I Cannot now trace the slow or swift flitting by of phantasmal events, … wild ghosts of days or weeks that drifted past, and brought me gradually and finally to a time when I found myself wandering, numb and stricken and sick at heart, by the shores of a lake in Switzerland,—a small lake, densely blue, with apparently a thought in its depths such as is reflected in a child's earnest eye. I gazed down at the clear and glistening water almost unseeingly,—the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it were too high for the lifting of my aching sight, —loftiness, purity, and radiance were unbearable to my mind, crushed as it was beneath a weight of dismal wreckage and ruin. What a fool was I, ever to have believed that in this world there could be such a thing as happiness! Misery stared me in the face,—life-long misery,—and no escape but death! Misery !—it was the word which, like a hellish groan, had been uttered by the three dreadful phantoms that had once, in an evil vision, disturbed my rest. What had I done, I demanded indignantly of myself, to deserve this wretchedness which no wealth could cure ?—why was fate so unjust? Like all my kind, I was unable to dibcern the small yet strong links of the chain I had myself wrought and which bound me to my own undoing,—I blamed fate, or rather God,—and talked of injustice merely because / personally suffered, never realizing that what I considered unjust was but the equitable measuring forth of that Eternal Law which is carried out with as mathematical an exactitude as the movement of the planets, notwithstanding man's pigmy efforts to impede its fulfilment. The light wind blowing down from the snow peaks above me ruffled the placidity of the little lake by which I aimlessly strolled. I watched the tiny ripples break over its surface like the lines of laughter on a human face, and wondered morosely whether it was deep enough to drown in! For what was the use of living on,—knowing what I knew! Knowing that she whom I had loved and whom I loved still in a way that was hateful to myself, was a thing viler and more shameless in character than the veriest poor drab of the street who sells herself for current coin,—that the lovely body and angel-face were but an attractive disguise for the soul of a harpy,—a vulture of vice, … my God!—an irrepressible cry escaped me as my thoughts went on and on in the never-ending circle and problem of incurable, unspeakable despair, and I threw myself down on a shelving bank of grass that sloped towards the lake and covered my face in a paroxysm of tearless agony.
Still inexorable thought worked in my brain and forced me to consider my position. Was she,—was Sibyl—more to blame than I myself for all the strange havoc wrought? I had married her of my own free will and choice,—and she had told me beforehand—" I am a contaminated creature, trained to perfection in the lax morals and prurient literature of my day." Well,—and so it had proved! My own blood burned with shame as I reflected how ample and convincing were the proofs!—and, starting up from my recumbent posture, I paced up and down again restlessly in a fever of self-contempt and disgust. What could I do with a woman such as she to whom I was now bound for life? Reform her? She would laugh me to scorn for the attempt. Reform myself? She would sneer at me for an effeminate milksop. Besides, was not I as willing to be degraded as she was to degrade me ?—a very victim to my brute passions? Tortured and maddened by my feelings I roamed about wildly, and started as if a pistol-shot had been fired near me when the plash of oars sounded on the silence and the keel of a small boat grated on the shore, the boatman within it respectfully begging me in mellifluous French to employ him for an hour. I assented, and in a minute or two was out on the lake in the middle of the red glow of sunset which turned the snow-summits to points of flame, and the water to the hue of ruby wine. I think the man who rowed me saw that I was in no very pleasant humour, for he preserved a discreet silence,—and I, pulling my hat partly over my eyes, lay back in the stern, still busy with my wretched musings. Only a month married !—and yet,—a sickening satiety had taken the place of the so-called "deathless" lover's passion. There were moments even, when my wife's matchless physical beauty appeared hideous to me I knew her as she was, and no exterior charm could ever again cover for me the revolting nature within. And what puzzled me from dawn to dusk was her polished, specious hypocrisy,—her amazing aptitude for lies! To look at her,—to hear her speak,—one would have deemed her a very saint of purity,—a delicate creature whom a coarse word would startle and offend,—a very incarnation of the sweetest and most gracious womanhood, all heart and feeling and sympathy. Everyone thought thus of her,—and never was there a greater error. Heart she had none; that fact was borne in upon me two days after our marriage while we were in Paris, for there a telegram reached us announcing her mother's death. The paralyzed Countess of Elton had, it appeared, expired suddenly on our weddingday,—or rather our wedding-night,—but the Earl had deemed it best to wait forty-eight hours before interrupting our hymeneal happiness with the melancholy tidings. He followed his telegram by a brief letter to his daughter in which the concluding lines were these: "As you are a bride and are travelling abroad, I should advise you by no means to go into mourning. Under the circumstances it is really not necessary. ''
And Sibyl had readily accepted his suggestion, keeping generally, however, to white and pale mauve colourings in her numerous and wonderful toilettes, in order not to outrage the proprieties too openly in the opinions of persons known to her, whom she might possibly meet casually in the foreign towns we visited. No word of regret passed her lips, and no tears were shed for her mother's loss. She only said—"What a good thing her sufferings are over!" Then, with a little sarcastic smile she had added— '"I wonder when we shall receive the Elton-Chesney wedding cards!"
I did not reply, for I was pained and grieved at her lack of all gentle feeling in the matter, and I was also, to a certain extent, superstitiously affected by the fact of the death occurring on our marriage-day. However, this was now a thing of the past; a month had elapsed,—a month in which the tearingdown of illusions had gone on daily and hourly,—till I was left to contemplate the uncurtained bare prose of life, and the knowledge that I had wedded a beautiful feminine animal with the soul of a shameless libertine. Here I pause and ask myself,—Was not I also a libertine? Yes,—I freely admit it,— but the libertinage of a man, while it may run to excess in hot youth, generally resolves itself, under the influence of a great love, into a strong desire for undented sweetness and modesty in the woman beloved. If a man has indulged in both folly and sin, the time comes at last, when, if he has any good left in him at all, he turns back upon himself and lashes his own vices with the scorpion whip of self-contempt till he smarts with the rage and pain of it,—and then, aching in every pulse with his deserved chastisement, he kneels in spirit at the feet of some pure true-hearted woman whose white soul, like an angel, hovers compassionately above him, and there lays down his life, saying, "Do what you will with it,—it is yours!" And woe to her who plays lightly with such a gift or works fresh injury upon it! No man, even if he has in his day indulged in 'rapid' living, should choose a 'rapid' woman for his wife,—he had far better put a loaded pistol to his head and make an end of it.
The sunset-glory began to fade from the landscape as the Uttle boat glided on over the tranquil water, and a great shadow rvas on my mind, like the shadow of that outer darkness which would soon be night. Again I asked myself,—Was there no happiness possible in all the world? Just then the Angelus chimed from a little chapel on the shore, and as it rang, a memory stirred in my brain moving me well-nigh to tears. Mavis Clare was happy !—Mavis, with her frank fearless eyes, sweet face and bright nature,—Mavis, wearing her crown of Fame as simply as a child might wear a wreath of may-blossom, —she, with a merely moderate share of fortune which even in its slight proportion was only due to her own hard incessant work, —she was happy. And I—with my millions—was wretched. How was it ?—Why was it? What had I done? I had lived as my compeers lived,—I had followed the lead of all society, —I had feasted my friends and effectually 'snubbed' my foes, —I had comported myself exactly as others of my wealth comport themselves,—and I had married a woman whom most men, looking upon once, would have been proud to win. Nevertheless there seemed to be a curse upon me. What had I missed out of life? I knew,—but was ashamed to own it, because I had previously scorned what I called the dreamnothings of mere sentiment. And now I had to acknowledge the paramount importance of those 'dream-nothings' out of which all true living must come. I had to realize that my marriage was nothing but the mere mating of the male and female animal,—a coarse bodily union and no more ;—that all the finer and deeper emotions which make a holy thing of human wedlock were lacking,—the mutual respect, the trusting sympathy,—the lovely confidence of mind with mind,— the subtle inner spiritual bond which no science can analyze, and which is so much closer and stronger than the material, and knits immortal souls together when bodies decay,—these things had no existence and never would exist between my wife and me. Thus, as far as I was concerned, there was a strange blankness in the world,—I was thrust back upon myself for comfort and found none. What should I do with my life, I wondered drearily! Win fame,—true fame,—after all? With Sibyl's witch-eyes mocking my efforts?—never! If I had ever had any gifts of creative thought within me she would have killed it.
The hour was over,—the boatman rowed me into land, and I paid and dismissed him. The sun had completely sunk,— there were dense purple shadows darkening over the mountains, and one or two small stars were faintly discernible in the east. I walked slowly back to the villa where we were staying,—a 'dependance' belonging to the large hotel of the district, which we had rented for the sake of privacy and independence, some of the hotel-servants being portioned off to attend upon us, in addition to my own man Morris, and my wife's maid. I found Sibyl in the garden, reclining in a basketchair, her eyes fixed on the after-glow of the sunset, and in her hands a book,—one of the loathliest of the prurient novels that have been lately written by women to degrade and shame their sex. With a sudden impulse of rage upon me which I could not resist, I snatched the volume from her and flung it into the lake below. She made no movement of either surprise or offence,—she merely turned her eyes away from the glowing heavens and looked at me with a little smile."How violent you are to-day, Geoffrey!" she said. I gazed at her in sombre silence. From the light hat with its pale mauve orchids that rested on her nut-brown hair, to the point of her daintily embroidered shoe, her dress was perfect,—and she was perfect. / knew that,—a matchless piece of womanhood … outwardly. My heart beat,—there was a sense of suffocation in my throat,—I could have killed her for the mingled loathing and longing which her beauty roused in me.
"I am sorry !" I said hoarsely, avoiding her gaze. "But I hate to see you with such a book as that."
"You know its contents?" she queried, with the same slight smile.
"I can guess."
"Such things have to be written, they say, now-a-days," she went on. "And, certainly, to judge from the commendation bestowed on these sort of books by the press, it is very evident that the wave of opinion is setting in the direction of letting girls know all about marriage before they enter upon it, in order that they may do so with their eyes wide open,— very wide open!" She laughed, and her laughter hurt me like a physical wound. "What an old-fashioned idea the bride of the poets and sixty-years-ago romancists seems now!" she continued. "Imagine her !—a shrinking tender creature, shy of beholders, timid of speech, … wearing the emblematic veil, which in former days, you know, used to cover the face entirely as a symbol that the secrets of marriage were as yet hidden from the maiden's innocent and ignorant eyes. Now the veil is worn flung back from the bride's brows, and she stares unabashed at everybody,—oh, yes, indeed we know quite well what we are doing now when we marry, thanks to the 'new' fiction!"
"The new fiction is detestable," I said hotly, "both in style and morality. Even as a question of literature I wonder at your condescending to read any of it. The woman whose dirty book I have just thrown away—and I feel no compunction for having done it—is destitute of grammar as well as decency."
"Oh, but the critics don't notice that," she interrupted, with a delicate mockery vibrating in her voice. "It is apparently not their business to assist in preserving the purity of the English language. What they fall into raptures over is the originality of the 'sexual' theme, though I should have thought all such matters were as old as the hills. I never read reviews as a rule, but I did happen to come across one on the book you have just drowned,—and in it the reviewer stated he had cried over it!"
She laughed again.
"Beast!" I said emphatically. "He probably found in it some glozing-over of his own vices. But you, Sibyl—why do you read such stuff?—how can you read it?"
"Curiosity moved me in the first place," she answered listlessly. "I wanted to see what makes a reviewer cry. Then when I began to read, I found that the story was all about the manner in which men amuse themselves with the soiled doves of the highways and bye-ways,—and as I was not very well instructed in that sort of thing I thought I might as well learn? You know these unpleasant morsels of information on unsavoury subjects are like the reputed suggestions of the devil,—if you listen to one, you are bound to hear more. Besides, literature is supposed to reflect the time we live in,—and that kind of literature being more prevalent than anything else, we are compelled to accept and study it as the mirror of the age."
With an expression on her face that was half mirth and half scorn, she rose from her seat, and looked down into the lovely lake below her.
"The fishes will eat that book," she observed. "I hope it will not poison them! If they could read and understand it, what singular ideas they would have of us human beings!"
"Why don't you read Mavis Clare's books?" I asked suddenly. "You told me you admired her."
"So I do,—immensely!" she answered. "I admire her and wonder at her both together. How that woman can keep her child's heart and child's faith in a world like this, is more than I can understand. It is always a perfect marvel to me,— a sort of supernatural surprise. You ask me why don't I read her books,—I do read them,—I've read them all over and over again,—but she does not write many, and one has to wait for her productions longer than for those of most authors. When I want to feel like an angel, I read Mavis Clare,—but I more often am inclined to feel the other way, and then her books are merely so many worries to me."
"Worries?" I echoed.
"Yes. It is worrying to find somebody believing in a God when you can't believe in Him,—to have beautiful faiths offered to you which you can't grasp,—and to know that there is a creature alive, a woman like yourself in everything except mind, who is holding fast a happiness which you can never attain,—no, not though you held out praying hands day and night, and shouted wild appeals to the dull heavens!"
At that moment she looked like a queen of tragedy,—her violet eyes ablaze, her lips apart, her breast heaving. I approached her with a strange nervous hesitation and touched her hand. She gave it to me passively. I drew it through my arm, and for a minute or two we paced silently up and down the gravel walk. The lights from the monster hotel which catered for us and our wants were beginning to twinkle from basement to roof, and just above the chalet we rented, a triad of stars sparkled in the shape of a trefoil.
"Poor Geoffrey !" she said presently, with a quick upward glance at me,—" I am sorry for you! With all my vagaries of disposition I am not a fool, and at anyrate I have learned how to analyze myself as well as others. I read you as easily as I read a book,—I see what a strange tumult your mind is in! You love me—and you loathe me !—and the contrast of emotion makes a wreck of you and your ideals. Hush,—don't speak; I know,—I know! But what would you have me be? An angel? I cannot realize such a being for more than a fleeting moment of imagination. A saint? They were all martyred. A good woman? I never met one. Innocent?—ignorant? I told you before we married that I was neither; there is nothing left for me to discover as far as the relations between men and women are concerned,—I have taken the measure of the inherent love of vice in both sexes. There is not a pin to choose between them—men are no worse than women,—women no worse than men. I have discovered everything—except God!—and I conclude no God could ever have designed such a crazy and mean business as human life."
While she thus spoke, I could have fallen at her feet and implored her to be silent. For she was, unknowingly, giving utterance to some of the many thoughts in which I myself had frequently indulged,—and yet, from her lips they sounded cruel, unnatural, and callous to a degree that made me shrink from her in fear and agony. We had reached a little grove of pines,—and here in the silence and shadow, I took her in my arms and stared disconsolately upon the beauty of her face.
"Sibyl!" I whispered,—"Sibyl, what is wrong with us both? How is it that we do not seem to find the loveliest side of love?—why is it that even in our kisses and embraces, some impalpable darkness comes between us, so that we anger or weary each other when we should be glad and satisfied? What is it? Can you tell? For you know the darkness is there !''
A curious look came into her eyes,—a far-away strained look of hungry yearning, mingled, as I thought, with compassion for me.
"Yes, it is there!" she answered slowly. "And it is of our own mutual creation. I believe you have something nobler in your nature, Geoffrey, than I have in mine,—an inc .finable something that recoils from me and my theories despite your wish and will. Perhaps if you had given way to that feeling in time, you would never have married me. You speak of the loveliest side of love,—to me there is no lovely side,—it is all coarse and horrible. You and I for instance,— cultured man and woman,—we cannot, in marriage, get a flight beyond the common emotions of Hodge and his girl!'' She laughed violently, and shuddered in my arms. "What liars the poets are, Geoffrey! They ought to be sentenced to life-long imprisonment for their perjuries! They help to mould the credulous beliefs of a woman's heart;—in her early youth she reads their delicious assurances, and imagines that love will be all they teach,—a thing divine and lasting beyond earthly countings !—then comes the coarse finger of prose on the butterfly-wing of poesy, and the bitterness and hideousness of complete disillusion!"
I held her still in my arms with the fierce grasp of a man clinging to a spar ere he drowns in mid-ocean.
"But I love you, Sibyl!—my wife, I love you!" I said, with a passion that choked my utterance.
"You love me,—yes, 7. know, but how? In a way that is abhorrent to yourself!" she replied. "It is not poetic love, —it is man's love, and man's love is brute love. So it is,— so it will be,—so it must be. Moreover, the brute-love soon tires,—and when it dies out from satiety there is nothing left. Nothing, Geoffrey, absolutely nothing but a blank and civil form of intercourse, which I do not doubt we shall be able to keep up for the admiration and comment of society.''
She disengaged herself from my embrace, and moved towards the house.
"Come!" she added, turning her exquisite head back over her shoulder with a feline caressing grace that she alone possessed. "You know there is a famous lady in London who advertises her salable charms to the outside public by means of her monogram worked into the lace of all her windowblinds, thinking it no doubt good for trade! I am not quite so bad as that! You have paid dearly for me I know; but remember I as yet wear no jewels but yours, and crave no gifts beyond those you are generous enough to bestow,—and my dutiful desire is to give you as much full value as I can for your money.''
"Sibyl, you kill me!" I cried, tortured beyond endurance. "Do you think me so base"
I broke off with almost a sob of despair.
"You cannot help being base," she said, steadily regarding me,—" because you are a man. I am base because I am a woman. If we believed in a God, either of us, we might discover some different way of life and love,—who knows? But neither you nor I have any remnant of faith in a Being whose existence all the scientists of the day are ever at work to disprove. We are persistently taught that we are animals and nothing more,—let us therefore not be ashamed of animalism. Animalism and atheism are approved by the scientists and applauded by the press,—and the clergy are powerless to enforce the faith they preach. Come, Geoffrey, don't stay mooning like a stricken Parsifal under those pines,—throw away that thing which troubles you, your conscience,—throw it away as you have thrown the book I was lately reading, and consider this,—that most men of your type take pride and rejoice in being the prey of a bad woman, so you should really congratulate yourself on having one for a wife,—one who is so broad-minded, too, that she will always let you have your own way in everything you do, provided you let her have hers. It is the way all marriages are arranged now-adays,—at any rate in our set,—otherwise the tie would be impossible of endurance. Come !''
''We cannot livetogether on such an understanding, Sibyl!'' I said hoarsely, as I walked slowly by her side towards the villa.
"Oh, yes, we can!" she averred, a little malign smile playing round her lips. "We can do as others do,—there is no necessity for us to stand out from the rest like quixotic fools, and pose as models to other married people,—we should only be detested for our pains. It is surely better to be popular than virtuous,—virtue never pays. See, there is our interesting German waiter coming to inform us that dinner is ready; please don't look so utterly miserable, for we have not quarrelled, and it would be foolish to let the servants think we have."I made no answer. We entered the house, and dined,— Sibyl keeping up a perfect fire of conversation, to which I replied in mere monosyllables,—and after dinner we went as usual to sit in the illuminated gardens of the adjacent hotel and hear the band. Sibyl was known and universally admired and flattered by many of the people staying there,—and, as she moved about among her acquaintances, chatting first with one group and then with another, I sat in moody silence watching her with increasing wonderment and horror. Her beauty seemed to me like the beauty of the poison-flower, which, brilliant in colour and perfect in shape, exhales death to those who pluck it from its stem. And that night, when I held her in my arms, and felt her heart beating against my own in the darkness, an awful dread arose in me,—a dread as to whether I might not at some time or other be tempted to strangle her as she lay on my breast,—strangle her as one would strangle a vampire that sucked one's blood and strength away!