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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesDevereux - Book 5 - Chapter 1. A Portrait
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Devereux - Book 5 - Chapter 1. A Portrait Post by :sportstoto3368 Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :1003

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Devereux - Book 5 - Chapter 1. A Portrait


MYSTERIOUS impulse at the heart, which never suffers us to be at rest, which urges us onward as by an unseen yet irresistible law--human planets in a petty orbit, hurried forever and forever, till our course is run and our light is quenched--through the circle of a dark and impenetrable destiny! art thou not some faint forecast and type of our wanderings hereafter; of the unslumbering nature of the soul; of the everlasting progress which we are predoomed to make through the countless steps and realms and harmonies in the infinite creation? Oh, often in my rovings have I dared to dream so,--often have I soared on the wild wings of thought above the "smoke and stir" of this dim earth, and wrought, from the restless visions of my mind, a chart of the glories and the wonders which the released spirit may hereafter visit and behold!

What a glad awakening from self,--what a sparkling and fresh draught from a new source of being,--what a wheel within wheel, animating, impelling, arousing all the rest of this animal machine, is the first excitement of Travel! the first free escape from the bonds of the linked and tame life of cities and social vices,--the jaded pleasure and the hollow love, the monotonous round of sordid objects and dull desires,--the eternal chain that binds us to things and beings, mockeries of ourselves,--alike, but oh, how different! the shock that brings us nearer to men only to make us strive against them, and learn, from the harsh contest of veiled deceit and open force, that the more we share the aims of others, the more deeply and basely rooted we grow to the littleness of self!

I passed more lingeringly through France than I did through the other portions of my route. I had dwelt long enough in the capital to be anxious to survey the country. It was then that the last scale which the magic of Louis Quatorze and the memory of his gorgeous court had left upon the mortal eye fell off, and I saw the real essence of that monarch's greatness and the true relics of his reign. I saw the poor, and the degraded, and the racked, and the priest-ridden, tillers and peoplers of the soil, which made the substance beneath the glittering and false surface,--the body of that vast empire, of which I had hitherto beheld only the face, and THAT darkly, and for the most part covered by a mask!

No man can look upon France, beautiful France,--her rich soil, her temperate yet maturing clime, the gallant and bold spirits which she produces, her boundaries so indicated and protected by Nature itself, her advantages of ocean and land, of commerce and agriculture,--and not wonder that her prosperity should be so bloated, and her real state so wretched and diseased.

Let England draw the moral, and beware not only of wars which exhaust, but of governments which impoverish. A waste of the public wealth is the most lasting of public afflictions; and "the treasury which is drained by extravagance must be refilled by crime."*

* Tacitus.

I remember one beautiful evening an accident to my carriage occasioned my sojourn for a whole afternoon in a small village. The Cure honoured me with a visit; and we strolled, after a slight repast, into the hamlet. The priest was complaisant, quiet in manner, and not ill informed for his obscure station and scanty opportunities of knowledge; he did not seem, however, to possess the vivacity of his countrymen, but was rather melancholy and pensive, not only in his expression of countenance, but his cast of thought.

"You have a charming scene here: I almost feel as if it were a sin to leave it so soon."

We were, indeed, in a pleasant and alluring spot at the time I addressed this observation to the good Cure. A little rivulet emerged from the copse to the left, and ran sparkling and dimpling beneath our feet, to deck with a more living verdure the village green, which it intersected with a winding nor unmelodious stream. We had paused, and I was leaning against an old and solitary chestnut-tree, which commanded the whole scene. The village was a little in the rear, and the smoke from its few chimneys rose slowly to the silent and deep skies, not wholly unlike the human wishes, which, though they spring from the grossness and the fumes of earth, purify themselves as they ascend to heaven. And from the village (when other sounds, which I shall note presently, were for an instant still) came the whoop of children, mellowed by distance into a confused yet thrilling sound, which fell upon the heart like the voice of our gone childhood itself. Before, in the far expanse, stretched a chain of hills on which the autumn sun sank slowly, pouring its yellow beams over groups of peasantry, which, on the opposite side of the rivulet and at some interval from us, were scattered, partly over the green, and partly gathered beneath the shade of a little grove. The former were of the young, and those to whom youth's sports are dear, and were dancing to the merry music, which (ever and anon blended with the laugh and the tone of a louder jest) floated joyously on our ears. The fathers and matrons of the hamlet were inhaling a more quiet joy beneath the trees, and I involuntarily gave a tenderer interest to their converse by supposing them to sanction to each other the rustic loves which they might survey among their children.

"Will not Monsieur draw nearer to the dancers?" said the Cure; "there is a plank thrown over the rivulet a little lower down."

"No!" said I, "perhaps they are seen to better advantage where we are: what mirth will bear too close an inspection?"

"True, Sir," remarked the priest, and he sighed.

"Yet," I resumed musingly, and I spoke rather to myself than to my companion, "yet, how happy do they seem! what a revival of our Arcadian dreams are the flute and the dance, the glossy trees all glowing in the autumn sunset, the green sod, and the murmuring rill, and the buoyant laugh, startling the satyr in his leafy haunts; and the rural loves which will grow sweeter still when the sun has set, and the twilight has made the sigh more tender and the blush of a mellower hue! Ah, why is it only the revival of a dream? why must it be only an interval of labour and woe, the brief saturnalia of slaves, the green resting-spot in a dreary and long road of travail and toil?"

"You are the first stranger I have met," said the Cure, "who seems to pierce beneath the thin veil of our Gallic gayety; the first to whom the scene we now survey is fraught with other feelings than a belief in the happiness of our peasantry, and an envy at its imagined exuberance. But as it is not the happiest individuals, so I fear it is not the happiest nations, that are the gayest."

I looked at the Cure with some surprise. "Your remark is deeper than the ordinary wisdom of your tribe, my Father," said I.

"I have travelled over three parts of the globe," answered the Cure: "I was not always intended for what I am;" and the priest's mild eyes flashed with a sudden light that as suddenly died away. "Yes, I have travelled over the greater part of the known world," he repeated, in a more quiet tone; "and I have noted that where a man has many comforts to guard, and many rights to defend, he necessarily shares the thought and the seriousness of those who feel the value of a treasure which they possess, and whose most earnest meditations are intent upon providing against its loss. I have noted, too, that the joy produced by a momentary suspense of labour is naturally great in proportion to the toil; hence it is that no European mirth is so wild as that of the Indian slave, when a brief holiday releases him from his task. Alas! that very mirth is the strongest evidence of the weight of the previous chains; even as, in ourselves, we find the happiest moment we enjoy is that immediately succeeding the cessation of deep sorrow to the mind or violent torture to the body."*

* This reflection, if true, may console us for the loss of those village dances and pleasant holidays for which "merry England" was once celebrated. The loss of them has been ascribed to the gloomy influence of the Puritans; but it has never occurred to the good poets, who have so mourned over that loss, that it is also to be ascribed to the _liberty which those Puritans _generalized_, if they did not introduce.--ED.

I was struck by this observation of the priest.

"I see now," said I, "that as an Englishman I have no reason to repine at the proverbial gravity of my countrymen, or to envy the lighter spirit of the sons of Italy and France."

"No," said the Cure; "the happiest nations are those in whose people you witness the least sensible reverses from gayety to dejection; and that _thought_, which is the noblest characteristic of the isolated man, is also that of a people. Freemen are serious; they have objects at their heart worthy to engross attention. It is reserved for slaves to indulge in groans at one moment and laughter at another."

"At that rate," said I, "the best sign for France will be when the gayety of her sons is no longer a just proverb, and the laughing lip is succeeded by the thoughtful brow."

We remained silent for several minutes; our conversation had shed a gloom over the light scene before us, and the voice of the flute no longer sounded musically on my ear. I proposed to the Cure to return to my inn. As we walked slowly in that direction, I surveyed my companion more attentively than I had hitherto done. He was a model of masculine vigour and grace of form; and, had I not looked earnestly upon his cheek, I should have thought him likely to outlive the very oaks around the hamlet church where he presided. But the cheek was worn and hectic, and seemed to indicate that the keen fire which burns at the deep heart, unseen, but unslaking, would consume the mortal fuel, long before Time should even have commenced his gradual decay.

"You have travelled, then, much, Sir?" said I, and the tone of my voice was that of curiosity.

The good Cure penetrated into my desire to hear something of his adventures; and few are the recluses who are not gratified by the interest of others, or who are unwilling to reward it by recalling those portions of life most cherished by themselves. Before we parted that night, he told me his little history. He had been educated for the army; before he entered the profession he had seen the daughter of a neighbour, loved her, and the old story,--she loved him again, and died before the love passed the ordeal of marriage. He had no longer a desire for glory, but he had for excitement. He sold his little property and travelled, as he had said, for nearly fourteen years, equally over the polished lands of Europe and the far climates where Truth seems fable and Fiction finds her own legends realized or excelled.

He returned home poor in pocket and wearied in spirit. He became what I beheld him. "My lot is fixed now," said he, in conclusion; "but I find there is all the difference between quiet and content: my heart eats itself away here; it is the moth fretting the garment laid by, more than the storm or the fray would have worn it."

I said something, commonplace enough, about solitude, and the blessings of competence, and the country. The Cure shook his head gently, but made no answer; perhaps he did wisely in thinking the feelings are ever beyond the reach of a stranger's reasoning. We parted more affectionately than acquaintances of so short a date usually do; and when I returned from Russia, I stopped at the village on purpose to inquire after him. A few months had done the work: the moth had already fretted away the human garment; and I walked to his lowly and nameless grave, and felt that it contained the only quiet in which monotony is not blended with regret!

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