Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 19
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XXXV. WHAT HAPPENED AT WINDSOR.
“Yes,” repeated Richard Thornton, “I have reason to believe that the will witnessed by your husband is a very unpleasant piece of literature in the estimation of Launcelot Darrell, for I fancy that it cuts him off without even the meagre consolation of that solitary shilling which is usually inherited by unhappy elder sons.”
“But tell me why you think this, Richard.”
“I will, my dear Mrs. Monckton. The story is rather a long one, but I think I can tell it in a quarter of an hour. Can you dress for dinner in the other quarter?”
“Oh, yes, yes!”
“What a nuisance civilisation is, Nelly. We never dressed for dinner in the Pilasters; indeed, the fashion amongst the leading families in that locality leans rather the other way. The gentlemen in the cab and chimney line generally take off their coats when the mid-day meal is announced in order to dine in their shirt-sleeves.”
“Richard, Richard!” cried Eleanor, impatiently.
“Well, well, Mrs. Monckton, seriously, you shall have my Windsor adventures. I hate this man Launcelot Darrell, for I believe he is a shallow, selfish, cold-hearted coxcomb, or else I don’t think I could have brought myself to do what I’ve done to-day. I’ve been playing the spy, Eleanor, for a couple of hours at least. The Duke of Otranto used to find plenty of people for this kind of work,—artists, actors, actresses, priests, women, every creature whom you would least suspect of baseness. But they manage these things better in France. We don’t take to the business so readily upon this side of the water.”
The girl’s impatience was almost uncontrollable. She watched the hands of a little clock upon the chimney-piece: the firelight flashed every now and then upon the dial, and then faded out, leaving it dark.
“I’m coming to the story, Nell, if you’ll only be patient,” remonstrated Mr. Thornton. He was getting over that secret sorrow which he had nursed for such a long time in the lowest depths of a most true and faithful breast. He was growing reconciled to the Inevitable; as we all must, sooner or later; and he had reassumed that comfortable brotherly familiarity which had been so long habitual to him in his intercourse with Eleanor. “Only be patient, my dear, and let me tell my story my own way,” he pleaded. “I left here early this morning in your husband’s dog-cart, intending to drive over to Windsor and amuse myself by exploring the town, and the castle, if possible, to see if there was anything in my way to be picked up—donjon keeps, turret staircases, secret corridors, and so on, you know. You know what sort of a morning it was, bleak and dismal enough, but until twelve o’clock no rain. It was within a quarter of an hour of twelve when I got into Windsor, and the rain was just beginning, spiteful drops of rain and particles of sleet, that came down obliquely and cut into your face like so many needle-points. I stopped at an inn in a perpendicular street below the castle, which looks as if it means to topple down and annihilate this part of the town some of these days. I put up the dog-cart, and asked a few questions about the possibility of getting admission to the royal dwelling-place. Of course I was informed that such admission was to-day utterly impracticable. I could have seen the state apartments yesterday. I could see them, most likely, by the end of next week, but I couldn’t see them when I wanted to see them. I hinted that my chief desire was to see secret passages, donjon keeps, moats, and sliding panels; but neither the landlord nor the waiter seemed to understand me, and I sat down rather despondently by the window of the tavern parlour to wait till the rain was over, and I could go out and prowl upon the castle terrace to study wintry effects in the park.”
“But Launcelot Darrell, Richard—where did you meet Launcelot Darrell?”
“I am coming to him presently. The perpendicular street wasn’t particularly lively upon this wretched February day; so, as there weren’t any passers-by to look at, I amused myself by looking at the houses facing the inn. Immediately opposite to me there was a house very superior to the others in style—a red brick house of the Georgian era, modernised by plate-glass windows and green blinds—not a large house, but eminently respectable. A dazzling brass plate adorned the door, and upon this brass plate, which winked and twinkled in the very face of the rain, I read the name of Mr. Henry Lawford, solicitor.”
“The lawyer who made Mr. de Crespigny’s will?”
“Precisely. Upon one side of the door there was a bell-handle inscribed Visitors, on the other a duplicate handle inscribed Office. I hadn’t been looking at the house above five minutes, when a young man, with a slender silk umbrella, struggling against the wind, rang the office-bell.”
“The young man was Launcelot Darrell?” Eleanor cried, quickly.
“He was. The door was opened by a boy, of whom Mr. Darrell asked several questions. Whatever the answers were, he walked away, and the door was shut. But from his manner of strolling slowly along the street, I was convinced that he was not going far, and that he meant to come back. People don’t usually stroll in a sharp rain that comes down obliquely and seems to drift in your face from every point of the compass. He’ll come back presently, I thought; so I ordered a bottle of pale ale and I waited.”
“And he came back?”
“Yes; he came back in about half an hour; but, ten minutes or so before he returned, I saw a shabby-genteel, elderly man let himself in with a latch-key at a small green side door with ‘Clerk’s Office’ painted in white letters on the panel. I knew by the look of this man that he must be a clerk. There’s a look about an attorney’s clerk that you can’t mistake, even when he doesn’t carry a blue bag; and this man did carry one. Ten minutes afterwards Launcelot Darrell returned. This time he knocked with the handle of his umbrella at the green door, which was opened by the boy, who went to fetch the elderly clerk. This elderly clerk and Mr. Darrell stood on the door-step talking confidentially for about five minutes, and then our friend the artist went away; but this time again strolled slowly through the rain; as if he had a certain interval to dispose of, and scarcely knew what to do with himself.
“I suppose the amateur detective business fills a man’s mind with all manner of suspicious fancies, Eleanor. However that may be, I could not help thinking that there was something queer in these two visits of Launcelot Darrell to the red brick house opposite me. What did he want with a lawyer, in the first place? and if he did want a lawyer, why didn’t he go straight to Mr. Lawford, who was at home—for I could see his head across the top of the wire blind in one of the plate-glass windows as he bent over his desk—instead of tampering with small boys and clerks? There was something mysterious in the manner of his hanging about the place; and as I had been watching him wearily for a long time without being able to find out anything mysterious in his conduct, I determined to make the most of my chances and watch him to some purpose to-day.
“‘He’ll come back,’ I thought, ‘unless I’m very much mistaken.’
“I was very much mistaken, for Launcelot Darrell did not come back; but a few minutes after the clock struck one, the green door opened, and the elderly clerk came out, without the blue bag this time, and walked nimbly up the street in the direction that Launcelot Darrell had taken.
“‘He’s going to his dinner,’ I thought, ‘or he’s going to meet Launcelot Darrell.’
“I put on my hat, and went out of the house. The clerk was toiling up the perpendicular street a good way ahead of me, but I managed to keep him in sight and to be close upon his heels when he turned the corner into the street below the towers of the castle. He walked a little way along this street, and then went into one of the principal hotels.
“‘Ah, my friend!’ I said, to myself, ‘you don’t ordinarily take your dinner at that house, I imagine. It’s a cut above your requirements, I should think.’
“I went into the hotel, and made my way to the coffee-room. Mr. Launcelot Darrell and the shabby genteel clerk were sitting at a table drinking sherry and soda-water. The artist was talking to his companion in a low voice, and very earnestly. It was not difficult to see that he was trying to persuade the seedy clerk to something which the clerk’s sense of caution revolted from. Both men looked up as I went into the room, which they had had all to themselves until that moment; and Launcelot Darrell flushed scarlet as he recognised me. It was evident, therefore, that he did not care to be seen in the company of Mr. Lawford’s clerk.
“‘Good morning, Mr. Darrell,’ I said; ‘I’ve come over to have a look at the castle, but I find strangers are not admitted to-day, so I’m obliged to content myself with walking about in the wet for an hour or two.’
“Launcelot Darrell answered me in that patronising manner which renders him so delightful to the people he considers inferior to himself. He had quite recovered from the confusion my sudden appearance had caused, and muttered something about Mr. Lawford, the attorney, and ‘business.’ Then he sat biting his nails in an uncomfortable and restless manner, while I drank another bottle of pale ale. That’s another objection to the detective business; it involves such a lot of drinking.
“I left the hotel, and left Mr. Darrell and the clerk together; but I didn’t go very far. I contrived somehow or other to be especially interested in that part of the exterior of the castle visible from the street in which the hotel is situated, and in a manner, kept one eye upon the stately towers of the royal residence, and the other upon the doorway out of which Launcelot Darrell and Mr. Lawford’s clerk must by-and-by emerge. In about half an hour I had the satisfaction of seeing them appear, and contrived, most innocently of course, to throw myself exactly in their way at the corner of the perpendicular street.
“I was amply rewarded for any trouble that I had taken; for I never saw a face that so plainly expressed rage, mortification, disappointment, almost despair, as did the face of Launcelot Darrell, when I came against him at the street corner. He was as white as a sheet, and he scowled at me savagely as he passed me by. Not as if he recognised me; the fixed look in his face showed that his mind was too much absorbed in one thought for any consciousness of exterior things; but as if in his suppressed fury he was ready to go blindly against anybody or anything that came in his way.
“But why, Richard, why was he so angry?” cried Eleanor, with her hands clenched and her nostrils quivering with the passage of her rapid breath. “What does it all mean?”
“Unless I’m very much mistaken, Mrs. Monckton, it means that Launcelot Darrell has been tampering with the clerk of the lawyer who drew up Mr. de Crespigny’s last will, and that he now knows the worst—”
“And that is—?”
“The plain fact, that unless that will is altered the brilliant Mr. Darrell will not inherit a penny of his kinsman’s fortune.”
The second dinner bell rang while Richard was speaking, and Eleanor rushed from the room to make some hurried change in her toilette, and to appear in the drawing-room, agitated and ill at ease, ten minutes after Mr. Monckton’s punctilious butler had made his formal announcement of the principal meal of the day.
CHAPTER XXXVI. ANOTHER RECOGNITION.
Launcelot Darrell came to Tolldale Priory upon the day after Richard’s visit to Windsor, and it was easy for Eleanor, assisted by her knowledge of what had transpired, to see the change in his manner. She spent an hour in the drawing-room that morning for the purpose of seeing this change, and thereby finding confirmation of that which Richard Thornton had told her. But the alteration in the young man’s manner must have been very obvious, for even Laura, who was not particularly observant of any shades of feeling that did not make themselves manifest by the outward expression of word or gesture, perceived that there was something amiss with her lover, and drove Launcelot Darrell well-nigh mad with her childish questionings and lamentations.
Why was he so quiet? Why was he so much paler than usual? Why did he sigh sometimes? Why did he laugh in that strange way? Oh, no, not in his usual way. It was no use saying that it was so. Had he a headache? Had he been sitting up late at night? Had he been drinking horrid wine that had disagreed with him? Had he been a naughty, naughty, cruel, false, treacherous boy, and had he been to some party that he hadn’t told his poor Laura about, drinking champagne, and flirting with girls, and dancing, and all that? Or had he been working too much at his Rosalind and Celia?
With such questions as these did the young lady harass and torment her lover throughout that uncomfortable February morning; until at last Mr. Darrell turned upon her in a rage, declaring that his head was nearly split asunder, and plainly telling her to hold her tongue.
Indeed, Mr. Launcelot Darrell made very little effort to disguise his feelings, but sat over the fire in a low easy chair, with his elbows resting on his knees and his handsome dark eyes bent moodily upon the blaze. He roused himself now and then from a fit of gloomy thought to snatch up the polished-steel poker, and plunge it savagely amongst the coals, as if it was some relief to him to punish even them. Another man might have feared the inferences which spectators might draw from his conduct, but the principle upon which Launcelot Darrell’s life had been based involved an utter contempt for almost every living creature except himself, and he apprehended no danger from the watchfulness of the inferior beings about him.
Laura Mason, sitting on a low ottoman at his feet, and employed in working a pair of embroidered slippers—the third pair she had begun for the use of her future lord and master—thought him more like the Corsair to-day than ever; but thought at the same time that some periods of Medora’s existence must have been rather dreary. No doubt it was Conrad’s habit to sit and stare at the coals, and to poke the fire savagely when things went amiss with him; when his favourite barque was scuttled by a mutinous crew, or his cargo confiscated by the minions of the law.
Launcelot Darrell was engaged to dine at the Priory upon this 16th of February. Mr. Monckton had invited him, in order that some matters connected with Laura’s fortune might be discussed.
“It is time we should fully understand each other, Darrell,” the lawyer said; “so I shall expect you to give me a couple of hours in my study this evening after dinner, if you’ve no objection.”
Of course Mr. Darrell had no objection, but he had an almost spiteful manner that day in his intercourse with poor Laura, who was bewildered by the change in him.
“You think it’s strange that I should dislike all this ceremony about settlements and allowance. Yes, Laura, that’s a pleasant word, isn’t it? Your guardian honoured me by telling me he should make us a handsome allowance for the first few years of our married life. You think I ought to take kindly to this sort of thing, I dare say, and drop quietly into my position of genteel pauperism, dependent upon my pencil, or my wife, for the dinner I eat and the coat I wear. No, Laura,” cried the young man, passionately, “I don’t take kindly to it; I can’t stand it. The thought of my position enrages me against myself, against you, against everybody and everything in the world.”
Launcelot Darrell talked thus to his betrothed while Richard and Eleanor were both in the room; the scene-painter sitting in a window making furtive sketches with a fat little stump of lead pencil upon the backs of divers letters; Mrs. Monckton standing at another window looking out at the leafless trees, the black flowerless garden beds, the rain-drops hanging on the dingy firs and evergreens.
Mr. Darrell knew that he was overheard; but he had no wish that it should be otherwise. He did not care to keep his grievances a secret. The egotism of his nature exhibited itself in this. He gave himself the airs of a victim, and made a show of despising the benefits he was about to accept from his confiding betrothed. He in a manner proclaimed himself injured by the existence of his future wife’s fortune; and he forced her to apologise to him for the prosperity which she was about to bestow upon him.
“As if it was being a pauper to take my money,” cried Miss Mason, with great tenderness, albeit in rather obscure English; “as if I grudged you the horrid money, Launcelot. Why, I don’t even know how much I’m to have. It may be fifty pounds a-year—that’s what I’ve had to buy my dresses and things since I was fifteen—or it may be fifty thousand. I don’t want to know how much it is. If it is fifty thousand a-year, you’re welcome to it, Launcelot, darling.”
“Launcelot darling” shrugged his shoulders with a peevish gesture which exhibited him as rather a discontented darling.
“You talk like a baby, Laura,” he said, contemptuously; “I suppose the ‘handsome allowance’ Mr. Monckton promises will be about two or three hundred a-year, or so; something that I’m to eke out by my industry. Heaven knows he has preached to me enough about the necessity of being industrious. One would think that an artist was a bricklayer or a stonemason, to hear him talk.”
Eleanor turned away from the window as Launcelot Darrell said this; she could not suffer her husband to be undefended while she was by.
“I have no doubt whatever Gilbert said was right, Mr. Darrell,” she exclaimed, lifting her head proudly, as if in defiance of any voice that should gainsay her husband’s merits.
“No doubt, Mrs. Monckton; but there’s a certain sledge-hammer-like way of propounding that which is right that isn’t always pleasant. I don’t want to be reminded that an artist’s calling is a trade, and that when the Graces bless me with a happy thought, I must work like a slave until I’ve hammered it out upon canvas and sent it into the market for sale.”
“Some people think the Graces are propitiated by hard labour,” Richard Thornton said, quietly, without raising his eyes from his rapid pencil, “and that the happiest thoughts are apt to come when a man has his brush in his hand, rather than when he’s lying on a sofa reading French novels; and I’ve known artists who preferred that method of waiting for inspiration. For my own part, I believe in the inspiration that grows out of patient labour.”
“Yes,” Mr. Darrell answered, with an air of lazy indifference—an air which plainly expressed that he disdained to discuss art-topics with a scene-painter, “I dare say you find it answer—in your line. You must splash over a good deal of canvas before you can produce a transformation scene, I suppose?”
“Peter Paul Rubens got over a good deal of canvas,” said Richard, “and Raffaelle Sanzio d’Urbino did something in that way, if we may judge by the cartoons and a few other trifles.”
“Oh, of course, there were giants in those days. I don’t aspire to rival any such Patagonians. I don’t see why people should be compelled to walk through a picture gallery a mile long before they can pronounce an opinion upon a painter’s merits. I should be very well contented if my chance with posterity rested upon half-a-dozen pictures no bigger than Millais’s ‘Huguenot;’ and as good.”
“And I’m sure you could do dozens and dozens as good as that,” cried Laura. “Why, it’s only a lady tying a scarf round her lover’s arm, and a lot of green leaves. Of course it’s very pretty, you know, and one feels very much for her, poor thing, and one’s afraid that he’ll let those cruel Catholics kill him, and that she’ll die broken-hearted. But you could paint lots of pictures like that, Launcelot, if you chose.”
The young man did not condescend to notice his affianced wife’s art-criticism. He relapsed into gloomy silence, and once more betook himself to that savage kind of consolation afforded by a sturdy exercise of the poker.
“But, Launcelot,” pleaded Miss Mason, presently, “I’m sure you needn’t be unhappy about my having money, and you’re being poor. There’s Mr. de Crespigny’s fortune, you know; he can’t be shameful and wicked enough to leave it to any one but you. My guardian said, only the other day, that he thought it would be left to you.”
“Oh, ah, to be sure,” muttered Mr. Darrell, moodily; “there’s that chance, of course.”
“He couldn’t leave Woodlands to those two old maids, you know, Launcelot, could he?”
To the surprise of the two listeners, Richard Thornton and Eleanor, the young man burst into a harsh disdainful laugh.
“My respected maiden aunts!” he exclaimed; “poor devils, they’ve had a nice time of it.”
Until this moment Richard and Eleanor had most firmly believed that the will which disinherited Launcelot Darrell bequeathed the Woodlands fortune to the two maiden sisters, Lavinia and Sarah de Crespigny; but the young man’s disdainful laugh, and the contemptuous, yet half pitying tone in which he spoke of the two sisters, plainly revealed that if he knew the secret of the disposal of Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune, and knew that it was not left to himself, he knew also that equal disappointment and mortification awaited his aunts.
He had been in the habit of speaking of them with a savage though suppressed animosity. Today his tone was utterly changed. He had a malicious pleasure, no doubt, in thinking of the disappointment in store for them; and he could afford now to feel a kind of disdainful compassion for all their wasted labours, their useless patience.
But to whom, then, could the fortune be left?
Eleanor and Richard looked at each other in amazement. It might have been supposed that the old man had left his wealth to Eleanor herself, influenced by the caprice that had induced him to attach himself to her, because of her likeness to his dead friend. But this could not be, for the invalid had distinctly declared that he should leave nothing but George Vane’s miniature to his new favourite, and Maurice de Crespigny was not a man to say one thing and mean another. He had spoken of a duty to be fulfilled, a duty which he was determined to perform.
Yet, to whom could he possibly owe any duty, except to his kindred? Had he any other relations except his three nieces and Launcelot Darrell? He might have other claims upon him. He might have some poor and modest kindred who had kept aloof from him and refrained from paying court to him, and whose forbearance he might choose to reward in an unlooked-for, unthought-of manner.
And again, he might have bequeathed his money to some charitable institution, or in trust for some new scheme of philanthropy. Such a course would scarcely be strange in a lonely old man, who in his nearest relations might only recognise eager, expectant harpies keeping anxious watch for the welcome hour of his death.
Eleanor Monckton did not trouble herself much about this question. She believed from Launcelot Darrell’s manner, that Richard Thornton had drawn the right inference from the meeting of the young man and the lawyer’s clerk.
She believed implicitly that Launcelot Darrell was disinherited by his great-uncle’s last will, and that he knew it.
This belief inspired her with a new feeling. She could afford to be patient now. If Maurice de Crespigny should die suddenly, he would not die leaving his wealth to enrich the traitor who had cheated a helpless old man. Her only thought now must be to prevent Laura’s marriage; and for this she must look to her husband, Gilbert Monckton.
“He will never let the girl whose destiny has been confided to him, marry a bad man,” she thought; “I have only to tell him the story of my father’s death, and to prove to him Launcelot Darrell’s guilt.”
The dinner went off very quietly. Mr. Monckton was reserved and silent, as it had lately become his habit to be. Launcelot Darrell had still the gloomy, discontented air that had made him a very unpleasant companion throughout that day. The young man was not a hypocrite, and had no power of concealing his feelings. He could tell any number of lies that might be necessary for his own convenience or safety, but he was not a hypocrite. Hypocrisy involves a great deal of trouble on the part of those who practise it; and is, moreover, the vice of a man who sets no little value upon the opinion of his fellow-creatures. Mr. Darrell was of a listless and easy temperament, and nourished an utter abhorrence of all work, either physical or mental. On the other hand, he had so good an opinion of himself as to be tolerably indifferent to the opinions of others.
If he had been accused of a crime, he would have denied having committed it for his own sake. But he never troubled himself to consider what other people might think of him, so long as their opinion had no power to affect his personal comfort or safety.
The cloth had been removed, for old fashions held their ground at Tolldale Priory, where a dinner à la Russe, would have been looked upon as an absurd institution, more like children playing at a feast, than sensible people bent upon enjoying a substantial meal. The cloth had been removed, and that dreary ceremonial, a good old English dessert was in progress, when a servant brought Launcelot Darrell a card upon a salver, and presented it to him solemnly amid the silence of the company.
The young man was sitting next Eleanor Monckton, and she saw that the card was of a highly glazed and slippery nature, and of an abnormal size, between the ordinary sizes of a gentleman’s and a lady’s card.
The blood rushed to Launcelot Darrell’s forehead as he read the name upon the card, and Eleanor saw his under lip contract with a sudden movement, expressive of intense vexation.
“How did this—this gentleman come here?” he asked, turning to the servant.
“The gentleman has driven over from Hazlewood, sir. Hearing you were dining here, he came on to see you, he says; is he to be shown into the drawing-room.”
“Yes—no; I’ll come out and see him. Will you excuse me, Mr. Monckton: this is an old acquaintance of mine? Rather a pertinacious acquaintance, as you may perceive by his manner of following me up to-night.”
Mr. Darrell rose, pushed aside his chair, and went out of the dining-room, followed by the servant.
The hall was brilliantly lighted, and in the few moments during which the servant slowly followed Launcelot Darrell, Eleanor had an opportunity of seeing the stranger who had come to the Priory.
He was standing under the light of the large gas-lamp, shaking the rain-drops from his hat, and with his face turned towards the dining-room door.
He was short and stout, smartly dressed, and foppish-looking even in his travelling costume; and he was no other than the talkative Frenchman who had persuaded George Vane to leave his daughter alone upon the Boulevard on the night of August 11th, 1853.