Эдвард Джордж Бульвер-Литтон
Ernest Maltravers — Volume 09

"You may," said Cesarini, gloomily.

"Farewell, then," said Lumley, as he mounted; and in a few moments he was out of sight.

CHAPTER II

"O world, thou wast the forest to this hart,
* * * * *
Dost thou here lie?"

    —/Julius Caesar/.

AS Lumley leapt from his horse at his uncle's door, the disorder and bustle of those demesnes, in which the severe eye of the master usually preserved a repose and silence as complete as if the affairs of life were carried on by clockwork, struck upon him sensibly. Upon the trim lawn the old women employed in cleaning and weeding the walks were all assembled in a cluster, shaking their heads ominously in concert, and carrying on their comments in a confused whisper. In the hall, the housemaid (and it was the first housemaid whom Lumley had ever seen in that house, so invisibly were the wheels of the domestic machine carried on) was leaning on her broom, "swallowing with open mouth a footman's news." It was as if, with the first slackening of the rigid rein, human nature broke loose from the conventual stillness in which it had ever paced its peaceful path in that formal mansion.

"How is he?"

"My lord is better, sir; he has spoken, I believe."

At this moment a young face, swollen and red with weeping, looked down from the stairs; and presently Evelyn rushed breathlessly into the hall.

"Oh, come up—come up—cousin Lumley; he cannot, cannot die in your presence; you always seem so full of life! He cannot die; you do not think he will die? Oh, take me with you, they won't let me go to him!"

"Hush, my dear little girl, hush; follow me lightly—that is right."

Lumley reached the door, tapped gently—entered; and the child also stole in unobserved or at least unprevented. Lumley drew aside the curtains; the new lord was lying on his bed, with his head propped by pillows, his eyes wide open, with a glassy, but not insensible stare, and his countenance fearfully changed.

Lady Vargrave was kneeling on the other side of the bed, one hand clasped in her husband's, the other bathing his temples, and her tears falling, without sob or sound, fast and copiously down her pale fair cheeks.

Two doctors were conferring in the recess of the window; an apothecary was mixing drugs at a table; and two of the oldest female servants of the house were standing near the physicians, trying to overhear what was said.

"My dear, dear uncle, how are you?" asked Lumley.

"Ah, you are come, then," said the dying man, in a feeble yet distinct voice; "that is well—I have much to say to you."

"But not now—not now—you are not strong enough," said the wife, imploringly.

The doctors moved to the bedside. Lord Vargrave waved his hand, and raised his head.

"Gentlemen," said he, "I feel as if death were hastening upon me; I have much need, while my senses remain, to confer with my nephew. Is the present a fitting time?—if I delay, are you sure that I shall have another?"

The doctors looked at each other.

"My lord," said one, "it may perhaps settle and relieve your mind to converse with your nephew; afterwards you may more easily compose yourself to sleep."

"Take this cordial, then," said the other doctor.

The sick man obeyed. One of the physicians approached Lumley, and beckoned him aside.

"Shall we send for his lordship's lawyer?" whispered the leech.

"I am his heir-at-law," thought Lumley. "Why, /no/, my dear sir—no, I think not, unless he expresses a desire to see him; doubtless my poor uncle has already settled his worldly affairs. What is his state?"

The doctor shook his head. "I will speak to you, sir, after you have left his lordship."

"What is the matter there?" cried the patient, sharply and querulously.

"Clear the room—I would be alone with my nephew."

The doctors disappeared; the old women reluctantly followed; when, suddenly, the little Evelyn sprang forward and threw herself on the breast of the dying man, sobbing as if her heart would break.

"My poor child!—my sweet child—my own, own darling!" gasped out Lord Vargrave, folding his weak arms round her; "bless you—bless you! and God will bless you. My wife," he added, with a voice far more tender than Lumley had ever before heard him address to Lady Vargrave, "if these be the last words I utter to you, let them express all the gratitude I feel for you, for duties never more piously discharged: you did not love me, it is true; and in health and pride that knowledge often made me unjust to you. I have been severe—you have had much to bear—forgive me."

"Oh! do not talk thus; you have been nobler, kinder than my deserts.

How much I owe you—how little I have done in return!"

"I cannot bear this; leave me, my dear, leave me. I may live yet—I hope I may—I do not want to die. The cup may pass from me. Go—go—and you, my child."

"Ah, let /me/ stay."

Lord Vargrave kissed the little creature, as she clung to his neck, with passionate affection, and then, placing her in her mother's arms, fell back exhausted on his pillow. Lumley, with handkerchief to his eyes, opened the door to Lady Vargrave, who sobbed bitterly, and carefully closing it, resumed his station by his uncle.

When Lumley Ferrers left the room, his countenance was gloomy and excited rather than sad. He hurried to the room which he usually occupied, and remained there for some hours while his uncle slept—a long and sound sleep. But the mother and the stepchild (now restored to the sick-room) did not desert their watch.

It wanted about an hour to midnight, when the senior physician sought the nephew.

"Your uncle asks for you, Mr. Ferrers; and I think it right to say that his last moments approach. We have done all that can be done."

"Is he fully aware of his danger?"

"He is; and has spent the last two hours in prayer—it is a Christian's death-bed, sir."

"Humph!" said Ferrers, as he followed the physician. The room was darkened—a single lamp, carefully shaded, burned on a table, on which lay the Book of Life in Death: and with awe and grief on their faces, the mother and the child were kneeling beside the bed.

"Come here, Lumley," faltered forth the fast-dying man.

"There are none here but you three—nearest and dearest to me?—That is well. Lumley, then, you know all—my wife, he knows all. My child, give your hand to your cousin—so you are now plighted. When you grow up, Evelyn, you will know that it is my last wish and prayer that you should be the wife of Lumley Ferrers. In giving you this angel, Lumley, I atone to you for all seeming injustice. And to you, my child, I secure the rank and honours to which I have painfully climbed, and which I am forbidden to enjoy. Be kind to her, Lumley—you have a good and frank heart—let it be her shelter—she has never known a harsh word. God bless you all, and God forgive me—pray for me. Lumley, to-morrow you will be Lord Vargrave, and by and by" (here a ghastly, but exultant smile flitted over the speaker's countenance), "you will be my Lady—Lady Vargrave. Lady—so—so—Lady Var—"

The words died on his trembling lips; he turned round, and, though he continued to breathe for more than an hour, Lord Vargrave never uttered another syllable.

CHAPTER III

"Hopes and fears
Start up alarmed, and o'er life's narrow verge
Look down—on what?—a fathomless abyss."

    —YOUNG.

"Contempt, farewell, and maiden pride, adieu!"