Paul Clifford, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter XXIII.

Viola. And dost thou love me? Lysander. . . . Love thee, Viola? Do I not fly thee when my being drinks Light from thine eyes? — that flight is all my answer!

The Bride, Act ii. sc. 1.

The curtain meditations of the squire had not been without the produce of a resolve. His warm heart at once reopened to the liking he had formerly conceived for Clifford; he longed for an opportunity to atone for his past unkindness, and to testify his present gratitude; moreover, he felt at once indignant at, and ashamed of, his late conduct in joining the popular, and, as he now fully believed, the causeless prepossession against his young friend, and before a more present and a stronger sentiment his habitual deference for his brother’s counsels faded easily away. Coupled with these favourable feelings towards Clifford were his sagacious suspicions, or rather certainty, of Lucy’s attachment to her handsome deliverer; and he had at least sufficient penetration to perceive that she was not likely to love him the less for the night’s adventure. To all this was added the tender recollection of his wife’s parting words; and the tears and tell-tale agitation of Lucy in the carriage were sufficient to his simple mind, which knew not how lightly maiden’s tears are shed and dried, to confirm the prediction of the dear deceased. Nor were the squire’s more generous and kindly feelings utterly unmixed with selfish considerations. Proud, but not the least ambitious, he was always more ready to confer an honour than receive one, and at heart he was secretly glad at the notion of exchanging, as a son-inlaw, the polished and unfamiliar Mauleverer for the agreeable and social Clifford. Such in “admired disorder,” were the thoughts which rolled through the teeming brain of Joseph Brandon; and before he had turned on his left side, which he always did preparatory to surrendering himself to slumber, the squire had fully come to a determination most fatal to the schemes of the lawyer and the hopes of the earl.

The next morning, as Lucy was knitting

“The loose train of her amber-dropping hair”

before the little mirror of her chamber, which even through its dimmed and darkened glass gave back a face which might have shamed a Grecian vision of Aurora, a gentle tap at her door announced her father. There was in his rosy and comely countenance that expression generally characteristic of a man pleased with himself, and persuaded that he is about to give pleasure.

“My dear child,” said the squire, fondly stroking down the luxuriance of his Lucy’s hair, and kissing her damask cheek, “I am come to have some little conversation with you. Sit down now, and (for my part, I love to talk at my ease; and, by the by, shut the window, my love, it is an easterly wind) I wish that we may come to a clear and distinct understanding. Hem! — give me your hand, my child — I think on these matters one can scarcely speak too precisely and to the purpose; although I am well aware (for, for my own part, I always wish to act to every one, to you especially, my dearest child, with the greatest consideration) that we must go to work with as much delicacy as conciseness. You know this Captain Clifford — ‘t is a brave youth, is it not? Well — nay, never blush so deeply; there is nothing (for in these matters one can’t have all one’s wishes, one can’t have everything) to be ashamed of! Tell me now, child, dost think he is in love with thee?”

If Lucy did not immediately answer by words, her pretty lips moved as if she could readily reply; and finally they settled into so sweet and so assured a smile that the squire, fond as he was of “precise” information, was in want of no fuller answer to his question.

“Ay, ay, young lady,” said he, looking at her with all a father’s affection, “I see how it is. And, come now, what do you turn away for? Dost think, if, as I believe, though there are envious persons in the world, as there always are when a man’s handsome or clever or brave — though, by the way, which is a very droll thing in my eyes, they don’t envy, at least not ill-naturedly, a man for being a lord or rich, but, quite on the contrary, rank and money seem to make them think one has all the cardinal virtues. Humph! If, I say, this Mr. Clifford should turn out to be a gentleman of family — for you know that is essential, since the Brandons have, as my brother has probably told you, been a great race many centuries ago — dost think, my child, that thou couldst give up (the cat is out of the bag) this old lord, and marry a simple gentleman?”

The hand which the squire had held was now with an arch tenderness applied to his mouth, and when he again seized it Lucy hid her glowing face in his bosom; and it was only by a whisper, as if the very air was garrulous, that he could draw forth (for now he insisted on a verbal reply) her happy answer.

We are not afraid that our reader will blame us for not detailing the rest of the interview between the father and daughter: it did not last above an hour longer; for the squire declared that, for his own part, he hated more words than were necessary. Mr. Brandon was the first to descend to the breakfast, muttering as he descended the stairs, “Well now, hang me if I am not glad that’s off (for I do not like to think much of so silly a matter) my mind. And as for my brother, I sha’ n’t tell him till it’s all over and settled. And if he is angry, he and the old lord may, though I don’t mean to be unbrotherly, go to the devil together!”

When the three were assembled at the breakfast-table, there could not, perhaps, have been found anywhere a stronger contrast than that which the radiant face of Lucy bore to the haggard and worn expression that disfigured the handsome features of her lover. So marked was the change that one night seemed to have wrought upon Clifford, that even the squire was startled and alarmed at it. But Lucy, whose innocent vanity pleased itself with accounting for the alteration, consoled herself with the hope of soon witnessing a very different expression on the countenance of her lover; and though she was silent, and her happiness lay quiet and deep within her, yet in her eyes and lip there was that which seemed to Clifford an insult to his own misery, and stung him to the heart. However, he exerted himself to meet the conversation of the squire, and to mask as well as he was able the evidence of the conflict which still raged within him.

The morning was wet and gloomy; it was that drizzling and misty rain which is so especially nutritious to the growth of blue devils, and the jolly squire failed not to rally his young friend upon his feminine susceptibility to the influences of the weather. Clifford replied jestingly; and the jest, if bad, was good enough to content the railer. In this facetious manner passed the time, till Lucy, at the request of her father, left the room to prepare for their return home.

Drawing his chair near to Clifford’s, the squire then commenced in real and affectionate earnest his operations — these he had already planned — in the following order: they were first, to inquire into and to learn Clifford’s rank, family, and prospects; secondly, having ascertained the proprieties of the outer man, they were to examine the state of the inner one; and thirdly, should our skilful inquirer find his guesses at Clifford’s affection for Lucy confirmed, they were to expel the modest fear of a repulse, which the squire allowed was natural enough, and to lead the object of the inquiry to a knowledge of the happiness that, Lucy consenting, might be in store for him. While, with his wonted ingenuity, the squire was pursuing his benevolent designs, Lucy remained in her own room, in such meditation and such dreams as were natural to a heart so sanguine and enthusiastic.

She had been more than half an hour alone, when the chambermaid of the hostelry knocked at her door, and delivered a message from the squire, begging her to come down to him in the parlour. With a heart that beat so violently it almost seemed to wear away its very life, Lucy slowly and with tremulous steps descended to the parlour. On opening the door she saw Clifford standing in the recess of the window; his face was partly turned from her, and his eyes downcast. The good old squire sat in an elbow-chair, and a sort of puzzled and half-satisfied complacency gave expression to his features.

“Come hither, child,” said he, clearing his throat; “Captain Clifford — ahem! — has done you the honour to — and I dare say you will be very much surprised — not that, for my own part, I think there is much to wonder at in it, but such may be my partial opinion (and it is certainly very natural in me)— to make you a declaration of love. He declares, moreover, that he is the most miserable of men, and that he would die sooner than have the presumption to hope. Therefore you see, my love, I have sent for you, to give him permission to destroy himself in any way he pleases; and I leave him to show cause why (it is a fate that sooner or later happens to all his fellowmen) sentence of death should not be passed against him.” Having delivered this speech with more propriety of word than usually fell to his share, the squire rose hastily and hobbled out of the room.

Lucy sank into the chair her father had quitted; and Clifford, approaching towards her, said in a hoarse and low voice —

“Your father, Miss Brandon, says rightly, that I would die rather than lift my eyes in hope to you. I thought yesterday that I had seen you for the last time; chance, not my own folly or presumption, has brought me again before you; and even the few hours I have passed under the same roof with you have made me feel as if my love, my madness, had never reached its height till now. Oh, Lucy!” continued Clifford, in a more impassioned tone, and, as if by a sudden and irresistible impulse, throwing himself at her feet, “if I could hope to merit you — if I could hope to raise myself — if I could — But no, no, no! I am cut off from all hope, and forever!”

There was so deep, so bitter, so heartfelt an anguish and remorse in the voice with which these last words were spoken, that Lucy, hurried off her guard, and forgetting everything in wondering sympathy and compassion, answered, extending her hand towards Clifford, who, still kneeling, seized and covered it with kisses of fire —

“Do not speak thus, Mr. Clifford; do not accuse yourself of what I am sure, quite sure, you cannot deserve. Perhaps — forgive me — your birth, your fortune, are beneath your merits, and you have penetrated into my father’s weakness on the former point; or perhaps you yourself have not avoided all the errors into which men are hurried — perhaps you have been imprudent or thoughtless, perhaps you have (fashion is contagious) played beyond your means or incurred debts: these are faults, it is true, and to be regretted, yet surely not irreparable.”

For that instant can it be wondered that all Clifford’s resolution and self-denial deserted him, and lifting his eyes, radiant with joy and gratitude, to the face which bent in benevolent innocence towards him, he exclaimed —

“No, Miss Brandon! — no, Lucy! — dear, angel Lucy! my faults are less venial than these, but perhaps they are no less the consequence of circumstances and contagion; perhaps it may not be too late to repair them. Would you — you indeed deign to be my guardian, I might not despair of being saved!”

“If,” said Lucy, blushing deeply and looking down, while she spoke quick and eagerly, as if to avoid humbling him by her offer — “if, Mr. Clifford, the want of wealth has in any way occasioned you uneasiness or — or error, do believe me — I mean us — so much your friends as not for an instant to scruple in relieving us of some little portion of our last night’s debt to you.”

“Dear, noble girl!” said Clifford, while there writhed upon his lips one of those smiles of powerful sarcasm that sometimes distorted his features, and thrillingly impressed upon Lucy a resemblance to one very different in reputation and character to her lover — “do not attribute my misfortunes to so petty a source; it is not money that I shall want while I live, though I shall to my last breath remember this delicacy in you, and compare it with certain base remembrances in my own mind. Yes! all past thoughts and recollections will make me hereafter worship you even more than I do now; while in your heart they will — unless Heaven grant me one prayer — make you scorn and detest me!”

“For mercy’s sake, do not speak thus!” said Lucy, gazing in indistinct alarm upon the dark and working features of her lover. “Scorn, detest you! Impossible! How could I, after the remembrance of last night?”

“Ay! of last night,” said Clifford, speaking through his ground teeth — “there is much in that remembrance to live long in both of us; but you — you — fair angel” (and all harshness and irony vanishing at once from his voice and countenance, yielded to a tender and deep sadness, mingled with a respect that bordered on reverence) — “you never could have dreamed of more than pity for one like me — you never could have stooped from your high and dazzling purity to know for me one such thought as that which burns at my heart for you — you — Yes, withdraw your hand, I am not worthy to touch it!” And clasping his own hands before his face, he became abruptly silent; but his emotions were but ill-concealed, and Lucy saw the muscular frame before her heaved and convulsed by passions which were more intense and rending because it was only for a few moments that they conquered his self-will and struggled into vent.

If afterwards, but long afterwards, Lucy, recalling the mystery of his words, confessed to herself that they betrayed guilt, she was then too much affected to think of anything but her love and his emotion. She bent down, and with a girlish and fond self-abandonment which none could have resisted, placed both her hands on his. Clifford started, looked up, and in the next moment he had clasped her to his heart; and while the only tears he had shed since his career of crime fell fast and hot upon her countenance, he kissed her forehead, her cheek, her lips in a passionate and wild transport. His voice died within him — he could not trust himself to speak; only one thought, even in that seeming forgetfulness of her and of himself, stirred and spoke at his breast — flight. The more he felt he loved, the more tender and the more confiding the object of his love, the more urgent became the necessity to leave her. All other duties had been neglected, but he loved with a real love; and love, which taught him one duty, bore him triumphantly through its bitter ordeal.

“You will hear from me to-night,” he muttered; “believe that I am mad, accursed, criminal, but not utterly a monster! I ask no more merciful opinion!” He drew himself from his perilous position, and abruptly departed.

When Clifford reached his home, he found his worthy coadjutors waiting for him with alarm and terror on their countenances. An old feat, in which they had signalized themselves, had long attracted the rigid attention of the police, and certain officers had now been seen at Bath, and certain inquiries had been set on foot, which portended no good to the safety of the sagacious Tomlinson and the valorous Pepper. They came, humbly and penitentially demanding pardon for their unconscious aggression of the squire’s carriage, and entreating their captain’s instant advice. If Clifford had before wavered in his disinterested determination — if visions of Lucy, of happiness, and reform had floated in his solitary ride too frequently and too glowingly before his eyes — the sight of these men, their conversation, their danger, all sufficed to restore his resolution. “Merciful God!” thought he, “and is it to the comrade of such lawless villains, to a man, like them, exposed hourly to the most ignominious of deaths, that I have for one section of a moment dreamed of consigning the innocent and generous girl, whose trust or love is the only crime that could deprive her of the most brilliant destiny?”

Short were Clifford’s instructions to his followers, and so much do we do mechanically, that they were delivered with his usual forethought and precision. “You will leave the town instantly; go not, for your lives, to London, or to rejoin any of your comrades. Ride for the Red Cave; provisions are stored there, and, since our late alteration of the interior, it will afford ample room to conceal your horses. On the night of the second day from this I will join you. But be sure that you enter the cave at night, and quit it upon no account till I come!”

“Yes!” said he, when he was alone, “I will join you again, but only to quit you. One more offence against the law, or at least one sum wrested from the swollen hands of the rich sufficient to equip me for a foreign army, and I quit the country of my birth and my crimes. If I cannot deserve Lucy Brandon, I will be somewhat less unworthy. Perhaps — why not? I am young, my nerves are not weak, my brain is not dull — perhaps I may in some field of honourable adventure win a name that before my death-bed I may not blush to acknowledge to her!”

While this resolve beat high within Clifford’s breast, Lucy sadly and in silence was continuing with the squire her short journey to Bath. The latter was very inquisitive to know why Clifford had gone, and what he had avowed; and Lucy, scarcely able to answer, threw everything on the promised letter of the night.

“I am glad,” muttered the squire to her, “that he is going to write; for, somehow or other, though I questioned him very tightly, he slipped through my cross-examination, and bursting out at once as to his love for you, left me as wise about himself as I was before: no doubt (for my own part I don’t see what should prevent his being a great man incog.)this letter will explain all!”

Late that night the letter came. Lucy, fortunately for her, was alone in her room; she opened it, and read as follows:—

Clifford’s Letter.

I have promised to write to you, and I sit down to perform that promise. At this moment the recollection of your goodness, your generous consideration, is warm within me: and while I must choose calm and common words to express what I ought to say, my heart is alternately melted and torn by thoughts which would ask words, oh how different! Your father has questioned me often of my parentage and birth — I have hitherto eluded his interrogatories. Learn now who I am. In a wretched abode, surrounded by the inhabitants of poverty and vice, I recall my earliest recollections. My father is unknown to me as to every one; my mother — to you I dare not mention who or what she was — she died in my infancy. Without a name, but not without an inheritance (my inheritance was large — it was infamy!), I was thrown upon the world. I had received by accident some education, and imbibed some ideas not natural to my situation; since then I have played many parts in life. Books and men I have not so neglected but that I have gleaned at intervals some little knowledge from both. Hence, if I have seemed to you better than I am, you will perceive the cause. Circumstances made me soon my own master; they made me also one whom honest men do not love to look upon; my deeds have been, and my character is, of a par with my birth and my fortunes. I came, in the noble hope to raise and redeem myself by gilding my fate with a wealthy marriage, to this city. I saw you, whom I had once before met. I heard you were rich. Hate me, Miss Brandon, hate me! — I resolved to make your ruin the cause of my redemption. Happily for you, I scarcely knew you before I loved you; that love deepened — it caught something pure and elevated from yourself. My resolution forsook me; even now I could throw myself on my knees and thank God that you — you, dearest and noblest of human beings — are not my wife. Now, is my conduct clear to you? If not, imagine me all that is villanous, save in one point, where you are concerned, and not a shadow of mystery will remain. Your kind father, overrating the paltry service I rendered you, would have consented to submit my fate to your decision. I blush indignantly for him — for you — that any living man should have dreamed of such profanation for Miss Brandon. Yet I myself was carried away and intoxicated by so sudden and so soft a hope — even I dared to lift my eyes to you, to press you to this guilty heart, to forget myself, and to dream that you might be mine! Can you forgive me for this madness? And hereafter, when in your lofty and glittering sphere of wedded happiness, can you remember my presumption and check your scorn? Perhaps you think that by so late a confession I have already deceived you. Alas! you know not what it costs me now to confess! I had only one hope in life — it was that you might still, long after you had ceased to see me, fancy me not utterly beneath the herd with whom you live. This burning yet selfish vanity I tear from me, and now I go where no hope can pursue me. No hope for myself, save one which can scarcely deserve the name, for it is rather a rude and visionary wish than an expectation — it is that under another name and under different auspices you may hear of me at some distant time; and when I apprise you that under that name you may recognize one who loves you better than all created things, you may feel then, at least, no cause for shame at your lover. What will you be then? A happy wife, a mother, the centre of a thousand joys, beloved, admired, blest when the eye sees you and the ear hears! And this is what I ought to hope, this is the consolation that ought to cheer me; perhaps a little time hence it will. Not that I shall love you less, but that I shall love you less burningly, and therefore less selfishly. I have now written to you all that it becomes you to receive from me. My horse waits below to bear me from this city, and forever from your vicinity. For ever! —— ay, you are the only blessing forever forbidden me. Wealth I may gain, a fair name, even glory I may perhaps aspire to — to heaven itself I may find a path; but of you my very dreams cannot give me the shadow of a hope. I do not say, if you could pierce my soul while I write, that you would pity me. You may think it strange, but I would not have your pity for worlds; I think I would even rather have your hate — pity seems so much like contempt. But if you knew what an effort has enabled me to tame down my language, to curb my thoughts, to prevent me from embodying that which now makes my brain whirl, and my hand feel as if the living fire consumed it; if you knew what has enabled me to triumph over the madness at my heart, and spare you what, if writ or spoken, would seem like the ravings of insanity, you would not and you could not despise me, though you might abhor.

And now Heaven guard and bless you! Nothing on earth could injure you. And even the wicked who have looked upon you learn to pray — I have prayed for you!

Thus, abrupt and signatureless, ended the expected letter. Lucy came down the next morning at her usual hour, and, except that she was very pale, nothing in her appearance seemed to announce past grief or emotion. The squire asked her if she had received the promised letter. She answered, in a clear though faint voice, that she had — that Mr. Clifford had confessed himself of too low an origin to hope for marriage with Mr. Brandon’s family; that she trusted the squire would keep his secret; and that the subject might never again be alluded to by either. If in this speech there was something alien to Lucy’s ingenuous character, and painful to her mind, she felt it as it were a duty to her former lover not to betray the whole of that confession so bitterly wrung from him. Perhaps, too, there was in that letter a charm which seemed to her too sacred to be revealed to any one; and mysteries were not excluded even from a love so ill-placed and seemingly so transitory as hers.

Lucy’s answer touched the squire in his weak point. “A man of decidedly low origin,” he confessed, “was utterly out of the question; nevertheless, the young man showed a great deal of candour in his disclosure.” He readily promised never to broach a subject necessarily so unpleasant; and though he sighed as he finished his speech, yet the extreme quiet of Lucy’s manner reassured him; and when he perceived that she resumed, though languidly, her wonted avocations, he felt but little doubt of her soon overcoming the remembrance of what he hoped was but a girlish and fleeting fancy. He yielded, with avidity, to her proposal to return to Warlock; and in the same week as that in which Lucy had received her lover’s mysterious letter, the father and daughter commenced their journey home.

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