"How impotent such evidence as this! and how poor, how precarious, even the strongest of mere circumstantial evidence invariably is! Let it rise to probability, to the strongest degree of probability; it is but probability still. Recollect the case of the two Harrisons, recorded by Dr. Howell; both suffered on circumstantial evidence on account of the disappearance of a man, who, like Clarke, contracted debts, borrowed money, and went off unseen. And this man returned several years after their execution. Why remind you of Jaques du Moulin, in the reign of Charles the Second?—why of the unhappy Coleman, convicted, though afterwards found innocent, and whose children perished for want, because the world believed the father guilty? Why should I mention the perjury of Smith, who, admitted king's-evidence, screened himself by accusing Fainloth and Loveday of the murder of Dunn? the first was executed, the second was about to share the same fate, when the perjury of Smith was incontrovertibly proved.
"And now, my Lord, having endeavoured to shew that the whole of this charge is altogether repugnant to every part of my life; that it is inconsistent with my condition of health about that time; that no rational inference of the death of a person can be drawn from his disappearance; that hermitages were the constant repositories of the bones of the recluse; that the proofs of these are well authenticated; that the revolutions in religion, or the fortune of war, have mangled or buried the dead; that the strongest circumstantial evidence is often lamentably fallacious, that in my case, that evidence, so far from being strong, is weak, disconnected, contradictory; what remains? A conclusion, perhaps, no less reasonably than impatiently wished for. I, at last, after nearly a year's confinement, equal to either fortune, entrust myself to the candour, the justice, the humanity of your Lordship, and to yours, my countrymen, gentlemen of the jury."
The prisoner ceased: and the painful and choking sensations of sympathy, compassion, regret, admiration, all uniting, all mellowing into one fearful hope for his acquittal, made themselves felt through the crowded court.
In two persons only, an uneasy sentiment remained—a sentiment that the prisoner had not completed that which they would have asked from him. The one was Lester;—he had expected a more warm, a more earnest, though, perhaps, a less ingenious and artful defence. He had expected Aram to dwell far more on the improbable and contradictory evidence of Houseman, and above all, to have explained away, all that was still left unaccounted for in his acquaintance with Clarke (as we will still call the deceased), and the allegation that he had gone out with him on the fatal night of the disappearance of the latter. At every word of the prisoner's defence, he had waited almost breathlessly, in the hope that the next sentence would begin an explanation or a denial on this point: and when Aram ceased, a chill, a depression, a disappointment, remained vaguely on his mind. Yet so lightly and so haughtily had Aram approached and glanced over the immediate evidence of the witnesses against him, that his silence her might have been but the natural result of a disdain, that belonged essentially to his calm and proud character. The other person we referred to, and whom his defence had not impressed with a belief in its truth, equal to an admiration for its skill, was one far more important in deciding the prisoner's fate—it was the Judge!
But Madeline—Great God! how sanguine is a woman's heart, when the innocence, the fate of the one she loves is concerned!—a radiant flush broke over a face so colourless before; and with a joyous look, a kindled eye, a lofty brow, she turned to Ellinor, pressed her hand in silence, and once more gave up her whole soul to the dread procedure of the court.
The Judge now began.—It is greatly to be regretted, that we have no minute and detailed memorial of the trial, except only the prisoner's defence. The summing up of the Judge was considered at that time scarce less remarkable than the speech of the prisoner. He stated the evidence with peculiar care and at great length to the jury. He observed how the testimony of the other deponents confirmed that of Houseman; and then, touching on the contradictory parts of the latter, he made them understand, how natural, how inevitable was some such contradiction in a witness who had not only to give evidence against another, but to refrain from criminating himself. There could be no doubt but that Houseman was an accomplice in the crime; and all therefore that seemed improbable in his giving no alarm when the deed was done, was easily rendered natural, and reconcileable with the other parts of his evidence. Commenting then on the defence of the prisoner (who, as if disdaining to rely on aught save his own genius or his own innocence, had called no witnesses, as he had employed no counsel), and eulogizing its eloquence and art, till he destroyed their effect by guarding the jury against that impression which eloquence and art produce in defiance of simple fact, he contended that Aram had yet alleged nothing to invalidate the positive evidence against him.
I have often heard, from men accustomed to courts of law, that nothing is more marvellous, than the sudden change in a jury's mind, which the summing up of the Judge can produce; and in the present instance it was like magic. That fatal look of a common intelligence, of a common assent, was exchanged among the doomers of the prisoner's life and death as the Judge concluded.
They found the prisoner guilty.
The Judge drew on the black cap.
THE DEATH.—THE PRISON.—AN INTERVIEW.—ITS RESULT.
"Lay her i' the earth, And from her fair and unpolluted flesh May violets spring." ........... "See in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep." —Hamlet.
"Bear with me a little longer," said Madeline. "I shall be well, quite well presently."
Ellinor let down the carriage window, to admit the air; and she took the occasion to tell the coachman to drive faster. There was that change in Madeline's voice which alarmed her.
"How noble was his look! you saw him smile!" continued Madeline, talking to herself: "And they will murder him after all. Let me see, this day week, ay, ere this day week we shall meet again."
"Faster; for God's sake, Ellinor, tell them to drive faster!" cried Lester, as he felt the form that leant on his bosom wax heavier and heavier. They sped on; the house was in sight; that lonely and cheerless house; not their sweet home at Grassdale, with the ivy round its porch, and the quiet church behind. The sun was setting slowly, and Ellinor drew the blind to shade the glare from her sister's eyes.
Madeline felt the kindness, and smiled. Ellinor wiped her eyes, and tried to smile again. The carriage stopped, and Madeline was lifted out; she stood, supported by her father and Ellinor, for a moment on the threshold. She looked on the golden sun, and the gentle earth, and the little motes dancing in the western ray—all was steeped in quiet, and full of the peace and tranquillity of the pastoral life! "No, no," she muttered, grasping her father's hand. "How is this? this is not his hand! Ah, no, no; I am not with him! Father," she added in a louder and deeper voice, rising from his breast, and standing alone and unaided. "Father, bury this little packet with me, they are his letters; do not break the seal, and—and tell him that I never felt how deeply I—I—loved him—till all—the world—had—deserted him!"—
She uttered a faint cry of pain, and fell at once to the ground; she lived a few hours longer, but never made speech or sign, or evinced token of life but its breath, which died at last gradually,—imperceptibly—away.
On the following evening Walter obtained entrance to Aram's cell: that morning the prisoner had seen Lester; that morning he had heard of Madeline's death. He had shed no tear; he had, in the affecting language of Scripture, "turned his face to the wall;" none had seen his emotions; yet Lester felt in that bitter interview, that his daughter was duly mourned.
He did not lift his eyes, when Walter was admitted, and the young man stood almost at his knee before he perceived him. He then looked up and they gazed on each other for a moment, but without speaking, till Walter said in a hollow voice: "Eugene Aram!"
"Madeline Lester is no more."
"I have heard it! I am reconciled. Better now than later."
"Aram!" said Walter, in a tone trembling with emotion, and passionately clasping his hands, "I entreat, I implore you, at this awful time, if it be within your power, to lift from my heart a load that weighs it to the dust, that if left there, will make me through life a crushed and miserable man;—I implore you, in the name of common humanity, by your hopes of Heaven, to remove it! The time now has irrevocably passed when your denial or your confession could alter your doom; your days are numbered, there is no hope of reprieve; I implore you then, if you were led, I will not ask how or wherefore, to the execution of the crime for the charge of which you die, to say, to whisper to me but one word of confession, and I, the sole child of the murdered man, will forgive you from the bottom of my soul."
Walter paused, unable to proceed.
Aram's brow worked; he turned aside; he made no answer; his head dropped on his bosom, and his eyes were unmovedly fixed on the earth.
"Reflect," continued Walter, recovering himself, "Reflect! I have been the mute instrument in bringing you to this awful fate, in destroying the happiness of my own house—in—in—in breaking the heart of the woman whom I adored even as a boy. If you be innocent, what a dreadful memory is left to me! Be merciful, Aram! be merciful. And if this deed was done by your hand, say to me but one word to remove the terrible uncertainty that now harrows up my being. What now is earth, is man, is opinion, to you? God only now can judge you. The eye of God reads your heart while I speak, and in the awful hour when Eternity opens to you, if the guilt has been indeed committed, think, oh think, how much lighter will be your offence, if, by vanquishing the stubborn heart, you can relieve a human being from a doubt that otherwise will make the curse—the horror of an existence. Aram, Aram, if the father's death came from you, shall the life of the son be made a burthen to him, through you also?"
"What would you have of me? speak!" said Aram, but without lifting his face from his breast.
"Much of your nature belies this crime.—You are wise, calm, beneficent to the distressed. Revenge, passion,—nay, the sharp pangs of hunger, may have urged to one deed; but your soul is not wholly hardened: nay, I think I would so far trust you, that, if at this dread moment—the clay of Madeline Lester scarce yet cold, woe busy and softening at your breast, and the son of the murdered dead before you;—if at this moment you can lay your hand on your heart, and say: 'Before God, and at peril of my soul, I am innocent of this deed,' I will depart—I will believe you, and bear, as bear I may, the reflection, that, in any way I have been one of the unconscious agents of condemning to a fearful death an innocent man! If innocent in this—how good! how perfect in all else! But, if you cannot at so dark a crisis take that oath,—then! oh then! be just—be generous, even in guilt, and let me not be haunted throughout life by the spectre of a ghastly and restless doubt! Speak! oh! speak!"
Well, well may we judge how crushing must have been that doubt in the breast of one naturally bold and fiery, when it thus humbled the very son of the murdered man to forget wrath and vengeance, and descend to prayer! But Walter had heard the defence of Aram; he had marked his mien: not once in that trial had he taken his eyes from the prisoner, and he had felt, like a bolt of ice through his heart, that the sentence passed on the accused, his judgment could not have passed! How dreadful must then have been the state of his mind when, repairing to Lester's house he found it the house of death—the pure, the beautiful spirit gone—the father mourning for his child, and not to be comforted—and Ellinor!—No! scenes like these, thoughts like these, pluck the pride from a man's heart.
"Walter Lester!" said Aram, after a pause; but raising his head with dignity, though on the features there was but one expression—woe, unutterable woe. "Walter Lester! I had thought to quit life with my tale untold: but you have not appealed to me in vain! I tear the self from my heart!—I renounce the last haughty dream, in which I wrapt myself from the ills around me. You shall learn all, and judge accordingly. But to your ear the tale can scarce be told:—the son cannot hear in silence that which, unless I too unjustly, too wholly condemn myself, I must say of the dead! But Time," continued Aram, mutteringly, and with his eyes on vacancy, "Time does not press too fast. Better let the hand speak than the tongue:—yes; the day of execution is—ay, ay—two days yet to it—to-morrow? no! Young man," he said abruptly, turning to Walter, "on the day after to-morrow, about seven in the evening, the eve before that morn fated to be my last—come to me. At that time I will place in your hands a paper containing the whole history that connects myself with your father. On the word of a man on the brink of another world, no truth that imparts your interest therein shall be omitted. But read it not till I am no more; and when read, confide the tale to none, till Lester's grey hairs have gone to the grave. This swear! 'tis an oath difficult perhaps to keep, but—" "As my Redeemer lives, I will swear to both conditions!" cried Walter, with a solemn fervour.
"But tell me now at least"—"Ask me no more!" interrupted Aram, in his turn. "The time is near, when you will know all! Tarry that time, and leave me! Yes, leave me now—at once—leave me!"
To dwell lingeringly over those passages which excite pain without satisfying curiosity, is scarcely the duty of the drama, or of that province even nobler than the drama; for it requires minuter care—indulges in more complete description—yields to more elaborate investigation of motives—commands a greater variety of chords in the human heart—to which, with poor and feeble power for so high, yet so ill-appreciated a task we now, not irreverently if rashly, aspire!
We pass at once—we glance not around us at the chamber of death—at the broken heart of Lester—at the two-fold agony of his surviving child—the agony which mourns and yet seeks to console another—the mixed emotions of Walter, in which, an unsleeping eagerness to learn the fearful all formed the main part—the solitary cell and solitary heart of the convicted—we glance not at these;—we pass at once to the evening in which Aram again saw Walter Lester, and for the last time.
"You are come, punctual to the hour," said he, in a low clear voice: "I have not forgotten my word; the fulfilment of that promise has been a victory over myself which no man can appreciate: but I owed it to you. I have discharged the debt. Enough!—I have done more than I at first purposed. I have extended my narration, but, superficially in some parts, over my life: that prolixity, perhaps I owed to myself. Remember your promise: this seal is not broken till the pulse is stilled in the hand which now gives you these papers!"
Walter renewed his oath, and Aram, pausing for a moment, continued in an altered and softening voice:
"Be kind to Lester: soothe, console him—never by a hint let him think otherwise of me than he does. For his sake more than mine I ask this. Venerable, kind old man! the warmth of human affection has rarely glowed for me. To the few who loved me, how deeply I have repaid the love! But these are not words to pass between you and me. Farewell! Yet, before we part, say this much: whatever I have revealed in this confession—whatever has been my wrong to you, or whatever (a less offence) the language I have now, justifying myself, used to—to your father—say, that you grant me that pardon which one man may grant another."
"Fully, cordially," said Walter.
"In the day that for you brings the death that to-morrow awaits me," said Aram, in a deep tone, "be that forgiveness accorded to yourself! Farewell. In that untried variety of Being which spreads beyond us, who knows, but progressing from grade to grade, and world to world, our souls, though in far distant ages, may meet again!—one dim and shadowy memory of this hour the link between us, farewell—farewell!"
For the reader's interest we think it better (and certainly it is more immediately in the due course of narrative, if not of actual events) to lay at once before him the Confession that Aram placed in Walter's hands, without waiting till that time when Walter himself broke the seal of a confession, not of deeds alone, but of thoughts how wild and entangled—of feelings how strange and dark—of a starred soul that had wandered from, how proud an orbit, to what perturbed and unholy regions of night and chaos! For me, I have not sought to derive the reader's interest from the vulgar sources, that such a tale might have afforded; I have suffered him, almost from the beginning, to pierce into Aram's secret; and I have prepared him for that guilt, with which other narrators of this story might have only sought to surprise.
THE CONFESSION.—AND THE FATE.
"In winter's tedious nights, sit by the fire With good old folks, and let them tell thee tales Of woful ages long ago betid: And ere thou bid good night, to quit their grief, Tell them the lamentable fall of me." —Richard II.
"I was born at Ramsgill, a little village in Netherdale. My family had originally been of some rank; they were formerly lords of the town of Aram, on the southern banks of the Tees. But time had humbled these pretensions to consideration; though they were still fondly cherished by the heritors of an ancient name, and idle but haughty recollections. My father resided on a small farm, and was especially skilful in horticulture, a taste I derived from him. When I was about thirteen, the deep and intense Passion that has made the Demon of my life, first stirred palpably within me. I had always been, from my cradle, of a solitary disposition, and inclined to reverie and musing; these traits of character heralded the love that now seized me—the love of knowledge. Opportunity or accident first directed my attention to the abstruser sciences. I poured my soul over that noble study, which is the best foundation of all true discovery; and the success I met with soon turned my pursuits into more alluring channels. History, poetry, the mastery of the past, the spell that admits us into the visionary world, took the place which lines and numbers had done before. I became gradually more and more rapt and solitary in my habits; knowledge assumed a yet more lovely and bewitching character, and every day the passion to attain it increased upon me; I do not, I have not now the heart to do it—enlarge upon what I acquired without assistance, and with labour sweet in proportion to its intensity.
[We learn from a letter of Eugene Aram's, now extant, that his method of acquiring the learned languages, was, to linger over five lines at a time, and never to quit a passage till he thought he had comprehended its meaning.]
The world, the creation, all things that lived, moved, and were, became to me objects contributing to one passionate, and, I fancied, one exalted end. I suffered the lowlier pleasures of life, and the charms of its more common ties, to glide away from me untasted and unfelt. As you read, in the East, of men remaining motionless for days together, with their eyes fixed upon the heavens, my mind, absorbed in the contemplation of the things above its reach, had no sight of what passed around. My parents died, and I was an orphan. I had no home, and no wealth; but wherever the field contained a flower, or the heavens a star, there was matter of thought and food for delight to me. I wandered alone for months together, seldom sleeping but in the open air, and shunning the human form as that part of God's works from which I could learn the least. I came to Knaresbro': the beauty of the country, a facility in acquiring books from a neighbouring library that was open to me, made me resolve to settle there. And now, new desires opened upon me with new stores: I became seized, possessed, haunted with the ambition of enlightening my race. At first, I had loved knowledge solely for itself: I now saw afar an object grander than knowledge. To what end, said I, are these labours? Why do I feed a lamp which consumes itself in a desert place? Why do I heap up riches, without asking who shall gather them? I was restless and discontented. What could I do? I was friendless; I was strange to my kind; I was shut out from all uses by the wall of my own poverty. I saw my desires checked when their aim was at the highest: all that was proud, and aspiring, and ardent in my nature, was cramped and chilled. I exhausted the learning within my reach. Where, with my appetite excited not slaked, was I, destitute and penniless, to search for more? My abilities, by bowing them to the lowliest tasks, but kept me from famine:—was this to be my lot for ever? And all the while, I was thus grinding down my soul in order to satisfy the vile physical wants, what golden hours, what glorious advantages, what openings into new heavens of science, what chances of illumining mankind were for ever lost to me! Sometimes when the young, whom I taught some elementary, all-unheeded, initiations into knowledge, came around me; when they looked me in the face with their laughing eyes; when, for they all loved me, they told me their little pleasures and their petty sorrows, I have wished that I could have gone back again into childhood, and becoming as one of them, enter into that heaven of quiet which was denied me now. Yet more often it was with an indignant and chafed rather than a sorrowful spirit that I looked upon my lot; and if I looked beyond it, what could I see of hope? Dig I could; but was all that thirsted and swelled within to be dried up and stifled, in order that I might gain the sustenance of life? Was I to turn menial to the soil, and forget that knowledge was abroad? Was I to starve my mind, that I might keep alive my body? Beg I could not. Where ever lived the real student, the true minister and priest of knowledge, who was not filled with the lofty sense of the dignity of his calling? Was I to shew the sores of my pride, and strip my heart from its clothing, and ask the dull fools of wealth not to let a scholar starve? Pah!—He whom the vilest poverty ever stooped to this, may be the quack, but never the true disciple, of Learning. Steal, rob—worse—ay, all those I or any of my brethren might do:—beg? never! What did I then? I devoted the lowliest part of my knowledge to the procuring the bare means of life, and the grandest,—the knowledge that pierced to the depths of earth, and numbered the stars of heaven—why, that was valueless, save to the possessor.
"In Knaresbro', at this time, I met a distant relation, Richard Houseman. Sometimes in our walks we encountered each other; for he sought me, and I could not always avoid him. He was a man like myself, born to poverty, yet he had always enjoyed what to him was wealth. This seemed a mystery to me; and when we met, we sometimes conversed upon it. 'You are poor, with all your wisdom,' said he. 'I know nothing; but I am never poor. Why is this? The world is my treasury.—I live upon my kind.—Society is my foe.—Laws order me to starve; but self-preservation is an instinct more sacred than society, and more imperious then laws.'
"The undisguised and bold manner of his discourse impressed while it revolted me. I looked upon him as a study, and I combated, in order to learn, him. He had been a soldier—he had seen the greatest part of Europe—he possessed a strong shrewd sense—he was a villain—but a villain bold—adroit—and not then thoroughly unredeemed. His conversation created dark and perturbed reflections. What was that state of society—was it not at war with its own elements—in which vice prospered more than virtue? Knowledge was my dream, that dream I might realize, not by patient suffering, but by active daring. I might wrest from society, to which I owed nothing, the means to be wise and great. Was it not better and nobler to do this, even at my life's hazard, than lie down in a ditch and die the dog's death? Was it not better than such a doom—ay better for mankind—that I should commit one bold wrong, and by that wrong purchase the power of good? I asked myself that question. It is a fearful question; it opens a labyrinth of reasonings, in which the soul may walk and lose itself for ever.
"One day Houseman met me, accompanied by a stranger who had just visited our town, for what purpose you know already. His name—supposed name—was Clarke. Man, I am about to speak plainly of that stranger—his character and his fate. And yet—yet you are his son! I would fain soften the colouring; but I speak truth of myself, and I must not, unless I would blacken my name yet deeper than it deserves, varnish truth when I speak of others. Houseman joined, and presented to me this person. From the first I felt a dislike creep through me at the stranger, which indeed it was easy to account for. He was of a careless and somewhat insolent manner. His countenance was impressed with the lines and character of a thousand vices: you read in the brow and eye the history of a sordid yet reckless life. His conversation was repellent to me beyond expression. He uttered the meanest sentiments, and he chuckled over them as the maxims of a superior sagacity; he avowed himself a knave upon system, and upon the lowest scale. To overreach, to deceive, to elude, to shuffle, to fawn, and to lie, were the arts that he confessed to with so naked and cold a grossness, that one perceived that in the long habits of debasement he was unconscious of what was not debased. Houseman seemed to draw him out: he told us anecdotes of his rascality, and the distresses to which it had brought him; and he finished by saying: 'Yet you see me now almost rich, and wholly contented. I have always been the luckiest of human beings; no matter what ill-chances to-day, good turns up to-morrow. I confess that I bring on myself the ill, and Providence sends me the good.' We met accidentally more than once, and his conversation was always of the same strain—his luck and his rascality: he had no other theme, and no other boast. And did not this stir into gloomy speculation the depths of my mind? Was it not an ordination that called upon men to take fortune in their own hands, when Fate lavished her rewards on this low and creeping thing, that could only enter even Vice by its sewers and alleys? Was it worth while to be virtuous, and look on, while the bad seized upon the feast of life? This man was instinct with the basest passions, the pettiest desires: he gratified them, and Fate smiled upon his daring. I, who had shut out from my heart the poor temptations of sense—I, who fed only the most glorious visions, the most august desires—I, denied myself their fruition, trembling and spell-bound in the cerements of human laws, without hope, without reward,—losing the very powers of virtue because I would not stray into crime.
"These thoughts fell on me darkly and rapidly; but they led to no result. I saw nothing beyond them. I suffered my indignation to gnaw my heart; and preserved the same calm and serene demeanour which had grown with my growth of mind. Nay, while I upbraided Fate, I did not cease to love mankind. I envied—what? the power to serve them! I had been kind and loving to all things from a boy; there was not a dumb animal that would not single me from a crowd as its protector, [Note: All the authentic anecdotes of Aram corroborate the fact of his natural gentleness to all things. A clergyman (the Rev. Mr. Hinton) said that he used frequently to observe Aram, when walking in the garden, stoop down to remove a snail or worm from the path, to prevent its being destroyed. Mr. Hinton ingeniously conjectured that Aram wished to atone for his crime by shewing mercy to every animal and insect: but the fact is, that there are several anecdotes to shew that he was equally humane before the crime was committed. Such are the strange contradictions of the human heart!] and yet I was doomed—but I must not premeditate my tale. In returning, at night, to my own home, from my long and solitary walks, I often passed the house in which Clarke lodged; and sometimes I met him reeling by the door, insulting all who passed; and yet their resentment was absorbed in their disgust. 'And this loathsome, and grovelling thing,' said I, inly, 'squanders on low excesses, wastes upon outrages to society, that with which I could make my soul as a burning lamp, that should shed a light over the world!"
"There was that in this man's vices which revolted me far more than the villainy of Houseman. The latter had possessed no advantages of education; he descended to no minutiae of sin, he was a plain, blunt, coarse wretch, and his sense threw something respectable around his vices. But in Clarke you saw the traces of happier opportunities of better education; it was in him not the coarseness of manner so much as the sickening, universal canker of vulgarity of mind. Had Houseman money in his purse, he would have paid a debt and relieved a friend from mere indifference; not so the other. Had he been overflowing with wealth, he would have slipped from a creditor, and duped a friend; there was a pitiful and debasing weakness in his nature, which made him regard the lowest meanness as the subtlest wit. His mind too was not only degraded, but broken by his habits of life; a strange, idiotic folly, that made him love laughing at his own littleness, ran through his character. Houseman was young; he might amend; but Clarke had grey hairs and dim eyes; was old in constitution, if not years; and every thing in him was hopeless and confirmed; the leprosy was in the system. Time, in this, has made Houseman what Clarke was then.
"One day, in passing through the street, though it was broad noon, I encountered Clarke in a state of intoxication, and talking to a crowd he had collected around him. I sought to pass in an opposite direction; he would not suffer me; he, whom I sickened to touch, to see, threw himself in my way, and affected gibe and insult, nay even threat. But when he came near, he shrank before the mere glance of my eye, and I passed on unheeding him. The insult galled me; he had taunted my poverty, poverty was a favourite jest with him; it galled me; anger, revenge, no! those passions I had never felt for any man. I could not rouse them for the first time for such a cause; yet I was lowered in my own eyes, I was stung. Poverty! he taunt me! He dream himself, on account of a little yellow dust, my superior! I wandered from the town, and paused by the winding and shagged banks of the river. It was a gloomy winter's day, the waters rolled on black and sullen, and the dry leaves rustled desolately beneath my feet. Who shall tell us that outward nature has no effect upon our mood? All around seemed to frown upon my lot. I read in the face of heaven and earth a confirmation of the curse which man hath set upon poverty. I leant against a tree that overhung the waters, and suffered my thoughts to glide on in the bitter silence of their course. I heard my name uttered—I felt a hand on my arm, I turned, and Houseman was by my side.
"'What, moralizing?' said he, with his rude smile.
"I did not answer him.
"'Look,' said he, pointing to the waters, 'where yonder fish lies waiting his prey, that prey his kind. Come, you have read Nature, is it not so universally?'
"I did not answer him.
"'They who do not as the rest,' he renewed, 'fulfil not the object of their existence; they seek to be wiser than their tribe, and are fools for their pains. Is it not so? I am a plain man, and would learn.'
"Still I did not answer.
"'You are silent,' said he; 'do I offend you?'
"'Now, then,' he continued, 'strange as it may seem, we, so different in mind, are at this moment alike in fortunes. I have not a guinea in the wide world; you, perhaps, are equally destitute. But mark the difference, I, the ignorant man, ere three days have passed, will have filled my purse; you, the wise man, will be still as poor. Come, cast away your wisdom, and do as I do.'
"'Take from the superfluities of others what your necessities crave. My horse, my pistol, a ready hand, a stout heart, these are to me, what coffers are to others. There is the chance of detection and of death; I allow it. But is not this chance better than some certainties?'
"I turned away my face. In the silence of my chamber, and in the solitude of my heart, I had thought, as the robber spoke—there was a strife within me.
"'Will you share the danger and the booty?' renewed Houseman, in a low voice.
"I turned my eyes upon him. 'Speak out,' said I; 'explain your purpose!'
"Houseman's looks brightened.
"'Listen!' said he; 'Clarke, despite his present wealth lawfully gained, is about to purloin more; he has converted his legacy into jewels; he has borrowed other jewels on false pretences; he purposes to make these also his own, and to leave the town in the dead of night; he has confided to me his intention, and asked my aid. He and I, be it known to you, were friends of old; we have shared together other dangers, and other spoils; he has asked my assistance in his flight. Now do you learn my purpose? Let us ease him of his burthen! I offer to you the half; share the enterprise and its fruits.'
"I rose, I walked away, I pressed my hands on my heart; I wished to silence the voice that whispered me within. Houseman saw the conflict; he followed me; he named the value of the prize he proposed to gain; that which he called my share placed all my wished within my reach!—the means of gratifying the one passion of my soul, the food for knowledge, the power of a lone blessed independence upon myself,—and all were in my grasp; no repeated acts of fraud; no continuation of sin, one single act sufficed! I breathed heavily, but I threw not off the emotion that seized my soul; I shut my eyes and shuddered, but the vision still rose before me.
"'Give me your hand,' said Houseman. [Note: Though, in the above part of Aram's confession, it would seem as if Houseman did not allude to more than the robbery of Clarke; it is evident from what follows, that the more heinous crime also was then at least hinted at by Houseman.]
"'No, no,' I said, breaking away from him. 'I must pause—I must consider—I do not yet refuse, but I will not now decide.'—
"Houseman pressed, but I persevered in my determination;—he would have threatened me, but my nature was haughtier than his, and I subdued him. It was agreed that he should seek me that night and learn my choice—the next night was the one on which the deed was to be done. We parted—I returned an altered man to my home. Fate had woven her mesh around me—a new incident had occurred which strengthened the web: there was a poor girl whom I had been accustomed to see in my walks. She supported her family by her dexterity in making lace,—a quiet, patient-looking, gentle creature. Clarke had, a few days since, under pretence of purchasing lace, decoyed her to his house (when all but himself were from home), where he used the most brutal violence towards her. The extreme poverty of the parents had enabled him easily to persuade them to hush up the matter, but something of the story got abroad; the poor girl was marked out for that gossip and scandal, which among the very lowest classes are as coarse in the expression as malignant in the sentiment; and in the paroxysm of shame and despair, the unfortunate girl had that day destroyed herself. This melancholy event wrung forth from the parents the real story: the event and the story reached my ears in the very hour in which my mind was wavering to and fro. Can you wonder that they fixed it at once, and to a dread end? What was this wretch? aged with vice—forestalling time—tottering on to a dishonoured grave—soiling all that he touched on his way—with grey hairs and filthy lewdness, the rottenness of the heart, not its passion, a nuisance and a curse to the world. What was the deed—that I should rid the earth of a thing at once base and venomous? Was it crime? Was it justice? Within myself I felt the will—the spirit that might bless mankind. I lacked the means to accomplish the will and wing the spirit. One deed supplied me with the means. Had the victim of that deed been a man moderately good—pursuing with even steps the narrow line between vice and virtue—blessing none but offending none,—it might have been yet a question whether mankind would not gain more by the deed than lose. But here was one whose steps stumbled on no good act—whose heart beat to no generous emotion;—there was a blot—a foulness on creation,—nothing but death could wash it out and leave the world fair. The soldier receives his pay, and murthers, and sleeps sound, and men applaud. But you say he smites not for pay, but glory. Granted—though a sophism. But was there no glory to be gained in fields more magnificent than those of war—no glory to be gained in the knowledge which saves and not destroys? Was I not about to strike for that glory, for the means of earning it? Nay, suppose the soldier struck for patriotism, a better feeling than glory, would not my motive be yet larger than patriotism? Did it not body forth a broader circle? Could the world stop the bound of its utilities? Was there a corner of the earth—was there a period in time, which an ardent soul, freed from, not chained as now, by the cares of the body, and given wholly up to wisdom, might not pierce, vivify, illumine? Such were the questions which I asked:—time only answered them.
"Houseman came, punctual to our dark appointment. I gave him my hand in silence. We understood each other. We said no more of the deed itself, but of the manner in which it should be done. The melancholy incident I have described made Clarke yet more eager to leave the town. He had settled with Houseman that he would abscond that very night, not wait for the next, as at first he had intended. His jewels and property were put in a small compass. He had arranged that he would, towards midnight or later, quit his lodging; and about a mile from the town, Houseman had engaged to have a chaise in readiness. For this service Clarke had promised Houseman a reward, with which the latter appeared contented. It was arranged that I should meet Houseman and Clarke at a certain spot in their way from the town, and there—! Houseman appeared at first fearful, lest I should relent and waver in my purpose. It is never so with men whose thoughts are deep and strong. To resolve was the arduous step—once resolved, and I cast not a look behind. Houseman left me for the present. I could not rest in my chamber. I went forth and walked about the town; the night deepened—I saw the lights in each house withdrawn, one by one, and at length all was hushed—Silence and Sleep kept court over the abodes of men. That stillness—that quiet—that sabbath from care and toil—how deeply it sank into my heart! Nature never seemed to me to make so dread a pause. I felt as if I and my intended victim had been left alone in the world. I had wrapped myself above fear into a high and preternatural madness of mind. I looked on the deed I was about to commit as a great and solemn sacrifice to Knowledge, whose Priest I was. The very silence breathed to me of a stern and awful sanctity—the repose, not of the charnel-house, but the altar. I heard the clock strike hour after hour, but I neither faltered nor grew impatient. My mind lay hushed in its design.
"The Moon came out, but with a pale and sickly countenance. Winter was around the earth; the snow, which had been falling towards eve, lay deep upon the ground; and the Frost seemed to lock the Universal Nature into the same calm and deadness which had taken possession of my soul.
"Houseman was to have come to me at midnight, just before Clarke left his house, but it was nearly two hours after that time ere he arrived. I was then walking to and fro before my own door; I saw that he was not alone, but with Clarke. 'Ha!' said he, 'this is fortunate, I see you are just going home. You were engaged, I recollect, at some distance from the town, and have, I suppose, just returned. Will you admit Mr. Clarke and myself for a short time—for to tell you the truth,' said he, in a lower voice—'The watchman is about, and we must not be seen by him! I have told Clarke that he may trust you, we are relatives!'
"Clarke, who seemed strangely credulous and indifferent, considering the character of his associate,—but those whom fate destroys she first blinds, made the same request in a careless tone, assigning the same cause. Unwillingly, I opened the door and admitted them. We went up to my chamber. Clarke spoke with the utmost unconcern of the fraud he purposed, and with a heartlessness that made my veins boil, of the poor victim his brutality had destroyed. All this was as iron bands round my purpose. They stayed for nearly an hour, for the watchman remained some time in that beat—and then Houseman asked me to accompany them a little way out of the town. Clarke seconded the request. We walked forth; the rest—why need I repeat? Houseman lied in the court; my hand struck—but not the death-blow: yet, from that hour, I have never given that right hand in pledge of love or friendship—the curse of memory has clung to it.
"We shared our booty; mine I buried, for the present. Houseman had dealings with a gipsy hag, and through her aid removed his share, at once, to London. And now, mark what poor strugglers we are in the eternal web of destiny! Three days after that deed, a relation who neglected me in life, died, and left me wealth!—wealth at least to me!—Wealth, greater than that for which I had...! The news fell on me as a thunderbolt. Had I waited but three little days! Great God! when they told me,—I thought I heard the devils laugh out at the fool who had boasted wisdom! Tell me not now of our free will—we are but the things of a never-swerving, an everlasting Necessity!—pre-ordered to our doom—bound to a wheel that whirls us on till it touches the point at which we are crushed! Had I waited but three days, three little days!—Had but a dream been sent me, had but my heart cried within me,—'Thou hast suffered long, tarry yet!' [Note: Aram has hitherto been suffered to tell his own tale without comment or interruption. The chain of reasonings, the metaphysical labyrinth of defence and motive, which he wrought around his act, it was, in justice to him, necessary to give at length, in order to throw a clearer light on his character—and lighten, perhaps, in some measure the heinousness of his crime. No moral can be more impressive than that which teaches how man can entangle himself in his own sophisms—that moral is better, viewed aright, than volumes of homilies. But here I must pause for one moment, to bid the reader mark, that that event which confirmed Aram in the bewildering doctrines of his fatalism, ought rather to inculcate the Divine virtue—the foundation of all virtues, Heathen or Christian—that which Epictetus made clear, and Christ sacred—FORTITUDE. The reader will note, that the answer to the reasonings that probably convinced the mind of Aram, and blinded him to his crime, may be found in the change of feelings by which the crime was followed. I must apologize for this interruption—it seemed to me advisable in this place;—though, in general, the moment we begin to inculcate morality as a science, we ought to discard moralizing as a method.] No, it was for this, for the guilt and its penance, for the wasted life and the shameful death—with all my thirst for good, my dreams of glory—that I was born, that I was marked from my first sleep in the cradle!
"The disappearance of Clarke of course created great excitement;—those whom he had over-reached had naturally an interest in discovering him. Some vague surmises that he might have been made away with, were rumoured abroad. Houseman and I, owing to some concurrence of circumstance, were examined,—not that suspicion attached to me before or after the examination. That ceremony ended in nothing. Houseman did not betray himself; and I, who from a boy had mastered my passions, could master also the nerves, which are the passions' puppets: but I read in the face of the woman with whom I lodged, that I was suspected. Houseman told me that she had openly expressed her suspicion to him; nay, he entertained some design against her life, which he naturally abandoned on quitting the town. This he did soon afterwards. I did not linger long behind him. I dug up my jewels,—I concealed them about me, and departed on foot to Scotland. There I converted my booty into money. And now I was above want—was I at rest? Not yet. I felt urged on to wander—Cain's curse descends to Cain's children. I travelled for some considerable time,—I saw men and cities, and I opened a new volume in my kind. It was strange; but before the deed, I was as a child in the ways of the world, and a child, despite my knowledge, might have duped me. The moment after it, a light broke upon me,—it seemed as if my eyes were touched with a charm, and rendered capable of piercing the hearts of men! Yes, it was a charm—a new charm—it was Suspicion! I now practised myself in the use of arms,—they made my sole companions. Peaceful, as I seemed to the world, I felt there was that eternally within me with which the world was at war.
"I do not deceive you. I did not feel what men call remorse! Having once convinced myself that I had removed from the earth a thing that injured and soiled its tribes,—that I had in crushing one worthless life, but without crushing one virtue—one feeling—one thought that could benefit others, strode to a glorious end;—having once convinced myself of this, I was not weak enough to feel a vague remorse for a deed I would not allow, in my case, to be a crime. I did not feel remorse, but I felt regret. The thought that had I waited three days I might have been saved, not from guilt, but from the chance of shame,—from the degradation of sinking to Houseman's equal—of feeling that man had the power to hurt me—that I was no longer above the reach of human malice, or human curiosity—that I was made a slave to my own secret—that I was no longer lord of my heart, to shew or to conceal it—that at any hour, in the possession of honours, by the hearth of love, I might be dragged forth and proclaimed a murderer—that I held my life, my reputation, at the breath of accident—that in the moment I least dreamed of, the earth might yield its dead, and the gibbet demand its victim;—this could I feel—all this—and not make a spectre of the past:—a spectre that walked by my side—that slept at my bed—that rose from my books—that glided between me and the stars of heaven, that stole along the flowers, and withered their sweet breath—that whispered in my ear, 'Toil, fool, and be wise; the gift of wisdom is to place us above the reach of fortune, but thou art her veriest minion!' Yes; I paused at last from my wanderings, and surrounded myself with books, and knowledge became once more to me what it had been, a thirst; but not what it had been, a reward. I occupied my thoughts—I laid up new hoards within my mind—I looked around, and I saw few whose stores were like my own,—but where, with the passion for wisdom still alive within me—where was that once more ardent desire which had cheated me across so dark a chasm between youth and manhood—between past and present life—the desire of applying that wisdom to the service of mankind? Gone—dead—buried for ever in my bosom, with the thousand dreams that had perished before it! When the deed was done, mankind seemed suddenly to have grown my foes. I looked upon them with other eyes. I knew that I carried within, that secret which, if bared to-day, would make them loath and hate me,—yea, though I coined my future life into one series of benefits on them and their posterity! Was not this thought enough to quell my ardour—to chill activity into rest? The more I might toil, the brighter honours I might win—the greater services I might bestow on the world, the more dread and fearful might be my fall at last! I might be but piling up the scaffold from which I was to be hurled! Possessed by these thoughts, a new view of human affairs succeeded to my old aspirings;—the moment a man feels that an object has ceased to charm, he reconciles himself by reasonings to his loss. 'Why,' said I; 'why flatter myself that I can serve—that I can enlighten mankind? Are we fully sure that individual wisdom has ever, in reality, done so? Are we really better because Newton lived, and happier because Bacon thought?' This dampening and frozen line of reflection pleased the present state of my mind more than the warm and yearning enthusiasm it had formerly nourished. Mere worldly ambition from a boy I had disdained;—the true worth of sceptres and crowns—the inquietude of power—the humiliations of vanity—had never been disguised from my sight. Intellectual ambition had inspired me. I now regarded it equally as a delusion. I coveted light solely for my own soul to bathe in. I would have drawn down the Promethean fire; but I would no longer have given to man what it was in the power of circumstance alone (which I could control not) to make his enlightener or his ruin—his blessing or his curse. Yes, I loved—I love still;—could I live for ever, I should for ever love knowledge! It is a companion—a solace—a pursuit—a Lethe. But, no more!—oh! never more for me was the bright ambition that makes knowledge a means, not end. As, contrary to the vulgar notion, the bee is said to gather her honey unprescient of the winter, labouring without a motive, save the labour, I went on, year after year, hiving all that the earth presented to my toils, and asking not to what use. I had rushed into a dread world, that I might indulge a dream. Lo! the dream was fled; but I could not retrace my steps.
"Rest now became to me the sole to kalon—the sole charm of existence. I grew enamoured of the doctrine of those old mystics, who have placed happiness only in an even and balanced quietude. And where but in utter loneliness was that quietude to be enjoyed? I no longer wondered that men in former times, when consumed by the recollection of some haunting guilt, fled to the desert and became hermits. Tranquillity and Solitude are the only soothers of a memory deeply troubled—light griefs fly to the crowd—fierce thoughts must battle themselves to rest. Many years had flown, and I had made my home in many places. All that was turbulent, if not all that was unquiet, in my recollections, had died away. Time had lulled me into a sense of security. I breathed more freely. I sometimes stole from the past. Since I had quitted Knaresbro' chance had thrown it in my power frequently to serve my brethren—not by wisdom, but by charity or courage—by individual acts that it soothed me to remember. If the grand aim of enlightening a world was gone—if to so enlarged a benevolence had succeeded apathy or despair, still the man, the human man, clung to my heart—still was I as prone to pity—as prompt to defend—as glad to cheer, whenever the vicissitudes of life afforded me the occasion; and to poverty, most of all, my hand never closed. For oh! what a terrible devil creeps into that man's soul, who sees famine at his door! One tender act and how many black designs, struggling into life within, you may crush for ever! He who deems the world his foe, convince him that he has one friend, and it is like snatching a dagger from his hand!
"I came to a beautiful and remote part of the country. Walter Lester, I came to Grassdale!—the enchanting scenery around—the sequestered and deep retirement of the place arrested me at once. 'And among these valleys,' I said, 'will I linger out the rest of my life, and among these quiet graves shall mine be dug, and my secret shall die with me!'
"I rented the lonely house in which I dwelt when you first knew me—thither I transported my books and instruments of science. I formed new projects in the vast empire of wisdom, and a deep quiet, almost amounting to content, fell like a sweet sleep upon my soul!
"In this state of mind, the most free from memory and from the desire to pierce the future that I had known for twelve years, I first saw Madeline Lester. Even with that first time a sudden and heavenly light seemed to dawn upon me. Her face—its still—its serene—its touching beauty, shone upon me like a vision. My heart warmed as I saw it—my pulse seemed to wake from its even slowness. I was young once more. Young! the youth, the freshness, the ardour—not of the frame only, but of the soul. But I then only saw, or spoke to her—scarce knew her—not loved her—nor was it often that we met. When we did so, I felt haunted, as by a holy spirit, for the rest of the day—an unquiet yet delicious emotion agitated all within—the south wind stirred the dark waters of my mind, but it passed, and all became hushed again. It was not for two years from the time we first saw each other, that accident brought us closely together. I pass over the rest. We loved! Yet oh what struggles were mine during the progress of that love! How unnatural did it seem to me to yield to a passion that united me with my kind; and as I loved her more, how far more urgent grew my fear of the future! That which had almost slept before awoke again to terrible life. The soil that covered the past might be riven, the dead awake, and that ghastly chasm separate me for ever from HER! What a doom, too, might I bring upon that breast which had begun so confidingly to love me! Often—often I resolved to fly—to forsake her—to seek some desert spot in the distant parts of the world, and never to be betrayed again into human emotions! But as the bird flutters in the net, as the hare doubles from its pursuers, I did but wrestle—I did but trifle—with an irresistible doom. Mark how strange are the coincidences of fate—fate that gives us warnings and takes away the power to obey them—the idle prophetess—the juggling fiend! On the same evening that brought me acquainted with Madeline Lester, Houseman, led by schemes of fraud and violence into that part of the country, discovered and sought me! Imagine my feelings, when in the hush of night I opened the door of my lonely home to his summons, and by the light of that moon which had witnessed so never-to-be-forgotten a companionship between us, beheld my accomplice in murder after the lapse of so many years. Time and a course of vice had changed and hardened, and lowered his nature; and in the power, at the will of that nature, I beheld myself abruptly placed. He passed that night under my roof. He was poor. I gave him what was in my hands. He promised to leave that part of England—to seek me no more.
"The next day I could not bear my own thoughts, the revulsion was too sudden, too full of turbulent, fierce, torturing emotions; I fled for a short relief to the house to which Madeline's father had invited me. But in vain I sought, by wine, by converse, by human voices, human kindness, to fly the ghost that had been raised from the grave of time. I soon returned to my own thoughts. I resolved to wrap myself once more in the solitude of my heart. But let me not repeat what I have said before, somewhat prematurely, in my narrative. I resolved—I struggled in vain, Fate had ordained, that the sweet life of Madeline Lester should wither beneath the poison tree of mine. Houseman sought me again, and now came on the humbling part of crime, its low calculations, its poor defence, its paltry trickery, its mean hypocrisy! They made my chiefest penance! I was to evade, to beguile, to buy into silence, this rude and despised ruffian. No matter now to repeat how this task was fulfilled; I surrendered nearly my all, on the condition of his leaving England for ever: not till I thought that condition already fulfilled, till the day had passed on which he should have left England, did I consent to allow Madeline's fate to be irrevocably woven with mine. Fool that I was, as if laws could bind us closer than love had done already.
"How often, when the soul sins, are her loftiest feelings punished through her lowest! To me, lone, rapt, for ever on the wing to unearthly speculation, galling and humbling was it indeed, to be suddenly called from the eminence of thought, to barter, in pounds and pence, for life, and with one like Houseman. These are the curses that deepen the tragedy of life, by grinding down our pride. But I wander back to what I have before said. I was to marry Madeline,—I was once more poor, but want did not rise before me; I had succeeded in obtaining the promise of a competence from one whom you know. For that I had once forced from my kind, I asked now, but not with the spirit of the beggar, but of the just claimant, and in that spirit it was granted. And now I was really happy; Houseman I believed removed for ever from my path; Madeline was about to be mine: I surrendered myself to love, and blind and deluded, I wandered on, and awoke on the brink of that precipice into which I am about to plunge. You know the rest. But oh! what now was my horror! It had not been a mere worthless, isolated unit in creation that I had blotted out of the sum of life. I had shed the blood of his brother whose child was my betrothed! Mysterious avenger—weird and relentless fate! How, when I deemed myself the farthest from her, had I been sinking into her grasp! Mark, young man, there is a moral here that few preachers can teach thee! Mark. Men rarely violate the individual rule in comparison to their violation of general rules. It is in the latter that we deceive by sophisms which seem truths. In the individual instance it was easy for me to deem that I had committed no crime. I had destroyed a man, noxious to the world; with the wealth by which he afflicted society I had been the means of blessing many; in the individual consequences mankind had really gained by my deed; the general consequence I had overlooked till now, and now it flashed upon me. The scales fell from my eyes, and I knew myself for what I was! All my calculations were dashed to the ground at once, for what had been all the good I had proposed to do—the good I had done—compared to the anguish I now inflicted on your house? Was your father my only victim? Madeline, have I not murdered her also? Lester, have I not shaken the sands in his glass? You, too, have I not blasted the prime and glory of your years? How incalculable—how measureless—how viewless the consequences of one crime, even when we think we have weighed them all with scales that would have turned with a hair's weight! Yes; before I had felt no remorse. I felt it now. I had acknowledged no crime, and now crime seemed the essence itself of my soul. The Theban's fate, which had seemed to the men of old the most terrible of human destinies, was mine. The crime—the discovery—the irremediable despair—hear me, as the voice of a man who is on the brink of a world, the awful nature of which Reason cannot pierce—hear me! when your heart tempts to some wandering from the line allotted to the rest of men, and whispers 'This may be crime in others, but is not so in thee'—tremble; cling fast, fast to the path you are lured to leave. Remember me!
"But in this state of mind I was yet forced to play the hypocrite. Had I been alone in the world—had Madeline and Lester not been to me what they were, I might have avowed my deed and my motives—I might have spoken out to the hearts of men—I might have poured forth the gloomy tale of reasonings and of temptings, in which we lose sense, and become the archfiend's tools! But while their eyes were on me; while their lives and hearts were set on my acquittal, my struggle against truth was less for myself than them. For them I girded up my soul, a villain I was; and for them, a bold, a crafty, a dexterous, villain I became! My defence fulfilled its end: Madeline died without distrusting the innocence of him she loved. Lester, unless you betray me, will die in the same belief. In truth, since the arts of hypocrisy have been commenced, the pride of consistency would have made it sweet to me to leave the world in a like error, or at least in doubt. For you I conquer that desire, the proud man's last frailty. And now my tale is done. From what passes at this instant within my heart, I lift not the veil! Whether beneath, be despair, or hope, or fiery emotions, or one settled and ominous calm, matters not. My last hours shall not belie my life: on the verge of death I will not play the dastard, and tremble at the Dim Unknown. The thirst, the dream, the passion of my youth, yet lives; and burns to learn the sublime and shaded mysteries that are banned Mortality. Perhaps I am not without a hope that the Great and Unseen Spirit, whose emanation within me I have nursed and worshipped, though erringly and in vain, may see in his fallen creature one bewildered by his reason rather than yielding to his vices. The guide I received from Heaven betrayed me, and I was lost; but I have not plunged wittingly from crime to crime. Against one guilty deed, some good, and much suffering may be set: and, dim and afar off from my allotted bourne, I may behold in her glorious home the starred face of her who taught me to love, and who, even there, could scarce be blessed without shedding the light of her divine forgiveness upon me. Enough! ere you break this seal, my doom rests not with man nor earth. The burning desires I have known—the resplendent visions I have nursed—the sublime aspirings that have lifted me so often from sense and clay—these tell me, that, whether for good or ill—I am the thing of an Immortality, and the creature of a God! As men of the old wisdom drew their garments around their face, and sat down collectedly to die, I wrap myself in the settled resignation of a soul firm to the last, and taking not from man's vengeance even the method of its dismissal. The courses of my life I swayed with my own hand: from my own hand shall come the manner and moment of my death!
On the day after that evening in which Aram had given the above confession to Walter Lester;—on the day of execution, when they entered the condemned cell, they found the prisoner lying on the bed; and when they approached to take off the irons, they found, that he neither stirred nor answered to their call. They attempted to raise him, and he then uttered some words in a faint voice. They perceived that he was covered with blood. He had opened his veins in two places in the arm with a sharp instrument he had some time since concealed. A surgeon was instantly sent for, and by the customary applications the prisoner in some measure was brought to himself. Resolved not to defraud the law of its victim, they bore him, though he appeared unconscious of all around, to the fatal spot. But when he arrived at that dread place, his sense suddenly seemed to return. He looked hastily round the throng that swayed and murmured below, and a faint flush rose to his cheek: he cast his eyes impatiently above, and breathed hard and convulsively. The dire preparations were made, completed; but the prisoner drew back for an instant—was it from mortal fear? He motioned to the Clergyman to approach, as if about to whisper some last request in his ear. The clergyman bowed his head,—there was a minute's awful pause—Aram seemed to struggle as for words, when, suddenly throwing himself back, a bright triumphant smile flashed over his whole face. With that smile, the haughty Spirit passed away, and the law's last indignity was wreaked upon a breathless corpse!
AND LAST. THE TRAVELLER'S RETURN.—THE COUNTRY VILLAGE ONCE MORE VISITED;—ITS INHABITANTS.—THE REMEMBERED BROOK.—THE DESERTED MANOR-HOUSE.—THE CHURCHYARD.—THE TRAVELLER RESUMES HIS JOURNEY.—THE COUNTRY TOWN.—A MEETING OF TWO LOVERS AFTER LONG ABSENCE AND MUCH SORROW.—CONCLUSION.
"The lopped tree in time may grow again, Most naked plants renew both fruit and flower; The sorriest wight may find release from pain, The driest soil suck in some moistening shower: Time goes by turns, and chances change by course From foul to fair." —Robert Southwell, the Jesuit.
Sometimes towards the end of a gloomy day, the sun before but dimly visible, breaks suddenly out, and clothes the landscape with a smile; then beneath your eye, which during the clouds and sadness of day, had sought only the chief features of the prospect around, (some grey hill, or rising spire, or sweeping wood,) the less prominent, yet not less lovely features of the scene, mellow forth into view; over them, perhaps, the sun sets with a happier and richer glow than over the rest of Nature; and thus they leave upon your mind its last grateful impression, and console you for the gloom and sadness which the parting light they catch and reflect, dispels.
Just so in our tale; it continues not in cloud and sorrow to the last; some little ray breaks forth at the close; in that ray, characters which before received but a slight portion of the interest that prouder and darker ones engrossed, are thrown into light, and cheer from the mind of him who hath watched and tarried with us till now,—we will not say all the sadness that may perhaps linger on his memory,—and yet something of the gloom.
It was some years after the date of the last event we have recorded, and it was a fine warm noon in the happy month of May, when a horseman was slowly riding through the long—straggling—village of Grassdale. He was a man, though in the prime of youth, (for he might yet want some two years of thirty,) that bore the steady and earnest air of one who has seen not sparingly of the world; his eye keen but tranquil, his sunburnt though handsome features, which either exertion or thought, or care, had despoiled of the roundness of their early contour, leaving the cheek somewhat sunken, and the lines somewhat marked, were impressed with a grave, and at that moment with a melancholy and soft expression; and now, as his horse proceeded slowly through the green lane, which in every vista gave glimpses of rich verdant valleys, the sparkling river, or the orchard ripe with the fragrant blossoms of spring; his gaze lost the calm expression it habitually wore, and betrayed how busily Remembrance was at work. The dress of the horseman was of foreign fashion, and at that day, when the garb still denoted the calling, sufficiently military to show the profession he had belonged to. And well did the garb become the short dark moustache, the sinewy chest and length of limb of the young horseman: recommendations, the two latter, not despised in the court of the great Frederic of Prussia, in whose service he had borne arms. He had commenced his career in that battle terminating in the signal defeat of the bold Daun, when the fortunes of that gallant general paled at last before the star of the greatest of modern kings. The peace of 1763 had left Prussia in the quiet enjoyment of the glory she had obtained, and the young Englishman took the advantage it afforded him of seeing as a traveller, not despoiler, the rest of Europe.
The adventure and the excitement of travel pleased and left him even now uncertain whether or not his present return to England would be for long. He had not been a week returned, and to this part of his native country he had hastened at once.
He checked his horse as he now past the memorable sign, that yet swung before the door of Peter Dealtry; and there, under the shade of the broad tree, now budding into all its tenderest verdure, a pedestrian wayfarer sate enjoying the rest and coolness of his shelter. Our horseman cast a look at the open door, across which, in the bustle of housewifery, female forms now and then glanced and vanished, and presently he saw Peter himself saunter forth to chat with the traveller beneath his tree. And Peter Dealtry was the same as ever, only he seemed perhaps shorter and thinner than of old, as if Time did not so much break as wear mine host's slender person gradually away.
The horseman gazed for a moment, but observing Peter return the gaze, he turned aside his head, and putting his horse into a canter, soon passed out of cognizance of the Spotted Dog.
He now came in sight of the neat white cottage of the old Corporal, and there, leaning over the pale, a crutch under one arm, and his friendly pipe in one corner of his shrewd mouth, was the Corporal himself. Perched upon the railing in a semi-doze, the ears down, the eyes closed, sat a large brown cat: poor Jacobina, it was not thyself! death spares neither cat nor king; but thy virtues lived in thy grandchild; and thy grandchild, (as age brings dotage,) was loved even more than thee by the worthy Corporal. Long may thy race flourish, for at this day it is not extinct. Nature rarely inflicts barrenness on the feline tribe; they are essentially made for love, and love's soft cares, and a cat's lineage outlives the lineage of kaisars.
At the sound of hoofs the Corporal turned his head, and he looked long and wistfully at the horseman, as, relaxing his horse's pace into a walk, our traveller rode slowly on.
"'Fore George," muttered the Corporal, "a fine man—a very fine man; 'bout my inches—augh!"
A smile, but a very faint smile, crossed the lip of the horseman, as he gazed on the figure of the stalwart Corporal.
"He eyes me hard," thought he; "yet he does not seem to remember me. I must be greatly changed. 'Tis fortunate, however, that I am not recognised: fain, indeed, at this time, would I come and go unnoticed and alone."
The horseman fell into a reverie, which was broken by the murmur of the sunny rivulet, fretting over each little obstacle it met, the happy and spoiled child of Nature! That murmur rang on the horseman's ear like a voice from his boyhood, how familiar was it, how dear! No tone of music—no haunting air, ever recalled so rushing a host of memories and associations as that simple, restless, everlasting sound! Everlasting!—all had changed,—the trees had sprung up or decayed,—some cottages around were ruins,—some new and unfamiliar ones supplied their place, and on the stranger himself—on all those whom the sound recalled to his heart, Time had been, indeed, at work, but with the same exulting bound and happy voice that little brook leaped along its way. Ages hence, may the course be as glad, and the murmur as full of mirth! They are blessed things, those remote and unchanging streams!—they fill us with the same love as if they were living creatures!—and in a green corner of the world there is one that, for my part, I never see without forgetting myself to tears—tears that I would not lose for a king's ransom; tears that no other sight or sound could call from their source; tears of what affection, what soft regret; tears that leave me for days afterwards, a better and a kinder man!
The traveller, after a brief pause, continued his road; and now he came full upon the old Manorhouse. The weeds were grown up in the garden, the mossed paling was broken in many places, the house itself was shut up, and the sun glanced on the deep-sunk casements without finding its way into the desolate interior. High above the old hospitable gate hung a board, announcing that the house was for sale, and referring the curious, or the speculating, to the attorney of the neighbouring town. The horseman sighed heavily, and muttered to himself; then turning up the road that led to the back entrance, he came into the court-yard, and leading his horse into an empty stable, he proceeded on foot through the dismantled premises, pausing with every moment, and holding a sad and ever-changing commune with himself. An old woman, a stranger to him, was the sole inmate of the house, and imagining he came to buy, or at least, examine, she conducted him through the house, pointing out its advantages, and lamenting its dilapidated state. Our traveller scarcely heard her,—but when he came to one room which he would not enter till the last, (it was the little parlour in which the once happy family had been wont to sit,) he sank down in the chair that had been Lester's honoured seat, and covering his face with his hands, did not move or look up for several moments. The old woman gazed at him with surprise.—"Perhaps, Sir, you knew the family, they were greatly beloved."
The traveller did not answer; but when he rose, he muttered to himself,—"No, the experiment is made in vain! Never, never could I live here again—it must be so—my forefathers' house must pass into a stranger's hands." With this reflection he hurried from the house, and re-entering the garden, turned through a little gate that swung half open on its shattered hinges, and led into the green and quiet sanctuaries of the dead. The same touching character of deep and undisturbed repose that hallows the country church-yard,—and that more than most—yet brooded there as when, years ago, it woke his young mind to reflection then unmingled with regret.
He passed over the rude mounds of earth that covered the deceased poor, and paused at a tomb of higher, though but of simple pretensions; it was not yet discoloured by the dews and seasons, and the short inscription traced upon it was strikingly legible, in comparison with those around.
Rowland Lester, Obiit 1760, aet. 64. Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.
By that tomb the traveller remained in undisturbed contemplation for some time, and when he turned, all the swarthy colour had died from his cheek, his eyes were dim, and the wonted pride of a young man's step and a soldier's bearing, was gone from his mien.
As he looked up, his eye caught afar, embedded among the soft verdure of the spring, one lone and grey house, from whose chimney there rose no smoke—sad, inhospitable, dismantled as that beside which he now stood;—as if the curse which had fallen on the inmates of either mansion, still clung to either roof. One hasty glance only, the traveller gave to the solitary and distant abode,—and then started and quickened his pace.
On re-entering the stables, the traveller found the Corporal examining his horse from head to foot with great care and scrupulosity.
"Good hoofs too, humph!" quoth the Corporal, as he released the front leg; and, turning round, saw, with some little confusion, the owner of the steed he had been honouring with so minute a survey. "Oh,—augh! looking at the beastie, Sir, lest it might have cast a shoe. Thought your honour might want some intelligent person to shew you the premises, if so be you have come to buy; nothing but an old 'oman there; dare say your honour does not like old 'omen—augh!"
"The owner is not in these parts?" said the horseman.
"No, over seas, Sir; a fine young gentleman, but hasty; and—and—but Lord bless me! sure—no, it can't be—yes, now you turn—it is—it is my young master!" So saying, the old Corporal, roused into affection, hobbled up to the wanderer, and seized and kissed his hand. "Ah, Sir, we shall be glad, indeed, to see you back after such doings. But's all forgotten now, and gone by—augh! Poor Miss Ellinor, how happy she'll be to see your honour. Ah! how she be changed, surely!"
"Changed; ay, I make no doubt! What! does she look in weak health?"
"No; as to that, your honour, she be winsome enough still," quoth the Corporal, smacking his lips; "I seed her the week afore last, when I went over to—, for I suppose you knows as she lives there, all alone like, in a small house, with a green rail afore it, and a brass knocker on the door, at top of the town, with a fine view of the—hills in front? Well, Sir, I seed her, and mighty handsome she looked, though a little thinner than she was; but, for all that, she be greatly changed."
"How! for the worse?"
"For the worse, indeed," answered the Corporal, assuming an air of melancholy and grave significance; "she be grown religious, Sir, think of that—augh—bother—whaugh!"
"Is that all?" said Walter, relieved, and with a slight smile. "And she lives alone?"
"Quite, poor young lady, as if she had made up her mind to be an old maid; though I know as how she refused Squire Knyvett of the Grange waiting for your honour's return, mayhap!"
"Lead out the horse, Bunting; but stay, I am sorry to see you with a crutch; what's the cause? no accident, I trust?"
"Merely rheumatics—will attack the youngest of us; never been quite myself since I went a travelling with your honour—augh!—without going to Lunnon arter all. But I shall be stronger next year, I dare to say—!"
"I hope you will, Bunting. And Miss Lester lives alone, you say?"
"Ay; and for all she be so religious, the poor about do bless her very footsteps. She does a power of good; she gave me half-a-guinea, your honour; an excellent young lady, so sensible like!"
"Thank you; I can tighten the girths!—so!—there, Bunting, there's something for old companion's sake."
"Thank your honour; you be too good, always was—baugh! But I hopes your honour be a coming to live here now; 'twill make things smile agin!"
"No, Bunting, I fear not," said Walter, spurring through the gates of the yard; "Good day."
"Augh, then," cried the Corporal, hobbling breathlessly after him, "if so be as I shan't see your honour agin, at which I am extramely consarned, will your honour recollect your promise, touching the 'tato ground? The steward, Master Bailey, 'od rot him, has clean forgot it—augh!"
"The same old man, Bunting, eh? Well, make your mind easy, it shall be done."
"Lord bless your honour's good heart; thankye; and—and"—laying his hand on the bridle—"your honour did say, the bit cot should be rent-free. You see, your honour," quoth the Corporal, drawing up with a grave smile, "I may marry some day or other, and have a large family; and the rent won't sit so easy then—augh!"
"Let go the rein, Bunting—and consider your house rent-free."
"And, your honour—and—"
But Walter was already in a brisk trot; and the remaining petitions of the Corporal died in empty air.
"A good day's work, too," muttered Jacob, hobbling homeward. "What a green un 'tis still! Never be a man of the world—augh!"
For two hours Walter did not relax the rapidity of his pace; and when he did so at the descent of a steep hill, a small country town lay before him, the sun glittering on its single spire, and lighting up the long, clean, centre street, with the good old-fashioned garden stretching behind each house, and detached cottages around, peeping forth here and there from the blossoms and verdure of the young may. He rode into the yard of the principal inn, and putting up his horse, inquired in a tone that he persuaded himself was the tone of indifference, for Miss Lester's house.
"John," said the landlady, (landlord there was none,) summoning a little boy of about ten years old—"run on, and shew this gentleman the good lady's house: and—stay—his honour will excuse you a moment—just take up the nosegay you cut for her this morning: she loves flowers. Ah! Sir, an excellent young lady is Miss Lester," continued the hostess, as the boy ran back for the nosegay; "so charitable, so kind, so meek to all. Adversity, they say, softens some characters; but she must always have been good. And so religious, Sir, though so young! Well, God bless her! and that every one must say. My boy John, Sir, he is not eleven yet, come next August—a 'cute boy, calls her the good lady: we now always call her so here. Come, John, that's right. You stay to dine here, Sir? Shall I put down a chicken?"
At the farther extremity of the town stood Miss Lester's dwelling. It was the house in which her father had spent his last days; and there she had continued to reside, when left by his death to a small competence, which Walter, then abroad, had persuaded her, (for her pride was of the right kind,) to suffer him, though but slightly, to increase. It was a detached and small building, standing a little from the road; and Walter paused for some moments at the garden-gate, and gazed round him before he followed his young guide, who, tripping lightly up the gravel-walk to the door, rang the bell, and inquired if Miss Lester was within?
Walter was left for some moments alone in a little parlour:—he required those moments to recover himself from the past that rushed sweepingly over him. And was it—yes, it was Ellinor that now stood before him! Changed she was, indeed; the slight girl had budded into woman; changed she was, indeed; the bound had for ever left that step, once so elastic with hope; the vivacity of the quick, dark eye was soft and quiet; the rich colour had given place to a hue fainter, though not less lovely. But to repeat in verse what is poorly bodied forth in prose—
"And years had past, and thus they met again; The wind had swept along the flower since then, O'er her fair cheek a paler lustre spread, As if the white rose triumphed o'er the red. No more she walk'd exulting on the air; Light though her step, there was a languour there; No more—her spirit bursting from its bound,— She stood, like Hebe, scattering smiles around."
"Ellinor!" said Walter mournfully, "thank God! we meet at last."
"That voice—that face—my cousin—my dear, dear Walter!"
All reserve—all consciousness fled in the delight of that moment; and Ellinor leant her head upon his shoulder, and scarcely felt the kiss that he pressed upon her lips.
"And so long absent!" said Ellinor, reproachfully.
"But did you not tell me that the blow that had fallen on our house had stricken from you all thoughts of love—had divided us for ever? And what, Ellinor, was England or home with out you?"
"Ah!" said Ellinor, recovering herself, and a deep paleness succeeding to the warm and delighted flush that had been conjured to her cheek, "Do not revive the past—I have sought for years—long, solitary, desolate years, to escape from its dark recollections!"
"You speak wisely, dearest Ellinor; let us assist each other in doing so. We are alone in the world—let us unite our lot. Never, through all I have seen and felt,—in the starry nightwatch of camps—in the blaze of courts—by the sunny groves of Italy—in the deep forests of the Hartz—never have I forgotten you, my sweet and dear cousin. Your image has linked itself indissolubly with all I conceived of home and happiness, and a tranquil and peaceful future; and now I return, and see you, and find you changed, but, oh, how lovely! Ah, let us not part again! A consoler, a guide, a soother, father, brother, husband,—all this my heart whispers I could be to you!"
Ellinor turned away her face, but her heart was very full. The solitary years that had passed over her since they last met, rose up before her. The only living image that had mingled through those years with the dreams of the departed, was his who now knelt at her feet;—her sole friend—her sole relative—her first—her last love! Of all the world, he was the only one with whom she could recur to the past; on whom she might repose her bruised, but still unconquered affections.
And Walter knew by that blush—that sigh—that tear, that he was remembered—that he was beloved—that his cousin was his own at last!
"But before you end," said my friend, to whom I shewed the above pages, originally concluding my tale with the last sentence, "you must, it is a comfortable and orthodox old fashion, tell us a little about the fate of the other persons, to whom you have introduced us;—the wretch Houseman?"—
"True; in the mysterious course of mortal affairs, the greater villain had escaped, the more generous and redeemed one fallen. But though Houseman died without violence, died in his bed, as honest men die, we can scarcely believe that his life was not punishment enough. He lived in strict seclusion—the seclusion of poverty, and maintained himself by dressing flax. His life was several times attempted by the mob, for he was an object of universal execration and horror; and even ten years afterwards, when he died, his body was buried in secret at the dead of night, for the hatred of the world survived him!"
"And the Corporal, did he marry in his old age?"
"History telleth of one Jacob Bunting, whose wife, several years younger than himself, played him certain sorry pranks with the young curate of the parish: the said Jacob, knowing nothing thereof, but furnishing great objectation unto his neighbours, by boasting that he turned an excellent penny by selling poultry to his reverence above market prices,—'For Bessy, my girl, I'm a man of the world—augh!'"
"Contented! a suitable fate for the old dog—But Peter Dealtry?"
"Of Peter Dealtry know we nothing more, save that we have seen at Grassdale church-yard, a small tombstone inscribed to his memory, with the following sacred poesy thereto appended,—
"'We flourish, saith the holy text One hour, and are cut down the next: I was like grass but yesterday, But Death has mowed me into hay.'"
"And his namesake, Sir Peter Grindlescrew Hales?"
"Went through a long life, honoured and respected, but met with domestic misfortunes in old age. His eldest son married a maid servant, and his youngest daughter—"
"Eloped with the groom?"
"By no means,—with a young spendthrift;—the very picture of what Sir Peter was in his youth: they were both disinherited, and Sir Peter died in the arms of his eight remaining children, seven of whom never forgave his memory for not being the eighth, viz. chief heir."
"And his cotemporary, John Courtland, the non-hypochondriac?"
"Died of sudden suffocation, as he was crossing Hounslow Heath."
"Lived to a great age; his last days, owing to growing infirmities, were spent out of the world; every one pitied him,—it was the happiest time of his life!"
"Was found dead in her bed, from over fatigue, it was supposed, in making merry at the funeral of a young girl on the previous day."
"Well!—hem,—and so Walter and his cousin were really married; and did they never return to the old Manor-house?"
"No; the memory that is allied only to melancholy, grows sweet with years, and hallows the spot which it haunts; not so the memory allied to dread, terror, and something too of shame. Walter sold the property with some pangs of natural regret; after his marriage with Ellinor he returned abroad for some time, but finally settling in England, engaged in active life, and left to his posterity a name they still honour; and to his country, the memory of some services that will not lightly pass away."
But one dread and gloomy remembrance never forsook his mind, and exercised the most powerful influence over the actions and motives of his life. In every emergency, in every temptation, there rose to his eyes the fate of him so gifted, so noble in much, so formed for greatness in all things, blasted by one crime—self-sought, but self-denied; a crime, the offspring of bewildered reasonings—all the while speculating upon virtue. And that fate revealing the darker secrets of our kind, in which the true science of morals in chiefly found, taught him the twofold lesson, caution for himself, and charity for others. He knew henceforth that even the criminal is not all evil; the angel within us is not easily expelled; it survives sin, ay, and many sins, and leaves us sometimes in amaze and marvel, at the good that lingers round the heart even of the hardiest offender.
And Ellinor clung with more than revived affection to one with whose lot she was now allied. Walter was her last tie upon earth, and in him she learnt, day by day, more lavishly to treasure up her heart. Adversity and trial had ennobled the character of both; and she who had so long seen in her cousin all she could love, beheld now in her husband that greater and more enduring spell—all that she could venerate and admire. A certain religious fervour, in which, after the calamities of her family, she had indulged, continued with her to the last; but, (softened by human ties, and the reciprocation of earthly duties and affections,) it was fortunately preserved either from the undue enthusiasm or the undue austerity into which it would otherwise, in all likelihood, have merged. What remained, however, uniting her most cheerful thoughts with something serious, and the happiest moments of the present with the dim and solemn forecast of the future, elevated her nature, not depressed, and made itself visible rather in tender than in sombre, hues. And it was sweet when the thought of Madeline and her father came across her, to recur at once for consolation to that Heaven in which she believed their tears were dried, and their past sorrows but a forgotten dream! There is, indeed, a time of life when these reflections make our chief, though a melancholy, pleasure. As we grow older, and sometimes a hope, sometimes a friend, is shivered from our path, the thought of an immortality will press itself forcibly upon us! and there, by little and little, as the ant piles grain after grain, the garners of a future sustenance, we learn to carry our hopes, and harvest, as it were, our wishes.
Our cousins then were happy. Happy, for they loved one another entirely; and on those who do so love, I sometimes think, that, barring physical pain and extreme poverty, the ills of life fall with but idle malice. Yes, they were happy in spite of the past, and in defiance of the future.
"I am satisfied then," said my friend,—"and your tale is fairly done!"
And now, Reader, farewell! If, sometimes as thou hast gone with me to this our parting spot, thou hast suffered thy companion to win the mastery over thine interest, to flash now on thy convictions, to touch now thy heart, to guide thy hope, to excite thy anxiety, to gain even almost to the sources of thy tears—then is there a tie between thee and me which cannot readily be broken! And when thou hearest the malice that wrongs affect the candour which should judge, thou wilt be surprised to feel how unconsciously He who has, even in a tale, once wound himself around those feelings not daily excited, can find in thy sympathies the defence, or, in thy charity the indulgence,—of a friend!