It certainly must have been made a hundred years after the rest of the world,” said Mr. Etheridge. “Where on earth did you hear of it, Jasper?”
They were standing, the painter, Jasper, and Stella, on the little stretch of beach that fronted the tiny village of Carlyon, with its cluster of rough-stone cottages and weather-beaten church, the whole nestling under the shadow of the Cornish cliffs that kept the east winds at bay and offered a stern face to the wild seas which so often roared and raged at its base.
“I can’t exactly say, sir,” he answered. “I met with it by chance, and it seemed to me just the place for our young invalid. You like it, Stella, I hope?” and he turned to Stella with a softened smile.
Stella was leaning on the old man’s arm, looking out to sea, with a far-away expression in her dark eyes.
“Yes,” she said, quietly; “I like it.”
“Stella likes any place that is far from the madding crowd,” remarked Mr. Etheridge, gazing at her affectionately. “You don’t appear to have got back your roses yet, my child, however.”
“I am quite well,” she said, not so wearily as indifferently. “I am always well. It is Frank who is ill, you know, uncle.”
“Ay, ay,” he said, with the expression of gravity which always came upon him when the boy was mentioned. “He looks very pale and thin, poor boy.”
Stella sighed, but Jasper broke in cheerfully—
“Better than when he first came,” he said. “I noticed the difference directly I saw him. He will pick up his strength famously, you will see.”
Stella sighed again.
“You must make sketches of this coast,” said Jasper, as if anxious to get away from the subject. “It is particularly picturesque, especially about the cliffs. There is one view in particular which you should not fail to take; you get it from the top of the cliff there.”
“Rather a dangerous perch,” said Mr. Etheridge, shading his eyes and looking up.
“Yes, it is,” assented Jasper. “I have been trying to impress the fact upon Stella. It is her favorite haunt, she tells me, and I am always in fear and trembling when I see her mounting up to it.”
The old man smiled.
“You will soon have the right to protect her,” he said, glancing at the church. “Have you made all the arrangements?”
Jasper’s face flushed as he answered, but Stella’s remained pale and set.
“Yes, everything is ready. The clergyman is a charming old gentleman, and the church is a picture inside. I tell Stella that one could not have chosen a more picturesque spot.”
And he glanced toward her with the watchful smile.
Stella turned her face away.
“It is very pretty,” she said, simply. “Shall we go in now? Frank will be expecting us.”
“You must know,” said Jasper, “that we are leading the most rustic of lives—dinner in the middle of the day, tea at five o’clock.”
“I see,” said Mr. Etheridge. “Quite a foretaste of Arcadia! But, after all,” he added, perhaps remembering the long journey which he had been compelled to take, and which he disliked, “I can’t see why you should not have been married at Wyndward.”
“And risk the chance of Lord Leycester turning up at the last moment and making a scene,” he might have answered, if he had replied candidly; but instead, he said, lightly:
“Oh, that would have been too commonplace for such a romantic man as your humble servant, sir.”
Mr. Etheridge eyed him in his usual grave, abstracted way.
“You are the last person I should have accused of a love of the romantic,” he said.
“Then there was Frank,” added Jasper, in a lower voice, but not too low to reach Stella, for whom the addition was intended; “he wanted a change, and he would not have come without Stella.”
They entered the cottage, in the tiny sitting-room of which Mrs. Penfold had already set the tea.
Frank was lying on a sofa whose metallic hardness had been mitigated by cushions and pillows; and certainly if he was pulling up his strength, as Jasper asserted, it was at a very slow rate.
He looked thinner than ever, and there was a dark ring under his eyes which made the hectic flush still more beautiful by contrast than when we saw him last. He greeted their entrance with a smile at Stella, and a cold evasive glance at Jasper. She went and smoothed the pillow at his head; but, as if ashamed that the other should see his weakness, he rose and walked to the door.
The old man eyed him sadly, but smiled with affected cheerfulness.
“Well, Frank, how do you feel to-night? You must be well to the front to-morrow, you know, or you will not be the best man!”
Frank looked up with a sudden flush, then set down without a word.
“I shall be very well to-morrow,” he said. “There is nothing the matter with me.”
Jasper, as usual, cut in with some remark to change the subject, and, as usual, did all the talking; Stella sat silent, her eyes fixed on the distant sun sinking slowly to rest. The word “to-morrow” rang in her ears; this was the last day she could call her own; to-morrow, and all after to-morrows would be Jasper’s. All the past, full of its sweet hopes and its passionate love, had gone by and vanished, and to-morrow she would stand at the altar as Jasper Adelstone’s bride. It seemed so great a mockery as to be unreal, and at times she found herself regarding herself as another person, in whom she took the merest interest as a spectator.
It could not be that she, whom Leycester Wyndward had loved, should be going to marry Jasper Adelstone! Then she would look at the boy, so thin, and wan, and fading, and love would give her strength to carry out her sacrifice.
To-night he was very dear to her, and she sat holding his hand under the table; the thin, frail hand that closed with a spasmodic gesture of aversion when Jasper’s smirkish voice broke in on the conversation. It was wonderful how the boy hated him.
Presently she whispered—”You must go and lie down again, Frank.”
“No, not here,” he said. “Let me go outside.”
And she drew his hand through her arm and went out with him.
Jasper looked after them with a smile.
“Quite touching to see Frank’s devotion to Stella,” he said.
The old man nodded.
“Poor boy!” he said—”poor boy!”
Jasper cleared his throat.
“I think he had better come with us on our wedding trip,” he said. “It will give Stella pleasure, I know, and be a comfort to Frank.”
The old man nodded.
“You are very kind and considerate,” he said.
“Not at all,” responded Jasper. “I would do anything to insure Stella’s happiness. By-the-way, speaking of arrangements, I have executed a little deed of settlement——”
“Was that necessary?” asked Mr. Etheridge. “She comes to you penniless.”
“I am not a rich man,” said Jasper, meekly, “but I have secured a sufficient sum upon her to render her independent.”
The old man nodded, gratefully.
“You have behaved admirably,” he said; “I have no doubt Stella will be happy. You will bear with her, I hope, Jasper, and not forget that she is but a girl—but a girl.”
Jasper inclined his head for a moment in silence. Bear! Little did the old man know how much he, Jasper, had to bear.
They sat talking for some little time, Jasper listening, as he talked, to the two voices outside—the clear, low, musical tones of Stella, the thin weak voice of the boy. Presently the voices ceased, and after a time he went out. Frank was sitting in the sunset light, his head on his hands.
“Where is Stella?” asked Jasper, almost sharply.
Frank looked up at him.
“She has escaped,” he said, sardonically.
“What do you mean?”
“She has gone on the cliffs for a stroll,” said Frank, with a little smile at the alarm he had created and intended to create.
Jasper turned upon him with a suppressed snarl. He was battling with suppressed excitement to-night.
“What do you mean by escaped?” he demanded.
The hollow sunken eyes glared up at him.
“What did you think I meant?” he retorted. “You need not be frightened, she will come back,” and he laughed bitterly.
Jasper glanced at him again, and after a moment of hesitation turned and went into the house.
Meanwhile Stella was climbing the steep ascent to the bit of table-land on the cliff. She felt suffocated and overwhelmed. “To-morrow! to-morrow!” seemed to ring in her ears. Was there no escape? As she looked down at the waves rolling in beneath her, and beating their crested heads against the rocks, she almost felt as if she could drop down to them and so find escape and rest. So strong was the feeling, the temptation, that she shrank back against the cliff, and sank down on dry and chalky turf, trembling and confused. Suddenly, as she thus sat, she heard a man’s step coming up the cliff, and thinking it was Jasper, rose and pushed the hair from her face with an effort at self-command.
But it was not Jasper, it was a straighter, more stalwart figure, and in a moment, as he stood to look at the sea, she knew him. It was Leycester, and with a low, inarticulate cry, she shrank back against the cliff and watched him. He stood for a while motionless, leaning on his stick, his back turned from her, then he took up a pebble and dropped it down into the depths beneath, sighed, and to her intense relief, went down again.
But though he had not spoken, the sight of him, his dearly-loved presence so near her, shook her to her center. White and breathless she leaned against the hard rock, her eyes strained to catch the last glimpse of him; then she sank on to the ground and hiding her face in her hands burst into tears.
They were the first tears that she had shed since that awful day, and every drop seemed of molten fire that scorched her heart as it flowed from it.
If ever she had persuaded herself that the time might come when she would cease to love him, she knew, now that she had seen him again, that she could not so hope again. Never while life was left to her should she cease to love him. And to-morrow, to-morrow.
“Oh, my love, my love!” she murmured, stretching out her hands as she had done that night in the garden, “come back to me! I cannot let you go! I cannot do it! I cannot!”
Nerved by the intensity of her grief she sprang to her feet, and swiftly descended the cliff. Near the bottom there were two paths, one leading to the village, the other to the open country beyond. Instinctively she took the one leading to the village, and so missed Leycester, for he had gone down the other.
Had she but made a different choice, had she turned to the right instead of the left, how much would have been averted; but she sped, almost breathlessly to the left, and instead of Leycester found Jasper waiting for her.
With a low cry she stopped short.
“Where is he?” she asked, almost unconsciously. “Let me go to him!”
Jasper stared at her, then he grasped her arm.
“You have seen him!” he said, not roughly, not fiercely, but with a suppressed fury.
There was a rough seat cut out of the stone beside her, and she sank into it, shrinking away from his eager watching in quest of that other.
“You have seen him!” he repeated, hoarsely. “Do not deny it!”
The insult conveyed in the words recalled her to herself.
“Yes!” she said, meeting his gaze steadily; “I have seen him. Why should I deny it?”
“No,” he said; “and you will not deny that you were running after him when I—I stopped you. You will admit that, I suppose?”
“Yes,” she answered, with a deadly calm, “I was following him.”
He dropped her arm which he had held, and pressed his hand to his heart to still the pang of its throbbing.
“You—you are shameless!” he said at last, hoarsely.
She did not speak.
“Do you realize what to-night is?” he said, glaring down at her. “This is our marriage eve; do you hear—our marriage eve?”
She shuddered, and put up her hands to her face.
“Did you plan this meeting?” he demanded, with a fierce sneer. “You will admit that, I suppose? It is only a mere chance that I did not find you in his arms; is that so? Curse him! I wish I had killed him when I met him just now!”
Then the old spirit roused itself in her bosom, and she looked up at him with a scornful smile on her beautiful, wasting face.
“You!” she said.
That was all, but it seemed to drive him mad. For a moment he stood breathless and panting.
The sight of his fury and suffering—for the suffering was palpable—smote her.
Her mood changed suddenly; with a cry she caught his arm.
“Oh, Jasper, Jasper! Have pity on me!” she cried; “have pity. You wrong me, you wrong him. He did not come to see me; he did not know I was here! We have not spoken—not a word, not a word!” and she moaned; “but as I stood and watched him, and saw how changed he was, and heard him sigh, I knew that he had not forgotten, and—and my heart went out to him. I—I did not mean to speak, to follow him, but I could not help it. Jasper, you see—you see, it is impossible—our marriage, I mean. Have pity on me and let me go! For your own sake let me go! Think, think! What satisfaction, what joy can you hope for? I—I have tried to love you, Jasper, but—but I cannot! All my life is his! Let me go!”
He almost flung her from him, then caught her again with an oath.
“By Heaven, I will not!” he cried, fiercely. “Once for all, I will not! Take care, you have made me desperate! It is your fault if I were to take you at your word.”
He paused for breath; then his rage broke out again, more deadly for its sudden, unnatural quietude.
“Do you think I am blind and bereft of my senses not to see and understand what this means? Do you think you are dealing with a child? You have waited your time, and bided your chance, and you think it has come. Would you have dared to do this a month ago? No, there was no certainty of the boy’s death then; but now—now that you see he will die, you think my power is at an end——”
With a cry she sprang to her feet and confronted him, terror in her face, an awful fear and sorrow in her eyes. As the cry left her lips, it seemed to be echoed by another close behind them, but neither of them noticed it.
“Frank—die!” she gasped. “No, no; not that! Tell me that you did not mean it, that you said it only to frighten me.”
He put her imploring hand away with a bitter sneer.
“You would make a good actress,” he said, “do you mean to tell me that you were not counting on his death? Do you mean to tell me that you would not have wound up the scene by begging for more time—time to allow you to escape, as you would call it! You think that once the boy is dead you can slip from your bargain and laugh at me! You are mistaken; since the bargain was struck, I have strove, as no man ever strove, to make it easy for you, to win your love, because I loved you. I love you no longer, but I will not let you go. Love you! As there is a Heaven above us, I hate you to-night, but you shall not go.”
She shrank from him cowering, as he towered above her, like some beautiful maiden in the old myths shrinking from some devouring monster.
“Listen to me,” he said, hoarsely, “to-morrow I either give this paper”—and he snatched the forged bill from his breast pocket and struck it viciously with his quivering hand—”I either give it into your hands as my wife, or I give it to the nearest magistrate. The boy will die! It rests with you whether he dies at peace or in a jail.”
White and trembling she sat and looked at him.
“This is my answer to your pretty prayer,” he said, with a bitterness incredible. “It is for you to decide—I use no further argument. Soft speeches and loving words are thrown away upon you; besides, the time has passed for them. There is no love, no particle of love, in my heart for you to-night—I simply stand by my bond.”
She did not answer him, she scarcely heard him; she was thinking of that sad face that had appeared to her for a moment as if in reproach, and vanished ghost-like; and it was to it that she murmured:
“Oh, my love—my love!”
He heard her; and his face quivered with speechless rage; then he laughed.
“You made a great mistake,” he said, with a sneer—”a very great mistake, if you are invoking Lord Leycester Wyndward. He may be your love, but you are not his! It is a matter of small moment—it does not weigh a feather in the balance between us—but the truth is, ‘your love’ is now Lady Lenore Beauchamp’s!”
Stella looked up at him, and smiled wearily.
“A lie? No,” he said, shaking his head tauntingly. “I have known it for weeks past. It is in every London paper. But that is nothing as between you and me—I stand by my bond. To-morrow the boy’s fate lies in your hands or in that of the police. I have no more to say—I await your answer. I do not even demand it to-night—no doubt you would be——”
She arose, white and calm, her eyes fixed on him.
“—I say I await your answer till to-morrow. Acts, not words, I require. Fulfill your part of the bargain, and I will fulfill mine.”
As he spoke he folded the forged bill which, in his excitement, had blown open, and put it slowly into his pocket again; then he wiped his brow and looked at her, biting his lip moodily.
“Will you come with me now,” he said, “or will you wait and consider your course of action?”
His question seemed to rouse her; she raised her head, and disregarding his proffered arm, went slowly past him to the house.
He followed her for a few steps, then stopped, and with his head on his breast, went toward the cliffs. His fury had expended itself, and left a confused, bewildering sensation behind. For the time it really seemed, as he said, that his baffled love had turned to hate. But as he thought of her, recalling her beauty, his hate shrank back and returned to its old object.
“Curse him!” he hissed, “it is he who has done this! If he had not come to-night this would not have happened. Curse him! From the first he has stood in my path. Let her go! To him! Never! No, to-morrow she shall be mine in spite of him, she cannot draw back, she will not!”
Then his brain cleared; he began to upbraid himself for his violence. “Fool, fool!” he muttered, hoarsely, as he climbed the path, scarcely heeding where he went. “I have lost her love forever! Why did I not bear with her a few hours longer? I have borne with her so long that I should have borne with her to the end! It was that cry of hers that maddened me! Heaven! to think that she should love him so; that she should have clung to him so persistently, him whom she had not seen for months, and keep her heart steeled against me who have hung about her like a slave! But I will be her slave no longer, to-morrow makes me her master.”
As he muttered this sinister threat, he found that he had reached the end of the cutting that had been made in the cliff, and turned mechanically. The wind was blowing from the sea, and the sound of the waves rose from the depths beneath, crying hoarsely and complainingly as if in harmony with his mood. He paused a moment and looked down abstractedly.
“I would rather have her lying dead there,” he muttered, “than that there should be a chance of her going back to him. No! he shall never have her. To-morrow shall set that fear at rest forever. To-morrow!” With a long breath he turned from the edge of the cliff, to descend, but as he did so he felt a hand on his arm, and looking up he saw the thin, frail figure of the boy standing in the path.
He was so wrapt in his own thoughts that he was startled, and made a movement to throw the hand off roughly, but it stuck fast, and with an effort to command himself, he said:
“Well, what are you doing up here?”
As he put the question, he saw by the fading light that the boy’s face was deathly white—that for once the beautiful, fatal flush of red was absent.
“You are not fit to be out at this time of night,” he said, harshly. “What are you doing up here?”
The boy looked at him, still retaining his hold, and standing in his path.
“I have come to speak to you, Jasper,” he said, and his thin voice was strangely set and earnest.
Jasper looked down at him impatiently.
“Well,” he said, roughly, “what is it? Couldn’t you wait until I came in.”
The boy shook his head.
“No,” he said, and there was a strange light in his eyes, which never for a moment left the other’s face. “I wanted to see you alone.”
“Well, I am alone—or I wish I were,” retorted Jasper, brutally. “What is it?” then he put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and looked at him more closely. “Oh, I see!” he said, with a sneer. “You’ve been playing eavesdropper! Well,” and he laughed cruelly, “listeners hear no good of themselves, though you heard no news.”
A slight contraction of the thin lips was the only sign that the fell shaft had sped home.
“Yes,” he said, calmly and sternly; “I have been eavesdropping; I have heard every word, Jasper.”
“Then you can indorse the truth of what I said, my dear Frank,” and he smiled, evilly. “I have no doubt you have not forgotten your little escapade.”
“I have not forgotten,” was the response.
“Very good. Then I should advise you, if you care for your own safety and your cousin’s welfare, to say nothing of the family honor, to advise her to come to terms—my terms. You have heard them, no doubt!”
“I have heard about them,” said the boy. “I have—” he stopped a second to cough, but his hold on Jasper’s sleeve did not relax even during the paroxysm—”I have heard them. I know what a devil you are, Jasper Adelstone. I have long guessed it, but I know now.”
“Thanks! and now you have discharged yourself of your venom, my young asp, we will go down. Take your hand from my coat, if you please.”
“Wait,” said the boy, and his voice seemed to have grown stronger; “I have not done yet. I have followed you here, Jasper, for a purpose; I have come to ask you for—for that paper.”
Calmly and dispassionately the request was made, as if it were the most natural in the world. To say that Jasper was astonished does not describe his feelings.
“You—must be mad!” he exclaimed; then he laughed.
“You will not give it to me?” was the quiet demand.
Jasper laughed again.
“Do you know what that precious piece of hand-writing of yours cost me, my dear Frank? One hundred and fifty pounds that I shall never see again, unless your friend Holiday takes to paying his debts.”
“I see,” said the boy, slowly, and his voice grew reflective; “you bought it from him? No!”—with a sudden flash of inspiration—”he was a gentleman! By hook or by crook you stole it!”
“Never mind how I got it, I have got it,” and he struck his breast softly.
The sunken eyes followed the gesture, as if they would penetrate to the hidden paper itself.
“I know,” he said, in a low voice; “I saw you put it there.”
“And you will not see it again until I hand it to Stella, to-morrow, or give it to the magistrate before whom you will stand, my dear lad, charged with forgery.”
The word had scarcely left his lips, but the boy was upon him, his long, thin arms—endued for a moment, as it seemed, with a madman’s strength—encircling Jasper’s neck. Not a word was uttered, but the thin, white face, lit up by the gleaming eyes, spoke volumes.
Jasper was staggered, not frightened, but simply surprised and infuriated.
“You—you young fool!” he hissed. “Take your arms off me.”
“Give it to me! Give it to me!” panted the boy, in a frenzy. “Give it to me! The paper! The paper!” and his clutch tightened like a band of steel.
Jasper smothered an oath. The path was narrow; unconsciously, or intentionally, the frenzied lad had edged them both, while talking, to the brink, and Jasper was standing with his back to it. In an instant he realized his danger; yes, danger! For, absurd as it seemed, the grasp of the weak, dying boy could not be shaken off; there was danger.
“Frank!” he cried.
“Give it me!” broke in the wild cry, and he pressed closer.
With an awful imprecation, Jasper seized him and bore him backward, but as he did so his foot slipped, and the boy, falling upon him, thrust a hand into Jasper’s breast and snatched the paper.
Jasper was on his feet in a moment, and flying at him tore the paper from his grasp. The boy uttered a wild cry of despair, crouched down for a moment, and then with that one wild prayer upon his lips: “Give it me!” hurled himself upon his foe. For quite a minute the struggle, so awful in its inequality, raged between them. His opponent’s strength so amazed Jasper that he was lost to all sense of the place in which they stood; in his wild effort to shake the boy off he unconsciously approached the edge of the cliff. Unconsciously on his part, but the other noticed it, even in his frenzy, and suddenly, as if inspired, he shrieked out—
“Look! Leycester! He is there behind you!”
Jasper started and turned his head; the boy seized the moment, and the next the narrow platform on which they had stood was empty. A wild hoarse shriek rose up, and mingled with the dull roar of the waves beneath, and then all was still!
It certainly must have been made a hundred years after the rest of the world,” said Mr. Etheridge. “Where on earth did you hear of it, Jasper?”