Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 30




No letter came from Richard Thornton. Eleanor was seized with a kind of panic as the days went by, and there was no answer from the young man, the faithful friend, without whose help she felt herself so powerless.

Eleanor had addressed her letter to the Pilasters, enclosed in an envelope directed to Signora Picirillo, with a few hurried lines requesting that it might be immediately forwarded to the scene-painter. He was in Scotland still, very likely, and some days must elapse before he could respond to Eleanor’s summons. She felt assured that he would come to her. There are some friends whose goodness we no more doubt than we doubt the power of God; and Richard Thornton was one of these.

But the week passed, and no reply came to Eleanor’s appeal for help, so she began to feel that she stood alone, and must act for herself. She must act for herself, since to think of getting any assistance from either the major or his wife in this business, which demanded foresight, coolness, and diplomacy, would have been about as reasonable as to apply to one of the children playing under the trees in the gardens of the Tuileries.

As far as sympathy went, Major and Mrs. Lennard were all that the most exacting individual could require. The major offered to do anything in a muscular way on behalf of his wife’s friend. Should he punch the head of that scoundrelly Frenchman? Should he go over to England and horsewhip Launcelot Darrell, and bring Gilbert Monckton to reason, and play up old gooseberry altogether? This good-natured Hercules was ready to hit out right and left in the defence of poor Eleanor.

But the one friend whom Mrs. Monckton wanted in this crisis was Richard Thornton—Richard, the clear-sighted, even-tempered, unprejudiced young man, who was ready to go through fire and water for the sake of his beautiful adopted sister, without noise or bluster; and when the Tuesday, the day appointed by the Frenchman for Eleanor’s visit to his apartments, came, and Richard Thornton did not come with it, the lonely girl almost gave way to despair.

She felt that she had to encounter a wretch who was utterly without honour or honesty, and who, seeing the value which she set upon the possession of Maurice de Crespigny’s will, would be all the more exacting in his demands. And she had nothing to bribe him with; nothing.

She had been too proud to appeal to her husband; for ever impulsive, for ever inconsiderate, she had not stopped to think that he of all others was the most fitting person to stand by her in this crisis. At first the thought of writing to Gilbert Monckton had indeed flashed across her mind, but in the next moment she had remembered the bitter humiliation of her last failure.

She could not endure another such degradation; and she had seen treachery and dishonour so long triumph over the simple force of truth, that she had begun to think that wrong was stronger than right, and always must be victorious.

“If I were to write and ask Gilbert to come to me, this Frenchman would perhaps disappear before my husband could arrive; or he would be afraid of Gilbert, very likely, and would deny any knowledge of the will; and I should appear a convicted trickster, who had heaped up one falsehood upon another, in the weak attempt to justify herself. No. Gilbert Monckton shall hear nothing of me until I can go to him with Maurice de Crespigny’s will in my hands.”

But in the meantime this helpless girl’s anxiety grew every hour more intense. What reliance could she place upon the words of the Frenchman? She had encountered him while he was still smarting under the sense of his wrongs, and in that stage of his feelings, revenge had seemed even sweeter to him than gain. But this state of things might not endure very long. The commercial traveller might listen to the dictates of reason rather than to the fiery promptings of passion, and might begin to think that a substantial recompense in the shape of money was better than any sugar-plum in the way of revenge. He had said that Launcelot Darrell would be willing to give him ten times a thousand pounds for the genuine will. What more likely than that Monsieur Victor Bourdon should have thought better of his original design, and opened negotiations with the new master of Woodlands!

Monsieur Bourdon would in all probability have done precisely this, had he not been hindered by one of those unlooked-for and purely providential circumstances which so often help single and simple-minded truth in her encounters with versatile and shifty falsehood.

At half-past six o’clock upon the appointed evening, Eleanor Monckton left the Hôtel du Palais, escorted by Major Lennard, on her way to the Frenchman’s lodging. She had waited until the last moment in the hope of Richard Thornton’s arrival, but he had not come; and she had been fain to accept the aid of this good-natured overgrown schoolboy, who still persisted that the immediate punching of Victor Bourdon’s head would be the best and surest means of getting possession of the will.

“Let me punch the feller’s head, Miss Vil—beg pardon, Mrs. Monckton. The idea of your being married to old Monckton! He ain’t any older than me, you know, but I always call him old Monckton. Let me punch this dam Frenchman’s head; that’ll bring the feller to book in next to no time, and then we can do what we like with him.”

But Eleanor impressed upon her stalwart protector that there must be no muscular demonstration, and that the conduct of the interview was to be left entirely to her.

“I don’t in the least hope that he’ll give up the will without a bribe,” Eleanor said; “he is the last man upon earth to do that.”

“I’ll tell you what, then, Mrs. Monckton,” exclaimed the major, “I haven’t any ready money. I never have had, since I borrowed sixpences of a sucking bill-discounter at the first school I ever went to; but I’ll give you my acceptance. Let this fellow draw upon me for a thousand at three months, and give up the document for that consideration. Monckton will enable me to meet the bill, no doubt, when he finds I was of service to you in this business.”

Eleanor looked at the major with a gleam of hope in her face. But that transient gleam very quickly faded. She had only a vague idea of the nature and properties of accommodation bills; but she had a very positive notion of Victor Bourdon’s character, and, though this plan sounded feasible enough, she did not think it would succeed.

“You are very good to me, Major Lennard,” she said, “and believe me I appreciate your kindness; but I do not think that this Frenchman will consent to take anything but ready money. He could get that from Launcelot Darrell, remember, at any time.”

Eleanor’s only hope was the one chance that she might induce Victor Bourdon to accept her promise of a reward from Gilbert Monckton after the production of the will.

The neighbourhood in which the commercial traveller lived, whenever he made Paris his head-quarters, was one of the dingiest localities in the city. Major Lennard and Eleanor, after making numerous inquiries, and twice losing their way, found themselves at last in a long narrow street, one side of which was chiefly dead-wall, broken here and there by a dilapidated gateway or a dingy window. At one corner there was a shop for the sale of unredeemed pledges; a queer old shop, in whose one murky window obsolete scraps of jewellery,—odd watch-keys, impossible watches with cracked enamel dials and crippled hands that pointed to hours whose last moments had passed away for half a century; mysterious, incomprehensible garments, whose fashion was forgotten, and whose first owners were dead and gone; poor broken-down clocks, in tawdry ormolu cases, that had stood upon lodging-house mantelpieces, indifferently telling the wrong time to generations of lodgers; an old guitar; a stringless violin; poor, frail, cracked cups and saucers, that had been precious once, by reason of the lips that had drunk out of them; a child’s embroidered frock; a battered christening-cup; a tattered missal; an odd volume of “The Wandering Jew;” amid a hundred other pitiful relics which poverty barters for a crust of bread,—faded in the evening sunlight, and waited for some eccentric purchaser to take a fancy to them. Next door to this sarcophagus of the past there was an eating-house, neat and almost cheerful, where one could have a soup, three courses, and half a bottle of wine for fivepence. The whole neighbourhood seemed to be, somehow or other, overshadowed by churches, and pervaded by the perpetual tramp of funerals; and, lying low and out of the way of all cheerful traffic, was apt to have a depressing effect upon the spirits of frivolous people.

Eleanor, leading the major—who was of about as much use to her as a blind man is to his dog—succeeded at last in finding the house which boasted Monsieur Victor Bourdon amongst its inhabitants. I say “amongst” advisedly; for as there was the office of a popular bi-weekly periodical upon the first-floor, a greengrocer in the rez-de-chaussée, a hairdresser who professed to cut and friz the hair, on the second story, and a mysterious lady, whose calling was represented by a faded pictorial board, resident somewhere under the roof, the commercial traveller was a very unimportant inhabitant, an insignificant nomad, replaced to-day by a student en droit, to-morrow by a second-rate actor at a fifth-rate theatre.

Eleanor found this when she came to make inquiries of the portress as to the possibility of seeing Monsieur Bourdon. This lady, who was knitting, and whose very matronly contour made it impossible for her to see her knitting-needles, told Eleanor that Monsieur Bourdon was very unlikely to be at home at that time. He was apt to return late at night, upon the two hours, in effect, between two wines, and at those times he was enough abrupt, and was evidently by no means a favourite with madame the portress. But on looking into a dusky corner, where some keys were hanging upon a row of rusty nails, madame informed Eleanor that Monsieur Bourdon was at home, as his key was not amongst the rest, and it was his habit to leave it in her care when he went out. The portress seemed very much struck by this discovery, for she remarked that the last time she had seen Monsieur Bourdon go out had been early in the morning of Sunday, and that she did not remember having seen him re-enter.

But upon this a brisk young person of twelve or thirteen, who was busy getting up fine linen in the recesses of the lodge, cried out in a very shrill voice that Monsieur Bourdon had returned before mid-day on Sunday, looking a little ill, and dragging himself with a fatigued air.

He was at home, then, the portress exclaimed; at least, she did not utter any equivalent to our English word home, and in that evinced considerable wisdom, since a French lodging is a place so utterly unhomelike, that the meanest second-floor at Islington or Chelsea, presided over by the most unconscionable of British landladies, becomes better than all the pleasures and palaces we can roam amidst—and it is not everybody who has the chance of roaming amidst pleasures and palaces,—by force of comparison. Monsieur was chez lui, the portress said, and would madame ascend? Monsieur’s apartment was on the entresol, with windows giving upon the street. Madame would see a black door facing her upon the first landing.

Eleanor went up a short flight of steps, followed by the major. She knocked upon the panel of the black door—once, twice, three times; but there was no answer.

“I’d lay a fiver the feller’s gone out again,” the major exclaimed; “that jabbering Frenchwoman didn’t seem to know what she was talking about.”

But Eleanor knocked a fourth time, and very much louder than she had knocked before. There was no answer even this time; but a voice was heard within, blaspheming aloud with horrible French execrations that seemed to freeze Eleanor’s blood as she listened to them.

She did listen to them, involuntarily, as people often listen in a crowded thoroughfare to the obnoxious clamour of a drunken man, paralysed for the moment by the horror of his hideous oaths.

Eleanor turned very pale, and looked despairingly at the major.

“Hark,” she whispered, “he is quarrelling with some one.”

The big soldier deliberately turned himself into a convenient position for listening, and flattened his ear against the keyhole.

“No, he ain’t quarrellin’ with any one,” the major said, presently. “I can’t make much out of his lingo, but there’s only one voice. He’s all alone, and goin’ on like a madman.”

The major opened the door softly as he spoke. Monsieur Bourdon’s apartment was divided into two low-roofed chambers, a little larger than comfortable pigeon-holes; and in the inner and smaller chamber Eleanor and her companion saw the commercial traveller wandering backwards and forwards in his obscure den, only dressed in his trowsers and shirt, and gesticulating like a madman.

Mrs. Monckton clung to the soldier’s arm. She had some cause for fear, for in the next moment the Frenchman descried his visitors, and with a howl of rage, rushed at the major’s throat.

The most intellectual and diplomatic individual in Christendom would have been of very little service to Eleanor at that moment, if he had been also a coward. Major Lennard lifted the commercial traveller in his arms, as easily as if that gentleman had been a six-months-old baby, carried him into the next room where there was a narrow little bedstead, flung him on to the mattrass, and held him there.

“You’ll find a silk handkerchief in my pocket, my dear,” he said to Eleanor, “if you’ll be so kind as to pull it out. Voulez-vous gardez-vous trongkeel, dong, vous—Scoundrel!” he exclaimed, addressing himself to the struggling Frenchman.

Mrs. Monckton obeyed. She fell into her place quite naturally, giving way before the major. He was the hero of the moment. Frederic Soulié has said that the meanest actor who ever trod the boards of a theatre, has some inspired moment in which he is great. I fancy it must be pretty much the same in the drama of life. This was the major’s moment; and he arose out of his normal inanity, resplendent with unconscious grandeur.

The silk handkerchief was a large one, and Major Lennard used it very dexterously about Monsieur Bourdon’s wrists; then he found another handkerchief in another pocket, and used it as a bandage for the Frenchman’s ankles; and having done this he sat down by the bedside and contemplated his handiwork complacently, puffing and blowing a little while he did so.

Victor Bourdon lay very still, glaring at the ponderous soldier with eyes that were like those of a wild beast.

“I know thee,” he exclaimed; “thou hast been with me all the night, thou hast sat upon my chest; ah, Grêdin! thou art the biggest of all the demons that torment me. Thou breathest the fire and the sulphur, and thy breath burns me, and now thou hast attached my hands with bands of iron, white hot, and thou hast tied my ankles with living scorpions!”

Eleanor stood at a few paces from the bed, listening with horror to the man’s delirious ravings.

“What is it?” she asked, in a subdued voice. “Is it a fever that makes him like this? Or has he gone mad?”

The major shook his head.

“I think I can guess pretty well what’s the matter with the poor devil;” he said: “he’s been going it a little too fast. He’s got a touch of del. trem.”

“Del trem!”

“Delirium tremens, my dear,” answered the major. “Yes, you can hear his teeth chattering now this minute. I had it once when I was up the country, and our fellers took to living upon brandy-pawnee. I had rather a sharp time of it, while it lasted; used to fancy the tent was on fire; wanted to go out tiger-hunting in the middle of the night; tried to set the bed-clothes alight to cure myself of the hiccough; and ran after Meg with a razor early one morning. This man has got a touch of it, Mrs. Monckton, and I don’t think we shall get much reason out of him to-night.”

The conduct of Monsieur Victor Bourdon, who was at that moment holding a very animated discourse with a dozen or so of juvenile demons supposed to be located in the bed-curtains, went very far towards confirming the major’s assertion.

Eleanor sat down at the little table, upon which the dirty litter of the Frenchman’s last meal was huddled into a heap and intermixed with writing materials; an ink-bottle and a mustard-pot, a quill-pen and a tea-spoon, lying side by side. The girl’s fortitude had given way before this new and most cruel disappointment. She covered her face with her hands, and sobbed aloud.

Major Lennard was very much distressed at this unexpected collapse upon the part of his chief. He was very big, and rather stupid; but he had one of those tender childish natures which never learn to be hard and unmerciful. He was for ever patting the shock-heads of dirty pauper children, for ever fumbling in his pockets for copper coin, always open to the influence of any story of womanly distress, and quite unable to withstand the dingiest female, if she could only produce the merest phantom of a tear to be wiped away furtively from one eye, while the other looked round the corner to see if the shot went home.

He looked piteously at Eleanor, as she sat sobbing passionately, half unconscious of his presence, forgetful of everything except that this last hope had failed her.

“I thought that he might leave Paris, and go back to Launcelot Darrell,” she said, in a broken voice, “but I never thought of anything like this.”

“Sh-sh-sh-sh!” cried Monsieur Bourdon from the bed. “Ftz! Cats, cats! Sh-sh-sh-sh! Chase those cats, somebody! There’s the girl Faust saw upon the Bracken with the little rat running out of her mouth! There, sitting at the table! Go then, Voleuse, Gueuse, Infâme!” screamed the Frenchman, glaring at Eleanor.

The girl took no notice of him. Her sobs grew every moment louder and more hysterical. The major looked at her helplessly.

“Don’t,” he said, “my good creature, don’t now. This is really dreadful, ’pon my soul, now. Come, come, now; cheer up, my dear, cheer up. You won’t do anything by giving way, you know. I always tell Margaret that, when she thinks she can catch the train by sitting on the ground and crying, because her portmanteaus won’t shut. Nobody ever did you know, and if you don’t put your shoulder to the wheel——

The major might have rambled on in this wise for some time; but the sobbing grew louder; and he felt that it was imperatively necessary that something energetic should be done in this crisis. A bright thought flashed upon him as he looked hopelessly round the room, and in another moment he had seized a small white crockery-ware jug from the Frenchman’s toilet table, and launched its contents at Eleanor’s head.

This was a second master-stroke. The girl looked up with her head dripping, but with her courage revived by the shock her senses had received.

She took off her wet bonnet, and pushed the drenched hair from her forehead.

“Oh, major,” she said, “I know I have been very silly. But I was so taken by surprise. It seems so cruel that this should happen. I shall never get the will now.”

“Stuff and nonsense, my dear,” exclaimed Major Lennard. “What’s to prevent your getting it?”

“What do you mean?”

“What’s to prevent your taking it? We’re not going to stand upon ceremony with such a feller as this, are we, Mrs. Monckton? He stole the will from you, and if you can get the chance, you’ll return the compliment by stealing it from him. Fair play’s a jewel, my dear Mrs. M., and nothing could be fairer than that. So we’ll set to work at once; and I hope you’ll excuse the cold water, which was meant in kindness, I assure you.”

Eleanor smiled, and gave the major her hand.

“I’m sure it was,” she said. “I scarcely liked the idea of your coming with me, major, for fear you should do some mischief by being a little too impetuous. But I don’t know what I should have done without you.”

Major Lennard shrugged his shoulders with a deprecating gesture.

“I might have been useful to you, my dear,” he said, “if the feller had been all right and I could have punched his head; but one can’t get any credit out of a chap when he’s in that state,” added the major, pointing to the commercial traveller, who was taking journeys on his own account into the horrible regions of an intemperate man’s fancy.

“Now the first thing we shall want, Mrs. Monckton,” said the major, “is a candle and a box of lucifers. We must have a light before we can do anything.”

It was not dark yet; but the twilight was growing greyer and greyer, and the shadows were gathering in the corners of the room.

Victor Bourdon lay glaring at his two visitors through the dusk, while the major groped about the mantelpiece for a box of lucifers. He was not long finding what he wanted. He struck a little waxen match against the greasy paper of the wall, and then lighted an end of candle in a tawdry cheap china candlestick.

“Ease her! ease her!” cried the Frenchman; “I see the lights ahead off Normandy, on the side of the wind. She’ll strike upon a rock before we know where we are. What are they about, these English sailors? are they blind, that they don’t see the light?”

Major Lennard, with the candle in his hand, set to work to look for the missing document. He did not look very systematically, but as he pulled out every drawer and opened every cupboard, and shook out the contents of every receptacle, flinging them remorselessly upon the floor, he certainly looked pretty effectually. Eleanor, kneeling on the ground amongst the chaotic heaps of clothes and papers, tattered novels, broken meerscham pipes and stale cigar ends, examined every pocket, every book, and every paper separately, but with no result. The drawers had been ransacked, the cupboards disembowelled, a couple of portmanteaus completely emptied. Every nook and corner of the two small rooms had been most thoroughly searched, first by the major in a slapdash and military manner; afterwards by Eleanor, who did her work with calmness and deliberation, though her heart was beating, and the hot blood surging in her over excited brain. Every possible hiding place in the two rooms had been examined, but the will had not been found.

Every possible hiding place had been examined; except the pockets of Victor Bourdon’s trousers, and the bed upon which he lay.

The major stopped to scratch his head in despair, and stood staring hopelessly at the unhappy victim of his own vices, who was still raving, still remonstrating with invisible demons. But Eleanor aroused her friend from this state of stupefaction.

“He may have the will about him, major,” she said.

“Aha!” cried the soldier, “if he has, I’ll have it out of him. Give it me, you unconscionable blackguard,” he exclaimed, pouncing upon the delirious Frenchman. “I’ll have it out of you, you scoundrel. Tell me where it is directly. Dites-moi où il est, dong! What have you done with it, sir? What have you done with Maurice de Crespigny’s will?”

The familiar name aroused a transitory gleam of consciousness in Victor Bourdon.

“Ha, ha,” he cried with a malicious chuckle. “Maurice de Crespigny, the old, the parent of that Long—cellotte; but I will have my revenge; but he shall not enjoy his riches. The will, the will; that is mine, it will give me all.”

He raised himself by a great effort into a sitting posture, and made frantic endeavours to disengage his hands.

“He is thinking of the will,” cried Eleanor; “loosen his wrists, major! Pray, pray do, before the thought leaves him.”

Major Lennard obeyed. He loosened the knot of the silk handkerchief, but before he could remove it, Victor Bourdon had pulled his hands through the slackened noose, and clutched at something in his breast. It was a folded paper which he snatched out of the bosom of his shirt, and waved triumphantly above his head.

“Aha, Monsieur Long—cellotte!” he screamed. “I will pay thee for thy insolence, my friend.”

But before the Frenchman’s uplifted arm had described a second circle in the air above his head, the major swooped down upon him, snatched away the paper, handed it to Eleanor, and resecured Monsieur Bourdon’s wrists with the silk handkerchief.

So brief had been the interval of semi-consciousness, that the commercial traveller had already forgotten all about Launcelot Darrell and his own wrongs, and had rambled off again into impotent execrations against the imaginary demons amongst the bed-curtains.

Eleanor unfolded the paper, but she only read the first few words, “I, Maurice de Crespigny, being at this time, &c.,” for before she could read more, the door of the outer room was suddenly opened, and Richard Thornton hurried through into the bed-chamber.

But not Richard only, behind him came Gilbert Monckton, and it was he into whose outstretched arms Eleanor flung herself.

“You will believe me now, Gilbert,” she cried. “I have found the proof of Launcelot Darrell’s guilt at last.”