After all, there is nothing like English scenery

After all, there is nothing like English scenery; this is very beautiful. I don’t suppose you could get a greater variety of opal tints in one view than lies before us now, but there is something missing. It is all too beautiful, too rich, too gorgeous; one finds one’s breath coming too quickly, and one longs for just a dash of English gloom to tone down the brilliant colors and give a relief.”
It was Mr. Etheridge who spoke. He was standing beside a low rustic seat which fronted the world-famous view from the Piazza at Nice. The sun was dropping into the horizon like a huge ball of crimson fire, the opal tints of the sky stretched far above their heads and even behind them. It was one blaze of glory in which a slim, girlish figure, leaning far back in the seat, seemed bathed.
She was pale still, was this Stella, this little girl heroine of ours, but the dark look of trouble and leaden sorrow had gone, and the light of youth and youthful joy had come back to the dark eyes; the faint, ever ready smile hovered again about the red, mobile lips. “Sorrow” says Goethe, “is the refining touch to a woman’s beauty,” and it refined Stella’s. She was lovely now, with that soft, ethereal loveliness which poets sing of, and artists paint, and we poor penman so vainly strive to describe.
She looked up with a smile.
“Homesick, uncle?” she murmurs.
The old man strokes his beard, and glances at her.
“I plead guilty,” he says. “You cannot make a hermit crab happy if you take him out of his shell, and the cottage is my shell, Stella.”
She sighed softly, not with unhappiness, but with that tender reflectiveness which women alone possess.
“I will go back when you please, dear,” she says.
“Hem!” he grunts. “There is someone else to consult, mademoiselle; that someone else seems particularly satisfied to remain where we are; but then I suppose he would be contented to remain anywhere so that a certain pale-faced, insignificant chit of a girl were near him.”
A faint blush, a happy flush spreads over the pale face, and the long lashes droop over the dark eyes.
“At any rate we must ask him,” says the old man; “we owe him that little attention at least, seeing how much long-suffering patience he has and continues to display.”
“Don’t, uncle,” murmurs the half-parted lips.
“It is all very well to say ‘don’t,'” retorts the old man with a grim smile. “Seriously, don’t you think that you are, to use an Americanism, playing it rather low down on the poor fellow?”
“I—I—don’t know what you mean,” she falters.
“Permit me to explain then,” he says, ironically.
“I—I don’t want to hear, dear.”
[283]
“It is fitting that girls should be made to hear sometimes,” he says, with a smile. “What I mean is simply this, that, as a man with something approaching a conscience and a fellow feeling for my kind, I feel it my duty to point out to you that, perhaps unconsciously, you are leading Leycester the sort of life that the bear who dances on hot bricks—if any bear ever does—is supposed to lead. Here for months, after no end of suffering——”
“I have suffered too,” she murmurs.
“Exactly,” he assents, in his gently-grim way; “but that only makes it worse. After months of suffering, you allow him to dangle at your heels, you drag him at your chariot wheels, tied him at your apron strings from France to Italy, from Italy to Switzerland, from Switzerland back to France again, and gave him no more encouragement than a cat does a dog.”
The faint flush is a burning crimson now.
“He—he need not come,” she murmurs, panting. “He is not obliged.”
“The moth—the infuriated moth, is not obliged to hover about the candle, but he does hover, and generally winds up by scorching his wings. I admit that it is foolish and unreasonable, but it is none the less true that Leycester is simply incapable, apparently, of resting outside the radius of your presence, and therefore I say hadn’t you better give him the right to remain within that radius and——”
She put up her hand to stop him, her face a deeper crimson still.
“Permit me,” he says, obstinately, and puffing at his pipe to emphasize. “Once more the unfortunate wretch is on tenterhooks; he is dying to take possession of you, and afraid to speak up like a man because, possibly, you have had a little illness——”
“Oh, uncle, and you said yourself that you thought I should have died.”
He coughs.
“Ahem! One is inclined to exaggerate sometimes. He is afraid to speak because in his utter sensitiveness he will insist upon considering you an invalid still, whereas you are about as strong and healthy now as, to use another Americanism, ‘they make ’em.’ Now, Stella, if you mean to marry him, say so; if you don’t mean to, say so, and for goodness sake let the unfortunate monomaniac go.”
“Leycester is not a monomaniac, uncle,” she retorts, in a low, indignant voice.
“Yes, he is,” he says, “he is possessed by a mania for a little chit of a girl with a pale face and dark eyes and a nose that is nothing to speak of. If he wasn’t an utterly lost maniac he would have refused to dangle at your heels any longer, and gone off to someone with some pretension to a regular facial outline.” He stops, for there comes the sound of a firm, manly tread upon the smooth gravel path, and the next instant Leycester’s tall figure is beside them.
He bends over the slight, slim, graceful figure, a loving, reverential devotion in his handsome face, a faint anxiety in his[284] eyes and in his voice as he says, in that low, musical undertone which has charmed so many women’s ears:
“Have you no wrap on, Stella? These evenings are very beautiful but treacherous.”
“There isn’t a breath of air,” says Stella, with a little laugh.
“Yes, yes!” he says, and puts his hand on the arm that rests on the seat, “you must be careful, indeed you must, my darling, I will go and get you a——”
“Blanket and a suit of sables,” broke in the old man, with good humorous banter. “Allow me, I am young and full of energy, and you are old and wasted and wearied, watching over a sick and perhaps dying girl, who eats three huge meals a day, and can outwalk Weston. I will go,” and he goes and leaves them, Stella’s soft laughter following him like music.
Leycester stands beside her looking down at her in silence. For him that rustic seat holds all that is good and worth having in life, and as he looks, the passionate love that burns so steadily in his heart glows in his eyes.
For weeks, for months he has watched her—watched her patiently as now—watched her from the shadow of death, into the world of life; and though his eyes and the tone of his voice have spoken love often and often, he has so tutored his lips as to refrain from open speech. He knows the full measure of the shock which had struck her down, and in his great reverence and unfathomable love for her, he has restrained himself, fearing that a word might bring back that terrible past. But now, to-night, as he sees the faint color tinting the clear cheeks—sees the sunset light reflected in her bright eyes—his heart begins to beat with that throb which tells of long-suppressed passion clamoring for expression.
Maiden-like, she feels something of what is passing through his mind, and a great shyness falls upon her. She can almost hear her heart beat.
“Won’t you sit down?” she says, at last, in that little, low, murmuring voice, which is such sweet music in his ears. And she moves her dress to make room for him.
He comes round, and sinks in the seat beside her.
“Can you not feel the breeze now?” he asks. “I wish I had brought a wrap with me, on the chance of your having forgotten it.”
She looks round at him, with laughter in her eyes and on her lips.
“Did you not hear what uncle said?” She asks. “Don’t you know that he was laughing, actually laughing at me? When will you begin to believe that I am well and strong and ridiculously robust? Don’t you see that the people at the hotel are quite amused with your solicitude respecting my delicate state of health?”
“I don’t care anything about the people at the hotel,” he says, in that frank, simple way which speaks so plainly of his love. “I know that I don’t mean you to catch cold if I can help it!”
“You—you are very good to me,” she says, and there is a slight tremor in her voice.
[285]
He laughs his old short, curt laugh, softened in a singular way.
“Am I? You might say that a man was particularly ‘good’ because he showed some concern for the safety of a particularly precious stone!”
Her eyes droop, and, perhaps unconsciously, her arm draws a little nearer to him.
“You are good,” she says, “but I am not a precious stone, by any means.”
“You are all that is rare and precious to me, my darling,” he says; “you are all the world to me. Stella!—–” he stops, alarmed lest he should be alarming her, but his arm slides round her, and he ventures to draw her nearer to him.
It is the only embrace he has ventured to give her since that night when she fell into his arms at the cottage door at Carlyon, and he half fears that she will shrink from him in the new strange shyness that has fallen upon her; but she does not, instead she lets her head droop until it rests upon his breast, and the strong man’s passion leaps full force and masterful in a moment.
“Stella!” he murmurs, his lips pressed to hers, which do not swerve, “may I speak? Will you let me? You will not be angry?”
She does not look angry; her eyes fixed on his have nothing but submissive love in them.
“I have waited,—it seems so long—because I was afraid to trouble you, but I may speak now, Stella?” and he draws her closer to him. “Will you be my wife—soon—soon?”
He waits, his handsome face eloquent in its entreaty and anxiety, and she leans back and looks up at him, then her gaze falters. A little quiver hovers on her lips, and the dark eyes droop.
Is it “Yes”? If so, he alone could have heard it.
“My poor darling!” he murmurs, and he takes her face in his hands and turns it up to him. “Oh, my darling, If you knew how I loved you—how anxiously I have waited! And it shall be soon, Stella! My little wife! My very own!”
“Yes!” she said, and, as in the old time, she raises herself in his arms and kisses him.
“And—and the countess, and all of them!” she murmurs, but with a little quaint smile.
He smiles calmly. “Not to-night, darling, do not let us talk of the outside world to-night. But see if ‘all of them,’ as you put it, are not exactly of one mind; one of them is,” and he takes out a letter from his pocket.
“From Lilian!” she says, guessing instinctively.
Leycester nods.
“Yes, take it and read; you will find your name in every line. Stella, it was this letter that gave me courage to speak to you to-night. A woman knows a woman after all—you will read what she says. ‘Are you still afraid, Ley,’ she writes, ‘ask her!’ and I have asked. And now all the past will be buried[286] and we shall be happy at last. At last, Stella, where—where shall it be?”
She is silent, but she lifts the letter to her lips and kisses it.
“What do you say to Paris?” he asks.
“Paris!” she echoes, flushing.
“Yes,” he says, “I have been talking to the old doctor, and he thinks you are strong enough to have a little excitement now, and thinks that a tour in Paris would be the very thing to complete things. What do you say,” he goes on, trying to speak in a matter-of-fact voice, but watching her with eager eyes, “if we start at the end of the week, that will give you time to make your preparations, won’t it?”
“Oh, no, no——!”
8“Then say the beginning of next,” he returns, magnanimously, “and we will be married about Wednesday”—she utters a faint exclamation, and turns pale and red by turns, but he is steadfast—”and then we can have a gay time of it before we settle down.”
“Settle down,” she says, with a little longing sigh. “How sweet it sounds—but next week!”
“It is a cruel time to wait,” he declares, drawing her nearer to him, “cruel—next week! It is months, years, ages——”
“Hush!” she says, struggling gently away from him, “here is uncle.”
It is uncle, but he is innocent of wraps.
“Going to stay out all night?” he asks, with fine irony.
“Why, where are the wraps?” demands Leycester.
“Eh? Oh, nonsense!” says the old man. “Do you want to commit suicide together by suffocation? It’s as warm as an oven. Oh, for my little garden, and the cool room.”
“You shall have it in a week or two,” says Leycester, with a smile of ineffable satisfaction. “We are going to take you to Paris, and then will come and stay with you——”
“Oh, will you? and who asked you, Mr. Jackanapes?”
“Why, you wouldn’t refuse shelter to your niece’s husband?” retorts Leycester, laughing.
“Oh, that’s it!” says the old man. “Allow me to wish you good-night. I’ll leave you to your Midsummer madness—no, to your Autumn wisdom, for, upon my word, it’s the most sensible word I’ve heard you utter for months past!”
And he goes; but before he goes he lays his hand upon the sleek head and whispers:
“That’s a good girl! Now be happy.”
They were married in Paris, very quietly, very happily. Lord Charles came over from Scotland, leaving the grouse and the salmon, to act as best man, and it was an open question which of the two men looked happiest—he or the bridegroom. Lord Charles had never heard of that forged note and his inadvertent share in the plot that had worked so much harm, and he never would hear of it; and furthermore he never quite understood how it was that Stella Etheridge and not Lady Lenore became[287] Leycester’s wife; but he was quite satisfied and quite assured that it was the best of all possible arrangements.
“Leycester’s the happiest man in the world, and he used to be the most wretched, and so there’s an end of it,” he declared, whenever he spoke of the match. “And,” he would add, “the man who could have the moral cheek to be anything but absurdly happy with such an angel as Lady Stella wouldn’t be fit to be anywhere out of a lunatic asylum.”
They were married, and Charlie went back to the grouse, and the painter went back to the cottage and Mrs. Penfold, leaving the young couple to have their gay time of it in the gayest city of the world. It was not particularly gay after all, but it was ecstatically joyous. They went to the theaters and concerts and enjoyed themselves like boy and girl, and Leycester found himself continually amazed at the youthfulness which remained in him.
“I have begun to live for the first time,” he declared one day. “I only existed before.”
As for Stella, the days went by in a sort of ecstatic dream, and only a little cloud lined the golden sky—the earl and countess still hardened their hearts.
Though not a week passed without bringing a letter full of love and longing from Lilian, the old people made no sign. In the proud countess’ eyes her son’s wife was still Stella Etheridge, the painter’s niece, and she could not forgive her for—making Leycester happy. It would have made Stella miserable if anything could have done so, but Leycester’s love and watchful care often kept the cloud back—for a time.
They stayed in Paris until a little bijou place in Park Lane was ready, then they went home and took quiet possession.
It was the most charming of little nests—Leycester had given Jackson and Graham carte blanche—and formed a fitting casket for the beautiful young viscountess.
“After all, Ley,” she said, as she sat upon his knee on their first evening and looked round her exquisite room, “it is almost as good as the little laborer’s cottage I used to picture for myself.”
“Yes, it only needs that I should sit in my shirt sleeves and smoke a long pipe, doesn’t it?” he said, laughing.
For some weeks they did almost lead an isolated life; they were always together, never tired or wearied of each other. Of Stella, with her exquisite variety, with her ever changing mirth and rare, delicate wit, it would certainly have been difficult for any man to tire, and what woman would have wearied of the devoted attention of such a man as Leycester! They lived quietly for a little time, but as the season commenced people got scent of them, and soon the world swooped down upon them.
Stella protested at first, but she was powerless to resist, and soon the names of Lord and Lady Trevor appeared in the fashionable lists. Then came a surprise. Like Lord Byron, she woke one morning to find herself famous; the world had pronounced her a beauty, and had elected her to one of its thrones. Men almost fought for the honor of inserting their names upon[288] her ball-cards; women copied her dress, and envied her; the photographers would have hung her portraits in their windows if she had not been too wary to have one taken. She had become a reigning queen. Leycester did not mind; he knew her too well to be afraid that it would spoil her, and it amused him to find that the world was rowing in the same boat with him—had gone mad over his little Stella.
Now it was a gay time, but still the countess made no sign. The Wyndwards were away on the continent in the winter, and in the spring they went down to the Hall. Letters came from Lilian regularly, and she grew more pathetic as time rolled on, she was pining for Leycester. Stella urged him to sink his pride and go down to the Hall, but he would not.
“Where I go I take my wife,” he said, in his quiet way, and Stella knew that it was useless to urge him.
But one day when it chanced that Stella was at home resting after a grand ball at which she had reigned supreme, a brougham drove up to the door, and while she was just preparing to say “not at home,” the servant opened the door of the boudoir, and there stood the tall, graceful, lady-like figure of Lilian.
Stella sprang forward and caught her in her arms, with a cry that brought Leycester bounding up-stairs.
The two girls clung to each other for at least five minutes, crying softly, and uttering little piteous monosyllables, after the manner of their kind; then Lilian turned to Leycester.
“Oh, Ley, don’t be angry. I’ve come!” she cried.
“So I see, Lil,” he said, kissing her. “And how glad we are I need not say.”
“And she shall never go again, shall she?” exclaimed Stella, with her arm round the fragile form.
“Why, I don’t mean to!” said Lilian, piteously. “You won’t send me away, will you, Stella? I can’t live without him, I can’t indeed. You will let me stay, won’t you? I shan’t be in the way. I’ll creep into a corner, and efface myself; and I shan’t be very much trouble, because I am so much stronger now, and—oh, you will let me stay?”
There is no need to set down in hard, cold, black letters their answer.
“There is only one thing more I want to make my happiness complete,” said Stella; and they knew that she meant the reconciliation of Leycester with the old people.
So Lilian stayed, and made an additional sunshine and joy in the little house; and it amused Leycester to see how soon she too fell at the feet of the new beauty and worshipped her.
“If any one could be too good for you, Ley,” she said, “Stella would be that one.”
Well, time passed; the season was at its height, and the countess came to town. The earl had been in his place in the Upper House from the beginning of the season, of course; but the countess had remained at the Hall nursing her disappointment. She came up in time for one of the State balls, at which her presence was indispensable. It was the great official ball of[289] the season, and crowded to excess. The countess arrived with the earl just before the small hours, and after the usual ceremonies and exchanges of salutations with the great world which she had left for so many months, she had time to look round the room. She did so with a little inward tremor, for she knew that Leycester and “his wife” were to be present. To her relief—and disappointment—they had not arrived. For all her pride and hauteur the mother’s heart ached.
But if they were not there, their reputation had preceded them. She heard Stella’s name every five minutes, heard the greatest in the land regretting her absence, and wondering what kept her away.
Presently, toward two o’clock, there was a perceptible stir in the magnificent salon, and the murmur went up:
“Lord and Lady Trevor!”
The countess turned pale for a moment, then looked toward the door and saw a beautiful woman—or a girl still—entering, leaning upon Leycester’s arm. Society does for a man or woman what a lapidary does for a precious stone. It was precious when it first came into his hands, but when it leaves them it is polished! Stella had become, if the word is allowable when applied to her, the pink of refinement and delicacy, “polished.” She had learnt, unconsciously, to wear diamonds, and that with princes. As she came in now, a crowd of “the best” people came round her and did homage, and the countess, looking on, saw with her own eyes, what she had heard rumored, that this daughter-in-law of hers, this penniless niece, had become a power in the land. It amazed her at first, but as she watched she lost her wonder. It was only natural and reasonable; there was no more beautiful or noble looking woman in the room.
The band began to play a waltz, the crowds began to move, dancing and promenading. The countess sat amongst the dowagers, pale and smiling, but with an aching heart. Where was Leycester? Presently four persons approached her. Charlie, with Stella on his arm, Leycester with another lady. Suddenly, not seeing her, Charlie stopped, and Stella turning, found herself face to face with the countess.
For a moment the proud woman melted, then she hardened her heart and turned her head aside.
Leycester, who been been watching, passed in front of her, and he put his hand out.
“Leycester!”
But he drew Stella’s arm within his—she was white and trembling—and looking his mother in the face sternly, passed on with Stella.
“Take me home, Leycester,” she moaned. “Oh, take me home! How can she be so cruel?”
But he would not.
“No,” he said. “This is your place as much as hers. My poor mother, I pity her. Oh, pride, pride! You must stay.”
Of course the incident had been noticed and remarked, and,[290] amongst the persons who had seen it was a prince of the blood.
This distinguished individual was not only a prince but a gentle-hearted man, and as princes can take things as they please, he disregarded the best name on his ball programme and walking straight up to Stella, begged with that grand humility which distinguishes him, for the honor of her hand.
Stella, pale and beautifully pathetic in her trouble, faltered an excuse, an excuse to a royal command.
But he would not take it.
“A few turns only, Lady Trevor, I implore. I will take care of her, Leycester,” he added in a murmur, and he led Stella away.
They took a few turns, then he stopped.
“You are tired,” he said: “will you let me take you into the cool?”
He drew her arm through his, but instead of “taking her into the cool,” as he phrased it, in his genial way, he marched straight up to the countess.
“Lady Wyndward,” he said; and his clear, musical voice was just audible to those around, “your daughter has been too gracious to her devoted adherents, and tired herself in the mazy dance. I resign her to your maternal care.”
Stella would have shrunk back, but the countess, who knew what was due to royalty, rose and took the fair, round arm in her matronly one.
“Come,” she said, “his royal highness is right—you must rest.”
All in a dream, Stella allowed herself to be led into a shaded recess, all fresh with ferns and exotica. Then she woke, and murmuring—
“Thank you,” was for flying; but the countess held out her arms suddenly, and for the first time—well, for many years—burst into tears, not noisy sobbing, but quiet, flooding tears.
“Oh, my dear!” she murmured, brokenly. “Forgive me! I am only a proud, wicked old woman!”
Stella was in her arms in an instant, and thus Leycester found them.
When old Lady Longford heard of this scene, she was immensely amused in her cynical way.
“It would have served you right my dear,” she told the countess, “if she had turned round and said, ‘Yes, you are a very wicked old woman,’ and walked off.”
So Stella’s cup of happiness was full to the brim.
It is not empty yet, and will not be while Love stands with upraised hand to replenish it.
She is a girl still, even now that there is a young Leycester to run about the old man’s studio and upset the pictures and add to the litter, and it is the old painter’s oft expressed opinion that she will be a girl to the end of the chapter.
“Stella, you see,” he is fond of remarking, whenever he hears her sweet voice carolling about the little cottage—and it is as often heard there as at the Hall—”Stella, you see, was born in[291] Italy, and Italians—good Italians—never grow old. They manage to keep a heart alive in their bosoms and laughter on their lips at a period when people of colder climes are gloomy and morosely composing their own epitaphs. There is one comfort for you, Leycester, you have got a wife who will never grow old.”