Mother, I am so happy!" whispered the girl, burying her
face in the lap of the faded, tired-looking woman who, with back
turned to the shrill intrusive light, was sitting in the one
arm-chair that their dingy sitting-room contained. "I am
so happy!" she repeated, "and you must be happy, too!"
Mrs. Vane winced and put her
thin, bismuth-whitened hands on her daughter's head. "Happy!"
she echoed, "I am only happy, Sibyl, when I see you act.
You must not think of anything but your acting. Mr. Isaacs has
been very good to us, and we owe him money."
The girl looked up and pouted.
"Money, Mother?" she cried, "what does money matter?
Love is more than money."
"Mr. Isaacs has advanced
us fifty pounds to pay off our debts and to get a proper outfit
for James. You must not forget that, Sibyl. Fifty pounds is a
very large sum. Mr. Isaacs has been most considerate."
"He is not a gentleman,
Mother, and I hate the way he talks to me," said the girl,
rising to her feet and going over to the window.
"I don't know how we could
manage without him," answered the elder woman querulously.
Sibyl Vane tossed her head and
laughed. "We don't want him any more, Mother. Prince Charming
rules life for us now." Then she paused. A rose shook in
her blood and shadowed her cheeks. Quick breath parted the petals
of her lips. They trembled. Some southern wind of passion swept
over her and stirred the dainty folds of her dress. "I love
him," she said simply.
"Foolish child! foolish
child!" was the parrot-phrase flung in answer. The waving
of crooked, false-jewelled fingers gave grotesqueness to the
The girl laughed again. The joy
of a caged bird was in her voice. Her eyes caught the melody
and echoed it in radiance, then closed for a moment, as though
to hide their secret. When they opened, the mist of a dream had
passed across them.
Thin-lipped wisdom spoke at her
from the worn chair, hinted at prudence, quoted from that book
of cowardice whose author apes the name of common sense. She
did not listen. She was free in her prison of passion. Her prince,
Prince Charming, was with her. She had called on memory to remake
him. She had sent her soul to search for him, and it had brought
him back. His kiss burned again upon her mouth. Her eyelids were
warm with his breath.
Then wisdom altered its method
and spoke of espial and discovery. This young man might be rich.
If so, marriage should be thought of. Against the shell of her
ear broke the waves of worldly cunning. The arrows of craft shot
by her. She saw the thin lips moving, and smiled.
Suddenly she felt the need to
speak. The wordy silence troubled her. "Mother, Mother,"
she cried, "why does he love me so much? I know why I love
him. I love him because he is like what love himself should be.
But what does he see in me? I am not worthy of him. And yet
why, I cannot tell though I feel so much beneath
him, I don't feel humble. I feel proud, terribly proud. Mother,
did you love my father as I love Prince Charming?"
The elder woman grew pale beneath
the coarse powder that daubed her cheeks, and her dry lips twitched
with a spasm of pain. Sybil rushed to her, flung her arms round
her neck, and kissed her. "Forgive me, Mother. I know it
pains you to talk about our father. But it only pains you because
you loved him so much. Don't look so sad. I am as happy to-day
as you were twenty years ago. Ah! let me be happy for ever!"
"My child, you are far too
young to think of falling in love. Besides, what do you know
of this young man? You don't even know his name. The whole thing
is most inconvenient, and really, when James is going away to
Australia, and I have so much to think of, I must say that you
should have shown more consideration. However, as I said before,
if he is rich..."
"Ah! Mother, Mother, let
me be happy!"
Mrs. Vane glanced at her, and
with one of those false theatrical gestures that so often become
a mode of second nature to a stage-player, clasped her in her
arms. At this moment, the door opened and a young lad with rough
brown hair came into the room. He was thick-set of figure, and
his hands and feet were large and somewhat clumsy in movement.
He was not so finely bred as his sister. One would hardly have
guessed the close relationship that existed between them. Mrs.
Vane fixed her eyes on him and intensified her smile. She mentally
elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt sure
that the tableau was interesting.
"You might keep some of
your kisses for me, Sibyl, I think," said the lad with a
"Ah! but you don't like
being kissed, Jim," she cried. "You are a dreadful
old bear." And she ran across the room and hugged him.
James Vane looked into his sister's
face with tenderness. "I want you to come out with me for
a walk, Sibyl. I don't suppose I shall ever see this horrid London
again. I am sure I don't want to."
"My son, don't say such
dreadful things," murmured Mrs. Vane, taking up a tawdry
theatrical dress, with a sigh, and beginning to patch it. She
felt a little disappointed that he had not joined the group.
It would have increased the theatrical picturesqueness of the
"Why not, Mother? I mean
"You pain me, my son. I
trust you will return from Australia in a position of affluence.
I believe there is no society of any kind in the Colonies
nothing that I would call society so when you
have made your fortune, you must come back and assert yourself
the lad. "I don't want to know anything about that. I should
like to make some money to take you and Sibyl off the stage.
I hate it."
"Oh, Jim!" said Sibyl,
laughing, "how unkind of you! But are you really going for
a walk with me? That will be nice! I was afraid you were going
to say good-bye to some of your friends to Tom
Hardy, who gave you that hideous pipe, or Ned Langton, who makes
fun of you for smoking it. It is very sweet of you to let me
have your last afternoon. Where shall we go? Let us go to the
"I am too shabby,"
he answered, frowning. "Only swell people go to the park."
"Nonsense, Jim," she
whispered, stroking the sleeve of his coat.
He hesitated for a moment. "Very
well," he said at last, "but don't be too long dressing."
She danced out of the door. One could hear her singing as she
ran upstairs. Her little feet pattered overhead.
He walked up and down the room
two or three times. Then he turned to the still figure in the
chair. "Mother, are my things ready?" he asked.
"Quite ready, James,"
she answered, keeping her eyes on her work. For some months past
she had felt ill at ease when she was alone with this rough stern
son of hers. Her shallow secret nature was troubled when their
eyes met. She used to wonder if he suspected anything. The silence,
for he made no other observation, became intolerable to her.
She began to complain. Women defend themselves by attacking,
just as they attack by sudden and strange surrenders. "I
hope you will be contented, James, with your sea-faring life,"
she said. "You must remember that it is your own choice.
You might have entered a solicitor's office. Solicitors are a
very respectable class, and in the country often dine with the
"I hate offices, and I hate
clerks," he replied. "But you are quite right. I have
chosen my own life. All I say is, watch over Sibyl. Don't let
her come to any harm. Mother, you must watch over her."
"James, you really talk
very strangely. Of course I watch over Sibyl."
"I hear a gentleman comes
every night to the theatre and goes behind to talk to her. Is
that right? What about that?"
"You are speaking about
things you don't understand, James. In the profession we are
accustomed to receive a great deal of most gratifying attention.
I myself used to receive many bouquets at one time. That was
when acting was really understood. As for Sibyl, I do not know
at present whether her attachment is serious or not. But there
is no doubt that the young man in question is a perfect gentleman.
He is always most polite to me. Besides, he has the appearance
of being rich, and the flowers he sends are lovely."
"You don't know his name,
though," said the lad harshly.
"No," answered his
mother with a placid expression in her face. "He has not
yet revealed his real name. I think it is quite romantic of him.
He is probably a member of the aristocracy."
James Vane bit his lip. "Watch
over Sibyl, Mother," he cried, "watch over her."
"My son, you distress me
very much. Sibyl is always under my special care. Of course,
if this gentleman is wealthy, there is no reason why she should
not contract an alliance with him. I trust he is one of the aristocracy.
He has all the appearance of it, I must say. It might be a most
brilliant marriage for Sibyl. They would make a charming couple.
His good looks are really quite remarkable; everybody notices
The lad muttered something to
himself and drummed on the window-pane with his coarse fingers.
He had just turned round to say something when the door opened
and Sibyl ran in.
"How serious you both are!"
she cried. "What is the matter?"
"Nothing," he answered.
"I suppose one must be serious sometimes. Good-bye, Mother;
I will have my dinner at five o'clock. Everything is packed,
except my shirts, so you need not trouble."
"Good-bye, my son,"
she answered with a bow of strained stateliness.
She was extremely annoyed at
the tone he had adopted with her, and there was something in
his look that had made her feel afraid.
"Kiss me, Mother,"
said the girl. Her flowerlike lips touched the withered cheek
and warmed its frost.
"My child! my child!"
cried Mrs. Vane, looking up to the ceiling in search of an imaginary
"Come, Sibyl," said
her brother impatiently. He hated his mother's affectations.
They went out into the flickering,
wind-blown sunlight and strolled down the dreary Euston Road.
The passersby glanced in wonder at the sullen heavy youth who,
in coarse, ill-fitting clothes, was in the company of such a
graceful, refined-looking girl. He was like a common gardener
walking with a rose.
Jim frowned from time to time
when he caught the inquisitive glance of some stranger. He had
that dislike of being stared at, which comes on geniuses late
in life and never leaves the commonplace. Sibyl, however, was
quite unconscious of the effect she was producing. Her love was
trembling in laughter on her lips. She was thinking of Prince
Charming, and, that she might think of him all the more, she
did not talk of him, but prattled on about the ship in which
Jim was going to sail, about the gold he was certain to find,
about the wonderful heiress whose life he was to save from the
wicked, red-shirted bushrangers. For he was not to remain a sailor,
or a supercargo, or whatever he was going to be. Oh, no! A sailor's
existence was dreadful. Fancy being cooped up in a horrid ship,
with the hoarse, hump-backed waves trying to get in, and a black
wind blowing the masts down and tearing the sails into long screaming
ribands! He was to leave the vessel at Melbourne, bid a polite
good-bye to the captain, and go off at once to the gold-fields.
Before a week was over he was to come across a large nugget of
pure gold, the largest nugget that had ever been discovered,
and bring it down to the coast in a waggon guarded by six mounted
policemen. The bushrangers were to attack them three times, and
be defeated with immense slaughter. Or, no. He was not to go
to the gold-fields at all. They were horrid places, where men
got intoxicated, and shot each other in bar-rooms, and used bad
language. He was to be a nice sheep-farmer, and one evening,
as he was riding home, he was to see the beautiful heiress being
carried off by a robber on a black horse, and give chase, and
rescue her. Of course, she would fall in love with him, and he
with her, and they would get married, and come home, and live
in an immense house in London. Yes, there were delightful things
in store for him. But he must be very good, and not lose his
temper, or spend his money foolishly. She was only a year older
than he was, but she knew so much more of life. He must be sure,
also, to write to her by every mail, and to say his prayers each
night before he went to sleep. God was very good, and would watch
over him. She would pray for him, too, and in a few years he
would come back quite rich and happy.
The lad listened sulkily to her
and made no answer. He was heart-sick at leaving home.
Yet it was not this alone that
made him gloomy and morose. Inexperienced though he was, he had
still a strong sense of the danger of Sibyl's position. This
young dandy who was making love to her could mean her no good.
He was a gentleman, and he hated him for that, hated him through
some curious race-instinct for which he could not account, and
which for that reason was all the more dominant within him. He
was conscious also of the shallowness and vanity of his mother's
nature, and in that saw infinite peril for Sibyl and Sibyl's
happiness. Children begin by loving their parents; as they grow
older they judge them; sometimes they forgive them.
His mother! He had something
on his mind to ask of her, something that he had brooded on for
many months of silence. A chance phrase that he had heard at
the theatre, a whispered sneer that had reached his ears one
night as he waited at the stage-door, had set loose a train of
horrible thoughts. He remembered it as if it had been the lash
of a hunting-crop across his face. His brows knit together into
a wedgelike furrow, and with a twitch of pain he bit his underlip.
"You are not listening to
a word I am saying, Jim," cried Sibyl, "and I am making
the most delightful plans for your future. Do say something."
"What do you want me to
"Oh! that you will be a
good boy and not forget us," she answered, smiling at him.
He shrugged his shoulders. "You
are more likely to forget me than I am to forget you, Sibyl."
She flushed. "What do you
mean, Jim?" she asked.
"You have a new friend,
I hear. Who is he? Why have you not told me about him? He means
you no good."
"Stop, Jim!" she exclaimed.
"You must not say anything against him. I love him."
"Why, you don't even know
his name," answered the lad. "Who is he? I have a right
"He is called Prince Charming.
Don't you like the name. Oh! you silly boy! you should never
forget it. If you only saw him, you would think him the most
wonderful person in the world. Some day you will meet him
when you come back from Australia. You will like him so much.
Everybody likes him, and I... love him. I wish you could come
to the theatre to-night. He is going to be there, and I am to
play Juliet. Oh! how I shall play it! Fancy, Jim, to be in love
and play Juliet! To have him sitting there! To play for his delight!
I am afraid I may frighten the company, frighten or enthrall
them. To be in love is to surpass one's self. Poor dreadful Mr.
Isaacs will be shouting 'genius' to his loafers at the bar. He
has preached me as a dogma; to-night he will announce me as a
revelation. I feel it. And it is all his, his only, Prince Charming,
my wonderful lover, my god of graces. But I am poor beside him.
Poor? What does that matter? When poverty creeps in at the door,
love flies in through the window. Our proverbs want rewriting.
They were made in winter, and it is summer now; spring-time for
me, I think, a very dance of blossoms in blue skies."
"He is a gentleman,"
said the lad sullenly.
"A prince!" she cried
musically. "What more do you want?"
"He wants to enslave you."
"I shudder at the thought
of being free."
"I want you to beware of
"To see him is to worship
him; to know him is to trust him."
"Sibyl, you are mad about
She laughed and took his arm.
"You dear old Jim, you talk as if you were a hundred. Some
day you will be in love yourself. Then you will know what it
is. Don't look so sulky. Surely you should be glad to think that,
though you are going away, you leave me happier than I have ever
been before. Life has been hard for us both, terribly hard and
difficult. But it will be different now. You are going to a new
world, and I have found one. Here are two chairs; let us sit
down and see the smart people go by."
They took their seats amidst
a crowd of watchers. The tulip-beds across the road flamed like
throbbing rings of fire. A white dust tremulous
cloud of orris-root it seemed hung in the panting
air. The brightly coloured parasols danced and dipped like monstrous
She made her brother talk of
himself, his hopes, his prospects. He spoke slowly and with effort.
They passed words to each other as players at a game pass counters.
Sibyl felt oppressed. She could not communicate her joy. A faint
smile curving that sullen mouth was all the echo she could win.
After some time she became silent. Suddenly she caught a glimpse
of golden hair and laughing lips, and in an open carriage with
two ladies Dorian Gray drove past.
She started to her feet. "There
he is!" she cried.
"Who?" said Jim Vane.
she answered, looking after the victoria.
He jumped up and seized her roughly
by the arm. "Show him to me. Which is he? Point him out.
I must see him!" he exclaimed; but at that moment the Duke
of Berwick's four-in-hand came between, and when it had left
the space clear, the carriage had swept out of the park.
"He is gone," murmured
Sibyl sadly. "I wish you had seen him."
"I wish I had, for as sure
as there is a God in heaven, if he ever does you any wrong, I
shall kill him."
She looked at him in horror.
He repeated his words. They cut the air like a dagger. The people
round began to gape. A lady standing close to her tittered.
"Come away, Jim; come away,"
she whispered. He followed her doggedly as she passed through
the crowd. He felt glad at what he had said.
When they reached the Achilles
Statue, she turned round. There was pity in her eyes that became
laughter on her lips. She shook her head at him. "You are
foolish, Jim, utterly foolish; a bad-tempered boy, that is all.
How can you say such horrible things? You don't know what you
are talking about. You are simply jealous and unkind. Ah! I wish
you would fall in love. Love makes people good, and what you
said was wicked."
"I am sixteen," he
answered, "and I know what I am about. Mother is no help
to you. She doesn't understand how to look after you. I wish
now that I was not going to Australia at all. I have a great
mind to chuck the whole thing up. I would, if my articles hadn't
"Oh, don't be so serious,
Jim. You are like one of the heroes of those silly melodramas
Mother used to be so fond of acting in. I am not going to quarrel
with you. I have seen him, and oh! to see him is perfect happiness.
We won't quarrel. I know you would never harm any one I love,
"Not as long as you love
him, I suppose," was the sullen answer.
"I shall love him for ever!"
"For ever, too!"
"He had better."
She shrank from him. Then she
laughed and put her hand on his arm. He was merely a boy.
At the Marble Arch they hailed
an omnibus, which left them close to their shabby home in the
Euston Road. It was after five o'clock, and Sibyl had to lie
down for a couple of hours before acting. Jim insisted that she
should do so. He said that he would sooner part with her when
their mother was not present. She would be sure to make a scene,
and he detested scenes of every kind.
In Sybil's own room they parted.
There was jealousy in the lad's heart, and a fierce murderous
hatred of the stranger who, as it seemed to him, had come between
them. Yet, when her arms were flung round his neck, and her fingers
strayed through his hair, he softened and kissed her with real
affection. There were tears in his eyes as he went downstairs.
His mother was waiting for him
below. She grumbled at his unpunctuality, as he entered. He made
no answer, but sat down to his meagre meal. The flies buzzed
round the table and crawled over the stained cloth. Through the
rumble of omnibuses, and the clatter of street-cabs, he could
hear the droning voice devouring each minute that was left to
After some time, he thrust away
his plate and put his head in his hands. He felt that he had
a right to know. It should have been told to him before, if it
was as he suspected. Leaden with fear, his mother watched him.
Words dropped mechanically from her lips. A tattered lace handkerchief
twitched in her fingers. When the clock struck six, he got up
and went to the door. Then he turned back and looked at her.
Their eyes met. In hers he saw a wild appeal for mercy. It enraged
"Mother, I have something
to ask you," he said. Her eyes wandered vaguely about the
room. She made no answer. "Tell me the truth. I have a right
to know. Were you married to my father?"
She heaved a deep sigh. It was
a sigh of relief. The terrible moment, the moment that night
and day, for weeks and months, she had dreaded, had come at last,
and yet she felt no terror. Indeed, in some measure it was a
disappointment to her. The vulgar directness of the question
called for a direct answer. The situation had not been gradually
led up to. It was crude. It reminded her of a bad rehearsal.
"No," she answered,
wondering at the harsh simplicity of life.
"My father was a scoundrel
then!" cried the lad, clenching his fists.
She shook her head. "I knew
he was not free. We loved each other very much. If he had lived,
he would have made provision for us. Don't speak against him,
my son. He was your father, and a gentleman. Indeed, he was highly
An oath broke from his lips.
"I don't care for myself," he exclaimed, "but
don't let Sibyl.... It is a gentleman, isn't it, who is in love
with her, or says he is? Highly connected, too, I suppose."
For a moment a hideous sense
of humiliation came over the woman. Her head drooped. She wiped
her eyes with shaking hands. "Sibyl has a mother,"
she murmured; "I had none."
The lad was touched. He went
towards her, and stooping down, he kissed her. "I am sorry
if I have pained you by asking about my father," he said,
"but I could not help it. I must go now. Good-bye. Don't
forget that you will have only one child now to look after, and
believe me that if this man wrongs my sister, I will find out
who he is, track him down, and kill him like a dog. I swear it."
The exaggerated folly of the
threat, the passionate gesture that accompanied it, the mad melodramatic
words, made life seem more vivid to her. She was familiar with
the atmosphere. She breathed more freely, and for the first time
for many months she really admired her son. She would have liked
to have continued the scene on the same emotional scale, but
he cut her short. Trunks had to be carried down and mufflers
looked for. The lodging-house drudge bustled in and out. There
was the bargaining with the cabman. The moment was lost in vulgar
details. It was with a renewed feeling of disappointment that
she waved the tattered lace handkerchief from the window, as
her son drove away. She was conscious that a great opportunity
had been wasted. She consoled herself by telling Sibyl how desolate
she felt her life would be, now that she had only one child to
look after. She remembered the phrase. It had pleased her. Of
the threat she said nothing. It was vividly and dramatically
expressed. She felt that they would all laugh at it some day.
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Oscar Wilde Collection