I Pass overall the details of polite 'shock,' affected sorrow, and feigned sympathy of society at my wife's sudden death. No one was really grieved about it,—men raised their eyebrows, shrugged their shoulders, lit extra cigarettes and dismissed the subject as too unpleasant and depressing to dwell upon,—women were glad of the removal of a too beautiful and too much admired rival, and the majority of fashionable folk delighted in having something 'thrilling' to talk about in the tragic circumstances of her end. As a rule, people are seldom or never unselfish enough to be honestly sorry for the evanishment of some leading or brilliant figure from their midst,—the vacancy leaves room for the pushing in of smaller fry. Be sure that if you are unhappily celebrated for either beauty, wit, intellect, or all three together, half society wishes you dead already, and the other half tries to make you as wretched as possible while you are alive. To be missed at all when you die, some one must love you very deeply and unselfishly; and deep unselfish love is rarer to find among mortals than a pearl in a dust-bin.
Thanks to my abundance of cash, everything concerning Sibyl's suicide was admirably managed. In consideration of her social position as an Earl's daughter, two doctors certified (on my paying them very handsome fees) that hers was a 'death by misadventure,'—namely, through taking an accidental overdose of a powerful sleeping draught. It was the best report to make,—and the most respectable. It gave the penny press an opportunity of moralizing on the dangers that lurked in sleeping draughts generally,—and Tom, Dick, and Harry all wrote letters to their favourite periodicals (signing their names in full) giving their opinions as to the nature of sleeping draughts, so that for a week at least the ordinary dullness of the newspapers was quite enlivened by ungrammatical gratis 'copy.' The conventionalities of law, decency and order were throughout scrupulously observed and complied with,—everybody was paid (which was the chief thing), and everybody was, I believe, satisfied with what they managed to make out of the death-payment. The funeral gave joy to the souls of all undertakers,—it was so expensive and impressive. The florist's trade gained something of an impetus by the innumerable orders received for wreaths and crosses made of the costliest flowers. When the coffin was carried to the grave, it could not be seen for the load of blossoms that covered it. And amid all the 'cards' and 'loving tokens' and ' farewell dearests' and 'not-lost-but-gone-befores' that ticketed the white masses of lilies, gardenias and roses which were supposed to symbolize the innocence and sweetness of the poisoned corpse they were sent to adorn, there was not one honest regret,—not one unfeigned expression of true sorrow. Lord Elton made a sufficiently striking figure of dignified parental woe, but on the whole I think he was not sorry for his daughter's death, since the only opposing obstacle to his marriage with Diana Chesney was now removed. I fancy Diana herself was sorry, so far as such a frivolous little American could be sorry for anything,—perhaps, however, it would be more correct to say that she was frightened. Sibyl's sudden end startled and troubled her,—but I am not sure that it grieved her. There is such a difference between unselfish grief, and the mere sense of nervous personal shock! Miss Charlotte Fitzroy took the news of her niece's death with that admirable fortitude which frequently characterizes religious spinsters of a certain age. She put by her knitting,—said 'God's will be done !' and sent for her favourite clergyman. He came, stayed with her some hours drinking strong tea,— and the next morning at church administered to her the communion. This done, Miss Fitzroy went on the blameless and even tenor of her way, wearing the same virtuously distressed expression as usual, and showed no further sign of feeling. I, as the afflicted millionaire-husband, was no doubt the most interesting figure on the scene; I was, I know, very well got up, thanks to my tailor, and to the affectionate care of the chief undertaker who handed me my black gloves on the day of the funeral with servile solicitude, but in my heart I felt myself to be a far better actor than Henry Irving, and if only for my admirable mimicry of heart-break, more fully worthy of the acolade. Lucio did not attend the obsequies,—he wrote me a brief note of sympathy from town, and hinted that he was sure I could understand his reasons for not being present. I did understand of course,—and appreciated his respect, as I thought, for me and my feelings,—yet strange and incongruous as it may seem, I never longed so much for his company as I did then! However,—we had a glorious burial of my fair and false lady,—prancing horses drew coroneted carriages in a long defile down the pretty Warwickshire lanes to the grey old church, picturesque and peaceful, where the clergyman and his assistants in newly-washed surplices, met the flower-laden coffin, and with the usual conventional mumblings, consigned it to the dust. There were even press-reporters present, who not only described the scene as it did not happen, but who also sent fancy sketches, to their respective journals, of the church as it did not exist. I mention this simply to show how thoroughly all 'proper forms' were carried out and conceded to. After the ceremony all we 'mourners' went back to Willowsmere to luncheon, and I well remember that Lord Elton told me a new and risque joke over a glass of port before the meal was finished. The undertakers had a sort of festive banquet in the servants' hall,—and taking everything into due consideration, my wife's death gave a great deal of pleasure to many people, and put useful money into several ready pockets. She had left no blank in society that could not be easily filled up,—she was merely one butterfly out of thousands, more daintily colored perhaps and more restless in flight,—but never judged as more than up to the butterfly standard. I said no one gave her an honest regret, but I was wrong. Mavis Clare was genuinely, almost passionately grieved. She sent no flowers for the coffin, but she came to the funeral by herself, and stood a little apart waiting silently till the grave was covered in,—and then, just as the 'fashionable' train of mourners were leaving the churchyard, she advanced and placed a white cross of her own garden-lilies across the newly-turned brown mould. I noticed her action, and determined that before I left Willowsmere for the East with Lucio (for my journey had only been postponed a week or two on account of Sibyl's death) she should know all.
The day came when I carried out this resolve. It was a rainy and chill afternoon, and I found Mavis in her study, sitting beside a bright log fire with her small terrier in her lap and her faithful St Bernard stretched at her feet. She was absorbed in a book,—and over her watched the marble Pallas, inflexible and austere. As I entered she rose, and putting down the volume and her pet dog together, she advanced to meet me with an intense sympathy in her clear eyes, and a wordless pity in the tremulous lines of her sweet mouth. It was charming to see how sorry she felt for me,—and it was odd that I could not feel sorry for myself. After a few words of embarrassed greeting I sat down and watched her silently, while she arranged the logs in the fire to make them burn brighter, and for the moment avoided my gaze.
"I suppose you know"—I began with harsh abruptness— "that the sleeping-draught story is a polite fiction? You know that my wife poisoned herself intentionally?"
Mavis looked at me with a troubled and compassionate expression.
"I feared it was so—" … she began nervously.
"Oh there is nothing either to fear or to hope," I said with some violence. "She didit. And can you guess why she did it? Because she was mad with her own wickedness and sensuality,—because she loved with a guilty love, my friend Lucio Rimanez."
Mavis gave a little cry as of pain, and sat down white and trembling.
"You can read quickly, I am sure," I went on. "Part of the profession of literature is the ability to skim books and manuscripts rapidly, and grasp the whole gist of them in a few minutes,—read this—" and I handed her the rolled-up pages of Sibyl's dying declaration. "Let me stay here, while you learn from that what sort of a woman she was, and judge whether, despite her beauty, she is worth a regret."
"Pardon me," said Mavis gently—"I would rather not read what was not meant for my eyes."
"But it is meant for your eyes," I retorted impatiently. "It is meant for everybody's eyes apparently,—it is addressed *
to nobody in particular. There is a mention of you in it. I beg—nay I command you to read it!—I want your opinion on it,—your advice; you may possibly suggest, after perusal, the proper sort of epitaph I ought to inscribe on the monument I am going to build to her sacred and dear memory."
I covered my face with one hand to hide the bitter smile which I knew betrayed my thoughts, and pushed the manuscript towards her. Very reluctantly she took it,—and slowly unrolling it, began to read. For several minutes there was a silence, broken only by the crackling of the logs on the fire, and the regular breathing of the dogs who now both lay stretched comfortably in front of the wood blaze. I looked covertly at the woman whose fame I had envied,—at the girlish figure, the coronal of soft hair,—the delicate, drooping sensitive face,—the small white classic hand that held the written sheets of paper so firmly yet so tenderly,—the very hand of the Greek marble Psyche;—and I thought what short-sighted asses some literary men are who suppose they can succeed in shutting out women like Mavis Clare from winning everything that fame or fortune can offer. Such a head as hers, albeit covered with locks fair and caressable, was not meant, in its fine shape and compactness, for submission to inferior intelligences, whether masculine or feminine,— that determined little chin, which the firelight delicately outlined, was a visible declaration of the strength of will and the indomitably high ambition of its owner,—and yet, … the soft eyes,—the tender mouth,—did not these suggest the sweetest love, the purest passion that ever found place in a woman's heart? I lost myself in dreamy musing,—I thought of many things that had little to do with either my own past or present. I realized that now and then at rare intervals God makes a woman of genius with a thinker's brain and an angel's soul, and that such an one is bound to be a destiny to all mortals less divinely endowed, and a glory to the world in which she dwells. So considering, I studied Mavis Clare's face and form,—I saw her eyes fill with tears as she read on;—why should she weep, I wondered, over that 'last document' which had left me unmoved and callous? I was startled almost as if from sleep when her voice, thrilling with pain, disturbed the stillness,—she sprang up, gazing at me as if she saw some horrible vision.
"Oh, are you so blind," she cried, "as not to see what this means? Can you not understand? Do you not know your worst enemy ?''
"My worst enemy?" I echoed amazed. "You surprise me, Mavis,—what have I, or my enemies or friends to do with my wife's last confession? She raved,—between poison and passion, she could not tell, as you see by her final words, whether she was dead or alive,—and her writing at all under such stress of circumstances was a phenomenal effort,—but it has nothing to do with me personally."
"For God's sake do not be so hard-hearted," said Mavis passionately. "To me these last words of Sibyl's,—poor, tortured, miserable girl!—are beyond all expression horrible and appalling. Do you mean to tell me you have no belief in a future life?"
"None." I answered with conviction. "Then this is nothing to you?—this solemn assurance of hers that she is not dead, but living again,—living too, in indescribable misery !—you do not believe it?"
"Does anyone believe the ravings of the dying!" I answered. "She was, as I have said, suffering the torments of poison and passion,—and in those torments wrote as one tormented… ."
"Is it impossible to convince you of the truth?" asked Mavis solemnly. "Are you so diseased in your spiritual perceptions as not to know, beyond a doubt, that this world is but the shadow of the Other Worlds awaiting us? I assure you, as I live, you will have that terrible knowledge forced upon you some day! I am aware of your theories,—your wife had the same beliefs or rather non-beliefs as yourself,— yet she h«<s been convinced at last. I shall not attempt to argue with you. If this last letter of the unhappy girl you wedded cannot open your eyes to the eternal facts you choose to ignore, nothing will ever help you. You are in the power of your enemy!"
"Of whom are you speaking, Mavis?" I asked astonished, observing that she stood like one suddenly appalled in a dream, her eyes fixed musingly on vacancy, and her lips trembling apart.
"Your enemy—your enemy!" she repeated with energy. "It seems to me as if his Shadow stood near you now! Listen to this voice from the dead—Sibyl's voice !—what does she say?—'O God, have mercy! … I know who claims my worship now and drags me into yonder rolling world of flame … his name is—' ''
"Well!" I interrupted eagerly. "She breaks off there; his name is ''
"Lucio Rimanez!" said Mavis in a thrilling tone. "I do not know from whence he came,—but I take God to witness my belief that he is a worker of evil,—a fiend in beautiful human shape,—a destroyer and a corrupter! The curse of him fell on Sibyl the moment she met him,—the same curse rests on you! Leave him if you are wise,—take your chance of escape while it remains to you,—and never let him see your face again!"
She spoke with a kind of breathless haste as though impelled by a force not her own,—I stared at her amazed, and in a manner irritated.
"Such a course of action would be impossible tome, Mavis," I said somewhat coldly. "The Prince Rimanez is my best friend—no man ever had a better;—and his loyalty to me has been put to a severe test under which most men would have failed. I have not told you all."
And I related in a few words the scene I had witnessed between my wife and Lucio in the music-gallery at Willowsmere. She listened,—but with an evident effort,—and pushing back her clustering hair from her brows, she sighed heavily.
"I am sorry,—but it does not alter my conviction," she said. "I look upon your best friend as your worst foe. And I feel you do not realize the awful calamity of your wife's death in its true aspect. Will you forgive me if I ask you to leave me now?—Lady Sibyl's letter has affected me terribly— I feel I cannot speak about it any more… . I wish I had not read it… ."
She broke off with a little half-suppressed sob,—I saw she was unnerved, and taking the manuscript from her hand I said half-banteringly—
"You cannot then suggest an epitaph for my wife's monument?"
She turned upon me with a grand gesture of reproach.
"Yes I can!" she replied in a low indignant voice. "Inscribe it as—' From a pitiless hand to a broken heart!' That will suit the dead girl, and you,—the living man!"
Her rustling gown swept across my feet,—she passed me and was gone. Stupefied by her sudden anger and equally sudden departure I stood inert,—the St Bernard rose from the hearthrug and glowered at me suspiciously, evidently wishing me to take my leave,—Pallas Athene stared, as usual, through me and beyond me in a boundless scorn,—all the various objects in this quiet study seemed silently to eject me as an undesired occupant. I looked round it once longingly as a tired outcast may look on a peaceful garden and wish in vain to enter.
"How like her sex she is after all!" I said half aloud. "She blames me for being pitiless,—and forgets that Sibyl was the sinner,—not I! No matter how guilty a woman may be, she generally manages to secure a certain amount of sympathy, —a man is always left out in the cold."
A shuddering sense of loneliness oppressed me as my eyes wandered round the restful room. The odour of lilies was in the air, exhaled, so I fancied, from the delicate and dainty personality of Mavis herself.
"If I had only known her first,—and loved her!" I murmured, as I turned away at last and left the house. But then I remembered I had hated her before I ever met her,—and not only had I hated her, but I had villified and misrepresented her work with a scurrilous pen under the shield of anonymity, and out of sheer malice,—thus giving her in the public sight the greatest proof of her own genius a gifted woman can ever win,—man's envy!