Drake stared at her with astonishment.
"Why on earth should you want to make me angry?" he asked.
"Well, I've heard a great deal about you," she replied. "And all the people who talked about you told me that you were rather hot-tempered. Lady Northgate, for instance, assured me you could be a perfect bear when you liked."
"That was extremely kind of Lady Northgate."
"Well, so long as it wasn't true. I've heard so much about you that I was quite anxious to see you. I am speaking to Lord Drake Selbie, am I not?"
"That's my name," said Drake.
"The nephew of Angleford?"
She looked up at him as if waiting to see how he took the mention of his uncle's name; but Drake's face could be as impassive as a stone wall when he liked.
"You know my uncle?" he asked, in a tone of polite interest.
"Yes," she said; "very well. I met him when he was in America. His wife is a great friend of mine. You know her, of course?"
"I'm sorry to say I have not had that pleasure," said Drake. "I was absent from England when the present Lady Angleford came over, after her marriage."
"Oh, yes," said the lady. "I suppose I ought not to have mentioned her?"
"Good heavens! Why not?" asked Drake.
"Well, of course," she drawled slowly, but musically, "I know that Lord Angleford's marriage was a bad thing for you. It wouldn't be my fault if I didn't, seeing that everybody in London has been talking about it."
"Well, it's not a particularly good thing for me," Drake admitted; "but it's no reason why I should dislike any reference to my uncle or his wife."
"You don't bear her any ill will?" she asked.
This was extremely personal, especially coming from a stranger; but the lady was an American, with an extremely pretty face and a charming manner, and there was so much gentleness, almost deprecatory gentleness in her softly bright eyes, that Drake, somehow, could not feel any resentment.
"Not the very least in the world, I assure you," he replied. "My uncle had a perfect right to marry when he pleased, and whom he pleased."
"I didn't think you'd be angry with him," she said, "because everybody says you were such friends, and you are so fond of him; but I thought you'd be riled with her."
Drake laughed rather grimly.
"Not in the least," he said. "Of course, I should have preferred that my uncle should remain single, but I can't be absurd enough to quarrel with a lady for marrying him. He is a very charming man, and perhaps she couldn't help herself."
"That's just it—she couldn't," said the lady naively. "And have you been to see your uncle since you've been back?" she asked.
"Not yet," replied Drake. "I only came back to London an hour or two ago, but I will look him up to-morrow."
"I knew you would," she said; "because that was such a nice letter you wrote, and such a pretty present you sent to Lady Angleford."
As she spoke, she transferred her fan to her left hand and raised her right arm, and Drake recognized upon her wrist a bracelet which he had sent Lady Angleford as a wedding present. He colored and frowned slightly, then he laughed as he met the now timid and quite deprecatory gaze of the upturned eyes.
"Was this quite fair, Lady Angleford?" he said, smiling.
"Well, I don't know," she said, a little pathetically. "I thought it was, but I'm not quite sure now. You see, I wanted to meet you and talk to you, and know exactly how you felt toward me without your knowing who I was."
Drake went and sat down beside her, and leaned toward her with one arm stretched on the back of her chair.
"But why?" he asked.
"Well, you see, I was a little afraid of you. When Lord Angleford asked me to marry him and I consented, I didn't quite realize how things stood between you and him. It was not until I came to Europe—I mean to England—that I realized that I had, so to speak, come between your uncle and you. And that made me feel bad, because everybody I met told me that you were such a—a good fellow, as they call it——"
"One Englishman will become conceited, if you don't take care, Lady Angleford," put in Drake, with a smile.
"That's what everybody says; and I found that you were so much liked and so popular; and it was hateful to me that I should cause a quarrel between you and Lord Angleford. It has made me very unhappy."
"Then don't be unhappy any longer, Lady Angleford," he said. "There has been, and there need be, no quarrel between my uncle and me."
"Ah, now you make me happy!" she said; and she turned to him with a little flush on her face which made her prettier than ever. "I have been quite wretched whenever I thought of you or heard your name. People spoke of you as if you had died, or got the measles, with a kind of pity in their voices which made me mad and hate myself. You see, as I said, I didn't realize what I was doing. I didn't realize that I was coming between an hereditary legislator and his descendant and heir."
Drake could not help smiling.
"You had better not call my uncle an hereditary legislator, Lady Angleford. I don't think he'd like it."
"But he is, isn't he?" she said. "It is so difficult for an American to understand these things. We are supposed to have the peerage by heart; but we haven't. It's all a mystery and a tangle to us, even the best of us. But I try not to make mistakes. And now I want you to tell me that we are friends. That is so, isn't it?"
She held out her tiny and perfectly gloved hand with a mixture of timidity and impulsiveness which touched Drake.
"Indeed, I hope we are, Lady Angleford," he said.
She looked at him wistfully.
"You couldn't call me 'aunt,' I suppose?"
Drake laughed outright.
"I'm afraid I couldn't," he said. "You are far too young for that."
"I am sorry," she said. "I think I should have liked you to call me aunt. But never mind. I must be satisfied with knowing that we are friends, and that you bear me no ill will. And now, I think I will go. My little plot has been rather successful, after all, hasn't it?"
"Quite a perfect success," said Drake. "And I congratulate you upon it."
"Don't tell Lord Angleford," she said. "He'll say it was 'so American'; and I do hate him to say that."
Drake promised that he would not relate the little farce to his uncle, and got her cloak and took her down to the Angleford carriage. As he put her in and closed the door, she gave him her hand, and smiled at him with a little air of triumph and appeal.
"We are friends, aren't we?" she asked.
"The best of friends, Lady Angleford," he replied. "Good night."
He went back to say good night to Lady Northgate.
"You played it rather low down upon me, didn't you?" he remarked.
"My dear Drake, what could I do?" she exclaimed. "That poor little woman was so terribly anxious to gain your good will. She didn't understand in the least the harm she was doing you. And what will you do? She is immensely rich—her father was an American millionaire——"
Drake's face hardened. One thing at least he knew he couldn't do: he could not bring himself to accept charity from Lady Angleford. Lady Northgate understood the frown.
"Don't kill me before all these people, Drake!" she said. "I dare say it's very silly of me, but I can't help plotting for your welfare. You see, I am foolish enough to be rather fond of you. There! Go down and drink that soda and whisky with Harry. If you won't let your friends help you, what will you do?"
"I give it up; ask me another. Don't you worry about me, my dear lady; I shall jog along somehow."
The next morning, while at breakfast, he received a little note from Lady Angleford, asking him to dinner that night. It was a charming little note, as pleading and deprecating as her eyes had been when she looked at him at the Northgates'.
Drake sent back word that he would be delighted to come, and at eight o'clock presented himself at his uncle's house in Park Lane. Lord Angleford was, like Northgate, detained in London by official business. He was a very fine specimen of the old kind of Tory, and, though well advanced in years, still extremely good-looking—the whole family was favored in that way—and remarkably well preserved. His hair was white, but his eyes were bright and his cheeks ruddy, and, when free from the gout, he was as active as a young man. Of course, he was hot-tempered; all gouty men are; but he was as charming in his way as Lady Angleford, and extremely popular in the House of Lords, and out of it.
Though he had fallen in love with a pretty little American, perhaps he would not have married her but for the little tiff with Drake; but that little tiff had just turned the scale, and, though he had taken the step in a moment of pique, he had not regretted it; for he was very fond and proud of his wife. But he was also very fond and proud of Drake, and was extremely pleased when Lady Angleford had told him that she had met Drake, and was going to ask him to dinner.
"Oh, all right," he had said. "I shall be very glad to see him—though he's an obstinate young mule. I think you'll like him."
"I do like him very much indeed," she had said. "He is so handsome—how very like he is to you!—and he's not a bit stand-offish and superior, like most Englishmen."
"Oh, Drake's not a bad sort of fellow," said Lord Angleford, "but he's too fond of having his own way."
At this Lady Angleford had smiled; for she knew another member of the family who liked his own way.
She was waiting for Drake in the drawing-room, and gave him both her hands with a little impulsiveness which touched Drake.
"I am so glad you have come," she said; "and your uncle is very glad, too. You won't—get to arguing, will you? You English are such dreadful people to argue. And I think he has a slight attack of the gout, though he was quite angry when I hinted at it this morning."
Drake sincerely hoped his uncle hadn't, for everybody's sake. At that moment the earl came into the room, held out his hand, and said, as if he had parted with Drake only the night before:
"How are you, Drake? Glad to see you. You've met Lady Angleford already? Isn't it nearly dinner time?"
Drake took Lady Angleford in. There were no guests besides himself, and they had quite a pleasant little dinner. Lady Angleford talked with all the vivacity and charm of a cultured American who has seen both sides of the world, and kept her eyes open, and Drake began to feel as if he had known her for years. The earl was in a singularly good humor and listened to, and smiled at, his young wife proudly, and talked to Drake as if nothing had happened. It was just like old times; and Drake, as he opened the door for Lady Angleford, on her way to the drawing-room, smiled down at her, and nodded as she looked up at him questioningly.
Then he went back to his chair, and the butler put the Angleford port in its wicker cradle before the earl.
"I oughtn't to touch a drop," he said, "for I've had a twinge or two lately; but on this occasion——"
He filled his glass, and passed the bottle to Drake—the butler had left the room.
"So you met Lady Angleford last night?"
"Yes, sir; and I take this, the first opportunity, to congratulate you. And Lady Angleford is as charming as she is pretty; and you won't mind my saying that I consider you an extremely lucky man."
Of course, the earl looked pleased.
"Thanks," he said; "that's very good of you, Drake—especially as my marriage may make all the difference to you."
Drake looked at his cigarette steadily.
"I've no reason to complain, sir; and I don't," he said. "You might have married years ago, and I'm rather surprised you didn't."
The earl grunted.
"I don't suppose I should have done so now, if you hadn't been such a stubborn young ass. That put my back up. But though I don't regret what I've done—no, by Jove!—I don't want you to think I am utterly regardless of your future. This port improves, doesn't it? Of course, you may be knocked out of the succession now——"
"Most probably so, I should think," said Drake.
"Just so. And, therefore, it's only right that I should do something for you."
"You are very good, sir," said Drake.
The earl colored slightly.
"Now look here, Drake; I'm always suspicious of that d——d quiet way of yours! I was very glad when Lady Angleford told me that you were coming here, and I made up my mind that I would let bygones be bygones and act squarely by you. As I said, I'm not a bit sorry that I married; no, indeed!—you've seen Lady Angleford—but I don't want to leave you in the lurch. I don't want you to suffer more than—than can be helped. I've been thinking the matter over, and I'll tell you what I'll do. Have some more port."
Unluckily for Drake, the old man filled his own glass before passing the bottle. Drake sipped his port and waited, and the earl went on:
"Of course, I meant to continue your allowance; but I can see that under the circumstances that wouldn't be sufficient. Something might happen to me——"
"I sincerely trust nothing will happen to you, sir," said Drake.
The earl grunted.
"Well, I'm not so young as I was; and I might get chucked off my horse, or—or something of that sort; and then you'd be in a hole, I imagine; for I suppose you've got through most of your mother's money?"
"A great deal of it," admitted Drake.
"Yes; I thought so. Well, look here; I'll tell you what I'll do, Drake. As you may know, Lady Angleford has a fortune of her own. Her father was a millionaire. That leaves me free to do what I like with my own money. Now, I'll settle ten thousand a year on you, Drake—but on one condition."
Drake was considerably startled. After all, ten thousand a year is a large sum; and though the earl was immensely rich, Drake had not expected him to be so liberal. On ten thousand a year one can manage very comfortably, even in England. Drake thought of his debts, of all that a settled income would mean to him, and his heart warmed with gratitude toward his uncle.
"You are more than kind, sir," he said. "Your liberality takes my breath away. What was the condition?"
The earl fidgeted a little in his chair.
"Look here, Drake," he said, "I've never worried you about your way of life; I know that young men will be young men, and that you've lived in a pretty fast set. That was your business and not mine, and as long as you kept afloat I didn't choose to interfere. But I think it's time you settled down; and I'll settle this money on you on condition that you do settle down. You're engaged to a very nice girl—just you marry and settle down, and I'll provide the means, as I say."
Drake looked straight before him. Had this offer been made a month before he would have accepted it without a moment's hesitation, for he had thought himself in love with Luce, and, more important, he had thought that she had cared for him. But now all was changed. He knew that if a hundred thousand a year were dependent upon marrying Luce he couldn't accept it.
The earl stared at him, and filled another glass with the port, which was a poison to him.
"Eh? What the devil do you mean? I say that if you'll settle down and marry Luce I will provide a suitable income for you. What the blazes are you hesitating about? Why—confound it!—aren't you satisfied? You don't want to be told that I'm not bound to give you a penny!"
The old man's handsome face was growing red, and his eyes were beginning to glitter; the port was doing its fell work.
"I know," said Drake, with a quietude which only made his uncle more angry, "and I'm very much obliged to you. I know what ten thousand a year means; but I'm afraid I can't fulfill the conditions."
"What the devil do you mean?" demanded the earl.
Drake smoked in silence for a moment or two. Most men would have said at once that Lady Lucille Turfleigh had, on his change of prospects, jilted him; but Drake had some old-world notions of honor in respect to women, and he could not give Lady Luce away.
"I'm afraid I can't marry Luce," he said. "Our engagement is broken off."
The earl swore a good old Tory oath.
"Then you ought to be ashamed of yourself!" he said. "One of the nicest girls I know, and—devoted to you. More devoted to you than you deserve. And you don't mean to marry her? I suppose you've seen some one else?"
Drake grew hot, but he still clung to his notion of honor.
"I tell you what it is, Drake," said the earl, bringing down his port glass on the table so violently that it snapped off at the stem, "you young fellows of the present day haven't any idea of honor. Here's a girl, a beautiful girl, and nice in every way, simply devoted to you, and you go and throw her over. For some insane fancy, I suppose! Well, see here, I'm d——d if I'll countenance it. I abide by my condition. You make it up with Luce and marry her, and I'll settle this money on you, as I've said. If not——"
Drake knocked the ash off his cigarette and looked straight before him. He could still save himself by telling the truth and sacrificing Lady Luce. But that was not his way.
"I'm sorry, sir——" he began.
"Sorry be d——d!" broke in the earl tempestuously. "Will you, or will you not?"
"I can't," said Drake quietly.
The old man rose to his feet, flinging his serviette aside.
"Then, by Heaven! I've done with you!" he exclaimed. "I made you a fair offer. I've only asked you to act like a gentleman, a man of honor. Am I to understand that you refuse?"
Drake had also risen slowly.
"I'm afraid I must, sir," he said.
"All right," said the earl, red with anger. "Then there's nothing more to be said. You can go your own way. But permit me to tell you——"
"Oh, don't, sir!" said Drake, rather sadly. "I can't do what you ask. God knows I would if I could, but—it's impossible. For Heaven's sake, don't let us quarrel——"
"Quarrel! I am as cool as a cucumber!" exclaimed the earl, his face the color of beetroot. "All I say is"—here a twinge of the gout checked his utterance—"that you're behaving shamefully—shamefully! We'd better join the ladies—I mean Lady Angleford——"
"I think I'll get you to excuse me, sir," said Drake. "There is no need to upset Lady Angleford. She asked me here with the very best intentions, and she would be disappointed if she knew we had—quarreled. There is no need to tell her. I'll clear out. Make my excuse to her."
"As you like," said the earl shortly. "But let me tell you that I think you are——"
"No end of a fool, I've no doubt," said Drake, with a rather weary smile. "I dare say I am. But I can't help it. Good night, sir."
The earl muttered something that sounded like "good night," and Drake left the house. He ought to have said good night to Lady Angleford, but he shirked it. He bore her no animosity; indeed, he liked her very much—so much that he shrank from telling her about this quarrel with his uncle; and he knew that if he went to her she would get it out of him.
He walked home, feeling very miserable and down on his luck. How he hated London, and all that belonged to it! Like a whiff of fresh air the memory of Shorne Mills wafted across his mind. He let himself in with his latchkey, and, taking a sheet of note paper, made some calculations upon it. There was still something remaining of his mother's fortune to him. If he were not Lord Drake Selbie, but simply Mr. Drake Vernon, he could manage to live upon it. The vision of a slim and graceful girl, with soft black hair and violet-gray eyes, rose before him. It seemed to beckon him, to beckon him away from the hollow, heartless world in which he had hitherto lived. He rose and flung open wide the window of his sitting room, and the breath of air which came through the London streets seemed fragrant with the air which wafted over Shorne Mills.
* * * * *
No pen, however eloquent, can describe the weariness of the hours for Nell which had passed since "Mr. Drake Vernon" had left Shorne Mills. Something had seemed to have gone out of her life. The sun was shining as brightly, there was the same light on the sea, the same incoming and outgoing tide; every one was as kind to her as they had been before he left, and yet all life seemed a blank. When she was not waiting upon mamma she wandered about Shorne Mills, sailed in the Annie Laurie, and sometimes rode across the moor. But there was something wanting, and the lack of it made happiness impossible. She thought of him all day, and at night she tossed in her little bed sleeplessly, recalling the happy hours she had spent with him. God knows she tried hard to forget him, to be just the same, to feel just the same, as she had been before he had been thrown at her feet. But she could not. He had entered into her life and become a principal part of it, absorbed it. She found herself thinking of him all through the day. She grew thin and pale in an incredibly short time. Even Dick himself could not rouse her; and Mrs. Lorton read her a severe lecture upon the apathy of indolence.
Life had been so joyous and so all-sufficing a thing for her; but now nothing seemed to interest her. There was a dull, aching pain in her heart which she could not understand, and which she could not get rid of. She longed for solitude. She often walked up to the top of the hill, to the purple moor over which she had ridden with Drake Vernon; and there she would sit, recalling every word she had said, every tone of his voice. She tried to forget him, but it was impossible.
One evening she walked up the hill slowly and thoughtfully, and seated herself on a mossy bank, and gave herself up to that reverie in which we dream dreams which are more of heaven than of earth.
Suddenly she heard the sound of footsteps. She looked up listlessly and with a slight feeling of impatience, seeing that her reverie was disturbed.
The footsteps came nearer, a tall figure appeared against the sunset. She rose to her feet, trembling and filled with the hope that seemed to her too wild for hope.
In another moment he was beside her. She rose, quivering in every nerve.
Was it only a dream, or was it he? He held her hand and looked down at her with an expression in his eyes and face which made her tremble, and yet which made her heart leap.
"Nell!" he said.
They stood and looked at each other in silence for a moment; but what a silence!
It almost seemed to Nell as if it were not he himself who stood before her, but just a vision of her imagination, called up by the intensity of her thoughts of him. The color came and went in her face, leaving it, at last, pale and startled. And he, too, stood, as incapable of speech as any of the shy and bashful young fishermen on the quay; he, the man of the world, who had faced so many "situations" with women—women of the world armed with the weapons of experience, and the "higher culture." At that moment, intense as it was, the strength of the emotion which swept over him and mastered him, amazed him.
He knew, now that he was face to face with her, how he had missed this girl, how keen and intolerable had been his longing for her.
He remembered to hold out his hand. Had he done so yet? For the life of him, he could not have told. The sight of the sweet face had cast a spell over him, and he did not know whether he was standing or sitting.
As she put her small hand in his, Nell recovered something of her self-possession; but not all, for her heart was beating furiously, her bosom heaving, and she was in agony lest he should see the mist of dew which seemed to cover her eyes.
"I'm afraid I startled you," he said.
Nell smiled faintly, and drew her hand away—for he had held it half unconsciously.
"I think you did—a little," she admitted. "You see, I—we did not expect you. And"—she laughed the laugh he had heard in his dreams, though it had not always been so tremulous, so like the flutelike quaver of this laugh—"and even now I am not quite sure it is you."
"It is I—believe me," he said. "It is the same bad penny come back."
Then it flashed upon him he must give some reason for his return. Incredible as it may seem, he was not prepared with one. He had made up his mind to come; he would have gone through fire and water to get back to Shorne Mills, but he had quite forgotten that some excuse would be necessary.
But she did not seem to see the necessity.
"Are you quite well now?" she asked, just glancing up at him.
"Quite," he said; "perfectly well."
"And how did you come? I mean when—have you been staying near?"
"I came by this morning's train," he said, "and I walked over; my luggage follows by the carrier. I enjoyed the walk."
"You must be quite strong again," she said, with a quiet little gladness. "Mamma—and Dick—will be so glad to see you!"
"They haven't forgotten me?" he asked insanely.
She laughed again.
"They have talked of very little else but you, since you have been gone, and Dick is like a boy who has lost a schoolfellow."
She said it so frankly that Drake's heart sank.
"Well—I've thought—I've missed you—Dick," he said, stumbling over the sentence. "Shorne Mills is, as you said, not the kind of place one forgets in a hurry."
"Did I say that?" she asked. "I don't remember it."
"Ah! but I do," he said. "I remember——"
"Hadn't we better walk on?" she said. "You must be tired, and will be glad of some tea—or something."
He seemed to notice for the first time that they had been standing, and they walked on.
Her heart was still beating fast—beating with a new and strange happiness glowing through her. Only a few minutes ago she had felt so weary and wretched; the familiar scene, which she loved so dearly, had seemed flat and dreary and full of melancholy, and now—oh! how lovely it was! how good it was to look upon!
Why had everything changed so suddenly? Why was every pulse dancing to the subtle music with which the air seemed full?
The question came to her with a kind of dread and fear; and her eyes, which shone like stars, grew momentarily troubled and puzzled.
He scarcely dared look at her. The longing to touch her, to take her in his arms—that longing of passionate love which he had never felt before—rose imperiously in his heart; but something restrained him. She was so young, so innocent and girlish that a kind of awe fell upon him. When, as she walked beside him, the sleeve of her jacket came in contact with his arm, a thrill ran through him, and he caught his breath.
But he would hold himself in check; not at this moment, when she was startled by his sudden appearance, would he tell her. It was more than likely that he would frighten her, and that she would fly from him.
"And is there any news?" he asked.
She looked up as if she had come from a reverie.
"News! There is never any news at Shorne Mills!" she said, smiling brightly. "Nothing ever happens. Dick has shot some rabbits—and there was a good catch of mackerel yesterday, and—that's all."
Her eyes shone up at him, and he looked into their depths. "I wish I'd been here," he said. "But perhaps they'll have another big catch."
"Are you going to stay?"
The question sprang from her lips almost before she knew it, and she bit them a moment after the words were spoken; for it seemed to her that he must have noticed the eagerness, the anxiety in the query; but Drake only thought that she had asked with some surprise.
"A—a little while," he replied.
"Mamma and Dick will be very pleased," she said, in as matter-of-fact a tone as she could.
"I wired to Mrs. Brownie, asking her if she could put me up—old Brownie lets some rooms, he told me——"
Her face fell for a moment.
"You are not coming to us—to The Cottage?" she said cheerily.
"No; I couldn't trespass upon Mrs. Lorton's hospitality," he replied.
"I hope you will be comfortable——" She hesitated. "Mrs. Brownie's cottage is very small and——"
"Oh, I'm used to roughing it," he cut in; "and perhaps, when I find it too small, you will let me come up and see you——"
"In our palatial mansion—for a change."
She was bright again, and her eyes were sparkling. After all, though he would not be under the same roof, he would be near—would be in Shorne Mills.
"I think I'll go down to Mrs. Brownie's and see if it is all right, and then come up for a cup of tea, if I may," he said, as they neared The Cottage.
He opened the gate for her; she gave him a little nod, her sweet face radiant with the new-born happiness which suffused her whole being, and ran in.
"Mamma—guess who has come!" she exclaimed breathlessly, as she entered the sitting room where Mrs. Lorton was reclining on the sofa with the Fashion Gazette and a bottle of eau de Cologne beside her. "Dick, I will give you three guesses—with a box of cigarettes as a prize," as Dick sauntered in with the gun under his arm.
"My dear Eleanor, why this excitement?" asked Mrs. Lorton rebukingly. "Your face is flushed, and your hat is on one side——"
"You'll have to give up drinking in the daytime, Nell," remarked Dick. "No, mamma, the gun will not go off, because it is not loaded. I wish it would, because I'm stone-broke and haven't any more cartridges. If I had a sister worthy of the name, she would advance me a small sum out of her pocket money."
"Guess, guess!" broke in Nell impatiently.
Dick smiled contemptuously.
"Some conceited clown to lecture in the schoolroom?" he said. "We know you of old, my dear Nell. Is there to be any tea this afternoon?"
"Clown!" retorted Nell scornfully. "Really, I've a good mind not to tell you until he—he comes himself."
"He—who? I must ask you to restrain your excitement, Eleanor. My nerves are in a very sad condition to-day, and I cannot—I really cannot bear any mental strain."
"It's Mr. Drake Vernon," said Nell, more soberly.
Dick uttered the yell of a rejoicing red Indian; and Mrs. Lorton slid into an upright position with incredible rapidity.
"Mr. Vernon! Go on, you're joking, Nell!" cried Dick; "and yet you look pleased enough for it to be true! Mr. Vernon! Hurrah! Sorry, mamma, but my feelings, which usually are under perfect control——"
"Is my hair tidy, Eleanor? Take this eau de Cologne away. Where is he? Did you think to bring a tea cake for tea? No, of course not; you think of nothing, nothing! I sometimes wonder why you have not imitated some of the Wolfer tact and readiness."
"I met Mr. Vernon on the moor, away from the village. I will make some toast. He is coming up presently. He is going to stay at the Brownies'—this is my best hat. Do be careful!"
For Dick, in his joy, had fallen against her in the passage and nearly knocked her hat off; then he seized her by the arm, and, fixing her with a gaze of exaggerated keenness, demanded in melodramatic tones, but too low for Mrs. Lorton to hear:
"What means this sudden and strange return of the interesting stranger? Speak, girl! Attempt not to deceive; subterfuge will not avail ye! Say, what means this unexpected appearance? Ah! why that crimson blush which stains your nose——"
Nell broke from him—half ashamedly, for was she, indeed, blushing?—and ran to make the toast, and Dick went to the gate to watch for Drake.
Drake found the Brownies expecting him, and was shown the tiny sitting room and bedroom they had hastily prepared; and, his luggage having arrived, he had a wash and a change.
And as he dried himself on the lavender-scented towel, he invented an excuse for his return. He was filled with a strange gladness; the surge of the waves as they beat against the jetty sang a welcome to him; he could hear the fishermen calling to each other, as they cleaned their boats, or whistling as they sat on the jetty spreading their nets to dry; it was more like coming back to his birthplace, or some spot in which he had lived for years, than to the little seaside village which he had seen for the first time a few weeks ago.
As he went up slowly to The Cottage, every man, woman, and child he met touched his hat or curtsied and smiled a welcome to him, and Dick's "Hallo, Mr. Vernon! then it is you, and Nell wasn't spoofing us. How are you? Come in!" went straight to his heart.
He went in with his hand on the boy's shoulder, and was received by Mrs. Lorton with a mixture of stately dignity and simpering pleasure, which, however, no longer roused his irritation and impatience.
"I am quite sure you will not be comfortable at the Brownies', Mr. Vernon," she said; "and I need not say that we shall be glad if you are not. Your room awaits you whenever you feel inclined to return to it—Richard, tell Eleanor that we are ready for the tea. And how did you leave London, Mr. Vernon? I am aware that it is not the season; but there are always some good families remaining in town," et cetera.
Drake answered with as fair an imitation of interest as he could manage; then Nell came in, followed by Molly, with the tea. There was no longer any sign of a blush on the girl's face, but the gray eyes were still bright, and a smile—such a tender, joyous, sunny smile—lurked in ambush at the corners of her sweet lips. She did not look at him, and was quite busy with the teacups and saucers; but she listened to every word he said, as if every word were too precious to miss.
"I was obliged to come down—the horses, you know," he said, as if that fully explained his return; "and, to tell you the truth, my dear Mrs. Lorton, I was very glad of the excuse. London is particularly hateful just now; though, as you say, there are a good many people there still."
"Did you meet my cousin Wolfer?" asked Mrs. Lorton.
Drake expressed his regret at not having done so.
"I think you would like him," she said, with her head on one side, and with a long sigh. "It is years since I have seen him. When last we met——"
"'He wore a wreath of roses!'" murmured Dick, under his breath.
—"And no doubt he would find me much changed; one ages in these out-of-the-way places, where the stir and bustle of the great world never reaches one."
"Mamma dropping into poetry is too touching!" murmured Dick; then aloud: "Nell, my child, if you are going to have a fit you had better leave the room. This is the second time you have shot out your long legs and kicked me. You had better see Doctor Spence."
The boy's badinage, Nell's half-shy delight, filled Drake with joy; even Mrs. Lorton's folly only amused him. He leaned back and drank his tea and ate his toast—he knew that Nell had made it, and every morsel was sweet to him—with a feeling of happiness too deep for words. And yet there was anxiety mixed with his happiness. Was the delight only that which would arise in the heart of a young girl, a child, at the visit of a friend?
"Shall we go down and look at the boat?" he asked, after he had dutifully listened to some more of Mrs. Lorton's remarks on fashion and nobility.
"Right you are!" said Dick; "and if you will promise to behave yourself like a decent member of society, you shall come too, Nell. You won't mind my bringing my little sister, sir?"
Drake smiled, but the smile died away as they walked down to the jetty; he could have dispensed with the presence of Nell's little brother.
"We might go for a short sail, mightn't we?" he said, as they stood looking at the boat. "Pity you didn't bring your gun, Dick!"
"Oh, I can fetch it!" said Dick promptly. "I shan't be ten minutes."
Drake waved to Brownie to bring the Annie Laurie to the steps, and helped Nell into the boat; then ran up the sail, and pushed off.
"Aren't we going to wait for Dick?" said Nell innocently.
"Oh, we'll just cruise about till he comes," said Drake. "Let me take the tiller."
He steered the boat for the bay, and lit his pipe. It was just as if he had not left Shorne Mills; and, as he looked around at the multicolored cliffs, the sky dyed by the setting sun with vivid hues of crimson and yellow, and at Nell's lovely and happy face, he thought of the world in which he had moved last night; and its hollowness and falsity, its restless pursuit of pleasure, its selfish interests appalled him. He had resolved, or only half resolved, perhaps, last night, that he would "cut it"—leave it forever. Why shouldn't he? Why should he go back?
Even before he had met Nell, he had been utterly weary of the old life; and, even if he had still hankered after it, it was now not possible for him. It was very improbable that he would inherit the title and estates; he had quarreled with his uncle; he had learned the bitter truth, that the women of his set were incapable of a disinterested love. And he had desired to be loved for himself alone. Does not every man desire it?
Why should he not remain as "Drake Vernon," without title or fortune? If he won a woman's love, it would be for himself, not for the rank he could bestow——
"There is Dick!" said Nell.
Drake awoke from his reverie.
"Scarcely worth while going back for him, is it?" he said. "Besides, he'll want to shoot something—and these gulls look so happy and contented——"
"Why, you told him to get his gun!" she said, with surprise. "But it doesn't matter. He's going out in Willy's boat, I see. I suppose he thinks we shan't turn back for him. Isn't it lovely this evening?"
"Yes," he assented absently.
If—if Nell, now, for instance, were to—to promise to be his wife, he would be sure that it was for himself she cared! She did not know that he was anything other than just Mr. Drake Vernon. No carking doubts of the truth and purity of her love would ever embitter his happiness.
"Where are we going?" she asked, turning on her elbow as he steered for the cove where they had lunched the other day.
"I've a fancy to look into that cave," he said. "What a capital place it would be for a picnic! Shall we go ashore for a few minutes?"
He threw out the anchor, leaped to the shore, and pulled the boat in for her. She prepared to jump, as usual, but as she stood, her slight figure poised on the gunwale, he took her in his arms and lifted her out.
Her face went crimson for an instant, but she turned aside, and walked up the beach, and by the time he had overtaken her the crimson had gone; but the grip of his arms had set her tingling, and her heart was beating fast; and yet it was so foolish to—to mind; for had not Brownie and Willy, and half the fishermen of Shorne Mills, lifted her out of a boat when the sea was rough and the boat unsteady?
"Let us sit down," Drake said.
There was a big bowlder just within the cave, and Nell seated herself on it, and he slid down at her side.
"If Dick is angry, you will have to protect me," she said, breaking the silence which seemed to oppress her with a sense of dread.
"I will; especially as it was my fault," he said. "I didn't want Dick—for a wonder. I wanted to be—alone—with you again. I have wanted it every minute since I left you. Do you know why?"
She had grown pale; but she tried to smile, to meet the ardent gaze of his eyes; but she could not.
"Hadn't—hadn't we better be going back?" she faltered; "it is growing late."
But her voice was so low that she wondered whether she had spoken aloud.
"I want to tell you that I have missed you, how I have longed for you," he went on, not speaking with the fluency for which some of his men friends envied him, but brokenly, as if the words were all inadequate to express his meaning. "All the way up to London I thought of you—I could not help thinking of you. All the time I was there, whether I was alone or in the midst of a mob of people, I thought of you. I could see your face, hear your voice. I could not rest day or night. I felt that I must come back to you; that there would be no peace or contentment for me unless I could see you, hear you, be near you."
She sat, her hands clasped tightly, her eyes downcast and hidden by the long dark lashes. Every word he was faltering was making the strangest, sweetest music in her ears and in her heart. That he should miss her—want to come back to her!—oh, it could not—could not be true!
"Do you know why?" he went on, looking up at her with a touch of anxiety, of something like fear in his eyes, for her downcast face told him nothing; her pallor might only be a sign of fear. "It was because I—love you."
She trembled, and raised her eyes for one instant; but she could not meet his—not yet.
"I love you," he said, his voice deepening, so that it was almost hoarse. "I love you."
Just the three words, but how much they mean! Is it any wonder that the poet and the novelist are never weary of singing and writing them? and that the world will never be weary of hearing and reading them? How much hangs upon the three little words! Love: it is the magic word which transforms a life. It means a heaven too great for mortals to imagine, or a hell too deep to fathom. To Nell the words spoke of a mystery which she could not penetrate, but which filled her heart with a joy so great as almost to still it forever.
"Dearest, I have frightened you!" he said, as she sat so silent and so motionless. "Forgive me! It seems so sudden to you; but I—I have felt it for days past, have known it so long, it seems to me. I have been thinking, dwelling on it. Nell, do you—care for me? Can you love me?"
Her hands unclasped and went with a swift motion to her eyes, and covered them. His heart sank with a sudden dread. She was not only frightened; she did not care for him—or was it because she did not know? She was so young, so girlish, so innocent!
"Forgive me—forgive me!" he pleaded, and he ventured to touch her arm. "I have—startled you; you did not expect—it was unfair to bring you here. But I can't take it back. I love you with all my heart and soul. See, Nell—you will let me call you that? It's the name I love above all others—the name I think of you by. I—I won't harass you. You—you shall have time to think. I will go away for—for a few days—and you shall think over——No, no!" he broke off, springing to his feet and bending over her with a sudden passion which swept all before it. "I can't go. I can't leave you again, unless—unless I go forever. I must have your answer now—now! Speak to me, Nell. 'Yes' or 'No'?"
He drew her hands from her face as she rose, and her eyes were lifted and met his. Love's sweet surrender shone in them; and, with a cry of wonder and joy, he caught her to him.
"Nell, Nell!" was all that he could say. "Is it true? You—you love me, Nell?"
She hid her face on his breast, and her hands trembled on his shoulders.
"Yes—yes," she breathed, almost inaudibly. Then: "Do I?"
He took her face in his hands and turned it up to him, but paused as her lips nearly met his.
"Do you? Why, don't you know, dearest?" he asked tenderly.
"Yes, ah! yes, I do," she said, and the tears sprang to her eyes as their lips met. "It was because I loved you that I was so sorry when you went; that every hour and day was a misery to me, and seemed to hang like lead; it was because I loved you that I could not think of anything else, and—and all the world became black and dark, and—and—I hated to be alive. It was because—because of that, was it not?"
He answered with the lover's mute language.
"And—and you love me! It seems so wonderful!" she murmured, looking at him with her eyes, now deep as violets and dewy with her tears. "So wonderful! Why—why do you?"
He laughed—the laugh that for the first time in his life had left his lips.
"Have you no looking-glass in your room, Nell?" he asked. "You beautiful angel! But not only because you are the loveliest——"
She put her hand to his lips, her face crimson; but he kissed it and laid it against his cheek.
—"You are not only the loveliest woman I know, but the sweetest, Nell," he said. "No man could help loving you."
"How foolish!" she breathed; but, ah! the joy, the innocent pride that shone in her eyes! "You must have met, known, hundreds of beautiful women. I never thought that I—that any one could care for me——"
"Because there's not a spark of vanity in my Nell, thank God!" he said. "See here, dearest, you speak of other women—it is because you are unlike any other woman I have ever known—thank God again!—because you are so. Ah, Nell! it's easier to love you than to tell you why. All I know is that I'm the happiest man on earth; that I don't deserve——" His voice grew grave and his face clouded. "The best of us doesn't deserve the love of the worst woman; and I, who have got the sweetest, the dearest——Ah, Nell! if you knew how bad a bargain you have made!"
She laid her face against his hand, and her lips touched it with a kiss, and she laughed softly, as one laughs for mere joy which pants for adequate expression.
"I am satisfied—ah, yes! I am satisfied!" she whispered. "It is you who have made the bad bargain—an ignorant girl—just a girl! Why, Dick will laugh at you! And mamma will think you are too foolish for words."
He looked down at her—he was sitting on the bowlder now, and she was on the sand at his feet, her head resting against him, his arm round her.
"Mrs. Lorton knows nothing about me," he said. "I'm afraid, when she knows——"
His words did not affect her. In a sense, she was scarcely noting them. This new happiness, this unspeakable joy, was taking complete possession of her. That his lips should have touched hers, that his arm should be round her, that her head should be resting against him, his kisses upon her hair, was all so wonderful that she could scarcely realize it. Would she awake presently and find that she was in her own room, with the pillow wet with the tears that had fallen because "Mr. Drake Vernon" had left Shorne Mills forever?
"Does she not?" she said easily. "She knows as much about you as I do, and I am content. But mamma will be pleased, because she likes you. And Dick"—she laughed, and her eyes glowed with her love for the boy—"Dick will yell, and will tease me out of my life. But he will be glad, because he is so very fond of you. What do you do to make everybody like you so much, Mr. Vernon?"
"Oh, 'Drake, Drake, Drake'!" he said.
"Drake," she murmured, and he stifled the word on her lips with kisses.
"I'm by no means sure that Mrs. Lorton will be pleased," he said, after a moment. "See here, Nell—I never saw such hair as yours. It is dark, almost black, and yet it is soft and like silk——"
"And it is all coming down. Ah, no, you cannot coil it up. Let it be for a moment. Do you really like it? Dick says it is like a horse's mane."
"Dick is a rude young scamp to whom I shall have to teach respect for his sister. But Mrs. Lorton, dearest—I'm afraid she won't be pleased. I ought to have told you, Nell, that I'm a poor man."
She nestled a little closer, and scooped up the sand with her disengaged hand—the one he was not holding—and she spoke with an indifference which filled Drake to the brim with satisfaction.
"Yes," he said. "I was not always so poor; but I am one who has had losses, as Shakespeare puts it."
"I am sorry," she said simply, but still with a kind of indifference. "Mamma said you must be rich because you—well, persons who are poor don't keep three horses and give diamond bracelets for presents."
She spoke with the frankness and ingenuousness of a child, and Drake stroked her hair as he would that of a child.
"Yes, that's reasonable enough," he said. "But I've lost my money lately. See?"
She nodded, and looked up at him a little more gravely.
"Yes? I am sorry. I suppose it must have seemed very hard to you. I have never been rich, but I can imagine that one does not like losing his money and becoming poor. Poor—Drake!"
"Then, you don't mind?" he inquired. "You don't shrink from the prospect of being a pauper's bride, Nell?"
"Why should I?" she said simply. "We've always been poor—at least, nearly since I can remember; and we have always been happy, Dick and I. Now, it would not have been so nice if you had been very rich."
"Why not?" he asked, lifting a tress of her hair to his lips.
She thought for a moment.
"Oh, don't you see? I should have felt that you had been foolish to—to love me——" There was an interlude. Should he ever grow tired of kissing her? he asked himself. "And I should have been afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Well, that you would be ashamed of me when you took me into the society of fashionable people, and——Oh, I am very glad that you are not rich! That sounds unkind, I am afraid."
"Nell," he said solemnly, "I have long suspected that you were an angel masquerading as a mere woman, but I am now convinced of it."
She laughed, and softly rubbed her cheek against his arm.
"And I have long suspected that you were a rich man and a 'somebody' masquerading as a poor one, and I am delighted to hear that I was mistaken."
He started at the first words of her retort, but breathed a sigh of relief as she concluded.
"Poor or rich, I love you, Nell," he said, with a seriousness which was almost solemn, "and I will do my level best to make you happy. When you are my wife——"
The blood rushed to her face, and her head dropped.
"That will be a long time hence," she whispered.
"No, no!" he said quickly, passionately. "I couldn't wait very long, Nell. But when you are my wife, I will try to prove to you that poor people can be happy. We shall just have enough to set up a house in some foreign land."
She looked up at him gravely.
"And leave mamma and—Dick? Yes?"
The acquiescence touched him.
"You won't mind, dearest—you won't mind leaving England?"
She shook her head.
"How cold and cruel I have become," she said, as if she were communing with herself. "But I do not care; I feel as if I could leave any one—go anywhere—if—if—I were with you!"
She moved, so that she knelt beside him, and her small brown hands were palm downward on his breast; her eyes shone like stars with the light of a perfect love glowing in them; her sweet lips quivered, as, with all a young girl's abandonment to her first passion, she breathed:
"Do you think I care whether you are poor or rich? I love you! Do you think I care whether you are handsome or ugly? It is you I love. Do you think I care where I go, so that you take me with you? I could not live without you. I would rather wander through the world, in rags, and starving, cold, and hungry, than—than marry a king and live in a palace! I only want you, you, you! I have wanted you since—since that first day—do you remember? I—turn your eyes away, don't look at me; I am so ashamed!—I came down to you that night—the first night! You were calling for water, and I—I raised you on my arm, and—and oh! I was so happy! I did not know, guess, why; but I know now. I—I must have loved you even then!"
She hid her eyes on his arm, and he kissed her hair reverently.
"And every day I—I grew to love you more. I was only happy when I was with you. I wondered why. But I know now! And you were always so kind and gentle with me; so unlike any other man I had met—the vicar, Doctor Spence—and I used to like to listen to you; and—and when you touched me something ran through me, something filled me with gladness."
She paused for breath, her eyes fixed on his face, as if she were not seeing him, but the past, and her own self moving and being in that past.
"And then you went, and all the happiness, all the gladness, seemed to go, and—bend lower—I—I can only whisper it—the night you went I flung myself on the bed and—and cried."
"My Nell, my dearest!" was all he could say.
"I cried because it seemed to me that my life had come to an end; that never, so long as I should live, should I know one moment of happiness again. It was as if all the light had gone out of the sky, as if the sun had turned cold—ah! you don't know!"
"Do I not, dearest?"
"And then, when I saw you to-day, all the light and warmth came rushing back, and I knew that it was you who were my light, my sun, and that without you I was not living, but only a shadow and a mockery of life."
Her hands fell from his breast, her head sank upon his knees, she sobbed in the abandonment of her passion.
And the man was awed by it, and almost as white as herself. He gathered her in his strong arms and murmured passionate words of love and gratitude and devotion.
"Nell, Nell, my Nell! God make me more worthy of your love!" he said brokenly, hoarsely.
She raised her head from his knees and offered him—of her own free will—her sweet lips, and then clung to him with a half-tearful, maidenly shame.
"Let me go!" she said.
* * * * *
The light that never was on earth or sky beamed on the Annie Laurie as it skimmed toward the jetty.
Nell sat in the stern, and Drake lay at her feet, his arms round her, his face upturned to hers.
God knows he was grateful for her love. God also knows how unworthy he felt. This love is such a terrible thing. A maiden goes through the ways of life, in maiden meditation fancy free, pausing beside the brook to pluck the flowers which grow on its bank, and thinking of nothing but the simple girlish things which pertain to maidenhood. Then suddenly a shadow falls across her path. It is the shadow of the Man, and the love which shall raise her to heaven or drag her down to the nethermost hell. A glance, a word, and her fate is decided; before her stretch the long years of joy or misery.
And, alas! she has no choice! Love is lord of all, of our lives, of our fate, and none can say him nay. No one of us can elect to love a little wisely, or unwisely and too well.
But there was no doubt, no misgiving, in Nell's mind that night. She had given herself to this man who had fallen at her feet in Shorne Mills, and she had given herself fully and unreservedly. His very presence was a joy to her. It was a subtle delight to reach out her hand and touch him, though with the tips of her fingers. The gates of paradise had opened and she had entered in.
How short the hour seemed during which they had sailed toward the jetty! She breathed a sigh, which Drake echoed.
"Let me lift you out," he pleaded. "I want to feel you in my arms—once more to-night!"
She surrendered herself, and, for a moment, her head sank on his shoulder.
They walked up the hill almost in silence; but every now and then his hand sought hers, and not in vain.
She looked up at the starlit sky in a kind of wondering amazement. Was it she?—was it he?—were they really betrothed? Did he really love her? Oh, how wonderful—wonderful it was! And they said there was no real happiness in this world.
She could have laughed with the scorn of her full, complete joy!
They entered The Cottage side by side, and were met by Dick, with half-serious indignation.
"Well, upon my word, for a clear case of desertion, I never——Why didn't you wait for me? I've got a couple of gulls, and——What's the matter with you, Nell? You look as if you'd found a threepenny piece."
"Just in time for supper," simpered Mrs. Lorton.
Drake took Nell's hand and led her into the light of the lamp, which illumined the night and perfumed the day.
"I've brought Nell back, Mrs. Lorton," he said, with the shyness of the newly engaged man, "and—and she has promised to be my wife."
Drake's announcement was received with amazed silence for a moment; then Dick flung up his piece of bread behind his back, caught it dexterously, and burst out with:
"See the conquering hero comes! Hurrah! Nell—Nell! Don't run away! Wait for the congratulations of your devoted brother!"
But Nell had fled to her room, and, on pretense of chivying her, Dick discreetly withdrew, leaving Drake to the inevitable interview with Mrs. Lorton.
"I'm sure I don't know what to say," she murmured. "It is so unexpected, so quite unlooked for. It is like a bolt out of the green——" She meant blue, but had got the colors mixed. "I had no idea that you had any serious intentions!"
Then she remembered that she had to play the part of guardian, and endeavored to fill the role with the dignity due to a lady of her exalted birth.
"I need not say that I—er—congratulate you, Mr. Vernon. Eleanor is a—er—dear girl; she has been the comfort and consolation of my life, and—er—the parting with her will be a great—a very great—trial. Pardon my emotion!" She snuffed into a handkerchief, and wiped her eyes with a delicate touch or two. "But I should not dream of standing in the way of her happiness. No! If she has made her heart's choice, I shall not attempt to dissuade her. And I feel that she has chosen wisely. Of course, my dear Mr. Vernon, though we have had the pleasure of your presence with us for some time, we do not—er—know——"
Drake winced slightly. Should he tell her the truth? Should he say, "My name's Drake Vernon, right enough, but I happen to be Lord Selbie?"
But he shrank from the avowal, the confession. He knew that it would call forth quite a torrent of amazement and self-satisfaction; that he would be asked why he had concealed his full name and rank—and to-night, of all nights, he felt unequal to the scene which would most certainly follow the confession.
"I will tell you all—I can," he said, with a pause before the last words which, fortunately for him, Mrs. Lorton was top excited to notice. "I'm afraid Nell hasn't made a very wise choice. I'm not worthy of her; but that goes without saying; no man alive is. But even in the usual acceptation of the term, I'm not what is called a good match."
Mrs. Lorton looked blank and rather puzzled as she thought of the diamond bracelet and the three horses.
"I—we—er—imagined that you were well off," she said.
"I've met with reverses lately," said Drake; "and I'm poorer than I was a—er—little while ago."
Mrs. Lorton drew herself up a little, and her expression grew less complaisant.
"Indeed?" she said interrogatively.
"Yes," he went on quietly. "I am quite aware that Nell deserves——Perhaps I'd better tell you the income we shall have to get along on."
He mentioned the sum which the remnant of his fortune would produce, and, though it was much smaller than Mrs. Lorton had expected, it was large enough to cause her countenance to relax something of its stiffness.
"It is not a large income," she said. "And I cannot but remember that Eleanor, though she is not a Wolfer by birth, is connected with the family; and that, if she were taken up by them, she might—one never knows what may happen under favorable circumstances. A season in London with my people——"
"I know," he said, "Nell is worthy of the best, and no doubt if she were in London I should stand a poor chance; but it's my luck that she isn't, you see. And"—his voice dropped—"and I'm conceited enough to believe that she cares for me; and I don't suppose my poverty will make any difference. Heaven knows, I wish I were rich, for her sake!"
"Well, we must make the best of it," said the good lady. "After all, money isn't everything." She spoke as if she were suffering from the burden of a million. "True hearts are more than coronets. I must write and tell my cousin, Lord Wolfer."
"I wouldn't! I mean, is it necessary—at any rate, just yet?" said Drake. It was just possible that Lord Wolfer might interest himself sufficiently to ask questions; he might, indeed, connect "Drake Vernon" with the two first names of Viscount Selbie. And Drake—well, this was the first bit of romance in his life, and he clung to it. The idea of marrying Nell, of marrying her as plain "Drake Vernon," down on his luck, was sweet to him. He could tell her after the wedding, when they were too far away to suffer from the fuss which Mrs. Lorton would inevitably make over the revelation.
"You see, we shall have to be married very quietly; and I'm thinking of spending some time abroad, on the Continent—Nell will like to see a foreign city or two—and, do you think it's worth while troubling your people?"
The "your people" flattered her, and she yielded, with a sigh.
"As you please, Mr. Vernon—but I suppose I must now call you 'Drake'?" she broke off, with a simper; "though, really, it sounds so strange, and—er—so familiar."
Drake wondered whether he ought to kiss her as he murmured assent.
"I'll do my best to make Nell happy," he said; "and you must make the best of a bad bargain, my dear Mrs. Lorton; and if you feel like being very good to me, you'll help me persuade Nell to an early marriage."
She brightened up at the word marriage, and at the prospect of playing a part in the function beloved of all women; and when Nell stole in, with pink cheeks and glowing eyes, drew the girl to her and bestowed a pecklike kiss upon her forehead.
Mrs. Lorton provided the conversation during that meal, and, while she prosed about the various marriages in the Wolfer family, Nell listened in dutiful silence, now and again flushing and thrilling as Drake's hand touched hers or his eyes sought her face.
And Dick behaved very well. He reserved his chaff for a future occasion, and only permitted himself one allusion to the state of affairs by taking Nell's hand and murmuring: "Beg pardon, Nell! Thought it was a spoon!"
As Drake walked down the hill to the Brownies' cottage his heart throbbed with the first pure happiness of his life. Nell's kiss, which she had given him at parting at the gate, glowed warm upon his lips. And if his happiness was alloyed by the reflection that he was deceiving her in the matter of his rank, he thrust it from him.
After all, what did it matter? What would she care? It was he, the man, not the viscount, whom she loved. Yes, the gods had been good to him, notwithstanding the ruin of his prospects; for was he not loved for himself alone?
He smiled, with a sense of the irony of circumstances, when he remembered that only a few weeks ago he had congratulated himself that he had "done with women!" But at that time he had not fallen in love with Nell of Shorne Mills, and won her love; which made all the difference!
And Nell? She lay awake in a sleepless dream. Every word he had spoken came back to her like the haunting refrain of a beautiful song; the expression in his eyes, the touch of his hand—ah! and more, the kiss of his lips—were with her still. It was her first love. No man before Drake had ever spoken of love to her; it was her virgin heart which he had won; and when this is the case the man assumes the proportions of a god to the girl.
And it seemed so wonderful, so incredible, that he should have fallen in love with her, that he should have chosen her; as his queen, as his wife. She tried to draw a mental picture of herself, to account for his preference for her, and failed to find any reason for it. He had said that she was—beautiful. Oh, no—no! He must have met a hundred women prettier than she was; but he had chosen her. How strange! how wonderful! Sleep came to her at last, but it was a sleep broken by dreams—dreams in which Drake—she could think of him as "Drake"—held her in his arms and murmured his love. She could feel his kisses on her lips, her hair. Once the dream turned and twisted somewhat, and he and she seemed separated—a vague something came between them, an intangible mist or cloud which neither could pass, though they stood with outstretched hands and yearning hearts; but this dream passed, and she slept the sleep of joy and peaceful happiness.
Happiness! It is given to so few to know happiness that one would like to linger over the days which followed their betrothal. For every day was an idyl. Drake had resolved to send the horses up to London for sale; he had given Sparling notice, six months' wages, and a character which would insure him a good place; but he clung to the horses, and Nell and Dick and he had some famous rides before the nags went to Tattersall's.
And what rides they were! Dick, wise beyond his years, would lag behind or canter a long way in front; and Nell and Drake would be left alone to whisper together, or clasp hands in silent ecstasy.
And there was the Annie Laurie. To sail before the wind, with the sun shining brightly from the blue sky upon the opal sea; to hold his beloved in his arms; to feel the warmth of her lips on his; to know that in a few short weeks she would be his own, his wife!—the rapture of it made him catch his breath and fall into a rapt silence.
One day, as they were sailing homeward, the Annie Laurie speeding on a flowing tide and a favorable breeze, his longing became almost insupportable.
"See here, Nell," he said, with the timidity of the man whose every pulse is throbbing with passion, "why—why shouldn't we be married at once? I mean, what is the use of waiting?"
She drew away from him and caught her breath.
"Why not?" he asked. "I shan't be any the richer for waiting, and—and I want you very badly."
"But I am here—you have got me," she said, with all the innocence of a child. "Oh, why should we hurry?"
He bit his pipe hard.
"I know," he said, rather huskily. "But I want you altogether—for my very own. I don't want to have to part with you at the gate of The Cottage. You don't understand; but I don't want you to. But, Nell, as we are going to be married, we might as well be married now as months hence."
Her head sank lower; the Annie Laurie lost the wind, and fell off and rolled on the ground swell.
"Do you—want to marry me—so soon?" she murmured.
"So soon!" he echoed. "Why, it is months—weeks—since we were engaged."
"But—but—aren't you happy—content?" she asked. "I—I am so happy. I know that you love me; that is happiness enough."
He drew her to him and kissed her with a reverence which he thought no woman would have received from him.
"No; it is not enough, dearest," he said. "You don't understand. I'll put the banns up to-morrow—no; I'll get a special license. I want you for my own, all my own, Nell."
When they sailed into the slip by the jetty, Dick was waiting for them.
"Hal-lo!" he yelled. "I've been waiting for you for the last two hours. I've news for you."
"News?" said Drake.
Nell was coiling the sheet in a methodical fashion, and thinking of Drake's words.
"Yes. The Maltbys are going to give a dance, and you and I and Nell are asked."
"And who are the Maltbys?" he inquired, with a lack of interest which nettled Dick.
"The Maltbys are our salt of the earth," he replied; "they are our especial 'local gentry'; and, let me tell you, an invitation from them is not to be sneezed at."
"I didn't sneeze," said Drake, clasping Nell's hand as he helped her out of the boat.
"It's for the fifth," said Dick; "and it's sure to be a good dance; better still, it's sure to be a good supper. Now, look here, don't you two spoons say you 'don't care about it,' for, I've set my mind upon going."
Drake laughed easily.
"Would you like to go?" he asked of Nell.
"Would you?" she returned.
Loverlike, he thought of a dance with her. She was, her girlish innocence, so sparing of her caresses, that the prospect of holding her in his arms during a waltz set him aching with longing.
"Yes," he said, "if you like."
"All right," she said. "Yes, I should think we might go, Dick."
"I should think so!" he shouted. "Fancy chucking away the chance of a dance!"
"How did they come to ask us?" Nell inquired. "We don't know them very well," she explained to Drake. "The Maltbys are quite grand folk compared with us; and, though Lady Maltby calls once in a blue moon, and sends us cards for a garden party now and again, this is the first time we have been invited to a dance."
"You have to thank me, young people," said Dick, with exaggerated self-satisfaction. "I happened to meet young Maltby—he's home for a spell; fancy he's sent down from Oxford—and he asked me to go rabbiting with him. He's not much of a shot, though he is a baronet's son and heir, and I rather think I put him up to a wrinkle or two. Anyway, the other day he mentioned that they were going to have a dance—quite an informal affair—and asked if I'd care to go; and Lady Maltby's just sent a note."
"All right," said Drake.
Then he suddenly remembered his masquerade, and looked grave and thoughtful. Yes, it was just possible that some one there might recognize him.
"Who are the Maltbys?" he asked. "I never heard of them."
Dick's eyes twinkled.
"I can't truthfully say that that argues you unknown," he said; "for they are very quiet people, and only famous in their own straw yard. Old Sir William hates London, and he and Lady Maltby seldom leave the Grange."
"There is no daughter, only this one son," explained Nell. "They are not at all 'grand,' and I think you will like them. Lady Maltby is always very kind, and Sir William is a dear old man, who loves to talk about his prize cattle."
"Do you happen to know who is staying at the house?" asked Drake.
After all, perhaps, he would run no risk of detection; as he had never met the Maltbys, it was highly improbable that they had heard of him.
"Oh, it's not a large party. I remember some of the names, because young Maltby ran over them. He said there weren't enough in the house to make up a dance. I shrewdly conjectured that that's one reason why we were asked."
"Wise but ungrateful youth!" said Drake. "Let us hear the names."
Dick repeated all that he could remember.
"Know any of them?" he asked.
"No," replied Drake, with relief.
"The fifth," mused Nell, thinking of her dress. "It is very short notice."
"It's only a scratch affair; but, all the same, I should wear my white satin with Brussels lace, and put on my suite of diamonds and rubies, if I were you," advised Dick.
Nell laughed, as she glanced up at Drake.
"I am just wondering whether I have outgrown my nun's veiling," she said simply. "It's the only dress I have. I'm afraid"—she hesitated—"I'm afraid you will think it a very poor one!"
"Are you?" he said significantly. "You never can tell. Perhaps I shall admire it."
As he spoke he asked himself whether he should send up to Bond Street for some jewels for her; but he resisted the temptation. Later on, when they were married, he would give himself the treat of buying her some of the things women loved. Even in the matter of the engagement ring he had held himself in check, and only a very simple affair encircled the third finger of Nell's left hand.
They found Mrs. Lorton in a flutter of excitement, and she handed Drake the note of invitation with the air of an empress conferring a patent of nobility.
"Very good people," she said; "though not, of course, the creme de la creme. I am included in the invitation, but I shall not accept. The scene would but recall others of a more brilliant description in which I once moved—er—not the least of the glittering throng. No, Eleanor, you will not need a chaperon. You have Drake, who, I trust, will enjoy himself in what may be novel circumstances," she added, with affable patronage.
"You will not need a new dress, Eleanor—Dick tells me that he must have a new suit."
"Oh, no; I am all right!" said Nell cheerfully.
She found that the old frock could, with a little alteration, be utilized, and for several evenings Drake sat and watched her as she lengthened the skirt and bestowed new lace and ribbons upon the thing, and, as he smoked, imagined how she would look on the night of the dance. He knew that not one of the other women, let them be arrayed in all the glory of the Queen of Sheba herself, would outshine his star.
On the night of the fifth Nell sang softly to herself as she stood before the glass putting the last touches to her, toilet. She was brimming over with happiness, and as she looked at the radiant reflection she wondered whether her lover would be satisfied. It is the question which every woman who loves asks herself. It is for the man of her heart that she lives and has her being; it is that she may find favor in his sight that she brushes the hair he has kissed; it is with the hope that his eye may be caught, his fancy pleased, that she puts the flower at her bosom or winds the filmy lace around her neck. And it was of Drake—Drake—Drake—she thought and dreamed as she turned from the glass and went down the stairs.
She had heard the wheels of the fly he had procured from Shallop, and she found him in the little hall waiting for her.
He looked up at the lovely vision with startled admiration, for hitherto he had only seen her in week-a-day attire; and this slight, graceful form, clad in soft white, seemed so pure, so virginal and ethereal, that, not for the first time, his joy in her loveliness was tempered with awe.
"Nell!" was all he could say, and he stretched out his arms, then let them fall. "I should crush you or break you," he said, half seriously. "Is that the dress I saw you making up—that! It looked like——"
"A rag," she finished for him, her eyes shining down upon him with a woman's gratitude for his admiration. "Will it do? Do I look—passable?"
"No," he said; "no one could pass you! Nell, my angel—yes, you are like an angel to-night!" he broke off, in lower tones. "You—you frighten me, dearest. I dread to see you spread your wings and fly away from me."
She laughed shyly and shook her head.
"And—and—how different you look!" she said; for it was the first time she had seen Drake in the costume which we share with the waiter; and her pride in him—in his tall figure and square shoulders—glowed in her eyes. If he had been lame and halt she would have still loved him; but—well, there is no woman who is not proud of her sweetheart's good looks. Sometimes she is prouder of them than of her own.
"Let me put this wrap around you," he said; and as he did so she raised her head with a blush and an invitation in her eyes, and he kissed her on the lips. "See here, dearest," he said, "your first dance! And as many as you will give me afterward. Did I ever mention that I was jealous? Nell, I inform you of the gruesome fact now; and that I shall endure agonies every time I see you dancing with another man."
"Perhaps you will be spared that pain," she said. "I may be a wallflower, waiting for you to take pity on me."
"Yes, I should think that very probable," he retorted ironically. "Oh, Nell, how I love you, how proud——"
Dick came out of the dining room at that moment, and at sight of Nell fell back against the wall in an assumed swoon.
"Is it—can it be—the simple little fishergirl of Shorne Mills? My aunt, Nell, you do look a swell! Got 'em all on, Drake, hasn't she? Miss Eleanor Lorton as Cinderella! Kiss your brother, Nell!"
He made a pretended rush at her with extended arms, and Nell shrieked apprehensively:
"Keep him off, Drake! He'll crush my dress! Dick—Dick, you dare!"
Dick winked at Drake.
"You are requested not to touch the figure. Drake, have you observed and noticed this warning? But so it is in this world! One man may kiss this waxwork, while another isn't permitted to lay a finger on it. Now, are we going to the Maltbys' dance, or have you decided to remain here and spoon? And hasn't any one a word of approval for this figure? Between you and me, Drake, I rather fancy myself to-night. I do hope I shan't break any young thing's heart, for I'm not—I really am not—a marrying man. Seen too much of the preliminary business with other people, you know."
They got into the fly, laughing, and Drake, as they drove along, compared this departure for a simple country dance with his past experiences. How seldom had he gone to a big London crush without wishing that he could stay at home and smoke or read!
"Remember," he whispered to Nell, as they alighted at the Grange, "your first dance and as many as you can give me!"
One or two other carriages set down at the same time, and they entered the hall, a portion of a small crowd, so that Lady Maltby, a buxom, smiling lady of the good old type of the country baronet's wife, had only time to murmur a few words; and Drake passed on with Nell on his arm.
As they went up the room, a dance started, and he drew Nell aside, and standing by her, looked round curiously and a trifle apprehensively. But there was no person whom he knew, and Sir William, who came up to them, had even got Drake's name wrongly.
"Glad to see you, Miss Lorton. Dear, dear! how the young ones do grow! Glad to make your acquaintance, Mr. Verney Blake, and to congratulate you. I think I've met a relative of yours—an uncle, I fancy——"
Drake's face grew expressionless in an instant.
—"Sir Richard—or—was it Sir Joseph—Blake? He took the first for shorthorns in seventy-eight."
Drake drew a sigh of relief.
"No relation of mine, Sir William, I regret," he said.
"No? Same name, too. Funny! But there are a good many Blakes. So you're going to run off with the belle of Shorne Mills, eh? Lucky fellow!"
With a chuckle he ambled off to his wife, to be sent to some one else, and Drake bent to Nell.
"Come!" was all he said, and he put his arm round her. The floor was good, the band from the garrison town knew its business, and Nell——Was he surprised that she should dance so well? Was not every ordinary movement of hers graceful? But the fact that she could dance like an angel, as he put it to himself, did not make his love for her any the less or his pride in her diminish, be certain. He himself had been the best dancer in his regiment, and this, his first waltz with the girl he adored, sent the blood spinning through his veins.
"Aren't we in step rather—nicely?" she whispered, trying to speak casually, but failing utterly; for the joy that throbbed in her heart made it impossible for her to keep her voice steady. "Oh, Drake, I—I was afraid that I might not be able to dance, it is so long—ever so long—since——Why, this is my first real ball, and I am dancing with you! And how well you waltz! But you have danced so often—this is not your first ball!"
He glanced at her with a pang of uneasiness, but her eyes shone up at him innocent of any other meaning than the simplest one, innocent of any doubt of him, any question of his past.
"He would be a rank duffer who couldn't dance with you, Nell," he said.
Her hand tightened on his with the faintest pressure, and she closed her eyes with a happy sigh.
"If it could only go on forever!" was her thought; and she prayed that no other man might want her to dance, for a long time.
She would have liked to sit out the dances she could not have with Drake, to sit and watch him. And she would not be jealous. Why should she be? Was he not her very own, her sweetheart, the man who loved her?
The waltz came to an end all too soon, and as Drake led her to a seat, young Maltby approached her with two young fellows. She was the prettiest girl in the room, though she was the simplest dressed, and the men were anxious to secure her.
Drake hastily scribbled his initials on several lines of her program, then had to resign her to her next partner, and, in discharge of his duty, seek a partner for himself.
Lady Maltby introduced him to a daughter of a local squire, a fresh young girl, with all a country girl's frankness.
"What a pretty girl that was with whom you were dancing!" she said, as they started. "She is really lovely!"
"And yet they say that women never admire each other," he remarked.
"Do you mean that?" she asked, looking up at him with her frank, blue eyes. "What nonsense! I love to see a pretty woman; and I quite looked forward to coming here to-night, because we are to have a famous London beauty."
"Oh! Which one?" asked Drake absently; his eyes were following Nell, who happened to look across at him at the moment, and who smiled the smile which a woman only accords her lover.
"I don't remember her name," said the girl. "But she is very beautiful, I am told; though I find it hard to believe that she can be lovelier than she is," and she nodded in Nell's direction.
Drake felt very friendly toward the girl.
"She is as good as she is beautiful," he said; then, as the triteness and significance of the words struck him, he laughed slightly.
His partner glanced up at him shyly.
"Oh—I beg your pardon!" she said. "I didn't know. How—how proud you must be!"
"I am," said Drake.
"And of course you want to be dancing with her now? If I were you I should hate to have to dance with any one else. I wish—you would introduce me to her after this waltz!"
"With pleasure!" said Drake, wondering what on earth the girl's name was—for, of course, he had not caught it.
But the introduction was not made, for her next partner came up immediately the dance was finished and bore her off; and Drake leaned against the wall and watched Nell.
She was dancing with a subaltern from the garrison town, and was evidently enjoying herself. It was a pleasure to him to look at her; and it occurred to him that even if the bright little American, with the pleasant voice and tender heart, had not stepped in to ruin his prospects; if the title and estates were as near to him as they had been a few months ago; if he were moving in London society, in his own critical and exclusive set, he would not have made any mistake in asking Nell to be his wife. She would have justified his choice in any society, however high.
It occurred to him that where they were going on the Continent he might, perhaps, procure a little amusement for her; there might be a dance or two at the hotels at which they would stay; or he might take her to one of the big state balls for which there would be no difficulty in obtaining an invitation.
Yes, he thought as he watched her—her lips half parted with a smile of intense enjoyment, her eyes shining with the light of youth and ignorance of care—she should have a happy time of it or he would know the reason why; he would simply devote his life to watching over her, to screening her from every worry, to——
"Are you staying in the house, Mr. Blake?"
It was Sir William who had toddled up and addressed the reflective guest. Sir William never knew exactly how the house party was composed; and sometimes a man had been staying at the Grange for a fortnight without Sir William comprehending that the man was sleeping beneath his roof.
"No? Beg your pardon! I should have liked to show you my Herefords to-morrow morning. I think you'd admire 'em; they're the best lot I've had, and I ought to do well with them at the show. But perhaps you don't take an interest in cattle-breeding?"
"Oh, yes, I do," said Drake pleasantly, and with his rather rare smile—he was brimming over with happiness and would have patted a rhinoceros that night, and Sir William was anything but a rhinoceros. "Every man ought to take an interest in cattle-breeding and horse-breeding. I did a little in the latter way myself." He pulled up short. "I shall be very glad to come over to-morrow morning, if you'll allow me."
"Do, do!" said Sir William genially, and evidently much gratified. "But, look here, you'll have to come over early, because I've got to go and sit on the bench, and shall have to leave here soon after ten. Why not come over to breakfast—say, nine o'clock?"
"Thanks!" said Drake; "I shall be very glad to."
At this moment Lady Maltby came up to them with a rather anxious expression on her pleasant face.
"I can't think what has come to the Chesney party, William," she said. "I didn't expect them very early, but it's getting rather late now. Do you think they've had an accident?"
"Not a bit of it!" returned Sir William cheerily. "They've had a jolly good dinner, and don't feel like moving. Don't blame them, either. Suppose we go and have a cigar, Mr. Blake?"
Drake glanced toward Nell, saw that she was surrounded, exchanged a smile with her, then went off with Sir William to the smoking room. They were in the middle of their cigars, and talking cattle and horses, when Drake heard a carriage drive up.
"That's the Chesney people, I dare say," said Sir William, and continued to dilate on a new rule which he was anxious that the Agricultural Society should adopt, and Drake and he discussed it exhaustively.
Nell had just finished a dance when she saw Lady Maltby hurry across the room to receive four persons, two ladies and two men, who had just arrived. It was the belated Chesney party. Their entrance attracted a good deal of attention, and Nell herself was startled into interest and curiosity by the appearance of one of the new arrivals. She thought that she had never imagined—she had certainly never seen—so beautiful a woman, or one so magnificently dressed.
A professional beauty in all her war paint is somewhat of a rara avis in a quiet country house, and this professional beauty was the acknowledged queen of her tribe. Her hair shone like gold, and it had been dressed by a maid who had acquired her art at the hands of a famous Parisian coiffeur; her complexion, of a delicate ivory, was tinted with the blush of a rose; her lips were the Cupid-bow lips which Sir Joshua Reynolds loved to paint. Naturally graceful, her figure was indebted to her modiste for every adventitious aid the art of modern dressmaking can bestow. Nell knew too little of dress to fully appreciate the exquisite perfection of the toilette de la danse; she could only admire and wonder. It was of a soft cream silk, rendered still softer in appearance by cobweb lace, in which, as if caught by the filmy strands, as in a net, were lustrous pearls. Diamonds glittered in the hair which served them as a setting of gold. Her very gloves were unlike those of the other women, and seemed to fit the long and slender hands like a fourth skin.
"How beautiful!" she said involuntarily, and scarcely aware that she had spoken aloud.
The man who was sitting beside her smiled.
"Like a picture, is she not?" he said. "In fact, I never see her but I am reminded of a Lely or a Lawrence; one of those full-length pictures in Hampton Court, you know!"
"I don't know," said Nell. "I've never been there."
"Well, you won't think it a fair comparison when you do see them," he said; "for there isn't one of them half as beautiful as Lady Luce."
"What is her name?" asked Nell, who had not caught it.
He did not hear the question, for the music had struck up again, and with a bow he went off to his next partner. It was evident to Nell that the beauty was not known to Lady Maltby, for Nell saw the other lady introducing them. Nell felt half fascinated by the new arrival, and sat and watched her, looking at her as intently as one gazes at something quite new and strange which has swung suddenly into one's own ken.
Nell was engaged for that dance, but her partner did not turn up. She was not sorry, for she wanted to rest; the room was hot, and, though she was by no means tired, she was not eager to dance the waltz—unless it were to be danced with Drake. She was sitting not very far from the window; some considerate soul had opened it a little, and Nell got up and went to it and looked out. It opened onto a wide terrace; the stars were shining brightly, the night air came to her softly and wooingly. How nice it would be to go out there! Perhaps if she stole out, and waited, presently Drake would come into the ballroom, and, missing her, would come in search of her, for he would guess that she would be out there, and they would have a few minutes by themselves under the starlit sky. It was worth trying for.
She went out, without opening the window any wider, and leaning on the stone coping, looked up at the sky, and then to where, far away, the few lights which were still burning showed her where Shorne Mills nestled amid its trees.
As long as life lasted she would never be able to think of Shorne Mills without thinking of Drake; she thought of him now, and longed for him; and as she heard the window open wider she turned with a little throb of expectation. But instead of Drake's tall figure, two ladies came out. Nell recognized the beauty by her dress, and saw that the lady who was with her was the one who had accompanied her to the ball.
Nell's disappointment was so acute as to embarrass her for a moment, and, reluctant, with a girl's shyness, to be found there alone, she rather foolishly drew back quietly into the shadow accentuated by the contrast of the light streaming from the half-open window. She retreated as far as the corner of the terrace, and, finding a seat there, over which she had nearly stumbled, she sank into it. Beside her was a marble statue of the god Pan. The pedestal almost, if not quite, concealed her; and, although she was already ashamed of having taken flight, so to speak, she decided to remain where she was until the other two women returned to the ballroom, or Drake came out and she could call to him.
Lady Luce went and leaned upon almost the very spot where Nell had leaned; and she looked up at the sky and toward the twinkling lights, and yawned.
"Sorry you have come, dear?" said Lady Chesney, with a little laugh. "I know you so well that that yawn speaks volumes."
"It is rather slow, isn't it?" admitted Lady Luce, with the soft little London drawl in her languid voice.
"My dear Luce, I told you it would be slow. What did you expect? These dear, good people are quite out of the world—they are antediluvians. The best people imaginable, of course, but not of the kind which gives the sort of hop you care for. I'm sorry you came; but I did warn you, dear, didn't I?"
"Yes, I know," assented Lady Luce.
"And, really, you seemed so bored—forgive me, dear; I don't want to be offensive—that I thought that perhaps, after all, this rustic entertainment might amuse you."