HEN Lord Arthur woke it was twelve o'clock, and the midday
sun was streaming through the ivory-silk curtains of his room.
He got up and looked out of the window. A dim haze of heat was
hanging over the great city, and the roofs of the houses were
like dull silver. In the flickering green of the square below
some children were flitting about like white butterflies, and
the pavement was crowded with people on their way to the Park.
Never had life seemed lovelier to him, never had the things of
evil seemed more remote.
Then his valet brought him a
cup of chocolate on a tray. After he had drunk it, he drew aside
a heavy portiere of peach-coloured plush, and passed into
the bathroom. The light stole softly from above, through thin
slabs of transparent onyx, and the water in the marble tank glimmered
like a moonstone. He plunged hastily in, till the cool ripples
touched throat and hair, and then dipped his head right under,
as though he would have wiped away the stain of some shameful
memory. When he stepped out he felt almost at peace. The exquisite
physical conditions of the moment had dominated him, as indeed
often happens in the case of very finely-wrought natures, for
the senses, like fire, can purify as well as destroy.
After breakfast, he flung himself
down on a divan, and lit a cigarette. On the mantel-shelf, framed
in dainty old brocade, stood a large photograph of Sybil Merton,
as he had seen her first at Lady Noel's ball. The small, exquisitely-shaped
head drooped slightly to one side, as though the thin, reed-like
throat could hardly bear the burden of so much beauty; the lips
were slightly parted, and seemed made for sweet music; and all
the tender purity of girlhood looked out in wonder from the dreaming
eyes. With her soft, clinging dress of crepe-de-chine, and her
large leaf-shaped fan, she looked like one of those delicate
little figures men find in the olive-woods near Tanagra; and
there was a touch of Greek grace in her pose and attitude. Yet
she was not petite. She was simply perfectly proportioned
a rare thing in an age when so many women are either over life-size
Now as Lord Arthur looked at
her, he was filled with the terrible pity that is born of love.
He felt that to marry her, with the doom of murder hanging over
his head, would be a betrayal like that of Judas, a sin worse
than any the Borgia had ever dreamed of. What happiness could
there be for them, when at any moment he might be called upon
to carry out the awful prophecy written in his hand? What manner
of life would be theirs while Fate still held this fearful fortune
in the scales? The marriage must be postponed, at all costs.
Of this he was quite resolved. Ardently though he loved the girl,
and the mere touch of her fingers, when they sat together, made
each nerve of his body thrill with exquisite joy, he recognised
none the less clearly where his duty lay, and was fully conscious
of the fact that he had no right to marry until he had committed
the murder. This done, he could stand before the altar with Sybil
Merton, and give his life into her hands without terror of wrongdoing.
This done, he could take her to his arms, knowing that she would
never have to blush for him, never have to hang her head in shame.
But done it must be first; and the sooner the better for both.
Many men in his position would
have preferred the primrose path of dalliance to the steep heights
of duty; but Lord Arthur was too conscientious to set pleasure
above principle. There was more than mere passion in his love;
and Sybil was to him a symbol of all that is good and noble.
For a moment he had a natural repugnance against what he was
asked to do, but it soon passed away. His heart told him that
it was not a sin, but a sacrifice; his reason reminded him that
there was no other course open. He had to choose between living
for himself and living for others, and terrible though the task
laid upon him undoubtedly was, yet he knew that he must not suffer
selfishness to triumph over love. Sooner or later we are all
called upon to decide on the same issue of us
all, the same question is asked. To Lord Arthur it came early
in life before his nature had been spoiled by
the calculating cynicism of middle-age, or his heart corroded
by the shallow, fashionable egotism of our day, and he felt no
hesitation about doing his duty. Fortunately also, for him, he
was no mere dreamer, or idle dilettante. Had he been so, he would
have hesitated, like Hamlet, and let irresolution mar his purpose.
But he was essentially practical. Life to him meant action, rather
than thought. He had that rarest of all things, common sense.
The wild, turbid feelings of
the previous night had by this time completely passed away, and
it was almost with a sense of shame that he looked back upon
his mad wanderings from street to street, his fierce emotional
agony. The very sincerity of his sufferings made them seem unreal
to him now. He wondered how he could have been so foolish as
to rant and rave about the inevitable. The only question that
seemed to trouble him was, whom to make away with; for he was
not blind to the fact that murder, like the religions of the
Pagan world, requires a victim as well as a priest. Not being
a genius, he had no enemies, and indeed he felt that this was
not the time for the gratification of any personal pique or dislike,
the mission in which he was engaged being one of great and grave
solemnity. He accordingly made out a list of his friends and
relatives on a sheet of notepaper, and after careful consideration,
decided in favour of Lady Clementina Beauchamp, a dear old lady
who lived in Curzon Street, and was his own second cousin by
his mother's side. He had always been very fond of Lady Clem,
as every one called her, and as he was very wealthy himself,
having come into all Lord Rugby's property when he came of age,
there was no possibility of his deriving any vulgar monetary
advantage by her death. In fact, the more he thought over the
matter, the more she seemed to him to be just the right person,
and, feeling that any delay would be unfair to Sybil, he determined
to make his arrangements at once.
The first thing to be done was,
of course, to settle with the cheiromantist; so he sat down at
a small Sheraton writing-table that stood near the window, drew
a cheque for 105 pounds, payable to the order of Mr. Septimus
Podgers, and, enclosing it in an envelope, told his valet to
take it to West Moon Street. He then telephoned to the stables
for his hansom, and dressed to go out. As he was leaving the
room he looked back at Sybil Merton's photograph, and swore that,
come what may, he would never let her know what he was doing
for her sake, but would keep the secret of his self-sacrifice
hidden always in his heart.
On his way to the Buckingham,
he stopped at a florist's, and sent Sybil a beautiful basket
of narcissus, with lovely white petals and staring pheasants'
eyes, and on arriving at the club, went straight to the library,
rang the bell, and ordered the waiter to bring him a lemon-and-soda,
and a book on Toxicology. He had fully decided that poison was
the best means to adopt in this troublesome business. Anything
like personal violence was extremely distasteful to him, and
besides, he was very anxious not to murder Lady Clementina in
any way that might attract public attention, as he hated the
idea of being lionised at Lady Windermere's, or seeing his name
figuring in the paragraphs of vulgar society
newspapers. He had also to think of Sybil's father and mother,
who were rather old-fashioned people, and might possibly object
to the marriage if there was anything like a scandal, though
he felt certain that if he told them the whole facts of the case
they would be the very first to appreciate the motives that had
actuated him. He had every reason, then, to decide in favour
of poison. It was safe, sure, and quiet, and did away with any
necessity for painful scenes, to which, like most Englishmen,
he had a rooted objection.
Of the science of poisons, however,
he knew absolutely nothing, and as the waiter seemed quite unable
to find anything in the library but Ruff's Guide and Bailey's
Magazine, he examined the book- shelves himself, and finally
came across a handsomely-bound edition of the Pharmacopoeia,
and a copy of Erskine's Toxicology, edited by Sir Mathew
Reid, the President of the Royal College of Physicians, and one
of the oldest members of the Buckingham, having been elected
in mistake for somebody else; a contretemps that so enraged
the Committee, that when the real man came up they black-balled
him unanimously. Lord Arthur was a good deal puzzled at the technical
terms used in both books, and had begun to regret that he had
not paid more attention to his classics at Oxford, when in the
second volume of Erskine, he found a very interesting and complete
account of the properties of aconitine, written in fairly clear
English. It seemed to him to be exactly the poison he wanted.
It was swift indeed, almost immediate, in its
effect perfectly painless, and when taken in
the form of a gelatine capsule, the mode recommended by Sir Mathew,
not by any means unpalatable. He accordingly made a note, upon
his shirt-cuff, of the amount necessary for a fatal dose, put
the books back in their places, and strolled up St. James's Street,
to Pestle and Humbey's, the great chemists. Mr. Pestle, who always
attended personally on the aristocracy, was a good deal surprised
at the order, and in a very deferential manner murmured something
about a medical certificate being necessary. However, as soon
as Lord Arthur explained to him that it was for a large Norwegian
mastiff that he was obliged to get rid of, as it showed signs
of incipient rabies, and had already bitten the coachman twice
in the calf of the leg, he expressed himself as being perfectly
satisfied, complimented Lord Arthur on his wonderful knowledge
of Toxicology, and had the prescription made up immediately.
Lord Arthur put the capsule into
a pretty little silver BONBONNIERE that he saw in a shop window
in Bond Street, threw away Pestle and Hambey's ugly pill-box,
and drove off at once to Lady Clementina's.
'Well, monsieur le mauvais
sujet,' cried the old lady, as he entered the room, 'why
haven't you been to see me all this time?'
'My dear Lady Clem, I never have
a moment to myself,' said Lord Arthur, smiling.
'I suppose you mean that you
go about all day long with Miss Sybil Merton, buying chiffons
and talking nonsense? I cannot understand why people make such
a fuss about being married. In my day we never dreamed of billing
and cooing in public, or in private for that matter.'
'I assure you I have not seen
Sybil for twenty-four hours, Lady Clem. As far as I can make
out, she belongs entirely to her milliners.'
'Of course; that is the only
reason you come to see an ugly old woman like myself. I wonder
you men don't take warning. On a fait des folies pour moi,
and here I am, a poor rheumatic creature, with a false front
and a bad temper. Why, if it were not for dear Lady Jansen, who
sends me all the worst French novels she can find, I don't think
I could get through the day. Doctors are no use at all, except
to get fees out of one. They can't even cure my heartburn.'
'I have brought you a cure for
that, Lady Clem,' said Lord Arthur gravely. 'It is a wonderful
thing, invented by an American.'
'I don't think I like American
inventions, Arthur. I am quite sure I don't. I read some American
novels lately, and they were quite nonsensical.'
'Oh, but there is no nonsense
at all about this, Lady Clem! I assure you it is a perfect cure.
You must promise to try it'; and Lord Arthur brought the little
box out of his pocket, and handed it to her.
'Well, the box is charming, Arthur.
Is it really a present? That is very sweet of you. And is this
the wonderful medicine? It looks like a bonbon. I'll take
it at once.'
'Good heavens! Lady Clem,' cried
Lord Arthur, catching hold of her hand, 'you mustn't do anything
of the kind. It is a homoeopathic medicine, and if you take it
without having heartburn, it might do you no end of harm. Wait
till you have an attack, and take it then. You will be astonished
at the result.'
'I should like to take it now,'
said Lady Clementina, holding up to the light the little transparent
capsule, with its floating bubble of liquid aconitine. I am sure
it is delicious. The fact is that, though I hate doctors, I love
medicines. However, I'll keep it till my next attack.'
'And when will that be?' asked
Lord Arthur eagerly. 'Will it be soon?'
'I hope not for a week. I had
a very bad time yesterday morning with it. But one never knows.'
'You are sure to have one before
the end of the month then, Lady Clem?'
'I am afraid so. But how sympathetic
you are to-day, Arthur! Really, Sybil has done you a great deal
of good. And now you must run away, for I am dining with some
very dull people, who won't talk scandal, and I know that if
I don't get my sleep now I shall never be able to keep awake
during dinner. Good-bye, Arthur, give my love to Sybil, and thank
you so much for the American medicine.'
'You won't forget to take it,
Lady Clem, will you?' said Lord Arthur, rising from his seat.
'Of course I won't, you silly
boy. I think it is most kind of you to think of me, and I shall
write and tell you if I want any more.'
Lord Arthur left the house in
high spirits, and with a feeling of immense relief.
That night he had an interview
with Sybil Merton. He told her how he had been suddenly placed
in a position of terrible difficulty, from which neither honour
nor duty would allow him to recede. He told her that the marriage
must be put off for the present, as until he had got rid of his
fearful entanglements, he was not a free man. He implored her
to trust him, and not to have any doubts about the future. Everything
would come right, but patience was necessary.
The scene took place in the conservatory
of Mr. Merton's house, in Park Lane, where Lord Arthur had dined
as usual. Sybil had never seemed more happy, and for a moment
Lord Arthur had been tempted to play the coward's part, to write
to Lady Clementina for the pill, and to let the marriage go on
as if there was no such person as Mr. Podgers in the world. His
better nature, however, soon asserted itself, and even when Sybil
flung herself weeping into his arms, he did not falter. The beauty
that stirred his senses had touched his conscience also. He felt
that to wreck so fair a life for the sake of a few months' pleasure
would be a wrong thing to do.
He stayed with Sybil till nearly
midnight, comforting her and being comforted in turn, and early
the next morning he left for Venice, after writing a manly, firm
letter to Mr. Merton about the necessary postponement of the
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