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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesErnest Maltravers - Book 9 - Chapter 4
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Ernest Maltravers - Book 9 - Chapter 4 Post by :hereger Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :1456

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Ernest Maltravers - Book 9 - Chapter 4


"Oh, stop this headlong current of your goodness;
It comes too fast upon a feeble soul."
DRYDEN: _Sebastian and Doras_.

THE smooth physician had paid his evening visit; Lord Saxingham had gone to a cabinet dinner, for Life must ever walk side by side with Death: and Lady Florence Lascelles was alone. It was a room adjoining her sleeping-apartment--a room in which, in the palmy days of the brilliant and wayward heiress, she had loved to display her fanciful and peculiar taste. There had she been accustomed to muse, to write, to study--there had she first been dazzled by the novel glow of Ernest's undiurnal and stately thoughts--there had she first conceived the romance of girlhood, which had led her to confer with him, unknown--there had she first confessed to herself that fancy had begotten love--there had she gone through love's short and exhausting process of lone emotion;--the doubt, the hope, the ecstasy; the reverse, the terror; the inanimate despondency, the agonised despair! And there now, sadly and patiently, she awaited the gradual march of inevitable decay. And books and pictures, and musical instruments, and marble busts, half shadowed by classic draperies--and all the delicate elegancies of womanly refinement--still invested the chamber with a grace as cheerful as if youth and beauty were to be the occupants for ever--and the dark and noisome vault were not the only lasting residence for the things of clay.

Florence Lascelles was dying; but not indeed wholly of that common, if mystic malady, a broken heart. Her health, always delicate, because always preyed upon by a nervous, irritable, and feverish spirit, had been gradually and invisibly undermined, even before Ernest confessed his love. In the singular lustre of those large-pupilled eyes--in the luxuriant transparency of that glorious bloom,--the experienced might long since have traced the seeds which cradled death. In the night when her restless and maddened heart so imprudently drove her forth to forestall the communication of Lumley (whom she had sent to Maltravers, she scarce knew for what object, or with what hope), in that night she was already in a high state of fever. The rain and the chill struck the growing disease within--her excitement gave it food and fire--delirium succeeded; and in that most fearful and fatal of all medical errors, which robs the frame, when it most needs strength, of the very principle of life, they had bled her into a temporary calm, and into permanent and incurable weakness. Consumption seized its victim. The physicians who attended her were the most renowned in London, and Lord Saxingham was firmly persuaded that there was no danger. It was not in his nature to think that death would take so great a liberty with Lady Florence Lascelles, when there were so many poor people in the world whom there would be no impropriety in removing from it. But Florence knew her danger, and her high spirit did not quail before it. Yet, when Cesarini, stung beyond endurance by the horrors of his remorse, wrote and confessed all his own share of the fatal treason, though, faithful to his promise, he concealed that of his accomplice,--then, ah then, she did indeed repine at her doom, and long to look once more with the eyes of love and joy upon the face of the beautiful world. But the illness of the body usually brings out a latent power and philosophy of the soul, which health never knows; and God has mercifully ordained it as the customary lot of nature, that in proportion as we decline into the grave, the sloping path is made smooth and easy to our feet; and every day, as the films of clay are removed from our eyes, Death loses the false aspect of the spectre, and we fall at last into its arms as a wearied child upon the bosom of its mother.

It was with a heavy heart that Lady Florence listened to the monotonous clicking of the clock that announced the departure of moments few, yet not precious, still spared to her. Her face buried in her hands, she bent over the small table beside her sofa, and indulged her melancholy thoughts. Bowed was the haughty crest, unnerved the elastic shape that had once seemed born for majesty and command--no friends were near, for Florence had never made friends. Solitary had been her youth, and solitary were her dying hours.

As she thus sat and mused, a sound of carriage wheels in the street below slightly shook the room--it ceased--the carriage stopped at the door. Florence looked up. "No, no, it cannot be," she muttered; yet, while she spoke, a faint flush passed over her sunken and faded cheek, and the bosom heaved beneath the robe, "a world too wide for its shrunk" proportions. There was a silence, which to her seemed interminable, and she turned away with a deep sigh, and a chill sinking of the heart.

At this time her woman entered with a meaning and flurried look.

"I beg your pardon, my lady--but--"

"But what?"

"Mr. Maltravers has called, and asked for your ladyship--so, my lady, Mr. Burton sent for me, and I said, my lady is too unwell to see any one; but Mr. Maltravers would not be denied; and he is waiting in my lord's library, and insisted on my coming up and 'nouncing him, my lady."

Now Mrs. Shinfield's words were not euphonistic, nor her voice mellifluous; but never had eloquence seemed to Florence so effective. Youth, love, beauty, all rushed back upon her at once, brightening her eyes, her cheek, and filling up ruin with sudden and deceitful light.

"Well," she said, after a pause, "let Mr. Maltravers come up."

"Come up, my lady? Bless me!--let me just 'range your hair--your ladyship is really in such dish-a-bill."

"Best as it is, Shinfield--he will excuse all.--Go."

Mrs. Shinfield shrugged her shoulders, and departed. A few moments more--a step on the stairs, the creaking of the door,--and Maltravers and Florence were again alone. He stood motionless on the threshold. She had involuntarily risen, and so they stood opposite to each other, and the lamp fell full upon her face. Oh, Heaven! when did that sight cease to haunt the heart of Maltravers! When shall that altered aspect not pass as a ghost before his eyes!--there it is, faithful and reproachful alike in solitude and in crowds--it is seen in the glare of noon--it passes dim and wan at night beneath the stars and the earth--it looked into his heart and left its likeness there for ever and for ever! Those cheeks, once so beautifully rounded, now sunken into lines and hollows--the livid darkness beneath the eyes--the whitened lip--the sharp, anxious, worn expression, which had replaced that glorious and beaming regard from which all the life of genius, all the sweet pride of womanhood had glowed forth, and in which not only the intelligence, but the eternity of the soul, seemed visibly wrought.

There he stood, aghast and appalled. At length a low groan broke from his lips--he rushed forward, sank on his knees beside her, and clasping both her hands, sobbed aloud as he covered them with kisses. All the iron of his strong nature was broken down, and his emotions, long silenced, and now uncontrollable and resistless, were something terrible to behold!

"Do not--do not weep so," murmured Lady Florence, frightened by his vehemence; "I am sadly changed, but the fault is mine--Ernest, it is mine; best, kindest, gentlest, how could I have been so mad! And you forgive me? I am yours again--a little while yours. Ah, do not grieve while I am so blessed!"

As she spoke, her tears--tears from a source how different from that whence broke the scorching and intolerable agony of his own! fell soft upon his bended head, and the hands that still convulsively strained hers. Maltravers looked wildly up into her countenance, and shuddered as he saw her attempt to smile. He rose abruptly, threw himself into a chair, and covered his face. He was seeking by a violent effort to master himself, and it was only by the heaving of his chest, and now and then a gasp as for breath, that he betrayed the stormy struggle within.

Florence gazed at him a moment in bitter, in almost selfish penitence. "And this was the man who seemed to me so callous to the softer sympathies--this was the heart I trampled upon--this the nature I distrusted!"

She came near him, trembling and with feeble steps--she laid her hand upon his shoulder, and the fondness of love came over her, and she wound her arms around him.

"It is our fate--it is my fate," said Maltravers at last, awaking as from a hideous dream, and in a hollow but calm voice--"we are the things of destiny, and the wheel has crushed us. It is an awful state of being this human life!--What is wisdom--virtue--faith to men--piety to Heaven--all the nurture we bestow on ourselves--all our desire to win a loftier sphere, when we are thus the tools of the merest chance--the victims of the pettiest villainy; and our very existence--our very senses almost, at the mercy of every traitor and every fool!"

There was something in Ernest's voice, as well as in his reflections, which appeared so unnaturally calm and deep that it startled Florence, with a fear more acute than his previous violence had done. He rose, and muttering to himself, walked to and fro, as if insensible of her presence--in fact he was so. At length he stopped short, and fixing his eyes upon Lady Florence, said in a whispered and thrilling tone:

"Now, then, the name of our undoer?"

"No, Ernest, no--never, unless you promise me to forego the purpose which I read in your eyes. He has confessed--he is penitent--I have forgiven him--you will do so too!"

"His name!" repeated Maltravers, and his face, before very flushed, was unnaturally pale.

"Forgive him--promise me."

"His name, I say,--his name?"

"Is this kind?--you terrify me--you will kill me!" faltered out Florence, and she sank on the sofa exhausted: her nerves, now so weakened, were perfectly unstrung by his vehemence, and she wrung her hands and wept piteously.

"You will not tell me his name?" said Maltravers, softly. "Be it so. I will ask no more. I can discover it myself. Fate the Avenger will reveal it."

At the thought he grew more composed; and as Florence wept on, the unnatural concentration and fierceness of his mind again gave way, and, seating himself beside her, he uttered all that could soothe, and comfort, and console. And Florence was soon soothed! And there, while over their heads the grim skeleton was holding the funeral pall, they again exchanged their vows, and again, with feelings fonder than of old, spoke of love.

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