The Last Man 2.0, Book One: Chapter II

 


I LIVED far from the busy haunts of men, and the rumour of war or political change rarely made it to our mountain village. England had been the scene of monumental struggles during my early boyhood and in 2073, the last of its kings and dear friend of my father, abdicated his throne, allowing a republic to be instituted. He received the title of Earl of Windsor and along with it, Windsor Castle. His family still lived like royalty after being allotted significant estates. He died soon after renouncing the sceptre, leaving behind two children: a son and a daughter.

The ex-queen, an Austrian princess, had long implored her husband to withstand the pressure to abdicate. She was arrogant and fearless. She cherished power, and harboured a bitter contempt for he who had given up a kingdom. For her children’s sake she agreed to remain, albeit without her royal status, as a member of the English republic. When she became a widow, she turned all her thoughts to educating her son Adrian, second Earl of Windsor, to accomplish her ambitious ends – that he may re-acquire his lost crown. Adrian was now fifteen years of age and addicted to his studies, where his learning and talents displayed wisdom beyond his years. Rumours soon began that he had already begun to clash with his mother’s political views, although this could not be confirmed as the Countess gave very few access to her son. Adrian was raised in solitude, and kept apart from others his age. Some unknown reason motivated his mother to send him from under her immediate tutelage, and we learned that he was
about to visit Cumberland. A thousand tales were spreading, although none were probably true. The only certainty was that the noble scion of the last regal house of England was among us.
There was a large estate belonging to this family, at Ulswater. It was attached to a large park that was laid out with great taste, and plentifully stocked with game. In the past I had often raided these preserves as the property was in a state of decay. When it was decided that the young Earl of Windsor would visit Cumberland, workmen swiftly arrived to restore the estate to its former glory. The home was returned to pristine splendour, and the park became guarded with unusual care.
This information roused my dormant hatred and gave rise to feelings of revenge. Who was this pretender to suddenly decide that all of this was his birthright? Remembering my father’s last miserable days, I hated everything that reminded me of the crown. Adrian would come triumphantly to the district from which my father had fled impoverished and broken-hearted. Worse yet, he would find us, the ill-fated offspring, like miserable paupers. I was certain that if he were ever to meet Perdita and I, that he would treat us much in the same way that his father had treated ours – with disdain and neglect. He would be surrounded by servants and nobles. All of England praised his name, like the second coming. If I ever came into contact with this entitled brat, I would let him know exactly how the sins of his father had caused my sister and I so much suffering.

With my mind fully occupied by these ideas, I stalked the mansion of the young Earl. I would sneak onto the property and watch the progress of the improvements; various articles of luxury were brought directly from London to furnish his mansion. The Ex-Queen was determined to surround her son with princely magnificence so that we would not forgot where he had come from. I observed rich carpets and silken hangings, ornaments of gold, richly embossed metals, and all the other amenities given only to the elite.

I looked at myself and realized that why should I be any different from Adrian? I blamed it on the abandonment of my father by the late king. Surely, Adrian had been taught to despise my father, and to scoff at my claims to protection. I thought that all this grandeur was glaring infamy, and that by planting his golden lag beside my tattered banner, he proclaimed not his superiority, but his corruption.
Yet I envied him. His beautiful horses, his costly weapons, the praise and adoration heaped on him – all things that I believed to be rightfully mine and forcibly wrenched from me before my father’s fall from grace.

To make matters worse, reclusive Perdita actually seemed to engage in the real world when she learned that the Earl of Windsor was about to arrive.

“The Earl’s arrival pleases you?” I observed, moodily.
“Indeed it does, Lionel,” she replied; “I quite long to see him; he is the descendant of our kings, the first noble of the land: everyone admires and loves him, and they say that his rank means nothing to him; above all else he is generous, brave, and humble.”

“I know all about the Earl’s virtues; his generosity to us is clear in our plenty, his bravery in the protection he affords us, his humility in the notice he takes of us. His rank is meaningless, you say? All of his virtues come from his rank; because he is rich, he is called generous; because he is powerful, he is brave; because he is well served, he is humble. Let all of England believe him to be thus – we know him to be our enemy – our miserly, despicable, arrogant enemy. If he were gifted with just one of the virtues you described, then he would do well by us. His father, unassailable on his throne, wounded ours. As his descendants, we are destined to be enemies as well. He shall find that I can still feel the pain of my father; he shall learn to dread my revenge!”

A few days after he arrived, and every inhabitant of the most miserable cottage went forth to greet him. Even Perdita, in spite of my warnings, crept near the highway to observe her new idol. Only when night came, accompanied by drizzling rain and cold, would I return home for I knew that each cottage rang with the praises of Adrian. As I felt my limbs grow numb and chill, my pain served as food for my insane aversion. I felt triumphant in my misery, since it seemed to provide me an excuse for a deep hatred of my careless adversary. To me father and son were one and the same; I forgot that Adrian might be wholly unconscious of his father’s neglect of us. I was determined to confront him as I cried: “I will be avenged! I will not suffer like a dog! Adrian shall know, beggar and friendless as I am, that I will not submit!”
Each passing hour added to my delusions. His praises were like cobra stings to my heart. If I saw him, even at a distance, my blood boiled with rage. The air seemed poisoned by his presence. Perhaps the reason that I hated him most was because he caused me such suffering, while not even acknowledging my existence. What I would not have given to inspire the same hatred in him.

It soon became known that Adrian took great delight in his regal sanctuary. He never hunted, but rather spent hours watching tribes of tame, lovely animals, and ordered that their care be greater than ever. Here was my opportunity to attack, and I made use of it with all the brute defiance I could muster. I suggested the poaching of his regal lands to my few remaining comrades, who were the most determined and lawless of my crew, but they all shied away from the peril, leaving me to seek revenge by myself. At first my exploits went unnoticed, so I quickly increased in daring. Footsteps on the dewy grass, torn shrubs, and marks of slaughter betrayed me to the gamekeepers. They began to keep better watch, and shortly thereafter I was taken and sent to prison. I entered its gloomy walls in a fit of triumphant ecstasy: “He cannot ignore me now,” I cried, “He cannot!”. After a single day in confinement, I was set free by order of the Earl himself. He despises me, I thought; but he shall learn that I despise him, and hold in equal contempt his punishments and his mercy. The night after my release, I was again taken by the gamekeepers. Again I was imprisoned, and again released. Such was my determination, the fourth night found me in the Earl’s private park.

The gamekeepers were more enraged than their lord by my tenacity. They had received orders that if I were again taken, I should be brought directly to the Earl.

A twinge of fear came over me when I saw dark night yield to twilight. I crept along by the fern, on my hands and knees, seeking the shadowy cover of the underwood, while the birds awoke with unwelcome song above, and the fresh morning wind had me imagining the gamekeepers’ footsteps at each turn. My heart beat quick as I approached the fences. A leap took me to the other side, where two keepers were waiting to ambush me: one knocked me down, and proceeded to whip me. I rose with a knife in my hands and made a lunge inflicting a deep wound in his hand. The yells of the wounded man and his comrade, which I answered with equal bitterness and fury, echoed through the vale. Morning continued to break, its celestial beauty out of place with our brutish fight. My enemy and I were still struggling, when the wounded man exclaimed, “The Earl!”

I sprang from the keeper’s herculean hold, panting from my efforts, casting furious glances at my persecutors. I placed my back to a tree, resolved to fight until the bitter end. My clothing was torn and stained with the blood of the man I had wounded. One hand grasped the dead birds – my hard-earned prey – the other held the knife. My hair was matted, my whole appearance was haggard and squalid. Tall and muscular as I was, I must have looked like the most vile thug that ever trod the earth.

His appearance shocked me. Before me stood a tall, slim, fair and gentle boy, with a look of sensibility and refinement. The morning sunbeams tinged his silken hair with gold,and spread light and glory over his beaming features. “What is this?” he cried. The men eagerly began their defence, but he pushed them aside saying, “Two of you against a mere lad?” He approached me: “Verney,” he cried, “Lionel Verney, this is how we meet for the first time? Although fate divided us, we were born to be friends, and I hope that you will acknowledge the bond that we have inherited.”

As he spoke, his earnest eyes, fixed on me, seemed to read my very soul: my heart, savage and vengeful, felt the influence of sweet benevolence sink into it. His calming voice awoke an energy within me, stirring to the depths of my very being. I desired to reply, to acknowledge his goodness, accept his friendship; but I could not find the words. I would have held out my hand, but it was covered in blood. Adrian ignored this and continued: “Come with me,” he said, “I have much to say to you; surely you know who I am?”

“Yes,” I exclaimed, “I do believe that I now know you, and that you will pardon my mistakes – my crime.”
Adrian smiled gently; and after giving his orders to the gamekeepers, he came up to me, putting his arm around me as we walked together to the mansion.

It was not Adrian’s rank that subdued my heart and laid my entire spirit prostrate before him. It was his sensibility and kindness that fascinated everyone. His benevolence completed the conquest. Even at this early age, he was well read and imbued with higher reasoning. He gave a tone of irresistible persuasion in his conversation with others. In person, he hardly appeared of this world. His slight frame was overwhelmed by the soul that dwelt within. His mind could tame a hungry lion with a smile, or convince a legion of armed men to lay their weapons at his feet.

At first he did not refer to the past, or to anything personal. He likely wanted to give me time to gather my scattered thoughts. We sat in his library, and he spoke of the old Greek sages, and of the power which they had acquired over the minds of men, through the force of love and wisdom – ideas I had never before conceived. As he spoke, I felt subordinate to him; all my boasted pride and strength were subdued by his gentle nature.

As evening came, he finally addressed the past. “I have a story to tell,” he said, “concerning the past; perhaps you can assist me. Do you remember your father? I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but his name is one of my earliest recollections. I always pictured him as gallant, charming, and fascinating. I was told that his heart overflowed with goodness, which he poured on his friends, even if it meant leaving only a small remnant for himself.”

Encouraged by this tribute, I proceeded to answer his questions and to relate what I remembered of my father. He gave an account of the circumstances which led to the neglect of my father’s testamentary letter. Knowing the challenge of abdicating, the king felt his situation become more perilous, and wished for his dear friend to help him stand against the impetuous anger of his queen, and as a mediator between him and the parliament. From the time my father had left London, on the night of his fatal defeat at the gambling table, the king had received no news concerning him. After several years, he endeavoured to find him, but every trace was gone. With greater regret than ever, he clung to his dear friend’s memory. He asked his son to swear that if he should meet this valued friend, to offer every assistance on his behalf, and to assure him that their friendship had survived.

Shortly before Adrian’s visit to Cumberland, an heir of the nobleman entrusted with my father’s letter delivered it into the young Earl’s hands. It had been found amongst a mass of old papers that had been cast aside, and was found solely by accident. Adrian read it with deep interest, and within it found the living spirit of a genius he had so often heard celebrated. He discovered the name of the spot where my father had retreated and ultimately died, and of his two orphan children. Shortly after arriving at Ulswater, he began making inquiries concerning us, so that he could carry out the late King’s wishes.
The way in which he spoke of my father was gratifying to my soul. Respect, admiration and love – emotions that I had rarely experienced but that he inspired in me through his generous warmth – had touched my frozen heart. As we parted in the evening he clasped my hand and said “we shall meet again tomorrow.” I took his kind hand and tried to answer, but a fervent “God bless you!” was all my frame of mind would allow.

I could not rest. “This,” I thought, “is power! Not to be hard of heart, ferocious, and daring; but kind, compassionate and thoughtful.” With a newfound intensity I pledged to myself, “Adrian, I will also become wise and good! I will become worthy of your friendship.” Overwhelmed, I began to weep.

I laid on the ground, reflecting on my former life: the many errors of my heart, and how brutish, savage, and worthless I had been. But I could not feel remorse for I was reborn. My soul threw off the burden of past sin, ready to begin a new life which would value compassion above all else.

This was the beginning of my friendship with Adrian; a day which will forever be the most fortunate of my life. I entered that sacred boundary which divides the intellectual and moral nature of man from that which characterizes an animal. My best self emerged as a fitting response to the generosity, wisdom, and kindness of my new friend. For his part, Adrian took joy in bestowing the treasures of his mind and fortune on the long-neglected son of his father’s friend.

After his abdication the late king had retreated from the sphere of politics, yet his domestic circle afforded him little fulfillment. The ex-queen despised him for giving up the throne, and did not care to conceal her sentiments. The king had, in compliance with her wishes cast off his old friends. His only refuge was his infant son, and fortunately Adrian was never weary of listening to his father’s often repeated accounts of old times, in which my father had played a distinguished part. As it related to my father, the Queen was bitter, sarcastic, contemptuous – but as she bestowed her disapproval on his virtues and his errors, this could not prevent Adrian from imagining my father as a fascinating individual. Therefore, when he heard of the existence of his offspring, he formed a plan of bestowing on them all the advantages his rank could afford. When he found me a vagabond shepherd of the hills, a poacher, an unenlightened savage, his kindness did not fail. Adrian felt that fate had neglected Perdita and I, and was committed to doing everything possible to repair this damage. I inherited the demeanor of my father, which gave proof that all his virtues and talents had not died with him, and my noble friend resolved that they should be cultured and harnessed for good. All that was required of me was to become a man that would be worthy of Adrian’s trust.

He led me to partake in the cultivation of my intellect which I followed with intense desire. At first my objective was to rival the merits of my father, and render myself worthy of Adrian’s friendship. This gave way to curiosity and soon an earnest love of knowledge, which led me to pass days and nights reading and studying. I was already well acquainted with the natural world. But I was enchanted when the curtain of the intellectual world was withdrawn, and I saw the universe, not only as it presented itself to my outward senses, but as it had appeared to the wisest among men. Poetry and its creations, philosophy and its tenets, history and ancient manuscripts, awoke the sleeping ideas in my mind, and gave me new ones.

I felt like the sailor who from the topmast first discovered the shores of America. I sought to inspire this same passion in my companions, but they simply could not comprehend my appetite for knowledge. Even Perdita was unable to fully understand my newfound dedication. I had lived in what is generally considered the world of reality, and I awoke to find deeper meaning in all I saw, beyond that which my eyes conveyed. Perdita listened to me and sometimes took an interest in this type of information – but she did not see it as an integral part of her being. I did not understand, because after obtaining this knowledge, I could no more forgo it than I could give up breathing.

While we both felt deep affection for Adrian, Perdita could not appreciate the extent of his merits, or feel the same interest in his pursuits and opinions. Adrian and I became inseparable. There was a sensibility and kindness in his disposition, that gave a confident tone to our discussions. He could easily dispel the seriousness of Perdita, and subdue the torturous nature of my character. I looked to the restless desires and painful struggles of my past as a troubled dream, and felt myself metamorphosize into another form, whose fresh senses had altered the surrounding universe. But in many ways I was still the same man, craving unity, and yearning for challenge. Just as Urania spared the locks of Sampson, my core virtues did not desert me. Nor did Adrian instruct me only in the cold truths of history and philosophy. He opened my view to the living page of his own heart, and gave me an understanding his wondrous character.

The ex-queen had endeavoured to implant daring and ambitious designs in the mind of her son even during his infancy. She saw that he was endowed with genius and talent which she cultivated in hopes of furthering of her own goals. She encouraged his craving for knowledge and his impetuous courage; she even tolerated his tameless love of freedom, hoping it would lead to a passion for command. She intended to foster in him a sense of resentment towards those who had been instrumental in bringing about his father’s abdication, in the hopes that he might one day seek revenge and regain his lost throne. In this she would never succeed. The thought of a great and wise nation asserting its right to govern itself seemed just to him. Still his mother did not despair, and responded with determined ambition, patience, and self-control. She devoted herself to the study of her son’s complex disposition. Through praise, discipline and encouragement, she tried to strike the fitting chords, and though the melody that followed her touch seemed discord to her, she built her hopes on his talents, and felt sure that she would at eventually win him over so that he might one day reclaim his father’s throne. While their differing philosophies put them at odds, the sudden banishment of Adrian, which would finally bring him into my life, arose for completely different reasons.

The ex-queen resided at Windsor with Adrian and his younger sister, where she admitted only her own partisans, close family from her native Austria, and a few foreign dignitaries. Among these, and highly distinguished by her, was Prince Zaimi, ambassador to England from the free States of Greece, and his daughter, the young Princess Evadne, who passed much of her time at Windsor Castle. In the company of this sprightly and clever Greek girl, the Countess would relax her guard. Her controlling ways applied only to her own children, and Evadne was a plaything she could in no way fear. Her demeanor became a slight alleviation to the monotony of the Countess’ life.

Evadne was eighteen years of age, and spent much time at Windsor, where Adrian soon fell in love with her. Despite his youth, he was tender of heart and truly understood love. It was strange to me, I who had never found love, to witness the devotion and faith of my friend. His life was swallowed up in the existence of his beloved, and his heart beat in unison with hers. This was the secret law of his life – he loved and was beloved. To him the universe was a dwelling to inhabit with his chosen one and no scheme or chain of events could grant him happiness or misery even though life was in reality a savage wilderness. To Adrian, his life with Evadne would be like traversing the passage of the Red Sea – to remain untouched, despite being surrounded by walls of impending destruction on either side.

Why must I record his hapless delusions? Perhaps I believed that human nature is forever urging us towards pain and misery. While we may seek out pleasurable emotion, we were made to suffer. Disappointment is a never-failing plot of life, and it ruthlessly carries us on to the shoals. Who was better positioned than this highly-gifted youth to love and be loved, and to reap unalienable joy from blind passion? If he had grown a few years longer, he might have been spared from the pain of life. But over his heart he had no power, no knowledge; and it was ruined, even as an early bud is killed in the frost.
I could not confront Evadne, but the first letter that she wrote to Adrian convinced me that her love was not sincere. It was written with elegance, and a great command of language that was likely beyond a foreigner. The handwriting was exquisitely beautiful, written on paper that was tasteful even to one who was raised as a pauper. There was much kindness, gratitude, and sweetness in her expression – but no love. Evadne was two years older than Adrian, and who, at eighteen, ever loved one so much younger? I compared her placid notes with the burning ones of Adrian. His soul seemed to distil itself into the words he wrote. When he was finished he would weep over the letters from the excess of emotion they awakened in his heart.

Adrian’s soul was painted in his face, and concealment or deceit were the extreme opposites of his nature. Evadne was adamant that their love should not be revealed to his mother; and after a while he agreed. It was futile, as his very demeanour quickly betrayed his secret to the ex-queen. She concealed her discovery, but hastened to remove her son from the presence of the attractive Greek. He was sent to Cumberland, but Evadne developed a plan for the two lovers to communicate secretly. Thus Adrian’s absence, intended for the purpose of separation, united them more than ever. To me he spoke endlessly of his beloved. Her country, its ancient tales, and its recent memorable struggles – all made to partake in its glory and excellence. He agreed to depart because his mother commanded it, and because Evadne knew that any insistence to remain with his mother would be pointless. Perhaps there was also a hesitation to bind herself in front of the world to one whom she did not love – not love, at least, with that passionate enthusiasm which her heart told her she should feel. Adrian obeyed, and decided to pass a year in exile in Cumberland.

Continue to Chapter III