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.