The great clock in the Hall stables chimed the half-hour—half-past seven, and the sound came floating down the valley.
Mr. Etheridge stood at the door clad in evening dress, which, old-fashioned and well-worn as it was, sat upon him with a gracious air, and made him look more distinguished than ever. The fly was waiting at the door, and he glanced at his watch and took a step toward the stairs, when a light appeared above, and a light step sounded over his head. The next moment a vision, as it seemed to him, floated into sight, and came down upon him.
Stella was in the cream sateen dress—the exquisite lace was clinging round her slender, graceful throat—there was a red rose in her hair; but it was not the dress, nor the lace, nor the rose even, which chained the painter’s eye—it was the lovely girlish face. The excitement had brought a dash of warm color in the clear olive cheeks and a bright light into the dark eyes; the lips were half-apart with a smile, and the whole face was eloquent of youth’s fresh tide of life and spirits. If they had had all Howell and James’ stock to choose from, they could not have chosen a more suitable dress—a more becoming color; the whole made a fitting frame for the girlish beauty.
“Well, uncle!” she said, with a little blush.
“What have you done to yourself, my child?” he said, with simple open-eyed wonder.
“Isn’t she—isn’t it beautiful?” murmured Mrs. Penfold, in an ecstasy. “But then, if it had been a morning cotton, it would have been all the same.” And she proceeded to wrap a woolen shawl round her so carefully as if she was something that might be destroyed at too hard a touch. “Mind she has this wound round her like this when she comes out, sir, and be sure and keep the window up.”
“And don’t let the air breathe on me, or I shall melt, uncle,” laughed Stella.
“Upon my word, I’m half disposed to think so,” he muttered.
Then they entered the fly—Mrs. Penfold disposing the short train of the despised sateen with gingerly care—and started.
“How have you managed it all?” asked the old man, quite bewildered. “I feel quite strange conveying a brilliant young lady.”
“And I feel—frightened out of my life,” said Stella, with a little breath and a laugh.
“Then you conceal your alarm with infinite art,” he retorted.
“That’s just it,” she assented. “My heart is beating like a steam hammer, but, like an Indian at the stake, I am determined to smile to the end. They will be very terrible, uncle, will they not?”
“Who?” he asked.
“The countess and the paragon—I mean Lady Lenore Beauchamp. I shall have to be careful, or I shall be calling her the paragon to her face. What would she do, uncle?”
“Smile and pass it by with a gracious air,” he said, laughing. “You are a clever and a bold girl, Stella, but even you could not take ‘a rise,’ as we used to say in my school-days, out of Lady Lenore.”
“I am not clever, and I am trembling like a mouse,” said Stella, with a piteous little pout. “You’ll stand by me, uncle, won’t you?”
“I think you are quite able to defend yourself, my dear,” he said. “Never knew one of your sex who was not.”
The fly rumbled over the bridge and entered the long avenue, and Stella, looking out, saw the lights of the house shining at the end of the vista.
“What a grand place it is,” she murmured, almost to herself. “Uncle, I feel as if I were about to enter another world; and I am, I think. I have never seen a countess in my life before; have been shut up within the four walls of a school. If she says one word to me I shall expire.”
He laughed, and began to feel for the sketch which he had brought with him.
“You will not find her so very terrible,” he said.
The fly got to the end of the avenue at last, and wound round the broad drive to the front entrance.
It loomed so large and awe-inspiring above them, that Stella’s heart seemed to sink; but her color came again as two tall footmen, in grand, but not gorgeous, livery, came down the broad steps and opened the fly door. She would not let them see that she was—afraid. Afraid; yes that was the word which described her feelings as she was ushered into the hall, and she looked round at its vastness.
There were several other footmen standing about with solemn faces, and a maid dressed in black, with a spotless muslin cap, came forward with what seemed to Stella solemn and stately steps, and asked her, in almost a reverential whisper, whether she would come up-stairs; but Stella shook her head, and was about to unwind the shawl, when the maid, with a quick but respectful movement, undertook the task, going through it with the greatest care and attention.
Then her uncle held his arm and she put her hand upon it, and in the instant, as if they had been waiting and watching, though their eyes had been fixed on the ground, two footmen drew aside the curtains shutting off the corridor to the drawing-room, and another footman paced slowly and with head erect before them.
It was all so solemn, the dim yet sufficient light, the towering hall, with its flags and armor, the endless curtains, with their gold fringe, that Stella was reminded of some gothic cathedral. The white gleaming statues seemed to look down at her, as she passed between them, with a frown of astonishment at her audacity in entering their solemn presence, the very silence seemed to reproach her light footsteps on the thickly-carpeted mosaic floor.
She began to be overpowered, but suddenly she remembered that she too was of ancient birth, that she was an Etheridge, and that the man whose arm she was leaning upon was an artist, and a great one, and she held her head erect and called the color to her face.
It was not a moment too soon, for another pair of curtains were drawn aside, and the next instant she stood on the threshold of the drawing-room, and she heard a low but distinct voice say—
“Mr. and Miss Etheridge.”
She had not time to look round; she saw, as in a flash, the exquisite room, with its shaded candles and softly-gleaming mirrors, saw several tall, black-coated, white-chested forms of gentlemen, and richly-dressed ladies; then she was conscious that a tall, beautiful, and stately lady was gliding across the room toward them, and knew it was the countess.
Lady Wyndward had heard the announcement and had risen from where she was sitting with the Countess of Longford to welcome the guests. The painter was a favorite of hers, and if she could have had her will he would have been a frequent visitor at the hall.
When Lilian had told her of her meeting with Mr. Etheridge’s niece and asked permission to invite her, she had assented at once, expecting to see some well-subdued middle-aged woman. Why she should have thus pictured her she could not have told; perhaps because Mr. Etheridge was old and so subdued himself. She had scarcely listened to Lilian’s description, and Leycester had said no word.
But now as she came forward and saw a young and beautiful girl, graceful and self-possessed, dressed with perfect taste, and looking as distinguished as if she had gone through a couple of London seasons, when the vision of Stella, in all her fresh young loveliness, broke upon her suddenly and unexpectedly, an infinite surprise took possession of her, and for a moment she half paused, but it was only for a moment, and by no change in her face, however slight, was her surprise revealed.
“How do you do, Mr. Etheridge? It was so kind of you to come. I know how great an honor this is, and I am grateful.”
This is what Stella heard in the softest, most dulcet of voices—”Kind, grateful!” This was how a countess welcomed a poor painter. A glow of light seemed to illumine Stella’s mind. She had expected to see a tall stately woman dressed in satin and diamonds, and with a courtly severe manner, and instead here was a lady with a small gentle voice and a face all softness and kindness. In an instant she had learned her first lesson—that a mark of high rank and breeding is pure gentleness and humility. The queen sits beside the bed of a sick peasant; the peer thanks the waiter who hands him his umbrella.
“Yes, it was very good of you to come. And this is your niece? How do you do, Miss Etheridge? I am very glad to see you.”
Stella took her gloved hand, her courage came instantly, and she raised her eyes to the beautiful, serene face, little guessing that as she did so, the countess was filled with surprise and admiration as the dark orbs raised.
“We are quite a small party,” said the countess. “Nearly all our friends have left us. We should have been in town before this, but Lord Wyndward is detained by business.”
As she spoke the earl approached them, and Stella saw a tall, thin, noble-looking man bending before her as if he were expecting a touch of her hand.
“How do you do, Mr. Etheridge? We have managed to entice you from your hermitage at last, eh? How do you do, Miss Etheridge? I hope you didn’t feel the cold driving.”
Stella smiled, and she knew why every approach was screened by curtains.
The earl drew the painter aside, and the countess, just laying her fingers on Stella’s arm, guided her to the old countess of Longford.
“Mr. Etheridge’s niece,” she said; then, to Stella, “This is Lady Longford.”
Stella was conscious of a pair of keen gray eyes fixed on her face.
“Glad to know you, my dear,” said the old lady. “Come and sit beside me, and tell me about your uncle; he is a wonderful man, but a very wicked one.”
“Wicked!” said Stella.
“Yes, wicked,” repeated the old lady, with a smile on her wrinkled face. “All obstinate people are wicked; and he is obstinate because he persists in hiding himself away instead of coming into the world and consenting to be famous, as he should be.”
Stella’s heart warmed directly.
“But perhaps now that you have come, you will persuade him to leave his shell.”
“Do you mean the cottage? I don’t think anything would persuade him to leave that. Why should he? He is quite happy.”
The countess looked at her.
“That’s a sensible retort,” she said. “Why should he? I don’t know—I don’t know what to answer. But I owe him a grudge. Do you know that he has persistently refused to come and see me, though I have almost gone on my knees to him?”
“He does not care to go anywhere,” she said. “If he went anywhere, I am sure he would come to you.”
The old countess glanced at her approvingly.
“That was nicely said,” she murmured. “How old are you?”
“Nineteen,” said Stella, simply.
“Then you have inherited your uncle’s brains,” the old lady replied, curtly. “It is not given to every girl to say the right thing at nineteen.”
Stella blushed, and looked round the room.
There were ten or twelve persons standing and sitting about, some of them beautiful women, exquisitely dressed, talking to some gentlemen; but Lord Leycester was not amongst the latter. She was conscious of that, although she scarcely knew that she was looking for him. She wondered which was Lady Lenore. There was a tall, fair girl leaning against the piano, but somehow Stella did not think it was the famous beauty.
The clock on the bracket struck eight, and she saw the earl take out his watch and glance at it mechanically; and as he did so, a voice behind her said:
“Dinner is served, my lady.”
Nobody took any notice however, and the countess did not show by sign or look that she heard. Suddenly the curtains at the other end of the room were swung apart, and a tall form entered.
Though her eyes were fixed on another part of the room, she knew who it was, and for a moment she would not look that way, then she directed her eyes slowly, and saw that her instinct had not misled her.
It was Leycester!
For a moment she was conscious of a feeling of surprise. She thought she knew him well, but in that instant he looked so different that he seemed almost a stranger.
She had not seen him before in evening dress, and the change from the velvet coat and knickerbockers to the severe, but aristocratic, black suit struck her.
Like all well-made, high-bred men he looked at his best in the dress which fashion has decreed shall be the evening costume of gentlemen. She had thought him handsome, noble, in the easy, careless suit of velvet, she knew that he was distinguished looking in his suit of evening sables.
With his hand upon the curtain he stood, his head erect, his eyes not eagerly, but commandingly, scanning the room.
She could not tell why or how she knew, but she knew that he was looking for her.
Presently he sees her, and a subtle change came over his face, it was not a smile so much as a look of satisfaction, and she knew again that a frown would have settled on his white brow if she whom he sought had not been there.
With a high but firm step he came across the room and stood before her, holding out his hand.
“You have come,” he said; “I thought you would not come. It is very kind of Mr. Etheridge.”
She gave him her hand without a word. She knew that the keen gray eyes of the old lady beside her were fixed on her face. He seemed to remember too, for in a quieter, more commonplace, tone, he added:
“I am late; it is an habitual fault of mine.”
“It is,” said the old countess.
He turned his smile upon her.
“Are you going to scold me?”
“I am not fond of wasting my time,” she said. “Come and sit down for a minute if you can.”
He glanced at the clock.
“Am I not keeping you all waiting?” he said.
Lady Longford shook her head.
“No; we are waiting for Lenore.”
“Then she is not here!” thought Stella.
“Oh, Lenore!” he said, with a smile. “Well, no one will dare to scold her.”
As he spoke the curtain parted, and someone entered.
Framed by the curtain that fell behind her in crimson folds stood a girl—not yet a woman, for all her twenty-three years—of wonderful beauty, with deep golden hair and violet eyes.
Stella knew her at once from her uncle’s description, but it was not the beauty that surprised her and made her start; it was something more than that. It was the nameless, indescribable charm which surrounded her; it was the grace which distinguished her figure, her very attitude.
She stood a moment, with a faint half-smile upon her lips, looking round; then she glided with a peculiar movement, that struck Stella as grace itself, to Lady Wyndward, and bent her head down to the countess.
Stella could not hear what she said, but she knew that she was apologizing for her tardiness by the way the earl, who was standing by, smiled at her. Yes, evidently Lady Lenore would not be scolded for keeping dinner waiting.
Stella sat watching her; she felt her eyes riveted to her in fact, and suddenly she was aware that the violet eyes were fixed on hers.
She saw the beautiful lips move, saw the earl make answer, and then watched them move together across the room.
Whither were they going? To her surprise they came toward her and stopped in front of her.
“Miss Etheridge,” said the earl, in his low, subdued voice, “let me introduce Lady Lenore Beauchamp to you.”
Stella looked up, and met the violet eyes fixed on her.
For a moment she was speechless; the eyes, so serene and full and commanding, seemed to seek out her soul and to read every thought it held; to read it so closely and clearly that her own eyes dropped; then with an effort she held out her hand, and as the great beauty’s closed softly over it she raised her lids again, and so they stood looking at each other, and Lord Leycester stood beside with the characteristic smile on his face.
The great clock in the Hall stables chimed the half-hour—half-past seven, and the sound came floating down the valley.