Lord Leycester was on fire as he strode up the hill to the Hall, and that notwithstanding he was wet to the skin. He was on fire with love. He swore to himself, as he climbed up the slope, that there was no one like his Stella, no one so beautiful, so lovable and sweet as the dark-eyed girl who had stolen his heart from him that moonlight night in the lane.
And he also vowed that he would wait no longer for the inestimable treasure, the exquisite happiness that lay within his grasp.
His great wealth, his time honored title seemed as nothing to him compared with the thought of possessing the first real love of his life.
He smiled rather seriously as he pictured his father’s anger, his mother’s dismay and despair, and Lil’s, dear Lilian’s, grief; but it was a smile, though a serious one.
“They will get over it when it has once been done. After all, barring that she has no title and no money—neither of which are wanted, by the way—she is as delightful a daughter-in-law as any mother or father could wish for. Yes; I’ll do it!”
But how? that was the question.
“There is no Gretna Green nowadays,” he pondered, regretfully. “I wish there were! A ride to the border, with my darling by my side, nestling close to me all the way with mingled love and alarm, would be worth taking. A man can’t very well put up the banns in any out-of-the-way place, because there are few out-of-the-way places where they haven’t heard of us Wyndwards. By Jove!” he muttered, with a little start—”there is a special license. I was almost forgetting that! That comes of not being used to being married. A special license!” and pondering deeply he reached the house.
The party at the hall was very small indeed now, but Lady Lenore and Lord Charles still remained. Lenore had once or twice declared that she must go, but Lady Wyndward had entreated her to stay.
“Do not go, Lenore,” she had said, with gentle significance. “You know—you must know that we count upon you.”
She did not say for what purpose she counted upon her, but Lenore had understood, and had smiled with that faint, sweet smile which constituted one of her charms.
Lord Charles stayed because Leycester was still there.
“Of course I ought to go, Lady Wyndward,” he said; “you must be heartily tired of me, but who is to play billiards with Leycester if I go, or who is to keep him in order, don’t you see?” and so he had stayed, with one or two others who were only too glad to remain at the Hall out of the London dust and turmoil.
By all it was quite understood that Lord Leycester should be considered as quite a free agent, free to come and go as he chose, and never to be counted on; they were as surprised as they were gratified if he joined them in a drive or a walk, and were never astonished when he disappeared without furnishing any clew to his intentions.
Lady Wyndward bore it all very patiently; she knew that what Lady Longford had said was quite true, that it was useless to attempt to drive him; but she did say a word to the old countess.
“There is something amiss!” she said, with a sigh, and the old countess had smiled and shown her teeth.
“Of course there is, my dear Ethel,” she retorted; “there always is where he is concerned. He is about some mischief, I am as convinced as you are. But it does not matter, it will come all right in time.”
“But will it?” asked Lady Wyndward with a sigh.
“Yes, I think so,” said the old countess, “and Lenore agrees with me, or she would not stay.”
“It is very good of her to stay,” said Lady Wyndward, with a sigh.
“Very!” assented the old lady, with a smile. “It is encouraging. I am sure she would not stay if she did not see excuse. Yes, Ethel it will all come right; he will marry Lenore, or rather, she will marry him, and they will settle down, and—I don’t know whether you have asked me to stand god-mother to the first child.”
Lady Wyndward tried to feel encouraged and confident, but she felt uneasy. She was surprised that Lenore still remained. She knew nothing of that meeting between the proud beauty and Jasper Adelstone.
And Lenore! A great change had come over her. She herself could scarcely understand it.
At night—as she sat before her glass while her maid brushed out the long tresses that fell over the white shoulders like a stream of liquid gold—she asked herself what it meant? Was it really true that she was in love with Lord Leycester? She had not been in love with him when she first came to the Hall—she would have smiled away the suggestion if anyone had made it; but now—how was it with her now? And as she asked herself the question, a crimson flush would stain the beautiful face, and the violet eyes would gleam with mingled shame and self-scorn, so that the maid would eye her wonderingly under respectfully lowered lids.
Yes, she was forced to admit that she did love him—love him with a passion which was a torture rather than a joy. She had not known the full extent of that passion until the hour when she had stood concealed between the trees at the river, and heard Leycester’s voice murmuring words of love to another.
And that other! An unknown, miserable, painter’s niece! Often, at night, when the great Hall was hushed and still, she lay tossing to and fro with miserable longing and intolerable shame, as she recalled that hour when she had been discovered by Jasper Adelstone and forced to become his confederate.
She, the great beauty—before whom princes had bent in homage—to be love-smitten by a man whose heart was given to another—she to be the confederate and accomplice of a scheming, under-bred lawyer.
It was intolerable, unbearable, but it was true—it was true; and in the very keenest paroxysm of her shame she would confess that she would do all that she had done, would conspire with even a baser one than Jasper Adelstone to gain her end.
“She!” she would murmur in the still watches of the night—”she to marry the man to whom I have given my love! It is impossible—it shall not be! Though I have to move heaven and earth, it shall not be.”
And then, after a sleepless night, she would come down to breakfast—fair, and sweet, and smiling—a little pale, perhaps, but looking all the lovelier for such paleness, without the shadow of a care in the deep violet eyes.
Toward Leycester her bearing was simply perfection. She did not wish to alarm him; she knew that a hint of what she felt would put him on his guard, and she held herself in severe restraint.
Her manner to him was simply what it was to anyone else—exquisitely refined and charming. If anything, she adopted a lighter tone, and sought to and succeeded in calling forth his rare laughter.
She deceived him completely.
“Lenore in love with me!” he said to himself more than once; “the idea is ridiculous! What could have made the mother imagine such a thing?”
And so they met freely and frankly, and he talked and laughed with her at his ease, little dreaming that she was watching him as a cat watches a mouse, and that not a thing he said or did escaped her.
She knew by instinct where he spent the times in which he was missing from the Hall, and pictured to herself the meetings between him and the girl who had robbed her of his love. And as the jealousy increased, so did the love which created it. Day by day she realized still more fully that he had won her heart—that it was gone to him forever—that her whole future happiness depended upon him.
The very tone of his voice, so deep and musical—his rare laugh—the smile that made his face so gay and bright—yes, even the bursts of the passionate temper which lit up the dark eyes with sudden fire, were precious to her.
“Yes, I love him,” she murmured to herself—”it is all summed up in that. I love him.”
And Leycester, still smiling to himself over his mother’s “amusing mistake,” was all unsuspecting. All his thoughts were of Stella.
Now as he came toward the terrace, she stood with Lady Longford and Lord Charles looking down at him.
She watched him, her cheek resting on her white hand, her face hidden from the rest by the sunshade, whose lining of hearty blue harmonized with the golden hair, and “her heart hungered,” as Victor Hugo says.
“Here’s Leycester,” said Lord Charles.
Lady Longford looked over the balustrade.
“What has he been doing? Rowing—fishing?”
“He went out with a fishing rod,” said Lord Charles, with a grin, “but the fish appear to have devoured it; at any rate Leycester hasn’t got it now. Hullo, old man, where have you been? Come up here!”
Leycester sprang up the steps and stood beside Lenore. It was the first time she had seen him that morning, and she inclined her head and held out her hand with a smile.
He took her hand; it was warm and soft, his own was still cold from his bath, and she opened her eyes widely.
“Your hand is quite cold,” she said, then she touched his sleeve, “and you are wet. Where have you been?”
Leycester laughed carelessly.
“I have met with a slight accident, and gained a pleasant bath.”
“An accident?” she repeated, not curiously, but with calm, serene interest.
“Yes,” he said, shortly, “a young friend of mine fell into the river, and I joined company, just for company’s sake.”
“I understand,” she said with a smile, “you went in to save him.”
“Well, that’s putting rather a fine point to it,” he said, smilingly.
“But it’s true. May one ask his name?”
Leycester flicked a piece of moss from the stone coping and hesitated for a moment:
“His name is Frank,” he said; “Frank Etheridge.”
Lady Lenore nodded.
“A pretty name; I don’t remember it. I hope he is grateful.”
“I hope so,” said Leycester. “I am sure he is more grateful than the occasion merits.”
The old countess looked round at him.
“What is it you say?” she said. “You have been in the river after some boy, and you stand there lounging about in your wet clothes? Well, the lad ought to be grateful, for though you will not catch your death, you will in all probability catch a chronic influenza cold, and that’s worse than death; it’s life with a pocket-handkerchief to your nose. Go and change your things at once.”
“I think I had better, after that fearful prognostication,” said Leycester, with a smile, and he sauntered off.
“Etheridge,” said Lady Longford, “that is the name of that pretty girl with the dark eyes who dined here the other night.”
“Yes,” said Lenore, indifferently, for the old countess looked at her; she knew that the indifference was assumed.
“If Leycester doesn’t take care, he will find himself in danger with those dark eyes. Girls are apt to be grateful toward men who rescue their cousins from a watery grave.”
Lady Lenore shifted her sunshade and smiled serenely.
“No doubt she is very grateful. Why should she not be? Do you think Lord Leycester is in danger? I do not.” And she strolled away.
The old lady glanced at Lord Charles.
“That is a wonderful girl, Charles,” she said, with earnest admiration.
“What, Lenore?” he said. “Rather. Just found it out, Lady Longford?”
“No, Mr. Impertinence. I have known it all along; but she astonishes me afresh every day. What a great name she would have won on the stage. But she will do better as Lady Wyndward.”
Lord Charles shook his head, and whistled softly.
“Rather premature that, isn’t it?” he said. “Leycester doesn’t seem very keen in that quarter, does he?”
Lady Longford smiled at him and showed her teeth.
“What does it matter how he seems?” she said. “It rests with her—with her. You are a nice boy, Charles, but you are not clever.”
“Just exactly what my old schoolmaster used to say before he birched me,” said Lord Charles.
“If you were clever, if you were anything else than unutterably stupid, you would go and see that Leycester changes his clothes,” snapped the old lady. “I’ll be bound he is sitting or lounging about in those wet things still!”
“A nod’s as good as a wink to a blind horse,” said Lord Charles, laughing. “I’ll go and do as I am bidden. He will probably tell me to go and mind my own business, but here goes,” and he walked off toward the house.
He found Leycester in the hands of his valet, being rapidly transferred from wet flannels to orthodox morning attire, and apparently the valet was not having a particularly easy time of it.
Lord Charles sank into a chair, and watched the performance with amused interest.
“What’s the matter Ley?” he asked, when the man left the room for a moment. “You’ll drive that poor devil into a lunatic asylum.”
“He’s so confoundedly slow,” answered Leycester, brushing away at his hair, which the valet had already arranged, and tugging at a refractory scarf. “I haven’t a moment to lose.”
“May one ask whence this haste?” said Lord Charles, with a smile.
Leycester colored slightly.
“I’ve half a mind to tell you, Charlie,” he said, “but I can’t. I’d better keep it to myself.”
“I’m glad of it,” retorted Lord Charles. “I’m sure it’s some piece of madness, and if you told me, you’d want me to take a hand in it.”
“But that’s just it,” said Leycester, with a laugh. “You’ve got to take a hand in it, old fellow.”
Leycester nodded and clapped him on the shoulder, with a musical laugh.
“The best of you, Charlie,” he said, “is, that one can always rely on you.”
Lord Charles groaned.
“Don’t—don’t, Ley!” he implored. “I know that phrase so well; you always were wont to use it when there was some particularly evil piece of business to be done in the old days. Frankly, I’m a reformed character, and I decline to aid and abet you in any further madness.”
“This isn’t madness,” said Leycester;—”oh, keep outside a moment, Oliver, I don’t want you;—this is not madness, Charlie; it’s the sanest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
“I dare say.”
“It is indeed. Look here! I am going up to London.”
“I guessed that. Poor London!”
“Do stop and listen to me—I haven’t a moment to spare. I want you to do a little delicate service for me.”
“I decline. What is it?” retorts Lord Charles, inconsistently.
“It is very simple. I want you to deliver a note for me.”
“Oh, come, you know! Won’t one of the army of servants, who devour the land like locusts, serve your turn?”
“No; no none will do but yourself. I want this note delivered, at once. And I don’t want anyone but our two selves to know anything about it; I don’t want it to be carried about in one of the servant’s pockets for an hour or two.”
Lord Charles stretched his legs and shook his head.
“Look here, Ley, isn’t this rather too ‘thin?'” he remonstrated. “Of course it’s to someone of the gentler sex!”
“You are wrong,” he said, with a smile. “Where’s the Bradshaw, Oliver!” and he opened the door. “Put out the note-paper, and then tell them to get a dogcart to take me to the station.”
“You will want me, my lord?”
“No, I am going alone. Look sharp!”
Oliver put out the writing materials and departed, and Leycester sat down and stared for a moment at the crested paper.
“Shall I go?” asked Lord Charles, ironically.
“No, I don’t mean to lose sight of you, old fellow,” replied Leycester. “Sit where you are.”
“Can I help you? I am rather good at amorous epistles, especially other people’s.”
Then he seized the pen and wrote:—
“My Dear Frank—I have inclosed a note for Stella. Will you give it to her when she is alone, and with your own hand! She will tell you that I have asked her to come with you by the eleven o’clock train to-morrow. Will you bring her to 24 Bruton Street? I shall meet you there instead of meeting you at the station. You see I put it quite simply, and am quite confident that you will help us. You know our secret, and will stand by us, will you not? Of course you will come without any luggage, and without letting anyone divine your intentions.”
“Yours, my dear Frank,
This was all very well. It was easy enough to write to the boy, because he, Leycester, knew that if he had asked Frank to walk through fire, Frank would do it! But Stella?
A sharp pang of doubt assailed him as he took up the second sheet of paper. Suppose she should not come!
He got up and strode to and fro the room, his brows knit, the old look of determination on his face.
“Drop it, Ley,” said Lord Charles, quietly.
Leycester stopped, and smiled down at him.
“You don’t know what that would mean, Charlie,” he said.
“Perhaps I do to—her, whomsoever it should be.”
Then Leycester laughed outright.
“You are on the wrong track this time, altogether,” he said, “quite wrong.”
And he sat down and plunged into his letter.
Like the first, it was very short.
“My Darling,—Do not be frightened when you read what follows, and do not hesitate. Think, as you read, that our happiness depends upon your decision. I want you to come, with Frank, by the eleven o’clock train to London, whither I am going now. I want you to take a cab and go to 24 Bruton Street, where I shall be waiting for you. You know what will happen, my darling! Before the morrow you and I will have set out on that long journey through life, hand-in-hand, man and wife. My pen trembles as I write the words. You will come, Stella? Think! I know what you will feel—I know as if I were standing beside you, how you will tremble, and hesitate, and dread the step; but you must take it, dearest! Once we are married all will go well and pleasantly. I cannot wait any longer: why should I? I have written to Frank, and confided him to your care. Trust yourself to him, throw all your doubts and fears to the winds. Think only of my love, and, may I add, your own?”
He inclosed Stella’s letter in a small envelope, and that, with Frank’s letter, in a larger one, which he addressed to Frank.