S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Characteristics online

. (page 2 of 19)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 2 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


The vision went on, and I apparently said, "What
can I do for you ? "

" As a gentleman," he returned, " I cannot go fur-
ther without a warning. I want to consult you, but I
cannot in justice do so until I say that whenever I
mention a symptom to a doctor it leaves me and goes
to him."

" Really ! " I exclaimed, incredulously.

"Yes. They all tell me that I am a crank; that
this is a peculiar delusion, and the like."

" Go on," I said. " It is easily tested."

As I replied I noticed that his eyes were singular,
the iris and pupil being quite double the ordinary
diameters. The color was a dead gray, and the organs
in question had a malicious fixity of expression.

" Pray go on," I repeated. " Are you in earnest ? "

" I have a severe pain in my back, about the lumbar
region on the left"

Instantly I myself felt a sharp pain just in the part
mentioned, and I put my hand to it, or seemed to, for
the arms were still unable to move freely.

"Aha! I was right; you doctors are all skeptical."

"Nonsense," I returned. "This is not strange
enough to convince a reasoning man."

" The last fellow said it was a coincidence."

"Goon."

" Oh, very well. I am blind in my left eye."

At once I covered my right eye, and knew that he
was right. I was unable to see anything.

" That will do," said I, faintly. " Stop."

" Yes. You cannot say that I did not warn you. It
may interest you to know that as I came up the street



CHAEACTEEISTICS. 17

I left eleven symptoms with different doctors. One
was difficult to satisfy j he got an enlarged liver, em-
physema of the left lung, and varicose veins. I have
seen but one reasonable doctor, and it, or she (for the
doctor was a woman), said she always carried away
some of her patients' symptoms, and would have noth-
ing to do with me."

At this he rose, and I also attempted to do the same,
but found that my armchair rose with me.

"What horrible thing is this?" I said.

" I forgot ! " he exclaimed. " How shall I ever for-
give myself ! Now it is too late. I ought to have told
you that as my aches and ailments leave me to settle
in the body of the doctor, so also does my flesh, which,
as you see, is unduly great. A few days more and I
shall have left the rest of my excess in Boston. There
no one believes anything old, and everybody believes
anything new."

" Please to go away," I said ; and I saw him waddle
slowly out of the room.

The notes of this queer vision I managed to make
my nurse write for me the next morning. Its oddness
to me consisted in the fact that it amused me as it
passed before me, and that I appeared to be at the
time watching myself, as if I, the watcher, were one,
and I, the actor, another person not a very rare state
in ordinary dreams.

These opium visions were of a definiteness which is
never found in the dreams of sleep, and were rarely
unpleasant. I could not command their presence.
For many nights I would sleep well under morphia,
and then pass a night of entire wakefulness haunted



18 CHAEACTERISTICS.

by spectacular scenes. I promised to limit myself to
the telling of only two; both had some relation to
things in which I had been especially interested. Thus
I had once experimented with care on myself to learn
how most safely to reduce an excess of fat ; and my
second vision was in some way the outcome of a paper
I wrote as a student.

I was of a sudden in the laboratory of the foremost
of American chemists, and had arranged an apparatus
so that on one side of a piece of tanned rhinoceros-
hide I placed bisulphid of carbon, and on the other an
agent well known to my dream state, but, alas ! lost to
the memory of daylight. My chemical friend smiled
blandly as I told him that osmotic currents would
slowly form in the course of months, and, my bisulphid
of carbon being very gradually decomposed, crystals
of carbon, or, in other words, diamonds, would be
formed on the surface of the membrane. Having ar-
ranged my apparatus, it was put into a safe. I re-
member to have felt the most profound interest, not
unmixed with amusement, at what I did, and I was
annoyed when the laboratory faded away and a Druid-
ical procession appeared in a grove. At last I had a
distinct sense of gratification as again the laboratory
appeared, and my friend stood before the open safe.
I carefully drew out the tray on which stood the
dialyzer. On the top of the membrane were several
dull-looking stones, one as large as a walnut. My
friend took this up, and crossed the room. In a min-
ute he came back, saying: "You have made seven
hundred thousand dollars' worth of diamonds. This



CHARACTERISTICS. 19

lesser one is of perfect water ; the large one is a little
blue."

I said that I knew I should succeed.

"It will be very useful in the arts," returned my
friend. " I shall like to have about two dozen of the
size of a pigeon's egg to enable me to make certain
studies in chemical physics."

Now this was pretty much what the man would have
desired, and would have asked under like circum-
stances. The scientific aspect of the matter would for
him have been the only one, and it did seem to me odd
that, without act of will of which I was cognizant, he
should thus speak through me with the simplicity and
directness which are a part of his character. Again,
it was characteristic of me that some of the moral de-
velopments of the affair should present themselves.
However, without more comment, I will relate my fur-
ther remembrance of it as it was written down next day.

I answered his desire by a promise that he should
have what he wanted, and went on to say: "What
shall we do ? I may make ten millions in diamonds,
and then cease, and never reveal the method; or I
may at once publish it, in which case all the diamonds
in the world become as glass, and multitudes of people
are ruined. And what will the women say ? "

" Some one must continue to make diamonds," said
my friend. "There are numberless uses for them
which their cost now forbids."

But I could not consent to make a fortune, sell my
diamonds, and then render them valueless to those to
whom I had sold them.



20 CHARACTERISTICS.

" It is a difficult problem," said he.

" It is an impossible one," said I ; and here the vis-
ion ended in some wild cavern scene, for neither will
nor wish on my part had power to detain a picture,
nor to secure the continuance of one of these dramatic
visions where I was the whole company and the whole
audience.




H.



WAS a year in bed before I could
walk, or even stand, but my recovery
was then rapid and complete. Pain
I knew by this time in a wonderful
variety of forms, but of whatever it
finally did of good or evil to me I
shall say but little. The evil was immediate, the
good remote or indirect. If any man wants to learn
sympathetic charity, let him keep pain subdued for six
months by morphia, and then make the experiment of
giving up the drug. By this time he will have become
irritable, nervous, and cowardly. The nerves, muffled
so to speak, by narcotics, will have grown to be not
less sensitive, but acutely, abnormally capable of feel-
ing pain, and of feeling as pain a multitude of things
not usually competent to cause it. I did what I have
known one other human being to do, and that a
woman. After several efforts to get rid of my foe by
degrees, I shut myself up in my room, and, declining
to see any physician, fought it out alone and unaided.
At the close of two weeks I could sleep without mor-
phia, but of the torture of that fortnight I have even
now scarce courage to think. The victory left me, as
to my body, a wreck, but made me forever tender to
those who are under the despotic rule of this and other



22 CHAEACTERISTICS.

as hurtful habits. I learned also how much of char-
acter is a question of health, and this too has had for
me its value in life.

At the close of two years I was well and as vigorous
as ever, but the wound and its consequence left with
me one other result for which I was not prepared. I
took a growing dislike to the profession of which I had
been proud, having looked forward to being enabled
to apply myself wholly to the study of the science of
medicine rather than to its general practice. I sup-
pose that I could have conquered my feelings, and that
in time they would have left me ; but I had no need
to make a fight, and as yet my power of self-govern-
ment was not what it had been. I disliked most of all
the idea of practising among disorders like my own.
This I cannot understand, but I may say that patients
who have grave chronic maladies which they know to
be fatal are, as a rule, indisposed to hear of the sad
needs of like cases among the poor ; nor, if rich, do
they especially incline to help these, or to provide for

, them in any way. I am, as I have said, a student of
' character, but this peculiarity has never been quite

1 explicable to me, and that it has had noble exceptions
only serves to emphasize the existence of the mass of
facts which prove my point. I saw pretty soon that
I was in no condition to make a struggle, and so gave
it up for a time, and went abroad.

While in Europe I amused myself with a close study
of the characteristics of the Slav, the Teutonic, and the
Celtic races, and for this purpose lived much among
all classes. Some of my conclusions are to be found
in my volume on the " Influence of Language on Char-



CHAEACTEEISTICS. 23

acter," which is, of course, but a part of a larger sub-
ject. I ain not wholly satisfied as yet with my method
of treating this matter, but I am quite certain that
if to-day France and Germany were suddenly and
miraculously to interchange tongues, the two nations
would shortly undergo some unlooked-for alterations.
I have known several people whose superficial char-
acteristics were quite different according as they spoke
French or English, although they were as fluent in the
one as in the other. I know of one woman who is
common and ill-bred as an Englishwoman, but who,
when she speaks French, which she knows well, is
apparently well-mannered and rather attractive. Nor,
as we reflect, does this seem altogether strange when
we consider how much national character has to do
with the evolution of language and how impossible
exact translation is. I have heard a man say that to
read or speak French made him feel gay, and that the
effect of like uses of German was quieting.

The second part of my work on national character-
istics was to have been on the relative conception and
valuation of truth, and then of courage, among na-
tions. I was interrupted in the study by a call home
on a matter of business which involved a large amount
of money and allowed of no delay.

On my return I found that a certain Western cap-
italist, a man already of vast fortune obtained by
modern methods, had succeeded in depressing what
are fantastically termed securities connected with a
short railroad, and that a good deal of my means was
likely to disappear in the process of adding a million
or more to the hoards of a great gambler.
3



24 CHARACTERISTICS.

What was worse, my father, who had had charge of
many trusts, had confidently invested certain excesses
of income for the widow of a friend in the securities
in question, and for years their rise in value had jus-
tified him. But now came a robber who, by a variety
of methods, succeeded in injuring the road with the
intention of buying it in at a low rate as a bankrupt
concern. In the case just mentioned a sick woman
and two children relied largely on the income hitherto
coming to them with regularity, and I felt that, as re-
gards these victims, I must make good their losses.
I was told by business men that this was absurd ; that
my father had acted in good faith and within the law ;
that it was no one's fault that their sources of income
had failed these people.

It became more and more clear to me on my way
home that I was to be a serious loser, and I went at
once to consult a friend of whom I shall have, by and
by, more to say. When I entered his office, Frederick
Vincent was talking with Clayborne, another friend of
both of us, and whom I had not met since my recent
return. Clayborne looked like a giant out of business.
A tall, stalwart man, clumsily strong, he stooped a
little, and carried off but ill his unusual stature. To
shake hands with this huge creature was a serious
matter. He was innocently given to crushing the
hand one confided to his grip in a fashion which not
insignificantly reminded one of the way in which he
was apt to deal with the emotions or prejudices even
of those he loved the best.

" I have been to see you both," I said, " and did see
Mrs. Vincent."



CHARACTERISTICS. 25

It was pleasant to feel sure how glad these men
were to welcome me. As I explained the reason for
my sudden return Vincent's face took on that look of
grave intensity of attention which so inspired confi-
dence in his advice. The large ruggedness of Clay-
borne's features underwent no change, but he, too, set
himself to listen, and now and then made a note.

" Well," I said, after fully stating the situation, " it
is my good fortune to have found you together. I
come prepared to take whatever counsel you may give.
Does the law offer me any chance, Vincent ? "

"You might as well go to law with a cyclone,"
growled Clayborne.

" No," said Vincent ; " I think we might beat him in
time j but it would be costly, might take two years or
V'more, and, frankly, my dear Owen, I do not think you
could stand it. Commercial men have no idea what a
torture business complicated business may become
to"

" To one like me, Fred ? You are right, quite right.
I could not stand it."

" I would not go to law," continued Vincent, " and
I see no other way out, except to sell and accept the
loss."

"Transfer your interest to me," said Clayborne,
" and let me fight it for you ; I shall enjoy the row.
It won't hurt me."

" No ; I cannot do that."

" And what else will you do ? "

"I must go West, and look into the state of the
road. If it seem hopeless, I shall sell out and make
good the losses of the woman I spoke of."



26 CHARACTERISTICS.

"Nonsense ! " exclaimed Clayborne.

Vincent said nothing.

" Do tell the boy not to make an ass of himself,"
said Clayborne, who was, I should have said, by many
years our senior.

Vincent smiled. " In a year or two, you, under like
circumstances, would do the same as Owen. Your
moral mill grinds slowly, my friend, but I have ob-
served that it is pretty sure at last."

"But no man's conscience not the most scrupu-
lous"

" Pardon me, Clayborne," interrupted Vincent ; " it
is not a case of conscience or of honesty."

"And of what then?"

" Men used to call it honor," said Vincent, gently,
without reproach or cynicism in his manner.

"Confound it!" said Clayborne, slowly rising.
u The note is above my moral gamut. I am like the
people who cannot hear the squeak of a mouse."

"Nevertheless, Owen is right."

After this I went away to my hotel, reflecting as I
walked along on the possible character of my robber.
Here was a man with over-much who wanted more.
Was this avarice, or was it due to the pleasure he
found in a game played without scruple ? A famous
burglar once told me that it was largely the excite-
ment and the immense obstacles in the way which
made him a plunderer of safes. Perhaps my foe had
a certain joy in the complexity of the game of destruc-
tion ; yet it must have been also that he loved mere
money, because no one ever heard of his having sud-
denly restored a road to its ruined owners, as one sets



CHARACTEEISTICS. 27

up tenpins it has been a pleasure successfully to bowl
over. Had he never been threatened ? Did he fear
no wild justice, the outcome of the agony or madness
of some one who saw wife and children beggared and
himself too old or too ill to renew the fierce battle of
lif e ? My robber financier must have the courage of
his guilt or lack predictive imagination.

Meanwhile the process of ruin went on, and, quite
helpless, I resolved at once to carry out my plan of
investigation. Accordingly I went straight to the
great "Western city which was one terminus of the road
in question. A few days made plain to me how rap-
idly my bandit had matured his plans.

On my arrival in L I found two letters. One,

from Vincent, said :

I send you a blank check. You must not be incommoded by
this scoundrel, or let this trouble break up your life plan. I
shall leave you in my will the amount you draw, and you can
then repay my estate. Anne and I have talked it over

The other was from Clayborne.

Dear Owen : It is immensely pleasant to be able to help a
man make a fool of himself. If you do not let me pay that
woman I will give the money to a homeopathic hospital. You
may choose as to which folly I shall commit.

Yours, C .

I said to myself, these are some of the sweet uses of
adversity. So, having made up my mind to accept
the loss, and having taken my ticket for the homeward
journey, I went out quite at rest in mind to wander

in L for the hour or two yet left to me. Pausing

in the street to ask of an elderly man a light for my



28 CHARACTERISTICS,

cigar, I inquired the name of the owner of a huge
house at the corner. The man replied, " Why, that 's

Xerxes Z 's. Guess you 're a stranger. I knowed

him when he was a boy ; blacked my boots many a
time. Wonder what he 'd take to black 'em now ? "
Surprised to hear thus the name of my foe, I went on ;
but the house attracted me, and presently I turned
back. Then I crossed over, and just at that moment
the door was opened by a rather frowzy maid. A
sudden impulse seized me. I would see this man if
he were at home, and if he were not I would go away,
and accept tranquilly the misfortune his avarice had

created for me. The woman said Mr. Z was at

home, and showed me through an unfurnished hall
into the parlor. The house was an old one with open
grates in which blazed fierce anthracite fires. The
furniture was ugly but not extravagant.

I had no plan in mind. I would at least learn what
manner of creature this was, and have the poor com-
fort before I left of telling him what the world of the
honest thought of him and his ways.

As a preliminary to our interview, I glanced about
me hastily. Several large Swiss landscapes adorned
the walls, and there was also an excellent oil-painting
of a man in a red shirt casting for trout beside a quiet
pool. Near it was a clever sketch of the same sturdy
person caressing a beautiful setter. On a marble cen-
ter-table were piled a few books : a volume of Ameri-
can scenery, Bryant, Longfellow, and Tupper, all with
a certain stiffness of back symptomatic of lack of use.
One, gorgeously bound, was "Travels in the Holy
Land," a gift from the Rev. P. Y. to Xerxes Z., Esq.



CHARACTERISTICS. 29

A volume on the " Education of the Young," by the
same to the same. Also memoir of "Travels in
Strange Lands," affectionately and gratefully dedi-
cated to X. Z., by his pastor, P. Y. My knowledge
was accumulating. In the darkened back parlor was
a full length of the fisherman by a great English art-
ist. It looked as if the painter had found pleasure in
labeling the visage with his own opinion of the sitter.
I wondered at the courage, or the ignorance, which
could accept such a vivid commentary ; but, as I have
said, it was rather too dark to see well this or other
portraits, and, observing a single square green volume
on the table, I walked back with it to the lighter room,
and stood with wonder looking over its few pages. It
was made up of old pamphlets containing chess prob-
lems, and at the close was an account, written in 1760,
of the famous automaton chess-player. On the fly-leaf
was the autograph of Von Kempelen, the inventor.

As I looked over the queer little book, puzzled and
interested, and knowing, too, something of the fate of
the great and really historical figure which had played
with Maria Theresa, Frederick the Great, and Napo-
leon, I heard a heavy footfall, and my host entered
a man tall and broad, with ruddy, coarse, and large
features borne on a head which was carried well back
and up.

I said, " Mr. X. Z., I presume ? And first, before we
talk, let me replace this book which I brought from the
back room. As a chess-player it interested me."

" All right," he said, and sat down while I disposed
of the book, and came back to my host, who was still
seated.



30 CHARACTERISTICS.

" Set down," lie said. " What is it you want ? If
you 're a reporter, my secretary will attend to you."

"No; I am not a reporter. To go at once to the
mark, I want a half -hour's talk with you."

" You can't have it unless it interests me. What 's
it about?"

"About the P. L. and C. Railroad."

" Oh, yes ; go ahead. That is interesting. Papers
say I 'm whittlin' it up to buy the chips low."

" Are you not ? "

" Well, you are a cool hand. What 's in all this ?
Who sent you I "

" I am a considerable owner of the stock and bonds,"
I said, " and, as I see that these are tumbling pretty
fast, and observe that you have diverted all the nat-
ural coal and goods traffic to a longer loop line, and
that some one is shoveling the stock out in heaps,
I concluded that you are the man who, having organ-
ized arrangements to injure my little road, will step
in some day and secure the property of myself and
others."

I supposed that he would be angry. Not at all. He
slowly stroked his long grizzled beard, smiled as I went
on, and as I ended said :

"Is that all?"

" No ; not quite. I want your advice as to what I
shall do."

" Suppose that I tell you to go to the devil?"

" But you will not, or you would have done so at
once. I promised to interest you, and you are inter-
ested, and, besides, it would be like well I could n't
go there, because I am there now."



CHARACTERISTICS. 31

" There ? Oh, I see. I am the devil, am I, and you
want advice ? Sell out."

"I cannot afford to do that. That is diabolical
advice."

" Well, hold on."

" That means almost total loss. You are advising
me from your point of view ; reverse it, and take mine,
and then, with what you know, say do this or that.
I shall do as you say."

"Oh, will you? I won't do it; it ain't business-
Mind, I ain't said I 'm in this thing at all. By George !
my son Peter 's in the same boat as you. He wants
advice too. He thinks he 's clever. Well I advised
him, I did. I give him high-class advice. He was
grateful, that boy. Hope it '11 last. Are n't we gettin'
off the track ? "

"Yes; I 'm sorry for Peter. Of course you must
keep up financial discipline."

" That 's good. I '11 tell Peter that financial disci-
pline must be kep' up in one's own family circle."

" And now, as you have admitted to being in this
scheme "

"I I diddid It 8

" Yes ; you rose to my third fly."

" Look here, I won't stand this. Suppose I am in it ?
Suppose I am not in it ? "

" But you not only rose to my fly, you took it too.
You 're hooked. Once you are in an affair you go
through. You began to advise me, and it is not in
your character to fail. Advice is what you yourself,
with your knowledge and in like circumstances, would
accept. You say, hold on. I cannot. You are tri-



32 CHARACTERISTICS.

fling, and that is not your nature. You might have
said, I will not advise. I should have taken that, and
left ; but now you are pledged to find me a way out,
and a safe way. You are hooked, and it is time I
reeled you in. Three runs are enough."

My host rose up, and set two heavy paws on the
table behind which I sat. He looked for all the world
like some strong plantigrade beast of the grizzly type.
For a moment he regarded me with curiosity, and then
broke into a roar of laughter which shook the bulky
chandelier-pendants above us. I remained tranquil.
At last he said :

" Who 's been a-blowin' to you about me ? "

"No one."

" Oh, come now. I rose to the fly, did I ? "

" Yes ; it looked new to you, and up you came.
Fatal curiosity."

" Oh, it is all very well to compare me to a trout,
but no man was ever took that simple. I 'd like to
have old Phil Sleeper with a hook in his gills and a
long line and quick water and a multiplyin' reel
hang him."

" I am not Phil Sleeper. The case is reversed."

"Is it? Why, you must be a fisherman yourself.
Come here and see this picture. I had Simmons do
that. It is just at the outlet of Moosehead. I 'm fast
to a cast of eight pounds one five, one three. Ever
tie your own flies ? n

"Sometimes."

" This morning, I suppose ? "


2 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 2 of 19)