Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 20

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

CHAPTER XXXVII. LAUNCELOT’S TROUBLES.

Eleanor Monckton sat looking at the door which had closed upon the scene in the lamp-lit hall, almost as if the intensity of her gaze could have pierced the solid oaken panel and revealed to her that which was taking place outside the dining-room.

Richard Thornton and her husband, both watching her face, wondered at the sudden change in its expression,—the look of rapt wonder and amazement that had come over it from the moment in which Launcelot Darrell had gone out into the hall. Richard guessed that something strange and unexpected had occurred, but Gilbert Monckton, who was quite in the dark as to his wife’s feelings, could only stare blankly at her face, and mutely wonder at the mystery which tortured him. Laura Mason, who had been throughout the day alarmed by her lover’s manner, was too anxious about Launcelot Darrell to observe the face of her friend.

“I’m sure there’s something wrong,” she said; “I’m sure there is, Mr. Monckton. You don’t know how Launcelot’s been going on all day, frightening me out of my wits. Hasn’t he now, Eleanor? Hasn’t he, Mr. Thornton? Saying he won’t be a pauper, dependent upon his wife, and that you’ve wounded his feelings by talking about Art as if you were a bricklayer; or as if he was a bricklayer, I forget which. I had a presentiment all day that something was going to happen; and Launcelot did go on so, staring at the fire, and hammering the coals, and sighing as if he had something awful on his mind—as if he’d committed a crime, you know, and was brooding over it,” added the young lady, with an evident relish of the last idea.

Mr. Monckton looked contemptuously at his ward. The girl’s frivolous babble was in horrible discord with his own anxiety—a kind of parody of his own alarm.

“What do you mean by committing crimes, Laura?” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll never learn to talk like a reasonable being. Is there anything so very miraculous in the fact that some old acquaintance of Mr. Darrell’s has come down to Berkshire to see him, and that, having taken so much trouble, he scarcely cares to go back without seeing him?”

Laura Mason breathed a sigh of relief.

“You don’t think, then, that Launcelot has done something dreadful, and that this man has come to arrest him!” she asked. “It seems so odd his coming here on a dark winter’s night; and Launcelot looked angry when he saw the card the servant gave him. I’m sure it’s something dreadful. Let’s go into the drawing-room, Eleanor. We shall have to pass through the hall, and if there’s anything wrong we can find out all about it.”

Eleanor started as Laura addressed her, and rose suddenly, aroused by the necessity of having to attend to something that had been said to her, but scarcely knowing what that something was.

“Eleanor!” exclaimed her husband, “how pale you are, and how strangely you look at that door. One would think that you were influenced by Laura’s absurd fears.”

“Oh, no! I’m not frightened of anything; only I—”

She paused, hesitating, and looking down in painful embarrassment.

“Only what?”

“I happened to see the person who has come to speak to Mr. Darrell, and—and—his face reminded me of a man I saw a long time ago.”

Richard looked up quickly.

“But was there anything so very startling in the mere coincidence of a likeness?”

“Oh, no, nothing startling.”

“Upon my word, Eleanor,” exclaimed Gilbert Monckton, impatiently, “we seem to live in an atmosphere of mystery, which, to say the least of it, is far from agreeable to those who are only honoured with the post of lookers-on. There, there, go to the drawing-room with Laura. Mr. Thornton and I will follow you almost immediately. We shall have very little pleasure in sitting over our wine, with a consciousness that a kind of Gunpowder Plot is going on in the hall outside.”

The lawyer filled his glass with claret, and pushed the crystal jug towards Richard; but he left the wine untasted before him, and he sat silently brooding over his suspicions with a bent brow and rigidly-compressed lips.

It was no use to struggle against his destiny, he thought. Life was to be always a dreary French novel, in which he was to play the husband and the victim. He had loved and trusted this girl. He had seen innocence and candour beaming in her face, and he had dared to believe in her; and from the very hour of her marriage a horrible transformation had taken place in this frank and fearless creature. A hundred changes of expression, all equally mysterious to him, had converted the face he loved into a wearisome and incomprehensible enigma, which it was the torment of his life to endeavour vainly and hopelessly to guess. Richard Thornton opened the door, and Eleanor gladly made her escape from the dining-room, holding Laura’s hand in hers, and with the Signora following close behind her. The three women entered the hall in a group, and stood for a moment looking at Launcelot Darrell and the stranger.

Mr. Darrell stood near the open hall-door with his hands in his pockets, and his head bent in that sulky attitude which Eleanor had good reason to remember. The stranger, smoothing the wet nap of his hat with a careful hand, seemed to be talking in a tone of remonstrance, and, as it were, urging something upon his companion. This was only to be guessed by the expression of his face, as the voice in which he spoke was scarcely above a whisper.

The three ladies crossed the hall and went into the drawing-room. Eleanor had no need to confirm her sudden recognition of the Frenchman by any second scrutiny of his face. She sat down near the broad hearth, and began to think how this man’s unlooked-for coming might affect the fulfilment of her purpose. Would he be likely to thwart her? or could he not, perhaps, be induced to help her?

“I must talk to Richard,” she thought. “He knows the world better than I do. I am almost as much a child as Laura.”

While Mrs. Monckton sat looking absently at the fire, and trying to imagine how the advent of the Frenchman might be made subservient to the scheme of her life, Miss Mason burst into a torrent of panegyric upon the stranger’s appearance.

“He’s such a good-natured-looking dear,” she exclaimed, “with curly hair and a mustache just like the Emperor’s; and the idea of my frightening myself so about him, and thinking he was a dreadful creature in a slouched hat, and with his coat collar turned up to hide his face, come to arrest Launcelot for some awful crime. I’m not a bit frightened now, and I hope Launcelot will bring him in to tea. The idea of his being a foreigner, too. I think foreigners are so interesting. Don’t you, Nelly?”

Eleanor Monckton looked up at the sound of her name. She had not heard a word that Laura had said.

“What, dear?” she asked, listlessly.

“Don’t you think foreigners interesting, Nelly?” repeated the young lady.

“Interesting? No.”

“What; not Frenchmen?”

Mrs. Monckton gave a faint shiver.

“Frenchmen!” she said. “No, I don’t like them, I— How do I know, Laura? baseness and treachery belong to no peculiar people, I suppose.”

Mr. Monckton and the scene-painter came into the drawing-room at this moment, followed pretty closely by Launcelot Darrell.

“What have you done with your friend, Darrell?” Gilbert Monckton asked, with a look of surprise.

“Oh, he’s gone,” the young man answered indifferently.

“You’ve let him go, without asking him to rest, or take some refreshment?”

“Yes, I contrived to get rid of him.”

“We don’t usually ‘contrive to get rid’ of people when they come here on a wet winter night,” said Mr. Monckton. “You’ll give Tolldale Priory a name for inhospitality, I fear. Why didn’t you ask your friend to stop?”

“Because I didn’t care to introduce him to you,” Launcelot Darrell answered coolly; “I never said he was a friend of mine. He’s only an acquaintance, and a very intrusive acquaintance. He had no right to ferret out my whereabouts, and to come down here after me. A man doesn’t want past associations forced upon him, however agreeable they may have been.”

“And still less when those associations are disagreeable. I understand. But who is this man?”

“He’s a Frenchman, a commis voyageur, or something of that kind; by no means a distinguished acquaintance. He’s a good fellow, in his own particular fashion, and would go out of his way to do me a service, I dare say; but he’s rather too fond of absinthe, or brandy, or any other spirit he can get hold of.”

“You mean that he is a drunkard,” said Mr. Monckton.

“I don’t say that. But I know that the poor devil has had more than one attack of delirium tremens in the course of his life. He’s over here in the interests of a patent mustard, I believe, lately invented by some great Parisian gastronomer.”

“Indeed; and where did you make his acquaintance?”

The same crimson hue that had mounted to Mr. Darrell’s forehead when the Frenchman’s card was handed to him, dyed his face now, and he hesitated for a few moments before replying to Gilbert Monckton’s straight question. But he recovered himself pretty quickly, and answered with his accustomed carelessnes of manner:

“Where did I know him? Oh, in London, of course. He was an inhabitant of that refuge for the destitute of all nations, some years ago, while I was sowing my wild oats there.”

“Before you went to India?”

“Yes, of course before I went to India.”

Mr. Monckton looked sharply at the young man’s face. There were moments when the lawyer’s prudence, when the conscientious scruples of an honest man got the better of the husband’s selfish fears; and in those moments Gilbert Monckton doubted whether he was doing his duty towards his ward in suffering her to marry Launcelot Darrell.

Was the young man worthy of the trust that was to be confided to him? Was he a fitting husband for an inexperienced and frivolous girl?

Mr. Monckton could only answer this question in one way. He could only satisfy his conscience by taking a cynical view of the matter.

“Launcelot Darrell is as good as other young men, I dare say,” he argued. “He’s good-looking, and conceited, and shallow, and idle; but the poor little girl has chosen to fall in love with him, and if I come between them, and forbid this marriage, and make the silly child unhappy by forcing my choice upon her, I may be quite as much mistaken as she, and after all marry her to a bad man. I may just as well let her draw her own number in the great lottery, and trust to Providence for its being a lucky one.”

But to-night there was something in Launcelot Darrell’s manner which aroused a vague suspicion in the breast of the lawyer.

“Then your friend, the commis voyageur, has gone back to Windsor, I suppose?” he said.

“No; I couldn’t very well avoid giving him a shelter, as he chose to come, though he came uninvited. I sent him back to Hazlewood with a few lines addressed to my mother, who will do her best to make him comfortable, I dare say. Poor soul, she would scarcely refuse to shelter a stray dog, if the wandering cur were in any way attached to me.”

“Yes, Mr. Darrell, you have reason to value your mother’s affection,” answered the lawyer, gravely. “But we must not forget that we’ve a good deal of business to transact to-night. Will you come with me into my study, as soon as you’ve finished that cup of tea?”

Launcelot Darrell bowed, and set down his teacup on the nearest table. Eleanor and Richard had both watched him closely since his coming into the drawing-room. It was easy to see that he had by no means recovered from the unpleasant surprise caused him by the Frenchman’s visit. His careless manner was only assumed, and it was with evident difficulty that he responded to each new demand made upon his attention.

He followed Gilbert Monckton slowly and silently from the room, without having lingered to speak so much as a word to Laura, without having even made her happy by so much as a look.

“He might have spoken to me,” the young lady murmured, disconsolately, as she watched her lover’s retreating figure.

Two hours elapsed before the gentlemen returned to the drawing-room; two dreary hours for Laura, who sat yawning over a book, or playing with one of her dogs, which, by virtue of their high-breeding and good conduct, were constant occupants of the drawing-room at Tolldale. Richard Thornton and Mrs. Monckton played a game of chess, the strangest game, perhaps, that ever was played, for the moving backwards and forwards of the ivory pieces was a mere pretence, by means of which Eleanor contrived to take counsel with her faithful ally.

“Do you think this man’s coming will help us, Dick?” she asked, when she had told the story of her recognition of the Frenchman.

Richard shook his head, not negatively, but reflectively.

“How can I tell?” he said; “the man may or may not be inclined to betray his friend. In any case it will be very difficult for us to get at him.

“Not for you, Richard,” murmured Eleanor, persuasively.

“Not for me,” echoed the young man. “Syren, mermaiden, witch of the sea, avaunt! It was you and the blue bonnet that settled for the shipbroker and his clerks. Have you the blue bonnet still, Nell; or have you any other influence in the millinery line that you can bring to bear upon this traveller in mustard?”

“But if he should remember me?”

“That’s scarcely likely. His face was impressed upon your mind by the awful circumstance that followed your meeting with him. You have changed very much since you were fifteen years of age, Mrs. Monckton. You were a feminine hobbledehoy then. Now you are—never mind what. A superb Nemesis in crinoline, bent on deeds of darkness and horror. No, I do not see any reason to fear this man’s recognition of you.”

The expression of Launcelot Darrell’s face had subsided into a settled gloom when he reappeared in the drawing-room with Mr. Monckton.

The lawyer seated himself at a reading-table, and began to open the evening papers which were sent from Windsor to Tolldale. Launcelot strolled over to Laura Mason, and, sitting down beside her, amused himself by pulling the silky ears of the Skye terrier.

“Do tell me everything, Launcelot,” said Miss Mason. “You don’t know how much I’ve suffered all this evening. I hope the interview was a pleasant one?”

“Oh, yes, remarkably pleasant,” answered the young man, with a sneer. “I shall not be exposed to the reproach of having made a mercenary marriage, Laura, at any rate.”

“What do you mean, Launcelot?” cried the young lady, staring aghast at her lover. “You don’t mean that my guardian’s been deceiving me all this time, and that I’m a poor penniless creature after all, and that I ought to have been a companion, or a nursery governess, or something of that kind, as Eleanor was before her marriage. You don’t mean that, Launcelot?”

“Not precisely,” answered Mr. Darrell; “but I mean that the noble allowance of which your guardian has talked so much is to be two hundred a-year; which, as we are so unfortunate as to possess the habits of a gentleman and a lady, will not go very far.”

“But ain’t I rich,—ain’t I an heiress?” cried Miss Mason. “Haven’t I what-you-may-call-’ems—expectations?”

“Oh, yes. I believe there is some vague promise of future wealth held out as a compensation for all present deprivations. But really, although your guardian took great pains to explain the dry business details to me, I was almost too tired to listen to him; and certainly too stupid to understand very clearly what he meant. I believe there is some money which you are to have by-and-by, upon the death of somebody. But as it seems that the somebody is a person in the prime of life, who has the power of altering his will at any moment that he may take it into his head to do so, I look upon that expectation as rather a remote contingency. No, Laura, we must look our position straight in the face. A life of hard work lies before me; a life of poverty before you.”

Miss Mason made a wry face. Her mind had little power to realise anything but extremes. Her idea of poverty was something very horrible. An existence of beggary, with the chance of being called upon to do plain needlework for her daily bread, and with the workhouse at the end of the prospect.

“But I shall love you all the same, Launcelot,” she whispered, “however poor we may be, and I’ll wear dresses without any trimming, and imitation lace. I suppose you wouldn’t know imitation lace from real Valenciennes, Launcelot, and it’s so cheap. And I’ll try and make pies and puddings, and I’ll learn to be economical, and I’ve lots of jewellery that my guardian has given me, and we can sell that if you like. I’ll work as hard as that poor woman in the poem, Launcelot, for your sake. ‘Stitch, stitch, stitch, band and gusset, and seam.’ I don’t mind the seams, dear; they’d be easy if one didn’t prick one’s fingers and make knots in one’s thread; but I’m afraid I shall never be able to manage the gussets. Only promise me that you’ll love me still, Launcelot. Tell me that you don’t hate me because I’m poor.”

The young man took the soft little hand that was laid with an imploring gesture on his wrist, and pressed it tenderly.

“I should be a brute if I wasn’t grateful for your love, Laura,” he said. “I didn’t wish you to be a rich woman. I’m not the sort of fellow who could contentedly accept a degraded position, and sponge upon a wife’s fortune. I only wanted—I only wanted my own,” he muttered with a savage accent; “I’m set upon and hemmed in on every side, and I’ve a hundred mortifications and miseries to bear for want of money. But I’ll try and make you a good husband, my dear.”

“You will, Launcelot,” cried the girl, melted by some touch of real earnestness in her lover’s tone that was new and welcome to her. “How good it is of you to say that. But how should you be otherwise than good; and you will be a great painter, and all the world will admire you and talk about you, and we shall be so happy,—shan’t we, Launcelot?—wandering through Italy together.”

The young man answered her with a bitter laugh.

“Yes, Laura,” he said, “the sooner we get to Italy the better. Heaven knows, I’ve no particular interest that need keep me in England, now.”

CHAPTER XXXVIII. MR. MONCKTON BRINGS GLOOMY TIDINGS FROM WOODLANDS.

For some few days after the Frenchman’s arrival, Launcelot Darrell stopped away from the Priory, much to the regret of his betrothed, whose delight in her trousseau was not sufficient to fill the blank made by her lover’s absence. Miss Mason roamed diconsolately about the house, looking out at the bare trees, and the desolate garden walks, and quoted Tennyson until she became obnoxious to her fellow-creatures by reason of her regret that he did not come, and her anxiety that the day should be done, and other lamentations to the same effect.

She ran out of doors sometimes under the bleak February sky, with a cambric handkerchief over her head, as a sensible protection from the bitter atmosphere, and her light ringlets flying in the wind, to stand at a little doorway in the high garden wall, and watch for her lover’s coming by a narrow pathway through the wood, which it was his wont to make a short cut for himself in dry weather.

She was standing in this narrow doorway upon the afternoon of the 22nd of February—only twenty-one days before that eventful morning which was to make her Launcelot Darrell’s wife—with Eleanor Monckton by her side. The short winter’s day was closing in, there at least in the low woodland, whatever light might linger on the hill-tops above Tolldale. The two women were silent: Eleanor was in very low spirits, for on this day she had lost her friend and counsellor, Richard Thornton, who had had no alternative but to leave Tolldale, or to forfeit a very remunerative and advantageous engagement at one of the Edinburgh theatres, whither he had been summoned to paint the scenery for a grand Easter burlesque, about to be produced with unusual splendour, by a speculative Scottish manager; and who had, therefore, departed, taking his aunt with him. George Vane’s daughter felt terribly helpless in the absence of this faithful ally. Richard had promised to attend to her summons, and to return to Tolldale at any hour, if she should have need of his services, but he was separated from her by a long distance, and how could she tell when the moment of that need might come. She was alone, amongst people who had no sympathy with the purpose of her life, and she bitterly felt the desolation of her position.

It was no very great wonder, then, if she was thoughtful and silent, and by no means the joyous, light-hearted companion whom Laura Mason had loved and clung to at Hazlewood, before the coming of Launcelot Darrell. This young lady watched her now, furtively, almost fearfully, wondering at the change in her, and speculating as to the cause of it.

“She must have been in love with Launcelot,” Laura thought; “how could she help being in love with him? And she married my guardian because he’s rich, and now she’s sorry for having done so. And she’s unhappy because I’m going to be married to Launcelot. And, oh! suppose Launcelot should still be in love with her; like the hero of a dreadful French novel!”

The dusky shadows were gathering thickly in the wood, when two figures emerged from the narrow pathway. A tall, slenderly-built young man, who switched the low brushwood and the fern with his light cane as he walked along, and a puffy little individual with a curly brimmed hat, who trotted briskly by his side.

Laura was not slow to recognise her lover even in that dusky light, and Eleanor knew that the young man’s companion was the French commercial traveller.

Mr. Darrell introduced his friend to the two ladies.

“Monsieur Victor Bourdon, Mrs. Monckton, Miss Mason,” he muttered hastily; “I daresay you have thought me very neglectful, Laura,” he added; “but I have been driving Monsieur Bourdon about the neighbourhood for the last day or two. He’s a stranger in this part of the country, though he’s almost as much an Englishman as I am.”

Monsieur Bourdon laughed as he acknowledged the compliment with an air that was evidently intended to be fascinating.

“Y-a-a-se,” he said, “we have been to Vindsor. It is very naice.”

Launcelot Darrell frowned, and looked angrily at his companion.

“Yes, Bourdon wanted to have a look at the state apartments,” he said; “he wanted to compare them with those interminable galleries at Versailles, I suppose, to the disparagement of our national glory.”

“But the apartments are closed,” said Eleanor.

“Oh! of course,” answered Mr. Darrell, looking at her rather suspiciously, “they always are closed when you happen to want to see them. Just like everything else in this world of anomalies and paradoxes.”

“He has taken his friend to Windsor,” Eleanor thought; “had this visit any relation to his last visit? Did he go there to see Mr. Lawford’s clerk?”

She was helpless without Richard, and could not answer this question.

“I’ll write to him to-night,” she thought, “and ask him to come back to me directly.”

But in the next moment she was ashamed of herself for her selfishness. She might sacrifice her own life to her scheme of vengeance. The voice of her father crying to her from his unsanctified grave, seemed for ever urging her to do that; but she had no right to call upon others to make the same sacrifice.

“No,” she thought, “wherever the road I have chosen may lead me, however difficult the path may be to follow, I will henceforward tread it alone. Poor Dick! I have tormented him long enough with my sorrows and my helplessness.”

“You’ve come to dine, of course, Launcelot,” Miss Mason said, while Eleanor stood motionless and silent in the doorway, absorbed in these thoughts, and looking like some pale statue in the dusk; “and you’ve brought your friend, Monsieur—Monsieur Bourdon to dine—”

“Ah, but no, mademoiselle,” exclaimed the Frenchman, in a transport of humility, “I am not one of yours. Monsieur Darrell is so good as to call me his friend, but—”

The Frenchman murmured something of a deprecatory nature, to the effect that he was only a humble commercial traveller in the interests of a patent article that was very much appreciated by all the crowned heads of Europe, and one which would doubtless, by the aid of his exertions and those of his compatriots, become, before long, a cosmopolitan necessity, and the source of a colossal fortune.

Eleanor shuddered and shrank away from the man with a gesture almost expressive of disgust, as he turned to her in his voluble depreciation of himself and glorification of the merchandise which it was his duty to praise.

She remembered that it was this man, this loquacious vulgarian, who had been Launcelot Darrell’s tool on the night of her father’s death. This was the wretch who had stood behind George Vane’s chair, and watched the old man’s play, and telegraphed to his accomplice.

If she could have forgotten Launcelot Darrell’s treachery, this presence would have been enough to remind her of that pitiless baseness, to inspire her with a tenfold disgust for that hideous cruelty. It seemed as if the Frenchman’s coming had been designed by Providence to urge her to new energy, new determination.

“The man who could make this creature his accomplice in a plot against my father shall never inherit Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune,” she thought; “he shall never marry my husband’s ward.”

She linked her arm in Laura’s as she thought this; as if by that simple and involuntary action she would have shielded her from Launcelot Darrell.

In the next moment a footstep—the firm tread of a man—sounded on the crisp gravel of the garden walk behind the two girls, and presently Gilbert Monckton laid his hand lightly upon his wife’s shoulder.

She was startled by his unexpected coming, and turning suddenly round, looked at him with a scared face; which was a new evidence against her in his troubled mind, a new testimony that she was keeping some secret from him.

He had left Tolldale Priory early that morning to give a day’s attention to that business of which he had been lately so neglectful, and had returned a couple of hours before his usual time for coming home.

“What brings you out into the garden this bitter afternoon, Eleanor?” he said, sternly; “you’ll catch cold in that thin shawl; and you, too, Laura; I should have thought a seat by the drawing-room fire far more comfortable than this dreary garden. Good evening, gentlemen; you had better bring your friend into the house, Mr. Darrell.”

The young man muttered something of an apologetic nature, and Monsieur Victor Bourdon acknowledged the lawyer’s cold salutation with an infinite number of bows and smirks.

“You have come home by an earlier train than usual, Gilbert,” Mrs. Monckton said, by way of saying something that might break the silence which had followed her husband’s coming; “we did not expect you until seven.”

“I came to Windsor by the three o’clock express,” answered Mr. Monckton. “I have not come straight home. I stopped at Woodlands to inquire after the invalid.”

Eleanor looked up with a new and eager expression in her face.

“And Mr. de Crespigny—he is better, I hope.”

“No, Eleanor, I fear that you will never see him again. The doctors scarcely hope that he will last out the week.”

The girl set her lips firmly, and raised her head with a resolute gesture—a mute expression of determination and defiance.

“I will see him again,” she thought; “I will not trust my hope of vengeance to a chance. He may have altered his will, perhaps. He may have destroyed it. Come what may, I will stand beside his sick bed. I will tell him who I am, and call upon him, in my dead father’s name, to do an act of justice.”

Launcelot Darrell stood with his head bent and his eyes fixed upon the ground.

As it was the habit of Eleanor to lift her forehead with something of the air of a young war-horse who scents the breath of the battle-field afar, so it was this young man’s manner to look moodily earthward under the influence of any violent agitation.

“So,” he said, slowly, “the old man is dying?”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Monckton; “your great-uncle is dying. You may be master of Woodlands, Launcelot, before many days are past.”

The young man drew a long breath.

“Yes,” he muttered; “I may: I may.”