3341145Eugene Aram — Book 4, Chapter V.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



"Here's a statesman!
*****Rollo. Ask for thyself.
Lat. What more can concern me than this?"

The Tragedy of Rollo.

It was an evening in the declining autumn of 1758; some public ceremony had occurred during the day, and the crowd, which it had assembled was only now gradually lessening, as the shadows darkened along the streets. Through this crowd, self-absorbed as usual—with them—not one of them—Eugene Aram slowly wound his uncompanioned way. What an incalculable field of dread and sombre contemplation is opened to every man who, with his heart disengaged from himself, and his eyes accustomed to the sharp observance of his tribe, walks through the streets of a great city! What a world of dark and troublous secrets in the breast of every one who hurries by you! Goethe has said somewhere, that each of us, the best as the worst, hides within him something—some feeling, some remembrance that, if known, would make you hate him. No doubt the saying is exaggerated; but still, what a gloomy and profound sublimity in the idea!—what a new insight it gives into the hearts of the common herd!—with what a strange interest it may inspire us for the humblest, the tritest passenger that shoulders us in the great thoroughfare of life! One of the greatest pleasures in the world is to walk alone, and at night, (while they are yet crowded,) through the long lamplit streets of this huge metropolis. There, even more than in the silence of woods and fields, seems to me the source of endless, various meditation.

Ματερ ἐμὰ, τὸ τεὸν χρύσασπι Θήξα
Πρᾶγμα καὶ ἀσχολίασ ὑπέρτερον
Pin. 1st. l. 1.

There was that in Aram's person which irresistibly commanded attention. The earnest composure of his countenance, its thoughtful paleness, the long hair falling back, the peculiar and estranged air of his whole figure, accompanied as it was, by a mildness of expression, and that lofty abstraction which characterises one who is a brooder over his own heart—a ponderer and a soothsayer to his own dreams;—all these arrested from time to time the second gaze of the passenger, and forced on him the impression, simple as was the dress, and unpretending as was the gait of the stranger, that in indulging that second gaze, he was in all probability satisfying the curiosity which makes us love to fix our regard upon any remarkable man.

At length Aram turned from the more crowded streets, and in a short time paused before one of the most princely houses in London. It was surrounded by a spacious court-yard, and over the porch, the arms of the owner, with the coronet and supporters, were raised in stone.

"Is Lord ***** within?" asked Aram of the bluff porter who appeared at the gate.

"My Lord is at dinner," replied the porter, thinking the answer quite sufficient, and about to reclose the gate upon the unseasonable visitor.

"I am glad to find he is at home," rejoined Aram, gliding past the servant, with an air of quiet and unconscious command, and passing the court-yard to the main building.

At the door of the house, to which you ascended by a flight of stone steps, the valet of the nobleman—the only nobleman introduced in our tale, and consequently the same whom we have presented to our reader in the earlier part of this work, happened to be lounging and enjoying the smoke of the evening air. High-bred, prudent, and sagacious, Lord ***** knew well how often great men, especially in public life, obtain odium for the rudeness of their domestics, and all those, especially about himself, had been consequently tutored into the habits of universal courtesy and deference, to the lowest stranger, as well as to the highest guest. And trifling as this may seem, it was an act of morality as well as of prudence. Few can guess what pain may be saved to poor and proud men of merit by a similar precaution. The valet, therefore, replied to Aram's inquiry with great politeness; he recollected the name and repute of Aram, and as the Earl, taking delight in the company of men of letters, was generally easy of access to all such—the great man's great man instantly conducted the Student to the Earl's library, and informing him that his Lordship had not yet left the dining-room, where he was entertaining a large party, assured him that he should be informed of Aram's visit the moment he did so.

Lord ***** was still in office: sundry boxes were scattered on the floor; papers, that seemed countless, lay strewed over the immense library-table; but here and there were books of a more seductive character than those of business, in which the mark lately set, and the pencilled note still fresh, showed the fondness with which men of cultivated minds, though engaged in official pursuits, will turn, in the momentary intervals of more arid and toilsome life, to those lighter studies which perhaps they in reality the most enjoy.

One of these books, a volume of Shaftesbury, Aram carefully took up; it opened of its own accord in that most beautiful and profound passage which contains perhaps the justest sarcasm, to which that ingenious and graceful reasoner has given vent.

"The very spirit of Faction, for the greatest part, seems to be no other than the abuse or irregularity of that social love and common affection which is natural to mankind—for the opposite of sociableness, is selfishness, and of all characters, the thorough selfish one—is the least forward in taking party. The men of this sort are, in this respect, true men of moderation. They are secure of their temper, and possess themselves too well to be in danger of entering warmly into any cause, or engaging deeply with any side or faction."

On the margin of the page was the following note, in the handwriting of Lord *****.

"Generosity hurries a man into party—philosophy keeps him aloof from it; the Emperor Julian says in his epistle to Themistius, 'If you should form only three or four philosophers, you would contribute more essentially to the happiness of mankind than many kings united.' Yet, if all men were philosophers, I doubt whether, though more men would be virtuous, there would be so many instances of an extraordinary virtue. The violent passions produce dazzling irregularities."

The Student was still engaged with this note when the Earl entered the room. As the door through which he passed was behind Aram, and he trod with a soft step, he was not perceived by the Scholar till he had reached him, and, looking over Aram's shoulder, the Earl said:—"You will dispute the truth of my remark, will you not? Profound calm is the element in which you would place all the virtues."

"Not all, my Lord," answered Aram, rising, as the Earl now shook him by the hand, and expressed his delight at seeing the Student again. Though the sagacious nobleman had no sooner heard the Student's name, than, in his own heart, he was convinced that Aram had sought him for the purpose of soliciting a renewal of the offers he had formerly refused; he resolved to leave his visitor to open the subject himself, and appeared courteously to consider the visit as a matter of course, made without any other object than the renewal of the mutual pleasure of intercourse.

"I am afraid, my Lord," said Aram, "that you are engaged. My visit can be paid to-morrow if—"

"Indeed," said the Earl interrupting him, and drawing a chair to the table, "I have no engagements which should deprive me of the pleasure of your company. A few friends have indeed dined with me, but as they are now with Lady *****, I do not think they will greatly miss me; besides, an occasional absence is readily forgiven in us happy men of office—we, who have the honour of exciting the envy of all England, for being made magnificently wretched."

"I am glad you allow so much, my Lord," said Aram smiling, "I could not have said more. Ambition only makes a favourite to make an ingrate;—she has lavished her honours on Lord *****, and see how he speaks of her bounty?"

"Nay," said the Earl, "I spoke wantonly, and stand corrected. I have no reason to complain of the course I have chosen. Ambition, like any other passion, gives us unhappy moments; but it gives us also an animated life. In its pursuit, the minor evils of the world are not felt; little crosses, little vexations do not disturb us. Like men who walk in sleep, we are absorbed in one powerful dream, and do not even know the obstacles in our way, or the dangers that surround us: in a word, we have no private life. All that is merely domestic, the anxiety and the loss which fret other men, which blight the happiness of other men, are not felt by us: we are wholly public;—so that if we lose much comfort, we escape much care."

The Earl broke off for a moment; and then turning the subject, inquired after the Lesters, and making some general and vague observations about that family, came purposely to a pause.

Aram broke it:—

"My Lord," said he, with a slight, but not ungraceful, embarrassment, "I fear that, in the course of your political life, you must have made one observation, that he who promises to-day, will be called upon to perform to-morrow. No man who has any thing to bestow, can ever promise with impunity. Some time since, you tendered me offers that would have dazzled more ardent natures than mine; and which I might have advanced some claim to philosophy in refusing. I do not now come to ask a renewal of those offers. Public life, and the haunts of men, are as hateful as ever to my pursuits: but I come, frankly and candidly, to throw myself on that generosity, which proffered to me then so large a bounty. Certain circumstances have taken from me the small pittance which supplied my wants;—I require only the power to pursue my quiet and obscure career of study—your Lordship can afford me that power: it is not against custom for the Government to grant some small annuity to men of letters—your Lordship's interest could obtain for me this favour. Let me add, however, that I can offer nothing in return! Party politics—Sectarian interests—are for ever dead to me: even my common studies are of small general utility to mankind—I am conscious of this—would it were otherwise!—Once I hoped it would be—but—" Aram here turned deadly pale, gasped for breath, mastered his emotion, and proceeded—"I have no great claim, then, to this bounty, beyond that which all poor cultivators of the abstruse sciences can advance. It is well for a country that those sciences should be cultivated; they are not of a nature which is ever lucrative to the possessor—not of a nature that can often be left, like lighter literature, to the fair favour of the public—they call, perhaps, more than any species of intellectual culture, for the protection of a government; and though in me would be a poor selection, the principle would still be served, and the example furnish precedent for nobler instances hereafter. I have said all, my Lord!"

Nothing, perhaps, more affects a man of some sympathy with those who cultivate letters, than the pecuniary claims of one who can advance them with justice, and who advances them also with dignity. If the meanest, the most pitiable, the most heart—sickening object in the world, is the man of letters, sunk into the habitual beggar, practising the tricks, incurring the rebuke, glorying in the shame, of the mingled mendicant and swindler;—what, on the other hand, so touches, so subdues us, as the first, and only petition, of one whose intellect dignifies our whole kind; and who prefers it with a certain haughtiness in his very modesty; because, in asking a favour to himself, he may be only asking the power to enlighten the world?

"Say no more, Sir," said the Earl, affected deeply, and giving gracefully way to the feeling; "the affair is settled. Consider it utterly so. Name only the amount of the annuity you desire."

With some hesitation Aram named a sum so moderate, so trivial, that the Minister, accustomed as he was to the claims of younger sons and widowed dowagers—accustomed to the hungry cravings of petitioners without merit, who considered birth the only just title to the right of exactions from the public—was literally startled by the contrast. "More than this," added Aram, "I do not require, and would decline to accept. We have some right to claim existence from the administrators of the common stock—none to claim affluence."

"Would to Heaven!" said the Earl, smiling, "that all claimants were like you: pension lists would not then call for indignation; and ministers would not blush to support the justice of the favours they conferred. But are you still firm in rejecting a more public career, with all its deserved emoluments and just honours? The offer I made you once, I renew with increased avidity now."

"'Despiciam dites,'" answered Aram, "and, thanks to you, I may add, 'despiciamque famem.'"