"Don't flatter yourself that you are so near the end of your troublesome duties," said Madeline, with her pretty smile, which had been much brighter and more frequent of late than it was formerly wont to be, so that Lester had remarked "That Madeline really appeared to have become the lighter and gayer of the two."
"You will often come to stay with us for weeks together, at least till—till you have a double right to be mistress here. Ah! my poor hair,—you need not pull it so hard."
"Be quiet, then," said Ellinor, half laughing, and wholly blushing.
"Trust me, I have not been in love myself without learning its signs; and I venture to prophesy that within six months you will come to consult me whether or not,—for there is a great deal to be said on both sides of the question,—you can make up your mind to sacrifice your own wishes, and marry Walter Lester. Ah!—gently, gently. Nell—" "Promise to be quiet."
"I will—I will; but you began it."
As Ellinor now finished her task, and kissed her sister's forehead, she sighed deeply.
"Happy Walter!" said Madeline.
"I was not sighing for Walter, but for you."
"For me?—impossible! I cannot imagine any part of my future life that can cost you a sigh. Ah! that I were more worthy of my happiness."
"Well, then," said Ellinor, "I sighed for myself;—I sighed to think we should so soon be parted, and that the continuance of your society would then depend not on our mutual love, but the will of another."
"What, Ellinor, and can you suppose that Eugene,—my Eugene,—would not welcome you as warmly as myself? Ah! you misjudge him; I know you have not yet perceived how tender a heart lies beneath all that melancholy and reserve."
"I feel, indeed," said Ellinor warmly, "as if it were impossible that one whom you love should not be all that is good and noble; yet if this reserve of his should increase, as is at least possible, with increasing years; if our society should become again, as it once was, distasteful to him, should I not lose you, Madeline?"
"But his reserve cannot increase: do you not perceive how much it is softened already? Ah! be assured that I will charm it away."
"But what is the cause of the melancholy that even now, at times, evidently preys upon him?—has he never revealed it to you?"
"It is merely the early and long habit of solitude and study, Ellinor," replied Madeline; "and shall I own to you I would scarcely wish that away; his tenderness itself seems linked with his melancholy. It is like a sad but gentle music, that brings tears into our eyes, but which we would not change for gayer airs for the world."
"Well, I must own," said Ellinor, reluctantly, "that I no longer wonder at your infatuation; I can no longer chide you as I once did; there is, assuredly, something in his voice, his look, which irresistibly sinks into the heart. And there are moments when, what with his eyes and forehead, his countenance seems more beautiful, more impressive, than any I ever beheld. Perhaps, too, for you, it is better, that your lover should be no longer in the first flush of youth. Your nature seems to require something to venerate, as well as to love. And I have ever observed at prayers, that you seem more especially rapt and carried beyond yourself, in those passages which call peculiarly for worship and adoration."
"Yes, dearest," said Madeline fervently, "I own that Eugene is of all beings, not only of all whom I ever knew, but of whom I ever dreamed, or imagined, the one that I am most fitted to love and to appreciate. His wisdom, but more than that, the lofty tenor of his mind, calls forth all that is highest and best in my own nature. I feel exalted when I listen to him;—and yet, how gentle, with all that nobleness! And to think that he should descend to love me, and so to love me. It is as if a star were to leave its sphere!"
"Hark! one o'clock," said Ellinor, as the deep voice of the clock told the first hour of morning. "Heavens! how much louder the winds rave. And how the heavy sleet drives against the window! Our poor watch without! but you may be sure my uncle was right, and they are safe at home by this time; nor is it likely, I should think, that even robbers would be abroad in such weather!"
"I have heard," said Madeline, "that robbers generally choose these dark, stormy nights for their designs, but I confess I don't feel much alarm, and he is in the house. Draw nearer to the fire, Ellinor; is it not pleasant to see how serenely it burns, while the storm howls without! it is like my Eugene's soul, luminous, and lone, amidst the roar and darkness of this unquiet world!"
"There spoke himself," said Ellinor smiling to perceive how invariably women, who love, imitate the tone of the beloved one. And Madeline felt it, and smiled too.
"Hist!" said Ellinor abruptly, "did you not hear a low, grating noise below? Ah! the winds now prevent your catching the sound; but hush, hush!—now the wind pauses,—there it is again!"
"Yes, I hear it," said Madeline, turning pale, "it seems in the little parlour; a continued, harsh, but very low, noise. Good heavens! it seems at the window below."
"It is like a file," whispered Ellinor: "perhaps—" "You are right," said Madeline, suddenly rising, "it is a file, and at the bars my father had fixed against the window yesterday. Let us go down, and alarm the house."
"No, no; for God's sake, don't be so rash," cried Ellinor, losing all presence of mind: "hark! the sound ceases, there is a louder noise below,—and steps. Let us lock the door."
But Madeline was of that fine and high order of spirit which rises in proportion to danger, and calming her sister as well as she could, till she found her attempts wholly ineffectual, she seized the light with a steady hand, opened the door, and Ellinor still clinging to her, passed the landing-place, and hastened to her father's room; he slept at the opposite corner of the staircase. Aram's chamber was at the extreme end of the house. Before she reached the door of Lester's apartment, the noise below grew loud and distinct—a scuffle—voices—curses—and now—the sound of a pistol!—in a moment more the whole house was stirring. Lester in his night robe, his broadsword in his hand, and his long grey hair floating behind, was the first to appear; the servants, old and young, male and female, now came thronging simultaneously round; and in a general body, Lester several paces at their head, his daughters following next to him, they rushed to the apartment whence the noise, now suddenly stilled, had proceeded.
The window was opened, evidently by force; an instrument like a wedge was fixed in the bureau containing Lester's money, and seemed to have been left there, as if the person using it had been disturbed before the design for which it was introduced had been accomplished, and, (the only evidence of life,) Aram stood, dressed, in the centre of the room, a pistol in his left hand, a sword in his right; a bludgeon severed in two lay at his feet, and on the floor within two yards of him, towards the window, drops of blood yet warm, showed that the pistol had not been discharged in vain.
"And is it you, my brave friend, that I have to thank for our safety?" cried Lester in great emotion.
"You, Eugene!" repeated Madeline, sinking on his breast.
"But thanks hereafter," continued Lester; "let us now to the pursuit,—perhaps the villain may have perished beneath your bullet?"
"Ha!" muttered Aram, who had hitherto seemed unconscious of all around him; so fixed had been his eye, so colourless his cheek, so motionless his posture. "Ha! say you so?—think you I have slain him?—no, it cannot be—the ball did not slay, I saw him stagger; but he rallied—not so one who receives a mortal wound!—ha! ha!—there is blood, you say, that is true; but what then!—it is not the first wound that kills, you must strike again—pooh, pooh, what is a little blood!"
While he was thus muttering, Lester and the more active of the servants had already sallied through the window, but the night was so intensely dark that they could not penetrate a step beyond them. Lester returned, therefore, in a few moments; and met Aram's dark eye fixed upon him with an unutterable expression of anxiety.
"You have found no one," said he, "no dying man?—Ha!—well—well—well! they must both have escaped; the night must favour them."
"Do you fancy the villain was severely wounded?"
"Not so—I trust not so; he seemed able to—But stop—oh God!—stop!—your foot is dabbling in blood—blood shed by me,—off! off!"
Lester moved aside with a quick abhorrence, as he saw that his feet were indeed smearing the blood over the polished and slippery surface of the oak boards, and in moving he stumbled against a dark lantern in which the light still burnt, and which the robbers in their flight had left.
"Yes," said Aram observing it. "It was by that—their own light that I saw them—saw their faces—and—and—(bursting into a loud, wild laugh) they were both strangers!"
"Ah, I thought so, I knew so," said Lester plucking the instrument from the bureau. "I knew they could be no Grassdale men. What, did you fancy, they could be? But—bless me, Madeline—what ho! help!—Aram, she has fainted at your feet."
And it was indeed true and remarkable, that so utter had been the absorption of Aram's mind, that he had been insensible not only to the entrance of Madeline, but even that she had thrown herself on his breast. And she, overcome by her feelings, had slid to the ground from that momentary resting-place, in a swoon which Lester, in the general tumult and confusion, was now the first to perceive.
At this exclamation, at the sound of Madeline's name, the blood rushed back from Aram's heart, where it had gathered, icy and curdling; and, awakened thoroughly and at once to himself, he knelt down, and weaving his arms around her, supported her head on his breast, and called upon her with the most passionate and moving exclamations.
But when the faint bloom retinged her cheek, and her lips stirred, he printed a long kiss on that cheek—on those lips, and surrendered his post to Ellinor; who, blushingly gathering the robe over the beautiful breast from which it had been slightly drawn; now entreated all, save the women of the house, to withdraw till her sister was restored.
Lester, eager to hear what his guest could relate, therefore took Aram to his own apartment, where the particulars were briefly told.
Suspecting, which indeed was the chief reason that excused him to himself in yielding to Madeline's request, that the men Lester and himself had encountered in their evening walk, might be other than they seemed, and that they might have well overheard Lester's communication, as to the sum in his house, and the place where it was stored; he had not undressed himself, but kept the door of his room open to listen if any thing stirred. The keen sense of hearing, which we have before remarked him to possess, enabled him to catch the sound of the file at the bars, even before Ellinor, notwithstanding the distance of his own chamber from the place, and seizing the sword which had been left in his room, (the pistol was his own) he had descended to the room below.
"What!" said Lester, "and without a light?"
"The darkness is familiar to me," said Aram. "I could walk by the edge of a precipice in the darkest night without one false step, if I had but once passed it before. I did not gain the room, however, till the window had been forced; and by the light of a dark lantern which one of them held, I perceived two men standing by the bureau—the rest you can imagine; my victory was easy, for the bludgeon, with which one of them aimed at me, gave way at once to the edge of your good sword, and my pistol delivered me of the other.—There ends the history."
Lester overwhelmed him with thanks and praises, but Aram, glad to escape them, hurried away to see after Madeline, whom he now met on the landing-place, leaning on Ellinor's arm and still pale.
She gave him her hand, which he for one moment pressed passionately to his lips, but dropped, the next, with an altered and chilled air. And hastily observing he would not now detain her from a rest which she must so much require, he turned away and descended the stairs. Some of the servants were grouped around the place of encounter; he entered the room, and again started at the sight of the blood.
"Bring water," said he fiercely: "will you let the stagnant gore ooze and rot into the boards, to startle the eye, and still the heart with its filthy, and unutterable stain—water, I say! water!"
They hurried to obey him, and Lester coming into the room to see the window reclosed by the help of boards found the Student bending over the servants as they performed their reluctant task, and rating them with a raised and harsh voice for the hastiness with which he accused them of seeking to slur it over.
ARAM ALONE AMONG THE MOUNTAINS.—HIS SOLILOQUY AND PROJECT.— SCENE BETWEEN HIMSELF AND MADELINE.
Luce non grata fruor; Trepidante semper corde, non mortis metu Sed— —Seneca: Octavia, act i.
The two men servants of the house remained up the rest of the night; but it was not till the morning had progressed far beyond the usual time of rising in the fresh shades of Grassdale, that Madeline and Ellinor became visible; even Lester left his bed an hour later than his wont; and knocking at Aram's door, found the Student was already abroad, while it was evident that his bed had not been pressed during the whole of the night. Lester descended into the garden, and was there met by Peter Dealtry, and a detachment of the band; who, as common sense and Lester had predicted, were indeed, at a very early period of the watch, driven to their respective homes. They were now seriously concerned for their unmanliness, which they passed off as well as they could upon their conviction "that nobody at Grassdale could ever really be robbed;" and promised with sincere contrition, that they would be most excellent guards for the future. Peter was, in sooth, singularly chop-fallen; and could only defend himself by an incoherent mutter, from which the Squire turned somewhat impatiently, when he heard, louder than the rest, the words "seventy-seventh psalm, seventeenth verse,
"The clouds that were both thick and black,
Did rain full plenteously."
Leaving the Squire to the edification of the pious host, let us follow the steps of Aram, who at the early dawn had quitted his sleepless chamber, and, though the clouds at that time still poured down in a dull and heavy sleet, wandered away, whither he neither knew, nor heeded. He was now hurrying, with unabated speed, though with no purposed bourne or object, over the chain of mountains that backed the green and lovely valleys, among which his home was cast.
"Yes!" said he, at last halting abruptly, with a desperate resolution stamped on his countenance, "yes! I will so determine. If, after this interview, I feel that I cannot command and bind Houseman's perpetual secrecy, I will surrender Madeline at once. She has loved me generously and trustingly. I will not link her life with one that may be called hence in any hour, and to so dread an account. Neither shall the grey hairs of Lester be brought with the sorrow of my shame, to a dishonoured and untimely grave. And after the outrage of last night, the daring outrage, how can I calculate on the safety of a day? though Houseman was not present, though I can scarce believe that he knew or at least abetted the attack; yet they were assuredly of his gang: had one been seized, the clue might have traced to his detection—and he detected, what should I have to dread! No, Madeline! no; not while this sword hangs over me, will I subject thee to share the horror of my fate!"
This resolution, which was certainly generous, and yet no more than honest, Aram had no sooner arrived at, than he dismissed, at once, by one of those efforts which powerful minds can command, all the weak and vacillating thoughts that might interfere with the sternness of his determination. He seemed to breathe more freely, and the haggard wanness of his brow, relaxed at least from the workings that, but the moment before, distorted its wonted serenity, with a maniac wildness.
He pursued his desultory way now with a calmer step.
"What a night!" said he, again breaking into the low murmur in which he was accustomed to hold commune with himself. "Had Houseman been one of the ruffians! a shot might have freed me, and without a crime, for ever! And till the light flashed on their brows, I thought the smaller man bore his aspect. Ha, out, tempting thought! out on thee!" he cried aloud, and stamping with his foot, then recalled by his own vehemence, he cast a jealous and hurried glance round him, though at that moment his step was on the very height of the mountains, where not even the solitary shepherd, save in search of some more daring straggler of the flock, ever brushed the dew from the cragged, yet fragrant soil. "Yet," he said, in a lower voice, and again sinking into the sombre depths of his reverie, "it is a tempting, a wondrously tempting thought. And it struck athwart me, like a flash of lightning when this hand was at his throat—a tighter strain, another moment, and Eugene Aram had not had an enemy, a witness against him left in the world. Ha! are the dead no foes then? Are the dead no witnesses?" Here he relapsed into utter silence, but his gestures continued wild, and his eyes wandered round, with a bloodshot and unquiet glare. "Enough," at length he said calmly; and with the manner of one 'who has rolled a stone from his heart;' [Note: Eastern saying.] "enough! I will not so sully myself; unless all other hope of self-preservation be extinct. And why despond? the plan I have thought of seems well-laid, wise, consummate at all points. Let me consider—forfeited the moment he enters England—not given till he has left it—paid periodically, and of such extent as to supply his wants, preserve him from crime, and forbid the possibility of extorting more: all this sounds well; and if not feasible at last, why farewell Madeline, and I myself leave this land for ever. Come what will to me—death in its vilest shape—let not the stroke fall on that breast. And if it be," he continued, his face lighting up, "if it be, as it may yet, that I can chain this hell-hound, why, even then, the instant that Madeline is mine, I will fly these scenes; I will seek a yet obscurer and remoter corner of earth: I will choose another name—Fool! why did I not so before? But matters it? What is writ is writ. Who can struggle with the invisible and giant hand, that launched the world itself into motion; and at whose predecree we hold the dark boon of life and death?"
It was not till evening that Aram, utterly worn out and exhausted, found himself in the neighbourhood of Lester's house. The sun had only broken forth at its setting; and it now glittered from its western pyre over the dripping hedges, and spread a brief, but magic glow along the rich landscape around; the changing woods clad in the thousand dies of Autumn; the scattered and peaceful cottages, with their long wreaths of smoke curling upward, and the grey and venerable walls of the Manor-house, with the Church hard by, and the delicate spire, which, mixing itself with heaven, is at once the most touching and solemn emblem of the Faith to which it is devoted. It was a sabbath eve; and from the spot on which Aram stood, he might discern many a rustic train trooping slowly up the green village lane towards the Church; and the deep bell which summoned to the last service of the day now swung its voice far over the sunlit and tranquil scene.
But it was not the setting sun, nor the autumnal landscape, nor the voice of the holy bell that now arrested the step of Aram. At a little distance before him, leaning over a gate, and seemingly waiting till the ceasing of the bell should announce the time to enter the sacred mansion, he beheld the figure of Madeline Lester. Her head, at the moment, was averted from him, as if she were looking after Ellinor and her uncle, who were in the churchyard among a little group of their homely neighbours; and he was half in doubt whether to shun her presence, when she suddenly turned round, and seeing him, uttered an exclamation of joy. It was now too late for avoidance; and calling to his aid that mastery over his features, which, in ordinary times, few more eminently possessed, he approached his beautiful mistress with a smile as serene, if not as glowing, as her own. But she had already opened the gate, and bounding forward, met him half way.
"Ah, truant, truant," said she, the whole day absent, without inquiry or farewell! After this, when shall I believe that thou really lovest me?
"But," continued Madeline, gazing on his countenance, which bore witness, in its present languor, to the fierce emotions which had lately raged within, "but, heavens! dearest, how pale you look; you are fatigued; give me your hand, Eugene,—it is parched and dry. Come into the house;—you must need rest and refreshment."
"I am better here, my Madeline,—the air and the sun revive me: let us rest by the stile yonder. But you were going to Church? and the bell has ceased."
"I could attend, I fear, little to the prayers now," said Madeline, "unless you feel well enough and will come to Church with me."
"To Church!" said Aram, with a half shudder, "no; my thoughts are in no mood for prayer."
"Then you shall give your thoughts to me and I, in return, will pray for you before I rest."
And so saying, Madeline, with her usual innocent frankness of manner, wound her arm in his, and they walked onward towards the stile Aram had pointed out. It was a little rustic stile, with chesnut-trees hanging over it on either side. It stands to this day, and I have pleased myself with finding Walter Lester's initials, and Madeline's also, with the date of the year, carved in half-worn letters on the wood, probably by the hand of the former.
They now rested at this spot. All around them was still and solitary; the groups of peasants had entered the Church, and nothing of life, save the cattle grazing in the distant fields, or the thrush starting from the wet bushes, was visible. The winds were lulled to rest, and, though somewhat of the chill of autumn floated on the air, it only bore a balm to the harassed brow and fevered veins of the Student; and Madeline!—she felt nothing but his presence. It was exactly what we picture to ourselves of a sabbath eve, unutterably serene and soft, and borrowing from the very melancholy of the declining year an impressive, yet a mild solemnity.
There are seasons, often in the most dark or turbulent periods of our life, when, why we know not, we are suddenly called from ourselves, by the remembrances of early childhood: something touches the electric chain, and, lo! a host of shadowy and sweet recollections steal upon us. The wheel rests, the oar is suspended, we are snatched from the labour and travail of present life; we are born again, and live anew. As the secret page in which the characters once written seem for ever effaced, but which, if breathed upon, gives them again into view; so the memory can revive the images invisible for years: but while we gaze, the breath recedes from the surface, and all one moment so vivid, with the next moment has become once more a blank!
"It is singular," said Aram, "but often as I have paused at this spot, and gazed upon this landscape, a likeness to the scenes of my childish life, which it now seems to me to present, never occurred to me before. Yes, yonder, in that cottage, with the sycamores in front, and the orchard extending behind, till its boundary, as we now stand, seems lost among the woodland, I could fancy that I looked upon my father's home. The clump of trees that lies yonder to the right could cheat me readily to the belief that I saw the little grove in which, enamoured with the first passion of study, I was wont to pore over the thrice-read book through the long summer days;—a boy,—a thoughtful boy; yet, oh! how happy! What worlds appeared then to me, to open in every page! how exhaustless I thought the treasures and the hopes of life! and beautiful on the mountain tops seemed to me the steps of Knowledge! I did not dream of all that the musing and lonely passion that I nursed was to entail upon me. There, in the clefts of the valley, or the ridges of the hill, or the fragrant course of the stream, I began already to win its history from the herb or flower; I saw nothing, that I did not long to unravel its secrets; all that the earth nourished ministered to one desire:—and what of low or sordid did there mingle with that desire? The petty avarice, the mean ambition, the debasing love, even the heat, the anger, the fickleness, the caprice of other men, did they allure or bow down my nature from its steep and solitary eyrie? I lived but to feed my mind; wisdom was my thirst, my dream, my aliment, my sole fount and sustenance of life. And have I not sown the whirlwind and reaped the wind? The glory of my youth is gone, my veins are chilled, my frame is bowed, my heart is gnawed with cares, my nerves are unstrung as a loosened bow: and what, after all, is my gain? Oh, God! what is my gain?"
"Eugene, dear, dear Eugene!" murmured Madeline soothingly, and wrestling with her tears, "is not your gain great? is it no triumph that you stand, while yet young, almost alone in the world, for success in all that you have attempted?"
"And what," exclaimed Aram, breaking in upon her, "what is this world which we ransack, but a stupendous charnel-house? Every thing that we deem most lovely, ask its origin?—Decay! When we rifle nature, and collect wisdom, are we not like the hags of old, culling simples from the rank grave, and extracting sorceries from the rotting bones of the dead? Every thing around us is fathered by corruption, battened by corruption, and into corruption returns at last. Corruption is at once the womb and grave of Nature, and the very beauty on which we gaze and hang,—the cloud, and the tree, and the swarming waters,—all are one vast panorama of death! But it did not always seem to me thus; and even now I speak with a heated pulse and a dizzy brain. Come, Madeline, let us change the theme."
And dismissing at once from his language, and perhaps, as he proceeded, also from his mind, all of its former gloom, except such as might shade, but not embitter, the natural tenderness of remembrance, Aram now related, with that vividness of diction, which, though we feel we can very inadequately convey its effect, characterised his conversation, and gave something of poetic interest to all he uttered; those reminiscences which belong to childhood, and which all of us take delight to hear from the lips of any one we love.
It was while on this theme that the lights which the deepening twilight had now made necessary, became visible in the Church, streaming afar through its large oriel window, and brightening the dark firs that overshadowed the graves around: and just at that moment the organ, (a gift from a rich rector, and the boast of the neighbouring country,) stole upon the silence with its swelling and solemn note. There was something in the strain of this sudden music that was so kindred with the holy repose of the scene, and which chimed so exactly to the chord that now vibrated in Aram's mind, that it struck upon him at once with an irresistible power. He paused abruptly "as if an angel spoke!" that sound so peculiarly adapted to express sacred and unearthly emotion none who have ever mourned or sinned can hear, at an unlooked for moment, without a certain sentiment, that either subdues, or elevates, or awes. But he,—he was a boy once more!—he was again in the village church of his native place: his father, with his silver hair, stood again beside him! there was his mother, pointing to him the holy verse; there the half arch, half reverent face of his little sister, (she died young!)—there the upward eye and hushed countenance of the preacher who had first raised his mind to knowledge, and supplied its food,—all, all lived, moved, breathed, again before him,—all, as when he was young and guiltless, and at peace; hope and the future one word!
He bowed his head lower and lower; the hardness and hypocrisies of pride, the sense of danger and of horror, that, in agitating, still supported, the mind of this resolute and scheming man, at once forsook him. Madeline felt his tears drop fast and burning on her hand, and the next moment, overcome by the relief it afforded to a heart preyed upon by fiery and dread secrets, which it could not reveal, and a frame exhausted by the long and extreme tension of all its powers, he laid his head upon that faithful bosom, and wept aloud.
ARAM'S SECRET EXPEDITION.—A SCENE WORTHY THE ACTORS.—ARAM'S ADDRESS AND POWERS OF PERSUASION OR HYPOCRISY.—THEIR RESULT. —A FEARFUL NIGHT.—ARAM'S SOLITARY RIDE HOMEWARD. —WHOM HE MEETS BY THE WAY, AND WHAT HE SEES.
Macbeth. Now o'er the one half world Nature seems dead.
Donalbain. Our separated fortune Shall keep us both the safer.
Old Man. Hours dreadful and things strange. —Macbeth.
"And you must really go to ——— to pay your importunate creditor this very evening. Sunday is a bad day for such matters; but as you pay him by an order, it does not much signify; and I can well understand your impatience to feel discharged of the debt. But it is already late; and if it must be so, you had better start."
"True," said Aram to the above remark of Lester's, as the two stood together without the door; "but do you feel quite secure and guarded against any renewed attack?"
"Why, unless they bring a regiment, yes! I have put a body of our patrole on a service where they can scarce be inefficient, viz. I have stationed them in the house, instead of without; and I shall myself bear them company through the greater part of the night: to-morrow I shall remove all that I possess of value to—(the county town) including those unlucky guineas, which you will not ease me of."
"The order you have kindly given me will amply satisfy my purpose," answered Aram: "And so, there has been no clue to these robberies discovered throughout the day?"
"None: to-morrow, the magistrates are to meet at—, and concert measures: it is absolutely impossible, but that we should detect the villains in a few days, viz. if they remain in these parts. I hope to heaven you will not meet them this evening."
"I shall go well armed," answered Aram, "and the horse you lend me is fleet and strong. And now farewell for the present; I shall probably not return to Grassdale this night, or if I do, it will be at so late an hour, that I shall seek my own domicile without disturbing you."
"No, no; you had better remain in the town, and not return till morning," said the Squire; "and now let us come to the stables."
To obviate all chance of suspicion as to the real place of his destination, Aram deliberately rode to the town he had mentioned, as the one in which his pretended creditor expected him. He put up at an inn, walked forth as if to visit some one in the town, returned, remounted, and by a circuitous route, came into the neighbourhood of the place in which he was to meet Houseman: then turning into a long and dense chain of wood, he fastened his horse to a tree, and looking to the priming of his pistols, which he carried under his riding-cloak, proceeded to the spot on foot.
The night was still, and not wholly dark; for the clouds lay scattered though dense, and suffered many stars to gleam through the heavy air; the moon herself was abroad, but on her decline, and looked forth with a man and saddened aspect, as she travelled from cloud to cloud. It has been the necessary course of our narrative, to pourtray Aram, more often than to give an exact notion of his character we could have altogether wished, in his weaker moments; but whenever he stood in the actual presence of danger, his whole soul was in arms to cope with it worthily: courage, sagacity, even cunning, all awakened to the encounter; and the mind which his life had so austerely cultivated repaid him in the urgent season, with its acute address, and unswerving hardihood. The Devil's Crag, as it was popularly called, was a spot consecrated by many a wild tradition, which would not, perhaps, be wholly out of character with the dark thread of this tale, were we in accordance with certain of our brethren, who seem to think a novel like a bundle of wood, the more faggots it contains the greater its value, allowed by the rapidity of our narrative to relate them.
The same stream which lent so soft an attraction to the valleys of Grassdale, here assumed a different character; broad, black, and rushing, it whirled along a course, overhung by shagged and abrupt banks. On the opposite side to that by which Aram now pursued his path, an almost perpendicular mountain was covered with gigantic pine and fir, that might have reminded a German wanderer of the darkest recesses of the Hartz; and seemed, indeed, no unworthy haunt for the weird huntsman, or the forest fiend. Over this wood the moon now shimmered, with the pale and feeble light we have already described; and only threw into a more sombre shade the motionless and gloomy foliage. Of all the offspring of the forest, the Fir bears, perhaps, the most saddening and desolate aspect. Its long branches, without absolute leaf or blossom; its dead, dark, eternal hue, which the winter seems to wither not, nor the spring to revive, have, I know not what of a mystic and unnatural life. Around all woodland, there is that horror umbrarum which becomes more remarkably solemn and awing amidst the silence and depth of night: but this is yet more especially the characteristic of that sullen evergreen. Perhaps, too, this effect is increased by the sterile and dreary soil, on which, when in groves, it is generally found; and its very hardiness, the very pertinacity with which it draws its strange unfluctuating life, from the sternest wastes and most reluctant strata, enhance, unconsciously, the unwelcome effect it is calculated to create upon the mind. At this place, too, the waters that dashed beneath gave yet additional wildness to the rank verdure of the wood, and contributed, by their rushing darkness partially broken by the stars, and the hoarse roar of their chafed course, a yet more grim and savage sublimity to the scene.
Winding a narrow path, (for the whole country was as familiar as a garden to his footstep) that led through the tall wet herbage, almost along the perilous brink of the stream, Aram was now aware, by the increased and deafening sound of the waters, that the appointed spot was nearly gained; and presently the glimmering and imperfect light of the skies, revealed the dim shape of a gigantic rock, that rose abruptly from the middle of the stream; and which, rude, barren, vast, as it really was, seemed now, by the uncertainty of night, like some monstrous and deformed creature of the waters, suddenly emerging from their vexed and dreary depths. This was the far-famed Crag, which had borrowed from tradition its evil and ominous name. And now, the stream, bending round with a broad and sudden swoop, showed at a little distance, ghostly and indistinct through the darkness, the mighty Waterfall, whose roar had been his guide. Only in one streak a-down the giant cataract, the stars were reflected; and this long train of broken light glittered preternaturally forth through the rugged crags and the sombre verdure, that wrapped either side of the waterfall in utter and rayless gloom.
Nothing could exceed the forlorn and terrific grandeur of the spot; the roar of the waters supplied to the ear what the night forbade to the eye. Incessant and eternal they thundered down into the gulf; and then shooting over that fearful basin, and forming another, but a mimic fall, dashed on, till they were opposed by the sullen and abrupt crag below; and besieging its base with a renewed roar, sent their foamy and angry spray half way up the hoar ascent.
At this stern and dreary spot, well suited for such conferences as Aram and Houseman alone could hold; and which, whatever was the original secret that linked the two men thus strangely, seemed of necessity to partake of a desperate and lawless character, with danger for its main topic, and death itself for its colouring, Aram now paused, and with an eye accustomed to the darkness, looked around for his companion.
He did not wait long: from the profound shadow that girded the space immediately around the fall, Houseman now emerged and joined the Student. The stunning noise of the cataract in the place where they met, forbade any attempt to converse; and they walked on by the course of the stream, to gain a spot less in reach of the deafening shout of the mountain giant as he rushed with his banded waters, upon the valley like a foe.
It was noticeable that as they proceeded, Aram walked on with an unsuspicious and careless demeanour; but Houseman pointing out the way with his hand, not leading it, kept a little behind Aram, and watched his motions with a vigilant and wary eye. The Student, who had diverged from the path at Houseman's direction, now paused at a place where the matted bushes seemed to forbid any farther progress; and said, for the first time breaking the silence, "We cannot proceed; shall this be the place of our conference?"
"No," said Houseman, "we had better pierce the bushes. I know the way, but will not lead it."
"The mark of your gripe is still on my throat," replied Houseman, significantly; "you know as well as I, that it is not always safe to have a friend lagging behind."
"Let us rest here, then," said Aram, calmly, the darkness veiling any alteration of his countenance, which his comrade's suspicion might have created.
"Yet it were much better," said Houseman, doubtingly, "could we gain the cave below."
"The cave!" said Aram, starting, as if the word had a sound of fear.
"Ay, ay: but not St. Robert's," said Houseman; and the grin of his teeth was visible through the dullness of the shade. "But come, give me your hand, and I will venture to conduct you through the thicket:—that is your left hand," observed Houseman with a sharp and angry suspicion in his tone; "give me the right."
"As you will," said Aram in a subdued, yet meaning voice, that seemed to come from his heart; and thrilled, for an instant, to the bones of him who heard it; "as you will; but for fourteen years I have not given this right hand, in pledge of fellowship, to living man; you alone deserve the courtesy—there!"
Houseman hesitated, before he took the hand now extended to him.
"Pshaw!" said he, as if indignant at himself, "what! scruples at a shadow! Come," (grasping the hand) "that's well—so, so; now we are in the thicket—tread firm—this way—hold," continued Houseman, under his breath, as suspicion anew seemed to cross him; "hold! we can see each other's face not even dimly now: but in this hand, my right is free, I have a knife that has done good service ere this; and if I feel cause to suspect that you meditate to play me false, I bury it in your heart; do you heed me?"
"Fool!" said Aram, scornfully, "I should dread you dead yet more than living."
Houseman made no answer; but continued to grope on through the path in the thicket, which he evidently knew well; though even in daylight, so thick were the trees, and so artfully had their boughs been left to cover the track, no path could have been discovered by one unacquainted with the clue.
They had now walked on for some minutes, and of late their steps had been threading a rugged, and somewhat precipitous descent: all this while, the pulse of the hand Houseman held, beat with as steadfast and calm a throb, as in the most quiet mood of learned meditation; although Aram could not but be conscious that a mere accident, a slip of the foot, an entanglement in the briars, might awaken the irritable fears of his ruffian comrade, and bring the knife to his breast. But this was not that form of death that could shake the nerves of Aram; nor, though arming his whole soul to ward off one danger, was he well sensible of another, that might have seemed equally near and probable, to a less collected and energetic nature. Houseman now halted, again put aside the boughs, proceeded a few steps, and by a certain dampness and oppression in the air, Aram rightly conjectured himself in the cavern Houseman had spoken of.
"We are landed now," said Houseman, "but wait, I will strike a light; I do not love darkness, even with another sort of companion than the one I have now the honour to entertain!"
In a few moments a light was produced, and placed aloft on a crag in the cavern; but the ray it gave was feeble and dull, and left all beyond the immediate spot in which they stood, in a darkness little less Cimmerian than before.
"'Fore Gad, it is cold," said Houseman shivering, "but I have taken care, you see, to provide for a friend's comfort;" so saying, he approached a bundle of dry sticks and leaves, piled at one corner of the cave, applied the light to the fuel, and presently, the fire rose crackling, breaking into a thousand sparks, and freeing itself gradually from the clouds of smoke in which it was enveloped. It now mounted into a ruddy and cheering flame, and the warm glow played picturesquely upon the grey sides of the cavern, which was of a rugged shape, and small dimensions, and cast its reddening light over the forms of the two men.
Houseman stood close to the flame, spreading his hands over it, and a sort of grim complacency stealing along features singularly ill-favoured, and sinister in their expression, as he felt the animal luxury of the warmth.
Across his middle was a broad leathern belt, containing a brace of large horse pistols, and the knife, or rather dagger, with which he had menaced Aram, an instrument sharpened on both sides, and nearly a foot in length. Altogether, what with his muscular breadth of figure, his hard and rugged features, his weapons, and a certain reckless, bravo air which indescribably marked his attitude and bearing, it was not well possible to imagine a fitter habitant for that grim cave, or one from whom men of peace, like Eugene Aram, might have seemed to derive more reasonable cause of alarm.
The Scholar stood at a little distance, waiting till his companion was entirely prepared for the conference, and his pale and lofty features, hushed in their usual deep, but at such a moment, almost preternatural repose. He stood leaning with folded arms against the rude wall; the light reflected upon his dark garments, with the graceful riding-cloak of the day half falling from his shoulder, and revealing also the pistols in his belt, and the sword, which, though commonly worn at that time, by all pretending to superiority above the lower and trading orders, Aram usually waived as a distinction, but now carried as a defence. And nothing could be more striking, than the contrast between the ruffian form of his companion, and the delicate and chiselled beauty of the Student's features, with their air of mournful intelligence and serene command, and the slender, though nervous symmetry of his frame.
"Houseman," said Aram, now advancing, as his comrade turned his face from the flame, towards him; "before we enter on the main subject of our proposed commune—tell me, were you engaged on the attempt last night upon Lester's house?"
"By the Fiend, no!" answered Houseman, nor did I learn it till this morning; it was unpremeditated till within a few hours of the time, by the two fools who alone planned it. The fact is, that myself and the greater part of our little band, were engaged some miles off, in the western part of the county. Two—our general—spies, had been, of their own accord, into your neighbourhood, to reconnoitre. They marked Lester's house during the day, and gathered, (as I can say by experience it was easy to do) from unsuspected inquiry in the village, for they wore a clown's dress, several particulars which induced them to think it contained what might repay the trouble of breaking into it. And walking along the fields, they overheard the good master of the house tell one of his neighbours of a large sum at home; nay, even describe the place where it was kept: that determined them;—they feared, (as the old man indeed observed,) that the sum might be removed the next day; they had noted the house sufficiently to profit by the description given: they resolved, then, of themselves, for it was too late to reckon on our assistance, to break into the room in which the money was kept—though from the aroused vigilance of the frightened hamlet and the force within the house, they resolved to attempt no farther booty. They reckoned on the violence of the storm, and the darkness of the night to prevent their being heard or seen; they were mistaken—the house was alarmed, they were no sooner in the luckless room, than—"Well, I know the rest; was the one wounded dangerously hurt?"
"Oh, he will recover, he will recover; our men are no chickens. But I own I thought it natural that you might suspect me of sharing in the attack; and though, as I have said before, I do not love you, I have no wish to embroil matters so far as an outrage on the house of your father-in-law, might be reasonably expected to do:—at all events, while the gate to an amicable compromise between us is still open."
"I am satisfied on this head," said Aram, "and I can now treat with you in a spirit of less distrustful precaution than before. I tell you, Houseman, that the terms are no longer at your control; you must leave this part of the country, and that forthwith, or you inevitably perish. The whole population is alarmed, and the most vigilant of the London Police have been already sent for. Life is sweet to you, as to us all, and I cannot imagine you so mad, as to incur not the risk, but the certainty, of losing it. You can no longer therefore, hold the threat of your presence over my head. Besides, were you able to do so, I at least have the power, which you seem to have forgotten, of freeing myself from it. Am I chained to yonder valleys? have I not the facility of quitting them at any moment I will? of seeking a hiding-place, which might baffle, not only your vigilance to discover me, but that of the Law? True, my approaching marriage puts some clog upon my wing, but you know that I, of all men, am not likely to be the slave of passion. And what ties are strong enough to arrest the steps of him who flies from a fearful death? Am I using sophistry here, Houseman? Have I not reason on my side?"
"What you say is true enough," said Houseman reluctantly; "I do not gainsay it. But I know you have not sought me, in this spot, and at this hour, for the purpose of denying my claims: the desire of compromise alone can have brought you hither."
"You speak well," said Aram, preserving the admirable coolness of his manner; and continuing the deep and sagacious hypocrisy by which he sought to baffle the dogged covetousness and keen sense of interest with which he had to contend. "It is not easy for either of us to deceive the other. We are men, whose perceptions a life of danger, has sharpened upon all points; I speak to you frankly, for disguise is unavailing. Though I can fly from your reach—though I can desert my present home and my intended bride, I would fain think I have free and secure choice to preserve that exact path and scene of life which I have chalked out for myself: I would fain be rid of all apprehension from you. There are two ways only by which this security can be won: the first is through your death;—nay, start not, nor put your hand on your pistol; you have not now cause to fear me. Had I chosen that method of escape, I could have effected it long since: When, months ago, you slept under my roof—ay, slept—what should have hindered me from stabbing you during the slumber? Two nights since, when my blood was up, and the fury upon me, what should have prevented me tightening the grasp that you so resent, and laying you breathless at my feet? Nay, now, though you keep your eye fixed on my motions, and your hand upon your weapon, you would be no match for a desperate and resolved man, who might as well perish in conflict with you, as by the protracted accomplishment of your threats. Your ball might fail—(even now I see your hand trembles)—mine, if I so will it, is certain death. No, Houseman, it would be as vain for your eye to scan the dark pool into whose breast you cataract casts its waters, as for your intellect to pierce the depths of my mind and motives. Your murder, though in self-defence, would lay a weight upon my soul, which would sink it for ever: I should see, in your death, new chances of detection spread themselves before me: the terrors of the dead are not to be bought or awed into silence; I should pass from one peril into another; and the law's dread vengeance might fall upon me, through the last peril, even yet more surely than through the first. Be composed, then, on this point! From my hand, unless you urge it madly upon yourself, you are wholly safe. Let us turn to my second method of attaining security. It lies, not in your momentary cessation from persecutions; not in your absence from this spot alone; you must quit the country—you must never return to it—your home must be cast, and your very grave dug in a foreign soil. Are you prepared for this? If not, I can say no more; and I again cast myself passive into the arms of Fate."
"You ask," said Houseman, whose fears were allayed by Aram's address, though, at the same time, his dissolute and desperate nature was subdued and tamed in spite of himself, by the very composure of the loftier mind with which it was brought in contact: "You ask," said he, "no trifling favour of a man—to desert his country for ever; but I am no dreamer, to love one spot better than another. I should, perhaps, prefer a foreign clime, as the safer and the freer from old recollections, if I could live in it as a man who loves the relish of life should do. Show me the advantages I am to gain by exile, and farewell to the pale cliffs of England for ever!"
"Your demand is just," answered Aram; "listen, then. I am willing to coin all my poor wealth, save alone the barest pittance wherewith to sustain life; nay, more, I am prepared also to melt down the whole of my possible expectations from others, into the form of an annuity to yourself. But mark, it will be taken out of my hands, so that you can have no power over me to alter the conditions with which it will be saddled. It will be so vested that it shall commence the moment you touch a foreign clime; and wholly and for ever cease the moment you set foot on any part of English ground; or, mark also, at the moment of my death. I shall then know that no farther hope from me can induce you to risk this income; for, as I should have spent my all in attaining it, you cannot even meditate the design of extorting more. I shall know that you will not menace my life; for my death would be the destruction of your fortunes. We shall live thus separate and secure from each other; you will have only cause to hope for my safety; and I shall have no reason to shudder at yours. Through one channel alone could I then fear; namely, that in dying, you should enjoy the fruitless vengeance of criminating me. But this chance I must patiently endure: you, if older, are more robust and hardy than myself—your life will probably be longer than mine; and, even were it otherwise, why should we destroy one another? At my death-bed I will solemnly swear to respect your secret; why not on your part, I say not swear, but resolve, to respect mine? We cannot love one another; but why hate with a gratuitous and demon vengeance? No, Houseman, however circumstances may have darkened or steeled your heart, it is touched with humanity yet—you will have owed to me the bread of a secure and easy existence—you will feel that I have stripped myself, even to penury, to purchase the comforts I cheerfully resign to you—you will remember that, instead of the sacrifices enjoined by this alternative, I might have sought only to counteract your threats, by attempting a life that you strove to make a snare and torture to my own. You will remember this; and you will not grudge me the austere and gloomy solitude in which I seek to forget, or the one solace with which I, perhaps vainly, endeavour to cheer my passage to a quiet grave. No, Houseman, no; dislike, hate, menace me as you will, I still feel I shall have no cause to dread the mere wantonness of your revenge."
These words, aided by a tone of voice, and an expression of countenance that gave them perhaps their chief effect, took even the hardened nature of Houseman by surprise; he was affected by an emotion which he could not have believed it possible the man who till then had galled him by the humbling sense of inferiority, could have created. He extended his hand to Aram.
"By—," he exclaimed, with an oath which we spare the reader, "you are right! you have made me as helpless in your hands, as an infant. I accept your offer—if I were to refuse it, I should be driven to the same courses I now pursue. But look you; I know not what may be the amount of the annuity you can raise. I shall not, however, require more than will satisfy wants, which, if not so scanty as your own, are not at least very extravagant or very refined. As for the rest, if there be any surplus, in God's name keep it for yourself, and rest assured that, so far as I am concerned, you shall be molested no more."
"No, Houseman," said Aram, with a half smile, "you shall have all I first mentioned; that is, all beyond what nature craves, honourably and fully. Man's best resolutions are weak: if you knew I possessed aught to spare, a fancied want, a momentary extravagance might tempt you to demand it. Let us put ourselves beyond the possible reach of temptation. But do not flatter yourself by the hope that the income will be magnificent. My own annuity is but trifling, and the half of the dowry I expect from my future father-in-law, is all that I can at present obtain. The whole of that dowry is insignificant as a sum. But if this does not suffice for you, I must beg or borrow elsewhere."
"This, after all, is a pleasanter way of settling business," said Houseman, "than by threats and anger. And now I will tell you exactly the sum on which, if I could receive it yearly, I could live without looking beyond the pale of the Law for more—on which I could cheerfully renounce England, and commence 'the honest man.' But then, hark you, I must have half settled on my little daughter."
"What! have you a child?" said Aram eagerly, and well pleased to find an additional security for his own safety.
"Ay, a little girl, my only one, in her eighth year; she lives with her grandmother, for she is motherless, and that girl must not be left quite penniless should I be summoned hence before my time. Some twelve years hence—as poor Jane promises to be pretty—she may be married off my hands, but her childhood must not be left to the chances of beggary or shame."
"Doubtless not, doubtless not. Who shall say now that we ever outlive feeling?" said Aram, "Half the annuity shall be settled upon her, should she survive you; but on the same conditions, ceasing when I die, or the instant of your return to England. And now, name the sum that you deem sufficing."
"Why," said Houseman, counting on his fingers, and muttering "twenty—fifty—wine and the creature cheap abroad—humph! a hundred for living, and half as much for pleasure. Come, Aram, one hundred and fifty guineas per annum, English money, will do for a foreign life—you see I am easily satisfied."
"Be it so," said Aram, "I will engage by one means or another to procure it. For this purpose I shall set out for London to-morrow; I will not lose a moment in seeing the necessary settlement made as we have specified. But meanwhile, you must engage to leave this neighbourhood, and if possible, cause your comrades to do the same, although you will not hesitate, for the sake of your own safety, immediately to separate from them."
"Now that we are on good terms," replied Houseman, "I will not scruple to oblige you in these particulars. My comrades intend to quit the country before to-morrow; nay, half are already gone; by daybreak I myself will be some miles hence, and separated from each of them. Let us meet in London after the business is completed, and there conclude our last interview on earth."
"What will be your address?"
"In Lambeth there is a narrow alley that leads to the water-side, called Peveril Lane. The last house to the right, towards the river, is my usual lodging; a safe resting-place at all times, and for all men."
"There then will I seek you. And now, Houseman, fare-you-well! As you remember your word to me, may life flow smooth for your child."
"Eugene Aram," said Houseman, "there is about you something against which the fiercer devil within me would rise in vain. I have read that the tiger can be awed by the human eye, and you compel me into submission by a spell equally unaccountable. You are a singular man, and it seems to me a riddle, how we could ever have been thus connected; or how—but we will not rip up the past, it is an ugly sight, and the fire is just out. Those stories do not do for the dark. But to return;—were it only for the sake of my child, you might depend upon me now; better too an arrangement of this sort, than if I had a larger sum in hand which I might be tempted to fling away, and in looking for more, run my neck into a halter, and leave poor Jane upon charity. But come, it is almost dark again, and no doubt you wish to be stirring: stay, I will lead you back, and put you on the right track, lest you stumble on my friends."
"Is this cavern one of their haunts?" said Aram.
"Sometimes: but they sleep the other side of the Devil's Crag to-night. Nothing like a change of quarters for longevity—eh?"
"And they easily spare you."
"Yes, if it be only on rare occasions, and on the plea of family business. Now then, your hand, as before. Jesu! how it rains—lightning too—I could look with less fear on a naked sword, than those red, forked, blinding flashes—Hark! thunder."
The night had now, indeed, suddenly changed its aspect; the rain descended in torrents, even more impetuously than on the former night, while the thunder burst over their very heads, as they wound upward through the brake. With every instant, the lightning broke from the riven chasm of the blackness that seemed suspended as in a solid substance above, brightened the whole heaven into one livid and terrific flame, and showed to the two men the faces of each other, rendered deathlike and ghastly by the glare. Houseman was evidently affected by the fear that sometimes seizes even the sturdiest criminals, when exposed to those more fearful phenomena of the Heavens, which seem to humble into nothing the power and the wrath of man. His teeth chattered, and he muttered broken words about the peril of wandering near trees when the lightning was of that forked character, accelerating his pace at every sentence, and sometimes interrupting himself with an ejaculation, half oath, half prayer, or a congratulation that the rain at least diminished the danger. They soon cleared the thicket, and a few minutes brought them once more to the banks of the stream, and the increased roar of the cataract. No earthly scene perhaps could surpass the appalling sublimity of that which they beheld;—every instant the lightning, which became more and more frequent, converting the black waters into billows of living fire, or wreathing itself in lurid spires around the huge crag that now rose in sight; and again, as the thunder rolled onward, darting its vain fury upon the rushing cataract, and the tortured breast of the gulf that raved below low. And the sounds that filled the air were even more fraught with terror and menace than the scene;—the waving, the groans, the crash of the pines on the hill, the impetuous force of the rain upon the whirling river, and the everlasting roar of the cataract, answered anon by the yet more awful voice that burst above it from the clouds.
They halted while yet sufficiently distant from the cataract to be heard by each other. "My path," said Aram, as the lightning now paused upon the scene, and seemed literally to wrap in a lurid shroud the dark figure of the Student, as he stood, with his hand calmly raised, and his cheek pale, but dauntless and composed; "My path now lies yonder: in a week we shall meet again."
"By the fiend," said Houseman, shuddering, "I would not, for a full hundred, ride alone through the moor you will pass. There stands a gibbet by the road, on which a parricide was hanged in chains. Pray Heaven this night be no omen of the success of our present compact!"
"A steady heart, Houseman," answered Aram, striking into the separate path, "is its own omen."
The Student soon gained the spot in which he had left his horse; the animal had not attempted to break the bridle, but stood trembling from limb to limb, and testified by a quick short neigh the satisfaction with which it hailed the approach of its master, and found itself no longer alone.
Aram remounted, and hastened once more into the main road. He scarcely felt the rain, though the fierce wind drove it right against his path; he scarcely marked the lightning, though at times it seemed to dart its arrows on his very form; his heart was absorbed in the success of his schemes.
"Let the storm without howl on," thought he, "that within hath a respite at last. Amidst the winds and rains I can breathe more freely than I have done on the smoothest summer day. By the charm of a deeper mind and a subtler tongue, I have then conquered this desperate foe; I have silenced this inveterate spy: and, Heaven be praised, he too has human ties; and by those ties I hold him! Now, then, I hasten to London—I arrange this annuity—see that the law tightens every cord of the compact; and when all is done, and this dangerous man fairly departed on his exile, I return to Madeline, and devote to her a life no longer the vassal of accident and the hour: but I have been taught caution. Secure as my own prudence may have made me from farther apprehension of Houseman, I will yet place myself wholly beyond his power: I will still consummate my former purpose, adopt a new name, and seek a new retreat; Madeline may not know the real cause; but this brain is not barren of excuse. Ah!" as drawing his cloak closer round him, he felt the purse hid within his breast which contained the order he had obtained from Lester; "Ah! this will now add its quota to purchase, not a momentary relief, but the stipend of perpetual silence. I have passed through the ordeal easier than I had hoped for. Had the devil at his heart been more difficult to lay, so necessary is his absence, that I must have purchased it at any cost. Courage, Eugene Aram! thy mind, for which thou hast lived, and for which thou hast hazarded thy soul—if soul and mind be distinct from each other—thy mind can support thee yet through every peril: not till thou art stricken into idiotcy, shalt thou behold thyself defenceless. How cheerfully," muttered he, after a momentary pause, "how cheerfully, for safety, and to breathe with a quiet heart, the air of Madeline's presence, shall I rid myself of all save enough to defy want. And want can never now come to me, as of old. He who knows the sources of every science from which wealth is wrought holds even wealth at his will."
Breaking at every interval into these soliloquies, Aram continued to breast the storm until he had won half his journey, and had come upon a long and bleak moor, which was the entrance to that beautiful line of country in which the valleys around Grassdale are embosomed: faster and faster came the rain; and though the thunder-clouds were now behind, they yet followed loweringly, in their black array, the path of the lonely horseman.
But now he heard the sound of hoofs making towards him; he drew his horse on one side of the road, and at that instant a broad flash of lightning illumining the space around, he beheld four horsemen speeding along at a rapid gallop; they were armed, and conversing loudly—their oaths were heard jarringly and distinctly amidst all the more solemn and terrific sounds of the night. They came on, sweeping by the Student, whose hand was on his pistol, for he recognised in one of the riders the man who had escaped unwounded from Lester's house. He and his comrades were evidently, then, Houseman's desperate associates; and they too, though they were borne too rapidly by Aram to be able to rein in their horses on the spot, had seen the solitary traveller, and already wheeled round, and called upon him to halt!
The lightning was again gone, and the darkness snatched the robbers and their intended victim from the sight of each other. But Aram had not lost a moment; fast fled his horse across the moor, and when, with the next flash, he looked back, he saw the ruffians, unwilling even for booty to encounter the horrors of the night, had followed him but a few paces, and again turned round; still he dashed on, and had now nearly passed the moor; the thunder rolled fainter and fainter from behind, and the lightning only broke forth at prolonged intervals, when suddenly, after a pause of unusual duration, it brought the whole scene into a light, if less intolerable, even more livid than before. The horse, that had hitherto sped on without start or stumble, now recoiled in abrupt affright; and the horseman, looking up at the cause, beheld the Gibbet of which Houseman had spoken immediately fronting his path, with its ghastly tenant waving to and fro, as the winds rattled through the parched and arid bones; and the inexpressible grin of the skull fixed, as in mockery, upon his countenance.
IN WHICH WE RETURN TO WALTER.—HIS DEBT OF GRATITUDE TO MR. PERTINAX FILLGRAVE.—THE CORPORAL'S ADVICE, AND THE CORPORAL'S VICTORY.
Let a Physician be ever so excellent, there will be those that censure him. —Gil Blas.
We left Walter in a situation of that critical nature, that it would be inhuman to delay our return to him any longer. The blow by which he had been felled, stunned him for an instant; but his frame was of no common strength and hardihood, and the imminent peril in which he was placed, served to recall him from the momentary insensibility. On recovering himself, he felt that the ruffians were dragging him towards the hedge, and the thought flashed upon him that their object was murder. Nerved by this idea, he collected his strength, and suddenly wresting himself from the grasp of one of the ruffians who had seized him by the collar, he had already gained his knee, and now his feet, when a second blow once more deprived him of sense.
When a dim and struggling consciousness recurred to him; he found that the villains had dragged him to the opposite side of the hedge and were deliberately robbing him. He was on the point of renewing an useless and dangerous struggle, when one of the ruffians said, "I think he stirs, I had better draw my knife across his throat."
"Pooh, no!" replied another voice, "never kill if it can be helped: trust me 'tis an ugly thing to think of afterwards. Besides, what use is it? A robbery, in these parts, is done and forgotten; but a murder rouses the whole country."
"Damnation, man! why, the deed's done already, he's as dead as a door-nail."
"Dead!" said the other in a startled voice; "no, no!" and leaning down, the ruffian placed his hand on Walter's heart. The unfortunate traveller felt his flesh creep as the hand touched him, but prudently abstained from motion or exclamation. He thought, however, as with dizzy and half-shut eyes he caught the shadowy and dusk outline of the face that bent over him, so closely that he felt the breath of its lips, that it was one that he had seen before; and as the man now rose, and the wan light of the skies gave a somewhat clearer view of his features, the supposition was heightened, though not absolutely confirmed. But Walter had no farther power to observe his plunderers: again his brain reeled; the dark trees, the grim shadows of human forms, swam before his glazing eye; and he sunk once more into a profound insensibility.
Meanwhile, the doughty Corporal had at the first sight of his master's fall, halted abruptly at the spot to which his steed had carried him; and coming rapidly to the conclusion that three men were best encountered at a distance, he fired his two pistols, and without staying to see if they took effect, which, indeed, they did not, galloped down the precipitous hill with as much despatch, as if it had been the last stage to "Lunnun."
"My poor young master!" muttered he: "But if the worst comes to the worst, the chief part of the money's in the saddle-bags any how; and so, messieurs thieves, you're bit—baugh!"
The Corporal was not long in reaching the town, and alarming the loungers at the inn-door. A posse comitatus was soon formed; and, armed as if they were to have encountered all the robbers between Hounslow and the Apennine, a band of heroes, with the Corporal, who had first deliberately reloaded his pistols, at their head, set off to succour "the poor gentleman what was already murdered."
They had not got far before they found Walter's horse, which had luckily broke from the robbers, and was now quietly regaling himself on a patch of grass by the roadside. "He can get his supper, the beast," grunted the Corporal, thinking of his own; and bid one of the party try to catch the animal, which, however, would have declined all such proffers, had not a long neigh of recognition from the roman nose of the Corporal's steed, striking familiarly on the straggler's ear, called it forthwith, to the Corporal's side; and (while the two chargers exchanged greeting) the Corporal seized its rein.
When they came to the spot from which the robbers had made their sally, all was still and tranquil; no Walter was to be seen: the Corporal cautiously dismounted, and searched about with as much minuteness as if he were looking for a pin; but the host of the inn at which the travellers had dined the day before, stumbled at once on the right track. Gouts of blood on the white chalky soil directed him to the hedge, and creeping through a small and recent gap, he discovered the yet breathing body of the young traveller.
Walter was now conducted with much care to the inn; a Surgeon was already in attendance; for having heard that a gentleman had been murdered without his knowledge, Mr. Pertinax Fillgrave had rushed from his house, and placed himself on the road, that the poor creature might not, at least, be buried without his assistance. So eager was he to begin, that he scarce suffered the unfortunate Walter to be taken within, before he whipped out his instruments, and set to work with the smack of an amateur.
Although the Surgeon declared his patient to be in the greatest possible danger, the sagacious Corporal, who thought himself more privileged to know about wounds than any man of peace, by profession, however destructive by practice, could possibly be, had himself examined those his master had received, before he went down to taste his long-delayed supper; and he now confidently assured the landlord, and the rest of the good company in the kitchen, that the blows on the head had been mere fly-bites, and that his master would be as well as ever in a week at the farthest.
And, indeed, when Walter the very next morning woke from the stupor, rather than sleep, he had undergone, he felt himself surprisingly better than the Surgeon, producing his probe, hastened to assure him he possibly could be.
By the help of Mr. Pertinax Fillgrave, Walter was detained several days in the town; nor is it wholly improbable, but that for the dexterity of the Corporal, he might be in the town to this day; not, indeed in the comfortable shelter of the old-fashioned inn, but in the colder quarters of a certain green spot, in which, despite of its rural attractions, few persons are willing to fix a permanent habitation.
Luckily, however, one evening, the Corporal, who had been, to say truth, very regular in his attendance on his master; for, bating the selfishness, consequent, perhaps, on his knowledge of the world, Jacob Bunting was a good-natured man on the whole, and liked his master as well as he did any thing, always excepting Jacobina, and board-wages; one evening, we say, the Corporal coming into Walter's apartment, found him sitting up in his bed, with a very melancholy and dejected expression of countenance.
"And well, Sir, what does the Doctor say?" asked the Corporal, drawing aside the curtains.
"Ah, Bunting, I fancy it's all over with me!"
"The Lord forbid, Sir! you're a-jesting, surely?"
"Jesting! my good fellow, ah! just get me that phial."
"The filthy stuff!" said the Corporal, with a wry face; "Well, Sir, if I had had the dressing of you—been half way to Yorkshire by this. Man's a worm; and when a doctor gets un on his hook, he is sure to angle for the devil with the bait—augh!"
"What! you really think that damned fellow, Fillgrave, is keeping me on in this way?"
"Is he a fool, to give up three phials a day, 4s. 6d. item, ditto, ditto?" cried the Corporal, as if astonished at the question; "but don't you feel yourself getting a deal better every day? Don't you feel all this ere stuff revive you?"
No, indeed, I was amazingly better the first day than I am now; I progress from worse to worse. Ah! Bunting, if Peter Dealtry were here, he might help me to an appropriate epitaph: as it is, I suppose I shall be very simply labelled. Fillgrave will do the whole business, and put it down in his bill—item, nine draughts—item, one epitaph.
"Lord-a-mercy, your honour," said the Corporal, drawing out a little red-spotted pocket-handkerchief; "how can—jest so?—it's quite moving."
"I wish we were moving!" sighed the patient.
"And so we might be," cried the Corporal; "so we might, if you'd pluck up a bit. Just let me look at your honour's head; I knows what a confusion is better nor any of 'em."
The Corporal having obtained permission, now removed the bandages wherewith the Doctor had bound his intended sacrifice to Pluto, and after peering into the wounds for about a minute, he thrust out his under lip, with a contemptuous, "Pshaugh! augh! And how long," said he, "does Master Fillgrave say you be to be under his hands,—augh!"
"He gives me hopes that I may be taken out an airing very gently, (yes, hearses always go very gently!) in about three weeks!"
The Corporal started, and broke into a long whistle. He then grinned from ear to ear, snapped his fingers, and said, "Man of the world, Sir,—man of the world every inch of him!"
"He seems resolved that I shall be a man of another world," said Walter.
"Tell ye what, Sir—take my advice—your honour knows I be no fool—throw off them ere wrappers; let me put on scrap of plaister—pitch phials to devil—order out horses to-morrow, and when you've been in the air half an hour, won't know yourself again!"
"Bunting! the horses out to-morrow?—faith, I don't think I could walk across the room."
"Just try, your honour."
"Ah! I'm very weak, very weak—my dressing-gown and slippers—your arm, Bunting—well, upon my honour, I walk very stoutly, eh? I should not have thought this! leave go: why I really get on without your assistance!"
"Walk as well as ever you did."
"Now I'm out of bed, I don't think I shall go back again to it."
"Would not, if I was your honour."
"And after so much exercise, I really fancy I've a sort of an appetite."
"Like a beefsteak?"
"Pint of wine?"
"Why that would be too much—eh?"
"Go, then, my good Bunting; go and make haste—stop, I say that d—d fellow—" "Good sign to swear," interrupted the Corporal; "swore twice within last five minutes—famous symptom!"
"Do you choose to hear me? That d—d fellow, Fillgrave, is coming back in an hour to bleed me: do you mount guard—refuse to let him in—pay him his bill—you have the money. And harkye, don't be rude to the rascal."
"Rude, your honour! not I—been in the Forty-second—knows discipline—only rude to the privates!"
The Corporal, having seen his master conduct himself respectably toward the viands with which he supplied him—having set his room to rights, brought him the candles, borrowed him a book, and left him for the present in extremely good spirits, and prepared for the flight of the morrow; the Corporal, I say, now lighting his pipe, stationed himself at the door of the inn, and waited for Mr. Pertinax Fillgrave. Presently the Doctor, who was a little thin man, came bustling across the street, and was about, with a familiar "Good evening," to pass by the Corporal, when that worthy, dropping his pipe, said respectfully, "Beg pardon, Sir—want to speak to you—a little favour. Will your honour walk in the back-parlour?"
"Oh! another patient," thought the Doctor; "these soldiers are careless fellows—often get into scrapes. Yes, friend, I'm at your service."
The Corporal showed the man of phials into the back-parlour, and, hemming thrice, looked sheepish, as if in doubt how to begin. It was the Doctor's business to encourage the bashful.
"Well, my good man," said he, brushing off, with the arm of his coat, some dust that had settled on his inexpressibles, "so you want to consult me?"
"Indeed, your honour, I do; but—feel a little awkward in doing so—a stranger and all."
"Pooh!—medical men are never strangers. I am the friend of every man who requires my assistance."
"Augh!—and I do require your honour's assistance very sadly."
"Well—well—speak out. Any thing of long standing?"
"Why, only since we have been here, Sir."
"Oh, that's all! Well."
"Your honour's so good—that—won't scruple in telling you all. You sees as how we were robbed—master at least was—had some little in my pockets—but we poor servants are never too rich. You seems such a kind gentleman—so attentive to master—though you must have felt how disinterested it was to 'tend a man what had been robbed—that I have no hesitation in making bold to ask you to lend us a few guineas, just to help us out with the bill here,—bother!"
"Fellow!" said the Doctor, rising, "I don't know what you mean; but I'd have you to learn that I am not to be cheated out of my time and property. I shall insist upon being paid my bill instantly, before I dress your master's wound once more."
"Augh!" said the Corporal, who was delighted to find the Doctor come so immediately into the snare;—"won't be so cruel surely,—why, you'll leave us without a shiner to pay my host here."
"Nonsense!—Your master, if he's a gentleman, can write home for money."
"Ah, Sir, all very well to say so;—but, between you and me and the bed-post—young master's quarrelled with old master—old master won't give him a rap,—so I'm sure, since your honour's a friend to every man who requires your assistance—noble saying, Sir!—you won't refuse us a few guineas;—and as for your bill—why—" "Sir, you're an impudent vagabond!" cried the Doctor, as red as a rose-draught, and flinging out of the room; "and I warn you, that I shall bring in my bill, and expect to be paid within ten minutes."
The Doctor waited for no answer—he hurried home, scratched off his account, and flew back with it in as much haste as if his patient had been a month longer under his care, and was consequently on the brink of that happier world, where, since the inhabitants are immortal, it is very evident that doctors, as being useless, are never admitted.
The Corporal met him as before.
"There, Sir," cried the Doctor, breathlessly, and then putting his arms akimbo, "take that to your master, and desire him to pay me instantly."
"Augh! and shall do no such thing."
"No, for shall pay you myself. Where's your wee stamp—eh?"
And with great composure the Corporal drew out a well-filled purse, and discharged the bill. The Doctor was so thunderstricken, that he pocketed the money without uttering a word. He consoled himself, however, with the belief that Walter, whom he had tamed into a becoming hypochondria, would be sure to send for him the next morning. Alas, for mortal expectations!—the next morning Walter was once more on the road.
NEW TRACES OF THE FATE OF GEOFFREY LESTER.—WALTER AND THE CORPORAL PROCEED ON A FRESH EXPEDITION.—THE CORPORAL IS ESPECIALLY SAGACIOUS ON THE OLD TOPIC OF THE WORLD.—HIS OPINIONS ON THE MEN WHO CLAIM 'KNOWLEDGE THEREOF.—ON THE ADVANTAGES ENJOYED BY A VALET.—ON THE SCIENCE OF SUCCESSFUL LOVE.—ON VIRTUE AND THE CONSTITUTION.—ON QUALITIES TO BE DESIRED IN A MISTRESS,—A LANDSCAPE.
This way of talking of his very much enlivens the conversation among us of a more sedate turn. —Spectator, No. 3.
Walter found, while he made search himself, that it was no easy matter, in so large a county as Yorkshire, to obtain even the preliminary particulars, viz. the place of residence, and the name of the Colonel from India whose dying gift his father had left the house of the worthy Courtland, to claim and receive. But the moment he committed the inquiry to the care of an active and intelligent lawyer, the case seemed to brighten up prodigiously; and Walter was shortly informed that a Colonel Elmore, who had been in India, had died in the year 17—; that by a reference to his will it appeared that he had left to Daniel Clarke the sum of a thousand pounds, and the house in which he resided before his death, the latter being merely leasehold at a high rent, was specified in the will to be of small value: it was situated in the outskirts of Knaresborough. It was also discovered that a Mr. Jonas Elmore, the only surviving executor of the will, and a distant relation of the deceased Colonel's, lived about fifty miles from York, and could, in all probability, better than any one, afford Walter those farther particulars of which he was so desirous to be informed. Walter immediately proposed to his lawyer to accompany him to this gentleman's house; but it so happened that the lawyer could not, for three or four days, leave his business at York, and Walter, exceedingly impatient to proceed on the intelligence thus granted him, and disliking the meagre information obtained from letters, when a personal interview could be obtained, resolved himself to repair to Mr. Jonas Elmore's without farther delay; and behold, therefore, our worthy Corporal and his master again mounted, and commencing a new journey.
The Corporal, always fond of adventure, was in high spirits.
"See, Sir," said he to his master, patting with great affection the neck of his steed, "See, Sir, how brisk the creturs are; what a deal of good their long rest at York city's done'em. Ah, your honour, what a fine town that ere be!—yet," added the Corporal, with an air of great superiority, "it gives you no notion of Lunnun, like—on the faith of a man, no!"
"Well, Bunting, perhaps we may be in London within a month hence."
"And afore we gets there, your honour,—no offence,—but should like to give you some advice; 'tis ticklish place, that Lunnun, and though you be by no manner of means deficient in genus, yet, Sir, you be young, and I be—" "Old,—true, Bunting," added Walter very gravely.
"Augh—bother! old, Sir, old, Sir!—A man in the prime of life,—hair coal black, (bating a few grey ones that have had, since twenty—care, and military service, Sir,)—carriage straight,—teeth strong,—not an ail in the world, bating the rheumatics—is not old, Sir,—not by no manner of means,—baugh!"
"You are very right, Bunting; when I said old, I meant experienced. I assure you I shall be very grateful for your advice; and suppose, while we walk our horses up this hill, you begin lecture the first. London's a fruitful subject. All you can say on it won't be soon exhausted."
"Ah, may well say that," replied the Corporal, exceedingly flattered with the permission he had obtained, "and any thing my poor wit can suggest, quite at your honour's sarvice—ehem!—hem! You must know by Lunnun, I means the world, and by the world means Lunnun,—know one—know t'other. But 'tis not them as affects to be most knowing as be so at bottom. Begging your honour's pardon, I thinks gentlefolks what lives only with gentlefolks, and call themselves men of the world, be often no wiser nor Pagan creturs, and live in a gentile darkness."
"The true knowledge of the world," said Walter, "is only then for the Corporals of the Forty-second,—eh, Bunting?"
"As to that, Sir," quoth the Corporal, "'tis not being of this calling or of that calling that helps one on; 'tis an inborn sort of genus the talent of obsarving, and growing wise by obsarving. One picks up crumb here, crumb there: but if one has not good digestion, Lord, what sinnifies a feast?—Healthy man thrives on a 'tatoe, sickly looks pale on a haunch. You sees, your honour, as I said afore, I was own sarvant to Colonel Dysart; he was a Lord's nephy, a very gay gentleman, and great hand with the ladies,—not a man more in the world;—so I had the opportunity of larning what's what among the best set; at his honour's expense, too,—augh! To my mind, Sir, there is not a place from which a man has a better view of things than the bit carpet behind a gentleman's chair. The gentleman eats, and talks, and swears, and jests, and plays cards and makes love, and tries to cheat, and is cheated, and his man stands behind with his eyes and ears open,—augh!"
"One should go to service to learn diplomacy, I see," said Walter, greatly amused.
"Does not know what 'plomacy be, Sir, but knows it would be better for many a young master nor all the Colleges;—would not be so many bubbles if my Lord could take a turn now and then with John. A-well, Sir!—how I used to laugh in my sleeve like, when I saw my master, who was thought the knowingest gentleman about Court, taken in every day smack afore my face. There was one lady whom he had tried hard, as he thought, to get away from her husband; and he used to be so mighty pleased at every glance from her brown eyes—and be d—d to them!—and so careful the husband should not see—so pluming himself on his discretion here, and his conquest there,—when, Lord bless you, it was all settled 'twixt man and wife aforehand! And while the Colonel laughed at the cuckold, the cuckold laughed at the dupe. For you sees, Sir, as how the Colonel was a rich man, and the jewels as he bought for the lady went half into the husband's pocket—he! he!—That's the way of the world, Sir,—that's the way of the world!"