3325674Eugene Aram — Book 2, Chapter VII.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer




"God's my life, did you ever hear the like, what a strange man is this!
"What you have possessed me withall, I'll discharge it amply."

Mr. Courtland's house was surrounded by a high wall, and stood at the outskirts of the town. A little wooden door buried deep within the wall, seemed the only entrance. At this Walter paused, and after twice applying to the bell, a footman of a peculiarly grave and sanctimonious appearance, opened the door.

In reply to Walter's inquiries, he informed him that Mr. Courtland was very unwell, and never saw "Company."—Walter, however, producing from his pocket-book the introductory letter given him by his father, slipped it into the servant's hand, accompanied by half a crown, and begged to be announced as a gentleman on very particular business.

"Well, Sir, you can step in," said the servant, giving way; "but my master is very poorly, very poorly indeed."

"Indeed, I am sorry to hear it: has he been long so?"

"Going on for ten——years, sir!" replied the servant, with great gravity; and opening the door of the house which stood within a few paces of the wall, on a singularly flat and bare grass-plot, he showed him into a room, and left him alone.

The first thing that struck Walter in this apartment, was its remarkable lightness. Though not large, it had no less than seven windows. Two sides of the wall, seemed indeed all window! Nor were these admittants of the celestial beam—shaded by any blind or curtain,

"The gaudy, babbling, and remorseless day"

made itself thoroughly at home in this airy chamber. Nevertheless, though so light, it seemed to Walter any thing but cheerful. The sun had blistered and discoloured the painting of the wainscot, originally of a pale sea-green; there was little furniture in the apartment; one table in the centre, some half a dozen chairs, and a very small Turkey-carpet, which did not cover one tenth part of the clean, cold, smooth, oak boards, constituted all the goods and chattels visible in the room. But what particularly added effect to the bareness of all within, was the singular and laborious bareness of all without. From each of these seven windows, nothing but a forlorn green flat of some extent was to be seen; there was not a tree, or a shrub, or a flower in the whole expanse, although by several stumps of trees near the house, Walter perceived that the place had not always been so destitute of vegetable life.

While he was yet looking upon this singular baldness of scene, the servant re-entered with his master's compliments, and a message that he should be happy to see any relation of Mr. Lester.

Walter accordingly followed the footman into an apartment possessing exactly the same peculiarities as the former one; viz. a most disproportionate plurality of windows, a commodious scantiness of furniture, and a prospect without, that seemed as if the house had been built on the middle of Salisbury plain.

Mr. Courtland, himself a stout man, and still preserving the rosy hues and comely features, though certainly not the same hilarious expression, which Lester had attributed to him, sat in a large chair, close by the centre window, which was open. He rose and shook Walter by the hand with great cordiality.

"Sir, I am delighted to see you! How is your worthy uncle? I only wish he were with you—you dine with me of course. Thomas, tell the cook to add a tongue and chicken to the roast beef—no,—young gentleman, I will have no excuse; sit down, sit down; pray come near the window; do you not find it dreadfully close? not a breath of air? This house is so choked up; don't you find it so, eh? Ah, I see, you can scarcely gasp."

"My dear Sir, you are mistaken; I am rather cold, on the contrary: nor did I ever in my life see a more airy house than yours."

"I try to make it so, Sir, but I can't succeed; if you had seen what it was, when I first bought it! a garden here, Sir; a copse there; a wilderness, God wot! at the back: and a row of chesnut trees in the front! You may conceive the consequence, Sir; I had not been long here, not two years, before my health was gone, Sir, gone—the d—d vegetable life sucked it out of me. The trees kept away all the air—I was nearly suffocated, without, at first, guessing the cause. But at length, though not till I had been withering away for five years, I discovered the origin of my malady. I went to work, Sir; I plucked up the cursed garden, I cut down the infernal chesnuts, I made a bowling green of the diabolical wilderness, but I fear it is too late. I am dying by inches,—have been dying ever since. The malaria has effectually tainted my constitution."

Here Mr. Courtland heaved a deep sigh, and shook his head with a most gloomy expression of countenance.

"Indeed, Sir," said Walter, "I should not, to look at you, imagine that you suffered under any complaint. You seem still the same picture of health, that my uncle describes you to have been when you knew him so many years ago."

"Yes, Sir, yes; the confounded malaria fixed the colour to my cheeks; the blood is stagnant, Sir. Would to God I could see myself a shade paler!—the blood does not flow; I am like a pool in a citizen's garden, with a willow at each corner;—but a truce to my complaints. You see, Sir, I am no hypochondriac, as my fool of a doctor wants to persuade me: a hypochondriac shudders at every breath of air, trembles when a door is open, and looks upon a window as the entrance of death. But I, Sir, never can have enough air; thorough draught or east wind, it is all the same to me, so that I do but breathe. Is that like hypochondria?—pshaw! But tell me, young gentleman, about your uncle; is he quite well,—stout,—hearty,—does he breathe easily,—no oppression?"

"Sir, he enjoys exceedingly good health: he did please himself with the hope that I should give him good tidings of yourself, and another of his old friends whom I accidentally saw yesterday,—Sir Peter Hales."

"Hales, Peter Hales!—ah! a clever little fellow that: how delighted Lester's good heart will be to hear that little Peter is so improved;—no longer a dissolute, harum-scarum fellow, throwing away his money, and always in debt. No, no; a respectable steady character, an excellent manager, an active member of Parliament, domestic in private life,—Oh! a very worthy man, Sir, a very worthy man!"

"He seems altered indeed, Sir," said Walter, who was young enough in the world to be surprised at this eulogy; "but is still agreeable and fond of anecdote. He told me of his race with you for a thousand guineas."

"Ah, don't talk of those days," said Mr. Courtland, shaking his head pensively, "it makes me melancholy. Yes, Peter ought to recollect that, for he has never paid me to this day; affected to treat it as a jest, and swore he could have beat me if he would. But indeed it was my fault, Sir; Peter had not then a thousand farthings in the world, and when he grew rich, he became a steady character, and I did not like to remind him of our former follies. Aha! can I offer you a pinch of snuff?—You look feverish, Sir; surely this room must affect you, though you are too polite to say so. Pray open that door, and then this window, and put your chair right between the two. You have no notion how refreshing the draught is."

Walter politely declined the proffered ague, and thinking he had now made sufficient progress in the acquaintance of this singular non-hypochondriac to introduce the subject he had most at heart, hastened to speak of his father.

"I have chanced, Sir," said he, "very unexpectedly upon something that once belonged to my poor father;" here he showed the whip. "I find from the saddler of whom I bought it, that the owner was at your house some twelve or fourteen years ago. I do not know whether you are aware that our family have heard nothing respecting my father's fate for a considerably longer time than that which has elapsed since you appear to have seen him, if at least I may hope that he was your guest, and the owner of this whip; and any news you can give me of him, any clue by which he can possibly be traced, would be to us all—to me in particular—an inestimable obligation."

"Your father!" said Mr. Courtland. "Oh,—ay, your uncle's brother. What was his Christian name?—Henry?"


"Ay, exactly; Geoffrey! What, not been heard of?—his family not know where he is? A sad thing, Sir; but he was always a wild fellow; now here, now there, like a flash of lightning. But it is true, it is true, he did stay a day here, several years ago, when I first bought the place. I can tell you all about it;—but you seem agitated,—do come nearer the window:—there, that's right. Well, Sir, it is, as I said, a great many years ago,—perhaps fourteen,—and I was speaking to the landlord of the Greyhound about some hay he wished to sell, when a gentleman rode into the yard full tear, as your father always did ride, and in getting out of his way I recognised Geoffrey Lester. I did not know him well—far from it; but I had seen him once or twice with your uncle, and though he was a strange pickle, he sang a good song, and was deuced amusing. Well, Sir, I accosted him, and, for the sake of your uncle, I asked him to dine with me, and take a bed at my new house. Ah! I little thought what a dear bargain it was to be. He accepted my invitation, for I fancy—no offence, Sir,—there were few invitations that Mr. Geoffrey Lester ever refused to accept. We dined tête-à-tête,—I am an old bachelor, Sir,—and very entertaining he was, though his sentiments seemed to me broader than ever. He was capital, however, about the tricks he had played his creditors,—such manoeuvres,—such escapes! After dinner he asked me if I ever corresponded with his brother. I told him no; that we were very good friends, but never heard from each other; and he then said, 'Well, I shall surprise him with a visit shortly; but in case you should unexpectedly have any communication with him, don't mention having seen me; for, to tell you the truth, I am just returned from India, where I should have scraped up a little money, but that I spent it as fast as I got it. However, you know that I was always proverbially the luckiest fellow in the world—(and so, Sir, your father was!)—and while I was in India, I saved an old Colonel's life at a tiger-hunt; he went home shortly afterwards, and settled in Yorkshire; and the other day on my return to England, to which my ill-health drove me, I learned that my old Colonel was really dead, and had left me a handsome legacy, with his house in Yorkshire. I am now going down to Yorkshire to convert the chattels into gold—to receive my money, and I shall then seek out my good brother, my household gods, and, perhaps, though it's not likely, settle into a sober fellow for the rest of my life.' I don't tell you, young gentleman, that those were your father's exact words,—one can't remember verbatim so many years ago;—but it was to that effect. He left me the next day, and I never heard any thing more of him: to say the truth, he was looking wonderfully yellow, and fearfully reduced. And I fancied at the time, he could not live long; he was prematurely old, and decrepit in body, though gay in spirit; so that I had tacitly imagined in never hearing of him more—that he had departed life. But, good Heavens! did you never hear of this legacy?"

"Never: not a word!" said Walter, who had listened to these particulars in great surprise. "And to what part of Yorkshire did he say he was going?"

"That he did not mention."

"Nor the Colonel's name?"

"Not as I remember; he might, but I think not. But I am certain that the county was Yorkshire, and the gentleman, whatever was his name, was a Colonel. Stay! I recollect one more particular, which it is lucky I do remember. Your father in giving me, as I said before, in his own humorous strain, the history of his adventures, his hair-breadth escapes from his duns, the various disguises, and the numerous aliases he had assumed, mentioned that the name he had borne in India, and by which, he assured me, he had made quite a good character—was Clarke: he also said, by the way, that he still kept to that name, and was very merry on the advantages of having so common an one. 'By which,' he said wittily, 'he could father all his own sins on some other Mr. Clarke, at the same time that he could seize and appropriate all the merits of all his other namesakes.' Ah, no offence; but he was a sad dog, that father of yours! So you see that, in all probability, if he ever reached Yorkshire, it was under the name of Clarke that he claimed and received his legacy."

"You have told me more," said Walter joyfully, "than we have heard since his disappearance, and I shall turn my horses' heads northward to-morrow, by break of day. But you say, 'if he ever reached Yorkshire,'—What should prevent him?"

"His health!" said the non-hypochondriac, "I should not be greatly surprised if—if—In short you had better look at the grave-stones by the way, for the name of Clarke."

"Perhaps you can give me the dates, Sir," said Walter, somewhat cast down from his elation.

"Ay! I'll see, I'll see, after dinner; the commonness of the name has its disadvantages now. Poor Geoffrey!—I dare say there are fifty tombs, to the memory of fifty Clarkes, between this and York. But come, Sir, there's the dinner-bell."

Whatever might have been the maladies entailed upon the portly frame of Mr. Courtland by the vegetable life of the departed trees, a want of appetite was not among the number. Whenever a man is not abstinent from rule, or from early habit, as in the case of Aram, Solitude makes its votaries particularly fond of their dinner. They have no other event wherewith to mark their day—they think over it, they anticipate it, they nourish its soft idea with their imagination; if they do look forward to any thing else more than dinner, it is—supper!

Mr. Courtland deliberately pinned the napkin to his waistcoat, ordered all the windows to be thrown open, and set to work like the good Canon in Gil Blas. He still retained enough of his former self, to preserve an excellent cook; so far at least as the excellence of a she-artist goes; and though most of his viands were of the plainest, who does not know what skill it requires to produce an unexceptionable roast, or a blameless boil? Talk of good professed cooks, indeed! they are plentiful as blackberries: it is the good, plain cook, who is the rarity!

Half a tureen of strong soup; three pounds, at least, of stewed carp; all the under part of a sirloin of beef; three quarters of a tongue; the moiety of a chicken; six pancakes and a tartlet, having severally disappeared down the jaws of the invalid,

"Et cuncta terrarum subacta
Præter atrocem animum Catonis,"

he still called for two deviled biscuits and an anchovy!

When these were gone, he had the wine set on a little table by the window, and declared that the air seemed closer than ever. Walter was no longer surprised at the singular nature of the non-hypochondriac's complaint.

Walter declined the bed that Mr. Courtland offered him—though his host kindly assured him that it had no curtains, and that there was not a shutter to the house—upon the plea of starting the next morning at daybreak, and his consequent unwillingness to disturb the regular establishment of the invalid: and Courtland, who was still an excellent, hospitable, friendly man, suffered his friend's nephew to depart with regret. He supplied him, however, by a reference to an old note-book, with the date of the year, and even month, in which he had been favoured by a visit from Mr. Clarke, who, it seemed, had also changed his Christian name from Geoffrey, to one beginning with D——; but whether it was David or Daniel the host remembered not. In parting with Walter, Courtland shook his head, and observed:—

"Entre nous, Sir, I fear this may be a wild-goose chase. Your father was too facetious to confine himself to fact—excuse me, Sir—and perhaps the Colonel and the legacy were merely inventions—pour passer le temps—there was only one reason indeed, that made me fully believe the story."

"What was that, Sir?" asked Walter, blushing deeply, at the universality of that estimation his father had obtained.

"Excuse me, my young friend."

"Nay, Sir, let me press you."

"Why, then, Mr. Geoffrey Lester did not ask me to lend him any money."

The next morning, instead of repairing to the gaieties of the metropolis, Walter had, upon this slight and dubious clue, altered his journey northward, and with an unquiet yet sanguine spirit, the adventurous son commenced his search after the fate of a father evidently so unworthy of the anxiety he had excited.