“Who is ‘Lenore,’ uncle?”
It was the evening of the same day—a day never to be forgotten by Stella, a day marked with a white stone in her mental calendar. Never would she be able to look upon a field of primroses, never hear the music of the river running over the weir, without remembering this morning the first she had spent with Lord Leycester.
It was evening now, and the two—the painter and the girl—were sitting by the open window, looking out into the gloaming, he lost in memory, she going over and over again the incidents of the morning, from the visit of Mr. Jasper Adelstone to his encounter with Lord Leycester.
It was strange, it was almost phenomenal—for Stella was frankness and candor itself—that she had said nothing of the encounter to her uncle; once or twice she had opened her lips—once at dinner, and once again as she sat beside him, leaning her arm on his chair while he smoked his pipe—she had opened her lips to tell him of that sudden outburst of fury on the part of Lord Leycester—that passionate rage which proved all that the painter had said of his hot temper to be true, but she had found some difficulty in the recital which had kept her silent.
She had told him of her walk in the woods, had told him of her meeting with Lady Lilian, but of that passionate encounter between the two men she said nothing.
When Jasper had ridden on, pale and livid with suppressed passion, Lord Leycester had stood looking at her in silence. Now, as she sat looking into the gloaming, she saw him in her mind’s eye still, his beautiful eyes eloquent with remorse and humility, his clear-cut lip quivering with the sense of his weakness.
“Will you forgive me?” he said, at last, and that was all. Without another word, he had offered to help her into the boat, help which Stella had disregarded, and had rowed her across to her uncle. Without a word, but with the same penitent, imploring look in his eyes, he raised his hat and left her—had gone home to the Hall, to his sister Lady Lilian, and to Lenore.
Ever since she had heard the name drop softly from Lady Lilian’s lips it had rung in her ears. There was a subtle kind of charm about it that half fascinated, half annoyed her.
And now, leaning her head on her arm, and with her dark eyes fixed on the stars which glittered merrily in the sky, she put the question:
“Who is Lenore, uncle?”
He stirred in his chair and looked at her absently.
“Lenore, Lenore? I don’t know, Stella, and yet the name sounds familiar. Where did you hear it? It’s scarcely fair to spring a question like that on me; you might ask me who is Julia, Louisa, Anna Maria——”
Stella laughed softly.
“I heard it this morning, uncle. Lady Lilian told her brother as she left us that ‘Lenore had come.'”
“Ah, yes,” he said. “Now I know. So she has come, has she? Who is Lenore?” and he smiled. “There is scarcely another woman in England who would need to ask that question, Stella.”
“No?” she said, turning her eyes upon him with surprise. “Why? Is she so famous?”
“Exactly, yes; that is just the word. She is famous.”
“For what, uncle? Is she a great actress, painter, musician—what?”
“She is something that the world, nowadays, reckons far above any of the classes you have named, Stella—she is a great beauty.”
“Oh, is that all!” said Stella, curtly.
“All!” he echoed, amused.
“Yes,” and she nodded. “It seems so easy.”
“So easy!” and he laughed.
“Yes,” she continued; “so very easy, if you happen to be born so. There is no merit in it. And is that all she is?”
He was staggered by her sang froid for a moment.
“Well, I was scarcely fair, perhaps. As you say, it is very easy to be a great beauty—if you are one—but it is rather difficult if you are not; but Lenore is something more than that—she is an enchantress.”
“That’s better,” remarked Stella. “I like that. And how does she enchant? Does she keep tame snakes, and play music to them, or mesmerize people, or what?”
The painter laughed again with great enjoyment at her naivete.
“You are quite a cynic, Stella. Where did you learn the trick; from your father, or is it a natural gift? No, she does not keep tame snakes, and I don’t know that she has acquired the art of mesmerism; but she can charm for all that. First, she is, really and truly, very beautiful——”
“Tell me what she is like?” interrupted Stella, softly.
The old man paused a moment to light his pipe.
“She is very fair,” he said.
“I know,” said Stella, dreamily, and with a little smile; “with yellow hair and blue eyes, and a pink and white complexion, and blue veins and a tiny mouth.”
“All wrong,” he said, with, a laugh. “You have, woman-like, pictured a china doll. Lenore is as unlike a china doll as it is possible to imagine. She has golden hair it is true—but golden hair, not yellow; there is a difference. Then her eyes are not blue; they are violet.”
“Violet!” he repeated, gravely. “I have seen them as violet as the flowers that grow on the bank over there. Her mouth is not small; there was never yet a woman worth a fig who had a small mouth. It is rather large than otherwise, but then it is—a mouth.”
“Expressive?” said Stella, quietly.
“Eloquent,” he corrected. “The sort of mouth that can speak volumes with a curve of the lip. You think I exaggerate? Wait until you see her.”
“I don’t think,” said Stella, slowly, “that I am particularly desirous of seeing her, uncle. It reminds we of what they say of Naples—see Naples and die! See Lenore and die!”
“Well, it is not altogether false; many have seen her—many men, and been ready to die for love of her.”
Stella laughed, softly.
“She must be very beautiful for you to talk like this, uncle. She is charming too?”
“Yes, she is charming,” he said, low; “with a charm that one is bound to admit at once and unreservedly.”
“But what does she do?” asked Stella, with a touch of feminine impatience.
“What does she not?” he answered. “There is scarcely an accomplishment under the sun or moon that she has not at her command. In a word, Stella, Lenore is the outcome of the higher civilization; she is the type of our latest requirement, which demands more than mere beauty, and will not be satisfied with mere cleverness; she rides beautifully and fearlessly; she plays and sings better than one-half the women one hears at concerts; they tell me that no woman in London can dance with greater grace, and I have seen her land a salmon of twenty pounds with all the skill of a Scotch gillie.”
Stella was silent a moment.
“You have described a paragon, uncle. How all her women friends must detest her.”
“I think you are wrong. I never knew a woman more popular with her sex.”
“How proud her husband must be of her,” murmured Stella.
“Her husband! What husband? She is not married.”
“Not married! Such a perfection unmarried! Is it possible that mankind can permit such a paragon to remain single. Uncle, they must be afraid of her!”
“Well, perhaps they are—some of them,” he assented, smiling. “No,” he continued, musingly; “she is not married. Lenore might have been married long before this: she has had many chances, and some of them great ones. She might have been a duchess by this time if she had chosen.”
“And why did she not?” said Stella. “Such a woman should be nothing less than a duchess. It is a duchess whom you have described, uncle.”
“I don’t know,” he said, simply. “I don’t think anyone knows; perhaps she does not know herself.”
Stella was silent for a moment; her imagination was hard at work.
“Is she rich, poor—what, uncle?”
“I don’t know. Rich, I should think,” he answered.
“And what is her other name, or has she only one name, like a princess or a church dignitary?”
“Her name is Beauchamp—Lady Lenore Beauchamp.”
“Lady!” repeated Stella, surprised. “She has a title, then; it was all that was wanted.”
“Yes, she is the daughter of a peer.”
“What a happy woman she must be;—is she a woman or a girl, though. I have imagined her a woman of thirty.”
“Lady Lenore is—is”—he thought a moment—”just twenty-three.”
“That’s a woman,” said Stella, decidedly. “And this wonderful creature is at the Hall, within sight of us. Tell me, uncle, do they keep her in a glass case, and only permit her to be seen as a curiosity at so much a head? They ought to do so, you know.”
He laughed, and his hand stroked her hair.
“What is it Voltaire says, Stella,” he remarked. “‘If you want a woman to hate another, praise her to the first one.'”
Stella’s face flushed hotly, and she laughed with just a touch of scorn.
“Hate! I don’t hate her, uncle—I admire her; I should like to see her, to touch her—to feel for myself the wonderful charm of which you speak. I should like to see how she bears it; it must be strange, you know, to be superior to all one’s kind.”
“If she feels strange,” he said, thoughtfully, “she does not show it. I never saw more perfect grace and ease than hers. I do not think anything in the world would ruffle her. I think if she were on board a ship that was going down inch by inch, and she knew that she was within, say, five minutes of death, she would not flinch, or drop for a moment the smile which usually rests upon her lips. That is her charm, Stella—the perfect ease and perfect grace which spring from a consciousness of her power.”
There was silence for a moment. The painter had spoken in his usual dreamy fashion, more like communion with his own thoughts than a direct address to his hearer, and Stella, listening, allowed every word to sink into her mind.
His description impressed her strongly, more than she cared to admit. Already, so it seemed to her, she felt fascinated by this beautiful creature, who appeared as perfect and faultless as one of the heathen goddesses—say Diana.
“Where does she live?” she asked, dreamily.
He smoked in silence for a moment.
“Live? I scarcely know; she is everywhere. In London in the season, visiting in country houses at other times. There is not a house in England where she would not be received with a welcome accorded to princes. It is rather strange that she should be down here just now; the season has commenced, most of the visitors have left the Hall, some of them to be in their places in Parliament. It is rather strange that she should have come down at this time.”
Stella colored, and a feeling of vague irritation took possession of her—why, she scarcely knew.
“I should think that everyone would be glad to come to Wyndward Hall at any time—even Lady Lenore Beauchamp,” she said, in a low voice.
“Wyndward Hall is a fine place,” he said, slowly, “but Lady Lenore is accustomed to—well, to palaces. There is not a ball-room in London where her absence will not be noticed. It is strange. Perhaps”—and he smiled—”Lady Wyndward has some motive.”
“Some motive?” repeated Stella, turning her eyes toward him. “What motive can she have?”
“There is Leycester,” he said, musingly.
The word was out of her lips before she was aware of it, and a vivid crimson dyed her face.
“Lord Leycester, I mean.”
“Yes,” he answered. “Nothing would please his mother more than to see him marry, and he could not marry a more suitable person than Lenore. Yes, that must be it, of course. Well, he could not do better, and as for her, though she has refused greater chances, there is a charm in being the future Countess of Wyndward, which is not to be despised. I wonder whether he will fall into the trap—if trap it is intended to be.”
Stella sat silent, her head thrown back, her eyes fixed on the stars. He saw she was very pale, and there was a strange, intent look in her eyes. There was also a dull aching in her heart which was scarcely distinct enough for pain, but which annoyed and shamed her. What could it matter to her—to her, Stella Etheridge, the niece of a poor painter—whom Lord Leycester, future Earl of Wyndward, married? Nothing, less than nothing. But still the dull aching throbbed in her heart, and his face floated between her and the stars, his voice rang in her ears.
How fortunate, how blessed, some women were! Here, for instance, was this girl of twenty-three, beautiful, famously beautiful, noble, and reigning like a queen in the great world, and yet the gods were not satisfied, but they must give her Leycester Wyndward! For of course it was impossible that he should resist her if she chose to put forth her charm. Had not her uncle just said that she could fascinate?—had she not even evidently fascinated him, the dreamer, the artist, the man who had seen and who knew the world so well?
For a moment she gave herself up to this reflection and to the dull aching, then with a gesture of impatience she rose, so suddenly as to startle the old man.
“What is the matter, Stella?” he asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” she said. “Shall we have lights? The room is so dark and still, and——” her voice broke for a moment.
She went to the mantel-shelf and lit a candle, and as she did so she looked up and saw her face reflected in the antique mirror and started.
Was that her face?—that pale, half-startled visage looking at her so sadly. With a laugh she put the dark hair from her brow, and gliding to the organ began to play; feverishly, restlessly at first, but presently the music worked its charm and soothed her savage breast.
Yes, she was savage, she knew it, she felt it! This woman had everything, while she——
The door opened and a stream of light broke in from the lamp carried by Mrs. Penfold.
“Are you there, Miss Stella? Oh, yes, there you are! I thought it was Mr. Etheridge playing; you don’t often play like that. There’s a note for you.”
“A note! For me!” exclaimed Stella, turning on her stool with amazement.
Mrs. Penfold smiled and nodded.
“Yes, miss; and there’s an answer, please.”
Stella took the note hesitatingly, as if she half expected it to contain a charge of explosive dynamite; the envelope was addressed in a thin, beautiful hand to Miss Stella Etheridge. Stella turned the envelope over and started as she saw the arms stamped upon it. She knew it, it was the Wyndward crest.
For a moment she sat looking down at it without offering to open it, then with an effort she tore it open, slowly, and read the note enclosed.
“Dear Miss Etheridge:—Will you redeem the promise you made me this afternoon and come and see me? Will you ask Mr. Etheridge to bring you to dine with them to-morrow at eight o’clock? I say ‘them’ because I dine always alone; but perhaps you will not mind coming to me after dinner for a little while. Do not let Mr. Etheridge refuse as he generally does, but tell him to bring you for my sake.”
“Yours very truly,
Stella read it and re-read it as if she could not believe her senses. Lady Lilian’s invitation had sounded so vague that she had scarcely remembered it, and now here was a direct invitation to Wyndham Hall, and to dinner.
“Well, miss?” said Mrs. Penfold.
“I will give you the answer directly,” she said.
Then she went across to her uncle and stood beside him, the letter in her hand. He was lost in thought, and quite unsuspicious of the thunder-clap preparing for him.
“Uncle, I have just got a letter.”
“Eh? Where from, Stella?”
“From Lady Lilian.”
He looked up quickly.
“She has asked me to dinner to-morrow.”
“No!” he said. She put the letter in his hand. “Read it, will you, my dear?” he said.
And she read it, conscious that her voice trembled.
“Well?” he said.
“Well?” she repeated, with a smile.
He put his hand to his brow.
“To dinner—to-morrow? Oh, dear me! Well, well! You would like to go?” and he looked up at her. “Of course you would like to go.”
She looked down, her face was delicately flushed—her eyes shone.
“Of course,” he said. “Well, say ‘Yes.’ It is very kind. You see, Stella, your wish is gratified almost as soon as you utter it. You will see your paragon—Lady Lenore.”
She started, and her face went pale.
“I have changed my mind,” she said, in a low voice. “I find I don’t want to see her so badly as I thought. I think I don’t care to go, uncle.”
He stared at her. She was still an enigma to him.
“Nonsense, child! Not care to see Wyndward Hall! Nonsense! Besides, it’s Lady Lilian; we must go, Stella.”
She still stood with the letter in her hand.
“But—but, uncle—I have nothing to wear.”
“Nothing to wear!” And he looked at her up and down.
“Nothing fit for Wyndward Hall,” she said. “Uncle, I don’t think I care to go.”
He laughed gently.
“You will find something to wear between now and half-past seven to-morrow,” he said, “or my faith in Mrs. Penfold’s resources will be shaken. Accept, my dear.”
She went slowly to the table and wrote two lines—two lines only.
“Dear Lady Lilian.—We shall be very glad indeed to come and see you to-morrow. Yours very truly,”
Then she rang the bell and gave the note to Mrs. Penfold.
“I am going to Wyndward Hall to-morrow,” she said, with a smile, “and I have got nothing to wear, Mrs. Penfold!” and she laughed.
Mrs. Penfold threw up her hands after the manner of her kind.
“To the Hall, Miss Stella, to-morrow! Oh, dear, what shall we do?” Then she glanced at the arm-chair, and beckoned Stella out of the room.
“Come up-stairs, then, and let us see what we can manage. To the Hall! Think of that!” and she threw up her head proudly.
Stella sat on a chair, looking on with a smile, while the scanty wardrobe was overhauled.
Scanty as it was it contained everything that was needful for such use as Stella might ordinarily require, but a dinner at the Hall was quite out of the ordinary. At last, after holding up dress after dress, and dropping it with a shake of the head, Mrs. Penfold took up a cream sateen.
“That’s very pretty,” said Stella.
“But it’s only sateen!” exclaimed Mrs. Penfold.
“It looks like satin—a little,” said Stella “by candlelight, at least.”
“And they have real satin, and silks, and velvets,” deplored Mrs. Penfold, eagerly.
“Nobody will notice me,” said Stella, consolingly. “It doesn’t matter.”
Mrs. Penfold glanced at her with a curious smile.
“Will they not, Miss Stella? I don’t know, I think they will; but it must be this dress or nothing; you can’t go in a cotton, or the black merino, and the muslin you wore the other night——”
“Wouldn’t do at all,” said Stella. “We’ll make this sateen do, Mrs. Penfold. I think it looks very nice; the lace is good, isn’t it?”
“The lace?” said Mrs. Penfold, thoughtfully, then her face brightened. “Wait a moment,” she said, and she dropped the dress and hurried from the room, returning in a few moments with a small box. “Speaking of lace just reminded me, Miss Stella, that I had some by me. It was made by my mother—I don’t know whether it’s good,” and as she spoke she opened the box and lifted some lace from the interior.
“Why it’s point!”
“Point, is it, miss? I didn’t know. Then it is good.”
“Good!” exclaimed Stella—”it’s beautiful, delicious, heavenly. And will you lend it to me?”
“No, I’ll give it to you if you will take it, Miss Stella,” said the good woman, with a proud smile.
“No, no, not for worlds, but I will wear it if you’ll let me?” said Stella, and she took a long strip and put it round her throat. “Oh, it is beautiful, beautiful! It would make the poorest dress look handsome! I will take great care of it, indeed I will.”
“What nonsense, dear Miss Stella! How glad I am I thought of it. And it does look pretty now you wear it,” and she looked at the beautiful face admiringly. “And you’ll want gloves—let me see—yes, you have got some cream gloves; they’ll go with the dress, won’t they? Now, you go down-stairs, and I’ll look the things out and tack the lace on. Going to the Hall? I’m so glad, Miss Stella.”
“Are you?” said Stella, softly, as she went down-stairs, “I don’t know whether I’m glad or sorry!”