Jasper Adelstone was in love.
It was some time before he would bring himself to admit it even to himself, for he was wont to pride himself on his superiority to all attacks of the tender passion.
Often and often had he amused himself and his chosen companions by ridiculing the conditions of those weak mortals who allowed themselves to be carried away by what he termed a weak and contemptible affection for the other sex.
Marriage, he used to say, was entirely a matter of business. A man didn’t marry until he was obliged, and then only did so to better himself. As to love, and that kind of thing—well, it was an exploded idea—a myth which had died out; at any rate, too absurd a thing altogether for a man possessed of common sense—for such a man, for instance, as Jasper Adelstone. He had seen plenty of pretty women and was received by them with anything but disfavor. He was good-looking, almost handsome, and would have been that if he could have got rid of the sharp, cunning glint of his small eyes; and he was clever and accomplished. He was just the man, it would have been supposed, to fall a victim to the tender passion; but he had stuck fast by his principles, and gone stealthily along the road to success, with his cold smile ready for everyone in general, and not a warm beam in his heart for anyone in particular.
And now! Yes, he was in love—in love as deeply, unreasoningly, as impulsively as the veriest school-boy.
This was very annoying! It would have been very annoying if the object of his passion had been an heiress or the lady of title whom he had in his inmost mind determined to marry, if he married at all; for he would have preferred to have attained to his ambition without any awkward and inconvenient love-making.
But the girl who had inspired him with this sudden and unreasoning passion was, much to his disgust, neither an heiress nor an offshoot of nobility.
She was a mere nobody—the niece of an obscure painter! She was not even in society!
There was no good to be got by marrying her, none whatever. She could not help him a single step on his ambitious path through life. On the first evening of his meeting with Stella, when the beauty, and, more than her beauty, the nameless charm of her bright, pure freshness, overwhelmed and startled him, he took himself to task very seriously.
“Jasper,” he said, “you won’t go and make a fool of yourself, I hope! She is entirely out of your line. She is only a pretty girl; you’ve seen a score, a hundred as pretty, or prettier; and she’s a mere nobody! Oh, no, you won’t make a fool of yourself—you’ll go back to town to-morrow morning.”
But he did not go back to town; instead, he went into the conservatory at the Rectory, and made up a bouquet and took it to the cottage, and sank deeper still into the mire of foolishness, as he would have called it.
But even then it was not too late. He might have escaped even then by dint of calling up his selfish nature and thinking of all his ambitions; but Stella unfortunately roused—what was more powerful in him than his sudden love—his self-conceit.
She actually dared to defend Lord Leycester Wyndward!
That was almost the finishing stroke, unwittingly dealt by Stella, and he went away inwardly raging with incipient jealousy.
But the last straw was yet to come that should break the back of all his prudent resolves, and that was the meeting with Stella and Lord Leycester in the river-woods, and Lord Leycester’s attack on him.
That moment—the moment when he lay on the ground looking up at the dark, handsome, angry, and somewhat scornful face of the young peer—Jasper Adelstone registered a vow.
He vowed that come what would, by fair means or foul, he would have Stella.
He vowed that he would snatch her from the haughty and fiery young lord who had dared to hurl him, Jasper, to the dust and insult him.
What love he already possessed for her suddenly sprang up into a fierce flame of jealous passion, and as he rode home to the Rectory he repeated that vow several times, and at once, without the loss of an hour, began to hunt about for some means to fulfill it.
He was no fool, this Jasper Adelstone, for all his conceit, and he knew the immense odds against him if Lord Leycester really meant anything by his attention to Stella; he knew what fearful advantages Leycester held—all the Court cards were in his hands. He was handsome, renowned, noble, wealthy—a suitor whom the highest in the land would think twice about before refusing.
He almost guessed, too, that Stella already loved Leycester; he had seen her face turned to the young lord—had heard her voice as she spoke to him.
He ground his teeth together with vicious rage as he thought of the difference between her way of speaking to him and to Leycester.
“But she shall speak to me, look at me like that before the game is over,” he swore to himself. “I can afford to wait for my opportunity; it will come, and I shall know how to use it. Curse him! Yes, I am determined now. I will take him from her.”
It was a bold, audacious resolution; but then Jasper was both bold and audacious in the most dangerous of ways, in the cold, calculating manner of a cunning, unscrupulous man.
He was clever—undoubtedly clever; he had been very successful, and had made that success by his own unaided efforts. Already, young as he was, he was beginning to be talked about. When people were in any great difficulty in his branch of the law, they went to him, sure of finding him cool, ready, and capable.
His chambers in the inn held a little museum of secrets—secrets about persons of rank and standing, who were supposed to be quite free from such inconvenient things as skeletons in cupboards.
People came to him when they were in any social fix; when they owed more money than they could pay; when they wanted a divorce, or were anxious to hush up some secret, whose threatened disclosure involved shame and disgrace, and Jasper Adelstone was always ready with sound advice, and, better still, some subtle scheme or plan.
Yes, he was a successful man, and had failed so seldom—almost never—that he felt he could be confident in this matter, too.
“I have always done well for others,” he thought. “I have gained some difficult points for other people; now I will undertake this difficult matter for myself.”
He went home to the Rectory and pondered, recalling all he knew of old Etheridge. It was very little, and the rector could tell him no more than he knew already.
James Etheridge lived the life of a recluse, appearing to have no friends or relations save Stella; nothing was known about his former life. He had come down into the quiet valley some years ago, and settled at once in the mode of existence which was palpable to all.
“Is he, was he, ever married?” asked Jasper.
The rector thought not.
“I don’t know,” he said. “He certainly hasn’t been married down here. I don’t think anything is known about him.”
And with this Jasper had to be content. All the next day, after his meeting with Stella and Leycester, he strolled about the meadows hoping to see her, but failed. He knew he ought to be in London, but he could not tear himself away.
His arm felt a little stiff, and though there was nothing else the matter with it, he bound it up and hung it in a sling, explaining to the rector that he had fallen from his horse.
Then he heard of the party at the Hall, and grinding his teeth with envy and malice, he stole into the lane and watched Stella start.
In his eyes she looked doubly beautiful since he had sworn to have her, and he wandered about the lane and meadows thinking of her, and thinking, too, of Lord Leycester all that evening, waiting for her to return, to get one look at her.
Fortune favored him with more than a look, for while he was waiting the boy from the post-office came down the lane, and Jasper, with very little difficulty, persuaded him to give up the telegram to his keeping.
I am sorry to say that Jasper was very much tempted to open that telegram, and if he resisted the temptation, it was not in consequence of any pangs of conscience, but because he thought that it would scarcely be worth while.
“It is only some commission for a picture,” he said to himself. “People don’t communicate secretly by telegram excepting in cipher.”
So he delivered it unopened as we know, but when he heard that sudden exclamation of the old man’s he was heartily sorry he had not opened it.
When he parted from Stella at the gate, he walked off down the lane, but only until out of sight, and then returned under the shadow of the hedge and waited.
He could see into the studio, and see the old man sitting in the chair bowed with sorrow; and Stella’s graceful figure hovering about him.
“There was something worth knowing in that telegram,” he muttered. “I was a fool not to make myself acquainted with it. What will he do now?”
He thought the question out, still watching, and the old man’s movements seen plainly through the lighted windows—for Stella had only drawn the muslin curtain too hurriedly and imperfectly—afforded an answer.
“He is going up to town,” he muttered.
He knew that there was an early market train, and felt sure that the old man was going by it.
Hastily glancing at his watch, he set his hat firmly on his head, dipped his arm out of the sling, and ran toward the Rectory; entering by a side door he went to his room, took a bag containing some papers, secured his coat and umbrella, and leaving a note on the breakfast-table to the effect that he was suddenly obliged to go to town, made for the station.
As he did not wish to be seen, he kept in the shadow and waited, and was rewarded in a few minutes by the appearance of Mr. Etheridge.
There was no one on the station beside themselves, and Jasper had no difficulty in keeping out of the old man’s way. A sleepy porter sauntered up and down, yawning and swinging his lantern, and Jasper decided that he wouldn’t trouble him by taking a ticket.
The train came up, Mr. Etheridge got into a first-class carriage, and Jasper, waiting until the last moment, sprang into one at the further end of the train.
“Never mind the ticket,” he said to the porter. “I’ll pay at the other end.”
The train was an express from Wyndward, and Jasper, who knew how to take care of himself, pulled the curtains closed, drew a traveling cap from his bag, and curling himself up went to sleep, while the old man, a few carriages further off, sat with his white head bowed in sorrowful and wakeful meditation.
When the train arrived at the terminus, Jasper, awaking from a refreshing sleep, drew aside the curtain and watched Mr. Etheridge get out, waited until he approached the cab-stand, then following up behind him nearer, heard him tell the cabman to drive him to King’s Hotel, Covent Garden.
Then Jasper called a cab and drove to the square in which his chambers were situated, dismissed the cab, and saw it crawl away out of sight, and climbed up the staircase which served as the approach to the many doors which lined the narrow grim passages.
On one of these doors his name was inscribed in black letters; he opened this door with a key, struck a light, and lit a candle which stood on a ledge, and entered a small room which served for the purpose of a clerk’s office and a client’s waiting-room.
Beyond this, and communicating by a green baize door, was his own business-room, but there were still other rooms behind, one his living-room, another in which he slept, and beyond that a smaller room.
He entered this, and holding the light on high allowed its rays to fall upon a man lying curled up on a small bed.
He was a very small man, with a thin, parchment-lined face, crowned by closely-cropped hair, which is ambiguously described as auburn.
This was Jasper’s clerk, factotum, slave. He it was who sat in the outer office and received the visitors, and ushered them into Jasper’s presence or put them off with excuses.
He was a singular-looking man, no particular age or individuality. Some of Jasper’s friends were often curious as to where Jasper had picked him up, but Jasper always evaded the question or put it by with some jest, and Scrivell’s antecedents remained a mystery.
That he was a devoted and never tiring servant was palpable to all; in Jasper’s presence he seemed to live only to obey his will and anticipate his wishes. Now, at the first touch of Jasper’s hand, the man started and sat bolt upright, screening his eyes from the light and staring at Jasper expectantly.
“Awake, Scrivell?” asked Jasper.
“Yes, sir, quite,” was the reply; and indeed he looked as if he had been on the alert for hours past.
“That’s right. I want you. Get up and dress and come into the next room. I’ll leave the candle.”
“You needn’t, sir,” was the reply. “I can see.”
“I believe you can—like a cat,” he said, and carried the card with him.
In a few minutes—in a very few minutes—the door opened and Scrivell entered.
He looked wofully thin and emaciated, was dressed in an old but still respectable suit of black, and might have been taken for an old man but for the sharp, alert look in his gray eyes, and the sandy hair, which showed no signs of gray.
Jasper was sitting before his dressing-table opening his letters, which he had carried in from the other room.
“Oh, here you are,” he said. “I want you to go out.”
“Do you know King’s Hotel, Covent Garden?” asked Jasper.
“King’s? Yes, sir.”
“Well, I want you to go down there.”
He paused, but he might have known the man would not express any surprise.
“Yes, sir,” he said, as coolly as if Jasper had told him to go to bed again.
“I want you to go down there and keep a look-out for me. A gentleman has just driven there, an old man, rather bent, with long white hair. Understand?”
“Yes,” was the quiet reply.
“He will probably go out the first thing, quite early. I want to know where he goes.”
“Only the first place he goes to?” was the question.
“Suppose you keep an eye upon him generally till, say one o’clock, then come back to me. I want to know his movements, you understand, Scrivell!”
“I understand, sir,” was the answer. “Any name?”
Jasper hesitated a moment, and a faint color came into his face. Somehow he was conscious of a strange reluctance to mention the name—her name; but he overcame it.
“Yes, Etheridge,” he said, quietly, “but that doesn’t matter. Don’t make any inquiries at the hotel or elsewhere, if you can help it.”
“Very good, sir,” said the man, and noiselessly he turned and left the room.
Little did Stella, dreaming in the cottage by the sweet smelling meadows and the murmuring river, think that the first woof of the web which Jasper Adelstone was spinning for her was commenced that night in the grim chambers of Lincoln’s-inn.
As little did Lady Wyndward guess, as she lay awake, vainly striving to find some means of averting the consequences of her son’s “infatuation” for the painter’s niece, that a keener and less scrupulous mind had already set to work in the same direction.
Jasper Adelstone was in love.