“THUS ESAU DESPISED HIS BIRTHRIGHT”
STRONG and free over the awakening woods of Kelpies goes the blithe tumultuous wind, careering from bush to brake, from height to depth, at its own wild will, tossing aloft the tasseled sprays of the slender alders and larches by the bubbling waterfall. Snatching and scattering from their swaying stems the crisp, rusty leaves of the oaks and chestnuts, and whirling them hither and thither in eddying circles. Then hurrying off again in a new direction, roving and lingering and tumbling madly in and out and up and down in all manner of nooks and comers, the very spirit of inquisitive, capricious, adventurous peregrination.
It is scarcely morning yet, and there is only the very faintest suspicion of a sunrise beyond the far eastern reaches of the heather moors; and all the broad landscape is reposing in that strange aspect of loneliness that the dawn always brings, the one solitary hour during which the World and Humbug seem most remote from our hearts; and Nature, like a little child, yet in the purity and confidence of her early freshness, speaks to us most familiarly and hopefully. There is no Regret in the dawn, no sense of satiate weariness, no quiet expectancy of a coming rest. These belong to the twilight of the evening, and with it they most surely come, grateful and sweet in their perfect order and fitness, the plaintive reposeful cadence of the day’s Opera. But the low, dear light that broadens round our horizon every morning is emphatically an Awakening, open-eyed with wonder and anticipation; sanguine, trustful, untroubled by any memory of disappointment or wrecked desire, as the dawn of that first and unluckiest Friday of the world’s history that added the disastrous name of Man to the catalogue of created things.
In the eastern wing of the old house at Kelpies, and directly facing the sunrise, are the windows of the viscount’s apartments. Already their
casements stand open to admit the free roving breezes that shake the thick masses of Virginian creeper upon the grey stone plinths of the facade and buffet the distorted cheeks of the grimacing ecclesiastics that form the gargoyles, with scourges of its scarlet tendrils.
Now and again an adventurous puff darts incontinently into the interior of the viscount’s bed-chamber, and stirs the soft heavy drapery of the window-curtains, or sways the ponderous lengths of tapestry upon the walls, or even ruffles the curly hair of the young lord himself as he kneels beside a small travelling valise that lies opened upon the bearskin mat before the hearth.
Rep’s face is graver now than when we saw it last and the gay insouciant smile that curled his shapely lips yesterday is quenched this morning in a sadder mood. But there is not a shadow of regret, not a soupçon of melancholy in the depths of his dear, well-like eyes; and if his handsome face be somewhat paler than its wont, it is blanched by no touch of apprehension nor faint-heartedness. One can read the spirit of a fixed immutable resolve in every curve of his expressive mouth; a resolve, not indeed calm and grand like the determination of manlier growths and riper lives, but at least earnest and enthusiastic, even though somewhat Quixotic in its character. Ay de mi! what a pity it is, mes frères, that so surely as we advance in our journey along the pathway of the years, so surely our shadow lengthens more and more before us until at last it far exceeds the measurement of the soul that casts it, and we grow dismally bewildered between the phantom and our self. Who is that preux chevalier, sans peur et sans reproche, that can carry a light heart under a wise head through the whole of his campaigning? Theseus and Jason may indeed go out to seek labourious adventure and win themselves renown, but Ægeus sits alone at Sunium, and only watches for the return of the black-sailed argosy across the doleful sea; and the sage old Cheiron stays in his solitude among the crags and caves of the desolate mountains. And the heroes themselves of the argosy were jaded and miserable men when they drew their ships aground at Iolcos, and wept to see what strange unfamiliar faces crowded the home
shores they had quitted long before in all the hopeful zealous enthusiasm of their youth. Yet they were heroes, and the deed they had wrought was a mighty one; but the heart knoweth his own bitterness, and the lion of the day, the victor, the popular favourite, the man of brilliant fortunes – these only feel, each one deep in the hidden adytum of his own soul, how vast and awful a failure is his very success, how profound a humiliation his very triumph. “Vanity of Vanities – all is Vanity!” This is the cry upon the lips of Solomon the King, the wisest of men, at whose imperial feet the world poured out every treasure, every glory she could give; this is the testimony of the patriarch Jacob before the throne of Egyptian Pharaoh, the result of his fortunate intrigues and successful ambitions; this the verdict of the mighty Macedonian, who wept that there were no more worlds to conquer; this the end of the life-long scheming of Columbus, of Raleigh, of Albuquerque, of Buonaparte. This, too, the touching complaint of the fallen Cardinal – the consummation of his glowing aspirations and laborious toils – so gross a cheat, so grim and pathetic a farce is human life:
“Vain, pomp, and glory of this world I hate ye;
I have touched the highest point of all my greatness
And from that full meridian of my glory
I haste now to my setting; I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more!”
Indeed, a melancholy epilogue, but confirmed a thousand times in a thousand different mouths, in every language of the world; in every corner of the earth. Petrarch, Horace, Spenser, Dryden, La Bruyère, Cervantes, Leopardi, Sir William Temple, Disraeli, Carlyle; poets, philosophers, statesmen, men of the world – what have they all to tell us, save the same dreary bitter experience? – “Initium cœcitas; progressio labor; error omnia!” For the truth is, as the clever author of Realmah succinctly observes – “man is not great enough for the place he holds in creation.”
Ah Rep! Rep! the brave Alonzo of Aguilar carried no lighter heart than yours to his disastrous fate at Alpuxarra; Sebastian of Portugal, when he weighed anchor in the Bay of Lisbon, and sailed across the gleaming waters to his death at Alcaçarquiver was as hopeful and romantic in his boyish zeal as you are now! For youth never believes in a common fate, and each young paladin goes out to his chosen campaign, undoubting that though others have perished upon the battle-field, he at least will return triumphant, he at least will be the single happy exception destined for success and eternal renown. Thank God for the Hope at the bottom of Pandora’s box! Is it of such a hope that the wild, free wind whispers in the ears of Rep as he kneels here alone packing his leathern valise? Is it such a bright golden vision of the future that the breaking dawn prognosticates to his boyish heart as he leans here at the open casement looking out across his ample inheritance, with its yellow plumed covers, its white chattering torrent of gleaming foam, its sudden dells and thyme-clad slopes, its level stretches of dark moorland, where the heron and the blackcock and the ptarmigan hide in the gorse and bracken by the still purple pools? Yet, at last, there comes a shadow of mournfulness into Rep’s eyes as he turns them away from the familiar panorama, and fixes their clear steadfast gaze upon a little miniature, set round with a single border of pearls, and hanging in a niche by the window upon a background of crimson velvet. It is a portrait of himself, painted three years ago by a hand that has lost its cunning now in the stillness and repose of death, the hand of his mother, the Countess Mona, from whose artistic tastes and temperament Rep inherits, no doubt, his peculiar love of the pencil and canvass.
Slowly he takes the tiny picture from its recess, and stands looking at it in the misty light of the dawn, until he can see no longer for the tears that blind his sight. For alone in his own chamber, deeper expressions and graver manner often take the place of the gay bonhomie, which is Rep’s distinguishing trait in society, and pulses of strong emotion beat sometimes behind the lips whose smile is always so ready.
“I can’t leave this,” he mutters, drawing his hand rapidly across his eyes with an impetuous characteristic lightness of action. “It’s the only thing I possess of her painting, and wherever I go it shall go with me.”
He lays it with gentle reverent touch in a corner of the valise upon a packet of old letters, addressed to him at Harrow in his schooldays, some in his father’s writing, some in her’s; treasured heirlooms of dead years, which Rep regards with tenderer veneration than he would care for Roy to know. Then he closes the valise, locks it, and rises to his feet, standing motionless, and looking down upon it as though he were considering what ought to be done next. Then he takes from an ebony console beside him a note, directed in his own hand to his brother, and goes noiselessly out of the room and down the broad pilastered staircase wrapped in a travelling cloak and carrying his valise.
A moment he lingers upon the threshold of the old house, and looks behind him into the great empty hall he has crossed for the last time, the grey dim light of the early morning streaming in through the opened door and lying ghost-like upon cold marble pavement, making the darkness and the silence of the corridors beyond its reach more strangely profound. And Rep pauses and gazes back with a long-drawn sigh; this romantic departure from home, this deed of voluntary exile, this willing abdication of birthright, is not altogether the result of selfish promptings. Mistaken, perhaps, and very ill-advised, but not altogether selfish, else why, as he turns his eyes away from the familiar place, does he murmur encouragingly to himself, ”He will be happier; it is better so?”
His footsteps echo heavily down the long avenue as he goes on his way towards the lodge, walking like a man in a dream, with his head drooping, and his bonnet drawn low upon his forehead. But the rover wind rushing tumultuously in upon him every now and then between the sturdy elm trunks, claps its friendly hand upon his flying curls in benison and cries, “Courage, mon ami! Listen to me, and hear me blow my own trumpet and beat my rollcall to liberty in every comer of the open heaven! Only think how delightful it is to be free, and unaccountable, and unrestrained like me! Too-hoo-too! Rat a plan-plan! Whew-w-w-!”
Early as it is, the gatekeeper is up and about already, sweeping the fallen leaves from the entrance of the drive, and softly whistling Jacobite ditties to beguile his laborious solitude. Rep lifts his head and accosts the man with a cheery greeting.
“Hallo, MacIvor! you’re just the fellow I want! I’m off by the early train, and you must take a commission for me!”
Whereat the gate-keeper looks perplexed and respectfully curious, but he only lays his besom aside by way of intimating his readiness to perform the viscount’s behest, and answers deprecatingly:
“Ye’ lairdship ain’t a goin’ to walk surely. It’s ower twa mile ta ‘station, and ye’ve got a case wi’ ye. Winna ye ha’ the dog-cart round? I’ll be no five minutes puttin’ o’ to!”
Rep laughs and shakes the valise in order to impress his anxious retainer with a sense of its lightness.
“No, thanks, MacIvor; I shouldn’t be worth much if I couldn’t carry such a thing as this two miles. I prefer to walk, and I’ve allowed myself time to do it easily. But, look here; I want you to give this note to my brother; not now, he’ll be fast asleep for the next four or five hours; but when you hear the breakfast gong, go up to the house and give it him then. Don’t let anybody else take it; ask to see him and put it into his hand yourself. You understand, don’t you, Mac?”
‘“Surely, my laird.” He takes the note Rep tenders him and doffs his bonnet respectfully.
“Ye’ll no be gaen for lang, mayhap?” he asks with the liberty of a privileged servant.
“I can’t say, Mac; you know I’m never to be depended upon much. I come and go like the swallows.”
“That’s main trew, my laird. An’ when ye gang awa frae us it’s always the winter that comes behin’, an’ when ye come hame ye bring the simmer alang wi’ ye! But God bless ye’ lairdship whereiver ye’re boun’!”
Rep takes his hand with a sudden impulse too strong to be resisted, but does not speak again, perhaps lest the sound of his voice should
betray him. Then the heavy gates of Kelpies close behind him with a dull, sonorous clang, shutting him out from his birthright, striking at his heart like the thrust of steel, barring the way henceforth between him and the home he will see no more. No more! What matter? Rep is now become a citizen of the world, and all the highways of earth lie open and wide before him.
And the letter that MacIvor has in charge to give to the new-made heir is this:
“I have gone to the life that I love. Think of me as though I were dead; give up the Household Brigade and go to Oxford instead; you will at least be a greater credit to the University than I have been. I will say nothing to you by way of attempting to dissuade you or my father from seeking me – I know that of course you will do so – I only warn you that all such search will be made in vain, for I have not blundered over my plans of departure, and I defy Scotland-yard. It will be easy enough for you to account to all anxious inquiries for my absence – let them think I am travelling abroad by way of inaugurating the recent attainment of my majority. My wayward character and disposition to ramble are pretty well known, and nobody will be surprised at such a sudden freak on my part.
“For the rest. dear old fellow, let the earl know that my last and most earnest petition is this, – that he will let you take the place I so willingly abandon to you, and forget that he ever had another son, or at least that if such an one existed once, he now exists no longer, but has gone with the things of the past. And so for the last time I sign myself by that household name that must henceforth be as unfamiliar in your mouth dear Roy, as it will be in the ears of your lost and affectionate brother, R. E. P.”