Lord Leycester stood for a minute or two looking after the carriage that bore Stella and her uncle away

Lord Leycester stood for a minute or two looking after the carriage that bore Stella and her uncle away; then he returned to the house. They were a hot-headed race, these Wyndwards, and Leycester was, to put it mildly, as little capable of prudence or calculation as any of his line; but though his heart was beating fast, and the vision of the beautiful girl in all her young unstained loveliness danced before his eyes as he crossed the hall, even he paused a moment to consider the situation. With a grim smile he felt forced to confess that it was rather a singular one.
The heir of Wyndward, the hope of the house, the heir to an ancient name and a princely estate, had plighted his troth to the niece of a painter—a girl, be she beautiful as she might, without either rank or wealth, to recommend her to his parents!
He might have chosen from the highest and the wealthiest; the highest and the wealthiest had been, so to speak, at his feet. He knew that no dearer wish existed in his mother’s heart of hearts than that he should marry and settle. Well, he was going to marry and settle. But what a marriage and settlement it would be! Instead of adding luster to the already illustrious name, instead of adding power to the already influential race of Wyndward, it would, in the earl and countess’s eyes, in the opinion of the world, be nothing but a mesalliance.
He paused in the corridor, the two footmen eying him with covert and respectful attention, and a smile curved his lips as he pictured to himself the manner in which the proud countess would receive his avowal of love for Stella Etheridge, the painter’s niece.
Even as it was, he was quite conscious that he had gone very far indeed this evening toward provoking the displeasure of the countess. He had almost neglected the brilliant gathering for the sake of this unknown girl; he had left his mother’s oldest friends, even Lady Lenore herself, to follow Stella. How would they receive him?
With a smile half-defiant, half anticipatory of amusement, he motioned to the servants to withdraw the curtain, and entered the room.
Some of the ladies had already retired; Lady Longford had gone for one, but Lady Lenore still sat on her couch attended by a circle of devoted adherents. As he entered, the countess,[103] without seeming to glance at him, saw him, and noticed the peculiar expression on his face.
It was the expression which it always wore when he was on the brink of some rashly mad exploit.
Leycester had plenty of courage—too much, some said. He walked straight up to the countess, and stood over her.
“Well, mother,” he said, almost as if he were challenging her, “what do you think of her?”
The countess lifted her serene eyes and looked at him. She would not pretend to be ignorant of whom he meant.
“Of Miss Etheridge?” she said. “I have not thought about her. If I had, I should say that she was a very pleasant-looking girl.”
“Pleasant-looking!” he echoed, and his eyebrows went up. “That is a mild way of describing her. She is more than pleasant.”
“That is enough for a young girl in her position,” said the countess.
“Or in any,” said a musical voice behind him, and Lord Leycester, turning round, saw Lady Lenore.
“That was well said,” he said, nodding.
“She is more than pleasant,” said Lady Lenore, smiling at him as if he had won her warmest approbation by neglecting her all the evening. “She is very pretty, beautiful, indeed, and so—may I say the word, dear Lady Wyndward?—so fresh!”
The countess smiled with her even brows unclouded.
“A school-girl should be fresh, as you put it Lenore, or she is nothing.”
Lord Leycester looked from one to the other, and his gaze rested on Lady Lenore’s superb beauty with a complacent eye.
To say that a man in love is blind to all women other than the one of his heart is absurd. It is not true. He had never admired Lady Lenore more than he did this moment when she spoke in Stella’s defense; but he admired her while he loved Stella.
“You are right, Lenore,” he said. “She is beautiful.”
“I admire her exceedingly,” said Lady Lenore, smiling at him as if she knew his secret and approved of it.
The countess glanced from one to the other.
“It is getting late,” she said. “You must go now, Lenore.”
Lady Lenore bowed her head. She, like all else who came within the circle of the mistress of Wyndward, obeyed her.
“Very well, I am a little tired. Good-night!”
Lord Leycester took her hand, but held it a moment. He felt grateful to her for the word spoken on Stella’s behalf.
“Let me see you to the corridor,” said Lord Leycester.
And with a bow which comprehended the other occupants of the room, he accompanied her.
They walked in silence to the foot of the stairs, then Lady Lenore held out her hand.
“Good-night,” she said, “and happy dreams.”
He looked at her curiously. Was there any significance in her[104] words?—did she know all that had passed between Stella and himself?
But nothing more significant met his scrutiny than the soft languor of her eyes, and pressing her hand as he bent over it, he murmured:
“I wish you the same.”
She nodded smilingly to him, and went away, and he turned back to the hall.
As he did so the billiard-room door opened, and Lord Charles put out his head.
“One game, Ley?” he said.
Lord Leycester shook his head.
“Not to-night, Charlie.”
Lord Charles looked at him, then laughed, and withdrew his head.
Leycester sauntered down the hall and back again; he felt very restless and disinclined for bed; Stella’s voice was ringing in his ears, Stella’s lips still clung with that last soft caress to his. He could not face the laughter and hard voices of the billiard-room; it would be profanation! With a sudden turn he went lightly up the stairs and entered his own room.
Throwing himself into a chair, he folded his arms behind his head and closed his eyes, to call up a vision of the girl who had rested on his breast—whose sweet, pure lips had murmured “I love you!”
“My darling!” he whispered—”my darling love! I have never known it till now. And I shall see you to-morrow, and hear you whisper that again, ‘I love you!’ And it’s ME she loves, not the viscount and heir to Wyndward, but me, Leycester! Leycester—it was a hard, ugly name until she spoke it—now it sounds like music. Stella, my star, my angel!”
Suddenly his reverie was disturbed by a knock at the door. With a start, he came back to reality, and got up, but before he could reach the door it opened, and the countess came in.
“Not in bed?” she said, with a smile.
“I have only just come up,” he replied.
The countess smiled again.
“You have been up nearly half an hour.”
He was almost guilty of a blush.
“So long!” he said, “I must have been thinking.”
And he laughed, as he drew a chair forward. He waited until she was seated before he resumed his own; never, by word or deed, did he permit himself to grow lax in courtesy to her; and then he looked up at her with a smile.
“Have you come for a chat, my lady?” he said, calling her by her title in the mock-serious way in which he was accustomed to address her when they were alone.
“Yes, I have come for a chat, Leycester,” she said, quietly.
“Does that mean a scold?” he asked, raising his eyebrows, but still smiling. “Your tone is suspicious, mother. Well, I am at your mercy.”
“I have nothing to scold you for,” said the countess, leaning[105] back in the comfortable chair—all the chairs were comfortable in these rooms of his. “Do you feel that you deserve one?”
Lord Leycester was silent. If he had answered he might have been compelled to admit that perhaps there was some excuse for complaint in regard to his conduct that evening; silence was safest.
“No, I have not come to scold you, Leycester. I don’t think I have ever done that,” said the countess, softly.
“No, you have been the best of mothers, my lady,” he responded. “I never saw you in an ill temper in my life; perhaps that is why you look so young. You do look absurdly young, you know,” he added, gazing at her with affectionate admiration.
When the countess seemed lost in thought, Leycester added:
“Devereux says that the majority of English wives and mothers look so girlish that he believes it must be the custom to marry them when they are children.”
The countess smiled.
“Lord Devereux is master of fine phrases, Leycester. Yes, I was married very young.”
Then she looked round the room: a strange reluctance to commence the task she had set herself took possession of her.
“You have made your rooms very pretty, Leycester.”
He leant back, watching her with a smile.
“You haven’t come to talk about my rooms, mother.”
Then she straightened herself for her work.
“No, Leycester, I have come to talk about you.”
“Rather an uninteresting subject. However, proceed.”
“You may make it very hard for me,” said the countess, with a little sigh.
He smiled.
“Then you have come to scold?”
“No, only to advise.”
“That is generally the same thing under another name.”
“I do not often do it,” said the countess, in a low voice.
“Forgive me,” he said, stooping forward and kissing her. “Now, mother, fire away. What is it? Not about that race money—you don’t want me to give up the horses?”
The countess smiled almost scornfully.
“Why should I, Leycester; they cost a great deal of money, but if they amuse you, why——” and she shrugged her shoulders slightly.
“They do cost a great deal of money,” he said, with a laugh, “but I don’t know that they amuse me very much. I don’t think anything amuses me very greatly.”
Then the countess looked at him.
“When a man talks like that, Leycester, it generally means that it is time he was married!”
He half expected what was coming, but he looked grave; nevertheless he turned to her with a smile.
“Isn’t that rather a desperate remedy, my lady?” he said. “I can give up my horses if they cease to amuse me and bore me too much; I can give up most of the other so-called amusements,[106] but marriage—supposing that should fail? It would be rather serious.”
“Why should it fail?”
“It does sometimes,” he retorted, gravely.
“Not when love enters into it,” she answered, gently.
He was silent, his eyes bent on the ground, from which seemed to rise a slim, girlish figure, with Stella’s face and eyes.
“There is no greater happiness than that which marriage affords when one is married to the person one loves. Do you think your father has been unhappy, Leycester?”
He turned to her with a smile.
“Every man—few men have his luck, my lady. Will you find me another Lady Ethel?”
She colored. This was a direct question, and she longed to answer it, but she dared not—not just yet.
“The world is full of fond, loving women,” she said.
He nodded. He thought he knew one at least, and his eyes went to that mental vision of Stella again.
“Leycester, I want to see you married and settled,” she murmured, after a pause. “It is time; it is fitting that you should be. I’ll put the question of your own happiness aside for the moment; there are other things at stake.”
“You would not like me to be the last Earl of Wyndward, mother? The title would die with me, would it not?”
“Yes,” she said. “That must not be, Leycester.”
He shook his head with a quiet smile. No, it should not be, he thought.
“I wonder,” she continued, “that the thing has not come about before this, and without any word of mine. I don’t think you are very hard-hearted, unimpressionable, Leycester. You and I have met some beautiful women, and some good and pure ones. I should not have been surprised if you had come to me with the confession of your conquest long ago. You would have come to me, would you not, Leycester?” she asked.
A faint flush stole over his face, and his eyes dropped slightly. He did not answer for a moment, and she went on as if he had assented.
“I should have been very glad to have heard of it. I should have welcomed your choice very heartily.”
“Are you sure?” he said, almost mechanically.
“Quite,” she answered, serenely. “Your wife will be a second daughter to me, I hope, Leycester. I know that I should love her if you do; are we ever at variance?”
“Never until to-night,” he might have answered, but he remained silent.
What if he should turn to her with the frank openness with which he had gone to her in all his troubles and joys, and say:
“I have made my choice—welcome her. She is Stella Etheridge, the painter’s daughter.”
But he could not do this; he knew so well how she would have looked at him, saw already with full prophetic insight the calm, serene smile of haughty incredulity with which she would have received his demand. He was silent.
“You wonder why I speak to you about this to-night, Leycester?”
“A little,” he said, with a smile that had very little mirth in it; he felt that he was doing what he had never done before—concealing his heart from her, meeting her with secrecy and evasion, and his proud, finely-tempered mind revolted at the necessity for it. “A little. I was just considering that I had not grown older by a score of years, and had not been doing anything particularly wild. Have they been telling you any dreadful stories about me, mother, and persuading you that matrimony is the only thing to save me from ruin?” and he laughed.
The countess colored.
“No one tells me any stories respecting you, Leycester, for the simple reason that I should not listen to them. I have nothing to do with—with your outer life, unless you yourself make me part and parcel of it. I am not afraid that you will do anything bad or dishonorable, Leycester.”
“Thanks,” he said, quietly. “Then what is it, mother? Why does this advice press so closely on your soul that you feel constrained to unburden yourself?”
“Because I feel that the time has come,” she said; “because I have your happiness and welfare so closely at heart that I am obliged to watch over you, and secure them for you if I can.”
“There never was a mother like you!” he said, gently. “But this is a serious step, my lady, and I am—shall I say slightly unprepared. You speak to me as if I were a sultan, and had but to throw my handkerchief at any fair maid whom I may fancy, to obtain her!”
The countess looked at him, and for a moment all her passionate pride in him shone in her eyes.
“Is there no one to whom you think you could throw that handkerchief, Leycester?” she asked, significantly.
His face flushed, and his eyes glowed. At that moment he felt the warm lips of his girl-love resting on his own.
“That is a blunt question, my lady,” he said; “would it be fair to reply, fair to her, supposing that there be one?”
“In whom should you confide but in me?” said the countess, with a touch of hauteur in her voice, hauteur softened by love.
He looked down and turned the ruby ring on his finger. If he could but confide in her!
“In whom else but in me, from whom you have, I think, had few secrets? If your choice is made, you would come to me, Leycester? I think you would; I cannot imagine your acting otherwise. You see I have no fear”—and she smiled—”no fear that your choice would be anything but a good and a wise one. I know you so well, Leycester. You have been wild—you yourself said it, not I!”
“Yes,” he said, quietly.
“But through it all you have not forgotten the race from whence you sprung, the name you bear. No, I do not fear that[108] most disastrous of all mistakes which a man in your position can make—a mesalliance.”
He was silent, but his brows drew together.
“You speak strangely, my lady,” he said, almost grimly.
“Yes,” she assented, calmly, serenely, but with a grave intensity in her tone which lent significance to every word—”yes, I feel strongly. Every mother who has a son in your position feels as strongly, I doubt not. There are few mad things that you can do which will not admit of remedy and rectification; one of them, the worst of them, is a foolish marriage.”
“Marriages are made in heaven,” he murmured.
“No,” she said, gently, “a great many are made in a very different place. But why need we talk of this? We might as well discuss whether it would be wise of you to commit manslaughter, or burglary, or suicide, or any other vulgar crime—and indeed a mesalliance would, in your case, strongly resemble one, suicide; it would be social suicide, at least; and from what I know of your nature, Leycester, I do not think that would suit you.”
“I think not,” he said, grimly. “But, mother, I am not contemplating a matrimonial union with one of the dairymaids, not at present.”
She smiled.
“You might commit a mesalliance with one in higher position, Leycester. But why do we talk of this?”
“I think you commenced it,” he said.
“Did I?” she said, sweetly. “I beg your pardon. I feel as if I had insulted you by the mere chance mention of such a thing; and I have tired you, too.”
And she rose with queenly grace.
“No, no,” he said, rising, “I am very grateful, mother; you will believe that?”
“Will you be more than that?” she asked, putting her hand on his shoulder, and sliding it round his neck. “Will you be obedient?”
And she smiled at him lovingly.
“Will I get out the handkerchief, do you mean?” he asked, looking at her with a curious gaze.
“Yes,” she replied; “make me happy by throwing it.”
“And suppose,” he said, “that the favored damsel declines the honor?”
“We will risk that,” she murmured, with a smile.
He laughed.
“One would think you had already chosen, mother,” he said.
She looked at him, with the smile still shining in her eyes and on her lips.
“Suppose I have? There is no matchmaker like a mother.”
He started.
“You have? You surprise me! May one ask on whom your choice has fallen, sultaness?”
“Think,” she said, in a low voice.
“I am thinking very deeply,” he answered, with hidden meaning.
“If I were left to choose for you, I should be very exacting, Leycester, don’t you think?”
“I am afraid so,” he said, with a smile. “Every goose thinks her bantling a swan, and would mate it with an eagle. Forgive me, mother!”
She inclined her head.
“I should require much. I should want beauty, wealth——”
“Of which we have too much already. Go on.”
“Rank, and what is still better, a high position. The Wyndwards cannot troop with crows, Leycester.”
“Beauty, wealth, rank, and a mysterious sort of position. A princess, perhaps, my lady?”
tumblr_o5ezn8n9ol1uqlhgjo1_1280A proud light shone in her eyes.
“I should not feel abased in the presence of a princess, if you brought her to me,” she said, with that serene hauteur which characterized her. “No, I am satisfied with less than that, Leycester.”
“I am relieved,” he said, smiling. “And this exalted personage—paragon I should say—who is she?”
“Look round—you need not strain your vision,” she returned: “I can see her now. Oh, blind, blind! that you cannot see her also! She whom I see is more than all these; she is a woman with a loving heart in her bosom, that needs but a word to set it beating for—you!”
His face flushed.
“I can think of no one,” he said. “You make one ashamed, mother.”
“I need not tell you her name, then?” she said.
But he shook his head.
“I must know it now, I think,” he said, gravely.
She was silent a moment, then she said in a low voice:
“It is Lenore, Leycester.”
He drew away from her, so that her arm fell from his shoulder, and looked her full in the face.
Before him rose the proud, imperial figure, before him stood the lovely face of Lenore, with its crown of golden hair, and its deep, eloquent eyes of violet, and beside it, hovering like a spirit, the face of his girl-love.
The violet eyes seemed to gaze at him with all the strength of conscious loveliness, seemed to bend upon him with a glance of defiance, as if they said—”I am here, waiting: I smile, you cannot resist me!” and the dark, tender eyes beside them seemed to turn upon him with gentle, passionate pleading, praying him to be constant and faithful.
“Lenore!” he said, in a low voice. “Mother, ought you to have said this?”
She did not shrink from his almost reproachful gaze.
“Why should I hesitate when my son’s happiness is at stake?” she said, calmly. “If I saw a treasure, some pearl of great price, lying at your feet, and felt that you were passing it by unnoticed and disregarded, should I be wrong in speaking the word[110] that would place it in your grasp? Your happiness is my—life Leycester! If ever there was a treasure, a pearl of great price among women, it is Lenore. Are you passing her by? You will not do that!”
Never, since he could remember, had he seen her so moved. Her voice was calm and even, as usual, but her eyes were warm with an intense earnestness, the diamonds trembled on her neck.
He stood before her, looking away beyond her, a strange trouble at his heart. For the first time he saw—he appreciated, rather—the beautiful girl whom, as it were, she held up to his mental gaze. But that other, that girl-love whose lips still seemed to murmur, “I love you, Leycester!” What of her!
With a sudden start he moved away.
“I do not think you should have spoken,” he said. “You cannot know——”
The countess smiled.
“A mother’s eyes are quick,” she said. “A word and the pearl is at your feet, Leycester.”
He was but a man, warm-blooded and impressionable, and for a moment his face flushed, but the “I love you” still rang in his ears.
“If that be so, all the more cause for silence, mother,” he said. “But I hope you are mistaken.”
“I am not mistaken,” she said. “Do you think,” and she smiled, “that I should have spoken if I had not been sure? Oh, Leycester,” and she moved toward him, “think of her! Is there any beauty so beautiful as hers; is there any one woman you have ever met who possessed a tithe of her charms! Think of her as the head of the house; think of her in my place——”
He put up his hand.
“Think of her,” she went on, quickly, “as your own, your very own! Leycester, there is no man born who could turn away from her!”
Almost involuntarily he turned and went to the fireplace, and leant upon it.
“There is no man, who, so turning, but would in time give all that he possessed to come back to her!”
Then her voice changed.
“Leycester, you have been very good. Are you angry?”
“No,” he said, and he went to her; “not angry, but—but troubled. You think only of me, but I think of Lenore.”
“Think of her still!” she said; “and be sure that I have made no mistake. If you doubt me, put it to the test——”
He started.
“And you will find that I am right. I am going now, Leycester. Good-night!” and she kissed him.
He went to the door and opened it; his face was pale and grave.
“Good-night,” he said, gently. “You have given me something to think of with a vengeance,” and he forced a smile.
She went out without a word. Her maid was waiting for her in her dressing-room, but she passed into the inner room and[111] sank down in a chair, and for the first time her face was pale, and her eyes anxious.
“It has gone further than I thought,” she murmured. “I, who know every look in his eyes, read his secret. But it shall not be. I will save him yet. But how? but how?”
Poor Stella!
Lord Leicester, left alone, fell to pacing the room, his brow bent, his mind in a turmoil.
He loved his mother with a passionate devotion, part and parcel of his nature. Every word she had said had sunk into his mind; he loved her, and he knew her; he knew that she would rather die than give her consent to his marriage with such an one as Stella, pure and good and sweet though she was.
He was greatly troubled, but he stood firm.
“Come what will,” he murmured, “I cannot part with her. She is my treasure and pearl of great price, and I have not passed her by. My darling!”
Suddenly, breaking into his reverie, came a knock at the door.
He went to open it but it opened before he could reach it, and Lord Charles walked in.
There was a smile on his handsome, light-hearted face, which barely hid an expression of affectionate sympathy.
“Anything the matter, old man?” he said, closing the door.
“Yes—no—not much—why?” said Leycester, forcing a smile.
“Why!” echoed Lord Charles, thrusting his hands into the huge pockets of his dressing-gown, and eying him with mock reproach. “Can you ask when you remember that my room is exactly underneath yours, and that it sounds as if you had turned this into the den of a traveling menagerie? What are you wearing the carpet out for, Ley?” and he sat down and looked up at the troubled face with that frank sincerity which invites confidence.
“I’m in a fix,” said Leycester.
“Come on,” said Lord Charles, curtly.
“I can’t. You can’t help me in this,” said Leycester, with a sigh.
Lord Charles rose at once.
“Then I’ll go. I wish I could. What have you been doing, Ley?—something to-night, I expect. Never mind; if I can help you, you’ll let me know.”
Leycester threw him a cigar-case.
“Sit down and smoke, Charlie,” he said. “I can’t open my mind, but I want to think, and you’ll help me. Is it late?”
“Awfully,” said Lord Charles with a yawn. “What a jolly evening it has been. I say, Ley, haven’t you been carrying it on rather thick with that pretty girl with the dark eyes?”
Leycester paused in his task of lighting a cigar, and looked down at him.
“Which girl?” he said, with a little touch of hauteur in his face.
“The painter’s niece,” said Lord Charles. “What a beautiful girl she is! Reminds me of a what-do-you-call-it.”
“What is that?”
“A—a gazelle. It’s rather a pity that she should be intended for that saucy lawyer fellow.”
“What?” asked Lord Leycester, quietly.
“Haven’t you heard?” said Lord Charles, grimly. “The fellows were talking about it in the billiard-room.”
“About what?” demanded Lord Leycester, still quietly, though his eyes glittered. Stella the common talk of the billiard-room. It was desecration.
“Oh, it was Longford, he knows the man!”
“What man?”
“This Jasper Adelstone she is engaged to.”
Lord Leycester held the cigar to his lips, and his teeth closed over it with a sudden fierce passion.
Coming upon all that had passed, this was the last straw.
“It’s a lie!” he said.
Lord Charles looked up with a start, then his face grew grave.
“Perhaps so,” he said; “but, after all, it can’t matter to you, Ley.”
Lord Leycester turned away in silence.