“Oh, my love, my love!”
She stood with her arms outstretched toward the white walls of the Hall, the moon shining over meadow and river, the night jay creaking in silence.
In all her anguish and misery, in all her passionate longing and sorrow, these were the only words that her lips could frame. All was still in the house behind her. Frank, worn out with excitement, had gone to his own room. The old man sat smoking, dreaming and thinking of his little girl’s betrothal. Jasper had gone—he was too wise to prolong the strain which he knew she was enduring—and she had crept out into the little garden and stood leaning against the gate, her eyes fixed on the great house, which at that moment perhaps held him—Leycester—who, a few short hours ago, was hers, and in a low voice the cry broke from her lips:
“Oh, my love, my love!”
It was a benediction, a farewell, a prayer, in one; all her soul seemed melting and flowing toward him in the wail. All the intense longing of her passionate nature to fly to his protecting arms and tell him all—to tell him that she still loved him as the flowers love the sun, the hart the waterbrook—was expressed in the words; then, as she remembered he could not hear them—that it would avail nothing if he could hear them, her face dropped into her hands, and she shut out the Hall from her hot, burning eyes. She had not yet shed one tear; if she could but have wept, the awful tightening round her brain, the burning fire in her eyes, would have been assuaged; but she could not weep, she was held in thrall, benumbed by the calamity that had befallen her.
She, who was to have been Leycester’s bride, was now the betrothed of—Jasper Adelstone.
And yet, as she stood there, alone in her misery, she knew that were it to be done again she would do it. To keep shame and disgrace from the old man who loved her as a father—the boy who loved her as a brother, she would have laid down her life; but this was more than life. The sacrifice demanded of her, and which she had yielded, was worse than death.
Death! She looked up at the blue vault of heaven with aching, longing eyes. If she could but die—die there and then, before Jasper could lay his hand upon her! If she could but die, so that he, Leycester, might come and see her lying cold and white, but still his—his! He would know then that she loved him, that without him she would not accept even life. He would look down at her with the odd light in his dark eyes, perhaps stoop and kiss her—and now he would never kiss her again!
How often have blind mortals clamored to the gods for this one boon which they will not yield. When sorrow comes, the cry goes up—”Give us death!” but the gods turn a deaf ear to the prayer. “Live,” they say, “the cup is not yet drained; the task is not yet done.”
And she was young, she thought, with a sigh, “so young, and so strong,” she might live for—for years! Oh, the long, dreary vista of years that stretched before her, down which she would drag with tired feet as Jasper Adelstone’s wife. No thought of appealing to him, to his mercy, ever occurred to her; she had learned to know him, during that short hour in London, so well as to know that any such appeal would be useless. The sphinx rearing its immovable head above the dreary desert could not be more steadfast, more unyielding than this man who held her in his grasp.
“No,” she murmured, “I have taken up this burden; I must carry it to the end. Would to Heaven that end were nigh.”
She turned with dragging step toward the house, scarcely hearing, utterly heedless of the sound of approaching wheels; even when they stopped outside the gate she did not notice; but suddenly a voice cried, in low and tremulous accents, “Stella!” and she turned, with her hand pressed to her bosom. She knew the voice, and it went to her heart like a knife. It was not his, but so like, so like.
She turned and started, for there, standing in the moonlight, leaning on the arm of her maid, was Lady Lilian.
The two stood for a moment regarding each other in silence, then Stella came nearer.
Lady Lilian held out her hand, and Stella came and took her by her arm.
“Wait for me in the lane, Jeanette,” said Lady Lilian. “You will let me lean on you, Stella,” she added, softly.
Stella took her and led her to a seat, and the two sat in silence. Stella with her eyes on the ground, Lilian with hers fixed on the pale, lovely face—more lovely even than when she had last seen it, flushed with happiness and love’s anticipation. A pang shot through the tender heart of the sick girl as she noted the dark rings under the beautiful eyes, the tightly drawn lips, the wan, weary face.
“Stella,” she murmured, and put her arm round her.
Stella turned her face; it was almost hard in her effort at self-control.
“You have come here—so late!”
“Yes, I have come, Stella,” she murmured, and the tears sprang to her eyes, drawn thither by the sound of the other voice, so sad and so hopeless. “I could not rest, dear. You would have come to me, Stella, if I had—if it had happened to me!”
Stella’s lips moved.
Lilian took her hand—hot and feverish and restless.
“Stella, you must not be angry with me——”
A wan smile flickered on the pale face.
“Angry! Look at me. There is nothing that could happen to-night that would rouse me to anger.”
“Oh, my dear, my dear! you frighten me!”
Stella looked at her with awful calm.
“Do I?” Then her voice dropped. “I am almost frightened at myself. Why have you come?” she asked almost sharply.
“Because I thought you needed me—some one, some girl young like yourself. Do not send me away, Stella. You will hear what I have come to say?”
“Yes, I will hear,” said Stella, wearily, “though no words that can be spoken will help me, none.”
“Stella, I—I have heard——”
Stella looked at her, and her lips quivered.
“You have seen him—he has told you?” she breathed.
Lilian bent her head.
“Yes, dear, I have seen him. Oh, Stella, if you had seen him as I have done!—if you had heard him speak! His voice——”
Stella put up her hand.
“Don’t!—Spare me!” she uttered, hoarsely.
“But why—why should it be?” murmured Lilian, clinging to her hand. “Why, Stella, you cannot guess how he loves you? There never was love so deep, so pure, so true as his!”
A faint flush broke over the pale face.
“I know it,” she breathed. Then, with a sharp, almost fierce energy, “Have you come to tell me that—me who know him so well? Was it worth while? Do you think I do not know what I have lost?”
“You promised not to be angry with me, Stella.”
“Forgive me—I—I scarcely know what I am saying! You did not come for that; what then?”
“To hear from your own lips, Stella, the reason for this. Bear with me, dear! Remember that I am his sister, that I love him with a love only second to yours! That all my life I have loved him, and that my heart is breaking at the sight of his unhappiness. I have come to tell you this—to plead for him—to plead with you for yourself! Do not turn a deaf ear, a cold heart to me, Stella! Do not, do not!” and she clung to the hot hands, and looked up at the white face with tearful, imploring eyes.
“You say you know him; you may do so; but not so well as I, his sister. I know every turn of his nature—am I not of the same flesh and blood? Stella, he is not like other men—quick to change and forget. He will never bend and turn as other men. Stella, you will break his heart!”
Stella turned on her like some tortured animal driven to bay.
“Do I not know it! Is it not this knowledge that is breaking my heart—that has already broken it?” she retorted wildly. “Do you think I am sorrowing for myself alone? Do you think me so mean, so selfish? Listen, Lady Lilian, if—if this separation were to bring him happiness I could have borne it with a smile. If you could come to me and say, ‘He will forget you and his love in a week—a month—a year!’ I would welcome you as one who brings me consolation and hope. Who am I that I should think of myself alone?—I, the miserable, insignificant girl whom he condescended to bless with his love! I am—nothing! Nothing save what his love made me. If my life could have purchased his happiness I would have given it. Lady Lilian you do not know me——”
The tempest of her passion overawed the other weak and trembling girl.
“You love him so!” she murmured.
Stella looked at her with a smile.
“I love him,” she said, slowly. “I will never say it again, never! I say it to you that you may know and understand how deep and wide is the gulf which stretches between us—so wide that it can never, never be overpassed.”
“No, no, you shall not say it.”
Stella smiled bitterly.
“I think I know why you have come, Lilian. You think this a mere lovers’ quarrel, that a word will set straight. Quarrel! How little you know either him or me. There never could have been a quarrel between us—one cannot quarrel with oneself! His word, his wish were law to me. If he had said ‘do this,’ I should have done it—if he had said ‘go thither,’ I should have gone; but once he laid his command on me, and I obeyed. There is nothing I would not have done—nothing, if he had bidden me. I know it now—I know now that I was like a reed in his hands now that I have lost him.”
Lilian put her hand upon her lips.
“You shall not say it!” she murmured, hoarsely. “Nothing can part you—nothing can stand against such love! You are right. I never knew what it meant until to-night. Stella, you cannot mean to send him away—you will not let anything save death come between you?”
Stella looked at her with aching eyes that, unlike Lilian’s, were dry and tearless.
“Death!” she said, “there are things worse than death——”
“Words one cannot mention, lest the winds should catch them up and spread them far and wide. Not even death could have divided us more effectually than we are divided.”
Lilian shrank back appalled.
“What is it you say?” she breathed. “Stella, look at me! You will, you must tell me what you mean.”
Stella did look at her, with a look that was awful in its calm despair.
“I was silent when he bade me speak; do you think that I can open my lips to you?”
Lilian hid her face in her hand, tremblingly.
“Oh, what is it?—what is it?” she murmured.
There was silence for a moment, then Stella laid her hand on Lilian’s arm.
“Listen,” she said, solemnly. “I will tell you this much, that you may understand how hopeless is the task which you have undertaken. If—if I were to yield, if I were to say to him ‘Come back! I am yours, take me!’ you—you, who plead so that my heart aches at your words—would, in the coming time, when the storm broke and the cost of my yielding had to be paid—you would be the first to say that I had done wrong, weakly, selfishly. You would be the first, because you are a woman, and know that it is a woman’s duty to sacrifice herself for those she loves! Have I made it plain?”
Lilian raised her head and looked at her, and her face went white.
“Is—is that true?”
“It is so true, that if I were to tell you what separates us, you would go without a word; no! you would utter that word in a prayer that I might remain as firm and unyielding as I am!”
So utterly hopeless were the words, the voice, that they smote on the gentle heart with the force of conviction. She was silent for a moment, then, with a sob, she held out her arms.
“Oh, my dear, my dear! Stella, Stella!” she sobbed.
Stella looked at her for a moment, then she bent and kissed her.
“Do not cry,” she murmured, no tear in her own eye. “I can not cry, I feel as if I shall never shed another tear! Go now go!” and she put her arm round her.
Lilian rose trembling, and leant upon her, looking up into her face.
“My poor Stella!” she murmured. “He—he called you noble; I know now what he meant! I think I understand—I am not sure, even now; but I think, and—and, yes, I will say it, I feel that you are right. But, oh, my dear, my dear!”
“Hush! hush!” breathed Stella, painfully. “Do not pity me——”
“Pity! It is a poor, a miserable word between us. I love, I honor you, Stella!” and she put her arm round Stella’s neck. “Kiss me, dear, once!”
Stella bent and kissed her.
“Once—and for the last time,” she said, in a low voice. “Henceforth we must be strangers.”
“Not that, Stella; that is impossible, knowing what we do!”
“Yes, it must be,” was the low, calm response. “I could not bear it. There must be nothing to remind me of—him,” and her lips quivered.
Lilian’s head drooped.
“Oh, my poor boy!” she moaned. “Stella,” she said, in a pleading whisper, “give me one word to comfort him—one word?”
Stella turned her eyes upon her; they had reached the gate, the carriage was in sight.
“There is no word that I can send,” she said, almost inaudibly. “No word but this—that nothing he can do can save us, that any effort will but add to my misery, and that I pray we may never meet again.”
“I cannot tell him that! Not that, Stella!”
“It is the best wish I can have,” said Stella, “I do wish it—for myself, and for him. I pray that we never meet again.”
Lilian clung to her to the last, even when she had entered the carriage, and to the last there was no tear in the dark sorrowful eyes. White and weary she stood, looking out into the night, worn out and exhausted by the struggle and the storm of pent-up emotion, but fixed and immovable as only a woman can be when she has resolved on self-sacrifice.
A few minutes later, Lilian stood on the threshold of Leycester’s room. She had knocked twice, scarcely daring to use her voice, but at last she spoke his name, and he opened the door.
“Lilian!” he said, and he took her in his arms.
“Shut the door,” she breathed.
Then she sank on to his breast and looked up at him, all her love and devotion in her sorrowful eyes.
“Oh, my poor darling,” she murmured.
He started and drew her to the light.
“What is it! Where have you been?” he asked, and there was a faint sound of hope in his voice, a faint light in his haggard face, as she whispered—
“I have seen her!”
And his voice quivered on the name.
“Yes. Oh, Ley! Ley!”
His face blanched.
“Well!” he said, hoarsely.
“Ley, my poor Ley! there is no hope.”
His grasp tightened on her arm.
“No hope!” he echoed wearily.
She shook her head.
“Ley, I do not wonder at you loving her! She is the type of all that is beautiful and noble——”
“You—you torture me!” he said, brokenly.
“So good and true and noble,” she continued, sobbing; “and because she is all this and more you must learn to bear it, Ley!”
He smiled bitterly.
“You must bear it, Ley; even as she bears it——”
“Tell me what it is,” he broke in, hoarsely. “Give me something tangible to grapple with, and—well, then talk to me of bearing it!”
“I cannot—she cannot,” she replied, earnestly, solemnly. “Even to me, heart to heart, she could not open her lips. Ley! Fate is against you—you and her. There is no hope, no hope! I feel it; I who would not have believed it, did not believe it even from you! There is no hope, Ley!”
He let her sink into a chair and stood beside her, a look on his face that was not good to see.
“Is there not?” he said, in a low voice. “You have appealed to her. There is still one other to appeal to; I shall seek him.”
She looked up, not with alarm but with solemn conviction.
“Do not,” she said, “unless you wish to add to her sorrow! No, Ley, if you strike at him, the blow must reach her.”
“She told you that?”
“Yes; by word, by look. No, Ley, there is no hope there. You cannot reach him except through her, and you will spare her that. ‘Tell him,’ she said, ‘that any effort he makes will add to my misery. Tell him that I pray we may never meet again.'” She paused a moment. “Ley, I know no more of the cause than you, but I know this, that she is right.”
He stood looking down at her, his face working, then at last he answered:
“You are a brave girl, Lil,” he said. “You must go now; even you cannot help me to bear this. ‘Pray that we may never meet again,’ and this was to have been our marriage day!”
“Oh, my love, my love!”