3322099Eugene Aram — Book 2, Chapter IV.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



"I weigh not fortune's frown or smile,
I joy not much in earthly joys,
I seek not state, I seek not stile,
I am not fond of fancy's toys;
I rest so pleased with what I have,
I wish no more, no more I crave."

The reader must pardon me, if I somewhat clog his interest in my tale by the brief conversations I have given, and must for a short while cast myself on his indulgence and renew. It is not only the history of his life, but the character and tone of Aram's mind, that I wish to stamp upon my page. Fortunately, however, the path my story assumes is of such a nature, that in order to effect this object, I shall never have to desert, and scarcely again even to linger by, the way.

Every one knows the magnificent moral of Göethe's "Faust!" Every one knows that sublime discontent—that chafing at the bounds of human knowledge—that yearning for the intellectual Paradise beyond, which "the sworded angel" forbids us to approach—that daring, yet sorrowful state of mind—that sense of defeat, even in conquest, which Göethe has embodied,—a picture of the loftiest grief of which the soul is capable, and which may remind us of the profound and august melancholy which the Great Sculptor breathed into the repose of the noblest of mythological heroes, when he represented the God resting after his labours, as if more convinced of their vanity than elated with their extent!

In this portrait, the grandeur of which the wild scenes that follow in the drama we refer to, do not (strangely wonderful as they are) perhaps altogether sustain, Göethe has bequeathed to the gaze of a calmer and more practical posterity, the burning and restless spirit—the feverish desire for knowledge more vague than useful, which characterised the exact epoch in the intellectual history of Germany, in which the poem was inspired and produced.

At these bitter waters, the Marah of the streams of Wisdom, the soul of the man whom we have made the hero of these pages, had also, and not lightly, quaffed. The properties of a mind, more calm and stern than belonged to the visionaries of the Hartz and the Danube, might indeed have preserved him from that thirst after the impossibilities of knowledge, which gives so peculiar a romance, not only to the poetry, but the philosophy of the German people. But if he rejected the superstitions, he did not also reject the bewilderments of the mind. He loved to plunge into the dark and metaphysical subtleties which human genius has called daringly forth from the realities of things:—

Much in him was a type, or rather forerunner, of the intellectual spirit that broke forth when we were children, among our countrymen, and is now slowly dying away amidst the loud events and absorbing struggles of the awakening world. But in one respect he stood aloof from all his tribe—in his hard indifference to worldly ambition, and his contempt of fame. As some sages have seemed to think the universe a dream, and self the only reality, so in his austere and collected reliance upon his own mind—the gathering in, as it were, of his resources, he appeared to consider the pomps of the world as shadows, and the life of his own spirit the only substance. He had built a city and a tower within the Shinar of his own heart, whence he might look forth, unscathed and unmoved, upon the deluge that broke over the rest of earth.

Only in one instance, and that, as we have seen, after much struggle, he had given way to the emotions that agitate his kind, and had surrendered himself to the dominion of another. This was against his theories—but what theories ever resist love? In yielding, however, thus far, he seemed more on his guard than ever against a broader encroachment. He had admitted one 'fair spirit' for his 'minister,' but it was only with a deeper fervour to invoke 'the desert' as 'his dwelling-place.' Thus, when the Earl, who, like most practical judges of mankind, loved to apply to each individual the motives that actuate the mass, and who only unwillingly, and somewhat sceptically, assented to the exceptions, and was driven to search for peculiar clues to the eccentric instance,—finding, to his secret triumph, that Aram had admitted one intruding emotion into his boasted circle of indifference, imagined that he should easily induce him (the spell once broken) to receive another, he was surprised and puzzled to discover himself in the wrong.

Lord —— at that time had been lately called into the administration, and he was especially anxious to secure the support of all the talent that he could enlist in its behalf. The times were those in which party ran high, and in which individual political writings were honoured with an importance which the periodical press in general has now almost wholly monopolized. On the side opposed to Government, writers of great name and high attainments had shone with peculiar effect, and the Earl was naturally desirous that they should be opposed by an equal array of intellect on the side espoused by himself. The name alone of Eugene Aram, at a day when scholarship was renown, would have been no ordinary acquisition to the cause of the Earl's party; but that judicious and penetrating nobleman perceived that Aram's abilities, his various research, his extended views, his facility of argument, and the heat and energy of his eloquence, might be rendered of an importance which could not have been anticipated from the name alone, however eminent, of a retired and sedentary scholar; he was not therefore without an interested motive in the attentions he now lavished upon the Student, and in his curiosity to put to the proof the disdain of all worldly enterprise and worldly temptation, which Aram affected. He could not but think, that to a man poor and lowly of circumstance, conscious of superior acquirements, about to increase his wants by admitting to them a partner, and arrived at that age when the calculations of interest and the whispers of ambition have usually most weight;—he could not but think that to such a man the dazzling prospects of social advancement, the hope of the high fortunes, and the powerful and glittering influence which political life, in England, offers to the aspirant, might be rendered altogether irresistible.

He took several opportunities in the course of the next week, of renewing his conversation with Aram, and of artfully turning it into the channels which he thought most likely to produce the impression he desired to create. He was somewhat baffled, but by no means dispirited, in his attempts; but he resolved to defer his ultimate proposition until it could be made to the fullest advantage. He had engaged the Lesters to promise to pass a day at the castle; and with great difficulty, and at the earnest intercession of Madeline, Aram was prevailed upon to accompany them. So extreme was his distaste to general society, and, from some motive or another more powerful than mere constitutional reserve, so invariably had he for years refused all temptations to enter it, that natural as this concession was rendered by his approaching marriage to one of the party, it filled him with a sort of terror and foreboding of evil. It was as if he were passing beyond the boundary of some law, on which the very tenure of his existence depended. After he had consented, a trembling came over him; he hastily left the room, and till the day arrived, was observed by his friends of the Manor-house to be more gloomy and abstracted than they ever had known him, even at the earliest period of acquaintance.

On the day itself, as they proceeded to the castle, Madeline perceived with a tearful repentance of her interference, that he sate by her side cold and rapt; and that once or twice when his eyes dwelt upon her, it was with an expression of reproach and distrust.

It was not till they entered the lofty hall of the castle, when a vulgar diffidence would have been most abashed, that Aram recovered himself. The Earl was standing—the centre of a group in the recess of a window in the saloon, opening upon an extensive and stately terrace. He came forward to receive them with the polished and warm kindness which he bestowed upon all his inferiors in rank. He complimented the sisters; he jested with Lester; but to Aram only, he manifested less the courtesy of kindness than of respect. He took his arm, and leaning on it with a light touch, led him to the group at the window. It was composed of the most distinguished public men in the country, and among them (the Earl himself was connected through an illegitimate branch with the reigning monarch,) was a prince of the blood royal.

To these, whom he had prepared for the introduction, he severally, and with an easy grace, presented Aram, and then falling back a few steps, he watched with a keen but seemingly careless eye, the effect which so sudden a contact with royalty itself would produce on the mind of the shy and secluded Student, whom it was his object to dazzle and overpower. It was at this moment that the native dignity of Aram, which his studies, unworldly as they were, had certainly tended to increase, displayed itself, in a trial which, poor as it was in abstract theory, was far from despicable in the eyes of the sensible and practised courtier. He received with his usual modesty, but not with his usual shrinking and embarrassment on such occasions, the compliments he received; a certain and far from ungraceful pride was mingled with his simplicity of demeanour; no fluttering of manner, betrayed that he was either dazzled or humbled by the presence in which he stood, and the Earl could not but confess that there was never a more favourable opportunity for comparing the aristocracy of genius with that of birth; it was one of those homely every-day triumphs of intellect, which please us more than they ought to do, for, after all, they are more common than the men of courts are willing to believe.

Lord —— did not however long leave Aram to the support of his own unassisted presence of mind and calmness of nerve; he advanced, and led the conversation, with his usual tact, into a course which might at once please Aram, and afford him the opportunity to shine. The Earl had imported from Italy some of the most beautiful specimens of classic sculpture which this country now possesses. These were disposed in niches around the magnificent apartment in which the guest were assembled, and as the Earl pointed them out, and illustrated each from the beautiful anecdotes and golden allusions of antiquity, he felt that he was affording to Aram a gratification he could never have experienced before; and in the expression of which, the grace and copiousness of his learning would find vent. Nor was he disappointed. The cheek, which till then had retained its steady paleness, now caught the glow of enthusiasm; and in a few moments there was not a person in the group, who did not feel, and cheerfully feel, the superiority of the one who, in birth and fortune, was immeasurably the lowest of all.

The English aristocracy, whatever be the faults of their education, (and certainly the name of the faults is legion!) have at least the merit of being alive to the possession, and easily warmed to the possessor, of classical attainment: perhaps even from this very merit spring many of the faults we allude to; they are too apt to judge all talent by a classical standard, and all theory by classical experience. Without,—save in very rare instances,—the right to boast of any deep learning, they are far more susceptible than the nobility of any other nation to the spiritum Camœnæ. They are easily and willingly charmed back to the studies which, if not eagerly pursued in youth, are still entwined with all their youth's brightest recollections; the schoolboy's prize, and the master's praise,—the first ambition, and its first reward. A felicitous quotation, a delicate allusion, is never lost upon their ear; and the veneration which at Eton they bore to the best verse-maker in the school, tinctures their judgment of others throughout life, mixing I know not what, both of liking and esteem, with their admiration of one who uses his classical weapons with a scholar's dexterity, not a pedant's inaptitude: for such a one there is a sort of agreeable confusion in their respect; they are inclined, unconsciously, to believe that he must necessarily be a high gentleman—ay, and something of a good fellow into the bargain.

It happened then that Aram could not have dwelt upon a theme more likely to arrest the spontaneous interest of those with whom he now conversed—men themselves of more cultivated minds than usual, and more capable than most (from that acute perception of real talent, which is produced by habitual political warfare,) of appreciating not only his endowments, but his facility in applying them.

"You are right, my Lord," said Sir ——, the whipper-in of the ***** party, taking the Earl aside; "he would be an inestimable pamphleteer."

"Could you get him to write us a sketch of the state of parties; luminous, eloquent?'" whispered a lord of the bed-chamber.

The Earl answered by a bon mot, and turned to a bust of Caracalla.

The hours at that time were (in the country at least) not late, and the Earl was one of the first introducers of the polished fashion of France, by which we testify a preference of the society of the women to that of our own sex; so that, in leaving the dining-room, it was not so late but that the greater part of the guests walked out upon the terrace, and admired the expanse of country which it overlooked, and along which the thin veil of the twilight began now to hover.

Having safely deposited his royal guest at a whist table, and thus left himself a free agent, the Earl, inviting Aram to join him, sauntered among the loiterers on the terrace for a few moments, and then descended a broad flight of steps, which brought them into a more shaded and retired walk; on either side of which rows of orange-trees gave forth their fragrance, while, to the right, sudden and numerous vistas were cut among the more irregular and dense foliage, affording glimpses—now of some rustic statue—now of some lone temple—now of some quaint fountain, on the play of whose waters the first stars had begun to tremble.

It was one of those magnificent gardens, modelled from the stately glories of Versailles, which it is now the mode to decry, but which breathe so unequivocally of the Palace. I grant that they deck Nature with somewhat too prolix a grace; but is beauty always best seen in deshabille? And with what associations of the brightest traditions connected with Nature they link her more luxuriant loveliness! Must we breathe only the malaria of Rome to be capable of feeling the interest attached to the fountain or the statue?

"I am glad," said the Earl, "that you admired my bust of Cicero—it is from an original very lately discovered. What grandeur in the brow!—what energy in the mouth, and downward bend of the head! It is pleasant even to imagine we gaze upon the likeness of so bright a spirit;—and confess, at least of Cicero, that in reading the aspirations and outpourings of his mind, you have felt your apathy to Fame melting away; you have shared the desire to live to the future age,—'the longing after immortality?"

"Was it not that longing," replied Aram, "which gave to the character of Cicero its poorest and most frivolous infirmity? Has it not made him, glorious as he is despite of it, a byword in the mouths of every schoolboy? Wherever you mention his genius, do you not hear an appendix on his vanity?"

"Yet without that vanity, that desire for a name with posterity, would he have been equally great—would he equally have cultivated his genius?"

"Probably, my Lord, he would not have equally cultivated his genius, but in reality he might have been equally great. A man often injures his mind by the means that increase his genius. You think this, my Lord, a paradox, but examine it. How many men of genius have been but ordinary men, take them from the particular objects in which they shine. Why is this, but that in cultivating one branch of intellect they neglect the rest? Nay, the very torpor of the reasoning faculty has often kindled the imaginative. Lucretius composed his sublime poem under the influence of a delirium. The susceptibilities that we create or refine by the pursuit of one object, weaken our general reason; and I may compare with some justice the powers of the mind to the faculties of the body, in which squinting is occasioned by an inequality of strength in the eyes, and discordance of voice by the same inequality in the ears."

"I believe you are right," said the Earl; "yet I own I willingly forgive Cicero for his vanity, if it contributed to the production of his orations and his essays; and he is a greater man, even with his vanity unconquered, than if he had conquered his foible, and in doing so taken away the incitements to his genius."

"A greater man in the world's eye, my Lord, but scarcely in reality. Had Homer written his Iliad and then burnt it, would his genius have been less? The world would have known nothing of him, but would he have been a less extraordinary man on that account? We are too apt, my Lord, to confound greatness and fame.

"There is one circumstance," added Aram, after a pause, "that should diminish our respect for renown. Errors of life, as well as foibles of characters, are often the real enhancers of celebrity. Without his errors, I doubt whether Henri Quatre would have become the idol of a people. How many Whartons has the world known, who, deprived of their frailties, had been inglorious! The light that you so admire, reaches you only through the distance of time, on account of the angles and unevenness of the body whence it emanates. Were the surface of the moon smooth, it would be invisible."

"I admire your illustrations," said the Earl; "but I reluctantly submit to your reasonings. You would then neglect your powers, lest they should lead you into errors?"

"Pardon me, my Lord; it is because I think all the powers should be cultivated, that I quarrel with the exclusive cultivation of one. And it is only because I would strengthen the whole mind that I dissent from the reasonings of those who tell you to consult your genius."

"But your genius may serve mankind more than this general cultivation of intellect?"

"My Lord," replied Aram, with a mournful cloud upon his countenance; "that argument may have weight with those who think mankind can be effectually served, though they may be often dazzled, by the labours of an individual. But, indeed, this perpetual talk of 'mankind' signifies nothing: each of us consults his proper happiness, and we consider him a madman who ruins his own peace of mind by an everlasting fretfulness of philanthropy."

This was a doctrine that half pleased, half displeased the Earl—it shadowed forth the most dangerous notions which Aram entertained.

"Well, well," said the noble host, as, after a short contest on the ground of his guest's last remark, they left off where they began, "Let us drop these general discussions: I have a particular proposition to unfold. We have, I trust, Mr. Aram, seen enough of each other, to feel that we can lay a sure foundation for mutual esteem. For my part, I own frankly, that I have never met with one who has inspired me with a sincerer admiration. I am desirous that your talents and great learning should be known in the widest sphere. You may despise fame, but you must permit your friends the weakness to wish you justice, and themselves triumph. You know my post in the present administration—the place of my secretary is one of great trust—some influence, and large emolument. I offer it to you—accept it, and you will confer upon me an honour and an obligation. You will have your own separate house, or apartments in mine, solely appropriated to your use. Your privacy will never be disturbed. Every arrangement shall be made for yourself and your bride, that either of you can suggest. Leisure for your own pursuits you will have, too, in abundance—there are others who will perform all that is toilsome in your office. In London, you will see around you the most eminent living men of all nations, and in all pursuits. If you contract, (which believe me is possible—it is a tempting game,) any inclination towards public life, you will have the most brilliant opportunities afforded you, and I foretell you the most signal success. Stay yet one moment:—for this you will owe me no thanks. Were I not sensible that I consult my own interests in this proposal, I should be courtier enough to suppress it."

"My Lord," said Aram, in a voice which, in spite of its calmness, betrayed that he was affected, "it seldom happens to a man of my secluded habits, and lowly pursuits, to have the philosophy he affects put to so severe a trial. I am grateful to you—deeply grateful for an offer so munificent—so undeserved. I am yet more grateful that it allows me to sound the strength of my own heart, and to find that I did not too highly rate it. Look, my Lord, from the spot where we now stand" (the moon had risen, and they had now returned to the terrace): "in the vale below, and far among those trees, lies my home. More than two years ago, I came thither, to fix the resting-place of a sad and troubled spirit. There have I centered all my wishes and my hopes; and there may I breathe my last! My Lord, you will not think me ungrateful, that my choice is made; and you will not blame my motive, though you may despise my wisdom."

"But," said the Earl astonished, "you cannot foresee all the advantages you would renounce. At your age—with your intellect—to choose the living sepulchre of a hermitage—it was wise to reconcile yourself to it, but not to prefer it! Nay, nay; consider—pause. I am in no haste for your decision; and what advantages have you in your retreat, that you will not possess in a greater degree with me? Quiet?—I pledge it to you under my roof. Solitude?—you shall have it at your will. Books?—what are those which you, which any individual possesses, to the public institutions, the magnificent collections, of the metropolis? What else is it you enjoy yonder, and cannot enjoy with me?"

"Liberty!" said Aram energetically.—"Liberty! the wild sense of independence. Could I exchange the lonely stars and the free air, for the poor lights and feverish atmosphere of worldly life? Could I surrender my mood, with its thousand eccentricities and humours—its cloud and shadow—to the eyes of strangers, or veil it from their gaze by the irksomeness of an eternal hypocrisy? No, my Lord! I am too old to turn disciple to the world! You promise me solitude and quiet. What charm would they have for me, if I felt they were held from the generosity of another? The attraction of solitude is only in its independence. You offer me the circle, but not the magic which made it holy. Books! They, years since, would have tempted me; but those whose wisdom I have already drained, have taught me now almost enough: and the two Books, whose interest can never be exhausted—Nature and my own Heart—will suffice for the rest of life. My Lord, I require no time for consideration."

"And you positively refuse me?"

"Gratefully refuse you."

The Earl walked peevishly away for one moment; but it was not in his nature to lose himself for more.

"Mr. Aram," said he frankly, and holding out his hand; "you have chosen nobly, if not wisely; and though I cannot forgive you for depriving me of such a companion, I thank you for teaching me such a lesson. Henceforth, I will believe, that philosophy may exist in practice; and that a contempt for wealth and for honours, is not the mere profession of discontent. This is the first time, in a various and experienced life, that I have found a man sincerely deaf to the temptations of the world,—and that man of such endowments! If ever you see cause to alter a theory that I still think erroneous, though lofty—remember me; and at all times, and on all occasions," he added, with a smile, "when a friend becomes a necessary evil, call to mind our starlit walk on the castle terrace."

Aram did not mention to Lester, or even Madeline, the above conversation. The whole of the next day he shut himself up at home; and when he again appeared at the Manor-house, he heard with evident satisfaction that the Earl had been suddenly summoned on state affairs to London.

There was an unaccountable soreness in Aram's mind, which made him feel a resentment—a suspicion against all who sought to lure him from his retreat. "Thank Heaven!" thought he, when he heard of the Earl's departure; "we shall not meet for another year!" He was mistaken.—Another year!