For love lay lurking in the clouds and mist,
I heard him singing sweetly on the mountain side:
“‘Tis all in vain you fly, for everywhere am I—
In every quiet valley, on every mountain side!”
In the clear, bird-like tones of Stella’s voice the musical words floated from the open window of her room above and through the open French windows of the old man’s studio.
With a little start he turned his head away from the easel and looked toward the door.
Stella had only been in the house three days, but he had already learned something of her habits, and knew that when he heard the beautiful voice singing at the window in the early morning, he might expect to see the owner of the voice enter shortly.
His expectation was not doomed to disappointment. The voice sounded on the stairs, in the hall, and a moment afterward the door opened and Stella stood looking smilingly into the room.
If he had thought her beautiful and winsome on that first evening of her coming, when she was weary with anxiety and traveling, and dressed in dust-stained clothes, be sure he thought her more beautiful still, now that the light heart felt free to reveal itself, and the shabby dress had given place to the white and simple but still graceful morning gown.
Mrs. Penfold had worked hard during those three days, and with the aid of the Dulverfield milliner had succeeded in filling a small wardrobe for “her young lady,” as she had learned to call her. The old artist, ignorant of the power of women in such direction, had watched the transformation with inward amazement and delight, and was never tired of hearing about dresses, and hats, jackets, and capes, and was rather disappointed than otherwise when he found that the grand transformation had been effected at a very small cost.
Bright and beautiful she stood, like a vision of youth and health in the doorway, her dark eyes laughingly contemplating the old man’s gentle stare of wonder,—the look which always came into his eyes when she appeared.
“Did I disturb you by my piping, uncle?” she asked as she kissed him.
“Oh no, my dear,” he answered, “I like to hear you,—I like to hear you.”
She leant against his shoulder, and looked at his work.
“How beautiful it is!” she murmured. “How quickly it grows. I heard you come down this morning, and I meant to get up, but I was so tired—lazy, wasn’t I?”
“No, no!” he said, eagerly. “I am sorry I disturbed you. I came down as quietly as I could. I knew you would be tired after your dissipation. You must tell me all about it.”
“Yes, come to breakfast and I will tell you.”
“Must I?” he said, glancing at his picture reluctantly.
He had been in the habit of eating his breakfast by installments, painting while he ate a mouthful and drank his cup of coffee, but Stella insisted upon his changing what she called a very wicked habit.
“Yes, of course! See how nice it looks,” and she drew him gently to the table and forced him into a chair.
The old man submitted with a sigh that was not altogether one of regret, and still humming she sat opposite the urn and began to fill the cups.
“And did you enjoy yourself?” he asked, gazing at her dreamily.
“Oh, very much; they were so kind. Mrs. Hamilton is the dearest old lady; and the doctor—what makes him smile so much, uncle?”
“I don’t know. I think doctors generally do.”
“Oh, very well. Well, he was very kind too, and so were the Miss Hamiltons. It was very nice indeed, and they took so much notice of me—asked me all sorts of questions. Sometimes I scarcely knew what to answer. I think they thought because I had been brought up in Italy, I ought to have spoken with a strong accent, and looked utterly different to themselves. I think they were a little disappointed, uncle.”
“Oh,” he said, “and who else was there?”
“Oh, the clergyman, Mr. Fielding—a very solemn gentleman indeed. He said he didn’t see much of you, and hoped he should see me in church.”
Mr. Etheridge rubbed his head and looked rather guilty.
“I expect that was a back-handed knock for me, Stella,” he said rather ruefully. “You see I don’t go to church often. I always mean to go, but I generally forget the time, or I wander into the fields, or up into the woods, and forget all about the church till it’s too late.”
“But that’s very wicked, abominably so,” said Stella, gravely, but with a twinkle in her dark eyes. “I must look after your morals as well as your meals, I see, uncle.”
“Yes,” he assented, meekly—”do, do.”
“Well, then there was a Mr. Adelstone, a young gentleman from London. He was quite the lion of the evening. I think he was a nephew of Mr. Fielding’s.”
The old man nodded.
“Yes; and did you like him?”
Stella thought a moment, holding the cream-jug critically over the coffee-cup.
“Not much, uncle. It was very wrong, and very bad taste, I am afraid, for they all seemed to admire him immensely, and so did he himself.”
Mr. Etheridge looked at her rather alarmed.
“I must say, Stella, you get too critical. I don’t think we are quite used to it.”
“I don’t fancy Mr. Adelstone was at all conscious of adverse criticism; he seemed quite satisfied with everybody, himself in particular. He certainly was beautifully dressed, and he had the dearest little hands and feet in the world; and his hair was parted to a hair, and as smooth as a black-and-tan terrier’s; so that he had some grounds for satisfaction.”
“What did he do to offend you, Stella?” asked the old man, rather shrewdly.
She laughed again, and a little touch of color came into her face, but she answered quite frankly:
“He paid me compliments, uncle.”
“That doesn’t offend your sex generally, Stella.”
“It offends me,” said Stella, quickly. “I—I detest them! especially when the man who pays them does it with a self-satisfied smile which shows that he is thinking more of his own eloquence and gallantry than of the person he is flattering.”
The old man looked at her.
“Will you oblige me by telling me your age again?” he said.
“Am I too wise, uncle? Well, never mind—I’ll promise to be good and stupid, if you like. But you are not eating any breakfast; and you must not keep looking at that odious easel all the time, as if you were longing to get back to it. Did you ever see a jealous woman?”
“Well, if you don’t want to, you must not confine all your attention to your work.”
“I don’t think there is much fear of that when you are near,” he said, meekly.
She laughed, and jumped up to kiss him with delight.
“Now that was a splendid compliment, sir! You are improving rapidly—Mr. Adelstone himself couldn’t have done it more neatly.”
Scarcely had the words left her lips than the door opened.
“Mr. Adelstone,” said Mrs. Penfold.
A young man, tall and dark, and faultlessly dressed, stood in the doorway, his hat in one hand, a bouquet of flowers in the other. He was undeniably good-looking, and as he stood with a smile upon his face, looked at his best. A severe critic might have found fault with his eyes, and said that they were a little too small and a little too near together, might also have added that they were rather shifty, and that there was something approaching the sinister in the curves of the thin lips; but he was undeniably good-looking, and notwithstanding his well cut clothes and spotless boots with their gray gaiters, his white hands with the choice selection of rings, there was an indication of power about him; no one could have suspected him of being a fool, or lacking the power of observation; for instance, as he stood now, smiling and waiting for a welcome, his dark eyes took in every detail of the room without appearing to leave Stella’s face.
Mr. Etheridge looked up with the usual confused air with which he always received his rare visitors, but Stella held out her hand with a smile calm and self-possessed. There is a great deal of the woman even about a girl of nineteen.
“Good-morning, Mr. Adelstone,” she said. “You have come just in time for a cup of coffee.”
“I ought to apologize for intruding at such an unseasonable hour,” he said, as he bent over her hand, “but your good housekeeper would not hear of my going without paying my respects. I am afraid I’m intruding.”
“Not at all, not at all,” murmured the artist. “Here’s a chair,” and he rose and cleared a chair of its litter by the simple process of sweeping it on to the floor.
Mr. Adelstone sat down.
“I hope you are not tired after your mild dissipation last night?” he asked of Stella.
“Not at all. I was telling uncle how nice it was. It was my first party in England, you know.”
“Oh, you musn’t call it a party,” he said. “But I am very glad you enjoyed it.”
“What beautiful flowers,” said Stella, glancing at the bouquet.
He handed them to her.
“Will you be so kind as to accept them?” he said. “I heard you admire them in the conservatory last night and I brought them for you from the rectory green-house.”
“For me?” exclaimed Stella, open-eyed. “Oh, I didn’t know! I am so sorry you should have troubled. It was very kind. You must have robbed the poor plants terribly.”
“They would be quite consoled if they could know for whom their blossoms were intended,” he said, with a low bow.
Stella looked at him with a smile, and glanced half archly at her uncle.
“That was very nice,” she said. “Poor flowers! it is a pity they can’t know! Can’t you tell them? There is a language of flowers, you know!”
Mr. Adelstone smiled. He was not accustomed to have his compliments met with such ready wit, and was nonplussed for a moment, while his eyes dropped from her face with a little shifty look.
Mr. Etheridge broke the rather embarrassing pause.
“Put them in the vase for her, Mr. Adelstone, will you, please, and come and have some breakfast. You can’t have had any.”
He waited until Stella echoed the invitation, then drew up to the table.
Stella rang for cup and saucer and plates, and poured him out some coffee; and he plunged into small talk with the greatest ease, his keen eyes watching every graceful turn of Stella’s arm, and glancing now and again at the beautiful face.
It was very good small talk, and amusing. Mr. Adelstone was one of those men who had seen everything. He talked of the London season that was just coming on, to Stella, who sat and listened, half amused, half puzzled, for London was an unknown land to her, and the string of names, noble and fashionable, which fell from his ready tongue, was entirely strange to her.
Then he talked of the coming Academy to Mr. Etheridge, and seemed to know all about the pictures that were going to be exhibited, and which ones would make a stir, and which would fail. Then he addressed himself to Stella again.
“You must pay London a visit, Miss Etheridge; there is no place like it the whole world through—not even Paris or Rome.”
“It is not very likely that I shall see London for a long time. My uncle does not often go, although it is so near, do you?”
“No, no,” he assented, “not often.”
“Perhaps you are to be congratulated,” said Mr. Adelstone. “With all its charms, I am glad to get away from it.”
“You live there?” said Stella.
“Yes,” he said, quietly, welcoming the faint look of interest in her eyes. “Yes; I live in chambers, as it is called, in one of the old law inns. I am a lawyer!”
“I know. You wear a long black gown and a wig.”
“And address a jury; and do you say ‘m’lud’ instead of ‘my lord,’ as people in novels always make barristers say?”
“I don’t know; perhaps I do,” he answered, with a smile; “but I don’t address a jury, or have an opportunity of calling a judge ‘my lud,’ or ‘my lord,’ often. Most of my work is done at my chambers. I am very glad to get down into the country for a holiday.”
“Are you going to stay long?” asked Mr. Etheridge, with polite interest.
Mr. Adelstone paused a moment, and glanced at Stella before answering.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I meant going back to-day, but—I think I have changed my mind.”
Stella was only half listening, but the words caused her to start. They were the same as those which Lord Leycester had uttered three nights ago.
Mr. Adelstone’s keen eyes saw the start, and he made a mental note of it.
“Ah! it is beautiful weather,” said Mr. Etheridge. “It would be a pity to leave Wyndward for London now.”
“Yes: I shall be more than ever sorry to go now,” said Mr. Adelstone, and his glance rested for a moment on Stella’s face, but it was quite lost, for Stella’s eyes were fixed on the scene beyond the window dreamily.
With almost a start she turned to him.
“Let me give you some more coffee!”
“No, thanks,” he said; then, as Stella rose and rang the bell, he walked to the easel. “That will be a beautiful picture, Mr. Etheridge,” he said, viewing it with a critical air.
“I don’t know,” said the artist, simply.
“You will exhibit it?”
“I never exhibit anything,” was the quiet reply.
“No! I am surprised!” exclaimed the young man, but there was something in the quiet manner of the old man that stopped any further questions.
“No,” said Mr. Etheridge; “why should I? I have”—and he smiled—”no ambition. Besides I am an old man, I have had my chance; let the young ones take theirs, I leave them room. You are fond of art?”
“Very,” said Mr. Adelstone. “May I look round?”
The old man waved his hand, and took up his brush.
Jasper Adelstone wandered round the room, taking up the canvases and examining them; Stella stood at the window humming softly.
Suddenly she heard him utter an involuntary exclamation, and turning round saw that he had the portrait of Lord Leycester in his hand.
His face was turned toward her, and as she turned quickly, he was in time to catch a sinister frown of dislike, which rested for a moment on his face, but vanished as he raised his eyes and met hers.
“Lord Leycester,” he said, with a smile and an uprising of the eyebrows. “A remarkable instance of an artist’s power.”
“What do you mean?” asked Stella, quietly, but with lowered eyes.
“I mean that it is a fair example of ideality. Mr. Etheridge has painted a likeness of Lord Leycester, and added an ideal poetry of his own.”
“You mean that it is not like him?” she said.
Mr. Etheridge painted on, deaf to both of them.
“No,” he said, looking at the picture with a cold smile. “It is like him, but it—honors him. It endows him with a poetry which he does not possess.”
“You know him?” said Stella.
“Who does not?” he answered, and his thin lips curled with a smiling sneer.
A faint color came into Stella’s face, and she raised her eyes for a moment.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that Lord Leycester has made himself too famous—I was going to say infamous—”
A vivid crimson rushed to her face, and left it pale again the next instant.
“Do not,” she said, then added quickly, “I mean do not forget that he is not here to defend himself.”
He looked at her with a sinister scrutiny.
“I beg your pardon. I did not know he was a friend of yours,” he said.
She raised her eyes and looked at him steadily.
“Lord Leycester is no friend of mine,” she said, quietly.
“I am glad of it,” he responded.
Stella’s eyes darkened and deepened in a way peculiar to her, and her color came. It was true that Lord Leycester was no friend of hers, she had but seen and spoken with him by chance, and for a few moments; but who was this Mr. Adelstone that he should presume to be glad or sorry on her account?
He was quick to see that he had made a slip, and quick to recover himself.
“Pray forgive me if I have presumed too far upon our slight acquaintance, but I was only thinking at that moment that you had been so short a time in England as to be ignorant of people who are well known to us with whom they have lived, and that you would not know Lord Leycester’s real character.”
Stella inclined her head gravely. Something within her stirred her to take up arms in the absent man’s defense; the one word “infamous,” stuck and rankled in her mind.
“You said that Lord Leycester was ‘infamous,'” she said, with a grave smile. “Surely that is too strong a word.”
He thought a moment, his eyes resting on her face keenly.
“Perhaps, but I am not sure. I certainly used it as a play upon the word ‘famous,’ but I don’t think even then that I did him an injustice. A man whose name is known all over the country—whose name is familiar as a household word—must be notorious either for good or evil, for wisdom or folly. Lord Leycester is not famous for virtue or wisdom. I cannot say any more.”
Stella turned aside, a faint crimson dyeing her face, a strange thrill of pity, ay, and of impatience, at her heart. Why should he be so wicked, so mad and reckless—so notorious that even this self-satisfied young gentleman could safely moralize about him and warn her against making his acquaintance! “Oh, the pity of it—the pity of it!” as Shakespeare has it—that one with such a beautiful, god-look face, should be so bad.
There was a few moments’ silence. Jasper Adelstone still stood with the picture in his hand, but glancing at Stella’s face with covert watchfulness. For all his outward calmness, his heart was beating quickly. Stella’s was the sort of beauty to make a man’s heart beat quickly, or not at all; those who came to offer at her shrine would offer no half-measured oblations. As he watched her his heart beat wildly, and his small, bright eyes glittered. He had thought her beautiful at the party last night, where she had outshone all the other girls of the village as a star outshines a rushlight; but this morning her loveliness revealed itself in all its fresh purity, and he—Jasper Adelstone, the critical man of the world, the man whose opinion about women was looked upon by his companions in Lincoln’s-inn and the bachelors’ haunts at the West-end as worth having—felt his heart slipping from him. He put the picture down and approached her.
“You have no idea how beautiful and fresh the meadows are. Will you stroll down to the river with me?” he said, resolving to take her by surprise and capture her.
But he did not know Stella. She was only a school-girl—innocent and ignorant of the ways of men and the world; but, perhaps, because of that—because she had not learnt the usual hackneyed words of evasion—the ordinary elementary tactics of flirtation, she was not to be taken by surprise.
With a smile she turned her eyes upon him and shook her head.
“Thank you; no, that is impossible. I have all my household duties to perform, and that”—pointing to the sun with her white slim hand—”reminds me that it is time I set about them.”
He took up his hat instantly, turning to hide the frown that knitted his brow and spoiled his face, and went up to the painter to say “good-morning.”
Mr. Etheridge started and stared at him; he had quite forgotten his presence.
“Good-morning, good-morning—going? I beg your pardon. Won’t you stop and take some tea with us?”
“Mr. Adelstone would like some dinner first, uncle,” said Stella.
Then she gave him her hand.
“Good-morning,” she said, “and thank you very much for the flowers.”
He held her hand as long as he dared, then passed out.
Stella, perhaps unconsciously, gave a sigh of relief.
“Very nice young fellow, my dear,” said Mr. Etheridge, without taking his eyes from the canvas. “Very clever, too. I remember him quite a little boy, and always said he would make his way. They say that he has done so. I am not surprised. Jasper——”
“Jasper!” said Stella. “What a horrible name.”
“Eh? Horrible? I don’t know—I don’t know.”
“But I do,” said Stella, laughing. “Well, what were you going to say?”
“That Jasper Adelstone is the sort of man to insist upon having anything he sets his heart upon.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Stella, as she opened the door, “for his sake; and I hope, also for his sake, that he won’t set his mind upon the sun or the moon!” and with a laugh she ran away.
In the kitchen Mrs. Penford was awaiting her with unconcealed impatience. Upon the white scrubbed table stood the preparations for the making of pastry, an art which Stella, who had insisted upon making herself useful, had coaxed Mrs. Penfold into teaching her. At first that good woman had insisted that Stella should do nothing in the little household. She had announced with terrible gravity that such things weren’t becoming to a young lady like Miss Stella, and that she had always done for Mr. Etheridge, and she always would; but before the second day had passed Stella had won the battle. As Mrs. Penfold said, there was no resisting the girl, who mingled willfulness with bewitching firmness and persuasion, and Mrs. Penfold had given in. “You’ll cover yourself with flour, Miss Stella, and give your uncle the indigestion, miss, that you will,” she remonstrated.
“But the flour will brush off, and uncle needn’t eat pies and puddings for a little while; I’ll eat them, I don’t mind indigestion,” Stella declared, and she made a delightfully piquant little apron, which completed Mrs. Penfold’s conquest.
With a song upon her lips she burst into the kitchen and caught up the rolling pin.
“Am I not awfully late?” she exclaimed. “I was afraid you would have done it all before I came, but you wouldn’t be so mean as to take an advantage, would you?”
Mrs. Penfold grunted.
“It’s all nonsense, Miss Stella, there’s no occasion for it.”
Stella, with her hand in the flour, elevated the rolling-pin in heroic style.
“Mrs. Penfold!” she exclaimed, with the air of a princess, “the woman, be her station what it may, who cannot make a jam roley-poley or an apple tart is unworthy the name of an Englishwoman. Give me the jam; stop though, don’t you think rhubarb would be very nice for a change?”
“I wish you’d go and play the organ, Miss Stella, and leave the rhubarb alone.”
“Man cannot live on music,” retorted Stella; “his soul craves for puddings. I wonder whether uncle’s soul craves for jam or rhubarb. I think I’ll go and ask him,” and dropping the rolling-pin—which Mrs. Penfold succeeded in catching before it fell on the floor—she wiped her hand of a fifteenth part of the floor and ran into the studio.
“Uncle! I have come to lay before you the rival claims of rhubarb and strawberry jam. The one is sweet and luscious to the taste, but somewhat cloying; the other is fresh and young, but somewhat sour——”
“Good Heavens! What are you talking about?” exclaimed the bewildered painter, staring at her.
“Rhubarb or jam. Now, noble Roman, speak or die!” she exclaimed with upraised arm, her eyes dancing, her lips apart with rippling laughter.
Mr. Etheridge stared at her with all an artist’s admiration in his eyes.
“Oh! the pudding,” he said, then he suddenly stopped, and stared beyond her.