GUIDED by Lady Grace, the guests gradually converged after luncheon towards the appointed spot, straggling thither by various ways, and in desultory groups; passing down broad flights of steps flanked by gods and goddesses, and along straight terraces set with vases and Irish yews; while busts of orators, poets, and philosophers, with Latin inscriptions, glimmered to right and left of them in groves of laurels; and scaly Tritons, dappled with green lichens, spouted up water in the middle of gleaming basins. Everything was today looking at its loveliest. There was an unusual freshness in the warm summer air. Beyond the green shrubs the sea shone bright and blue; and through the shrubs the sea-breeze moved and whispered.

Laurence strolled slowly on behind with Miss Merton, choosing a path which none of the others had taken.

‘How delicious this is!’ said Miss Merton, lifting her hat to enjoy the breeze upon her forehead. ‘Nobody could be in bad spirits in a place like this. There is something so fresh and living everywhere, and even when we lose sight of the sea we still hear it.’

‘Yes,’ said Laurence. ‘I believe these gardens are like Keats’s island. There is no recess in them

Not haunted by the murmurous sound of waves.’

‘And how perfectly everything is kept! What gardeners you must have!’ said Miss Merton, as they turned up a narrow winding-walk, thickly set on either side with carefully-trimmed laurels.

The whole place was, indeed, as Miss Merton said, kept perfectly. Not a weed was on the grey gravel; not a single twig called for pruning. Every vase they passed was full of the most delicious flowers. Overhead the branches of limes and of acacia-trees murmured gaily. Everything seemed to be free from care, and to be laughing, light of heart, in the bright weather.

‘I am taking you this way,’ said Laurence, ‘because I want to show you what I think may perhaps interest you.’

As he spoke these words, a sudden bend in the walk brought them face to face with something that gave Miss Merton a sudden sensation of surprise. It was a small classical portico built in a style of the most severe simplicity, through which by an iron gate one passed into an open space beyond. What surprised Miss Merton on seeing this was the singular sense of desolation and dreariness that seemed all at once to come over her. The iron gates before her were a mass of rust; the portico, which had once been white, was weather-stained into a dismal grey; the stone, too, it was built of was scaling off in almost every place, and the fragments lay unheeded as they had fallen upon the ground. Here, amongst everything that spoke of the utmost care, was one object that spoke of entire forgetfulness and neglect. They approached in silence, and Miss Merton looked in through the bars of the rusty gate. The scene that met her eyes was one of greater desolation still. It was a circular plot of ground, fenced round by a low stone wall that was surmounted by spiked railings. It looked as though it might have been once a flower garden, but it was now a wilderness. Outside its boundary rose the rare and beautiful trees of the happy tended shrubberies. Inside were nettles, brambles, and long weedy grass. Nothing else was visible in this melancholy enclosure but three cypresses, apparently of various ages, the two smaller planted near together, the third, and by far the largest, standing apart by itself.

Miss Merton was quite at a loss what to make of the strange spot; and, as Laurence was feeling in his pocket for the key, she asked him if it had anything to do with breeding pheasants.

‘Do you see what is written above the gate?’ said Laurence, as he pointed to a dim inscription whose letters still retained a glimmer of fading gold; ‘can you read it?

 Neque harum, quas colis, arborum
Te, præter invisam cupressum,
 Ulla brevem dominum sequetur.
“Of all these trees which you love so, the hated cypress only shall follow its master, and be faithful to him in his narrow house.” But come—let us go inside, if you are not afraid of the long grass.’

They passed through the gate, which gave a low wail upon its hinges, and Miss Merton followed Laurence, knee-deep in grass and nettles, to the smallest of the three cypress-trees. There Laurence paused. At the foot of the tree Miss Merton saw a flat slab of marble, with something written upon it; and for the first time she felt certain that she must be in a place of graves.

‘This,’ said Laurence, pointing to the little cypress, ‘was planted only five years ago, ten clays before the poor old man died who now sleeps under it. This is my uncle’s grave. Do you see the inscription?

Omnis moriar, nullaque pars mei
Vitabit Libitinam.

“I shall wholly die, and there is no part of me that will escape the Venus of death.” That, and that alone, he chose to have written over him.’

Laurence spoke with some feeling, but Miss Merton was so much surprised that she hardly knew what response to make.

‘And does nobody take any care of this place?’ at last she said.

‘No,’ said Laurence. ‘By his own last orders, nobody. But come—you must look at this too.’ And he motioned her towards the neighbouring cypress.

At the foot of this, almost hidden by the long grass, Miss Merton saw something that surprised her still more strangely. It was the statue of a woman half reclining in a languid attitude on a block of hewn marble. The figure was full and beautiful, and the features of the face were singularly fine; but there was something in the general effect that struck one at the first moment as not pleasing. What slight drapery there was, was disposed meretriciously over the rounded limbs; on the arms were heavy bracelets; one of the hands held a half-inverted wine-cup, and the other was laid negligently on a heap of coins. But what jarred most upon the feelings was the face, with its perfect features. For a cold sneer was fixed upon the full mouth and the fine nostrils; and the eyes, with a leer of petulant sensuality, seemed to be fixed for ever upon the flat neighbouring gravestone.

‘This cypress,’ said Laurence, ‘is much older than the other. It was planted twenty years ago; and twenty years ago the original of that statue was laid beneath it. She was one of those many nameless ladies—for, as you know, he completely exiled himself from society all the latter part of his life—who from time to time shared his fortunes at the house here. She was, too, by far the loveliest. She was at the same time the hardest, the most selfish, the most mercenary as well. And he knew it too. In spite of the distraction he found in her companionship, he was never for a moment deceived about her. At last, having made a fortune out of him, she was thinking of leaving him. But one day, suddenly, she caught a chill and died. She died here, and here she was buried. That statue, as you may imagine, is his design not hers. The attitude, the drapery, the wine-cup held in one hand, and the money in the other, are according to his express direction; and by his direction, too, that face, with its lovely features, leers and sneers at him for ever, as he rests in his neglected grave. See, too, there is the epitaph which he chose for her:—

Lusisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti;
Tempus abire tibi est.
“You have wantoned enough with me—you have eaten enough of my substance—you have drunk enough of my champagne; ’tis high time for you to go.” And now,’ said Laurence, ‘let us come to the third tree, and you shall see what is overshadowed by it.’

They passed across the enclosure to the largest of the three cypresses, and at the foot of that Miss Merton discovered a third gravestone, also with a poetical inscription. ‘That,’ said Laurence, ‘you can read without help of mine.’

Miss Merton looked; and the lines were not new to her:—

A slumber did my spirit seal,
  I knew no mortal fears.
She seemed a thing that could not feel
  The touch of earthly years.

She knows no motion now, nor force,
  She neither feels nor sees,
Rolled round in earth’s diurnal course
  With rocks, and stones, and trees.

‘Here,’ said Laurence, ‘is the oldest grave of all. Its date is that of the tree that stands beside it, and that was planted forty years ago. Under that stone lies the only woman—except myself, almost the only thing—that the old man ever really loved. This was in his young days. He was only thirty when she died; and her death was the great turning-point of his life. She lived with him for two years, in a little cottage that stood on the very spot where he afterwards built the villa. She has no name, you see, on the grave-stone, and I had best not give her any. She was some one’s wife, but not his. That is her story. I have her miniature somewhere, which one day I should like to show you. It is a lovely dark face, with liquid, spiritual eyes, and under it are written two lines of Byron’s, which might have been composed for her:—

She walks in beauty like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies.
Well, there she lies now; and the old man’s youth lies buried with her. It was her death that made him a philosopher. He built this great place here, and laid out these gardens half to kill his grief for her, and half to keep alive her memory; and here, as you see, he buried her. She gave up all that was best in her for the love of him. He gave up all that was best in him for the loss of her.’

‘And is this place left quite uncared for?’ said Miss Merton, looking around her.

‘It is left,’ said Laurence, ‘as he wished it should be. It was one of his most special orders that, when he was dead and buried, no further care of any kind should be spent on it. The grass and weeds were to be left to grow wild in it, the rails to rust, the portico to decay and crumble. “Do you think,” he said to me, “that I know so little of life as to flatter myself that any single creature will regret me when I am gone, or even waste a thought upon me? I do not chose, as Christians do, to rest for ever under a lie; for their tombs are lying monuments that they are remembered; mine shall be a true one that I am forgotten. Yes,” he said, “it makes me laugh to think of myself—me, who have built this house and planted these gardens which others will enjoy—rotting in the midst of it all. under thorns and brambles, in a little dismal wilderness. And then perhaps, Otho,” he would say to me, “some of your friends who will walk about these gardens in a year or two—Christians, no doubt, with the devil knows what of fine sentiments about faith and immortality—will look in through the bars of the gate, and be shocked at that honest wilderness, that unconcealed neglect, which is the only real portion of those that have been.” But during his last illness he softened just a little, and admitted that I, he did believe, cared for him, and might, when he was dead, every now and then think of him. “And so,” he said, “if you like to do it, come every now and then, and scrape the moss from my inscription, and from the two others. But that is all I will have you do—that, and nothing more. That will express all that it is possible that you should feel for me.” I promised him to do no more than that, and that I do. Poor old man!’ Laurence went on meditatively, as they passed out of the gates, and were again in the bright trim garden. ‘He thought that he belonged to times before his own; but I think that in reality he belonged to times after them. If he was Roman at all, as he always fancied himself, he was Roman only in that sombre ennui that through all his later years oppressed him; and which seems to me to be now settling down upon the world—an ennui that always kept him seeking for pleasures, and that turned the pleasures into ashes as soon as he possessed them. His pleasures were high and low; but the higher made him despise the lower; and the lower he sought simply that he might drown the higher. Two things only during his last years never palled upon him: one was, saying a sharp thing neatly; the other, detecting some new weakness in human nature. In this he seemed really to revel. On the littlenesses and the pretences of men, especially when they turned out failures, he seemed to look with a passionate contemptuous fondness, like a wicked prince on a peasant-girl. See—here was his summer study—this stone pavilion. Let us go in for a moment, and I will show it to you.’

They were in front of a small quasi-classical building of white marble, embowered behind in arbutus and in myrtles, and commanding from its large windows a full view of the sea. Laurence unlocked the door, and he and Miss Merton entered.

Inside there was a faint musty smell, and a general sense that the place had been long disused. The walls were completely lined with books in splendid bindings, whose gilded backs glimmered temptingly through the network of the bookcase doors. In the centre stood a table, covered with a cloth of faded crimson velvet; nothing on it but a tarnished ormolu inkstand, in the shape of a Roman temple, across the columns of which spiders had woven dusty webs. Placed stiffly before the table stood a gilded arm-chair, with cushions of crimson damask, and under it a foot-stool to match, which had been worn quite bare by the old philosopher’s feet.

‘Here,’ said Laurence, ‘he would sit day after day amongst his books, drawing, or reading, or writing, or looking out at his flowers or at the sea. Look! these two folios, bound in red morocco, are a collection of his verses, letters, essays and so on, that he had had privately printed. They are not all, I’m afraid, quite fit to read. But this first volume is all right. I should like to take it out and show it to you by-and-by. But come—I have nothing more to exhibit now. We had better join the others. They will not be far off,’ he said, as they left the pavilion; ‘indeed, I think I can hear them talking.’

In another moment they had passed through an arch of evergreens, and found themselves on the spot where nearly all the rest of the party had already assembled, disposed in an easy group upon the grass. The place was an amphitheatre of velvet turf, set round with laurels and all kinds of shrubs; in the arena of which—if one may so speak—a little fountain splashed cool and restless in a porphyry basin. Overhead the blue summer sky was screened by the whispering shade of tall trees; and above the dark laurel-leaves the fresh sea was seen in the distance, an azure haze full of sparklings. The whole scene, as Miss Merton and Laurence, with his gorgeous folio under his arm, came upon it, was curiously picturesque. The various dresses made against the green turf a soft medley of colours. The ladies were in white and black and pale yellow, green and crimson and dove-colour. All the men, except Mr. Luke, were in shooting coats; and Mr. Saunders, who wore knickerbockers, had even pink stockings. And here, as the lights and shades flickered over them, and the gentle air breathed upon them, they seemed altogether like a party from which an imaginative on-looker might have expected a new Decameron.

Already, under Lady Grace’s vigorous guidance, a certain amount of talk had begun àpropos of the new Republic; all the ladies, with the exception of Mrs. Sinclair, having fallen to discussing the true position of women, or rather of woman, and their opinions on this point being a little various. But besides this, the post had arrived; and that too had created some excitement. Lady Ambrose in particular had become delightfully radiant, on receiving a large envelope that was stiff as she handled it; and which she saw contained, as she just peeped into it, a card, on the top of which was printed, ‘To have the honour to meet—.’ She had, too, just extracted from Lord Allen a promise to come and stay with her, next autumn, in the country; and her measure of good spirits was quite full.

‘Now, Mr. Laurence,’ she exclaimed, dangling her hat in her hand, ‘do come and put a stop to this. You see what a woman’s parliament would be if we ever have one, which my husband says is not at all impossible. Here is one of us who thinks that everything will go well if women can only learn to paint flowers on white dessert plates, and get fifteen shillings apiece for them.’

‘And I,’ said Lady Grace, smiling good-naturedly, ‘was just saying that they all ought to be taught logic.’

‘Perfectly true,’ exclaimed Mr. Saunders, putting up his spectacles to see who had spoken.

‘And Miss Merton,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘thinks that we should all be taught to walk the hospitals, or be sick-nurses.’

‘I should not so much mind that,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, ‘in war time, if one had anyone fighting in whose life one really took an interest. I once thought, Mr. Leslie, that that might be my mission, perhaps.’

‘But,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘how are we to build a castle in the air together, if we are all at cross purposes like this?’

There did indeed seem little prospect of their getting to work at all; until Leslie exclaimed at last that he thought he had found a way.

‘See,’ said Mrs. Sinclair, ‘I told you a little while ago you would be wanted to talk cleverly. And now, Mr. Leslie, don’t you think you would be more comfortable if you sat a little farther off? or Lady Grace, of whom I am already afraid, will begin to think we’re flirting.’

‘Well,’ said Leslie, ‘in spite of all our differences, I think I see a way in which we shall all be able to set to work together. We want to imagine a state that shall be as nearly perfect as we can make it. Well and good. Now, we shall all admit, I suppose, that in a perfect state all the parts will be perfect, and each part will imply and involve all the others. Given one bone, we shall be able to construct the entire animal. Let us then take one part, and imagine that first. Let us take the highest class in our state, and see what we think that ought to be, looking on it in the first place not as a corporate body of superiors, but as an assembly of equals. Let us, I mean, to put it in other words, begin with seeing what we really wish society to be—what we really think that the highest and most refined life consists in, that is possible for the most favoured classes; and then let us see afterwards what is implied in this.’

Leslie’s proposal was welcomed eagerly by everyone.

‘Well,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘and so we are each of us to say, are we, what we think is the essence of good society? Come then, who knows?’

‘Art,’ murmured Mr. Rose.

‘Reason,’ said Mr. Saunders.

‘Unworldliness, based on knowledge of the world,’ said Miss Merton.

‘Wait a moment,’ said Laurence, ‘we are going too fast. This is not what Mr. Leslie means.’

‘No, no,’ said Mr. Saunders. ‘Let us get rid of what is evil before we introduce what is good. I should begin by getting rid of every belief that is not based upon reason, and every sentiment whose existence cannot be accounted for.’

‘Here we are,’ said Lady Ambrose, ‘all over the place. Now if I might be allowed to say what I thought was the essence of good society, I should say that a great part of it, at least, was the absence of dull and vulgar people.’

‘Excellent!’ exclaimed Mr. Luke, ‘and a capital exclusion with which to begin our new Republic.’