“Poor girl!” murmured Stella. There was silence for a moment. “And those three live there all alone?” she said.
“Not always,” he replied, musingly. “Sometimes, not often, the son Leycester comes down. He is Viscount Trevor.”
“The son,” said Stella. “And what is he like?”
The question seemed to set some train of thought in action; the old man relapsed into silence for a few minutes. Then suddenly but gently he rose, and going to the other end of the room, fetched a picture from amongst several standing against the wall, and held it toward her.
“That is Lord Leycester,” he said.
Stella took the canvas in her hand, and held it to the light, and an exclamation broke involuntarily from her lips.
“How beautiful he is!”
The old man took the picture from her, and resting it on his knees, gazed at it musingly.
“Yes,” he said, “it is a grand face; one does not see such a face often.”
Stella leant over the chair and looked at it with a strange feeling of interest and curiosity, such as no simply beautiful picture would have aroused.
It was not the regularity of the face, with its clear-cut features and its rippling chestnut hair, that, had it been worn by a Wyndward of a hundred years ago, would have fallen in rich curls upon the square, well-formed shoulders. It was not the beauty of the face, but a something indefinable in the carriage of the head and the expression of the full, dark eyes that attracted, almost fascinated, her.
It was in a voice almost hushed by the indescribable effect produced by the face, that she said:
“And he is like that?”
“It is lifelike,” he answered. “I, who painted it, should not say it, but it is like him nevertheless—that is Leycester Wyndward. Why did you ask?”
“Because—I scarcely know. It is such a strange face, uncle. The eyes—what is it in the eyes that makes me almost unable to look away from them?”
“The reflection of a man’s soul, Stella,” he said.
It was a strange answer, and the girl looked down at the strange face interrogatively.
“The reflection of a man’s soul, Stella. The Wyndwards have always been a wild, reckless, passionate race; here, in this village, they have innumerable legends of the daring deeds of the lords of Wyndward. Murder, rapine, and high-handed tyranny in the olden times, wild license and desperate profligacy in these modern ones; but of all the race this Leycester Wyndward is the wildest and most heedless. Look at him, Stella, you see him here in his loose shooting-jacket, built by Poole; with the diamond pin in his irreproachable scarf, with his hair cut to the regulation length: I see him in armor with his sword upraised to watch the passionate fire of his eyes. There is a picture in the great gallery up yonder of one of the Wyndwards clad just so, in armor of glittering steel, with one foot on the body of a prostrate foe, one hand upraised to strike the death-dealing blow of his battle-ax. Yes, Leycester Wyndward should have lived four centuries back.”
“Has he committed many murders, uncle, burnt down many villages?”
The old man started and looked up at the exquisite face, with its arch smile beaming in the dark eyes and curving the red, ripe lips, and smiled in response.
“I was dreaming, Stella; an odd trick of mine. No, men of his stamp are sadly circumscribed nowadays. We have left them no vent for their natures now, excepting the gambling-table, the turf, and——” he roused suddenly. “Yes, it’s a beautiful face, Stella, but it belongs to a man who has done more harm in his day than all his forefathers did before him. It is rather a good thing that Wyndward Hall stands so firmly, or else Leycester would have melted it at ecarte and baccarat long ago.”
“Is he so bad then?” murmured Stella.
Her uncle smiled.
“Bad is a mild word, Stella; and yet—look at the face again. I have seen it softened by a smile such as might have been worn by an innocent child; I have heard those lips laugh as—as women are supposed to laugh before this world has driven all laughter out of them; and when those eyes smile there is no resisting them for man or woman.”
He stopped suddenly and looked up.
“I am wandering on like an old mill. Put the picture away, Stella.”
She took it from him and carried it across the room, but stood for a moment silently regarding it by the lamp light. As she did so, a strange fancy made her start and set the picture on the table suddenly. It seemed to her as if the dark eyes had suddenly softened in their intense fixed gaze and smiled at her.
It was the trick of a warm, imaginative temperament, and it took possession of her so completely that with a swift gesture she laid her hand over the dark eyes and so hid them.
Then, with a laugh at her own folly, she put the picture against the wall and went back to the window and sat beside the old man.
“Tell me about your past life, Stella,” he said, in a low voice.
“It seems to me as if you had always been here. You have a quiet way of speaking and moving about, child.”
“I learnt that while papa was ill,” she said, simply. “Sometimes he would sit for hours playing softly, and I did not wish to disturb him.”
“I remember, I remember,” he murmured. “Stella, the world should have known something of him; he was a born musician.”
“He used to say the same of you, uncle; you should have been a famous artist.”
The old man looked up with a smile.
“My child, there are many men whom the world knows nothing of—luckily for them. Your father and I were dreamers, both; the world likes men of action. Can you play?”
She rose and stood for a moment hesitating. In the corner of the room there was a small chamber organ—one of those wonderful instruments which in a small space combine the grand tones of a cathedral organ with the melodious softness of a flute. It was one of the few luxuries which the artist had permitted himself, and he was in the habit of playing snatches of Verdi and Rossini, of Schubert and Mozart, when the fading light compelled him to lay the brush aside.
Stella went up to it softly and seated herself, and presently began to play. She attempted no difficult fugue or brilliant march, but played a simple Florentine vesper hymn, which she had heard floating from the devout lips of the women kneeling before the altar of the great church in Florence, and presently began to sing it.
The old man started as the first clear bird-like notes rose softly upon the evening air, and then covering his face with his hands went straight to dreamland.
The vesper hymn died softly, slowly out, and she rose, but with a gesture of his hand he motioned her to remain at the organ.
“You have your father’s voice, Stella; sing again.”
She sang a pleasant ditty this time, with a touch of pathos in the refrain, and hearing a slight noise as she finished, looked round, and saw the old man rise, and with quivering lips turn toward the door.
The young girl’s sweet voice had brought back the past and its dead too plainly, and he had gone out lest she should see his emotion.
Stella rose and went to the window, and stood looking into the night. The moonlight was glinting the river in the distance, and falling in great masses upon the lawn at her feet. Half unconsciously she opened the window, and stepping out, found herself in a small garden, beautifully kept and fragrant with violets; her love for flowers was a passion, and she stepped on to the path in search of them. The path led in zigzag fashion to a little wooden gate, by which the garden was entered from the lane. Stella found some violets, and looking about in search of further treasure store, saw a bunch of lilac blossom growing in the lane side.
To open the gate and run lightly up the side of the bank was the impulse of the moment, and she obeyed it; there were still deeper masses of flowers a little further down, and she was walking toward them when she heard the sound of a horse galloping toward her.
For a moment she was so startled by the unexpected sound that she stood looking toward the direction whence it came, and in that moment a horse and rider turned the corner and made full pelt for the spot where she was standing. Stella glanced back toward the little white gate to discover that it was not in sight, and that she had gone further than she intended. It was of no use to attempt to get back before the horseman reached her, there was only time to get out of the way. Lightly springing up the bank, she stood under the lilac tree and waited.
As she did so, the horse and man came out of the shadow into the moonlight. To Stella, both looked tremendously big and tall in the deceptive light, but it was not the size, but the attitude of the rider which struck her and chained her attention.
She could not see his face, but the figure was that of a young man, tall and stalwart, and full of a strange, masterful grace which displayed itself in the easy, reckless way in which he sat the great animal, and in the poise of the head which, slightly thrown back, seemed in its very attitude eloquent of pride and defiance. There was something strange and unusual about the whole bearing that struck Stella, unused as she was to meeting horsemen in an English country lane.
As he came a little nearer she noticed that he was dressed in evening dress, excepting his coat, which was of velvet, and sat loosely, yet gracefully, upon the stalwart frame. In simple truth the rider had thrown off his dress coat for a smoking jacket, and still wore his dress boots. Stella saw the moonlight shining upon them and upon a ruby, which blazed sullenly upon the white hand which held the whip.
As if rider and horse were one, they came up the lane, and were abreast of her, the man all unconscious of her presence. But not so the horse; his quick, restless eye had caught sight of the shimmer of Stella’s dress, and with a toss of the head he swerved aside and stood still. The rider brought his eyes from the sky, and raising his whip, cut the horse across the flank, with a gesture of impatient anger; but the horse—a splendid, huge-boned Irish mare, as fiery and obstinate as a lion—rose on its hind legs instantly, and the whip came down again.
“Confound you! what is the matter?” exclaimed its master. “Go on, you idiot!”
The horse pricked its ears at the sound of the familiar voice, but stood stock still, quivering in every limb.
Stella saw the whip raised again, and instinctively, before she was aware of it, her womanly protest sprang from her lips.
At the sound of the eager, imploring voice, the rider kept his whip poised in the air, then let his arm fall, and dragging rather than guiding the horse, forced it near the hedge.
“Who is it? Who are you?” he demanded, angrily. “What the——”
Then he stopped suddenly, and stared speechlessly, motionless, and transfixed—horse and rider, as it were, turned to stone.
Tall and graceful, with that grace which belongs to the girlhood which stands on the threshold of womanhood, with her exquisite face fixed in an expression of mingled fear and pity, and a shyness struggling with maidenly pride, she made a picture which was lovely enough to satisfy the requirements of the most critical and artistic mind—a picture which he who looked upon it carried with him till the day he died.
For a moment he sat motionless, and as he sat the moon fell full upon his face, and Stella saw the face of the portrait whose eyes she had but a few minutes since hidden from her sight.
A lifetime of emotion may pass in a minute; a life’s fate hangs upon the balance of a stroke of time. It was only for a moment that they looked into each other’s eyes in silence, but that moment meant so much to each of them! It was the horse that broke the spell by attempting to rise again. With a slight movement of the hand Leycester Wyndward forced him down, and then slid from the saddle and stood at Stella’s feet, hat in hand.
Even then he paused as if afraid, lest a word should cause the vision to vanish into thin air; but at last he opened his lips.
“I beg your pardon.”
That was all. Four words only, and words that one hears daily; words that have almost lost their import from too familiar commonplace, and yet, as he said them, they sounded so entirely, so earnestly, so intensely significant and full of meaning that all the commonplace drifted from them, and they conveyed to the listener’s ear a real and eager prayer for forgiveness; so real and earnest that to have passed them by with the conventional smile and bow would have been an insult, and impossible.
But it was not only the words and the tone, but the voice that thrilled through Stella’s soul, and seemed to wake an echoing chord. The picture which had so awed her had been dumb and voiceless; but now it seemed as if it had spoken even as it had smiled, and for a moment she felt a woman’s desire to shut out the sound, as she had shut out the smiling eyes.
It was the maidenly impulse of self-protection, against what evil she did not know or dream.
“I beg your pardon,” he said again, his voice deep and musical, his eyes raised to hers. “I am afraid I frightened you. I thought I was alone here. Will you forgive me?”
Stella looked down at him, and a faint color stole into her cheeks.
“It is I who should beg pardon; I am not frightened, but your horse was—and by me?”
He half glanced at the horse standing quiet enough now, with its bridle over his arm.
“He is an idiot!” he said, quickly; “an obstinate idiot, and incapable of fear. It was mere pretense.”
“For which you punished him,” said Stella, with a quick smile.
He looked up at her, and slowly there came into his eyes and his lips that smile of which Mr. Etheridge had spoken, and which Stella had foreseen.
“You are afraid I am going to whip him again?”
“Yes,” she said, with simple directness.
He looked at her with a curious smile.
“You are right,” he said; “I was. There are times when he requires a little correction; to-night is one of them. We have not seen each other for some little time, and he has forgotten who is master. But I shall not forget your ‘No,’ and will spare the whip; are you satisfied?”
It was a strange speech, closing with a strangely abrupt question. It was characteristic of the speaker, who never in all his life probably had known for a moment what nervousness or embarrassment meant. Judging by his tone, the easy flow of the musical voice, the frank, open manner, one would have imagined that this meeting with a strange and beautiful girl was the most matter-of-fact affair.
“Are you satisfied?” he repeated, as Stella remained silent, trying to fight against the charm of his simple and direct manner. “If not, perhaps that will do it?” and taking the whip, a strong hunter’s crop, in both his white hands, he broke it in two as easily as if it were a reed, and flung it over his shoulder.
Stella flushed, but she laughed, and her dark eyes beamed down upon him with serious archness.
“Does not that look as if you were afraid you should not keep your promise?”
He smiled up at her.
“It does,” he said—”you are right; I may have been tempted beyond my strength. He is a bad-tempered beast, and I am another. Why do you laugh——?”
He broke off, his voice changing as subtly as some musical instrument.
Stella hesitated a moment.
“I beg you will tell me—I shall not be offended.”
She laughed, and clung with one hand to the lilac, looking down on him.
“I was thinking how fortunate it was that he could not whip you. It is not fair, as you are both so bad-tempered, that one only should get punished.”
He did not laugh, as another man would have done; but there came into the dark eyes a flash of surprised amusement, such as might have shone in those of the giant Gulliver when some Liliputian struck him with a pin-sized stick; and his lips parted with a smile.
“It was a natural reflection,” he said, after a pause. “Will you let me help you down?”
Stella shook her head. Somehow she felt safe up there above him, where but the dark eyes could reach her.
“Thank you, no; I am gathering some lilac. Do not trouble.”
And she turned slightly from him, and stretched up her hand for a branch above her head. The next moment he sprang up the bank lightly, and stood beside her.
“Permit me,” he said. And with one sweep he drew the fragrant branch within her reach.
“And now will you come down?” he asked, as if she were some willful child. Stella smiled, and he held out his hand. She put hers into it, and his fingers closed over it with a grasp firm as steel, but as smooth as a woman’s. As the warm fingers closed over hers, which were cold with her long grasp of the branch above her head, a thrill ran through her and caused her to shudder slightly.
“You are cold,” he said, instantly. “The Spring evenings are treacherous. Have you far to go?”
“I am not cold, thanks,” she said, with quick alarm, for there was a look in his eyes and a movement of his hand which seemed to give warning that he was about to take his coat off.
“I am not at all cold!”
“Have you far to go?” he repeated, with the air, gentle as it was, of a man who was accustomed to have his questions answered.
“Not far; to the little white gate there,” she answered.
“The little white gate—to Etheridge’s, the artist’s?” he said gently, with a tone of surprise.
Stella bent her head; his eyes scanned her face.
“You live there—are staying there?”
“I never saw you in Wyndward before.”
“No, I was never here till to-night.”
“Till to-night?” he echoed. “I knew that I had not seen you before.”
There was something in the tone, wholly unlike commonplace flattery, that brought the color to Stella’s face.
They had reached the gate by this time, he walking by her side, the bridle thrown over his arm, the great horse pacing quiet and lamb-like, and Stella stopped.
“Good-night,” she said.
He stopped short and looked at her, his head thrown back, as she had seen it as he rode toward her, his eyes fixed intently on her face, and seeming to sink through her downcast eyes into her soul.
“Good-night,” he replied. “Wait.”
It was a word of command, for all its musical gentleness, and Stella, woman-like, stopped.
“I am going away,” he said, not abruptly, but with calm directness. “If you have only come to-night I shall not be able to learn your name; before I go, will you tell it me?”
“Why not?” he said, as she hesitated.
“My name is Stella Etheridge, I am Mr. Etheridge’s niece.”
“Stella!” he repeated. “Stella! Thank you. I shall not forget. My name,” and he raised his hat with a simple gesture of proud humility, “is Wyndward—Leycester Wyndward.”
“I know it,” said Stella, and the next moment she could have called the impulsive words back again.
“You know it!” he said; “and came here only to-night! How is that?”
Stella’s brows contracted, dark and full they met across her brow in true southern fashion, and lent a significant eloquence to her face; she would have given much to avoid answering.
“How is that?” he asked, his eyes fixed on hers.
“It is very simple,” she said, as if vexed at her hesitation. “I saw your portrait and—knew you.”
He smiled a curious smile.
“Knew me before we met! I wonder——” he paused and his eyes seemed to read her thoughts. “I wonder whether you were prejudiced by what you saw by that forshadowing of me? Is that a fair question?”
“It is a strange one,” said Stella.
“Is it? I will not press it. Good-night!” and he raised his hat.
“Good-night, and good-bye,” she said, and impulsively again she held out her hand.
His eyes showed no surprise, whatever he may have felt, as he took her hand and held it.
“No,” he said, as he let her draw it away. “Not good-bye. I have changed my mind. I shall not go. It is only good-night,” and with a smile flashing out of his eyes, he leapt upon his horse and was gone.
“Poor girl!” murmured Stella. There was silence for a moment. “And those three live there all alone?” she said.