Scarcely had we stepped out on the lawn before an unpleasant incident occurred which might have ended dangerously. At his mistress's approach the big St Bernard dog rose from the sunny corner where he had been peacefully dozing, and prepared to greet her,—but as soon as he perceived us P
he stopped short with an ominous growl. Before Miss Clare could utter a warning word, he made a couple of huge bounds and sprang savagely at Lucio as though to tear him in pieces. Lucio with admirable presence of mind caught him firmly by the throat and forced him backwards. Mavis turned deathly pale.
"Let me hold him! He will obey me!" she cried, placing her little hand on the great dog's neck. "Down, Emperor! Down! How dare you! Down sir!"
In a moment 'Emperor' dropped to the ground, and crouched abjectly at her feet, breathing heavily and trembling in every limb. She held him by the collar, and looked up at Lucio who was perfectly composed, though his eyes flashed dangerously.
"I am so very sorry!" she murmured. "I forgot,—you told me dogs do not like you. But what a singularly marked antipathy, is it not? I cannot understand it. Emperor is generally so good-natured,—I must apologize for his bad conduct—it is quite unusual. I hope he has not hurt you ?''
"Not at all!" returned Lucio affably and with a cold smile. "I hope I have not hurt him,—or distressed you!"
She made no reply, but led the St Bernard away and was absent for a few minutes. While she was gone, Lucio's brow clouded, and his face grew very stern.
"What do you think of her?" he asked me abruptly.
"I hardly know what to think," I answered abstractedly. "She is very different to what I imagined. Her dogs are rather unpleasant company !''
"They are honest animals!" he said morosely. "They are no doubt accustomed to candour in their mistress, and therefore object to personified lies.''
"Speak for yourself!" I said irritably. "They object to you, chiefly."
"Am I not fully aware of that?" he retorted—"and do I not speak for myself? You do not suppose I would call you a personified lie, do you,—even if it were true! I would not be so uncivil. But I am a living lie, and knowing it I admit it, which gives me a certain claim to honesty above the ordinary run of men. This woman-wearer of laurels is a personified truth!—imagine it!—she has no occasion to pretend to be anything else than she is! No wonder she is famous!"
I said nothing, as just then the subject of our conversation returned, tranquil and smiling, and did her best, with the tact and grace of a perfect hostess, to make us forget her dog's ferocious conduct, by escorting us through a 1 the prettiest turns and twisting paths of her garden, which was quite a bower of spring beauty. She talked to us both with equal ease, brightness and cleverness, though I observed that she studied Lucio with close interest, and watched his looks and movements with more curiosity than liking. Passing under an arching grove of budding syringas we presently came to an open court-yard paved with blue and white tiles, having in its centre a picturesque dove-cote built in the form of a Chinese pagoda. Here pausing, Mavis clapped her hands. A cloud of doves, white, grey, brown, and opalescent, answered the summons, circling round and round her head, and flying down in excited groups at her feet.
"Here are my reviewers!" she said laughing. "Are they not pretty creatures? The ones I know best are named after their respective journals,—there are plenty of anonymous ones of course, who flock in with the rest. Here, for instance, is the 'Saturday Review,' " and she picked up a strutting bird with coral-tinted feet, who seemed to rather like the attention shown to him. "He fights with all his companions and drives them away from the food whenever he can. He is such a quarrelsome creature !"—here she stroked the bird's head. "You never know how to please him,—he takes offence at the corn sometimes, and will only eat peas, or vice versa. He quite deserves his name.—Go away, old boy!" and she flung the pigeon in the air and watched it soaring up and down. "He is such a comical old grumbler! There is the ' Speaker,' " and she pointed to a fat fussy fantail. "H? struts very well, and fancies he's important, you know, but he isn't. Over there is 'Public Opinion,'—that one half-asleep on the wall; next to him is the 'Spectator,'—you see he has two rings round his eyes like spectacles. That brown creature with the fluffy wings all by himself on that flower-pot is the 'Nineteenth Century,' the little bird with the green neck is the 'Westminster Gazette,' and the fat one sitting on the platform of the cote is the 'Pall-Mall.' He knows his name very well—see!" and she called merrily—" Pall-Mall! Come boy!—come here!'' The bird obeyed at once, and flying down from the cote, settled on her shoulder. "There are so many others,—it is difficult to distinguish them sometimes," she continued. "Whenever I get a bad review I name a pigeon,—it amuses me. That draggle-tailed one with the muddy feet is the 'Sketch,'—he is not at all a well-bred bird I must tell you!—that smart-looking dove with the purple breast is the ' Graphic,' and that bland old grey thing is the 'I. L. N.' short for 'Illustrated London News.' Those three white ones are respectively 'Daily Telegraph,' 'Morning Post,' and 'Standard.' Now see them all!" and taking a covered basket from a corner she began to scatter corn and peas and various grains in lavish quantities all over the court. For a moment we could scarcely see the sky, so thickly the birds flocked together, struggling, fighting, swooping downwards, and soaring upwards,—but the winged confusion soon gave place to something like order when they were all on the ground, and busy selecting their respective favourite foods from the different sorts provided for their choice.
"You are indeed a sweet-natured philosopher," said Lucio smiling, "if you can symbolize your adverse reviewers by a flock of doves!"
She laughed merrily.
"Well, it is a remedy against all irritation," she returned. "I used to worry a good deal over my work, and wonder why it was that the press people were so unnecessarily hard upon me, when they showed so much leniency and encouragement to far worse writers,—but after a little serious consideration, finding that critical opinion carried no sort of conviction whatever to the public, I determined to trouble no more about it,—except in the way of doves!"
"In the way of doves, you feed your reviewers," I observed.
"Exactly! And I suppose I help to feed them even as women and men!" she said. "They get something from their editors for 'slashing' my work,—and they probably make a little more out of selling their 'review copies.' So you see the dove-emblem holds good throughout. But you have not seen the 'Athenaeum,' oh, you must see him!"
With laughter still lurking in her blue eyes, she took us out of the pigeon-court, and led the way round to a sequestered and shady corner of the garden, where, in a large aviary-cage fitted up for its special convenience, sat a solemn white owl. The instant it perceived us, it became angry, and ruffling up its downy feathers, rolled its glistening yellow eyes vindictively and opened its beak. Two smaller owls sat in the background, pressed close together,—one grey, the other brown.
"Cross old boy!" said Mavis, addressing the spiteful-looking creature in the sweetest of accents. "Haven't you found any mice to kill to-day? Oh, what wicked eyes!—what a snappy mouth!" Then turning to us, she went on—"Isn't he a lovely owl? Doesn't he look wise?—but as a matter of fact he's just as stupid as ever he can be. That is why I call him the 'Athenaeum'! He looks so profound, you'd fancy he knows everything,—but he really thinks of nothing but killing mice all the time,—which limits his intelligence considerably!"
Lucio laughed heartily, and so did I,—she looked so mischievous and merry.
"But there are two other owls in the cage," I said. "What are their names?''
She held up a little finger in playful warning.
"Ah, that would be telling secrets!" she said. "They're all the 'Athenaeum'—the holy Three—a sort of literary Trinity. But why a Trinity I do not venture to explain!— it is a riddle I must leave you to guess!"
She moved on, and we followed across a velvety grass-plot bordered with bright spring-flowers, such as crocuses, tulips, anemones, and hyacinths, and presently pausing she asked, "Would you care to see my work-room?"
I found myself agreeing to this proposition with an almost boyish enthusiasm. Lucio glanced at me with a slight halfcynical smile.
"Miss Clare, are you going to name a pigeon after Mr Tempest?" he inquired. "He played the part of an adverse critic, you know—but I doubt whether he will ever do so again!"
She looked round at me and smiled.
"Oh, I have been merciful to Mr Tempest," she replied. "He is among the anonymous birds whom I do not specially recognise!"
She stepped into the arched embrasure of an open window which fronted the view of the grass and flowers, and entering with her, we found ourselves in a large room, octagonal in shape, where the first object that attracted and riveted the attention was a marble bust of the Pallas Athene, whose grave impassive countenance and tranquil brows directly faced the sun. A desk strewn with papers occupied the left-hand side of the window-nook,—in a corner draped with olive-green velvet, the white presence of the Apollo Belvedere taught in his inscrutable yet radiant smile, the lesson of love and the triumphs of fame—and numbers of books were about, not ranged in formal rows on shelves as if they were never read, but placed on low tables and wheeled stands, that they might be easily taken up and glanced at. The arrangement of the walls chiefly excited my interest and admiration, for these were divided into panels, and every panel had, inscribed upon it in letters of gold, some phrase from the philosophers, or some verse from the poets. The passage from Shelley which Mavis had recently quoted to us, occupied, as she had said, one panel, and above it hung a beautiful bas-relief of the drowned poet, copied from the monument at Via Reggio. Another and broader panel held a fine engraved portrait of Shakespeare, and under the picture appeared the lines—
"To thine own self be true, And it must follow as the night the day, Thou canst not then be false to any man."
Byron was represented,—also Keats; but it would have taken more than a day to examine the various suggestive quaintnesses and individual charms of this 'workshop,' as its owner called it, though the hour was to come when I should know every corner of it by heart, and look upon it as a haunted outlaw of bygone ages looked upon 'sanctuary.' But now time gave us little pause,—and when we had sufficiently expressed our pleasure and gratitude for the kindness with which we had been received, Lucio, glancing at his watch, suggested departure.
"We could stay on here for an indefinite period, Miss Clare," he said with an unwonted softness in his dark eyes. "It is a place for peace and happy meditation,—a restful corner for a tired soul." He checked a slight sigh,—then went on—" But trains wait for no man, and we are returning to town to-night."
"Then I will not detain you any longer," said our young hostess, leading the way at once by a side-door, through a passage filled with flowering plants, into the drawing-room where she had first entertained us. "I hope, Mr Tempest," she added, smiling at me, "that now we have met, you will no longer desire to qualify as one of my pigeons! It is scarcely worth while!"
"Miss Clare," I said, now speaking with unaffected sincerity, "I assure you, on my honour, I am very sorry I wrote that article against you. If I had only known you as you are—''
"Oh, that should make no difference to a critic!" she answered merrily.
"It would have made a great difference to me," I declared. "You are so unlike the objectionable ' literary woman'—" I paused, and she regarded me smilingly with her bright clear candid eyes,—then I added—"I must tell you that Sibyl,— Lady Sibyl Elton,—is one of your most ardent admirers."
"I am very pleased to hear that," she said simply. "lam always glad when I succeed in winning somebody's approval and liking."
"Does not everyone approve and admire you?" asked Lucio.
"Oh, no! By no means! The 'Saturday' says I only win the applause of shop-girls!" and she laughed. "Poor old 'Saturday' !—the writers on its staff are so jealous of any successful author. I told the Prince of Wales what it said the other day, and he was very much amused."
"You know the Prince?" I asked, in a little surprise.
"Well, it would be more correct to say that he knows me,'' she replied. "He has been very good in taking some little interest in my books. He knows a good deal about literature too,—much more than people give him credit for. He has been here more than once,—and has seen me feed my reviewers—the pigeons, you know! He rather enjoyed the fun, I think!"
And this was all the result of the 'slating' the press gave to Mavis Clare! Simply that she named her doves after her critics, and fed them in the presence of whatever royal or distinguished visitors she might have (and I afterwards learned she had many), amid, no doubt, much laughter from those who saw the 'Spectator' pigeon fighting for grains of corn, or the 'Saturday Review' pigeon quarrelling over peas! Evidently no reviewer, spiteful or otherwise, could affect the vivacious nature of such a mischievous elf as she was.
"How different you are—how widely different—to the ordinary run of literary people!" I said involuntarily.
"I am glad you find me so," she answered. "I hope I am different. As a rule, literary people take themselves far too seriously and attach too much importance to what they do. That is why they become such bores. I don't believe anyone ever did thoroughly good work who was not perfectly happy over it and totally indifferent to opinion. I should be quite content to write on, if I only had a garret to live in. I was once very poor,—shockingly poor; and even now I am not rich, but I've got just enough to keep me working steadily, which is as it should be. If I had more, I might get lazy and neglect my work,—then you know Satan might step into my life, and it would be a question of idle hands and mischief to follow, according to the adage."
"I think you would have strength enough to resist Satan," said Lucio, looking at her stedfastly, with sombre scrutiny in his expressive eyes.
"Oh, I don't know about that,—I could not be sure of myself!" and she smiled. "I should imagine he must be a dangerously fascinating personage. I never picture him as the possessor of hoofs and a tail,—common-sense assures me that no creature presenting himself under such an aspect would have the slightest power to attract. Milton's conception of Satan is the finest,''—and her eyes darkened swiftly with the intensity of her thoughts—" A mighty Angel fallen !—one cannot but be sorry for such a fall, if the legend were true!"
There was a sudden silence. A bird sang outside, and a little breeze swayed the lilies in the window to and fro.
"Good-bye, Mavis Clare !" said Lucio very softly, almost tenderly. His voice was low and tremulous—his face grave and pale. She looked up at him in a little surprise.
"Good-bye!" she rejoined, extending her small hand. He held it a moment,—then, to my secret astonishment, knowing his aversion to women, stooped and kissed it. She flushed rosily as she withdrew it from his clasp.
"Be always as you are, Mavis Clare," he said gently. "Let nothing change you! Keep that bright nature of yours, —that unruffled spirit of quiet contentment, and you may wear the bitter laurel of fame as sweetly as a rose. I have seen the world; I have travelled far, and have met many famous men and women,—kings and queens, senators, poets and philosophers,—my experience has been wide and varied, so that I am not altogether without authority for what I say,—and I assure you that the Satan of whom you are able to speak with compassion, can never trouble the peace of a pure and contented soul. Like consorts with like,—a fallen angel seeks the equally fallen,—and the devil,—if there be one,—becomes the companion of those only who take pleasure in his teaching and society. Legends say he is afraid of a crucifix, —but if he is afraid of anything I should say it must be of that 'sweet content' concerning which your country's Shakespeare sings, and which is a better defence against evil than the church or the prayers of the clergy! I speak as one having the right of age to speak,—I am so many many years older than you!—you must forgive me if I have said too much!"
She was quite silent; evidently moved and surprised at his words; and she gazed at him with a vaguely wondering, halfawed expression,—an expression which changed directly I myself advanced to make my adieu.
"I am very glad to have met you, Miss Clare," I said. "I hope we shall be friends!"
"There is no reason why we should be enemies I think," she responded frankly. "I am very pleased you came to-day. If ever you want to 'slate' me again, you know your fate !— you become a dove,—nothing more! Good-bye!"
She saluted us prettily as we passed out, and when the gate had closed behind us we heard the deep and joyous baying of the great dog 'Emperor,'evidently released from 'durance vile' immediately on our departure. We walked on for some time in silence, and it was not till we had re-entered the grounds of Willowsmere, and were making our way to the drive, where the carriage which was to take us to the station already awaited us, that Lucio said—
"Well; now, what do you think of her?"
"She is as unlike the accepted ideal of the female novelist as she can well be," I answered, with a laugh.
''Accepted ideals are generally mistaken ones,'' he observed, watching me narrowly. "An accepted ideal of Divinity in some church pictures, is an old man's face set in a triangle. The accepted ideal of the devil is a nondescript creature, with horns, hoofs (one of them cloven) and a tail, as Miss Clare just now remarked. The accepted ideal of beauty is the Venus de Medicis,—whereas your Lady Sibyl entirely transcends that much over-rated statue. The accepted ideal of a poet is Apollo,—he was a god,—and no poet in the flesh ever approaches the god-like. And the accepted ideal of the female novelist, is an elderly, dowdy, spectacled, frowsy fright,—Mavis Clare does not fulfil this description, yet she is the author of 'Differences.' Now McWhing, who thrashes her continually in all the papers he can command, is elderly, ugly, spectacled and frowsy, and he is the author of—nothing! Women-authors are invariably supposed to be hideous,—men authors for the most part are hideous. But their hideousness is not noted or insisted upon,—whereas, no matter how goodlooking women writers may be, they still pass under presscomment as frights, because the fiat of press-opinion considers they ought to be frights, even if they are not. A pretty authoress is an offence,—an incongruity,—a something that neither men nor women care about. Men don't care about her, because being clever and independent, she does not often care about them,—women don't care about her, because she has the effrontery to combine attractive looks with intelligence, and she makes an awkward rival to those who have only attractive looks without intelligence. So wags the world !—
O wild world 1—circling through aeons untold,—
'Mid fires of sunrise and sunset,—through flashes of silver and gold,— Grain of dust in a storm,—atom of sand by the sea,— What is your worth, O world, to the Angels of God and me I
He sang this quite suddenly, his rich baritone pealing out musically on the warm silent air. I listened entranced.
"What a voice you have!" I exclaimed. "What a glorious gift!"
He smiled, and sang on, his dark eyes flashing—
O wild world! mote in a burning ray
Flung from the spherical Heavens millions of spaces away—
Sink in the ether or soar! Live with the planets or die !—
What should I care for your fate, who am one with the Infinite Sky!
"What strange song is that?" I asked, startled and thrilled by the passion of his voice. "It seems to mean nothing!"
He laughed, and took my arm.
"It does mean nothing!" he said. "All drawing-room songs mean nothing. Mine is a drawing-room song—calculated to waken emotional impulses in the unloved spinster, religiously inclined!"
"Nonsense!" I said, smiling.
"Exactly. That is what I say. It is nonsense." Here we came up to the carriage which waited for us. "Just twenty minutes to catch the train, Geoffrey! Off we go!"
And off we did go,—I watching the red gabled roofs of Willowsmere Court shining in the late sunshine, till a turn in the road hid them from view.
"You like your purchase?" queried Lucio presently.
"I do. Immensely!"
"And your rival, Mavis Clare? Do you like her?"
I paused a moment, then answered frankly—
"Yes. I like her. And I will admit something more than that to you now. I like her book. It is a noble work,— worthy of the most highly-gifted man. I always liked it— and because I liked it, I slated it."
"Rather a mysterious course of procedure !" and he smiled. "Can you not explain?" <
"Of course I can explain," I said. "Explanation is easy. I envied her power—I envy it still. Her popularity caused me a smarting sense of injury, and to relieve it I wrote that article against her. But I shall never do anything of the kind again. I shall let her grow her laurels in peace.''
laurels have a habit of growing without any permission," observed Lucio significantly. "In all sorts of unexpected places too. And they can never be properly cultivated in frh? J forcing-house of criticism." „,
"I know that!" I said quickly, my thoughts revertingto my own book, and all the favourable criticisms that had been heaped upon it. "I have learned that lesson thoroughly, by heart!"
He looked at me fixedly.
"It is only one of many you may have yet to learn," he said. "It is a lesson in fame. Your next course of instruction will be in love."
He smiled,—but I was conscious of a certain dread and discomfort as he spoke. I thought of Sibyl and her incomparable beauty—Sibyl, who had told me she could not love, —had we both to learn a lesson? And should we master it? —or would it master us?