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"Ever open this gulf shall endure, till at last
That which Rome hath most precious within it be cast."
The Romans threw in it their corn and their stuff,
But the gulf yawn'd as wide. Rome seem'd likely enough
To be ruin'd ere this rent in her heart she could choke.
Then Curtius, revering the oracle, spoke:
"O Quirites! to this Heaven's question is come:
What to Rome is most precious? The manhood of Rome."
He plunged, and the gulf closed.
The tale is not new;
But the moral applies many ways, and is true.
How, for hearts rent in twain, shall the curse be destroy'd?
'Tis a warm human one that must fill up the void.
Through many a heart runs the rent in the fable;
But who to discover a Curtius is able?


XVII.


Back she came from her long hiding-place, at the source
Of the sunrise; where, fair in their fabulous course,
Run the rivers of Eden: an exile again,
To the cities of Europe - the scenes, and the men,
And the life, and the ways, she had left: still oppress'd
With the same hungry heart, and unpeaceable breast.
The same, to the same things! The world she had quitted
With a sigh, with a sigh she re-enter'd. Soon flitted
Through the salons and clubs, to the great satisfaction
Of Paris, the news of a novel attraction.
The enchanting Lucile, the gay Countess, once more,
To her old friend, the World, had reopen'd her door;
The World came, and shook hands, and was pleased and amused
With what the World then went away and abused.
From the woman's fair fame it in naught could detract:
'Twas the woman's free genius it vex'd and attack'd
With a sneer at her freedom of action and speech.
But its light careless cavils, in truth, could not reach
The lone heart they aim'd at. Her tears fell beyond
The world's limit, to feel that the world could respond
To that heart's deepest, innermost yearning, in naught,
'Twas no longer this earth's idle inmates she sought:
The wit of the woman sufficed to engage
In the woman's gay court the first men of the age.
Some had genius; and all, wealth of mind to confer
On the world: but that wealth was not lavish'd for her.
For the genius of man, though so human indeed,
When call'd out to man's help by some great human need,
The right to a man's chance acquaintance refuses
To use what it hoards for mankind's nobler uses.
Genius touches the world at but one point alone
Of that spacious circumference, never quite known
To the world; all the infinite number of lines
That radiate thither a mere point combines,
But one only, - some central affection apart
From the reach of the world, in which Genius is Heart,
And love, life's fine centre, includes heart and mind,
And therefore it was that Lucile sigh'd to find
Men of genius appear, one and all in her ken,
When they stoop'd themselves to it, as mere clever men;
Artists, statesmen, and they in whose works are unfurl'd
Worlds new-fashioned for man, as mere men of the world.
And so, as alone now she stood, in the sight
Of the sunset of youth, with her face from the light,
And watch'd her own shadow grow long at her feet,
As though stretch'd out, the shade of some OTHER to meet,
The woman felt homeless and childless: in scorn
She seem'd mock'd by the voices of children unborn;
And when from these sombre reflections away
She turn'd, with a sigh, to that gay world, more gay
For her presence within it, she knew herself friendless;
That her path led from peace, and that path appear'd endless!
That even her beauty had been but a snare,
And her wit sharpen'd only the edge of despair.


XVIII.


With a face all transfigured and flush'd by surprise,
Alfred turn'd to Lucile. With those deep searching eyes
She look'd into his own. Not a word that she said,
Not a look, not a blush, one emotion betray'd.
She seem'd to smile through him, at something beyond:
When she answer'd his questions, she seem'd to respond
To some voice in herself. With no trouble descried,
To each troubled inquiry she calmly replied.
Not so he. At the sight of that face back again
To his mind came the ghost of a long-stifled pain,
A remember'd resentment, half check'd by a wild
And relentful regret like a motherless child
Softly seeking admittance, with plaintive appeal,
To the heart which resisted its entrance.
Lucile
And himself thus, however, with freedom allow'd
To old friends, talking still side by side, left the crowd
By the crowd unobserved. Not unnoticed, however,
By the Duke and Matilda. Matilda had never
Seen her husband's new friend.
She had follow'd by chance,
Or by instinct, the sudden half-menacing glance
Which the Duke, when he witness'd their meeting, had turn'd
On Lucile and Lord Alfred; and, scared, she discern'd
On his feature the shade of a gloom so profound
That she shudder'd instinctively. Deaf to the sound
Of her voice, to some startled inquiry of hers
He replied not, but murmur'd, "Lucile de Nevers
Once again then? so be it!" In the mind of that man,
At that moment, there shaped itself vaguely the plan
Of a purpose malignant and dark, such alone
(To his own secret heart but imperfectly shown)
As could spring from the cloudy, fierce chaos of thought
By which all his nature to tumult was wrought.


XIX.


"So!" he thought, "they meet thus: and reweave the old charm!
And she hangs on his voice, and she leans on his arm,
And she heeds me not, seeks me not, recks not of me!
Oh, what if I show'd her that I, too, can be
Loved by one - her own rival - more fair and more young?"
The serpent rose in him; a serpent which, stung,
Sought to sting.
Each unconscious, indeed, of the eye
Fix'd upon them, Lucile and my lord saunter'd by,
In converse which seem'd to be earnest. A smile
Now and then seem'd to show where their thoughts touch'd. Meanwhile
The muse of this story, convinced that they need her,
To the Duke and Matilda returns, gentle Reader.


XX.


The Duke with that sort of aggressive false praise
Which is meant a resentful remonstrance to raise
From a listener (as sometimes a judge, just before
He pulls down the black cap, very gently goes o'er
The case for the prisoner, and deals tenderly
With the man he is minded to hang by and by),
Had referr'd to Lucile, and then stopp'd to detect
In the face of Matilda the growing effect
Of the words he had dropp'd. There's no weapon that slays
Its victim so surely (if well aim'd) as praise.
Thus, a pause on their converse had fallen: and now
Each was silent, preoccupied; thoughtful.
You know
There are moments when silence, prolong'd and unbroken,
More expressive may be than all words ever spoken.
It is when the heart has an instinct of what
In the heart of another is passing. And that
In the heart of Matilda, what was it? Whence came
To her cheek on a sudden that tremulous flame?
What weighed down her head?
All your eye could discover
Was the fact that Matilda was troubled. Moreover
That trouble the Duke's presence seem'd to renew.
She, however, broke silence, the first of the two.
The Duke was too prudent to shatter the spell
Of a silence which suited his purpose so well.
She was plucking the leaves from a pale blush rose blossom
Which had fall'n from the nosegay she wore in her bosom.
"This poor flower," she said, "seems it not out of place
In this hot, lamplit air, with its fresh, fragile grace?"
She bent her head low as she spoke. With a smile
The Duke watch'd her caressing the leaves all the while,
And continued on his side the silence. He knew
This would force his companion their talk to renew
At the point that he wish'd; and Matilda divined
The significant pause with new trouble of mind.
She lifted one moment her head; but her look
Encounter'd the ardent regard of the Duke,
And dropp'd back on her flowret abash'd. Then, still seeking
The assurance she fancied she show'd him by speaking,
She conceived herself safe in adopting again
The theme she should most have avoided just then.


XXI.


"Duke," she said,... and she felt, as she spoke, her cheek burn'd,
"You know, then, this... lady?"
"Too well!" he return'd.

MATILDA.

True; you drew with emotion her portrait just now.

LUVOIS.

With emotion?

MATILDA.

Yes, yes! you described her, I know,
As possess'd of a charm all unrivall'd.

LUVOIS.

Alas!
You mistook me completely! You, madam, surpass
This lady as moonlight does lamplight; as youth
Surpasses its best imitations; as truth
The fairest of falsehood surpasses; as nature
Surpasses art's masterpiece; ay, as the creature
Fresh and pure in its native adornment surpasses
All the charms got by heart at the world's looking-glasses!
"Yet you said," - she continued with some trepidation,
"That you quite comprehended"... a slight hesitation
Shook the sentence,... "a passion so strong as"...

LUVOIS.

"True, true!
But not in a man that had once look'd at you.
Nor can I conceive, or excuse, or"...
Hush, hush!"
She broke in, all more fair for one innocent blush.
"Between man and woman these things differ so!
It may be that the world pardons... (how should I know?)
In you what it visits on us; or 'tis true,
It may be that we women are better than you."

LUVOIS.

Who denies it? Yet, madam, once more you mistake.
The world, in its judgment, some difference may make
'Twixt the man and the woman, so far as respects
Its social enchantments; but not as affects
The one sentiment which it were easy to prove,
Is the sole law we look to the moment we love.

MATILDA.

That may be. Yet I think I should be less severe.
Although so inexperienced in such things, I fear
I have learn'd that the heart cannot always repress
Or account for the feelings which sway it.
"Yes! yes!
That is too true, indeed!"... the Duke sigh'd.
And again
For one moment in silence continued the twain.


XXII.


At length the Duke slowly, as though he had needed
All this time to repress his emotions, proceeded:
"And yet!... what avails, then, to woman the gift
Of a beauty like yours, if it cannot uplift
Her heart from the reach of one doubt, one despair,
One pang of wrong'd love, to which women less fair
Are exposed, when they love?"
With a quick change of tone,
As though by resentment impell'd he went on: -
"The name that you bear, it is whisper'd, you took
From love, not convention. Well, lady,... that look
So excited, so keen, on the face you must know
Throughout all its expressions - that rapturous glow,
Those eloquent features - significant eyes -
Which that pale woman sees, yet betrays no surprise,"
(He pointed his hand, as he spoke, to the door,
Fixing with it Lucile and Lord Alfred)... "before,
Have you ever once seen what just now you may view
In that face so familiar?... no, lady, 'tis new.
Young, lovely, and loving, no doubt, as you are,
Are you loved?"...


XXIII.


He look'd at her - paused - felt if thus far
The ground held yet. The ardor with which he had spoken,
This close, rapid question, thus suddenly broken,
Inspired in Matilda a vague sense of fear,
As though some indefinite danger were near.
With composure, however, at once she replied: -
"'Tis three years since the day when I first was a bride,
And my husband I never had cause to suspect;
Nor ever have stoop'd, sir, such cause to detect.
Yet if in his looks or his acts I should see -
See, or fancy - some moment's oblivion of me,
I trust that I too should forget it, - for you
Must have seen that my heart is my husband's."
The hue
On her cheek, with the effort wherewith to the Duke
She had uttered this vague and half-frightened rebuke,
Was white as the rose in her hand. The last word
Seem'd to die on her lip, and could scarcely be heard.
There was silence again.
A great step had been made
By the Duke in the words he that evening had said.
There, half drown'd by the music, Matilda, that night,
Had listen'd - long listen'd - no doubt, in despite
Of herself, to a voice she should never have heard,
And her heart by that voice had been troubled and stirr'd.
And so having suffer'd in silence his eye
To fathom her own, he resumed, with a sigh:


XXIV.


"Will you suffer me, lady, your thoughts to invade
By disclosing my own? The position," he said,
"In which we so strangely seem placed may excuse
The frankness and force of the words which I use.
You say that your heart is your husband's: You say
That you love him. You think so, of course, lady... nay,
Such a love, I admit, were a merit, no doubt.
But, trust me, no true love there can be without
Its dread penalty - jealousy.
"Well, do not start!
Until now, - either thanks to a singular art
Of supreme self-control, you have held them all down
Unreveal'd in your heart, - or you never have known
Even one of those fierce irresistible pangs
Which deep passion engenders; that anguish which hangs
On the heart like a nightmare, by jealousy bred.
But if, lady, the love you describe, in the bed
Of a blissful security thus hath reposed
Undisturb'd, with mild eyelids on happiness closed,
Were it not to expose to a peril unjust,
And most cruel, that happy repose you so trust,
To meet, to receive, and, indeed, it may be,
For how long I know not, continue to see
A woman whose place rivals yours in the life
And the heart which not only your title of wife,
But also (forgive me!) your beauty alone,
Should have made wholly yours? - You, who gave all your own!
Reflect! - 'tis the peace of existence you stake
On the turn of a die. And for whose - for his sake?
While you witness this woman, the false point of view
From which she must now be regarded by you
Will exaggerate to you, whatever they be,
The charms I admit she possesses. To me
They are trivial indeed; yet to your eyes, I fear
And foresee, they will true and intrinsic appear.
Self-unconscious, and sweetly unable to guess
How more lovely by far is the grace you possess,
You will wrong your own beauty. The graces of art,
You will take for the natural charm of the heart;
Studied manners, the brilliant and bold repartee,
Will too soon in that fatal comparison be
To your fancy more fair than the sweet timid sense
Which, in shrinking, betrays its own best eloquence.
O then, lady, then, you will feel in your heart
The poisonous pain of a fierce jealous dart!
While you see her, yourself you no longer will see, -
You will hear her, and hear not yourself, - you will be
Unhappy; unhappy, because you will deem
Your own power less great than her power will seem.
And I shall not be by your side, day by day,
In despite of your noble displeasure, to say
'You are fairer than she, as the star is more fair
Than the diamond, the brightest that beauty can wear'"


XXV.


This appeal, both by looks and by language, increased
The trouble Matilda felt grow in her breast.
Still she spoke with what calmness she could -
"Sir, the while
I thank you," she said, with a faint scornful smile,
"For your fervor in painting my fancied distress:
Allow me the right some surprise to express
At the zeal you betray in disclosing to me
The possible depth of my own misery."
"That zeal would not startle you, madam," he said,
"Could you read in my heart, as myself I have read,
The peculiar interest which causes that zeal - "

Matilda her terror no more could conceal.
"Duke," she answer'd in accents short, cold and severe,
As she rose from her seat, "I continue to hear;
But permit me to say, I no more understand."
"Forgive!" with a nervous appeal of the hand,
And a well-feign'd confusion of voice and of look,
"Forgive, oh, forgive me!" at once cried the Duke
"I forgot that you know me so slightly. Your leave
I entreat (from your anger those words to retrieve)
For one moment to speak of myself, - for I think
That you wrong me - "
His voice, as in pain, seem'd to sink
And tears in his eyes, as he lifted them, glisten'd.


XXVI.


Matilda, despite of herself, sat and listen'd.


XXVII.


"Beneath an exterior which seems, and may be,
Worldly, frivolous, careless, my heart hides in me,"
He continued, "a sorrow which draws me to side
With all things that suffer. Nay, laugh not," he cried,
"At so strange an avowal.
"I seek at a ball,
For instance, - the beauty admired by all?
No! some plain, insignificant creature, who sits
Scorn'd of course by the beauties, and shunn'd by the wits.
All the world is accustom'd to wound, or neglect,
Or oppress, claims my heart and commands my respect.
No Quixote, I do not affect to belong,
I admit, to those charter'd redressers of wrong;
But I seek to console, where I can. 'Tis a part
Not brilliant, I own, yet its joys bring no smart."
These trite words, from the tone which he gave them, received
An appearance of truth which might well be believed
By a heart shrewder yet than Matilda's.
And so
He continued... "O lady! alas, could you know
What injustice and wrong in this world I have seen!
How many a woman, believed to have been
Without a regret, I have known turn aside
To burst into heartbroken tears undescried!
On how many a lip have I witness'd the smile
Which but hid what was breaking the poor heart the while!"
Said Matilda, "Your life, it would seem, then, must be
One long act of devotion"
"Perhaps so," said he;
"But at least that devotion small merit can boast,
For one day may yet come, - if ONE day at the most, -
When, perceiving at last all the difference - how great! -
Twixt the heart that neglects, and the heart that can wait,
Twixt the natures that pity, the natures that pain,
Some woman, that else might have pass'd in disdain
Or indifference by me, - in passing that day
Might pause with a word or a smile to repay
This devotion, - and then"...


XXVIII.


To Matilda's relief
At that moment her husband approach'd.
With some grief
I must own that her welcome, perchance, was express'd
The more eagerly just for one twinge in her breast
Of a conscience disturb'd, and her smile not less warm,
Though she saw the Comtesse de Nevers on his arm.
The Duke turn'd and adjusted his collar.
Thought he,
"Good! the gods fight my battle to-night. I foresee
That the family doctor's the part I must play.
Very well! but the patients my visits shall pay."
Lord Alfred presented Lucile to his wife;
And Matilda, repressing with effort the strife
Of emotions which made her voice shake, murmur'd low
Some faint, troubled greeting. The Duke, with a bow
Which betoken'd a distant defiance, replied
To Lucile's startled cry, as surprised she descried
Her former gay wooer. Anon, with the grace
Of that kindness which seeks to win kindness, her place
She assumed by Matilda, unconscious, perchance,
Or resolved not to notice the half-frighten'd glance,
That follow'd that movement.
The Duke to his feet
Arose; and, in silence, relinquish'd his seat.
One must own that the moment was awkward for all
But nevertheless, before long, the strange thrall
Of Lucile's gracious tact was by every one felt,
And from each the reserve seem'd, reluctant, to melt;
Thus, conversing together, the whole of the four
Thro' the crowd saunter'd smiling.


XXIX.


Approaching the door,
Eugene de Luvois, who had fallen behind,
By Lucile, after some hesitation, was join'd.
With a gesture of gentle and kindly appeal,
Which appear'd to imply, without words, "Let us feel
That the friendship between us in years that are fled,
Has survived one mad moment forgotten," she said:
"You remain, Duke, at Ems?"
He turn'd on her a look
Of frigid, resentful, and sullen rebuke;
And then, with a more than significant glance
At Matilda, maliciously answer'd, "Perchance.
I have here an attraction. And you?" he return'd.
Lucile's eyes had follow'd his own, and discern'd
The boast they implied.
He repeated, "And you?"
And, still watching Matilda, she answer'd, "I too."
And he thought, as with that word she left him, she sigh'd.
The next moment her place she resumed by the side
Of Matilda; and they soon shook hands at the gate
Of the selfsame hotel.


XXX.


One depress'd, one elate,
The Duke and Lord Alfred again, thro' the glooms
Of the thick linden alley, return'd to the Rooms.
His cigar each had lighted, a moment before,
At the inn, as they turn'd, arm-in-arm, from the door.
Ems cigars do not cheer a man's spirits, experto
(Me miserum quoties!) crede Roberto.
In silence, awhile, they walk'd onward.
At last
The Duke's thoughts to language half consciously pass'd.

LUVOIS.

Once more! yet once more!

ALFRED.

What?

LUVOIS.

We meet her, once more,
The woman for whom we two madmen of yore
(Laugh, mon cher Alfred, laugh!) were about to destroy
Each other!

ALFRED.

It is not with laughter that I
Raise the ghost of that once troubled time. Say! can you
Recall it with coolness and quietude now?

LUVOIS.

Now? yes! I, mon cher, am a true Parisien:
Now, the red revolution, the tocsin, and then
The dance and the play. I am now at the play.

ALFRED.

At the play, are you now? Then perchance I now may
Presume, Duke, to ask you what, ever until
Such a moment, I waited...

LUVOIS.

Oh! ask what you will.
Franc jeu! on the table my cards I spread out.
Ask!

ALFRED.

Duke, you were called to a meeting (no doubt
You remember it yet) with Lucile. It was night
When you went; and before you return'd it was light.


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Online LibraryOwen MeredithLucile → online text (page 10 of 18)