A Strange Story, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton

Chapter 29.

I did not see Margrave the following day, but the next morning, a little after sunrise, he walked into my study, according to his ordinary habit.

“So you know something about Sir Philip Derval?” said I. “What sort of a man is he?”

“Hateful!” cried Margrave; and then checking himself, burst out into his merry laugh. “Just like my exaggerations! I am not acquainted with anything to his prejudice. I came across his track once or twice in the East. Travellers are always apt to be jealous of each other.”

“You are a strange compound of cynicism and credulity; but I should have fancied that you and Sir Philip would have been congenial spirits, when I found, among his favourite books, Van Helmont and Paracelsus. Perhaps you, too, study Swedenborg, or, worse still, Ptolemy and Lilly?”

“Astrologers? No! They deal with the future! I live for the day; only I wish the day never had a morrow!”

“Have you not, then that vague desire for the something beyond — that not unhappy, but grand discontent with the limits of the immediate Present, from which man takes his passion for improvement and progress, and from which some sentimental philosophers have deduced an argument in favour of his destined immortality?”

“Eh!” said Margrave, with as vacant a stare as that of a peasant whom one has addressed in Hebrew. “What farrago of words is this? I do not comprehend you.”

“With your natural abilities,” I asked with interest, “do you never feel a desire for fame?”

“Fame? Certainly not. I cannot even understand it!”

“Well, then, would you have no pleasure in the thought that you had rendered a service to humanity?”

Margrave looked bewildered; after a moment’s pause, he took from the table a piece of bread that chanced to be there, opened the window, and threw the crumbs into the lane. The sparrows gathered round the crumbs.

“Now,” said Margrave, “the sparrows come to that dull pavement for the bread that recruits their lives in this world; do you believe that one sparrow would be silly enough to fly to a house-top for the sake of some benefit to other sparrows, or to be chirruped about after he was dead? I care for science as the sparrow cares for bread — it may help me to something good for my own life; and as for fame and humanity, I care for them as the sparrow cares for the general interest and posthumous approbation of sparrows!”

“Margrave, there is one thing in you that perplexes me more than all else — human puzzle as you are — in your many eccentricities and self-contradictions.”

“What is that one thing in me most perplexing?”

“This: that in your enjoyment of Nature you have all the freshness of a child, but when you speak of Man and his objects in the world, you talk in the vein of some worn-out and hoary cynic. At such times, were I to close my eyes, I should say to myself, ‘What weary old man is thus venting his spleen against the ambition which has failed, and the love which has forsaken him?’ Outwardly the very personation of youth, and revelling like a butterfly in the warmth of the sun and the tints of the herbage, why have you none of the golden passions of the young — their bright dreams of some impossible love, their sublime enthusiasm for some unattainable glory? The sentiment you have just clothed in the illustration by which you place yourself on a level with the sparrows is too mean and too gloomy to be genuine at your age. Misanthropy is among the dismal fallacies of gray beards. No man, till man’s energies leave him, can divorce himself from the bonds of our social kind.”

“Our kind! Your kind, possibly; but I—” He swept his hand over his brow, and resumed, in strange, absent, and wistful accents: “I wonder what it is that is wanting here, and of which at moments I have a dim reminiscence.” Again he paused, and gazing on me, said with more appearance of friendly interest than I had ever before remarked in his countenance, “You are not looking well. Despite your great physical strength, you suffer like your own sickly patients.”

“True! I suffer at this moment, but not from bodily pain.”

“You have some cause of mental disquietude?”

“Who in this world has not?”

“I never have.”

“Because you own you have never loved. Certainly, you never seem to care for any one but yourself; and in yourself you find an unbroken sunny holiday — high spirits, youth, health, beauty, wealth. Happy boy!”

At that moment my heart was heavy within me.

Margrave resumed —

“Among the secrets which your knowledge places at the command of your art, what would you give for one which would enable you to defy and to deride a rival where you place your affections, which could lock to yourself, and imperiously control, the will of the being whom you desire to fascinate, by an influence paramount, transcendent?”

“Love has that secret,” said I — “and love alone.”

“A power stronger than love can suspend, can change love itself. But if love be the object or dream of your life, love is the rosy associate of youth and beauty. Beauty soon fades, youth soon departs. What if in nature there were means by which beauty and youth can be fixed into blooming duration — means that could arrest the course, nay, repair the effects, of time on the elements that make up the human frame?”

“Silly boy! Have the Rosicrucians bequeathed to you a prescription for the elixir of life?”

“If I had the prescription I should not ask your aid to discover its ingredients.”

“And is it in the hope of that notable discovery you have studied chemistry, electricity, and magnetism? Again I say, Silly boy!”

Margrave did not heed my reply. His face was overcast, gloomy, troubled.

“That the vital principle is a gas,” said he, abruptly, “I am fully convinced. Can that gas be the one which combines caloric with oxygen?”

“Phosoxygen? Sir Humphrey Davy demonstrates that gas not to be, as Lavoisier supposed, caloric, but light, combined with oxygen; and he suggests, not indeed that it is the vital principle itself, but the pabulum of life to organic beings.” 12

“Does he?” said Margrave, his, face clearing up. “Possibly, possibly, then, here we approach the great secret of secrets. Look you, Allen Fenwick: I promise to secure to you unfailing security from all the jealous fears that now torture your heart; if you care for that fame which to me is not worth the scent of a flower, the balm of a breeze, I will impart to you a knowledge which, in the hands of ambition, would dwarf into commonplace the boasted wonders of recognized science. I will do all this, if, in return, but for one month you will give yourself up to my guidance in whatever experiments I ask, no matter how wild they may seem to you.”

“My dear Margrave, I reject your bribes as I would reject the moon and the stars which a child might offer to me in exchange for a toy; but I may give the child its toy for nothing, and I may test your experiments for nothing some day when I have leisure.”

I did not hear Margrave’s answer, for at that moment my servant entered with letters. Lilian’s hand! Tremblingly, breathlessly, I broke the seal. Such a loving, bright, happy letter; so sweet in its gentle chiding of my wrongful fears! It was implied rather than said that Ashleigh Sumner had proposed and been refused. He had now left the house. Lilian and her mother were coming back; in a few days we should meet. In this letter were inclosed a few lines from Mrs. Ashleigh. She was more explicit about my rival than Lilian had been. If no allusion to his attentions had been made to me before, it was from a delicate consideration for myself. Mrs. Ashleigh said that “the young man had heard from L—— of our engagement, and — disbelieved it;” but, as Mrs. Poyntz had so shrewdly predicted, hurried at once to the avowal of his own attachment, and the offer of his own hand. On Lilian’s refusal his pride had been deeply mortified. He had gone away manifestly in more anger than sorrow.

“Lady Delafield, dear Margaret Poyntz’s aunt, had been most kind in trying to soothe Lady Haughton’s disappointment, which was rudely expressed — so rudely,” added Mrs. Ashleigh, “that it gives us an excuse to leave sooner than had been proposed — which I am very glad of. Lady Delafield feels much for Mr. Sumner; has invited him to visit her at a place she has near Worthing. She leaves tomorrow in order to receive him; promises to reconcile him to our rejection, which, as he was my poor Gilbert’s heir, and was very friendly at first, would be a great relief to my mind. Lilian is well, and so happy at the thoughts of coming back.”

When I lifted my eyes from these letters I was as a new man, and the earth seemed a new earth. I felt as if I had realized Margrave’s idle dreams — as if youth could never fade, love could never grow cold.

“You care for no secrets of mine at this moment,” said Margrave, abruptly.

“Secrets!” I murmured; “none now are worth knowing. I am loved! I am loved!”

“I bide my time,” said Margrave; and as my eyes met his, I saw there a look I had never seen in those eyes before, sinister, wrathful, menacing. He turned away, went out through the sash-door of the study; and as he passed towards the fields under the luxuriant chestnut-trees, I heard his musical, barbaric chant — the song by which the serpent-charmer charms the serpent — sweet, so sweet, the very birds on the boughs hushed their carol as if to listen.

12 See Sir Humphrey Davy on Heat, Light, and the Combinations of Light

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bulwer-lytton/edward/strange-story/chapter29.html

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