A MAD LOVE
BY BERTHA M. CLAY
Author of "Sunshine and Roses," "Beyond Pardon," "Dora Thomas," "From Out the Gloom," etc., etc.
CHICAGO. DONOHUE, HENNEBERRY & CO., PUBLISHERS.
A MAD LOVE
A DISCONTENTED BEAUTY.
"Leone," cried a loud voice, "where are you? Here, there, everywhere, except just in the place where you should be."
The speaker was a tall, stout, good-tempered looking man. Farmer Noel people called him all over the country-side. He stood in the farmyard, looking all the warmer this warm day for his exertions in finding his niece.
"Leone," he cried again and again.
At last the answer came, "I am here, uncle," and if the first voice startled one with its loudness, this second was equally startling from its music, its depth, its pathos.
"I am here, uncle," she said. "I wish you would not shout so loudly. I am quite sure that the people at Rashleigh can hear you. What is it that you want?"
"Have you made up the packets of wheat I asked you for?" he said.
"No," she replied, "I have not."
He looked disappointed.
"I shall be late for market," he said. "I must do them myself."
He went back into the house without another word. He never reproached Leone, let her do what she would.
On Leone's most beautiful face were evident marks of bad temper, and she did not care to conceal it. With a gesture of impatience she started forward, passed over the farmyard and went through the gate out into the lane, from the lane to the high-road, and she stood there leaning over the white gate, watching the cattle as they drank from the deep, clear pool.
The sun shone full upon her, and the warm, sweet beams never fell on anything more lovely; the only drawback to the perfection of the picture was this: she did not look in harmony with the scene—the quiet English landscape, the golden cornfields, the green meadows, the great spreading trees whereon the birds sung, the tall spire of the little church, the quaint little town in the distance, the brook that ran gurgling by.
She looked out of harmony with them all; she would have been in perfect keeping had the background been of snow-capped mountains and foaming cascades. Here she looked out of place; she was on an English farm; she wore a plain English dress, yet she had the magnificent beauty of the daughters of sunny Spain. Her beauty was of a peculiar type—dark, passionate, and picturesque like that of the pomegranate, the damask rose or the passion-flower.
There was a world in her face—of passion, of genius, of power; a face as much out of place over the gates of a farm as a stately gladiolus would be among daisies and buttercups. An artist looking for a model of some great queen who had conquered the world, for some great heroine for whom men had fought madly and died, might have chosen her. But in a farmyard! there are no words to tell how out of place it was. She stood by the gate holding the ribbons of her hat in her hand—beautiful, imperious, defiant—with a power of passion about her that was perhaps her greatest characteristic.
She looked round the quiet picture of country life with unutterable contempt.
"If I could but fly away," she said; "I would be anything on earth if I could get away from this—I would not mind what; I would work, teaching, anything; the dull monotony of this life is killing me."
Her face was so expressive that every emotion was shown on it, every thought could be read there; the languid scorn of the dark eyes, and the proud curves of the daintily arched lips, all told of unconcealed contempt.
"A farm," she said to herself; "to think that when the world is full of beautiful places, my lot must be cast on a farm. If it had been in a palace, or a gypsy's camp—anywhere where I could have tasted life, but a farm."
The beautiful restless face looked contemptuously out on the green and fertile land.
"A farm means chickens running under one's feet, pigeons whirling round one's head, cows lowing, dogs barking, no conversation but crops——"
She stopped suddenly. Coming up the lane she saw that which had never gladdened her eyes here before; she saw a gentleman, handsome and young, walking carelessly down the high-road, and as he drew near, another gentleman, also handsome, but not quite so young, joined him.
They came laughing down the high-road together, but neither of them saw her until they reached the great elm-tree. The sight of that wondrous young face, with its rich, piquant beauty, startled them. One passed her by without a word, the other almost stopped, so entirely was he charmed by the lovely picture. As he passed he raised his hat; her beautiful face flushed; she neither smiled nor bowed in return, but accepted the salute as a tribute to her beauty, after the same fashion a queen acknowledges the salutes and homage of her subjects.
With one keen glance, she divided him from his companion, the man who had not bowed to her. She took in that one glance a comprehensive view. She knew the color of his eyes, of his hair, the shape of his face, the peculiar cut of his clothes, so different to those worn by the young farmers; the clustering hair, the clear-cut face, the delicate profile, the graceful ease of the tall, thin figure, were with her from that moment through all time.
The deep low bow gratified her. She knew that she was gifted with a wondrous dower of beauty. She knew that men were meek when a beautiful face charmed them. The involuntary homage of this handsome young man pleased her. She would have more of it. When he rejoined his companion, she heard him say:
"What a wonderful face, Euston—the most beautiful I have ever seen in my life."
That pleased her still more; she smiled to herself.
"Perhaps I shall see him again," she thought.
Then one of the girls from the village passed the gate, and stopped for a few minutes' conversation.
"Did you see those gentlemen?" asked the girl; and Leone answered:
"They have both come to live at Dr. Hervey's, to 'read,' whatever that means. The young one, with the fair hair, is a lord, the eldest son of a great earl; I do not remember the name."
So it was a great lord who had bowed to her, and thought her more beautiful than any one he had ever seen. Her heart beat with triumph.
She bade the girl good-morning, and went back. Her beautiful face was brilliant with smiles.
She entered the house and went up to her glass. She wanted to see again, for herself, the face he had called beautiful.
Mirrored there, she saw two dark eyes, full of fire, bright, radiant, and luminous—eyes that could have lured and swayed a nation; a beautiful, oval face, the features of which were perfect; a white brow, with dark, straight eyebrows; sweet, red lips, like a cloven rose; the most beautiful chin, with a rare dimple; an imperial face, suited for a queen's crown or the diadem of an empress, but out of place on this simple farm. She saw grand, sloping shoulders, beautiful arms, and a figure that was perfect in its symmetry and grace.
She smiled contentedly. She was beautiful, undoubtedly. She was glad that others saw it. If a young lord admired her, she must be worth admiring. Her good humor was quite restored.
How came it that this girl, with the beauty of a young princess, was at home in the farmhouse? It was a simple story. The farmer, Robert Noel, had only one brother, who loved romance and travel.
Stephen Noel, after trying every profession, and every means of obtaining a livelihood, at last decided on becoming a civil engineer; he went to Spain to help with a rail-road in the province of Andalusia, and there fell in love with and married a beautiful Andalusian, Pepita by name.
Dark-eyed Pepita died on the same day Leone was born, and the young father, distracted by his loss, took the child home to England. The old housekeeper at the Rashleigh farm took the girl, and Robert Noel consented that she should be brought up as a child of his own.
The two brothers differed as light and darkness differ. Stephen was all quickness and intelligence, Robert was stolid and slow. Leone always said it took him ten minutes to turn around. He had never married, he had never found time; but he gave the whole love of his heart to the beautiful dark eyed child who was brought to his house sixteen years ago.
"WHAT, MARRY A FARMER!"
One can imagine the sensation that a bright, beautiful eagle would produce in a dove's nest; the presence of that beautiful, imperious child at the farm was very much the same. People looked at her in wonder; her beauty dazzled them; her defiance amused them. They asked each other where all her pride came from.
Uncle Robert often said in his slow fashion that he retired from business when Leone was seven. At that early age he gave the management of everything into her baby hands. From the chickens in the yard to the blue and white pigeons on the roof. She could manage him, big as he was, with one stamp of her little foot, one flash of her bright eyes; he was powerless at once, like a great big giant bound hand and foot. She was a strange child, full of some wonderful power that she hardly understood herself—a child quite out of the common groove of life, quite above the people who surrounded her. They understood her beauty, her defiance, her pride, but not the dramatic instinct and power that, innate in her, made every word and action seem strange.
Honest, stolid Robert Noel was bewildered by her; he did his best in every way, but he had an uneasy consciousness that his best was but a poor attempt. He sent her to school, the best in Rashleigh, but she learned anything and everything except obedience.
She looked out of place even there, this dark-eyed Spanish girl, among the pretty pink and white children with fair hair and blue eyes. She bewildered even the children; they obeyed her, and she had the greatest influence over them. She taught them recitations and plays, she fired their imaginations by wonderful stories; she was a new, brilliant, wonderful element in their lives. Even the school mistress, meek through the long suffering of years, even she worshiped and feared her—the brilliant, tiresome girl, who was like a flash of light among the others. She had a face so grand and a voice so thrilling it was no unusual thing when she was reading aloud in the school-room for the others to suspend all work, thrilled to the heart by the sound of her voice. She soon learned all that the Rashleigh governess could teach her—she taught herself even more. She had little taste for drawing, much for music, but her whole heart and soul were in books.
Young as she was, it was grand to hear her trilling out the pretty love speeches of Juliet, declaring the wrongs of Constance or Katherine, moaning out the woes of Desdemona. She had Shakespeare almost by heart, and she loved the grand old dramatist.
When she was sixteen her uncle took her from school, and then the perplexities of his honest life began. He wanted her to take her place as mistress of the house, to superintend the farm and the dairy, to take affectionate interest in the poultry and birds, to see that the butter was of a deep, rich yellow, and the new laid eggs sent to market. From the moment he intrusted those matters in her hands, his life became a burden to him, for they were entirely neglected.
Farmer Noel would go into his dairy and find everything wrong, the cream spilled, the butter spoiled; but when he looked at the dark-eyed young princess with the Spanish face he dared not say a word to her.
He would suggest to her meekly that things might be different. She would retaliate with some sarcasm that would reduce him to silence for two days at least. Yet she loved, after a fashion of her own, this great, stolid man who admired her with all his heart, and loved her with his whole soul.
So time passed until she was seventeen, and the quiet farm life was unendurable to her.
"Uncle," she would say, "let me go out into the world. I want to see it. I want something to do. I often think I must have two lives and two souls, I long so intensely for more than I have to fill them."
He could not understand her. She had the farm and the dairy.
"Be content," he would answer, "be content, my lady lass, with the home God has given you."
"I want something to do. If I did all the work on this and twenty other farms it would not touch my heart and soul. They are quite empty. People say it is a battlefield. If it be one, I am sitting by with folded hands. Inactivity means death to me."
"My lady lass, you can find plenty to do," he answered, solemnly.
"But not of the kind I want."
She paced up and down the large kitchen, where everything was polished and bright; the fire-light glowed on the splendid face and figure—the face with its unutterable beauty, its restless longing, its troubled desires.
Some fear for the future of the beautiful, restless, passionate girl came over the man, who watched her with anxious eyes. It began to dawn upon him, that if he were to shut a bright-eyed eagle up in a cage, it would never be happy, and it was very much the same kind of thing to shut this lovely, gifted girl in a quiet farmhouse.
"You will be married soon," he said, with a clumsy attempt at comfort, "and then you will be more content."
She flashed one look of scorn from those dark, lustrous eyes that should have annihilated him. She stopped before him, and threw back her head with the gesture of an injured queen.
"May I ask," she said, "whom you suppose I will marry?"
He looked rather frightened, for he began to perceive he had made some mistake, though he could not tell what; he thought all young girls liked to be teased about sweethearts and marriage; still he came valiantly to the front.
"I mean that you will surely have a sweetheart some day or other," he said, consolingly, though the fire from those dark eyes startled him, and her scarlet lips trembled with anger.
"I shall have a sweetheart, you think, like Jennie Barnes or Lily Coke. A sweetheart. Pray, whom will it be, do you think?"
"I know several of the young farmers about here who would each give his right hand to be a sweetheart of yours."
She laughed a low, contemptuous laugh that made him wince.
"What, marry a farmer! Do you think the life of a farmer's wife would suit me? I shall go unmarried to my grave, unless I can marry as I choose."
Then she seemed to repent of the passionate words, and flung her beautiful arms round his neck and kissed his face.
"I hate myself," she said, "when I speak in that way to you, who have been so good to me."
"I do not mind it," said Robert Noel, honestly. "Never hate yourself for me, my lady lass."
She turned one glance from her beautiful eyes on him.
"When I seem to be ungrateful to you, do remember that I am not, Uncle Robert; I am always sorry. I cannot help myself, I cannot explain myself; but I feel always as though my mind and soul were cramped."
"Cramp is a very bad thing," said the stolid farmer.
She looked at him, but did not speak; her irritation was too great; he never understood her; it was not likely he ever would.
"I will go down to the mill-stream," she said.
With an impatient gesture she hastened out of the house.
The mill-stream was certainly the prettiest feature of the farm—a broad, beautiful stream that ran between great rows of alder-trees and turned the wheel by the force with which it leaped into the broad, deep basin; it was the loveliest and most picturesque spot that could be imagined, and now as the waters rushed and foamed in the moonlight they were gorgeous to behold.
Leone loved the spot; the restless, gleaming waters suited her; it seemed to have something akin to herself—something restless, full of force and vitality. She sat there for hours; it was her usual refuge when the world went wrong with her.
Round and round went the wheel; on sunlight days the sun glinted on the sullen waters until they resembled a sheet of gold covered with white, shining foam. Green reeds and flowers that love both land and water fringed the edges of the clear, dimpling pool; the alder-trees dipped their branches in it; the great gray stones, covered with green moss, lay here and there. It was a little poem in itself, and the beautiful girl who sat in the moonlight read it aright.
THE MEETING AT THE MILL.
In the depths of the water she saw the reflection of the shining stars; she watched them intently; the pure, pale golden eyes. A voice aroused her—a voice with tone and accent quite unlike any other voice.
"I beg your pardon," it said, "could you show me the way to Rashleigh? I have lost myself in the wood."
Raising her eyes she saw the gentleman who had raised his hat as he passed her in the morning. She knew that he recognized her by the light that suddenly overspread his face.
"Rashleigh lies over there," she replied. "You have but to cross the field and pass the church."
"Even that," said the stranger, with a careless laugh, "even that I am not inclined to do now. It is strange. I am afraid you will think me half mad, but it seems to me that I have just stepped into fairy land. Two minutes since I was on the bare highway, now I see the prettiest picture earth has to offer."
"It is pretty," she replied, her eyes looking at the clear, dimpling pool; "prettier now even than when the sun shines on it and the wheel turns."
She had told him the way to Rashleigh, and he should have passed on with a bow, but this was his excuse. The moon was shining bright as day, the wind murmured in the alder trees, the light lay on the clear, sweet, fresh water; the music of the water as it fell was sweet to hear. Away in the woods some night bird was singing; the odor of the sleeping flowers filled the air; and there on the green bank, at the water's edge, sat the most beautiful girl he had ever seen in his life.
The moonlight fell on her exquisite southern face; it seemed to find its home in the lustrous depths of her dark eyes; it kissed the dark ripples of her hair, worn with the simple grace of a Greek goddess; it lay on the white hands that played with the tufted grass.
He was young and loved all things beautiful, and therefore did not go away. His mind was filled with wonder. Who was she—this girl, so like a young Spanish princess! Why was she sitting here by the mill-stream? He must know, and to know he must ask.
"I am inclined," he said, "to lie down here by this pretty stream, and sleep all night under the stars; I am so tired."
She looked at him with a quick, warm glow of sympathy.
"What has tired you?" she asked.
He sat down on one of the great gray stones that lay half in the water, half on the land.
"I have lost myself in the Leigh woods," he said. "I have been there many hours. I had no idea what Leigh woods were like, or I should not have gone for the first time alone."
"They are very large and intricate," she said; "I can never find the right paths."
"Some one told me I should see the finest oak-trees in England there," he said, "and I have a passion for grand old oaks. I would go anywhere to see them. I went to the woods and had very soon involved myself in the greatest difficulties. I should never have found the way out had I not met one of the keepers."
She liked to listen to him; the clear, refined accent, the musical tone; as she listened a longing came over her that his voice might go on speaking to her and of her.
"Now," he continued, embarrassed by her silence, "I have forgotten your directions; may I ask you to repeat them?"
She did so, and looking at her face he saw there was no anger, nothing but proud, calm content. He said to himself he need not go just yet, he could stay a few minutes longer.
"Do you know that beautiful old German ballad," he said,
"'In sheltered vale a mill-wheel Still tunes its tuneful lay'?"
"No; I never heard or read it," she answered. "Say it for me."
"'In sheltered vale a mill-wheel Still tunes its tuneful lay. My darling once did dwell there, But now she's far away. A ring in pledge I gave her, And vows of love we spoke— Those vows are all forgotten, The ring asunder broke.'"
"Hush," she said, holding up one white hand; "hush, it is too sad. Do you not see that the moonlight has grown dim, and the sound of the falling waters is the sound of falling tears?"
He did not seem to understand her words.
"That song has haunted me," he said, "ever since I heard it. I must say the last verse; it must have been of this very mill-wheel it was written.
"'But while I hear the mill-wheel My pains will never cease; I would the grave could hide me, For there alone is peace.'"
"Is it a love story?" she asked, pleased at the pathos and rhythm of the words.
"Yes; it is the usual story—the whole love of a man's heart given to one not worthy of it, the vows forgotten, the ring broken. Then he cries out for the grave to hide himself and his unhappy love."
She looked up at him with dark, lustrous, gleaming eyes.
"Does all love end in sorrow?" she asked, simply.
He looked musingly at the moonlit waters, musingly at the starlit sky.
"I cannot tell," he replied, "but it seems to me that it ends more in sorrow than in joy. I should say," he continued, "that when truth meets truth, where loyalty meets loyalty, the ending is good; but where a true heart finds a false one, where loyalty and honor meet lightness and falsehood, then the end must be bad."
Leone seemed suddenly to remember that she was talking to a stranger, and, of all subjects, they had fallen on love.
"I must go," she said, hurriedly. "You will remember the way."
"Pray do not go—just this minute," he said. "History may repeat itself; life never does. There can never be a night half so fair as this again; the water will never fall with so sweet a ripple; the stars will never shine with so bright a light; life may pass, and we may never meet again. You have a face like a poem. Stay a few minutes longer."
"A face like a poem." Did he really think so?
The words pleased her.
"Strange things happen in real life," he said; "things that, told in novels and stories, make people laugh and cry out that they are exaggerated, too romantic to be real. How strange that I should have met you here this evening by the side of the mill-stream—a place always haunted by poetry and romance. You will think it stranger still when I tell you your face has haunted me all day."
She looked at him in surprise. The proud, beautiful face grieved at the words.
"How is that?" she asked.
"I saw you this morning when I was going to Rashleigh with my friend, Sir Frank Euston. You were standing against a white gate, and I thought—well, I must not tell you what I thought."
"Why?" she asked, briefly.
"Because it might offend you," he replied.
He began to perceive that there was no coquetry in this beautiful girl. She was proud, with a calm, serene, half-tragic pride. There would be no flirtation by the side of the mill-stream. She looked as far above coquetry as she was above affectation. He liked the proud calm of her manner. She might have been a duchess holding court rather than a country girl sitting by a mill-wheel. The idea occurred to him; and then his wonder increased—who was she? and what was she doing here?
"Do you live near here?" he asked.
"Yes," she said, "behind the trees there you can see the chimneys of a farmhouse; it is called Rashleigh Farm; my uncle, Robert Noel, lives there; and I am his niece."
"His niece," repeated the young man, in an incredulous voice. She was a farmer's niece, then, after all; and yet she looked like a Spanish princess.
"You do not look like an English girl," he said, gravely.
"My father was English and my mother a Spanish lady; and I—well, I fear I have more of the hot fire of Spain than of the chill of England in my nature; my face is Spanish, so is my heart."
"A Spaniard is quick to love, quick to hate; forgives grandly and revenges mercilessly," he said.
"That is my character," she said; "you have described it exactly."
"I do not believe it; neither hate nor revenge could exist with a face like yours. Then your name is Noel?"
"Yes, my name is Leone Noel," she replied.
"Leone," he repeated, "that is a beautiful name. I have never heard it before; but I like it very much; it is musical and rare—two great things in a name."
"It is a German name," she said. "My uncle Robert hates it; he says it reminds him of Lion; but you know it is pronounced Leon. My mother read some German story that had the name in it and gave it to me."
"It suits you," he said, simply; "and I should not think there was another name in the world that would. I wonder," he added, with a shy laugh, "if you would like my name? It is Lancelot Chandos. My friends call me Lance."
"Yes, I like that. I know all the history of Sir Lancelot. I admire him; but I think he was a weak man—do not you?"
"For loving Queen Guinevere? I do not know. Some love is strength, not weakness," he replied.
Leone looked up at him again.
"Are you the son of a great lord?" she asked; "some one told me so."
"Yes; my father is Earl of Lanswell; and people would call him a great earl. He is rich and powerful."
"What has brought you, the son of a great earl, down to Rashleigh?" she asked.
"My own idleness, to begin with," he said. "I have been at Oxford more years than I care to count; and I have idled my time."
"Then you are studying?" she said.
"Yes, that is it. I am trying to make up for lost time. I have some examinations to pass; and my father has sent me down to Dr. Hervey because he is known everywhere as the cleverest coach in England."
A cloud came for just one half minute across the face of the moon; the soft, sweet darkness startled Leone.
"I must go now," she said; "it is not only getting late, but growing dark."
"I shall see you again," he cried, "do promise me."
"Nay, you have little faith in promises," she replied; and he watched her as she vanished from among the alder-trees.
It was an unexpected meeting; and strange and startling consequences soon followed.
AN INTERESTING TETE-A-TETE.
"Where have you been, Leone?" asks Farmer Noel.
She had begun a new life. It seemed years since she had left him, while he sat in the same place, smoking the same pipe, probably thinking the same thoughts. She came in with the brightness and light of the moon in her face; dew-drops lay on her dark hair, her beautiful face was flushed with the wind, so fair, so gracious, so royal, so brilliant. He looked at her in helpless surprise.
"Where have you been?" he repeated.
She looked at him with a sweet, dreamy smile.
"I have been to the mill-stream." And she added in a lower tone, "I have been to heaven."
It had been heaven to her—this one hour spent with one refined by nature and by habit—a gentleman, a man of taste and education. Her uncle wondered that evening at the light that came on her face, at the cheerful sound of her voice, the smile that came over her lips. She was usually so restless and discontented.
It was a break in her life. She wanted something to interrupt the monotony, and now it had come. She had seen and spoken to not only a very handsome and distinguished man, but a lord, the son of an earl. He had admired her, said her face was like a poem; and the words brought a sweet, musing smile to her face.
When the sun shone in her room the next morning she awoke with a sense of something new and beautiful in her life; it was a pleasure to hear the birds sing; a pleasure to bathe in the clear, cold, fresh water; a pleasure to breathe the sweet, fragrant morning air. There was a half wonder as to whether she could see him again.
The poetical, dramatic instinct of the girl was all awake; she tried to make herself as pretty as she could. She put on a dress of pale pink—a plain print, it is true, but the beautiful head and face rose from it as a flower from its leaves.
She brushed back the rippling hair and placed a crimson rose in its depths. Then she smiled at herself. Was it likely she should see him? What should bring the great son of an earl to the little farm at Rashleigh? But the blue and white pigeons, the little chickens—all fared well that morning. Leone was content.
In the afternoon Farmer Noel wanted her to go down to the hay-fields. The men were busy with the newly mown hay, and he wished her to take some messages about the stacking of it. She looked like a picture of summer as she walked through the green, shady lane, a red rose in her hair and one in her breast, a cluster of woodbine in her hand. She saw nothing of Lord Chandos, yet she thought of nothing else; every tree, every field, every lane she passed she expected to see him; but of course he was not there; and her heart beat fast as she saw him—he was crossing what people called the Brook Meadow—and she met him face to face.
They had met for the first time on a moonlight night; they met for the second time on a sultry summer afternoon, when the whole world seemed full of love. The birds were singing of love in the trees, the butterflies were making love to the flowers, the wind was whispering of love to the trees, the sun was kissing the earth that lay silent in its embrace.
"Leone," he cried; and then he flushed crimson. "I beg your pardon," he said, "but I ought to say Miss Noel; but I have been thinking of you all night as Leone. I did not think of it before I spoke."
She laughed at the long apology.
"Say it all over again," she said. "Begin at 'Good-afternoon, Miss Noel.'"
He repeated it after her, then added:
"I think my kind and good fortune sent me this way. I was longing for some one to speak to—and of all happiness to meet you; but perhaps you are busy."
"No; I have done all that I had to do. I am never busy," she added, with regal calm.
He smiled again.
"No; I could not fancy you busy," he said, "any more than I could fancy the goddess Juno in a hurry. To some fair women there belongs by birthright a calm that is almost divine."
"My calm covers a storm," she replied. "My life has been brief and dull; neither my heart nor my soul has really lived; but I feel in myself a capability of power that sometimes frightens me."
He did not doubt it as he looked at the beautiful, passionate face; it was even more lovely in the gleam of the sunlight than in the soft, sweet light of the moon.
"You cannot stand in the sunshine," he said. "If you are not busy will you go with me through Leigh Woods? I shall remember the way this time."
She hesitated one half minute, and he saw it; he raised his hat and stood bare-headed, waiting for her answer.
"Yes, I will go," she said at length. "Why should I not?"
They went together to Leigh Woods, where the great oak-trees made a pleasant shade, and the ground was a mass of wild flowers; great streams of bluebells that stirred so gently in the wind, violets that hid themselves under their leaves, cowslips like little tips of gold, wild strawberry blossoms that looked like snow-flakes.
How fair it was. The sunbeams fell through the great green boughs, throwing long shadows on the grass. It was a beautiful, silent world, all perfume and light. The poetry of it touched both of them.
Lord Chandos was the first to speak; he had been watching the proud, beautiful face of Leone; and suddenly he said:
"You look out of place here, Miss Noel; I can hardly tell you why."
"That is what my uncle says; he is always asking me if I cannot make myself more like the girls of Rashleigh."
"I hope you never will," he cried, warmly.
"I do not know how," she said. "I must always be what God and nature made me."
"They made you fair enough," he whispered.
And then he owned to himself that she was not like other girls.
She drew back proudly, swiftly; no smile came to her lips, no laughing light to her eyes.
"Speak to me as you would to one in your own rank, my lord," she said, haughtily. "Though fate has made me a farmer's niece, nature made me——"
"A queen," he interrupted.
And she was satisfied with the acknowledgment. They sat down under one of the great oak-trees, a great carpet of bluebells under their feet.
Leone looked thoughtful; she gathered some sprays of bluebells and held them in her hands, her white fingers toying with the little flowers, then she spoke:
"I know," she said, "that no lady—for instance, in your own rank of life—would walk through this wood with you on a summer's afternoon."
A laugh came over his handsome, happy young face.
"I do not know. I am inclined to think the opposite."
"I do not understand what you would call etiquette; but I am quite sure you would never ask one."
"I am not sure. If I had met one in what you are pleased to call my rank of life last night by the mill-stream, looking as you looked, I am quite sure that I should ask her to walk with me and talk with me at any time."
"I should like to see your world," she said. "I know the world of the poor and the middle class, but I do not know yours."
"You will know some day," he said, quietly. "Do not be angry with me if I tell you that in all my world I have never seen one like you. Do not be angry, I am not flattering you, I am saying just what I think."
"Why do you think that some day I may see your world?" she asked.
"Because with your face you are sure to marry well," he replied.
"I shall marry where I love," said Leone.
"And you may love where you will," he replied; "no man will ever resist you."
"I would rather you did not speak to me in that fashion," she said, gravely; and Lord Chandos found, that seated by this farmer's niece, in the wood full of bluebells, he was compelled to be more circumspect than if he were speaking to some countess-elect in a Mayfair drawing-room. Leone, when she had set him quite straight in his place, as she called it; when she had taught him that he was to treat her with as much, if not more courtesy, than he bestowed on those of his own rank; Leone, when she had done all this, felt quite at home with him. She had never had an opportunity for exercising her natural talent for conversation; her uncle was quite incapable of following or understanding her; the girls who were her companions lost themselves in trying to follow her flights of fancy.
But now there was some one who understood her; talk as she would, he appreciated it; he knew her quotations; no matter how original her ideas were he understood and followed them; it was the first time she had ever had the opportunity of talking to an educated gentleman.
How she enjoyed it; his wit seemed waiting on hers, and seemed to catch fire from it; his eyes caught fire from hers. She described her simple life and its homely surroundings in words that burned.
It was in her simple, sweet, pathetic description of stolid Uncle Robert that she excelled herself; she painted his character with the most graphic touches.
"Do you know, Miss Noel," said Lord Chandos at last, "that you are a genius, that you have a talent truly marvelous: that you can describe a character or a place better than I have heard any one else?"
"No, I did not know anything about it," she said. "I am so accustomed to being looked upon as something not to be understood, admired, or imitated that I can hardly believe that I am clever. Uncle Robert is really a character; nowadays men and women are very much alike; but he stands out in bold relief, quite by himself, the slowest, the most stolid of men, yet with a great heart full of love."
It was so pleasant to talk to him and see his handsome young face full of admiration; to startle him by showing her talent, so pleasant that the whole of the summer afternoon had passed before she thought of the time; and he was equally confused, for Dr. Hervey's dinner-hour was over. And yet they both agreed it was the most pleasant hour they had ever spent.
It was, of course, the old story; there were one or two meetings by the mill-stream, a morning spent together in some distant hay-field, an afternoon in the woods, and then the mischief was done—they loved each other.
"Alas, how easily things go wrong— A sigh too deep or a kiss too long; Then follows a mist and a weeping rain— And life is never the same again."
It soon became not merely a habit but a necessity for them to meet every day. Farmer Noel understood perfectly well the art of tilling the ground, of sowing the crops, of making the earth productive, but he knew less than a child of the care and watchfulness his young niece required. He contented himself by asking where she had been; he never seemed to imagine that she had had a companion. He saw her growing more and more beautiful, with new loveliness on her face, with new light in her eyes, with a thousand charms growing on her, but he never thought of love or danger—in fact, above the hay-making and the wheat, Farmer Noel did not think at all.
She had gone into the glowing heart of fairyland—all the old life was left far behind; she did not even seem to remember that she had been restless and discontented; that in her soul she had revolted fiercely against her fate; that she had disliked her life and longed for anything that would change it; all that was forgotten; the golden glamour of love had fallen over her, and everything was changed. He was young—this brave, generous, gallant lover of hers—only twenty, with a heart full of romance. He fairly worshiped the proud, beautiful girl who carried herself with the stately grace of a young queen. He had fallen in love after the fashion of his age—madly, recklessly, blindly—ready to go mad or to die for his love; after the fashion of his age and sex he loved her all the more because of her half-cold reserve, her indomitable pride, her haughty rejection of all flattery.
Young girls do not always know the secret of their power; a little reserve goes further than the most loving words. Leone's pride attracted Lord Chandos quite as much as her beauty. The first little quarrel they had was an outburst of pride from her; they had been strolling through the sunniest part of Leigh Woods, and when it was time to part he bent down to kiss the warm, white hand. She drew it quickly from him.
"You would not have done that to one of your own class," she cried; "why do you do it to me?"
"You are not really angry, Leone?" he cried in wonder.
She turned her beautiful face, colorless with indignation, to him.
"I am so far angry," she said, "that I shall not walk through the woods with you—never again."
She kept her word. For two whole days Lord Chandos wandered through the fields and the lanes, through the woods and by the river, yet he saw no sight of her. It was possible that she punished herself quite as much as she did him; but he must be taught that, were he twenty times an earl, he must never venture on even the least liberty with her; he must wait her permission before he kissed her hand.
The fourth day—he could bear it no longer—he rode past the farm twenty times and more; at length he was fortunate enough to see Farmer Noel, and throwing the reins on his horse's neck he got down and went up to him.
"Have you a dog to sell?" he asked. "Some one told me you had very fine dogs."
"I have good dogs, but none to sell," replied the farmer.
"I want a dog, and I would give a good price for a good one," he said. "Will you let me see yours?"
"Yes, you can see them, but you cannot buy them," said Robert Noel; and the next scene was the handsome young lordling going round the farm, with the stalwart, stolid farmer.
He won the farmer's heart by his warm praises of the farm, the cattle, the dogs, and everything else he saw; still there was no Leone.
"I am very thirsty; should you think me very impertinent if I asked you for a glass of cider?" he said; and the farmer, flattered by the request, took him into the little parlor. He looked at his visitor in simple wonder.
"They say you are a great lord's son," he said; "but if you are, you have no pride about you."
Lord Chandos laughed; and the farmer called Leone. There was a pause, during which the young lord's heart beat and his face flushed.
"Leone," cried the farmer again.
He turned to his visitor.
"You will wonder what 'Leone' means, it is such a strange name; it is my niece. Here she comes."
The loveliest picture in all the world, trying hard to preserve her usual stately grace, yet with a blushing, dimpling smile that made her lovely beyond words.
"Leone," said the farmer, "will you bring a jug of cider?"
"Pray," cried the lord, "do not trouble yourself, Miss Noel. I cannot think——"
She interrupted him by a gesture of her white hand.
"I will send it, uncle," she said, and disappeared.
The farmer turned with a smile to the young lord.
"She is very proud," he said; "but she is a fine girl."
The cider came; the visitor duly drank his glass and went; his only reward for all that trouble was the one glance at her face.
That same evening a little note was given to her, in which he begged her so humbly to forgive him, and to meet him again, that she relented.
He had learned his lesson; he wooed her with the deference due to a young princess; no word or action of his displeased her after that, while he loved her with a love that was akin to madness.
So through the long, bright, beautiful summer days, in the early morning, while the sweet, fragrant air seemed to sweep the earth, and in the evening when the dew lay upon flower and tree, they met and learned to love each other.
One evening, as they sat by their favorite spot—the mill-stream—Lord Chandos told her how he had learned to love her, how he had ceased to think of anything in the world but herself.
"I knew you were my fate, Leone," he said, "when I saw you sitting here by the mill-stream. I am quite sure that I have loved you ever since. I do not remember that there has been one moment in which I have not thought of you. I shall always thank Heaven that I came to Rashleigh—I found my darling here."
For once all the pride had died from her face; all the hauteur was gone from her eyes; a lovely gleam of tenderness took its place; a love-light in the shy, sweet eyes that dropped from his.
"My darling Leone," he said, "if I lived a hundred years I could only say over and over again—'I love you.' Those three words say everything. Do you love me?"
She looked up at him. Then she raised her dark eyes to his and a little quiver passed over her beautiful mouth.
"Yes, I love you," she said. "Whether it be for weal or for woe, for good or ill, I know not; but I love you."
There was unutterable pathos, unutterable music in those three words; they seemed to rhyme with the chime of the falling waters. She held out her white hands, he clasped them in his.
"Why do you say it so sadly, my darling? Love will bring nothing but happiness for you and for me," he said.
She laid her white arms on his neck, and looked earnestly in his face.
"There can be no comparison," she said. "Love to you is only a small part of your life, to me it is everything—everything. Do you understand? If you forget me or anything of that kind, I could not bear it. I could not school myself into patience as model women do. I should come and throw myself into the mill-stream."
"But, my darling, I shall never forget you—never; you are life of my life. I might live without the air and the sunlight; I might live without sleep or food, but never without you. I must forget my own soul before I forget you."
Still the white hands clasped his shoulders and the dark eyes were fixed on his face.
"You and your love are more than that to me," she said. "I throw all my life on this one die; I have nothing else—no other hope. Ah, think well, Lance, before you pledge your faith to me; it means so much. I should exact it whole, unbroken and forever."
"And I would give it so," he replied.
"Think well of it," she said again, with those dark, earnest eyes fixed on his face. "Let there be no mistake, Lance. I am not one of the meek Griselda type; I should not suffer in silence and resignation, let my heart break, and then in silence sink into an early grave. Ah, no, I am no patient Griselda. I should look for revenge and many other things. Think well before you pledge yourself to me. I should never forgive—never forget. There is time now—think before you seal your fate and mine."
"I need not think, Leone," he answered, quietly. "I have thought, and the result is that I pledge you my faith forever and ever."
The earnest, eager gaze died from her eyes, and the beautiful face was hidden on his breast.
"Forever and ever, sweet," he whispered; "do you hear? in all time and for all eternity, I pledge you my love and my faith."
The water seemed to laugh as it rippled on, the wind laughed as it bent the tall branches, the nightingale singing in the wood stopped suddenly, and its next burst of song was like ringing laughter; the mountains quivered over the mill-stream, the stars seemed to tremble as they shone.
"Forever and ever," he repeated. The wind seemed to catch up the words and repeat them, the leaves seemed to murmur them, the fall of the water to rhyme with them. "Forever and ever, sweet, I pledge you my love and my faith; our hearts will be one, and our souls one, and you will give me the same love in return, my sweet?"
"I give you even more than that," she replied, so earnestly that the words had a ring of tragedy in them; and then bending forward, he kissed the sweet lips that were for evermore to be his own.
"You are mine now forever," he said, "my wife, who is to be."
She was quite silent for some minutes; then, looking up at him, she said:
"I wish you had never sung that pretty ballad of the mill-wheel to me; do you know what the water always says when I listen?
"'Those vows are all forgotten, The ring asunder broken.'"
"My darling," he said, clasping her to his heart, "no words that have any ring of doubt in them will ever apply to us, let the mill-stream say what it will."
AN IMPATIENT LOVER'S PLANS.
There had been no mistake about the wooing of Lord Chandos. He had not thought of loving and riding away; the proud, beautiful, gifted girl whom he loved had been wooed and pursued with the ardor and respect that he would have shown to a princess.
There came another day, when something had prevented him from seeing her; and unable to control his impatience, he had ridden over to the farm, this time ostensibly to see the farmer, and ask for another glass of his famous cider; this time, under the farmer's eyes even, he stopped and spoke to Leone.
"You will be at the mill-stream this evening?" he whispered, and her answer was:
When he had drunk the cider and ridden away, Farmer Noel turned to his niece.
"A fine young man that, Leone; but what did he say to you?"
"Nothing particular; something about the mill-stream," replied the proud lips, that disdained a lie.
"Because," said Robert Noel, slowly, "you have a beautiful face of your own, my lady lass, and a young man like that would be sure to admire it."
"What matter if he did, uncle?" she asked.
"Harm would come of it," replied the farmer; "what a man admires he often loves; and no good would come of such a love as that."
"Why not?" she asked again, with flushed face and flashing eyes. "Why not?"
"We reckon in these parts," said the farmer, slowly, "that there is too great a difference between the aristocracy and the working-people. To put it in plain words, my lady lass, when a great lord or a rich man admires a poor lass, as a rule it ends in her disgrace."
"Not always," she answered, proudly.
"No, perhaps not always; but mostly, mostly," repeated Robert Noel. "You have a beautiful face, and, if you are wise, you will keep out of that young gentleman's way. I should not like to offend you, Leone; you will excuse me for speaking plainly."
"It does not offend me," she said, simply; "although I do not think that you are right. Why should not a lord, great and rich as this one, marry a girl who has no drawback but poverty? I do not see such a great difference."
"I cannot tell you, my lady lass, either the why or the wherefore," he replied. "I know that rich men do not marry poor and obscure girls; and if they do, there is sure to be something wrong with the marriage. We will not talk about it, only if he seems to admire you at all, do you keep out of that young man's way."
She made him no answer; his care for her touched her, but then there was no need. Lord Chandos was unlike other men; besides which he loved her so well he could not live without her.
So, when the sun was setting in the western sky, she went down to the mill-stream, where her lover awaited her.
The crimson clouds were reflected in the rippling water, the birds were singing in the trees, the flowers were all falling asleep; the fair, fragrant world was getting ready for its time of rest.
"Leone," he cried, seizing her hands and drawing her toward him, "my darling, I thought to-day would never come. How many hours did yesterday hold?"
"Twenty-four," she replied.
"Only twenty-four? Why, it seemed to me it was a day as long as a year, and I asked myself one question, sweet."
"What was it, Lance?"
"This: that if one day seemed so terribly long, what would become of me if I had to pass a week without you?"
"What would become of you?" she said, laughingly.
"I should die of my own impatience," he said, his handsome young face flushing. "Fate may try me as it will," he added, "but it must never separate me from you. It is because I have found this out that I have asked you to meet me here to-night. I cannot live without you, Leone; you understand that the hours are long and dark; life seems all ended, I cannot feel interest or energy; I am longing for you all the time, just as thirsty flowers are longing for dew. Leone, I should long until the fever of my own longing killed me—for you."
He drew the beautiful face to his own, and kissed it with a passion words could never tell.
"Why should I not be happy in my own way?" he said. "If I want the one only thing on earth that could bring me my happiness, why should I not have it? Of what use is money, wealth, position, rank, anything else on earth to me, unless I have you. I would rather lose all I have in the world than lose you."
"It is sweet to be loved so well," she said, with a sigh.
"I have had letters from home to-day," he said, "and I—I am half afraid to tell you lest you should say no. I am to leave Rashleigh in one month from now, and to go to my father's house—Cawdor, it is called. Leone, I cannot go alone."
She looked at him with wondering eyes; the ardent young lover who believed his love to be so great and so generous, yet who, in reality, loved himself best, even in his love.
"Darling, I want you to consent to be my wife before I leave Rashleigh," he continued. "I know it will be the best and easiest plan if I can but win your consent."
Her loving heart seemed almost to stand still; the crimson clouds and the rippling waters seemed to meet; even in her dreams she had never imagined herself his wife.
Lord Chandos continued:
"I know my parents well; my father is inflexible on some points, but easily influenced; my mother is, I believe, the proudest woman in the wide world. I know that she expects something wonderful from me in the way of marriage; I hardly think that there is a peeress in England that my mother would deem too good for me, and it would wound her to the heart should I marry a woman beneath me in rank. Indeed I know she would never forgive me."
She uttered a little, low cry.
"Then why have you loved me?" she asked.
Her lover laughed.
"How could I help it, my darling? In you I have found the other half of my own soul. I could no more help loving you than a bird can help singing. But listen, Leone; it is as I say, if I were to go home and pray all day to them it would be useless. I have another plan. Marry me, and I can take you to them and say, 'This is my wife.' They could not help receiving you then, because the marriage could not be undone, and my mother, with her worldly tact, would made the best of it then. If I ask permission to marry you, they will never grant it; if I marry you, they will be compelled to forgive it."
She drew herself half proudly from him.
"I do not wish any one to be compelled to receive me, nor do I wish to be the cause of unpleasantness," she said.
"My darling, all lovers have something to suffer. The course of true love cannot run smooth. Surely you would not desert me, or forsake me, or refuse to love me because I cannot change the opinion of my conservative parents. I know no lady, no peeress in England, who is half so beautiful, so clever as you—not one. I shall be more proud to take you home as Lady Chandos than if you were a queen's daughter. You believe me?"
"Yes, I believe you," she replied.
"Never mind any one else, Leone. My father admires beautiful women; he will be sure to love you; my mother will be very disagreeable at first, but in a short time she will learn to love you, and then all will be well."
The little white hand clung to him.
"You are quite sure, Lance?" she said, with a sob—"quite sure?"
"Yes, sweet, I am more than sure. You will be Lady Chandos, of Cawdor, and that is one of the oldest and grandest titles in England."
"But will your mother forgive you and love you again?" she asked, anxiously.
"Yes, believe me. And now, Leone, let me tell you my plans. They are all rather underhand, but we cannot help that; everything is fair in love and war. About twenty miles from here there is a sleepy little village called Oheton. I was there yesterday, and it was there that this plan came to me. Oh, my darling, turn your sweet face to me and let me be quite sure that you are listening."
"I am listening, Lance," she said.
"No, not with all your heart. See how well I understand you. Your eyes linger on the water, and the falling of it makes music, and the rhyme of the music is:
"'These vows were all forgotten, The ring asunder broken.'
When will you trust me more thoroughly, Leone?"
She glanced at him with something of wonder, but more of fear.
"How do you know what I am thinking of?" she asked.
"I can guess from the tragical expression of your face, and the pathos of your eyes as they linger on the falling water. Now, you shall not look at the mill-stream, look at me."
She raised her dark, lustrous eyes to his face, and he went on:
"Over in this sleepy little village of Oheton, Leone—it is a sleepy village—the houses are all divided from each other by gardens and trees. Unlike most villagers, the people do not seem to know each other, you do not hear any gossip; the people, the houses, the streets, all seem sleepy together. At one end of the village is a church, one of the most quaint, an old Norman church, that has stood like a monument while the storms of the world raged around it; the vicar is the Reverend Josiah Barnes."
"Why are you telling me all this?" she asked.
"You will soon understand," he replied. "The Reverend Mr. Barnes is over sixty, and he, together with the people, the houses, and the streets, seems sleepy; nothing would excite him, or interest him, or startle him.
"Now, Leone, I have taken lodgings for myself for three weeks in this sleepy village; no one will take any notice of me; I shall go and come just as I will; then I shall have the bans of our marriage published. The dear old vicar will read them in his sleepy tones:
"'I publish the bans of marriage for the first time between Lancelot Chandos and Leone Noel.' No one will hear the names plainly, and those who do will not know to whom they belong, and there will be no impediment; will there, Leone?"
The water laughed as it hurried over the stones.
"No impediment," it seemed to say; "no impediment, Leone."
A FRIEND'S ADVICE.
"But," asked Leone, anxiously, "will that be safe, Lance? Supposing that any one should hear and recognize the names, what then?"
"There is no fear. Nothing can ever be done without risk; but there is no risk there—at least, none that I fear to run. I guarantee that not one person in that church hears those names clearly. Then you will see that I have arranged every detail. Then, when the three weeks have expired, we will meet there some fine morning and be married. I have a friend who will come with me as a witness. After that I propose that we go to London, and there I shall introduce you to my father first; then we will go down to Cawdor to my mother. Do you like the plan, Leone?"
"I should like it much better if they could know of it beforehand," she replied, gravely.
His face grew grave as her own.
"That cannot be," he replied. "You see, Leone, I am not of age; I shall not be twenty-one until September: and if my parents knew of it, they have power to forbid the marriage, and we could not be married; but done without their knowledge, they are of course powerless."
"I do not like it," she said, with a shudder; "I would rather all was open and sincere."
"It cannot be. Why, Leone, where is your reason? If even your uncle knew, he would interfere to prevent it. In his slow, stolid, honest mind he would think such a marriage quite wrong, you may be sure; he would talk about caste, and position, and all kinds of nonsense. We must keep our secret to ourselves, my darling, if we wish to be married at all. Surely, Leone, you love me enough to sacrifice your wishes to me on this point?"
The beautiful face was raised to his.
"I love you well enough to die for you, and far too well to bring trouble on you, Lance."
"My darling, there is only one thing that can bring trouble on me, and that would be to lose you; that would kill me. You hear me, Leone, it would not make me grow thin and pale, after the fashion of rejected lovers, but it would kill me. Do not ask me to leave you an hour longer than I need. Ah, my love, yield: do not grieve me with a hundred obstacles—not even with one. Yield, and say that you will agree to my plan."
There was no resisting the pleading of the handsome young face, the loving eyes, the tender words, the passionate kisses; she could not resist them; it was so sweet to be loved so well.
"You must keep our secret from that honest, stolid, good uncle of yours," said Lord Chandos, "or he will think himself bound to call and tell Dr. Hervey. You promise me, then, Leone, my love, to do what I ask, and to be my own beloved wife, when the three weeks are over?"
"Yes, I promise, Lance," she replied.
Her voice was grave and sweet, her beautiful face had on it the light of a beautiful and noble love.
"Then kiss me, as the children say, of your own accord, and let that kiss be our betrothal."
She raised her lips to his for the first time and kissed him.
"That is our betrothal," he said; "now nothing can part us. Leone, I waited for your promise to give you this."
He opened a small jewel-case, and took from it a diamond ring.
"This is what ladies call an engagement-ring," he said; "let me put it on your finger."
She shrank back.
"Lance," she said, "do you remember the words of the song,
"'A ring in pledge he gave her, And vows of love he spoke.'
How strange that by this stream you should offer me a ring!"
"You seem to think there is a fatality in the water, Leone," he said, quietly.
"I have an idea that I cannot express, but it seems to me that story is told in the falling water."
"If the water tells of a golden bright life, all happiness, with the most devoted and loving of husbands, then it may tell you as much as it likes. Let me put the ring on your finger, Leone."
She held out her hand—such a beautiful hand, with a soft, pink palm and tapering fingers. As he went to place the ring on her finger, it fell from his hand into the water below, and Leone uttered a low cry.
"It is not lost," he said; "it has not fallen into the stream, it is here."
Looking down, she saw the flash of the diamonds in the little pool that lay between two stones, Lord Chandos wiped it and dried it.
"You will prize it all the more because it has been dipped in your favorite stream," he said. "Give me your hand again, Leone; we shall have better fortune this time."
He placed the ring securely on her finger, then kissed the white hand.
"How angry you were with me the first time I kissed your hand," he said; "and now I have all your heart. There will be neither broken vows nor a broken ring for us, Leone, no matter what the water sings or says."
"I hope not," says the girl, brightly.
"I shall take possession of my lodgings at Oheton to-morrow," he said. "I shall have to spend some little time there; but you must promise that I shall see you every evening, Leone. Will you find your way to the mill-wheel? When we are married, I shall try to buy the mill, the stream, and the land all round it; it will be a sacred spot to me. In three weeks, Leone, you will be my wife."
"Yes," she replied, "in three weeks."
The wind fell, the ripple of the green leaves ceased, the birds had sung themselves to sleep, only the water ran laughingly on.
"Lance," cried the girl, suddenly, "do you know what the water says—can you hear it?"
"No," he replied, with a laugh; "I have not such a vivid fancy as you. What does it say?"
"Nothing but sorrow, nothing but sorrow," she chanted.
"I cannot hear that; if it says anything at all, it is nothing but love, nothing but love."
And then, as the shades of night were coming on, he saw her safely home.
That same evening Lord Chandos and Sir Frank Euston talked long together.
"Of course," said Sir Frank, "if you put me on my honor, I cannot speak, but I beg of you to stop and think."
Lord Chandos laughed; his handsome face was flushed and eager.
"The man who hesitates is lost," he said. "All the thinking in the world cannot alter matters, nor make me love my darling less."
"There is an old proverb I should like to recommend to you," said Sir Frank Euston; "it is this—a young man married is a young man marred."
"I am quite as willing to be marred as to be married," said the young lord, "and married I will be if all the powers on earth conspire against me."
"I know how useless all arguments are," said his friend, "when a man determines to be foolish; but do think for one moment of the terrible disappointment to your parents."
"I do not see it; they have no right to be disappointed; my father married to please himself, why should I not do the same?"
"You are outraging all the laws of your class," said Sir Frank. "However beautiful a farmer's niece may be, we cannot suppose even a miracle could fit her to take the place of the Countess of Lanswell."
A hot flush came over the young lord's face; a strange quiet came into his voice.
"We will discuss what you like, Frank, but you must not touch the young lady's name, we will leave that out of the question."
"You have asked me to be the witness of your marriage," said Sir Frank, "and that entitles me to speak my mind. I do speak it, frankly, honestly, plainly, as I should thank God for any friend to speak to a brother of my own if he felt inclined to make a simpleton of himself."
"I call myself a sensible man to marry for love, not a simpleton," said Lord Chandos grandly.
"My dear Lance," said his friend, "you make just this one mistake; you are not a man at all, you are a boy."
He stopped suddenly, for the young lord looked at him with a defiant, fierce face.
"You must not say that again, Frank, or we shall be friends no longer."
"I do not want to offend you, Lance; but you are really too young to think of marriage. Your tastes are not formed yet; that which pleases you now you will dislike in six or ten years' time. I assure you that if you marry this farmer's niece now, in ten years' time you will repent it in sackcloth and ashes. She is not fit, either by manner, education, or anything else, to be your mother's daughter, and you know it; you know that when the glamour of her beauty is over you will wonder at your own madness and folly. Be warned in time."
"You may as well reason with a madman as a man in love," said the young lordling, "and I am in love."
"And you are mad," said Sir Frank, quietly; "one day you will know how mad."
Lord Chandos laughed.
"There is method in my madness. Come, Frank, we have been such friends I would do anything you asked me."
"I should never ask you to do anything so foolish, Lance; I wish that I had not given my word of honor to keep your secret; I am quite sure that I ought to send word to the earl and countess at once; I cannot, as I have promised not to do so, but I regret it."
"My dear Frank, nothing in the world would stop me; if anything were done to prevent my marriage now, I would simply await another and more favorable opportunity; my mind is made up. I love the girl with all my heart, and she, no other, shall be my wife. If you refuse to act for me, well and good; I shall find some one else."
"If you would but be reasonable, Lance," said his friend.
"I am not reasonable. When did you ever see reason and love go hand in hand together?"
"They should do so always, and do, when the love is worth having."
"Now, Frank, I have listened patiently; I have heard all that you have had to say; I have weighed every argument, and I remain unconvinced. You have but to say whether you will do this to oblige me or not."
"If I do it, remember, it is under protest, Lance."
"Never mind what it is under, if you only promise."
"I promise, to save you from greater risk, but I do it against my will, my reason, my good sense, my conscience, and everything else."
Lord Chandos laughed aloud.
"You will forget everything of that kind," he said, "when you see Leone."
And the two friends parted, mutually dissatisfied.
"A very impatient young man," said the good old vicar. "No man in his senses would want to be married before ten in the morning. I call it unchristian."
Good old Mr. Barnes had been roused from his early slumbers by the announcement that the young man had come to be married.
Married, while the early morning sun was shining, and the birds singing their morning hymn.
He was almost blind, this good old vicar, who had lived so long at Oheton. He was very deaf, and could hardly hear, but then he did not require very keen sight or hearing at Oheton; there was never more than one marriage in a year, and funerals were very rare; but to be called before nine in the morning to perform the marriage ceremony was something unheard of. He had duly announced the bans, and no one had taken the least notice of them; but to come so early, it was positively cruel.
Others had risen early that morning. Leone had not slept well, for this July morning, which was to bring such mingled joy and sorrow to others, was a day of deepest emotion to her.
Her love-dream was to be realized. She was to marry the ardent young lover who swore that he would not live without her.
She had thought more of her love than of the worldly advantages it would bring her. She had not thought much of those until they stood, on the evening before their wedding-day, once more by the mill-stream. It was bright moonlight, for the smiling summer day was dead. It was their farewell to the beautiful spot they both loved.
"I am so glad," said Lord Chandos, "that we can say good-bye to it by the light of the moon. I wonder, Leone, when we shall see the mill-stream again? I have a fancy that the pretty water has helped me in my wooing."
As they sat there the wind rose and stirred the branches of the alder-trees. In some way the great wavy masses of dark hair became unfastened, and fell like a thick soft veil over Leone's shoulders. Lord Chandos touched it caressingly with his hand.
"What beautiful hair, Leone—how thick and soft; how beautiful those wavy lines are—what makes them?"
"A turn of Dame Nature's fingers," she replied, laughingly.
"I should like to see diamonds shining in these coils of hair," he said. "Leone, one of the first things we must do to-morrow when we reach London, is to buy a very handsome traveling-dress. I have written to-day to my father to ask him to meet us at Dunmore House."
She repeated the words.
"Where is Dunmore House?" she asked.
"I forgot," he said, "that all places so familiar to me are strange to you. One of my father's titles is Baron Dunmore, and his London residence is called Dunmore House. We shall meet him there to-morrow, and then you will be my wife."
For the first time she realized what an immense difference there was in their positions. She glanced at him in sudden fear.
"Lance," she said, "shall I seem very much out of place in your home, and among your friends?"
"My darling, you would grace any home," he replied; "mine has had no fairer mistress in all the generations it has stood."
"I am half frightened," she said, gently.
"You need not be, sweet. Before this time next year all London will know and admire the beautiful Lady Chandos."
"It seems a long leap to take in life," she said, "from being Farmer Noel's niece to bear the name of Lady Chandos."
"You will grace the name, Leone," he replied. "I shall be the proudest man in England—I shall have the most beautiful wife in England. This is our last separation, our last parting; after this, we need never part."
He stooped down and caught some of the running water in his hand.
"A libation," he said, as he poured it back again. "I feel as though I were losing a friend when I leave the mill-stream."
Loving and loved, no thought came to them there of how they should see the mill-stream again.
"Leone, Lady Chandos." More than once that evening she said those words to herself. It was after eight when she came in, and the farmer had long finished his supper; he sat thinking over his pipe.
"You are late, my lady lass," he said; "sit down and talk to me before I go to rest."
Obediently enough, she sat down while he told her the history of his visits to the different markets. She heard, but did not take in the sense of one single word he uttered. She was saying to herself over and over again, that by this time to-morrow she should be Lady Chandos. Her happiness would have been complete if she could have told her uncle. He had been so kind to her. They were opposite as light and darkness, they had not one idea in common, yet he had been good to her and she loved him. She longed to tell him of her coming happiness and grandeur, but she did not dare to break her word.
Robert Noel looked up in wonder. There was his beautiful niece kneeling at his feet, her eyes dim with tears.
"Uncle," she was saying, "look at me, listen to me. I want to thank you. I want you always to remember that on this night I knelt at your feet and thanked you with a grateful heart for all you have ever done for me."
"Why, my lady lass," he replied, "you have always been to me as a child of my own," he replied.
"A tiresome child," she said, half laughing, half crying. "See. I take this dear, brown hand, so hard with work, and I kiss it, uncle, and thank you from my heart."
He could not recover himself, so to speak. He looked at her in blank, wordless amazement.
"In the years to come," she continued, "when you think of me, you must say to yourself, that, no matter what I did, I loved you."
"No matter what you did you loved me," he repeated. "Yes, I shall remember that."
She kissed the toil-worn face, leaving him so entirely bewildered that the only fear was lest he might sit up all night trying to forget it.
Then she went to her room, but not to sleep—her heart beat, every pulse thrilled. This was to be the last night in her old home—the last of her girlish life; to-morrow she would be Lady Chandos—wife of the young lover whom she loved with all her heart and soul.
The birds woke her with their song, it was their wedding-day. She would not see Robert Noel again; he took his breakfast before six and went off to the fields again. She had but to dress herself and go to the station. Oheton was some three miles from the station, but on a summer's morning that was a trifle.
They were all three there at last—Sir Frank looking decidedly vexed and cross, Lord Chandos happy as the day was long, and Leone beautiful as a picture.
"Look," said the young lordling to his friend, "have I no excuse?"
Sir Frank looked long and earnestly at the beautiful southern face.
"Yes," he replied; "so far as beauty and grace can form an excuse, you have one; but, Lance, if I loved that girl a thousand times better than my life, I should not marry her."
"Why?" asked Lord Chandos, with a laugh.
"Because she has a tragedy in her life. She could not be happy. She will neither have a happy life nor a happy death."
"My dear Frank, do not prophesy such evil on our wedding-day."
"I do not mean to prophesy, I say what I think; it is a beautiful face, full of poetry and passion, but it is also full of power and unrest."
"You shall not look at her again if you say such things," cried Lord Chandos.
And then the good vicar, still distressed at being aroused so early, came to the church. Had it been less pitiful and pathetic, it would have been most comical, the number of times the old vicar dropped his book, forgot the names, the appalling mistakes he made, the nervous hesitation of his manner. Sometimes Lord Chandos felt inclined to say hard, hot words; again, he could not repress a smile. But at length, after trembling and hesitating, the vicar gave the final benediction, and pronounced them man and wife.
In the vestry, when the names were signed, some ray of light seemed to dawn on the old vicar.
"Chandos," he said, "that is not a common name about here."
"Is it not?" said the young lord; "it seems common enough to me."
"Chandos," repeated the minister, "where have I heard that name!"
"I have heard it so often that I am tired of it," said the young husband.
And then it was all over.
"Thank God to be out in the sunlight," he cried, as he stood, with his beautiful wife, in the churchyard. "Thank God it is all over, and I can call my love my wife. I thought that service would never end. Frank, have you no good wishes for my wife?"
Sir Frank went to Leone.
"I wish you joy," he said; "I wish you all happiness—but——"
And then he played nervously with the hat he held in his hand.
"But," she said with a bright smile, "you do not think I shall get it?"
Sir Frank made no answer; he did not think she would be happy, but she had chosen her own way; he had said all he could. Perhaps his eyes were clearer than others, for he could read a tragedy in her face. Then Sir Frank left them, having performed his part with a very ill grace.
"Leone, have you said good-bye to your uncle?" asked Lord Chandos.
"I left a little note to be given him when he returns home this evening. How he will miss me."
"And how fortunate I am to have you, my darling; there is no one in the wide world so happy. We will drive over to Rashleigh Station. I do not care who sees me now, no one can part us. Dr. Hervey thinks I went home to London this morning, but I won a wife before starting, did I not, Leone, my beautiful love? You are Lady Chandos now. What are you thinking of, my darling?"
"I was wondering, Lance, if there was anything in our marriage that could possibly invalidate it and make it illegal?"
"No," he replied, "I have been too careful of you, Leone, for that. You are my wife before God and man. Nothing shall take you from me but death."
"But death," she repeated slowly.
And in after years they both remembered the words.
A MYSTERIOUS TELEGRAM.
Cawdor took rank among the most stately homes of England: it had been originally one of the grand Saxon strongholds, one, too, which the Normans had found hard to conquer.
As time wore on the round towers and the keep fell into ruins—picturesque and beautiful ruins, round which the green ivy hung in luxuriant profusion; then the ruins were left standing.
Little by little the new place was built, not by any particular design; wing after wing, story after story, until it became one of the most picturesque and most magnificent homes in England. Cawdor it was called; neither court, hall nor park, simply Cawdor; and there were very few people in England who did not know Cawdor. There was no book of engravings that had not a view of Cawdor for its first and greatest attraction; there was no exhibition of pictures in which one did not see ruins of Cawdor. It had in itself every attribute of beauty, the ivy-mantled ruins, the keep, from which one could see into five different counties, the moat, now overgrown with trees; the old-fashioned draw-bridge which contrasted so beautifully with the grand modern entrance, worthy of a Venetian palace; the winding river, the grand chain of hills, and in the far distance the blue waters of the Channel.
There could not have been a more beautiful or picturesque spot on earth than Cawdor. It had belonged to the Lanswell family for many generations. The Lanswells were a wealthy race—they owned not only all the land surrounding the fair domain of Cawdor, but nearly the whole of the town of Dunmore. The Earl of Lanswell was also Baron of Raleigh, and Raleigh Hall, in Staffordshire, was a very grand estate. In one part of it an immense coal mine had been discovered, which made Lord Lanswell one of the wealthiest men of the day.
Cawdor, Raleigh Hall, and Dunmore House, three of the finest residences in England, together with a rent-roll counted by hundreds of thousands, should have made the earl a happy man. He married a wealthy heiress in accordance with the old proverb that "Like seeks like." His wife, Lucia, Countess of Lanswell, was one of the proudest peeresses in England; she was unimpeachable in every relation of life, and had little pity for those who were not; she had never known sorrow, temptation, doubt, or anything else; she had lived in an atmosphere of perfect content and golden ease; she had the grandest mansion, the finest diamonds, the finest horses in London; she had the most indulgent husband, the handsomest son, and the prettiest daughter; she did not know the word want in any shape, she had not even suffered from the crumpled rose-leaf. The nearest approach to trouble of any kind that she had known was that her son, Lord Chandos, had failed in one of his examinations. He asked that he might go into the country for some months to read, and permission was most cheerfully given to him. With her daughter, Lady Imogene Chandos, the countess had never had and never expected to have any trouble; she was one of the fairest, sweetest, and most gentle of girls; she was docile and obedient; she had never in her life given the least trouble to any one.
Lord Lanswell was walking up and down one of the broad terraces at Cawdor one fine morning in July, when one of the servants brought to him a telegram. He opened it hastily, it was from his son, Lord Chandos:
"DEAREST FATHER,—Will you run up to town, and meet me at Dunmore House this evening? I have something very important to tell you. Not one word to mother yet."
Lord Lanswell stood still to think with the telegram in his hand.
"What can be the matter now?" he said to himself; "that boy will give me trouble. He has done something now that he will not let my lady know."
He had a dull, heavy presentiment that the boy who should have been the pride and delight of his life would be a drawback and a torment.
"I must go," said the earl to himself, "I must make some excuse to satisfy my lady."
It was typical of Lady Lanswell that her husband seldom spoke of her as my wife, the children more seldom still as "my mother;" every one alike called her "my lady." She might have been the only peeress in England, so entirely did every one agree in giving her that title. "My lady" was pleased, meant sunshine at Cawdor; "my lady" was angry, meant gloom. She regulated the moral and mental atmosphere of the house with a smile or a frown.
Lord Lanswell knew that he dare not show the telegram to Lady Lanswell; she would have started off at once for Dunmore House, and there would have been war. He must deceive her. He carefully destroyed the telegram, in some queer fashion which he did not own even to himself he had a kind of sympathy with his son.
He had been wild in his youth and made allowances for the same in others. His worst thought now was that his handsome young heir, with the frank blue eyes and sunny hair, had been gambling or betting.
"A few thousand pounds would set him straight," he thought, "and after all, one must not be too hard on the follies of youth."
No need to tell my lady; she looked on these exploits with a keen, cold eye. He went to the drawing-room, where my lady sat looking regally beautiful in black velvet and point lace.
The countess of Lanswell was considered one of the handsomest women in England. She had married very young, and her beauty was still so well preserved that she took her place with the beauties of the day. Husband and children both felt in awe of the beautiful woman, with her queenly grace and bearing.
"Lucia," said the earl, "I thought of running up to town this afternoon. I shall return to-morrow."
"Indeed," said my lady, slowly. "Why this sudden resolution, Ross?"
"There is some little business that no one can attend to but myself," he said. "I shall not be long absent."
"Business of what nature?" asked my lady, her fine eyes fixed on his face.
"Why, dear, it is surely not needful for me to explain my business to you? I have none of which you would not approve. I want to call on my bankers—I want to sell some shares. I have several little reasons for running up to town."
"You remember, of course, that the Beauvoirs dine here to-day?" said my lady.
"Yes, I have not forgotten, but with your usual tact you can apologize for me, Lucia."
The compliment pleased her.
"Certainly, I can, if your absence is really needful, Ross," said my lady.
"It is needful, I assure you. I can tell you all I have done when I return; just now I must hurry off, or I shall not catch the train."
As the earl quitted Cawdor, he regretted deeply that his son should have complicated the situation by enforcing silence as regarded his mother.
He pondered a great deal on what he should say when he returned—above all, if the boy's trouble was, as he imagined, the loss of money.
"I must not let his mother know," thought the earl. "Boys are boys; she would think he was lost altogether if she knew that he had betting and gambling debts. Whatever he owes, no matter what it is, I will give him a check for it, and make him promise me that it shall be the last time."
He never thought of any other danger; that his son had fallen in love or wanted to marry never occurred to him. He was glad when he reached Dunmore House; the old housekeeper met him in the hall.
"I have dinner ready, my lord," she said. "Lord Chandos told me you were coming."
He looked round expectantly.
"Is not Lord Chandos here?" he asked.
It occurred to him that the housekeeper looked troubled and distressed.
"No," she replied, "he is not staying here—they are staying in the Queen's Hotel, in Piccadilly."
"They," he cried, "whom do you mean by they? Has Lord Chandos friends with him?"
The woman's face grew pale. She shrunk perceptibly from the keen, gray eyes.
"I understood his lordship that he was not alone," she replied. "I may have made a mistake. I understood him also that he should be with you by eight this evening, when you had finished dinner."
"Why could he not dine with me?" he thought. "Sends a telegram for me, and then leaves me to dine alone. It is not like Lance."
But thinking over it would not solve the mystery; the earl went to his room and dressed for dinner. He had ordered a bottle of his favorite Madeira, of which wonderful tales were told.
Then he sat thinking about his son, and his heart softened toward him. He thought of the handsome, curly-headed young boy whose grand spirit no one but my lady could subdue. He laughed aloud as he remembered the struggles between himself and his heir—they had always ended in his defeat; but when my lady came on the scene it was quite another thing, the defeat was on the other side then, and my Lord Chandos was usually carried off defeated and conquered.
He thought of the handsome stripling who used to wander about the grounds at Cawdor, trying to conceal from my lady the fact that he smoked cigars. He did not fear his father and smoked boldly before him, but at the first sound of my lady's rustling silk he flew rather than ran. Lord Lanswell laughed aloud as he thought of it all.
"He is just as frightened at my lady now," he said to himself. "I cannot help feeling touched and flattered that he has sent for me in his trouble. I will help him and my lady shall never know."