The Complete PG Works of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr. (The Physician and Poet)
Part 24 out of 51
exhausting, so practised, so profoundly suspicious, that the young
master felt in an instant that he had an enemy in this handsome
youth,--an enemy, too, who was like to be subtle and dangerous.
Mr. Bernard had made up his mind, that, come what might, enemy or no
enemy, live or die, he would solve the mystery of Elsie Venner,
sooner or later. He was not a man to be frightened out of his
resolution by a scowl, or a stiletto, or any unknown means of
mischief, of which a whole armory was hinted at in that passing look
Dick Venner had given him. Indeed, like most adventurous young
persons, he found a kind of charm in feeling that there might be some
dangers in the way of his investigations. Some rumors which had
reached him about the supposed suitor of Elsie Venner, who was
thought to be a desperate kind of fellow, and whom some believed to
be an unscrupulous adventurer, added a curious, romantic kind of
interest to the course of physiological and psychological inquiries
he was about instituting.
The afternoon on The Mountain was still upper-most in his mind. Of
course he knew the common stories--about fascination. He had once
been himself an eyewitness of the charming of a small bird by one of
our common harmless serpents. Whether a human being could be reached
by this subtile agency, he had been skeptical, notwithstanding the
mysterious relation generally felt to exist between man and this
creature, "cursed above all cattle and above every beast of the
field,"--a relation which some interpret as the fruit of the curse,
and others hold to be so instinctive that this animal has been for
that reason adopted as the natural symbol of evil. There was another
solution, however, supplied him by his professional reading. The
curious work of Mr. Braid of Manchester had made him familiar with
the phenomena of a state allied to that produced by animal magnetism,
and called by that writer by the name of hypnotism. He found, by
referring to his note-book, the statement was, that, by fixing the
eyes on a bright object so placed as to produce a strain upon the
eyes and eyelids, and to maintain a steady fixed stare, there comes
on in a few seconds a very singular condition, characterized by
muscular rigidity and inability to move, with a strange exaltation of
most of the senses, and generally a closure of the eyelids,--this
condition being followed by torpor.
Now this statement of Mr. Braid's, well known to the scientific
world, and the truth of which had been confirmed by Mr. Bernard in
certain experiments he had instituted, as it has been by many other
experimenters, went far to explain the strange impressions, of which,
waking or dreaming, he had certainly been the subject. His nervous
system had been in a high state of exaltation at the time. He
remembered how the little noises that made rings of sound in the
silence of the woods, like pebbles dropped in still waters, had
reached his inner consciousness. He remembered that singular
sensation in the roots of the hair, when he came on the traces of the
girl's presence, reminding him of a line in a certain poem which he
had read lately with a new and peculiar interest. He even recalled a
curious evidence of exalted sensibility and irritability, in the
twitching of the minute muscles of the internal ear at every
unexpected sound, producing an odd little snap in the middle of the
head, which proved to him that he was getting very nervous.
The next thing was to find out whether it were possible that the
venomous creature's eyes should have served the purpose of Mr.
Braid's "bright object" held very close to the person experimented
on, or whether they had any special power which could be made the
subject of exact observation.
For this purpose Mr. Bernard considered it necessary to get a live
crotalus or two into his possession, if this were possible. On
inquiry, he found that there was a certain family living far up the
mountainside, not a mile from the ledge, the members of which were
said to have taken these creatures occasionally, and not to be in any
danger, or at least in any fear, of being injured by them. He
applied to these people, and offered a reward sufficient to set them
at work to capture some of these animals, if such a thing were
A few days after this, a dark, gypsy-looking woman presented herself
at his door. She held up her apron as if it contained something
precious in the bag she made with it.
"Y' wanted some rattlers," said the woman. "Here they be."
She opened her apron and showed a coil of rattlesnakes lying very
peaceably in its fold. They lifted their heads up, as if they wanted
to see what was going on, but showed no sign of anger.
"Are you crazy?" said Mr. Bernard. "You're dead in an hour, if one
of those creatures strikes you!"
He drew back a little, as he spoke; it might be simple disgust; it
might be fear; it might be what we call antipathy, which is different
from either, and which will sometimes show itself in paleness, and
even faintness, produced by objects perfectly harmless and not in
themselves offensive to any sense.
"Lord bless you," said the woman, "rattlers never touches our folks.
I'd jest 'z lieves handle them creaturs as so many striped snakes."
So saying, she put their heads down with her hand, and packed them
together in her apron as if they had been bits of cart-rope.
Mr. Bernard had never heard of the power, or, at least, the belief in
the possession of a power by certain persons, which enables them to
handle these frightful reptiles with perfect impunity. The fact,
however, is well known to others, and more especially to a very
distinguished Professor in one of the leading institutions of the
great city of the land, whose experiences in the neighborhood of
Graylock, as he will doubtless inform the curious, were very much
like those of the young master.
Mr. Bernard had a wired cage ready for his formidable captives, and
studied their habits and expression with a strange sort of interest.
What did the Creator mean to signify, when he made such shapes of
horror, and, as if he had doubly cursed this envenomed wretch, had
set a mark upon him and sent him forth the Cain of the brotherhood of
serpents? It was a very curious fact that the first train of
thoughts Mr. Bernard's small menagerie suggested to him was the
grave, though somewhat worn, subject of the origin of evil. There is
now to be seen in a tall glass jar, in the Museum of Comparative
Anatomy at Cantabridge in the territory of the Massachusetts, a huge
crotalus, of a species which grows to more frightful dimensions than
our own, under the hotter skies of South America. Look at it, ye who
would know what is the tolerance, the freedom from prejudice, which
can suffer such an incarnation of all that is devilish to lie
unharmed in the cradle of Nature! Learn, too, that there are many
things in this world which we are warned to shun, and are even
suffered to slay, if need be, but which we must not hate, unless we
would hate what God loves and cares for.
Whatever fascination the creature might exercise in his native
haunts, Mr. Bernard found himself not in the least nervous or
affected in any way while looking at his caged reptiles. When their
cage was shaken, they would lift their heads and spring their
rattles; but the sound was by no means so formidable to listen to as
when it reverberated among the chasms of the echoing rocks. The
expression of the creatures was watchful, still, grave, passionless,
fate-like, suggesting a cold malignity which seemed to be waiting for
its opportunity. Their awful, deep-cut mouths were sternly closed
over the long hollow fangs which rested their roots against the
swollen poison-gland, where the venom had been hoarding up ever since
the last stroke had emptied it. They never winked, for ophidians
have no movable eyelids, but kept up that awful fixed stare which
made the two unwinking gladiators the survivors of twenty pairs
matched by one of the Roman Emperors, as Pliny tells us, in his
"Natural History." Their eyes did not flash, but shone with a cold
still light. They were of a pale-golden or straw color, horrible to
look into, with their stony calmness, their pitiless indifference,
hardly enlivened by the almost imperceptible vertical slit of the
pupil, through which Death seemed to be looking out like the archer
behind the long narrow loop-hole in a blank turret-wall. On the
whole, the caged reptiles, horrid as they were, hardly matched his
recollections of what he had seen or dreamed he save at the cavern.
These looked dangerous enough, but yet quiet. A treacherous
stillness, however,--as the unfortunate New York physician found,
when he put his foot out to wake up the torpid creature, and
instantly the fang flashed through his boot, carrying the poison into
his blood, and death with it.
Mr. Bernard kept these strange creatures, and watched all their
habits with a natural curiosity. In any collection of animals the
venomous beasts are looked at with the greatest interest, just as the
greatest villains are most run after by the unknown public. Nobody
troubles himself for a common striped snake or a petty thief, but a
cobra or a wife-killer is a centre of attraction to all eyes. These
captives did very little to earn their living, but, on the other
hand, their living was not expensive, their diet being nothing but
air, au naturel. Months and months these creatures will live and
seem to thrive well enough, as any showman who has then in his
menagerie will testify, though they never touch anything to eat or
In the mean time Mr. Bernard had become very curious about a class of
subjects not treated of in any detail in those text-books accessible
in most country-towns, to the exclusion of the more special
treatises, and especially of the rare and ancient works found on the
shelves of the larger city-libraries. He was on a visit to old Dr.
Kittredge one day, having been asked by him to call in for a few
moments as soon as convenient. The Doctor smiled good-humoredly when
he asked him if he had an extensive collection of medical works.
"Why, no," said the old Doctor, "I haven't got a great many printed
books; and what I have I don't read quite as often as I might, I'm
afraid. I read and studied in the time of it, when I was in the
midst of the young men who were all at work with their books; but
it's a mighty hard matter, when you go off alone into the country, to
keep up with all that's going on in the Societies and the Colleges.
I'll tell you, though, Mr. Langdon, when a man that's once started
right lives among sick folks for five-and-thirty years, as I've done,
if he has n't got a library of five-and-thirty volumes bound up in
his head at the end of that time, he'd better stop driving round and
sell his horse and sulky. I know the bigger part of the families
within a dozen miles' ride. I know the families that have a way of
living through everything, and I know the other set that have the
trick of dying without any kind of reason for it. I know the years
when the fevers and dysenteries are in earnest, and when they're only
making believe. I know the folks that think they're dying as soon as
they're sick, and the folks that never find out they 're sick till
they're dead. I don't want to undervalue your science, Mr. Langdon.
There are things I never learned, because they came in after my day,
and I am very glad to send my patients to those that do know them,
when I am at fault; but I know these people about here, fathers and
mothers, and children and grandchildren, so as all the science in the
world can't know them, without it takes time about it, and sees them
grow up and grow old, and how the wear and tear of life comes to
them. You can't tell a horse by driving him once, Mr. Langdon, nor a
patient by talking half an hour with him."
"Do you know much about the Veneer family?" said Mr. Bernard, in a
natural way enough, the Doctor's talk having suggested the question.
The Doctor lifted his head with his accustomed movement, so as to
command the young man through his spectacles.
"I know all the families of this place and its neighborhood," he
"We have the young lady studying with us at the Institute," said Mr.
"I know it," the Doctor answered. "Is she a good scholar?"
All this time the Doctor's eyes were fixed steadily on Mr. Bernard,
looking through the glasses.
"She is a good scholar enough, but I don't know what to make of her.
Sometimes I think she is a little out of her head. Her father,
I believe, is sensible enough;--what sort of a woman was her mother,
Doctor?---I suppose, of course, you remember all about her?"
"Yes, I knew her mother. She was a very lovely young woman."--The
Doctor put his hand to his forehead and drew a long breath.--"What
is there you notice out of the way about Elsie Venner?"
"A good many things," the master answered. "She shuns all the other
girls. She is getting a strange influence over my fellow-teacher, a
young lady,--you know Miss Helen Darley, perhaps? I am afraid this
girl will kill her. I never saw or heard of anything like it, in
prose at least;--do you remember much of Coleridge's Poems, Doctor?"
The good old Doctor had to plead a negative.
"Well, no matter. Elsie would have been burned for a witch in old
times. I have seen the girl look at Miss Darley when she had not the
least idea of it, and all at once I would see her grow pale and
moist, and sigh, and move round uneasily, and turn towards Elsie, and
perhaps get up and go to her, or else have slight spasmodic movements
that looked like hysterics;--do you believe in the evil eye, Doctor?"
"Mr. Langdon," the Doctor said, solemnly, "there are strange things
about Elsie Veneer,--very strange things. This was what I wanted to
speak to you about. Let me advise you all to be very patient with
the girl, but also very careful. Her love is not to be desired, and
"--he spoke in a lower tone--"her hate is to be dreaded. Do you
think she has any special fancy for anybody else in the school
besides Miss Darley?"
Mr. Bernard could not stand the old Doctor's spectacled eyes without
betraying a little of the feeling natural to a young man to whom a
home question involving a possible sentiment is put suddenly.
"I have suspected," he said,--"I have had a kind of feeling--that
she--Well, come, Doctor,--I don't know that there 's any use in
disguising the matter,--I have thought Elsie Veneer had rather a
fancy for somebody else,--I mean myself."
There was something so becoming in the blush with which the young man
made this confession, and so manly, too, in the tone with which he
spoke, so remote from any shallow vanity, such as young men who are
incapable of love are apt to feel, when some loose tendril of a
woman's fancy which a chance wind has blown against them twines about
them for the want of anything better, that the old Doctor looked at
him admiringly, and could not help thinking that it was no wonder any
young girl should be pleased with him.
"You are a man of nerve, Mr. Langdon?" said the Doctor.
"I thought so till very lately," he replied. "I am not easily
frightened, but I don't know but I might be bewitched or magnetized,
or whatever it is when one is tied up and cannot move. I think I can
find nerve enough, however, if there is any special use you want to
put it to."
"Let me ask you one more question, Mr. Langdon. Do you find yourself
disposed to take a special interest in Elsie,--to fall in love with
her, in a word? Pardon me, for I do not ask from curiosity, but a
much more serious motive."
"Elsie interests me," said the young man, "interests me strangely.
She has a wild flavor in her character which is wholly different from
that of any human creature I ever saw. She has marks of genius,
poetic or dramatic,--I hardly know which. She read a passage from
Keats's 'Lamia' the other day, in the schoolroom, in such a way that
I declare to you I thought some of the girls would faint or go into
fits. Miss Darley got up and left the room, trembling all over.
Then, I pity her, she is so lonely. The girls are afraid of her, and
she seems to have either a dislike or a fear of them. They have all
sorts of painful stories about her. They give her a name which no
human creature ought to bear. They say she hides a mark on her neck
by always wearing a necklace. She is very graceful, you know, and
they will have it that she can twist herself into all sorts of
shapes, or tie herself in a knot, if she wants to. There is not one
of them that will look her in the eyes. I pity the poor girl; but,
Doctor, I do not love her. I would risk my life for her, if it would
do her any good, but it would be in cold blood. If her hand touches
mine, it is not a thrill of passion I feel running through me, but a
very different emotion. Oh, Doctor! there must be something in that
creature's blood which has killed the humanity in her. God only
knows the cause that has blighted such a soul in so beautiful a body!
No, Doctor, I do not love the girl."
"Mr. Langdon," said the Doctor, "you are young, and I am old. Let me
talk to you with an old man's privilege, as an adviser. You have
come to this country-town without suspicion, and you are moving in
the midst of perils. There are things which I must not tell you now;
but I may warn you. Keep your eyes open and your heart shut. If,
through pitying that girl, you ever come to love her, you are lost.
If you deal carelessly with her, beware! This is not all. There are
other eyes on you beside Elsie Venner's. Do you go armed?"
"I do!" said Mr. Bernard,--and he "put his hands up" in the shape of
fists, in such a way as to show that he was master of the natural
weapons at any rate.
The Doctor could not help smiling. But his face fell in an instant.
"You may want something more than those tools to work with. Come
with me into my sanctum."
The Doctor led Mr. Bernard into a small room opening out of the
study. It was a place such as anybody but a medical man would shiver
to enter. There was the usual tall box with its bleached, rattling
tenant; there were jars in rows where "interesting cases" outlived
the grief of widows and heirs in alcoholic immortality,--for your
"preparation-jar" is the true "monumentum aere perennius;" there were
various semi-possibilities of minute dimensions and unpromising
developments; there were shining instruments of evil aspect, and grim
plates on the walls, and on one shelf by itself, accursed and apart,
coiled in a long cylinder of spirit, a huge crotalus, rough-scaled,
flatheaded, variegated with dull bands, one of which partially
encircled the neck like a collar,--an awful wretch to look upon, with
murder written all over him in horrid hieroglyphics. Mr. Bernard's
look was riveted on this creature,--not fascinated certainly, for its
eyes looked like white beads, being clouded by the action of the
spirits in which it had been long kept,--but fixed by some indefinite
sense of the renewal of a previous impression;--everybody knows the
feeling, with its suggestion of some past state of existence. There
was a scrap of paper on the jar, with something written on it. He
was reaching up to read it when the Doctor touched him lightly.
"Look here, Mr. Langdon!" he said, with a certain vivacity of manner,
as if wishing to call away his attention,--"this is my armory."
The Doctor threw open the door of a small cabinet, where were
disposed in artistic patterns various weapons of offence and
defence,--for he was a virtuoso in his way, and by the side of the
implements of the art of healing had pleased himself with displaying
a collection of those other instruments, the use of which renders the
"See which of these weapons you would like best to carry about you,"
said the Doctor.
Mr. Bernard laughed, and looked at the Doctor as if he half doubted
whether he was in earnest.
"This looks dangerous enough," he said,--"for the man who carries it,
He took down one of the prohibited Spanish daggers or knives which a
traveller may, occasionally get hold of and smuggle out of the
country. The blade was broad, trowel-like, but the point drawn out
several inches, so as to look like a skewer.
"This must be a jealous bull-fighter's weapon," he said, and put it
back in its place.
Then he took down an ancient-looking broad-bladed dagger, with a
complex aspect about it, as if it had some kind of mechanism
connected with it.
"Take care!" said the Doctor; "there is a trick to that dagger."
He took it and touched a spring. The dagger split suddenly into
three blades, as when one separates the forefinger and the ring-
finger from the middle one. The outside blades were sharp on their
outer edge. The stab was to be made with the dagger shut, then the
spring touched and the split blades withdrawn.
Mr. Bernard replaced it, saying, that it would have served for side-
arm to old Suwarrow, who told his men to work their bayonets back and
forward when they pinned a Turk, but to wriggle them about in the
wound when they stabbed a Frenchman.
"Here," said the Doctor, "this is the thing you want."
He took down a much more modern and familiar implement,--a small,
beautifully finished revolver.
"I want you to carry this," he said; "and more than that, I want you
to practise with it often, as for amusement, but so that it maybe
seen and understood that you are apt to have a pistol about you.
Pistol-shooting is pleasant sport enough, and there is no reason why
you should not practise it like other young fellows. And now," the
Doctor said, "I have one other, weapon to give you."
He took a small piece of parchment and shook a white powder into it
from one of his medicine-jars. The jar was marked with the name of a
mineral salt, of a nature to have been serviceable in case of sudden
illness in the time of the Borgias. The Doctor folded the parchment
carefully, and marked the Latin name of the powder upon it.
"Here," he said, handing it to Mr. Bernard, "you see what it is, and
you know what service it can render. Keep these two protectors about
your person day and night; they will not harm you, and you may want
one or the other or both before you think of it."
Mr. Bernard thought it was very odd, and not very old-gentlemanlike,
to be fitting him out for treason, stratagem, and spoils, in this
way. There was no harm, however, in carrying a doctor's powder in
his pocket, or in amusing himself with shooting at a mark, as he had
often done before. If the old gentleman had these fancies, it was as
well to humor him.
So he thanked old Doctor Kittredge, and shook his hand warmly as he
"The fellow's hand did not tremble, nor his color change," the Doctor
said, as he watched him walking away. "He is one of the right sort."
Mr. Langdon to the Professor.
MY DEAR PROFESSOR,
You were kind enough to promise me that you would assist me in any
professional or scientific investigations in which I might become
engaged. I have of late become deeply interested in a class of
subjects which present peculiar difficulty, and I must exercise the
privilege of questioning you on some points upon which I desire
information I cannot otherwise obtain. I would not trouble you, if I
could find any person or books competent to enlighten me on some of
these singular matters which have so excited me. The leading doctor
here is a shrewd, sensible man, but not versed in the curiosities of
I proceed, with your leave, to ask a considerable number of
questions,--hoping to get answers to some of them, at least.
Is there any evidence that human beings can be infected or wrought
upon by poisons, or otherwise, so that they shall manifest any of the
peculiarities belonging to beings of a lower nature? Can such
peculiarities--be transmitted by inheritance? Is there anything to
countenance the stories, long and widely current, about the "evil
eye"? or is it a mere fancy that such a power belongs to any human
being? Have you any personal experience as to the power of
fascination said to be exercised by certain animals? What can you
make of those circumstantial statements we have seen in the papers,
of children forming mysterious friendships with ophidians of
different species, sharing their food with them, and seeming to be
under some subtile influence exercised by those creatures? Have you
read, critically, Coleridge's poem of "Christabel," and Keats's
"Lamia"?--If so, can you understand them, or find any physiological
foundation for the story of either?
There is another set of questions of a different nature I should like
to ask, but it is hardly fair to put so many on a single sheet.
There is one, however, you must answer. Do you think there may be
predispositions, inherited or ingrafted, but at any rate
constitutional, which shall take out certain apparently voluntary
determinations from the control of the will, and leave them as free
from moral responsibility as the instincts of the lower animals? Do
you not think there may be a crime which is not a sin?
Pardon me, my dear Sir, for troubling you with such a list of notes
of interrogation. There are some very strange things going on here
in this place, country-town as it is. Country-life is apt to be
dull; but when it once gets going, it beats the city hollow, because
it gives its whole mind to what it is about. These rural sinners
make terrible work with the middle of the Decalogue, when they get
started. However, I hope I shall live through my year's school-
keeping without catastrophes, though there are queer doings about me
which puzzle me and might scare some people. If anything should
happen, you will be one of the first to hear of it, no doubt. But I
trust not to help out the editors of the "Rockland Weekly Universe"
with an obituary of the late lamented, who signed himself in life
Your friend and pupil,
BERNARD C. LANGDON.
The Professor to Mr. Langdon.
MY DEAR MR. LANGDON,
I do not wonder that you find no answer from your country friends to
the curious questions you put. They belong to that middle region
between science and poetry which sensible men, as they are called,
are very shy of meddling with. Some people think that truth and gold
are always to be washed for; but the wiser sort are of opinion, that,
unless there are so many grains to the peck of sand or nonsense
respectively, it does not pay to wash for either, so long as one can
find anything else to do. I don't doubt there is some truth in the
phenomena of animal magnetism, for instance; but when you ask me to
cradle for it, I tell you that the hysteric girls cheat so, and the
professionals are such a set of pickpockets, that I can do something
better than hunt for the grains of truth among their tricks and lies.
Do you remember what I used to say in my lectures?---or were you
asleep just then, or cutting your initials on the rail? (You see I
can ask questions, my young friend.) Leverage is everything,--was
what I used to say;--don't begin to pry till you have got the long
arm on your side.
To please you, and satisfy your doubts as far as possible, I have
looked into the old books,--into Schenckius and Turner and Kenelm.
Digby and the rest, where I have found plenty of curious stories
which you must take for what they are worth.
Your first question I can answer in the affirmative upon pretty good
authority. Mizaldus tells, in his "Memorabilia," the well-known
story of the girl fed on poisons, who was sent by the king of the
Indies to Alexander the Great. "When Aristotle saw her eyes
sparkling and snapping like those of serpents, he said, 'Look out for
yourself, Alexander! this is a dangerous companion for you!'"--and
sure enough, the young lady proved to be a very unsafe person to her
friends. Cardanus gets a story from Avicenna, of a certain man bit
by a serpent, who recovered of his bite, the snake dying therefrom.
This man afterwards had a daughter whom venomous serpents could not
harm, though she had a fatal power over them.
I suppose you may remember the statements of old authors about
Zycanthropy, the disease in which men took on the nature and aspect
of wolves. Actius and Paulus, both men of authority, describe it.
Altomaris gives a horrid case; and Fincelius mentions one occurring
as late as 1541, the subject of which was captured, still insisting
that he was a wolf, only that the hair of his hide was turned in!
Versipelles, it may be remembered, was the Latin name for these
As for the cases where rabid persons have barked and bit like dogs,
there are plenty of such on record.
More singular, or at least more rare, is the account given by Andreas
Baccius, of a man who was struck in the hand by a cock, with his
beak, and who died on the third day thereafter, looking for all the
world like a fighting-cock, to the great horror of the spectators.
As to impressions transmitted at a very early period of existence,
every one knows the story of King James's fear of a naked sword, and
the way it is accounted for. Sir Kenelm Digby says,--"I remember
when he dubbed me Knight, in the ceremony of putting the point of a
naked sword upon my shoulder, he could not endure to look upon it,
but turned his face another way, insomuch, that, in lieu of touching
my shoulder, he had almost thrust the point into my eyes, had not the
Duke of Buckingham guided his hand aright." It is he, too, who tells
the story of the mulberry mark upon the neck of a certain lady of
high condition, which "every year, to mulberry season, did swell,
grow big, and itch." And Gaffarel mentions the case of a girl born
with the figure of a fish on one of her limbs, of which the wonder
was, that, when the girl did eat fish, this mark put her to sensible
pain. But there is no end to cases of this kind, and I could give
some of recent date, if necessary, lending a certain plausibility at
least to the doctrine of transmitted impressions.
I never saw a distinct case of evil eye, though I have seen eyes so
bad that they might produce strange effects on very sensitive
natures. But the belief in it under various names, fascination,
jettcztura, etc., is so permanent and universal, from Egypt to Italy,
and from the days of Solomon to those of Ferdinand of Naples, that
there must be some peculiarity, to say the least, on which the
opinion is based. There is very strong evidence that some such power
is exercised by certain of the lower animals. Thus, it is stated on
good authority that "almost every animal becomes panic-struck at the
sight of the rattlesnake, and seems at once deprived of the power of
motion, or the exercise of its usual instinct of self-preservation."
Other serpents seem to share this power of fascination, as the Cobra
and the Buccephalus Capensis.
Some think that it is nothing but fright; others attribute it to the
"strange powers that lie
Within the magic circle of the eye,"--
as Churchill said, speaking of Garrick.
You ask me about those mysterious and frightful intimacies between
children and serpents, of which so many instances have been recorded.
I am sure I cannot tell what to make of them. I have seen several
such accounts in recent papers, but here is one published in the
seventeenth century, which is as striking as any of the more modern
"Mr. Herbert Tones of Monmouth, when he was a little Boy, was used to
eat his Milk in a Garden in the Morning, and was no sooner there, but
a large Snake always came, and eat out of the Dish with him, and did
so for a considerable time, till one Morning, he striking the Snake
on the Head, it hissed at him. Upon which he told his Mother that
the Baby (for so he call'd it) cry'd Hiss at him. His Mother had it
kill'd, which occasioned him a great Fit of Sickness, and 'twas
thought would have dy'd, but did recover."
There was likewise one "William Writtle, condemned at Maidston
Assizes for a double murder, told a Minister that was with him after
he was condemned, that his mother told him, that when he was a Child,
there crept always to him a Snake, wherever she laid him. Sometimes
she would convey him up Stairs, and leave him never so little, she
should be sure to find a Snake in the Cradle with him, but never
perceived it did him any harm."
One of the most striking alleged facts connected with the mysterious
relation existing between the serpent and-the human species is the
influence which the poison of the Crotulus, taken internally, seemed
to produce over the moral faculties, in the experiments instituted by
Dr. Hering at Surinam. There is something frightful in the
disposition of certain ophidians, as the whipsnake, which darts at
the eyes of cattle without any apparent provocation or other motive.
It is natural enough that the evil principle should have been
represented in the form of a serpent, but it is strange to think of
introducing it into a human being like cow-pox by vaccination.
You know all about the Psylli, or ancient serpent tamers, I suppose.
Savary gives an account of the modern serpent-tamers in his "Letters
on Egypt." These modern jugglers are in the habit of making the
venomous Naja counterfeit death, lying out straight and stiff,
changing it into a rod, as the ancient magicians did with their
serpents, (probably the same animal,) in the time of Moses.
I am afraid I cannot throw much light on "Christabel" or "Lamia " by
any criticism I can offer. Geraldine, in the former, seems to be
simply a malignant witch-woman with the evil eye, but with no
absolute ophidian relationship. Lamia is a serpent transformed by
magic into a woman. The idea of both is mythological, and not in any
sense physiological. Some women unquestionably suggest the image of
serpents; men rarely or never. I have been struck, like many
others, with the ophidian head and eye of the famous Rachel.
Your question about inherited predispositions, as limiting the sphere
of the will, and, consequently, of moral accountability, opens a very
wide range of speculation. I can give you only a brief abstract of
my own opinions on this delicate and difficult subject. Crime and
sin, being the preserves of two great organized interests, have been
guarded against all reforming poachers with as great jealousy as the
Royal Forests. It is so easy to hang a troublesome fellow! It is so
much simpler to consign a soul to perdition, or say masses, for
money, to save it, than to take the blame on ourselves for letting it
grow up in neglect and run to ruin for want of humanizing influences!
They hung poor, crazy Bellingham for shooting Mr. Perceval. The
ordinary of Newgate preached to women who were to swing at Tyburn for
a petty theft as if they were worse than other people,--just as
though he would not have been a pickpocket or shoplifter, himself, if
he had been born in a den of thieves and bred up to steal or starve!
The English law never began to get hold of the idea that a crime was
not necessarily a sin, till Hadfield, who thought he was the Saviour
of mankind, was tried for shooting at George the Third;--lucky for
him that he did not hit his Majesty!
It is very singular that we recognize all the bodily defects that
unfit a man for military service, and all the intellectual ones that
limit his range of thought, but always talk at him as if all his
moral powers were perfect. I suppose we must punish evil-doers as we
extirpate vermin; but I don't know that we have any more right to
judge them than we have to judge rats and mice, which are just as
good as cats and weasels, though we think it necessary to treat them
The limitations of human responsibility have never been properly
studied, unless it be by the phrenologists. You know from my lectures
that I consider phrenology, as taught, a pseudo-science, and not a
branch of positive knowledge; but, for all that, we owe it an immense
debt. It has melted the world's conscience in its crucible, and cast
it in a new mould, with features less like those of Moloch and more
like those of humanity. If it has failed to demonstrate its system
of special correspondences, it has proved that there are fixed
relations between organization and mind and character. It has
brought out that great doctrine of moral insanity, which has done
more to make men charitable and soften legal and theological
barbarism than any one doctrine that I can think of since the message
of peace and good-will to men.
Automatic action in the moral world; the reflex movement which seems
to be self-determination, and has been hanged and howled at as such
(metaphorically) for nobody knows how many centuries: until somebody
shall study this as Marshall Hall has studied reflex nervous action
in the bodily system, I would not give much for men's judgments of
each others' characters. Shut up the robber and the defaulter, we
must. But what if your oldest boy had been stolen from his cradle
and bred in a North-Street cellar? What if you are drinking a little
too much wine and smoking a little too much tobacco, and your son
takes after you, and so your poor grandson's brain being a little
injured in physical texture, he loses the fine moral sense on which
you pride yourself, and doesn't see the difference between signing
another man's name to a draft and his own?
I suppose the study of automatic action in the moral world (you see
what I mean through the apparent contradiction of terms) may be a
dangerous one in the view of many people. It is liable to abuse, no
doubt. People are always glad to, get hold of anything which limits
their responsibility. But remember that our moral estimates come
down to us from ancestors who hanged children for stealing forty
shillings' worth, and sent their souls to perdition for the sin of
being born,--who punished the unfortunate families of suicides, and
in their eagerness for justice executed one innocent person every
three years, on the average, as Sir James Mackintosh tells us.
I do not know in what shape the practical question may present itself
to you; but I will tell you my rule in life, and I think you will
find it a good one. Treat bad men exactly as if they were insane.
They are in-sane, out of health, morally. Reason, which is food to
sound minds, is not tolerated, still less assimilated, unless
administered with the greatest caution; perhaps, not at all. Avoid
collision with them, so far as you honorably can; keep your temper,
if you can,--for one angry man is as good as another; restrain them
from violence, promptly, completely, and with the least possible
injury, just as in the case of maniacs,--and when you have got rid of
them, or got them tied hand and foot so that they can do no mischief,
sit down and contemplate them charitably, remembering that nine
tenths of their' perversity comes from outside influences, drunken
ancestors, abuse in childhood, bad company, from which you have
happily been preserved, and for some of which you, as a member of
society, may be fractionally responsible. I think also that there
are special influences which work in the brood lake ferments, and I
have a suspicion that some of those curious old stories I cited may
have more recent parallels. Have you ever met with any cases which
admitted of a solution like that which I have mentioned?
Yours very truly,
Bernard Langdon to Philip Staples.
MY DEAR PHILIP,--
I have been for some months established in this place, turning the
main crank of the machinery for the manufactory of accomplishments
superintended by, or rather worked to the profit of, a certain Mr.
Silas Peckham. He is a poor wretch, with a little thin fishy blood
in his body, lean and flat, long-armed and large-handed, thick-
jointed and thin-muscled,--you know those unwholesome, weak-eyed,
half-fed creatures, that look not fit to be round among live folks,
and yet not quite dead enough to bury. If you ever hear of my being
in court to answer to a charge of assault and battery, you may guess
that I have been giving him a thrashing to settle off old scores; for
he is a tyrant, and has come pretty near killing his principal lady-
assistant with overworking her and keeping her out of all decent
Helen Darley is this lady's name,--twenty two or three years old, I
should think,--a very sweet, pale woman,--daughter of the usual
country-clergyman,--thrown on her own resources from an early age,
and the rest: a common story, but an uncommon person,--very. All
conscience and sensibility, I should say,--a cruel worker,--no kind
of regard for herself, seems as fragile and supple as a young willow-
shoot, but try her and you find she has the spring in her of a steel
cross-bow. I am glad I happened to come to this place, if it were
only for her sake. I have saved that girl's life; I am as sure of it
as if I had pulled her out of the fire or water.
Of course I'm in love with her, you say,--we always love those whom
we have benefited; "saved her life,--her love was the reward of his
devotion," etc., etc., as in a regular set novel. In love, Philip?
Well, about that,--I love Helen Darley--very much: there is hardly
anybody I love so well. What a noble creature she is! One of those
that just go right on, do their own work and everybody else's,
killing themselves inch by inch without ever thinking about it,--
singing and dancing at their toil when they begin, worn and saddened
after a while, but pressing steadily on, tottering by and by, and
catching at the rail by the way-side to help them lift one foot
before the other, and at last falling, face down, arms stretched
Philip, my boy, do you know I am the sort of man that locks his door
sometimes and cries his heart out of his eyes,--that can sob like a
woman and not be ashamed of it? I come of fighting-blood on one
side, you know; I think I could be savage on occasion. But I am
tender,--more and more tender as I come into my fulness of manhood.
I don't like to strike a man, (laugh, if you like,--I know I hit hard
when I do strike,)--but what I can't stand is the sight of these
poor, patient, toiling women, who never find out in this life how
good they are, and never know what it is to be told they are angels
while they still wear the pleasing incumbrances of humanity. I don't
know what to make of these cases. To think that a woman is never to
be a woman again, whatever she may come to as an unsexed angel,--and
that she should die unloved! Why does not somebody come and carry
off this noble woman, waiting here all ready to make a man happy?
Philip, do you know the pathos there is in the eyes of unsought
women, oppressed with the burden of an inner life unshared? I can
see into them now as I could not in those 'earlier days. I sometimes
think their pupils dilate on purpose to let my consciousness glide
through them; indeed, I dread them, I come so close to the nerve of
the soul itself in these momentary intimacies. You used to tell me I
was a Turk,--that my heart was full of pigeon-holes, with
accommodations inside for a whole flock of doves. I don't know but I
am still as Youngish as ever in my ways,--Brigham-Youngish, I mean;
at any rate, T. always want to give a little love to all the poor
things that cannot have a whole man to themselves. If they would
only be contented with a little!
Here now are two girls in this school where I am teaching. One of
them, Rosa M., is not more than sixteen years old, I think they say;
but Nature has forced her into a tropical luxuriance of beauty, as if
it were July with her, instead of May. I suppose it is all natural
enough that this girl should like a young man's attention, even if he
were a grave schoolmaster; but the eloquence of this young thing's
look is unmistakable,--and yet she does not know the language it is
talking,--they none of them do; and there is where a good many poor
creatures of our good-for-nothing sex are mistaken. There is no
danger of my being rash, but I think this girl will cost somebody his
life yet. She is one of those women men make a quarrel about and
fight to the death for,--the old feral instinct, you know.
Pray, don't think I am lost in conceit, but there is another girl
here who I begin to think looks with a certain kindness on me. Her
name is Elsie V., and she is the only daughter and heiress of an old
family in this place. She is a portentous and almost fearful
creature. If I should tell you all I know and half of what I fancy
about her, you would tell me to get my life insured at once. Yet she
is the most painfully interesting being,--so handsome! so lonely!---
for she has no friends among the girls, and sits apart from them,--
with black hair like the flow of a mountain-brook after a thaw, with
a low-browed, scowling beauty of face, and such eyes as were never
seen before, I really believe, in any human creature.
Philip, I don't know what to say about this Elsie. There is
something about her I have not fathomed. I have conjectures which I
could not utter to any living soul. I dare not even hint the
possibilities which have suggested themselves to me. This I will
say, that I do take the most intense interest in this young person,
an interest much more like pity than love in its common sense. If
what I guess at is true, of all the tragedies of existence I ever
knew this is the saddest, and yet so full of meaning! Do not ask me
any questions,--I have said more than I meant to already; but I am
involved in strange doubts and perplexities,--in dangers too, very
possibly,--and it is a relief just to speak ever so guardedly of them
to an early and faithful friend.
Yours ever, BERNARD.
P. S. I remember you had a copy of Fortunius Licetus' "De Monstris"
among your old books. Can't you lend it to me for a while? I am
curious, and it will amuse me.
OLD SOPHY CALLS ON THE REVEREND DOCTOR.
The two meeting-houses which faced each other like a pair of
fighting-cocks had not flapped their wings or crowed at each other
for a considerable time. The Reverend Mr. Fairweather had been
dyspeptic and low-spirited of late, and was too languid for
controversy. The Reverend Doctor Honeywood had been very busy with
his benevolent associations, and had discoursed chiefly on practical
matters, to the neglect of special doctrinal subjects. His senior
deacon ventured to say to him that some of his people required to be
reminded of the great fundamental doctrine of the worthlessness of
all human efforts and motives. Some of them were altogether too much
pleased with the success of the Temperance Society and the
Association for the Relief of the Poor. There was a pestilent heresy
about, concerning the satisfaction to be derived from a good
conscience, as if, anybody ever did anything which was not to be
hated, loathed, despised, and condemned.
The old minister listened gravely, with an inward smile, and told his
deacon that he would attend to his suggestion. After the deacon had
gone, he tumbled over his manuscripts, until at length he came upon
his first-rate old sermon on "Human Nature." He had read a great
deal of hard theology, and had at last reached that curious state
which is so common in good ministers,--that, namely, in which they
contrive to switch off their logical faculties on the narrow
sidetrack of their technical dogmas, while the great freight-train of
their substantial human qualities keeps in the main highway of
common-sense, in which kindly souls are always found by all who
approach them by their human side.
The Doctor read his sermon with a pleasant, paternal interest: it was
well argued from his premises. Here and there he dashed his pen
through a harsh expression. Now and then he added an explanation or
qualified abroad statement. But his mind was on the logical side-
track, and he followed the chain of reasoning without fairly
perceiving where it would lead him, if he carried it into real life.
He was just touching up the final proposition, when his
granddaughter, Letty, once before referred to, came into the room
with her smiling face and lively movement. Miss Letty or Letitia
Forrester was a city-bred girl of some fifteen or sixteen years old,
who was passing the summer with her grandfather for the sake of
country air and quiet. It was a sensible arrangement; for, having
the promise of figuring as a belle by and by, and being a little
given to dancing, and having a voice which drew a pretty dense circle
around the piano when she sat down to play and sing, it was hard to
keep her from being carried into society before her time, by the mere
force of mutual attraction. Fortunately, she had some quiet as well
as some social tastes, and was willing enough to pass two or three of
the summer months in the country, where she was much better bestowed
than she would have been at one of those watering-places where so
many half-formed girls get prematurely hardened in the vice of self-
Miss Letty was altogether too wholesome, hearty, and high-strung a
young girl to be a model, according to the flat-chested and cachectic
pattern which is the classical type of certain excellent young
females, often the subjects of biographical memoirs. But the old
minister was proud of his granddaughter for all that. She was so
full of life, so graceful, so generous, so vivacious, so ready always
to do all she could for him and for everybody, so perfectly frank in
her avowed delight in the pleasures which this miserable world
offered her in the shape of natural beauty, of poetry, of music, of
companionship, of books, of cheerful cooperation in the tasks of
those about her, that the Reverend Doctor could not find it in his
heart to condemn her because she was deficient in those particular
graces and that signal other-worldliness he had sometimes noticed in
feeble young persons suffering from various chronic diseases which
impaired their vivacity and removed them from the range of
When Letty, therefore, came bounding into the old minister's study,
he glanced up from his manuscript, and, as his eye fell upon her, it
flashed across him that there was nothing so very monstrous and
unnatural about the specimen of congenital perversion he was looking
at, with his features opening into their pleasantest sunshine.
Technically, according to the fifth proposition of the sermon on
Human Nature, very bad, no doubt. Practically, according to the fact
before him, a very pretty piece of the Creator's handiwork, body and
soul. Was it not a conceivable thing that the divine grace might
show itself in different forms in a fresh young girl like Letitia,
and in that poor thing he had visited yesterday, half-grown, half-
colored, in bed for the last year with hip-disease?
Was it to be supposed that this healthy young girl, with life
throbbing all over her, could, without a miracle, be good according
to the invalid pattern and formula?
And yet there were mysteries in human nature which pointed to some
tremendous perversion of its tendencies,--to some profound, radical
vice of moral constitution, native or transmitted, as you will have
it, but positive, at any rate, as the leprosy, breaking out in the
blood of races, guard them ever so carefully. Did he not know the
case of a young lady in Rockland, daughter of one of the first
families in the place, a very beautiful and noble creature to look
at, for whose bringing up nothing had been spared,--a girl who had
had governesses to teach her at the house, who had been indulged
almost too kindly,--a girl whose father had given himself, up to her,
he being himself a pure and high-souled man?--and yet this girl was
accused in whispers of having been on the very verge of committing a
fatal crime; she was an object of fear to all who knew the dark hints
which had been let fall about her, and there were some that believed
--Why, what was this but an instance of the total obliquity and
degeneration of the moral principle? and to what could it be owing,
but to an innate organic tendency?
"Busy, grandpapa?" said Letty, and without waiting for an answer
kissed his cheek with a pair of lips made on purpose for that little
function,--fine, but richly turned out, the corners tucked in with a
finish of pretty dimples, the rose-bud lips of girlhood's June.
The old gentleman looked at his granddaughter. Nature swelled up
from his heart in a wave that sent a glow to his cheek and a sparkle
to his eye. But it is very hard to be interrupted just as we are
winding up a string of propositions with the grand conclusion which
is the statement in brief of all that has gone before: our own
starting-point, into which we have been trying to back our reader or
listener as one backs a, horse into the shafts.
"Video meliora, proboque,--I see the better, and approve it;
deteriora sequor, I follow after the worse; 't is that natural
dislike to what is good, pure, holy, and true, that inrooted
selfishness, totally insensible to the claims of"---
Here the worthy man was interrupted by Miss Letty.
"Do come, if you can, grandpapa," said the young girl; "here is a
poor old black woman wants to see you so much!"
The good minister was as kind-hearted as if he had never groped in
the dust and ashes of those cruel old abstractions which have killed
out so much of the world's life and happiness. "With the heart man
believeth unto righteousness;" a man's love is the measure of his
fitness for good or bad company here or elsewhere. Men are tattooed
with their special beliefs like so many South-Sea Islanders; but a
real human heart, with Divine love in it, beats with the same glow
under all, the patterns of all earth's thousand tribes!
The Doctor sighed, and folded the sermon, and laid the Quarto Cruden
on it. He rose from his desk, and, looking once more at the young
girl's face, forgot his logical conclusions, and said to himself that
she was a little angel,--which was in violent contradiction to the
leading doctrine of his sermon on Human Nature. And so he followed
her out of the study into the wide entry of the old-fashioned
An old black woman sat on the plain oaken settle which humble
visitors waiting to see the minister were wont to occupy. She was
old, but how old it would be very hard to guess. She might be
seventy. She might be ninety. One could not swear she was not a
hundred. Black women remain at a stationary age (to the eyes of
white people, at least) for thirty years. They do not appear to
change during this period any more than so many Trenton trilobites.
Bent up, wrinkled, yellow-eyed, with long upper-lip, projecting jaws,
retreating chin, still meek features, long arms, large flat hands
with uncolored palms and slightly webbed fingers, it was impossible
not to see in this old creature a hint of the gradations by which
life climbs up through the lower natures to the highest human
developments. We cannot tell such old women's ages because we do not
understand the physiognomy of a race so unlike our own. No doubt
they see a great deal in each other's faces that we cannot,--changes
of color and expression as real as our own, blushes and sudden
betrayals of feeling,--just as these two canaries know what their
single notes and short sentences and full song with this or that
variation mean, though it is a mystery to us unplumed mortals.
This particular old black woman was a striking specimen of her class.
Old as she looked, her eye was bright and knowing. She wore a red-
and-yellow turban, which set off her complexion well, and hoops of
gold in her ears, and beads of gold about her neck, and an old
funeral ring upon her finger. She had that touching stillness about
her which belongs to animals that wait to be spoken to and then look
up with a kind of sad humility.
"Why, Sophy!" said the good minister, "is this you?"
She looked up with the still expression on her face. "It's ol'
Sophy," she said.
"Why," said the Doctor, "I did not believe you could walk so far as
this to save the Union. Bring Sophy a glass of wine, Letty. Wine's
good for old folks like Sophy and me, after walking a good way, or
preaching a good while."
The young girl stepped into the back-parlor, where she found the
great pewter flagon in which the wine that was left after each
communion-service was brought to the minister's house. With much
toil she managed to tip it so as to get a couple of glasses filled.
The minister tasted his, and made old Sophy finish hers.
"I wan' to see you 'n' talk wi' you all alone," she said presently.
The minister got up and led the way towards his study. "To be sure,"
he said; he had only waited for her to rest a moment before he asked
her into the library. The young girl took her gently by the arm, and
helped her feeble steps along the passage. When they reached the
study, she smoothed the cushion of a rocking-chair, and made the old
woman sit down in it. Then she tripped lightly away, and left her
alone with the minister.
Old Sophy was a member of the Reverend Doctor Honeywood's church.
She had been put through the necessary confessions in a tolerably
satisfactory manner. To be sure, as her grandfather had been a
cannibal chief, according to the common story, and, at any rate, a
terrible wild savage, and as her mother retained to the last some of
the prejudices of her early education, there was a heathen flavor in
her Christianity which had often scandalized the elder of the
minister's two deacons. But, the good minister had smoothed matters
over: had explained that allowances were to be made for those who had
been long sitting without the gate of Zion,--that, no doubt, a part
of the curse which descended to the children of Ham consisted in
"having the understanding darkened," as well as the skin,--and so had
brought his suspicious senior deacon to tolerate old Sophy as one of
the communion of fellow-sinners.
--Poor things! How little we know the simple notions with which
these rudiments of souls are nourished by the Divine Goodness! Did
not Mrs. Professor come home this very blessed morning with a story
of one of her old black women?
"And how do you feel to-day, Mrs. Robinson?"
"Oh, my dear, I have this singing in my head all the time." (What
doctors call tinnitus aurium.)
"She 's got a cold in the head," said old Mrs. Rider.
"Oh, no, my dear! Whatever I'm thinking about, it's all this
singing, this music. When I'm thinking of the dear Redeemer, it all
turns into this singing and music. When the clark came to see me, I
asked him if he couldn't cure me, and he said, No,--it was the Holy
Spirit in me, singing to me; and all the time I hear this beautiful
music, and it's the Holy Spirit a-singing to me."
The good man waited for Sophy to speak; but she did not open her lips
"I hope you are not troubled in mind or body," he said to her at
length, finding she did not speak.
The poor old woman took out a white handkerchief, and lifted it--to
her black face. She could not say a word for her tears and sobs.
The minister would have consoled her; he was used to tears, and could
in most cases withstand their contagion manfully; but something
choked his voice suddenly, and when he called upon it, he got no
answer, but a tremulous movement of the muscles, which was worse than
At last she spoke.
"Oh, no, no, no! It's my poor girl, my darling, my beauty, my baby,
that 's grown up to be a woman; she will come to a bad end; she will
do something that will make them kill her or shut her up all her
life. Or, Doctor, Doctor, save her, pray for her! It a'n't her
fault. It a'n't her fault. If they knew all that I know, they would
n' blame that poor child. I must tell you, Doctor: if I should die,
perhaps nobody else would tell you. Massa Veneer can't talk about
it. Doctor Kittredge won't talk about it. Nobody but old Sophy to
tell you, Doctor; and old Sophy can't die without telling you."
The kind minister soothed the poor old soul with those gentle,
quieting tones which had carried peace and comfort to so many
chambers of sickness and sorrow, to so many hearts overburdened by
the trials laid upon them.
Old Sophy became quiet in a few minutes, and proceeded to tell her
story. She told it in the low half-whisper which is the natural
voice of lips oppressed wish grief and fears; with quick glances
around the apartment from time to time, as if she dreaded lest the
dim portraits on the walls and the dark folios on the shelves might
overhear her words.
It was not one of those conversations which a third person can report
minutely, unless by that miracle of clairvoyance known to the readers
of stories made out of authors' brains. Yet its main character can
be imparted in a much briefer space than the old black woman took to
give all its details.
She went far back to the time when Dudley Venner was born,--she being
then a middle-aged woman. The heir and hope of a family which had
been narrowing down as if doomed to extinction, he had been
surrounded with every care and trained by the best education he could
have in New England. He had left college, and was studying the
profession which gentlemen of leisure most affect, when he fell in
love with a young girl left in the world almost alone, as he was.
The old woman told the story of his young love and his joyous bridal
with a tenderness which had something more, even, than her family
sympathies to account for it. Had she not hanging over her bed a
paper-cutting of a profile,--jet black, but not blacker than the face
it represented--of one who would have been her own husband in the
small years of this century, if the vessel in which he went to sea,
like Jamie in the ballad, had not sailed away and never come back to
land? Had she not her bits of furniture stowed away which had been
got ready for her own wedding,--two rocking-chairs, one worn with
long use, one kept for him so long that it had grown a superstition
with her never to sit in it,--and might he not come back yet, after
all? Had she not her chest of linen ready for her humble house-
keeping with store of serviceable huckaback and piles of neatly
folded kerchiefs, wherefrom this one that showed so white against her
black face was taken, for that she knew her eyes would betray her in
All the first part of the story the old woman told tenderly, and yet
dwelling upon every incident with a loving pleasure. How happy this
young couple had been, what plans and projects of improvement they
had formed, how they lived in each other, always together, so young
and fresh and beautiful as she remembered them in that one early
summer when they walked arm in arm through the wilderness of roses
that ran riot in the garden,--she told of this as loath to leave it
and come to the woe that lay beneath.
She told the whole story;-shall I repeat it? Not now. If, in the
course of relating the incidents I have undertaken to report, it
tells itself, perhaps this will be better than to run the risk of
producing a painful impression on some of those susceptible readers
whom it would be ill-advised to disturb or excite, when they rather
require to be amused and soothed. In our pictures of life, we must
show the flowering-out of terrible growths which have their roots
deep, deep underground. Just how far we shall lay bare the unseemly
roots themselves is a matter of discretion and taste, and which none
of us are infallible.
The old woman told the whole story of Elsie, of her birth, of her
peculiarities of person and disposition, of the passionate fears and
hopes with which her father had watched the course of her
development. She recounted all her strange ways, from the hour when
she first tried to crawl across the carpet, and her father's look as
she worked her way towards him. With the memory of Juliet's nurse
she told the story of her teething, and how, the woman to whose
breast she had clung dying suddenly about that time, they had to
struggle hard with the child before she would learn the
accomplishment of feeding with a spoon. And so of her fierce plays
and fiercer disputes with that boy who had been her companion, and
the whole scene of the quarrel when she struck him with those sharp
white teeth, frightening her, old Sophy, almost to death; for, as she
said, the boy would have died, if it hadn't been for the old Doctor's
galloping over as fast as he could gallop and burning the places
right out of his arm. Then came the story of that other incident,
sufficiently alluded to already, which had produced such an ecstasy
of fright and left such a nightmare of apprehension in the household.
And so the old woman came down to this present time. That boy she
never loved nor trusted was grown to a dark, dangerous-looking man,
and he was under their roof. He wanted to marry our poor Elsie, and
Elsie hated him, and sometimes she would look at him over her
shoulder just as she used to look at that woman she hated; and she,
old Sophy, couldn't sleep for thinking she should hear a scream from
the white chamber some night and find him in spasms such as that
woman came so near dying with. And then there was something about
Elsie she did not know what to make of: she would sit and hang her
head sometimes, and look as if she were dreaming; and she brought
home books they said a young gentleman up at the great school lent
her; and once she heard her whisper in her sleep, and she talked as
young girls do to themselves when they're thinking about somebody
they have a liking for and think nobody knows it.
She finished her long story at last. The minister had listened to it
in perfect silence. He sat still even when she had done speaking,--
still, and lost in thought. It was a very awkward matter for him to
have a hand in. Old Sophy was his parishioner, but the Veneers had a
pew in the Reverend Mr. Fairweather's meeting-house. It would seem
that he, Mr. Fairweather, was the natural adviser of the parties most
interested. Had he sense and spirit enough to deal with such people?
Was there enough capital of humanity in his somewhat limited nature
to furnish sympathy and unshrinking service for his friends in an
emergency? or was he too busy with his own attacks of spiritual
neuralgia, and too much occupied with taking account of stock of his
own thin-blooded offences, to forget himself and his personal
interests on the small scale and the large, and run a risk of his
life, if need were, at any rate give himself up without reserve to
the dangerous task of guiding and counselling these distressed and
The good minister thought the best thing to do would be to call and
talk over some of these matters with Brother Fairweather,--for so he
would call him at times, especially if his senior deacon were not
within earshot. Having settled this point, he comforted Sophy with a
few words of counsel and a promise of coming to see her very soon.
He then called his man to put the old white horse into the chaise and
drive Sophy back to the mansion-house.
When the Doctor sat down to his sermon again, it looked very
differently from the way it had looked at the moment he left it.
When he came to think of it, he did not feel quite so sure
practically about that matter of the utter natural selfishness of
everybody. There was Letty, now, seemed to take a very unselfish
interest in that old black woman, and indeed in poor people
generally; perhaps it would not be too much to say that she was
always thinking of other people. He thought he had seen other young
persons naturally unselfish, thoughtful for others; it seemed to be a
family trait in some he had known.
But most of all he was exercised about this poor girl whose story
Sophy had been telling. If what the old woman believed was true,--
and it had too much semblance of probability,--what became of his
theory of ingrained moral obliquity applied to such a case? If by
the visitation of God a person receives any injury which impairs the
intellect or the moral perceptions, is it not monstrous to judge such
a person by our common working standards of right and wrong?
Certainly, everybody will answer, in cases where there is a palpable
organic change brought about, as when a blow on the head produces
insanity. Fools! How long will it be before we shall learn that for
every wound which betrays itself to the sight by a scar, there are a
thousand unseen mutilations that cripple, each of them, some one or
more of our highest faculties? If what Sophy told and believed was
the real truth, what prayers could be agonizing enough, what
tenderness could be deep enough, for this poor, lost, blighted,
hapless, blameless child of misfortune, struck by such a doom as
perhaps no living creature in all the sisterhood of humanity shared
The minister thought these matters over until his mind was bewildered
with doubts and tossed to and fro on that stormy deep of thought
heaving forever beneath the conflict of windy dogmas. He laid by his
old sermon. He put back a pile of old commentators with their eyes
and mouths and hearts full of the dust of the schools. Then he
opened the book of Genesis at the eighteenth chapter and read that
remarkable argument of Abraham's with his Maker in which he boldly
appeals to first principles. He took as his text, "Shall not the
Judge of all the earth do right?" and began to write his sermon,
afterwards so famous, "On the Obligations of an Infinite Creator to a
It astonished the good people, who had been accustomed so long to
repeat mechanically their Oriental hyperboles of self-abasement, to
hear their worthy minister maintaining that the dignified attitude of
the old Patriarch, insisting on what was reasonable and fair with
reference to his fellow-creatures, was really much more respectful to
his Maker, and a great deal manlier and more to his credit, than if
he had yielded the whole matter, and pretended that men had not
rights as well as duties. The same logic which had carried him to
certain conclusions with reference to human nature, this same
irresistible logic carried him straight on from his text until he
arrived at those other results, which not only astonished his people,
as was said, but surprised himself. He went so far in defence of the
rights of man, that he put his foot into several heresies, for which
men had been burned so often, it was time, if ever it could be, to
acknowledge the demonstration of the argumentum ad ignem. He did not
believe in the responsibility of idiots. He did not believe a new-
born infant was morally answerable for other people's acts. He
thought a man with a crooked spine would never be called to account
for not walking erect. He thought if the crook was in his brain,
instead of his back, he could not fairly be blamed for any
consequence of this natural defect, whatever lawyers or divines might
call it. He argued, that, if a person inherited a perfect mind,
body, and disposition, and had perfect teaching from infancy, that
person could do nothing more than keep the moral law perfectly. But
supposing that the Creator allows a person to be born with an
hereditary or ingrafted organic tendency, and then puts this person
into the hands of teachers incompetent or positively bad, is not what
is called sin or transgression of the law necessarily involved in the
premises? Is not a Creator bound to guard his children against the
ruin which inherited ignorance might entail on them? Would it be
fair for a parent to put into a child's hands the title-deeds to all
its future possessions, and a bunch of matches? And are not men
children, nay, babes, in the eye of Omniscience?--The minister grew
bold in his questions. Had not he as good right to ask questions as
This was the dangerous vein of speculation in which the Reverend
Doctor Honeywood found himself involved, as a consequence of the
suggestions forced upon him by old Sophy's communication. The truth
was, the good man had got so humanized by mixing up with other people
in various benevolent schemes, that, the very moment he could escape
from his old scholastic abstractions, he took the side of humanity
instinctively, just as the Father of the Faithful did,--all honor be
to the noble old Patriarch for insisting on the worth of an honest
man, and making the best terms he could for a very ill-conditioned
metropolis, which might possibly, however, have contained ten
righteous people, for whose sake it should be spared!
The consequence of all this was, that he was in a singular and
seemingly self-contradictory state of mind when he took his hat and
cane and went forth to call on his heretical brother. The old
minister took it for granted that the Reverend Mr. Fairweather knew
the private history of his parishioner's family. He did not reflect
that there are griefs men never put into words,--that there are fears
which must not be spoken,--intimate matters of consciousness which
must be carried, as bullets which have been driven deep into the
living tissues are sometimes carried, for a whole lifetime,--encysted
griefs, if we may borrow the chirurgeon's term, never to be reached,
never to be seen, never to be thrown out, but to go into the dust
with the frame that bore them about with it, during long years of
anguish, known only to the sufferer and his Maker. Dudley Venner had
talked with his minister about this child of his. But he had talked
cautiously, feeling his way for sympathy, looking out for those
indications of tact and judgment which would warrant him in some
partial communication, at least, of the origin of his doubts and
fears, and never finding them.
There was something about the Reverend Mr. Fairweather which
repressed all attempts at confidential intercourse. What this
something was, Dudley Venner could hardly say; but he felt it
distinctly, and it sealed his lips. He never got beyond certain
generalities connected with education and religious instruction. The
minister could not help discovering, however, that there were
difficulties connected with this girl's management, and he heard
enough outside of the family to convince him that she had manifested
tendencies, from an early age, at variance with the theoretical
opinions he was in the habit of preaching, and in a dim way of
holding for truth, as to the natural dispositions of the human being.
About this terrible fact of congenital obliquity his new beliefs
began to cluster as a centre, and to take form as a crystal around
its nucleus. Still, he might perhaps have struggled against them,
had it not been for the little Roman Catholic chapel he passed every
Sunday, on his way to the meeting-house. Such a crowd of
worshippers, swarming into the pews like bees, filling all the
aisles, running over at the door like berries heaped too full in the
measure,--some kneeling on the steps, some standing on the sidewalk,
hats off, heads down, lips moving, some looking on devoutly from the
other side of the street! Oh, could he have followed his own
Bridget, maid of all work, into the heart of that steaming throng,
and bowed his head while the priests intoned their Latin prayers!
could he have snuffed up the cloud of frankincense, and felt that he
was in the great ark which holds the better half of the Christian
world, while all around it are wretched creatures, some struggling
against the waves in leaky boats, and some on ill-connected rafts,
and some with their heads just above water, thinking to ride out the
flood which is to sweep the earth clean of sinners, upon their own
private, individual life-preservers!
Such was the present state of mind of the Reverend Chauncy
Fairweather, when his clerical brother called upon him to talk over
the questions to which old Sophy had called his attention.
THE REVEREND DOCTOR CALLS ON BROTHER FAIRWEATHER.
For the last few months, while all these various matters were going
on in Rockland, the Reverend Chauncy Fairweather had been busy with
the records of ancient councils and the writings of the early
fathers. The more he read, the more discontented he became with the
platform upon which he and his people were standing. They and he
were clearly in a minority, and his deep inward longing to be with
the majority was growing into an engrossing passion. He yearned
especially towards the good old unquestioning, authoritative Mother
Church, with her articles of faith which took away the necessity for
private judgment, with her traditional forms and ceremonies, and her
whole apparatus of stimulants and anodynes.
About this time he procured a breviary and kept it in his desk under
the loose papers. He sent to a Catholic bookstore and obtained a
small crucifix suspended from a string of beads. He ordered his new
coat to be cut very narrow in the collar and to be made single-
breasted. He began an informal series of religious conversations
with Miss O'Brien, the young person of Irish extraction already
referred to as Bridget, maid of all work. These not proving very
satisfactory, he managed to fall in with Father McShane, the Catholic
priest of the Rockland church.
Father McShane encouraged his nibble very scientifically. It would
be such a fine thing to bring over one of those Protestant heretics,
and a "liberal" one too!---not that there was any real difference
between them, but it sounded better, to say that one of these
rationalizing free-and-equal religionists had been made a convert
than any of those half-way Protestants who were the slaves of
catechisms instead of councils, and of commentators instead of popes.
The subtle priest played his disciple with his finest tackle. It was
hardly necessary: when anything or anybody wishes to be caught, a
bare hook and a coarse line are all that is needed.
If a man has a genuine, sincere, hearty wish to get rid of his
liberty, if he is really bent upon becoming a slave, nothing can stop
him. And the temptation is to some natures a very great one.
Liberty is often a heavy burden on a man. It involves that necessity
for perpetual choice which is the kind of labor men have always
dreaded. In common life we shirk it by forming habits, which take
the place of self-determination. In politics party-organization
saves us the pains of much thinking before deciding how to cast our
vote. In religious matters there are great multitudes watching us
perpetually, each propagandist ready with his bundle of finalities,
which having accepted we may be at peace. The more absolute the
submission demanded, the stronger the temptation becomes to those who
have been long tossed among doubts and conflicts.
So it is that in all the quiet bays which indent the shores of the
great ocean of thought, at every sinking wharf, we see moored the
hulks and the razees of enslaved or half-enslaved intelligences.
They rock peacefully as children in their cradles on the subdued
swell which comes feebly in over the bar at the harbor's mouth,
slowly crusting with barnacles, pulling at their iron cables as if
they really wanted to be free; but better contented to remain bound
as they are. For these no more the round unwalled horizon of the
open sea, the joyous breeze aloft, the furrow, the foam, the sparkle,
that track the rushing keel! They have escaped the dangers of the
wave, and lie still henceforth, evermore. Happiest of souls, if
lethargy is bliss, and palsy the chief beatitude!
America owes its political freedom to religious Protestantism. But
political freedom is reacting on religious prescription with still
mightier force. We wonder, therefore, when we find a soul which was
born to a full sense of individual liberty, an unchallenged right of
self-determination on every new alleged truth offered to its
intelligence, voluntarily surrendering any portion of its liberty to
a spiritual dictatorship which always proves to rest, in the last
analysis, on a majority vote, nothing more nor less, commonly an old
one, passed in those barbarous times when men cursed and murdered
each other for differences of opinion, and of course were not in a
condition to settle the beliefs of a comparatively civilized
In our disgust, we are liable to be intolerant. We forget that
weakness is not in itself a sin. We forget that even cowardice may
call for our most lenient judgment, if it spring from innate
infirmity, Who of us does not look with great tenderness on the young
chieftain in the "Fair Maid of Perth," when he confesses his want of
courage? All of us love companionship and sympathy; some of us may
love them too much. All of us are more or less imaginative in our
Some of us may find the aid of material symbols a comfort, if not a
necessity. The boldest thinker may have his moments of languor and
discouragement, when he feels as if he could willingly exchange
faiths with the old beldame crossing herself at the cathedral-door,--
nay, that, if he could drop all coherent thought, and lie in the
flowery meadow with the brown-eyed solemnly unthinking cattle,
looking up to the sky, and all their simple consciousness staining
itself blue, then down to the grass, and life turning to a mere
greenness, blended with confused scents of herbs,--no individual
mind-movement such as men are teased with, but the great calm cattle-
sense of all time and all places that know the milky smell of herds,
--if he could be like these, he would be content to be driven home by
the cow-boy, and share the grassy banquet of the king of ancient
Babylon. Let us be very generous, then, in our judgment of those who
leave the front ranks of thought for the company of the meek non-
combatants who follow with the baggage and provisions. Age, illness,
too much wear and tear, a half-formed paralysis, may bring any of us
to this pass. But while we can think and maintain the rights of our
own individuality against every human combination, let us not forget
to caution all who are disposed to waver that there is a cowardice
which is criminal, and a longing for rest which it is baseness to
indulge. God help him, over whose dead soul in his living body must
be uttered the sad supplication, Requiescat in pace!
A knock at the Reverend Mr. Fairweather's study door called his eyes
from the book on which they were intent. He looked up, as if
expecting a welcome guest.
The Reverend Pierrepont Honeywood, D. D., entered the study of the
Reverend Chauncy Fairweather. He was not the expected guest. Mr.
Fairweather slipped the book he was reading into a half-open drawer,
and pushed in the drawer. He slid something which rattled under a
paper lying on the table. He rose with a slight change of color, and
welcomed, a little awkwardly, his unusual visitor.
"Good-evening, Brother Fairweather!" said the Reverend Doctor, in a
very cordial, good-humored way. "I hope I am not spoiling one of
those eloquent sermons I never have a chance to hear."
"Not at all, not at all," the younger clergyman answered, in a
languid tone, with a kind of habitual half-querulousness which
belonged to it,--the vocal expression which we meet with now and
then, and which says as plainly as so many words could say it, "I am
a suffering individual. I am persistently undervalued, wronged, and
imposed upon by mankind and the powers of the universe generally.
But I endure all. I endure you. Speak. I listen. It is a burden
to me, but I even approve. I sacrifice myself. Behold this movement
of my lips! It is a smile."
The Reverend Doctor knew this forlorn way of Mr. Fairweather's, and
was not troubled by it. He proceeded to relate the circumstances of
his visit from the old black woman, and the fear she was in about the
young girl, who being a parishioner of Mr. Fairweather's, he had
thought it best to come over and speak to him about old Sophy's fears
In telling the old woman's story, he alluded only vaguely to those
peculiar circumstances to which she had attributed so much
importance, taking it for granted that the other minister must be
familiar with the whole series of incidents she had related. The old
minister was mistaken, as we have before seen. Mr. Fairweather had
been settled in the place only about ten years, and, if he had heard
a strange hint now and then about Elsie, had never considered it as
anything more than idle and ignorant, if not malicious, village-
gossip. All that he fully understood was that this had been a
perverse and unmanageable child, and that the extraordinary care
which had been bestowed on her had been so far thrown away that she
was a dangerous, self-willed girl, whom all feared and almost all
shunned, as if she carried with her some malignant influence.
He replied, therefore, after hearing the story, that Elsie had always
given trouble. There seemed to be a kind of natural obliquity about
her. Perfectly unaccountable. A very dark case. Never amenable to
good influences. Had sent her good books from the Sunday-school
library. Remembered that she tore out the frontispiece of one of
them, and kept it, and flung the book out of the window. It was a
picture of Eve's temptation; and he recollected her saying that Eve
was a good woman,--and she'd have done just so, if she'd been there.
A very sad child, very sad; bad from infancy. He had talked himself
bold, and said all at once, "Doctor, do you know I am almost ready
to accept your doctrine of the congenital sinfulness of human nature?
I am afraid that is the only thing which goes to the bottom of the
The old minister's face did not open so approvingly as Mr.
Fairweather had expected.
"Why, yes,--well,--many find comfort in it,--I believe;--there is
much to be said,--there are many bad people,--and bad children,
--I can't be so sure about bad babies,--though they cry very
malignantly at times,--especially if they have the stomach-ache.
But I really don't know how to condemn this poor Elsie; she may have
impulses that act in her like instincts in the lower animals, and so
not come under the bearing of our ordinary rules of judgment."
"But this depraved tendency, Doctor,--this unaccountable
perverseness. My dear Sir, I am afraid your school is in the right
about human nature. Oh, those words of the Psalmist, 'shapen in
iniquity,' and the rest! What are we to do with them,--we who teach
that the soul of a child is an unstained white tablet?"
"King David was very subject to fits of humility, and much given to
self-reproaches," said the Doctor, in a rather dry way. "We owe you
and your friends a good deal for calling attention to the natural
graces, which, after all, may, perhaps, be considered as another form
of manifestation of the divine influence. Some of our writers have
pressed rather too hard on the tendencies of the human soul toward
evil as such. It maybe questioned whether these views have not
interfered with the sound training of certain young persons, sons of
clergymen and others. I am nearer of your mind about the possibility
of educating children so that they shall become good Christians
without any violent transition. That is what I should hope for from
bringing them up 'in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.'"
The younger minister looked puzzled, but presently answered,
"Possibly we may have called attention to some neglected truths; but,
after all, I fear we must go to the old school, if we want to get at
the root of the matter. I know there is an outward amiability about
many young persons, some young girls especially, that seems like
genuine goodness; but I have been disposed of late to lean toward
your view, that these human affections, as we see them in our
children,--ours, I say, though I have not the fearful responsibility
of training any of my own,--are only a kind of disguised and sinful
The old minister groaned in spirit. His heart had been softened by
the sweet influences of children and grandchildren. He thought of a
half-sized grave in the burial-ground, and the fine, brave, noble-
hearted boy he laid in it thirty years before,--the sweet, cheerful
child who had made his home all sunshine until the day when he was
brought into it, his long curls dripping, his fresh lips purpled in
death,--foolish dear little blessed creature to throw himself into
the deep water to save the drowning boy, who clung about him and
carried him under! Disguised selfishness! And his granddaughter
too, whose disguised selfishness was the light of his household!
"Don't call it my view!" he said. "Abstractly, perhaps, all natures
may be considered vitiated; but practically, as I see it in life, the
divine grace keeps pace with the perverted instincts from infancy in
many natures. Besides, this perversion itself may often be disease,
bad habits transmitted, like drunkenness, or some hereditary
misfortune, as with this Elsie we were talking about."
The younger minister was completely mystified. At every step he made
towards the Doctor's recognized theological position, the Doctor took
just one step towards his. They would cross each other soon at this
rate, and might as well exchange pulpits,--as Colonel Sprowle once
wished they would, it may be remembered.
The Doctor, though a much clearer-headed man, was almost equally
puzzled. He turned the conversation again upon Elsie, and endeavored
to make her minister feel the importance of bringing every friendly
influence to bear upon her at this critical period of her life. His
sympathies did not seem so lively as the Doctor could have wished.
Perhaps he had vastly more important objects of solicitude in his own
A knock at the door interrupted them. The Reverend Mr. Fairweather
rose and went towards it. As he passed the table, his coat caught
something, which came rattling to the floor. It was a crucifix with
a string of beads attached. As he opened the door, the Milesian
features of Father McShane presented themselves, and from their
centre proceeded the clerical benediction in Irish-sounding Latin,
The Reverend Doctor Honeywood rose and left the priest and his
THE SPIDER ON HIS THREAD.
There was nobody, then, to counsel poor Elsie, except her father, who
had learned to let her have her own way so as not to disturb such
relations as they had together, and the old black woman, who had a
real, though limited influence over the girl. Perhaps she did not
need counsel. To look upon her, one might well suppose that she was
competent to defend herself against any enemy she was like to have.
That glittering, piercing eye was not to be softened by a few smooth
words spoken in low tones, charged with the common sentiments which
win their way to maidens' hearts. That round, lithe, sinuous figure
was as full of dangerous life as ever lay under the slender flanks
and clean-shaped limbs of a panther.
There were particular times when Elsie was in such a mood that it
must have been a bold person who would have intruded upon her with
reproof or counsel. "This is one of her days," old Sophy would say
quietly to her father, and he would, as far as possible, leave her to
herself. These days were more frequent, as old Sophy's keen,
concentrated watchfulness had taught her, at certain periods of the
year. It was in the heats of summer that they were most common and
most strongly characterized. In winter, on the other hand, she was
less excitable, and even at times heavy and as if chilled and dulled
in her sensibilities. It was a strange, paroxysmal kind of life that
belonged to her. It seemed to come and go with the sunlight. All
winter long she would be comparatively quiet, easy to manage,
listless, slow in her motions; her eye would lose something of its
strange lustre; and the old nurse would feel so little anxiety, that
her whole expression and aspect would show the change, and people
would say to her, "Why, Sophy, how young you're looking!"
As the spring came on, Elsie would leave the fireside, have her
tiger-skin spread in the empty southern chamber next the wall, and
lie there basking for whole hours in the sunshine. As the season
warmed, the light would kindle afresh in her eyes, and the old
woman's sleep would grow restless again,--for she knew, that, so long
as the glitter was fierce in the girl's eyes, there was no trusting
her impulses or movements.
At last, when the veins of the summer were hot and swollen, and the
juices of all the poison-plants and the blood of all the creatures
that feed upon them had grown thick and strong,--about the time when
the second mowing was in hand, and the brown, wet-faced men were
following up the scythes as they chased the falling waves of grass,
(falling as the waves fall on sickle-curved beaches; the foam-flowers
dropping as the grass-flowers drop,--with sharp semivowel consonantal
sounds,--frsh,--for that is the way the sea talks, and leaves all
pure vowel-sounds for the winds to breathe over it, and all mutes to
the unyielding earth,)--about this time of over-ripe midsummer, the
life of Elsie seemed fullest of its malign and restless instincts.
This was the period of the year when the Rockland people were most
cautious of wandering in the leafier coverts which skirted the base
of The Mountain, and the farmers liked to wear thick, long boots,
whenever they went into the bushes. But Elsie was never so much
given to roaming over The Mountain as at this season; and as she had
grown more absolute and uncontrollable, she was as like to take the
night as the day for her rambles.
At this season, too, all her peculiar tastes in dress and ornament
came out in a more striking way than at other times. She was never
so superb as then, and never so threatening in her scowling beauty.
The barred skirts she always fancied showed sharply beneath her
diaphanous muslins; the diamonds often glittered on her breast as if
for her own pleasure rather than to dazzle others; the asp-like
bracelet hardly left her arm. She was never seen without some
necklace,--either the golden cord she wore at the great party, or a
chain of mosaics, or simply a ring of golden scales. Some said that
Elsie always slept in a necklace, and that when she died she was to
be buried in one. It was a fancy of hers,--but many thought there
was a reason for it.
Nobody watched Elsie with a more searching eye than her cousin, Dick
Venner. He had kept more out of her way of late, it is true, but
there was not a movement she made which he did not carefully observe
just so far as he could without exciting her suspicion. It was plain
enough to him that the road to fortune was before him, and that the
first thing was to marry Elsie. What course he should take with her,
or with others interested, after marrying her, need not be decided in
He had now done all he could expect to do at present in the way of
conciliating the other members of the household. The girl's father
tolerated him, if he did not even like him. Whether he suspected his
project or not Dick did not feel sure; but it was something to have
got a foothold in the house, and to have overcome any prepossession
against him which his uncle might have entertained. To be a good
listener and a bad billiard-player was not a very great sacrifice to
effect this object. Then old Sophy could hardly help feeling
well-disposed towards him, after the gifts he had bestowed on her and
the court he had paid her. These were the only persons on the place
of much importance to gain over. The people employed about the house
and farm-lands had little to do with Elsie, except to obey her
without questioning her commands.
Mr. Richard began to think of reopening his second parallel. But he
had lost something of the coolness with which he had begun his system
of operations. The more he had reflected upon the matter, the more
he had convinced himself that this was his one great chance in life.
If he suffered this girl to escape him, such an opportunity could
hardly, in the nature of things, present itself a second time. Only
one life between Elsie and her fortune,--and lives are so uncertain!
The girl might not suit him as a wife. Possibly. Time enough to
find out after he had got her. In short, he must have the property,
and Elsie Venner, as she was to go with it,--and then, if he found it
convenient and agreeable to, lead a virtuous life, he would settle
down and raise children and vegetables; but if he found it
inconvenient and disagreeable, so much the worse for those who made
it so. Like many other persons, he was not principled against
virtue, provided virtue were a better investment than its opposite;
but he knew that there might be contingencies in which the property
would be better without its incumbrances, and he contemplated this
conceivable problem in the light of all its possible solutions.
One thing Mr. Richard could not conceal from himself: Elsie had some
new cause of indifference, at least, if not of aversion to him. With
the acuteness which persons who make a sole business of their own
interest gain by practice, so that fortune-hunters are often shrewd
where real lovers are terribly simple, he fixed at once on the young
man up at the school where the girl had been going of late, as
probably at the bottom of it.
"Cousin Elsie in love!" so he communed with himself upon his lonely
pillow. "In love with a Yankee schoolmaster! What else can it be?
Let him look out for himself! He'll stand but a bad chance between
us. What makes you think she's in love with him? Met her walking
with him. Don't like her looks and ways;--she's thinking about
something, anyhow. Where does she get those books she is reading so
often? Not out of our library, that 's certain. If I could have ten
minutes' peep into her chamber now, I would find out where she got
them, and what mischief she was up to."
At that instant, as if some tributary demon had heard his wish, a
shape which could be none but Elsie's flitted through a gleam of
moonlight into the shadow of the trees. She was setting out on one
of her midnight rambles.
Dick felt his heart stir in its place, and presently his cheeks
flushed with the old longing for an adventure. It was not much to
invade a young girl's deserted chamber, but it would amuse a wakeful
hour, and tell him some little matters he wanted to know. The
chamber he slept in was over the room which Elsie chiefly occupied at
this season. There was no great risk of his being seen or heard, if
he ventured down-stairs to her apartment.
Mr. Richard Venner, in the pursuit of his interesting project, arose
and lighted a lamp. He wrapped himself in a dressing-gown and thrust
his feet into a pair of cloth slippers. He stole carefully down the
stair, and arrived safely at the door of Elsie's room.
The young lady had taken the natural precaution to leave it fastened,
carrying the key with her, no doubt,--unless; indeed, she had got out
by the window, which was not far from the ground. Dick could get in
at this window easily enough, but he did not like the idea of leaving
his footprints in the flower-bed just under it. He returned to his
own chamber, and held a council of war with himself.
He put his head out of his own window and looked at that beneath. It
was open. He then went to one of his trunks, which he unlocked, and
began carefully removing its contents. What these were we need not
stop to mention,--only remarking that there were dresses of various
patterns, which might afford an agreeable series of changes, and in
certain contingencies prove eminently useful. After removing a few
of these, he thrust his hand to the very bottom of the remaining pile
and drew out a coiled strip of leather many yards in length, ending
in a noose,--a tough, well-seasoned lasso, looking as if it had seen
service and was none the worse for it. He uncoiled a few yards of
this and fastened it to the knob of a door. Then he threw the loose
end out of the window so that it should hang by the open casement of
Elsie's room. By this he let himself down opposite her window, and
with a slight effort swung himself inside the room. He lighted a
match, found a candle, and, having lighted that, looked curiously
about him, as Clodius might have done when he smuggled himself in
among the Vestals.
Elsie's room was almost as peculiar as her dress and ornaments. It
was a kind of museum of objects, such as the woods are full of to
those who have eyes to see them, but many of them such as only few
could hope to reach, even if they knew where to look for them.
Crows' nests, which are never found but in the tall trees, commonly
enough in the forks of ancient hemlocks, eggs of rare birds, which
must have taken a quick eye and a hard climb to find and get hold of,
mosses and ferns of unusual aspect, and quaint monstrosities of
vegetable growth, such as Nature delights in, showed that Elsie had
her tastes and fancies like any naturalist or poet.
Nature, when left to her own freaks in the forest, is grotesque and
fanciful to the verge of license, and beyond it. The foliage of
trees does not always require clipping to make it look like an image
of life. From those windows at Canoe Meadow, among the mountains, we
could see all summer long a lion rampant, a Shanghai chicken, and
General Jackson on horseback, done by Nature in green leaves, each
with a single tree. But to Nature's tricks with boughs and roots and
smaller vegetable growths there is no end. Her fancy is infinite,
and her humor not always refined. There is a perpetual reminiscence
of animal life in her rude caricatures, which sometimes actually
reach the point of imitating the complete human figure, as in that
extraordinary specimen which nobody will believe to be genuine,
except the men of science, and of which the discreet reader may have
a glimpse by application in the proper quarter.
Elsie had gathered so many of these sculpture-like monstrosities,
that one might have thought she had robbed old Sophy's grandfather of
his fetishes. They helped to give her room a kind of enchanted look,
as if a witch had her home in it. Over the fireplace was a long,
staff-like branch, strangled in the spiral coils of one of those
vines which strain the smaller trees in their clinging embraces,
sinking into the bark until the parasite becomes almost identified
with its support. With these sylvan curiosities were blended objects
of art, some of them not less singular, but others showing a love for
the beautiful in form and color, such as a girl of fine organization
and nice culture might naturally be expected to feel and to indulge,
in adorning her apartment.
All these objects, pictures, bronzes, vases, and the rest, did not
detain Mr. Richard Veneer very long, whatever may have been his
sensibilities to art. He was more curious about books and papers. A
copy of Keats lay on the table. He opened it and read the name of
Bernard C. Langdon on the blank leaf. An envelope was on the table
with Elsie's name written in a similar hand; but the envelope was
empty, and he could not find the note it contained. Her desk was
locked, and it would not be safe to tamper with it. He had seen
enough; the girl received books and notes from this fellow up at the
school, this usher, this Yankee quill-driver;--he was aspiring to
become the lord of the Dudley domain, then, was he?
Elsie had been reasonably careful. She had locked up her papers,
whatever they might be. There was little else that promised to
reward his curiosity, but he cast his eye on everything. There was a
clasp-Bible among her books. Dick wondered if she ever unclasped it.
There was a book of hymns; it had her name in it, and looked as if it
might have been often read;--what the diablo had Elsie to do with
Mr. Richard Venner was in an observing and analytical state of mind,
it will be noticed, or he might perhaps have been touched with the
innocent betrayals of the poor girl's chamber. Had she, after all,
some human tenderness in her heart? That was not the way he put the
question,--but whether she would take seriously to this schoolmaster,
and if she did, what would be the neatest and surest and quickest way
of putting a stop to all that nonsense. All this, however, he could
think over more safely in his own quarters. So he stole softly to
the window, and, catching the end of the leathern thong, regained his
own chamber and drew in the lasso.
It needs only a little jealousy to set a man on who is doubtful in
love or wooing, or to make him take hold of his courting in earnest.
As soon as Dick had satisfied himself that the young schoolmaster was
his rival in Elsie's good graces, his whole thoughts concentrated
themselves more than ever on accomplishing his great design of
securing her for himself. There was no time to be lost. He must
come into closer relations with her, so as to withdraw her thoughts
from this fellow, and to find out more exactly what was the state of
her affections, if she had any. So he began to court her company
again, to propose riding with her, to sing to her, to join her
whenever she was strolling about the grounds, to make himself
agreeable, according to the ordinary understanding of that phrase, in
every way which seemed to promise a chance for succeeding in that
The girl treated him more capriciously than ever. She would be
sullen and silent, or she would draw back fiercely at some harmless
word or gesture, or she would look at him with her eyes narrowed in
such a strange way and with such a wicked light in them that Dick
swore to himself they were too much for him, and would leave her for
the moment. Yet she tolerated him, almost as a matter of necessity,
and sometimes seemed to take a kind of pleasure in trying her power
upon him. This he soon found out, and humored her in the fancy that
she could exercise a kind of fascination over him, though there were
times in which he actually felt an influence he could not understand,
an effect of some peculiar expression about her, perhaps, but still
centring in those diamond eyes of hers which it made one feel so
curiously to look into.
Whether Elsie saw into his object or not was more than he could tell.
His idea was, after having conciliated the good-will of all about her
as far as possible, to make himself first a habit and then a
necessity with the girl,--not to spring any trap of a declaration
upon her until tolerance had grown into such a degree of inclination
as her nature was like to admit. He had succeeded in the first part
of his plan. He was at liberty to prolong his visit at his own
pleasure. This was not strange; these three persons, Dudley Venner,
his daughter, and his nephew, represented all that remained of an old
and honorable family. Had Elsie been like other girls, her father
might have been less willing to entertain a young fellow like Dick as
an inmate; but he had long outgrown all the slighter apprehensions
which he might have had in common with all parents, and followed
rather than led the imperious instincts of his daughter. It was not
a question of sentiment, but of life and death, or more than that,--
some dark ending, perhaps, which would close the history of his race
with disaster and evil report upon the lips of all coming
As to the thought of his nephew's making love to his daughter, it had
almost passed from his mind. He had been so long in the habit of
looking at Elsie as outside of all common influences and exceptional
in the law of her nature, that it was difficult for him to think of
her as a girl to be fallen in love with. Many persons are surprised,
when others court their female relatives; they know them as good
young or old women enough,--aunts, sisters, nieces, daughters,
whatever they may be,--but never think of anybody's falling in love
with them, any more than of their being struck by lightning. But in
this case there were special reasons, in addition to the common
family delusion,--reasons which seemed to make it impossible that she
should attract a suitor. Who would dare to marry Elsie? No, let her
have the pleasure, if it was one, at any rate the wholesome
excitement, of companionship; it might save her from lapsing into
melancholy or a worse form of madness. Dudley Venner had a kind of
superstition, too, that, if Elsie could only outlive three
septenaries, twenty-one years, so that, according to the prevalent
idea, her whole frame would have been thrice made over, counting from
her birth, she would revert to the natural standard of health of mind
and feelings from which she had been so long perverted. The thought
of any other motive than love being sufficient to induce Richard to
become her suitor had not occurred to him. He had married early, at
that happy period when interested motives are least apt to influence
the choice; and his single idea of marriage was, that it was the
union of persons naturally drawn towards each other by some mutual
attraction. Very simple, perhaps; but he had lived lonely for many
years since his wife's death, and judged the hearts of others, most
of all of his brother's son, by his own. He had often thought
whether, in case of Elsie's dying or being necessarily doomed to
seclusion, he might not adopt this nephew and make him his heir; but
it had not occurred to him that Richard might wish to become his son-
in-law for the sake of his property.
It is very easy to criticise other people's modes of dealing with
their children. Outside observers see results; parents see
processes. They notice the trivial movements and accents which
betray the blood of this or that ancestor; they can detect the
irrepressible movement of hereditary impulse in looks and acts which
mean nothing to the common observer. To be a parent is almost to be
a fatalist. This boy sits with legs crossed, just as his uncle used
to whom he never saw; his grandfathers both died before he was born,
but he has the movement of the eyebrows which we remember in one of
them, and the gusty temper of three different generations, can tell
pretty nearly the range of possibilities and the limitations of a
child, actual or potential, of a given stock,--errors excepted
always, because children of the same stock are not bred just alike,
because the traits of some less known ancestor are liable to break
out at any time, and because each human being has, after all, a small
fraction of individuality about him which gives him a flavor, so that
he is distinguishable from others by his friends or in a court of
justice, and which occasionally makes a genius or a saint or a
criminal of him. It is well that young persons cannot read these
fatal oracles of Nature. Blind impulse is her highest wisdom, after
all. We make our great jump, and then she takes the bandage off our
eyes. That is the way the broad sea-level of average is maintained,
and the physiological democracy is enabled to fight against the
principle of selection which would disinherit all the weaker
children. The magnificent constituency of mediocrities of which the
world is made up,--the people without biographies, whose lives have
made a clear solution in the fluid menstruum of time, instead of
being precipitated in the opaque sediment of history
But this is a narrative, and not a disquisition.
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