Eugene Aram/Chapter 46
CHAPTER VIII. AND LAST.
Sometimes towards the end of a gloomy day, the sun before but dimly visible, breaks suddenly out, and clothes the landscape with a smile; then beneath your eye, which during the clouds and sadness of day, had sought only the chief features of the prospect around, (some grey hill, or rising spire, or sweeping wood,) the less prominent, yet not less lovely features of the scene, mellow forth into view; over them, perhaps, the sun sets with a happier and richer glow than over the rest of Nature; and thus they leave upon your mind its last grateful impression, and console you for the gloom and sadness which the parting light they catch and reflect, dispels.
Just so in our tale; it continues not in cloud and sorrow to the last; some little ray breaks forth at the close; in that ray, characters which before received but a slight portion of the interest that prouder and darker ones engrossed, are thrown into light, and cheer from the mind of him who hath watched and tarried with us till now,—we will not say all the sadness that may perhaps linger on his memory,—and yet something of the gloom.
It was some years after the date of the last event we have recorded, and it was a fine warm noon in the happy month of May, when a horseman was slowly riding through the long—straggling—village of Grassdale. He was a man, though in the prime of youth, (for he might yet want some two years of thirty,) that bore the steady and earnest air of one who has seen not sparingly of the world; his eye keen but tranquil, his sunburnt though handsome features, which either exertion or thought, or care, had despoiled of the roundness of their early contour, leaving the cheek somewhat sunken, and the lines somewhat marked, were impressed with a grave, and at that moment with a melancholy and soft expression; and now, as his horse proceeded slowly through the green lane, which in every vista gave glimpses of rich verdant valleys, the sparkling river, or the orchard ripe with the fragrant blossoms of spring; his gaze lost the calm expression it habitually wore, and betrayed how busily Remembrance was at work. The dress of the horseman was of foreign fashion, and at that day, when the garb still denoted the calling, sufficiently military to show the profession he had belonged to. And well did the garb become the short dark moustache, the sinewy chest and length of limb of the young horseman: recommendations, the two latter, not despised in the court of the great Frederic of Prussia, in whose service he had borne arms. He had commenced his career in that battle terminating in the signal defeat of the bold Daun, when the fortunes of that gallant general paled at last before the star of the greatest of modern kings. The peace of 1763 had left Prussia in the quiet enjoyment of the glory she had obtained, and the young Englishman took the advantage it afforded him of seeing as a traveller, not despoiler, the rest of Europe.
The adventure and the excitement of travel pleased and left him even now uncertain whether or not his present return to England would be for long. He had not been a week returned, and to this part of his native country he had hastened at once.
He checked his horse as he now past the memorable sign, that yet swung before the door of Peter Dealtry; and there, under the shade of the broad tree, now budding into all its tenderest verdure, a pedestrian wayfarer sate enjoying the rest and coolness of his shelter. Our horseman cast a look at the open door, across which, in the bustle of housewifery, female forms now and then glanced and vanished, and presently he saw Peter himself saunter forth to chat with the traveller beneath his tree. And Peter Dealtry was the same as ever, only he seemed perhaps shorter and thinner than of old, as if Time did not so much break as wear mine host's slender person gradually away.
The horseman gazed for a moment, but observing Peter return the gaze, he turned aside his head, and putting his horse into a canter, soon passed out of cognizance of the Spotted Dog.
He now came in sight of the neat white cottage of the old Corporal, and there, leaning over the pale, a crutch under one arm, and his friendly pipe in one corner of his shrewd mouth, was the Corporal himself. Perched upon the railing in a semi-doze, the ears down, the eyes closed, sat a large brown cat: poor Jacobina, it was not thyself! death spares neither cat nor king; but thy virtues lived in thy grandchild; and thy grandchild, (as age brings dotage,) was loved even more than thee by the worthy Corporal. Long may thy race flourish, for at this day it is not extinct. Nature rarely inflicts barrenness on the feline tribe; they are essentially made for love, and love's soft cares, and a cat's lineage outlives the lineage of kaisars.
At the sound of hoofs the Corporal turned his head, and he looked long and wistfully at the horseman, as, relaxing his horse's pace into a walk, our traveller rode slowly on.
"'Fore George," muttered the Corporal, "a fine man—a very fine man; 'bout my inches—augh!"
A smile, but a very faint smile, crossed the lip of the horseman, as he gazed on the figure of the stalwart Corporal.
"He eyes me hard," thought he; "yet he does not seem to remember me. I must be greatly changed. 'Tis fortunate, however, that I am not recognised: fain, indeed, at this time, would I come and go unnoticed and alone."
The horseman fell into a reverie, which was broken by the murmur of the sunny rivulet, fretting over each little obstacle it met, the happy and spoiled child of Nature! That murmur rang on the horseman's ear like a voice from his boyhood, how familiar was it, how dear! No tone of music—no haunting air, ever recalled so rushing a host of memories and associations as that simple, restless, everlasting sound! Everlasting!—all had changed,—the trees had sprung up or decayed,—some cottages around were ruins,—some new and unfamiliar ones supplied their place, and on the stranger himself—on all those whom the sound recalled to his heart, Time had been, indeed, at work, but with the same exulting bound and happy voice that little brook leaped along its way. Ages hence, may the course be as glad, and the murmur as full of mirth! They are blessed things, those remote and unchanging streams!—they fill us with the same love as if they were living creatures!—and in a green corner of the world there is one that, for my part, I never see without forgetting myself to tears—tears that I would not lose for a king's ransom; tears that no other sight or sound could call from their source; tears of what affection, what soft regret; tears that leave me for days afterwards, a better and a kinder man!
The traveller, after a brief pause, continued his road; and now he came full upon the old Manor-house. The weeds were grown up in the garden, the mossed paling was broken in many places, the house itself was shut up, and the sun glanced on the deep-sunk casements without finding its way into the desolate interior. High above the old hospitable gate hung a board, anouncing that the house was for sale, and referring the curious, or the speculating, to the attorney of the neighbouring town. The horseman sighed heavily, and muttered to himself; then turning up the road that led to the back entrance, he came into the court-yard, and leading his horse into an empty stable, he proceeded on foot through the dismantled premises, pausing with every moment, and holding a sad and ever-changing commune with himself. An old woman, a stranger to him, was the sole inmate of the house, and imagining he came to buy, or at least, examine, she conducted him through the house, pointing out its advantages, and lamenting its dilapidated state. Our traveller scarcely heard her,—but when he came to one room which he would not enter till the last, (it was the little parlour in which the once happy family had been wont to sit,) he sank down in the chair that had been Lester's honoured seat, and covering his face with his hands, did not move or look up for several moments. The old woman gazed at him with surprise.—"Perhaps, Sir, you knew the family, they were greatly beloved."
The traveller did not answer; but when he rose, he muttered to himself,—"No, the experiment is made in vain! Never, never could I live here again—it must be so—my forefathers' house must pass into a stranger's hands." With this reflection he hurried from the house, and re-entering the garden, turned through a little gate that swung half open on its shattered hinges, and led into the green and quiet sanctuaries of the dead. The same touching character of deep and undisturbed repose that hallows the country church-yard,—and that more than most—yet brooded there as when, years ago, it woke his young mind to reflection then unmingled with regret.
He passed over the rude mounds of earth that covered the deceased poor, and paused at a tomb of higher, though but of simple pretensions; it was not yet discoloured by the dews and seasons, and the short inscription traced upon it was strikingly legible, in comparison with those around.
By that tomb the traveller remained in undisturbed contemplation for some time, and when he turned, all the swarthy colour had died from his cheek, his eyes were dim, and the wonted pride of a young man's step and a soldier's bearing, was gone from his mien.
As he looked up, his eye caught afar, embedded among the soft verdure of the spring, one lone and grey house, from whose chimney there rose no smoke—sad, inhospitable, dismantled as that beside which he now stood;—as if the curse which had fallen on the inmates of either mansion, still clung to either roof. One hasty glance only, the traveller gave to the solitary and distant abode,—and then started and quickened his pace.
On re-entering the stables, the traveller found the Corporal examining his horse from head to foot with great care and scrupulosity.
"Good hoofs too, humph!" quoth the Corporal, as he released the front leg; and, turning round, saw, with some little confusion, the owner of the steed he had been honouring with so minute a survey. "Oh,—augh! looking at the beastie. Sir, lest it might have cast a shoe. Thought your honour might want some intelligent person to shew you the premises, if so be you have come to buy; nothing but an old 'oman there; dare say your honour does not like old 'omen—augh!"
"The owner is not in these parts?" said the horseman.
"No, over seas, Sir; a fine young gentleman, but hasty; and—and—but Lord bless me! sure—no, it can't be—yes, now you turn—it is—it is my young master!" So saying, the old Corporal, roused into affection, hobbled up to the wanderer, and seized and kissed his hand. "Ah, Sir, we shall be glad, indeed, to see you back after such doings. But 's all forgotten now, and gone by—augh! Poor Miss Ellinor, how happy she '11 be to see your honour. Ah! how she be changed, surely!"
"Changed; ay, I make no doubt! What! does she look in weak health?"
"No; as to that, your honour, she be winsome enough still," quoth the Corporal, smacking his lips; "I seed her the week afore last, when I went over to——, for I suppose you knows as she lives there, all alone like, in a small house, with a green rail afore it, and a brass knocker on the door, at top of the town, with a fine view of the hills in front? Well, Sir, I seed her, and mighty handsome she looked, though a little thinner than she was; but, for all that, she be greatly changed."
"How! for the worse?"
"For the worse, indeed," answered the Corporal, assuming an air of melancholy and grave significance; "she be grown religious, Sir, think of that—augh—bother—whaugh!"
"Is that all?" said Walter, relieved, and with a slight smile. "And she lives alone?"
"Quite, poor young lady, as if she had made up her mind to be an old maid; though I know as how she refused Squire Knyvett of the Grange waiting for your honour's return, mayhap!"
"Lead out the horse, Bunting; but stay, I am sorry to see you with a crutch; what 's the cause? no accident, I trust?"
"Merely rheumatics—will attack the youngest of us; never been quite myself since I went a travelling with your honour—augh!—without going to Lunnon arter all. But I shall be stronger next year, I dare to say—!"
"I hope you will, Bunting. And Miss Lester lives alone, you say?"
"Ay; and for all she be so religious, the poor about do bless her very footsteps. She does a power of good; she gave me half-a-guinea, your honour; an excellent young lady, so sensible like!"
"Thank you; I can tighten the girths!—so!—there, Bunting, there's something for old companion's sake."
"Thank your honour; you be too good, always was—baugh! But I hopes your honour be a coming to live here now; 'twill make things smile agin!"
"No, Bunting, I fear not," said Walter, spurring through the gates of the yard; "Good day."
"Augh, then," cried the Corporal, hobbling breathlessly after him, "if so be as I shan't see your honour agin, at which I am extramely consarned, will your honour recollect your promise, touching the 'tato ground? The steward, Master Bailey, 'od rot him, has clean forgot it—augh!"
"The same old man, Bunting, eh? Well, make your mind easy, it shall be done."
"Lord bless your honour's good heart; thankye; and—and"—laying his hand on the bridle—"your honour did say, the bit cot should be rent-free. You see, your honour," quoth the Corporal, drawing up with a grave smile, "I may marry some day or other, and have a large family; and the rent won't sit so easy then—augh!"
"Let go the rein, Bunting—and consider your house rent-free."
"And, your honour—and—"
But Walter was already in a brisk trot; and the remaining petitions of the Corporal died in empty air.
"A good day's work, too," muttered Jacob, hobbling homeward. "What a green un 'tis still! Never be a man of the world—augh!"
For two hours Walter did not relax the rapidity of his pace; and when he did so at the descent of a steep hill, a small country town lay before him, the sun glittering on its single spire, and lighting up the long, clean, centre street, with the good old-fashioned garden stretching behind each house, and detached cottages around, peeping forth here and there from the blossoms and verdure of the young may. He rode into the yard of the principal inn, and putting up his horse, inquired in a tone that he persuaded himself was the tone of indifference, for Miss Lester's house.
"John," said the landlady, (landlord there was none,) summoning a little boy of about ten years old—"run on, and shew this gentleman the good lady's house: and—stay—his honour will excuse you a moment—just take up the nosegay you cut for her this morning: she loves flowers. Ah! Sir, an excellent young lady is Miss Lester," continued the hostess, as the boy ran back for the nosegay; "so charitable, so kind, so meek to all. Adversity, they say, softens some characters; but she must always have been good. And so religious, Sir, though so young! Well, God bless her! and that every one must say. My boy John, Sir, he is not eleven yet, come next August—a 'cute boy, calls her the good lady: we now always call her so here. Come, John, that's right. You stay to dine here, Sir? Shall I put down a chicken?"
At the farther extremity of the town stood Miss Lester's dwelling. It was the house in which her father had spent his last days; and there she had continued to reside, when left by his death to a small competence, which Walter, then abroad, had persuaded her, (for her pride was of the right kind,) to suffer him, though but slightly, to increase. It was a detached and small building, standing a little from the road; and Walter paused for some moments at the garden-gate, and gazed round him before he followed his young guide, who, tripping lightly up the gravel-walk to the door, rang the bell, and inquired if Miss Lester was within?
Walter was left for some moments alone in a little parlour:—he required those moments to recover himself from the past that rushed sweepingly over him. And was it—yes, it was Ellinor that now stood before him! Changed she was, indeed; the slight girl had budded into woman; changed she was, indeed; the bound had for ever left that step, once so elastic with hope; the vivacity of the quick, dark eye was soft and quiet; the rich colour had given place to a hue fainter, though not less lovely. But to repeat in verse what is poorly bodied forth in prose—
"And years had past, and thus they met again;
The wind had swept along the flower since then,
O'er her fair cheek a paler lustre spread,
As if the white rose triumphed o'er the red.
No more she walk'd exulting on the air;
Light though her step, there was a languor there;
No more—her spirit bursting from its bound,—
She stood, like Hebe, scattering smiles around."
"Ellinor!" said Walter mournfully, "thank God! we meet at last."
"That voice—that face—my cousin—my dear, dear Walter!"
All reserve—all consciousness fled in the delight of that moment; and Ellinor leant her head upon his shoulder, and scarcely felt the kiss that he pressed upon her lips.
"And so long absent!" said Ellinor, reproachfully.
"But did you not tell me that the blow that had fallen on our house had stricken from you all thoughts of love—had divided us for ever? And what, Ellinor, was England or home with out you?"
"Ah!" said Ellinor, recovering herself, and a deep paleness succeeding to the warm and delighted flash that had been conjured to her cheek, "Do not revive the past—I have sought for years—long, solitary, desolate years, to escape from its dark recollections!"
"You speak wisely, dearest Ellinor; let us assist each other in doing so. We are alone in the world—let us unite our lot. Never, through all I have seen and felt,—in the starry nightwatch of camps—in the blaze of courts—by the sunny groves of Italy—in the deep forests of the Hartz—never have I forgotten you, my sweet and dear cousin. Your image has linked itself indissolubly with all I conceived of home and happiness, and a tranquil and peaceful future; and now I return, and see you, and find you changed, but, oh, how lovely! Ah, let us not part again! A consoler, a guide, a soother, father, brother, husband,—all this my heart whispers I could be to you!"
Ellinor turned away her face, but her heart was very full. The solitary years that had passed over her since they last met, rose up before her. The only living image that had mingled through those years with the dreams of the departed, was his who now knelt at her feet;—her sole friend—her sole relative—her first—her last love! Of all the world, he was the only one with whom she could recur to the past; on whom she might repose her bruised, but still unconquered affections. And Walter knew by that blush—that sigh—that tear, that he was remembered—that he was beloved—that his cousin was his own at last!
"But before you end," said my friend, to whom I shewed the above pages, originally concluding my tale with the last sentence, "you must, it is a comfortable and orthodox old fashion, tell us a little about the fate of the other persons, to whom you have introduced us;—the wretch Houseman?"—
"True; in the mysterious course of mortal affairs, the greater villain had escaped, the more generous and redeemed one fallen. But though Houseman died without violence, died in his bed, as honest men die, we can scarcely believe that his life was not punishment enough. He lived in strict seclusion—the seclusion of poverty, and maintained himself by dressing flax. His life was several times attempted by the mob, for he was an object of universal execration and horror; and even ten years afterwards, when he died, his body was buried in secret at the dead of night, for the hatred of the world survived him!"
"And the Corporal, did he marry in his old age?"
"History telleth of one Jacob Bunting, whose wife, several years younger than himself, played him certain sorry pranks with the young curate of the parish: the said Jacob, knowing nothing thereof, but furnishing great oblectation unto his neighbours, by boasting that he turned an excellent penny by selling poultry to his reverence above market prices,—'For Bessy, my girl, I'm a man of the world—augh!'"
"Contented! a suitable fate for the old dog—But Peter Dealtry?"
"Of Peter Dealtry know we nothing more, save that we have seen at Grassdale church-yard, a small tombstone inscribed to his memory, with the following sacred poesy thereto appended,—
"We flourish, saith the holy text
One hour, and are cut down the next:
I was like grass but yesterday,
But Death has mowed me into hay."
"And his namesake, Sir Peter Grindlescrew Hales?"
"Went through a long life, honoured and respected, but met with domestic misfortunes in old age. His eldest son married a maid servant, and his youngest daughter—"
"Eloped with the groom?"
"By no means,—with a young spendthrift;—the very picture of what Sir Peter was in his youth: they were both disinherited, and Sir Peter died in the arms of his eight remaining children, seven of whom never forgave his memory for not being the eighth, viz. chief heir."
"And his cotemporary, John Courtland, the non-hypochondriac?"
"Died of sudden suffocation, as he was crossing Hounslow Heath."
"But Lord *****?"
"Lived to a great age; his last days, owing to growing infirmities, were spent out of the world; every one pitied him,—it was the happiest time of his life!"
"Was found dead in her bed, from over fatigue, it was supposed, in making merry at the funeral of a young girl on the previous day."
"Well!—hem,—and so Walter and his cousin were really married; and did they never return to the old Manor-house?"
"No; the memory that is allied only to melancholy, grows sweet with years, and hallows the spot which it haunts; not so the memory allied to dread, terror, and something too of shame. Walter sold the property with some pangs of natural regret; after his marriage with Ellinor he returned abroad for some time, but finally settling in England, engaged in active life, and left to his posterity a name they still honour; and to his country, the memory of some services that will not lightly pass away."
But one dread and gloomy remembrance never forsook his mind, and exercised the most powerful influence over the actions and motives of his life. In every emergency, in every temptation, there rose to his eyes the fate of him so gifted, so noble in much, so formed for greatness in all things, blasted by one crime—self-sought, but self-denied; a crime, the offspring of bewildered reasonings—all the while speculating upon virtue. And that fate revealing the darker secrets of our kind, in which the true science of morals is chiefly found, taught him the twofold lesson, caution for himself, and charity for others. He knew henceforth that even the criminal is not all evil; the angel within us is not easily expelled; it survives sin, ay, and many sins, and leaves us sometimes in amaze and marvel, at the good that lingers round the heart even of the hardiest offender.
And Ellinor clung with more than revived affection to one with whose lot she was now allied. Walter was her last tie upon earth, and in him she learnt, day by day, more lavishly to treasure up her heart. Adversity and trial had ennobled the character of both; and she who had so long seen in her cousin all she could love, beheld now in her husband that greater and more enduring spell—all that she could venerate and admire. A certain religious fervour, in which, after the calamities of her family, she had indulged, continued with her to the last; but, (softened by human ties, and the reciprocation of earthly duties and affections,) it was fortunately preserved either from the undue enthusiasm or the undue austerity into which it would otherwise, in all likelihood, have merged. What remained, however, uniting her most cheerful thoughts with something serious, and the happiest moments of the present with the dim and solemn forecast of the future, elevated her nature, not depressed, and made itself visible rather in tender than in sombre, hues. And it was sweet when the thought of Madeline and her father came across her, to recur at once for consolation to that Heaven in which she believed their tears were dried, and their past sorrows but a forgotten dream! There is, indeed, a time of life when these reflections make our chief, though a melancholy, pleasure. As we grow older, and sometimes a hope, sometimes a friend, is shivered from our path, the thought of an immortality will press itself forcibly upon us! and there, by little and little, as the ant piles grain after grain, the garners of a future sustenance, we learn to carry our hopes, and harvest, as it were, our wishes.
Our cousins then were happy. Happy, for they loved one another entirely; and on those who do so love, I sometimes think, that, barring physical pain and extreme poverty, the ills of life fall with but idle malice. Yes, they were happy in spite of the past, and in defiance of the future.
"I am satisfied then," said my friend,—"and your tale is fairly done!"
And now, Reader, farewell! If, sometimes as thou hast gone with me to this our parting spot, thou hast suffered thy companion to win the mastery over thine interest, to flash now on thy convictions, to touch now thy heart, to guide thy hope, to excite thy anxiety, to gain even almost to the sources of thy tears—then is there a tie between thee and me which cannot readily be broken! And when thou hearest the malice that wrongs affect the candour which should judge, thou wilt be surprised to feel how unconsciously He who has, even in a tale, once wound himself around those feelings not daily excited, can find in thy sympathies the defence, or, in thy charity the indulgence,—— of a friend!
PRINTED BY SAMUEL BENTLEY,