Eugene Aram/Chapter 42

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3394658Eugene Aram — Book 5, Chapter IV.Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer



It was the evening before the trial. Lester and his daughters lodged at a retired and solitary house in the suburbs of the town of York; and thither, from the village some miles distant, in which he had chosen his own retreat, Walter now proceeded across fields laden with the ripening corn. The last and the richest month of summer had commenced, but the harvest was not yet begun, and deep and golden showed the vegetation of life, bedded among the dark verdure of the hedge-rows, and "the merrie woods!" The evening was serene and lulled; at a distance arose the spires and chimneys of the town, but no sound from the busy hum of men reached the ear. Nothing perhaps gives a more entire idea of stillness than the sight of those abodes where "noise dwelleth," but where you cannot now hear even its murmurs. The stillness of a city is far more impressive than that of Nature; for the mind instantly compares the present silence with the wonted uproar. The harvest-tfloon rose slowly from a copse of gloomy firs, and diffused its own unspeakable magic into the hush and transparency of the night. As Walter walked slowly on, the sound of voices from some rustic party going homeward, broke jocundly on the silence, and when he paused for a moment at the stile, from which he first caught a glimpse of Lester's house, he saw, winding along the green hedgerow, some village pair, the "lover and the maid," who could meet only at such hours, and to whom such hours were therefore especially dear. It was altogether a scene of pure and true pastoral character, and there was all around a semblance of tranquillity, of happiness, which suits with the poetical and the scriptural paintings of a pastoral life; and which perhaps, in a new and fertile country, may still find a realization. From this scene, from these thoughts, the young loiterer turned with a sigh towards the solitary house in which this night could awaken none but the most anxious feehngs, and that moon could beam only on the most troubled hearts.

"Terra salutiferas herbas, eademque nocentes
Nutrit; et urticæ proxima sæpe rosa est."

He now walked more quickly on, as if stung by his reflections, and avoiding the path which led to the front of the house, gained a little garden at the rear, and opening a gate that admitted to a narrow and shaded walk, over which the linden and nut trees made a sort of continuous and natural arbour, the moon, piercing at broken intervals through the boughs, rested on the form of Ellinor Lester.

"This is most kind, most like my own sweet cousin," said Walter approaching; "I cannot say how fearful I was, lest you should not meet me after all."

"Indeed, Walter," replied Ellinor, "I found some difficulty in concealing your note, which was given me in Madeline's presence; and still more, in stealing out unobserved by her, for she has been, as you may well conceive, unusually restless the whole of this agonizing day. Ah, Walter, would to God you had never left us!"

"Rather say,"" rejoined Walter—"that this unhappy man, against whom my father's ashes still seem to me to cry aloud, had never come into our peaceful and happy valley! Then you would not have reproached me, that I have sought justice on a suspected murderer; nor I have longed for death rather than, in that justice, have inflicted such distress and horror on those whom I love the best!"

"What! Walter, you yet believe—you are yet convinced that Eugene Aram is the real criminal?"

"Let to-morrow shew," answered Walter. "But poor, poor Madeline! How does she bear up against this long suspense? You know I have not seen her for months."

"Oh! Walter," said Ellinor, weeping bitterly, "you would not know her, so dreadfully is she altered. I fear—" (here sobs choaked the sister's voice, so as to leave it scarcely audible)—"that she is not many weeks for this world!"

"Great God! is it so?" exclaimed Walter, so shocked, that the tree against which he leant scarcely preserved him from falling to the ground, as the thousand remembrances of his first love rushed upon his heart. "And Providence singled me out of the whole world, to strike this blow!"

Despite her own grief, Ellinor was touched and smitten by the violent emotion of her cousin; and the two young persons, lovers—though love was at this time the least perceptible feeling of their breasts—mingled their emotions, and sought, at least to console and cheer each other.

"It may yet be better than our fears," said Ellinor, soothingly. "Eugene may be found guiltless, and in that joy we may forget all the past."

Walter shook his head despondingly. "Your heart, Ellinor, was always kind to me. You now are the only one to do me justice, and to see how utterly reproachless I am for all the misery the crime of another occasions. But my uncle—him, too, I have not seen for some time: is he well?"

"Yes, Walter, yes," said Ellinor, kindly disguising the real truth, how much her father's vigorous frame had been bowed by his state of mind. "And I, you see," added she, with a faint attempt to smile,—"I am, in health at least", the same as when, this time last year, we were all happy and full of hope."

Walter looked hard upon that face, once so vivid with the rich colour and the buoyant and arch expression of liveliness and youth, now pale, subdued, and worn by the traces of constant tears; and, pressing his hand convulsively on his heart, turned away.

"But can I not see my uncle?" said he, after a pause.

"He is not at home: he has gone to the Castle," replied Ellinor.

"I shall meet him, then, on his way home," returned Walter. "But, Ellinor, there is surely no truth in a vague rumour which I heard in the town, that Madeline intends to be present at the trial to-morrow."

"Indeed, I fear that she will. Both my father and myself have sought strongly and urgently to dissuade her; but in vain. You know, with all that gentleness, how resolute she is when her mind is once determined on any object."

"But if the verdict should be against the prisoner, in her state of health consider how terrible would be the shock!—Nay, even the joy of acquittal might be equally dangerous—for Heaven's sake! do not suffer her."

"What is to be done, Walter?" said Ellinor, wringing her hands. "We cannot help it. My father has, at last, forbid me to contradict the wish. Contradiction, the physician himself says, might be as fatal as concession can be. And my father adds, in a stern, calm voice, which it breaks my heart to hear, 'Be still, Ellinor. If the innocent is to perish, the sooner she joins him the better: I would then have all my ties on the other side the grave!'"

"How that strange man seems to have fascinated you all!" said Walter, bitterly.

Ellinor did not answer: over her the fascination had never been to an equal degree with the rest of her family.

"Ellinor!" said Walter, who had been walking for the last few moments to and fro with the rapid strides of a man debating with himself, and who now suddenly paused, and laid his hand on his cousin's arm—"Ellinor! I am resolved. I must, for the quiet of my soul, I must see Madeline this night, and win her forgiveness for all I have been made the unintentional agent of Providence to bring upon her. The peace of my future life may depend on this single interview. What if Aram be condemned—and—and—in short, it is no matter—I must see her."

"She would not hear of it, I fear," said Ellinor, in alarm. "Indeed, you cannot—you do not know her state of mind."

"Ellinor!" said Walter, doggedly, "I am resolved." And so saying, he moved towards the house.

"Well, then," said Ellinor, whose nerves had been greatly shattered by the scenes and sorrow of the last several months, "if it must be so, wait at least till I have gone in, and consulted or prepared her."

"As you will, my gentlest, kindest cousin; I know your prudence and affection. I leave you to obtain me this interview; you can, and will, I am convinced."

"Do not be sanguine, Walter. I can only promise to use my best endeavours," answered Ellinor, blushing as he kissed her hand; and, hurrying up the walk, she disappeared within the house.

Walter walked for some moments about the alley in which Ellinor had left him, but growing impatient, he at length wound through the overhanging trees, and the house stood immediately before him,—the moonlight shining full on the window-panes, and sleeping in quiet shadow over the green turf in front. He approached yet nearer, and through one of the windows, by a single light in the room, he saw Ellinor leaning over a couch, on which a form reclined, that his heart, rather than his sight, told him was his once-adored Madeline. He stopped, and his breath heaved thick;—he thought of their common home at Grassdale—of the old Manor-house—of the little parlour with the woodbine at its casement—of the group within, once so happy and light-hearted, of which he had formerly made the one most buoyant, and not least-loved. And now this strange—this desolate house—himself estranged from all once regarding him,—(and those broken-hearted,)—this night ushering what a morrow!—he groaned almost aloud, and retreated once more into the shadow of the trees. In a few minutes the door at the right of the building opened, and Ellinor came forth with a quick step.

"Come in, dear Walter," said she; "Madeline has consented to see you—nay, when I told her you were here, and desired an interview, she paused but for one instant, and then begged me to admit you."

"God bless her!" said poor Walter, drawing his hand across his eyes, and following Ellinor to the door.

"You will find her greatly changed!" whispered Ellinor, as they gained the outer hall; "be prepared!"

Walter did not reply, save by an expressive gesture; and Ellinor led him into a room, which communicated, by one of those glass doors often to be seen in the old-fashioned houses of country towns, with the one in which he had previously seen Madeline. With a noiseless step, and almost holding his breath, he followed his fair guide through this apartment, and he now stood by the couch on which Madeline still reclined. She held out her hand to him—he pressed it to his lips, without daring to look her in the face; and after a moment's pause, she said—

"So, you wished to see me, Walter! It is an anxious night this for all of us!"

"For all!" repeated Walter, emphatically; and for me not the least!"

"We have known some sad days since we last met!" renewed Madeline; and there was another, and an embarrassed pause.

"Madeline—dearest Madeline!" said Walter, at length dropping on his knee; "you, whom while I was yet a boy, I so fondly, passionately loved;—you, who yet are—who, while I live, ever will be, so inexpressibly dear to me—say but one word to me on this uncertain and dreadful epoch of our fate—say but one word to me—say you feel you are conscious that throughout these terrible events I have not been to blame—I have not willingly brought this affliction upon our house—least of all upon that heart which my own would have forfeited its best blood to preserve from the slightest evil;—or, if you will not do me this justice, say at least that you forgive me!"

"I forgive you, Walter! I do you justice, my cousin!" replied Madeline, with energy; and raising herself on her arm. "It is long since I have felt how unreasonable it was to throw any blame upon you—the mere and passive instrument of fate. If I have forborne to see you, it was not from an angry feeling, but from a reluctant weakness. God bless and preserve you, my dear cousin! I know that your own heart has bled as profusely as ours; and it was but this day that I told my father, if we never met again, to express to you some kind message as a last memorial from me. Don't weep, Walter! It is a fearful thing to see men weep! It is only once that I have seen him weep,—that was long, long ago! He has no tears in the hour of dread and danger. But no matter, this is a bad world, Walter, and I am tired of it. Are not you.? Why do you look so at me, Ellinor? I am not mad! Has she told you that I am, Walter? Don't believe her! Look at me! I am calm and collected! Yet to-morrow is——O God! O God!—if—if!——"

Madeline covered her face with her hands, and became suddenly silent, though only for a short time; when she again lifted up her eyes, they encountered those of Walter; as through those blinding and agonised tears, which are only wrung from the grief of manhood, he gazed upon that face on which nothing of herself, save the divine and unearthly expression which had always characterised her loveliness, was left.

"Yes, Walter, I am wearing fast away—fast beyond the power of chance! Thank God, who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, if the worst happen, we cannot be divided long. Ere another Sabbath has passed, I may be with him in Paradise! What cause shall we then have for regret?"

EUinor flung herself on her sister's neck, sobbing violently.—"Yes, we shall regret you are not with us, Ellinor; but you will also soon grow tired of the world; it is a sad place—it is a wicked place—it is full of snares and pitfalls. In our walk to-day lies our destruction for to-morrow! You will find this soon, Ellinor! And you, and my father, and Walter, too, shall join us! Hark! the clock strikes! By this time to-morrow night, what triumph!—or to me at least (sinking her voice into a whisper, that thrilled through the very bones of her listeners) what peace!"

Happily for all parties, this distressing scene was here interrupted. Lester entered the room with the heavy step into which his once elastic and cheerful tread had subsided.

"Ha, Walter!" said he, irresolutely glancing over the group; but Madeline had already sprang from her seat.

"You have seen him!—you have seen him! And how does he—how does he look? But that I know; I know his brave heart does not sink. And what message does he send to me? And—and—tell me all, my father: quick, quick!"

"Dear, miserable child!—and miserable old man!" muttered Lester, folding her in his arms; "but we ought to take courage and comfort from him, Madeline. A hero, on the eve of battle, could not be more firm—even more cheerful. He smiled often—his old smile; and he only left tears and anxiety to us. But of you, Madeline, we spoke mostly: he would scarcely let me say a word on any thing else. Oh, what a kind heart!—what a noble spirit! And perhaps a chance tomorrow may quench both. But, God! be just, and let the avenging lightning fall on the real criminal, and not blast the innocent man!"

"Amen!" said Madeline deeply.

"Amen!" repeated Walter, laying his hand on his heart.

"Let us pray!" exclaimed Lester, animated by a sudden impulse, and falling on his knees. The whole group followed his example; and Lester, in a trembling and impassioned voice, poured forth an extempore prayer, that Justice might fall only where it was due. Never did that majestic and pausing Moon, which filled that lowly room as with the presence of a spirit, witness a more impressive adjuration, or an audience more absorbed and rapt. Full streamed its holy rays upon the now snowy locks and upward countenance of Lester, making his venerable person more striking from the contrast it afforded to the dark and sunburnt cheek—the energetic features, and chivalric and earnest head of the young man beside him. Just in the shadow, the raven locks of Ellinor were bowed over her clasped hands,—nothing of her face visible; the graceful neck and heaving breast alone distinguished from the shadow;—and, hushed in a death-like and solemn repose, the parted lips moving inaudibly; the eye fixed on vacancy; the wan transparent hands, crossed upon her bosom; the light shone with a more softened and tender ray upon the faded but all-angelic form and countenance of her, for whom Heaven was already preparing its eternal recompense for the ills of Earth!