Oh, the blessedness of absolute unconsciousness! It is enough to make one wish that death were indeed annihilation! Utter oblivion,—complete destruction,—surely this would be a greater mercy to the erring soul of man than the terrible God's-gift of Immortality,—the dazzling impress of that divine 'Image' of the Creator in which we are all made, and which we can never obliterate from our beings. I, who have realized to the full the unalterable truth of eternal life,— eternal regeneration for each individual spirit in each individual human creature, look upon the endless futures through which I am compelled to take my part with something more like horror than gratitude. For I have wasted my time and thrown away priceless opportunities,—and though repentance may retrieve these, the work of retrieval is long and bitter. It is easier to lose a glory than to win it; and if I could have died the death that positivists hope for at the very moment when I learned the full measure of my heart's desolation, surely it would have been well! But my temporary swoon was only too brief,—and when I recovered I found myself in Lucio'sown apartment, one of the largest and most sumptuously furnished of all the guest-chambers at Willowsmere,—the windows were wide open, and the floor was flooded with moonlight. As I shuddered coldly back to life and consciousness, I heard a tinkling sound of tune, and opening my eyes wearily I saw Lucio himself seated in the full radiance of the moon with a mandoline on his knee from which he was softly striking delicate impromptu melodies. I was amazed at this,—astounded that while I personally was overwhelmed with a weight of woe, he should still be capable of amusing himself. It is a common idea with us all that when we ourselves are put out, no one else should dare to be merry,—in fact we expect Nature itself to wear a miserable face if our own beloved Ego is disturbed by any trouble,— such is the extent of our ridiculous self-consciousness. I moved in my chair and half rose from it,—when Lucio, still thrumming the strings of his instrument piano pianissimo, said—
"Keep still, Geoffrey. You'll be all right in a few minutes. Don't worry yourself."
"Worry myself!" I echoed bitterly. "Why not say don't kill yourself!"
"Because I see no necessity to offer you that advice at present," he responded coolly—"and if there were necessity, I doubt if I should give it,—because I consider it better to kill one's self than worry one's self. However opinions differ. I want you to take this matter lightly.''
"Lightly !—take my own dishonour and disgrace lightly!" I exclaimed, almost leaping from my chair. "You ask too much!"
"My good fellow, I ask no more than is asked and expected of a hundred 'society' husbands to-day. Consider !—your wife has been led away from her soberer judgment and reasoning by an exalted and hysterical passion for me on account of my looks,—not for myself at all—because she really does not know Me,—she only sees me as I appear to be. The love of handsome exterior personalities is a common delusion of the fair sex—and passes in time like other women's diseases. No actual dishonour or disgrace attaches to her or to you,—nothing has been seen, heard, or done in public. This being so, I can't understand what you are making a fuss about. The great object of social life, you know, is to hide all savage passions and domestic differences from the gaze of the vulgar crowd. You can be as bad as you like in private— only God sees—and that does not matter!"
His eyes had a mocking lustre in them,—twanging his mandoline, he sang under his breath—
"If she be not fair for me What care I how fair she be I"
"That is the true spirit, Geoffrey," he went on. "It sounds flippant to you no doubt in your present tragic frame of mind—but it is the only way to treat women, in marriage or out of it. Before the world and society your wife is like Caesar's, above suspicion. Only you and I (we will leave God out) have been the witnesses of her attack of hysteria … "
"Hysteria, you call it! She loves you!" I said hotly. "And she has always loved you. She confessed it,—and you admitted that you always knew it!"
"I always knew she was hysterical—yes—if that is what you mean," he answered. "The majority of women have no real feelings, no serious emotions—except one—vanity. They do not know what a great love means,—their chief desire is for conquest,—and failing in this, they run up the gamut of baffled passion to the pitch of frenetic hysteria, which with some becomes chronic. Lady Sibyl suffers in this way. Now listen to me. I will go off to Paris or Moscow or Berlin at once,— after what has happened of course I cannot stay here,—and I give you my word I will not intrude myself into your domestic circle again. In a few days you will tide over this rupture, and learn the wisdom of supporting the differences that occur in matrimony, with composure"
"Impossible! I will not part with you!" I said vehemently. "Nor will I live with her! Better the companionship of a true friend than that of a false wife!"
He raised his eyebrows with a puzzled half-humorous expression—then shrugged his shoulders, as one who gives up a difficult argument. Rising, he put aside his mandoline and came over to me, his tall imposing figure casting a gigantic shadow in the brilliant moonbeams.
"Upon my word, you put me in a very awkward position, Geoffrey,—what is to be done? You can get a judicial separation if you like, but I think it would be an unwise course of procedure after barely four months of marriage. The world would be set talking at once. Really it is better to do anything than give the gossips a chance for floating scandal. Look here—don't decide anything hastily,—come up to town with me for a day, and leave your wife alone to meditate upon her foolishness and its possible consequences, —then you will be better able to judge as to your future movements. Go to your room and sleep till morning."
"Sleep!" I repeated with a shudder. "In that room
where she "I broke off with a cry and looked at him
imploringly. "Am I going mad I wonder! My brain seems on fire! If I could forget! … if I could forget! Lucio —if you, my loyal friend, had been false to me I should have died,—your truth, your honour have saved me !''
He smiled—an odd, cynical little smile.
"Tut—I make no boast of virtue," he rejoined. "If the lady's beauty had been any temptation to me I might have yielded to her charms,—in so doing I should have been no more than man, as she herself suggested. But perhaps I am more than man ! at anyrate bodily beauty in woman makes no sort of effect on me, unless it is accompanied by beauty of soul,—then it does make an effect, and a very extraordinary one. It provokes me to try how deep the beauty goes— whether it is impervious or vulnerable. As I find it, so I leave it."
I stared wearily at the moonlight patterns on the floor.
"What am I to do?" I asked. "What would you advise?"
"Come up to town with me," he replied. "You can leave a note for your wife, explaining your absence,—and at one of the clubs we will talk over the matter quietly, and decide how best to avoid a social scandal. Meanwhile, go to bed. If you won't go back to your own room, sleep in the spare one next to mine.''
I rose mechanically and prepared to obey him. He watched me furtively.
"Will you take a composing draught if I mix it for you?" he said. "It's harmless, and will give you a few hours' sleep."
"I would take poison from your hand!" I answered recklessly. "Why don't you mix that for me?—and then, … then I should sleep indeed,—and forget this horrible night!"
"No,—unfortunately you would not forget!" he said, going to his dressing-case and taking out a small white powder which he dissolved gradually in a glass of water. "That is the worst of what people call dying. I must instruct you in a little science by-and-by, to distract your thoughts. The scientific part of death,—the business that goes on behind the scenes you know—will interest you very much—it is highly instructive, particularly that section of it which I am entitled to call the regeneration of atoms. The brain-cells are atoms, and within these are other atoms called memories, curiously vital and marvellously prolific! Drink this," and he handed me the mixture he had prepared. "For temporary purposes it is much better than death—because it does numb and paralyze the conscious atoms for a little while, whereas death only liberates them to a larger and more obstinate vitality."
I was too self-absorbed to heed or understand his words, but I drank what he gave me submissively and returned the glass,—he still watched me closely for about a minute Then he opened the door of the apartment which adjoined his own.
"Throw yourself on that bed and close your eyes," he continued in somewhat peremptory accents. "Till morning breaks I give you a respite,"—and he smiled strangely,— "both from dreams and memories! Plunge into Oblivion, my friend !—brief as it is and as it must ever be, it is sweet! —even to a millionaire!"
The ironical tone of his voice vexed me,—I looked at him half reproachfully, and saw his proud beautiful face, pale as marble, clear cut as a cameo, soften as I met his eyes,—I felt he was sorry for me despite his love of satire,—and grasping his hand I pressed it fervently without offering any other reply. Then, going into the next room as he bade me, I lay down, and falling asleep almost instantly, I remembered no more.