Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1421
Geoffrey Lester, a roving and dissipated man, ran away from his wife and only son. His brother, Rowland Lester, took the forsaken family into his own home at Grassdale. Both brothers’ wives soon died, and kindly old Rowland took over the responsibility of rearing not only his two daughters, Madeline and Ellinor, but also his young nephew Walter. As the children grew up, Walter fell in love with Madeline, but his love was not returned. It was Ellinor who idealized her cousin as a perfect young man.
One day, a stranger came to Grassdale, a crude, ugly man who was to affect all their lives. Startled by the man while they were out walking, Madeline and Ellinor fled to the house of Eugene Aram, a young recluse and scholar whom they knew slightly. Aram did his best to make the two sisters comfortable and went to secure a carriage to take them home. During his absence, the stranger came to the cottage and asked if Eugene Aram were in. He was sent away. That night, he appeared again at the cottage. Aram recognized him as a man named Houseman, whom he had known under dreadful circumstances years before.
In spite of his solitary preoccupation with science and philosophy, Aram began to visit the Lester family. Before long, it was obvious to Walter that Madeline and Aram were falling in love, and Walter begged Rowland to let him go away for a while. Rowland, sensing his nephew’s feelings, allowed him to go. Before he left, Walter had a long talk with Madeline and warned her to carefully consider her fondness for Aram, who he felt would not make her happy. Madeline took his advice as an insult to her intelligence, and the anger she showed went far to dispel the love Walter had felt for her.
Walter and Bunting, a servant, set out for London. Old Rowland had given Walter several letters of introduction to his friends there and had advised the boy to learn what he could about the fortunes of his lost father. From an old friend of his uncle, Walter learned that Geoffrey Lester had been to India, had returned, and under the name of Clarke had gone to Yorkshire to collect a legacy left him by a friend he had known in India. Walter and Bunting started for Yorkshire to trace Geoffrey’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, Houseman reappeared in Grassdale and again bothered Aram. In past times, Houseman had been connected with Aram in a way that Aram did not wish to have announced to the world. Aram knew that Houseman was involved in robbery and worse, but he was not in a position to expose the man. Houseman promised to leave the country if Aram would settle a yearly allowance on Houseman’s daughter, the only person in the world whom he loved or who loved him. Aram went to London, where he was able to raise the sum demanded by Houseman. When he returned to Grassdale, Aram thought that he was rid of Houseman forever.
In Yorkshire, Walter learned that his father had been seen last in the village of Knaresborough. On the way there, he and Bunting met Houseman, whom Walter recognized as a man who had robbed him on a previous occasion. Bunting recognized him as a man who had been in Grassdale. Having learned that his daughter was dying, Houseman was hastening to Knaresborough, where she lay on her deathbed. Because his horse had gone lame, Houseman begged Walter to lend him his, and Walter, despite Bunting’s objections, was so moved by the man’s story that he did so.
When they arrived at Knaresborough, the two travelers learned that Houseman had arrived in time to hold his daughter in his arms before she died. Walter also learned more of his father, who under the name of Clarke had come to the town years before. Walter was told that his father had also stolen some jewels and run up bills in all the shops of the town before he had mysteriously disappeared. An inquest had been held after Clarke’s disappearance, and the last two men who had seen him had been tried but released for lack of evidence. With surprise and horror, Walter heard that these two men were Houseman and Eugene Aram.
Walter immediately went to see Houseman, whom he found almost mad over the death of his child. He was unable to answer Walter’s questions. Then came word of the discovery of a body that had been buried about the time Clarke had disappeared. Walter forced Houseman to go with him to the newly opened grave and demanded to know if those were the bones of his father. Houseman said that the bones were not those of Clarke; Clarke had been killed and his body buried in a cave. He said that he and Aram had planned to rob Clarke, but that in the struggle, Aram had killed Clarke. The remains of Clarke were uncovered in the place Houseman had described. Walter prepared to return home with the news that Madeline’s lover was a murderer.
Meanwhile, Rowland had given his permission to the marriage of Madeline and Aram; he had come to love his prospective son-in-law almost as much as he loved his daughter. Walter’s arrival with the terrible news threw the household into despair. Aram was arrested for the crime but denied his guilt. Madeline wasted away with grief over the affair, and old Rowland could not understand the reasons why his nephew brought his charge against Aram.
As the day of the trial drew near, Madeline grew weaker and weaker. Walter realized that whether Aram was found guilty or not guilty, there was no place for him in England. If Aram was judged not guilty, Walter could never ask forgiveness, especially as he would always doubt the judgment. If Aram was found guilty, Walter could not face his family and Madeline again.
At last, the day of the trial arrived. Convinced of Aram’s innocence, Madeline went dressed in the clothes she had hoped to wear at her wedding. Houseman was called as a witness by the prosecution. Aram defended himself by pointing out the lack of evidence and the contradiction between his own life and the life of a man who could commit such a crime. Houseman’s testimony, he said, could not be counted, as Houseman was known as a thief and robber. Nevertheless, the jury, in accordance with the judge’s statement that it was often possible for a man who had led an exemplary life to commit a crime, brought in a verdict of guilty.
As she returned home from the court, Madeline died, brokenhearted. In jail, Aram still maintained his innocence. Walter, in great mental turmoil over the decision of the court, was disturbed by fears that Aram might not be guilty and that he had caused both the death of his cousin and Aram without reason. Granted permission to visit Aram in jail, Walter pleaded with the prisoner to tell him the truth. Aram promised to leave a letter that Walter could read after the execution.
With anxiety, Walter awaited the day of the execution. When it was over, he opened the letter and read Aram’s confession of guilt. Aram tried to justify his deed. He had robbed so that he would have money to continue scientific studies that he thought would be of great benefit to mankind. The murder had been the accidental killing of a worthless rogue who had run away from his family, a liar and a thief. Aram thought it only right that such a man should be robbed, even killed, if the money gained went to the betterment of mankind. He had not known that Clarke had really been Geoffrey Lester, uncle of the woman he later planned to marry. Walter was astonished at a mind, so brilliant in so many respects, which could draw such false conclusions.
Walter kept the letter a secret. Knowing the grief he had caused, he left the home of his uncle and cousin and lived for many years abroad. On his return, he went secretly to Grassdale. There Bunting recognized his old master, showed him old Rowland’s grave, and gave him directions to the place where Ellinor lived. After a time, Walter and Ellinor married and lived a happy life that served to compensate for all the grief the family had known in the past.
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