A Tranquil time now ensued; a time which, though I knew it not, was just that singular pause so frequently observed in nature before a storm, and in human life before a crushing calamity. I put aside all troublesome and harassing thoughts, and became oblivious of everything save my own personal satisfaction in the renewal of the comradeship between myself and Lucio. We walked together, rode together, and passed most of our days in each other's company; nevertheless, though I gave my friend much of my closest confidence I never spoke to him of the moral obliquities and perversions I had discovered in Sibyl's character,—not out of any consideration for Sibyl, but simply because I knew by instinct what his reply would be. He would have no sympathy with my feelings. His keen sense of sarcasm would over-rule his friendship, and he would retort upon me with the question, What business had I, being imperfect myself, to expect perfection in my wife? Like many others of my sex I had the notion that I, as man, could do all I pleased, when I pleased and how I pleased; I could sink to a level lower than that of the beasts if I chose,—but all the same I had the right to demand from my wife the most flawless purity, to mate with my defilement. I was aware how Lucio would treat this form of arrogant egoism, and with what mocking laughter he would receive any expression of ideas from me on the subject of morality in woman. So I was careful to let no hint of my actual position escape me, and I comported myself on all occasions to Sibyl with special tenderness and consideration, though she, I thought, appeared rather to resent my playing the part of lover-husband too openly. She was herself, in Lucio's presence, strangely erratic of humour, by turns brilliant and mournful, sometimes merry, and anon depressed: yet never had she displayed a more captivating grace and charm of
manner. How foolish and blind I was all the while !—how dead to any perception of the formation and sequence of events! Absorbed in gross material pleasures, I ignored all the hidden forces that make the history of an individual life no less than of a whole nation, and looked upon each day that dawned almost as if it had been my own creation and possession, to waste as I thought fit,—never considering that days are but so many white leaflets from God's chronicle of human life, whereon we place our mark, good or bad, for the just and exact summing-up of our thoughts and deeds hereafter. Had any one dared to say this truth to me then, I should have bade him go and preach nonsense to children,— but now, when I recall those white leaves of days that were unrolled before me fresh and blank with every sunrise, and with which I did nothing save scrawl my own Ego in a foul smudge across each one, I tremble, and inwardly pray that I may never be forced to send back my self-written record. Yet of what use is it to pray against eternal Law? It is eternal Law that we shall ourselves count up our own misdeeds at the final reckoning,—hence it is no wonder that many are found who prefer not to believe in a future after death. Rightly do such esteem it better to die utterly than be forced to live again and look back upon the wilful evil they have done!
October ripened slowly and almost imperceptibly towards its end, and the trees put on their gorgeous autumnal tints of burning crimson and gold. The weather remained fine and warm, and what the French Canadians poetically term the 'Summer of all Saints' gave us bright days and cloudless moonlit evenings. The air was so mild that we were always able to take our coffee after dinner on the terrace overlooking the lawn in front of the drawing-room,—and it was on one of these balmy nights that I was the interested spectator of a strange scene between Lucio and Mavis Clare,—a scene I should have thought impossible of occurrence had I not myself witnessed it. Mavis had dined at Willowsmere; she very rarely so honoured us; and there were a few other guests besides. We had lingered over the coffee longer than usual, for Mavis had given an extra charm to the conversation by her eloquent vivacity and bright humour, and all present were anxious to hear, see and know as much of the brilliant novelist as possible. But when a full golden moon rose in mellow splendour over the tree-tops, my wife suggested a stroll in the grounds, and everyone agreeing to the proposal with delight, we started,—more or less together,—some in couples, some in groups of three or four. After a little desultory rambling, however, the party got separated in the rose-gardens and adjacent shrubberies, and I found myself alone. I turned back to the house to get my cigar-case which I had left on a table in the library, and passing out again in another direction I strolled slowly across the grass, smoking as I went, towards the river, the silver gleam of which could clearly be discerned through the fast-thinning foliage overhanging its banks. I had almost reached the path that followed the course of the winding water when I was brought to a standstill by the sound of voices,— one a man's, low and persuasive,—the other a woman's, tender, grave and somewhat tremulous. Neither voice could be mistaken; I recognised Lucio's rich penetrating tones, and the sweet vibrante accents of Mavis Clare. Out of sheer surprise I paused,—had Lucio fallen in love, I wondered, halfsmiling?—was I about to discover that the supposed 'womanhater' had been tamed and caught at last? By Mavis too !— little Mavis, who was not beautiful according to accepted standards, but who had something more than beauty to enravish a proud and unbelieving soul. Here, as my thoughts ran on, I was conscious of a foolish sense of jealousy,—why should he choose Mavis, I thought, out of all women in the world? Could he not leave her in peace with her dreams, her books and her flowers?—safe under the pure, wise, impassive gaze of Pallas Athene, whose cool brows were never fevered by a touch of passion? Something more than curiosity now impelled me to listen, and I cautiously advanced a step or two towards the shadow of a broad elm where I could see without being seen. Yes, there was Rimanez, standing erect with folded arms, his dark, sad, inscrutable eyes fixed on Mavis, who stood opposite to him a few paces off, looking at him in her turn with an expression of mingled fascination and fear.
"I have asked you, Mavis Clare," said Lucio slowly, "to let me serve you. You have genius,—a rare quality in a woman,—and I would advance your fortunes. I should not be what I am if I did not try to persuade you to let me help on your career. You are not rich,—I could show you how to become so. You have a great fame—that I grant; but you have many enemies and slanderers who are for ever trying to pull you down from the throne you have won. I could bring these to your feet and make them your slaves. With your intellectual power, your personal grace and gifts of temperament, I could, if you would let me guide you, give you such far-reaching influence, as no woman has possessed in this century. I am no boaster,—I can do what I say and more; and I ask nothing from you in return except that you should follow my advice implicitly. My advice, let me tell you, is not difficult to follow; most people find it easy!"
His expression of face, I thought, was very singular as he spoke,—it was so haggard, dreary and woe-begone that one might have imagined he was making some proposal that was particularly repugnant to him, instead of offering to perform the benevolent action of helping a hard-working literary woman to achieve greater wealth and distinction. I waited expectantly for Mavis to reply.
"You are very good, Prince Rimanez," she said, after a little pause, "to take any thought for me at all. I cannot imagine why you should do so; for I am really nothing to you. I have of course heard from Mr Tempest of your great wealth and influence, and I have no doubt you mean kindly. But I have never owed anything to any one,—no one has ever helped me,—I have helped myself, and still prefer to do so. And really I have nothing to wish for,—except—when the time comes—a happy death. It is true I am not rich,—but then I do not want to be rich. I would not be the possessor of wealth for all the world! To be surrounded with sycophants and flatterers,—never to be able to distinguish false friends from true,—to be loved for what you have, and not for what you are !—oh no, it would be misery to me! And I have never craved for power,—except perhaps the power to win love. And that I have,—many people love my books, and through my books love me,—I feel their love, though I may never see or know them personally. But I am so conscious of their sympathy that I love them in return without the necessity of personal acquaintance. They have hearts which respond to my heart,—that is all the power I care about."
"You forget your numerous enemies!" said Lucio, still morosely regarding her.
"No, I do not forget them," she returned, "But I forgive them. They can do me no harm. As long as I do not lower myself, no one else can lower me. If my own conscience is clear, no reproaches can wound. My life is open to all,— people can see how I live and what I do. I try to do well,— but if there are those who think I do ill, I am sorry, and if my faults can be amended I shall be glad to amend them. One must have enemies in this world,—that is, if one makes any sort of position,—people without enemies are generally nonentities. All who succeed in winning some little place of independence must expect the grudging enmity of hundreds who cannot find even the smallest foothold, and are therefore failures in the battle of life,—I pity these sincerely, and when they say or write cruel things of me, I know it is only spleen and disappointment that moves both their tongues and pens, and I freely pardon them. They cannot hurt or hinder me,— in fact, no one can hurt or hinder me but myself."
I heard the trees rustle slightly,—a branch cracked,—and peering through the leaves I saw that Lucio had advanced a step closer to where Mavis stood. A faint smile was on his face, softening it wonderfully and giving an almost supernatural light to his beautiful dark features.
"Fair philosopher, you are almost a feminine Marcus Aurelius in your estimate of men and things," he said; "but— you are still a woman—and there is one thing lacking to your life of sublime and calm contentment—a thing at whose touch philosophy fails, and wisdom withers at its root. Love, Mavis Clare !—lover's love, devoted love, blindly passionate,—this has not been yours as yet to win. No heart beats against your own,—no tender arms caress you,—you are alone! Men are for the most part afraid of you,—being brute fools themselves, they like their women to be brute fools also,—and they grudge you your keen intellect,—your serene independence. Yet which is best ?—the adoration of a brute fool, or the loneliness pertaining to a spirit aloft on some snowy mountain-peak, with no companions but the stars? Think of it!—the years will pass, and you must needs grow old,—and with the years will come that solitary neglect which makes age bitter. Now, you will doubtless wonder at my words—yet believe me I speak the truth when I say that I can give you love—not my love, for I love none,—but I can bring to your feet the proudest men in any country of the world as suitors for your hand. You shall have your choice of them and your own time for choosing,—and whomsoever you love, him you shall wed, … why—what is wrong with you that you shrink from me thus?"
For she had retreated, and was gazing at him in a kind of horror.
"You terrify me!" she faltered,—and as the moonlight fell upon her I could see that she was very pale. ''Such promises are incredible—impossible! You speak as if you were more than human! I do not understand you, Prince Rimanez,—you are different to anyone I ever met, and … and … something in me stronger than myself warns me against you. What are you ?—why do you talk to me so strangely? Pardon me if I seem ungrateful … oh, let
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us go in—it is getting quite late I am sure, and I am cold … "
She trembled violently, and caught at the branch of a tree to steady herself,—Rimanez stood immovably still, regarding her with a fixed and almost mournful gaze.
"You say my life is lonely," she went on reluctantly, and with a note of pathos in her sweet voice, "and you suggest love and marriage as the only joys that can make a woman happy. You may be right. I do not presume to assert that you are wrong. I have many married women friends—but I would not change my lot with any one of them. I have dreamed of love,—but because I have not realized my dream I am not the less content. If it is God's will that I should be alone all my days, I shall not murmur, for my solitude is not actual loneliness. Work is a good comrade,—then I have books, and flowers and birds,—I am never really lonely. And that I shall fully realize my dream of love one day I am sure,—if not here, then hereafter. I can wait!"
As she spoke she looked up to the placid heavens where one or two stars twinkled through the arching boughs,—her face expressed angelic confidence and perfect peace,—and Rimanez advancing a step or two, fully confronted her with a strange light of exultation in his eyes.
"True,—you can wait, Mavis Clare !" he said in deep clear tones from which all sadness had fled. "You can afford to wait! Tell me,—think for a moment,—can you remember me? Is there a time on which you can look back, and looking, see my face, not here but elsewhere? Think! Did you ever see me long ago—in a far sphere of beauty and light, when you were an Angel, Mavis,—and I was—not what I am now! How you tremble! You need not fear me,—I would not harm you for a thousand worlds! I talk wildly at times, I know;—I think of things that are past,—long, long past,— and I am filled with regrets that burn my soul with fiercer heat than fire. And so neither world's wealth, world's power, nor world's love will tempt you, Mavis!—and you,—a woman! You are a living miracle then,—as miraculous as the drop of undefiled dew which reflects in its tiny circumference all the colours of the sky, and sinks into the earth sweetly, carrying moisture and refreshment where it falls! I can do nothing for you—you will not have my aid—you reject my service? Then as I may not help you, you must help me /''—and dropping before her, he reverently took her hand and kissed it. "I ask a very little thing of you; pray for me! I know you are accustomed to pray, so it will be no trouble to you,—you believe God hears you,—and when I look at you, / believe it too. Only a pure woman can make faith possible to man. Pray for me then, as one who has fallen from his higher and better self,—who strives, but who may not attain,—who labours under heavy punishment,—who would fain reach Heaven, but who by the cursed will of man, and man alone, is kept in Hell. Pray for me, Mavis Clare! promise it!—and so shall you lift me a step nearer the glory I have lost!"
I listened, petrified with amazement. Could this be Lucio? —the mocking, careless, cynical scoffer I knew, as I thought, so well ?—was it really he who knelt thus like a repentant sinner, abasing his proud head before a woman? I saw Mavis release her hand from his, the while she stood looking down upon him in alarm and bewilderment. Presently she spoke in sweet yet tremulous accents—
"Since you desire it so earnestly, I promise," she said. "I will pray that the strange and bitter sorrow which seems to consume you may be removed from your life ''
"Sorrow!" he echoed, interrupting her and springing to his feet with an impassioned gesture. "Woman,—genius,— angel,—whatever you are, do not speak of one sorrow for me! I have a thousand thousand sorrows !—aye a million million, that are as little flames about my heart, and as deeply seated as the centres of the universe! The foul and filthy crimes of men,—the base deceits and cruelties of women,—the ruthless, murderous ingratitude of children,—the scorn of good, the martyrdom of intellect, the selfishness, the avarice, the sensuality of human life, the hideous blasphemy and sin of the creature to the Creator,—these are my endless sorrows !— these keep me wretched and in chains when I would fain be free. These create hell around me, and endless torture, —these bind and crush me and pervert my being till I become what I dare not name to myself or to others. And yet, … as the eternal God is my witness, … I do not think I am as bad as the worst man living! I may tempt, but I do not pursue,—I take the lead in many lives, yet I make the way I go so plain that those who follow me do so by their own choice and free will more than by my persuasion!" He paused,—then continued in a softer tone—"You look afraid of me,—but be assured you never had less cause for terror. You have truth and purity—I honour both. You will have none of my advice or assistance in the making of your life's history,—to-night therefore we part, to meet no more on earth. Never again, Mavis Clare !—no, not through all your quiet days of sweet and contented existence will I cross your path,—before Heaven I swear it!"
"But why?" asked Mavis gently, approaching him now as she spoke, with a soft grace of movement, and laying her hand on his arm—" why do you speak with such a passion of selfreproach? What dark cloud is on your mind? Surely you have a noble nature,—and I feel that I have wronged you in my thoughts, … you must forgive me—I have mistrusted you"
"You do well to mistrust me!" he answered, and with these words he caught both her hands and held them in his own, looking at her full in the face with eyes that flashed like jewels. "Your instinct teaches you rightly. Would there were many more like you to doubt me and repel me! One word,—if, when I am gone, you ever think of me, think that I am more to be pitied than the veriest paralyzed and starving wretch that ever crawled on earth,—for he, perchance, has hope—and I have none. And when you pray for me,—for I hold you to this promise,—pray for one who dares not pray for himself. You know the words, 'Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil'? To-night you have been led into temptation, though you knew it not, but you have delivered yourself from evil as only a true soul can. And now farewell! In life I shall see you no more:—in death,—well, I have attended many death-beds in response to the invitations of the moribund, but I shall not be present at yours! Perhaps, when your parting spirit is on the verge between darkness and light, you may know who I was and am,—and you may thank God with your last breath that we parted to-night—as we do now—forever!"
He loosened his grasp of her,—she fell back from him, pale and terrified,—for there was something now in the dark beauty of his face that was unnatural and appalling. A sombre shadow clouded his brows,—his eyes had gleams in them as of fire,—and a smile was on his lips, half tender, half cruel. His strange expression moved even me to a sense of fear, and I shivered with sudden cold, though the air was warm and balmy. Slowly retreating, Mavis moved away, looking round at him now and then as she went, in wistful wonder and alarm,—till in a minute or two her slight figure, in its shimmering silken white robe, had vanished among the trees. I lingered, hesitating and uncertain what to do,—then finally determining to get back to the house if possible without being noticed, I made one step, when Lucio's voice, scarcely raised, addressed me—
"Well, eavesdropper! Why did you not come out of the shadow of that elm-tree and see the play to better advantage?"
Surprised and confused, I advanced, mumbling some unintelligible excuse.
"You saw a pretty bit of acting here," he went on, striking a match and lighting a cigar the while he regarded me coolly, his eyes twinkling with their usual mockery. "You know my theory, that all men and all women are purchasable for gold? Well, I wanted to try Mavis Clare. She rejected all my advantageous offers, as you must have heard, and I could only make matters smooth by asking her to pray for me. That I did this very melodramatically I hope you will admit? A woman of that dreamy idealistic temperament always likes to imagine that there is a man who is grateful for her prayers!"
"You seemed very much in earnest about it!" I said, vexed with myself that he had caught me spying.
"Why, of course!" he responded, thrusting his arm familiarly through mine. "I had an audience! Two fastidious critics of dramatic art heard me rant my rantings,— I had to do my best!''
"Two critics?" I repeated perplexedly.
"Yes. You on one side,—Lady Sibyl on the other. Lady Sibyl rose, after the custom of fashionable beauties at the opera, before the last scene, in order to get home in good time for supper!"
He laughed wildly and discordantly, and I felt desperately uncomfortable.
"You must be mistaken, Lucio," I said. "That /listened I admit,—and it was wrong of me to do so,—but my wife would never condescend … "
"Ah, then it must have been a sylph of the woods that glided out of the shadow with a silken train behind her and diamonds in her hair," he retorted gaily. "Tut, Geoffrey! —don't look so crestfallen. I have done with Mavis Clare and she with me. I have not been making love to her,—I have simply, just to amuse myself, tested her character,—and I find it stronger than I thought. The combat is over. She will never go my way,—nor, I fear, shall I ever go hers."
"Upon my word, Lucio," I said with some irritation, "your disposition seems to grow more and more erratic and singular every day!"
"Does it not!" he answered with a droll affectation of interested surprise in himself. "I am a curious creature altogether! Wealth is mine and I care not a jot for it,—power is mine and I loathe its responsibility;—in fact, I would rather be anything but what I am. Look at the lights of your ' home, sweet home,' Geoffrey!" this he said as we emerged from among the trees on to the moonlit lawn, from whence could be seen the shining of the electric lamps in the drawing-room. "Lady Sibyl is there,—an enchanting and perfect woman, who lives but to welcome you to her embracing arms! Fortunate man !—who would not envy you! Love !—who would, who could exist without it—save me! Who, in Europe at least, would forego the delights of kissing (which the Japanese bythe-bye consider a disgusting habit), without embraces,—and all those other endearments which are supposed to dignify the progress of true love! One never tires of these things,—there is no satiety! I wish I could love somebody!"
"So you can, if you like," I said, with a little uneasy laugh.
"I cannot. It is not in me. You heard me tell Mavis Clare as much. I have it in my power to make other people fall in love, somewhat after the dexterous fashion practised by match-making mothers,—but for myself, love on this planet is too low a thing—too brief in duration. Last night, in a dream, —I have strange dreams at times,—I saw one whom possibly I could love,—but she was a Spirit, with eyes more lustrous than the morning, and a form as transparent as flame;—she could sing sweetly, and I watched her soaring upwards and listened to her song. It was a wild song, and to many mortal ears meaningless,—it was something like this … " and his rich baritone pealed lusciously forth in melodious tune—
Into the Light,
Into the heart of the fire, To the innermost core of the deathless flame
I ascend,—I aspire! Under me rolls the whirling Earth With the noise of a myriad wheels that run
Ever round and about the sun,— Over me circles the splendid heaven Strewn with the stars of morn and even,
And I a queen
Of the air serene, Float with my flag-like wings unfurled, Alone—alone—'twixt God and the world I
Here he broke off with a laugh. "She was a strange Spirit," he said, "because she could see nothing but herself ''twixt God and the world.' She was evidently quite unaware of the numerous existing barriers put up by mankind between themselves and their Maker. I wonder what unenlightened sphere she came from!"
I looked at him in mingled wonder and impatience.
"You talk wildly," I said. "And you sing wildly,—of things that mean nothing and are nothing."
He smiled, lifting his eyes to the moon, now shining her fullest and brightest.
"True!" he replied. "Things which have meaning and are valuable, have all to do with money or appetite, Geoffrey! There is no wider outlook evidently. But we were speaking of love, and I hold that love should be eternal as hate. Here you have the substance of my religious creed if I have any,— that there are two spiritual forces ruling the universe—love and hate,—and that their incessant quarrel creates the general confusion of life. Both contend one against the other,—and only at Judgment-Day will it be proved which is the strongest. I am on the side of Hate myself,—for at present Hate has scored all the victories worth winning, while Love has been so often martyred that there is only the poor ghost of it left on earth."
At that moment my wife's figure appeared at the drawingroom window, and Lucio threw away his half-smoked cigar.
"Your guardian-angel beckons!" he said, looking at me with an odd expression of something like pity mingled with disdain. "Let us go in."