The dinner went on in the fashion of most dinners at great houses,—commencing with arctic stiffness and formality, thawing slightly towards the middle course, and attaining to just a pleasant warmth of mutual understanding when ices and dessert give warning of its approaching close. Conversation at first flagged unaccountably, but afterwards brightened under Lucio's influence to a certain gaiety. I did my best to entertain Lady Sibyl, but found her like most 'society' beauties, somewhat of a vague listener. She was certainly cold, and in a manner irresponsive,—moreover, I soon decided that she was not particularly clever. She had not the art of sustaining or appearing to sustain interest in any one subject; on the contrary, she liad, like many of her class, an irritating habit of mentally drifting away from you into an absorbed reverie of her own in which you had no part, and which plainly showed you how little she cared for anything you or anyone else happened to be saying. Many little random remarks of hers, however, implied that in her apparently sweet nature there lurked a vein of cynicism and a certain contempt for men, and more than once her light words stung my sense of selflove almost to resentment, while they strengthened the force of my resolve to win her and bend that proud spirit of hers to the meekness befitting the wife of a millionaire and—a genius. A genius? Yes,—God help me !—that is what I judged myself to be. My arrogance was two-fold,—it arose not only from what I imagined to be my quality of brain, but also from the knowledge of what my wealth could do. I was perfectly positive that I could buy Fame,—buy it as easily as one buys a flower in the market,—and I was more than positive that I could buy love. In order to commence proving the truth of this, I threw out a ' feeler' towards my object.
"I believe," I said suddenly, addressing the Earl, "you used to live in Warwickshire, at Willowsmere Court, did you not?"
Lord Elton flushed an apoplectic red and swallowed a gulp of champagne hastily.
"Yes-er-yes. I—er had the place for some time,—rather a bore to keep up,—wants quite an army of servants."
"Just so, " I replied with a nod of appreciative comprehension. "I presume it will require a considerable domestic retinue. I have just arranged to purchase it."
Lady Sibyl's frigid composure was at last disturbed,—she looked strangely agitated,—and the Earl stared till his eyes seemed likely to fall out of his head.
"You? You are going to buy Willowsmere?" he ejaculated.
"Yes. I have wired to my lawyers to settle the matter as quickly as possible,"—and I glanced at Lucio, whose steelbright eyes were fixed on the Earl with curious intentness. "I like Warwickshire,—and as I shall entertain a great deal, I think the place will suit me perfectly."
There was a moment's silence. Miss Charlotte Fitzroy sighed deeply, and the lace bow on her severely parted hair trembled visibly. Diana Chesney looked up with inquisitive eyes and a little wondering smile.
"Sibyl was born at Willowsmere," said the Earl presently in rather a husky voice.
"Anew charm is added to its possession by that knowledge," I said gently, bowing to Lady Sibyl as I spoke. "Have you many recollections of the place?"
"Indeed, indeed I have!" she answered with a touch of something like passion vibrating in her accents. "There is no corner of the world I love so well! I used to play on the lawns under the old oak-trees, and I always gathered the first violets and primroses that came out on the banks of the Avon. And when the hawthorn was in full flower I used to make believe that the park was fairyland and I the fairy queen"
'' As you were and are !'' interposed Lucio suddenly. She smiled and her eyes flashed,—then she went on more quietly—
"It was all very foolish, but I loved Willowsmere, and love it still. And I often saw in the fields on the other side of the river, which did not belong to the estate, a little girl about my own age, playing all by herself and making long daisy-chains and buttercup balls,—a little girl with long fair curls and a sweet baby face. I wanted to know her and speak to her, but my nurse would never let me because she was supposed to be 'beneath' me." Lady Sibyl's lip curled scornfully at this recollection. "Yet she was well-born; she was the orphan child of a very distinguished scholar and gentleman, and had been adopted by the physician who attended her mother's deathbed, she having no living relatives left to take care of her. And she—that little fair-haired girl—was Mavis Clare."
As this name was uttered, a sort of hush fell on our party as though an 'Angelus' had rung,—and Lucio, looking across at me with peculiar intentness, asked—
"Have you never heard of Mavis Clare, Tempest?"
I thought a moment before replying. Yes, I had heard the name,—connected with literature in some dim and distant way, but I could not remember when or how. For I never paid any attention to the names of women who chose to associate themselves with the Arts, as I had the usual masculine notion that all they did, whether in painting, music or writing, must of necessity be trash, and unworthy of comment. Women, I loftily considered, were created to amuse men,—not to instruct them.
"Mavis Clare is a marvellous genius," Lady Sibyl said presently. "If Mr Tempest has not heard of her, there is no doubt he will hear. I often regret that I never made her acquaintance in those old days at Willowsmere,—the stupidity of my nurse often rankles in my mind. 'Beneath me'— indeed!—and how very much she is above me now! She still lives down there,—her adopted parents are dead, and she rents the lovely little house they inhabited. She has bought some extra land about it and improved the place wonderfully. Indeed I have never seen a more ideal poet's corner than Lily Cottage."
I was silent, feeling somewhat in the background on account of my ignorance as to the gifts and the position of the individual they all seemed to recognise as a celebrity of importance.
"Rather an odd name, Mavis, isn't it?" I at last ventured to observe.
"Yes,—but it suits her wonderfully. She sings quite as sweetly as any thrush, so she merits her designation.""What has she done in literature?" I continued,
"Oh,—only a novel!" replied Lucio with a smile. "But it has a quality unusual to novels; it lives. I hope, Tempest, that your forthcoming work will enjoy the same vitality."
Here Lord Elton, who had been more or less brooding darkly over his glass of wine ever since I had mentioned my purchase of Willowsmere, roused himself from his reverie.
"Why, God bless my soul!" he exclaimed. "You don't mean to tell me you have written a novel, Mr Tempest?" (Was it possible he had never noticed all the prominent advertisements of my book in every paper, I thought indignantly !) "What do you want to do that for, with your immense position?"
"He hankers after fame!" said Lucio half kindly, half satirically.
"But you've got fame!" declared the Earl, emphatically. "Everybody knows who you are by this time."
"Ah, my dear lord, that is not enough for the aspirations of my gifted friend," responded Lucio, speaking for me, his eyes darkening with that mystic shadow of mingled sorrow and scorn which so frequently clouded their lustrous brilliancy. "He does not particularly care for the 'immense position' that is due to wealth alone, because that does not lift him a jot higher than Maple of Tottenham Court Road. He seeks to soar beyond the furniture man,—and who shall blame him? He would be known for that indescribable quality called Genius,—for high thoughts, poetry, divine instincts, and prophetic probings into the heart of humanity,—in short, for the power of the Pen which topples down great kingdoms like card-houses and sticks foolscaps on the heads of kings. Generally it is the moneyless man or woman who is endowed with this unpurchasable power,—this independence of action and indifference to opinion,—the wealthy seldom do anything but spend or hoard. But Tempest means to unite for once in his own person the two most strenuously opposed forces in nature,—genius and cash,—or, in other words, God and Mammon."
Lady Sibyl turned her head towards me;—there was a look of doubt and wonder on her beautiful face.
"I am afraid," she said half smiling, " that the claims of society will take up too much of your time, Mr Tempest, to allow you to continue the writing of books. I remember you told me the other evening that you were about to publish a novel. I suppose you were—originally I mean—an author by profession?"
A curious sense of anger burned dully within me. 'Originally' an author? Was I not one still? Was I to be given credit for nothing but my banking-book?' Originally'? Why, I had never been an actual 'author' till now,—I had simply been a wandering literary hack,—a stray 'super' of Grub Street, occasionally engaged to write articles 'to order' on any subject that came uppermost, at a starvation rate of pay, without any visible prospect of rising from that lowest and dirtiest rung of the literary ladder. I felt myself growing red, then pale,—and I saw that Lucio was looking at me fixedly.
"I am an author, Lady Sibyl," I said at last; "and I hope I may soon prove my right to be acknowledged as one. 'Author' is, in my opinion, a prouder title than king, and I do not think any social claims will deter me from following the profession of literature, which I look upon as the highest in the world."
Lord Elton fidgeted uneasily in his chair.
"But your people," he said,—"your family—are they literary?"
"No members of my family are now living," I answered somewhat stiffly. "My father was John Tempest of Rexmoor. ''
"Indeed!" and the Earl's face brightened considerably. "Dear me, dear me! I used to meet him often in the hunting field years ago. You come of a fine old stock, sir !—the Tempests of Rexmoor are well and honourably known in county chronid.es."
I said nothing, feeling a trifle heated in temper, though I could not have quite explained why.
"One begins to wonder," said Lucio then, in his soft smooth accents, "when one is the descendant of a good English county family,—a distinct cause for pride !—and moreover has the still more substantial fact of a large fortune to support that high lineage, why one should trouble to fight for merely literary honours! You are far too modest in your ambitions, Tempest!—high-seated as you are upon bank-notes and bullion, with all the glory of effulgent county chronicles behind you, you still stoop to clutch the laurel! Fie, my dear fellow! You degrade yourself by this desire to join the company of the immortals !''
His satirical tone was not lost upon the company; and I, who saw that in his own special way he was defending the claims of literature against those of mere place and money, felt soothed and grateful. The Earl looked a trifle annoyed.
"That's all very fine," he said. "But you see it isn't as if Mr Tempest were driven by necessity to write for his living—''
"One may love work for the work's sake without any actual necessity for doing it," I interposed. "For example,—this Mavis Clare you speak of,—is she—a woman—driven by necessity?"
"Mavis Clare hasn't a penny in the world that she does not earn," said Lord Elton gruffly. "I suppose that if she did not write she would starve."
Diana Chesney laughed.
"I guess she's a long way off starvation just now," she remarked, her brown eyes twinkling. "Why, she's as proud as the proudest,—drives in the Park in her victoria and pair with the best in the land, and knows all the 'swagger' people. She's nowhere near Grub Street, / should say. I hear she's a splendid business woman and more than a match for the publishers all round."
"Well I should rather doubt that," said the Earl with a chuckle. "It needs the devil himself to match the publishers."
"You are right," said Lucio. "In fact, I daresay that in the various 'phases' or transmigrations of the spirit into differing forms of earthy matter, the devil (should he exist at all) has frequently become a publisher,—and a particularly benevolent publisher too !—by way of diversion."
We all smiled.
"Well, I should imagine Mavis Clare to be a match for anybody or anything," said Lady Sibyl. "Of course she is not rich,—but she spends her money wisely and to effective advantage. I do not know her personally,—I wish I did; but I have read her books, which are quite out of the common. She is a most independent creature too; quite indifferent to opinions."
"I suppose she must be extremely plain then," I observed. "Plain women always try to do something more or less startling in order to attract the attention denied to their personality.''
"True,—but that would not apply to Miss Clare. She is quite lovely, and knows how to dress besides."
"Such a virtue in literary women!" exclaimed Diana Chesney. "Some of them are such dowdies!"
"Most people of culture," went on Lady Sibyl—"in our set at any rate—are accustomed to look upon Miss Clare as quite an exception to the usual run of authors. She is charming in herself as well as in her books, and she goes everywhere. She writes with inspiration,—and always has something so new to say—"
"That of course all the critics are down upon her ?'' queried Lucio.
"Oh, naturally! But we never read reviews."
"Nor anyone else I should hope," said Lord Elton with a laugh—" except the fellows who write them, ha—ha—ha! I call it damned impertinence—excuse the word—on the part of a newspaper hack to presume to teach me what I ought to read, or what I ought to appreciate. I'm quite capable of forming my own judgment on any book that ever was written. But I avoid all the confounded ' new' poets,—avoid 'em like poison, sir—ha—ha! Anything but a 'new' poet; the old ones are good enough for me. Why, sir, these reviewers who give themselves such airs with a pennorth of ink and a pen, are mostly half-grown, half-educated boys who for a couple of guineas a week undertake to tell the public what they think of such and such a book, as if anyone cared a jot about their green opinions! Ridiculous—quite ridiculous !—what do they take the public for, I wonder! Editors of responsible journals ought to know better than to employ such young coxcombs just because they can get them cheap"
At this juncture the butler came up behind his master's chair and whispered a few words. The Earl's brow clouded, —then he addressed his sister-in-law,—
"Charlotte, Lady Elton sends word that she will come into the drawing-room to-night. Perhaps you had better go and see that she is made comfortable." And, as Miss Charlotte rose, he turned to us saying, "My wife is seldom well enough to see visitors, but this evening she feels inclined for a little change and distraction from the monotony of her sick-room. It will be very kind of you two gentlemen "to entertain her,— she cannot speak much, but her hearing and sight are excellent, and she takes great interest in all that is going on. Dear, dear me!" and he heaved a short troubled sigh—"She used to be one of the brightest of women!"
"The sweet Countess!" murmured Miss Chesney with patronizing tenderness. "She is quite lovely still!"
Lady Sibyl glanced at her with a sudden haughty frown which showed me plainly what a rebellious temper the young beauty held in control; and I fell straightway more in love— according to my idea of love—than ever. I confess I like a woman to have a certain amount of temper. I cannot endure your preternaturally amiable female, who can find nothing in all the length or breadth of the globe to move her to any other expression than a fatuous smile. I love to see the danger-flash in bright eyes, the delicate quiver of pride in the lines of a lovely mouth, and the warm flush of indignation on fair cheeks. It all suggests spirit, and untamed will; and rouses in a man the love of mastery that is born in his nature, urging him to conquer and subdue that which seems unconquerable. And all the desire of such conquest was strong within me, when at the close of dinner I rose and held the door open for the ladies to pass out of the room. As the fair Sibyl went, the violets she wore at her bosom dropped. I picked them up and made my first move.
"May I keep these?" I said in a low tone.
Her breath came and went quickly,—but she looked straight in my eyes with a smile that perfectly comprehended my hidden meaning.
"You may !" she answered.
I bowed, closed the door behind her, and, secreting the flowers, returned, well-satisfied, to my place at table.