Paul Clifford/Volume 3/Chapter 6
Early the next morning, Sir William Brandon was closeted for a long time with his niece, previous to his departure to the duties of his office. Anxious, and alarmed for the success of one of the darling projects of his ambition, he spared no art in his conversation with Lucy, that his great ingenuity of eloquence and wonderful insight into human nature could suggest, in order to gain at least a foundation for the raising of his scheme. Among other resources of his worldly tact, he hinted at Lucy's love for Clifford; and (though darkly and subtly, as befitting the purity of the one he addressed,) this abandoned and wily person did not scruple to hint also at the possibility of indulging that love after marriage; though he denounced, as the last of indecorums, the crime of encouraging it before. This hint, however, fell harmless upon the innocent ear of Lucy. She did not, in the remotest degree, comprehend its meaning; she only, with a glowing cheek and a pouting lip, resented the allusion to a love which she thought it insolent in any one even to suspect.
When Brandon left the apartment, his brow was clouded, and his eye absent and thoughtful; it was evident that there had been little in the conference with his niece to please or content him. Miss Brandon herself was greatly agitated, for there was in her uncle's nature that silent and impressive secret of influencing or commanding others, which almost so invariably, and yet so quietly, attains the wishes of its owner, and Lucy, who loved and admired him sincerely, not the less perhaps for a certain modicum of fear, was greatly grieved at perceiving how rooted in him was the desire of that marriage which she felt as a moral impossibility. But if Brandon possessed the secret of sway, Lucy was scarcely less singularly endowed with the secret of resistance. It may be remembered, in describing her character, that we spoke of her as one who seemed, to the superficial, as of too yielding and soft a temper. But circumstances gave the lie to manner, and proved that she eminently possessed a quiet firmness and latent resolution, which gave to her mind a nobleness and trust-worthy power, that never would have been suspected by those who met her among the ordinary paths of life.
Brandon had not been long gone, when Lucy's maid came to inform her that a gentleman, who expressed himself very desirous of seeing her, waited below. The blood rushed from Lucy's cheek at this announcement, simple as it seemed. "What gentleman could be desirous of seeing her? Was it—was it Clifford?" She remained for some moments motionless, and literally unable to move; at length she summoned courage, and smiling with self-contempt at a notion which appeared to her after thoughts utterly absurd, she descended to the drawing-room. The first glance she directed towards the stranger, who stood by the fireplace with folded arms, was sufficient,—it was impossible to mistake, though the face was averted, the unequalled form of her lover. She advanced eagerly with a faint cry, checked herself, and sank upon the sofa.
Clifford turned towards her, and fixed his eyes upon her countenance with an intense and melancholy gaze, but he did not utter a syllable; and Lucy, after pausing in expectation of his voice, looked up, and caught, in alarm, the strange and peculiar aspect of his features. He approached her slowly, and still silent; but his gaze seemed to grow more earnest and mournful as he advanced.
"Yes," said he at last, in a broken and indistinct voice, "I see you once more, after all my promises to quit you for ever,—after my solemn farewell, after all that I have cost you;—for, Lucy, you love me,—you love me,—and I shudder while I feel it; after all, I myself have borne and resisted, I once more come wilfully into your presence! How have I burnt and sickened for this moment! How have I said, 'Let me behold her once more—only once more, and Fate may then do her worst!' Lucy! dear, dear, Lucy! forgive me for my weakness. It is now in bitter and stern reality, the very last I can be guilty of!"
As he spoke, Clifford sank beside her. He took both her hands in his, and holding them, though without pressure, again looked passionately upon her innocent yet eloquent face. It seemed as if he were moved beyond all the ordinary feelings of re-union and of love. He did not attempt to kiss the hands he held; and though the touch thrilled through every vein and fibre in his frame, his clasp was as light as that in which the first timidity of a boy's love ventures to stamp itself!
"You are pale, Lucy," said he mournfully, "and your cheek is much thinner than it was when I first saw you—when I first saw you! Ah! would for your sake that that had never been! Your spirits were light then, Lucy. Your laugh came from the heart,—your step spurned the earth. Joy broke from your eyes, every thing that breathed around you seemed full of happiness and mirth! and now, look upon me, Lucy; lift those soft eyes, and teach them to flash upon me indignation and contempt! Oh, not thus, not thus! I could leave you happy,—yes, literally blest,—if I could fancy you less forgiving, less gentle, less angelic!"
"What have I to forgive?"" said Lucy tenderly.
"What! every thing for which one human being can pardon another. Have not deceit and injury been my crimes against you? Your peace of mind, your serenity of heart, your buoyancy of temper, have I marred these or not?"
"Oh Clifford!" said Lucy, rising from herself and from all selfish thoughts, "why,—why will you not trust me? You do not know me, indeed you do not, you are ignorant even of the very nature of a woman, if you think me unworthy of your confidence! Do you believe I could betray it? or, do you think, that if you had done that for which all the world forsook you, I could forsake!"
Lucy's voice faltered at the last words; but it sank, as a stone sinks into deep waters, to the very core of Clifford's heart. Transported from all resolution and all forbearance, he wound his arms around her in one long and impassioned caress; and Lucy, as her breath mingled with his, and her cheek drooped upon his bosom, did indeed feel as if the past could contain no secret powerful enough even to weaken the affection with which her heart clung to his. She was the first to extricate herself from their embrace. She drew back her face from his, and smiling on him through her tears, with a brightness that the smiles of her earliest youth had never surpassed, she said:
"Listen to me. Tell me your history or not, as you will. But, believe me, a woman's wit is often no despicable counsellor. They who accuse themselves the most bitterly, are not often those whom it is most difficult to forgive; and you must pardon me, if I doubt the extent of the blame you would so lavishly impute to yourself. I am now alone in the world—(here the smile withered from Lucy's lips).—My poor father is dead. I can injure no one by my conduct; there is no one on earth to whom I am bound by duty. I am independent, I am rich. You profess to love me. I am foolish and vain, and I believe you. Perhaps, also, I have the fond hope which so often makes dupes of women—the hope, that, if you have erred, I may reclaim you; if you have been unfortunate, I may console you! I know, Mr. Clifford, that I am saying that for which many would despise me, and for which perhaps I ought to despise myself; but there are times when we speak only as if some power at our hearts constrained us, despite ourselves,—and it is thus that I have now spoken to you."
It was with an air very unwonted to herself that Lucy had concluded her address, for her usual characteristic was rather softness than dignity; but, as if to correct the meaning of her words, which might otherwise appear unmaidenly, there was a chaste, a proud, yet not the less a tender and sweet propriety, and dignified frankness in her look and manner; so that it would have been utterly impossible for one who heard her, not to have done justice to the nobleness of her motives, or not to have felt both touched and penetrated, as much by respect as by any warmer or more familiar feeling.
Clifford, who had risen while she was speaking, listened with a countenance that varied at every word she uttered:—now all hope—now all despondency. As she ceased, the expression hardened into a settled and compulsive resolution.
"It is well!" said he mutteringly, "I am worthy of this—very—very worthy! Generous, noble girl!—had I been an emperor, I would have bowed down to you in worship; but to debase, to degrade you—no! no!"
"Is there debasement in love?" murmured Lucy.
Clifford gazed upon her with a sort of enthusiastic and self-gratulatory pride; perhaps he felt, to be thus loved, and by such a creature, was matter of pride, even in the lowest circumstances to which he could ever be exposed. He drew his breath hard, set his teeth, and answered—
"You could love, then, an outcast, without birth, fortune, or character?—No! you believe this now, but you could not. Could you desert your country, your friends, and your home—all that you are born and fitted for?—Could you attend one over whom the sword hangs, through a life subjected every hour to discovery and disgrace?—Could you be subjected yourself to the moodiness of an evil memory, and the gloomy silence of remorse?—Could you be the victim of one who has no merit but his love for you, and who, if that love destroy you, becomes utterly redeemed? Yes, Lucy, I was wrong—I will do you justice; all this, nay more, you could bear, and your generous nature would disdain the sacrifice! But am I to be all selfish, and you all devoted? Are you to yield every thing to me, and I to accept every thing, and yield none?—Alas! I have but one good, one blessing to yield, and that is yourself. Lucy, I deserve you; I outdo you in generosity: all that you would desert for me is nothing—O God!—nothing to the sacrifice I make to you!—And now, Lucy, I have seen you, and I must once more bid you farewell: I am on the eve of quitting this country for ever. I shall enlist in a foreign service, perhaps—(and Clifford's dark eyes flashed with fire): you will yet hear of me, and not blush when you hear! But—(and his voice faltered, for Lucy, hiding her face with both hands, gave way to her tears and agitation)—but, in one respect, you have conquered! I had believed that you could never be mine—that my past life had for ever deprived me of that hope! I now begin, with a rapture that can bear me through all ordeals, to form a more daring vision. A soil may be effaced—an evil name may be redeemed—the past is not set and sealed, without the power of revoking what has been written. If I can win the right of meriting your mercy, I will throw myself on it without reserve; till then, or till death, you will see me no more!"
He dropped on his knee, printed his kiss and his tears upon Lucy's cold hand; the next moment she heard his step on the stairs,—the door closed heavily and jarringly upon him,—and Lucy felt one bitter pang, and, for some time at least, she felt no more!