No man, I think, ever forgets the first time he is brought face to face wit_erfect beauty in woman. He may have caught fleeting glimpses of loveliness o_any fair faces often,—bright eyes may have flashed on him like star- beams,—the hues of a dazzling complexion may now and then have charmed him, o_he seductive outlines of a graceful figure;—all these are as mere peeps int_he infinite. But when such vague and passing impressions are suddenly draw_ogether in one focus,—when all his dreamy fancies of form and colour tak_isible and complete manifestation in one living creature who looks down upo_im as it were from an empyrean of untouched maiden pride and purity, it i_ore to his honour than his shame, if his senses swoon at the ravishin_ision, and he, despite his rough masculinity and brute strength, become_othing but the merest slave to passion. In this way was I overwhelmed an_onquered without any chance of deliverance when Sybil Elton's violet eyes, lifted slowly from the shadow of their dark lashes, rested upon me with tha_ndefinable expression of mingled interest and indifference which is suppose_o indicate high breeding, but which more frequently intimidates and repulse_he frank and sensitive soul.
The Lady Sibyl's glance repelled, but I was none the less attracted. Rimane_nd I had entered the Earl of Elton's box at the Haymarket between the firs_nd second acts of the play, and the Earl himself, an unimpressive, bald- headed, redfaced old gentleman, with fuzzy white whiskers, had risen t_elcome us, seizing Lucio's hand and shaking it with particular effusiveness.
(I learned afterwards that Lucio had lent him a thousand pounds on easy terms, a fact which partly accounted for the friendly fervour of his greeting.) Hi_aughter had not moved; but a minute or two later when he addressed he_omewhat sharply, saying "Sibyl! Prince Rimanez and his friend, Mr Geoffre_empest," she turned her head and honoured us both with the chill glance _ave endeavoured to describe, and the very faintest possible bow as a_cknowledgment of our presence. Her exquisite beauty smote me dumb an_oolish,—I could find nothing to say, and stood silent and confused, with _trange sensation of bewilderment upon me. The old Earl made some remark abou_he play which I scarcely heard though I answered vaguely and at hap- hazard,—the orchestra was playing abominably as is usual in theatres, and it_razen din sounded like the noise of the sea in my ears,—I had not much rea_onsciousness of anything save the wondrous loveliness of the girl who face_e, clad in pure white, with a few diamonds shining about her like stra_ewdrops on a rose. Lucio spoke to her, and I listened.
"At last, Lady Sibyl," he said, bending towards her deferentially. "At last _ave the honour of meeting you. I have seen you often, as one sees a star,—a_ distance.''
She smiled,—a smile so slight and cold that it scarcely lifted the corners o_er lovely lips.
"I do not think I have ever seen _you,"_ she replied. "And yet there i_omething oddly familiar in your face. I have heard my father speak of yo_onstantly,—I need scarcely say his friends are always mine.''
"To merely speak to Lady Sibyl Elton is counted sufficient to make the man s_rivileged happy," he said. "To be her friend is to discover the los_aradise."
She flushed,—then grew suddenly very pale, and shivering, she drew her cloa_owards her. Rimanez wrapped its perfumed silken folds carefully round he_eautiful shoulders,— how I grudged him the dainty task! He then turned to me, and placed a chair just behind hers.
"Will you sit here, Geoffrey?" he suggested—"I want to have a moment'_usiness chat with Lord Elton."
Recovering my self-possession a little, I hastened to take the chance he thu_enerously gave me to ingratiate myself in the young lady's favour, and m_eart gave a foolish bound of joy because she smiled encouragingly as _pproached her.
"You are a great friend of Prince Rimanez?" she asked softly, as I sat down.
"Yes, we are very intimate," I replied—" He is a delightful companion."
"So I should imagine !" and she looked over at him where he sat next to he_ather talking earnestly in low tones—" He is singularly handsome."
I made no reply. Of course Lucio's extraordinary personal attractiveness wa_ndeniable,—but I rather grudged her praise bestowed on him just then. He_emarks seemed to me as tactless as when a man with one pretty woman besid_im loudly admires another in her hearing. I did not myself assume to b_ctually handsome, but I knew I was better looking than the ordinary run o_en. So out of sudden pique I remained silent, and presently the curtain ros_nd the play was resumed. A very questionable scene was enacted, the ' woma_ith the past' being well to the front of it. I felt disgusted at th_erformance and looked at my companions to see if they too were similarl_oved. There was no sign of disapproval on Lady Sibyl's fair countenance,—he_ather was bending forward eagerly, apparently gloating over every detail, —Rimanez wore that inscrutable expression of his in which no feeling whateve_ould be discerned. The 'woman with the past' went on with her hysterica_ham-heroics, and the mealy-mouthed fool of a hero declared her to be a 'pur_ngel wronged,' and the curtain fell amid loud applause. One energetic his_ame from the gallery, affecting the occupants of the stalls to scandalize_mazement.
"England has progressed!" said Rimanez in soft halfbantering tones—"Once upo_ time this play would have been hooted off the stage as likely to corrupt th_ocial community. But now the only voice of protest comes from the 'lower'
'' Are you a democrat, prince ?'' inquired Lady Sibyl, waving her fa_ndolently to and fro.
"Not I! I always insist on the pride and supremacy of worth,—I do not mea_oney value, but intellect. And in this way I foresee a new aristocracy. Whe_he High grows corrupt, it falls and becomes the Low;—when the Low educate_tself and aspires, it becomes the High. This is simply the course o_ature.''
"But God bless my soul!" exclaimed Lord Elton—"you don't call this play low o_mmoral, do you?" It's a realistic study of modern social life—that's what i_s. These women you know,—these poor souls with a past—are very interesting."
"Very !" murmured his daughter.—" In fact it would seem that for women with n_uch ' past' there can be no future. Virtue and modesty are quite out of date, and have no chance whatever.''
I leaned towards her, half whispering—
"Lady Sibyl, I am glad to see this wretched play offends you."
She turned her deep eyes on me in mingled surprise and amusement.
"Oh no, it doesn't," she declared—" I have seen so many like it. And I hav_ead so many novels on just the same theme. I assure you I am quite convince_hat the so-called 'bad' woman is the only popular type of our sex with men, —she gets all the enjoyment possible out of life,—she frequently makes a_xcellent marriage, and has, as the Americans say, 'a good time all round.'
It's the same thing with our convicted criminals,—in prison they are muc_etter fed than the honest working-man. I believe it is quite a mistake for _oman to be respectable,—they are only considered dull."
"Ah now you are only joking !" I said with an indulgent smile. "You know tha_n your heart you think very differently."
She made no answer, as just then the curtain went up again, disclosing th_nclean ' lady' of the piece, " having a good time all round" on board _uxurious yacht. During the unnatural and stilted dialogue which followed, _ithdrew a little back into the shadow of the box, and all that self-estee_nd assurance of which I had been suddenly deprived by a glance at Lad_ibyl's beauty, came back to me, and a perfectly stolid coolness and composur_ucceeded to the first feverish excitement of my mind. I recalled Lucio'_ords— _" I believe Lady Sibyl is for sale"_ —and I thought triumphantly of m_illions. I glanced at the old earl, abjectly pulling at his white whisker_hile he listened anxiously to what were evidently money schemes propounded b_ucio. Then my gaze came back appraisingly to the lovely curves of Lad_ibyl's milk-white throat, her beautiful arms and bosom, her rich brown hai_f the shade of a ripe chestnut, her delicate haughty face, languid eyes an_rilliant complexion,—and I murmured inwardly—" All this loveliness i_urchasable and I will purchase it!" At that very instant she turned to me an_aid—
"You are the famous Mr Tempest, are you not?"
"Famous?" I echoed with a deep sense of gratification —"Well,—I am scarcel_hat,—yet! My book is not published … "
Her eyebrows arched themselves surprisedly.
"Your book? I did not know you had written one!"
My flattered vanity sank to zero.
"It has been extensively advertised," I began impressively, but sh_nterrupted me with a laugh.
"Oh I never read advertisements,—it's too much trouble. When I asked if yo_ere the famous Mr Tempest, I meant to say were you the great millionaire wh_as been so much talked of lately?"
I bowed a somewhat chill assent. She looked at me inquisitively over the lac_dge of her fan.
"How delightful it must be for you to have so much money!" she said—"And yo_re young too, and goodlooking."
Pleasure took the place of vexed _amour-propre_ and I smiled.
"You are very kind, Lady Sibyl!"
"Why?" she asked laughing,—such a delicious little low laugh—"Because I tel_ou the truth? You _are_ young and you _are_ good-looking. Millionaire_re generally such appalling creatures. Fortune while giving them mone_requently deprives them of both brains and personal attractiveness. And no_o tell me about your book !''
She seemed to have suddenly dispensed with her former reserve, and during th_ast act of the play, we conversed freely, in whispers which assisted us t_ecome almost confidential. Her manner to me now was full of grace and charm, and the fascination she exerted over my senses became complete. Th_erformance over, we all left the box together, and as Lucio was stil_pparently engrossed with Lord Elton, I had the satisfaction of escorting Lad_ibyl to her carriage. When her father joined her, Lucio and I both stoo_ogether looking in at the window of the brougham, and the Earl, getting hol_f my hand shook it up and down with boisterous friendliness.
'' Come and dine,—come and dine!" he spluttered excitedly, —" Come—let m_ee,—this is Tuesday—come on Thursday. Short notice and no ceremony! My wif_s paralyzed I'm sorry to say,—she can't receive,—she can only see a fe_eople now and then when she is in the humour,—her sister keeps house and doe_he honours,—Aunt Charlotte, eh Sibyl?—ha-ha-ha! The Deceased Wife's Sister'_ill would never be any use to me, for if my wife were to die I shouldn't b_nxious to marry Miss Charlotte Fitzroy! Ha ha ha! A perfectly unapproachabl_oman, sir !—a model,—ha ha! Come and dine with us, Mr Tempest,—Lucio, yo_ring him along with you, eh? We've got a young lady staying with us,—a_merican, dollars, accent and all,—and by Jove I believe she wants to marr_e, ha ha ha! and is waiting for Lady Elton to go to a better world first, h_a! Come along—come and see the little American, eh? Thursday shall it be ?''
Over the fair features of Lady Sibyl there passed a faint shadow of annoyanc_t her father's allusion to the "little American," but she said nothing. Onl_er looks appeared to question our intentions as well as to persuade ou_ills, and she seemed satisfied when we both accepted the invitation given.
Another apoplectic chuckle from the Earl and a couple of handshakes,—a sligh_raceful bow from her lovely ladyship, as we raised our hats in farewell, an_he Elton equipage rolled away, leaving us to enter our own vehicle, whic_mid the officious roarings of street-boys and policemen had just managed t_raw up in front of the theatre. As we drove off, Lucio peered inquisitivel_t me—I could see the steely glitter of his fine eyes in the semi-darkness o_he brougham,—and said—
I was silent.
"Don't you admire her?" he went on—"I must confess she is cold,—a very chill_estal indeed,—but snow often covers volcanoes! She has good features and _aturally clear complexion."
Despite my intention to be reticent, I could not endure this tame description.
"She is perfectly beautiful,"—I said emphatically. "The dullest eyes must se_hat. There is not a fault to be found with her. And she is wise to b_eserved and cold—were she too lavish of her smiles, and too seductive i_anner she might drive many men not only into folly, but madness."
I felt rather than saw the cat-like jewel glance he flashed upon me.
"Positively, Geoffrey, I believe, that notwithstanding the fact that we ar_nly in February, the wind blows upon you due south, bringing with it odour_f rose and orange-blossom! I fancy Lady Sibyl has powerfully impressed you?"
"Did you wish me to be impressed?" I asked.
"I? My dear fellow, I wish nothing that you yourself do not wish. _ccommodate my ways to my friends' humours. If asked for my opinion, I should &ay it is rather a pity if you are really smitten with the young lady, a_here are no obstacles to be encountered. A love-affair, to be conducted wit_pirit and enterprise should always bristle with opposition and difficulty, real or invented. A little secrecy and a good deal of wrong-doing, such as sl_ssignations and the telling of any amount of lies—such things add to th_greeableness of love-making on this planet—"
I interrupted him.
"See here, Lucio, you are very fond of alluding to 'this' planet as if yo_new anything about other planets"—I said impatiently. _"This_ planet, a_ou somewhat contemptuously call it, is the only one _we_ have any busines_ith."
He bent his piercing looks so ardently upon me that for the moment I wa_tartled.
"If that is so," he answered, "why in Heaven's name do you not let the othe_lanets alone? Why do you strive to fathom their mysteries and movements? I_en, as you say, have no business with any planet save this one, why are the_ver on the alert to discover the secret of mightier worlds,—a secret whic_aply it may some day terrify them to know!"
The solemnity of his voice and the inspired expression of his face awed me. _ad no reply ready, and he went on—
"Do not let us talk, my friend, of planets, not even of this particular pin'_oint among them known as Earth. Let us return to a better subject—the Lad_ibyl. As I have already said, there are no obstacles in the way of you_ooing and winning her, if such is your desire. Geoffrey Tempest, as mer_uthor of books would indeed be insolent to aspire to the hand of an earl'_aughter, but Geoffrey Tempest, millionaire, will be a welcome suitor. Poo_ord Elton's affairs are in a bad way—he is almost out-at-elbows, the America_oman who is boarding with him"
"Boarding with him!" I exclaimed—"Surely he does not keep a boarding-house?"
Lucio laughed heartily.
"No, no!—you must not put it so coarsely, Geoffrey. It is simply this, tha_he Earl and Countess of Elton give the prestige of their home and protectio_o Miss Diana Chesney (the American aforesaid) for the trifling sum of tw_housand guineas per annum. The Countess being paralyzed, is obliged to han_ver her duties of chaperonage to her sister Miss Charlotte Fitzroy,—but th_alo of the coronet still hovers over Miss Chesney's brow. She has her ow_uite of rooms in the house, and goes wherever it is proper for her to go, under Miss Fitzroy's care. Lady Sibyl does not like the arrangement, and i_herefore never seen anywhere except with her father. She will not join i_ompanionship with Miss Chesney and has said so pretty plainly.''
"I admire her for it!" I said warmly—" I really am surprised that Lord Elto_hould condescend"
"Condescend to what?" inquired Lucio—" Condescend to take two thousand guinea_ year? Good heavens man, there are no end of lords and ladies who wil_eadily agree to perform such an act of condescension. 'Blue' blood is gettin_hin and poor, and only money can thicken it. Diana Chesney is worth over _illion dollars and if Lady Elton were to die conveniently soon, I should no_e surprised to see that' little American' step triumphantly into her vacan_lace.''
"What a state of topsy-turveydom!" I said half angrily.
"Geoffrey, my friend, you are really amazingly inconsistent! Is there a mor_lagrant example of topsy-turveydom than yourself for instance? Six weeks ago, what were you? A mere scribbler, with flutterings of the wings of genius i_our soul but many uncertainties as to whether those wings would ever b_trong enough to lift you out of the rut of obscurity in which you floundered, struggling and grumbling at adverse fate. Now, as millionaire, you thin_ontemptuously of an Earl, because he ventures quite legitimately to add _ittle to his income by boarding an American heiress and launching her int_ociety where she would never get without him. And you aspire, or probabl_ean to aspire to the hand of the Earl's daughter, as if you yourself were _escendant of kings. Nothing can be more topsy-turvey than _your_ondition?"
"My father was a gentleman," I said with a touch of hauteur, "and a descendan_f gentlemen. We were never common folk,—our family was one of the most highl_steemed in the counties."
"I do not doubt it, my dear fellow,—I do not in the least doubt it. But _imple 'gentleman' is a long way below—or above—an Earl. Have it which sid_ou choose !—because it really doesn't matter now-a-days. We have come to _eriod of history when rank and lineage count as nothing at all, owing to th_rofoundly obtuse stupidity of those who happen to possess it. So it chances, that as no resistance is made, brewers are created peers of the realm, an_rdinary tradesmen are knighted, and the very old families are so poor tha_hey have to sell their estates and jewels to the highest bidder, who i_requently a vulgar 'railway-king' or the introducer of some new manure. Yo_ccupy a better position than such, since you inherit your money with th_urther satisfaction that you do not know how it was made.''
"True!" I answered meditatively,—then, with a sudden flash of recollection _dded—" By the way I never told you that my deceased relative imagined that h_ad sold his soul to the devil, and that this vast fortune of his was th_aterial result!"
Lucio burst into a violent fit of laughter.
''No! Not possible !" he exclaimed derisively—'' What an idea! I suppose h_ad a screw loose somewhere! Imagine any sane man believing in a devil! Ha, ha, ha! And in these advanced days too! Well, well! The folly of huma_maginations will never end! Here we are !"—and he sprang lightly out as th_rougham stopped at the Grand Hotel— "I will say good-night to you, Tempest.
I've promised to go and have a gamble.''
"A gamble? where?"
"At one of the select private clubs. There are any amount of them in thi_minently moral metropolis—no occasion to go to Monte Carlo! Will you come?"
I hesitated. The fair face of Lady Sibyl haunted my mind, and I felt, with _o doubt foolish sentimentality, that I would rather keep my thoughts of he_acred, and unpolluted by contact with things of lower tone.
"Not to-night"—I said,—then half smiling I added—"It must be rather a one- sided affair for other men to gamble with you, Lucio! You can afford t_ose,—and perhaps they can't."
"If they can't they shouldn't play"—he answered—"A man should at least kno_is own mind and his own capacity; if he doesn't he is no man at all. As fa_s I have learned by long experience, those who gamble, like it, and whe_they_ like it /like it. I'll take you with me to-morrow if you care to se_he fun,—one or two very emiment men are members of the club, though of cours_hey wouldn't have it known for worlds. You shan't lose much—I'll see t_hat."
"All right,—to-morrow it shall be!"—I responded, for I did not wish to appea_s though I grudged losing a few pounds at play—" But to-night I think I'l_rite some letters before going to bed."
"Yes—and dream of Lady Sibyl!" said Lucio laughing— "If she fascinates you a_uch when you see her again on Thursday you had better begin the siege!"
He waved his hand gaily, and re-entering his carriage, was driven off at _urious pace through the drifting fog and rain.