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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 03, No. 18, April, 1859 online

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clearer-sighted than all the rest of the world! He would like that
advantage. And why might he not have it? Already he perceived a marked
difference from his usual sensuous condition. It was unnatural,
preternatural, - and yet, a state which could be produced at will. It
was easily done. Just homoeopathy, in fact. A little sniff, a minute
dose, and he could see and hear with a miraculous clearness; but people
would take a dozen, and then they grew stupid.

He looked again around the room. Was it fancy, now? Perhaps it was. It
was not likely the Madonna was winking in a heretic's parlor. Besides,
it was the same sort of no-motion he had watched many a time in the
twilight, when the door seemed to swing backward and forward in the
dusky air, following the dilation and contraction of his own eyes. He
tried it now on the Madonna. He opened his eyes as widely as possible,
and the drooping lids of the picture evidently half-raised themselves
from the dark, soft orbs. He nearly closed his own, and hers bent again
in serenest contemplation.

He looked at the bronze figure of the "Dying Stork," which was placed
below the picture, and started to see that it moved also, and with a
strange, unnatural, galvanic sort of movement, like the "animated oat,"
which moves when placed on the hand after being warmed a moment in the
mouth. The legs sprung against the reeds and flags, in the same way.

Lastly, he looked at the bas-relief which stood near, leaning against
the wall. It was very, very strange. Had the old fable of Pygmalion a
truth in it, then? And could the same genius that created also give life
and warmth to its productions? Beneath the marble he could see the soft,
living pulse, distinctly; and the wind that blew over the mountains,
beyond the river, ruffled the waves about the tiny boat. Even the star
above the child's head sparkled in the depths of the sky.

Fred was delighted. "It is enchantment!" he said. But no, - it was one
of those miracles that have not yet become commonplace. The poetic life
that his perceptions were now able to enjoy, in inanimate nature, would
be such a perpetual gratification to his taste, - such an incentive to
explorations and discoveries! He could not felicitate himself enough.

"A thousand times better than the microscope," said he to himself
again. "Atoms are annoying and disgusting to look at, with their
incomprehensible and frightful minuteness, and their horrible celerity.
One does not like to think that everything is composed of myriads, be
they ever so beautiful, - which they are not, that ever I could see, but
chiefly all head or a wriggling tail. Bah! This is much better. Hark! I
can hear the waves dash, - the hope-song of the child, - and the breeze
moving against the delicate sails!

"How delightful it will be to travel, with this new-found faculty!
Whenever I choose, I can have the talking bird, the singing tree, and
the laughing water! I always thought those peeps into irrational nature
the chief charm of the Arabian tales. How little did I dream of ever
being able to read with my own eyes the riddle of the world! By-the-way,
let me look at my Graces, and see if they, too, are conscious forms of
beauty."

He turned to the group. Alas! even the Graces were not proof against the
ordeal of constant society. Perhaps, if he had reflected, he would
not have expected it. In truth, it was surprising to see how many
disagreeable sentiments they all three contrived to express, without
untwining their arms, or loosening their fond and graceful hold on each
other. A slight elevation of the eyebrow, a curve of the lovely mouth,
or a shrug from the Parian shoulders, - how expressive, - how surprising!
But Fred need not have been surprised; they never set up for Faith,
Hope, and Charity. What he most wondered at was that they still looked
so lovely, when they were clearly full of all pagan naughtiness. They
might as well have been women.

Fred pondered on this for some time. Then, it seemed, everything had
a latent life in it. He had suspected as much. "There is always a
something," said he, "in what we make, not only beyond what we intend
to make, but different from it. We study a long time the powers of
position, - in chess, for example; - how much is produced by one move
that we did not anticipate, and perhaps cannot ascertain, - certainly not
prevent! How many times we are wittier than we meant to be, - striking
out, by our unconscious blow, thoughts related to the one we utter, but
far more brilliant, - and ourselves becoming conscious of the very good
thing we have said only by its effect on the company! So it is, I fancy,
with all our mental movements. The brain acts independently of the will
in sleep. Why not, in a great measure, when awake? Probably, as all
Nature has a movement of its own, so all Art may be made to have, by
the infusion and absorption of so much of the creative energy of the
artist, - hidden to the common eye, but palpitating to the instructed
touch, throbbing or sparkling to the instructed eye. Yes, it must be
so. The south-wind sighs a thousand times more mournfully through the
keyhole than Thalberg can make it do on the piano. What music there was
in those stones the man brought round, the other day, and played on with
a stick! And now, the sound here from the gas-tube, how wailing, how
sorrowful! - now, how triumphant!"

Fred was so delighted with watching the gas-burner, and listening to the
wild music which floated through it, that he did not at first observe
that the wind had risen and was blowing almost a gale. Presently, in his
speculations as to the cause of such a sudden flood of melody, he hit on
the possibility of a current of air.

"But, then, how comes the air to be so full of music? Never mind, - I'll
put the window down."

However, just as he was putting it down, a snow-flake, one of a hundred,
all pressing for the same point, flew past him, and alighted on the
green velvet tabouret.

It was nothing, - only a snow-flake, - and another time, Fred would have
thought nothing of it. But in the novel awakening of his faculties, even
a snow-flake had a new interest. With intense eagerness he watched the
movement of the little thing, - and yet, feeling that he might be on
forbidden ground, he had the presence of mind to seem not to see or
hear. If inanimate Nature were once to suspect his new insight, what a
bustle there would be! He almost closed his eyes, and lay still, where
he could watch and yet seem asleep. His prudence and caution were well
rewarded.

The snow-flake was, as he suspected, as much alive as the wind; and that
was singing, shouting, dying away in ecstasies, at this very moment.

He glanced at her. Lithe, sparkling, graceful, she gathered her soft
drapery about her, and stood poised delicately on one foot, while she
looked around the apartment in which she found herself. Fred could see
that she was moulded more beautifully than the Graces, - by so much more
as Nature is fairer than all Art, - and that she had an inward pure
coldness, beside which Diana's was only stone. Yet it was not
indifference, like that of the wild huntress, - not an incapacity to
feel, but only that her time had not come; when it should, she would
melt as well as another. Now she stood still and calm. She did not
once look at him. She had seen human beings before, - plenty of them.
Something else attracted her, - thrilled her, evidently; for the
faintest rose-color suffused her beautiful form; she changed her
attitude, and bent forward her graceful head.

Something about "warming his hands by thinking on the frosty Caucasus"
passed through Fred's mind, and some law of association impelled him to
look at the fire. It was queer enough, that, as many times as he had
looked at that fire by the hour together, he had never before noticed
its shape or expression. Only last night, he had watched it, dancing and
flickering just as it did now, and never once suspected the truth!

Mailed figures! Yes, plenty of them, - golden-helmeted and sworded like
the seraphim! A glorious band, gathering, twining, shooting past each
other, - jousting, tilting, - with blazing banners, and a field broader
than that of the "Cloth of Gold"; for this reached to and mingled with
the clouds - yea, tinted them with flame-color and roses, - and garlanded
the earth with crimson blossoms that nestled among her forests on the
far-off horizon. What a wide field, indeed! And how far might these
blazes and flames go, when once they set out? To the stars, perhaps.
Fred did not see what should stop them. The atmosphere might, possibly.
He must study that out.

Meanwhile how strangely far he could see! What a power it was! What a
new interest it gave to Nature! Nature, he must confess, had always
seemed rather flat to him, on the whole. He had always liked
the imitations better than the original, - pictures better than
people, - busts better than philosophers. But now the case is altered. He
has got what his friend Norris calls "glorification-spectacles." Now he
can have perpetual amusement. Why, it is vastly better than Asmodeus
peeping in at the tops of houses. By the same token, snow-flakes are
more interesting than humanity.

Speaking of snow-flakes, what does he see, but that she is evidently
yielding to the soft enchantment of the nearest flame-god, - drawn
thither by resistless affinity, and melting, in his burning arms, to
the most delicate vapor! Snow-flake no more, yet not absorbed nor lost!
Rather taking her true place, transported from the earth-tempests to a
warmer and higher sphere of action.

That might be, but not yet. In their new vaporous condition, in which
both had lost some of their prominent qualities, they had acquired new
relations, perhaps new duties. At all events, they did not at once
ascend to their kindred ether, - but swam, glided, floated, above
and around, and finally separated. Watching them keenly, Fred could
distinctly see that the sometime snow-flake left her sphere and came
gradually towards himself. As the vaporous shape floated nearer, it also
grew larger, so that, although Fred could not have said certainly that
the size was human, it relieved him from the impression of any fairy
or elf or sprite. No, it was nothing of that sort. It was just the
gentlest, calmest, serenest face and form in the world, - with the same
look of pure sweetness he had noticed on her first entrance, - with a
peculiar surprised look in her wide-open eyes, that he had seen but in
one human face. As well tell the truth, - the face, expression, and all,
were as like Annie Peyton's, as her portrait, drawn in water-colors,
could possibly have been.

The shape sat down by him, - her vaporous garment still folding softly
around her, and her clear, open eyes fixed on him. There was no need of
speech, for he read her face as if written by Heaven's own hand; and the
coarse and selfish philosophy which had sufficed partially to stun and
confuse Minnie fled at the presence of the spirit. Not a word still from
the calm, sweet face. It looked on him with pity and surprise. Then all
the ideas and convictions that throng on the mind warped, but not lost,
pressed on him. He hid his face in the sofa-cushions.

His presence of mind returned as a new thought struck him. It was an
ocular delusion, surely. He sprang up, took three or four turns across
the room, rubbed his eyes smartly, and took his seat again. For a moment
he would not look towards the chair. When at last he did look, the airy,
soft form was still there, looking steadily into his eyes.

"What an idea!" exclaimed he, impatiently. "I might put my hands through
it, like the flame of a candle. It is nothing but vapor. What is it made
of? Nothing but a snow-flake and the gas from cannel coal. I saw it,
myself, melting and falling together into this beautiful shape. But then
it is only a shape. It is not a body. Oh, but then it may be a soul! Who
knows what souls are made of? Snow-flakes and vapor, perhaps. Who knows
indeed?"

He looked about the room. Everything was in its natural and usual place.
The fire burned merrily; the wind swept fitfully without, and all
was quiet within. A very uncomfortable feeling, of mingled awe and
curiosity, took possession of him. He did not quite like to look at the
shape. He thought, -

"Can this be the spiritual body that St. Paul says is to supersede the
natural one? If this is indeed, the soul of Annie Peyton, - why, she
knows, somehow, what is in mine. And, by Jove! I can see her soul now,
too, without any trouble! She can't hide her real feelings now from me,
any more than I can my character from her. There's some good in it,
anyhow!"

With some effort, he raised his eyes, - very respectfully, indeed;
for though he was only about to look at a soul, he was full as much
overpowered as if it had been the body. His eyes fell.

"If I dared to look! But she knows how I feel. I suppose she sees me
now, - shivering from head to foot like a - - Somehow, I can't look her
in the eyes. However, this won't do!" And he looked quickly and timidly
into the now smiling face.

He need not have been so timid. If a soul could discern evil, it could,
also, good; and this spirit was quick to see the last. Without a
word, - but when were words necessary to souls? - with only a glance, she
expressed so much love and pity for him, that Fred was ashamed to look
her in the face. "Oh! if she could really see him," he thought, "would
she look so?" Perhaps so. For the Intelligence that sees the evil
can clearest of all see the mitigations, the causes, and the sore
temptations; and the fruit of the widest knowledge is the widest love.

Something like this passed from the soul that sat opposite Fred into his
awakening and sensitive consciousness: -

"You have never tasted the pleasures of useful activity," the sweet face
said. "Come with me, and we will look together, and see what good may
come, and also what enjoyment, from it."

Now it was, for the first time, that Fred fully understood his position.
It came like a gleam of light on his puzzled intellect, and made that
quite clear which had before been so mystical and cloudy, that he had
been ready to rub his eyes, and to doubt, almost, the evidence of his
senses. He remembered his old and a thousand times repeated theory of
"projected images." Here it was. Instead of a fancy, a thought, here was
the whole of Annie Peyton's soul (which, to be sure, had often enough
occupied his mind) projected from his own, perhaps, so as to be a
subject of contemplation to his bodily eyes. Or, what was more likely,
the soul itself of Annie Peyton might have left her body for a time in
a dream. It was among the possibilities, though he had never before
believed it to be. But then, again, how could his soul go off on an
exploring tour with Annie's? His soul was safe in his body, and that,
namely, the body, lying on the sofa, - the room close, the window down.
Just then, he glanced toward the window, and remembered that he had not
fastened it at all. There was room enough for a soul to pass easily. But
then, again, how was his soul to pass, - to get out, in the first place,
of his body? Easily enough. The concentrated effort of will, which could
give shape to a fancy, and place it outside the eye, could, by sustained
action, separate all the perceptive powers from the senses, - in short,
the spirit from its envelope.

"To know, to perceive, to suffer, to rejoice, do not require skin and
bones. The heart weeps while the eye is dry; the lips smile while the
heart is breaking. One might have a conventional soul, - to keep house,
as it were, and do all the honors of society, while the real one went
abroad to regions of truth and beauty, and bathed in living waters!"

While Fred continued so to think and speculate, and also to separate,
and, as it were, classify his ideas, he was pleased to perceive,
that, without any very strong volition on his part, but only from the
analytical processes of his reason, that portion of his mind which
perceived and enjoyed the truth of things became condensed and separated
from the conventional, the factitious, and the merely sensual. The
qualities, or states, or whatever the metaphysician calls them, fell
off him, as garments do in a dream, and left himself, his very self,
separate, and a little distant, from his body. He perceived this rather
than saw it. He knew it, but could not assert it. The body, with its
bodily wants and limitations, leaned on the couch, half slumberously;
while the mind, himself, full of vague aspirations, keen intellectual
hunger, and overlaid with error, obstinacy, and the thick crust of
self-contemplation, which stifles all true progress, - these assimilated
qualities made himself, what he felt he was, not an attractive object to
himself more than to anybody else. All his perceptions pointed inward,
and cramped and narrowed his existence. He felt very, very small.

"This is strange," he reasoned, "that I should have such a sense of
contraction! I crowd on myself, as it were. My thoughts hit me, press
me, instead of elevating me. I cannot see why; for the habit of looking
up to no goodness or intelligence but the Supreme must surely be a good
one, and self-education and development the noblest process for a human
being."

He said this in a mechanical sort of way, as if it were a lesson he
remembered at school. But it made no impression on him, and did not
relieve his difficulty. He knew it, somehow, to be false, and felt
it falling off as he spoke, as if it were the last remnant of gauzy
sophistry.

Fred had never been fond of church-going, nor was he much given to
reading the Holy Scriptures. Indeed, he rather affected the style of the
Latter-Day Saints, who look for a better and nobler Messiah than came in
the Son of Mary. But just now, fifty texts of Scripture, which he must
have learned long ago at his mother's knee, came crowding upon his
memory.

"Though I have all gifts, and have not charity, I am nothing."

"He that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."

"He that loveth not his brother, whom he hath seen, how can he love God,
whom he hath not seen?"

"Little children, love one another."

"Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ."

And so on, - interminably. In a helpless, vague way, he looked at the
shadow by his side.

"You like pictures, and paint them," said she, speaking for the first
time; - and the voice was precisely the tone he had recognized in the
music of the wind; he had thought then it was like hers; - "look with me
at these two."

They were, indeed, magnificent pictures. They reached from floor to
ceiling. Fred was artist enough to enjoy fully the wide sweep of sky and
land, - the mountains in the distance, and the firmament studded with
stars. A figure wandered up and down the space, sometimes to the tops
of the mountains, sometimes to the clefts of the rocks. When he saw the
stars, he calculated their distances; - when he saw the moon, he weighed
her, and guessed about the atmosphere on the other side; - when the gold
and diamonds shone in the clefts of the rocks, he gathered and analyzed
them. The Leviathan he studied and classed. He groped and reached
constantly, and, having gathered, looked at his gatherings,
dissatisfied. He was ever searching out knowledge. Meanwhile, a gnat put
him in a passion, and unleavened bread destroyed his peace. Though he
might sleep on rose-leaves, as he could not command the wind, they came
often to double under him, and annoy him with bad dreams.

"When shall I be a disembodied spirit, and no longer subject to the
petty annoyances that belong to the flesh?" cried he, fretfully. "My
knowledge, too, is a moth, - only vexing me by a sense of the limitations
of my condition. If I could grasp Nature, - if I could handle the
stars, - if I could wake the thunder, - if I could summon the cloud! That
would be worth something, - to send the comets on their errands! But what
avails it, to know that they go? - how far from me when they start, and
how many millions of miles before they turn to come back? If I could
move only one of these subtile energies that mock me while I look them
in the face!"

The philosopher dozed. A storm came on, and swept over all creation.
When he awoke, it was clearing away, and one side of the heavens was
heaped with gold-lined clouds, and the darkness of the other spanned
with the seven-hued bow. He looked admiringly at the clouds and
critically at the rainbow, and added to his memorandum-book.

"What use?" said he, mournfully; "delicate dew, and refracted light!"

He continued to ponder and murmur, to explore, to ascertain, to grumble.
He had rheumatic pains, for the elements had no mercy on him; he rubbed
himself as he was able, and added to his stores of knowledge. He was
very, very learned. When he reached a shelter, he lay down. If no human
love welcomed him, and no gentle lip soothed him, he had self-culture,
especially in the sciences.

All this Fred knew as soon as he looked at him.

"If he were wise, he would not stop at knowledge, which is, of course,
unsatisfactory, - but dive beyond, as I have done, into the essence of
things," said Fred to himself. "If he could pierce through the veil that
covers all things, he would find amusement enough to last a lifetime. In
vegetable life, the jealousies and passions of flowers, - in the quiet
eventfulness of the mineral kingdom, to see forms of living beauty in
crystals, - finally, in all the under-mechanism of creation, what a
fund of enjoyment and instruction! I think I should never cease to be
delighted and entertained."

Fred glanced from the picture to the fireplace. The shovel and tongs
were just laughing at him; and though they composed their countenances
immediately, he had caught the expression, and was excessively annoyed.
Philosophy at length came to his aid, especially as the poker expressed
only profound deference, preserving a martial attitude and immovable
features. After all, why should he care for a pair of tongs? One must
cultivate phlegm, if one is a philosopher; and a shovel, after all, is
not so bad as a pretty woman. He heard the cool wind distinctly blowing
across the mountains in the picture, and saw the stars coming out again.
Then Fred knew he had been looking at a diorama, and that the exhibition
was over.

He heard a hearty laugh at a little distance, and perceived that the
picture, which at first had seemed to spread out over the whole wall,
was really divided into two parts, something like an exhibition he
remembered of dissolving views. This was delightful. The first picture
faded out into gloom, and gave place to a bright, cheerful room in the
third story of a house in the city. There were only two rooms, - this,
and a small anteroom. The furniture was simple, even poor. Through the
window the snow was seen falling, and the blaze flickered, in cheerful
contrast, on the hearth. A woman, neither young nor pretty, stood with
an astonished expression, and an elderly man laughed loudly, and sat
down before the fire.

"What in the world shall I do?" said the woman.

"Do, my dear? - why, bring me my dressing-gown"; said he, laughing again
so cheerily, that it was contagious; and as she brought the coarse
wadded garment he asked for, she laughed too.

"A pretty kettle of fish!" said she.

"Yes! Now what shall we do? Not a dollar in our pockets!"

"Nor a coat to your back!" broke in the woman.

Then they both laughed again, loudly and heartily.

Fred remembered now what they were laughing at. The man was a minister,
well known in Boston, and the woman was his wife. He had just come in,
running through the storm, and almost out of breath.

"Wife! my coat! Don't you see I am in my shirt-sleeves? I've got a
snow-bank on my back!"

"Why! where in the world - what have you done with your coat?"

"Oh! that I am almost ashamed to tell you; it seems such a parading sort
o' thing to do in the streets! But you may depend, I didn't stand at the
corners long, to be seen of men, in this driving storm! Fact was, wife,
I just took it off of my back, and gave it to poor old M'Carty; - he'd
nothing on but rags, and was fairly shaking with the cold. I knew I'd
another to home, - and what does a man want of two coats? One's enough
for anybody. Besides, didn't our Lord particularly tell his disciples
not to have but one? Say, now, wife!"

The wife looked blank and embarrassed.

"Well, wife! what now?"

"Only" - - and she paused again.

"Only what? Out with it! You think it was silly! But, wife, you'd 'a'
done the same thing; - you couldn't 'a' helped it, nohow. Providence


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 03, No. 18, April, 1859 → online text (page 7 of 22)