But you frighten me when you speak of a stranger. Where did you meet with him?"
"On our way back from Paris."
"Traveling in the same carriage with you?"
"No--it was in crossing the Channel. There were few travelers in the steamboat, or I might never have noticed him."
"Did he speak to you?"
"I don't think he even looked at me."
"That doesn't say much for his taste, Stella."
"You don't understand. I mean, I have not explained myself properly. He was leaning on the arm of a friend; weak and worn and wasted, as I supposed, by some long and dreadful illness. There was an angelic sweetness in his face--such patience! such resignation! For heaven's sake keep my secret. One hears of men falling in love with women at first sight. But a woman who looks at a man, and feels--oh, it's shameful! I could hardly take my eyes off him. If he had looked at me in return, I don't know what I should have done--I burn when I think of it. He was absorbed in his suffering and his sorrow. My last look at his beautiful face was on the pier, before they took me away. The perfect image of him has been in my heart ever since. In my dreams I see him as plainly as I see you now. Don't despise me, Adelaide!"
"My dear, you interest me indescribably. Do you suppose he was in our rank of life? I mean, of course, did he look like a gentleman?"
"There could be no doubt of it."
"Do try to describe him, Stella. Was he tall and well dressed?"
"Neither tall nor short--rather thin--quiet and graceful in all his movements--dressed plainly, in perfect taste. How can I describe him? When his friend brought him on board, he stood at the side of the vessel, looking out thoughtfully toward the sea. Such eyes I never saw before, Adelaide, in any human face--so divinely tender and sad--and the color of them that dark violet blue, so uncommon and so beautiful--too beautiful for a man. I may say the same of his hair. I saw it completely. For a minute or two he removed his hat--his head was fevered, I think--and he let the sea breeze blow over it. The pure light brown of his hair was just warmed by a lovely reddish tinge. His beard was of the same color; short and curling, like the beards of the Roman heroes one sees in pictures. I shall never see him again--and it is best for me that I shall not. What can I hope from a man who never once noticed me? But I should like to hear that he had recovered his health and his tranquillity, and that his life was a happy one. It has been a comfort to me, Adelaide, to open my heart to you. I am get ting bold enough to confess everything. Would you laugh at me, I wonder, if I--?"
She stopped. Her pale complexion softly glowed into color; her grand dark eyes brightened--she looked her loveliest at that moment.
"I am far more inclined, Stella, to cry over you than to laugh at you," said Lady Loring. "There is something, to my mind, very sad about this adventure of yours. I wish I could find out who the man is. Even the best description of a person falls so short of the reality!"
"I thought of showing you something," Stella continued, "which might help you to see him as I saw him. It's only making one more acknowledgment of my own folly."
"You don't mean a portrait of him!" Lady Loring exclaimed.
"The best that I could do from recollection," Stella answered sadly.
"Bring it here directly!"
Stella left the room and returned with a little drawing in pencil. The instant Lady Loring looked at it, she recognized Romayne and started excitedly to her feet.
"You know him!" cried Stella.
Lady Loring had placed herself in an awkward position. Her husband had described to her his interview with Major Hynd, and had mentioned his project for bringing Romayne and Stella together, after first exacting a promise of the strictest secrecy from his wife. She felt herself bound--doubly bound, after what she had now discovered--to respect the confidence placed in her; and this at the time when she had betrayed herself to Stella! With a woman's feline fineness of perception, in all cases of subterfuge and concealment, she picked a part of the truth out of the whole, and answered harmlessly without a moment's hesitation.
"I have certainly seen him," she said--"probably at some party. But I see so many people, and I go to so many places, that I must ask for time to consult my memory. My husband might help me, if you don't object to my asking him," she added slyly.
Stella snatched the drawing away from her, in terror. "You don't mean that you will tell Lord Loring?" she said.
"My dear child! how can you be so foolish? Can't I show him the drawing without mentioning who it was done by? His memory is a much better one than mine. If I say to him, 'Where did we meet that man?'--he may tell me at once--he may even remember the name. Of course, if you like to be kept in suspense, you have only to say so. It rests with you to decide."
Poor Stella gave way directly. She returned the drawing, and affectionately kissed her artful friend. Having now secured the means of consulting her husband without exciting suspicion, Lady Loring left the room.
At that time in the morning, Lord Loring was generally to be found either in the library or the picture gallery. His wife tried the library first. On entering the room, she found but one person in it--not the person of whom she was in search. There, buttoned up in his long frock coat, and surrounded by books of all sorts and sizes, sat the plump elderly priest who had been the especial object of Major Hynd's aversion.
"I beg your pardon, Father Benwell," said Lady Loring; "I hope I don't interrupt your studies?"
Father Benwell rose and bowed with a pleasant paternal smile. "I am only trying to organize an improved arrangement of the library," he said, simply. "Books are companionable creatures--members, as it were, of his family, to a lonely old priest like myself. Can I be of any service to your ladyship?"
"Thank you, Father. If you can kindly tell me where Lord Loring is--"
"To be sure! His lordship was here five minutes since--he is now in the picture gallery. Pray permit me!"
With a remarkably light and easy step for a man of his age and size, he advanced to the further end of the library, and opened a door which led into the gallery.
"Lord Loring is among the pictures," he announced. "And alone." He laid a certain emphasis on the last word, which might or might not (in the case of a spiritual director of the household) invite a word of explanation.
Lady Loring merely said, "Just what I wanted; thank you once more, Father Benwell"--and passed into the picture gallery.
Left by himself again in the library, the priest walked slowly to and fro, thinking. His latent power and resolution began to show themselves darkly in his face. A skilled observer would now have seen plainly revealed in him the habit of command, and the capacity for insisting on his right to be obeyed. From head to foot, Father Benwell was one of those valuable soldiers of the Church who acknowledge no defeat, and who improve every victory.