As Stella looked up at the great beauty

As Stella looked up at the great beauty, she felt for the first time that her own dress, pretty as it was, was only sateen. She had not been conscious of it before, but she felt it now in the presence of this exquisitely-dressed woman. In very truth, Lady Lenore was well-dressed; it was not only that her costumes came from Redfern’s or Worth’s, and her millinery from Louise, but Lenore had acquired the art of wearing the productions of these artistes. When looking at her, one was forcibly reminded of the Frenchman’s saying, that the world was divided into two classes—the people who were clothed and the people who wore their clothes. Lady Lenore belonged to those who wear their clothes; the beautiful dress sat upon her as if she had been made to it, instead of it to her; not a piece of lace, not a single article of jewelry, but sat in its place gracefully and artistically.
To-night she wore a dress composed of some soft and readily-draping material, neither cashmere nor satin—some one of the new materials which have come over from the far east, and of which we scarcely yet know the names. It was of the most delicate shade of grayish-blue, which was brought out and accentuated by the single camellia resting amidst the soft lace on her bosom. The arms were bare from the elbows, exquisitely, warmly white and beautifully formed; one heavy bracelet, set with huge Indian pearls, lined the wrist; there were similar huge pearls in the rings on her fingers, and in the pendant which hung by a seed-pearl necklace.
Imagine a beautiful, an almost faultlessly-beautiful face, rising from the delicate harmony of color—imagine a pair of dark eyes, now blue, now violet, as she stood in repose or smiled, and fringed, by long, silken lashes—and you may imagine the bare material outward beauty of Lenore Beauchamp, but no words can describe what really was the charm of the face—its wonderful power of expression, its eloquent mobility, which, even when the eyes and lips were in repose, drew you to watching and waiting for them to speak.
Stella, though she had scarcely heard those lips utter a word knew what her uncle meant when he said that there was a peculiar fascination about her which went beyond her mere beauty; and, as she looked, a strange feeling crossed Stella’s mind. She remembered an old story which she had heard years ago, when she was sitting on the lap of her Italian nurse—the story of the strange and beautiful Indian serpent which sits beneath the tree, and fixing its eyes upon the bird overhead, draws and charms it with its spell, until the bird drops senseless and helpless to its fate.
But even as she thought of this she was ashamed of the idea, for there is nothing serpent-like in Lenore’s beauty; only this Stella thought, that if ever those eyes and lips smiled and murmured[72] to a man “I love you,” that man must drop; resistance would be vain and useless.
All this takes long to write; it flashed across Stella’s mind in a moment, even as they looked at each other in silence; then at last Lady Lenore spoke.
“Have you been gathering primroses to-day?” she said, with a smile.
It was a strange way of beginning an acquaintance, and Stella felt the color mount to her face; the words recalled the whole of the scene of yesterday morning. The speaker intended that they should.
“No,” she said, “not to-day.”
“Miss Etheridge gathered enough yesterday for a week, did you not?” said Lord Leycester, and the voice sounded to Stella like an assistance. She half glanced at him gratefully, and met his eyes fixed on her with a strange light in them that caused hers to drop again.
“I must find this wonderful flower-land,” said Lady Lenore. “Lilian was quite eloquent about it last night.”
“We shall be happy to act as pioneers in the discovery,” he said, and Stella could not help noticing the “we.” Did he mean she and he?
At that moment Lady Wyndward came toward them, and murmured something to him, and he left them and offered his arm to a lady at the other end of the room; then Lady Wyndward waved her fan slightly and smiled, and a tall, thin, fair-haired man came up.
“Lord Charles, will you take charge of Miss Etheridge?”
Lord Guildford bowed and offered his arm.
“I shall be delighted,” he said, and he smiled down at Stella in his frank way.
There was a general movement, ladies and gentlemen were pairing off and moving toward the door, beside which stood the two footmen, with the solemn air of soldiers attending an execution.
“Seven minutes late,” said Lord Charles, glancing up at the clock as they passed. “We must chalk that up to Lady Lenore. I admire and envy her courage, don’t you, Miss Etheridge? I should no more dare to be late for dinner at Wyndward than—than—what’s the most audacious thing you can think of?”
Stella smiled; there was something catching in the light-hearted, frank, and free tones of the young viscount.
“Standing on a sofa in muddy boots has always been my idea of a great social crime,” she said.
He laughed approvingly, and his laugh seemed to float lightly through the quiet room.
“That’s good—that’s awfully good!” he said, with intense enjoyment. “Standing on a sofa—that’s awfully good! Must tell Leycester that! Did you ever do it, by the way?”
“Never,” said Stella, gravely, but with a smile.
“No!” he said. “Do you know I think you are capable of it if you were provoked?”
“Provoked?” said Stella.
[73]
“Dared, I mean,” he explained. “You know we used to have a game at school called ‘Dare him?’ I expect all fellows have played it. One fellow does the most extraordinary things and dares the other fellows to do it. Leycester used to play it best. He was a regular good hand at it. The worst of it was that we all used to get thrashed; the masters didn’t care about half-a-dozen fellows flinging stones at the windows and climbing on to the roof at the dead of night.”
“Poor masters!” said Stella.
He laughed.
“Yes, they didn’t have a particularly fine time of it when Leycester was at school.”
As he spoke, he glanced at the tall figure of Lord Leycester in front of them with an admiring air such as a school-boy might wear.
“There isn’t much that Leycester wouldn’t dare,” he said.
They entered the dining-room, a large room lined with oak and magnificently furnished, in which the long table with its snowy cloth, and glittering plate and glass, shone out conspicuously.
Lord Guildford found no difficulty in discovering their seats, each place being distinguished by a small tablet bearing the name of the intended occupant. As Stella took her seat, she noticed a beautiful bouquet beside her serviette, and saw that one was placed for every lady in the room.
A solemn, stately butler, who looked like a bishop, stood beside the earl’s chair, and with a glance and a slight movement of his hand directed the noiseless footmen.
A clergyman said grace, and the dinner commenced. Stella, looking round, saw that her uncle was seated near Lady Wyndward, and that Lady Lenore was opposite herself. She looked round for Lord Leycester, and was startled to hear his voice at her left. He was speaking to Lady Longford. As she turned to look at him she happened to catch Lady Wyndward’s eye also fixed upon him with a strange expression, and wondered what it meant; the next moment she knew, for, bending his head and looking straight before him, he said—
“Do you like your flowers?”
Stella took up the bouquet; it was composed almost entirely of white blossoms, and smelt divinely.
“They are beautiful,” she said. “Heliotrope and camellias—my favorite flowers.”
“It must have been instinct,” he said.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I chose them,” he said, in the same low voice.
“Chose them?” she retorted.
“Yes,” and he smiled. “That was what made me late. I came in here first and had a grand review of the bouquets. I was curious to know if I could guess your favorite flowers.”
“You—you—changed them!” said Stella, with a feeling of mild horror. “Lord Guildford asked me just now what I considered the most audacious act a man would commit. I know now.”
[74]
He smiled.
“I changed something else,” he said.
Stella looked at him inquiringly. There was a bold smile in his dark eyes.
He pointed to the little tablet bearing his name.
“This. I found it over the way there, next to that old lady in the emeralds. She is a dreadful old lady—beware of her. She is a politician, and she always asks everybody who comes near her what they think of the present Parliament. I thought it would be nicer to come over here.”
The color crept slowly into Stella’s face, and her eyes dropped.
“It was very wrong,” she said. “I am sure Lady Wyndward will be angry. How could you interfere with the arrangements? They all seem so solemn and grand to me.”
He laughed softly.
“They are. We always eat our meals as if they were the last we could expect to have—as if the executioner was waiting outside and feeling the edge of the ax impatiently. There is only one man here who dares to laugh outright.”
“Who is that?” asked Stella.
He nodded to Lord Guildford, who was actively engaged in bending his head over his soup with the air of a hungry man. “Charlie,” he said—”Lord Guildford, I mean. He laughs everywhere, don’t you, Charlie?”
“Eh? Yes, oh, yes. What is he telling you about me, Miss Etheridge? Don’t believe a word he says. I mean to have him up for libel some day.”
“He says you laugh everywhere,” said Stella.
Lord Charles laughed at once, and Stella looked round half alarmed, but nobody seemed to faint or show any particular horror.
“Nobody minds him,” said Lord Leycester, balancing his spoon. “He is like the King’s Jester, licensed to play wheresoever he pleases.”
“I’m fearfully hungry,” said Lord Charles. “I’ve been in the saddle since three o’clock—is that the menu, Miss Etheridge? Let us mark our favorite dishes,” and he offered her a half-hold of the porcelain tablet on which was written the items of the various courses.
Stella looked down the long list with something like amused dismay.
“It’s dreadfully long,” she said. “I don’t think I have any favorite dishes.”
“No; not really!” he demanded. “What a treat! Will you really let me advise you?”
“I shall be most grateful,” said Stella.
“Oh, this is charming,” said Lord Guildford. “Next to choosing one’s own dinner, there is nothing better than choosing one for someone else. Let me see;” and thereupon he made a careful selection, which Stella broke into with an amused laugh.
“I could not possibly eat all these things,” she said.
“Oh, but you must,” he said. “Why, I have been most careful to pick out only those dishes suitable for a lady’s delicate[75] appetite; you can’t leave one of them out, you can’t, indeed, without spoiling your dinner.”
“My dear,” said the countess, bending forward, “don’t let him teach you anything, except to take warning by his epicureanism; he is only anxious that you should be too occupied to disturb him.”
Lord Charles laughed.
“That is cruel,” he said. “You take my advice, Miss Etheridge; there are only two things I understand, and those are a horse and a good dinner.”
Meanwhile the dinner was proceeding, and to Stella it seemed that “good” scarcely adequately described it. One elaborate course after another followed in slow succession, borne in by the richly-liveried footmen on the massive plate for which Wyndward Hall was famous. Dishes which she had never heard of seemed to make their appearance only to pass out again untouched, excepting by the clergyman, Lord Guildford, and one or two other gentlemen. She noticed that the earl scarcely touched anything beyond a tiny piece of fish and a mutton cutlet; and Lord Guildford, who seemed to take an interest in anything connected with the dinner, remarked, as he glanced at the stately head of the house—
“There is one other person present who is of your way of thinking, Miss Etheridge—I mean the earl. He doesn’t know what a good dinner means. I don’t suppose he will taste anything more than the fish and a piece of Cheshire. When he is in town and at work——”
“At work? said Stella.
“In the House of Lords, you know; he is a member of the Cabinet.”
Stella nodded.
“He is a statesman?”
“Exactly. He generally dines off a mutton chop served in the library. I’ve seen him lunching off a penny biscuit and a glass of water. Terrible, isn’t it?”
Stella laughed.
“Perhaps he finds he can work better on a chop and a glass of water,” she said.
“Don’t believe it!” retorted Lord Guildford. “No man can work well unless he is well-fed.”
“Guildford ought to know,” said Lord Leycester, audibly. “He does so much work.”
“So I do,” retorts Lord Charles. “Stay and keep you in order, and if that isn’t hard work I don’t know what is!”
This was very amusing for Stella; it was all so strange, too, and so little what she imagined; here were two peers talking like school-boys for her amusement, as if they were mere nobodies and she were somebody worth amusing.
Every now and then she could hear Lady Lenore’s voice, musical and soft, yet full and distinct; she was talking of the coming season, and Stella heard her speak of great people—persons’ names which she had read of, but never expected to hear spoken of so familiarly. It seemed to her that she had got into some[76] charmed circle; it scarcely seemed real. Then occasionally, but very seldom, the earl’s thin, clear, high-bred voice would be heard, and once he looked across at Stella herself, and said:
“Will you not try some of those rissoles, Miss Etheridge? They are generally very good.”
“And he never touches them,” murmured Lord Charles, with a mock groan.
She could hear her uncle talking also—talking more fluently than was his wont—to Lady Wyndward, who was speaking about the pictures, and once Stella saw her glance in her direction as if they had been speaking of her. The dinner seemed very long, but it came to an end at last, and the countess rose. As Stella rose with the rest of the ladies, the old Countess of Longford locked her arm in hers.
“I am not so old that I can’t walk, and I am not lame, my dear,” she said, “but I like something young and strong to lean upon; you are both. You don’t mind?”
“No!” said Stella. “Yes, I am strong.”
The old countess looked up at her with a glance of admiration in her gray eyes.
“And young,” she said significantly.
They passed into a drawing-room—not the one they had entered first, but a smaller room which bore the name of “my lady’s.” It was exquisitely furnished in the modern antique style. There were some beautiful hangings that covered the walls, and served as background for costly cabinets and brackets, upon which was arranged a collection of ancient china second to none in the kingdom. The end of the room opened into a fernery, in which were growing tall palms and whole miniature forests of maidenhair, kept moist by sparkling fountains that fell with a plash, plash, into marble basins. Birds were twitting and flitting about behind a wire netting, so slight and carefully concealed as to be scarcely perceptible.
No footman was allowed to enter this ladies’ paradise; two maids, in their soft black dresses and snowy caps, were moving about arranging a table for the countess to serve tea upon.
It was like a scene from the “Arabian Nights,” only more beautiful and luxurious than anything Stella had imagined even when reading that wonderful book of fairy-tales.
The countess went straight to her table and took off her gray-white gloves, some of the ladies settled themselves in the most indolent of attitudes on the couches and chairs, and others strolled into the fern house. The old countess made herself comfortable on a low divan, and made room for Stella beside her.
“And this is your first visit to Wyndward Hall, my dear?” she said.
“Yes,” answered Stella, her eyes still wandering round the room.
“And you live in that little village on the other side of the river?”
“Yes,” said Stella, again. “It is very pretty, is it not?”
[77]
“It is, as pretty as anything in one of your uncle’s pictures. And are you quite happy?”
Stella brought her eyes upon the pale, wrinkled face.
“Happy! Oh, yes, quite,” she said.
“Yes, I think you are,” said the old lady with a keen glance at the beautiful face and bright, pure eyes. “Then you must keep so, my dear,” she said.
“But isn’t that rather difficult?” said Stella, with a smile.
Lady Longford looked at her.
“That serves me right for meddling,” she said. “Yes, it is difficult, very difficult, and yet the art is easy enough; it contains only one rule, and that is ‘to be content.'”
“Then I shall continue to be happy,” said Stella; “for I am very content.”
“For the present,” said the old lady. “Take care, my dear!”
Stella smiled; it was a strange sort of conversation, and there was a suggestion of something that did not appear on the surface.
“Do you think that I look very discontented, then?” she asked.
“No,” said the old lady, eying her again. “No, you look very contented—at present. Isn’t that a beautiful forest?”
It was an abrupt change of the subject, but Stella was equal to it.
“I have been admiring it since I came in,” she said; “it is like fairy land.”
“Go and enter it,” said the old countess—”I am going to sleep for exactly ten minutes. Will you come back to me then? You see, I am very frank and rude; but I am very old indeed.”
Stella rose with a smile.
“I think you are very kind to me,” she said.
The old countess looked up at the beautiful face with the dark, soft eyes bent down on her; and something like a sigh of regret came into her old, keen eyes.
“You know how to make pretty speeches, my dear,” she said. “You learnt that in Italy, I expect. Mind you come back to me.”
Then, as Stella moved away, the old lady looked after her.
“Poor child!” she murmured—”poor child! she is but a child; but he won’t care. Is it too late, I wonder? But why should I worry about it?”
But it seemed as if she must worry about it, whatever it was, for after a few minutes’ effort to sleep, she rose and went across to the tea-table.
Lady Wyndward was making tea, but looked up and pushed a chair close beside her.
“What is it?” she asked, with a smile.
“Who is she?” asked the countess, taking a cup and stirring the tea round and round, very much as Betty the washerwoman does—very much indeed.
Lady Wyndward did not ask “Who?” but replied in her serene, placid voice directly:
“I don’t know. Of course, I know that she is Mr. Etheridge’s niece, but I don’t know anything about her, except that she has[78] just come here from Italy. She said that she was not happy there.”
“She is very beautiful,” murmured the countess.
“She is—very,” assented Lady Wyndward.
“And something more than distinguished. I never saw a more graceful girl. She is only a child, of course.”
“Quite a child,” assented Lady Wyndward again.
There was a pause, then the old countess said, almost abruptly:
“Why is she here?”
Lady Wyndward filled a cup carefully before replying.
“She is a friend of Lilian’s,” she said; “at least she invited her.”
“I thought she was rather a friend of Leycester’s,” said the old lady, dryly.
Lady Wyndward looked at her, and a faint, a very faint color came into her aristocratic face.
“You mean that he has noticed her?” she said.
“Very much! I sat next to him at dinner. Was it wise to put him next to her? A child’s head is quickly turned.”
“I did not arrange it so,” replied Lady Wyndward. “I put his tablet next to Lenore’s, as usual; but it got moved. I don’t know who could have done it.”
“I do,” said the old lady. “It was Leycester himself. I am sure of it by the way he looked.”
Lady Wyndward’s white brow contracted for a moment.
“It is like him. He will do or dare anything for an hour’s amusement. I ought to be angry with him!”
“Be as angry as you like, but don’t let him know that you are,” said the old lady, shrewdly.
Lady Wyndward understood.
“How beautiful Lenore looks to-night,” she said, looking across the room where Lady Lenore stood fanning herself, her head thrown back, her eyes fixed on a picture.
“Yes,” assented the old countess. “If I were a man I should not rest until I had won her; if I were a man—but then men are so different to what we imagine them. They turn aside from a garden lily to pluck a wayside flower——”
“But they come back to the lily,” said Lady Wyndward, with a smile.
“Yes,” muttered the old countess, suavely; “after they have grown tired of the wild flower and thrown it aside.”
As she spoke the curtains were withdrawn and the gentlemen came sauntering in.
No one rests long over the wine, nowadays; the earl scarcely drank a glass after the ladies left; he would fill his glass—fill two perhaps, but rarely did more than sip them. Lord Leycester would take a bumper of claret—the cellars were celebrated for the Chateau Margaux. To-night it seemed as if he had taken an additional one, for there was a deeper color on his face, and a brighter light in his eyes than usual; the light which used to shine there in his school-days, when there was some piece of wildness on, more mad than usual. Lord Guildford came[79] in leaning lightly upon his arm, and he was talking to him in a low voice.
“One of the most beautiful faces I have ever seen, Ley: not your regular cut-out-to-pattern kind of face, but fresh and—and—natural. The sort of face Venus might have had when she rose from the sea that fine morning——”
“Hush!” said Lord Leycester, with a slight start, and he thought of the picture in his room, the picture of the Venus with the pale, fair face, across which he had drawn the defacing brush that night he had come home from his meeting with Stella. “Hush! they will hear you! Yes, she is beautiful.”
“Yes, beautiful! Take care, take care, Ley!” muttered Lord Charles.
Leicester put his hand from him with a smile.
“You talk in parables to-night, Charlie, and don’t provide the key. Go and get some tea.”
He went himself toward the table and got a cup, but his eyes wandered round the room, and the old countess and Lady Wyndward noticed the searching glance.
“Leycester,” said his mother, “will you ask Lenore to sing for us?”
He put down his cup and went down the room to where she was sitting beside the earl.
“My mother has sent me as one of her ambassadors to the queen of music,” he said. “Will your majesty deign to sing for us?”
She looked up at him with a smile, then gave her cup to one of the maids, and put her hand upon his arm.
“Do you know that this is the first time you have spoken to me since—since—I cannot remember?”
“One does not dare intrude upon royalty too frequently; it would be presumptuous,” he said.
“In what am I royal?” she asked.
“In your beauty!” he said, and he was the only man in the room who would have dared so pointed a reply.
“Thanks,” she said, with a calm smile; “you are very frank to-night.”
“Am I? And why not? We do not hesitate to call the summer sky blue or the ocean vast. There are some things so palpable and generally acknowledged that to be reserved about them would be absurd.”
“That will do,” she said. “Since when have you learnt such eloquent phrases? What shall I sing, or shall I sing at all?”
“To please me you have but to sing to please yourself!” he said.
“Find me something then,” she said, and sat down with her hands folded, looking a very queen indeed.
He knelt down beside the canterbury, and, as at a signal, there was a general gathering round the piano, but she still sat calm and unconscious, very queen-like indeed.
Leycester found a song, and set it up for her, opened the piano, took her bouquet from her lap, and waited for her gloves,[80] the rest looking on as if interference were quite out of the question.
Slowly she removed her gloves and gave them to him, touched the piano with her jeweled fingers, and began to sing.
At this moment Stella, who had been wandering round the fernery, came back to the entrance, and stood listening and absorbed.
She had never heard so beautiful a voice, not even in Italy. But presently, even while a thrill of admiration was running through her, she became conscious that there was something wanting. Her musical sense was unsatisfied. The notes were clear, bell-like, and as harmonious as a thrush’s, the modulation perfect; but there was something wanting. Was it heart? From where she stood she could see the lovely face, with its dark violet eyes upturned, its eloquent mouth curved to allow the music vent, and the loveliness held her inthralled, though the voice did not move her.
The song came to an end, and the singer sat with a calm smile receiving the murmurs of gratitude and appreciation, but she declined to sing again, and Stella saw Lord Leycester hand her her gloves and bouquet and stand ready to conduct her whither she would.
“He stands like her slave, to obey her slightest wish,” she thought. “Ah! how happy she must be,” and with a something that was almost a sigh, she turned back into the dim calm of the fernery; she felt strangely alone and solitary at that moment.
Suddenly there was a step behind her, and looking up she saw Lord Leycester.
“I have found you!” he said, and there was a ring of satisfaction and pleasure in his voice that went straight to her heart. “Where have you been hiding?”
She looked up at the handsome face full of life and strong manhood, and her eyes fell.
“I have not been hiding,” she said. “I have been here.”
“You are right,” he said, seating himself beside her; “this is the best place; it is cool and quiet here; it is more like our woods, is it not, with the ferns and the primroses?” and at the “our” he smiled into her eyes.
“It is very lovely here,” she said. “It’s all lovely. How beautifully she sings!” she added, rather irrelevantly.
“Sings?” he said. “Oh, Lenore! Yes, she sings well, perfectly. And that reminds me. I have been sent to ask you to make music for us.”
Stella shrank back with a glance of alarm.
“I? Oh, no, no! I could not.”
He smiled at her.
“But your uncle——”
“He should not!” said Stella, with a touch of crimson. “I could not sing. I am afraid.”
“Afraid! You?” he said. “Of what?”
“Of—of—everything,” she said, with a little laugh. “I could not sing before all these people. I have never done so. Besides, to sing after Lady Lenore would be like dancing a hornpipe.”
[81]
“I should be content if you would dance a hornpipe,” he said. “I should think it good and wise.”
“Are you laughing at me?” she said, looking up at the dark eyes. “Why?”
“Laughing at you?” he repeated. “I! I could not. It is you who laugh at me; I think you are laughing at me most times. You will not sing, then?”
“I cannot,” she said.
“Then you shall not,” he responded; “you shall not do anything you do not like. But some time you will sing for us, will you not? Your uncle has been telling us about your voice, and how you came by it,” and his own voice grew wonderfully gentle.
“My father, he meant,” said Stella, simply. “Yes; he could sing. He was a great musician, and when I think of that, I am inclined to resolve never to open my lips again.”
There was a moment’s pause. Stella sat pulling a piece of maidenhair apart, her eyes downcast; his eyes were reading her beautiful face, and noting the graceful turns of the white neck. Someone was playing the grand piano, and the music floated in and about the tall palms. It was an intoxicating moment for him! The air was balmy with perfumes from the exotics, the warm blood was running freely in his veins, the beauty of the girl beside him seemed to entrance him. Instinctively his hand, being idly near her, went toward hers, and would have touched it, but suddenly one of the maids entered, and with a slow, respectful air approached them. She held a silver salver, on which lay a small note, folded in a lover’s knot.
Lord Leycester looked up; the interruption came just in time.
“For me?” he said.
“For Miss Etheridge, my lord,” replied the maid, with a courtesy.
“For me?” echoed Stella, taking the note.
“I can guess who it is from,” he said, with a smile. “Lilian is growing impatient—if she is ever that.”
Stella unfolded the note. This was it: “Will you come to me now, if you care to?”
“Oh, yes, I will go at once,” she said, standing up.
He rose with a sigh.
“It is the first time I have envied Lilian anything,” he said, in a low voice.
“This way, if you please, miss,” said the maid.
“A moment—a moment only,” said Lord Leycester, and as Stella stopped, he gathered a few sprays of maidenhair from the margin of the fountain.
“It is a peace-offering. Will you take it to her? I promised that I would ask you to go directly after dinner,” he said, softly.
“Yes,” said Stella, and as she took it there rose once more in her mind the word Jasper Adelstone had spoken—”infamous.” This man who sent his sister such a message in such a voice!
“Thanks,” he said. “But it was scarcely necessary. I have sent her something more beautiful, more precious.”
[82]
7Stella did not understand far a moment, then as her eyes met his, she knew that he meant herself, and the color flooded her face.
“You should not say that,” she said, gravely, and before he could answer she moved away, and followed the maid.
The maid led her through the hall and up the broad stairs, across the corridor and knocked at Lady Lilian’s door.
Stella entered, and a grave peace seemed to fall upon her.
Lady Lilian was lying on the couch by the window, and raised herself to hold out her hand.
“How good of you to come!” she said, eagerly, and as the voice broke on Stella’s ear, she knew what Lady Lenore’s voice wanted. “You think me very selfish to bring you away from them all do you not?” she added, still holding Stella’s hand in her white, cool one.
“No,” said Stella, “I am very glad to come. I would have come before, but I did not know whether I might.”
“I have been waiting, and did not like to send for you,” said Lady Lilian, “and have you had a pleasant evening?”
Stella sank into a low seat beside the couch, and looked up into the lovely face with a smile.
“I have had a wonderful evening!” she said.
Lady Lilian looked at her inquiringly.
“Wonderful,” said Stella, frankly. “You see I have never been in such a place as this before; it all seems so grand and beautiful—more beautiful than grand indeed, that I can scarcely believe it is real.”
“It is real—too real,” said Lady Lilian, with a smile and a little sigh. “I daresay you think it is very nice, and I—do you know what I think?”
Stella shook her head.
“I think, as I look down at your little cottage, how beautiful, how nice your life must be.”
“Mine!” said Stella. “Well, yes, it is very nice. But this is wonderful.”
“Because you are not used to it,” said Lady Lilian. “Ah! you would soon get tired of it, believe me.”
“Never,” breathed Stella, looking down; as she did so she saw the maidenhair, and held it up.
“Lord Leycester sent these to you,” she said.
A loving light came into Lady Lilian’s eyes as she took the green, fragrant sprays.
“Leycester?” she said, touching her cheek with them. “That is like him—he is too good to me.”
Stella looked across the room at a picture of the Madonna rising from the earth, with upturned, glorious eyes.
“Is he?” she murmured.
“Oh, yes, yes, there never was a brother like him in all the wide world,” said Lady Lilian, in a rapt voice. “I cannot tell you how good he is to me; he is always thinking of me—he who has so much to think of. I fancy sometimes that people are apt to deem him selfish and—and—thoughtless, but they do not know——”
[83]
“No,” said Stella again. The voice sounded like music in her ears—she could have listened forever while it sung his song; and yet that word suddenly rang out in discord, and she smiled. “He seems very kind,” she said—”he is very kind to me.”
Lady Lilian looked at her suddenly, and an anxious expression came into her eyes. It was not many nights ago that she had implored Leycester to see no more of the girl with the dark eyes and silky hair; and here was the girl sitting at her feet, and it was her doing! She had not thought of that before; she had been so fascinated by the fresh young beauty, by the pure, frank eyes, that she had actually acted against her own instincts, and brought her into Leycester’s path!
“Yes, he is very kind to everybody,” she said. “And you have enjoyed yourself? Have they been singing?”
“Yes, Lady Beauchamp.”
“Lenore,” said Lilian, eagerly. “Ah, yes; does she not sing beautifully, and is she not lovely?”
“She sings beautifully, and she is very lovely,” said Stella, still looking at the Madonna.
Lady Lilian laughed softly.
“I am very fond of Lenore. You will like her very much when you know her better. She is—I was going to say—very imperial.”
“That would be right,” said Stella; “she is like a queen, only more beautiful than most queens have been.”
“I am so glad you admire her,” said Lady Lilian; then she paused a moment, and her white hand fell like a thistle down on the dark head beside her. “Shall I tell you a secret?”
Stella looked up, with a smile.
“Yes; I will promise to keep it.”
Lilian smiled down at her.
“How strangely you said that—so gravely. Yes, I think you would keep a secret to the death. But this is not one of that sort; it is only this—that we hope, all of us, that Lenore will become my sister.”
Stella did not start; did not remove her eyes from the pale, lovely face, but into those eyes a something came that was not wonder nor pain, but a strong, indefinable expression, as if she were holding her breath in the effort to suppress any sign of feeling.
“Do you mean that Lord Leycester will marry her?” she said, distinctly.
Lady Lilian nodded.
“Yes, that is it. Would it not be nice?”
Stella smiled.
“For Lord Leycester?”
Lady Lilian laughed her soft laugh.
“What a strange girl you are,” she said, smoothing the silky hair. “What am I to say to that? Well—yes, of course. And for Lenore, too,” she added, with a touch of pride.
“Yes, for Lady Lenore also,” said Stella, and her eyes went back to the Madonna.
“We are all so anxious to see Leycester married,” went on[84] Lady Lilian, with a smile. “They say he is—so wild, I think it is, they say! Ah, they do not see him as I see him. Do you think he is wild?”
Stella paled. The strain was great, her heart was beating with suppressed throbs. The gentle girl did not know how she was torturing her with such questions.
“I?” she murmured. “I do not know. I cannot tell. How should I? I scarcely know your brother.”
“Ah, no, I forget,” said Lady Lilian. “To me it seems as if we had known each other so long, and we only met the other morning for a few minutes. How is it? Do you possess some charm, and did you conceal it in the flowers you gave me, so that I am under a spell, Stella? That is your name, isn’t it? It is a beautiful name; are you angry with me for calling you by it?”
“Angry! No!” said Stella, putting up her warm, firm hand, and touching the thin white one resting on her hair. “No, I like you to call me by it.”
“And you will call me by mine—Lilian?”
“If you wish it,” said Stella. “Yes, I will.”
“And we shall be great friends. See, I have kept your flowers quite cool and fresh,” and she pointed to a vase in which the primroses stood at the other end of the room. “I love wild flowers. They are Heaven’s very own, are they not? No human hand does anything for them, or helps them to grow.”
Stella listened to the low, beautiful voice with a rapt awe.
Lady Lilian looked down at her with a smile.
“I wonder whether you would grant me a favor if I asked it?” she said.
“I would do anything for you,” said Stella, looking up at her.
“Will you go and play for me?” she said. “I know that you can play and sing because I have looked into your eyes.”
“Suppose I say that I cannot,” said Stella, laughing softly.
“You cannot!” said Lady Lilian. “I am never mistaken. Leycester says that I am a witch in such matters.”
“Well, I will try,” said Stella, and she crossed the room and opened the tiny piano, and began to play a sonata by Schubert.
“I cannot play like Lady Lenore,” she said, almost to herself, but Lady Lilian heard her.
“You play exquisitely,” she said.
“No, I can’t play,” repeated Stella, with almost a touch of impatience; then she looked up and saw the Madonna, and on the impulse of the moment began to sing Gounod’s “Ave Maria.” There is no more exquisite piece of devotional music in the world, and it was Stella’s favorite. She had sung it often and often in the dreary school-days, with all her longing heart in her voice; she had sung it in solemn aisled cathedrals, while the incense rose to the vaulted roof; but she had never sung it as she sang it now—now that the strange, indefinable pain was filling her heart with wistful vague longing. Lady Lilian leant forward—her lips parted, her eyes filling with tears—so rapt that she did not notice that the door had opened, and that Lord Leycester stood in the room. When she did see him he held up[85] his hand to silence any word of greeting, and stood with his head lowered, his eyes fixed on Stella’s face, upturned, white, and rapt. As he listened, his handsome face grew pale, his dark eyes deepened with intense emotion; he had stood beside the piano down-stairs while Lady Lenore had been singing, with a calm, polite attention; here and at this moment his heart beat and throbbed with an intense longing to bend and kiss the upturned face—with an intense longing to draw the eyes toward his—to silence the exquisite voice—to change its imploring prayer into a song of love.
All unconsciously Stella sang on till the end, that last, lingering, exquisite, long-drawn sigh; then she turned and saw him, but she did not move—only turned pale, her eyes fixed on his. And so they looked at each other.
With an effort he broke the spell, and moved. But he did not speak to her at once, but to Lilian.
“I have brought you something,” he said, in a low voice, and he held up the sketch.
Lady Lilian uttered a cry of delight.
“And it is for me! Oh, Leycester, that is nice! It is beautiful! I know who painted it—it was your uncle, Stella! Oh, yes, I know!”
“You are right,” said Leycester, then he went toward Stella.
“How can I thank you?” he said, in a low voice. “I know now why you would not sing to to us down-stairs! You were quite right. I would not have you sing to a mob in a drawing-room after dinner. What shall I say?—what can I say?”
Stella looked up pale and almost breathless beneath the passionate fire that burned in his eyes.
“I did not know you were here,” she said, at last.
“Or you would not have sung. I am glad I came—I cannot say how glad! You will not sing again?”
“No, no,” she said.
“No,” he said. “I did not think you would, and yet I would give something to hear you once—only once more.”
“No,” said Stella, and she rose and went back to her seat.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” said Lady Lilian, in a murmur. “I have been richly endowed to-night. Your song and this picture. How exquisite it was! Where did you learn to sing like that?”
“Nowhere,” said Leycester. “That cannot be learnt!”
Lilian looked at him; he was still pale, and his eyes seemed to burn with suppressed eagerness.
“Go and thank Mr. Etheridge,” she said.
“Presently,” he said, and he came and put his hand on her arm. “Presently! let me rest here a little while. It is Paradise after——” he paused.
“You shall not rest,” she said. “Go and sing something, Ley.”
Then, as Stella looked up, she laughed softly.
“Did you not know he could sing? He is a bad, wicked, indolent boy. He can do all sorts of things when he likes, but he never will exert himself. He will not sing, now will you?”
[86]
He stood looking at Stella, and as if constrained to speak and look at him, Stella raised her eyes.
“Will you sing?” she said, almost inaudibly.
As if waiting for her command, he bent his head and went to the piano.
His fingers strayed over the notes slowly for a moment or two, then he said, without turning his head:
“Have you seen these flowers?”
Stella did not wish to move; but the voice seemed to draw her, and she rose and crossed to the piano.
He looked up.
“Stay,” he murmured.
She hesitated a second, then stood with downcast eyes, which, hidden as they were, seemed to feel his ardent gaze fixed upon her.
He still touched the keys gently, and then, without further prelude, he began in a low voice:
“I wandered down the valley in the eventide,
The birds were singing sweetly in the summer air,
The river glided murm’ring to the ocean wide,
But still no peace was there;
For love lay lurking in the ferny brake;
I saw him lying with his bow beside;
He cried, ‘Sweetheart, we will never, never part!’
By the river in the valley at the eventide.
“I fled to the mountains, to the clouds and mist,
Where the eagle and the hawk share their solitary throne;
‘Here at least,’ I cried, ‘wicked love I can deride,
He will leave me here at peace alone.’
But 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.'”
With his eyes fixed on hers, he sang as if every word were addressed to her; his voice was like a flute, mellow and clear, and musical, but it was not the voice but the words that seemed to sink into Stella’s heart as she listened. It seemed to her as if he dared her to fly, to seek safety from him—his love, he seemed to say, would pursue her in every quiet valley, on every mountain side.
For a moment she forgot Lady Lenore, forgot everything; she felt helpless beneath the spell of those dark eyes, the musical voice; her head drooped, her eyes closed.
“‘Tis all in vain you fly, for everywhere am I, in every quiet valley, on every mountain side.”
Was it to be so with her? Would his presence haunt her ever and everywhere?
With a start she turned from him and glided swiftly to the couch as if seeking protection.
Lady Lilian looked at her.
“You are tired,” she said.
“I think I am,” said Stella.
[87]
“Leycester take her away; I will not have her wearied, or she will not come again. You will come again, will you not?”
“Yes,” said Stella, “I will come again.”
Lord Leycester stood beside the open door, but Lilian still clung to her hand.
“Good-night,” she said, and she put up her face.
Stella bent and kissed her.
“Good-night,” she answered, and passed out.
They went down the stairs in silence, and reached the fernery; then he stopped short.
“Will you not wait a moment here?” he said.
Stella shook her head.
“It must be late,” she said.
“A moment only,” he said. “Let me feel that I have you to myself for a moment before you go—you have belonged to others until now.”
“No, no,” she said—”I must go.”
And she moved on; but he put out his hand, and stopped her.
“Stella!”
She turned, and looked at him most piteously; but he saw only her loveliness before him like a flower.
“Stella,” he repeated, and he drew her nearer, “I must speak—I must tell you—I love you!”