Sleep kept afar off from Stella’s eyelids that night

Sleep kept afar off from Stella’s eyelids that night. The momentous morrow loomed before her, at one moment filling her with a nameless dread, at another suffusing her whole being with an equally nameless ecstasy.
Could it be possible that to-morrow—in a few hours—she would be Leycester’s wife? There was enough in the reflection to banish sleep for a week.
Let us do her justice. Love and not ambition was the sentiment that moved and agitated her. It was not the thought of the title and the wealth which awaited her, not the future Wyndward coronet which set her trembling and her heart throbbing, but the reflection that Leycester, her lover, her ideal of all that was great and noble, and manfully beautiful, would be her own, all her own.
At an early hour she heard Frank wandering up and down outside her door, and at last he knocked.
“Are you getting up, Stel?” he asked, in a whisper.
Stella opened the door and stood before him in her plain stuff dress, which Frank was wont to declare became her better than the satins and silks of a duchess, and he looked up at her with an admiring nod.
“That’s right!” he said. “I’ve been up ages. I’ve taken my bag and hidden it in the lane. Is yours ready?”
She gave him a small handbag—gave it with a certain reluctance that hung about her still; but he took it eagerly.
“That’s a good girl! It isn’t too big! I can carry both of them. Keep up your spirits, Stel!” he added, smiling encouragingly, as he stole off with the bag.
The warning was not altogether unnecessary, for Stella, when she came down stairs and found the old man standing before his easel, his white locks stirred by the light wind which came through the open window, felt very near tears.
It was a great blot on her happiness that she could not go to him and throw her arms round his neck and say, “Uncle, to-day I am to be married to Lord Leycester; give me your blessing!”
As it was she went up to him and kissed him with more than her usual caressing tenderness.
“How quietly happy you always are, dear,” she said, with a little tremulous undertone in her voice. “You will always be happy while you have your art, uncle.”
“Eh!” he said, patting her arm, and letting his eye wander over her face. “Yes, art is long, life is short, Stella. Happy![187] yes; but I like to have you as well as my art. Two good things in life should make a man content.”
“You have Frank, too,” she said, as she poured out his coffee and drew him to the table.
Frank came in and breakfast proceeded. They were all very silent; the old man rapt in dreams, as usual—the two young ones stilled by the weight of their guilty secret.
Once or twice Frank pressed Stella’s feet under the table encouragingly, and when they rose and Stella went to the window, he followed her and whispered:
“Good news, Stel!”
She turned her eyes upon him.
“I’ve just learned that the fellow Adelstone has gone to London. I was half afraid that he might turn up at the last moment and spoil our plans; but the groom at the vicarage, whom I just met, told me that Jasper Adelstone had been summoned to London on business.”
Stella felt a sense of relief, though she smiled.
“Mr. Adelstone is your bête noire, Frank,” she said.
He nodded.
“I’d rather have his room than his company, any day.” Then, after a pause, he added, “I don’t think we’d better start together, Stel. I’ll walk on directly, and you can follow. Whatever you do, avoid a collision with Mrs. Penfold; her eyes are sharp, and there’s something in your face this morning that would set her curiosity on the qui vive.”
A few moments afterward he left the room, and Stella was left alone. Her heart beat fast, and, try as she would, she could not keep her eyes from the silent, patient figure at the easel, and at last she went up and stood beside him.
“You seem restless this morning, my child,” he said. “Meditating any secret crime?” And he smiled.
Stella started guiltily.
“I wonder what you would say, what you would think, uncle,” she murmured, with a little laugh that bordered on the hysterical, “if I were to do anything wrong—if I were to deceive you in anything?”
He stepped back to look at his picture.
“I should say, my dear, that the last shred of faith and trust in women to which I have clung had given way, and landed me in despair.”
“No, no! Don’t say that!” she said, quickly.
He looked at her with a sad smile.
“My dear,” he answered, “I do not speak without cause. I have reason to be incredulous as to the faith and honesty of women. But my trust in you is as limitless as the sky yonder. I don’t think you will destroy it, Stella,” and he turned to his picture again.
The tears came into Stella’s eyes, and she clung to his arm in silent remorse.
“Uncle!” she said, brokenly, then she stopped.
The clock chimed the half-hour; it was time that she started, if she intended to obey Leycester.
[188]
Unconsciously the old man helped her.
“You look pale this morning, my dear,” he said, patting her shoulder. “Go and run in the meadows and get some color on your cheeks; I miss it.”
Stella took up her hat, which was generally lying about ready to be snatched up, and kissed him without a word, and left the room.
Five minutes afterward she passed out into the lane and hurried toward the road.
Frank was waiting for her with boyish impatience.
“I thought you were never coming!” he exclaimed. “We haven’t over much time,” and he slung the two bags together and led the way; but Stella paused a moment to look back with a pang at her heart, and it was not until Frank seized her arm that she moved toward the railway station.
But once there, when the tickets were taken, the excitement buoyed her up. Frank, with the two bags, was perpetually on the alert, watching for someone they knew, and preparing to meet them with some excuse.
But no one of the village people appeared on the platform, and much to Frank’s relief, the train drew up.
With all the pride of a chief conspirator and guardian, he put Stella into a carriage and was stepping in after her, when a groom came up to the door and touched his hat.
“Mr. Etheridge—Mr. Frank Etheridge, sir?” he said, respectfully.
Frank stared, but the man seemed prepared for some little hesitation, and without waiting for an answer, thrust a note into Frank’s hand.
“From Lord Guildford, sir,” he said.
The train moved off, and Frank tore open the envelope.
“Why, Stella,” he exclaimed, in an excited whisper, though they were alone in the carriage, “it is from Lord Leycester. Look here! he wants us to get out at the station before London—at Vauxhall—he has changed his plans slightly,” and he held the note out to her.
Stella took it. It was written on paper bearing the Wyndward crest; the hand-writing was exactly like that of Lord Leycester. No suspicion of its genuineness crossed her mind for a moment, but yet she said:
“But—Frank—isn’t Lord Leycester in London?”
Frank thought a moment.
“Yes,” he said; “but he must have sent this down to Lord Guildford; sent it down by special messenger—special train perhaps. It wouldn’t matter to him what trouble or expense he took. And yet how careful he is. He asks us to destroy it at once. Tear it up, Stella, and throw it out of the window.”
Stella read the note again, and then slowly and reluctantly tore it into small fragments and dropped it out of the window.
“Of course we must stop,” said Frank. “I think I know what it is. Something had prevented him from meeting us, and he thought you would rather get out at a nearer station than go[189] through the crowd at the terminus. Isn’t it thoughtful and considerate of him?”
“He is always thoughtful and considerate,” said Stella, in a low voice.
Then Frank launched forth in a pæan of praise.
There was nobody like Leycester; nobody so handsome and so brave or noble.
“You’ll be the happiest girl in the whole world, Stel,” he exclaimed, his blue eyes alight with excitement. “Think of it. And, Stella, you will let me see you sometimes; you will let me come and stay with you?”
And Stella, with a moist look about her eyes, put her hand on his arm and murmured:
“Where my home may be, there will be a sister’s welcome for you, Frank.”
“Don’t be afraid I shall be a nuisance, Stel,” he said. “I shan’t bore you for long. I shall only want to come and see you and share your happiness; and I don’t think Lord Leycester will mind.”
And Stella smiled as she thought in her innermost heart how sure she was of Lord Leycester not minding.
The train was an express one, and stopped at very few stations, but when those stoppages occurred, Frank, in his character of guardian, always drew the curtains and kept a watch for intruders, notwithstanding that he had told the guard to lock the door.
“You see, it isn’t as if you were an ordinary looking girl,” he explained; “a man wouldn’t get a glimpse of you without wanting to take second, and it’s best to be careful. I’m engaged to watch over you, and I must do it.”
He was so happy, so boyishly gratified at his own importance, that Stella could not help laughing.
“I believe you are thoroughly enjoying the wickedness of the thing, Frank,” she said, with a little sigh that had not much of unhappiness.
“No,” he said; “but I want to hear Lord Leycester say, ‘Thank you, Frank,’ and to see him smile when he says it. Do you think he will let me go with you, or will he send me back, Stel?”
Stella shook her head.
“I do not know,” she answered; “I feel like a person groping in the dark. Go with us! Yes, you must go with us!” she added. “Frank, you must go with me!”
“I’ll stay with you till doomsday, and go to the end of the world with you,” he responded, “if he will let me!”
It seemed a long journey to both of them; to Frank, in his impatience; to Stella, in the whirl of excited and conflicting emotions. But at last they reached Vauxhall.
Frank got the door unlocked and gave up the tickets; then he stepped out on to the platform, telling Stella to remain in the carriage for a moment while he examined the ground.
But there was not much need for caution; as he stepped out, a thin, strange-looking old man came up to him.
[190]
“Mr. Etheridge!” he asked.
Frank replied in the affirmative.
The old man nodded.
“All right, sir; the brougham is waiting;” then he looked round expectantly, and Frank went and got Stella out.
The old man just glanced at her, not curiously, but in a mechanical sort of way, as if he were a machine, and he turned toward the carriage and took up the bags.
Stella laid her hand on Frank’s arm with a questioning gesture; it was not exactly one of fear or of suspicion, but a strange, instinctive commingling of both sensations.
“Ask him, Frank!” she murmured.
Frank nodded, understanding her in a moment, and stopped the strange old man.
“Wait a moment,” he said; “you come from——”
The man looked round.
“Better not mention names here, sir,” he said. “I am obeying my orders. The brougham is waiting outside.”
“It is all right,” answered Frank; “he knows my name. He is quite right to be careful.”
They followed the man down the stairs; a brougham was in waiting, as he had said, and he put the bags inside and held the door open for them to enter.
Stella paused—even at that moment she paused with the same instinctive feeling of distrust—but Frank whispered, “Be quick,” and she entered.
The old man closed the door.
“You know where to drive,” said Frank, in a low voice.
“I know, sir,” he said, in the same expressionless, apathetic fashion, and mounted to the box.
Stella looked at the crowded streets through which they drove at a rapid pace, and a strange feeling of helplessness took possession of her. She would not own to herself that she was disappointed at Leycester’s not meeting her, but his absence filled her with a vague alarm and disquietude, which she mentally assured herself were foolish and unwoman-like.
But the vastness and strangeness of the great city overwhelmed her.
“Do you know where Bruton street is?” she asked, in a low voice.
“No,” said Frank; “but it must be in the West-end somewhere, of course. He must be going to Leycester’s rooms. I wonder what prevented him from meeting us.”
Stella wondered too, little dreaming that Leycester was pacing up and down the platform at Waterloo at that moment, and impatiently awaiting the arrival of the train that was, he thought, to bring his love.
“I expect,” said Frank, “that something turned up at the last moment—something to do with the ceremony.”
A sudden dash of color came into Stella’s face, but it went again the next moment, and she leant back and watched the people hurrying along the streets, with eyes that scarcely saw them.
[191]
The brougham, a well appointed one, driven by a man in plain livery, seemed to wind about a great deal and cover a long stretch of ground, but at last it drove under an archway and into a quiet square, and stopped before one of a series of tall and dingy-looking houses.
Frank let down the window as the old man opened the door.
“Is this Bruton street?” said Frank.
“Yes, sir,” said the man, quietly.
Frank stepped out and looked around.
“These are lawyers’ offices,” he said.
“Quite right, sir,” was the response. “The gentleman is waiting for you.”
“You mean——” said Frank, inquiringly.
“Lord Leycester Wyndward,” he replied.
Frank turned to Stella.
“It is all right,” he said, in a low voice.
Stella got out and looked round. The air of quietude and gloomy depression seemed to strike her, but she put her hand on Frank’s arm, and then followed the man into the doorway.
“Come as gently as you can, sir,” he muttered. “It’s better the young lady shouldn’t be seen.”
Frank nodded, and they passed up the stairs. Frank threw a glance at the numerous doors.
“They are lawyers’ chambers,” he said, in a low voice. “I think I understand; it is something—some deed or other—Leycester wants you to sign.”
Stella did not speak. The chill which had fallen on her as she alighted seemed to grow keener.
Suddenly the man stopped before a door, the name on which had been covered over with a sheet of paper.
Could they have seen through it, and read the name of Jasper Adelstone, there would have been time to draw back, but unsuspectingly they followed the man in, the door closed, and unseen by them, was locked.
“This way, sir,” said Scrivell, and he opened the inner door and ushered them in.
“If you’ll take a seat for a moment, sir,” he said, putting two chairs forward, and addressing Frank, “I will tell him you have arrived,” and he went out.
Stella sat down, but Frank went to the window and looked out, then he came back to her restlessly and excitedly.
“I wonder where he is—why he does not come?” he said, impatiently.
Stella looked up; her lips were trembling.
“There, don’t look like that!” he exclaimed, with a smile. “It is all right!”
As he spoke he drew near the table aimlessly, and as aimlessly glanced at the piles of papers with which it was strewn.
“I am making you nervous with my excitement——” he stopped suddenly, and snatched up one of the papers. It was a folded brief, and bore upon its surface the name of Jasper Adelstone, written in large letters.
He stared at it for a moment as if it had bitten him, then,[192] with an inarticulate cry, he flung it down and sprang toward her.
“Stella, we have been trapped! Come! quick!”
Stella sprang to her feet, and instinctively moved to the door: but before she had taken a couple of steps the door opened, and Jasper Adelstone stood before them.