For one instant we all three stood facing each other,—I breathless and mad with fury,—Lucio calm and disdainful,— my wife staggering back from me, half-swooning with fear. In an access of black rage, I rushed upon her and seized her in my arms.
"I have heard you !" I said, "I have seen you! I have watched you kneel before my true friend, my loyal comrade there, and try your best to make him as vile as yourself! I am that poor fool, your husband,—that blind egoist whose confidence you sought to win—and to betray! I am the unhappy wretch whose surplus of world's cash has bought for him in marriage a shameless courtesan! You dare to talk of love? You profane its very name! Good God !—what are such women as you made of? You throw yourselves into our arms,—you demand our care—you exact our respect—you tempt our senses—you win our hearts,—and then you make fools of us all! Fools, and worse than fools,—you make us men without feeling, conscience, faith, or pity! If we become criminals, what wonder! If we do things that shame our sex, is it not because you set us the example! God—God! I, who loved you,—yes, loved you in spite of all that my marriage with you taught me,—I, who would have died to save you from a shadow of suspicion,—I am the one out of all the world you choose to murder by your treachery!"
I loosened my grasp of her,—she recovered her self-possession by an effort and looked at me straightly with cold unfeeling eyes.
"What did you marry me for?" she demanded—" For my sake or your own ?''
I was silent,—too choked with wrath and pain to speak. All I could do was to hold out my hand to Lucio, who grasped it with a cordial and sympathetic pressure. Yet … I fancied he smiled!
"Was it because you desired to make me happy out of pure love for me?" pursued Sibyl, "or because you wished to add dignity to your own position by wedding the daughter of an Earl? Your motives were not unselfish,—you chose me simply because I was the beauty of the day, whom London men stared at and talked of,—and because it gave you a certain 'prestige' to have me for your wife, in the same way as it gave you a footing with Royalty to be the owner of the Derby-winner. I told you honestly what I was before our marriage,—it made no effect upon your vanity and egoism. I never loved you,—I could not love you, and I told you so. You have heard, so you say, all that has passed between me and Lucio,—therefore you know why I married you. I state it boldly to your face,—it was that I might have your intimate friend for my lover. That you should pretend to be scandalized at this, is absurd; it is a common position of things in France, and is becoming equally common in England. Morality has always been declared unnecessary for men,— it is becoming equally unnecessary for women!"
I stared at her, amazed at the glibness of her speech, and the cool convincing manner in which she spoke, after her recent access of passion and excitement.
"You have only to read the 'new' fiction," she went on, a mocking smile lighting up her pale face, "and indeed all 'new' literature generally, to be assured that your ideas of domestic virtue are quite out of date. Both men and women are, according to certain accepted writers of the day, at equal liberty to love when they will and where they may. Polygamous purity is the 'new' creed! Such love, in fact, so we are taught, constitutes the only 'sacred' union. If you want to alter this 'movement,' and return to the old-fashioned types of the modest maiden and the immaculate matron, you must sentence all the 'new' writers of profitable pruriency to penal servitude for life, and institute a Government censorship of the modern press. As matters stand, your attitude of the outraged husband is not only ridiculous,—it is unfashionable. I assure you I do not feel the slightest prick of conscience in saying I love Lucio,—any woman might be proud of loving him ;—he, however, will not, or cannot love me,— we have had a 'scene,' and you have completed the dramatic effect by witnessing it,—there is no more to be said or done in the affair. I do not suppose you can divorce me,—but if you can, you may—I shall make no defence.''
She turned, as if to go;—I still stared dumbly at her, finding no words to cope with her effrontery,—when Lucio's voice, attuned to a grave and soothing suavity, interposed—
"This is a very painful and distressing state of things," he said, and the strange half-cynical, half-contemptuous smile still rested on his lips—"but I must positively protest against the idea of divorce, not only for her ladyship's sake, but my own. I am entirely innocent in the matter!"
"Innocent!" I exclaimed, grasping him again by the hand. "You are nobility itself, Lucio !—as loyal a friend as ever man had. I thank you for your courage,—for the plain and honest manner in which you have spoken. I heard all you said! Nothing was too strong,—nothing could be too strong to awaken this misguided woman to a sense of her outrageous conduct,—her unfaithfulness ''
"Pardon me!" he interrupted delicately. "The Lady Sibyl can scarcely be called unfaithful, Geoffrey. She suffers,—from—let us call it, a little exaltation of nerves! In thought she may be guilty of infidelity, but society does not know that,—and in act she is pure,—pure as the newly-driven snow,—and as the newly-driven snow, will society, itself immaculate, regard her !''
His eyes glittered,—I met his chill derisive glance.
"You think as I do, Lucio !" I said hoarsely. "You feel with me, that a wife's unchaste thought is as vile as her unchaste act. There is no excuse,—no palliative for such cruel and abominable ingratitude. Why,"—and my voice rose unconsciously as I turned fiercely again towards Sibyl,— "did I not free you and your family from the heavy pressure of poverty and debt? Have I grudged you anything? Are you not loaded with jewels?—have you not greater luxuries and liberties than a queen? And do you not owe me at least some duty?"
"I owe you nothing !" she responded boldly. "I gave you what you paid for,—my beauty and my social position. It was a fair bargain!"
"A dear and bitter one!" I cried.
"Maybe so. But such as it was, you struck it,—not I. You can end it when you please,—the law … "
"The law will give you no freedom in such a case," interposed Lucio with a kind of satirical urbanity. "A judicial separation on the ground of incompatibility of temper might be possible certainly—but would not that be a pity? Her ladyship is unfortunate in her tastes,—that is all!—she selected me as her cavaliere servente, and I refused the situation,—hence there is nothing for it but to forget this unpleasant incident, and try to live on a better understanding for the future."
"Do you think," said my wife, advancing with her proud head uplifted in scorn, the while she pointed at me,—" do you think I will live with him after what he has seen and heard to-night? What do you take me for!"
"For a very charming woman of hasty impulses and unwise reasoning," replied Lucio with an air of sarcastic gallantry, "Lady Sibyl, you are illogical,—most of your sex are. You can do no good by prolonging this scene,—a most unpleasant and trying one to us poor men. You know how we hate 'scenes'! Let me beg of you to retire! Your duty is to your husband; pray heaven he may forget this midnight delirium of yours, and set it down to some strange illness rather than to any evil intention."
For all answer she came towards him, stretching out her arms in wild appeal.
"Lucio!" she cried—"Lucio, my love! Good-night!— Good-bye!"
I sprang between him and her advancing form.
"Before my very face!" I exclaimed. "O infamous woman! Have you no shame !''
"None!" she said, with a wild smile. "I glory in my love for such a king of worth and beauty! Look at him!—and then look at yourself in the nearest mirror that reflects so poor and mean a picture of a man! How, even in your egoism, could you deem it possible for a woman to love you when he was near! Stand out of the light!—you interpose a shadow between my god and me!"
As she uttered these mad words her aspect was so strange and unearthly, that out of sheer stupefied wonder I mechanically did as she bade me, and stood aside. She regarded me fixedly.
"I may as well say good-bye to you also," she observed, "for I shall never live with you again.""Nor I with you!" I said fiercely.
"Nor I with you—nor I with you!" she repeated like a child saying a lesson. "Of course not!—if I do not live with you, you cannot live with me!" She laughed discordantly; then turned her beseeching gaze once more upon Lucio,— "Good-bye!" she said.
He looked at her with a curious fixity, but returned no word in answer. His eyes flashed coldly in the moonlight like sharp steel, and he smiled. She regarded him with such passionate intentness that it seemed as though she sought to draw his very soul into herself by the magnetism of her glance, —but he stood unmoved, a very statue of fine disdain and intellectual self-repression. My scarcely controlled fury broke out again at the sight of her dumb yearning, and I gave vent to a shout of scornful laughter.
"By heaven, a veritable new Venus and reluctant Adonis!" I cried deliriously. "A poet should be here to immortalize so touching a scene! Go—go!" and I motioned her away with a furious gesture. "Go, if you do not want me to murder you! Go, with the proud consciousness that you have worked all the mischief and ruin that is most dear to the heart of a woman,—you have spoilt a life and dishonoured a name, —you can do no more,—your feminine triumph is complete! Go!—would to God I might never see your face again!— would to God I had been spared the misery of having married you!"
She paid no attention whatever to my words, but kept her eyes fixed on Lucio. Retreating slowly, she seemed to feel rather than see her way to the winding stair, and there, turning, she began to ascend. Half way up she paused—looked back and fully confronted us once more,—with a wild wicked rapture on her face she kissed her hands to Lucio, smiling like a spectral woman in a dream,—then she went onward and upward, step by step, till the last white fold of her robe had vanished,—and we two,—my friend and I,—were alone. Facing one another we stood, silently,—I met his sombre eyes and thought I read an infinite compassion in them!—then,— while I yet looked upon him, something seemed to clutch my throat and stop my breathing,—his dark and beautiful countenance appeared to me to grow suddenly lurid as with fire,— a coronal of flame seemed to tremble above his brows,—the moonlight glistened blood-red,—a noise was in my ears of mingled thunder and music as though the silent organ at the end of the gallery were played by hands invisible;—struggling against these delusive sensations, I involuntarily stretched out my hands …
"Lucio! … " I gasped—"Lucio … my friend! … I think, … Iam, … dying! My heart is broken!"
As I spoke, a great blackness closed over me,—and I fell senseless.