3310903Eugene Aram — Book 1, Chapter II.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer


a publican, a sinner, and a stranger

"Ah, Don Alphonso, is it you? Agreeable accident! Chance presents yon to my eyes where you were least expected."

It was an evening in the beginning of summer, and Peter Dealtry and the ci-devant Corporal sate beneath the sign of the Spotted Dog (as it hung motionless from the bough of a friendly elm), quaffing a cup of boon companionship. The reader will imagine the two men very different from each other in form and aspect; the one short, dry, fragile, and betraying a love of ease in his unbuttoned vest, and a certain lolling, see-sawing method of balancing his body upon his chair; the other, erect and solemn, and as steady on his seat as if he were nailed to it. It was a fine, tranquil balmy evening; the sun had just set, and the clouds still retained the rosy tints which they had caught from his parting ray. Here and there, at scattered intervals, you might see the cottages peeping from the trees around them; or mark the smoke that rose from their roofs—roofs green with mosses and house-leek,—in graceful and spiral curls against the clear soft air. It was an English scene, and the two men, the dog at their feet, (for Peter Dealtry favoured a wirey stone-coloured cur, which he called a terrier,) and just at the door of the little inn, two old gossips, loitering on the threshold in familiar chat with the landlady, in cap and kerchief,—all together made a groupe equally English, and somewhat picturesque, though homely enough, in effect.

"Well, now," said Peter Dealtry, as he pushed the brown jug towards the Corporal, "this is what I call pleasant; it puts me in mind—"

"Of what?" quoth the Corporal.

"Of those nice lines in the hymn. Master Bunting.

'How fair ye are, ye little hills,
Ye little fields also;
Ye murmuring streams that sweetly run;
Ye willows in a row!'

There is something very comfortable in sacred verses, Master Bunting; but you're a scoffer."

"Psha, man!" said the Corporal, throwing out his right leg and leaning back, with his eyes half-shut, and his chin protruded, as he took an unusually long inhalation from his pipe; "Psha, man!—send verses to the right-about—fit for girls going to school of a Sunday; full-grown men more up to snuff. I've seen the world, Master Dealtry;—the world, and be damned to you!—augh!"

"Fie, neighbour, fie! What's the good of profaneness, evil speaking and slandering?—

'Oaths are the debts your spendthrift soul must pay;
All scores are chalked against the reckoning day.'

Just wait a bit, neighbour; wait till I light my pipe."

"Tell you what," said the Corporal, after he had communicated from his own pipe the friendly flame to his comrade's; "tell you what—talk nonsense; the commander-in-chief's no Martinet—if we're all right in action, he'll wink at a slip word or two. Come, no humbug—hold jaw, D'ye think God would sooner have snivelling fellow like you in his regiment, than a man like me, clean limbed, straight as a dart, six feet one without his shoes!—baugh!"

This notion of the Corporal's, by which he would have likened the dominion of Heaven to the King of Prussia's body-guard, and only admitted the elect on account of their inches, so tickled mine host's fancy, that he leaned back in his chair, and indulged in a long, dry, obstreperous cachinnation. This irreverence mightily displeased the Corporal. He looked at the little man very sourly, and said in his least smooth accentuation:—

"What—devil—cackling at?—always grin, grin, grin—giggle, giggle, giggle— psha!"

"Why really, neighbour," said Peter, composing himself, "you must let a man laugh now and then."

"Man!" said the Corporal; "man's a noble animal! Man's a musquet, primed, loaded, ready to supply a friend or kill a foe—charge not to be wasted on every tom-tit. But you! not a musquet, but a cracker! noisy, harmless,—can't touch you, but off you go, whizz, pop, bang in one's face!—baugh!"

"Well!" said the good-humoured landlord, "I should think Master Aram, the great scholar who lives down the vale yonder, a man quite after your own heart. He is grave enough to suit you. He does not laugh very easily, I fancy."

"After my heart? Stoops like a bow!"

"Indeed he does look on the ground as he walks; when I think, I do the same. But what a marvellous man it is! I hear, that he reads the Psalms in Hebrew. He's very affable and meek-like for such a scholard."

"Tell you what. Seen the world. Master Dealtry, and know a thing or two. Your shy dog is always a deep one. Give me a man who looks me in the face as he would a cannon!"

"Or a lass," said Peter knowingly.

The grim Corporal smiled.

"Talking of lasses," said the soldier, re-filling his pipe, "what creature Miss Lester is! Such eyes!—such nose! Fit for a colonel, by God! ay, or a major-general!"

"For my part, I think Miss Ellinor almost as handsome; not so grand-like, but more lovesome!"

"Nice little thing!" said the Corporal, condescendingly. "But, zooks! whom have we here?"

This last question was applied to a man who was slowly turning from the road towards the inn. The stranger, for such he was, was stout, thick-set, and of middle height. His dress was not without pretension to a rank higher than the lowest; but it was threadbare and worn, and soiled with dust and travel. His appearance was by no means prepossessing; small sunken eyes of a light hazel and a restless and rather fierce expression, a thick flat nose, high cheekbones, a large bony jaw, from which the flesh receded, and a bull throat indicative of great strength, constituted his claims to personal attraction. The stately Corporal, without moving, kept a vigilant and suspicious eye upon the new comer, muttering to Peter,—"Customer for you; rum customer too—by Gad!"

The stranger now reached the little table, and halting short, took up the brown jug, without ceremony or preface, and emptied it at a draught.

The Corporal stared—the Corporal frowned; but before—for he was somewhat slow of speech—he had time to vent his displeasure, the stranger, wiping his mouth across his sleeve, said, in rather a civil and apologetic tone,

"I beg pardon, gentlemen. I have had a long march of it, and very tired I am."

"Humph! march," said the Corporal a little appeased, "Not in his Majesty's service—eh?"

"Not now," answered the Traveller; then, turning round to Dealtry, he said: "Are you landlord here?"

"At your service," said Peter, with the indifference of a man well to do, and not ambitious of halfpence.

"Come, then, quick—budge," said the Traveller, tapping him on the back: "bring more glasses—another jug of the October; and any thing or every thing your larder is able to produce—d'ye hear?"

Peter, by no means pleased with the briskness of this address, eyed the dusty and way-worn pedestrian from head to foot; then, looking over his shoulder towards the door, he said, as he ensconced himself yet more firmly on his seat—

"There's my wife by the door, friend; go, tell her what you want."

"Do you know," said the Traveller, in a slow and measured accent—"Do you know, master Shrivel-face, that I have more than half a mind to break your head for impertinence. You a landlord!—you keep an inn, indeed! Come, Sir, make off, or—"

"Corporal!—Corporal!" cried Peter, retreating hastily from his seat as the brawny Traveller approached menacingly towards him—"You won't see the peace broken. Have a care, friend—have a care, I'm clerk to the parish—clerk to the parish, Sir—and I'll indict you for sacrilege."

The wooden features of Bunting relaxed into a sort of grin at the alarm of his friend. He puffed away, without making any reply; meanwhile the Traveller, taking advantage of Peter's hasty abandonment of his cathedrarian accommodation, seized the vacant chair, and drawing it yet closer to the table, flung himself upon it, and placing his hat on the table, wiped his brows with the air of a man about to make himself thoroughly at home.

Peter Dealtry was assuredly a personage of peaceable disposition; but then he had the proper pride of a host and a clerk. His feelings were exceedingly wounded at this cavalier treatment—before the very eyes of his wife too—what an example! He thrust his hands deep into his breeches pockets, and strutting with a ferocious swagger towards the Traveller, he said:—

"Harkye, sirrah! This is not the way folks are treated in this country: and I'd have you to know, that I'm a man what has a brother a constable."

"Well, Sir!"

"Well, Sir, indeed! Well!—Sir, it's not well, by no manner of means; and if you don't pay for the ale you drank, and go quietly about your business, I'll have you put in the stocks for a vagrant."

This, the most menacing speech Peter Dealtry was ever known to deliver, was uttered with so much spirit, that the Corporal, who had hitherto preserved silence—for he was too strict a disciplinarian to thrust himself unnecessarily into brawls,—turned approvingly round, and nodding as well as his stock would suffer him at the indignant Peter, he said: "Well done! 'fegs—you've a soul, man!—a soul fit for the forty-second! augh!—A soul above the inches of five feet two!"

There was something bitter and sneering in the Traveller's aspect as he now, regarding Dealtry, repeated—

"Vagrant—humph! And pray what is a vagrant?"

"What is a vagrant?" echoed Peter, a little puzzled.

"Yes! answer me that."

"Why, a vagrant is a man what wanders, and what has no money."

"Truly," said the stranger smiling, but the smile by no means improved his physiognomy, "an excellent definition, but one which, I will convince you, does not apply to me." So saying, he drew from his pocket a handful of silver coins, and, throwing them on the table, added: "Come, let's have no more of this. You see I can pay for what I order; and now, do recollect that I am a weary and hungry man."

No sooner did Peter behold the money, than a sudden placidity stole over his ruffled spirit:—nay, a certain benevolent commiseration for the fatigue and wants of the Traveller replaced at once, and as by a spell, the angry feelings that had previously roused him.

"Weary and hungry," said he; "why did not you say that before? That would have been quite enough for Peter Dealtry. Thank God! I am a man what can feel for my neighbours. I have bowels—yes, I have bowels. Weary and hungry!—you shall be served in an instant. I may be a little hasty or so, but I'm a good Christian at bottom—ask the Corporal. And what says the Psalmist, Psalm 147?—

'By Him, the beasts that loosely range
With timely food are fed:
He speaks the word—and what He wills
Is done as soon as said.'"

Animating his kindly emotions by this apt quotation, Peter turned to the house. The Corporal now broke silence: the sight of the money had not been without an effect upon him as well as the landlord.

"Warm day, Sir:—your health. Oh I forgot you emptied jug—baugh! You said you were not now in his Majesty's service: beg pardon—were you ever?"

"Why, once I was; many years ago."

"Ah!—and what regiment." I was in the forty-second. Heard of the forty-second?" Colonel's name, Dysart; captain's, Trotter; corporal's, Bunting, at your service."

"I am much obliged by your confidence," said the Traveller drily. "I dare say you have seen much service."

"Service! Ah! may well say that;—twenty-three years' hard work: and not the better for it! A man that loves his country is 'titled to a pension—that's my mind!—but the world don't smile upon corporals—augh!"

Here Peter re-appeared with a fresh supply of the October, and an assurance that the cold meat would speedily follow.

"I hope yourself and this gentleman will bear me company," said the Traveller, passing the jug to the Corporal; and in a few moments, so well pleased grew the trio with each other, that the sound of their laughter came loud and frequent to the ears of the good housewife within.

The Traveller now seemed to the Corporal and mine host a right jolly, good-humoured fellow. Not, however, that he bore a fair share in the conversation—he rather promoted the hilarity of his new acquaintances than led it. He laughed heartily at Peter's jests, and the Corporal's repartees; and the latter, by degrees, assuming the usual sway he bore in the circles of the village, contrived, before the viands were on the table, to monopolize the whole conversation.

The Traveller found in the repast a new excuse for silence. He ate with a most prodigious and most contagious appetite; and in a few seconds the knife and fork of the Corporal were as busily engaged as if he had only three minutes to spare between a march and a dinner.

"This is a pretty, retired spot," quoth the Traveller, as at length he finished his repast, and threw himself back on his chair—"a very pretty spot. Whose neat old-fashioned house was that I passed on the green, with the gable-ends and the flower-plots in front?"

"Oh, the Squire's," answered Peter; "Squire Lester's an excellent gentleman."

"A rich man, I should think, for these parts; the best house I have seen for some miles," said the Stranger carelessly.

"Rich—yes, he's well to do; he does not live so as not to have money to lay by."

"Any family?"

"Two daughters and a nephew."

"And the nephew does not ruin him. Happy uncle! Mine was not so lucky," said the Traveller.

"Sad fellows we soldiers in our young days!" observed the Corporal with a wink. "No, Squire Walter's a good young man, a pride to his uncle!"

"So," said the pedestrian, "they are not forced to keep up a large establishment and ruin themselves by a retinue of servants?—Corporal, the jug."

"Nay!" said Peter, "Squire Lester's gate is always open to the poor; but as for shew, he leaves that to my lord at the castle."

"The castle, where's that?"

"About six miles off, you 've heard of my Lord * * * * * *, I'll swear."

"Ah, to be sure, a courtier. But who else lives about here? I mean, who are the principal person?, barring the Corporal and yourself, Mr. Eelpry—I think our friend here calls you."

"Dealtry, Peter Dealtry, Sir, is my name.—Why the most noticeable man, you must know, is a great scholard, a wonderfully learned man; there yonder, you may just catch a glimpse of the tall what-d'ye-call-it he has built out on the top of his house, that he may get nearer to the stars. He has got glasses by which I've heard that you may see the people in the moon walking on their heads; but I can't say as I believe all I hear."

"You are too sensible for that, I'm sure. But this scholar, I suppose, is not very rich; learning does not clothe men now-a-days—eh, Corporal?"

"And why should it? Zounds! can it teach a man how to defend his country? Old England wants soldiers, and be d—d to them! But the man's well enough, I must own, civil, modest—"

"And not by no means a beggar," added Peter; "he gave as much to the poor last winter as the Squire himself."

"Indeed!" said the Stranger, "this scholar is rich then?"

"So, so; neither one nor t'other. But if he were as rich as my lord, he could not be more respected; the greatest folks in the country come in their carriages and four to see him. Lord bless you, there is not a name more talked on in the whole county than Eugene Aram."

"What!" cried the Traveller, his countenance changing as he sprung from his seat; "what!—Aram!—did you say Aram? Great God! how strange!"

Peter, not a little startled by the abruptness and vehemence of his guest, stared at him with open mouth, and even the Corporal took his pipe involuntarily from his lips.

"What!" said the former, "you know him, do you? you've heard of him, eh?"

The Stranger did not reply, he seemed lost in a reverie; he muttered inaudible words between his teeth; now he strode two steps forward, clenching his hands; now smiled grimly; and then returning to his seat, threw himself on it, still in silence. The soldier and the clerk exchanged looks, and now outspake the Corporal.

"Rum tantrums! What the devil, did the man eat your grandmother?"

Roused perhaps by so pertinent and sensible a question, the Stranger lifted his head from his breast, and said with a forced smile, "You have done me, without knowing it, a great kindness, my friend. Eugene Aram was an early and intimate acquaintance of mine: we have not met for many years. I never guessed that he lived in these parts: indeed I did not know where he resided. I am truly glad to think I have lighted upon him thus unexpectedly."

"What! you did not know where he lived? Well! I thought all the world knew that! Why, men from the univarsities have come all the way, merely to look at the spot."

"Very likely," returned the Stranger; "but I am not a learned man myself, and what is celebrity in one set is obscurity in another. Besides, I have never been in this part of the world before!"

Peter was about to reply, when he heard the shrill voice of his wife behind.

"Why don't you rise, Mr. Lazyboots? Where are your eyes? Don't you see the young ladies."

Dealtry's hat was off in an instant,—the stiff Corporal rose like a musquet; the Stranger would have kept his seat, but Dealtry gave him an admonitory tug by the collar; accordingly he rose, muttering a hasty oath, which certainly died on his lips when he saw the cause which had thus constrained him into courtesy.

Through a little gate close by Peter's house Madeline and her sister had just passed on their evening walk, and with the kind familiarity for which they were both noted, they had stopped to salute the landlady of the Spotted Dog, as she now, her labours done, sat by the threshold, within hearing of the convivial group, and plaiting straw. The whole family of Lester were so beloved, that we question whether my Lord himself, as the great nobleman of the place was always called, (as if there were only one lord in the peerage,) would have obtained the same degree of respect that was always lavished upon them.

"Don't let us disturb you, good people," said Ellinor, as they now moved towards the boon companions, when her eye suddenly falling on the Stranger, she stopped short. There was something in his appearance, and especially in the expression of his countenance at that moment, which no one could have marked for the first time without apprehension and distrust: and it was so seldom that, in that retired spot, the young ladies encountered even one unfamiliar face, that the effect the stranger's appearance might have produced on any one, might well be increased for them to a startling and painful degree. The Traveller saw at once the sensation he had created: his brow lowered; and the same unpleasing smile, or rather sneer, that we have noted before, distorted his lip, as he made with affected humility his obeisance.

"How!—a stranger!" said Madeline, sharing, though in a less degree, the feelings of her sister; and then, after a pause, she said, as she glanced over his garb, "not in distress, I hope."

"No, Madam!"" said the stranger, "if by distress is meant beggary. I am in all respects perhaps better than I seem."

There was a general titter from the Corporal, my host, and his wife, at the Traveller's semi-jest at his own unprepossessing appearance: but Madeline, a little disconcerted, bowed hastily, and drew her sister away.

"A proud quean!" said the Stranger, as he re-seated himself, and watched the sisters gliding across the green.

All mouths were opened against him immediately. He found it no easy matter to make his peace; and before he had quite done it, he called for his bill, and rose to depart.

"Well!" said he, as he tendered his hand to the Corporal, "we may meet again, and enjoy together some more of your good stories. Meanwhile, which is my way to this—this—this famous scholar's—Ehem?"

"Why," quoth Peter, "you saw the direction in which the young ladies went; you must take the same. Cross the stile you will find at the right—wind along the foot of the hill for about three parts of a mile, and you will then see in the middle of a broad plain, a lonely grey house with a thingumabob at the top; a servatory they call it. That's Master Aram's."

"Thank you."

"And a very pretty walk it is too," said the Dame, "the prettiest hereabouts to my liking, till you get to the house at least; and so the young ladies think, for it's their usual walk every evening!"

"Humph,—then I may meet them."

"Well, and if you do, make yourself look as Christian-like as you can," retorted the hostess.

There was a second grin at the ill-favoured Traveller's expense, amidst which he went his way.

"An odd chap!" said Peter, looking after the sturdy form of the Traveller. "I wonder what he is; he seems well edicated—makes use of good words."

"What sinnifies?" said the Corporal, who felt a sort of fellow-feeling for his new acquaintance's brusquerie of manner;—"what sinnifies what he is. Served his country,—that's enough;—never told me, by the by, his regiment;—set me a talking, and let out nothing himself;—old soldier every inch of him!"

"He can take care of number one," said Peter. "How he emptied the jug; and my stars! what an appetite!"

"Tush," said the Corporal, "hold jaw. Man of the world—man of the world,—that's clear."