Charlotte M. Braeme
"The consequences of folly seldom end with its originator," said Lord Earle to his son. "Rely upon it, Ronald, if you were to take this most foolish and unadvisable step, you would bring misery upon yourself and every one connected with you. Listen to reason."
"There is no reason in prejudice," replied the young man haughtily. "You can not bring forward one valid reason against my marriage."
Despite his annoyance, a smile broke over Lord Earle's grave face.
"I can bring a thousand reasons, if necessary," he replied. "I grant everything you say. Dora Thorne is very pretty; but remember, she is quite a rustic and unformed beauty—and I almost doubt whether she can read or spell properly. She is modest and good, I grant, and I never heard one syllable against her. Ronald, let me appeal to your better judgment—are a moderate amount of rustic prettiness and shy modesty sufficient qualifications for your wife, who will have to take your mother's place?"
"They are quite sufficient to satisfy me," replied the young man.
"You have others to consider," said Lord Earle, quickly.
"I love her," interrupted his son; and again his father smiled.
"We know what it means," he said, "when boys of nineteen talk about love. Believe me, Ronald, if I were to consent to your request, you would be the first in after years to reproach me for weak compliance with your youthful folly."
"You would not call it folly," retorted Ronald, his face flushing hotly, "if Dora were an heiress, or the daughter of some—"
"Spare me a long discourse," again interrupted Lord Earle. "You are quite right; if the young girl in question belonged to your own station, or even if she were near it, that would be quite a different matter. I am not annoyed that you have, as you think, fallen in love, or that you wish to marry, although you are young. I am annoyed that you should dream of wishing to marry a simple rustic, the daughter of my lodge keeper. It is so supremely ridiculous that I can hardly treat the matter seriously."
"It is serious enough for me," returned his son with a long, deep sigh. "If I do not marry Dora Thorne, I shall never marry at all."
"Better that than a mesalliance," said Lord Earle, shortly.
"She is good," cried Ronald—"good and fair, modest and graceful. Her heart is pure as her face is fair. What mesalliance can there be, father? I never have believed and never shall believe in the cruel laws of caste. In what is one man better than or superior to another save that he is more intelligent or more virtuous?"
"I shall never interfere in your politics, Ronald," said Lord Earle, laughing quietly. "Before you are twenty-one you will have gone through many stages of that fever. Youth is almost invariably liberal, age conservative. Adopt what line of politics you will, but do not bring theory into practice in this instance."
"I should consider myself a hero," continued the young man, "if I could be the first to break through the trammels of custom and the absurd laws of caste."
"You would not be the first," said Lord Earle, quietly. "Many before you have made unequal marriages; many will do so after you, but in every case I believe regret and disappointment followed."
"They would not in my case," said Ronald, eagerly; "and with Dora Thorne by my side, I could so anything; without her, I can do nothing."
Lord Earle looked grieved at the pertinacity of his son.
"Most fathers would refuse to hear all this nonsense, Ronald," he said, gently. "I listen, and try to convince you by reasonable arguments that the step you seem bent upon taking is one that will entail nothing but misery. I have said no angry word to you, nor shall I do so. I tell you simply it can not be. Dora Thorne, my lodge keeper's daughter, is no fitting wife for my son, the heir of Earlescourt. Come with me, Ronald; I will show you further what I mean."
They went together, the father and son, so like in face yet so dissimilar in mind. They had been walking up and down the broad terrace, one of the chief beauties of Earlescourt. The park and pleasure grounds, with flushed summer beauty, lay smiling around them. The song of hundreds of birds trilled through the sweet summer air, the water of many fountains rippled musically, rare flowers charmed the eye and sent forth sweet perfume; but neither song of birds nor fragrance of flowers—neither sunshine nor music—brought any brightness to the grave faces of the father and son.
With slow steps they quitted the broad terrace, and entered the hall. They passed through a long suite of magnificent apartments, up the broad marble staircase, through long corridors, until they reached the picture gallery, one of the finest in England. Nearly every great master was represented there. Murillo, Guido, Raphael, Claude Lorraine, Salvator Rosa, Correggio, and Tintoretto. The lords of Earlescourt had all loved pictures, and each of them ad added to the treasures of that wonderful gallery.
One portion of the gallery was set aside for the portraits of the family. Grim old warriors and fair ladies hung side by side; faces of marvelous beauty, bearing the signs of noble descent, shone out clearly from their gilded frames.
"Look, Ronald," Lord Earle said, laying one hand upon his shoulder, "you stand before your ancestors now. Yours is a grand old race. England knows and honors it. Look at these pictured faces of the wives our fathers chose. There is Lady Sybella Earle; when one of Cromwell's soldiers drew his dagger to slay her husband, the truest friend King Charles ever had, she flung herself before him, and received the blow in his stead. She died, and he lived—noble and beautiful, is she not? Now look at the Lacy Alicia—this fair patrician lady smiling by the side of her grim lord; she, at the risk of her life, helped him to fly from prison, where he lay condemned to death for some great political wrong. She saved him, and for her sake he received pardon. Here is the Lady Helena—she is not beautiful, but look at the intellect, the queenly brow, the soul-lit eyes! She, I need not tell you, was a poetess. Wherever the English language was spoken, her verses were read—men were nobler and better for reading them. The ladies of our race were such that brave men may be proud of them. Is it not so, Ronald?"
"Yes," he replied, calmly; "they were noble women."
Lord Earle then led his son to a large painting, upon which the western sunbeams lingered, brightening the fair face they shone upon, until it seemed living and smiling. A deep and tender reverence stole into Lord Earle's voice as he spoke:
"No fairer or more noble woman ever ruled at Earlescourt than your mother, Ronald. She is the daughter of 'a hundred earls,' high-bred, beautiful, and refined. Now, let me ask you, in the name of common sense, do you wish to place my lodge keeper's daughter by your mother's side? Admit that she is pretty and good—is it in the fitting order of things that she should be here?"
For the first time, in the heedless, fiery course of his love, Ronald Earle paused. He looked at the serene and noble face before him, the broad brow, the sweet, arched lips, the refined patrician features, and there came to him the memory of another face, charming, shy and blushing, with a rustic, graceful beauty different from the one before him as sunlight compared to moonlight. The words faltered upon his lips—instinctively he felt that pretty, blushing Dora had no place there. Lord Earle looked relieved as he saw the doubt upon his son's face.
"You see it, Ronald," he cried. "Your idea of the 'fusion' of races is well enough in theory, but it will not do brought into practice. I have been patient with you—I have treated you, not as a school boy whose head is half turned by his first love, but as a sensible man endowed with reason and thought. Now give me a reward. Promise me here that you will make a brave effort, give up all foolish thoughts of Dora Thorne, and not see her again. Go abroad for a year or two—you will soon forget this boyish folly, and bless the good sense that has saved you from it. Will you promise me, Ronald?"
"I can not, father," he replied, "for I have promised Dora to make her my wife. I can not break my word. You yourself could never counsel that."
"In this case I can," said Lord Earle, eagerly. "That promise is not binding, even in honor; the girl herself, if she has any reason, can not and does not expect it."
"She believed me," said Ronald, simply. "Besides, I love her, father."
"Hush," replied Lord Earle, angrily, "I will listen to no more nonsense. There is a limit to my patience. Once and for all, Ronald, I tell you that I decidedly forbid any mention of such a marriage; it is degrading and ridiculous. I forbid you to marry Dora Thorne; if you disobey me, you must bear the penalty."
"And what would the penalty be?" asked the heir of Earlescourt, with a coolness and calmness that irritated the father.
"One you would hardly wish to pay," replied the earl. "If, in spite of my prayers, entreaties, and commands, you persist in marrying the girl, I will never look upon your face again. My home shall be no longer your home. You will lose my love, my esteem, and what perhaps those who have lured you to ruin may value still more, my wealth. I can not disinherit you; but, if you persist in this folly, I will not allow you one farthing. You shall be to me as one dead until I die myself."
"I have three hundred a year," said Ronald, calmly; "that my godfather left me."
Lord Earle's face now grew white with anger.
"Yes," he replied, "you have that; it would not find you in gloves and cigars now. But, Ronald, you can not be serious, my boy. I have loved you—I have been so proud of you—you can not mean to defy and wound me."
His voice faltered, and his son looked up quickly, touched to the heart by his father's emotion.
"Give me your consent, father," he cried, passionately. "You know I love you, and I love Dora; I can not give up Dora."
"Enough," said Lord Earle; "words seem useless. You hear my final resolve; I shall never change it—no after repentance, no entreaties, will move me. Choose between your parents, your home, your position, and the love of this fair, foolish girl, of whom in a few months you will be tired and weary. Choose between us. I ask for no promises; you have refused to give it. I appeal no more to your affection; I leave you to decide for yourself. I might coerce and force you, but I will not do so. Obey me, and I will make your happiness my study. Defy me, and marry the girl then, in life, I will never look upon your face again. Henceforth, I will have no son; you will not be worthy of the name. There is no appeal. I leave you now to make your choice; this is my final resolve."
The Earles, of Earlescourt, were one of the oldest families in England. The "Barony of Earle" is mentioned in the early reigns of the Tudor kings. They never appeared to have taken any great part either in politics or warfare. The annals of the family told of simple, virtuous lives; they contained, too, some few romantic incidents. Some of the older barons had been brave soldiers; and there were stories of hair-breadth escapes and great exploits by flood and field. Two or three had taken to politics, and had suffered through their eagerness and zeal; but, as a rule, the barons of Earle had been simple, kindly gentlemen, contented to live at home upon their own estates, satisfied with the duties they found there, careful in the alliances they contracted, and equally careful in the bringing up and establishment of their children. One and all they had been zealous cultivators of the fine arts. Earlescourt was almost overcrowded with pictures, statues, and works of art.
Son succeeded father, inheriting with title and estate the same kindly, simple dispositions and the same tastes, until Rupert Earle, nineteenth baron, with whom our story opens, became Lord Earle. Simplicity and kindness were not his characteristics. He was proud, ambitious, and inflexible; he longed for the time when the Earles should become famous, when their name should be one of weight in council. In early life his ambitious desires seemed about to be realized. He was but twenty when he succeeded his father, and was an only child, clever, keen and ambitious. In his twenty-first year he married Lady Helena Brooklyn, the daughter of one of the proudest peers in Britain. There lay before him a fair and useful life. His wife was an elegant, accomplished woman, who knew the world and its ways—who had, from her earliest childhood, been accustomed to the highest and best society. Lord Earle often told her, laughingly, that she would have made an excellent embassadress—her manners were so bland and gracious; she had the rare gift of appearing interested in every one and in everything.
With such a wife at the head of his establishment, Lord Earle hoped for great things. He looked to a prosperous career as a statesman; no honors seemed to him too high, no ambition too great. But a hard fate lay before him. He made one brilliant and successful speech in Parliament—a speech never forgotten by those who heard it, for its astonishing eloquence, its keen wit, its bitter satire. Never again did his voice rouse alike friend and foe. He was seized with a sudden and dangerous illness which brought him to the brink of the grave. After a long and desperate struggle with the "grim enemy," he slowly recovered, but all hope of public life was over for him. The doctors said he might live to be a hale old man if he took proper precautions; he must live quietly, avoid all excitement, and never dream again of politics.
To Lord Earle this seemed like a sentence of exile or death. His wife tried her utmost to comfort and console him, but for some years he lived only to repine at his lot. Lady Helena devoted herself to him. Earlescourt became the center and home of famous hospitality; men of letters, artists, and men of note visited there, and in time Lord Earle became reconciled to his fate. All his hopes and his ambitions were now centered in his son, Ronald, a fine, noble boy, like his father in every respect save one. He had the same clear-cut Saxon face, with clear, honest eyes and proud lips, the same fair hair and stately carriage, but in one respect they differed. Lord Earle was firm and inflexible; no one ever thought of appealing against his decision or trying to change his resolution. If "my lord" had spoken, the matter was settled. Even Lady Helena knew that any attempt to influence him was vain. Ronald, on the contrary, could be stubborn, but not firm. He was more easily influenced; appeal to the better part of his nature, to his affection or sense of duty, was seldom made in vain.
No other children gladdened the Lord Earle's heart, and all his hopes were centered in his son. For the second time in his life great hopes and ambitions rose within him. What he had not achieved his son would do; the honor he could no longer seek might one day be his son's. There was something almost pitiful in the love of the stern, disappointed man for his child. He longed for the time when Ronald would be of age to commence his public career. He planned for his son as he had never planned for himself.
Time passed on, and the heir of Earlescourt went to Oxford, as his father had done before him. Then came the second bitter disappointment of Lord Earle's life. He himself was a Tory of the old school. Liberal principles were an abomination to him; he hated and detested everything connected with Liberalism. It was a great shock when Ronald returned from college a "full-fledged Liberal." With his usual keenness he saw that all discussion was useless.
"Let the Liberal fever wear out," said one of his friends; "you will find, Lord Earle, that all young men favor it. Conservatism is the result of age and experience. By the time your son takes a position in the world, he will have passed through many stages of Liberalism."
Lord Earle devoutly believed it. When the first shock of his disappointment was over, Ronald's political zeal began to amuse him. He liked to see the boy earnest in everything. He smiled when Ronald, in his clear, young voice, read out the speeches of the chief of his party. He smiled when the young man, eager to bring theory into practice, fraternized with the tenant farmers, and visited families from whom his father shrunk in aristocratic dread.
There was little doubt that in those days Ronald Earl believed himself called to a great mission. He dreamed of the time when the barriers of caste would be thrown down, when men would have equal rights and privileges, when the aristocracy of intellect and virtue would take precedence of noble birth, when wealth would be more equally distributed, and the days when one man perished of hunger while another reveled in luxury should cease to be. His dreams were neither exactly Liberal nor Radical; they were simply Utopian. Even then, when he was most zealous, had any one proposed to him that he should inaugurate the new state of things, and be the first to divide his fortune, the futility of his theories would have struck him more plainly. Mingling in good society, the influence of clever men and beautiful women would, Lord Earle believed, convert his son in time. He did not oppose him, knowing that all opposition would but increase his zeal. It was a bitter disappointment to him, but he bore it bravely, for he never ceased to hope.
A new trouble was dawning for Lord Earle, one far more serious than the Utopian dream of his son; of all his sorrows it was the keenest and the longest felt. Ronald fell in love, and was bent on marrying a simple rustic beauty, the lodge keeper's daughter.
Earlescourt was one of the fairest spots in fair and tranquil England. It stood in the deep green heart of the land, in the midst of one of the bonny, fertile midland counties.
The Hall was surrounded by a large park, where the deer browsed under the stately spreading trees, where there were flowery dells and knolls that would charm an artist; a wide brook, almost broad and deep enough to be called a river, rippled through it.
Earlescourt was noted for its trees, a grand old cedar stood in the middle of the park; the shivering aspen, the graceful elm, the majestic oak, the tall, flowering chestnut were all seen to greatest perfection there.
Art had done much, Nature more, to beautify the home of the Earles. Charming pleasure gardens were laid out with unrivaled skill; the broad, deep lake was half hidden by the drooping willows bending over it, and the white water lilies that lay on its tranquil breast.
The Hall itself was a picturesque, gray old building, with turrets covered with ivy, and square towers of modern build; there were deep oriel windows, stately old rooms that told of the ancient race, and cheerful modern apartments replete with modern comfort.
One of the great beauties of Earlescourt was the broad terrace that ran along one side of the house; the view from it was unequaled for quiet loveliness. The lake shone in the distance from between the trees; the perfume from the hawthorn hedges filled the air, the fountains rippled merrily in the sunshine, and the flowers bloomed in sweet summer beauty.
Lord Earle loved his beautiful home; he spared no expense in improvements, and the time came when Earlescourt was known as a model estate.
One thing he did of which he repented till the hour of his death. On the western side of the park he built a new lodge, and installed therein Stephen Thorne and his wife, little dreaming as he did so that the first link in what was to be a fatal tragedy was forged.
Ronald was nineteen, and Lord Earle thought, his son's college career ended, he should travel for two or three years. He could not go with him, but he hoped that surveillance would not be needed, that his boy would be wise enough and manly enough to take his first steps in life alone. At college he won the highest honors; great things were prophesied for Ronald Earle. They might have been accomplished but for the unfortunate event that darkened Earlescourt with a cloud of shame and sorrow.
Lord and Lady Earle had gone to pay a visit to an old friend, Sir Hugh Charteris, of Greenoke. Thinking Ronald would not reach home until the third week in June, they accepted Sir Hugh's invitation, and promised to spend the first two weeks in June with him. But Ronald altered his plans; the visit he was making did not prove to be a very pleasant one, and he returned to Earlescourt two days after Lord and Lady Earle had left it. His father wrote immediately, pressing him to join the party at Greenoke. He declined, saying that after the hard study of the few last months he longed for quiet and rest.
Knowing that every attention would be paid to his son's comfort, Lord Earle thought but little of the matter. In after years he bitterly regretted that he had not insisted upon his son's going to Greenoke. So it happened that Ronald Earle, his college career ended, his future lying like a bright, unruffled dream before him, had two weeks to spend alone in Earlescourt.
The first day was pleasant enough. Ronald went to see the horses, inspected the kennels, gladdened the gamekeeper's heart by his keen appreciation of good sport, rowed on the lake, played a solitary game at billiards, dined in great state, read three chapters or "Mill on Liberalism," four of a sensational novel, and fell asleep satisfied with that day, but rather at a loss to know what he should do on the next.
It was a beautiful June day; no cloud was in the smiling heavens, the sun shone bright, and Nature looked so fair and tempting that it was impossible to remain indoors. Out in the gardens the summer air seemed to thrill with the song of the birds. Butterflies spread their bright wings and coquetted with the fragrant blossoms; busy humming bees buried themselves in the white cups of the lily and the crimson heart of the rose.
Ronald wandered through the gardens; the delicate golden laburnum blossoms fell at his feet, and he sat down beneath a large acacia. The sun was warm, and Ronald thought a dish of strawberries would be very acceptable. He debated within himself for some time whether he should return to the house and order them, or walk down to the fruit garden and gather them for himself.
What impulse was it that sent him on that fair June morning, when all Nature sung of love and happiness, to the spot where he met his fate?
The strawberry gardens at Earlescourt were very extensive. Far down among the green beds Ronald Earle saw a young girl kneeling, gathering the ripe fruit, which she placed in a large basket lined with leaves, and he went down to her.
"I should like a few of those strawberries," he said, gently, and she raised to his a face he never forgot. Involuntarily he raised his hat, in homage to her youth and her shy, sweet beauty. "For whom are you gathering these?" he asked, wondering who she was, and whence she came.
In a moment the young girl stood up, and made the prettiest and most graceful of courtesies.
"They are for the housekeeper, sir," she replied; and her voice was musical and clear as a silver bell.
"Then may I ask who you are?" continued Ronald.
"I am Dora Thorne," she replied, "the lodge keeper's daughter."
"How is it I have never seen you before?" he asked.
"Because I have lived always with my aunt, at Dale," she replied. "I only came home last year."
"I see," said Ronald. "Will you give me some of those strawberries?" he asked. "They look so ripe and tempting."
He sat down on one of the garden chairs and watched her. The pretty white fingers looked so fair, contrasted with the crimson fruit and green leaves. Deftly and quickly she contrived a small basket of leaves, and filled it with fruit. She brought it to him, and then for the first time Ronald saw her clearly, and that one glance was fatal to him.
She was no calm, grand beauty. She had a shy, sweet, blushing face, resembling nothing so much as a rosebud, with fresh, ripe lips; pretty little teeth, which gleamed like white jewels, large dark eyes, bright as stars, and veiled by long lashes; dark hair, soft and shining. She was indeed so fair, so modest and graceful, that Ronald Earle was charmed.
"It must be because you gathered them that they are so nice," he said, taking the little basket from her hands. "Rest awhile, Dora—you must be tired with this hot sun shining full upon you. Sit here under the shade of this apple tree."
He watched the crimson blushes that dyed her fair young face. She never once raised her dark eyes to his. He had seen beautiful and stately ladies, but none so coy or bewitching as this pretty maiden. The more he looked at her the more he admired her. She had no delicate patrician loveliness, no refined grace; but for glowing, shy, fresh beauty, who could equal her?
So the young heir of Earlescourt sat, pretending to enjoy the strawberries, but in reality engrossed by the charming figure before him. She neither stirred nor spoke. Under the boughs of the apple tree, with the sunbeams falling upon her, she made a fair picture, and his eyes were riveted upon it.
It was all very delightful, and very wrong. Ronald should not have talked to the lodge keeper's daughter, and sweet, rustic Dora Thorne should have known better. But they were young, and such days come but seldom, and pass all too quickly.
"Dora Thorne," said Ronald, musingly—"what a pretty name! How well it suits you! It is quite a little song in itself."
She smiled with delight at his words; then her shy, dark eyes were raised for a moment, and quickly dropped again.
"Have you read Tennyson's 'Dora?'" he asked.
"No," she replied—"I have little time for reading."
"I will tell you the story," he said, patronizingly. "Ever since I read it I have had an ideal 'Dora,' and you realize my dream."
She had not the least idea what he meant; but when he recited the musical words, her fancy and imagination were stirred; she saw the wheat field, the golden corn, the little child and its anxious mother. When Ronald ceased speaking, he saw her hands were clasped and her lips quivering.
"Did you like that?" he asked, with unconscious patronage.
"So much!" she replied. "Ah, he must be a great man who wrote those words; and you remember them all."
Her simple admiration flattered and charmed him. He recited other verses for her, and the girl listened in a trance of delight. The sunshine and western wind brought no warning to the heir of Earlescourt that he was forging the first link of a dreadful tragedy; he thought only of the shy, blushing beauty and coy grace of the young girl!
Suddenly from over the trees there came the sound of the great bell at the Hall. Then Dora started.
"It is one o'clock!" she cried. "What shall I do? Mrs. Morton will be angry with me."
"Angry!" said Ronald, annoyed at this sudden breakup of his Arcadian dream. "Angry with you! For what?"
"She is waiting for the strawberries," replied conscious Dora, "and my basket is not half full."
It was a new idea to him that any one should dare to be angry with this pretty, gentle Dora.
"I will help you," he said.
In less than a minute the heir of Earlescourt was kneeling by Dora Thorne, gathering quickly the ripe strawberries, and the basket was soon filled.
"There," said Ronald, "you need not fear Mrs. Morton now, Dora. You must go, I suppose; it seems hard to leave this bright sunshine to go indoors!"
"I—I would rather stay," said Dora, frankly; "but I have much to do."
"Shall you be here tomorrow?" he asked.
"Yes," she replied; "it will take me all the week to gather strawberries for the housekeeper."
"Goodbye, Dora," he said, "I shall see you again."
He held out his hand, and her little fingers trembled and fluttered in his grasp. She looked so happy, yet so frightened, so charming, yet so shy. He could have clasped her in his arms at that moment, and have said he loved her; but Ronald was a gentleman. He bowed over the little hand, and then relinquished it. He watched the pretty, fairy figure, as the young girl tripped away.
"Shame on all artificial training!" said Ronald to himself. "What would our fine ladies give for such a face? Imagine beauty without coquetry or affectation. The girl's heart is as pure as a stainless lily; she never heard of 'a grand match' or a 'good parli.' If Tennyson's Dora was like her, I do not wonder at anything that happened."
Instead of thinking to himself that he had done a foolish thing that bright morning, and that his plain duty was to forget all about the girl, Ronald lighted his cigar, and began to dream of the face that had charmed him.
Dora took the fruit to Mrs. Morton, and received no reprimand; then she was sent home to the cottage, her work for the day ended. She had to pass through the park. Was it the same road she had trodden this morning? What caused the new and shining glory that had fallen on every leaf and tree? The blue heavens seemed to smile upon her; every flower, every song of the bright birds had a new meaning. What was it? Her own heart was beating as it had never beaten before; her face was flushed, and the sweet, limpid eyes shone with a new light. What was it? Then she came to the brook-side and sat down on the violet bank.
The rippling water was singing a new song, something of love and youth, of beauty and happiness—something of a new and fairy-like life; and with the faint ripple and fall of the water came back to her the voice that had filled her ears and touched her heart. Would she ever again forget the handsome face that had smiled so kindly upon her? Surely he was a king among men, and he had praised her, said her name was like a song, and that she was like the Dora of the beautiful poem. This grand gentleman, with the clear, handsome face and dainty white hands, actually admired her.
So Dora dreamed by the brook-side, and she was to see him again and again; she gave no thought to a cold, dark time when she should see him no more. Tomorrow the sun would shine, the birds sing, and she should see him once again.
Dora never remembered how that happy day passed. Good Mrs. Thorne looked at her child, and sighed to think how pretty she was and how soon that sweet, dimpled face would be worn with care.
Dora's first proceeding was characteristic enough. She went to her own room and locked the door; then she put the cracked little mirror in the sunshine, and proceeded to examine her face. She wanted to see why Ronald Earle admired her; she wondered much at this new power she seemed possessed of; she placed the glass on the table, and sat down to study her own face. She saw that it was very fair; the coloring was delicate and vivid, like that of the heart of a rose; the fresh, red lips were arched and smiling; the dark, shy eyes, with their long silken lashes, were bright and clear; a pretty, dimpled, smiling face told of a sweet, simple, loving nature—that was all; there was no intellect, no soul, no high-bred refinement; nothing but the charm of bright, half-startled beauty.
Dora was half puzzled. She had never thought much of her own appearance. Having lived always with sensible, simple people, the pernicious language of flattery was unknown to her. It was with a half-guilty thrill of delight that she for the first time realized the charm of her own sweet face.
The sunny hours flew by. Dora never noted them; she thought only of the morning past and the morning to come, while Ronald dreamed of her almost unconsciously. She had been a bright feature in a bright day; his artistic taste had been gratified, his eyes had been charmed. The pretty picture haunted him, and he remembered with pleasure that on the morrow he should see the shy, sweet face again. No thought of harm or wrong even entered his mind. He did not think that he had been imprudent. He had recited a beautiful poem to a pretty, coy girl, and in a grand, lordly way he believed himself to have performed a kind action.
The morning came, and they brought bright, blushing Dora to her work; again the little white fingers glistened amid the crimson berries. Then Dora heard him coming. She heard his footsteps, and her face grew "ruby red." He made no pretense of finding her accidentally.
"Good morning, Dora," he said; "you look as bright as the sunshine and as fair as the flowers. Put away the basket; I have brought a book of poems, and mean to read some to you. I will help you with your work afterward."
Dora, nothing loath, sat down, and straightway they were both in fairyland. He read industriously, stealing every now and then a glance at his pretty companion. She knew nothing of what he was reading, but his voice made sweeter music than she had ever heard before.
At length the book was closed, and Ronald wondered what thoughts were running through his companion's simple, artless mind. So he talked to her of her daily life, her work, her pleasures, her friends. As he talked he grew more and more charmed; she had no great amount of intellect, no wit or keen powers of repartee, but the girl's love of nature made her a poetess. She seemed to know all the secrets of the trees and the flowers; no beauty escaped her; the rustle of green leaves, the sighs of the western wind, the solemn hush of the deep-green woods, the changing tints of the summer sky delighted her. Beautiful words, embodying beautiful thoughts, rippled over the fresh, ripe lips. She knew nothing else. She had seen no pictures, read no books, knew nothing of the fine arts, was totally ignorant of all scholarly lore, but deep in her heart lay a passionate love for the fair face of nature.
It was new to Ronald. He had heard fashionable ladies speak of everything they delighted in. He had ever heard of "music in the fall of rain drops," or character in flowers.
Once Dora forgot her shyness, and when Ronald said something, she laughed in reply. How sweet and pure that laughter was—like a soft peal of silver bells! When Ronald Earle went to sleep that night, the sound haunted his dreams.
Every morning brought the young heir of Earlescourt to the bright sunny gardens where Dora worked among the strawberries. As the days passed she began to lose something of her shy, startled manner, and laughed and talked to him as she would have done to her own brother. His vanity was gratified by the sweetest homage of all, the unconscious, unspoken love and admiration of the young girl. He liked to watch the blushes on her face, and the quivering of her lips when she caught the first sound of his coming footsteps. He liked to watch her dark eyes droop, and then to see them raised to his with a beautiful, startled light.
Insensibly his own heart became interested. At first he had merely thought of passing a pleasant hour; then he admired Dora, and tried to believe that reading to her was an act of pure benevolence; but, as the days passed on, something stronger and sweeter attracted him. He began to love her—and she was his first love.
Wonderful to say, these long tete-a-tetes had not attracted observation. No rumor of them escaped, so that no thorn appeared in this path of roses which led to the brink of a precipice.
It wanted three days until the time settled for the return of Lord and Lady Earle. Sir Harry Laurence, of Holtham Hall, asked Ronald to spend a day with him; and, having no valid excuse, he consented.
"I shall not see you tomorrow, Dora," he said. "I am going away for the day."
She looked at him with a startled face. One whole day without him! Then, with a sudden deadly pain, came the thought that these golden days must end; the time must come when she should see him no more. The pretty, dimpled face grew pale, and a dark shadow came into the clear eyes.
"Dora," cried Ronald, "why do you look so frightened? What is it?"
She gave him no answer, but turned away. He caught her hands in his own.
"Are you grieved that I am going away for one whole day?" he asked. But she looked so piteous and so startled that he waited for no reply. "I shall continue to see you," he resumed. "I could not let any day pass without that."
"And afterward," she said, simply, raising her eyes to his full of tears.
Then Ronald paused abruptly—he had never given one thought to the "afterward." Why, of course strawberries would not grow forever—it would not always be summer. Lord Earle would soon be back again, and then he must go abroad. Where would Dora be then? He did not like the thought—it perplexed him. Short as was the time he had known her, Dora had, in some mysterious way, grown to be a part of himself. He could not think of a day wherein he should not see her blushing, pretty face, and hear the music of her words. He was startled, and clasped her little hands more tightly within his own.
"You would not like to lose me, Dora?" he said, gently.
"No," she replied; and then tears fell from her dark eyes.
Poor Ronald! Had he been wise, he would have flown then; but he bent his head over her, and kissed the tears away. The pretty rounded cheek, so soft and child-like, he kissed again, and then clasped the slight girlish figure in his arms.
"Do not shed another tear, Dora," he whispered; "we will not lose each other. I love you, and you shall be my wife."
One minute before he spoke the idea had not even crossed his mind; it seemed to him afterward that another voice had spoken by his lips.
"Your wife!" she cried, looking at him in some alarm. "Ah, no! You are very kind and good, but that could never be."
"Why not?" he asked.
"Because you are so far above me," replied the girl. "I and mine are servants and dependents of yours. We are not equal; I must learn to forget you," sobbed Dora, "and break my own heart!"
She could not have touched Ronald more deeply; in a moment he had poured forth a torrent of words that amazed her. Fraternity and equality, caste and folly, his mission and belief, his love and devotion, were all mingled in one torrent of eloquence that simply alarmed her.
"Never say that again, Dora," he continued, his fair, boyish face flushing. "You are the equal of a queen upon her throne; you are fair and true, sweet and good. What be a queen more than that?"
"A queen knows more," sighed Dora. "I know nothing in all the wide world."
"Then I will teach you," he said. "Ah, Dora, you know enough! You have beautiful thoughts, and you clothe them in beautiful words. Do not turn from me; say you love me and will be my wife. I love you, Dora—do not make me unhappy."
"I would not make you unhappy," she said, "for the whole world; if you wish me to love you—oh, you know I love you—if you wish me to go away and forget you, I will do my best."
But the very thought of it brought tears again. She looked so pretty, so bewildered between sorrow and joy, so dazzled by happiness, and yet so piteously uncertain, that Ronald was more charmed than ever.
"My darling Dora," he said, "you do love me. Your eyes speak, if your lips do not tell me. Will you be my wife? I can not live without you."
It was the prettiest picture in the world to see the color return to the sweet face. Ronald bent his head, and heard the sweet whisper.
"You shall never rue your trust, Dora," he said, proudly; but she interrupted him.
"What will Lord Earle say?" she asked; and again Ronald was startled by that question.
"My father can say nothing," he replied. "I am old enough to please myself, and this is a free country. I shall introduce you to him, Dora, and tell him you have promised to be my wife. No more tears, love. There is nothing but happiness before us."
And so he believed. He could think of nothing, care for nothing but Dora—her pretty face, her artless, simple ways, her undisguised love for him. There was but one excuse. He was young, and it was his first love; yet despite his happiness, his pride, his independence, he did often wonder in what words he should tell his father that he had promised to marry the lodge keeper's daughter. There were even times when he shivered, as one seized with sudden cold, at the thought.
The four days passed like a long, bright dream. It was a pretty romance, but sadly misplaced—a pretty summer idyll. They were but boy and girl. Dora met Ronald in the park, by the brook-side, and in the green meadows where the white hawthorn grew. They talked of but one thing, their love. Ronald never tired of watching Dora's fair face and pretty ways; she never wearied of telling him over and over again, in a hundred different ways, how noble and kind he was, and how dearly she loved him.
Lord Earle wrote to say that he should be home on the Thursday evening, and that they were bringing back a party of guests with them.
"There will be no time to tell my father just at present," said Ronald; "so, Dora, we must keep our secret. It will not do to tell your father before I tell mine."
They arranged to keep the secret until Lord Earle should be alone again. They were to meet twice every day—in the early morning, while the dew lay on the grass, and in the evening, when the Hall would be full of bustle and gayety.
Ronald felt guilty—he hardly knew how or why—when his father commiserated him for the two lonely weeks he had spent. Lonely! He had not felt them so; they had passed all too quickly for him. How many destinies were settled in that short time!
There was little time for telling his secret to Lord Earle. The few guests who had returned to Earlescourt were men of note, and their host devoted himself to their entertainment.
Lady Earle saw some great change in her son. She fancied that he spent a great deal of time out of doors. She asked him about it, wondering if he had taken to studying botany, for late and early he never tired of rambling in the park. She wondered again at the flush that crimsoned his face; but the time was coming when she would understand it all.
It is probable that if Ronald at that time had had as much of Dora's society as he liked, he would soon have discovered his mistake, and no great harm would have been done; but the foolish romance of foolish meetings had a charm for him. In those hurried interviews he had only time to think of Dora's love—he never noted her deficiencies; he was charmed with her tenderness and grace; her artless affection was so pretty; the difference between her and those with whom he was accustomed to talk was so great; her very ignorance had a piquant charm for him. So they went on to their fate.
One by one Lord Earle's guests departed, yet Ronald had not told his secret. A new element crept into his love, and urged him on. Walking one day through the park with his father they overtook Dora's father. A young man was with him and the two were talking earnestly together, so earnestly that they never heard the two gentlemen; and in passing by Ronald distinguished the words, "You give me your daughter, Mr. Thorne, and trust me to make her happy."
Ronald Earle turned quickly to look at the speaker. He saw before him a young man, evidently a well-to-do farmer from his appearance, with a calm, kind face and clear and honest eyes; and he was asking for Dora—Dora who was to be his wife and live at Earlescourt. He could hardly control his impatience; and it seemed to him that evening would never come.
Dinner was over at last. Lord Earle sat with Sir Harry Laurence over a bottle of claret, and Lady Earle was in the drawing room and had taken up her book. Ronald hastened to the favorite trysting place, the brook-side. Dora was there already, and he saw that her face was still wet with tears. She refused at first to tell him her sorrow. Then she whispered a pitiful little story, that made her lover resolve upon some rash deeds.
Ralph Holt had been speaking to her father, and had asked her to marry him. She had said "No;" but her mother had wept, and her father had grown angry, and had said she should obey him.
"He has a large farm," said Dora, with a bitter sigh. "He says I should live like a great lady, and have nothing to do. He would be kind to my father and mother; but I do not love him," she added.
Clasping her tender little hands round Ronald's arm, "I do not love him," she sobbed; "and, Ronald, I do love you."
He bent down and kissed her pretty, tear-bedewed face, all the chivalry of his nature aroused by her words.
"You shall be my wife, Dora," he said, proudly, "and not his. This very evening I will tell my father, and ask his consent to our marriage. My mother is sure to love you—she is so kind and gracious to every one. Do not tremble, my darling; neither Ralph Holt nor any one else shall take you from me."
She was soon comforted! There was no bound or limit to her faith in Ronald Earle.
"Go home now," he said, "and tomorrow my father himself shall see you. I will teach that young farmer his place. No more tears, Dora—our troubles will end tonight."
He went with her down the broad walk, and then returned to the Hall. He walked very proudly, with his gallant head erect, saying to himself that this was a free country and he could do what he liked; but for all that his heart beat loudly when he entered the drawing room and found Lord and Lady Earle. They looked up smilingly at him, all unconscious that their beloved son, the heir of Earlescourt, was there to ask permission to marry the lodge keeper's daughter.
Ronald Earle had plenty of courage—no young hero ever led a forlorn hope with more bravery that he displayed in the interview with his parents, which might have daunted a bolder man. As he approached, Lady Earle raised her eyes with a languid smile.
"Out again, Ronald!" she said. "Sir Harry Laurence left his adieus for you. I think the park possesses some peculiar fascination. Have you been walking quickly? Your face is flushed."
He made no reply, but drew near to his mother; he bent over her and raised her hand to his lips.
"I am come to tell you something," he said. "Father, will you listen to me? I ask your permission to marry Dora Thorne, one of the fairest, sweetest girls in England."
His voice never faltered, and the brave young face never quailed. Lord Earle looked at him in utter amazement.
"To marry Dora Thorne!" he said. "And who, in the name of reason, is Dora Thorne?"
"The lodge keeper's daughter," replied Ronald, stoutly. "I love her, father, and she loves me."
He was somewhat disconcerted when Lord Earle, for all reply, broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. He had expected a storm—expostulations, perhaps, and reproaches—anything but this.
"You can not be serious, Ronald," said his mother, smiling.
"I am so much in earnest," he replied, "that I would give up all I have in the world—my life itself, for Dora."
Then Lord Earle ceased laughing, and looked earnestly at the handsome, flushed face.
"No," said he, "you can not be serious. You dare not ask your mother to receive a servant's daughter as her own child. Your jest is in bad taste, Ronald."
"It is no jest," he replied. "We Earles are always terribly in earnest. I have promised to marry Dora Thorne, and, with your permission, I intend to keep my word."
An angry flush rose to Lord Earle's face, but he controlled his impatience.
"In any case," he replied, quietly, "you are too young to think of marriage yet. If you had chosen the daughter of a duke, I should, for the present, refuse."
"I shall be twenty in a few months," said Ronald, "and I am willing to wait until then."
Lady Earle laid her white jeweled hand on her son's shoulder, and said, gently:
"My dear Ronald, have you lost your senses? Tell me, who is Dora Thorne?" She saw tears shining in his eyes; his brave young face touched her heart. "Tell me," she continued, "who is she? Where have you seen her? What is she like?"
"She is so beautiful, mother," he said, "that I am sure you would love her; she is as fair and sweet as she is modest and true. I met her in the gardens some weeks ago, and I have met her every day since."
Lord and Lady Earle exchanged a glance of dismay which did not escape Ronald.
"Why have you not told us of this before?" asked his father, angrily.
"I asked her to be my wife while you were from home," replied Ronald. "She promised and I have only been waiting until our guests left us and you had more time."
"Is it to see Dora Thorne that you have been out so constantly?" asked Lady Earle.
"Yes, I could not let a day pass without seeing her," he replied; "it would be like a day without sunshine."
"Does any one else know of this folly?" asked Lord Earle, angrily.
"No, you may be quite sure, father, I should tell you before I told any one else," replied Ronald.
They looked at him in silent dismay, vexed and amazed at what he had done—irritated at his utter folly, yet forced to admire his honor, his courage, his truth. Both felt that some sons would have carefully concealed such a love affair from them. They were proud of his candor and integrity, although deploring his folly.
"Tell us all about it, Ronald," said Lady Earle.
Without the least hesitation, Ronald told them every word; and despite their vexation, neither could help smiling—it was such a pretty story—a romance, all sunshine, smiles, tears, and flowers. Lord Earle's face cleared as he listened, and he laid one hand on his boy's shoulder.
"Ronald," said he, "we shall disagree about your love; but remember, I do full justice to your truth. After all, the fault is my own. I might have known that a young fellow of your age, left all alone, was sure to get into mischief; you have done so. Say no more now; I clearly and distinctly refuse my consent. I appeal to your honor that you meet this young girl no more. We will talk of it another time."
When the door closed behind him, Lord and Lady Earle looked at each other. The lady's face was pale and agitated.
"Oh, Rupert," she said, "how brave and noble he is! Poor foolish boy! How proud he looked of his absurd mistake. We shall have trouble with him, I foresee!"
"I do not think so," replied her husband. "Valentine Charteris will be here soon, and when Ronald sees her he will forget this rustic beauty."
"It will be better not to thwart him," interrupted Lady Earle. "Let me manage the matter, Rupert. I will go down to the lodge tomorrow, and persuade them to send the girl away; and then we will take Ronald abroad, and he will forget all about it in a few months."
All night long the gentle lady of Earlescourt was troubled by strange dreams—by vague, dark fears that haunted her and would not be laid to rest.
"Evil will come of it," she said to herself—"evil and sorrow. This distant shadow saddens me now."
The next day she went to the lodge, and asked for Dora. She half pardoned her son's folly when she saw the pretty dimpled face, the rings of dark hair, lying on the white neck. The girl was indeed charming and modest, but unfitted—oh, how unfitted! ever to be Lady Earle. She was graceful as a wild flower is graceful; but she had no manner, no dignity, no cultivation. She stood blushing, confused, and speechless, before the "great lady."
"You know what I want you for, Dora," said Lady Earle, kindly. "My son has told us of the acquaintance between you. I am come to say it must cease. I do not wish to hurt or wound you. Your own sense must tell you that you can never be received by Lord Earle and myself as our daughter. We will not speak of your inferiority in birth and position. You are not my son's equal in refinement or education; he would soon discover that, and tire of you."
Dora spoke no word, the tears falling from her bright eyes; this time there was no young lover to kiss them away. She made no reply and when Lady Earle sent for her father, Dora ran away; she would hear no more.
"I know nothing of it, my lady," said the worthy lodge keeper, who was even more surprised than his master had been. "Young Ralph Holt wants to marry my daughter, and I have said that she shall be his wife. I never dreamed that she knew the young master; she has not mentioned his name."
Lady Earle's diplomacy succeeded beyond her most sanguine expectations. Stephen Thorne and his wife, although rather dazzled by the fact that their daughter had captivated the future Lord Earlescourt, let common sense and reason prevail, and saw the disparity and misery such a marriage would cause. They promised to be gentle and kind to Dora, not to scold or reproach her, and to allow some little time to elapse before urging Ralph Holt's claims.
When Lady Earle rose, she placed a twenty-pound banknote in the hands of Stephen Thorne, saying:
"You are sending Dora to Eastham; that will cover the expenses."
"I could not do that, my lady," said Stephen, refusing to take the money. "I can not sell poor Dora's love."
Then Lady Earle held out her delicate white hand, and the man bowed low over it. Before the sun set that evening, Stephen Thorne had taken Dora to Eastham, where she was to remain until Ronald had gone abroad.
For a few days it seemed as though the storm had blown over. There was one angry interview between father and son, when Ronald declared that sending Dora away was a breach of faith, and that he would find her out and marry her how and when he could. Lord Earle thought his words were but the wild folly of a boy deprived of a much-desired toy. He did not give them serious heed.
The story of Earlescourt might have been different, had not Ronald, while still amazed and irritated by his father's cool contempt, encountered Ralph Holt. They met at the gate leading from the fields to the high road; it was closed between them, and neither could make way.
"I have a little account to settle with you, my young lordling," said Ralph, angrily. "Doves never mate with eagles; if you want to marry, choose one of your own class, and leave Dora Thorne to me."
"Dora Thorne is mine," said Ronald, haughtily.
"She will never be," was the quick reply. "See, young master, I have loved Dora since she was a—a pretty, bright-eyed child. Her father lived near my father's farm then. I have cared for her all my life—I do not know that I have ever looked twice at another woman's face. Do not step in between me and my love. The world is wide, and you can choose where you will—do not rob me of Dora Thorne."
There was a mournful dignity in the man's face that touched Ronald.
"I am sorry for you," he said, "if you love Dora; for she will be my wife."
"Never!" cried Ralph. "Since you will not listen to fair words, I defy you. I will go to Eastham and never leave Dora again until she will be my own."
High, angry words passed between them, but Ralph in his passion had told the secret Ronald had longed to know—Dora was at Eastham.
It was a sad story and yet no rare one. Love and jealousy robbed the boy of his better sense; duty and honor were forgotten. Under pretense of visiting one of his college friends, Ronald went to Eastham. Lord and Lady Earle saw him depart without any apprehension; they never suspected that he knew where Dora was.
It was a sad story, and bitter sorrow came from it. Word by word it can not be written, but when the heir of Earlescourt saw Dora again, her artless delight, her pretty joy and sorrow mingled, her fear and dislike of Ralph, her love for himself drove all thought of duty and honor from his mind. He prayed her to become his wife secretly. He had said that when once they were married his father would forgive them, and all would be well. He believed what he said; Dora had no will but his. She forgot all Lady Earle's warnings; she remembered only Ronald and his love. So they were married in the quiet parish church of Helsmeer, twenty miles from Eastham, and no human being either knew or guessed their secret.
There was no excuse, no palliation for an act that was undutiful, dishonorable, and deceitful—there was nothing to plead for him, save that he was young, and had never known a wish refused.
They were married. Dora Thorne became Dora Earle. Ronald parted from his pretty wife immediately. He arranged all his plans with what he considered consummate wisdom. He was to return home, and try by every argument in his power to soften his father and win his consent. If he still refused, then time would show him the best course. Come what might, Dora was his; nothing on earth could part them. He cared for very little else. Even if the very worst came, and his father sent him from home, it would only be for a time, and there was Dora to comfort him.
He returned to Earlescourt, and though his eyes were never raised in clear, true honesty to his father's face, Lord Earle saw that his son looked happy, and believed the cloud had passed away.
Dora was to remain at Eastham until she heard from him. He could not write to her, nor could she send one line to him; but he promised and believed that very soon he should take her in all honor to Earlescourt.
It was a beautiful morning toward the end of August; the balmy sweetness of spring had given way to the glowing radiance of summer. The golden corn waved in the fields, the hedge rows were filled with wild flowers, the fruit hung ripe in the orchards. Nature wore her brightest smile. The breakfast room at Earlescourt was a pretty apartment; it opened on a flower garden, and through the long French windows came the sweet perfume of rose blossoms.
It was a pretty scene—the sunbeams fell upon the rich silver, the delicate china, the vases of sweet flowers. Lord Earle sat at the head of the table, busily engaged with his letters. Lady Earle, in the daintiest of morning toilets, was smiling over the pretty pink notes full of fashionable gossip. Her delicate, patrician face looked clear and pure in the fresh morning light. But there was no smile on Ronald's face. He was wondering, for the hundredth time, how he was to tell his father what he had done. He longed to be with his pretty Dora; and yet there was a severe storm to encounter before he could bring her home.
"Ah," said Lady Earle, suddenly, "here is good news—Lady Charteris is positively coming, Rupert. Sir Hugh will join her in a few days. She will be here with Valentine tomorrow."
"I am very glad," said Lord Earle, looking up with pleasure and surprise. "We must ask Lady Laurence to meet them."
Ronald sighed; his parents busily discussed the hospitalities and pleasures to be offered their guests. A grand dinner party was planned, and a ball, to which half the country side were to be invited.
"Valentine loves gayety," said Lady Earle, "and we must give her plenty of it."
"I shall have all this to go through," sighed Ronald—"grand parties, dinners, and balls, while my heart longs to be with my darling; and in the midst of it all, how shall I find time to talk to my father? I will begin this very day."
When dinner was over, Ronald proposed to Lord Earle that they should go out on the terrace and smoke a cigar there. Then took place the conversation with which our story opens, when the master of Earlescourt declared his final resolve.
Ronald was more disturbed than he cared to own even to himself. Once the words hovered upon his lips that he had married Dora. Had Lord Earl been angry or contemptuous, he would have uttered them; but in the presence of his father's calm, dignified wisdom, he was abashed and uncertain. For the first time he felt the truth of all his father said. Not that he loved Dora less, or repented of the rash private marriage, but Lord Earle's appeal to his sense of the "fitness of things" touched him.
There was little time for reflection. Lady Charteris and her daughter were coming on the morrow. Again Lady Earle entered the field as a diplomatist, and came off victorious.
"Ronald," said his mother, as they parted that evening, "I know that, as a rule, young men of your age do not care for the society of elderly ladies; I must ask you to make an exception in favor of Lady Charteris. They showed me great kindness at Greenoke, and you must help me to return it. I shall consider every attention shown to the lady and her daughter as shown to myself."
Ronald smiled at his mother's words, and told her he would never fail in her service.
"If he sees much of Valentine," thought his mother, "he can not help loving her. Then all will be well."
Ronald was not in the house when the guests arrived; they came rather before the appointed time. His mother and Lady Charteris had gone to the library together, leaving Valentine in the drawing room alone. Ronald found her there. Opening the door, he saw the sleeve of a white dress; believing Lady Earle was there, he went carelessly into the room, then started in astonishment at the vision before him. Once in a century, perhaps, one sees a woman like Valentine Charteris; of the purest and loveliest Greek type, a calm, grand, magnificent blonde, with clear, straight brows, fair hair that shone like satin and lay in thick folds around her queenly head—tall and stately, with a finished ease and grace of manner that could only result from long and careful training. She rose when Ronald entered the room, and her beautiful eyes were lifted calmly to his face. Suddenly a rush of color dyed the white brow. Valentine remembered what Lady Earle had said of her son. She knew that both his mother and hers wished that she should be Ronald's wife.
"I beg your pardon," he said hastily, "I thought Lady Earle was here."
"She is in the library," said Valentine, with a smile that dazzled him.
He bowed and withdrew. This, then, was Valentine Charteris, the fine lady whose coming he had dreaded. She was very beautiful—he had never seen a face like hers.
No thought of love, or of comparing this magnificent woman with simple, pretty Dora, ever entered his mind. But Ronald was a true artist, and one of no mean skill. He thought of that pure Grecian face as he would have thought of a beautiful picture or an exquisite statue. He never thought of the loving, sensitive woman's heart hidden under it.
It was not difficult when dinner was over to open the grand piano for Valentine, to fetch her music, and listen while she talked of operas he had never heard. It was pleasant to watch her as she sat in the evening gloaming, her superb beauty enhanced by the delicate evening dress of fine white lace; the shapely shoulders were polished and white, the exquisite arms rounded and clasped by a bracelet of pearls. She wore a rose in the bodice of her dress, and, as Ronald bent over the music she was showing him the sweet, subtle perfume came to him like a message from Dora.
Valentine Charteris had one charm even greater than her beauty. She talked well and gracefully—the play of her features, the movement of her lips, were something not to be forgotten; and her smile seemed to break like a sunbeam over her whole face—it was irresistible.
Poor Ronald stood by her, watching the expression that seemed to change with every word; listening to pretty polished language that was in itself a charm. The two mothers, looking on, and Lord Earle felt himself relieved from a heavy weight of care. Then Lady Earle asked Valentine to sing. She was quite free from all affectation.
"What kind of music do you prefer?" she asked, looking at Ronald.
"Simple old ballads," he replied, thinking of Dora, and how prettily she would sing them.
He started when the first note of Valentine's magnificent voice rang clear and sweet in the quiet gloaming. She sang some quaint old story of a knight who loved a maiden—loved and rode away, returning after long years to find a green grave. Ronald sat thinking of Dora. Ah, perhaps, had he forsaken her, the pretty dimpled face would have faded away! He felt pleased that he had been true. Then the music ceased.
"Is that what you like?" asked Valentine Charteris, "it is of the stronger sentimental school."
Simple, honest Ronald wondered if sentiment was a sin against etiquette, or why fashionable ladies generally spoke of it with a sneer.
"Do you laugh at sentiment?" he asked; and Valentine opened her fine eyes in wonder at the question. Lady Earle half overheard it, and smiled in great satisfaction. Matters must be going on well, she thought, if Ronald had already begun to speak of sentiment. She never thought that his heart and mind were with Dora while he spoke—pretty Dora, who cried over his poetry, and devoutly believed in the language of flowers.
The evening passed rapidly, and Ronald felt something like regret when it ended. Lady Earle was too wise to make any comments; she never asked her son if he liked Valentine or what he thought of her.
"I am afraid you are tired," she said, with a charming smile; "thank you for helping to amuse my friends."
When Ronald thought over what he had done, his share seemed very small; still his mother was pleased, and he went to rest resolved that on the morrow he would be doubly attentive to Miss Charteris.
Three days passed, and Ronald had grown quite at ease with Valentine. They read and disputed over the same books; Ronald brought out his large folio of drawings, and Valentine wondered at his skill. He bent over her, explaining the sketches, laughing and talking gayly, as though there was no dark background to his life.
"You are an accomplished artist," said Miss Charteris, "you must have given much time to study."
"I am fond of it," said Ronald; "if fate had not made me an only son, I should have chosen painting as my profession."
In after years these words came back to them as a sad prophecy.
Ronald liked Miss Charteris. Apart from her grand beauty, she had the charm, too, of a kindly heart and an affectionate nature. He saw how much Lady Earle loved her, and resolved to tell Valentine all about Dora, and ask her to try to influence his mother. With that aim and end in view, he talked continually to the young lady; he accompanied her in all her walks and drives, and they sang and sketched together. Ronald, knowing himself so safely bound to Dora, forgot in what light his conduct must appear to others. Lady Earle had forgotten her fears; she believed that her son was learning to love Valentine, and her husband shared her belief.
All things just then were couleur de rose at Earlescourt. Ronald looked and felt happy—he had great faith in Valentine's persuasive powers.
Days passed by rapidly; the time for the grand ball was drawing near. Lady Earle half wondered when her son would speak of Miss Charteris, and Valentine wondered why he lingered near her, why oftentimes he was on the point of speaking, and then drew back. She quite believed he cared for her, and she liked him in return, as much as she was capable of liking any one.
She was no tragedy queen, but a loving, affectionate girl, unable to reach the height of passionate love, or the depth of despair. She was well disposed toward Ronald—Lady Earle spoke so much of him at Greenoke. She knew too that a marriage with him would delight her mother.
Valentine's favorable impression of Ronald was deepened when she saw him. Despite the one great act of duplicity which shadowed his whole life, Ronald was true and honorable. Valentine admired his clear Saxon face and firm lips; she admired his deep bright eyes, that darkened with every passing emotion; she liked his gentle, chivalrous manner, his earnest words, his deferential attention to herself, his affectionate devotion to Lady Earle.
There was not a braver or more gallant man in England than this young heir of Earlescourt. He inherited the personal beauty and courage of his race. He gave promise of a splendid manhood; and no one knew how proudly Lord Earle had rejoiced in that promise.
In her calm stately way, Valentine liked him; she even loved him, and would have been happy as his wife. She enjoyed his keen, intellectual powers and his originality of thought. Even the "dreadful politics," that scared and shocked his father, amused her.
Ronald, whose heart was full of the pretty little wife he dared neither see nor write to, gave no heed to Valentine's manner; it never occurred to him what construction could be put upon his friendly liking for her.
The day came for the grand ball, and during breakfast the ladies discussed the important question of bouquets; from that the conversation changed to flowers. "There are so many of them," said Valentine, "and they are all so beautiful, I am always at a loss which to choose."
"I should never hesitate a moment," said Ronald, laughingly. "You will accuse me, perhaps of being sentimental, but I must give preference to the white lily-bells. Lilies of the valley are the fairest flowers that grow."
Lady Earle overheard the remark; no one else appeared to notice it, and she was not much surprised when Valentine entered the ball room to see white lilies in her fair hair, and a bouquet of the same flowers, half-shrouded by green leaves, in her hand.
Many eyes turned admiringly upon the calm, stately beauty and her white flowers. Ronald saw them. He could not help remarking the exquisite toilet, marred by no obtrusive colors, the pretty lily wreath and fragrant bouquet. It never occurred to him that Valentine had chosen those delicate blossoms in compliment to him. He thought he had never seen a fairer picture than this magnificent blonde; then she faded from his mind. He looked round on those fair and noble ladies, thinking that Dora's shy, sweet face was far lovelier than any there. He looked at the costly jewels, the waving plumes, the sweeping satins, and thought of Dora's plain, pretty dress. A softened look came into his eyes, as he pictured his shy, graceful wife. Some day she, too, would walk through these gorgeous rooms, and then would all admire the wisdom of his choice. So the heir of Earlescourt dreamed as he watched the brilliant crowd that began to fill the ball room; but his reverie was suddenly broken by a summons from Lady Earle.
"Ronald," said she, looking slightly impatient, "have you forgotten that it is your place to open the ball? You must ask Miss Charteris to dance with you."
"That will be no hardship," he replied, smiling at his mother's earnest manner. "I would rather dance with Miss Charteris than any one else."
Lady Earle wisely kept silence; her son went up to Valentine and made his request. He danced with her again and again—not as Lady Earle hoped, from any unusual preference, but because it gave him less trouble than selecting partners among strange young ladies. Valentine understood him; they talked easily, and without restraint. He paid her no compliments, and she did not seem to expect any. With other ladies, Ronald was always thinking, "What would they say if they knew of that fair young wife at Eastham?" With Valentine no such idea haunted him—he had an instinctive belief in her true and firm friendship.
Lady Earle overheard a few whispered comments, and they filled her heart with delight. Old friends whispered to her that "it would be a splendid match for her son," and "how happy she would be with such a daughter-in-law as Miss Charteris, so beautiful and dignified;" and all this because Ronald wanted to secure Valentine's friendship, so that she might intercede for Dora.
When, for the fourth time, Ronald asked Miss Charteris "for the next dance," she looked up at him with a smile.
"Do you know how often we have danced together this evening?" she asked.
"What does it matter?" he replied, wondering at the flush that crimsoned her face. "Forgive me, Miss Charteris, if I say that you realize my idea of the poetry of motion."
"Is that why you ask me so frequently?" she said, archly.
"Yes," replied honest Ronald; "it is a great pleasure; for one good dancer there are fifty bad ones."
He did not quite understand the pretty, piqued expression of her face.
"You have not told me," said Valentine, "whether you like my flowers."
"They are very beautiful," he replied; but the compliment of her selection was all lost upon him.
Miss Charteris did not know whether he was simply indifferent or timid.
"You told me these lilies were your favorite flowers," she said.
"Yes," replied Ronald; "but they are not the flowers that resemble you." He was thinking how much simple, loving Dora was like the pretty delicate little blossoms. "You are like the tall queenly lilies."
He paused, for Valentine was looking at him with a wondering smile.
"Do you know you have paid me two compliments in less than five minutes?" she said. "And yesterday we agreed that between true friends they were quite unnecessary."
"I—I did not intend to pay idle compliments," he replied. "I merely said what I thought. You are like a tall, grand, white lily, Miss Charteris. I have often thought so. If you will not dance with me again, will you walk through the rooms?"
Many admiring glances followed them—a handsomer pair was seldom seen. They passed through the long suite of rooms and on to the conservatory, where lamps gleamed like stars between the green plants and rare exotics.
"Will you rest here?" said Ronald. "The ball room is so crowded one can not speak there."
"Ah," thought Miss Charteris, "then he really has something to say to me!"
Despite her calm dignity and serene manner, Valentine's heart beat high. She loved the gallant young heir—his honest, kindly nature had a great charm for her. She saw that the handsome face bending over the flowers was agitated and pale. Miss Charteris looked down at the lilies in her hand. He came nearer to her, and looked anxiously at her beautiful face.
"I am not eloquent," said Ronald—"I have no great gift of speech; but, Miss Charteris, I should like to find some words that would reach your heart and dwell there."
He wanted to tell her of Dora, to describe her sweet face with its dimples and blushes, her graceful manner, her timid, sensitive disposition. He wanted to make her love Dora, to help him to soften his mother's prejudices and his father's anger; no wonder his lips quivered and his voice faltered.
"For some days past I have been longing to speak to you," continued Ronald; "now my courage almost fails me. Miss Charteris, say something that will give me confidence." She looked up at him, and any other man would have read the love in her face.
"The simplest words you can use will always interest me," she said, gently.
His face cleared, and he began: "You are kind and generous—"
Then came an interruption—Sir Harry Laurence, with a lady, entered the conservatory.
"This is refreshing," he said to Ronald. "I have been ten minutes trying to get here, the rooms are so full."
Miss Charteris smiled in replying, wishing Sir Harry had waited ten minutes longer.
"Promise me," said Ronald, detaining her, as Sir Harry passed on, "that you will give me one half hour tomorrow."
"I will do so," replied she.
"And you will listen to me, Miss Charteris?" he continued. "You will hear all I have to say?"
Valentine made no reply; several other people came, some to admire the alcove filled with ferns which drooped from the wall by which she was standing, others to breathe the fragrant air. She could not speak without being overheard; but, with a charming smile, she took a beautiful lily from her bouquet and held it out to him. They then went back into the ball room.
"He loves me," thought Valentine; and, as far as her calm, serene nature was capable of passionate delight, she felt it.
"She will befriend me," thought Ronald; "but why did she give me this flower?"
The most remote suspicion that Valentine had mistaken him—that she loved him—never crossed the mind of Ronald Earle. He was singularly free from vanity. Perhaps if he had a little more confidence in himself, the story of the Earles might have been different.
Lady Charteris looked at her daughter's calm, proud face. She had noticed the little interview in the conservatory, and drew her own conclusions from it. Valentine's face confirmed them there was a delicate flush upon it, and a new light shone in the lustrous eyes.
"You like Earlescourt?" said Lady Charteris to her daughter that evening, as they sat in her drawing room alone.
"Yes, mamma, I like it very much," said Valentine.
"And from what I see," continued the elder lady, "I think it is likely to be your home."
"Yes, I believe so," said Valentine, bending over her mother, and kissing her. "Ronald has asked me to give him one half hour tomorrow, and I am very happy, mamma."
For one so calm and stately, it was admission enough. Lady Charteris knew, from the tone of her daughter's voice, that she loved Ronald Earle.
Ronald slept calmly, half hoping that the end of his troubles was drawing nigh. Valentine, whom his mother loved so well, would intercede for Dora. Lord Earle would be sure to relent; and he could bring Dora home, and all would be well. If ever and anon a cold fear crept into his heart that simple, pretty Dora would be sadly out of place in that magnificent house, he dashed it from him. Miss Charteris slept calmly, too, but her dreams were different from Ronald's. She thought of the time when she would be mistress of that fair domain, and the wife of its brave young lord. She loved him well. No one had ever pleased her as he had—no one would ever charm her again. Valentine had made the grand mistake of her life.
The morrow so eagerly looked for was a fair, bright day. The sun shone warm and bright, the air was soft and fragrant, the sky blue and cloudless. Lady Charteris did not leave her room for breakfast, and Valentine remained with her mother.
When breakfast was ended, Ronald lingered about, hoping to see Valentine. He had not waited long before he saw the glimmer of her white dress and blue ribbons. He met her in the hall.
"Will you come out into the gardens, Miss Charteris?" he asked. "The morning is so beautiful, and you promised me one half hour. Do not take that book with you. I shall want all your attention for I have a story to tell you."
He walked by her side through the pleasure gardens where the lake gleamed in the sunshine, the water lilies sleeping on its quiet bosom; through the fragrant flower beds where the bees hummed and the butterflies made love to the fairest blossoms.
"Let us go on to the park," said Valentine; "the sun is too warm here."
"I know a little spot just fitted for a fairy bower," said Ronald. "Let me show it to you. I can tell my story better there."
They went through the broad gates of the park, across which the checkered sunbeams fell, where the deer browsed and king-cups and tall foxgloves grew—on to the brook side where Dora had rested so short a time since to think of her new-found happiness.
The pale primroses had all died away, the violets were gone; but in their place the deep green bank was covered with other flowers of bright and sunny hue. The shade of tall trees covered the bank, the little brook sang merrily, and birds chimed in with the rippling water; the summer air was filled with the faint, sweet summer music.
"It is a pretty spot," said Miss Charteris.
The green grass seemed to dance in the breeze, and Ronald made something like a throne amid it.
"You shall be queen, and I your suppliant," he said. "You promise to listen; I will tell you my story."
They sat a few minutes in deep silence, broken only by the singing brook and the music of the birds; a solemn hush seemed to have fallen on them, while the leaves rustled in the wind.
If Ronald Earle's heart and mind had not been filled with another and very different image, he must have seen how fair Valentine looked; the sunlight glinting through the dense green foliage fell upon her face, while the white dress and blue ribbons, the fair floating hair, against the dark background of the bank and the trees, made a charming picture; but Ronald never saw it. After long years the memory of it came back to him, and he wondered at his own blindness. He never saw the trembling of the white fingers that played carelessly with sprays of purple foxglove; he never saw the faint flush upon her face, the quiver of her proud, beautiful lips, or the love light in her eyes. He only saw and thought of Dora.
"I told you, Miss Charteris, last evening, that I was not eloquent," began Ronald. "When anything lies deep in my heart, I find great difficulty in telling it in words."
"All sacred and deep feeling is quiet," said Valentine; "a torrent of words does not always show an earnest nature. I have many thoughts that I could never express."
"If I could only be sure that you would understand me, Miss Charteris," said Ronald—"that you would see and comprehend the motives that I can hardly explain myself! Sitting here in the summer sunshine, I can scarcely realize how dark the cloud is that hangs over me. You are so kind and patient, I will tell you my story in my own way." She gathered a rich cluster of bluebells, and bent over them, pulling the pretty flowers into pieces, and throwing leaf after leaf into the stream.
"Three months since," continued Ronald, "I came home to Earlescourt. Lord and Lady Earle were both at Greenoke; I, and not quite myself, preferred remaining here alone and quiet. One morning I went out into the garden, listless for want of something to do. I saw there—ah! Now I want words, Miss Charteris—the fairest girl the sun ever shone upon."
He saw the flowers fall from Valentine's grasp; she put her hand to her brow, as though to shield her face.
"Does the light annoy you?" he asked.
"No," she replied, steadily; "go on with your story."
"A clever man," said Ronald, "might paint for you the pretty face, all smiles and dimples, the dark shining rings of hair that fell upon a white brow, the sweet, shy eyes fringed by long lashes, seldom raised, but full of wonderful light when once you could look into their depths. I can only tell you how in a few days I grew to love the fair young face, and how Dora Thorne that was her name, Miss Charteris—loved me."
Valentine never moved nor spoke; Ronald could see the bright flush die away, and the proud lips quiver.
"I must tell you all quickly," said Ronald. "She is not what people call a lady, this beautiful wild flower of mine. Her father lives at the lodge; he is Lord Earle's lodge keeper, and she knows nothing of the world or its ways. She has never been taught or trained, though her voice is like sweet music, and her laugh like the chime of silver bells. She is like a bright April day, smiles and tears, sunshine and rain—so near together that I never know whether I love her best weeping or laughing."
He paused, but Valentine did not speak; her hand still shaded her face.
"I loved her very much," said Ronald, "and I told her so. I asked her to be my wife, and she promised. When my father came home from Greenoke I asked his consent, and he laughed at me. He would not believe me serious. I need not tell you the details. They sent my pretty Dora away, and some one who loved her—who wanted to make her his wife—came, and quarreled with me. He my rival—swore that Dora should be his. In his passion he betrayed the secret so well kept from me. He told me where she was, and I went to see her."
There was no movement in the quiet figure, no words passed the white lips.
"I went to see her," he continued; "she was so unhappy, so pretty in her sorrow and love, so innocent, so fond of me, that I forgot all I should have remembered, and married her."
Valentine started then and uttered a low cry.
"You are shocked," said Ronald; "but, Miss Charteris, think of her so young and gentle! They would have forced her to marry the farmer, and she disliked him. What else could I do to save her?"
Even then, in the midst of that sharp sorrow, Valentine could not help admiring Ronald's brave simplicity, his chivalry, his honor.
"I married her," he said, "and I mean to be true to her. I thought my father would relent and forgive us, but I fear I was too sanguine. Since my marriage my father has told me that if I do not give up Dora he will not see me again. Every day I resolve to tell him what I have done, but something interferes to prevent it. I have never seen my wife since our wedding day. She is still at Eastham. Now, Miss Charteris, be my friend, and help me."
Bravely enough Valentine put away her sorrow—another time she would look it in the face; all her thoughts must now be for him.
"I will do anything to serve you," she said, gently. "What can I do?"
"My mother loves you very much," said Ronald; "she will listen to you. When I have told her, will you, in your sweet, persuasive way, interfere for Dora? Lady Earle will be influenced by what you say."
A quiver of pain passed over the proud, calm face of Valentine Charteris.
"If you think it wise for a stranger to interfere in so delicate a matter, I will do so cheerfully," she said; "but let me counsel on thing. Tell Lord and Lady Earle at once. Do not delay, every hour is of consequence."
"What do you think of my story?" asked Ronald, anxiously. "Have I done right or wrong?"
"Do not ask me," replied Valentine.
"Yes," he urged, "I will ask again; you are my friend. Tell me, have I done right or wrong?"
"I can speak nothing but truth," replied Valentine, "and I think you have done wrong. Do not be angry. Honor is everything; it ranks before life or love. In some degree you have tarnished yours by an underhand proceeding, a private marriage, one forbidden by your parents and distasteful to them."