“I love you,” he said.
Only three words, but only a woman can understand what those three words meant to Stella.
She was a girl—a mere child, as Lady Wyndward had said; never, save from her father’s lips, had she heard those words before.
Even now she scarcely realized their full meaning. She only knew that his hand was upon her arm; that his eyes were fixed on hers with a passionate, pleading entreaty, combined with a masterful power which she felt unable to resist.
White and almost breathless she stood, not downcast, for her eyes felt drawn to his, all her maidenly nature roused and excited by this first declaration of a man’s love.
“Stella, I love you!” he repeated, and his voice sounded like some low, subtle music, which rang through her ears even after the words had died from his lips.
Pale and trembling she looked at him, and put her hand to gently force his grasp from her arm.
“No, no!” she panted.
“But it is ‘yes,'” he said, and he took her other hand and held her a close prisoner, looking into the depths of the dark, wondering, troubled eyes. “I love you, Stella.”
“No,” she repeated again, almost inaudibly. “It is impossible!”
“Impossible!” he echoed, and a faint smile flitted across the eager face—a smile that seemed to intensify the passion in his eyes. “It seems to me impossible not to love you. Stella, are you angry with me—offended? I have been too sudden, too rude and rough.”
At his tender pleading her eyes drooped for the first time.
Too rough, too rude! He, who seemed to her the type of knightly chivalry and courtesy.
“I should have remembered how pure and delicate a flower my beautiful love was,” he murmured. “I should have remembered that my love was a star, to be approached with reverence and awe, not taken by storm. I have been too presumptuous; but, oh, Stella, you do not know what such love as mine is! It is like a mountain torrent hard to stem; it sweeps all before it. That is my love for you, Stella. And now, what will you say to me?”
As he spoke he drew her still nearer to him; she could feel his breath stirring her hair, could almost hear the passionate beating of his heart.
What should she say to him? If she allowed her heart to speak she would hide her face upon his breast and whisper—”Take me.” But, girl as she was, she had some idea of all that divided them; the very place in which they stood was eloquent of the difference between them; between him, the future lord of Wyndward, and she, the poor painter’s niece.
“Will you not speak to me?” he murmured. “Have you not a single word for me? Stella, if you knew how I long to hear those beautiful lips answer me with the words I have spoken. Stella, I would give all I possess in the world to hear you say, ‘I love you!'”
“No, no,” she said, again, almost pantingly. “Do not ask me—do not say any more. I—I cannot bear it!”
His face flushed hotly for a moment, but he held her tightly, and his eyes searched hers for the truth.
“Does it pain you to hear that I love you?” he whispered. “Are you angry, sorry? Can you not love me, Stella? Oh, my darling!—let me call you my darling, mine, if only for once, for one short minute! See, you are mine, I hold you in both hands! Be mine for a short minute at least, while you answer me. Are you sorry? Can you not give me a little love in return for all the love I bear you? Cannot you, Stella?”
Panting now, and with the rich color coming and going on her face, she looks this way and that like some wild, timid animal seeking to escape.
“Do not press me, do not force me to speak,” she almost moans. “Let me go now.”
“No, by Heaven!” he says, almost fiercely. “You shall not, must not go, until you have answered me. Tell me, Stella, is it because I am nothing to you, and you do not like to tell me so? Ah! better the truth at once, hard as it may be to bear, than suspense. Tell me, Stella.”
“It—it—is not that,” she says, with drooping head.
“What is it, then?” he whispers, and he bends his head to catch her faintly whispered words, so that his lips almost touch her face.
From the drawing-room comes the sound of some one playing; it recalls all the grandeur of the scene, all the high mightiness of the house to which he belongs—of which he is so nearly the head, and it gives her strength.
Slowly she raises her head and looks at him.
There is infinite tenderness, infinite yearning, and suppressed maidenly passion in her eyes.
“It is not that,” she says. “But—do you forget?”
“Forget!” he asks, patiently, gently, though his eyes are burning with impetuous eagerness.
“Do you forget who I am—who you are?” she says, faintly.
“I forget everything except that you are to me the most lovely and precious of creatures on God’s earth,” he says, passionately. Then, with a touch of his characteristic pride, “What need have I to remember anything else, Stella?”
“But I have,” she said. “Oh yes, it is for me to remember. I cannot—I ought not to forget. It is for me to remember. I am only Stella Etheridge, an artist’s niece, a nobody—an insignificant girl, and you—oh, Lord Leycester!”
“And I?” he says, as if ready to meet her fairly at every point.
“And you!”—she looks around—”you are a nobleman; will be the lord of all this beautiful place—of all that you were showing me the other day. You should not, ought not to tell me that—that—what you have told me.”
He bent over her, and his hand closed on her arm with a masterful caressing touch.
“You mean that because I am what I am—that because I am rich I am to be made poor; because I have so much—too much, that the one thing on earth which would make the rest worth having is to be denied me.”
He laughed almost fiercely.
“Better to be the poorest son of the soil than lord of many acres, if that were true, Stella. But it is not. I do not care whether I am rich or poor, noble or nameless—yes, I do! I am glad for your sake. I have never cared before. I have never realized it before, but I do now. I am glad now. Do you know why?”
She shook her head, her eyes downcast.
“Because I can lay them all at your feet,” and as he speaks he bends on one knee beside her and draws her hand with trembling hands to his heart.
“See, Stella, I lay them at your feet. I say take them, if you think them worth—take them, and make them worth having; no, I say rather, share them with me? Set against your love, my darling, title, lands, wealth—are all worthless dross to me. Give me your love, Stella; I must, I will have it!” and he presses a passionate clinging kiss on her hand.
Frightened by his vehemence, Stella draws her hand away and shrinks back.
He rises and draws her to a seat, standing beside her calm and penitent.
“Forgive me, Stella! I frighten you! See, I will be quite gentle and quiet—only listen to me!”
“No, no,” she murmurs, trembling, “I must not. Think—if—if—I said what you wish me to say, how could I meet the countess? What would they say to me? They would blame me for stealing your love.”
“You have not stolen; no nun from a convent could have been more free from artifice than you, Stella. You have stolen nothing; it is I who have given—GIVEN you all.”
She shook her head.
“It is the same,” she murmured. “They would be so displeased. Oh, it cannot be.”
“It cannot be?” he repeated, with a smile. “But it has already come to pass. Am I one to love and unlove in a breath, Stella? Look at me!”
She raises her eyes, and meets his eager, passionate gaze.
“Do I look like one to be swayed as a reed by any passing wind, gentle or rough? No, Stella, such love as I feel for you is not to be turned aside. Even if you were to tell me that you do not, cannot love me, my love would not die; it has taken root in my heart—it has become part of myself. There is not one hour since I saw you that I have not thought about you. Stella, you have come to me even in my sleep; I have dreamed that you whispered to me, ‘I love you.’ Let the dream be a true one. Oh, my life, my darling, let your heart speak, if it is to say that it loves me. See, Stella, you are all the world to me—do not rob me of happiness. You do not doubt my love?”
Doubt his love! That was not possible for her to do, since every word, every look, bore the impress of truth.
But still she would not yield. Even as he spoke, she fancied she could see the stern face of the earl looking at her with hard condemnation—could see the beautiful eyes of the countess looking down at her with cold displeasure and wondering, amazed scorn.
Footsteps were approaching, and she rose hurriedly, to fly from him if need be. But Lord Leycester was not a man to be turned aside. As she rose he took her arm gently, tenderly, with loving persuasion, and drew her near to him.
“Come with me,” he said. “Do not leave me for a moment. See, the door is open—it is quite warm. We shall be alone here. Oh, my darling, do not leave me in suspense.”
She was powerless to resist, and he led her on to the terrace outside.
Out into the dusky night, odorous with the breath of the flowers, and mystical in the dim light of the stars. A gentle summer, zephyr-like air stirred the trees; the sound of the water falling over the weir came like music up the hillside. A nightingale sang in the woods below them; all the night seemed full of slumberous passion and unspoken love.
“We are alone here, Stella,” he murmured. “Now answer me. Listen once more, darling! I am not tired of telling you; I shall never tire of it. Listen! I love you—I love you!”
The stars grew dull and misty before her eyes, the charm of his voice, of his presence, was stealing over her; the passionate love which burnt in her heart for him was finding its way through cool prudence, her lips were tremulous. A sigh, long and deep, broke from them.
“I love you!” he replied, as if the words were a spell, as indeed they were—a spell not to be resisted. “Give me your answer, Stella. Come close to me. Whisper it! whisper ‘I love you,’ or send me away. But you will not do that; no, you shall not do that!” and forgetful of his vow to be gentle with her, he put his arm round her, drew her to him and—kissed her.
It was the first kiss. A thrill ran through her, the sky seemed to sink, the whole night to pause as if it were waiting. With a little shudder of exquisite pleasure, mingled with that subtle pain which ecstasy always brings in its train, she laid her head upon his breast, and hiding her eyes, murmured—
“I love you!”
If the words meant much to him—to him the man of the world before whom many a beautiful woman had been ready to bow with complaisant homage—if they meant much to him, how much more did they mean to her?
All her young maiden faith spoke in those three words. With them she surrendered her young, pure life, her unstained, unsullied heart to him. With a passion as intense as his own, she repaid him tenfold. For a moment he was silent, his eyes fixed on the stars, his whole being thrilling under the music—the joy of this simple avowal. Then he pressed her to him, and poured a shower of kisses upon her hair and upon her arm which lay across his breast.
“My darling, my darling!” he murmured. “Is it really true? Can I—dare I believe it: you love me? Oh, my darling, the whole world seems changed to me. You love me! See, Stella, it seems so wonderful that I cannot realize it. Let me see your eyes, I shall find the truth there.”
She pressed still closer to him, but he raised her head gently—in his very touch was a caress, and it was as if his hands kissed her—and looked long into the rapt, upturned eyes. Then he bent his head slowly, and kissed her once—hungrily, clingingly.
Stella’s eyes closed and her face paled under that passionate caress, then slowly and with a little sigh she raised her head and kissed him back again, kiss for kiss.
No word was spoken; side by side, with her head upon his breast, they stood in silence. For them Time had vanished, the whole world seemed to stand still.
Half amazed, with a dim wonder at this new delight which had entered her life, Stella watched the stars and listened to the music of the river. Something had happened to change her whole existence, it was as if the old Stella whom she knew so well had gone, and a new being, wonderfully blessed, wonderfully happy, had taken her place.
And as for him, for the man of the world, he too stood amazed, overwhelmed by the new-born joy. If any one had told him that life held such a moment for him, he would not have believed it; he who had, as he thought, drained the cup of earthly pleasure to the dregs. His blood ran wildly through his veins, his heart beat madly.
“At last,” he murmured; “this is love.”
But suddenly the awakening came. With a start she looked up at him and strove to free herself, vainly, from his embrace.
“What have I done?” she whispered, with awe-subdued voice.
“Done!” he murmured, with a rapt smile. “Made one man happier than he ever dreamed it possible for mortal to be. That is all.”
“Ah, no!” she said; “I have done wrong! I am afraid!—afraid!”
“Afraid of what? There is nothing to make you afraid. Can you speak of fear while you are in my arms—with your head on my breast? Lean back, my darling; now speak of fear.”
“Yes, even now,” she whispered. “Now—and I am so happy!” she broke off to herself, but he heard her. “So happy! Is it all a dream? Tell me.”
He bent and kissed her.
“Is it a dream, do you think?” he answered.
The crimson dyed her face and neck, and her eyes drooped.
“And you are happy?” he said. “Think what I must be. For a man’s love is deeper, more passionate than a woman’s, Stella. Think what I must be!”
She sighed and looked up at him.
“But still it is wrong! I fear that. All the world will say that.”
“All the world!” he echoed, with smiling scorn. “What have we to do with the world? We two stand outside, beyond it. Our world is love—is our two selves, my darling.”
“All the world,” she said. “Ah! what will they say?” and instinctively she glanced over her shoulder at the great house with the glow of light streaming from its many windows. “Even now—now they are wondering where you are, expecting, waiting for you. What would they say if they knew you were here with me—and—and all that has happened?”
His eyes darkened. He knew better than she, with all her fears, what they would say, and already he was braving himself to meet the storm, but he smiled to re-assure her.
“They will say that I am the most fortunate of men. They will say that the gods have lavished their good gifts with both hands—they have given me all the things that you make so much of, and the greatest of all things—the true sole love of a pure, beautiful angel.”
“Oh, hush, hush!” she murmured.
“You are an angel to me,” he said, simply. “I am not worthy to touch the hem of your dress! If I could but live my worthless, sinful life over again, for your sake, my darling, it should be purer and a little less unworthy of you.”
“Oh, hush!” she murmured. “You unworthy of me! You are my king!”
Strong man as he was he was stirred and moved to the depths of his being at the simple words, eloquent of her absolute trust and devotion.
“My Stella,” he murmured, “if you knew all; but see, my life is yours from henceforth. I place it in your hands, mold it as you will. It is yours henceforth.”
She was looking at him, all her soul in her eyes, and at his words of passionate protestation, a sudden thrill ran through her, then as instantly, as if a sudden cold hand had come between them, she shivered.
“Mine,” she breathed, fearfully, “until they snatch it from me.”
“I love you,” he said.