Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Eleanor's victory - Part 24
BY THE AUTHOR OF “AURORA FLOYD,” “LADY AUDLEY’S SECRET,” &c.
CHAPTER XLV. AT SEA.
The will was gone. Eleanor tried to think how or where she could have lost it. It might have dropped from her pocket, perhaps. That was the only solution of the mystery that presented itself to her mind. The open pocket of her dress might have been caught by one of the laurel boughs as she crouched upon the ground, and when she rose the paper had dropped out. There was no other way in which she could have lost it. She had been so absorbed in the watch she had kept on Launcelot Darrell, as to forget the value of the document which she had thrust carelessly into her pocket. Her father’s letter and Launcelot Darrell’s sketch were still safe in the bosom of her dress; but the will, the genuine will, in place of which the young man had introduced some fabrication of his own, was gone.
“Let me see this will, Eleanor,” Gilbert Monckton said, advancing to his wife. Although she had been the most skilful actress, the most accomplished deceiver amongst all womankind, her conduct to-night could not be all acting, it could not be all deception. She did not love him: she had confessed that, very plainly. She did not love him; and she had only married him in order to serve a purpose of her own. But then, on the other hand, if her passionate words were to be believed in, she did not love Launcelot Darrell. There was some comfort in that. “Let me see the will, Eleanor,” he repeated, as his wife stared at him blankly, in the first shock of her discovery.
“I can’t find it,” she said, hopelessly. “It’s gone; it’s lost. Oh, for pity’s sake, go out into the garden and look for it. I must have dropped it amongst the evergreens outside Mr. de Crespigny’s rooms. Pray go and look for it.”
“I will,” the lawyer said, taking up his hat and walking towards the door of the room.
But Miss Lavinia de Crespigny stopped him.
“No, Mr. Monckton,” she said; “pray don’t go out into the night air. Parker is the proper person to look for this document.”
She rang the bell, which was answered by the old butler.
“Has Brooks come back from Windsor?” she asked.
“No, Miss, not yet.”
“A paper has been dropped in the garden, Parker, somewhere amongst the evergreens, outside my uncle’s rooms. Will you take a lantern, and go and look for it?”
“Dear, dear!” exclaimed Miss Sarah, “Brooks has been a very long time going from here to Windsor and back again. I wish Mr. Lawford’s clerk were come. The place would be taken care of, then, and we should have no further anxiety.”
The lady looked suspiciously from her nephew to Eleanor, and from Eleanor to Gilbert Monckton. She did not know whom to trust, or whom most to fear. Launcelot Darrell sat before her, biting savagely at his nails, and with his head bent upon his breast. Eleanor had sunk into the chair nearest her, utterly dumbfounded by the loss of the will.
“You need not fear that we shall long intrude upon you, Miss de Crespigny,” Gilbert Monckton said. “My wife has made an accusation against a person in this room. It is only right, in your interest, and for the justification of her truth and honour, that this business should be investigated—and immediately.”
“The will must be found,” Eleanor cried; “it must have fallen from my pocket in the shrubbery.”
Launcelot Darrell said nothing. He waited the issue of the search that was being made. If the will was found, he was prepared to repudiate it; for there was no other course left to him. He hated this woman, who had suddenly arisen before him as an enemy and denouncer, who had recalled to him the bitter memory of his first great dishonour, and who had detected him in the commission of his first crime. He hated Eleanor, and was ready to sacrifice her to his own safety.
He lifted his head, presently, and looked about him with a scornful laugh.
“Is this a farce, or a conspiracy, Mrs. Monckton?” he asked. “Do you expect to invalidate my great-uncle’s genuine will—wherever that will may happen to be found—by the production of some document dropped by you in the garden, and which has, very likely, never been inside this house, much less in my uncle’s possession. You surely don’t expect any one to believe your pretty, romantic story, of a suicide in Paris, and a midnight scene at Woodlands? It would be an excellent paragraph for a hard-up penny-a-liner, but, really, for any other purpose—”
“Take care, Mr. Darrell,” Gilbert Monckton said quietly, “you will gain nothing by insolence. If I do not resent your impertinence to my wife, it is because I begin to believe that you are so despicable a scoundrel as to be unworthy of an honest man’s anger. You had much better hold your tongue.”
There was no particular eloquence in these last few words, but there was something in the lawyer’s tone that effectually silenced Launcelot Darrell. Mr. Monckton’s cane lay upon a chair by the fire-place, and while speaking he had set down his hat, and taken up the cane; unconsciously, perhaps; but the movement had not escaped the guilty man’s furtive glance. He kept silence; and with his face darkened by a gloomy scowl, still sat biting his nails. The will would be found. The genuine document would be compared with the fabrication he had placed amongst his great-uncle’s papers, and perpetual shame, punishment, and misery would be his lot. What he suffered to-night, sitting amongst these people, not one of whom he could count as a friend, was only a foretaste of what he would have to suffer by-and-by in a criminal dock.
For some time there was silence in the room. The two sisters, anxious and perplexed, looked almost despairingly at each other, fearful that at the end of all this business they would be the sufferers; cheated, in their helplessness, either by George Vane’s daughter or by Launcelot Darrell. Eleanor, exhausted by her own excitement, sat with her eyes fixed upon the door, waiting for the coming of the old butler.
More than a quarter of an hour passed in this way. Then the door opened, and Mr. Parker made his appearance.
“You have found it!” cried Eleanor, starting to her feet.
“No, ma’am. No, Miss Lavinia,” added the butler. “I have searched every inch of the garding, and there is nothink in the shape of a paper to be found. The housemaid was with me, and she searched likewise.”
“It must be in the garden,” exclaimed Eleanor, “it must be there—unless it has been blown away.”
“There’s not wind enough for that, ma’am. The s’rubberies are ’igh, and it would take a deal of wind to blow a paper across the tops of the trees.”
“And you’ve searched the ground under the trees?” asked Mr. Monckton.
“Yes, sir. We’ve searched everywhere; me and the ’ousemaid.”
Launcelot Darrell burst into a loud laugh, an insolent, strident laugh.
“Why, I thought as much,” he cried; “the whole story is a farce. I beg your pardon, Mr. Monckton, for calling it a conspiracy. It is merely a slight hallucination of your wife’s; and I dare say she is as much George Vane’s daughter as I am the fabricator of a forged will.”
Mr. Darrell’s triumph had made him foolhardy. In the next moment Gilbert Monckton’s hand was on the collar of his coat, and the cane uplifted above his shoulders.
“Oh my goodness me!” shrieked Sarah de Crespigny, with a dismal wail, “there’ll be murder done presently. Oh, this is too dreadful; in the dead of the night, too.”
But before any harm could happen to Launcelot Darrell, Eleanor clung about her husband’s upraised arm.
“What you said just now was the truth, Gilbert,” she cried, “he is not worthy of it; he is not, indeed. He is beneath an honest man’s anger. Let him alone; for my sake let him alone. Retribution must come upon him sooner or later. I thought it had come to-night, but there has been witchcraft in all this business. I can’t understand it.”
“Stay, Eleanor,” said Gilbert Monckton, putting down his cane, and turning away from Launcelot Darrell as he might have turned from a mongrel cur that he had been dissuaded from punishing: “This last will—what was the wording of it—to whom did it leave the fortune?”
Launcelot Darrell looked up, eagerly, breathlessly, waiting for Eleanor’s answer.
“I don’t know,” she said.
“What, have you forgotten?”
“No, I never knew anything about the contents of the will. I had no opportunity of looking at it. I took it from the chair on which Launcelot Darrell threw it, and put it in my pocket. From that moment to this I have never seen it.”
“How do you know, then, that it was a will?” asked Gilbert Monckton.
“Because I heard Launcelot Darrell and his companion speak of it as the genuine will.”
The young man seemed infinitely relieved by the knowledge of Eleanor’s ignorance.
“Come, Mr. Monckton,” he said, with an air of injured innocence, “you have been very anxious to investigate the grounds of your wife’s accusation, and have been very ready to believe in a most absurd story. You have even gone so far as to wish to execute summary vengeance upon me with a walking-stick. I think it’s my turn now to ask a few questions.”
“You can ask as many as you please,” answered the lawyer.
His mind was bewildered by what had happened. Eleanor’s earnestness, which had seemed so real, had all ended in nothing. How if it was all acting; how if some darker mystery lurked beneath all this tumult of accusation and denial? The canker of suspicion, engendered by one woman’s treachery, had taken deep root in Gilbert Monckton’s breast. He had lost one of the purest and highest gifts of a noble nature: the power to trust.
“Very well, then,” said Launcelot Darrell, turning to Eleanor: “Perhaps you will tell me how I contrived to open this cabinet, out of which you say I stole one document, and into which you declare I introduced another.”
“You took the keys from Mr. de Crespigny’s room.”
“Indeed! But is there no one keeping watch in that room?”
“Yes,” cried Miss Sarah, “Jepcott is there. Jepcott has been there ever since my beloved uncle expired. Nothing has been disturbed, and Jepcott has had the care of the room. We could trust Jepcott with untold gold.”
“Yes,” said Miss Lavinia, “with untold gold.”
“But she was asleep!” cried Eleanor, “the woman was asleep when that man went into the room.”
“Asleep!” exclaimed Miss Sarah; “Oh, surely not. Surely Jepcott would not deceive us; I can’t think that of her. The very last words I said to her were, ‘Jepcott, do you feel at all sleepy? If you feel in the least degree sleepy, have the housemaid to sit with you—make assurance doubly sure, and have the housemaid!’ ‘No, Miss,’ Jepcott said, ‘I never felt more wakeful in my life, and as to the girl, she’s a poor, frightened silly, and I don’t think you could induce her to go into master’s room, though you were to offer her a five-pound note for doing it.’ And if Jepcott went to sleep after this, knowing that everything was left about just as it was when my uncle died, it was really too bad of her.”
“Send for Mrs. Jepcott,” said Launcelot Darrell; “let us hear what she has to say about this very probable story of my stealing my great-uncle’s keys.”
Miss Lavinia de Crespigny rang the bell, which was answered by Mr. Parker, who, though usually slow to respond to any summons, was wonderfully prompt in his attendance this evening.
“Tell Mrs. Jepcott to come here,” said Miss Lavinia, “I want to speak to her.”
The butler departed upon this errand, and again there was a silent pause, which seemed a very long one, but which only extended over five minutes. At the end of that time Mrs. Jepcott appeared. She was a respectable-looking woman, prim, and rather grim in appearance. She had been in the dead man’s service for five-and-thirty years, and was about fifteen years older than the Misses de Crespigny, whom she always spoke of as “the young ladies.”
“Jepcott,” said Miss Sarah, “I want to know whether anybody whatever, except yourself, has entered Mr. de Crespigny’s room since you have been placed in charge of it?”
“Oh, dear, no, miss,” answered the housekeeper, promptly, “certainly not.”
“Are you sure of that, Jepcott?”
“Quite sure, miss, as sure as I am that I am standing here this moment.”
“You speak very confidently, Jepcott, but this is really a most serious business. I am told that you have been asleep.”
“Asleep, Miss de Crespigny! Oh, dear, who could say anything of the kind? Who could be so wicked as to tell such a story?”
“You are certain that you have not been asleep?”
“Yes, miss, quite certain. I closed my eye sometimes, for my sight is weak, as you know, miss, and the light dazzled me, and made my eyes ache. I close my eyes generally when I sit down of an evening, for my sight doesn’t allow me to do needlework by candlelight, neither to read a newspaper; and I may have closed my eyes to-night, but I didn’t go to sleep, miss, oh dear no; I was too nervous and anxious for that, a great deal; besides, I am not a good sleeper at any time, and so I should have heard if a mouse had stirred in the room.”
“You didn’t hear me come into the room, did you, Mrs. Jepcott?” asked Launcelot Darrell.
“You, Mr. Darrell? Oh, dear, no; neither you nor anybody else, sir.”
“And you don’t think that I could have come into the room without your knowing it? You don’t think I could have come in while you were asleep?”
“But I wasn’t asleep, Mr. Darrell; and as for you or anybody comin’ in without my hearin’ ’em—why, I heard every leaf that stirred outside the windows.”
“I fear that at least this part of your charge must drop to the ground, Mrs. Monckton,” Launcelot Darrell said, scornfully.
“Jepcott,” said Miss Lavinia de Crespigny, “go back and see if my uncle’s keys are safe.”
“Yes, do, Mrs. Jepcott,” explained Launcelot Darrell; “and be sure you take notice whether they have been disturbed since your master died.”
The housekeeper left the room, and returned after about three minutes’ absence.
“The keys are quite safe, Miss Lavinia,” she said.
“And they have not been disturbed?” asked Launcelot.
“No, Mr. Darrell, they haven’t been moved a quarter of an inch. They’re lyin’ just where they lay when my poor master died, half hid under a pocket-handkerchief.”
Launcelot Darrell drew a long breath. How wonderfully these foolish women had played into his hands, and helped him to escape.
“That will do, Jepcott,” said Miss Sarah, “you may go now. Remember that you are responsible for everything in my uncle’s room until the arrival of Mr. Lawford’s clerk. It would have been a very bad business for you if Mr. de Crespigny’s keys had been tampered with.”
Mrs. Jepcott looked rather alarmed at this remark, and retired without delay. Suppose she had been asleep, after all, for five minutes or so, and some mischief had arisen out of it, what might not her punishment be. She had a very vague idea of the power of the law, and did not know what penalties she might have incurred by five minutes’ unconscious dose. This honest woman had been in the habit of spending the evening in a series of intermittent naps for the last ten years, and had no idea that while closing her eyes to shade them from the glare of the light, she often slumbered soundly for an hour at a stretch.
“Well, Mrs. Monckton,” Launcelot Darrell said, when the housekeeper had left the room, “I suppose now you are convinced that all this mid-winter night’s dream is a mere hallucination of your own?”
Eleanor looked at him with a contemptuous smile whose open scorn was not the least painful torture he had been obliged to bear that night.
“Do not speak to me,” she said; “remember who I am; and let that memory keep you silent.”
The door-bell rang loudly as Eleanor finished speaking.
“Thank heaven!” exclaimed Miss de Crespigny, “Mr. Lawford’s clerk has come at last. He will take charge of everything, and if anybody has tampered with my uncle’s papers,” she added, looking first at Launcelot and then at Eleanor, “I have no doubt that he will find out all about it. We are poor unprotected women, but I dare say we shall find those who will be able to defend our rights.”
“I don’t think we have any occasion to stop here,” said Mr. Monckton; “are you ready to come home, Eleanor?”
“Quite ready,” his wife answered.
“You have nothing more to say?”
“Put on your cloak, then, and come. Goodnight, Miss de Crespigny. Good-night, Miss Lavinia.”
Mr. Lamb, the Windsor solicitor’s clerk, came in while Gilbert Monckton and his wife were leaving the room. He was the same old man whom Richard Thornton had seen at Windsor. Eleanor perceived that this man was surprised to see Launcelot Darrell. He started, and looked at the artist with a half-frightened, half-inquiring glance; but the young man did not return the look.
CHAPTER XLVI. LAURA’S TROUBLES.
Gilbert Monckton offered Eleanor his arm as they went out of the hall and down the steps before the front entrance.
“I would have got a conveyance for you if it had been possible, Eleanor,” he said; “but of course at this time of night that is utterly out of the question. Do you think that you can manage the walk home?”
“Oh, yes; very well indeed.”
She sighed as she spoke. She felt completely baffled by what had occurred, terribly prostrated by the defeat which had befallen her. There was no hope, then. This base and treacherous man was always to triumph: however wicked, however criminal.
“Is it very late?” she asked, presently.
“Yes, very late—past one o’clock.”
The husband and wife walked homewards in silence. The road seemed even drearier than before to Eleanor, though this time she had a companion in her dismal journey. But this time despair was gnawing at her breast; she had been supported before by excitement, buoyed up by hope.
They reached Tolldale at last. The butler admitted them. He had sent all the other servants to bed, and had sat up alone to receive his master. Even upon this night of bewilderment Gilbert Monckton endeavoured to keep up appearances.
“We have been to Woodlands,” he said to the old servant. “Mr. de Crespigny is dead.”
He had no doubt that his own and his wife’s absence had given rise to wonderment in the quiet household, and he thought by this means to set all curiosity at rest. But the drawing-room door opened while he was speaking, and Laura rushed into the hall.
“Oh, my goodness gracious,” she exclaimed, “here you are at last. What I have suffered this evening! Oh! what agonies I have suffered this evening, wondering what had happened, and thinking of all sorts of horrid things.”
“But, my dear Laura, why didn’t you go to bed?” asked Mr. Monckton.
“Go to bed!” screamed the young lady. “Go to bed with my poor brain bursting with suspense. I’m sure if people’s brains do burst, it’s a wonder mine hasn’t to-night, and I thought ever so many times it was going to do it. First Eleanor goes out without leaving word where she’s gone; and then you go out without leaving word where you’re gone; and then you both stay away for hours, and hours, and hours. And there I sit all the time watching the clock, with nobody but the Skye to keep my company, until I get so nervous, that I daren’t look behind me, and I almost begin to feel as if the Skye was a demon dog! And, oh, do tell me what in goodness’ name has happened.”
“Come into the drawing-room, Laura; and pray don’t talk so fast. I will tell you presently.”
Mr. Monckton walked into the drawing-room followed by Laura and his wife. He closed the door carefully, and then sat himself down by the fire.
“I’ve had coals put on five times,” exclaimed Miss Mason, “but all the coals in the world wouldn’t keep me from shivering and feeling as if somebody was coming in through the door and looking over my shoulder. If it hadn’t been for the Skye I should have gone mad. What has happened?”
“Something has happened at Woodlands—” Mr. Monckton began gravely, but Laura interrupted him with a little shriek.
“Oh, don’t,” she cried, “don’t, please; I’d rather you didn’t. I know what you’re going to say. You must come and sleep with me to-night, Eleanor, if you don’t want to find me raving mad in the morning. No wonder I felt as if the room was peopled with ghosts.”
“Don’t be foolish, Laura,” Mr. Monckton said, impatiently. “You asked me what has happened, and I tell you. To speak plain, Mr. de Crespigny is dead.”
“Yes, I guessed that, of course, directly you began to speak in that solemn way. It’s very dreadful—not that he should be dead, you know, because I scarcely ever saw him, and when I did see him, he always seemed to be deaf, or grumpy—but it seems dreadful that people should die at all, and I always fancy they’ll come walking into the room at night when I’m taking my hair down before the glass, and look over my shoulder, as they do in German stories.”
“Oh, please don’t look contemptuously at me,” cried Miss Mason, piteously; “of course, if you haven’t got nerves it’s very easy to despise these things; and I wish I’d been born a man or a lawyer, or something of that sort, so that I might never be nervous. Not that I believe in ghosts, you know; I’m not so childish as that. I don’t believe in them, and I’m not afraid of them, but I don’t like them!”
Mr. Monckton’s contemptuous expression changed to a look of pity. This was the foolish girl whom he had been about to entrust to the man he now knew to be a villain. He now knew:—bah, he had paltered with his own conscience. He had known it from the first: and this poor child loved Launcelot Darrell. Her hopes, like his own, were shipwrecked; and even in the egotism of his misery the strong man felt some compassion for this helpless girl.
“So, Mr. de Crespigny is dead,” Laura said after a pause; “does Launcelot know it yet?”
“Was he there to-night—up at Woodlands, in spite of his nasty old aunts?”
“Yes, he was there.”
Eleanor looked anxiously, almost piteously at Laura. The great disappointment, the death-blow of every hope, was coming down upon her, and Eleanor, who could see the hand uplifted to strike, and the cruel knife bared ready to inflict the fatal stab, shivered as she thought of the misery the thoughtless girl must have to suffer.
“But what can her misery be against my father’s,” she thought, “and how am I accountable for her sorrow. It is all Launcelot Darrell’s work, it is his wicked work from first to last.”
“And do you think he will have the fortune?” Laura asked.
“I don’t know, my dear,” her guardian answered gravely, “but I think it matters very little either to you or me whether he may get the fortune or not.”
“What do you mean?” cried the girl, “how strangely you speak; how cruelly and coldly you speak of Launcelot, just as if you didn’t care whether he was rich or poor. Oh, good heavens,” she shrieked, suddenly growing wild with terror, “why do you both look at me like that? Why do you both look so anxious? I know that something dreadful has happened; something has happened to Launcelot! It’s not Mr. de Crespigny, it’s Launcelot that’s dead!”
“No, no, Laura, he is not dead. It would be better perhaps if he were. He is not a good man, Laura, and he can never be your husband.”
“Oh, I don’t care a bit about his not being good, as long as he isn’t dead,” exclaimed Laura. “I never said he was good, and never wanted him to be good. I’m not good; for I don’t like going to church three times every Sunday. The idea of your saying my poor dear Launcelot musn’t marry me because he isn’t good. I like him to be a little wicked, like the Giaour, or Manfred—though goodness gracious only knows what he’d done that he should go on as he did—I never asked him to be good. Goodness wouldn’t go well with his style of looks. It’s fair people, with wishy-washy blue eyes and straight hair, and no eyebrows or eyelashes in particular, that are generally good. I hate good people, and if you don’t let me marry Launcelot Darrell now, I shall marry him when I’m of age, and that’ll be in three years’ time.”
Miss Mason said all this with great vehemence and indignation, and then walked towards the door of the room; but Eleanor stopped her, and caught the slender little figure in her arms.
“Ah! Laura, Laura,” she cried, “you must listen to us, you must hear us, my poor darling. I know it seems very cruel to speak against the man you love, but it would be fifty times more cruel to let you marry him, and leave you to discover afterwards, when your life was linked to his, and never, never could be a happy life again if parted from him, that he was unworthy of your love. It is terrible to be told this now, Laura, it would be a thousand times more terrible to hear it then. Come with me to your room, Laura, I will stay with you all to-night. I will tell you all I know about Launcelot Darrell. I ought to have told you before, perhaps, but I waited; I waited for what I begin to think will never come.”
“I won’t believe anything against him,” cried Laura, passionately, disengaging herself from Eleanor’s embrace; “I won’t listen to you. I won’t hear a word. I know why you don’t want me to marry him: you were in love with him yourself, you know you were, and you’re jealous of me, and you want to prevent my being happy with him.”
Of all the unlucky speeches that could have been made in the presence of Gilbert Monckton, this was perhaps the most unlucky. He started as if he had been stung, and rising from his seat near the fire, took a lighted candle from a side table, and walked to the door.
“I really can’t endure all this,” he said. “Eleanor, I’ll leave you with Laura. Say what you have to say about Launcelot Darrell, and for pity’s sake let me never hear his name again. Good night.”
The two girls were left alone together. Laura had thrown herself upon a sofa, and was sobbing violently. Eleanor stood a few paces from her, looking at her with the same tender and compassionate expression with which she had regarded her from the first.
“When I see your troubles, Laura,” she said, “I almost forget my own. My poor dear child, God knows how truly I pity you.”
“But I don’t want your pity,” cried Laura. “I shall hate you if you say anything against Launcelot. Why should anybody pity me? I am engaged to the man I love, the only man I ever loved,—you know that, Eleanor; you know how I fell in love with him directly he came to Hazlewood,—and I will marry him in spite of all the world. I shall be of age in three years, and then no horrid guardians can prevent my doing what I like!”
“But you would not marry him, Laura, if you knew him to be a bad man?”
“I would never believe that he is a bad man!”
“But, my darling, you will listen to me. I must tell you the truth. I have kept it from you too long. I have been very guilty in keeping it from you. I ought to have told you when I first came back to Tolldale.”
“What ought you to have told me?”
“The story of my life, Laura. But I thought you would come between me and the victory I wanted to achieve.”
“A victory over the man who caused my father’s death.”
Then, little by little, interrupted by a hundred exclamations and protestations from the sobbing girl whose head lay on her shoulder, and whose waist was encircled by her arm, Eleanor Monckton told the story of her return to Paris, the meeting on the Boulevard, and George Vane’s suicide. Little by little she contrived to explain to the wretched girl, who clung about her, and who declared again and again that she would not believe anything against Launcelot, that she could not think him cruel or treacherous,—how the artist and his vile associate, Victor Bourdon, had cheated the old man out of the money which represented his own honour and the future welfare of his child.
“You think me hard and merciless, Laura,” she cried, “and I sometimes wonder at my own feelings; but remember, only remember what my father suffered. He was cheated out of the money that had been entrusted to him. He was afraid to face his own child. Oh, my poor dear, how could you wrong me so cruelly,” she exclaimed, “how could you think that I should have spoken one word of reproach, or loved you any the less, if you had lost a dozen fortunes of mine? No, Laura, I cannot forget what my father suffered, I cannot be merciful to this man.”
Eleanor’s task was a very hard one. Laura would not believe, or she would not acknowledge that she believed; though she had none of the calm assurance which a perfect and entire faith in her lover should have given her. It was useless to reason with her. All Eleanor’s logic was powerless against the passionate force of this girl’s perpetual cry, the gist of which was “I will believe no harm of him! I love him, and I will not cease to love him!”
She would not argue, or listen to Eleanor’s calm reasoning; for Mrs. Monckton was very calm in the knowledge of her own defeat, almost despairingly resigned, in the idea that all struggle against Launcelot Darrell was hopeless. Laura would not listen, would not be convinced. The man whom Eleanor had seen in Paris was not Launcelot. He was in India at that very time. He had written letters from India, and posted them thence, with foreign postage stamps. The shipbroker’s books were all wrong; what was more likely than that stupid shipbrokers’ clerks should make wrong entries in their horrid books? In short, according to poor Laura’s reasoning, Launcelot Darrell was the victim of a series of coincidences. There had happened to be a person who resembled him in Paris at the time of George Vane’s death. There had happened to be a mistake in the shipbroker’s books. The figure in the water-coloured sketch that Eleanor had stolen happened to be like the old man. Miss Mason rejected circumstantial evidence in toto. As for the story of the forgery, she delared that it was all a fabrication of Eleanor’s, invented in order that the marriage should be postponed.
“You’re very cruel, Eleanor,” she cried, “and you’ve acted very treacherously, and I shouldn’t have thought it of you. First you fall in love with Launcelot Darrell; and then you go and marry my guardian; and then, when you find that you don’t like my guardian, you begrudge me my happiness; and you now want to set me against Launcelot; but I will not be set against him. There!”
This last decisive monosyllable was uttered amidst a torrent of sobs, and then, for a long time, the two girls sat in silence upon the sofa before the expiring fire. By and by, Laura nestled her head a little closer upon Eleanor’s shoulder; then a little hand, very cold, by reason of its owner’s agitation, stole into the open palm lying idle upon Mrs. Monckton’s lap; and at last, in a low voice, almost stifled by tears, she murmured:
“Do you think that he is wicked? Oh! Eleanor, do you really think that it was he who cheated your poor old father?”
“I know that it was he, Laura.”
“And do you believe that he has made a false will, for the sake of that dreadful money? Oh, how could he care for the money, when we might have been so happy together poor! Do you really believe that he has committed—forgery?”
She dropped her voice to a whisper as she spoke the word that was so awful to her when uttered in relation to Launcelot Darrell.
“I believe it, and I know it, Laura,” Eleanor answered, gravely.
“But what will they do to him? What will become of him? They won’t hang him—will they, Eleanor? They don’t hang people for forgery now. Oh, Eleanor, what will become of him? I love him so dearly, I don’t care what he is, or what he has done. I love him still, and would die to save him.”
“You need not be afraid, Laura,” Mrs. Monckton answered, rather bitterly. “Launcelot Darrell will escape all evil consequences of what he has done. You may be sure of that. He will hold his head higher than he ever held it yet, Laura. He will be master of Woodlands before next week is over.”
“But his conscience, Eleanor, his conscience! He will be so unhappy—he will be so miserable.”
Laura disengaged herself from the loving arm that had supported her, and started to her feet.
“Eleanor!” she cried, “where is he? Let me go to him! It is not too late to undo all this, perhaps. He can put back the real will, can’t he?”
“No, the real will is lost.”
“He can destroy the false one, then.”
“I don’t think he will have the chance of doing that, Laura. If his heart is not hardened against remorse, he will have plenty of time for repentance between this and the time when the will is read. If he wishes to undo what he has done, he may make a confession to his aunts, and throw himself upon their mercy. They are the only persons likely to be injured by what he has done. The money was left to them in the original will, no doubt.”
“He shall confess, Eleanor!” cried Laura. “I will throw myself upon my knees at his feet, and I won’t leave him till he promises me to undo what he has done. His aunts will keep the secret, for their own sakes. They wouldn’t like the world to know that their nephew could do such a wicked thing. He shall confess to them, and let them have the fortune, and then we can be married, and then we shall be as happy together as if he had never done wrong. Let me go to him.”
“Not to-night, Laura. Look at the clock.”
Eleanor pointed to the dial of the timepiece opposite them. It was half-past two o’clock.
“I will see him to-morrow morning, then, Eleanor. I will see him.”
“You shall, my dear; if you think it wise or right to do so.”
But Laura Mason did not see her lover the next morning; for when the morning came, she was in a burning fever, brought on by the agitation and excitement of the previous night. A medical man was summoned from Windsor to attend upon her, and Eleanor sat by her bed-side, watching her as tenderly as a mother watches her sick child.
Gilbert Monckton too was very anxious about his ward, and came up to the door of Laura’s room to make inquiries many times in the course of that day.