3312851Eugene Aram — Book 1, Chapter V.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer


a dinner at the squire's hall.—a conversation between two retired men with different objects in retirement.—disturbance first introduced into a peaceful family.

"Can he not be sociable?"—Troilus and Cressida.

"Subit quippe etiam ipsius inertiæ dulcedo; et invisa primò
desidia postremò amatur."—Tacitus.

"How use doth breed a habit in a man!
This shadowy desert, unfrequented woods,
I better brook than flourishing peopled towns."

The next day, faithful to his appointment, Aram arrived at Lester's. The good Squire received him with a warm cordiality, and Madeline with a blush and a smile that ought to have been more grateful to him than acknowledgements. She was still a prisoner to the sofa, but in compliment to Aram, the sofa was wheeled into the hall where they dined, so that she was not absent from the repast. It was a pleasant room, that old hall! Though it was summer—more for cheerfulness than warmth, the log burnt on the spacious hearth: but at the same time the latticed windows were thrown open, and the fresh yet sunny air stole in, rich from the embrace of the woodbine and clematis, which clung around the casement.

A few old pictures were pannelled in the oaken wainscot; and here and there the horns of the mighty stag adorned the walls, and united with the cheeriness of comfort associations of that of enterprise. The good old board was crowded with the luxuries meet for a country Squire. The speckled trout, fresh from the stream, and the four-year-old mutton modestly disclaiming its own excellent merits, by affecting the shape and assuming the adjuncts of venison. Then for the confectionery,—it was worthy of Ellinor, to whom that department generally fell; and we should scarcely be surprised to find, though we venture not to affirm, that its delicate fabrication owed more to her than superintendence. Then the ale, and the cyder with rosemary in the bowl, were incomparable potations; and to the gooseberry wine, which would have filled Mrs. Primrose with envy, was added the more generous warmth of port which, in the Squire's younger days, had been the talk of the country, and which had now lost none of its attributes, save "the original brightness" of its colour.

But (the wine excepted) these various dainties met with slight honour from their abstemious guest; and, for though habitually reserved he was rarely gloomy, they remarked that he seemed unusually fitful and sombre in his mood. Something appeared to rest upon his mind, from which, by the excitement of wine and occasional bursts of eloquence more animated than ordinary, he seemed striving to escape; and at length, he apparently succeeded. Naturally enough, the conversation turned upon the curiosities and scenery of the country round; and here Aram shone with a peculiar grace. Vividly alive to the influences of Nature, and minutely acquainted with its varieties, he invested every hill and glade to which remark recurred with the poetry of his descriptions; and from his research he gave even scenes the most familiar, a charm and interest which had been strange to them till then. To this stream some romantic legend had once attached itself, long forgotten and now revived;—that moor, so barren to an ordinary eye, was yet productive of some rare and curious herb, whose properties afforded scope for lively description;—that old mound was yet rife in attraction to one versed in antiquities, and able to explain its origin, and from such explanation deduce a thousand classic or celtic episodes.

No subject was so homely or so trite but the knowledge that had neglected nothing, was able to render it luminous and new. And as he spoke, the scholar's countenance brightened, and his voice, at first hesitating and low, compelled the attention to its earnest and winning music. Lester himself, a man who, in his long retirement, had not forgotten the attractions of intellectual society, nor even neglected a certain cultivation of intellectual pursuits, enjoyed a pleasure that he had not experienced for years. The gay Ellinor was fascinated into admiration; and Madeline, the most silent of the groupe, drank in every word, unconscious of the sweet poison she imbibed. Walter alone seemed not carried away by the eloquence of their guest. He preserved an unadmiring and sullen demeanour, and every now and then regarded Aram with looks of suspicion and dislike. This was more remarkable when the men were left alone; and Lester, in surprise and anger, darted significant and admonitory looks towards his nephew, which at length seemed to rouse him into a more hospitable bearing. As the cool of the evening now came on, Lester proposed to Aram to enjoy it without, previous to returning to the parlour, to which the ladies had retired. Walter excused himself from joining them. The host and the guest accordingly strolled forth alone.

"Your solitude," said Lester, smiling, "is far deeper and less broken than mine: do you never find it irksome?"

"Can Humanity be at all times contented?" said Aram. "No stream, howsoever secret or subterranean, glides on in eternal tranquillity."

"You allow, then, that you feel some occasional desire for a more active and animated life?"

"Nay," answered Aram; "that is scarcely a fair corollary from my remark. I may, at times, feel the weariness of existence—the tedium vitæ; but I know well that the cause is not to be remedied by a change from tranquillity to agitation. The objects of the great world are to be pursued only by the excitement of the passions. The passions are at once our masters and our deceivers;—they urge us onward, yet present no limit to our progress. The farther we proceed, the more dim and shadowy grows the goal. It is impossible for a man who leads the life of the world, the life of the passions, ever to experience content. For the life of the passions is that of a perpetual desire; but a state of content is the absence of all desire. Thus philosophy has become another name for mental quietude; and all wisdom points to a life of intellectual indifference, as the happiest which earth can bestow."

"This may be true enough," said Lester, reluctantly; "but—"

"But what?"

"A something at our hearts—a secret voice—an involuntary impulse—rebels against it, and points to action—action, as the true sphere of man."

A slight smile curved the lip of the Student; he avoided, however, the argument, and remarked,

"Yet, if you think so, the world lies before you; why not return to it?"

"Because constant habit is stronger than occasional impulse; and my seclusion, after all, has its sphere of action—has its object."

"All seclusion has."

"All? Scarcely so; for me, I have my object of interest in my children."

"And mine is in my books."

"And engaged in your object, does not the whisper of Fame ever animate you with the desire to go forth into the world, and receive the homage that would await you?"

"Listen to me," replied Aram. "When I was a boy, I went once to a theatre. The tragedy of Hamlet was performed: a play full of the noblest thoughts, the subtlest morality, that exists upon the stage. The audience listened with attention, with admiration, with applause. I said to myself, when the curtain fell, 'It must be a glorious thing to obtain this empire over men's intellects and emotions.' But now an Italian mountebank appeared on the stage,—a man of extraordinary personal strength and slight of hand. He performed a variety of juggling tricks, and distorted his body into a thousand surprising and unnatural postures. The audience were transported beyond themselves: if they had felt delight in Hamlet, they glowed with rapture at the mountebank: they had listened with attention to the lofty thought, but they were snatched from themselves by the marvel of the strange posture. 'Enough,' said I; 'I correct my former notion. Where is the glory of ruling men's minds, and commanding their admiration, when a greater enthusiasm is excited by mere bodily agility, than was kindled by the most wonderful emanations of a genius little less than divine?' I have never forgotten the impression of that evening."

Lester attempted to combat the truth of the illustration, and thus conversing, they passed on through the village green, when the gaunt form of Corporal Bunting arrested their progress.

"Beg pardon, Squire," said he, with a military salute; "beg pardon, your honour," bowing to Aram; "but I wanted to speak to you, Squire, 'bout the rent of the bit cot yonder; times very hard—pay scarce—Michaelmas close at hand—and—"

"You desire a little delay, Bunting, eh?—Well, well, we'll see about it, look up at the Hall to-morrow; Mr. Walter, I know wants to consult you about letting the water from the great pond, and you must give us your opinion of the new brewing."

"Thank your honour, thank you; much obliged I'm sure. I hope your honour liked the trout I sent up. Beg pardon, Master Aram, mayhap you would condescend to accept a few fish now and then; they're very fine in these streams, as you probably know; if you please to let me, I'll send some up by the old 'oman to-morrow, that is if the day's cloudy a bit."

The Scholar thanked the good Bunting, and would have proceeded onward, but the Corporal was in a familiar mood.

"Beg pardon, beg pardon, but strange-looking dog here last evening—asked after you—said you were old friend of his—trotted off in your direction—hope all was right, Master?—augh!"

"All right!" repeated Aram, fixing his eyes on the Corporal, who had concluded his speech with a significant wink, and pausing a full moment before he continued, then as if satisfied with his survey, he added:

"Ay, ay, I know whom you mean; he had known me some years ago. So you saw him! What said he to you of me?"

"Augh! little enough, Master Aram, he seemed to think only of satisfying his own appetite; said he'd been a soldier."

"A soldier, humph!"

"Never told me the regiment, though,—shy—did he ever desert, pray, your honour?"

"I don't know;" answered Aram, turning away. "I know little, very little, about him!" He was going away, but stopped to add: "The man called on me last night for assistance; the lateness of the hour a little alarmed me. I gave him what I could afford, and he has now proceeded on his journey."

"Oh, then, he won't take up his quarters hereabouts, your honour?" said the Corporal, inquiringly.

"No, no; good evening."

"What! this singular stranger, who so frightened my poor girls, is really known to you;" said Lester, in surprise: "pray is he as formidable as he seemed to them?"

"Scarcely," said Aram, with great composure; "he has been a wild roving fellow all his life, but—but there is little real harm in him. He is certainly ill-favoured enough to—" here, interrupting himself, and breaking into a new sentence, Aram added: "but at all events he will frighten your nieces no more—he has proceeded on his journey northward. And now, yonder lies my way home. Good evening." The abruptness of this farewell did indeed take Lester by surprise.

"Why, you will not leave me yet? The young ladies expect your return to them for an hour or so! What will they think of such desertion? No, no, come back, my good friend, and suffer me by and by to walk some part of the way home with you."

"Pardon me," said Aram, "I must leave you now. As to the ladies," he added, with a faint smile, half in melancholy, half in scorn, "I am not one whom they could miss;—forgive me if I seem unceremonious. Adieu."

Lester at first felt a little offended, but when he recalled the peculiar habits of the Scholar, he saw that the only way to hope for a continuance of that society which had so pleased him, was to indulge Aram at first in his unsocial inclinations, rather than annoy him by a troublesome hospitality; he therefore, without further discourse, shook hands with him, and they parted.

When Lester regained the little parlour, he found his nephew sitting, silent and discontented, by the window. Madeline had taken up a book, and Ellinor, in an opposite corner, was plying her needle with an air of earnestness and quiet, very unlike her usual playful and cheerful vivacity. There was evidently a cloud over the groupe; the good Lester regarded them with a searching, yet kindly eye.

"And what has happened?" said he, "something of mighty import, I am sure, or I should have heard my pretty Ellinor's merry laugh long before I crossed the threshold."

Ellinor coloured and sighed, and worked faster than ever. Walter threw open the window, and whistled a favourite air quite out of tune. Lester smiled, and seated himself by his nephew.

"Well, Walter," said he, "I feel, for the first time in these ten years, I have a right to scold you. What on earth could make you so inhospitable to your uncle's guest? You eyed the poor student, as if you wished him among the books of Alexandria!"

"I would he were burnt with them!" answered Walter, sharply. "He seems to have added the black art to his other accomplishments, and bewitched my fair cousins here into a forgetfulness of all but himself."

"Not me!" said Ellinor eagerly, and looking up.

"No, not you, that's true enough; you are too just, too kind;—it is a pity that Madeline is not more like you."

"My dear Walter," said Madeline, "what is the matter? You accuse me of what? being attentive to a man whom it is impossible to hear without attention!"

"There!" cried Walter passionately; "you confess it; and so for a stranger,—a cold, vain, pedantic egotist, you can shut your ears and heart to those who have known and loved you all your life; and—and—"

"Vain!" interrupted Madeline, unheeding the latter part of Walter's address.

"Pedantic!" repeated her father.

"Yes! I say vain, pedantic!" cried Walter, working himself into a passion. "What on earth but the love of display could make him monopolize the whole conversation?—What but pedantry could make him bring out those anecdotes and allusions, and descriptions, or whatever you call them, respecting every old wall or stupid plant in the country?

"I never thought you guilty of meanness before," said Lester gravely.


"Yes! for is it not mean to be jealous of superior acquirements, instead of admiring them?"

"What has been the use of those acquirements? Has he benefited mankind by them? Shew me the poet—the historian—the orator, and I will yield to none of you; no, not to Madeline herself in homage of their genius: but the mere creature of books—the dry and sterile collector of other men's learning—no—no. What should I admire in such a machine of literature, except a waste of perseverance?—And Madeline calls him handsome too!"

At this sudden turn from declamation to reproach, Lester laughed outright; and his nephew, in high anger, rose and left the room.

"Who could have thought Walter so foolish?" said Madeline.

"Nay," observed Ellinor gently, "it is the folly of a kind heart, after all. He feels sore at our seeming to prefer another—I mean another's conversation—to his!"

Lester turned round in his chair, and regarded with a serious look, the faces of both sisters.

"My dear Ellinor," said he, when he had finished his survey, "you are a kind girl—come and kiss me!"