Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 18

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

CHAPTER XXXIII.—MAURICE DE CRESPIGNY’S WILL.

Richard Thornton folded the pencil sketch and put it in his pocket with the water-coloured drawing.

“I told you that Launcelot Darrell would make a confidant of his pencil,” he said in a low voice. “We may as well tie up the portfolio, Mrs. Monckton; there will be nothing more in it that can help us. The memory of your father would scarcely be pleasant to this young man after the 12th of August. When he made this sketch he had yet to learn the consequences of what he had done.”

Eleanor stood behind the scene-painter’s chair, silent and motionless. Her face was pale, and her mouth compressed and rigid with the effort by which she controlled her agitation. But a flame of fire burned in her luminous grey eyes, and her delicate nostrils quivered with a convulsive movement. Mr. Thornton carefully replaced the sketches in the purple portfolio, tied the strings, and laid the book in its old place against the wall. Then, unfastening the green portfolio, he went rapidly through the landscape scraps which it contained.

“The hand is weak here,” Richard said; “Mr. Launcelot Darrell has no sympathy with nature. He might be a clever figure-painter if he had as much perseverance as he has talent. His pictures are like himself; shallow, artificial, and meretricious; but they are clever.”

The scene-painter said this with a purpose. He knew that Eleanor stood behind him, erect and statuesque, with her hand grasping the back of his chair, a pale Nemesis bent on revenge and destruction. He wanted, if possible, to let her down to commonplace feeling, by his commonplace talk, before Launcelot Darrell saw her face. But, looking round at that pale young face, Richard saw how terrible was the struggle in the girl’s breast, and how likely she was at any moment to betray herself.

“Eleanor,” he whispered, “if you want to carry this business to the end, you must keep your secret. Launcelot Darrell is coming this way. Remember that an artist is quick to observe. There is the plot of a tragedy in your face at this moment.”

Mrs. Monckton tried to smile; but the attempt was very feeble; the smile wan and sickly. Launcelot Darrell came to the curtained recess, but he was not alone: Laura Mason came with him, talking very fast, and asking innumerable questions, now turning to her lover, now appealing to Eleanor or Richard Thornton.

“What a time you’ve been looking over the sketches,” she said, “and how do you like them, and which do you like best? Do you like the sea-side bits, or the forest sketches? There’s a picture of Tolldale with the cupola and the dinner-bell, Eleanor; I like the sketches in the other portfolio best; Launcelot lets me look at them, though he won’t allow any one else to see them. But I don’t like Rosa. I’m terribly jealous of Rosa—yes, I am, Launcelot; and it’s not a bit of use telling me you were never in love with her, and you only admired her because she was a pretty rustic model. Nobody in the world could believe that, could they, Mr. Thornton? Could they, Eleanor? When an artist paints the same face again and again, and again and again, he must be in love with the original; mustn’t he now?”

Nobody answered the young lady’s eager questions. Launcelot Darrell smiled and twisted his dark moustache between his slender, womanish fingers. Laura’s unrestrained admiration of him was very agreeable; and he was beginning to be in love with her, after his own fashion, which was a very easy one.

Eleanor looked at her husband’s ward with a strange expression in her face—a stern unpitying gaze that promised little good to the young heiress.

“What is this foolish girl’s fancy to me, that it should weigh against my father’s death?” she thought. “What is it to me that she may have to suffer? Let me remember the bitterness of his sufferings; let me remember that long night upon which I watched for him,—that miserable night in which he despaired and died. Surely the remembrance of this will shut every thought of pity from my heart.”

Perhaps Eleanor Monckton had need to reason with herself thus. It might be difficult to be true to her scheme of vengeance, when, in the path she had to tread, this girl’s heart must be trampled upon; this innocent, childish, confiding little creature who had clung to her, and trusted in her, and loved her, from the hour of their first meeting.

“Should I be pitiful, or merciful, or just to her, if I suffered her to marry a bad man?” Mrs. Monckton asked herself. “No; for her sake as much as for the memory of my father, it is my duty to denounce Launcelot Darrell.”

Throughout the drive back to Tolldale, Mrs. Monckton silently brooded upon the morning’s work. Richard Thornton had indeed proved a powerful ally. How often she had been in that studio, and not once had the idea of looking amongst the artist’s sketches for the evidence of his life occurred to her.

“I told you that you could help me, Richard,” she said, when she found herself alone with the scene-painter. “You have given me the proof which I have waited for so long. I will go to Woodlands to-night.”

“What for?”

“To show those two sketches to Mr. de Crespigny.

“But will that proof be strong enough to convince a man whose powers of perception must be weakened by age? What if Mr. de Crespigny should fail to understand the evidence of those sketches? What if he should refuse to believe your accusation of his nephew?”

“I will show him my father’s letter.”

“You forget that your father’s letter accuses Robert Lance, and not Launcelot Darrell.”

“But the sketches are signed ‘Robert Lance.

“And Mr. Darrell may deny his identity with the man who signed himself by that name. You cannot ask Maurice de Crespigny to believe in his nephew’s guilt on the testimony of a pencil drawing which that nephew may boldly repudiate. No, Eleanor, the work of to-day is only one step upon the road we have to tread. We must be patient, and wait for more conclusive proof than that which we hold in these two sketches.”

Eleanor sighed wearily.

“And in the meantime the 15th of March may come, or Mr. de Crespigny may die,” she said. “Oh, let me go to him at once; let me tell him who I am, and show him my father’s letter; let me tell him the cruel story of his old friend’s death! He knows nothing but that which he learned from a brief notice in a newspaper. He cannot refuse to believe me.”

Richard Thornton shook his head.

“You have asked me to help you, Eleanor,” he said, gravely; “if I am to do so, you must have some faith in my counsel. Wait until we have fuller power to prove our case, before you reveal yourself to Mr. de Crespigny.”

Mrs. Monckton could not very well refuse to submit herself to the scene-painter’s guidance. He had already most decisively demonstrated the superiority of his deliberate policy, as compared with the impulsive and unconsidered course of action recklessly followed by a headstrong girl.

“I must obey you, Dick,” Eleanor said, “because you are so good to me, and have done so much to prove that you are a great deal wiser than I am. But if Mr. de Crespigny should die while we are waiting for further proof, I—”

“You’ll blame me for his death, I suppose, Mrs. Monckton,” interrupted Richard, with a quiet smile, “after the manner of your sex?”

Eleanor had no little difficulty in obeying her counsellor, for when Gilbert Monckton met his wife at dinner, he told her that he had been at Woodlands that morning, and that her friend Maurice de Crespigny was daily growing weaker, and was not expected to live through the early spring months.

“The old man is fading slowly away,” the lawyer said. “His quiet and temperate habits have enabled him to hold out much longer than the doctors expected. It is like the gradual going out of a candle, they say. The flame sinks little by little in the socket. You must go and see the poor old man, Eleanor, before he dies.”

“Before he dies!” repeated Mrs. Monckton, “before he dies! Do you think he will die very soon, then, or suddenly?”

“Yes, I think he may go off suddenly at last. The medical men say as much, I understand.”

Eleanor looked at Richard Thornton.

“I must see him, and must see him before he dies,” she said. “Is his mind unimpaired, Gilbert? Is his intellect still as clear as it was a week ago?”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Monckton, “I have every reason to believe so ; for while I was talking to the two ladies in the breakfast-parlour, Henry Lawford, the Windsor attorney, came in, and asked me to go up to Mr. de Crespigny’s room. What do you think I was wanted for, Eleanor?”

“I have no idea.”

“I was wanted to act as witness to the old man’s will, in conjunction with Lawford’s clerk. I need scarcely tell you I was not a little astonished to find that Maurice de Crespigny had only now made up his mind as to the disposal of his money. I suppose he has made half a dozen wills, and destroyed one after another according to his humour. I only hope the maiden sisters may get a decent reward for their long years of patience and expectation.”

Eleanor’s trembling fingers trifled nervously with the ornaments at her watch chain. It was with difficulty that she could control her agitation.

“But to whom is the fortune left?” she asked, breathlessly. “Did you hear that, Gilbert?”

“No, my dear, it isn’t usual to make the witness to a will acquainted with the body of the deed. I saw poor Maurice de Crespigny execute his feeble autograph, and I put my own muscular-looking signature in the place indicated to me, and I asked no questions. It was enough for me to know that I had no interest in the document.”

“But did Mr. de Crespigny say nothing—nothing that could lead you to guess who—”

“Mr. de Crespigny said nothing whatever calculated to throw any light upon his intentions. He seemed relieved by the idea that his will was made and the business settled. Lawford wanted to carry off the document, but the old man insisted on keeping it in his possession. He wished to look over it, he said. He wanted to see if his intentions had been fully carried out, in the spirit as well as in the letter. He put the parchment under his pillow, and then laid down with an air of satisfaction. I dare say he has gone through the same little comedy again and again before to-day.”

“Perhaps he will destroy this will?” Eleanor said, thoughtfully.

There was a double danger of Launcelot Darrell’s getting the fortune. He would get it if it was bequeathed to him. He would take it as heir-at-law if his great-uncle died without a will.

“Yes,” Mr. Monckton answered, indifferently, “the old man may change his mind again, if he lives long enough to repent of this new will. But I doubt his surviving so long as to do that.”

“And have you no idea, Gilbert,—have you no idea as to whom the fortune is left?”

Mr. Monckton smiled.

“This is a question that concerns you, Laura,” he said, “a great deal more nearly than it does us.”

“What question?” asked Miss Mason, looking up from an elaborate piece of embroidery which she had been showing to Signora Picirillo.

“We are talking of Mr. de Crespigny’s fortune, my dear; you are interested in the disposal of that, are you not?”

“Oh yes, of course,” answered the young lady, “I ought to be interested for Launcelot’s sake, I know; and I know that he ought to have the fortune, and that nobody has any right to deprive him of it, especially those nasty old maids who had him sent to India against his will, and I dare say he will have horrid pains in his liver from the climate when he’s older. Of course he ought to have the fortune, and yet sometimes I think it would be nicer for him to be poor. He may never be a great artist if he’s rich, perhaps; and I’d rather go to Rome with him and sit by his easel while he works, and pay the hotel bills, and the travelling expenses, and all that sort of thing, out of my own money, than have him a country gentleman. I shouldn’t like him to be a country gentleman; he’d have to hunt, and wear top-boots and nasty leather gaiters, like a common ploughman, when he went out shooting. I hate country gentlemen. Byron hasn’t one country gentleman in all his poems, and that horrid husband in Locksley Hall will show you what an opinion Tennyson has of them.”

Miss Mason went back to the signora and the embroidery, satisfied with having settled the business in her own manner.

“He couldn’t look like the Corsair if he had Woodlands,” she murmured, despondently; “he’d have to shave off his moustache if they made him a magistrate. What would be the good of his talking seriously to poachers if he wore turned-down collars and loose handkerchiefs round his neck? People would never respect him unless he was a Guy; with creaky boots, and big seals hanging to his watch-chain.”

Eleanor pushed the question still further.

“You think that Mr. de Crespigny has left his fortune to Launcelot Darrell, don’t you, Gilbert?” she asked.

Her husband, prompted by the evil spirit that was his occasional companion, looked at her, rather suspiciously; but her eyes met his own with an unfaltering gaze.

“Why are you so interested in this fortune, and in Launcelot Darrell?” he said.

“I will tell you by-and-by. But tell me now, if you think the estate is left to Mr. Darrell?”

“I think it scarcely unlikely that it is so. The fact of Maurice de Crespigny making a fresh will within six months of the young man’s return looks rather as if he had been led to relent of some previous determination by the presence of his niece’s son.”

“But Mr. de Crespigny has seen very little of Launcelot Darrell.”

“Perhaps not,” answered Mr. Monckton, coldly. “I may be quite wrong in my conjecture. You ask for my opinion, and I give it you freely. Pray let us change the subject. I hate the idea of all this speculation as to who shall stand in a dead man’s shoes. As far as Launcelot Darrell’s interests are concerned, I really think there is an undercurrent of common sense in Laura’s romantic talk. He may be all the better for being a poor man. He may be all the better for having to go to Italy and work at his art for a few years.”

Mr. Monckton looked sharply at his young wife as he said this. I rather think that the demon familiar had prompted this speech, and that the lawyer watched Eleanor’s face in the desire to discover whether there was anything unpleasant to her in the idea of Launcelot Darrell’s long absence from his native country.

But, clever as Gilbert Monckton was, the mystery of his wife’s face was as yet beyond his power to read. He watched her in vain. The pale and thoughtful countenance told nothing to the man who wanted the master key by which alone its expression could be read.

CHAPTER XXXIV.—RICHARD’S DISCOVERY.

An almost ungovernable impulse prompted Eleanor Monckton to make her way at once into Maurice de Crespigny’s sick-chamber, and say to him, “Launcelot Darrell is the wretch who caused your old friend’s cruel death. I call upon you, by the memory of the past, to avenge that old friend’s bitter wrongs!”

The struggle was a terrible one, but discretion in the end triumphed, and Eleanor submitted herself to the guidance of her devoted slave and ally. She knew now that Launcelot Darrell was guilty; but she had known that from the moment in which she had seen him lounging in the Windsor Street. The task that lay before her was to procure such proof as must be convincing to the old man. In spite of her impetuous desire for immediate action, Eleanor was compelled to acknowledge that the testimony of the sketch-book was not strong enough in itself to condemn Launcelot Darrell.

The young man’s answer to any accusation brought against him on such evidence would be simple enough.

Nothing would be easier than for him to say, “My name is not Robert Lance. The drawing abstracted by unfair means from my portfolio is not mine. I am not responsible for the actions of the man who made that sketch.”

And against this simple declaration there would be nothing but Eleanor’s unsupported assertion of the identity between the two men.

There was nothing to be done, then, except to follow Richard Thornton’s advice, and wait.

This waiting was very weary work. Estranged from her husband by the secret of her life,—unhappy in the society of Laura Mason, against whose happiness she felt that she was, in a manner, plotting; restrained and ill at ease even in the familiar companionship of Eliza Picirillo,—Eleanor Monckton wandered about the great rambling mansion which had become her home, restless and unhappy, yearning with a terrible impatience for the coming of the end, however dark that end might be. Every day, and often more than once in the course of the day, she locked herself in her room, and opened the desk in which she kept Launcelot Darrell’s sketches and her dead father’s last letter. She looked at these things almost as if she feared that by some diabolical influence they might be taken from her before they had served as the instruments of her revenge. So the weary days wore themselves out. The first week of Richard’s visit; the second week of Richard’s visit passed by; the middle of February came, and nothing more had been done.

Eleanor’s health began to suffer from the perpetual mental fever of anxiety and impatience. Her husband saw her day by day growing thinner and paler; a hectic flush crimsoned her cheek now at every trifling agitation, with every surprise, however insignificant; but, except for these transient blushes, her face was as colourless as marble.

Her husband saw this, and made himself miserable because of the change in his young wife. He made himself still more wretched by reason of those unworthy doubts and suspicions that were for ever torturing him. “Why was Eleanor ill? Why was she unhappy?” He asked himself this latter question a thousand times a day, and always answered it more or less after the same fashion.

She was unhappy because of the swiftly approaching marriage between Laura Mason and Launcelot Darrell. She had opposed that marriage with all the power she possessed. She had over-estimated her own fortitude when she sacrificed her love for the young artist to her desire to win a brilliant position.

“Why should she be different from other women?” the lawyer thought. “She has married me for my money, and she is sorry for what she has done, and perhaps upon the eve of poor Laura’s wedding day, there will be a repetition of the scene that took place at Lausanne eighteen years ago.” This was the manner of meditation to which Mr. Monckton abandoned himself when the black mood was upon him.

All this time Launcelot Darrell came backwards and forwards between Hazlewood and Tolldale, after the free-and-easy manner of an accepted lover, who feels that, whatever advantages he may obtain by the matrimonial treaty which he is about to form, his own transcendent merits are so far above every meaner consideration as to render the lady the gainer by the bargain.

He came, therefore, whenever it pleased him to come. Now dawdling away a morning over the piano with Laura Mason; now playing billiards with Richard Thornton, who associated with him as it were under protest, hating him most cordially all the time.

“The detectives must have a hard time of it,” reflected Mr. Thornton, after one of these mornings. “Imagine having to hob-and-nob with a William Palmer, on the chance of his dropping out a word or two that might help to bring him to the gallows. The profession is extremely honourable, no doubt, but I don’t think it can be a very pleasant one. I fancy, upon the whole, a muddy crossing and a good broom must be more agreeable to a man’s feelings.”

The 15th of February came, dark, cold, and dreary, and Eleanor reminded the scene-painter that only one month now remained before the day appointed for Laura’s marriage. That young lady, absorbed amongst a chaos of ribbons and laces, silks and velvets, had ceased to feel any jealousy of her guardian’s wife. Her lover’s easy acceptance of her devotion was sufficient for her happiness. What should the Corsair do but twist his black moustachios and permit Medora to worship him?

It was on this very 15th of February that, for the first time since the visit to Launcelot Darrell’s studio, Mr. Richard Thornton made a discovery.

It was not a very important one, perhaps, nor did it bear directly upon the secret of the artist’s life, but it was something.

The scene-painter left Tolldale soon after breakfast upon this bleak February day, in a light dog-cart which Mr. Monckton placed at the disposal of such of his guests who might wish to explore the neighbouring country. He did not return until dusk, and broke in upon Eleanor’s solitude as the shadows were gathering outside the window of the room in which she sat. He found his old companion alone in a little morning-room, next her husband’s study. She was sitting on a low stool by the hearth, her head resting on her hands, and the red firelight on her face; her attitude altogether expressive of care and despondency.

The door of communication between Gilbert Monckton’s study and the room in which Eleanor sat was closed.

The girl started and looked up as Richard Thornton opened the door. The day had been wet as well as cold; drops of rain and sleet hung about the young man’s rough great-coat, and he brought a damp and chilly atmosphere into the room. Eleanor took very little notice of his return.

“Is it you, Richard?” she said, absently.

“Yes, Mrs. Monckton, I have been out all day; I have been to Windsor.”

“Indeed!”

“Yes, I met Launcelot Darrell there.”

“You met Launcelot Darrell,” repeated Eleanor. “Richard,” she cried, suddenly, rising as she spoke, and going to where the young man stood, “you have found out something more.”

“I have not found what we want, Eleanor. I have not found the proof that you must lay before Mr. de Crespigny, when you ask him to disinherit his nephew. But I think I have made a discovery.”

“What discovery?” asked Mrs. Monckton, with suppressed eagerness; “do not speak loudly, Dick,” she added, in a hurried whisper, “my husband is in the next room. I sit with him sometimes when he is at work there with his law papers, but I can’t help fancying that my presence annoys him. He is not the same to me that he used to be. Oh, Richard, Richard, I feel as if I was divided from every creature in the world, except you: I can trust you, for you know my secret. When will this end?”

“Very soon, my dear, I hope,” Mr. Thornton answered, gravely. “There was a time when I urged you to abandon your purpose, Eleanor, but I do so no longer. Launcelot Darrell is a bad man, and the poor little girl with the blue eyes and flaxen ringlets must not be suffered to fall into his power.”

“No, no, not for the world. But you have made some discovery to-day, Richard?”

“I think so. You remember what Mr. Monckton told us the other day. You remember his telling us that Mr. de Crespigny had only that day made his will?”

“Yes, I remember it perfectly.”

“Laura Mason was present when her guardian told us this. It is only natural she should tell Launcelot Darrell what had happened.”

“She tells him everything; she would be sure to tell him that.”

“Precisely, and Mr. Darrell has not been slow to act upon the hint.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that Launcelot Darrell has been guilty of the baseness of bribing Mr. Lawford’s clerk, in order to find out the secret of the contents of that will.”

“How do you know this?”

“I discovered it by the merest chance. You owe me no praises, Eleanor. I begin to think that the science of detection is, after all, very weak and imperfect; and that the detective officer owes many of his greatest triumphs to patience, and a series of happy accidents. Yes, Eleanor, Mr. Darrell’s eagerness, or avarice, whichever you will, would not suffer him to wait until his great uncle’s death. He was determined to know the contents of that will; and, whatever the knowledge has cost him, I fancy he is scarcely satisfied with his bargain.”

“Why?”

“Because I believe that he is disinherited.”

There was a noise as of the movement of a heavy chair in the next room.

“Hush,” Eleanor whispered; “my husband is going to dress for dinner.”

A bell rang while she was speaking, and Richard heard the door of the next room opened and shut.