Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 21
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XXXIX. LAUNCELOT’S COUNSELLOR.
Mr. Darrell, and his friend the commercial traveller, did not linger long at the garden gate. There was nothing very cordial or conciliatory in Gilbert Monckton’s manner, and he had evidently no wish to cultivate any intimate relations with Monsieur Victor Bourdon.
Nor was Launcelot Darrell by any means anxious that his companion should be invited to stop at Tolldale. He had brought the Frenchman to the Priory, but he had only done so because Monsieur Bourdon was one of those pertinacious gentlemen not easily to be shaken off by the victims who are so unfortunate as to have fallen into their power.
“Well,” said the artist, as the two men walked away from the Priory in the murky dusk, “what do you think of her?”
“Of which her? La belle future, or the otha-i-r?”
“What do you think of Mrs. Monckton? I don’t want your opinion of my future wife, thank you.”
Monsieur Bourdon looked at his companion with a smile that was half a sneer.
“He is so proud, this dear Monsieur Lan—Darrell,” he said. “You ask of me what I think of Mrs. Monck-a-tonne,” he continued in English; “shall I tell you what I think without reserve.”
“Yes, of course.”
“I think then that she is a woman of a thousand—in all that there is of resolute—in all that there is of impulsive—in all that there is of daring—a woman unapproachable, unsurpassable; beautiful to damn the angels! If in the little business that we came to talk about lately, this woman is to be in the way; I say to you, my friend, beware! If there is to be any contest between you and her, beware!”
“Pray don’t go into heroics, Bourdon,” answered Launcelot Darrell, with evident displeasure. Vanity was one of the artist’s strongest vices; and he writhed at the notion of being considered inferior to any one, above all, to a woman. “I knew Mrs. Monckton, and I knew that she was a clever, high-spirited girl, before to-day. I don’t want you to tell me that. As to any contest between her and me, there’s no chance of that arising. She doesn’t stand in my way.”
“And you refuse to tell your devoted friend the name of the person who does stand in your way?” murmured Monsieur Bourdon, in his most insinuating tones.
“Because that information cannot be of the least consequence to my devoted friend,” answered Launcelot Darrell, coolly. “If my devoted friend has helped me, he will expect to be paid for his help, I dare say.”
“But, certainly!” cried the Frenchman, with an air of candour; “you will recompense me for my services if we are successful; and above all for the suggestion which first put into your head the idea—”
“The suggestion which prompted me to the commission of a—”
“Hush, my friend, even the trees in this wood may have ears.”
“Yes, Bourdon,” continued Launcelot, bitterly, “I have good reason to thank you, and to reward you. From the hour in which we first met until now, you have contrived to do me some noble services.”
Monsieur Bourdon laughed a dry, mocking laugh, which had something of the diabolically grotesque in its sound.
“Ah, what a noble creation of the poet’s mind is Faust!” he exclaimed; “that excellent, that amiable hero; who would never, of his own will, do any harm; but who is always led into the commission of all manner of wickedness by Mephistopheles. And then, when this noble but unhappy man is steeped to the very lips in sin, he can turn upon that wicked counsellor and say, ‘Demon, it is for your pleasure these crimes have been committed!’ Of course he forgets, this impulsive Faust, that it was he, and not Mephistopheles, who was in love with poor Gretchen!”
“Don’t be a fool, Bourdon,” muttered the artist, impatiently. “You know what I mean. When I started in life I was too proud to commit a dishonourable action. It is you, and such as you, who have made me what I am.”
“Bah!” exclaimed the Frenchman, snapping his fingers with a gesture of unutterable contempt. “You asked me just now to spare you my heroics; I say the same thing now to you. Do not let us talk to each other like the personages of a drama at the Ambigu. It is your necessities that have made you what you are, and that will keep you what you are so long as they exist and are strong enough to push you to disagreeable courses. Who says it is pleasant to go out of the straight line? Not I, Monsieur Lance! Believe me, it is more pleasant, as well as more proper, to be virtuous than to be wicked. Give me an annuity of a few thousand francs, and I will be the most honourable of men. You are afraid of the work that lies before you, because it is difficult, because it is dangerous; but not because it is dishonourable. Let us speak frankly, and call things by their right names. You want to inherit this old man’s fortune.”
“Yes,” answered Launcelot Darrell. “I have been taught from my babyhood to expect it. I have a right to expect it.”
“Precisely; and you don’t want this other person, whose name you won’t tell me, to get it.”
“Very well, then. Do not let us have any further dispute about the matter. Do not abuse poor Mephistopheles because he has shown the desire to help you to gain your own ends; and has already by decision and promptitude of action achieved that which you would never have effected by yourself alone. Tell Mephistopheles to go about his business, and he will go. But he will not stay to be made a—what you call—an animal which is turn out into the wilderness with other people’s sins upon his shoulders?—a scape-goat; or a paws-cat, which pull hot chestnuts from the fire, and burn her fingers in the interests of her friend. The chestnuts, in this case, here, are very hot, my friend; but I risk to burn my fingers with the shells in the hope to partake the inside of the nut.”
“I never meant to make a scapegoat of you, nor a cat’s-paw,” said Launcelot Darrell, with some alarm in his tone. “I didn’t mean to offend you, Bourdon. You’re a very good fellow in your way, I know; and, if your notions are a little loose upon some subjects, why, as you say, a man’s necessities are apt to get the upper hand of his principles. If Maurice de Crespigny has chosen to make an iniquitous will, to the ruin of his rightful heir, and for the mere gratification of an old madman’s whim, the consequences of his injustice must rest on his head, not on mine.”
“Most assuredly,” cried the Frenchman, “that argument is not to be answered. Be happy, my friend, we will bring about a posthumous adjustment of the old man’s errors. The wrong done by this deluded testator shall be repaired before his ashes are carried to their resting-place. Have no fear, my friend; all is prepared, as you know, and, let the time come when it may, we are ready to act.”
Launcelot Darrell gave a long sigh, a fretful, discontented inspiration, that was expressive of utter weariness. This young man had in the course of his life committed many questionable and dishonourable actions; but he had always done such wrong as it were under protest, and with the air of a victim, who is innocently disposed, but too easily persuaded, and who reluctantly suffers himself to be led away by the counsels of evil-minded wretches.
So now he had the air of yielding to the subtle arguments of his friend, the agent for patent mustard.
The two men walked on in silence for some little time. They had left the wood long ago, and were in a broad lane that led towards Hazlewood. Launcelot Darrell strolled silently along with his head bent and his black eyebrows contracted. His companion’s manner had its usual dapper airiness; but every now and then the Frenchman’s sharp greenish blue eyes glanced from the pathway before him to the gloomy face of the artist.
“There is one thing that I forgot, in speaking of Mrs. Monckton,” Monsieur Bourdon said presently; “and that is that I fancy I have seen her somewhere before.”
“Oh, I can account for that,” Launcelot Darrell answered carelessly. “I was inclined to think the same thing myself when I first saw her. She is like George Vane’s daughter.”
“George Vane’s daughter?”
“Yes, the girl we saw on the Boulevard upon the night—”
The young man stopped abruptly, and gave another of those fretful sighs by which he made a kind of sulky atonement for the errors of his life.
“I do not remember the daughter of George Vane,” murmured the Frenchman, reflectively. “I know that there was a young girl with that wearisome old Englishman—a sort of overgrown child, with bright yellow hair and big eyes; an overgrown child who was not easily to be shaken off; but I remember no more. Yet I think I have seen this Mrs. Monckton before to-day.”
“Because I tell you Eleanor Monckton is like that girl. I saw the likeness when I first came home, though I only caught one glimpse of the face of George Vane’s daughter on the Boulevard that night. And, if I had not had reason for thinking otherwise, I should have been almost inclined to believe that the old schemer’s daughter had come to Hazlewood to plot against my interests.”
“I do not understand.”
“You remember George Vane’s talk about his friend’s promise, and the fortune that he was to inherit?”
“Yes, perfectly. We used to laugh at the poor hopeful old man.”
“You used to wonder why I took such an interest in the poor old fellow’s talk. Heaven knows I never wished him ill, much less meant him any harm—”
“Except so far as getting hold of his money,” murmured Monsieur Bourdon, in an undertone.
The young man turned impatiently upon his companion.
“Why do you delight in raking up unpleasant memories?” he said in a half-savage, half-peevish tone. “George Vane was only one amongst many others.”
“Most certainly! Amongst a great many others.”
“And if I happened to play écarté better than most of the men we knew—”
“To say nothing of that pretty little trick with an extra king in the lining of your coat sleeve, which I taught you, my friend.—But about George Vane, about the friend of George Vane, about the promise—”
“George Vane’s friend is my great-uncle, Maurice de Crespigny; and the promise was made when the two were young men at Oxford.”
“And the promise was—”
“A romantic, boyish business, worthy of the Minerva Press. If either of the two friends died unmarried, he was to leave all his possessions to the other.”
“Supposing the other to survive him. But Monsieur de Crespigny cannot leave his money to the dead. George Vane is dead. You need no longer fear him.”
“No, I have no reason to fear him!”
“But of whom then have you fear?”
Launcelot Darrell shook his head.
“Never you mind that, Bourdon,” he said. “You’re a very clever fellow, and a very good-natured fellow, when you please. But it’s sometimes safest to keep one’s own secrets. You know what we talked about yesterday. Unless I take your advice I’m a ruined man.”
“But you will take it? Having gone so far, and taken so much trouble, and confided so much in strangers, you will surely not recede?” said Monsieur Bourdon, in his most insinuating tones.
“If my great-uncle is dying, the crisis has come, and I must decide, one way or the other,” answered Launcelot Darrell, slowly, in a thick voice that was strange to him. “I—I—can’t face ruin, Bourdon. I think I must take your advice.”
“I knew that you would take it, my friend,” the commercial traveller returned, quietly.
The two men turned out of the lane and climbed a rough stile leading into a meadow that lay between them and Hazlewood. The lights burned brightly in the lower windows of Mrs. Darrell’s house, and the clock of the village church slowly struck six as Launcelot and his companion crossed the meadow.
A dark figure was dimly visible, standing at a low wicket-gate that opened from the meadow into the Hazlewood shrubbery.
“There’s my mother,” muttered Launcelot, “watching for me at the gate. She’s heard the news, perhaps. Poor soul, if I didn’t care about the fortune for my own sake, I should for hers. I think a disappointment would almost kill her.”
Again a coward’s argument,—a new loophole by means of which Launcelot Darrell tried to creep out of the responsibility of his own act, and to make another, in a manner, accountable for his sin.
CHAPTER XL. RESOLVED.
Eleanor Monckton walked slowly back to the house, by the side of her husband, whose eyes never left his wife’s face during that short walk between the garden-gate and the long French window by which the two girls had left the drawing-room. Even in the dusk, Gilbert Monckton could see that his wife’s face was unusually pale.
She spoke to him as they entered the drawing-room, laying her hand upon his arm as she addressed him, and looking earnestly at him in the red firelight.
“Is Mr. de Crespigny really dying, Gilbert?” she asked.
“I fear that, from what the medical men say, there is very little doubt about it. The old man is going fast.”
Eleanor paused for a few moments, with her head bent and her face hidden from her husband.
Then, suddenly looking up, she spoke to him again; this time with intense earnestness.
“Gilbert, I want to see Mr. de Crespigny before he dies; I want to see him alone—I must see him!”
The lawyer stared at his wife in utter bewilderment. What in Heaven’s name was the meaning of this sudden energy, this intense eagerness, which blanched the colour in her cheeks, and held her breathless? Her friendly feeling for the invalid, her womanly pity for an old man’s infirmities, could never have been powerful enough to cause such emotion.
“You want to see Maurice de Crespigny, Eleanor?” repeated Mr. Monckton, in a tone of undisguised wonder. “But why do you want to see him?”
“I have something to tell him—something that he must know before he dies.”
The lawyer started. A sudden light broke in upon his bewildered mind,—a light that showed him the woman he loved in very odious colours.
“You want to tell him who you are?”
“To tell him who I am? yes!” Eleanor answered absently.
“But for what reason?”
Mrs. Monckton was silent for a moment, looking thoughtfully at her husband.
“My reason is a secret, Gilbert,” she said; “I cannot even tell it to you—yet. But I hope to do so very, very soon. Perhaps to-night.”
The lawyer bit his under lip, and walked away from his wife with a frown upon his face. He left Eleanor standing before the fireplace, and took two or three turns up and down the room, pacing backwards and forwards in moody silence.
Then, suddenly returning to her, he said, with an air of angry resolution that chilled her timid confidence in him, and cast her back upon herself, “Eleanor, there is something in all this that wounds me to the very quick. There is a mystery between us; a mystery that has lasted too long. Why did you stipulate that your maiden name should be kept a secret from Maurice de Crespigny? Why have you paid him court ever since your coming to this place? And why, now that you hear of his approaching death, do you want to force yourself into his presence? Eleanor, Eleanor, there can be but one reason for all this, and that the most sordid, the most miserable and mercenary of reasons.”
George Vane’s daughter looked at her husband with a stare of blank dismay, as if she was trying, but trying in vain, to attach some meaning to his words.
“A sordid reason—a mercenary reason,” she repeated slowly, in a half whisper.
“Yes, Eleanor,” answered Gilbert Monckton, passionately. “Why should you be different from the rest of the world? It has been my error, my mad delusion to think you so; as I once thought another woman who deceived me as God forbid you should ever deceive me. It has been my folly to trust and believe in you, forgetful of the past, false to the teaching of most bitter experience. I have been mistaken—once more—all the more egregiously, perhaps, because this time I thought I was so deliberate, so cautious. You are not different to the rest of the world. If other women are mercenary, you too are mercenary. You were not content with having sacrificed your inclination for the sake of making what the world calls an advantageous marriage. You were not satisfied with having won a wealthy husband, and you sought to inherit Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune.”
Eleanor Monckton passed both her hands across her forehead, pushing back the loose masses of her hair, as if she would by that movement have cleared away some of the clouds that overshadowed her brain.
“I seek to inherit Mr. de Crespigny’s fortune,” she murmured.
“Yes! Your father no doubt educated you in that idea. I have heard how obstinately he built upon the inheritance of his friend’s wealth. He taught you to share his hopes: he bequeathed them to you as the only legacy he had to give—”
“No!” cried Eleanor, suddenly; “the inheritance I received at my father’s death was no inheritance of hope. Do not say any more to me, Mr. Monckton. It seems as if my brain had no power to bear all this to-night. If you can think these base things of me, I must be content to endure your bad opinion. I know that I have been very forgetful of you, very neglectful of you, since I have been your wife, and you have reason to think badly of me. But my mind has been so full of other things; so full, that it has seemed to me as if all else in life—except those thoughts, that one hope—slipped by me like the events of a dream.”
Gilbert Monckton looked half-fearfully at his wife as she spoke. There was something in her manner that he had never seen before. He had seen her only when her feelings had been held in check by her utmost power of repression. That power was beginning to wear out now. The strain upon Eleanor’s intellect had been too great, and her nerves were losing their power of tension.
“Do not say anything more to me,” she cried, imploringly; “do not say anything more. It will soon be over now.”
“What will soon be over, Eleanor?”
But Eleanor did not answer. She clasped her hands before her face; a half-stifled sob broke from her lips, and she rushed from the room before her husband could repeat his question.
Mr. Monckton looked after her with an expression of unmingled anguish on his face.
“How can I doubt the truth?” he thought; “her indignant repudiation of any design on Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune exonerates her at least from that charge. But her agitation, her tears, her confusion, all betray the truth. Her heart has never been mine. She married me with the determination to do her duty to me, and to be true to me. I believe that. Yes, in spite of all, I will believe that. But her love is Launcelot Darrell’s. Her love, the one blessing I sought to win,—the blessing which in my mad folly I was weak enough to hope for,—is given to Laura’s betrothed husband. What could be plainer than the meaning of those last broken words she spoke just now: ‘It will soon be over; it will soon be over’? What should she mean except that Launcelot Darrell’s marriage and departure will put an end to the struggle of her life.”
Mingled with the bitterness of his grief, some feeling akin to pity had a place in Gilbert Monckton’s heart.
He pitied her—yes, he pitied this girl whose life it had been his fate to overshadow. He had come between this bright young creature and the affection of her innocent girlhood, and, presenting himself before her in the hour of her desolation, had betrayed her into one of those mistakes which a life-time of honest devotion is not always able to repair.
“She consented to marry me on the impulse of the moment, clinging to me in her loneliness and helplessness, and blinded to the future by the sorrow of the present. It was an instinct of confidence and not love that drew her towards me; and now, now that there is no retreat—no drawing back—nothing but a long vista of dreary years to be spent with a man she does not love, this poor unhappy girl suffers an agony which can no longer be concealed, even from me.”
Mr. Monckton paced up and down his spacious drawing-room, thinking of these things. Once he looked with a sad, bitter smile at the evidences of wealth that were so lavishly scattered about the handsome chamber. On every side those evidences met his eyes. The Guido, upon which the firelight gleamed, kindling the face of a martyr into supernatural glory, was worth a sum that would have been a fortune to a poor man. Every here and there, half hidden amongst the larger modern pictures, lurked some tiny gem of Italian art, a few square inches of painted canvas worth full a hundred times its weight of unalloyed gold.
“If my wife were as frivolous as Laura,” thought Mr. Monckton, “I could make her happy, perhaps. Fine dresses, and jewels, and pictures, and furniture, would be enough to make happiness for an empty-headed woman. If Eleanor had been influenced by mercenary feelings when she married me she would have surely made more use of my wealth; she would have paraded the jewellery I have given her, and made herself a lay figure for the display of milliner’s work; at least while the novelty of her position lasted. But she has dressed as plainly as a village tradesman’s wife, and the only money she has spent is that which she has given to her friend the music-mistress.”
The second dinner-bell rang while Gilbert Monckton was pacing the empty drawing-room, and he went straight to the dining-room in his frock-coat, and with no very great appetite for the dishes that were to be set before him.
Eleanor took her place at the top of the table. She wore a brown silk dress, a few shades darker than her auburn hair, and her white shoulders gleamed like ivory against bronze. She had bathed her head and face with cold water, and her rippling hair was still wet. She was very pale, very grave; but all traces of violent emotion had passed away, and there was a look of quiet determination about her mouth.
Laura Mason came rustling and fluttering into the room, as Mr. and Mrs. Monckton took their places at the dinner-table.
“It’s my Pink,” said the young lady, alluding to a very elaborate toilette of blush-rose coloured silk, bedizened with innumerable yards of lace and ribbon.
“I thought you would like to see my pink, and I want to know how it looks. It’s the new pink. Launcelot says the new pink is like strawberry-ices, but I like it. It’s one of the dinner dresses in my trousseau, you know,” she murmured, apologetically, to Mr. Monckton; “and I wanted to try the effect of it, though of course it’s only to be worn at a party. The trimmings on the cross sit beautifully; don’t they, Eleanor?”
It was fortunate, perhaps, on this occasion at least, that Miss Mason possessed the faculty of keeping up a kind of conversational monologue, for otherwise there must have been a very dreary silence at the dinner-table upon this particular evening.
Gilbert Monckton never spoke except when the business of the meal compelled him to do so. But there was a certain tenderness of tone in the very few words he had occasion to address to his wife which was utterly different to his manner before dinner. It was never Mr. Monckton’s habit to sit long over the dismal expanse of a dessert-table; but to-night, when the cloth had been removed and the two women left the room, he followed them without any delay whatever.
Eleanor seated herself in a low chair by the fire-place. She had looked at her watch twice during dinner, and now her eyes wandered almost involuntarily to the dial of the clock upon the chimney-piece.
Her husband crossed the room and leant for a few moments over her chair.
“I am sorry for what I said this afternoon, Eleanor,” he murmured in a low voice; “can you forgive me?”
His wife lifted her eyes to his face. Those luminous grey eyes had a look of mournful sweetness in them.
“Forgive you!” exclaimed Eleanor, “it is you who have so much to forgive. But I will atone—I will atone—after to-night.”
She said these last words almost in a whisper, rather as if she had been speaking to herself than to her husband; but Gilbert Monckton heard those whispered syllables, and drew his own conclusions from them. Unhappily every word that Mrs. Monckton uttered tended to confirm her husband’s doubts and to increase his wretchedness.
He seated himself in a reading-chair upon the opposite side of the hearth, and, drawing a lamp close to his elbow, buried himself, or appeared to bury himself, in his newspapers.
But every now and then the upper margin of the “Times,” or the “Post,” or the “Athenæum,” or the “Saturday,” or whatever journal the lawyer happened to be perusing—and he took up one after the other with a fretful restlessness that betokened a mind ill at ease—dropped a little lower than the level of the reader’s eyes, and Mr. Monckton looked across the edge of the paper at his wife.
Almost every time he did so he found that Eleanor’s eyes were fixed upon the clock.
The discovery of this fact speedily became a torture to him. He followed his wife’s eyes to the slowly moving hands upon the enameled dial. He watched the minute-hand as it glided from one figure to another, marking intervals of five minutes that seemed like five hours. Even when he tried to read, the loud ticking of the wretched time-piece came between him and the sense of the page upon which his eyes were fixed, and the monotonous sound seemed to deafen and bewilder him.
Eleanor sat quite still in her low easy-chair. Scraps of fancy-work and open books lay upon the table beside her, but she made no effort to beguile the evening by any feminine occupation. Laura Mason, restless for want of employment and companionship, fluttered about the room like some discontented butterfly, stopping every now and then before a looking-glass, to contemplate some newly discovered effect in the elegant costume which she called her “pink;” but Eleanor took no notice whatever of her murmured exclamations and appeals for sympathy.
“I don’t know what’s come to you, Nelly, since your marriage,” the young lady cried at last; after vainly trying to draw Mrs. Monckton’s attention to the manifold beauties of gauze puffings and floating streamers of ribbon; “you don’t seem to take any interest in life. You’re quite a different girl to what you were at Hazlewood—before Launcelot came home.”
Mr. Monckton threw down the “Athenæum,” and took up “Punch,” at this juncture. He stared with a stony face at one of Mr. Leech’s most genial cartoons, and glanced almost vengefully at the familiar double columns of jokes. Eleanor looked away from the clock to answer her companion’s peevish compliment.
“I am thinking of Mr. de Crespigny,” she said; “he may be dying while we are sitting here.”
Mr. Monckton dropped “Punch,” and looked, openly this time, at his wife’s face.
Could it be, after all, that her abstraction of manner really arose from no deeper cause than her regret for the loss of this old man, who was her dead father’s friend, and who had displayed an especial affection for her?
Could it be so? No! Her words that night had revealed more than a common sorrow such as this. They had betrayed the secret of a hidden struggle—a woman’s grief—not easily to be repressed or overcome. There is no knowing how long the lawyer might have sat brooding over his troubles under cover of the newspapers, but presently he remembered some papers which he had brought from London that afternoon, and which it was his imperative duty—in the interests of a very important client—to read that night.
He pushed away the lamp, rose from his low chair, and went to the door of the drawing-room.
“I am going to my study, Eleanor,” he said; “I shall most likely spend the rest of the evening there, and I may be obliged to be very late. You won’t sit up for me?”
“Oh, no; not unless you wish it.”
“On no account. Good-night. Good-night, Laura.”
Even while his wife wished him good-night, her eyes wandered uneasily back to the clock. A quarter to ten.
“And he hasn’t once looked at my pink!” murmured Miss Mason, as her guardian left the drawing-room.
Scarcely had the door closed when Eleanor Monckton rose from her chair.
Her flushed cheeks flamed with crimson brightness; her eyes were lighted up as if a fire had burned in their dilated pupils.
“I am going to bed, Laura,” she said abruptly; “I am very tired. Good night!”
She took a candle from a table near the door, lit it, and hurried from the room before Laura could question her or remonstrate with her.
“She doesn’t look tired,” thought Miss Mason; “she looks as if she were going to a ball; or going to have the scarlatina. I think I looked like that when I was going to have the scarlatina; and when Launcelot proposed to me.”
Five minutes after the stable-clock struck ten, the great door of Tolldale Priory was opened by a cautious hand, and Mrs. Monckton stole out of her house with a woollen cloak wrapped about her, and her head almost buried in the hood belonging to the thick winter garment. She closed the door softly, and then, without stopping to look behind her, hurried down the broad stone steps, across the courtyard, along the gravelled garden pathway, out at the narrow wooden door in the wall, and away into the dreary darkness of the wood that lay between the Priory grounds and the dwelling-place of Maurice de Crespigny.