3310975Eugene Aram — Book 1, Chapter IV.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer


the soliloquy, and the character, of a recluse.—the interruption.

"Or let my lamp at midnight hour
Be seen in some high lonely tower,
Where I may oft outwatch the Bear,
Or thrice-great Hermes, and unsphere
The spirit of Plato."

As Aram assisted the beautiful Madeline into the carriage—as he listened to her sweet voice—as he marked the grateful expression of her soft eyes—as he felt the slight yet warm pressure of her fairy hand, that vague sensation of delight which preludes love, for the first time, in his sterile and solitary life, agitated his breast. Lester held out his hand to him with a frank cordiality which the scholar could not resist.

"Do not let us be strangers, Mr. Aram," said he warmly. "It is not often that I press for companionship out of my own circle; but in your company I should find pleasure as well as instruction. Let us break the ice boldly, and at once. Come and dine with me to-morrow, and Ellinor shall sing to us in the evening."

The excuse died upon Aram's lips. Another glance at Madeline conquered the remains of his reserve: he accepted the invitation, and he could not but mark, with an unfamiliar emotion of the heart, that the eyes of Madeline sparkled as he did so.

With an abstracted air, and arms folded across his breast, he gazed after the carriage till the winding of the valley snatched it from his view. He then, waking from his reverie with a start, turned into the house, and carefully closing and barring the door, mounted with slow steps to the lofty chamber with which, the better to indulge his astronomical researches, he had crested his lonely abode.

It was now night. The Heavens broadened round him in all the loving yet august tranquillity of the season and the hour; the stars bathed the living atmosphere with a solemn light; and above—about—around—

"The holy time was quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration."

He looked forth upon the deep and ineffable stillness of the night, and indulged the reflections that it suggested.

"Ye mystic lights," said he soliloquizing: "worlds upon worlds—infinite—incalculable.—Bright defiers of rest and change, rolling for ever above our petty sea of mortality, as, wave after wave, we fret forth our little life, and sink into the black abyss;—can we look upon you, note your appointed order, and your unvarying course, and not feel that we are indeed the poorest puppets of an all-pervading and resistless destiny? Shall we see throughout creation each marvel fulfilling its pre-ordered fate—no wandering from its orbit—no variation in its seasons—and yet imagine that the Arch-ordainer will hold back the tides He has sent from their unseen source, at our miserable bidding? Shall we think that our prayers can avert a doom woven with the skein of events? To change a particle of our fate, might change the destiny of millions! Shall the link forsake the chain, and yet the chain be unbroken? Away, then, with our vague repinings, and our blind demands. All must walk onward to their goal, be he the wisest who looks not one step behind. The colours of our existence were doomed before our birth—our sorrows and our crimes;—millions of ages back, when this hoary earth was peopled by other kinds, yea! ere its atoms had formed one layer of its present soil, the Eternal and the all—seeing Ruler of the universe, Destiny, or God, had here fixed the moment of our birth and the limits of our career. What then is crime?—Fate! What life?—Submission!"

Such were the strange and dark thoughts which, constituting a part indeed of his established creed, broke over Aram's mind. He sought for a fairer subject for meditation, and Madeline Lester rose before him.

Eugene Aram was a man whose whole life seemed to have been one sacrifice to knowledge. What is termed pleasure had no attraction for him. From the mature manhood at which he had arrived, he looked back along his youth, and recognized no youthful folly. Love he had hitherto regarded with a cold though not an incurious eye: intemperance had never lured him to a momentary self-abandonment. Even the innocent relaxations with which the austerest minds relieve their accustomed toils, had had no power to draw him from his beloved researches. The delight monstrari digito; the gratification of triumphant wisdom; the whispers of an elevated vanity; existed not for his self-dependent and solitary heart. He was one of those earnest and high-wrought enthusiasts who now are almost extinct upon earth, and whom Romance has not hitherto attempted to pourtray; men not uncommon in the last century, who were devoted to knowledge, yet disdainful of its fame; who lived for nothing else than to learn. From store to store, from treasure to treasure, they proceeded in exulting labour, and having accumulated all, they bestowed nought; they were the arch-misers of the wealth of letters. Wrapped in obscurity, in some sheltered nook, remote from the great stir of men, they passed a life at once unprofitable and glorious; the least part of what they ransacked would appal the industry of a modern student, yet the most superficial of modern students might effect more for mankind. They lived among oracles, but they gave none forth. And yet, even in this very barrenness, there seems something high; it was a rare and great spectacle—Men, living aloof from the roar and strife of the passions that raged below, devoting themselves to the knowledge which is our purification and our immortality on earth, and yet deaf and blind to the allurements of the vanity which generally accompanies research; refusing the ignorant homage of their kind, making their sublime motive their only meed, adoring Wisdom for her sole sake, and set apart in the populous universe, like stars, luminous with their own light, but too remote from the earth on which they looked, to shed over its inmates the lustre with which they glowed.

From his youth to the present period, Aram had dwelt little in cities though he had visited many, yet he could scarcely be called ignorant of mankind; there seems something intuitive in the science which teaches us the knowledge of our race. Some men emerge from their seclusion, and find, all at once, a power to dart into the minds and drag forth the motives of those they see; it is a sort of second sight, born with them, not acquired. And Aram, it may be, rendered yet more acute by his profound and habitual investigations of our metaphysical frame, never quitted his solitude to mix with others, without penetrating into the broad traits or prevalent infirmities their characters possessed. In this, indeed, he differed from the scholar tribe, and even in abstraction was mechanically vigilant and observant. Much in his nature would, had early circumstances given it a different bias, have fitted him for worldly superiority and command. A resistless energy, an unbroken perseverance, a profound and scheming and subtle thought, a genius fertile in resources, a tongue clothed with eloquence, all, had his ambition so chosen, might have given him the same empire over the physical, that he had now attained over the intellectual world. It could not be said that Aram wanted benevolence, but it was dashed, and mixed with a certain scorn: the benevolence was the offspring of his nature; the scorn seemed the result of his pursuits. He would feed the birds from his window, he would tread aside to avoid the worm on his path; were one of his own tribe in danger, he would save him at the hazard of his life:—yet in his heart he despised men, and believed them beyond amelioration. Unlike the present race of schoolmen, who incline to the consoling hope of human perfectibility, he saw in the gloomy past but a dark prophecy of the future. As Napoleon wept over one wounded soldier in the field of battle, yet ordered without emotion, thousands to a certain death; so Aram would have sacrificed himself for an individual, but would not have sacrificed a momentary gratification for his race. And this sentiment towards men, at once of high disdain and profound despondency, was perhaps the cause why he rioted in indolence upon his extraordinary mental wealth, and could not be persuaded either to dazzle the world or to serve it. But by little and little his fame had broke forth from the limits with which he would have walled it: a man who had taught himself, under singular difficulties, nearly all the languages of the civilized earth; the profound mathematician, the elaborate antiquarian, the abstruse philologist, uniting with his graver lore the more florid accomplishments of science, from the scholastic trifling of heraldry to the gentle learning of herbs and flowers, could scarcely hope for utter obscurity in that day when all intellectual acquirement was held in high honour, and its possessors were drawn together into a sort of brotherhood by the fellowship of their pursuits. And though Aram gave little or nothing to the world himself, he was ever willing to communicate to others any benefit or honour derivable from his researches. On the altar of science he kindled no light, but the fragrant oil in the lamps of his more pious brethren was largely borrowed from his stores. From almost every college in Europe came to his obscure abode letters of acknowledgement or inquiry; and few foreign cultivators of learning visited this country without seeking an interview with Aram. He received them with all the modesty and the courtesy that characterized his demeanour; but it was noticeable that he never allowed these interruptions to be more than temporary. He proffered no hospitality, and shrunk back from all offers of friendship; the interview lasted its hour, and was seldom renewed. Patronage was not less distasteful to him than sociality. Some occasional visits and condescensions of the great, he had received with a stern haughtiness, rather than his wonted and subdued urbanity. The precise amount of his fortune was not known; his wants were so few, that what would have been poverty to others might easily have been competence to him; and the only evidence he manifested of the command of money, was in his extended and various library.

He had now been about two years settled in his present retreat. Unsocial as he was, every one in the neighbourhood loved him; even the reserve of a man so eminent, arising as it was supposed to do from a painful modesty, had in it something winning; and he had been known to evince on great occasions, a charity and a courage in the service of others which removed from the seclusion of his habits the semblance of misanthropy and of avarice. The peasant drew aside with a kindness mingled with his respect, as in his homeward walk he encountered the pale and thoughtful Student, with the folded arms and downcast eyes, which characterised the abstraction of his mood; and the village maiden, as she curtsied by him, stole a glance at his handsome but melancholy countenance; and told her sweetheart she was certain the poor scholar had been crossed in love.

And thus passed the Student's life; perhaps its monotony and dullness required less compassion than they received; no man can judge of the happiness of another. As the Moon plays upon the waves, and seems to our eyes to favour with a peculiar beam one long track amidst the waters, leaving the rest in comparative obscurity; yet all the while, she is no niggard in her lustre—for though the rays that meet not our eyes seem to us as though they were not, yet she with an equal and unfavouring loveliness, mirrors herself on every wave: even so, perhaps, Happiness falls with the same brightness and power over the whole expanse of Life, though to our limited eyes she seems only to rest on those billows from which the ray is reflected back upon our sight.

From his contemplations, of whatsoever nature, Aram was now aroused by a loud summons at the door;—the clock had gone eleven. Who could at that late hour, when the whole village was buried in sleep, demand admittance? He recollected that Madeline had said the Stranger who had so alarmed them had inquired for him, at that recollection his cheek suddenly blanched, but again, that stranger was surely only some poor traveller who had heard of his wonted charity, and had called to solicit relief, for he had not met the Stranger on the road to Lester's house; and he had naturally set down the apprehensions of his fair visitants to a mere female timidity. Who could this be? no humble wayfarer would at that hour crave assistance;—some disaster perhaps in the village. From his lofty chamber he looked forth and saw the stars watch quietly over the scattered cottages and the dark foliage that slept breathlessly around. All was still as death, but it seemed the stillness of innocence and security: again! the bell again! He thought he heard his name shouted without; he strode once or twice irresolutely to and fro the chamber; and then his step grew firm, and his native courage returned. His pistols were still girded round him; he looked to the priming, and muttered some incoherent words; he then descended the stairs, and slowly unbarred the door. Without the porch, the moonlight full upon his harsh features and sturdy frame, stood the ill-omened Traveller.