We concluded our wedding-tour rather sooner than we had at first intended, and returned to England and Willowsmere Court about the middle of August. I had a vague notion stirring in me that gave me a sort of dim indefinable consolation, and it was this,—I meant to bring my wife and Mavis Clare together, believing that the gentle influence of the gracious and happy creature, who, like a contented bird in its nest, dwelt serene in the little domain so near my own, might have a softening and wholesome effect upon Sibyl's pitiless love of analysis and scorn of all noble ideals. The heat in Warwickshire was at this time intense,—the roses were out in their full beauty, and the thick foliage of the branching oaks and elms in my grounds afforded grateful shade and repose to the tired body, while the tranquil loveliness of the woodland and meadow scenery, comforted and soothed the equally tired mind. After all there is no country in the world so fair as England,—none so richly endowed with verdant forest and fragrant flowers,—none that can boast of sweeter nooks for seclusion and romance. In Italy, that land so over-praised by hysterical poseurs who foolishly deem it admirable to glorify any country save their own, the fields are arid and brown and parched by the too fervent sun,—there are no shady lanes such as England can boast of in all her shires,—and the mania among Italians for ruthlessly cutting down their finest trees has not only actually injured the climate, but has so spoilt the landscape that it is difficult to believe at all in its once renowned and still erroneously reported charm. Such a bower of beauty as 'Lily Cottage' was in that sultry August could never have been discovered in all the length and breadth of Italy. Mavis superintended the care of her gardens herself,—she had two gardeners, who under her directions kept the grass and trees continually watered,—and nothing could be imagined more lovely than the picturesque old-fashioned house, covered with roses and tufts of jessamine that seemed to tie up the roof in festal knots and garlands, while around the building spread the reaches of deep emerald lawn and bosky arbours of foliage where all the most musical song-birds apparently found refuge and delight, and where at evening a perfect colony of nightingales kept up a bubbling fountain of delicious melody. I remember well the afternoon, warm, languid and still, when I took Sibyl to see the woman-author she had so long admired. The heat was so great that in our own grounds all the birds were silent, but when we approached 'Lily Cottage' the first thing we heard was the piping of a thrush up somewhere among the roses,—a mellow liquid warble expressing 'sweet content,' and mingling with the subdued coo-cooings of the dove 'reviewers' who were commenting on whatever pleased or displeased them in the distance.
"What a pretty place it is !" said my wife, as she peeped over the gate and through the odorous tangles of honeysuckle and jessamine. "I really think it is prettier than Willowsmere. It has been wonderfully improved."
We were shown in, and Mavis, who had expected our visit, did not keep us waiting long. As she entered, clad in some gossamer white stuff that clung softly about her pretty figure and was belted in by a simple ribbon, an odd sickening pang went through my heart. The fair untroubled face, the joyous yet dreamy student eyes, the sensitive mouth,—and above all, the radiant look of happiness that made the whole expression of her features so bright and fascinating, taught me in one flash of conviction all that a woman might be, and all that she too frequently was not. And I had hated Mavis Clare !—I had even taken up my pen to deal her a wanton blow through the medium of anonymous criticism, … but this was before I knew her,—before I realized that there could be any difference between her and the female scarecrows who so frequently pose as 'novelists' without being able to write correct English, and who talk in public of their 'copy' with the glibness gained from Grub Street and the journalists' cheap restaurant. Yes—I had hated her,—and now—now, almost I loved her! Sibyl, tall, queenly and beautiful, gazed upon her with eyes that expressed astonishment as well as admiration.
"To think that you are the famous Mavis Clare!" she said, smiling as she held out her hand. "I always heard and knew that you did not look at all literary, but I never quite realized that you could be exactly what I see you are!''
"To look literary does not always imply that you are literary!" returned Mavis, laughing a little. "Too often I am afraid you will find that the women who take pains to look literary are ignorant of literature! But how glad I am to see you, Lady Sibyl! Do you know I used to watch you playing about on the lawns at Willowsmere when I was quite a little girl?"
"And I used to watch you," responded Sibyl. "You used to make daisy-chains and cowslip-balls in the fields opposite on the other side of the Avon. It is a great pleasure to me to know we are neighbours. You must come and see me often at Willowsmere."
Mavis did not answer immediately,—she busied herself in pouring out tea and dispensing it to both of us. Sibyl, who was always on the alert for glimpses of character, noticed that she did not answer, and repeated her words coaxingly.
"You will come, will you not? As often as you like; the oftener the better. We must be friends, you know!"
Mavis looked up then, a frank sweet smile in her eyes.
"Do you really mean it?" she asked.
"Mean it!" echoed Sibyl. "Why, of course I do!"
"How can you doubt it!" I exclaimed.
"Well, you must both forgive me for askingsuch a question,'' said Mavis, still smiling. "But you see you are now among what are called the 'county magnates,' and county magnates consider themselves infinitely above all authors.'' She laughed outright, and her blue eyes twinkled with fun. "I think many of them estimate writers of books as some sort of strange outgrowth of humanity that is barely decent. It is deliciously funny and always amuses me; nevertheless, among my many faults, the biggest one is, I fancy, pride, and a dreadfully obstinate spirit of independence. Now, to tell you the truth, I have been asked by many so-called 'great' people to their houses, and when I have gone, I have generally been sorry for it afterwards."
"Why?" I asked. "They honour themselves by inviting you."
"Oh, I don't think they take it in that way at all!" she replied, shaking her fair head demurely. "They fancy they have performed a great act of condescension,—whereas it is really I who condescend, for it is very good of me, you know, to leave the society of the Pallas Athene in my study for that of a flounced and frizzled lady of fashion." Her bright smile again irradiated her face and she went on— "Once I was asked to luncheon with a certain baron and baroness who invited a few guests 'to meet me,' so they said. I was not introduced to more than one or two of these people, —the rest sat and stared at me as if I were a new kind of fish or fowl. Then the baron showed me his house, and told me the prices of his pictures and his china,—he was even good enough to explain which was Dresden and which was Delft ware, though I believe, benighted author as I am, I could have instructed him equally on these and other matters. However, I managed to smile amicably through the whole programme, and professed myself charmed and delighted in the usual way;—but they never asked me to visit them again, —and (unless indeed they wanted me to be impressed with their furniture-catalogue), I can never make out what I did to be asked at all, and what I have done never to be asked any more!"
"They must have been parvenus," said Sibyl indignantly. "No well-bred people would have priced their goods to you, unless they happened to be Jews."
Mavis laughed—a merry little laugh like a peal of bells,— then she continued—
"Well, I will not say who they were,—I must keep something f ir my 'literary reminiscences' when I get old! Then all these people will be named, and go down to posterity as Dante's enemies went down to Dante's hell! I have only told you the incident just to show you why I asked you if you meant it, when you invited me to visit you at Willowsmere. Because the baron and baroness I have spoken of 'gushed' over me and my poor books to such an extent that you would have fancied I was to be for evermore one of their dearest friends,—and they didn't mean it. Other people I know embrace me effusively and invite me to their houses, and they don't mean it. And when I find out these shams, I like to make it very clear on my own side that I do not seek to be embraced or invited, and that if certain great folks deem it a 'favour' to ask me to their houses, I do not so consider it, but rather think the 'favour' is entirely on my part if I accept the invitation. And I do not say this for my own self at all,—self has nothing to do with it,—but I do say it and strongly assert it for the sake of the dignity of Literature as an art and profession. If a few other authors would maintain this position, we might raise the standard of letters by degrees to what it was in the old days of Scott and Byron. I hope you do not think me too proud?"
"On the contrary, I think you are quite right," said Sibyl earnestly. "And I admire you for your courage and independence. Some of the aristocracy are, I know, such utter snobs that often I feel ashamed to belong to them. But as far as we are concerned, I can only assure you that if you will honour us by becoming our friend as well as neighbour, you shall not regret it. Do try and like me if you can!"
She bent forward with a witching smile on her fair face. Mavis looked at her seriously and admiringly.
"How beautiful you are !" she said frankly. "Everybody tells you this of course,—still, I cannot help joining in the general chorus. To me, a lovely face is like a lovely flower, —I must admire it. Beauty is quite a divine thing, and though I am often told that the plain people are always the good people, I never can quite believe it. Nature is surely bound to give a beautiful face to a beautiful spirit."
Sibyl, who had smiled with pleasure at the first words of the open compliment paid her by one of the most gifted of her own sex, now flushed deeply.
"Not always, Miss Clare," she said, veiling her brilliant eyes beneath the droop of her long lashes. One can imagine a fair fiend as easily as a fair angel."
"True!" and Mavis looked at her musingly; then suddenly laughing in her blithe bright way, she added, ''Quite true! Really I cannot picture an ugly fiend,—for the fiends are supposed to be immortal, and I am convinced that immortal ugliness has no part in the universe. Downright hideousness belongs to humanity alone,—and an ugly face is such a blot on creation that we can only console ourselves by the reflection that it is fortunately perishable, and that in course of time the soul behind it will be released from its ill-formed husk, and will be allowed to wear a fairer aspect. Yes, Lady Sibyl, I will come to Willowsmere; I cannot refuse to look upon such loveliness as yours as often as I may!"
"You are a charming flatterer!" said Sibyl, rising and putting an arm round her in that affectionate coaxing way of hers which seemed so sincere and which so frequently meant nothing. "But I confess I prefer to be flattered by a woman rather than by a man. Men say the same things to all women,—they have a very limited repertoire of compliments,—and they will tell a fright she is beautiful if it happens to serve their immediate purpose. But women themselves can so hardly be persuaded to admit that any good qualities exist either inward or outward in one another, that when they do say a kind or generous thing of their own sex it is a wonder worth remembering. May I see your study?"
Mavis willingly assented, and we all three went into the peaceful sanctum where the marble Pallas presided, and where the dogs Tricksy and Emperor were both ensconced,—Emperor sitting up on his haunches and surveying the prospect from the window, and Tricksy with a most absurd air of importance, imitating the larger animal's attitude precisely, at a little distance off. Both creatures were friendly to my wife and to me, and while Sibyl was stroking the St Bernard's massive head, Mavis said suddenly—
"Where is the friend who came with you here first, Prince Rimanez?"
"He is in St Petersburg just now," I answered. "But he will be here in two or three weeks to stay with us on a visit for some time.''
"He is surely a very singular man," said Mavis thoughtfully. "Do you remember how strangely my dogs behaved to him? Emperor was quite restless and troublesome for two or three hours after he had gone."
And in a few words, she told Sibyl the incident of the St Bernard's attack upon Lucio.
"Some people have a natural antipathy to dogs," said Sibyl, as she heard. "And the dogs always find it out and resent it. But I should not have thought Prince Rimanez had an antipathy to any creatures except—women!"
And she laughed, a trifle bitterly.
"Except women!" echoed Mavis surprisedly. "Does he hate women? He must be a very good actor then, for to me he was wonderfully kind and gentle."
Sibyl looked at her intently, and was silent for a minute. Then she said—
"Perhaps it is because he knows you are unlike the ordinary run of women and have nothing in common with their usual trumpery aims. Of course he is always courteous to our sex,—but I think it is easy to see that his courtesy is often worn as a mere mask to cover a very different feeling."
"You have perceived that, then, Sibyl?" I said with a slight smile.
"I should be blind if I had not perceived it," she replied. "I do not, however, blame him for his pet aversion,—I think it makes him all the more attractive and interesting."
"He is a great friend of yours?" inquired Mavis, looking at me as she put the question.
"The very greatest friend I have," I replied quickly. "I owe him more than I can ever repay,—indeed I have to thank him even for introducing me to my wife.''
I said the words unthinkingly and playfully, but as I uttered them, a sudden shock affected my nerves,—a shock of painful memory. Yes, it was true!—I owed to him, to Lucio, the misery, fear, degradation and shame of having such a woman as Sibyl was, united to me till death should us part. I felt myself turning sick and giddy, and I sat down in one of the quaint oak chairs that helped to furnish Mavis Clare's study, allowing the two women to pass out of the open French window into the sunlit garden together, the dogs following at their heels. I watched them as they went,—my wife, tall and stately, attired in the newest and most fashionable mode; Mavis, small and slight, with her soft white gown and floating waist-ribbon,—the one sensual, the other spiritual,—the one base and vicious in desire, the other pure-souled and aspiring to noblest ends,—the one a physically magnificent animal, the other merely sweet-faced and ideally fair like a sylph of the woodlands,—and looking, I clenched my hands as I thought with bitterness of spirit what a mistaken choice I had made. In the profound egotism which had always been part of my nature I now actually allowed myself to believe that I might, had I chosen, have wedded Mavis Clare,—never for one moment imagining that all my wealth would have been useless to me in such a quest, and that I might as well have proposed to pluck a star from the sky as to win a woman who was able to read my nature thoroughly, and who would never have come down to my money-level from her intellectual throne,—no, not though I had been a monarch of many nations. I stared at the large tranquil features of the Pallas Athene, and the blank eyeballs of the marble goddess appeared to regard me in turn with impassive scorn. I glanced round the room, and at the walls adorned with the wise sayings of poets and philosophers,—sayings that reminded me of truths which I knew, yet never accepted as practicable; and presently my eyes were attracted to a corner near the writing-desk, which I had not noticed before, where there was a small dim lamp burning. Above this lamp an ivory crucifix gleamed white against draperies of dark purple velvet,—below it, on a silver bracket, was an hour-glass through which the sand was running in glistening grains, and round the entire little shrine was written in letters of gold, "Now is the acceptable time!"—the word ' Now' being in larger characters than the rest. 'Now' was evidently Mavis's motto,—to lose no time, but to work, to pray, to love, to hope, to thank God and be glad for life, all in the 'Now'—and neither to regret the past nor forebode the future, but simply do the best that could be done, and leave all else in child-like confidence to the Divine Will. I got up restlessly,—the sight of the crucifix curiously annoyed me ;—and I followed the path my wife and Mavis had taken through the garden. I found them looking in at the cage of the 'Athenaeum' owls,—the owl-in-chief being as usual puffed out with his own importance and swelling visibly with indignation and excess of feather. Sibyl turned as she saw me,—her face was bright and smiling.
"Miss Clare has very strong opinions of her own, Geoffrey," she said. "She is not as much captivated by Prince Rimanez as most people are,—in fact, she has just confided to me that she does not quite like him."
Mavis blushed, but her eyes met mine with fearless candour.
"It is wrong to say what one thinks, I know," she murmured in somewhat troubled accents. "And it is a dreadful fault of mine. Please forgive me, Mr Tempest! You tell me the prince is your greatest friend,—and I assure you I was immensely impressed by his appearance when I first saw him, … but afterwards, … after I had studied him a little, the conviction was borne in upon me that he was not altogether what he seemed."
"That is exactly what he says of himself," I answered, laughing a little. "He has a mystery I believe,—and he has promised to clear it up for me some day. But I'm sorry you don't like him, Miss Clare,—for he likes you."
"Perhaps when I meet him again my ideas may be different," said Mavis gently. "At present, … well—do not let us talk of it anymore,—indeed I feel I have been very rude to express any opinion at all concerning one for whom you and Lady Sibyl have so great a regard. But somehow I seemed impelled, almost against my will, to say what I did just now."
Her soft eyes looked pained and puzzled, and to relieve her, and change the subject, I asked if she was writing anything new.
"Oh, yes," she replied. "It would never do for me to be idle. The public are very kind to me,—and no sooner have they read one thing of mine than they clamour for another, so I am kept very busy."
"And what of the critics?" I asked, with a good deal of curiosity.
"I never pay the least attention to them," she answered, "except when they are hasty and misguided enough to write lies about me,—then I very naturally take the liberty to contradict those lies, either through my own statement or that of my lawyers. Apart from refusing to allow the public to be led into a false notion of my work and aims, I have no grudge whatever against the critics. They are generally very poor, hard-working men, and have a frightful struggle to live. I have often, privately, done some of them a good turn without their knowledge. A publisher of mine sent me an MS. the other day by one of my deadliest enemies on the press, and stated that my opinion would decide its rejection or acceptance. I read it through, and though it was not very brilliant work it was good enough, so I praised it as warmly as I could, and urged its publication, with the stipulation that the author should never be told I had had the casting vote. It has just come out, I see,—and I'm sure I hope it will succeed." Here she paused to gather a few deep damask roses, which she handed to Sibyl. "Yes, critics are very badly, even cruelly paid," she went on musingly. "It is not to be expected that they should write eulogies of the successful author, while they continue unsuccessful,—such work could not be anything but gall and wormwood to them. I know the poor little wife of one of them,—and settled her dressmaker's bill for her because she was afraid to show it to her husband. The very week afterwards he slashed away at my last book in the most approved style in the paper on which he is employed and got, I suppose, about a guinea for his trouble. Of course he didn't know about his little wife and her dunning dressmaker; and he never will know, because I have bound her over to secrecy."
"But why do you do such things?" asked Sibyl astonished. "I would have let his wife get into the County Court for her bill, if I had been you!"
"Would you ?" and Mavis smiled gravely. "Well, I could not. You know Who it was that said 'Bless them that curse you, and do good to them that hate you.' Besides, the poor little woman was frightened to death at her own expenditure. It is pitiful, you know, to see the helpless agonies of people who will live beyond their incomes,—they suffer much more than the beggars in the street who make frequently more than a pound a day by mere whining and snivelling. The critics are much more in evil case than the beggars—few of them make even a pound a day, and of course they regard as their natural enemies the authors who make thirty to fifty pounds a week. I assure you I am very sorry for critics all round,— they are the least-regarded and worst-rewarded of all the literary community. And I never bother myself at all about what they say of me, except as I before observed, when in their haste they tell lies,—then of course it becomes necessary for me to state the truth in simple self-defence as well as by way of duty to my public. But as a rule I hand over all my press-notices to Tricksy there,"—indicating the minute Yorkshire terrier who followed closely at the edge of her white gown,—"and he tears them to indistinguishable shreds in about three minutes!"
She laughed merrily, and Sibyl smiled, watching her with the same wonder and admiration that had been expressed in her looks more or less since the beginning of our interview with this light-hearted possessor of literary fame. We were now walking towards the gate preparatory to taking our departure.
"May I come and talk to you sometimes?" my wife said suddenly, in her prettiest and most pleading voice. "It would be such a privilege!"
"You can come whenever you like in the afternoons," replied Mavis readily. "The mornings belong to a goddess more dominant even than Beauty,—Work!"
"You never work at night?" I asked.
"Indeed no! I never turn the ordinances of Nature upside down, as I am sure I should get the worst of it if I made such an attempt. The night is for sleep, and I use it thankfully for that blessed purpose."
"Some authors can only write at night though," I said.
"Then you may be sure they only produce blurred pictures and indistinct characterization," said Mavis. "Some I know there are, who invite inspiration through gin, or opium, as well as through the midnight influences, but I do not believe in such methods. Morning and a freshly rested brain are required for literary labour,—that is, if one wants to write a book that will last for more than one 'season.'"
She accompanied us to the gate, and stood under the porch, her big dog beside her and the roses waving high over her head.
"At anyrate, work agrees with you," said Sibyl, fixing upon her a long, intent, almost envious gaze. "You look perfectly happy."
"I am perfectly happy," she answered, smiling. "I have nothing in all the world to wish for, except that I may die as peacefully as I have lived."
"May that day be far distant!" I said earnestly.
She raised her soft meditative eyes to mine.
"Thank you!" she responded gently. "But I do not mind when it comes, so long as it finds me ready."
She waved her hand to us as we left her and turned the corner of the lane,—and for some minutes we walked on slowly in absolute silence. Then at last Sibyl spoke—
"I quite understand the hatred there is in some quarters for Mavis Clare," she said. "I am afraid I begin to hate her myself!"
I stopped and stared at her, astonished and confounded.
"You begin to hate her—you?—and why?"
"Are you so blind that you cannot perceive why?" she retorted, the little malign smile I knew so well playing round her lips. "Because she is happy! Because she has no scandals in her life, and because she dares to be content! One longs to make her miserable! But how to do it? She believes in a God,—she thinks all He ordains is right and good. With such a firm faith as that, she would be happy in a garret earning but a few pence a day. I see now perfectly how she has won her public,—it is by the absolute conviction she has herself of the theories of life she tries to instil. What can be done against her? Nothing! But I understand why the critics would like to 'quash' her,—if I were a critic, fond of whisky-and-soda and music-hall women, I should like to quash her myself for being so different to the rest of her sex."
"What an incomprehensible woman you are, Sibyl!" I exclaimed with real irritation. "You admire Miss Clare's books,—you have always admired them,—you have asked her to become your friend,—and almost in the same breath you aver you would like to 'quash' her or to make her miserable. I confess I cannot understand you !''
"Of course you cannot!" she responded tranquilly, her eyes resting upon me with a curious expression, as we paused for an instant under the deep shade of a chestnut tree before entering our own grounds. "I never supposed you could, and, unlike the ordinary femtne incomprise, I have never blamed you for your want of comprehension. It has taken me some time to understand myself, and even now I am not quite sure that I have gauged the depths or shallownesses of my own nature correctly. But on this matter of Mavis Clare, can you not imagine that badness may hate goodness? That the confirmed drunkard may hate the sober citizen? That the outcast may hate the innocent maiden? And that it is possible that I,—reading life as I do, and finding it loathsome in many of its aspects,—distrusting men and women utterly,— and being destitute of any faith in God,—may hate,—yes hate"—and she clenched her hand on a tuft of drooping leaves and scattered the green fragments at her feet—"a woman who finds life beautiful, and God existent,—who takes no part in our social shams and slanders, and who in place of my selftorturing spirit of analysis, has secured an enviable fame and the honour of thousands, allied to a serene content? Why, it would be something worth living for to make such a woman wretched for once in her life !—but as she is constituted it is impossible to do it."
She turned from me and walked slowly onward,—I following in a pained silence.
"If you do not mean to be her friend, you should tell her so," I said presently. "You heard what she said about pretended protestations of regard ?''
"I heard,'' she replied morosely. "She is a clever woman, Geoffrey, and you may trust her to find me out without any explanation!"
As she said this, I raised my eyes and looked full at her,— her exceeding beauty was becoming almost an agony to my sight, and in a sudden fool's paroxysm of despair I exclaimed—
"Oh, Sibyl, Sibyl! Why were you made as you are?"
"Ah, why indeed?" she rejoined, with a faint mocking smile. "And why, being made as I am, was I born an Earl's daughter? If I had been an Arab of the street, I should have been in my proper place,—and novels would have been written about me, and plays,—and I might have become such a heroine as should cause all good men to weep for joy because of my generosity in encouraging their vices! But as an Earl's daughter, respectably married to a millionaire, I am a mistake of nature. Yet nature does make mistakes sometimes, Geoffrey, and when she does they are generally irremediable."
We had now reached our own grounds, and I walked, in miserable mood, beside her across the lawn towards the house.
"Sibyl," I said at last, "I had hoped you and Mavis Clare might be friends… ."
"So we shall be friends, I daresay,—for a little while," she replied. "But the dove does not willingly consort with the raven, and Mavis Clare's way of life and studious habits would be to me insufferably dull. Besides, as I said before, she, as a clever woman and a thinker, is too clear-sighted not to find me out in the course of time. But I will play humbug as long as I can. If I perform the part of 'county lady' or 'patron,' of course she won't stand me for a moment. I shall have to assume a much more difficult role,—that of an honest woman."
Again she laughed,—a cruel little laugh that chilled my blood, and paced slowly into the house through the open windows of the drawing-room. And I, left alone in the garden among the nodding roses and waving trees, felt that the beautiful domain of Willowsmere had suddenly grown hideous and bereft of all its former charm, and was nothing but a haunted house of desolation,—haunted by an all-dominant and ever victorious Spirit of Evil.