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Title: The Phial of Dread and other stories Author: Fitz Hugh Ludlow * A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook * eBook No.: 0606031h.html Language: English Date first posted: August 2006 Date most recently updated: August 2006 This eBook was produced by: Richard Scott Project Gutenberg of Australia eBooks are created from printed editions which are in the public domain in Australia, unless a copyright notice is included. We do NOT keep any eBooks in compliance with a particular paper edition. Copyright laws are changing all over the world. Be sure to check the copyright laws for your country before downloading or redistributing this file. This eBook is made available at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg of Australia License which may be viewed online at http://gutenberg.net.au/licence.html To contact Project Gutenberg of Australia go to http://gutenberg.net.au
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Table of Contents
The Phial of Dread
I believe that I am now safe. This part of Columbia Street is not much visited by any people who ever knew me. The other end is in Grand Street. I doubt whether any of my acquaintance have vivid recollection of that end either. As for myself, I was aware of neither end nor middle till three days ago. Being in Broadway, with an infinite terror hanging on my shoulders like a cloak--starting at every louder voice of man, woman, or child---recoiling from every rapidly approaching stranger who looked me in the face--I naturally enough wished to get away--any where out of the bustle. On my left hand was Grand Street; to turn into it was the most obvious method of escaping from Broadway. So I _did_ turn. For a block beyond Brooks's great limbo of possible but undeveloped pantaloons Grand Street keeps a fashionable air. Thus far are whiffs of Broadway sucked into its draft; thus far you meet Broadway faces; thus far you are reminded of Broadway---are not quite at ease with the idea of being out of it--may at any moment be accosted by somebody you have met before on the great pave. I walked faster, therefore. Broadway began to fade out; the Bowery character become slowly dominant. I reached--I crossed the Bowery. Now I began to breathe freer. I was pretty sure--growing surer--that I should not be recognized; and the cloak lifted from my shoulders. The terror did not leave me, but it followed quietly afar off.
A strange place is the part of Grand Street I was going through now, to be sure! Quite a Broadway by itself, though not _the_ Broadway, thank Heaven! but a sort of shabby Broadway come to New York to visit its merchant prince-cousin; and not being recognized as a connection, going off in a huff and setting up for itself--the Broadway of the east to west, entirely independent of the north to south aristocrat. Or to the speculative mind it might seem an old shell shed by Broadway the Magnificent thirty years ago, while marble and Albert granite were unconceived--a shell captured by the hermit crab called Grand Street, and peacefully lived in ever since; the ghost of old Broadway, as known to our fathers, reappearing across the track of young Broadway, yet a ghost, sociable, responsive, fearless of daylight, not to be laid. All such thoughts as these whirled through my brain as I strode along with nervous, devious feet, and they seemed to fight back for a short farther distance _the terror_. I hailed them gladly, therefore, and indulged them.
Here were tailors, from the plethora of their shops evidently rejoicing in abundant custom, famous, blessed, well-to-do; and all this within the world of Grand Street--elsewhere unknown. So many green-grocers, with fresh Bermuda potatoes and cucumbers piled up in front of them, supplying a class of citizens who never gave one thought to Washington Market. So many celebrated doctors, all in black and gilt on the dull sides of the two-story brick houses. Dentists, on great door-plates of tarnished mock silver--and I had never heard of them before. Mouths filled, teeth pulled, backs clothed, children educated--all trades and professions going on--even a wholesale dry-goods store taking up two numbers, like a Murray Street or Liberty Street firm, and selling dollars' worths to its small neighbors who did the pennyworth business; and evidently none of all these depended in the least on any other part of New York for a living. I breathed free in Grand Street, more and more.
All the baggage that it was at present convenient for my to carry was a carpet-bag, not over heavy. I had that in my hand. What, then, was to prevent my taking lodgings in Grand Street? I should not be traced here; the chances were a thousand to one against my ever seeing a known face; and these were the qualifications which just now would make the most miserable tenement worth double the most sumptuous parlor of the St. Nicholas. Why not take lodgings here?--yes, why not?
As I asked myself this question I stood, with the carpet-bag in my hand, vacillating from one foot to the other, and once or twice turning completely around. Take lodgings? Yes, to be sure. Why not?
But my eye struck a building somewhat taller than the rest, on the opposite side of the street. In its door stood a bent man, with the general air about him of being up all night, drinking beer and eating Limburger cheese. His poll was bald; in his hand was a dispensatory, and he peered down over it through some very round spectacles, as if he were suspecting arsenic in the bricks and meant to sublimate it by a look; on his right was a great green bottle; over his head, a blue; on his left, a red one; and far up, under the third-story windows, in very black letters, was printed all across the house-front.
The cold sweat came out in large drops upon my forehead. The German on the opposite side lifted his eyes from the arsenical bricks and fixed them upon me! Was I--? No! He quietly put up his dispensary, and drawing a meerschaum from the depths of his loose greasy coat, filled it, lighted it, and began to smoke. But he had given me a start--such a start! I would not have lived in that vicinity for untold gold. All trembling, I pushed on.
Supposing they had come in search of me even into Grand Street? Who? Why, any body--any body that I had ever known. Supposing they should track me even into that improbable locality, how would they seek me? By my affinities, no doubt. I was a chemist; among chemists they would seek me; and to be near that man of drugs there beyond were--well, to speak plainly, death! I hoped Heaven he had not seen me clearly with those horrible round goggles of his!
Fleeing from him, I passed street after street, still keeping in Grand, when of a sudden, at one corner, my eye was arrested by the faded word "Columbia" in dead old paint, on a dead old billet, on a dead old brick wall. The rains had plowed its impress for how many years only the Heaven from which they came could tell, scrubbing at it assiduously, but as yet not quite able, with all their housemaid energy, to obliterate the stain. "Columbia"--I paused and looked north. The street descends a little, as if it were going to lead down into pleasant valleys, then remembers itself, recalls the fact that it is a city street, and mounts to go staidly on again. But afar I could perceive signs of almost country quiet. There were some green trees---green still, while all the urban parks were taking their dust--baptism, and the lilac leaves, mad for thirst, in St. John's church-yard, might be written on with the finger and keep their record a week. There was one lazy omnibus utterly empty hurrying through it, far, far up, as if astray there by mistake, and running what seemed homeward with much bewilderment and sense of not having any business there. I saw no one on the east sidewalk as far as the eye reached. On the west a workman sat about midway between me and the farthest visible point, on the grass which sprung up along the curb, his feet in the dry gutter, eating his dinner out of a tin pail quite pastorally. He had not been building any thing. He had only been taking down a row of decayed tree-boxes; they lay in a neat pile near him, waiting for some unlikely cart. When he went away business there would be none in that street.
My mind was made up. I would get lodgings in Columbia Street. If possible, just a little northward of the middle.
If I were a bank-defaulter--a traitor to government--a fallen clergyman--a gallant who had brought gall into the heart---oblivion upon the head of a once pure wife, and were flying the mad, tireless husband--if I were any thing disgraced--in danger---I would make this same point my aim--I would run hither to hide me. If I were a murderer---But oh, hush! that word is too awful!
For when people came to hunt me, the first supposition would be that I was escaping to foreign parts. That idea would draw off a large part of my pursuers in the direction of the steamers, the foreign police journals, efforts for extradition. There would be other who would say, "He is in the States--he is too cunning to try such a common, such a well-watched mode of escape as the steamers;" but being of a somewhat timid mind themselves, they would be little likely to conceive of a man in peril staying in the great, public city. These the suburbs and the country would draw off. A few astute, alert, resolute, fearless persons, clinging to the theory that I had never left New York, would stay here to unearth me. And by them I should be looked for through all the kennels of the lower wards--Leonard, Worth, Thomas streets, and such like, and the upper tenement houses, as in further West Thirty-first Street, for instance, and the ungraded streets still higher. I do not suppose that of those pursuers who remained in New York to look for me _three_ would consider for a moment the likelihood of my being in the mid-heart of New York at the spot I mentioned. Grant even that these three together came on my trail through Grand Street. At the Bowery such an entirely different life and population from that of Broadway begins to appear--the side-streets lose so entirely all reference to the direction of that main artery, that two of the three would be drawn up or down the Bowery in pursuit of me through these branching ways, and to all of them it would appear most likely that I had involved myself in this new current, this turbulent swirl, obeying no Broadway laws, to escape discovery. One, perhaps, perplexed with misgivings, would go on his lonely track, from mere perversity, through Grand Street. There is no transverse way into which I fancy he would be less likely to turn than this one. For, in the first place, the air of respectability and quietude about it would turn him away, on the ground that a man in peril of discovery might as sensibly put himself within range of the lynx-eyes and gossiping tongues of a country town as to come here--there would seem no hurly-burly to merge one's criminal identity in. In the second place, he _would_ have his attention attracted to the mysterious look of that billet on the corner wall, bearing the name--its blank, faded, sympathetic-ink appearance would certainly seem ominous to him--it has a theatrical likeness, seems full of secret meaning, and strongly attracts the man on a murder scent--on a defaulter's or a traitor's scent, I mean. But as he drew closer and read the name--read it and found it, after all its bad looks, to be something as patriotic, as frank, as world-wide as "Columbia," he would say to himself, "Pish! I'm a fool! One would have expected such a piratical-looking signal to spell out Brinvilliere Street, Tofana, Borgia, Burke, or Daval Street! Columbia! as soon expect to find a villain on the steps of the Merchants' Exchange!" And so, led by the force of his own false reasoning, made false at first by the disappointment of his sentiment of mystery, he would pass on and seek me in some of the streets parallel but nearer the river.
I am not a defaulter. I am not a seducer. I am not---Well, there are a great many things which I am not. But I am in Columbia Street. On the day when this clinging terror I have told of chased me from Broadway, I stole into Columbia Street as into a shadow--rather as a moose with the dog hanging to his flank will take to the water, deeper and still deeper, so that if he can not drown off his persecutor he can at least bear him easier in that denser fluid.
I could not content myself with any of the houses for a considerable distance from Grand Street. This one was too full of windows--this one had children playing in its front court---this had too much air of ostentatious mystery in its closed blinds, its dull-papered side-lights at the listed front door---and tying up the overgrown shoot of a strangling Madeira vine, a young girl, eager-eyed, bare-shouldered, flushed, and with lips half-parted, stood by a trellis just before this one. Oh! ugh! the terror-cloud wrapped me like a cloak of nightmare. I could not walk freely, but merely shuddered along. I moved away by palpitating like a sea-jelly rather than with feet like a man. It was a long way before I could recover myself at all. The terror would not endure the sight of a young girl. She was water to its hydrophobia!
By-and-by I came to a house two stories high--brick, and left unpainted, so that time had made its original scarlet a grave and staid dark red--shaded by two paper mulberries at the lower windows, and above catching shadow from the lime-tree on the street. The front fence was a picket--dark brown and rather higher than ordinary. I touched the gate, and it did not creak. On a dark door-plate, of old, silvery metal, with mourning lines about its rim, was the name John L. Jones. The door was grained in imitation of mahogany, and its _tout ensemble_ was coffiny. You might almost expect, if you opened that door, to see John L. Jones lying pale and still in cerements behind it--a most respectable man with no nonsense about him--and dead. I was drawn to this house. Who would ever come to look for me in the house of a man named John L. Jones! Who would seek for me, the living, among the dead--or those who looked so dead as the inhabitants of this house must? Had there been a _morgue_ in New York, among _its_ dead they might have sought me, but not here---not here!
It suited me. I swung the noiseless gate and passed into the silent yard--over the sweating, mould-chinked flag-stones of the shady approach, that echoed not to the foot--up the damp, green, bordered steps of cracked freestone. Ah! there is a bell--a brass handle, very small, and lurking in a deep little recess by the architrave, as if it would not break the deadness by being pulled--hiding from the sound of its own tongue. And this alone took away from the coffiny look of the entrance. But when my shaky, undecided hand pulled it I found it not so incongruous with the general keeping--a slow, long-measured succession of muffled tinkles followed the pull--a trickling of mournful drops of sound far down through some dank, cellary air--not a ringing, but a tolling, as if the ghost of some long-dead man had died a second time to become a still fainter ghost--a ghost of a ghost---and the spirits in the first stage--the undiluted survivors--were tolling their chapel chime at his funeral. Link--link--link---link--link.
It suited me better. Presently I heard the steady, unimpassioned tread of middle-aged footsteps--the skeleton of a sexton walking in slippers of cemetery-moss, it might have been, coming to let me in to the burial-yard. The door opened like the gate, equally without creaking, and I saw a quiet, pale face looking languidly into my own--listlessly, not forcefully, inquiring--the face of a woman weary with long griefs which had worn out her resistance to them--a face forty in years, a thousand in cares.
"Mrs Jones--Mrs. John L. Jones?" said I.
The woman nodded feebly without change of expression.
"I have come," I continued, "to ask if I can have a room in your house--a back one if possible--in which I may sleep and have my meals quietly by myself. I am willing to pay liberally. All I need is _quiet_, and you seem to have that here."
"Myfi Cymraes--Shawad Sais Dembid."
This, as nearly as I can spell it, was the sound that came from those wan, changeless lips in reply. I understood it to mean--"I am a Welsh woman, and speak no English"--for I had been with the Welse, at their settlemnet in Remson, in Middle New York, for a month of one summer, and caught just a smattering of their strange tongue. I brought all my vocabulary to the occasion, and rejoined.
"Bawarch--Odur--Gwelly--Tan," which is, being interpreted, "bread, water, a bed, and a fire." This I intended as a concise symbol for my whole want of food and lodging, at the same time pulling a handful of silver and a roll of bills from my wallet to aid the intelligence of the remark.
The woman motioned me in. I was left standing in the entry while she retreated to the basement; and then, from below, I heard her voice mix with a gruffer one, which seemed to indicate that John L. Jones, contrary to all appearances, was _not_ in his coffin, but at his dinner. After which she returned, and led the way up a narrow and greasy-carpeted flight of stairs. At the top of it she turned a knob, and disclosed to me a vacant room. No, not vacant in the sense of being unfurnished; but there was a dead smell in it, and nobody sat there; and the only fly on the window-panes was dead, and stuck steadily there, held by stiffened gluey moisture. There were clothes hanging on the walls on rusty iron books--coats, vests, pantaloons. And over the mantle-piece was a dim, bleared daguerrotype. It was a man's--a man who looked as Mrs. John L. Jones might have done when she was, a long time ago, young and handsome. On the frame was pasted a scrap out of some fine-print paper like the _Herald_. I drew close to it and read:
"John L. Jones, Jun., in the 25th year of his age, being the last of twelve children born to his afflicted parents, John J. and Bendigedig Winifred Jones, died of heart complaint, at the residence of his father in this city, June the 12th.
This was June the 19th, one week exactly.
As the woman saw me looking at it, she pointed to it, then to the bed. It was the bed where her last son died! And our interview ended in my taking the room, at eight dollars a week, my food to be sent up to me, and my solitude never to be invaded by the sweeper, the bedmaker, or any living being.
I was suited. The position, as I said when I began this day's journal, strikes me, just as it struck me then, favorably in respect to safety. The hunters who chance to come after me, and in all this vast chaos of houses, this hive of involved yet separate and distinct cities, New York, track me out to No.__ Columbia Street, must be omniscient! This number of all--this street of all.
I keep this journal, because if I hold my secret I shall go mad. I keep this journal, because to tell it but on paper were ruin--death. And I think in this way I shall be safe from pursuit--safe also from going crazy.
I have gone out of the house into the street but once since I came here. I crept forth this evening at dusk, and found, as far off from my lodgings as possible, a hardware store. I bought a saw, a screw-driver, some screws, a couple of gimlets, and a chisel. The saw is thin and fine, of that description known as a compass-saw. I then went to a grocer's and purchased a bottle of sweet-oil. Saws go quite silently well oiled, unless you strike knots. Lastly, I found a carpenter's shop, still open. There were journeymen doing jobs for themselves after hours, inside, and I easily got some nice pine boards of them, fair and smooth planed. I shall go to work tomorrow.
Second Day's Journal.
I have done good work to-day. I have put the memorial of my terror out of sight. It is safe; no one can know where it is but I.
Quietly, at dawn, I began operations. I am sure none of the family were awake. I listened at the key-hole of John L. Jones; he and his wife were in heavy slumber. And the one maid-servant they did keep did not come down from her garret for three hours after.
There is a closet which opens out of my room, just large enough to turn around in, and used as a clothes-press. A row of nails runs around its plaster wall. There are a couple of large drawers close to the floor. From all these conveniences every trace of John L. Jones, Jun., has been removed, and I am installed therein. The contents of my carpet-bag are spread about the closet as widely as possible, to make a show of occupying it. A poor show it is, however. When the terror first seized me I had only time to snatch this bag and be off. I would not go back for the rest of my baggage for the world.
But what is the terror? Yes, I must tell it. I must faithfully disclose every thing, or this journal will have been merely a fruitless trouble, and I _shall_ go mad after all. I am coming to the revelation.
I said I began operations at dawn. This was the fashion of it. I drew one of the drawers in the closet completely out of its case, so gradually that it made no rumbling, no creaking. This left the floor beneath it bare. I brushed away the dust that had been accumulating ever since the drawer was first slid in. I measured out upon the floor an area just six inches square. At each of the four corners of it I bored a hole with my gimlet. And then, after thoroughly oiling my compass-saw, I inserted it, and speedily had a square hole, of the dimensions I have told, through the plank, and all without noise. The square piece that came out I put carefully by, that it might not be abraded on the edges and lose its accuracy for the purpose of a cover.
With the pieces of thin and smooth pine board I had procured of the carpenters I framed a square box, exactly fitting within the hole, and just deep enough not to strike the lath of the ceiling below when I sunk its upper edges half the thickness of the floor-plank. This box I fastened in its piece by noiseless screws. I then plowed the edge of the cover which I had sawed out in making the hole, so that it fitted in its place perfectly over the top of the box. I had thus a little pit in the floor, with a lid admirably adjustable, and in a place quite unimaginable to anybody but myself.
And now, what was all this for? Ugh! It freezes me to tell, but I must--I will!
I go very quietly to my carpet-bag. It lies in an unusual place for baggage--between the tick and the mattress of my bed. I have slept on it thus ever since I came to the house of John L. Jones. I put my hand in to draw it out--Hark! I withdraw my hand quickly! There is a footstep outside; is any body looking in at the key-hole? No! the foot goes up the garret stairs--it is the servant's--but I hang a coat over the lock to make sure. I draw out the carpet-bag. I said I had arranged its contents in the closet. Yes; but not all. In the very bottom of the bag is a very carefully tied and sealed bundle; cylindrical, and wrapped in strong papers. I take it out; I tremble from head to foot while I am doing so; and even in the blurred, cheap looking-glass which hangs on the pier I can see that my face is as white as his who last lay on the bed before me. Both dim and pale, not so much as if it were I as the only son of John L. Jones coming back to haunt me out of the damp wall. But I break the seals with a twitching hand, laying the fragments of wax carefully in one place, where I may gather and destroy them; I unfold one by one the many layers of paper, and place them also by themselves. And with the cold beads standing on my brow and cheeks, as on a flask in an ice-house, I come to the core of the bundle. I hold it in my hand.
A bloody dagger? No. A roll of bank-notes? No. A coining die? Not at all. A harmless-looking, ordinary, stout glass phial, with a ground glass stopper, cemented hermetically in the neck. A phial whose capacity is about four fluid ounces. It is full almost to the top of a transparent greenish liquid, and as I tip it the small bubble of air which lies above it floats slowly up and down with a gradual sliding motion and shows the liquid to be of a somewhat oily consistency, like the stronger acids. I lift it to my nostrils, forced to do so by an irresistible fascination; and even through that hermetical sealing it seems to me as if I perceived a whiff of death--a charnel odor that is horrible. It may be, nevertheless, only fancy working on me with the heavy air of this recent corpse-chamber in which I live. But at any rate I sicken, I faint, so that the phial nearly falls from my hands. It is not poison--perhaps any one but I might drink it all and be unharmed; but that fluid, even through its stout glass walls, _murders me like a slow lightning_! O my God! would that I could bury it, burn it, dash it from me where it would never return! But it is an indestructible phial of vengeance--a fluid doom of hell--never, never, never to be exiled from me any more!
It is this for which I have made the hiding-place in the closet. I summon all my strength and will--I carry it, hardly opening my eyes to look where I go, to that little pit which I have made--I lay it therein--I cram down the layers of wrapping paper over it--I replace the tight-fitting wood cover, and, finally, I slide the drawer back over all to its former place. Then the horror lifts again from my shoulders a little space, and I lie down on my bed, convulsed in every nerve of my whole body.
The work is done. Through a broken shutter of my closed window one clear, sharp pencil of sunlight, showing that the day is now high-mounted, streams in, flushing the moty space about me, and falls like an unescapable, omniscient finger right on the threshold of the closet-door!
O God! the very sun knows my secret and tells it!
But I will not put down my revelations to-day. No. I am too sick. I will stop till to-morrow.
Third Day's Journal.
It is--as I see on looking at my last date--five days since I wrote in this record. I have been very ill; part of the time quite delirious, I think. How fortunate that I have been alone! Yes, even if I had died alone, how fortunate. The red-haired Denbighshire girl, who brings up my meals sometimes, I am quite sure, knocked in vain for entrance, so stertorous have been my slumbers; for although she has not a command of English sufficient to communicate that fact to me, I infer it from having found the salver, with my food all cold upon it, placed on the floor outside my room, long after meal-hours. And at the times when I have answered her knock, the pitying, half-fearful look she has cast upon me seemed to prove that, in her experience, no much more miserable man had manifested himself.
How fortunate that I am alone! For I have been doing, saying very strange things, and I am not aware whether all of them, as I know part to be, are dreams.
Take, for instance, the night after my last entry in my journal. I had hardly closed my eyes in sleep before this vision came into my presence. A beautiful girl of twenty knelt before me, her black hair rushing down over her fair neck in great free waves, like a mid-forest waterfall looked at in the first darkness of a summer evening, when the white floor of pebbles below it could still be seen glimmering up here and there through the water. A passionate melancholy made her face shadowy, and at the same time glowed in it with unearthly light, making a strange Rembrandt _chiar-oscuro_ that pained me mystically. With her small white hands she beat her still whiter breast, and ever, as her left side was disclosed, a deadly fresh wound showed ghastly in the vague light of the dream--a wound to the very heart, and still slowly dropping, dropping blood, like life telling itself away on beads of coral. She spoke no word, but looked at me---looked me to stone. I could not cry out; I could not move; yet I heard many voices as of people coming behind me. I tried to flee, but I could not even wake up.
At this moment of intense pain the dream changed. A shining mosque of pure glass, with a single minaret, whose crystals blazed in the sun like solid fire, rose suddenly from the ground---up-builded in an instant by magic. Gravitation lost all power over me, and I flew to the very pinnacle of the minaret with the ease of a wind-wafted gossamer. Till I reached it I thought myself alone, but just as I alighted I discovered that I had a burden in my arms. In surprise, I scrutinized it--it was a woman. Oh horror! it was she of the raven hair--the bleeding heart! I sought to loose her grasp from me, but I could not; it was the death-clutch. At last, in my despair, seeing a trap-door open in the bulb of the minaret, I hurled the girl down through it, and saw her strike, fathoms below, on the crystal pavement. So released, I flow leagues away across the air. But still I was plagued. The mosque, also taking wings, pursued me. At last, in a desert place, I dropped down breathless, and in anguish of fear cowered shrinking into myself, for shelter there was none. A moment more, and the mosque of glass dropped beside me. But how changed! It had grown--it was still growing--smaller, and its rate of diminution increased constantly. At last, with one great spiral whirl, it shrunk to a gigantic flask, and in it, beating her breast, showing her red heart's wound, knelt the girl! Another whirl, and it was the phial--_the_ phial of dread! As small as the phial I thought I had buried out of sight; but in it knelt clear as before, and seen through a green fluid medium, though almost infinitesimally little and delicate, the girl of the pierced heart. And as the apothecary labels his phials, so this was labelled. In letters black as ink could be, yet burning into my eyes like a calcium light, was written on the label, "Charlotte Lynde, in the 21st year of her age." Then I _did_ wake! I leaped from my bed crying, "Who labeled the phial? My God! who labeled the phial? Who told you that I had put her in it? I am lost!" As I woke more thoroughly I stilled myself; I think I was not heard; and then, to reassure myself, I went to the closet, laboriously got out the phial from its tomb, and, striking a light found it was _not_ labeled. Then putting it back I slid the drawer home again, and sat on the closet-floor all night, keeping watch in the darkness with my hand on the drawer knob.
Fourth Day's Journal.
Among the Post-office advertisements in the _Herald_ of today (kindly sent upon the salver with my breakfast) I saw my name. It seemed to speak itself from the column--it gave me almost such a shock as hearing it called at my side by a familiar voice. Ah! these newspapers! that can shout their recognitions into your utmost dungeon privacies; how dreadful would they be had they power of return to their starting-place with answers! The reflection that they could not reassured me, and I read my name over again with calmness.
It may seem fool-hardy, but I resolved to go for that letter. It would be a relief to the intense silence and self-devourings of my own mind to see what somebody else had to say--somebody who could not see me. So I stole down by the extreme east edge of town. Along the piers, through South Street, then across to the Post-office.
It was agony to stand in that string of applicants who, keeping painful lock-step, march to the prison-looking window where advertised letters are to be had! A slow ordeal of torture, truly, to a man who hardly dares to stand in one place for an instant, lest he should multiply the probability of recognition. The man in front of me, when, after ages, it came his turn, higgled with the feverish, question-sick clerk about the extra postal charge for advertising. I could have knocked him down in my terrible agony of haste to be away. But he paid his pennies and took himself off, and I stood at the grating.
"What name?" said the clerk.
"Edgar Sands," I answered, feeling my voice twitch at the muscles of my throat like a horse at the rein. But I held it firm, it did not tremble. Just then a hand fell on my shoulder. I started as if the executioner grasped me, looked around, and found that it was only a drunken sailor, who begged my pardon when he saw my astonishment. But the shock he gave me I did not recover from for hours.
"Sands--Sands--what first name?" repeated the clerk, slowly.
"Edgar, I said," was my reply. I fancied he was longer in looking over the bundle in his hand than there was need, and made a gesture of impatience. His motions quickened perceptibly, but he seemed (though that may have been fancy) scrutinizing me in an underbrowed way as much as he did the letters. It was very disagreeable even to fancy it.
"Ah, here it is--Edgar Sands! By-the-way, Mr. Sands, could you give us your address, so that the postman may call on you on his rounds when you have any thing? We have so many Sandses come into the advertised department that they give us a great deal of trouble; in fact, my own sands nearly run out sorting them--ha, ha, ha! Heh?"
This sally of wit, coming as it did from a being whose particular routine is usually supposed to have withered all the faculties save those of quick reading and manipulation, so staggered me that I stood regarding him fixedly for a moment, half suspecting him, half overwhelmed by him, and then answered.
"I will come for my letters as I want them," and passed out the door.
The letter was in my pocket, and if possible, it brought me still nearer than I had been to the further verge of miserableness. I thought I knew the handwriting; I durst not open it to see. I durst not stop for an instant on any account. The whole trial at the Post-office had brought back the old dread in all its relentlessness of clinging, freezing weight. I feared myself watched. Who could tell but that unusual conversation of the delivery clerk had been meant to detain me till I could be marked? How did I know but at that very instant I was tracked by some lynx-eyed emissary? And what if, after all my careful calculation, I should be followed to my improbable concealment?
I knew the horror of Cain; I seemed moving before an omniscient persecutor! Yet I have not done his wrong. Nay--but my soul answers--nay, but thou hast done a dreadful thing!
One hope of escape from the Nemesis I could not see (but felt as if all my body were covered with eyes), one hope remained. I sauntered into the Hotel Jellalich, a foreign inn, full of lounging men whose beards were wet with beer, and cutting my way through the smoke of pipes as up to a battery, demanded a room of the barkeeper. I had been traveling--I was weary--I would sleep till the Cape May boat went out. Monsieur would be called? Yes, at a quarter to four precisely. Would it please Monsieur to take dinner? No dinner. The man handed me a key. On which floor was the room? The second, Monsieur. I prefer the first, the ground--floor. The man looked surprised, but changed my key. I laid down the price on the counter, and a boy went before me to show the way, carrying a whisk broom and slippers. I locked the door after me as soon as I had entered, and then looked out of the window. It opened on a court full of unsavory garlic steams, but just now entirely empty of aught but that. A sensitive nose would have thought it fully occupied.
But I had not time to think of such odors. I seemed to breathe in the charnel smell of the dreadful phial, and behind me I fancied footsteps, whispers, all sorts of sounds that tremble and cause to tremble. I placed a chair against the door, on the chair a pillow from the dingy bed to hide the keyhole, and then I tried the sash. It was damp and swollen; it had lost one cord and weight, so that I made slow progress, and was in an agony of fear to hear it creak. But then ten minutes' patient, gradual pushing lifted it far enough to admit my head and shoulders, after which I fell rather than clambered out. Still there was no one in the court, and, thanking God, I slunk through it to the farther side, out of which a dark porte-chochere led into the street. I came into the open air; I was unperceived; I was safe! Ah! safe? As safe as _I_ could be.
Thus I escaped, and by degrees got back to my room at John L. Jones's. Once there, I sank trembling into a chair and drew forth the letter. I tore open the envelope, and hungriedly read these words:
"Albany, June 3, 18--
"Edgar Sands, Esq.
"Very dear Sir,---It is now a week since my daughter Charlotte left home in your charge, to spend a couple of days in the city of New York. No one but a widowed father like myself, with this only child, can fancy the distress with which I tell you that, in all this time, I have not received a word of tidings from her. She was intending to stop with her mother's sister in East Eleventh Street; and when two days had elapsed beyond her furthest proposed stay, and I got no letter relieving my anxiety, my fears became so extreme that I telegraphed to that lady for some information relative to my poor girl. In three hours the answer came back that she had not been seen or heard from! I went immediately to New York by the earliest train and sought out your laboratory. You were not there, nor have I been able to find you. As a last resource, I take this means of reaching you. If it fails--and nothing more reveals itself--I go down to the grave in bitterness that has no name. For God's sake, dear Sir, let me hear from you immediately! Telegraph me fully as you would write on paper.
"I can form but one hypothesis to keep me from utter despair. Charlotte's mother and her family were all subject to fits of insanity--sometimes occurring most unexpectedly--once resulting fatally. And in my daughter's childhood I remember her having shown strange indications, which gave us much anxiety for the future. She may have reached New York with you, and then wandered away, under the influence of her first attack of this awful malady.
"Pity me! pity me! for God's sake. All you know, let me have; and if she is dead, I shall be better satisfied than if she, the beautiful, the lovely, is lost, without any guiding soul, in that dark, dangerous city. Telegraph instantly! And God deal with you as you deal with her heart-broken father, your father's friend and yours.
"Edgar Sands., Esq, New York."
You might tell me till my dying day that it was rats beneath the floor; but it was not. With my last breath I would swear not. I heard distinctly, as I read aloud the last words of this letter, a rattling in the closet--a dull, heavy clink, as of that phial with its contents shaken up and down, trying to escape from the pit in the floor! And then there came up through the planks, and out of the crevices of the door, a low, prolonged, bitter wail, as of a woman in soul-pain. Rats! Do rats cry like dying women?
I ran to the closet, feeling my head full of molten lead, which was about to pour out through my eyes. I tore out the drawer without much regard to noise--I pried up the cover of my pit and looked down. The phial _had_ moved; from the centre where I had placed it it had shrunk into one corner. I had left it upright; it was lying flat! I took it into my hand; it seemed blistered all over with icy drops of sweat!
I brought it out into the light of the room--a muffled light, but brighter than the closet's. Did I dream again? I chafed my forehead to wake me up, if all this was but another freak of sleep. I looked once more:
_Charlotte Lynde was kneeling in that phial--the blood-red spot showing between the fingers that she pressed upon her heart_!
I shook the phial--I whispered madly, "If thou be now a fiend in the life which thou livest, in God's name, _depart_! If thou be gathered among the angels, pity me for Christ's mercy and _depart_!"
She never moved at atom's breadth. I set the phial down upon the table, and felt a devil-calmness take possession of me. I looked the dread full in the face, and sat down to write a _lie_ to the girl's father:
"Russell Lynde, Esq.
"Respected Sir,---On the day that I left Albany in company with your daugher, I fully expected to take charge of her as far as New York. We reached Poughkeepsie, where the train stopped ten minutes, and Miss Lynde, who had seemed dejected during the whole three hours of our journey, complained of feeling ill and desired me to bring her a glass of water. I left our seat to comply with the request and returned as soon as possible, but found her gone. Supposing her absence temporary, I made no search for her until just before the train was to start, and then, feeling somewhat anxious, rose and passed through to ascertain whether she might not by mistake have got into the wrong car on her return. She was nowhere to be seen. I then got off and looked for her through the rooms of the station--alas! with the same result. My fears became extreme, and I abandoned my project of taking that train to New York, left it, and spent the remainder of the afternoon in looking for her through the hotels of Poughkeepsie. My search was equally fruitless there. At length I remembered her speaking of relatives in the place, whom she very much wished to see, and came to the conclusion that she had determined to change her plan and visit them. But as their name was unknown to me, I could pursue my quest no farther. I therefore returned to the station and took a late train to the city. I have been out of town ever since, or would have received your letter long ago and answered it immediately.
"I can understand your agony. I agree with your hypothesis of derangement, but further information I am unable to give.
"May God pity and help you!
"Your humble servant--"
Thus far had I come in the written lie and was about to sign my name to it, when I heard the very same dull ringing of the phial that had driven me mad before. It was moving toward me on the table, and in it I clearly beheld the figure shake its finger at me--once--twice--thrice--and the pen fell from my hand.
I was _compelled_ to resume it. Within that horrible glass prison I saw a gesture _commanding_ me to. I could have sooner disobeyed the pitiless sweep of an engire crank to which I was lashed by cords! Then, not audibly to the external sense, but ringing like a bell to the inner ear, I heard a low voice dictating, and seizing another sheet of paper I wrote:
"Thrice miserable Father,---I have no longer any hand which can hold human pen, but I use Edgar Sands to write for me. I was going mad slowly for days. Days and days, nights and nights, when no soul but I knew it. When I left Albany, I was sure I should never see you again. Death went riding at my side between me and my useless protector all the way to New York. Protector! who _could_ protect me from the slayer that he could not see, feel or hear? Though on the seat by my side, by Edgar's, he sat to my eyes plainly visible, muttering, 'It comes! It comes!' and when we were half-way down the road, 'It hastens! It hastens!'
"Reaching New York, I asked Edgar Sands to show me his laboratory. _It_ made me ask him. That was the place for the end of all things, _it_ said. He took me there as I desired, immediately. We were alone together among the strange poisons, each one of whom, with a quicker or a slower death-devil in his eye, sat in his glass or porcelain sentry-box, a living force of bale. Should it be Hemp? No, that was too slow, uncertain, painful. Morphine? Too many antidotes--too much commonness, ostentation in _that_. Daturin? I did not like to ask how much of that was certain. I saw a small glass bottle full of crystals, labeled 'Anhydrous Cyanic Acid.' I knew that was sure, quick as thought. I slyly took down the bottle, opened it, withdraw a slender diamond spear, and was just putting it to my tongue, when Edgar turned around, saw me, caught my hand soon enough, and I was cheated of that conclusion. He eyed me in surprise, cried, 'Are you crazy?' and I answered, looking innocent, that I thought the thing was harmless. 'It would have killed you like a thunderbolt!' he replied, pale as death and trembling. 'Ah, indeed! how terrible!' I answered, and turned away. There was a long, thin knife lying by the charcoal pan of a blowpipe, used, I saw, to chip off small fragments of minerals to be tested. That was bitter, but quick, and before Edgar had recovered from his first alarm it was in my heart to the hilt.
"We were all alone, locked into the laboratory. I made only one faint moan, and fell on my knees at his feet, the blood darting out between the fingers, which I pressed against the faint, fierce pain. And he only cried, 'My God! My God! we are lost, both lost!' He ran for help, for a witness at the least, but before he could open the door I had fallen upon the marble floor--_dead_!
"In the air, hovering among strange voices and shapes, I still saw him. There must have been madness in my cold face, lying below there, which he caught; for, instead of leaving the place, he went calmly to work, with an awful despair in his eyes, and cut the shell of me--the husk I had left--to pieces; as a surgeon would, on a table in a laboratory. These fragments he screwed down into a large retort, and placed in the fiercest of flames, fed with pure oxygen. Though still above, apart from them and him, and in the spirit, I knew that all of me that had been seen on earth was reducing there to the ultimates--I was distilled there by degrees. Through the worm of the still my physical life came over in a fluid; and, drop by drop, he saw it fall into the receiver, watching through the whole night, with lips blue as corruption in the flame which he moved only to feed. That motionless, bloodless face of his, by its terrrible attraction, called back my soul into the fluid, though from the solid body my life had parted long hours before. I was becoming enthralled--dungeon--covered in a pit of glass. At four in the morning he had done the heaviest part of his work. He let the fire go down; the ashy residuum in the bottom of the retort he treated with acid; it cleared; and he poured the fluid result into the receiver, which held my distilled being. Then it was that my soul came wholly back into the liquid body thus prepared for it--I was one with a strange, greenish, phosphorescent oil. Ah! that was agony which, in the life of the frame of bone, nerve, muscle, had no parallel! Agony--hellish agony--with no prospect of an end! For he knew not what he was subjecting me to; the fiend used him for my misery, while he only thought of obliterating all traces of the damning crime humanity would lay at his door, finding me stabbed to the heart.
"He poured all my life from the receiver into a phial. He sealed the phial hermetically--yes, hermetically, for my shrieks within, which cracked my own ears, were utterly inaudible to him. Then he deluged with strong acids all the blood-spots on the floor, the table, and fled the laboratory in the first gray light of morning, taking me with him in his satchel.
"I am with him now--shut up to this liquid life of hell---a hell that will never cease till the phial be broken, the liquid outpoured, and I set free to fly to Heaven's court of pardon for forgiveness. I am worthy of pardon: I was mad when I did the crime.
"God pity thee, poor, poor Father, and thy daughter.
I had finished this letter mechanically, not meaning aught else in my pen but scrawls, never knowing what word was coming next, and wholly forced along, by an outer will. I had signed the name; and then, for the first time, I saw that the hand in which I had traced every letter of the whole--was _Charlotte Lynde's_!
Heavy feet came up the front steps. They sounded like the feet visiting a vault, on the damp stones in front of John L. Jones's. The ghostly bell said link, link, link, link, link, as when I had pulled it; it was answered by the same grim warder; and then I heard eager voices in conversation. O God! I heard my own name mentioned distinctly in the dark, wet entry below!
Then the heavy footsteps came up the stairs, trampling each step behind angrily, each step in front, hungrily--all doomfully! They reached the landing, stopped at my door, and my name was uttered again.
There was a large tub of water standing by the side of my washstand. I ran to it, snatching the phial form the table as I went. With one blow against the edge of the tub I broke off the neck of the phial, and let the dreadful fluid run out. A violent vapor, variegated with amber and leek-green, filled the room; a strangling grave odor pervaded my very brain--my eyes were nigh burned out by the pungency of it--and still the fluid trickled slowly down into the water.
No, not _into_ it, for it floated upon the water, utterly refusing to mingle. At first it lay in a broad, shallow, iridescent pellicle over the whole surface. My name was spoken louder at the door, and hard, eager hands shook the lock. Then that concentrated essence of a mad life gathered itself, by the same law of grouping which had given its original members birth as one body, and turning an agonized face up into my own--(a strong man's shoulder forges against the door!)--trying to hide a red, pierced heart, there lay on the top of the water, clear as in clearest life, Charlotte Lynde!
The door gave way. Three men came into the room. One was John L. Jones, one was the delivery clerk, and one--the father of the dead girl!
"Fiend!" he cried, making at me, while the two others scarcely held his struggling arms, "what have you done with my child?"
I said not a word, but pointed first at the last letter I had written, lying on the table; then at the surface of the water. The three men bent over and gazed--two of them with looks of blank amazement, but one with an agony that paralyzed every muscle of his face. And just then the shape smiled full into the father's face, looked and pointed toward heaven, then gathered itself above the water, and flew up between us; for an instant lingering caressingly upon the old man's white head--then disappeared forever.
I fell to the floor--not from dread, but because peace at last came too suddenly. And this last day of my journal is written at the first lodging I moved to after I was discharged from Bloomingdale Insane Asylum.
---Die, if dying I may give
Life to one who asks to live.
And more nearly.
Dying thus, resemble thee!
'Ciel! Zat is ze true heroique! Zat is ze very far finest ting in all ze literature anglaise! Zere have not been made vun more sublime poesie by your immortel Villiams Shakyspeare! Glorieux! Vat a grandeur moral of ze woman who vill vonce die for her love!'
'_Once_? I knew a woman who died twice for _hers_.'
The enthusiastic admirer of Longfellow was a French professor in one of our American Colleges, by name Gautier Bonenfant. The person who met his panegyric with such a strange response, was Orloff Ruricson, by birth a Swede, by adoption a New-Yorker, and by trade the proprietor of a Natural History Museum. These two, with myself, were sitting on the west piazza of the little inn at Kaaterskill Falls. All of us hard-working men in the hard--working season; but on this tenth day of July, eighteen hundred and fifty-nine, soaking the dust out of our brains in a bath of sunlight and mountain air, forgetting in company that life was not all one sweet vacation.
Bonenfant and I looked at Ruricson with puzzled faces. Though a good fellow and a wisely humorous one, he seldom said anything whose cleverness lay in a double-entendre.
'Pray, who is that remarkable woman?' said I.
'It is my wife,' replied Orloff Ruricson soberly.
'And she die, von, two, tree time?' asked Bonenfant, with uplifted eyebrows.
'And she died three times for her love,' repeated Orloff Ruricson.
'Perhaps you would have no objection to tell us exactly what you mean?' said I.
'None at all, to _you two_. With this proviso. I know that you, John Tryon, write for the magazines. For aught I know, Bonenfant here, may be a correspondent of the _Constitutionnel.'
'Mais non! I am ze mose red of Red Republican!'
'Perhaps you are Ledru Rollin, then, travelling in disguise to hunt materials for a book. At any rate, I must exact of both of you a promise, that if a single lineament of the story I am going to relate, ever gets into print through your agency, it shall be represented as fictitious, and under assumed names.'
'It's a bargain!'
'You see, I live by my Museum. And if the public suspected that I was a visionary man, the press and the pulpit and general opinion would run me down immediately. I should be accused of denying the originality of the human race inferentially, through my orang-outang; of teaching lessons of maternal infidelity through my stuffed ostrich; of seducing youth into a seafaring life by my preserved whale. No more schools, at half-price on Saturday afternoon, accompanied by their principal; no more favorable notices by editors 'who have been with their families,' for you, Orloff Ruricson!'
'And what I am going to tell you will seem visionary. Even to you. Nevertheless, it is as real as any of the hardest facts in my daily life. Take my solemn word for it.
'When I was ten years old, my parents emigrated from Sweden to this country. At the age of twelve, I lost my father. At thirteen, I was apprenticed to a man who stuffed birds in Dutch--street. At fourteen, I was motherless. At twenty, my term was out, and I began to think of setting up as a taxidermist on my own hook. There! The Biographical Dictionary can't beat that summary of ten years, for compactness!
'I made a very liberal offer to my master; in fact, proposed to take him into partnership. He nobly refused to avail himself of my generosity. Bird-stuffing, even in New-York, was not a very lucrative business, and would hardly support two, he suggested. What did I think of one of the river towns? Albany, or Hudson, or Poughkeepsie, for instance? I did not tell him what; but in reality, I though so little of them, that within ten days after my indenture was cancelled, I had taken a little nook in the Bowery, with window enough to show off three blue-jays, a chameleon, and a very young wild-cat, (whose domesticity I may, at this day, acknowledge to have been slandered by that name,) and sufficient door to display the inscription: 'Orloff Ruricson, Taxidermist and Aviarian Professor.' Even at that day, you see, Bonenfant, we imposters had begun to steal your literary title.'
'Sacrebleu! I do very moshe vish zat ze only ting ze plenty humbug professors now-a-days _stuff_ was ze _birds_!'
'Well, _I_ may have stuffed the public a little, too. At any rate, they patronized me far better than I had any reason to expect. By the time I was of age, I had moved my business one door farther up, to a shop treble the size of the first; and instead of sleeping under and eating on top of my show-case, as I began, I occupied lodgings with a respectable cutler's widow, second-story front of a brick house on Third Avenue, and came down to my store every morning at nine o'clock, like any wholesale grocer.
'I had been installed in my comfortable quarters only six weeks, when a new lodger came to the boarding-house. The first thing that I knew of it, was my beholding, directly opposite me at a Sunday dinner, the most preternaturally homely face I had ever seen. As I took my seat, and opened my napkin, the cutler's widow inclined her head in the direction of the apparition, and uttered the words: 'Miss Brentnall.' I cast a glance and a bow in the same quarter, pronouncing the name after her. 'Mr. Ruricson,' said the landlady laconically, and nodded toward me. 'Mr. Ruricson,' repeated the miracle of plainness, in a voice so sweet that I could not rid myself of the impression that it must be the ventriloquism of some one else. At the same moment she smiled. The smile was as incongruous with the face as the voice; and for that glancing half-minute, Miss Brentnall was a dozen shades more endurable.'
'Cruikshank, acting as collaborator of Salvator Rosa, would fall short of any thing more ambitious than a slight sketch of the woman's unearthly homeliness. I dare hardly attempt to describing her in words, but for your sake, let me try.
'Her hair was like Bonenfant's Republicanism, 'the most red of red,' but without the usual characteristic of that color, silky fineness. In fact, unless you have been through a New England corn-field in the dog-days, and noticed the very crispest of all the crisp tassels which a brazen sun has been at work baking for the month previous; unless you have seen some peculiarly unsheltered specimen, to the eye like dried blood, and to the fingers like dust and ashes, you cannot imagine the impression produced by Miss Brentnall's hair. I really trembled lest our awkward waiter's sleeve would touch it, in serving the vegetables, and send it crumbling from her head in a form of a crimson powder. Her forehead was in every respect immensse---high, broad, and protuberant enough for the tallest man who ever prided himself on his intellect; still, it might have been pardoned, if it had been fair withal, instead of sallow, wrinkled and freckled. A nose, whose only excuse for its mammoth maturity of size and its Spitzenberg depth of color, lay in the fact that it was exposed to the torrid glare of the tresses, depended, like the nest of the hanging bird, between a pair of ferrety eyes, which seemed mere penknife gashes in a piece of red morocco. At that day, I could not swear to the pupils; but a profane man of sensitive mind, might have sworn at them them, for they seemed to be a damp--not a swimming, but a soaked damp--pale blue. Flanking the nose, imagine an inch and a half on either side, of dingy parchment, stretched almost to tearing, and you will get the general idea of the sides of Miss Brentnall's face; I will not travesty the word 'cheeks,' by calling them that. Below the nose, a mouth which would have been deformedly small for a child two weeks old; before that, a chin which hardly showed at all in front, and, taking a side view, seemed only an eccentric protraction of the scraggy neck to which it was attached. Now for the figure. High, stooping shoulders; a long, flat, narrow, mannish waist; the lower extremities immoderately short; immense feet; group these in one person, and you have a form to which I know only two parallels out of the world of nightmare, a German wooden doll, and Miss Brentnall.'
'Diable de laideur! You see zat viz your own eyes?'
'And yet you be yourself not vare ugly, after all!'
'So I have heard, Bonenfant. You will be more surprised to feel that this is the case, when you know that I lodged in the same house with Miss Brentnall a whole year. Indeed, she occupied the very next room to mine. I was second-story, front, she second-story back, during all that time; and do you know that I became very well acquainted with her?'
'Ah! It is pos-_sible_ for a gentleman to be vare polite to vare ugly woman.'
'Yes, but from preference, I mean. I could shut my eyes, and hear her voice, or open them at the transient moment when she was smiling, and forget that she was homely at all. I discovered that she was the only remnant of a large family; that awakened my pity. In addition, she was very well-informed, thought and conversed well; that aroused my respect. And when, in spite of a face and figure which by poetic justice should have belonged to Sin itself, I perceived that she had the kindest of hearts, and the most delicate of sensibilities, I am not ashamed to confess that I soon became attached to her.'
'Attach? You have fall in love vis zat e-scary-crow? You have married her?'
'Hear me through, Bonenfant, and you will find out. In the present instance, I mean, by the word 'attached,' nothing but a pure Platonic friendship. I do not make acquaintance easily. I visited nobody in New-York at that time. There was no one whose cheerful fireside I could make my own for an evening; and my natural tastes, to say nothing of any other feeling, kept me away from drinking-saloons. Moreover, I had an insatiable longing to make something of myself. I wanted the means for buying books, for travelling, for putting myself into what I considered good society. Accordingly, I often brought home, at evening, the specimens I had been working upon all day, and continued my labors long into the night. While I was busily engaged with the knife or the needle, the gentlest little tap would come at the door, so gentle, so unlike any other sound, that, however absorbed I might be, I always heard it, knew it was Miss Brentnall, and said: 'Walk in!' So, in hopped that eighth world--wonder of ugliness, now with an orange for my supper, now with some pretty ornithological engraving, of which, by the merest chance, she always had a duplicate copy, and whose effect she would like to see on my wall. When she went out, she always forgot to take it with her; and in a few months, my room, through such like little kindnesses, became quite a portrait-gallery of celebrated birds. Sometimes, Miss Brentnall spent the whole evening with me. On such occasions, it was her greatest delight to stand by my table, and see some poor, mussed, shrivelled lark or Canary grow plump and saucy again, through the transformations of my art. She called it 'bird-resurrection.' For an hour at a time, she would stay close at my elbow, perfectly quiet, holding a pair of glass eyes in her hand. When I asked for one of them, she gave it to me with all the happiness of a helpful child; and, when at last both eyes were fixed in the specimen, I have seen her clap her hands, and jump up and down. In process of time, she became a real assistance to me. So apt a mind had she, that from merely witnessing my methods, she learned to stuff birds herself; and one evening, when I called 'come in,' to the well known tap, I was surprised by seeing a parrot in her hands, prepared and mounted almost as well as I could have done it myself. It was a little present for the Professor, she said; she had been at work upon it for the last two days. From that time, her voluntary services were in my contant employ, whenever I worked of evenings.
'I was not so ungallant, however, as to let Miss Brentnall do all the visiting. Whenever a lazy fit took me, and I could not have worked, or studied, or walked, if I had been offered ten dollars an hour for these exertions, I always forestalled her coming to my room by going to hers. She had a large rocking--chair, which always seemed to run up to the fireplace of its own accord, and hold out is arms for me, the moment I came in. I would drop into that, shut my eyes, and say, 'Please talk to me,' or 'Please read to me,' with as much abandonment as if I were speaking to my own mother. It never felt like exacting impertinent demands of a stranger, I was so marvellously at my ease in Miss Brentnall's room.'
'Ze man of mose mauvaise honte be not embarrass, I have observe, viz ze vare ugly lady.'
'I don't think it was that, Bonenfant. I used to ask myself if it might not be. But I always came to the conclusion that I should feel the same, were Miss Brentnall the most beautiful person in the world. There was something in her mind, especially as expressed in voice and style of talking, that lulled me when I was most irritable, that lifted the weight of self and pride quite off me for the time being. I knew that we both liked to be together; that was enough: I did not care, indeed I never once thought, how we either of us seemed to any one else.
'I could not help being aware that the other boarders talked about us. Having a pair of tolerably good ears, likewise of eyes, it was difficult not to know that old Miss Flitch, my landlady's half-sister, smelt a match in my intimacy with Miss Brentnall; that she considered it ill-advised, on the ground that I was twenty-one, and the lady at least forty; that she could imagine no possible motive in my mind, except a view to Miss Brentnall's snug little property; that, as a consequence of these promises, she regarded one of us a very mean knave, and the other a doting fool. It was not difficult to understand the meaning of Miss Simmons, an acid contemporary of Miss Brentnall's, possessing all her chances of celibacy, half her homeliness, and one-thousandth of her mind, when, as I took my seat next her at the breakfast-table, she asked me, with a pretty simper, if I had spent the last evening as pleasantly as usual. It was difficult to avoid seeing the gentlemen wink at each other when they passed us talking together in the entry; it was also difficult, as I perceive from Bonenfant's face he would like to suggest, not to pull their noses for it; but reflection suggested the absurdity of such a course. This is one of the few objections I have to your native, and my adopted country, Tryon, that notwithstanding the great benefit which results from that intimacy between a man and a woman, in which each is _mere friend_, and neither present nor expectant _loser_, our society will not hear of such a thing, without making indelicate reference to marriage. Still, I suppose they would have talked about us any where.
'Miss Brentnall knew this as well as I, and like me, never gave it a thought after the momentary demonstration which recalled it. We passed one whole delightful year together in the Third Avenue boarding-house. I felt my own mind growing, becoming richer in all sorts of knowledge, freer and clearer in every field of thinking, with each succeeding day. And as for Miss Brentnall, she was so kind as to say, and I knew she sincerely meant it, that to her, all lonely in the world, our friendship was in all respects inestimable. At the end of the year, Miss Brentnall was taken ill. For the first few days, neither she nor I felt any serious alarm with reference to her case. The doctor pronounced it a mild type of typhoid fever. It proceeded, so he said to me in private, more from mental causes than from any tangible physical one. Had she been unfortunate in any way? he asked me. I could only reply that, as her intimate friend, I was unaware of the fact. Probably she read late, then, he suggested. I said that might be. At all events, her mind had been very much overtaxed; what she needed was perfect quiet, good nursing, and as little medicine as possible. Upon his giving me this view of the case, I sought out the most faithful, judicious woman within reach, and hired her on Miss Brentnall's behalf, to stay by her bedside night and day. My own income, from the little shop in the Bowery, was now so fair, that I felt able to repay, in some measure, the debt of gratitude I owed my kind friend for her many contributions to the walls of my lonely room. Accordingly, whenever I lighted on any new engraving or book of art, or any embellishment to a sick-chamber, which seemed likely to attract without fatiguing a strained mind, I brought it up to her in the evening. If I had not been in her debt already, I should have been a thousand times repaid for these little evidences of friendship, by the appreciative delight with which the childlike woman talked of them, for their own sake, and the grateful enthusiasm she bestowed upon them for mine.
'The opportunity to be kind and thoughtful was very short. At the end of the third week, the doctor gravely told me that typhus pneumonia was becoming alarmingly prevalent in New-York, and that Miss Brentnall's disease had taken that form. Furthermore, that unless some change for the better occurred in the course of the next twenty-four hours, she would die.
'I heard this piece of news without the least outward sign of sorrow. It did not seem possible to me that I could lose this best, kindest friend I had in the world. You will think the reason whimsical perhaps; but, merely because she was not beautiful, I felt as if she would not be taken away from me. 'Only the beautiful die, only the beautiful,' I kept saying to myself all day, in the shop or at the work-table. In the evening, when I came back to the house, I found that two things had occurred. Miss Brentnall's pulse had become feebler, and she did not seem to me so plain as before. Then, for the first time, I began to be afraid.
'In the morning the doctor took me into the entry, and told me that his patient might live till mid-night, but not longer. Would I take the painful office of breaking the intelligence to her? 'Yes,' I replied, hardly knowing what I said.
'I entered the sick-room. As I came toward the bed, Miss Brentnall opened her eyes and smiled.
'Martha,' said she, in a feeble voice, 'you may go down-stairs, and get me some arrow-root.'
''I shall be dead in a few hours, Orloff. I have something to say to you alone. I am sorry to go away from you. You have been kind to me, Orloff. More than any body else in the world.'
'I took Miss Brentnall's poor, parched hand, but could not answer. 'Orloff--kind as you are to me--in the bottom of your heart, you know that I have the most repulsive face you ever saw. Say _yes_, Orloff. You _do_ know it. I have been sure of it, since I was a little girl, six years old, thirty-four years ago, yesterday. I was never sorry for it, more than a moment at a time, _until a year ago_. And now you may tell me you see it, without hurting me at all. Pride is past. Say that my face is the most unlovely in the world. _Say it to me please_.'
'I saw she was in deep earnest, and I brought myself to answer for her sake:
''Well. But your soul is most lovely.'
''I thank you for saying it, Orloff. And now, now that pride is past, I may tell you something which life would hide forever, but death wrings out of my very soul. You have been a friend to me, a dear, kind friend, Orloff; but nothing more. I have been something else to _you_. A dying woman may say it. _I have loved you_.'
'For a minute we were both silent, and then Miss Brentnall resumed: 'Passionately, passionately. Without once deluding myself; without once dreaming that there was a shadow of hope. Had you been blind; had you been deaf; so that you could never have seen what I am, or heard a word of it from other lips; even had you, under these circumstances, loved me, I would have felt it base to give you, in exchange for yourself, such a thing as I. But you did see, you did hear, and knew that I loved _impossibly_. You came in, now, to tell me that I wuld not live till to-morrow, did you not, Orloff?'
''I meant to, if I could,' was my reply.
''I had a dream just before you came in. I thought I saw you, and you told me so. Do you know what a strange thing happened, just as you seemed speaking? But you are not angry with me, for what I have said already?'
''Angry? My dear friend, no!' said I instantly.
''The strange thing was this. As you spoke, my deformed face fell off like a veil, and my body, like a cloak, was lifted from me. At the same moment, I had the power of being outside of myself, of looking down on myself, and I was--_very beautiful_. I was not proud, but I was glad. I drank in a whole fountain of peace at every breath. At that instant, I began to float further and further from you; but as I went, I heard, oh! such a sweet voice saying: 'Again! Again! You shall meet again!' As you came into the room, I awoke. And I have dared to uncover my soul to you, Orloff Ruricson, because those words are still in my ears. We _shall_ meet again! And when we meet, I shall be beautiful!'
'With all my respect for Miss Brentnall, it was impossible for me not to feel that she was raving. Indeed, from this very belief I took hope. I had seldom heard of cases like hers, in which patients, almost in the very last hour, continued to be delirious. I therefore doubted the doctor's diagnosis, and persuaded myself that, since she had not arrived at the lucid interval preceding death, she was not so near it as he suspected.
'Comforting myself with the assurance that I should see her well again, or at least, that there was no immediate danger, I went down to my shop in the Bowery, leaving orders to send for me immediately, if any change took place in Miss Brentnall.
'After transacting the business of my trade, all day, I came back earlier than usual at evening, greatly depressed in spirits, but without any idea that I had seen my friend for the last time. As I put my latch-key into the door of the boarding-house, it opened. I saw the pale, frightened face of Martha, the nurse. She was just coming out after me. Miss Brentnall was _dead_.
'And again I was alone in the world.'
'There was a quiet funeral where I was the only mourner. There were days of loneliness succeeding, in which it seemed to me that the small isthmus by which I had been living for a year attached to my fellow-men, had been suddenly covered by the rising of a dark, cold tide; that I was an islander again, and the only one.
'There was a will to be proved in the Surrogate's Court. Miss Brentnall's nurse and the landlady witnessed it. I thought this strange at first, remembering what a friend the dead had been to to me; but my surprise at not being a witness was soon supplanted by the greater one of being sole legatee.
'There was a monument to be placed over the dead. To every detail of it I attended personally. I remember how heavy even that simple little shaft seemed to me, how much too heavy for a head that had borne so much of heaviness through life. Then I thought of her expression 'bird-resurrection,' of her perfect faith in the coming of better things; and if the monument had been a pyramid, I would have known that it could not press _her_ down.
'It is one of my eccentricities that I fear good-fortune; not bad-fortune, at all. For I have seen so much of it, that it only looks to me like a grimmer kind of father, coming to wake his over-slept son and tell him that unless he leaps from his feather-bed, and that right suddenly, the time for every thing good in life will have gone by. I fear good-fortune, because I am not sure that I shall use it well. It may carry me till it has dwarfed me; I may lie on its breast till I have lost my legs; then whisk! it may slip away from under me and leave me a lame beggar for the rest of my life.
'I resolved, therefore, that I would not touch a farthing of my new property until I had become quite familiar with the idea of owning it. It was in stocks when I found it. I converted it into real-estate securities, and as fast as my interest came in, deposited it in the bank. Meanwhile, I supported myself well upon the little shop; bought books, and laid something by.
'I was busy one morning at my stuffing-table in the back-room, when the bell over the street-door rang; and running into the front-shop, I found a new customer. He was a private bird--fancier, he told me, and had brought a specimen, which he wished mounted for his cabinet. As he spoke, he slid back the cover from a box which he carried in his arm; and as I looked in, expecting to see a dead bird, a live one hopped out and sat upon my finger.
''I declare that is very curious!' said the gentleman; 'the creature never did such a thing before! I have had it eight months without being able to domesticate it in the slightest. It will not even eat or drink when any body is in the room; yet there it is sitting on your hand.'
'I had never seen such a bird before. It resembled the northern meadowlark in size and shape; in hue, its wings were like the quail's, its breast ash-color, its tail mottled above, like the wings, and of a delicate canary yellow beneath. But the greatest beauty it possessed was a bright crimson crescent, covering the whole back of the head. 'What is this bird?' said I.
''It is a Flicker,' answered the gentleman. 'It was sent me by a friend living in Florida.'
''Why don't you keep it alive?'
''For the reason I've told you. It's perfectly impossible to tame it. My children and I have tried every means we can think of without success. If we confine it in a cage, it mopes all day and eats nothing; if we let it fly about the room, it sculks under the furniture as soon as we enter; if we take it in our hands, it screams and fights. There is a specimen of the execution it can do in an emergency with that sharp, long bill!'
'And my customer showed me his finger, out of which a strip of flesh an inch long had been gouged as neatly as it could have been done with a razor.
''It is nothing but botheration, that confounded bird!' he continued. 'It does nothing but make muss and litter about the house from morning till night; and for all our troubles, it never repays us with a single chirp. Indeed, I don't believe it has any voice.'
'Just then the Flicker, still sitting on my finger, turned up its big, brown eye to my face and uttered a soft, sweet gurgle, like a musical-glass.
''Good heavens!' exclaimed the gentleman; 'it never did that before!'
''Suppose you let me take it for a month or so,' I said; 'it seems to be fond of me, and perhaps I can tame it. I never felt so little like killing any bird in my life. We may make something of its social qualities yet.'
''Very well,' answered the new customer. 'Keep it for a month. I'll drop in now and then to see how its education is getting on.'
''You may hold me responsible for it, Sir,' I replied; and the gentleman left my shop.
'All day the Flicker staid by me as I worked. Now it perched upon my shoulder, now on my head. At noon, when I opened my basket, it took lunch with me. When I whistled or sang, it listened until it caught the strain, and then put in some odd kind of accompaniment. The compass and power of its voice was nothing remarkable, but the tone was as sweet as a wood-robin's. I could not be enough astonished with the curious little creature.
'Still, every kind of animal takes to me naturally. I accounted for the previous wildness of the Flicker on the ground of mistaken management in the gentleman who owned it, and as a matter of professional pride, determined to make something of the bird, were it only to show, like your Sam Patch, Tryon, that some things can be done as well as others. When I went home in the evening I took the Flicker with me, and made it a nest in an old cigar-box on my mantel-piece.
'The next morning, when I awoke, the bird was perched above me on the scroll of the head-board! Again I carried it down-town with me; again I brought it up in the evening. After that it was my companion every where. You will hardly imagine how it could become better friends with me than it did immediately upon our introduction. Yet our acquaintance grew day by day, and with our acquaintance the little being's intelligence. It had not been with me a fortnight before it knew my name. You may think it curious, perhaps unfeeling, but you know it was my only friend in the world, and in memory of the one who had lately held that place, I called it 'Brenta.'
''Brenta!' I would say as I sat before my grate in the evening, and wherever the little creature might be, it would come flying to me with a joyful chirp, light on my finger, dance on the hearth-rug, eat out of my hand, or go through the pantomime of various emotions I had taught it. If I said, 'Be angry, Brenta,' it would scream, flap its wings, and fight the legs of the chair. 'Be sorry, Brenta,' and it would droop its little head, cower against my breast, and utter notes as plaintive as a tired child's.
'By the time the month was up, it could do almost any thing but talk. Its owner, who, to his great delight, had paid it several visits during the progress of its education, now came to take it home.
''I have become very much attached to the little thing,' said I; 'won't you let me buy it of you?'
''You should have asked me when I first brought it,' was his answer. 'You have made it too valuable to part with now. To show you how much I think it is worth, here is a ten-dollar piece for your services.'
'I took the money, feeling very much as if I were receiving the price of treason. 'If you ever change your mind,' said I, 'remember that I am always ready with a generous bid.'
'When we came to look for the Flicker, it was nowhere to be found. I could not believe it possible that it had heard and understood our conversation, but other hypothesis to account for its disappearance was not at hand. After hunting every nook and corner of the shop, I forced myself into the traitorous expedient of luring it by my own voice. 'Brenta!' I called, and the poor creature instantly hopped out of _my coat-pocket_, climbed up to my shoulder, and nestled against my cheek.
''The little rascal!' exclaimed the gentleman.
'I could willingly have knocked him down! It was not until I had undertaken the business with my own hands that we could get the Flicker into the cage which the gentleman had brought with him. Even then, the poor thing continued clinging to my finger with claws which had to be loosened by force, and went out of my shop-door screaming piteously and beating itself against the bars of the cage.
'I had no heart for any thing the rest of the day. At night my room seemed lonelier than a dungeon. The very next morning, the owner of the bird came back with it in a terrible passion.
''You have been teaching the thing tricks!' was his first exclamation.
''To be sure,' said I mildly. 'Wasn't that what you wished me to do?'
''_Wished you to do?_' To mope, and wail, and lie on the carpet like a dead chicken? Never to sing a note or eat a morsel? To peck at the hands that brought food, and--and--'
''I am sure I cannot help it, Sir, if the bird has become attached to me, and mourns when away.'
''You've taught the creature to do it! Look at this finger, will you! another piece taken clean out of it! _Piece_, I say---_steak_, I mean! The bird's a regular butcher! Here, kill the creature directly, and have it stuffed for my cabinet by this day week.'
'And as he sat down the cage on the counter, the Flicker, with a joyful cry, jumped to the wicker-door, and tired to pick a way out to me by its beak.
''There! You see what you've done! Why don't the wretch act so to me?'
''I really can't say, Sir. Perhaps because I've had a great deal to do with birds, and naturally know how to manage them.'
''Well, I don't care. Stuff the thing, and I shall be able to manage it then myself.'
''May I make a repetition of my offer? If you haven't a toucan in your collection, there is a very fine one I'll give you for the Flicker, stuffed only last Saturday. Here's a young pelican---a still rarer bird. Or how would you like a flamingo?'
''Got 'em all,' replied the gentleman curtly. 'And if I hadn't, I count the Flicker. Kill the thing, I say, and stuff it.'
'Just then the bird cast on me a glance as imploring as ever looked out of human eye. For a thousand dollars I could not have done the wrong.
''Really, Sir,' said I, 'I prefer not to take the job. I am very much attached to your bird. I cannot bear to kill it.'
'''Pon my soul!' he exclaimed, 'if that isn't pretty for a taxidermist! I should suppose, to hear you talk, that you would faint at the sight of a dead sparrow! Well, you can get your courage up to stuff the bird, I suppose? As for the killing, I'll do that myself.'
'As the man said this, he thrust his hand into the cage, and caught the Flicker by the wing. With a sharp cry, his victim struck him again on the finger, enraging him more than ever. He opened his pen-knife, pulled the bird out, drew the blade across its throat, and out of the cruel slash there poured, mingling with the blood, a bitter cry, like a woman's. I heard it, and every drop of my own blood returned to my heart. He let the bird drop upon the counter: it gave one hop, tumbled over in my hand, and its eye-lids slid shut.
''This day week, remember,' said the man, and went out of the shop, wiping his knife.
'I took up the bird, laid it in my neck, and, I am not ashamed to say, cried over it.
'There are a good many things which may happen between now and this day week. I am not one of those people who regard every misfortune that occurs to an enemy the judgment of Heaven in their behalf. But I must say, that the event which occurred before that man's week was out, always seemed to me a direct blow from Nemesis. He was a very passionate fellow; subject to temporary fits of insanity. One of them came on in the morning while he was shaving, and he cut his own throat as he had the Flicker's.
'When his estate was settled, nobody thought of the bird. I inclosed the ten dollars he had given me for its education in an anonymous note to his executors, simply stating that my conscience demanded it; and having thus quieted that organ, kept the Flicker for myself. With a daguerrotype of Miss Brentnall's found among a parcel of papers labelled, '_To be burned up_,' and upon which alone, of all the parcel, I could not persuade myself to execute her will, I put the stuffed bird by. When I was too lonely to dare to be utterly alone, I went to the trunk, where they were preserved and looked at them.
'After the loss of my second only friend, a painful change came over me. I had risen from the shock of Miss Brentnall's death with an elasticity which surprised even myself. Partly for the reason that my constitution was better by several less months of anxiety, grief, and application to business. Partly because I felt assured that, as she said, we should some time or other meet again.
'When the Flicker died, I felt that this only thing hitherto left to love me, could never reappear. The kind heart of the woman would beat again; the kind heart of the bird no more forever. And strangely enough, the whole sorrow that I had passed through for Miss Brentnall's loss revived, and I went about my day's work bearing the weight of a two-fold melancholy.
'The first thing that the bird fancying public knew--indeed almost the first thing I knew myself, so abstracted, so moody was I--a paragraph appeared in the morning papers, to the effect that the celebrated Taxidermist and Aviarian Professor, Orloff Ruricson, was about to close his business, and make a voyage to Europe, Asia and Africa, from which parts he hoped to return in two or three years, with a large and interesting collection of rare animals, to establish a Natural History Museum.
'I had caused the appearance of this notice myself; but when I read it, felt quite as surprised by it as any body. In nerve and mind I was so worn out that although thoroughly resolved to make the move, the consolidation of the purpose into such a fixed form shocked me.
'When the novelty of the idea passed off, I disposed of all my stock to various amateurs who knew me and had every disposition to help me by paying large prices. I put the thirty thousand dollars I was now worth into such a shape that I could get its increase in regular remittances; packed the bird, the daguerrotype, and a small wardrobe, and took passage by barque for Genoa.
'At sun-rise one Monday morning, the barque's yawl took me out to her anchorage. As I went up the ladder at the side, I heard an opera-air playing on board, and when I reached the deck, the first thing that met my eyes was an Italian grinder, with his organ and monkey.
''Is that man going the voyage with us?' I asked the captain.
''Yes, Sir,' he replied; 'but he shan't play without permission after we get to sea. He's a Genoese, who has made enough money in this country to keep a fruit-stall in his own, so he's going home.'
'Home! He had a home and was going to it! I would have handed him my bank-book--taken his money and organ--to be able to say _that_.
'As the tug hitched fast to us and we began walking down toward the Narrows, I crossed to the other side of the ship, that I might take a look at the fortunate man.
'Certainly, I said to myself, Fortune _is_ blind. He had a home; but he was one of the most ill-favored rascals I ever laid my eyes on. No body would have taken him for a Genoese--the New--Englander of Italy--rather for a Romanesque cut-throat, or a brigand of the mountain, who had found his stiletto or his carbine good for only the slowest kind of shilling and taken to the nimble six-pence of the hand-organ, on the principle that honesty was the best policy. You have seen a thousand pen-and--pencil pictures of the fellow, and need no description of him from me.
'As I stood beside him at the bulwarks, his monkey leapt upon me.
''Pardon, good gentleman,' said the Italian with an abject smirk, and gave a jerk to the chain that brought back the little animal flying.
''Never mind that,' said I; 'let him come to me. I am fond of monkeys; I would like to look at him.'
''As it pleases, then,' replied the Italian, with another smirk, and loosed the chain again. 'Go, Beppo!'
'Beppo needed no command, but jumped instantly upon my arm and laid his cheek upon my bosom. As I patted his head, I examined him curiously, and found him the most beautiful little monkey in the world. A Marmoset, with a great brown, tender eye like a gazelle's; a face which varied its expression constantly without ever degenerating into the brutal leer of the common ape; a winning, confiding mien of head and hand that was human, child--like; and a soft coronal of golden fur around his little skull, that added still more to his baby-like look, giving him the appearance of some mother's favorite, dressed for a walk in a bonnet of down. I don't know how I could have been guilty of the folly of becoming attached to the little fellow, after all the lessons of warning my life had taught me. But I did take a great fancy to him. Never a day passed during the whole voyage, in which he did not get many a tid-bit from my hands. He spent far more of the time with me than with his own master, and before long obeyed me with a hearty good nature, which he never thought of showing toward that musical brigand.
'One sunny afternoon, when we were three weeks out, the captain, the grinder and myself stood upon the forecastle-deck, trying to make out a sail just visible on the horizon ahead of us. As usual, Beppo was cutting his pranks about me. For a moment he would sit demurely on my shoulder and hold his tail to his eye in mimicry of the captain's eye-glass. A second more, and he would be sitting in the fore-top. The next, and he came sliding down a halliard to his old perch. These antics interfered with our look-out, and I put my hand into my pocket to feel for something which might keep him still. Finding neither prune, nor nut, nor string, but only the purse which I always carried there, I drew it out and opened it, to look for a copper. As I committed this incautious act, I saw the eyes of the Italian cast a sidelong, sly glance at the gold that shone there, and I shut the clasp with an uncomfortable sense of having been very silly. At the same moment, he stole away, like a cat, to the fore-stays, and pretended to be more earnestly interested than any of us in the sail.
'The nights grew still warmer and warmer as we sailed on. The cabin became so close, that I ordered the steward to bring my mattress upon deck, and usually slept there under a shawl, unless we had rain.
'I had lain down at about half-past eleven, upon one night in particular, utterly fatigued, sick at heart, despairing. As the tall masts nodded past the stars--the stars rather than the masts seemed moving--and in my heart I believed that even heaven itself was not permanent; that all things flickered and danced, and passed away as earthly hope had passed from my heart; nothing was fixed, certain, and to be striven for. Finally, I only wished to sleep. 'Let me die this temporary death of slumber,' said I; 'there is happiness therein, and therein only.' I was more of a Lord Byron in that instant; more of a moral desperado; less of a Thomas Carlyle, a Goethe, sanguine Yankee, who believes that the best way to get rid of misery is to suffer and _work out_, if you fall, always to fall on your feet and _scramble out_, than I had ever been in my life, Messers. Tryon and Bonenfant! So, said I, let me go to sleep.
'Would you believe it, that confounded little Beppo would not hear of such a thing! Over my face this minute, over my legs the next; now tumbling down on my breast from a line; now, as the sailors say, working Tom Cox's traverse, up one hatchway and down the other, past my side.
'I could not get a wink of sleep. I tossed and I tumbled; I swore and I grumbled. I called Beppo to me, and for the first time without success.
'I was just about going after Luigi, his master, when I saw that person creeping to me in the shadow of the mizzen-mast, by the high cove of the after-hatch, I was quite hid from the stern, and the only person who happened to be there, the second mate, could see Luigi no more than me.
'At that instant the monkey gave me a tweak of the hair that nearly made me scream out, and then ran away noiselessly forward. Luigi crept on and on. As he drew nearer, I could perceive a stiletto in his hand. Its blade gleamed faintly now and then in the star-light, so indistinctly that at first it seemed like a trailing white ribbon.
'I did not believe his first intention was to kill me. That would have been absurd as well as cruel. So I lay still and let him come close. I feigned myself fast asleep and snored heavily.
'He knelt at my side, and holding the knife over my heart with one hand, felt with the other in my pocket. Still I slept away for dear life. He found the purse; drew it out with a slow, gentle motion, and crept forward again on his hands and knees, thanking his saints in a whisper. I was on his back before he could turn around. He was lithe, but feeble, and I had him pinioned, prone upon his face, with the purse in his hand and the thanksgiving in his mouth, while it was yet only half-changed to a curse. Thus I forced from him both the stiletto and the purse, and threw the one over-board at the same time that I returned the other to my pocket. Then I arose, and we stood up face to face.
''Shall I have you hanged at the yard-arm in half-an-hour?' was my first question.
'The little Italian looked me full in the face, his olive cheeks were like chalk, his lips quivered, but he did not speak. And then, as if suddenly understanding the cause of his failure, he ran forward to the fore-stay, where the marmoset was clinging and chattering.
'I hurried after him. Catching him by the shoulder, I whispered in his ear: 'If one hair of Beppo's head is hurt, _you_ are a dead man before you can say your prayers. You came after my money. You are a villain, but you shall have it--two gold pieces, ten dollars, at least--if you sell him to me on the spot. Is Beppo mine, on these conditions? If he isn't, I will arouse the crew, and you shall dangle aloft before the next watch is set. Yes or no?'
''You shall have the monkey,' replied the Italian, with another of his infernal smirks. 'You shall have him, but the gentleman will not find him good fortune.'
''The devil take you and your fortune! If he brings me no better fortune than you deserve--and for the same reason--I shall wish, and not wait, to die.' So I brought the monkey aft, and made Luigi acknowledge him mine, while I counted out the ten dollars, in the presence of the second mate.
'After that night, warm as it might be, you will readily believe that I slept in the cabin. Beppo nestled by me, occupying as much of the berth as his little form required; and I declare to you, that had he needed it all I would have given it to him, and stretched myself on the floor, so warm an affection had I for the creature who had saved my money; possibly my life.
'At that time, perhaps you will say because I was young and visionary, I often believed that Beppo knew what he had been the means of doing for me. At this day I shall be still insaner in your eyes, for I hold that he was not only the _means_, but the intentional _agent_. I must stop. I am forerunning my story.
'It was amazing how I improved as soon as I had something to love! I became so strong, so hearty, that I was quite ashamed to think of having abandoned America for my health; and meditated going back with the barque's return voyage. Nothing but the presence on board of that cursed Luigi prevented my spirits from being better than since I could remember.
'We reached Genoa, and anchored in Quarantine. My trunk was on deck, and in all respects I was ready to go ashore. Already the infernal Italian had taken his seat in the health-officer's boat; and, with his elbow resting on his organ, looked up at me over the gunwale. Beppo, for very joy of seeing land again, had climbed clear to the main truck, and was chattering audibly as he whisked his tail.
''All ready, Beppo!' I cried; come down, boy!'
'In his haste at hearing my voice, as he tumbled head over heels down the main shrouds, for the first time in my life that I ever saw a monkey do such a thing, he missed his hold on a ratline and tumbled into the water of the harbor. I sprang to the side, and called to the oarsman of the boat:
''Save that monkey, and you shall have--whatever you ask!' Fool! I was talking English, and every man of them was an Italian! A language I had some understanding of, but could not speak.
'And then I heard that olive-skinned wretch, the organ-grinder, rply to the speaker: 'He says the beast who fell overboard is sick of the small-pox, and you must not touch him.'
'As he made this answer he turned around to me with one of his diabolical smirks, kissed his lips to me, spit at the drowning Beppo, then asked me blandly: 'Did I not tell the good gentleman his buying would be bad fortune? Are we settled of accounts, good gentleman?'
'I to hear this! I to look over the side; hear my last friend screaming his poor wordless agony; see him look up at me with that supplicating child's eye of his; see him fighting the water despairingly with his little unlearned hands, then go down in a bubbling circle out of sight; I who could not swim a stroke!
'The captain, seeing my distress, humanely put his own boat after the poor creature. With the boat-hook a sailor brought him up after he had gone down for the last time. And thus they laid him on the deck at my feet. I lifted him up; his child eyes were closed, and the golden crown of his fur lay matted and dripping over them. I tried to warm him in my bosom. I laid my hand on his heart; it had stopped.
'Beppo was dead. The Marmoset whose nature had given, only of all, to love the man!
'And I went into Quarantine at Genoa, once more alone in the world.'
'Ciel! and vat you do with zat cursed Italian?'
'I? Nothing. Ten years afterward I saw him rowing in the galley at Marseilles. He knew me; I knew him. He smirked as of old, but which such very visible teeth that I was glad he was chained; and passed on without even asking the overseer his crime.
'My wanderings, dating from the day I landed at Genoa, would fill with their narrative a book far larger than 'Livingston's Travels.' I journeyed over all the traversable regions of Africa; in India I have been wherever the foot of the white man has trodden; I spent a year and a half in China; almost as long in Syria; and I went every where over the continent of Europe. Then I passed six months in Sweden; most of that time living at my native town, Jonpoping, until at last the sound of my mother's tongue spoken by stranger mouths became absolutely unbearable to me, and I left the country never to return. I will see Great Britain, I said. No better place for that purpose, at least to begin with, than London. So I went there; and, with all the curiosities I had collected in my vagabond life, opened a shop as Exhibitor and Taxidermist, in Piccadilly.
'By this time, you will perceive, I had quite abandoned my original idea of returning to America to open a museum. It takes no longer for the world in general, or the world of New-York, to forget its largest man, than for a heaping measure of grain to close up the gap after a hand is withdrawn. And I was a long way from the conceit of fancying myself even a large man. Probably, I said to myself, there are a dozen in my place by this time. I will not go back to revive a name wiped out; it is at least more entertaining to stay here and try chalking out a new one. If I fail, why, the remittances come regularly.
'So up went the old sign on a fresh board: 'Orloff Ruricson, Taxidermist and Aviarian Professor.' In about three months from the opening of the establishment, the collection was a little more than self-supporting, and the Taxidermy throve at the rate of ten guineas a week. I got some favorable critiques in the _Times_; some body called me the Minor Zoological Gardens; and gradually my aviarianism came into play. Lord Crinkum consulted me about his Chinese pheasants, and Lord Crankum got my general views on fighting-cocks. The Honorable Miss Dingleton, like Mr. Pecksniff, only with more money to bestow on the object, thought she would like to see my ideas of a grotto. I gave it to her, and of course every alderman's wife must have me fussing about her cobble-stones out in what she called a suburban willer. That's the great beauty of the art in England, looked at in the paying light; the moment you're so fortunate as to get a lord by the nose, you lead all Cockneydom withersoever you will. It's a country where every body shuts his eyes, and grabs the next bigger man by the coat-tail. No, on the whole, I got along.'
'That was all very well, looked at in the paying light, as you say,' interrupted John Tryon, 'but you must have been terribly lonely during the long winter evenings. Didn't you have any body to speak to; any body to _love_?'
'Nobody. I had learned the misery of that by lessons enough, I should think. Even in the desert I never made a pet of my camel, and most people do that, to the extent, at least, of complimenting the lovely beast upon his patience. I had nothing to care for and cared for nothing. I was now thirty years old, you see, and had travelled.
'I had kept the shop in Piccadilly for a year. I stood one morning, at the expiration of that period, in a room of the back--shop, where I prepared specimens, and was consulted. My clerks had just taken down the shutters, and were chattering to each other behind the counter. I was pensive that morning, a mighty unusual thing for me, and their gabble disturbed me. I meditated calling out to them to be still, when the shop-door opened, the front-door looking on the street, and some one said:
''Please, Sir, can you give me any work?'
'Good Heavens! I started to my feet, and yet seemed in such a dream that I could scarcely move them after I was erect. Who spoke? It was a low, sweet, woman's voice, the like whereof I had not heard for nine years! Not that it was low, or sweet, or a woman's; not that it was all these together, but that it was _the voice_.
''Get out with you, beggar!' answered the chattering clerks, with unanimous fierceness; and I heard the front shop-door shut slowly, as if by a tired, feeble hand.
'In a second more and she would be gone; I should never see her again! That thought awakened me, and gave wings to my feet. I dashed through the shop; my clerks looking at me as if they thought I had suddenly gone mad. I jerked the door open, and saw a little girl's figure moving wearily away among the hurrying crowd; her back toward me.
''Who asked for work?' I called out aloud.
'Among the few that turned to look was this lithe figure. She turned hastily, anxiously, deprecatingly, and again I heard that wonderful voice.
''It was I, Sir.'
''Come into the shop, if you please. Let us talk about it.'
''You are not vexed with me, Sir?'
'As the girl said this she cast her great brown eyes upon me so piteously, so helplessly, seeming so intensely to fear displeasure, yet so wistfully to beg help, that all at once there flashed before me the harbor of Genoa! I saw it for an instant as distinctly as we now see the Kaaterskill Clove; saw the villainous Italian smirking across his organ; saw the glassy, shining waters of the Mediterranean; and the drowning face of Beppo going down therein; _with those same eyes in it!_
''Vexed with you? With _you_? God knows I am not!' was my first wild exclamation, as soon as this strange phantasmagoria passed by; and I saw Piccadilly, and its crowd, and the slender girl, again, standing there uncared for, like myself, in the great ocean of London being.
''Come in, I say! Come in! For the love of God, come in!' I continued passionately, reckless who heard me.
''Work, food, money, help, any thing, every thing! I will give you all.'
'This I said beseechingly, yet neither this nor the passionate command did the girl, timid as she was, seem to regard as at all strange or out of place. She only came confidingly toward me, put her hand in mine, and I led her into the back-shop, while the chatterers stared.
'I bade her take off her faded bonnet, and sit down. As she obeyed, her golden brown hair caught on a pin in the bonnet behind; its soft, well-grown mass lifted from her neck, and there I beheld, close where the brown joined the white, _a small red crescent mark reaching almost from ear to ear_!
'I seemed to be wandering through a chain of dreams. I tried to speak, but in vain. To think, but as vainly. She disengaged the bonnet, and let it droop upon her shoulders. Her face, thus disclosed, was the most beautiful array of human features, flushed through by the light of the most beautiful human soul, I ever saw, or mused of, or believed in, in my life!
'She sat in the chair opposite me. As for me, I gazed and gazed. Modestly inviting questions, she looked me frankly in the eyes; and then, as in wonder that I did not speak, threw her hand backward, and perused my face curiously. This posture elevated her chin. I was about to say something, but just then _I saw under that chin another crimson mark, the slenderest of slender lines, as if the finest knife-point dipped in blood had been drawn clear across the throat by a nervous hand_. I durst not say to myself what I was reminded of by _that_. Not even to think of it at all. I half-feared that I had become insane, rubbed my forehead, and kept repeating: 'Oh! it is only her bonnet-strings tied too tightly, that is all!'
'I would not trust myself with questioning her then. Not a word of any kind did I speak to her, except to say gently, that she might consider herself my apprentice in the art of bird--stuffing; and that all her necessities should be provided for.
'I had a little bed made for her in the room of the old Yorkshire woman who minded my solitary establishment for me. She was an orphan, so she said afterward; and had walked all the way from the Stafford Potteries, where her only relative, an aunt, was just dead; hoping to find work in London, that might keep her from the street. She was eighteen years of age, and had never known father or mother.
'Once more I had a living creature to feel an interest in, to become attached to. Whatever was mysterious in her arrival, her appearance, or her voice, I dismissed from my mind as mere curious coincidences, at once too frivolous, too perplexing to be followed up. There was the real substantial fact: a girl without home or friends. Now what was to be done with her?
'I settled the question gradually day by day. I taught her, in the day-time, to help me at my specimen-table; in the evening, to read and write. The rapidity with which she caught by the right end, and made her own every new process, either of brain or fingers, was astonishing. She was my constant wonder and delight. So imitative, yet so original; so talented but so modest withal; so bright and sportive, so docile and grateful; she soon became my right hand and right eye in all I had to do.
'As soon as I had dressed her presentably, the clerks saw her superiority as they could not through the old clothes, and did it unquestioning reverence. But for this _reverence_ I verily believe they would have come in a body, and thrown themselves at her feet, entreating her to take her pick within the first month after she was domesticated with me. For they were all desperately in love with her; devouring her with their eyes as she went in and out among them so modestly and yet so loftily, like a queen in disguise.
'Well, I did not wonder; I could forgive them. For, six months after she had entered my shop-door, the homeless wayfarer, I awoke to the fact that I was in love with her myself. For the first time in all the days of my manhood, did I know what it was to feel a woman wrought into the texture of my life, so that pulling her away seemed an endless pain to look forward to; and before I knew that it had happened. And that combination of circumstances only, as I view it, is adequate to constitute _love_, on which marriage may be honorably founded.
'As soon as I knew that I loved Bessie Cartwright--that was her name--I began to torture myself with the question whether I ought to tell her of it _yet_. Whether, if I did so, her simple heart, out of mere gratefulness, would not instantly give itself up as a matter of debt and honor to the man whom she regarded only in the light of a benefactor. And I had rather have any thing happen than this, my own loneliness till I died even, than this, so galling to me if I discovered it when it was too late, so ruinous to every thing that was best in her young growing womanhood.
'As in the old days, it was my custom to look at the memorials of my lost friends, when times went hard with me, and my spirits fell. So, one evening, after I had been musing painfully in my room for a couple of hours, I took from my battered old trunk Miss Brentnall's portrait, the Flicker, and the Marmoset, which I had embalmed after his death in the harbor of Genoa.
'I ranged them on my table, and with a feeling of mournful pleasure gazed from one to the other, dwelling upon all the past which they recalled.
'As I sat thus employed, I heard Bessie's tap at the door; I called, 'Come in!' and she entered, with her reading-book for the evening's lesson. Seeing the unusual array upon my table, she asked me: 'What! Working still?'
''No; not working, Bessie,' I replied; 'thinking.'
''May I see who that is?' said she artlessly, pointing to the daguerrotype.
''Oh! certainly. Though you must not laugh at it. It is a very homely lady, but a very good one; and, while she lived, my dearest friend.' So I handed it to her.
'She bent her brown head down to the shaded drop-light on my table, and held the portrait close to it. I watched her face to see the effect of that strange world-wronged face on the beautiful, Heaven-favored one.
'I saw Bessie Cartwright grow pale as death! Her eyes became fixed like a cataleptic person's. But her head moved, from the portrait to the Flicker, from the Flicker to the Marmoset. The portrait fell from her hand, she grasped hurriedly at the table, and then fell to the floor.
''Dead; dead like the rest!' said I, with a fierce coldness; 'and because I loved her.'
'I pulled the shade from the drop-light, and drew it to the edge of the table, so that the light fell full on the prostrate girl. I called her by name, and go not answer. I loosened her dress, and in doing so pushed the heavy knot of her brown hair away from her neck. That scarlet crescent glowed there in the midst of a marble whiteness, like a flame!
'I turned her upon her back, and beneath her chin saw the slender crimson line, burning also brighter than ever, while all the throat was deadly pale. 'Bessie! Bessie! speak to me once, only once more.' I spoke passionately at her ear.
'Still no answer. I looked in agony at the dead things which had once been mine; saw plainest of all the Flicker; and again that strange suspicion which I had felt the first day I ever saw the girl, awoke in my brain.
'I bent my mouth to her ear, and softly said: 'Brenta!' At that instant her great dark eyes opened, she read my face wistfully, and then her lips murmured:
''Orloff, dear Orloff! I told you I would meet you again; I have kept my word.'
'It was the voice that became silent ten years before in the sick-room next my own!
''Miss Brentnall!' I exclaimed, not knowing what I said.
''Orloff, dear Orloff!' replied _the voice_, once more from the lips of Bessie Cartwright.
'And then the blood came rushing back to the young girl's face. Timidly she sat up, passed her hand across her eyes, and said faintly:
'Oh! I have had _such_ a dream!'
''What was it, dear child?' I asked.
''I thought that picture you showed me was I. Then I felt myself dying. You were by me till all the room grew dark. I hardly remember what came then; but I have had, oh! so many strange thoughts, and been in so many strange places! I thought I was killed with a little knife; I was on the sea; I was close by a great town that rose from the water's side; I was drowning; then I was myself again in the old dress I wore when I came to you; then I seemed to be all things at once, and you called me a name I had heard before, when I lay in the bed dying; and oh! forgive me, Sir, I called you by your Christian name, Orloff, _dear_ Orloff! I said, do forgive me; I will never do it again.'
''You must do something else than that,' said I, no longer awe--stricken and trembling, for in a moment the mystery of my life parted like a fog, and I saw its meaning beyond in the clearest of heaven's twilight. 'Something else than that, Bessie. You must never call me by any other name than _dear_ Orloff! Can you call me that? For _I love you_; God only knows how I love you. Can you?'
'The girl looked at me with parted lips; caught her breath quickly; hid her face in my bosom; and once more after all those years the beloved voice, knowing what it said, replied:
''Orloff, _dear_ Orloff.'
'Bessie Cartwright is my wife. Not until years after did I tell her the meaning of her dream; not how through lives and deaths she had followed me to save and claim her own. She knows it now; we both keep it for the grateful wonder of our prayers; a mystery like all mysteries had we but the key, with its grand, beneficent meaning, unmeaning, contemptible only to those who read it wrong or not at all.'
'And you mean to tell to me zat ze beautiful lady you have now espouse, be vonce in ze body of ze vare ugly woman, ze red-head bird vat you call him, and ze marmosette; you mean to zay to me zat?'
'I'd like to ask that question too,' said John Tryon.
'I mean to tell you both, answered Orloff Ruricson, 'that you can put _your own interpretation on my facts_. Also, that if you ever break our confidence in telling my history with its proper names, then good-by to your friendship with Orloff Ruricson.'
I have been permitted to state the facts without the names. Let me also be permitted to state them without my interpretation.
THE first five years of my manhood were too painful to be dwelt upon. Years, it may be, of much wrong doing--years certainly of great ignorance and unwisdom--years also of suffering like the inextricable entanglements of some slowly thickening nightmare. Let them be summed up in this: that without any world-knowledge I went into the world, without business capacity I attempted business, with a morbid nature which felt the breath of real life as a flayed surface feels a draught of Winter wind, I rashly thrust myself into the tumult of a great city and struggled for prizes with the strong. I had a partner. At this day the smile with which I speak that word is not one of bitterness, but simply of calm, experienced pity for the man that long ago I ceased to be. For what partnership can there be between strength and weakness--the bold, pushing mind of the market-place, the self--distrusting, shrinking, moody nature of the closet? Because I did not know this, or knowing, madly shut my eyes to it, I failed in my first scheme of life.
There were a few bright days when the venture looked prosperous, and cause delayed asserting itself in effect. I verily believed that I had conquered the course of nature--that even _I_ might win the race of the world. There came long days of growing doubt, of mutual coldness between my partner and me. Angry recriminations followed, and at last with a few fierce words we parted.
At this moment, though each impartial calm has succeeded to the former tempestuous bitterness, I cannot tell which was in the wrong. The whole affair was an inexplicable enigma to me. I was accused of fraud, but I could recollect no fraud. Of deceit, but my brain was so distracted by things I had no talents for, that I knew not true from false. Of treachery--how could any man enmeshed like me beguile another?
After that there were law suits--arrests--yes, even one short imprisonment. During that latter, which lasted two days and nights, nothing but the absolute barreness of all means in my narrow cell prevented my ending that miserable life of mine.
At last--with my once sufficient property dwindled to a pauper's pension--the law let me go. The fraud which I could not remember, which I never knew when I committed it, which at this day I do not understand--was only not quite proven. My counsel told me I had escaped by a hair's breadth, and I know that he worked night and day to save me. I have wondered since, how many men like me may be shuddering all night long in the stone coffins of Auburn, of Sing Sing? Vae victis! Prison is for the weak as well as the wicked.
Thus I passed the first five years of my manhood. Can you wonder that I cast them behind me--that I drop them in the depths of the sea? Let them be forgotten, unspoken things!
But because a man cannot be quite miserable while the Destinies have some work left for him to do--a great kindness was shown to me in that hour when I found myself penniless--disgraced--utterly bewildered, and twenty six years old.
An old friend of my father's--head of an asylum for deaf mutes---invited me to become one of his assistants. I accepted the offer as if it had been a call into Heaven from the beckoning hands of the angels! I had been thinking of the silence of death--here were life and silence possible. No more maddening rush of feet, no more tumult of wrathful voices, no more cries of conflict or pain--but a great overshadowing rest and hush. This was better than being rich again, with one more chance to risk my ruin; and for the first time in months I felt my eyes grow wet, and thanked God.
Seven o'clock of a Saturday evening in September saw me within the walls of this asylum for the first time. A mute servant maid opened the door of the great front hall--a mute porter carried my trunks up the broad staircase to my room--and while I stood waiting and wondering at the solemn silence which reigned through that immense home of seven hundred living souls--looking up at the high arched ceiling of spotless white, and the heavy doors of shining oak, with a feeling that all this largeness of proportion must be one of the traits of a dream in which spirits were thronging around me, silent to me only because I was mortal--my friend came down the opposite corridor and spoke my name. Not a look--not a tone in his voice recalled the past, as with a few kind words he welcomed me _home_.
"You will find your room ready for you," said he. "You must be dusty and hungry. After you change your clothes--come down to my parlor--No. 30--and take supper with me. At eight o'clock the pupils hold one of their Saturday evening soirees in the large assembly room. It is the only time of the week that the girls' and boys' departments meet on a social footing. They have games---and many of them dance very prettily. If you are not too tired, this will be a fine opportunity for you to become acquainted with them and their peculiar characteristics. What do you say?"
"That it will interest me greatly. I'll be with you in five minutes."
Supper being finished we repaired to the assembly room. This was a house in itself--one hundred feet in length, sixty in breadth and with a ceiling twenty five feet high. Its floor had no carpet and needed none--for its planks of yellow pine were so daintily clean, and so beautifully variegated by the darkened natural grain of the wood, that a refined eye felt no desire to replace them even by mosaics. In this immense hall were gathered all but those very youngest pupils of the institution who had by this time been been fast asleep for an hour in the baby-beds of their department. Every age above the child of seven or eight years was represented in this concourse. To my surprise, many of the pupils were full grown young men and women. The larger portion of them were dressed in that cheap, neat uniform of blue and white check blouses and grey pantaloons for which the state contributes the raw materials and the apprentice tailors of the institution do the making up--or dark blue dresses and white aprons from the same warehouse, and of like home construction. A hundred, it may be, of both sexes, were paying pupils from families more or less opulent--and these were permitted to dress as they chose within the boundaries of elegant simplicity. Notwithstanding this discrepany in attire--and the social interval plainly indicated, a most democratic equality of feeling seemed to pervade the whole party. Check and blue were at ease in the presence of silk and broadcloth--the soft white fingers that were born to gloves, unshrinkingly clasped the rough brown hands of labor, in all the common games.
Dr. Gaskell and I took seats on a sofa near the door where we could watch the universal merriment without appearing to intrude the presence of a stranger.
"Do they never _laugh_? I asked.
"Sometimes--but the sound is not pleasant to hearing ears. It is harsh because they are without any test for its modulations. As they grow up they become aware of this--and put a restraint upon themselves. The younger children laugh like wild beasts---there, you hear that burst from those little fellows at the other end of the room? How jarring it seems! The older--more refined pupils--unless in severe pain, never venture an audible sound."
At this instant, a low silvery gurgle of laughter--like a wood--robin's evening note or the tone of a delicate harmonic glass---welled up from a throng at our side.
"Ah!" said Dr. Gaskell. "I should have made one exception. We have a most remarkable girl here who has never become entirely inaudible. It was she who laughed then. And she always laughs in that tone. How she contrives to make her voice so sweet is a never-ceasing enigma to me. If I were superstitious I should believe that her inner ear is in communication with the angels---that she hears _their_ laugh and repeats it in her own, modulated by them. In twenty five years acquaintance with every grade and variety of deaf-mutes I have never met a parallel instance."
"Are you sure that she does not hear in some slight degree?"
"Perfectly sure." Her external sense of sound is so near the absolute zero point as the organs can possibly be reduced. I asked myself the same question--trying to find a clue to her remarkable idiosyncrasy--till last fourth of July--when I saw my naughty little boy fire a pistol close beside her ear without in the least startling her."
"What is her name?"
"And how old is she?"
"Seventeen. She has been here since she was nine. Nearly half her life. I expect that we must part with her year after next---for her adopted father, Major Braithwaite, is determined that she shall be graduated as soon as possible. His only real relation to her is that of second cousin--but I believe he loves her as well as he might have loved wife and children. He has never married--she seems all in all to him. He comes to see her whenever he can get furlough--and has only permitted her to stay with us so long because he is satisfied that she has great genius and wishes it cultivated to the utmost. I agree with him--she is a wonderful girl. But see--they are getting up a dance!"
"Where is the music?"
"Ha, ha! You are betrayed into the question that everybody from the outside asks, when I invite him to a dance of the deaf-mutes! Think again. What good would music do them?"
"How absurd in me! Of course! But what pleasure can there be in dancing without it? And how can they keep time?"
"They _do_ take pleasure in it. As to the fact of their keeping time, you will see for yourself presently. Of its reason, you are as good a judge as I. It's all conjecture--but you can choose between the opinion I threw out just now, that Margaret Somers, who almost always leads them, hears spirit music, and they follow her measure with their eyes--and another one of a phrenological nature, that every man has an organ of time independent of these fleshy flaps which we hear with, and measures ideal successions quite inaudible externally."
The set had taken the floor. Eight of the older pupils stood _en-carrer_, waiting some signal, as you and I would pause for the music to begin. I did not need to be told who of the eight was Margaret Somers. Standing opposite to us, in the head couple, her great blue eyes looking far away and half upward--her head inclined as if listening--her hands extended winningly but beseechingly, their gesture full of wonderful expression, like one who asks silence in a lovely tone--her almost aerial figure swaying unconsciously with that dramatic grace which none but the deaf-mute can ever attain, which in the deaf-mute is the embodiment of the very inmost soul of language--she gave the signal and the dance began.
I could not believe it! Wonderful! Wonderful! I kept saying to Dr. Gaskell, as the silent dancers went gliding through the evolutions of their quadrille, and I, compelled by the absence of all other music, and the suggestions of their inimitable motion, hummed in myself a reminiscence of three strains to which I had so often kept gay time, during the years which now were forever cast behind me.
Like some poor star-gazer, straining from his cold pinnacle to come at the very heart of those far torch-bearers on the Olympian course of the universe--enamored of their glory, awe-struck at the fleetness of their tireless glancing round the cycles, and certain that they run to the measure of some infinite unbearable music, could he but hear--I bent further and further forward, devouring the glad faces of those silent dancers with my eyes---until the last foot paused--and I leaped to my feet, trembling strangely.
"How pale you are!" said Dr. Gaskell. "Do you feel ill?"
"No, but this dancing affects me very remarkably--_they must hear! she_ at least."
"I assure you, they do not. Try it--call 'Margaret' in your loudest voice."
I hardly durst make the venture--so sure was I that it would startle her--but I did it. And the result was just what any unimpassioned spectator might have foreseen.
The doctor rose, and catching Margaret Somers's eye, signalled to her. With the unembarrassed springy footstep of a child she came to us, and the Doctor told her in the sign language that I was the new teacher. For a moment she measured me from head to foot--not staring at me, but gliding over me with a ripple of quiet sight--then smiled, and confidingly shook my extended hand.
"Do you hear at all?" asked Dr. Gaskell manually, translating to me the conversation as it proceeded.
She touched her ears and shook her head.
"Do you know what _music_ is?"
"Oh yes," she answered, her face gladdening suddenly, like a hill side when the clouds break.
"What is music?"
For a moment she paused, her face changing into that expression of deep concentration which is so well known to those familiar with the deaf and dumb, and which is interpreted, even by those who have longest known them, as "_waiting to be inspired_." Then she answered in signs so marvellously vital that I had no need of Dr. Gaskell's tongue translation.
"_Music is the heart's feeling of God close by, when He touches us in quick throbs, and we try to measure them_."
I lay thinking of that answer all night. It seemed to ensphere like a great soul all that the masters have sung and written from the day that Israel rejoiced passing through the sea to the last echo of Bertramo's tremendous entreaty in Robert Le Diable!
Three weeks had passed away since my coming to the asylum, and in that time I had made no mean progress in the language of the hands. _Hands_ I say advisedly, for it is a common error among outsiders to suppose that the ordinary intercourse of the deaf and dumb is carried on by means of the _fingers_ merely; in other words, that they _spell_ out their thoughts by the alphabet. Whereas, the truth is that this admirable alphabet of theirs is seldom used because it is seldom needed, a system of pantomime far superior in all qualities of grace and expressiveness to any seen upon the stage, superseding it for all ordinary purposes, and indeed far more accurately and rapidly conveying delicate shades of meaning than any possible alphabetic speech save in the rare cases where some profound or novel metaphysical assertion has to be conveyed. Even in such instances I have seen the sign language carried, by preference, to the very furthest limits of its capability, and many of the abstruser tenets of Whateley or of Hickok which a speaking teacher has required three readings to master have been pantomimically given to my perfect understanding by a deaf-mute class in logic or mental philosophy.
In the alphabet also, I was literary "_factus ad unguem_" But as yet my province lay among the middle classes of pupils only. _Why_, will be very evident. The dormant or just awakened minds of the younger children need all the practised patience, ingenuity and technical knowledge of their intellectual processes which can be grouped together in the most experienced teacher, to conduct the delicate first steps of their thinking and communicating life. For this reason, a highly developed deaf--mute--if he has the rare faculty of meek forbearance, is often their best master, as being the true "_hegemon_"--the leader who never keeps farther ahead than the ranks can see him. Next in importance and dignity of requirements is the teacher who takes charge of the highest and graduating classes, composed of such pupils as have emerged from the workshop of the merely objective faculties, and most now be indoctrinated into truths demanding all the more inward implements of the mind in their subtlest exercise.
Accordingly, it was only in the evenings that I could prosecute my study of that wonderful new science, Margaret Somers. I improved every hour of those, I can assure you. I set myself to the work of learning her as I would a system of philosophy, or of the Mecanique Celeste. After tea, it was customary for Dr. Gaskell to invite several of the older pupils into his parlor, when for the time being we all threw off the trammelling relations of master and scholar and talked together on bare friendly terms. Two of the deaf-mutes who frequented these _conversazioni_ possessed the auditory faculty just so far as this--that by opening their mouths over the strings of a piano or guitar they could catch the very faintest shadows of its vibrations through the Eustachian tube--and enjoy the thin ghost of the music rather as an impulse than a sound. It was both touching and amusing to see three poor outcasts from one common world of musical delights--bending over the sounding board of Mrs. Gaskell's piano, listening literally with open mouth, and holding their breaths as in the presence of some strange, beautiful angel, whose magic harpstrings of tenuous air they feared to shatter by a sigh of bliss. As Mrs. Gaskell played them some glad resounding strain--the Wedding March from Midsummer Night's Dream, for instance, which was their favorite---I have many a time seen them press their handkerchiefs to their eyes half to let the quivering chords meet them in a sacred solitude of sense and half to catch the tears which were falling thick and fast like rain in the darkness.
On such occasions, Margaret Somers sat far apart from them, her usually bright face settled into an expression of intense melancholy. She had not even that poor relic of a sense. And invariably--after the playing had ceased--she would ask them with great interest what music they had been hearing tonight--if they enjoyed it as much as ever--and _what it was like_.
I fancy that most of us hearing ears, would be puzzled by that question. Imagine it asked in Fifth avenue or Beacon street, of a lady just come back from Don Giovanni, her opera cloak, as you may say, still fluttering with the rush of bravos and one or two little tremulos of Zerlina lingering like frightened birds caught between it folds. "What was Vedrai Carino _like_, to-night?" I wonder how she would answer!
But the deaf-mutes who heard with their mouths seemed to find no such puzzle. They took the quesiton quite as a matter of course, and made replies that to us were very curious. Once, one of them told Margaret that the Wedding March was like a beautiful peach tree, whose fruit ripened so fast that you see the down blush deeper and deeper after the fashion of a young girl's cheeks, and growing heavier till the twigs bent almost to the ground, fall off, and becoming alive danced away through the air to turn into a sunset! You may laugh at this, but it gave Margaret great pleasure. She had a mind which could find reality in the ghost of their ghost, and re-embody it for herself into some weird Wedding March as I guess that Mendelssohn heard when he caught at least its negative daguerreotype on his score. By a singular coincidence I have also heard the two deaf-mutes describe Verdi's great Zingarella to her, simultaneously as "the brightest possible Northern lights."
It was on this last occasion, and by its suggestion, that an idea which for months had been lying chaotic in my mind, began to find an axis for itself and take on crystalline form.
First, I thought how strange it was that that these two friends of Margaret habitually preferred the higher kinds of music--music for which nine tenths of the hearing people, in this country, have just as much penchant for as Chopin or Thalberg have for Old Dog Tray. By the way, this latter was the very air which Mrs. Gaskell tried on them one evening when they replied, with an effort of great politeness, that it was a very nice _noise_. We, the hearing people, all laughed very heartily at this, but _they_ saw nothing strange in it, and supposed the distinction one which everybody made in the given case. It was evident therefore, that their pleaure in music consisted in no mere passive impression of the auditory nerve, but that they possessed musical _feeling_ of a very marked order. How could this be, on the common assumptions that all internal organs must be developed through the outer? Must there not be, on the other hand, a vast possibility of culture for this inner sense from inner sources---and through the other still acute passages of external impressions--as our minds may be lifted by the music of a dream? And if so, was it not likely that Margaret Somers, superior to these two as she was in all spiritual perceptions, and analogical expressions of rhythm, had the internal organ of melodies and chords developed in the deep laboratory which we called silence, to a still greater degree? Then, also, their translations of music into form and color gave me a hint--which I had been for months growing more and more willing to use for _her_--because---but never mind now--I am anticipating.
Why might not _I_ be the one, whom Divine Music had sealed to carry her message to that longing spirit?
This was the last bead on the rosary of the thoughts which I counted on that evening in the parlor. I had come to the cross---a long hard work to be done--but I did not grudge it. Again, when we had separated for the night, I lay awake, hour after hour, considering at which end I should take hold of it. Then the finger of dreams put itself forth and touched the right place, without its aerial print vanishing.
Old John Bull--"Tunefulle Maister Bull of Gresham"--as his contemporaries used to call him, remarks in the course of some fragmentary personal recollections he has left us, that the great enjoyment of his own musical compositions was not vouchsafed him at the the time of public performance--nor even during his own private renderings of the same, but that while he perused his completed score in the perfect quiet of the music loft at mid--day--a divine delight ever seized him, and the spirit of his notes clothed themselves in a harmonious body infinitely more splendid than any audible song. This fact made it possible for him to read music--not in the common sense--but as he would swim in the deep Summer sea of a rare book, revelling in all the sweet meanings of the author, yet never speaking a single word aloud.
Remembering this fact, I refected that if Margaret Somers had ever possessed the faculty of hearing--and developed her musical perception by a scientific course of training--she might now read music after Master Bull's fashion and enjoy it to a similar degree.
The form which her problem consequently took was this. Is there no method by which the scientific relations of _pitch_ (_time_ I was sure she had become acquainted with already) may be communicated to the mind through other adits than the ear? Music in its pure scientific aspect is quite independent of sound--uses sound only as its ordinary _normal_ expression--and by all the more delicate intellects--the poets especially--is constantly translated according to a system of analogies, into other than audible forms. Rossini is called _florid_--but his roulades have no effect of garlands to the _eye_, no fragrance to the _nose_. Verdi, they tell us is _brilliant_--but who _sees_ him shine? And the painters have no difficulty in understanding a picture's _tone_.
All music, it seemed to me, finally resolved itself into a science of _tensions_ and one nerve as well as another may convey the relations of tension, provided that we attain the means best calculated to awake their idea through the sense. The most delicate receptacles for external impression still left to Margaret Somers were sight, touch, and smell. After long thought, I most unwillingly gave up all idea of attempts to communicate through the last of these, not because I abjured the life long conviction that the olfactory sense is next to sight in its capacity for receiving the most delicate impressions--but because as yet its very etheriality has prevented any true science of its phenomena. Through sight and touch therefore, I must operate alone.
For a month, without communicating my plans to any one--not even the object of them--I spent every hour of leisure in elaborating a system of means.
At the expiration of that time, I told Margaret Somers that I would teach her music.
My earnestness--and the very fact of my making such a statement at all--opened her great blue eyes wider than I had ever seen them. "You forget"--she signed--and put her fingers on her poor dead ears.
"Yes," I replied. But I have eyes--and fingers."
"I would give them away willingly for ears--even such ears as John's or Augusta's," (the deaf-mutes who heard with their mouths.)
"You shall keep those and have these," I answered. "Are you willing to try it? You have have to study hard if I am your teacher--but I am sure I _can_ teach you."
"Will it give me great _pain_?"
"Are you afraid of pain?"
A quick scorn trembled over her lip, and she made a gesture as if the idea were some tangible bad thing which she would brush away.
"Afraid? No indeed! But I have been praying for a year that God would give me hearing--even with torture--and I was wondering whether he had answered me to the utmost."
"No, dear soul, it will give you no pain! I have been praying God for you too--without any request for the risk of torture--and I hope _He_ will answer us both, in his gentlest fashion. How could He torture you! Don't you remember your definition of music--that you gave me the first time I ever saw you--'God closely touching us in quick throbs?' Is it not good to have God close by--yes, if we shall be blessed in our good work, to have Him even closer?"
"It is _good_. But sometimes even now, in His veiled comings, it is almost _unbearable_."
"Perhaps that may be the reason He _is_ velied, because of His dimness and mystery. To know Him nearer is to love Him more, you know. Are you willing to try it?"
She put her hand into mine like a white nestling dove. How delicate were the fingers! Their taper ends were as soft as an infant's. I could not have been surprised if I had heard that she used them to see with.
I led her into my recitation room--now, at seven in the evening, left a wide desert of benches, by that throng of children who had all day been devouring blackboard geography by the continent and made nothing of taking in a whole ocean at one draught. I lighted the gas--and with one sweep of the sheep-skin pad swept from the board those three hundred miles of the Rocky Mountains which had been left over from the last course of my little Leviathans' late repast. In its place I drew a staircase of seven steps--on as large a scale as the space would permit. The first and second I made of equal heights--the third only half as high as these--then three more of the same altitude with the first two--and finally one of half height again. While Margaret was looking at this figure with an expression of puzzled interest, I took from my desk where it had been lying all day, so that I could glance at it paternally between classes--a smooth deal board, three feet long by two broad. Across this I had stretched seven guitar strings--all of the high E quality, and of equal length--attached at one end by a permanent ledge as in the instrument to which they belonged--and at the other two wooden screws of my own manufacture. At present these strings lay lax along the board.
"Now, Margaret," said I, "take your eyes from the black board for a moment, and look at this thing which I have in my hand. It is the simplest instrument of music which we know. It is so simple because it is most like the human soul which has to understand it. _How_ it is like we must go back to your definition to perceive. When you have that strange sense of a presence near you--which you call 'God close by' do you ever feel any _growth_, any _increase_, in the nearness?"
I waved my hands up and down--then let them drop wearily--and made the sign for laxity.
"Does the Presence ever come to you when you feel _thus_?"
"It does indeed! Oftenest _then_--when I least look for it, and most need it. _That_ is the reason I think it is the _Dear God_!"
I drew an extra guitar string from my pocket, and gently stretched it with my hands.
"And as the Presence draws near, does your heart feel more like _this_?"
She understood me, but was by this time watching my hand so eagerly that she said yes only by an indication of the head. I stretched the string still tighter.
"And as it draws still nearer, is the feeling still greater?"
I stretched it tighter yet--"And _still_ greater?"
I was adding force to my pull, when she caught my hands in hers, and with a wild impetuousness that I had never seen in her before, aided me at the extremity of her strength. The string snapped asunder, and trembling like one seized with a divine afflatus, she exclaimed by a quick cry of her speaking hands.
"There! like _that_ nearly!"
I drew her to me and, laying her head upon my shoulder, smoothed its fair, sweet brow, and twined its rich soft threads of golden brown about my fingers, till the storm that shook her was overpast. Like a dear pure startled child I cherished her---yet not _quite_ like that. I could not help it, for she let me.
Then I renewed the lesson.
"The way in which men have agreed to represent the soul, and that growing strain it feels as the Presence draws nearer and nearer is by an instument like this." I touched the lower string of the seven and continued. "This is loose now, as the soul is, before the Presence comes. I will tighten it a little to express the first sense of the approach."
With a tuning fork I got C natural of the vocal pitch and began tightening the string up to it.
"That is right," said I; "Watch my hand closely. You see how many turns I give this screw? One--two--three--there! nearly three and a half. Let this degree of tension represent the feeling of the first throb of the Presence. Now--to represent the sense of the second--I tighten the first string a little more. Nearly half a turn tighter yet--you see."
And so I continued up the whole septenary system--avoiding for the present, so as not to embarrass her mind with too much, any exposition of the only half-interval between the third and fourth, the seventh and eighth steps of pitch. Besides, I felt enough faith in her ideal music to believe, chimerical as it might seem, that she would unerringly translate the half-tension of this minor interval into the internal impulse which quantitatively corresponded to it, at the proper time. And who can _explain_ it, further than to reduce it to mathematical formulas themselves still more inexplicable?
The instrument being perfectly tuned in the natural gamut, I put it into hands.
"Now shut your eyes, Margaret," said I; "And pull the first and second strings gently with your forefinger. Try to banish everything outside of you but the strings, and see if you can perceive any difference in their tension."
"May I think of _God_? You know I believe _He_ is the presence."
"So do I. By all means, it if helps you."
"It does help me, very much."
She closed her eyes, and with her right hand struck the strings in succession. Her left was extended--oh, so gracefully!--as if she were listening with those delicate beseeching fingers.
One, two--one, two--and she still sat motionless, giving me no report of any perception.
Presently she opened her eyes again, and looked at me for a moment with half timid earnestness--Then laid the instrument in her lap, while she signed to me.
"Must I banish _everything_ but the strings?"
"And the Presence, you know, we agreed."
"Must I banish--_you too_?"
As I looked at her, thinking with a strange conflict of emotions for a right reply, her eyes fell for an instant from mine, but only for an instant, and then resumed their pure fearless gaze of inquiry.
"Do I help you, too, Margaret?"
"Yes. You are _very_ good to me."
"Then think of _me_, dear child."
She closed her eyes again. It was the first time any one had ever begged that leave, since my mother died, long before the terrible five years, saying she would always think of me, even in Heaven.
The silence of that wide blank recitation-room had been broken by the frail soft repetitions that come from Margaret's fingers, scarcely three minutes, when her eyes opened again, a quick gleam of delight bathed her whole face, and her rapid hands exclaimed:
"I feel it! I feel it! I understand what you mean."
I was like one intoxicated in my joy. I have heard people say that of such at such times they could "dance." As for _me_, sitting perfectly still, and looking straight into that illuminated face was my only adequate expression of myself. I had reached the first possibility which was the mother of all the rest. Margaret could hear with her fingers.
"Thank God!" said I at length. "You will certainly learn music, now, if we live. To-night we have been glad enough, and learned all that is good for either of us without having time to think of it. Let us put by this instrument till to-morrow. And now--why it is half-past ten o'clock!--go and sleep sweetly, and may the Presence be gently near you."
"Do you wish to lock this up in your desk?"
"Did you make it for me?"
"Do you think I would be tempted to play on it, are you afraid it would keep me awake, if I should take it with me and put it behind my pillow?"
"No, not if you promised not to play on it."
"I _will_ promise. And no one shall see it."
So clasping the board to her side with one hand--she put the other into my own--and went, holding it there like a child, to the foot of the broad staircase where we must separate.
There it seemed as if I could not let her go--And I did not, till our good night had been said in "__________ kisses sweeter, Sweeter than anything on earth!_"
A fortnight from her first lesson Margaret had mastered the whole gamut of C natural. I could blindfold her--place her fingers upon any of the strings--and get back an unerring response as to the position in the scale. To my great encouragement, her enthusiasm for this exercise continued unabated. She seemed to find all the pleasure of a hearing ear in the practice of her finger education.
To relieve the monotony of this practice--for _I_ could not see any possibility of its being otherwise than monotonous, remembering my first lessons on the scale--I composed now and then some simple recreation for her by a numerical system of notation. She soon learned to recognize the little melodies I set for her, and was as delighted as a child when she discovered that the air she had been playing as "1, 1, 2, 3," was really the great national hymn "Yankee Doodle."
But I felt the necessity of writing on these recreations, as over the benches on London bridge--"To _rest_--not to _lounge_ on."
By the diagram of the staircase, which I drew, you remember, during Margaret's first lesson, but did not then have time to use, I conveyed to her mind, little by little, the ideas of transposition. It is the most difficult thing in the world to explain even the mere external method by which she learned them---_my_ part of the work I mean--without a diagram like that on the blackboard. Even then, some scientific musician might so far discredit the possibility of teaching their science by such a method, that they would not care to understand me. But as nearly as words can explain it this was the system which I used. Recollect that I had taught Margaret the letters representing the notes of the scale, and had shown her the strings of the simple gamut instrument which corresponded to them. Also that I had drawn for her a flight of steps--marking each step with a letter in the order of the scale--making _F_ a low step because it was only half the usual rate of ascent from _E_--and _C_, a step equally low, because it bore the same relation of ascent from _B_. I now wiped out the original _F_ which I had drawn and replaced it with another twice the former size. At the same time I sharped the F string of our gamut instrument, and without altering any of the others, put it back into Margaret's hands. This was my moment of suspense--yes--it may seem strange to an uninterested person that I use this word--_agony_! For I reasoned thus. If all my past convictions have been delusive, then she will not notice this change except as a mere meaningless vagary, and will find just as much pleasure in strumming the strings in their new relations of tension, as before. But if she really grasped the ideal principle of musical successions--if they have been recognized by her mind not only as a pleasure but a _law_--then this disproportion which now exists will give her pain, and she will at least ask me what I have done.
A look of puzzlement came over her face. First she glanced at the blackboard and then she felt of the strings. She lifted them one by one with the delicatest touch of her finger, as if she were weighing them, and she always paused longest at the sharped F. At last she searched my face feebly with an expression of query, and then shook her head.
"What is the matter, Margaret," said I.
She touched the F of the instrument, and pointed to its corresponding stop on the board. Then she signed this answer.
"I do not know why, but I have learned to _need rest_ at this step. The souls seems always to tire for a moment and lifts its feet only half as high as before. There are too many high steps together, _now_."
My heart beat like a hammer! Would she, could she find of herself what she must do?
"What will you do to help it, Margaret?" said I.
She thought, and looked, and fingered for several minutes more. The she rose, took the chalk from my hand, and going to the board, altered all the other steps of the staircase to correspond with the raised F. Without my suggestion, she had transposed the scale!
I took the instrument into my hands and tuned it to the transposed key. I thought she might have done it--was sure she could, indeed--but I could not bear to mar the strange delight of my new triumph by any further suspense. Then I handed it back to her, she ran over the strings, and in an instant her whole face beamed with joy at the discovery of the restored proportion. I knew such gladness in that hour as all imaginable riches could not buy from me!
Day after day I taught, and she studied patiently. In two months from the time of our first lesson in transposition, she had learned all the keys and acquired the ideal philosophy of their meaning. At length I ventured to put a guitar into her hands. The artificial arrangement of its strings baffled her long, but before the Summer vacation of the asylum had arrived, she had mastered the relations which existed between our simple gamut instrument and this more complicated one.
As yet, neither of us had imparted our secret studies to another soul beside ourselves. I knew Major Braithwaite was coming to see her graduated, and I wished to reserve the great surprise of her accomplishment for him.
Commencement day had come. With it came all the friends of pupils who had friends. And among the first persons whom I saw in the morning as I came down the broad stair to breakfast was Major Braithwaite. He was just entering the front door.
Margaret happened to be in the entry at the time. The moment she saw him, she ran into his arms, and he clasped her to him, passionately? A heart sickening doubt came over me. I had supposed he was a kind of adopted father to her. I had never heard of his being, thinking of being, anything else. Yet a father does not kiss in the way he kissed. There is not that strange light in a father's eyes when he sees his daughter.
Major Braithwaite was the perfection of soldierly beauty. His beard, which he wore full, was a luxuriant curly black, like his hair, only as the hair was not, touched here and there with iron grey. His features were massive and Roman without being heavy. His figure was tall, erect, but not inflexible, and he seemed about thirty six years old.
I was introduced to him at breakfast, and he thanked me for the interest I had taken in his ward. He meant the books I had explained to her--the conversation I had enjoyed with her in Dr. Gaskell's parlor, of which that kind man had told him. But the greatest of all interests--did he know _that_, and would he have thanked me if he had known it?
Before the exercises of the day commenced, Dr. Gaskell called me into his study.
"I have good news for you," said he. "You are so trusted by all of us, that I know I am not betraying confidence in telling it to you. Margaret is going to be married. Now, who do you think is the gentleman--guess!"
"I'm sure I can't think," replied I, in a dream.
"_Major Braithwaite_! He has always loved her since she was a child. He believed that there was nothing she could not be taught to do. He has all the admiration of her that you or I would feel for Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And so he sent her here to be developed. This morning he asked me if she was sufficiently the woman to know her own mind, if I thought she could love anybody consciously and answer for herself intelligently. I told him yes--decidedly. You see he has all the gentlemanly and soldierly honor of taking the weak at a disadvantage. When I said yes, he acted like a boy! He was perfectly overcome! He means to tell her that he loves her, to--morrow. Of course she will accept him. Then she will be married during the vacation and have a happy home as long as she lives. He is rich--and if she wishes it, he will resign his commission." So concluded the doctor, rubbing his hands with pleasure, "her fortune is made for life. Dear girl! I am so glad! I think you will be asked to be the groomsman."
"That is capital!" said I coolly--still in my dream--and so we parted to get ready for the exercises.
In these Margaret acquitted herself well--admirably. She shone like a queen among all the deaf-mutes who read or recited. At every new eloquent answer to the questions of the examiner, which she wrote on the blackboard, I glanced furtively at the Major, and saw proud sparkles in his eye which set my own heart on fire.
When all was over, the graduates were invited into Dr. Gaskell's parlor. I was still in my dream, but I thought enough of the outer world and its results, to bring in Margaret's guitar unnoticed and set it in the corner by Mrs. Gaskell's piano. The hours of the evening went on and still Major Braithwaite was chained to Margaret's side. He hung on her every gesture and lived in her looks. At ten o'clock all of the deaf-mute company, wearied with the day's labor, had departed, leaving Dr. Gaskell and Mrs. Gaskell, Margaret, the Major and myself alone together.
I signed to Margaret. She went to the corner and brought out her guitar. The rest looked at her with puzzled curiosity.
"Major Braithwaite," said I, calmly, when she had taken her seat again with the instrument in her lap, "I have kept the best wine until now. I wish to crown the last day of Miss Somers at the asylum with the highest attainment she has made--Listen, if you please, and hear what she will do for you."
Again I signed to Margaret, and her fingers ran nervously over the strings. I looked at her steadily and tried to throw into that look all the cheerfulness I could imagine. Then she seemed to take heart and began that simple rich melody from the Bohemian Girl--"When other lips and other hearts their tales of love shall tell."
Then came the turn of the others to dream! Dr. and Mrs. Gaskell sat silently in a trance when astonishment had not yet yielded to delight. Major Braithwaite, sitting straight upright in his chair after the soldierly manner, was pale as death, listening with compressed lips and breath that was imperceptible, save now and then in strong burdened inflations.
From the first air, Margaret's fingers wandered on to the second I had taught her. This was the Kataplan from The Child of the Regiment. I had given her that, in the old times that looked at through my dream, seemed a hundred years ago--because I thought it would please Major Braithwaite.
When she had finished playing, Mrs. Gaskell turned to me.
"_Does_ she hear after all?" said she.
Major Braithwaite answered for me.
"No, she does not. She never knew I had entered this morning till I touched her. Her back was turned when I came in. I slammed the door, and almost forgetting her affliction, called her name. _Who_ taught her to play?"
"Major Braithwaite asks who taught you to play, Margaret," said I.
She replied by laying down her guitar, stealing up to my side like a child, and taking my hand. The look she gave me then was at once joy and agony enough for years! Major Braithwaite saw it and grew paler still.
"Does she know any meaning in what she plays?" said he eagerly. "Does she play like an automaton? Or can it be possible that in any way she understands it as music?"
As he spoke he signed the same questions to her. And she answered him--
"I feel _God_ near me in that music. God and _kindness_. God and _him_." She pointed to me as she signed.
"Wonderful! Wonderful!" Was all that Dr. Gaskell and his wife could say.
But Major Braithwaite rose and stood between Margaret and me.
"What made you think of teaching her this thing?" said he. "I do not ask you _how_--for I could not understand that part now if you should tell me. But why? What was your motive?"
It then broke forth from me for the first time--because, even in his presence I could not hold it longer--
"Because I _loved_ her!"
"And does she love you?"
So he asked her. And she returned me such an ineffable look that now remembering it, I seem to be among the angels.
Major Braithwaite folded his arm around her and kissed her on the forehead. Not as in the morning he had kissed her on the mouth.
"My dear--_dear daughter_!" said he. "I believe you have chosen well. Would you be willing to go everywhere over the world and be this young man's wife? Supposing he had to be a soldier, like--many men, for instance. Had to fight the Indians---be separated from you through nights and days when you would be very anxious about him. Had to endure hardships for him---loneliness--doubt--fear--everything bitter and dreadful--would you be his wife, still? His true, loving wife?"
Margaret's only answer to his signs was to cling still closer to me and hide her face against my shoulder.
"Very well," spoke the Major. "Have you the salary which will enable you to support a wife, young man?"
Dr. Gaskell answered for me that my salary would be raised to twelve hundred the next term.
"That is enough," said Major Braithwaite. "A woman who loves a man can live on much less that one who does not. Margaret is now graduated. She can be married at any time. I would like to have it take place somewhere where I can be present. Can you come to Fort Allen and be married, sir?"
"We can go anywhere to have you in our happiness, dear father!" said Margaret.
"Very well," said the Major calmly, "let it be August then."
After Margaret and I were married we continued to live at the asylum for a year. Then my mother's brother--an eccentric though not an unusually rich man--who believed that young people should help themselves, awoke to the consciousness that I was doing that thing tolerably well and had a wife to carry honorably through the world besides. So--one day--he offered to take me into partnership with him in his flourishing New York jobbing house, and for Margaret's sake I accepted the offer.
When we got into New York I found my means ampler, and the first thought I had was to complete my wife's _musical_ education.
Again there arose in my mind those old analogies between sight and hearing. I had taught her something about music by the relation between sight and touch. There were still greater harvests of delight to be reaped by that wonderful mind of hers in the domain of _color_ as representative of music.
We had a house in West Twenty-sixth street. For the first time in my life I knew what it was to have all the _gas_ I wanted, and to pay the company a corresponding large bill for the same. For my wife's New Year's present during the second year of my marriage, I prepared a surprise based upon the following principles.
In natural philosophy we are taught that the primal colors, as ascertained from the phenomenon of the rainbow, are:---"Violet, indigo, blue, green, yellow, orange, red." But the question arises--Is the rainbow a _gamut_ or a harmony? I decided that it was the latter. For its intention is the expression of _hope_ to man. A mere scientific gamut would not have done _that_. The rainbow must be an expression in color of certain _gratifying_ sentiments in the divine mind. Those sentiments, in heaven at least, must be reduceable to speech. Therefore to music also. Let us try them on earth!
I came to the conclusion that the rainbow was not the true gamut of colors correspondent to the ascertained gamut of sound. It must be divided and re-arranged before the gamut can be made. And this was the rearrangement which after long thinking I arrived at:--
Yellow, violt, blue, indigo, green, orange, red.
This you see, at least in theory, was an order measurably consistent with the gamut of sounds. Between blue and indigo there is apparent but half the interval of color which intervenes between yellow and violet. Orange and red are separated from each other by but half the distance which divides indigo and green. Thus I constructed a gamut of color which should to my mind represent that of sounds. I arranged in my study a long gas pipe, consecting laterally with burners where several ground glass shades were colored in order according to my theory. I then constructed an apparatus with strings like the original one by which I taught my wife, so that at least pressure upon the strings the delicate cone of burning gas which I had already lighted within three colored shades should flare up into a broad tinted brilliancy. If for instance I moved the _F_ string, it not only gave me the sense of the peculiar tension, but an indigo light on the wall before me also. Likewise a touch on the _A_ string gave me orange light, on the _D_ string violet, and so on. Between each of these shades, was one of compromised tints, representing the half intervals.
On New Year's day, for the first time in a month, I opened to my wife the door of my study.
"Come in, darling!" signed I. "I hve a new instrument for you. I want you to play on it for me. See if it gives you any greater pleasure than the guitar."
Margaret sat down in front of the strings and began playing the air--"True love can ne'er forget," while she watched the coming and going of the colored lights. A new delight seemed to seize her. She tried all the strings at once with capricious fingers, and shuddered as she saw a certain discrepancy in their relation. She pulled two neighboring strings at once, and the effect of their light combination on her was that of a musical discord. Then finally, she returned to the true melody, and found such a new pleasure in the relation between tension and colors--in what we call music--as I never saw in the most rapt of hearing performers.
After this first experiment, she grew rapidly in her knowledge of inaudible music. She made me many suggestions by which I immediately profited--as to the colors of the lamps. With a box of paints, she drew me the exact shades which to her mind represented a certain tension of string, and I had it immediately copied in glass to replace in the apparatus.
From melodies she gradually rose to harmonies. She learned to combine two tints and tensions so as give her the idea of _chords_. And when she had accomplished this attainment, I knew that her musical attainment was at its earthly apex. She might learn the most difficult pieces of Chopin--and find pleasure in them--but she never could attain further _primal ideas of music_, till she reached that great resounding dome of Heaven where the angels play and God is satisfied!
"Doctor Athanasius Bloor cures all diseases of the eye and ear. His operations are painless, his success absolute, and he is recommended by the following gentlemen, whose selves or family have been benefited by this treatment:--
"Timothy Tompkins, Esq, Common Councilman of Peoria--strabismus.
"Rev. Hezekiah Green, Jenkinstown, Conn--permanent deafness.
"Hon. Peter Plumbpie, Sec. For. Miss.--blindness and deafness, entire."
I saw this advertisement in one of the New York papers, eighteen months after I was married. I debated for a while whether Dr. Athanasius Bloor was not a quack. Finally I determined to take my wife to him. He could not hurt her at any rate, and he might make her hear, which would be the crowning delight of my life!
So I took my wife to Dr. Athansius Bloor's.
I found that he was _not_ a mere quack; that he had really done, and was capable of doing, far more good than the newspapers gave him credit for. I put my wife under his treatment. He discovered that her loss of hearing was to be ascribed to no congenital and irremediable cause, but to a pressue on the auditory nerve which rendered it obtuse. This pressure, he thought, might be either a sluggish cerebral tumor, or a closing of the out passage through the results of early disease.
Whatever it might be, he had remedied it in two months from our first interview with him. Margaret heard some sounds. She knew when they were firing salutes from Governor's Island, or ringing the bells for fire in our district, for instance, and in six weeks more, she heard my voice! Oh blessed time! It seemed as if Heaven had been brought down to earth again. The voice that spoke to her sweetest! And she distinguished it from the hard noises of the world.
Well, for one short month I was a happy man. He who has been happy for a whole month, if he remembers it, may be happy forever. So, at least, must I fancy, to live--to _bear_ life at all now.
My beautiful one began fading. Day by day I saw it without believing it. And when I asked her why she was so wan and pale---why she trembled so as to wake me through the long nights--she answered in her old beloved signs, which she clung to still.
"It _jars_ me so! There is too much noise in the world. I do not hear enough _music_."
At last I became sorry that she heard. I even prayed God that he would make her deaf again. She had expected too much of the world. There was more noise than music there.
But I had made her _hear_. I must accept _that_. I had thought it a blessing. If it was not a blessing, whose fault was it!
I was compelled to confess my wife's situation vry critical. Her peril stared me in the face. If some means could not be found of protecting her sensitive soul from the shocks of the outer world's discordant sound--she would certainly die--and that very speedily. I could think of no other comparison for her than a spirit walking through the din and roughness of life, in perfect nakedness, but with all the bodily senses strangely preserved to it, feeling the cold with an intensity of pain which bodies never know, hearing the outcries, the curses, the wailings of men and women with an infinitely sensitive ear, seeing all the cruellest wretchedness of humanity with a piercing eye that could not close, without shelter, without sleep. I began to understand that God had meant Margaret's deafness as a great mercy--that it was the necessary cover to the most delicate of human souls--that she could really bear no more of the world than might be taken in through sight, touch, taste and smell.
I could not restore her to deafness but I environed her with all that was loveliest in earthly voices. I made the care of her my only luxury. I sacrificed every thing which men usually call desirable to the one aim of enshrining her in a sacredness of sweet sound. I bought the choicest music boxes and kept them playing by her bedside when she lay down to sleep. I took her to every performance given by the best artists in opera or concert room. Oh with what joy did I thank God when I found that there were some musicians whose music was not too harsh to give her pleasure! How I exulted when that grand dear Formes brought tears of happiness to her eyes in Bertramo--when D'Angri's wonderful honey of song distilled through her ears into her heart and made her clasp my hand with a glad thrill in Zerlima.
But from all the great singers and instruments she ever came home to seek a better bliss in the music of that apparatus I had given her on New Year's day. That expressed to her mind a music such as she would never hear till she reached Heaven. And while she tenderly touched the strings, weighing their tension as of old, and watched the gleaming colors dance hither and thither on the wall, the bitterness within me welled to the eyes, for I knew that she was getting ready to hear that music of eternal life, in which there are no false tones.
We had been married two years--when, one night, I took her to hear Formes for the third time in Roberto. That night the greatest of living singers and actors eclipsed himself. Having the greatest opera that was ever written to be great in, he was great enough for it. He was the Bertramo whom Meyerbeer _meant_. Never again in this world do I expect to see Robert the Devil. The thought of hearing any other man than Formes sing the tremendous music of that last act is a pain to me. My memory of the opera now is such that to find it misrendered in a single point, would be like breaking down the everlasting distinction between right and wrong. Roberto is an opera whose plot has no parallel for sublimity in the grandest involvements of Greek tragic writing. Aeschylus never had such a plot. And there is not one particular in which the music of Meyerbeer could be ameliorated for the plot's expression. Nor is there a man living who understands that plot--that music--who can sing it, save Carl Formes. So now we went to hear him for the third--yes, though I did not know it then--the _last_ time.
Formes, I have said, surpassed himself. The cumulative horrors of the fiendish father were borne up on his demi-god shoulders as Atlas bears the world. My wife never took her eyes from the stage when he stood there. In the last act she clasped my hand and turned so pale that I half rose from my seat with fright. I thought the long feared end was coming. But seeing my suffering she composed herself aand managed to endure the finale.
The moment that we got home she went to the instrument in my study, which, out of burlesque acquiesence with the Graecizing nomenclature of the time, we had called the _kaleidophone_. I lighted the colored lamps and I took my seat beside her. She began wandering over the strings into a memory of Roberto. First she repeated the "Vanne, Vanne," that exquisite air in which Alice brings to Robert the message of their dying mother. Thence she strayed to the Gaming Chorus. Finally she found herself in the grand mazes of Bertramo's character, and from that moment restricted herself to expressing him alone.
It will seem incredible, I know, how by an instrument like this, where only melody was possible, in perfection and that the slender melody of a single gamut of strings, the music of Roberto could be at all conveyed. And truly, any but Margaret or I might have found it meagre enough for the purpose. But we knew its hidden meanings. She had translated its tensions and its colors into the music of the soul. And I, though less favored than she, because I had not like her any enclosed and purely spiritual sense, from the long efforts I had made to awaken this sense in her, at length reached some measurable perception of her interior music.
That night to me she seemed inspired. The rich hues of the lamps danced on the wall as if they were alive. The lamp which she played most was the red one. She told me that this color was the best to express Bertramo's character where it touched humanity, but our apparatus was sadly deficient in shades of the tint. It needed at least a hundred lamps to give the representations of Bertramo's music in this particular alone. I promised her to complete the instrument according to any suggestion she might make. Alas! I have never done so. There on my lonely wall it stands imperfect still!
But when the fiendish side of Bertramo showed itself, the colors she most used were a succession of violet and orange. As she touched the strings communicating with those lamps, the room was full of a lurid light and I saw the caverns opening to receive the Demon home. We forgot the simple music of the strings. We revelled in a gorgeous coming and going of rich lights which spoke Meyerbeer's meaning as no sound can ever speak. And when at last she came to the passage where Alice triumphs and Robert is saved--the green lamp sent a mellow lustre of hope and peace through the study, in which, as on a ladder of Heaven, our lifted minds seemed to see angels, passing up and down!
When the last strain of color died away, Margaret said to me---"I am very tired, dear. Let me sleep."
I took her in my arms as was my wont and carried her like a sick child up to our chamber. I helped her undress for the night and lay down beside her. She slept almost immediately, and as soon as I heard her beloved heart beating and her breath coming regularly, I slept also.
It was about three o'clock in the morning when her voice awakened me.
"Husband," said she, "don't be frightened--but I feel very strangely. Take my hand, please. I love to feel you by me. For I am so happy, and I hear such wonderful music that I am afraid to be alone."
"Oh, Margaret," I answered, my own heart almost stopping with a mystical undefined fear. "It is nothing but the effect of last night's music on your overwrought nerves. Try, darling, if you cannot sleep again. I will stroke your forehead and lull you as I have so often done before. Go to sleep, beautiful one! Precious one!"
And she answered me:
"I feel too wide awake. I do not think I shall ever sleep again."
I watched by her side in the loneliness for an hour. Her breath grew softer and slower. I made an effort to arouse myself, to call the servants and send for a doctor. But she clasped my hand so tightly that I feared to loose it lest I should loose life with it. I must have been paralyzed.
At the end of the hour she spoke to me once more.
"I hear again!" said she, "as I used to in the old times at the institute. The Presence is coming nearer--and nearer." Then she added faintly---"_And is close beside me. I hear again_."
And she _did_ hear. For she was among the music of the Angels!
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