S. Weir (Silas Weir) Mitchell.

Characteristics online

. (page 6 of 19)
Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 6 of 19)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


is at ease now ; and how much it will please her ! '

" We met again in three days. He was wild with
anger.



84 CHARACTERISTICS.

" ' She is gone ! ' he said. ' Come and gone. Gone to
Constantinople, they said, and thence to the East. Not
a word, not a note. I had written to her at Naples, but
had no reply. Yesterday I called, and was told she
was not at home ; and to-day, that she left last night.'

" I said that it did seem strange to me, and that
something certainly would explain it in a few days j
but nothing did."

"WELL," said Clayborne, "is that all?"

" You don't mean that you don't understand it ! "
cried St. Clair.

" Yes. It seems to me entirely without ending."

The rest of us laughed. Clayborne, a most intelli-
gent being, was subject at times to total eclipses.

"Perhaps," said St. Clair, "the sequel may help you.

Three years later the Princess N married Count

von C , the German cavalry general, and a man in

every way charming. Still later, at the sale of the

effects of Count R , the Princess bought my friend's

vestal, outbidding an English duke and a French
banker. I was told that she keeps it in her own bou-
doir, and that no visitors see it."

" And is that a true story ? " said Vincent.

"Why ask?" cried St. Clair.

"Oh, I wanted to know if the man really did not
know or ever guess who his model was. It seems in-
credible."

" I never asked him."

" I suppose not."

"I see now," said Clayborne, and was noisily con-
gratulated on his acuteness amidst storms of laughter.



CHARACTERISTICS. 85

"Did I not once tell you," said the object of our
mirth, " that at times all of us are subject to attacks
of folly idiocy, if you like. Vide Newton and the
cats."

"Do you suppose the reverse applies to the fool?"
laughed Vincent.

" Yes," I said ; " in a way, up to a certain or uncer-
tain limit. A friend of mine once made a clever enigma.
It was correctly answered, and that in a moment, by a
rather dull school-girl and by one of the most brilliant
of American writers, but by no one else."

" Leave out the headings of a good many poems I
know," said Clayborne, " and see if you have not good
enigmas."

" Let us hear your enigma," said Vincent.
" Certainly," said I. " By the way, to justify Clay-
borne, I may as well say that it was really lines on "
" Oh, don't teU ! " cried St. Glair.
" Well, the author saw that without the heading it
was a clever enigma. I believe it has not been in
print.

"A simple go-between am I,
Without a thought of pride ;
I part the gathered thoughts of men,
And liberally divide.
I set the soul of Shakspere free,
To Milton's thoughts give liberty,
Bid Sidney speak with freer speech,
Let Spenser sing, and Taylor preach.
Though through all learning swift I glide,
No wisdom doth with me abide."

''What nonsense ! " said Clayborne. "And the an-
swer?"



86 CHAEACTERISTICS.

"Don't tell!" cried St. Glair. "Let us ask Mrs.
Vincent."

"Agreed," said I.

" As you like," added Clayborne ; " but to go back a
little. There is some element of luck in the guessing
business, almost the chance falling upon the clue;
and as to the reverse cases of which you spoke, there
are instances of the single poem of value a man writes,
the one speech of force coming from men who were
before, or after, incapable. Take the stray passages
in books, otherwise valueless, as the guess at the true
theory of the circulation by Servetus. If my memory
served me better, I could quote no end of such cases.

Talking of memory, H told me once that he could

never remember his own poems I mean so as to re-
peat them accurately. That seemed odd to me."

" Not at all," said I. " He has in mind a multitude
of versions, variations, and changes. It is like the
want of clearness which is caused by the superposition
of photographic images."

"That must be it. And, by the way, North, you
promised us a sketch from the man who has the curi-
ous complaint of too good a memory. Is that alone
as a case, or did you ever hear of a like instance ? "

"Yes ; the late C P told me he knew well

a French savant who was troubled by the perfection of
his memory. He forgot nothing. The words a pass-
ing friend said in the street, the editorial he read to-
day, the lecture he heard a week or five years ago were
all alike, and equally ready to turn up in mind distinct,
or capable of being repeated word for word. His
childish fears, emotions experienced years before, were



CHAEACTEEISTICS. 87

in the same way competent to trouble him in all the
acuteness of their first presence. Unlike my patient,
this man, a member of the Academy, was a person of
great intelligence, and had his memorial stores some-
what under control. About my case there is an ele-
ment of morbidness, and certainly only a moderate
amount of mental force."

"I should think," said Clayborne, "that a curious
essay could be written about the people who possessed
an excess of one quality of mind without the balancing
faculties which act as critical or controlling forces. I
can conceive of a man with a really good intellect
without imagination, or of a strong mind devoid of
power to love."

" Like a cherub a winged brain and no heart," said
St. Clair.

" Delightful ! " cried Vincent. " And again there is
the man of imagination without critical intelligence."

" But how is it, North, as to people with excessive
sensory powers? Are they apt to be as clever as
others?"

"No; hardly," I replied, a little in doubt. "The
cases I have seen of extraordinary sight, hearing, or
smell have been in hypnotized or hysterical folks, or
in people in some way diseased. I TmvtTknown per-
sons who could hear what was said in the next room ;
others who could detect by smell to whom garments
belonged which had been laundried. Now that you
raise the question, it does seem strange that our senses
should sometimes in disease, or morbid conditions, at-
tain a perfection beyond that which under any educa-
tion they can reach in health."
7



88 CHARACTERISTICS.

"Your examples serve at least to show what we
might be," said Clayborne. " There are some curious
speculations in this direction in Taylor's 'Physical
Theory of Another Life.' "

" But what about your case ? " said St. Clair.

" I have it here," said I. " It is rather long, but you
can smoke."

" Let me quote first," said Vincent, " the reflection
of Emerson, ' A pity that the insanities of the insane
are not complementary, so that we could house two of
them together.' That is about his phrase. I fancy he
referred to the cranks who tormented him."

" And," said St. Clair, " who have no dead point like
an honest working crank."

"I must not let Vincent begin the subject of cranks,"
I said, "or we shall sit all night. But as Vincent
quoted that suggestive thinker I was reflecting upon
the fact that while we accept individuality as a thing
certain for all men, and cease to wonder at its immen-
sity of variation, we rarely remark upon the equal in-
dividualization of man's many faculties the distinct-
ness of quality in the different little workmen who
haunt the factories of the brain. And then the won-
der of it ! To see these brain-cells and fibers so nearly
alike that while the convolutions, the weight, and the
gross form of the low criminal brain and the brain of
a Newton are, within limits, different, these tiny crea-
tive or reflective cells, these little masses of nerve-mat-
ter that think, suffer, remember, and love, and always
in their own individualized way, are so much alike in
the best and the worst brains that the grouped cells
that made ' Hamlet ' could not be distinguished by any



CHARACTERISTICS. 89

material feature from those which gave us ' Proverbial
Philosophy.' "

" Or ' Leaves of Grass,' " said Clayborne.

" Bet you anything you never read either," said St.
Clair. " ' Leaves of Grass ' and Tupper ! There was
a bore."

" There are no literary bores," retorted Clayborne.
" No book need bore ; you can always cut a book."

" Or not cut it," I laughed.

" Shame ! " cried Clayborne.

"Shall I help you?" said St. Clair.

" Oh, I saw it. I really did," said Clayborne.

" I am not sure," cried St. Clair, rising to fill his pipe
anew. "But to end these metaphysical fancies. It
does seem strange to a man dealing with the ma-
terial outside human make, that while every inch of
a man's skin varies so that you can swear to it as
belonging to this or that man, and to no one else, the
material within his skull, which at least represents him
as to his highest qualities, should be to appearances
so unindividual, and vary only a little as to quantity,
or only a little as to gross form."

" There must be more essential variations, unseen as
yet," said Vincent.

" Yes j it is we, the critics, who fail," I replied.

"As the mere materialists always will," cried Vin-
cent. " But what does St. Clair mean by every inch of
us differing?"

" I mean our surfaces. You can see it if you get a
thousand men to press each his forefinger on a bit of
slightly smoked card. No two will be identically the
same."



90 CHARACTERISTICS.

" Delightful ! " said Vincent. " Sounds like a bit of
' Gulliver's Travels.'

11 Oh, it is true ; it has been studied, I believe, with
care. What about that biography ? "

" It is rather late," said I.

"Oh, go on," returned St. Clair. "We can smoke,
as you said."

" No j we have talked away all the time I can now
spare. Let us adjourn to Vincent's, say to Sunday
night. We shall have Mrs. Vincent then, and I want
her to hear it."



vn.




F there be such a thing as friend-
ship at first sight, then it happened
to me when first I saw Mrs. Vin-
cent. I was still in bed, and at times
suffering in such ways as are hid-
eous to recall, and Fred had asked
leave to bring his young wife to see me. I was glad,
for, as I have said, to be ill is a feminine verb, and
agrees best with that gender. I was justified in her
choice of time and a companion. She would have none

of Fred, and went quietly and asked Mrs. L to go

with her, and also she sent me word it would be at
twilight, and named the hour, and was there as it
struck all of which goes to show that a goodly part
of the divinity which shapes our ends materializes here
below in the form of a woman.

She said no word as to my wound or my ailments,
and yet, often since, I have seen her profuse in senti-
ment and demonstrative in manner, being a creature
of many available moods. She talked pretty gossip,

while Mrs. L sat by and wondered a little at the

light folly of the chat. But when Anne Vincent left
me, I was happier and more hopeful. At the door she

turned, Mrs. L having preceded her, and said,

"And now we are friends, you know." And with a



92 CHARACTERISTICS.

smile on her lip, and with eyes quite overfull, added,
" I am very exacting. Good-by."

Her goodness, her gentle follies, and the like we
shall know better as these rambling pages go on.

The drawing-room was unlighted, as it was May and
warm, and Mrs. Vincent, with St. Clair and Clayborne,
sat at the open window, which overlooked large garden



" How silent you all are !" said I.

" That is only because we do not speak aloud," said
St. Clair, with a laugh. "We are busily talking to
ourselves. For my part, when I think that I came out
of silence and shall return to it again, I feel what a
vast balance there is against me.

" Oh, is there not enough of silence here,
Of joy unspoken, of unworded cheer ? n

Claybome muttered in his great beard something
about grown-up children, and then said aloud, " It is a
Persian poet who says :

"Silence is the seed of thought."

" Well, then, that man had better have kept quiet a
little longer ! " exclaimed St. Clair. " Talk is the seed
of thought."

" That is measurably true for me," returned Vincent,
who had just entered. " At all events, I get cleared up
as to a problem when I talk it out, and especially when
I speak it out afoot ; I mean in court, for instance."

" But for my part," I said, " I never clear my head
to my satisfaction until I write out my thinkings. I
may have to do it over and over, but in no other way
do I get the best out of my brain."



CHARACTERISTICS. 93

"And I," said Clayborne, "must sit down with a
pipe, alone, and let my head work. Then it comes, if
it come at all. But this follows days of looser, yet
quite constant musing on the matter, and I talk slowly,
as you know."

" Yes ; we know," murmured St. Clair, viciously.

" Bad boy ! " whispered Mrs. Vincent. " Go into a
corner of silence, and stay there. Pray go on, Mr.
Clayborne."

" I fancy," he continued, " that the rate of thought
must govern the rate of speech. Quick thinkers are
rapid speakers."

" I wonder," said St. Clair, " why it bothers a fellow
to talk on his feet. I once had to speak at a dinner.
I shiver at the remembrance. Where did my thoughts
go, Owen ? I got up with a full pocket, and in a mo-
ment was a bankrupt."

" Judging," said I, " from one's f eelings the day after
a public dinner, one's thoughts must go to the liver."

"That explains it," laughed Vincent. "It has al-
ways been a puzzle to me."

" Apropos of puzzles," said Mrs. Vincent, " Fred tells
me you have an enigma for me, and that is curious,
because I have one for you."

" Here is ours," I returned, and repeated it.

"You will never guess it," said Clayborne. "It
roosted that night in a corner of my brain, and kept
me awake. At last I cursed it in good Arabic, and
f eU asleep."

"Stop!" said Mrs. Vincent. "It is " And she
whispered to me.

" You have it. That is correct."



94 CHARACTERISTICS.

" The female brain is an extraordinary instrument,"
said Clayborne, reflectively ; while Vincent, laughing,
insisted on hearing the solution.

"No," she said 5 "not until you have guessed mine,
and perhaps not then. It is short, and pretty, and
very easy; in fact, it was made for some children.

Here it is :

"My first is one,
My second five,
My whole is four,
And backwards six."

"That is rather pretty," said St. Clair. "Is it"
And he whispered.

" No ; that is clever, but not correct."

" An amusement for fiends," said Clayborne. "Any-
thing is better."

"Do you all give it up?" asked Mrs. Vincent.
" Well, the answer is I shall never, never, tell you
the answer."

" Then here is my history. I had the man's leave
to use it. And now, candles, please." And so I
went on.



NOTES OP A CASE OF TOO GOOD A MEMORY.

As a child I was remarked on account of absence
of imagination, and for a memory of remarkable char-
acter. I learned everything with singular ease. As I
grew older, I found it so possible to memorize readily
that in place of using my mind in geometry or algebra,
I simply read over the problems and their solutions,
and got them by heart. At first this method answered



CHAEACTEEISTICS. 95

all the demands of education, but when I came to ap-
ply my knowledge to examples where no solutions
were given, I of course failed. Nevertheless, I was so
ready with acquired knowledge that I contrived to zig-
zag through my school course, and then, by my father's
help, obtained a place as reporter of street incidents.

And here let me pause to describe my mental con-
dition. The full consciousness of the great mental
peculiarity of which I now speak came to me only
after a time, and by degrees, and more by reason of
the remarks made by others than from my own unas-
sisted observation. This struck me forcibly once when
I was about to do a race ; I was then eighteen years
old. A man asked what was the lineage of a certain
horse. I began, and without effort, or, indeed, thought,
traced the parentage back to Eclipse. This excited
vast amazement. Then, as afterward, I wondered at
the surprise and interest my powers of memory occa-
sioned. The results which caused surprise were purely
automatic, and cost me no effort j nor have I ever been
able to feel that I had to try in order to recall a fact.
In a word, my memory was perfect. At first this may
seem to the reader a matter of little interest ; but in
reality the power to forget is one of the most valuable
and helpful gifts which a man possesses. When men
regret the want of vivid memory, I wonder, and envy
the deficiency of which they complain. I wish, indeed,
that I could feel sure of the power of death as an ob-
literative change. As to the loss of memory, of which
the aged speak, I am most anxious. I presume, from
what I hear, that men lose in time the vivid recollec-
tions of sorrow, and that Methuselah at nine hundred



96 CHAEACTERISTICS.

might have reflected with little discomfort on the
follies, the griefs, the crimes, of his youth. Even the
keenest remorse would lose its cruel edge and be rusted
dull by time. If I read a book, it is mine forever;
clever or vapid, there it is. I forget nothing. I can
repeat Shakspere from end to end. As a consequence,
nothing seems to me to be fresh or original. A phrase
recalls one like it, and as life goes on I cease to get
pleasure out of books or men's talk.

At one time I eked out my narrow income by read-
ing manuscripts for a journal ; but as in regard to the
cleverest contributions I could at once point out end-
less plagiarisms of thought or expression, I soon be-
came unpopular and lost the occupation. Somewhat
later I was given work to do for an encyclopedia.
Seemingly there was no task for which my enormous
store of varied erudition was better fitted, and yet here
too I failed. My employers complained that I had no
sense of proportion. All knowledge was alike to me,
and all was equally well remembered. The large, the
small, were as one in my mind, and had the same im-
portance, because the place of a comma, and the words
among which it lay, seemed to me equally distinct.
As I reflect on this with an ever-present sense of puzzle,
I seem to myself to be a mere memorial machine in
which the gearing of association is altogether too
complete.

My intensity of memory is accompanied with a curi-
ous automatic capacity over which I have, as life goes
on, a constantly lessening control. If I remember a
note, or a bar of music, I seem to hear it and a long
succession of passages from the opera to which it be-



CHARACTERISTICS. 97

longs, and this is also true as to books. When awake
in the dark, but also in a less degree in the daylight,
I have any scene or incident which occurs to me vis-
ually projected into space before my eyes even more
vividly than when I first saw it. Of late the fidelity
of these recurring phantoms has troubled me, on ac-
count of their appearance seeming to be real, or what
is called objective. I ascribe such apparitions to the
diseased perfectness of memory, for sometimes what is
past returns to me remembered in a shape even more
distinct than was the impression made at the time by
the then present course of the occurrence. It is singu-
lar to me that remembered sounds, which ring in my
head, seem heard within it, but things once seen al-
ways appear to be outside of the head.

As I remember my dreams quite as well as the scenes
of the day, I find myself troubled at times, and in
doubt as to whether something is real or the product
of a dream ; for if a dream be as definite as a thing
seen in the daylight, how shall we know it to be a
thing untrue ?

Certainly absolute perfection of memory is a mis-
fortune, unless the deliberative and executive powers
of the mind are normally competent to keep discipline
and deal with memories which have the force of a mob.

I am told, indeed, I know, that, for most men,
time slowly but surely blurs emotional recollections.
If it were not so, all lives would be like mine unen-
durable. With me the strong absolute fact of a ca-
lamity, the thing as it took place, really lives in my
mind as if it had happened a moment ago, and with
its recollection rises, in agonizing clearness, the emo-



98 CHARACTERISTICS.

tion to which it originally gave birth. Time has no
destructive value ; all the details remain. Thus, as to
my mother's death, I am forced, when associations
arise, to see in all its ghastliness the minutest of the
incidents of her last hours with the dreadful sharpness
they had for me when, a tender child of twelve, I saw
her die. Does a recurring memory merely play anew
on our capacity for emotion, or do the emotions once
felt remain for us as memories ? I do not know. I
think I must remember the emotions and not recreate
them, because I am not now so sensitive to moral
hurts as I once was. There is one curious trick which
my sensations now and then play, and which I es-
pecially dread, and, strangely enough, it is connected
with the only defect of memory to which I am ever
subject. I can best illustrate this by relating an inci-
dent of my reportorial life.

Passing up an obscure street in New York, I saw a
crowd around a doorway. I went, as was my business,
to see what was the matter. A policeman who knew
me, and who arrived at the same time, took me in with
him through a window in the basement. It seemed
that screams had been heard in the house, and those
collected by the noise feared to enter. We went up a
shabby staircase and finally found a door which was
locked. As we stood near it, getting no answer to our
demands to be let in, I suddenly grew faint, and a
sensation of pure, causeless terror overcame me. I
told my companion that I was ill, and ran down-stairs.
Here I sat in a lower room, opened the window, and
tried to think what it was that had thus disturbed me.
The feeling that for once my memory was at fault was



CHABACTEKISTICS. 99

agreeable to me, as it always is. In a few minutes I
knew that I had simply remembered a mental state
without getting hold of the causative fact. Then sud-
denly I was aware that it was the odor of blood which
had caused me to remember I should say, to feel
again the anguish of terror I had experienced when,
as a child, I saw my father bleeding from a wound of
the forehead. In a few moments the policeman came
down to say that a brutal murder had been done in
the room we had tried to enter. This leads me to add
that my sense of smell is acute.

A few days after this I was walking up the Bowery
of a cold night, when I found a group around a girl
who had fallen on the slippery ice and hurt herself
badly. Her face, as she lay pale under a gas-lamp, at
onco recalled one whom I had well known. With
some help I got her into a hack, and took her home to
a poor little lodging where she lived with her mother.
She herself was a map-colorer, and the two were evi-
dently folks who had seen better days. The following
morning I went to see them, and then began for me a
period of indescribable joy in my lonely life, and yet
of as utter misery.

I was, at the time I speak of, thirty-one years old.
When about twenty I had been engaged (foolishly, my
father said, as I had not a cent) to a girl of quite or-
dinary character. It ended as such affairs are apt to
do, and I suffered as a lad does. Another would in
process of time have come out unhurt. As for me, it
led me to avoid women. Not that I disliked them;
they have more charity for peculiar people than men
have. But every little tenderness, a movement, a turn



100 CHAEACTEKISTICS.

of the head, brought back to me intense remembrances,
and all their bitter emotional accompaniments.

Throughout our simple courtship I struggled with
the demon of remorseless memory. If I touched her
hand, there arose the many times when I had so
touched the hand of the other woman, and when at
last I kissed Helen, of a sudden I felt the older joy, as
it were, alongside of this new one. The ghost of ex-
tinct passion haunted the sweetness of my new and
better love. So mercilessly intense was my remem-
brance that I became giddy for a moment. I no
longer loved the other woman, and yet the recollection
of my joy at winning her was brought back by a like
joy in a form so real as to puzzle and confuse me.

There is no need to exemplify this trouble in detail.
It recurred so often that at last I told Helen. At first
she seemed only amused, but very soon became an-
noyed, and, absurd as it may seem, jealous of the in-
fluence my fatal memory exerted. She insisted that I
could control my thoughts. I became angry at last,
and we parted. Strangely enough, this rupture was
a relief to me.

It seemed to me, as I read the books about memory,
that every memorial impression must materially alter
the brain somewhere and somehow, and that very little
change should be needed to lessen what must be so
slight a record. And yet, alas ! for me these records


1 2 3 4 6 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Online LibraryS. Weir (Silas Weir) MitchellCharacteristics → online text (page 6 of 19)