I Cannot now trace the slow or swift flitting by of phantasmal events, … wil_hosts of days or weeks that drifted past, and brought me gradually an_inally to a time when I found myself wandering, numb and stricken and sick a_eart, by the shores of a lake in Switzerland,—a small lake, densely blue, with apparently a thought in its depths such as is reflected in a child'_arnest eye. I gazed down at the clear and glistening water almos_nseeingly,—the snow-peaked mountains surrounding it were too high for th_ifting of my aching sight, —loftiness, purity, and radiance were unbearabl_o my mind, crushed as it was beneath a weight of dismal wreckage and ruin.
What a fool was I, ever to have believed that in this world there could b_uch a thing as happiness! Misery stared me in the face,—life-long misery,—an_o escape but death! Misery !—it was the word which, like a hellish groan, ha_een uttered by the three dreadful phantoms that had once, in an evil vision, disturbed my rest. What had I done, I demanded indignantly of myself, t_eserve this wretchedness which no wealth could cure ?—why was fate so unjust?
Like all my kind, I was unable to dibcern the small yet strong links of th_hain I had myself wrought and which bound me to my own undoing,—I blame_ate, or rather God,—and talked of injustice merely because / personall_uffered, never realizing that what I considered unjust was but the equitabl_easuring forth of that Eternal Law which is carried out with as mathematica_n exactitude as the movement of the planets, notwithstanding man's pigm_fforts to impede its fulfilment. The light wind blowing down from the sno_eaks above me ruffled the placidity of the little lake by which I aimlessl_trolled. I watched the tiny ripples break over its surface like the lines o_aughter on a human face, and wondered morosely whether it was deep enough t_rown in! For what was the use of living on,—knowing what I knew! Knowing tha_he whom I had loved and whom I loved still in a way that was hateful t_yself, was a thing viler and more shameless in character than the veries_oor drab of the street who sells herself for current coin,—that the lovel_ody and angel-face were but an attractive disguise for the soul of a harpy,—_ulture of vice, … my God!—an irrepressible cry escaped me as my thoughts wen_n and on in the never-ending circle and problem of incurable, unspeakabl_espair, and I threw myself down on a shelving bank of grass that slope_owards the lake and covered my face in a paroxysm of tearless agony.
Still inexorable thought worked in my brain and forced me to consider m_osition. Was she,—was Sibyl—more to blame than I myself for all the strang_avoc wrought? I had married her of my own free will and choice,—and she ha_old me beforehand—" I am a contaminated creature, trained to perfection i_he lax morals and prurient literature of my day." Well,—and so it had proved!
My own blood burned with shame as I reflected how ample and convincing wer_he proofs!—and, starting up from my recumbent posture, I paced up and dow_gain restlessly in a fever of self-contempt and disgust. What could I do wit_ woman such as she to whom I was now bound for life? Reform her? She woul_augh me to scorn for the attempt. Reform myself? She would sneer at me for a_ffeminate milksop. Besides, was not I as willing to be degraded as she was t_egrade me ?—a very victim to my brute passions? Tortured and maddened by m_eelings I roamed about wildly, and started as if a pistol-shot had been fire_ear me when the plash of oars sounded on the silence and the keel of a smal_oat grated on the shore, the boatman within it respectfully begging me i_ellifluous French to employ him for an hour. I assented, and in a minute o_wo was out on the lake in the middle of the red glow of sunset which turne_he snow-summits to points of flame, and the water to the hue of ruby wine. _hink the man who rowed me saw that I was in no very pleasant humour, for h_reserved a discreet silence,—and I, pulling my hat partly over my eyes, la_ack in the stern, still busy with my wretched musings. Only a month married !—and yet,—a sickening satiety had taken the place of the so-called
"deathless" lover's passion. There were moments even, when my wife's matchles_hysical beauty appeared hideous to me I knew her as she was, and no exterio_harm could ever again cover for me the revolting nature within. And wha_uzzled me from dawn to dusk was her polished, specious hypocrisy,—her amazin_ptitude for lies! To look at her,—to hear her speak,—one would have deeme_er a very saint of purity,—a delicate creature whom a coarse word woul_tartle and offend,—a very incarnation of the sweetest and most graciou_omanhood, all heart and feeling and sympathy. Everyone thought thus o_er,—and never was there a greater error. Heart she had none; that fact wa_orne in upon me two days after our marriage while we were in Paris, for ther_ telegram reached us announcing her mother's death. The paralyzed Countess o_lton had, it appeared, expired suddenly on our weddingday,—or rather ou_edding-night,—but the Earl had deemed it best to wait forty-eight hour_efore interrupting our hymeneal happiness with the melancholy tidings. H_ollowed his telegram by a brief letter to his daughter in which th_oncluding lines were these: "As you are a bride and are travelling abroad, _hould advise you by no means to go into mourning. Under the circumstances i_s really not necessary. ''
And Sibyl had readily accepted his suggestion, keeping generally, however, t_hite and pale mauve colourings in her numerous and wonderful toilettes, i_rder not to outrage the proprieties too openly in the opinions of person_nown to her, whom she might possibly meet casually in the foreign towns w_isited. No word of regret passed her lips, and no tears were shed for he_other's loss. She only said—"What a good thing her sufferings are over!"
Then, with a little sarcastic smile she had added— '"I wonder when we shal_eceive the Elton-Chesney wedding cards!"
I did not reply, for I was pained and grieved at her lack of all gentl_eeling in the matter, and I was also, to a certain extent, superstitiousl_ffected by the fact of the death occurring on our marriage-day. However, thi_as now a thing of the past; a month had elapsed,—a month in which th_earingdown of illusions had gone on daily and hourly,—till I was left t_ontemplate the uncurtained bare prose of life, and the knowledge that I ha_edded a beautiful feminine animal with the soul of a shameless libertine.
Here I pause and ask myself,—Was not I also a libertine? Yes,—I freely admi_t,— but the libertinage of a man, while it may run to excess in hot youth, generally resolves itself, under the influence of a great love, into a stron_esire for undented sweetness and modesty in the woman beloved. If a man ha_ndulged in both folly and sin, the time comes at last, when, if he has an_ood left in him at all, he turns back upon himself and lashes his own vice_ith the scorpion whip of self-contempt till he smarts with the rage and pai_f it,—and then, aching in every pulse with his deserved chastisement, h_neels in spirit at the feet of some pure true-hearted woman whose white soul, like an angel, hovers compassionately above him, and there lays down his life, saying, "Do what you will with it,—it is yours!" And woe to her who play_ightly with such a gift or works fresh injury upon it! No man, even if he ha_n his day indulged in 'rapid' living, should choose a 'rapid' woman for hi_ife,—he had far better put a loaded pistol to his head and make an end of it.
The sunset-glory began to fade from the landscape as the Uttle boat glided o_ver the tranquil water, and a great shadow rvas on my mind, like the shado_f that outer darkness which would soon be night. Again I asked myself,—Wa_here no happiness possible in all the world? Just then the Angelus chime_rom a little chapel on the shore, and as it rang, a memory stirred in m_rain moving me well-nigh to tears. Mavis Clare was happy !—Mavis, with he_rank fearless eyes, sweet face and bright nature,—Mavis, wearing her crown o_ame as simply as a child might wear a wreath of may-blossom, —she, with _erely moderate share of fortune which even in its slight proportion was onl_ue to her own hard incessant work, —she was happy. And I—with my millions—wa_retched. How was it ?—Why was it? What had I done? I had lived as my compeer_ived,—I had followed the lead of all society, —I had feasted my friends an_ffectually 'snubbed' my foes, —I had comported myself exactly as others of m_ealth comport themselves,—and I had married a woman whom most men, lookin_pon once, would have been proud to win. Nevertheless there seemed to be _urse upon me. What had I missed out of life? I knew,—but was ashamed to ow_t, because I had previously scorned what I called the dreamnothings of mer_entiment. And now I had to acknowledge the paramount importance of those
'dream-nothings' out of which all true living must come. I had to realize tha_y marriage was nothing but the mere mating of the male and female animal,—_oarse bodily union and no more ;—that all the finer and deeper emotions whic_ake a holy thing of human wedlock were lacking,—the mutual respect, th_rusting sympathy,—the lovely confidence of mind with mind,— the subtle inne_piritual bond which no science can analyze, and which is so much closer an_tronger than the material, and knits immortal souls together when bodie_ecay,—these things had no existence and never would exist between my wife an_e. Thus, as far as I was concerned, there was a strange blankness in th_orld,—I was thrust back upon myself for comfort and found none. What should _o with my life, I wondered drearily! Win fame,—true fame,—after all? Wit_ibyl's witch-eyes mocking my efforts?—never! If I had ever had any gifts o_reative thought within me she would have killed it.
The hour was over,—the boatman rowed me into land, and I paid and dismisse_im. The sun had completely sunk,— there were dense purple shadows darkenin_ver the mountains, and one or two small stars were faintly discernible in th_ast. I walked slowly back to the villa where we were staying,—a 'dependance'
belonging to the large hotel of the district, which we had rented for the sak_f privacy and independence, some of the hotel-servants being portioned off t_ttend upon us, in addition to my own man Morris, and my wife's maid. I foun_ibyl in the garden, reclining in a basketchair, her eyes fixed on the after- glow of the sunset, and in her hands a book,—one of the loathliest of th_rurient novels that have been lately written by women to degrade and sham_heir sex. With a sudden impulse of rage upon me which I could not resist, _natched the volume from her and flung it into the lake below. She made n_ovement of either surprise or offence,—she merely turned her eyes away fro_he glowing heavens and looked at me with a little smile."How violent you ar_o-day, Geoffrey!" she said. I gazed at her in sombre silence. From the ligh_at with its pale mauve orchids that rested on her nut-brown hair, to th_oint of her daintily embroidered shoe, her dress was perfect,—and _she_ wa_erfect. / knew that,—a matchless piece of womanhood … outwardly. My hear_eat,—there was a sense of suffocation in my throat,—I could have killed he_or the mingled loathing and longing which her beauty roused in me.
"I am sorry !" I said hoarsely, avoiding her gaze. "But I hate to see you wit_uch a book as that."
"You know its contents?" she queried, with the same slight smile.
"I can guess."
"Such things have to be written, they say, now-a-days," she went on. "And, certainly, to judge from the commendation bestowed on these sort of books b_he press, it is very evident that the wave of opinion is setting in th_irection of letting girls know all about marriage before they enter upon it, in order that they may do so with their eyes wide open,— _very_ wide open!"
She laughed, and her laughter hurt me like a physical wound. "What an old- fashioned idea the bride of the poets and sixty-years-ago romancists seem_ow!" she continued. "Imagine her !—a shrinking tender creature, shy o_eholders, timid of speech, … wearing the emblematic veil, which in forme_ays, you know, used to cover the face entirely as a symbol that the secret_f marriage were as yet hidden from the maiden's innocent and ignorant eyes.
Now the veil is worn flung back from the bride's brows, and she stare_nabashed at everybody,—oh, yes, indeed we know quite well what we are doin_ow when we marry, thanks to the 'new' fiction!"
"The new fiction is detestable," I said hotly, "both in style and morality.
Even as a question of literature I wonder at your condescending to read any o_t. The woman whose dirty book I have just thrown away—and I feel n_ompunction for having done it—is destitute of grammar as well as decency."
"Oh, but the critics don't notice that," she interrupted, with a delicat_ockery vibrating in her voice. "It is apparently not their business to assis_n preserving the purity of the English language. What they fall into rapture_ver is the originality of the 'sexual' theme, though I should have though_ll such matters were as old as the hills. I never read reviews as a rule, bu_ did happen to come across one on the book you have just drowned,—and in i_he reviewer stated he had cried over it!"
She laughed again.
"Beast!" I said emphatically. "He probably found in it some glozing-over o_is own vices. But you, Sibyl—why do _you_ read such stuff?—how _can_ yo_ead it?"
"Curiosity moved me in the first place," she answered listlessly. "I wanted t_ee what makes a reviewer cry. Then when I began to read, I found that th_tory was all about the manner in which men amuse themselves with the soile_oves of the highways and bye-ways,—and as I was not very well instructed i_hat sort of thing I thought I might as well learn? You know these unpleasan_orsels of information on unsavoury subjects are like the reputed suggestion_f the devil,—if you listen to one, you are bound to hear more. Besides, literature is supposed to reflect the time we live in,—and that kind o_iterature being more prevalent than anything else, we are compelled to accep_nd study it as the mirror of the age."
With an expression on her face that was half mirth and half scorn, she ros_rom her seat, and looked down into the lovely lake below her.
"The fishes will eat that book," she observed. "I hope it will not poiso_hem! If they could read and understand it, what singular ideas they woul_ave of us human beings!"
"Why don't you read Mavis Clare's books?" I asked suddenly. "You told me yo_dmired her."
"So I do,—immensely!" she answered. "I admire her and wonder at her bot_ogether. How that woman can keep her child's heart and child's faith in _orld like this, is more than I can understand. It is always a perfect marve_o me,— a sort of supernatural surprise. You ask me why don't I read he_ooks,—I do read them,—I've read them all over and over again,—but she doe_ot write many, and one has to wait for her productions longer than for thos_f most authors. When I want to feel like an angel, I read Mavis Clare,—but _ore often am inclined to feel the other way, and then her books are merely s_any worries to me."
"Worries?" I echoed.
"Yes. It is worrying to find somebody believing in a God when _you_ can'_elieve in Him,—to have beautiful faiths offered to you which _you_ can'_rasp,—and to know that there is a creature alive, a woman like yourself i_verything except mind, who is holding fast a happiness which you can neve_ttain,—no, not though you held out praying hands day and night, and shoute_ild appeals to the dull heavens!"
At that moment she looked like a queen of tragedy,—her violet eyes ablaze, he_ips apart, her breast heaving. I approached her with a strange nervou_esitation and touched her hand. She gave it to me passively. I drew i_hrough my arm, and for a minute or two we paced silently up and down th_ravel walk. The lights from the monster hotel which catered for us and ou_ants were beginning to twinkle from basement to roof, and just above th_halet we rented, a triad of stars sparkled in the shape of a trefoil.
"Poor Geoffrey !" she said presently, with a quick upward glance at me,—" I a_orry for you! With all my vagaries of disposition I am not a fool, and a_nyrate I have learned how to analyze myself as well as others. I read you a_asily as I read a book,—I see what a strange tumult your mind is in! You lov_e—and you loathe me !—and the contrast of emotion makes a wreck of you an_our ideals. Hush,—don't speak; I know,—I know! But what would you have me be?
An angel? I cannot realize such a being for more than a fleeting moment o_magination. A saint? They were all martyred. A good woman? I never met one.
Innocent?—ignorant? I told you before we married that I was neither; there i_othing left for me to discover as far as the relations between men and wome_re concerned,—I have taken the measure of the inherent love of vice in bot_exes. There is not a pin to choose between them—men are no worse tha_omen,—women no worse than men. I have discovered everything—except God!—and _onclude no God could ever have designed such a crazy and mean business a_uman life."
While she thus spoke, I could have fallen at her feet and implored her to b_ilent. For she was, unknowingly, giving utterance to some of the man_houghts in which I myself had frequently indulged,—and yet, from her lip_hey sounded cruel, unnatural, and callous to a degree that made me shrin_rom her in fear and agony. We had reached a little grove of pines,—and her_n the silence and shadow, I took her in my arms and stared disconsolatel_pon the beauty of her face.
"Sibyl!" I whispered,—"Sibyl, what is wrong with us both? How is it that we d_ot seem to find the loveliest side of love?—why is it that even in our kisse_nd embraces, some impalpable darkness comes between us, so that we anger o_eary each other when we should be glad and satisfied? What is it? Can yo_ell? For you know the darkness is there !''
A curious look came into her eyes,—a far-away strained look of hungr_earning, mingled, as I thought, with compassion for me.
"Yes, it is there!" she answered slowly. "And it is of our own mutua_reation. I believe you have something nobler in your nature, Geoffrey, than _ave in mine,—an inc .finable something that recoils from me and my theorie_espite your wish and will. Perhaps if you had given way to that feeling i_ime, you would never have married me. You speak of the loveliest side o_ove,—to me there is no lovely side,—it is all coarse and horrible. You and _or instance,— cultured man and woman,—we cannot, in marriage, get a fligh_eyond the common emotions of Hodge and his girl!'' She laughed violently, an_huddered in my arms. "What liars the poets are, Geoffrey! They ought to b_entenced to life-long imprisonment for their perjuries! They help to moul_he credulous beliefs of a woman's heart;—in her early youth she reads thei_elicious assurances, and imagines that love will be all they teach,—a thin_ivine and lasting beyond earthly countings !—then comes the coarse finger o_rose on the butterfly-wing of poesy, and the bitterness and hideousness o_omplete disillusion!"
I held her still in my arms with the fierce grasp of a man clinging to a spa_re he drowns in mid-ocean.
"But I love you, Sibyl!—my wife, I love you!" I said, with a passion tha_hoked my utterance.
"You love me,—yes, _7._ know, but how? In a way that is abhorrent t_ourself!" she replied. "It is not poetic love, —it is man's love, and man'_ove is brute love. So it is,— so it will be,—so it must be. Moreover, th_rute-love soon tires,—and when it dies out from satiety there is nothin_eft. Nothing, Geoffrey, absolutely nothing but a blank and civil form o_ntercourse, which I do not doubt we shall be able to keep up for th_dmiration and comment of society.''
She disengaged herself from my embrace, and moved towards the house.
"Come!" she added, turning her exquisite head back over her shoulder with _eline caressing grace that she alone possessed. "You know there is a famou_ady in London who advertises her salable charms to the outside public b_eans of her monogram worked into the lace of all her windowblinds, thinkin_t no doubt good for trade! I am not quite so bad as that! You have pai_early for me I know; but remember I as yet wear no jewels but yours, an_rave no gifts beyond those you are generous enough to bestow,—and my dutifu_esire is to give you as much full value as I can for your money.''
"Sibyl, you kill me!" I cried, tortured beyond endurance. "Do you think me s_ase"
I broke off with almost a sob of despair.
"You cannot help being base," she said, steadily regarding me,—" because yo_re a man. I am base because I am a woman. If we believed in a God, either o_s, we might discover some different way of life and love,—who knows? Bu_either you nor I have any remnant of faith in a Being whose existence all th_cientists of the day are ever at work to disprove. We are persistently taugh_hat we are animals and nothing more,—let us therefore not be ashamed o_nimalism. Animalism and atheism are approved by the scientists and applaude_y the press,—and the clergy are powerless to enforce the faith they preach.
Come, Geoffrey, don't stay mooning like a stricken Parsifal under thos_ines,—throw away that thing which troubles you, your conscience,—throw i_way as you have thrown the book I was lately reading, and consider this,—tha_ost men of your type take pride and rejoice in being the prey of a bad woman, so you should really congratulate yourself on having one for a wife,—one wh_s so broad-minded, too, that she will always let you have your own way i_verything you do, provided you let her have hers. It is the way all marriage_re arranged now-adays,—at any rate in _our_ set,—otherwise the tie would b_mpossible of endurance. Come !''
''We cannot livetogether on such an understanding, Sibyl!'' I said hoarsely, as I walked slowly by her side towards the villa.
"Oh, yes, we can!" she averred, a little malign smile playing round her lips.
"We can do as others do,—there is no necessity for us to stand out from th_est like quixotic fools, and pose as models to other married people,—w_hould only be detested for our pains. It is surely better to be popular tha_irtuous,—virtue never pays. See, there is our interesting German waite_oming to inform us that dinner is ready; please don't look so utterl_iserable, for we have not quarrelled, and it would be foolish to let th_ervants think we have."I made no answer. We entered the house, and dined,— Sibyl keeping up a perfect fire of conversation, to which I replied in mer_onosyllables,—and after dinner we went as usual to sit in the illuminate_ardens of the adjacent hotel and hear the band. Sibyl was known an_niversally admired and flattered by many of the people staying there,—and, a_he moved about among her acquaintances, chatting first with one group an_hen with another, I sat in moody silence watching her with increasin_onderment and horror. Her beauty seemed to me like the beauty of the poison- flower, which, brilliant in colour and perfect in shape, exhales death t_hose who pluck it from its stem. And that night, when I held her in my arms, and felt her heart beating against my own in the darkness, an awful drea_rose in me,—a dread as to whether I might not at some time or other b_empted to strangle her as she lay on my breast,—strangle her as one woul_trangle a vampire that sucked one's blood and strength away!