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The Last Man 2.0, Book One: Chapter VI

The Last Man 2.0, Book One: Chapter VI

 


WHEN we arrived at Windsor, I found that Raymond and Perdita had departed for Continental Europe. I took possession of my sister’s cottage, which was within view of Windsor Castle. It was surreal that by the marriage of my little sister Perdita, I was allied to one of the richest individuals in England, and was bound by friendship to its highest ranking noble – all of this after having experienced an excess of poverty that few have ever known. Despite this, pride would always prevent me from seeking help, however deep my distress might be. I could never Adrian’s generosity as a remedy to my poverty; I disregarded his offers, assuring him that I needed them not. How could I say to this generous being, “You who have dedicated your powers of intellect and fortune to the less fortunate and downtrodden, why not also support someone strong, healthy, and capable?”

Adrian persisted in trying to help me. And yet I dared not ask him use his influence to help me obtain an honourable appointment for myself – because accepting such a role would surely require me to leave Windsor and perhaps even work abroad again – far away from idris. I hovered around the walls of the castle, beneath its enshadowing thickets. My sole companions were my books and my thoughts.

Like a hermit, I studied the wisdom of the ancients, and gazed on the happy walls that sheltered my beloved. I pored over the poetry of old times; I studied the metaphysics of Plato and Berkeley. I read the histories of England, Greece and Rome, and I watched the movements of the lady of my heart. At night I could see her shadow on the walls of her apartment; by day I viewed her in her flower garden, or riding in the park with her companions. I heard the music of her voice and was happy. Each heroine of whom I read failed to compare to Idris: Antigone, when she guided the blind Oedipus to the grove of the Eumenides to carry out the funeral rites of Polynices; Miranda in the unvisited cave of Prospero; Haidee, on the sands of the Ionian island. In my mind, her beauty, wit and intelligence had no rival. I was mad with an excess of passionate devotion, but pride prevented me from betraying my true feelings.

In the meantime, while I enjoyed rich mental feasts, a peasant would have disdained my scanty meals. Often I would find myself robbing scraps from the squirrels in the forest just to survive. I was tempted to revert to my lawless ways, and poach the pheasants and other game of the estate reserves. But they were the property of Adrian, the nurslings of Idris; and so, although I imagined them on the spit in my kitchen, I did not eat, but simply dreamt vainly of the meal they could provide.

But during these times of hardship, the whole scheme of my existence was destined to change. The orphan and neglected son of Verney was on the eve of being linked to the mechanism of society by a golden chain, where he would enter into all the duties and pleasures of life. Miracles were to be wrought in my favour, the machine of society would finally serve me. What a tale of wonders my life would become!

One day as Adrian and Idris were riding through the forest, with their mother and usual companions, Idris drew her brother aside from the rest of the cavalcade, and suddenly asked him, “What has become of Lionel Verney?”

“Even from this spot,” replied Adrian, pointing to my sister’s cottage, “you can see his dwelling.”

“Really.” said Idris, “If he is so near, why does he not come to see us?”

“I often visit him,” replied Adrian; “but as you can guess, he does not visit us to avoid conflict with our mother.”

“I do not blame him,” said Idris, “I would not venture to combat her myself. Tell me, how does he pass his time?”

“My sweet sister,” replied Adrian, “if you are so curious about our friend, we should pay him a visit. He would be delighted, and it would be the least that we could do after he brought me back from the abyss.”

“I will gladly accompany you,” said Idris, “our debt to him is no less than your life, and one that can never be repaid. Tomorrow we will ride out together and call upon him.”

Though the autumnal change had brought on cold and rain, Adrian and Idris visited me the next evening. They found me feasting on meager fruits for supper, but they brought gifts richer than the golden bribes of the Sabines – the the joy that their friendship and company bestowed. A peasant and two angelic siblings sat like one family round the hearth of my lowly dwelling. Our talk was lengthy and on various subjects, but our eyes said a thousand things no tongue could have uttered.

After they left I was unspeakably happy. Idris had visited me; I would see her again and again. I felt no doubt, no fear, nothing disturbed me; my soul felt the fulness of contentment.

Adrian and Idris continued to visit me in the following days. Their friendship infused hope into my very spirit. But it was Idris who infused it with love.

One afternoon we sailed down the Thames after a week of intense Autumn floods which raised the levels significantly. The whole time I was captivated by Idris – I was 22, she was barely seventeen. While these thoughts raced through my head, we both failed to notice Adrian trying to pluck the bough from an oak which was submerged in the deepest, fastest moving part of the river. When I saw him, I called “Adrian, are you so tired of living?”

He obtained his prize and piloted his boat through the flood; our eyes were fixed on him fearfully, but the stream carried him away from us. I thought once again I would have to save my friend, but Idris called out “He is safe!”, as he waved the bough over his head in success. “Let him circle around to us, we will wait for him here.”

We were alone together; the song of the nightingales began and the evening star shone. The blue eyes of my angelic Idris were fixed on lovely Venus. “How the light pulsates,” she said, “even that star is like us; erratic and fearful, yet it loves.”

“Gaze not on the star,” I cried, “read not love in its trembling rays; look not upon distant worlds; speak not of the mere imagination of a sentiment. I have been silent for too long; when sickness had me on death’s bed my only desire was to speak to you, and submit my soul, my life, my entire being to you. Love is to me as light to the star; even so long as that is uneclipsed by annihilation, so long shall I love you.”

Veiled from the world, I felt her graceful form press against mine – my senses fail me at the remembrance of that first kiss. Slowly and silently we went to meet Adrian, whom we heard approaching.

I asked Adrian to speak with me after he had taken his sister home. That same evening, walking among the moon-lit forest paths, I poured forth my whole heart to my friend. For a moment I thought he looked disturbed “I might have foreseen this,” he said, “what strife will now ensue! Lionel, do not trouble yourself with what my mother might do, for my best hopes are fulfilled. I can think of no one better to protect and love my dear sister. Surely you must know the deep hatred my mother bears to the name Verney. I will speak with Idris; anything that I can do as your friend, I will do.”

While Adrian and Idris were still discussing the manner in which they could bring their mother over to their side, Katharina became suspicious. She soon became aware of our meetings, taxing her fair daughter with deceit and misdirection. Had I been any other, even some pauper, she might have shown some restraint. But she could not stand that her daughter had fallen for the son of the profligate favourite of her imprudent father. Doubtless I was as worthless as he from whom I descended. The eyes of Idris flashed at this accusation; she replied, “I do not deny that I love Verney; prove to me that he is worthless, and I will never see him again.”

“Mother,” said Adrian, “you must try to cultivate his friendship. Learn of the extent of his accomplishments, and the brilliancy of his talents.”

“Mad, foolish boy!” exclaimed Katharina angrily, “you have chosen with dreams and theories to overthrow my schemes for your own elevation, but I will not permit you to do the same to your poor sister! I know all too well the fascination you both suffer from. Remember, I had the same struggle with your father, to make him cast off the elder Verney, who hid his evil propensities with the smoothness and subtlety of a viper. In those days how often did I hear of his attractions, his wide spread conquests, his wit, his refined manners? It is well when flies only are caught by such spiders’ webs; but is it for the high-born and powerful to bow their necks to the flimsy yoke of these unmeaning pretensions? To think that the King of England could be enthralled by such falsehoods! Were your sister indeed the insignificant person she deserves to be, I would gladly leave her to the wretched fate of being wed to a man, whose very person, resembling that of his wretched father, would give her nothing but a life full of miseries and disappointments. But remember Idris, not only are you an heir to the royal blood of England, you are a Princess of Austria, and every life-drop within you is of emperors and kings. Is an uneducated shepherd-boy, whose only inheritance is his father’s tarnished name, a fit mate for such a magnificent creature?”

“I can offer but one defence,” replied Idris, “the same offered by my brother. Meet with Lionel, converse with my shepherd-boy”

The Countess interrupted her indignantly “Yours!” she cried: and then, smoothing her impassioned features to a disdainful smile, she continued “My dear, sweet Idris. Perhaps I have sheltered you for too long; and only because you are my beloved treasure. I have lacked in giving you the guidance you need to navigate matters such as these. You are a young, beautiful girl who still has much to learn. All I ask now, as your mother, is to give yourself some time to think. Promise me that you will not see this boy for one month. One month is all I ask; enough time for me to give you the guidance and instruction you deserve.”

“I dare not,” said Idris, “it would pain him too much. I have no right to play with his feelings, to accept his love, and then discard it with neglect.”

“This is going too far,” her mother answered, with quivering lips, and eyes again instinct by anger.

“No, mother,” said Adrian, “unless my sister desires never to see him again, it is surely a useless torment to separate them for a month.”

“Certainly,” replied the ex-queen, with bitter scorn, “his love, and her love, and both their childish flutterings, are worth far more than my years of hope and anxiety, with the duties of raising the offspring of kings, with the high and dignified conduct which one of her descent ought to pursue. But it is unworthy of me to argue and complain when presented with the whims of this shepherd boy. At the very least, promise me two things. First, that you will see him only in Adrian’s presence. And second, that you will have the decency and sense to not marry him for at least one month.”

This was asked only half ironically; and Idris wondered why her mother should expect from her a solemn vow, for something that she had not even considered until this moment – but the promise was required and given.

All went on cheerfully now. We met as usual, and talked without dread of our future plans. The Countess was so gentle, and even amiable with her children. Adrian and Idris began to entertain hopes of her ultimate consent to our marriage. Katharina was too unlike them, too utterly alien to their tastes, for them to find delight in her company, but it gave them pleasure to see her demonstrate patience and affection. Adrian even suggested she receive me at Windsor Castle. She refused with a smile, reminding him that for the present his sister had promised to be patient and wait for any possible engagement.

After nearly a month, Adrian received a letter from a friend in London asking for his immediate help with some important object. Ever so trusting, Adrian sensed no deceit, despite receiving such an odd request. My instincts told me that something was wrong, so I accompanied him as far as Staines. He was in high spirits, and he promised a speedy return since I could not see Idris in his absence. This awakened in me a presentiment of evil; I counted the hours that would elapse before I could see Idris again. When would this be? What might happen in the meantime? Would her mother take advantage of Adrian’s absence to twist her mind against me? I resolved, that despite the promise she had made to Katharina, that I would find a way to speak with her the following day, whether Adrian were present or not. This determination soothed me. Tomorrow, I would see the love of my life. Foolishly, I thought that nothing could ever keep us apart.

A violent knocking woke me shortly after midnight. It was now deep winter, and the day’s snow had not stopped falling. The wind whistled in the leafless trees, despoiling them of the white flakes as they fell; its dismal moaning, and the continued knocking, mingled wildly with my dreams. Suddenly I was wide awake; hastily dressing myself, I hurried to open my door to the unexpected visitor. Pale as the snow that showered about her, with clasped hands, Idris stood before me. “Save me!” she exclaimed, with almost violent energy, as she sunk to the ground. She was rambling incoherently, begging me to saddle the horses, to take her away, away to London – to her brother – that it was the only way to save her. “What can I do?” she cried, “I am lost – we are both forever lost! But come with me, Lionel! We cannot stay here – we can find a room at the nearest inn. Perhaps we still have time! Please, you are the only one that can help me!”

When I heard her pleas, with her disordered dress, dishevelled hair, and aghast looks, they way she wrung her hands – I thought to myself, is she also Mad? “My love,” placing her hands over my heart, “rest – my beloved, I will make a fire – you are shivering.”

“Rest?” she cried, “Lionel! If we dare to delay, then everything is lost. Come, unless if you would rather cast me off for ever.”

That Idris, born of wealth and luxury, should have come through the tempestuous winter-night from her regal abode, and standing at my lowly door, beg me to flee with her through darkness and storm – was surely a dream – but the sight of her loveliness assured me that this was no vision. Looking timidly around, as if she feared to be overheard, she whispered: “I have discovered that later today, my mother’s henchmen from Austria are to carry me off to Germany, to prison, to some arranged marriage – to only God knows what – as long as it is far away from you and my Brother – take me away now, or I may never see you again!”

I was frightened by her vehemence, and imagined some mistake in her incoherent tale, but I could not hesitate to obey her. She had come by herself from the Castle, three long miles, at midnight, through the heavy snow. Surely she did not endure this for nothing. We had to reach Englefield Green, a mile and a half further, before we could find an inn. She told me that she had kept up her strength and courage until she reached my cottage, after which both promptly failed. Now she could hardly speak, let alone walk. Supporting her as I did, still she lagged: and at the distance of half a mile, after many stoppages, shivering fits, and half faintings, she slipped from my supporting arm onto the snow, and with a torrent of tears told me that she could not goon. I lifted her up in my arms; her light form rested on my chest. My body felt no burden, while my mind struggled with emotion – how could I save Idris from being taken away to Germany? As her chill limbs touched me, I shivered in sympathy with her pain and fright. Her head lay on my shoulder, her breath waved my hair, her heart beat in rhythm with mine. Her pain made me tremble, blinded me, annihilated me. A suppressed groan burst from her lips. The chattering of her teeth, which she strove vainly to subdue, and all the other signs of her suffering reminded me of the necessity of speed.

After what felt like an eternity I said to her, “There is Englefield Green – the inn is near. But surely someone will recognize you, and our enemies may learn of our flight too soon. Stay here, out of sight, while I arrange for a room.”

She answered that I was right, but that I needed to hurry. I saw that the door of a small barn was ajar. I pushed it open, and strewed some hay about, forming a bed and placing indris’ exhausted frame on it. I feared to leave her, she looked so weak and faint – but she implored me not to delay. To call upon the people of the inn at this hour, and obtain a conveyance and horses, (even though I harnessed them myself) was the work of many minutes; minutes, each heavy with the weight of ages. I waited until the people of the inn had retired, and then had the post-boy draw up the carriage to the spot where Idris, impatient, and now somewhat recovered, waited for me. I lifted her in; I assured her that with our four horses we should arrive in London before five o’clock. By the time Katharina realized what had happened, we would be on our way to meeting with Adrian. Now that we had found horses, she was able to calm herself after a shower of tears, and began to relate her tale of fear and peril.

Shortly after Adrian’s departure, Katharina did everything in her power to stop Idris from seeing me. But every motive, every threat, every angry taunt was urged in vain. Katharina blamed me for losing Raymond; I was the evil influence in his life. I was even accused of bringing on his madness, and holding Adrian back from advancement and grandeur; and now a miserable mountaineer was to steal her daughter. Not once, Idris related, did this angry woman try gentleness or persuasion; if she had, the task of resistance would have been exquisitely painful. After all, Idris did love her mother, and would have had great difficulty in ignoring a genuine plea. But when her mother resorted to base attacks, the sweet girl’s generous nature was roused to defend, and ally herself with, my cause. Her mother ended with a look of contempt and covert triumph, which for a moment awakened the suspicions of Idris. When they parted ways, the Countess said, “Tomorrow I trust your tone will be different. Clearly I have agitated you. Go to bed, and I will have a medicine sent up to your room which I always take when I am restless. It will bring you peaceful dreams.”

By the time that she had with uneasy thoughts laid her fair cheek upon her pillow, her mother’s servant brought a draught; a suspicion again crossed her mind, causing her to doubt whether or not to take the potion. But wishing to avoid conflict, and in contradiction to her usual frankness, she pretended to swallow the medicine. Then, agitated as she had been by her mother’s violence, and now by unnamed fears, she lay unable to sleep, starting at every sound. Soon her door opened softly, and she heard a whisper, “Not asleep yet,” and the door again closed. With a beating heart she expected another visit, and soon her chamber was again invaded. Having assured herself that the intruders were her mother and an attendant, she feigned sleep. As a step approached her bed, she dared not move. She strove to calm her beating heart , which became more violent, when she heard her mother say mutteringly, “Pretty simpleton, little do you know that your game is already at an end -forever.”

For a moment the poor girl felt that her deception had failed. She was on the verge of springing up when the Countess, already at a distance from the bed, spoke in a low voice to her companion, “Quickly, there is no time to lose – it is far past eleven; they will be here at five. Take only the clothes necessary for her journey, and her jewel-casket.” The servant obeyed, with few words were spoken on either side. Idris heard the name of her own maid mentioned; “No, no,” replied her mother, “she will not go with us. Lady Idris must forget England, and all belonging to it.” And again she heard, “She will not wake till late tomorrow, and by then we shall be at sea.”

The Countess again came to her daughter’s bedside: “In Austria at least,” she said spitefully, “you will obey. There, obedience can be enforced, and no choice other than an honourable prison consisting of a fitting marriage will be available to an ungrateful little girl like you.”

As they withdrew, the Countess said, “We are fortunate that she did not suspect anything, or she might have tried to escape into the arms of that mongrel. Come with me to my room; we will remain there until our guests arrive.” Idris, panic-struck, and inspired by her excessive fear, dressed herself hurriedly, and going down a flight of back-stairs, avoiding the vicinity of her mother’s apartment, she planned to escape from the castle by a low window. Through snow, wind, and obscurity she came to my cottage, depositing her fate in my hands, overwhelmed by desperation and weariness.

I comforted her as best I could. While she was driven by fear, I felt joy, for she had chosen me to save her. I strove to quiet the eager dancing of my heart; I turned my eyes from her and into the dark night. We reached London ahead of schedule, and we went straight to Adrian’s residence. I left Idris asleep in the carriage, while I went to find my friend. I quickly told him what had happened, after assuring him that his sister was fine. He immediately rushed to see her, and seeing his sister unharmed, and fast asleep, he muttered “Per non turbar quel bel viso sereno.” Slowly she woke, and I could see her relief when she found herself in Adrian’s embrace.

Adrian wrote a brief note to his mother, informing her in no uncertain terms that Idris was now under his care and guardianship. Several days elapsed, and at last an answer came, marked from Cologne. “I realize now,” Katharina wrote, “that the only way that I will ever find peace in this life is by ignoring your existence. It wounds me that this is how we must now communicate, when you could have quite literally been king, and my dear little girl could have had the hand of any prince. I hope that one day fate will bring us back together, that you will see the error of your ways, and that your sister will not give into her childish impulses and sully herself by marrying her shepherd boy. However, in some way that I cannot name, I feel like this is the end.” She signed off with some ambiguous words that must have implied love for her estranged children, but otherwise she seemed content to remain in Austria, far away from the scene of her greatest failure.

Such were the strange and incredible events that finally brought about my union with my adored Idris. With simplicity and courage she set aside the obstacles to our happiness. She gave up her mother, aspirations of royalty, and a life of luxury in Austria, so that she could be with a poor shepherd boy. I knew that the only way to repay the gift of her matchless love was to raise myself to her level through the exertion of talents and virtue – to become a man worthy of her love.