"From the moment I saw Lucio Rimanez," went on Sibyl's 'dying speech,' "I abandoned myself to love and the desire of love. I had heard of him before from my father, who had (as I learned to my shame) been indebted to him for monetary assistance. On the very night we met, my father told me quite plainly that now was my chance to get 'settled' in life. 'Marry Rimanez or Tempest, whichever you can most easily catch,' he said. 'The prince is fabulously wealthy—but he keeps up a mystery about himself and no one knows where he actually comes from,—besides which, he dislikes women;— now Tempest has five millions and seems an easy-going fool, —I should say you had better go for Tempest.' I made no answer and gave no promise either way. I soon found out, however, that Lucio did not intend to marry,—and I concluded that he preferred to be the lover of many women, instead of the husband of one. I did not love him any the less for this,—I only resolved that I would at least be one of those who were happy enough to share his passion. I married the man Tempest, feeling that, like many women I knew, I should, when safely wedded, have greater liberty of action,—I was aware that most modern men prefer an amour with a married woman to any other kind of liaison,—and I thought Lucio would have readily yielded to the plan I had pre-conceived. But I was mistaken,—and out of this mistake comes all my perplexity, pain and bewilderment. I cannot understand why my love,—beloved beyond all word and thought,— should scorn me and repulse me with such bitter loathing! It is such a common thing now-a-days for a married woman to have her own lover apart from her husband de convenance! The writers of books advise it,—I have seen the custom not only excused but advocated, over and over again, in long and scientific articles that are openly published in leading magazines. Why then should I be blamed or my desires considered criminal? As long as no public scandal is made, what harm is done? I cannot see it,—it is not as if there were a God to care,—the scientists say there is no God.
I was very startled just now. I thought I heard Lucio's voice calling me. I have walked through the rooms looking everywhere, and I opened my door to listen, but there is no one. I am alone. I have told the servant not to disturb me till I ring; … I shall never ring! Now I come to think of it, it is singular that I have never known who Lucio really is. A prince, he says—and that I can well believe,—though truly princes now-a-days are so plebeian and common in looks and bearing that he seems too great to belong to so shabby a fraternity. From what kingdom does he come?—to what nation does he belong? These are questions which he never answers save equivocally.
I pause here, and look at myself in the mirror. How beautiful I am! I note with admiration the deep and dewy lustre of my eyes, and their dark silky fringes,—I see the delicate colouring of my cheeks and lips,—the dear rounded chin, with its pretty dimple,—the pure lines of my slim throat and snowy neck,—the glistening wealth of my long hair. All this was given to me for the attraction and luring of men, but my love, whom I love with all this living, breathing, exquisite being of mine, can see no beauty in me, and rejects me with such scorn as pierces my very soul. I have knelt to him,—I have prayed to him,—I have worshipped him,—in vain! Hence it comes that I must die. Only one thing he said that had the sound of hope, though the utterance was fierce, and his looks were cruel,—'Patience!' he whispered—'we shall meet ere long!' What did he mean?—what possible meeting can there be now, when death must close the gate of life, and even love would come too late!
I have unlocked my jewel-case and taken from it the deadly thing secreted there,—a poison that was entrusted to me by one of the physicians who lately attended my mother. 'Keep this under lock and key,' he said, 'and be sure that it is used only for external purposes. There is sufficient in this flask to kill ten men if swallowed by mistake.' I look at it wonderingly. It is colourless,—and there is not enough to fill a teaspoon, … yet … it will bring down upon me an eternal darkness, and close up for ever the marvellous scenes of the universe! So little !—to do so much! I have fastened Lucio's wedding-gift round my waist,—the beautiful snake of jewels that clings to me as though it were charged with an embrace from him,—ah! would I could cheat myself into so pleasing a fancy! … I am trembling, but not with cold or fear,—it is simply an excitation of the nerves,—an instinctive recoil of flesh and blood at the near prospect of death … How brilliantly the sun shines through my window !—its callous golden stare has watched so many tortured creatures die without so much as a cloud to dim its radiance by way of the suggestion of pity! If there were a God, I fancy He would be like the sun,—glorious, changeless, unapproachable, beautiful, but pitiless!
Out of all the various types of human beings I think I hate the class called poets most. I used to love them and believe in them; but I know them now to be mere weavers of lies,— builders of cloud castles in which no throbbing life can breathe, no weary heart find rest. Love is their chief motive,—they either idealize or degrade it,—and of the love we women long for most they have no conception. They can only sing of brute passion or ethical impossibilities,—of the mutual great sympathy, the ungrudging patient tenderness that should make love lovely, they have no sweet things to say. Between their strained sestheticism and unbridled sensualism, my spirit has been stretched on the rack and broken on the wheel, … I should think many a wretched woman wrecked among love's disillusions must curse them as I do!
I am ready now, I think. There is nothing more to say. I offer no excuses for myself. I am as I was made,—a proud and rebellious woman, self-willed and sensual, seeing no fault in free love, and no crime in conjugal infidelity,—and if I am vicious, I can honestly declare that my vices have been encouraged and fostered in me by most of the literary teachers of my time. I married, as most women of my set marry, merely for money,—I loved, as most women of my set love, for mere bodily attraction,—I die, as most women of my set will die, either naturally or self-slain, in utter atheism, rejoicing that there is no God and no Hereafter.
I had the poison in my hand a moment ago, ready to take, when I suddenly felt someone approaching me stealthily from behind, and glancing up quickly at the mirror I saw … my mother! Her face, hideous and ghastly as it had been in her last illness, was reflected in the glass, peering over my shoulder 1 I sprang up and confronted her, she was gone! And now I am shivering with cold, and I feel a chill dampness on my forehead,—mechanically I have soaked a handkerchief with perfume from one of the silver bottles on the dressing table, and have passed it across my temples to help me recover from this sick swooning sensation. To recover !—how foolish of me, seeing I am about to die. I do not believe in ghosts,—yet I could have sworn my mother was actually present just now,—of course it was an optical delusion of my own feverish brain. The strong scent on my handkerchief reminds me of Paris—I can see the shop where I bought this particular perfume, and the well-dressed doll of a man who served me, with his little waxed moustache and his indefinable French manner of conveying a speechless personal compliment while making out a bill… . Laughing at this recollection I see my face radiate in the glass,—my eyes flash into vivid lustre, and the dimples near my lips come and go, giving my expression an enchanting sweetness. Yet in a few hours this loveliness will be destroyed,—and in a few days, the worms will twine where the smile is now!
An idea has come upon me that perhaps I ought to say a prayer. It would be hypocritical,—but conventional. To die fashionably, one ought to concede a few words to the church. And yet … to kneel down with clasped hands and tell an inactive, unsympathetic, selfish, paid community called a church, that I am going to kill myself for the sake of love and love's despair, and that therefore I humbly implore its forgiveness for the act, seems absurd,—as absurd as to tell the same thing to a non-existent Deity. I suppose the scientists do not think what a strange predicament their advanced theories put the human mind in at the hour of death. They forget that on the brink of the grave, thoughts come that will not be gainsaid, and that cannot be appeased by a learned thesis… . However, I will not pray,—it would seem to myself cowardly that I, who have never said my prayers since I was a child, should run over them now in a foolish babbling attempt to satisfy the powers invisible,—I could not, out of sheer association, appeal to Mr Swinburne's 'crucified carrion'! Besides I do not believe in the powers invisible at all,—I feel that once outside this life, 'the rest,' as Hamlet said, 'is silence.'
I have been staring dreamily and in a sort of stupefaction at the little poison-flask in my hand. It is quite empty now. I have swallowed every drop of the liquid it contained,—I took it quickly and determinately as one takes nauseous medicine without allowing myself another moment of time for thought or hesitation. It tasted acrid and burning on my tongue,— but at present I am not conscious of any strange or painful result. I shall watch my face in the mirror and trace the oncoming of death,—this will be at any rate a new sensation not without interest.
My mother is here,—here with me in this room! She is moving about restlessly, making wild gestures with her hands and trying to speak. She looks as she did when she was dying,—only more alive, more sentient. I have followed her up and down, but am unable to touch her,—she eludes my grasp. I have called her 'Mother! Mother!' but no sound issues from her white lips. Her face is so appalling that I was seized with a convulsion of terror a moment ago and fell on my knees before her imploring her to leave me,—and then she paused in her gliding to and fro and—smiled! What a hideous smile it was? I think I lost consciousness, … for I found myself lying on the ground. A sharp and terrible pain running through me made me spring to my feet, … and I bit my lips till they bled, lest I should scream aloud with the agony I suffered and so alarm the house. When the paroxysm passed I saw my mother standing quite near to me, dumbly watching me with a strange expression of wonder and remorse. I tottered past her and back to this chair where I now sit, … I am calmer now, and I am able to realize that she is only the phantom of my own brain—that I fancy she is here, while knowing she is dead.
Torture indescribable has made of me a writhing, moaning, helpless creature for the past few minutes. Truly that drug was deadly,—the pain is horrible … horrible! … it has left me quivering in every limb and palpitating in every nerve. Looking at my face in the glass I see that it has already altered. It is drawn and livid,—all the fresh rose-tint of my lips has gone,—my eyes protrude unnaturally, … there are dull blue marks at the corners of my mouth and in the hollows of my temples, and I observe a curious quick pulsation in the veins of my throat. Be my torment what it will, now there is no remedy,—and I am resolved to sit here and study my own features to the end. 'The reaper whose name is Death' must surely be near, ready to gather my long hair in his skeleton hand like a sheaf of ripe corn, … my poor beautiful hair!—how I have loved its glistening ripples, and brushed it, and twined it round my fingers, … and how soon it will lie like a dank weed in the mould!
A devouring fire is in my brain and body,—I am burning with heat, and parched with thirst,—I have drunk deep draughts of cold water, but this has not relieved me. The sun glares in upon me like an open furnace,—I tried to rise and close the blind against it, but find I have no force to stand upright. The strong radiance blinds me:—the silver toilet boxes on my table glitter like so many points of swords. It is by a powerful effort of will that I am able to continue writing,—my head is swimming round, and there is a choking sensation in my throat.
A moment since I thought I was dying. Torn asunder as it were by the most torturing pangs, I could have screamed for help,—and would have done so, had voice been left me. But I cannot speak above a whisper,—I mutter my own name to myself, Sibyl! Sibyl!' and can scarcely hear it. My mother stands beside me,—apparently waiting;—a little while ago I thought I heard her say ' Come, Sibyl! Come to your chosen lover!' Now I am conscious of a great silence everywhere, … a numbness has fallen upon me, and a delicious respite from pain,—but I see my face in the glass and know it is the face of the dead. It will soon be all over,—a few more uneasy breathings,—and I shall be at rest. I am glad, for the world and I were never good friends;—I am sure that if we could know, before we were born, what life really is, we should never take the trouble to live.
A horrible fear has suddenly beset me. What if death were not what the scientists deem it,—suppose it were another form of life? Can it be that I am losing reason and courage together? … or what is this terrible misgiving that is taking possession of me? … I begin to falter … a strange sense of horror is creeping over me … I have no more physical pain, but something worse than pain oppresses me … a feeling that I cannot define. I am dying … dying!—I repeat this to myself for comfort … in a little while I shall be deaf and blind and unconscious … why then is the silence around me now broken through by sound? I listen, and I hear distinctly the clamour of wild voices mingled with a sullen jar and roll as of distant thunder! … My mother stands closer to me, … she is stretching out her hand to touch mine!
O God! … Let me write—write—while I can! Let me yet hold fast the thread which fastens me to earth,—give me time—time before I drift out, lost in yonder blackness and flame! Let me write for others the awful Truth, as I see it,— there is No death! None—none !—/ cannot die! I am passing out of my body,—I am being wrenched away from it inch by inch in inexplicable mystic torture,—but I am not dying, —I am being carried forward into a new life, vague and vast … I see a new world full of dark forms, half shaped yet shapeless,—they float towards me beckoning me on! I am actively conscious—I hear, I think, I know! Death is a mere human dream,—a comforting fancy; it has no real existence, —there is nothing in the Universe but Life. O hideous misery !—/ cannot die / In my mortal body I can scarcely breathe,—the pen I try to hold writes of itself rather than through my shaking hand,—but these pangs are the throes of birth—not death! … I hold back,—with all the force of my soul I strive not to plunge into that black abyss I see before me—but—my mother drags me with her,—I cannot shake her off. I hear her voice now;—she speaks distinctly, and laughs as though she wept, … 'Come, Sibyl! Soul of the child I bore, come and meet your lover! Come and see upon Whom you fixed your faith! Soul of the woman I trained, return to that from whence you came!' Still I hold back,— nude and trembling I stare into a dark void,—and now there are wings about me,—wings of fiery scarlet!—they fill the space,—they enfold me,—they propel me,—they rush past and whirl around me stinging me as with flying arrows and showers of hail!
Let me write on,—write on with this dead fleshly hand, … one moment more time, dread God! … one moment more to write the Truth,—the terrible truth of death whose darkest secret, Life, is unknown to men. I live!—a new, strong, impetuous vitality possesses me, though my mortal body is nearly dead. Faint gasps and weak shudderings affect it still, —and I, outside it and no longer of it, propel its perishing hand to write these final words—I live I To my despair and terror,—to my remorse and agony, I live !—oh, the unspeakable misery of this new life! And worst of all, God whom I doubted, God whom I was taught to deny,—this wronged, blasphemed and outraged God Exists! And I could have found Him had I chosen,—this knowledge is forced upon me as I am torn from hence,—it is shouted at me by a thousand wailing voices! … too late !—too late !—the scarlet wings beat me downward,—these strange half-shapeless forms close round and drive me onward … to a further darkness, … amid wind and fire!
Serve me, dead hand, once more ere I depart, … my tortured spirit must seize and compel you to write down this thing unnamable, that earthly eyes may read, and earthly souls take timely warning! … I know at last WHOM I have loved !—whom I have chosen, whom I have worshipped! … O God, have mercy! … I know WHO claims my worship now and drags me into yonder rolling world of flame! … his name is"
Here the manuscript ended,—incomplete and broken off abruptly,—and there was a blot on the last sentence as though the pen had been violently wrenched from the dying fingers and hastily flung down.
The clock in the west room again chimed the hour. I rose stiffly from my chair, trembling,—my self-possession was giving way, and I began to feel at last unnerved. I looked askance at my dead wife,—she, who with a superhuman dying effort had declared herself to be yet alive,—who, in some imaginable strange way had seemingly written after death, in a frantic desire to make some appalling declaration which nevertheless remained undeclared. The rigid figure of the corpse had now real terrors for me,—I dared not touch it,—I scarcely dared to look at it, … in some dim inscrutable fashion I felt as if 'scarlet wings' environed it, beating me down, yet pressing me on,—me too, in my turn. With the manuscript gathered close in my hand, I bent nervously forward to blow out the wax lights on the toilet table, … I saw on the floor the handkerchief odorous with the French perfume the dead woman had written of,—I picked it up and placed it near her where she sat grinning hideously at her own mirrored ghastliness. The flash of the jewelled serpent round her waist caught my eyes anew as I did this, and I stared for a moment at its green glitter, dumbly fascinated,— then, moving stealthily with the cold sweat pouring down my back and every pulse in me rendered feeble by sheer horror, I turned to leave the room. As I reached the portiere and lifted it, some instinct made me look back at the dread picture of the leading 'society' beauty sitting stark and lividpale before her own stark and livid-pale image in the glass,— what a 'fashion-plate' she would make now, I thought, for a frivolous and hypocritical 'ladies' paper!'
"You say you are not dead, Sibyl!" I muttered aloud— "Not dead, but living. Then, if you are alive, where are you, Sibyl? where are you?"
The heavy silence seemed fraught with fearful meaning,— the light of the electric lamps on the corpse and on the shimmering silk garment wrapped round it appeared unearthly,— and the perfume in the room had a grave-like earthy smell. A panic seized me, and dragging frantically at the portiere till all its velvet folds were drawn thickly together, I made haste to shut out from my sight the horrible figure of the woman whose bodily fairness I had loved in the customary way of sensual men,—and left her without so much as a pardoning or pitying kiss of farewell on the cold brow. For, … after all I had Myself to think of, … and She was dead!