“What shall I do?” exclaimed Mr. Etheridge.
Stella came to him quickly, with a little cry of dismay.
“What is it, uncle? Are you ill—is it bad news? Oh, what is the matter?”
And she looked up into his pale and agitated face with anxious concern.
His gaze was fixed on vacancy, but there was more than abstraction in his eyes—there was acute pain and anguish.
“What is it, dear?” she asked, laying her hand on his arm. “Pray tell me.”
At the words he started slightly, and crushed the telegram in his hand.
“No, no!” he said—”anything but that.” Then, composing himself with an effort, he pressed her hand and smiled faintly. “Yes, it is bad news, Stella; it is always bad news that a telegram brings.”
Stella led him in; his hands were trembling, and the dumb look of pain still clouded his eyes.
“Will you not tell me what it is?” she murmured, as he sank into his accustomed chair and leant his white head on his hand. “Tell me what it is, and let me help you to bear it by sharing it with you.”
And she wound her arm around his neck.
“Don’t ask me, Stella. I can’t tell you—I cannot. The shame would kill me. No! No!”
“Shame!” murmured Stella, her proud, lovely face paling, as she shrank back a little; but the next moment she pressed closer to him, with a sad smile.
“Not shame for you, dear; shame and you were never meant to come together.”
He started, and raised his head.
“Yes, shame!” he repeated, almost fiercely, his hands clinched—”such bitter, debasing shame and disgrace. For the first time the name we have held for so many years will be stained and dragged in the dirt. What shall I do?” And he hid his face in his hands.
Then, with a sudden start, he rose, and looked round with trembling eagerness.
“I—I must go to London,” he said, brokenly. “What is the time? So late! Is there no train? Stella, run and ask Mrs. Penfold. I must go at once—at once; every moment is of consequence.”
“Go to London—to-night—so late? Oh, you cannot!” exclaimed Stella, aghast.
“My dear, I must,” he said more calmly. “It is urgent, most urgent business that calls for me, and I must go.”
Stella stole out of the room, and was about to wake Mrs. Penfold, when she remembered having seen a time-table in the kitchen, and stealing down-stairs again, hunted until she found it.
When she took it into the studio, she found her uncle standing with his hat on and his coat buttoned.
“Give it to me,” he said. “There is a train, an early market train that I can catch if I start at once,” and with trembling fingers he turned over the pages of the time-book. “Yes, I must go, Stella.”
“But not alone, uncle!” she implored. “Not alone, surely. You will let me come with you.”
He put his hand upon her arm and kissed her, his eyes moist.
“Stella, I must go alone; no one can help me in this matter. There are some troubles that we must meet unaided except by a Higher Power; this is one of them. Heaven bless you, my dear; you help me to bear it with your loving sympathy. I wish I could tell you, but I cannot, Stella—I cannot.”
“Do not then, dear,” she whispered. “You will not be away long?”
“Not longer than I can help,” he sighed. “You will be quite safe, Stella?”
“Safe!” and she smiled sadly.
“Mrs. Penfold must take care of you. I don’t like leaving you, but it cannot be helped! Child, I did not think to have a secret from you so soon!”
At the words Stella started, and a red flush came over her face.
She, too, had a secret, and as it flashed into her mind, from whence the sudden trouble had momentarily banished it, her heart beat fast and her eyes drooped.
“There should be no secrets between us two,” he said. “But—there—there—don’t look so troubled, my dear. I shall not be long gone.”
She clung to him to the last, until indeed the little white gate had closed behind him, then she went back to the house and sat down in his chair, and sat pondering and trembling.
For a time the secret trouble which had befallen her uncle absorbed all her mind and care, but presently the memory of all that had happened to her that evening awoke and overcame her sorrow, and she sat with clasped hands and drooping head recalling the handsome face and passionate voice of Lord Leycester.
It was all so wonderful, so unreal, that it seemed like a stage play, in which the magnificent house formed the scene and the noble men and women the players, with the tall, stalwart, graceful form of Lord Leycester for the hero. It was difficult to realize that she too took a part, so to speak, in the drama, that she was, in fact, the heroine, and that it was to her that all the passionate vows of the young lord had been spoken. She could feel his burning kisses on her lips; could feel the touch of the clinging, lingering caresses on her neck; yes, it was all real; she loved Lord Leycester, and he, strange and wonderful to add, loved her.
Why should he do it? she marveled. Who was she that he should deign to shower down upon her such fervent admiration and passionate devotion?
Mechanically she rose and went over to the Venetian mirror, and looked at the reflection which beamed softly in the dim light.
He had called her beautiful, lovely! She shook her head and smiled with a sigh as she thought of Lady Lenore. There were beauty and loveliness indeed! How had it happened that he had passed her by, and chosen her, Stella?
But it was so, and wonder, and gratitude and love welled up in her heart and filled her eyes with those tears which show that the cup of human happiness is full to overflowing. The clock struck the hour, and with a sigh, as she thought of her uncle, she turned from the glass. She felt that she could not go to bed; it was far pleasanter to sit up in the stillness and silence and think—think! To take one little incident after another, and go over it slowly and enjoyingly. She wandered about her room in this frame of mind, filled with happiness one moment as she thought of the great good which the gods had given unto her, then overwhelmed by a wave of troubled anxiety as she remembered that her uncle, the old man whose goodness to her had won her love, was speeding on the journey toward his secret trouble and sorrow.
Wandering thus she suddenly bethought her of a picture that stood with its face to the wall, and swooping down on it, as one does on a suddenly remembered treasure, she took up Leycester Wyndward’s portrait, and gazing long and eagerly at it, suddenly bent and kissed it. She knew now what the smile in those dark eyes meant; she knew now how the lovelight could flash from them.
“Uncle was right,” she murmured with a smile that was half sad. “There is no woman who could resist those eyes if they said ‘I love you.'”
She put the portrait down upon the cabinet, so that she could see it when she chose to look at it, and abstractedly began to set the room in order, putting a picture straight here and setting the books upon their shelves, stopping occasionally to glance at the handsome eyes watching her from the top of the cabinet. As often happens when the mind is set on one thing and the hands upon another, she met with an accident. In one corner of the room stood a three-cornered what-not of Japanese work, inclosed by doors inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl; in attempting to set a bronze straight upon the top of this piece of furniture while she looked at the portrait of her heart’s lord and master, she let the bronze slip, and in the endeavor to save it from falling, overturned the what-not.
It fell with the usual brittle sounding crash which accompanies the overthrow of such bric-a-brac, and the doors being forced open, out poured a miscellaneous collection of valuable but useless articles.
With a little exclamation of self-reproach and dismay, Stella went down on her knees to collect the scattered curios. They were of all sorts; bits of old china from Japan, medals, and coins of ancient date, and some miniatures in carved frames.
Stella eyed each article as she picked it up with anxious criticism, but fortunately nothing appeared the worse for the downfall, and she was putting the last thing, a miniature, in its accustomed place, when the case flew open in her hand and a delicately painted portrait on ivory looked up at her. Scarcely glancing at it, she was about to replace it in the case, when an inscription on the back caught her eye, and she carried case and miniature to the light.
The portrait was that of a boy, a fair-haired boy, with a smiling mouth and laughing blue eyes. It was a pretty face, and Stella turned it over to read the inscription.
It consisted of only one word, “Frank.”
Stella looked at the face again listlessly, but suddenly something in it—a resemblance to someone whom she knew, and that intimately—flashed upon her. She looked again more curiously. Yes, there could be no doubt of it; the face bore a certain likeness to that of her uncle. Not only to her uncle, but to herself, for raising her eyes from the portrait to the mirror she saw a vague something—in expression only perhaps—looking at her from the glass as it did from the portrait.
“Frank, Frank,” she murmured; “I know no one of that name. Who can it be?”
She went back to the cabinet, and took out the other miniatures, but they were closed, and the spring which she had touched accidentally of the one of the boy she could not find in the others.
There was an air of mystery about the matter, which not a little heightened by the lateness of the hour and the solemn silence that reigned in the house, oppressed and haunted her.
With a little gesture of repudiation she put the boy’s face into its covering, and replaced it in the cabinet. As she did so she glanced up at that other face smiling down at her, and started, and a sudden thought, half-weird, half-prophetical, flashed across her mind.
It was the portrait of Lord Leycester which had greeted her on the night of her arrival, and foreshadowed all that had happened to her. Was there anything of significance in this chance discovery of the child’s face?
With a smile of self-reproach she put the fantastic idea from her, and setting the beloved face in its place amongst the other canvases, took the candle from the table, and stole quietly up-stairs.
But when she slept the boy’s face haunted her, and mingled in her dreams with that of Lord Leycester’s.
“What shall I do?” exclaimed Mr. Etheridge.