The very next night but one after Lucio's strange interview with Mavis Clare, the thunderbolt destined to wreck my life and humiliate me to the dust fell with appalling suddenness. No warning given !—it came at a moment when I had dared to deem myself happy. All that day,—the last day I was ever to know of pride or self-gratulation,—I had enjoyed life to the full; it was a day too in which Sibyl had seemed transformed to a sweeter gentler woman than I had hitherto known her,—when all her attractions of beauty and manner were apparently put forth to captivate and enthrall me as though she were yet to be wooed and won. Or,—did she mean to bewitch and subjugate Lucio? Of this I never thought,— never dreamed:—I only saw in my wife an enchantress of the most voluptuous and delicate loveliness,—a woman whose very garments seemed to cling to her tenderly as though proud of clothing so exquisite a form,—a creature whose every glance was brilliant, whose every smile was a ravishment,—and whose voice, attuned to the softest and most caressing tones appeared in its every utterance to assure me of a deeper and more lasting love than I had yet enjoyed. The hours flew by on golden wings,—we all three,—Sibyl, myself and Lucio,—had attained, as I imagined, to a perfect unity of friendship and mutual understanding,—we had passed that last day together in the outlying woods of Willowsmere, under a gorgeous canopy of autumn leaves, through which the sun shed mellow beams of rose and gold,—we had had an alfresco luncheon in the open air,—Lucio had sung for us wild old ballads and lovemadrigals till the very foliage had seemed to tremble with joy at the sound of such entrancing melody,—and not a cloud had marred the perfect peace and pleasure of the time. Mavis Clare was not with us,—and I was glad. Somehow I felt that of late she had been more or less a discordant element whenever she had joined our party. I admired her,—in a sort of fraternal half-patronizing way I even loved her,—nevertheless I was conscious that her ways were not as our ways,—her thoughts not as our thoughts. I placed the fault on her of course; I concluded that it was because she had what I elected to call 'literary egoism,' instead of by its rightful name, the spirit of honourable independence. I never considered the inflated quality of my own egoism,—the poor pride of a 'cash and county position,' which is the pettiest sort of vain-glory anyone can indulge in,—and after turning the matter over in my mind, I decided that Mavis was a very charming young woman, with great literary gifts and an amazing pride which made it totally impossible for her to associate with many 'great' people, so-called,—as she would never descend to the necessary level of flunkeyish servility which they expected, and which I certainly demanded. I should almost have been inclined to relegate her to Grub Street, had not a faint sense of justice as well as shame held me back from doing her that indignity even in my thoughts. However, I was too much impressed with my own vast resources of unlimited wealth to realize the fact that anyone who, like Mavis, earns independence by intellectual work and worth alone, is entitled to feel a far greater pride than those who by mere chance of birth or heritage become the possessors of millions. Then again, Mavis Clare's literary position was, though I liked her personally, always a kind of reproach to me when I thought of my own abortive efforts to win the laurels of fame. So that on the whole I was glad she did not spend that day with us in the woods;—of course, if I had paid any attention to the 'trifles which make up the sum of life' I should have remembered that Lucio had told her he would "meet her no more on earth,"—but I judged this to be a mere trifle of hasty and melodramatic speech, without any intentional meaning.
So my last twenty-four hours of happiness passed away in halcyon serenity,—I felt a sense of deepening pleasure in existence, and I began to believe that the future had brighter things in store for me than I had lately ventured to expect. Sibyl's new phase of gentleness and tenderness towards me, combined with her rare beauty, seemed to augur that the misunderstandings between us would be of short duration, and that her nature, too early rendered harsh and cynical by a 'society' education, would soften in time to that beautiful womanliness which is, after all, woman's best charm. Thus I thought, in blissful and contented reverie, reclining under the branching autumnal foliage, with my fair wife beside me, and listening to the rich tones of my friend Lucio's magnificent voice pealing forth sonorous, wild melodies, as the sunset deepened in the sky and the twilight shadows fell. Then came the night— the night which dropped only for a few hours over the quiet landscape, but for ever over me!
We had dined late, and, pleasantly fatigued with our day in the open air had retired early. I had latterly grown a heavy sleeper, and I suppose I must have slumbered some hours, when I was awakened suddenly as though by an imperative touch from some unseen hand. I started up in my bed,—the night-lamp was burning dimly, and by its glimmer I saw that Sibyl was no longer at my side. My heart gave one bound against my ribs and then almost stood still—a sense of something unexpected and calamitous chilled my blood. I pushed aside the embroidered silken hangings of the bed and peered into the room,—it was empty. Then I rose hastily, put on my clothes and went to the door,—it was carefully shut, but not locked as it had been when we retired for the night. I opened it without the least noise, and looked out into the long passage,—no one there! Immediately opposite the bedroom door there was a winding oak staircase leading down to a broad corridor which in former times had been used as a music-room or picture-gallery,—an ancient organ, still sweet of tone, occupied one end of it with dull golden pipes towering up to the carved and embossed ceiling,—the other end was lit by a large oriel window like that of a church, filled with rare old stained glass, representing in various niches the lives of the saints, the centre subject being the martyrdom of St Stephen. Advancing with soft caution to the balustrade overlooking this gallery I gazed down into it, and for a moment could see nothing on the polished floor but the criss-cross patterns made by the moonlight falling through the great window, —but presently, as I watched breathlessly, wondering where Sibyl could have gone to at this time of night, I saw a dark tall shadow waver across the moonlit network of lines, and I heard the smothered sound of voices. With my pulses beating furiously, and a sensation of suffocation in my throat,—full of strange thoughts and suspicions which I dared not define, I crept slowly and stealthily down the stair, till as my foot touched the last step I saw—what nearly struck me to the ground with a shock of agony—and I had to draw back and bite my lips hard to repress the cry that nearly escaped them. There,—there before me in the full moonlight, with the colours of the red and blue robes of the painted saints on the window glowing blood-like and azure about her, knelt my wife,— arrayed in a diaphanous garment of filmy white which betrayed rather than concealed the outline of her form,—her wealth of hair falling about her in wild disorder,—her hands clasped in supplication,—her pale face upturned; and above her towered the dark imposing figure of Lucio! I stared at the twain with dry burning eyes,—what did this portend? Was she—my wife—false? Was he—my friend—a traitor?
"Patience!—patience!" I muttered to myself. "This is a piece of acting doubtless—such as chanced the other night with Mavis Clare!—patience!—let us hear this—this comedy!" And, drawing myself close up against the wall, I leaned there, scarcely drawing breath, waiting for her voice—for his ;—when they spoke I should know,—yes, I should know all! And I fastened my looks on them as they stood there,—vaguely wondering even in my tense anguish, at the fearful light on Lucio's face,—a light which could scarcely be the reflection of the moon, as he backed the window,—and at the scorn of his frowning brows. What terrific humour swayed him?—why did he, even to my stupefied thought appear more than human?—why did his very beauty seem hideous at that moment, and his aspect fiendish? Hush—hush! She spoke, —my wife,—I heard her every word,—heard all and endured all without falling dead at her feet in the extremity of my dishonour and despair!
"I love you !" she wailed. "Lucio, I love you, and my love is killing me! Be merciful!—have pity on my passion! Love me for one hour, one little hour !—it is not much to ask, and afterwards,—do with me what you will,—torture me, brand me an outcast in the public sight, curse me before Heaven—I care nothing—I am yours body and soul—I love you!"
Her accents vibrated with mad, idolatrous pleading,—I listened infuriated, but dumb. "Hush,—hush!" I told myself. "This is a comedy—not yet played out!" And I waited, with every nerve strained, for Lucio's reply. It came, accompanied by a laugh, low and sarcastic.
"You flatter me!" he said. "I regret I am unable to return the compliment!"
My heart gave a throb of relief and fierce joy,—almost I could have joined in his ironical laughter. She—Sibyl— dragged herself nearer to him.
"Lucio—Lucio!" she murmured. "Have you a heart? Can you reject me when I pray to you thus ?—when I offer you all myself,—all that I am, or ever hope to be? Am I so repugnant to you? Many men would give their lives if I would say to them what I say to you,—but they are nothing to me—you alone are my world,—the breath of my existence! —ah, Lucio, can you not believe, will you not realize how deeply I love you!"
He turned towards her with a sudden fierce movement that startled me,—and the cloud of scorn upon his brows grew darker.
"I know you love me!" he said, and from where I stood I saw the cold derisive smile flash from his lips to his eyes in lightning-like mockery. "I have always known it. Your vampire soul leaped to mine at the first glance I ever gave you,—you were a false foul thing from the first, and you recognised your master! Yes—your master!" for she had uttered a faint cry as if in fear,—and he, stooping, snatched her two hands and grasped them hard in his own. "Listen to the truth of yourself for once from one who is not afraid to speak it!—you love me,—and truly your body and soul are mine to claim if I so choose! You married with a lie upon your lips; you swore fidelity to your husband before God, with infidelity already in your thoughts, and by your own act made the mystical blessing a blasphemy and a curse! Wonder not then that the curse has fallen! I knew it all!— the kiss I gave you on your wedding-day put fire in your blood and sealed you mine!—why, you would have fled to me that very night, had I demanded it,—had I loved you as you love me,—that is, if you choose to call the disease of vanity and desire that riots in your veins by such a name as love! But now hear me !'' and as he held her two wrists he looked down upon her with such black wrath depicted in his face as seemed to create a darkness round him where he stood;—''I hate you! Yes—I hate you, and all such women as you! For you corrupt the world,—you turn good to evil,—you deepen folly into crime,—with the seduction of your nude limbs and lying eyes, you make fools, cowards and beasts of men! When you die, your bodies generate foulness,—things of the mould and slime are formed out of the flesh that was once fair for man's delight,—you are no use in life—you become poison in death,—I hate you all! I read your soul—it is an open book to me—and it is branded with a name given to those who are publicly vile, but which should, of strict right and justice, be equally bestowed on women of your position and type, who occupy pride and place in this world's standing, and who have not the excuse of poverty for selling themselves to the devil!"
He ceased abruptly and with passion, making a movement as though to fling her from him,—but she clung to his arm,— clung with all the pertinacity of the loathly insect he had taken from the bosom of the dead Egyptian woman and made a toy of to amuse his leisure! And I, looking on and listening, honoured him for his plain speaking, for his courage in telling this shameless creature what she was in the opinion of an honest man, without glozing over her outrageous conduct for the sake of civility or social observance. My friend, my more than friend! He was true,—he was loyal,—he had neither desire nor intent to betray or dishonour me. My heart swelled with gratitude to him, and also with a curious sense of feeble self pity,—compassionating myself intensely I could have sobbed aloud in nervous fury and pain, had not my desire to hear more repressed my personal excitement and emotion. I watched my wife wonderingly—what had become of her pride that she still knelt before the man who had taunted her with such words as should have been beyond all endurance?
"Lucio! … Lucio!" she whispered, and her whispers sounded through the long gallery like the hiss of a snake— "say what you will—say all you will of me,—you can say nothing that is not true. I am vile—I own it. But is it of much avail to be virtuous? What pleasure comes from goodness?—what gratification from self-denial? There is no God to care! A few years, and we all die, and are forgotten even by those who loved us,—why should we lose such joys as we may have for the mere asking? Surely it is not difficult to love even for an hour ?—am I not fair to look upon ?—and is all this beauty of my face and form worthless in your sight, and you no more than man? Murder me as you may with all the cruelty of cruel words, I care nothing!—I love you— love you !" and in a perfect passion of self-abandonment she sprang to her feet, tossing back her rich hair over her shoulders, and stood erect, a very bacchante of wild loveliness. "Look at me! You shall not,—you dare not spurn such a love as mine!"
Dead silence followed her outburst, and I stared in fascinated awe at Lucio as he turned more fully round and confronted her. The expression of his countenance struck me then as quite unearthly,—his beautiful broad brows were knitted in a darkling line of menace,—his eyes literally blazed with scorn, and yet he laughed,—a low laugh, resonant with satire.
"Shall not!—dare not!" he echoed disdainfully. "Woman's words,—woman's ranting!—the shriek of the outraged feminine animal who fails to attract, as she thinks, her chosen mate. Such a love as yours !—what is it? Degradation to whosoever shall accept it,—shame to whosoever shall rely upon it! You make a boast of your beauty; your mirror shows you a pleasing image,—but your mirror lies as admirably as you do! You see within it, not the reflection of yourself, for that would cause you to recoil in horror, … you merely look upon your fleshly covering, a garment of tissues, shrinkable, perishable, and only fit to mingle with the dust from which it sprang. Your beauty! I see none of it, —I see You! and to me you are hideous, and will remain hideous for ever. I hate you!—I hate you with the bitterness of an immeasurable and unforgiving hatred,—for you have done me a wrong,—you have wrought an injury upon me,—you have added another burden to the load of punishment I carry!"
She made a forward movement with outstretched arms,— he repulsed her by a fierce gesture.
"Stand back!" he said. "Be afraid of me, as of an unknown Terror! O pitiless Heaven!—to think of it!—but a night ago I was lifted a step nearer to my lost delight!—and now this woman drags me back, and down !—and yet again I hear the barring of the gates of Paradise! O infinite torture! O wicked souls of men and women!—is there no touch of grace or thought of God left in you!—and will ye make my sorrows eternal!''
He stood, lifting his face to the light where it streamed through the oriel window, and the moonbeams colouring themselves faintly roseate as they filtered through the painted garments of St Stephen, showed a great and terrible anguish in his eyes. I heard him with amazement and awe,—I could not imagine what he meant by his strange words,—and it was evident by her expression, that my reckless and abandoned wife was equally mystified.
"Lucio," she murmured, "Lucio, … what is it … what have I done?—I who would not wound you for the world ?—I who but seek your love, Lucio, to repay it in full with such fond passion and tenderness as you have never known! For this and this only, I married Geoffrey,—I chose your friend as husband because he was your friend!" (O perfidious woman !) "and because I saw his foolish egotism,—his pride in himself and his riches,—his blind confidence in me and in you;—I knew that I could, after a time follow the fashion of many another woman in my set and choose my lover,—ah, my lover!—I had chosen him already, —I have chosen you, Lucio!—yes, though you hate me you cannot hinder me from loving you,—I shall love you till I die!"
He turned his gaze upon her steadily,—the gloom deepening on his brows.
"And after you die?" he said. "Will you love me then?"
There was a stern derision in his tone which appeared to vaguely terrify her.
"After death! … " she stammered.
"Yes,—after death!" he repeated sombrely. "There is an after;—as your mother knows!" A faint exclamation escaped her,—she fixed her eyes upon him affrightedly. "Fair lady," he went on, "your mother was, like yourself, a voluptuary. She, like you, made up her mind to 'follow the fashion,' as you put it, as soon as her husband's 'blind' or willing confidence was gained. She chose, not one lover but many. You know her end. In the written but miscomprehended laws of Nature, a diseased body is the natural expression of a diseased mind,—her face in her last days was the reflex of her soul. You shudder?—the thought of her hideousness is repellent to your self-conscious beauty? Yet the evil that was in her is also in you,—it festers in your blood slowly but surely, and as you have no faith in God to cure the disease, it will have its way—even at the final moment when death clutches at your throat and stops your breathing. The smile upon your frozen lips then will not be the smile of a saint, believe me, but of a sinner! Death is never deceived, though life may be. And afterwards … I ask again, will you love me, do you think? … when you know WHO I am?"
I was myself startled at his manner of putting this strange question ;—I saw her lift her hands beseechingly towards him, and she seemed to tremble.
"When I know who you are !" she repeated wonderingly. "Do I not know? You are Lucio,—Lucio Rimanez—my love,—my love !—whose voice is my music,—whose beauty I adore,—whose looks are my heaven … "
"And Hell!" he interposed, with a low laugh. "Come here!"
She went towards him eagerly, yet falteringly. He pointed to the ground,—I saw the rare blue diamond he always wore on his right hand flash like a flame in the moonrays.
"Since you love me so well," he said, "kneel down and worship me!"
She dropped on her knees—and clasped her hands,—I strove to move,—to speak,—but some resistless force held me dumb and motionless;—the light from the stained glass window fell upon her face and showed its fairness illumined by a smile of perfect rapture.
"With every pulse of my being I worship you!" she murmured passionately. "My king!—my god! The cruel things you say but deepen my lo^e for you,—you can kill, but you can never change me! For one kiss of your lips I would die,—for one embrace from you I would give my soul … "
"Have you one to give?" he asked derisively. "Is it not already disposed of? You should make sure of that first! Stay where you are and let me look at you! So !—a woman, wearing a husband's name, holding a husband's honour, clothed in the very garments purchased with a husband's money, and newly risen from a husband's side, steals forth thus in the night, seeking to disgrace him, and pollute herself by the vulgarest unchastity! And this is all that the culture and training of nineteenth-century civilization can do for you? Myself, I prefer the barbaric fashion of old times when rough savages fought for their women as they fought for their cattle, treated them as cattle, and kept them in their place, never dreaming of endowing them with such strong virtues as truth and honour. If women were pure and true, then the lost happiness of the world might return to it,—but the majority of them are like you, liars, ever pretending to be what they are not. I may do what I choose with you, you say ?—torture you, kill you, brand you with the name of outcast in the public sight, and curse you before Heaven—if I will only love you!—all this is melodramatic speech, and I never cared for melodrama at any time. I shall neither kill you, brand you, curse you, nor love you; I shall simply— call your husband!"
I stirred from my hiding-place,—then stopped. She sprang to her feet in an insensate passion of anger and shame.
"You dare not!" she panted. "You dare not so … disgrace me !''
"Disgrace you!" he echoed scornfully. "That remark comes rather late, seeing you have disgraced yourself!"
But she was now fairly roused. All the savagery and obstinacy of her nature was awakened, and she stood like some beautiful wild animal at bay, trembling from head to foot with the violence of her emotions.
"You repulse me,—you scorn me!" she muttered in hurried fierce accents that scarcely rose above an angry whisper. "You make a mockery of my heart's anguish and despair, but you shall suffer for it! I am your match,—nay your equal! You shall not spurn me a second time. You ask, will I love you when I know who you are,—it is your pleasure to deal in mysteries, but I have no mysteries—I am a woman who loves you with all the passion of a life,—and I will murder myself and you, rather than live to know that I have prayed you for your love in vain. Do you think I came unprepared?—no !" and she suddenly drew from her bosom a short steel dagger with a jewelled hilt, a curio I recognised as one of the gifts to her on her marriage. "Love me, I say !—or I will stab myself dead here at your feet and cry out to Geoffrey that you have murdered me!"
She raised the weapon aloft. I almost sprang forward—but I drew back again quickly as I saw Lucio seize the hand that held the dagger and draw it firmly down,—while wresting the weapon from her clutch he snapped it asunder and flung the pieces on the floor.
"Your place was the stage, Madam!" he said. "You should have been the chief female mime at some 'highclass' theatre! You would have adorned the boards, drawn the mob, had as many lovers, stagey and private, as you pleased, been invited to act at Windsor, obtained a paymentjewel from the Queen, and written your name in her autograph album! That should undoubtedly have been your 'great' career—you were born for it—made for it! You would have been as brute-souled as you are now,—but that would not have mattered,—mimes are exempt from chastity!"'
In the action of breaking the dagger, and in the intense bitterness of his speech he had thrust her back a few paces from him, and she stood breathless and white with rage, eyeing him in mingled passion and terror. For a moment she was silent,—then advancing slowly with the feline suppleness of movement which had given her a reputation for grace exceeding that of any woman in England, she said in deliberately measured accents—
"Lucio Rimanez, I have borne your insults as I would bear my death at your hands because I love you! You loathe me, you say—you repulse me,—I love you still! You cannot cast me off—I am yours. You shall love me, or I will die,—one of the two. Take time for thought,—I leave you to-night,— I give you all tomorrow to consider,—love me,—give me yourself—be my lover—and I will play the comedy of social life as well as any other woman,—so well that my husband shall never know. But refuse me again as you have refused me now, and I will make away with myself. I am not 'acting,'—I am speaking calmly and with conviction; I mean what I say."
"Do you?" queried Lucio coldly. "Let me congratulate you! Few women attain to such coherence!"
"I will put an end to this life of mine," she went on, paying no sort of heed to his words. "I cannot endure existence without your love, Lucio!" and a dreary pathos vibrated in her voice. "I hunger for the kisses of your lips,— the clasp of your arms! Do you know—do you ever think of your own power ?—the cruel, terrible power of your eyes, your speech, your smile,—the beauty which makes you more like an angel than a man,—and have you no pity? Do you think that ever a man was born like you?" He looked at her as she said this and a faint smile rested on his lips. "When you speak, I hear music—when you sing, it seems to me that I understand what the melodies of a poet's heaven must be;—surely, surely you know that your very looks are a snare to the warm weak soul of a woman! Lucio !"—and emboldened by his silence, she stole nearer to him—"meet me tomorrow in the lane near the cottage of Mavis Clare."
He started as if he had been stung—but not a word escaped him.
"I heard all you said to her the other night," she continued, advancing yet a step closer to his side. "I followed you,—and I listened. I was well-nigh mad with jealousy—I thought—I feared—you loved her,—but I was wrong. I never do thank God for anything,—but I thanked God that night that I was wrong! She was not made for you—I am! Meet me outside her house, where the great white rose-tree is in bloom—gather one, one of those little autumnal roses and give it to me—I shall understand it as a signal—a signal that I may come to you tomorrow night, and not be cursed or repulsed, but loved—loved !—ah Lucio ! promise me !—one little rose !—the symbol of an hour's love !—then let me die,—I shall have had all I ask of life!"
With a sudden swift movement, she flung herself upon his breast, and circling her arms about his neck, lifted her face to his. The moonbeams showed me her eyes alit with rapture, her lips trembling with passion, her bosom heaving, … the blood surged up to my brain and a red mist swam before my sight, … would Lucio yield? Not he !—he loosened her desperate hands from about his throat and forced her back, holding her at arm's length.
"Woman, false and accursed !" he said in tones that were sonorous and terrific. "You know not what you seek! All that you ask of life shall be yours in death !—this is the law, therefore beware what demands you make lest they be too fully granted! A rose from the cottage of Mavis Clare ?—a rose from the garden of Eden !—they are one and the same to me! Not for my gathering or yours! Love and joy? For the unfaithful there is no love,—for the impure there is no joy. Add no more to the measure of my hatred and vengeance! Go while there is yet time,—go and front the destiny you have made for yourself—for nothing can alter it! And as for me, whom you love,—before whom you have knelt in idolatrous worship"—and a low, fierce laugh escaped him,—"why,— restrain your feverish desires, fair fiend !—have patience !—we shall meet ere long!"
I could not bear the scene another moment, and springing from my hiding-place I dragged my wife away from him and flung myself between them.
"Let me defend you, Lucio, from the pertinacities of this wanton!" I cried with a wild burst of laughter. "An hour ago I thought she was my wife,—I find her nothing but a purchased chattel who seeks a change of masters!"