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by Edward Bulwer Lytton
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton (later the 1st Baron Lytton) of Norfolk was born on 25 May 1803 and died in 1873. The early death of his father, his discontent at school and an unhappy marriage may have contributed to his popular success as an author.
The real Eugene Aram, at one time a tutor in the Lytton family, was executed at York in 1759, for a murder committed fourteen years before. In a later revised edition Lytton made the narrative agree with his own conclusion that, though an accomplice in robbery, Aram was not guilty of actual murder.
For more works by Edward Bulwer Lytton, see The Index
I. - At the Sign of the Spotted Dog
In the county of - - was a sequestered hamlet, to which I shall give the name of Grassdale. It lay in a fruitful valley between gentle and fertile hills. Its single hostelry, the Spotted Dog, was owned by one Peter Dealtry, a small farmer, who was also clerk of the parish. On summer evenings Peter was frequently to be seen outside his inn discussing psalmody and other matters with Jacob Bunting, late a corporal in his majesty's army, a man who prided himself on his knowledge of the world, and found Peter's too easy fund of merriment occasionally irritating.
On one such evening their discussion was interrupted by an unprepossessing and travel-stained stranger, who, when his wants, none too amiably expressed, had been attended to, exhibited a marked curiosity concerning the people of the locality. As the stranger paid for his welcome with a liberal hand, Peter became more than usually communicative.
He described the lord of the manor, a distinguished nobleman who lived at the castle some six miles away. He talked of the squire and his household. "But," he continued, "the most noticeable man is a great scholar. There, yonder," said he, "you may just catch a glimpse of the tall what-d'ye-call-it he has built on the top of his house that he may get nearer to the stars."
"The scholar, I suppose," observed the stranger, "is not very rich. Learning does not clothe men nowadays, eh, corporal?"
"And why should it?" asked Bunting. "Zounds! can it teach a man how to defend his country? Old England wants soldiers. But the man's well enough, I must own - civil, modest - - "
"And by no means a beggar," added Peter. "He gave as much to the poor last winter as the squire himself. But if he were as rich as Lord - - he could not be more respected. The greatest folk in the country come in their carriages-and-four to see him. There is not a man more talked on in the whole county than Eugene Aram - - "
"What!" cried the traveller, his countenance changing as he sprang from his seat. "What! Aram! Did you say Aram? Great heavens! How strange!"
"What! You know him?" gasped the astonished landlord.
Instead of replying, the stranger muttered inaudible words between his teeth. Now he strode two steps forward, clenching his hands. Now smiled grimly. Then he threw himself upon his seat, still in silence.
"Rum tantrums!" ejaculated the corporal. "What the devil! Did the man eat your grandmother?"
The stranger lifted his head, and addressing Peter, said, with a forced smile, "You have done me a great kindness, my friend. Eugene Aram was an early acquaintance of mine. We have not met for many years. I never guessed that he lived in these parts."
And then, directed, in answer to his inquiries, to Aram's dwelling, a lonely grey house in the middle of a broad plain, the traveller went his way.
II. - The Squire's Guest
The man the stranger went to seek was one who perhaps might have numbered some five-and-thirty years, but at a hasty glance would have seemed considerably younger. His frame was tall, slender, but well-knit and fair proportioned; his cheek was pale, but with thought; his hair was long, and of a rich, deep brown; his brow was unfurrowed; his face was one that a physiognomist would have loved to look upon, so much did it speak of both the refinement and the dignity of intellect.
Eugene Aram had been now about two years settled in his present retreat, with an elderly dame as housekeeper. From almost every college in Europe came visitors to his humble dwelling, and willingly he imparted to others any benefit derived from his lonely researches. But he proffered no hospitality, and shrank from all offers of friendship. Yet, unsocial as he was, everyone loved him. The peasant threw kindly pity into his respectful greeting. Even that terror of the village, Mother Darkmans, saved her bitterest gibes for others; and the village maiden, as she curtseyed by him, stole a glance at his handsome but melancholy countenance, and told her sweetheart she was certain the poor scholar had been crossed in love.
At the manor house he was often the subject of remark, but only on the day of the stranger's appearance at the Spotted Dog had the squire found an opportunity of breaking through the scholar's habitual reserve, and so persuaded him to dine with him and his family on the day following.
The squire, Rowland Lester, a man of cultivated tastes, was a widower, with two daughters and a nephew. Walter, the only son of Rowland's brother Geoffrey, who had absconded, leaving his wife and child to shift for themselves, was in his twenty-first year, tall and strong, with a striking if not strictly handsome face; high-spirited, jealous of the affections of those he loved; cheerful outwardly, but given to moody reflections on his orphaned and dependent lot, for his mother had not long survived her desertion.
Madeline Lester, at the age of eighteen, was the beauty and toast of the whole country; with a mind no less beautiful than her form was graceful, and a desire for study equalled only by her regard for those who possessed it, a regard which had extended secretly, if all but unacknowledged to herself, to the solitary scholar of whom I have been speaking. Ellinor, her junior by two years, was of a character equally gentle, but less elevated, and a beauty akin to her sister's.
When Eugene Aram arrived at the manor house in keeping with his promise, something appeared to rest upon his mind, from which, however, by the excitement lent by wine and occasional bursts of eloquence, he seemed striving to escape, and at length he apparently succeeded.
When the ladies had retired, Lester and his guest resumed their talk in the open, Walter declining to join them.
Aram was advancing the view that it is impossible for a man who leads the life of the world ever to experience content.
"For me," observed the squire, "I have my objects of interest in my children."
"And I mine in my books," said Aram.
As they passed over the village green, the gaunt form of Corporal Bunting arrested their progress.
"Beg pardon, your honour," said he to the scholar, "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. Then, as if satisfied with his survey, he added, "Ay, ay; I know whom you mean. He had become acquainted with me some years ago. I don't know - I know very little of him." And the student was turning away, but stopped to add, "The man called on me last night for assistance. I gave what I could afford, and he has now proceeded on his journey. Good evening!"
Lester and his companion passed on, the former somewhat surprised, a feeling increased when shortly afterwards Aram abruptly bade him farewell. But, recalling 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; and so, without further discourse, he shook hands with him, and they parted.
III. - The Old Riding-Whip
When Lester regained the little parlour in his home 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 earnestness that contrasted with her customary cheerful vivacity.
The squire thought he had cause to complain of his nephew's conduct to their guest. "You eyed the poor student," he said, "as if you wished him amongst the books of Alexandria."
"I would he were burnt with them!" exclaimed Walter sharply. "He seems to have bewitched my fair cousins here into a forgetfulness of all but himself."
"Not me!" said Ellinor eagerly.
"No, not you; you are too just. It is a pity Madeline is not more like you."
Thus was disturbance first introduced into a peaceful family. Walter was jealous; he could not control his feelings. An open breach followed, not only between him and Aram, but a quarrel between him and Madeline. The position came as a revelation to his uncle, who, seeing no other way out of the difficulty, yielded to Walter's request that he should be allowed to travel.
Meanwhile, Aram, drawn out of his habitual solitude by the sweet influence of Madeline, became a frequent visitor to the manor house and the acknowledged suitor for Madeline's hand. As for Walter, when he set out for London, with Corporal Bunting as his servant, he had found consolation in the discovery that Ellinor's regard for him had gone beyond mere cousinly affection. His uncle gave him several letters of introduction to old friends; among them one to Sir Peter Hales, and another to a Mr. Courtland.
An incident that befell him on the London road revived to an extraordinary degree Walter's desire to ascertain the whereabouts of his long-lost father. At the request of Sir Peter Hales he had alighted at a saddler's for the purpose of leaving a parcel committed to him, when his attention was attracted by an old-fashioned riding-whip. Taking it up, he found it bore his own crest, and his father's initials, "G.L." Much agitated, he made quick inquiries, and learned that the whip had been left for repair about twelve years previously by a gentleman who was visiting Mr. Courtland, and had not been heard of since.
Eagerly he sought out Mr. Courtland, and gleaned news which induced him, much to Corporal Bunting's disgust, to set his back on London, and make his way with all speed in the direction of Knaresborough. It appeared that at the time the whip was left at the saddler's, Geoffrey Lester had just returned from India, and when he called on his old acquaintance, Mr. Courtland, he was travelling to the historic town in the West Riding to claim a legacy his old colonel - he had been in the army - had left him for saving his life. The name Geoffrey Lester had assumed on entering the army was Clarke.
IV. - Hush-Money
While Walter Lester and Corporal Bunting were passing northward, the squire of Grassdale saw, with evident complacency, the passion growing up between his friend and his daughter. He looked upon it as a tie that would permanently reconcile Aram to the hearth of social and domestic life; a tie that would constitute the happiness of his daughter and secure to himself a relation in the man he felt most inclined of all he knew to honour and esteem. Aram seemed another man; and happy indeed was Madeline in the change. But one evening, while the two were walking together, and Aram was discoursing on their future, Madeline uttered a faint shriek, and clung trembling to her lover's arm.
Amazed and roused from his enthusiasm, Aram looked up, and, on seeing the cause of her alarm, seemed himself transfixed, as by a sudden terror to the earth.
But a few paces distant, standing amidst the long and rank fern that grew on each side of their path, quite motionless, and looking on the pair with a sarcastic smile, stood the ominous stranger whom we first met at the sign of the Spotted Dog.
"Pardon me, dear Madeline," said Aram, softly disengaging himself from her, "but for one moment."
He then advanced to the stranger, and after a conversation that lasted but a minute, the latter bowed, and, turning away, soon vanished among the shrubs.
Aram, regaining the side of Madeline, explained, in answer to her startled inquiries, that the man, whom he had known well some fourteen years ago, had again come to ask for his help, and he supposed that he would again have to aid him.
"And is that indeed all?" said Madeline, breathing more freely. "Well, poor man, if he be your friend, he must be inoffensive. Here, Eugene." And the simple-hearted girl put her purse into Aram's hand.
"No, dearest," said he, shrinking back. "I can easily spare him enough. But let us turn back. It grows chill."
"And why did he leave us, Eugene?"
"Because," was the reply, "I desired him to visit me at home an hour hence."
There was a past shared by these two men, and Houseman - for that was the stranger's name - had come for the price of his silence. The next day, on the plea of an old debt that suddenly had to be met, Aram approached his prospective father-in-law for the loan of £300. This sum was readily placed at his disposal. Indeed, he was offered double the amount. His next action was to travel to London, where, with all the money at his command, he purchased an annuity for Houseman, falling back, for his own needs, upon the influence of Lord - - to secure for him a small state allowance which it was in that nobleman's power to grant to him as a needy man of letters.
Houseman was surprised at the scholar's generosity when the paper ensuring the annuity was placed in his hands. "Before daybreak to-morrow," he said, "I will be on the road. You may now rest assured that you are free of me for life. Go home - marry - enjoy your existence. Within four days, if the wind set fair, I shall be in France."
The pale face of Eugene Aram brightened. He had resolved, had Houseman's attitude been different, to surrender Madeline at once.
V. - Human Bones
The unexpected change in her lover's demeanour, on his return to Grassdale, brought unspeakable joy to the heart of Madeline Lester. But hardly had Aram left Houseman's squalid haunt in Lambeth when a letter was put into the ruffian's hand telling of his daughter's serious illness. For this daughter Houseman, villain as he was, would willingly have given his life. Now, casting all other thoughts aside, he set forth, not for France, but for Knaresborough, where his daughter was lying, and whither, guided by his inquiries concerning his father, Walter Lester was also on his way.
It was not long ere Walter found that a certain Colonel Elmore had died in 17 -, leaving £1,000 and a house to one Daniel Clarke, and that an executor of the colonel's will survived in the person of a Mr. Jonas Elmore. From Mr. Elmore, Walter learned that Clarke had disappeared suddenly, after receiving the legacy, taking with him a number of jewels with which Mr. Elmore had entrusted him. His disappearance had caused a sensation at the time, and a man named Houseman had assigned as a cause of Clarke's disappearance a loan which he did not mean to repay. It was true that Houseman and a young scholar named Eugene Aram had been interrogated by the authorities, but nothing could be proved against them, and certainly nothing was suspected where Aram was concerned. He left Knaresborough soon after Clarke had disappeared, having received a legacy from a relative at York.
This story of a legacy Walter was not inclined to believe, but proof of it was forthcoming. Another circumstance in Aram's favour was that his memory was still honoured in the town, by the curate, Mr. Summers, as well as by others.
Accompanied by Mr. Summers, Walter visited the house where Daniel Clarke had stayed and also the woman at whose house Aram had lived. It was a lonely, desolate-looking house; its solitary occupant a woman who evidently had been drinking. When the name of Eugene Aram was mentioned, the woman assumed a mysterious air, and eventually disclosed the fact that she had seen Mr. Clarke, Houseman and Aram enter Aram's room early one morning. They went away together. A little later Aram and Houseman returned. She found out afterwards that they had been burning some clothes. She also discovered a handkerchief belonging to Houseman with blood upon it. She had shown this to Houseman, who had threatened to shoot her should she say a word to anyone regarding himself or his companions.
Armed with this narrative, extracted by the promise of pecuniary reward, Walter and Mr. Summers were making their way to a magistrate's when their attention was attracted by a crowd. A workman, digging for limestone, had unearthed a big wooden chest. The chest contained a skeleton!
In the midst of the commotion caused by this discovery a voice broke out abruptly. It was that of Richard Houseman. His journey had been in vain. His daughter was dead. His appearance revealed all too plainly to what source he had flown for consolation.
"What do ye here, fools?" he cried, reeling forward. "Ha! Human bones! And whose may they be, think ye?"
There were in the crowd those who remembered the disappearance which had so surprised them years before, and more than one repeated the name of "Daniel Clarke."
"Clarke's bones!" exclaimed Houseman. "Ha, ha! They are no more Clarke's than mine!"
At this moment Walter stepped forward.
"Behold!" he cried, in a ringing voice, vibrant with emotion - "behold the murderer!"
Pale, confused, conscience-stricken, the bewilderment of intoxication mingling with that of fear, Houseman gasped out that if they wanted the bones of Clarke they should search St. Robert's Cave. And in the place he named they found at last the unhallowed burial-place of the murdered dead.
But Houseman, now roused by a sense of personal danger, denied that he was the guilty man. Drawing his breath hard, and setting his teeth as with steeled determination, he cried, "The murderer is Eugene Aram!"
VI. - "I Murdered my Own Life"
It was a chill morning in November. But at Grassdale all was bustle and excitement. The church bells were ringing merry peals. It wanted but an hour or so to the wedding of Eugene Aram and Madeline Lester. In this interval the scholar was alone with his thoughts. His reverie was rudely disturbed by a loud knocking, the noise of which penetrated into his study. The outer door was opened. Voices were heard.
"Great God!" he exclaimed. "'Murderer!' Was that the word I heard shouted forth? The voice, too, is Walter Lester's. Can he have learned - - "
Calm succeeded to the agitation of the moment. He met the newcomers with a courageous front. But, followed by his bride who was to be, by her sister Ellinor, and by their father, all confident that Walter had made some horrible mistake, Eugene Aram was taken away to be committed to York on the capital charge.
The law's delays were numerous. Winter passed into spring, and spring into summer before the trial came on. Eugene Aram's friends were numerous. Lord - - firmly believed in his innocence, and proffered help. But the prisoner refused legal aid, and conducted his own defence - how ably history records. Madeline was present at the closing scene, in her wedding dress. Her father was all but broken in his grief for daughter and friend. Walter was distraught by the havoc he had caused, and in doubt whether, after all, his action had not been too impetuous. The court was deeply impressed by the prisoner's defence. But the judge's summing-up was all against the accused, and the verdict was "Guilty!" Madeline lived but a few hours after hearing it.
The following evening Walter obtained admittance to the condemned cell.
"Eugene Aram," he said, in tones of agony, "if at this moment you can lay your hand on your heart, and say, 'Before God, and at peril of my soul, I am innocent of this deed,' I will depart; I will believe you, and bear as I may the reflection that I have been one of the unconscious agents in condemning to a fearful death an innocent man. But if you cannot at so dark a crisis take that oath, then, oh then, be generous, even in guilt, and let me not be haunted through life by the spectre of a ghastly and restless doubt!"
On the eve of the day destined to be his last on earth Eugene Aram placed in Walter's hands a paper which that young man pledged himself not to read till Rowland Lester's grey hairs had gone to the grave. This document set forth at length the story of Aram's early life, how he sought knowledge amidst grinding poverty, and how, when a gigantic discovery in science gleamed across his mind, a discovery which only lack of means prevented him from realising to the vast benefit of truth and man, the tempter came to him. This tempter took the form of a distant relative, Richard Houseman, with his doctrine that "Laws order me to starve, but self-preservation is an instinct more sacred than society," and his demand for co-operation in an act of robbery from one Daniel Clarke, whose crimes were many, who was, moreover, on the point of disappearing with a number of jewels he had borrowed on false pretences.
"Houseman lied," wrote the condemned man. "I did not strike the blow. I never designed a murder. But the deed was done, and Houseman divided the booty. My share he buried in the earth, leaving me to withdraw it when I chose. There, perhaps, it lies still. I never touched what I had murdered my own life to gain. Three days after that deed a relative, who had neglected me in life, died and left me wealth - wealth, at least, to me! Wealth greater than that for which I had - - My ambition died in remorse!"
Houseman passed away in his own bed. But he had to be buried secretly in the dead of night, for, ten years after Eugene Aram had died on the scaffold, the hatred of the world survived for his accomplice. Rowland Lester did not live long after Madeline's death. But when Walter returned from a period of honourable service with the great Frederick of Prussia, it was with no merely cousinly welcome that Ellinor received him.
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