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“An ignis fatuus gleam of love!”.
THE PROPHECY FOR THE CHEVIOT EAGLE.
“It was a superb thing--magnificent!".
The most popular personage in the English Cabinet was standing on the hearth-rug of his own library of his wife's château of Liramar, South Italy, where he had snatched a brief autumn holiday, nothing altered and little aged since the beggared Border-lord, in the pride and liberty of his youth and his ruin, had won the great Minister's liking for life, by-a defiance.
Erceldoune laughed, a little impatiently.
“ Nothing of the kind! Any other man in the service would have done the same; simplest duty possible.”
“ Simple duties get done in this world, do they? Humph! I didn't know it. No other man in the service would have ordered himself to be shot, to save his papers. I suppose you expected, when you gave the word to fire, that the brutes would kill you-eh?”
“Of course! I can't think now how they missed it. I ought to have been riddled with bullets, if they had aimed properly.”
" I believe he's half disgusted he wasn't wholly dead, now !” said his Jordship, plaintively. “ It was a superb thing, I tell you ; but don't you do it again, Erceldoune. The trash we write, to bully and blind one another, isn't worth the loss of a gallant man's life. 'We know that! ! That terrible fellow, Bernal Ryder, went and said so too, in the Commons, last session; he was up, and nobody could stop him. He told us, point blank to our faces, that though we posed very successfully for the innocent public, we might as well drop the toga and show the sock and buskin before each other, as the attitudinising didn't take in the initiated, and must be a fearful bore always for us ! Clever fellow, Bernal. Tremendous hard hitter ; but he wants training. By the way, the Principalities paid us down a heavy fine as indemnity for that outrage; half the money comes to you, clearly."
“I thank you, my dear lord, I have no need for it.”
“I am; but I have never been in debt, and I want nothing. Besides, if you will pardon my saying so, I don't admire that system of indemnification,'” pursued Erceldoune, giving himself a shake like a staghound where he leaned against the marble mantelpiece.“ A single scoundrel, or a gang of scoundrels, commits an insult, as in this case, on England, or any other great power, through the person of her representative, or perhaps merely through the person of one of her nation ; the state to which the rascals belong is heavily mulcted, by way of penalty. Who suffers ? Not the guilty, but the unhappy multitudes, peasants, traders, farmers, citizens, gentlemen-all innocent—who pay the taxes and the imposts! With an outrage from a great power, if accidentally committed on a traveller by a horde of thieves, you would simply demand the criminals to be brought to justice; if one were obviously done as a political insult, you would declare war. But when the thing happens in a small state, she is punished by an enormous fine, which half ruins her, for a crime which she could no more prevent than you can help in Downing-street the last wreckers' murder that took place in Cornwall. Pardon me, but I fail to see the justice or the dignity of the system ; and for myself, when my own conviction is that the assassins who stopped me were not Moldavians at all, what compensation would it be to me to have the money wrung from a million or two guiltless people, whose country the cowards chose to select as their field ? If you wish to avenge me, track the dastards, and give them into my power.
Lessington listened as they stood alone in the library, and looked at his guest, with the same rich humour lighting up his blue eyes as when they had first met in the Foreign Office. To be differed with (out of the House) was so unutterably droll and refreshing to him; and he had himself too much “true breed” in him not to honour the man who, a state courier and a ruined gentleman, never courted or flattered him, the First Lord of the Treasury, with all the nation's best gifts in his hands.
“ Erceldoune, if you hadn't that confounded Border pride, which would make you knock me down, in all probability, if I offered it, I would give you three thousand a year to live with me and speak your mind,” laughed his lordship, meaning his words too. “ You are a miracle in your generation; you're not a bit like this age, sir, not a whit more than the Napiers; you speak rarely, and never speak but the truth; you have to choose between your life and your trust, and, as a matter of course, give up your life ; you are moneyless, and refuse money the state would tender you, because you think it gained neither by justice nor dignity ;' you have dined at my house in town, you have stayed in my house in the country fifty times; you know that I like you, and yet you are the only man of my acquaintance who has never asked me for anything! On my life, sir, you don't do for this century.”
Erceldoune smiled; the heroic element was too truly and thoroughly ingrained in his nature for him to view his character as the Premier did, or to be conscious of any heroism in its instincts or its acts.
“Unfit for my century, my dear lord, because I love your friendship, and honour your esteem too highly to regard both only as ladders to • place ?' Nay, surely that cannot be so rare, or the world is worse than I knew it already!"
The Minister stretched his hand out to him with one of those warm,
silent gestures of acknowledgment, very uncommon with him, but very eloquent; too sweet and sunny a temper to be Johnson's “good hater, he was a cordial friend, how true and steadfast an one those alone knew who knew him in that social négligé à huis clos called private life.
" Well, the State at least owes you something,” he said, after a pause. “ You must let us pay our debt. Messengerships never do lead to anything, but that is no reason why they should not in your person. There are many half civil half military appointments for which your life has fitted you, and which you yourself would fill better than any man I know; the Governorship of Cephalonia, for instance."
Erceldoune was silent a moment, leaning against the marble.
“I thank you sincerely, but I want nothing, and I have too much of the nomad in me to care to relinquish my wandering life in saddle. Give me no credit for asceticism, or renunciation, it is nothing of the kind; I should have been born a desert chief, I have never been happier than in the Kabyles' houses of hair,' living on maize and camel-Hesh, and waiting for the lions through the night with the Zouaves and the Arabs. If you think, however, that I have really done enough to have earned any preference from England, I will ask you to send me on service, as soon as I am myself again, to South and East Europe, with your authorisation to take leisure in returning if I desire it, and full powers from the government to go to any expenses, or impress any assistance I require, if I should be able to discover the persons, or the track of my assassins.”
“ Certainly, you shall have both to the fullest extent. You shall have the authorisation of the Crown to act precisely as you see fit; and spare no cost, if you can get on the villains' trail,' in bringing them to justice. I fear you will be baffled; we don't know enough to identify them; they seconded us well in France, and everything was tried, but failed. It was in Paris you had seen the man whose voice you recognised, wasn't it? Would you know him again ?”
Erceldoune ground his heel into the tiger-skin of the hearth-rug as though his tiger-foe were under his feet: he longed to have his hand on the throat of the silky murderous brute.
“I would swear to his voice and his laugh anywhere a score of years hence; and I should know him again, too, he was as beautiful as a woman, though I did not take his measure as I should have done had I guessed where we should meet.”
The Minister played thoughtfully with his verbena sprig.
“The object, of course, was purely political, and there are thousands of men, Carlists, Ultramontanists, Carbonarists, Reactionists, Socialists, and all the rest of the Continentalists, who would have held that they only obeyed their mot d'ordre, and acted like patriots in shooting you down, for sake of your papers. Well, you shall have your own way, Erceldoune, and all you ask-it is little enough! Lady George !” broke off his lordship, vivaciously, as a party from the billiard-room entered the library, “here is Erceldoune so enamoured of the country he was murdered in, that he is asking me to have him sent off there again! These messenger fellows are never quiet; he says he ought to be an Arab chief, and so he should.” “He only wants the white burnous to look like one," smiled Lady
George, a lovely blonde, dropping her azure eyes on him with an effective mitraille-wholly wasted.
Erceldoune, to his infinite annoyance, had found himself an object of hero-worship to all the brilliant blasées beauties down at Liramar, where he had been bidden by the great Minister as soon as he was able to leave Monastica ; and where that unworn octogenarian was himself taking a rare short rest in the November of the year:—a château large as a palace, and filled with every English luxury and comfort, looking on the violet stretch of the Mediterranean; an hereditary and favourite retreat of his wife's. Lord Lessington was imperative in his summons to his favourite State courier; and the southern air was likely to give back to Erceldoune the lost strength which was still only returning slowly and wearily to the muscles and the limbs whose force had been even as the lions of Libya.”
The story of that single-handed peril, that knightly choice of death rather than dishonour and disloyalty to his trust, in the dark silent ravine of the Moldavian pine-woods, had sent a thrill of its own chivalry through the languid, nil admirari, egotistic, listless pulses of high-bred society : Erceldoune was the hero of the hour if he chose, and the Border Eagle might have folded his strong pinions under the soft caress of a thousand white hands in the violet-scented salons and the rose-shaded boudoirs of aristocrates. But he did not choose; he had never cared for women, they had never gained any hold, even the slightest, over his dauntless, athletic, ascetic life, and he despised from the depths of his soul the man who was the slave of his passions; steeped in vice in his earliest years, sensuality had little power over his manhood ; and the languid intrigues, the fines coquetteries, the hollow homage, the "love" pulseless, insipid, artificial, frivolous, paré à la mode, of society, were still more contemptible, loathsome, and absolutely impossible to him. Nor was the life of the mondes to his taste; it had never been so; its wheels within wheels ill suited the singleness of his own character ; the feverish puerility of its envies and ambitions woke no chord of sympathy in him; and its hot-pressed atmosphere was too narrow, and too rarefied with heat and perfume, for the lungs which only breathed freely on the moorland and the prairie, on the ocean and the mountain-side. A man once bound to the great world is a slave till the day of his death, and Erceldoune could not have lived in chains.
“You are very like one of the eagles of your own Border, Sir Fulke," said a French Duchesse at Liramar to him ; she had been a Beauty, and now, at forty, was a Power, the customary development of a Frenchwoman,
“In love of liberty, madame, and solitude ? Well, yes."
He thought how he and the golden eagle had fallen, much alike, and the thought crossed him vaguely, should he ever live to wish that the shot, like the eagle's, had told home?
“Yes, and if I were twenty years younger I would tame you!" said the Duchesse, with a malicious smile. " Ah, mon ami ! how you would suffer, how you would beat your strong wings against the chains, how you would hate and worship in one breath, your captor, and how you would pant out your great life in torture till you sank down at last in slavery as intense as your
“I! You do not know me much.”
The Duchesse gave him a perfumy touch with her fan as she swept away.
“Bah, bah! M. Erceldoune, I know your tribe and I know their tamers. You will find a worse foe than a bullet, my Cheviot Eagle, soon or late. Your assassins were merciful to what your love will bewhen you love. You will see if I am wrong!"
And with a laugh of compassion and of mocking prescience the prophetess of dark omen went to her whist-table, where she played as well as Prince Metternich; and Erceldoune passed on his way to the smokingroom, a contemptuous disdain woke in him ;-“love!” he had never known it, he had never believed in it, the frank boldness of his nature was not naturally tempered by tenderness, and he only recognised in all love a sophistical synonym for women's vanity and men's sensuality; and, take it in the long run, he was undoubtedly right.
“His love !”—he had sworn early in his youth to refuse it to all, and he had never been tempted to break his oath. His passions were great; but he had them under an iron bridle, like some Knight of St. John, half priest, half soldier, stern warrior and ascetic monk in one, his soul, like his body, mailed in steel, and wrestling with the vile tempters of the flesh, as with twining serpents that sought to wreathe round and stifle out his martial strength, and drag it downwards into voluptuous fumes, and enervating shame, and weakness, that would disgrace his manhood and his pride, his order and his oath.
Fulke Erceldoune had never let a woman master him, and make him slave. “ His love !"—he laughed aloud in the grand scorn of his defiance.
Yet vague, dreamy, half soft, half stormy thoughts swept over him of some love that this world might hold, with all the delight of passion, whilst loftier, richer, holier, than mere passion alone, which wakes and desires, pursues, possesses,—and dies. He believed it a fable ; he was incredulous of its dominion; it was alien to his nature ; he neither needed nor accredited it; yet the dim glory of some such light that “never yet was upon sea or land,” half touched his life in fancy for a second. For, where he sat in the lonely smoking-room, with the gaslights burning in the long luxurious tabagie, and the smoke curling up from the meerschaum bowl which had turned the bullet from his heart in Moldavia, and floating away to the far recesses of Rembrandtesque shade, out from the shadow there seemed to rise, with the lustre in the eyes and the unspoken tenderness upon the lips, the face of the one who had saved him.
The face of a temptress or an angel ?
Erceldoune did not ask, as he sat and dreamt of that memory called up from the depths of thought and shade ; then he rose with a haughty disdain and a dark impatience of himself, and strode out into the white, warm, Mediterranean night.
Had he refused to surrender his life to any living woman, only to have it haunted by a mere phantom-shape, an hallucination wrought from the fever-fancies of a past delirium?