Left with myself and Lucio, Lord Elton threw off all reserve, and became not only familiar, but fawning in his adulation of us both. An abject and pitiable desire to please and propitiate us expressed itself in his every look and word; and I firmly believe that if I had coolly and brutally offered to buy his fair daughter by private. treaty for a hundred thousand pounds, that sum to be paid down to him on the day of marriage, he would have gladly agreed to sell. Apart, however, from his personal covctousness, I felt and knew that my projected courtship of Lady Sibyl would of necessity resolve itself into something more or less of a market bargain, unless indeed I could win the girl's love. I meant to try and do this, but I fully realized how difficult, nay, almost impossible it would be for her to forget the fact of my unhampered and vast fortune, and consider me for myself alone. Herein is one of the blessings of poverty which the poor are frequently too apt to forget. A moneyless man if he wins a woman's love, knows that such love is genuine and untainted by self-interest > but a rich man can never be truly certain of love at all. The advantages of a wealthy match are constantly urged upon all marriageable girls by both their parents and friends,—and it would have to be a very unsophisticated feminine nature indeed that could contemplate a husband possessing five millions of money, without a touch of purely interested satisfaction. A very wealthy man can never be sure even of friendship,—while the highest, strongest and noblest kind of love is nearly always denied to him, in this way carrying out the fulfilment of those strange but true words,—" How hardly shall he that is a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven!" The heaven of a woman's love, tried and proved true through disaster and difficulty,—of her unflinching faithfulness and devotion in days of toil and bitter anguish,—of her heroic self-abnegation, sweetness and courage through the darkest hours of doubt and disappointment;—this bright and splendid side of woman's character is reserved by Divine ordinance for the poor man. The millionaire can indeed wed whomsoever he pleases among all the beauties of the world,—he can deck his wife in gorgeous apparel, load her with jewels and look upon her in all the radiance of her richly-adorned loveliness as one may look upon a perfect statue or matchless picture,—but he can never reach the deeper secrets of her soul or probe the well-springs of her finer nature. I thought this even thus early in the beginning of my admiration for Lady Sibyl Elton, though I did not then dwell upon it as I have often done since. I was too elated with the pride of wealth to count the possibilities of subtle losses amid so many solid gains; and I enjoyed to the full and with a somewhat contemptuous malice the humble prostration of a 'belted Earl' before the dazzling mine of practically unlimited cash as represented to him in the persons of my brilliant comrade and myself. I took a curious sort of pleasure in patronizing him, and addressed him with a protecting air of indulgent kindness, whereat he seemed gratified. Inwardly I laughed, as I thought how differently matters would have stood supposing I had been indeed no more than 'author'! I might have proved to be one of the greatest writers of the age, but if, with that, I had been poor or only moderately well off, this same half bankrupt Earl, who privately boarded an American heiress for two thousand guineas a year, would have deemed it a ' condescension' to so much as invite me to his house,—would have looked down upon me from his titled nothingness and perhaps carelessly alluded to me as 'a man who writes—er—yes—er—rather clever I believe !' and then would have thought no more about me. For this very cause as 'author' still, though millionaire, I took a fantastic pleasure in humiliating his lordship as much as possible, and I found the best way to do this was to talk about Willowsmere. I saw that he winced at the very name of his lost estate, and that notwithstanding this, he could not avoid showing his anxiety as to my intentions with regard to its occupation. Lucio, whose wisdom and foresight had suggested my becoming the purchaser of the place, assisted me in the most adroit fashion to draw him out, and to make his character manifest, and by the time we had finished our cigars and coffee, I knew that the ' proud' Earl of Elton, who could trace his lineage to the earliest days of the Crusaders, was as ready to bend his back and crawl in the dust for money as the veriest hotel porter expectant of a sovereign 'tip.' I had never entertained a high opinion of the aristocracy, and on this occasion it was certainly not improved, but remembering that the spendthrift nobleman beside me was the father of Lady Sibyl, I treated him on the whole with more respect than his mean and grasping nature deserved.
On returning to the drawing-room after dinner I was struck by the chill weirdness that seemed to be imparted to it by the addition of Lady Elton's couch, which, placed near the fire, suggested a black sarcophagus in bulk and outline. It was practically a narrow bed on wheels, though partially disguised by a silk coverlet draped skilfully so as to somewhat hide its coffin-like shape. The extended figure of the paralyzed Countess herself presented a death-like rigidity; but her face, as she turned it towards us on our entrance, was undisfigured as yet, and distinctly handsome, her eyes especially being large, clear and almost brilliant. Her daughter introduced us both in a low tone, and she moved her head slightly by way of acknowledgment, studying us curiously the while.
"Well, my dear," said Lord Elton briskly, "this is an unexpected pleasure! it is nearly three months since you honoured us with your company. How do you feel?''
"Better," she replied slowly, yet distinctly, her gaze now fixed with wondering intentness on Prince Rimanez.
"Mother found the room rather cold," explained Lady Sibyl; "so we brought her as near to the fire as possible. It is cold,"—and she shivered;—"I fancy it must be freezing hard."
"Where is Diana?" asked the Earl, looking about in search of that lively young lady.
"Miss Chesney has gone to her own room to write a letter," replied his daughter somewhat frigidly. "She will be back directly."
At this moment Lady Elton feebly raised her hand, and pointed to Lucio, who had moved aside to answer some question asked of him by Miss Charlotte.
"Who is that?" she murmured.
"Why, mother dear, I told you," said Lady Sibyl gently. "That is Prince Lucio Rimanez, Papa's great friend."
The Countess's pallid hand still remained lifted, as though it were frozen in air.
"What is he?" the slow voice again inquired,—and then the hand dropped suddenly like a dead thing.
"Now, Helena, you must not excite yourself," said her husband, bending over her couch with real or assumed anxiety. "Surely you remember all I have told you about the prince? And also about this gentleman, Mr Geoffrey Tempest?"
She nodded, and her eyes, turning reluctantly away from Rimamez, regarded me fixedly.
"You are a very young man to be a millionaire," were her next words, uttered with evident difficulty. "Are you married?"
I smiled, and answered in the negative. Her looks wandered from me to her daughter's face,—then back to me again with a singularly intent expression. Finally, the potent magnetism of Lucio's presence again attracted her, and she indicated him by a gesture.
"Ask your friend … to come here … and speak to me.
Rimanez turned instinctively at her request, and with his own peculiar charm and gallant grace of bearing, came to the side of the paralyzed lady, and taking her hand, kissed it.
"Your face seems familiar to me," she said, speaking now, as it seemed, with greater ease. "Have I ever met you before?"
"Dear lady, you may have done so," he replied in dulcet tones and with a most captivating gentleness of manner. "It occurs to me, now I think of it, that years ago I saw once, as a passing vision of loveliness, in the hey-day of youth and happiness, Helena Fitzroy, before she was Countess of Elton."
'' You must have been a mere boy—a child—at that time!'' she murmured, faintly smiling.
"Not so !—for you are still young, Madame, and I am old. You look incredulous? Alas, why is it, I wonder, I may not look the age I am! Most of my acquaintances spend a great part of their lives in trying to look the age they are not; and I never came across a man of fifty who was not proud to be considered thirty-nine. My desires are more laudable,—yet honourable eld refuses to impress itself upon my features. It is quite a sore point with me I assure you."
"Well, how old are you really?" asked Lady Sibyl, smiling at him.
"Ah, I dare not tell you!" he answered, returning the smile. "But I ought to explain that in my countings I judge age by the workings of thought and feeling, more than by the passing of years. Thus it should not surprise you to hear that I feel myself old,—old as the world!"
"But there are scientists who say that the world is young," I observed, "and that it is only now beginning to feel its forces and put forth its vigour."
"Such optimistic wiseacres are wrong," he answered. "The world is a veritable husk of a planet; humanity has nearly completed all its allotted phases, and the end is near."
"The end?" echoed Lady Sibyl. "Do you believe the world will ever come to an end ?''
"I do, most certainly. Or, to be more correct, it will not actually perish, but will simply change. And the change will not agree with the constitution of its present inhabitants. They will call the transformation the Day of Judgment. I should imagine it would be a fine sight."
The Countess gazed at him wonderingly,—Lady Sibyl seemed amused.
"I would rather not witness it," said Lord Elton gruffly.
"Oh, why?" and Rimanez looked about with quite a cheerful air. "A final glimpse of the planet ere we ascend or descend to our future homes elsewhere, would be something to remember! Madame,"—here he addressed Lady Elton,— "are you fond of music?"
The invalid smiled gratefully, and bent her head in acquiescence. Miss Chesney had just entered the room and heard the question.
"Do you play?" she exclaimed vivaciously, touching him on the arm with her fan.
He bowed. "I do,—in an erratic sort of fashion. I also sing. Music has always been one of my passions. When I was very young,—ages ago,—I used to imagine I could hear the angel Israfel chanting his strophes amid the golden glow of heavenly glory,—himself white-winged and wonderful, with a voice out-ringing beyond the verge of paradise."
As he spoke, a sudden silence fell upon us all. Something in his accent touched my heart to a strange sense of sorrow and yearning, and the Countess of Elton's dark eyes, languid with long suffering, grew soft as though with repressed tears.
"Sometimes," he continued more lightly—"just at odd moments—I like to believe in Paradise. It is a relief, even to a hardened sinner like myself, to fancy that there may exist something in the way of a world better than this one.''
"Surely sir," said Miss Charlotte Fitzroy severely, "you believe in Heaven?"
He looked at her, and smiled slightly.
"Madame, forgive me! I do not believe in the clerical heaven. I know you will be angry with me for this frank confession! But I cannot picture the angels in white smocks with goose wings, or the Deity as a somewhat excitable personage with a beard. Personally I should decline to go to any heaven which was only a city with golden streets; and I should object to a sea of glass, resenting it as a want of invention on the part of the creative Intelligence. But—do not frown, dear Miss Fitzroy !—I do believe in Heaven all the same,—a different kind of heaven,—I often see it in my dreams!''
He paused, and again we were all silent, gazing at him. Lady Sibyl's eyes, indeed, rested upon him with such absorbed interest, that I became somewhat irritated, and was glad when, turning towards the Countess once more, he said quietly—
"Shall I give you some music now, Madame?"
She murmured assent, and followed him with a vaguely uneasy glance as he crossed over to the grand piano and sat down. I had never heard him either play or sing; in fact, so far as his accomplishments went I knew nothing of him as yet, except that he was a perfect master of the art of horsemanship. With the first few bars he struck I half started from my chair in amazement;—could a mere pianoforte produce such sounds?—or was there some witchery hidden in the commonplace instrument, unguessed by any other performer? I stared around me, bewildered,—I saw Miss Charlotte drop her knitting abstractedly,—Diana Chesney, lying lazily back in one corner of the sofa, half closed her eyelids in dreamy ecstasy,—Lord Elton stood near the fire resting one arm on the mantelpiece, and shading his fuzzy brows with his hand,— and Lady Sibyl sat beside her mother, her lovely face pale with emotion, while on the worn features of the invalided lady there was an expression of mingled pain and pleasure difficult to describe. The music swelled into passionate cadence,— melodies crossed and re-crossed each other like rays of light glittering among green leaves,—voices of birds and streams and tossing waterfalls chimed in with songs of love and playful merriment;—anon came wilder strains of grief and angry clamour; cries of despair were heard echoing through the thunderous noise of some relentless storm,—farewells everlastingly shrieked amid sobs of reluctant shuddering agony;— and then, as I listened, before my eyes a black mist gathered slowly, and I thought I saw great rocks bursting asunder into flame, and drifting islands in a sea of fire,—faces, wonderful, hideous, beautiful, peered at me out of darkness denser than night, and in the midst of this there came a tune, complete in sweetness and suggestion,—a piercing sword-like tune that plunged into my very heart and rankled there;—my breath failed me,—my senses swam,—I felt that I must move, speak, cry out, and implore that this music, this horribly insidious music should cease ere I swooned with the voluptuous poison of it,—when, with a full chord of splendid harmony that rolled out upon the air like a breaking wave, the intoxicating sounds ebbed away into silence. No one spoke,—our hearts were yet beating too wildly with the pulsations roused by that wondrous lyric storm. Diana Chesney was the first to break the spell.
"Well, that beats everything I've ever heard!" she murmured tremulously.
I could say nothing,—I was too occupied with my ewn thoughts. Something in the music had instilled itself into my blood, or so I fancied, and the clinging subtle sweetness of it, moved me to strange emotions that were neither wise nor worthy of a man. I looked at Lady Sibyl; she was very pale,—her eyes were cast down and her hands were trembling. On a sudden impulse I rose, and went to Rimanez, where he still sat at the piano, his hands dumbly wandering over the keys.
"You are a great master," I said,—"a wonderful performer! But do you know what your music suggests ?''
He met my fixed gaze, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head.
"Crime!" I whispered. "You have roused in me evil thoughts of which I am ashamed. I did not think that was possible to so divine an Art."
He smiled, and his eyes glittered with the steely brightness of stars on a wintry night.
"Art takes its colours from the mind, my dear friend," he said. "If you discover evil suggestions in my music, the evil, I fear, must be in your own nature."
"Or in yours!" I said quickly.
"Or in mine," he agreed coldly. "I have often told you I am no saint."
I stood hesitatingly, looking at him. For one moment his great personal beauty appeared hateful to me, though I knew not why. Then the feeling of distrust and repulsion slowly passed, leaving me humiliated and abashed.
"Pardon me, Lucio!" I murmured regretfully,—"I spoke in haste; but truly your music almost put me in a state of frenzy. I never heard anything in the least like it"
"Nor I," said Lady Sibyl, who just then moved towards the piano. "It was marvellous! Do you know it quite frightened me?"
"I am sorry!" he answered, with a penitent air. "I know I am quite a failure as a pianist. I am not sufficiently 'restrained,' as the press men would say."
"A failure? Good God!" exclaimed Lord Elton at this juncture. "Why, if you played like that in public, you'd drive everyone frantic!"
"With alarm?" queried Lucio, laughing, "or with disgust?"
"Nonsense! you know what I mean very well. I have always had a contempt for the piano as an instrument, but by Jove! I never heard such music as yours even in a full orchestra. It is extraordinary !—it is positively magnificent! Where in the world did you study ?''
"In Nature's conservatoire," replied Rimanez lazily. "My first 'maestro' was an amiable nightingale. He, singing on a branch of fir when the moon was full, explained with liquid-noted patience, how to construct and produce a pure roulade, cadenza and ^rill^r-and when I had learned thus far, he showed me all the most elaborate methods of applying rhythmic tune to the upward and downward rush of the wind, thus supplying me with perfect counterpoint. Chords I learned from old Neptune, who was good enough to toss a few of his largest billows to the shore for my special benefit. He nearly deafened me with his instructions, being somewhat excitable and loudvoiced,—but on finding me an apt pupil, he drew back his waves to himself with so much delicacy among the pebbles and sand, that at once I mastered the secret of playing arpeggi. Once too I had a finishing lesson from a Dream, —a mystic thing with wild hair and wings; it sang one word in my ears, and the word was unpronounceable in mortal speech,—but after many efforts I discovered it lurking in the scale of sound. The best part of it all was that my instructors asked no fees."
"I think you are a poet as well as a musician," said Lady Sibyl.
"A poet! Spare me !—my dear young lady, why are you so cruel as to load me with so vile an imputation! Better be a murderer than a poet,—one is treated with much more respect and courteous consideration,—by the press at any rate. The murderer's breakfast-menu will be given due place in many of the most estimable journals, but the poet's lack of both breakfast and dinner will be deemed his fitting reward. Call me a live-stock producer, a horsebreeder, a timber-merchant,—anything but a poet! Why even Tennyson became an amateur milkman to somewhat conceal and excuse the shame and degradation of writing verse!"
We all laughed.
"Well, you must admit," said Lord Elton, "that we've had rather too much of poets lately. It's no wonder we're sick of them, and that poetry has fallen into disrepute. Poets are such a quarrelsome lot ton—effeminate, puling, unmanly humbugs!''
"You are speaking of the newly 'discovered' ones of course," said Lucio. "Yes, they are a weedy collection. I have sometimes thought that out of pure philanthropy I would start a bon-bon manufactory, and employ them to write mottoes for the crackers. It would keep them out of mischief and provide them with a little pocket-money, for as matters stand they do not make a farthing by their books. But I do not call them 'poets' at all,—they are mere rhymers. One or two real poets do exist, but, like the prophets of Scripture, they are not 'in society,' nor can they get their logs rolled by any of their contemporaries. They are not favourites with any "set'; that is why I am afraid my dear friend Tempest will never be accepted as the genius he is; society will be too fond of him to let him go down into dust and ashes to gather the laurel."
"It is not necessary to go down into dust and ashes for that," I said.
"I assure you it is!" he answered gaily,—"positively imperative. The laurel flourishes best so,—it will not grow in a hot-house.''
At that moment Diana Chesney approached.
"Lady Elton would like to hear you sing, prince," she said. "Will you give us that pleasure? Do! Something quite simple, you know,—it will set our nerves straight after your terribly beautiful music! You'd hardly believe it perhaps, but I really feel quite unstrung!"
He folded his hands with a droll air of penitence.
"Forgive me !" hesaid. "I'm always, as the church service says, doing those things I ought not to do."
Miss Chesney laughed, a trifle nervously.
"Oh, I forgive you!" she replied—" on condition that you sing."
"I obey!" and with that he turned again to the piano and, playing a strange wild minor accompaniment, sang the following stanzas:
Sleep, my Beloved, sleep!
Be patient!—we shall keep
Our secret closely hid
Beneath the coffin-lid,— There is no other place in earth or air For such a love as ours, or such despair! And neither hell nor heaven shall care to win Our loathed souls, rejoicing in their sin!
Sleep!—for my hand is sure,—
The cold steel bright and pure
Strikes through thy heart and mine,
Shedding our blood like wine;— Sin's sweetness is too sweet, and if the shame Of love must be our curse, we hurl the blame Back on the gods who gave us love with breath, And tortured us from passion into death!
This extraordinary song, sung in the most glorious of baritones, full and rich, and vibrating with power and sweetness, had a visibly thrilling effect upon us all. Again we were struck dumb with surprise and something like fear,—and again Diana Chesney broke the silence.
"You call that simple !" she said, half petulantly.
"Quite so. Love and Death are the simplest things in the world," replied Lucio. "The ballad is a mere trifle,—it is entitled 'The Last Love-Song,' and is supposed to be the utterance of a lover about to kill his mistress and himself. Such events happen every day,—you know that by the newspapers,—they are perfectly common-place ''
He was interrupted by a sharp clear voice ringing imperatively across the room—
"Where did you learn that song?"