3330964Eugene Aram — Book 3, Chapter XII.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



Falstaff.—"Bid my Lieutenant Peto meet me at the town's end. * * * * * I pressed me none but such toasts and butter, with hearts in their bellies no bigger than pins' heads."—

They had scarcely reached the Manor-house, before the rain, which the clouds had portended throughout the whole day, began to descend in torrents, and to use the strong expression of the Roman poet—the night rushed down, black and sudden, over the face of the earth.

The new watch were not by any means the hardy and experienced soldiery, by whom rain and darkness are unheeded. They looked with great dismay upon the character of the night in which their campaign was to commence. The valorous Peter, who had sustained his own courage by repeated applications to a little bottle, which he never failed to carry about him in all the more bustling and enterprising occasions of life, endeavoured, but with partial success, to maintain the ardour of his band. Seated in the servants' hall of the Manor-house, in a large arm-chair, Jacobina on his knee, and his trusty musket, which, to the great terror of the womankind, had never been uncocked throughout the day, still grasped in his right hand, while the stock was grounded on the floor; he indulged in martial harangues, plentifully interlarded with plagiarisms from the worshipful translations of Messrs. Sternhold and Hopkins, and psalmodic versions of a more doubtful authorship. And when at the hour of ten, which was the appointed time, he led his warlike force, which consisted of six rustics, armed with sticks of incredible thickness, three guns, one pistol, a broadsword, and a pitchfork, (a weapon likely to be more effectively used than all the rest put together;) when at the hour of ten he led them up to the room above, where they were to be passed in review before the critical eye of the Squire, with Jacobina leading the on-guard, you could not fancy a prettier picture for a hero in a little way, than mine host of the Spotted Dog.

His hat was fastened tight on his brows by a blue pocket-handkerchief; he wore a spencer of a light brown drugget, a world too loose, above a leather jerkin; his breeches of corduroy, were met all of a sudden half way up the thigh, by a detachment of Hessians, formerly in the service of the Corporal, and bought some time since by Peter Dealtry to wear when employed in shooting snipes for the Squire, to whom he occasionally performed the office of game-keeper; suspended round his wrist by a bit of black ribbon, was his constable's baton; he shouldered his musket gallantly, and he carried his person as erect as if the least deflexion from its perpendicularity were to cost him his life. One may judge of the revolution that had taken place in the village, when so peaceable a man as Peter Dealtry was thus metamorphosed into a commander-in-chief. The rest of the regiment hung sheepishly back; each trying to get as near to the door, and as far from the ladies, as possible. But Peter having made up his mind, that a hero should only look straight forward, did not condescend to turn round, to perceive the irregularity of his line. Secure in his own existence, he stood truculently forth, facing the Squire, and prepared to receive his plaudits.

Madeline and Aram sat apart at one corner of the hearth, and Ellinor leaned over the chair of the former; the mirth that she struggled to suppress from being audible, mantling over her arch face and laughing eyes; while the Squire, taking the pipe from his mouth, turned round on his easy chair, and nodded complacently to the little corps, and the great commander.

"We are all ready now, your honour," said Peter, in a voice that did not seem to belong to his body, so big did it sound, "all hot, all eager."

"Why you yourself are a host, Peter," said Ellinor with affected gravity; "your sight alone would frighten an army of robbers: who could have thought you could assume so military an air? The Corporal himself was never so upright!"

"I have practised my present attitude all the day, Miss," said Peter, proudly, "and I believe I may now say as Mr. Sternhold says or sings, in the twenty-sixth Psalm, verse twelfth.

'My foot is stayed for all assays,
It standeth well and right,
Wherefore to God—will I give praise
In all the people's sight!'

Jacobina, behave yourself, child. I don't think, your honour, that we miss the Corporal so much as I fancied at first, for we all does very well without him."

"Indeed you are a most worthy substitute, Peter; and now, Nell, just reach me my hat and cloak; I will set you at your posts: you will have an ugly night of it."

"Very indeed, your honour," cried all the army, speaking for the first time.

"Silence—order—discipline," said Peter gruffly. "March!"

But instead of marching across the hall, the recruits huddled up one after the other, like a flock of geese, whom Jacobina might be supposed to have set in motion, and each scraping to the ladies, as they shuffled, sneaked, bundled, and bustled out at the door.

"We are well guarded now, Madeline," said Ellinor; "I fancy we may go to sleep as safely as if there were not a housebreaker in the world."

"Why," said Madeline, "let us trust they will be more efficient than they seem, though I cannot persuade myself that we shall really need them. One might almost as well conceive a tiger in our arbour, as a robber in Grassdale. But dear, dear Eugene, do not—do not leave us this night; Walter's room is ready for you, and if it were only to walk across that valley in such weather, it would be cruel to leave us. Let me beseech you; come, you cannot, you dare not refuse me such a favour."

Aram pleaded his vow, but it was overruled; Madeline proved herself a most exquisite casuist in setting it aside. One by one his objections were broken down; and how, as he gazed into those eyes, could he keep any resolution, that Madeline wished him to break! The power she possessed over him seemed exactly in proportion to his impregnability to every one else. The surface on which the diamond cuts its easy way, will yield to no more ignoble instrument; it is easy to shatter it, but by only one substance can it be impressed. And in this instance Aram had but one secret and strong cause to prevent his yielding to Madeline's wishes;—if he remained at the house this night, how could he well avoid a similar compliance the next? And on the next was his interview with Houseman. This reason was not, however, strong enough to enable him to resist Madeline's soft entreaties; he trusted to the time to furnish him with excuses, and when Lester returned, Madeline with a triumphant air informed him that Aram had consented to be their guest for the night."

"Your influence is indeed greater than mine," said Lester, wringing his hat as the delicate fingers of Ellinor loosened his cloak; "yet one can scarcely think our friend sacrifices much in concession, after proving the weather without. I should pity our poor patrole most exceedingly, if I were not thoroughly assured that within two hours every one of them will have quietly slunk home; and even Peter himself, when he has exhausted his bottle, will be the first to set the example. However, I have stationed two of the men near our house, and the rest at equal distances along the village."

"Do you really think they will go home, Sir?" said Ellinor, in a little alarm; "why they would be worse than I thought them, if they were driven to bed by the rain. I knew they could not stand a pistol, but a shower, however hard, I did imagine would scarcely quench their valour."

"Never mind, girl," said Lester, gaily chucking her under the chin, "we are quite strong enough now to resist them. You see Madeline has grown as brave as a lioness—Come, girls, come, let's have supper, and stir up the fire. And, Nell, where are my slippers?"

And thus on the little family scene, the cheerful wood fire flickering against the polished wainscot; the supper table arranged, the Squire drawing his oak chair towards it, Ellinor mixing his negus; and Aram and Madeline, though three times summoned to the table, and having three times answered to the summons, still lingering apart by the hearth—let us drop the curtain.

We have only, ere we close our chapter, to observe, that when Lester conducted Aram to his chamber he placed in his hands an order payable at the county town, for three hundred pounds. "The rest," he said in a whisper, "is below, where I mentioned; and there in my secret drawer it had better rest till the morning."

The good Squire then, putting his finger to his lip, hurried away, to avoid the thanks, which, indeed, however he might feel them, Aram was no dexterous adept in expressing.