The countess watched him from her table, and, looking up at the earl, murmured:
“Leycester is in one of his restless moods to-night.”
“Yes,” he said, with a sigh. “What is it?—do you know?”
“No,” she said, calmly. “He was all right at dinner.”
“Why can he not behave like other people?” said the earl, sadly. “Can you fancy any other man leaving his father’s guests and riding about the country?”
“Leycester never was like any other,” she said, not without a touch of pride. “He is as he is, and nothing can alter him.”
The earl was silent for a moment, his long white hands folded behind his back, his dark eyes fixed on the floor.
“Has he told you of his last escapade—his last mad freak?” he said, in a low voice.
“Yes,” she answered, calmly. “He has never concealed anything from me.”
“It is nearly twenty thousand pounds. Even Wyndward must feel such strains as this.”
The countess raised her head.
“I know,” she said; “he has told me everything. It was a point of honor. I did not quite understand; horse-racing is a pastime with which I have little sympathy, though we have always owned race-horses. It was a point of honor. Some one had been taking advantage of his name to act dishonestly, and he withdrew the horse. He could take no other course,” he says.
The earl sighed.
“No doubt. But it is mad folly, and there is no end to it—if he could see some limit! Why does he not marry?”
The countess glanced at the handsome face.
“He will not marry until he meets with some one he can love.”
The earl looked round the room at the many beautiful graceful women who adorned it, and sighed impatiently.
“He is hard to please.”
“He is,” assented the countess, with the same touch of pride.
“It is time he married and settled,” continued the earl. “For most men a year or two would not matter, but with him—I do not like to think that the title rests only on our two lives, as mine must be near its close.”
“And on his, which is risked daily.”
He stooped, silenced by the sudden look of pain in the beautiful eyes.
“Why do you not speak to him? He will do anything for you.”
The countess smiled.
“Everything but that. No, I cannot speak to him; it would be useless. I do not wish to weaken my influence.”
“Get Lilian to speak to him,” he said.
The countess sighed.
“Lilian!” she murmured; “she would not do it. She thinks him something more than human, and that no woman in the world can be good enough to—to hold his stirrup or fill his wineglass.”
The earl frowned.
“Between you,” he said, “you have spoiled him.”
The countess shook her head gently.
“No, we have not. He is now as a man what he was as a boy. Do you remember what Nelson said, when Hardy asked him why he did nothing while one of their ships was fighting two of the enemy’s? ‘I am doing all I can—watching.'”
Before the earl could reply, a cabinet minister came up and engaged him in conversation, and the countess rose and crossed the room to where an elderly lady sat with a portfolio of engravings before her. It was the Dowager Countess of Longford, a tiny little woman with a thin wrinkled face, and keen but kindly gray eyes that lit up her white face and made it remarkable.
She was dressed as simply as a quakeress, excepting for some old and priceless lace which softened the rigor of her plainly made gray satin dress. She looked up as the younger countess approached, and made room for her on the sofa.
Lady Wyndward sat down in silence, which was unbroken for a minute. Then the old countess said without looking at her—
“The boy grows handsomer every day, Ethel!”
Lady Wyndward sighed.
“What is the matter?” asked the other, with a keen smile. “What has he been doing now, burning a church or running off with a Lord Mayor’s daughter?”
“He has not been doing anything very much,” answered Lady Wyndward. “Except losing some money.”
The old countess raised her eyebrows lightly.
“That does not matter.”
“Not much. No, he has not been doing anything; I wish he would. That’s what is the matter.”
“I understand,” retorted the other. “He is most dangerous when quiet; you are always afraid he is preparing for some piece of madness beyond the ordinary. Well, my dear, if you will give the world such a creature you must put up with the consequences—be prepared to pay the penalty. I should be quite content to do so.”
“Ah, you don’t know,” said the countess, with a smile that had something pathetic in it.
“Yes, I do,” retorted the old lady, curtly. “And I envy you still. I love the boy, Ethel. There is not a woman of us in the room, from the youngest to the oldest, who does not love him. You cannot expect one whom the gods have so favored to behave like an ordinary mortal.”
“Why not? It is just what Algernon has said to me.”
“I thought as much. I was watching you two. Of all things, beware of this: don’t let Algernon interfere with him. It is a strange thing to say, but his father is the worst man in all the world to attempt to put the bridle on Leycester. It is we women who alone have the power to guide him.”
“That is where my fear lies,” said the countess. “It is the thought of what may happen in that quarter which fills me with daily dread.”
“There is only one safeguard—marry him,” remarked the old countess, but with a comical smile.
The countess sighed.
“Again, that is what Algernon says. You both say it as calmly as if you told me to give him a cup of tea.”
The old countess was silent for a moment, then she said—
“Where is Lenore Beauchamp?”
Lady Wyndward was almost guilty of a start.
“You read my thoughts,” she said.
The old lady nodded.
“She is the only woman who can really touch him. Ask her here; let them be together. She will be glad to come.”
“I am not sure, Lenore is proud; she might guess why we wanted her.”
The old lady drew up her head as haughtily as if she was Leycester’s mother.
“And then? Is there any girl among them who would not jump at the chance? I don’t mean because he is the heir to Wyndward; he is enough in himself without that.”
“It is well you are not his mother; you would have made him what he is not now—vain.”
The old lady sighed.
“I know it. But you are wrong about Lenore. If she ever cared for anyone, it is Leycester. She is proud, but love levels pride, and she may put forth her power. If she should, not even Leycester can withstand her. Ask her down, and leave the rest to her—and Providence.”
The countess sat for a moment in silence, then she put her hand upon the thin, wrinkled hand, unadorned by a single gem.
“I have always you to come to. I think you understand him better than his own mother.”
“No,” said the old lady, “but I love him nearly as well.”
“I will write at once,” said the countess. And she rose and crossed to the ante-room.
There was a writing-table amongst the furniture; the servants saw her go to it, and noiselessly left the room.
She took up the pen and thought a moment, then wrote:
“My Dear Lenore,—Will you come down and spend a week with us? We have a few friends with us, but we are not complete without you. Do not say ‘No,’ but come. I do not name any day, so that you may be free to fix your own.”
“P.S.—Leycester is with us.”
As she wrote the signature she heard a step behind her, which she knew was Leycester’s.
He stopped short as he saw her, and coming up to her, put his hand on her white shoulder.
“Writing, mother?” he said.
The countess folded her letter.
“Yes. Where are you going?”
He pointed to the Louis Quatorze clock that ticked solemnly on a bracket.
“Ten o’clock, mother,” he said, with a smile.
“Oh, yes; I see,” she assented.
He stood for a moment looking down at her with all a young man’s filial pride in a mother’s beauty, and, bending down, touched her cheek with his lips, then passed out.
The countess looked after him with softened eyes.
“Who could help loving him?” she murmured.
Humming an air from the last opera bouffe, he ran lightly up the staircase and passed along the corridor, but as he reached the further end and knocked at a door, the light air died upon his lips.
A low voice murmured, “Come in;” and opening the door gently, he entered.
The room was a small one, and luxuriously furnished in a rather strange style. On the first entrance, a stranger would have been struck by the soft and delicate tints which pervaded throughout. There was not a brilliant color in the apartment; the carpet and hangings, the furniture, the pictures themselves were all of a reposeful tint, which could not tire the eye or weary the sense. The carpet was a thick Persian rug, which deadened the sound of footsteps, costly hangings of a cool and restful gray covered the walls, save at intervals; the fire itself was screened by a semi-transparent screen, and the only light in the room came from a lamp which was suspended by a silver chain from the ceiling, and was covered by a thick shade.
On a couch placed by the window reclined a young girl. As Leycester entered, she half rose and turned a pale, but beautiful face toward him with an expectant smile.
Beautiful is a word that is easily written, and written so often that its significance has got dulled: it fails to convey any idea of the ethereal loveliness of Lilian Wyndward. Had Mr. Etheridge painted a face with Leycester’s eyes, and given it the delicately-cut lips and spiritual expression of one of Raphael’s angels, it would have been a fair representation of Lilian Wyndward.
“It is you Leycester,” she said. “I knew you would come,” and she pointed to a small traveling clock that stood on a table near her.
He went up to her and kissed her, and she put her arms round his neck and laid her face against his, her eyes looking into his with rapt devotion.
“How hot you are, dear. Is it hot down there?”
“Awfully,” he said, seating himself beside her, and thrusting his hands into his pockets. “There is not a breath of air moving, and if there were the governor would take care to shut it out. This room is deliriously cool, Lil; it is a treat to come into it.”
“Is it?” she said, with a glad eagerness. “You really think it is. I like to hear you say that.”
“Yes, it’s the prettiest room in the house. What is it smells so sweet?”
“Lilac,” she said, and she pointed to a bunch on the table.
He started slightly, and, stretching out his hand, took a spray out of the epergne.
“I thought it was lilac,” he said, quietly. “I noticed it when I came in.”
She took the spray from him and fastened it in his coat, against which her hands looked white as the driven snow.
“You shall take it to your own room, Ley,” she said. “You shall take them all.”
“Not for worlds, Lil,” he said. “This will do.”
“And what are they doing?” she asked.
“The usual thing,” he replied; “playing, singing, rubber at whist, and boring each other to death generally.”
“And what have you been doing?”
“Assisting in the latter amusement,” he answered, lightly.
“They told me you had gone out,” she said.
“Yes, I took the chestnut for a spin.”
She laughed, a soft, hushed laugh.
“And left them the first night! That was like you, Ley!”
“What was the use of staying? It was wrong, I suppose. I am unfortunate! Yes, I went for a ride.”
“It was a lovely evening. I watched the sunset,” and she looked at the window. “If I had known you were going, I would have looked for you. I like to see you riding that big chestnut. You went across the meadows?”
“Yes,” he said, “across the meadows.”
He was silent for a minute, then he said, suddenly, “Lil, I have seen a vision to-night.”
“A vision, Ley!” she repeated, looking up at him eagerly.
“A vision. The most beautiful girl I have ever seen, excepting you, Lil!”
She made no protest, but smiled.
“Ley! A girl! What was she like?”
“I can’t tell you,” he said. “I came upon her in a moment. The chestnut saw her first, and was human enough to be struck motionless. I was struck too!”
“And you can’t tell me what she was like?”
“No; if I were to describe her with usual phrases you would smile. You women always do. You can’t help being a woman, Lil!”
“Was she dark or fair?”
“Dark,” he replied. “I did not know it at the time; it was impossible to think whether she was dark or fair while one looked at her, but I remembered afterward. Lil, you remember that picture I sent you from Paris—the picture of the girl with the dark eyes and long, silky hair—not black, but brown in the sunlight, with long lashes shading the eyes, and the lips curved in a half-serious smile as she looks down at the dog fawning at her feet?”
“I remember, Ley. Was she like that?”
“Yes; only alive. Fancy the girl in the picture alive. Fancy yourself the dog she was smiling at! I was the dog!”
“And she spoke as well as smiled. You can imagine the voice that girl in the picture would have. Soft and musical, but clear as a bell and full of a subtle kind of witchery, half serious, half mockery. It was the voice of the girl I met in the lane this evening.”
“Ley! Ley, you have come to make poetry to me to-night. I am very grateful.”
“Poetry! It is truth. But you are right; such a face, such a voice would make a poet of the hardest man that lives.”
“And you are not hard, Ley! But the girl! Who is she? What is her name?”
“Her name”—he hesitated a moment, and his voice unconsciously grew wonderfully musical—”is Stella—Stella.”
“Stella!” she repeated. “It is a beautiful name.”
“Is it not? Stella!”
“And she is—who?”
“The niece of old Etheridge, the artist, at the cottage.”
Lilian’s eyes opened wide.
“Really, Ley, I must see her!”
His face flushed, and he looked at her.
She caught the eager look, and her own paled suddenly.
“No,” she said, gravely. “I will not see her. Ley—you will forget her by to-morrow.”
“You will forget her by to-morrow. Ley, let me look at you!”
He turned his face to her, and she looked straight into his eyes, then she put her arm round his neck.
“Oh, Ley! has it come at last?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, not angrily, but with a touch of grimness, as if he were afraid of the answer.
“Ley,” she said, “you must not see her again. Ley, you will go to-morrow, will you not?”
“Why?” he asked. “It is not like you to send me away, Lil.”
“No, but I do. I who look forward to seeing you as the sweetest thing in my life—I who would rather have you near me than be—other than I am—I who lie and wait and listen for your footsteps—I send you, Ley. Think! You must go, Ley. Go at once, for your own sake and for hers.”
He rose, and smiled down at her.
“For my sake, perhaps, but not for hers. You foolish girl, do you think all your sex is as partial as you are? You did not see her as I saw her to-night—did not hear her ready wit at my expense. For her sake! You make me smile, Lil.”
“I cannot smile, Ley. You will not stay! What good can come of it? I know you so well. You will not be content until you have seen your Venus again, and then—ah, Ley, what can she do but love you, and love you but to lose you? Ley, all that has gone before has made me smile, because with them I knew you were heart-whole; I could look into your eyes and see the light of laughter in their depths; but not this time, Ley—not this time. You must go. Promise me!”
His face went pale under her gaze, and the defiant look, which so rarely shone out in her presence, came into his eyes, and about his lips.
“I cannot promise, Lil,” he said.