The Last Man 2.0: Chapter V

IS there such a thing as love at first sight? And if there is, how does it differ from love founded in long observation and slow growth? While its effects may not be so permanent, they are easily as violent and intense. We walk the pathless mazes of life, vacant of joy, until love leads us through the labyrinth to paradise. Our nature dim, like an unlit torch, sleeps in a formless void until the fire gives it life. What does it matter, whether the fire be struck from flint and steel, nourished with care into a flame, slowly communicated to the dark wick, or whether the radiant power of light and warmth swiftly passes from a kindred power, and shines at once the beacon of hope? In the deepest fountain of my heart the pulses were stirred. The spirit of Idris hovered in the air I breathed; her smile blinded my faint gaze, and caused me to walk in a new and brilliant light, too dazzling for my human senses. On every leaf, on every small component of the universe, was imprinted the talisman of my existence. I had no time to analyze my feelings and leash in the tameless passion. My life quickly became one idea, one feeling, one knowledge – Idris.

But the die was cast – Raymond would marry Idris. I imagined wedding bells ringing in my ears followed by the nation’s bliss at the union. The ambitious noble rose with the swift flight of an eagle; from the lowly ground to regal supremacy. Yet I knew that Idris did not love him; after all she had entrusted me with her heart’s dearest hope, the welfare of her brother, Adrian. This reflection thawed my congealing blood, and the tide of life and love continued to flow.

I wandered the streets aimlessly after attending the day’s political debates, which seemed to be yet another victory for Raymond. My soul was chaos; my heart was wounded by the iron heel of despair. I retreated home and threw myself on a couch – I slept (was it sleep? My thoughts would not cease) while love and despair struggled and I writhed with unendurable pain.

I awoke half stupefied; my limbs quivered beneath the tormenting power of my thoughts as I became a slave to my inner turmoil.

Suddenly, Lord Raymond entered my apartment unannounced. He came in singing the Tyrolese song of liberty, acknowledging me with a gracious nod, and threw himself on a sofa across from a bust of the Apollo Belvidere. After some trivial remarks, he cried cheerfully, looking at the bust, “Like him, I am a victor! His head will serve for my new coinage; an omen to my future subjects.”

His mood suddenly darkened. “I fought a good battle last night; not even the plains of Greece have seen higher conquest. Now I am the subject of every ballad, and object of old women’s devotions. Now tell me, you, who fancy that you can read the human soul: is your future king an angel or devil?”

Stung by his insolence, I replied bitterly, “There is a spirit, neither angel nor devil, but rather damned to purgatory.” I saw him become pale. His eyes were suddenly withdrawn; a tear began to form. I added, “Not that you are such, my dear lord.”

I paused at the pain he revealed. “Yes,” he said, rising and biting his lip, as he strove to curb his emotions; “You do not know me, Verney. Neither you, nor our audience of last night, nor does anyone in all of England truly know me. I stand here, it would seem, an elected king. My hand is about to grasp a sceptre; my brows feel in each nerve the crown. I appear to have strength, power, victory. I stand as a dome supporting column stands, but I am simply a reed! My dreams are realized, my waking hopes fulfilled; a kingdom awaits my acceptance, my enemies are overthrown. But here,” and he struck his heart with violence, “here is the rebel, the stumbling-block: this overruling heart. Even if I drain its living blood, while one fluttering pulsation remains, I am its slave.”

He spoke with a broken voice, bowed his head, and, hiding his face in his hands, wept. Throwing himself on the couch, he remained silent and motionless, yet his features showed a strong internal conflict. At last he rose, and said in his usual tone of voice, “The time grows near, Verney, I must soon leave. Let me not forget my chief errand here. Will you accompany me to Windsor tomorrow?”

He held out his hand with almost a bashful air. Swiftly I replied “Yes”, knowing that I must witness the last scene of this drama. “Then meet me promptly at seven in the morning, and be sure to tell no one of our destination.”

Raymond galloped away on his horse, bidding me a laughing adieu. Finally alone, I strove with painful intensity to understand the motive of his request and the events of the coming day. As the hours passed, my head ached with thought – I clasped my burning brow, as if my fevered hand could relieve its pain.

The following day, I found Lord Raymond waiting for me. We entered his carriage, and proceeded towards Windsor. I had steadied myself, and was resolved to show no outward sign of my internal struggle.

“What a mistake Ryland made,” said Raymond, “when he thought to debate me the other night. He spoke well, very well; such an diatribe would have succeeded had it been addressed to me alone, instead of the fools assembled there. Had we been alone, I might have listened to him with a wish to hear reason, but when he endeavoured to vanquish me in my own territory, with my own weapons, the outcome was such as all might have expected.”

I smiled incredulously, and replied: “I am of Ryland’s way of thinking, and will repeat all his arguments. We shall see if you can be convinced to sacrifice the royal for the patriotic.”

“It would be pointless,” said Raymond, “since I still remember them, and have many arguments which speak with unanswerable persuasion.”

He did not explain himself, nor did I comment on his reply. Our silence endured for miles, while the countryside presented a pleasant view. After some time, Raymond said: “Philosophers have called man a microcosm of nature, a reflection of all these wonders of nature visibly at work around us. This theory has often been a source of amusement to me; I have spent hours trying to find examples. What a sea is the tide of passion; our virtues are quicksands. The conventions of the world, its dilemmas, experiences and pursuits, are winds to drive our sails, but let a thunderstorm arise in the shape of love, hate, or ambition, and it stems the opposing air in triumph.”

“And yet,” I replied, “nature always appears patient, while man is capable of ruling fortune, and standing against the gale, until he finds a way to conquer it.”

“There are more fallacies than truth in your distinction,” said my companion. We were given the opportunity to create ourselves, to choose our dispositions and abilities. I see myself as a stringed instrument with chords and stops – but with no power to turn the pegs, or pitch my thoughts to a different key.”

“Other men,” I observed, “may be better musicians.”

“I can speak only of myself,” replied Raymond, “and I am as fair an example to go by as any other. I cannot set my heart to a particular tune, or voluntarily change my will. We are born; we choose neither our parents, nor our station; we are educated by others, or by the world’s circumstance, and this cultivation, mingling with our innate disposition, is the soil in which our desires, passions, and motives grow.”

“There is much truth in what you say,” I replied, “and yet no man ever acts upon this theory. Who, when he makes a choice, says, ‘I choose, because I must?’ Does he not feel a freedom of will within him, which, though you may call it delusion, still influences him as he decides?”

“Exactly,” replied Raymond, “another link of the endless chain. Were I now to commit an act which would annihilate my hopes, and pluck the crown from my mortal self, would this be an act of free will?”

As we spoke, I saw that we were not taking the ordinary road to Windsor, but through Englefield Green, towards Bishopgate Heath. I realised that Idris was not the object of our journey, but that I was brought to witness the scene that was to decide the fate of Raymond – and of Perdita. I watched him curiously, determined that if he did not change his way of thinking, I would help Perdita to overcome her infatuation with him. Her love, excellence and affection were easily worth more than any crown.

We found Perdita in her flower-adorned alcove; she was reading the newspaper article on the debate in parliament, which had apparently doomed her to hopelessness. That heart-sinking feeling was painted in her sunk eyes and spiritless attitude; a cloud hung over her beautiful face, clearly marking it with distress. This sight had an instantaneous effect on Raymond; his eyes echoed tenderness and remorse. He sat beside her, and taking the paper from her hand said, “Do not read another word; this is the contention of madmen and fools. If I permit you to be acquainted with the extent of my delusion, surely you will despise me. Please believe me, a wish to appear before you, not as the vanquished, but as a conqueror, is what inspired me during these proceedings.”

Perdita looked at him amazed; her expressive features shone for a moment with tenderness; seeing him was pure bliss. But a bitter thought swiftly shadowed her joy; she bent her eyes low, struggling to control the deluge of tears that threatened to overwhelm her. Raymond continued, “I will not act a part with you, or appear other than what I am: weak and unworthy, more deserving of your disdain than your love. Yet you do love me; I know that you do, and from there I draw my strength. If pride or reason guided you, you might well reject me. If your entire soul does not urge you to forgive me – if your whole heart does not open wide its door to admit me to its very centre, forsake me, and never speak to me again. Though I have sinned against you almost beyond forgiveness, I must ask that there be no reserve in your pardon – no drawback to the gift of your affection.”

Perdita looked down, confused, yet pleased. My presence embarrassed her; she dared not turn to meet her lover’s eye, or trust her voice to assure him of her affection; a blush mantled her cheek, and her melancholy was replaced with heartfelt joy. Raymond circled his arm around her waist and continued, “I do not deny that I was torn choosing between you and the highest hope that mortal men can aspire to – but I do so no longer. Perdita – mould me to your will, possess my heart and soul for all eternity. If you do not wish to see me again, simply say so, and I will leave England tonight, never to set foot in it again.”

“Lionel, if our friendship means anything to you, I beg you: persuade your sister to forgive me.”

“The only persuasion I require,” said Perdita, blushing “are your promises, and my ready heart, which whispers to me that they are true.”

That same evening the three of us walked together in the forest, and, with the excess which happiness inspires, they detailed to me their plans. It was charming to see the arrogant Raymond and reserved Perdita transformed by love into playful creatures, both submitting to true happiness. A night ago Raymond, with a heart oppressed by thought, spent all his energies to persuade the legislators of England that a sceptre was not too heavy for his hand, while visions of empire, war, and triumph floated before him. Now, frolicking as a lively boy under his mother’s approving eye, his hopes of royal ambition were dashed the moment he pressed the small fair hand of Perdita to his lips. She, radiant with delight, looked on, united for the first time with her true love.

I wandered away from them. While they felt the rapture of true love, I enjoyed restored hope. I looked on the regal towers of Windsor. High is the wall and strong the barrier that separate me from my Star of Beauty, but they are no longer impassible. With the love of Raymond and Perdita made clear, Idris would no longer be forced to marry him.

But first I must restore Adrian, and bring him back to Idris. Patience, gentleness, and untired affection shall bring him back to us if he has truly gone mad. Energy and courage shall rescue him if he has been unjustly imprisoned.

After the lovers again joined me, we ate together in the alcove. At about midnight Raymond and I left my sister, returning to town. He was overjoyed; scraps of songs fell from his lips; every thought of his mind, every object about us, gleamed under the sunshine of his high spirits. He accused me of melancholy, of ill-humour and envy.

“Not so,” I said, “although I confess that my thoughts are not as pleasant as yours. You promised to help me free Adrian. I cannot linger here; I must save my best friend. I shall depart for Dunkeld immediately.”

“What an eclipse you throw across my happiness, forcing me to recall poor Adrian, who stands in mental desolation, more irreparable than a fragment of a lost relic in a weed-grown field. You dream that you can restore him? Daedulus never wound such a labyrinth around the minotaur, as the one that has imprisoned his mind. Nor you, nor I, nor even Theseus can save him. Only some unkind Ariadne might have a clue.”

“We cannot call on the figures of legend, and I would enlist the help of Evadne, but she is not in England!”

“Even if she were,” said Raymond, “I would advise her against seeing him. Better for Adrian to decay in absolute delirium, than to be the victim of ill-bestowed love – although I am certain that the long duration of his illness has probably erased from all remnants of her from his mind.”

Raymond continued, “You will find him at Dunkeld; gentle and complacent he wanders up the hills, and through the wood, or sits listening beside the waterfall. You may see him – his hair adorned with wild flowers, his eyes full of untraceable meaning, voice broken, wasted to a shadow. He plucks flowers and weeds, and makes wreaths of them, or sails yellow leaves and bits of bark on the stream, rejoicing in their safety, or weeping at their wreck. Lionel, I tell you this in confidence: I have not cried since childhood, except for when I saw him.”

I did not need this last account to drive me to visit him. I only doubted whether or not I should see Idris again before departing. Early in the morning Raymond came to me; news had arrived that Adrian was dangerously ill, and that his recovery seemed impossible. “Tomorrow,” said Raymond, “his mother and sister set out for Scotland to see him once again.”

“And I will go now,” I cried; “this very hour to find the fastest airship. Farewell Raymond; be happy in having chosen the better path in life. While I know that Adrian is suffering a crisis, my heart tells me that he will not die. But this does not mean that my journey will easy. Until I return, I entrust Perdita to you.” We quickly embraced, our previous resentments gone, and then I set out hoping that I would reach Adrian in time.

Everything favoured my journey. The airship rose from the earth, and with a favourable wind it hurried through the air, its feathered wings cleaving
the atmosphere. Despite the tragic object of my journey, my spirits were exhilarated by the balmy, sunny air. The pilot hardly moved the plumed steerage, and the unfurled wings coursed through the air with a soothing, murmuring noise. Plain and hill, stream and corn-field, were discernible below, while we sped unimpeded on swift current. Such was the power of man over the elements; a power long sought and foretold by luminaries, but only lately won.

I descended at Perth, and though fatigued by my journey, I would not rest until I reached Dunkeld. The rising sun first tinged the pine tops; and my mind, deeply susceptible to the graces of nature, was strangely influenced by the sight of those distant beams. Surely they were good omens.

Shortly thereafter, I saw my dear friend at last. He lay stretched out with clear signs of serious illness: his cheeks glowing with the hues of fever, his eyes half closed, his breath irregular and difficult. I stayed by his bedside day and night. It was painful to see him waver between life and death. To know that the very fever which burned too fiercely was consuming his life force; to hear his moaning voice, which might never again articulate words of love and wisdom; to witness the ineffectual motions of his limbs, ready to shed their mortal coil. For three days and nights Adrian’s fate appeared to be sealed, and my anxiety and exhaustion left me haggard and spectre-like. Finally, Adrian’s eyes opened with a look of returning life, and he suddenly knew me. What a joyful agony it was, when his face first recognised mine and when he pronounced my name! No trace of his past mental anguish remained, yet he remained anemic and frail.

That evening Adrian’s mother and sister arrived. The Countess of Windsor was by her nature energetic; but she seldom allowed her emotions to show themselves. Her slow, composed manner, and soft but unmelodious voice, were a mask, hiding her fiery passions, and the impatience of her disposition. She did not in the least resemble either of her children; her black and sparkling eyes, lit up by pride, were totally unlike the blue, frank, benevolent expression of Adrian and Idris. There was something grand and majestic in her motions, but nothing persuasive, nothing engaging. Tall, thin, and straight, her face still beautiful, her raven hair hardly tinged with grey, her forehead arched and regal – it was impossible not to be struck by her, almost to fear her. Idris appeared to be the only one who could resist her mother. She had a fearlessness about her; while she would not encroach on another’s liberty, she held her own sacred and unassailable.

The Countess cast no look of kindness on my worn-out frame, though afterwards she thanked me coldly for my visit. It was not so with Idris; her first glance was for her
brother; she took his hand, she kissed his eye-lids, and hung over him with looks of compassion and love. Her eyes glistened with tears when she thanked me, and she almost faltered as she spoke. Her mother, soon interrupted us, and I saw that she wished to dismiss me quietly, as one whose services were no longer required. I resolved not to give up my post, and Adrian called me, clasping my hand and asking me not leave.

The days that followed were full of pain; I sometimes regretted not yielding to the Countess, who watched all my motions, and turned the task of nursing Adrian back to health into a source of pain and irritation. Her emotions had subdued her appetites, even her natural wants; she slept little, and hardly ate at all; her body was evidently considered by her as a mere machine, whose health was necessary for the accomplishment of her schemes, but whose senses formed no part of her enjoyment. There is something fearful in one who can conquer the animal part of our nature. The Countess was awake when others slept, fasting when I, feverish, felt compelled to gorge myself with food. She resolved to diminish my influence over her children, and circumvented my plans by a quiet, stubborn determination. War was tacitly acknowledged between us. We had many battles during which no word was spoken, hardly a look was exchanged, but we each resolved not to submit to the other. While the Countess had the advantage of position, I would not yield.

I became weak. My face was tainted with the hues of disease and weariness. Adrian and Idris saw this; they attributed it to my exhaustion and anxiety; they urged me to rest, and take care of myself, while I most truly assured them, that my best medicine was their good wishes; those, and the assured recovery of my friend, which improved daily. Colour returned to his cheeks; his brow and lips lost the ashy paleness of death; such was the reward of my efforts – which also gave me the thanks and smiles of Idris.

After a few weeks, we left Dunkeld. Idris and her mother returned immediately to Windsor, while Adrian and I followed by a slow journey impaired by frequent
stops due to his ongoing recovery. As we traversed the various counties of bountiful England, Adrian seemed rejuvenated by the weather and scenery after such a prolonged and isolated battle with disease. We passed through busy towns and farmland. The farmers were bringing in their plentiful harvests, and the women and children seemed like happy, healthy people – the very sight of whom carried joy to the heart. One evening, the sun was setting, and the clouds received the golden colour of parting beams. Adrian, who felt his health returning at last, clasped his hands in delight, and exclaimed:

“Surely a magnanimous power built up the majestic fabric we inhabit, and framed the laws by which it endures. If mere existence, and not happiness, had been the final end of our being, what need have we of the profuse luxuries which we enjoy? Why should our dwelling place be so lovely, and why should nature offer pleasurable sensations? The very sustaining of our animal machine is made delightful. Why should this be, if God were not good?”

“Our world is full of receptacles of the Spirit of Good. Look into the mind of man, where wisdom reigns enthroned. What a worthy the giver is the imagination! It takes from reality its leaden hue: it envelopes all thought and sensation in a radiant veil, and with an hand of beauty beckons us from the sterile seas of life, to her gardens, and bowers, and glades of bliss. And is not love a gift of divinity? Love, and her child, Hope, which can bestow wealth on poverty, strength on the weak, and happiness on the sorrowing. My lot has not been fortunate. I have consorted long with grief, entered the gloomy labyrinth of madness, and emerged, but half alive. Yet I thank God that I have lived! I thank God, that I have beheld his throne, the heavens, and earth, his footstool. I am glad that I have seen the changes of his day; to behold the sun, fountain of light, and the gentle pilgrim moon; to have seen the fire bearing flowers of the sky, and the flowery stars of earth; to have witnessed the sowing and the harvest. I am glad that I have loved, and have experienced joy and sorrow with my fellow-creatures. I am glad now to feel the current of thought flow through my mind, as the blood through the articulations of my frame. My mere existence is pleasure; and I thank God that I am alive!”

“And all ye happy offpsring of mother-earth, do ye not echo my words? Ye who are linked by the affectionate ties of nature, companions, friends, lovers! Fathers, who toil with joy for their offspring; women, who while gazing on the living forms of their children, forget the pains of maternity; children, who neither toil nor spin, but love and are loved!”

“Oh, that death and sickness were banished from our earthly home! That hatred, tyranny, and fear could no longer make their lair in the human heart! That each man might find a brother in his fellow! For the will of man is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease, and wiping away the tears of agony. And what is each human being worth, if they do not put forth their strength to aid their fellow creatures? My soul is a fading spark, my nature frail as a spent wave; but I dedicate all of my remaining intellect and strength to one work: bestowing blessings on my fellow-men!”

His voice trembled, and his fragile body was bent, drained by an excess of emotion. The spirit of life seemed to linger in his form, as a dying flame on an altar flickers on the embers of an accepted sacrifice.