With the morning came full consciousness; I realized bitterly all that had happened, but I was no longer inclined to bemoan my fate. My senses were stricken, as it seemed, too numb and rigid for any further outbreak of passion. A hard callousness took the place of outraged feeling; and though despair was in my heart, my mind was made up to one stern resolve,—I would look upon Sibyl no more. Never again should that fair face, the deceitful mask of a false nature, tempt my sight and move me to pity or forgiveness,—that I determined. Leaving the room in which I had passed the night I went to my study and wrote the following letter:
After the degrading and disgraceful scene of last night you must be aware that any further intercourse between us is impossible. Prince Rimanez and I are leaving for London; we shall not return. You can continue to reside at Willowsmere,—the house is yours,—and the half of my fortune unconditionally settled upon you on our marriage-day will enable you to keep up the fashions of your 'set,' and live with that luxury and extravagance you deem necessary to an 'aristocratic' position. I have decided to travel,—and I intend to make such arrangements as may prevent, if possible, our ever meeting again, though I shall of course do my best for my own sake, to avoid any scandal. To reproach you for your conduct would be useless; you are lost to all sense of shame. You have abased yourself in the humiliation of a guilty passion before a man who despises you,—who, in his own loyal and noble nature, hates you for your infidelity and hypocrisy,—and I can find no pardon for the wrong you have thus done to me, and the injury you have brought upon my name. I leave you to the judgment of your own conscience, —if you have one,—which is doubtful. Such women as you are seldom troubled with remorse. It is not likely you will ever see me or the man to whom you have offered your undesired love, again,—make of your life what you can or will, I am indifferent to your movements, and for my own part, shall endeavour as much as may be, to forget that you exist. Your husband
This letter, folded and sealed, I sent to my wife in her own apartments, by her maid,—the girl came back and said she had delivered it, but that there was no answer. Her ladyship had a severe headache and meant to keep her room that morning. I expressed just as much civil regret as a confidential maid would naturally expect from the newly-wedded husband of her mistress,—and then, giving instructions to my man Morris to pack my portmanteau, I partook of a hurried breakfast with Lucio in more or less silence and constraint, for the servants were in attendance, and I did not wish them to suspect that anything was wrong. For their benefit, I gave out that my friend and I were called suddenly to town on urgent business,—that we might be absent a couple of days, perhaps longer,—and that any special message or telegram could be sent on to me at Arthur's Club. I was thankful when we at last got away,—when the tall picturesque red gables of Willowsmere vanished from my sight,—and when finally, seated in a railway smoking-carriage reserved for our two selves we were able to watch the miles of distance gradually extending between us and the beautiful autumnal woods of poet-haunted Warwickshire. For a long time we kept silence, turning over and pretending to read the morning's papers,—till presently flinging down the dull and wearisome 'Times' sheet, I sighed heavily, and leaning back, closed my eyes.
"I am truly very much distressed about all this," said Lucio then, with extreme gentleness and suavity. "It seems to me that I am the adverse element in the affair. If Lady Sibyl had never seen me"
"Why, then I should never have seen her.1" I responded bitterly. "It was through you I met her first."
"True!" and he eyed me thoughtfully. "lam very unfortunately placed!—it is almost as if I were to blame, though no one could be more innocent or well-intentioned than myself!" He smiled,—then went on very gravely— "I really should avoid scandalous gossip if I were you,—I do not speak of my own involuntary share in the disaster,— what people say of me is quite immaterial; but for the lady's sake"
"For my own sake I shall try to avoid it," I said brusquely, whereat his eyes glittered strangely. "It is myself I have to consider most of all. I shall, as I hinted to you this morning, travel for a few years.''
"Yes,—go on a tiger-hunting expedition in India," he suggested—" or kill elephants in Africa. It is what a great many men do when their wives forget themselves. Several well-known husbands are abroad just now !''
Again the brilliant enigmatical smile flashed over his face, —but I could not smile in answer. I stared moodily out of the window at the bare autumnal fields past which the train flew,—bare of harvest,—stripped of foliage—like my own miserable life.
"Come and winter with me in Egypt," he continued. "Come in my yacht 'The Flame,'—we will take her to Alexandria,—and then do the Nile in a dahabeah, and forget that such frivolous dolls as women exist, except to be played with by us 'superior' creatures and thrown aside.''
"Egypt—the Nile!" I murmured,—somehow the idea pleased me. "Yes,—why not ?''
"Why not indeed!" he echoed. "The proposal is agreeable to you I am sure. Come and see the land of the old gods, —the land where my princess used to live and torture the souls of men !—perhaps we may discover the remains of her last victim,—who knows!"
I avoided his gaze;—the recollection of the horrible winged thing he persisted in imagining to be the transmigrated soul of an evil woman, was repugnant to me. Almost I felt as if there were some subtle connection between that hateful creature and my wife Sibyl. I was glad when the train reached London, and we, taking a hansom, were plunged into the very vortex of human life. The perpetual noise of traffic, the motley crowds of people, the shouting of news-boys and omnibusconductors,—all this hubbub was grateful to my ears, and for a time at least, distracted my thoughts. We lunched at the Savoy, and amused ourselves with noting the town noodles of fashion,—the inane young man in the stocks of the stiff high collar, and wearing the manacles of equally stiff and exaggerated cuffs, a veritable prisoner in the dock of silly custom, the frivolous fool of a woman, painted and powdered, with false hair and dyed eyebrows, trying to look as much like a paid courtesan as possible,—the elderly matron, skipping forward on high heels, and attempting by the assumption of juvenile airs and graces to cover up and conceal the obtrusive facts of a too obvious paunch and overlapping bosom,—the would-be dandy and 'beau' of seventy, strangely possessed by youthful desires and manifesting the same by goat-like caperings at the heels of young married women,—these and suchlike contemptible units of a contemptible social swarm, passed before us like puppets at a country fair, and aroused us in turn to laughter or disdain. While we yet lingered over our wine, a man came in alone, and sat down at the table next to ours; —he had with him a book which, after giving his orders for luncheon, he at once opened at a marked place and began to read with absorbed attention. I recognised the cover of the volume and knew it to be Mavis Clare's "Differences." A haze floated before my sight,—a sensation of rising tears was in my throat,—I saw the fair face, earnest eyes and sweet smile of Mavis,—that woman-wearer of the laurel-crown,—that keeper of the lilies of purity and peace. Alas, those lilies !— they were for me
"des fleurs etranges* Avec leurs airs de sceptres d'anges;De thyrses lumineux pour doigts de seVaphins,— Leurs parfums sont trop torts, tout ensemble, et trop fins!"
I shaded my eyes with one hand,—yet under that shade I felt that Lucio watched me closely. Presently he spoke softly, just as if he had read my thoughts.
"Considering the effect a perfectly innocent woman has on the mind of even an evil man, it's strange, isn't it, that there are so few of them!"
I did not answer.
"In the present day," he went on, "there are a number of females clamouring like unnatural hens in a barn-yard about their ' rights' and ' wrongs.' Their greatest right, their highest privilege is to guide and guard the souls of men. This, they for the most part, throw away as worthless. Aristocratic women, royal women even, hand over the care of their children to hired attendants and inferiors, and then are surprised and injured if those children turn out to be either fools orguards. If I were controller of the State, I would make it a law that every mother should be bound to nurse and guard her children herself as nature intended, unless prevented by ill-health, in which case she would have to get a couple of doctors' certificates to certify the fact. Otherwise, any woman refusing to comply with the law should be sentenced to imprisonment with hard labour. This would bring them to their senses. The idleness, wickedness, extravagance and selfishness of women, make men the boors and egotists they are.''
I looked up.
"The devil is in the whole business," I said bitterly. "If women were good, men would have nothing to do with them. Look round you at what is called 'society'! How many men there are who deliberately choose tainted women for their wives, and leave the innocent uncared for! Take Mavis Clare"
*Edmond Rostand. 'La Prmcessc Loinlaine.'
"Oh you were thinking of Mavis Clare, were you?" he rejoined, with a quick glance at me. "But she would be a difficult prize for any man to win. She does not seek to be married,—and she is not uncared for, since the whole world cares for her.''
"That is a sort of impersonal love," I answered. "It does not give her the protection such a woman needs, and ought to obtain."
"Do you want to become her lover?" he asked with a slight smile. "I'm afraid you've no chance."
"I! Her lover! Good God!" I exclaimed, the blood rushing hotly to my face at the mere suggestion. .' What a profane idea!''
"You are right,—it is profane," he agreed, still smiling. "It is as though I should propose your stealing the sacramental cup from a church, with just this difference,—you might succeed in running off with the cup because it is only the church's property, but you would never succeed in winning Mavis Clare, inasmuch as she belongs to God. You know what Milton says:
'So dear to Heaven is saintly chastity That when a soul is found sincerely so, A thousand liveried angels lacquey her, Driving far off each thing of sin and guilt, And in clear dream and solemn vision Tell her of things which no gross ear can hear, Till oft converse with heavenly habitants Begin to cast a beam on th'outward shape The unpolluted temple of the mind, And turns it by degrees to the soul's essence Till all be made immortal I'"
He quoted the lines softly and with an exquisite gravity.
"That is what you see in Mavis Clare," he continued— "that 'beam on the outward shape' which 'turns it by degrees to the soul's essence,'—and which makes her beautiful without what is called beauty by lustful men."
I moved impatiently, and looked out from the window near which we were seated, at the yellow width of the flowing Thames below.
"Beauty, according to man's ordinary standard," pursued Lucio, "means simply good flesh,—nothing more. Flesh, arranged prettily and roundly on the always ugly skeleton beneath,—flesh, daintily coloured and soft to the touch without scar or blemish. Pienty of it too, disposed in the proper places. It is the most perishable sort of commodity,—an illness spoils it,—a trying climate ruins it,—age wrinkles it,— death destroys it,—but it is all the majority of men look for in their bargains with the fair sex. The most utter roue of sixty that ever trotted jauntily down Piccadilly pretending to be thirty, expects like Shylock his 'pound' or several pounds of youthful flesh. The desire is neither refined nor intellectual, but there it is,—and it is solely on this account that the 'ladies' of the music-hall become the tainted members and future mothers of the aristocracy.''
"It does not need the ladies of the music-hall to taint the already tainted!" I said.
"True!" and he looked at me with kindly commiseration. "Let us put the whole mischief down to the 'new' fiction!"
We rose then, having finished luncheon, and leaving the Savoy we went on to Arthur's. Here we sat down in a quiet corner and began to talk of our future plans. It took me very little time to make up my mind,—all quarters of the world were the same to me, and I was really indifferent as to where I went. Yet there is always something suggestive and fascinating about the idea of a first visit to Egypt, and I willingly agreed to accompany Lucio thither and remain the winter.
"We will avoid society," he said. "The well-bred, welleducated 'swagger' people who throw champagne-bottles at the Sphinx, and think a donkey-race 'ripping fun' shall not have the honour of our company. Cairo is full of such dancing dolls, so we will not stay there. Old Nile has many attractions; and lazy luxury on a dahabeah will soothe your overwrought nerves. I suggest our leaving England within a week."
I consented,—and while he went over to a table and wrote some letters in preparation for our journey, I looked through the day's papers. There was nothing to read in them,—for though all the world's news palpitates into Great Britain on obediently throbbing electric wires, each editor of each little pennyworth, being jealous of every other editor of every other pennyworth, only admits into his columns exactly what suits his politics or personally pleases his taste, and the interests of the public at large are scarcely considered. Poor, bamboozled, patient public !—no wonder it is beginning to think that a halfpenny spent on a newspaper which is only purchased to be thrown away, enough and more than enough. I was still glancing up and down the heavy columns of the Americanized "Pall Mall Gazette," and Lucio was still writing, when a page-boy entered with a telegram.
"Yes." And I snatched the yellow-covered missive and tore it open,—and read the few words it contained almost uncomprehendingly. They ran thus—
"Return at once. Something alarming has happened. Afraid to act without you. Mavis Clare."
A curious chill came over me,—the telegram fell from my hands on the table. Lucio took it up and glanced at it. Then, regarding me stedfastly, he said—
"Of course you must go. You can catch the four-forty train if you take a hansom."
"And you?" I muttered. My throat was dry and I could scarcely speak.
"I'll stay at the Grand, and wait for news. Don't delay a moment,—Miss Clare would not have taken it upon herself to send this message, unless there had been serious cause."
"What do you think—what do you suppose "I began.
He stopped me by a slight imperative gesture.
"I think nothing—I suppose nothing. I only urge you to start immediately. Come !''
And almost before I realized it, he had taken me with him out into the hall of the club, where he helped me on with my coat, gave me my hat, and sent for a cab to take me to the railway station. We scarcely exchanged farewells,—stupefied with the suddenness of the unexpected summons back to the home I had left in the morning, as I thought, for ever, I hardly knew what I was doing or where I was going, till I found myself alone in the train, returning to Warwickshire as fast as steam would bear me, with the gloom of the deepening dusk around me, and such a fear and horror at my heart as I dared not think of or define. What was the 'something alarming' that had happened? How was it that Mavis Clare had telegraphed to me? These, and endless other questions tormented my brain,—and I was afraid to suggest answers to any of them. When I arrived at the familiar station, there was no one waiting to receive me, so I hired a fly, and was driven up to my own house just as the short evening deepened into night. A low autumnal wind was sighing restlessly among the trees like a wandering soul in torment,—not a star shone in the black depths of the sky. Directly the carriage stopped, a slim figure in white came out under the porch to meet me,— it was Mavis, her angel's face grave and pale with emotion.
"It is you at last!" she said in a trembling voice. "Thank God you have come!"