Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 5, No. 30, April, 1860

Part 1 out of 5

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VOL. V.--APRIL, 1860--NO. XXX.


The fatal mistake of many inquirers concerning the line of beauty has
been, that they have sought in that which is outward for that which is
within. Beauty, perceived only by the mind, and, so far as we have any
direct proof, perceived by man alone of all the animals, must be an
expression of intelligence, the work of mind. It cannot spring from
anything purely accidental; it does not arise from material, but from
spiritual forces. That the outline of a figure, and its surface, are
capable of expressing the emotions of the mind is manifest from the art
of the sculptor, which represents in cold, colorless marble the varied
expressions of living faces,--or from the art of the engraver, who, by
simple outlines, can soothe you with a swelling lowland landscape, or
brace you with the cool air of the mountains.

Now the highest beauty is doubtless that which expresses the noblest
emotion. A face that shines, like that of Moses, from communion with
the Highest, is more truly beautiful than the most faultless features
without moral expression. But there is a beauty which does not reveal
emotion, but only thought,--a beauty which consists simply in the form,
and which is admired for its form alone.

Let us, for the present, confine our attention to this most limited
species of beauty,--the beauty of configuration only.

This beauty of mere outline has, by some celebrated writers, been
resolved into some certain curved line, or line of beauty; by others
into numerical proportion of dimensions; and again by others into early
pleasing associations with curvilinear forms. But, if we look at the
subject in an intellectual light, we shall find a better explanation.
Forms are the embodiment of thought or law. For the common eye they
must be embodied in material shape; while to the geometer and the
artist, they may be so distinctly shadowed forth in conception as to
need no material figure to render their beauty appreciable. Now this
embodiment, or this conception, in all cases, demands some law in the
mind, by which it is conceived or made; and we must look at the nature
of this law, in order to approach more nearly to understanding the
nature of beauty.

We are thus led, through our search for beauty, into the temple of
Geometry, the most ancient and venerable of sciences. From her oracles
alone can we learn the generation of beauty, so far as it consists in
form alone.

Maupertuis' law of the least action is not simply a mechanical, but it
is a universal axiom. The Divine Being does all things with the least
possible expenditure of force; and all hearts and all minds honor men
in proportion as they approach to this divine economy. As gracefulness
in motion consists in moving with the least waste of muscular power, so
elegance in intellectual and literary exertions arises from the ease
with which their achievements are accomplished. We seek in all things
simplicity and unity. In Nature we have faith that there is such unity,
even in the midst of the wildest diversity. We honor intellectual
conceptions in proportion to the greatness of their consequences and to
the simplicity of their assumptions. Laws of form are beautiful in
proportion to their simplicity and to the variety which they can
comprise in unity. The beauty of forms themselves is in proportion to
the simplicity of their law and to the variety of their outline.

This last sentence we regard as the fundamental canon concerning
beauty,--governing, with a slight change of terms, beauty in all its

Beginning with the fundamental division of figures into curvilinear and
rectilinear, this _dictum_ decides, that, in general, a curved outline
is more beautiful than a right-lined figure. For a straight-lined
figure necessarily requires at least half as many laws as it has sides,
while a curvilinear outline requires, in general, but a single law. In
a true curve, every point in the whole line (or surface) is subject to
one and the same law of position. Thus, in the circle, every point of
the circumference is subject to one and the same law,--that it must be
at a certain distance from the centre. Half a dozen other laws, equally
simple, might be named, which in like manner govern every point in the
circumference of a circle: for instance, the curve bends at every point
by a certain fixed but infinitesimal amount, just enough to make the
adjacent points to be equally near the centre. Or, to take another
example, every point of the elastic curve, that is, of the curve in
which a spring of uniform stiffness can be bent by a force applied at
the ends of the spring, is subject to this very simple law, that the
curve bends in exact proportion to its distance from a certain straight
line. Now a straight line, or a plane, is by this definition a curve,
since every point in it is subject to one and the same law of position.
A plane may, indeed, be considered a part of any curved surface you
please, if you only take that surface on a sufficiently large scale.
Thus, the surface of water conforms to the surface of a sphere eight
thousand miles in diameter; but, as the arc of such a circle would arch
up from a chord ten feet long by only the ten-millionth part of an
inch, the surface of water in a cistern may be considered a plane. But
no figure or outline can be composed of a single plane or a single
straight line; nor can the position of more than two straight lines,
not parallel, be defined by a single simple law of position of the
points in them. We may, therefore, regard it as the first deduction
from our fundamental canon, that figures with curving outline are in
general more beautiful than those composed of straight lines. The laws
of their formation are simpler, and the eye, sweeping round the
outline, feels the ease and gracefulness of the motion, recognizes the
simplicity of the law by which it is guided, and is pleased with the

Our second deduction relates principally to rectilinear figures; it is,
that symmetry is in general, and particularly in rectilinear figures,
more beautiful than irregularity. It requires, in general, simpler laws
to produce symmetry than to produce what is unsymmetrical; since the
corresponding parts in a symmetrical figure are instinctively
recognized as flowing from one and the same law. This preference for
symmetry is, however, frequently subordinated to higher demands of the
fundamental canon. If the outline be rectilineal, simplicity of law
produces symmetry, and variety of result can be attained only at the
expense of simplicity in the law. But in curved outlines it frequently
happens, that, with equally simple laws, we can obtain much greater
variety by dispensing with symmetry; and then, by the canon, we thus
obtain the higher beauty.

The question may be asked, In what way does this canon decide the
question, of proportions? Which of the two rectangles is, according to
this _dictum_, more beautiful, that in which the sides are in simple
ratio, or that in which the angles made with the sides by a diagonal
are in such ratio?--that, for instance, in which the shorter side is
three-fifths of the longer, or that in which the shorter side is five
hundred and seventy-seven thousandths of the longer? Our own view was
formerly in favor of a simple ratio between the sides; but experiments
have convinced us that persons of good taste, and who have never been
prejudiced by reading Hay's ingenious speculations, do nevertheless
agree in preferring rectangles and ellipses which fulfil his law of
simple ratio between the angles made by the diagonal. We acknowledge
that we have not brought this result under the canon, but look upon it
as indicating the necessity of another canon to somewhat this
effect,--that in the laws of form direction is a more important element
than distance.

We have said that a curved line is one in which every point is subject
to one and the same law of position. Now it may be easily proved, that,
in a series of points in a plane, each of which fulfils one and the
same condition of position, any three, if taken sufficiently near each
other, lie in one straight line. A fourth point near the third lies,
then, in a straight line with the second and third,--a fifth with the
third and fourth, and so on. The whole series of points must, in short,
form a line. But it may also be easily proved that any four of these
points, taken sufficiently near each other, lie in the arc of a circle.
How strange the paradox to which we are thus led! Every law of a curve,
however simple, leads to the same conclusion; a curve must bend at
every point, and yet not bend at any point; it must be nowhere a
straight line, and yet be a straight line at every part. The
blacksmith, passing an iron bar between three rollers to make a tire
for a wheel, bends every part of it infinitely little, so that the
bending shall not be perceptible at any one spot, and shall yet in the
whole length arch the tire to a full circle. It may be that in this
paradox lies an additional charm of the curved outline. The eye is
pleased to find itself deceived, lured insensibly round into a line
running in a different direction from that on which it started.

The simplest law of position for a point would be, either to have it in
a given direction from a given point,--a law which would manifestly
generate a straight line,--or else to have it at a given distance from
the given point, which would generate the surface of a sphere, the
outline of which is the circumference of a circle. The straight line
fulfils part of the conditions of beauty demanded by the first canon,
but not the whole,--it has no variety, and must be combined in order to
produce a large effect. The simplest combination of straight lines is
in parallels, and this is its usual combination in works of Art. The
circle also fulfils but imperfectly the demands of the fundamental
canon. It is the simplest of all curves, and the standard or measure of
curvature,--vastly more simple in its laws than any rectilineal figure,
and therefore more beautiful than any simple figure of that kind. There
is, however, a sort of monotony in its beauty,--it has no variety of

The outline of a sphere, projected by the beholder against any plane
surface behind it, is a circle only when a perpendicular, let fall on
the plane from the eye, passes through the centre of the sphere. In
other positions the projection of the sphere becomes an ellipse, or one
of its varieties, the parabola and hyperbola. The parabola is the
boundary of the projection of a sphere upon a plane, when the eye is
just as far from the plane as the outer edge of the sphere is, and the
hyperbola is a similar curve formed by bringing the eye still nearer to
the plane.

By these metamorphoses the circle loses much of its monotony, without
losing much of its simplicity. The law of the projection of a sphere
upon a plane is simple, in whatever position the plane may be. And if
we seek a law for the ellipse, or either of the conic sections, which
shall confine our attention to the plane, the laws remain simple. There
are for these curves two centres, which come together for the circle,
and recede to an infinite distance for the parabola; and the simple law
of their formation is, that the curve everywhere makes equal angles
with the lines drawn to these two centres. According to the fundamental
canon, a conic section should be a beautiful curve; and the proof that
it is so is to be found in the attention which these curves have always
drawn upon themselves from artists and from mathematicians. Plato,
equally great in mathematics and in metaphysics, is said to have been
the first to investigate the properties of the ellipse. For about a
century and a half, to the time of Apollonius, the beauty of this
curve, and of its variations, the parabola and hyperbola, so fascinated
the minds of Plato's followers, that Apollonius found theorems and
problems relating to these figures sufficient to fill eight books with
condensed truths concerning them. The study of the conic sections has
been a part of polite learning from his day downward. All men confess
their beauty, which so entrances those of mathematical genius as
entirely to absorb them. For eighteen centuries the finest spirits of
our race drew some of their best means of intellectual discipline from
the study of the ellipse. Then came a new era in the history of this
curve. Hitherto it had been an abstract form, a geometrical
speculation. But Kepler, by some fortunate guess, was led to examine
whether the orbits of the planets might not be elliptical, and, lo! it
was found that this curve, whose beauty had so fascinated so many men
for so many ages, had been deemed by the great Architect of the Heavens
beautiful enough to introduce into Nature on the grandest scale; the
morning stars had been for countless ages tracing diagrams beforehand
in illustration of Apollonius's conic sections. It seemed that this
must have been the design of Providence in leading Plato and his
followers to investigate the ellipse, that Kepler might be prepared to
guide men to a knowledge of the movements of the heavenly bodies.
"And," said Kepler, "if the Creator has waited so many years for an
observer, I may wait a century for a reader." But in less than a
century a reader arose in the person of the English Newton. The ellipse
again appeared in human history, playing a no less important part than
before. For, as it was only by a profound knowledge of ellipses that
Kepler could establish his three beautiful facts with regard to the
motions of the planets, so also was it only through a still more
perfect and intimate acquaintance with the minute peculiarities of that
curve that Sir Isaac Newton could demonstrate that these three facts
were perfectly accounted for only by his theory of universal
gravitation,--the most beautiful theory ever devised, and the most
firmly established of all scientific hypotheses. If the ellipse, as a
simply geometrical speculation, has had so much power in the education
of the race, what are the intellectual relations of its beauty through
its connection with astronomy? Who can estimate the influence which
this oldest of physical sciences has had upon human destiny? Who can
tell how much intellectual life and self-reliance, how much also of
humility and reverential awe, how much adoration of Divine Wisdom, have
been gained by man through his study of these heavenly diagrams, marked
out by the sun and the moon, by the planets and the comets, upon the
tablets of the sky? Yet, without the ellipse, without the conic
sections of Plato and Apollonius, astronomy would have been to this day
a sealed science, and the labors of Hipparchus, Ptolemy, Tycho, and
Copernicus would have waited in vain for the genius of Kepler and of
Newton to educe divine order from the seeming chaos of motions.

But the obligations of man to the ellipse do not end here. The
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also owe it a debt of gratitude.
Even where the knowledge of conic sections does not enter as a direct
component of that analytical power which was the glory of a Lagrange, a
Laplace, and a Gauss, and which is the glory of a Leverrier, a Peirce,
and their companions in science, it serves as a part of the necessary
scaffolding by which that skill is attained,--of the necessary
discipline by which their power was exercised and made available for
the solution of the great problems of astronomy, optics, and
thermotics, which have been solved in our century.

There is another curve, generated by a simple law from a circle, which
has played an important part at various epochs in the intellectual
history of our race. A spot on the tire of a wheel running on a
straight, level road, will describe in the air a series of peculiar
arches, called the cycloid. The law of its formation is simple; the law
of its curvature is also simple. The path in which the spot moves
curves exactly in proportion to its nearness to the lowest point of the
wheel. By the simplicity of its law, it ought, according to the canon,
to be a beautiful curve. Now, although artists have not shown any
admiration for the cycloid, as they have for the ellipse, yet the
mathematicians have gazed upon it with great eagerness, and found it
rich in intellectual treasures. Chasles, in his History, says that the
cycloid interweaves itself with all the great discoveries of the
seventeenth century.

A curve which fulfils more perfectly the demands of our _dictum_ is
that of an elastic thread, to which we have already alluded. If the two
ends of a straight steel hair be brought towards each other by simple
pressure, the intervening spring may be put into a series of various
forms,--simple undulations, and those more complicated, a figure 8,
loops turning alternately opposite ways, loops turning all one way, and
finally a circle. Now the whole of this variety is the result of
subjecting each part of the curve to a law more simple than that of the
cycloid. The elastic curve is a curve which bends or curves exactly in
proportion to its distance from a given straight line. According to the
canon, therefore, this curve should be beautiful; and it is
acknowledged to be so in the examples given by the bending osier and
the waving grain,--also by the few who have seen full drawings of all
the forms. And the mathematician finds in it a new beauty, from its
marvellous correspondence with the motions of a pendulum,--the
algebraic expression of the two being identical.

The forms of organic life afford, however, the best examples of the
dominion of our fundamental canon. The infinite variety of vegetable
forms, all beautiful, and each one different in its beauty, is all the
result of simple laws. It is true that these simple laws are not as yet
all discovered; but the one great discovery of Phyllotaxis, which shows
that all plants follow one law in the arrangement of their leaves upon
the stem, thereby intimates in unmistakable language the simplicity and
unity of all organic vegetable laws; and a similar assurance is given
by the morphological reduction of all parts to a metamorphosed leaf.

The law of phyllotaxis, like that of the elastic curve, is carried out
in time as well as in space. As the formula for the elastic curve is
the same as that for the pendulum, so the law by which the spaces of
the leaves are divided in scattering them round the stem, to give each
its opportunity for light and air, is the same as that by which the
times of the planets are proportioned to keep them scattered about the
sun, and prevent them from gathering on one side of their central orb.

The forms of plants and trees are dependent upon the arrangement of the
branches, and the arrangement of the branches depends upon that of the
buds or leaves. The leaves are arranged by this numerical law,--that
the angular distance about the stem between two successive leaves shall
be in such ratio to the whole circumference as may be expressed by a
continued fraction composed wholly of the figure 1. It is, then, true,
that all the beauty of the vegetable world which depends on the
arrangement of parts--the graceful symmetry or more graceful apparent
disregard of symmetry in the general form of plants, all the charm of
the varying forms of forest trees, which adds such loveliness to the
winter landscape, and such a refined source of pleasure to the
exhilaration of the winter morning walk--is the result of the simplest
variations in a simple numerical law; and is thus clearly brought under
our fundamental canon. It is the perception of this unity in diversity,
of this similarity of plan, for instance, in all tree-like forms,
however diverse,--the sprig of mignonette, the rose-bush, the fir, the
cedar, the fan-shaped elm, the oval rock-maple, the columnar hickory,
the dense and slender shaft of the poplar,--which charms the eye of
those who have never heard in what algebraic or arithmetical terms this
unity may be defined, in what geometrical or architectural figures this
diversity may be expressed.

When we look at the animal kingdom, we recognize there also the
presence of simple, all-pervading laws. The four great types of animal
structures are readily discerned by the dullest eye: no man fails to
see the likeness among all vertebrates, or the likeness among all
articulates, the likeness among alt mollusks, or the likeness among all
radiates. These four types show, moreover, a certain unity, even to the
untaught eye: we call them all by one name, animals, and feel that
there is a likeness between them deeper than the widest differences in
their structure; there are analogies where there are not homologies.

The difference between the four types of animals is marked at a very
early period in the embryo,--the embryo taking one of four different
forms, according to the department to which it belongs; and Peirce has
shown that these four forms are all embodiments of one single law of
position. If, then, one single algebraic law of form includes the four
diverse forms of the four great branches of the animal kingdom, is it
extravagant to suppose that the diversities in each branch are also
capable of being included in simple generalizations of form? Is it
unreasonable to believe that the exceeding beauty of animated forms,
and of the highest, the human form, arises from the fact that these
forms are the result of some simple intellectual law, a simple
conception of the Divine Geometer, assuming varied developments in the
great series of animated beings? It is the unity of the form, arising
from the simplicity of its law, and the multiplicity of its
manifestations or details, arising from the generality of its law,
that, intuitively perceived by the eye, although the intellect may not
apprehend them, give the charm to the figures of the animate creation.

The subject, even in the narrow limits which we have imposed upon
ourselves, would admit of a much longer discussion. The various animals
might, for instance, be compared with each other, and the beauty of the
most beautiful could be clearly shown to be owing to the greater
variety in the outline, or the greater variety of position, which they
included in equal unity of general effect. And should we step outside
the bounds which we have prescribed to ourselves, we should find that
in other things than questions of mere form the general canon holds
true, that laws produce beauty in proportion to their own simplicity
and to the variety of their effects. As a single example, take the most
beautiful of the fine arts, the art which is free from the laws of
space, and subject only to those of time, and in which, therefore, we
find a beauty removed as far as possible from that of curvilinear
outlines. How exceedingly simple are the fundamental laws of music, of
simple rhythm and simple harmony yet how infinitely varied, and how
inexpressibly touching are its effects! In studying music as a mere
matter of intellectual science, all is simple; it is only an easy
chapter in acoustics. But in studying it on the side of the emotions,
in studying the laws of counterpoint and of musical form, which are
governed by the effect upon the ear and the heart, we find intricacy
and difficulties, increased beyond our power of understanding.

So in the harmony of the spheres, in the varied beauty which clothes
the earth and pervades the heavens, in the beauty which addresses
itself to eye and ear, and in the beauty which addresses only the
inward sense,--the harmonious arrangements of the social world, and the
adjustment of domestic, civil, and political relations,--there is an
infinite diversity of result, infinitely varied in its effect upon the
observer. But could we behold the Kosmos as it is beheld by its
Creator, we should perchance find the whole encyclopedia of our science
resting upon a few great, but simple laws; we should see that the whole
universe, in all its infinite complication, is the fulfilment of
perhaps a single simple thought of the Divine Mind, and that it is this
unity pervading the diversity which makes it the Kosmos, Beauty.


And he sold his birth-right unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and
pottage of lentiles.

GEN. xxv. 33, 34.

......So! I let fall the curtain; he was dead. For at least half an
hour I had stood there with the manuscript in my hand, watching that
face settling in its last stillness, watching the finger of the
Composer smoothing out the deeply furrowed lines on cheek and
forehead,--the faint recollection of the light that had perhaps burned
behind his childish eyes struggling up through the swarthy cheek, as if
to clear the last world's-dust from the atmosphere surrounding the man
who had just refound his youth. His head rested on his hand,--and so
satisfied and content was his quiet attitude, that he looked as if
resting from a long, wearisome piece of work he was glad to have
finished. I don't know how it was, but I thought, oddly enough, in
connection with him, of a little school-fellow of mine years ago, who
one day, in his eagerness to prove that he could jump farther than some
of his companions, upset an ink-stand over his prize essay, and,
overcome with mortification, disappointment, and vexation, burst into
tears, hastily scratched his name from the list of competitors, and
then rushed out of doors to tear his ruined essay into fragments; and
we found him that afternoon lying on the grass, with his head on his
hand, just as he lay now, having sobbed himself to sleep.

I dropped the curtains of the bed, drew those of the window more
closely, to exclude the shrill winter wind that was blowing the slant
sleet against the clattering window-panes, broke up the lump of cannel
coal in the grate into a bright blaze that subsided into a warm, steady
glow of heat and light, drew an arm-chair and a little table up to the
cheerful fire, and sat down to read the manuscript which the quiet man
behind the curtains had given me. Why shouldn't I (I was his physician)
make myself as comfortable as was possible at two o'clock of a stormy
winter night, in a house that contained but two persons beside my
German patient,--a half-stupid serving-man, doubtless already asleep
down-stairs, and myself? This is what I read that night, with the
comfortable fire on one side, and Death, holding strange colloquy with
the fitful, screaming, moaning wind, on the other.

As I wish simply to relate what has happened to me, (thus the
manuscript began,) what I attempted, in what I sinned, and how I
failed, I deem no introduction or genealogies necessary to the first
part of my life. I was an only child of parents who were passionately
fond of me,--the more, perhaps, because an accident that had happened
to me in my childhood rendered me for some years a partial invalid. One
day, (I was about five years old then,) a gentleman paid a visit to my
father, riding a splendid Arabian horse. Upon dismounting, he tied the
horse near the steps of the piazza instead of the horseblock, so that I
found I was just upon the level with the stirrup, standing at a certain
elevation. Half as an experiment, to try whether I could touch the
horse without his starting, I managed to get my foot into the stirrup,
and so mounted upon his back. The horse, feeling the light burden, did
start, broke from his fastening, and sped away with me on his back at
the top of his speed. He ran several miles without stopping, and
finished by pitching me off his back upon the ground, in leaping a
fence. This fall produced some disease of the spine, which clung to me
till I was twelve years old, when it was almost miraculously cured by
an itinerant Arab physician. He was generally pronounced to be a quack,
but he certainly effected many wonderful cures, mine among others.

I had always been an imaginative child; and my long-continued sedentary
life compelling me (a welcome compulsion) to reading as my chief
occupation and amusement, I acquired much knowledge beyond my years.

My reading generally had one peculiar tone: a certain kind of mystery
was an essential ingredient in the fascination that books which I
considered interesting had for me. My earliest fairy tales were not
those unexciting stories in which the good genius appears at the
beginning of the book, endowing the hero with such an invincible
talisman that suspense is banished from the reader's mind, too well
enabled to foresee the triumph at the end; but stories of long, painful
quests after hidden treasure,--mysterious enchantments thrown around
certain persons by witch or wizard, drawing the subject in charmed
circles nearer and nearer to his royal or ruinous destiny,--strange
spells cast upon bewitched houses or places, that could be removed only
by the one hand appointed by Fate. So I pored over the misty legends of
the San Grail, and the sweet story of "The Sleeping Beauty," as my
first literature; and as the rough years of practical boyhood trooped
up to elbow my dreaming childhood out of existence, I fed the same
hunger for the hidden and mysterious with Detective-Police stories,
Captain Kidd's voyages, and wild tales of wrecks on the Spanish Main,
of those vessels of fabulous wealth that strewed the deep sea's lap
with gems (so the stories ran) of lustre almost rare enough to light
the paths to their secret hiding-places.

But in the last year of my captivity as an invalid a new pleasure fell
into my hands. I discovered my first book of travels in my father's
library, and as with a magical key unlocked the gate of an enchanted
realm of wondrous and ceaseless beauty. It was Sir John Mandeville who
introduced me to this field of exhaustless delight; not a very
trustworthy guide, it must be confessed,--but my knowledge at that time
was too limited to check the boundless faith I reposed in his
narrative. It was such an astonishment to discover that men,
black-coated and black-trousered men, such as I saw in crowds every day
in the street from my sofa-corner, (we had moved to the city shortly
after my accident,) had actually broken away from that steady stream of
people, and had traversed countries as wild and unknown as the lands in
the Nibelungen Lied, that my respect for the race rose amazingly. I
scanned eagerly the sleek, complacent faces of the portly burghers, or
those of the threadbare schoolmasters, thinned like carving-knives by
perpetual sharpening on the steel of Latin syntax, in search of men who
could have dared the ghastly terrors of the North with Ross or Parry,
or the scorching jungles of the Equator with Burckhardt and Park. Cut
off for so long a time from actual contact with the outside world, I
could better imagine the brooding stillness of the Great Desert, I
could more easily picture the weird ice-palaces of the Pole, waiting,
waiting forever in awful state, like the deserted halls of the Walhalla
for their slain gods to return, than many of the common street-scenes
in my own city, which I had only vaguely heard mentioned.

I followed the footsteps of the Great Seekers over the wastes, the
untrodden paths of the world; I tracked Columbus across the pathless
Atlantic,--heard, with Balboa, the "wave of the loud-roaring ocean
break upon the long shore, and the vast sea of the Pacific forever
crash on the beach,"--gazed with Cortes on the temples of the Sun in
the startling Mexican empire,--or wandered with Pizarro through the
silver-lined palaces of Peru. But a secret affection drew me to the
mysterious regions of the East and South,--towards Arabia, the wild
Ishmael bequeathing sworded Korans and subtile Aristotles as legacies
to the sons of the freed-woman,--to solemn Egypt, riddle of nations,
the vast, silent, impenetrable mystery of the world. By continual
pondering over the footsteps of the Seekers, the Sought-for seemed to
grow to vast proportions, and the Found to shrink to inappreciable
littleness. For me, over the dreary ice-plains of the Poles, over the
profound bosom of Africa, the far-stretching steppes of Asia, and the
rocky wilds of America, a great silence brooded, and in the unexplored
void faint footfalls could be heard here and there, threading their way
in the darkness. But while the longing to plunge, myself, into these
dim regions of expectation grew more intense each day, the
prison-chains that had always bound me still kept their habitual hold
upon me, even after my recovery. I dreamt not of making even the
vaguest plans for undertaking explorations myself. So I read and
dreamt, filling my room with wild African or monotonous Egyptian
scenery, until I was almost weaned from ordinary Occidental life.

I passed four blissful years In this happy dream-life, and then it was
abruptly brought to an end by the death of my father and mother almost
simultaneously by an epidemic fever prevailing in the neighborhood. I
was away from home at a bachelor uncle's at the time, and so was
unexpectedly thrown on his hands, an orphan, penniless, except in the
possession of the small house my father had owned in the country before
our removal to the city, and to be provided for.

My uncle placed me in a mercantile house to learn business, and, after
exercising some slight supervision over me a few months, left me
entirely to my own resources. As, however, he had previously taken care
that these resources should be sufficient, I got along very well upon
them, was regularly promoted, and in the space of six years, at the age
of twenty-one, was in a rather responsible situation in the house, with
a good salary. But my whole attention could not be absorbed in the dull
routine of business, my most precious hours were devoted to reading, in
which I still pursued my old childish track of speculation, with the
difference that I exchanged Sinbad's valley of diamonds for Arabia
Petraea, Sir John Mandeville for Herodotus, and Robinson Crusoe for
Belzoni and Burckhardt Whether my interest in these Oriental studies
arose from the fact of the house being concerned in the importation of
the products of the Indies, or whether from the secret attraction that
had drawn me Eastward since my earliest childhood, as if the Arab
doctor had bewitched in curing me, I cannot say; probably it was the
former, especially as the India business became gradually more and more
intrusted to my hands.

Shortly after my twenty-first birthday, I received a note from my
uncle, from whom I had not heard for a year, or two, informing me that
my father's house, which he had kept rented for me during the first
years of my minority, had been without a tenant for a year, and, as I
had now come of age, I had better go down to D---- and take possession
of it. This letter, touching upon a long train of associations and
recollections, awoke an intense longing in me to revisit the home of my
childhood, and meet those phantom shapes that had woven that spell in
those dreaming years, which I sometimes thought I felt even now. So I
obtained a short leave of absence, and started the next morning in the
coach for D----.

It was what is called a "raw morning," for what reason I know not, for
such days are really elaborated with the most exquisite finish. A soft
gray mist hugged the country in a chilly embrace, while a fine rain
fell as noiselessly as snow, upon soaked ground, drenched trees, and
peevish houses. There is always a sense of wonder about a mist. The
outlines of what we consider our hardest tangibilities are melted away
by it into the airiest dream-sketches, our most positive and glaring
facts are blankly blotted out, and a fresh, clean sheet left for some
new fantasy to be written upon it, as groundless as the rest; our solid
land dissolves in cloud, and cloud assumes the stability of land. For,
after all, the only really tangible thing we possess is man's Will; and
let the presence and action of that be withdrawn but for a few moments,
and that mysterious Something which we vainly endeavor to push off into
the Void by our pompous nothings of brick and plaster and stone closes
down upon us with the descending sky, writing _Delendum_ on all behind
us, _Unknown_ on all before. At that time, the only actual Now, that
stands between these two infinite blanks, becomes identical with the
mind itself, independent of accidents of situation or circumstance; and
the mind thus becoming boldly prominent, amidst the fading away of
physical things, stamps its own character upon its shadowy
surroundings, moulding the supple universe to the shape of its emotions
and feelings.

I was the only inside passenger, and there was nothing to check the
entire surrender of my mind to all ghostly influence. So I lay
stretched upon the cushions, staring blankly into the dense gray fog
closing up all trace of our travelled road, or watching the light edges
of the trailing mist curl coyly around the roofs of houses and then
settle grimly all over them, the fantastic shapes of trees or carts
distorted and magnified through the mist, the lofty outlines of some
darker cloud stalking solemnly here and there, like enormous dumb
overseers faithfully superintending the work of annihilation. The
monotonous patter of the rain-drops upon the wet pavement or muddy
roads, blending with the low whining of the wind and the steady rumble
of the coach-wheels, seemed to make a kind of witch-chant, that wove
with braided sound a weird spell about me, a charm fating me for some
service, I knew not what. That chant moaned, it wailed, it whispered,
it sang gloriously, it bound, it drowned me, it lapped me in an
inextricable stream of misty murmuring, till I was perplexed,
bewildered, enchanted. I felt surprised at myself, when, at the end of
the day's journey, I carried my bag to the hotel, and ate my supper
there as usual,--and felt natural again only when, having obtained the
key of my house, I sallied forth in the dim twilight to make it my
promised visit.

I found the place, as I had expected, in a state of utter desolation. A
year's silence had removed it so far from the noisy stream of life that
flowed by it, that I felt, as I pushed at the rusty door-lock, as if I
were passing into some old garret of Time, where he had thrown
forgotten rubbish too worn-out and antiquated for present use. A strong
scent of musk greeted me at my entrance, which I found came from a box
of it that had been broken upon the hall-floor. I had stowed it away
(it was a favorite perfume with me, because it was so associated with
my Arabian Nights' stories) upon a ledge over the door, where it had
rested undisturbed while the house was tenanted, and had been now
probably dislodged by rats. But I half fancied that this odor which
impregnated the air of the whole house was the essence of that
atmosphere in which, as a child, I had communicated with Burckhardt and
Belzoni,--and that, expelled by the solid, practical, Occidental
atmosphere of the last few years, it had flowed back again, in these
last silent months, in anticipation of my return.

Like a prudent householder, I made the tour of the house with a light I
had provided myself with, and mentally made memoranda of repairs,
alterations, etc., for rendering it habitable. My last visit was to be
to the garret, where many of my books yet remained. As I passed once
more through the parlor, on my way thither, a ray of light from my
raised lamp fell upon the wall that I had thought blank, and a majestic
face started suddenly from the darkness. So sudden was the apparition,
that for the moment I was startled, till I remembered that there had
formerly been a picture in that place, and I stopped to examine it. It
was a head of the Sphinx. The calm, grand face was partially averted,
so that the sorrowful eyes, almost betraying the aching secret which
the still lips kept sacred, were hidden,--only the slight, tender droop
in the corner of the mouth told what their expression might be. Around,
forever stretched the endless sands,--the mystery of life found in the
heart of death. That mournful, eternal face gave me a strange feeling
of weariness and helplessness. I felt as if I had already pressed
eagerly to the other side of the head, still only to find the voiceless
lips and mute eyes. Strange tears sprang to my eyes; I hastily brushed
them away, and, leaving the Sphinx, mounted to my garret.

But the riddle followed me. I sat down on the floor, beside a box of
books, and somewhat listlessly began pulling it over to examine the
contents. The first book I took hold of was a little worn volume of
Herodotus that had belonged to my father. I opened it; and as if it,
too, were a link in the chain of influences which I half felt was being
forged around me, it opened at the first part of "Euterpe," where
Herodotus is speculating upon the phenomena of the Nile. Twenty-two
hundred years,--I thought,--and we are still wondering, the Sphinx is
still silent, and we yet in the darkness! Alas, if this riddle be
insoluble, how can we hope to find the clue to deeper problems? If
there are places on our little earth whither our feet cannot go,
curtains that our hands cannot withdraw, how can we expect to track
paths through realms of thought,--how to voyage in those airy,
impalpable regions whose existence we are sure of only while we are
there voyaging?

"Nilus in extremum fugit perterritus orbem Occuluitque caput, quod
adhuc latet."

Lost through reckless presumption, might not earnest humility recover
that mysterious lurking-place? Might not one, by devoted toil, by utter
self-sacrifice, with eyes purified by long searching from worldly and
selfish pollution,--might not such a one tear away the veil of
centuries, and, even though dying in the attempt, gain one look into
this arcanum? Might not I?--The unutterable thought thrilled me and
left me speechless, even in thinking. I strained my forehead against
the darkness, as if I could grind the secret from the void air. Then I
experienced the following mental sensation,--which, being purely
mental, I cannot describe precisely as it was, but will translate it as
nearly as possible into the language of physical phenomena.

It was as if my mind--or, rather, whatever that passive substratum is
that underlies our volition and more truly represents ourselves--were a
still lake, lying quiet and indifferent. Presently the sense of some
coming Presence sent a breathing ripple over its waters; and
immediately afterward it felt a sweep as of trailing garments, and two
arms were thrown around it, and it was pressed against a "life-giving
bosom," whose vivifying warmth interpenetrating the whole body of the
lake, its waters rose, moved by a mighty influence, in the direction of
that retreating Presence; and again, though nothing was seen, I felt
surely whither was that direction. It was NILEWARD. I knew, with the
absolute certainty of intuition, that henceforth I was one of the
_kletoi_, the chosen,--selected from thousands of ages, millions of
people, for this one destiny. Henceforth a sharp dividing-line cut me
off from all others: _their_ appointment was to trade, navigate, eat
and drink, marry and give in marriage, and the rest; mine was to
discover the Source of the Nile. Hither had all the threads of my life
been converging for many years; they had now reached their focus, and
henceforth their course was fixed.

I was scarcely surprised the next day at receiving a letter from my
employers appointing me to a situation as supercargo of a
merchant-vessel bound on a three-years' voyage to America and
China,--in returning thence, to sail up the Mediterranean, and stop at
Alexandria. I immediately wrote an acceptance, and then busied myself
about obtaining a three-years' tenant for my house. As the house was
desirable and well-situated, this business was soon arranged; and then,
as I had nothing further to do in the village, I left it for the last
time, as it proved, and returned to the city,--whence, after a
fortnight of preparation, I set sail on my eventful enterprise.
Although our voyage was filled with incident that in another place
would be interesting enough to relate, yet here I must omit all mention
of it, and, passing over three years, resume my narrative at
Alexandria, where I left the vessel, and finally broke away from
mercantile life.

From Alexandria I travelled to Cairo, where I intended to hire a
servant and a boat, for I wished to try the water-passage in preference
to the land. The cheapness of labor and food rendered it no difficult
matter to obtain my boat and provision it for a long voyage,--for how
long I did not tell the Egyptian servant whom I hired to attend me. A
certain feeling of fatality caused me to make no attempt at disguise,
although disguise was then much more necessary than it has been since:
I openly avowed my purpose of travelling on the Nile for pleasure, as a
private European. My accoutrements were simple and few. Arms, of
course, I carried, and the actual necessaries for subsistence; but I
entirely forgot to prepare for sketching, scientific surveys, etc. My
whole mind was possessed with one idea: to see, to discover;--plans for
turning my discoveries to account were totally foreign to my thoughts.

So, on the 6th of November, 1824, we set sail. I had been waiting three
years to arrive at this starting-point,--my whole life, indeed, had
been dumbly turning towards it,--yet now I commenced it with a coolness
and tranquillity far exceeding that I had possessed on many
comparatively trifling occasions. It is often so. We are borne along on
the current like drift-wood, and, spying jutting rocks or tremendous
cataracts ahead, fancy, "Here we shall be stranded, there buoyed up,
there dashed in pieces over those falls,"--but, for all that, we glide
over those threatened catastrophes in a very commonplace manner, and
are aware of what we have been passing only upon looking back at them.
So no one sees the great light shining from Heaven,--for the people are
blear-eyed, and Saul is blinded. But as I left Cairo in the greatening
distance, floating onward to the heart of the mysterious river, I
floated also into the twin current of thought, that, flowing full and
impetuous from the shores of the peopled Mediterranean, follows the
silent river, and tracks it to its hidden lurking-place in the blank
desert. Onward, past the breathless sands of the Libyan Desert, past
the hundred-gated Thebes, past the stone guardians of Abou-Simbel,
waiting in majestic patience for their spell of silence to be
broken,--onward. It struck me curiously to come to the cataract, and be
obliged to leave my boat at the foot of the first fall, and hire
another above the second,--a forcible reminder that I was travelling
backwards, from the circumference to the centre from which that
circumference had been produced, faintly feeling my way along a tide of
phenomena to the _noumenon_ supporting them. So we always progress:
from arithmetic to geometry, from observation to science, from practice
to theory, and play with edged tools long before we know what knives
mean. For, like Hop-o'-my-Thumb and his brothers, we are driven out
early in the morning to the edge of the forest, and are obliged to
grope our way back to the little house whence we come, by the crumbs
dropped on the road. Alack! how often the birds have eaten our bread,
and we are captured by the giant lying in wait!

On we swept, leaving behind the burning rocks and dreary sands of Egypt
and Lower Nubia, the green woods and thick acacias of Dongola, the
distant pyramids of Mount Birkel, and the ruins of Meroe, just
discovered footmarks of Ancient Ethiopia descending the Nile to
bequeathe her glory and civilization to Egypt. At Old Dongola, my
companion was very anxious that we should strike across the country to
Shendy, to avoid the great curve of the Nile through Ethiopia. He found
the sail somewhat tedious, as I could speak but little Egyptian, which
I had picked up in scraps,--he, no German or English. I managed to
overrule his objections, however, as I could not bear to leave any part
of the river unvisited; so we continued the water-route to the junction
of the Blue and the White Nile, where I resolved to remain a week,
before continuing my route. The inhabitants regarded us with some
suspicion, but our inoffensive appearance so far conquered their fears
that they were prevailed upon to give us some information about the
country, and to furnish us with a fresh supply of rice, wheat, and
dourra, in exchange for beads and bright-colored cloth, which I had
brought with me for the purpose of such traffic, if it should be
necessary. Bruce's discovery of the source of the Blue Nile, fifty
years before, prevented the necessity of indecision in regard to my
route, and so completely was I absorbed in the one object of my
journey, that the magnificent scenery and ruins along the Blue Nile,
which had so fascinated Cailliaud, presented few allurements for me.

My stay was rather longer than I had anticipated, as it was found
necessary to make some repairs upon the boat, and, inwardly fretting at
each hour's delay, I was eager to seize the first opportunity for
starting again. On the 1st of March, I made a fresh beginning for the
more unknown and probably more perilous portion of my voyage, having
been about four months in ascending from Cairo. As my voyage had
commenced about the abatement of the sickly season, I had experienced
no inconvenience from the climate, and it was in good spirits that I
resumed my journey. For several days we sailed with little eventful
occurring,--floating on under the cloudless sky, rippling a long white
line through the widening surface of the ever-flowing river, through
floating beds of glistening lotus-flowers, past undulating ramparts of
foliage and winged ambak-blossoms guarding the shores scaled by
adventurous vines that triumphantly waved their banners of white and
purple and yellow from the summit, winding amid bowery islands studding
the broad stream like gems, smoothly stemming the rolling flood of the
river, flowing, ever flowing,--lurking in the cool shade of the dense
mimosa forests, gliding noiselessly past the trodden lairs of
hippopotami and lions, slushing through the reeds swaying to and fro in
the green water, still borne along against the silent current of the
mysterious river, flowing, ever flowing.

We had now arrived at the land of the Dinkas, where the river, by
broadening too much upon a low country, had become partially devoured
by marsh and reeds, and our progress was very slow, tediously dragging
over a sea of water and grass. I had become a little tired of my
complete loneliness, and was almost longing for some collision with the
tribes of savages that throng the shore, when the incident occurred
that determined my whole future life. One morning, about seven o'clock,
when the hot sun had already begun to rob the day of the delicious
freshness lingering around the tropical night, we happened to be
passing a tract of firmer land than we had met with for some time, and
I directed the vessel towards the shore, to gather some of the
brilliant lotus-flowers that fringed the banks. As we neared the land,
I threw my gun, without which I never left the boat, on the bank,
preparatory to leaping out, when I was startled by hearing a loud,
cheery voice exclaim in English,--"Hilloa! not so fast, if you
please!"--and first the head and then the sturdy shoulders of a white
man raised themselves slowly from the low shrubbery by which they were
surrounded. He looked at us for a minute or two, and nodded with a
contented air that perplexed me exceedingly.

"So," he said, "you have come at last; I am tired of waiting for you";
and he began to collect his gun, knife, etc., which were lying on the
ground beside him.

"And who are you," I returned, "who lie in wait for me? I think, Sir,
you have the advantage."

Here the stranger interrupted me with a hearty laugh. "My dear
fellow," he cried, "you are entirely mistaken. The technical advantage
that you attribute to me is an error, as I do _not_ have the honor of
knowing your name, though you may know mine without further
preface,--Frederick Herndon; and the real advantage which I wish to
avail myself of, a boat, is obviously on your side. The long and the
short of it is," he added, (composedly extricating himself from the
brushwood,) "that, travelling up in this direction for discovery and
that sort of thing, you know, I heard at Sennaar that a white man with
an Egyptian servant had just left the town, and were going in my
direction in a boat. So I resolved to overtake them, and with their, or
your, permission, join company. But they, or you, kept just in advance,
and it was only by dint of a forced march in the night that I passed
you. I learned at the last Dinka village that no such party had been
yet seen, and concluded to await the your arrival here, where I pitched
my tent a day and a night waiting for you. I am heartily glad to see
you, I assure you."

With this explanation, the stranger made a spring, and leaped upon the

"Upon my word," said I, still bewildered by his sudden appearance, "you
are very unceremonious."

"That," he rejoined, "is a way we Americans have. We cannot stop to
palaver. What would become of our manifest destiny? But since you are
so kind, I will call my Egyptian. Times are changed since we were
bondsmen in Egypt, have they not? Ah, I forgot,--you are not an
American, and therefore cannot claim even our remote connection with
the Ten Lost Tribes." Then raising his voice, "Here, Ibrahim!"

Again a face, but this time a swarthy one, emerged from behind a bush,
and in answer to a few directions in his own dialect the man came down
to the boat, threw in the tent and some other articles of traveller's
furniture, and sprang in with the _nonchalance_ of his master.

A little recovered from my first surprise, I seized the opportunity of
a little delay in getting the boat adrift again to examine my new
companion. He was standing carelessly upon the little deck of the
vessel where he had first entered, and the strong morning light fell
full upon his well-knit figure and apparently handsome face. The
forehead was rather low, prominent above the eyebrows, and with keen,
hollow temples, but deficient both in comprehensiveness and ideality.
The hazel eyes were brilliant, but restless and shallow,--the mouth of
good size, but with few curves, and perhaps a little too close for so
young a face. The well-cut nose and chin and clean fine outline of
face, the self-reliant pose of the neck and confident set of the
shoulders characterized him as decisive and energetic, while the
pleasant and rather boyish smile that lighted up his face dispelled
presently the peculiarly hard expression I had at first found in
analyzing it. Whether it was the hard, shrewd light from which all the
tender and delicate grace of the early morning had departed, I knew
not; but it struck me that I could not find a particle of shade in his
whole appearance. I seemed at once to take him in, as one sees the
whole of a sunny country where there are no woods or mountains or
valleys. And, in fact, I never did find any,--never any cool recesses
in his character; and as no sudden depths ever opened in his eyes, so
nothing was ever left to be revealed in his character;--like them, it
could be sounded at once. That picture of him, standing there on my
deck, with an indefinite expression of belonging to the place, as he
would have belonged on his own hearth-rug at home, often recurred to
me, again to be renewed and confirmed.

And thus carelessly was swept into my path, as a stray waif, that man
who would in one little moment change my whole life! It is always so.
Our life sweeps onward like a river, brushing in here a little sand,
there a few rushes, till the accumulated drift-wood chokes the current,
or some larger tree falling across it turns it into a new channel.

I had been so long unaccustomed to company that I found it quite a
pleasant change to have some one to talk to; some one to sympathize
with I neither wanted nor expected; I certainly did not find such a one
in my new acquaintance. For the first two or three days I simply
regarded him with the sort of wondering curiosity with which we examine
a new natural phenomenon of any sort. His perfect self-possession and
coolness, the _nil-admirari_ and _nil-agitari_ atmosphere which
surrounded him, excited my admiration at first, till I discovered that
it arose, not from the composure of a mind too deep-rooted to be swayed
by external circumstances, but rather from a peculiar hardness and
unimpressibility of temperament that kept him on the same level all the
time. He had been born at a certain temperature, and still preserved
it, from a sort of _vis inertive_ of constitution. This impenetrability
had the effect of a somewhat buoyant disposition, not because he could
be buoyed on the tide of any strong emotion, but because few things
could disturb or excite him. Unable to grasp the significance of
anything outside of himself and his attributes, he took immense pride
in stamping _his_ character, _his_ nationality, _his_ practicality,
upon every series of circumstances by which he was surrounded: he
sailed up the Nile as if it were the Mississippi; although a
well-enough-informed man, he practically ignored the importance of any
city anterior to the Plymouth Settlement, or at least to London, which
had the honor of sending colonists to New England; and he would have
discussed American politics in the heart of Africa, had not my
ignorance upon the topic generally excluded it from our conversation.
He had what is most wrongly termed an exceedingly practical mind,--that
is, not one that appreciates the practical existence and value of
thought as such, considering that a _praxis_, but a mind that denied
the existence of a thought until it had become realized in visible

"'The end of a man is an action, and not a thought, though it be the
noblest,' as Carlyle has well written," he triumphantly quoted to me,
as, leaning over the little railing of the yacht, watching, at least I
was, the smooth, green water gliding under the clean-cutting keel, we
had been talking earnestly for some time. "A thought has value only as
it is a potential action; if the action be abortive, the thought is as
useless as a crank that fails to move an engine-wheel."

"Then, if action is the wheel, and thought only the crank, what does
the body of your engine represent? For what purpose are your wheels
turning? For the sake of merely moving?"

"No," said he, "moving to promote another action, and _that_
another,--and----so on _ad infinitum_."

"Then you leave out of your scheme a real engine, with a journey to
accomplish, and an end to arrive at; for so wheels would only move
wheels, and there would be an endless chain of machinery, with no plan,
no object for its existence. Does not the very necessity we feel of
having a reason for the existence, the operation of anything, a large
plan in which to gather up all ravelled threads of various objects,
proclaim thought as the final end, the real thing, of which action,
more especially human action, is but the inadequate visible expression?
What kinds of action does Carlyle mean, that are to be the wheels for
our obedient thoughts to set in motion? Hand, arm, leg, foot action?
These are all our operative machinery. Does he mean that our 'noblest
thought' is to be chained as a galley-slave to these, to give them
means for working a channel through which motive power may be poured in
upon them? Are we to think that our fingers and feet may move and so we
live, or they to run for our thought, and we live to think?"

"Supposing we _are_," said Herndon, "what practical good results from
knowing it? Action for action's sake, or for thinking's sake, is still
action, and all that we have to look out for. What business have the
brakemen at the wheels with the destiny of the train? Their business is
simply to lock and unlock the wheels; so that their end is in the
wheels, and not in the train."

"A somewhat dreary end," I said, half to myself. "The whole world,
then, must content itself with spinning one blind action out of
another; which means that we must continually alter or displace
something, merely to be able to displace and alter something else."

"On the contrary, we exchange vague, speculative mystifications for
definite, tangible fact. In America we have too much reality, too many
iron and steam facts, to waste much time over mere thinking. That, Sir,
does for a sleepy old country, begging your pardon, like yours; but for
one that has the world's destiny in its hands,--that is laying iron
foot-paths from the Atlantic to the Pacific for future civilization to
take an evening stroll along to see the sun set,--that is converting
black wool into white cotton, to clothe the inhabitants of
Borrioboolagha,--that is trading, farming, electing, governing,
fighting, annexing, destroying, building, puffing, blowing, steaming,
racing, as our young two-hundred-year-old is,--we must work, we must
act, and think afterwards. Whatsoever thy _hand_ findeth to do, do it
with thy might."

"And what," I said, "when hand-and-foot-action shall have ceased? will
you then allow some play for thought-action?"

"We have no time to think of that," he returned, walking away, and thus
stopping our conversation.

The man was consistent in his theory, at least. Having exalted physical
motion (or action) to the place he did, he refused to see that the
action he prized was more valuable through the thought it developed;
consequently he reduced all actions to the same level, and prided
himself upon stripping a deed of all its marvellousness or majesty. He
did uncommon things in such a matter-of-fact way that he made them
common by the performance. The faint spiritual double which I found
lurking behind his steel and iron he either solidified with his
metallic touch or pertinaciously denied its existence.

"Plato was a fool," he said, "to talk of an ideal table; for, supposing
he could see it, and prove its existence, what good could it do? You
can neither eat off it, nor iron on it, nor do anything else with it;
so, for all practical purposes, a pine table serves perfectly well
without hunting after the ideal. I want something that I can go up to,
and know it is there by seeing and touching."

"But," said I, "does not that very susceptibility to bodily contact
remove the table to an indefinite distance from you? If we can see and
handle a thing, and yet not be able to hold that subtile property of
generic existence, by which, one table being made, an infinite class is
created, so real that tables may actually be modelled on it, and yet so
indefinite that you cannot set your hand on any table or collection of
tables and say, 'It is here,'--if we can be absolutely conscious that
we see the table, and yet have no idea how its image reflected on our
retina can produce that absolute consciousness, does not the table grow
dim and misty, and slip far away out of reach, of apprehension, much
more of comprehension?"

"Stuff!" cried my companion. "If your metaphysics lead to proving that
a board that I am touching with my hand is not there, I'll say, as I
have already said, 'Throw (meta)physics to the dogs! I'll none of it!'
A fine preparation for living in a material world, where we have to
live in matter, by matter, and for matter, to wind one's self up in a
snarl that puts matter out of reach, and leaves us with nothing to live
in, or by, or for! Now _you_, for instance, are not content with this
poor old Nile as it stands, but must go fussing and wondering and
mystifying about it till you have positively nothing of a river left. I
look at the water, the banks, the trees growing on them, the islands in
which we get occasionally entangled: here, at least, I have a real,
substantial river,--not equal for navigation to the Ohio or
Mississippi, but still very fair.--Confound these flies!" he added,
parenthetically, making a vigorous plunge at a dark cloud of the little
pests that were closing down upon us.

"Then you see nothing strange and solemn in this wonderful stream?
nothing in the weird civilization crouching at the feet, vainly looking
to the head of its master hidden in the clouds? nothing in the echoing
footsteps of nations passing down its banks to their destiny? nothing
in the solemn, unbroken silence brooding over the fountain whence
sprang this marvellous river, to bear precious gifts to thousands and
millions, and again retreat unknown? Is there no mystery in unsolved
questions, no wonder in miracles, no awe in inapproachability?"

"I see," said he, steadily, "that a river of some thousand miles long
has run through a country peopled by contented, or ignorant, or
barbarous people, none of whom, of course, would take the slightest
interest in tracing the river; that the dangers that have guarded the
marvellous secret, as you call it, are not intrinsic to the secret
itself, but are purely accidental and contingent There is no more
reason why the source of the Nile should not be found than that of the
Connecticut; so I do not see that it is really at all inapproachable or

"What in the world, Herndon," cried I, in desperation, "what in the
name of common sense ever induced you to set out on this expedition?
What do you want to discover the source of the Nile for?"

He answered with the ready air of one who has long ago made up his mind
confidently on the subject he is going to speak about.

"It has long been evident to me, that civilization, flowing in a return
current from America, must penetrate into Africa, and turn its immense
natural advantages to such account, that it shall become the seat of
the most flourishing and important empires of the earth. These,
however, should be consolidated, and not split up into multitudinous
missionary stations. If a stream of immigration could be started from
the eastern side, up the Nile for instance, penetrating to the
interior, it might meet the increased tide of a kindred nature from the
west, and uniting somewhere in the middle of Soudan, the central point
of action, the capital city could be founded there, as a heart for the
country, and a complete system of circulation be established. By this
method of entering the country at both sides simultaneously, of course
its complete subjugation could be accomplished in half the time that it
would take for a body of emigrants, however large, to make headway from
the western coast alone. About the source of the Nile I intend to mark
out the site for my city, and then"----

"And call it," I added, "Herndonville."

"Perhaps," he said, gravely. "At all events, my name will be
inseparably connected with the enterprise; and if I can get the
steamboat started during my lifetime, I shall make a comfortable
fortune from the speculation."

"What a gigantic scheme!" I exclaimed.

"Ah," he said, complacently, "we Americans don't stick at trifles."

"Oh, marvellous practical genius of America!" I cried, "to eclipse
Herodotus and Diodorus, not to mention Bruce and Cailliaud, and
inscribe Herndonville on the arcanum of the Innermost! If the Americans
should discover the origin of evil, they would run up penitentiaries
all over the country, modelled to suit 'practical purposes.'"

"I think that would pay," said Herndon, reflectively.

But though I then stopped the conversation, yet I felt its influence
afterwards. The divine enthusiasm for _knowing_, that had inspired me
for the last three years, and had left no room for any other thought in
connection with the discovery,--this enthusiasm felt chilled and
deadened. I felt reproached that I had not thought of founding a
Pottsville or Jenkinsville, and my grand purpose seemed small and vague
and indefinite. The vivid, living thoughts that had enkindled me fell
back cold and lifeless into the tedious, reedy water. For we had now
reached the immense shallow lake that Werne has since described, and
the scenery had become flat and monotonous, as if in sympathy with the
low, marshy place to which my mind had been driven. The intricate
windings of the river, after we had passed the lake, rendered the
navigation very slow and difficult; and the swarms of flies, that
plagued us for the first time seriously, brought petty annoyances to
view more forcibly than we had experienced in all our voyage before.

After some days' pushing in this way, now driven by a strong head wind
almost back from our course, again, by a sudden change, carried rapidly
many miles on our journey,--after some days of this sailing, we arrived
at a long, low reef of rocks. The water here became so shallow and
boisterous that further attempt at sailing was impossible, and we
determined to take our boat to pieces as much as we could, and carry it
with us, while we walked along the shore of the river. I concluded,
from the marked depression in the ground we had just passed, that there
must be a corresponding elevation about here, to give the water a
sufficient head to pass over the high ground below; and the almost
cataract appearance of the river added strength to my hypothesis. We
were all four armed to the teeth, and the natives had shown themselves,
hitherto, either so friendly or so indifferent that we did not have
much apprehension on account of personal safety. So we set out with
beating hearts. Our path was exceedingly difficult to traverse, leading
chiefly among low trees and over the sharp stones that had rolled from
the river,--now close by the noisy stream, which babbled and foamed as
if it had gone mad,--now creeping on our knees through bushes, matted
with thick, twining vines,--now wading across an open morass,--now in
mimosa woods, or slipping in and out of the feathery dhelb-palms.

Since our conversation spoken of above, Herndon and I had talked little
with each other, and now usually spoke merely of the incidents of the
journey, the obstacles, etc.; we scarcely mentioned that for which we
were both longing with intense desire, and the very thoughts of which
made my heart beat quicker and the blood rush to my face. One day we
came to a place where the river made a bend of about two miles and then
passed almost parallel to our point of view. I proposed to Herndon that
he should pursue the course of the river, and that I would strike a
little way back into the country, and make a short cut across to the
other side of the bend, where he and the men would stop, pitch our
night-tent, and wait for me. Herndon assented, and we parted. The low
fields around us changed, as I went on, to firm, hard, rising ground,
that gradually became sandy and arid. The luxuriant vegetation that
clung around the banks of the river seemed to be dried up little by
little, until only a few dusty bushes and thorn-acacias studded in
clumps a great, sandy, and rocky tract of country, which rolled
monotonously back from the river border with a steadily increasing
elevation. A sandy plain never gives me a sense of real substance; it
always seems as if it must be merely a covering for something,--a sheet
thrown over the bed where a dead man is lying. And especially here did
this broad, trackless, seemingly boundless desert face me with its
blank negation, like the old obstinate "No" which Nature always returns
at first to your eager questioning. It provoked me, this staring
reticence of the scenery, and stimulated me to a sort of dogged
exertion. I think I walked steadily for about three hours over the
jagged rocks and burning sands, interspersed with a few patches of
straggling grass,--all the time up hill, with never a valley to vary
the monotonous climbing,--until the bushes began to thicken in about
the same manner as they had thinned into the desert, the grass and
herbage herded closer together under my feet, and, beating off the
ravenous sand, gradually expelled the last trace of it, a few tall
trees strayed timidly among the lower shrubbery, growing more and more
thickly, till I found myself at the border of an apparently extensive
forest. The contrast was great between the view before and behind me.
Behind lay the road I had achieved, the monotonous, toilsome, wearisome
desert, the dry, formal introduction, as it were, to my coming journey.
Before, long, cool vistas opened green through delicious shades,--a
track seemed to be almost made over the soft grass, that wound in and
out among the trees, and lost itself in interminable mazes. I plunged
into the profound depths of the still forest, and confidently followed
for path the first open space in which I found myself.

It was a strangely still wood for the tropics,--no chattering
parroquets, no screaming magpies, none of the sneering, gibing
dissonances that I had been accustomed to,--all was silent, and yet
intensely living. I fancied that the noble trees took pleasure in
growing, they were so energized with life in every leaf. I noticed
another peculiarity,--there was little underbrush, little of the
luxuriance of vines and creepers, which is so striking in an African
forest. Parasitic life, luxurious idleness, seemed impossible here; the
atmosphere was too sacred, too solemn, for the fantastic ribaldry of
scarlet runners, of flaunting yellow streamers. The lofty boughs
interlaced in arches overhead, and the vast dim aisles opened far down
in the tender gloom of the wood and faded slowly away in the distance.
And every little spray of leaves that tossed airily in the pleasant
breeze, every slender branch swaying gently in the wind, every young
sapling pushing its childish head panting for light through the mass of
greenery and quivering with golden sunbeams, every trunk of aged tree
gray with moss and lichens, every tuft of flowers, seemed thrilled and
vivified by some wonderful knowledge which it held secret, some
consciousness of boundless, inexhaustible existence, some music of
infinite unexplored thought concealing treasures of unlimited action.
And it was the knowledge, the consciousness, that it was unlimited
which seemed to give such elastic energy to this strange forest. But at
all events, it was such a relief to find the everlasting negation of
the desert nullified, that my dogged resolution insensibly changed to
an irrepressible enthusiasm, which bore me lightly along, scarcely
sensible of fatigue.

The ascent had become so much steeper, and parts of the forest seemed
to slope off into such sudden declivities and even precipices, that I
concluded I was ascending a mountain, and, from the length of time I
had been in the forest, I judged that it must be of considerable
height. The wood suddenly broke off as it had begun, and, emerging from
the cool shade, I found myself in a complete wilderness of rock. Rocks
of enormous size were thrown about in apparently the wildest confusion,
on the side of what I now perceived to be a high mountain. How near the
summit I was I had no means of determining, as huge boulders blocked up
the view at a few paces ahead. I had had about eight hours' tramp, with
scarcely any cessation; yet now my excitement was too great to allow me
to pause to eat or rest. I was anxious to press on, and determine that
day the secret which I was convinced lay entombed in this sepulchre. So
again I pressed onward,--this time more slowly,--having to pick my way
among the bits of jagged granite filling up terraces sliced out of the
mountain, around enormous rocks projecting across my path,--overhanging
precipices that sheered straight down into dark abysses, (I must have
verged round to a different side from that I came up on,)--creeping
through narrow passages formed by the junction of two immense boulders.
Tearing my hands with the sharp corners of the rocks, I climbed in vain
hope of at last seeing the summit. Still rocks piled on rocks faced my
wearied eyes, vainly striving to pierce through some chink or cranny
into the space behind them. Still rocks, rocks, rocks, against whose
adamantine sides my feeble will dashed restlessly and impotently. My
eyeballs almost burst, as it seemed, in the intense effort to strain
through those stone prison-walls. And by one of those curious links of
association by which two distant scenes are united as one, I seemed
again to be sitting in my garret, striving to pierce the darkness for
an answer to the question then raised, and at the same moment passed
over me, like the sweep of angels' wings, the consciousness of that
Presence which had there infolded me. And with that consciousness, the
eager, irritated waves of excitement died away, and there was a calm,
in which I no longer beat like a caged beast against the never-ending
rocks, but, borne irresistibly along in the strong current of a mighty,
still emotion, pressed on with a certainty that left no room for
excitement, because none for doubt. And so I came upon it. Swinging
round one more rock, hanging over a breathless precipice, and landing
upon the summit of the mountain, I beheld it stretched at my feet: a
lake about five miles in circumference, bedded like an eye in the
naked, bony rock surrounding it, with quiet rippling waters placidly
smiling in the level rays of the afternoon sun,--the Unfathomable
Secret, the Mystery of Ages, the long sought for, the Source of the

For, from a broad cleft in the rocks, the water hurled itself out of
its hiding-place, and, dashing down over its rocky bed, rushed
impetuous over the sloping country, till, its force being spent, it
waded tediously through the slushing reeds of the hill-land again, and
so rolled down to sea. For, while I stood there, it seemed as if my
vision were preternaturally sharpened, and I followed the bright river
in its course, through the alternating marsh and desert,--through the
land where Zeus went banqueting among the blameless Ethiopians,
--through the land where the African princes watched from
afar the destruction of Cambyses's army,--past Meroe, Thebes, Cairo;
bearing upon its heaving bosom anon the cradle of Moses, the gay
vessels of the inundation festivals, the stately processions of the
mystic priesthood, the gorgeous barge of Cleopatra, the victorious
trireme of Antony, the screaming vessels of fighting soldiers, the
stealthy boats of Christian monks, the glittering, changing, flashing
tumult of thousands of years of life,--ever flowing, ever ebbing, with
the mystic river, on whose surface it seethed and bubbled. And the germ
of all this vast varying scene lay quietly hidden in the wonderful lake
at my feet. But human life is always composed of inverted cones, whose
bases, upturned to the eye, present a vast area, diversified with
countless phenomena; but when the screen that closes upon them a little
below the surface is removed, we shall be able to trace the many-lined
figures, each to its simple apex,--one little point containing the
essence and secret of the whole. Once or twice in the course of a
lifetime are a few men permitted to catch a glimpse of these awful
Beginnings,--to touch for a minute the knot where all the tangled
threads ravel themselves out smoothly. I had found such a place,--had
had such an ineffable vision,--and, overwhelmed with tremendous awe, I
sank on my knees, lost in GOD.

After a little while, as far as I can recollect, I rose and began to
take the customary observations, marked the road by which I had come up
the mountain, and planned a route for rejoining Herndon. But ere long
all subordinate thoughts and actions seemed to be swallowed up in the
great tide of thought and feeling that overmastered me. I scarcely
remember anything from the time when the lake first burst upon my view,
till I met Herndon again. But I know, that, as the day was nearly
spent, I was obliged to give up the attempt to travel back that night,
especially as I now began to feel the exhaustion attendant upon my long
journey and fasting. I could not have slept among those rocks, eternal
guardians of the mighty secret. The absence of all breathing,
transitory existence but my own rendered it too solemn for me to dare
to intrude there. So I went back to the forest, (I returned much
quicker than I had come,) ate some supper, and, wrapped in a blanket I
had brought with me, went to sleep under the arching branches of a
tree. I have as little recollection of my next day's journey, except
that I defined a diagonal and thus avoided the bend. I found Herndon
waiting in front of the tent, rather impatient for my arrival.

"Halloo, old fellow!" he shouted, jumping up at seeing me, "I was
really getting scared about you. Where have you been? What have you
seen? What are our chances? Have you had any adventures? killed any
lions, or anything? By-the-by, I had a narrow escape with one
yesterday. Capital shot; but prudence is the better part of valor, you
know. But, really," he said again, apparently struck by my abstraction
of manner, "what _have_ you seen?"

"I have found the source of the Nile," I said, simply.

Is it not strange, that, when we have a great thing to say, we are
always compelled to speak so simply in monosyllables? Perhaps this,
too, is an example of the law that continually reduces many to
one,--the unity giving the substance of the plurality; but as the
heroes of the "Iliad" were obliged to repeat the messages of the gods
_literatim_, so we must say a great thing as it comes to us, by itself.
It is curious to me now, that I was not the least excited in announcing
the discovery,--not because I did not feel the force of it, but because
my mind was so filled, so to speak, so saturated, with the idea, that
it was perfectly even with itself, though raised to an immensely higher
level. In smaller minds an idea seizes upon one part of them, thus
inequalizing it with the rest, and so, throwing them off their balance,
they are literally _de_-ranged (or disarranged) with excitement. It was
so with Herndon. For a minute he stared at me in stupefied
astonishment, and then burst into a torrent of incoherent

"Why, Zeitzer!" he cried, "you are the lucky man, after all. Why, your
fortune's made,--you'll be the greatest man of the age. You must come
to America; that is the place for appreciating such things. You'll have
a Common-Council dinner in Boston, and a procession in New York. Your
book will sell like wildfire. You'll be a lion of the first magnitude.
Just think! The Man who discovered the Source of the Nile!"

I stood bewildered, like one suddenly awakened from sleep. The unusual
excitement in one generally so self-possessed and indifferent as my
companion made me wonder sufficiently; but these allusions to my
greatness, my prospects, completely astounded me. What had I done,--I
who had been chosen, and led step by step, with little interference of
my own, to this end? What did this talk of noise and clamorous
notoriety mean?

"To think," Herndon ran on, "that you should have beaten me, after all!
that you should have first seen, first drunk of, first bathed in"--

"Drunk of! bathed in!" I repeated, mechanically. "Herndon, are you
crazy? Would I dare to profane the sacred fountain?"

He made no reply, unless a quizzical smile might be considered as
such,--but drew me within the tent, out of hearing of the two
Egyptians, and bade me give an account of my adventures. When I had

"This is grand!" he exclaimed. "Now, if you will share the benefits of
this discovery with me, I will halve the cost of starting that
steamboat I spoke of, and our plan will soon be afloat. I shouldn't
wonder, now, if one might not, in order to start the town, get up some
kind of a little summer-pavilion there, on the top of the
mountain,--something on the plan of the Tip-Top House at Mount
Washington, you know,--hang the stars and stripes off the roof, if
you're not particular, and call it The Teuton-American. That would give
you your rightful priority, you see. By the beard of the Prophet, as
they say in Cairo, the thing would take!"

I laughed heartily at this idea, and tried, at first in jest, then
earnestly, to make him understand I had no such plans in connection
with my discovery; that I only wanted to extend the amount of knowledge
in the world,--not the number of ice-cream pavilions. I offered to let
him take the whole affair into his own hands,--cost, profit, and all. I
wanted nothing to do with it. But he was too honest, as he thought, for
that, and still talked and argued,--giving his most visionary plans a
definite, tangible shape and substance by a certain process of
metallicizing, until they had not merely elbowed away the last shadow
of doubt, but had effectually taken possession of the whole ground, and
seemed to be the only consequences possible upon such a discovery. My
dislike to personal traffic in the sublimities of truth began to waver.
I felt keenly the force of the argument which Herndon used repeatedly,
that, if I did not thus claim the monopoly, (he talked almost as if I
had invented something,) some one else would, and so injustice be added
to what I had termed vulgarity. I felt that I must prevent injustice,
at least. Besides, what should I have to show for all my trouble, (ah!
little had I thought of "I" or my trouble a short time ago!)--what
should I have gained, after all,--nay, what would there be gained for
any one,--if I merely announced my discovery, without----starting the
steamboat? And though I did feebly query whether I should be equally
bound to establish a communication, with pecuniary emolument, to the
North Pole, in case I discovered that, his remark, that this was the
Nile, and had nothing to do with the North Pole, was so forcible and
pertinent, that I felt ashamed of my suggestion; and upon second
thought, that idea of the dinner and procession really had a good deal
in it. I had been in New York, and knew the length of Broadway; and at
the recollection, felt flattered by the thought of being conveyed in an
open chariot drawn by four or even eight horses, with nodding plumes,
(literal ones for the horses,--only metaphorical ones for me,) past
those stately buildings fluttering with handkerchiefs, and through
streets black with people thronging to see the man who had solved the
riddle of Africa. And then it would be pleasant, too, to make a neat
little speech to the Common Council,--letting the brave show catch its
own tail in its mouth, by proving, that, if America did not achieve
everything, she could appreciate--yes, appreciate was the word--those
who did. Yes, this would be a fitting consummation; I would do it.

But, ah! how dim became the vision of that quiet lake on the summit of
the mountain! How that vivid lightning-revelation faded into obscurity!
Was Pharaoh again ascending his fatal chariot?

The next day we started for the ascent. We determined to follow the
course of the river backwards around the bend and set out from my
former starting-point, as any other course might lead us into a
hopeless dilemma. We had no difficulty in finding the sandy plain, and
soon reached landmarks which I was sure were on the right road; but a
tramp of six or eight hours--still in the road I had passed
before--brought us no nearer to our goal. In short, we wandered three
days in that desert, utterly in vain. My heart sunk within me at every
failure; with sickening anxiety I scanned the horizon at every point,
but nothing was visible but stunted bushes and white pebbles glistening
in the glaring sand.

The fourth day came,--and Herndon at last stopped short, and said, in
his steady, immobile voice,--

"Zeitzer, you must have made this grand discovery in your dreams. There
is no Nile up this way,--and our water-skins are almost dry. We had
better return and follow up the course of the river where we left it.
If we again fail, I shall return to Egypt to carry out my plan for
converting the Pyramids into ice-houses. They are excellently well
adapted for the purpose, and in that country a good supply of ice is a
_desideratum_. Indeed, if my plan meets with half the success it
deserves, the antiquaries two centuries hence will conclude that ice
was the original use of those structures."

"Shade of Cheops, forbid!" I exclaimed.

"Cheops be hanged!" returned my irreverent companion. "The world
suffers too much now from overcrowded population to permit a man to
claim standing-room three thousand years after his death,--especially
when the claim is for some acres apiece, as in the case of these
pyramid-builders. Will you go back with me?"

I declined for various reasons, not all very clear even to myself; but
I was convinced that his peculiar enticements were the cause of our
failure, and I hated him unreasonably for it. I longed to get rid of
him, and of his influence over me. Fool that I was! _I_ was the sinner,
and not he; for he _could_ not see, because he was born blind, while
_I_ fell with my eyes open. I still held on to the vague hope, that,
were I alone, I might again find that mysterious lake; for I knew I had
not dreamed. So we parted.

But we two (my servant and I) were not left long alone in the Desert.
The next day a party of natives surprised us, and, after some desperate
fighting, we were taken prisoners, sold as slaves from tribe to tribe
into the interior, and at length fell into the hands of some traders on
the western coast, who gave us our freedom. Unwilling, however, to
return home without some definite success, I made several voyages in a
merchant-vessel. But I was born for one purpose; failing in that, I had
nothing further to live for. The core of my life was touched at that
fatal river, and a subtile disease has eaten it out till nothing but
the rind is left. A wave, gathering to the full its mighty strength,
had upreared itself for a moment majestically above its
fellows,--falling, its scattered spray can only impotently sprinkle the
dull, dreary shore. Broken and nerveless, I can only wait the lifting
of the curtain, quietly wondering if a failure be always
irretrievable,--if a prize once lost can never again be found.


A common spring of water, sudden welling,
Unheralded, from some unseen impelling,
Unrecognized, began his life alone.
A rare and haughty vine looked down above him,
Unclasped her climbing glory, stooped to love him,
And wreathed herself about his curb of stone.

Ah, happy fount! content, in upward smiling,
To feel no life but in her fond beguiling,
To see no world but through her veil of green!
And happy vine, secure, in downward gazing,
To find one theme his heart forever praising,--
The crystal cup a throne, and she the queen!

I speak, I grew about him, ever dearer;
The water rose to meet me, ever nearer;
The water passed one day this curb of stone.
Was it a weak escape from righteous boundings,
Or yet a righteous scorn of false surroundings?
I only know I live my life alone.

Alone? The smiling fountain seems to chide me,--
The constant fountain, rooted still beside me,
And speaking wistful words I toil to hear:
Ah, how alone! The mystic words confound me;
And still the awakened fountain yearns beyond me,
Streaming to some unknown I may not near.

"Oh, list," he cries, "the wondrous voices calling!
I hear a hundred streams in silver falling;
I feel the far-off pulses of the sea.
Oh, come!" Then all my length beside him faring,
I strive and strain for growth, and soon, despairing,
I pause and wonder where the wrong can be.

Were we not equal? Nay, I stooped, from climbing,
To his obscure, to list the golden chiming,
So low to all the world, so plain to me.
_Now_,'twere some broad fair streamlet, onward tending
Should mate with him, and both, serenely blending,
Move in a grand accordance to the sea.

I tend not so; I hear no voices calling;
I have no care for rivers silver-falling;
I hate the far-off sea that wrought my pain.
Oh for some spell of change, my life new-aiming!
Or best, by spells his too much life reclaiming,
Hold all within the fountain-curb again!


It is recorded in the pages of Diodorus Siculus, that Actisanes, the
Ethiopian, who was king of Egypt, caused a general search to be made
for all Egyptian thieves, and that all being brought together, and the
king having "given them a just hearing," he commanded their noses to be
cut off,--and, of course, what a king of Egypt commanded was done; so
that all the Egyptian "knucks," "cracksmen," "shoplifters," and
pilferers generally, of whatever description known to the slang terras
of the time, became marked men.

Inspired, perhaps, with the very idea on which the Ethiopian acted, the
police authorities have lately provided, that, in an out-of-the-way
room, on a back street, the honest men of New York city may scan the
faces of its thieves, and hold silent communion with that interesting
part of the population which has agreed to defy the laws and to stand
at issue with society. Without disturbing the deep pool of penalogy, or
entering at all into the question, as to whether Actisanes was right,
or whether the police of New York do not overstep their authority in
putting on the walls this terrible bill of attainder against certain
citizens of the United States, whom their country's constitution has
endeavored to protect from "infamous punishments,"--the student of
moral science will certainly be thankful for the faces.

We do not remember ever having "opened" a place or picked a pocket. We
have made puns, however; and so, upon the Johnsonian _dictum_, the
thing is latent in us, and we feel the affinity. We do not hate
thieves. We feel satisfied that even in the character of a man who does
not respect ownership there may be much to admire. Sparkles of genius
scintillate along the line of many a rogue's career. Many there are, it
is true, who are obtuse and vicious below the mean,--but a far greater
number display skill and courage infinitely above it. Points of noble
character, of every good as well as most base characteristics of the
human race, will be found in the annals of thievery, when they are
written aright.

Thieves, like the State of Massachusetts in the great man's oration,
"have their history," and it may be safely asserted that they did not
steal it. It is dimly hinted in the verse of a certain ancient, that
there was a time in a remoter antiquity "ere thieves were feared"; yet
even this is cautiously quiet as to their non-existence. Homer,
recounting traditions old in his time, chuckles with narrative delight
over the boldness, wit, and invention of a great cattle-stealer, and
for his genius renders him the ultimatum of Greek tribute,
intellectually speaking, by calling him a son of Zeus. Herodotus speaks
plainly and tells a story; and the best of all his stories, to our
thinking, is a thief's story, which we abridge thus.

"The king Rhampsinitus, the priests informed me, possessed a great
quantity of money, such as no succeeding king was able to surpass or
nearly come up to, and, wishing to treasure it, he built a chamber of
stone, one wall of which was against the palace. But the builder,
forming a plan against it, even in building, fitted one of the stones
so that it might be easily taken out by two men or even one.

"In course of time, and when the king had laid up his treasures in the
chamber, the builder, finding his end approaching, called to him his
two sons and described to them how he had contrived, and, having
clearly explained everything, he told them, if they would observe his
directions closely, they might be stewards of the king's riches. He
accordingly died, and the sons were not long in applying themselves to
the work; but, having come by night to the palace, and having found the
stone as described, they easily removed it, and carried off a great
quantity of treasure.

"When the king opened the chamber, he was astonished to see some
vessels deficient; but he was not able to accuse any one, as the seals
were unbroken, and the chamber well secured. When, therefore, on his
opening it two or three times, the treasures were always evidently
diminished, he adopted the following plan: he ordered traps to be made
and placed them round the vessels in which the treasures were. But when
the thieves came, as before, and one of them had entered, as soon as he
went near a vessel, he was straightway caught in the trap; perceiving,
therefore, in what a predicament he was, he immediately called to his
brother, told him what had happened, and bade him enter as quickly as
possible and cut off his head, lest, if seen and recognized, he should
ruin him also. The other thought he spoke well, and did as he was
advised; then, having fitted in the stone, he returned home, taking
with him his brother's head.

"When day came, the king, having entered the chamber, was astonished at
seeing the body of the thief in the trap without the head, but the
chamber secured, and no apparent means of entrance or exit. In this
perplexity he contrived thus: he hung up the body of the thief from the
wall, and, having placed sentinels there, he ordered them to seize and
bring before him whomsoever they should see weeping or expressing
commiseration for the spectacle.

"The mother was greatly grieved at the body being suspended, and,
coming to words with her surviving son, commanded him, by any means he
could, to contrive how he might take down and bring away the corpse of
his brother; but, should he not do so, she threatened to go to the king
and tell who had the treasure. When the mother treated her surviving
son harshly, and he, with many entreaties, was unable to persuade her,
he contrived this plan: he put skins filled with wine on some asses,
and drove to where the corpse was detained, and there skilfully loosed
the strings of two or three of those skins, and, when the wine ran out,
he beat his head and cried aloud, as if he knew not which one to turn
to first. But the sentinels, seeing wine flow, ran with vessels and
caught it, thinking it their gain,--whereupon, the man, feigning anger,
railed against them. But the sentinels soothed and pacified him, and at
last he set the skins to rights again. More conversation passed; the
sentinels joked with him and moved him to laughter, and he gave them
one of the skins, and lay down with them and drank, and thus they all
became of a party; and the sentinels, becoming exceedingly drunk, fell
asleep where they had been drinking. Then the thief took down the body
of his brother, and, departing, carried it to his mother, having obeyed
her injunctions.

"After this the king resorted to many devices to discover and take the
thief, but all failed through his daring and shrewdness: when, at last,
sending throughout all the cities, the king caused a proclamation to be
made, offering a pardon and even reward to the man, if he would
discover himself. The thief, relying on this promise, went to the
palace; and Rhampsinitus greatly admired him, and gave him his daughter
in marriage, accounting him the most knowing of all men; for that the
Egyptians are superior to all others, but he was superior to the

The Egyptians appear to have given their attention to stealing in every
age; and at the present time, the ruler there may be said to be not so
much the head man of the land as the head thief. Travellers report that
that country is divided into departments upon a basis of abstraction,
and that the interests of each department, in pilfering respects, are
under the supervision of a Chief of Thieves. The Chief of Thieves is
responsible to the government, and to him all those who steal
professionally must give in their names, and must also keep him
informed of their successful operations. When goods are missed, the
owner applies to the government, is referred to the Chief of Thieves
for the Department, and all particulars of quantity, quality, time, and
manner of abstraction, to the best of his knowledge and belief, being
given, the goods are easily identified and at once restored,--less a
discount of twenty-five per cent. Against any rash man who should
undertake a private speculation, of course the whole fraternity of
thieves would be the beat possible police. This, after all, appears to
be a mere compromise of police taxes. He who has no goods to lose, or,
having, can watch them so well as not to need the police, the
government agrees shall not be made to pay for a police; but he whom
the fact of loss is against must pay well to be watched.

Something of this principle is observable in all the East The East is
the fatherland of thieves, and Oriental annals teem with brilliant
examples of their exploits. The story of Jacoub Ben-Laith, founder of
the Soffarid dynasty,--otherwise, first of the Tinker-Kings of the
larger part of Persia,--is especially excellent upon that proverbial
"honor among thieves" of which most men have heard.

Working weary hour after hour in his little shop,--toiling away days,
weeks, and months for a meagre subsistence,--Jacoub finally turned in
disgust from his hammer and forge, and became a "minion of the moon."
He is said, however, to have been reasonable in plunder, and never to
have robbed any of all they had. One night he entered the palace of
Darham, prince of the province of Segestan, and, working diligently,
soon gathered together an immense amount of valuables, with which he
was making off, when, in crossing a very dark room, his foot struck
upon a hard substance, and the misstep nearly threw him down. Stooping,
he picked up that upon which he had trodden. He believed it, from
feeling, to be a precious stone. He carried it to his mouth, touched it
with his tongue,--it was salt! And thus, by his own action, he had
tasted salt beneath the prince's roof,--in Eastern parlance, had
accepted his hospitality, become his guest. He could not rob him.
Jacoub laid down his burden,--robes embroidered in gold upon the
richest materials, sashes wanting only the light to flash with precious
stones worked in the braid, all the costly and rare of an Eastern
prince's palace gathered in one common spoil,--laid it all down, and
departed as silently as he had come.

In the morning the disorder seen told only of attempted robbery.
Diligent search being made, the officers charged with it became
satisfied of Jacoub's complicity. They brought him before the prince.
There, being charged with the burglary, Jacoub at once admitted it, and
told the whole story. The prince, honoring him for his honor, at once
took him into his service, and employed him with entire confidence in
whatever of important or delicate he had to do that needed a man of
truth and courage; and Jacoub from that beginning went up step by step,
till he himself became prince of a province, and then of many
provinces, and finally king of a mighty realm. He had soul enough,
according to Carlyle's idea, not to need salt; but, for all that, the
salt saved him.

Another king of Persia, Khurreem Khan, was not ashamed to admit, with a
crown on his head, that he had once been a thief, and was wont to
recount of himself what in these days we should call a case of
conscience. Thus he told it:--

"When I was a poor soldier in Nadir Shah's camp, my necessities led me
to take from a shop a gold-embossed saddle, sent thither by an Afghan
chief to be repaired. I soon afterward heard that the owner of the shop
was in prison, sentenced to be hanged. My conscience smote me. I
restored the stolen article to the very place whence I had removed it,
and watched till it was discovered by the tradesman's wife. She uttered
a scream of joy, on seeing it, and fell on her knees, invoking
blessings on the person who had brought it back, and praying that he
might live to have a hundred such saddles. I am quite certain that the
honest prayer of the old woman aided my fortune in attaining the
splendor she wished me to enjoy."

These are variations upon the general theme of thievery. They all tend
to show that it is, at the least, unsafe to take the fact of a man's
having committed a certain crime against property as a proof _per se_
that he is radically bad or inferior in intellect. "Your thief looks
in the crowd," says Byron,

"Exactly like the rest, or rather better,"--

and this, not because physiognomy is false, but the thief's face true.
Of a promiscuous crowd, taken almost anywhere, the pickpocket in it is
the smartest man present, in all probability. According to
Ecclesiasticus, it is "the _heart_ of man that changeth his
countenance"; and it does seem that it is to his education, and not to
his heart, that man does violence in stealing. It is certainly in exact
proportion to his education that he feels in reference to it, and does
or does not "regret the necessity."

And, indeed, that universal doctrine of contraries may work here as
elsewhere; and it might not he difficult to demonstrate that a majority
of thieves are better fitted by their nature and capacity for almost
any other position in life than the one they occupy through perverse
circumstance and unaccountable accident. Though mostly men of fair
ability, they are not generally successful. Considering the number of
thieves, there are but few great ones. In this "Rogues' Gallery" of the
New York Police Commissioners we find the face of a "first-rate"
burglar among the ablest of the eighty of whom he is one. He is a
German, and has passed twenty years in the prisons of his native land:
has that leonine aspect sometimes esteemed a physiognomical attribute
of the German, and, with fair enough qualities generally, is without
any especial intellectual strength. Near him is another
"first-rate,"--all energy and action, acute enough, a quick reasoner,
very cool and resolute. Below these is the face of one whom the
thief-takers think lightly of, and call a man of "no account." Yet he
is a man of far better powers than either of the "first-rates,"--has
more thought and equal energy,--a mind seldom or never at rest,--is one
to make new combinations and follow them to results with an ardor
almost enthusiastic. From some want of adaptation not depending upon
intellectual power, he is inferior as a thief to his inferiors.

This man was without a cravat when his picture was taken, and his white
shirt-collar, coming up high in the neck, has the appearance of a white
neckerchief. This trifle of dress, with the intellectual look of the
man, strikes every observer as giving him a clerical appearance. The
picture strongly resembles--more in air, perhaps, than in feature--the
large engraved portrait of Summerfield. There is not so much of calm
comprehensiveness of thought, and there are more angles. Thief though
he be, he has fair language,--not florid or rhetorical, but terse and
very much to the point. If bred as a divine, he would have held his
place among the "brilliants" of the time, and been as original,
erratic, or _outre_ as any. What a fortune lost! It is part of the
fatality for the man not to know it, at least in time. Even villany
would have put him into his proper place, but for that film over the
mental vision. "If rogues," said Franklin, "knew the advantages
attached to the practice of the virtues, they would become honest men
from mere roguery."

Many of the faces of this Rogues' Gallery are very well worth
consideration. Of a dozen leading pickpockets, who work singly, or two
or three together, and are mostly English, what is first noted is not
favorable to English teaching or probity;--their position sits easily
upon them. There is not one that gives indication of his having passed
through any mental struggle before he sat down in life as a thief.
Though all men capable of thought, they have not thought very deeply
upon this point. One of them is a natural aristocrat,--a man who could
keep the crowd aloof by simple volition, and without offense; nothing
whatever harsh in him,--polite to all, and amiable to a fault with his

There would be style in everything he did or said. He is one to
astonish drawing-rooms and bewilder promenades by the taste and
elegance of his dress. Upon that altar, doubtless, he sacrificed his
principles; but the sacrifice was not a great one.

"'Tis only at the bar or in the dungeon that wise men know a felon by
his features." Another English pickpocket appears to have Alps on Alps
of difference between him and a thief. Good-nature prevails; there is a
little latent fire; not enough energy to be bad, or good, against the
current. He has some quiet dignity, too,--the head, in fine, of a
genial, dining Dombey, if such a man can be imagined. Face a good oval,
rather full in flesh, forehead square, without particular strength, a
nose that was never unaccompanied by good taste and understanding, and
mouth a little lickerish;--the incarnation of the popular idea of a

The other day he turned to get into an omnibus at one of the ferries,
and just as he did so, there, it so happened, was a young lady stepping
in before him. The quiet old gentleman, with that warmth of politeness
that sits so well upon quiet old gentlemen in the presence of young
ladies, helped her in, and took a seat beside her. At half a block up
the street the president startled the other passengers by the violent
gesticulations with which he endeavored to attract the attention of a
gentleman passing down on the sidewalk; the passengers watched with
interest the effect or non-effect of his various episodes of
telegraphic desperation, and saw, with a regret equal to his own, that
the gentleman on the sidewalk saw nothing, and turned the corner as
calmly as a corner could be turned; but the old gentleman, not willing
to lose him in that manner, jumped out of the 'bus and ran after, with
a liveliness better becoming his eagerness than his age. In a moment
more, the young lady, admonished by the driver's rap on the roof, would
have paid her fare, but her portmonnaie was missing. I know not whether
the bank-president was or was not suspected;--

"All I can say is, that he had the money."

Look closer, and beneath that look of good-humor you will find a little
something of superciliousness. You will see a line running down the
cheek from behind each nostril, drawing the whole face, good-humor and
all, into a sneer of habitual contempt,--contempt, no doubt, of the
vain endeavors and devices of men to provide against the genius of a
good pickpocket.

It was said of Themistocles, that

"he, with all his greatness,
Could ne'er command his hands."

Now this man is a sort of Themistocles. He is a man of wealth, and can
snap his fingers at Fortune; can sneer that little sneer of his at
things generally, and be none the worse; but what he cannot do is, to
shake off an incubus that sits upon his life in the shape of old Habit
severe as Fate. This man, with apparently all that is necessary in the
world to keep one at peace with it, and to ease declining life with
comforts, and cheer with the serener pleasures, is condemned to keep
his peace in a state of continual uncertainty; for, seeing a purse
temptingly exposed, he is physically incapable of refraining from the
endeavor to take it. What devil is there in his finger-ends that brings
this about? Is this part of the curse of crime,--that, having once
taken up with it, a man cannot cut loose, but, with all the disposition
to make his future life better, he must, as by the iron links of
Destiny, be chained to his past?

There is a Chinese thief-story somewhat in point here. A man who was
very poor stole from his neighbor, who was very rich, a single duck. He
cooked and ate it, and went to bed happy; but before morning he felt
all over his body and limbs a remarkable itching, a terrible irritation
that prevented sleep. When daylight came, he perceived that he had
sprouted all over with duck-feathers. This was an unlooked-for
judgment, and the man gave himself up to despair,--when he was informed
by an emanation of the divine Buddha that the feathers would fall from
him the moment he received a reproof and admonition from the man whose
duck he had stolen. This only increased his despair, for he knew his
neighbor to be one of the laughter-loving kind, who would not go to the
length of reproof, though he lost a thousand ducks. After sundry futile
attempts to swindle his neighbor out of the needed admonition, our
friend was compelled to divulge, not only the theft, but also the means
of cure, when he was cured.

And this good, easy man, who is wealthy with the results of
pocket-picking;--that well-cut black coat, that satin waistcoat, that
elegantly-adjusted scarf and well-arranged collar, they are all
duck-feathers; but the feather that itches is that irreclaimable
tendency of the fingers to find their way into other people's pockets.
Pity, however, the man who cannot be at ease till he has received a
reproof from every one whose pocket he has picked through a long life
in London and in New York city.

The amount of mental activity that gleams out upon you from these walls
is something wonderful; evidence of sufficient thinking to accomplish
almost any intellectual task; thought-life crowded with what

The "confidence" swindlers are mostly Americans,--so that, the
pickpockets being mostly English, you may see some national character
in crime, aside from the tendency of races. The Englishman is
conservative,--sticks to traditions,--picks and plods in the same old
way in which ages have picked and plodded before him. Exactly like the
thief of ancient Athens, he

The street, and picks your pocket as he talks
On some pretence with you";

at the same time, with courage and self-reliance admirably English,
risking his liberty on his skill. The American illuminates his practice
with an intellectual element, faces his man, "bidding a gay defiance to
mischance," and gains his end easily by some acute device that merely
transfers to himself, with the knowledge and consent of the owner, the
subtile principle of property.

This "confidence" game is a thing of which the ancients appear to have
known nothing. The French have practised it with great success, and may
have invented it. It appears particularly French in some of its
phases,--in the manner that is necessary for its practice, in its wit
and finesse. The affair of the Diamond Necklace, with which all the
world is familiar, is the most magnificent instance of it on record. A
lesser case, involving one of the same names, and playing excellently
upon woman's vanity, illustrates the French practice.

One evening, as Marie Antoinette sat quietly in her _loge_ at the
theatre, the wife of a wealthy tradesman of Paris, sitting nearly
_vis-a-vis_ to the Queen, made great parade of her toilet, and seemed
peculiarly desirous of attracting attention to a pair of splendid
bracelets, gleaming with the chaste contrast of emeralds and diamonds.
She was not without success. A gentleman of elegant mien and graceful
manner presented himself at the door of her _loge_; he delivered a
message from the Queen. Her Majesty had remarked the singular beauty of
the bracelets, and wished to inspect one of them more closely. What
could be more gratifying? In the seventh heaven of delighted vanity,
the tradesman's wife unclasped the bracelet and gave it to the
gentleman, who bowed himself out, and left her--as you have doubtless
divined he would--abundant leisure to learn of her loss.

Early the next morning, however, an officer from the department of
police called at this lady's house. The night before, a thief had been
arrested leaving the theatre, and on his person were found many
valuables,--among others, a splendid bracelet. Being penitent, he had
told, to the best of his recollection, to whom the articles belonged,
and the lady called upon was indicated as the owner of the bracelet. If
Madame possessed the mate to this singular bracelet, it was only
necessary to intrust it to the officer, and, if it were found to
compare properly with the other, both would be immediately sent home,
and Madame would have only a trifling fee to pay. The bracelet was
given willingly, and, with the stiff courtesy inseparable from official
dignity, the officer took his leave, and at the next _cafe_ joined his
fellow, the gentleman of elegant mien and graceful manner. The
bracelets were not found to compare properly, and therefore were not

These faces are true to the nationality,--all over American. They are
much above the average in expression,--lighted with clear, well-opened
eyes, intelligent and perceptive; most have an air of business
frankness well calculated to deceive. There is one capacious,
thought-freighted forehead. All are young.

No human observer will fail to be painfully struck with the number of
boys whose faces are here exposed. There are boys of every age, from
five to fifteen, and of every possible description, good, bad, and
indifferent. The stubborn and irreclaimable imp of evil nature peers
out sullenly and doggedly, or sparkles on you a pair of small
snake-eyes, fruitful of deceit and cunning. The better boy, easily
moved, that might become anything, mercurial and volatile, "most
ignorant of what he's most assured," reflects on his face the pleasure
of having his picture taken, and smiles good-humoredly, standing in
this worst of pillories, to be pelted along a lifetime with
unforgetting and unforgiving glances. With many of these boys, this is
a family matter. Here are five brothers, the youngest very young
indeed,--and the father not very old. One of the brothers,
bright-looking as boy can be, is a young Jack Sheppard, and has already
broken jail five times. Many are trained by old burglars to be put
through windows where men cannot go, and open doors. In a row of
second-class pickpockets, nearly all boys, there is observable on
almost every face some expression of concern, and one instinctively
thanks Heaven that the boys appear to be frightened. Yet, after all,
perhaps it is hardly worth while. The reform of boy thieves was first
agitated a long while since, and we have yet to hear of some
encouraging result. The earliest direct attempt we know of, with all
the old argument, _pro_ and _con_, is thus given in Sadi's "Gulistan."

Among a gang of thieves, who had been very hardly taken, "there
happened to be a lad whose rising bloom of youth was just matured. One
of the viziers kissed the foot of the king's throne, assumed a look of
intercession, and said,--

"'This lad has not yet even reaped the pleasures of youth; my
expectation, from your Majesty's inherent generosity, is, that, by
granting his life, you would confer an obligation on your servant.'

"The king frowned at this request, and said,--

"'The light of the righteous does not influence one of vicious origin;
instruction to the worthless is a walnut on a dome, that rolls off. To


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