It must have been about a week or ten days after the Levee that I had the strange scene with Sibyl Elton [I am about to relate; a scene that left a painful impression on my mind and should have been sufficient to warn me of impending trouble to come had I not been too egotistical to accept any portent that presaged ill to myself. Arriving at Lord Elton's house one evening, and ascending the stairs to the drawingroom as was now my usual custom, unannounced and without ceremony, I found Diana Chesney there alone and in tears.
"Why, what's the matter?" I exclaimed in a rallying tone, for I was on very friendly and familiar terms with the little American. "You, of all people in the world, having a private 'weep'! Has our dear railway papa 'bust up'?"
She laughed, a trifle hysterically.
"Not just yet, you bet!" she answered, lifting her wet eyes to mine and showing that mischief still sparkled brightly in them. "There's nothing wrong with the funds as far as I know. I've only had a—well—a sort of rumpus here with Sibyl."
"Yes,"—and she rested the point of her little embroidered shoe on a footstool and looked at it critically. "You see it's the Catsups' 'At Home' to-night, and I'm invited and Sibyl's invited; Miss Charlotte is knocked up with nursing the Countess, and I of course made sure that Sibyl would go. Well, she never said a word about it till she came down to dinner, and then she asked me what time I wanted the carriage. I said, 'Are you going too?' and she looked at me in that provoking way of hers, you know !—a look that takes you in from your topmost hair to your shoe-edge, and answered, 'Did you think it possible!' Well, I flared up, and said of course I thought it possible,—why shouldn't it be possible? She looked at me in the same way again and said, 'To the Catsups? with you!' Now, you know, Mr Tempest, that was real downright rudeness, and more than I could stand, so I just gave way to my mind. 'Look here, ' I said—' though you are the daughter of an Earl, you needn't turn up your nose at Mrs Catsup. She isn't half bad,—I don't speak of her money,—but she's a real good sort, and has a kind heart, which it appears to me is more than you have. Mrs Catsup would never treat me as unkindly as you do.' And then I choked,—I could have burst out in a regular yell, if I hadn't thought the footman might be outside the door, listening. And Sibyl only smiled, that patent ice-refrigerator smile of hers, and asked, 'Would you prefer to live with Mrs Catsup?' Of course I told her no,—nothing would induce me to live with Mrs Catsup, and then she said, 'Miss Chesney, you pay my father for the protection and guarantee of his name and position in English social circles, but the companionship of my father's daughter was not included in the bargain. I have tried to make you understand as distinctly as I can that I will not be seen in society with you,—not because I dislike you,— far from it,—but simply because people would say I was acting as your paid companion. You force me to speak plainly, and I am sorry if I offend. As for Mrs Catsup, I have only met her once, and she seemed to me very common and ill-bred. Besides I do not care for the society of tradespeople.' And with that she got up and sailed out,—and I heard her order the carriage for me at ten. It's coming round directly, and just look at my red eyes! It's awfully hard on me,—I know old Catsup made his pile out of varnish, but varnish is as good as anything else in the general market. And—and—it's all out now, Mr Tempest,—and you can tell Sibyl what I've said if you like; I know you're in love with her."
I stared, bewildered by her voluble and almost breathless outburst.
"Really, Miss Chesney," I began formally.
"Oh, yes, Miss Chesney, Miss Chesney—it's all very well!" she repeated impatiently, snatching up a gorgeous evening cloak which I mutely volunteered to put on, an offer she as mutely accepted. "I'm only a girl, and it isn't my fault if I've got a vulgar man for a father who wants to see me married to an English nobleman before he dies,—that's his look-out—/ don't care about it. English noblemen are a rickety lot in my opinion. But I've as good a heart as anyone, and I could love Sibyl if she'd let me, but she won't. She leads the life of an ice-berg, and doesn't care a rap for anyone. She doesn't care for you, you know!—I wish she did,—she'd be more human!"
"I'm very sorry for all this," I said, smiling into the piquante face of the really sweet-natured girl, and gently fastening the jewelled clasp of her cloak at her throat. "But you mustn't mind it so much. You are a dear little soul, Diana,—kind and generous and impulsive, and all the rest of it,—but—well—English people are very apt to misunderstand Americans. I can quite enter into your feelings,—still, you know Lady Sibyl is very proud"
"Proud?" she interrupted. "My! I guess it must feel something splendid to have an ancestor who was piked through the body on Bosworth field, and left there for the birds to eat. It seems to give a kind of stiffness in the back to all the family ever afterwards. Shouldn't wonder if the descendants of the birds who ate him felt kinder stuck up about it too!"
I laughed; she laughed with me, and was quite herself again.
"If I told you my ancestor was a Pilgrim Father, you wouldn't believe me I expect!" she said, the corners of her mouth dimpling.
''I should believe anything from your lips!" I declared gallantly.
"Well, believe that, then! Swallow it down if you can! I can't. He was a Pilgrim Father in the Mayflower, and he fell on his knees and thanked God as soon as he touched dry land in the true Pilgrim-Father way. But he couldn't hold a candle to the piked man at Bosworth."
Here we were interrupted by the entrance of a footman.
"The carriage is waiting, Miss."
"Thanks,—all right. Good-night, Mr Tempest,—you'd better send word to Sibyl you are here; Lord Elton is dining out, but Sibyl will be at home all the evening.''
I offered her my arm, and escorted her to the carriage, feeling a little sorry for her as she drove off in solitary state to the festive 'crush' of the successful varnisher. She was a good girl, a bright girl, a true girl,—vulgar and flippant at times, yet on the whole sincere in her better qualities of character and sentiment,—and it was this very sincerity which, being quite unconventional and not at all la mode, was misunderstood and would always be misunderstood by the higher and therefore more hypocritically polished circles of English society.
I returned to the drawing-room slowly and meditatively, telling one of the servants on my way to ask Lady Sibyl if she could see me for a few moments. I was not kept waiting long; I had only paced the room twice up and down when she entered, looking so strangely wild and beautiful that I could scarcely forbear uttering an exclamation of wonder. She wore white as was always her custom in the evenings,— her hair was less elaborately dressed than usual, and clustered over her brow in loose wavy masses,—her face was exceedingly pale, and her eyes appeared larger and darker by comparison,—her smile was vague and fleeting like that of a sleepwalker. She gave me her hand; it was dry and burning.
"My father is out," she began.
"I know. But I came to see you. May I stay a little?"
She murmured assent, and sinking listlessly into a chair, began to play with some roses in a vase on the table beside her.
"You look tired, Lady Sibyl," I said gently. "Are you not well?"
"I am quite well," she answered. "But you are right in saying I am tired. I am dreadfully tired!"
"You have been doing too much perhaps?—your attendance on your mother tries you"
She laughed bitterly.
"Attendance on my mother !—pray do not credit me with io much devotion. I never attend on my mother. I cannot do it; I am too much of a coward. Her face terrifies me; and whenever I do venture to go near her, she tries to speak, with such dreadful, such ghastly efforts, as make her more hideous to look at than anyone can imagine. I should die of fright if I saw her often. As it is when I do see her I can scarcely stand—and twice I have fainted with the horror of it. To think of it!—that that living corpse with the fearful fixed eyes and distorted mouth should actually be my mother."
She shuddered violently, and her very lips paled as she spoke. I was seriously concerned, and told her so.
"This must be very bad for your health," I said, drawing my chair closer to hers. "Can you not get away for a change?"
She looked at me in silence. The expression of her eyes thrilled me strangely,—it was not tender or wistful, but fierce, passionate and commanding.
"I saw Miss Chesney for a few moments just now," I resumed. "She seemed very unhappy."
"She has nothing to be unhappy about," said Sibyl coldly—"except the time my mother takes in dying. But she is young; she can afford to wait a little for the Elton coronet."
"Is not—may not this be a mistaken surmise of yours?" I ventured to say gently. "Whatever her faults, I think the girl admires and loves you."
She smiled scornfully.
"I want neither her love nor her admiration," she said. "I have few women-friends, and those few are all hypocrites 1 » 17
whom I mistrust. When Diana Chesney is my step-mother, we shall still be strangers.''
I felt I was on delicate ground, and that I could not continue the conversation without the risk of giving offence.
"Where is your friend?" asked Sibyl suddenly, apparently to change the subject. "Why does he so seldom come here now?"
"Rimanez? Well, he is a very queer fellow, and at times takes an abhorrence for all society. He frequently meets your father at the club, and I suppose his reason for not coming here is that he hates women."
"All women?" she queried with a little smile.
"Then he hates me?"
"I did not say that," I answered quickly. "No one could hate you, Lady Sibyl,—but truly, as far as Prince Rimanez is concerned, I expect he does not abate his aversion to womankind (which is his chronic malady) even for you."
"So he will never marry?" she said musingly.
I laughed. "Oh, never! That you may be quite sure of."
Still playing with the roses near her, she relapsed into silence. Her breath came and went quickly; I saw her long eyelashes quiver against the pale rose-leaf tint of her cheeks,— the pure outline of her delicate profile suggested to my mind one of Fra Angelico's meditative saints or angels. All at once, while I yet watched her admiringly, she suddenly sprang erect, crushing a rose in her hand, her head thrown back, her eyes flashing, her whole frame trembling.
"Oh, I cannot bear it!" she cried wildly. "I cannot bear it!"
I started up astonished, and confronted her. "Sibyl!"
"Oh, why don't you speak, and fill up the measure of my degradation !" she went on passionately. "Why don't you tell me, as you tell my father, your purpose in coming here? Why don't you say to me, as you say to him, that your sovereign choice has fastened upon me,—that I am the woman out of all the world you have elected to marry! Look at me!" and she raised her arms with a tragic gesture. "Is there any flaw in the piece of goods you wish to purchase? This face is deemed worthy of the fashionable photographer's pains; worthy of being sold for a shilling as one of England's 'beau ties,'—this figure has served as a model for the showingoff of many a modiste's costume, purchased at half-cost on the understanding that I must state to my circle of acquaintance the name of the maker or designer,—these eyes, these lips, these arms are all yours for the buying! Why do you expose me to the shame of dallying over your bargain ?—by hesitating and considering as to whether, after all, I am worthy of your gold !''
She seemed seized by some hysterical passion that convulsed her, and in mingled amazement, alarm and distress, I sprang to her and caught her hands in my own.
"Sibyl, Sibyl!" I said, "hush—hush! You are overwrought with fatigue and excitement,—you cannot know what you are saying. My darling, what do you take me for ?—what is all this nonsense in your mind about buying and selling? You know I love you,—I have made no secret of it,—you must have seen it in my face,—and if I have hesitated to speak, it is because I feared your rejection of me. You are too good for me Sibyl,—too good for any man,—I am not worthy to win your beauty and innocence. My love, my love, do not give way in this manner,"—for as I spoke she clung to me like a wild bird suddenly caged. "What can I say to you, but that I worship you with all the strength of my life,— I love you so deeply that I am afraid to think of it; it is a passion I dare not dwell upon, Sibyl,—I love you too well,— too madly for my own peace"
I trembled, and was silent,—her soft arms clinging to me robbed me of a portion of my self-control. I kissed the rippling waves of her hair; she lifted her head and looked up at me, her eyes alit with some strange lustre that was not love as much as fear,—and the sight of her beauty thus yielded as it were to my possession, broke down the barriers of restraint I had hitherto imposed upon myself. I kissed her on the lips, —a long passionate kiss that, to my excited fancy, seemed to mingle our very beings into one,—but while I yet held her in my arms, she suddenly released herself, and pushed me back. Standing apart from me she trembled so violently that I feared she would fall, and I took her hand and made her sit down. She smiled,—a very wan smile.
"What did you feel then?" she asked.
"Just now,—when you kissed me?"
"All the joys of heaven and fires of hell in a moment!" I said.
She regarded me with a curious musing frown.
"Strange! Do you know what /felt?"
I shook my head smiling, and pressed my lips on the soft small hand I held.
"Nothing!" she said, with a kind of hopeless gesture. "I assure you, absolutely nothing! I cannot feel. I am one of your modern women,—I can only think,—and analyze."
"Think and analyze as much as you will, my queen," I answered playfully—" if you will only think you can be happy with me. That is all I desire.''
"Can you be happy with me?" she asked. "Wait—do not answer for a moment, till I tell you what I am. You are altogether mistaken in me." She was silent for some minutes, and I watched her anxiously. "I was always intended for this," she said slowly at last,—"this, to which I have now come,—to be the property of a rich man. Many men have looked at me with a view to purchase, but they could not pay the price my father demanded. Pray do not look so distressed !—what I say is quite true, and quite commonplace,— all the women of the upper classes,—the unmarried ones,— are for sale now in England as utterly as the Circassian girls in a barbarian slave-market. I see you wish to protest, and assure me of your devotion,—but there is no need of this,— I am quite sure you love me,—as much as any man can love, —and I am content. But you do not know me really,—you are attracted by my face and form,—and—you admire my youth and innocence, which you think I possess. But I am not young—I am old in heart and feeling. I was young for a little while at Willowsmere, when I lived among flowers and birds and all the trustful honest creatures of the woods and fields,—but one season in town was sufficient to kill my youth in me,—one season of dinners and balls, and—fashionable novel-reading. Now you have written a book, and therefore you must know something about the duties of authorship,— of the serious and even terrible responsibility writers incur when they send out to the world books full of pernicious and poisonous suggestion to contaminate the minds that have hitherto been clean and undiseased. Your book has a noble motive; and for this I admire it in many parts, though to me it is not as convincing as it might have been. It is well written too; but I gained the impression while reading it, that you were not altogether sincere yourself in the thoughts you strove to inculcate,—and that therefore you just missed what you should have gained."
"I am sure you are right," I said, with a wholesome pang of humiliation. "The book is worthless as literature,—itjs only the 'boom' of a season !''
"At anyrate," she went on, her eyes darkening with the intensity of her feeling, "you have not polluted your pen with the vileness common to many of the authors of the day. I ask you, do you think a girl can read the books that are now freely published, and that her silly society friends tell her to read,—' because it is so dreadfully queer !'—and yet remain unspoilt and innocent? Books that go into the details of the lives of outcasts ?—that explain and analyze the secret vices of men ?—that advocate almost as a sacred duty 'free love' and universal polygamy ?—that see no shame in introducing into the circles of good wives and pure-minded girls, a heroine who boldly seeks out a man, any man, in order that she may have a child by him, without the 'degradation' of marrying him? I have read all those books,— and what can you expect of me? Not innocence, surely! I despise men,—I despise my own sex,—I loathe myself for being a woman! You wonder at my fanaticism for Mavis Clare,—it is only because for a time her books give me back my self-respect, and make me see humanity in a nobler light,—because she restores to me, if only for an hour, a kind of glimmering belief in God, so that my mind feels refreshed and cleansed. All the same, you must not look upon me as an innocent young girl, Geoffrey,—a girl such as the great poets idealized and sang of,—I am a contaminated creature, trained to perfection in the lax morals and prurient literature of my day."
I looked at her in silence, pained, startled, and with a sense of shock, as though something indefinably pure and precious had crumbled into dust at my feet. She rose and began pacing the room restlessly, moving to and fro with a slow yet fierce grace that reminded me against my wish and will of the movement of some imprisoned and savage beast of prey.
"You shall not be deceived in me," she said, pausing a moment and eyeing me sombrely. "If you marry me, you must do so with a full realization of the choice you make. For with such wealth as yours, you can of course wed any woman you fancy. I do not say you could find a girl better than I am; I do not think you could in my 'set,' because we are all alike,—all tarred with the same brush, and filled with the same merely sensual and materialistic views of life and its responsibilities as the admired heroines of the 'society' novels we read. Away in the provinces, among the middle classes it is possible you might discover a really good girl of the purest blush-rose innocence,—but then you might also find her stupid and unentertaining, and you would not care for that. My chief recommendation is that I am beautiful,—you can see that; everybody can see that,—and I am not so affected as to pretend to be unconscious of the fact. There is no sham about my external appearance; my hair is not a wig,—my complexion is natural,—my figure is not the result of the corset-maker's art,—my eyebrows and eyelashes are undyed. Oh, yes,—you can be sure that the beauty of my body is quite genuine !—but it is not the outward expression of an equally beautiful soul. And this is what I want you to understand. I am passionate, resentful, impetuous,—frequently unsympathetic, and inclined to morbidness and melancholy, and I confess I have imbibed, consciously or unconsciously, that complete contempt of life and disbelief in a God, which is the chief theme of nearly all the social teachings of the time."
She ceased,—and I gazed at her with an odd sense of mingled worship and disillusion, even as a barbarian might gaze at an idol whom he still loved, but whom he could no longer believe in as divine. Yet what she said was in no way contrary to my own theories,—how then could I complain? I did not believe in a God;—why should I inconsistently feel regret that she shared my unbelief? I had involuntarily clung to the old-fashioned idea that religious faith was a sacred duty in womanhood; I was not able to offer any reason for this notion, unless it was the romantic fancy of having a good woman to pray for one, if one had no time and less inclination to pray for one's self. However, it was evident Sibyl was 'advanced' enough to do without superstitious observances; she would never pray for me;—and if we had children, she would never teach them to make their first tender appeals to Heaven for my sake or hers. I smothered a slight sigh, and was about to speak, when she came up to me and laid her two hands on my shoulders. "You look unhappy, Geoffrey," she said in gentler accents. "Be consoled !—it is not too late for you to change your mind!"
I met the questioning glance of her eyes,—beautiful, lustrous eyes as clear and pure as light itself.
"I shall never change, Sibyl, " I answered. "I love you; I shall always love you. But I wish you would not analyze yourself so pitilessly,—you have such strange ideas"
"You think them strange!" she said. "You should not,— in these 'new women' days! I believe that, thanks to newspapers, magazines and 'decadent' novels, I am in all respects eminently fitted to be a wife!'' and she laughed bitterly. "There is nothing in the role of marriage that I do not know, though I am not yet twenty. I have been prepared for a long time to be sold to the highest bidder, and what few silly notions I had about love,—the love of the poets and idealists,—when I was a dreamy child at Willowsmere, are all dispersed and ended. Ideal love is dead,—and worse than dead, being out of fashion. Carefully instructed as I have been in the worthlessness of everything but money, you can scarcely be surprised at my speaking of myself as an object of sale. Marriage for me is a sale, as far as my father is concerned,—for you know well enough that however much you loved me, or I loved you, he would never allow me to marry you if you were not rich, and richer than most men. I want you to feel that I fully recognise the nature of the bargain struck; and I ask you not to expect a girl's fresh, confiding love from a woman as warped in heart and mind as I am!"
"Sibyl," I said earnestly, "you wrong yourself; I am sure you wrong yourself! You are one of those who can be in the world yet not of it; your mind is too open and pure to be sullied, even by contact with evil things. I will believe nothing you say against your own sweet and noble character,—and, Sibyl, let me again ask you not to distress me by this constant harping on the subject of my wealth, or I shall be inclined to look upon it as a curse. I should love you as much if I were poor"
"Oh, you might love me," she interrupted me with a strange smile, "but you would not dare to say so!"
I was silent. Suddenly she laughed, and linked her arms caressingly round my neck.
"There, Geoffrey!" she said, "I have finished my discourse,—my bit of Ibsenism or whatever other ism affects me,—and we need not be miserable about it. I have said what was in my mind; I have told you the truth, that in heart I am neither young nor innocent. But I am no worse than all my 'set,' so perhaps you had better make the best of me. I please your fancy, do I not ?''
"My love for you cannot be so lightly expressed, Sibyl!" I answered, in rather a pained tone.
"Never mind,—it is my humour so to express it," she went on. "I please your fancy, and you wish to marry me. Well now, all I ask is, go to my father and buy me at once! Conclude the bargain! And when you have bought me,— don't look so tragic!" and she laughed again—" and when you have paid the clergyman, and paid the bridesmaids (with monogram lockets or brooches), and paid the guests (with wedding-cake and champagne), and cleared up all scores with everybody, even to the last man who shuts the door of the nuptial brougham,—will you take me away,—far away from this place—this house, where my mother's face haunts me like a ghost in the darkness; where I am tortured by terrors night and day,—where I hear such strange sounds, and dream of such ghastly things—'' here her voice suddenly broke, and she hid her face against my breast. "Oh, yes, Geoffrey, take me away as quickly as possible! Let us never live in hateful London, but at Willowsmere; I may find some of the old joys there,—and some of the happy bygone days."
Touched by the appealing pathos of her accents, I pressed her to my heart, feeling that she was scarcely accountable for the strange things she said in her evidently overwrought and excitable condition.
"It shall be as you wish, my darling," I said. "The sooner I have you all to myself the better. This is the end of March,—will you be ready to marry me in June!"
"Yes,'' ;he answered, still hiding her face.
"And now, Sibyl," I went on, "remember—there must be no more talk of money and bargaining. Tell me what you have not yet told me,—that you love me,—and would love me even if I were poor."
She looked up, straightly and unflinchingly, full into my eyes.
"I cannot tell you that," she said. "I have told you I do not believe in love; and if you were poor I certainly should not marry you. It would be no use!"
"You are frank, Sibyl!"
"It is best to be frank, is it not?" and she drew a flower from the knot at her bosom, and began fastening it in my coat. "Geoffrey, what is the good of pretence? You would hate to be poor, and so should I. I do not understand the verb 'to love,'—now and then when I read a book by Mavis Clare, I believe love may exist, but when I close the book my belief is shut up with it. So do not ask for what is not in me. I am willing—even glad to marry you; that is all you must expect."
"All!" I exclaimed, with a sudden mingling of love and wrath in my blood, as I closed my arms about her, and kissed her passionately. "All !—you impassive ice-flower, it is not all!—you shall melt to my touch and learn what love is,— do not think you can escape its influence, you dear, foolish, beautiful child! Your passions are asleep,—they must wake !''
"For you?" she queried, resting her head back against my shoulder, and gazing up at me with a dreamy radiance in her lovely eyes.
"' Oh, bid me love, and I will love !' " she hummed softly under her breath.
"You will, you must, you shall!" I said ardently. "I will be your master in the art of loving!"
"It is a difficult art!" she said. "I am afraid it will take a life-time to complete my training, even with my 'master.'"
And a smile still lingered in her eyes, giving them a witchlike glamour, when I kissed her again and bade her good-night."You will tell Prince Rimanez the news?" she said."If you wish it."
"Of course I wish it. Tell him at once. I should like him to know."
I went down the stairs,—she leaned over the balustrade looking after me.
"Good-night, Geoffrey !" she called softly.
"Good-night, Sibyl!""Be sure you tell Prince Rimanez!"
Her white figure disappeared; and I walked out of the house in a chaotic state of mind, divided between pride, ecstasy and pain,—the engaged husband of an earl's daughter, —the lover of a woman who had declared herself incapable of love, and destitute of faith.