"Mother, Mother, I am so happy!" whispered the girl, burying her facein the lap of the faded, tired-looking woman who, with back turned tothe shrill intrusive light, was sitting in the one arm-chair that theirdingy sitting-room contained. "I am so happy!" she repeated, "and youmust be happy, too!"
Mrs. Vane winced and put her thin, bismuth-whitened hands on herdaughter's head. "Happy!" she echoed, "I am only happy, Sibyl, when Isee 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 doesmoney matter? Love is more than money."
"Mr. Isaacs has advanced us fifty pounds to pay off our debts and toget a proper outfit for James. You must not forget that, Sibyl. Fiftypounds 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 elderwoman 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. Arose shook in her blood and shadowed her cheeks. Quick breath partedthe petals of her lips. They trembled. Some southern wind of passionswept over her and stirred the dainty folds of her dress. "I lovehim," she said simply.
"Foolish child! foolish child!" was the parrot-phrase flung in answer.The waving of crooked, false-jewelled fingers gave grotesqueness to thewords.
The girl laughed again. The joy of a caged bird was in her voice. Hereyes caught the melody and echoed it in radiance, then closed for amoment, as though to hide their secret. When they opened, the mist ofa dream had passed across them.
Thin-lipped wisdom spoke at her from the worn chair, hinted atprudence, quoted from that book of cowardice whose author apes the nameof common sense. She did not listen. She was free in her prison ofpassion. Her prince, Prince Charming, was with her. She had called onmemory to remake him. She had sent her soul to search for him, and ithad brought him back. His kiss burned again upon her mouth. Hereyelids were warm with his breath.
Then wisdom altered its method and spoke of espial and discovery. Thisyoung man might be rich. If so, marriage should be thought of.Against the shell of her ear broke the waves of worldly cunning. Thearrows 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 whyI 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, Icannot tell—though I feel so much beneath him, I don't feel humble. Ifeel proud, terribly proud. Mother, did you love my father as I lovePrince Charming?"
The elder woman grew pale beneath the coarse powder that daubed hercheeks, and her dry lips twitched with a spasm of pain. Sybil rushedto 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 onlypains you because you loved him so much. Don't look so sad. I am ashappy to-day as you were twenty years ago. Ah! let me be happy forever!"
"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. Thewhole thing is most inconvenient, and really, when James is going awayto Australia, and I have so much to think of, I must say that youshould have shown more consideration. However, as I said before, if heis rich ..."
"Ah! Mother, Mother, let me be happy!"
Mrs. Vane glanced at her, and with one of those false theatricalgestures that so often become a mode of second nature to astage-player, clasped her in her arms. At this moment, the door openedand a young lad with rough brown hair came into the room. He wasthick-set of figure, and his hands and feet were large and somewhatclumsy in movement. He was not so finely bred as his sister. Onewould hardly have guessed the close relationship that existed betweenthem. Mrs. Vane fixed her eyes on him and intensified her smile. Shementally elevated her son to the dignity of an audience. She felt surethat the tableau was interesting.
"You might keep some of your kisses for me, Sibyl, I think," said thelad with a good-natured grumble.
"Ah! but you don't like being kissed, Jim," she cried. "You are adreadful old bear." And she ran across the room and hugged him.
James Vane looked into his sister's face with tenderness. "I want youto come out with me for a walk, Sibyl. I don't suppose I shall eversee this horrid London again. I am sure I don't want to."
"My son, don't say such dreadful things," murmured Mrs. Vane, taking upa tawdry theatrical dress, with a sigh, and beginning to patch it. Shefelt a little disappointed that he had not joined the group. It wouldhave increased the theatrical picturesqueness of the situation.
"Why not, Mother? I mean it."
"You pain me, my son. I trust you will return from Australia in aposition of affluence. I believe there is no society of any kind inthe Colonies—nothing that I would call society—so when you have madeyour fortune, you must come back and assert yourself in London."
"Society!" muttered the lad. "I don't want to know anything aboutthat. I should like to make some money to take you and Sibyl off thestage. I hate it."
"Oh, Jim!" said Sibyl, laughing, "how unkind of you! But are youreally going for a walk with me? That will be nice! I was afraid youwere going to say good-bye to some of your friends—to Tom Hardy, whogave you that hideous pipe, or Ned Langton, who makes fun of you forsmoking it. It is very sweet of you to let me have your lastafternoon. Where shall we go? Let us go to the park."
"I am too shabby," he answered, frowning. "Only swell people go to thepark."
"Nonsense, Jim," she whispered, stroking the sleeve of his coat.
He hesitated for a moment. "Very well," he said at last, "but don't betoo long dressing." She danced out of the door. One could hear hersinging as she ran upstairs. Her little feet pattered overhead.
He walked up and down the room two or three times. Then he turned tothe still figure in the chair. "Mother, are my things ready?" he asked.
"Quite ready, James," she answered, keeping her eyes on her work. Forsome months past she had felt ill at ease when she was alone with thisrough stern son of hers. Her shallow secret nature was troubled whentheir eyes met. She used to wonder if he suspected anything. Thesilence, for he made no other observation, became intolerable to her.She began to complain. Women defend themselves by attacking, just asthey attack by sudden and strange surrenders. "I hope you will becontented, James, with your sea-faring life," she said. "You mustremember that it is your own choice. You might have entered asolicitor's office. Solicitors are a very respectable class, and inthe country often dine with the best families."
"I hate offices, and I hate clerks," he replied. "But you are quiteright. 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 totalk to her. Is that right? What about that?"
"You are speaking about things you don't understand, James. In theprofession we are accustomed to receive a great deal of most gratifyingattention. I myself used to receive many bouquets at one time. Thatwas when acting was really understood. As for Sibyl, I do not know atpresent whether her attachment is serious or not. But there is nodoubt that the young man in question is a perfect gentleman. He isalways most polite to me. Besides, he has the appearance of beingrich, 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. "Hehas not yet revealed his real name. I think it is quite romantic ofhim. He is probably a member of the aristocracy."
James Vane bit his lip. "Watch over Sibyl, Mother," he cried, "watchover her."
"My son, you distress me very much. Sibyl is always under my specialcare. Of course, if this gentleman is wealthy, there is no reason whyshe should not contract an alliance with him. I trust he is one of thearistocracy. He has all the appearance of it, I must say. It might bea most brilliant marriage for Sibyl. They would make a charmingcouple. His good looks are really quite remarkable; everybody noticesthem."
The lad muttered something to himself and drummed on the window-panewith his coarse fingers. He had just turned round to say somethingwhen 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 ispacked, 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, andthere was something in his look that had made her feel afraid.
"Kiss me, Mother," said the girl. Her flowerlike lips touched thewithered cheek and warmed its frost.
"My child! my child!" cried Mrs. Vane, looking up to the ceiling insearch of an imaginary gallery.
"Come, Sibyl," said her brother impatiently. He hated his mother'saffectations.
They went out into the flickering, wind-blown sunlight and strolleddown the dreary Euston Road. The passersby glanced in wonder at thesullen heavy youth who, in coarse, ill-fitting clothes, was in thecompany of such a graceful, refined-looking girl. He was like a commongardener walking with a rose.
Jim frowned from time to time when he caught the inquisitive glance ofsome stranger. He had that dislike of being stared at, which comes ongeniuses late in life and never leaves the commonplace. Sibyl,however, was quite unconscious of the effect she was producing. Herlove was trembling in laughter on her lips. She was thinking of PrinceCharming, and, that she might think of him all the more, she did nottalk of him, but prattled on about the ship in which Jim was going tosail, about the gold he was certain to find, about the wonderfulheiress whose life he was to save from the wicked, red-shirtedbushrangers. For he was not to remain a sailor, or a supercargo, orwhatever he was going to be. Oh, no! A sailor's existence wasdreadful. Fancy being cooped up in a horrid ship, with the hoarse,hump-backed waves trying to get in, and a black wind blowing the mastsdown and tearing the sails into long screaming ribands! He was toleave 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 tocome across a large nugget of pure gold, the largest nugget that hadever been discovered, and bring it down to the coast in a waggonguarded by six mounted policemen. The bushrangers were to attack themthree times, and be defeated with immense slaughter. Or, no. He wasnot to go to the gold-fields at all. They were horrid places, wheremen got intoxicated, and shot each other in bar-rooms, and used badlanguage. He was to be a nice sheep-farmer, and one evening, as he wasriding home, he was to see the beautiful heiress being carried off by arobber 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 getmarried, and come home, and live in an immense house in London. Yes,there were delightful things in store for him. But he must be verygood, and not lose his temper, or spend his money foolishly. She wasonly a year older than he was, but she knew so much more of life. Hemust be sure, also, to write to her by every mail, and to say hisprayers each night before he went to sleep. God was very good, andwould watch over him. She would pray for him, too, and in a few yearshe would come back quite rich and happy.
The lad listened sulkily to her and made no answer. He was heart-sickat 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 dangerof Sibyl's position. This young dandy who was making love to her couldmean her no good. He was a gentleman, and he hated him for that, hatedhim through some curious race-instinct for which he could not account,and which for that reason was all the more dominant within him. He wasconscious 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 judgethem; sometimes they forgive them.
His mother! He had something on his mind to ask of her, something thathe had brooded on for many months of silence. A chance phrase that hehad heard at the theatre, a whispered sneer that had reached his earsone night as he waited at the stage-door, had set loose a train ofhorrible thoughts. He remembered it as if it had been the lash of ahunting-crop across his face. His brows knit together into a wedge-likefurrow, and with a twitch of pain he bit his underlip.
"You are not listening to a word I am saying, Jim," cried Sibyl, "and Iam making the most delightful plans for your future. Do say something."
"What do you want me to say?"
"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 amto 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 meabout him? He means you no good."
"Stop, Jim!" she exclaimed. "You must not say anything against him. Ilove him."
"Why, you don't even know his name," answered the lad. "Who is he? Ihave a right to know."
"He is called Prince Charming. Don't you like the name. Oh! you sillyboy! you should never forget it. If you only saw him, you would thinkhim the most wonderful person in the world. Some day you will meethim—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 thetheatre 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 mayfrighten the company, frighten or enthrall them. To be in love is tosurpass 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 hewill announce me as a revelation. I feel it. And it is all his, hisonly, Prince Charming, my wonderful lover, my god of graces. But I ampoor beside him. Poor? What does that matter? When poverty creeps inat the door, love flies in through the window. Our proverbs wantrewriting. They were made in winter, and it is summer now; spring-timefor 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 him."
"To see him is to worship him; to know him is to trust him."
"Sibyl, you are mad about him."
She laughed and took his arm. "You dear old Jim, you talk as if youwere a hundred. Some day you will be in love yourself. Then you willknow what it is. Don't look so sulky. Surely you should be glad tothink that, though you are going away, you leave me happier than I haveever been before. Life has been hard for us both, terribly hard anddifficult. But it will be different now. You are going to a newworld, and I have found one. Here are two chairs; let us sit down andsee the smart people go by."
They took their seats amidst a crowd of watchers. The tulip-bedsacross the road flamed like throbbing rings of fire. A whitedust—tremulous cloud of orris-root it seemed—hung in the panting air.The brightly coloured parasols danced and dipped like monstrousbutterflies.
She made her brother talk of himself, his hopes, his prospects. Hespoke slowly and with effort. They passed words to each other asplayers at a game pass counters. Sibyl felt oppressed. She could notcommunicate her joy. A faint smile curving that sullen mouth was allthe echo she could win. After some time she became silent. Suddenlyshe caught a glimpse of golden hair and laughing lips, and in an opencarriage with two ladies Dorian Gray drove past.
She started to her feet. "There he is!" she cried.
"Who?" said Jim Vane.
"Prince Charming," 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 atthat moment the Duke of Berwick's four-in-hand came between, and whenit 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 doesyou any wrong, I shall kill him."
She looked at him in horror. He repeated his words. They cut the airlike a dagger. The people round began to gape. A lady standing closeto her tittered.
"Come away, Jim; come away," she whispered. He followed her doggedlyas she passed through the crowd. He felt glad at what he had said.
When they reached the Achilles Statue, she turned round. There waspity in her eyes that became laughter on her lips. She shook her headat him. "You are foolish, Jim, utterly foolish; a bad-tempered boy,that is all. How can you say such horrible things? You don't knowwhat you are talking about. You are simply jealous and unkind. Ah! Iwish you would fall in love. Love makes people good, and what you saidwas wicked."
"I am sixteen," he answered, "and I know what I am about. Mother is nohelp to you. She doesn't understand how to look after you. I wish nowthat I was not going to Australia at all. I have a great mind to chuckthe whole thing up. I would, if my articles hadn't been signed."
"Oh, don't be so serious, Jim. You are like one of the heroes of thosesilly melodramas Mother used to be so fond of acting in. I am notgoing to quarrel with you. I have seen him, and oh! to see him isperfect happiness. We won't quarrel. I know you would never harm anyone I love, would you?"
"Not as long as you love him, I suppose," was the sullen answer.
"I shall love him for ever!" she cried.
"For ever, too!"
"He had better."
She shrank from him. Then she laughed and put her hand on his arm. Hewas merely a boy.
At the Marble Arch they hailed an omnibus, which left them close totheir shabby home in the Euston Road. It was after five o'clock, andSibyl had to lie down for a couple of hours before acting. Jiminsisted that she should do so. He said that he would sooner part withher when their mother was not present. She would be sure to make ascene, and he detested scenes of every kind.
In Sybil's own room they parted. There was jealousy in the lad'sheart, and a fierce murderous hatred of the stranger who, as it seemedto him, had come between them. Yet, when her arms were flung round hisneck, and her fingers strayed through his hair, he softened and kissedher with real affection. There were tears in his eyes as he wentdownstairs.
His mother was waiting for him below. She grumbled at hisunpunctuality, as he entered. He made no answer, but sat down to hismeagre meal. The flies buzzed round the table and crawled over thestained cloth. Through the rumble of omnibuses, and the clatter ofstreet-cabs, he could hear the droning voice devouring each minute thatwas left to him.
After some time, he thrust away his plate and put his head in hishands. He felt that he had a right to know. It should have been toldto him before, if it was as he suspected. Leaden with fear, his motherwatched him. Words dropped mechanically from her lips. A tatteredlace 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 enragedhim.
"Mother, I have something to ask you," he said. Her eyes wanderedvaguely about the room. She made no answer. "Tell me the truth. Ihave 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 measureit was a disappointment to her. The vulgar directness of the questioncalled for a direct answer. The situation had not been gradually ledup 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 verymuch. If he had lived, he would have made provision for us. Don'tspeak against him, my son. He was your father, and a gentleman.Indeed, he was highly connected."
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 lovewith her, or says he is? Highly connected, too, I suppose."
For a moment a hideous sense of humiliation came over the woman. Herhead drooped. She wiped her eyes with shaking hands. "Sibyl has amother," she murmured; "I had none."
The lad was touched. He went towards her, and stooping down, he kissedher. "I am sorry if I have pained you by asking about my father," hesaid, "but I could not help it. I must go now. Good-bye. Don't forgetthat you will have only one child now to look after, and believe methat if this man wrongs my sister, I will find out who he is, track himdown, and kill him like a dog. I swear it."
The exaggerated folly of the threat, the passionate gesture thataccompanied it, the mad melodramatic words, made life seem more vividto her. She was familiar with the atmosphere. She breathed morefreely, and for the first time for many months she really admired herson. She would have liked to have continued the scene on the sameemotional scale, but he cut her short. Trunks had to be carried downand mufflers looked for. The lodging-house drudge bustled in and out.There was the bargaining with the cabman. The moment was lost invulgar details. It was with a renewed feeling of disappointment thatshe waved the tattered lace handkerchief from the window, as her sondrove away. She was conscious that a great opportunity had beenwasted. She consoled herself by telling Sibyl how desolate she felther life would be, now that she had only one child to look after. Sheremembered the phrase. It had pleased her. Of the threat she saidnothing. It was vividly and dramatically expressed. She felt thatthey would all laugh at it some day.