One of the strangest things in all the strange course of our human life is perhaps the suddenness of certain unlooked-for events, which, in a day or even an hour, may work utter devastation where there has been more or less peace, and hopeless ruin where there has been comparative safety. Like the shock of an earthquake, the clamorous incidents thunder in on the regular routine of ordinary life, crumbling down our hopes, breaking our hearts, and scattering our pleasures into the dust and ashes of despair. And this kind of destructive trouble generally happens in the midst of apparent prosperity without the least warning, and with all the abrupt fierceness of a desertstorm. It is constantly made manifest to us in the unexpected and almost instantaneous downfall of certain members of society who have held their heads proudly above their compeers and have presumed to pose as examples of light and leading to the whole community; we see it in the capricious fortunes of kings and statesmen who are in favour one day and disgraced the next, and vast changes are wrought with such inexplicable quickness that it is scarcely wonderful to hear of certain religious sects who, when everything is prospering more than usually well with them, make haste to put on garments of sackcloth and cast ashes on their heads, praying aloud, "Prepare us, O Lord, for the evil days which are at hand!" The moderation of the Stoics, who considered it impious to either rejoice or grieve, and strove to maintain an equable middle course between the opposing elements of sorrow and joy, without allowing themselves to be led away by overmuch delight or over-much melancholy, was surely a wise habit of temperament. I, who lived miserably as far as my inner and better consciousness was concerned, was yet outwardly satisfied with the material things of life and the luxuries surrounding me,—and I began to take comfort in these things, and with them endeavoured to quell and ignore my subtle griefs, succeeding so far in that I became more and more of a thorough materialist every day, loving bodily ease, appetizing food, costly wine and personal indulgence to a degree that robbed me gradually of even the desire for mental effort. I taught myself, moreover, almost insensibly to accept and tolerate what I knew of the wanton side of my wife's character, —true, I respected her less than the Turk respects the creature of his harem,—but like the Turk I took a certain savage satisfaction in being the possessor of her beauty; and with this feeling and the brute passion it engendered, I was fain to be content. So that for a short time at least, the drowsy satisfaction of a well-fed, well-mated animal was mine,—I fancied that nothing short of a stupendous financial catastrophe to the country itself could exhaust my stock of cash,—and that therefore there was no necessity for me to exert myself in any particular branch of usefulness, but simply to 'eat, drink and be merry' as Solomon advised. Intellectual activity was paralyzed in me,—to take up mypen and write, and make another and higher bid for fame, was an idea that now never entered my mind; I spent my days in ordering about my servants and practising the petty pleasures of tyranny on gardeners and grooms, and in generally giving myself airs of importance mingled with an assumption of toleration and benevolence for the benefit of all those in my employ. I knew the proper thing to do, well enough!—I had not studied the ways of the over-wealthy for nothing. I was aware that the rich man never feels so thoroughly virtuous as when he has inquired after the health of his coachman's wife and has sent her a couple of pounds for the outfit of her new-born baby. The much-prated-of ' kindness of heart' and 'generosity' possessed by millionaires generally amounts to this kind of thing,—and when, if idly strolling about my park-lands, I happened to meet the small child of my lodge-keeper and then and there bestowed sixpence upon it, I almost felt as if I deserved a throne in Heaven at the right hand of the Almighty, so great was my appreciation of my own good-nature. Sibyl, however, never affected this sort of county-magnate beneficence. She did nothing at all among our poor neighbours;—the clergyman of the district unfortunately happened to let slip one day a few words to the effect that "there was no great want of anything among his parishioners, owing to the continual kindness and attention of Miss Clare,"—and Sibyl never from that moment proffered any assistance. Now and then she took her graceful person into 'Lily Cottage' and sat with its happy and studious occupant for an hour,—and occasionally the fair author herself came and dined with us, or had ' afternoon tea' under the branching elms on the lawn,—but even I, intense egotist as I was, could see that Mavis was scarcely herself on these occasions. She was always charming and bright of course,—indeed the only times in which I was able to partially forget myself and the absurdly increasing importance of my personality in my own esteem, were when she, with her sweet voice and animated manner, brought her wide knowledge of books, men, and things to bear on the conversation, thus raising it to a higher level than was ever reached by my wife or me. Yet I now and then noticed a certain vague constraint about her,—and her frank eyes had frequently a pained and questioning look of trouble when they rested for any length of time on the enchanting beauty of Sibyl's face and form. I, however, paid little heed to these trifling matters, my whole care being to lose myself more and more utterly in the enjoyment of purely physical ease and comfort without troubling myself as to what such self-absorption might lead in the future. To be completely without a conscience, without a heart and without sentiment was, I perceived, the best way to keep one's appetite and preserve one's health;—to go about worrying over the troubles of other people or put one's self out to do any good in the world, would involve such an expenditure of time and trouble as must inevitably spoil one's digestion,—and I saw that no millionaire or even moderately rich man cares to run the risk of injuring his digestion for the sake of performing a kindness to a poorer fellow-creature. Profiting by the examples presented to me everywhere in society, I took care of my digestion, and was particular about the way in which my meals were cooked and served,—particular too, as to the fashion in which my wife dressed for those meals,—for it suited my supreme humour to see her beauty bedecked as suitably and richly as possible that I might have the satisfaction of considering her 'points' with the same epicurean fastidiousness as I considered a dish of truffles or specially prepared game. I never thought of the stern and absolute law—" Unto whom much is given, even from him should much be required;"—I was scarcely aware of it in fact,—the New Testament was of all books in the world the most unfamiliar to me. And while I wilfully deafened myself to the voice of conscience,—that voice which ever and anon urged me in vain to a nobler existence,—the clouds were gathering, ready to burst above me with that terrific suddenness such as always seems to us who refuse to study the causes of our calamities, as astonishing and startling as death itself. For we are always more or less startled at death, notwithstanding that it is the commonest occurrence known.
Towards the middle of September my 'royal and distinguished' house-party arrived and stayed at Willowsmere Court for a week. Of course it is understood that whenever the Prince of Wales honours any private residence with a visit, he selects, if not all, at any rate the greater part of those persons who are to be invited to meet him. He did so in the present instance, and I was placed in the odd position of having to entertain certain people whom I had never met before, and who, with the questionable taste frequently exhibited among the 'upper ten,' looked upon me merely as "the man with the millions," the caterer for their provisions and no more,—directing their chief attention to Sibyl, who was by virtue of her birth and associations one of their 'set,' and pushing me, their host, more or less into the background. However, the glory of entertaining Royalty more than sufficed for my poor pride at that time, and with less self-respect than an honest cur I was content to be snubbed and harassed and worried a hundred times a day by one or the other of the 'great' personages who wandered at will all over my house and grounds, and accepted my lavish hospitality. Many people imagine that it must be an 'honour' to entertain a select party of aristocrats, but I, on the contrary, consider that it is not only a degradation to one's manlier and more independent instincts, but also a bore. These highly-bred, highly-connected individuals, are for the most part unintelligent and devoid of resources in their own minds,—they are not gifted as conversationalists or wits,—one gains no intellectual advantage from their society,—they are simply dull folk with an exaggerated sense of their own importance, who expect, wherever they go, to be amused without trouble to themselves. Out of all the visitors at Willowsmere the only one whom it was really a pleasure to entertain was the Prince of Wales himself,—and amid the many personal irritations I had to suffer from others, I found it a positive relief to render him any attention, however slight, because his manner was always marked by that tact and courtesy which are the best attributes of a true gentleman whether he be prince or peasant. In his own genial way, he went one afternoon to see Mavis Clare, and came back in high good-humour, talking for some time of nothing but the author of 'Differences,' and of the success she had achieved in literature. I had asked Mavis to join our party before the Prince came, as I felt pretty sure he would not have erased her name from the list of guests submitted to him,—but she would not accept, and begged me very earnestly not to press the point.
"I like the Prince," she had said. "Everybody likes him who knows him,—but I do not always like the people who surround him,—-pardon me for my frankness! The Prince of Wales is a social magnet,—he draws after him all who by dint of wealth if not intelligence can contrive to 'push' into his set. Now I am not an advocate of ' push'—moreover I do not care to be seen with 'everybody';—this is my sinful pride you will say, or as our American cousins would put it, my 'cussedness.' But I assure you, Mr Tempest, the best possession I have and one which I value a great deal more even than my literary success, is my absolute independence, and I would not have it thought, even erroneously, that I am anxious to mix with the crowd of sycophants and time-servers who are only too ready to take advantage of the Prince's goodnature."
And, acting upon her determination, she had remained more than ever secluded in her cottage-nest of foliage and flowers during the progress of the week's festivities,—the result being, as I have stated, that the Prince 'dropped in' upon her quite casually one day, accompanied by his equerry, and probably, for all I knew, had the pleasure of seeing the dove 'reviewers' being fed, and squabbling over their meal.
Much as we had desired the presence of Rimanez at our gathering he did not appear. He telegraphed his regrets from Paris, and followed the telegram by a characteristic letter which ran thus:
My Dear Tempest,
You are very kind to wish to include me, your old friend, in the party you have invited to meet His Royal Highness, and I only hope you will not think me churlish for refusing to come. I am sick to death of Royalties,—I have known so many of them in the course of my existence that I begin to find their society monotonous. Their positions are all so exactly alike too,—and moreover have always been alike from the days of Solomon in all his glory, down to the present blessed era of Victoria, Queen and Empress. One thirsts for a change; at least I do. The only monarch that ever fascinated my imagination particularly was Richard Cceur de Lion; there was something original and striking about that man, and I presume he would have been well worth talking to. And Charlemagne was doubtless, as the slangey young man of the day would observe, 'not half bad.' But for the rest,—unfico! Much talk is there made about Her Majesty Elizabeth, who was a shrew and a vixen and blood-thirsty withal,—the chief glory of her reign was Shakespeare, and he made kings and queens the dancing puppets of his thought. In this, though in nothing else, I resemble him. You will have enough to do in the entertainment of your distinguished guests, for I suppose there is no amusement they have not tried and found more or less unsatisfactory, and I am sorry I can suggest nothing particularly new for you to do. Her Grace the Duchess of Rapidryder is very fond of being tossed in a strong table-cloth between four able-bodied gentlemen of good birth and discretion, before going to bed o' nights,—she cannot very well appear on a music-hall stage you know, owing to her exalted rank,—and this is a child-like, pretty and harmless method of managing to show her legs, which she rightly considers, are too shapely to be hidden. Lady Bouncer, whose name I see in your list, always likes to cheat at cards,—I would aid and abet her in her aim if I were you, as if she can only clear her dressmaker's bill by her winnings at Willowsmere, she will bear it in mind and be a useful social friend to you. The Honourable Miss Fitz-Gander, who has a great reputation for virtue, is anxious, for pressing and particular reasons, to marry Lord Noodles,—if you can move on matters between them into a definite engagement of marriage before her lady-mother returns from her duty-visits in Scotland, you will be doing her a good turn and saving society a scandal. To amuse the men I suggest plenty of shooting, gambling and unlimited smoking. To entertain the Prince, do little,—for he is clever enough to entertain himself privately with the folly and humbug of those he sees around him, without actually sharing in the petty comedy. He is a keen observer,—and must derive infinite gratification from his constant study of men and manners, which is sufficiently deep and searching to fit him for the occupation of even the throne of England. I say 'even,' for at present, till Time's great hour-glass turns, it is the grandest throne in the world. The Prince reads, understands, and secretly laughs to scorn the table-cloth vagaries of the Duchess of Rapidryder, the humours of my Lady Bouncer and the nervous pruderies of the Honourable Miss Fitz-Gander. And there is nothing he will appreciate so much in his reception as a lack of toadyism, a sincere demeanour, an unostentatious hospitality, a simplicity of speech, and a total absence of affectation. Remember this, and take my advice for what it is worth. Of all the Royalties at present flourishing on this paltry planet, I have the greatest respect for the Prince of Wales, and it is by reason of this very respect that I do not intend, on this occasion, to thrust myself upon his notice. I shall arrive at Willowsmere when your 'royal' festivities are over. My homage to your fair spouse, the Lady Sibyl, and believe me,
Yours as long as you desire it,
I laughed over this letter and showed it to my wife, who did not laugh. She read it through with a closeness of attention that somewhat surprised me, and when she laid it down there was a strange look of pain in her eyes.
"How he despises us all!" she said slowly. "What scorn underlies his words! Do you not recognise it ?''
"He was always a cynic," I replied indifferently. "I never expect him to be anything else."
"He seems to know some of the ways of the women who are coming here," she went on in the same musing accents. "It is as if he read their thoughts, and perceived their intentions at a distance."
Her brows knitted frowningly, and she seemed for some time absorbed in gloomy meditation. But I did not pursue the subject,—I was too intent on my own fussy preparations for the Prince's arrival to care about anything else.
And, as I have said, Royalty, in the person of one of the most affable of men, came and went gracefully through the whole programme devised for his entertainment, and then departed again with his usual courteous acknowledgments for the hospitality offered and accepted,—leaving us, as he very often leaves everybody, charmed with his good-humour, provided,that nothing has ruffled it. When, with his exit from the scene, the whole party broke up, leaving my wife and me to our own two selves once more, there came a strange silence and desolation over the house that was like the stealthy sense of some approaching calamity. Sibyl seemed to feel it as much as I did, and though we said nothing to each other concerning our mutual sensations, I could see that she was under the same cloud of depression as myself. She went oftener to 'Lily Cottage,' and always from these visits to the fair-haired student among the roses, came back, I hopefully fancied in softer mood,—her very voice was gentler,—her eyes more thoughtful and tender. One evening she said—
"I have been thinking, Geoffrey, that perhaps there is some good in life after all, if I could only find it out and live it. But you are the last person to help me in such a matter."
I was sitting in an arm-chair near the open window, smoking, and I turned my eyes upon her with some astonishment and a touch of indignation.
"What do you mean, Sibyl?" I asked. "Surely you know that I have the greatest desire to see you always in your best aspect,—many of your ideas have been most repugnant to me …
"Stop there!" she said quickly, her eyes flashing as she spoke. "My ideas have been repugnant to you, you say? What have you done, you as my husband, to change those ideas? Have you not the same base passions as I?—and do you not give way to them as basely? What have I seen in you from day to day that I should take you as an example? You are master here, and you rule with all the arrogance wealth can give,—you eat, drink and sleep,—you entertain your acquaintances simply that you may astonish them by the excess of luxury in which you indulge,—you read and smoke, shoot and ride, and there an end,—you are an ordinary, not an exceptional man. Do you trouble to ask what is wrong with me ?—do you try, with the patience of a great love, to set before me nobler aims than those I have consciously or unconsciously imbibed?—do you try to lead me, an erring, passionate, misguided woman, into what I dream of as the light,—the light of faith and hope which alone gives peace ?''
And suddenly, burying her head in the pillows of the couch on which she leaned, she broke into a fit of smothered weeping.
I drew my cigar from my mouth and stared at her helplessly. It was about an hour after dinner, and a warm soft autumnal evening. I had eaten and drunk well, and I was drowsy and heavy-brained.
"Dear me!" I murmured—"you seem very unreasonable, Sibyl! I suppose you are hysterical … "
She sprang up from the couch, her tears dried on her cheeks as though by sheer heat of the crimson glow that flushed them, and she laughed wildly.
"Yes, that is it!" she exclaimed. "Hysteria!—nothing else! It is accountable for everything that moves a woman's nature. A woman has no right to have any emotions that cannot be cured by smelling-salts! Heart-ache ?—pooh !— cut her stay-lace! Despair and a sense of sin and misery ?— nonsense !—bathe her temples with vinegar! An uneasy conscience ?—ah !—for an uneasy conscience there is nothing better than sal volatile! Woman is a toy,—a breakable fool's toy;—and when she is broken, throw her aside and have done with her,—don't try to piece together the fragile rubbish!"
She ceased abruptly, panting for breath, and before I could collect my thoughts or find any words wherewith to reply, a tall shadow suddenly darkened the embrasure of the window, and a familiar voice inquired*—
"May I, with the privilege of friendship, enter unannounced?" I started up.
"Rimanez!" I cried, seizing him by the hand.
"Nay, Geoffrey, my homage is due here first," he replied, shaking off my grasp, and advancing to Sibyl, who stood perfectly still where she had risen up in her strange passion. "Lady Sibyl, am I welcome?"
"Can you ask it!" she said, with an enchanting smile, and in a voice from which all harshness and excitement had fled. "More than welcome!" Here she gave him both her hands, which he respectfully kissed. "You cannot imagine how much I have longed to see you again!"
"I must apologize for my sudden appearance, Geoffrey," he then observed, turning to me. "But as I walked here from the station and came up your fine avenue of trees, I was so struck with the loveliness of this place and the exquisite peace of its surroundings, that, knowing my way through the grounds, I thought I would just look about and see if you were anywhere within sight before I presented myself at the conventional door of entrance. And I was not disappointed, —I found you, as I expected, enjoying each other's society,— the happiest and most fortunate couple existent,—people whom, out of all the world, I should be disposed to envy, if I envied worldly happiness at all, which I do not."
I glanced at him quickly;—he met my gaze with a perfectly unembarrassed air, and I concluded that he had not overheard Sibyl's sudden melodramatic outburst.
"Have you dined?" I asked, with my hand on the bell.
"Thanks, yes. The town of Leamington provided me with quite a sumptuous repast of bread and cheese and ale. I am tired of luxuries you know,—that is why I find plain fare delicious. You are looking wonderfully well, Geoffrey !—shall I offend you if I say you are growing—yes—positively stout? —with the stoutness befitting a true county gentleman who means to be as gouty in the future as his respectable ancestors?"
I smiled, but not altogether with pleasure; it is never agreeable to be called 'stout' in the presence of a beautiful woman to whom one has only been wedded a matter of three months.
"You have not put on any extra flesh," I said, by way of feeble retort.
"No," he admitted, as he disposed his slim elegant figure in an arm-chair near my own. "The necessary quantity of flesh is a bore to me always,—extra flesh would be a positive infliction. I should like, as the irreverent though reverend Sidney Smith said on a hot day, 'to sit in my bones,' or rather, to become a spirit of fine essence like Shakespeare's Ariel, if such things were possible and permissible. How admirably married life agrees with you, Lady Sibyl!"
His fine eyes rested upon her with apparent admiration,— she flushed under his gaze I saw, and seemed confused.
"When did you arrive in England?" she inquired.
"Yesterday," he answered. "I ran over Channel from Honfleur in my yacht,—you did not know I had a yacht, did you, Tempest?—oh, you must come for a trip in her some day. She is a quick vessel, and the weather was fair."
"Is Amiel with you?" I asked.
"No. I left him on board the yacht. I can, as the common people say, 'valet myself' for a day or two.''
"A day or two?" echoed Sibyl. "But you surely will not leave us so soon? You promised to make a long visit here."
"Did I?" and he regarded her steadily, with the same languorous admiration in his eyes. "But, my dear Lady Sibyl, time alters our ideas, and I am not sure whether you and your excellent husband are of the same opinion as you were when you started on your wedding-tour. You may not want me now!"
He said this with a significance to which I paid no heed whatever.
"Not want you!" I exclaimed. "I shall always want you, Lucio,—you are the best friend I ever had, and the only one I care to keep. Believe me!—there's my hand upon it!"
He looked at me curiously for a minute,—then turned his head towards my wife.
"And what does Lady Sibyl say?" he asked in a gentle, almost caressing tone.
"Lady Sibyl says," she answered with a smile, and the colour coming and going in her cheeks, '' that she will be proud and glad if you will consider Willowsmere your home as long as you have leisure to make it so,—and that she hopes,—though you are reputed to be a hater of women,"— here she raised her beautiful eyes and fixed them full upon him,—"you will relent a little in favour of your present chatelaine!"
With these words, and a playful salutation, she passed out of the room into the garden, and stood on the lawn at a little distance from us, her white robes shimmering in the mellow autumnal twilight,—and Lucio, springing up from his seat, looked after her, clapping his hand down heavily on my shoulder.
"By Heaven!" he said softly, "a perfect woman! I should be a churl to withstand her,—or you, my good Geoffrey,"—and he regarded me earnestly. "I have led a very devil of a life since I saw you last,—it's time I reformed,— upon my soul it is! The peaceful contemplation of virtuous marriage will do me good;—send for my luggage to the station, Geoffrey, and make the best of me,—I've come to stay!"