Lenore sat in her dainty room, her long golden hair flooding her white shoulders, her fair face reflected in the Venetian mirror with its edging of antique work and trimming of lac

Lenore sat in her dainty room, her long golden hair flooding her white shoulders, her fair face reflected in the Venetian mirror with its edging of antique work and trimming of lace. Not even a Venetian mirror could have desired to hold a fairer picture; youth, beauty, and happiness, smiled from its surface. The rich, delicately curved lips smiled to-night, with an ineffable content, and serene satisfaction.
There was a latent gleam of triumph in the violet eyes, eloquent of triumph and victory. She had conquered; the desire of her life was nearly within her grasp; two days—forty-eight hours—more and Leycester Wyndward would be hers. An ancient name, an historic title, an immense estate were to be hers. To do her justice at this moment, she thought neither of the title nor the estate; it was of the man, of the man with his handsome face, and musical voice, and debonnaire manner that she thought. If they had come and told her, there where she sat, that it had been discovered that he was neither noble nor rich, she would not have cared, it would not have mattered. It was the man, it was Leycester himself, for whom she had plotted and schemed, and she would have been content with him alone.
Even now, as she looked at the beautiful reflection in the mirror, it was with no thought of her own beauty, all her thoughts were of him; and the smile that crossed the red lips was called up by no spirit of vanity, but by the thought that in forty-eight hours, the wish and the desire of her life would be gratified.
In silence the maid brushed out the wealth of golden tresses, of which she was almost as proud as the owner herself; she had heard a whisper in the servants’ hall, but it was not for her to speak. It was a rumor that something had happened to Lord Leycester, that he had not returned yet, and that one of the wild fits, with which all the household were familiar, had seized him, and that he was off no one knew where.
It was not for her to speak, but she watched her beautiful mistress covertly, and thought how quickly she could dispel the smile of serenity which sat upon the fair face.
Quiet as the wedding was intended to be, there was necessarily some stir; the society papers had got hold of it, and dilated upon it in paragraphs, in which Lenore was spoken of as “our reigning beauty,” and Leycester described as the son of a well-known peer, and a man of fashion. Quite an army of upholsterers had been at work at the house in Grosvenor Square, and another army of milliners and dressmakers had been preparing the bride’s trousseau. A pile of imperials and portmanteaus stood in the dressing-room, each bearing the initials “I,” with the coronet.
One or two of the Beauchamps, the present earl and a brother—together with three young lady cousins, who were to act as bridesmaids—had been invited, and were to arrive the following[275] evening. Certainly there must be some slight fuss, and Lenore, as she thought of Leycester’s absence, ascribed it to his dislike to the aforesaid fuss, and his desire to escape from it.
The maid went at last, and Lenore, with a happy sigh, went to sleep. At that time Leycester was pacing the beach at Carlyon, and Jasper and poor Frank were lying dead. Surely if dreams come to warn one of impending trouble, Lady Lenore should have dreamed to-night; but she did not. She slept the night through without a break, and rose fresh and beautiful, with only twenty-four hours between her and happiness.
But when she entered the breakfast-room, and met the pale, anxious face of the countess, and the grave one of the earl, a sudden spasm of fear, scarcely fear, but apprehension, fell upon her.
“What is the matter?” she asked, gliding to the countess, and kissing her.
“Nothing—really nothing, dear,” she said, attempting to speak lightly.
“Where is Leycester?” she asked.
“That is it,” replied the countess, pouring out the coffee, and keeping her eye fixed on the cup. “The foolish boy hasn’t returned yet.”
“Not returned?” echoed Lenore, and a faint flush came into her face. “Where did he go?”
“I don’t know, my dear Lenore, and I cannot find out. He didn’t tell you?”
Lenore shook her head, and fastened a flower in her dress with a hand that quivered faintly.
“No. I did not ask him. I saw him go.”
“Was he on foot, or riding?” asked the earl.
“On foot,” said Lenore. “He was in his shooting clothes, and I thought he was going for a walk on the hills.”
The earl broke his piece of toast with a little irritable jerk.
“It is annoying,” he said. “It is extremely inconsiderate of him, extremely. To-day, of all others, he should have remained at home.”
“He will be here presently,” said Lenore, calmly.
The countess sighed.
“Nothing—of course nothing could have happened to him.”
She merely made the suggestion in a suppressed, hushed, anxious voice.
Lenore laughed—actually laughed.
“Happened to him, to Leycester!” she said, with proud contempt. “What could have happened to him? Leycester is not the sort of man to meet with accidents. Pray do not be uneasy, dear; he will come in directly, very tired, and very hungry, and laugh at us.”
“I give him credit for better manners,” said the earl, curtly.
He was angry and annoyed. As he had said to the countess before Lenore came in, he had hoped and believed that Leycester had given up this sort of boyish nonsense, and intended to act sensibly, as became a man who had settled to marry.
There was a moment’s pause while the earl buttered his toast, still irritably; then Lady Wyndward said almost to herself—
“Perhaps Lilian knows?”
“No,” said Lenore, quickly, “she does not, or she would have told me. I saw her last night the last thing, and she did not know he was out. Do not tell her.”
The countess glanced at her gratefully.
“She would only be anxious and fret,” said Lenore. “While I am not, and shall not be,” she added, with a smile. “I am not afraid that Leycester has run away from me.”
She looked up as she spoke, and flashed her beauty upon them, as it were, and smiled, and the mother felt reassured. Certainly it did not seem probable that any man would run away from her.
6She herself felt no fear, not even when the morning grew to noon and the noon to evening. She went about the house superintending the packing of the multitudinous things, arranging the epergnes, playing the piano even, and more than once the light air from the French opera floated through the room.
Lord Beauchamp and the rest of the visitors were to arrive about seven, just in time to dress for dinner, and the stir that had reigned in the house grew accentuated as the time approached. Lenore went to her room at six to dress; she meant to look her best to-night, as well indeed as she meant to look on the following day; and her maid knew by the attention which her mistress had paid to the wardrobe that every care would be expected from her ministering hands. Just before she went to her room she met the countess on the stairs; they had not seen very much of each other during the day; there was a great deal to do, and the countess, notwithstanding her rank, was a housekeeper in something more than name.
“Lenore,” she said, then stopped.
The beauty bent over from her position on a higher step and kissed her.
“I know, dear—he has not come yet. Well, he will be here by dinner-time. Why are you so anxious? I am not.”
And she laughed.
It certainly encouraged the countess, and she even called up a smile.
“What a strange girl you are, Lenore,” she said. “One would have thought that you, before all of us, would have been uneasy.”
Lenore shook her head.
“No, dear; I feel—I feel that he will come. Now see if my prophecy comes true.”
And she went up the stairs, casting a serene and confident smile over her shoulder.
“I will wear that last blue dress of Worth’s, and the pearls,” she said to her maid, and the girl started. The dress had just arrived, and was supposed to be reserved for future London triumphs.
“The last, my lady?”
Lenore nodded.
“Yes; I want to look my best to-night; and if I were not afraid of being thought too pronounced, I would wear my diamonds.”
The girl arranged the beautiful hair in its close curls of gold, and fastened the famous pearls upon the white wrists and round the dainty throat; and Lenore surveyed herself in the Venetian mirror. A smile of satisfaction slowly lit up her face.
“Well?” she said, over her shoulder.
“Beautiful,” breathed the girl, who was proud of her mistress’s loveliness. “Oh, beautiful, my lady! but isn’t it a pity to wear it to-night?”
Lenore shook her head.
“I would wear a better if I had it,” she said, softly. “Now go down-stairs, and tell me when Lord Leycester returns.”
The girl stared and then smiled. After all then they had been worrying themselves about nothing; her ladyship had received a message from him and knew when to expect him! She went down and crowed over them in the servants’ hall, and watched for Lord Leycester.
Seven o’clock chimed from the stables, and the carriage that had been sent to meet the guests returned. Lord Beauchamp was a tall, stately old gentleman who hated traveling as he hated anything else that gave him any trouble or inconvenience, and the rest were tired and dusty, and generally pining for soap and water. The earl and countess met them in the hall, and in the bustle and fuss Leycester was not missed.
“Do not hurry, Lord Beauchamp,” said the poor countess. “We will make the dinner half-past eight,” and she wished in her heart that she could postpone it altogether; for Leycester had not come.
“What shall we do—what shall we do?” she exclaimed, as the earl stood at her dressing-room door with his coat in his hand.
“Do!” he retorted. “Go on without him. This comes of humoring an only son till he develops into a lunatic. Poor Lenore! I pity her!” and he went out frowning.
“He has not come, my lady!” murmured the maid, entering Lenore’s room a few minutes afterwards. “Lord Beauchamp’s party have arrived, but Lord Leycester has not come.”
Lenore was standing by the open window, and she turned with a sudden smile. The sound of horse’s feet had struck upon her ear.
“Yes, he has,” she said. “He is here now,” and she closed the window and sat down calmly.
Leycester rode into the courtyard on the horse that he had borrowed from the doctor, and, throwing the bridle to a groom, ascended the stone steps and made his way through the hall.
Excepting some of the servants, there was no one about, they had all gone to their dressing-rooms, and he went up the stairs in silence and uninterrupted. With bent head and dragging step, for the long vigil and hours of excitement had told upon him, he stood before Lilian’s room. It was worthy of notice that in[278] this awful coming back of his he went to her first, as a matter of course, and knocking gently, went in.
It was dark, and the lamp was burning softly, but she, accustomed to the dim light, saw plainly that something had happened.
“Leycester!” she exclaimed. “Why—how is this, dear? Where have you been all day and all last night? You did not come to me and——” she stopped as he sat down beside her and put his hand upon her head. The hand was burning hot, his face was white and haggard and worn, and yet in some way strangely peaceful, with a far-away, dreamy expression upon it—”Leycester, where have you been?”
He bent and kissed her.
“Lil,” he said, and there was a great peace in his voice though it was weary and husky, “you will be a brave good girl while I tell you!”
“Ah, Leycester!” was all she murmured.
“Well, Lil, I have found her—I have got her back—my poor Stella.”
Her hand closed on his, and her delicate face went white as ivory.
“Got her back!”
“Yes,” he said, in low tones. “I have found out the mystery—no, not I. It was solved for me by a mightier hand than any human one—by Death, Lil.”
“Death, Leycester! She is not dead! Oh, Stella—Stella!”
“Heaven forbid,” he breathed. “No, no; she is alive, though fearfully near death still. I left her lying white and still and weak as a broken lily—my poor, sweet darling!—but she is alive, thank Heaven!—she is alive! And now can you bear to hear what separated us, Lil?”
“Tell me,” she said.
Sitting there, with her loving, sympathizing heart beating against his, he told her the strange story. Sobs, low and moving, broke from her as he told of the boy’s death, and an awful chill fell on her as he spoke as shortly as he could of the fate that had befallen Jasper Adelstone; but when he came to speak of that short damning note that he had found—that note in the hand-writing of Lenore, and hinted at her share in the conspiracy—the gentle heart grew cold and terrified, and she hid her face for a moment, then she looked up and clasped her hands round his neck.
“Oh, Ley, Ley! deal gently with her! Forgive her! We all need forgiveness! Forgive her; she did it out of her love for you, and has suffered, and will suffer! Deal gently with her!”
He bit his lip, and his brow darkened.
“Ley, Ley!” the gentle creature pleaded, “think of her now waiting for you, think of her who was to be your wife. She loved you. Ley, she loves you still; and that will be her punishment! Ley, you will not be hard with her!”
Her prayer prevailed; he drew a long breath.
“No, Lil,” he said, in a low voice, “I will not be hard with her. But as for love! True love does not stand by and see its[279] beloved suffer as I have suffered; not true love. There is a passion which men libel by calling love—that is what she has borne for me. Love! Think of her? Yes; I will think of her; but how am I to forget my beautiful, suffering darling, lying so white and wan and broken,” and he hid his face in his hands. Presently he rose and kissed her.
“I am going to her,” he said. “Do not fear! I have given you my word; I will deal gently with her.”
She let him go without another word, and he went straight to Lenore’s sitting-room, travel-stained and haggard, and unrefreshed.
The maid heard his knock, and opened the door, and passed out as he entered and stood in the middle of the room. There was a faint rustle in the adjoining room, and then she came floating toward him in all her loveliness, the faint, ethereal blue making her white skin to shame the rare and costly pearls. She was dazzling in her supreme loveliness, and at any other time he would have been moved, but now it was as if a deadly, venomous serpent, glorious in its scaly beauty, lay coiled before him.
She came forward, her hands outstretched, her eyes glowing with a passionate welcome, and then stopped. Not a word passed for a moment; the two, she in all her costly attire and loveliness, he in his stained cord suit and with his haggard face, confronted each other. She read her doom at a glance, but the proud, haughty spirit did not quail.
“Well?” she said at last.
Chivalrous to the last, even in this moment, he pointed to a seat, but she made a gesture of refusal and stood, her white hands clasped tightly, her head erect, her eyes glowing. “Well? You have come back?”
“Yes, I have come back, Lady Lenore,” he said, his voice dry and hoarse.
She smiled bitterly at the “lady.”
“You are late,” she said. “Was it worth while coming back?”
It was a proud and insolent question, but he bore with her.
“I came back for your sake,” he said.
“For mine!” and she smiled incredulously. She could smile still, though an icy hand was closing round her heart, and wringing the life blood out of it.
“For yours. It was not fitting that you should hear from other lips than mine that from this hour you and I are as far apart as pole from pole.”
She inclined her head.
“So be it. There is no appeal from such a sentence. But may I ask you to explain; dare I venture so far?” and her lip curled.
“Do you think you dare?” he said, sternly.
She inclined her head, his sternness struck her like a blow.
“You have come to tell me, have you not?” she said. “Where have you been?”
“I have come from Carlyon,” he said.
“From whom?”
“From the girl from whom your base scheming separated me,” he said, sternly.
“Ah,” she breathed, but her eyes opened with a wild stare. “You—you have gone back to her?”
He waved his hand.
“Let there be no word of her between us,” he said; “your lips shall not profane her name.”
She turned white and her hand went to her heart.
“Forgive me,” he said, hoarsely. Had he not promised to deal gently with her? “I have not come to utter reproaches—I came to shield you, if that were possible.”
“To shield!—from what?” she demanded, in a low murmur.
“From the consequences of your crime,” he said. “What that is, I have only learnt to-night; but for a chance accident the world would know to-morrow that Lady Lenore Beauchamp had stooped so low as to become the accomplice of Jasper Adelstone in a vile conspiracy.”
She waved her hand.
“He dare not speak. I defy him!”
Leycester held up his hand.
“He is beyond your defiance,” he said—”Jasper Adelstone is dead!”
She made a gesture of contemptuous indifference.
“What is that to me?” she said, hoarsely. “Why do you speak to me of him or any other man? Is it not enough that I have failed? Have you come to gloat over me? What is it that you want?”
He thrust his hand in his breast, and drew forth the note.
“I have come to restore this to you,” he said. “I took it from the dead man’s bosom—took it to save your reputation. The story it told me I have heard in fact from the lips of the girl you have plotted against and wronged. It is at her bidding that I am here—here to save you from scandal, and to cover if possible your retreat.”
“At her’s—at Stella Etheridge’s?” she breathed, as though the name would choke her.
He waved his hand.
“You will leave this house to-night. I have made all arrangements necessary, and you will start in an hour’s time.”
She laughed discordantly.
“And if I say I will not?”
He looked at her sternly.
“Then I will tell the story to my mother and you shall hear your dismissal from her lips. Choose!”
She dropped into a chair, and made a gesture of scorn.
“Tell whom you please,” she said. “I am your affianced wife, my people are under your roof at this moment; go to them and tell them that you have deserted me for a low-born girl!”
He turned and strode to the door; but ere he had reached it the reaction had come. With a low cry, she flew to him and sank at his feet, her hands clasped on his arm, her face upturned with an awful imploration.
“Leycester, Leycester! Do not leave me! Do not go! Leycester,[281] I was wrong, wicked, base, vile; but it was all for you—for you! Leycester, listen to me! You will not go! Do not fling me from you! Look at me, Leycester!”
He did look at her, lovely in her abandon and despair, and then averted his eyes; it horrified him to see her so low and degraded.
“You will not look at me!” she wailed; “you will not! Oh, Heaven! am I so changed? am I old, ugly, hideous? Leycester, you have called me beautiful a hundred—a thousand times; and now you will not look at me! You will leave me! You shall not; I will hold you like this forever—forever! Ah!”—for he had made a movement to disengage himself—”you will not hurt me! Yes; kill me, kill me here at your feet! I would rather die so than live without you. I cannot, Leycester! Listen, I love you; I love you twenty thousand times better than that wretched girl can do! Leycester, I will give my life for you! See, I am kneeling here at your feet! You will not spurn me, you cannot repel me! Leycester! oh, my darling, my love! do what you will with me, but do not spurn me! Oh, my love, my love!”
It was piteous, it was awful, to see and hear her, and the strong man trembled and turned pale, but his heart was stone and ice toward her; the white, wan face of his darling came between them, and made the flushed, passion-distorted face at his feet seem hideous and repellant.
“Rise!” he said, sternly.
“No, no; I will not,” she moaned. “I will die at your feet! Leycester, you will kill me! I have lost all for your sake, pride and honor, and now my fair name, for you cannot shield me; and you will thrust me aside. Leycester, you cannot! you cannot! Oh, my love, my love, do not spurn me from you!” and still on her knees, she bent her head upon his arm, and poured a storm of passionate, broken kisses upon his hand.
That roused him. With an exclamation of abhorrence, he threw her grasp off, and stood with his hand on the door.
She sprang to her feet, and, white and breathless, looked at him as if she would read his soul; then throwing her hands above her head, she fell to the ground.
He stood for a moment or two bending over her, thinking her senseless, but it was simply mental and physical exhaustion, and when he strode to the bell, she opened her eyes and held up her hand to stop him.
“No,” she murmured. “Let no one see me. Go now. Go!”
He went to the door, and she rose and supported herself against a chair.
“Good-bye, Leycester,” she said. “I have lost you—and all! All!”
It was the last words he heard her utter for many and many a year.