Stella heard a step on the threshold of the window

Stella heard a step on the threshold of the window, and turning to follow the direction of his eyes, saw the stalwart form of Lord Leycester standing in the window.
He was dressed in a suit of brown velveteen, with tight-fitting breeches and stockings, and carried a whip in his hand with which he barred the entrance against a couple of colleys, a huge mastiff, and a Skye terrier, the last barking with furious indignation at being kept outside.
Even at the moment of surprise, Stella was conscious of a sudden reluctant thrill of admiration for the graceful figure in the close-fitting velvet, and the handsome face with its dark eyes regarding her with a grave, respectful intenseness.
“Back dogs!” he said. “Go back, Vix!” then as they drew back, the big ones throwing themselves down on the path with patient obedience, he came into the room.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, standing before Stella, his head bent. “I thought Mr. Etheridge was alone, or I should not have entered in this rough fashion.”
As he spoke in the lane, so now it was no meaningless excuse, but with a tone of most reverential respect and proud humility, Stella, girl-like, noticed that he did not even venture to hold out his hand, and certainly Mr. Adelstone’s self-satisfied smile and assured manner rose in her mind to contrast with this stately, high-bred humility.
“Do not apologize; it does not matter,” she said, conscious that her face had grown crimson and that her eyes were downcast.
“Does it not? I am forgiven,” and he held out his hand.
Stella had crossed her hands behind her as he entered with an instinctive desire to hide her bare arms and the flour, now she put out her hand a few inches and held it up with a smile.
“I can’t,” she said.
He looked at the white hand—at the white arm so beautifully molded that a sculptor would have sighed over it in despair at his inability to imitate it, and he still held out his hand.
“I do not mind the flour,” he said, not as Mr. Adelstone would have said it, but simply, naturally.
Stella gave him one small taper finger and he took it and held it for a moment, his eyes smiling into hers; then he relinquished it, with not a word of commonplace compliment, but in silence, and turned to Mr. Etheridge.
“It is quite hopeless to ask you to forgive me for interrupting you I know, so I won’t ask,” he said, and there was in his voice, Stella noticed, a frank candor that was almost boyish but full of respect. At once it seemed to intimate that he had known and honored the old man since he, Leycester, was a boy.
[40]
“How are you, my lord?” said Mr. Etheridge, giving him his long, thin hand, but still keeping a hold, as it were, on his beloved easel. “Taking the dogs for a walk? Are they safe? Take care, Stella!”
19For Stella was kneeling down in the midst of them, making friends with the huge mastiff, much to the jealous disgust of the others, who were literally crowding and pushing round her.
Lord Leycester looked round and was silent for a moment; his eyes fixed on the kneeling girl rather than on the dogs. Then he said, suddenly:
“They are quite safe,” and then he added, for Stella’s behalf, “they are quite safe, Miss Etheridge.”
Stella turned her face toward him.
“I am not afraid. I should as soon think of biting them as they would dream of biting me, wouldn’t you?” and she drew the mastiffs great head on to her lap, where it lay with his big eyes looking up at her piteously, as he licked her hand.
“Great Heavens, what a herd of them!” said Mr. Etheridge, who loved dogs—on canvas.
“I ought not to have brought them,” said Lord Leycester, “but they will be quite quiet, and will do no harm, I assure you.”
“I don’t care if they don’t bite my niece,” said Mr. Etheridge.
“There is no fear of that,” he said, quietly, “or I should not allow her to go near them. Please go on with your work, or I shall think I am a nuisance.”
Mr. Etheridge waved him to a chair.
“Won’t you sit down?” he said.
Lord Leycester shook his head.
“I have come to ask you a favor,” he said.
Mr. Etheridge nodded.
“What is it?”
Lord Leycester laughed his rare laugh.
“I am trembling in my shoes,” he said. “My tongue cleaves to my mouth with nervousness——”
The old painter glanced round at him, and his face relaxed into a smile as his eyes rested on the bold, handsome face and easy grace of the speaker.
“Yes, you look excessively frightened,” he said. “What is it?”
It was noticeable that, excepting in his first greeting, the old man had not given him the benefit of his title; he had known him when Leycester had been a boy, running in and out of the cottage, always followed by a pack of dogs, and generally doing some mischief.
“I want you to do a little scene for me.”
The old man groaned and looked at his picture firmly.
“You know the glade in the woods opening out opposite the small island. I want you to paint it.”
“I am sorry,” began the old man.
Lord Leycester went on, interrupting him gently:
“Have you seen it lately?” he said, and as he spoke Stella came into the room enticing the mastiff after her, with a handful[41] of biscuits she had taken from the cheffonier. “It is very beautiful. It is the loveliest bit on the whole river. Right up from the stream it stretches green, with the young Spring leaves, to the sky above the hill. In the open space between the trees the primroses have made a golden carpet. I saw two kingfishers sailing up it as I stood and looked this morning, and as I looked I thought how well, how delightfully you would put it on canvas. Think! The bright green, the golden foreground, the early Summer sky to crown the whole, and reflected in the river running below.”
Mr. Etheridge paused in his work and listened, and Stella, kneeling over the dog, listened too, with down-bent face, and wondered how the painter could stand so firm and obstinate.
To her the voice sounded like the sweetest music set to some poem. She saw the picture as he drew it, and in her heart the music of the words and voice found an echoing harmony.
Forgotten was the other man’s warning; vain it would have been if he had repeated it at that moment. As well associate the darkness of a Winter’s night with the bright gladness of a Summer’s morning, as think of evil in connection with that noble face and musical voice.
Mr. Etheridge paused, but he shook his head.
“Very fine, very temptingly put; you are a master of words, Leycester; but I am immovable as a rock. Indeed your eloquence is wasted; it is not an impressionable man whom you address. I, James Etheridge, am on this picture. I am lost in my work, Lord Leycester.”
“You will not do it?”
The old man smiled.
“I will not. To another man I should present an excuse, and mask my refusal. With you anything but a simple ‘no’ is of no avail.”
Lord Leycester smiled and turned away.
“I am sorry,” he said. “I meant it for a present to my sister Lilian.”
Again Stella’s eyes turned toward him. This man—infamous!
The old man put down his brush and turned upon him.
“Why didn’t you say so at first?” he said.
Lord Leycester smiled.
“I wanted to see if you would do something for me—for myself,” he said, with infinite naivete.
“You want it for Lady Lilian,” said Mr. Etheridge. “I will do it, of course.”
“I shan’t say thank you,” said Lord Leycester. “I have nothing to thank you for. She shall do that. When will you come——”
“Next week—next month——”
“Now at once,” said Lord Leycester, stretching out his hand with a peculiar gesture which struck Stella by its infinite grace.
The old man groaned.
“I thought so! I thought so! It would always be now at once with you.”
“The Spring won’t wait for you! The green of those leaves[42] is changing now, very slowly, but surely, as we speak; in a week it will be gone, and with it half—all the beauty will go too. You will come now, will you not?”
Mr. Etheridge looked round with comical dismay, then he laughed.
Lord Leycester’s laugh chimed in, and he turned to Stella with the air of a man who has conquered and needs no more words.
“You see,” said Mr. Etheridge, “that is the way I am led, like a pig to market, will I or will I not! And the sketch will take me, how long?”
“A few hours!”
“And there will be all the things to drag down——”
Lord Leicester strode to an old-fashioned cabinet.
“I will carry them, and yourself into the bargain if you like.”
Then, with his hand upon the cabinet, he stopped short and turned to Stella.
“I beg your pardon!—I am always sinning. I forgot that there was now a presiding spirit. I am so used to taking liberties with your uncle’s belongings; I know where all his paraphernalia is so well, that——”
Stella rose and smiled at them.
“Your knowledge is deeper than my uncle’s, then,” she said. “Do not beg pardon of me.”
“May I?” he said, and he opened the cabinet and took out the sketching-pad and color-box; then, with some difficulty, he disentangled a folding camp-stool from a mass of artistic litter in a corner, and then prepared to depart.
Mr. Etheridge watched these proceedings with a rueful countenance, but seeing that resistance had long passed out of his power, he said:
“Where is my hat, Stella? I must go, I suppose.”
Lord Leycester opened the door for her, and she went out, followed by all the dogs, and fetched the soft felt hat, holding it by the very tips of her fingers.
With a sigh, Mr. Etheridge dropped it on his head.
“Give me some of the things,” he said; but Lord Leycester declined.
“Not one,” he said, laughing. And Mr. Etheridge, without another word, walked out.
Lord Leycester stood looking at Stella, a wistful eagerness in his eyes.
“I have gone so far,” he said, “that I am emboldened to venture still further. Will you come too?”
Stella started, and an eager light flashed for a moment in her eyes; then she held out her hands and laughed.
“I have to make a pudding,” she said.
He looked at the white arms, and then at her, with an intensified eagerness.
“If you knew how beautiful the morning is—how grand the river looks—you would let the pudding go.”
Stella shook her head.
[43]
He inclined his head, too highly bred to persist.
“I am so sorry,” he said, simply. “I am sorry now that I have gained my way. I thought that you would have come.”
Stella stood silent, and, with something like a sigh, put down the things and held out her hand; but as he took the finger which she gave him, his face brightened, and a light came into his eyes.
“Are you still firm?”
“I would not desert the pudding for anything, my lord,” said Stella, naively.
At the “my lord,” a slight shade covered his face, but it went again instantly, as he said:
“Well, then, will you come when the inevitable pudding is made? There,” he said, eagerly, and still holding her hand he drew her to the window and pointed with his whip, “there’s the place! It is not far—just across the meadows, and through the first gate. Do you see it?”
“Yes,” said Stella, gently withdrawing her hand.
“And you will come?” he asked, his eyes fixed on hers with their intent earnestness.
At that instant the word—the odious word—”infamous” rang in her ears, and her face paled. He noticed the sudden pallor, and his eyes grew dark with earnest questioning.
“I see,” he said, quietly, “you will not come!”
What was it that moved her? With a sudden impulse she raised her eyes and looked at him steadily.
“Yes, I will come!” she said.
He inclined his head without a word, called to the dogs, and passed out.
Stella stood for a moment looking after them; then she went into the kitchen—not laughing nor singing, but with a strange gravity; a strange feeling had got possession of her.
She felt as if she was laboring under some spell. “Charmed” is an often misused word, but it is the right word to describe the sensation. Was it his face or his voice that haunted her? As she stood absently looking down at the table, simple words, short and commonplace, which he had used rang in her ears with a new meaning.
Mrs. Penfold stood and regarded her in curious astonishment. She was getting used to Stella’s quickly changing moods, but the sudden change bewildered her.
“Let me do it, Miss Stella,” she pleaded, but Stella shook her head firmly; not by one inch would she swerve from her cause for all the beautiful voice and noble face.
In rapt silence she finished her work, then she went up-stairs and put on her hat and came down. As she passed out of the house and down the path, the mastiff leaped the gate and bounded toward her, and the next moment she saw Lord Leycester seated on a stile.
He dropped down and came toward her.
“How quick you have been,” he said, “I thought a pudding was a mystery which demanded an immensity of time.”
[44]
Stella looked up at him, her dark brows drawn to a straight line.
“You waited for me?” she said.
“No,” he said, simply, “I came back. I did not like to think that you should come alone.”
Stella was silent.
“Are you angry?” he asked, in a low voice.
Stella was silent for a moment, then she looked at him frankly.
“No,” she said.
If she had but said “yes,” and turned back! But the path, all beautiful with the bright coloring of Spring stretched before her, and she had no thought of turning back, no thought or suspicion of the dark and perilous land toward which she was traveling by his side.
Already the glamour of love was falling upon her like the soft mist of a Summer evening; blindly, passively she was moving toward the fate which the gods had prepared for her.