Looking back through the space of only three years to this particular period of my life, I can remember distinctly the singular expression of Lucio's face when I told him that Sibyl Elton had accepted me. His sudden smile gave a light to his eyes that I had never seen in them before,—a brilliant yet sinister glow, strangely suggestive of some inwardly suppressed wrath and scorn. While I spoke he was, to my vexation, toying with that uncanny favourite of his, the 'mummy-insect,' —and it annoyed me beyond measure to see the repulsive pertinacity with which the glittering bat-like creature clung to his hand.
"Women are all alike," he said with a hard laugh, when he had heard my news. "Few of them have moral force enough to resist that temptation of a rich marriage."
I was irritated at this.
"It is scarcely fair of you to judge everything by the moneystandard," I said,—then, after a little pause, I added what in my own heart I knew to be a lie,—''She—Sibyl—loves me for myself alone.''
His glance flashed over me like lightning.
"Oh !—sets the wind in that quarter. Why, then, my dear Geoffrey, I congratulate you more heartily than ever. To conquer the affections of one of the proudest girls in England, and win her love so completely as to be sure she would marry you even if you had not a sou to bless yourself with—this is a victory indeed !—and one of which you may well be proud. Again and yet again I congratulate you!"
Tossing the horrible thing he called his 'sprite' off to fly on one of its slow humming circuits round the room, he shook my hand fervently, still smiling,—and I,—feeling instinctively that he was as fully aware of the truth as I was, namely, that had I been a poor author with nothing but what I could earn by my brains, the Lady Sibyl Elton would never have looked at me, much less agreed to marry me,—kept silence lest I should openly betray the reality of my position.
"You see," he went on, with a cheerful relentlessness, "I was not aware that any old-world romance graced the disposition of one so apparently impassive as your beautiful fiancee. To love for love's sake only, is becoming really an obsolete virtue. I thought Lady Sibyl was an essentially modern woman, conscious of her position, and the necessity there was for holding that position proudly before the world at all costs,—and that the pretty pastoral sentiments of poetical Phyllises and Amandas had no place in her nature. I was wrong, it seems; and for once I have been mistaken in the fair sex!" Here he stretched out his hand to the 'sprite,' that now came winging its way back, and settled at once on its usual resting-place. "My friend, I assure you, if you have won a true woman's true love, you have a far greater fortune than your millions,—a treasure that none can afford to despise."
His voice softened,—his eyes grew dreamy and less scornful,—and I looked at him in some astonishment.
"Why Lucio, I thought you hated women!"
"So I do!" he replied quickly. "But do not forget why I hate them! It is because they have all the world's possibilities of good in their hands, and the majority of them deliberately turn these possibilities to evil. Men are influenced entirely by women, though few of them will own it,—through women they are lifted to heaven or driven to hell. The latter is the favourite course, and the one almost universally adopted."
His brow darkened, and the lines round his proud mouth grew hard and stern. I watched him for a moment,—then with sudden irrelevancy I said—
"Put that abominable 'sprite' of yours away, will you? I hate to see you with it!"
"What, my poor Egyptian princess!" he exclaimed with a laugh. "Why so cruel to her, Geoffrey? If you had lived in her day, you might have been one of her lovers! She was no doubt a charming person,—I find her charming still! However, to oblige you—" and here, placing the insect in its crystal receptacle, he carried it away to the other end of the room. Then, returning towards me slowly, he said, "Who knows what the 'sprite' suffered as a woman, Geoffrey! Perhaps she made a rich marriage, and repented it! At anyrate I am sure she is much happier in her present condition."
"I have no sympathy with such a ghastly fancy," I said abruptly. "I only know that she or it is a perfectly loathsome object to me."
"Well,—some 'transmigrated' souls are loathsome objects to look at," he declared imperturbably. "When they are deprived of their respectable two-legged fleshly covering, it is extraordinary what a change the inexorable law of Nature makes in them!"
"What nonsense you talk, Lucio!" I said impatiently. "How can you know anything about it!"
A sudden shadow passed over his face, giving it a strange pallor and impenetrability.
"Have you forgotten," he said in deliberately measured accents, "that your friend John Carrington, when he wrote that letter of introduction I brought from him to you, told you in it, that in all matters scientific I was an 'absolute master'? In these 'matters scientific' you have not tested my skill,—yet you ask—' how can I know?' I answer that I do know—many things of which you are ignorant. Do not presume too much on your own intellectual capability, my friend,—lest I prove it naught!—lest I demonstrate to you, beyond all possibility of consoling doubt, that the shreds and strippings of that change you call death, are only so many embryos of new life which you must live, whether you will or no!"
Somewhat abashed by his words and still more by his manner, I said—
"Pardon me !—I spoke in haste of course,—but you know my theories—"
"Most thoroughly!" and he laughed, with an immediate resumption of his old manner. "' Everyman his own theory' is the fashionable motto of the hour. Each little biped tells you that he has his 'own idea' of God, and equally 'his own' idea of the Devil. It is very droll! But let us return to the theme of love. I feel I have not congratulated you half enough,—for surely Fortune favours you singularly. Out of the teeming mass of vain and frivolous femininity, you have secured a unique example of beauty, truth and purity,— a woman, who apart from all self-interest and worldly advantage, weds you, with five millions, for yourself alone! The prettiest poem in the world could be made out of such an exquisitely innocent maiden type! You are one of the luckiest men alive; in fact, you have nothing more to wish for."
I did not contradict him, though in my own mind I felt that the circumstances of my engagement left much to be desired. I, who scoffed at religion, wished it had formed part of the character of my future wife. I, who sneered at sentiment, craved for some expression of it in the woman whose beauty attracted my desires. However, I determinedly smothered all the premonitions of my own conscience, and accepted what each day of my idle and useless life brought me without considering future consequences.
The papers soon had the news that "a marriage has been arranged and will shortly take place between Sibyl, only daughter of the Earl of Elton, and Geoffrey Tempest, the famous millionaire." Not 'famous author,' mark you!— though I was still being loudly 'boomed.' Morgeson, my publisher, could offer me no consolation as to my chances of winning and keeping a steady future fame. The Tenth Edition of my book was announced, but we had not actually disposed of more than two thousand copies, including a One-Volume issue which had been hastily thrust on the market. And the work I had so mercilessly and maliciously slated,—"Differences" by Mavis Clare,—was in its thirtieth thousand! I commented on this with some anger to Morgeson, who was virtuously aggrieved at my complaint.
"Dear me, Mr Tempest, you are not the only writer who has been 'boomed' by the press and who, nevertheless, does not sell,'' he exclaimed. "No one can account for the caprices of the public; they are entirely beyond the most cautious publisher's control or calculation. Miss Clare is a sore subject to many authors besides yourself,—she always 'takes' and no one can help it. I sympathize with you in the matter heartily, but I am not to blame. At anyrate the reviewers are all with you,—their praise has been almost unanimous. Now Mavis Clare's ' Differences,' though to my thinking a very brilliant and powerful book, has been literally cut to pieces whenever it has been noticed at all,—and yet the public go for her and don't go for you. It isn't my fault. You see people have got Compulsory Education now, and I'm afraid they begin to mistrust criticism, preferring to form their own independent opinions; if this is so, of course it will be a terrible thing, because the most carefully organized clique in the world will be powerless. Everything has been done for you that can be done, Mr Tempest,—I am sure I regret as much as yourself that the result has not been all you expected or desired. Many authors would not care so much for the public approval; the applause of cultured journalism such as you have obtained, would be more than sufficient for them."
I laughed bitterly. 'The applause of cultured journalism!' I thought I knew something of the way in which such applause was won. Almost I began to hate my millions,—golden trash that could only secure me the insincere flattery of fair-weather friends,—and that could not give me fame,—such fame as has sometimes been grasped in a moment by a starving and neglected genius, who in the very arms of death, succeeds in mastering the world. One day in a fit of disappointment and petulance I said to Lucio—
"You have not kept all your promises, my friend!—you told me you could give me fame!"
He looked at me curiously.
"Did I? Well,—and are you not famous?"
"No. I am merely notorious," I retorted.
"The word fame, my good Geoffrey, traced to its origin, means a 'breath'—the breath of popular adulation. You have that—for your wealth."
"But not for my work!"
"You have the praise of the reviewers!"
"What is that worth!"
"Everything!" he answered smiling—"in the reviewers' own opinion!" I was silent.
"You speak of work," he went on. "Now the nature of work I cannot exactly express, because it is a divine thing and is judged by a divine standard. One must consider in all work two things; first, the object for which it is undertaken, and, secondly the way in which it is performed. All work should have a high and unselfish intent,—without this, it perishes and is not considered work at all,—not at least by the eternal judges invisible. If it is work, truly and nobly done in every sense of the word, it carries with it its own reward, and the laurels descend from heaven, shaped ready for wearing,—no earthly power can bestow them. I cannot give you that fame,—but I have secured you a very fair imitation of it.''
I was obliged to acquiesce, though more or less morosely, —whereat I saw that he was somewhat amused. Unwilling to incur his contempt, I said no more concerning the subject that was the sorest to my heart, and wore out many sleepless hours at night in trying to write a new book,—something novel and daring, such as should force the public to credit me with a little loftier status than that obtained by the possession of a huge banking account. But the creative faculty seemed dead in me,—I was crushed by a sense of impotence and failure; vague ideas were in my brain that would not lend themselves to expression in words,—and such a diseased love of hypercriticism controlled me, that after a miserably nervous analysis of every page I wrote, I tore it up as soon as it was written, thus reducing myself to a state of mind that was almost unbearable.
Early in April I made my first visit to Willowsmere, having received information from the head of the firm of decorators and furnishers employed there, that their work was close on completion, and that they would be glad of a visit of inspection from me. Lucio and I went down together for the day, and as the train rushed through a green and smiling landscape, bearing us away from the smoke, dirt and noise of the restless modern Babylon, I was conscious of a gradually deepening peace and pleasure. The first sight of the place I had recklessly purchased without so much as looking at it, filled me with delight and admiration. It was a beautiful old house, ideally English, and suggestive of home-happiness. Ivy and jessamine clung to its red walls and picturesque gables,— through the long vista of the exquisitely wooded grounds, the silver gleam of the Avon river could be discerned, twisting in and out like a ribbon tied in true love-knots,—the trees and shrubs were sprouting forth in all their fresh spring beauty,— the aspect of the country was indescribably bright and soothing, and I began to feel as if a burden had been suddenly lifted from my life, leaving me free to breathe and enjoy my liberty. I strolled from room to room of my future abode, admiring the taste and skill with which the whole place had been fitted and furnished, down to the smallest detail of elegance, comfort and convenience. Here my Sibyl was born, I thought, with a lover-like tenderness,—here she would dwell again as my wife, amid the lovely and beloved surroundings of her childhood,— and we should be happy—yes, we should be happy, despite all the dull and heartless social doctrines of the modern world. In the spacious and beautiful drawing-room I stopped to look out from the windows on the entrancing view of lawn and woodland that stretched before me,—and as I looked, a warm sense of gratitude and affection filled me for the friend to whose good offices I owed this fair domain. Turning, I grasped him by the hand.
"It is all your doing, Lucio!" I said. "I feel I can never thank you enough! Without you I should perhaps never have met Sibyl,—I might never have heard of her, or of Willowsmere; and I never could have been as happy as I am to-day!"
"Oh, you are happy then?" he queried with a little smile. "I fancied you were not!"
"Well—I have not been as happy as I expected to be," I confessed. "Something in my sudden accession to wealth seems to have dragged me down rather than lifted me up,— it is strange ''
"It is not strange at all," he interrupted; "on the contrary it is very natural. As a rule the most miserable people in the world are the rich."
"Are you miserable, for instance?" I asked, smiling.
His eyes rested on me with a dark and dreary pathos.
"Are you too blind to see that I am?" he answered, his accents vibrating with intense melancholy. "Can you think I am happy? Does the smile I wear—the disguising smile men put on as a mask to hide their secret agonies from the pitiless gaze of unsympathetic fellow-creatures—persuade you that I am free from care? As for my wealth, I have never told you the extent of it; if I did, it might indeed amaze you, though I believe it would not now arouse your envy, considering that your trifling five millions have not been without effect in depressing your mind. But I,—I could buy up kingdoms, and be none the poorer,—I could throne and unthrone kings, and be none the wiser,—I could crush whole countries under the iron heel of financial speculation,—I could possess the world,—and yet estimate it at no higher value than I do now,—the value of a grain of dust circling through infinity, or a soap-bubble blown on the wind!"
His brows knitted,—his face expressed pride, scorn and sorrow.
"There is some mystery about you, Lucio," I said,— "some grief or loss that your wealth cannot repair—and that makes you the strange being you are. One day perhaps you will confide in me … "
He laughed loudly,—almost fiercely;—and clapped me heavily on the shoulder—
"I will!" he said. "I will tell you my history! And you, excellent agnostic as you are, shall 'minister to a mind diseased,' and 'pluck out the memory of a rooted sorrow!' What a power of expression there was in Shakespeare, the uncrowned but actual King of England! Not the 'rooted sorrow' alone was to be 'plucked out,' but the very ' memory' of it. The apparently simple line holds complex wisdom; no doubt the poet knew, or instinctively guessed the most terrible fact in all the Universe … "
"And what is that?"
"The eternal consciousness of Memory," he replied. "God can not forget,—and, in consequence of this, His creatures may not!"
I forbore to reply, but I suppose my face betrayed my thoughts, for the cynical smile I knew so well played round his mouth as he looked at me.
"I go beyond your patience, do I not!" he said, laughing again. "When I mention God,—who is declared by certain scientists to be non-existent except as a blind, indifferent natural Force or Atom-producer,—you are bored! I can see that at a glance. Pray forgive me! Let us resume our tour of inspection through this charming abode. You will be very difficult to satisfy if you are not a very emperor of contentment here;—with a beautiful wife and plenty of cash, you can well afford to give 'fame' the go-by."
"I may win it yet!" I said hopefully. "In this place, I feel I could write something worthy of being written."
"Good! The 'divine flutterings' of winged thoughts are in your brain! Apollo grant them strength to fly! And now let us have luncheon,—afterwards we shall have time to take a stroll.''
In the dining-room I found an elegant repast prepared which rather surprised me, as I had given no orders, having indeed forgotten to do so. Lucio, however, had, it appeared, not forgotten, and an advance telegram from him had placed certain caterers at Leamington on their mettle, with the result that we sat down to a feast as delicate and luxurious as any two epicures could desire.
"NoVIwant you to do me a favour, Geoffrey," said Lucio, during our luncheon. "You will scarcely need to reside here till after your marriage; you have too many engagements in town. You spoke of entertaining a big house-party down here,—I wouldn't do that if I were you,—it isn't worth while. You would have to get in a staff of servants, and leave them all afterwards to their own devices while you are on your honeymoon. This is what I propose,—give a grand fete here in honour of your betrothal to Lady Sibyl, in May, and let me be the master of the revels!"
I was in the mood to agree to anything,—moreover the idea seemed an excellent one. I said so and Rimanez went on quickly—
"You understand, of course, that if I undertake to do a thing I always do it thoroughly, and brook no interference with my plans. Now as your marriage will be the signal for our parting,—at any rate for a time,—I should like to show my appreciation of your friendship, by organizing a brilliant affair of the kind I suggest,—and if you will leave it all to me I guarantee you shall hold such a fete as has never been seen or known in England. And it will be a personal satisfaction to me if you consent to my proposal.''
"My dear fellow, " I answered, "of course I consent— willingly! I give you carte blanche,—do as you like; do all you like! It is most friendly and kind of you! But when are we to make this sensation?"
"You are to be married in June?" he asked.
"Yes,—in the second week of the month."
"Very well. The fete shall be held on the twenty-second of May,—that will give society time to recover from the effect of one burst of splendour in order to be ready for another,— namely, the wedding. Now we need not talk of this any more —it is settled,—the rest devolves on me. We've got three or four hours to spare before we take the train back to town,— suppose we take a saunter through the grounds ?''
I assented to this, and accompanied him readily, feeling in high spirits and good humour. Willowsmere and its peaceful loveliness seemed to cleanse my mind of all corroding influences ;—the blessed silence of the woods and hills, after the rush and roar of town life, soothed and cheered me, and I walked beside my companion with a light heart and smiling face,—happy, and filled with a dim religious faith in the blue sky, if not in the God beyond it. We sauntered through the fair gardens which were now mine, and then out through the park into a lovely little lane,—a true Warwickshire lane, where the celandines were strewing the grass with their bright gold coinage, and the star-wort thrust up fairy bouquets of white bloom between buttercups and clover, and where the hawthorn buds were beginning to show themselves like minute snow-pellets among the glossy young green. A thrush warbled melodiously,—a lark rose from almost our very feet and flung itself joyously into the sky with a wild outburst of song,—a robin hopped through a little hole in the hedge to look at us in blithe inquisitiveness as we passed. All at once Lucio stopped and laid his hand on my shoulder,—his eyes had the beautiful melancholy of a far-off longing which I could neither understand nor define.
"Listen, Geoffrey !" he said. "Listen to the silence of the earth while the lark sings! Have you ever observed the receptive attitude in which Nature seems to wait for sounds divine!"
I did not answer,—the silence around us was indeed impressive;—the warbling of the thrush had ceased, and only the lark's clear voice pealing over-head echoed sweetly through the stillness of the lane.
"In the clerical Heaven," went on Lucio dreamily, "there are no birds. There are only conceited human souls braying forth 'Alleluia'! No flowers are included,—no trees; only 'golden streets.' What a poor and barbarous conception! As if a World inhabited by Deity would not contain the wonders, graces and beauties of all worlds! Even this little planet is more naturally beautiful than the clerical Heaven,—that is, it is beautiful wherever Man is not. I protest—I have always protested—against the creation of Man!"
"You protest against your own existence then!" I said. His eyes darkened slowly to a sombre brooding blackness."When the sea roars and flings itself in anger on the shore, it craves its prey—Mankind! It seeks to wash the fair earth clean of the puny insect that troubles the planet's peace! It drowns the noxious creature when it can, with the aid of its sympathizing comrade the wind! When the thunder crashes down a second after the lightning, does it not seem to you that the very clouds combine in the holy war?—the war against God's one mistake;—the making of humanity,—the effort to sweep it out of the universe as one erases a weak expression in an otherwise perfect Poem! You and I, for example, are the only discords in to-day's woodland harmony. We are not particularly grateful for life,—we certainly are not content with it,—we have not the innocence of a bird or a flower. We have more knowledge, you will say,—but how can we be sure of that? Our wisdom came from the devil in the first place, according to the legend of the tree of knowledge, —the fruit of which taught both good and evil, but which still apparently persuades man to evil rather than good, and leads him on to a considerable amount of arrogance besides, for he has an idea he will be immortal as a god in the hereafter,— ye majestic Heavens !—what an inadequately stupendous fate for a grain of worthless dust,—a dwarfish atom such as he!"
"Well, /have no ideas of immortality," I said. "I have told you that often. This life is enough for me,—I want and expect no other.''
"Aye, but if there were another!" answered Lucio, fixing me with a steady look. "And—if you were not asked your opinion about it—but simply plunged headlong into a state of terrible consciousness of which you would rather not be"
"Oh come," I said impatiently, "do not let us theorize! I am happy to-day!—my heart is as light as that of the bird singing in the sky; I am in the very best of humours, and could not say an unkind word to my worst enemy."
"Is that your humour?" and he took me by the arm. "Then there could be no better opportunity for showing you this pretty little corner of the world,''—and walking on a few yards, he dexterously turned me down a narrow path, leading from the lane, and brought me face to face with a lovely old cottage, almost buried in the green of the young spring verdure, and surrounded by an open fence overgrown with hawthorn and sweet-brier. "Keep firm hold over your temper Geoffrey,—and maintain the benignant tranquillity of your mind!—here dwells the woman whose name and fame you hate,—Mavis Clare!"