Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter XXI.

Dream. Let me but see her, dear Leontins.

Humorous Lieutenant.

Hempskirke. It was the fellow, sure.

Wolfort. What are you, sirrah?

Beggar’s Bush.

O thou divine spirit that burnest in every breast, inciting each with the sublime desire to be fine; that stirrest up the great to become little in order to seem greater, and that makest a duchess woo insult for a voucher — thou that delightest in so many shapes, multifarious yet the same; spirit that makest the high despicable, and the lord meaner than his valet; equally great whether thou cheatest a friend or cuttest a father; lacquering all thou touchest with a bright vulgarity that thy votaries imagine to be gold — thou that sendest the few to fashionable balls and the many to fashionable novels; that smitest even Genius as well as Folly, making the favourites of the gods boast an acquaintance they have not with the graces of a mushroom peerage rather than the knowledge they have of the Muses of an eternal Helicon — thou that leavest in the great ocean of our manners no dry spot for the foot of independence; that pallest on the jaded eye with a moving and girdling panorama of daubed vilenesses, and fritterest away the souls of free-born Britons into a powder smaller than the angels which dance in myriads on a pin’s point — whether, O spirit! thou callest thyself Fashion or Ton, or Ambition or Vanity or Cringing or Cant or any title equally lofty and sublime — would that from thy wings we could gain but a single plume! Fain would we, in fitting strain, describe the festivities of that memorable day when the benevolent Lord Mauleverer received and blessed the admiring universe of Bath.

But to be less poetical, as certain writers say, when they have been writing nonsense — but to be less poetical and more exact, the morning, though in the depth of winter, was bright and clear, and Lord Mauleverer found himself in particularly good health. Nothing could be better planned than the whole of his arrangements. Unlike those which are ordinarily chosen for the express reason of being as foreign as possible to the nature of our climate, all at Lord Mauleverer’s were made suitable to a Greenland atmosphere. The temples and summer-houses, interspersed through the grounds, were fitted up, some as Esquimaux huts, others as Russian pavilions; fires were carefully kept up; the musicians Mauleverer took care should have as much wine as they pleased; they were set skilfully in places where they were unseen, but where they could be heard. One or two temporary buildings were erected for those who loved dancing; and as Mauleverer, miscalculating on the principles of human nature, thought gentlemen might be averse from ostentatious exhibition, he had hired persons to skate minuets and figures of eight upon his lakes, for the amusement of those who were fond of skating. All people who would be kind enough to dress in strange costumes and make odd noises, which they called singing, the earl had carefully engaged, and planted in the best places for making them look still stranger than they were.

There was also plenty to eat, and more than plenty to drink. Mauleverer knew well that our countrymen and countrywomen, whatever be their rank, like to have their spirits exalted. In short, the whole dejeuner was so admirably contrived that it was probable the guests would not look much more melancholy during the amusements than they would have done had they been otherwise engaged at a funeral.

Lucy and the squire were among the first arrivals. Mauleverer, approaching the father and daughter with his most courtly manner, insisted on taking the latter under his own escort, and being her cicerone through the round of preparations.

As the crowd thickened, and it was observed how gallant were the attentions testified towards Lucy by the host, many and envious were the whispers of the guests! Those good people, naturally angry at the thought that two individuals should be married, divided themselves into two parties: one abused Lucy, and the other Lord Mauleverer; the former vituperated her art, the latter his folly. “I thought she would play her cards well, deceitful creature!” said the one. “January and May,” muttered the other; “the man’s sixty!” It was noticeable that the party against Lucy was chiefly composed of ladies, that against Mauleverer of men; that conduct must indeed be heinous which draws down the indignation of one’s own sex!

Unconscious of her crimes, Lucy moved along, leaning on the arm of the gallant earl, and languidly smiling, with her heart far away, at his endeavours to amuse her. There was something interesting in the mere contrast of the pair; so touching seemed the beauty of the young girl, with her delicate cheek, maiden form, drooping eyelid, and quiet simplicity of air, in comparison to the worldly countenance and artificial grace of her companion.

After some time, when they were in a sequestered part of the grounds, Mauleverer, observing that none were near, entered a rude hut; and so fascinated was he at that moment by the beauty of his guest, and so meet to him seemed the opportunity of his confession, that he with difficulty suppressed the avowal rising to his lips, and took the more prudent plan of first sounding and preparing as it were the way.

“I cannot tell you, my dear Miss Brandon,” said he, slightly pressing the beautiful hand leaning on his arm, “how happy I am to see you the guest — the queen, rather — of my house! Ah! could the bloom of youth return with its feelings! Time is never so cruel as when, while stealing from us the power to please, he leaves us in full vigour the unhappy privilege to be charmed!”

Mauleverer expected at least a blushing contradiction to the implied application of a sentiment so affectingly expressed: he was disappointed. Lucy, less alive than usual to the sentimental, or its reverse, scarcely perceived his meaning, and answered simply that it was very true. “This comes of being, like my friend Burke, too refined for one’s audience,” thought Mauleverer, wincing a little from the unexpected reply. “And yet!” he resumed, “I would not forego my power to admire, futile, nay, painful as it is. Even now, while I gaze on you, my heart tells me that the pleasure I enjoy, it is at your command at once and forever to blight into misery; but while it tells me, I gaze on!”

Lucy raised her eyes, and something of her natural archness played in their expression.

“I believe, my lord,” said she, moving from the hut, “that it would be better to join your guests: walls have ears; and what would be the gay Lord Mauleverer’s self-reproach if he heard again of his fine compliments to —”

“The most charming person in Europe!” cried Mauleverer, vehemently; and the hand which he before touched he now clasped. At that instant Lucy saw opposite to her, half hid by a copse of evergreens, the figure of Clifford. His face, which seemed pale and wan, was not directed towards the place where she stood, and he evidently did not perceive Mauleverer or herself; yet so great was the effect that this glimpse of him produced on Lucy, that she trembled violently, and, unconsciously uttering a faint cry, snatched her hand from Mauleverer.

The earl started, and catching the expression of her eyes, turned instantly towards the spot to which her gaze seemed riveted. He had not heard the rustling of the boughs, but he saw, with his habitual quickness of remark, that they still trembled, as if lately displaced; and he caught through their interstices the glimpse of a receding figure. He sprang forward with an agility very uncommon to his usual movements; but before he gained the copse, every vestige of the intruder had vanished.

What slaves we are to the moment! As Mauleverer turned back to rejoin Lucy, who, agitated almost to fainting, leaned against the rude wall of the but, he would as soon have thought of flying as of making that generous offer of self, etc., which the instant before he had been burning to render Lucy. The vain are always sensitively jealous; and Mauleverer, remembering Clifford, and Lucy’s blushes in dancing with him, instantly accounted for her agitation and its cause. With a very grave air he approached the object of his late adoration, and requested to know if it were not some abrupt intruder that had occasioned her alarm. Lucy, scarcely knowing what she said, answered in a low voice that it was, indeed, and begged instantly to rejoin her father. Mauleverer offered his arm with great dignity; and the pair passed into the frequented part of the grounds, where Mauleverer once more brightened into smiles and courtesy to all around him.

“He is certainly accepted!” said Mr. Shrewd to Lady Simper.

“What an immense match for the girl!” was Lady Simper’s reply.

Amidst the music, the dancing, the throng, the noise, Lucy found it easy to recover herself; and disengaging her arm from Lord Mauleverer, as she perceived her father, she rejoined the squire, and remained a patient listener to his remarks till late in the noon it became an understood matter that people were expected to go into a long room in order to eat and drink. Mauleverer, now alive to the duties of his situation, and feeling exceedingly angry with Lucy, was more reconciled than he otherwise might have been to the etiquette which obliged him to select for the object of his hospitable cares an old dowager duchess instead of the beauty of the fete; but he took care to point out to the squire the places appointed for himself and daughter, which were, though at some distance from the earl, under the providence of his vigilant survey.

While Mauleverer was deifying the dowager duchess, and refreshing his spirits with a chicken and a medicinal glass of madeira, the conversation near Lucy turned, to her infinite dismay, upon Clifford. Some one had seen him in the grounds, booted and in a riding undress (in that day people seldom rode and danced in the same conformation of coat); and as Mauleverer was a precise person about those little matters of etiquette, this negligence of Clifford’s made quite a subject of discussion. By degrees the conversation changed into the old inquiry as to who this Captain Clifford was; and just as it had reached that point, it reached also the gently deafened ears of Lord Mauleverer.

“Pray, my lord,” said the old duchess, “since he is one of your guests, you, who know who and what every one is, can possibly inform us of the real family of this beautiful Mr. Clifford?”

“One of my guests, did you say?” answered Mauleverer, irritated greatly beyond his usual quietness of manner. “Really, your grace does me wrong. He may be a guest of my valet, but he assuredly is not mine; and should I encounter him, I shall leave it to my valet to give him his conge as well as his invitation!”

Mauleverer, heightening his voice as he observed athwart the table an alternate paleness and flush upon Lucy’s face, which stung all the angrier passions, generally torpid in him, into venom, looked round, on concluding, with a haughty and sarcastic air. So loud had been his tone, so pointed the insult, and so dead the silence at the table while he spoke, that every one felt the affront must be carried at once to Clifford’s hearing, should he be in the room. And after Mauleverer had ceased, there was a universal nervous and indistinct expectation of an answer and a scene; all was still, and it soon became certain that Clifford was not in the apartment. When Mr. Shrewd had fully convinced himself of this fact — for there was a daring spirit about Clifford which few wished to draw upon themselves — that personage broke the pause by observing that no man who pretended to be a gentleman would intrude himself, unasked and unwelcome, into any society; and Mauleverer, catching up the observation, said (drinking wine at the same time with Mr. Shrewd) that undoubtedly such conduct fully justified the rumours respecting Mr. Clifford, and utterly excluded him from that rank to which it was before more than suspected he had no claim.

So luminous and satisfactory an opinion from such an authority, once broached, was immediately and universally echoed; and long before the repast was over, it seemed to be tacitly agreed that Captain Clifford should be sent to Coventry, and if he murmured at the exile, he would have no right to insist upon being sent thence to the devil.

The good old squire, mindful of his former friendship for Clifford, and not apt to veer, was about to begin a speech on the occasion, when Lucy, touching his arm, implored him to be silent; and so ghastly was the paleness of her cheek while she spoke, that the squire’s eyes, obtuse as he generally was, opened at once to the real secret of her heart. As soon as the truth flashed upon him, he wondered, recalling Clifford’s great personal beauty and marked attentions, that it had not flashed upon him sooner; and leaning back on his chair, he sank into one of the most unpleasant reveries he had ever conceived.

At a given signal the music for the dancers recommenced, and at a hint to that effect from the host, persons rose without ceremony to repair to other amusements, and suffer such guests as had hitherto been excluded from eating to occupy the place of the relinquishers. Lucy, glad to escape, was one of the first to resign her situation, and with the squire she returned to the grounds. During the banquet, evening had closed in, and the scene now really became fairy-like and picturesque; lamps hung from many a tree, reflecting the light through the richest and softest hues; the music itself sounded more musically than during the day; gipsy-tents were pitched at wild corners and copses, and the bright wood-fires burning in them blazed merrily upon the cold yet cheerful air of the increasing night. The view was really novel and inviting; and as it had been an understood matter that ladies were to bring furs, cloaks, and boots, all those who thought they looked well in such array made little groups, and scattered themselves about the grounds and in the tents. They, on the contrary, in whom “the purple light of love” was apt by the frost to be propelled from the cheeks to the central ornament of the face, or who thought a fire in a room quite as agreeable as a fire in a tent, remained within, and contemplated the scene through the open windows.

Lucy longed to return home, nor was the squire reluctant; but, unhappily, it wanted an hour to the time at which the carriage had been ordered, and she mechanically joined a group of guests who had persuaded the good-natured squire to forget his gout and venture forth to look at the illuminations. Her party was soon joined by others, and the group gradually thickened into a crowd; the throng was stationary for a few minutes before a little temple in which fireworks had just commenced an additional attraction to the scene. Opposite to this temple, as well as in its rear, the walks and trees had been purposely left in comparative darkness, in order to heighten the effect of the fireworks.

“I declare,” said Lady Simper, glancing down one of the alleys which seemed to stretch away into blackness — “I declare it seems quite a lovers’ walk. How kind in Lord Mauleverer! — such a delicate attention —”

“To your ladyship!” added Mr. Shrewd, with a bow. While, one of this crowd, Lucy was vacantly eying the long trains of light which ever and anon shot against the sky, she felt her hand suddenly seized, and at the same time a voice whispered, “For God’s sake, read this now and grant my request!”

The voice, which seemed to rise from the very heart of the speaker, Lucy knew at once; she trembled violently, and remained for some minutes with eyes which did not dare to look from the ground. A note she felt had been left in her hand; and the agonized and earnest tone of that voice, which was dearer to her than the fulness of all music, made her impatient yet afraid to read it. As she recovered courage, she looked around, and seeing that the attention of all was bent upon the fireworks, and that her father in particular, leaning on his cane, seemed to enjoy the spectacle with a child’s engrossed delight, she glided softly away, and entering unperceived one of the alleys, she read, by a solitary lamp that burned at its entrance, the following lines, written in pencil and in a hurried hand, apparently upon a leaf torn from a pocket-book:—

I implore, I entreat you, Miss Brandon, to see me, if but for a moment. I purpose to tear myself away from the place in which you reside, to go abroad, to leave even the spot hallowed by your footstep. After this night my presence, my presumption, will degrade you no more. But this night, for mercy’s sake, see me, or I shall go mad! I will but speak to you one instant: this is all I ask. If you grant me this prayer, the walk to the left where you stand, at the entrance to which there is one purple lamp, will afford an opportunity to your mercy. A few yards down that walk I will meet you — none can see or hear us. Will you grant this? I know not, I dare not think; but under any case, your name shall be the last upon my lips. P. C.

As Lucy read this hurried scrawl, she glanced towards the lamp above her, and saw that she had accidentally entered the very walk indicated in the note. She paused, she hesitated; the impropriety, the singularity of the request, darted upon her at once; on the other hand, the anxious voice still ringing in her ear, the incoherent vehemence of the note, the risk, the opprobrium Clifford had incurred solely — her heart whispered — to see her, all aided her simple temper, her kind feelings, and her love for the petitioner, in inducing her to consent. She cast one glance behind — all seemed occupied with far other thoughts than that of notice towards her; she looked anxiously before — all looked gloomy and indistinct; but suddenly, at some little distance, she descried a dark figure in motion. She felt her knees shake under her, her heart beat violently; she moved onward a few paces, again paused, and looked back. The figure before her moved as in approach; she resumed courage, and advanced — the figure was by her side.

“How generous, how condescending, is this goodness in Miss Brandon!” said the voice, which so struggled with secret and strong emotion that Lucy scarcely recognized it as Clifford’s. “I did not dare to expect it; and now — now that I meet you —” Clifford paused, as if seeking words; and Lucy, even through the dark, perceived that her strange companion was powerfully excited; she waited for him to continue, but observing that he walked on in silence, she said, though with a trembling voice, “Indeed, Mr. Clifford, I fear that it is very, very improper in me to meet you thus; nothing but the strong expressions in your letter — and — and — in short, my fear that you meditated some desperate design, at which I could not guess, caused me to yield to your wish for an interview.” She paused, and Clifford still preserving silence, she added, with some little coldness in her tone: “If you have really aught to say to me, you must allow me to request that you speak it quickly. This interview, you must be sensible, ought to end almost as soon as it begins.”

“Hear me, then!” said Clifford, mastering his embarrassment and speaking in a firm and clear voice; “is that true which I have but just heard — is it true that I have been spoken of in your presence in terms of insult and affront?”

It was now for Lucy to feel embarrassed; fearful to give pain, and yet anxious that Clifford should know, in order that he might disprove, the slight and the suspicion which the mystery around him drew upon his name, she faltered between the two feelings, and without satisfying the latter, succeeded in realizing the fear of the former.

“Enough!” said Clifford, in a tone of deep mortification, as his quick ear caught and interpreted, yet more humiliatingly than the truth, the meaning of her stammered and confused reply — “enough! I see that it is true, and that the only human being in the world to whose good opinion I am not indifferent has been a witness of the insulting manner in which others have dared to speak of me!”

“But,” said Lucy, eagerly, “why give the envious or the idle any excuse? Why not suffer your parentage and family to be publicly known? Why are you here”— and her voice sank into a lower key —“this very day, unasked, and therefore subject to the cavils of all who think the poor distinction of an invitation an honour? Forgive me, Mr. Clifford; perhaps I offend. I hurt you by speaking thus frankly; but your good name rests with yourself, and your friends cannot but feel angry that you should trifle with it.”

“Madam,” said Clifford; and Lucy’s eyes, now growing accustomed to the darkness, perceived a bitter smile upon his lips, “my name, good or ill, is an object of little care to me. I have read of philosophers who pride themselves in placing no value in the opinions of the world. Rank me among that sect. But I am — I own I am — anxious that you alone, of all the world, should not despise me; and now that I feel you do, that you must, everything worth living or hoping for is past!”

“Despise you!” said Lucy, and her eyes filled with tears; “indeed you wrong me and yourself. But listen to me, Mr. Clifford. I have seen, it is true, but little of the world, yet I have seen enough to make me wish I could have lived in retirement forever. The rarest quality among either sex, though it is the simplest, seems to me good-nature; and the only occupation of what are termed ‘fashionable people’ appears to be speaking ill of one another. Nothing gives such a scope to scandal as mystery; nothing disarms it like openness. I know, your friends know, Mr. Clifford, that your character can bear inspection; and I believe, for my own part, the same of your family. Why not, then, declare who and what you are?”

“That candour would indeed be my best defender,” said Clifford, in a tone which ran displeasingly through Lucy’s ear; “but in truth, madam, I repeat, I care not one drop of this worthless blood what men say of me: that time has passed, and forever; perhaps it never keenly existed for me — no matter. I came hither, Miss Brandon, not wasting a thought on these sickening fooleries, or on the hoary idler by whom they are given. I came hither only once more to see you, to hear you speak, to watch you move, to tell you”— and the speaker’s voice trembled, so as to be scarcely audible —“to tell you, if any reason for the disclosure offered itself, that I have had the boldness, the crime, to love — to love — O God! to adore you; and then to leave you forever!”

Pale, trembling, scarcely preserved from falling by the tree against which she leaned, Lucy listened to this abrupt avowal. “Dare I touch this hand?” continued Clifford, as he knelt and took it timidly and reverently. “You know not, you cannot dream, how unworthy is he who thus presumes; yet not all unworthy, while he is sensible of so deep, so holy a feeling as that which he bears to you. God bless you, Miss Brandon! — Lucy, God bless you! And if hereafter you hear me subjected to still blacker suspicion or severer scrutiny than that which I now sustain; if even your charity and goodness can find no defence for me; if the suspicion become certainty, and the scrutiny end in condemnation — believe at least that circumstances have carried me beyond my nature, and that under fairer auspices I might have been other than I am!”

Lucy’s tear dropped upon Clifford’s hand as he spoke; and while his heart melted within him as he felt it and knew his own desperate and unredeemed condition, he added —

“Every one courts you — the proud, the rich, the young, the high-born — all are at your feet! You will select one of that number for your husband; may he watch over you as I would have done! — love you as I do he cannot! Yes, I repeat it,” continued Clifford, vehemently — “he cannot! None amidst the gay, happy, silken crowd of your equals and followers can feel for you that single and overruling passion which makes you to me what all combined — country, power, wealth, reputation, an honest name, peace, common safety, the quiet of the common air, alike the least blessing and the greatest-are to all others! Once more, may God in heaven watch over you and preserve you! I tear myself, on leaving you, from all that cheers or blesses or raises or might have saved me! Farewell!”

The hand which Lucy had relinquished to her strange suitor was pressed ardently to his lips, dropped in the same instant, and she knew that she was once more alone.

But Clifford, hurrying rapidly through the trees, made his way towards the nearest gate which led from Lord Mauleverer’s domain; when he reached it, a crowd of the more elderly guests occupied the entrance, and one of these was a lady of such distinction that Mauleverer, in spite of his aversion to any superfluous exposure to the night air, had obliged himself to conduct her to her carriage. He was in a very ill humour with this constrained politeness, especially as the carriage was very slow in relieving him of his charge, when he saw, by the lamplight, Clifford passing near him, and winning his way to the gate. Quite forgetting his worldly prudence, which should have made him averse to scenes with any one, especially with a flying enemy, and a man with whom, if he believed aright, little glory was to be gained in conquest, much less in contest; and only remembering Clifford’s rivalship, and his own hatred towards him for the presumption, Mauleverer, uttering a hurried apology to the lady on his arm, stepped forward, and opposing Clifford’s progress, said, with a bow of tranquil insult, “Pardon me, sir, but is it at my invitation or that of one of my servants that you have honoured me with your company this day?”

Clifford’s thoughts at the time of this interruption were of that nature before which all petty misfortunes shrink into nothing; if, therefore, he started for a moment at the earl’s address, he betrayed no embarrassment in reply, but bowing with an air of respect, and taking no notice of the affront implied in Mauleverer’s speech, he answered —

“Your lordship has only to deign a glance at my dress to see that I have not intruded myself on your grounds with the intention of claiming your hospitality. The fact is, and I trust to your lordship’s courtesy to admit the excuse, that I leave this neighbourhood tomorrow, and for some length of time. A person whom I was very anxious to see before I left was one of your lordship’s guests; I heard this, and knew that I should have no other opportunity of meeting the person in question before my departure; and I must now throw myself on the well-known politeness of Lord Mauleverer to pardon a freedom originating in a business very much approaching to a necessity.”

Lord Mauleverer’s address to Clifford had congregated an immediate crowd of eager and expectant listeners; but so quietly respectful and really gentlemanlike were Clifford’s air and tone in excusing himself, that the whole throng were smitten with a sudden disappointment.

Lord Mauleverer himself, surprised by the temper and deportment of the unbidden guest, was at a loss for one moment; and Clifford was about to take advantage of that moment and glide away, when Mauleverer, with a second bow, more civil than the former one, said —

“I cannot but be happy, sir, that my poor place has afforded you any convenience; but if I am not very impertinent, will you allow me to inquire the name of my guest with whom you required a meeting?”

“My lord,” said Clifford, drawing himself up and speaking gravely and sternly, though still with a certain deference, “I need not surely point out to your lordship’s good sense and good feeling that your very question implies a doubt, and consequently an affront, and that the tone of it is not such as to justify that concession on my part which the further explanation you require would imply!”

Few spoken sarcasms could be so bitter as that silent one which Mauleverer could command by a smile, and with this complimentary expression on his thin lips and raised brow, the earl answered: “Sir, I honour the skill testified by your reply; it must be the result of a profound experience in these affairs. I wish you, sir, a very good night; and the next time you favour me with a visit, I am quite sure that your motives for so indulging me will be no less creditable to you than at present.”

With these words Mauleverer turned to rejoin his fair charge. But Clifford was a man who had seen in a short time a great deal of the world, and knew tolerably well the theories of society, if not the practice of its minutiae; moreover, he was of an acute and resolute temper, and these properties of mind, natural and acquired, told him that he was now in a situation in which it had become more necessary to defy than to conciliate. Instead therefore of retiring he walked deliberately up to Mauleverer, and said —

“My lord, I shall leave it to the judgment of your guests to decide whether you have acted the part of a nobleman and a gentleman in thus, in your domains, insulting one who has given you such explanation of his trespass as would fully excuse him in the eyes of all considerate or courteous persons. I shall also leave it to them to decide whether the tone of your inquiry allowed me to give you any further apology. But I shall take it upon myself, my lord, to demand from you an immediate explanation of your last speech.”

“Insolent!” cried Mauleverer, colouring with indignation, and almost for the first time in his life losing absolute command over his temper; “do you bandy words with me? Begone, or I shall order my servants to thrust you forth!”

“Begone, sir! begone!” cried several voices in echo to Mauleverer, from those persons who deemed it now high time to take part with the powerful.

Clifford stood his ground, gazing around with a look of angry and defying contempt, which, joined to his athletic frame, his dark and fierce eye, and a heavy riding-whip, which, as if mechanically, he half raised, effectually kept the murmurers from proceeding to violence.

“Poor pretender to breeding and to sense!” said he, disdainfully turning to Mauleverer; “with one touch of this whip I could shame you forever, or compel you to descend from the level of your rank to that of mine, and the action would be but a mild return to your language. But I love rather to teach you than to correct. According to my creed, my lord, he conquers most in good breeding who forbears the most — scorn enables me to forbear! Adieu!”

With this, Clifford turned on his heel and strode away. A murmur, approaching to a groan, from the younger or sillier part of the parasites (the mature and the sensible have no extra emotion to throw away), followed him as he disappeared.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31