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

Grief in A ruffian. ­The chamber of early death. ­A homely yet momentous confession. ­The earth’s secrets. ­The cavern. ­The accusation.

All is not well;
I doubt some foul play.
............ 
Foul deeds will rise,
Though all the earth o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes. 
­Hamlet.

As they passed through the street, they perceived three or four persons standing round the open door of a house of ordinary description, the windows of which were partially closed.

“It is the house,” said the curate, “in which Houseman’s daughter died, ­poor, poor child!  Yet why mourn for the young?  Better that the light cloud should fade away into heaven with the morning breath, than travel through the weary day to gather in darkness and end in storm.”

“Ah, sir!” said an old man, leaning on his stick and lifting his hat, in obeisance to the curate, “the father is within, and takes on bitterly.  He drives them all away from the room, and sits moaning by the bedside, as if he was a going out of his mind.  Won’t your reverence go in to him a bit?”

The curate looked at Walter inquiringly.  “Perhaps,” said the latter, “you had better go in:  I will wait without.”  While the curate hesitated, they heard a voice in the passage; and presently Houseman was seen at the far end, driving some women before him with vehement gesticulations.  “I tell you, ye hell-hags,” shrieked his harsh and now straining voice, “that ye suffered her to die!  Why did ye not send to London for physicians?  Am I not rich enough to buy my child’s life at any price?  By the living ___, I would have turned your very bodies into gold to have saved her!  But she’s dead! and I ___ Out of my sight; out of my way!” And with his hands clenched, his brows knit, and his head uncovered, Houseman sallied forth from the door, and Walter recognized the traveller of the preceding night.  He stopped abruptly as he saw the little knot without, and scowled round at each of them with a malignant and ferocious aspect.  “Very well, it’s very well, neighbors!” said he at length, with a fierce laugh; “this is kind!  You have come to welcome Richard Houseman home, have ye?  Good, good!  Not to gloat at his distress?  Lord, no!  Ye have no idle curiosity, no prying, searching, gossiping devil within ye that makes ye love to flock and gape and chatter when poor men suffer!  This is all pure compassion; and Houseman, the good, gentle, peaceful, honest Houseman, you feel for him, ­I know you do!  Hark ye, begone!  Away, march, tramp, or ­Ha, ha! there they go, there they go!” laughing wildly again as the frightened neighbors shrank from the spot, leaving only Walter and the clergyman with the childless man.

“Be comforted, Houseman!” said Summers, soothingly; “it is a dreadful affliction that you have sustained.  I knew your daughter well:  you may have heard her speak of me.  Let us in, and try what heavenly comfort there is in prayer.”

“Prayer! pooh!  I am Richard Houseman!”

“Lives there one man for whom prayer is unavailing?”

“Out, canter, out!  My pretty Jane!  And she laid her head on my bosom, and looked up in my face, and so ­died!”

“Come,” said the curate, placing his hand on Houseman’s arm, “come.”

Before he could proceed, Houseman, who was muttering to himself, shook him off roughly, and hurried away up the street; but after he had gone a few paces, he turned back, and approaching the curate, said, in a more collected tone:  “I pray you, sir, since you are a clergyman (I recollect your face, and I recollect Jane said you had been good to her), ­I pray you go and say a few words over her.  But stay, ­don’t bring in my name; you understand.  I don’t wish God to recollect that there lives such a man as he who now addresses you.  Halloo! [shouting to the women] my hat, and stick too.  Fal la! la! fal la! ­why should these things make us play the madman?  It is a fine day, sir; we shall have a late winter.

Here one of the women, pale, trembling, and tearful, brought the ruffian his hat; and placing it deliberately on his head, and bowing with a dreadful and convulsive attempt to smile, he walked slowly away and disappeared.

“What strange mummers grief makes!” said the curate.  “It is an appalling spectacle when it thus wrings out feeling from a man of that mould!  But pardon me, my young friend; let me tarry here for a moment.”

“I will enter the house with you,” said Walter.  And the two men walked in, and in a few moments they stood within the chamber of death.

The face of the deceased had not yet suffered the last withering change.  Her young countenance was hushed and serene, and but for the fixedness of the smile, you might have thought the lips moved.  So delicate, fair, and gentle were the features that it was scarcely possible to believe such a scion could spring from such a stock; and it seemed no longer wonderful that a thing so young, so innocent, so lovely, and so early blighted should have touched that reckless and dark nature which rejected all other invasion of the softer emotions.  The curate wiped his eyes, and kneeling down prayed, if not for the dead (who, as our Church teaches, are beyond human intercession), perhaps for the father she had left on earth, more to be pitied of the two!  Nor to Walter was the scene without something more impressive and thrilling than its mere pathos alone.  He, now standing beside the corpse of Houseman’s child, was son to the man of whose murder Houseman had been suspected.  The childless and the fatherless, ­might there be no retribution here?

When the curate’s prayer was over, and he and Walter escaped from the incoherent blessings and complaints of the women of the house, they, with difficulty resisting the impression the scene had left upon their minds, once more resumed their errand.

“This is no time,” said Walter, musingly, “for an examination of Houseman; yet it must not be forgotten.”

The curate did not reply for some moments; and then, as an answer to the remark, observed that the conversation they anticipated with Aram’s former hostess might throw some light on their researches.  They now proceeded to another part of the town, and arrived at a lonely and desolate-looking house, which seemed to wear in its very appearance something strange, sad, and ominous.  Some houses have an expression, as it were, in their outward aspect that sinks unaccountably into the heart, ­a dim, oppressive eloquence which dispirits and affects.  You say some story must be attached to those walls; some legendary interest, of a darker nature, ought to be associated with the mute stone and mortar; you feel a mingled awe and curiosity creep over you as you gaze.  Such was the description of the house that the young adventurer now surveyed.  It was of antique architecture, not uncommon in old towns; gable ends rose from the roof; dull, small, latticed panes were sunk deep in the gray, discolored wall; the pale, in part, was broken and jagged; and rank weeds sprang up in the neglected garden, through which they walked towards the porch.  The door was open; they entered, and found an old woman of coarse appearance sitting by the fireside, and gazing on space with that vacant stare which so often characterizes the repose and relaxation of the uneducated poor.  Walter felt an involuntary thrill of dislike come over him as he looked at the solitary inmate of the solitary house.

“Hey day, sir!” said she, in a grating voice, “and what now?  Oh!  Mr. Summers, is it you?  You’re welcome, sir!  I wishes I could offer you a glass of summut, but the bottle’s dry ­he! he!” pointing, with a revolting grin, to an empty bottle that stood on a niche within the hearth.  “I don’t know how it is, sir, but I never wants to eat; but ah! ’t is the liquor that does un good!”

“You have lived a long time in this house?” said the curate.

“A long time, ­some thirty years an’ more.”

“You remember your lodger, Mr. Aram?”

“A ­well ­yes!”

“An excellent man ­”

“Humph.”

“A most admirable man!”

“A-humph! he! ­humph! that’s neither here nor there.”

“Why, you don’t seem to think as all the rest of the world does with regard to him?”

“I knows what I knows.”

“Ah! by the by, you have some cock-and-a-bull story about him, I fancy, but you never could explain yourself, ­it is merely for the love of seeming wise that you invented it, eh, Goody?”

The old woman shook her head, and crossing her hands on her knee, replied with peculiar emphasis, but in a very low and whispered voice, “I could hang him!”

“Pooh!”

“Tell you I could!”

“Well, let’s have the story then!”

“No, no!  I have not told it to ne’er a one yet, and I won’t for nothing.  What will you give me?  Make it worth my while.”

“Tell us all, honestly, fairly, and fully, and you shall have five golden guineas.  There, Goody.”

Roused by this promise, the dame looked up with more of energy than she had yet shown, and muttered to herself, rocking her chair to and fro:  “Aha! why not?  No fear now, both gone; can’t now murder the poor old cretur, as the wretch once threatened.  Five golden guineas, ­five, did you say, sir, five?”

“Ah! and perhaps our bounty may not stop there,” said the curate.

Still the old woman hesitated, and still she muttered to herself; but after some further prelude, and some further enticement from the curate, the which we spare our reader, she came at length to the following narration: ­

“It was on the 7th of February, in the year ’44, ­yes, ’44, about six o’clock in the evening, for I was a-washing in the kitchen, ­when Mr. Aram called to me an’ desired of me to make a fire upstairs, which I did; he then walked out.  Some hours afterwards, it might be two in the morning, I was lying awake, for I was mighty bad with the toothache, when I heard a noise below, and two or three voices.  On this I was greatly afeard, and got out o’ bed, and opening the door, I saw Mr. Houseman and Mr. Clarke coming upstairs to Mr. Aram’s room, and Mr. Aram followed them.  They shut the door, and stayed there, it might be an hour.  Well, I could not a think what could make so shy an’ resarved a gentleman as Mr. Aram admit these ’ere wild madcaps like at that hour; an’ I lay awake a thinking an’ a thinking, till I heard the door open agin, an’ I went to listen at the keyhole, an’ Mr. Clarke said:  ’It will soon be morning, and we must get off.’  They then all three left the house.  But I could not sleep, an’ I got up afore five o’clock; and about that hour Mr. Aram an’ Mr. Houseman returned, and they both glowered at me as if they did not like to find me a stirring; an’ Mr. Aram went into his room, and Houseman turned and frowned at me as black as night.  Lord have mercy on me, I see him now!  An’ I was sadly feared, an’ I listened at the keyhole, an’ I heard Houseman say:  ’If the woman comes in, she’ll tell.’

“‘What can she tell?’ said Mr. Aram; ’poor simple thing, she knows nothing.’  With that, Houseman said, says he:  ’If she tells that I am here, it will be enough; but however [with a shocking oath], we’ll take an opportunity to shoot her.’

“On that I was so frighted that I went away back to my own room, and did not stir till they had gone out, and then ­”

“What time was that?”

“About seven o’clock.  Well ­You put me out! where was I?  Well, I went into Mr. Aram’s, an’ I seed they had been burning a fire, an’ that all the ashes were taken out o’ the grate; so I went an’ looked at the rubbish behind the house, and there sure enough I seed the ashes, and among ’em several bits o’ cloth and linen which seemed to belong to wearing apparel; and there, too, was a handkerchief which I had obsarved Houseman wear (for it was a very curious handkerchief, all spotted) many’s the time, and there was blood on it, ’bout the size of a shilling.  An’ afterwards I seed Houseman, an’ I showed him the handkerchief; and I said to him, ‘What has come of Clarke?’ An’ he frowned, and, looking at me, said, ’Hark ye, I know not what you mean; but as sure as the devil keeps watch for souls, I will shoot you through the head if you ever let that d –­d tongue of yours let slip a single word about Clarke or me or Mr. Aram, ­so look to yourself!

“An’ I was all scared, and trimbled from limb to limb; an’ for two whole yearn afterwards (long arter Aram and Houseman were both gone) I never could so much as open my lips on the matter; and afore he went, Mr. Aram would sometimes look at me, not sternly-like, as the villain Houseman, but as if he would read to the bottom of my heart.  Oh!  I was as if you had taken a mountain off o’ me when he an’ Houseman left the town; for sure as the sun shines I believes, from what I have now said, that they two murdered Clarke on that same February night.  An’ now, Mr. Summers, I feels more easy than I has felt for many a long day; an’ if I have not told it afore, it is because I thought of Houseman’s frown and his horrid words; but summut of it would ooze out of my tongue now an’ then, for it’s a hard thing, sir, to know a secret o’ that sort and be quiet and still about it; and, indeed, I was not the same cretur when I knew it as I was afore, for it made me take to anything rather than thinking; and that’s the reason, sir, I lost the good crackter I used to have.”

Such, somewhat abridged from its “says he” and “says I,” its involutions and its tautologies, was the story which Walter held his breath to hear.  But events thicken, and the maze is nearly thridden.

“Not a moment now should be lost,” said the curate, as they left the house.  “Let us at once proceed to a very able magistrate, to whom I can introduce you, and who lives a little way out of the town.”

“As you will,” said Walter, in an altered and hollow voice.  “I am as a man standing on an eminence, who views the whole scene he is to travel over, stretched before him, but is dizzy and bewildered by the height which he has reached.  I know, I feel, that I am on the brink of fearful and dread discoveries; pray God that ­But heed me not, sir, heed me not; let us on, on!”

It was now approaching towards the evening; and as they walked on, having left the town, the sun poured his last beams on a group of persons that appeared hastily collecting and gathering round a spot, well known in the neighborhood of Knaresborough, called Thistle Hill.

“Let us avoid the crowd,” said the curate.  “Yet what, I wonder, can be its cause?” While he spoke, two peasants hurried by towards the throng.

“What is the meaning of the crowd yonder?” asked the curate.

“I don’t know exactly, your honor, but I hears as how Jem Ninnings, digging for stone for the limekiln, have dug out a big wooden chest.”

A shout from the group broke in on the peasant’s explanation, ­a sudden simultaneous shout, but not of joy; something of dismay and horror seemed to breathe in the sound.

Walter looked at the curate.  An impulse, a sudden instinct, seemed to attract them involuntarily to the spot whence that sound arose; they quickened their pace, they made their way through the throng.  A deep chest, that had been violently forced, stood before them; its contents had been dragged to day, and now lay on the sward ­a bleached and mouldering skeleton!  Several of the bones were loose, and detached from the body.  A general hubbub of voices from the spectators, ­inquiry, guess, fear, wonder, ­rang confusedly around.

“Yes!” said one old man, with gray hair, leaning on a pickaxe, “it is now about fourteen years since the Jew pedlar disappeared.  These are probably his bones, ­he was supposed to have been murdered!”

“Nay!” screeched a woman, drawing back a child who, all unalarmed, was about to touch the ghastly relics, “nay, the pedlar was heard of afterwards.  I’ll tell ye, ye may be sure these are the bones of Clarke, ­Daniel Clarke, ­whom the country was so stirred about when we were young!”

“Right, dame, right!  It is Clarke’s skeleton,” was the simultaneous cry.  And Walter, pressing forward, stood over the bones, and waved his hand as to guard them from further insult.  His sudden appearance, his tall stature, his wild gesture, the horror, the paleness, the grief of his countenance, struck and appalled all present.  He remained speechless, and a sudden silence succeeded the late clamor.

“And what do you here, fools?” said a voice, abruptly.  The spectators turned:  a new comer had been added to the throng, ­it was Richard Houseman.  His dress loose and disarranged, his flushed cheeks and rolling eyes, betrayed the source of consolation to which he had flown from his domestic affliction.  “What do ye here?” said he, reeling forward.  “Ha! human bones?  And whose may they be, think ye?”

“They are Clarke’s!” said the woman, who had first given rise to that supposition.

“Yes, we think they are Daniel Clarke’s, ­he who disappeared some years ago!” cried two or three voices in concert.  “Clarke’s?” repeated Houseman, stooping down and picking up a thigh-bone, which lay at a little distance from the rest; “Clarke’s?  Ha! ha! they are no more Clarke’s than mine!”

“Behold!” shouted Walter, in a voice that rang from cliff to plain; and springing forward, he seized Houseman with a giant’s grasp, ­“behold the murderer!”

As if the avenging voice of Heaven had spoken, a thrilling, an electric conviction darted through the crowd.  Each of the elder spectators remembered at once the person of Houseman, and the suspicion that had attached to his name.

“Seize him! seize him!” burst forth from twenty voices.  “Houseman is the murderer!”

“Murderer!” faltered Houseman, trembling in the iron hands of Walter, ­“murderer of whom?  I tell ye these are not Clarke’s bones!”

“Where then do they lie?” cried his arrester.

Pale, confused, conscience-stricken, the bewilderment of intoxication mingling with that of fear, Houseman turned a ghastly look around him, and, shrinking from the eyes of all, reading in the eyes of all his condemnation, he gasped out, “Search St. Robert’s Cave, in the turn at the entrance!”

“Away!” rang the deep voice of Walter, on the instant; “away!  To the cave, to the cave!”

On the banks of the River Nid, whose waters keep an everlasting murmur to the crags and trees that overhang them, is a wild and dreary cavern, hollowed from a rock which, according to tradition, was formerly the hermitage of one of those early enthusiasts who made their solitude in the sternest recesses of earth, and from the austerest thoughts and the bitterest penance wrought their joyless offerings to the great Spirit of the lovely world.  To this desolate spot, called, from the name of its once celebrated eremite, St. Robert’s Cave, the crowd now swept, increasing its numbers as it advanced.

The old man who had discovered the unknown remains, which were gathered up and made a part of the procession, led the way; Houseman, placed between two strong and active men, went next; and Walter followed behind, fixing his eyes mutely upon the ruffian.  The curate had had the precaution to send on before for torches, for the wintry evening now darkened round them, and the light from the torch-bearers, who met them at the cavern, cast forth its red and lurid flare at the mouth of the chasm.  One of these torches Walter himself seized, and his was the first step that entered the gloomy passage.  At this place and time, Houseman, who till then, throughout their short journey, had seemed to have recovered a sort of dogged self-possession, recoiled, and the big drops of fear or agony fell fast from his brow.  He was dragged forward forcibly into the cavern; and now as the space filled, and the torches flickered against the grim walls, glaring on faces which caught, from the deep and thrilling contagion of a common sentiment, one common expression, it was not well possible for the wildest imagination to conceive a scene better fitted for the unhallowed burial-place of the murdered dead.

The eyes of all now turned upon Houseman; and he, after twice vainly endeavoring to speak, for the words died inarticulate and choked within him, advancing a few steps, pointed towards a spot on which, the next moment, fell the concentrated light of every torch.  An indescribable and universal murmur, and then a breathless silence, ensued.  On the spot which Houseman had indicated, with the head placed to the right, lay what once had been a human body!

“Can you swear,” said the priest, solemnly, as he turned to Houseman, “that these are the bones of Clarke?”

“Before God, I can swear it!” replied Houseman, at length finding his voice.

My father!” broke from Walter’s lips as he sank upon his knees; and that exclamation completed the awe and horror which prevailed in the breasts of all present.  Stung by a sense of the danger he had drawn upon himself, and despair and excitement restoring, in some measure, not only his natural hardihood, but his natural astuteness, Houseman, here mastering his emotions, and making that effort which he was afterwards enabled to follow up with an advantage to himself of which he could not then have dreamed, ­Houseman, I say, cried aloud,

“But I did not do the deed; I am not the murderer.”

“Speak out!  Whom do you accuse?” said the curate.  Drawing his breath hard, and setting his teeth as with some steeled determination, Houseman replied, ­

“The murderer is Eugene Aram!”

“Aram!” shouted Walter, starting to his feet:  “O God, thy hand hath directed me hither!” And suddenly and at once sense left him, and he fell, as if a shot had pierced through his heart, beside the remains of that father whom he had thus mysteriously discovered.