Left with myself and Lucio, Lord Elton threw off all reserve, and became no_nly familiar, but fawning in his adulation of us both. An abject and pitiabl_esire to please and propitiate us expressed itself in his every look an_ord; and I firmly believe that if I had coolly and brutally offered to bu_is fair daughter by private. treaty for a hundred thousand pounds, that su_o be paid down to him on the day of marriage, he would have gladly agreed t_ell. Apart, however, from his personal covctousness, I felt and knew that m_rojected courtship of Lady Sibyl would of necessity resolve itself int_omething more or less of a market bargain, unless indeed I could win th_irl's love. I meant to try and do this, but I fully realized how difficult, nay, almost impossible it would be for her to forget the fact of my unhampere_nd vast fortune, and consider me for myself alone. Herein is one of th_lessings of poverty which the poor are frequently too apt to forget. _oneyless man if he wins a woman's love, knows that such love is genuine an_ntainted by self-interest _>_ but a rich man can never be truly certain o_ove at all. The advantages of a wealthy match are constantly urged upon al_arriageable girls by both their parents and friends,—and it would have to b_ very unsophisticated feminine nature indeed that could contemplate a husban_ossessing five millions of money, without a touch of purely intereste_atisfaction. A very wealthy man can never be sure even of friendship,—whil_he highest, strongest and noblest kind of love is nearly always denied t_im, in this way carrying out the fulfilment of those strange but tru_ords,—" How hardly shall he that is a rich man enter the Kingdom of Heaven!"
The heaven of a woman's love, tried and proved true through disaster an_ifficulty,—of her unflinching faithfulness and devotion in days of toil an_itter anguish,—of her heroic self-abnegation, sweetness and courage throug_he darkest hours of doubt and disappointment;—this bright and splendid sid_f woman's character is reserved by Divine ordinance for the poor man. Th_illionaire can indeed wed whomsoever he pleases among all the beauties of th_orld,—he can deck his wife in gorgeous apparel, load her with jewels and loo_pon her in all the radiance of her richly-adorned loveliness as one may loo_pon a perfect statue or matchless picture,—but he can never reach the deepe_ecrets of her soul or probe the well-springs of her finer nature. I though_his even thus early in the beginning of my admiration for Lady Sibyl Elton, though I did not then dwell upon it as I have often done since. I was to_lated with the pride of wealth to count the possibilities of subtle losse_mid so many solid gains; and I enjoyed to the full and with a somewha_ontemptuous malice the humble prostration of a 'belted Earl' before th_azzling mine of practically unlimited cash as represented to him in th_ersons of my brilliant comrade and myself. I took a curious sort of pleasur_n patronizing him, and addressed him with a protecting air of indulgen_indness, whereat he seemed gratified. Inwardly I laughed, as I thought ho_ifferently matters would have stood supposing I had been indeed no more than
'author'! I might have proved to be one of the greatest writers of the age, but if, with that, I had been poor or only moderately well off, this same hal_ankrupt Earl, who privately boarded an American heiress for two thousan_uineas a year, would have deemed it a ' condescension' to so much as invit_e to his house,—would have looked down upon me from his titled nothingnes_nd perhaps carelessly alluded to me as 'a man who writes—er—yes—er—rathe_lever I believe !' and then would have thought no more about me. For thi_ery cause as 'author' still, though millionaire, I took a fantastic pleasur_n humiliating his lordship as much as possible, and I found the best way t_o this was to talk about Willowsmere. I saw that he winced at the very nam_f his lost estate, and that notwithstanding this, he could not avoid showin_is anxiety as to my intentions with regard to its occupation. Lucio, whos_isdom and foresight had suggested my becoming the purchaser of the place, assisted me in the most adroit fashion to draw him out, and to make hi_haracter manifest, and by the time we had finished our cigars and coffee, _new that the ' proud' Earl of Elton, who could trace his lineage to th_arliest days of the Crusaders, was as ready to bend his back and crawl in th_ust for money as the veriest hotel porter expectant of a sovereign 'tip.' _ad never entertained a high opinion of the aristocracy, and on this occasio_t was certainly not improved, but remembering that the spendthrift noblema_eside me was the father of Lady Sibyl, I treated him on the whole with mor_espect than his mean and grasping nature deserved.
On returning to the drawing-room after dinner I was struck by the chil_eirdness that seemed to be imparted to it by the addition of Lady Elton'_ouch, which, placed near the fire, suggested a black sarcophagus in bulk an_utline. It was practically a narrow bed on wheels, though partially disguise_y a silk coverlet draped skilfully so as to somewhat hide its coffin-lik_hape. The extended figure of the paralyzed Countess herself presented _eath-like rigidity; but her face, as she turned it towards us on ou_ntrance, was undisfigured as yet, and distinctly handsome, her eye_specially being large, clear and almost brilliant. Her daughter introduced u_oth in a low tone, and she moved her head slightly by way of acknowledgment, studying us curiously the while.
"Well, my dear," said Lord Elton briskly, "this is an unexpected pleasure! i_s nearly three months since you honoured us with your company. How do yo_eel?''
"Better," she replied slowly, yet distinctly, her gaze now fixed wit_ondering intentness on Prince Rimanez.
"Mother found the room rather cold," explained Lady Sibyl; "so we brought he_s near to the fire as possible. It _is_ cold,"—and she shivered;—"I fanc_t must be freezing hard."
"Where is Diana?" asked the Earl, looking about in search of that lively youn_ady.
"Miss Chesney has gone to her own room to write a letter," replied hi_aughter somewhat frigidly. "She will be back directly."
At this moment Lady Elton feebly raised her hand, and pointed to Lucio, wh_ad moved aside to answer some question asked of him by Miss Charlotte.
"Who is that?" she murmured.
"Why, mother dear, I told you," said Lady Sibyl gently. "That is Prince Luci_imanez, Papa's great friend."
The Countess's pallid hand still remained lifted, as though it were frozen i_ir.
_"What_ is he?" the slow voice again inquired,—and then the hand droppe_uddenly like a dead thing.
"Now, Helena, you must not excite yourself," said her husband, bending ove_er couch with real or assumed anxiety. "Surely you remember all I have tol_ou about the prince? And also about this gentleman, Mr Geoffrey Tempest?"
She nodded, and her eyes, turning reluctantly away from Rimamez, regarded m_ixedly.
"You are a very young man to be a millionaire," were her next words, uttere_ith evident difficulty. "Are you married?"
I smiled, and answered in the negative. Her looks wandered from me to he_aughter's face,—then back to me again with a singularly intent expression.
Finally, the potent magnetism of Lucio's presence again attracted her, and sh_ndicated him by a gesture.
"Ask your friend … to come here … and speak to me.
Rimanez turned instinctively at her request, and with his own peculiar char_nd gallant grace of bearing, came to the side of the paralyzed lady, an_aking her hand, kissed it.
"Your face seems familiar to me," she said, speaking now, as it seemed, wit_reater ease. "Have I ever met you before?"
"Dear lady, you may have done so," he replied in dulcet tones and with a mos_aptivating gentleness of manner. "It occurs to me, now I think of it, tha_ears ago I saw once, as a passing vision of loveliness, in the hey-day o_outh and happiness, Helena Fitzroy, before she was Countess of Elton."
'' You must have been a mere boy—a child—at that time!'' she murmured, faintl_miling.
"Not so !—for you are still young, Madame, and I am old. You look incredulous?
Alas, why is it, I wonder, I may not look the age I am! Most of m_cquaintances spend a great part of their lives in trying to look the age the_re not; and I never came across a man of fifty who was not proud to b_onsidered thirty-nine. My desires are more laudable,—yet honourable el_efuses to impress itself upon my features. It is quite a sore point with me _ssure you."
"Well, how old are you really?" asked Lady Sibyl, smiling at him.
"Ah, I dare not tell you!" he answered, returning the smile. "But I ought t_xplain that in my countings I judge age by the workings of thought an_eeling, more than by the passing of years. Thus it should not surprise you t_ear that I feel myself old,—old as the world!"
"But there are scientists who say that the world is young," I observed, "an_hat it is only now beginning to feel its forces and put forth its vigour."
"Such optimistic wiseacres are wrong," he answered. "The world is a veritabl_usk of a planet; humanity has nearly completed all its allotted phases, an_he end is near."
"The end?" echoed Lady Sibyl. "Do you believe the world will ever come to a_nd ?''
"I do, most certainly. Or, to be more correct, it will not actually perish, but will simply change. And the change will not agree with the constitution o_ts present inhabitants. They will call the transformation the Day o_udgment. I should imagine it would be a fine sight."
The Countess gazed at him wonderingly,—Lady Sibyl seemed amused.
"I would rather not witness it," said Lord Elton gruffly.
"Oh, why?" and Rimanez looked about with quite a cheerful air. "A fina_limpse of the planet ere we ascend or _descend_ to our future home_lsewhere, would be something to remember! Madame,"—here he addressed Lad_lton,— "are you fond of music?"
The invalid smiled gratefully, and bent her head in acquiescence. Miss Chesne_ad just entered the room and heard the question.
"Do you play?" she exclaimed vivaciously, touching him on the arm with he_an.
He bowed. "I do,—in an erratic sort of fashion. I also sing. Music has alway_een one of my passions. When I was very young,—ages ago,—I used to imagine _ould hear the angel Israfel chanting his strophes amid the golden glow o_eavenly glory,—himself white-winged and wonderful, with a voice out-ringin_eyond the verge of paradise."
As he spoke, a sudden silence fell upon us all. Something in his accen_ouched my heart to a strange sense of sorrow and yearning, and the Countes_f Elton's dark eyes, languid with long suffering, grew soft as though wit_epressed tears.
"Sometimes," he continued more lightly—"just at odd moments—I like to believ_n Paradise. It is a relief, even to a hardened sinner like myself, to fanc_hat there _may_ exist something in the way of a world better than thi_ne.''
"Surely sir," said Miss Charlotte Fitzroy severely, "you believe in Heaven?"
He looked at her, and smiled slightly.
"Madame, forgive me! I do not believe in the clerical heaven. I know you wil_e angry with me for this frank confession! But I cannot picture the angels i_hite smocks with goose wings, or the Deity as a somewhat excitable personag_ith a beard. Personally I should decline to go to any heaven which was only _ity with golden streets; and I should object to a sea of glass, resenting i_s a want of invention on the part of the creative Intelligence. But—do no_rown, dear Miss Fitzroy !—I do believe in Heaven all the same,—a differen_ind of heaven,—I often see it in my dreams!''
He paused, and again we were all silent, gazing at him. Lady Sibyl's eyes, indeed, rested upon him with such absorbed interest, that I became somewha_rritated, and was glad when, turning towards the Countess once more, he sai_uietly—
"Shall I give you some music now, Madame?"
She murmured assent, and followed him with a vaguely uneasy glance as h_rossed over to the grand piano and sat down. I had never heard him eithe_lay or sing; in fact, so far as his accomplishments went I knew nothing o_im as yet, except that he was a perfect master of the art of horsemanship.
With the first few bars he struck I half started from my chair i_mazement;—could a mere pianoforte produce such sounds?—or was there som_itchery hidden in the commonplace instrument, unguessed by any othe_erformer? I stared around me, bewildered,—I saw Miss Charlotte drop he_nitting abstractedly,—Diana Chesney, lying lazily back in one corner of th_ofa, half closed her eyelids in dreamy ecstasy,—Lord Elton stood near th_ire resting one arm on the mantelpiece, and shading his fuzzy brows with hi_and,— and Lady Sibyl sat beside her mother, her lovely face pale wit_motion, while on the worn features of the invalided lady there was a_xpression of mingled pain and pleasure difficult to describe. The musi_welled into passionate cadence,— melodies crossed and re-crossed each othe_ike rays of light glittering among green leaves,—voices of birds and stream_nd tossing waterfalls chimed in with songs of love and playfu_erriment;—anon came wilder strains of grief and angry clamour; cries o_espair were heard echoing through the thunderous noise of some relentles_torm,—farewells everlastingly shrieked amid sobs of reluctant shudderin_gony;— and then, as I listened, before my eyes a black mist gathered slowly, and I thought I saw great rocks bursting asunder into flame, and driftin_slands in a sea of fire,—faces, wonderful, hideous, beautiful, peered at m_ut of darkness denser than night, and in the midst of this there came a tune, complete in sweetness and suggestion,—a piercing sword-like tune that plunge_nto my very heart and rankled there;—my breath failed me,—my senses swam,—_elt that I must move, speak, cry out, and implore that this music, thi_orribly insidious music should cease ere I swooned with the voluptuous poiso_f it,—when, with a full chord of splendid harmony that rolled out upon th_ir like a breaking wave, the intoxicating sounds ebbed away into silence. N_ne spoke,—our hearts were yet beating too wildly with the pulsations rouse_y that wondrous lyric storm. Diana Chesney was the first to break the spell.
"Well, that beats everything I've ever heard!" she murmured tremulously.
I could say nothing,—I was too occupied with my ewn thoughts. Something in th_usic had instilled itself into my blood, or so I fancied, and the clingin_ubtle sweetness of it, moved me to strange emotions that were neither wis_or worthy of a man. I looked at Lady Sibyl; she was very pale,—her eyes wer_ast down and her hands were trembling. On a sudden impulse I rose, and wen_o Rimanez, where he still sat at the piano, his hands dumbly wandering ove_he keys.
"You are a great master," I said,—"a wonderful performer! But do you know wha_our music suggests ?''
He met my fixed gaze, shrugged his shoulders, and shook his head.
"Crime!" I whispered. "You have roused in me evil thoughts of which I a_shamed. I did not think that was possible to so divine an Art."
He smiled, and his eyes glittered with the steely brightness of stars on _intry night.
"Art takes its colours from the mind, my dear friend," he said. "If yo_iscover evil suggestions in my music, the evil, I fear, must be in your ow_ature."
"Or in yours!" I said quickly.
"Or in mine," he agreed coldly. "I have often told you I am no saint."
I stood hesitatingly, looking at him. For one moment his great personal beaut_ppeared hateful to me, though I knew not why. Then the feeling of distrus_nd repulsion slowly passed, leaving me humiliated and abashed.
"Pardon me, Lucio!" I murmured regretfully,—"I spoke in haste; but truly you_usic almost put me in a state of frenzy. I never heard anything in the leas_ike it"
"Nor I," said Lady Sibyl, who just then moved towards the piano. "It wa_arvellous! Do you know it quite frightened me?"
"I am sorry!" he answered, with a penitent air. "I know I am quite a failur_s a pianist. I am not sufficiently 'restrained,' as the press men would say."
"A failure? Good God!" exclaimed Lord Elton at this juncture. "Why, if yo_layed like that in public, you'd drive everyone frantic!"
"With alarm?" queried Lucio, laughing, "or with disgust?"
"Nonsense! you know what I mean very well. I have always had a contempt fo_he piano as an instrument, but by Jove! I never heard such music as your_ven in a full orchestra. It is extraordinary !—it is positively magnificent!
Where in the world did you study ?''
"In Nature's conservatoire," replied Rimanez lazily. "My first 'maestro' wa_n amiable nightingale. He, singing on a branch of fir when the moon was full, explained with liquid-noted patience, how to construct and produce a pur_oulade, cadenza and ^rill^r-and when I had learned thus far, he showed me al_he most elaborate methods of applying rhythmic tune to the upward an_ownward rush of the wind, thus supplying me with perfect counterpoint. Chord_ learned from old Neptune, who was good enough to toss a few of his larges_illows to the shore for my special benefit. He nearly deafened me with hi_nstructions, being somewhat excitable and loudvoiced,—but on finding me a_pt pupil, he drew back his waves to himself with so much delicacy among th_ebbles and sand, that at once I mastered the secret of playing _arpeggi._nce too I had a finishing lesson from a Dream, —a mystic thing with wild hai_nd wings; it sang one word in my ears, and the word was unpronounceable i_ortal speech,—but after many efforts I discovered it lurking in the scale o_ound. The best part of it all was that my instructors asked no fees."
"I think you are a poet as well as a musician," said Lady Sibyl.
"A poet! Spare me !—my dear young lady, why are you so cruel as to load m_ith so vile an imputation! Better be a murderer than a poet,—one is treate_ith much more respect and courteous consideration,—by the press at any rate.
The murderer's breakfast-menu will be given due place in many of the mos_stimable journals, but the poet's lack of both breakfast and dinner will b_eemed his fitting reward. Call me a live-stock producer, a horsebreeder, _imber-merchant,—anything but a poet! Why even Tennyson became an amateu_ilkman to somewhat conceal and excuse the shame and degradation of writin_erse!"
We all laughed.
"Well, you must admit," said Lord Elton, "that we've had rather too much o_oets lately. It's no wonder we're sick of them, and that poetry has falle_nto disrepute. Poets are such a quarrelsome lot ton—effeminate, puling, unmanly humbugs!''
"You are speaking of the newly 'discovered' ones of course," said Lucio. "Yes, they are a weedy collection. I have sometimes thought that out of pur_hilanthropy I would start a bon-bon manufactory, and employ them to writ_ottoes for the crackers. It would keep them out of mischief and provide the_ith a little pocket-money, for as matters stand they do not make a farthin_y their books. But I do not call them 'poets' at all,—they are mere rhymers.
One or two real poets do exist, but, like the prophets of Scripture, they ar_ot 'in society,' nor can they get their logs rolled by any of thei_ontemporaries. They are not favourites with any "set'; that is why I a_fraid my dear friend Tempest will never be accepted as the genius he is; society will be too fond of him to let him go down into dust and ashes t_ather the laurel."
"It is not necessary to go down into dust and ashes for that," I said.
"I assure you it is!" he answered gaily,—"positively imperative. The laure_lourishes best so,—it will not grow in a hot-house.''
At that moment Diana Chesney approached.
"Lady Elton would like to hear you sing, prince," she said. "Will you give u_hat pleasure? Do! Something quite simple, you know,—it will set our nerve_traight after your terribly beautiful music! You'd hardly believe it perhaps, but I really feel quite unstrung!"
He folded his hands with a droll air of penitence.
"Forgive me !" hesaid. "I'm always, as the church service says, doing thos_hings I ought not to do."
Miss Chesney laughed, a trifle nervously.
"Oh, I forgive you!" she replied—" on condition that you sing."
"I obey!" and with that he turned again to the piano and, playing a strang_ild minor accompaniment, sang the following stanzas:
Sleep, my Beloved, sleep!
Be patient!—we shall keep
Our secret closely hid
Beneath the coffin-lid,— There is no other place in earth or air For such a love as ours, or such despair!
And neither hell nor heaven shall care to win Our loathed souls, rejoicing in their sin!
Sleep!—for my hand is sure,—
The cold steel bright and pure
Strikes through thy heart and mine,
Shedding our blood like wine;— Sin's sweetness is too sweet, and if the shame Of love must be our curse, we hurl the blame Back on the gods who gave us love with breath, And tortured us from passion into death!
This extraordinary song, sung in the most glorious of baritones, full an_ich, and vibrating with power and sweetness, had a visibly thrilling effec_pon us all. Again we were struck dumb with surprise and something lik_ear,—and again Diana Chesney broke the silence.
"You call that simple !" she said, half petulantly.
"Quite so. Love and Death are the simplest things in the world," replie_ucio. "The ballad is a mere trifle,—it is entitled 'The Last Love-Song,' an_s supposed to be the utterance of a lover about to kill his mistress an_imself. Such events happen every day,—you know that by the newspapers,—the_re perfectly common-place ''
He was interrupted by a sharp clear voice ringing imperatively across th_oom—