Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 8
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XIII. HAZLEWOOD.
A phaeton and pair was in waiting for Mr. Monckton outside the Slough station. The vehicle was very plain, but had a certain quiet elegance of its own, and the horses had been sold at Tattersall’s for something over five hundred pounds.
Eleanor Vane’s spirits rose in spite of herself as she sat by the lawyer’s side, driving at a rapid rate through the pretty pastoral country. They crossed the river almost immediately after leaving Slough, and dashed into Berkshire. They skirted Windsor Park and Forest, leaving the black outline of the castle keep looming in the dim distance behind them; and then turned into a quiet country road, where the green banks were dotted by clumps of early primroses, and the white-thorns were bursting into flower.
Eleanor looked rapturously at all this rural beauty. She was a Cockney, poor child, and her experience of the country was confined to rambles in Greenwich Park, or on Richmond Terrace; happy rambles with her father, prior to expensive dinners at the Crown and Sceptre, or the Star and Garter, as the case might be.
But the country, the genuine country, the long roads and patches of common, the glimpses of wood and water, the great deserts of arable land, the scattered farm-houses, and noisy farm-yards; all these were strange and new to her, and her soul expanded in the unfamiliar atmosphere.
If that drive could have lasted for ever, it would have been very delightful; but she knew that those splendid chestnut horses were carrying her at a terrible rate to her new home. Her new home! What right had she to call Hazlewood by that name? She was not going home. She was going to her first situation.
All the pride of birth, the foolish and mistaken pride in shipwrecked fortune and squandered wealth which this girl’s weak-minded father had instilled into her, arose and rebelled against this bitter thought. What humiliation Mrs. Bannister’s cruelty had inflicted upon her!
She was thinking this when Mr. Monckton suddenly turned his horses’ heads away from the main road, and the phaeton entered a lane above which the branches of the still leafless trees made an overarching roof of delicate tracery.
At the end of this lane, in which the primroses seemed to grow thicker than in any other part of the country, there were some low wooden gates, and an old-fashioned iron lamp-post. On the other side of the gates there was a wide lawn shut in by a shrubbery and a grove of trees, and beyond the lawn glimmered the sunlit windows of a low white house; a rambling cottage, whose walls were half-hidden by trellis-work and ivy, and not one of whose windows or chimneys owned a fellowship with the others.
Pigeons were cooing and hens clucking somewhere behind the house, a horse began to neigh as the carriage stopped, and three dogs, one very big, and two very little ones, ran out upon the lawn, and barked furiously at the phaeton.
Eleanor Vane could not help thinking the low-roofed, white-walled, ivy-covered irregular cottage very pretty, even though it was Hazlewood.
While the dogs were barking their loudest, a delicate little figure, fluttering in white and blue, came floating out of a window under the shadow of a verandah, and ran towards the gates.
It was the figure of a young lady, very fragile-looking and graceful. A young lady, whose complexion was fairer than a snow-drop, and whose loose floating hair was of the palest shade of flaxen.
“Be quiet, Julius Cæsar; be quiet, Mark Antony,” she cried, to the dogs, who ran up to her and leaped and whirled about her, jumping almost higher than her head in an excess of canine spirits. “Be quiet, you big, wicked Julius Cæsar, or you shall go back to the stables, sir. Is this the way you behave yourself when I’ve had ever so much trouble to get you a half-holiday? Please, don’t mind them, Miss Vincent,” the young lady added, opening the gate, and looking up pleadingly at Eleanor; “they’re only noisy. They wouldn’t hurt you for the world; and they’ll love you very much by-and-by, when they come to know you. I’ve been watching for you such a time, Mr. Monckton. The train must have been very slow this afternoon!”
“The train travelled at its usual speed, neither slower nor faster,” the lawyer said, with a quiet smile, as he handed Eleanor out of the phaeton. He left the horses in the care of the groom, and walked on to the lawn with the two girls. The dogs left off barking at a word from him, though they had made very light of Miss Mason’s entreaties. They seemed to know him, and to be accustomed to obey him.
“I know the afternoon seemed dreadfully long,” the young lady said.” I thought the train must be behind its time.”
“And, of course, you never thought of looking at your watch, Miss Mason,” the lawyer said, pointing to a quantity of jewelled toys which hung at the young lady’s blue sash.
“What’s the good of looking at one’s watch, if one’s watch won’t go?” said Miss Mason; “the sun has been going down ever so long, but the sun’s so changeable, there’s no relying on it. Mrs. Darrell has gone out in the pony-carriage to call upon some people near Woodlands.”
Eleanor Vane started at the sudden mention of a name which had been so familiar to her from her dead father’s lips.
“So I am all alone,” continued Miss Mason, “and I’m very glad of that, because we shall get to know each other so much better by ourselves; shan’t we, Miss Vincent?”
George Monckton had been walking between the two girls, but Laura Mason came round to Eleanor, and put her hand in that of Miss Vane. It was a fat little childish hand, but there were rings glittering upon it, small as it was.
“I think I shall like you very much,” Laura Mason whispered. “Do you think you shall like me?”
She looked up into Eleanor’s face, with an entreating expression in her blue eyes; they were really blue eyes, a bright forget-me-not, or turquoise blue, as different as possible to the clear gray of Eleanor’s eyes, which was for ever changing, sometimes purple, sometimes brown, sometimes black.
How could Miss Vane reply to this childish question, except in the affirmative? She had every inclination to love the babyish young lady, who was so ready to cling to her and confide in her. She had expected to find a haughty young heiress who would have flaunted her wealth before her penniless companion. But she had another reason for inclining tenderly towards this girl. She remembered what Mr. Monckton had said to her in the railway carriage.
“However friendless or desolate you may be, you can never be so friendless and desolate as she is.”
She pressed the hand that clung to hers, and said, gravely:
“I’m sure I shall love you, Miss Mason, if you’ll let me.”
“And you’ll not be dreadful about triplets, and arpeggios, and cinquepaced passages,” the young lady said, piteously. “I don’t mind music a bit, in a general way, you know; but I never could play triplets in time.”
She led the way into a sitting-room under the verandah, as she talked. Eleanor went with her, hand-in-hand, and Mr. Monckton followed, keeping an attentive watch upon the two girls.
The sitting-room was, like the exterior of the cottage, very irregular and very pretty. It stood at one end of the house, and there were windows upon three sides of the room,—an oriel at the end opposite the door, a bay opening on to the verandah, and three latticed windows with deep oaken seats upon the other side.
The furniture was pretty, but very simple and inexpensive. The chintz curtains and chair-covers were sprinkled with rose-buds and butterflies; the chairs and tables were of shining maple-wood, and there was a good supply of old china arranged here and there upon brackets and cabinets of obsolete form. The pale cream-coloured walls were hung with a few prints and water-coloured sketches; but beyond this the chamber had no adornments.
Laura Mason led Eleanor to one of the window-seats, where a litter of fancy-work, and two or three open books tumbled carelessly here and there amongst floss-silks and Berlin wools and scraps of embroidery, gave token of the young lady’s habits.
“Will you take off your things here,” she said, “or shall I show you your own room at once? It’s the blue room, next to mine. There’s a door between the two rooms, so we shall be able to talk to each other whenever we like. How dreadfully you must want something to eat after your journey! Shall I ring for cake and wine, or shall we wait for tea? We always drink tea at seven, and we dine very early; not like Mr. Monckton, who has a grand late dinner every evening.”
The lawyer sighed.
“Rather a desolate dinner, sometimes, Miss Mason,” he said, gravely; “but you remind me that I shall be hardly in time for it, and my poor housekeeper makes herself wretched when the fish is spoiled.”
He looked at his watch.
“Six o’clock, I declare; good-bye, Laura; good-bye, Miss Vincent. I hope you will be happy at Hazlewood.”
“I am sure I shall be happy with Miss Mason,” Eleanor answered.
“Indeed!” exclaimed Mr. Monckton, elevating his straight black eyebrows, “is she so very fascinating, then? I’m sorry for it,” he muttered under his breath as he walked away after shaking hands with the two girls.
They heard the phaeton driving away three minutes afterwards.
Laura Mason shrugged her shoulders with an air of relief.
“I’m glad he’s gone,” she said.
“But you like him very much. He’s very good, isn’t he?”
“Oh, yes, very, very good, and I do like him. But I’m afraid of him, I think, because he’s so good. He always seems to be watching one and finding out one’s faults. And he seems so sorry because I’m frivolous, and I can’t help being frivolous when I’m happy.”
“And are you always happy?” Eleanor asked. She thought it very possible that this young heiress, who had never known any of those bitter troubles which Miss Vane had found associated with “money matters,” might indeed be always happy. But Laura Mason shook her head.
“Always, except when I think,” she said; “but when I think about papa and mamma, and wonder who they were, and why I never knew them, I can’t help feeling very unhappy.”
“They died when you were very young, then?” Eleanor said.
Laura Mason shook her head with a sorrowful gesture.
“I scarcely know when they died,” she answered; “I know that I can remember nothing about them; the first thing I recollect is being with a lady, far down in Devonshire—a lady who took the charge of several little girls. I stayed with her till I was ten years old, and then I was sent to a fashionable school at Bayswater, and I stayed there till I was fifteen, and then I came here, and I’ve been here two years and a-half. Mr. Monckton is my guardian, you know, and he says I am a very lucky girl, and will have plenty of money by-and-by; but what’s the use of money if one has no relations in all the wide world? and he tells me to attend to my education, and not to be frivolous, or care for dress and jewellery, but to try and become a good woman. He talks to me very seriously, and almost frightens me sometimes with his grave manner; but, for all that, he’s very kind, and lets me have almost everything I ask him for. He’s tremendously rich himself, you know, though he is only a professional man, and he lives at a beautiful place four miles from here, called Tolldale Priory. I used to ask him questions about papa and mamma, but he would never tell me anything. So now I never speak to him about them.”
She sighed as she finished speaking, and was silent for some few minutes; but she very quickly recovered her spirits and conducted Eleanor to a pretty rustic chamber with a lattice window looking on to the lawn.
“Mrs. Darrell’s man is gone to fetch your luggage,” Miss Mason said, “so you must have my brushes and combs, please, for your hair, and then we’ll go down to tea.”
She led Eleanor into the adjoining apartment, where the dressing-table was littered with all manner of womanly frivolities, and here Miss Vane re-arranged her luxuriant golden brown hair, which no longer was allowed to fall about her shoulders in rippling curls, but was drawn simply away from her forehead, and rolled in a knot at the back of her head. She was a woman now, and had begun the battle of life.
A pony-carriage drove up to the gate while Eleanor was standing at the glass by the open window, and Mrs. Darrell got out and walked across the lawn towards the house.
She was a tall woman, unusually tall for a woman, and she was dressed in black silk, which hung about her angular limbs in heavy, lustreless folds. Eleanor could see that her face was pale, and her eyes black and flashing.
The two girls went down stairs hand-in-hand. Tea was prepared in the dining-room, a long wainscoted apartment older than the rest of the house, and rather gloomy-looking. Three narrow windows upon one side of this room looked towards the shrubbery and grove at the back of the house, and the trunks of the trees looked gaunt and black in the spring twilight. A fire was burning upon the low hearth, and a maid-servant was lighting a lamp in the centre of the table as the two girls went in.
Mrs. Darrell welcomed her dependant very politely; but there was a harshness and a stiffness in her politeness which reminded Eleanor of her half-sister, Mrs. Bannister. The two women seemed to belong to the same school, Miss Vane thought.
The lamplight shone full upon Mrs. Darrell’s face, and Eleanor could see now that the face was a handsome one, though faded and careworn. The widow’s hair was gray, but her eyes retained the flashing brightness of youth. They were very dark and lustrous, but their expression was scarcely pleasant. There was too much of the hawk or eagle in their penetrating glance.
But Laura Mason did not seem at all afraid of her protectress.
“Miss Vincent and I are good friends already, Mrs. Darrell,” she said, gaily, “and we shall be as happy together as the day is long, I hope.”
“And I hope Miss Vincent will teach you industrious habits, Laura,” Mrs. Darrell answered, gravely.
Miss Mason made a grimace with her pretty red under lip.
Eleanor took the seat indicated to her, a seat at the end of the dining-table, and exactly opposite to Mrs. Darrell, who sat with her back to the fire-place.
Sitting here, Eleanor could scarcely fail to observe an oil painting—the only picture in the room—which hung over the mantelpiece. It was the portrait of a young man, with dark hair clustering about a handsome forehead, regular features, a pale complexion, and black eyes. The face was very handsome, very aristocratic, but there was a want of youthfulness, of the fresh, eager spirit of boyhood, in its expression. A look of listlessness and hauteur hung like a cloud over the almost faultless features.
Mrs. Darrell watched Eleanor’s eyes as the girl looked at this picture.
“You are looking at my son, Miss Vincent,” she said; “but perhaps it is scarcely necessary to tell you so. People say there is a strong likeness between us.”
There was indeed a very striking resemblance between the faded face below and the pictured face above. But it seemed to Eleanor Vane as if the mother’s face, faded and careworn though it was, was almost the younger of the two. The listless indifference, the utter lack of energy in the lad’s countenance, was so much the more striking when contrasted with the youthfulness of the features.
“Yes,” exclaimed Laura Mason, “that is Mrs. Darrell’s only son, Launcelot Darrell. Isn’t that a romantic name, Miss Vincent?”
Eleanor started. This Launcelot Darrell was the heir presumptive to the De Crespigny estate. How often she had heard the young man’s name! It was he, then, who would have stood between her father and fortune, had that dear father lived, or whose claim of kindred would, perhaps, have had to make way for the more sacred right of friendship.
And this young man’s portrait was hanging in the room where she sat. He lived in the house, perhaps. Where should he live except in his mother’s house?
But Eleanor’s mind was soon relieved upon this point, for Laura Mason, in the pauses of the business of the tea-table, talked a good deal about the original of the portrait.
“Don’t you think him handsome, Miss Vincent?” she asked, without waiting for an answer. “But of course you do; everybody thinks him handsome; and then Mrs. Darrell says he’s so elegant, so tall, so aristocratic. He is to have Woodlands by-and-by, and all Mr. de Crespigny’s money. But of course you don’t know Woodlands or Mr. de Crespigny. How should you, when you’ve never been in Berkshire before? And he—not Mr. Crespigny, he’s a nasty, fidgety, hypochon—what’s it’s name—old man?—but Launcelot Darrell is so accomplished. He’s an artist, you know, and all the water-coloured sketches in the drawing-room and the breakfast-parlour are his; and he plays and sings, and he dances exquisitely, and he rides and plays cricket, and he’s a—what you may call it—a crack shot; and, in short, he’s an Admirable Crichton. You musn’t fancy I’m in love with him, you know, Miss Vincent,” the young lady added, blushing and laughing, “because I never saw him in my life, and I only know all this by hearsay.”
“You never saw him!” repeated Eleanor.
Launcelot Darrell did not live at Hazlewood, then.
“No,” the widow interposed; “my son has enemies, I am sorry to say, amongst his own kindred. Instead of occupying the position his talents, to say nothing of his birth, entitle him to, he has been compelled to go out to India in a mercantile capacity. I do not wonder that his spirit rebels against such an injustice. I do not wonder that he cannot forgive.”
Mrs. Darrell’s face darkened as she spoke, and she sighed heavily. By-and-by, when the two girls were alone together in the breakfast-room, Laura Mason alluded to the conversation at the tea-table.
“I don’t think I ought to have talked about Launcelot Darrell,” she said; “I know his mother is unhappy about him, though I don’t exactly know why. You see his two aunts who live at Woodlands are nasty, scheming old-maids, and they contrived to keep him away from his great-uncle, Mr. de Crespigny, who is expected to leave him all his money. Indeed, I don’t see who else he can leave it to now. There was an old man—a college friend of Mr. de Crespigny’s—who expected to get the Woodlands estate; but of course that was an absurd idea; and the old man—the father of that very Mrs. Bannister who recommended you to Mrs. Darrell, by-the-bye—is dead. So all chance of that sort of thing is over.”
“And Mr. Launcelot Darrell is sure to have the fortune?” Eleanor said, interrogatively, after a very long pause.
“Yes, if Mr. de Crespigny dies without a will. But those two cantankerous old-maids, Mrs. Darrell’s sisters, are at him night and day, and they may persuade him at last, or they may have succeeded in persuading him, perhaps, ever so long ago, to make a will in their favour. Of course all this makes Mrs. Darrell very unhappy. She idolises her son, who is an only child, and was terribly spoiled when he was a boy, they say; and she does not know whether he will be a rich man or a pauper.”
“And, in the meantime, Mr. Darrell is in India?”
“Yes. He went to India three years ago. He’s overseer to an indigo-planter up the country, at some place with an unpronounceable name, hundreds and hundreds of miles from Calcutta. He’s not at all happy, I believe, and he very seldom writes—not above once in a twelvemonth.”
“He is not a good son, then,” Eleanor said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that! Mrs. Darrell never complains, and she’s very proud of him. She always speaks of him as ‘my son.’ But, of course, what with one thing and another, she is often very unhappy. So, if she is a little severe, now and then, we’ll try and bear with her, won’t we, Eleanor? I may call you Eleanor, mayn’t I?”
The pretty flaxen head dropped upon Miss Vane’s shoulder, as the heiress asked this question, and the blue eyes were lifted pleadingly.
“Yes, yes; I would much rather be called Eleanor than Miss Vincent.”
“And you’ll call me Laura. Nobody ever calls me Miss Mason except Mr. Monckton when he lectures me. We shall be very, very happy together, I hope, Eleanor.”
“I hope so, dear.”
There was a sudden pang of mingled fear and remorse at Eleanor Vane’s heart as she said this. Was she to be happy, and to forget the purpose of her life? Was she to be happy, and false to the memory of her murdered father? In this quiet country life; in this pleasant girlish companionship which was so new to her, was she to abandon that one dark dream, that one deeply-rooted desire which had been in her mind ever since her father’s untimely death?
She recoiled with a shudder of dread from the simple happiness which threatened to lull her to a Sybarite rest, in which that deadly design might lose its force and, little by little, fade out of her mind.
She disengaged herself from the slight arms which had encircled her in a half-childish caress, and rose suddenly to her feet.
“Laura,” she cried, “Laura, you mustn’t talk to me like this. My life is not like yours. I have something to do,—I have a purpose to achieve; a purpose before which every thought of my mind, every impulse of my heart, must give way.”
“What purpose, Eleanor?” asked Laura Mason, almost alarmed by the energy of her companion’s manner.
“I cannot tell you. It is a secret,” Miss Vane replied.
Then sitting down once more in the deep window-seat by Laura’s side, Eleanor Vane drew her arm tenderly round the frightened girl’s waist.
“I’ll try and do my duty to you, Laura, dear,” she said, “and I know I shall be happy with you. But if ever you see me dull and silent, you’ll understand, dear, that there is a secret in my life, and that there is a hidden purpose in my mind that sooner or later must be achieved. Sooner or later,” she repeated, with a sigh, “but Heaven only knows when.”
She was silent and absent-minded during the rest of the evening, though she played one of her most elaborate fantasias at Mrs. Darrell’s request, and perfectly satisfied that lady’s expectations by the brilliancy of her touch. She was very glad when, at ten o’clock, the two women servants of the simple household and a hobadahoyish young man, who looked after the pony and pigs and poultry-yard, and smelt very strongly of the stable, came in to hear prayers read by Mrs. Darrell.
“I know you’re tired, dear,” Laura Mason said, as she bade Eleanor good night at the door of her bed-room, “so I won’t ask you to talk to me to-night. Get to bed, and go to sleep at once, dear.”
But Eleanor did not go to bed immediately; nor did she fall asleep until very late that night.
She unfastened one of her trunks, and took from it a little locked morocco casket, which held a few valueless and old-fashioned trinkets that had been her mother’s, and the crumpled fragment of her father’s last letter.
She sat at the little dressing-table, reading the disjointed sentences in that melancholy letter, before she undressed, and then replaced the scrap of paper in the casket.
She looked at the lawn and shrubbery. The shining leaves of the evergreens trembled in the soft April breeze, and shimmered in the moonlight. All was silent in that simple rustic retreat. The bare branches of the tall trees near the low white gates were sharply defined against the purple sky. High up in the tranquil heavens the full moon shone out from a pale back-ground of fleecy cloud.
The beauty of the scene made a very powerful impression upon Eleanor Vane. The window from which she had been accustomed to look in Bloomsbury abutted on a yard, a narrow gorge of dirt and disorder, between the dismal back walls of high London houses.
“I ought never to have come here,” Eleanor thought bitterly, as she let fall her dimity window curtain and shut out the splendour of the night. “I ought to have stayed in London; there was some hope of my meeting that man in London, where strange things are always happening. But here—″
She fell into a gloomy reverie. Secluded in that quiet rustic retreat, what hope could she have of advancing, by so much as one footstep, upon the dark road she had appointed for herself to tread?
It was very long before she fell asleep. She lay for hours, tumbling and tossing feverishly upon her comfortable bed.
The memories of her old life mingled themselves with thoughts of her new existence. She was haunted now by the recollection of her father, and her father’s death; now by her fresh experiences of Hazlewood, by the widow’s grey hair and penetrating gaze, and by the pictured face of Launcelot Darrell.
CHAPTER XIV. THE PRODIGAL’S RETURN.
The course of Eleanor’s life at Hazlewood was peaceful and monotonous. She had been engaged simply as a “companion” for Laura Mason. That common epithet which is so often twisted into the signification of a household drudge—an upper-servant, who works harder than any of her fellows—in this case meant purely and simply what it was originally intended to mean. Eleanor’s only duties were to teach Laura Mason music, and to be the companion and associate of all her girlish pleasures and industries.
Not that Miss Mason was very industrious. She had a habit of beginning great undertakings in the way of fancy work, and the more gigantic the design the more ardent was her desire to attempt it—but she rarely got beyond the initiative part of her labour. There was always some “Dweller on the Threshold” in the shape of a stitch that couldn’t be learnt, or a skein of silk that couldn’t be matched, or a pattern that wouldn’t come right; and one after another of the gigantic undertakings was flung aside to decay in dusty oblivion, or to be finished by Eleanor or Mrs. Darrell.
Laura Mason was not made for the active service of life. She was one of the holiday soldiers in the great army, fit for nothing but to wear gilded epaulettes and gorgeous uniforms, and to turn out upon gala days to the sound of trumpet and drum.
She was a loving, generous-hearted, confiding creature; but, like some rudderless boat drifting hither and thither before a stormy ocean, this frivolous, purposeless girl flung herself, helpless and dependent, upon the mercy of other people.
The rich City solicitor, Mr. Monckton, the head of a celebrated legal firm familiar in the Bankruptcy Court, took the trouble to say very little about his pretty, flaxen-haired, and blue-eyed ward.
He spoke of her, indeed, with an almost pointed indifference. She was the daughter of some people he had known in his early youth, he said, and her fortune had been entrusted to his care. She would be rich, but he was none the less anxious about her future. A woman was not generally any the safer in this world for being an heiress.
This was all Gilbert Monckton had ever said to Mrs. Darrell upon the subject of his ward’s past history. Laura herself had talked freely enough of her two first homes. There was little to tell, but, upon the other hand, there seemed nothing to conceal.
Upon one subject Mr. Monckton was very strict, and that was the seclusion of the home he had chosen for his ward.
“When Miss Mason is of age she will of course choose for herself,” he said; “but until that time comes I must beg, Mrs. Darrell, that you will keep her out of all society.”
Under these circumstances it was especially necessary that Laura Mason should have a companion of her own age. Hazlewood was a hermitage, never approached by any visitors except some half-dozen elderly ladies, who were intimate with Mrs. Darrell, and Mr. Monckton, who came about once a fortnight to dine and spend the evening.
He used to devote himself very much to Laura and her companion during these visits. Eleanor could see how earnestly he watched the flaxen-haired girl, whose childish simplicity no doubt made her very bewitching to the grave man of business. He watched her and listened to her; sometimes with a pleased smile, sometimes with an earnest and anxious face; but his attention very rarely wandered from her.
“He must love her very dearly,” Eleanor thought, remembering how earnestly he had spoken in the railway carriage.
She wondered what was the nature of the affection which the solicitor felt for his ward. He was old enough to be her father, it was true, but he was still in the prime of life; he had not that beauty of feature and complexion which a school-girl calls handsome, but he had a face which leaves its impress upon the minds of those who look at it.
He was very clever, or at least he seemed so to Eleanor; for there was no subject ever mentioned, no topic ever discussed, with which he did not appear thoroughly familiar, and upon which his opinions were not original and forcible. Eleanor’s intellect expanded under the influence of this superior masculine intelligence. Her plastic mind, so ready to take any impression, was newly moulded by its contact with this stronger brain. Her education, very imperfect before, seemed to complete itself now by the force of association with a clever man.
Of course all this came about by slow degrees. She did not very rapidly become familiar with Gilbert Monckton, for his grave manner was rather calculated to inspire diffidence in a very young woman; but little by little, as she grew accustomed to his society, accustomed to sit quietly in the shade, only speaking now and then, while Laura Mason talked familiarly to her guardian, she began to discover how much she had gained from her association with the lawyer. It was not without some bitterness of spirit that Eleanor Vane thought of this. She felt as if she had been an interloper in that quiet Hazlewood household. What right had she to come between Laura and her guardian, and steal the advantages Mr. Monckton intended for his ward? It was for Laura’s sake he had been earnest or eloquent; it was for Laura’s benefit he had described this, or explained that. What right, then, had she, Eleanor, to remember what Laura had forgotten, or to avail herself of the advantages Laura was too frivolous to value?
There was a gulf between the two girls that could not be passed, even by affection. Eleanor Vane’s mental superiority placed her so high above Laura Mason that perfect confidence could not exist between them. Eleanor’s love for the light-hearted, heedless girl had something almost motherly in its nature.
“I know we shall never quite understand each other, Laura,” she said; “but I think I could give up my life for your sake, my dear.”
“Or I for you, Nelly.”
“No, no, Laura. I know you are unselfish as an angel, and you’d wish to do so; but yours is not the giving-up nature, my darling. You’d die under a great sorrow.”
“I think I should, Nelly,” the girl answered, drawing closer to her friend, and trembling at the very thought of calamity; “but how you speak, dear. Had you ever a great sorrow?”
“Yes, a very great one.”
“And yet you are happy with us, and can sing and play, and ramble about in the woods with me, Nell, as if you had nothing on your mind.”
“Yes, Laura, but I can remember my sorrow all the time. It’s hidden so deep in my heart that the sunshine never reaches it, however happy I may seem.”
Laura Mason sighed. The spoiled child of fortune could not help wondering how she would act under the influence of a great misery. She would sit down upon the ground in some darkened room, she thought, and cry until her heart broke and she died.
The summer faded into autumn, and autumn into winter, and the early spring flowers bloomed again in the shrubberies and on the lawn at Hazlewood. The primroses were pale upon the tender grass of the sloping banks in the wooded lane near the gates, and still no event had happened to break the tranquil monotony of that secluded household. Eleanor had grown familiar with every nook in the rambling old cottage; even with Launcelot Darrell’s apartments, a suite of rooms on the bed-room floor, looking out into the grove at the back of the house. These rooms had been shut up for years, ever since Launcelot had sailed for India, and they had a gloomy, desolate look, though fires were lighted in them periodically, and every scrap of furniture was kept carefully dusted.
“The rooms must always be ready,” Mrs. Darrell said. “Mr. de Crespigny may die without having made a will, and my son may be called home suddenly.”
So the three rooms, a bed-room, dressing-room, and sitting-room, were kept in perfect order, and Laura and Eleanor wandered into them sometimes, in the idleness of a wet afternoon, and looked at the pictures upon the walls, the unfinished sketches piled one upon the top of another on the easel, or tried the little cottage piano, upon which Mr. Darrell had been wont to accompany himself when he sang. His mother always insisted upon this piano being tuned when the tuner came from Windsor to attend to Laura Mason’s modern grand. The two girls used to talk a good deal of the widow’s handsome son. They had heard him spoken of by his mother, by the servants, and by the few humble neighbours in scattered cottages near Hazlewood. They talked of his uncertain fortunes, his accomplishments, his handsome, haughty face, which Laura declared was faultless. Miss Vane had been a twelvemonth at Hazlewood. Her eighteenth birthday was past, and the girlishness of her appearance had matured into the serene beauty of early womanhood. The golden tints of her hair had deepened into rich auburn, her gray eyes looked darker under the shadow of her dark brows. The Signora and Richard Thornton declared that she had altered very much since she had left them, and were surprised at her matured beauty when she went to spend a brief Christmas holiday with her old friends. She bought the silk gown for Eliza Piccirillo, and the meerschaum pipe for poor Dick, who needed no memorial of his adopted sister, for her image haunted him only too perpetually, to the destruction of all other images which might else have found a place in the scene-painter’s heart.
Eleanor Vane felt a pang of remorse as she remembered how very easily she had borne her separation from these faithful friends. It was not that she loved them less, or forgot their goodness to her. She had no such ingratitude as that wherewith to reproach herself; but she felt as if she had committed a sin against them in being happy in the calm serenity of Hazlewood.
She said this to Richard Thornton during the brief Christmas visit. They had walked out once more in the quiet streets and squares in the early winter twilight.
“I feel as if I had grown selfish and indifferent,” she said. “The months pass one after another. It is two years and a half since my father died, and I am not one step nearer to the discovery of the man who caused his death. Not one step. I am buried alive at Hazlewood. I am bound hand and foot. What can I do, Richard; what can I do? I could go mad almost when I remember that I am a poor helpless girl, and that I may never be able to keep the oath I swore when I first read my dead father’s letter. And you, Richard, in all this time you have done nothing to help me.”
The scene-painter shook his head sadly enough.
“What can I do, my dear Eleanor? What I told you nearly a year ago, I tell you again now. This man will never be found. What hope have we? what chance of finding him? We might hear his name to-morrow, and we should not know it. If either of us met him in the street, we should pass him by. We might live in the same house with him, and be ignorant of his presence.”
“No, Richard,” cried Eleanor Vane. “I think if I met that man some instinct of hate and horror would reveal his identity to me.”
“My poor romantic Nelly, you talk as if life was a melodrama. No, my dear, I say again, this man will never be found; the story of your father’s death is unhappily a common one. Let that sad story rest, Nell, with all the other mournful records of the past. Believe me that you cannot do better than be happy at Hazlewood; happy in your innocent life, and utterly forgetful of the foolish vow you made when you were little better than a child. If all the improbabilities that you have ever dreamt of were to come to pass, and vengeance were in your grasp, I hope and believe, Nell, that a better spirit would arise within you, and prompt you to let it go.”
Richard Thornton spoke very seriously. He had never been able to speak of Eleanor’s scheme of retribution without grief and regret. He recognised the taint of her father’s influence in this vision of vengeance and destruction. All George Vane’s notions of justice and honour had been rather the meretricious and flimsy ideas of a stage play, than the common-sense views of real life. He had talked incessantly to his daughter about days of retribution; gigantic vengeances which were looming somewhere in the far-away distance, for the ultimate annihilation of the old man’s enemies. This foolish, ruined spendthrift, who cried out against the world because his money was spent, and his place in that world usurped by wiser men, had been Eleanor’s teacher during her most impressionable years. It was scarcely to be wondered at, then, that there were some flaws in the character of this motherless girl, and that she was ready to mistake a pagan scheme of retribution for the Christian duty of filial love.
Midsummer had come and gone, when an event occurred to break the tranquillity of that simple household.
The two girls had lingered late in the garden one evening early in July. Mrs. Darrell sat writing in the breakfast-parlour. The lamplight glimmered under the shadow of the verandah, and the widow’s tall figure seated at her desk was visible through the open bay-window.
Laura and her companion had been talking for a long time, but Eleanor had lapsed into silence at last, and stood against the low white gate with her elbow resting upon the upper bar, looking thoughtfully out into the lane. Miss Mason was never the first to be tired of talking. A silvery torrent of innocent babble was for ever gushing from her red, babyish lips; so, when at last Eleanor grew silent and absent-minded, the heiress was fain to talk to her dogs, her darling silky Skye, whose great brown eyes looked out from a ball of floss silk that represented the animal’s head; and her Italian greyhound, a slim shivering brute, who wore a coloured flannel paletot, and exhibited a fretful and whimpering disposition, far from agreeable to any one but his mistress.
There was no moon upon this balmy July night, and the hulking hobadahoy of all work came out to light the lamp while the two girls were standing at the gate. This lamp gave a pleasant aspect to the cottage upon dark nights, and threw a bright line of light into the darkness of the lane.
The boy had scarcely retired with his short ladder and flaming lantern, when the two pet dogs began to bark violently, and a man came out of the darkness into the line of lamplight.
Laura Mason gave a startled scream, but Eleanor caught her by the arm, to check her foolish outcry.
There was nothing very alarming in the aspect of the man. He was only a tramp: not a common beggar, but a shabby-genteel-looking tramp, whose threadbare coat was of a fashionable make, and who, in spite of his ragged slovenliness, had something the look of a gentleman.
“Mrs. Darrell still lives here, does she not?” he asked rather eagerly.
It was Eleanor who answered. The dogs were still barking and Laura was still looking very suspiciously at the stranger.
“Will you tell her, please, that she is wanted out here by some one who has something important to communicate to her,” the man said.
Eleanor was going towards the house to deliver this message, when she saw Mrs. Darrell coming across the lawn. She had been disturbed at her writing by the barking of the dogs.
“What is the matter, Miss Vincent?” she asked, sharply. “Who are you and Laura talking to, out here?”
She walked from the two girls to the man, who stood back a little way outside the gate, with the lamplight shining full upon his face.
The widow looked sternly at this man who had dared to come to the gate at nightfall and to address the two girls under her charge.
But her face changed as she looked at him, and a wild cry broke from her lips.
“Launcelot, Launcelot, my son!”