his set teeth, something which sounded like a curse.
“Tell me one thing, Eleanor,” he said. “Your poor father never was too well off, I know. He could not be likely to have much money about him last night. Do you know if he had any?”
“Yes, he had a great deal of money.”
“What do you mean by a great deal? A few pounds, I suppose?”
“Oh, much more than that,” Eleanor answered. “He had a hundred pounds—a hundred pounds in new bank notes, French notes. It was the money my half-sister, Mrs. Bannister, had sent him, to pay for my education at Madame Marly’s.”
“Mrs. Bannister,” said Richard, catching at the name. “Ah, to be sure, I remember now. Mrs. Bannister is your sister. She is very well off, is she not, and has been kind to you? If you were in any trouble, you would go to her, I suppose, Eleanor?”
“Go to her if I were in trouble! Oh, no, no, Dick, not for the world!”
“But why not? She has been kind to you, hasn’t she, Nell?”
“Oh, yes, very kind in paying money for my education, and all that; but you know, Richard, there are some people who seem to do kind things in an unkind manner. If you knew the cruel letter that Mrs. Bannister wrote to papa—the cruel, humiliating things she said only a few days ago, you couldn’t wonder that I don’t like her.”
“But she is your sister, Nell; your nearest relation.”
“And she ought to love you, and be kind to you. She lives at Bayswater, I think I’ve heard you say?”
“Yes, in Hyde Park Gardens.”
“To be sure. Mrs. Bannister, Hyde Park Gardens, Bayswater.”
He repeated the name and address, as if he wished to impress them upon his memory.
“I will take you home now, Nell,” he said. “My poor child, you must be tired to death.”
“How can I think about being tired, Richard,” exclaimed Eleanor, “when I am so anxious about papa? Oh, if I only find him at home, what happiness it will be!”
But she hung heavily upon her friend’s arm, and Richard knew that she was very tired. She had been wandering about Paris for several hours, poor child, hither and thither, in the long, unfamiliar streets, following all sorts of unlikely people who looked in the distance something like her father; hoping again and again, only again and again to be disappointed.
They turned into a wider thoroughfare presently, and the scene-painter called the first hackney vehicle which passed him, and lifted Eleanor into it. She was almost fainting with fatigue and exhaustion.
“What have you had to eat to-day, Nell?” he asked.
She hesitated a little, as if she had forgotten what she had eaten, or indeed whether she had eaten at all.
“There was some coffee and a couple of rolls sent for papa this morning. He has his breakfast sent him from a traiteur’s, you know. I had one of the rolls.”
“And you’ve had nothing since?”
“No. How could I eat when I was so wretched about papa?”
Richard shook his head reproachfully.
“My darling Nell!” he said, “you promised me just now that you’d be a good girl, and trust in Providence. I shall take you somewhere and give you some supper, and then you must promise me to go home and get a good night’s rest.”
“I will do whatever you tell me, Richard,” Eleanor answered, submissively, “but let me go home first, please, and see if papa has come back.”
The scene-painter did not for a few moments reply to this request, but he answered presently in an abstracted tone.
“You shall do what you like, Nell.”
He told the coachman to drive to the Rue de l’Archevêque, but he would not let Eleanor alight from the vehicle when they reached the corner of the street and the little butcher’s shop, eager as she was to spring out and run into the house.
“Stay where you are, Nell,” he said, authoritatively. “I will make all inquiries.”
Eleanor obeyed him. She was enfeebled and exhausted by a weary night of watching, a long day of agitation and anxiety, and she was too weak to oppose her old friend. She looked hopelessly up at the open windows on the entresol. They were exactly as she had left them four or five hours ago. No glimmer of light gave friendly token that the rooms were occupied.
Richard Thornton talked to the butcher’s wife for a long time, as it seemed to Eleanor, but he had very little to tell her when he came back to the carriage. Mr. Vane had not returned: that was all he said.
He took his companion to a café near the Madeleine, where he insisted upon her taking a large cup of coffee and a roll. It was all he could persuade her to take, and she begged to be allowed to sit at one of the tables outside the café.
She might see her father go by, she said, on his way to the Rue de l’Archevêque.
The two friends sat at a little iron table rather apart from the groups of animated loungers sitting at other tables drinking coffee and lemonade. But George Mowbray Vandeleur Vane did not pass that way throughout the half hour during which Eleanor lingered over her cup of coffee.
It was past ten o’clock when Richard Thornton bade her good night at the threshold of the little door beside the butcher’s shop.
“You must promise me not to sit up to-night, Nelly,” he said, as he shook hands with her.
“And mind you keep your promise this time. I will come and see you early to-morrow. God bless you my dear, and good night.”
He pressed her hand tenderly. When she had closed the door behind her, he crossed the narrow street, and waited upon the other side of the way until he saw a light in one of the entresol windows. He watched while Eleanor came to this window and drew a dark curtain across it, and then he walked slowly away.
“God bless her, poor child,” he murmured, in a low, compassionate voice, “poor lonely child!”
The grave thoughtfulness of his expression never changed as he walked homewards to the Hôtel des Deux Mondes. Late as it was when he reached his chamber on the fifth storey, he seated himself at the table, and pushing aside his clay pipe and tobacco-pouch, his water-colours and brushes, his broken palettes and scraps of Bristol board, and all the litter of his day’s work, he took a few sheets of foreign letter paper and a tiny bottle of ink from a shabby leather desk, and began to write.
He wrote two letters, both rather long, and folded, sealed, and addressed them.
One was directed to Mrs. Bannister, Hyde Park Gardens, Bayswater; the other to Signora Picirillo, the Pilasters, Dudley Street, Northumberland Square.
Richard Thornton put both these letters in his pocket and went out to post them.
“I think I have acted for the best,” he muttered, as he went back to the hotel near the market-place; “I can do nothing more until to-morrow.”
CHAPTER VIII. GOOD SAMARITANS.
George Vane did not come home. Eleanor kept the promise made to her faithful friend, and tried to sleep. She flung herself, dressed as she was, upon the little bed near the curtained alcove. She would thus be ready to run to her father, whenever he came in, she thought, to welcome and minister to him. She was thoroughly worn out, and she slept; a wretched slumber, broken by nightmares and horrible dreams, in which she saw her father assailed by all kinds of dangers, a prey to every manner of misfortune and vicissitude. Once she saw him standing on a horrible rock, menaced by a swiftly advancing tide, while she was in a boat only a few paces from him, as it seemed, doing battle with the black waves, and striving with all her might to reach and rescue him, but never able to do so.
In another dream he was wandering upon the crumbling verge of a precipice—he seemed a white haired, feeble, tottering old man in this vision—and again she was near him, but unable to give him warning of his danger, though a word would have done so. The agony of her endeavour to utter the one cry which would have called that idolised father from his death, awoke her.
But she had other dreams, dreams of quite a different character, in which her father was restored to her, rich and prosperous, and he and she were laughing merrily at all the foolish tortures she had inflicted upon herself; and other dreams again, which seemed so real that she fancied she must be awake; dreams in which she heard the welcome footsteps upon the stair, the opening of the door, and her father’s voice in the next room calling to her.
These dreams were the worst of all. It was terrible to awake after many such delusions and find she had been again deluded. It was cruel to awake to the full sense of her loneliness, while the sound of the voice she had heard in her dream still lingered in her ears.
The dark hours of the short summer night seemed interminable to her in this wretched, bewildered, half-sleeping, half-waking state; far longer than they had appeared when she sat up watching for her father’s return. Every fresh dream was a slow agony of terror and perplexity.
At last the grey daylight stole in through the half-closed shutters, the vague outlines of the furniture grew out of the darkness, duskily impalpable and ghastly at first, then sharp and distinct in the cold morning light. She could not rest any longer she got up and went to the window; she pushed the sash open, and sank down on her knees with her forehead resting on the window sill.
“I will wait for him here,” she thought. “I shall hear his step in the street. Poor dear, poor dear, I can guess why he stays away. He has spent that odious money, and does not like to return and tell me so. My darling father, do you know me so little as to think that I would grudge you the last farthing I had in the world, if you wanted it?”
Her thoughts rambled on in strange confusion until they grew bewildering, her brain became dizzy with perpetual repetitions of the same idea; when she lifted her head—her poor, weary, burning, heavy head, which seemed a leaden weight that it was almost impossible to raise—and looked from the window, the street below reeled beneath her eyes, the floor upon which she knelt seemed sinking with her into some deep gulf of blackness and horror; a thousand conflicting sounds—not the morning noises of the waking city—hissed and buzzed, and roared and thundered in her ears, growing louder and louder and louder, until they all melted away in the fast-gathering darkness.
The sun was shining brightly into the room when the compassionate mistress of the house found Mr. Vane’s daughter half-kneeling, half-lying on the ground, with her head upon the cold sill of the open window, and her golden hair streaming in draggled curls about her shoulders. Her thin muslin frock was wet with the early dew. She had fainted away, and had lain thus, helpless and insensible, for several hours.
The butcher’s wife undressed her and put her to bed. Richard Thornton came to the Rue de l’Archevêque half an hour afterwards, and went away again directly to look for an English doctor. He found one, an elderly man with grave and gentle manners, who declared that Miss Vane was suffering from fever brought on by intense mental excitement: she was of a highly nervous temperament, he said, and that she required little to be done for her; she only wanted repose and quiet. Her constitution was superb, and would triumph over a far more serious attack than this.
Richard Thornton took the doctor into the adjoining room, the little sitting-room which bore the traces of Mr. Vane’s occupation, and talked to him in a low voice for some minutes. The medical man shook his head gravely.
“It is very sad,” he said; “it will be better to tell her the truth, if possible, as soon as she recovers from the delirium. The anxiety and suspense have overtaxed her brain. Anything would be better than that this overstrained state of the mind should continue. Her constitution will rally after a shock; but, with her highly nervous and imaginative nature, everything is to be dreaded from prolonged mental irritation. She is related to you, I suppose?”
“No, poor child! I wish she were.”
“But she is not without near relatives, I hope?”
“No, she has sisters—or at least half-sisters—and brothers.”
“They should be written to, then, immediately,” the doctor said, as he took up his hat.
“I have written to one of her sisters, and I have written to another lady, a friend, who will be of more use, I fancy, in this crisis.”
The doctor went away, promising to send some saline draughts to keep the fever under, and to call again in the evening.
Richard Thornton went into the little bed-chamber where the butcher’s wife sat beside the curtained alcove, making up some accounts in a leather-covered book. She was a hearty pleasant-mannered young woman, and had taken up her post by the invalid’s bed very willingly, although her presence was always much needed in the shop below.
“Chut” she whispered, with her finger on her lip, “she sleeps, pauvrette!”
Richard sat down quietly by the open window. He took out Michel Lèvy’s edition of “Raoul,” a stump of lead pencil, and the back of an old letter, and set to work resolutely at his adaptation. He could not afford to lose time, even though his adopted sister lay ill under the shadow of the worsted curtains that shrouded the alcove on the other side of the little room.
He sat long and patiently, turning the Poison drama into English with wonderful ease and rapidity, and meekly bearing a deprivation that was no small one to him, in the loss of his clay pipe, which he was in the habit of smoking at all hours of the day.
Eleanor awoke at last, and began talking in a rambling, incoherent way about her father, and the money sent by Mrs. Bannister, and the parting upon the Boulevard.
The butcher’s wife drew back the curtain, and Richard Thornton went to the bedside and looked down tenderly at his childish friend.
Her amber-tinted hair was scattered on the pillow, tangled and roughened by the constant movement of her restless head. Her grey eyes were feverishly bright, and burning spots blazed upon the cheeks which had been so deathly pale on the previous night. She knew Richard, and spoke to him; but the delirium was not over, for she mixed the events of the present with the Chelsea experiences of long ago, and talked to her old friend of the signora, the violin, and the rabbits. She fell off into a heavy sleep again, after taking the effervescing medicine sent her by the English surgeon, and slept until nearly twilight. In these long slumbers her fresh and powerful constitution asserted itself, and took compensation for the strain that had been made upon it in the past day or two.
Richard went away in the afternoon, and did not return till late at night, when the butcher’s wife told him that her charge had been very restless, and had asked repeatedly for her father.
“What are we to do?” the good woman said, shrugging her shoulders with a despairing gesture. “Are we to tell her?”
“Not yet,” Richard answered. “Keep her quiet; keep her as quiet as you can. And if it is positively necessary to tell her anything, say that her father has been taken ill, away from home, and cannot be brought back yet. Poor child! it seems so cruel to keep her in suspense, and still more cruel to deceive her.”
The butcher’s wife promised to do all in her power to keep her patient quiet. The doctor had sent an opiate. Miss Vane could not sleep too much, he said.
So another night passed, this time very peacefully for Eleanor, who lay in a heavy slumber broken by no cruel dreams. She was very, very weak the next day, for she had scarcely eaten anything since the roll and coffee which Richard had made her take; and though she was not exactly delirious, her mind seemed almost incapable of receiving any very vivid impression. She listened quietly when they told her that her father could not come home because he was ill.
Richard Thornton came to the Rue de l’Archevêque several times during this second day of Eleanor’s illness, but he only stayed a few minutes upon each occasion. He had a great deal to do, he told the butcher’s wife, who still kept faithfully to her post in the sick room, only stealing away now and then, while Eleanor was asleep, to attend to her business.
It was past eleven o’clock that night when the scene-painter came for the last time. Eleanor had grown worse as the evening advanced, and was by this time terribly feverish and restless. She wanted to get up and dress herself, and go to her father. If he was ill, how could they keep her from him, how could they be so cruel as to keep her from his side?
Then, starting up suddenly from her pillow, she would cry out wildly that they were deceiving her, and that her father was dead.
But help and comfort was near at hand. When Richard came, he did not come alone. He brought a lady with him; an elderly, grey-headed woman, dressed in shabby black.
When this lady appeared upon the threshold of the dimly-lighted little bedchamber, Eleanor Vane suddenly sprang up in bed, and threw out her arms with a wild cry of surprise and delight.
“The Signora!” she exclaimed, “the dear, kind Signora!”
The lady took off her bonnet, and then went close up to the bed, and seating herself on the edge of the mattress, drew Eleanor’s fair head upon her bosom, smoothing the tangled golden hair with unspeakable tenderness.
“My poor child!” she murmured again and again. “My poor, poor child!”
“But, dear Signora,” Eleanor cried, wonderingly, “how is it that you are here? Why didn’t Richard tell me that you were in Paris?”
“Because I have only just arrived, my darling.”
“Only just arrived! Only just arrived in Paris! But why did you come?”
“I came to see you, Eleanor,” the Signora answered, very gently. “I heard that you were in trouble, my dear, and I have come to you, to help and comfort you, if I can.”
The butcher’s wife had withdrawn into the little sitting-room where Richard sat in the darkness. Eleanor Vane and the Signora were therefore quite alone.
Hitherto the invalid’s head had rested very quietly upon her friend’s bosom, but now she lifted it suddenly and looked full in the Signora’s face.
“You came to me because I was in trouble,” she said. “How should I be in trouble so long as my father lives? What sorrow can come to me while he is safe? He is ill, they say, but he will get better; he will get better, won’t he? He will be better soon, dear Signora; he will be better soon?”
She waited for an answer to her breathless questioning, looking intently in the pale quiet face of her friend; then suddenly, with a low, wailing cry, she flung up her hands and clasped them wildly above her head.
“You have all deceived me,” she cried, “you have all deceived me: my father is dead!”
The Signora drew her arm caressingly round Eleanor Vane, and tried to shelter the poor burning head once more upon her shoulder; but Eleanor shrank from her with an impatient gesture, and, with her hands still clasped above her head, stared blankly at the dead wall before her.
“My dear, my dear,” the Signora said, trying to unclasp the rigid hands which were so convulsively clasped together. “Eleanor, my dear, listen to me; for pity’s sake try and listen to me, my own dear love. You must know, you must have long known, my dear, that heavy sorrows come to us all, sooner or later. It is the common lot, my love, and we must all bow before the Divine hand that afflicts us. If there were no sorrow in this world, Eleanor, we should grow too much in love with our own happiness; we should be frightened at the approach of grey hairs and old age; we should tremble at the thought of death. If there were no better and higher life than this, Eleanor, sorrow and death would indeed be terrible. You know how very much affliction has fallen to my share, dear. You have heard me speak of the children I loved; all taken from me, Nelly, all taken away. If it were not for my dear nephew, Richard, I should stand quite alone in the world, a desolate old woman, with no hope on this side of the grave. But when my sons were taken from me, God raised me up another son in him. Do you think that God ever abandons us, Eleanor, even when He afflicts us most heavily? I have lived a long life, my dear, and I tell you no!”
The Signora waited in vain for some change in the rigid attitude, the stony face. Eleanor Vane still stared blankly at the dead wall before her.
“You have all deceived me,” she repeated; “my father is dead!”
It was useless talking to her; the tenderest words were dull and meaningless jargon to her ears. That night the fever grew worse, and the delirium was at its height. The butcher’s wife was relieved by a very patient and accustomed watcher, for the Signora had sat by many sick-beds, hoping against hope, until despair crept into her heart, as the grey shadows of approaching death came over a beloved face, never again to pass away.
The fever lasted for several days and nights, but throughout every change the English doctor declared that Eleanor Vane’s constitution would carry her through a worse attack than this.
“I am glad you told her,” he said one morning to the Signora, “there will be less to tell her by-and-by, when she begins to get strong again.”
There was, therefore, something more to be told.
Little by little the fever passed away; the crimson spots faded out of the invalid’s hollow cheeks; the unnatural lustre of the grey eyes grew less and less vivid; little by little the mind grew clearer, the delirious wanderings less frequent.
But with the return of perfect consciousness there came terrible bursts of grief—grief that was loud and passionate in proportion to the impulsive vehemence of Eleanor Vane’s character. This was her first sorrow, and she could not bear it quietly. Floods of tears drowned her pillow night after night; she refused to be comforted; she repulsed the patient Signora; she would not listen to poor Richard, who came sometimes to sit by her side, and tried his best to beguile her from her grief. She rebelled against their attempted consolation.
“What was my father to you?” she cried, passionately. “You can afford to forget him. He was all the world to me!”
But it was not in Eleanor’s nature to be long ungrateful for the tenderness and compassion of those who were so patient with her in this dark hour of her young life.
“How good you are to me,” she cried sometimes, “and what a wretch I am to think so little of your goodness. But you don’t know how I loved my father. You don’t know—you don’t know. I was to have worked for him; I was to have worked for him by-and-by, and we were to have led such a happy life together.”
She was growing strong again in spite of her grief. Her elastic temperament asserted itself in spite of her sorrow, which she never ceased to think of night and day, and she arose after her illness like a beautiful flower which had been beaten and crushed by the storm.
Richard Thornton’s leave of absence had expired for some days, but the Royal Phœnix Theatre closed its doors in the hot summer months, and he was therefore comparatively free. He stayed in Paris with his aunt, for they were both bent upon one purpose, to be accomplished at any sacrifice to themselves. Thank Heaven! there are always good Samaritans in the world, who do do not mind turning backward upon their life’s journey when there is a desolate and wounded traveller in need of their help and tenderness.
The Parisian atmosphere was cooling down in the early days of September—faint but refreshing breezes were beginning to blow away the white mists of summer heat upon the boulevards, when Eleanor Vane was well enough to sit in the little saloon above the butcher’s shop, and drink tea in the English fashion with her two friends.
She was well enough to do this, and Richard and the Signora were beginning to think of turning homewards; but before they could well leave Paris there was something that ought to be told to Eleanor—something that she must know sooner or later—something that it would be perhaps better for her to know at once.
But they had waited from time to time, thinking that she might ask some question which would lead to the revelation that must ultimately be made to her.
Upon this September afternoon she sat near the open window, looking very beautiful and virginal in a loose white muslin dressing-gown, and with her long golden curls falling upon her shoulders. She had been silent for a long time: her two companions watching her furtively, observant of every change in her countenance. Her cup of tea stood untasted on a little table at her side, and she was sitting with her hands loosely locked together in her lap.
She spoke at last, and asked that very question which must inevitably lead to the revelation her friends had to make to her.
“You have never told me how papa died,” she said; “his death must have been sudden, I know.”
Eleanor Vane spoke very quietly. She had never before mentioned her dead father’s name with so little outward evidence of emotion. The hands loosely locked together upon her lap stirred with a slightly tremulous motion; the face, turned towards the Signora and Richard Thornton, had a look of fixed intensity.
“Papa died suddenly, did he not?” she repeated.
“Yes, my dear, very suddenly.”
“I thought so. But why was he not brought home? Why couldn’t I see—”
She stopped abruptly, and turned her face away towards the open window. She was trembling violently now from head to foot.
Her two companions were silent. That terrible something which was as yet unrevealed must be told sooner or later; but who was to tell it to this girl, with her excitable nature, her highly wrought nervous temperament?
The Signora shrugged her shoulders despondingly, as she looked at her nephew. Mr. Thornton had been painting all the afternoon in the little sitting-room. He had tried to interest Eleanor Vane in the great set scenes he was preparing for Raoul. He had explained to her the nature of a vampire trap in the wainscot of the poisoner’s chamber, and had made his pasteboard model limp in his repeated exhibition of its machinery. The vampire trap was a subtle contrivance which might have beguiled any one from their grief, Dick thought; but the wan smile with which Eleanor watched his work only made the scene-painter’s heart ache. Richard sighed as he returned his aunt’s look. It seemed quite a hopeless case as yet. This poor lonely child of fifteen might go melancholy mad, perhaps, in her grief for a spendthrift father.
Eleanor Vane turned upon them suddenly while they sat silent and embarrassed, wondering what they should say to her next.
“My father committed suicide!” she said, in a strangely quiet voice.
The Signora started and rose suddenly, as if she would have gone to Eleanor. Richard grew very pale, but sat looking down at the litter upon the table, with one hand trifling nervously amongst the scraps of card-board and wet paint-brushes.
“Yes,” cried Eleanor Vane, “you have deceived me from first to last. You told me first that he was not dead; but when you could no longer keep my misery a secret from me, you only told me half the truth—you only told me half the cruel truth. And even now, when I have suffered so much that it seems as if no further suffering could touch me, you still deceive me, you still try to keep the truth from me. My father parted from me in health and spirits. Don’t trifle with me, Signora; I am not a child any longer, I am not a foolish school-girl, whom you can deceive as you like. I am a woman, and will know the worst. My father killed himself!”
She had risen in her excitement, but clung with one hand to the back of her chair, as if too weak to stand without that support.
The Signora went to her, and wound her arms about the slight trembling figure; but Eleanor seemed almost unconscious of that motherly caress.
“Tell me the truth,” she cried vehemently, “did my father kill himself?”
“It is feared that he did, Eleanor.”
The pale face grew a shade whiter, and the trembling frame became suddenly rigid.
“It is feared that he did!” Eleanor Vane repeated. “It is not certain then?”
“Not quite certain.”
“Why don’t you tell me the truth?” cried the girl, passionately. “Do you think you can make my misery less to me by dropping out your words one by one? Tell me the worst. What can there be worse than my father’s death; his unhappy death; killed by his own hand, his poor desperate hand? Tell me the truth. If you don’t wish me to go mad, tell me the truth at once.”
“I will, Eleanor, I will,” the Signora answered gently. “I wish to tell you all. I wish that you should know the truth, sad as it may be to hear. This is the great sorrow of your life, my dear, and it has fallen upon you very early. I hope you will try and bear it like a Christian.”
Eleanor Vane shook her head with an impatient gesture.
“Don’t talk to me of my sorrow,” she cried, “what does it matter what I suffer? My father, my poor father, what must he have suffered before he did this dreadful act? Don’t talk about me; tell me of him, and tell me the worst.”
“I will, my darling, I will; but sit down, sit down, and try to compose yourself.”
“No, I’ll stand here till you have told me the truth. I’ll not stir from this spot till I know all.”
She disengaged herself from the Signora’s supporting arm, and with her hand still resting on the chair, stood resolute, and almost defiant, before the old music-mistress and her nephew. I think the Signora and the scene-painter were both afraid of her, she looked so grand in her beauty and despair.
She seemed indeed, as she had said, no longer a child or a school-girl, but a woman, desperate and almost terrible in the intensity of her despair.
“Let me tell Eleanor the truth of this sad story,” Richard said, “it may be told very briefly. When your father parted with you, Nelly, on the night of the 11th of August, he and the two men who were with him went at once to an obscure café in one of the streets near the Barrière Saint Antoine. They were in the habit of going there, it seems, sometimes playing billiards in the large open room on the ground floor, sometimes playing cards in a cabinet particulier on the entresol. Upon this night they went straight to the private room. It was about half-past nine when they went in. The waiter who attended upon them took them three bottles of Chambertin and a good deal of seltzer-water. Your father seemed in high spirits at first. He and the dark Englishman were playing écarté, their usual game; and the Frenchman was looking over your father’s hand, now and then advising his play, now and then applauding and encouraging him. All this came out upon inquiry. The Frenchman quitted the café at a little before twelve; your father and the young Englishman stayed till long after midnight, and towards one o’clock they were heard at high words, and almost immediately after one the Englishman went away, leaving your father, who sent the waiter for some brandy and writing materials. He wanted to write a letter before he left, he said.”
The scene-painter paused, looking anxiously at the face of his listener. The rigid intensity of that pale young face had undergone no change; the grey eyes, fixed and dilated, were turned steadily towards him.
“When the waiter took your father the things he had asked for, he found him sitting at the table with his face hidden in his hands. The man placed the brandy and writing materials upon the table, and then went away, but not before he had noticed a strange faint smell—the smell of some drug, he thought; but he had no idea then what drug. The waiter went down stairs; all the ordinary frequenters of the place were gone, and the lights were out. The man waited up to let your father out, expecting him to come down stairs every moment. Three o’clock struck, and the waiter went up-stairs upon the pretence of asking if anything was wanted. He found your father sitting very much as he had left him, except that this time his head was resting upon the table, which was scattered with torn scraps of paper. He was dead, Eleanor. The man gave the alarm directly, and a doctor came to give assistance, if any could have been given; but the drug which the waiter had smelt was opium, and your father had taken a quantity which would have killed the strongest man in Paris.”
“Why did he do this?”
“I can scarcely tell you, my dear; but your poor father left, among the scraps of paper upon the table, one fragment much larger and more intelligible than the rest. It is evidently part of a letter addressed to you; but it is very wildly and incoherently worded; and you must remember that it was written under circumstances of great mental excitement.”
“Give it me!”
Eleanor stretched out her hand with an authoritative gesture. Richard hesitated.
“I wish you to fully understand the nature of this letter before you read it, Eleanor; I wish—”
“You kept the story of my father’s death from me out of mistaken kindness,” the girl said, in an unfaltering voice; “I will try and remember how good you have been to me, so that I may forgive you that; but you cannot keep from me the letter my father wrote to me before he died. That is mine, and I claim it.”
“Let her see it, poor child,” said the Signora.
Richard Thornton took a leather memorandum-book from one of the pockets of his loose coat. There were several papers in this book. He selected one, and handed it silently to Eleanor Vane. It was a sheet of note-paper, written upon in her father’s hand, but a part of it had been torn away.
Even had the whole of the letter been left, the writer’s style was so wild and incoherent that it would have been no easy task to understand his meaning. In its torn and fragmentary state, this scrap of writing left by George Vane was only a scribble of confused and broken sentences. The sheet of paper had been torn from the top to the bottom, so that the end of each line was missing. The following broken lines were therefore all that Eleanor could decipher, and in these the words were blotted and indistinct.
My poor Eleanor,—My poor injured
worst your cruel sister, Hortensia Bannis
could not be bad enough. I am a thief
robbed and cheated my own
been decoyed to this hell upon eart
wretches who are base enough to
a helpless old man who had trusted
to be gentlemen. I cannot return
look in my child’s face after
money which was to have
education. Better to die and rid
But my blood be upon the head of
who has cheated me this night out of
May he suffer as he has
never forget, Eleanor, never forget Robert Lan
murderer of your helpless old
a cheat and a villain who
some day live to revenge the fate
poor old father, who prays that God will
helpless old man whose folly
There was no more. These lines were spread over the first leaf of a sheet of note-paper; the second leaf, as well as a long strip of the first, had been torn away.
This was the only clue to the secret of his death which George Vane had left behind him.
Eleanor Vane folded the crumpled scrap of paper, and put it tenderly in her bosom. Then, falling on her knees, she clasped her hands, and lifted them towards the low ceiling of the little chamber.
“Oh, my God!” she cried; “hear the vow of a desolate creature, who has only one purpose left in life.”
Signora Picirillo knelt down beside her, and tried to clasp her in her arms.
“My dear, my dear!” she pleaded; “remember how this letter was written—remember the state of your father’s mind—”
“I remember nothing,” answered Eleanor Vane, “except that my father tells me to revenge his murder. For he was murdered,” she cried, passionately, “if this money—this wretched money, which he would have died sooner than lose—was taken from him unfairly. He was murdered. What did the wretch who robbed him care what became of the poor, broken-hearted, helpless old man whom he had wronged and cheated? What did he care? He left my father, left him in his desolation and misery; left him after having stripped and beggared him; left him to die in his despair. Listen to me, both of you, and remember what I say. I am very young, I know, but I have learnt to think and act for myself before to-day. I don’t know this man’s name, I never even saw his face; I don’t know who he is, or where he comes from; but sooner or later I swear to be revenged upon him for my father’s cruel death.”
“Eleanor, Eleanor!” cried the Signora; “is this womanly? Is this Christian-like?”
The girl turned upon her. There was almost a supernatural light, now, in the dilated grey eyes. Eleanor Vane had risen from her knees, and stood with her slender figure drawn to its fullest height, her long auburn hair streaming over her shoulders, with the low light of the setting sun shining upon the waving tresses until they glittered like molten gold. She looked, in her desperate resolution and virginal beauty, like some young martyr of the middle ages waiting to be led to the rack.
“I don’t know whether it is womanly or Christian-like,” she said, “but I know that it is henceforward the purpose of my life, and that it is stronger than myself.”