Alwyn laid down the book with a gentle indifference.
"My dear fellow, I've had enough of 'Nourhalma,'" ... he said ... "I'll keep a copy of the first edition, if only as a souvenir of your good-will and energy in bringing it out so admirably—but for the rest! ... the book belongs to me no more, but to the public,— and so let the public do with it what they will!"
Villiers raised his eyebrows perplexedly.
"I believe, after all, Alwyn, you don't really care for your fame!"
"Not in the least!" replied Alwyn, laughing. "Why should I?"
"You longed for it once as the utmost good!"
"True!—but there are other utmost goods, my friend, that I desire more keenly."
"But are they attainable?"—queried Villiers. "Men, and specially poets, often hanker after what is not possible to secure."
"Granted!" responded Alwyn cheerfully—"But I do not crave for the impossible. I only seek to recover what I have lost."
"And that is?"
"What most men have lost, or are insanely doing their best to lose"—said Alwyn meditatively.. "A grasp of things eternal, through the veil of things temporal."
There was a short silence, during which Villiers eyed his friend wistfully.
"What was that 'adventure' you spoke about in your letter from the Monastery on the Pass of Dariel?" he asked after a while—"You said you were on the search for a new sensation-did you experience it?"
Alwyn smiled. "I certainly DID!"
"Did it arise from a contemplation of the site of the Ruins of Babylon?"
"Not exactly. Babylon,—or rather the earth-mounds which are now called Babylon,—had very little to do with it."
"Don't you want to tell me about it?" demanded Tilliers abruptly.
"Not just yet"—answered Alwyn, with good-humored frankness,—"Not to-night, at any rate! But I WILL tell you, never fear! For the present we've talked enough, . . don't you think bed suggests itself as a fitting conclusion to our converse?"
Villiers laughed and acquiesced, and after pressing his friend to partake of something in the way of supper, which refreshment was declined, he preceded him to a small, pleasantly cosy room,—his "guest-chamber" as he called it, but which was really almost exclusively set apart for Alwyn's use alone, and was always in readiness for him whenever he chose to occupy it. Turning on the pretty electric lamp that lit the whole apartment with a soft and shaded lustre, Villiers shook hands heartily with his old school- fellow and favorite comrade, and bidding him a brief but cordial good-night left him to repose.
As soon as he was alone Alwyn took out from his breast pocket a small velvet letter-case, from which he gently drew forth a slightly pressed but unfaded white flower. Setting this in a glass of water he placed it near his bed, and watched it for a moment. Delicately and gradually its pressed petals expanded, . . its golden corolla brightened in hue, . . a subtle, sweet odor permeated the air, . . and soon the angelic "immortelle" of the Field of Ardath shone wondrously as a white star in the quiet room. And when the lamp was extinguished and the poet slept, that strange, fair blossom seemed to watch him like a soft, luminous eye in the darkness,—a symbol of things divine and lasting,—a token of far and brilliant worlds where even flowers cannot fade!
At the end of about a week or so, it became very generally known among the mystic "Upper Ten" of artistic and literary circles, that Theos Alwyn, the famous author of "Nourhalma" was, to put it fashionably, "in town." According to the classic phrasing of a leading society journal, "Mr. Theos Alwyn, the poet, whom some of our contemporaries erroneously reported as dead, has arrived in London from his tour in the East. He is for the present a guest of the Honorable Francis Villiers." The consequence of this and other similar announcements was, that the postman seemed never to be away from Villiers's door; and every time he came he was laden with letters and cards of invitation, addressed, for the most part, to Villiers himself, who, with something of dismay, saw his study table getting gradually covered with accumulating piles of society litter, such as is comprised in the various formal notifications of dinners, dances, balls, soirees, "at homes," and all the divers sorts of entertainment with which the English "s'amusent moult tristement." Some of these invitations, less ceremonious, were in form of pretty little notes from great ladies, who entreated their "DEAR Mr. Villiers" to give them the "EXTREME honor and pleasure" of his company at certain select and extra brilliant receptions where Royalty itself would be represented, adding, as an earnest postscript—"and DO bring the LION, you know, your VERY interesting friend, Mr. Alwyn, with you!"—A good many such billets-doux were addressed to Alwyn personally, and as he opened and read them he was somewhat amused to see how many who had formerly been mere bowing acquaintances were now suddenly, almost magically, transformed into apparently eager, admiring, and devoted friends.
"One would think these people really liked me for myself,"—he said one morning, tossing aside a particularly gushing, pressing note from a lady who was celebrated for the motley crowds she managed to squeeze into her rooms, regardless of any one's comfort or convenience,—"And yet, as the matter stands, they actually know nothing of me. I might be a villain of the deepest dye, a kickable cad, or a coarse ruffian, but so long as I have written a 'successful' book and am a 'somebody'—a literary 'notable'—what matter my tastes, my morals, or my disposition! If this sort of thing is Fame, all I can say is, that it savors of very detestable vulgarity!"
"Of course it does!"—assented Villiers-"But what else do you expect from modern society? ... What CAN you expect from a community which is chiefly ruled by moneyed parvenus, BUT vulgarity? If you go to this woman's place, for instance"—and he glanced at the note Alwyn had thrown on the table,—"you will share the honors of the evening with the famous man-milliner of Bond Street, an 'artist' in gowns, the female upholsterer and house decorator, likewise an 'artist,'—the ladies who 'compose' sonnets in Regent Street, also 'artists,—' and chiefest among the motley crowd, perhaps, the so-called new 'Apostle' of aestheticism, a ponderous gentleman who says nothing and does nothing, and who, by reason of his stupendous inertia and taciturnity, is considered the greatest 'gun' of all! ... it's no use YOUR going among such people,—in fact, no one who has any reverence left in him for the TRUTH of Art CAN mix with those whose profession of it is a mere trade and hypocritical sham. Such dunderheads would see no artistic difference between Phidias and the man of to-day who hews out and sets up a common marble mantel- piece! I'm not a fellow to moan over the 'good old times,'—no, not a bit of it, for those good old times had much in them that was decidedly bad,—but I wish progress would not rob us altogether of refinement."
"But society professes to be growing more and more cultured every day," observed Alwyn.
"Oh, it PROFESSES! ... yes, that's just the mischief of it. Its professions are not worth a groat. It PROFESSES to be one thing while anybody with eyes can see that it actually is another! The old style of aristocrat and gentleman is dying out,—the new style is the horsey lord, the betting Duke, the coal-dealing Earl, the stock-broking Viscount! Trade is a very excellent thing,—a very necessary and important thing,—but its influence is distinctly NOT refining. I have the greatest respect for my cheesemonger, for instance (and he has an equal respect for me, since he has found that I know the difference between real butter and butterine), but all the same I don't want to see him in Parliament. I am arrogant enough to believe that I, even I, having studied somewhat, know more about the country's interest than he does. I view it by the light of ancient and modern historical evidence,—he views it according to the demand it makes on his cheese. We may both be narrow and limited in judgment,—nevertheless, I think, with all due modesty, that HIS judgment is likely to be more limited than mine. But it's no good talking about it,—this dear old land is given up to a sort of ignorant democracy, which only needs time to become anarchy, . . and we haven't got a strong man among us who dares speak out the truth of the inevitable disasters looming above us all. And society is not only vulgar, but demoralized,— moreover, what is worse is, that, aided by its preachers and teachers, it is sinking into deeper depths of demoralization with every passing month and year of time."
Alwyn leaned hack in his chair thoughtfully, a sorrowful expression clouding his face.
"Surely things are not so bad as they seem, Villiers,"—he said gently—"Are you not taking a pessimistic view of affairs?"
"Not at all!" and Villiers, warming with his subject, walked up and down the room excitedly ... "Nor am I judging by the narrow observation of any particular 'set' or circle. I look at the expressive visible outcome of the whole,—the plainly manifest signs of the threatening future. Of course there are ever so many good people,—earnest people,—thinking people,—but they are a mere handful compared to the overpowering millions opposed to them, and whose motto is 'Evil, be thou my good.' Now you, for instance, are full of splendid ideas, and lucid plans of check and reform,—you are seized with a passionate desire to do something great for the world, and you are ready to speak the truth fearlessly on all occasions. But just think of the enormous task it would be to stir to even half an inch of aspiring nobleness, the frightful mass of corruption in London to-day! In all trades and professions it is the same story,—everything is a question of GAIN. To begin with, look at the Church, the 'Pillar of the State!' There, all sorts of worthless, incompetent men are hastily thrust into livings by wealthy patrons who care not a jot as to whether they are morally or intellectually fit for their sacred mission,—and a disgraceful universal muddle is the result. From this muddle, which resembles a sort of stagnant pool, emerge the strangest fungus-growths,—clergymen who take to acting a 'miracle-play,' ostensibly for the purposes of charity, but really to gratify their own tastes and leanings toward the mummer's art, —all the time utterly regardless of the effect their behavior is likely to have on the minds of the unthinking populace, who are led by the newspapers, and who read therein bantering inquiries as to whether the Church is coquetting with the Stage? whether the two are likely to become one? and whether Religion will in the future occupy no more serious consideration than the Drama? What is one to think, when one sees clerical notabilities seated in the stalls of a theatre complacently looking on at the representation of a 'society play' degrading in plot, repulsive in detail, and in nearly every case having to do with a married woman who indulges in a lover as a matter of course,—a play full of ambiguous side hits and equivocal jests, which, if the men of the Church were staunch to their vocation, they would be the first to condemn. Why, I saw the other day, in a fairly reliable journal, that some of these excellent 'divines' were going to start 'smoking sermons'—a sort of imitation of smoking concerts, I suppose, which are vile enough, in all conscience,—but to mix up religious matters with the selfish 'smoke mania' is viler still. I say that any clergyman who will allow men to smoke in his presence, while he is preaching sacred doctrine, is a coarse cad, and ought to be hounded out of the Church!"
He paused, his face flushing with vigorous, righteous wrath. Alwyn's eyes grew dark with an infinite pain. His thoughts always fled back to his Dream of Al-Kyris, with a tendency to draw comparisons between the Past and the Present. The religion of that long-buried city had been mere mummery and splendid outward show, —what was the religion of London? He moved restlessly.
"How all the warnings of history repeat themselves!" he said suddenly.. "An age of mockery, sham sentiment, and irreverence has always preceded a downfall,—can it be possible that we are already receiving hints of the downfall of England?"
"Aye, not only of England, but of a good many other nations besides," said Villiers—"or if not actual downfall, change and terrific upheaval. France and England particularly are the prey of the Demon of Realism,—and all the writers who SHOULD use their pens to inspire and elevate the people, assist in degrading them. When their books are not obscene, they are blasphemous. Russia, too, joins in the cry of Realism!—Realism! ... Let us have the filth of the gutters, the scourgings of dustholes, the corruption of graves, the odors of malaria, the howlings of drunkards, the revellings of sensualists, . . the worst side of the world in its vilest aspect, which is the only REAL aspect of those who are voluntarily vile! Let us see to what a reeking depth of unutterable shameless brutality man can fall if he chooses—not as formerly, when it was shown to what glorious heights of noble supremacy he could rise! For in this age, the heights are called 'transcendental folly'—and the reeking depths are called Realism!"
"And yet what IS Realism really?" queried Alwyn.—"Does anybody know? ... It is supposed to be the actuality of everyday existence, without any touch of romance or pathos to soften its frequently hideous Commonplace; but the fact is, the Commonplace is not the Real. The highest flights of imagination in the human being fail to grasp the Reality of the splendors everywhere surrounding him,—and, viewed rightly, Realism would become Romance and Romance Realism. We see a ragged woman in the streets picking up scraps for her daily food, . . that is what we may call realistic,—but we are not looking at the ACTUAL woman, after all! We cannot see her Inner Self, or form any certain comprehension of the possible romance or tragedy which that Inner Self HAS experienced, or IS experiencing. We see the outer Appearance of the woman, but what of that? ... The REALISM of the suffering creature's hidden history lies beyond us,—so far beyond us that it is called ROMANCE, because it seems so impossible to fathom or understand."
"True, most absolutely true!" said Villiers emphatically—"But it is a truth you will get very few to admit! ... Everything to-day is in a state of substantiality and sham;—we have even sham Realism, as well as sham sentiment, sham religion, sham art, sham morality. We have a Parliament that sits and jabbers lengthy platitudes that lead to nothing, while Army and Navy are slowly slipping into a state of helpless desuetude, and the mutterings of discontented millions are almost unregarded; the spectre of Revolution, assuming somewhat of the shape in which it appalled the French in 1789, is dimly approaching in the distance, . . even our London County Council hears the far-off, faint shadow of a very prosaic resemblance to the National Assembly of that era, . . and our weak efforts to cure cureless grievances, and to deafen our ears to crying evils, are very similar to the clumsy attempts made by Louis XVI. and his partisans to botch up a terribly bad business. Oh, the people, the people! ... They are unquestionably the flesh, blood, bone, and sinew of the country,—and the English people, say what sneerers will to the contrary, are a GOOD people,—patient, plodding, forbearing, strong, and, on the whole, most equable-tempered,—but their teachers teach them wrongly, and confuse their brains instead of clearing them, and throw a weight of Compulsory Education at their heads, without caring how they may use it, or how such a blow from the clenched fist of Knowledge may stupefy and bewilder them, . . and the consequence is that now, were a strong man to arise, with a lucid brain, an eloquent power of expressing truth, a great sympathy with his kind, and an immense indifference to his own fate in the contest, he could lead this vast, waiting, wandering, growling, hydra-headed London wheresoever he would!"
"What an orator you are, Villiers!".. said Alwyn, with a half- smile. "I never heard you come out so strongly before!"
"My dear fellow," replied Villiers, in a calmer tone—"it's enough to make any man with warm blood in his veins FEEL! Everywhere signs of weakness, cowardice, compromise, hesitation, vacillation, incompetency, and everywhere, in thoughtful minds, the keen sense of a Fate advancing like the giant in the seven-leagued boots, at huge strides every day. The ponderous Law and the solid Police hem us in on each side, as though the nation were a helpless infant, toddling between two portly nurses,—we dare not denounce a scoundrel and liar, but must needs put up with him, lest we should be involved in an action for libel; and we dare not knock down a vulgar bully, lest we should be given in charge for assault. Hence, liars, and scoundrels, and vulgar bullies abound, and men skulk and grin, and play the double-face, till they lose all manfulness. Society sits smirking foolishly on the top of a smouldering volcano,—and the chief Symbols of greatness among us, Religion, Poesy, Art, are burning as feebly as tapers in the catacombs, . . the Church resembles a drudge, who, tired of routine, is gradually sinking into laziness and inertia, . . and the Press! ... ye gods! ... the Press!"
Here speech seemed to fail him,—he threw himself into a chair, and, to relieve his mind, kicked away the advertisement sheet of the morning's newspaper with so much angry vehemence that Alwyn laughed outright.
"What ails you now, Villiers?" he demanded mirthfully.. "You are a regular fire-eater—a would-be Crusader against a modern Saracen host! Why are you choked with such seemingly unutterable wrath! ... what of the Press? ... it is at any rate free."
"Free!" cried Villiers, sitting bolt upright and shooting out the word like a bullet from a gun,—"Free? ... the Press? It is the veriest bound slave that was ever hampered by the chains of party prejudice,—and the only attempt at freedom it ever makes in its lower grades is an occasional outbreak into scurrility! And yet think what a majestic power for good the true, REAL Liberty of the Press might wield over the destinies of nations! Broadly viewed, the Press should be the strong, practical, helping right hand of civilization, dealing out equal justice, equal sympathy, equal instruction,—it should be the fosterer of the arts and sciences, —the everyday guide of the morals and culture of the people,—it should not specially advocate any cause save Honor,—it should be as far as possible the unanimous voice of the Nation. It SHOULD be,—but what IS it? Look round and judge for yourself. Every daily paper panders more or less to the lowest tastes of the mob, —while if the higher sentiments of man are not actually sneered at, they are made a subject for feeble surprise, or vapid 'gush.' An act of heroic unselfishness meets with such a cackling chorus of amazed, half-bantering approval from the leading-article writers, that one is forced to accept the suggestion implied,— namely that to BE heroic or unselfish is evidently an outbreak of noble instinct that is entirely unexpected and remarkable,—nay, even eccentric and inexplicable! The spirit of mockery pervades everything,—and while the story of a murder is allowed to occupy three and four columns of print, the account of some great scientific discovery, or the report of some famous literary or artistic achievement is squeezed into a few lukewarm and unsatisfactory lines. I have seen a female paragraphist's idiotic description of an actress's gown allowed to take more space in a journal than the review of a first-class book! Moreover, if an honest man, desirous of giving vent to an honest opinion on some crying abuse of the day, were to set forth that opinion in letter form and try to get it published in a leading and important newspaper, the chances are ten to one that it would never he inserted, unless he happened to know the editor, or one of the staff, and perhaps not even then, because, mark you! his opinion MUST be in accordance with the literary editor's opinion, or it will be considered of no value to the world! Consider THAT gigantic absurdity! ... consider, that when we read our newspapers we are not learning the views of Europe on a certain point,—we are absorbing the ideas of the EDITOR, to whom everything must be submitted before insertion in the oracular columns we pin our faith on! Thus it is that criticism,—literary criticism, at any rate,—is a lost art,—YOU know that. A man must either be dead (or considered dead) or in a 'clique' to receive any open encouragement at all from the so-called 'crack' critics. And the cliquey men are generally such stupendous bigots for their own particular and restricted form of 'style.' Anything new they hate,—anything daring they treat with ridicule. Some of them have no hesitation in saying they prefer Matthew Arnold (remember he's dead!) to Tennyson and Swinburne (as yet living).. while, as a fact, if we are to go by the high standards of poetical art left us by Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley, and Byron, Matthew Arnold is about the very tamest, most unimaginative, bald bard that ever kindled a lucifer match of verse and fancied it the fire of Apollo! It's utterly impossible to get either a just or broad view of literature out of cliques,—and the Press, like many of our other 'magnificent' institutions, is working entirely on a wrong system. But who is going to be wise, or strong, or diplomatic enough to reform it? ... No one, at present,—and we shall jog along, and read up the details of vice in our dailies and weeklies, till we almost lose the savor of virtue, and till the last degraded end comes of it all, and blatant young America thrones herself on the shores of Britain and sends her eagle screech of conquest echoing over Old World and New."
"Don't think it, Villiers!" exclaimed Alwyn impetuously.. "There is a mettle in the English that will never be conquered!"
Villiers shrugged his shoulders. "We will hope so, my dear boy!" he said resignedly. "But the 'mettle' under bad government, with bad weapons, and more or less untried ships, can scarcely be blamed if it should not be able to resist a tremendous force majeure. Besides, all the Parliaments in the world cannot upset the laws of the universe. If things are false and corrupt, they MUST be swept away,—Nature will not have them,—she will transmute and transform them somehow, no matter at what cost. It is the cry of the old Prophets over again,—'Because ye have not obeyed God's Law, therefore shall ye meet with destruction.' Egoism is certainly NOT God's Law, and we shall have to return on our imagined progressive steps, and be beaten with rods of affliction, till we understand what His Law IS. It is, for one thing, the wheel that keeps this Universe going—OUR laws are no use whatever in the management of His sublime cosmos! Nations, like individuals, are punished for their own wilful misdeeds—the punishment may be tardy, but sure as death it comes. And I fancy America will be our 'scourge in the Lord's hand'—as the Bible hath it. That pretty, dollar-crusted young Republican wants an aristocracy, . . she will engraft it on the old roots here,—in fact, she has already begun to engraft it. It is even on the cards that she may need a Monarchy—if she does, she will plant it.. HERE! Then it will be time for Englishmen to adopt another country, and forget, if they can, their own disgraced nationality. And yet, if, as Shakespeare says, England were to herself but true,—if she had great statesmen as of yore,—intellectual, earnest, self-abnegating, fearless, unhesitating workers, who would devote themselves heart and soul to her welfare, she might gather, not only her Colonies, but America also, to her knee, as a mother gathers children, and the most magnificent Christian Empire the world has ever seen might rise up, a supreme marvel of civilization and union that would make all other nations wonder and revere. But the selfishness of the day, and the ruling passion of gain, are the fatal obstructions in the path of such a desirable millennium."
He ended abruptly—he had unburdened his mind to one who he knew understood him and sympathized with him, and he turned to the perusal of some letters just received.
The two friends were sitting that morning in the breakfast-room,— a charming little octagonal apartment, looking out on a small, very small garden, which, despite the London atmosphere, looked just now very bright with tastefully arranged parterres of white and yellow crocuses, mingled with the soft blue of the dainty hepatica,—that frank-faced little blossom which seems to express such an honest confidence in the goodness of God's sky. A few sparrows of dissipated appearance were bathing their sooty plumes in a pool of equally sooty water left in the garden as a token of last night's rain, and they splashed and twittered and debated and fussed with each other concerning their ablutions, with almost as much importance as could have been displayed by the effeminate Romans of the Augustan era when disporting themselves in their sumptuous Thermae. Alwyn's eyes rested on them unseeingly,—his thoughts were very far away from all his surroundings. Before his imagination rose a Gehenna-like picture of the world in which he had to live,—the world of fashion and form and usage,—the world he was to try and rouse to a sense of better things. A Promethean task indeed! to fill human life with new symbols of hope,—to set up a white standard of faith amid the swift rushing on and reckless tramping down of desperate battle,—to pour out on all, rich or poor, worthy or unworthy, the divine-born balm of Sympathy, which, when given freely and sincerely from man to man, serves often as a check to vice—a silent, yet all eloquent, rebuke to crime,—and can more easily instill into refractory intelligences things of God and desires for good, than any preacher's argument, no matter how finely worded. To touch the big, wayward, BETTER heart of Humanity! ... could he in very truth do it? ... Or was the work too vast for his ability? Tormented by various cross-currents of feeling, he gave vent to a troubled sigh and looked dubiously at his friend.
"In such a state of things as you describe, Villiers," he aid, "what a useless unit I am! A Poet!—who wants me in this age of Sale and Barter? ... Is not a producer of poems always considered more or less of a fool nowadays, no matter how much his works may be in fashion for the moment? I am sure, in spite of the success of 'Nourhalma,' that the era of poetry has passed; and, moreover, it certainly seems to have given place to the very baldest and most unbeauteous forms of prose! As, for instance, if a book is written which contains what is called 'poetic prose' the critics are all ready to denounce it as 'turgid,' 'overladen,' 'strained for effect,' and 'hysterical sublime.' Heine's Reisebilder, which is one of the most exquisite poems in prose ever given to the world, is nearly incomprehensible to the majority of English minds; so much so, indeed, that the English translators in their rendering of it have not only lost the delicate glamour of its fairy-like fancifulness, but have also blunted all the fine points of its dazzling sarcasm and wealth of imagery. It is evident enough that the larger mass of people prefer mediocrity to high excellence, else such a number of merely mediocre works of art would not, and could not, be tolerated. And as long as mediocrity is permitted to hold ground, it is almost an impossibility to do much toward raising the standard of literature. The few who love the best authors are as a mere drop in the ocean of those who not only choose the worst, but who also fail to see any difference between good and bad."
"True enough!" assented Villiers,—"Still the 'few' you speak of are worth all the rest. For the 'few' Homer wrote,—Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus,—and the 'few' are capable of teaching the majority, if they will only set about it rightly. But at present they are setting about it wrongly. All children are taught to read, but no child is guided in WHAT to read. This is like giving a loaded gun to a boy and saying, 'Shoot away! ... No matter in which direction you point your aim, . . shoot yourself if you like, and others too,—anyhow, you've GOT the gun!' Of course there are a few fellows who have occasionally drawn up a list of books as suitable for everybody's perusal,—but then these lists cannot be taken as true criterions, as they all differ from one another as much as church sects. One would-be instructor in the art of reading says we ought all to study 'Tom Jones'—now I don't see the necessity of THAT! And, oddly enough, these lists scarcely ever include the name of a poet,—which is the absurdest mistake ever made. A liberal education in the highest works of poesy is absolutely necessary to the thinking abilities of man. But, Alwyn, YOU need not trouble yourself about what is good for the million and what isn't, . . whatever you write is sure to be read NOW— you've got the ear of the public,—the 'fair, large ear' of the ass's head which disguises Bottom the Weaver, who frankly says of himself, 'I am such a tender ass, if my hair do but tickle me, I must scratch!'"
Alwyn smiled. He was thinking of what his Shadow-Self had said on this very subject—"A book or poem, to be great, and keep its greatness hereafter, must be judged by the natural instinct of PEOPLES. This world-wide decision has never yet been, and never will be, hastened by any amount of written criticism,—it is the responsive beat of the enormous Pulse of Life that thrills through all mankind, high and low, gentle and simple,—its great throbs are slow and solemnly measured, yet if once it answers to a Poet's touch, that Poet's name is made glorious forever!" He.. in the character of Sah-luma.. had seemed to utter these sentiments many ages ago,—and now the words repeated themselves in his thoughts with a new and deep intensity of meaning.
"Of course," added Villiers suddenly—"you must expect plenty of adverse criticism now, as it is known beyond all doubt that you are alive and able to read what is written concerning you,—but if you once pay attention to critics, you may as well put aside pen altogether, as it is the business of these worthies never to be entirely satisfied with anything. Even Shelley and Byron, in the critical capacity, abused Keats, till the poor, suffering youth, who promised to be greater then either of them, died of a broken heart as much as disease. This sort of injustice will go on to the end of time, or till men become more Christianized than Paul's version of Christianity has ever yet made them."
Here a knock at the door interrupted the conversation. The servant entered, bringing a note gorgeously crested and coroneted in gold. Villiers, to whom it was addressed, opened and read it.
"What shall we do about this?" he asked, when his man had retired. "It is an invitation from the Duchess de la Santoisie. She asks us to go and dine with her next week,—a party of twenty—reception afterward. I think we'd better accept,—what do you say?"
Alwyn roused himself from his reverie. "Anything to please you, my dear boy!" he answered cheerfully—"But I haven't the faintest idea who the Duchess de la Santoisie is!"
"No? ... Well, she's an Englishwoman who has married a French Duke. He is a delightful old fellow, the pink of courtesy, and the model of perfect egotism. A true Parisian, and of course an atheist,—a very polished atheist, too, with a most charming reliance on his own infallibility. His wife writes novels which have a SLIGHT leaning toward Zolaism,—she is an extremely witty woman sarcastic, and cold-blooded enough to be a female Robespierre, yet, on the whole, amusing as a study of what curious nondescript forms the feminine nature can adopt unto itself, if it chooses. She has an immense respect for GENIUS,—mind, I say genius advisedly, because she really is one of those rare few who cannot endure mediocrity. Everything at her house is the best of its kind, and the people she entertains are the best of theirs. Her welcome of you will be at any rate a sincerely admiring one,— and as I think, in spite of your desire for quiet, you will have to show yourself somewhere, it may as well be there."
Alwyn looked dubious, and not at all resigned to the prospect of "showing himself."
"Your description of her does not strike me as particularly attractive,"—he said—"I cannot endure that nineteenth-century hermaphroditic production, a mannish woman."
"Oh but she isn't altogether mannish,"—declared Villiers, . . "Besides, I mustn't forget to add, that she is extremely beautiful."
Alwyn shrugged his shoulders indifferently. His friend noticed the gesture and laughed.
"Still impervious to beauty, old boy?"—he said gayly—"You always were, I remember!"
Alwyn flushed a little, and rose from his chair.
"Not always,"—he answered steadily,—"There have been times in my life when the beauty of women,—mere physical beauty—has exercised great influence over me. But I have lately learned how a fair face may sometimes mask a foul mind,—and unless I can see the SUBSTANCE of Soul looking through the SEMBLANCE of Body, then I know that the beauty I SEEM to behold is mere Appearance, and not Reality. Hence, unless your beautiful Duchess be like the 'King's daughter' of David's psalm, 'all glorious WITHIN'—her APPARENT loveliness will have no charm for me!—Now"—and he smiled, and spoke in a less serious tone.. "if you have no objection, I am off to my room to scribble for an hour or so. Come for me if you want me—you know I don't in the least mind being disturbed."
But Villiers detained him a moment, and looked inquisitively at him full in the eyes.
"You've got some singular new attraction about you, Alwyn,"—he said, with a strange sense of keen inward excitement as he met his friend's calm yet flashing glance,—"Something mysterious, . . something that COMPELS! What is it? ... I believe that visit of yours to the Ruins of Babylon had a more important motive than you will admit, . . moreover.. I believe you are in love!"
"IN love!"—Alwyn laughed a little as he repeated the words.. "What a foolish term that is when you come to think of it! For to be IN love suggests the possibility of getting OUT again,—which, if love be true, can never happen. Say that I LOVE!—and you will be nearer the mark! Now don't look so mystified, and don't ask me any more questions just now—to-night, when we are sitting together in the library, I'll tell you the whole story of my Babylonian adventure!"
And with a light parting wave of the hand he left the room, and Villiers heard him humming a tune softly to himself as he ascended the stairs to his own apartments, where, ever since he arrived, he had made it his custom to do two or three hours' steady writing every morning. For a moment or so after he had gone Villiers stood lost in thought, with knitted brows and meditative eyes, then, rousing himself, he went on to his study, and sitting down at his desk wrote an answer to the Duchess de la Santoisie accepting her invitation.
REWARDS OF FAME.
An habitual resident in London who is gifted with a keen faculty of hearing and observation, will soon learn to know instinctively the various characteristics of the people who call upon him, by the particular manner in which each one handles his door-bell or knocker. He will recognize the timid from the bold, the modest from the arrogant, the meditative thinker from the bustling man of fashion, the familiar friend from the formal acquaintance. Every individual's method of announcing his or her arrival to the household is distinctly different,—and Villiers, who studied a little of everything, had not failed to take note of the curiously diversified degrees of single and double rapping by means of which his visitors sought admittance to his abode. In fact, he rather prided himself on being able to guess with almost invariable correctness what special type of man or woman was at his door, provided he could hear the whole diapason of their knock from beginning to end. When he was shut in his "den," however, the sounds were muffled by distance, and he could form no just judgment,—sometimes, indeed, he did not hear them at all, especially if he happened to be playing his 'cello at the time. So that this morning he was considerably startled, when, having finished his letter to the Duchess de la Santoisie, a long and persistent rat-tat-tatting echoed noisily through the house, like the smart, quick blows of a carpenter's hammer—a species of knock that was entirely unfamiliar to him, and that, while so emphatic in character, suggested to his mind neither friend nor foe. He laid down his pen, listened and waited. In a minute or two his servant entered the room.
"If you please, sir, a lady to see Mr. Alwyn. Shall I show her up?"
Villiers rose slowly out of his chair, and stood eyeing his man in blank bewilderment.
"A LADY! ... To see Mr. Alwyn!"—he repeated, his thoughts instantly reverting to his friend's vaguely hinted love-affair,— "What name?"
"She gives no name, sir. She says it isn't needed,—Mr. Alwyn will know who she is."
"Mr. Alwyn will know who she is, will he?" murmured Villiers dubiously.—"What is she like? Young and pretty?"
Over the man-servant's staid countenance came the glimmer of a demure, respectful smile.
"Oh no, sir,—not young, sir! A person about fifty, I should say."
This was mystifying. A person about fifty! Who could she be? Villiers hastily considered,—there must be some mistake, he thought,—at any rate, he would see the unknown intruder himself first, and find out what her business was, before breaking in upon Alwyn's peaceful studies upstairs.
"Show the lady in here"—he said—"I can't disturb Mr. Alwyn just now."
The servant retired, and soon re-appeared, ushering in a tall, gaunt, black-robed female, who walked with the stride of a dragoon and the demeanor of a police-inspector, and who, merely nodding briskly in response to Villiers's amazed bow, selected with one comprehensive glance the most comfortable chair in the room, and seated herself at ease therein. She then put up her veil, displaying a long, narrow face, cold, pale, arrogant eyes, a nose inclined to redness at the tip, and a thin, close-set mouth lined with little sarcastic wrinkles, which came into prominent and unbecoming play as soon as she began to speak, which she did almost immediately.
"I suppose I had better introduce myself to you, Mr. Alwyn"—she said with a condescending and confident air—"Though really we know each other so well by reputation that there seems scarcely any necessity for it! Of course you have heard of 'Tiger-Lily!'"
Villiers gazed at her helplessly,—he had never felt so uncomfortable in all his life. Here was a strange woman, who had actually taken bodily possession of his apartment as though it were her own,—who had settled herself down in his particular pet Louis Quatorze chair,—who stared at him with the scrutinizing complacency of a professional physiognomist,—and who seemed to think no explanation of her extraordinary conduct was necessary, inasmuch as "of course" he, Villiers, had heard of "TIGER-LILY!" It was very singular! ... almost like madness! ... Perhaps she WAS mad! How could he tell? She had a remarkably high, knobby brow,—a brow with an unpleasantly bald appearance, owing to the uncompromising way in which her hair was brushed well off it—he had seen such brows before in certain "spiritualists" who believed, or pretended to believe, in the suddenly willed dematerialization of matter, and THEY were mad, he knew, or else very foolishly feigning madness!
Endeavoring to compose his bewildered mind, he fixed glass in eye, and regarded her through it with an inquiring solemnity,—he would have spoken, but before he could utter a word, she went on rapidly:
"You are not in the least like the person I imagined you to be! ... However, that doesn't matter. Literary celebrities are always so different to what we expect!"
"Pardon me, madam,"—began Villiers politely.. "You are making a slight error,—my servant probably did not explain. I am not Mr. Alwyn, . . my name is Villiers. Mr. Alwyn is my guest,—but he is at present very much occupied,—and unless your business is extremely urgent..."
"Certainly it is urgent"—said the lady decisively.. "otherwise I should not have come. And so you are NOT Mr. Alwyn! Well, I thought you couldn't be! Now then, will you have the kindness to tell Mr. Alwyn I am here?"
By this time Villiers had recovered his customary self-possession, and he met her commanding glance with a somewhat defiant coolness.
"I am not aware to whom I have the honor of speaking," he said frigidly. "Perhaps you will oblige me with your name?"
"My name doesn't in the least matter," she replied calmly—"though I will tell you afterward if you wish. But you don't seem to understand I...I am 'Tiger-Lily'!"
The situation was becoming ludicrous. Villiers felt strongly disposed to laugh.
"I'm afraid I am very ignorant!"—he said, with a humorous sparkle in his blue eyes,—"But really I am quite in the dark as to your meaning. Will you explain?"
The lady's nose grew deeper of tint, and the look she shot at him had quite a killing vindictiveness. With evident difficulty she forced a smile.
"Oh, you MUST have heard of me!"—she declared, with a ponderous attempt at playfulness—"You read the papers, don't you?"
"Some of them," returned Villiers cautiously—"Not all. Not the Sunday ones, for instance."
"Still, you can't possibly have helped seeing my descriptions of famous people 'At Home,' you know! I write for ever so many journals. I think"—and she became complacently reflective—"I think I may say with perfect truth that I have interviewed everybody who has ever done anything worth noting, from our biggest provision dealer to our latest sensational novelist! And all my articles are signed 'Tiger-Lily.' NOW do you remember? Oh, you MUST remember? ... I am so VERY well known!"
There was a touch of genuine anxiety in her voice that was almost pathetic, but Villiers made no attempt to soothe her wounded vanity.
"I have no recollection whatever of the name," he said bluntly— "But that is easily accounted for, as I never read newspaper descriptions of celebrities. So you are an 'interviewer' for the Press?"
"Exactly!" and the lady leaned back more comfortably in the Louis Quatorze fauteuil—"And of course I want to interview Mr. Alwyn. I want..." here drawing out a business looking note-book from her pocket she opened it and glanced at the different headings therein enumerated,—"I want to describe his personal appearance,—to know when he was born, and where he was educated,—whether his father or mother had literary tastes,—whether he had, or has, brothers or sisters, or both,—whether he is married, or likely to be, and how much money he has made by his book." She paused and gave an upward glance at Villiers, who returned it with a blank and stony stare.
"Then,"—she resumed energetically—"I wish to know what are his methods of work;—WHERE he gets his ideas and HOW he elaborates them,—how many hours he writes at a time, and whether he is an early riser,—also what he usually takes for dinner,—whether he drinks wine or is a total abstainer, and at what hour he retires to rest. All this is so INTENSELY interesting to the public! Perhaps he might be inclined to give me a few notes of his recent tour in the East, and of course I should be very glad if he will state his opinions on the climate, customs, and governments of the countries through which he has passed. It's a great pity this is not his own house,—it is a pretty place and a description of it would read well. Let me see!"—and she meditated,—" I think I could manage to insert a few lines about this apartment, . . it would be easy to say 'the picturesque library in the house of the Honble. Francis Villiers, where Mr. Alwyn received me,' etc.,— Yes! that would do very well!—very well indeed! I should like to know whether he has a residence of his own anywhere, and if not, whether he intends to take one in London, because in the latter case it would be as well to ascertain by whom he intends to have it furnished. A little discussion on upholstery is so specially fascinating to my readers! Then, naturally, I am desirous to learn how the erroneous rumor of his death was first started, . . whether in the course of his travels he met with some serious accident, or illness, which gave rise to the report. Now,"—and she shut her note-book and folded her hands,—"I don't mind waiting an hour or more if necessary,—but I am sure if you will tell Mr. Alwyn who I am, and what I have come for, he will be only too delighted to see me with as little delay as possible."
She ceased. Villiers drew a long breath,—his compressed lips parted in a slightly sarcastic smile. Squaring his shoulders with that peculiar pugnacious gesture of his which always indicated to those who knew him well that his mind was made up, and that nothing would induce him to alter it, he said in a tone of stiff civility:
"I am sorry, madam, . . very sorry! ... but I am compelled to inform you that your visit here is entirely useless! Were I to tell my friend of the purpose you have in view concerning him, he would not feel so much flattered as you seem to imagine, but rather insulted! Excuse my frankness,—you have spoken plainly,—I must speak plainly too. Provision dealers and sensational story writers may find that it serves their purpose to be interviewed, if only as a means of gaining extra advertisement, but a truly great and conscientious author like Theos Alwyn is quite above all that sort of thing."
The lady raised her pale eyebrows with an expression of interrogative scorn.
"ABOVE all that sort of thing!" she echoed incredulously—"Dear me! How very extraordinary! I have always found all our celebrities so exceedingly pleased to be given a little additional notoriety! ... and I should have thought a POET," this with much depreciative emphasis—"would have been particularly glad of the chance! Because, of course you know that unless a very astonishing success is made, as in the case of Mr. Alwyn's 'Nourhalma,' people really take such slight interest in writers of verse, that it is hardly ever worth while interviewing them!"
"Precisely!" agreed Villiers ironically,—"The private history of a prize-fighter would naturally be much more thrilling!" He paused,—his temper was fast rising, but, quickly reflecting that, after all, the indignation he felt was not so much against his visitor as against the system she represented, he resumed quietly, "May I ask you, madam, whether you have ever 'interviewed' Her Majesty the Queen?"
Her glance swept slightingly over him.
"Certainly not! Such a thing would be impossible!"
"Then you have never thought," went on Villiers, with a thrill of earnestness in his manly, vibrating voice—"that it might be quite as impossible to 'interview' a great Poet?—who, if great indeed, is in every way as royal as any Sovereign that ever adorned a throne! I do not speak of petty verse-writers,—I say a great Poet, by which term I imply a great creative genius who is honestly faithful to his high vocation. Such an one could no more tell you his methods of work than a rainbow could prattle about the way it shines,—and as for his personal history, I should like to know by what right society is entitled to pry into the sacred matters of a man's private life, simply because he happens to be famous? I consider the modern love of prying and probing into other people's affairs a most degrading and abominable sign of the times,—it is morbid, unwholesome, and utterly contemptible. Moreover, I think that writers who consent to be 'interviewed' condemn themselves as literary charlatans, unworthy of the profession they have wrongfully adopted. You see I have the courage of my opinions on this matter,—in fact, I believe, if every one were to speak their honest mind openly, a better state of things might be the result, and 'interviewing' would gradually come to be considered in its true light, namely, as a vulgar and illegitimate method of advertisement. I mean no disrespect to you, madam,"—this, as the lady suddenly put down her veil, thrust her note-book in her pocket, and rose somewhat bouncingly from her chair—"I am only sorry you should find such an occupation as that of the 'interviewer' open to you. I can scarcely imagine such work to be congenial to a lady's feelings, as, in the case of really distinguished personages, she must assuredly meet with many a rebuff! I hope I have not offended you by my bluntness, ... "— here he trailed off into inaudible polite murmurs, while the "Tiger-Lily" marched steadily toward the door.
"Oh dear, no, I am not in the least offended!" she retorted contemptuously,—"On the contrary, this has been a most amusing experience!—most amusing, I assure you! and quite unique! Why—" and suddenly stopping short, she turned smartly round and gesticulated with one hand ... "I have interviewed all the favorite actors and actresses in London! The biggest brewers in Great Britain have received me at their country mansions, and have given me all the particulars of their lives from earliest childhood! The author of 'Hugger Mugger's Curse' took the greatest pains to explain to me how he first collected the materials for his design. The author of that most popular story, 'Darling's Twins,' gave me a description of all the houses he has ever lived in,—he even told me where he purchased his writing-paper, pens, and ink! And to think that a POET should be too grand to be interrogated! Oh, the idea is really very funny! ... quite too funny for anything! "She gave a short laugh,—then relapsing into severity, she added ... "You will, I hope, tell Mr. Alwyn I called?"
Villiers bowed. "Assuredly!"
"Thank you! Because it is possible he may have different opinions to yours,—in that case, if he writes me a line, fixing an appointment, I shall be very pleased to call again. I will leave my card,—and if Mr. Alwyn is a sensible man, he will certainly hold broader ideas on the subject of 'interviewing' than YOU appear to entertain. You are QUITE sure I cannot see him?"
"Quite!"—There was no mistake about the firm emphasis of this reply.
"Oh, very well!"—here she opened the door, rattling the handle with rather an unnecessary violence,—"I'm sorry to have taken up any of your time, Mr. Villiers. Good-morning!"
"Good-morning!" ... returned Villiers calmly, touching the bell that his servant might be in readiness to show her out. But the baffled "Tiger-Lily" was not altogether gone. She looked back, her face wrinkling into one of those strangely unbecoming expressions of grim playfulness.
"I've half a mind to make an 'At Home' out of YOU!" she said, nodding at him energetically. "Only you're not important enough!"
Villiers burst out laughing. He was not proof against this touch of humor, and on a sudden good-natured impulse, sprang to the door and shook hands with her.
"No, indeed, I am not!" he said, with a charming smile—"Think of it!—I haven't even invented a new biscuit! Come, let me see you into the hall,—I'm really sorry if I've spoken roughly, but I assure you Alwyn's not at all the sort of man you want for interviewing,—he's far too modest and noble-hearted. Believe me! —I'm not romancing a bit—I'm in earnest. There ARE some few fine, manly, gifted fellows left in the world, who do their work for the love of the work alone, and not for the sake of notoriety, and he is one of them. Now I'm not certain, if you were quite candid with me, you'd admit that you yourself don't think much of the people who actually LIKE to be interviewed?"
His amiable glance, his kindly manner, took the gaunt female by surprise, and threw her quite off her guard. She laughed,—a natural, unforced laugh in which there was not a trace of bitterness. He was really a delightful young man, she thought, in spite of his old-fashioned, out-of-the-way notions!
"Well, perhaps I don't!" she replied frankly—"But you see it is not my business to think about them at all. I simply 'interview' them,—and I generally find they are very willing, and often eager, to tell me all about themselves, even to quite trifling and unnecessary details. And, of course, each one thinks himself or herself the ONLY or the chief 'celebrity' in London, or, for that matter, in the world. I have always to tone down the egotistical part of it a little, especially with authors, for if I were to write out exactly what THEY separately say of their contemporaries, it would be simply frightful! They would be all at daggers drawn in no time! I assure you 'interviewing' is often a most delicate and difficult business!"
"Would it were altogether impossible!" said Villiers heartily— "But as long as there is a plethora of little authors, and a scarcity of great ones, so long, I suppose, must it continue—for little men love notoriety, and great ones shrink from it, just in the same way that good women like flattery, while bad ones court it. I hope you don't bear me any grudge because I consider my friend Alwyn both good and great, and resent the idea of his being placed, no matter with what excellent intention soever, on the level of the small and mean?"
The lady surveyed him with a twinkle of latent approval in her pale-colored eyes.
"Not in the least!" she replied in a tone of perfect good-humor. "On the contrary, I rather admire your frankness! Still, I think, that as matters stand nowadays, you are very odd,—and I suppose your friend is odd too,—but, of course, there must be exceptions to every rule. At the same time, you should recollect that, in many people's opinion, to be 'interviewed' is one of the chiefest rewards of fame!—" Villiers shrugged his shoulders expressively. "Oh, yes, it seems a poor reward to you, no doubt,"—she continued smilingly,—"but there are no end of authors who would do anything to secure the notoriety of it! Now, suppose that, after all, Mr. Alwyn DOES care to submit to the operation, you will let me know, won't you?"
"Certainly I will!"—and Villiers, accepting her card, on which was inscribed her own private name and address, shook hands once more, and bowed her courteously out. No sooner had the door closed upon her than he sprang upstairs, three steps at a time, and broke impetuously in upon Alwyn, who, seated at a table covered with papers, looked up with a surprised smile at the abrupt fashion of his entrance. In a few minutes he had disburdened himself of the whole story of the "Tiger-Lily's" visit, telling it in a whimsical way of his own, much to the amusement of his friend, who listened, pen in hand, with a half-laughing, half-perplexed light in his fine, poetic eyes.
"Now did I express the proper opinion?" he demanded in conclusion. "Was I not right in thinking you would never consent to be interviewed?"
"Right? Why of course you were!"—responded Alwyn quickly. "Can you imagine me calmly stating the details of my personal life and history to a strange woman, and allowing her to turn it into a half-guinea article for some society journal! But, Villiers, what an extraordinary state of things we are coming to, if the Press can actually condescend to employ a sort of spy, or literary detective, to inquire into the private experience of each man or woman who comes honorably to the front!"
"Honorably or DIShonorably,—it doesn't matter which,"—said Villiers, "That is just the worst of it. One day it is an author who is 'interviewed,' the next it is a murderer,—now a statesman,—then a ballet dancer,—the same honor is paid to all who have won any distinct notoriety. And what is so absurd is, that the reading million don't seem able to distinguish between 'notoriety' and 'fame.' The two things are so widely, utterly apart! Byron's reputation, for instance, was much more notoriety during his life than fame—while Keats had actually laid hold on fame while as yet deeming himself unfamous. It's curious, but true, nevertheless, that very often the writers who thought least of themselves during their lifetime have become the most universally renowned after their deaths. Shakespeare, I dare say, had no very exaggerated idea of the beauty of his own plays,—he seems to have written just the best that was in him, without caring what anybody thought of it. And I believe that is the only way to succeed in the end."
"In the end!" repeated Alwyn dreamily—"In the end, no worldly success is worth attaining,—a few thousand years and the greatest are forgotten!"
"Not the GREATEST,"—said Villiers warmly—"The greatest must always be remembered."
"No, my friend!—Not even the greatest! Do you not think there must have been great and wise and gifted men in Tyre, in Sidon, in Carthage, in Babylon?—There are five men mentioned in Scripture, as being 'ready to write swiftly'—Sarea, Dabria, Selemia, Ecanus, and Ariel—where is the no doubt admirable work done by these? Perhaps ... who knows? ... one of them was as great as Homer in genius,—we cannot tell!"
"True,—we cannot tell!" responded Villiers meditatively—"But, Alwyn, if you persist in viewing things through such tremendous vistas of time, and in measuring the Future by the Past, then one may ask what is the use of anything?"
"There IS no use in anything, except in the making of a strong, persistent, steady effort after good," said Alwyn earnestly ... "We men are cast, as it were, between two swift currents, Wrong and Right,—Self and God,—and it seems more easy to shut our eyes and drift into Self and Wrong, than to strike out brave arms, and swim, despite all difficulty, toward God and Right, yet if we once take the latter course, we shall find it the most natural and the least fatiguing. And with every separate stroke of high endeavor we carry others with us,—we raise our race,—we bear it onward,— upward! And the true reward, or best result of fame, is, that having succeeded in winning brief attention from the multitude, a man may be able to pronounce one of God's lightning messages of inspired Truth plainly to them, while they are yet willing to stand and listen. This momentary hearing from the people is, as I take it, the sole reward any writer can dare to hope for,—and when he obtains it, he should remember that his audience remains with him but a very short while,—so that it is his duty to see that he employ his chance WELL, not to win applause for himself, but to cheer and lift others to noble thought, and still more noble fulfilment."
Villiers regarded him wistfully.
"Alwyn, my dear fellow, do you want to be the Sisyphus of this era?—You will find the stone of Evil heavy to roll upward,— moreover, it will exhibit the usually painful tendency to slip back and crush you!"
"How can it crush me?" asked his friend with a serene smile. "My heart cannot be broken, or my spirit dismayed, and as for my body, it can but die,—and death comes to every man! I would rather try to roll up the stone, however fruitless the task, than sit idly looking at it, and doing nothing!"
"Your heart cannot be broken? Ah! how do you know" ... and Villiers shook his head dubiously—"What man can be certain of his own destiny?"
"Everyman can WILL his own destiny,"—returned Alwyn firmly. "That is just it. But here we are getting into a serious discussion, and I had determined to talk no more on such subjects till to-night."
"And to-night we are to go in for them thoroughly, I suppose?"— inquired Villiers with a quick look. "To-night, my dear boy, you will have to decide whether you consider me mad or sane," said Alwyn cheerfully—"I shall tell you truths that seem like romances—and facts that sound like fables,—moreover, I shall have to assure you that miracles DO happen whenever God chooses, in spite of all human denial of their possibility. Do you remember Whately's clever skit—'Historical Doubts of Napoleon I'?—showing how easy it was to logically prove that Napoleon never existed?— That ought to enlighten people as to the very precise and convincing manner in which we can, if we choose, argue away what is nevertheless an incontestible FACT. Thus do skeptics deny miracles—yet we live surrounded by miracles! ... do you think me crazed for saying so?"
Villiers laughed. "Crazed! No, indeed!—I wish every man in London were as sane and sound as you are!"
"Ah, but wait till to-night!" and Alwyn's eyes sparkled mirthfully—"Perhaps you will alter your opinion then!"—Here, collecting his scattered manuscripts, he put them by—"I've done work for the present,"—he said—"Shall we go for a walk somewhere?"
Villiers assented, and they left the room together.
ONE AGAINST MANY.
The beautiful and socially popular Duchess de la Santoisie sat her at brilliantly appointed dinner-table, and flashed her bright eyes comprehensively round the board,—her party was complete. She had secured twenty of the best-known men and women of letters in all London, and yet she was not quite satisfied with the result attained. One dark, splendid face on her right hand had taken the lustre out of all the rest,—one quiet, courteous smile on a mouth haughty, yet sweet, had somehow or other made the entertainment of little worth in her own estimation. She was very fair to look upon, very witty, very worldly-wise,—but for once her beauty seemed to herself defective and powerless to charm, while the graceful cloak of social hypocrisy she was always accustomed to wear would not adapt itself to her manner tonight so well as usual. The author of "Nourhalma" the successful poet whose acquaintance she had very eagerly sought to make, was not at all the kind of man she had expected,—and now, when he was beside her as her guest, she did not quite know what to do with him.
She had met plenty of poets, so called, before,—and had, for the most part, found them insignificant looking men with an enormous opinion of themselves, and a suave, condescending contempt for all others of their craft; but this being,—this stately, kingly creature with the noble head, and far-gazing, luminous eyes,—this man, whose every gesture was graceful, whose demeanor was more royal than that of many a crowned monarch,—whose voice had such a singular soft thrill of music in its tone,—he was a personage for whom she had not been prepared,—and in whose presence she felt curiously embarrassed and almost ill at ease. And she was not the only one present who experienced these odd sensations. Alwyn's appearance, when, with his friend Villiers, he had first entered the Duchess's drawing-room that evening, and had there been introduced to his hostess, had been a sort of revelation to the languid, fashionable guests assembled; sudden quick whispers were exchanged—surprised glances,—how unlike he was to the general type of the nervous, fagged, dyspeptic "literary" man!
And now that every one was seated at dinner, the same impression remained on all,—an impression that was to some disagreeable and humiliating, and that yet could not be got over,—namely, that this "poet," whom, in a way, the Duchess and her friends had intended to patronize, was distinctly superior to them all. Nature, as though proud of her handiwork, proclaimed him as such, —while he, quite unconscious of the effect he produced, wondered why this bevy of human beings, most of whom were more or less distinguished in the world of art and literature, had so little to say for themselves. Their conversation was BANAL,—tame,— ordinary; they might have been well-behaved, elegantly dressed peasants for aught they said of wise, cheerful, or witty. The weather,—the parks,—the theatres,—the newest actress, and the newest remedies for indigestion,—these sort of subjects were bandied about from one to the other with a vaguely tame persistence that was really irritating,—the question of remedies for indigestion seemed to hold ground longest, owing to the variety of opinions expressed thereon.
The Duchess grew more and more inwardly vexed, and her little foot beat an impatient tattoo under the table, as she replied with careless brevity to a few of the commonplace observations addressed to her, and cast an occasional annoyed glance at her lord, M le Duc, a thin, military-looking individual, with a well waxed and pointed mustache, whose countenance suggested an admirably executed mask. It was a face that said absolutely nothing,—yet beneath its cold impassiveness linked the satyr- like, complex, half civilized, half brutish mind of the born and bred Parisian,—the goblin-creature with whom pure virtues, whether in man or woman, are no more sacred than nuts to a monkey. The suave charm of a polished civility sat on M le Due's smooth brow, and beamed in his urbane smile,—his manners were exquisite, his courtesy irreproachable, his whole demeanor that of a very precise and elegant master of deportment. Yet, notwithstanding his calm and perfectly self-possessed exterior, he was, oddly enough, the frequent prey of certain extraordinary and ungovernable passions; there were times when he became impossible to himself,— and when, to escape from his own horrible thoughts, he would plunge headlong into an orgie of wild riot and debauchery, such as might have made the hair of his respectable English acquaintances stand on end, had they known to what an extent he carried his excesses. But at these seasons of moral attack, he "went abroad for his health," as he said, delicately touching his chest in order to suggest some interesting latent weakness there, and in these migratory excursions his wife never accompanied him, nor did she complain of his absence. When he returned, after two or three months, he looked more the "chevalier sans peur et sans reproche" than ever; and neither he, nor the fair partner of his joys and sorrows, even committed such a breach of politeness as to inquire into each other's doings during the time of their separation. So they jogged on together, presenting the most delightful outward show of wedded harmony to the world,—and only a few were found to hazard the remark, that the "racy" novels Madame la Duchesse wrote to wile away her duller hours were singularly "bitter" in tone, for a woman whose lot in life was so extremely enviable!
On this particular evening, the Duke affected to be utterly unconscious of the meaning looks his beautiful spouse shot at him every now and then,—looks which plainly said—"Why don't you start some interesting subject of conversation, and stop these people from talking such every-day twaddle?" He was a clever man in his way, and his present mood was malign and mischievous; therefore he went on eating daintily, and discussing mild platitudes in the most languidly amiable manner imaginable, enjoying to the full the mental confusion and discomfort of his guests,—confusion and discomfort which, as he very well knew, was the psychological result of their having one in their midst whose life and character were totally opposite to, and distinctly separate from, their own. As Emerson truly says, "Let the world beware when a Thinker comes into it!".. and here WAS this Thinker,—this type of the Godlike in Man,—this uncomfortably sincere personage, whose eyes were clear of falsehood, whose genius was incontestable, whose fame had taken society by assault, and who, therefore, was entitled to receive every attention and consideration.
Everybody had desired to see him, and here he was,—the great man, the new "celebrity"—and now that he was actually present, no one knew what to say to him; moreover, there was a very general tendency in the company to avoid his direct gaze. People fidgeted on their chairs and looked aside or downward, whenever his glance accidentally fell on them,—and to the analytical Voltairean mind of M. le Duc there was something grimly humorous in the whole situation. He was a great admirer of physical strength and beauty, and Alwyn's noble face and fine figure had won his respect, though of the genius of the poet he knew nothing, and cared less. It was enough for all the purposes of social usage that the author of "Nourhalma" was CONSIDERED illustrious,—no matter whether he deserved the appellation or not. And so the Duke, satirically amused at the obvious embarrassment of the other "notabilities" assembled, did nothing whatsoever to relieve or to lighten the conversation, which remained so utterly dull and inane that Alwyn, who had been compelled, for politeness' sake, to appear interested in the account of a bicycle race detailed to him by a very masculine looking lady-doctor whose seat at table was next his own, began to feel a little weary, and to wonder dismally how long this "feast of reason and flow of soul" was going to last.
Villiers, too, whose easy, good-natured, and clever talk generally gave some sparkle and animation to the dreariest social gathering, was to-night unusually taciturn:—he was bored by his partner, a middle-aged woman with a mania for philology, and, moreover, his thoughts, like those of most of the persons present, were centered on Alwyn, whom every now and then he regarded with a certain wistful wonder and reverence. He had heard the whole story of the Field of Ardath; and he knew not how much to accept of it as true, or how much to set down to his friend's ardent imagination. He had come to a fairly logical explanation of the whole matter,—namely, that as the City of Al-Kyris had been proved a dream, so surely the visit of the Angel-maiden Edris must have been a dream likewise,—that the trance at the Monastery of Dariel, followed by the constant reading of the passages from Esdras, and the treatise of Algazzali, had produced a vivid impression on Alwyn's susceptible brain, which had resolved itself into the visionary result narrated.
He found in this the most practical and probable view of what must otherwise be deemed by mortal minds incredible; and, being a frank and honest fellow, he had not scrupled to openly tell his friend what he thought. Alwyn had received his remarks with the most perfect sweetness and equanimity,—but, all the same, had remained unchanged in his opinion as to the REALITY of his betrothal to his Angel-love in Heaven. And one or two points had certainly baffled Villiers, and perplexed him in his would-be precise analysis of the circumstances: first, there was the remarkable change in Alwyn's own nature. From an embittered, sarcastic, disappointed, violently ambitious man, he had become softened, gracious, kindly,—showing the greatest tenderness and forethought for others, even in small, every-day trifles; while for himself he took no care. He wore his fame as lightly as a child might wear a flower, just plucked and soon to fade,—his intelligence seemed to expand itself into a broad, loving, sympathetic comprehension of the wants and afflictions of human-kind; and he was writing a new poem, of which Villiers had seen some lines that had fairly amazed him by their grandeur of conception and clear passion of utterance. Thus it was evident there was no morbidness in him,—no obscurity,—nothing eccentric,—nothing that removed him in any way from his fellows, except that royal personality of his,—that strong, beautiful, well-balanced Spirit in him, which exercised such a bewildering spell on all who came within its influence, He believed himself loved by an Angel! Well,—if there WERE angels, why not? Villiers argued the proposition thus:
"Whether we are Christians, Jews, Buddhists, or Mahometans, we are supposed to accept angels as forming part of the system of our Faith. If we are nothing,—then, of course, we believe in nothing. But granted we are SOMETHING, then we are bound in honor, if consistent, to acknowledge that angels help to guide our destinies. And if, as we are assured by Holy Writ, such loftier beings DO exist, why should they not communicate with, and even love, human creatures, provided those human creatures are worthy of their tenderness? Certainly, viewed by all the chief religions of the world, there is nothing new or outrageous in the idea of an angel descending to the help of man."
Such thoughts as these were in his mind now, as he ever and anon glanced across the glittering table, with its profusion of lights and flowers, to where his poet-friend sat, slightly leaning back in his chair, with a certain half-perplexed, half-disappointed expression on his handsome features, though his eyes brightened into a smile as he caught Villiers's look, and he gave the smallest, scarcely perceptible shrug, as who should say, "Is this your brilliant Duchess?—your witty and cultured society?"
Villiers flashed back an amused, responsive glance, and then conscientiously strove to pay more attention to the irrepressible feminine philologist beside him, determining to take her, as he said to himself, by way of penance for his unremembered sins. After a while there came one of those extraordinary, sudden rushes of gabble that often occur at even the stiffest dinner-party,—a galloping race of tongues, in which nothing really distinct is heard, but in which each talks to the other as though moved by an impulse of sheer desperation. This burst of noise was a relief after the strained murmurs of trite commonplaces that had hitherto been the order of the hour, and the fair Duchess, somewhat easier in her mind, turned anew to Alwyn, with greater grace and gentleness of manner than she had yet shown.
"I am afraid," she said smilingly, "you must find us all very stupid after your travels abroad? In England we ARE dull,—our tristesse cannot be denied. But, really, the climate is responsible,—we want more sunshine. I suppose in the East, where the sun is so warm and bright, the people are always cheerful?"
"On the contrary, I have found them rather serious and contemplative than otherwise," returned Alwyn,—"yet their gravity is certainly of a pleasant, and not of a forbidding type. I don't myself think the sun has much to do with the disposition of man, after all,—I fancy his temperament is chiefly moulded by the life he leads. In the East, for instance, men accept their existence as a sort of divine command, which they obey cheerfully, yet with a consciousness of high responsibility:—on the Continent they take it as a bagatelle, lightly won, lightly lost, hence their indifferent, almost childish, gayety;—but in Great Britain"—and he smiled,—"it looks nowadays as if it were viewed very generally as a personal injury and bore,—a kind of title bestowed without the necessary money to keep it up! And this money people set themselves steadily to obtain, with many a weary grunt and groan, while they are, for the most part, forgetful of anything else life may have to offer."
"But what IS life without plenty of money?" inquired the Duchess carelessly—"Surely, not worth the trouble of living!"
Alwyn looked at her steadily, and a swift flush colored her smooth cheek. She toyed with the magnificent diamond spray at her breast, and wondered what strange spell was in this man's brilliant gray- black eyes!—did he guess that she—even she—had sold herself to the Duc de la Santoisie for the sake of his money and title as easily and unresistingly as though she were a mere purchasable animal?
"That is an argument I would rather not enter into," he said gently—"It would lead us too far. But I am convinced, that whether dire poverty or great riches be our portion, life, considered apart from its worldly appendages, is always worth living, if lived WELL."
"Pray, how can you separate life from its worldly appendages?"— inquired a satirical-looking gentleman opposite—"Life IS the world, and the things of the world; when we lose sight of the world, we lose ourselves,—in short, we die,—and the world is at an end, and we with it. That's plain practical philosophy."
"Possibly it may he called philosophy"—returned Alwyn—"It is not Christianity."
"Oh, Christianity!"—and the gentleman gave a portentous sniff of contempt—"That is a system of faith that is rapidly dying out; fast falling into contempt!—In fact, with the scientific and cultured classes, it is already an exploded doctrine."
"Indeed!"—Alwyn's glance swept over him with a faint, cold scorn —"And what religion do the scientific and cultured classes propose to invent as a substitute?"
"There's no necessity for any substitute,"—said the gentleman rather impatiently.. For those who want to believe in something supernatural, there are plenty of different ideas afloat, Esoteric Buddhism for example,—and what is called Scientific Religion and Natural Religion,—any, or all, of these are sufficient to gratify the imaginative cravings of the majority, till they have been educated out of imagination altogether:—but, for advanced thinkers, religion is really not required at all." [Footnote: The world is indebted to Mr. Andrew Lang for the newest "logical" explanation of the Religious Instinct in Man:—namely, that the very idea of God first arose from the terror and amazement of an ape at the sound of the thunder! So choice and soul-moving a definition of Deity needs no comment!]
"Nay, I think we must worship SOMETHING!" retorted Alwyn, a fine satire in his rich voice, "if it be only SELF!—Self is an excellent deity!—accommodating, and always ready to excuse sin,— why should we not build temples, raise altars, and institute services to the glory and honor of SELF?—Perhaps the time is ripe for a public proclamation of this creed?—It will be easily propagated, for the beginnings of it are in the heart of every man, and need very little fostering!"
His thrilling tone, together with the calm, half-ironical persuasiveness of his manner, sent a sudden hush down the table. Every one turned eagerly toward him,—some amused, some wondering, some admiring, while Villiers felt his heart beating with uncomfortable quickness,—he hated religious discussions, and always avoided them, and now here was Alwyn beginning one, and he the centre of a company of persons who were for the most part avowed agnostics, to whose opinions his must necessarily be in direct and absolute opposition! At the same time, he remembered that those who were sure of their faith never lost their temper about it,—and as he glanced at his friend's perfectly serene and coldly smiling countenance, he saw there was no danger of his letting slip, even for a moment, his admirable power of self- command. The Duc de la Santoisie, meanwhile, settling his mustache, and gracefully waving one hand, on which sparkled a large diamond ring, bent forward a little with a courteous, deprecatory gesture.
"I think"—he said, in soft, purring accents,—"that my friend, Dr. Mudley"—here he bowed toward the saturnine looking individual who had entered into conversation with Alwyn—"takes a very proper, and indeed a very lofty, view of the whole question. The moral sense"—and he laid a severely weighty emphasis on these words,—"the moral sense of each man, if properly trained, is quite sufficient to guide him through existence, without any such weakness as reliance on a merely supposititious Deity."
The Duke's French way of speaking English was charming; he gave an expressive roll to his r's, especially when he said "the moral sense," that of itself almost carried conviction. His wife smiled as she heard him, and her smile was not altogether pleasant. Perhaps she wondered by what criterion of excellence he measured his own "moral sense," or whether, despite his education and culture, he had any "moral sense" at all, higher than that of the pig, who eats to be eaten! But Alwyn spoke, and she listened intently, finding a singular fascination in the soft and quiet modulation of his voice, which gave a vaguely delicious suggestion of music underlying speech.
"To guide people by their moral sense alone"—he said—"you must first prove plainly to them that the moral sense exists, together with moral responsibility. You will find this difficult,—as the virtue implied is intangible, unseeable;—one cannot say of it, lo here!—or lo there!—it is as complicated and subtle as any other of the manifestations of pure Spirit. Then you must decide on one universal standard, or reasonable conception of what 'morality' is. Again, you are met by a crowd of perplexities,—as every nation, and every tribe, has a totally different idea of the same thing. In some countries it is 'moral' to have many wives; in others, to drown female children; in others, to solemnly roast one's grandparents for dinner! Supposing, however, that you succeed, with the aid of all the philosophers, teachers, and scientists, in drawing up a practical Code of Morality—do you not think an enormous majority will be found to ask you by whose authority you set forth this Code?—and by what right you deem it necessary to enforce it? You may say, 'By the authority of Knowledge and by the right of Morality'—but since you admit to there being no spiritual or divine inspiration for your law, you will be confronted by a legion of opponents who will assure you, and probably with perfect justice, that their idea of morality is as good as yours, and their knowledge as excellent,—that your Code appears to them faulty in many respects, and that, therefore, they purpose making another one, more suited to their liking. Thus, out of your one famous Moral System would spring thousands of others, formed to gratify the various tastes of different individuals, precisely in the same manner as sects have sprung out of the wholly unnecessary and foolish human arguments on Christianity;—only that there would lack the one indestructible, pure Selfless Example that even the most quarrelsome bigot must inwardly respect,—namely, Christ Himself. And 'morality' would remain exactly where it is:—neither better nor worse for all the trouble taken concerning it. It needs something more than the 'moral' sense to rightly ennoble man,—it needs the SPIRITUAL sense;—the fostering of the INSTINCTIVE IMMORTAL ASPIRATION OF THE CREATURE, to make him comprehend the responsibility of his present life, as a preparation for his higher and better destiny. The cultured, the scholarly, the ultra-refined, may live well and uprightly by their 'moral sense,'—if they so choose, provided they have some great ideal to measure themselves by,—but even these, without faith in God, may sometimes slip, and fall into deeper depths of ruin than they dreamed of, when self-centred on those heights of virtue where they fancied themselves exempt from danger."
He paused,—there was a curious stillness in the room,—many eyes were lowered, and M. le Duc's composure was evidently not quite so absolute as usual.
"Taken at its best"—he continued—"the world alone is certainly not worth fighting for;—we see the fact exemplified every day in the cases of those who, surrounded by all that a fair fortune can bestow upon them, deliberately hurl themselves out of existence by their own free will and act,—indeed, suicide is a very general accompaniment of Agnosticism. And self-slaughter, though it may be called madness, is far more often the result of intellectual misery."
"Of course, too much learning breeds brain disease"—remarked Dr. Mudley sententiously—"but only in weak subjects,—and in my opinion the weak are better out of the world. We've no room for them nowadays."
"You say truly, sir,"—replied Alwyn—"we have no room for them, and no patience! They show themselves feeble, and forthwith the strong oppress them;—they can hope for little comfort here, and less help. It is well, therefore, that some of these 'weak' should still believe in God, since they can certainly pin no faith on the justice of their fellow-man! But I cannot agree with you that much learning breeds brain disease. Provided the learning be accompanied by a belief in the Supreme Wisdom,—provided every step of study be taken upward toward that Source of all Knowledge,—one cannot learn too much, since hope increases with discernment, and on such food the brain grows stronger, healthier, and more capable of high effort. But dispense with the Spirit of the Whole, and every movement, though it SEEM forward, is in truth BACKWARD;—study involves bewilderment,—science becomes a reeling infinitude of atoms, madly whirling together for no purpose save death, or, at the best, incessant Change, in which mortal life is counted as nothing:—and Nature frowns at us, a vast Question, to which there is no Answer,—an incomprehensible Force, against which wretched Man, gifted with all manner of splendid and Godlike capacities, battles forever and forever in vain! This is the terrible material lesson you would have us learn to-day, the lesson that maddens pupil and teacher alike, and has not a glimmer of consolation to offer to any living soul! What a howling wilderness this world would be if given over entirely to Materialism!—Scarce a line of division could be drawn between men and the brute beasts of the field! I consider,—though possibly I am only one among many of widely differing opinion,—that if you take the hope of an after-joy and blessedness away from the weary, perpetually toiling Million, you destroy at one wanton blow their best, purest, and noblest aspirations. As for the Christian Religion, I cannot believe that so grand and holy a Symbol is perishing among us,—we have a monarch whose title is 'Defender of the Faith,'—we live in an age of civilization which is primarily the result of that faith,—and if, as this gentleman assures me," —and he made a slight, courteous inclination toward his opposite neighbor—"Christianity is exploded,—then certainly the greatness of this hitherto great nation is exploding with it! But I do not think that because a few skeptics uplift their wailing 'All is vanity' from their self-created desert of Agnosticism, THEREFORE the majority of men and women are turning renegades from the simplest, most humane, most unselfish Creed that ever the world has known. It may be so,—but, at present, I prefer to trust in the higher spiritual instincts of man at his best, rather than accept the testimony of the lesser Unbelieving against the greater Many, whose strength, comfort, patience, and endurance, if these virtues come not from God, come not at all."
His forcible, incisive manner of speaking, together with his perfect equanimity and concise clearness of argument, had an evident effect on those who listened. Here was no rampant fanatic for particular forms of doctrine or pietism,—here was a man who stated his opinions calmly, frankly, and with an absolute setting- forth of facts which could scarcely be denied,—a man, who firmly grounded himself, made no attempt to force any one's belief, but who simply took a large view of the whole, and saw, as it were in a glance, what the world might become without faith in a Divine Cause and Principle of Creation. And once GRANT this Divine Cause and Principle to be actually existent, then all other divine and spiritual things become possible, no matter how IMPOSSIBLE they seem to dull mortal comprehension.
A brief pause followed his words,—a pause of vague embarrassment. The Duchess was the first to break it.
"You have very noble ideas, Mr. Alwyn,"—she said with a faint, wavering smile—"But I am afraid your conception of things, both human and divine, is too exalted, and poetically imaginative, to be applied to our every-day life. We cannot close our ears to the thunders of science,—we cannot fail to perceive that we mortals are of as small account in the plan of the Universe as grains of sand on the seashore. It is very sad that so it should be, and yet so it is! And concerning Christianity, the poor system has been so belabored of late with hard blows, that it is almost a wonder it still breathes. There is no end to the books that have been written disproving and denouncing it,—moreover, we have had the subject recently treated in a novel which excites our sympathies in behalf of a clergyman, who, overwhelmed by scholarship, finds he can no longer believe in the religion he is required to teach, and who renounces his living in consequence. The story is in parts pathetic,—it has had a large circulation,—and numbers of people who never doubted their Creed before, certainly doubt it now."
Alwyn shrugged his shoulders. "Faith uprooted by a novel!" he said—"Alas, poor faith! It could never have been well established at any time, to be so easy of destruction! No book in the world, whether of fact or fiction, could persuade me either TO or FROM the consciousness of what my own individual Spirit instinctively KNOWS. Faith cannot be taught or forced,—neither, if TRUE, can it be really destroyed,—it is a God-born, God-fostered INTUITION, immortal as God Himself. The ephemeral theories set forth in books should not be able to influence it by so much as a hair's breadth."
"Truth is, however, often conveyed through the medium of fiction,"—observed Dr. Mudley—"and the novel alluded to was calculated to disturb the mind, and arouse trouble in the heart of many an ardent believer. It was written by a woman."
"Nay, then"—said Alwyn quickly, with a darkening flash in his eyes,—"if women give up faith, let the world prepare for strange disaster! Good, God-loving women,—women who pray,—women who hope,—women who inspire men to do the best that is in them,— these are the safety and glory of nations! When women forget to kneel,—when women cease to teach their children the 'Our Father,' by whose grandly simple plea Humanity claims Divinity as its origin,—then shall we learn what is meant by 'men's hearts failing them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.' A woman who denies Christ repudiates Him, who, above all others, made her sex as free and honored as everywhere in Christendom it IS. He never refused woman's prayer, —He had patience for her weakness,—pardon for her sins,—and any book written by woman's hand that does Him the smallest shadow of wrong is to me as gross an act, as that of one who, loaded with benefits, scruples not to murder his benefactor!"