S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Characteristics online

. (page 11 of 19)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 11 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

"And/' said Clayborne, "yonder mass of the dead
must drain into the river from which men drink."

"Mother Earth is a great purifier," I remarked;
"but the idea is certainly unpleasant. My friend

W says it accounts for the conservatism of this

great city."

" How ? " said Clayborne.

"Oh, don't ten him," cried St. Clair, laughing.
"Don't. It is a riddle."

" I hate riddles," said Clayborne.
/*But there is a tremendous wisdom in this one,"
, said Vincent. "It is a question of hygiene how to
separate purity from impurity."

Clayborne walked along in silence, while we chatted
gaily. He was apt to keep an idea in his mind long
after the talk had drifted away from it, so that half
an hour later we were not surprised to hear him say :
" I think I see it now. How curious ! But it is an
argument as well as a jest."



our Sunday evening talks
chanced to be at Vincent's I was
always well pleased. The addition
of Mrs. Vincent seemed to bring out
all the peculiar qualities of each of
us, as a ripe peach before your best
Burgundy enlarges your knowledge
as to how one pleasant thing may mysteriously in-
crease the power of another to give delight. If you
were happy enough to be liked by this woman, you
were made to feel when with her how gladsome a thing
life may be. And this, too, in a sober way, for there
was in her fashions a pretty tranquillity, and only
rarely louder mirth. When she smiled, it was, as St.
Clair quoted,

As when an infant smiles,
Not at but with yon.

For her smiles were never employed for unspoken
cynical comment, nor to hint the thing she dare not

I remember hearing her husband remark that she
was more apt to laugh when alone, and her answer
that her smile was for all, but that her laughter was
private property.


TMs puzzled Clayborne, who insisted that Saadi had
said, " The wise smile, and the fool laughs."

Mrs. Vincent retorted, " Then I am wise only when
in company, and a fool when alone, which is a proof
of wisdom."

However, St. Clair, liking to tease Clayborne, said
that he knew Saadi well, and that the quotation was
an invention. Upon which Mrs. Vincent insisted that
for a man to quote himself was the same as quoting
some one else, because men were never the same from
year to year. Clayborne, confused by her nonsense,
as usual retreated into himself to examine the proposi-
tion seriously, while she and St. Clair exchanged un-
spoken signals of childlike delight.

She was sure, however she teased him, to send the
scholar away in good humor, and I confess that for
me she had the effect of a glass or two of champagne,
and kept me wondering at my own cleverness.

She had, like many nice women, a taste for the mise
en scene; but this was instinctive, and probably un-
suspected by herself. For the rest, she understood
her husband, and was his best friend and lover. I do
not think she liked women as well as men, but it
pleases me that she never said so. Her housekeeping
was mysteriously perfect. She had one accomplish-
ment, a noble voice in speech and song; and one
grief, the absence of children. I fancied myself her
best friend, but I was never her physician, for she
said, "I could not have my friend for my doctor"
a not very rare feeling among women.

When I came in she was seated alone, reading, and,
the evening being warm, was clad in white, with deli-


cacies of lace here and there. She wore, as usual, no
ornament, but behind her, on the table, so that the
strength of her head was set against them, were several
bowls of roses ; and at her feet, on a low stool, stood
a large, flat Moorish vessel, also full of flowers, on
which she was gazing with distinct pleasure, her book
lying open on her lap.

" What 1 Alone ? " I said.

" Yes ; we have had a discussion on folly and wis-
dom. Mr. St. Clair said a happy fool was better off
than an unhappy wise man. Mr. Clayborne insisted
with solemnity that a really wise man could not be as
unhappy as a fool, other circumstances being equal.
Then I quoted, ' There 's no comfort in wisdom, and
no satisfaction in folly ; for all that the former can do
is, in some passage or other of matchless eloquence, to
call the latter by her right name, after which she will
dwell as contentedly your mistress as before.' I could
not tell whence it came, and nothing would satisfy
him but to take Fred down to the library to look for
it, and the poet to help them. Sit down ; they will
not be long. You did not come to dinner, after all,
and Miss L was so charming."

"Ah, my dear lady, how many of these charming
women have you bidden me to see ? I come, and talk,
And look at them, and could classify them."

"You must not. This one was really all that I

" But you have said nothing. I wait."

" Well, she is not very pretty. She never says what
you expect her to say, and seems always about to say
or do something that might seem well, a little pro-


nounced. Yet she never does really do or say any-
thing that the best bred might not say or do. She
has 'eyes that do not know their own solemnities'
eyes of heaven and a mouth of this earth."

" Fair food for saint or sinner," I said. " But really,
I could not dine with you, and I should like to see this
woman. When shall it be ? "

" People who decline my dinners never, never make
up their loss on this earth."

" I will never dine here again," I cried, laughing.
" What are you what were you reading?"

" St. Glair's new book ; he brought it to me yester-
day. Have you seen it?"

" Yes ; but only the outside. What is it ? "

"A dramatic poem called 'A Life.' A man sees a
woman in her youth. They are in love, are separated
by the inevitable, meet once again in middle life for a
day, and once more when both are old. The interest
lies in what they say of life and its intervening ex-
periences. I am puzzled by the large knowledge he
displays of a world he has never seen save in mere

" Indeed, but does not that often strike you in the
work of genius? A friend of mine told me Lewes
once said to him that George Eliot never, to his or
her knowledge, had the experience of physicians which
enabled her to put on paper Lydgate, the only perfect
characterization of a physician in fiction. Indeed, she
had said as much to a man well known on the turf as
regards the low turfmen in the same book."

" And can you explain it ? "

" My friend said in reply, that although Mr. Lewes,


for example, might know little of serpent-worship,
that were he able to recall all he had ever heard or
read of it, he could write on it a book of great learn-
ing. He thought that we must presuppose in genius
the capacity to reassemble by degrees a host of minutiae
for use at need.

" We all possess more or less of this. "We set an
idea before us, and by and by we are amazed to find
how many ghosts of things apparently forgotten are
summoned by this steady call upon associative mem-
ory. It is as when you drop into a solution of num-
berless salts a crystal of one of them. The formed
solid begins at once to gather for its increase all the
atoms of its kind."

She was silent a moment.

"Well?" I exclaimed.

" Oh, I was only thinking over your illustration to
see if it helped me to understand any better. Perhaps
it does. Illustrations in argument often serve only to
puzzle me. You know P ? "


" His talk is a constant rosary of illustrations, or of
illustrative comparisons, which merely bewilder. Be-
fore you have mastered one of them (and they are al-
ways clever), he is presenting you with another. But
about genius in characterization, there must be also
some power to do far more than memorize. There
must be power to reject and modify assembled mem-
ories, so as at last to create that natural oneness of the
being described which ends by making a living thing,
not a mere photograph."

" Yes, there are plenty of bright books nowadays in
which a man represents people he knows ; but that is


bad art. Usually it begins and ends with one book,
which excites false hopes of a brilliant career in fic-
tion. Abidingly true power to characterize in fiction
is automatic."

" Oh, here they come. And did you find the quota-

" No ; we think you invented it," said Vincent.

"Not I, indeed."

"And are we to have the two manuscripts to-night?
I vote for the Russian story first. Did you bring it,
Mr. Clayborne ? The title excited my curiosity ' The
Moral Tontine.' "

" I brought it, but I have no power to translate so
as really to render the spirit of the thing. I well,
really, I would rather you let me off."

" Oh, but you promised. What was it about ? "

"Yes," said St. Glair; "you are in the toils. We
insist on hearing."

" It is quite too absurd," said Clayborne.

" Then we shall see you in a new character," cried
St. Clair.

" You shall have no tea," laughed Mrs. Vincent ; " not
a drop."

" That decides it," cried Clayborne. " Intelligent law
proportions the punishment to the crime. I shall spoil
the story, but no matter, I can't lose my cup, my three
cups, of tea."

When we were quietly seated and ready, he said :
" This is


"THE mysterious sides of Russian life are little
known to the West. Nowhere else do certain forms


of mysticism secure so many serious converts. Some
of these peculiar beliefs have been historically long-
lived; others come and vanish. The singular story
I am about to relate concerns one of these strange so-
cieties. It is taken, as I give it, from a rare book by
Leresky, a Pole of great learning, who has investigated
these curious associations, and whose book was sup-
pressed, and is now difficult to obtain. He was en-
abled to see the proceedings of the circle or society
which concerns my tale, and from them copied this
illustration of the views held by the members.

" He abbreviated it in the telling, and it no doubt
loses something by his abrupt way of relating what
might with more art have been made interesting."

" One moment," said Vincent. " Did the Polish his-
torian believe in the story ? n

" Yes ; he was himself a mystic. He gives evidence
as to its occurrence, but makes no effort to explain it."

" And do you yourself credit it ? n

" I ! " said Clayborne. " Let me first read it. We
can discuss it afterward."

"And I," cried Mrs. Vincent, " can wait no longer."

In the province of Vasilyskoosky were the head-
quarters of the secret society of the Kassilynza. This
group of people traced their origin far back into the
night of Russian barbaric time. They believed that
lingual expression has interfered with the more natural
and closer means of mental intercommunication, by
which soul may come into contact with soul. For the
purpose of recovering the lost powers of man, these
mystics were accustomed to take vows of silence, and


to live together in pairs, abhorring speech, writing,
and even signs. They believed also that for devoted
natures it was possible to exchange for a time, or
permanently, mental or moral qualities. This was
brought about by an effort on the part of one man to
eject from his mind a quality like courage, while the
other man became passive and simply receptive. Thus
a surplus of virtue or vice was gotten rid of, the ob-
ject being the general good of man.

The center of this strange creed was the capital of
the department, Notsob, and here they continued to
meet, and to elude the police, who considered their
views to be dangerous to the public good.

" Of course you will understand that all this I con-
sider nonsense. It is much more in North's line than

" Thank you," said I. " Go on."

" It may interest you, North, to know that the same
process by which a man got rid of an excess of temper
applied also to disease. The one man willed to lose
his ill temper ; another accepted it by mental effort.
After some days, or at times abruptly, the former
man's temper returned to him ameliorated by having
dwelt in union with the nobler qualities of a man
trained to self-restraint. And so also of disease ; the
same process being repeated over and over, as between
the ill man and many well ones, his disorder was en-
feebled by distribution until no one possessed enough
of it to do harm."

Dr. Skoblowitsky, the second regent of the society,
discovered that it was possible to influence disease at


a distance, so that a man in Warsaw might be recep-
tive at a set hour for one in Irkutsk, and, also, what
was stranger, that the difference in time made by the
longitude of two places disappeared as a hindrance
before the potency of the double exercise of two wills.
But all of this has little to do with the incidents of my
story, which Dr. Skoblowitsky describes in his chapter
of proofs of the power of the double will.

It is related, in connection with some of the state-
ments as to certain of the later discoveries made by
members of the " Council of Minds," just before the
police finally broke up the association in 1783, that at
this time Dolinkovitch, the chief councilor, announced
his belief that as the qualities of mind and morals
involved distinctive entities, grouped for use in the
republic known as man, these must be scattered by
death. Some means, he conceived, might be discov-
ered of utilizing and securing for the living man such
of these faculties as, dislocated from the rest, and set
at valueless freedom in spiritual ether, would otherwise
cease for ages to be means of good.

It was found at last that by proper exertion of will
power a man about to die could convey to one alive
the dominant qualities which he himself possessed,
but that those of which he had only a minor share
could not thus be transferred. A prearranged accept-
ive willingness on the part of the recipient was alone
needful for his share of the transaction.

Several curious illustrations are given of the work-
ings of this method. Thus, the Russian poet Vasiloe
Amgine, known as the Slavonic Poe, willed his imag-
ination to his friend, the great German algebraist Von


Heidenbrugger, and in consequence of the fact that
two sets of qualities came thus to exist in the same
being with equality of force, the mathematician wrote
a superb ode on the square root of x raised to the
ninth power, and was in consequence put in the asy-
lum at Cracow.

Other as sad failures, however, did not deter three
men of the lower circle of the society from agreeing
that as each died his best faculties were to become the
property of the survivors, it being supposed that as
they were all people of varied endowments the survivor
of this intellectual tontine would end by possessing
such force as would raise him to eminence.

Count Ortroff, the youngest of the three, was a man
of great personal beauty, and endowed with a rather
light mental organization ; apparently, one of those
butterfly natures which are generally acceptable, but
incapable of profound affection. He had too easily
captured the heart of his cousin, a woman of force and
remarkable charms, but quite too well aware of the
slightness of character of her lover. The engagement
was broken off by a singular incident.

One morning in May Count Ortroff became sud-
denly aware of a change in himself. He awoke to a
sense of vigor and activity of mind and body un-
known before. Commonly gentle and confiding, he
felt now a sense of desire to be aggressive, and
scolded his valet because he had ventured to inquire
of him whether he would ride or drive to the prin-
cess's country-seat.

All that day he felt himself a victim of contending
forces. He was for the first time aware of being


deeply in love, and astonished the princess as much
by the unwonted manifestations of passion as by
abrupt outbreaks of vehement criticism of various
people. As a rule he was gentle, refined, and most
suave of speech, and to this his easy nature inclined
him. Also, he had known himself to be so wanting in
courage that he regarded the possible consequences
of a quarrel with terror, and had declined to enter the
army. His life was spent in concealing this painful
defect of character.

After seeing the princess he remained at home for
two days, reflecting on the sudden changes which had
made him an irascible man and a passionate lover,
and had also, as it seemed, lifted him into a higher
intellectual sphere. In his amazement he consulted
the chief councilor of the society, Ivanovitch Dolinko-
vitch, who said at once, " But was not yours the No.
27, Moral Tontine!"


"Then you should have prepared yourself to as-
similate usefully the moral and mental properties
of General Graboskovitch and Captain Viloff. You
could by continuous effort of will have been ready to
decline to entertain in your soul their bad qualities,
and to welcome their better ones. You have been
loosely and thoughtlessly acceptive. It is now too
late. I was always fearful that your soul was of low
specific gravity. The general died four days ago. I
suppose that the more receptive nature of Captain
Viloff secured the dead man's courage ; without it his
aggressiveness would have long since gotten him into
trouble. You must be carefuL"


" Alas ! " said Ortroff, and went away in despair.

A few days later he received a letter from Viloff.
"I hear," wrote the captain, "that No. 2 of our tontine
is gone. I am distressed to feel that I come in for
no addition to my mental force, and that I have
obtained only an excess of courage and an absurd
indifference to danger. All gentlemen have courage
enough ; you will not need that, but if by ill luck you
have inherited the general's obstinate pugnacity, I am
sorry for you."

" And I," said Ortroff. " I must indeed be careful."

A few days later, at a ball, a gentleman offered
some trifling slight to the princess. Ortroff was
present. An irresistible impulse seized him. He fol-
lowed the man from the hall, and struck him. In-
stantly an agony of fear came upon him ; a duel was
of course unavoidable. He sat up all night, and on
the field next day displayed such signs of cowardice
that his seconds declined to act. He apologized to his
scornful foe, and a few hours after drove to the house
of Dr. Dolinkovitch, to whom he related his trouble.
The doctor was both sympathetic and interested. At
last he said: "You have only to follow my advice.
Go to the chief hotel and take rooms. To-morrow
get up late, and go into the street in your shirt and
drawers. The police will arrest you. Ask if it is
midnight, and say you want them to find me, that I
know your watch is out of order. They will send for
me, as I am the police surgeon. You will act wildly,
and I will send you to an insane asylum. In two
months you will come out well, and your failure will
be regarded as having been due to mental disorder."


Ortroff hesitated, but a note from the princess
breaking off the engagement determined him, and the
next day he followed out the doctor's advice to the
letter, and was sent to an asylum. His friends and
family gladly accepted the excuse, and took care to
circulate it widely.

After two or three months he returned to his es-
tates profoundly depressed. A week later he became
aware of a new change. The acquisition of the vigor-
ous intelligence of the general had made even more
painful the sense of his own defect in courage, and
the whole affair of the duel had troubled greatly the
members of the circle, who had been much attached
to him by reason of his sweetness of character and
gentle manners. These, in a degree, had suffered by
the inheritance of General Graboskovitch's soldierly
roughness and shortness of temper. But fear of his
own defects, together with his newly acquired acute-
ness of mind, had somewhat enabled him, as time
went on, to control and modify them.

But now, again, there was a change. Captain Vil-
off, dangerously stimulated by an overplus of audac-
ity, had been again and again wounded, and at last
in a desperate night attack on the frontier was mor-
tally hurt. The news already found Ortroff a new
man. Indeed, before he heard that he was the sur-
viving heir of the qualities of the other two members
of the tontine, he had begun to feel the influence of
the quality of courage which the two dead members
possessed. The results greatly interested the circle.
Again the count was seen in the neighboring town,
and every one except the members of his secret society


was astonished to hear that he had called out his old
antagonist, had explained to his seconds that his fear
was only the coming on of his mental trouble, and
had badly wounded his opponent. As a result every
one called upon him, and with perfect calmness he
himself went to visit the princess.

She received him coldly. Her notable intelligence
was dominated by immense tenderness, by all the self-
sacrificial qualities found in many women, and by a
feminine adoration of masculine beauty. These had
twice involved her in love-affairs with weaker persons
of the male sex, and now her chief difficulty in renew-
ing her promise to marry Ortroff arose from the fact
that he seemed to possess the stronger will, and no
longer appealed silently to her sympathies by his
gentleness and instability. She replied to his passion-
ate wooing that she could not marry a coward.

" But I am not. I will submit to any test," he as-
sured her. " There is my duel. I was, of course, in-
sane." At this she smiled incredulously.

"I do not know now whether I love you or not.
Give me six months to reflect, and and bring me
the order of St. George won on the battle-field."

Then she kissed him, and fled from the room.

Six weeks later, he was mortally wounded in the
desperate struggle of Olnovina, and a friend brought
the princess the cross which the emperor left on his
breast as he lay dying in the hospital at Yasiloff.

" What a cruel ending ! " cried Mrs. Vincent.
"It was a good exercise in Russian," said Clay-
borne, as he cast the manuscript on the table. " North


would have rendered it better. I hope it has amused

" Oh, amused ! No," returned Mrs. Vincent ; " it has
interested me. I wonder if there can be any founda-
tion for it."

" My wife has a coy interest in mysticism," laughed
V Vincent. "She enjoys a little flirtation with the

" Then never could a flirtation with you have de-
lighted her," said I.

" No, indeed," she cried ; " he is atrociously definite.
But what is there vague about all this strange story ?
It seems to the man who tells it to have happened."

"I think it in a measure explicable," I returned.
" The doctrine of suggestion might "

"There, don't explain it," she broke in. "I shall
wait the demise of some of my friends with interest.
Be it true or not, I understand the woman."

"I do not," said St. Clair. "How could a highly
intelligent woman care for a man as feminine as he ? "

" And you of all people ! You, who worship per-
sonal beauty ! " said Vincent.

" I am answered," cried the poet.

"No, not fully," said Mrs. Vincent. "And still, as
for myself, although I understand the woman instinct-
ively, I cannot explain."

" That is not understanding," said Clayborne, in his
blunt way.

" Possibly not ; but I decline to betray the secret
counsels of my own sex. And here is your tea. One
lump or two ? "


The little chat had amused me, as, glancing at Mrs.
Vincent's face, I had seen it flush faintly. She had
been twice engaged before she married my friend,
and, until then, her favored lovers had been men be-
neath her both in mind and character. She once said
to me, " When you come at last to pay the debts con-
tracted by that idiot Pity, the little god is apt to put
up the shutters and declare that he is not at home for
business." I should have liked to hear more from her
on this subject, because the love-affairs of the best
women are often inexplicable to men, and perhaps also
to the women concerned. I ventured on one occasion
to ask her a leading question on this serious matter.
She said, smiling, " Have you not observed that clever
women are apt to have more than one serious love-

I said that I had made that not difficult observa-

"Ah, well," she said, "I will make it clear to you.
The answer to any one such drama is in the next."

" That," I said, " is delightfully lucid to a woman."

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 11 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 11 of 19)