The days that followed were the bitterest Austin Selwyn had ever known.
It is not in the plan of the Great Dramatist that men shall look on life and not play a part. It is true that there are a few who escape the call-boy’s summons, and gaze on human existence much as a passing pageant, but even for them is the knowledge that there is a moment called Death when every man must take the stage.
For years Austin Selwyn had stood apart, mingling with those who were enduring the sword-thrusts of fate, as an author chats with the players on the stage between the acts. Even the great tragedy of war had served only to enrich the processes of his mind. It is true he had known compassion, sorrow, and anger through it, but they were only counterfeit emotions, born of the grip of war on his imagination.
But at last life had reached out its talons and grasped him. Every human experience he had avoided, he was now to know, multiplied. Stripped of his last hope of justifying his idealism, he saw remorse, discouragement, a sense of utter futility, the scorn of friends, the applause of traitors—he saw them all as shadows closing into blackness ahead of him.
He tried to return to England, but passport difficulties were made insurmountable. He went to Boston, only to find that those he valued turned against him, and those he detested welcomed him as comrade. He returned to New York, but every avenue of activity was closed to him, save the one he had chosen for himself—that of world-pacificism.
He had always been a man of strong, underlying passions, and in his veins there was the hot undissipated blood of youth; but his brain had been the controlling force in every action of his life. Hitherto he had never questioned its complete mastery; but as he pondered over his fall he knew that it was his brain that had ridden him to it. He no longer trusted its workings. It had proved rebel and brought him to disaster.
And with that inner challenge came the supreme ordeal of his life.
As rivers, held imprisoned by winter, will burst their confines in the spring and overrun the land, all the passions which had been cooled and tempered by his intellectual discipline swarmed through his arteries in revolt. No longer was the brain dominating the body; instead, he was on fire with a hundred mad flames of desire, springing from sources he knew nothing of. They clung to him by day and haunted him at night. They sang to him that vice had its own heaven, as well as hell—that licentiousness held forgetfulness. He heard whispers in the air that there were drugs which opened perfumed caves of delight, and secret places where sin was made beautiful with mystic music and incense of flowers.
When conscience—or whatever it is in us that combats desire—urged him to close his ears to the voices, he cursed it for a meddlesome thing. Since Life had thrown down the gauntlet, he would take it up! If he had to travel the chambers of disgrace and discouragement, he would go on to the halls of sensual abandonment. Life had torn aside the curtain—it was for him to search the recesses of experience.