No man, I think, ever forgets the first time he is brought face to face with perfect beauty in woman. He may have caught fleeting glimpses of loveliness on many fair faces often,—bright eyes may have flashed on him like star-beams,—the hues of a dazzling complexion may now and then have charmed him, or the seductive outlines of a graceful figure;—all these are as mere peeps into the infinite. But when such vague and passing impressions are suddenly drawn together in one focus,—when all his dreamy fancies of form and colour take visible and complete manifestation in one living creature who looks down upon him as it were from an empyrean of untouched maiden pride and purity, it is more to his honour than his shame, if his senses swoon at the ravishing vision, and he, despite his rough masculinity and brute strength, becomes nothing but the merest slave to passion. In this way was I overwhelmed and conquered without any chance of deliverance when Sybil Elton's violet eyes, lifted slowly from the shadow of their dark lashes, rested upon me with that indefinable expression of mingled interest and indifference which is supposed to indicate high breeding, but which more frequently intimidates and repulses the frank and sensitive soul.
The Lady Sibyl's glance repelled, but I was none the less attracted. Rimanez and I had entered the Earl of Elton's box at the Haymarket between the first and second acts of the play, and the Earl himself, an unimpressive, bald-headed, redfaced old gentleman, with fuzzy white whiskers, had risen to welcome us, seizing Lucio's hand and shaking it with particular effusiveness. (I learned afterwards that Lucio had lent him a thousand pounds on easy terms, a fact which partly accounted for the friendly fervour of his greeting.) His daughter had not moved; but a minute or two later when he addressed her somewhat sharply, saying "Sibyl! Prince Rimanez and his friend, Mr Geoffrey Tempest," she turned her head and honoured us both with the chill glance I have endeavoured to describe, and the very faintest possible bow as an acknowledgment of our presence. Her exquisite beauty smote me dumb and foolish,—I could find nothing to say, and stood silent and confused, with a strange sensation of bewilderment upon me. The old Earl made some remark about the play which I scarcely heard though I answered vaguely and at hap-hazard,—the orchestra was playing abominably as is usual in theatres, and its brazen din sounded like the noise of the sea in my ears,—I had not much real consciousness of anything save the wondrous loveliness of the girl who faced me, clad in pure white, with a few diamonds shining about her like stray dewdrops on a rose. Lucio spoke to her, and I listened.
"At last, Lady Sibyl," he said, bending towards her deferentially. "At last I have the honour of meeting you. I have seen you often, as one sees a star,—at a distance.''
She smiled,—a smile so slight and cold that it scarcely lifted the corners of her lovely lips.
"I do not think I have ever seen you," she replied. "And yet there is something oddly familiar in your face. I have heard my father speak of you constantly,—I need scarcely say his friends are always mine.''
"To merely speak to Lady Sibyl Elton is counted sufficient to make the man so privileged happy," he said. "To be her friend is to discover the lost paradise."
She flushed,—then grew suddenly very pale, and shivering, she drew her cloak towards her. Rimanez wrapped its perfumed silken folds carefully round her beautiful shoulders,— how I grudged him the dainty task! He then turned to me, and placed a chair just behind hers.
"Will you sit here, Geoffrey?" he suggested—"I want to have a moment's business chat with Lord Elton."
Recovering my self-possession a little, I hastened to take the chance he thus generously gave me to ingratiate myself in the young lady's favour, and my heart gave a foolish bound of joy because she smiled encouragingly as I approached her.
"You are a great friend of Prince Rimanez?" she asked softly, as I sat down.
"Yes, we are very intimate," I replied—" He is a delightful companion."
"So I should imagine !" and she looked over at him where he sat next to her father talking earnestly in low tones—" He is singularly handsome."
I made no reply. Of course Lucio's extraordinary personal attractiveness was undeniable,—but I rather grudged her praise bestowed on him just then. Her remarks seemed to me as tactless as when a man with one pretty woman beside him loudly admires another in her hearing. I did not myself assume to be actually handsome, but I knew I was better looking than the ordinary run of men. So out of sudden pique I remained silent, and presently the curtain rose and the play was resumed. A very questionable scene was enacted, the ' woman with the past' being well to the front of it. I felt disgusted at the performance and looked at my companions to see if they too were similarly moved. There was no sign of disapproval on Lady Sibyl's fair countenance,—her father was bending forward eagerly, apparently gloating over every detail, —Rimanez wore that inscrutable expression of his in which no feeling whatever could be discerned. The 'woman with the past' went on with her hysterical sham-heroics, and the mealy-mouthed fool of a hero declared her to be a 'pure angel wronged,' and the curtain fell amid loud applause. One energetic hiss came from the gallery, affecting the occupants of the stalls to scandalized amazement.
"England has progressed!" said Rimanez in soft halfbantering tones—"Once upon a time this play would have been hooted off the stage as likely to corrupt the social community. But now the only voice of protest comes from the 'lower' classes."
'' Are you a democrat, prince ?'' inquired Lady Sibyl, waving her fan indolently to and fro.
"Not I! I always insist on the pride and supremacy of worth,—I do not mean money value, but intellect. And in this way I foresee a new aristocracy. When the High grows corrupt, it falls and becomes the Low;—when the Low educates itself and aspires, it becomes the High. This is simply the course of nature.''
"But God bless my soul!" exclaimed Lord Elton—"you don't call this play low or immoral, do you?" It's a realistic study of modern social life—that's what it is. These women you know,—these poor souls with a past—are very interesting."
"Very !" murmured his daughter.—" In fact it would seem that for women with no such ' past' there can be no future. Virtue and modesty are quite out of date, and have no chance whatever.''
I leaned towards her, half whispering—
"Lady Sibyl, I am glad to see this wretched play offends you."
She turned her deep eyes on me in mingled surprise and amusement.
"Oh no, it doesn't," she declared—" I have seen so many like it. And I have read so many novels on just the same theme. I assure you I am quite convinced that the so-called 'bad' woman is the only popular type of our sex with men, —she gets all the enjoyment possible out of life,—she frequently makes an excellent marriage, and has, as the Americans say, 'a good time all round.' It's the same thing with our convicted criminals,—in prison they are much better fed than the honest working-man. I believe it is quite a mistake for a woman to be respectable,—they are only considered dull."
"Ah now you are only joking !" I said with an indulgent smile. "You know that in your heart you think very differently."
She made no answer, as just then the curtain went up again, disclosing the unclean ' lady' of the piece, " having a good time all round" on board a luxurious yacht. During the unnatural and stilted dialogue which followed, I withdrew a little back into the shadow of the box, and all that self-esteem and assurance of which I had been suddenly deprived by a glance at Lady Sibyl's beauty, came back to me, and a perfectly stolid coolness and composure succeeded to the first feverish excitement of my mind. I recalled Lucio's words—" I believe Lady Sibyl is for sale"—and I thought triumphantly of my millions. I glanced at the old earl, abjectly pulling at his white whiskers while he listened anxiously to what were evidently money schemes propounded by Lucio. Then my gaze came back appraisingly to the lovely curves of Lady Sibyl's milk-white throat, her beautiful arms and bosom, her rich brown hair of the shade of a ripe chestnut, her delicate haughty face, languid eyes and brilliant complexion,—and I murmured inwardly—" All this loveliness is purchasable and I will purchase it!" At that very instant she turned to me and said—
"You are the famous Mr Tempest, are you not?"
"Famous?" I echoed with a deep sense of gratification —"Well,—I am scarcely that,—yet! My book is not published … "
Her eyebrows arched themselves surprisedly.
"Your book? I did not know you had written one!"
My flattered vanity sank to zero.
"It has been extensively advertised," I began impressively, but she interrupted me with a laugh.
"Oh I never read advertisements,—it's too much trouble. When I asked if you were the famous Mr Tempest, I meant to say were you the great millionaire who has been so much talked of lately?"
I bowed a somewhat chill assent. She looked at me inquisitively over the lace edge of her fan.
"How delightful it must be for you to have so much money!" she said—"And you are young too, and goodlooking."
Pleasure took the place of vexed amour-propre and I smiled.
"You are very kind, Lady Sibyl!"
"Why?" she asked laughing,—such a delicious little low laugh—"Because I tell you the truth? You are young and you are good-looking. Millionaires are generally such appalling creatures. Fortune while giving them money frequently deprives them of both brains and personal attractiveness. And now do tell me about your book !''
She seemed to have suddenly dispensed with her former reserve, and during the last act of the play, we conversed freely, in whispers which assisted us to become almost confidential. Her manner to me now was full of grace and charm, and the fascination she exerted over my senses became complete. The performance over, we all left the box together, and as Lucio was still apparently engrossed with Lord Elton, I had the satisfaction of escorting Lady Sibyl to her carriage. When her father joined her, Lucio and I both stood together looking in at the window of the brougham, and the Earl, getting hold of my hand shook it up and down with boisterous friendliness.
'' Come and dine,—come and dine!" he spluttered excitedly, —" Come—let me see,—this is Tuesday—come on Thursday. Short notice and no ceremony! My wife is paralyzed I'm sorry to say,—she can't receive,—she can only see a few people now and then when she is in the humour,—her sister keeps house and does the honours,—Aunt Charlotte, eh Sibyl?—ha-ha-ha! The Deceased Wife's Sister's Bill would never be any use to me, for if my wife were to die I shouldn't be anxious to marry Miss Charlotte Fitzroy! Ha ha ha! A perfectly unapproachable woman, sir !—a model,—ha ha! Come and dine with us, Mr Tempest,—Lucio, you bring him along with you, eh? We've got a young lady staying with us,—an American, dollars, accent and all,—and by Jove I believe she wants to marry me, ha ha ha! and is waiting for Lady Elton to go to a better world first, ha ha! Come along—come and see the little American, eh? Thursday shall it be ?''
Over the fair features of Lady Sibyl there passed a faint shadow of annoyance at her father's allusion to the "little American," but she said nothing. Only her looks appeared to question our intentions as well as to persuade our wills, and she seemed satisfied when we both accepted the invitation given. Another apoplectic chuckle from the Earl and a couple of handshakes,—a slight graceful bow from her lovely ladyship, as we raised our hats in farewell, and the Elton equipage rolled away, leaving us to enter our own vehicle, which amid the officious roarings of street-boys and policemen had just managed to draw up in front of the theatre. As we drove off, Lucio peered inquisitively at me—I could see the steely glitter of his fine eyes in the semi-darkness of the brougham,—and said—
I was silent.
"Don't you admire her?" he went on—"I must confess she is cold,—a very chilly vestal indeed,—but snow often covers volcanoes! She has good features and a naturally clear complexion."
Despite my intention to be reticent, I could not endure this tame description.
"She is perfectly beautiful,"—I said emphatically. "The dullest eyes must see that. There is not a fault to be found with her. And she is wise to be reserved and cold—were she too lavish of her smiles, and too seductive in manner she might drive many men not only into folly, but madness."
I felt rather than saw the cat-like jewel glance he flashed upon me.
"Positively, Geoffrey, I believe, that notwithstanding the fact that we are only in February, the wind blows upon you due south, bringing with it odours of rose and orange-blossom! I fancy Lady Sibyl has powerfully impressed you?"
"Did you wish me to be impressed?" I asked.
"I? My dear fellow, I wish nothing that you yourself do not wish. I accommodate my ways to my friends' humours. If asked for my opinion, I should &ay it is rather a pity if you are really smitten with the young lady, as there are no obstacles to be encountered. A love-affair, to be conducted with spirit and enterprise should always bristle with opposition and difficulty, real or invented. A little secrecy and a good deal of wrong-doing, such as sly assignations and the telling of any amount of lies—such things add to the agreeableness of love-making on this planet—"
I interrupted him.
"See here, Lucio, you are very fond of alluding to 'this' planet as if you knew anything about other planets"—I said impatiently. "This planet, as you somewhat contemptuously call it, is the only one we have any business with."
He bent his piercing looks so ardently upon me that for the moment I was startled.
"If that is so," he answered, "why in Heaven's name do you not let the other planets alone? Why do you strive to fathom their mysteries and movements? If men, as you say, have no business with any planet save this one, why are they ever on the alert to discover the secret of mightier worlds,—a secret which haply it may some day terrify them to know!"
The solemnity of his voice and the inspired expression of his face awed me. I had no reply ready, and he went on—
"Do not let us talk, my friend, of planets, not even of this particular pin's point among them known as Earth. Let us return to a better subject—the Lady Sibyl. As I have already said, there are no obstacles in the way of your wooing and winning her, if such is your desire. Geoffrey Tempest, as mere author of books would indeed be insolent to aspire to the hand of an earl's daughter, but Geoffrey Tempest, millionaire, will be a welcome suitor. Poor Lord Elton's affairs are in a bad way—he is almost out-at-elbows, the American woman who is boarding with him"
"Boarding with him!" I exclaimed—"Surely he does not keep a boarding-house?"
Lucio laughed heartily.
"No, no!—you must not put it so coarsely, Geoffrey. It is simply this, that the Earl and Countess of Elton give the prestige of their home and protection to Miss Diana Chesney (the American aforesaid) for the trifling sum of two thousand guineas per annum. The Countess being paralyzed, is obliged to hand over her duties of chaperonage to her sister Miss Charlotte Fitzroy,—but the halo of the coronet still hovers over Miss Chesney's brow. She has her own suite of rooms in the house, and goes wherever it is proper for her to go, under Miss Fitzroy's care. Lady Sibyl does not like the arrangement, and is therefore never seen anywhere except with her father. She will not join in companionship with Miss Chesney and has said so pretty plainly.''
"I admire her for it!" I said warmly—" I really am surprised that Lord Elton should condescend"
"Condescend to what?" inquired Lucio—" Condescend to take two thousand guineas a year? Good heavens man, there are no end of lords and ladies who will readily agree to perform such an act of condescension. 'Blue' blood is getting thin and poor, and only money can thicken it. Diana Chesney is worth over a million dollars and if Lady Elton were to die conveniently soon, I should not be surprised to see that' little American' step triumphantly into her vacant place.''
"What a state of topsy-turveydom!" I said half angrily.
"Geoffrey, my friend, you are really amazingly inconsistent! Is there a more flagrant example of topsy-turveydom than yourself for instance? Six weeks ago, what were you? A mere scribbler, with flutterings of the wings of genius in your soul but many uncertainties as to whether those wings would ever be strong enough to lift you out of the rut of obscurity in which you floundered, struggling and grumbling at adverse fate. Now, as millionaire, you think contemptuously of an Earl, because he ventures quite legitimately to add a little to his income by boarding an American heiress and launching her into society where she would never get without him. And you aspire, or probably mean to aspire to the hand of the Earl's daughter, as if you yourself were a descendant of kings. Nothing can be more topsy-turvey than your condition?"
"My father was a gentleman," I said with a touch of hauteur, "and a descendant of gentlemen. We were never common folk,—our family was one of the most highly esteemed in the counties."
"I do not doubt it, my dear fellow,—I do not in the least doubt it. But a simple 'gentleman' is a long way below—or above—an Earl. Have it which side you choose !—because it really doesn't matter now-a-days. We have come to a period of history when rank and lineage count as nothing at all, owing to the profoundly obtuse stupidity of those who happen to possess it. So it chances, that as no resistance is made, brewers are created peers of the realm, and ordinary tradesmen are knighted, and the very old families are so poor that they have to sell their estates and jewels to the highest bidder, who is frequently a vulgar 'railway-king' or the introducer of some new manure. You occupy a better position than such, since you inherit your money with the further satisfaction that you do not know how it was made.''
"True!" I answered meditatively,—then, with a sudden flash of recollection I added—" By the way I never told you that my deceased relative imagined that he had sold his soul to the devil, and that this vast fortune of his was the material result!"
Lucio burst into a violent fit of laughter.
''No! Not possible !" he exclaimed derisively—'' What an idea! I suppose he had a screw loose somewhere! Imagine any sane man believing in a devil! Ha, ha, ha! And in these advanced days too! Well, well! The folly of human imaginations will never end! Here we are !"—and he sprang lightly out as the brougham stopped at the Grand Hotel— "I will say good-night to you, Tempest. I've promised to go and have a gamble.''
"A gamble? where?"
"At one of the select private clubs. There are any amount of them in this eminently moral metropolis—no occasion to go to Monte Carlo! Will you come?"
I hesitated. The fair face of Lady Sibyl haunted my mind, and I felt, with a no doubt foolish sentimentality, that I would rather keep my thoughts of her sacred, and unpolluted by contact with things of lower tone.
"Not to-night"—I said,—then half smiling I added—"It must be rather a one-sided affair for other men to gamble with you, Lucio! You can afford to lose,—and perhaps they can't."
"If they can't they shouldn't play"—he answered—"A man should at least know his own mind and his own capacity; if he doesn't he is no man at all. As far as I have learned by long experience, those who gamble, like it, and when they like it /like it. I'll take you with me to-morrow if you care to see the fun,—one or two very emiment men are members of the club, though of course they wouldn't have it known for worlds. You shan't lose much—I'll see to that."
"All right,—to-morrow it shall be!"—I responded, for I did not wish to appear as though I grudged losing a few pounds at play—" But to-night I think I'll write some letters before going to bed."
"Yes—and dream of Lady Sibyl!" said Lucio laughing— "If she fascinates you as much when you see her again on Thursday you had better begin the siege!"
He waved his hand gaily, and re-entering his carriage, was driven off at a furious pace through the drifting fog and rain.