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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesLucretia - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Sudden Celebrity And Patient Hope
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Lucretia - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Sudden Celebrity And Patient Hope Post by :azaus Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :721

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Lucretia - Part 2 - Chapter 12. Sudden Celebrity And Patient Hope


Percival was unusually gloomy and abstracted in his way to town that day, though Varney was his companion, and in the full play of those animal spirits which he owed to his unrivalled physical organization and the obtuseness of his conscience. Seeing, at length, that his gayety did not communicate itself to Percival, he paused, and looked at him suspiciously. A falling leaf startles the steed, and a shadow the guilty man.

"You are sad, Percival," he said inquiringly. "What has disturbed you?"

"It is nothing,--or, at least, would seem nothing to you," answered Percival, with an effort to smile, "for I have heard you laugh at the doctrine of presentiments. We sailors are more superstitious."

"What presentiment can you possibly entertain?" asked Varney, more anxiously than Percival could have anticipated.

"Presentiments are not so easily defined, Varney. But, in truth, poor Helen has infected me. Have you not remarked that, gay as she habitually is, some shadow comes over her so suddenly that one cannot trace the cause?"

"My dear Percival," said Varney, after a short pause, "what you say does not surprise me. It would be false kindness to conceal from you that I have heard Madame Dalibard say that her mother was, when about her age, threatened with consumptive symptoms; but she lived many years afterwards. Nay, nay, rally yourself; Helen's appearance, despite the extreme purity of her complexion, is not that of one threatened by the terrible malady of our climate. The young are often haunted with the idea of early death. As we grow older, that thought is less cherished; in youth it is a sort of luxury. To this mournful idea (which you see you have remarked as well as I) we must attribute not only Helen's occasional melancholy, but a generosity of forethought which I cannot deny myself the pleasure of communicating to you, though her delicacy would be shocked at my indiscretion. You know how helpless her aunt is. Well, Helen, who is entitled, when of age, to a moderate competence, has persuaded me to insure her life and accept a trust to hold the moneys (if ever unhappily due) for the benefit of my mother-in-law, so that Madame Dalibard may not be left destitute if her niece die before she is twenty-one. How like Helen, is it not?"

Percival was too overcome to answer.

Varney resumed: "I entreat you not to mention this to Helen; it would offend her modesty to have the secret of her good deeds thus betrayed by one to whom alone she confided them. I could not resist her entreaties, though, entre nous, it cripples me not a little to advance for her the necessary sums for the premiums. Apropos, this brings me to a point on which I feel, as the vulgar idiom goes, 'very awkward,'--as I always do in these confounded money-matters. But you were good enough to ask me to paint you a couple of pictures for Laughton. Now, if you could let me have some portion of the sum, whatever it be (for I don't price my paintings to you), it would very much oblige me."

Percival turned away his face as he wrung Varney's hand, and muttered, with a choked voice: "Let me have my share in Helen's divine forethought. Good Heavens! she, so young, to look thus beyond the grave, always for others--for others!"

Callous as the wretch was, Percival's emotion and his proposal struck Varney with a sentiment like compunction. He had designed to appropriate the lover's gold as it was now offered; but that Percival himself should propose it, blind to the grave to which that gold paved the way, was a horror not counted in those to which his fell cupidity and his goading apprehensions had familiarized his conscience.

"No," he said, with one of those wayward scruples to which the blackest criminals are sometimes susceptible,--"no. I have promised Helen to regard this as a loan to her, which she is to repay me when of age. What you may advance me is for the pictures. I have a right to do as I please with what is bought by my own labour. And the subjects of the pictures, what shall they be?"

"For one picture try and recall Helen's aspect and attitude when you came to us in the garden, and entitle your subject: 'The Foreboding.'"

"Hem!" said Varney, hesitatingly. "And the other subject?"

"Wait for that till the joy-bells at Laughton have welcomed a bride, and then--and then, Varney," added Percival, with something of his natural joyous smile, "you must take the expression as you find it. Once under my care, and, please Heaven, the one picture shall laughingly upbraid the other!"

As this was said, the cabriolet stopped at Percival's door. Varney dined with him that day; and if the conversation flagged, it did not revert to the subject which had so darkened the bright spirits of the host, and so tried the hypocrisy of the guest. When Varney left, which he did as soon as the dinner was concluded, Percival silently put a check into his hands, to a greater amount than Varney had anticipated even from his generosity.

"This is for four pictures, not two," he said, shaking his head; and then, with his characteristic conceit, he added: "Well, some years hence the world shall not call them overpaid. Adieu, my Medici; a dozen such men, and Art would revive in England."

When he was left alone, Percival sat down, and leaning his face on both hands, gave way to the gloom which his native manliness and the delicacy that belongs to true affection had made him struggle not to indulge in the presence of another. Never had he so loved Helen as in that hour; never had he so intimately and intensely felt her matchless worth. The image of her unselfish, quiet, melancholy consideration for that austere, uncaressing, unsympathizing relation, under whose shade her young heart must have withered, seemed to him filled with a celestial pathos. And he almost hated Varney that the cynic painter could have talked of it with that business-like phlegm. The evening deepened; the tranquil street grew still; the air seemed close; the solitude oppressed him; he rose abruptly, seized his hat, and went forth slowly, and still with a heavy heart.

As he entered Piccadilly, on the broad step of that house successively inhabited by the Duke of Queensberry and Lord Hertford,--on the step of that mansion up which so many footsteps light with wanton pleasure have gayly trod, Percival's eye fell upon a wretched, squalid, ragged object, doubled up, as it were, in that last despondency which has ceased to beg, that has no care to steal, that has no wish to live. Percival halted, and touched the outcast.

"What is the matter, my poor fellow? Take care; the policeman will not suffer you to rest here. Come, cheer up, I say! There is something to find you a better lodging!"

The silver fell unheeded on the stones. The thing of rags did not even raise its head, but a low, broken voice muttered,--

"It be too late now; let 'em take me to prison, let 'em send me 'cross the sea to Buttany, let 'em hang me, if they please. I be 's good for nothin' now,--nothin'!"

Altered as the voice was, it struck Percival as familiar. He looked down and caught a view of the drooping face. "Up, man, up!" he said cheerily. "See, Providence sends you an old friend in need, to teach you never to despair again."

The hearty accent, more than the words, touched and aroused the poor creature. He rose mechanically, and a sickly, grateful smile passed over his wasted features as he recognized St. John.

"Come! how is this? I have always understood that to keep a crossing was a flourishing trade nowadays."

"I 'as no crossin'. I 'as sold her!" groaned Beck. "I be's good for nothin' now but to cadge about the streets, and steal, and filch, and hang like the rest on us! Thank you kindly, sir," and Beck pulled his forelock, "but, please your honour, I vould rather make an ind on it!"

"Pooh, pooh! didn't I tell you when you wanted a friend to come to me? Why did you doubt me, foolish fellow? Pick up those shillings; get a bed and a supper. Come and see me to-morrow at nine o'clock; you know where,--the same house in Curzon Street; you shall tell me then your whole story, and it shall go hard but I'll buy you another crossing, or get you something just as good."

Poor Beck swayed a moment or two on his slender legs like a drunken man, and then, suddenly falling on his knees, he kissed the hem of his benefactor's garment, and fairly wept. Those tears relieved him; they seemed to wash the drought of despair from his heart.

"Hush, hush! or we shall have a crowd round us. You'll not forget, my poor friend, No.---- Curzon Street,--nine to-morrow. Make haste now, and get food and rest; you look, indeed, as if you wanted them. Ah, would to Heaven all the poverty in this huge city stood here in thy person, and we could aid it as easily as I can thee!"

Percival had moved on as he said those last words, and looking back, he had the satisfaction to see that Beck was slowly crawling after him, and had escaped the grim question of a very portly policeman, who had no doubt expressed a natural indignation at the audacity of so ragged a skeleton not keeping itself respectably at home in its churchyard.

Entering one of the clubs in St. James's Street, Percival found a small knot of politicians in eager conversation respecting a new book which had been published but a day or two before, but which had already seized the public attention with that strong grasp which constitutes always an era in an author's life, sometimes an epoch in a nation's literature. The newspapers were full of extracts from the work,--the gossips, of conjecture as to the authorship. We need scarcely say that a book which makes this kind of sensation must hit some popular feeling of the hour, supply some popular want. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, therefore, its character is political; it was so in the present instance. It may be remembered that that year parliament sat during great part of the month of October, that it was the year in which the Reform Bill was rejected by the House of Lords, and that public feeling in our time had never been so keenly excited. This work appeared during the short interval between the rejection of the Bill and the prorogation of parliament (Parliament was prorogued October 20th; the bill rejected by the Lords, October 8th). And what made it more remarkable was, that while stamped with the passion of the time, there was a weight of calm and stern reasoning embodied in its vigorous periods, which gave to the arguments of the advocate something of the impartiality of the judge. Unusually abstracted and unsocial,--for, despite his youth and that peculiar bashfulness before noticed, he was generally alive enough to all that passed around him,--Percival paid little attention to the comments that circulated round the easy-chairs in his vicinity, till a subordinate in the administration, with whom he was slightly acquainted, pushed a small volume towards him and said,--"You have seen this, of course, St. John? Ten to one you do not guess the author. It is certainly not B----m, though the Lord Chancellor has energy enough for anything. R---- says it has a touch of S----r."

"Could M----y have written it?" asked a young member of parliament, timidly.

"M----y! Very like his matchless style, to be sure! You can have read very little of M----y, I should think," said the subordinate, with the true sneer of an official and a critic.

The young member could have slunk into a nutshell. Percival, with very languid interest, glanced over the volume. But despite his mood, and his moderate affection for political writings, the passage he opened upon struck and seized him unawares. Though the sneer of the official was just, and the style was not comparable to M----y's (whose is?), still, the steady rush of strong words, strong with strong thoughts, heaped massively together, showed the ease of genius and the gravity of thought. The absence of all effeminate glitter, the iron grapple with the pith and substance of the argument opposed, seemed familiar to Percival. He thought he heard the deep bass of John Ardworth's earnest voice when some truth roused his advocacy, or some falsehood provoked his wrath. He put down the book, bewildered. Could it be the obscure, briefless lawyer in Gray's Inn (that very morning the object of his young pity) who was thus lifted into fame? He smiled at his own credulity. But he listened with more attention to the enthusiastic praises that circled round, and the various guesses which accompanied them. Soon, however, his former gloom returned,--the Babel began to chafe and weary him. He rose, and went forth again into the air. He strolled on without purpose, but mechanically, into the street where he had first seen Helen. He paused a few moments under the colonnade which faced Beck's old deserted crossing. His pause attracted the notice of one of the unhappy beings whom we suffer to pollute our streets and rot in our hospitals. She approached and spoke to him,--to him whose heart was so full of Helen! He shuddered, and strode on. At length he paused before the twin towers of Westminster Abbey, on which the moon rested in solemn splendour; and in that space one man only shared his solitude. A figure with folded arms leaned against the iron rails near the statue of Canning, and his gaze comprehended in one view the walls of the Parliament, in which all passions wage their war, and the glorious abbey, which gives a Walhalla to the great. The utter stillness of the figure, so in unison with the stillness of the scene, had upon Percival more effect than would have been produced by the most clamorous crowd. He looked round curiously as he passed, and uttered an exclamation as he recognized John Ardworth.

"You, Percival!" said Ardworth. "A strange meeting-place at this hour! What can bring you hither?"

"Only whim, I fear; and you?" as Percival linked his arm into Ardworth's.

"Twenty years hence I will tell you what brought me hither!" answered Ardworth, moving slowly back towards Whitehall.

"If we are alive then!"

"We live till our destinies below are fulfilled; till our uses have passed from us in this sphere, and rise to benefit another. For the soul is as a sun, but with this noble distinction,--the sun is confined in its career; day after day it visits the same lands, gilds the same planets or rather, as the astronomers hold, stands, the motionless centre of moving worlds. But the soul, when it sinks into seeming darkness and the deep, rises to new destinies, fresh regions unvisited before. What we call Eternity, may be but an endless series of those transitions which men call 'deaths,' abandonments of home after home, ever to fairer scenes and loftier heights. Age after age, the spirit, that glorious Nomad, may shift its tent, fated not to rest in the dull Elysium of the Heathen, but carrying with it evermore its elements,--Activity and Desire. Why should the soul ever repose? God, its Principle, reposes never. While we speak, new worlds are sparkling forth, suns are throwing off their nebulae, nebulae are hardening into worlds. The Almighty proves his existence by creating. Think you that Plato is at rest, and Shakspeare only basking on a sun-cloud? Labour is the very essence of spirit, as of divinity; labour is the purgatory of the erring; it may become the hell of the wicked, but labour is not less the heaven of the good!"

Ardworth spoke with unusual earnestness and passion, and his idea of the future was emblematic of his own active nature; for each of us is wisely left to shape out, amidst the impenetrable mists, his own ideal of the Hereafter. The warrior child of the biting North placed his Hela amid snows, and his Himmel in the banquets of victorious war; the son of the East, parched by relentless summer,--his hell amidst fire, and his elysium by cooling streams; the weary peasant sighs through life for rest, and rest awaits his vision beyond the grave; the workman of genius,--ever ardent, ever young,--honours toil as the glorious development of being, and springs refreshed over the abyss of the grave, to follow, from star to star, the progress that seems to him at once the supreme felicity and the necessary law. So be it with the fantasy of each! Wisdom that is infallible, and love that never sleeps, watch over the darkness, and bid darkness be, that we may dream!

"Alas!" said the young listener, "what reproof do you not convey to those, like me, who, devoid of the power which gives results to every toil, have little left to them in life, but to idle life away. All have not the gift to write, or harangue, or speculate, or--"

"Friend," interrupted Ardworth, bluntly, "do not belie yourself. There lives not a man on earth--out of a lunatic asylum--who has not in him the power to do good. What can writers, haranguers, or speculators do more than that? Have you ever entered a cottage, ever travelled in a coach, ever talked with a peasant in the field, or loitered with a mechanic at the loom, and not found that each of those men had a talent you had not, knew some things you knew not? The most useless creature that ever yawned at a club, or counted the vermin on his rags under the suns of Calabria, has no excuse for want of intellect. What men want is not talent, it is purpose,--in other words, not the power to achieve, but the will to labour. You, Percival St. John,--you affect to despond, lest you should not have your uses; you, with that fresh, warm heart; you, with that pure enthusiasm for what is fresh and good; you, who can even admire a thing like Varney, because, through the tawdry man, you recognize art and skill, even though wasted in spoiling canvas; you, who have only to live as you feel, in order to diffuse blessings all around you,--fie, foolish boy! you will own your error when I tell you why I come from my rooms at Gray's Inn to see the walls in which Hampden, a plain country squire like you, shook with plain words the tyranny of eight hundred years."

"Ardworth, I will not wait your time to tell me what took you yonder. I have penetrated a secret that you, not kindly, kept from me. This morning you rose and found yourself famous; this evening you have come to gaze upon the scene of the career to which that fame will more rapidly conduct you--"

"And upon the tomb which the proudest ambition I can form on earth must content itself to win! A poor conclusion, if all ended here!"

"I am right, however," said Percival, with boyish pleasure. "It is you whose praises have just filled my ears. You, dear, dear Ardworth! How rejoiced I am!"

Ardworth pressed heartily the hand extended to him: "I should have trusted you with my secret to-morrow, Percival; as it is, keep it for the present. A craving of my nature has been satisfied, a grief has found distraction. As for the rest, any child that throws a stone into the water with all his force can make a splash; but he would be a fool indeed if he supposed that the splash was a sign that he had turned a stream."

Here Ardworth ceased abruptly; and Percival, engrossed by a bright idea, which had suddenly occurred to him, exclaimed,--

"Ardworth, your desire, your ambition, is to enter parliament; there must be a dissolution shortly,--the success of your book will render you acceptable to many a popular constituency. All you can want is a sum for the necessary expenses. Borrow that sum from me; repay me when you are in the Cabinet, or attorney-general. It shall be so!"

A look so bright that even by that dull lamplight the glow of the cheek, the brilliancy of the eye were visible, flashed over Ardworth's face. He felt at that moment what ambitious man must feel when the object he has seen dimly and afar is placed within his grasp; but his reason was proof even against that strong temptation.

He passed his arm round the boy's slender waist, and drew him to his heart with grateful affection as he replied,--"And what, if now in parliament, giving up my career,--with no regular means of subsistence,--what could I be but a venal adventurer? Place would become so vitally necessary to me that I should feed but a dangerous war between my conscience and my wants. In chasing Fame, the shadow, I should lose the substance, Independence. Why, that very thought would paralyze my tongue. No, no, my generous friend. As labour is the arch elevator of man, so patience is the essence of labour. First let me build the foundation; I may then calculate the height of my tower. First let me be independent of the great; I will then be the champion of the lowly. Hold! Tempt me no more; do not lure me to the loss of self-esteem. And now, Percival," resumed Ardworth, in the tone of one who wishes to plunge into some utterly new current of thought, "let us forget for awhile these solemn aspirations, and be frolicsome and human. 'Nemo mortalium omnibus horis sapit.' 'Neque semper arcum tendit Apollo.' What say you to a cigar?"

Percival stared. He was not yet familiarized to the eccentric whims of his friend.

"Hot negus and a cigar!" repeated Ardworth, while a smile, full of drollery, played round the corners of his lips and twinkled in his deep-set eyes.

"Are you serious?"

"Not serious; I have been serious enough," and Ardworth sighed, "for the last three weeks. Who goes 'to Corinth to be sage,' or to the Cider Cellar to be serious?"

"I subscribe, then, to the negus and cigar," said Percival, smiling; and he had no cause to repent his compliance as he accompanied Ardworth to one of the resorts favoured by that strange person in his rare hours of relaxation.

For, seated at his favourite table, which happened, luckily, to be vacant, with his head thrown carelessly back, and his negus steaming before him, John Ardworth continued to pour forth, till the clock struck three, jest upon jest, pun upon pun, broad drollery upon broad drollery, without flagging, without intermission, so varied, so copious, so ready, so irresistible that Percival was transported out of all his melancholy in enjoying, for the first time in his life, the exuberant gayety of a grave mind once set free,--all its intellect sparkling into wit, all its passion rushing into humour. And this was the man he had pitied, supposed to have no sunny side to his life! How much greater had been his compassion and his wonder if he could have known all that had passed, within the last few weeks, through that gloomy, yet silent breast, which, by the very breadth of its mirth, showed what must be the depth of its sadness!

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PART THE SECOND CHAPTER XI. LOVE AND INNOCENCEDuring this conference between these execrable and ravening birds of night and prey, Helen and her boy-lover were thus conversing in the garden; while the autumn sun--for it was in the second week of October--broke pleasantly through the yellowing leaves of the tranquil shrubs, and the flowers, which should have died with the gone summer, still fresh by tender care, despite the lateness of the season, smiled gratefully as their light footsteps passed. "Yes, Helen," said Percival,--"yes, you will love my mother, for she is one of those people who seem to attract love,