Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 22
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XLI. A TERRIBLE SURPRISE.
With the chill winds of February blowing in her face, Eleanor Monckton entered the wood between Tolldale and Mr. de Crespigny’s estate.
There were no stars in the blank grey sky above that lonely place; black masses of pine and fir shut in the narrow path upon either side; mysterious noises, caused by the capricious moaning of the winter wind, sounded far away in the dark recesses of the wood, awfully distinct amid the stillness of the night.
It was very long since Eleanor had been out alone after dark, and she had never before been alone in the darkness of such a place as this. She had the courage of a young lioness, but she had also a highly nervous and sensitive nature, an imaginative temperament; and the solemn loneliness of this wood, resonant every now and then with the dismal cries of the night-wind, was very terrible to her. But above and beyond every natural womanly feeling was this girl’s devotion to her dead father; and she walked on with her thick shawl gathered closely round her, and with both her hands pressed against her beating heart.
She walked on through the solitude and the darkness, not indifferently, but devotedly; in sublime self-abnegation; in the heroic grandeur of a soul that is elevated by love; as she would have walked through fire and water, if by the endurance of such an ordeal she could have given fresh proof of her affection for that hapless suicide of the Faubourg Saint Antoine.
“My dear father,” she murmured once, in a low voice, “I have been slow to act, but I have never forgotten. I have never forgotten you lying far away from me in that cruel foreign grave. I have waited, but I will wait no longer. I will speak to-night.”
I think she believed that George Vane, divided from her by the awful chasm which yawns, mysterious and unfathomable, betwixt life and death, was yet near enough akin to her, in his changed state of being, to witness her actions and hear her words. She spoke to him, as she would have written to him had he been very far away from her, in the belief that her words would reach him, sooner or later.
The walk, which in the daytime seemed only a pleasant ramble, was a weary pilgrimage under the starless winter sky. Eleanor stopped once or twice to look back at the lighted windows of Tolldale lying low in the hollow behind her; and then hurried on with a quicker step.
“If Gilbert should miss me,” she thought, “what will he do? what will he think?”
She quickened her pace even more at the thought of her husband. What unlooked-for difficulties might she not have to combat if Mr. Monckton should discover her absence and send or go himself in search of her? But she speedily reassured herself upon this point.
“If he should come to Woodlands after me,” she thought, “I will tell him that I wanted to see Mr. de Crespigny once more. I can easily tell him that, for it is the truth.”
Eleanor Monckton had reached the outskirts of the wood by this time, and the low gate in the iron fence—the gateway through which she had passed upon the day when, for the first time, she saw her father’s old friend, Maurice de Crespigny.
This gate was very rarely locked or bolted, but to-night, to her surprise, she found it wide open.
She did not stop to wonder at this circumstance, but hurried on. She had grown very familiar with every pathway in the grounds in her walks beside Mr. de Crespigny’s invalid chair, and she knew the nearest way to the house.
This nearest way was across a broad expanse of turf, and through a shrubbery into the garden at the back of the rooms occupied by the old man, who had for many years been unable to go up and down stairs, and who had, for that length of time, inhabited a suite of rooms on the ground-floor, opening with French windows on to a tiny lawn, shut in and sheltered by a thick belt of pine and evergreens. It was in this shrubbery that Eleanor paused for a few moments to recover her breath after hurrying up the hill, and to reassure herself as to the safety of the papers which she carried in the bosom of her dress—Launcelot Darrell’s water-colour sketch, and her father’s letter. The picture and the letter were safe. She reassured herself of this, and was about to hurry on, when she was arrested by a sound near her. The laurel branches close beside her had rustled as if parted by a man’s strong hand.
Many times, in her journey through the wood, Eleanor had been terrified by a rustling amongst the long grass about the trunks of the trees; but each time the sight of a pheasant flying across her pathway, or a frightened hare scudding away into the darkness, had reassured her. But this time there could be no mistake as to what she had heard. There was no game in Mr. de Crespigny’s garden. She was not alone, therefore. There was a man lurking somewhere under the shadow of the evergreens. She stopped; clutched the documents that she carried in her breast, and then emerged from the shrubbery on to the lawn, ashamed of her fears.
The man whose presence had alarmed her was, no doubt, one of the servants—the gardener, most likely—and he would admit her to the house and save her any encounter with the maiden sisters.
She looked about the garden, but could see no one. Then, in a low voice, she called to the man by name; but there was no answer.
Lights were burned in Mr. de Crespigny’s bed-room, but the windows of the room which the old man called his study, and the windows of his dressing-room, a little apartment between the bed-chamber and the study, were dark.
Eleanor waited a few minutes in the garden, expecting to hear or see one of the servants emerge from the shrubbery; but all was quiet, and she had no alternative except to go round to the principal door of the house, and take her chance of being admitted.
“I am certain that there was some one close to me,” she thought. “It must have been Brooks, the gardener; but how odd that he didn’t hear me when I called to him.”
The principal entrance to Mr. de Crespigny’s house was by a pair of half-glass doors, approached by a double flight of stone steps, either from the right or the left, as might suit the visitor’s convenience. It was a handsome entrance; and the plate glass which formed the upper halves of the doors appeared a very slight barrier between the visitor waiting on the broad stone platform without, and the interior of the house. But, for all this, no portcullis of the Middle Ages, no sturdy postern gate of massive oak studded by ponderous iron nails, was ever more impregnable to the besieger than these transparent doors had been under the despotic sway of the rich bachelor’s maiden nieces. Despairing poor relations, standing hopeless and desperate without those fatal doors, had been well-nigh tempted to smash the plate-glass, and thus make their way into the citadel. But, as this would have scarcely been a likely method by which to ingratiate themselves into the favour of a testy old man, the glass remained undamaged; and the hapless kinsfolk of Maurice de Crespigny were fain to keep at a distance, and hope—almost against hope—that he would get tired of his maiden watchers, and revenge himself upon their officiousness by leaving his money away from them.
It was outside these glass doors that Eleanor Monckton stood to-night, with very different feelings in her breast to those which were wont to animate the visitors who came to Woodlands.
She pulled the brass handle of the bell, which was stiff from little usage, and which, after resisting her efforts for a long time, gave way at last with an angry spring that shook the distant clapper with a noisy peal which seemed as if it would have never ceased ringing sharply through the stillness.
But, loud as this peal had been, it was not answered immediately, and Eleanor had time to contemplate the prim furniture of the dimly-lighted hall, the umbrella-stand and barometer, and some marine views of a warlike nature on the walls; pictures in which a De Crespigny of Nelson’s time distinguished himself unpleasantly by the blowing up of some very ugly ships which exploded in blazes of yellow ochre and vermilion, and the bombardment of some equally ugly fortresses in burnt sienna.
A butler, or factotum,—for there was only one male servant in the house, and he was old and unpleasant, and had been cherished by the Misses De Crespigny because of those very qualifications, which were likely to stand in the way of his getting any important legacy,—emerged at last from one of the passages at the back of the hall, and advanced, with indignation and astonishment depicted on his grim features, to the doors before which Eleanor waited, Heaven only knows how impatiently.
“Launcelot Darrell may have come here before me,” she thought; “he may be with his uncle now, and may induce him to alter his will. He must be desperate enough to do anything, if he really knows that he is disinherited.”
The butler opened one of the hall doors, a very little way, and suspiciously. He took care to plant himself in the aperture in such a manner as would have compelled Eleanor to walk through his body before she could enter the hall; and as the butler was the very reverse of Mr. Pepper’s ghost in consistency, Mrs. Monckton could only parley with him in the faint hope of taking the citadel by capitulation. She did not know that the citadel was already taken, and that an awful guest, to whom neither closely guarded doors nor oaken posterns lined with stoutest iron formed obstacle or hindrance, had entered that quiet mansion before her; she did not know this, nor that the butler only kept her at bay out of the sheer force of habit, and perhaps with a spiteful sense of pleasure in doing battle with would-be legatees.
“I want to see Mr. de Crespigny,” Eleanor cried, eagerly; “I want to see him very particularly, if you please. I know that he will see me if you will be so good as to tell him that I am here.”
The butler opened his mouth to speak, but before he could do so a door opened, and Miss Lavinia de Crespigny appeared. She was very pale, and carried a handkerchief in her hand, which she put to her eyes every now and then; but the eyes were quite dry, and she had not been weeping.
“Who is that?” she exclaimed, sharply. “What is the matter, Parker? Why can’t you tell the person that we can see nobody to-night?”
“I was just a-goin’ to tell her so,” the butler answered; “but it’s Mrs. Monckton, and she says she wants to see poor master.”
He moved away from the door, as if his responsibility had ceased on the appearance of his mistress, and Eleanor entered the hall.
“Oh, dear Miss Lavinia,” she cried, almost breathless in her eagerness, “do let me see your uncle. I know he will not refuse to see me. I am a favourite with him, you know. Please let me see him.”
Miss Lavinia de Crespigny applied her hand kerchief to her dry eyes before she answered Eleanor’s eager entreaty. Then she said very slowly,—
“My beloved uncle departed this life an hour ago. He breathed his last in my arms.”
“And in mine,” murmured Miss Sarah, who had followed her sister into the hall.
“And I was a-standing by the bedside,” observed the butler, with respectful firmness; “and the last words as my blessed master said before you come into the room, Miss Lavinia, was these: ‘You’ve been a good servant, Parker, and you’ll find you’re not forgotten.’ Yes, Miss, ‘You’ll find you’re not forgotten, Parker,’ were his last words.”
The two ladies looked very sharply and rather suspiciously at Mr. Parker, as if they were meditating the possibility of that gentleman having fabricated a will constituting himself sole legatee.
“I did not hear my dear uncle mention you, Parker,” Miss Sarah said, stiffly; “but we shall not forget any one he wished to have remembered; you may be sure of that.”
Eleanor Monckton stood, silent and aghast, staring straight before her, paralysed, dumbfounded, by the tidings she had just heard.
“Dead!” she murmured at last. “Dead! dead!—before I could see him, before I could tell him—”
She paused, looking round her with a bewildered expression in her face.
“I do not know why you should be so eager to see my uncle,” said Miss Lavinia, forgetting her assumption of grief, and becoming very genuine in her spiteful feeling towards Eleanor, as a possible rival, “nor do I know what you can have had to say to him. But I do know that you have not exhibited very good taste in intruding upon us at such an hour as this, and, above all, in remaining, now that you hear the sad affliction”—the handkerchief went to the eyes again here—“which has befallen us. If you come here,” added Miss Lavinia, suddenly becoming spiteful again, “in the hope of ascertaining how my uncle’s money has been left—and it would be only like some people to do so—I can give you no information upon the subject. The gardener has been sent to Windsor to summon Mr. Lawford’s clerk. Mr. Lawford himself started some days ago for New York on business. It’s very unlucky that he should be away at such a time, for we put every confidence in him. However, I suppose the clerk will do as well. He will put seals on my uncle’s effects, I believe, and nothing will be known about the will until the day of the funeral. But I do not think you need trouble yourself upon the subject, my dear Mrs. Monckton, as I perfectly remember my beloved relative telling you very distinctly that he had no idea of leaving you anything except a picture, or something of that kind. We shall be very happy to see that you get the picture,” concluded the lady, with frigid politeness.
Eleanor Monckton stood with one hand pushing the glossy ripples of auburn hair away from her forehead, and with a look upon her face which the Misses de Crespigny—whose minds had run in one very narrow groove for the last twenty years—could only construe into some disappointment upon the subject of the will. Eleanor recovered her self-command with an effort, as Miss Lavinia finished speaking, and said, very quietly:
“Believe me, I do not want to inherit any of Mr. de Crespigny’s property. I am very, very sorry that he is dead, for there was something that I wanted to tell him before he died; something that I ought to have told him long ago. I have been foolish—cowardly—to wait so long.”
She said the last words not to the two ladies, but to herself; and then, after a pause, she added, slowly,
“I hope your uncle has left his fortune to you and your sister, Miss Lavinia. Heaven grant that he may have left it so!”
Unfortunately the Misses de Crespigny were in the humour to take offence at anything. The terrible torture of suspense which was gnawing at the heart of each of the dead man’s nieces disposed them to be snappish to any one who came in their way. To them, to-night, it seemed as if the earth was peopled by expectant legatees, all eager to dispute for the heritage which by right was theirs.
“We are extremely obliged to you for your good wishes, Mrs. Monckton,” Miss Sarah said, with vinegary politeness, “and we can perfectly appreciate their sincerity. Good evening.”
On this hint, the butler opened the door with a solemn flourish, and the two ladies bowed Eleanor out of the house. The door closed behind her, and she went slowly down the steps, lingering without purpose, entirely bewildered by the turn that events had taken.
“Dead!” she exclaimed, in a half-whisper, “dead! I never thought that he would die so soon. I waited, and waited, thinking that, whenever the time came for me to speak, he would be alive to hear me; and now he is dead, and I have lost my chance; I have lost my one chance of avenging my father’s death. The law cannot touch Launcelot Darrell; but this old man had the power to punish him, and would have used that power, if he had known the story of his friend’s death. I cannot doubt that. I cannot doubt that Maurice de Crespigny dearly loved my father.”
Eleanor Monckton stopped for a few minutes at the bottom of the steps, trying to collect her senses—trying to think if there was anything more for her to do.
No, there was nothing. The one chance which fortune, by a series of events, not one of which had been of her own contriving, had thrown into her way, was lost. She could do nothing but go quietly home, and wait for the reading of the will, which might, or might not, make Launcelot Darrell the owner of a noble estate.
But then she remembered Richard Thornton’s visit to Windsor, and the inferences he had drawn from the meeting between Launcelot and the lawyer’s clerk. Richard had most firmly believed that the property was left away from the young man; and Launcelot Darrell’s conduct since that day had gone far towards confirming the scene-painter’s assertion. There was very little doubt, then, that the will which had been drawn up by Mr. Lawford and witnessed by Gilbert Monckton, was a will that left Maurice de Crespigny’s fortune away from Launcelot Darrell. The old man had spoken of a duty which he meant to perform. Surely he must have alluded to his two nieces’ devotion, and the recompense which they had earned by their patient attendance upon him. Such untiring watchers generally succeed in reaping the reward of their labours; and why should it be otherwise in this case?
But then, on the other hand, the old man was fretful and capricious. His nerves had been shattered by a long illness. How often, in the watches of the night, he might have lain awake, pondering upon the disposal of his wealth, and doubtful what to do with it, in his desire to act for the best! It was known that he had made other wills, and had burned them when the humour seized him. He had had ample opportunity for changing his mind. He had very likely destroyed the will witnessed by Gilbert Monckton, in order to make a new one in Launcelot’s favour.
Eleanor stood at the bottom of the broad flight of steps with her hand upon the iron railing, thinking of all this. Then, with a regretful sigh, she walked away from the front of the house.
CHAPTER XLII. IN THE PRESENCE OF THE DEAD.
The rooms that had been occupied by Maurice de Crespigny were at the back of the house, and Eleanor, returning by the way that she had come, had occasion to pass once more through the garden and shrubbery upon which the windows of these rooms looked.
Mrs. Monckton paused amongst the evergreens that grew near the house, sheltering and darkening the windows with their thick luxuriance. The Venetian shutters outside the windows of the room in which the dead man lay were closed, and the light within shone brightly between the slanting laths.
“Poor old man,” Eleanor murmured, as she looked mournfully towards this death-chamber, “he was very good to me; I ought to be sorry for his death.”
The evergreens which grew in groups on either side of the windows made a thick screen, behind which half-a-dozen people might have safely hidden themselves upon this moonless and starless February night. Eleanor lingered for a few moments amongst these clustering laurels before she emerged upon the patch of smooth turf which was scarcely large enough to be dignified with the title of a lawn.
As she lingered, partly because of a regretful tenderness towards the dead man, partly because of that irresolution and uncertainty that had taken possession of her mind from the moment in which she had heard of his death, she was startled once more by the rustling of the branches near her. This time she was not left long in doubt: the rustling of the branches was followed by a hissing whisper, very cautious and subdued, but at the same time very distinct in the stillness; and Eleanor Monckton was not slow to recognise the accent of the French commercial traveller, Monsieur Victor Bourdon.
“The shutters are not fastened,” this man whispered; “there is a chance yet, mon ami.”
The speaker was within two paces of Eleanor, but she was hidden from him by the shrubs. The companion to whom he had spoken was of course Launcelot Darrell; there could be no doubt of that. But why were these men here? Had the artist come in ignorance of his kinsman’s death, and in the hope of introducing himself secretly into the old man’s apartments, and thus out-manœuvring the maiden nieces?
As the two men moved nearer one of the windows of the bedchamber, moving very cautiously, but still disturbing the branches as they went, Eleanor drew back, and stood, motionless, almost breathless, close against the blank wall between the long French windows.
In another moment Launcelot Darrell and his companion were standing so close to her, that she could hear their hurried breathing as distinctly as she heard her own. The Frenchman softly drew back one of the Venetian shutters a few inches, and peeped very cautiously through the narrow aperture into the room.
“There is only an old woman there,” he whispered, “an old woman, very grey, very respectable; she is asleep, I think; look and see who she is.”
Monsieur Bourdon drew back as he spoke, making way for Launcelot Darrell. The young man obeyed his companion, but in a half-sulky, half-unwilling fashion, which was very much like his manner on the Parisian Boulevard.
“Who is it?” whispered the Frenchman, as Launcelot leant forward and peered into the lighted room.
“Mrs. Jepcott, my uncle’s house-keeper.”
“Is she a friend of yours, or an enemy?”
“A friend, I think. I know that she hates my aunts. She would rather serve me than serve them.”
“Good. We are not going to trust Mrs. Jepcott; but it’s as well to know that she is friendly towards us. Now, listen to me, my friend, we must have the key.”
“I suppose we must,” muttered Launcelot Darrell, very sulkily.
“You suppose we must! Bah!” whispered the Frenchman, with intense scornfulness of manner. “It is likely we should draw back, after having gone so far as we have gone, and made such promises as we have made. It is like you Englishmen, to turn cowards at the very last, in any difficult business like this. You are very brave and very grand so long as you can make a great noise about your honour, and your courage, and your loyalty; so long as the drums are beating and the flags flying, and all the world looking on to admire you. But the moment there is anything of difficult—anything of a little hazardous, or anything of criminal, perhaps,—you draw back, you have fear. Bah! I have no patience with you. You are a great nation, but you have never produced a great impostor. Your Perkin Warbecks, your Stuart Pretenders, they are all the same. They ride up hills with forty thousand men, and,”—here Monsieur Bourdon hissed out a very big French oath, to give strength to his assertion,—“when they get to the top they can do nothing better than ride down again.”
It is not to be supposed that, in so critical a situation as that in which the two men had placed themselves, the Frenchman would have said all this without a purpose. He knew Launcelot Darrell, and he knew that ridicule was the best spur with which to urge him on when he was inclined to come to a stand-still. The young man’s pride took fire at his companion’s scornful banter.
“What do you want me to do?” he asked.
“I want you to go into that room and look for your uncle’s keys. I would do it, and perhaps do it better than you, but if that woman woke and found me there, she would rouse the house; if she wakes up and sees you, any sentimental story of your desire to look for the last time upon your kinsman and benefactor will satisfy her and stop her mouth. You must search for the keys, Monsieur Robert Lance, pardon!—Monsieur Launcelot Darrell.”
The young man made no immediate answer to this speech. He stood close to the window, with the half-open shutter in his hand, and Eleanor could see, by the motion of this shutter, that he was trembling.
“I can’t do it, Bourdon,” he gasped, after a long pause; “I can’t do it. To go up to that dead man’s bed-side and steal his keys. It seems like an act of sacrilege—I—I—can’t do it.”
The commercial traveller shrugged his shoulders so high that it almost seemed he never meant to bring them down again.
“Good!” he said, “C’est fini! Live and die a pauper, Monsieur Darrell, but never again ask me to help you in a great scheme. Good night.”
The Frenchman made a show of walking off, but went slowly, and gave Launcelot plenty of time to stop him.
“Stay, Bourdon,” the young man muttered; “don’t be a fool. If you mean to stand by me in this business, you must have a little patience. I’ll do what must be done, of course, however unpleasant it may be. I’ve no reason to feel any great compunction about the old man. He hasn’t shown so much love for me that I need have any very sentimental affection for him. I’ll go in and look for the keys.”
He had opened the shutter to its widest extent, and he put his hand upon the window as he spoke, but the Frenchman checked him.
“What are you going to do?” asked Monsieur Bourdon.
“I’m going to look for the keys.”
“Not that way. If you open that window the cold air will blow into the room and awaken the old woman—what you call her—Madame Jepcott. No, you must take off your boots, and go in through one of the windows of the other rooms. We saw just now that those rooms are empty. Come with me.”
The two men moved away towards the windows of the sitting-room. Eleanor crept to the Venetian shutters which Launcelot had closed, and, drawing one of them a little way open, looked into the room in which the dead man lay. The housekeeper, Mrs. Jepcott, sat in a roomy easy-chair, close to the fire, which burned brightly, and had evidently been very lately replenished. The old woman’s head had fallen back upon the cushion of her chair, and the monotonous regularity of her snores gave sufficient evidence of the soundness of her slumbers. Voluminous curtains of dark green damask were drawn closely round the massive four-post bed; a thick wax candle, in an old-fashioned silver candlestick, burned upon the table by the bedside, and a pair of commoner candles, in brass candlesticks, brought, no doubt, from the housekeeper’s room, stood upon a larger table near the fireplace.
Nothing had been disturbed since the old man’s death. The maiden ladies had made a merit of this.
“We shall disturb nothing,” Miss Lavinia, who was the more loquacious of the two, had said; “we shall not pry about or tamper with any of our beloved relative’s effects. You will take care of everything in your master’s room, Jepcott; we place everything under your charge, and you will see that nothing is touched; you will take care that not so much as a pocket-handkerchief shall be disturbed until Mr. Lawford’s clerk comes from Windsor.”
In accordance with these directions, everything had remained exactly as it had been left at the moment of Maurice de Crespigny’s death. The practised sick-nurse had retired, after doing her dismal duty; the stiffening limbs had been composed in the last calm sleep; the old man’s eyelids had been closed upon the sightless eyeballs; the curtains had been drawn; and that was all.
The medicine bottles, the open Bible, the crumpled handkerchiefs, the purse, and paper-knife, and spectacles, and keys, lying in disorder upon the table by the bed, had not been touched. Eager as the dead man’s nieces were to know the contents of his will, the thought of obtaining that knowledge by any surreptitious means had never for one moment entered into the head of either. They were conscientious ladies, who attended church three times upon a Sunday, and who would have recoiled aghast from before the mere thought of any infraction of the law.
Eleanor, with the Venetian shutter a very little way open, and with her face close against the window, stood looking into the lighted room, and waiting for Launcelot Darrell to appear.
The great four-post bedstead stood opposite the windows, the door was on Eleanor’s right hand. About five minutes elapsed before there was any sign of the intruder’s coming. Then the door was opened, very slowly, and Launcelot Darrell crept into the room.
His face was almost livid, and he trembled violently. At first he looked helplessly about him, as if paralysed by fear. Then he took a handkerchief from his pocket, and wiped the cold perspiration from his forehead, still looking helplessly right and left.
But presently the Frenchman’s head appeared round the edge of the door, which Launcelot Darrell had left a little way open, a fat little hand pointed to the table by the bed, and Monsieur Bourdon’s hissing whisper vibrated in the room.
“V’là,—the table—the table—straight before you.”
Following this indication, the young man began with trembling hands to search amongst the disorder of the littered table. He had not occasion to seek very long for what he wanted. The dead man’s keys lay under one of the handkerchiefs. They jingled a little as Launcelot took them up, and Mrs. Jepcott stirred in her sleep, but she did not open her eyes.
“Come away, come!” whispered the Frenchman, as Launcelot stood with the keys in his hand, as if too much bewildered even to know that his purpose was accomplished. He obeyed Monsieur Bourdon, and hurried from the room. He had taken off his boots at his companion’s instigation, and his stockinged feet made no sound upon the thick carpet.
“What is he going to do with those keys?” Eleanor thought. “If he knows the contents of the will, as Richard believed, what good can the keys be to him?”
She still looked into the lighted bed-chamber, wondering what could happen next. Where had Launcelot Darrell gone, and what was he going to do with the keys? She crept along by the side of the house, past the window of the dressing-room, which was still dark, and stopped when she came to the window of the old man’s study. All the windows upon this floor were in the same style—long French windows, opening to the ground, and they were all sheltered by Venetian shutters. The shutters of the sitting-room were closed, but the window was open, and through the bars of the shutters Eleanor saw a faint glimmer of light.
She drew the shutter nearest her a little way open, and looked into the room. The light that she had seen came from a very small bull’s-eye lantern, which the Frenchman held in his hand. He was standing over Launcelot Darrell, who was on his knees before the lower half of an old-fashioned secrétaire, at which Mr. de Crespigny had been in the habit of writing, and in which he had kept papers.
The lower half of this secrétaire contained a great many little drawers, which were closed in by a pair of inlaid ebony doors. The doors were open now, and Launcelot Darrell was busy examining the contents of the drawers one by one. His hands still trembled, and he went to work slowly and awkwardly. The Frenchman, whose nerves appeared in no way shaken, contrived to throw the light of the bull’s-eye always upon the papers in the young man’s hand.
“Have you found what you want?” he asked.
“No, there’s nothing yet; nothing but leases, receipts, letters, bills.”
“Be quick! Remember we have to put the keys back, and to get away. Have you the other ready?”
They spoke in whispers, but their whispers were perhaps more distinct than their ordinary tones would have been. Eleanor could hear every word they said.
There was a long pause, during which Launcelot Darrell opened and shut several drawers, taking a hurried survey of their contents. Presently he uttered a half-smothered cry.
“You’ve got it?” exclaimed the Frenchman.
“Put in the substitute then, and lock the cabinet.”
Launcelot Darrell threw the document which he had taken from the drawer upon a chair near him, and took another paper from his pocket. He put this second paper in the place from which he had taken the first, and then shut the drawer, and closed and locked the doors of the cabinet. He did all this in nervous haste, and neither he nor his companion perceived that a third paper, very much like the first in shape and size, had fallen out of one of the drawers and lay upon the carpet before the cabinet.
Now, for the first time, Eleanor Monckton began to comprehend the nature of the conspiracy which she had witnessed. Launcelot Darrell and his accomplice had substituted a fictitious paper for the real will signed by Maurice de Crespigny and witnessed by Gilbert Monckton and the lawyer’s clerk. The genuine document was that which Launcelot Darrell had flung upon the chair by the side of the secrétaire.