Stella stood watching until the big chestnut had borne its master out of sight

Stella stood watching until the big chestnut had borne its master out of sight, and down the lane, across the meadow; she caught one more glimpse of them as he rode through the ford, the water dashing up a silver shower of spray as high as the horse’s head; then they vanished in the shadow of the woods which engirdled Wyndward Hall.
But she still stood, lost in a dreamy reverie that was not thought, until her uncle’s voice came floating down the garden, and with a start she ran up the path and stood breathless before him.
The old man’s placid face wore a slight look of anxiety, which faded instantly as he said:
“Where have you been, Stella? I thought you had changed your mind, and flown back to Italy again. Mrs. Penfold is searching the meadows wildly.”
Stella laughed, as she put her arm round his neck.
“You will not get rid of me so easily, uncle. No, I have only been down the pretty lane at the end of the garden. See, here are some flowers; are they not sweet? You shall have them for your table, and they shall stand within sight while you are at work.” And she filled a vase with water, and arranged them. “But the flowers are not all the fruits of my wandering, uncle,” she went on; “I have had an adventure.”
He was strolling up and down with his pipe in his mouth, his hands folded behind him.
“An adventure!”
“Yes,” she nodded. “I have met—can you guess whom?”
He smiled.
“Mr. Fielding, the clergyman? It is his usual evening stroll.”
“No.”
“Perhaps an old lady in a lace shawl, with a fat pug by her[18] side. If so, you have made an acquaintance with the great Mrs. Hamilton, the doctor’s wife.”
“No, it was not anybody’s wife, uncle—it was a man. You shan’t guess any more; but what do you say to Lord Leycester?”
“Lord Leycester!” said Mr. Etheridge. “I did not even know he was at home. Lord Leycester! And does my picture do him justice?” he asked, turning to her with a smile.
She bent over the flowers, ashamed of the meaningless blush which rose to her face.
“Yes, uncle, it is like him; but I could not see very distinctly you know. It was moonlight. He was riding a great, huge chestnut horse.”
“I know,” he murmured, “and tearing along like a lost spirit. He flashed past like a meteor, I expect. No, you could not see him, and cannot judge of my portrait.”
“But he didn’t flash past. He would have done, no doubt, but the chestnut declined. I think it was frightened by me, for I was standing on the bank.”
“And he stopped?” asked Mr. Etheridge. “It was a wonder; such a little thing even as the shying of his horse was sufficient to rouse the devil in him! He stopped!”
“Because he was obliged,” said Stella, in a low voice, a deep blush of maidenly shame rising to her face, as she remembers that it was she who had really stopped him.
“And was he very furious?”
“No; the proverbial lamb could not have been more quiet,” said Stella, with a musical laugh.
Mr. Etheridge laughed.
“He must have been in a good humor. It was strange his being out to-night. The Hall is full of people from town; but it would not matter to him if he wanted to ride, though the prince himself were there; he would go. And my picture?”
“Did him justice, uncle. Yes, he is very handsome; he wore a loose velvet coat to-night of a dark purple; I did not know gentlemen wore such colors now.”
“A smoking coat,” he explained. “I think I can see him. No doubt he had obeyed the impulse of the moment—had jumped up and left them there at the Hall—saddled his own horse and tore away across the river. Well, you have probably seen the last of him for some time, Stella. He rarely stays at the Hall more than a day or two. Town has too great a charm for him.”
Stella’s lips opened, and she was about to reply that he had suddenly resolved to stay, but something stopped the words on her lips.
Presently there was a knock at the door, and Mrs. Penfold came in with the candles.
“You have given me quite a turn, Miss Stella,” she said, with a smile of reproach; “I thought you were lost. Your room is quite ready now, miss.”
Stella went up to the old man and kissed him.
“Good-night, uncle,” she murmured.
“Good-night, my child,” he said, his eyes dwelling on her tenderly, but with something of the bewildered look clouding them;[19] “Good-night, and happy dreams for this, your first night at home.”
“At home!” murmured Stella; “at home! You are very good to me, uncle,” and she kissed him again.
Mrs. Penfold had done wonders in so short a time permitted her, and Stella found herself standing alone in a tiny room, modestly but comfortably—oh, so comfortably!—furnished, with its white bed and its old-fashioned dimity curtains framing the lattice window. As her gaze wandered round the room, her glorious eyes grew moist. It was all so sudden, so sweet a contrast to the gaunt, bare room, which, for a weary year she had shared with a score of girls as miserable as herself; so sudden that she could scarcely believe it was real.
But youth is ever ready to accept the surprises of life, and she fell asleep—fell asleep to dream that she was back in the wretched school in Italy, and chained to a stone wall from which all her efforts to free herself were unavailing, but presently she thought that a tall, stalwart figure came riding down on a big chestnut horse, and that with one sweep of his strong hand he broke her chains asunder, and, lifting her into his saddle, bore her away. Then the scene changed; she seemed to be following her rescuer who, with his handsome face turned over his shoulder, drew her on continually with a strange fascinating smile. All through her dreams the smiling eyes haunted her, and once she stretched out her hands to keep it from her, but even in the action the gesture of repulse turned in a strange, subtle manner to one of entreaty and welcome, and she drew the smile, as it were, to her bosom, and folded her hands over it. A girlish fancy, perhaps, but such fancies influence a life for good or ill, for joy or misery.
35Lord Leycester Wyndward, of whose smile Stella was dreaming, had ridden up the hills, the great chestnut scarcely breaking his pace, but breathing hard and defiantly from its wide, red nostrils—had ridden up the hills and through the woods, and reached the open plateau lying round the Hall.
A noble park occupied the plateau—a park of chestnuts and oaks, which were the pride of the county. Through the park wound the road, gleaming white in the moonlight, to the front gates of Wyndward. The lodge-keeper heard the beat of the chestnut’s feet, for which he had been listening intently, and threw open the gates, and Lord Leycester entered the grounds. They were vast in extent and exquisitely laid out, the road winding between a noble avenue of trees that arched overhead. The present earl’s grandfather had gone in for arboriculture, and the way was lined for fifty feet back with rare shrubs and conifers.
So serpentine was the road that the great gray mansion broke upon the gaze suddenly, mentally startling him who approached it for the first time.
To Lord Leycester it was a familiar sight, but familiar as it was he glanced up at it with what was almost a nod of approval. Like most men of his nature, he possessed a passionate love and appreciation for the beautiful, and there was to-night a strange, indefinable fire in his hot blood which made him more than usually susceptible to the influence of the scene. A sweeping[20] curve of the road led to the terrace which stretched along the whole front of the house, and by which the principal entrance was gained.
Lord Leycester struck off to the right, and entered a modern courtyard, three sides of which were occupied by the admirable stables. A couple of grooms had been listening as intently as the lodge-keeper, and as he entered the yard they hurried forward silently and took the chestnut. Lord Leycester dropped to the ground, patted the horse, which made a playfully-affectionate snap at his arm, and, ascending a flight of steps, entered the lower end of the long hall, which stretched through the building.
The hall was softly but sufficiently lighted by shaded lamps, supported by huge figures in bronze, which diffused a charming glow upon the innumerable pictures upon the panels of dark oak. From the vaulted roof hung tattered flags, most of them borne by the earlier Wyndwards, some of them bestowed by the graceful hands of dead and gone princes; the somewhat gloomy aspect of the place was lightened by the gleaming armor of the knightly effigies which stood at regular intervals upon the tesselated floor, and by the deep crimson of the curtains which screened the heavy doors and tall windows. The whole scene, the very atmosphere, as it seemed, was characteristic of an ancient and powerful race. Notwithstanding that the house was full of guests, and that a brilliant party was at that moment in the drawing-room, not a sound penetrated the vast hall. The two or three servants who were standing by the doors or sitting on the benches, talking in hushed voices, were silent the moment he entered, and one came forward to receive any commands.
Notwithstanding the brusqueness which is the salient characteristic of our present life, the old world state and formality still existed at Wyndward. Be as exacting and capricious as you might, you had no fear of meeting with inattention or disrespect from the army of servants, whose one aim and purpose in life seemed to be to minister to the wants and moods of their superiors.
It was a princely house, conducted in stately fashion, without regard to cost or trouble, and the servants, from the pages to the countess’s own maid, were as proud of their position, in its degree, as the Lord of Wyndward of his.
“Send Oliver to me,” said Lord Wyndward, as he passed the man. “I am going to my room.”
He went up the stairs, and passing along the principal corridor, entered a room fronting the park. It was one of a suite which consisted of a sort of sitting-room, a dressing-room, and beyond a bedroom.
The sitting-room gave pretty plain indications of the owner’s tastes and dispositions.
It was a medley of objects connected with sport and art. Here a set of boxing-gloves and foils; a gun-rack, well stocked; fishing-rods and whips hung over the antique fireplace with the wide open hearth and dog-irons. On one side of the room hung a collection of etchings, unique and priceless; on another half[21] a dozen gems in oil, while against the third stood a piano, and an easel upon which rested a canvas displaying a half-finished Venus rising from her cradle of sea foam; for upon this, the only son of the house, the partial gods had bestowed many gifts; any one of which, had he been a poor man, would have made the world regard him as one of its masters. But as it was, he painted and played for amusement only, and there were only a few of his friends, and only those who were most intimate, who suspected that the wild, reckless Leycester could do more than ride like a centaur and shoot like a North American Indian. How were they to know, seeing that he rarely spoke of art, and never of his own passionate love of it? Had they known, it would have given them a key to much in his character which puzzled and bewildered them; they would have been nearer understanding how it was that in one man could be combined the soft tenderness of a southern nature with the resolute, defiant recklessness of the northern.
He entered the room and went to the fireplace in which a log was burning brightly, to guard against the too frequent treachery of an early summer evening, and flinging his hat on to a chair, passed his hand through his hair with a thoughtful yet restless smile.
“Stella!” he murmured. “Stella! That was wrong. A star should be fair and golden, all light and sunshine, while she—great Heaven! what eyes! It was surely the sweetest, loveliest face that a man ever looked upon. No wonder that coming upon it so suddenly—with my thoughts a hundred miles away, coming upon it suddenly as it shone up above me—that I should think it only a vision! If that face as I saw it could smile out from the Academy next Spring, what crowds of fools would gather round to gape and stare at it? If—yes, but who could do it? No one! No one! As well try and catch the sunlight on a brush and paint it on the canvas—as well try——” he broke off suddenly, his eye caught by the Venus Aphrodite smiling from the easel, and going across to it, stood and contemplated it.
“Venus with a pale pink face and meaningless blue eyes, with insipid yellow hair and simpering smile! Never more will Venus take that semblance for me. No, she will be as I saw her to-night, with dark silken hair, and sweeping lashes shading the dark brown eyes, in which one sees the soul peering from their depths. That is Venus, not this,” and with a smile of derision he took up a brush and drew a dark, broad effacing line across the fair face.
“So departs forever all my former dreams of womanly loveliness. Loveliness! I have never seen it until to-night. Stella! A star! Yes, she is rightly named, after all. She shone down on me like a star, and I—great Heaven!—was like one bewitched! While she—she made a laughing-stock of me. Compared me with the nag, and treated me like a school-boy too big to be whipped but not too large to be laughed at.
“By Jove it is not a thing to be proud of; called to task by a girl—a little slip of a girl not yet a woman! and yet I would not[22] have missed that laugh and the light scorn of those dark eyes, though they lighted up at my expense. Stella——”
There was a knock at the door, and his valet, Oliver, entered.
Lord Leycester stared at him a moment abstractedly, then roused himself from his reverie.
“What is it, Oliver?”
“You sent for me, my lord.”
“Oh, yes! I had forgotten. I will wash and get into my other coat.”
Oliver passed noiselessly into the other room and assisted his master to change the velvet smoking-jacket for the dress coat, brushed the thick, short-cut chestnut hair into order, and opened the door.
“Where are they all?” he asked. “Are any of them in the smoking-room?”
“Yes, my lord, Lord Barton and Captain Halliday; the Marquis of Sandford and Sir William are in the billiard-room.”
Lord Leycester nodded, and went down the stairs across the hall; a servant drew a curtain aside and opened a door, and Lord Leycester entered a small ante-room, one side of which opened into a long-stretching fernery, from which came the soft trip trip of fountains, and the breath which filled the whole atmosphere with a tropical perfume.
A couple of footmen in gorgeous livery were standing beside a double curtain, and at a sign from Lord Leycester they drew it apart. Lord Leycester passed through and down a small corridor lined with statuary, at the end of which was another curtain. No passage, or door, or ante-room but was thus masked, to shut out the two things which the earl held as abominations—draught and noise.
With the opening of these curtains the large saloon was revealed like the scene on the stage of a theater. It was a magnificent room in keeping with the rest of the place, richly but not gorgeously decorated, and lighted by wax candles shining through faintly hued globes. At one end stood a grand piano in white and ormolu, and a lady was playing and singing, while others were standing round with tea-cups in their hands. Near the fireplace was a table, upon which stood a silver tea equipage, with which the countess was busied.
Lady Wyndward was still in her prime, notwithstanding that Lord Leycester was twenty-three; she had been married at eighteen, and was now in the perfection of matronly beauty; one had only to glance at her to learn from whence Leycester had got his strange beauty. Near her stood a tall, thin gentleman with proud, haughty, clean-cut face, and iron gray hair, worn rather long and brushed back from a white, lofty brow. It was the earl. His dark piercing eyes were bent upon the ground as he stood listening to the music, but he saw Leycester enter, and raised his head as a slight frown crossed his face. Lady Wyndward saw the frown and sought the cause, but her face showed no signs of surprise or displeasure. It was calm and impassive at all times, as if its owner disdained the weakness of ordinary[23] mortals. Leycester paused a moment, taking in the scene; then he crossed the room, and went up to the table.
Lady Wyndward looked up with her serene, imperial smile.
“Will you have some tea, Leycester?”
“Thanks,” he said.
She gave him his cup, and as he took it a young man left the group at the piano, and came up to him laughing.
“Where have you been, Leycester?” he asked, putting his hand on the broad shoulder. It was Lord Charles Guildford, Leycester’s most intimate friend.
Between these two existed an affection which was almost, say rather more than fraternal. They had been together at Eton, where Leycester, the great, stalwart lad, had fought the slight frail boy’s battles; they had lived in the same rooms at Oxford, had been comrades in all the wild escapades which made their term at college a notorious one, and they were inseparable. Leycester had grown from a tall lad into a stalwart man; Lord Charles—or Charlie, as he was called—had fulfilled the promise of his frail boyhood, and developed into a slight, thin, fair-haired youth, with the indolent grace which sometimes accompanies weakness, and the gentle nature of a woman.
Leycester turned to him with a smile, and the earl looked up to hear the answer; the countess busied herself with the teapot, as if she were not listening as intently.
“I went for a galop, Charlie,” said Leycester. “You fellows were half asleep in the smoking-room, and I had listened to Barton’s Indian story for the hundredth time, and it got rather slow; then I remembered that the chestnut had been eating his head off for the last five weeks, and thought I would give him a turn.”
The earl frowned and turned away; Lord Charles laughed.
“Pretty behavior!” he exclaimed; “and here were we hunting all over the place for you.”
“Why didn’t you come into the drawing-room to us, Lord Leycester?” said a beautiful girl who was sitting near; “we should not have bored you with any Indian stories.”
“But, you see, I should have bored you, Lady Constance,” he said.
The girl smiled up into his face.
“Perhaps you would,” she said. “You are more considerate than I thought.”
“I never venture into the ladies’ sanctum after dinner till the tea is announced,” he retorted. “I have an idea, shared by my sex generally, that it is not safe—that, in short, you are too ferocious.”
“And you prefer riding about the country till we quiet down. Are we quiet now, or do we look ferocious?”
And she smiled up at him from behind her fan with a plain invitation.
He sat down beside her and began to talk the infinite nothings which came to his lips so easily, the trivial small change which his musical voice and rare smile seemed to transform to true coin; but while he talked his thoughts were wandering to the[24] dark-haired girl who had shone down upon him from her green and fragrant bower in the lane, and he found himself picturing her in the little room at the cottage in the meadows, amongst the curious litter of the old artist’s studio; and gradually his answers grew disjointed and inconsequential.
He got up presently, got up abruptly, and wandered across the room stopping to exchange a word or two with one and the other, his tall, graceful figure towering above those of the other men, his handsome head thrown back musingly. Many an admiring and wistful glance followed him from among the women, and not a few would have exerted all their fascinations to keep him by their side, had they not known by experience, that when he was in his present mood he was deaf to the voice and smile of the charmer, charmed she never so wisely.