The blood rushed to my face, and I stopped abruptly.
"Let us go back," I said.
"Because I do not know Miss Clare and do not want to know her. Literary women are my abhorrence,—they are always more or less unsexed."
"You are thinking of the 'New' women I suppose,—but you flatter them,—they never had any sex to lose. The selfdegrading creatures who delineate their fictional heroines as wallowing in unchastity, and who write freely on subjects which men would hesitate to name, are unnatural hybrids of no-sex. Mavis Clare is not one of them,—she is an 'oldfashioned' young woman. Mademoiselle Derino, the dancer, is 'unsexed,' but you did not object to her on that score; on the contrary I believe you have shown your appreciation of her talents by spending a considerable amount of cash upon her."
"That's not a fair comparison," I answered hotly. "Mademoiselle Derino amused me for a time."
"And was not your rival in art!" said Lucio with a little malicious smile. "I see! Still, as far as the question of being 'unsexed' goes, I personally consider that a woman who shows the power of her intellect is more to be respected than the woman who shows the power of her legs. But men always prefer the legs,—just as they prefer the devil to the Deity. All the same, I think, as we have time to spare, we may as well see this genius."
"Genius!" I echoed contemptuously.
"Feminine twaddler, then !" he suggested, laughing. "Let us see this feminine twaddler. She will no doubt prove as amusing as Mademoiselle Derino in her way. I shall ring the bell and ask if she is at home.''
He advanced towards the creeper-covered porch,—but I stood back, mortified and sullen, determined not to accompany him inside the house if he were admitted. Suddenly a blithe peal of musical laughter sounded through the air, and a clear voice exclaimed—
"Oh, Tricksy! You wicked boy! Take it back directly, and apologize!"
Lucio peered through the fence, and then beckoned to me energetically.
"There she is!" he whispered. "There is the dyspeptic, sour, savage old blue-stocking,—there, on the lawn,—by Heaven !—she's enough to strike terror into the heart of any man—and millionaire!"
I looked where he pointed, and saw nothing but a fairhaired girl in a white gown, sitting in a low basket-chair, with a tiny toy terrier on her lap. The terrier was jealously guarding a large square dog-biscuit nearly as big as himself, and at a little distance off sat a magnificent rough-coated St Bernard, wagging his feathery tail to and fro, with every sign of goodhumour and enjoyment. The position was evident at a glance, —the small dog had taken his huge companion's biscuit from him and had conveyed it to his mistress,—a canine joke which seemed to be appreciated and understood by all the parties concerned. But as I watched the little group, I did not believe that the woman I saw was Mavis Clare. That small head was surely never made for the wearing of deathless laurels, but rather for a garland of roses (sweet and perishable) twined by a lover's hand. No such slight feminine creature as the one I now looked upon could ever be capable of the intellectual grasp and power of ' Differences,' the book I secretly admired and wondered at, but which I had anonymously striven to 'quash' in its successful career. The writer of such a work, I imagined, must needs be of a more or less strong physique, with pronounced features and an impressive personality. This butterfly thing, playing with her dog, was no type of a 'bluestocking,' and I said as much to Lucio.
"That cannot be Miss Clare," I said. "More likely a visitor,—or perhaps the companion-secretary. The novelist must be very different in appearance to that frivolous young person in white, whose dress is distinctly Parisian, and who seems to have nothing whatever to do but amuse herself.''
"Tricksy!" said the clear voice again, "take back the biscuit and apologize!"
The tiny terrier looked round with an innocently abstracted air, as if in the earnestness of his own thoughts he had not quite caught the meaning of the sentence.
"Tricksy !" and the voice became more imperative, "take it back and apologize!"
With a comical expression of resignation to circumstances, 'Tricksy' seized the large biscuit, and holding it in his teeth with gingerly care, jumped from his mistress's knee, and trotting briskly up to the St Bernard who was still wagging his tail and smiling as visibly as dogs often can smile, restored his stolen goods with three short yapping barks, as much as to say "There! take it!" The St Bernard rose in all his majestic bulk and sniffed at it,—then sniffed his small friend, apparently in dignified doubt as to which was terrier and which was biscuit,—then lying down again he gave himself up to the pleasure of munching his meal, the while 'Tricksy' with wild barks of delight performed a sort of mad war-dance round and round him by way of entertainment. This piece of dog-comedy was still going on, when Lucio turned away from his point of observation at the fence, and going up to the gate, rang the bell. A neat maid-servant answered the summons.
"Is Miss Clare at home?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. But I am not sure whether she will receive you," the maid replied, "unless you have an appointment!"
"We have no appointment," said Lucio,—"but if you will take these cards,—" here he turned to me,—" Geoffrey, give me one of yours!" I complied, somewhat reluctantly. "If you will take these cards," he resumed, "to Miss Clare, it is just possible she may be kind enough to see us. If not, it will be our loss."
He spoke so gently, and with such an ingratiating manner, that I could see the servant was at once prepossessed in his favour.
"Step in, sir, if you please," she said smiling, and opening the gate. He obeyed with alacrity, and I, who a moment ago had resolved not to enter the place, found myself passively following him under an archway of sprouting young leaves and early budding jessamine into 'Lily Cottage'—which was to prove one day, though I knew it not then, the only haven of peace and security I should ever crave for,—and, craving, be unable to win!
The house was much larger than it looked from the outside; the entrance-hall was square and lofty and panelled with fine old carved oak, and the drawing-room into which we were shown was one of the most picturesque and beautiful apartments I had ever seen. There were flowers everywhere,— books,—rare bits of china,—elegant trifles that only a woman of perfect taste would have the sense to select and appreciate, —on one or two of the side-tables and on the grand piano were autograph-portraits of many of the greatest celebrities in Europe. Lucio strolled about the room, making soft comments.
"Here is the Autocrat of all the Russias," he said, pausing before a fine portrait of the Tsar. "Signed by the Imperial hand too. Now what has the 'feminine twaddler' done to deserve that honour I wonder! Here, in strange contrast, is the wild-haired Paderewski,—and beside him the perennial Patti,—there is Her Majesty of Italy, and here we have H.R.H. the Prince of Wales,—all autographed likenesses. Upon my word, Miss Clare seems to attract a great many notabilities around her without the aid of hard cash. I wonder how she does it, Geoffrey ?'' and his eyes sparkled half maliciously. "Can it be a case of genius after all? Look at those lilies !" and he pointed to a mass of white bloom in one of the windows. "Are they not far more beautiful creatures than men and women? Dumb—yet eloquent of purity! —no wonder the painters choose them as the only flowers suitable for the adornment of angels."
As he spoke the door opened, and the girl we had seen on the lawn entered, carrying her toy terrier on one arm. Was she Mavis Clare? or some one sent to say that the novelist could not receive us? I wondered silently, looking at her in surprise and something of confusion,—Lucio advanced with an odd mingling of humility and appeal in his manner which was new to me.
"We must apologize for our intrusion, Miss Clare," he said. "But happening to pass your house, we could not resist
making an attempt to see you. My name is Rimanez,"—
he hesitated oddly for a second, then went on—"and this is
my friend Mr Geoffrey Tempest, the author "The girl
raised her eyes to mine with a little smile and courteous bend of her head. "He has, as I daresay you know, become the owner of Willowsmere Court. You will be neighbours and I hope friends. In any case, if we have committed a breach of etiquette in venturing to call upon you without previous introduction, you must try and forgive us! It is difficult— to me impossible—to pass the dwelling of a celebrity without offering homage to the presiding genius within."
Mavis Clare—for it was Mavis Clare—seemed not to have heard the intended compliment.
"You are very welcome," she said simply, advancing with a pretty grace, and extending her hand to each of us in turn.
"I am quite accustomed to visits from strangers. But I already know Mr Tempest very well by reputation. Won't you sit down ?''
She motioned us to chairs in the lily-decked window-corner, and rang the bell. Her maid appeared.
This order given, she seated herself near us, still holding her little dog curled up against her like a small ball of silk. I tried to converse, but could find nothing suitable to say,— the sight of her filled me with too great a sense of selfreproach and shame. She was such a quiet graceful creature, so slight and dainty, so perfectly unaffected and simple in manner, that as I thought of the slaughtering article I had written against her work I felt like a low brute who had been stoning a child. And yet,—after all it was her genius I hated, —the force and passion of that mystic quality which wherever it appears, compels the world's attention,—this was the gift she had that I lacked and coveted. Moved by the most conflicting sensations, I gazed abstractedly out on the shady old garden,—I heard Lucio conversing on trifling matters of society and literature generally, and every now and then her bright laugh rang out like a little peal of bells. Soon I felt, rather than saw, that she was looking steadily at me, and turning, I met her eyes,—deep dense blue eyes, candidly grave and clear.
"Is this your first visit to Willowsmere Court?" she asked.
"Yes," I answered, making an effort to appear more at my ease. "Ibought the place,—on the recommendation of my friend the prince here,—without looking at it."
"So I heard," she said, still observing me curiously. "And you are satisfied with it?"
"More than satisfied—I am delighted. It exceeds all my best expectations."
"Mr Tempest is going to marry the daughter of the former owner of Willowsmere," put in Lucio. "No doubt you have seen it announced in the papers?"
"Yes," she responded with a slight smile, "I have seen it, and I think Mr Tempest is much to be congratulated. Lady Sibyl is very lovely,—I remember her as a beautiful child when I was a child myself. I never spoke to her, but I often saw her. She must be charmed at the prospect of returning as a bride to the old home she loved so well."
Here the servant entered with the tea, and Miss Clare, putting down her tiny dog, went to the table to dispense it. I watched her move across the room with a sense of vague wonder and reluctant admiration,—she rather resembled a picture by Greuze, in her soft white gown with a pale rose nestled amid the old Flemish lace at her throat,—and as she turned her head towards us, the sunlight caught her fair hair and turned it to the similitude of a golden halo circling her brows. She was not a beauty; but she possessed an undoubted individual charm,—a delicate attractiveness, which silently asserted itself, as the breath of honeysuckle hidden in the tangles of a hedge will delight the wayfarer with sweet fragrance, though the flowers be unseen.
''Your book was very clever, Mr Tempest,'' she said suddenly, smiling at me. "I read it as soon as it came out. But do you know I think your article was even cleverer?"
I felt myself growing uncomfortably red in the face.
"To what article do you allude, Miss Clare?" I stammered confusedly. "I do not write for any magazine."
"No?" and she laughed gaily. "But you did on this occasion! You 'slated' me very smartly ?—I quite enjoyed it. I found out that you were the author of the philippic,— not through the editor of the journal—oh no, poor man! he is very discreet; but through quite another person who must be nameless. It is very difficult to prevent me from finding out whatever I wish to know, especially in literary matters. Why, you look quite unhappy!" and her blue eyes danced with fun as she handed me my cup of tea. "You really don't suppose I was hurt by your critique, do you? Dear me, no! Nothing of that kind ever affronts me,—I am far too busy to waste any thought on reviews or reviewers. Only your article was so exceptionally funny!"
"Funny?" I echoed stupidly, trying to smile, but failing in the effort.
"Yes, funny!" she repeated. "It was so very angry that it became amusing. My poor ' Differences!' I am really sorry it put you into such a temper,—temper does exhaust one's energies so!"
She laughed again, and sat down in her former place near me, regarding me with a frankly open and half humorous gaze which I found I could not meet with any sort of composure. To say I felt foolish, would inadequately express my sense of utter bafflement. This woman with her young unclouded face, sweet voice and evidently happy nature, was not at all the creature I had imagined her to be,—and I struggled to say something,—anything,—that would furnish a reasonable and coherent answer. I caught Lucio's glance,—one of satirical amusement,—and my thoughts grew more entangled than ever. A distraction however occurred in the behaviour of the dog Tricksy, who suddenly took up a position immediately opposite Lucio, and lifting his nose in air began to howl with a desolate loudness astonishing in so small an animal. His mistress was surprised.
"Tricksy, what is the matter?" she exclaimed, catching him up in her arms where he hid his face shivering and moaning; then she looked steadily at Lucio. "I never knew him do such a thing before," she said. "Perhaps you do not like dogs, Prince Rimanez?"
"Iam afraid they do not like me!" he replied deferentially.
"Then pray excuse me a moment," she murmured, and left the room, to return immediately without her canine favourite. After this I noticed that her blue eyes often rested on Lucio's handsome countenance with a bewildered and perplexed expression, as if she saw something in his very beauty that she disliked or distrusted. Meanwhile I had recovered a little of my usual self-possession, and I addressed her in a tone which I meant to be kind, but which I knew was somewhat patronizing.
"I am very glad, Miss Clare, that you were not offended at the article you speak of. It was rather strong I admit,— but you know we cannot all be of the same opinion … "
"Indeed no!" she said quietly and with a slight smile. "Such a state of things would make a very dull world! I assure you I was not and am not in the least offended—the critique was a smart piece of writing, and made not the slightest effect on me or on my book. You remember what Shelley wrote of critics? No? You will find the passage in his preface to 'The Revolt of Islam,' and it runs thus,— 'I have sought to write as I believe that Homer, Shakespeare, and Milton wrote, with an utter disregard of anonymous censure. I am certain that calumny and misrepresentation, though it may move me to compassion, cannot disturb my peace. I shall understand the expressive silence of those sagacious enemies who dare not trust themselves to speak. I shall endeavour to extract from the midst of insult and contempt and maledictions, those admonitions which may tend to correct whatever imperfections such censurers may discern in my appeal to the Public. If certain Critics were as clearsighted as they are malignant, how great would be the benefit to be derived from their virulent writings! As it is, I fear I shall be malicious enough to be amused with their paltry tricks and lame invectives. Should the public judge that my composition is worthless, I shall indeed bow before the tribunal from which Milton received his crown of immortality, and shall seek to gather, if I live, strength from that defeat, which may nerve me to some new enterprise of thought which may not be worthless !'"
As she gave the quotation, her eyes darkened and deepened, her face was lighted up as by some inward illumination, and I discovered the rich sweetness of the voice which made the name of 'Mavis' suit her so well."You see I know my Shelley!" she said with a little laugh at her own emotion. "And those words are particularly familiar to me, because I have had them painted up on a panel in my study. Just to remind me, in case I should forget, what the really great geniuses of the world thought of criticism,—because their example is very encouraging and helpful to a humble little worker like myself. I am not a press-favourite—and I never get good reviews,—but—" and she laughed again—"I like my reviewers all the same! If you have finished your tea will you come and see them ?''
Come and see them! What did she mean? She seemed delighted at my visible surprise, and her cheeks dimpled with merriment.
"Come and see them!" she repeated. "They generally expect me at this hour !''
She led the way into the garden,—we followed, I, in a bewildered confusion of mind, with all my ideas respecting 'unsexed females' and repulsive blue-stockings upset by the unaffected behaviour and charming frankness of this ' celebrity' whose fame I envied, and whose personality I could not but admire. With all her intellectual gifts she was yet a lovable
woman, ah Mavis!—how lovable and dear I was destined
in misery to know! Mavis, Mavis!—I whisper your sweet name in my solitude,—I see you in my dreams, and kneeling before you I call you Angel!—my angel at the gate of a lost Paradise, whose Sword of Genius, turning every way, keeps me back from all approach to my forfeited Tree of Life!