Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The first love and the last
THE FIRST LOVE AND THE LAST.
It was a scene to be contemplated only in the twilight; when the sun has just sunk below the horizon, and the colours of all objects fade into a uniform blending of grey and purple; for then the old abbey towered up gloomy and silent, like a gigantic sepulchre, through the ancestral trees, and seemed as it were a building abandoned by the living to the spell of some enduring curse, or the spectres of the knights and monks whose bones were resting beneath its marble floors. No light streamed from the turret windows, and no sound broke the still air; save the solemn ring of the old clock bell as it tolled off the fleeting hours into eternity. On one side the walls were washed by a lake whose surface, for many a long year, no barque had furrowed; and on the other stood, now fast crumbling into ruin, the skeleton of a strong semi-circle of fortifications. In addition to the gradual devastations of time, however, there were those committed by the late occupant of the dwelling, whose name and character were remembered with superstitious terror by the natives of the district: for they still trembled and spoke in whispers as they pointed to the spot where one of his enemies had fallen in an unwitnessed duel, or passed near a long stake fixed on the banks of the lake, where they said that he had dragged in his wife by the hair and drowned her. Every step, in short, around the abbey was on the scene of some dark tragedy; and the reputation of its present inhabitants-although not sullied by any actual crime—was but little calculated to efface those sombre recollections.
The young lord who now occupied it with his mother was, like her, impetuous, passionate, and eccentric; and indulged, at the early age of seventeen, a morbid aversion from the world in which he was destined afterwards to be strangely conspicuous. A volcano of high-toned passions was even now surging ominously in his breast; and as the power of song was not yet awakened for the expression of those undefinable emotions, they found an outlet in various forms of extravagant caprice. Sometimes it was a gentle and melancholy reverie that led him wandering all day by the shores of that silent lake; sometimes a shadowy day-dream of glory, of perils by flood and field, and hard-fought battles, guided the flights of his fancy. In the absence of real dangers, he mounted a high-mettled horse; and his eye kindled in wild excitement as the breeze went fluttering through his hair and the ground flew away thundering beneath him. Often he found a pleasure in hearing over again the history of his uncle whose heir he had become by the death of an only son; his habit of always wearing arms—a habit which he afterwards himself adopted; his quarrels with his wife, and the duel for which he was arraigned before the House of Lords; and, at the recital of these lawless acts, he felt a sort of involuntary interest in the criminal whose acts were a contemptuous defiance of the laws and conventions of society. Frequently, too, when the rest of the household were long asleep, he paced alone through the wide and dilapidated halls, and the mouldering cells and chapel of the monks; and as the tinted moonlight poured in through the monumental windows, gazed upon the blazonry of departed knights mingled with the emblems of religion, and listened to the whispering of the mysterious presentiment, which told him that his name should alone save all the others from oblivion.
One of those days the silence of the Abbey was broken by a violent ebullition of ill-temper: mother and son flew asunder with fierce and angry words—words hastily uttered, but rankling in the wounded heart through after years—spoken in transient irritation, but sounding to the sensitive ear like the cherished hatred of a life. Wandering a while in silent and agonising fury, he returned to the court-yard, and unchained a large savage dog that obeyed no voice but his; and ordering his fleetest horse to be saddled, mounted and darted away like an arrow. Night was falling fast, and still he sped onward through the gloom, his course marked only by the clattering echoes that started from their sleep as he passed, and the fire struck from the stones. It was late in the morning when he returned, calm and exhausted; for the fire that he had fanned in that headlong speed had burnt itself out. His mother, who had also watched through the night in terror and remorse, was nervously awaiting his return, and the next moment they were clasped in each other’s arms, and mingling their tears of penitence. No words were exchanged yet, for each of those fiery natures understood the other well.
“Why are we not always on these terms, George?” said his mother, as he reclined at her feet, and laid his head upon her knees. “When Providence gave me a son I was grateful for the opening of a sealed fountain of affection; and yet in my anger I have cursed and insulted him! We have both of us frightful tempers, George.”
“At least,” said he, “very unlike those of ordinary mortals.”
“Tell me, George,” she continued, “while we are both calm, why are you more than usually irritable and abstracted for some days past?—Will you not trust me with your vexations?”
“Yes! A cold-hearted, time-serving girl has repulsed and insulted me—a creature without a soul to understand and measure the value of the love I offered her—she answered me with a smile of contemptuous pity—she looked down at this abominable foot, and called me a lame boy!”
“What folly, George, to take a girl’s refusal so much to heart! Her affections are engaged; and, besides, do you not know that a violent death has set a gulf between you?—The blood of her father’s elder brother is upon our house.”
“And why should the crimes or quarrels of ancestors so sever their descendants? The deeds that scare the timid and superstitious have a fascination for the proud and daring. But hers is one of those narrow and vulgar minds that finds a pleasure in inflicting pain on higher natures; and still, by some strange infatuation, the passion she has kindled burns on in spite of me.”
“Promise me that you will forget her, George.”
“No, she has been too wise an enchantress for that—I may despise, but cannot forget her. She has changed the whole current of my life—my path shall be a track of bitter desolation, coruscating and destroying.”
“You are but a boy, George; and you speak and feel like a man!”
“That is, perhaps, because I am fated to die young—if I can be said to have ever been young: for I have long since sounded the pain-strung cord that vibrates in the human heart, and listened to its tones of sorrow. I have said farewell to hope and happiness!”
“What would you have, then?”
“Forgetfulness—the draught of Lethe.”
“At your age, George! when there is so much yet to learn and enjoy! You should have been born a Sultan or a Kalif, George. You would make woman the slave of the Zenana. Your idea is that we are born to obey?”
“I believe so. To our sex belong the stormy emotions of existence—the struggle and the triumph—the ambition that spans the world—the doubts that poison every joy—the hyena thirst of knowledge that soars above the actual and the visible. To you belong silence and repose.”
Years rolled away; and the name of that proud untameable boy was loud on every tongue. The dim and restless presentiments that haunted him while pacing those tomb-like halls, and watching with creeping nerves the spectre of the grey friar, had worked themselves out into realities.
"What is this gloom that lies so heavily upon me? It is not the melancholy of the scholar, which is morbid emulation; nor that of the artist, which is the home-sickness of the soul; nor that of the courtier, which is ostentation; nor yet that of the lover, which is all those together: it is a void in my heart; the emptiness of a fountain whose spring is dried up for ever! Why do you return, after long years of forgetfulness, ye thoughts that the world should have crushed from memory? Thus it is that the spirit of poetry can never die. I have spread my sail to every breeze. Fame has cost me happiness and peace; and now, even still, it is the clash of arms, or some wild and thrilling tempest of emotion that can alone silence this ever sighing whisper of discontent.”
Some such was the half-spoken reflection of a man still young in years, but scathed and faded by storms of passion and suffering, who stood on a low balcony outside an open casement, looking down through the clear night air upon the slumbering town, and drinking in the mingled perfumes of the cool sea-breeze and the rich flowering plants that lay drooping at his feet; while here and there in the distance watch-fires with their lurid blaze marked the line of the coast, and, at intervals, the cry of a sentinel or the neigh of a charger rose on the air.
As he gazed upon the moonbeams breaking themselves into mimic lightning on the basin of a fountain in the public square—the agora of other days—some softer and more pleasing sentiment seemed to reflect itself upon his features: some far-off remembrance of times past or places distant, or it may be some dream of his youth taking him back to the old Abbey from which he had spread his wings like a young eagle; or the memory of some loved name: perhaps too, while retracing his former visit to the same scene, he asked himself what mysterious hand had guided him back, and if he were come there to return no more.
From this reverie he was awakened by the music of a feminine voice: it was that of a young Moreote girl, who sang a stanza of a love song as she glided like a shadow under the balcony.
“Poor innocent!” said he. “No sorrow like mine darkens your spirit. Love, of which perhaps you know but the name—the vague instinct that turns the opening flower to the sun—is the theme of your careless song. May your heart never be heavier than now!”
The next morning, after daybreak and before the stranger had retired to rest—for he was one of those who double existence by abstinence from sleep—she was passing again under the balcony on her way to the fountain. Again, too, she was singing the same ritornella; but paused suddenly as if she had lost the words. While she questioned her memory apparently, he improvised for her some lines in Romaic; and as he repeated them she looked up and smiled.
“Thank you,” said she, “I always forget those lines; they are so sad: but you are a foreigner; how have you learned our language so well?”
“I have learned so many languages,” said he, “that I almost forget my own; but I am not a stranger in Hellas. I have traversed your plains and scaled your mountains in years past. Then your people were asleep in their chains. I am come now to help to break them.”
“Oh!” said she, “I know now who you are—a hero to the world, a demi-god to our brave Palikars, who worship you.”
“Hush!” said he, “tell nobody that you have spoken to me.”
“Why?” said she. “Are you not the poet chieftain?”
“Because you are young and beautiful; and yet it would be a pleasure to meet you again.”
“There is no hindrance,” said the young Greek, artlessly. “I am Katinka, the daughter of Dimitri Soutsos: we live in the next street. My brother Theodoro is a Palikar.”
“Well, then, to-morrow.”
“To-day, if it please you,” replied Katinka;” and then took her way to the fountain, without looking back to see if the stranger’s eyes were following her.
Wayward and inexplicable are the emotions of the heart. It is a book of deep and wondrous knowledge, and who can read it? Every man has in his youth some dream of love and innocence; and there is a later hour, fixed long in advance, when he returns to those deep and long-forgotten impressions—an hour when he looks back through the dim perspective of years, and sighs in vain for the freshness of that young romance—when the heart seems ready to kindle again beneath the ashes—when the glance of an eye, the sound of a light footstep, the tone of a voice, have all the power of enchantment. And so it was then. That man, who had exhausted every pleasure of sense, and had sneered in cold and bitter scepticism, like a mocking fiend, at the romance of love and every pure and holy sentiment, was again the slave of woman’s unconscious witchery. The name and the voice of Katinka rang incessantly in his ears; and her image stood before him, fresh and pure as a dream of childhood.
With a feeble and lingering reluctance, he availed himself of the permission she had given, and in less than a week was a constant and welcome visitor at the house of Soutsos. His rank, his name, his generous sacrifices and enthusiasm in the cause of Greece, and, more than all, the graceful and winning affability that replaced the cold and melancholy reserve of his ordinary manner, gained irresistibly upon the unsophisticated family. It was strange to see them—when he told of his wandering life, his romantic history and mysterious adventures, or spoke of the glory and the heroism and the genius of the immortal Greeks of other times—hanging upon his words, and smiling through their tears.
“I shall visit these people no more,” he said, one night, as he passed along the silent street to his own residence. “I shall see Katinka but once again; her beauty and innocence are not for such as I am. When I speak, I see her heart looking through her eyes. Poor child! she is too pure to be guarded or suspicious. Those songs of love and chivalry which I compose in her own soft language she learns eagerly—she is intoxicated. I must leave her before it be too late.”
“It is three days since you were here,” were Katinka’s first words, when they met again.
“Yes, Katinka; and I come now for the last time.”
“Why? Are you going to the war?”
He answered only by a look of the most tender and sorrowful interest.
“You will see us no more, then?” she repeated. “It is well; for you are in love.”
“In love! With whom?”
“With me! You come not, I know, for sake of my father or mother; my sister Aspasia is but a child; it is Katinka, then, for whom you come.”
“Do you fear, then, for my peace of mind?” he asked, with a smile.
“Much more than for my own.”
He was silent again; for those words kindled a tumult of passion that had long slept within him—pride and pity and a rebellious feeling of humiliation. His inmost heart was read; and his power, to which so many haughty beauties had yielded, defied by a guileless and ignorant girl; and while his conscience struggled hard against the impulse to reverse the victory and place her at his mercy, he turned away, and left her still unanswered.
“’Tis all in vain,” he said, after some hours of silent and torturing conflict with himself. “Press down the wild fig-tree, and it only grows the stronger! I cannot steel my heart against the magic of that subtle sorcery that tempted even the bright-winged seraphim from heaven! That spell this girl has now laid upon me. I will meet her again, and she shall be mine!”
It was the hour of sunset—the gorgeous and many-hued sunset of Greece. Katinka and the stranger are moving slowly toward her home; and she walks beside him, free and fearless, as if he were her brother. They have been talking much, but both are silent now, for she guesses at the thought which he has not yet ventured to express.
Katinka was the first to speak; as they sat together in the garden, she on a rustic bench shaded by a pomegranate tree, and he on the ground, playing with the beads of a rosary tha hung from her girdle, and looking up into those lustrous eyes to which the deepening twilight lent a fearful power; for she seemed to him that moment the most beautiful being he had ever beheld. Her features were classic as those of the Ionian beauties of the old time, and her long raven hair streamed in thick braids from beneath the small embroidered cap of crimson and gold.
“Many women,” she said, “must have been conquered by your words, for they are resistless and fatal as the spell of the evil eye. You do not answer me? You seem as if your thoughts were far away.”
“Yes,” said he slowly. “I remember that, on such a night as this, some twenty years ago, I sat by the feet of another maiden, as I do now at yours. I was a suppliant then, as I am now; and she scorned the love I offered her.”
“Twenty years! Then she was your first love?”
“Yes; and you are the last.”
“She must have loved another, then!”
A cloud of dark and painful suspicion passed over the stranger’s face; and he bent his eyes upon her in a look of inquisitive alarm.
“Let us go in,” she said. “Night is coming, and I must not be here.”
“Katinka,” said he, as he arose to leave her, “why do you suppose that the lady of whom I spoke just now loved another? Do you love another?”
“Come again to-morrow,” she answered, “and I will tell you all.”
The morrow, accordingly, found him at an early hour again beside Katinka. She was singing in a low and trembling voice; but the song was one that he had not heard before, and the words and music both breathed the deepest anguish of despair. Suddenly her voice failed her, and she ceased, as if some convulsive emotion would vent itself in tears. While he turned toward her in alarm, she tottered and fell. In a moment he was bending over her, and supporting her head upon his knee.
“My Palikar is dead!” she murmured, drawing a letter from her bosom. “When he left me, we shared a poison between us: he, that he might not fall alive into the hands of the enemy; and I, that I should not survive him! Byron! avenge my country and my Palikar! Eis aióna chaire moi!”