The Last Man 2.0, Book One: Chapter V

 


 

IS there such a thing as love at first sight?  And if there is, how does it differ from love which burns in slow growth?  While its effects may not be so permanent, they are easily as violent and intense.  We walk the pathless mazes of life, empty of joy, until love leads us through the labyrinth to paradise.  In the deepest recesses of my heart the fires were stirred. I had no time to understand my feelings and leash in this 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 was the only thing keeping my hope alive.

I wandered the streets aimlessly after attending the political debates, which were yet another clear 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, 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 regal coinage, and an omen to my future subjects!”

But soon his mood darkened.  “I fought a worthy battle last night; not even the plains of Greece presented such a challenge.  Ryland is a good man, but luck was not on his side. 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 His eyes were suddenly withdrawn; a tear began to form.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 paused at the pain he revealed. “Yes,” he said, rising and biting his lip, as he strove to curb his emotions; “Perhaps you alone know me, Verney.  The audience of last night, not the armies of Greece, nor anyone else 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. Others see me as a pillar of the future, 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, he wept.  Throwing himself on the couch, he remained silent and motionless, yet his features showed an inner turmoil.  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?”

I swiftly 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 cheerful farewell.  Finally alone, I strove with painful intensity to understand why he would insist on travelling together, and the events of the coming day.   As the hours passed, my head ached with thought – with great effort, I forced myself to sleep.

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 inner conflict.

“What a mistake Ryland made,” said Raymond, “when he thought to debate me the other night.  He spoke well, very well. His speech 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 attempted to vanquish me in my own territory, with my own weapons, the outcome became certain.”

I smiled incredulously, and replied: “You mean to tell me that now that we are alone, if I were to repeat Ryland’s arguments, you would sacrifice the royal for the patriotic?”

He did not explain himself, nor did I press him further.  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.”

“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.  We were not given the opportunity to create ourselves, to choose our dispositions and abilities.  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 every man feels 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 head, would this be an act of free will?”

As we spoke, I saw that we were not taking the ordinary road to Windsor.  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.  Would Raymond make it clear to my sister that he had chosen his destiny as King over her love? I was 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. How could the love of a poor country girl compare to a life of royalty with Idris?  This sight had an immediate 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 become familiar 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 the only thing that inspired me to victory during these proceedings.”

Perdita looked at him amazed; her expressive features momentarily shone with 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 with this royal charade, 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.  It was clear that 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 this land again.”

Raymond turned to me: “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, 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.  Perdita found the love she truly deserved, and I know knew where to find Adrian.  And with Raymond giving up his aspirations to the crown, only one thing remained. 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 compassion shall bring him back to us if he has truly gone mad.  Energy and courage shall rescue him if he has been unjustly imprisoned. Whatever the solution, I was ready to lay down my life if need be.

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. 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; with or without your help I must save my best friend.  I shall depart for Dunkeld immediately.”

“What an eclipse you cast over my happiness Verney, forcing me to recall poor Adrian.  He stands in mental desolation, more irreparable than an ancient 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.  Not you, nor I, nor even Theseus can save him.”

“There must be someone who can reach him.  Perhaps I can try and reach Evadne.”

“Even if she were willing to help us,” said Raymond, “I would advise against involving her.  Better for Adrian to decay in absolute delirium, than to be the victim of pity – although I am certain that the long duration of his illness has probably erased 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.  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.”

This last detail drove me to leave at once.  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 say their goodbyes.”

“I must leave now,” I cried; “on the fastest airship.  Farewell Raymond. I am truly happy that you chose the better path in life.  I know that Adrian is suffering, but 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. She is all that I have left in this world.” 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 voyage. The pilot carefully 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. The gift of flight represented the power of man over the elements: a power long sought and foretold by luminaries, but only recently 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; surely these 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 fever was consuming his life force, and that his voice might never again articulate words of love and wisdom, as his body prepared to shed his 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!  While his mental anguish seemed alleviated, his body 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 stern voice were a mask for her fiery temper. She did not in the least resemble either of her children; her black, cold eyes were totally unlike the blue eyed, benevolent expressions of Adrian and Idris.  There was something grand and majestic in her motions, but nothing persuasive or 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. After taking Adrian’s hand, 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 would not give up my post as Adrian clasped my hand, begging 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 agony.  Her emotions had subdued even her natural wants; she slept little, and hardly ate at all. Her body was a mere machine, whose health was necessary for the accomplishment of her schemes, but otherwise served no other purpose.  There is something terrifying in one who can conquer the animal part of our nature. The Countess was awake when others slept, and thought nothing of fasting when I felt compelled to gorge myself with food. She was determined to diminish my influence over her children, and circumvented my plans with a quiet, stubborn determination.  War was evident between us, carried out through many battles where no word was spoken, hardly a look was exchanged, but it was war nonetheless. The Countess had the advantage of position, but I would never yield, no matter the cost.

Caring for Adrian took its toll on me.  I soon became ill, and weak. My face was tainted with disease and weariness.  Adrian and Idris saw the effects of my exhaustion and anxiety; they urged me to rest, and take care of myself, while I assured them that my only medicine was their affection.  I could not bring myself to tell them that my state was due to more than simple exhaustion; my weakened state had opened me to some previously unknown disease, which I felt was eating away at my very soul.  But I could not allow my friends, nor the Countess, to see how much I truly suffered.

While my health declined, Adrian’s vastly improved.  Colour returned to his cheeks, his face lost the ashy paleness of death.   It was clear that the lifting of the fog over his mind had brought him back.  These were the rewards of my efforts – this, and the undying gratitude of Idris.  During this time, the Countess relented, and I slowly began to regain my strength.  Although my suffering was distinct from Adrian’s mental anguish, whatever mysterious illness had afflicted me was beginning to loosen its grip.

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 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 struggle.  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 land 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 these gifts which we enjoy?  Why should our dwelling place be so lovely, and why should nature offer such 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.  And what about hope and love? These can bestow wealth on poverty, strength on the weak, and happiness on the sorrowing.  Love saved me from the gloomy labyrinth of madness, and while I emerged only half alive, I thank God that I have lived! I am glad that once again I can behold the sun, the gentle moon, the stars of the universe.  My mere existence is pleasure; and I thank God that I am alive!”

“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!  For the will of our race is omnipotent, blunting the arrows of death, soothing the bed of disease, and wiping away the tears of agony. My soul is a fading spark, my nature frail as a spent fire.  But whatever of my strength remains will belong to one work: the betterment of life for all!”

His voice trembled, and his fragile body was spent, 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.

With disease and desolation vanquished, I thought that the worst had passed.  I could have no idea as to how truly naive I was.