On the afternoon of the twenty-first of May, I went down, accompanied by Lucio, to Willowsmere, to be in readiness for the reception of the social swarm who were to flock thither the next day. Amiel went with us,—but I left my own man, Morris, behind, to take charge of my rooms in the 'Grand' and to forward late telegrams and special messages. The weather was calm, warm and bright,—and a young moon showed her thin crescent in the sky as we got out at the country station and stepped into the open carriage awaiting us. The station-officials greeted us with servile humility, eyeing Lucio especially with an almost gaping air of wonderment; the fact of his lavish expenditure in arranging with the railway company a service of special trains for the use of the morrow's guests, had no doubt excited them to a speechless extent of admiration as well as astonishment. When we approached Willowsmere, and entered the beautiful drive, bordered with oak and beech, which led up to the house, I uttered an exclamation of delight at the festal decorations displayed, for the whole avenue was spanned with arches of flags and flowers; garlands of blossoms being even swung from tree to tree, and interlacing many of the lower branches. The gabled porch at the entrance of the house was draped with crimson silk and festooned with white roses,—and as we alighted, the door was flung open by a smart page in brilliant scarlet and gold.
"I think," said Lucio to me as we entered, "you will find everything as complete as this world's resources will allow. The retinue of servants here are what is vulgarly called 'on the job'; their payment is agreed upon, and they know their duties thoroughly,—they will give you no trouble.''
I could scarcely find words to express my unbounded satisfaction, or to thank him for the admirable taste with which the beautiful house had been adorned. I wandered about in an ecstasy of admiration, triumphing in such a visible and gorgeous display of what great wealth could really do. The ballroom had been transformed into an elegant bijou theatre, the stage being concealed by a curtain of thick gold-coloured silk on which the oft quoted lines of Shakespeare were embroidered in raised letters,—
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players."
Turning out of this into the drawing-room, I found it decorated entirely round with banks of roses, red and white, the flowers forming a huge pyramid at one end of the apartment, behind which, as Lucio informed me, unseen musicians would discourse sweet harmony.
"I have arranged for a few ' tableaux vivants' in the theatre to fill up a gap of time," he said carelessly. "Fashionable folks now-a-days get so soon tired of one amusement that it is necessary to provide several in order to distract the brains that cannot think, or discover any means of entertainment in themselves. As a matter of fact, people cannot even converse long together, because they have nothing to say. Oh, don't bother to go out in the grounds on a tour of inspection just now,—leave a few surprises for yourself as well as for your company tomorrow. Come and have dinner!"
He put his arm through mine and we entered the diningroom. Here the table was laid out with costly fruit, flowers and delicacies of every description,—four men-servants in scarlet and gold stood silently in waiting, with Amiel, in black as usual, behind his master's chair. We enjoyed a sumptuous repast, served to perfection, and when it was finished, we strolled out in the grounds to smoke and talk.
"You seem to do everything by magic, Lucio," I said, looking at him wonderingly. "All these lavish decorations,— these servants—"
"Money, my dear fellow,—nothing but money," he interrupted with a laugh. "Money, the devil's pass-key! you can have the retinue of a king without any of a king's responsibilities, if you only choose to pay for it. It is merely a question of cost."
"And taste!" I reminded him.
"True,—and taste. Some rich men there are who have less taste than a costermonger. I know one who has the egregious vulgarity to call the attention of his guests to the value of his goods and chattels. He pointed out for my admiration one day, an antique and hideous china plate, the only one of that kind in the world, and told me it was worth a thousand guineas. 'Break it,' I said coolly. 'You will then have the satisfaction of knowing you have destroyed a thousand guineas' worth of undesirable ugliness.' You should have seen his face! He showed me no more curios !''
I laughed, and we walked slowly up and down for a few minutes in silence. Presently I became aware that my companion was looking at me intently, and I turned my head quickly to meet his eyes. He smiled.
"I was just then thinking," he said, "what you would have done with your life if you had not inherited this fortune, and if,—if/had not come your way?"
"I should have starved, no doubt," I responded—"Died like a rat in a hole,—of want and wretchedness."
"I rather doubt that, " he said meditatively. "It is just possible you might have become a great writer."
"Why do you say that now?" I asked.
"Because I have been reading your book. There are fine ideas in it,—ideas that might, had they been the result of sincere conviction, have reached the public in time, because they were sane and healthy. The public will never put up for long with corrupt 'fads' and artificial 'crazes.' Now, you write of God,—yet according to your own statement, you did not believe in God even when you wrote the words that imply His existence,—and that was long before I met you. Therefore the book was not the result of sincere conviction,—and that's the key-note of your failure to reach the large audience you desired. Each reader can see you do not believe what you write,—the trumpet of lasting fame never sounds triumph for an author of that calibre."
"Don't let us talk about it for Heaven's sake!" I said irritably. "I know my work lacks something,—and that something may be what you say, or it may not,—I do not want to think about it. Let it perish, as it assuredly will; perhaps in the future I may do something better."
He was silent, —and finishing his cigar, threw the end away in the grass where it burned like a dull red coal.
"I must turn in," he then observed. "I have a few more directions to give to the servants for tomorrow. I shall go to my room as soon as I have done,—so I'll say good-night."
"But surely you are taking too much personal trouble," I said. "Can't I help in any way?"
"No, you can't," he answered smiling. "When I undertake to do anything I like to do it in my own fashion, or not at all. Sleep well, and rise early."
He nodded, and sauntered slowly away over the dewy grass. I watched his dark tall figure receding till he had entered the house; then, lighting a fresh cigar I wandered on alone through the grounds, noting here and there flowery arbours and dainty silk pavilions erected in picturesque nooks and corners for the morrow. I looked up at the sky; it was clear and bright,— there would be no rain. Presently I opened the wicket-gate that led into the outer by-road, and walking on slowly, almost unconsciously, I found myself in a few minutes opposite ' Lily Cottage.' Approaching the gate I looked in,—the pretty old house was dark, silent and deserted. I knew Mavis Clare was away,—and it was not strange that the aspect of her homenest emphasized the fact of her absence. A cluster of climbing roses hanging from the wall, looked as if they were listening for the first sound of her returning footsteps; across the green breadth of the lawn where I had seen her playing with her dogs, a tall sheaf of St John's lilies stood up white against the sky, their pure hearts opened to the star-light and the breeze. The scent of honey-suckle and sweet-brier filled the air with delicate suggestions,—and as I leaned over the low fence, gazing vaguely at the long shadows of the trees on the grass, a nightingale began to sing. The sweet yet dolorous warble of the 'little brown lover of the moon,' palpitated on the silence in silver-toned drops of melody; and I listened, till my eyes smarted with a sudden moisture as of tears. Strangely enough, I never thought of my betrothed bride Sibyl then, as surely, by all the precedents of passion, I should have done at such a moment of dreamful ecstasy. It was another woman's face that floated before my memory;—a face not beautiful,—but merely sweet, and made radiant by the light of two tender, wistful, wonderfully innocent eyes,—a face like that of some new ' Daphne' with the mystic laurel springing from her brows. The nightingale sang on and on,—the tall lilies swayed in the faint wind as though nodding wise approval of the bird's wild music,—and, gathering one brierrose from the hedge, I turned away with a curious heaviness at my heart,—a trouble I could not analyze or account for. I explained my feeling partly to myself as one of regret that I had ever taken up my pen to assault, with sneer and flippant jest, the gentle and brilliantly endowed owner of this little home where peace and pure content dwelt happily in student'like seclusion;—but this was not all. There was something else in my mind,—something inexplicable and sad,—which then I had no skill to define. I know now what it was,—but the knowledge comes too late.
Returning to my own domains, I saw through the trees a vivid red light in one of the upper windows of Willowsmere. It twinkled like a lurid star, and I guided my steps by its brilliancy as I made my way across the winding garden-paths and terraces back to the house. Entering the hall, the page in scarlet and gold met me, and with a respectful obeisance, escorted me to my room where Amiel was in waiting.
"Has the prince retired?" I asked him.
"He has a red lamp in his window, has he not?" Amiel looked deferentially meditative. Yet I fancied I saw him smile.
"I think yes,—I believe he has, sir."
I asked no more questions, but allowed him to perform his duties as valet in silence.
''Good-night, sir!" he said at last, his ferret eyes fastened upon me with an expressionless look.
"Good-night!" I responded indifferently.
He left the room with his usual cat-like stealthy tread, and when he had gone, I,—moved by a sudden fresh impulse of hatred for him,—sprang to the door and locked it. Then I listened, with an odd nervous breathlessness. There was not a sound. For fully quarter of an hour I remained with my attention more or less strained, expectant of I knew not what; but the quiet of the house was absolutely undisturbed. With a sigh of relief I flung myself on the luxurious bed,—a couch fit for a king, draped with the richest satin elaborately embroidered,—and falling soundly asleep I dreamed that I was poor again. Poor,—but unspeakably happy,—and hard at work in the old lodging, writing down thoughts which I knew by some divine intuition and beyond all doubt, would bring me the whole world's honour. Again I heard the sounds of the violin played by my unseen neighbour next door, and this time they were triumphal chords and cadences of joy, without one throb of sorrow. And while I wrote on in an ecstasy of inspiration, oblivious of poverty and pain, I heard, echoing through my visions, the round warble of the nightingale, and saw, in the far distance, an angel floating towards me on pinions of light, with the face of Mavis Clare!