When Stella awoke in the morning it was with a start that she remembered the scene of last night, and that she was, with the exception of Mrs. Penfold, alone in the cottage.
While she was dressing she recalled the incidents of the eventful evening—the party at the Hall, the telegram, and, not least, the finding of the mysterious miniature. But, above all, there shone out clear and distinct the all-important fact that Lord Leycester loved her, and that she had promised to meet him this evening.
But for the present there was much on her mind. She had to meet Mrs. Penfold, and communicate the information that Mr. Etheridge had suddenly been called to London on important business.
She could not suppress a smile as she pictured Mrs. Penfold’s astonishment and curiosity, and wondered how she should satisfy the latter without betraying the small amount of confidence which her uncle had placed in her.
She went down-stairs to find the breakfast laid, and Mrs. Penfold hovering about with unconcealed impatience.
“Where’s your uncle, Miss Stella?” she asked. “I do hope he hasn’t gone sketching before breakfast, for he is sure to forget all about it, and won’t come back till dinner-time, if he does then.”
“Uncle has gone to London,” said Stella.
“To—where?” demanded Mrs. Penfold.
Then Stella explained.
“Gone to London last night; hasn’t slept in his bed! Why, miss, how could you let him?”
“But he was obliged to go,” said Stella, with a little sigh and a rueful glance at the empty chair opposite her own.
“Obliged!” exclaimed Mrs. Penfold. “Whatever was the matter? Your uncle isn’t obliged to go anywhere, Miss Stella!” she added with a touch of pride.
Stella shook her head.
“There was a telegram,” she said. “I don’t know what the business was, but he was obliged to go.”
Mrs. Penfold stood stock-still in dismay and astonishment.
“It will be the death of him!” she breathed, awe-struck. “He never goes anywhere any distance, and starting off like that, Miss Stella, in the dead of night, and after being out at the Hall—why it’s enough to kill a gentleman like him who can’t bear any noise or anything sudden like.”
“I’m very sorry,” said Stella. “He said that he was obliged to go.”
“And when is he coming back?” asked Mrs. Penfold.
Stella shook her head.
“I don’t know. I hope to-day—I do hope to-day! It all seems so quiet and lonely without him.” And she looked round the room, and sighed.
Mrs. Penfold stood, with the waiter in her hand, staring at the beautiful face.
“You—you don’t know what it is, Miss Stella?” she asked, in a low voice, and with a certain significance in her tone.
Stella looked up at her.
“No, I don’t know—uncle did not tell me,” she replied.
Mrs. Penfold looked at her curiously, and seemed lost in thought.
“And you don’t know where he’s gone, Miss Stella? I don’t ask out of curiosity.”
“I’m sure of that,” said Stella, warmly. “No, I don’t know.”
“And you don’t guess?”
Stella looked up at her with wide open eyes, and shook her head.
Mrs. Penfold turned the waiter in her hand, then she said suddenly:
“I wish Mr. Adelstone was here.”
Mrs. Penfold nodded.
“Yes, Miss Stella. He is such a clever young gentleman, and he’s so friendly, he’d do anything for your uncle. He always was friendly, but he’s more so than ever now.”
“Is he?” said Stella. “Why?”
Mrs. Penfold looked at her with a smile, which died away before Stella’s look of unconsciousness.
“I don’t know, Miss Stella; but he is. He is always about the cottage. Oh, I forgot! he called yesterday, and left something for you.”
And she went out, returning presently with a bouquet of flowers.
“I took them in the pantry, to keep cool and fresh. Aren’t they beautiful, miss?”
“Very,” said Stella, smelling them and holding them a little way from her, after the manner of her sex. “Very beautiful. It is very kind of him. Are they for uncle, or for me?”
Mrs. Penfold smiled.
“For you, Miss Stella. Is it likely he’d leave them for your uncle?”
“I don’t know,” said Stella; “he is uncle’s friend, not mine. Will you put them in water, please?”
Mrs. Penfold took them with a little air of disappointment. It was not in this cool manner that she expected Stella to receive the flowers.
“Yes, miss; and there’s nothing to be done?”
“No,” said Stella; “except to wait for my uncle’s return.”
Mrs. Penfold hesitated a moment, then she went out.
Stella made an effort to eat some breakfast, but it was a failure; she felt restless and listless; a spell seemed to have been cast over the little house—a spell of mystery and secrecy.
After breakfast she took up her hat and wandered about the garden, communing with herself, and ever watching the path across the meadows, though she knew that her uncle could not possibly return yet.
The day wore away and the evening came, and as the daylight gave place to sunset, Stella’s heart beat faster. All day she had been thinking—dreaming of the hour that was now so near at hand, longing for and yet almost dreading it. This love was so strange, so mysterious a thing, that it almost frightened her.
Almost for the first time she asked herself whether she was not doing wrong—whether she had not better stay at home and give up this precious meeting.
But she mentally pictured Lord Leycester’s waiting for her—mentally called up the tone of his voice welcoming her, and her conscience was stilled.
“I must go!” she murmured, and as if afraid lest she should change her mind, she put on her hat, and went down the path with a quick step. But she turned back at the gate, and called to Mrs. Penfold.
“I am going for a stroll,” she said, with a sudden blush. “If uncle returns while I am away, tell him I shall not be long.”
And then she went across the meadows to the river bank.
All was silent save the thrushes in the woods and the nightingale with its long liquid note and short “jug, jug,” and she sank down upon the grassy bank and waited.
The clock struck the hour of appointment, and her heart beat fast.
Suppose he did not come! Her cheek paled, and a faint sickening feeling of disappointment crept over her. The minutes passed, hours they seemed, and then with a sudden resolution she rose.
“He will not come,” she murmured. “I will go back; it is better so!”
But even as the words left her lips sadly, a light skiff shot from the shadow of the opposite bank and flew across the river.
It was Lord Leycester, she knew him though his back was turned toward her and he was dressed in a suit of boating flannel, and her heart leapt.
With practiced ease he brought the skiff alongside the bank and sprang up beside her, both hands outstretched.
“My darling!” he murmured, his eyes shining with a greeting as passionate as his words—”have you been waiting long? Did you think I was not coming?”
Stella put her hands in his and glanced up at him for a moment; her face flushed, then paled.
“I—I—did not know,” she said, shyly, but with a little smile lurking in the corner of her red lips.
“You knew I should come,” he went on. “What should, what could, prevent me? Stella! I was here before you. I have been lying under that tree, watching you; you looked so beautiful that I lay there feasting my eyes, and reluctant to move lest I should dispel the beautiful vision.”
Stella looked across and her eyes drooped.
“You where there while I—I was thinking that you had perhaps—forgotten!”
“Forgotten!” and he laughed softly. “I have been looking forward to this hour; I dreamt of it last night. Can you say the same, Stella?”
She was silent for a moment, then she looked up at him shyly, as a soft “Yes” dropped from her lips.
He would have drawn her close to him, but she shrank back with a little frightened gesture.
“Come,” he said, and he drew her gently toward the boat.
“Suppose,” she said, “someone saw us,” and the color flew to her face.
“And if!” he retorted, with a sudden look of defiance, which melted in a moment. “There is no fear of that, my darling; we will go down the back water. Come.”
There was no resisting that low-voiced mingling of entreaty and loving command. With the tenderest care he helped her into the boat and arranged the cushion for her.
“See,” he said, “if we meet any boat you must put up your sunshade, but we shall not where we are going.”
Stella leant back and watched him under her lowered lids as he rowed—every stroke of the strong arm sending the boat along like an arrow from the bow—and an exquisite happiness fell upon her. She did not want him to speak; it was enough for her to sit and watch him, to know that he was within reach of her hand if she bent forward, to feel that he loved her.
He rowed down stream until they came to an island; then he guided the boat out of the principal current into a back water, and rested on his oars.
“Now let me look at you!” he said. “I haven’t had an opportunity yet.”
Stella put up her sunshade to shield her face, and laughingly he drew it away.
“That is not fair. I have been thirsting for a glance from those dark eyes all day. I cannot have them hidden now. And what are you thinking of?” he asked, smilingly, but with suppressed eagerness, “There is a serious little look in those eyes of yours—of mine! They are mine, are they not, Stella? What is it?”
“Shall I tell you?” she answered, in a low voice.
“Yes,” he said. “You shall whisper it. Let me come nearer to you,” and he sank down at her feet and put up his hand for hers. “Now then.”
Stella hesitated a moment.
“I was thinking and wondering whether this—whether this isn’t very wrong, Le—Leycester.”
The name dropped almost inaudibly, but he heard it and put her hand to his lips.
“Wrong?” he said, as if he were weighing the question most judiciously. “Yes and no. Yes, if we do not love each other, we two. No, if we do. I can speak for myself, Stella. My conscience is at rest because I love you. And you?”
Her hand closed in his.
“No, my darling,” he said, “I would not ask you to do anything wrong. It may be a little unconventional, this stolen half-hour of ours—perhaps it is; but what do you and I care for the conventional? It is our happiness we care for,” and he smiled up at her.
It was a dangerously subtle argument for a girl of nineteen, and coming from the man she loved, but it sufficed for Stella, who scarcely knew the full meaning of the term “conventional,” but, nevertheless, she looked down at him with a serious light in her eye.
“I wonder if Lady Lenore would have done it,” she said.
A cloud like a summer fleece swept across his face.
“Lenore?” he said, then he laughed. “Lenore and you are two very different persons, thank Heaven. Lenore,” and he laughed, “worships the conventional! She would not move a step in any direction excepting that properly mapped out by Mrs. Grundy.”
“You would not ask her, then?” said Stella.
“No, I should not,” he said, emphatically and significantly. “I should not ask anyone but you, my darling. Would you wish me to?”
“No, no,” she said hastily, and she laughed.
“Then let us be happy,” he said, caressing her hand. “Do you know that you have made a conquest—I mean in addition to myself?”
“No,” she said. “I?”
“Yes, you,” he repeated. “I mean my sister Lilian.”
“Ah!” said Stella, with a little glad light in her eyes. “How beautiful and lovable she is!”
“Yes, and she has fallen in love with you. We are very much alike in our tastes,” he said, with a significant smile. “Yes, she thinks you beautiful and lovable.”
Stella looked down at the ardent face, so handsome in its passionate eagerness.
“Did you—did you tell her?” she murmured.
He understood what she meant, and shook his head.
“No; it was to be a secret—our secret for the present, my darling. I did not tell her.”
“She would be sorry,” said Stella. “They would all be sorry, would they not?” she added, sadly.
“Why should you think of that?” he expostulated, gently. “What does it matter? All will come right in the end. They will not be sorry when you are my wife. When is it to be, Stella?” and his voice grew thrillingly soft.
Stella started, and a scarlet blush flushed her face.
“Ah, no!” she said, almost pantingly, “not for very, very long—perhaps never!”
“It must be very soon,” he murmured, putting his arm around her. “I could not wait long! I could not endure existence if we should chance to be parted. Stella, I never knew what love meant until now! If you knew how I have waited for this meeting of ours, how the weary hours have hung with leaden weight upon my hands, how miserably dull the day seemed, you would understand.”
“Perhaps I do,” she said softly, and the dark eyes dwelt upon his musingly as she recalled her own listlessness and impatience.
“Then you must think as I do!” he said, quick to take advantage. “Say you do, Stella! Think how very happy we should be.”
She did think, and the thought made her tremble with excess of joy.
“We two together in the world! Where we would go and what we would do! We could go to all the beautiful places—your own Italy, Switzerland! and always together—think of it.”
“I am thinking,” she said with a smile.
He drew closer and put her arm around his neck. The very innocence and purity of her love inflamed his passion and enhanced her charms in his sight.
He had been loved before, but never like this, with such perfect, unquestioning love.
“Well, then, my darling, why should we wait? It must be soon, Stella.”
“No, no,” she said, faintly. “Why should it? I—I am very happy.”
“What is it you dread? Is it so dreadful the thought that we should be alone together—all in all to each other?”
“It is not that,” said Stella, her eyes fixed on the line of light that fell on the water from the rising moon. “It is not that. I am thinking of others.”
“Always of others!” he said, with tender reproach. “Think of me—of ourselves.”
“I wish——” she said.
“Wish,” he coaxed her. “See if I cannot gratify it. I will, if it be possible.”
“It is not possible,” she said. “I was going to say that I wish you were not—what you are.”
“You said something like that last night,” he said. “Darling, I have wished it often. You wish that I were plain Mr. Brown.”
“No, no,” she said, with a smile; “not that.”
“That I were a Mr. Wyndward——”
“With no castle,” she broke in. “Ah, if that could be! If you were only, say, a workman! How good that would be! Think! you would live in a little cottage, and you would go to work, and come home at night, and I should be waiting for you with your tea—do they have tea or dinner?” she broke off to inquire, with a laugh.
“You see,” he said, returning her laugh, “it would not do. Why, Stella, you were not made for a workman’s wife; the sordid cares of poverty are for different natures to yours. And yet we should be happy, we two.” And he sighed wistfully. “You would be glad to see me come home, Stella?”
“Yes,” she said, half seriously, half archly. “I have seen them in Italy, the peasants’ wives, standing at the cottage doors, the hot sunset lighting up their faces and their colored kerchiefs, waiting for their husbands, and watching them as they climbed the hills from the pastures and the vineyards, and they have looked so happy that I—I have envied them. I was not happy in Italy, you know.”
“My Stella!” he murmured. His love for her was so deep and passionate, his sympathy so keen that half phrases were as plainly understood by him as if she had spoken for hours. “And so you would wait for me at some cottage door?” he said. “Well, it shall be so. I will leave England, if you like—leave the castle and take some little ivy-green cottage.”
She smiled, and shook her head.
“Then they would have reason to complain,” she said; “they would say ‘she has dragged him down to her level—she has taught him to forget all the duties of his rank and high position—she has’—what is it Tennyson says—’robbed him of all the uses of life, and left him worthless.'”
Lord Leycester looked up at the exquisite face with a new light of admiration.
This was no mere pretty doll, no mere bread-and-butter school-girl to whom he had given his love, but a girl who thought, and who could express her thoughts.
“Stella!” he murmured, “you almost frighten me with your wisdom. Where did you learn such experience? Well, it is not to be a cottage, then; and I am not to work in the fields or tend the sheep. What then remains? Nothing, save that you take your proper place in the world as my wife;” the indescribable tenderness with which he whispered the last word brought the warm blood to her face. “Where should I find a lovelier face to add to the line of portraits in the old hall? Where should I find a more graceful form to stand by my side and welcome my guests? Where a more ‘gracious ladye’ than the maiden I love?”
“Oh, hush! hush!” whispered Stella, her heart beating beneath the exquisite pleasure of his words, and the gently passionate voice in which they were spoken. “I am nothing but a simple, stupid girl, who knows nothing except——” she stopped.
“Except!” he pressed her.
She looked at the water a moment, then she bent down, and lightly touched his hand with her lips.
“Except that she loves you!”
It was all summed up in this. He did not attempt to return the caress; he took it reverentially, half overwhelmed with it. It was as if a sudden stillness had fallen on nature, as if the night stood still in awe of her great happiness.
They were silent for a minute, both wrapped in thoughts of the other, then Stella said suddenly, and with a little not-to-be-suppressed sigh:
“I must go! See, the moon is almost above the trees.”
“It rises early to-night, very,” he said, eagerly.
“But I must go,” she said.
“Wait a moment,” he pleaded. “Let us go on shore and walk to the weir—only to the weir; then we will come back and I will row you over. It will not take five minutes! Come, I want to show it to you with the moon on it. It is a favorite spot of mine; I have often stood and watched it as the water danced over it in the moonlight. I want to do so this evening, with you by my side. I am selfish, am I not?”
He helped her out of the boat, almost taking her in his arms, and touching her sleeve with his lips; in his chivalrous mood he would not so far take advantage of her in her helplessness as to kiss her face, and they walked hand in hand, as they used to do in the good old days when men and women were not ashamed of love.
Why is it that they should be now? Why is it that when a pair of lovers indulge on the stage in the most chaste of embraces, a snigger and a grin run through the audience? In this age of burlesque and satire, of sarcasm and cynicism, is there to be no love making? If so, what are poets and novelists to write about—the electric light and the science of astronomy?
They walked hand in hand, Leycester Wyndward Viscount Trevor, heir to Wyndward and an earldom, and Stella, the painter’s niece, and threaded the wood, keeping well under the shadows of the high trees, until they reached the bank where the weir touched.
Lord Leycester took her to the brink and held her lightly.
“See,” he said, pointing to the silver stream of water; “isn’t that beautiful; but it is not for its beauty only that I have brought you to the river. Stella, I want you to plight your troth to me here.”
“Here?” she said, looking up at his eager face.
“Yes; this spot is reported haunted—haunted by good fairies instead of evil spirits. We will ask them to smile on our betrothal, Stella.”
She smiled, and watched his eyes with half-serious amusement; there was a strange light of earnestness in them.
Stooping down he took up a handful of the foaming water and threw a few drops on her head and a few on his own.
“That is the old Danish rite, Stella,” he said. “Now repeat after me—
“‘Come joy or woe, come pain or pleasure,
Come poverty or richest treasure,
I cling to thee, love, heart unto heart,
Till death us sever, we will not part.'”
Stella repeated the words after him with a faint smile on her lips, which died away under the glow of his earnest eyes.
Then, as the last words dropt hurriedly from her lips, he took her in his arms and kissed her.
“Now we are betrothed, Stella, you and I against all the world.”
As he spoke a cloud sailed across the moon, and the shadows now at their feet suddenly changed from silver to dullish lead.
Stella shuddered in his arms, and clung to him with a little convulsive movement that thrilled him.
“Let us go,” she said; “let us go. It seems almost as if there were spirits here! How dark it is!”
“Only for a moment, darling!” he said. “See?” and he took her face and turned it to the moonlight again. “One kiss, and we will go.”
With no blush on her face, but with a glow of passionate love in her eyes, she raised her face, looked into his for a moment, then kissed him.
Then they turned, and went toward the boat; but this time she clung to his arm, and her head nestled on his shoulder. As they turned, something white and ghost-like moved from behind the trees, in front of which they had been standing.
It stood in the moonlight looking after them, itself so white and eerie that it might have been one of the good fairies; but that in its face—beautiful enough for any fairy—there glittered the white, angry, threatening look of an evil spirit.
Was it the nearness of this exquisitely-graceful figure in white which by some instinct Stella had felt and been alarmed at?
The figure watched them for a moment until they were out of sight, then it turned and struck into a path leading toward the Hall.
As it did so, another figure—a black one this time—came out of the shadow, and crossed the path obliquely.
She turned and saw a white, not unhandsome, face, with small keen eyes bent on her. She, the watcher, had been watched.
For a moment she stood as if half-tempted to speak, but the next drew the fleecy shawl round her head with a gesture of almost insolent hauteur.
But she was not to escape so easily; the dark, thin figure slipped back, and stooping down picked up the handkerchief, which in her sweeping gesture she had let drop.
“Pardon!” he said.
She looked at him with cool disdain, then took the handkerchief, and with an inclination of her head that was scarcely a bow would have passed on again, but he did not move from her path, and hat in hand stood looking at her.
Proud, fearless, imperiously haughty as she was, she felt constrained to stop.
He knew by the mere fact of her stopping that he had impressed her, and he at once followed up the advantage gained.
If she had wanted to pass him without speaking she should have taken no notice of the handkerchief, and gone on her way. No doubt she now wished that she had done so, but it was too late now.
“Will you permit me to speak to you?” he said, in a quiet, almost a constrained voice, every word distinct, every word full of significance.
She looked at him, at the pale face with its thin, resolute lips and small, keen eyes, and inclined her head.
“If you intend to speak to me, sir, I apprehend that I cannot prevent it. You will do well to remember that we are not alone here.”
Still uncovered, he bowed.
“Your ladyship has no need to remind me of that fact. No deed or word of mine will cause you to wish for a protector.”
“I have yet to learn that,” she said. “You appear to know me, sir!”
No words will convey any idea of the haughty scorn expressed by the icy tone and the cold glance of the violet eyes.
A faint smile, deferential yet self-possessed, swept across his face.
“There are some so well known to the world that their faces are easily recognized even in the moonlight; such an one is the Lady Len——”
She put up her hand, white and glittering with priceless gems, and at the commanding gesture he stopped, but the smile swept across his face again, and he put up his hand to his lips.
“You know my name; you wish to speak to me?”
He inclined his head.
“What have you to say to me?”
She had not asked his name; she had treated him as if he were some beggar who had crept up to her carriage as it stood at rest, and by a mixture of bravado and servility gained her ear. There was a fierce, passionate resentment at this treatment burning in his bosom, but he kept it down.
“Is it some favor you have to ask?” she said, with cold, pitiless hauteur, seeing that he hesitated.
“Thanks,” he said. “I was waiting for a suggestion—I must put it in that way. Yes, I have to ask a favor. My lady, I am a stranger to you——”
She waved her hand as if she did not care so much as a withered blade of grass for his personal history, and with a little twitch of the lips he continued:
“I am a stranger to you, but I still venture to ask your assistance.”
She looked and smiled like one who has known all along what was coming, but to please his own whim, had waited quite naturally.
“Exactly,” she said. “I have no money——”
Then he started and stood before her, and what there was of manliness awoke within him.
“Money!” he said. “Are you mad?”
Lady Lenore stared at him haughtily.
“I fear that you are,” she said. “Did you not demand—ask is too commonplace a word to describe a request made by a man of a woman alone and unprotected—did you not demand money, sir?”
“Money!” he repeated; then he smiled. “You are laboring under a misapprehension,” he said. “I am in no need of money. The assistance I need is not of a pecuniary kind.”
“Then what is it?” she asked, and he detected a touch of curiosity in the insolently-haughty voice. “Be good enough to state your desire as briefly as you can, sir, and permit me to go on my way.”
Then he played a card.
With a low bow he raised his hat, and drew from the path.
“I beg your ladyship’s pardon,” he said, respectfully, but with a scarcely feigned air of disappointment. “I see that I have made a mistake. I apologize most humbly for having intruded upon your good nature, and I take my leave. I wish your ladyship good-evening,” and he turned.
Lady Lenore looked after him with cold disdain, then she bit her lip and her eyes dropped, and suddenly, without raising her voice, she said:
He turned and stood with his hand thrust in the breast of his coat, his face calm and self-possessed.
She paused a moment and eyed him, struggling, if the truth were known, and no doubt he knew it, with her curiosity and her pride, which last forbade her hold any further converse with him. At last curiosity conquered.
“I have called you back, sir, to ask the nature of this mistake you say that you have made. Your conduct, your manner, your words are inexplicable to me. Be good enough to explain.”
It was a command, and he inclined his head in respectful recognition.
“I am a student of nature, my lady,” he said, in a low voice, “and I am fond of rambling in the woods here, especially at moonlight; it is not a singular fancy.”
Her face did not flush, but her eyes gleamed; she saw the sneer in the words.
“Go on, sir,” she said, coldly.
“Chance led me to-night in the direction of the river. I was standing admiring it when two individuals—the two individuals who have just left us—approached. Suspecting a love tryst, I was retreating, when the moon revealed to me that one of the individuals was a person in whom I take a great interest.”
“Which?” she asked, coldly and calmly.
“The young lady,” he replied, and his eyes drooped for a moment.
“That interest rather than curiosity,”—her lips curled, and she looked up at him with infinite scorn—”interest rather than curiosity prompted me to remain and, an unwilling listener, I heard the strange engagement—betrothal, call it what you will—that took place.”
He paused. She drew the shawl round her head and eyed him askance.
“In what way does this concern me, sir?” she demanded, haughtily.
“Pardon! you perceive my mistake,” he said, with a fitting smile. “I was under the impression that as interest or curiosity prompted you also to listen, you might be pleased to assist me.”
She bit her lip now.
“How did you know that I was listening?” she demanded.
“I saw your ladyship approach; I saw you take up your position behind the tree, and I saw your face as they talked.”
As she remembered all that that face must have told him, her heart throbbed with a wild longing to see him helpless at her feet; her face went a blood red, and her hands closed tightly on the shawl.
“Well, sir?” she said at last, after a pause, during which he had stood eying her under his lowered lids. “Granting that you are right in your surmises, how can I assist you, supposing that I choose to do so?”
He looked at her full in the face.
“By helping me to prevent the fulfillment of the engagement—betrothal, which you and I have just witnessed,” he said, promptly and frankly.
She was silent a moment, her eyes looking beyond him as if she were considering, then she said:
“Why should I help you? How do you know that I take any interest in—in these two persons?”
“You forget,” he said, softly. “I saw your face.”
She started. There was something in the bold audacity of the man that proved him the master.
“If I admit that I do take some interest, what proof have I that I shall be following that interest by confiding in you?” she asked, haughtily, but less haughtily than hitherto.
“I can give you a sufficient proof,” he said, quietly. “I—love—her.”
She started. There was so calm and cool and yet intense an expression in his voice.
“You love her?” she repeated. “The girl who has just left us?”
“The young lady,” he said, with a slight emphasis, “who has just plighted her troth to Lord Leycester Wyndward.”
There was silence for a moment. His direct statement of the case had told on her.
“And if I help you—if I consent—what shape is my assistance to take?”
“I leave that to you,” he said. “I can answer for her, for Stella Etheridge—that is her name.”
“I do not wish to mention names,” she said, coldly.
“Quite right,” he said. “Trees have ears, as you and I have just proved.”
She shuddered at the familiar, confident tone in his voice.
“I will not mention names,” he repeated, “let us say ‘him’ and ‘her.’ Candidly—and between us, my lady, there should be nothing but candor—I have sworn that nothing shall come of this betrothal. I love her, and—I—hate him.”
She looked at him. His face was deadly white, and his eyes gleamed, but a smile still played about his lips.
“You,” he continued, “hate her, and—love—him.”
Lady Lenore started, and a crimson flush of shame stained her fair face.
“How dare you!” she exclaimed.
“I have shown you my hand, my lady; I know yours. Will you tell me that I am wrong? Say the word—say that you are indifferent how matters go—and I will make my bow and leave you.”
She stood and looked at him—she could not say the word. He had spoken the truth; she did love Lord Leycester with a passion that surprised her, with a passion that had not made itself known to her until to-night, when she had seen him take into his arms another woman—had heard his protestations of love for another woman, and seen him kiss another woman.
Wounded pride, self-love, passionate desire, all fought for mastery within her bosom, and the man who stood calmly before her knew it.
He read every thought of her heart as it was mirrored on the proud, beautiful face.
“I do not understand,” she said. “You come to me a perfect stranger, and make these confessions.”
“I come to you because you and I desire to accomplish one end—the separation of these two persons. I come to you because I have already found some means toward such an end, and I believe you are capable of devising and carrying out the remainder. Lady Lenore——”
“Do not utter my name,” she said, looking round uneasily.
“—You, and you alone, can help me. As I have said, I can influence the girl, you can influence him. I have worked hard for that influence—have plotted, and planned, and schemed for it. Cleverness, ingenuity—call it what you will—has been exerted by me; you have only to exert your—pardon me—your beauty.”
With a gesture, she drew the shawl nearer her face—it was like profanation to hear him speak of her beauty.
“—Together we conquer; alone, I think, we should fail, for though I hold her in a cleft stick I cannot answer for him. He is headstrong and wild, and in a moment might upset my plans. Your task—if you accept it—is to see that he does not. Will you accept it?”
“What is your hold over her?” she asked, curiously.
“Pardon me if I decline to answer. Be assured that I have a hold upon her. Your hold on him is as strong as that of mine on her. Will you exert it?”
She was silent.
“Think,” he said. “Let me put the case clearly. For his own good you ought not to hesitate. What good can come of such a marriage—a viscount, an earl, marry the niece of a painter, an obscure nobody! It is for his own good—the husband of Stella—I forgot!—no names. As her husband he sinks into insignificance, as yours he rises to the height which his position and yours entitle him to. Can you hesitate?”
No tempter since the world began, not even the serpent at the foot of the apple-tree in Eden, could have put it more ingeniously. She wavered. Reluctant to make a compact with a man and a stranger, and such a man! She stood and hesitated.
He drew out his watch.
“It is getting late,” he said. “I see your ladyship declines the alliance I offer you. I wish you ‘good-night,'” and he raised his hat.
She put forth her hand; it was as white as her face.
“Stop,” she said, “I agree.”
“Good,” he said, with a smile. “Give me your hand,” and he held out his.
She hesitated, but she put her hand in his; the mental strength of the man overcame her repugnance.
“So we seal our bargain. All I ask your ladyship to do is to watch, and to strike when the iron is hot. When that time comes I will give you warning.”
And his hand closed over hers.
A shudder ran through her at the contact; his hand was cold as ice.
“There is no chance that these two will keep their compact now,” he said; “you and I will prevent it. Good-night, my lady.”
“Stop!” she said, and he turned. “You have not told me your name—you know mine.”
He smiled at her—a smile of victory and self-confidence.
“My name is Jasper Adelstone,” he said.
Her lips repeated the name.
“Shall I see you safely into the hall?”
“No, no,” she said. “Go, if you please.”
He inclined his head and left her, but he did not go until she had entered the private park by another gate, and her figure was lost to sight.
Lord Leycester rowed Stella across the river, and parted from her.
“Good-night, my beloved,” he whispered. “It is not for long. I shall see you to-morrow. Good-night! I shall wait here until I see you enter the lane; you will be safe then.”
He held her in his arms for a moment, then he let her go, and stood on the bank watching her.
She sped across the meadows and entered the lane breathless.
Pausing for a moment to recover her composure, she went on to the gate and opened it.
As she did so a slight, youthful figure slipped out of the shadow and confronted her.
She uttered a slight cry and looked up.
At that moment the moonlight fell upon the face in front of her.
It was the same face in the miniature. The same face, though changed from boyhood to youth.
It was “Frank!”
When Stella awoke in the morning it was with a start that she remembered the scene of last night, and that she was, with the exception of Mrs. Penfold, alone in the cottage.