We concluded our wedding-tour rather sooner than we had at first intended, an_eturned to England and Willowsmere Court about the middle of August. I had _ague notion stirring in me that gave me a sort of dim indefinabl_onsolation, and it was this,—I meant to bring my wife and Mavis Clar_ogether, believing that the gentle influence of the gracious and happ_reature, who, like a contented bird in its nest, dwelt serene in the littl_omain so near my own, might have a softening and wholesome effect upo_ibyl's pitiless love of analysis and scorn of all noble ideals. The heat i_arwickshire was at this time intense,—the roses were out in their ful_eauty, and the thick foliage of the branching oaks and elms in my ground_fforded grateful shade and repose to the tired body, while the tranqui_oveliness of the woodland and meadow scenery, comforted and soothed th_qually tired mind. After all there is no country in the world so fair a_ngland,—none so richly endowed with verdant forest and fragrant flowers,—non_hat can boast of sweeter nooks for seclusion and romance. In Italy, that lan_o over-praised by hysterical _poseurs_ who foolishly deem it admirable t_lorify any country save their own, the fields are arid and brown and parche_y the too fervent sun,—there are no shady lanes such as England can boast o_n all her shires,—and the mania among Italians for ruthlessly cutting dow_heir finest trees has not only actually injured the climate, but has s_poilt the landscape that it is difficult to believe at all in its onc_enowned and still erroneously reported charm. Such a bower of beauty as 'Lil_ottage' was in that sultry August could never have been discovered in all th_ength and breadth of Italy. Mavis superintended the care of her garden_erself,—she had two gardeners, who under her directions kept the grass an_rees continually watered,—and nothing could be imagined more lovely than th_icturesque old-fashioned house, covered with roses and tufts of jessamin_hat seemed to tie up the roof in festal knots and garlands, while around th_uilding spread the reaches of deep emerald lawn and bosky arbours of foliag_here all the most musical song-birds apparently found refuge and delight, an_here at evening a perfect colony of nightingales kept up a bubbling fountai_f delicious melody. I remember well the afternoon, warm, languid and still, when I took Sibyl to see the woman-author she had so long admired. The hea_as so great that in our own grounds all the birds were silent, but when w_pproached 'Lily Cottage' the first thing we heard was the piping of a thrus_p somewhere among the roses,—a mellow liquid warble expressing 'swee_ontent,' and mingling with the subdued coo-cooings of the dove 'reviewers'
who were commenting on whatever pleased or displeased them in the distance.
"What a pretty place it is !" said my wife, as she peeped over the gate an_hrough the odorous tangles of honeysuckle and jessamine. "I really think i_s prettier than Willowsmere. It has been wonderfully improved."
We were shown in, and Mavis, who had expected our visit, did not keep u_aiting long. As she entered, clad in some gossamer white stuff that clun_oftly about her pretty figure and was belted in by a simple ribbon, an od_ickening pang went through my heart. The fair untroubled face, the joyous ye_reamy student eyes, the sensitive mouth,—and above all, the radiant look o_appiness that made the whole expression of her features so bright an_ascinating, taught me in one flash of conviction all that a woman might be, and all that she too frequently was not. And I had hated Mavis Clare !—I ha_ven taken up my pen to deal her a wanton blow through the medium of anonymou_riticism, … but this was before I knew her,—before I realized that ther_ould be any difference between her and the female scarecrows who s_requently pose as 'novelists' without being able to write correct English, and who talk in public of their 'copy' with the glibness gained from Gru_treet and the journalists' cheap restaurant. Yes—I had hated her,—an_ow—now, almost I loved her! Sibyl, tall, queenly and beautiful, gazed upo_er with eyes that expressed astonishment as well as admiration.
"To think that _you_ are the famous Mavis Clare!" she said, smiling as sh_eld out her hand. "I always heard and knew that you did not look at al_iterary, but I never quite realized that you could be exactly what I see yo_re!''
"To look literary does not always imply that you _are_ literary!" returne_avis, laughing a little. "Too often I am afraid you will find that the wome_ho take pains to _look_ literary are ignorant of literature! But how glad _m to see you, Lady Sibyl! Do you know I used to watch you playing about o_he lawns at Willowsmere when I was quite a little girl?"
"And I used to watch _you,"_ responded Sibyl. "You used to make daisy-chain_nd cowslip-balls in the fields opposite on the other side of the Avon. It i_ great pleasure to me to know we are neighbours. You must come and see m_ften at Willowsmere."
Mavis did not answer immediately,—she busied herself in pouring out tea an_ispensing it to both of us. Sibyl, who was always on the alert for glimpse_f character, noticed that she did not answer, and repeated her word_oaxingly.
"You will come, will you not? As often as you like; the oftener the better. W_ust be friends, you know!"
Mavis looked up then, a frank sweet smile in her eyes.
"Do you really mean it?" she asked.
"Mean it!" echoed Sibyl. _"_ Why, of course I do!"
"How can you doubt it!" I exclaimed.
"Well, you must both forgive me for askingsuch a question,'' said Mavis, stil_miling. "But you see you are now among what are called the 'county magnates,'
and county magnates consider themselves infinitely above all authors.'' Sh_aughed outright, and her blue eyes twinkled with fun. "I think many of the_stimate writers of books as some sort of strange outgrowth of humanity tha_s barely decent. It is deliciously funny and always amuses me; nevertheless, among my many faults, the biggest one is, I fancy, pride, and a dreadfull_bstinate spirit of independence. Now, to tell you the truth, I have bee_sked by many so-called 'great' people to their houses, and when I _have_one, I have generally been sorry for it afterwards."
"Why?" I asked. "They honour themselves by inviting you."
"Oh, I don't think they take it in that way at all!" she replied, shaking he_air head demurely. "They fancy they have performed a great act o_ondescension,—whereas it is really I who condescend, for it is very good o_e, you know, to leave the society of the Pallas Athene in my study for tha_f a flounced and frizzled lady of fashion." Her bright smile again irradiate_er face and she went on— "Once I was asked to luncheon with a certain baro_nd baroness who invited a few guests 'to meet me,' so they said. I was no_ntroduced to more than one or two of these people, —the rest sat and stare_t me as if I were a new kind of fish or fowl. Then the baron showed me hi_ouse, and told me the prices of his pictures and his china,—he was even goo_nough to explain which was Dresden and which was Delft ware, though _elieve, benighted author as I am, I could have instructed him equally o_hese and other matters. However, I managed to smile amicably through th_hole programme, and professed myself charmed and delighted in the usua_ay;—but they never asked me to visit them again, —and (unless indeed the_anted me to be impressed with their furniture-catalogue), I can never mak_ut what I did to be asked at all, and what I have done never to be asked an_ore!"
"They must have _been parvenus,"_ said Sibyl indignantly. "No well-bre_eople would have priced their goods to you, unless they happened to be Jews."
Mavis laughed—a merry little laugh like a peal of bells,— then she continued—
"Well, I will not say who they were,—I must keep something f ir my 'literar_eminiscences' when I get old! Then all these people will be named, and g_own to posterity as Dante's enemies went down to Dante's hell! I have onl_old you the incident just to show you why I asked you if you meant it, whe_ou invited me to visit you at Willowsmere. Because the baron and baroness _ave spoken of 'gushed' over me and my poor books to such an extent that yo_ould have fancied I was to be for evermore one of their dearest friends,—an_hey _didn't_ mean it. Other people I know embrace me effusively and invit_e to their houses, and _they_ don't mean it. And when I find out thes_hams, I like to make it very clear on my own side that I do not seek to b_mbraced or invited, and that if certain great folks deem it a 'favour' to as_e to their houses, I do not so consider it, but rather think the 'favour' i_ntirely on my part if I accept the invitation. And I do not say this for m_wn self at all,—self has nothing to do with it,—but I do say it and strongl_ssert it for the sake of the dignity of Literature as an art and profession.
If a few other authors would maintain this position, we might raise th_tandard of letters by degrees to what it was in the old days of Scott an_yron. I hope you do not think me too proud?"
"On the contrary, I think you are quite right," said Sibyl earnestly. "And _dmire you for your courage and independence. Some of the aristocracy are, _now, such utter snobs that often I feel ashamed to belong to them. But as fa_s we are concerned, I can only assure you that if you will honour us b_ecoming our friend as well as neighbour, you shall not regret it. Do try an_ike me if you can!"
She bent forward with a witching smile on her fair face. Mavis looked at he_eriously and admiringly.
"How beautiful you are !" she said frankly. "Everybody tells you this o_ourse,—still, I cannot help joining in the general chorus. To me, a lovel_ace is like a lovely flower, —I must admire it. Beauty is quite a divin_hing, and though I am often told that the plain people are always the goo_eople, I never can quite believe it. Nature is surely bound to give _eautiful face to a beautiful spirit."
Sibyl, who had smiled with pleasure at the first words of the open complimen_aid her by one of the most gifted of her own sex, now flushed deeply.
"Not always, Miss Clare," she said, veiling her brilliant eyes beneath th_roop of her long lashes. One can imagine a fair fiend as easily as a fai_ngel."
"True!" and Mavis looked at her musingly; then suddenly laughing in her blith_right way, she added, ''Quite true! Really I cannot picture an ugl_iend,—for the fiends are supposed to be immortal, and I am convinced tha_mmortal ugliness has no part in the universe. Downright hideousness belong_o humanity alone,—and an ugly face is such a blot on creation that we ca_nly console ourselves by the reflection that it is fortunately perishable, and that in course of time the soul behind it will be released from its ill- formed husk, and will be allowed to wear a fairer aspect. Yes, Lady Sibyl, _ill come to Willowsmere; I cannot refuse to look upon such loveliness a_ours as often as I may!"
"You are a charming flatterer!" said Sibyl, rising and putting an arm roun_er in that affectionate coaxing way of hers which seemed so sincere and whic_o frequently meant nothing. "But I confess I prefer to be flattered by _oman rather than by a man. Men say the same things to all women,—they have _ery limited repertoire of compliments,—and they will tell a fright she i_eautiful if it happens to serve their immediate purpose. But women themselve_an so hardly be persuaded to admit that any good qualities exist eithe_nward or outward in one another, that when they do say a kind or generou_hing of their own sex it is a wonder worth remembering. May I see you_tudy?"
Mavis willingly assented, and we all three went into the peaceful sanctu_here the marble Pallas presided, and where the dogs Tricksy and Emperor wer_oth ensconced,—Emperor sitting up on his haunches and surveying the prospec_rom the window, and Tricksy with a most absurd air of importance, imitatin_he larger animal's attitude precisely, at a little distance off. Bot_reatures were friendly to my wife and to me, and while Sibyl was stroking th_t Bernard's massive head, Mavis said suddenly—
"Where is the friend who came with you here first, Prince Rimanez?"
"He is in St Petersburg just now," I answered. "But he will be here in two o_hree weeks to stay with us on a visit for some time.''
"He is surely a very singular man," said Mavis thoughtfully. "Do you remembe_ow strangely my dogs behaved to him? Emperor was quite restless an_roublesome for two or three hours after he had gone."
And in a few words, she told Sibyl the incident of the St Bernard's attac_pon Lucio.
"Some people have a natural antipathy to dogs," said Sibyl, as she heard. "An_he dogs always find it out and resent it. But I should not have though_rince Rimanez had an antipathy to any creatures except—women!"
And she laughed, a trifle bitterly.
"Except women!" echoed Mavis surprisedly. "Does he hate women? He must be _ery good actor then, for to me he was wonderfully kind and gentle."
Sibyl looked at her intently, and was silent for a minute. Then she said—
"Perhaps it is because he knows you are unlike the ordinary run of women an_ave nothing in common with their usual trumpery aims. Of course he is alway_ourteous to our sex,—but I think it is easy to see that his courtesy is ofte_orn as a mere mask to cover a very different feeling."
"You have perceived that, then, Sibyl?" I said with a slight smile.
"I should be blind if I had not perceived it," she replied. "I do not, however, blame him for his pet aversion,—I think it makes him all the mor_ttractive and interesting."
"He is a great friend of yours?" inquired Mavis, looking at me as she put th_uestion.
"The very greatest friend I have," I replied quickly. "I owe him more than _an ever repay,—indeed I have to thank him even for introducing me to m_ife.''
I said the words unthinkingly and playfully, but as I uttered them, a sudde_hock affected my nerves,—a shock of painful memory. Yes, it was true!—I owe_o him, to Lucio, the misery, fear, degradation and shame of having such _oman as Sibyl was, united to me till death should us part. I felt mysel_urning sick and giddy, and I sat down in one of the quaint oak chairs tha_elped to furnish Mavis Clare's study, allowing the two women to pass out o_he open French window into the sunlit garden together, the dogs following a_heir heels. I watched them as they went,—my wife, tall and stately, attire_n the newest and most fashionable mode; Mavis, small and slight, with he_oft white gown and floating waist-ribbon,—the one sensual, the othe_piritual,—the one base and vicious in desire, the other pure-souled an_spiring to noblest ends,—the one a physically magnificent animal, the othe_erely sweet-faced and ideally fair like a sylph of the woodlands,—an_ooking, I clenched my hands as I thought with bitterness of spirit what _istaken choice I had made. In the profound egotism which had always been par_f my nature I now actually allowed myself to believe that I might, had _hosen, have wedded Mavis Clare,—never for one moment imagining that all m_ealth would have been useless to me in such a quest, and that I might as wel_ave proposed to pluck a star from the sky as to win a woman who was able t_ead my nature thoroughly, and who would never have come down to my money- level from her intellectual throne,—no, not though I had been a monarch o_any nations. I stared at the large tranquil features of the Pallas Athene, and the blank eyeballs of the marble goddess appeared to regard me in tur_ith impassive scorn. I glanced round the room, and at the walls adorned wit_he wise sayings of poets and philosophers,—sayings that reminded me of truth_hich I knew, yet never accepted as practicable; and presently my eyes wer_ttracted to a corner near the writing-desk, which I had not noticed before, where there was a small dim lamp burning. Above this lamp an ivory crucifi_leamed white against draperies of dark purple velvet,—below it, on a silve_racket, was an hour-glass through which the sand was running in glistenin_rains, and round the entire little shrine was written in letters of gold,
"Now is the acceptable time!"—the word ' Now' being in larger characters tha_he rest. 'Now' was evidently Mavis's motto,—to lose no time, but to work, t_ray, to love, to hope, to thank God and be glad for life, all in the
'Now'—and neither to regret the past nor forebode the future, but simply d_he best that could be done, and leave all else in child-like confidence t_he Divine Will. I got up restlessly,—the sight of the crucifix curiousl_nnoyed me ;—and I followed the path my wife and Mavis had taken through th_arden. I found them looking in at the cage of the 'Athenaeum' owls,—the owl- in-chief being as usual puffed out with his own importance and swellin_isibly with indignation and excess of feather. Sibyl turned as she sa_e,—her face was bright and smiling.
"Miss Clare has very strong opinions of her own, Geoffrey," she said. "She i_ot as much captivated by Prince Rimanez as most people are,—in fact, she ha_ust confided to me that she does not quite like him."
Mavis blushed, but her eyes met mine with fearless candour.
"It is wrong to say what one thinks, I know," she murmured in somewha_roubled accents. "And it is a dreadful fault of mine. Please forgive me, M_empest! You tell me the prince is your greatest friend,—and I assure you _as immensely impressed by his appearance when I first saw him, … bu_fterwards, … after I had studied him a little, the conviction was borne i_pon me that he was not altogether what he seemed."
"That is exactly what he says of himself," I answered, laughing a little. "H_as a mystery I believe,—and he has promised to clear it up for me some day.
But I'm sorry you don't like him, Miss Clare,—for he likes you."
"Perhaps when I meet him again my ideas may be different," said Mavis gently.
"At present, … well—do not let us talk of it anymore,—indeed I feel I hav_een very rude to express any opinion at all concerning one for whom you an_ady Sibyl have so great a regard. But somehow I seemed impelled, almos_gainst my will, to say what I did just now."
Her soft eyes looked pained and puzzled, and to relieve her, and change th_ubject, I asked if she was writing anything new.
"Oh, yes," she replied. "It would never do for me to be idle. The public ar_ery kind to me,—and no sooner have they read one thing of mine than the_lamour for another, so I am kept very busy."
"And what of the critics?" I asked, with a good deal of curiosity.
"I never pay the least attention to them," she answered, "except when they ar_asty and misguided enough to write lies about me,—then I very naturally tak_he liberty to contradict those lies, either through my own statement or tha_f my lawyers. Apart from refusing to allow the public to be led into a fals_otion of my work and aims, I have no grudge whatever against the critics.
They are generally very poor, hard-working men, and have a frightful struggl_o live. I have often, privately, done some of them a good turn without thei_nowledge. A publisher of mine sent me an MS. the other day by one of m_eadliest enemies on the press, and stated that my opinion would decide it_ejection or acceptance. I read it through, and though it was not ver_rilliant work it was good enough, so I praised it as warmly as I could, an_rged its publication, with the stipulation that the author should never b_old I had had the casting vote. It has just come out, I see,—and I'm sure _ope it will succeed." Here she paused to gather a few deep damask roses, which she handed to Sibyl. "Yes, critics are very badly, even cruelly paid,"
she went on musingly. "It is not to be expected that they should writ_ulogies of the successful author, while they continue unsuccessful,—such wor_ould not be anything but gall and wormwood to them. I know the poor littl_ife of one of them,—and settled her dressmaker's bill for her because she wa_fraid to show it to her husband. The very week afterwards he slashed away a_y last book in the most approved style in the paper on which he is employe_nd got, I suppose, about a guinea for his trouble. Of course he didn't kno_bout his little wife and her dunning dressmaker; and he never will know, because I have bound her over to secrecy."
"But why do you do such things?" asked Sibyl astonished. "I would have let hi_ife get into the County Court for her bill, if I had been you!"
"Would you ?" and Mavis smiled gravely. "Well, I could not. You know Who i_as that said 'Bless them that curse you, and do good to them that hate you.'
Besides, the poor little woman was frightened to death at her own expenditure.
It is pitiful, you know, to see the helpless agonies of people who _will_ive beyond their incomes,—they suffer much more than the beggars in th_treet who make frequently more than a pound a day by mere whining an_nivelling. The critics are much more in evil case than the beggars—few o_hem make even a pound a day, and of course they regard as their natura_nemies the authors who make thirty to fifty pounds a week. I assure you I a_ery sorry for critics all round,— they are the least-regarded and worst- rewarded of all the literary community. And I never bother myself at all abou_hat they say of me, except as I before observed, when in their haste the_ell lies,—then of course it becomes necessary for me to state the truth i_imple self-defence as well as by way of duty to my public. But as a rule _and over all my press-notices to Tricksy there,"—indicating the minut_orkshire terrier who followed closely at the edge of her white gown,—"and h_ears them to indistinguishable shreds in about three minutes!"
She laughed merrily, and Sibyl smiled, watching her with the same wonder an_dmiration that had been expressed in her looks more or less since th_eginning of our interview with this light-hearted possessor of literary fame.
We were now walking towards the gate preparatory to taking our departure.
"May I come and talk to you sometimes?" my wife said suddenly, in he_rettiest and most pleading voice. "It would be such a privilege!"
"You can come whenever you like in the afternoons," replied Mavis readily.
"The mornings belong to a goddess more dominant even than Beauty,—Work!"
"You never work at night?" I asked.
"Indeed no! I never turn the ordinances of Nature upside down, as I am sure _hould get the worst of it if I made such an attempt. The night is for sleep, and I use it thankfully for that blessed purpose."
"Some authors can only write at night though," I said.
"Then you may be sure they only produce blurred pictures and indistinc_haracterization," said Mavis. "Some I know there are, who invite inspiratio_hrough gin, or opium, as well as through the midnight influences, but I d_ot believe in such methods. Morning and a freshly rested brain are require_or literary labour,—that is, if one wants to write a book that will last fo_ore than one 'season.'"
She accompanied us to the gate, and stood under the porch, her big dog besid_er and the roses waving high over her head.
"At anyrate, work agrees with you," said Sibyl, fixing upon her a long, intent, almost envious gaze. "You look perfectly happy."
"I _am_ perfectly happy," she answered, smiling. "I have nothing in all th_orld to wish for, except that I may die as peacefully as I have lived."
"May that day be far distant!" I said earnestly.
She raised her soft meditative eyes to mine.
"Thank you!" she responded gently. "But I do not mind when it comes, so lon_s it finds me ready."
She waved her hand to us as we left her and turned the corner of the lane,—an_or some minutes we walked on slowly in absolute silence. Then at last Siby_poke—
"I quite understand the hatred there is in some quarters for Mavis Clare," sh_aid. "I am afraid I begin to hate her myself!"
I stopped and stared at her, astonished and confounded.
"You begin to hate her—you?—and why?"
"Are you so blind that you cannot perceive why?" she retorted, the littl_align smile I knew so well playing round her lips. "Because she is happy!
Because she has no scandals in her life, and because she dares to be content!
One longs to make her miserable! But how to do it? She believes in a God,—sh_hinks all He ordains is right and good. With such a firm faith as that, sh_ould be happy in a garret earning but a few pence a day. I see now perfectl_ow she has won her public,—it is by the absolute conviction she has hersel_f the theories of life she tries to instil. What can be done against her?
Nothing! But I understand why the critics would like to 'quash' her,—if I wer_ critic, fond of whisky-and-soda and music-hall women, I should like to quas_er myself for being so different to the rest of her sex."
"What an incomprehensible woman you are, Sibyl!" I exclaimed with rea_rritation. "You admire Miss Clare's books,—you have always admired them,—yo_ave asked her to become your friend,—and almost in the same breath you ave_ou would like to 'quash' her or to make her miserable. I confess I canno_nderstand you !''
"Of course you cannot!" she responded tranquilly, her eyes resting upon m_ith a curious expression, as we paused for an instant under the deep shade o_ chestnut tree before entering our own grounds. "I never supposed you could, and, unlike the ordinary _femtne incomprise,_ I have never blamed you fo_our want of comprehension. It has taken me some time to understand myself, and even now I am not quite sure that I have gauged the depths o_hallownesses of my own nature correctly. But on this matter of Mavis Clare, can you not imagine that badness may hate goodness? That the confirme_runkard may hate the sober citizen? That the outcast may hate the innocen_aiden? And that it is possible that I,—reading life as I do, and finding i_oathsome in many of its aspects,—distrusting men and women utterly,— an_eing destitute of any faith in God,—may hate,—yes _hate"_ —and she clenche_er hand on a tuft of drooping leaves and scattered the green fragments at he_eet—"a woman who finds life beautiful, and God existent,—who takes no part i_ur social shams and slanders, and who in place of my selftorturing spirit o_nalysis, has secured an enviable fame and the honour of thousands, allied t_ serene content? Why, it would be something worth living for to make such _oman wretched for once in her life !—but as she is constituted it i_mpossible to do it."
She turned from me and walked slowly onward,—I following in a pained silence.
"If you do not mean to be her friend, you should tell her so," I sai_resently. "You heard what she said about pretended protestations of regard ?''
"I heard,'' she replied morosely. "She is a clever woman, Geoffrey, and yo_ay trust her to find me out without any explanation!"
As she said this, I raised my eyes and looked full at her,— her exceedin_eauty was becoming almost an agony to my sight, and in a sudden fool'_aroxysm of despair I exclaimed—
"Oh, Sibyl, Sibyl! Why were you made as you are?"
"Ah, why indeed?" she rejoined, with a faint mocking smile. "And why, bein_ade as I am, was I born an Earl's daughter? If I had been an Arab of th_treet, I should have been in my proper place,—and novels would have bee_ritten about me, and plays,—and I might have become such a heroine as shoul_ause all good men to weep for joy because of my generosity in encouragin_heir vices! But as an Earl's daughter, respectably married to a millionaire, I am a mistake of nature. Yet nature does make mistakes sometimes, Geoffrey, and when she does they are generally irremediable."
We had now reached our own grounds, and I walked, in miserable mood, besid_er across the lawn towards the house.
"Sibyl," I said at last, "I had hoped you and Mavis Clare might be friends… ."
"So we shall be friends, I daresay,—for a little while," she replied. "But th_ove does not willingly consort with the raven, and Mavis Clare's way of lif_nd studious habits would be to me insufferably dull. Besides, as I sai_efore, she, as a clever woman and a thinker, is too clear-sighted not to fin_e out in the course of time. But I will play humbug as long as I can. If _erform the part of 'county lady' or 'patron,' of course she won't stand m_or a moment. I shall have to assume a much more difficult role,—that of a_onest woman."
Again she laughed,—a cruel little laugh that chilled my blood, and pace_lowly into the house through the open windows of the drawing-room. And I, left alone in the garden among the nodding roses and waving trees, felt tha_he beautiful domain of Willowsmere had suddenly grown hideous and bereft o_ll its former charm, and was nothing but a haunted house o_esolation,—haunted by an all-dominant and ever victorious Spirit of Evil.