It had come so suddenly as to almost overwhelm her

It had come so suddenly as to almost overwhelm her; the great gift of the gods that she had been waiting, aye, and plotting for, had fallen to her at last, and her cup of triumph was full to overbrimming, but at the same time she, as Lord Charles would have put it, “kept her head.” She thoroughly understood how and why she had gained her will. She could read Leycester as if he were a book, and she knew that, although he had asked her to be his wife, he had not forgotten that other girl with the brown hair and dark eyes—that “Stella,” the painter’s niece.
This was a bitter pang to her, a drop of gall to her cup, but she accepted it.
Just as Jasper said of Stella, so she said of Leycester.
“I will make him love me!” she thought. “The time shall come when he will wonder how he came to think of that other, and be filled with self-contempt for having so thought of her.” And she set about her work well. Some women in the hour of their triumph, would have shown their delight, and so worried, or perhaps disgusted, their lover; but not so did Lady Lenore.
She took matters with an ineffable calm and serenity, and[254] never for one moment allowed it to be seen how much she had gained on that eventful evening.
To Leycester her manner was simply charming. She exerted herself to win him without permitting the effort to be even guessed at.
Her very beauty seemed to grow more brilliant and bewitching. She moved about the place “like a poem,” as Lord Charles declared. Her voice, always soft and musical, with unexpected harmonies, that charmed by their very surprises, was like music; and, more important still, it was seldom heard. She exacted none of the privileges of an engaged woman; she did not expect Leycester to sit with her by the hour, or walk about with her all day, or to whisper tender speeches, and lavish secret caresses. Indeed, she almost seemed to avoid being alone with him; in fact she humored him to the top of his bent, so that he did not even feel the chain with which he had bound himself.
And he was grateful to her; gradually the charm of her presence, the music of her voice, the feeling that she belonged to him told upon him, and he found himself at times sitting, watching, and listening to her with a strange feeling of pleasure. He was only mortal and she was not only supremely beautiful, but supremely clever. She had set herself to charm him, and he would have been less, or more than man, if he had been able to resist her.
So it happened that he was left much to himself, for Charlie, thinking himself rather de trop and in the way, had taken himself off to join his shooting party, and Leycester spent most of his time wandering about the coast or riding over the hills, generally returning at dinner-time tired and thoughtful, and very often expecting some word or look of complaint from his beautiful betrothed.
But they never came. Exquisitely dressed, she always met him with the same serene smile, in which there was just a suggestion of tenderness she could not express, and never a question as to where he had been.
After dinner he would come and sit beside her, leaning back and watching her, too often absently, and listening to her as she talked to the others. To him she very seldom said much, but if he chanced to ask her for anything—to play or to sing—she obeyed instantly, as if he were already her lord and master. It touched him, her simple-minded devotion and thorough comprehension of him—touched him as no display of affection on her part would have done.
“Heaven help her, she loves me!” he thought, often and often. “And I!”
One evening they chanced to be alone together—he had come in after dinner, having eaten some sort of meal at a shooting lodge on the adjoining estate—and found her seated by the window, her white hands in her lap, a rapt look on her face.
She looked so supremely lovely, so rapt and solitary that his heart smote him, and he went up to her, his step making no sound on the thick carpet, and kissed her.
2She started and looked up with a burning blush which transfigured her for a moment, then she said, quietly:
“Is that you, Leycester? Have you dined?”
“Yes,” he said, with a pang of self-reproach. “Why should you think of that? I do not deserve that you should care whether I dine or not.”
She smiled up at him; her eyebrows arched themselves.
“Should it not? But I do care, very much. Have you?”
He nodded impatiently.
“Yes. You do not even ask me where I have been?”
“No,” she murmured, softly. “I can wait until you tell me; it is for you to tell me, and for me to wait.”
Such submission, such meekness from her who was pride and hauteur personified to others, amazed him.
“By Heaven, Lenore!” he exclaimed, in a low voice, “there never was a woman like you.”
“No?” she said. “I am glad you will have something that is unique then.”
“Yes,” he said, “I shall.” Then he said, suddenly, “When am I to possess my gem, Lenore?”
She started, and turned her face from him.
He looked down at her, and put his hand on her shoulder, white and warm and responsive to his touch.
“Lenore, let it be soon. We will not wait. Why should we? Let us make ourselves and all the rest of them happy.”
“Will it make you happy?” she asked.
It was a dangerous question, but the impulse was too strong.
“Yes,” he said, and indeed he thought so. “Can you say the same, Lenore?”
She did not answer, but she took his hand and laid it against her cheek. It was the action of a slave—a beautiful and exquisitely-graceful woman, but a slave.
He drew his hand away and winced with remorse.
“Come,” he said, bending over her, “let me tell them that it shall be next month.”
“So soon?” she murmured.
“Yes,” he said, almost impatiently. “Why should we wait? They are all impatient. I am impatient, naturally, but they all wish it. Let it be next month, Lenore.”
She looked up at him.
“Very well,” she said, in a low voice.
He bent over her, and put his arm round her, and there was something almost desperate in his face as he looked up at her.
“Lenore,” he said, in a low voice, “I wish, to Heaven I wish I were worthy of you!”
“Hush!” she whispered, “you are too good to me. I am quite content, Leycester—quite content.”
Then, as her head rested on his shoulder, she whispered, “There is only one thing, Leycester, I should like——”
She paused.
“What is it, Lenore?”
“It is about the place,” she said. “You will not mind where[256] it takes place, will you? I do not want to be married at Wyndward.”
This was so exactly in accordance with his own wishes that he started.
“Not at Wyndward!” he said, hesitating. “Why?”
She was silent a moment.
“Fancy,” she said, with a little rippling laugh. “Fancies are permitted one at such times, you know.”
“Yes, yes,” he said. “I know my mother and father would wish it to be there—or in London.”
“Nor in London,” she said, almost quickly. “Leycester, why should it not be here?”
He was silent. This again would be in accordance with his own desire.
“I should like a quiet wedding,” she said. “Oh! very quiet.”
“You!” he exclaimed, incredulously. “You, whose marriage would at any time have so much interest for the world in which you have moved—reigned, rather!”
She laughed again.
“It has always been one of my day-dreams to steal away to church with the man I loved, and be married without the usual fuss and formality.”
He looked at her with a gleam of pleasure and relief in his eyes, little dreaming that it was for his sake she had made the proposal.
“How strange!” he muttered. “It—well, it is unlike what one fancies of you, Lenore.”
“Perhaps,” she said, with a smile, “but it is true, nevertheless. If I may choose, I would like to go down to the little church there, and be married like a farmer’s daughter, or, if not that exactly, as quietly as possible.”
He rose and stood looking out of the window, thoughtfully.
“I shall never understand you, Lenore.” he said; “but this pleases me very much indeed. It has always been my day-dream, as you call it,”—he smothered a sigh. “Certainly it shall be as you wish! Why should it not be?”
“Very well,” she said; “then that is agreed. No announcements, no fuss, no St. George’s, Hanover Square, and no bishop!” and she rose and laughed softly.
He looked at her, and smiled.
“You appear in a new light every day, Lenore,” he said. “If you had expressed my own thoughts and desires, you could not have hit them off more exactly; what will the mother say?”
The countess had a great deal to say about the matter. She declared that it was absurd, that it was worse than absurd; it was preposterous.
“It is all very well to talk of a farmer’s daughter, my dear, but you are not a farmer’s daughter; you are Lady Lenore Beauchamp, and he is the next earl. The world will say you have both taken leave of your senses.”
Lenore looked at her with a sudden gleam in her violet eyes.
“Do you think I care?” she said, in a low voice—Leycester was not present. “I would not care whether we were married[257] in Westminster Abbey, by the archbishop himself, with all the Court in attendance, or in a village chapel. It is not I, though I say so. It is for him. Say no more about it, dear Lady Wyndward; his lightest wish is law to me.”
And the countess obeyed. The passionate devotion of the haughty beauty astonished even her, who knew something of what a woman’s love can be capable of.
“My dear,” she murmured, “do not give way too much.”
The beauty smiled a strange smile.
“It is not a question of giving way,” she retorted, with suppressed emotion. “It is simply that his wish is my law; I have but to obey—it will always be so, always.” Then she slipped down beside the countess, and looked up with a sudden pallor.
“Do you not understand yet how I love him?” she said, with a smile. “No, I do not think anyone can understand but myself—but myself!”
The earl offered no remonstrance or objection.
“What does it matter!” he said. “The place is of no consequence. The marriage is the thing. The day Leycester is married, a heavy load of care and apprehension and I shall be divorced. Let them be married where they like, in Heaven’s name.”
So Harbor and Harbor were set to work, and the principal of that old-established and aristocratic firm came all the way down to Devonshire, and was closeted with the earl for a couple of hours, and the settlement deeds were put in hand.
Lady Lenore’s fortune, which was a large one, was to be settled upon herself, supplemented by another large fortune from the hand of the earl. So large, that the lawyer ventured on a word of remonstrance, but the earl put it aside with a wave of the hand.
“It is the same amount as that which was settled upon the countess,” he said. “Why should my son’s wife have less?”
Quiet as the betrothal had been, and quietly as the nuptials were to be, rumors had spread, and presents were arriving daily. If Lenore could have found any particular pleasure in precious gems, and gold-fitted dressing-bags, and ivory prayer-books, there they were in endless variety for her delight, but they afforded her none beyond the fact of their being evidence of her coming happiness.
One present alone brought her joy, and that was Leycester’s, and that not because the diamonds of which the necklet was composed were large and almost priceless, but for the fact that he fastened the jewels round her neck with his own hands.
“These are my necklets,” she murmured, taking his hands as they touched her neck and pressing them.
How could he resist her?
And yet as the time moved on with that dogged obstinacy which it assumes for us while we would rather have it pause awhile, something of the old moodiness seemed to take possession of him. The long walks and rides grew longer, and often he would not return until late in the night, and then weary and listless. At such times it was Lenore who made excuses for[258] him, if by chance the countess uttered a word of comment or complaint.
“Why should he not do as he likes?” she said, with a smile. “It is I who am the slave, not he.”
But alone in her chamber, where already the signs of the approaching wedding were showing themselves in the shape of new dresses and wedding trousseau, the anguish of unrequited love overmastered her. Pacing to and fro, with clasped hands and pale face, she would utter the old moan, the old prayer, which the gods have heard since the world was young:
“Give me his love—give me his love! Take all else but let his heart turn to me, and to me only!”
If Stella could have known it, she was justly avenged already. Not even the anguish she had endured surpassed that of the proud beauty who had helped to rob her, and who had given her own heart to the man who had none to give her in return.