Leycester looked round for a moment eagerly

Leycester looked round for a moment eagerly, then, utterly disregarding Jasper, he hurried across to Stella, who at his entrance had made an involuntary movement towards him, but had then recoiled, and stood with white face and tightly-clasped hands.
“Stella!” he exclaimed, “why are you here? Why did you not come to Waterloo? Why did you send for me?”
She put her hand in his, and looked him in the face—a look so full of anguish and sorrow that he stared at her in amazement.
“It was I who sent for you, my lord,” said Jasper, coldly.
Leycester just glanced at him, then returned to the study of Stella’s face.
“Why are you here, Stella?”
She did not speak, but drew her hand away and glanced at Jasper.
That glance would have melted a heart of stone, but his was one of fire and consumed all pity.
“Will you not speak? Great Heaven, what is the matter with you?” demanded Leycester.
Jasper made a step nearer.
Leycester turned upon him, not fiercely, but with contempt and amazement, then turned again to Stella.
“Has anything happened at home—to your uncle?”
“Mr. Etheridge is well,” said Jasper.
Then Leycester turned and looked at him.
“Why does this man answer for you?” he said. “I did not put any question to you, sir.”
“I am aware of that, my lord,” said Jasper, his small eyes glittering with hate and malice, and smoldering fury. The sight of the handsome face, the knowledge that Stella loved this man and hated him, Jasper, maddened and tortured him, even in his hour of triumph. “I am aware of that, Lord Leycester; but as your questions evidently distress and embarrass Miss Etheridge, I take upon myself to answer for her.”
Leycester smiled as if at some strange conceit.
“You do indeed take upon yourself,” he retorted, with great scorn. “Perhaps you will kindly remain silent.”
[205]
Jasper’s face whitened and winced.
“You are in my apartment, Lord Leycester.”
“I regret to admit it. I more deeply regret that this lady should be here. I await her explanation.”
“And what if I say she will not gratify your curiosity?” said Jasper, with a malignant smile.
“What will happen, do you mean?” asked Leycester, curtly. “Well, I shall probably throw you out of the window.”
Stella uttered a low cry and laid her hand upon his arm; she knew him so well, and had no difficulty in reading the sudden lightning in the dark eyes, and the resolute tightening of the lips. She knew that it was no idle threat, and that a word more from Jasper of the same kind would rouse the fierce, impetuous anger for which Leycester was notorious.
In a moment his anger disappeared.
“I beg your pardon,” he murmured, with a loving glance, “I was forgetting myself. I will remember that you are here.”
“Now, sir,” and he turned to Jasper, “you appear anxious to offer some explanation. Be as brief and as quick as you can, please,” he added curtly.
Jasper winced at the tone of command.
“I wished to spare Miss Etheridge,” he said. “I have only one desire, and that is to insure her comfort and happiness.”
“You are very good,” said Leycester, with contemptuous impatience. “But if that is all you have to say we will rid you of our presence, which cannot be welcome. I would rather hear an account of these extraordinary proceedings from this lady’s lips, at first, at any rate; afterwards I may trouble you,” and his eyes darkened ominously.
Then he went up to Stella, and his voice dropped to a low whisper.
“Come, Stella. You shall tell me what this all means,” and he offered her his arm.
But Stella shrank back, with a piteous look in her eyes.
“I cannot go with you,” she murmured, as if each word cost her an effort. “Do not ask me!”
“Cannot!” he said, still in the same low voice. “Stella! Why not?”
“I—I cannot tell you! Do not ask me!” was her prayer. “Go now—go and leave me!”
Lord Leycester looked from her to Frank, who shook his head and glared at Jasper.
“I don’t understand it, Lord Leycester; it is no use looking to me. I have done as you asked me—at least as far as I was able until I was prevented. We got out at Vauxhall as you wished us to do——”
“I!” said Leycester, not loudly, but with an intense emphasis. “I! I did not ask you to do anything of the kind! I have been waiting for you at Waterloo, and thinking that I had missed you and that you had gone on to—to the place I asked you to go to, I hurried there. A man—Mr. Adelstone’s servant, I presume—was waiting, and told me Stella was here waiting for me. I came here—that is all!”
[206]
Frank glared at Jasper and raised an accusing finger, which he pointed threateningly.
“Ask him for an explanation!” he said.
Leicester looked at the white, defiant face.
“What jugglery is this, sir?” he demanded. “Am I to surmise that—that this lady was entrapped and brought here against her will?”
Jasper inclined his head.
“You are at liberty to surmise what you will,” he said. “If you ask me if it was through my instrumentality that this lady was led to break the assignation you had arranged for her, I answer that it was!”
“Soh!”
It was all Leycester said, but it spoke volumes.
“That I used some strategy to effect my purpose, I don’t for a moment deny. I used strategy, because it was necessary to defeat your scheme.”
He paused. Leycester stood upright watching him.
“Go on,” he said, in a hard, metallic voice.
“I brought her here that I, her uncle’s and guardian’s friend, might point out to her the danger which lay in the path on which you would entice her. I have made it clear to her that it is impossible she should do as you wish.”
He paused again, and Leycester removed his eyes from the pale face and looked at Stella.
“Is what this man says true?” he asked, in a low voice. “Has he persuaded you to break faith with me?”
Stella looked at him, and her hands closed over each other.
“Don’t ask her,” broke in Frank. “She is not in a fit state to answer. This fellow, this Jasper Adelstone, has bewitched her! I think he has frightened her out of her senses by some threat——”
“Frank! Hush! Oh, hush!” broke from Stella.
Lord Leycester started and eyed her scrutinizingly, but he saw only anguish and pity and sorrow—not guilt—in her face.
“It is true,” declared Frank. “This is what she has said, and this only since I came back into the room, and I can’t get any more out of her. I think, Lord Leycester, you had better throw him out of the window.”
Leycester looked from one to the other. There was evidently more in the case than could be met by following Frank’s advice.
He put his hand to his head for a moment.
“I don’t understand,” he said, almost to himself.
“It is not difficult to understand,” said Jasper, with an ill-concealed sneer. “The lady absolutely refuses to keep the appointment you made—you forced upon her. She declines to accompany you. She——”
“Silence,” said Leycester, in a low voice that was more terrible than shouting. Then he turned to Stella.
“Is it so?” he asked.
She raised her eyes, and her lips moved.
“Yes,” she said.
He looked as if he could not believe the evidence of his senses.[207] The perspiration broke out on his forehead, and his lips trembled, but he made an effort to control himself, and succeeded.
“Is what this man says true, Stella?”
“I—I cannot go with you,” she trembled, with downcast eyes.
Leycester looked round the room as if he suspected he must be dreaming.
“What does it mean?” he murmured. “Stella;” and now he addressed her as if he were oblivious of the presence of others. “Stella, I implore, I command you to tell me. Consider what my position is. I—who have been expecting you as—as you know well—find you here, and here you, with your own lips, tell me that all is altered between us; so suddenly, so unreasonably.”
“It must be so,” she breathed. “If you would only go and leave me!”
He put his hand on the back of a chair to steady himself, and the chair shook.
Jasper stood gloating over his emotion.
“Great Heaven!” he exclaimed, “can I believe my ears? Is this you, Stella—speaking to me in these words and in this fashion? Why!—why!—why!”
And the questions burst forth from him passionately.
She clasped her hands, and looked up at him.
“Do not ask me—I cannot tell. Spare me!”
Leycester turned to Frank.
“Will you—will you leave us, my dear Frank?” he said, hoarsely.
Frank went out slowly, then Leycester turned to Jasper.
“Hear me,” he said. “You have given me to understand that the key of this enigma is in your possession; you will be good enough to furnish me with it. There must be no more mystery. Understand once for all, and at once, that I will have no trifling.”
“Leycester!”
He put up his hand to her, gently, reassuringly,
“Do not fear; this gentleman has no need to tremble. This matter lies between us three—at present, rather, it lies between you two. I want to be placed on an equality, that is all.” And he smiled a fiercely-bitter smile. “Now, sir!”
Jasper bit his lips.
“I have few words to add to what I have already said. I will say them, and I leave it to Miss Etheridge to corroborate them. You wish to know the reason why she did not meet you as you expected, and why she is here instead, and under my protection?”
Leycester moved his hand impatiently.
“The question is easily answered. It is because she is my affianced wife!” said Jasper quietly.
Leycester looked at him steadily, but did not show by a sign that he had been smitten as his adversary had hoped to smite him. Instead, he seemed to recover coolness.
“I have been told,” he said, quietly and incisively, “that you are a clever man, Mr. Adelstone. I did not doubt it until this[208] moment. I feel that you must be a fool to hope that I should accept that statement.”
Jasper’s face grew red under the bitter scorn; he raised his hand and pointed tremblingly to Stella.
“Ask her,” he said, hoarsely.
Leycester turned to her with a start.
“For form’s sake,” he said, almost apologetically, “I will ask you, Stella. Is this true?”
She raised her eyes.
“It is true,” she breathed.
Leycester turned white for the first time, and seemed unable to withdraw his eyes from hers for a moment, then he walked up to her and took her hands.
“Look at me!” he said, in a low, constrained voice. “Do you know that I am here?—I—am—here!—that I came here to protect you? That whatever this man has said to force this mad avowal from your lips I will make him answer for! Stella! Stella! If you do not wish to drive me mad, look at me and tell me that this is a lie!”
She looked at him sadly, sorrowfully.
“It is true—true,” she said.
“Of your own free will?—you hesitate! Ah!”
She flung her hands before her eyes for a moment to gain strength to deal him the blow, then with white constrained face she said—
“Of my own free will!”
He dropped her hands, but stood looking at her.
Jasper’s voice aroused him from the stupor which fell upon him.
“Come, my lord,” he said, in a dry, cold voice, “you have received your answer. Let me suggest that you have inflicted more than enough pain upon this lady, and let me remind you that as I am her affianced husband I have the right to request you to leave her in peace.”
Leycester turned to him slowly, but without speaking to him went up to Stella.
“Stella,” he said, and his voice was harsh and hoarse. “For the last time I ask you—for the last time!—is this true? Have you betrayed me for this man? Have you promised to be—his wife?”
The answer came in a low clear voice:
“It is true. I shall be his wife.”
He staggered slightly, but recovered himself, and stood upright, his hands clasped, the veins on his forehead swelling.
“It is enough,” he said. “You tell me that it is of your own free will. I do not believe that. I know that this man has some hold upon you. What it is I cannot guess. I feel that you will not tell me, and that he would only lie if I asked him. But it is enough for me. Stella—I call you so for the last time—you have deceived me; you have kept this thing hidden from me. May Heaven forgive you, I cannot!”
Then he took his hat and turned to leave the room.
As he did so she swayed toward him, and almost fell at his[209] feet, but Jasper glided toward her and held her, and, as Leycester turned, he saw her leaning on Jasper, her arm linked in his.
Without a word Leycester opened the door and went out.
Frank sprang toward him, but Leycester put him back with a firm grasp.
“Oh, Lord Leycester!” he cried.
Leycester paused for a moment, his hand on the boy’s arm.
“Go to her,” he said. “She has lied to me. There is something between her and that man. I have seen her for the last time,” and before the boy could find a word of expostulation or entreaty, Leycester pushed him aside and went out.