Jasper Adelstone closed the door behind him, and stood looking at them.
His face was very pale, his lips were tightly compressed, and there was that peculiar look of decision and resolution which Stella had often remarked.
True it struck her as ominous—a chill, cold and awesome, ran through her—but she stood and confronted him with a face that, though as pale as his own, showed no sign of fear; her eyes met his own with a haughty, questioning gaze.
“Mr. Adelstone,” she said, in low, clear, indignant tones, “what does this mean?”
Before he could make any reply, Frank stepped between them, and with crimson face and flashing eyes confronted him.
“Yes! what does this mean, Mr. Adelstone?” he echoed. “Why have you brought us here—entrapped us?”
Jasper Adelstone just glanced at him, then looked at Stella—pale, beautiful and indignant.
“I fear I have offended you,” he said, in a low, clear voice, his eyes fixed with concentrated watchful intentness on her face.
“Offended!” echoed Stella, with mingled surprise and anger. “There is no question of offense, Mr. Adelstone. This—this that you have done is an insult!”
And her face flushed hotly.
He shook his head gravely, and his hands clasped themselves behind his back, where they pecked at each other in his effort to remain calm and self-possessed under her anger and scorn.
“It is not an insult; it was not intended as an insult. Stella——”
“My name is Etheridge, Mr. Adelstone,” Stella broke in, calmly and proudly. “Be good enough to address me by my title of courtesy and surname.”
“I beg your pardon,” he said, in slow tones. “Miss Etheridge, I am aware that the step I have taken—and I beg you to mark that I do not attempt to deny that it is through my order that you are here——”
“We know all that!” interrupted Frank, fiercely. “We don’t wish for any verbiage from you; we only want, my cousin and I, a direct answer to our question, ‘Why have you done this?’ When you have answered it, we will leave you as quickly as possible. If you don’t choose to answer, we will leave you without. In fact, Stella”—and he turned with a glance of contempt and angry scorn at the tall motionless figure with the pale face and compressed lips—”in fact, Stella, I don’t think we much care to know. We had better go, I think, and leave it to someone else to demand an explanation and reparation.”
Jasper did not look at him, took no notice whatever of the boyish scorn and indignation: he had borne Stella’s; the boy’s could not touch him after hers.
“I am ready to afford you an explanation,” he said to Stella, with an emphasis on the ‘you.’
Stella was silent, her eyes turned away from him, as if the very thought of him were distasteful to her.
“Go on, we are waiting!” exclaimed Frank, with all a boy’s directness.
“I said that I would afford ‘you,’ Miss Etheridge,” said Jasper. “I think it would be better if you were to hear me alone.”
“What!” shouted Frank, drawing Stella’s arm through his.
“Alone,” repeated Jasper. “It would be better for you—for all of us,” he repeated, with a significance in his voice that sank to Stella’s heart.
“I won’t hear of it!” exclaimed Frank. “I am here to protect her. I would not leave her alone with you a moment. You are quite capable of murdering her!”
Then, for the first time, Jasper noticed the boy’s presence.
“Are you afraid that I shall do you harm?” he said, with a cold smile.
He knew Stella.
The cold sneer stung her.
“I am not afraid of those I despise,” she said, hotly. “Go, Frank. You will come when I call you.”
“I shall not move,” he responded, earnestly. “This man—this Jasper Adelstone—has already shown himself capable of an illegal, a criminal act, for it is illegal and criminal to kidnap anyone, and he has kidnapped us. I shall not leave you. You know,” and he turned his eyes reproachfully on Stella, “I am responsible for you.”
Stella’s face flushed, then went pale.
“I know,” she said, in a low voice and she pressed his arm. “But—but—I think it is better that I should listen to him. You see”—and her voice dropped still lower and grew tremulous, so that Jasper Adelstone could not hear it—”you see that we are in his power; we are his prisoners almost; and he will not let us go till I have heard him. It will be more prudent to yield. Think, Frank, who is waiting all this time.”
Frank started, and appeared suddenly convinced.
“Very well,” he whispered. “Call me the moment you want me. And, mind, if he is impertinent—he can be, you know—call at once.”
Then he moved to the door, but paused and looked at Jasper with all the scorn and contempt he could summon up into his boyish face.
“I am going, Mr. Adelstone; but, remember, it is only because my cousin wishes me to. You will say what you have to say, quickly, please; and say it respectfully, too.”
Jasper held the door for him calmly and stolidly, and Frank passed out into the outer office. There he put on his hat and made for the door, struck by a sudden bright idea. He would drive to Bruton Street and fetch Lord Leycester. But as he touched the door old Scrivell rose from his seat and shook his head.
“Door’s locked, sir,” he said.
Frank turned purple.
“What do you mean?” he exclaimed. “Let me out at once; immediately.”
The old man shrugged his shoulders.
“Orders, sir; orders,” he said, in his dry voice, and resumed his work, deaf to all the boy’s threats, entreaties, and bribes.
Jasper closed the door and crossing the room laid his hand on a chair and signed respectfully to Stella to sit down, but without a word she drew a little away and remained standing, her eyes fixed on his face, her lips tightly pressed together.
He inclined his head and stood before her, one white hand resting on the table, the other thrust into his vest.
“Miss Etheridge,” he said, slowly, and with intense earnestness, “I beg you to believe that the course which I have felt bound to adopt has been productive of as much pain and grief to me as it can possibly have been to you——”
Stella just moved her hand with scornful impatience.
“Your feelings are a matter of supreme indifference to me, Mr. Adelstone,” she said, icily.
“I regret that, I regret it with pain that amounts to anguish,” he said, and his lips quivered. “The sentiments of—of devotion and attachment which I entertain for you, are no secret to you——”
“I cannot hear this,” she said, impatiently.
“And yet I must urge them,” he said, “for I have to urge them as an excuse for the liberty—the unpardonable liberty as you at present deem it—which I have taken.”
“It is unpardonable!” she echoed, with suppressed passion. “There is no excuse—absolutely none.”
“And yet,” he said, still quietly and insistently, “if my devotion were less ardent, my attachment less sincere and immovable, I should have allowed you to go on your way to ruin and disaster.”
Stella started and looked at him indignantly.
He moved his hand, slightly deprecatory of her wrath.
“I will not conceal from you that I knew of your destination, of your appointment.”
“You acted the spy!” she articulated.
“I acted rather the guardian!” he said. “What kind of love, how poor and inactive that would be, which could remain quiescent while the future of its object was at stake!”
Stella put up her hand to silence him.
“I do not care—I will not listen to your fine phrases. They do not move me, Mr. Adelstone. To your devotion and—and attachment I am indifferent; I refuse to accept them. I await your explanations. If you have none to give, I will go,” and she made a movement as if to depart.
“Wait, I implore, I advise you.”
“Hear me to the end,” he said. “You will not permit me to allude to the passionate love which is my excuse and my warranty for what I have done. So be it. I will speak of it no more, if I can so control myself as to refrain from doing so. I will speak of yourself and—and of the man who plots your ruin.”
Stella opened her lips, but refrained from speech, and merely smiled a smile of pitiless scorn.
“I speak of Lord Leycester Wyndward,” said Jasper Adelstone, the name leaving his lips as if every word tortured them. “It is true, is it not, that this Lord Leycester has asked you to meet him at a place in London—at Bruton Street, his lodgings? It is true that he has told you that he was prepared to make you his wife!”
“And you will say that it is a lie, and ask me to believe you—you against him!” she broke in, with a laugh that cut him like a whip.
“No,” he said; “I will admit that it may be true—I think that it is possible that it may be true; and yet, you see, I have braved your wrath and, far worse, your scorn, and balked him.”
“For a time,” she said, almost beneath her breath—”for a time, a short time. I fear, Mr. Adelstone, that he will demand reparation, heavy reparation at your hands for such ‘balking.'”
To save her life she could not have suppressed her threat.
“I do not fear Lord Leycester, or any man,” he said. “Where you are concerned I fear only—yourself.”
“Do you intend giving me the explanation, sir?” she demanded, impetuously.
“I have stepped in between him and his prey,” he went on, still gravely, “because I thought, I hoped, that were time given you, though it were at the last moment, that you would see the danger which lay before you, and draw back.”
“Thanks!” she said, scornfully—”that is your explanation. Having afforded it, be kind enough to open that door and let me depart.”
“Stay!” he said, and for the first time his voice broke and showed signs of the storm that was raging within him. “Stay, Stella—I implore, I beseech of you! Think, consider for one moment to what doom your feet are carrying you! The man proposes—has the audacity to propose—a clandestine elopement, a secret marriage; he treats you as if you were not worthy to be his wife, as if you were the dirt under his feet! Do you think, dare you, blinded as you are by a momentary passion, dare you hope that any good can spring from such an union, that any happiness can follow such a shameful marriage? Dare you hope that this man’s love—love!—which will not brave the temporary anger and contempt of his relations, can be strong enough to last a lifetime? Think, Stella! He is ashamed of you already; he, the heir to Wyndward, is ashamed to make you his bride before the world. He must lower and degrade you by a secret ceremony. What is his love compared with mine—with mine?” and in the fierce emotion of the moment he put his hand upon her arm and held her.
With a fierce, angry scorn, which no one who knew Stella Etheridge could have thought her capable of, she flung his hand from her and confronted him, her beautiful face looking lovely in its scorn and wrath.
“Silence!” she exclaimed, her breast heaving, her eyes darting lightning. “You—you coward! You dare to speak thus to me, a weak, defenseless girl, whom you have entrapped into listening to you! I dare you to utter them to him—him, the man you traduce and slander. You speak of love; you know not what it is! You speak of shame——” she paused, the word seemed to overcome her. “Shame,” she repeated, struggling for breath and composure; “you do not know what that is. Shall I tell you? I have never felt it until now; I feel it now, because I have been weak enough to remain and listen to you! It is shameful that your hand should have touched me! It is shameful that I should have listened to your protestations of love—love! You speak of the shame which he would bring upon me! Well, then—listen for once and all!—if such shame were to befall me from his hand, I would go to meet it, yes, and welcome it, rather than take from yours all the honor which you could extend to me! You say that I am going to ruin and unhappiness! So be it; I accept your words—to silence you, learn from my own lips that I would rather bear such shame and misery with him, than happiness and honor with you. Have I—have I,” she panted, “spoken plainly enough?” and she looked down at him with passionate scorn. He was white, white as death, his hands hung at his side clinched and burning; his tongue seemed to cleave to the roof of his mouth, and render speech impossible.
Her scorn lashed him; every word fell like the thong of a knout, and cut into his heart; and all the while his eyes rested on hers with anguished entreaty.
“Spare me,” he cried, hoarsely, at last. “Spare me! I have tried to spare you!”
“You—spare me!” she retorted, with a short contemptuous laugh.
“Yes,” he said, wetting his lips, “I have tried to spare you! I tried argument, entreaty, all to no purpose! Now—now you compel me to use force!”
She glanced at the door, though she seemed to know instinctively that he did not mean physical force.
“I would have saved you without this last step,” he said, slowly, almost inaudibly. “I call upon you to remember this in the after-time. That not until you had repulsed all my efforts to turn you from your purpose—not until you had lashed me with your scorn and contempt, did I take up this last weapon. If in using it—though I use it as mercifully as I can—it turns and wounds you, bear this in mind, that not until the last did I direct it against you!”
Stella put her hand to her lips; they were trembling with excitement.
“I will not hear another word,” she said. “I care as little for your threat—this is a threat——”
“It is a threat,” he said, with deadly calmness.
“As I do for your entreaties. You cannot harm me.”
“No,” he said; “but I can harm those you love.”
She smiled, and moved to the door.
“Stay,” he said. “For their sakes, remain and hear me to the end.”
“You speak of shame,” he said, “and fear it as naught. You do not know what it means, and—and—I forget the fearful words that stained your lips. But there are others, those you love, for whom shame means death—worse than death.”
She looked at him with a smile of contemptuous disbelief. She did not believe one word of the vague threat, not one word.
“Believe me,” he said, “there hangs above the heads of those you love a shame as deadly and awful as that sword which hung above the head of Damocles. It hangs by a single thread which I, and I alone, can sever. Say but the word and I can cast aside that shame. Turn from me to him—to him—and I cut the thread and the sword falls!”
Stella laughed scornfully.
“You have mistaken your vocation,” she said. “You were intended for the stage, Mr. Adelstone. I regret that I have no further time to waste upon your efforts. Permit me to go.”
“Go, then,” he said, “and the misery of those dear to you be upon your hands, for you will have dealt it, not I! Go! But mark me, before you have reached the man who has ensnared you that shame will have fallen; a shame so bitter that it will yawn like a gulf between you and him; a gulf which no time can ever bridge over.”
“It—it is a lie!” she breathed, her eyes fixed upon his white face, but she paused and did not go.
He inclined his head.
“No,” he said, “it is true, an awful, shameful truth. You will wait and listen?”
She looked at him for a moment in silence.
“I will wait five minutes—just five minutes,” she said, and she pointed to the clock. “And I warn you—it is I who warn you now—that by no word will I attempt to screen you from the punishment which will meet this lie.”
“I am content,” he said, and there was something in the cold tone of assured triumph that struck to her heart.
Jasper Adelstone closed the door behind him, and stood looking at them.