Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 6
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER IX. LOOKING TO THE FUTURE.
The story which Richard Thornton had told Eleanor Vane was the simple record of an unhappy truth. The gay and thoughtless spendthrift, the man about town, who had outlived his age and spent three fortunes, had ended his life, by his own desperate hand, in an obscure café near the Barrière Saint Antoine.
Amongst other habits of the age in which George Vane had lived, gambling was pretty prevalent. Mr. Vane’s sanguine nature was the very nature which leads a man to the gaming-table, and holds him there under the demoniac fascination of the fatal green cloth, hoping against hope, until his pockets are empty, and he must needs crawl dispirited away, having no more money to lose.
This was the one vice of George Vane’s life. He had tried to redeem his every-day extravagances by the gamester’s frenzied speculations, the gamester’s subtle combinations, which are so infallible in theory, so ruinous in practice. Eleanor had never known this. If her father stayed out late at night, and she had to wait and watch for him through long weary hours of suspense and anxiety, she never knew why he stayed, or why he was often so broken down and wretched when he came home. Other people could guess the reason of the old man’s midnight absences from his shabby lodging, but they were too merciful to tell his little girl the truth. In Paris, in a strange city, where his acquaintance were few, the old vice grew stronger, and George Vane spent his nights in gambling for pitiful stakes in any low haunts to which his disreputable associates deluded him. He picked up strange acquaintance in these days of his decadence, as poor people very often do: young men who were wandering about the world, out at elbows, professionless young reprobates, getting a very doubtful living by the exercise of their wits, men who were content to flatter and pay court to the old beau so long as they could win a few francs from him to pay for the evening’s diversion.
With such men George Vane had associated for a long time. They won pitiful sums of him, and cheated him without scruple; but his life was a very dull one, remember; he had lived for the world, and society of some kind or other was absolutely necessary to him. He clung, therefore, to these men, and was fain to accept their homage in the hour of his decline; and it was with such men as these he had spent the night before his death. It was such men as these who had robbed him of the money which, but for an unhappy accident, would have been safely handed over to the schoolmistress in the Bois de Boulogne.
The old man’s death caused very little excitement in Paris. Public gambling-houses had been abolished by the order of the Government long before; and it was no longer a common thing for desperate men to scatter their brains upon the table on which they had just squandered their money; but still people knew very well that there was plenty of card-playing, and dice-throwing, and billiard-playing, always going on here and there in the brilliant city, and the suicide of a gambler more or less was not a thing to make any disturbance.
Mrs. Bannister wrote a stiffly-worded letter in reply to that in which Richard Thornton told her of her father’s death, enclosing an order on Messrs. Blount for the sum she considered sufficient to pay for the old man’s funeral, and to support Eleanor for a few weeks.
“I should advise her early return to England,” the stockbroker’s widow wrote, “and I will endeavour to find her some decent situation—as nursery governess or milliner’s apprentice, perhaps—but she must remember that I expect her to support herself, and that she must not look to me for any further assistance. I have performed my duty to my father at a considerable loss to myself, but with his death all claim upon me ceases.”
George Vane had been buried during the early days of his youngest daughter’s illness. They placed him amongst a cluster of neglected graves, in a patch of ground upon the outskirts of Père la Chaise, and Richard Thornton ordered a roughly hewn cross from one of the stonemasons near the cemetery. So, far away from the lofty monuments of the Russian princes and the marshals of the First Empire; far away from Abelard and Heloise, and all the marble chapels in which devoted survivors pray for the souls of the beloved dead; in a desolate and unhallowed patch of weedy turf, where the bones of the departed were only suffered to rest peaceably for a given number of years, and were stirred up out of their coffins periodically to make room for new-comers, George Vane slept the last sleep. He might have been buried as a nameless suicide but for the chance which had taken Richard Thornton to the Morgue, where he recognised Eleanor’s father in the unknown dead man who had been last brought to that gloomy shelter; for he had had no papers which could give any clue to his identity about him at the time of his death.
Upon the morning after that quiet September afternoon on which Eleanor Vane had learned the true story of her father’s death, Signora Picirillo for the first time spoke seriously of the future. In the intensity of her first great grief, Eleanor Vane had never once thought of the desolation of her position, nor yet of the sacrifices which the Signora and Richard were making for her sake. She never remembered that they were both lingering in Paris solely on her account; she only knew that they were there, and that she saw them daily, and that the sight of them, good and kind as they were, was pain and weariness to her, like the sight of everything else in the world.
She had been singularly quiet since the revelation made to her. After the first burst of passionate vehemence which had succeeded her perusal of her dead father’s letter, her manner had grown almost unnaturally calm. She had sat all the evening apart near the window, and Richard had tried in vain to beguile her attention even for a moment. She kept silence, brooding upon the scrap of paper which lay in her bosom.
This morning she sat in a listless attitude, with her head resting on her hand. She took no heed of the Signora’s busy movements from room to room. She made no effort to give her old friend any assistance in all the little household arrangements which took so long to complete, and when at last the music-mistress brought her needle-work to the window, and sat down opposite the invalid, Eleanor looked up at her with a dull weary gaze that struck despair to the good creature’s heart.
“Nelly, my dear,” the Signora said, briskly, “I want to have a little serious conversation with you.”
“About what, dear Signora?”
“About the future, my love.”
Eleanor Vane uttered the word almost as if it had been meaningless to her.
“Yes, my dear. You see even I can talk hopefully of the future, though I am an old woman; but you, who are only fifteen, have a long life before you, and it is time you began to look forward to it.”
“I do look forward,” Eleanor said, with a gloomy expression upon her face. “I do look forward to the future; and to meeting that man, the man who caused my father’s death. How am I to find him, Signora? Help me in that. You have been kind to me in everything else. Only help me to do that and I will love you better than ever I have loved you yet.”
The Signora shook her head. She was a light-hearted, energetic creature, who had borne very heavy burdens through a long life; but the burdens had not been able to crush her. Perhaps her unselfishness had upheld her throughout all her trials. She had thought and cared so much for other people, that she had had little time left for thinking of herself.
“My dear Eleanor,” she said, gravely, “this will never do. You must not be influenced by that fatal letter. Your poor father had no right to lay the responsibility of his own act upon another man. If he chose to stake this unfortunate money upon the hazard of a pack of cards, and lost it, he had no right to charge this man with the consequences of his own folly.”
“But the man cheated him!”
“As your father thought. People are very apt to fancy themselves cheated when they lose money.”
“Papa would never have written so positively, if he had not known that the man cheated him. Besides, Richard says they were heard at high words; that was no doubt when my poor dear father accused this wretch of being a cheat. He and his companion were wicked, scheming men, who had good reason to hide their names. They were pitiless wretches, who had no compassion upon the poor old man who trusted them and believed in their honour. Are you going to defend them, Signora Picirillo?”
“Defend them, Eleanor? no: they were bad men, I have no doubt. But, my darling child, you must not begin life with hatred and vengeance in your heart.”
“Not hate the man who caused my father’s death?” cried Eleanor Vane. “Do you think I shall ever cease to hate him, Signora? Do you think that I shall ever forget to pray that the day may come when he and I will stand face to face, and that he may be as helpless and as dependent upon my mercy as my father was on his? Heaven help him on that day! But I don’t want to talk of this, Signora: what is the use of talking? I may be an old woman, perhaps, before I meet this man, but surely, surely I shall meet him sooner or later. If I only knew his name—if I only knew his name, I think I could trace him from one end of the earth to the other. Robert Lan—Lan—what?”
Her head sank forward on her breast, and her eyes fixed themselves dreamily on the sunlit street below the open window. The French poodle, Fido, lay at her feet, and lifted up his head every now and then to lick her hand. The animal had missed his master, and had wandered about the little rooms, sniffing on the thresholds of closed doors, and moaning dismally for several days after Mr. Vane’s disappearance.
The Signora sighed as she watched Eleanor. What was she to do with this girl, who had taken a horrible vendetta upon herself at fifteen years of age, and who seemed as gloomily absorbed in her scheme of vengeance as any Corsican chieftain?
“My dear,” the music-mistress said presently, with rather a sharp accent, “do you know that Richard and I will be compelled to leave Paris to-morrow?”
“Leave Paris to-morrow, Signora!”
“Yes. The Phœnix opens early in October, and our Dick will have all the scenes to paint for the new piece. Besides, there are my pupils; you know, my love, they cannot be kept together for ever unless I go back to them.”
Eleanor Vane looked up with almost a bewildered expression, as if she had been trying to comprehend all that Signora Picirillo had said; then suddenly a light seemed to dawn upon her, and she rose from her chair and flung herself upon a carpeted hassock at the feet of her friend.
“Dear Signora,” she said, clasping the music-mistress’s hand in both her own, “how wicked and ungrateful I have been all this time! I forget everything but myself and my own trouble. You came over to Paris on my account. You told me so when I was ill, but I had forgotten, I had forgotten; and Richard has stopped in Paris because of me. Oh, what can I do to repay you both, what can I do?”
Eleanor hid her face upon the Signora’s lap, and wept silently. Those tears did her good; they beguiled her for a little while, at least, from the one absorbing thought of her father’s melancholy fate.
Signora Picirillo tenderly smoothed the soft ripples of auburn hair lying on her lap.
“My dear Eleanor, shall I tell you what you can do to make us both very happy, and to repay us tenfold for any little sacrifice we may have made on your account?”
“Yes, yes; tell me.”
“You have to choose your pathway in life, Nelly, and to choose it quickly. In all the world you have only your half-sisters and brothers to whom you can appeal for assistance. You have some claim upon them, you know, dear, but I sometimes think you are too proud to avail yourself of that claim.”
Eleanor Vane lifted her head with a gesture of superb defiance.
“I would starve rather than accept a penny from Mrs. Bannister, or from her sister or brothers. If they had been different, my father would never have died as he did. He was deserted and abandoned by all the world, poor dear, except his helpless child, who could do nothing to save him.”
“But if you don’t mean to apply to Mrs. Bannister, what will you do, Nelly?”
Eleanor Vane shook her head hopelessly. The whole fabric of the future had been shattered by her father’s desperate act. The simple dream of a life in which she was to have worked for that beloved father was over, and it seemed to Eleanor as if the future existed no longer: there was only the sad, desolate present,—a dreary spot in the great desert of life, bounded by a yawning grave.
“Why do you ask me what I mean to do, Signora?” she said piteously. “How does it matter what I do? Nothing I can do will bring my father back. I will stay in Paris, and get my living how I can, and look for the man who murdered my father.”
“Eleanor,” cried the Signora, “are you mad? How could you stay in Paris, when you don’t know one living creature in the whole city? How, in mercy’s name, could you get your living in this strange place?”
“I could be a nursery-governess or a nursery-maid; anything! What do I care how low I sink, if I can only stay here, where I am likely to meet that man?”
“Eleanor, my dear! For pity’s sake do not delude yourself in this manner. The man you want to find is an adventurer, no doubt. In Paris one day, in London another, or away in America perhaps, or at the further extremity of the globe. Do you hope to find this man by walking about the streets of Paris?”
“I don’t know.”
“How do you expect to meet him?”
“I don’t know.”
“But, Eleanor, be reasonable. It is utterly impossible that you can remain in Paris. If Mrs. Bannister does not claim the right of exercising some authority over you, I claim it as your oldest friend. My dear, you will not refuse to listen to me, will you?”
“No, no, dear Signora. If you think I mustn’t stay in Paris, I’ll go back to England, to the Miss Bennetts. They’ll give me fifteen pounds a-year as junior teacher. I may as well live with them, if I mustn’t stay here. I must earn some money, I suppose, before I can even try to find the man who caused my father’s death. How long it will be before I can earn anything worth speaking of!”
She sighed wearily, and fell again into a gloomy silence, from which the poodle vainly tried to arouse her by many affectionate devices.
“Then we may consider it settled, Nelly, my dear,” the Signora said, cheerfully. “You will leave Paris to-morrow morning, with Richard and me. You can stay with us, my dear, till you’ve made up your mind what to do. We’ve a little spare room, which is only used now as a receptacle for empty boxes and Richard’s painting litter. We’ll fit it up for you, my darling, and make you as comfortable as we can.”
“Dear, dear Signora!” said Eleanor, kneeling by her friend’s chair. “How good you are to me. But while I have been ill there must have been a great deal of money spent: for the doctor, and the jelly, and fruit and lemonade you have given me—who found the money, Signora?”
“Your sister, Mrs. Bannister, my dear; she sent some money in answer to a letter from Richard.”
Eleanor’s face crimsoned suddenly, and the music-mistress understood the meaning of that angry flush.
“Richard didn’t ask for any money, my love. He only wrote to tell your sister what had happened. She sent money for all necessary expenses. It is not all gone yet, Nelly; there will be enough to pay your journey back to England; and even then something left. I have kept an account of all that has been spent, and will give it to you when you like.”
Eleanor looked down at her white morning-gown.
“Is there enough left to buy a black frock?” she asked, in a low voice.
“Yes, my darling. I have thought of that. I have had mourning made for you. The dressmaker took one of your muslin frocks for a pattern, so there was no occasion to trouble you about the business.”
“How good you are to me, how very, very good!”
Eleanor Vane could only say this. As yet she only dimly felt how much she owed to these people, who were bound to her by no tie of relationship, and who yet stepped aside from their own difficult pathway to do her service in her sorrow. She could not learn to cling to them, and depend upon them yet. She had loved them long ago, in her father’s lifetime; but now that he was dead, every link that had bound her to life, and love, and happiness, seemed suddenly severed, and she stood alone, groping blindly in the thick darkness of a new and dreary world, with only one light shining far away at the end of a wearisome and obscure pathway, and that a lurid and fatal star, that beckoned her onward to some unknown deed of hate and vengeance.
Heaven knows what vague scheme of retribution she cherished in her childish ignorance of the world. Perhaps she formed her ideas of life from the numerous novels she had read, in which the villain was always confounded in the last chapter, however triumphant he might be through two volumes and three-quarters of successful iniquity.
George Vane’s sanguine and romantic visions of wealth and grandeur, of retaliation upon those who had neglected and forgotten him, had not been without effect upon the mind of his youngest daughter. That plastic mind had been entirely in the old man’s hands, to mould in what form he pleased. Himself entirely the slave of impulse, it was not to be supposed that he could teach his daughter those sound principles without which man, like a rudderless vessel, floats hither and thither before every current in the sea of life. He suffered Eleanor’s impulsive nature to have full sway; he put no curb upon the sanguine temperament which took everything in the extreme. As blindly as the girl loved her father, so blindly she was ready to hate those whom he called his enemies. To investigate the nature of the wrongs they had done him would have been to take their side in the quarrel. Reason and Love could not go hand-in-hand in Eleanor’s creed; for the questions which Reason might ask would be so many treacheries against Love.
It is not to be wondered, then, that she held the few broken sentences written by her father, on the threshold of a shameful death, as a solemn and sacred trust not to be violated or lost sight of, though her future life should be sacrificed to the fulfilment of one purpose.
Such thoughts as these, indistinct, ignorant, and childish, perhaps, but not the less absorbing, filled her mind. It may be that this new purpose of revenge, enabled her the better to endure her loss. She had something to live for, at least. There was a light far away athwart the long gloomy pathway through an unknown world, and, however lurid that guiding star might be, it was better than total darkness.
CHAPTER X. HORTENSIA BANNISTER HOLDS OUT A HELPING HAND.
Signora Picirillo was very well contented with her morning’s work. She had obtained Eleanor’s consent to a speedy departure from Paris; that was the grand point. Once away from the scene of the terrible catastrophe of George Vane’s death, the young girl’s sunshiny nature would reassert itself, and little by little the great grief would be forgotten.
In all this dreary period of sickness and misery the good music-mistress had grown to love Mr. Vane’s daughter even more than she had loved her long ago, when Eleanor’s childish fingers had first stumbled slowly over the keys of the pianoforte, in a feeble endeavour to master the grand difficulties of Haydn’s “Surprise.”
The widow’s life had been a very sorrowful one. Perhaps its most tranquil period had come within the last ten years. It was ten years since, her Italian husband and her children having one by one died, she had found herself alone in the world, with a gaunt, long-legged hobadahoy of eighteen, her dead sister’s orphan son, for her sole protector.
This long-legged hobadahoy was Richard Thornton, the only child of the Signora’s pretty younger sister and a dashing cavalry officer, who had married a penniless and obscure girl for the love of her pretty face, and had died within a couple of years of his marriage, leaving his widow to drag out the remnant of a fretful, helpless life in dependence upon her sister. The Signora had been used to carrying other people’s burthens from a very early age. She was the eldest child of a clever violinist, who had been for twenty years leader of the orchestra in one of the principal London theatres; and from babyhood had been a brave-hearted, self-reliant creature. When her sister died, therefore, and with the last words upon her pale, tremulous lips prayed the Signora to protect the helpless boy, Richard Thornton, Eliza Picirillo freely accepted the charge, and promised to perform it faithfully. The poor faded beauty died with a smile upon her face, and when Signor Picirillo—who was a teacher of languages at a few suburban schools, and a lazy, good-tempered nonenity—came home that evening, he found that there was to be another member of his domestic circle, and another mouth to be fed henceforth.
The Signora’s cruse of oil held out bravely, in spite of the demands upon it; and by-and-by, when the honest-hearted music-mistress would otherwise have been terribly desolate, there was Richard, a tall lad, ready to stand by her sturdily in the battle of life, and as devoted to her as the most affectionate of sons. The boy had shown considerable talent at a very early age, but it was a versatile kind of talent which did not promise ever to burst forth into the grander gift of genius. His aunt taught him music, and he taught himself painting, intending to be something in the way of Maclise or Turner by-and-by, and scraping together some of the shillings he earned with his violin in order to attend a dingy academy somewhere in Bloomsbury.
But the great historical subjects after Maclise—“The Death of the Bloody Boar at Bosworth,” a grand battle scene, with a lurid sunset in the background, and Richmond’s face and armour all ablaze with crimson lake and gamboge, from the flaming reflection of the skies, was the magnum opus which poor Dick fondly hoped to see in the Royal Academy—were not very saleable; and the Turneresque landscapes, nymphs and ruins, dryads and satyrs, dimly visible through yellow mist and rose-coloured fog, cost a great deal of time and money to produce, and were not easily convertible into ready cash. So, when Richard had gone the usual weary round amongst the picture-dealers, and had endured the usual heart-burnings and agonies which wait upon ambitious youth, he was glad to accept the brush flung aside by a scene-painter at the Phœnix, where Dick received a scanty salary as second violinist; a salary which was doubled when the young man practised the double duty of second violin and assistant scene-painter.
These simple people were the only friends of Eleanor Vane’s childhood. They were ready to accept the responsibility of her future welfare now, when her rich sister would have sent her into the world, lonely and helpless, to sink to the abject drudgery which well-to-do people speak so complacently of, when they recommend their poor relations to get an honest living and trouble them no longer.
Richard Thornton was enraptured at the idea of taking this beautiful younger sister home with him, although that idea involved the necessity of working for her till she was able to do something for herself.
“Nothing could be better for us than all this sad business, aunty,” the young scene-painter said when he called in the Rue l’Archevêque, and found his aunt alone in the little sitting-room. Eleanor was lying down after the morning’s excitement, while her friend packed her slender wardrobe and made all preparations for departure. “Nothing could be better for us,” the young man said. “Why, Nell’s golden hair will light up the Pilasters with perpetual sunshine, and I shall always have a model for my subject-pictures. Then what a companion she’ll be for you in the long dreary nights when I am away at the Phœnix, and how capitally she’ll be able to help you with your pupils; for, of course, she plays and sings, like anything, by this time.”
“But she wants to go back to the Miss Bennetts, the people at the Brixton school, Dick.”
“But, Lord bless you, aunty, we won’t let her go,” cried Mr. Thornton; “we’ll make a prima donna or a leading tragedy-actress, or something of that kind, of her. We’ll teach her to make a hundred pounds a-week out of her white arms and her flashing gray eyes. How beautiful she looked last night when she was on her knees, vowing vengeance against that scoundrel who won her father’s money, with her yellow hair all streaming over her shoulders, and her eyes flashing sparks of fire! Wouldn’t she bring the house down, if she did that at the Phœnix? She’s a wonderful girl, aunty; the sort of girl to set all London in a blaze some day, somehow or other. Miss Bennett’s and Brixton, indeed!” cried Richard, snapping his fingers contemptuously, “you could no more chain that girl down to a governess’s drudgery, than you could make a flash of forked lightning do duty for a farthing candle.”
So Eleanor Vane went back to England with her friends. They chose the Dieppe and Brighton route for its economy; and over the same sunlit landscape upon which she had gazed so rapturously less than a month ago, Eleanor’s eyes wandered now wearily and sadly, seeing nothing but desolation wherever they looked. She recognised swelling hills and broad patches of low verdure, winding glimpses of the river, far-away villages glimmering whitely in the distance, and she wondered at the change in herself which made all these things so different to her. What a child she had been a month ago; what a reckless, happy child, looking forward in foolish certainty to a long life with her father, ignorant of all sorrows except the petty troubles she had shared with him, ready to hope for anything in the boundless future, with a whole fairy-land of pleasure and delight spreading out before her eager feet!
Now she was a woman, alone in a horrible desert, over whose dreary sands she must crawl slowly and wearily to the end she hoped to reach.
She sat back in a corner of the second-class carriage with her face hidden in a veil, and with the dog Fido curled up in her lap. Her father had been fond of the faithful creature, she remembered.
It was early in the gray bleakness of a September morning when the cab, carrying Eleanor and her friends, rattled under an archway leading out of Dudley Street, Bloomsbury, into the queer little retreat called the Pilasters. The grooms were already at work in the mews, and the neighbourhood was enlivened by that hissing noise with which horses are generally beguiled during the trials of the equine toilet. The chimney-sweep had left his abode and was whooping dismally in Northumberland Square. Life began early in the Pilasters, and already the inmates of many houses were astir, and the sharp voices of mothers clamoured denunciations on the elder daughters who acted as unsalaried nursemaids to the younger branches of the family.
The place popularly known as the Pilasters is one of the queerest nooks in London. It consists of a row of tumble-down houses, fronted by a dilapidated colonnade, and filled with busy life from cellar to attic. But I do not believe that the inhabitants of the Pilasters are guilty of nefarious practices, or that vice and crime find a hiding-place in the cellars below the colonnade. The retreat stands by itself, hidden between two highly respectable middle-class streets, whose inhabitants would scarcely tolerate Alsatian habits or Field Lane proclivities in their near neighbours. Small tradesmen find a home in the Pilasters, and emerge thence to work for the best families in Dudley Street and “the Squares.”
Here, amongst small tailors and mantua-makers, cheap eating-houses, shabby beer-shops, chimney-sweeps and mangles, Signora Picirillo had taken up her abode, bringing her faded goods and chattels, the remnants of brighter times, to furnish the first-floor over a shoemaker’s shop. I am afraid the shoemaker was oftener employed in mending old shoes than in making new ones, but the Signora was fain to ignore that fact, and to be contented with her good fortune in having found a very cheap lodging in a central neighbourhood.
This was a shabbier place than any that Eleanor Vane had ever lived in, but she showed no distaste for its simple arrangements. The Signora’s hopes were realised by-and-by. At first the girl sat all day in a despondent attitude, with the French poodle in her lap, her head drooping on her breast, her eyes fixed on vacancy, her whole manner giving evidence of an all-absorbing grief which was nearly akin to despair. She went to Brixton very soon after her return to England; but here a very cruel disappointment awaited her. The Misses Bennett heard her sorrowful story with pitiful murmurs of regret and compassion, but they had engaged a young person as junior teacher, and could do nothing to help her. She returned to the Pilasters, looking the image of pale despair; but the Signora and Richard both declared to her that nothing could be happier for them than her consenting to remain with them.
So it seemed very much as if the Pilasters was to be Eleanor Vane’s permanent abode. The neighbours had stared at her a great deal at first, admiring her pale face and flowing hair, and pitying her because of her black frock; but they were familiar with her now, and gave her good day in a friendly manner as she passed under the shadow of the colonnade on her way out or in.
Little by little the air of dull despondency gave way before this young woman’s earnest desire to be of use to the people who were so kind to her. She played remarkably well, for she had had plenty of the drudgery of pianoforte-playing at the Brixton school, and she was able to take some of the Signora’s pupils off her hands. She sang, too, in a rich contralto, which promised to be powerful and beautiful by-and-by; and she practised the ballads in the old operas which the Signora kept, neatly bound, but yellow with age, in her feeble music-stand.
As her friends had hoped, her sunshiny nature re-asserted itself. The outer evidences of her great sorrow gradually passed away, though the memory of her loss still filled her mind; the image of her father, and the thought of that father’s unhappy death, were still for ever present with her. It was not in her nature to be long reserved or unsocial; and by-and-by, when she had been nearly six months in her new home, and the London sparrows were chirping in the bright spring sunshine about the mews and under the colonnade, Miss Vane began to sing at her work as she flitted to and fro in the low rooms, dusting the grand pianoforte and the old china—touching up the frame of Richard’s unsaleable picture, the flaring Battle of Bosworth, which illuminated one side of the room. Wherever she went the faithful French poodle ran frisking by her side; whatever sunshine could find its way into the dusky London chamber seemed to concentrate itself about her golden head. Gaiety, life, and brightness, went with her up and down the dark staircase—in and out of the dingy rooms. Her youth and beauty turned the shabby lodging into a fairy palace, as it seemed to Richard and his aunt. When she sat down and ran her agile fingers over the piano, dashing into fantasias and scenas, sparkling and rippling with joyous treble meanderings among the upper notes, the old Clementi grew young again beneath her touch, the worn-out strings were revivified by the wondrous magnetism of her youth and vitality. The flute-like treble trills and triplets seemed like the joyous chirpings of a hundred birds. The music-mistress and the scene-painter used to sit and watch her as she played; their admiring eyes followed her as she flitted to and fro, and they wondered at her grace and beauty.
She had her father’s aristocratic elegance, her father’s power of fascination. All the dangerous gifts which had been so fatal to George Vane, were inherited by his youngest daughter. Like him, a creature of impulse, spontaneous, sanguine, volatile, she influenced other people by the force of her own superabundant vitality. In her bright hopefulness she made an atmosphere of hope in which other people grew hopeful. The dullest rejoiced in her joyous vivacity, her unconscious loveliness. Yes, perhaps Eleanor Vane’s greatest charm lay in her utter ignorance of the fact that she was charming. In the three years’ drudgery of a boarding-school she had never learned the power of her own fascination. She knew that people loved her, and she was grateful to them for their affection; but she had never discovered that it was by some wondrous magnetic attraction inherent in herself, that she obtained so much love and devotion.
Nobody had ever taken the trouble to tell her that she was beautiful. She had generally worn shabby frocks, and the rippling golden hair had not very often been smooth, so perhaps the school-girls at Brixton scarcely knew how lovely their companion was. The delicate aquiline profile, the flashing gray eyes, pale face, red lips and amber hair, were counterbalanced by the silk dresses and lace furbelows of young ladies, whose wealthy fathers paid full price for their education. Poverty learns its place in the little world of a young ladies’ boarding-school quite as surely as in the larger world beyond the garden wall which bounds that establishment. But Eleanor had held her own at the Misses Bennett’s seminary by some mysterious power against which her richer companions had in vain rebelled. Her frank acknowledgment of her poverty, coupled with the fact of her father’s former wealth and grandeur, perhaps enabled her to do this. If she wore shabby frocks, she looked more aristocratic in her shabbiness than the other young ladies in their stiff silks and prim finery. They recognised this fact, they acknowledged something in their playfellow which lifted her above themselves, and the half-boarder dealt out patronage and regal condescensions to the most remunerative pupils in the school. She reigned by reason of her unacknowledged beauty, and that divine something, dimly recognised by all about her, but as yet wholly undeveloped. The school-girl was clever, brilliant, fascinating, but it was yet to be discovered what the woman would be. It was yet to be discovered whether these budding qualities would develop into the many flowers of a bright and versatile mind, or burst forth suddenly and mysteriously into that rare tropical blossom, that mental once-in-a-century flourishing aloe, which men call Genius. The good music-mistress watched her young protégée with love and wonder, not unalloyed by fear. What was she to do with this strange and beautiful bird which she had brought home to her nest? Would it be right to fetter this bright spirit for ever? Was it fair to immure all this joyous loveliness in that shabby lodging; to stifle such superabundant vitality in the close atmosphere of a dull and monotonous existence?
The faithful creature had been accustomed to consider others, and she thought of this seriously and constantly. Eleanor was contented and happy. She was earning money now by giving lessons here and there, and she contributed to the family purse. The days slipped by very rapidly, as it seemed, in that peaceful monotony. Miss Vane’s frocks appeared to grow shorter and shorter as the young lady sprang up into bright womanhood. She was nearly seventeen now, and had been more than a year and a half living under the shadow of the Bloomsbury Pilasters. Richard and his aunt consulted together as to what her future life ought to be; but they never came nearer to any conclusion.
“It’s all very well to talk of her going away from us, you know, aunty,” the scene-painter said; “but what are we to do without her? All the sunshine and poetry of our lives will go away with her when she leaves us! Besides! what is she to be? A governess? Bah! who would doom her to that ladylike drudgery? An actress? No, aunty carissima, I should never like to see that bright young beauty behind the glare of the foot-lights. I think I’d rather she should live here for ever and ever, than that her nature should ever be vulgarised by contact with the world. Let us keep her, aunty; she doesn’t want to leave us. Those who have any actual claim upon her have abandoned her. She came across my pathway like some wandering homeless angel. I shall never forget her face when I first saw it on the lamplit boulevard, and recognised the little girl I had known three years before in the fair-haired young beauty of fifteen. She doesn’t want to go away. Why should you talk of her leaving us, aunty dear?”
Signora Picirillo shrugged her shoulders with a sigh.
“Heaven knows I have no wish to part with her, Dick,” she said; “but we ought to do what’s right for her sake. This is no place for George Vane’s daughter.”
But while the music-mistress and her nephew were speculating and theorising upon the future of their protégée, practical Mrs. Bannister was contemplating the infliction of a death-blow which was to shatter the happiness of the humble Bloomsbury circle with one merciless stroke. Early in the bleak March of 1855, Eleanor received a coldly-worded epistle from her half-sister, to the effect that an opportunity had now arisen for her advancement in life; and that if she wished ever to attain a respectable position—the adjective was mercilessly underlined—she would do well to avail herself of it. For further information and advice she was to call early the next morning in Hyde Park Gardens. Miss Vane would fain have left this letter unanswered, and at first stoutly refused to obey Mrs. Bannister’s summons.
“What do I want with her condescension and patronage?” she said, indignantly. “Does she think that I forget the cruel letter she wrote to my father; or that I forgive her for its heartless insolence? Let her keep her favours for those who solicit them. I want nothing from her. I only want to be left in peace with the friends I love. Do you want to get rid of me, Signora, that you persuade me to dance attendance upon Mrs. Bannister?”
It was very hard for poor Signora Picirillo to be compelled to urge the child’s acceptance of the hand so coldly extended to her, but the good creature felt that it was her duty to do so, and Miss Vane loved her protectress far too dearly to persist in opposing her. She went, therefore, early the next morning to her half-sister’s house at Bayswater, where the spacious rooms seemed doubly spacious when compared with the little sitting-room over the colonnade, the sitting-room which was more than half filled by Clementi’s old-fashioned piano. Here the gorgeous Erard’s grand, in a case of carved walnut wood and ebony, and with all manner of newfangled improvements, was only an oasis upon the great desert of splendid Brussels carpet.
Hortensia Bannister was pleased to be very gracious to her half-sister. Perhaps she was all the more so because Eleanor made no pretence of affection for her. This cold, hard-natured woman would have been suspicious of mercenary motives lurking beneath any demonstration of sisterly love.
“I am glad to hear you have been learning to get your own living, Eleanor,” she said,“and above all, that you have been cultivating your talent for the piano. I have not forgotten you, you will find. The people with whom you have been living sent me their address when they brought you from Paris, and I knew where to find you when any opportunity should present itself for your advancement. This opportunity has now presented itself. My old acquaintance, Mrs. Darrell, the niece of your father’s friend, Maurice de Crespigny, who is still living, though very old and infirm, has written to me saying that she requires a young person who would act as companion and musical governess to a lady who lives with her. This young lady is no relation of Mrs. Darrell’s, but is a kind of ward or pupil, I believe. Your youth, in this instance, Eleanor, happens to be an advantage, as the young lady requires a companion of her own age. You will receive a moderate salary, and will be treated as a member of the family. Let me hear you play, by-the-by, that I may be able to speak positively as to your qualifications.”
Eleanor Vane sat down to the piano. The strings of the Erard vibrated under her touch. She was almost frightened at the grand tones that came out of the instrument as she dashed over the keys. She played very brilliantly, however, and her sister condescended to say so.
“I think I may conscientiously give a good account of your playing,” she said. “You sing, I suppose?”
“Very well, then; I think you may consider the engagement a settled thing. There is only one question to arrange. Of course you must be aware that the position which your father occupied was once a very elevated one. His most intimate friend was Mr. de Crespigny, the uncle of the lady whose house I wish you to enter. Under these circumstances you cannot wonder when I tell you that I should strongly object to Mrs. Darrell’s knowing who you really are.”
“How do you mean, Hortensia?”
“I mean that I shall recommend you as a young person in whose career I feel interested. If you go to Hazlewood at all, you must go under an assumed name.”
“Well!” cried Mrs. Bannister, lifting her handsome black eyebrows.
“I don’t want this situation, and I should hate to take a false name. I would rather stay with my friends, please. I love them very dearly, and am very happy with them.”
“Good Heavens!” exclaimed Mrs. Bannister, “what is the use of trying to do some people a service? Here have I been scheming as to how I could manage to avail myself of this chance, and now this ungrateful girl turns round and tells me she doesn’t want the situation. Do you know what you are refusing, Eleanor Vane? Have you learnt your father’s habit of pauperism, that you prefer to be a burden upon this penniless music-teacher and her son, or nephew, or whatever he is, rather than make an honest effort to get your own living?”
Eleanor started up from the piano: she had been sitting before it until now, softly fingering the white ivory keys, and admiring the beauty of the tones. She started up, looking at her sister, and blushing indignantly to the very roots of her golden hair.
Could this be true? Could she be indeed a burden to the friends she loved so dearly?
“If you think that, Hortensia,” she said, “if you think I am any burden to the dear Signora, or Richard, I will take any situation you like, however hard. I’ll toil night and day, and work my fingers to the bone, rather than be a trouble or a burden to them any longer.”
She remembered how little she earned by her few pupils. Yes, Hortensia was no doubt right. She was a burden to those good people who had taken her to their home in her hour of desolation and misery.
“I’ll take the situation, Hortensia,” she cried. “I’ll take a false name. I’ll do anything in the world rather than impose upon the goodness of my friends.”
“Very well,” answered Mrs. Bannister, coldly. “Pray do not let us have any heroics about it. The situation is a very good one, I can assure you, and there are many girls who would be glad to snap at such a chance. I will write to my friend, Mrs. Darrell, and recommend you to her notice. I can do no more. I cannot, of course, ensure you success; but Ellen Darrell and I were great friends some years since, and I know that I have considerable influence with her. I’ll write and tell you the result of my recommendation.”
Eleanor left Hyde Park Gardens after taking two or three sips of some pale sherry which her half-sister gave her. The wine seemed of a sorry vintage, and tasted very much as if the grapes of which it was made had never seen the sun. Miss Vane was glad to set down her wine-glass and escape from the cold splendour of her half-sister’s drawing-room.
She walked slowly and sorrowfully back to Bloomsbury. She was to leave her dear friends there; leave the shabby rooms in which she had been so happy, and to go out into the bleak world a dependent upon grand people, so low and humiliated that even her own name must be abandoned by her before she could enter upon the state of dependence. The Bohemian sociality of the Pilasters was to be exchanged for the dreary splendour of a household in which she was to be something a little above the servants.
But it would be cowardly and selfish to refuse this situation, for no doubt cruel Mrs. Bannister had spoken the truth. She had been a burden upon her poor friends.
She was very gloomy and despondent, thinking of these things, but through every gloomy thought of the present a darker image loomed far away in the black future. This was the image of her vengeance, the vague and uncertain shadow that had filled her girlish dreams ever since the great sorrow of her father’s death had fallen upon her.
“If I go to Hazlewood,” she thought, “if I spend my life at Mrs. Darrell’s, how can I ever hope to find the murderer of my father?”