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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Last Of The Barons - Book 6 - Chapter 7
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The Last Of The Barons - Book 6 - Chapter 7 Post by :alatom Category :Long Stories Author :Edward Bulwer-lytton Date :May 2012 Read :2219

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The Last Of The Barons - Book 6 - Chapter 7


More than ever chafed against Katherine, Hastings surrendered himself without reserve to the charm he found in the society of Sibyll. Her confidence being again restored, again her mind showed itself to advantage, and the more because her pride was further roused to assert the equality with rank and gold which she took from nature and from God.

It so often happens that the first love of woman is accompanied with a bashful timidity, which overcomes the effort, while it increases the desire, to shine, that the union of love and timidity has been called inseparable, in the hackneyed language of every love-tale. But this is no invariable rule, as Shakspeare has shown us in the artless Miranda, in the eloquent Juliet, in the frank and healthful Rosalind;--and the love of Sibyll was no common girl's spring-fever of sighs and blushes. It lay in the mind, the imagination, the intelligence, as well as in the heart and fancy. It was a breeze that stirred from the modest leaves of the rose all their diviner odour. It was impossible but what this strong, fresh young nature--with its free gayety when happy, its earnest pathos when sad, its various faculties of judgment and sentiment, and covert play of innocent wit--should not contrast forcibly, in the mind of a man who had the want to be amused and interested, with the cold pride of Katherine, the dull atmosphere in which her stiff, unbending virtue breathed unintellectual air, and still more with the dressed puppets, with painted cheeks and barren talk, who filled up the common world, under the name of women.

His feelings for Sibyll, therefore, took a more grave and respectful colour, and his attentions, if gallant ever, were those of a man wooing one whom he would make his wife, and studying the qualities to which he was disposed to intrust his happiness; and so pure was Sibyll's affection, that she could have been contented to have lived forever thus,--have seen and heard him daily, have talked but the words of friendship though with the thoughts of love; for some passions refine themselves through the very fire of the imagination into which the senses are absorbed, and by the ideal purification elevated up to spirit. Rapt in the exquisite happiness she now enjoyed, Sibyll perceived not, or, if perceiving, scarcely heeded; that the admirers, who had before fluttered round her, gradually dropped off; that the ladies of the court, the damsels who shared her light duties, grew distant and silent at her approach; that strange looks were bent on her; that sometimes when she and Hastings were seen together, the stern frowned and the godly crossed themselves.

The popular prejudices had reacted on the court. The wizard's daughter was held to share the gifts of her sire, and the fascination of beauty was imputed to evil spells. Lord Hastings was regarded--especially by all the ladies he had once courted and forsaken--as a man egregiously bewitched!

One day it chanced that Sibyll encountered Hastings in the walk that girded the ramparts of the Tower. He was pacing musingly, with folded arms, when he raised his eyes and beheld her.

"And whither go you thus alone, fair mistress?"

"The duchess bade me seek the queen, who is taking the air yonder. My lady has received some tidings she would impart to her highness."

"I was thinking of thee, fair damsel, when thy face brightened on my musings; and I was comparing thee to others who dwell in the world's high places, and marvelling at the whims of fortune."

Sibyll smiled faintly, and answered, "Provoke not too much the aspiring folly of my nature. Content is better than ambition."

"Thou ownest thy ambition?" asked Hastings, curiously.

"Ah, sir, who hath it not?"

"But for thy sweet sex ambition has so narrow and cribbed a field."

"Not so; for it lives in others. I would say," continued Sibyll, colouring, fearful that she had betrayed herself, "for example, that so long as my father toils for fame, I breathe in his hope, and am ambitious for his honour."

"And so, if thou wert wedded to one worthy of thee, in his ambition thou wouldst soar and dare?"

"Perhaps," answered Sibyll, coyly.

"But if thou wert wedded to sorrow and poverty and troublous care, thine ambition, thus struck dead, would of consequence strike dead thy love?"

"Nay, noble lord, nay; canst thou so wrong womanhood in me unworthy? for surely true ambition lives not only in the goods of fortune. Is there no nobler ambition than that of the vanity? Is there no ambition of the heart,--an ambition to console, to cheer the griefs of those who love and trust us; an ambition to build a happiness out of the reach of fate; an ambition to soothe some high soul, in its strife with a mean world,--to lull to sleep its pain, to smile to serenity its cares? Oh, methinks a woman's true ambition would rise the bravest when, in the very sight of death itself, the voice of him in whom her glory had dwelt through life should say, 'Thou fearest not to walk to the grave and to heaven by my side!"'

Sweet and thrilling were the tones in which these words were said, lofty and solemn the upward and tearful look with which they closed.

And the answer struck home to the native and original heroism of the listener's nature, before debased into the cynic sourness of worldly wisdom. Never had Katherine herself more forcibly recalled to Hastings the pure and virgin glory of his youth.

"Oh, Sibyll!" he exclaimed passionately, and yielding to the impulse of the moment,--"oh, that for me, as to me, such high words were said! Oh, that all the triumphs of a life men call prosperous were excelled by the one triumph of waking such an ambition in such a heart!"

Sibyll stood before him transformed,--pale, trembling, mute,--and Hastings, clasping her hand and covering it with kisses, said,--

"Dare I arede thy silence? Sibyll, thou lovest me--O Sibyll, speak!"

With a convulsive effort, the girl's lips moved, then closed, then moved again, into low and broken words.

"Why this, why this? Thou hadst promised not to--not to--"

"Not to insult thee by unworthy vows! Nor do I. But as my wife." He paused abruptly, alarmed at his own impetuous words, and scared by the phantom of the world that rose like a bodily thing before the generous impulse, and grinned in scorn of his folly.

But Sibyll heard only that one holy word of WIFE, and so sudden and so great was the transport it called forth, that her senses grew faint and dizzy, and she would have fallen to the earth but for the arms that circled her, and the breast upon which, now, the virgin might veil the blush that did not speak of shame.

With various feelings, both were a moment silent. But oh, that moment! what centuries of bliss were crowded into it for the nobler and fairer nature!

At last, gently releasing herself, she put her hands before her eyes, as if to convince herself she was awake, and then, turning her lovely face full upon the wooer, Sibyll said ingenuously,--

"Oh, my lord--oh, Hastings! if thy calmer reason repent not these words, if thou canst approve in me what thou didst admire in Elizabeth the queen, if thou canst raise one who has no dower but her heart to the state of thy wife and partner, by this hand, which I place fearlessly in thine, I pledge thee to such a love as minstrel hath never sung. No!" she continued, drawing loftily up her light stature,--"no, thou shalt not find me unworthy of thy name,--mighty though it is, mightier though it shall be. I have a mind that can share thine objects, I have pride that can exult in thy power, courage to partake thy dangers, and devotion--" she hesitated, with the most charming blush--"but of that, sweet lord, thou shalt judge hereafter! This is my dowry,--it is all!"

"And all I ask or covet," said Hastings. But his cheek had lost its first passionate glow. Lord of many a broad land and barony, victorious captain in many a foughten field, wise statesman in many a thoughtful stratagem, high in his king's favour, and linked with a nation's history,--William de Hastings at that hour was as far below as earth is to heaven the poor maiden whom he already repented to have so honoured, and whose sublime answer woke no echo from his heart.

Fortunately, as he deemed it, at that very instant he heard many steps rapidly approaching, and his own name called aloud by the voice of the king's body-squire.

"Hark! Edward summons me," he said, with a feeling of reprieve. "Farewell, dear Sibyll, farewell for a brief while,--we shall meet anon."

At this time they were standing in that part of the rampart walk which is now backed by the barracks of a modern soldiery, and before which, on the other side of the moat, lay a space that had seemed solitary and deserted; but as Hastings, in speaking his adieu, hurriedly pressed his lips on Sibyll's forehead, from a tavern without the fortress, and opposite the spot on which they stood, suddenly sallied a disorderly troop of half-drunken soldiers, with a gang of the wretched women that always continue the classic associations of a false Venus with a brutal Mars; and the last words of Hastings were scarcely spoken, before a loud laugh startled both himself and Sibyll, and a shudder came over her when she beheld the tinsel robes of the tymbesteres glittering in the sun, and heard their leader sing, as she darted from the arms of a reeling soldier,--

"Ha! death to the dove
Is the falcon's love.
Oh, sharp is the kiss of the falcon's beak!"

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