Lord Charles eyed him with astonishment

“I am Frank Etheridge,” said Frank, looking up at Lord Charles, as the latter stopped at the little gate in the lane. “Yes, I am Frank Etheridge.” And as he repeated the sentence, a shy, almost a timid, apprehensive expression came into his eyes.
“All right,” said Lord Charles, looking round with a most inconsistent look of caution on his frank, handsome face. “Then I have a letter for you.”
“For me!” said Frank, and his face paled.
Lord Charles eyed him with astonishment.
“What is the matter?” he said. “What are you alarmed at? I am not a bailiff—I am only Mercury.” And he chuckled at the joke at his own expense. “I have a letter for you—from my friend Lord Leycester.”
Frank’s face lit up, and he held out his hand promptly.
Lord Charles took the letter from his pocket and turned it over quickly.
“It’s got tumbled and creased,” he said. “Fact is, I ought to have given it to you an hour or two ago, but I was led on to tennis and forgot it.”
“Oh, it’s all right,” said Frank, eagerly. “I am very much obliged, sir. Won’t you come in? My father and my cousin Stella will be glad to see you.”
But Lord Charles shook his head, and glanced at the pretty cottage, with its air of peace which surrounded it, with something like a pang of remorse.
“I do hope this will all turn out right,” he thought. “Leycester means well, but he is as likely as not to bungle it in one of his mad humors!” Then aloud, he said, “No, I won’t come in, but——” he hesitated a moment, “but will you tell your cousin—Miss Etheridge, that—that——” Simple Lord Charles hesitated and took off his hat, and stared at the maker’s name for a moment. “Well, look here, you know, if either you or she want any assistance—want a friend, you know—come to me. I shall be at the Hall. You understand, don’t you? My name is Guildford.”
Frank nodded, and took Lord Charles’s extended hand.
“Thank you, very much, Lord Guildford,” he said.
And Lord Charles, with another rather rueful glance at the cottage, retired.
Frank tore open the envelope and devoured the contents[177] of the short and pregnant note, then he went in search of Stella.
She was sitting at the organ, not playing, but touching the keys with her fingers, a rapt look of meditation on her face. Mr. Etheridge was hard at work making the best of the golden evening light.
Stella started as the boy came in, and would have spoken, but he put his finger to his lips and beckoned her.
They both passed out without attracting the attention of the absorbed artist, and Frank drew Stella into the garden, and to a small arbor at the further end. She looked at his flushed, excited face with a smile.
“What does this mysterious conduct mean, Frank?” she asked.
He put his arm round her and drew her to a seat.
“I’ve got something for you, Stella,” he said. “What will you give me for it? It is worth—well, untold treasure, but I’ll be satisfied with a kiss.”
She bent and kissed his forehead.
“Of course it is nothing,” she said, with a laugh; but as he took the letter from his pocket and held it up her face changed. “What is it Frank?”
He put the letter in her hand, and, with an instinctive delicacy got up and walked away.
“Read it, Stel,” he said. “I’ll be back directly.”
Stella took the letter and opened it. When Frank came back she was sitting with the open letter in her hand, her face very pale, her eyes filled with a strange light.
“Well!” he said.
“Oh Frank,” she breathed, “I cannot do it! I cannot!”
“Cannot!” he exclaimed. “You must! Why, Stella, of what are you afraid? I shall be with you.”
She shook her head slowly.
“It is not that. I am not afraid,” and there was a touch of pride in her voice. “Do you think I am afraid of—of Leycester?”
“No!” he retorted. “I should think not! I would trust him, if I were in your place, to the end of the world. I know what he has asked you to do, Stel, and you—we—must do it!”
Stella looked at him.
“And uncle!”
The boy colored, but his eyes met hers steadily.
“Well, it will not hurt him! He will not mind. He likes Lord Leycester, and when we come back and tell him he will be only too grateful that it is all over without any fuss or trouble. You know that, Stel!”
She did know it, but her heart still misgave her. With a touch of color in her pale face at the thought of what “it” meant, she said gently. “He has been a father to me, Frank; ah, you do not know!”
“Yes, I do,” he said, shortly; “but a husband is more than a father, Stella. And my father won’t be any the less fond of you because you are Lady Leycester Wyndward!”
[178]
“Oh, hush—hush!” breathed Stella, glancing round as if she feared the very shrubs and flowers might hear.
Frank threw himself beside her, and laying his hand on her arm, looked up into her beautiful face with eager entreaty.
“You will go, Stel; you will do what he asks!” and Stella looked down at him with gentle wonder. Leycester himself could not have pleaded his own cause more earnestly.
“Don’t you see, Stel?” he said, answering her look, for she had not spoken; “I would do anything for him—anything! He risked his life for me, but it is not only that; it is because he has treated me so—so—well, I can’t explain; but I would do anything for him, Stella. I—I love you! you know; but—but I feel as if I should hate you if you refused to do what he asks!”
Stella’s eyes glistened; it made her heart throb to hear the boy’s championship of the man she loved.
“Besides,” he continued; “why should you hesitate? For it is for your own happiness—for the happiness of us all! Think! you will be the future Countess of Wyndward, the mistress of the Hall.”
Stella looked at him reproachfully.
“Frank!”
“Yes, I know you don’t care about that, neither do I much, but other people will. My father will be glad—he could not help being so, and then you will be safe.”
“Safe? What do you mean?” asked Stella.
He hesitated. Then he looked up at her with an angry resentful flash in his blue eyes.
“Stel! I was thinking of that fellow Adelstone. I don’t like him! I hate him, in fact; and I hate him all the more because he has set his mind upon having you.”
Stella smiled and shook her head.
“Oh, of course you can’t see any harm in him. It’s quite right you shouldn’t—you are a girl, and don’t know the world; but I know something of men, and I say that Jasper Adelstone is not a man to be trusted.”
“I don’t like him,” said Stella, in a low tone, “but I am quite ‘safe,’ as you call it, without marry—without doing what you and Leycester wish.”
“I don’t know,” he muttered, gloomily. “At any rate, you would be safe then, and—and, Stella, you must go. See, now, Leycester has trusted you to me—has placed this in my hands. It is as if he said, ‘I saved your life—you promised to help me. Here is something to do—do it!’ And I will. You will go. Think, Stel!—A few short hours and you will be Lady Leycester!”
She did think of it, and her heart beat tumultuously.
Yes, she would be safe not only from Jasper Adelstone, but from Lady Lenore, whom she feared more than she did twenty Jasper Adelstones. Leycester would be her own, her very own; and though she did not care much for the Wyndward coronet, she did care for him.
She covered her face with her hands, and sat quite motionless for a few minutes, the boy watching her eagerly, impatiently;[179] then she dropped her hands, and looked down at him with the quiet, grave, resolute smile which he knew so well.
“Yes, Frank, I will do it,” was all she said.
He kissed her hand gratefully.
“Think it is Lord Leycester thanking you, Stel,” he whispered. “And now for the preparations. You must pack a small bag, and I will do the same, and then I must take them down the lane and hide them; it wouldn’t do to go out of the house in the morning with the bags in our hands—Mrs. Penfold would raise the neighborhood, and we must stroll out as if we were strolling down to the river. But there!”—he broke off, for he saw Stella’s face, always so eloquent, beginning to show signs of irresolution—”leave it all to me—I’ll see to it! Lord Leycester knew he could trust me.”
Stella sat for a few minutes in silence, thinking of the old man who had received her in her helplessness, who had loved and treated her as a daughter, and whom she was about to deceive.
Her heart smote her keenly, but still Frank had spoken the truth—husband was more than father, and Leycester would be her husband.
She stooped and kissed the boy.
“I must go in now, Frank,” she said. “Do not say any more. I will go, but I cannot talk of it.”
She went in; the dusk was falling, and the old man stood beside his easel eying it wistfully.
She went and drew him away.
“No more to-night, uncle,” she said, in tones that quivered dangerously. “Come and sit down; come and sit and watch the river, as you sat the day I came; do you remember?”
“Yes—yes, my dear,” he murmured, sinking into the chair, and taking the pipe she filled for him. “I remember the day. It was a happy day for me; it would be a miserable day the day you left me, Stella!”
Stella hid her face on his shoulder, and her arm went round his neck.
He smoothed her hair in silence.
“Where is Frank?” he asked, dreamily.
“In the garden. Shall I call him? Dear Frank! He is a dear boy, uncle!”
“Yes,” he answered, musingly, then he roused slightly. “Yes, Frank is a good boy. He has changed greatly; I have to thank you for that too, my dear!”
“Me, uncle?”
The old man nodded, his eyes fixed on the distant lights of the Hall.
“Yes, it is your influence, Stella. I have watched and noticed it. There is no one in the world who has so much power over him. Yes, he is a good boy now, thanks to you!”
What could she say? Her heart throbbed quickly. Her influence! and she was now going to help him to deceive his father—for her sake!
In silence she hid her face, and a tear rolled down her cheek and fell upon his arm.
[180]
“Uncle,” she murmured, “you know I love you! You know that! You will always remember and believe that, whatever—whatever happens.”
He nodded all unsuspectingly, and smiled.
“What is going to happen, Stella?” he asked; but even as he asked his gaze grew dreamy and absent, and she, looking in his face, was silent.
As the clock struck the hour Jasper Adelstone threaded his way through the wood, and stood concealed behind the oak by the weir.
He had not spent a pleasant time since the avowal of his love to Stella, and her refusal. Most men would have been daunted and discouraged at such a refusal, so scornfully, so decidedly given, but Jasper Adelstone was not the sort to be so easily balked. Opposition only served to whet his appetite and harden his resolution.
He had set his mind upon gaining Stella; he had set his mind upon balking Lord Leycester, and he was not to be turned from his purpose by her refusing his addresses or the petulance of the boy who had chosen to insult and set him at defiance.
But he had passed a bad time of it, and was meditating a renewal of the attack when Lady Lenore’s note was brought to him. Although it bore no signature, he knew from whence it came, and he knew that something had happened of importance or she would not have sent for him.
Another man might have vented his spite, and taken revenge for the haughty insolence displayed by her on their former meeting, by keeping her waiting, but Jasper Adelstone was not altogether a mean man, and certainly not such a fool as to risk an advantage for the sake of gratifying a little private malice.
He was punctual to the minute, and stood watching the weir and the path by turns, with a face that was naturally calm and self-possessed, though in reality he was burning with impatience.
Presently he heard the rustle of a dress, and saw her coming swiftly and gracefully through the trees. She wore a dark dress of some soft stuff, that clung to her supple figure and awoke for a moment his sense of admiration, but only for a moment; bad as he was, he was faithful and of single purpose; he had no thought of anyone but Stella. If Lady Lenore had laid her rank and her wealth at his feet he would have turned from them.
Lenore came down the path, neither looking to the right nor the left, but straight before her, her head held up haughtily and her whole gait as full of pride and conscious power as if she were treading the floor of a London ball-room. Even in doing a mean thing, she could not do it meanly. Arrived at the weir she stood for a moment looking down at the water, her gloved hand resting on the wooden sill, and Jasper watching her, could not but wonder at her calm self-possession.
“And yet,” he thought, “she has more at stake than I. She has a coronet—and the man she loves,” and the thought gave him courage, as he came out and stood before her, raising his hat.