The preparations for my marriage now went on apace,— shoals of presents began to arrive for Sibyl as well as for myself, and I was introduced to an hitherto undemonstrated phase (as far I personally was concerned) of the vulgarity and hypocrisy of fashionable society. Everyone knew the extent of my wealth, and how little real necessity there was for offering me or my bride-elect costly gifts; nevertheless, all our so-called 'friends' and acquaintances, strove to outvie each other in the gross cash-value, if not in the good taste of their various donations. Had we been a young couple bravely beginning the world on true love, in more or less uncertainty as to our prospects and future income, we should have received nothing
either useful or valuable,—everyone would have tried to do the present-giving in as cheap and mean a way as possible. Instead of handsome services of solid silver, we should have had a meagre collection of plated teaspoons; instead of costly editions of books sumptuously enriched with fine steel engravings, we might possibly have had to express our gratitude for a ten-shilling Family Bible. Of course I fully realized the actual nature and object of the lavish extravagance displayed on this occasion by our social 'set,'—their gifts were merely so many bribes, sent with a purpose which was easy enough to fathom. The donors wished to be invited to the wedding in the first place,—after that, they sought to be included in our visiting-list, and foresaw invitations to our dinners and houseparties ;—and more than this they calculated on our influence in society, and the possible chance their might be in the dim future of our lending some of them money should pressing occasion require it. In the scant thankfulness and suppressed contempt their adulatory offerings excited, Sibyl and I were completely at one. She looked upon her array of glittering valuables with the utmost weariness and indifference, and flattered my self-love by assuring me that the only things she cared at all for were the riviere of sapphires and diamonds I had given her as a betrothal-pledge, together with an engagementring of the same lustrous gems. Yet I noticed she also had a great liking for Lucio's present, which was a truly magnificent masterpiece of the jeweller's art. It was a girdle in the form of a serpent, the body entirely composed of the finest emeralds, and the head of rubies and diamonds. Flexible as a reed, when Sibyl pdt it on it appeared to spring and coil round her waist like a living thing, and breathe with her breathing. I did not much care for it myself as an ornament for a young bride,—it seemed to me quite unsuitable,—but as everyone else admired it and envied the possessor of such superb jewels, I said nothing of my own distaste. Diana Chesney had shown a certain amount of delicate sentiment and refinement in her offering,—it was a very exquisite marble statue of Psyche, mounted on a pedestal of solid silver and ebony. Sibyl thanked her, smiling coldly.
"You have given me an emblem of the Soul," she said. "No doubt you remembered I have no soul of my own."
And her airy laugh had chilled poor Diana ' to the marrow,' as the warm-hearted little American herself, with tears, assured me. At this period I saw very little of Rimanez. I was much occupied with my lawyers on the question of 'settlements.' Messrs Bentham and Ellis rather objected to the arrangement by which I gave the half of my fortune to my intended wife unconditionally; but I would brook no interference, and the deed was drawn up, signed, sealed and witnessed. The Earl of Elton could not sufficiently praise my 'unexampled generosity'—my 'noble character,'—and walked about, eulogizing me everywhere, till he almost turned himself into a public advertisement of the virtues of his future son-in-law. He seemed to have taken a new lease of life,—he flirted with Diana Chesney openly,—and of his paralyzed spouse with the fixed stare and deathly grin, he never spoke, and, I imagine, never thought. Sibyl herself was always in the hands of dressmakers and milliners,—and we only saw each other every day for a few minutes' hurried chat. On these occasions she was always charming,—even affectionate; and yet,—though I was full of passionate admiration and love for her, I felt that she was mine merely as a slave might be mine; that she gave me her lips to kiss as if she considered I had a right to kiss them because I had bought them, and for no other reason,— that her pretty caresses were studied, and her whole behaviour the result of careful forethought and not natural impulsiveness. I tried to shake off this impression, but it still remained persistently, and clouded the sweetness of my brief courtship.
Meanwhile, slowly and almost imperceptibly, my 'boomed' book dropped out of notice. Morgeson presented a heavy bill of publishing costs which I paid without a murmur; now and then an allusion to my 'literary triumphs' cropped up in one or other of the newspapers, but otherwise no one spoke of my 'famous' work, and few read it. I enjoyed the same sort of 'cliquey' reputation and public failure attending Pater's novel entitled 'Marius the Epicurean.' The journalists with whom I had come in contact, began to drift away like flotsam and jetsam; I think they saw I was not likely to give many more 'reviewing' dinners or suppers, and that my marriage with the Earl of Elton's daughter would lift me into an atmosphere where 'Grub-street' could not breathe comfortably, or stretch its legs at ease. The heap of gold on which I sat as on a throne, divided me gradually from even the back courts and lower passages leading to the Temple of Fame, and almost unconsciously to myself I retreated step by step, shading my eyes as it were from the sun, and seeing the glittering turrets in the distance, with a woman's slight figure entering the lofty portico, turning back her laurelled head to smile sorrowfully and with divinest pity upon me, ere passing in to salute the gods. Yet, if asked about it, everyone on the press would have said that I had had a great success. I—only I—realized the bitterness and truth of my failure. I had not touched the heart of the public;—I had not succeeded in so waking my readers out of the torpor of their dull and commonplace every J day lives, that they should turn towards me with outstretched hands, exclaiming—" More,—more of these thoughts which comfort and inspire us!—which make us hear God's voice proclaiming 'All's well!' above the storms of life!" I had not done it,—I could not do it. And the worst part of my feelings on this point was the idea that possibly I might have done it had I remained poor! The strongest and healthiest pulse in the composition of a man,—the necessity for hard work,—had been killed in me. I knew I need not work; that the society in which I now moved thought it ridiculous if I did work; that I was expected to spend money and 'enjoy' myself in the idiotic fashion of what the 'upper ten' term enjoyment. My acquaintances were not slow in suggesting plans for the dissipation of my surplus cash,—why did I not build for myself a marble palace on the Riviera ?—or a yacht to completely outshine the Prince of Wales's 'Britannia'? Why did I not start a theatre? or found a newspaper? Not one of my social advisers once proposed my doing any private personal good with my fortune. When some terrible case of distress was published, and subscriptions were raised to relieve the object or objects of suffering, I invariably gave Ten Guineas, and allowed myself to be thanked for my 'generous assistance.' I might as well have given ten pence, for the guineas were no more to me in comparison than the pence. When funds were started to erect a statue to some great man who had, in the usual way of the world, been a victim of misrepresentation till his death, I produced my Ten Guineas again, when I could easily have defrayed the whole cost of the memorial, with honour to myself, and been none the poorer. With all my wealth I did nothing noteworthy; I showered no unexpected luck in the way of the patient, struggling workers in the hard schools of literature and art; I gave no 'largesse' among the poor ;-—and when a thin eager-eyed curate with a strong earnest face, called upon me one day, to represent, with much nervous diffidence, the hideous sufferings of some of the sick and starving in his district down by the docks, and suggested that I might possibly care to alleviate a few of these direful sorrows as a satisfaction to myself, as well as for the sake of human brotherhood, I am ashamed to say I let him go with a sovereign, for which he heaped coals of fire on my head by his simple 'God bless you, and thank you.' I could see he was himself in the grip of poverty,—I could have made him and his poor district gloriously happy by a few strokes of my pen on a cheque for an amount I should never have missed,—and yet—I gave him nothing but that one piece of gold, and so allowed him to depart. He invited me, with earnest good-will, to go and see his starving flock,—" for, believe me, Mr Tempest," said he, "I should be sorry if you thought, as some of the wealthy are unhappily apt to do, that I seek money simply to apply it to my own personal uses. If you would visit the district yourself, and distribute whatever you pleased with your own hand, it would be infinitely more gratifying to me, and would have a far better effect on the minds of the people. For, sir, the poor will not always be patient under the cruel burdens they have to bear."
I smiled indulgently, and assured him, not without a touch of satire in my tone, that I was convinced all clergymen were honest and unselfish,—and then I sent my servant to bow him out with all possible politeness. And that very day I remember, I drank at my luncheon Chateau Yquem at twenty-five shillings a bottle.
I enter into these apparently trifling details because they all help to make up the sum and substance of the deadly consequences to follow,—and also because I wish to emphasize the fact that in my actions I only imitated the example of my compeers. Every rich man to-day follows the same course as I did,—and active personal good to the community is wrought by none of them. No great deed of generosity illumines our annals. Royalty itself leads no fashion in this,—the royal gifts of game and cast-off clothing sent to our hospitals are too slight and conventional to carry weight. The 'entertainments for the poor' got up by some of the aristocrats at the East end, are nothing, and less than nothing. They are weak sops to our tame 'lion couchant,' offered in doubtful fear and trembling. For our lion is wakeful and somewhat restive,— there is no knowing what may happen if the original ferocity of the beast is roused. A few of our over-rich men might considerably ease the load of cruel poverty in many quarters of the metropolis if they united themselves with a noble unselfishness in the strong and determined effort to do so, and eschewed red-tapeism and wordy argument. But they remain inert;—spending solely on their own personal gratification and amusement,—and meanwhile there are dark signs of trouble brooding. The poor, as the lean and anxious curate said, will not always be patient!
I must not here forget to mention that according to the suggestion Rimanez had made to me on the second day of our acquaintance, he had entered a horse for me to run the Derby. It was a superb creature named 'Phosphor,' and where it came from, Lucio would not say. It was shown to a few experts who not only seemed astonished but considerably taken aback by the perfection of the animal at all points,— and Rimanez, whose gift to me it was, warned me to be careful as to the character of the persons admitted into the stables to view it, and to allow no one but the horse's own two attendants to linger near it long on any pretext. Speculation was very rife as to what 'Phosphor's' capabilities really were; the grooms never showed him off to advantage during exercise. I was amazed when Lucio told me his man Amiel would be the jockey.
"Good heavens!—not possible!" I exclaimed. "Can he ride?"
"Like the very devil!" responded my friend with a smile. '. He will ride 'Phosphor' to the winning-post."
I was very doubtful in my own mind of this; a horse of the Prime Minister's was to run, and all the betting was on that side. Few had seen 'Phosphor,' and those few, though keen admirers of the animal's appearance, had little opportunity of judging its actual qualities, thanks to the careful management of its two attendants, who were dark-faced, reticent-looking men, somewhat after Amiel's character and complexion. I myself was quite indifferent as to the result of the contest. I did not really care whether 'Phosphor' lost or won the race. I could afford to lose; and it would be little to me if I won, save a momentary passing triumph. There was nothing lasting, intellectual or honourable in the victory,—there is nothing lasting, intellectual or honourable in anything connected with racing. However, because it was 'fashionable' to be interested in this particular mode of wasting time and money, I followed the general 'lead,' for the sake of ' being talked about,' and nothing more. Meanwhile, Lucio, saying little to me concerning it, was busy planning the 'betrothal-fete' at Willowsmere, and designing all sorts of 'surprise' entertainments for the guests. Eight hundred invitations were sent out; and society soon began to chatter volubly and excitedly on the probable magnificence of the forthcoming festival. Eager acceptances poured in; only a few of those asked were hindered from attending by illness, family deaths or previous engagements, and among these latter, to my regret, was Mavis Clare. She was going to the sea-coast to stay with some old friends, and in a prettilyworded letter explained this, and expressed her thanks for my invitation though she found herself unable to accept it! How curious it was that when I read her little note of refusal I should experience such a keen sense of disappointment! She was nothing to me,—nothing but a 'literary' woman who, by strange chance, happened to be sweeter than most women unliterary; and yet I felt that the fete at Willowsmere would lose something in brightness lacking her presence. I had wanted to introduce her to Sibyl, as I knew I should thus give a special pleasure to my betrothed,—however, it was not to be, and I was conscious of an inexplicable personal vexation. In strict accordance with the promise made, I let Rimanez have his own way entirely with regard to all the arrangements for what was to be the ne plus ultra of everything ever designed for the distraction, amusement and wonderment of listless and fastidious 'swagger' people, and I neither interfered, nor asked any questions, content to rely on my friend's taste, imagination and ingenuity. I only understood that all the plans were being carried out by foreign artists and caterers,—and that no English firms would be employed. I did venture once to inquire the reason of this, and got one of Lucio's own enigmatical replies:—
"Nothing English is good enough for the English," he said. "Things have to be imported from France to please the people whom the French themselves angrily designate as 'perfide Albion.' You must not have a 'Bill of Fare'; you must have a 'Menu'; and all your dishes must bear French titles, otherwise they will not be in good form. You must have French 'comediennes' and 'danseuses' to please the British taste, and your silken draperies must be woven on French looms. Lately too, it has been deemed necessary to import Parisian morality as well as Parisian fashions. It does not suit stalwart Great Britain at all, you know,—stalwart Great Britain, aping the manners of Paris, looks like a jolly open-faced, sturdy-limbed Giant, with a doll's bonnet stuck on his leonine head. But the doll's bonnet is just now la mode. Some day I believe the Giant will discover it looks ridiculous, and cast it off with a burst of genuine laughter at his own temporary folly. And without it, he will resume his original dignity;—the dignity that best becomes a privileged conqueror who has the sea for his standing army.''
"Evidently you like England!" I said smiling.
"Not in the very least! I do not like England any more than any other country on the globe. I do not like the globe itself; and England comes in for a share of my aversion as one of the spots on the trumpery ball. If I could have my way, I should like to throne myself on a convenient star for the purpose and kick out at Earth as she whirls by in space, hoping by that act of just violence to do away with her for ever.''
"But why?" I asked, amused. "Why do you hate the Earth? What has the poor little planet done to merit your abhorrence?"
He looked at me very strangely.
"Shall I tell you? You will never believe me!"
"No matter for that!" I answered smiling. "Say on!"
"What has the poor little planet done?" he repeated slowly. "The poor little planet has done—nothing. But it is what the gods have done with this same poor little planet, that awakens my anger and scorn. They have made it a living sphere of wonders,—endowed it with beauty borrowed from the fairest corners of highest Heaven,—decked it with flowers and foliage,—taught it music,—the music of birds and torrents and rolling waves and falling rains,—rocked it gently in clear ether among such light as blinds the eyes of mortals,—guided it out of chaos, through clouds of thunder and barbed shafts of lightning, to circle peacefully in its appointed orbit, lit on the one hand by the vivid splendours of the sun, and on the other by the sleepy radiance of the moon; —and more than all this, they have invested it with a Divine Soul in man. Oh, you may disbelieve as you will,—but notwithstanding the pigmy peeps earth takes at the vast and eternal ocean of Science, the Soul is here, and all the immortal forces with it and around it! Nay, the gods—I speak in the plural, after the fashion of the ancient Greeks—for to my thinking there are many gods emanating from the Supreme Deity,—the gods, I say, have so insisted on this fact, that One of them has walked the earth in human guise, solely for the sake of emphasizing the truth of Immortality to these frail creatures of seemingly perishable clay! For this I hate the planet;—were there not, and are there not other and far grander worlds, that a God should have chosen to dwell on this one!"
For a moment I was silent, out of sheer surprise.
"You amaze me!" I said at last. "You allude to Christ, I suppose; but everybody is convinced by this time that He was a mere man like the rest of us; there was nothing divine about Him. What a contradiction you are! Why, I remember you indignantly denied the accusation of being a Christian."
"Of course,—and I deny it still," he answered quickly. "I have not a fat living in the church that I should tell a lie on such a subject. I am not a Christian; nor is anyone living a Christian. To quote a very old saying, 'There never was a Christian save One, and He was crucified.' But though I am not a Christian, I never said I doubted the existence of Christ. That knowledge was forced upon me,—with considerable pressure too."
•'By a reliable authority?" I inquired with a slight sneer.
He made no immediate reply. His flashing eyes looked, as it were, through me and beyond me at something far away. The curious pallor that at times gave his face the set look of an impenetrable mask, came upon him then, and he smiled, —an awful smile. So might a man smile out of deadly bravado, when told of some dim and dreadful torture awaiting him.
"You touch me on a sore point," he said at last, slowly and in a harsh tone. "My convictions respecting certain religious phases of man's development and progress are founded on the arduous study of some very unpleasant truths to which humanity generally shuts its eyes, burying its head in the desert-sands of its own delusions. These truths I will not enter upon now. Some other time I will initiate you into a few of my mysteries."
The tortured smile passed from his face, leaving it intellectually composed and calm as usual,—and I hastily changed the subject, for I had made up my mind by this time that my brilliant friend had, like many exceptionally gifted persons, a 'craze' on one topic, and that topic a particularly difficult one to discuss, as it touched on the superhuman, and therefore (to my thinking) the impossible. My own temperament, which had, in the days of my poverty, fluctuated between spiritual striving and material gain, had, with my sudden access to fortune, rapidly hardened into the character of a man of the world worldly, for whom all speculations as to the unseen forces working in and around us, were the merest folly, not worth a moment's waste of thought. I should have laughed to scorn anyone who had then presumed to talk to me about the law of Eternal Justice, which with individuals as well as nations, works, not for a passing 'phase,' but for all time towards good, and not evil,—for no matter how much a man may strive to blind himself to the fact, he has a portion of the Divine with him, which if he wilfully corrupts by his own wickedness, he must be forced to cleanse again, and yet again, in the fierce flames of such remorse and such despair as are rightly termed the quenchless fires of Hell!