The Sorrows of Satan

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Chapter 35

Thus ran the 'last document,' commencing abruptly and without prefix:

"I have made up my mind to die. Not out of passion or petulance,—but from deliberate choice, and, as I think, necessity. My brain is tired of problems,—my body is tired of life; it is best to make an end. The idea of death,— which means annihilation,—is very sweet to me. I am glad to feel that by my own will and act I can silence this uneasy throbbing of my heart, this turmoil and heat of my blood,— this tortured aching of my nerves. Young as I am, I have no delight now in existence,—I see nothing but my love's luminous eyes, his god-like features, his enthralling smile,— and these are lost to me. For a brief while he has been my world, life and time,—he has gone,—and without him there is no universe. How could I endure the slow, wretched, passing of hours, days, weeks, months and years alone?— though it is better to be alone than in the dull companionship of the self-satisfied, complacent and arrogant fool who is my husband. He has left me for ever, so he says in a letter the maid brought to me an hour ago. It is quite what I expected of him,—what man of his type could find pardon for a blow to his own amour propre! If he had studied my nature, entered into my emotions, or striven in the least to guide and sustain me,—if he had shown me any sign of a great, true love such as one sometimes dreams of and seldom finds,—I think I should be sorry for him now,—I should even ask his forgiveness for having married him. But he has treated me precisely as he might treat a paid mistress, —that is, he has fed me, clothed me, and provided me with money and jewels in return for making me the toy of his passions,—but he has not given me one touch of sympathy— one proof of self-denial or humane forbearance. Therefore, I owe him nothing. And now he, and my love who will not be my lover, have gone away together; I am free to do as I will with this small pulse within me called life, which is after all, only a thread, easily broken. There is no one to say me nay, or to hold my hand back from giving myself the final quietus. It is well I have no friends; it is good for me that I have probed the hypocrisy and social sham of the world, and that I have mastered the following hard truths of life,—that there is no love without lust,—no friendship without selfinterest,—no religion without avarice,—and no so-called virtue without its accompanying stronger vice. Who, knowing these things, would care to take part in them! On the verge of the grave I look back along the short vista of my years, and I see myself a child in this very place, this wooded Willowsmere; I can note how that life began to which I am about to put an end. Pampered, petted and spoilt, told that I must 'look pretty' and take pleasure in my clothes, I was even at the age of ten, capable of a certain amount of coquetry. Old rouis, smelling of wine and tobacco, were eager to take me on their knees and pinch my soft flesh;—they would press my innocent lips with their withered ones,—withered and contaminated by the kisses of cocottes and 'soiled doves' of the town !—I have often wondered how it is these men can dare to touch a young child's mouth, knowing in themselves what beasts they are! I see my nurse,—a trained liar and timeserver, giving herself more airs than a queen, and forbidding me to speak to this child or that child, because they were 'beneath' me;—then came my governess, full of a prurient prudery, as bad a woman in morals as ever lived, yet 'highly recommended' and with excellent references, and wearing an assumption of the strictest virtue, like many equally ' loose' clergymen's wives I have known. I soon found her out,—for even as a child I was painfully observant,—and the stories she and my mother's French maid used to tell, in lowered voices now and then broken by coarse laughter, were sufficient to enlighten me as to her true character. Yet, beyond having a supreme contempt for the woman who practised religious austerity outwardly and was at heart a rake, I gave small consideration to the difficult problem such a nature suggested. I lived,—how strange it seems that I should be writing now of myself, as past and done with !—yes, I lived in a dreamy, more or less idyllic state of mind, thinking without being conscious of thought, full of fancies concerning the flowers, trees and birds,—wishing for things of which I knew nothing,— imagining myself a queen at times, and again, a peasant. I was an omnivorous reader,—and I was specially fond of poetry. I used to pore over the mystic verse of Shelley, and judged him then as a sort of demi-god;—and never, even when I knew all about his life, could I realize him as a man with a thin, shrieking falsetto voice and 'loose' notions concerning women. But I am quite sure it was good for his fame that he was drowned in early youth with so many melancholy and dramatic surroundings,—it saved him, I consider, from a possibly vicious and repulsive old age. I adored Keats till I knew he had wasted his passion on a Fanny Brawn,—and then the glamour of him vanished. I can offer no reason for this, —I merely set down the fact. I made a hero of Lord Byron, —in fact he has always formed for me the only heroical type of poet. Strong in himself and pitiless in his love for women, he treated them for the most part as they merited, considering the singular and unworthy specimens of the sex it was his misfortune to encounter. I used to wonder, when reading these men's amorous lines, whether love would ever come my way, and what beatific state of emotion I should then enjoy. Then came the rough awakening from all my dreams,—childhood melted into womanhood,—and at sixteen I was taken up to town with my parents to 'know something of the ways and manners of society' before finally 'coming out.' Oh, those ways and manners! I learnt them to perfection! Astonished at first, then bewildered, and allowed no time to form any judgment on what I saw, I was hurried through a general vague 'impression' of things such as I had never imagined or dreamed of. While I was yet lost in wonderment, and kept constantly in companionship with young girls of my own rank and age, who nevertheless seemed much more advanced in knowledge of the world than I, my father suddenly informed me that Willowsmere was lost to us,—that he could not afford to keep it up,—and that we should return there no more Ah, what tears I shed!—what a fury of grief consumed me !—I did not then comprehend the difficult entanglements of either wealth or poverty ;—all I could realize was that the doors of my dear old home were closed upon me for ever. After that, I think I grew cold and hard in disposition; I had never loved my mother very dearly,—in fact I had seen very little of her, as she was always away visiting, if not entertaining visitors, and she seldom had me with her,—so that when she was suddenly struck down by a first shock of paralysis, it affected me but little. She had her doctors and nurses,—I had my governess still with me, and my mother's sister, Aunt Charlotte, came to keep house for us,—so I began to analyze society for myself, without giving any expression of my opinions on what I observed. I was not yet 'out,' but I went everywhere where girls of my age were invited, and perceived things without showing that I had any faculty of perception. I cultivated a passionless and cold exterior,—a listless, uninterested and frigid demeanour,—for I discovered that this was accepted by many people as dullness or stupidity, and that by assuming such a character, certain otherwise crafty persons would talk more readily before me, and betray themselves and their vices unawares. Thus my ' social education' began in grim earnest; —women of title and renown would ask me to their ' quiet teas,' because I was what they were pleased to call a 'harmless girl,'—'rather pretty, but dull,'—and allow me to assist them in entertaining the lovers who called upon them while their husbands were out. I remember on one occasion, a great lady famous for two things, her diamonds and her intimacy with the Queen, kissed her 'cavaliere servente,' a noted sporting earl, with considerable abandon in my presence. He muttered something about me,—I heard it;—but his amorous mistress merely answered in a whisper—' Oh, it's only Sibyl Elton,—she understands nothing.' Afterwards however, when he had gone, she turned to me with a grin and remarked—'You saw me kiss Bertie, didn't you? I often do; he's quite like my brother!' I made no reply—I only smiled vaguely; and the next day she sent me a valuable diamond ring, which I at once returned to her with a prim little note, stating that I was much obliged, but that my father considered me too young as yet to wear diamonds. Why do I think of these trifles now I wonder!—now when I am about to take my leave of life and all its lies! … There is a little bird singing outside my bedroom window,—such a pretty creature. I suppose it is happy ?—it should be, as it is not human… . The tears are in my eyes as I listen to its sweet warbling, and think that it will be living and singing still to-day at sunset when I am dead!

That last sentence was mere sentiment, for I am not sorry to die. If I felt the least regret about it I should not carry out my intention. I must resume my narrative,—for it is an analysis I am trying to make of myself, to find out if I can whether there are no excuses to be found for my particular disposition,—whether it is not after all the education and training I have had that have made me what I am, or whether indeed I was born evil from the first. The circumstances that surrounded me did not, at any rate, tend to soften or improve my character. I had just passed my seventeenth birthday, when one morning my father called me into his library and told me the true position of his affairs. I learned that he was crippled on all sides with debt,—that he lived on advances made to him by Jew usurers,—and that these advances were trusted to him solely on the speculation that I, his only daughter, would make a sufficiently rich marriage to enable him to repay all loans with heavy interest. He went on to say that he hoped I would act sensibly,—and that when any men showed indications of becoming suitors for my hand, I would, before encouraging them, inform him, in order that he might make strict enquiries as to their actual extent of fortune. I then understood, for the first time, that I was for sale. I listened in silence till he had finished,—then I asked him—' Love, I suppose, is not to be considered in the matter?' He laughed, and assured me it was much easier to love a rich man than a poor one, as I would find out after a little experience. He added, with some hesitation, that to help make both ends meet, as the expenses of town life were considerable, he had arranged to take a young American lady under his charge, a Miss Diana Chesney, who wished to be introduced into English society, and who would pay two thousand guineas a year to him for that privilege, and for Aunt Charlotte's services as chaperon. I do not remember now what I said to him when I heard this,—I know that my long suppressed feelings broke out in a storm of fury, and that for the moment he was completely taken aback by the force of my indignation. An American boarder in our house !—it seemed to me as outrageous and undignified as the conduct of a woman I once knew, who, favoured by the Queen's patronage with 'free' apartments in Kensington Palace, took from time to time on the sly, an American or Colonial 'paying-guest,' who adopted forthwith the address of Her Majesty's birthplace as her own, thus lowering the whole prestige of that historic habitation. My wrath however was useless;—the bargain was arranged,—my father, regardless of his proud lineage and the social dignity of his position, had degraded himself, in my opinion, to the level of a sort of superior lodging-house keeper,—and from that time I lost all my former respect for him. Of course it can be argued that I was wrong,—that I ought to have honoured him for turning his name to monetary account by loaning it out as a protective shield and panoply for an American woman without anything but the dollars of a vulgar 'railway-king' to back her up in society,—but I could not see it in that light. I retreated into myself more than ever,—and became more than pleasantly known for my coldness, reserve and hauteur. Miss Chesney came, and strove hard to be my friend,—but she soon found that impossible. She is a good-hearted creature I believe,—but she is badly bred and badly trained, as all her compatriots are, more or less, despite their smattering of an European education. I disliked her from the first, and have spared no pains to show it. Yet I know she will be Countess of Elton as soon as it is decently possible,—say, after the year's ceremonious mourning for my mother has expired, and perhaps three months' hypocritical wearing of black for me,—my father believes himself to be still young and passably good-looking, and he is quite incapable of resisting the fortune she will bring him. When she took up her fixed abode in our house, and Aunt Charlotte became her paid chaperon, I seldom went out to any social gatherings, for I could not endure the idea of being seen in her companionship. I kept to my own room a great deal, and thus secluded, read many books. All the fashionable fiction of the day passed through my hands, much to my gradual enlightenment, if not to my edification. One day,—a day that is stamped on my memory as a kind of turning-point in my life,—I read a novel by a woman which I did not at first entirely understand,—but on going over some of its passages a second time, all at once its horrible lasciviousness flashed upon me and filled me with such a genuine disgust that I flung it on the ground in a fit of loathing and contempt. Yet I had seen it praised in all the leading journals of the day; its obscenities were hinted as 'daring,'—its vulgarities were quoted as 'brilliant wit,'—in fact so many laudatory columns were written about it in the press that I resolved to read it again. Encouraged by the ' literary censors' of the time, I did so, and little by little the insidious abomination of it filtered into my mind and stayed there. I began to think about it,—and byand-by found pleasure in thinking about it. I sent for other books by the same tainted hand, and my appetite for that kind of prurient romance grew keener. At this particular juncture, as chance or fate would have it, an acquaintance of mine, the daughter of a Marchioness, a girl with large black eyes and those full protruding lips which remind one unconsciously of a swine's snout, brought me two or three odd volumes of the poems of Swinburne. Always devoted to poetry, and considering it to be the highest of the arts, and up to that period having been ignorant of this writer's work, I turned over the books with eagerness, expecting to enjoy the usual sublime emotions which it is the privilege and glory of the poet to inspire in mortals less divinely endowed than himself, and who turn to him

"for help to climb Beyond the highest peaks of time."

Now I should like, if I could do so, to explain clearly the effect of this satyr-songster upon my mind,—for I believe there are many women to whom his works have been deadlier than the deadliest poison, and far more soul-corrupting than any book of Zola's or the most pernicious of modern French writers. At first I read the poems quickly, with a certain pleasure in the mere swing and jangle of rhythm, and without paying much attention to the subject-matter of the verse,— but presently, as though a lurid blaze of lightning had stripped a fair tree of its adorning leaves, my senses suddenly perceived the cruelty and fiendish sensuality concealed under the ornate language and persuasive rhymes,—and for a moment I paused in my reading, and closed my eyes, shuddering and sick at heart. Was human nature as base and abandoned as this man declared it to be? Was there no God but Lust? Were men and women lower and more depraved in their passions and appetites than the very beasts? I mused and dreamed,—I pored over the 'Laus Veneris'—' Faustine' and 'Anactoria,' till I felt myself being dragged down to the brute level of the mind that conceived such outrages to decency. I drank in Swinburne's own fiendish contempt of God, and I read over and over again his verses 'Before a Crucifix' till I knew them by heart;—till they rang in my brain as persistently as any nursery jingle, and drove my thoughts into as haughty a scorn of Christ and His teachings as any unbelieving Jew. It is nothing to me now,— now, when without hope or faith or love, I am about to take the final plunge into eternal darkness and silence,—but for the sake of those who have the comfort of a religion, I ask, why, in a so-called Christian country, is such a hideous blasphemy as 'Before a Crucifix' allowed to circulate among the people without so much as one reproof from those who elect themselves judges of literature? I have seen many noble writers condemned unheard,—many have been accused of blasphemy, whose works tend quite the other way,—but these lines are permitted to work their cruel mischief unchecked, and the writer of them is glorified as though he were a benefactor to mankind instead of a corrupter. I quote them here, from bitter memory, that I may not be deemed as exaggerating their nature—

"So when our souls look back to thee, They sicken, seeing against thy side, Too foul to speak of or to see.

The leprous likeness of a bride, Whose kissing lips through his lips grown Leave their God rotten to the bone.

When we would see thee man, and know What heart thou had'st towards man indeed,

Lo, thy blood-blackened altars; lo, The lips of priests that pray and feed,

While their own hell's worm curls and licks

The poison of the crucifix.

Thou bad'st the children come to thee,—

What children now but curses come, What manhood in that God can be

Who sees their worship and is dumb?— No soul that lived, loved, wrought, and died Is this, their Carrion CrucifiedI

Nay, if their God and thou be one,

If thou and this thing be the same, Thou should'st not look upon the sun,

The sun grows haggard at thy name; Come down, be done with, cease, give o'er, Hide thyself, strive not, be no more."

From the time of reading this, I used to think of Christ as 'carrion crucified';—if I ever thought at all. I found out that no one had ever reproached Mr Swinburne for this term, —that it did not interfere with his chances for the Laureateship,—and that not even a priest of the church had been boldspoken or zealous enough in his Master's cause to publicly resent the shameless outrage. So I concluded that Swinburne must be right in his opinions, and I followed the lazy and unthinking course of social movement, spending my days with such literature as stored my brain with a complete knowledge of things evil and pernicious. Whatever soul I had in me was killed; the freshness of my mind was gone,—Swinburne, among others, had helped me to live mentally, if not physically, through such a phase of vice as had poisoned my thoughts for ever. I understand there is some vague law in existence about placing an interdiction on certain books considered injurious to public morals,—if there is such a rule, it has been curiously lax concerning the author of 'Anactoria'— who, by virtue of being a poet, passes unquestioned into many a home, carrying pollution into minds that were once cleanly and simple. As for me, after I had studied his verse to my heart's content, nothing remained sacred.—I judged men as beasts and women as little better,—I had no belief in honour, virtue or truth,—and I was absolutely indifferent to all things save one, and that was my resolve to have my own way as far as love was concerned. I might be forced to marry without love for purely money-considerations,—but all the same, love I would have, or what I called love;—not an 'ideal' passion by any means, but precisely what Mr Swinburne and a few of the most-praised novelists of the day had taught me to consider as love. I began to wonder when and how I should meet my lover,—such thoughts as I had at this time indeed would have made moralists stare and uplift their hands in horror,—but to the exterior world I was the very pink and pattern of maidenly decorum, reserve and pride. Men desired, but feared me; for I never gave them any encouragement, seeing as yet none among them whom I deemed worthy of such love as I could give. The majority resembled carefully trained baboons,— respectably clothed and artistically shaven,—but nevertheless all with the spasmodic grin, the leering eye and the uncouth gestures of the hairy woodland monster. When I was just eighteen I 'came out' in earnest,—that is, I was presented at Court with all the foolish and farcical pomp practised on such occasions. I was told before going that it was a great and necessary thing to be 'presented,'—that it was a guarantee of position and above all of reputation,—the Queen received none whose conduct was not rigidly correct and virtuous. What humbug it all was !—I laughed then, and I can smile now to think of it,—why, the very woman who presented me had two illegitimate sons, unknown to her lawful husband, and she was not the only playful sinner in the Court comedy! Some women were there that day whom since even / would not receive—so openly infamous are their lives and characters, yet they make their demure curtseys before the Throne at stated times and assume to be the very patterns of virtue and austerity. Now and then, it chances in the case of an exceedingly beautiful woman of whom all the others are jealous, that for her little slips she is selected as an 'example' and excluded from Court, while her plainer sisters, though sinning seventy times seven against all the laws of decency and morality, are still received,—but otherwise, there is very little real care exercised as to the character and prestige of the women whom the Queen receives. If any one of them is refused, it is certain she adds to her social enormities the greater crime of being beautiful, otherwise there would be no one to whisper away her reputation, i was what is called a 'success' on my presentation day. That is, I was stared at, and openly flattered by certain members of my sex who were too old and ugly to be jealous, and treated with insolent contempt by those who were young enough to be my rivals. There was a great crush to get into the Throne Room; and some of the ladies used rather strong language. One duchess, just in front of me, said to her companion—' Do as I do,—kick out! Bruise their shins for them—as hard as you can,—we shall get on faster then!' This choice remark was accompanied by the grin of a fishwife and the stare of a drab. Yet it was a ' great' lady who spoke,—not a Transatlantic importation, but a woman of distinguished lineage and connection. Her observation, however, was only one out of many similar speeches which I heard on all sides of me during the 'distinguished' melee,—a thoroughly ill-mannered 'crush,' which struck me as supremely vulgar and totally unfitting the dignity of our Sovereign's court. When I curtsied before the Throne at last, and saw the majesty of the Empire represented by a kindly faced old lady, looking very tired and bored, whose hand was as cold as ice when I kissed it, I was conscious of an intense feeling of pity for her in her high estate. Who would be a Monarch to be doomed to the perpetual receiving of a company of fools! I got through my duties quickly, and returned home more or less wearied out and disgusted with the whole ceremony,—and next day I found that my ' debut' had given me the position of a 'leading beauty' ; or in other words that I was now formally put up for sale. That is really what is meant by being 'presented' and 'coming out,'—these are the fancy terms of one's parental auctioneer. My life was now passed in dressing, having my photograph taken, giving 'sittings' to aspiring fashionable painters, and being 'inspected' by men with a view to matrimony. It was distinctly understood in society that I was not to be sold under a certain figure per annum,—and the price was too high for most would-be purchasers. How sick I grew of my constant exhibition in the marriage-market! What contempt and hatred was fostered in me for the mean and pitiable hypocrisies of my set! I was not long in discovering that money was the chief motive power of all social success,—that the proudest and highest personages in the world could be easily gathered together under the roof of any vulgar plebeian who happened to have enough cash to feed and entertain them. As an example of this, I remember a woman, ugly, passee and squint-eyed, who during her father's life was only allowed about half-a-crown a week as pocket-money up to her fortieth year,—and who, when that father died, leaving her in possession of half his fortune (the other half going to illegitimate children of whom she had never heard, he having always posed as a pattern of immaculate virtue), suddenly blossomed out as a ' leader' of fashion, and succeeded, through cautious scheming and ungrudging toadyism, in assembling some of the highest people in the land under her roof. Ugly and passee though she was, and verging towards fifty, with neither grace, wit, nor intelligence, through the power of her cash alone she invited Royal dukes and 'titles' generally to her dinners and dances,—and it is to their shame that they actually accepted her invitations. Such voluntary degradations on the part of really well-connected people I have never been able to understand,—it is not as if they were actually in want of food or amusement, for they have a surfeit of both every season,—and it seems to me that they ought to show a better example than to flock in crowds to the entertainments of a mere uninteresting and ugly nobody just because she happens to have money. I never entered her house myself, though she had the audacity to invite me,—I learned, moreover, that she had promised a friend of mine a hundred guineas if she could persuade me to make one appearance in her rooms. For my renown as a 'beauty,' combined with my pride and exclusiveness, would have given her parties a prestige greater than even Royalty could bestow,—she knew that and I knew that; and knowing it, never condescended to so much as notice her by a bow. But though I took a certain satisfaction in thus revenging myself on the atrocious vulgarity of parvenus and social interlopers, I grew intensely weary of the monotony and emptiness of what fashionable folks call 'amusement,' and presently falling ill of a nervous fever, I was sent down to the seaside for a few weeks' change of air with a young cousin of mine, a girl I rather liked because she was so different to myself. Her name was Eva Maitland—she was but sixteen and extremely delicate—poor little soul! she died two months before my marriage. She and I, and a maid to attend us, went down to Cromer,— and one day, sitting on the cliffs together, she asked me timidly if I knew an author named Mavis Clare? I told her no,—whereupon she handed me a book called ' The Wings of Psyche.'

"Do read it!" she said earnestly. "It will make you feel so happy!"

I laughed. The idea of a modern author writing anything to make one feel happy, seemed to me quite ludicrous, the aim of most of them being to awaken a disgust of life, and a hatred of one's fellow-creatures. However, to please Eva, I read 'The Wings of Psyche,'—and if it did not make me actually happy, it moved me to a great wonder and deep reverence for the woman-writer of such a book. I found out all about her,—that she was young, pretty, of a noble character and unblemished reputation, and that her only enemies were the press-critics. This last point was so much in her favour with me that I at once bought everything she had ever written, and her works became, as it were, my haven of rest. Her theories of life are strange, poetic, ideal and beautiful,—though I have not been able to accept them or work them out in my own case. I have always felt soothed and comforted for a while in the very act of wishing they were true. And the woman is like her books,—strange, poetic, ideal and beautiful,—how odd it is to think that she is within ten minutes' walk of me now !—I could send for her if I liked, and tell her all,—but she would prevent me carrying out my resolve. She would cling to me woman-like and kiss me, and hold my hands and say, 'No, Sibyl, no! You are not yourself,—you must come to me and rest!' An odd fancy has seized me, … I will open my window and call her very gently,—she might be in the garden coming here to see me,—and if she hears and answers, who knows !—why, perhaps my ideas may change, and fate itself may take a different course!

Well, I have called her. I have sent her name ' Mavis !' softly out on the sunshine and still air three times, and only a little brown namesake of hers, a thrush, swinging on a branch of fir, answered me with his low autumnal piping. Mavis! She will not come,—to-day God will not make her His messenger. She cannot guess—she does not know this tragedy of my heart, greater and more poignant than all the tragedies of fiction. If she did know me as I am, I wonder what she would think of me!

Let me go back to the time when love came to me,—love, ardent, passionate, and eternal! Ah, what wild joy thrilled through me! what mad ecstasy fired my blood !—what delirious dreams possessed my brain! I saw Lucio,—and it seemed as if the splendid eyes of some great angel had flashed a glory in my soul! With him came his friend, the foil to his beauty, —the arrogant, self-satisfied fool of a millionaire, Geoffrey Tempest,—he who bought me, and who by virtue of his purchase, is entitled by law to call himself my husband … "

Here I paused in my reading and looked up. The dead woman's eyes appeared now to regard me as steadily as herself in the opposite mirror,—the head was a little more dropped forward on the breast, and the whole face very nearly resembled that of the late Countess of Elton when the last shock of paralysis had rendered her hideous disfigurement complete.

"To think that I loved that!" I said aloud, pointing at the corpse's ghastly reflection. "Fool that I was indeed!—as great a fool as all men are who barter their lives for the possession of a woman's mere body! Why, if there were any life after death—if such a creature had a soul that at all resembled this poisoned clay, the very devils might turn away aghast from such a loathly comrade !''

The candles flickered, and the dead face seemed to smile,— a clock chimed in the adjoining room, but I did not count the hour,—I merely arranged the manuscript pages I held more methodically, and read on with renewed attention.


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