Eugene Aram/Chapter 40
THE STUDENT ALONE IN HIS CHAMBER.—THE INTERRUPTION.—FAITHFUL LOVE.
"Nequicquam thalamo graves
Vitabis, strepitumque, et celerem sequi
Horat. od. xv. lib. 1.
Alone in his favourite chamber, the instruments of science around him, and books, some of astronomical research, some of less lofty but yet abstruser lore, scattered on the tables as wont, Eugene Aram indulged the last meditation he believed likely to absorb his thoughts before that great change of life which was to bless solitude with a companion.
"Yes," said he, pacing the apartment with folded arms, "yes, all is safe! He will not again return; the dead sleeps now without a witness.—I may lay this working brain upon the bosom that loves me, and not start at night and think that the soft hand around my neck is the hangman's gripe. Back to thyself, henceforth and for ever, my busy heart! Let not thy secret stir from its gloomy depth!—the seal is on the tomb,—henceforth be the spectre laid.—Yes, I must smooth my brow, and teach my lip restraint, and smile and talk like other men. I have taken to my hearth a watch, tender, faithful, anxious,—but a watch. Farewell the unguarded hour!—the soul's relief in speech—the dark and broken, yet how grateful! confidence with self—farewell! And come thou veil! subtle, close, unvarying, the everlasting curse of entire hypocrisy, that under thee, as night, the vexed world within may sleep, and stir not! and all, in truth concealment, may seem repose!"
As he uttered these thoughts, the Student paused and looked on the extended landscape that lay below. A heavy, chill, and comfortless mist sat saddening over the earth. Not a leaf stirred on the autumnal trees, but the moist damps fell slowly and with a mournful murmur upon the unwaving grass. The outline of the morning sun was visible, but it gave forth no lustre: a ring of watery and dark vapour girded the melancholy orb. Far at the entrance of the valley, the wild fern shewed red and faded, and the first march of the deadly Winter was already heralded by that drear and silent desolation which cradles the winds and storms. But amidst this cheerless scene, the distant note of the merry marriage-bell floated by, like the good spirit of the wilderness, and the Student rather paused to hearken to the note than to survey the scene.
"My marriage-bell!" said he, "could I two short years back have ever dreamed of this! my marriage-bell! How fondly used my poor mother, when first she learnt pride for her youngscholar, to predict this day, and blend its festivities with the honour and the wealth her son was to acquire. Alas! can we have no science to count the stars and forebode the black eclipse of the future? But peace! peace! peace! I am, I will, I shall be, happy now! Memory, I defy thee!"
He uttered the last words in a deep and intense tone, and turning away as the joyful peal again broke distinctly on his ear,
"My marriage-bell! oh, Madeline! how wondrously beloved: how unspeakably dear thou art to me! What hast thou conquered? how many reasons for resolve; how vast an army in the Past has thy bright and tender purity overthrown! But thou, no never shalt thou repent!" and for several minutes the sole thought of the soliloquist was love. But scarce consciously to himself, a spirit not, to all seeming, befitted to that bridal-day,—vague, restless, impressed with the dark and fluttering shadow of coming change, had taken possession of his breast, and did not long yield the mastery to any brighter and more serene emotion.
"And why?" he said, as this spirit regained its empire over him, and he paused before the 'starred tubes' of his beloved science—"and why this chill, this shiver, in the midst of hope? Can the mere breath of the seasons, the weight or lightness of the atmosphere, the outward gloom or smile of the brute mass called Nature, affect us thus? Out on this empty science, this vain knowledge, this little lore, if we are so fooled by the vile clay and the common air, from our one great empire—self! Great God! hast thou made us in mercy or in disdain? Placed in this narrow world, darkness and cloud around us—no fixed rule for men—creeds, morals, changing in every clime, and growing like herbs, upon the mere soil—we struggle to dispel the shadows; we grope around; from our own heart and our sharp and hard endurance we strike our only light,—for what? to shew us what dupes we are! creatures of accident, tools of circumstance, blind instruments of the scorner Fate;—the very mind, the very reason, a bound slave to the desires, the weakness of the clay;—affected by a cloud, dulled by the damps of the foul marsh;—stricken from power to weakness, from sense to madness;—to gaping idiocy, or delirious raving,—by a putrid exhalation!—a rheum, a chill, and Cæsar trembles! The world's gods, that slay or enlighten millions—poor puppets to the same rank imp which calls up the fungus or breeds the worm,—pah! How little worth is it in this life to be wise! Strange, strange, how my heart sinks,—Well, the better sign, the better sign! in danger it never sank."
Absorbed in these reflections, Aram had not for some minutes noticed the sudden ceasing of the bell; but now, as he again paused from his irregular and abrupt pacings along the chamber, the silence struck him, and looking forth, and striving again to catch the note, he saw a little group of men, among whom he marked the erect and comely form of Rowland Lester, approaching towards the house.
"What!" he thought, "do they come for me? Is it so late? Have I played the laggard? Nay, it yet wants near an hour to the time they expected me. Well, some kindness—some attention from my good father-in-law; I must thank him for it. What! my hand trembles; how weak are these poor nerves; I must rest and recall my mind to itself!"
And indeed, whether or not from the novelty and importance of the event he was about to celebrate, or from some less reasonable presentiment, occasioned, as he would fain believe, by the mournful and sudden change in the atmosphere, an embarrassment, a wavering, a fear, very unwonted to the calm and stately self-possession of Eugene Aram, made itself painfully felt throughout his frame. He sank down in his chair and strove to re-collect himself; it was an effort in which he had just succeeded, when a loud knocking was heard at the outer door, it swung open, several voices were heard. Aram sprang up, pale, breathless, his lips apart.
"Great God!" he exclaimed, clasping his hands. "Murderer—was that the word I heard shouted forth?—The voice, too, is Walter Lester's. Has he returned?—can he have learnt?"—
To rush to the door, to throw across it a long, heavy iron bar, which would resist assaults of no common strength, was his first impulse. Thus enabled to gain time for reflection, his active and alarmed mind ran over the whole field of expedient and conjecture. Again, 'Murderer,'—"Stay me not," cried Walter from below, "my hand shall seize the murderer!"
Guess was now over; danger and death were marching on him. Escape,—how?—whither? the height forbade the thought of flight from the casement!—the door?—he heard loud steps already hurrying up the stairs;—his hands clutched convulsively at his breast, where his fire-arms were generally concealed—they were left below; that to his resolute and brave spirit was the bitterest thought of all. He glanced one lightning glance round the room, no weapon of any kind was at hand. His brain reeled for a moment, his breath gasped, a mortal sickness passed over his heart, and then the mind triumphed over all. He drew up to his full height, folded his arms doggedly on his breast, and muttering,—
"The accuser comes,—I have it still to refute the charge"—he stood prepared to meet, nor despairing to evade, the worst.
As waters close over the object which divided them, all these thoughts, these fears, and this resolution, had been but the work, the agitation, and the succeeding calm, of the moment; that moment was past.
"Admit us," cried the voice of Walter Lester, knocking fiercely at the door.
"Not so fervently, boy," said Lester, laying his hand on his nephew's shoulder; "your tale is yet to be proved—I believe it not; treat him as innocent I pray, I command, till you have shewn him guilty."
"Away, uncle," said the fiery Walter; "he is my Father's murderer. God hath given justice to my hands." These words, uttered in a lower key than before, were but indistinctly heard by Aram through the massy door.
"Open, or we force our entrance!" shouted Walter again; and Aram, speaking for the first time, replied in a clear and sonorous voice, so that an angel, had one spoken, could not have more deeply impressed the heart of Rowland Lester, with a conviction of the Student's innocence;
"Who knocks so rudely?—what means this violence? I open my doors to my friends. Is it a friend who asks it?"
"I ask it," said Rowland Lester, in a trembling and agitated voice; "there seems some dreadful mistake; come forth, Eugene, and rectify it by a word."
"Is it you, Rowland Lester? it is enough. I was but with my books, and had secured myself from intrusion,—Enter!"
The bar was withdrawn, the door was burst open, and even Walter Lester—even the officers of justice with him—drew back for a moment, as they beheld the lofty brow, the majestic presence, the features so unutterably calm, of Eugene Aram.
"What want you. Sirs?" said he, unmoved, and unfaltering, though in the officers of justice he recognised faces he had known before, and in that distant town, in which all that he dreaded in the past lay treasured up. At the sound of his voice the spell that for an instant had arrested the step of the Avenging Son, melted away.
"Seize him!" he cried to the officers; "you see your prisoner."
"Hold!" cried Aram, drawing back; "by what authority is this outrage?—for what am I arrested?"
"Behold!" said Walter, speaking through his teeth—"behold our warrant! You are accused of murder! Know you the name of Richard Houseman? Pause—consider—or that of Daniel Clarke?"
Slowly Aram lifted his eyes from the warrant, and it might be seen that his face was a shade more pale, though his look did not quail, nor his nerves tremble. Slowly he turned his gaze upon Walter, and then, after one moment's survey, dropped it once more on the paper.
"The name of Houseman is not unfamiliar to me," said he calmly, but with effort.
"And knew you Daniel Clarke?"
"What mean these questions?" said Aram, losing temper, and stamping violently on the ground; "is it thus that a man, free and guiltless, is to be questioned at the behest, or rather outrage of every lawless boy? Lead me to some authority meet for rae to answer;—for you, boy, my answer is contempt."
"Big words shall not save thee, murderer," cried Walter, breaking from his uncle, who in vain endeavoured to hold him; and laying his powerful grasp upon Aram's shoulder. Livid was the glare that shot from the Student's eye upon his assailer; and so fearfully did his features work and change with the passions within him, that even Walter felt a strange shudder thrill through his frame.
"Gentlemen," said Aram, at last, mastering his emotions, and resuming some portion of the remarkable dignity that characterised his usual bearing; as he turned towards the officers of justice—"I call upon you to discharge your duty; if this be a rightful warrant, I am your prisoner, but I am not this man's. I command your protection from him!"
Walter had already released his gripe, and said, in a muttered voice:
"My passion misled me, violence is unworthy my solemn cause. God and Justice—not these hands, are my avengers."
"Your avengers!" said Aram, "what dark words are these? This warrant accuses me of the murder of one Daniel Clarke; what is he to thee?"
"Mark me, man!" said Walter, fixing his eyes on Aram's countenance. "The name of Daniel Clarke was a feigned name; the real name was Geoffrey Lester; that murdered Lester was my father, and the brother of him whose daughter, had I not come to-day, you would have called your wife!"
Aram felt, while these words were uttered, that the eyes of all in the room were on him, and perhaps that knowledge enabled him not to reveal by outward sign what must have passed within during the awful trial of that moment.
"It is a dreadful tale," he said, "if true; dreadful to me, so nearly allied to that family. But, as yet I grapple with shadows."
"What! does not your conscience now convict you?" cried Walter, staggered by the calmness of the prisoner. But here, Lester, who could no longer contain himself, interposed; he put by his nephew, and rushing to Aram, fell, weeping, upon his neck.
"I do not accuse thee, Eugene—my son—my son—I feel—I know thou art innocent of this monstrous crime; some horrid delusion darkens that poor boy's sight. You—you—who would walk aside to save a worm!" and the poor old man, overcome with his emotions, could literally say no more.
Aram looked down on Lester with a compassionate expression, and soothing him with kind words, and promises that all would be explained, gently moved from his hold, and anxious to terminate the scene, silently motioned the officers to proceed. Struck with the calmness and dignity of his manner, and fully impressed by it with the notion of his innocence, the officers treated him with a marked respect; they did not even walk by his side, but suffered him to follow their steps. As they descended the stairs, Aram turned round to Walter, with a bitter and reproachful countenance:
"And so, young man, your malice against me has reached even to this; will nothing but my life content you?"
"Is the desire of execution on my father's murderer, but the wish of malice?" retorted Walter; though his heart yet well nigh misgave him as to the grounds on which his suspicion rested.
Aram smiled, as half in scorn, half tnrough incredulity, and shaking his head gently, moved on without farther words.
The three old women who had remained in listening astonishment at the foot of the stairs, gave way as the men descended; but the one who so long had been Aram's solitary domestic, and who from her deafness was still benighted and uncomprehending as to the causes of his seizure, though from that very reason her alarm was the greater and more acute,—she—impatiently thrusting away the officers, and mumbling some unintelligible anathema as she did so, flung herself at the feet of a master, whose quiet habits and constant kindness had endeared him to her humble and faithful heart, and exclaimed:
"What are they doing? Have they the heart to ill-use you? O Master, God bless you! God shield you! I shall never see you, who was my only friend, who was every one's friend, any more!"
Aram drew himself from her, and said with a quivering lip to Rowland Lester:
"If her fears are true,—if—if I never more return hither, see that her old age does not starve—does not want."
Lester could not speak for sobbing, but the request was remembered. And now Aram, turning aside his proud head to conceal his emotion, beheld open, the door of the room so trimly prepared for Madeline's reception; the flowers smiled upon him from their stands. "Lead on, gentlemen," he said quickly. And so Eugene Aram passed his threshold!
"Ho, ho!" muttered the old hag, whose predictions in the morning had been so ominous;—"Ho, ho!" you'll believe Goody Darkmans another time! Providence respects the sayings of the ould. 'Twas not for nothing the rats grinned at me last night. But let's in and have a warm glass. He, he! there will be all the strong liquors for us now; the Lord is merciful to the poor!"
As the little group proceeded through the valley, the officers first, Aram and Lester side by side, Walter, with his hand on his pistol and his eye on the prisoner, a little behind—Lester endeavoured to cheer the prisoner's spirits and his own, by insisting on the madness of the charge, and the certainty of instant acquittal from the magistrate to whom they were bound, and who was esteemed the one both most acute and most just in the county;—Aram, interrupted him somewhat abruptly—
"My friend, enough of this presently. But Madeline—what knows she as yet?"
"Nothing: of course we kept—"
"Exactly—exactly: you have done wisely. Why need she learn any thing as yet? Say an arrest for debt—a mistake—an absence but of a day or so at most:—you understand."
"Yes. Will you not see her, Eugene, before you go, and say this yourself?"
"I—oh God!—I! to whom this day was—No, no: save me, I implore you, from the agony of such a contrast—an interview so mournful and unavailing. No, we must not meet! But whither go we now? Not—not surely through all the idle gossips of the village—the crowd already excited to gape, and stare, and speculate on the—"
"No," interrupted Lester; "the carriages await us at the farther end of the valley. I thought of that—for the rash boy behind seems to have changed his nature. I loved—God knows how I loved my brother! but before I would let suspicion thus blind reason, I would suffer inquiry to sleep for ever on his fate."
"Your nephew," said Aram, "has ever wronged me; but waste not words on him: let us think only of Madeline. Will you go back at once to her, tell her a tale to lull her apprehensions, and then follow us with haste? I am alone among enemies till you come."
Lester was about to answer, when at a turn in the road, which brought the carriage within view, they perceived two figures in white hastening towards them; and ere Aram was prepared for the surprise, Madeline had sunk pale, trembling, and all breathless on his breast.
"I could not keep her back," said Ellinor, apologetically, to her father.
"Back! and why? Am I not in my proper place?" cried Madeline, lifting her face from Aram's breast, and then, as her eye circled the group, and rested on Aram's countenance now no longer calm, but full of woe—of passion—of disappointed love—of anticipated despair—she rose, and gradually recoiling with a fear which struck dumb her voice, thrice attempted to speak, and thrice failed.
"But what—what is—what means this?" exclaimed Ellinor. "Why do you weep, father? Why does Eugene turn away his face? You answer not. Speak, for God's sake! These strangers—what are they? And you, Walter, you—why are you so pale? Why do you thus knit your brows and fold your arms? You—you will tell me the meaning of this dreadful silence—this scene! Speak, cousin—dear cousin, speak!"
"Speak!" cried Madeline, finding voice at length, but in the sharp and straining tone of wild terror, in which they recognized no note of the natural music. That single word sounded rather as a shriek than an adjuration; and so piercingly it ran through the hearts of all present, that the very officers, hardened as their trade had made them, felt as if they would rather have faced death than answered that command.
A dead, long, dreary pause—and Aram broke it. "Madeline Lester," said he, "prove yourself worthy of the hour of trial. Exert yourself; arouse your heart; be prepared! You are the betrothed of one whose soul never quailed before man's angry word: remember that, and fear not!"
"I will not—I will not, Eugene! Speak—only speak!"
"You have loved me in good report; trust me now in ill. They accuse me of crime—a heinous crime; at first, I would not have told you the real charge; pardon me, I wronged you: now, know all! They accuse me, I say, of crime. Of what crime? you ask. Ay, I scarce know, so vague is the charge—so fierce the accuser: but, prepare Madeline, it is of—murder!"
Raised as her spirits had been by the haughty and earnest tone of Aram's exhortation, Madeline now, though she turned deadly pale—though the earth swam round and round—yet repressed the shriek upon her lips, as those horrid words shot into her soul.
"You!—murder!—you! And who dares accuse you?"
"Behold him—your cousin!"
Ellinor heard, turned, fixed her eyes on Walter's sullen brow and motionless attitude, and fell senseless to the earth. Not thus Madeline. As there is an exhaustion that forbids, not invites, repose, so when the mind is thoroughly on the rack, the common relief to anguish is not allowed; the senses are too sharply strung, thus happily to collapse into forgetfulness; the dreadful inspiration that agony kindles, supports nature while it consumes it. Madeline passed, without a downward glance, by the lifeless body of her sister; and walking with a steady step to Walter, she laid her hand upon his arm, and fixing on his countenance that soft clear eye, which was now lit with a searching and preternatural glare, and seemed to pierce into his soul, she said:—
"Walter! do I hear aright? Am I awake— is it you who accuse Eugene Aram?—your Madeline's betrothed husband,—Madeline whom you once loved!—Of what?—of crimes which death alone can punish. Away!—it is not you—I know it is not. Say that I am mistaken—that I am mad, if you will. Come, Walter, relieve me: let me not abhor the very air you breathe!"
"Will no one have mercy on me?" cried Walter, rent to the heart, and covering his face with his hands. In the fire and heat of vengeance, he had not recked of this; he had only thought of justice to a father—punishment to a villain—rescue for a credulous girl. The woe—the horror he was about to inflict on all he most loved;—this had not struck upon him with a due force till now!
"Mercy—you talk of mercy! I knew it could not be true!" said Madeline, trying to pluck her cousin's hand from his face: "you could not have dreamt of wrong to Eugene—and—and upon this day. Say we have erred, or that you have erred, and we will forgive and bless you even now!"
Aram had not interfered in this scene. He kept his eyes fixed on the cousins—not uninterested to see what effect Madeline's touching words might produce on his accuser; meanwhile, she continued—"Speak to me, Walter—dear Walter, speak to me! Are you, my cousin, my playfellow—are you the one to blight our hopes—to dash our joys, to bring dread and terror into a home so lately all peace and sunshine—your own home—your childhood's home? What have you done, what have you dared to do?—accuse him—of what? Murder! speak, speak.—Murder, ha! ha!—murder! nay, not so!—you would not venture to come here—you would not let me take your hand—you would not look us, your uncle, your more than sisters, in the face, if you could nurse in your heart this lie—this black—horrid lie!"
Walter withdrew his hands—and as he turned his face said,—
"Let him prove his innocence, pray God he do!—I am not his accuser, Madeline. His accusers are the bones of my dead father!—Save these, Heaven alone, and the revealing earth, are the witness against him!"
"Your father!"—said Madeline, staggering back—"my lost uncle! Nay,—now I know, indeed, what a shadow has appalled us all! Did you know my uncle, Eugene?—Did you ever even see Geoffrey Lester?"
"Never, as I believe, so help me God!"—said Aram, laying his hand on his heart. "But this is idle now,"—as recollecting himself, he felt that the case had gone forth from Walter's hands, and that appeal to him had become vain.
"Leave us now, dearest Madeline; my beloved wife that shall be, that is!—I go to disprove these charges—perhaps I shall return to-night. Delay not my acquittal, even from doubt—a boy's doubt. Come, Sirs."
"O Eugene! Eugene!" cried Madeline, throwing herself on her knees before him—"Do not order me to leave you now—now, in the hour of dread—I will not. Nay, look not so! I swear I will not! Father, dear father, come and plead for me—say I shall go with you. I ask nothing more. Do not fear for my nerves—cowardice is gone. I will not shame you,—I will not play the woman. I know what is due to one who loves him—try me, only try me. You weep, father, you shake your head—but you, Eugene—you have not the heart to deny me? Think—think if I stayed here to count the moments till you return, my very sense would leave me. What do I ask?—but to go with you, to be the first to hail your triumph! Had this happened two hours hence, you could not have said me nay—I should have claimed the right to be with you, I now but implore the blessing—You relent—you relent, I see it!"
"Oh God!" exclaimed Aram rising, and clasping her to his breast, and wildly kissing her face, but with cold and trembling lips,—"This is, indeed, a bitter hour, let me not sink beneath it. Yes, Madeline, ask your father if he consents;—I hail your strengthening presence as that of an angel. I will not be the one to sever you from my side."
"You are right, Eugene," said Lester, who was supporting Ellinor, not yet recovered,—"Let her go with us; it is but common kindness, and common mercy."
Madeline uttered a cry of joy, (joy even at such a moment!) and clung fast to Eugene's arm, as if for assurance that they were not indeed to be separated.
By this time, some of Lester's servants, who had from a distance followed their young mistresses, reached the spot. To their care Lester gave the still scarce reviving Ellinor, and then turning round with a severe countenance to Walter, said,—"Come, Sir, your rashness has done sufficient wrong for the present; come now, and see how soon your suspicions will end in shame."
"Justice, and blood for blood!" said Walter, sternly,—but his heart felt as if it were broken. His venerable uncle's tears—Madeline's look of horror, as she turned from him—Ellinor, all lifeless, and he not daring to approach her—this was his work! He pulled his hat over his eyes, and hastened into the carriage alone. Lester, Madeline, and Aram, followed in the other vehicle, and the two officers contented themselves with mounting the box, certain that the prisoner would attempt no escape.