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Chapter IX 


SYLVIA JOY

Sylvia Joy! And I hadn't so much as looked at her petticoat for weeks! But I would now. The violet eyes and the heavy chestnut hair rose up in moralising vision. Yes! God knows, they were safe in my heart, but petticoats were another matter. Sylvia Joy!

Well, did you ever? Well, I'm d----d! Sylvia Joy!

I should have been merely superhuman had I been able to control the expression of surprise which convulsed my countenance at the sound of that most significant name.

"The name seems familiar to you," said Rosalind, a little surprised and a little eagerly; "do you know the lady?"

"Slightly," I prevaricated.

"How fortunate!" exclaimed Rosalind; "you'll be all the better able to help me!"

"Yes," I said; "but since things have turned out so oddly, I may say that our relations are of so extremely delicate a nature that I shall have very carefully to think out what is best to be done. Meanwhile, do you mind lending me that ring for a few hours?"

It was a large oblong opal set round with small diamonds,--a ring of distinguished design you could hardly help noticing, especially on a man's hand, for which it was too conspicuously dainty. I slipped it on the little finger of my left hand, and, begging Rosalind to remain where she was meanwhile, and to take no steps without consulting me, I mysteriously, not to say officiously, departed.

I left the twelfth Golden-Haired Bar-maid not too late to stalk her husband and her under-study to their hotel, where they evidently proposed to dine. There was, therefore, nothing left for me but to dine also. So I dined; and when the courses of my dining were ended, I found myself in a mellow twilight at the Cafe du Ciel. And it was about the hour of the sirens' singing. Presently the little golden butterflies flitted once more through the twilight, and again the woman's voice rose like a silver bird on the air.

As I have a partiality for her songs, I transcribe this Hymn of the Daughters of Aphrodite, which you must try to imagine transfigured by her voice and the sunset.

Queen Aphrodite's Daughters are we, She that was born Of the morn And the sea; White are our limbs As the foam on the wave, Wild are our hymns And our lovers are brave!

Queen Aphrodite, Born of the sea, Beautiful dutiful daughters Are we!

You who would follow, Fear not to come, For love is for love As dove is for dove; The harp of Apollo Shall lull you to rest, And your head find its home On this beautiful breast.

Queen Aphrodite, Born of the sea, Beautiful dutiful daughters Are we!

Born of the Ocean, Wave-like are we! Rising and falling Like waves of the sea; Changing for ever, Yet ever the same, Music in motion And marble in flame.

Queen Aphrodite, Born of the sea, Beautiful dutiful daughters Are we!

When I alighted once more upon the earth from the heaven of this song, who should I find seated within a table of me but the very couple I was at the moment so unexpectedly interested in? But they were far too absorbed in each other to notice me, and consequently I was able to hear all of importance that was said. I regret that I cannot gratify the reader with a report of their conversation, for the excuse I had for listening was one that is not transferable. A woman's happiness was at stake. No other consideration could have persuaded me to means so mean save an end so noble. I didn't even tell Rosalind all I heard. Mercifully for her, the candour of fools is not among my superstitions. Suffice it for all third persons to know--what Rosalind indeed has never known, and what I hope no reader will be fool enough to tell her--that Orlando was for the moment hopelessly and besottedly faithless to his wife, and that my services had been bespoken in the very narrowest nick of time.

Having, as the reader has long known, a warm personal interest in his attractive companion, and desiring, therefore, to think as well of her as possible, I was pleased to deduce, negatively, from their conversation, that Sylvia Joy knew nothing of Rosalind, and believed Orlando to be a free, that is, an unmarried man. From the point of view, therefore, of her code, there was no earthly reason why she should not fall in with Orlando's proposal that they should leave for Paris by the "Mayflower" on the following morning. Orlando, I could hear, wished to make more extended arrangements, and references to that well-known rendezvous, "Eternity," fell on my ears from time to time. Evidently Sylvia had no very saving belief in Eternity, for I heard her say that they might see how they got on in Paris for a start. Then it would be time enough to talk of Eternity. This and other remarks of Sylvia's considerably predisposed me towards her. Having concluded their arrangements for the heaven of the morrow, they rose to take a stroll along the boulevards. As they did so, I touched Orlando's shoulder and begged his attention for a moment. Though an entire stranger to him, I had, I said, a matter of extreme importance to communicate to him, and I hoped, therefore, that it would suit his convenience to meet me at the same place in an hour and a half. As I said this, I flashed his wife's ring in the light so obviously that he was compelled to notice it.

"Wherever did you get that?" he gasped, no little surprised and agitated.

"From your wife," I answered, rapidly moving away. "Be sure to be here at eleven."

I slipped away into the crowd, and spent my hour and a half in persuading Rosalind that her husband was no doubt a little infatuated, but nevertheless the most faithful husband in the world. If she would only leave all to me, by this time to-morrow night, if not a good many hours before, he should be in her arms as safe as in the Bank. It did my heart good to see how happy this artistic adaptation of the truth made her; and I must say that she never had a wiser friend.

When eleven came, I was back in my seat at the Cafe du Ciel. Orlando too was excitedly punctual.

"Well, what is it?" he hurried out, almost before he had sat down.

"What will you do me the honour of drinking?" I asked calmly.

"Oh, drink be d----d!" he said; "what have you to tell me?"

"I'm glad to hear you rap out such a good honest oath," I said; "but I should like a drink, for all that, and if I may say so, you would be none the worse for a brandy and soda, late as it is."

When the drinks had come, I remarked to him quietly, but not without significance: "The meaning of this ring is that your wife is here, and very wretched. By an accident I have been privileged with her friendship; and I may say, to save time, that she has told me the whole story.

"What happily she has not been able to tell me, and what I need hardly say she will never know from me, I overheard, in the interests of your joint happiness, an hour or so ago."

The man who is telling the story has a proverbial great advantage; but I hope the reader knows enough of me by this to believe that I am far from meanly availing myself of it in this narrative. I am well and gratefully aware that in this interview with Orlando my advantages were many and fortunate. For example, had he been bigger and older, or had he not been a gentleman, my task had been considerably more arduous, not to say dangerous.

But, as Rosalind had said, he was really quite a boy, and I confess I was a little ashamed for him, and a little piqued, that he showed so little fight. The unexpectedness of my attack had, I realised, given me the whip-hand. So I judged, at all events, from the fact that he forbore to bluster, and sat quite still, with his head in his hands, saying never a word for what seemed several minutes. Then presently he said very quietly,--

"I love my wife all the same."

"Of course you do," I answered, eagerly welcoming the significant announcement; "and if you'll allow me to say so, I think I understand more about the whole situation than either of you, bachelor though unfortunately I am. As a famous friend of mine is fond of saying, lookers-on see most of the game."

Then I rapidly told him the history of my meeting with his wife, and depicted, in harrowing pigments of phrase, the distress of her mind.

"I love my wife all the same," he repeated, as I finished; "and," he added, "I love Sylvia too."

"But not quite in the same way?" I suggested.

"I love Sylvia very tenderly," he said.

"Yes, I know; I don't think you could do anything else. No man worth his salt could be anything but tender to a dainty little woman like that. But tenderness, gentleness, affection, even self-sacrifice,--these may be parts of love; but they are merely the crude untransformed ingredients of a love such as you feel for your wife, and such as I know she feels for you."

"She still loves me, then," he said pitifully; "she hasn't fallen in love with you."

"No fear," I answered; "no such luck for me. If she had, I'm afraid I should hardly have been talking to you as I am at this moment. If a woman like Rosalind, as I call her, gave me her love, it would take more than a husband to rob me of it, I can tell you."

"Yes," he repeated, "on my soul, I love her. I have never been false to her, in my heart; but--"

"I know all about it," I said; "may I tell you how it all was,--diagnose the situation?"

"Do," he replied; "it is a relief to hear you talk."

"Well," I said, "may I ask one rather intimate question? Did you ever before you were married sow what are known as wild oats?"

"Never," he answered indignantly, flashing for a moment.

"Well, you should have done," I said; "that's just the whole trouble. Wild oats will get sown some time, and one of the arts of life is to sow them at the right time,--the younger the better. Think candidly before you answer me."

"I believe you are right," he replied, after a long pause.

"You are a believer in theories," I continued, "and so am I; but you can take my word that on these matters not all, but some, of the old theories are best. One of them is that the man who does not sow his wild oats before marriage will sow them afterwards, with a whirlwind for the reaping."

Orlando looked up at me, haggard with confession.

"You know the old story of the ring given to Venus? Well, it is the ruin of no few men to meet Venus for the first time on their marriage night. Their very chastity, paradoxical as it may seem, is their destruction. No one can appreciate the peace, the holy satisfaction of monogamy till he has passed through the wasting distractions, the unrest of polygamy. Plunged right away into monogamy, man, unexperienced in his good fortune, hankers after polygamy, as the monotheistic Jew hankered after polytheism; and thus the monogamic young man too often meets Aphrodite for the first time, and makes future appointments with her, in the arms of his pure young wife. If you have read Swedenborg, you will remember his denunciation of the lust of variety. Now, that is a lust every young man feels, but it is one to be satisfied before marriage. Sylvia Joy has been such a variant for you; and I'm afraid you're going to have some little trouble to get her off your nerves. Tell me frankly," I said, "have you had your fill of Aphrodite? It is no use your going back to your wife till you have had that."

"I'm not quite a beast," he retorted. "After all, it was an experiment we both agreed to try."

"Certainly," I answered, "and I hope it may have the result of persuading you of the unwisdom of experimenting with happiness. You have the realities of happiness; why should you trouble about its theories? They are for unhappy people, like me, who must learn to distil by learned patience the aurum potabile from the husks of life, the peace which happier mortals find lying like manna each morn upon the meadows."

"Well," I continued, "enough of the abstract; let us have another drink, and tell me what you propose to do."

"Poor Sylvia!" sighed Orlando.

"Shall I tell you about Sylvia?" I said. "On second thoughts, I won't. It would hardly be fair play; but this, I may say, relying on your honour, that if you were to come to my hotel, I could show you indisputable proof that I know at least as much about Sylvia Joy as even such a privileged intimate as yourself."

"It is strange, then, that she never recognised you just now," he retorted, with forlorn alertness.

"Of course she didn't. How young you are! It is rather too bad of a woman of Sylvia's experience."

"And I've bought our passages for to- morrow. I cannot let her go without some sort of good-bye."

"Give the tickets to me. I can make use of them. How much are they? Let's see."

The calculation made and the money passed across, I said abruptly,--

"Now supposing we go and see your wife."

"You have saved my life," he said hoarsely, pressing my hand as we rose.

"I don't know about that," I said inwardly; "but I do hope I have saved your wife."

As I thought of that, a fear occurred to me.

"Look here," I said, as we strolled towards the Twelve Golden-Haired, "I hope you have no silly notions about confession, about telling the literal truth and so on. Because I want you to promise me that you will lie stoutly to your wife about Sylvia Joy. You must swear the whole thing has been platonic. It's the only chance for your happiness. Your wife, no doubt, will lure you on to confession by saying that she doesn't mind this, that, and the other, so long as you don't keep it from her; and no doubt she will mean it till you have confessed. But, however good their theories, women by nature cannot help confusing body and soul, and what to a man is a mere fancy of the senses, to them is a spiritual tragedy. Promise me to lie stoutly on this point. It is, I repeat, the only chance for your future happiness. As has been wisely said, a lie in time saves nine; and such a lie as I advise is but one of the higher forms of truth. Such lying, indeed, is the art of telling the truth. The truth is that you love her body, soul, and spirit; any accidental matter which should tend to make her doubt that would be the only real lie. Promise me, won't you?"

"Yes, I will lie," said Orlando.

"Well, there she is," I said; "and God bless you both."

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