Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 23

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Illustrated by George Du Maurier.


Part 22Part 24

ELEANOR’S VICTORY.

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

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CHAPTER XLIII. A BRIEF TRIUMPH.

Eleanor Monckton’s first impulse was to rush into the room and denounce Launcelot Darrell in the presence of those who would be sure to come in answer to her call. He would be scarcely likely to find much mercy at the hands of his aunts: he would stand before them a detected wretch, capable of any crime, of any treachery, for the furtherance of his own interest.

But a second impulse, as rapid as the first, restrained the impetuous girl. She wanted to know the end, she wanted to see what these two plotters would do next. Under the influence of her desire to rush into the room, she had moved forward a few paces, rustling the leaves about her as she stirred. The Frenchman’s acute hearing had detected that rustling sound.

“Quick, quick,” he whispered; “take the keys back, there is some one in the garden.”

Launcelot Darrell had risen from his knees. The door between the study and the dressing-room had been left ajar; the young man pushed it open, and hurried away with the keys in his hand. Victor Bourdon closed his lantern, and came to the window. He thrust aside the Venetian shutters, and stepped out into the garden. Eleanor crouched down with her back flat against the wall, completely sheltered by the laurels. The Frenchman commenced his search amongst the bushes on the right of the window, Eleanor’s hiding-place was on the left. This gave her a moment’s breathing time.

“The will!” she thought in that one moment, “they have left the genuine will upon the chair by the cabinet. If I could get that!”

The thought had flashed like lightning through her brain. Reckless in her excitement, she rose from her crouching position, and slid rapidly and noiselessly across the threshold of the open window into the study, before Victor Bourdon had finished his examination of the shrubs on the right.

Her excitement seemed to intensify every sense. The only light in the room was a faint ray which came across the small intermediate chamber from the open door of Maurice de Crespigny’s bed-room. This light was very little, but the open door was opposite the cabinet, and what light there was fell upon the very spot towards which Eleanor’s dilated eyes looked. She could see the outline of the paper on the chair; she could see the other paper on the floor, faint and grey in the dim glimmer from the distant candles.

She snatched the will from the chair, and thrust it into the pocket of her dress; she picked up the other paper from the floor, and placed it on the chair. Then, with her face and figure obscured in the loose cloak that shrouded her, she went back into the garden.

As she drew back into the shelter of the laurels she felt a man’s garments brushing against her own, and a man’s hot breath upon her cheek. The Frenchman had passed her so closely that it was almost impossible he could have failed to perceive her presence: and yet he had seemed utterly unconscious of it.

Launcelot Darrell came back to the study almost the moment after Eleanor had left it. He was breathing quickly, and stopped to wipe his forehead once more with his handkerchief.

“Bourdon!” he exclaimed, in a loud whisper, “Bourdon, where are you?”

The Frenchman crossed the threshold of the window as the young man called to him.

“I have been on the look-out for spies,” he said.

“Have you seen any one?”

“No; I fancy it was a false alarm.”

“Come, then,” said Launcelot Darrell, “we have been luckier than I thought we should be.”

“Hadn’t you better unlock that door before we leave?” asked Monsieur Bourdon, pointing to the door which communicated with the other part of the house. Launcelot had locked it on first entering the study, and had thus secured himself from any surprise in that direction. The two men were going away when Monsieur Bourdon stopped suddenly.

“You’ve forgotten something, my friend,” he whispered, laying his hand on Launcelot’s shoulder.

“What?”

“The will, the genuine will,” answered the Frenchman, pointing to the chair. “It would be a clever thing to leave that behind, eh!”

Launcelot started, and put his hand to his forehead.

“I must be mad,” he muttered; “this business is too much for my brain. Why did you lead me into it, Bourdon? Are you the Devil, that you must always prompt me to some new mischief?”

“You shall ask me that next week, my friend, when you are the master of this house. Get that paper there, and come away: unless you want to stop till your maiden aunts make their appearance.”

Launcelot Darrell snatched up the paper which Eleanor had put upon the chair by the cabinet. He was going to thrust it into his breast-pocket, when the Frenchman took it away from him.

“You don’t particularly want to keep that document; or to drop it anywhere about the garden; do you? We’ll burn it, if it’s all the same to you, and save them all trouble at—what you call your law court,—Common doctors, Proctor’s Commons, eh?”

Monsieur Bourdon had put his bull’s-eye lantern in his coat-pocket, after looking for spies amongst the evergreens. He now produced a box of fusees, and setting one of them alight, watched it fizz and sparkle for a moment, and then held it beneath the corner of the document in his left hand.

The paper was slow to catch fire, and Monsieur Bourdon had occasion to light another fusee before he succeeded in doing more than scorching it. But it blazed up by-and-by, and by the light of the blaze Eleanor Monckton saw the eager faces of the two men. Launcelot Darrell’s livid countenance was almost like that of a man who looks on at an assassination. The commercial traveller watched the slow burning of the document with a smile upon his face—a smile of triumph, as it seemed to Eleanor Monckton.

“V’là!” he exclaimed, as the paper dropped, a frail sheet of tinder, from his hand, and fluttered slowly to the ground. “V’là!” he cried, stamping upon the feathery gray ashes; “so much for that; and now our little scheme of to-night is safe, I fancy, my friend.”

Launcelot Darrell drew a long breath.

“Thank God it’s over,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t go through this business again for twenty fortunes.”

Eleanor, still crouching upon the damp grass close against the wall, waited for the two men to go away. She waited, with her hands clasped upon her heart; thinking of her triumph.

The vengeance had come at last. That which she had said to Richard Thornton was about to be fulfilled. The law of the land had no power to punish Launcelot Darrell for the cowardly and treacherous act that had led to an old man’s most miserable death: but the traitor had by a new crime placed himself at the mercy of the law.

“The will he has placed in the cabinet is a forgery,” she thought; “and I have the real will in my pocket. He cannot escape me now,—he cannot escape me now! His fate is in my hands.”

The two men had walked past the laurels out on to the grass-plat. Eleanor rose from her crouching position, rustling the branches as she did so. At the same moment she heard voices in the distance, and saw a light gleaming through the leaves.

One of the voices that she had heard was her husband’s.

“So much the better,” she thought. “I will tell him what Launcelot Darrell is. I will tell him to-night.”

The voices and the lights came nearer, and she heard Gilbert Monckton say:

“Impossible, Miss Sarah. Why should my wife stop here? She must have gone back to Tolldale; and I have been unlucky enough to miss her on the way.”

The lawyer had scarcely spoken when, by the light of the lantern which he held, he saw Launcelot Darrell making off into the shrubbery that surrounded the grass-plat. The young man had not succeeded in escaping from the open space into this friendly shelter before Gilbert Monckton perceived him. Monsieur Bourdon, perhaps better accustomed to take to his heels, had been more fortunate, and had plunged in amongst the evergreens at the first sound of the lawyer’s voice.

“Darrell!” cried Mr. Monckton, “what in Heaven’s name brings you here?”

The young man stood for a few moments, irresolute, and sullen-looking.

“I’ve as good a right to be here as any one else, I suppose,” he said. “I heard of my uncle’s death—and—and—I came to ascertain if there was any truth in the report.”

“You heard of my beloved uncle’s death!” cried Miss Sarah de Crespigny, peering sharply at her nephew from under the shadow of a penthouse-like garden-hood, in which she had invested herself before venturing into the night-air. “How could you have heard of the sad event. My sister and I gave special orders that no report should go abroad until to-morrow morning.”

Mr. Darrell did not care to say that one of the Woodlands servants was in his pay; and that the same servant, being no other than Brooks the gardener, had galloped over to Hazlewood, to communicate the tidings of his master’s death, before starting for Windsor.

“I did hear of it,” Launcelot said, “and that’s enough. I came to ascertain if it was true.”

“But you were going away from the house when I saw you!” said Mr. Monckton, rather suspiciously.

“I was not going away from the house, for I had not been to the house,” Launcelot answered in the same tone as before.

He spake in a sulky grudging manner, because he knew that he was telling a deliberate lie. He was a man who always did wrong acts under protest, as being forced to do them by the injustice of the world; and he held society responsible for all his errors.

“Have you seen my wife?” Gilbert asked, still suspiciously.

“No. I have only this moment come. I have not seen anybody.”

“I must have missed her,” muttered the lawyer, with an anxious air. “I must have missed her between this and Tolldale. Nobody saw her leave the house. She went out without leaving any message, and I guessed at once that she had come up here. It’s very odd.”

“It is very odd!” Miss Sarah repeated, with spiteful emphasis. “I must confess that for my own part I do not see what motive Mrs. Monckton could have had for rushing up here in the dead of the night.”

The time which Miss Sarah de Crespigny spoke of as the dead of the night had been something between ten and eleven o’clock. It was now past eleven.

The lawyer and Miss de Crespigny walked slowly along the gravelled pathway that led from the grass-plat and shrubbery to the other side of the house. Launcelot Darrell went with them, lounging by his aunt’s side, with his head down, and his hands in his pockets, stopping now and then to kick the pebbles from his pathway.

It was impossible to imagine anything more despicable than this young man’s aspect. Hating himself for what he had done; hating the man who had prompted him to do it; angry against the very workings of Providence—since by his reasoning it was Providence, or his Destiny, or some power or other against which he had ample ground for rebellion, that had caused all the mischief and dishonour of his life—he went unwillingly to act out the part which he had taken upon himself, and to do his best to throw Gilbert Monckton off the scent.

His mind was too much disturbed for him to be able clearly to realise the danger of his position. To have been seen there was ruin—perhaps! If by-and-by any doubts should arise as to the validity of the will that would be found in Maurice de Crespigny’s secrétaire, would it not be remembered that he, Launcelot Darrell, had been seen lurking about the house on the night of the old man’s death, and had been only able to give a very lame explanation of his motives for being there. He thought of this as he walked by his aunt’s side. He thought of this, and began to wonder if it might not be possible to undo what had been done? No, it was impossible. The crime had been committed. A step had been taken which could never be retraced, for Victor Bourdon had burned the real will.

“Curse his officiousness,” thought the young man. “I could have undone it all but for that.”

As the lawyer and his two companions reached the angle of the house on their way to the front entrance, whence Mr. Monckton and Miss de Crespigny had come into the garden, a dark figure shrouded in a loose cloak emerged from amidst the shrubs by the windows of the dead man’s apartments, and approached them.

“Who is that?” cried the lawyer suddenly. His heart began to beat violently as he asked the question. It was quite a supererogatory question; for he knew well enough that it was his wife who stood before him.

“It is I, Gilbert,” Eleanor said quietly.

“You here, Mrs. Monckton!” exclaimed her husband, in a harsh voice, that seemed to ring through the air like the vibration of metal that has been struck,—“you here, hiding in this shrubbery.”

“Yes, I came here—how long ago, Miss Sarah? It seems half a century to me.”

“You came here exactly twenty minutes ago, Mrs. Monckton,” Miss de Crespigny answered icily.

“And by a really remarkable coincidence,” cried Gilbert Monckton, in the same unnatural voice in which he had spoken before, “Mr. Darrell happens to be here too: only I must do you the justice to say, Mrs. Monckton, that you appear less discomposed than the gentleman. Ladies always have the advantage of us; they can carry off these things so easily; deception seems to come natural to them.”

“Deception!” repeated Eleanor.

What did he mean? Why was he angry with her? She wondered at his manner as she walked with him to the house. No suspicion of the real nature of her husband’s feelings entered her mind. The absorbing idea of her life was the desire to punish her father’s destroyer; and how could she imagine that her husband was tortured by jealous suspicions of this man: of this man, who of all the living creatures upon the earth was most hateful to her? How could she,—knowing her own feelings, and taking it for granted that these feelings were more or less obvious to other people,—how could she imagine the state of Gilbert Monckton’s mind.

She went into the hall with her husband, followed by Miss Sarah de Crespigny and Launcelot Darrell, and from the hall into the sitting-room usually occupied by the two ladies. A lamp burned brightly upon the centre table, and Miss Lavinia de Crespigny sat near it; with some devotional book in her hand. I think she tried her best to be devout, and to employ herself with serious reflections upon the dread event that had so lately happened; but the fatal power of the old man’s wealth was stronger than any holier influence, and I fear that Miss Lavinia’s thoughts very often wandered away from the page on which her eyes were fixed, into sundry intricate calculations of the cumulative interest upon Exchequer bills, India five per cents., and Great Western Railway shares.

“I must have an explanation of this business,” Mr. Monckton said: “it is time that we should all understand each other. There has been too much mystification, and I am most heartily tired of it.”

He walked to the fire-place and leaned his elbow upon the marble chimney-piece. From this position he commanded a view of every one in the room. Launcelot Darrell flung himself into a chair by the table, nearly opposite his aunt Lavinia. He did not trouble himself to notice this lady, nor did he bow to Eleanor; he sat with his elbow resting upon the arm of his chair, his chin in the palm of his hand, and he employed himself by biting his nails and beating his heel upon the carpet. He was still thinking as he had thought in the garden, “If I could only undo what I have done. If I could only undo the work of the last quarter of an hour, and stand right with the world again.”

But in this intense desire that had taken possession of Launcelot Darrell’s mind there was mingled no regretful horror of the wickedness of what he had done; no remorseful sense of the great injustice which he had plotted; no wish to atone or to restore. It was selfishness alone that influenced his every thought. He wanted to put himself right. He hated this new position, which for the last few minutes he had occupied for the first time in his life; the position of a deliberate criminal, amenable to the laws by which the commonest felons are tried, likely to suffer as the commonest felons suffer.

It seemed to him as if his brain had been paralysed until now; it seemed to him as if he had acted in a stupor or a dream; and that he now for the first time comprehended the nature of the deed which he had done, and was able to foresee the possible consequences of his own act.

“I have committed forgery,” he thought. “If my crime is discovered I shall be sent to Bermuda to work amongst gangs of murderous ruffians till I drop down dead. If my crime is discovered! How shall I ever be safe from discovery, when I am at the mercy of the wretches who helped me.”

Eleanor threw off her cloak, but she refused to sit down in the chair which Miss Sarah offered her. She stood divided by the width of half the room from her husband, with her face fronting his, in the full glare of the lamplight. Her large gray eyes were bright with excitement, her cheeks were flushed, her hair fell loosely about her face, and, brown in the shadow, glittered like ruddy gold in the light.

In all the beauty of her girlhood, from the hour in which Gilbert Monckton had first seen her until to-night, she had never looked so beautiful as she looked now. The sense that she had triumphed, the thought that she held the power to avenge her father’s death, lent an unnatural brilliancy to her loveliness. She was no longer an ordinary woman, only gifted with the earthly charms of lovely womanhood: she was a splendid Nemesis, radiant with a supernatural beauty.

CHAPTER XLIV. LOST.

You asked me why I came here to-night,” she said, looking at her husband. “I will tell you, Gilbert: but I must tell you a long story first, almost all the story of my life.”

Her voice, resonant and musical, roused Launcelot Darrell from his gloomy abstraction. He looked up at Eleanor, and for the first time began to wonder how and why she had come there. They had met her in the garden. Why had she been there? What had she been doing there? Could it be possible that she had played the spy upon him? No! Surely there could be no fear of that? What reason should she have for suspecting or watching him? That terror was too cowardly, too absurd, he thought; but such foolish and unnecessary fears would be the perpetual torment of his life henceforward.

“You remember, Gilbert,” Eleanor continued, “that when I promised to be your wife, I told you my real name, and asked you to keep that name a secret from the people in this house; and from Launcelot Darrell.”

“Yes,” answered Mr. Monckton, “I remember.”

Even in the midst of the tortures which arose out of his jealousy and suspicion, and which to-night had reached their climax, and had taken entire possession of the lawyer’s mind, there was some half-doubtful feeling of wonder at Eleanor’s calm and self-assured manner.

And yet she was deceiving him. He knew that. He had long ago determined that this second hazard of his life was to result in ignominious failure, like the first. He had been deceived before; gulled, hoodwinked, fooled, jilted: and the traitress had smiled in his face, with the innocent smile of a guileless child. Eleanor was perhaps even more skilled in treachery than that first traitress; but that was all.

“I will not be deluded by her again,” he thought, as he looked gloomily at the beautiful face opposite to him: “nothing she can say shall make me her dupe again.”

“Shall I tell you why I asked you to keep that secret for me, Gilbert?” continued Eleanor; “I did so because I had a motive for coming back to the neighbourhood of this place. A motive that was stronger than my love for you—though I did love you, Gilbert, better than I thought; if I thought at all of anything except that other motive which was the one purpose of my life.”

Mr. Monckton’s upper lip curled scornfully. Love him! That was too poor a fancy. What had he ever been but a dupe and a cat’s-paw for a false woman; fooled and cheated many years ago in his early manhood; fooled and cheated to-day in his prime of life. He smiled contemptuously at the thought of his own folly.

“Launcelot Darrell,” cried Eleanor, suddenly, in an altered voice, “shall I tell you why I was so eager to come back to this neighbourhood? Shall I tell you why I wanted the secret of my name kept from you and from your kindred?”

The young man lifted his head and looked at Eleanor. Wonder and terror were both expressed in his countenance. He wondered why Gilbert Monckton’s wife addressed him with such earnestness. He was afraid without knowing what he feared.

“I don’t know what you mean, Mrs. Monckton,” he faltered. “What could I have to do with your false name,—or your coming back to this place?”

Everything!” cried Eleanor: “it was to be near you that I came back here.”

“I thought as much,” muttered the lawyer, under his breath.

“It was to be near you that I came back,” Eleanor repeated, “it was to be near you, Launcelot Darrell, that I was so eager to come back: so eager, that I would have stooped to any stratagem, encountered any risk, if by so doing I could have hastened my return. It was for this that I took the most solemn step a woman can take, without stopping to think of its solemnity. It was to deceive you that I kept my name a secret. It was to denounce you as the wretch who cheated a helpless old man out of the money that was not his own, and thus drove him to a shameful and a sinful death, that I came here. I have watched and waited long for this moment. It has come at last. Thank Heaven, it has come at last!”

Launcelot Darrell rose suddenly from his chair. His white face was still turned towards Eleanor; his eyes were fixed in a stare of horror. At first, perhaps, he contemplated rushing out of the room, and getting away from this woman, who had recalled the sin of the past, at a moment when his brain was maddened by the crime of the present. But he stopped, fascinated by some irresistible power in the beautiful face before him. Eleanor stood between the coward and the door. He could not pass her.

“You know who I am now, Launcelot Darrell, and you know how much mercy you can expect from me,” this girl continued, in the clear, ringing voice in which she had first addressed her enemy. “You remember the eleventh of August. You remember the night upon which you met my father upon the Boulevard. I stood by his side upon that night. I was hanging upon his arm, when you and your vile associate tempted him away from me. Heaven knows how dearly I loved him; Heaven knows how happily I looked forward to a life in which I might be with him and work for him. Heaven only knows how happily that bright dream might have been realised—but for you—but for you. May an old man’s sin rest upon your head. May a daughter’s blighted hope rest upon your head. You can guess now why I am here to-night, and what I have been doing; and you can guess, perhaps, what mercy you have to expect from George Vane’s daughter.”

“George Vane’s daughter!”

Sarah and Lavinia de Crespigny lifted up their hands and eyes in mute dismay. Was this woman, this viper, who had gained access to the very heart of the citadel which they had guarded so jealously, the very creature who of all others they would have kept remote from the dead man?

No! it was impossible. Neither of Maurice de Crespigny’s nieces had ever heard of the birth of George Vane’s youngest child. The old man had received tidings of the little girl’s advent in a letter sent by stealth, and had kept the intelligence a secret.

“It is too absurd!” Miss Lavinia exclaimed; “George Vane’s youngest daughter is Hortensia Bannister, and she must be at least five-and-thirty years of age.”

Launcelot Darrell knew better than this. He could recall a dismal scene that had occurred in the pale gray light of an August morning. He could remember a white-haired old man, sitting amidst the sordid splendour of a second-rate coffee-house, crying about his youngest daughter, and bewailing the loss of the money that was to have paid for his darling’s education; a wretched, broken-hearted old man, who had held his trembling hands aloft, and cursed the wretch who had cheated him.

He could see the figure now, with the shaking hands lifted high. He could see the wrinkled face, very old and worn in that gray, morning light, and tears streaming from the faded blue eyes. He had lived under the shadow of that curse ever since, and it seemed as if it was coming home to him to-night.

“I am Eleanor Vane,” Gilbert Monckton’s wife said, in answer to Miss Lavinia. “I am Hortensia Bannister’s half-sister. It was because of her foolish pride that I came to Hazlewood under a false name. It was in order to be revenged upon Launcelot Darrell that I have since kept my real name a secret.”

Eleanor Vane! Eleanor Vane! Could it be true? Of all whom Launcelot Darrell had reason to fear, this Eleanor Vane was the most to be dreaded. If he had never wronged her father, even if he had not been indirectly the cause of the old man’s death, he would still have had reason to fear Eleanor Vane. He knew what that reason was, and he dropped back into his chair, livid and trembling, as he had trembled when he stole the keys from his dead uncle’s bedside.

“Maurice de Crespigny and my father were bosom friends,” continued Eleanor. Her voice changed as she spoke of her father, and the light in her face faded as a tender shadow stole over her countenance. She could not mention her father’s name without tenderness, speak of him when or where she might. “They were bosom friends, everybody here knows that; and my poor dear father had a foolish fancy that if Mr. de Crespigny died before him, he would inherit this house and estate, and that he would be rich once more, and that we should be very happy together. I never thought that.”

Launcelot Darrell looked up with a strange, eager glance, but said nothing. The sisters, however, could not suffer Eleanor’s words to pass without remark.

“You never thought that; oh, dear no, I dare say not,” Miss Lavinia observed.

“Of course you never entered this house with any mercenary ideas upon the subject of my dear uncle’s will,” Miss Sarah exclaimed, with biting irony.

“I never built any hope upon my dear father’s fancy,” resumed Eleanor, so indifferent to the remarks of the two ladies that it seemed as if they had been unheard by her; “but I humoured it as I would have humoured any fancy of his, however foolish. But after his death I remembered that Mr. de Crespigny had been his friend, and I only waited to convince myself of that man’s guilt”—she pointed to Launcelot Darrell as she spoke—“before I denounced him to his great-uncle. I thought that my father’s old friend would listen to me, and knowing what had been done, would never let a traitor inherit his wealth. I thought that by this means I should be revenged upon the man who caused my father’s death. I heard to-day that Mr. de Crespigny had not long to live; and when I came here to-night I came with the intention of telling him the real character of the man who was perhaps to inherit his fortune.”

The maiden ladies looked at each other. It would not have been a bad thing, perhaps, after all, if Eleanor had arrived in time to see the dying man. It was a pity that Maurice de Crespigny should have died in ignorance of his nephew’s character, when there was just a chance that he might have left a will in that nephew’s favour. But on the other hand, George Vane’s daughter was even a more formidable person than Launcelot. Who could tell how she might have contrived to tamper with the old man?

“I have no doubt you wished to denounce Mr. Darrell; and to denounce us, too, for the matter of that, I dare say,” observed Miss Sarah, “in order that you yourself might profit by my uncle’s will.”

I profit!” cried Eleanor; “what should I want with the poor old man’s money?”

“My wife is rich enough to be above any suspicion of that kind, Miss de Crespigny,” Gilbert Monckton said, proudly.

“I came too late,” Eleanor said; “I came too late to see my father’s friend, but not too late for what I have so long prayed for—revenge upon my father’s destroyer. Look at your sister’s son, Miss de Crespigny. Look at him, Miss Lavinia; you have good reason to be proud of him. He has been a liar and a traitor from first to last; and to-night he has advanced from treachery to crime. The law could not punish him for the cruelty that killed a helpless old man: the law can punish him for that which he has done to-night, for he has committed a crime.”

“A crime!”

“Yes. He has crept like a thief into the house in which his uncle lies dead, and has introduced some document—a will of his own fabrication, no doubt—in the place of the genuine will left in Mr. de Crespigny’s private secrétaire.”

“How do you know this, Eleanor?” cried Gilbert Monckton.

“I know it because I was outside the window of the study when he changed the papers in the cabinet, and because I have the real will in my possession.”

“It is a lie!” shouted Launcelot Darrell, starting to his feet, “a damnable lie, the real will—”

“Was burnt, as you think, Mr. Darrell; but you are mistaken. The document which your friend Monsieur Victor Bourdon burnt was a paper which you dropped out of the secrétaire while you were searching for the will.”

“And where is the genuine document, Eleanor?” Gilbert asked.

“Here,” answered his wife, triumphantly.

She put her hand into her pocket. It was empty. The will was gone.