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My manuscript lay before me, set in order by Clara's careful hand. I slowly turned
over the leaves one by one; but my eye only fell mechanically on the writing. Yet
one day since, and how much ambition, how much hope, how many of my heart's
dearest sensations and my mind's highest thoughts dwelt in those poor paper
leaves, in those little crabbed marks of pen and ink! Now I could look on them
indifferently--almost as a stranger would have looked. The days of calm study, of
steady toil of thought, seemed departed for ever. Stirring ideas; store of
knowledge patiently heaped up; visions of better sights than this world can show,
falling freshly and sunnily over the pages of my first book; all these were past and
gone--withered up by the hot breath of the senses--doomed by a paltry fate,
whose germ was the accident of an idle day!
I hastily put the manuscript aside. My unexpected interview with Clara had
calmed the turbulent sensations of the evening: but the fatal influence of the dark
beauty remained with me still. How could I write?
I sat down at the open window. It was at the back of the house, and looked out
on a strip of garden--London garden--a close-shut dungeon for nature, where
stunted trees and drooping flowers seemed visibly pining for the free air and
sunlight of the country, in their sooty atmosphere, amid their prison of high brick
walls. But the place gave room for the air to blow in it, and distanced the tumult of
the busy streets. The moon was up, shined round tenderly by a little border-work
of pale yellow light. Elsewhere, the awful void of night was starless; the dark
lustre of space shone without a cloud.
A presentiment arose within me, that in this still and solitary hour would occur my
decisive, my final struggle with myself. I felt that my heart's life or death was set
on the hazard of the night.
This new love that was in me; this giant sensation of a day's growth, was first
love. Hitherto, I had been heart-whole. I had known nothing of the passion, which
is the absorbing passion of humanity. No woman had ever before stood between
me and my ambitions, my occupations, my amusements. No woman had ever
before inspired me with the sensations which I now felt.
In trying to realise my position, there was this one question to consider; was I still
strong enough to resist the temptation which accident had thrown in my way? I
had this one incentive to resistance: the conviction that, if I succumbed, as far as
my family prospects were concerned, I should be a ruined man.
I knew my father's character well: I knew how far his affections and his
sympathies might prevail over his prejudices--even over his principles--in some
peculiar cases; and this very knowledge convinced me that the consequences of
a degrading marriage contracted by his son (degrading in regard to rank), would
be terrible: fatal to one, perhaps to both. Every other irregularity--every other
offence even--he might sooner or later forgive. This irregularity, this offence,
never--never, though his heart broke in the struggle. I was as sure of it, as I was
of my own existence at that moment.