Time—which Lord Leycester had been so recklessly wasting in “riotous living”—passed very quiet indeed in the Thames valley, beneath the white walls of Wyndward Hall.
During the months which elapsed since that fearful parting between the two lovers, life had gone on at the cottage just as before, with the one great exception that Jasper Adelstone had become almost a daily visitor, and that Stella was engaged to him.
That was all the difference, but what a difference it was!
Lord Leycester gone—her tried, her first lover, the man who had won her maiden heart—and in his place this man whom she—hated.
But yet she fought the battle womanfully. She had made a bargain—she had sacrificed herself for her two loved ones, had given herself freely and unreservedly, and she strove to carry out her part of the compact.
She looked a little pale, a little graver than of old, but there was no querulous tone of complaint about her; if she did not laugh the frank, light-hearted laugh that her uncle used to declare was like the “voice of sunlight,” she smiled sometimes; and if the smile was rather sad than mirthful, it was very sweet.
The old man noticed nothing amiss; he thought she had grown quieter, but set the change down to her betrothal; he went on painting, absorbed in his work, scarcely heeding the world that ran by him so merrily, so sadly, and was quite content. Jasper’s quiet, low-toned voice did not disturb him, and he would go on painting while they were talking near him, dead to their presence. Since that last blow his boy’s crime had struck him, he had lived more entirely and completely in his art than ever.
Of the two, Frank and Stella, perhaps it was Frank who seemed the most changed. He had grown thinner and paler, and more girlish and delicate-looking than ever.
It had been arranged that he should go up to the university for the next term, but Mr. Hamilton, the old doctor, who had been called in to see to a slight cough which the boy had started, had hummed and hawed, and advised that the ‘varsity should be shelved for the present.
“Was he ill?” Stella had asked, anxiously—very anxiously, for, woman-like, she had grown to love with a passionate devotion the boy for whom she had sacrificed herself.
“N—o; not ill,” the old doctor had said. “Certainly not ill,” and he went on to explain that Frank was delicate—that all boys with fair hair and fair complexions were more or less delicate.
“But he has such a beautiful color,” said Stella, nervously.
“Y—es; a nice color,” said the old man, and that was all she could get out of him.
But the cough did not go; and as the Autumn mists stole up from the river and covered the meadows with a filmy veil, beautiful to behold, the cough got worse; but the beautiful color did not go either, and so Stella was not very anxious.
As for Frank himself, he treated his ailments with supreme indifference.
“Do I take any medicine?” he said, in answer to Stella’s questioning. “Yes, I take all the old woman—I beg his pardon!—the doctor sends. It isn’t very unpleasant, and though it doesn’t do me much good apparently, it seems to afford you and the aforesaid old woman some satisfaction, and so we are pleased all round.”
“You don’t seem to take any interest in things, Frank,” said Stella, one morning, when she had come into the garden to look at the trees that drew a long line of gold and brown and yellow along the river bank, and had found him leaning on the gate, his hands clasped before him, his eyes fixed on the Hall, very much as she had first seen him, the night he had come home.
He looked round at her and smiled faintly.
“Why don’t you go and try the fish?” she said. “Or—or—go for a ride? You only wander about the gardens or in the meadows.”
He looked at her curiously.
“Why do not you?” he said, slowly, his large blue eyes fixed on her face, which grew slowly blush-red under his regard. “You do not seem to take much interest in things, Stel. You don’t go and fish, or—or—take a drive, or anything. You only wander about the garden, or in the meadows.”
The long lashes swept her cheeks, and she struggled with a sigh. His words had told home.
“But—but,” she said falteringly, “I am not a boy. Girls should stay at home and attend to their duties.”
“And walk and move as if they were in a dream—as if their hearts and souls were divorced from their bodies—and miles, miles away,” he said, waving his thin white hand in the air slowly.
Her lips quivered, and she turned her face away, but only for a moment; it was back upon him with a smile again.
“You are a foolish, fanciful boy!” she said, putting her hand on his shoulder and caressing his cheek.
“Perhaps so,” he said. “‘My fancies are more than all the world to me,’ says the poet, you know,” he added, bitterly.
Stella’s heart ached.
“Are you angry with me, Frank?” she said. “Don’t be!”
He shook his head.
“No, not angry,” he said, looking out at the mist that was rising.
She smothered a sigh; she understood his reproach; not a moment of the day but he accused her in his heart of betraying Lord Leycester; if he could but have known why she had done it; but that he never would know!
“You are a fanciful boy,” she said, with a forced lightness. “What are you dreaming about now, I wonder?”
“I was wondering too,” he answered, without looking at her, “I was wondering—shall I tell you——”
She answered “yes,” with her hand against his cheek.
“I was wondering where Lord Leycester was, and how——”
Her hand dropped to her side and pressed her heart; the sudden mention of the name had struck her like a blow.
He glanced round.
“I beg your pardon,” he said, “I forgot; his name was never to be mentioned, was it? I will not sin again—in word. In thought—one can’t help one’s thoughts, Stel!”
“No,” she murmured, almost inaudibly.
“Thoughts are free,” he said; “mine are not, however; they are always flying after him—after him, the best and noblest of men, the man who saved my life. You see, though I may not speak of him, it would be ungrateful to forget him!”
At her tone of piteous supplication and almost reproach, he turned and put his hand on her arm.
“Forgive me, Stel! I didn’t mean to hurt you, but—but—well it is so hard to understand, so hard to bear! To feel, to know that he is far away and suffering, while that man, Jasper Adelstone—I beg your pardon, Stel! There! I will say no more!”
“Do not,” she murmured, her face white and strained, but resigned—”do not. Besides, you are wrong; he has forgotten by this time.”
He turned and looked at her with a sudden anger; then he smiled as the exquisite beauty of her face smote him.
“You wrong him and yourself. No, Stel, men do not forget such a girl as you——”
“No more!” she said, almost in a tone of command.
He shook his head, and the cough came on and silenced him.
She put her arm round his neck.
“That cough,” she said. “You must go in, dear! Look at the mist. Come, come in!”
He turned in silence and walked beside her for a few steps. Then he said tremulously:
“Stella, let me ask one question, and then I will be silent—for always.”
“Well?” she said.
“Have you heard from him?—do you know where he is?”
She paused a moment to control her voice, then she said:
“I have heard no word; I do not know whether he is alive or dead.”
He sighed and his head dropped upon his breast.
“Let us go in,” he said, then he started, for his ears, particularly sharp, had caught the sound of a well-known footstep.
“There is—Jasper,” he said, with a pause before the name, and he drew his arm away and walked away from her. Stella turned with a strange set smile on her face, the set smile which she had learnt to greet him with.
He came up the path with his quick and peculiar suppressed step, his hand outstretched. He would have taken her in his arms and kissed her—if he had dared. But he could not. With all his determination and resolution he dared not. There was something, some mysterious halo about his victim which kept him almost at arm’s length; it was as if she had surrounded herself by a magic circle which he could not pass.
He took her hand and raised it to his lips and kissed it, his eyes drinking in her beauty and grace with a thirsty wistfulness.
“My darling,” he murmured, in his soft, low voice, “out so late. Will you not catch cold?”
“No,” she said, and like her smile her voice seemed set and tutored. “I shall not catch cold, I never do under any circumstance. But I have just sent Frank in, he has been coughing terribly—he does not seem at all strong.”
He frowned with swift impatience.
“Frank is all right,” he said, and there was a touch of jealousy in his voice. “Are you not unduly anxious about the boy—you alarm yourself without cause.”
“Alarm myself,” she repeated, ready to be alarmed at the suggestion. “I—don’t think, I hope I am not alarmed. Why should I be?” she said, anxiously.
The jealousy grew more pronounced.
“There is no reason whatever,” he said, shortly. “The boy is all right. He has been getting his feet wet and caught cold, that is all.”
“Yes, that is all,” she said, “of course. But it is strange Dr. Hamilton doesn’t get rid of it for him.”
“Perhaps he doesn’t help the doctor,” he retorted. “Boys always are careless about themselves. But don’t let Frank absorb all the conversation,” he said. “Let us talk of ourselves,” and he kissed her hand again.
“Yes,” said Stella, obediently.
He kept her hand in his and pressed it.
“I have come to speak to you to-night, Stella, about ourselves, darling. I want you to be very good to me!”
She looked forward at the lighted room with the same set expression, waiting patiently, obediently, for him to proceed. There was no response in her touch or in her face. He noticed it—he never failed to notice it, and it maddened him. He set his teeth hard.
“Stella, I have been waiting month after month to say what I am going to say now; but I couldn’t wait any longer, my darling, my own, I wish the marriage to take place.”
She did not start, but she turned and looked at him, and her face shone whitely in the darkness, and he felt a faint shudder in the hand imprisoned in his.
“Will you not speak?” he said, after a moment, almost angry, because of the tempest of passion and breathed tenderness that possessed him. “Have you nothing to say, or will you say ‘no?’ I almost expect it.”
“I will not say no,” she said, at last, and her voice was cold and strained. “You have a right—the right I have given you—to demand the fulfillment of our bargain.”
“Good Heaven!” he broke in, passionately. “Why do you talk like this? Shall I never, never win you to love me? Will you never forget how we came together?”
“Do not ask me,” she said, almost pleaded, and her face quivered. “Indeed—indeed, I try, try—try hard to forget the past, and to please you!”
It was piteous to hear and see her, and his heart ached; but it was for himself as well as for her.
“Do you doubt my love?” he said, hoarsely. “Do you think any man could love you better than I do? Does that count as nothing with you?”
“Yes, yes,” she said, slowly, sadly. “It does count. I—I——” then she looked down. “Why will you speak of love between us?” she said. “Ask me—tell me to do anything, and I will do it, but do not speak of love!”
He bit his lip.
“Well,” he said, with an effort, “I will not. I see I cannot touch your heart yet. But the time will come. You cannot stand against a love like mine. And you will let our marriage be soon?”
“Yes,” she said, simply.
He raised her hand to his lips, and kissed it, hungrily, and she forced back the shudder which threatened to overmaster her.
“By soon,” he murmured, as they walked toward the house, “I mean quite soon—before the winter.”
Stella did not speak.
“Let it be next month, darling,” he murmured. “I shall not feel sure of you until you are my very own. Once you are mine beyond question, I will teach you to love me.”
Stella looked at him, and a strange, despairing smile, more bitter and sad than tears, shone on her pale lips. Teach her to love him! As if love could be taught!
“I am not afraid,” he said, answering her smile; “no one could withstand it—not even you, though your heart were adamant.”
“It is not that,” she said, in a low voice, as she thought of the dull aching which was its pittance by day and night.
They went into the house. Mr. Etheridge was wandering about the room, smoking his pipe, his head upon his breast, buried in thought, as usual. Frank was lying back in the old arm-chair; he looked wearily-fragile and delicate, but the beautiful color shone in his face.
He looked up and nodded as Jasper entered, but Jasper was not satisfied with the nod, and went over to him and laid a hand upon his shoulder, at which the boy winced and shrank faintly; he never could bear Jasper to touch him, and always resented it.
“Well, Frank,” he said, with his faint smile, “how’s the cold to-night?”
Frank murmured something indistinctly, and shifted in his seat.
“Not so well, eh?” said Jasper. “It seems to me that a change would do you good. What do you say to going away for a little while?”
The boy looked up at Stella with a glance of alarm. Leave Stella!
“I don’t want to go away,” he said, shortly. “I am quite well. I hate a change.”
Stella came up to his chair, and knelt beside him.
“It would do you good, dear,” she said, in her low, musical voice.
He bent near her.
“Do you mean—alone?” he asked. “I don’t want to go alone—I won’t, in fact.”
“No, not alone, certainly,” said Jasper, with his smile. “I think some one else wants a change too.”
And he looked at Stella tenderly.
“I’ll go if Stella goes,” said Frank, curtly.
“What do you say, sir?” said Jasper to the old man.
He stared, and the proposal had to be put to him in extenso; he had not heard a word of what had been said.
“Go away! yes, if you like. But why? Frank’s cold? I don’t suppose any other place is better for a cold is it? It is? Very well then. You don’t want me to come, I suppose?”
“Well——” said Jasper.
“I couldn’t do it!” exclaimed the old man, almost with alarm. “I should be like a fish out of water. I couldn’t paint away from the river and the meadows. Oh, it’s impossible! Besides, you don’t want an old man pottering about,” and he looked at Stella and smiled grimly.
“I couldn’t go without you,” said Stella, quietly.
“Nonsense,” he said; “there’s the other old woman, Mrs. Penfold, take her; she can go. It will do her good, though she hasn’t a cold.”
Then he stopped in front of the boy and looked at him, with the strange reserved, almost sad, expression which always came upon his race when he regarded him.
“Yes,” he said, in a low voice; “he wants a change. I haven’t noticed; he looks thin and unwell. Yes, you had better go! Where will you go?”
Stella shook her head with a smile, but Jasper was ready.
“Let me see,” he said, thoughtfully. “We don’t want a cold place, the change would be too great; and we don’t want too hot a place. What do you say to Cornwall?”
The old man nodded.
Stella smiled again.
“I haven’t anything to say,” she said. “Would you like Cornwall, Frank?”
He looked from one to the other.
“What made you think of Cornwall?” he asked Jasper, suspiciously.
Jasper laughed softly.
“It seemed to me just the place to suit you. It is mild and clear, and just what you want. Besides, I remember a little place near the sea, a sheltered village in a bay—Carlyon they call it—that would just do for us. What do you say? Let me see, where is the map?”
He went and got a map and spreading it out on the table, called to Stella.
“This is it,” he said, then in a low voice he whispered: “There is a pretty, secluded little church there, Stella. Why should we not be married there?”
She started, and her hand fell on the map.
“I am thinking of you, my darling,” he said. “For my part I should like to be married here——”
“No, not here,” she faltered, as she thought of standing before the altar in the Wyndward Church and seeing the white walls of the Hall as she uttered her marriage vow. “Not here.”
“I understand,” he said. “Then why not there? Your uncle could come down for that, I think.”
She did not speak, and with a smile of satisfaction he folded the map.
“It is all settled,” he said. “We go to Carlyon. You will come down for a little while, I hope, sir. We shall want you.”
The old man pushed the white hair off his forehead.
“Eh?” he asked. “What for?”
“To give Stella away,” replied Jasper. “She has promised to marry me there.”
The old man looked at her.
“Why not here?” he asked, naturally, but Stella shook her head.
“Very well,” he said. “It is a strange fancy, but girls are fanciful. Off you go, then, and don’t make more fuss than you can help.”
So Stella’s fate was settled, and the day, the fatal day, loomed darkly before her.
Time—which Lord Leycester had been so recklessly wasting in “riotous living”—passed very quiet indeed in the Thames valley, beneath the white walls of Wyndward Hall.