Drake tore off the mask, and Ted shrugged his shoulders.
"You can take your knee off my chest, my lord," he said; "you're a tidy weight. Oh, I'm not going to try to escape. I know when I'm done. But it was a near thing."
Sparling and a couple of grooms with lanterns came running toward them, and Drake rose.
"Look to him," he said quietly. "He is not armed."
Ted took the cases from his pockets and flung them down as the men surrounded him; then he drew out a cigarette case, and, with a cockney drawl, said:
"Can one of you oblige me with a light?"
Sparling knocked the cigarette out of his hand, and one of the grooms growled:
"Shall I give him one over the head, for his cheek, Mr. Sparling?"
"Yes; that's about all you flunkeys can do; hit a man when he's down," said Ted. "But you needn't trouble. Here comes the peelers."
His quick ears had caught the heavy footsteps of the policeman, who came running up, and, before he was asked to do so, he held out his hands for the handcuffs.
"Is the cove dead?" he asked curtly; but no one answered him; indeed, no answer was possible, for Falconer lay like one dead, and Drake, who supported his head, could perceive no movement of the heart.
"One of you take a cart and go for the doctor," he said gravely.
As he spoke, Nell came toward them. The climax had been reached so quickly that Falconer had been wounded and the burglar caught before she could find strength to follow Drake; for the reaction which had followed upon her discovery of the fact that he was unhurt had made her weaker than the man's blow had done.
But now, as she saw the circle of men bending and kneeling round a prostrate figure, her terror rose again and she hurried forward. Pushing one of the men aside, she looked down, and with a cry fell on her knees beside the unconscious man and gazed with horror-stricken eyes.
"He is dead! He is dead! He has killed him!" she moaned.
There was a moment's silence, while Drake looked at her with set face and gloomy eyes; for at the anguish in her voice a pang of jealousy shot through him, of envy; for how willingly he would have changed places with the injured man!
He rose, lantern in hand, and went round to her.
"He is not dead," he said, almost inaudibly.
"Oh, thank God!" she breathed.
"But he is badly hurt, I am afraid," said Drake gravely. Then he turned to the men. "We will carry him to the lodge. Gently!"
They lifted the wounded man and bore him along slowly. As they did so, Nell walked by his side, and half unconsciously took his hand and held it fast clasped in her trembling one. Even at that moment he saw her actions, and his heart ached. Yes, to have Nell hold his hand thus, to have her sweet eyes resting on him so tenderly, so anxiously, he would have willingly been in Falconer's place.
They carried Falconer up to his room, and Drake, with the skill he had acquired in many a knife-and-gun-shot accident, staunched the wound. Falconer had been stabbed in the chest, and the blood was flowing, but slowly.
Drake was so absorbed in the task that he had forgotten Dick's presence until, looking up, he caught Dick's eye fixed on him with sheer wonder.
"Drake!" he said, in a whisper. "You here?"
"Yes; it's a strange meeting, Dick, isn't it? But we have been near each other—though we didn't know it—for some days past. You are 'the young engineer,' and I——"
He shrugged his shoulders, and Dick leaped at the truth.
"You are Lord Angleford?" he said.
"Yes. I'll explain presently. Just now all we can think of is this poor fellow."
"Poor chap!" said Dick sadly. "If I'd only come up a minute or two sooner—I'd gone down to the village for some 'bacca. Who'd have thought he was such a plucky one. For he's not strong, Drake, you see."
"No," he said; "but it is not always the strongest who are the bravest. Who is that?" for there came a knock at the door.
Dick went and opened it. Nell stood there, white to the lips, but calm and composed. He answered the question in her eyes.
"All right, Nell! Don't be frightened. He'll pull through; won't he, Drake?"
She turned her eyes upon him, and he met their appeal steadily.
"I hope so," he said.
She stole into the room, and, with her hands clasped, looked down at Falconer in silence.
"I hope so," repeated Drake emphatically. "There are not so many brave men that the world can afford to lose one."
She raised her eyes to his face quickly.
"Yes," he said, "he was unarmed and knew that it was a struggle for life, that the man was desperate and would stick at nothing. It was the pluckiest thing I have ever seen." Then he remembered how she had sprung forward to strike up the burglar's arm, and he added, under his breath, "almost the pluckiest."
The crimson dyed her face for a moment, and her eyes dropped under his regard; but she said nothing, and presently she stole out again.
It seemed an age to the two men before the doctor arrived, though the time was really short; it seemed another age while he made his examination. He met Drake's questioning gaze with the grave evasion which comes so naturally to the smallest of country practitioners.
"A nasty wound, my lord!" he said. "But I've known men recover from a worse one. Unfortunately, he is not a strong man. This poor fellow has known the meaning of privation." He touched the thin arm, and pointed to the wasted face. "They tell their own story! Now, if it were you, my lord——" he smiled significantly.
"Would to God it had been!" said Drake. The village nurse, whom the doctor had instructed to follow him, entered and moved with professional calm to the bedside, and the doctor gave her some instructions.
"I'll send you some help, nurse," he said.
As he spoke, Nell came to the door.
"No," she said, very quietly; "there is no need; I will help."
Almost as if he had heard her, Falconer's lips quivered, and he murmured something. Nell glided to the bed, and kneeling beside him, took his hand. His eyes opened, with the vacant stare of unconsciousness for a moment, then they recognized her, and he spoke her name.
"Yes," she whispered, in response. "It is I. You are here at the lodge. Here is Dick, and"—her voice fell before Drake's steady regard—"you are with friends, and safe."
He smiled, but his eyes did not leave her face.
"I know," he said. "I—I am more than content."
Drake could bear it no longer. Dick followed him out of the room, and they went downstairs.
"I will wire for Sir William, the surgeon," said Drake, very quietly. "He will come down by the first train. Everything shall be done. Tell—tell your sister——"
Dick nodded gravely.
"He's one of the best fellows in the world; he's worth saving, Drake——" he said. "I beg your pardon," he broke off. "I—I suppose I ought to call you 'my lord' now. I can scarcely realize yet——"
Drake flushed almost angrily.
"For Heaven's sake, no!" he exclaimed. "There need be no difference between you and me, Dick, whatever there may be between——I'll come across in the morning to inquire, and I'll tell you all that has happened. Dick, you'll have to forgive me for hiding my right name down there at Shorne Mills. It was a folly; but one gets punished for one's follies," he added, as he held out his hand.
Still confused by the discovery that his old friend "Drake Vernon" was Lord Angleford, Dick could only let him go in silence, and Drake passed out.
As he did so, he looked up at the window of the sick room. A shadow passed the blind, and as he recognized it he sighed heavily. Yes; notwithstanding his wound and his peril, the penniless musician was the lucky man, and he, my Lord of Angleford, the most unfortunate and unhappy.
Slowly he made his way toward the house, and as he went the face and the voice of the woman he loved haunted him. For a moment she had rested in his arms, and he could still feel her head on his breast, still hear the "Drake, Drake!"
She had not forgotten him, then; she still remembered him with some kindness, though she loved Falconer? Well, he should be grateful for that. It would be good to think of all through the weary years that lay before him.
How beautiful she was! With what an exquisite tenderness her eyes had dwelt upon the wounded man! He started, and almost groaned, as he remembered that not so long ago those eyes had beamed love and tenderness upon himself.
"Oh, Nell, Nell!" broke from him unconsciously. "Oh, my dear, lost love! how shall I live without you, now that I have seen you, held you in my arms again?"
The great house loomed before him; the hall door was open; figures were standing and flitting in the light that streamed on the terrace; and with a pang he awoke to the responsibilities of his position, to the remembrance of his interview with Luce. There she stood on the top of the steps, a shawl thrown round her head, her face eager and anxious.
"Drake! Is it you?" she exclaimed; and she came down the steps to meet him, her hand outstretched.
The others crowded round, all talking at once. He shook her hand, held it a moment, then let it drop.
"He is all right, I hope," he said.
"He!" she murmured. "It is you—you, Drake!"
He frowned slightly.
"Oh! I?" he said, with self-contempt. "I have got off scot-free. Where is the countess?"
Lady Luce looked at him keenly, and with a half-reproachful air.
"I—I—have been very frightened, Drake," she said.
For the life of him he could not even affect a tenderness.
"On my account? There was not the least need."
Lady Angleford came forward hurriedly.
"Drake! You are not hurt! Thank God!" And her hands clasped his arm.
"You have got your jewels?" he said, in the curt tone with which a man tries to fend off a fuss. "Are they all there?"
She made an impatient movement.
"Yes, yes—oh, yes! As if they mattered! Tell me how that poor man is. How brave of him!"
He smiled grimly.
"Yes. He will pull round, I hope. We shall know more in the morning. Hadn't you ladies better go to bed? Wolfer, I have wanted a drink once or twice in my life, but never, I think, quite so keenly as now."
The men gathered round him as he stopped at the foot of the stairs to wish the women good night. Luce came last, and as she held out her hand, looked at him appealingly. Was he going to let her go without the word she had been expecting—the word he had promised? He understood the appeal in her eyes, but he could not respond. Not to-night, with Nell's face and voice haunting him, could he ask Lady Luce to be his wife. To-morrow—yes, to-morrow!
She smiled at him as he held her hand, but as she went up the stairs the smile vanished, and, if it is ever possible for so beautiful a woman to become suddenly plain, then Lady Luce's face achieved that transformation.
Gnawing at her underlip, she entered her room, flung herself into a chair, and beat a tattoo with her foot. The door opened softly, and Burden stole in. She was very pale, there were dark marks under her eyes, and she trembled so violently that the brushes rattled together as she took them from the table.
Lady Luce looked up at her angrily.
"What is the matter with you?" she demanded. "You look more like a ghost than a human being, or as if you'd been drinking."
Burden winced under the insult, and stole behind her mistress' chair; but Lady Luce faced round after her.
"You're not fit to do my hair, or anything else!" she said. "What is the matter now? Your mother or one of your other relations, I suppose. You always have some excuse or other for your whims and fancies."
"I—I am rather upset, my lady!" Burden responded, almost inaudibly. "The—the robbery——"
"What does it concern you?" said Lady Luce sharply. "It is no affair of yours; your business is to wait upon me, and if you can't or won't do it properly——"
The brush fell from Burden's uncertain hand, and Lady Luce sprang to her feet in a passion.
"Oh, go away! Get out of my sight!" she said contemptuously. "Go down to the kitchen and tremble and shake with the other maids. I can't put up with you to-night."
"I'm—I'm very sorry, my lady. I'm upset—everybody's upset."
"Oh, go—go!" broke in Lady Luce impatiently. "If you are not better to-morrow, you'd better go for good!"
Burden stood for a moment uncertainly; then, with a stifled sob, left the room, and went down the corridor toward the servants' apartments; but halfway she stopped, hesitated, then descended the back stairs and stole softly along one of the passages. A door from the smoking room opened on to this passage, and against this she leaned and listened.
Sparling and the grooms who had joined in the pursuit of the burglars had come back full of the chase and its results, and there was an excited and dramatic recital going on in the servants' hall at that moment; but she dared not go there, though she was in an agony of anxiety to know the whole truth and the fate of her lover. Her face, her overwrought condition, would have betrayed her; so, at the least, would have caused surprise and aroused suspicion. She could not face the servants' hall, but she knew that the gentlemen would be discussing the affair in the smoking room, and that if she could listen unseen she should hear what had happened to Ted. It was Ted, and nothing, no one else she cared about.
All the men were in the smoking room, and all were plying Drake with questions. Drake, knowing that he would have to go through it, was giving as concise an account of it as was possible. He was wearied to death, not only of the burglary, but of the emotions he had experienced, and his voice was low and his manner that of a man talking against his will; but Burden heard every word, for, at its lowest, Drake's voice was singularly clear.
She listened, motionless as a statue, till he came to the point where the burglar had turned and faced him. Then she moved and had hard work to stifle a moan.
"That was a near thing, Angleford!" said Lord Turfleigh, over the edge of his glass; "a deuced near thing! If I'd been you, I should have cried a go, and let the fellow off. Dash it all! a man in your position has no right to risk his life, even for such diamonds as the Angleford."
Drake laughed shortly.
"I didn't think of the diamonds," he said quietly. "It was a match between me and the man. He missed me and bolted to cover. I followed, and he slipped behind a tree and aimed; but he missed—fortunately for me."
"Missed you?" said Lord Wolfer, who had been listening attentively and in silence. "How was that? You must have been very near?"
Drake was silent for a moment; then, as if reluctantly, he replied:
"There were several persons engaged in the game. One of them was a young lady who is staying at the lodge—the south lodge. She happened to be out, strolling in the garden, and heard the rumpus. And she"—he lit a fresh cigarette—"she sprang on him and struck his arm up!"
"No!" exclaimed one of the men. "Dash it all! Angleford, if this isn't the most dramatic, sensational affair I've ever heard of."
"Yes?" came in Drake's grave, restrained tones. "Yes, that saved my life."
There was a moment's silence, an impressive silence, then he went on:
"And did for the man. If he had disposed of me, he could have shot poor Mr. Falconer at the gate and got off. As it was——" He stopped and seemed to consider. "Well, it left me free to collar him at the gate, but not, unfortunately, until he had wounded Falconer."
"Poor devil!" muttered Lord Turfleigh. "Hard lines on him, eh, Angleford?"
"Yes," said Drake gravely.
"Then, as I understand it," said Lord Wolfer, "your life, the salvation of the countess' jewels, and the capture of the burglar are due to this lady?"
"That is so," assented Drake quietly.
"Who is she? What is her name?" asked several men, in a breath.
There was a pause, during which Burden listened breathlessly.
"Her name is Lorton," said Drake, very quietly. "She is staying at the south lodge."
Burden started and bit her lip. Lorton? Where had she heard——
"Good heavens!" exclaimed Lord Wolfer. "You don't mean that Miss Lorton who was with us?"
"The same," he said gravely.
Burden's lips twitched, and her hands gripped the edge of the door frame.
There was silence for a moment, then one of the men asked:
"And what do you think the fellow will get, Angleford?"
"It all depends," replied Drake, after a pause. "If this fellow Falconer should die——Well, it will be murder. If not—and God grant he may not!—it will be burglary simply, and it will mean penal servitude for so many years."
"And serve him right, whichever way it goes!" cried one of the men. "Anyway, this young lady, this Miss Lorton, is a brick! Here's her health!"
Burden waited for no more. She was white still, but she was trembling no longer. Her eyes were glowing savagely, and her lips were strained tightly. Her sweetheart was captured; he would either be hanged or sentenced to penal servitude; and Miss Lorton was the person with whom she had to reckon!
Before morning Falconer became delirious. He did not rave nor shout, but he talked incessantly, with his eyes wide open and fixed vacantly, and his long hand plucking at the bedclothes. Nell stole in from her room, though she had promised to rest and leave the night duty to the village nurse, and, sitting beside him, held his hand.
At the touch of her cool fingers he became quiet for a moment or two, and something like a smile crossed his pain-lined face; but presently he began again. Sometimes he was back at the Buildings, and he hummed a bar or two of music while his fingers played on the counterpane as if it were a piano. Once or twice he murmured her name in a tone which brought the color to Nell's face and made her heart ache. But it did not need the whisper of her name to tell her Falconer's secret. She knew that he loved her, for he had told her so at the moment when Drake had seen them walking together in the garden.
And as she sat and held his hand, she tried to force her mind from dwelling on Drake, and to remember the devotion of the stricken man beside her.
Though he had confessed his love, he had asked for nothing in return. He had said that he knew that his passion was hopeless, but that he could not help loving her, that he must continue to do so while life lasted.
"I will never speak of it again," he had said. "You need not be afraid. I don't know why I told you now; it slipped out before I knew——No, don't be afraid. All I ask is that you should still look upon me as a friend, that you will still let me be near you as often as is possible. It is too much to ask? If so, I will go away—somewhere, and cease to trouble you with the sight of me!"
And Nell, with tears in her eyes—as Drake had seen—had given him her hand in silence, for a moment or two, and then, almost inaudibly, had answered:
"I am sorry—sorry! Oh, why did you tell me? No, no; forgive me! But you must not go. I—I could not afford to lose your—friendship!"
"That you shall not do!" he had said, very quietly, and with a brave smile. "Please remember that I said I knew there was no hope for me. How could there be? How could it be possible for you—you!—to care for me? But a weed may dare to love the sun, Miss Lorton, though it is only a weed and not a stately flower. I ought not to have told you; but that little success of mine, and the prospect it has opened out, must have turned my head. But you have forgiven me, have you not? and you will try and forget that I was mad enough to show you my heart?"
He had not waited for her to respond, but had left her at once, and, so that she should not think him quite heartbroken, had hummed an air as he went.
And now that he lay here 'twixt life and death, Nell's heart ached for him, and she longed, with a longing beyond all words, that she could have returned the love he bore her.
But alas, alas! she had no love to give. Drake had stolen it long ago, there at Shorne Mills; and though he had flung it from him, it could not come back to her.
Even as she sat, with Falconer's hand in hers, she could not keep her mind from dwelling on Drake, though the failure of her attempt to do so covered her with shame. She had been in his arms again, had heard his voice, and the glamour of his presence and his touch were upon her.
His face hovered before her in the dim light of the sick room, and filled her with the aching longing of unsatisfied love.
Oh, why could she not forget him? Why could she not bring herself to accept, to return, the love of the man who loved her with all his heart and soul? He was all that was good, he was a genius, and a brave man to boot! Surely any woman might be proud to possess him for a husband, might learn to love him!
She turned and looked at him as he lay, his head tossing restlessly on the pillow, his lips moving deliriously; but though her whole being was stirred with pity for him, pity is not love, though it may be nearly akin, and one cannot force love as one forces a hothouse plant.
After a while he became weaker, and the rambling, incoherent talk ceased; but she was still holding his hand when Dick and the doctor came in again. She sought the latter's face eagerly, but he merely smiled encouragingly.
"He has had a better night than I expected," he said, "and the temperature is not exceedingly high. You had better get some rest, Miss Lorton; you have been sitting up, I see."
Dick drew Nell out of the room.
"Drake—confound it! Lord Angleford, I mean!—has sent for Sir William. Is—is he going to die, do you think. Nell?"
Nell shook her head, her eyes filling.
"I don't know; I hope not. You—you have seen Dra—Lord Angleford, Dick?"
"Just now. He came to inquire. Nell, I can't understand it, though he has tried to explain why he hid his real name; and—and—Nell—he didn't tell me why you and he broke it off."
She flushed for a moment.
"There was no need," she said. "It does not matter."
Dick sighed and shrugged his shoulders.
"No, I suppose it doesn't; but it's a mysterious affair. I hear he is going to marry that fair woman, Lady Luce."
Nell inclined her head, her lips set tightly.
"It's a pity we can't get away from here," he said gloomily. "It's jolly awkward. Though Drake was more than friendly with me last night and just now. He's awfully changed."
They were standing by the window of the sitting room, and Nell was looking out with eyes that saw nothing.
"Yes; he looks years older, and he's stern and grave as if——Well, he doesn't look the same man, and it strikes me that he's anything but happy, though he is the Earl of Angleford, and going to marry one of the most beautiful woman in England."
Nell stood with compressed lips and eyes fixed on vacancy.
"He got a nasty blow last night," said Dick, after a pause.
Her manner changed in a moment, and her eyes flew round to him.
"He was hurt?" she said, with a catch in her breath.
"Yes; that ruffian struck him with the revolver or something. And I say, Nell, I haven't heard your share in this affair yet. Drake told me that the fellow struck you."
"Did he?" she said indifferently. "I—I don't remember. Was Lord Angleford badly hurt? Tell me."
"Oh, no; I think not; not badly," replied Dick. "There's a bruise on his temple; but what's that to the damage poor Falconer suffered? Drake says that it was the pluckiest thing he's seen. Oh, Lord! what a sickening business it is! Thank goodness, they've got the fellow. It will be a lifer for him, that's one consolation."
"And they've got the jewels back, that's another," said Dick, more cheerily. "Though I'd rather the fellow had got off with them than poor Falconer should have been hurt. What beastly bad luck, just after he'd struck oil and got a start! Drake says that Falconer will be a celebrity, if he lives; and you may depend Drake will do his best to make his words good. There'll be a 'Falconer boom,' mark my words. I never saw any one so concerned about a man as Drake is about him. He was here outside talking with the doctor before it was light. The whole of the remainder of the big house is to be placed at our disposal. In short, if it had been Drake himself who was stabbed, there couldn't be more concern shown. Here's the breakfast, and for the first time in my life, I don't want it. Why the deuce can't the swells look after their blessed diamonds?"
Nell gave him his coffee, and then stole up to her own room and flung herself on the bed.
Drake was hurt. It might have been Drake instead of Falconer lying between life and death. Her heart throbbed with thankfulness; but the next moment she hid her face in her hands for very shame. She tried to sleep, but she could not, and it was almost a relief when the servant knocked and said that two ladies from the Hall were downstairs.
"But I was not to disturb you if you was asleep, miss," she added, with naivete.
Nell bathed her face and smoothed her hair quickly, and went down; and, as she entered the sitting room, was taken into Lady Wolfer's embrace.
"My dear, dear Nell!" she cried, in the subdued tones due to the sick room above. "Why, it's like a fairy story! Why didn't I or some of us know you were here, till last night? You remember Lady Angleford, dear?"
The countess came forward and held out her hand with her friendly and gentle smile.
"Come to the light and let me look at you," Lady Wolfer went on, drawing Nell to the window; "though it's scarcely fair, after all you have gone through. Nell, who would have thought that we were entertaining a heroine unawares? We knew you were an angel, of course; but a heroine—a heroine of romance! You dear, brave girl!"
Nell colored painfully.
"The whole place, the whole county, by this time, to say nothing of London and every other place where a telegraph wire runs, is full of it."
"Oh, I am sorry!" said poor Nell, aghast.
Lady Angleford smiled.
"It is the penalty one pays for heroism, Miss Lorton," she said; "and you must forgive me for being grateful to you for saving Lord Angleford's life."
"Oh, but I didn't—indeed I didn't!" exclaimed Nell, in distress.
"Oh, but indeed you did!" retorted Lady Wolfer. "Lord Angleford says so, and he ought to know. He says that but for you the wretch would have shot him—he was quite close."
Nell's face was white again now, and the countess came to her aid.
"We are forgetting one of the objects of our visit," she said. "You know how anxious we are about Mr. Falconer, Miss Lorton. I hope he is in no danger, my dear?"
She took Nell's hand as she spoke, and pressed it, and Nell colored again under the sympathy in the countess' eyes.
"When I heard that he had been injured, I wished with all my heart that the man had got clear off with the miserable diamonds—I was going to say 'my' miserable diamonds, but they are only mine for a time. But I am sure Lord Angleford joins me in that wish. All the diamonds in the world are not worth rescuing at such a price as Mr. Falconer—and you—have paid. I hope you can tell us he is better. We are all terribly anxious about him."
Now, even in the stress and strain of the moment, Nell noticed a certain significance in the countess' tone, a personal sympathy with herself, conveyed plainly by the "and you," and it puzzled her. But she put the faint wonder aside.
"I don't know," she said simply. "He is very ill—he was badly stabbed. He has been delirious most of the night——"
"My poor Nell!" murmured Lady Wolfer, pressing her hand.
"I hope the nurse you have in to help you is a good one," said the countess, as if she took it for granted that Nell was also nursing him. "If not, we will send to London for one; indeed, Sir William may bring one with him. I don't know what Lord Angleford telegraphed."
"I wish we could do something for you, Nell," whispered Lady Wolfer. "Only last night, before the burglary, we were arranging that we would come down here and carry you—by main force, if necessary—up to the Hall. And now——But, dear, you must not lose heart! He may not be badly hurt; and the surgeons do such wonderful things now. Perhaps, when Sir William comes, he may tell you that there is no danger whatever, and that you will have him well again before very long."
Her eyes dwelt on Nell's with tender pity and womanly sympathy; and Nell, still puzzled, could only remain silent. As if she could not say enough, Lady Wolfer drew her to the window, and continued, in a lower voice:
"I meant to congratulate you, Nell, and I do. I—we all admired him so much the other night, little guessing the truth; and now that he has proved himself as brave as he is clever, one can understand your losing your heart to him. All the same, dear, I think he is a very—very lucky man."
The red stained Nell's face, and then left it pale again. She opened her lips to deny that she and Falconer were engaged, but at that moment a dogcart drove through the gate and stopped at the lodge.
"Here is Drake!" said the countess. "He has been to Angleford to see the police."
Nell drew away from the window quickly, and the countess went out as Drake got down from the cart.
"How is he?" Nell heard him ask. Though she had moved from the window, she could see him. He looked haggard and tired, and she saw the bruise on his temple. Her heart beat fast, and she turned away and leaned her arm on the mantelshelf. "And—and Miss Lorton?" he inquired, after the countess had replied to his first question.
She lowered her voice.
"She looks very ill, but she is bearing up wonderfully. It is a terrible strain for her, poor girl."
Drake nodded gloomily.
"Tell her that Sir William will be down by the midday train. And tell her not to give up hope. I saw the wound, and——"
"Hush! She may hear," whispered the countess.
He glanced toward the window, and the color rose to his face.
"Is she there?" he asked.
"Yes. Would you like to see her?"
He hesitated for a moment, his eyes fixed on the ground; then he said, rather stiffly:
"No; she might think it an intrusion"—the countess stared at him. "No; I won't trouble her. But please tell her that everything shall be done for—him."
The countess accompanied him to the gate.
"You have been to the police?"
He nodded almost indifferently.
"Yes; the man is well known. We were flattered by the attentions of a celebrated cracksman. I've seen the detective in charge of the case, and given him all the particulars. He says that the men were assisted by some one inside the house—one of the servants, he suggests."
The countess looked startled.
"Surely not, Drake! Who could it be?"
He shrugged his shoulders with the same indifference.
"Can't tell. It doesn't matter. I've sent the things to the bank, and the other people will look after their jewels pretty closely after this. I wouldn't worry myself, countess."
"But you are worrying, Drake!" she said shrewdly, as she looked at his haggard face. "About this poor Mr. Falconer, of course!"
He started slightly, but he was too honest to assent.
"Partly; but there is no need for you to follow my example. I'll go on now."
He got up and drove off, but slowly, and he put the horse to a walk as he neared the house.
He had not seen Luce that morning, for he had been out, inquiring at the lodge at six, and had gone straight on to Anglebridge, where he had breakfasted.
In his heart he had been glad of the excuse for his absence, for the few hours of reprieve. But he would have to see her now, would have to ask her to be his wife—while his heart ached with love for Nell!
As he drove up to the door, one of the Angleford carriages came round from the stables. He glanced at it absently, and entered the hall slowly, draggingly, and was amazed to find Lord Turfleigh, in overcoat and hat, standing beside a pile of luggage.
"By George! just in time, Drake!" he exclaimed, his thick voice quavering with suppressed excitement, his hands shaking as he tugged at his gloves. "Just had bad news—deuced bad news!"
But though he described the intelligence as bad, there was a note of satisfaction in his voice.
"I'm sorry. What is it?" asked Drake.
"Buckleigh—Buckleigh and his boy gone down in that infernal yacht of his!" said Lord Turfleigh hoarsely.
He turned aside as he spoke to take a brandy and soda which the footman had brought.
The Marquis of Buckleigh was Lord Turfleigh's elder brother, and, if the news were true, Lord Turfleigh was now the marquis, and a rich man.
Drake understand the note of satisfaction in the whisky-shaken voice.
"Just time to catch the train!" said the new marquis. "Where the devil is Luce? I always said Buckleigh would drown himself——Where is Luce? She thinks I'll go without her; but I won't!" He swore.
At that moment Lady Luce came down the stairs. She was coming down slowly, reluctantly, her fair face set sullenly; but at sight of Drake her expression changed, and she ran down to him. There might yet be time for the one word.
"Drake!" she cried, in a low voice, "I am going——You have heard?"
"Yes, yes," her father broke in testily. "I've told him. Get in. It will be a near thing as it is. Come on, I tell you!" and he shambled down the steps to the carriage.
She held Drake's hand and looked into his eyes appealingly.
"You see! I must go!" she murmured.
He nodded gravely.
"But you will come back?" he said, as gravely. "Come back as soon as you can."
Her face lit up, and she breathed softly. She was now the daughter of a rich man, but she wanted Drake, none the less.
"The Fates are against me, Drake," she whispered; "but I will come back."
"Where the devil is that confounded maid of yours, Luce?" Turfleigh called to her.
Burden came down the stairs. Her veil was drawn over the upper part of her face, but the lower part was white to the lips.
"I'm half inclined to leave her behind," said Lady Luce irritably. "Pray be quick, Burden!"
Burden got up on the box seat without a word.
Drake put Lady Luce in, held her hand for a moment, then the carriage started, and he was standing alone, staring after it half stupidly.
He was still free!
Two days later, Nell sat beside Falconer. He was asleep, but every now and then he moved suddenly, and his brows knit as if he were suffering.
The great surgeon—who, by the way, was small and short of stature—had come down, made his examination, said a few cheerful words to the patient, gone up to the Hall to dinner—at which he had talked fluently of everything but the case—and returned to London with a big check from Drake. But though he did not appear to have accomplished anything beyond a general expression of approval of everything the local man had done, all persons concerned felt encouraged and more hopeful by his visit; and when Falconer showed signs of improvement it was duly placed to Sir William's credit. There is much magic in a great name.
But the improvement was very slight, and Nell, as she watched the wounded man, often felt a pang of dread shoot through her. Sometimes she was assailed by the idea that Falconer was not particularly anxious to live. When he was awake he would lie quite still, save when a spasm of pain visited him, with his dark eyes fixed dreamily upon the window; though when she spoke to him he invariably turned them to her with a world of gratitude, a wealth of devotion in them.
And for the last two days the pity in Nell's tender heart had grown so intense that it had become own brother to love itself. When a woman knows that she can make a good man happy by just whispering "I love you," she is sorely tempted to utter the three little pregnant words, especially when she herself knows what it is to long for love.
She could make this man who worshiped her happy, and—and was it not possible in doing so she might find, if not happiness, contentment for herself?
A hundred times during the last two days she had asked herself this question, until she had grown to desire that the answer might be in the affirmative. Perhaps if she were betrothed to Falconer she would learn to forget Drake, for whose voice and footstep she was always waiting.
On this afternoon, as she sat at her post, she was dwelling on the problem, which had become almost unendurable at last, and she sighed wearily.
Falconer awoke, as if he had heard her, and turned his eyes upon her with the slow yet intense regard of the very weak.
"Are you there still?" he asked, in a low voice. "I thought you promised me that, if I went to sleep, you would go out, into the garden, at least."
"It wasn't exactly a promise. Besides, I don't think you have been really asleep; and if you have it is not for long enough," she said, smiling, and "hedging" in truly feminine fashion. "Are you feeling better—not in so much pain?"
"Oh, yes," he replied. "I'm in no pain." He told the falsehood as admirably as he managed his face when he was awake, but it gave him away when he was asleep. "I shall be quite well presently. I wish to Heaven they would let me be removed to the hospital!"
"That sounds rather ungrateful," said Nell, with mock indignation. "Don't you think we are taking enough care of you?"
"When I lie here and think of all the trouble I've given, I sometimes wish that that fellow's knife had found the right place. Though I suppose they'd have hanged him if it had."
"Is that the only reason you regret he did not kill you?" she said.
"Am I to speak the truth?"
"Nothing else is ever worth speaking," she remarked, in a low voice.
"Well, then, yes. I am not so enamored of life as to cling to it very keenly," he said, stifling a sigh. "I don't mean because I have had a rough time of it—the majority of the sons of men find the way paved with flints—but because——What an ungrateful brute I must seem to you. Forgive me; I'm still rather weak."
"Very weak, then; and I talk like a hysterical girl. But, seriously, if any man were given his choice, I think he'd prefer to cross the river at once to facing the gray and dreary days that lie before him."
"But the days that lie before you are brilliant; crimson with fame and fortune, instead of gray and dreary," she said. "Have you forgotten your success at—at the ball? that you were to play at the duchess'? Everybody says that you will become famous, that a great future lies before you, Mr. Falconer."
"Do they?" he said, gazing at the window dreamily. "No, I have not forgotten. I wonder whether they are right?"
"I know, I feel, they are right," she said quietly. "Very soon we shall all be bragging of your acquaintance—I, for one, at any rate. I shall never lose an opportunity of talking of 'my friend, Mr. Falconer, the great musician, you know.'"
"Yes," he said, looking at her with a faint smile. "I think you will be pleased. And I——"
"Well?" she asked.
"If the prophecy comes true, I shall spend my time looking back at the old days, and sighing for the Buildings, for that sunny room of yours, with the tea kettle singing on the hob, and——Has Dick come back from Angleford?"
"And the man? Has he been committed for trial?"
"Yes," she replied. "But I don't want to speak of that—it isn't good for you."
He was silent a moment; then he said:
"Do you know, I've got a kind of sneaking pity for the man. He wanted the diamonds badly—he needed them more than the countess did. What would it have mattered to her if he had got off with them? And he risked his liberty and his life for them. A man can't do more than that for the thing he wants."
Nell tried to laugh.
"I have never listened to a more immoral sentiment," she said. "I think you had better go to sleep again. But I understand," she added, as if she were compelled to do so.
"And I fancy the reflection that he made a good fight for it—and it was a good one; he was a plucky fellow!—must console him for his failure. After all, one can only try."
"Try to steal other people's jewels," said Nell.
"Try for what seems the best—what one wants," he said dreamily. "I wonder whether he would have been satisfied if he had got off with, say, a small box of trinkets?"
"I should imagine he would consider himself very lucky," said Nell, her eyes downcast.
"Do you think so?" asked Falconer quietly. "Somehow, I fancy you're wrong. He would have hankered after those diamonds for the rest of his life, and no amount of small trinkets would have consoled him for having missed them. Though I dare say, being a plucky fellow, he would have made the best of it."
Nell began to tremble. The parable was plain to her. The man beside her had failed to win the woman he loved, and would try to make the best of the poor trinkets of fame and success. Her lips quivered, and her eyes drooped lower.
"Perhaps—perhaps he would have tried for the diamonds again," she said, almost inaudibly.
He looked at her with a sudden light in his eyes, a sudden flush on his white face.
"Do—do you think so? Do you think it would have been any use?"
Nell rose, and brought some milk and water for him.
"I—I don't know," she said. "I—I think, if he felt that he wanted them so badly, he would have tried again; and that—that—he might——"
He raised himself on his elbow and looked at her fixedly, his breath coming fast, his eyes searching hers.
"Ah!" he said. "You think that if he came to the countess and whined for the things, she would have given them to him out of sheer pity! Is that it?"
Nell shook her head.
"One can't imagine his being such a cur, such a fool, as to do it!" he said, sinking back. "And yet that is what I am! See how weak and cowardly I am, Nell! I promised that I would never again trouble you with my love; that I would be content to be your friend—your friend only; and yet a few days' sickness, and I am crawling at your feet and begging you to take compassion on me! And you'd do it!—yes, I know what you meant when you said that the man would try for the diamonds again!—out of womanly pity you would! Oh, shame on me for a cur to take advantage of my weakness!"
"Hush, hush!" she said brokenly. "I meant what I said; I—I——" She tried to smile. "I am a woman, and—and may change my mind!"
"But not your heart!" he said. He raised himself on his elbow again. "For God's sake, don't tempt me! I—I am not strong enough to resist. I want my diamonds so badly, you see, that I would stoop to stealing them. Nell, don't tempt me!"
He sank back, and put his hand over his eyes as if to shut out the beautiful face of the girl he loved.
Nell sank into a chair, and sat silent for a moment; then she said, in a low voice:
"I want to tell you the truth."
He took his hand away from his eyes, and fixed them on her downcast face.
"Go on," he said. "Tell me everything; why—why you have aroused a hope—the dearest hope of my life——But no; it never was a hope, only a hopeless longing. Ah! if you knew what such love meant, you would forgive me for my weakness, for my cowardice. To long day and night! If you knew!"
"Perhaps I do!" she whispered, in so low a voice that it was wonderful he should have heard her. But he did hear, and he turned to her quickly.
"You! And I—I never guessed it! Oh, forgive me! forgive me! Then indeed there never was any hope for me. I understand! How blind I have been! Who——No; I've no right to ask. Now I understand the look in your eyes which has often haunted and puzzled me. Oh, what a blind, blundering fool I have been all this time!"
"Hush!" she said, still so low that he could only just hear the broken murmur. "I—I am glad you did not know. I—I would not have told you now, if—if it were not all past and done with!"
"Nell!" he said.
"Yes, it is all past and done with," she repeated. "And—and I want to forget it. I want you—to help me! Oh! must I speak more plainly? Won't you understand? If you will be content to take me—knowing what I have told you—if you will be content to wait until I—I have quite forgotten! and I shall soon, very soon——"
He stretched out his hand to her, an eager cry on his lips.
"Content!" he said. "You ask me if I shall be content!"
Then, as she put out her hand to meet his, he saw her face. It was white to the lips, and there was a look in her eyes more full of agony than his own had worn at his worst times. He let his hand fall on the bed.
"Is it all past?" he asked doubtfully.
She was about to speak the word "Yes," when a voice came from below through the open window. It was Drake talking to Dick. The blood flew to her face, her brows came together, and she shrank as if some one had struck her.
Falconer, with his eyes fixed upon her, heard the voice, saw the change on her face. The light died out of his eyes, and slowly, very slowly, he drew his hand back.
Nell stood looking before her, her lips set tightly, her eyes downcast. It was a terrible moment, in which she appeared under a spell so deep as to cause her to forget the presence of the man beside her. And, as he watched her, the life seemed to die out of his face as well as his eyes.
The door opened, and Dick came in.
"Drake's come to inquire after the patient," he said. "How are we, Falconer?"
"Better," said Falconer, with a smile; "much better. Couldn't you persuade Miss Lorton to take down the report, Dick?"
Dick nodded commandingly at Nell.
"Yes; you go, Nell."
She hesitated a moment; then she raised her head and glanced at Falconer reproachfully.
"Yes, I will go," she said, almost defiantly.
Drake leaned against the rails in the sunlight, softly striking his riding whip against his leg. His horse's bridle was hitched over the gate, and as he waited for Dick he thought of the time when the bridle had been hitched over another gate.
He heard a step lighter than Dick's on the stairs behind him, and slowly turned his head. The sun was streaming through the doorway, so that the slim, graceful figure and lovely face were set as in an aureole. A thrill ran through him, the color rose to his bronzed face, and he stood motionless and speechless for a moment; then he raised his hat.
"How is Mr. Falconer?" he asked.
He had not seen her since the night of the burglary, the night he had held her in his arms, and the blunt question sounded like a mockery set against the aching longing of his heart.
"He is better," she said.
Her eyes rested on him calmly, and she spoke quite steadily, so that he did not guess that her heart was beating wildly, and that she had to clench the hand beside her in her effort to maintain her composure.
"I am glad," he said simply. "It has been an anxious time—must be so still—for you, I am afraid."
"Yes," she said.
He stood looking at her, and then away from her, and then at her again, as if his eyes must return to her against his will.
"I—I am glad to see you. I wanted to tell you—to thank you for what you did for me the other night. You know that I owe you my life?"
She shook her head and forced a smile.
"Isn't that rather an—exaggeration, Lord Angleford?"
He bit his lip at the "Lord Angleford." And yet how else could she address him?
"No," he said; "it is the simple truth. The man would have shot me."
"Then I am glad," she said quietly, as if there were no more to be said.
He bit his lip again.
"You are looking pale and thin."
"Oh, no," she said. "I am quite well."
Why did he not go? Every moment it became more difficult for her to maintain her forced calm. If he would only go! But he stood, his eyes now downcast, now seeking hers, his brows knit, as if he found it awful to remain, and yet impossible to go.
"Will you tell Mr. Falconer that directly he is able to go out I will send a carriage for him—a pony phaeton, or something of that sort?" he said, at last.
Nell inclined her head.
"We will leave here as soon as he can be moved," she said.
His frown deepened.
"Why?" he asked sharply. "Why should you?"
The blood began to mount to her face, and, gnawing at his mustache, he turned away. But as he did so Dick came down the stairs, two at a time.
"Hi, Drake!" he called out. "Don't go. Falconer would like to see you!"
Drake hesitated just for a second—then——
"I shall be very glad," he said.
Nell moved aside to let him pass, and went into the sitting room, and he followed Dick upstairs. She went to the window, and stood looking out for a moment or two, then she caught up her hat and left the house, for she knew that she could not see him again—ah! not just yet.
Drake went up the stairs slowly, trying to brace himself to go through the ordeal like a man—and a gentleman. He was going to congratulate Mr. Falconer on his good fortune in winning the woman he himself loved. It was a hard, a bitterly hard thing to have to do, but it had to be done.
"Here's Lord Angleford, old man," said Dick, introducing him. "I don't know whether visitors are permitted yet, but you can lay the blame on me; and you needn't palaver long, Drake."
"I will take care not to tire Mr. Falconer," said Drake, as he went to the bedside and held out his hand.
Falconer took it in his thin one, and looked up at the handsome face with an expression which somewhat puzzled Drake.
"I'm glad to hear you're better," he said. "I suppose I ought not to refer to the subject, but I can't help saying, Falconer, how much we—I mean Lady Angleford—and all of us—are indebted to you. But for you the fellow would have got off, and her diamonds would have been lost."
Falconer noticed the friendly "Falconer," and though his heart was aching, he could not help admiring the man who stood beside him with all the grace of health and high birth in his bearing; and he sighed involuntarily as he drew a contrast between himself and "my lord the earl."
"All the same," Drake went on, "the countess would rather have lost her diamonds than you should be hurt."
"Her ladyship is very kind," said Falconer. His eyes, unnaturally bright, were fixed on Drake's face, his voice was low but steady. "I am glad I was of some little use in saving them. The man has been committed for trial, I hear?"
Drake nodded indifferently.
"Yes," he said. "I wish he had dropped the jewel cases and got off. It would have saved a lot of bother. But don't be afraid that you will be wanted as a witness," he added quickly. "I and one or two of the men who were present when he was captured will be sufficient. There will be no need to worry you—or Miss Lorton."
"I hope you will be able to get out soon," said Drake. "I told Miss Lorton that I would send a carriage for you—something bulky and comfortable. Perhaps you'll let me drive you?"
Falconer nodded again, and Drake began to feel vaguely uncomfortable under his fixed gaze and taciturnity; and being uncomfortable, he blundered on to the subject that tortured him.
"But Miss Lorton can drive you well enough; she is a perfect whip. And—and now I am mentioning her, I will take the opportunity of congratulating you upon your engagement, Falconer."
Falconer's lips twitched, but his eyes did not leave Drake's face, which had suddenly become stern and grim.
"You knew Miss Lorton before she came here, Lord Angleford?" said Falconer.
Drake colored, and set his lips tightly.
"Yes," he said, trying to speak casually. "We met——"
He stopped, overwhelmed by a thousand memories. His eyes fell, but Falconer's did not waver.
"Then it is as an old friend of hers that you congratulate me, Lord Angleford?" he said.
"Yes, an old friend," said Drake, his throat dry and hot. "I wish you every happiness, my dear fellow; and I think you——"
Falconer raised himself on his elbow.
"You are laboring under a mistake, Lord Angleford," he said, very quietly. "You think that Miss Lorton—is betrothed to me?"
Drake nodded. His face had grown pale; there was an eager light in his eyes. Falconer dropped back with a sigh.
"You are wrong," he said. "Who told you?"
Drake was silent a moment. The blood was rushing through his veins.
"Who told me? I heard—everybody said——"
He dropped into the chair and leaned forward, his face stern and set.
Falconer smiled as grimly as Drake could have done.
"What everybody says is rarely true, my lord. We are not betrothed."
"You don't——" exclaimed Drake.
A worm will turn if trodden on too heavily. Falconer turned. His face grew hot, his dark eyes flashed.
"Yes, my lord, I love her!" he said, and the lowness of his voice only intensified its emphasis. "I love her so well—so madly, if you like—that I choose to set conventionality at defiance, and speak the truth. I love her, but I can never win her, because there is one who comes between her and me. Wait!"—for Drake had risen, and was gazing down at the wan face with flashing eyes. "I do not know who he is. She has never uttered a word to guide me; but I can guess. Wait a moment longer, my lord! Whoever he may be, he is not worthy of her; but she cares for him, and that is enough for me, and should be enough for him. If I were that man——"
He stopped, for his breath had failed him. Drake leaned over him as if he would drag the conclusion of the sentence from him.
"If I were that man, I'd strive to win her as I'd strive for heaven! Ah, it would be heaven!" His lips twitched, and he turned his face away for a moment. "I would count everything else as of no account. I would thrust all obstacles aside, would go through fire and water to reach her——"
Drake caught him by the arm.
"Take care!" he said hoarsely. "You bid me hope! Dare I do so?"
Falconer looked at him fixedly.
"Go to her and see. Wait, my lord. I love her as dearly—more dearly, perhaps, God knows!—than you do. She would be mine at a word."
Drake stood motionless, his face white and set.
"But that word will never be spoken by me. So I prove my love. Prove yours, my lord, and go to her!"
Drake tried to speak, but could not. His hand closed over Falconer's for a moment, then he hurried from the room and went down the stairs.
Dick was lounging in the porch with a cigarette, and he stared at Drake's hurried appearance, at his white, set face.
"Where is Nell? Where is your sister?" Drake demanded.
"Heaven only knows! She went out when you came in. She's in the wood, I should think."
Drake strode down the path and into the wood. His brain was on fire. She was free—they were both free! There was heaven in the thought!
Nell was seated at the foot of one of the big elms, and heard his quick, firm steps. She looked up, and would have risen and flown, but he was upon her before she could move—was upon her, and in some strange, never-to-be-explained way had got her hand in his.
"Nell—Nell!" was all he could say, as he knelt beside her and looked into her eyes.
At the passionate "Nell! Nell!" at the grasp of his hand, the blood rushed to Nell's face, and her breath came painfully. She was startled and not a little alarmed. Why was he kneeling at her feet, why did he call upon her name with the appeal of love, the note of entreaty, in his voice? He was no longer Drake Vernon, but the Earl of Angleford, the promised husband of Lady Lucille.
The color left her face, and she drew her hand from his and shrank away from him, so that she almost leaned against the tree.
He half rose and looked at her penitently, and with something like shame for his vehemence. Indeed, he had rushed from the lodge in search of her, remembering nothing, thinking of nothing, but the fact that they were both free. But now he realized how suddenly he had come upon her, how great a shock his passionate words, his excited manner, must have been to her.
"Forgive me!" he said, still on one knee; "forgive me! I have frightened you. I forgot."
Nell tried to still the throbbing of her heart, to regain composure; but she could not speak. He rose and stood before her, his eyes fixed on her, eloquent with love and admiration. She had never seemed more beautiful to him than at this moment. Her face was thinner and paler than it had been in the happy days at Shorne Mills, but it had grown in beauty, in that spiritual loveliness which replaces in the woman that which the girl loses. The gray eyes were pure violet now, and fuller and deeper, as they mirrored the soul which had expanded in the bracing atmosphere of sorrow and trial.
He had fallen in love with an innocent, unsophisticated girl; he was still more passionately in love with her now that, a girl still in years, she had developed into glorious, divine womanhood. His eyes scanned her face hungrily, yet reverently, as he thought: Was it possible that he had once kissed those beautiful lips, had once heard them murmur "I love you?" And was it possible that he might again hear those magic words? His soul thirsted for them. It seemed to him that if he were to lose her now, if she were to send him away, life would not be worth having, that nothing remained for him in the future but misery and despair. To few men is it given to love as he loved the girl before him, and in that moment he suffered an agony of suspense which might well have caused the recording angel to blot out the follies of his past life.
But he must not frighten her, he must not drive her away from him by revealing the intensity of his passion.
So his voice was calm, and so low that it was little more than a whisper, as he said:
"I have come in search of you; I have something to say that I hope, I pray, you will hear. Won't you sit down again?" and he motioned to the place where she had been seated.
But Nell shook her head and remained standing, her hands clasped loosely before her, her eyes downcast.
"What is it, Lord Angleford?" she said, in a voice as low as his. "I—I want to go back to the lodge."
"Wait a few minutes," he said imploringly. "I will not keep you long. I have just left the lodge. He—Mr. Falconer—is all right; he will not mind—will not miss you for a few minutes. And I must speak to you. All my happiness, my future, depends on it—upon you!"
"Ah, let me go!" she said, almost inaudibly; for at every word he spoke her heart went out to him, and she was tempted to forget that he was no longer her lover, but the betrothed of Lady Lucille. Whatever he said, she must not forget that!
"No; it is I who will go, when I have spoken, and if you tell me," he said gravely. "When you sent me away last time I went—I obeyed you. I promise to do so now if you send me away again. Nell—ah! I must call you so. It is the name I think of you by, the name that is engraven on my heart! Nell, I want to ask you if there is no hope of my recovering my lost happiness. Do you remember when I told you that I loved you, there at Shorne Mills? I told you I was not worthy of you. Even then I was deceiving you."
She drew nearer to the tree, and put her hand against it for support.
"I was masquerading as Drake Vernon. I concealed my real name and rank; but I had no base motive in doing so. I was sick of the world, and weary of it and myself, and I longed to escape the maddening notoriety which harassed me. And then, when I thought—ah, no! I won't say thought, for; I know that then, then, Nell, you loved me!"
Her lips quivered, but she kept the tears back bravely.
"Then it seemed so precious a thing to know that you should have loved me for myself alone, that you were not going to marry me for my rank and position, as many another girl would have done, that I was tempted to play the farce to the end. It was folly, but the gods punish folly more surely and quickly than they punish crime. The night that you discovered I had deceived you, I had resolved to tell you the truth and beg your forgiveness. But it was too late. Most of our good resolutions come too late, Nell. You had learned that I had deceived you; you had learned that I was not worthy to win and hold the love of a pure and innocent girl, and you sent me away."
She raised her eyes and glanced at him, half bewildered. Was it possible that he thought that was her only reason for breaking the engagement?
"You were right, Nell. I think you would be right if you sent me away now; but I am daring to hope that you won't do so. It is but the shadow—the glimmer of a hope, and yet I cling to it, for it means so much to me—so much!"
There was silence for a moment, then he went on:
"I left Shorne Mills that day, and I sailed in the Seagull, determined that I would accept your sentence, that I would never harass or worry you, that, if it were possible, you should never be troubled by the sight of me. But, Nell, though I left you, I carried your image with me in my heart. I tried to forget you, but I could not. I have never ceased to love you; not for a single day have you been absent from my mind, not for a single day have I ceased to long for you!"
She looked at him again, wonder and indignation dividing her emotion. There was truth in his accents, in his eyes. Had he forgotten Lady Lucille?
"There was no more wretched and unhappy man on God's earth than I was at that time," he went on. "Nell, if you had been called upon to find a punishment heavy enough for the deceit which I practiced, I do not think you could have hit upon a heavier one. For I could not be rid of my love for you. I could not forget your sweet face; your dear voice haunted me wherever I went, and I moved like a man under a curse, the curse of weariness and despair."
His voice almost broke, and he put his hand to his forehead as if he still felt the weight of the weary months.
"Then came the news of my uncle's sudden death; but when I had got over my grief for him—he had been good to me, and I was fond of him!—even then I could find no pleasure in the inheritance which had fallen to me. Of what use was the title and the rest of it, if all my happiness was set upon the girl I had lost forever? I came home to do my duty, in a dull, dogged fashion, came home with the conviction that I should not be able to rest in England, that I should have to take to wandering again. I loved you still, Nell, but I hoped—see, now, I tell you the truth!—that I might at least get some peace, might learn to deaden my heart. And then, as the Fates would have it, I find you here, and——"
He paused for a moment and caught his breath.
"Hear that you were going to marry another man."
Nell started slightly, and the color rose to her face. She had forgotten Falconer!
"That was the last drop in my cup of misery. Somehow, I had always thought of you as the little girl of Shorne Mills, as—as—free. I had not reflected that it was inevitable that some other man should admire and love you. You see, you—you still, in some strange way, seemed to belong to me, though I knew I had lost you!"
No words he could have uttered could have touched her more sharply and deeply than this simple avowal. She turned her head aside so that he might not see the quivering of her lips, the tenderness which sprang into her eyes.
"That was the hardest blow of all that Fate had dealt me, Nell. It almost drove me mad to know that you once loved me, and yet that you were to be the wife of another man! It made me mad and desperate for a time, then I had to face it, as I had faced my loss of you. But, Nell——"
He paused again, and ventured to draw a little nearer to her; but as she still shrank from him, and leaned against the tree, he stopped short and did not venture to take her hand.
"Now I have just left Mr. Falconer, I have heard from his own lips that there is no engagement, that——Oh, Nell! It was the knowledge that you were still free that sent me to you just now, that made me cry out to you as I did! I love you, Nell, more dearly, more truly, if that be possible, than I did! Won't you forgive me the folly which made you send me away from you? Won't you let me try and win back your love?"
There was silence, broken only by the rustle of the leaves in the summer breeze, by the note of a linnet singing in the branches above their heads.
"See, dear, I plead as a man pleads for his life! And on your answer hangs all that makes life worth living. Forgive me, Nell, and give me back your love! I have been punished enough, rest assured of that. Forgive me that past folly and deceit, Nell! I'll teach you to forget in time. Dearest, you loved me, did you not? You loved me until that night of the ball—at the Maltbys'—when you discovered who I was!"
Back it all came to her, and she turned her face to him with grief and reproach in her violet eyes.
"I was on the terrace," she said, almost inaudibly. "It is you who forget. It was not because you kept your right name and rank from me. I was on the terrace. I saw you and—and Lady Luce!"
He started, and his hand fell to his side. He could not speak for a moment, the shock was so great, and in silence he recalled, saw as in a flash of lightning, all the incidents of that night.
"You—you were there? You saw—heard?" he said, half mechanically.
"Yes," she said.
She was calm, unnaturally calm now, and her voice was grave and sad rather than reproachful.
"I saw and heard everything. I saw her and Lady Chesney before you came out. I heard Lady Luce telling her friend that you and she were engaged, that you had parted, but that she still cared for you, and that you would come back to her; and when you came out of the house on the terrace, I saw her—and you——Oh, why do you make me tell you? It is hateful, shameful!"
She turned her face away, as if she could not bear his gaze fixed on her with amazement, and yet with some other emotion qualifying it.
"You saw Lady Luce come to meet me, heard her speak to me, saw her kiss me?" he said, almost to himself; and even at that moment she was conscious of the fact that there was no shame in his voice, none in his eyes.
She made a motion with her hand as if imploring him to say no more, to leave her; but he caught at her hand and held it, though she strove to release it from his grasp.
"My God! and that was the reason? Why, oh, Nell! Nell! why did you not tell me what you had seen? Why did you say no word of it in your letter? If you had done so—if you had only done so!"
She looked at him sadly.
"Was it not true? Were you not engaged to her?" she asked, almost inaudibly.
"Yes," he replied quickly. "I kept that from you; but it was true. You read of the engagement in that paragraph in the stupid paper, you remember? I ought to have told you, and I thought that it was because I had not, as well as because I had concealed my rank, that you broke with me. But, Nell, my engagement with her was broken off by herself; when there was a chance of my losing the title and the estates, she jilted me. I was free when I asked you to be my wife. You believe that? Great heavens! you do not think me so bad, so base——"
"No," she said, with a sigh. "No; but you went back to her. Oh, I do not blame you! She is very beautiful; she was a fitting wife——"
He uttered an exclamation—it was very like an oath—and caught her hand again.
"No, no," he said, almost fiercely. "You are wrong—wrong!"
She sighed again.
"I saw you—and her," she said, as if that were conclusive.
"I know it," he said. "You saw her come toward me and greet me as if—Heaven! I can scarcely bear to speak of it, to recall it!—as if she were betrothed to me. You saw her kiss me. But, Nell—ah! my dearest, listen to me, believe me!"—for she turned away from him in the bitterness of her agony, the remembrance of the agony she had suffered that night on the terrace. "You must believe me! The kiss was hers, not mine. I would rather have died than my lips should have touched her that night."
Nell's heart began to throb, and something—a vague hope—the touch of a joy too great and deep for words—began to steal over her.
"I am a fool, and weak, but, as Heaven is my witness, I had no thought for her that night. All my heart, my love, were yours! The very sight of her, her presence, was painful to me! Even as she came toward me, I was thinking of you, was in search of you. And her kiss! If the lips had been those of one of the statues on the terrace, it could not have moved me less. Nell, be merciful to me! What could I do? I am a man, she is a woman. Could I thrust her from me? I longed to do so; I would have told her I loved her no longer, that my love was given to another, to you, Nell; but there was no time. She left me before I could scarcely utter a word. And then I went in search of you—and the rest you know. Think, Nell! When you sent me away, did I go to her? No; I left England with my disappointment and my misery. Ah, Nell, if you had only told me that you had beheld the scene on the balcony! Go back to her—and leave you!"
He laughed with mingled bitterness and desperation. The strain was growing too tense for mere words.
At such moments as this, the man, if there is aught of manliness in him, has need of more than words.
"Think, dearest!" he said hoarsely. "Compare yourself with poor Luce! You say she is 'beautiful.' Do you never look in the glass? Dearest, you are, in all men's sight, ten times more lovely! The pure and flawless gem against the falsely glittering paste! Oh, Nell, if my heart was not so heavy, I could laugh, laugh! And you thought I had left you for her, gone back to her! And so you sent me away to exile and misery!"
His voice grew almost stern.
"Nell! It is you who ought to plead for forgiveness! Yes! You have sinned against me!"
She started and looked at him, open-eyed in her amazement.
"Yes, you also have sinned, Nell! You ought to have spoken to me, brought your accusation. I could have explained it all; we should have been married—and happy! And I should have been spared all these months of unhappiness, this awful hell upon earth!"
He had struck the right note at last. Convince a woman that she has been cruel to you, and, if she loves you, the divine attribute of pity will awaken in her, and bring her, who a moment before was as inflexible as adamant, to your feet.
Nell, panting for breath, looked at him; questioningly at first, then, by short degrees, pleadingly, almost penitently.
"Drake!" she breathed piteously.
He sprang forward and caught her in his arms, and pressed a torrent of kisses upon her lips, her hair.
"Nell! My love, my dearest! Oh, have I got you back again? Have I? Tell me you believe me, Nell! Tell me that I may hope; that you will love me again!"
She fought hard to resist him; but when a man holds the woman he loves, and who loves him, in his arms, the woman fights in vain. Every sense in her plays traitor, and fights on the man's side.
Nell put her hands on his broad chest, and tried to hold him off; but he would not be denied.
"Nell, I love you!" he cried hoarsely. "I want you. Let the past go. Don't hold me at arm's length, dearest! I love you! Nell, you will take me back?"
She still struggled and protested against the flood of happiness which overwhelmed her.
"But—but she?" she said, meaning Luce. "Since you have been here——They say——Ah, Drake!"
He laughed as he pressed her to him.
"Let them say!" he retorted. "Nell, I'll tell you the whole truth. If you had been engaged to poor Falconer, I should have married Luce——"
"Ah!" she breathed, with a shudder she could not repress.
"But you are not. And I am still free! And you are free! Nell, lift your head! Give me one kiss—only one—and I will be satisfied."
Her head still drooped for a moment, then she raised it and kissed him on the lips.
The summer breeze made music in the leaves, the linnet sang his heart out above their heads, the soft air breathed an atmosphere of love, and these two mortals were, after months of misery, happy beyond the power of words to express.
And as they sat, hand in hand, talking of the past, and picturing the future, neither of them naturally enough gave a thought to Lady Luce.
And yet he had asked her to come back to Anglemere; and without doubt she would come.
It was an enchanted world to these two. For some time they sat side by side, or, rather, Drake sat at Nell's feet, her hand sometimes resting, lightly as a dove's wing, with a caress in its touch, upon his head. There were long spells of silence, for such joy as theirs is shy of words; but now and again they talked.
They had so much to tell each other, and each was greedy of even the smallest detail. Drake wanted to hear of all that had happened to her since the terrible parting on the night of the Maltbys' ball—how long ago it seemed to them as they sat there in the sunshine that flickered through the leaves and touched Nell's hair with flashes of light.
And Nell told him everything—everything excepting the episode of Lady Wolfer and Sir Archie—that was not hers to tell, but Lady Wolfer's secret, and Nell meant to carry it to the grave with her; not even to this dearly loved lover of hers could she breathe a word of that crisis in Ada Wolfer's life. And yet, if she had been free to tell him about it then and there, how much better it would have been for them both, how much difference it would have made in their lives!
"And was there no one, no other man whom you saw, who could teach you to forget me, Nell?" he asked, half fearfully.
Nell blushed and shook her head.
"Surely there was some one among all you knew who was not quite blind, who was sensible enough to fall in love with the loveliest and the sweetest girl in all London?"
Nell's blush grew warmer as she remembered some of the men who had paid court to her, who would have been her suitors if she had not kept them at arm's length.
"There was no one," she said simply.
"Falconer?" he said, in a low voice.
The color slowly ebbed from her face, and her eyes grew rather sad as she reflected that her happiness had been purchased at the cost of his pain and self-sacrifice.
"Yes," she said, in a whisper, for she could not hide the truth from him; her heart was bare to his gaze. "If—if you had not come, if he had chosen to accept me, I should have married him. But you came at the very moment, Drake; and at the sound of your voice——He saw my face, and read the truth."
"Poor Falconer," he said, very gravely. "He is a better man than I am, than I shall ever be, even under the influence of your love, and the happiness it will bring me. I owe him a big debt, Nell; and though I can't hope to pay it, I must do what I can to make his life more smooth."
"He is very proud," she said, a little proudly herself.
"I know, I know; but he must let me help him in his career. I can do something in that direction, and I will. But for him! Ah, Nell, I don't like to think of it; I don't like to contemplate what might have happened if I had lost you altogether. Yes; I owe him a debt no man could hope to repay. I wish it had been I who had lived at Beaumont Buildings and played the violin to you, instead of him. All that time I was sailing in the Seagull, or wandering about Asia, wondering whether there was anything on earth, or in the waters under the earth, that could bring me a moment's pleasure, a moment of forgetfulness."
"And—and—you thought of me all that time? There was no one else?"
"There was no one else," he said, as simply as she had answered his question. "Though sometimes——Do you want me to tell you the whole truth, dearest?"
"The whole truth," she responded, looking down at him with trustful eyes, and yet with a little anxious line on her brow. For what woman would not have been apprehensive? She had cast him off, and he had been wandering about the world, free to love again, to choose a wife.
"Well, sometimes I tried to efface your image from my mind, to forget Nell of Shorne Mills, in the surest and quickest way. I went to some dinners and receptions; I joined in a picnic or two, and an occasional riding party. Once I sailed in a man's yacht which had three of the local belles on board, and I tried to fall in love with one of them—any of them—but it was of no use. Now and again I endeavored to persuade myself that I was falling in love. There was one, a girl who was something like you; she had dark hair, and eyes that had a look of yours in them; and when she was silent I used to look at her and try——But when she spoke, her voice was unlike yours, and her very unlikeness recalled yours; and I saw you, even as I looked at her, as you stood on the steps at the quay, or sat in the stern of the Annie Laurie, and my heart grew sick with longing for you, and I'd get up and leave the girl so suddenly that she used to stare after me with mingled surprise and indignation. What charm do you exert, what black magic, Nell, that a big, strong, hulking fellow like me cannot get free from the spell you throw over him? Tell me, dearest."
Her eyes rested on him lovingly, and there was that in the half-parted lips which compelled him to rise on his elbow and kiss them.
"And yet you could have married Lady Luce," she said, not reproachfully, but very gravely. "Did you not think of her, Drake?"
"No," he replied gravely. "I gave no thought to her until I came home and saw her. And it was not for love of her that I should have married her, Nell, but in sheer desperation. You see, it did not matter to me whom I married if I could not have you."
"And yet—ah, how hard love is!—she cares for you, Drake! I have seen her—I saw her on the terrace, I saw her at the ball here."
He laughed half bitterly.
"My dear Nell, don't let that idea worry you. There is nothing in it; it is quite a mistaken one. Luce is a charming woman, the most finished product of this fin de siecle life——"
"She is very beautiful," Nell said, just even to her rival.
"I'll grant it, though compared to a certain violet-eyed girl I know——"
Nell put her hand over his lips; and he kissed it, and went on gravely.
"No, it is not given to Luce to love any one but herself. She and her kind worship the Golden Image which we set up at every street corner. Rank, wealth, the notoriety that is paragraphed in the society papers, those are what Luce worships, and marries for. By the accident of birth I represent most of these things, and so——"
He shrugged his shoulders and laughed.
"And now chance has helped me again, for her father has inherited the Marquisate of Buckleigh, and he will be rich. It is likely enough that she would have jilted me again."
"But you were not engaged to her?" said Nell, drawing her hand from his head, where it had rested lightly.
"No," he said. "But I should have been, and she knows it. The whole truth, dearest! No, I am free, thank God! Free to win back my old love."
Nell drew a sigh of relief, and her hand stole back to him.
"She will let me go calmly and easily enough. There are at least two marriageable dukes in the market, and Luce——"
"Ah, Drake, I do not like to hear you speak so harshly—even of her."
"Forgive me, Nell. You are right," he said penitently. "But I can't forget that by her play acting on the terrace that night she nearly robbed me of you forever, and caused both of us months of misery. I can't forget that."
"But you must!" said Nell gently. "After all, it may not have been acting."
He laughed again, and drew her down to him.
"Ah, Nell, not even after the experience you had at Wolfe House, do you understand the fashionable woman, the professional beauty. It was all 'theater' on Luce's part, believe me! She would have made a magnificent actress. But do not let us talk about her any more. Tell me again how you used to live in Beaumont Buildings. Nell, we'll go there after we are married—we'll go and see the rooms in which you lived. I want to feel that I know every bit of your life since we parted."
At the "after we are married," spoken with all the confidence of the man, Nell's face grew crimson.
"And now, dearest, you will come up to the Hall?" he said, after a pause, and as if he were stating an indisputable proposition. "By George! how delighted the countess will be to hear of our reconciliation and engagement! She knows nothing of our love and our parting. I told no one; my heart was too sore; but I think I shall tell her now, and she will be simply delighted. You'll like her, Nell; she's such a dear, tender-hearted little woman. I don't wonder at my uncle falling in love with her. Poor old fellow! She has been wonderfully good to me. You'll come up to the Hall, and be treated like a princess."
"No, Drake," she said. "I must not. I must stay with—him; he needs me still."
He was silent a moment, then he kissed her hand assentingly.
"It shall be as you will, my queen!" he said quietly. "Ah, Nell, I shall make a bad husband; for I foresee that I shall spoil you by letting you have your own way too much. I wanted you at the Hall, wanted you near me. But I see—I see you are right, as always. But, Nell, there must be no delay about our marriage. Directly Falconer is well enough to——"
She drew her hand away, but he recovered it and held it against his face.
"There must be no other chance of a slip between the cup and the lip," he said, almost solemnly. "I want you too badly to be able to wait. Besides, do you forget that we have been engaged two years? Two years! A lifetime!"
At this moment a "Coo-ee!" sounded through the wood—an impatient and half indignant "Coo-ee!"
It was Dick, and he approached them, yelling:
"Nell! Nell! Where on earth are you, Nell?"
They had barely time to move before he was upon them.
"I say, Nell, where on earth have you been? I'm starving——Hallo!" he broke off, staring first at Nell's red and downcast face, and then at Drake's smiling and quite obviously joyous one. "What——"
Drake took Nell's hand.
"We quite forgot you, Dick, and everybody and everything else. But you'll forgive us when you hear that Nell and I have—have——"
"Made it up again!" finished Dick, with a grin that ran from ear to ear. "By George, you don't say so! Well, I said it was only a tiff; now, didn't I, Nell? But it was a pretty long one. Eighteen months or thereabouts, isn't it?"
For a moment the two lovers looked sad, then Drake smiled.
"Just eighteen months too long, Dick," he said. "But you might wish us joy."
"I do, I do—or I would, if I wasn't starving!" retorted Dick. "While you have been spooning under the spreading chestnut tree, I've been wrestling with the electric dynamos; and the sight of even bread and cheese would melt me to tears. But I am glad, old man," he said, in a grave tone—"glad for both your sakes; for any one could see with three-quarters of an eye, to be exact, that you were both miserable without each other. Oh, save me from the madness of love!"
"There was a very pretty girl by the name of Angel at the Maltbys' dance," put in Drake musingly; "a very pretty girl, indeed, who sat out most of the dances, if I remember rightly, with a young friend of mine."
Dick's face grew a healthy, brick-dust red, and he glanced shyly from one to the other.
"Well hit, Drake, old man!" he said. "Yes; there was one, and I've seen her in London once or twice——"
"Oh, Dick, and you never told me!" said Nell reproachfully.
"I don't tell you everything, little girl," he remarked severely; "and I won't tell you any more now unless you come on and give me something to eat. See here, now; I'll walk in front, and promise not to look round——"
Nell, blushing painfully, looked at Drake appealingly, and he seized Dick by the arm and marched him off in the direction of the lodge, Nell following more slowly.
As they entered, the nurse came down from Falconer's room, and Nell inquired after him anxiously.
"He is much better, miss," said the nurse; "and he asked me to say that he should be glad if you and his lordship would go up to him."
Drake nodded, and he followed Nell up the stairs.
Falconer was sitting up, leaning back against a pile of pillows; and he greeted them with a smile—the half-sad, half-patiently cynical smile of the old days in Beaumont Buildings—the smile which served as a mask to hide the tenderness of a noble nature.
Nell came into the room shyly, with the sadness of the self-reproach which was born of the knowledge that her happiness had been gained at the cost of this man who loved her with a love as great as Drake's; but Drake came up to the bed boldly, and held out his hand.
"We have come—to thank you, Falconer," he said, in the tone with which one man acknowledges his debt to another. "No, not to thank you, for that's impossible. Some things are beyond thanks, and this that you have done is one of them. You have brought happiness where there was nothing but misery and despair. Some day I will tell you the story of our separation; but that must wait. Now I can only try and express my gratitude——"
He stammered and broke down; for with Falconer's eloquent eyes upon him, he realized the extent of the man's self-sacrifice, and it seemed to him that any attempt to express his own gratitude was worse than absolute silence. Can you thank a man for the gift of your life?
Falconer looked from one to the other, the half-sad smile lighting up his wan face.
"I know," he said simply. And indeed he knew how he should feel if he were in the place of this lucky man, this favored of the gods. "I know. There is no need to say anything. You are happy?"
His eyes rested on Nell. She slipped to her knees beside the bed and took his hand; but she could not speak; the tears filled her eyes, and she gazed up at him through a mist.
"Ah! what can I say?" she murmured.
He smiled down at her with infinite tenderness.
"You have said enough," he said simply, "and I am answered. Do you think it is nothing to me, your happiness? It is everything—life itself!" His dark eyes glowed. "There is no moment since I knew you that I would not have laid down this wretched life of mine, if by so doing I could have made you happy at a much less cost."
He turned his eyes to Drake with sudden energy.
"Don't pity me, Lord Angleford. There is no need."
Drake took his other hand and pressed it.
"You must get well soon, or her—our—happiness will be marred, Falconer," he said warmly.
"I shall get well," he said. "I am better already. We artists are never beyond consolation. Art is a jealous mistress, and will brook no rival."
"And you worship a mistress who will make you famous," said Drake.
"We are content, though she should deny us so much as that," he said. "Art is its own reward."
Nell rose from her knees and stole from the room. When she had gone, Falconer raised his head and looked long and seriously at Drake.
"Be good to her, my lord," he said, very gravely. "You have won a great prize, a ruby without a blemish; value it, cherish it."
"I know," he said simply.
Nell stole into the room again. She was carrying Falconer's violin carefully, tenderly. She put it in his hands, held out eagerly to receive it, and he placed it in position, turned it swiftly, and began to play, his eyes fixed on hers gratefully.
Nell and Drake withdrew to the window, their heads reverently bent.
He played slowly, softly at first, a sad and yet exquisitely sweet melody; then the strain grew louder, though not the less sweet, and the tiny room was throbbing with music which expressed a joy which only music could voice.
Drake's hand stole toward Nell's, and grasped it firmly. Her head drooped and the tears rose to her eyes, and soon began to trickle down her cheeks. The exquisite music seemed to reach her soul and raise it to the seventh heaven, in even which there are tears.
"Drake!" she murmured. "Drake!"
"Nell, my dearest!" he responded, in a whisper.
Then suddenly the music ceased. Falconer slowly dropped the violin on the bed and fell back, his eyes closed, his face as calm as that of a child falling to sleep.
"Go now," whispered Nell; and Drake stole from the room, leaving Nell kneeling beside the musician, who had apparently fallen asleep.
Drake went down the stairs like a man in a dream, the strange, weird music still ringing in his ears, and walked up to the Hall.
The countess met him as he entered, and he took her hand and led her into the library without a word.
"Oh, what is it, Drake?" she asked anxiously, for she knew that something had happened.
He placed her in one of the big easy-chairs, and stood before her, the light of happiness on his face.
"I've something to tell you, countess," he said. "I am going to be married."
She smiled up at him.
"I am very glad, Drake. I have expected it for some time past. What a pity it is that she should have had to go!"
"She! Who?" he exclaimed.
For the moment he had forgotten Lady Luce.
The countess stared at him.
"Who?" she said, with surprise. "Why, who else should it be but Luce?"
His brows came together, and he made an impatient movement.
"No, no!" he said. "It is Nell—I mean Miss Lorton."
She rose with amazement depicted on her countenance.
"Miss Lorton! At the lodge?"
"Yes," he said impatiently. "We were engaged nearly two years ago. There was a—a—misunderstanding—but it is all cleared up. I want your congratulations, countess."
She was an American, and therefore quick to seize a point.
"And you have them, Drake. That sweet, beautiful girl! I am glad! But—but——"
"What?" he asked impatiently.
"But Luce!" she stammered. "We all thought that——"
"You are wrong," he said, almost hoarsely. "It is Miss Lorton. Go to her at the lodge, and——"
He said no more, but went to the writing table.
Lady Angleford, all in amaze, left the room.
He took up a pen and scribbled over a sheet of note-paper, then tore it up. He filled several other sheets, which he destroyed, but at last he wrote a few words which satisfied him.
Then he remembered that he did not know Luce's address; and, for want of a better, he addressed the letter, announcing his engagement to Miss Lorton, to Lord Turfleigh's club in London; and, like a man, was satisfied.
Was it any wonder that Nell should lie awake that night asking herself if this sudden joy and happiness that had come to her was real—that Drake loved her still—had never ceased to love her—and was hers again?
Perfect happiness in this vale of tears is so rare that we may be pardoned for viewing it with a certain amount of incredulity, and with a doubt of its stability and lasting qualities. But Drake's kisses were still warm on her lips, and his passionate avowal of love still rang in her ears.
And next morning, almost before she had finished breakfast, down came the countess to set the seal, so to speak, upon the marvelous fact that Nell of Shorne Mills was to be the wife of the Earl of Angleford.
Nell, blushing, rose from the table to receive her, and the countess took and held her hand, looking into the downcast face with the tender sympathy of the woman, who knows all that love means, for the girl who has only yet learned the first letters of its marvelous alphabet.
"My dear, you must forgive me for coming so early. Mr. Lorton, if you do not go on with your breakfast, I will run away again. I am so glad to meet you. Now, pray, pray, sit down again."
But Dick, who knew that the countess wished to have Nell alone, declared that he had finished, and took himself off. Then the countess drew Nell to her and kissed her.
"My dear, I am come to try and tell you how glad I am! Last night Drake and I sat up late talking of you. He has told me all your story. It is a romance—a perfect romance! And none the less charming because, unlike most romances in life, it has turned out happily. And we are all so pleased, so delighted—I mean up at the Hall; and I am sure the people on the estate will be as pleased, for I know that you have become a general favorite, even though you have been here so short a time. Lady Wolfer begged me to let her come with me this morning, but I would not yield. I wanted you all to myself. Not that I shall have you for long, I suppose, for Drake will be sure to be here presently."
Nell's blush grew still deeper. She was touched by the great lady's kindness, and the tears were very near her eyes.
"Why are you all so glad?" she faltered, gratefully and wonderingly. "I know that there is a great difference between us. I am—well, I am a nobody, and Drake is stooping very low to marry me. You must all feel that."
"My dear," said the countess, with a smile, "no man stoops who marries a good and innocent girl. It's the other way about—at least, that's my feeling; but then I'm an American, you know; and we look at things differently on the other side. But, Nell, we are glad because you have made Drake happy. None of us could fail to see that he has been wretched and miserable, but that now he has completely changed. If you had seen the difference in him last night! But I suppose you did," she put in naively. "He seemed to have become years younger; his very voice was changed, and rang with the old ring. And you have worked this miracle! That is why we are all so delighted and grateful to you."
The tears were standing in Nell's eyes, though she laughed softly.
"And yet—and yet he ought to have married some one of his own rank." The color rushed to her face. "I did not know who he was when—when I was first engaged to him at home, at Shorne Mills."
"I know—I know. He has told me the whole story. It was very foolish of him—foolish and romantic. But, dear, don't you see that it proves the reality, the disinterestedness of your love for him? And as for the difference of rank—well, it does not matter in the least. Drake's rank is so high that he may marry whom he pleases; and he is so rich that money does not come into the question."
"It is King Cophetua and the beggar maid," murmured Nell.
"If you like; but there is not much of the beggar maid about you, dear," retorted the countess, holding Nell at arm's length and scanning the refined and lovely face, the slim and graceful form in its plain morning frock. "No, my dear; there is nothing wrong about the affair, excepting the extraordinary misunderstanding which parted you for a time, and brought you so much unhappiness. But all that is past now, and you and he must learn to forget it. And now, my dear, I want you to come up with me to the Hall."
But Nell shook her head.
"I can't do that, countess," she said. "I can't leave Mr. Falconer. He is much better and stronger this morning; the nurse says that he slept all night, for the first time; but he still needs me—and—I owe him so much!" she added in a low voice.
The countess looked at her keenly for a moment; then she nodded.
"I see. Drake told me that I should find you harder to move than you look. And I am not sure that you are not right," she said. "When you come to stay at the Hall it will be as mistress." Nell's face crimsoned again. "But, my dear girl, we can't pass over the great event as if it were of no consequence. Drake's engagement, under any circumstances, would be of the deepest interest to all of us, to the whole country; but his engagement to you will create a profound sensation, and we must demonstrate our satisfaction in some way. I'm afraid you will have to face a big dinner party."
Nell looked rather frightened.
"Oh!" she breathed. "Is—is it necessary? Can't we just go on as if—as if nothing had happened?"
The countess laughed.
"That's exactly what Drake said when I spoke to him about it last night. It is nice to find you so completely of one mind. But I'm afraid it wouldn't do. You see, my dear, the people will want to see you, to be introduced to you; and if we pursue the usual course there will be much less talk and curiosity than if we let things slide. Yes, you will have to run the gauntlet; but I don't think you need be apprehensive of the result," and she looked at her with affectionate approval.
"Very well," said Nell resignedly. "You know what is best, and I will do anything you and Drake wish."
"What a dutiful child!" exclaimed the countess, banteringly. "And though you won't come and stay at the Hall, you will come up and see us very often, to lunch and tea and——"
"When Mr. Falconer can spare me," said Nell quietly.
"Yes. And about him, dear. We talked of him last night, and his future. That will be Drake's special care. He, too, owes him a big debt, and he feels it. Mr. Falconer is a genius, and the world must be made to know it before very long. And your brother, dear; you will let him come up to the Hall?"
Nell laughed softly.
"You are thinking of everything," she said. "Even of Dick. Oh, yes, he'll come. Dick isn't a bit shy; but he thinks more of his electric machines than anything else on earth just at present."
"I know," said the countess, laughing. "But we must try and lure him from them now and again. I am sure we shall all like him, for he is wonderfully like you. Now, about the dinner, dear. Shall we say this day week?"
"So soon!" said Nell.
"Yes; it mustn't be later, for this wretched trial is coming on; the assizes are quite close, you know; and Drake will have to be there as witness. My dear, I'm glad they did not get off with the diamonds! You little thought that night, when you saved Drake's life, and prevented the man getting away, that you were fighting for your own jewels."
"Mine!" said Nell.
The countess laughed.
"Why, yes, you dear goose! Are they not the Angleford diamonds, and will they not soon be yours?"
Nell blushed and looked a little aghast.
"I—I haven't realized it all yet," she said. "Ah! I wish Drake were—just Drake Vernon! I am afraid when I think——"
The countess smiled and shook her head.
"There is no need to be afraid, my dear," she said shrewdly. "You will wear the Angleford coronet very well and very gracefully, if I am not mistaken, because you set so little store by it. And now here comes Drake! It is good of him to give me so long with you. Give me a kiss before he comes—he won't begrudge me that surely! Ah, you happy girl!"
Drake drove up in a dogcart.
"I can't get down; the mare won't stand"—he hadn't brought a groom, for excellent reasons. "Please tell Nell to get her things on as quickly as she can!" he said to the countess as she came out.
Nell looked doubtful.
"I will go upstairs first," she said. But Falconer was asleep, and when she came down she had her outdoor things on.