3396130Eugene Aram — Book 5, Chapter V.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



"Equal to either fortune."

Speech of Eugene Aram.

A thought comes over us, sometimes, in our career of pleasure, or the troublous exultation of our ambitious pursuits; a thought comes over us, like a cloud, that around us and about us Death—Shame—Crime—Despair, are busy at their work. I have read somewhere of an enchanted land, where the inmates walked along voluptuous gardens, and built palaces, and heard music, and made merry; while around, and within, the land, were deep caverns, where the gnomes and the fiends dwelt: and ever and anon their groans and laughter, and the sounds of their unutterable toils, or ghastly revels, travelled to the upper air, mixing in an awful strangeness with the summer festivity and buoyant occupation of those above. And this is the picture of human life! These reflections of the maddening disparities of the world are dark, but salutary:—

—but we are seldom sadder without being also wiser men!

The third of August 1759 rose bright, calm, and clear: it was the morning of the trial; and when Ellinor stole into her sister's room, she found Madeline sitting before the glass, and braiding her rich locks with an evident attention and care.

"I wish," said she, "that you had pleased me by dressing as for a holiday. See, I am going to wear the dress I was to have been married in."

Ellinor shuddered; for what is more appalling than to find the signs of gaiety accompanying the reality of anguish!

"Yes," continued Madeline, with a smile of inexpressible sweetness, "a little reflection will convince you that this day ought not to be one of mourning. It was the suspense that has so worn out our hearts. If he is acquitted, as we all believe and trust, think how appropriate will be the outward seeming of our joy! If not, why I shall go before him to our marriage home, and in marriage garments. Ay," she added after a moment's pause, and with a much more grave, settled, and intense expression of voice and countenance—"ay; do you remember how Eugene once told us, that if we went at noonday to the bottom of a deep pit,[2] we should be able to see the stars, which on the level ground are invisible. Even so, from the depths of grief—worn, wretched, seared, and dying—the blessed apparitions and tokens of Heaven make themselves visible to our eyes. And I know—I have seen—I feel here," pressing her hand on her heart, "that my course is run; a few sands only are left in the glass. Let us waste them bravely. Stay, Ellinor! You see these poor withered rose-leaves: Eugene gave them to me the day before—before that fixed for our marriage. I shall wear them to-day, as I would have worn them on the wedding-day. When he gathered the poor flower, how fresh it was; and I kissed off the dew: now see it! But, come, come; this is trifling: we must not be late. Help me, Nell, help me: come, bustle, quick, quick! Nay, be not so slovenly; I told you I would be dressed with care to-day."

And when Madeline was dressed, though the robe sat loose and in large folds over her shrunken form, yet, as she stood erect, and looked with a smile that saddened Ellinor more than tears at her image in the glass, perhaps her beauty never seemed of a more striking and lofty character,—she looked indeed, a bride, but the bride of no earthly nuptials. Presently they heard an irresolute and trembling step at the door, and Lester knocking, asked if they were prepared.

"Come in, father," said Madeline, in a calm and even cheerful voice; and the old man entered.

He cast a silent glance over Madeline's white dress, and then at his own, which was deep mourning: the glance said volumes, and its meaning was not marred by words from any one of the three.

"Yes, father," said Madeline, breaking the pause,—"We are all ready. Is the carriage here?"

"It is at the door, my child."

"Come then, Ellinor, come!"—and leaning on her arm, Madeline walked towards the door. When she got to the threshold, she paused, and looked round the room.

"What is it you want?" asked Ellinor.

"I was but bidding all here farewell," replied Madeline, in a soft and touching voice: "And now before we leave the house, Father,—Sister, one word with you;—you have ever been very, very kind to me, and most of all in this bitter trial, when I must have taxed your patience sadly—for I know all is not right here, (touching her forehead) —I cannot go forth this day without thanking you. Ellinor, my dearest friend—my fondest sister—my playmate in gladness—my comforter in grief—my nurse in sickness;—since we were little children, we have talked together, and laughed together, and wept together, and though we knew all the thoughts of each other, we have never known one thought that we would have concealed from God;—and now we are going to part?—do not stop me, it must be so, I know it. But, after a little while may you be happy again, not so buoyant as you have been, that can never be, but still happy!—You are formed for love and home, and for those ties you once thought would be mine. God grant that I may have suffered for us both, and that when we meet hereafter, you may tell me you have been happy here!"

"But you, father," added Madeline, tearing herself from the neck of her weeping sister, and sinking on her knees before Lester, who leaned against the wall convulsed with his emotions, and covering his face with his hands—"but you,—what can I say to you?—You, who have never,—no, not in my first childhood, said one harsh word to me—who have sunk all a father's authority in a father's love,—how can I say all that I feel for you?—the grateful overflowing, (paining, yet—oh, how sweet!) remembrances which crowd around and suffocate me now?—The time will come when Ellinor and Ellinor's children must be all in all to you—when of your poor Madeline nothing will be left but a memory; but they, they will watch on you and tend you, and protect your grey hairs from sorrow, as I might once have hoped I also was fated to do."

"My child! my child! you break my heart!" faltered forth at last the poor old man, who till now had in vain endeavoured to speak.

"Give me your blessing, dear father," said Madeline, herself overcome by her feelings;—"Put your hand on my head and bless me—and say, that if I have ever unconsciously given you a moment's pain—I am forgiven!"

"Forgiven!" repeated Lester, raising his daughter with weak and trembling arms as his tears fell fast upon her cheek,—"Never did I feel what an angel had sate beside my hearth till now!—But be comforted—be cheered. What, if Heaven had reserved its crowning mercy till this day, and Eugene be amongst us, free, acquitted, triumphant before the night!"

"Ha!" said Madeline, as if suddenly roused by the thought into new life:—"Ha! let us hasten to find your words true. Yes! yes!—if it should be so—if it should. And," added she, in a hollow voice, (the enthusiasm checked,) "if it were not for my dreams, I might believe it would be so:—But—come—I am ready now!"

The carriage went slowly through the crowd that the fame of the approaching trial had gathered along the streets, but the blinds were drawn down, and the father and daughter escaped that worst of tortures, the curious gaze of strangers on distress. Places had been kept for them in court, and as they left the carriage and entered the fatal spot, the venerable figure of Lester, and the trembling and veiled forms that clung to him, arrested all eyes. They at length gained their seats, and it was not long before a bustle in the court drew off attention from them. A buzz, a murmur, a movement, a dread pause! Houseman was first arraigned on his former indictment, acquitted, and admitted evidence against Aram, who was thereupon arraigned. The prisoner stood at the bar! Madeline gasped for breath, and clung, with a convulsive motion, to her sister's arm. But presently, with a long sigh she recovered her self-possession, and sat quiet and silent, fixing her eyes upon Aram's countenance; and the aspect of that countenance was well calculated to sustain her courage, and to mingle a sort of exulting pride, with all the strained and fearful acuteness of her sympathy. Something, indeed, of what he had suffered, was visible in the prisoner's features; the lines around the mouth in which mental anxiety generally the most deeply writes its traces, were grown marked and furrowed; grey hairs were here and there scattered amongst the rich and long luxuriance of the dark brown locks, and as, before his imprisonment, he had seemed considerably younger than he was, so now time had atoned for its past delay, and he might have appeared to have told more years than had really gone over his head; but the remarkable light and beauty of his eye was undimmed as ever, and still the broad expanse of his forehead retained its unwrinkled surface and striking expression of calmness and majesty. High, self-collected, serene, and undaunted, he looked upon the crowd, the scene, the judge, before and around him; and, even among those who believed him guilty, that involuntary and irresistible respect which moral firmness always produces on the mind, forced an unwilling interest in his fate, and even a reluctant hope of his acquittal.

Houseman was called upon. No one could regard his face without a certain mistrust and inward shudder. In men prone to cruelty, it has generally been remarked, that there is an animal expression strongly prevalent in the countenance. The murderer and the lustful man are often alike in the physical structure. The bull-throat—the thick lips—the receding forehead—the fierce restless eye—which some one or other says reminds you of the buffalo in the instant before he becomes dangerous, are the outward tokens of the natural animal unsoftened—unenlightened—unredeemed—consulting only the immediate desires of his nature, whatever be the passion (lust or revenge) to which they prompt. And this animal expression, the witness of his character, was especially wrought, if we may use the word, in Houseman's rugged and harsh features; rendered, if possible, still more remarkable at that time by a mixture of sullenness and timidity. The conviction that his own life was saved, could not prevent remorse at his treachery in accusing his comrade—a sort of confused principle of which villains are the most susceptible, when every other honest sentiment has deserted them.

With a low, choked, and sometimes a faltering tone, Houseman deposed, that, in the night between the 7th and 8th of January 1744-5, sometime before 11 o'clock, he went to Aram's house—that they conversed on different matters—that he stayed there about an hour—that some three hours afterwards he passed, in company with Clarke, by Aram's house, and Aram was outside the door, as if he were about to return home—that Aram invited them both to come in—that they did so—that Clarke, who intended to leave the town before day-break, in order, it was acknowledged, to make secretly away with certain property in his possession, was about to quit the house, when Aram proposed to accompany him out of the town—that he (Aram) and Houseman then went forth with Clarke—that when they came into the field where St. Robert's Cave is, Aram and Clarke went into it, over the hedge, and when they came within six or eight yards off the Cave, he saw them quarrelling—that he saw Aram strike Clarke several times, upon which Clarke fell, and he never saw him rise again— that he saw no instrument Aram had, and knew not that he had any—that upon this, without any interposition or alarm, he left them and returned home—that the next morning he went to Aram's house, and asked what business he had with Clarke last night, and what he had done with him? Aram replied not to this question; but threatened him, if he spoke of his being in Clarke's company that night; vowing revenge either by himself or some other person if he mentioned any thing relating to the affair. This was the sum of Houseman's evidence.

A Mr. Beckwith was next called, who deposed, that Aram's garden had been searched, owing to a vague suspicion that he might have been an accomplice in the frauds of Clarke—that some parts of clothing, and also some pieces of cambric which he had sold to Clarke a little while before, were found there.

The third witness was the watchman, Thomas Barnet, who deposed, that before midnight (it might be a little after eleven) he saw a person come out from Aram's house, who had a wide coat on, with the cape about his head, and seemed to shun him; whereupon he went up to him, and put by the cape of his great coat, and perceived it to be Richard Houseman. He contented himself with wishing him good night.

The officers who executed the warrant then gave their evidence as to the arrest, and dwelt on some expressions dropped by Aram before he arrived at Knaresbro', which, however, were felt to be wholly unimportant.

After this evidence there was a short pause;—and then a shiver, that recoil and tremor which men feel at any exposition of the relics of the dead, ran through the court; for the next witness was mute—it was the skull of the Deceased! On the left side there was a fracture, that from the nature of it seemed as it could only have been made by the stroke of some blunt instrument. The piece was broken, and could not be replaced but from within.

The surgeon, Mr. Locock, who produced it. gave it as his opinion that no such breach could proceed from natural decay—that it was not a recent fracture by the instrument with which it was dug up, but seemed to be of many years' standing.

This made the chief part of the evidence against Aram; the minor points we have omitted, and also such as, like that of Aram's hostess, would merely have repeated what the reader knew before.

And now closed the criminatory evidence—and now the prisoner was asked, in that peculiarly thrilling and awful question—What he had to say in his own behalf? Till now, Aram had not changed his posture or his countenance—his dark and piercing eye had for one instant fixed on each witness that appeared against him, and then dropped its gaze upon the ground. But at this moment a faint hectic flushed his cheek, and he seemed to gather and knit himself up for defence. He glanced round the court, as if to see what had been the impression created against him. His eye rested on the grey locks of Rowland Lester, who, looking down, had covered his face with his hands. But beside that venerable form was the still and marble face of Madeline; and even at that distance from him, Aram perceived how intent was the hush and suspense of her emotions. But when she caught his eye—that eye which even at such a moment beamed unutterable love, pity, regret for her—a wild, a convulsive smile of encouragement, of anticipated triumph, broke the repose of her colourless features, and suddenly dying away, left her lips apart, in that expression which the great masters of old, faithful to Nature, give alike to the struggle of hope and the pause of terror.

"My Lord," began Aram, in that remarkable defence still extant, and still considered as wholly unequalled from the lips of one defending his own, and such a, cause;—"My Lord, I know not whether it is of right, or through some indulgence of your Lordship, that I am allowed the liberty at this bar, and at this time, to attempt a defence; incapable and uninstructed as I am to speak. Since, while I see so many eyes upon me, so numerous and awful a concourse, fixed with attention, and filled with I know not what expectancy, I labour, not with guilt, my Lord, but with perplexity. For, having never seen a court but this, being wholly unacquainted with law, the customs of the bar, and all judiciary proceedings, I fear I shall be so little capable of speaking with propriety, that it might reasonably be expected to exceed my hope, should I be able to speak at all.

"I have heard, my Lord, the indictment read, wherein I find myself charged with the highest of human crimes. You will grant me then your patience, if I, single and unskilful, destitute of friends, and unassisted by counsel, attempt something perhaps like argument in my defence. What I have to say will be but short, and that brevity may be the best part of it.

"My Lord, the tenor of my life contradicts this indictment. Who can look back over what is known of my former years, and charge me with one vice—one offence? No! I concerted not schemes of fraud—projected no violence—injured no man's property or person. My days were honestly laborious—my nights intensely studious. This egotism is not presumptuous—is not unreasonable. What man, after a temperate use of life, a series of thinking and acting regularly, without one single deviation from a sober and even tenor of conduct, ever plunged into the depth of crime precipitately, and at once? Mankind are not instantaneously corrupted. Villainy is always progressive. We decline from right—not suddenly, but step after step.

"If my life in general contradicts the indictment, my health at that time in particular contradicts it yet more. A little time before, I had been confined to my bed, I had suffered under a long and severe disorder. The distemper left me but slowly, and in part. So far from being well at the time I am charged with this fact, I never, to this day, perfectly recovered. Could a person in this condition execute violence against another?— I, feeble and valetudinary, with no inducement to engage—no ability to accomplish—no weapon wherewith to perpetrate such a fact;—without interest, without power, without motives, without means!

"My Lord, Clarke disappeared: true; but is that a proof of his death? The fallibility of all conclusions of such a sort, from such a circumstance, is too obvious to require instances. One instance is before you: this very castle affords it.

"In June 1757, William Thompson, amidst all the vigilance of this place, in open daylight, and double-ironed, made his escape; notwithstanding an immediate inquiry set on foot, notwithstanding all advertisements, all search, he was never seen or heard of since. If this man escaped unseen through all these difficulties, how easy for Clarke, whom no difficulties opposed. Yet what would be thought of a prosecution commenced against any one seen last with Thompson?

"These bones are discovered! Where? Of all places in the world, can we think of any one, except indeed the church-yard, where there is so great a certainty of finding- human bones, as a hermitage? In times past, the hermitage was a place, not only of religious retirement, but of burial. And it has scarce, or never been heard of, but that every cell now known, contains, or contained these relics of humanity; some mutilated—some entire! Give me leave to remind your Lordship, that here sat Solitary sanctity, and here the hermit and the anchorite hoped that repose for their bones when dead, they here enjoyed when living. I glance over a few of the many evidences that these cells were used as repositories of the dead, and enumerate a few of the many caves similar in origin to St. Robert's, in which human bones have been found." Here the prisoner instanced, with remarkable felicity, several places, in which bones had been found, under circumstances, and in spots analogous to those in point.[3] And the reader, who will remember that it is the great principle of the law, that no man can be condemned for murder unless the body of the deceased be found, will perceive at once how important this point was to the prisoner's defence. After concluding his instances with two facts of skeletons found in fields in the vicinity of Knaresbro', he burst forth—

"Is then the invention of those bones forgotten or industriously concealed, that the discovery of these in question may appear the more extraordinary? Extraordinary—yet how common an event! Every place conceals such remains. In fields—in hills—in high-way sides—on wastes—on commons, lie frequent and unsuspected bones. And mark,—no example perhaps occurs of more than one skeleton being found in one cell. Here you find but one, agreeable to the peculiarity of every known cell in Britain. Had two skeletons been discovered, then alone might the fact have seemed suspicious and uncommon. What! Have we forgotten how difficult, as in the case of Perkin Warbeck and Lambert Symnell, it has been sometimes to identify the living; and shall we now assign personality to bones—bones which may belong to either sex? How know you that this is even the skeleton of a man? But another skeleton was discovered by some labourer! Was not that skeleton averred to be Clarke's full as confidently as this?

"My Lord, my Lord—must some of the living be made answerable for all the bones that earth has concealed and chance exposed? The skull that has been produced, has been declared fractured. But who can surely tell whether it was the cause or the consequence of death. In May, 1732 the remains of William Lord Archbishop of this province were taken up by permission in their cathedral, the bones of the skull were found broken as these are. Yet he died by no violence! by no blow that could have caused that fracture. Let it be considered how easily the fracture on the skull produced is accounted for. At the dissolution of religious houses, the ravages of the times affected both the living and the dead. In search after imaginary treasures, coffins were broken, graves and vaults dug open, monuments ransacked, shrines demolished, Parliament itself was called in to restrain these violations. And now are the depredations, the iniquities of those times, to be visited on this? But here, above all, was a castle vigorously besieged; every spot around was the scene of a sally, a conflict, a flight, a pursuit. Where the slaughtered fell, there were they buried. What place is not burial earth in war? How many bones must still remain in the vicinity of that siege, for futurity to discover! Can you, then, with so many probable circumstances, choose the one least probable? Can you impute to the living what Zeal in its fury may have done; what Nature may have taken off and Piety interred, or what War alone may have destroyed, alone deposited?

"And now, glance over the circumstantial evidence, how weak, how frail! I almost scorn to allude to it. I will not condescend to dwell upon it. The witness of one man, arraigned himself! Is there no chance that to save his own life he might conspire against mine?—no chance that he might have committed this murder, if murder hath indeed been done? that conscience betrayed to his first exclamation? that craft suggested his throwing that guilt on me, to the knowledge of which he had unwittingly confessed? He declares that he saw me strike Clarke, that he saw him fall; yet he utters no cry, no reproof. He calls for no aid; he returns quietly home; he declares that he knows not what became of the body, yet he tells where the body is laid. He declares that he went straight home, and alone; yet the woman with whom I lodged declares that Houseman and I returned to my house in company together;—what evidence is this? and from whom does it come?—ask yourselves. As for the rest of the evidence, what does it amount to? The watchman sees Houseman leave my house at night. What more probable, but what less connected with the murder, real or supposed, of Clarke? Some pieces of clothing are found buried in my garden. But how can it be shewn that they belonged to Clarke? Who can swear to, who can prove any thing so vague? And if found there, even if belonging to Clarke, what proof that they were there deposited by me? How likely that the real criminal may in the dead of night have preferred any spot, rather than that round his own home, to conceal the evidence of his crime!

"How impotent such evidence as this! and how poor, how precarious, even the strongest of mere circumstantial evidence invariably is! Let it rise to probability, to the strongest degree of probability; it is but probability still. Recollect the case of the two Harrisons, recorded by Dr. Howell; both suffered on circumstantial evidence on account of the disappearance of a man, who, like Clarke, contracted debts, borrowed money, and went off unseen. And this man returned several years after their execution. Why remind you of Jaques du Moulin, in the reign of Charles the Second?—why of the unhappy Coleman, convicted, though afterwards found innocent, and whose children perished for want, because the world believed the father guilty? Why should I mention the perjury of Smith, who, admitted king's-evidence, screened himself by accusing Fainloth and Loveday of the murder of Dunn? the first was executed, the second was about to share the same fate, when the perjury of Smith was incontrovertibly proved.

"And now, my Lord, having endeavoured to shew that the whole of this charge is altogether repugnant to every part of my life; that it is inconsistent with my condition of health about that time; that no rational inference of the death of a person can be drawn from his disappearance; that hermitages were the constant repositories of the bones of the recluse; that the proofs of these are well authenticated; that the revolutions in religion, or the fortune of war, have mangled or buried the dead; that the strongest circumstantial evidence is often lamentably fallacious, that in my case, that evidence, so far from being strong, is weak, disconnected, contradictory; what remains? A conclusion, perhaps, no less reasonably than impatiently wished for. I, at last, after nearly a year's confinement, equal to either fortune, entrust myself to the candour, the justice, the humanity of your Lordship, and to yours, my countrymen, gentlemen of the jury."

The prisoner ceased: and the painful and choking sensations of sympathy, compassion, regret, admiration, all uniting, all mellowing into one fearful hope for his acquittal, made themselves felt through the crowded court.

In two persons only, an uneasy sentiment remained—a sentiment that the prisoner had not completed that which they would have asked from him. The one was Lester;—he had expected a more warm, a more earnest, though, perhaps, a less ingenious and artful defence. He had expected Aram to dwell far more on the improbable and contradictory evidence of Houseman, and above all, to have explained away, all that was still left unaccounted for in his acquaintance with Clarke (as we will still call the deceased), and the allegation that he had gone out with him on the fatal night of the disappearance of the latter. At every word of the prisoner's defence, he had waited almost breathlessly, in the hope that the next sentence would begin an explanation or a denial on this point: and when Aram ceased, a chill, a depression, a disappointment, remained vaguely on his mind. Yet so lightly and so haughtily had Aram approached and glanced over the immediate evidence of the witnesses against him, that his silence here might have been but the natural result of a disdain, that belonged essentially to his calm and proud character. The other person we referred to, and whom his defence had not impressed with a belief in its truth, equal to an admiration for its skill, was one far more important in deciding the prisoner's fate—it was the Judge!

But Madeline—Great God! how sanguine is a woman's heart, when the innocence, the fate of the one she loves is concerned!—a radiant flush broke over a face so colourless before; and with a joyous look, a kindled eye, a lofty brow, she turned to Ellinor, pressed her hand in silence, and once more gave up her whole soul to the dread procedure of the court.

The Judge now began.—It is greatly to be regretted, that we have no minute and detailed memorial of the trial, except only the prisoner's defence. The summing up of the Judge was considered at that time scarce less remarkable than the speech of the prisoner. He stated the evidence with peculiar care and at great length to the jury. He observed how the testimony of the other deponents confirmed that of Houseman; and then, touching on the contradictory parts of the latter, he made them understand, how natural, how inevitable was some such contradiction in a witness who had not only to give evidence against another, but to refrain from criminating himself. There could be no doubt but that Houseman was an accomplice in the crime; and all therefore that seemed improbable in his giving no alarm when the deed was done, &c. &c. was easily rendered natural, and reconcileable with the other parts of his evidence. Commenting then on the defence of the prisoner (who, as if disdaining to rely on aught save his own genius or his own innocence, had called no witnesses, as he had employed no counsel), and eulogizing its eloquence and art, till he destroyed their effect by guarding the jury against that impression which eloquence and art produce in defiance of simple fact, he contended that Aram had yet alleged nothing to invalidate the positive evidence against him.

I have often heard, from men accustomed to courts of law, that nothing is more marvellous, than the sudden change in a jury's mind, which the summing up of the Judge can produce; and in the present instance it was like magic. That fatal look of a common intelligence, of a common assent, was exchanged among the doomers of the prisoner's life and death as the Judge concluded. ***** ********** They found the prisoner guilty.***** The Judge drew on the black cap. ***** Aram received his sentence in profound composure. Before he left the bar, he drew himself up to his full height, and looked slowly around the court with that thrilling and almost sublime unmovedness of aspect, which belonged to him alone of all men, and which was rendered yet more impressive by a smile, slight, but eloquent beyond all words—of a soul collected in itself;—no forced and convulsive effort, vainly masking the terror or the pang; no mockery of self that would mimic contempt for others, but more in majesty than bitterness; rather as daring fate than defying the judgment of others;—rather as if he wrapt himself in the independence of a quiet, than the disdain of a despairing, heart!

  1. Young.
  2. The remark is in Aristotle. Buffon quotes it, with his usual adroit felicity, in, I think, the first volume of his great work.
  3. See his published defence.