Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Eleanor's victory - Part 9

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

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CHAPTER XV. LAUNCELOT.

Mrs. Darrell stood for some time clasped in her son’s embrace, and sobbing violently. The two girls withdrew a few paces, too bewildered to know what to do, in the first shock of the surprise that had come so suddenly upon them.

This was Launcelot Darrell, then, the long absent son, whose portrait hung above the mantelpiece in the dining-room, whose memory was so tenderly cherished, every token of whose former presence was so carefully preserved.

“My boy, my boy,” murmured the widow, in a voice which seemed strange to the two girls, from its new accent of tenderness; “my own and only son, how is it that you come back to me thus? I thought you were in India. I thought—”

“I was in India, mother, when my last letter to you was written,” the young man answered; “but you know how sick and tired I was of the odious climate, and the odious life I was compelled to lead. It grew unbearable at last, and I determined to throw everything up, and come home; so I sailed in the first vessel that left Calcutta after I had formed this determination. You’re not sorry to see me back, are you, mother?”

“Sorry to see you, my boy, my boy!”

Mrs. Darrell led her son across the lawn and into the house, through an open window. She seemed utterly unconscious of the presence of her two charges. She seemed to have forgotten their very existence in the wonderful surprise of her son’s return. So Laura and Eleanor went up to Miss Mason’s room and shut themselves in, to talk over the strange adventures of the evening, while the mother and son were closeted together in the breakfast-room below.

“Isn’t it all romantic, Nelly, dear?” Miss Mason said, with enthusiasm. “I wonder whether he came all the way from India in that dreadful coat and that horrid shabby hat? He looks just like the hero of a novel, doesn’t he, Nell? dark and pale, and tall and slender. Has he come back for good, do you think? I’m sure he ought to have Mr. De Crespigny’s fortune.”

Miss Vane shrugged her shoulders. She was not particularly interested in the handsome prodigal son who had made his appearance so unexpectedly; and she had enough to do to listen to all Laura’s exclamations, and sympathise with her curiosity.

“I shan’t sleep a bit to-night, Nelly,” Miss Mason said, as she parted with her friend. “I shall be dreaming of Launcelot Darrell, with his dark eyes and pale face. What a fierce, half-angry look he has, Nell, as if he were savage with the world for having treated him badly. For he must have been badly treated, you know. We know how clever he is. He ought to have been made a governor-general or an ambassador, or something of that kind, in India. He has no right to be shabby.”

“I should think his shabbiness was his own fault, Laura,” Miss Vane answered, quietly. “If he is clever, you know, he ought to be able to earn money.”

She thought of Richard Thornton, as she spoke, working at the Phœnix Theatre for the poor salary that helped to support the Bohemian comforts of the primitive shelter in the Pilasters, and Dick’s paint and whitewash bespattered coat seemed glorified by contrast with that of the young prodigal in the room below.

The two girls went down to the breakfast-room early the next morning, Laura Mason arrayed in her prettiest and brightest muslin morning dress, which was scarcely so bright as her beaming face. The young lady’s gossamer white robes fluttered with the floating ribbons and delicate laces that adorned them. She was a coquette by nature, and was eager to take her revenge for all the monotonous days of enforced seclusion which she had endured.

Mrs. Darrell was sitting at the breakfast table when the two girls entered the room. Her Bible lay open amongst the cups and saucers near her. Her face was pale, and looked even more care-worn than usual, and her eyes were dimmed by the tears that she had shed. The heroism of the woman who had borne her son’s absence silently and uncomplainingly, had given way under the unlooked-for joy of his return.

She gave her hand to each of the girls as they wished her good morning. Eleanor almost shuddered as she felt the deadly coldness of that wasted hand.

“We will begin breakfast at once, my dears,” Mrs. Darrell said, quietly; “my son is fatigued by a long journey, and exhausted by the excitement of his return. He will not get up, therefore, until late in the day.”

The widow poured out the tea, and for some little time there was silence at the breakfast table. Neither Eleanor nor Laura liked to speak. They both waited—one patiently, the other very impatiently—until Mrs. Darrell should please to tell them something about her son’s extraordinary return.

It seemed as if the mistress of Hazlewood, usually so coldly dignified and self-possessed, felt some little embarrassment in speaking of the strange scene of the previous night.

“I need scarcely tell you, Laura,” she said, rather abruptly, after a very long pause, “that if anything could lessen my happiness in my son’s return, it would be the manner of his coming back to his old home. He comes back to me poorer than when he went away. He came on foot from Southampton here; he came looking like a tramp and a beggar to his mother’s house. But it would be hard if I blamed my poor boy for this. The sin lies at his uncle’s door. Maurice de Crespigny should have known that Colonel Darrell’s only son would never stoop to a life of commercial drudgery. My son’s letters might have prepared me for what has happened. Their brevity, their bitter, despondent tone, might have told the utter hopelessness of a commercial career for my son. He tells me that he left India because his position there,—a position which held out no promise of improvement,—had become unbearable to him. He comes back to me penniless, with the battle of life before him. You can scarcely wonder, then, that my happiness in his return is not quite unalloyed.”

“No, indeed, dear Mrs. Darrell,” Laura answered, eagerly; “but still you must be very glad to have him back: and if he didn’t make a fortune in India, he can make one in England, I dare say. He is so handsome, and so clever, and—”

The young lady stopped suddenly, blushing under the cold scrutiny of Ellen Darrell’s eyes. Perhaps in that moment a thought flashed across the mind of the widow; the thought of a wealthy marriage for her handsome son. She knew that Laura Mason was rich, for Mr. Monckton had told her that his ward would have all the advantages in after life which wealth can bestow, but she had no idea of the amount of the girl’s fortune.

Launcelot Darrell slept late after his pedestrian journey. Miss Mason’s piano was kept shut, out of consideration for the traveller; and Laura and Eleanor found the bright summer’s morning unusually long in consequence. They had so few pursuits, or amusements, that to be deprived of one seemed very cruel. They were sitting after their early dinner, in a shady nook in the shrubbery, Laura lying on the ground, reading a novel, and Eleanor engaged in some needle-work achievement which was by-and-bye to be presented to the Signora; when the rustling leaves of the laurel screen that inclosed and sheltered their retreat, were parted, and the handsome face, the face which had looked worn and haggard last night, but which now had only an aristocratic air of languor, presented itself before them in a frame of dark and shining foliage.

“Good morning, or good afternoon, young ladies,” said Mr. Darrell, “for I hear that your habits at Hazlewood are very primitive, and that you dine at three o’clock. I have been looking for you during the last half-hour, in my anxiety to apologise for any alarm I may have given you last night. When the landless heir returns to his home, he scarcely expects to find two angels waiting for him on the threshold. I might have been a little more careful of my toilet, had I been able to foresee my reception. What luggage I had I left at Southampton.”

“Oh! never mind your dress, Mr. Darrell,” Laura answered gaily, “we are both so glad you have come home. Ain’t we, Eleanor? for our lives are so dreadfully dull here, though your mamma is very kind to us. But do tell us all about your voyage home, and your journey here on foot, and all the troubles you have gone through? Do tell us your adventures, Mr. Darrell?”

The young lady lifted her bright blue eyes with a languishing glance of pity; but suddenly dropped them under the young man’s glance. He looked from one to the other of the two girls, and then, strolling into the grassy little amphitheatre where they were sitting, flung himself into a rustic arm-chair, near the table at which Eleanor Vane sat at work.

Launcelot Darrell was a handsome likeness of his mother. The features which in her face were stern and hard, had in his an almost feminine softness. The dark eyes had a lazy light in them, and were half-hidden by the listless droop of the black lashes that fringed their full white lids. The straight nose, low forehead, and delicately moulded mouth, were almost classical in their physical perfection; but there was a want in the lower part of the face; the chin receded a little where it should have projected, the handsome mouth was weak and undecided in expression.

Mr. Darrell might have sat as a painter’s model for all the lovers in prose or poetry; but he would never have been mistaken for a hero or a statesman. He had all the attributes of grace and beauty, but not one of the outward signs of greatness. Eleanor Vane felt this want of power in the young man as she looked at him. Her rapid perception seized upon the one defect which marred so much perfection.

“If I had need of help against the murderer of my father,” the girl thought, “I would not ask this man to aid me.”

“And now, Mr. Darrell,” said Laura, throwing down her book, and settling herself for a flirtation with the prodigal son, “tell us all your adventures. We are dying to hear them.”

Launcelot Darrell shrugged his shoulders.

“What adventures, my dear Miss Mason?”

“Why, your Indian experiences, of course, and your journey home. All your romantic escapes, and thrilling perils, tiger-hunting, pig-sticking—that doesn’t sound romantic, but I suppose it is—lonely nights in which you lost yourself in the jungle, horrible encounters with rattle-snakes, brilliant balls at Government House—you see I know all about Indian life—rides on the race-course, flirtations with Calcutta belles.”

The young man laughed at Miss Mason’s enthusiasm.

“You know more about the delights of an Indian existence than I do,” he said, rather bitterly; “a poor devil who goes out to Calcutta with only one letter of introduction, and an empty purse, and is sent up the country, within a few days of his arrival, to a lonely station, where his own face is about the only white one in the neighbourhood, hasn’t very much chance of becoming familiar with Government House festivities, or Calcutta belles, who reserve their smiles for the favoured children of fortune, I can assure you. As to tiger-hunts and pig-sticking, my dear Miss Mason, I can give you very little information upon those points, for an indigo planter’s overseer, whose nose is kept pretty close to the grindstone, has enough to do for his pitiful stipend, and very little chance of becoming a Gordon Gumming or a Jules Gerard.”

Laura Mason looked very much disappointed.

“You didn’t like India, then, Mr. Darrell?” she said.

“I hated it,” the young man answered, between his set teeth.

There was so much suppressed force in Launcelot Darrell’s utterance of these three words, that Eleanor looked up from her work, startled by the young man’s sudden vehemence.

He was looking straight before him, his dark eyes fixed, his strongly marked eyebrows contracted, and a red spot burning in the centre of each pale and rather hollow cheek.

“But why did you hate India?” Laura asked, with unflinching pertinacity.

“Why does a man hate poverty and humiliation, Miss Mason? You might as well ask me that. Suppose we drop the subject. It isn’t a very agreeable one to me, I assure you.”

“But your voyage home,” pursued Laura, quite unabashed by this rebuff; “you can tell us your adventures during the voyage home.”

“I had no adventures. Men who travel by the overland route may have something to tell, perhaps: I came the cheapest and the slowest way.”

“By a sailing vessel?”

“Yes.”

“And what was the name of the vessel.”

“The Indus.”

“The Indus, that’s an easy name to remember. But of course you had all sorts of amusements on board; you played whist in the cuddy—what is the cuddy, by-the-bye?—and you got up private theatricals, and you started an amateur newspaper, or a magazine, and you crossed the line, and—”

“Oh, yes, we went through the usual routine. It was dreary enough. Pray tell me something about Hazlewood, Miss Mason; I am a great deal more interested in Berkshire than you can possibly be in my Indian experiences.”

The young lady was fain to submit. She told Mr. Darrell such scraps and shreds of gossip as form the “news” in a place like Hazlewood. He listened very attentively to anything Miss Mason had to tell about his uncle, Maurice de Crespigny.”

“So those tiger cats, my maiden aunts, are as watchful as ever,” he said, when Laura had finished. “Heaven grant the harpies may be disappointed. Do any of the Vane family ever try to get at the old man?”

Eleanor looked up from her work, but very quietly; she had grown accustomed to hear her name spoken by those who had no suspicion of her identity.

“Oh, no, I believe not,” Miss Mason answered; “old Mr. Vane died two or three years ago, you know.”

“Yes, my mother wrote me word of his death.”

“You were in India when it happened, then?”

“Yes.”

Eleanor’s face blanched, and her heart beat with a fierce heavy throbbing against her breast. How dared they talk of her dead father in that tone of almost insolent indifference. The one passion of her young life had as strong a power over her now as when she had knelt in the little chamber in the Rue l’Archevêque, with her clasped hands uplifted to the low ceiling, and a terrible oath upon her girlish lips.

She dropped her work suddenly, and rising from her rustic seat, walked away from the shade of the laurels.

“Eleanor,” cried Laura Mason, “where are you going?”

Launcelot Darrell sat in a careless attitude, trifling with the reels of silk, and balls of wool, and all the paraphernalia of fancy work scattered upon the table before him, but he lifted his head as Laura uttered her friend’s name, and perhaps for the first time looked steadily at Miss Vane.

He sat looking at her for some minutes while she and Laura stood talking together a few paces from him. It was perhaps only a painter’s habit of looking earnestly at a pretty face that gave intensity to his gaze. He dropped his eyelids presently, and drew a long breath, that sounded almost like a sigh of relief.

“An accidental likeness,” he muttered; “there are a hundred such likenesses in the world.”

He got up and walked back to the house, leaving the two girls together. Laura had a great deal to say about his handsome face, and the easy grace of his manner; but Eleanor Vane was absent and thoughtful. The mention of her father’s name had brought back the past. Her peaceful life, and all its quiet contentment, melted away like a curtain of morning mist that rises to disclose the ghastly horror of a battle-field; and the dreadful picture of the past arose before her; painfully vivid, horribly real. The parting on the boulevard; the long night of agony and suspense; the meeting with Richard on the bridge by the Morgue; her father’s torn, disjointed letter; and her own vengeful wrath; all returned to her; every voice of her heart seemed to call her away from the commonplace tranquillity of her life to some desperate act of justice and retribution.

“What have I to do with this frivolous girl?” she thought; “what is it to me whether Launcelot Darrell’s nose is Grecian or aquiline, whether his eyes are black or brown? What a wretched, useless life I am leading in this place, when I should be hunting through the world for the murderer of my father.”

She sighed wearily as she remembered how powerless she was. What could she do to get one step nearer to the accomplishment of that one purpose, which she called the purpose of her life? Nothing! She remembered with a chill feeling of despair that however, in her moments of exaltation, she might look forward to some shadowy day of triumph and revenge, her better sense always told her that Richard Thornton had spoken the truth. The man whose treachery had destroyed George Vane had dropped into the chaos of an over-crowded universe, leaving no clue behind him by which he might be traced.

CHAPTER XVI. THE LAWYER’S SUSPICION.

Mr. Monckton came to Hazlewood upon the day after Launcelot Darrell’s arrival. The grave solicitor had known the young man before his departure for India, but there seemed no very great intimacy between them, and Mr. Darrell appeared rather to avoid any familiarity with his mother’s rich friend.

He answered Gilbert Monckton’s questions about India and indigo-planting with an air of unwillingness that was almost insolent.

“The last few years of my life have not been so very pleasant as to make me care to look back at them,” he said, bitterly. “Some men keep a diary of the experiences of each day—I found the experiences dreary enough in themselves, and had no wish to incur the extra dreariness of writing about them. I told my uncle, when he forced a commercial career upon me, that he was making a mistake, and the result has proved that I was right.”

Mr. Darrell spoke with as much indifference as if he had been discussing the affairs of a stranger. He evidently thought that the mistakes of his life rested upon other people’s shoulders; and that it was no shame to him, but rather to his credit as a fine gentleman, that he had come home penniless and shabby to sponge upon his mother’s slender income.

“And now you have come back, what do you mean to do?” Mr. Monckton asked, rather abruptly.

“I shall go in for painting. I’ll work hard, down in this quiet place, and get a picture ready for the Royal Academy next year. Will you sit for me, Miss Mason? and you, Miss Vincent? you would make a splendid Rosalind and Celia. Yes, Mr. Monckton, I shall try the sublime art whose professors have been the friends of princes.”

“And if you fail—”

“If I fail, I’ll change my name, and turn itinerant portrait-painter. But I don’t suppose my uncle Maurice means to live for ever. He must leave his money to somebody, and whatever wills he may have made—and I daresay he’s made half a dozen—the chances are that he’ll tear the last of them up, half an hour before his death, and die while he’s thinking about the wording of another.”

The young man spoke as carelessly as if the Woodlands fortune were scarcely worth a discussion. It was his habit to speak indifferently of all things, and it was rather difficult to penetrate his real sentiments, so skilfully were they hidden by this surface manner.

“You had a formidable rival once in your uncle’s affections!” Mr. Monckton said presently.

“Which rival?”

“The Damon of Maurice de Crespigny’s youth, George Vandeleur Vane.”

Launcelot Darrell’s face darkened at the mention of the dead man’s name. It had always been the habit of the De Crespigny family to look upon Eleanor’s father as a subtle and designing foe, against whom no warfare could be too desperate.

“My uncle could never have been such a fool as to leave his money to that spendthrift,” Mr. Darrell said.

Eleanor had been sitting at an open window bending over her work during this conversation; but she rose hastily as Launcelot spoke of her father. She was ready to do battle for him then and there, if need were. She was ready to fling off the disguise of her false name, and to avow herself as George Vane’s daughter, if they dared to slander him. Whatever shame or humiliation was cast upon him should be shared by her.

But before she could give way to this sudden impulse, Gilbert Monckton spoke, and the angry girl waited to hear what he might say.

“I have every reason to believe that Maurice de Crespigny would have left his money to his old friend had Mr. Vane lived,” the lawyer said. “I never shall forget your uncle’s grief when he read the account of the old man’s death in a ‘Galignani’ which was put purposely in his way by one of your aunts.”

“Ah,” said Mr. Darrell, bitterly, “George Vane’s death cleared the way for those harpies.”

“Or for you, perhaps.”

“Perhaps. I have not come home to wait for a dead man’s shoes, Mr. Monckton.”

Mrs. Darrell had been listening to this conversation, with her watchful eyes fixed upon Gilbert Monckton’s face. She spoke now for the first time.

“There is only one person who has a right to inherit my uncle’s fortune,” she said, “and that person is my son.”

She glanced at the young man as she spoke; and in that one kindling glance of maternal pride the widow revealed how much she loved her son.

The young man was leaning in a lounging attitude over the piano, turning the leaves of Laura’s open music-book, and now and then striking his fingers on the notes.

Mr. Monckton took up his hat, shook hands with his ward and with Mrs. Darrell, and paused by the window at which Eleanor sat.

“How silent you have been this morning, Miss Vincent,” he said.

The girl blushed as she looked up at the lawyer’s grave face. She always felt ashamed of her false name when Mr. Monckton addressed her by it.

“When are you and Laura coming to see my new picture?” he asked.

“Whenever Mrs. Darrell likes to bring us,” Eleanor answered, frankly.

“You hear, Mrs. Darrell?” said the lawyer; “these two young ladies are coming over to Tolldale to see a genuine Raphael that I bought at Christie’s a month ago. You will be taking your son to see his uncle, I have no doubt—suppose you come and lunch at the Priory on the day you go to Woodlands.”

“That will be to-morrow,” answered Mrs. Darrell. “My uncle cannot deny himself to Launcelot after an absence of nearly five years, and even my sisters can scarcely have the impertinence to shut the door in my son’s face.”

“Very well; Woodlands and the Priory lie close together. You can cross the park and get into Mr. de Crespigny’s grounds by the wicket-gate, and so surprise the enemy. That will be the best plan.”

“If you please, my dear Mr. Monckton,” said the widow.

She was gratified at the idea of stealing a march upon her maiden sisters, for she knew how difficult it was to effect an entrance to the citadel so jealously guarded by them.

“Come, young ladies,” exclaimed Mr. Monckton, as he crossed the threshold of the bay window, “will you honour me with your company to the gates.”

The two girls rose and went out on-to the lawn with the lawyer. Laura Mason was accustomed to obey her guardian, and Eleanor was very well pleased to pay all possible respect to Gilbert Monckton. She looked up to him as something removed from the common-place sphere in which she felt so fettered and helpless. She fancied sometimes that if she could have told him the story of her father’s death, he might have helped her to find the old man’s destroyer. She had that implicit confidence in his power which a young and inexperienced girl almost always feels for a man of superior intellect who is twenty years her senior.

Mr. Monckton and the two girls walked slowly across the grass, but Laura Mason was distracted by her dogs before she reached the gate, and ran away into one of the shrubberied pathways after the refractory Italian greyhound.

The lawyer stopped at the gate. He was silent for some moments, looking thoughtfully at Eleanor, as if he had something particular to say to her.

“Well, Miss Vincent, how do you like Mr. Launcelot Darrell?” he asked at last.

The question seemed rather insignificant after the pause that had preceded it.

Eleanor hesitated.

“I scarcely know whether I like or dislike him,” she said; “he only came the night before last, and—”

“And my question is what we call a leading one. Never mind, you shall tell me what you think by-and-by, when you have had more time to form an opinion. You think the young man handsome, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes! very handsome.”

“But you are not the girl to be fascinated by a handsome face. I can see that you mean that by the contemptuous curl of your lip. Quite true, no doubt, Miss Vincent; but there are some young ladies less strong-minded than yourself, who may be easily bewitched by the delicate outline of a classical profile, or the light of a pair of handsome dark eyes. Eleanor Vincent, do you remember what I said to you when I brought you down to Hazlewood?”

Mr. Monckton was in the habit of addressing both the girls by their Christian names when he spoke seriously.

“Yes, I remember perfectly.”

“What I said to you then implied an amount of trust which I don’t often put in an acquaintance of a couple of hours. That little girl yonder,” added the lawyer, glancing towards the pathway in which Laura Mason flitted about, alternately coaxing and remonstrating with her dogs, “is tender-hearted and weak-headed. I think you would willingly do anything to serve her, and me. You can do her no better service than by shielding her from the influence of Launcelot Darrell. Don’t let my ward fall in love with the young man’s handsome face, Miss Vincent!”

Eleanor was silent, scarcely knowing how to reply to this strange appeal.

“You think I am taking alarm too soon, I daresay,” the lawyer said, “but in our profession we learn to look a long way ahead. I don’t like the young man, Miss Vincent. He is selfish, and shallow, and frivolous,—false, I think, as well. And, more than this, there is a secret in his life.”

“A secret?”

“Yes; and that secret is connected with his Indian experiences.”