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

The interview between aram and the stranger.

The spirits I have raised abandon me,
The spells which I have studied baffle me. 
­Manfred.

Meanwhile Aram strode rapidly through the village, and not till he had regained the solitary valley did he relax his step.

The evening had already deepened into night.  Along the sere and melancholy wood, the autumnal winds crept, with a lowly, but gathering moan.  Where the water held its course, a damp and ghostly mist clogged the air, but the skies were calm, and chequered only by a few clouds, that swept in long, white, spectral streaks, over the solemn stars.  Now and then, the bat wheeled swiftly round, almost touching the figure of the Student, as he walked musingly onward.  And the owl [Note:  That species called the short-eared owl.] that before the month waned many days, would be seen no more in that region, came heavily from the trees, like a guilty thought that deserts its shade.  It was one of those nights, half dim, half glorious, which mark the early decline of the year.  Nature seemed restless and instinct with change; there were those signs in the atmosphere which leave the most experienced in doubt, whether the morning may rise in storm or sunshine.  And in this particular period, the skiey influences seem to tincture the animal life with their own mysterious and wayward spirit of change.  The birds desert their summer haunts; an unaccountable inquietude pervades the brute creation; even men in this unsettled season have considered themselves, more (than at others) stirred by the motion and whisperings of their genius.  And every creature that flows upon the tide of the Universal Life of Things, feels upon the ruffled surface, the mighty and solemn change, which is at work within its depths.

And now Aram had nearly threaded the valley, and his own abode became visible on the opening plain, when the stranger emerged from the trees to the right, and suddenly stood before the Student.  “I tarried for you here, Aram,” said he, “instead of seeking you at home, at the time you fixed; for there are certain private reasons which make it prudent I should keep as much as possible among the owls, and it was therefore safer, if not more pleasant, to lie here amidst the fern, than to make myself merry in the village yonder.”

“And what,” said Aram, “again brings you hither?  Did you not say, when you visited me some months since, that you were about to settle in a different part of the country, with a relation?”

“And so I intended; but Fate, as you would say, or the Devil, as I should, ordered it otherwise.  I had not long left you, when I fell in with some old friends, bold spirits and true; the brave outlaws of the road and the field.  Shall I have any shame in confessing that I preferred their society, a society not unfamiliar to me, to the dull and solitary life that I might have led in tending my old bed-ridden relation in Wales, who after all, may live these twenty years, and at the end can scarce leave me enough for a week’s ill luck at the hazard-table?  In a word, I joined my gallant friends, and entrusted myself to their guidance.  Since then, we have cruised around the country, regaled ourselves cheerily, frightened the timid, silenced the fractious, and by the help of your fate, or my devil, have found ourselves by accident, brought to exhibit our valour in this very district, honoured by the dwelling-place of my learned friend, Eugene Aram.”

“Trifle not with me, Houseman,” said Aram sternly; “I scarcely yet understand you.  Do you mean to imply, that yourself, and the lawless associates you say you have joined, are lying out now for plunder in these parts?”

“You say it:  perhaps you heard of our exploits last night, some four miles hence?”

“Ha! was that villainy yours?”

“Villainy!” repeated Houseman, in a tone of sullen offence.  “Come, Master Aram, these words must not pass between you and me, friends of such date, and on such a footing.”

“Talk not of the past,” replied Aram with a livid lip, “and call not those whom Destiny once, in despite of Nature, drove down her dark tide in a momentary companionship, by the name of friends.  Friends we are not; but while we live, there is a tie between us stronger than that of friendship.”

“You speak truth and wisdom,” said Houseman, sneeringly; “for my part, I care not what you call us, friends or foes.”

“Foes, foes!” exclaimed Aram abruptly, “not that.  Has life no medium in its ties? ­pooh ­pooh! not foes; we may not be foes to each other.”

“It were foolish, at least at present,” said Houseman carelessly.

“Look you, Houseman,” continued Aram drawing his comrade from the path into a wilder part of the scene, and, as he spoke, his words were couched in a more low and inward voice than heretofore.  “Look you, I cannot live and have my life darkened thus by your presence.  Is not the world wide enough for us both?  Why haunt each other? what have you to gain from me?  Can the thoughts that my sight recalls to you be brighter, or more peaceful, than those which start upon me, when I gaze on you?  Does not a ghastly air, a charnel breath, hover about us both?  Why perversely incur a torture it is so easy to avoid?  Leave me ­leave these scenes.  All earth spreads before you ­choose your pursuits, and your resting place elsewhere, but grudge me not this little spot.”

“I have no wish to disturb you, Eugene Aram, but I must live; and in order to live I must obey my companions; if I deserted them, it would be to starve.  They will not linger long in this district; a week, it may be; a fortnight, at most; then, like the Indian animal, they will strip the leaves, and desert the tree.  In a word, after we have swept the country, we are gone.”

“Houseman, Houseman!” said Aram passionately, and frowning till his brows almost hid his eyes, but that part of the orb which they did not hide, seemed as living fire; “I now implore, but I can threaten ­beware! ­silence, I say;” (and he stamped his foot violently on the ground, as he saw Houseman about to interrupt him;) “listen to me throughout ­Speak not to me of tarrying here ­speak not of days, of weeks ­every hour of which would sound upon my ear like a death-knell.  Dream not of a sojourn in these tranquil shades, upon an errand of dread and violence ­the minions of the law aroused against you, girt with the chances of apprehension and a shameful death ­” “And a full confession of my past sins,” interrupted Houseman, laughing wildly.

“Fiend! devil!” cried Aram, grasping his comrade by the throat, and shaking him with a vehemence that Houseman, though a man of great strength and sinew, impotently attempted to resist.

“Breathe but another word of such import; dare to menace me with the vengeance of such a thing as thou, and, by the God above us, I will lay thee dead at my feet!”

“Release my throat, or you will commit murder,” gasped Houseman with difficulty, and growing already black in the face.

Aram suddenly relinquished his gripe, and walked away with a hurried step, muttering to himself.  He then returned to the side of Houseman, whose flesh still quivered either with rage or fear, and, his own self-possession completely restored, stood gazing upon him with folded arms, and his usual deep and passionless composure of countenance; and Houseman, if he could not boldly confront, did not altogether shrink from, his eye.  So there and thus they stood, at a little distance from each other, both silent, and yet with something unutterably fearful in their silence.

“Houseman,” said Aram at length, in a calm, yet a hollow voice, “it may be that I was wrong; but there lives no man on earth, save you, who could thus stir my blood, ­nor you with ease.  And know, when you menace me, that it is not your menace that subdues or shakes my spirit; but that which robs my veins of their even tenor is that you should deem your menace could have such power, or that you, ­that any man, ­should arrogate to himself the thought that he could, by the prospect of whatsoever danger, humble the soul and curb the will of Eugene Aram.  And now I am calm; say what you will, I cannot be vexed again.”

“I have done,” replied Houseman coldly; “I have nothing to say; farewell!” and he moved away among the trees.

“Stay,” cried Aram in some agitation; “stay; we must not part thus.  Look you, Houseman, you say you would starve should you leave your present associates.  That may not be; quit them this night, ­this moment:  leave the neighbourhood, and the little in my power is at your will.”

“As to that,” said Houseman drily, “what is in your power is, I fear me, so little as not to counterbalance the advantages I should lose in quitting my companions.  I expect to net some three hundreds before I leave these parts.”

“Some three hundreds!” repeated Aram recoiling; “that were indeed beyond me.  I told you when we last met that it is only by an annual payment I draw the little wealth I have.”

“I remember it.  I do not ask you for money, Eugene Aram; these hands can maintain me,” replied Houseman, smiling grimly.  “I told you at once the sum I expected to receive somewhere, in order to prove that you need not vex your benevolent heart to afford me relief.  I knew well the sum I named was out of your power, unless indeed it be part of the marriage portion you are about to receive with your bride.  Fie, Aram! what, secrets from your old friend!  You see I pick up the news of the place without your confidence.”

Again Aram’s face worked, and his lip quivered; but he conquered his passion with a surprising self-command, and answered mildly, “I do not know, Houseman, whether I shall receive any marriage portion whatsoever:  If I do, I am willing to make some arrangement by which I could engage you to molest me no more.  But it yet wants several days to my marriage; quit the neighbourhood now, and a month hence let us meet again.  Whatever at that time may be my resources, you shall frankly know them.”

“It cannot be,” said Houseman; “I quit not these districts without a certain sum, not in hope, but possession.  But why interfere with me?  I seek not my hoards in your coffer.  Why so anxious that I should not breathe the same air as yourself?”

“It matters not,” replied Aram, with a deep and ghastly voice; “but when you are near me, I feel as if I were with the dead; it is a spectre that I would exorcise in ridding me of your presence.  Yet this is not what I now speak of.  You are engaged, according to your own lips, in lawless and midnight schemes, in which you may, (and the tide of chances runs towards that bourne,) be seized by the hand of Justice.”

“Ho,” said Houseman, sullenly, “and was it not for saying that you feared this, and its probable consequences, that you well-nigh stifled me, but now? ­so truth may be said one moment with impunity, and the next at peril of life!  These are the subtleties of you wise schoolmen, I suppose.  Your Aristotles, and your Zenos, your Platos, and your Epicurus’s, teach you notable distinctions, truly!”

“Peace!” said Aram; “are we at all times ourselves?  Are the passions never our masters?  You maddened me into anger; behold, I am now calm:  the subjects discussed between myself and you, are of life and death; let us approach them with our senses collected and prepared.  What, Houseman, are you bent upon your own destruction, as well as mine, that you persevere in courses which must end in a death of shame?”

“What else can I do?  I will not work, and I cannot live like you in a lone wilderness on a crust of bread.  Nor is my name like yours, mouthed by the praise of honest men:  my character is marked; those who once knew me, shun now.  I have no resource for society, (for I cannot face myself alone,) but in the fellowship of men like myself, whom the world has thrust from its pale.  I have no resource for bread, save in the pursuits that are branded by justice, and accompanied with snares and danger.  What would you have me do?”

“Is it not better,” said Aram, “to enjoy peace and safety upon a small but certain pittance, than to live thus from hand to mouth? vibrating from wealth to famine, and the rope around your neck, sleeping and awake?  Seek your relation; in that quarter, you yourself said your character was not branded:  live with him, and know the quiet of easy days, and I promise you, that if aught be in my power to make your lot more suitable to your wants, so long as you lead the life of honest men, it shall be freely yours.  Is not this better, Houseman, than a short and sleepless career of dread?”

“Aram,” answered Houseman, “are you, in truth, calm enough to hear me speak?  I warn you, that if again you forget yourself, and lay hands on me ­” “Threaten not, threaten not,” interrupted Aram, “but proceed; all within me is now still and cold as ice.  Proceed without fear of scruple.”

“Be it so; we do not love one another:  you have affected contempt for me ­and I ­I ­no matter ­I am not a stone or stick, that I should not feel.  You have scorned me ­you have outraged me ­you have not assumed towards me even the decent hypocrisies of prudence ­yet now you would ask of me, the conduct, the sympathy, the forbearance, the concession of friendship.  You wish that I should quit these scenes, where, to my judgment, a certain advantage waits me, solely that I may lighten your breast of its selfish fears.  You dread the dangers that await me on your own account.  And in my apprehension, you forebode your own doom.  You ask me, nay, not ask, you would command, you would awe me to sacrifice my will and wishes, in order to soothe your anxieties, and strengthen your own safety.  Mark me!  Eugene Aram, I have been treated as a tool, and I will not be governed as a friend.  I will not stir from the vicinity of your home, till my designs be fulfilled, ­I enjoy, I hug myself in your torments.  I exult in the terror with which you will hear of each new enterprise, each new daring, each new triumph of myself and my gallant comrades.  And now I am avenged for the affront you put upon me.”

Though Aram trembled, with suppressed passions, from limb to limb, his voice was still calm, and his lip even wore a smile as he answered, ­“I was prepared for this, Houseman, you utter nothing that surprises or appalls me.  You hate me; it is natural; men united as we are, rarely look on each other with a friendly or a pitying eye.  But Houseman; I know you! ­you are a man of vehement passions, but interest with you is yet stronger than passion.  If not, our conference is over.  Go ­and do your worst.”

“You are right, most learned scholar; I can fetter the tiger within, in his deadliest rage, by a golden chain.”

“Well, then, Houseman, it is not your interest to betray me ­my destruction is your own.”

“I grant it; but if I am apprehended, and to be hung for robbery?”

“It will be no longer an object to you, to care for my safety.  Assuredly, I comprehend this.  But my interest induces me to wish that you be removed from the peril of apprehension, and your interest replies, that if you can obtain equal advantages in security, you would forego advantages accompanied by peril.  Say what we will, wander as we will, it is to this point that we must return at last.”

“Nothing can be clearer; and were you a rich man, Eugene Aram, or could you obtain your bride’s dowry (no doubt a respectable sum) in advance, the arrangement might at once be settled.”

Aram gasped for breath, and as usual with him in emotion, made several strides forward, muttering rapidly, and indistinctly to himself, and then returned.

“Even were this possible, it would be but a short reprieve; I could not trust you; the sum would be spent, and I again in the state to which you have compelled me now; but without the means again to relieve myself.  No, no! if the blow must fall, be it so one day as another.”

“As you will,” said Houseman; ‘but ­’ Just at that moment, a long shrill whistle sounded below, as from the water.  Houseman paused abruptly ­“That signal is from my comrades; I must away.  Hark, again!  Farewell, Aram.”

“Farewell, if it must be so,” said Aram, in a tone of dogged sullenness; “but to-morrow, should you know of any means by which I could feel secure, beyond the security of your own word, from your future molestation, I might ­yet how?”

“To-morrow,” said Houseman, “I cannot answer for myself; it is not always that I can leave my comrades; a natural jealousy makes them suspicious of the absence of their friends.  Yet hold; the night after to-morrow, the Sabbath night, most virtuous Aram, I can meet you ­but not here ­some miles hence.  You know the foot of the Devil’s Crag, by the waterfall; it is a spot quiet and shaded enough in all conscience for our interview; and I will tell you a secret I would trust to no other man ­(hark, again!) ­it is close by our present lurking-place.  Meet me there! ­it would, indeed, be pleasanter to hold our conference under shelter ­but just at present, I would rather not trust myself beneath any honest man’s roof in this neighbourhood.  Adieu! on Sunday night, one hour before mid-night.”

The robber, for such then he was, waved his hand, and hurried away in the direction from which the signal seemed to come.

Aram gazed after him, but with vacant eyes; and remained for several minutes rooted to the spot, as if the very life had left him.

“The Sabbath night!” said he, at length, moving slowly on; “and I must spin forth my existence in trouble and fear till then ­till then! what remedy can I then invent?  It is clear that I can have no dépendance on his word, if won; and I have not even aught wherewith to buy it.  But courage, courage, my heart; and work thou, my busy brain!  Ye have never failed me yet!”