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Chapter 23

  • The morning broke clear, with all the pure tints of a fine opal radiating i_he cloudless sky. Never had I beheld such a fair scene as the woods an_ardens of Willowsmere, when I looked upon them that day illumined by th_nclouded sunlight of a spring half-melting into summer. My heart swelled wit_ride as I surveyed the beautiful domain I now owned,—. and thought how happ_ home it would make when Sibyl, matchless in her loveliness, shared with m_ts charm and luxury.
  • "Yes," I said half-aloud. "Say what philosophers will, the possession of mone_oes insure satisfaction and power. It is all very well to talk about fame, but what is fame worth, if, like Carlyle, one is too poor to enjoy it!
  • Besides, literature no longer holds its former high prestige,—there are to_any in the field,—too many newspaper-scribblers all believing they ar_eniuses,—too many ill-educate. 1 lady-paragraphists and 'new' women who thin_hey are as gifted as Georges Sand or Mavis Clare. With Sibyl and Willowsmere, I ought to be able to resign the idea of fame—literary fame— with a goo_race."
  • I knew I reasoned falsely with myself,—I knew that my hankering for a plac_mong the truly great of the world was as strong as ever,—I knew I craved fo_he intellectual distinction, force, and pride which make the Thinker a terro_nd a power in the land, and so severs a great poet or great romancist fro_he commoner throng that even kings are glad to do him or her honour,—but _ould not allow my thoughts to dwell on this rapidly vanishing point o_nattainable desire. I settled my mind to enjoy the luscious flavour of th_mmediate present, as a bee settles in the cup of honey-flowers, —and, leavin_y bedroom, I went downstairs to breakfast with Lucio in the best and gayes_f humours.
  • "Not a cloud on the day!" he said, meeting me with a smile, as I entered th_right morning-room, whose windows opened on the lawn. "The fgte will be _rilliant success, Geoffrey."
  • "Thanks to you !" I answered. "Personally I am quite in the dark as to you_lans,—but I believe you can do nothing that is not well done."
  • "You honour me!" he said with a light laugh. "You credit me then with bette_ualities than the Creator! For what He does, in the opinion of the presen_eneration, is exceedingly ill done! Men have taken to grumbling at Hi_nstead of praising Him,—and few have any patience with or liking for Hi_aws."
  • I laughed. "Well, you must admit those laws are very arbitrary!"
  • "They are. I entirely acknowledge the fact."
  • We sat down to table, and were waited upon by admirablytrained servants wh_pparently had no idea of anything else but attendance on our needs. There wa_o trace of bustle or excitement in the household,—no sign whatever to denot_hat a great entertainment was about to take place that day. It was not unti_he close of our meal that I asked Lucio what time the musicians would arrive.
  • He glanced at his watch.
  • "About noon I should say," he replied; "perhaps before. But whatever thei_our, they will all be in their places at the proper moment, depend upon it.
  • The people I employ— both musicians and 'artistes'—know their busines_horoughly and are aware that I stand no nonsense." A rather sinister smil_layed round his mouth as he regarded me. "None of your guests can arrive her_ill one o'clock, as that is about the time the special train will bring th_irst batch of them from London,—and the first 'dejeuner' will be served i_he gardens at two. If you want to amuse yourself there's a Maypole being pu_p on the large lawn,—you'd better go and look at it."
  • "A May.pole!" I exclaimed. "Now that's a good idea!"
  • "It used to be a good idea," he answered. "When English lads and lasses ha_outh, innocence, health and fun in their composition, a dance round the May- pole hand in hand, did them good and did nobody harm. But now there are n_ads and lasses,—enervated old men and women in their teens walk the worl_earily, speculating on the uses of life,— probing vice, and sneering dow_entiment; and such innocent diversions as the May-pole no longer appeal t_ur jaded youth. So we have to get 'professionals' to execute th_ayrevels,—of course the dancing is better done by properly trained legs; bu_t means nothing and  _is_  nothing, except a pretty spectacle."
  • "And are the dancers here?" I asked, rising and going towards the window i_ome curiosity.
  • "No, not yet. But the May-pole is; fully decorated. It faces the woods at th_ack of the house,—go and see if you like it."
  • I followed his suggestion, and going in the direction indicated, I soo_erceived the gaily-decked object which used to be the welcome signal of man_ village holiday in Shakespeare's old-world England The pole was already se_p and fixed in a deep socket in the ground, and a dozen or more men were a_ork, unbinding its numerous trails of blossom and garlands of green, tie_ith long streamers of vari-coloured ribbon. It had a picturesque effect i_he centre of the wide lawn bordered with grand old trees,—and approaching on_f the men, I said something to him by way of approval and admiration. H_lanced at me furtively and unsmilingly, but said nothing,—and I conclude_rom his dark and foreign cast of features, that he did not understand th_nglish language. I noted with some wonder and slight vexation that all th_orkmen were of this same alien and sinister type of countenance, very muc_fter the unattractive models of Amiel and the two grooms who had my racer
  • 'Phosphor' in charge. But I remembered what Lucio had told me,—namely, tha_ll the designs for the fete were carried out by foreign experts an_rtists,—and after a little puzzled consideration, I let the matter pass fro_y mind.
  • The morning hours flew swiftly by, and I had little time to examine all th_estal preparations with which the gardens abounded,—so that I was almost a_gnorant of what was in store for the amusement of my guests as the guest_hemselves, I had the curiosity to wait about and watch for the coming of th_usicians and dancers, but I might as well have spared myself this waste o_ime and trouble, for I never saw them arrive at all. At one o'clock, bot_ucio and I were ready to receive our company,—and at about twenty minute_ast the hour, the first instalment of ' swagger society' was emptied into th_rounds. Sibyl and her father were among these,— and I eagerly advanced t_eet and greet my bride-elect as she alighted from the carriage that ha_rought her from the station. She looked supremely beautiful that day, an_as, as she deserved to be, the cynosure of all eyes. I kissed her littl_loved hand with a deeper reverence than I would have kissed the hand of _ueen.
  • "Welcome back to your old home, my Sibyl!" I said to her in a low voice, tenderly, at which words she paused, looking up at the red gables of the hous_ith such wistful affection as filled her eyes with something like tears. Sh_eft her hand in mine, and allowed me to lead her towards the silken-draped, flower-decked porch, where Lucio waited, smiling,—and as she advanced, tw_iny pages in pure white and silver glided suddenly out of some unseen hiding- place, and emptied two' baskets of pink and white rose-leaves at her feet, thus strewing a fragrant pathway for her into the house. They vanished a_ompletely and swiftly as they had appeared,—some of the guests uttere_urmurs of admiration, while Sibyl gazed about her, blushing with surprise an_leasure.
  • "How charming of you, Geoffrey !'' she murmured. "What a poet you are t_evise so pretty a greeting!"
  • "I wish I deserved your praise!" I answered, smiling at her; "but the poet i_uestion is Prince Rimanez,—he is the master and ruler of to-day's revels."
  • Again the rich colour flushed her cheeks, and she gave Lucio her hand. H_owed over it in courtly fashion,—but did not kiss it as he had kissed th_and of Mavis Clare. We passed into the house, through the drawing-room, an_ut again into the garden, Lord Elton being loud in his praise of the artisti_anner in which his former dwelling had been improved and embellished. Soo_he lawn was sprinkled with gaily attired groups of people,—and my duties a_ost began in hard earnest. I had to be greeted, complimented, flattered, an_ongratulated on my approaching marriage by scores of hypocrites who nearl_hook my hand off in their enthusiasm for my wealth. Had I become suddenl_oor, I thought grimly, not one of them would have lent me a sovereign! Th_uests kept on arriving in shoals, and when there were about three or fou_undred assembled, a burst of exquisite music sounded, and a procession o_ages in scarlet and gold, marching two by two appeared, carrying trays ful_f the rarest flowers tied up in bouquets, which they offered to all th_adies present. Exclamations of delight arose on every side,—exclamation_hich were for the most part highpitched and noisy,—for the ' swagger set'
  • have long ceased to cultivate softness of voice or refinement of accent,—an_nce or twice the detestable slang word 'ripping' escaped from the lips of _few_  dashing dames, reputed to be 'leaders' of style. Repose of manner, dignity and elegance of deportment, however, are no longer to be discovere_mong the present 'racing' duchesses and gambling countesses of the blues_lue blood of England, so one does not expect these graces of distinction fro_hem. The louder they can talk, and the more slang they can adopt from th_anguage of their grooms and stable-boys, the more are they judged to be 'i_he swim' and 'up to date.' I speak, of course, of the modern scions o_ristocracy. There are a few truly ' great ladies' left, whose maxim is still
  • ' _noblesse oblige,'_ —but they are quite in the minority and by the younge_eneration are voted either 'old cats' or 'bores.' Many of the 'cultured' mo_hat now swarmed over my grounds, had come out of the sheerest vulga_uriosity to see what 'the man with five millions' could do in the way o_ntertaining,—others were anxious to get news, if possible, of the chances of
  • 'Phosphor' winning the Derby, concerning which I was discreetly silent. Bu_he bulk of the crowd wandered aimlessly about, staring impertinently o_nviously at each other, and scarcely looking at the natural loveliness of th_ardens or the woodland scenery around them. The brainlessness of moder_ociety is never so flagrantly manifested as at a garden-party, where th_estless trousered and petticoated bipeds moved vaguely to and fro, scarcel_topping to talk civilly or intelligently to one another for five minutes, most of them hovering dubiously and awkwardly between the refreshment-pavilio_nd the bandstand. In my domain they were deprived of this latter harbour o_efuge, for no musicians could be seen, though music was heard,—beautiful wil_usic which came first from one part of the grounds and then from another, an_o which few listened with any attention. All were, however, happily unanimou_n their enthusiastic appreciation of the excellence of the food provided fo_hem in the luxurious luncheon tents, of which there were twenty in number.
  • Men ate as if they had never eaten in their lives before, and drank the choic_nd exquisite wines with equal greed and gusto. One never entirely realize_he extent to which human gourmandism can go till one knows a few peers, bishops and cabinet-ministers, and watches those dignitaries feed  _a_ibitum._  Soon the company was so complete that there was no longer any nee_orme to perform the fatiguing duty of 'receiving,' and I therefore took Siby_n to luncheon, determining to devote myself to her for the rest of the day.
  • She was in one of her brightest and most captivating moods,—her laughter ran_ut as sweetly joyous as that of some happy child,—s.he was even kind to Dian_hesney, who was also one of my guests, and who was plainly enjoying hersel_ith all the  _verve_  peculiar to pretty American women who conside_lirtation as much of a game as tennis. The scene was now one of grea_rilliancy, the light costumes of the women contrasting well with the scarle_nd gold liveries of the seemingly innumerable servants that were no_verywhere in active attendance. And, constantly through the flutterin_estive crowd, from tent to tent, from table to table and group to group, Lucio moved, his tall stately figure and handsome face always conspicuou_herever he stood; his rich voice thrilling the air whenever he spoke. Hi_nfluence was irresistible, and gradually dominated the whole assemblage,—h_oused the dull, inspired the witty, encouraged the timid, and brought all th_onflicting elements of rival position, character and opinion into one unifor_hole, which was unconsciously led by his will as easily as a multitude is le_y a convincing orator. I did not know it, then, but I know now, that, metaphorically speaking, he had his foot on the neck of that 'society' mob, a_hough it were one prostrate man;—that the sycophants, liars and hypocrites, whose utmost idea of good is wealth and luxurious living, bent to his secre_ower as reeds bend to the wind,—and that he did with them all whatsoever h_hose, as he does to this very day! God !—if the grinning, guzzling sensua_ools had only known what horrors were about them at the feast!—what ghastl_inisters to pleasurable appetite waited obediently upon them !—what palli_errors lurked behind the gorgeous show of vanity and pride! But the veil wa_ercifully down, —and only to me has it since been lifted!
  • Luncheon over, the singing of mirthful voices, tuned to a kind of villag_oundelay, attracted the company, now fed to repletion, towards the lawn a_he back of the house, and cries of delight were raised as the May-pole cam_nto view, I myself joining in the universal applause, for I had not expecte_o see anything half so picturesque and pretty. The pole was surrounded by _ouble ring of small children,—children so beautiful in face and dainty i_orm, that they might very well have been taken for little fairies from som_nchanted woodland. The boys were clad as tiny foresters in doublets of green, with pink caps on their curly heads,—the girls were in white, with their hai_lowing loosely over their shoulders, and wreaths of May-blossom crownin_heir brows. As soon as the guests appeared on the scene, these exquisit_ittle creatures commenced their dance, each one taking a trail of blossom o_ ribbon pendant from the May-pole, and weaving it with the others into no en_f beautiful and fantastic designs. I looked on, as amazed and fascinated a_nyone present, at the wonderful lightness and ease with which these childre_ripped and ran;—their tiny twinkling feet seemed scarcely to touch th_urf,—their faces were so lovely, their eyes so bright, that it was a positiv_nchantment to watch them. Each figure they executed was more intricate an_ffective than the last, and the plaudits of the spectators grew more and mor_nthusiastic, till presently came the  _finale,_  in which all the littl_reen foresters climbed up the pole and clung there, pelting the white-robe_aidens below with cowslip-balls, knots of roses, bunches of violets, posie_f buttercups, daisies and clover, which the girl-children in their tur_aughingly threw among the admiring guests. The air grew thick with flowers, and heavy with perfume, and resounded with song and laughter; and Siby_tanding at my side clapped her hands in an ecstasy.
  • "Oh, it is lovely—lovely!" she cried. "Is this the prince's idea?" Then as _nswered in the affirmative, she added, "Where, I wonder, did he find suc_xquisitely pretty little children!"
  • As she spoke, Lucio himself advanced a step or two in front of the othe_pectators and made a slight peremptory sign. The fairy-like foresters an_aidens, with extraordinary activity, all sprang away from the May-pole, pulling down the garlands with them, and winding the flowers and ribbons abou_hemselves so that they looked as if they were all tied together in on_nextricable knot;—this done, they started off at a rapid run, presenting th_ppearance of a rolling ball of blossom, merry pipe-music accompanying thei_ootsteps, till they had entirely disappeared among the trees.
  • "Oh, do call them Lack again!" entreated Sibyl, laying her hand coaxingly o_ucio's arm,—"I should so like to speak to two or three of the prettiest!"
  • He looked down at her with an enigmatical smile.
  • "You would do them too much honour,'Lady Sibyl," he replied. "They are no_ccustomed to such condescension from great ladies and would not appreciat_t. They are paid professionals, and, like many of their class, only becom_nsolent when praised.''
  • At that moment Diana Chesney came running across the lawn, breathless.
  • "I can't see them anywhere!" she declared pantingly. "The dear littl_arlings! I ran after them as fast as I could; I wanted to kiss one of thos_erfectly scrumptious boys, but they're gone !—not a trace of them left! It'_ust as if they had sunk into the ground!"
  • Again Lucio smiled.
  • "They have their orders," he said curtly, "and they know their place."
  • Just then, the sun was obscured by a passing black cloud, and a peal o_hunder rumbled over-head. Looks were turned to the sky, but it was quit_right and placid save for that one floating shadow of storm.
  • "Only summer thunder," said one of the guests. "There will be no rain."
  • And the crowd that had been pressed together to watch the 'May-pole dance'
  • began to break up in groups, and speculate as to what diversion might next b_rovided for them. I, watching my opportunity, drew Sibyl away.
  • "Come down by the river," I whispered,—" I must have you to myself for a fe_inutes.'' She yielded to my suggestion, and we walked away from the mob o_ur acquaintance, and entered a grove of trees leading to the banks of tha_art of the Avon which flowed through my grounds. Here we found ourselve_uite alone, and putting my arm round my betrothed, I kissed her tenderly.
  • "Tell me," I said with a half-smile, "do you know how to love yet?"
  • She looked up with a passionate darkness in her eyes that startled me.
  • "Yes,—I know!" was her unexpected answer.
  • "You do!" and I stopped to gaze intently into her fair face. "And how did yo_earn?"
  • She flushed red, then grew pale, and clung to me with a nervous, almos_everish force.
  • "Very strangely!" she replied; "and—quite suddenly! The lesson was easy, _ound;—too easy! Geoffrey,"—she paused, and fixed her eyes full on mine,—" _ill tell you how I learnt it, … but not now, … some other day." Here sh_roke off, and began to laugh rather forcedly. "I will tell you … when we ar_arried.'' She glanced anxiously about her,—then, with a sudden abandonment o_er usual reserve and pride, threw herself into my arms and kissed my lip_ith such ardour as made my senses reel.
  • "Sibyl—Sibyl!" I murmured, holding her close to my heart. "Oh, my darling,—yo_ove me!—at last you love me!"
  • "Hush !—hush !" she said breathlessly. "You must forget that kiss,—it was to_old of me,—it was wrong,—I did not mean it, … I … I was thinking of somethin_lse. Geoffrey!" and her small hand clenched on mine with a sort of eage_ierceness,—" I wish I had never learned to love; I was happier before _new!"
  • A frown knitted her brows.
  • "Now," she went on in the same breathless hurried way, "I  _want_  love! I a_tarving, thirsting for it! I want to be drowned in it, lost in it, killed b_t! Nothing else will content me!"
  • I folded her still closer in my arms.
  • "Did I not say you would change, Sibyl?" I whispered. "Your coldness an_nsensibility to love was unnatural and could not last,—my darling, I alway_new that!"
  • "You always knew!" she echoed a little disdainfully. "Ah, but you do not kno_ven now what has chanced to me. Nor shall I tell you—yet. Oh, Geoffrey !''
  • Here she drew herself out of my embrace, and stooping, gathered some bluebell_n the grass. "See these little flowers growing so purely and peacefully i_he shade by the Avon !—they remind me of what I was, here in this very place, long ago. I was quite as happy, and I think as innocent as these blossoms; _ad no thought of evil in my nature,—and the only love I dreamed of was th_ove of the fairy prince for the fairy princess,—as harmless an idea as th_oves of the flowers themselves. Yes! —I was then all I should like to b_ow,—all that I am not!"
  • "You are everything that is beautiful and sweet," I told her, admiringly, as _atched the play of retrospective and tender expression on her perfect face.
  • "So you judge,—being a man who is perfectly satisfied with his own choice of _ife!" she said, with a flash of her old cynicism. "But I know myself bette_han you know me. You call me beautiful and sweet,—but you cannot call m_ood. I am not good. Why, the very love that now consumes me is ''
  • "What?" I asked her quickly, seizing her hands with the blue-bells in them, and gazing searchingly into her eyes,—" I know before you speak, that it i_he passion and tenderness of a true woman!"
  • She was silent for a moment. Then she smiled, with a bewitching langour.
  • "If you know, then I need not tell you," she said; "so do not let us stay her_ny longer talking nonsense. 'Society' will shake its head over us and accus_s of 'bad form,' and some lady-paragraphist will write to the papers, an_ay, 'Mr Tempest's conduct as a host left much to be desired, as he and hi_ride-elect were 'spooning' all the day.'''
  • "There are no lady-paragraphists here," I said laughing, and encircling he_ainty waist with one arm as I walked.
  • "Oh, are there not though !" she exclaimed, laughing also. "Why, you don'_uppose you can give any sort of big entertainment without them, do you? The_ermeate society. Old Lady Maravale, for example, who is rather reduced i_ircumstances, writes a guinea's worth of scandal a week for one of th_apers. And  _she_  is here,—I saw her simply gorging herself with chicke_alad and truffles an hour ago!" Here pausing, and resting against my arm, sh_eered through the trees. 'There are the chimneys of 'Lily Cottage,' where th_amous Mavis Clare lives," she said.
  • "Yes, I know," I replied readily. "Rimanez and I have visited her. She is awa_ust now, or she would have been here to-day."
  • "Do you like her?" Sibyl queried.
  • "Very much. She is charming."
  • "And … the prince … does he like her?"
  • "Well, upon my word," I answered with a smile, "I think he likes her more tha_e does most women! He showed the most extraordinary deference towards her, and seemed almost abashed in her presence. Are you cold, Sibyl?" I adde_astily, for she shivered suddenly and her face grew pale. ''You had bette_ome away from the river,—it is damp under these trees."
  • "Yes,—let us go back to the gardens and the sunshine," she answered dreamily.
  • "So your eccentric friend—the womanhater—finds something to admire in Mavi_lare. She must be a very happy creature I think,—perfectly free, famous, an_elieving in all good things of life and humanity, if one may judge from he_ooks."
  • "Well, taken altogether, life isn't so very bad !" I observed playfully.
  • She made no reply, and we returned to the lawns where afternoon tea was no_eing served to the guests who were seated in brilliant scattered groups unde_he trees or within the silken pavilions, while the sweetest music, —and th_trangest, if people only had ears to hear it,—both vocal and instrumental, was being performed by those invisible players and singers whose secre_hereabouts was unknown to all, save Lucio.