3318340Eugene Aram — Book 1, Chapter X.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



"Two such I saw, what time the laboured ox
In his loose traces from the furrow came." Comus.

"Pedro. Now do me noble right.
"Rod.I'll satisfy you;
But not by the sword."

Beaumont and Fletcher.—The Pilgrim.

While Walter and the Corporal enjoyed the above conversation, Madeline and Aram, whom Lester soon left to themselves, were pursuing their walk along the solitary fields. Their love had passed from the eye to the lip, and now found expression in words.

"Observe," said he, as the light touch of one who he felt loved him entirely rested on his arm,—"Observe, as the later summer now begins to breathe a more various and mellow glory into the landscape, how singularly pure and lucid the atmosphere becomes. When, two months ago, in the full flush of June, I walked through these fields, a grey mist hid yon distant hills and the far forest from my view. Now, with what a transparent stillness the whole expanse of scenery spreads itself before us. And such, Madeline, is the change that has come over myself since that time. Then, if I looked beyond the limited present, all was dim and indistinct. Now, the mist had faded away—the broad future extends before me, calm and bright with the hope which is borrowed from your love!"

We will not tax the patience of the reader, who seldom enters with keen interest into the mere dialogue of love, with the blushing Madeline's reply, or with all the soft vows and tender confessions which the rich poetry of Aram's mind made yet more delicious to the ear of his dreaming and devoted mistress.

"There is one circumstance," said Aram, "which casts a momentary shade on the happiness I enjoy—my Madeline probably guesses its nature. I regret to see that the blessing of your love must be purchased by the misery of another, and that other, the nephew of my kind friend. You have doubtless observed the melancholy of Walter Lester, and have long since known its origin."

"Indeed, Eugene," answered Madeline, "it has given me great pain to note what you refer to, for it would be a false delicacy in me to deny that I have observed it. But Walter is young and high-spirited; nor do I think he is of a nature to love long where there is no return!"

"And what," said Aram, sorrowfully,—"what deduction from reason can ever apply to love? Love is a very contradiction of all the elements of our ordinary nature,—it makes the proud man meek,—the cheerful, sad,—the high-spirited, tame; our strongest resolutions, our hardiest energy fail before it. Believe me, you cannot prophesy of its future effect in a man from any knowledge of his past character. I grieve to think that the blow falls upon one in early youth, ere the world's disappointments have blunted the heart, or the world's numerous interests have multiplied its resources. Men's minds have been turned when they have not well sifted the cause themselves, and their fortunes marred, by one stroke on the affections of their youth. So at least have I read, Madeline, and so marked in others. For myself, I knew nothing of love in its reality till I knew you. But who can know you, and not sympathise with him who has lost you?"

"Ah, Eugene! you at least overrate the influence which love produces on men. A little resentment and a little absence will soon cure my cousin of an ill-placed and ill-requited attachment. You do not think how easy it is to forget."

"Forget!" said Aram, stopping abruptly; "Ay, forget—it is a strange truth! we do forget! the summer passes over the furrow, and the corn springs up; the sod forgets the flower of the past year; the battle-field forgets the blood that has been spilt upon its turf; the sky forgets the storm; and the water the noon-day sun that slept upon its bosom. All Nature preaches forgetfulness. Its very order is the progress of oblivion. And I—I—give me your hand, Madeline,—I, ha! ha! I forget too!"

As Aram spoke thus wildly, his countenance worked; but his voice was slow, and scarcely audible; he seemed rather conferring with himself, than addressing Madeline. But when his words ceased, and he felt the soft hand of his betrothed, and turning, saw her anxious and wistful eyes fixed in alarm, yet in all unsuspecting confidence, on his face; his features relaxed into their usual serenity, and kissing the hand he clasped, he continued, in a collected and steady tone,

"Forgive me, my sweetest Madeline. These fitful and strange moods sometimes come upon me yet. I have been so long in the habit of pursuing any train of thought, however wild, that presents itself to my mind, that I cannot easily break it, even in your presence. All studious men—the twilight Eremites of books and closets, contract this ungraceful custom of soliloquy. You know our abstraction is a common jest and proverb: you must laugh me out of it. But stay, dearest!—there is a rare herb at your feet, let me gather it. So, do you note its leaves—this bending and silver flower? Let us rest on this bank, and I will tell you of its qualities. Beautiful as it is, it has a poison."

The place in which the lovers rested, is one which the villagers to this day call "The Lady's-seat;" for Madeline, whose history is fondly preserved in that district, was afterwards wont constantly to repair to that bank (during a short absence of her lover, hereafter to be noted), and subsequent events stamped with interest every spot she was known to have favoured with resort. And when the flower had been duly conned, and the study dismissed, Aram, to whom all the signs of the seasons were familiar, pointed to her the thousand symptoms of the month which are unheeded by less observant eyes; not forgetting, as they thus reclined, their hands clasped together, to couple each remark with some allusion to his love or some deduction which heightened compliment into poetry. He bade her mark the light gossamer as it floated on the air; now soaring high—high into the translucent atmosphere; now suddenly stooping, and sailing away beneath the boughs, which ever and anon it hung with a silken web, that by the next morn, would glitter with a thousand dew drops. "And, so," said he fancifully, "does Love lead forth its numberless creations, making the air its path and empire; ascending aloof at its wild will, hanging its meshes on every bough, and bidding the common grass break into a fairy lustre at the beam of the daily sun!"

He pointed to her the spot, where, in the silent brake, the harebells, now waxing rare and few, yet lingered—or where the mystic ring on the soft turf conjured up the associations of Oberon and his train. That superstition gave licence and play to his full memory and glowing fancy; and ShakspeareSpenserAriosto—the magic of each mighty master of Fairy Realm—he evoked, and poured into her transported ear. It was precisely such arts, which to a gayer and more worldly nature than Madeline's might have seemed but wearisome, that arrested and won her imaginative and high-wrought mind. And thus he, who to another might have proved but the retired and moody Student, became to her the very being of whom her "Maiden meditation" had dreamed—the master and magician of her fate.

Aram did not return to the house with Madeline; he accompanied her to the garden gate, and then taking leave of her, bent his way homeward. He had gained the entrance of the little valley that led to his abode, when he saw Walter cross his path at a short distance. His heart, naturally susceptible to kindly emotion, smote him as he remarked the moody listlessness of the young man's step, and recalled the buoyant lightness it was once wont habitually to wear. He quickened his pace, and joined Walter before the latter was aware of his presence.

"Good evening," said he, mildly; "if you are going my way, give me the benefit of your company."

"My path lies yonder," replied Walter, somewhat sullenly; "I regret that it is different from yours."

"In that case," said Aram, "I can delay my return home, and will, with your leave, intrude my society upon you for some few minutes."

Walter bowed his head in reluctant assent. They walked on for some moments without speaking, the one unwilling, the other seeking an occasion, to break the silence.

"This to my mind," said Aram at length, "is the most pleasing landscape in the whole country; observe the bashful water stealing away among the woodlands. Methinks the wave is endowed with an instinctive wisdom, that it thus shuns the world."

"Rather," said Walter, "with the love for change which exists everywhere in nature, it does not seek the shade until it has passed by 'towered cities,' and 'the busy hum of men.'"

"I admire the shrewdness of your reply," rejoined Aram; "but note how far more pure and lovely are its waters in these retreats, than when washing the walls of the reeking town, receiving into its breast the taint of a thousand pollutions, vexed by the sound, and stench, and unholy perturbation of men's dwelling-place. Now it glasses only what is high or beautiful in nature—the stars or the leafy banks. The wind that ruffles it, is clothed with perfumes; the rivulet that swells it, descends from the everlasting mountains, or is formed by the rains of Heaven. Believe me, it is the type of a life that glides into solitude, from the weariness and fretful turmoil of the world.

'No flattery, hate, or envy lodgeth there,
'There no suspicion walled in proved steel,
'Yet fearful of the arms herself doth wear,
'Pride is not there; no tyrant there we feel!'"[1]

"I will not cope with you in simile, or in poetry," said Walter, as his lip curved; "it is enough for me to think that life should be spent in action. I hasten to prove if my judgment be erroneous."

"Are you, then, about to leave us?" inquired Aram.

"Yes, within a few days."

"Indeed, I regret to hear it."

The answer sounded jarringly on the irritated nerves of the disappointed rival.

"You do me more honour than I desire," said he, "in interesting yourself, however lightly, in my schemes or fortune!"

"Young man," replied Aram, coldly, "I never see the impetuous and yearning spirit of youth without a certain, and it may be, a painful interest. How feeble is the chance, that its hopes will be fulfilled! Enough, if it lose not all its loftier aspirings, as well as its brighter expectations."

Nothing more aroused the proud and fiery temper of Walter Lester than the tone of superior wisdom and superior age, which his rival assumed towards him. More and more displeased with his present companion, he answered, in no conciliatory tone, "I cannot but consider the warning and the fears of one, neither ray relation nor my friend, in the light of a gratuitous affront."

Aram smiled as he answered,

"There is no occasion for resentment. Preserve this hot spirit, and high self-confidence, till you return again to these scenes, and I shall be at once satisfied and corrected."

"Sir," said Walter, colouring, and irritated more by the smile than the words of his rival, "I am not aware by what right or on what ground you assume towards me the superiority, not only of admonition but reproof. My uncle's preference towards you gives you no authority over me. That preference I do not pretend to share."—He paused for a moment, thinking Aram might hasten to reply; but as the Student walked on with his usual calmness of demeanour, he added, stung by the indifference which he attributed, not altogether without truth, to disdain, "And since you have taken upon yourself to caution me, and to forebode my inability to resist the contamination, as you would term it, of the world, I tell you, that it may be happy for you to bear so clear a conscience, so untouched a spirit as that which I now boast, and with which I trust in God and my own soul I shall return to my birth-place. It is not the holy only that love solitude; and men may shun the world from another motive than that of philosophy."

It was now Aram's turn to feel resentment, and this was indeed an insinuation not only unwarrantable in itself, but one which a man of so peaceable and guileless a life, affecting even an extreme and rigid austerity of morals, might well be tempted to repel with scorn and indignation; and Aram, however meek and forbearing in general, testified in this instance that his wonted gentleness arose from no lack of man's natural spirit. He laid his hand commandingly on young Lester's shoulder, and surveyed his countenance with a dark and menacing frown.

"Boy!" said he, "were there meaning in your words, I should (mark me!) avenge the insult;—as it is, I despise it. Go!"

So high and lofty was Aram's manner—so majestic was the sternness of his rebuke, and the dignity of his bearing, as he now waving his hand turned away, that Walter lost his self-possession and stood fixed to the spot, absorbed, and humbled from his late anger. It was not till Aram had moved with a slow step several paces backward towards his home, that the bold and haughty temper of the young man returned to his aid. Ashamed of himself for the momentary weakness he had betrayed, and burning to redeem it, he hastened after the stately form of his rival, and planting himself full in his path, said, in a voice half choked with contending emotions,

"Hold!—you have given me the opportunity I have long desired; you yourself have now broken that peace which existed between us, and which to me was more bitter than wormwood. You have dared,—yes, dared to use threatening language towards me. I call on you to fulfil your threat. I tell you that I meant, I designed, I thirsted to affront you. Now resent my purposed—premeditated affront as you will and can!"

There was something remarkable in the contrasted figures of the rivals, as they now stood fronting each other. The elastic and vigorous form of Walter Lester, his sparkling eyes, his sunburnt and glowing cheek, his clenched hands, and his whole frame, alive and eloquent with the energy, the heat, the hasty courage, and fiery spirit of youth; on the other hand,—the bending frame of the student, gradually rising into the dignity of its full height—his pale cheek, in which the wan hues neither deepened nor waned, his large eye raised to meet Walter's bright, steady, and yet how calm! Nothing weak, nothing irresolute could be traced in that form—or that lofty countenance; yet all resentment had vanished from his aspect. He seemed at once tranquil and prepared.

"You designed to affront me!" said he; "it is well—it is a noble confession;—and wherefore? What do you propose to gain by it?—a man whose whole life is peace, you would provoke to outrage? Would there be triumph in this, or disgrace?—A man whom your uncle honours and loves, you would insult without cause—you would waylay—you would, after watching and creating your opportunity, entrap into defending himself. Is this worthy of that high spirit of which you boasted?—is this worthy a generous anger, or a noble hatred? Away! you malign yourself. I shrink from no quarrel—why should I? I have nothing to fear: my nerves are firm—my heart is faithful to my will; my habits may have diminished my strength, but it is yet equal to that of most men. As to the weapons of the world—they fall not to my use. I might be excused by the most punctilious, for rejecting what becomes neither my station nor my habits of life; but I learnt this much from books long since, 'hold thyself prepared for all things:'—I am so prepared. And as I can command the spirit, I lack not the skill, to defend myself, or return the hostility of another." As Aram thus said, he drew a pistol from his bosom; and pointed it leisurely towards a tree, at the distance of some paces.

"Look," said he, "you note that small discoloured and white stain in the bark—you can but just observe it;—he who can send a bullet through that spot, need not fear to meet the quarrel which he seeks to avoid."

Walter turned mechanically, and indignant, though silent, towards the tree. Aram fired, and the ball penetrated the centre of the stain. He then replaced the pistol in his bosom, and said:

"Early in life I had many enemies, and I taught myself these arts. From habit, I still bear about me the weapons I trust and pray I may never have occasion to use. But to return.—I have offended you—I have incurred your hatred—why? What are my sins?"

"Do you ask the cause?" said Walter, speaking between his ground teeth. "Have you not traversed my views—blighted my hopes—charmed away from me the affections which were more to me than the world, and driven me to wander from my home with a crushed spirit, and a cheerless heart. Are these no cause for hate?"

"Have I done this?" said Aram, recoiling, and evidently and powerfully affected. "Have I so injured you?—It is true! I know it—I perceive it—I read your heart; and—bear witness Heaven!—I felt for the wound that I, but with no guilty hand, inflict upon you. Yet be just:—ask yourself, have I done aught that you, in my case, would have left undone? Have I been insolent in triumph, or haughty in success? if so, hate me, nay, spurn me now."

Walter turned his head irresolutely away.

"If it please you, that I accuse myself, in that I, a man seared and lone at heart, presumed to come within the pale of human affections;—that I exposed myself to cross another's better and brighter hopes, or dared to soften my fate with the tender and endearing ties that are meet alone for a more genial and youthful nature;—if it please you that I accuse and curse myself for this—that I yielded to it with pain and with self-reproach—that I shall think hereafter of what I unconsciously cost you with remorse—then be consoled!"

"It is enough," said Walter; "let us part. I leave you with more soreness at my late haste than I will acknowledge, let that content you; for myself, I ask for no apology or——."

"But you shall have it amply," interrupted Aram, advancing with a cordial openness of mien not usual to him. "I was all to blame; I should have remembered you were an injured man, and suffered you to have said all you would. Words at best are but a poor vent for a wronged and burning heart. It shall be so in future, speak your will, attack, upbraid, taunt me, I will bear it all. And indeed, even to myself there seems some witchcraft, some glamoury in what has chanced. What! I favoured where you love? Is it possible? It might teach the vainest to forswear vanity. You, the young, the buoyant, the fresh, the beautiful?—And I, who have passed the glory and zest of life between dusty walls; I who—well, well, fate laughs at probabilities!"

Aram now seemed relapsing into one of his more abstracted moods; he ceased to speak aloud, but his lips moved, and his eyes grew fixed in reverie on the ground. Walter gazed at him for some moments with mixed and contending sensations. Once more, resentment and the bitter wrath of jealousy had faded back into the remoter depths of his mind, and a certain interest for his singular rival, despite of himself, crept into his breast. But this mysterious and fitful nature, was it one in which the devoted Madeline would certainly find happiness and repose?—would she never regret her choice? This question obtruded itself upon him, and while he sought to answer it, Aram, regaining his composure, turned abruptly and offered him his hand. Walter did not accept it, he bowed with a cold respect. "I cannot give my hand without my heart," said he; "we were foes just now; we are not friends yet. I am unreasonable in this, I know, but—"

"Be it so," interrupted Aram; "I understand you. I press my good will on you no more. When this pang is forgotten, when this wound is healed, and when you will have learned more of him who is now your rival, we may meet again with other feelings on your side."

Thus they parted, and the solitary lamp which for weeks past had been quenched at the wholesome hour in the Student's home, streamed from the casement throughout the whole of that night; was it a witness of the calm and learned vigil, or of the unresting heart?