The morning broke clear, with all the pure tints of a fine opal radiating in the cloudless sky. Never had I beheld such a fair scene as the woods and gardens of Willowsmere, when I looked upon them that day illumined by the unclouded sunlight of a spring half-melting into summer. My heart swelled with pride as I surveyed the beautiful domain I now owned,—. and thought how happy a home it would make when Sibyl, matchless in her loveliness, shared with me its charm and luxury.
"Yes," I said half-aloud. "Say what philosophers will, the possession of money does insure satisfaction and power. It is all very well to talk about fame, but what is fame worth, if, like Carlyle, one is too poor to enjoy it! Besides, literature no longer holds its former high prestige,—there are too many in the field,—too many newspaper-scribblers all believing they are geniuses,—too many ill-educate. 1 lady-paragraphists and 'new' women who think they are as gifted as Georges Sand or Mavis Clare. With Sibyl and Willowsmere, I ought to be able to resign the idea of fame—literary fame— with a good grace."
I knew I reasoned falsely with myself,—I knew that my hankering for a place among the truly great of the world was as strong as ever,—I knew I craved for the intellectual distinction, force, and pride which make the Thinker a terror and a power in the land, and so severs a great poet or great romancist from the commoner throng that even kings are glad to do him or her honour,—but I would not allow my thoughts to dwell on this rapidly vanishing point of unattainable desire. I settled my mind to enjoy the luscious flavour of the immediate present, as a bee settles in the cup of honey-flowers, —and, leaving my bedroom, I went downstairs to breakfast with Lucio in the best and gayest of humours.
"Not a cloud on the day!" he said, meeting me with a smile, as I entered the bright morning-room, whose windows opened on the lawn. "The fgte will be a brilliant success, Geoffrey."
"Thanks to you !" I answered. "Personally I am quite in the dark as to your plans,—but I believe you can do nothing that is not well done."
"You honour me!" he said with a light laugh. "You credit me then with better qualities than the Creator! For what He does, in the opinion of the present generation, is exceedingly ill done! Men have taken to grumbling at Him instead of praising Him,—and few have any patience with or liking for His laws."
I laughed. "Well, you must admit those laws are very arbitrary!"
"They are. I entirely acknowledge the fact."
We sat down to table, and were waited upon by admirablytrained servants who apparently had no idea of anything else but attendance on our needs. There was no trace of bustle or excitement in the household,—no sign whatever to denote that a great entertainment was about to take place that day. It was not until the close of our meal that I asked Lucio what time the musicians would arrive. He glanced at his watch.
"About noon I should say," he replied; "perhaps before. But whatever their hour, they will all be in their places at the proper moment, depend upon it. The people I employ— both musicians and 'artistes'—know their business thoroughly and are aware that I stand no nonsense." A rather sinister smile played round his mouth as he regarded me. "None of your guests can arrive here till one o'clock, as that is about the time the special train will bring the first batch of them from London,—and the first 'dejeuner' will be served in the gardens at two. If you want to amuse yourself there's a Maypole being put up on the large lawn,—you'd better go and look at it."
"A May.pole!" I exclaimed. "Now that's a good idea!"
"It used to be a good idea," he answered. "When English lads and lasses had youth, innocence, health and fun in their composition, a dance round the May-pole hand in hand, did them good and did nobody harm. But now there are no lads and lasses,—enervated old men and women in their teens walk the world wearily, speculating on the uses of life,— probing vice, and sneering down sentiment; and such innocent diversions as the May-pole no longer appeal to our jaded youth. So we have to get 'professionals' to execute the Mayrevels,—of course the dancing is better done by properly trained legs; but it means nothing and is nothing, except a pretty spectacle."
"And are the dancers here?" I asked, rising and going towards the window in some curiosity.
"No, not yet. But the May-pole is; fully decorated. It faces the woods at the back of the house,—go and see if you like it."
I followed his suggestion, and going in the direction indicated, I soon perceived the gaily-decked object which used to be the welcome signal of many a village holiday in Shakespeare's old-world England The pole was already set up and fixed in a deep socket in the ground, and a dozen or more men were at work, unbinding its numerous trails of blossom and garlands of green, tied with long streamers of vari-coloured ribbon. It had a picturesque effect in the centre of the wide lawn bordered with grand old trees,—and approaching one of the men, I said something to him by way of approval and admiration. He glanced at me furtively and unsmilingly, but said nothing,—and I concluded from his dark and foreign cast of features, that he did not understand the English language. I noted with some wonder and slight vexation that all the workmen were of this same alien and sinister type of countenance, very much after the unattractive models of Amiel and the two grooms who had my racer 'Phosphor' in charge. But I remembered what Lucio had told me,—namely, that all the designs for the fete were carried out by foreign experts and artists,—and after a little puzzled consideration, I let the matter pass from my mind.
The morning hours flew swiftly by, and I had little time to examine all the festal preparations with which the gardens abounded,—so that I was almost as ignorant of what was in store for the amusement of my guests as the guests themselves, I had the curiosity to wait about and watch for the coming of the musicians and dancers, but I might as well have spared myself this waste of time and trouble, for I never saw them arrive at all. At one o'clock, both Lucio and I were ready to receive our company,—and at about twenty minutes past the hour, the first instalment of ' swagger society' was emptied into the grounds. Sibyl and her father were among these,— and I eagerly advanced to meet and greet my bride-elect as she alighted from the carriage that had brought her from the station. She looked supremely beautiful that day, and was, as she deserved to be, the cynosure of all eyes. I kissed her little gloved hand with a deeper reverence than I would have kissed the hand of a queen.
"Welcome back to your old home, my Sibyl!" I said to her in a low voice, tenderly, at which words she paused, looking up at the red gables of the house with such wistful affection as filled her eyes with something like tears. She left her hand in mine, and allowed me to lead her towards the silken-draped, flower-decked porch, where Lucio waited, smiling,—and as she advanced, two tiny pages in pure white and silver glided suddenly out of some unseen hiding-place, and emptied two' baskets of pink and white rose-leaves at her feet, thus strewing a fragrant pathway for her into the house. They vanished as completely and swiftly as they had appeared,—some of the guests uttered murmurs of admiration, while Sibyl gazed about her, blushing with surprise and pleasure.
"How charming of you, Geoffrey !'' she murmured. "What a poet you are to devise so pretty a greeting!"
"I wish I deserved your praise!" I answered, smiling at her; "but the poet in question is Prince Rimanez,—he is the master and ruler of to-day's revels."
Again the rich colour flushed her cheeks, and she gave Lucio her hand. He bowed over it in courtly fashion,—but did not kiss it as he had kissed the hand of Mavis Clare. We passed into the house, through the drawing-room, and out again into the garden, Lord Elton being loud in his praise of the artistic manner in which his former dwelling had been improved and embellished. Soon the lawn was sprinkled with gaily attired groups of people,—and my duties as host began in hard earnest. I had to be greeted, complimented, flattered, and congratulated on my approaching marriage by scores of hypocrites who nearly shook my hand off in their enthusiasm for my wealth. Had I become suddenly poor, I thought grimly, not one of them would have lent me a sovereign! The guests kept on arriving in shoals, and when there were about three or four hundred assembled, a burst of exquisite music sounded, and a procession of pages in scarlet and gold, marching two by two appeared, carrying trays full of the rarest flowers tied up in bouquets, which they offered to all the ladies present. Exclamations of delight arose on every side,—exclamations which were for the most part highpitched and noisy,—for the ' swagger set' have long ceased to cultivate softness of voice or refinement of accent,—and once or twice the detestable slang word 'ripping' escaped from the lips of a few dashing dames, reputed to be 'leaders' of style. Repose of manner, dignity and elegance of deportment, however, are no longer to be discovered among the present 'racing' duchesses and gambling countesses of the bluest blue blood of England, so one does not expect these graces of distinction from them. The louder they can talk, and the more slang they can adopt from the language of their grooms and stable-boys, the more are they judged to be 'in the swim' and 'up to date.' I speak, of course, of the modern scions of aristocracy. There are a few truly ' great ladies' left, whose maxim is still 'noblesse oblige,'—but they are quite in the minority and by the younger generation are voted either 'old cats' or 'bores.' Many of the 'cultured' mob that now swarmed over my grounds, had come out of the sheerest vulgar curiosity to see what 'the man with five millions' could do in the way of entertaining,—others were anxious to get news, if possible, of the chances of 'Phosphor' winning the Derby, concerning which I was discreetly silent. But the bulk of the crowd wandered aimlessly about, staring impertinently or enviously at each other, and scarcely looking at the natural loveliness of the gardens or the woodland scenery around them. The brainlessness of modern society is never so flagrantly manifested as at a garden-party, where the restless trousered and petticoated bipeds moved vaguely to and fro, scarcely stopping to talk civilly or intelligently to one another for five minutes, most of them hovering dubiously and awkwardly between the refreshment-pavilion and the bandstand. In my domain they were deprived of this latter harbour of refuge, for no musicians could be seen, though music was heard,—beautiful wild music which came first from one part of the grounds and then from another, and to which few listened with any attention. All were, however, happily unanimous in their enthusiastic appreciation of the excellence of the food provided for them in the luxurious luncheon tents, of which there were twenty in number. Men ate as if they had never eaten in their lives before, and drank the choice and exquisite wines with equal greed and gusto. One never entirely realizes the extent to which human gourmandism can go till one knows a few peers, bishops and cabinet-ministers, and watches those dignitaries feed ad libitum. Soon the company was so complete that there was no longer any need forme to perform the fatiguing duty of 'receiving,' and I therefore took Sibyl in to luncheon, determining to devote myself to her for the rest of the day. She was in one of her brightest and most captivating moods,—her laughter rang out as sweetly joyous as that of some happy child,—s.he was even kind to Diana Chesney, who was also one of my guests, and who was plainly enjoying herself with all the verve peculiar to pretty American women who consider flirtation as much of a game as tennis. The scene was now one of great brilliancy, the light costumes of the women contrasting well with the scarlet and gold liveries of the seemingly innumerable servants that were now everywhere in active attendance. And, constantly through the fluttering festive crowd, from tent to tent, from table to table and group to group, Lucio moved, his tall stately figure and handsome face always conspicuous wherever he stood; his rich voice thrilling the air whenever he spoke. His influence was irresistible, and gradually dominated the whole assemblage,—he roused the dull, inspired the witty, encouraged the timid, and brought all the conflicting elements of rival position, character and opinion into one uniform whole, which was unconsciously led by his will as easily as a multitude is led by a convincing orator. I did not know it, then, but I know now, that, metaphorically speaking, he had his foot on the neck of that 'society' mob, as though it were one prostrate man;—that the sycophants, liars and hypocrites, whose utmost idea of good is wealth and luxurious living, bent to his secret power as reeds bend to the wind,—and that he did with them all whatsoever he chose, as he does to this very day! God !—if the grinning, guzzling sensual fools had only known what horrors were about them at the feast!—what ghastly ministers to pleasurable appetite waited obediently upon them !—what pallid terrors lurked behind the gorgeous show of vanity and pride! But the veil was mercifully down, —and only to me has it since been lifted!
Luncheon over, the singing of mirthful voices, tuned to a kind of village roundelay, attracted the company, now fed to repletion, towards the lawn at the back of the house, and cries of delight were raised as the May-pole came into view, I myself joining in the universal applause, for I had not expected to see anything half so picturesque and pretty. The pole was surrounded by a double ring of small children,—children so beautiful in face and dainty in form, that they might very well have been taken for little fairies from some enchanted woodland. The boys were clad as tiny foresters in doublets of green, with pink caps on their curly heads,—the girls were in white, with their hair flowing loosely over their shoulders, and wreaths of May-blossom crowning their brows. As soon as the guests appeared on the scene, these exquisite little creatures commenced their dance, each one taking a trail of blossom or a ribbon pendant from the May-pole, and weaving it with the others into no end of beautiful and fantastic designs. I looked on, as amazed and fascinated as anyone present, at the wonderful lightness and ease with which these children tripped and ran;—their tiny twinkling feet seemed scarcely to touch the turf,—their faces were so lovely, their eyes so bright, that it was a positive enchantment to watch them. Each figure they executed was more intricate and effective than the last, and the plaudits of the spectators grew more and more enthusiastic, till presently came the finale, in which all the little green foresters climbed up the pole and clung there, pelting the white-robed maidens below with cowslip-balls, knots of roses, bunches of violets, posies of buttercups, daisies and clover, which the girl-children in their turn laughingly threw among the admiring guests. The air grew thick with flowers, and heavy with perfume, and resounded with song and laughter; and Sibyl standing at my side clapped her hands in an ecstasy.
"Oh, it is lovely—lovely!" she cried. "Is this the prince's idea?" Then as I answered in the affirmative, she added, "Where, I wonder, did he find such exquisitely pretty little children!"
As she spoke, Lucio himself advanced a step or two in front of the other spectators and made a slight peremptory sign. The fairy-like foresters and maidens, with extraordinary activity, all sprang away from the May-pole, pulling down the garlands with them, and winding the flowers and ribbons about themselves so that they looked as if they were all tied together in one inextricable knot;—this done, they started off at a rapid run, presenting the appearance of a rolling ball of blossom, merry pipe-music accompanying their footsteps, till they had entirely disappeared among the trees.
"Oh, do call them Lack again!" entreated Sibyl, laying her hand coaxingly on Lucio's arm,—"I should so like to speak to two or three of the prettiest!"
He looked down at her with an enigmatical smile.
"You would do them too much honour,'Lady Sibyl," he replied. "They are not accustomed to such condescension from great ladies and would not appreciate it. They are paid professionals, and, like many of their class, only become insolent when praised.''
At that moment Diana Chesney came running across the lawn, breathless.
"I can't see them anywhere!" she declared pantingly. "The dear little darlings! I ran after them as fast as I could; I wanted to kiss one of those perfectly scrumptious boys, but they're gone !—not a trace of them left! It's just as if they had sunk into the ground!"
Again Lucio smiled.
"They have their orders," he said curtly, "and they know their place."
Just then, the sun was obscured by a passing black cloud, and a peal of thunder rumbled over-head. Looks were turned to the sky, but it was quite bright and placid save for that one floating shadow of storm.
"Only summer thunder," said one of the guests. "There will be no rain."
And the crowd that had been pressed together to watch the 'May-pole dance' began to break up in groups, and speculate as to what diversion might next be provided for them. I, watching my opportunity, drew Sibyl away.
"Come down by the river," I whispered,—" I must have you to myself for a few minutes.'' She yielded to my suggestion, and we walked away from the mob of our acquaintance, and entered a grove of trees leading to the banks of that part of the Avon which flowed through my grounds. Here we found ourselves quite alone, and putting my arm round my betrothed, I kissed her tenderly.
"Tell me," I said with a half-smile, "do you know how to love yet?"
She looked up with a passionate darkness in her eyes that startled me.
"Yes,—I know!" was her unexpected answer.
"You do!" and I stopped to gaze intently into her fair face. "And how did you learn?"
She flushed red, then grew pale, and clung to me with a nervous, almost feverish force.
"Very strangely!" she replied; "and—quite suddenly! The lesson was easy, I found;—too easy! Geoffrey,"—she paused, and fixed her eyes full on mine,—" I will tell you how I learnt it, … but not now, … some other day." Here she broke off, and began to laugh rather forcedly. "I will tell you … when we are married.'' She glanced anxiously about her,—then, with a sudden abandonment of her usual reserve and pride, threw herself into my arms and kissed my lips with such ardour as made my senses reel.
"Sibyl—Sibyl!" I murmured, holding her close to my heart. "Oh, my darling,—you love me!—at last you love me!"
"Hush !—hush !" she said breathlessly. "You must forget that kiss,—it was too bold of me,—it was wrong,—I did not mean it, … I … I was thinking of something else. Geoffrey!" and her small hand clenched on mine with a sort of eager fierceness,—" I wish I had never learned to love; I was happier before I knew!"
A frown knitted her brows.
"Now," she went on in the same breathless hurried way, "I want love! I am starving, thirsting for it! I want to be drowned in it, lost in it, killed by it! Nothing else will content me!"
I folded her still closer in my arms.
"Did I not say you would change, Sibyl?" I whispered. "Your coldness and insensibility to love was unnatural and could not last,—my darling, I always knew that!"
"You always knew!" she echoed a little disdainfully. "Ah, but you do not know even now what has chanced to me. Nor shall I tell you—yet. Oh, Geoffrey !'' Here she drew herself out of my embrace, and stooping, gathered some bluebells in the grass. "See these little flowers growing so purely and peacefully in the shade by the Avon !—they remind me of what I was, here in this very place, long ago. I was quite as happy, and I think as innocent as these blossoms; I had no thought of evil in my nature,—and the only love I dreamed of was the love of the fairy prince for the fairy princess,—as harmless an idea as the loves of the flowers themselves. Yes! —I was then all I should like to be now,—all that I am not!"
"You are everything that is beautiful and sweet," I told her, admiringly, as I watched the play of retrospective and tender expression on her perfect face.
"So you judge,—being a man who is perfectly satisfied with his own choice of a wife!" she said, with a flash of her old cynicism. "But I know myself better than you know me. You call me beautiful and sweet,—but you cannot call me good. I am not good. Why, the very love that now consumes me is ''
"What?" I asked her quickly, seizing her hands with the blue-bells in them, and gazing searchingly into her eyes,—" I know before you speak, that it is the passion and tenderness of a true woman!"
She was silent for a moment. Then she smiled, with a bewitching langour.
"If you know, then I need not tell you," she said; "so do not let us stay here any longer talking nonsense. 'Society' will shake its head over us and accuse us of 'bad form,' and some lady-paragraphist will write to the papers, and say, 'Mr Tempest's conduct as a host left much to be desired, as he and his bride-elect were 'spooning' all the day.'''
"There are no lady-paragraphists here," I said laughing, and encircling her dainty waist with one arm as I walked.
"Oh, are there not though !" she exclaimed, laughing also. "Why, you don't suppose you can give any sort of big entertainment without them, do you? They permeate society. Old Lady Maravale, for example, who is rather reduced in circumstances, writes a guinea's worth of scandal a week for one of the papers. And she is here,—I saw her simply gorging herself with chicken salad and truffles an hour ago!" Here pausing, and resting against my arm, she peered through the trees. 'There are the chimneys of 'Lily Cottage,' where the famous Mavis Clare lives," she said.
"Yes, I know," I replied readily. "Rimanez and I have visited her. She is away just now, or she would have been here to-day."
"Do you like her?" Sibyl queried.
"Very much. She is charming."
"And … the prince … does he like her?"
"Well, upon my word," I answered with a smile, "I think he likes her more than he does most women! He showed the most extraordinary deference towards her, and seemed almost abashed in her presence. Are you cold, Sibyl?" I added hastily, for she shivered suddenly and her face grew pale. ''You had better come away from the river,—it is damp under these trees."
"Yes,—let us go back to the gardens and the sunshine," she answered dreamily. "So your eccentric friend—the womanhater—finds something to admire in Mavis Clare. She must be a very happy creature I think,—perfectly free, famous, and believing in all good things of life and humanity, if one may judge from her books."
"Well, taken altogether, life isn't so very bad !" I observed playfully.
She made no reply, and we returned to the lawns where afternoon tea was now being served to the guests who were seated in brilliant scattered groups under the trees or within the silken pavilions, while the sweetest music, —and the strangest, if people only had ears to hear it,—both vocal and instrumental, was being performed by those invisible players and singers whose secret whereabouts was unknown to all, save Lucio.