Part 2 out of 6
That outward repose that concealed it in her)
A something half wild to her strange character.
The nurse with the orphan, awhile broken-hearted,
At the door of a convent in Paris had parted.
But later, once more, with her mistress she tarried,
When the girl, by that grim maiden aunt, had been married
To a dreary old Count, who had sullenly died,
With no claim on her tears--she had wept as a bride.
Said Lord Alfred, "Your mistress expects me."
Oped the drawing-room door, and there left him alone.
O'er the soft atmosphere of this temple of grace
Rested silence and perfume. No sound reach'd the place.
In the white curtains waver'd the delicate shade
Of the heaving acacias, through which the breeze play'd.
O'er the smooth wooden floor, polished dark as a glass,
Fragrant white Indian matting allowed you to pass.
In light olive baskets, by window and door,
Some hung from the ceiling, some crowding the floor,
Rich wild flowers pluck'd by Lucile from the hill,
Seem'd the room with their passionate presence to fill:
Blue aconite, hid in white roses, reposed;
The deep belladonna its vermeil disclosed;
And the frail saponaire, and the tender blue-bell,
And the purple valerian,--each child of the fell
And the solitude flourish'd, fed fair from the source
Of waters the huntsman scarce heeds in his course
Where the chamois and izard, with delicate hoof,
Pause or flit through the pinnacled silence aloof.
Here you felt, by the sense of its beauty reposed,
That you stood in a shrine of sweet thoughts. Half unclosed
In the light slept the flowers; all was pure and at rest;
All peaceful; all modest; all seem'd self-possess'd,
And aware of the silence. No vestige nor trace
Of a young woman's coquetry troubled the place.
He stood by the window. A cloud pass'd the sun.
A light breeze uplifted the leaves, one by one.
Just then Lucile enter'd the room, undiscern'd
By Lord Alfred, whose face to the window was turned,
In a strange revery.
The time was, when Lucile,
In beholding that man, could not help but reveal
The rapture, the fear, which wrench'd out every nerve
In the heart of the girl from the woman's reserve.
And now--she gazed at him, calm, smiling,--perchance
Indifferently turning his glance,
Alfred Vargrave encounter'd that gaze unaware.
O'er a bodice snow-white stream'd her soft dusky hair:
A rose-bud half blown in her hand; in her eyes
A half-pensive smile.
A sharp cry of surprise
Escaped from his lips: some unknown agitation.
An invincible trouble, a strange palpitation,
Confused his ingenious and frivolous wit;
Overtook, and entangled, and paralyzed it.
That wit so complacent and docile, that ever
Lightly came at the call of the lightest endeavor,
Ready coin'd, and availably current as gold,
Which, secure of its value, so fluently roll'd
In free circulation from hand on to hand
For the usage of all, at a moment's command;
For once it rebell'd, it was mute and unstirr'd,
And he looked at Lucile without speaking a word.
Perhaps what so troubled him was, that the face
On whose features he gazed had no more than a trace
Of the face his remembrance had imaged for years.
Yes! the face he remember'd was faded with tears:
Grief had famish'd the figure, and dimmed the dark eyes,
And starved the pale lips, too acquainted with sighs,
And that tender, and gracious, and fond coquetterie
Of a woman who knows her least ribbon to be
Something dear to the lips that so warmly caress
Every sacred detail of her exquisite dress,
In the careless toilet of Lucile--then too sad
To care aught to her changeable beauty to add--
Lord Alfred had never admired before!
Alas! poor Lucile, in those weak days of yore,
Had neglected herself, never heeding, or thinking
(While the blossom and bloom of her beauty were shrinking)
That sorrow can beautify only the heart--
Not the face--of a woman; and can but impart
Its endearment to one that has suffer'd. In truth
Grief hath beauty for grief; but gay youth loves gay youth.
The woman that now met, unshrinking his gaze,
Seem'd to bask in the silent but sumptuous haze
Of that soft second summer, more ripe than the first,
Which returns when the bud to the blossom hath burst
In despite of the stormiest April. Lucile
Had acquired that matchless unconscious appeal
To the homage which none but a churl would withhold--
That caressing and exquisite grace--never bold,
Ever present--which just a few women possess.
From a healthful repose, undisturb'd by the stress
Of unquiet emotions, her soft cheek had drawn
A freshness as pure as the twilight of dawn.
Her figure, though slight, had revived everywhere
The luxurious proportions of youth; and her hair--
Once shorn as an offering to passionate love--
Now floated or rested redundant above
Her airy pure forehead and throat; gather'd loose
Under which, by one violet knot, the profuse
Milk-white folds of a cool modest garment reposed,
Rippled faint by the breast they half hid, half disclosed,
And her simple attire thus in all things reveal'd
The fine art which so artfully all things conceal'd.
Lord Alfred, who never conceived that Lucile
Could have look'd so enchanting, felt tempted to kneel
At her feet, and her pardon with passion implore;
But the calm smile that met him sufficed to restore
The pride and the bitterness needed to meet
The occasion with dignity due and discreet.
"Madam,"--thus he began with a voice reassured,--
"You see that your latest command has secured
My immediate obedience--presuming I may
Consider my freedom restored from this day."--
"I had thought," said Lucile, with a smile gay yet sad,
"That your freedom from me not a fetter has had.
Indeed! . . . in my chains have you rested till now?
I had not so flattered myself, I avow!"
"For Heaven's sake, Madam," Lord Alfred replied,
"Do not jest! has the moment no sadness?" he sigh'd.
"'Tis an ancient tradition," she answer'd, "a tale
Often told--a position too sure to prevail
In the end of all legends of love. If we wrote,
When we first love, foreseeing that hour yet remote,
Wherein of necessity each would recall
From the other the poor foolish records of all
Those emotions, whose pain, when recorded, seem'd bliss,
Should we write as we wrote? But one thinks not of this!
At Twenty (who does not at Twenty?) we write
Believing eternal the frail vows we plight;
And we smile with a confident pity, above
The vulgar results of all poor human love:
For we deem, with that vanity common to youth,
Because what we feel in our bosoms, in truth,
Is novel to us--that 'tis novel to earth,
And will prove the exception, in durance and worth,
To the great law to which all on earth must incline.
The error was noble, the vanity fine!
Shall we blame it because we survive it? ah, no;
'Twas the youth of our youth, my lord, is it not so?"
Lord Alfred was mute. He remember'd her yet
A child--the weak sport of each moment's regret,
Blindly yielding herself to the errors of life,
The deceptions of youth, and borne down by the strife
And the tumult of passion; the tremulous toy
Of each transient emotion of grief or of joy.
But to watch her pronounce the death-warrant of all
The illusions of life--lift, unflinching, the pall
From the bier of the dead Past--that woman so fair,
And so young, yet her own self-survivor; who there
Traced her life's epitaph with a finger so cold!
'Twas a picture that pain'd his self-love to behold.
He himself knew--none better--the things to be said
Upon subjects like this. Yet he bow'd down his head:
And as thus, with a trouble he could not command,
He paused, crumpling the letters he held in his hand,
"You know me enough," she continued, "or what
I would say is, you yet recollect (do you not,
Lord Alfred?) enough of my nature, to know
That these pledges of what was perhaps long ago
A foolish affection, I do not recall
From those motives of prudence which actuate all
Or most women when their love ceases. Indeed,
If you have such a doubt, to dispel it I need
But remind you that ten years these letters have rested
Unreclaim'd in your hands." A reproach seem'd suggested
By these words. To meet it, Lord Alfred look'd up
(His gaze had been fix'd on a blue Sevres cup
With a look of profound connoisseurship--a smile
Of singular interest and care, all this while.)
He look'd up, and look'd long in the face of Lucile,
To mark if that face by a sign would reveal
At the thought of Miss Darcy the least jealous pain.
He look'd keenly and long, yet he look'd there in vain.
"You are generous, Madam," he murmur'd at last,
And into his voice a light irony pass'd.
He had look'd for reproaches, and fully arranged
His forces. But straightway the enemy changed
"Come!" gayly Lucile interposed,
With a smile whose divinely deep sweetness disclosed
Some depth in her nature he never had known,
While she tenderly laid her light hand on his own,
"Do not think I abuse the occasion. We gain
Justice, judgment, with years, or else years are in vain.
From me not a single reproach can you hear.
I have sinn'd to myself--to the world--nay, I fear
To you chiefly. The woman who loves should, indeed,
Be the friend of the man that she loves. She should heed
Not her selfish and often mistaken desires,
But his interest whose fate her own interest inspires;
And rather than seek to allure, for her sake,
His life down the turbulent, fanciful wake
Of impossible destinies, use all her art
That his place in the world find its place in her heart.
I, alas!--I perceived not this truth till too late;
I tormented your youth, I have darken'd your fate.
Forgive me the ill I have done for the sake
Of its long expiation!"
Lord Alfred, awake,
Seem'd to wander from dream on to dream. In that seat
Where he sat as a criminal, ready to meet
His accuser, he found himself turn'd by some change,
As surprising and all unexpected as strange,
To the judge from whose mercy indulgence was sought.
All the world's foolish pride in that moment was naught;
He felt all his plausible theories posed;
And, thrill'd by the beauty of nature disclosed
In the pathos of all he had witness'd, his head
He bow'd, and faint words self-reproachfully said,
As he lifted her hand to his lips. 'Twas a hand
White, delicate, dimpled, warm, languid, and bland.
The hand of a woman is often, in youth,
Somewhat rough, somewhat red, somewhat graceless, in truth;
Does its beauty refine, as its pulses grow calm,
Or as Sorrow has cross'd the life-line in the palm?
The more that he look'd, that he listen'd, the more
He discover'd perfections unnoticed before.
Less salient than once, less poetic, perchance,
This woman who thus had survived the romance
That had made him its hero, and breathed him its sighs,
Seem'd more charming a thousand times o'er to his eyes.
Together they talk'd of the years since when last
They parted, contrasting the present, the past.
Yet no memory marr'd their light converse. Lucile
Question'd much, with the interest a sister might feel,
Of Lord Alfred's new life,--of Miss Darcy--her face,
Her temper, accomplishments--pausing to trace
The advantage derived from a hymen so fit.
Of herself, she recounted with humor and wit
Her journeys, her daily employments, the lands
She had seen, and the books she had read, and the hands
She had shaken.
In all that she said there appear'd
An amiable irony. Laughing, she rear'd
The temple of reason, with ever a touch
Of light scorn at her work, reveal'd only so much
As their gleams, in the thyrsus that Bacchanals bear,
Through the blooms of a garland the point of a spear.
But above, and beneath, and beyond all of this,
To that soul, whose experience had paralyzed bliss,
A benignant indulgence, to all things resign'd,
A justice, a sweetness, a meekness of mind,
Gave a luminous beauty, as tender and faint
And serene as the halo encircling a saint.
Unobserved by Lord Alfred the time fleeted by.
To each novel sensation spontaneously
He abandon'd himself with that ardor so strange
Which belongs to a mind grown accustom'd to change.
He sought, with well-practised and delicate art,
To surprise from Lucile the true state of her heart;
But his efforts were vain, and the woman, as ever,
More adroit than the man, baffled every endeavor.
When he deem'd he had touch'd on some chord in her being,
At the touch it dissolved, and was gone. Ever fleeing
As ever he near it advanced, when he thought
To have seized, and proceeded to analyze aught
Of the moral existence, the absolute soul,
Light as vapor the phantom escaped his control.
From the hall, on a sudden, a sharp ring was heard.
In the passage without a quick footstep there stirr'd;
At the door knock'd the negress, and thrust in her head,
"The Duke de Luvois had just enter'd," she said,
"The Duke!" cried Lucile (as she spoke,
The Duke's step, approaching, a light echo woke).
"Say I do not receive till the evening. Explain,"
As she glanced at Lord Alfred, she added again,
"I have business of private importance."
O'er Lord Alfred at once, at the sound of that name,
An invincible sense of vexation. He turn'd
To Lucile, and he fancied he faintly discern'd
On her face an indefinite look of confusion.
On his mind instantaneously flash'd the conclusion
That his presence had caused it.
He said, with a sneer
Which he could not repress, "Let not ME interfere
With the claims on your time, lady! when you are free
From more pleasant engagements, allow me to see
And to wait on you later."
The words were not said
Ere he wish'd to recall them. He bitterly read
The mistake he had made in Lucile's flashing eye.
Inclining her head as in haughty reply,
More reproachful perchance than all utter'd rebuke,
She said merely, resuming her seat, "Tell the Duke
He may enter."
And vex'd with his own words and hers,
Alfred Vargrave bow'd low to Lucile de Nevers,
Pass'd the casement and enter'd the garden. Before
His shadow was fled the Duke stood at the door.
When left to his thoughts in the garden alone,
Alfred Vargrave stood, strange to himself. With dull tone
Of importance, through cities of rose and carnation,
Went the bee on his business from station to station.
The minute mirth of summer was shrill all around;
Its incessant small voices like stings seem'd to sound
On his sore angry sense. He stood grieving the hot
Solid sun with his shadow, nor stirr'd from the spot.
The last look of Lucile still bewilder'd, perplex'd,
And reproach'd him. The Duke's visit goaded and vex'd.
He had not yet given the letters. Again
He must visit Lucile. He resolved to remain
Where he was till the Duke went. In short, he would stay,
Were it only to know when the Duke went away.
But just as he form'd this resolve, he perceived
Approaching towards him, between the thick-leaved
And luxuriant laurels, Lucile and the Duke.
Thus surprised, his first thought was to seek for some nook
Whence he might, unobserved, from the garden retreat.
They had not yet seen him. The sound of their feet
And their voices had warn'd him in time. They were walking
Towards him. The Duke (a true Frenchman) was talking
With the action of Talma. He saw at a glance
That they barr'd the sole path to the gateway. No chance
Of escape save in instant concealment! Deep-dipp'd
In thick foliage, an arbor stood near. In he slipp'd,
Saved from sight, as in front of that ambush they pass'd,
Still conversing. Beneath a laburnum at last
They paused, and sat down on a bench in the shade,
So close that he could not but hear what they said.
Duke, I scarcely conceive . . .
Ah! forgive! . . . I desired
So deeply to see you to-day. You retired
So early last night from the ball . . . this whole week
I have seen you pale, silent, preoccupied . . . speak,
Speak, Lucile, and forgive me! . . . I know that I am
A rash fool--but I love you! I love you, Madame.
More than language can say! Do not deem, O Lucile,
That the love I no longer have strength to conceal
Is a passing caprice! It is strange to my nature,
It has made me, unknown to myself, a new creature.
I implore you to sanction and save the new life
Which I lay at your feet with this prayer--Be my wife
Stoop, and raise me!
Lord Alfred could scarcely restrain
The sudden, acute pang of anger and pain
With which he had heard this. As though to some wind
The leaves of the hush'd, windless laurels behind
The two thus in converse were suddenly stirr'd.
The sound half betrayed him. They started. He heard
The low voice of Lucile; but so faint was its tone
That her answer escaped him.
Luvois hurried on,
As though in remonstrance with what had been spoken.
"Nay, I know it, Lucile! but your heart was not broken
By the trial in which all its fibres were proved.
Love, perchance, you mistrust, yet you need to be loved.
You mistake your own feelings. I fear you mistake
What so ill I interpret, those feelings which make
Words like these vague and feeble. Whatever your heart
May have suffer'd of yore, this can only impart
A pity profound to the love which I feel.
Hush! hush! I know all. Tell me nothing, Lucile."
"You know all, Duke?" she said; "well then, know that, in truth,
I have learn'd from the rude lesson taught to my youth
From my own heart to shelter my life; to mistrust
The heart of another. We are what we must,
And not what we would be. I know that one hour
Assures not another. The will and the power
"O madam!" he answer'd, "you fence
With a feeling you know to be true and intense.
'Tis not MY life, Lucile, that I plead for alone:
If your nature I know, 'tis no less for your own.
That nature will prey on itself; it was made
To influence others. Consider," he said,
"That genius craves power--what scope for it here?
Gifts less noble to ME give command of that sphere
In which genius IS power. Such gifts you despise?
But you do not disdain what such gifts realize!
I offer you, Lady, a name not unknown--
A fortune which worthless, without you, is grown--
All my life at your feet I lay down--at your feet
A heart which for you, and you only, can beat."
That heart, Duke, that life--I respect both. The name
And position you offer, and all that you claim
In behalf of their nobler employment, I feel
To deserve what, in turn, I now ask you--
I ask you to leave me--
You do not reject?
I ask you to leave me the time to reflect.
You ask me?
--The time to reflect.
May I hope?
The reply of Lucile was not heard
By Lord Alfred; for just then she rose, and moved on.
The Duke bow'd his lips o'er her hand, and was gone.
Not a sound save the birds in the bushes. And when
Alfred Vargrave reel'd forth to the sunlight again,
He just saw the white robe of the woman recede
As she entered the house.
Scarcely conscious indeed
Of his steps, he too follow'd, and enter'd.
Unnoticed; Lucile never stirr'd: so concentred
And wholly absorb'd in her thoughts she appear'd.
Her back to the window was turn'd. As he near'd
The sofa, her face from the glass was reflected.
Her dark eyes were fix'd on the ground. Pale, dejected,
And lost in profound meditation she seem'd.
Softly, silently, over her droop'd shoulders stream'd
The afternoon sunlight. The cry of alarm
And surprise which escaped her, as now on her arm
Alfred Vargrave let fall a hand icily cold
And clammy as death, all too cruelly told
How far he had been from her thoughts.
All his cheek
Was disturb'd with the effort it cost him to speak.
"It was not my fault. I have heard all," he said.
"Now the letters--and farewell, Lucile! When you wed
The sentence broke short, like a weapon that snaps
When the weight of a man is upon it.
Said Lucile (her sole answer reveal'd in the flush
Of quick color which up to her brow seem'd to rush
In reply to those few broken words), "this farewell
Is our last, Alfred Vargrave, in life. Who can tell?
Let us part without bitterness. Here are your letters.
Be assured I retain you no more in my fetters!"--
She laughed, as she said this, a little sad laugh,
And stretched out her hand with the letters. And half
Wroth to feel his wrath rise, and unable to trust
His own powers of restraint, in his bosom he thrust
The packet she gave, with a short angry sigh,
Bow'd his head, and departed without a reply.
And Lucile was alone. And the men of the world
Were gone back to the world. And the world's self was furl'd
Far away from the heart of the woman. Her hand
Droop'd, and from it, unloosed from their frail silken band,
Fell those early love-letters, strewn, scatter'd, and shed
At her feet--life's lost blossoms! Dejected, her head
On her bosom was bow'd. Her gaze vaguely stray'd o'er
Those strewn records of passionate moments no more.
From each page to her sight leapt some words that belied
The composure with which she that day had denied
Every claim on her heart to those poor perish'd years.
They avenged themselves now, and she burst into tears.
LETTER FROM COUSIN JOHN TO COUSIN ALFRED.
"Time up, you rascal! Come back, or be hang'd.
Matilda grows peevish. Her mother harangued
For a whole hour this morning about you. The deuce!
What on earth can I say to you?--nothing's of use.
And the blame of the whole of your shocking behavior
Falls on ME, sir! Come back,--do you hear?--or I leave your
Affairs, and, abjure you forever. Come back
To your anxious betroth'd; and perplexed
Alfred needed, in truth, no entreaties from John
To increase his impatience to fly from Luchon.
All the place was now fraught with sensations of pain
Which, whilst in it, he strove to escape from in vain.
A wild instinct warn'd him to fly from a place
Where he felt that some fatal event, swift of pace,
Was approaching his life. In despite his endeavor
To think of Matilda, her image forever
Was effaced from his fancy by that of Lucile.
From the ground which he stood on he felt himself reel.
Scared, alarm'd by those feelings to which, on the day
Just before, all his heart had so soon given way,
When he caught, with a strange sense of fear, for assistance,
And what was, till then, the great fact in existence,
'Twas a phantom he grasp'd.
Having sent for his guide,
He order'd his horse, and determin'd to ride
Back forthwith to Bigorre.
Then, the guide, who well knew
Every haunt of those hills, said the wild lake of Oo
Lay a league from Luchon; and suggested a track
By the lake to Bigorre, which, transversing the back
Of the mountain, avoided a circuit between
Two long valleys; and thinking, "Perchance change of scene
May create change of thought," Alfred Vargrave agreed,
Mounted horse, and set forth to Bigorre at full speed.
His guide rode beside him.
The king of the guides!
The gallant Bernard! ever boldly he rides,
Ever gayly he sings! For to him, from of old,
The hills have confided their secrets, and told
Where the white partridge lies, and the cock o' the woods;
Where the izard flits fine through the cold solitudes;
Where the bear lurks perdu; and the lynx on his prey
At nightfall descends, when the mountains are gray;
Where the sassafras blooms, and the bluebell is born,
And the wild rhododendron first reddens at morn;
Where the source of the waters is fine as a thread;
How the storm on the wild Maladetta is spread;
Where the thunder is hoarded, the snows lie asleep,
Whence the torrents are fed, and the cataracts leap;
And, familiarly known in the hamlets, the vales
Have whisper'd to him all their thousand love-tales;
He has laugh'd with the girls, he has leap'd with the boys;
Ever blithe, ever bold, ever boon, he enjoys
An existence untroubled by envy or strife,
While he feeds on the dews and the juices of life.
And so lightly he sings, and so gayly he rides,
For BERNARD LE SAUTEUR is the king of all guides!
But Bernard found, that day, neither song not love-tale,
Nor adventure, nor laughter, nor legend avail
To arouse from his deep and profound revery
Him that silent beside him rode fast as could be.
Ascending the mountain they slacken'd their pace,
And the marvellous prospect each moment changed face.
The breezy and pure inspirations of morn
Breathed about them. The scarp'd ravaged mountains, all worn
By the torrents, whose course they watch'd faintly meander,
Were alive with the diamonded shy salamander.
They paused o'er the bosom of purple abysses,
And wound through a region of green wildernesses;
The waters went whirling above and around,
The forests hung heap'd in their shadows profound.
Here the Larboust, and there Aventin, Castellon,
Which the Demon of Tempest, descending upon,
Had wasted with fire, and the peaceful Cazeaux
They mark'd; and far down in the sunshine below,
Half dipp'd in a valley of airiest blue,
The white happy homes of the valley of Oo,
Where the age is yet golden.
And high overhead
The wrecks of the combat of Titans were spread.
Red granite, and quartz; in the alchemic sun,
Fused their splendors of crimson and crystal in one;
And deep in the moss gleam'd the delicate shells,
And the dew linger'd fresh in the heavy harebells;
The large violet burn'd; the campanula blue;
And Autumn's own flower, the saffron, peer'd through
The red-berried brambles and thick sassafras;
And fragrant with thyme was the delicate grass;
And high up, and higher, and highest of all,
The secular phantom of snow!
O'er the wall
Of a gray sunless glen gaping drowsy below,
That aerial spectre, reveal'd in the glow
Of the great golden dawn, hovers faint on the eye
And appears to grow in, and grow out of, the sky
And plays with the fancy, and baffles the sight.
Only reach'd by the vast rosy ripple of light,
And the cool star of eve, the Imperial Thing,
Half unreal, like some mythological king
That dominates all in a fable of old,
Takes command of a valley as fair to behold
As aught in old fables; and, seen or unseen,
Dwells aloof over all, in the vast and serene
Sacred sky, where the footsteps of spirits are furl'd
'Mid the clouds beyond which spreads the infinite world
Of man's last aspirations, unfathom'd, untrod,
Save by Even and Morn, and the angels of God.
Meanwhile, as they journey'd, that serpentine road,
Now abruptly reversed, unexpectedly show'd
A gay cavalcade some few feet in advance.
Alfred Vargrave's heart beat; for he saw at a glance
The slight form of Lucile in the midst. His next look
Show'd him, joyously ambling beside her, the Duke
The rest of the troop which had thus caught his ken
He knew not, nor noticed them (women and men).
They were laughing and talking together. Soon after
His sudden appearance suspended their laughter.
"You here! . . . I imagined you far on your way
To Bigorre!" . . . said Lucile. "What has caused you to stay?"
"I AM on my way to Bigorre," he replied,
"But since MY way would seem to be YOURS, let me ride
For one moment beside you." And then, with a stoop
At her ear, . . . "and forgive me!"
By this time the troop
Had regather'd its numbers.
Lucile was as pale
As the cloud 'neath their feet, on its way to the vale.
The Duke had observed it, nor quitted her side,
For even one moment, the whole of the ride.
Alfred smiled, as he thought, "he is jealous of her!"
And the thought of this jealousy added a spur
To his firm resolution and effort to please.
He talk'd much; was witty, and quite at his ease.
After noontide, the clouds, which had traversed the east
Half the day, gather'd closer, and rose and increased.
The air changed and chill'd. As though out of the ground,
There ran up the trees a confused hissing sound,
And the wind rose. The guides sniff'd, like chamois, the air,
And look'd at each other, and halted, and there
Unbuckled the cloaks from the saddles. The white
Aspens rustled, and turn'd up their frail leaves in fright.
All announced the approach of the tempest.
Thick darkness descended the mountains among,
And a vivid, vindictive, and serpentine flash
Gored the darkness, and shore it across with a gash.
The rain fell in large heavy drops. And anon
Broke the thunder.
The horses took fright, every one.
The Duke's in a moment was far out of sight.
The guides whoop'd. The band was obliged to alight;
And, dispersed up the perilous pathway, walk'd blind
To the darkness before from the darkness behind.
And the Storm is abroad in the mountains!
The crouch'd hollows and all the oracular hills
With dread voices of power. A roused million or more
Of wild echoes reluctantly rise from their hoar
Immemorial ambush, and roll in the wake
Of the cloud, whose reflection leaves vivid the lake.
And the wind, that wild robber, for plunder descends
From invisible lands, o'er those black mountain ends;
He howls as he hounds down his prey; and his lash
Tears the hair of the timorous wan mountain-ash,
That clings to the rocks, with her garments all torn,
Like a woman in fear; then he blows his hoarse horn
And is off, the fierce guide of destruction and terror,
Up the desolate heights, 'mid an intricate error
Of mountain and mist.
There is war in the skies!
Lo! the black-winged legions of tempest arise
O'er those sharp splinter'd rocks that are gleaming below
In the soft light, so fair and so fatal, as though
Some seraph burn'd through them, the thunderbolt searching
Which the black cloud unbosom'd just now. Lo! the lurching
And shivering pine-trees, like phantoms, that seem
To waver above, in the dark; and yon stream,
How it hurries and roars, on its way to the white
And paralyzed lake there, appall'd at the sight
of the things seen in heaven!
Through the darkness and awe
That had gather'd around him, Lord Alfred now saw,
Reveal'd in the fierce and evanishing glare
Of the lightning that momently pulsed through the air
A woman alone on a shelf of the hill,
With her cheek coldly propp'd on her hand,--and as still
As the rock that she sat on, which beetled above
The black lake beneath her.
All terror, all love
Added speed to the instinct with which he rush'd on.
For one moment the blue lightning swathed the whole stone
In its lurid embrace: like the sleek dazzling snake
That encircles a sorceress, charm'd for her sake
And lull'd by her loveliness; fawning, it play'd
And caressingly twined round the feet and the head
Of the woman who sat there, undaunted and calm
As the soul of that solitude, listing the psalm
Of the plangent and laboring tempests roll slow
From the caldron of midnight and vapor below.
Next moment from bastion to bastion, all round,
Of the siege-circled mountains, there tumbled the sound
Of the battering thunder's indefinite peal,
And Lord Alfred had sprung to the feet of Lucile.
She started. Once more, with its flickering wand,
The lightning approach'd her. In terror, her hand
Alfred Vargrave had seized within his; and he felt
The light fingers, that coldly and lingeringly dwelt
In the grasp of his own, tremble faintly.
Where the whirlwind hath stricken and strangled yon tree!"
She exclaim'd, . . . "like the passion that brings on its breath,
To the being it embraces, destruction and death!
Alfred Vargrave, the lightning is round you!"
I hear--I see--naught but yourself. I can feel
Nothing here but your presence. My pride fights in vain
With the truth that leaps from me. We two meet again
'Neath yon terrible heaven that is watching above
To avenge if I lie when I swear that I love,--
And beneath yonder terrible heaven, at your feet,
I humble my head and my heart. I entreat
Your pardon, Lucile, for the past--I implore
For the future your mercy--implore it with more
Of passion than prayer ever breathed. By the power
Which invisibly touches us both in this hour,
By the rights I have o'er you, Lucile, I demand--"
"The rights!" . . . said Lucile, and drew from him her hand.
"Yes, the rights! for what greater to man may belong
Than the right to repair in the future the wrong
To the past? and the wrong I have done you, of yore,
Hath bequeath'd to me all the sad right to restore,
To retrieve, to amend! I, who injured your life,
Urge the right to repair it, Lucile! Be my wife,
My guide, my good angel, my all upon earth,
And accept, for the sake of what yet may give worth
To my life, its contrition!"
He paused, for there came
O'er the cheek of Lucile a swift flush like the flame
That illumined at moments the darkness o'erhead.
With a voice faint and marr'd by emotion, she said,
"And your pledge to another?"
"Hush, hush!" he exclaim'd,
"My honor will live where my love lives, unshamed.
'Twere poor honor indeed, to another to give
That life of which YOU keep the heart. Could I live
In the light of those young eyes, suppressing a lie?
Alas, no! YOUR hand holds my whole destiny.
I can never recall what my lips have avow'd;
In your love lies whatever can render me proud.
For the great crime of all my existence hath been
To have known you in vain. And the duty best seen,
And most hallow'd--the duty most sacred and sweet,
Is that which hath led me, Lucile, to your feet.
O speak! and restore me the blessing I lost
When I lost you--my pearl of all pearls beyond cost!
And restore to your own life its youth, and restore
The vision, the rapture, the passion of yore!
Ere our brows had been dimm'd in the dust of the world,
When our souls their white wings yet exulting unfurl'd!
For your eyes rest no more on the unquiet man,
The wild star of whose course its pale orbit outran,
Whom the formless indefinite future of youth,
With its lying allurements, distracted. In truth
I have wearily wander'd the world, and I feel
That the least of your lovely regards, O Lucile,
Is worth all the world can afford, and the dream
Which, though follow'd forever, forever doth seem
As fleeting, and distant, and dim, as of yore
When it brooded in twilight, at dawn, on the shore
Of life's untraversed ocean! I know the sole path
To repose, which my desolate destiny hath,
Is the path by whose course to your feet I return.
And who else, O Lucile, will so truly discern,
And so deeply revere, all the passionate strength,
The sublimity in you, as he whom at length
These have saved from himself, for the truth they reveal
To his worship?"
She spoke not; but Alfred could feel
The light hand and arm, that upon him reposed,
Thrill and tremble. Those dark eyes of hers were half closed.
But, under their languid mysterious fringe,
A passionate softness was beaming. One tinge
Of faint inward fire flush'd transparently through
The delicate, pallid, and pure olive hue
Of the cheek, half averted and droop'd. The rich bosom
Heaved, as when in the heart of a ruffled rose-blossom
A bee is imprison'd and struggles.
The sun, in his setting, sent up the last smile
Of his power, to baffle the storm. And, behold!
O'er the mountains embattled, his armies, all gold,
Rose and rested: while far up the dim airy crags,
Its artillery silenced, its banners in rags,
The rear of the tempest its sullen retreat
Drew off slowly, receding in silence, to meet
The powers of the night, which, now gathering afar,
Had already sent forward one bright, signal star
The curls of her soft and luxuriant hair,
From the dark riding-hat, which Lucile used to wear,
Had escaped; and Lord Alfred now cover'd with kisses
The redolent warmth of those long falling tresses.
Neither he, nor Lucile, felt the rain, which not yet
Had ceased falling around them; when, splash'd, drench'd, and wet,
The Duc de Luvois down the rough mountain course
Approached them as fast as the road, and his horse,
Which was limping, would suffer. The beast had just now
Lost his footing, and over the perilous brow
Of the storm-haunted mountain his master had thrown;
But the Duke, who was agile, had leap'd to a stone,
And the horse, being bred to the instinct which fills
The breast of the wild mountaineer in these hills,
Had scrambled again to his feet; and now master
And horse bore about them the signs of disaster,
As they heavily footed their way through the mist,
The horse with his shoulder, the Duke with his wrist,
Bruised and bleeding.
If ever your feet, like my own,
O reader, have traversed these mountains alone,
Have you felt your identity shrink and contract
At the sound of the distant and dim cataract,
In the presence of nature's immensities? Say,
Have you hung o'er the torrent, bedew'd with its spray,
And, leaving the rock-way, contorted and roll'd,
Like a huge couchant Typhon, fold heaped over fold,
Track'd the summits from which every step that you tread
Rolls the loose stones, with thunder below, to the bed
Of invisible waters, whose mistical sound
Fills with awful suggestions the dizzy profound?
And, laboring onwards, at last through a break
In the walls of the world, burst at once on the lake?
If you have, this description I might have withheld.
You remember how strangely your bosom has swell'd
At the vision reveal'd. On the overwork'd soil
Of this planet, enjoyment is sharpen'd by toil;
And one seems, by the pain of ascending the height,
To have conquer'd a claim of that wonderful sight.
Hail, virginal daughter of cold Espingo!
Hail, Naiad, whose realm is the cloud and the snow;
For o'er thee the angels have whiten'd their wings,
And the thirst of the seraphs is quench'd at thy springs.
What hand hath, in heaven, upheld thine expanse?
When the breath of creation first fashion'd fair France,
Did the Spirit of Ill, in his downthrow appalling,
Bruise the world, and thus hollow thy basin while falling?
Ere the mammoth was born hath some monster unnamed
The base of thy mountainous pedestal framed?
And later, when Power to Beauty was wed,
Did some delicate fairy embroider thy bed
With the fragile valerian and wild columbine?
But thy secret thou keepest, and I will keep mine;
For once gazing on thee, it flash'd on my soul,
All that secret! I saw in a vision the whole
Vast design of the ages; what was and shall be!
Hands unseen raised the veil of a great mystery
For one moment. I saw, and I heard; and my heart
Bore witness within me to infinite art,
In infinite power proving infinite love;
Caught the great choral chant, mark'd the dread pageant move--
The divine Whence and Whither of life! But, O daughter
Of Oo, not more safe in the deep silent water
Is thy secret, than mine in my heart. Even so.
What I then saw and heard, the world never shall know.
The dimness of eve o'er the valleys had closed,
The rain had ceased falling, the mountains reposed.
The stars had enkindled in luminous courses
Their slow-sliding lamps, when, remounting their horses,
The riders retraversed that mighty serration
Of rock-work. Thus left to its own desolation,
The lake, from whose glimmering limits the last
Transient pomp of the pageants of sunset had pass'd,
Drew into its bosom the darkness, and only
Admitted within it one image--a lonely
And tremulous phantom of flickering light
That follow'd the mystical moon through the night.
It was late when o'er Luchon at last they descended.
To her chalet, in silence, Lord Alfred attended
Lucile. As they parted, she whispered him low,
"You have made to me, Alfred, an offer I know
All the worth of, believe me. I cannot reply
Without time for reflection. Good night!--not good by."
"Alas! 'tis the very same answer you made
To the Duc de Luvois but a day since," he said.
"No, Alfred! the very same, no," she replied.
Her voice shook. "If you love me, obey me. Abide
My answer to-morrow."
Alas, Cousin Jack!
You Cassandra in breeches and boots! turn your back
To the ruins of Troy. Prophet, seek not for glory
Amongst thine own people.
I follow my story.
Up!--forth again, Pegasus!--"Many's the slip,"
Hath the proverb well said, "'twixt the cup and the lip!"
How blest should we be, have I often conceived,
Had we really achieved what we nearly achieved!
We but catch at the skirts of the thing we would be,
And fall back on the lap of a false destiny.
So it will be, so has been, since this world began!
And the happiest, noblest, and best part of man
Is the part which he never hath fully play'd out:
For the first and last word in life's volume is--
The face of the most fair to our vision allow'd
Is the face we encounter and lose in the crowd.
The thought that most thrills our existence is one
Which, before we can frame it in language, is gone.
O Horace! the rustic still rests by the river,
But the river flows on, and flows past him forever!
Who can sit down, and say . . . "What I will be, I will"?
Who stand up, and affirm . . . "What I was, I am still"?
Who is that must not, if question'd, say . . . . . .
I would have remain'd or become, I am not"?
We are ever behind, or beyond, or beside
Our intrinsic existence. Forever at hide
And seek with our souls. Not in Hades alone
Doth Sisyphus roll, ever frustrate, the stone,
Do the Danaids ply, ever vainly, the sieve.
Tasks as futile does earth to its denizens give.
Yet there's none so unhappy, but what he hath been
Just about to be happy, at some time, I ween;
And none so beguiled and defrauded by chance,
But what once in his life, some minute circumstance
Would have fully sufficed to secure him the bliss
Which, missing it then, he forever must miss.
And to most of us, ere we go down to the grave,
Life, relenting, accords the good gift we would have;
But, as though by some strange imperfection in fate,
The good gift, when it comes, comes a moment too late.
The Future's great veil our breath fitfully flaps,
And behind it broods ever the mighty Perhaps.
Yet! there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip;
But while o'er the brim of life's beaker I dip,
Though the cup may next moment be shatter'd, the wine
Spilt, one deep health I'll pledge, and that health shall be thine,
O being of beauty and bliss! seen and known
In the deeps of my soul, and possess'd there alone!
My days know thee not; and my lips name thee never.
Thy place in my poor life is vacant forever.
We have met: we have parted. No more is recorded
In my annals on earth. This alone was afforded
To the man whom men know me, or deem me, to be.
But, far down, in the depth of my life's mystery,
(Like the siren that under the deep ocean dwells,
Whom the wind as it wails, and the wave as it swells,
Cannot stir in the calm of her coralline halls,
'Mid the world's adamantine and dim pedestals;
At whose feet sit the sylphs and sea fairies; for whom
The almondine glimmers, the soft samphires bloom)--
Thou abidest and reignest forever, O Queen
Of that better world which thou swayest unseen!
My one perfect mistress! my all things in all!
Thee by no vulgar name known to men do I call;
For the Seraphs have named thee to me in my sleep,
And that name is a secret I sacredly keep.
But, wherever this nature of mine is most fair,
And its thoughts are the purest--belov'd, thou art there!
And whatever is noblest in aught that I do,
Is done to exalt and to worship thee too.
The world gave thee not to me, no! and the world
Cannot take thee away from me now. I have furl'd
The wings of my spirit above thy bright head;
At thy feet are my soul's immortalities spread.
Thou mightest have been to me much. Thou art more.
And in silence I worship, in darkness adore.
If life be not that which without us we find--
Chance, accident, merely--but rather the mind,
And the soul which, within us, surviveth these things,
If our real existence have truly its springs
Less in that which we do than in that which we feel,
Not in vain do I worship, not hopeless I kneel!
For then, though I name thee not mistress or wife,
Thou art mine--and mine only,--O life of my life!
And though many's the slip 'twixt the cup and the lip,
Yet while o'er the brim of life's beaker I dip,
While there's life on the lip, while there's warmth in the wine,
One deep health I'll pledge, and that health shall be thine!
This world, on whose peaceable breast we repose
Unconvulsed by alarm, once confused in the throes
Of a tumult divine, sea and land, moist and dry,
And in fiery fusion commix'd earth and sky.
Time cool'd it, and calm'd it, and taught it to go
The round of its orbit in peace, long ago.
The wind changeth and whirleth continually:
All the rivers run down and run into the sea:
The wind whirleth about, and is presently still'd:
All the rivers run down, yet the sea is not fill'd:
The sun goeth forth from his chambers; the sun
Ariseth, and lo! he descendeth anon.
All returns to its place. Use and Habit are powers
Far stronger than Passion, in this world of ours.
The great laws of life readjust their infraction,
And to every emotion appoint a reaction.
Alfred Vargrave had time, after leaving Lucile,
To review the rash step he had taken, and feel
What the world would have call'd "his erroneous position."
Thought obtruded its claim, and enforced recognition:
Like a creditor who, when the gloss is worn out
On the coat which we once wore with pleasure, no doubt,
Sends us in his account for the garment we bought.
Ev'ry spendthrift to passion is debtor to thought.
He felt ill at ease with himself. He could feel
Little doubt what the answer would be from Lucile.
Her eyes, when they parted--her voice, when they met,
Still enraptured his heart, which they haunted. And yet,
Though, exulting, he deem'd himself loved, where he loved,
Through his mind a vague self-accusation there moved.
O'er his fancy, when fancy was fairest, would rise
The infantine face of Matilda, with eyes
So sad, so reproachful, so cruelly kind,
That his heart fail'd within him. In vain did he find
A thousand just reasons for what he had done;
The vision that troubled him would not be gone.
In vain did he say to himself, and with truth,
"Matilda has beauty, and fortune, and youth;
And her heart is too young to have deeply involved
All its hopes in the tie which must now be dissolved.
'Twere a false sense of honor in me to suppress
The sad truth which I owe it to her to confess.
And what reason have I to presume this poor life
Of my own, with its languid and frivolous strife,
And without what alone might endear it to her,
Were a boon all so precious, indeed, to confer,
Its withdrawal can wrong her?
It is not as though
I were bound to some poor village maiden, I know,
Unto whose simple heart mine were all upon earth,
Or to whose simple fortunes mine own could give worth.
Matilda, in all the world's gifts, will not miss
Aught that I could procure her. 'Tis best as it is!"
In vain did he say to himself, "When I came
To this fatal spot, I had nothing to blame
Or reproach myself for, in the thoughts of my heart.
I could not foresee that its pulses would start
Into such strange emotion on seeing once more
A woman I left with indifference before.
I believed, and with honest conviction believed,
In my love for Matilda. I never conceived
That another could shake it. I deem'd I had done
With the wild heart of youth, and looked hopefully on
To the soberer manhood, the worthier life,
Which I sought in the love that I vow'd to my wife.
Poor child! she shall learn the whole truth. She shall know
What I knew not myself but a few days ago.
The world will console her--her pride will support--
Her youth will renew its emotions. In short,
There is nothing in me that Matilda will miss
When once we have parted. 'Tis best as it is!"
But in vain did he reason and argue. Alas!
He yet felt unconvinced that 'TWAS best as it was.
Out of reach of all reason, forever would rise
That infantine face of Matilda, with eyes
So sad, so reproachful, so cruelly kind,
That they harrow'd his heart and distracted his mind.
And then, when he turned from these thoughts to Lucile,
Though his heart rose enraptured he could not but feel
A vague sense of awe of her nature. Behind
All the beauty of heart, and the graces of mind,
Which he saw and revered in her, something unknown
And unseen in that nature still troubled his own.
He felt that Lucile penetrated and prized
Whatever was noblest and best, though disguised,
In himself; but he did not feel sure that he knew,
Or completely possess'd, what, half hidden from view,
Remained lofty and lonely in HER.
Then, her life,
So untamed and so free! would she yield as a wife
Independence, long claimed as a woman? Her name
So link'd by the world with that spurious fame
Which the beauty and wit of a woman assert,
In some measure, alas! to her own loss and hurt
In the serious thoughts of a man! . . . This reflection
O'er the love which he felt cast a shade of dejection,
From which he forever escaped to the thought
Doubt could reach not . . . "I love her, and all else is naught!"
His hand trembled strangely in breaking the seal
Of the letter which reach'd him at last from Lucile.
At the sight of the very first words that he read,
That letter dropp'd down from his hand like the dead
Leaf in autumn, that, falling, leaves naked and bare
A desolate tree in a wide wintry air.
He pass'd his hand hurriedly over his eyes,
Bewilder'd, incredulous. Angry surprise
And dismay, in one sharp moan, broke from him. Anon
He picked up the page, and read rapidly on.
THE COMTESSE DE NEVERS TO LORD ALFRED VARGRAVE:
If over the present, when last
We two met, rose the glamour and mist of the past,
It hath now rolled away, and our two paths are plain,
And those two paths divide us.
"That hand which again
Mine one moment has clasp'd as the hand of a brother,
That hand and your honor are pledged to another!
Forgive, Alfred Vargrave, forgive me, if yet
For that moment (now past!) I have made you forget
What was due to yourself and that other one. Yes,
Mine the fault, and be mine the repentance. Not less,
In now owning this fault, Alfred, let me own, too,
I foresaw not the sorrow involved in it.
That meeting, which hath been so fatal, I sought,
I alone! But oh! deem not it was with the thought
Of your heart to regain, or the past to rewaken.
No! believe me, it was with the firm and unshaken
Conviction, at least, that our meeting would be
Without peril to YOU, although haply to me
The salvation of all my existence.
When the rumor first reach'd me, which lightly made known
To the world your engagement, my heart and my mind
Suffer'd torture intense. It was cruel to find
That so much of the life of my life, half unknown
To myself, had been silently settled on one
Upon whom but to think it would soon be a crime.
Then I said to myself, 'From the thraldom which time
Hath not weaken'd there rests but one hope of escape.
That image which Fancy seems ever to shape
From the solitude left round the ruins of yore,
Is a phantom. The Being I loved is no more.
What I hear in the silence, and see in the lone
Void of life, is the young hero born of my own
Perish'd youth: and his image, serene and sublime
In my heart rests unconscious of change and of time,
Could I see it but once more, as time and as change
Have made it, a thing unfamiliar and strange,
See, indeed, that the Being I loved in my youth
Is no more, and what rests now is only, in truth,
The hard pupil of life and the world: then, oh, then,
I should wake from a dream, and my life be again
Reconciled to the world; and, released from regret,
Take the lot fate accords to my choice.'
"So we met.
But the danger I did not foresee has occurr'd:
The danger, alas, to yourself! I have err'd.
But happy for both that this error hath been
Discover'd as soon as the danger was seen!
We meet, Alfred Vargrave, no more. I, indeed,
Shall be far from Luchon when this letter you read.
My course is decided; my path I discern:
Doubt is over; my future is fix'd now.
O return to the young living love! Whence, alas!
If, one moment, you wander'd, think only it was
More deeply to bury the past love.
Believe, Alfred Vargrave, that I, where I go
On my far distant pathway through life, shall rejoice
To treasure in memory all that your voice
Has avow'd to me, all in which others have clothed
To my fancy with beauty and worth your betrothed!
In the fair morning light, in the orient dew
Of that young life, now yours, can you fail to renew
All the noble and pure aspirations, the truth,
The freshness, the faith, of your own earnest youth?
Yes! YOU will be happy. I, too, in the bliss
I foresee for you, I shall be happy. And this
Proves me worthy your friendship. And so--let it prove
That I cannot--I do not respond to your love.
Yes, indeed! be convinced that I could not (no, no,
Never, never!) have render'd you happy. And so,
Rest assured that, if false to the vows you have plighted,
You would have endured, when the first brief, excited
Emotion was o'er, not alone the remorse
Of honor, but also (to render it worse)
"Yes, Alfred; you start?
But think! if the world was too much in your heart,
And too little in mine, when we parted ten years
Ere this last fatal meeting, that time (ay, and tears!)
Have but deepen'd the old demarcations which then
Placed our natures asunder; and we two again,
As we then were, would still have been strangely at strife.
In that self-independence which is to my life
Its necessity now, as it once was its pride,
Had our course through the world been henceforth side by side,
I should have revolted forever, and shock'd
Your respect for the world's plausibilities, mock'd,
Without meaning to do so, and outraged, all those
Social creeds which you live by.
"Oh! do not suppose
That I blame you. Perhaps it is you that are right.
Best, then, all as it is!
"Deem these words life's Good-night
To the hope of a moment: no more! If there fell
Any tear on this page, 'twas a friend's.
To the past--and to you, Alfred Vargrave.
So ended that letter.
The room seem'd to reel
Round and round in the mist that was scorching his eyes
With a fiery dew. Grief, resentment, surprise,
Half chocked him; each word he had read, as it smote
Down some hope, rose and grasped like a hand at his throat,
To stifle and strangle him.
For relief from himself, with a footstep unsteady,
He pass'd from his chamber. He felt both oppress'd
And excited. The letter he thrust in his breast,
And, in search of fresh air and of solitude, pass'd
The long lime-trees of Luchon. His footsteps at last
Reach'd a bare narrow heath by the skirts of a wood:
It was sombre and silent, and suited his mood.
By a mineral spring, long unused, now unknown,
Stood a small ruin'd abbey. He reach'd it, sat down
On a fragment of stone, 'mid the wild weed and thistle,
And read over again that perplexing epistle.
In re-reading that letter, there roll'd from his mind
The raw mist of resentment which first made him blind
To the pathos breath'd through it. Tears rose in his eyes,
And a hope sweet and strange in his heart seem'd to rise.
The truth which he saw not the first time he read
That letter, he now saw--that each word betray'd
The love which the writer had sought to conceal.
His love was received not, he could not but feel,
For one reason alone,--that his love was not free.
True! free yet he was not: but could he not be
Free erelong, free as air to revoke that farewell,
And to sanction his own hopes? he had but to tell
The truth to Matilda, and she were the first
To release him: he had but to wait at the worst.
Matilda's relations would probably snatch
Any pretext, with pleasure, to break off a match
In which they had yielded, alone at the whim
Of their spoil'd child, a languid approval to him.
She herself, careless child! was her love for him aught
Save the first joyous fancy succeeding the thought
She last gave to her doll? was she able to feel
Such a love as the love he divined in Lucile?
He would seek her, obtain his release, and, oh! then
He had but to fly to Lucile, and again
Claim the love which his heart would be free to command.
But to press on Lucile any claim to her hand,
Or even to seek, or to see, her before
He could say, "I am free! free, Lucile, to implore
That great blessing on life you alone can confer,"
'Twere dishonor in him, 'twould be insult to her.
Thus still with the letter outspread on his knee
He follow'd so fondly his own revery,
That he felt not the angry regard of a man
Fix'd upon him; he saw not a face stern and wan
Turn'd towards him; he heard not a footstep that pass'd
And repass'd the lone spot where he stood, till at last
A hoarse voice aroused him.
He look'd up and saw,
On the bare heath before him, the Duc de Luvois.
With aggressive ironical tones, and a look
Of concentrated insolent challenge, the Duke
Address'd to Lord Alfred some sneering allusion
To "the doubtless sublime reveries his intrusion
Had, he fear'd, interrupted. Milord would do better,
He fancied, however, to fold up a letter
The writing of which was too well known, in fact,
His remark as he pass'd to have failed to attract."
It was obvious to Alfred the Frenchman was bent
Upon picking a quarrel! and doubtless 'twas meant
From HIM to provoke it by sneers such as these.
A moment sufficed his quick instinct to seize
The position. He felt that he could not expose
His own name, or Lucile's, or Matilda's, to those
Idle tongues that would bring down upon him the ban
Of the world, if he now were to fight with this man.
And indeed, when he look'd in the Duke's haggard face,
He was pain'd by the change there he could not but trace.
And he almost felt pity.
He therefore put by
Each remark from the Duke with some careless reply,
And coldly, but courteously, waving away
The ill-humor the Duke seem'd resolved to display,
Rose, and turn'd, with a stern salutation, aside.
Then the Duke put himself in the path, made one stride
In advance, raised a hand, fix'd upon him his eyes,
And said . . .
"Hold, Lord Alfred! Away with disguise!
I will own that I sought you, a moment ago,
To fix on you a quarrel. I still can do so
Upon any excuse. I prefer to be frank.
I admit not a rival in fortune or rank
To the hand of a woman, whatever be hers
Or her suitor's. I love the Comtesse de Nevers.
I believed, ere you cross'd me, and still have the right
To believe, that she would have been mine. To her sight
You return, and the woman is suddenly changed.
You step in between us: her heart is estranged.
You! who now are betrothed to another, I know:
You! whose name with Lucile's nearly ten years ago
Was coupled by ties which you broke: you! the man
I reproach'd on the day our acquaintance began.
You! that left her so lightly,--I cannot believe
That you love, as I love, her; nor can I conceive
You, indeed, have the right so to love her.
I will not thus tamely concede at your word,
What, a few days ago, I believed to be mine!
I shall yet persevere: I shall yet be, in fine,
A rival you dare not despise. It is plain
That to settle this contest there can but remain
One way--need I say what it is?"
With regretful respect for the earnestness proved
By the speech he had heard, Alfred Vargrave replied
In words which he trusted might yet turn aside
The quarrel from which he felt bound to abstain,
And, with stately urbanity, strove to explain
To the Duke that he too (a fair rival at worst!)
Had not been accepted.
"Accepted! say first
Are you free to have offer'd?"
Lord Alfred was mute.
"Ah, you dare not reply!" cried the Duke. "Why dispute,
Why palter with me? You are silent! and why?
Because, in your conscience, you cannot deny
'Twas from vanity, wanton and cruel withal,
And the wish an ascendancy lost to recall,
That you stepp'd in between me and her. If, milord,
You be really sincere, I ask only one word.
Say at once you renounce her. At once, on my part,
I will ask your forgiveness with all truth of heart,
And there CAN be no quarrel between us. Say on!"
Lord Alfred grew gall'd and impatient. This tone
Roused a strong irritation he could not repress.
"You have not the right, sir," he said, "and still less
The power, to make terms and conditions with me.
I refuse to reply."
As diviners may see
Fates they cannot avert in some figure occult,
He foresaw in a moment each evil result
Of the quarrel now imminent.
There, face to face,
'Mid the ruins and tombs of a long-perish'd race,
With, for witness, the stern Autumn Sky overhead,
And beneath them, unnoticed, the graves, and the dead,
Those two men had met, as it were on the ridge
Of that perilous, narrow, invisible bridge
Dividing the Past from the Future, so small
That if one should pass over, the other must fall.
On the ear, at that moment, the sound of a hoof,
Urged with speed, sharply smote; and from under the roof
Of the forest in view, where the skirts of it verged
On the heath where they stood, at full gallop emerged
A guide he appear'd, by the sash
Of red silk round the waist, and the long leathern lash
With a short wooden handle, slung crosswise behind
The short jacket; the loose canvas trouser, confined
By the long boots; the woollen capote; and the rein,
A mere hempen cord on a curb.
Up the plain
He wheel'd his horse, white with the foam on his flank,
Leap'd the rivulet lightly, turn'd sharp from the bank,
And, approaching the Duke, raised his woollen capote,
Bow'd low in the selle, and deliver'd a note.
The two stood astonish'd. The Duke, with a gest
Of apology, turnd, stretch'd his hand, and possess'd
Himself of the letter, changed color, and tore
The page open and read.
Ere a moment was o'er
His whole aspect changed. A light rose to his eyes,
And a smile to his lips. While with startled surprise
Lord Alfred yet watch'd him, he turn'd on his heel,
And said gayly, "A pressing request from Lucile!
You are quite right, Lord Alfred! fair rivals at worst,
Our relative place may perchance be reversed.
You are not accepted,--nor free to propose!
I, perchance, am accepted already; who knows?
I had warned you, milord, I should still persevere.
This letter--but stay! you can read it--look here!"
It was now Alfred's turn to feel roused and enraged.
But Lucile to himself was not pledged or engaged
By aught that could sanction resentment. He said
Not a word, but turn'd round, took the letter, and read . . .
THE COMTESSE DE NEVERS TO THE DUC DE LUVOIS.
"Your letter, which follow'd me here, makes me stay
Till I see you again. With no moment's delay
I entreat, I conjure you, by all that you feel
Or profess, to come to me directly.
"Your letter!" He then had been writing to her!
Coldly shrugging his shoulders, Lord Alfred said, "Sir,
Do not let me detain you!"
The Duke smiled and bow'd;
Placed the note in his bosom; address'd, half aloud,
A few words to the messenger, . . . "Say your despatch
Will be answer'd ere nightfall;" then glanced at his watch,
And turn'd back to the Baths.
Alfred Vargrave stood still,
Torn, distracted in heart, and divided in will.
He turn'd to Lucile's farewell letter to him.
And read over her words; rising tears made them dim:
"Doubt is over; my future is fix'd now," they said.
"My course is decided." Her course? what! to wed
With this insolent rival! With that thought there shot
Through his heart an acute jealous anguish. But not
Even thus could his clear worldly sense quite excuse
Those strange words to the Duke. She was free to refuse
Himself, free the Duke to accept, it was true:
Even then, though, this eager and strange rendezvous,
How imprudent! To some unfrequented lone inn,
And so late (for the night was about to begin)--
She, companionless there!--had she bidden that man?
A fear, vague, and formless, and horrible, ran
Through his heart.
At that moment he look'd up, and saw,
Riding fast through the forest, the Duc de Luvois,
Who waved his hand to him, and sped out of sight.
The day was descending. He felt 'twould be night
Ere that man reached Saint Saviour.
He walk'd on, but not
Back toward Luchon: he walk'd on, but knew not in what
Direction, nor yet with what object, indeed,
He was walking, but still he walk'd on without heed.
The day had been sullen; but, towards his decline,
The sun sent a stream of wild light up the pine.
Darkly denting the red light reveal'd at its back,
The old ruin'd abbey rose roofless and black.
The spring that yet oozed through the moss-paven floor
Had suggested, no doubt, to the monks there, of yore,
The sight of that refuge where back to its God
How many a heart, now at rest 'neath the sod,
Had borne from the world all the same wild unrest
That now prey'd on his own!
By the thoughts in his breast
With varying impulse divided and torn,
He traversed the scant heath, and reach'd the forlorn
Autumn woodland, in which but a short while ago
He had seen the Duke rapidly enter; and so
He too enter'd. The light waned around him, and pass'd
Into darkness. The wrathful, red Occident cast
One glare of vindictive inquiry behind,
As the last light of day from the high wood declined,
And the great forest sigh'd its farewell to the beam,
And far off on the stillness the voice of the stream
O Nature, how fair is thy face,
And how light is thy heart, and how friendless thy grace!
Thou false mistress of man! thou dost sport with him lightly
In his hours of ease and enjoyment; and brightly
Dost thou smile to his smile; to his joys thou inclinest,
But his sorrows, thou knowest them not, nor divinest.
While he woos, thou art wanton; thou lettest him love thee;
But thou art not his friend, for his grief cannot move thee;
And at last, when he sickens and dies, what dost thou?
All as gay are thy garments, as careless thy brow,
And thou laughest and toyest with any new comer,
Not a tear more for winter, a smile less for summer!
Hast thou never an anguish to heave the heart under
That fair breast of thine, O thou feminine wonder!
For all those--the young, and the fair, and the strong,
Who have loved thee, and lived with thee gayly and long,
And who now on thy bosom lie dead? and their deeds
And their days are forgotten! O hast thou no weeds
And not one year of mourning,--one out of the many
That deck thy new bridals forever,--nor any
Regrets for thy lost loves, conceal'd from the new,
O thou widow of earth's generations? Go to!
If the sea and the night wind know aught of these things,
They do not reveal it. We are not thy kings.
"The huntsman has ridden too far on the chase,
And eldrich, and eerie, and strange is the place!
The castle betokens a date long gone by.
He crosses the courtyard with curious eye:
He wanders from chamber to chamber, and yet
From strangeness to strangeness his footsteps are set;
And the whole place grows wilder and wilder, and less
Like aught seen before. Each in obsolete dress,
Strange portraits regard him with looks of surprise,
Strange forms from the arras start forth to his eyes;
Strange epigraphs, blazon'd, burn out of the wall:
The spell of a wizard is over it all.
In her chamber, enchanted, the Princess is sleeping
The sleep which for centuries she has been keeping.
If she smile in her sleep, it must be to some lover
Whose lost golden locks the long grasses now cover:
If she moan in her dream, it must be to deplore
Some grief which the world cares to hear of no more.
But how fair is her forehead, how calm seems her cheek!
And how sweet must that voice be, if once she would speak!
He looks and he loves her; but knows he (not he!)
The clew to unravel this old mystery?
And he stoops to those shut lips. The shapes on the wall,
The mute men in armor around him, and all
The weird figures frown, as though striving to say,
'Halt! invade not the Past, reckless child of Today!
And give not, O madman! the heart in thy breast
To a phantom, the soul of whose sense is possess'd
By an Age not thine own!'
"But unconscious is he,
And he heeds not the warning, he cares not to see
Aught but ONE form before him!
"Rash, wild words are o'er,
And the vision is vanish'd from sight evermore!
And the gray morning sees, as it drearily moves
O'er a land long deserted, a madman that roves
Through a ruin, and seeks to recapture a dream.
Lost to life and its uses, withdrawn from the scheme
Of man's waking existence, he wanders apart."
And this is an old fairy-tale of the heart.
It is told in all lands, in a different tongue;
Told with tears by the old, heard with smiles by the young.
And the tale to each heart unto which it is known
Has a different sense. It has puzzled my own.
Eugene de Luvois was a man who, in part
From strong physical health, and that vigor of heart
Which physical health gives, and partly, perchance,
From a generous vanity native to France,
With the heart of a hunter, whatever the quarry,
Pursued it, too hotly impatient to tarry
Or turn, till he took it. His trophies were trifles:
But trifler he was not. When rose-leaves it rifles,
No less than when oak-trees it ruins, the wind
Its pleasure pursues with impetuous mind.
Both Eugene de Luvois and Lord Alfred had been
Men of pleasure: but men's pleasant vices, which, seen
Floating faint in the sunshine of Alfred's soft mood,
Seem'd amiable foibles, by Luvois pursued
With impetuous passion, seemed semi-Satanic.
Half pleased you see brooks play with pebbles; in panic
You watch them whirl'd down by the torrent.
To the sacred political creed of his youth
The century which he was born to denied
All realization. Its generous pride
To degenerate protest on all things was sunk;
Its principles each to a prejudice shrunk.
Down the path of a life that led nowhere he trod,
Where his whims were his guides, and his will was his god,
And his pastime his purpose.
From boyhood possess'd
Of inherited wealth, he had learned to invest
Both his wealth and those passions wealth frees from the cage
Which penury locks, in each vice of an age
All the virtues of which, by the creed he revered,
Were to him illegitimate.
Thus, he appear'd
To the world what the world chose to have him appear,--
The frivolous tyrant of Fashion, a mere
Reformer in coats, cards, and carriages! Still
'Twas the vigor of nature, and tension of will,
That found for the first time--perhaps for the last--
In Lucile what they lacked yet to free from the Past,
Force, and faith, in the Future.
And so, in his mind,
To the anguish of losing the woman was join'd
The terror of missing his life's destination,
Which in her had its mystical representation.
And truly, the thought of it, scaring him, pass'd
O'er his heart, while he now through the twilight rode fast
As a shade from the wing of some great bird obscene
In a wide silent land may be suddenly seen,
Darkening over the sands, where it startles and scares
Some traveller stray'd in the waste unawares,
So that thought more than once darken'd over his heart
For a moment, and rapidly seem'd to depart.
Fast and furious he rode through the thickets which rose
Up the shaggy hillside: and the quarrelling crows
Clang'd above him, and clustering down the dim air
Dropp'd into the dark woods. By fits here and there
Shepherd fires faintly gleam'd from the valleys. Oh, how
He envied the wings of each wild bird, as now
He urged the steed over the dizzy ascent
Of the mountain! Behind him a murmur was sent
From the torrent--before him a sound from the tracts
Of the woodlands that waved o'er the wild cataracts,
And the loose earth and loose stones roll'd momently down
From the hoofs of his steed to abysses unknown.
The red day had fallen beneath the black woods,
And the Powers of the night through the vast solitudes
Walk'd abroad and conversed with each other. The trees
Were in sound and in motion, and mutter'd like seas
In Elfland. The road through the forest was hollow'd.
On he sped through the darkness, as though he were follow'd
Fast, fast by the Erl King!
The wild wizard-work
Of the forest at last open'd sharp, o'er the fork
Of a savage ravine, and behind the black stems
Of the last trees, whose leaves in the light gleam'd like gems,
Broke the broad moon above the voluminous
Rock-chaos,--the Hecate of that Tartarus!
With his horse reeking white, he at last reach'd the door
Of a small mountain inn, on the brow of a hoar
Craggy promontory, o'er a fissure as grim,
Through which, ever roaring, there leap'd o'er the limb
Of the rent rock a torrent of water, from sight,
Into pools that were feeding the roots of the night.
A balcony hung o'er the water. Above
In a glimmering casement a shade seem'd to move.
At the door the old negress was nodding her head
As he reach'd it. "My mistress awaits you," she said.
And up the rude stairway of creeking pine rafter
He follow'd her silent. A few moments after,
His heart almost stunned him, his head seem'd to reel,
For a door closed--Luvois was alone with Lucile.
In a gray travelling dress, her dark hair unconfined
Streaming o'er it, and tossed now and then by the wind
From the lattice, that waved the dull flame in a spire
From a brass lamp before her--a faint hectic fire
On her cheek, to her eyes lent the lustre of fever:
They seem'd to have wept themselves wider than ever,
Those dark eyes--so dark and so deep!
And your plans have been changed by the letter I sent?"
There his voice sank, borne down by a strong inward strife.
Your letter! yes, Duke. For it threaten'd man's life--
The last, madam, NOT?
Both. I glance
At your own words; blush, son of the knighthood of France,
As I read them! You say, in this letter . . .
Why now you refuse me: 'tis (is it not so?)
For the man who has trifled before, wantonly,
And now trifles again with the heart you deny
To myself. But he shall not! By man's last wild law,
I will seize on the right (the right, Duc de Luvois!)
To avenge for you, woman, the past, and to give
To the future its freedom. That man shalt not live
To make you as wretched as you have made me!"