Read CHAPTER I. of Eugene Aram, free online book, by Edward Bulwer Lytton, on ReadCentral.com.

The Village -- its Inhabitants -- an old Manorhouse: and an English Family; their History, involving Mysterious Event.

“Protected by the divinity they adored, supported by the earth which they cultivated, and at peace with themselves, they enjoyed the sweets of life, without dreading or desiring dissolution.”  Numa Pompilius.

In the country of ­there is a sequestered hamlet, which I have often sought occasion to pass, and which I have never left without a certain reluctance and regret.  It is not only (though this has a remarkable spell over my imagination) that it is the sanctuary, as it were, of a story which appears to me of a singular and fearful interest; but the scene itself is one which requires no legend to arrest the traveller’s attention.  I know not in any part of the world, which it has been my lot to visit, a landscape so entirely lovely and picturesque, as that which on every side of the village I speak of, you may survey.  The hamlet to which I shall here give the name of Grassdale, is situated in a valley, which for about the length of a mile winds among gardens and orchards, laden with fruit, between two chains of gentle and fertile hills.

Here, singly or in pairs, are scattered cottages, which bespeak a comfort and a rural luxury, less often than our poets have described the characteristics of the English peasantry.  It has been observed, and there is a world of homely, ay, and of legislative knowledge in the observation, that wherever you see a flower in a cottage garden, or a bird-cage at the window, you may feel sure that the cottagers are better and wiser than their neighbours; and such humble tokens of attention to something beyond the sterile labour of life, were (we must now revert to the past,) to be remarked in almost every one of the lowly abodes at Grassdale.  The jasmine here, there the vine clustered over the threshold, not so wildly as to testify negligence; but rather to sweeten the air than to exclude it from the inmates.  Each of the cottages possessed at its rear its plot of ground, apportioned to the more useful and nutritious product of nature; while the greater part of them fenced also from the unfrequented road a little spot for the lupin, the sweet pea, or the many tribes of the English rose.  And it is not unworthy of remark, that the bees came in greater clusters to Grassdale than to any other part of that rich and cultivated district.  A small piece of waste land, which was intersected by a brook, fringed with ozier and dwarf and fantastic pollards, afforded pasture for a few cows, and the only carrier’s solitary horse.  The stream itself was of no ignoble repute among the gentle craft of the Angle, the brotherhood whom our associations defend in the spite of our mercy; and this repute drew welcome and periodical itinerants to the village, who furnished it with its scanty news of the great world without, and maintained in a decorous custom the little and single hostelry of the place.  Not that Peter Dealtry, the proprietor of the “Spotted Dog,” was altogether contented to subsist upon the gains of his hospitable profession; he joined thereto the light cares of a small farm, held under a wealthy and an easy landlord; and being moreover honoured with the dignity of clerk to the parish, he was deemed by his neighbours a person of no small accomplishment, and no insignificant distinction.  He was a little, dry, thin man, of a turn rather sentimental than jocose; a memory well stored with fag-ends of psalms, and hymns which, being less familiar than the psalms to the ears of the villagers, were more than suspected to be his own composition; often gave a poetic and semi-religious colouring to his conversation, which accorded rather with his dignity in the church, than his post at the Spotted Dog.  Yet he disliked not his joke, though it was subtle and delicate of nature; nor did he disdain to bear companionship over his own liquor, with guests less gifted and refined.

In the centre of the village you chanced upon a cottage which had been lately white-washed, where a certain preciseness in the owner might be detected in the clipped hedge, and the exact and newly mended style by which you approached the habitation; herein dwelt the beau and bachelor of the village, somewhat antiquated it is true, but still an object of great attention and some hope to the elder damsels in the vicinity, and of a respectful popularity, that did not however prohibit a joke, to the younger part of the sisterhood.  Jacob Bunting, so was this gentleman called, had been for many years in the king’s service, in which he had risen to the rank of corporal, and had saved and pinched together a certain small independence upon which he now rented his cottage and enjoyed his leisure.  He had seen a good deal of the world, and profited in shrewdness by his experience; he had rubbed off, however, all superfluous devotion as he rubbed off his prejudices, and though he drank more often than any one else with the landlord of the Spotted Dog, he also quarrelled with him the oftenest, and testified the least forbearance at the publican’s segments of psalmody.  Jacob was a tall, comely, and perpendicular personage; his threadbare coat was scrupulously brushed, and his hair punctiliously plastered at the sides into two stiff obstinate-looking curls, and at the top into what he was pleased to call a feather, though it was much more like a tile.  His conversation had in it something peculiar; generally it assumed a quick, short, abrupt turn, that, retrenching all superfluities of pronoun and conjunction, and marching at once upon the meaning of the sentence, had in it a military and Spartan significance, which betrayed how difficult it often is for a man to forget that he has been a corporal.  Occasionally indeed, for where but in farces is the phraseology of the humorist always the same? he escaped into a more enlarged and christianlike method of dealing with the king’s English, but that was chiefly noticeable, when from conversation he launched himself into lecture, a luxury the worthy soldier loved greatly to indulge, for much had he seen and somewhat had he reflected; and valuing himself, which was odd in a corporal, more on his knowledge of the world than his knowledge even of war, he rarely missed any occasion of edifying a patient listener with the result of his observations.

After you had sauntered by the veteran’s door, beside which you generally, if the evening were fine, or he was not drinking with neighbour Dealtry ­or taking his tea with gossip this or master that ­or teaching some emulous urchins the broadsword exercise ­or snaring trout in the stream ­or, in short, otherwise engaged; beside which, I say, you not unfrequently beheld him sitting on a rude bench, and enjoying with half-shut eyes, crossed legs, but still unindulgently erect posture, the luxury of his pipe; you ventured over a little wooden bridge; beneath which, clear and shallow, ran the rivulet we have before honorably mentioned; and a walk of a few minutes brought you to a moderately sized and old-fashioned mansion ­the manor-house of the parish.  It stood at the very foot of the hill; behind, a rich, ancient, and hanging wood, brought into relief ­the exceeding freshness and verdure of the patch of green meadow immediately in front.  On one side, the garden was bounded by the village churchyard, with its simple mounds, and its few scattered and humble tombs.  The church was of great antiquity; and it was only in one point of view that you caught more than a glimpse of its grey tower and graceful spire, so thickly and so darkly grouped the yew tree and the larch around the edifice.  Opposite the gate by which you gained the house, the view was not extended, but rich with wood and pasture, backed by a hill, which; less verdant than its fellows, was covered with sheep:  while you saw hard by the rivulet darkening and stealing away; till your sight, though not your ear, lost it among the woodland.

Trained up the embrowned paling on either side of the gate, were bushes of rustic fruit, and fruit and flowers (through plots of which green and winding alleys had been cut with no untasteful hand) testified by their thriving and healthful looks, the care bestowed upon them.  The main boasts of the garden were, on one side, a huge horse-chesnut tree ­the largest in the village; and on the other, an arbour covered without with honeysuckles, and tapestried within by moss.  The house, a grey and quaint building of the time of James I. with stone copings and gable roof, could scarcely in these days have been deemed a fitting residence for the lord of the manor.  Nearly the whole of the centre was occupied by the hall, in which the meals of the family were commonly held ­only two other sitting-rooms of very moderate dimensions had been reserved by the architect for the convenience or ostentation of the proprietor.  An ample porch jutted from the main building, and this was covered with ivy, as the windows were with jasmine and honeysuckle; while seats were ranged inside the porch covered with many a rude initial and long-past date.

The owner of this mansion bore the name of Rowland Lester.  His forefathers, without pretending to high antiquity of family, had held the dignity of squires of Grassdale for some two centuries; and Rowland Lester was perhaps the first of the race who had stirred above fifty miles from the house in which each successive lord had received his birth, or the green churchyard in which was yet chronicled his death.  The present proprietor was a man of cultivated tastes; and abilities, naturally not much above mediocrity, had been improved by travel as well as study.  Himself and one younger brother had been early left masters of their fate and their several portions.  The younger, Geoffrey, testified a roving and dissipated turn.  Bold, licentious, extravagant, unprincipled, ­his career soon outstripped the slender fortunes of a cadet in the family of a country squire.  He was early thrown into difficulties, but, by some means or other they never seemed to overwhelm him; an unexpected turn ­a lucky adventure ­presented itself at the very moment when Fortune appeared the most utterly to have deserted him.

Among these more propitious fluctuations in the tide of affairs, was, at about the age of forty, a sudden marriage with a young lady of what might be termed (for Geoffrey Lester’s rank of life, and the rational expenses of that day) a very competent and respectable fortune.  Unhappily, however, the lady was neither handsome in feature nor gentle in temper; and, after a few years of quarrel and contest, the faithless husband, one bright morning, having collected in his proper person whatever remained of their fortune, absconded from the conjugal hearth without either warning or farewell.  He left nothing to his wife but his house, his debts, and his only child, a son.  From that time to the present little had been known, though much had been conjectured, concerning the deserter.  For the first few years they traced, however, so far of his fate as to learn that he had been seen once in India; and that previously he had been met in England by a relation, under the disguise of assumed names:  a proof that whatever his occupations, they could scarcely be very respectable.  But, of late, nothing whatsoever relating to the wanderer had transpired.  By some he was imagined dead; by most he was forgotten.  Those more immediately connected with him ­his brother in especial, cherished a secret belief, that wherever Geoffrey Lester should chance to alight, the manner of alighting would (to use the significant and homely metaphor) be always on his legs; and coupling the wonted luck of the scapegrace with the fact of his having been seen in India, Rowland, in his heart, not only hoped, but fully expected, that the lost one would, some day or other, return home laden with the spoils of the East, and eager to shower upon his relatives, in recompense of long desertion,

“With richest hand... barbaric pearl and gold.”

But we must return to the forsaken spouse. ­Left in this abrupt destitution and distress, Mrs. Lester had only the resource of applying to her brother-in-law, whom indeed the fugitive had before seized many opportunities of not leaving wholly unprepared for such an application.  Rowland promptly and generously obeyed the summons:  he took the child and the wife to his own home, ­he freed the latter from the persecution of all legal claimants, ­and, after selling such effects as remained, he devoted the whole proceeds to the forsaken family, without regarding his own expenses on their behalf, ill as he was able to afford the luxury of that self-neglect.  The wife did not long need the asylum of his hearth, ­she, poor lady, died of a slow fever produced by irritation and disappointment, a few months after Geoffrey’s desertion.  She had no need to recommend her children to their kindhearted uncle’s care.  And now we must glance over the elder brother’s domestic fortunes.

In Rowland, the wild dispositions of his brother were so far tamed, that they assumed only the character of a buoyant temper and a gay spirit.  He had strong principles as well as warm feelings, and a fine and resolute sense of honour utterly impervious to attack.  It was impossible to be in his company an hour and not see that he was a man to be respected.  It was equally impossible to live with him a week and not see that he was a man to be beloved.  He also had married, and about a year after that era in the life of his brother, but not for the same advantage of fortune.  He had formed an attachment to the portionlesss daughter of a man in his own neighbourhood and of his own rank.  He wooed and won her, and for a few years he enjoyed that greatest happiness which the world is capable of bestowing ­the society and the love of one in whom we could wish for no change, and beyond whom we have no desire.  But what Evil cannot corrupt Fate seldom spares.  A few months after the birth of a second daughter the young wife of Rowland Lester died.  It was to a widowed hearth that the wife and child of his brother came for shelter.  Rowland was a man of an affectionate and warm heart:  if the blow did not crush, at least it changed him.  Naturally of a cheerful and ardent disposition, his mood now became soberized and sedate.  He shrunk from the rural gaieties and companionship he had before courted and enlivened, and, for the first time in his life, the mourner felt the holiness of solitude.  As his nephew and his motherless daughters grew up, they gave an object to his seclusion and a relief to his reflections.  He found a pure and unfailing delight in watching the growth of their young minds, and guiding their differing dispositions; and, as time at length enabled the to return his affection, and appreciate his cares, he became once more sensible that he had a home.

The elder of his daughters, Madeline, at the time our story opens, had attained the age of eighteen.  She was the beauty and the boast of the whole country.  Above the ordinary height, her figure was richly and exquisitely formed.  So translucently pure and soft was her complexion, that it might have seemed the token of delicate health, but for the dewy and exceeding redness of her lips, and the freshness of teeth whiter than pearls.  Her eyes of a deep blue, wore a thoughtful and serene expression, and her forehead, higher and broader than it usually is in women, gave promise of a certain nobleness of intellect, and added dignity, but a feminine dignity, to the more tender characteristics of her beauty.  And indeed, the peculiar tone of Madeline’s mind fulfilled the indication of her features, and was eminently thoughtful and high-wrought.  She had early testified a remarkable love for study, and not only a desire for knowledge, but a veneration for those who possessed it.  The remote corner of the county in which they lived, and the rarely broken seclusion which Lester habitually preserved from the intercourse of their few and scattered neighbours, had naturally cast each member of the little circle upon his or her own resources.  An accident, some five years ago, had confined Madeline for several weeks or rather months to the house; and as the old hall possessed a very respectable share of books, she had then matured and confirmed that love to reading and reflection, which she had at a yet earlier period prematurely evinced.  The woman’s tendency to romance naturally tinctured her meditations, and thus, while they dignified, they also softened her mind.  Her sister Ellinor, younger by two years, was of a character equally gentle, but less elevated.  She looked up to her sister as a superior being.  She felt pride without a shadow of envy, at her superior and surpassing beauty; and was unconsciously guided in her pursuits and predilections, by a mind she cheerfully acknowledged to be loftier than her own.  And yet Ellinor had also her pretensions to personal loveliness, and pretensions perhaps that would be less reluctantly acknowledged by her own sex than those of her sister.  The sunlight of a happy and innocent heart sparkled on her face, and gave a beam it gladdened you to behold, to her quick hazel eye, and a smile that broke out from a thousand dimples.  She did not possess the height of Madeline, and though not so slender as to be curtailed of the roundness and feminine luxuriance of beauty, her shape was slighter, feebler, and less rich in its symmetry than her sister’s.  And this the tendency of the physical frame to require elsewhere support, nor to feel secure of strength, influenced perhaps her mind, and made love, and the dependence of love, more necessary to her than to the thoughtful and lofty Madeline.  The latter might pass through life, and never see the one to whom her heart could give itself away.  But every village might possess a hero whom the imagination of Ellinor could clothe with unreal graces, and to whom the lovingness of her disposition might bias her affections.  Both, however, eminently possessed that earnestness and purity of heart, which would have made them, perhaps in an equal degree, constant and devoted to the object of an attachment, once formed, in defiance of change and to the brink of death.

Their cousin Walter, Geoffrey Lester’s son, was now in his twenty-first year; tall and strong of person, and with a face, if not regularly handsome, striking enough to be generally deemed so.  High-spirited, bold, fiery, impatient; jealous of the affections of those he loved; cheerful to outward seeming, but restless, fond of change, and subject to the melancholy and pining mood common to young and ardent minds:  such was the character of Walter Lester.  The estates of Lester were settled in the male line, and devolved therefore upon him.  Yet there were moments when he keenly felt his orphan and deserted situation; and sighed to think, that while his father perhaps yet lived, he was a dependent for affection, if not for maintenance, on the kindness of others.  This reflection sometimes gave an air of sullenness or petulance to his character, that did not really belong to it.  For what in the world makes a man of just pride appear so unamiable as the sense of dependence?