The Last Man 2.0: Chapter IV
I FOUND out that the next day Lord Raymond called at Perdita’s cottage, on his way to Windsor Castle. My sister’s heightened colour and sparkling eyes half revealed her secret to me.
Raymond was perfectly self-possessed; his warmth was overpowering, immediately ingratiating himself to us. I studied his countenance, which varied as he spoke, yet remained beautiful with every change. The usual expression of his eyes was soft, though he could easily make them glare with ferocity; his complexion was colourless; and every trait spoke to his self-will; his smile was pleasing, though disdain too often curled his lips. His voice, usually gentle, was low in tone through careful study rather than nature. Full of contradictions, calm yet arrogant, gentle yet fierce, both tender and neglectful, he found that the admiration and affection of women came easily; he would caress or tyrannize over them according to his mood, but in every change he was a despot.
At present, it was clear that Raymond wished to appear amiable. Wit, hilarity, and deep observation were mingled in his talk, rendering every sentence that he uttered as a flash of light. He soon conquered my latent distaste for him; I felt compelled to watch over Perdita, and to turn everything I had heard to his disadvantage. But all appeared so ingenuous, and all was so fascinating, that I forgot everything except the pleasure his company afforded me. Under the idea of initiating me in the scene of English politics and society, of which I was soon to become a part of, he narrated anecdotes, and sketched many characters; his discourse, rich and varied, flowed on, invading all my senses with pleasure. Raymond wanted to win me over, and he was nearly triumphant. His downfall? He alluded to Adrian, and spoke of him with such disparagement that the worldly wise always seem to impart on their perceived inferiors. As he spoke with disdain of Adrian, he saw a cloud forming over me, and tried to dissipate it; but the strength of my friendship would not allow this storm to pass, so I said emphatically, “I am devotedly attached to the Earl of Windsor; he is my best friend and benefactor. I believe in his goodness, I accord with his opinions, and bitterly lament his present, and I hope temporary, illness. It pains me beyond words to hear him mentioned, unless in terms of respect and affection.”
Raymond replied; but there was nothing conciliatory in his words. I saw that in his heart he despised those dedicated to any but worldly idols. “Every man,” he said, “dreams about something – love, honour, pleasure. You dream of friendship, and devote yourself to a maniac; well, if that be your vocation, doubtless you are in the right to follow it.”
My defiance had stung him, and a spasm of pain briefly convulsed his face. “Happy are dreamers,” he continued, “so that they be not awakened! If only I could dream! But broad and garish day, the dazzling glare of reality, is the element in which I live. Even the ghost of friendship has departed – and love…” He broke off; I could not know whether the disdain that curled his lip was directed against the emotion, or against himself for being its slave.
This encounter is but a sample of my interaction with Lord Raymond. I became close to him, and each day afforded me occasion to admire his powerful and versatile talents. Together with his eloquence, which was graceful and witty, and his wealth (now immense), caused him to be feared, loved, and hated beyond any other man in England.
My connection with Adrian, the favour of the ambassador, whose secretary I had been, and now my friendship with Lord Raymond, gave me easy access to the elite and political circles of England. To the uninitiated, English politics would give the impression that we were on the eve of a civil war; each party was violent, acrimonious, and unyielding. Parliament was divided by three factions, aristocrats, democrats, and royalists. After Adrian’s declared support to the republican form of government, the party had nearly died away, having lost its guidance to his illness; but, when Lord Raymond came forward as its leader, it surged with redoubled force.
Some were royalists from prejudice and ancient tradition, and there were many moderates who feared both the capricious tyranny of the popular party, and the unbending despotism of the aristocrats. More than a third of the members ranged themselves under Raymond, and their number was perpetually increasing. The aristocrats built their hopes on their preponderant wealth and influence; the reformers on the force of the nation itself. The debates were violent, resistance even to the death threatened; meetings of the populace disturbed the quiet order of the country. How could all this end, except for war?
Even as the destructive flames seemed ready to break forth, I saw them shrink back; allayed by the absence of the military, by the aversion which they each had to any real violence, and by the cordial politeness and even friendship of the hostile leaders when they met in private. I was from a thousand motives induced to witness the course of events, and watch each turn with intense anxiety.
I could not help but notice that Perdita loved Raymond; I also thought also that he regarded my fair sister with respect and tenderness. Yet I knew that he was urging forward his marriage with the presumptive heiress of the Earldom of Windsor, with keen expectation of the advantages that would then accrue to him. All the ex-queen’s friends were his friends; no week passed that he did not hold consultations with her at Windsor.
I had never seen the sister of Adrian. I had heard that Idris was lovely, amiable, and fascinating. Wherefore should I see her? There are times when we have an indefinable sentiment of impending change for better or for worse, to arise from an event; and, be it for better or for worse, we fear the change, and shun the event. For this reason I avoided this high-born damsel. To me she was everything and nothing; her very name mentioned by another made me start and tremble; the endless discussion concerning her union with Lord Raymond was agony to me. I thought that, Adrian withdrawn from active life, and this beauteous Idris, likely a victim of her mother’s ambitious schemes, it was my duty to protect her from undue influence, guard her from unhappiness, and secure her freedom of choice – the right of every human being.
Yet how was I to do this? She herself would reject my interference. If I was an object of indifference or contempt to her, far better avoid her, than to expose myself to the world as a foolish Icarus playing a mad game.
Several months after my return to England, I travelled to visit my sister. Her company was my chief solace and delight; my spirits always rose at the sight of her. Her conversation was full of pointed remark and discernment; in her pleasant alcove, perfumed with the sweetest flowers, adorned by magnificent casts, antique vases, and copies of the finest pictures of Raphael, Correggio, and Claude, painted by herself, I fancied myself in a fairy retreat untainted by the noisy contentions of politicians and the frivolous pursuits of the elite. On this occasion, my sister was not alone; nor could I fail to recognise her companion: it was Idris, the until now unseen object of my mad worship.
In what fitting terms of wonder and delight, can I usher in the loveliest, wisest, best of all women? How can a poor assemblage of words convey the halo of glory that surrounded her? The first thing that struck you on beholding that charming visage was its perfect goodness; candour sat upon her brow, simplicity in her eyes, heavenly benignity in her smile. Her tall slim figure bent gracefully as a poplar to the breezy west, and her goddess-like gait, was as that of a winged angel newly alit from heaven’s high floor; her voice resembled the low, subdued tenor of a flute.
Perdita, even where she loved, was reserved and timid; Idris was frank and confiding. The one recoiled to solitude, that she might there entrench herself from disappointment and injury; the other walked forth in open day, believing that none would harm her. Wordsworth has compared a beloved female to two fair objects in nature; but his lines always appeared to be a contrast rather than a similitude:
A violet by a mossy stone
Half hidden from the eye,
Fair as a star when only one
Is shining in the sky.
Such a violet was sweet Perdita, trembling to entrust herself to the very air, cowering from observation, betrayed by her excellences; and repaying with a thousand graces the labour of those who sought her friendship. Idris was the star, set in splendour in the dim coronet of balmy evening; ready to enlighten the world.
I found this vision of beauty in Perdita’s alcove, in earnest conversation with its inmate. When my sister saw me, she rose, and taking my hand, said, “He is here; Idris, this is Lionel, my brother.”
Idris arose also, and bent on me her eyes of celestial blue, and with peculiar grace said “You hardly need an introduction; we have a picture, highly valued by my father, which declares at once your name. Verney, I know that you will acknowledge this tie, and as my brother’s friend, I feel that I may trust you.”
Then, with eyes humid with a tear and trembling voice, she continued – “Dear friends, please do not think it strange that now, visiting you for the first time, I ask your assistance, and confide my wishes and fears to you. To you alone do I dare speak; I have heard you commended by impartial spectators; you are my brother’s friends, therefore you must be mine. What can I say? If you refuse to aid me, I am lost indeed!” She cast up her eyes, while wonder held her auditors mute; then, as if carried away by her feelings, she cried – “My brother! Beloved, ill-fated Adrian! How can I speak of your misfortunes? Doubtless you have both heard the current tale; perhaps believe the slander; but he is not mad! Were an angel from the foot of God’s throne to assert it, never, never would I believe it. He is wronged, betrayed, imprisoned – save him! Verney, you must do this; seek him out in whatever part of the island he is immured; find him, rescue him from his persecutors, restore him to himself, to me – on this entire earth I have none to love but him!”
Her earnest appeal, so sweetly and passionately expressed, filled me with wonder and sympathy; and, when she added, with thrilling voice and look, “Do you vow to help me, to help your best friend?” I vowed, with energy and truth, to devote myself in life and death to the restoration and welfare of Adrian. We then conversed on the plan I should pursue, and discussed the probable means of discovering his residence. While we spoke, Lord Raymond entered unannounced: I saw Perdita tremble and grow deadly pale, and the cheeks of Idris glow with purest blushes. He must have been astonished at our gathering, disturbed by it I should have thought; but nothing of this appeared; he saluted my companions, and addressed me with a cordial greeting. Idris appeared suspended for a moment, and then with extreme sweetness, she said, “Lord Raymond, I confide in your goodness and honour.”
Smiling, he bent his head, and replied, with emphasis, “Do you indeed confide, Lady Idris?”
She endeavoured to read his thought, and then answered with dignity, “As you please. It is certainly best not to compromise oneself by any concealment.”
“Pardon me,” he replied, “if I have offended. Whether you trust me or not, rely on me to further your wishes, whatever they may be.”
Idris smiled her thanks, and rose to take leave. Lord Raymond requested permission to accompany her to Windsor Castle, and they exited the cottage together. My sister and I were left like two fools, who fancied that they had obtained a golden treasure, till daylight revealed it to be lead – two silly, luckless flies, who had played in sunbeams and were caught in a spider’s web. I leaned against the casement, and watched those two glorious creatures, till they disappeared in the forest-glades; and then I turned. Perdita had not moved; her eyes fixed on the ground, her cheeks pale, her very lips white, motionless and rigid, every feature stamped by woe, she sat. Half frightened, I would have taken her hand; but she shudderingly withdrew it, and strove to collect herself. I urged her to speak to me: “Not now,” she replied, “nor do you speak to me, my dear Lionel; you can say nothing, for you know nothing. I will see you tomorrow; in the meantime, adieu!” She rose, and walked from the room; but pausing at the door, and leaning against it, as if her over-busy thoughts had taken from her the power of supporting herself, she said, “Lord Raymond will probably return. Will you tell him that he must excuse me today, for I am not well. I will see him tomorrow if he wishes it, and you also. You had better return to London with him; there you can make enquiries concerning Adrian. Visit me again tomorrow before you leave – till then, farewell!”
She spoke falteringly, and concluded with a heavy sigh. I felt as if I had plunged into chaos; obscure, contrary, unintelligible. That Raymond should marry Idris was unbearable; yet my passion, though giant from birth, was too strange, wild, and unpredictable for me to feel the same misery I perceived in Perdita. How should I act? She had not confided in me; I could not demand an explanation from Raymond without the hazard of betraying what was perhaps her most treasured secret. I would learn the truth from her the following day. While I was occupied by multiplying reflections, Lord Raymond returned. He asked for my sister; and I delivered her message. After a moment, he asked me if I were about to return to London, and if I would accompany him: I agreed. He was silent and full of thought, and after a considerable part of our ride he finally said, “I must apologize to you for my distraction; the truth is, Ryland’s motion comes tonight, and I am considering my reply.”
Ryland was the leader of the popular party, a hard-headed man, who was eloquent in his own way; he was putting forward a bill making it treason to endeavour to change the present state of the English government and the standing laws of the republic. This attack was directed against Raymond and his machinations for the restoration of the monarchy.
Raymond asked me if I would accompany him to the House that evening. I remembered my pursuit for intelligence concerning Adrian; and, knowing that my time would be fully occupied, I excused myself. “Nay,” said my companion, “You are going to make enquiries concerning the Earl of Windsor. I can answer them at once: he is at the Duke of Athol’s seat at Dunkeld. On the first approach of his disorder, he travelled about from one place to another. Once he arrived at that romantic seclusion he refused to leave, so we made arrangements with the Duke for his accomodations.”
I was hurt by the careless tone with which he conveyed this information, and replied coldly: “I am obliged to you for this information, and I will avail myself of it.”
“You shall, Verney,” said he, “and if you are sincere, then I will gladly facilitate your task. But first, I beseech you, witness the result of this night’s contest, and the triumph I am about to achieve,while I fear that this victory could easily turn to defeat, what can I do? My dearest hopes appear to be near their fulfilment. The ex-queen gives me Idris; Adrian is unfit to succeed the earldom, which in my hands becomes a kingdom. By the reigning God it is true; the paltry earldom of Windsor shall no longer content any who possess it. The Countess can never forget that she has been a queen, and she disdains to leave a diminished legacy; her power and my wit will rebuild the throne, and this brow will be clasped by a kingly diadem. I can do this; I can marry Idris. I can—“
He stopped abruptly, his expression darkened, changing again and again under the influence of inner turmoil. I asked, “Does Lady Idris love you?”
“What a question,” he replied, laughing. “She will learn to love me, as I shall her, after we are married.”
“Marriage is the grave, and not the cradle of love. So you are about to love her, but do not already?”
“Do not chastize me, Verney; I will do my duty by her, be assured. Love! Love that would rule me? I must steel my heart against that; expel it from its tower of strength, barricade it out: the fountain of love must cease, its waters dried up, and all passionate thoughts dependent on it die. Idris is a gentle, pretty, sweet little girl; it is impossible not to have an affection for her, and I have a very sincere one; only do not speak of love – love, the tyrant and the tyrant-queller; love, until now my conqueror, now my slave; the hungry fire, the untameable beast, the fanged snake – no, no – I will have nothing to do with that love. I will rule love. Tell me, Lionel, do you consent that I should marry her?”
He bent his keen eyes upon me, and my uncontrollable heart swelled. I replied in a calm voice – but how far from calm was the thought imaged by my still words – “Never! I can never consent that Lady Idris should be united to one who does not love her!”
“But only because you love her yourself.”
“You might have spared that taunt; I dare not love her. ”
“At least,” he continued insolently, “it is clear she does not love you. I could not marry a reigning sovereign, were I not sure that her heart was free. But, O, Lionel! a kingdom is a word of might, and gently sounding are the terms that compose the style of royalty. Were not the mightiest men of the olden times kings? Alexander was a king; Solomon, the wisest of men, was a king; Napoleon was a king; Caesar died in his attempt to become one, and Cromwell, the puritan and king-killer, aspired to regality. The father of Adrian yielded the already broken sceptre of England; but I will rear the fallen rose, join its dismembered frame, and exalt it above the flowers of the field.
“Do not suppose me wicked or foolish enough to found my reign on a fraud, and one so easily discovered as the nature of the Earl’s insanity. I am just come from him. Before I decided on my marriage with Idris, I resolved to see him again, and to judge the probability of his recovery. Lionel, I tell you this as a friend: he is irrecoverably mad.”
I gasped for breath–
“I will not detail to you,” continued Raymond, “the melancholy particulars. You shall see him, and judge for yourself; although I fear this visit, useless to him, will be insufferably painful to you. It has weighed on my conscience ever since. Excellent and gentle as he is even in the downfall of his reason, I do not worship him as you do, but I would give all my hopes of a crown to see him restored.”
“Raymond,” I cried, “where will your actions end, in this maze of endless purpose in which you seem lost?”
“Where indeed? To a golden gemmed crown, I hope; and I dream of a crown and wake for one, but ever the devil whispers to me, that it is but a fool’s cap that I seek, and that were I wise, I should trample on it, and take in its stead, that which is worth all the crowns of this Earth.”
“And what is that?”
“If I do make it my choice, then you shall know; at present I dare not speak it, even think of it.”
Again he was silent, and after a pause turned to me laughingly. When scorn did not inspire his mirth, when it was genuine gaiety that painted his features with a joyous expression, his beauty became eminent, divine. “Verney,” said he, “my first act when I become King of England, will be to unite with the Greeks, take Constantinople, and subdue all of Asia. I intend to be a warrior, a conqueror; Napoleon’s name shall pale in comparison to mine; and instead of visiting his rocky grave, and exalting his merits all will adore my majesty, and magnify my illustrious achievements.”
I listened to Raymond with intense interest. Could I be other than all ear, to one who seemed to govern the whole earth in his grasping imagination, and who only daunted when he attempted to rule himself. On his word and will depended my own happiness – the fate of all dear to me. I endeavoured to divine the concealed meaning of his words. Perdita’s name was not mentioned; yet I could not doubt that love for her caused the indecisiveness of purpose that he exhibited. And who was so worthy of love as my noble-minded sister? Who deserved the hand of this self-exalted king more than she whose glance belonged to a queen of nations? Who loved him, as he did her; notwithstanding that disappointment quelled her passion, and ambition held strong combat with his.
We went together to the Houses of Parliament that evening. Raymond, while he knew that his plans and prospects were to be discussed and decided during the expected debate, was heedless. A hum, like that of ten thousand hives of swarming bees, stunned us as we entered the anteroom. Knots of politicians were assembled with anxious brows and loud, deep voices. The aristocratical party, the richest and most influential men in England, were led by Ryland and his supporters. They appeared less agitated than the others, for the question was to be discussed without their interference. Ryland was a man of obscure birth and of immense wealth, inherited from his father, who had been a manufacturer. As a young man he had witnessed the abdication of the king, and the amalgamation of the two houses of Lords and Commons; he had sympathized with these popular encroachments, and it had been the purpose of his political life to consolidate and increase them.
Since then, the influence of the aristocracy had augmented; and at first Ryland was pleased to observe the machinations of Lord Raymond, which drew off many of his opponent’s partisans. He felt that a call to reinstate the monarchy would simply strengthen support for his cause, but he had underestimated Raymond and now it had gone too far. The poorer nobility hailed the return of sovereignty, as an event which would restore them to their power and rights, now lost. The half extinct spirit of royalty roused itself in the minds of men; and they, willing slaves, self-constituted subjects, were ready to bend their necks to the yoke. The Royal spirit still remained, but the word republic had grown stale and vulgar to the ear; and many – the events of this night would prove whether it was a majority – pined for the tinsel and show of royalty. Ryland was galvanized to resistance; he asserted that his suffering alone had permitted the increase of this party; but the time for indulgence had passed, and with one motion of his arm he would sweep away the cobwebs that blinded his countrymen.
When Raymond entered the anteroom, his presence was hailed by his friends almost with a shout. They gathered round him, counted their numbers, and detailed the reasons why they were now to receive an addition of such and such members, who were yet undecided. After some trifling business of the House, the leaders took their seats in the chamber; the clamour of voices continued, till Ryland arose to speak, and then the slightest whisper became audible. All eyes were fixed upon him as he stood – ponderous of frame, sonorous of voice, and with a manner which, though not graceful, was impressive. I turned from his marked, iron countenance to Raymond, whose face, veiled by a smile, would not betray his thoughts.
Ryland began by praising the present state of the British empire. He recalled past years to their memory; the miserable contentions which in the time of our fathers arose almost to civil war, the abdication of the late king, and the foundation of the republic. He described this republic; how it gave privilege to each person in the state, an individual sovereignty. He compared the royal and republican spirit; showed how the one tended to enslave the minds of men; while all the institutions of the other served to raise even the most disadvanteged to something great and good. He illustrated how England had become powerful, and its inhabitants valiant and wise, by means of the freedom they enjoyed. As he spoke, every heart swelled with pride, and every cheek glowed with delight to remember, that each one there was English, and that each supported and contributed to the happy state of things now commemorated.
Ryland’s fervour increased, his eyes lit up; his voice assumed the tone of passion. There was one man, he continued, who wished to alter all this, and bring us back to our days of impotence and strife: one man, who would dare seize the honour which was due to all who claimed England as their birthplace, and set his needs above the needs of his country. I saw at this juncture that Raymond changed colour; his eyes were withdrawn from the orator, and cast on the ground; the listeners turned from one to the other; but in the meantime the speaker’s voice filled their ears – the thunder of his denunciations influenced their senses. The very boldness of his language gave him weight; each knew that he spoke truth – a truth known, but not acknowledged. He tore from reality the mask with which she had been clothed; and the true purposes of Raymond, who now stood a hunted stag. Ryland ended by moving, that any attempt to re-eestablish the kingly power should be declared treason, and any who should endeavour to change the present form of government branded a traitor. Cheers and loud acclamations followed the close of his speech.
After Ryland’s motion had been seconded, Lord Raymond rose, his expression bland, his voice softly melodious, his grace and sweetness like the mild breathing of a flute. After the loud, organ-like voice of his adversary, his soothing voice served to pacify the room. He rose, he said, to speak in favour of the honourable member’s motion, with one slight amendment. He was ready to honour the contests of our fathers, and the monarch’s abdication. Nobly and greatly, he said, had the illustrious and last sovereign of England sacrificed himself for the apparent good of his country, and divested himself of a power which could only be maintained by the blood of his subjects – these subjects being his friends and equals, who had in gratitude conferred certain favours and distinctions on him and his family for ever. An ample estate was allotted to them, and they took the first rank among the society of Great Britain. Yet it might be speculated that they had not forgotten their ancient heritage; and it was hard that their heirs should suffer if they attempted to regain what by ancient right and inheritance belonged to them. He did not say that he should favour such an attempt; but he did say that such an attempt should be pardonable; and, if the aspirant did not go so far as to declare war, and impose his fault in the kingdom, he ought to be regarded with tolerance. In his amendment he proposed, that an exception should be made in the bill in favour of any person who claimed the sovereign power formerly belonging to the earls of Windsor.
Raymond could not end without drawing in vivid and glowing colours, the splendour of a kingdom, in opposition to the commercial spirit of republicanism. He asserted, that each individual under the English monarchy, was then as now, capable of attaining nearly any high rank or power – with the exception of chief magistrate – a higher and nobler rank, than a bartering, timorous commonwealth could afford. And for this one exception, to what did it amount? The nature of riches and influence forcibly confined the list of candidates to a few of the wealthiest; and it was much to be feared, that the contention generated by this triennial struggle, would counterbalance any advantages in the eyes of the republic. In short, it was not different that living under a monarchy, so how could such behaviour be treasonous?
I can ill record the flow of language and graceful turns of expression, the wit and easy banter that gave vigour and influence to his speech. His manner, timid at first, became firm – his changeful face was lit up to superhuman brilliancy; his voice, enchanting.
It was useless to record the debate that followed this harangue. Party speeches were delivered, which clothed Ryland’s motion in hypocrisy, and tangled its simple meaning in a woven wind of words. The motion was lost; Ryland withdrew in rage and despair; and Raymond, exultant, had opened the door to his future kingdom.