Conversation had almost ceased. The bar-girls had not whispered one single word for more than an hour; Muchross had not shouted for at least twenty minutes; the only interruption that had occurred was an unexpected stopping of the coach, for the off-leader was pulling Dicky so hard that he had to ask Jem to take the ribbons, and now he snoozed in the great whip's place, seriously incommoding Snowdown with his great weight. Suddenly awaking to a sense of his responsibility Muchross roared—
"What about the milk-cans?"
"You'd better be quick," answered Jem, "we shall be there in five minutes."
One of the customs of the road was a half-crown lottery, the winning member to be decided by the number of milk-cans outside a certain farm-house.
"Ease off a bit, Jem," bawled Muchross. "Damn you! give us time to get the numbers out."
"It ain't my fault if you fall asleep."
"The last stage was five miles this side of Cuckfield, you ought to know the road by this time. How many are we?"
"Eight," shouted Dicky, blowing the blatant horn. "You're on, Jem, aren't you? Number two or three will get it; at this time of the year milk is scarce. Pass on the hat quick; quick, you devil, pass it on. What have you got, Kitty?"
"Just like my luck," cried Muchross; "I've got eight."
"And I've seven," said Snowdown; "never have I won yet. In the autumn I get sevens and eights, in the summer ones and twos. Damn!"
"I've got five," said Kitty, "and Mike has got two; always the lucky one. A lady leaves him four thousand a year, and he comes down here and rooks us."
The coach swept up a gentle ascent, and Muchross shouted—
"Two milk-cans! Hand him over the quid and chuck him out!"
The downs rose, barring the sky; and they passed along the dead level of the weald, leaving Henfield on their right; and when a great piece of Gothic masonry appeared between some trees, Mike told Kitty how it had been once John Norton's intention to build a monastery.
"He would have founded a monastery had he lived two centuries ago," said Harding; "but this is an age of concessions, and instead he puts up a few gargoyles. Time modifies but does not eradicate, and the modern King Cophetua marries not the beggar, but the bar-maid."
The conversation fell in silence, full of consternation; and all wondered if the two ladies in front had understood, and they were really bar-maids. Be this as it may, they maintained their unalterable reserve; and with suppressed laughter, Mike persuaded Dicky, who had resumed the ribbons, to turn into the lodge-gates.
"Who is this Johnny?" shouted Muchross. "If he won't stand a drink, we don't want none of his blooming architecture."
"And I wouldn't touch a man with a large pole who didn't like women," said Laura. At which emphatic but naive expression of opinion, the whole coach roared;—even the bar-girls smiled.
"Architecture! It is a regular putty castle," said Kitty, as they turned out of an avenue of elms and came in view of the house.
Not a trace of the original Italian house remained. The loggia had been replaced by a couple of Gothic towers. Over the central hall he had placed a light lantern roof, and the billiard-room had been converted into a chapel. A cold and corpse-like sky was flying; the shadows falling filled the autumn path with sensations of deep melancholy. But the painted legend of St. George overthrowing the dragon, which John had placed in commemoration of his victories over himself, in the central hall, glowed full of colour and story; and in the melodious moan of the organ, and in the resonant chord which closes the awful warning of the Dies Irae, he realized the soul of his friend. Castle, window, and friend were now one in his brain, and seized with dim, undefinable weariness of his companions, and an irritating longing to see John, Mike said—
"I must go and see him."
"We can't wait here while you are paying visits; who doesn't like getting drunk or singing, 'What cheer, Ria?' Let's give him a song." Then the whole coach roared: even the bar-girls joined in.
"What cheer, Ria? Ria's on the job; What cheer, Ria? Speculate a bob."
As soon as he could make himself heard, Mike said—
"You need not wait for me. We are only five minutes from Brighton. I'll ride over in an hour's time. Do you wait for me at the Ship, Kitty."
"I don't think this at all nice of you."
Mike waved his hand; and as he stood on the steps of this Gothic mansion, listening to the chant, watching the revellers disappearing in the gray and yellow gloom of the park, he said—
"The man here is the one who has seized what is best in life; he alone has loved. I should have founded with him a new religious order. I should walk with him at the head of the choir. Bah! life is too pitifully short. I should like to taste of every pleasure—of every emotion; and what have I tasted? Nothing. I have done nothing. I have wheedled a few women who wanted to be wheedled, that is all."
"And how are you, old chap? I am delighted to see you."
"I'm equally glad to see you. You have made alterations in the place ... I came down from London with a lot of Johnnies and tarts—Kitty Carew, Laura Stanley and her sister. I got Dicky the driver to turn in here. You were playing the Dies Irae. I never was more impressed in my life. You should have seen the coach beneath the great window ... St. George overcoming the Johnnies ... the tumult of the organ ... and I couldn't stand singing 'Two Lovely Black Eyes.' I sickened of them—the whole thing—and I felt I must see you."
"And are they outside?"
"No; they have gone off."
Relieved of fear of intrusion, John laughed loudly, and commented humorously on the spectacle of the Brighton coach filled with revellers drawn up beneath his window. Then, to discuss the window—the quality of the glass—he turned out the lamps; the hall filled with the legend, and their hearts full of it, and delighting in the sensation of each other, they walked up and down the echoing hall. John remembered a certain fugue by Bach, and motioning to the page to blow, he seated himself at the key-board. The celestial shield and crest still remained in little colour. Mike saw John's hands moving over the key-board, and his soul went out in worship of that soul, divided from the world's pleasure, self-sufficing, alone; seeking God only in his home of organ fugue and legended pane. He understood the nobleness and purity which was now about him—it seemed impossible to him to return to Kitty.
Swift and complete reaction had come upon him, and choked with the moral sulphur of the last twenty-four hours, he craved the breath of purity. He must talk of Plato's Republic, of Wagner's operas, of Schopenhauer; even Lily was not now so imperative as these; and next day, after lunch, when the question of his departure was alluded to, Mike felt it was impossible to leave John; but persecuted with scruples of disloyalty to Kitty, he resisted his friend's invitation to stay. He urged he had no clothes. John offered to send the coachman into Brighton for what he wanted.
"But perhaps you have no money," John said, inadvertently, and a look of apprehension passed into his face.
"Oh, I have plenty of money—'tisn't that. I haven't told you that a friend of mine, a lady, has left me nearly five thousand a year. I don't think you ever saw her—Lady Seeley."
John burst into uncontrollable laughter. "That is the best thing I ever heard in all my life. I don't think I ever heard anything that amused me more. The grotesqueness of the whole thing." Seeing that Mike was annoyed he hastened to explain his mirth. "The inexplicableness of human action always amuses me; the inexplicable is romance, at least that is the only way I can understand romance. When you reduce life to a logical sequence you destroy all poetry, and, I think, all reality. We do things constantly, and no one can say why we do them. Frederick the Great coming in, after reviewing his troops, to play the flute, that to me is intensely romantic. A lady, whom you probably treated exceedingly badly, leaving you her property, that too is, to me."
Admonished by his conscience, John's hilarity clouded into a sort of semi-humorous gravity, and he advised Mike on the necessity of reforming his life.
"I am very sorry, for there is no one whose society is as attractive to me as yours; there is no one in whom I find so many of my ideas, and yet there is no one from whom I am so widely separated; at times you are sublime, and then you turn round and roll in the nastiest dirt you can find."
Mike loved a lecture from John, and he exerted himself to talk.
Looking at each other in admiration, they regretted the other's weaknesses. Mike deplored John's conscience, which had forced him to burn his poems; John deplored Mike's unsteady mind, which veered and yielded to every passion. And in the hall they talked of the great musician and the great king, or John played the beautiful hymns of the Russian Church, in whose pathetic charm he declared Chopin had found his inspiration; they spoke of the Grail and the Romance of the Swan, or, wandering into the library, they read aloud the ever-flowering eloquence of De Quincey, the marmoreal loveliness of Landor, the nurselike tenderness of Tennyson.
Through all these aestheticisms Lily Young shone, her light waxing to fulness day by day. Mike had written to Frank, beseeching him to forward any letters that might arrive. He expected an answer from Lily within the week, and not until its close did he begin to grow fearful. Then rapidly his fear increased and unable to bear with so much desire in the presence of John Norton, he rushed to London, and thence to Marlow. He railed against his own weakness in going to Marlow, for if a letter had arrived it would have been forwarded to him.
"Why deceive myself with false hopes? If the letter had miscarried it would have been returned through the post-office. I wrote my address plain enough." Then he railed against Lily. "The little vixen! She will show that letter; she will pass it round; perhaps at this moment she is laughing at me! What a fool I was to write it! However, all's well that ends well, and I am not going to be married—I have escaped after all."
The train jogged like his thoughts, and the landscape fled in fleeting visions like his dreams. He laid his face in his hands, and could not disguise the truth that he desired her above all things, for she was the sweetest he had seen.
"There are," he said, talking to Frank and Lizzie, "two kinds of love—the first is a strictly personal appetite, which merely seeks its own assuagement; the second draws you out of yourself, and is far more terrible. I have found both these loves, but in different women."
"Did no woman ever inspire both loves in you?" said Lizzie.
"I thought one woman had."
"Oh, tell us about her."
Mike changed the conversation, and he talked of the newspaper until it was time to go to the station. He was now certain that Lily had rejected him. His grief soaked through him like a wet, dreary day. Sometimes, indeed, he seemed to brighten, but there is often a deeper sadness in a smile than in a flood of tears, and he was more than ever sad when he thought of the life he had desired, and had lost; which he had seen almost within his reach, and which had now disappeared for ever. He had thought of this life as a green isle, where there were flowers and a shrine. Isle, flowers, and shrine had for ever vanished, and nothing remained but the round monotony of the desert ocean. Then throwing off his grief with a laugh, he eagerly anticipated the impressions of the visit he meditated to Belthorpe Park, and his soul went out to meet this new adventure. He thought of the embarrassment of the servants receiving their new master; of the attitude of the country people towards him; and deciding that he had better arrive before dinner, just as if he were a visitor, he sent a telegram saying that the groom was to meet him at the station, and that dinner was to be prepared.
Lady Seeley's solicitors had told him that according to her ladyship's will, Belthorpe was to be kept up exactly as it had been in her life-time, and the servants had received notice, that in pursuance of her ladyship's expressed wish, Mr. Fletcher would make no changes, and that they were free to remain on if they thought proper. Mike approved of this arrangement—it saved him from a task of finding new servants, a task which he would have bungled sadly, and which he would have had to attempt, for he had decided to enjoy all the pleasures of a country place, and to act the country gentleman until he wearied of the part. Life is but a farce, and the more different parts you play in that farce the more you enjoy. Here was a new farce—he the Bohemian, going down to an old ancestral home to play the part of the Squire of the parish. It could not but prove rich in amusing situations, and he was determined to play it. What a sell it would be for Lily, for perhaps she had refused him because she thought he was poor. Contemptuous thoughts about women rose in his mind, but they died in thronging sensations of vanity—he, at least, had not found women mercenary. Lily was the first! Then putting thoughts of her utterly aside, he surrendered himself to the happy consideration of his own good fortune. "A new farce! Yes; that was the way to look upon it. I wonder what the servants will think! I wonder what they'll think of me! ... Harrison, the butler, was with her in Green Street. Her maid, Fairfield, was with her when I saw her last—nearly three years ago. Fairfield knew I was her lover, and she has told the others. But what does it matter? I don't care a damn what they think. Besides, servants are far more jealous of our honour than we are ourselves; they'll trump up some story about cousinship, or that I had saved her ladyship's life—not a bad notion that last; I had better stick to it myself."
As he sought a plausible tale, his thoughts detached themselves, and it struck him that the gentleman sitting opposite was his next-door neighbour. He imagined his visit; the invitation to dine; the inevitable daughters in the drawing-room. How would he be received by the county folks?
"That depends," he thought, "entirely on the number of unmarried girls there are in the neighbourhood. The morals and manners of an English county are determined by its female population. If the number of females is large, manners are familiar, and morals are lax; if the number is small, manners are reserved, and morals severe."
He was in a carriage with two unmistakably county squires, and their conversation—certain references to a meet of the hounds and a local bazaar—left no doubt that they were his neighbours. Indeed, Lady Seeley was once alluded to, and Mike was agitated with violent desires to introduce himself as the owner of Belthorpe Park. Several times he opened his lips, but their talk suddenly turned into matters so foreign that he abandoned the notion of revealing his identity, and five minutes after he congratulated himself he had not done so.
The next station was Wantage Street; and as he looked to see that the guard had put out his portmanteau, a smart footman approached, and touching his cockaded hat said, "Mr. Fletcher." Mike thrilled with pride. His servant—his first servant.
"I've brought the dog-cart, sir; I thought it would be the quickest; it will take us a good hour, the roads are very heavy, sir."
Mike noticed the coronet worked in red upon the yellow horse-cloth, for the lamps cast a bright glow over the mare's quarters; and wishing to exhibit himself in all his new fortune before his fellow-passengers, who were getting into a humbler conveyance, he took the reins from the groom; and when he turned into the wrong street, he cursed under his breath, fancying all had noticed his misadventure. When they were clear of the town, touching the mare with the whip he said—
"Not a bad animal, this."
"Beautiful trotter, sir. Her ladyship bought her only last spring; gave seventy guineas for her."
After a slight pause, Mike said, "Very sad, her ladyship's death, and quite unexpected, I suppose. She wasn't ill above a couple of days."
"Not what you might call ill, sir; but her ladyship had been ailing for a long time past. The doctors ordered her abroad last winter, sir, but I don't think it did her much good. She came back looking very poorly."
"Now tell me which is the way? do I turn to the right or left?"
"To the right, sir."
"How far are we from Belthorpe Park now?"
"About three miles, sir."
"You were saying that her ladyship looked very poorly for some time before she died. Tell me how she looked. What do you think was the matter?"
"Well, sir, her ladyship seemed very much depressed. I heard Miss Fairfield, her ladyship's maid, say that she used to find her ladyship constantly in tears; her nerves seemed to have given way."
"I suppose I broke her heart," thought Mike; "but I'm not to blame; I couldn't go on loving any woman for ever, not if she were Venus herself." And questioning the groom regarding the servants then at Belthorpe, he learnt with certain satisfaction that Fairfield had left immediately after her ladyship's death. The groom had never heard of Harrison (he had only been a year and a half in her ladyship's service).
"This is Belthorpe Park, sir—these are the lodge gates."
Mike was disappointed in the lodge. The park he could not distinguish. Mist hung like a white fleece. There were patches of ferns; hawthorns loomed suddenly into sight; high trees raised their bare branches to the brilliancy of the moon.
"Not half bad," thought Mike, "quite a gentleman's place."
"Rather rough land in parts—plenty of rabbits," he remarked to the groom; and he won the man's sympathies by various questions concerning the best method of getting hunters into condition. The rooks talked gently in the branches of some elms, around which the drive turned through rough undulating ground. Plantations became numerous; tall, spire-like firs appeared, their shadows floating through the interspaces; and, amid straight walks and dwarf yews, in the fulness of the moonlight, there shone a white house, with large French windows and a tower at the further end. A white peacock asleep on a window-sill startled Mike, and he thought of the ghost of his dead mistress.
Nor could he account for his trepidation as he waited for the front door to open, and Hunt seemed to him aggressively large and pompous, and he would have preferred an assumption on the part of the servant that he knew the relative positions of the library and drawing-room. But Hunt was resolved on explanation, and as they went up-stairs he pointed out the room where Lady Seeley died, and spoke of the late Earl. "You want the sack and you shall get it, my friend," thought Mike, and he glanced hurriedly at the beautiful pieces of furniture about the branching staircase and the gallery leading into the various corridors. At dinner he ate without noticing the choiceness of the cooking, and he drank several glasses of champagne before he remarked the excellence of the wine.
"We have not many dozen left, sir; I heard that his lordship laid it down in '75."
Hunt watched him with cat-like patience and hound-like sagacity, and seeing he had forgotten his cigar-case, he instantly produced a box. Mike helped himself without daring to ask where the cigars came from, nor did he comment on their fragrance. He smoked in discomfort; the presence of the servant irritated him, and he walked into the library and shut the door. The carved panelling, in the style of the late Italian renaissance, was dark and shadowy, and the eyes of the portraits looked upon the intruder. Men in armour, holding scrolls; men in rich doublets, their hands on their swords; women in elaborate dresses of a hundred tucks, and hooped out prodigiously. He was especially struck by one, a lady in green, who played with long white hands on a spinet. But the massive and numerous oak bookcases, strictly wired with strong brass wire, and the tall oak fireplace, surmounted with a portrait of a man in a red coat holding a letter, whetted the edge of his depression, and Mike looked round with a pain of loneliness upon his face. Speaking aloud for relief, he said—
"No doubt it is all very fine, everything is up to the mark, but there's no denying that it is—well, it is dull. Had I known it was going to be like this I'd have brought somebody down with me—a nice woman. Kitty would be delightful here. But no; I would not bring her here for ten times the money the place is worth; to do so would be an insult on Helen's memory.... Poor dear Helen! I wish I had seen her before she died; and to think that she has left me all—a beautiful house, plate, horses, carriages, wine; nothing is wanting; everything I have is hers, even this cigar." He threw the end of his cigar into the fireplace.
"How strange! what an extraordinary transformation! And all this is mine, even her ancestors! How angry that old fellow looks at me—me, the son of an Irish peasant! Yes, my father was that—well, not exactly that, he was a grazier. But why fear the facts? he was a peasant; and my mother was a French maid—well, a governess—well, a nursery governess, une bonne; she was dismissed from her situation for carrying on (it seems awful to speak of one's mother so; but it is the fact).... Respect! I love my mother well enough, but I'm not going to delude myself because I had a mother. Mother didn't like our cabin by the roadside; father treated her badly; she ran away, taking me with her. She was lucky enough to meet with a rich manufacturer, who kept her fairly well—I believe he used to allow her a thousand francs a month—and I used to call him uncle. When mother died he sent me back to my father in Ireland. That's my history. There's not much blue blood in me.... I believe if one went back.... Bah, if one went back! Why deceive myself? I was born a peasant, and I know it.... Yet no one looks more like a gentleman; reversion to some original ancestor, I suppose. Not one of these earls looks more like a gentleman than I. But I don't suppose my looks would in any measure reconcile them to the fact of my possession of their property.
"Ah, you old fools—periwigs, armour, and scrolls—you old fools, you laboured only to make a gentleman of an Irish peasant. Yes, you laboured in vain, my noble lords—you, old gentleman yonder, you with the telescope—an admiral, no doubt—you sailed the seas in vain; and you over there, you mediaeval-looking cuss, you carried your armour through the battles of Cressy and Poictiers in vain; and you, noble lady in the high bodice, you whose fingers play with the flaxen curls of that boy—he was the heir of this place two hundred years ago—I say, you bore him in vain, your labour was in vain; and you, old fogey that you are, you in the red coat, you holding the letter in your gouty fingers, a commercial-looking letter, you laboured in trade to rehabilitate the falling fortunes of the family, and I say you too laboured in vain. Without labour, without ache, I possess the result of all your centuries of labour.
"There, that sordid, wizen old lady, a miser to judge by her appearance, she is eyeing me maliciously now, but I say all her eyeing is in vain; she pinched and scraped and starved herself for me. Yes, I possess all your savings, and if you were fifty years younger you would not begrudge them to me."
Laughing at his folly, Mike said, "How close together lie the sane and the insane; any one who had overheard me would have pronounced me mad as a March hare, and yet few are saner." He walked twice across the room. "But I'm mad for the moment, and I like to be mad. Have I not all things—talent, wealth, love? I asked for life, and I was given life. I have drunk the cup—no, not to the dregs, there is plenty more wine in the cup for me; the cup is full, I have not tasted it yet. Lily! yes, I must get her; a fool I have been; my letter miscarried, else she would have written. Refuse me! who would refuse me? Yes, I was born to drink the cup of life as few have drunk it; I shall drink it even like a Roman emperor ... But they drank it to madness and crime! Yet even so; I shall drink of life even to crime.
"The peasant and the card-sharper shall go high, this impetus shall carry me very high; and Frank Escott, that mean cad, shall go to the gutter; but he is already there, and I am here! I knew it would be so; I felt my destiny, I felt it here—in my brain. I felt it even when he scorned me in boyhood days. I believe that in those days he expected me to touch my cap to him. But those days are over, new days have begun. When to-morrow's sun rises it will shine on what is mine—down-land, meadow-land, park-land, and wood-land. Strange is the joy of possession; I did not know of its existence. The stately house too is mine, and I would see it. But that infernal servant, I suppose, is in bed. I would not have him find me. I shall get rid of him. I can hear him saying in his pantry, 'He! I wouldn't give much for him; I found him last night spying about, examining his fine things, for all the world like a beggar to whom you had given an old suit of clothes.'"
Mike took his bed-room candle, and having regard for surprises on the part of the servants, he roamed about the passages, looking at the Chippendale furniture on the landings and the pictures and engravings that lined the walls. Fearing bells, he did not attempt to enter any of the rooms, and it was with some difficulty that he found his way back to the library. Throwing himself into the arm-chair, he wondered if he should grow accustomed to spend his evenings in this loneliness. He thought of whom he should invite there—Harding, Thompson, John Norton; certainly he would ask John. He couldn't ask Frank without his wife, and Lizzie would prejudice him in the eyes of the county people. Then, as his thoughts detached themselves, he exclaimed against the sepulchral solemnity of the library. The house was soundless. At the window he heard the soft moonlight-dreaming of the rooks; and when he threw open the window the white peacock roosting there flew away and paraded on the pale sward like a Watteau lady.
Next morning, rousing in the indolence of a bed hung with curtains of Indian pattern, Mike said to the footman who brought in his hot water—
"Tell the coachman that I shall go out riding after breakfast."
"What horse will you ride, sir?"
"I don't know what horses you have in the stable."
"Well, sir, you can ride either her ladyship's hunter or the mare that brought you from the station in the dog-cart."
"Very well. I'll ride her ladyship's hunter. (My hunter, damn the fellow," he said, under his breath.) "And tell the bailiff I shall want him; let him come round on his horse. I shall go over the farms with him."
The morning was chilly. He stood before the fire while the butler brought in eggs, kidneys, devilled legs of fowl, and coffee. The beauty of the coffee-pot caught his eye, and he admired the plate that made such rich effect on the old Chippendale sideboard. The peacocks on the window-sills, knocking with their strong beaks for bread, pleased him; they recalled evenings passed with Helen; she had often spoken of her love for these birds. He went to the window with bread for the peacocks, and the landscape came into his eyes: the clump of leafless trees on the left, rugged and untidy with rooks' nests; the hollow, dipping plain, melancholy of aspect now, misty, gray and brown beneath a lowering sky, dipping and then rising in a long, wide shape, and ringing the sky with a brown line. The terrace with its straight walks, balustrades, urns, and closely-cropped yews was a romantic note, severe, even harsh.
One day, wandering from room to room, he found himself in Helen's bedroom. "There is the bed she died in, there is the wardrobe." Mike opened the wardrobe. He turned the dresses over, seeking for those he knew; but he had not seen her for three years, and there were new dresses, and he had forgotten the old. Suddenly he came upon one of soft, blue material, and he remembered she wore that dress the first time she sat on his knees. Feeling the need of an expressive action, he buried his face in the pale blue dress, seeking in its softness and odour commemoration of her who lay beneath the pavement. How desolate was the room! He would not linger. This room must be forever closed, left to the silence, the mildew, the dust, and the moth. None must enter here but he, it must be sacred from other feet. Once a year, on her anniversary, he would come to mourn her, and not on the anniversary of her death, but on that of their first kiss. He had forgotten the exact day, and feared he had not preserved all her letters. Perhaps she had preserved his.
Moved with such an idea he passed out of her bedroom, and calling for his keys, went into her boudoir and opened her escritoire, and very soon he found his letters; almost the first he read, ran as follows—
"MY DEAR HELEN,
"I am much obliged to you for your kind invitation. I should like very much to come and stay with you, if I may come as your friend. You must not think from this that I have fallen in love with some one else; I have not. I have never seen any one I shall love better than you; I love you to-day as well as ever I did; my feelings regarding you have changed in nothing, yet I cannot come as your lover. I am ashamed of myself, I hate myself, but it is not my fault.
"I have been your lover for more than a year, and I could not be any one's lover—no, not if she were Venus herself—for a longer time.
"My heart is full of regret. I am losing the best and sweetest mistress ever man had. No one is able to appreciate your worth better than I. Try to understand me; do not throw this letter aside in a rage. You are a clever woman; you are, I know, capable of understanding it. And if you will understand, you will not regret; that I swear, for you will gain the best and most loyal friend. I am as good a friend as I am a worthless lover. Try to understand, Helen, I am not wholly to blame.
"I love you—I esteem you far more to-day than I did when I first knew you. Do not let our love end upon a miserable quarrel—the commonplace quarrel of those who do not know how to love."
He turned the letter over. He was the letter; that letter was his shameful human nature; and worse, it was the human nature of the whole wide world. On the same point, or on some other point, every human being was as base as he. Such baseness is the inalienable birth-stain of human life. His poem was no pretty imagining, but the eternal, implacable truth. It were better that human life should cease. Until this moment he had only half understood its awful, its terrifying truth.... It were better that man ceased to pollute the earth. His history is but the record of crime; his existence is but a disgraceful episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets.
We cannot desire what we possess, and so we progress from illusion to illusion. But when we cease to distinguish between ourself and others, when our thoughts are no longer set on the consideration of our own embarrassed condition, when we see into the heart of things, which is one, then disappointment and suffering cease to have any meaning, and we attain that true serenity and peace which we sometimes see reflected in a seraph's face by Raphael.
As Mike's thoughts floated in the boundless atmosphere of Schopenhauer's poem, of the denial of the will to live, he felt creeping upon him, like sleep upon tired eyelids, all the sweet and suasive fascination of death. "How little," he thought, "does any man know of any other man's soul. Who among my friends would believe that I, in all my intense joys and desire of life, am perhaps, at heart, the saddest man, and perhaps sigh for death more ardently, and am tempted to cull the dark fruit which hangs so temptingly over the wall of the garden of life more ardently than any one?"
A few days after, his neighbour, Lord Spennymoor, called, and his visit was followed by an invitation to dinner. The invitation was accepted. Mike was on his best behaviour. During dinner he displayed as much reserve as his nature allowed him to, but afterwards, yielding to the solicitations of the women, he abandoned himself, and when twelve o'clock struck they were still gathered round him, listening to him with rapt expression, as if in hearing of delightful music. Awaking suddenly to a sense of the hour and his indiscretion, he bade Lord Spennymoor, who had sat talking all night with his brother in a far corner, good-night.
When the sound of the wheels of his trap died away, when the ladies had retired, Lord Spennymoor returned to the smoking-room, and at the end of a long silence asked his brother, who sat smoking opposite him, what he thought of Fletcher.
"He is one of those men who attract women, who attract nine people out of ten.... Call it magnetism, electro-biology, give it what name you will. The natural sciences——"
"Never mind the natural sciences. Do you think that either of my girls were—Victoria, for instance, was attracted by him? I don't believe for a moment his story of having saved Lady Seeley from drowning in Italy, but I'm bound to say he told it very well. I can see the girls sitting round him listening. Poor Mrs. Dickens, her eyes were——"
"I shan't ask her here again.... But tell me, do you think he'll marry?"
"It would be very hard to say what will become of him. He may suddenly weary of women and become a woman-hater, or perhaps he may develop into a sort of Baron Hulot. He spoke about his writings—he may become ambitious, and spend his life writing epics.... He may go mad! He seemed interested in politics, he may go into Parliament; I fancy he would do very well in Parliament. A sudden loathing of civilization may come upon him and send him to Africa or the Arctic Regions. A man's end is always infinitely more in accordance with his true character than any conclusion we could invent. No writer, even if he have genius, is so extravagantly logical as nature."
During the winter months Mike was extensively occupied with the construction of the mausoleum in red granite, which he was raising in memory of Helen; and this interest remained paramount. He took many journeys to London on its account, and studied all the architecture on the subject, and with great books on his knees, he sat in the library making drawings or composing epitaphs and memorial poems.
Belthorpe Park was often full of visitors, and when walking with them on the terraces, his thoughts ran on Mount Rorke Castle, his own success, and Frank's failure; and when he awoke in the sweet, luxurious rooms, in the houses where he was staying, his brain filled with febrile sensations of triumph, and fitful belief that he was above any caprice of destiny.
It pleased him to write letters with Belthorpe Park printed on the top of the first page, and he wrote many for this reason. Quick with affectionate remembrances, he thought of friends he had not thought of for years, and the sadnesses of these separations touched him deeply; and the mutability of things moved him in his very entrails, and he thought that perhaps no one had felt these things as he felt them. He remembered the women who had passed out of his life, and looking out on his English park, soaking with rain and dim with mist, he remembered those whom he had loved, and the peak whence he viewed the desert district of his amours—Lily Young. She haunted in his life.
He saw himself a knight in the tourney, and her eyes fixed on him, while he calmed his fiery dexter and tilted for her; he saw her in the silk comfort of the brougham, by his side, their bodies rocked gently together; he saw her in the South when reading Mrs. Byril's descriptions of rocky coast and olive fields.
The English park lay deep in snow, and the familiar word roses then took magical significance, and the imagined Southern air was full of Lily.
"There's a sweet girl here, and I'm sure you would like her; she is so slender, so blithe and winsome, and so wayward. She has been sent abroad for her health, and is forbidden to go out after sunset, but will not obey. I am afraid she is dying of consumption.... She has taken a great fancy to me. There is no one in our hotel but a few old maids, who discuss the peerage, and she runs after me to talk about men. I fancy she must have carried on pretty well with some one, for she loves talking about him, and is full of mysterious allusions."
The romance of the sudden introduction of this girl into the landscape took him by the throat. He saw himself walking with this dying girl in the beauty of blue mountains toppling into blue skies, and reflected in bluer seas; he sat with her beneath the palm-trees; palms spread their fan-like leaves upon sky and sea, and in the rich green of their leaves oranges grew to deep, and lemons to paler, gold; and he dreamed that the knowledge that the object of his love was transitory, would make his love perfect and pure. Now in his solitude, with no object to break it, this desire for love in death haunted in his mind. It rose unbidden, like a melody, stealing forth and surprising him in unexpected moments. Often he asked himself why he did not pack up his portmanteau and rush away; and he was only deterred by the apparent senselessness of the thought. "What slaves we are of habit! Why more stupid to go than to remain?"
Soon after, he received another letter from Mrs. Byril. He glanced through it eagerly for some mention of the girl. Whatever there was of sweetness and goodness in Mike's nature was reflected in his eyes (soft violet eyes, in which tenderness dwelt), whatever there was of evil was written in the lips and chin (puckered lips and goat-like chin), the long neck and tiny head accentuating the resemblance.
Now his being was concentrated in the eyes as a landscape is sometimes in a piece of sky. He read: "She told me that she had been once to see her lover in the Temple." It was then Lily. He turned to Mrs. Byril's first letter, and saw Lily in every line of the description. Should he go to her? Of course ... When? At once! Should it not prove to be Lily? ... He did not care ... He must go, and in half an hour he touched the swiftly trotting mare with the whip and glanced at his watch. "I shall just do it." The hedges passed behind, and the wintry prospects were unfolded and folded away. But as he approached the station, a rumble and then a rattle came out of the valley, and though he lashed the mare into a gallop, he arrived only in time to see a vanishing cloud of steam.
The next train did not reach London till long after the mail had left Charing Cross.
It froze hard during the night, and next morning his feet chilled in his thin shoes, as he walked to and fro, seeking a carriage holding a conversational-looking person. At Dover the wind was hard as the ice-bound steps which he descended, and the sea rolled in dolefully about the tall cliffs, melting far away into the bleak grayness of the sky. But more doleful than the bleak sea was sullen Picardy. Mike could not sleep, and his eyes fed upon the bleak black of swampy plains, utterly mournful, strangely different from green and gladsome England. And two margins of this doleful land remained impressed upon his mind; the first, a low grange, discoloured, crouching on the plain, and curtained by seven lamentable poplars, and Mike thought of the human beings that came from it, to see only a void landscape, and to labour in bleak fields. He remembered also a marsh with osier-beds and pools of water; and in the largest of these there was a black and broken boat. Thin sterile hills stretched their starved forms in the distance, and in the raw wintry light this landscape seemed like a page of the primitive world, and the strange creature striving with an oar recalled our ancestors.
Paris was steeped in great darkness and starlight, and the cab made slow and painful way through the frost-bound streets. The amble and the sliding of the horse was exasperating, the drive unendurable with uncertainty and cold, and Mike hammered his frozen feet on the curving floor of the vehicle. Street succeeded street, all growing meaner as they neared the Gare de Lyons. Fearing he should miss the express he called to the impassive driver to hasten the vehicle. Three minutes remained to take his ticket and choose a carriage, and hoping for sleep and dreams of Lily, he rolled himself up in a rug for which he had paid sixty guineas, and fell asleep.
Ten hours after, he was roused by the guard, and stretching his stiffened limbs, he looked out, and in the vague morning saw towzled and dilapidated travellers, slipping upon the thin ice that covered the platform, striving to reach long, rough tables, spread with coffee, fruit, and wine. Mike drank some coffee, and thinking of Mrs. Byril's roses, wondered when they should get into the sunshine.
As the train moved out of the platform the twilight vanished into daylight, the sky flushed, and he saw a scant land, ragged and torn with twisted plants, cacti and others, gashed and red, and savage as a negress's lips. So he saw the South through the breath-misted windows. He lay back; he dozed a little, and awoke an hour after to feel soft air upon the face, and to see a bush laden with blossom literally singing the spring. Thenceforth at every mile the land grew into more frequent bloom. The gray-green olive-tree appeared, a crooked, twisted tree—habitual phase of the red land—and between its foliage gray-green brick facades, burnt and re-burnt by the sun. The roofs of the houses grew flatter and campanile, and the domes rose, silvery or blue, in the dazzling day. A mountain shepherd, furnished with water-gourd, a seven-foot staff, and a gigantic pipe, lingered in the country railway-station. This shepherd's skin was like coffee, and he wore hair hanging far over his shoulders, and his beard reached to his waist.
Nice! A town of cheap fashion, a town of glass and stucco. The pungent odour of the eucalyptus trees, the light breeze stirred not the foliage, sheared into mathematical lines. It was like yards of baize dwindling in perspective; and between the tall trunks great plate-glass windows gleamed, filled with l'article de Londres.
He drove to the hotel from which Mrs. Byril had written, and learnt that she had left yesterday, and that Mrs. and Miss Young were not staying there. They had no such name on the books. Looking on the sea and mountains he wondered himself what it all meant.
Having bathed and changed his clothes, he sallied forth in a cab to call at every hotel in the town, and after three hours' fruitless search, returned in despair. Never before had life seemed so sad; never had fate seemed so cruel—he had come a thousand miles to regenerate his life, and an accident, the accident of a departure, hastened perhaps only by a day, had thrown him back on the past; he had imagined a beautiful future made of love, goodness, and truth, and he found himself thrown back upon the sterile shore of a past of which he was weary, and of whose fruits he had eaten even to satiety. After much effort he had made sure that nothing mattered but Lily, neither wealth nor liberty, nor even his genius. In surrendering all he would have gained all—peace of mind, unending love and goodness. Goodness! that which he had never known, that which he now knew was worth more than gratification of flesh and pride of spirit.
The night was full of tumult and dreams—dreams of palms, and seas, and endless love, and in the morning he walked into the realities of his imaginings.
Passing through an archway, he found himself in the gaud of the flower-market. There a hundred umbrellas, yellow, red, mauve and magenta, lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, gold, a multi-coloured mass spread their extended bellies to a sky blue as the blouses.
The brown fingers of the peasant women are tying and pressing all the miraculous bloom of the earth into the fair fingers of Saxon girls—great packages of roses, pink lilies, clematis, stephanotis, and honeysuckle. A gentle breeze is blowing, rocking the umbrellas, wafting the odour of the roses and honeysuckle, bringing hither an odour of the lapping tide, rocking the immense umbrellas. One huge and ungainly sunshade creaks, swaying its preposterous rotundity. Beneath it the brown woman slices her pumpkin. Mike scanned every thin face for Lily, and as he stood wedged against a flower-stand, a girl passed him. She turned. It was Lily.
"Lily, is it possible? I was looking for you everywhere."
"Looking for me! When did you arrive in Nice? How did you know I was here?"
"Mrs. Byril wrote. She described a girl, and I knew from her description it must be you. And I came on at once."
"You came on at once to find me?"
"Yes; I love you more than ever. I can think only of you.... But when I arrived I found Mrs. Byril had left, and I had no means of finding your address."
"You foolish boy; you mean to say you rushed away on the chance that I was the girl described in Mrs. Byril's letter! ... A thousand miles! and never even waited to ask the name or the address! Well, I suppose I must believe that you are in love. But you have not heard.... They say I'm dying. I have only one lung left. Do you think I'm looking very ill?"
"You are looking more lovely than ever. My love shall give you health; we shall go—where shall we go? To Italy? You are my Italy. But I'm forgetting—why did you not answer my letter? It was cruel of you. Deceive me no more, play with me no longer; if you will not have me, say so, and I will end myself, for I cannot live without you."
"But I do not understand, I haven't had any letter; what letter?"
"I wrote asking you to marry me."
They walked out of the flower market on to the Promenade des Anglais, and Mike told her about his letters, concealing nothing of his struggle. The sea lay quite blue and still, lapping gently on the spare beach; the horizon floated on the sea, almost submerged, and the mountains, every edge razor-like, hard, and metallic, were veiled in a deep, transparent blue; and the villas, painted white, pink and green, with open loggias and balconies, completed the operatic aspect.
"My mother will not hear of it; she would sooner see me dead than married to you."
"She knows you are an atheist for one thing."
"But she does not know that I have six thousand a year."
"Six thousand a year! and who was the fairy that threw such fortune into your lap? I thought you had nothing."
Vanity took him by the throat, but he wrenched himself free, and answered evasively that a distant cousin had left him a large sum of money, including an estate in Berkshire.
"Well, I'm very glad for your sake, but it will not influence mother's opinion of you."
"Then you will run away with me? Say you will."
"That is the best—for I'm not strong enough to dispute with mother. I dare say it is very cowardly of me, but I would avoid scenes; I've had enough of them.... We'll go away together. Where shall we go? To Italy?"
"Yes, to Italy—my Italy. And do you love me? Have you forgiven me my conduct the day when you came to see me?"
"Yes, I love you; I have forgiven you."
"And when shall we go?"
"When you like. I should like to go over that sea; I should like to go, Mike, with you, far away! Where, Mike?—Heaven?"
"We should find heaven dull; but when shall we go across that sea, or when shall we go from here—now?"
"Because here are my people coming to meet me. Now say nothing to my mother about marriage, or she will never leave my side. I'm more ill than you think I am—I should have no strength to struggle with her."
Not again that day did Mike succeed in speaking alone with Lily, and the next day she and her mother and Major Downside, her uncle, went to spend the day with some friends who had a villa in the environs of the town. The day after he met mother and daughter out walking in the morning. In the afternoon Lily was obliged to keep her room. Should she die! should the irreparable happen! Mike crushed the instinct, that made him see a poem in the death of his beloved; and he determined to believe that he should possess her, love her and only her; he saw himself a new Mike, a perfect and true husband-lover. Never was man more weary of vice, more desirous of reformation.
He had studied the train service until he could not pretend to himself there remained any crumb of excuse for further consideration of it. He wandered about the corridors, a miserable man. On Sunday she came down-stairs and drove to church with her mother. Mike followed, and full of schemes for flight, holding a note ready to slip into her hand, he wondered if such pallor as hers were for this side of life. In the note it was written that he would wait all day for her in the sitting-room, and about five, as he sat holding the tattered newspaper, his thoughts far away in Naples, Algiers, and Egypt, he heard a voice calling—
"Mike! Mike! Mother is lying down; I think we can get away now, if there's a train before half-past five."
Mike did not need to consult the time-table. He said, "At last, at last, darling, come! ... Yes, there is a train for the Italian frontier at a few minutes past five. We shall have just time to catch it. Come!"
But in the gardens they met the Major, who would not hear of his niece being out after sunset, and sent her back. Mike overtook Lily on the staircase.
"I can endure this no longer," he said; "you must come with me to-night when every one is in bed. There is a train at two."
"I cannot; I have to pass through my mother's room. She would be sure to awake."
"Great Scott! what shall we do? My head is whirling. You must give your mother a sleeping potion, will you? She drinks something before she goes to bed?"
"There must be no buts. It is a case of life and death. You do not want to die, as many girls die. To many a girl marriage is life. I will get something quite harmless, and quite tasteless."
She waited for him in the sitting-room. He returned in a few minutes with a small bottle, which he pressed into her hand. "And now, au revoir; in a few hours you will be mine for ever."
After leaving her he dined; after dinner went to a gambling hell, where he lost a good deal of money, and would have lost more, had the necessity of keeping at least L200 for his wedding-tour not been so imperative. He wandered about the streets talking to and sometimes strolling about with the light women, listening to their lamentable stories—"anything," he thought, "to distract my mind." He was to meet Lily on the staircase at one o'clock, and now it was half-past twelve, and giving the poor creature whose chatter had beguiled the last half-hour a louis, he returned hurriedly to his hotel.
The lift had ceased working, and he ascended the great staircase, three steps at a time. On the second floor he stopped to reconnoitre. The gardien lay fast asleep on a bench; he could not do better than sit on the stairs and wait; if the man awoke he would have to be bribed. Lily's number was 45, a dozen doors down the passage. At one o'clock the gardien awoke. Mike entered into conversation with him, gave him a couple of francs, bade him good-night, and went partly up the next flight of stairs. Listening for every sound, expecting every moment to hear a door open, he waited till the clocks struck the half-hour. Then he became as if insane, and he deemed it would not be enough if she were to disappoint him to set the hotel on fire and throw himself from the roof. Something must happen, if he were to remain sane, and, determined to dare all, he decided he would seek her in her room and bear her away. He knew he would have to pass through Mrs. Young's room. What should he do if she awoke, and, taking him for a robber, raised the alarm?
Putting aside such surmises he turned the handle of her door as quietly as he could. The lock gave forth hardly any sound, the door passed noiselessly over the carpet. He hesitated, but only for a moment, and drawing off his shoes he prepared to cross the room. A night-light was burning, and it revealed the fat outline of a huge body huddled in the bed-clothes. He would have to pass close to Mrs. Young. He glided by, passing swiftly towards the further room, praying that the door would open without a sound. It was ajar, and opened without a sound. "What luck!" he thought, and a moment after he stood in Lily's room. She lay upon the bed, as if she had fallen there, dressed in a long travelling-cloak, her hat crushed on one side.
"Lily, Lily!" he whispered, "'tis I; awake! speak, tell me you are not dead." She moved a little beneath his touch, then wetting a towel in the water-jug he applied it to her forehead and lips, and slowly she revived.
"Where are we?" she asked. "Mike, darling, are we in Italy? ... I have been ill, have I not? They say I'm going to die, but I'm not; I'm going to live for you, my darling."
Then she recovered recollection of what had happened, and whispered that she had failed to give her mother the opiate, but had nevertheless determined to keep her promise to him. She had dressed herself and was just ready to go, but a sudden weakness had come over her. She remembered staggering a few steps and nothing more.
"But if you have not given your mother the opiate, she may awake at any moment. Are you strong enough, my darling, to come with me? Come!"
"Yes, yes, I'm strong enough. Give me some more water, and kiss me, dear."
The lovers wrapped themselves in each other's arms. But hearing some one moving in the adjoining room, the girl looked in horror and supplication in Mike's eyes. Stooping, he disappeared beneath a small table; and drew his legs beneath the cloth. The sounds in the next room continued, and he recognized them as proceeding from some one searching for clothes. Then Lily's door was opened and Mrs. Young said—
"Lily, there is some one in your room; I'm sure Mr. Fletcher is here."
"Oh, mother, how can you say such a thing! indeed he is not."
"He is; I am not mistaken. This is disgraceful; he must be under that bed."
"Mother, you can look."
"I shall do nothing of the kind. I shall fetch your uncle."
When he heard Mrs. Young retreating with fast steps, Mike emerged from his hiding.
"What shall I do?"
"You can't leave without being seen. Uncle sleeps opposite."
"I'll hide in your mother's room; and while they are looking for me here, I will slip out."
"How clever you are, darling! Go there. Do you hear? uncle is answering her. To-morrow we shall find an opportunity to get away; but now I would not be found out.... I told mother you weren't here. Go!"
The morrow brought no opportunity for flight. Lily could not leave her room, and it was whispered that the doctors despaired of her life. Then Mike opened his heart to the Major, and the old soldier promised him his cordial support when Lily was well. Three days passed, and then, unable to bear the strain any longer, Mike fled to Monte Carlo. There he lost and won a fortune. Hence Italy enticed him, and he went, knowing that he should never go there with Lily.
But not in art nor in dissipation did he find escape from her deciduous beauty, now divided from the grave only by a breath, beautiful and divinely sorrowful in its transit.
Some days passed, and then a letter from the Major brought him back over-worn with anxiety, wild with grief. He found her better. She had been carried down from her room, and was lying on a sofa by the open window. There were a few flowers in her hands, and when she offered them to Mike she said with a kind of Heine-like humour—
"Take them, they will live almost as long as I shall."
"Lily, you will get well, and we shall see Italy together. I had to leave you—I should have gone mad had I remained. The moment I heard I could see you I returned. You will get well."
"No, no; I'm here only for a few days—a few weeks at most. I shall never go to Italy. I shall never be your sweetheart. I'm one of God's virgins. I belong to my saint, my first and real sweetheart. You remember when I came to see you in the Temple Gardens, I told you about Him then, didn't I! Ah! happy, happy aspirations, better even than you, my darling. And He is waiting for me; I see Him now. He smiles, and opens His arms."
"You'll get well. The sun of Italy shall be our heaven, thy lips shall give me immortality, thy love shall give me God."
"Fine words, my sweetheart, fine words, but death waits not for love.... Well, it's a pity to die without having loved."
"It is worse to live without having loved, dearest—dearest, you will live."
He never saw her again. Next day she was too ill to come down, and henceforth she grew daily weaker. Every day brought death visibly nearer, and one day the Major came to Mike in the garden and said—
"It is all over, my poor friend!"
Then came days of white flowers and wreaths, and bouquets and baskets of bloom, stephanotis, roses, lilies, and every white blossom that blows; and so friends sought to cover and hide the darkness of the grave. Mike remembered the disordered faces of the girls in church; weeping, they threw themselves on each other's shoulders; and the mournful chant was sung; and the procession toiled up the long hill to the cemetery above the town, and Lily was laid there, to rest there for ever. There she lies, facing Italy, which she never knew but in dream. The wide country leading to Italy lies below her, the peaks of the rocky coast, the blue sea, the gray-green olives billowing like tides from hill to hill; the white loggias gleaming in the sunlight. His thoughts followed the flight of the blue mountain passes that lead so enticingly to Italy, and as he looked into the distance, dim and faint as the dream that had gone, there rose in his mind an even fairer land than Italy, the land of dream, where for every one, even for Mike Fletcher, there grows some rose or lily unattainable.
In the dreary drawing-room, amid the tattered copies of the Graphic and Illustrated London News, he encountered the inevitable idle woman. They engaged in conversation; and he repeated the phrases that belong inevitably to such occasions.
"How horrible all this is," he said to himself; "this is worse than peeping and botanizing on a mother's grave."
He desired supreme grief, and grief fled from his lure; and rhymes and images thronged his brain; and the poem that oftenest rose in his mind, seemingly complete in cadence and idea, was so cruel, that Lily, looking out of heaven, seemed to beg him to refrain. But though he erased the lines on the paper, he could not erase them on his brain, and baffled, he pondered over the phenomena of the antagonism of desired aspirations and intellectual instincts. He desired a poem full of the divine grace of grief; a poem beautiful, tender and pure, fresh and wild as a dove crossing in the dawn from wood to wood. He desired the picturesqueness of a young man's grief for a dead girl, an Adonais going forth into the glittering morning, and weeping for his love that has passed out of the sun into the shadow. This is what he wrote:
A UNE POETRENAIRE.
We are alone! listen, a little while, And hear the reason why your weary smile And lute-toned speaking is so very sweet To me, and how my love is more complete Than any love of any lover. They Have only been attracted by the gray Delicious softness of your eyes, your slim And delicate form, or some such whimpering whim, The simple pretexts of all lovers;—I For other reasons. Listen whilst I try And say. I joy to see the sunset slope Beyond the weak hours' hopeless horoscope, Leaving the heavens a melancholy calm, Of quiet colour chaunted like a psalm, In mildly modulated phrases; thus Your life shall fade like a voluptuous Vision beyond the sight, and you shall die Like some soft evening's sad serenity ... I would possess your dying hours; indeed My love is worthy of the gift, I plead For them.
Although I never loved as yet, Methinks that I might love you; I would get From out the knowledge that the time was brief, That tenderness whose pity grows to grief, My dream of love, and yea, it would have charms Beyond all other passions, for the arms Of death are stretched you-ward, and he claims You as his bride. Maybe my soul misnames Its passion; love perhaps it is not, yet To see you fading like a violet, Or some sweet thought away, would be a strange And costly pleasure, far beyond the range Of common man's emotion. Listen, I Will choose a country spot where fields of rye And wheat extend in waving yellow plains, Broken with wooded hills and leafy lanes, To pass our honeymoon; a cottage where The porch and windows are festooned with fair Green wreaths of eglantine, and look upon A shady garden where we'll walk alone In the autumn sunny evenings; each will see Our walks grow shorter, till at length to thee The garden's length is far, and thou wilt rest From time to time, leaning upon my breast Thy languid lily face. Then later still, Unto the sofa by the window-sill Thy wasted body I shall carry, so That thou mays't drink the last left lingering glow Of even, when the air is filled with scent Of blossoms; and my spirits shall be rent The while with many griefs. Like some blue day That grows more lovely as it fades away, Gaining that calm serenity and height Of colour wanted, as the solemn night Steals forward thou shalt sweetly fall asleep For ever and for ever; I shall weep A day and night large tears upon thy face, Laying thee then beneath a rose-red place Where I may muse and dedicate and dream Volumes of poesy of thee; and deem It happiness to know that thou art far From any base desires as that fair star Set in the evening magnitude of heaven. Death takes but little, yea, thy death has given Me that deep peace and immaculate possession Which man may never find in earthly passion.
The composition of the poem induced a period of literary passion, during which he composed much various matter, even part of his great poem, which he would have completed had he not been struck by an idea for a novel, and so imperiously, that he wrote the book straight from end to end. It was sent to a London publisher, and it raised some tumult of criticism, none of which reached the author. When it appeared he was far away, living in Arab tents, seeking pleasure at other sources. For suddenly, when the strain of the composition of his book was relaxed, civilization had grown hateful to him; a picture by Fromantin, and that painter's book, Un ete dans le Sahara, quickened the desire of primitive life; he sped away, and for nearly two years lived on the last verge of civilization, sometimes passing beyond it with the Bedouins into the interior, on slave-trading or rapacious expeditions. The frequentation of these simple people calmed the fever of ennui, which had been consuming him. Nature leads us to the remedy that the development of reason inflicts on the animal—man. And for more than a year Mike thought he had solved the problem of life; now he lived in peace—passion had ebbed almost out of hearing, and in the plain satisfaction of his instincts he found happiness.
With the wild chieftains, their lances at rest, watching from behind a sandhill, he sometimes thought that the joy he experienced was akin to that which he had known in Sussex, when his days were spent in hunting and shooting; now, as then, he found relief by surrendering himself to the hygienics of the air and earth. But his second return to animal nature had been more violent and radical; and it pleased him to think that he could desire nothing but the Arabs with whom he lived, and whose friendship he had won. But qui a bu boira, and below consciousness dead appetites were awakening, and would soon be astir.
The tribe had wandered to an encampment in the vicinity of Morocco; and one day a missionary and his wife came with a harmonium and tracts. The scene was so evocative of the civilization from which Mike had fled, that he at once was drawn by a power he could not explain towards them. He told the woman that he had adopted Arab life; explaining that the barbaric soul of some ancestor lived in him, and that he was happy with these primitive people. He too was a missionary, and had come to warn and to save them from Christianity and all its corollaries—silk hats, piano playing, newspapers, and patent medicines. The English woman argued with him plaintively; the husband pressed a bundle of tracts upon him; and this very English couple hoped he would come and see them when he returned to town. Mike thanked them, insisting, however, that he would never leave his beloved desert, or desert his friends. Next day, however, he forgot to fall on his knees at noon, and outside the encampment stood looking in the direction whither the missionaries had gone. A strange sadness seemed to have fallen upon him; he cared no more for plans for slave-trading in the interior, or plunder in the desert. The scent of the white woman's skin and hair was in his nostrils; the nostalgia of the pavement had found him, and he knew he must leave the desert. One morning he was missed in the Sahara, and a fortnight after he was seen in the Strand, rushing towards Lubini's.
"My dear fellow," he said, catching hold of a friend's arm, "I've been living with the Arabs for the last two years. Fancy, not to have seen a 'tart' or drunk a bottle of champagne for two years! Come and dine with me. We'll go on afterwards to the Troc'."
Mike looked round as if to assure himself that he was back again dining at Lubi's. It was the same little white-painted gallery, filled with courtesans, music-hall singers, drunken lords, and sarcastic journalists. He noticed, however, that he hardly knew a single face, and was unacquainted with the amours of any of the women. He inquired for his friends. Muchross was not expected to live, Laura was underground, and her sister was in America. Joining in the general hilarity, he learnt that as the singer declined the prize-fighter was going up in popular estimation. A young and drunken lord offered to introduce him "to a very warm member."
He felt sure, however, that the Royal would stir in him the old enthusiasms, and his heart beat when he saw in a box Kitty Carew, looking exactly the same as the day he had left her; but she insisted on taking credit for recognizing him—so changed was he. He felt somewhat provincial, and no woman noticed him, and it was clear that Kitty was no longer interested in him. The conversation languished, he did not understand the allusions, and he was surprised and a little alarmed, indeed, to find that he did not even desire their attention.
A few weeks afterwards he received an invitation to a ball. It was from a woman of title, the address was good, and he resolved to go. It was to one of the Queen Anne houses with which Chelsea abounds, and as he drove towards it he noted the little windows aflame with light and colour in the blue summer night. On the carved cramped staircases women struck him as being more than usually interesting, and the distinguished air of the company moved him with pleasurable sensations. A thick creamy odour of white flowers gratified the nostrils; the slender backs of the girls, the shoulder-blades squeezed together by the stays, were full of delicate lines and tints. Mike saw a tall blonde girl, slight as a reed, so blonde that she was almost an albino, her figure in green gauze swaying. He saw a girl so brown that he thought of palms and cocoa-nuts; she passed him smiling, all her girlish soul awake in the enchantment of the dance. He said—
"No, I don't want to be introduced; she'd only bore me; I know exactly all she would say."
Studying these, he thought vaguely of dancing a quadrille, and was glad when the lady said she never danced. With a view to astonish her, he said—
"Since I became a student of Schopenhauer I have given up waltzing. Now I never indulge in anything but a square."
For a few moments his joke amused him, and he regretted that John Norton, who would understand its humour, was not there to laugh at it. Having eaten supper he chose the deepest chair among the clustered furniture of the drawing-room, and watched in spleenic interest a woman of thirty flirting with a young man.
The panelled skirt stretched stiffly over the knees, the legs were crossed, one drawn slightly back. The young man sat awkwardly on the edge of the sofa nursing his silk foot. She looked at him over her fan, inclining her blonde head in assent from time to time. The young man was delicate—a red blonde. The wall, laden with heavy shelves, was covered with an embossed paper of a deep gold hue. A piece of silk, worked with rich flowers, concealed the volumes in a light bookcase. A lamp, set on a tall brass rod, stood behind the lady, flooding her hair with yellow light, and its silk shade was nearly the same tint as the lady's hair. The costly furniture, the lady and her lover, the one in black and white, the other in creamy lace, the panelled skirt extended over her knees, filled the room like a picture—an enticing but somewhat vulgar picture of modern refinement and taste. Mike watched them curiously.
"Five years ago," he thought, "I was young like he is; my soul thrilled as his is thrilling now."
Then, seeing a woman whom he knew pass the door on her way to the ball-room, he asked her to come and sit with him. He did so remembering the tentative steps they had taken in flirtation three years ago. So by way of transition, he said—
"The last time we met we spoke of the higher education of women, and you said that nothing sharpened the wits like promiscuous flirtation. Enchanting that was, and it made poor Mrs.—Mrs.—I really can't remember—a lady with earnest eyes—look so embarrassed."
"I don't believe I ever said such a thing; anyhow, if I did, I've entirely changed my views."
"What a pity! but—perhaps you have finished your education?"
"Yes, that's it; and now I must go up-stairs. I am engaged for this dance."
"Clearly I'm out of it," thought Mike. "Not only do people see me with new eyes, but I see them with eyes that I cannot realize as mine."
The drawing-room was empty; all had gone up-stairs to dance, so, finding himself alone, he went to a mirror to note the changes. At first he seemed the same Mike Fletcher; but by degrees he recognized, or thought he recognized, certain remote and subtle differences. He thought that the tenderness which used to reside in his eyes was evanescent or gone. This tenderness had always been to him a subject of surprise, and he had never been able to satisfactorily explain its existence, knowing as he knew how all tenderness was in contradiction to his true character; at least, as he understood himself. This tenderness was now replaced by a lurking evil look, and he remembered that he had noted such evil look in certain old libertines. Certain lines about the face had grown harder, the hollow freckled cheeks seemed to have sunk a little, and the pump-handle chin seemed to be defining itself, even to caricature. There was still a certain air of bravoure, of truculence, which attracted, and might still charm. He turned from the mirror, went up-stairs, and danced three or four times. He remained until the last, and followed by an increasing despair he muttered, as he got into a hansom—
"If this is civilization I'd better go back to the Arabs."
The solitude of his rooms chilled him in the roots of his mind; he looked around like a hunted animal. He threw himself into an arm-chair. Like a pure fire ennui burned in his heart.
"Oh, for rest! I'm weary of life. Oh, to slip back into the unconscious, whence we came, and pass for ever from the fitful buzzing of the midges. To feel that sharp, cruel, implacable externality of things melt, vanish, and dissolve!
"The utter stupidity of life! There never was anything so stupid; I mean the whole thing—our ideas of right and wrong, love and duty, etc. Great Scott! what folly. The strange part of it all is man's inability to understand the folly of living. When I said to that woman to-night that I believed that the only evil is to bring children into the world, she said, 'But then the world would come to an end.' I said, 'Do you not think it would be a good thing if it did?' Her look of astonishment proved how unsuspicious she is of the truth. The ordinary run of mortals do not see into the heart of things, nor do we, except in terribly lucid moments; then, seeing life truly, seeing it in its monstrous deformity, we cry out like children in the night.
"Then why do we go to Death with terror-stricken faces and reluctant feet? We should go to Death in perfect confidence, like a bride to her husband, and with eager and smiling eyes. But he who seeks Death goes with wild eyes—upbraiding Life for having deceived him; as if Life ever did anything else! He goes to Death as a last refuge. None go to Death in deep calm and resignation, as a child goes to the kind and thoughtful nurse in whose arms he will find beautiful rest.
"It was in this very room I spoke to Lady Helen for the last time. She understood very well indeed the utter worthlessness of life. How beautiful was her death! That white still face, with darkness stealing from the closed lids, a film of light shadow, symbol of deeper shadow. The unseen but easily imagined hand grasping the pistol, the unseen but imagined red stain upon the soft texture of the chemise! I might have loved her. She saw into the heart of things, and like a reasonable being, which she was, resolved to rid herself of the burden. We discussed the whole question in the next room; and I remember I was surprised to find that she was in no wise deceived by the casual fallacy of the fools who say that the good times compensate for the bad. Ah! how little they understand! Pleasure! what is it but the correlative of pain? Nothing short of man's incomparable stupidity could enable him to distinguish between success and failure.
"But now I remember she did not die for any profound belief in the worthlessness of life, but merely on account of a vulgar love affair. That letter was quite conclusive. It was written from the Alexandra Hotel. It was a letter breaking it off (strange that any one should care to break off with Lady Helen!); she stopped to see him, in the hope of bringing about a reconciliation. Quite a Bank Holiday sort of incident! She did not deny life; but only that particular form in which life had come to her. Under such circumstances suicide is unjustifiable.
"There! I'm breaking into what John Norton would call my irrepressible levity. But there is little gladness in me. Ennui hunts me like a hound, loosing me for a time, but finding the scent again it follows—I struggle—escape—but the hour will come when I shall escape no more. If Lily had not died, if I had married her, I might have lived. In truth, I'm not alive, I'm really dead, for I live without hope, without belief, without desire. Ridiculous as a wife and children are when you look at them from the philosophical side, they are necessary if man is to live; if man dispenses with the family, he must embrace the cloister; John has done that; but now I know that man may not live without wife, without child, without God!"
* * * * * *
Next day, after breakfast, he lay in his arm-chair, thinking of the few hours that lay between him and the fall of night. He sought to tempt his jaded appetite with many assorted dissipations, but he turned from all in disgust, and gambling became his sole distraction. Every evening about eleven he was seen in Piccadilly, going towards Arlington Street, and every morning about four the street-sweepers saw him returning home along the Strand. Then, afraid to go to bed, he sometimes took pen and paper and attempted to write some lines of his long-projected poem. But he found that all he had to say he had said in the sketch which he found among his papers. The idea did not seem to him to want any further amplification, and he sat wondering if he could ever have written three or four thousand lines on the subject.
The casual eye and ear still recognized no difference in him. There were days when he was as good-looking as ever, and much of the old fascination remained: but to one who knew him well, as Harding did, there was no doubt that his life had passed its meridian. The day was no longer at poise, but was quietly sinking; and though the skies were full of light, the buoyancy and blitheness that the hours bear in their ascension were missing; lassitude and moodiness were aboard.
More than ever did he seek women, urged by a nervous erethism which he could not explain or control. Married women and young girls came to him from drawing-rooms, actresses from theatres, shop-girls from the streets, and though seemingly all were as unimportant and accidental as the cigarettes he smoked, each was a drop in the ocean of the immense ennui accumulating in his soul. The months passed, disappearing in a sheer and measureless void, leaving no faintest reflection or even memory, and his life flowed in unbroken weariness and despair. There was no taste in him for anything; he had eaten of the fruit of knowledge, and with the evil rind in his teeth, wandered an exile beyond the garden. Dark and desolate beyond speech was his world; dark and empty of all save the eyes of the hound Ennui; and by day and night it watched him, fixing him with dull and unrelenting eyes. Sometimes these acute strainings of his consciousness lasted only between entering his chambers late at night and going to bed; and fearful of the sleepless hours, every sensation exaggerated by the effect of the insomnia, he sat in dreadful commune with the spectre of his life, waiting for the apparition to leave him.
"And to think," he cried, turning his face to the wall, "that it is this ego that gives existence to it all!"
One of the most terrible of these assaults of consciousness came upon him on the winter immediately on his return from London. He had gone to London to see Miss Dudley, whom he had not seen since his return from Africa—therefore for more than two years. Only to her had he written from the desert; his last letters, however, had remained unanswered, and for some time misgivings had been astir in his heart. And it was with the view of ridding himself of these that he had been to London. The familiar air of the house seemed to him altered, the servant was a new one; she did not know the name, and after some inquiries, she informed him that the lady had died some six months past. All that was human in him had expressed itself in this affection; among women Lily Young and Miss Dudley had alone touched his heart; there were friends scattered through his life whom he had worshipped; but his friendships had nearly all been, though intense, ephemeral and circumstantial; nor had he thought constantly and deeply of any but these two women. So long as either lived, there was a haven of quiet happiness and natural peace in which his shattered spirit might rock at rest; but now he was alone.
Others he saw with homes and family ties; all seemed to have hopes and love to look to but he—"I alone am alone! The whole world is in love with me, and I'm utterly alone." Alone as a wreck upon a desert ocean, terrible in its calm as in its tempest. Broken was the helm and sailless was the mast, and he must drift till borne upon some ship-wrecking reef! Had fate designed him to float over every rock? must he wait till the years let through the waters of disease, and he foundered obscurely in the immense loneliness he had so elaborately prepared?
Wisdom! dost thou turn in the end, and devour thyself? dost thou vomit folly? or is folly born of thee?
Overhead was cloud of storm, the ocean heaved, quick lightnings flashed; but no waves gathered, and in heavy sulk a sense of doom lay upon him. Wealth and health and talent were his; he had all, and in all he found he had nothing;—yes, one thing was his for evermore,—Ennui.
Thoughts and visions rose into consciousness like monsters coming through a gulf of dim sea-water; all delusion had fallen, and he saw the truth in all its fearsome deformity. On awakening, the implacable externality of things pressed upon his sight until he felt he knew what the mad feel, and then it seemed impossible to begin another day. With long rides, with physical fatigue, he strove to keep at bay the despair-fiend which now had not left him hardly for weeks. For long weeks the disease continued, almost without an intermission; he felt sure that death was the only solution, and he considered the means for encompassing the end with a calm that startled him.
Nor was it until the spring months that he found any subjects that might take him out of his melancholy, and darken the too acute consciousness of the truth of things which was forcing him on to madness or suicide. One day it was suggested that he should stand for Parliament. He eagerly seized the idea, and his brain thronged immediately with visions of political successes, of the parliamentary triumphs he would achieve. Bah! he was an actor at heart, and required the contagion of the multitude, and again he looked out upon life with visionary eyes. Harsh hours fell behind him, gay hours awaited him, held hands to him.
Men wander far from the parent plot of earth; but a strange fatality leads them back, they know not how. None had desired to separate from all associations of early life more than Mike, and he was at once glad and sorry to find that the door through which he was to enter Parliament was Cashel. He would have liked better to represent an English town or county, but he could taste in Cashel a triumph which he could nowhere else in the world. To return triumphant to his native village is the secret of every wanderer's desire, for there he can claim not only their applause but their gratitude.
The politics he would have to adopt made him wince, for he knew the platitudes they entailed; and in preference he thought of the paradoxes with which he would stupefy the House, the daring and originality he would show in introducing subjects that, till then, no one had dared to touch upon. With the politics of his party he had little intention of concerning himself, for his projects were to make for himself a reputation as an orator, and having confirmed it to seek another constituency at the close of the present Parliament. Such intention lay dormant in the background of his mind, but he had not seen many Irish Nationalists before he was effervescing with rhetoric suitable for the need of the election, and he was sometimes puzzled to determine whether he was false or true.
Driving through Dublin from the steamer, he met Frank Escott. They shouted simultaneously to their carmen to stop.
"Home to London. I've just come from Cashel. I went to try to effect some sort of reconciliation with Mount Rorke; but—and you, where are you going?"
"I'm going to Cashel. I'm going to contest the town in the Parnellite interest."
Each pair of eyes was riveted on the other. For both men thought of the evening when Mike had received the letter notifying that Lady Seeley had left him five thousand a year, and Frank had read in the evening paper that Lady Mount Rorke had given birth to a son. Frank was, as usual, voluble and communicative. He dilated on the painfulness of the salutations of the people he had met on the way going from the station to Mount Rorke; and, instead of walking straight in, as in old times, he had to ask the servant to take his name.
"Burton, the old servant who had known me since I was a boy, seemed terribly cut up, and he was evidently very reluctant to speak the message. 'I'm very sorry, Mr. Frank,' he said, 'but his lordship says he is too unwell to see any one to-day, sir; he is very sorry, but if you would write' ... If I would write! think of it, I who was once his heir, and used the place as if it were mine! Poor old Burton was quite overcome. He tried to ask me to come into the dining-room and have some lunch. If I go there again I shall be asked into the servants' hall. And at that moment the nurse came, wheeling the baby in the perambulator through the hall, going out for an airing. I tried not to look, but couldn't restrain my eyes, and the nurse stopped and said, 'Now then, dear, give your hand to the gentleman, and tell him your name.' The little thing looked up, its blue eyes staring out of its sallow face, and it held out the little putty-like hand. Poor old Burton turned aside, he couldn't stand it any longer, and walked into the dining-room."
"And how did you get away?" asked Mike, who saw his friend's misfortune in the light of an exquisite chapter in a novel. "How sad the old place must have seemed to you!"
"You are thinking how you could put it in a book—how brutal you are!"
"I assure you you are wrong. I can't help trying to realize your sensations, but that doesn't prevent me from being very sorry for you, and I'm sure I shall be very pleased to help you. Do you want any money? Don't be shy about saying yes. I haven't forgotten how you helped me."
"I really don't like to ask you, you've been very good as it is. However, if you could spare me a tenner?"
"Of course I can. Let's send these jarvies away, and come into my hotel, and I'll write you a cheque."
The sum Frank asked for revealed to Mike exactly the depth to which he had sunk since they had last met. Small as it was, however, it seemed to have had considerable effect in reviving Frank's spirits, and he proceeded quite cheerfully into the tale of his misfortune. Now it seemed to strike him too in quite a literary light, and he made philosophic comments on its various aspects, as he might on the hero of a book which he was engaged on or contemplated writing.
"No," he said, "you were quite wrong in supposing that I waited to look back on the old places. I got out of the park through a wood so as to avoid the gate-keeper. In moments of great despair we don't lapse into pensive contemplation." ... He stopped to pull at the cigar Mike had given him, and when he had got it well alight, he said, "It was really most dramatic, it would make a splendid scene in a play; you might make him murder the baby."
Half an hour after Mike bade his friend good-bye, glad to be rid of him.
"He's going back to that beastly wife who lives in some dirty lodging. How lucky I was, after all, not to marry."
Then, remembering the newspaper, and the use it might be to him when in Parliament, he rushed after Frank. When the Pilgrim was mentioned Frank's face changed expression, and he seemed stirred with deeper grief than when he related the story of his disinheritance. He had no further connection with the paper. Thigh had worked him out of it.
"I never really despaired," he said, "until I lost my paper. Thigh has asked me to send him paragraphs, but of course I'm not going to do that."
"Well, hang it, after being the editor of a paper, you aren't going to send in paragraphs on approval. It isn't good enough. When I go back to London I shall try to get a sub-editorship."
Mike pressed another tenner upon him, and returning to the smoking-room, and throwing himself into an arm-chair, he lapsed into dreams of the bands and the banners that awaited him. When animal spirits were ebullient in him, he regarded his election in the light of a vulgar practical joke; when the philosophic mood was upon him he turned from all thought of it as from the smell of a dirty kitchen coming through a grating.
During the first session Mike was hampered and inconvenienced by the forms of the House; in the second, he began to weary of its routine. His wit and paradox attracted some attention; he made one almost successful speech, many that stirred and stimulated the minds of celebrated listeners; but for all that he failed. His failure to redeem the expectations of his friends, produced in him much stress and pain of mind, the more acute because he was fully alive to the cause. He ascribed it rightly to certain inherent flaws in his character. "The world believes in those who believe in it. Such belief may prove a lack of intelligence on the part of the believer, but it secures him success, and success is after all the only thing that compensates for the evil of life."
Always impressed by new ideas, rarely holding to any impression long, finding all hollow and common very soon, he had been taken with the importance of the national assembly, but it had hardly passed into its third session when all illusion had vanished, and Mike ridiculed parliamentary ambitions in the various chambers of the barristers he frequented.