3310925Eugene Aram — Book 1, Chapter III.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer


a dialogue and an alarm.—a student's house.

"A fellow by the band of Nature marked,
Quoted, and signed, to do a deed of shame."

*****"He is a scholar, if a man may trust

The liberal voice of Fame, in her report.*****Myself was once a student, and indeed
Fed with the self-same humour he is now."

Ben Jonson.—Every Man in his Humour.

The two sisters pursued their walk along a scene which might well be favoured by their selection. No sooner had they crossed the stile, than the village seemed vanished into earth; so quiet, so lonely, so far from the evidence of life was the landscape through which they passed. On their right, sloped a green and silent hill, shutting out all view beyond itself, save the deepening and twilight sky; to the left, and immediately along their road lay fragments of stone, covered with moss, or shadowed by wild shrubs, that here and there, gathered into copses, or breaking abruptly away from the rich sod, left frequent spaces through which you caught long vistas of forestland, or the brooklet gliding in a noisy and rocky course, and breaking into a thousand tiny waterfalls, or mimic eddies. So secluded was the scene, and so unwitnessing of cultivation, that you would not have believed that a human habitation could be at hand, and this air of perfect solitude and quiet gave an additional charm to the spot.

"But I assure you," said Ellinor, earnestly continuing a conversation they had begun, "I assure you I was not mistaken, I saw it as plainly as I see you."

"What, in the breast pocket?"

"Yes, as he drew out his handkerchief, I saw the barrel of the pistol quite distinctly."

"Indeed, I think we had better tell my father as soon as we get home; it may be as well to be on our guard, though robbery, I believe, has not been heard of in Grassdale for these twenty years."

"Yet for what purpose, save that of evil, could he in these peaceable times and this peaceable country, carry fire arms about him. And what a countenance! Did you note the shy, and yet ferocious eye, like that of some animal, that longs, yet fears to spring upon you."

"Upon my word, Ellinor," said Madeline, smiling, "you are not very merciful to strangers. After all, the man might have provided himself with the pistol which you saw as a natural precaution; reflect that, as a stranger, he may well not know how safe this district usually is, and he may have come from London, in the neighbourhood of which they say robberies have been frequent of late. As to his looks, they are I own unpardonable; for so much ugliness there can be no excuse. Had the man been as handsome as our cousin Walter, you would not perhaps have been so uncharitable in your fears at the pistol."

"Nonsense, Madeline," said Ellinor, blushing, and turning away her face;—there was a moment's pause, which the younger sister broke.

"We do not seem," said she, "to make much progress in the friendship of our singular neighbour. I never knew my father court any one so much as he has courted Mr. Aram, and yet, you see how seldom he calls upon us; nay, I often think that he seeks to shun us; no great compliment to our attractions, Madeline."

"I regret his want of sociability, for his own sake," said Madeline, "for he seems melancholy as well as thoughtful, and he leads so secluded a life, that I cannot but think my father's conversation and society, if he would but encourage it, might afford some relief to his solitude."

"And he always seems," observed Ellinor, "to take pleasure in my father's conversation, as who would not? how his countenance lights up when he converses! it is a pleasure to watch it. I think him positively handsome when he speaks."

"Oh, more than handsome!" said Madeline, with enthusiasm, "with that high, pale brow, and those deep, unfathomable eyes!"

Ellinor smiled, and it was now Madeline's turn to blush.

"Well," said the former, "there is something about him that fills one with an indescribable interest; and his manner, if cold at times, is yet always so gentle."

"And to hear him converse," said Madeline, "it is like music. His thoughts, his very words, seem so different from the language and ideas of others. What a pity that he should ever be silent!"

"There is one peculiarity about his gloom, it never inspires one with distrust," said Ellinor; "if I had observed him in the same circumstances as that ill-omened traveller, I should have had no apprehension."

"Ah! that traveller still runs in your head. If we were to meet him in this spot."

"Heaven forbid!" cried Ellinor, turning hastily round in alarm—and, lo! as if her sister had been a prophet, she saw the very person in question at some little distance behind them, and walking on with rapid strides.

She uttered a faint shriek of surprise and terror, and Madeline, looking back at the sound, immediately participated in her alarm. The spot looked so desolate and lonely, and the imagination of both had been already so worked upon by Ellinor's fears, and their conjectures respecting the ill-boding weapon she had witnessed, that a thousand apprehensions of outrage and murder crowded at once upon the minds of the two sisters. Without, however, giving vent in words to their alarm, they, as by an involuntary and simultaneous suggestion, quickened their pace, every moment stealing a glance behind, to watch the progress of the suspected robber. They thought that he also seemed to accelerate his movements; and this observation increased their terror, and would appear indeed to give it some more rational ground. At length, as by a sudden turn of the road they lost sight of the dreaded stranger, their alarm suggested to them but one resolution, and they fairly fled on as fast as the fear which actuated, would allow, them. The nearest, and indeed the only house in that direction, was Aram's, but they both imagined if they could come within sight of that, they should be safe. They looked back at every interval; now they did not see their fancied pursuer—now he emerged again into view—now—yes—he also was running.

"Faster, faster, Madeline, for God's sake! he is gaining upon us!" cried Ellinor: the path grew more wild, and the trees more thick and frequent; at every cluster that marked their progress they saw the Stranger closer and closer; at length, a sudden break,—a sudden turn in the landscape;—a broad plain burst upon them, and in the midst of it the Student's solitary abode!

"Thank God, we are safe!" cried Madeline. She turned once more to look for the Stranger; in so doing, her foot struck against a fragment of stone, and she fell with great violence to the ground. She endeavoured to rise, but found herself, at first, unable to stir from the spot. In this state she looked, however, back, and saw the Traveller at some little distance. But he also halted, and after a moment's seeming deliberation, turned aside, and was lost among the bushes.

With great difficulty Ellinor now assisted Madeline to rise; her ancle was violently sprained, and she could not put her foot to the ground; but though she had evinced so much dread at the apparition of the stranger, she now testified an almost equal degree of fortitude in bearing pain. "I am not much hurt, Ellinor," she said, faintly smiling, to encourage her sister, who supported her in speechless alarm: "but what is to be done? I cannot use this foot; how shall we get home?"

"Thank God, if you are not much hurt!" said poor Ellinor, almost crying, "lean on me—heavier—pray. Only try and reach the house, and we can then stay there till Mr. Aram sends home for the carriage."

"But what will he think? how strange it will seem!" said Madeline, the colour once more visiting her cheek, which a moment since had been blanched as pale as death.

"Is this a time for scruples and ceremony?" said Ellinor. "Come! I entreat you, come; if you linger thus, the man may take courage and attack us yet. There! that's right! Is the pain very great?"

"I do not mind the pain," murmured Madeline; "but if he should think we intrude? His habits are so reserved—so secluded; indeed I fear—"

"Intrude!" interrupted Ellinor. "Do you think so ill of him?—Do you suppose that, hermit as he is, he has lost common humanity? But lean more on me, dearest; you do not know how strong I am!"

Thus alternately chiding, caressing, and encouraging her sister, Ellinor led on the sufferer, till they had crossed the plain, though with slowness and labour, and stood before the porch of the Recluse's house. They had looked back from time to time, but the cause of so much alarm appeared no more. This they deemed a sufficient evidence of the justice of their apprehensions.

Madeline would even now fain have detained her sister's hand from the bell that hung without the porch half imbedded in ivy; but Ellinor, out of patience—as she well might be—with her sister's unseasonable prudence, refused any longer delay. So singularly still and solitary was the plain around the house, that the sound of the bell breaking the silence, had in it something startling, and appeared in its sudden and shrill voice, a profanation to the deep tranquillity of the spot. They did not wait long—a step was heard within—the door was slowly unbarred, and the Student himself stood before them.

He was a man who might, perhaps, have numbered some five and thirty years; but at a hasty glance, he would have seemed considerably younger. He was above the ordinary stature; though a gentle, and not ungraceful bend in the neck rather than the shoulders, somewhat curtailed his proper advantages of height. His frame was thin and slender, but well knit and fair proportioned. Nature had originally cast his form in an athletic mould; but sedentary habits, and the wear of mind, seemed somewhat to have impaired her gifts. His cheek was pale and delicate; yet it was rather the delicacy of thought than of weak health. His hair, which was long, and of a rich and deep brown, was worn back from his face and temples, and left a broad high majestic forehead utterly unrelieved and bare; and on the brow there was not a single wrinkle, it was as smooth as it might have been some fifteen years ago. There was a singular calmness, and, so to speak, profundity, of thought, eloquent upon its clear expanse, which suggested the idea of one who had passed his life rather in contemplation than emotion. It was a face that a physiognomist would have loved to look upon, so much did it speak both of the refinement and the dignity of intellect.

Such was the person—if pictures convey a faithful resemblance—of a man, certainly the most eminent in his day for various and profound learning, and a genius wholly self-taught, yet never contented to repose upon the wonderful stores it had laboriously accumulated.

He now stood before the two girls, silent, and evidently surprised; and it would scarce have been an unworthy subject for a picture—that ivied porch—that still spot—Madeline's reclining and subdued form and downcast eyes—the eager face of Ellinor, about to narrate the nature and cause of their intrusion—and the pale Student himself, thus suddenly aroused from his solitary meditations, and converted into the protector of beauty.

No sooner did Aram gather from Ellinor the outline of their story, and of Madeline's accident, than his countenance and manner testified the liveliest and most eager sympathy. Madeline was inexpressibly touched and surprised at the kindly and respectful earnestness with which this recluse scholar—usually so cold and abstracted in mood—assisted and led her into the house: the sympathy he expressed for her pain—the sincerity of his tone—the compassion of his eyes—and as those dark—and to use her own thought—unfathomable orbs bent admiringly and yet so gently upon her, Madeline, even in spite of her pain, felt an indescribable, a delicious thrill at her heart, which in the presence of no one else had she ever experienced before.

Aram now summoned the only domestic his house possessed, who appeared in the form of an old woman, whom he seemed to have selected from the whole neighbourhood as the person most in keeping with the rigid seclusion he preserved. She was exceedingly deaf, and was a proverb in the village for her extreme taciturnity. Poor old Margaret; she was a widow, and had lost ten children by early deaths. There was a time when her gaiety had been as noticeable as her reserve was now. In spite of her infirmity, she was not slow in comprehending the accident Madeline had met with; and she busied herself with a promptness that shewed her misfortunes had not deadened her natural kindness of disposition, in preparing fomentations and bandages for the wounded foot.

Meanwhile Aram, having no person to send in his stead, undertook to seek the manor—house, and bring back the old family coach, which had dozed inactively in its shelter for the last six months, to convey the sufferer home.

"No, Mr. Aram," said Madeline, colouring; "pray do not go yourself: consider, the man may still be loitering on the road. He is armed—good Heavens, if he should meet you!"

"Fear not, Madam," said Aram, with a faint smile. "I also keep arms, even in this obscure and safe retreat; and to satisfy you, I will not neglect to carry them with me."

"As he spoke, he took from the wainscoat, from which they hung, a brace of large horse pistols, slung them round him by a leather belt, and flinging over his person, to conceal weapons so alarming to any less dangerous passenger he might encounter, the long cloak then usually worn in inclement seasons, as an outer garment, he turned to depart.

"But are they loaded?" asked Ellinor.

Aram answered briefly, in the affirmative. It was somewhat singular, but the sisters did not then remark it, that a man so peaceable in his pursuits, and seemingly possessed of no valuables that could tempt cupidity, should in that spot, where crime was never heard of, use such habitual precaution.

When the door closed upon him, and while the old woman, relieved with a light hand and soothing lotions, which she had shewn some skill in preparing, the anguish of the sprain, Madeline cast glances of interest and curiosity around the apartment into which she had had the rare good fortune to obtain admittance.

The house had belonged to a family of some note, whose heirs had outstripped their fortunes. It had been long deserted and uninhabited; and when Aram settled in those parts, the proprietor was too glad to get rid of the incumbrance of an empty house, at a nominal rent. The solitude of the place had been the main attraction to Aram; and as he possessed what would be considered a very extensive assortment of books, even for a library of these days, he required a larger apartment than he would have been able to obtain in an abode more compact and more suitable to his fortunes and mode of living.

The room in which the sisters now found themselves was the most spacious in the house, and was indeed of considerable dimensions. It contained in front one large window, jutting from the wall. Opposite was an antique and high mantelpiece of black oak. The rest of the room was walled from the floor to the roof with books; volumes of all languages, and it might even be said, without much exaggeration, upon all sciences, were strewed around, on the chairs, the tables, or the floor. By the window stood the Student's desk, and a large old-fashioned chair of oak. A few papers, filled with astronomical calculations, lay on the desk, and these were all the witnesses of the result of study. Indeed Aram does not appear to have been a man much inclined to reproduce the learning he acquired;—what he wrote was in very small proportion to what he had read.

So high and grave was the reputation he had acquired, that the retreat and sanctum of so many learned hours would have been interesting, even to one who could not appreciate learning; but to Madeline, with her peculiar disposition and traits of mind, we may readily conceive that the room presented a powerful and pleasing charm. As the elder sister looked round in silence, Ellinor attempted to draw the old woman into conversation. She would fain have elicited some particulars of the habits and daily life of the recluse; but the deafness of their attendant was so obstinate and hopeless, that she was forced to give up the attempt in despair. "I fear," said she at last, her goodnature so far overcome by impatience as not to forbid a slight yawn; "I fear we shall have a dull time of it till my father arrives. Just consider, the fat black mares, never too fast, can only creep along that broken path,—for road there is none: it will be quite night before the coach arrives."

"I am sorry, dear Ellinor, my awkwardness should occasion you so stupid an evening," answered Madeline.

"Oh," cried Ellinor, throwing her arms around her sister's neck, "it is not for myself I spoke; and indeed I am delighted to think we have got into this wizard's den, and seen the instruments of his art. But I do so trust Mr. Aram will not meet that terrible man."

"Nay," said the prouder Madeline, "he is armed, and it is but one man. I feel too high a respect for him to allow myself much fear."

"But these bookmen are not often heroes," remarked Ellinor, laughing.

"For shame," said Madeline, the colour mounting to her forehead. "Do you not remember how, last summer, Eugene Aram rescued Dame Grenfeld's child from the bull, though at the literal peril of his own life? And who but Eugene Aram, when the floods in the year before swept along the low lands by Fairleigh, went day after day to rescue the persons, or even to save the goods of those poor people; at a time too, when the boldest villagers would not hazard themselves across the waters?—But bless me, Ellinor, what is the matter? you turn pale, you tremble.'

"Hush!" said Ellinor under her breath, and, putting her finger to her mouth, she rose and stole lightly to the window; she had observed the figure of a man pass by, and now, as she gained the window, she saw him halt by the porch, and recognised the formidable Stranger. Presently the bell sounded, and the old woman, familiar with its shrill sound, rose from her kneeling position beside the sufferer to attend to the summons. Ellinor sprang forward and detained her: the poor old woman stared at her in amazement, wholly unable to comprehend her abrupt gestures and her rapid language. It was with considerable difficulty and after repeated efforts, that she at length impressed the dulled sense of the crone with the nature of their alarm, and the expediency of refusing admittance to the Stranger. Meanwhile, the bell had rung again,—again, and the third time with a prolonged violence which testified the impatience of the applicant. As soon as the good dame had satisfied herself as to Ellinor's meaning, she could no longer be accused of unreasonable taciturnity; she wrung her hands and poured forth a volley of lamentations and fears, which effectually relieved Ellinor from the dread of her unheeding the admonition. Satisfied at having done thus much, Ellinor now herself hastened to the door and secured the ingress with an additional bolt, and then, as the thought flashed upon her, returned to the old woman and made her, with an easier effort than before, now that her senses were sharpened by fear, comprehend the necessity of securing the back entrance also; both hastened away to effect this precaution, and Madeline, who herself desired Ellinor to accompany the old woman, was left alone. She kept her eyes fixed on the window with a strange sentiment of dread at being thus left in so helpless a situation; and though a door of no ordinary dimensions and doubly locked interposed between herself and the intruder, she expected in breathless terror, every instant, to see the form of the ruffian burst into the apartment. As she thus sat and looked, she shudderingly saw the man, tired perhaps of repeating a summons so ineffectual, come to the window and look pryingly within: their eyes met; Madeline had not the power to shriek. Would he break through the window? that was her only idea, and it deprived her of words, almost of sense. He gazed upon her evident terror for a moment with a grim smile of contempt; he then knocked at the window, and his voice broke harshly on a silence yet more dreadful than the interruption.

"Ho, ho! so there is some life stirring! I beg pardon, Madam, is Mr. Aram—Eugene Aram, within?"

"No," said Madeline faintly, and then, sensible that her voice did not reach him, she reiterated the answer in a louder tone. The man, as if satisfied, made a rude inclination of his head and withdrew from the window. Ellinor now returned, and with difficulty Madeline found words to explain to her what had passed. It will be conceived that the two young ladies watched the arrival of their father with no lukewarm expectation; the stranger however appeared no more; and in about an hour, to their inexpressible joy, they heard the rumbling sound of the old coach as it rolled towards the house. This time there was no delay in unbarring the door.