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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 04, No. 21, July, 1859 online

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it fly his presence as the wave ebbed from the parched lips of him
whose fabled punishment is the perpetual type of human longing and
disappointment? What would become of _him_, if this fresh soul should
stoop upon him in her first young passion, as the flamingo drops out of
the sky upon some lonely and dark lagoon in the marshes of Cagliari,
with a flutter of scarlet feathers and a kindling of strange fires
in the shadowy waters that hold her burning image in their trembling
depths?

- Marry her, of course? - Why, no, not _of course_. I should think the
chance less, on the whole, that he would be willing to marry her than
she to marry him.

There is one other thing that might happen. If the interest he awakes in
her gets to be a deep one, and yet has nothing of love in it, she will
glance off from him into some great passion or other. All excitements
run to love in women of a certain - let us not say age, but youth. An
electrical current passing through a coil of wire makes a magnet of a
bar of iron lying within it, but not touching it. So a woman is turned
into a love-magnet by a tingling current of life running round her. I
should like to see one of them balanced on a pivot properly adjusted,
and watch if she did not turn so as to point north and south, - as she
would, if the love-currents are like those of the earth our mother.

Pray, do you happen to remember Wordsworth's "Boy of Windermere"? This
boy used to put his hands to his mouth, and shout aloud, mimicking the
hooting of the owls, who would answer him

"with quivering peals,
And long halloos and screams, and echoes loud
Redoubled and redoubled."

When they failed to answer him, and he hung listening intently for
their voices, he would sometimes catch the faint sound of far distant
waterfalls, or the whole scene around him would imprint itself with new
force upon his perceptions. - Read the sonnet, if you please; - it is
Wordsworth all over, - trivial in subject, solemn in style, vivid in
description, prolix in detail, true metaphysically, but immensely
suggestive of "imagination," to use a mild term, when related as an
actual fact of a sprightly youngster.

All I want of it is to enforce the principle, that, when the door of the
soul is once opened to a guest, there is no knowing who will come in
next.

- Our young girl keeps up her childish habit of sketching heads and
characters. Nobody is, I should think, more faithful and exact in the
drawing of the academical figures given her as lessons; but there is
a perpetual arabesque of fancies that run round the margin of her
drawings, and there is one book which I know she keeps to run riot
in, where, if anywhere, a shrewd eye would be most likely to read her
thoughts. This book of hers I mean to see, if I can get at it honorably.

I have never yet crossed the threshold of the little gentleman's
chamber. How he lives, when he once gets within it, I can only guess.
His hours are late, as I have said; often, on waking late in the night,
I see the light through cracks in his window-shutters on the wall of the
house opposite. If the times of witchcraft were not over, I should be
afraid to be so close a neighbor to a place from which there come such
strange noises. Sometimes it is the dragging of something heavy over the
floor, that makes me shiver to hear it, - it sounds so like what people
that kill other people have to do now and then. Occasionally I hear very
sweet strains of music, - whether of a wind or stringed instrument, or a
human voice, strange as it may seem, I have often tried to find out, but
through the partition I could not be quite sure. If I have not heard
a woman cry and moan, and then again laugh as though she would die
laughing, I have heard sounds so like them that - I am a fool to confess
it - I have covered my head with the bedclothes; for I have had a fancy
in my dreams, that I could hardly shake off when I woke up, about that
so-called witch that was his great-grandmother, or whatever it was, - a
sort of fancy that she visited the little gentleman, - a young woman
in old-fashioned dress, with a red ring round her white neck, - not a
necklace, but a dull stain.

Of course you don't suppose that I have any foolish superstitions about
the matter, - I, the Professor, who have seen enough to take all that
nonsense out of any man's head! It is not our beliefs that frighten us
half so much as our fancies. A man not only believes, but knows he runs
a risk, whenever he steps into a railroad car; but it doesn't worry him
much.

On the other hand, carry that man across a pasture a little way from
some dreary country-village, and show him an old house where there were
strange deaths a good many years ago, and rumors of ugly spots on the
walls, - the old man hung himself in the garret, that is certain, and
ever since the country-people have called it "the haunted house," - the
owners haven't been able to let it since the last tenants left on
account of the noises, - so it has fallen into sad decay, and the moss
grows on the rotten shingles of the roof, and the clapboards have turned
black, and the windows rattle like teeth that chatter with fear, and the
walls of the house begin to lean as if its knees were shaking, - take the
man who didn't mind the real risk of the cars to that old house, on some
dreary November evening, and ask him to sleep there alone, - how do you
think he will like it? He doesn't believe one word of ghosts, - but then
he knows, that, whether waking or sleeping, his imagination will people
the haunted chambers with ghastly images. It is not what we _believe_,
as I said before, that frightens us commonly, but what we _conceive_. A
principle that reaches a good way, if I am not mistaken. I say, then,
that, if these odd sounds coming from the little gentleman's chamber
sometimes make me nervous, so that I cannot get to sleep, it is not
because I suppose he is engaged in any unlawful or mysterious way. The
only wicked suggestion that ever came into my head was one that was
founded on the landlady's story of his having a pile of gold; it was a
ridiculous fancy; besides, I suspect the story of _sweating_ gold was
only one of the many fables got up to make the Jews odious and afford a
pretext for plundering them. As for the sound like a woman laughing and
crying, I never said it _was_ a woman's voice; for, in the first place,
I could only hear indistinctly; and, secondly, he may have an organ, or
some queer instrument or other, with what they call the _voce umana_
stop. If he moves his bed round to get out of draughts, or for any such
reason, there is nothing very frightful in that simple operation. Most
of our foolish conceits explain themselves in some such simple way. And
yet, for all that, I confess, that, when I woke up the other evening,
and heard, first a sweet complaining cry, and then footsteps, and then
the dragging sound, - nothing but his bed, I am quite sure, - I felt a
stirring in the roots of my hair as the feasters did in Keats's terrible
poem of "Lamia."

There is nothing very odd in my feeling nervous when I happen to lie
awake and get listening for sounds. Just keep your ears open any time
after midnight, when you are lying in bed in a lone attic of a dark
night. What horrid, strange, suggestive, unaccountable noises you will
hear! The _stillness_ of night is a vulgar error. All the dead things
seem to be alive. Crack! That is the old chest of drawers; you never
hear it crack in the daytime. Creak! There's a door ajar; _you know you
shut them all_. Where can that latch be that rattles so? Is anybody
trying it softly? or, worse than any _body_, is - - ? (Cold shiver.) Then
a sudden gust that jars all the windows; - very strange! - there does not
seem to be any wind about that it belongs to. When it stops, you hear
the worms boring in the powdery beams overhead. Then steps outside, - a
stray animal, no doubt. All right, - but a gentle moisture breaks out all
over you; and then something like a whistle or a cry, - another gust of
wind, perhaps; that accounts for the rustling that just made your heart
roll over and tumble about, so that it felt more like a live rat under
your ribs than a part of your own body; then a crash of something that
has fallen, - blown over, very like - - _Pater noster, qui es in coelis!_
for you are damp and cold, and sitting bolt upright, and the bed
trembling so that the death-watch is frightened and has stopped ticking!

No, - night is an awful time for strange noises and secret doings. Who
ever dreamed, till one of our sleepless neighbors told us of it, of that
Walpurgis gathering of birds and beasts of prey, - foxes, and owls, and
crows, and eagles, that come from all the country round on moonshiny
nights to crunch the clams and muscles, and pick out the eyes of dead
fishes that the storm has thrown on Chelsea Beach? Our old mother Nature
has pleasant and cheery tones enough for us when she comes to us in her
dress of blue and gold over the eastern hill-tops; but when she follows
us up-stairs to our beds in her suit of black velvet and diamonds, every
creak of her sandals and every whisper of her lips is full of mystery
and fear.

You understand, then, distinctly, that I do not believe there is
anything about this singular little neighbor of mine which is as it
should not be. Probably a visit to his room would clear up all that has
puzzled me, and make me laugh at the notions which began, I suppose, in
nightmares, and ended by keeping my imagination at work so as almost to
make me uncomfortable at times. But it is not so easy to visit him as
some of our other boarders, for various reasons which I will not stop to
mention. I think some of them are rather pleased to get "the Professor"
under their ceilings.

The young man John, for instance, asked me to come up one day and try
some "old Burbon," which he said was A.1. On asking him what was the
number of his room, he answered, that it was forty-'leven, sky-parlor
floor, but that I shouldn't find it, if he didn't go ahead to show me
the way. I followed him to his _habitat_, being very willing to see in
what kind of warren he burrowed, and thinking I might pick up something
about the boarders who had excited my curiosity.

Mighty close quarters they were where the young man John bestowed
himself and his furniture; this last consisting of a bed, a chair,
a bureau, a trunk, and numerous pegs with coats and "pants" and
"vests," - as he was in the habit of calling waistcoats and pantaloons or
trousers, - hanging up as if the owner had melted out of them. Several
prints were pinned up unframed, - among them that grand national
portrait-piece, "Barnum presenting Ossian E. Dodge to Jenny Lind," and a
picture of a famous trot, in which I admired anew the cabalistic air of
that imposing array of expressions, and especially the Italicized word,
"Dan Mace _names_ b. h. Major Slocum," and "Hiram Woodruff _names_ g. m.
Lady Smith." "Best three in five. Time: 2.40, 2.46, 2.50."

That set me thinking how very odd this matter of trotting horses is, as
an index of the mathematical exactness of the laws of living mechanism.
I saw Lady Suffolk trot a mile in 2.26. Flora Temple has done it in
2.24-1/2; and Ethan Allen is said to have done it in the same time.
Many horses have trotted their mile under 2.30; none that I remember in
public as low down in the twenties as 2.24. _Five seconds_, then, in
about a hundred and sixty is the whole range of the maxima of the
present race of trotting-horses. The same thing is seen in the running
of men. Many can run a mile in five minutes; but when one comes to the
fractions below, they taper down until somewhere about 4.30 the maximum
is reached. Averages of masses have been studied more than averages of
maxima and minima. We know from the Registrar-General's Reports, that a
certain number of children - say from one to two dozen - die every year in
England from drinking hot water out of spouts of teakettles. We know,
that, among suicides, women and men past a certain age almost never use
fire-arms. A woman who has made up her mind to die is still afraid of a
pistol or a gun. Or is it that the explosion would derange her costume?
I say, averages of masses we have; but our tables of maxima we owe
to the sporting men more than to the philosophers. The lesson their
experience teaches is, that Nature makes no leaps, - does nothing _per
saltum_. The greatest brain that ever lived, no doubt, was only a
small fraction of an idea ahead of the second best. Just look at the
chess-players. Leaving out the phenomenal exceptions, the nice
shades that separate the skilful ones show how closely their brains
approximate, - almost as closely as chronometers. Such a person is a
"_knight_-player," - he must have that piece given him. Another must have
two pawns. Another, "pawn and two," or one pawn and two moves. Then
we find one who claims "pawn and move," holding himself, with this
fractional advantage, a match for one who would be pretty sure to beat
him playing even. - So much are minds alike; and you and I think we
are "peculiar," - that Nature broke her jelly-mould after shaping our
cerebral convolutions! So I reflected, standing and looking at the
picture.

- I say, Governor, - broke in the young man John, - them hosses'll stay
jest as well, if you'll only set down. I've had 'em this year, and they
haven't stirred. - He spoke, and handed the chair towards me, - seating
himself, at the same time, on the end of the bed.

You have lived in this house some time? - I said, - with a note of
interrogation at the end of the statement.

Do I look as if I'd lost much flesh? - said he, - answering my question by
another.

No, - said I; - for that matter, I think you do credit to "the bountifully
furnished table of the excellent lady who provides so liberally for the
company that meets around her hospitable board."

[The sentence in quotation-marks was from one of those disinterested
editorials in small type, which I suspect to have been furnished by
a friend of the landlady's, and paid for as an advertisement. This
impartial testimony to the superior qualities of the establishment and
its head attracted a number of applicants for admission, and a couple of
new boarders made a brief appearance at the table. One of them was
of the class of people who grumble if they don't get canvasbacks and
woodcocks every day, for three-fifty per week. The other was subject to
somnambulism, or walking in the night, when he ought to have been asleep
in his bed. In this state he walked into several of the boarders'
chambers, his eyes wide open, as is usual with somnambulists, and, from
some odd instinct or other, wishing to know what the hour was, got
together a number of their watches, for the purpose of comparing them,
as it would seem. Among them was a repeater, belonging to our young
Marylander. He happened to wake up while the somnambulist was in his
chamber, and, not knowing his infirmity, caught hold of him and gave him
a dreadful shaking, after which he tied his hands and feet, and then
went to sleep till morning, when he introduced him to a gentleman used
to taking care of such cases of somnambulism.]

If you, my reader, will please to skip backward, over this parenthesis,
you will come to our conversation, - which it has interrupted.

It a'n't the feed, - said the young man John, - it's the old woman's looks
when a fellah lays it in too strong. The feed's well enough. After geese
have got tough, 'n' turkeys have got strong, 'n' lamb's got old, 'n'
veal's pretty nigh beef, 'n' sparragrass's growin' tall 'n' slim 'n'
scattery about the head, 'n' green peas gettin' so big 'n' hard they'd
be dangerous if you fired 'em out of a revolver, we get hold of all them
delicacies of the season. But it's too much like feedin' on live folks
and devourin' widdah's substance, to lay yourself out in the eatin' way,
when a fellah's as hungry as the chap that said a turkey was too much
for one 'n' not enough for two. I can't help lookin' at the old woman.
Corned-beef-days she's tolerable calm. Roastin'-days she worries some,
'n' keeps a sharp eye on the chap that carves. But when there's anything
in the poultry line, it seems to hurt her feelin's so to see the knife
goin' into the breast and joints comin' to pieces, that there's no
comfort in eatin'. When I cut up an old fowl and help the boarders,
I always feel as if I ought to say, Won't you have a slice of
widdah? - instead of chicken.

The young man John fell into a train of reflections which ended in his
producing a Bologna sausage, a plate of "crackers," as we Boston folks
call certain biscuits, and the bottle of whiskey described as being A.1.

Under the influence of the crackers and sausage, he grew cordial and
communicative.

It was time, I thought, to sound him as to those of our boarders who had
excited my curiosity.

What do you think of our young Iris? - I began.

Fust-rate little filly; - he said. - Pootiest and nicest little chap
I've seen since the schoolma'am left. Schoolma'am was a brown-haired
one, - eyes coffee-color. This one has got wine-colored eyes, - 'n'
that's the reason they turn a fellah's head, I suppose.

This is a splendid blonde, - I said, - the other was a brunette. Which
style do you like best?

Which do I like best, boiled mutton or roast mutton? - said the young man
John. Like 'em both, - it a'n't the color of 'em makes the goodness. I've
been kind of lonely since schoolma'am went away. Used to like to look at
her. I never said anything particular to her, that I remember, but -

I don't know whether it was the cracker and sausage, or that the young
fellow's feet were treading on the hot ashes of some longing that had
not had time to cool, but his eye glistened as he stopped.

I suppose she wouldn't have looked at a fellah like me, - he said, - but I
come pretty near tryin'. If she had said, Yes, though, I shouldn't have
known what to have done with her. Can't marry a woman now-a-days till
you're so deaf you have to cock your head like a parrot to hear what she
says, and so long-sighted you can't see what she looks like nearer than
arm's-length.

Here is another chance for you, - I said. - What do you want nicer than
such a young lady as Iris?

It's no use, - he answered. - I look at them girls and feel as the fellah
did when he missed catchin' the trout. - 'To'od 'a' cost more butter to
cook him 'n' he's worth, - says the fellah. - Takes a whole piece o' goods
to cover a girl up now-a-days. I'd as lief undertake to keep a span of
elephants, - and take an ostrich to board, too, - as to marry one of 'em.
What's the use? Clerks and counter-jumpers a'n't anything. Sparragrass
and green peas a'n't for them, - not while they're young and tender.
Hossback-ridin' a'n't for them, - except once a year, - on Fast-day. And
marryin' a'n't for them. Sometimes a fellah feels lonely, and would
like to have a nice young woman, to tell her how lonely he feels. And
sometimes a fellah, - here the young man John looked very confidential,
and, perhaps, as if a little ashamed of his weakness, - sometimes a
fellah would like to have one o' them small young ones to trot on his
knee and push about in a little wagon, - a kind of a little Johnny, you
know; - it's odd enough, but, it seems to me, nobody can afford them
little articles, except the folks that are so rich they can buy
everything, and the folks that are so poor they don't want anything. It
makes nice boys of us young fellahs, no doubt! And it's pleasant to see
fine young girls sittin', like shopkeepers behind their goods, waitin',
and waitin', and waitin', 'n' no customers, - and the men lingerin' round
and lookin' at the goods, like folks that want to be customers, but
haven't got the money!

Do you think the deformed gentleman means to make love to Iris? - I said.

What! Little Boston ask that girl to marry him! Well, now, that's comin'
of it a little too strong. Yes, I guess she will marry him and carry
him round in a basket, like a lame bantam! Look here! - he said,
mysteriously; - one of the boarders swears there's a woman comes to see
him, and that he has heard her singin' and screechin'. I should like
to know what he's about in that den of his. He lays low 'n' keeps
dark, - and, I tell you, there's a good many of the boarders would like
to get into his chamber, but he don't seem to want 'em. Biddy could
tell somethin' about what she's seen when she's been to put his room
to rights. She's a Paddy 'n' a fool, but she knows enough to keep her
tongue still. All I know is, I saw her crossin' herself one day when she
came out of that room. She looked pale enough, 'n' I heard her mutterin'
somethin' or other about the Blessed Virgin. If it hadn't been for the
double doors to that chamber of his, I'd have had a squint inside before
this; but, somehow or other, it never seems to happen that they're both
open at once.

What do you think he employs himself about? - said I.

The young man John winked.

I waited patiently for the thought, of which this wink was the blossom,
to come to fruit in words.

I don't believe in witches, - said the young man John.

Nor I.

We were both silent for a few minutes.

- Did you ever see the young girl's drawing-books, - I said, presently.

All but one, - he answered; - she keeps a lock on that, and won't show it.
Ma'am Allen, (the young rogue sticks to that name, in speaking of the
gentleman with the _diamond_,) Ma'am Allen tried to peek into it one day
when she left it on the sideboard. "If you please," says she, - 'n'
took it from him, 'n' gave him a look that made him curl up like a
caterpillar on a hot shovel. I only wished he hadn't, and had jest given
her a little saas, for I've been takin' boxin'-lessons, 'n' I've got a
new way of counterin' I want to try on to somebody.

- The end of all this was, that I came away from the young fellow's
room, feeling that there were two principal things that I had to live
for, for the next six weeks or six months, if it should take so long.
These were, to get a sight of the young girl's drawing-book, which I
suspected had her heart shut up in it, and to get a look into the little
gentleman's room.

I don't doubt you think it rather absurd that I should trouble myself
about these matters. You tell me, with some show of reason, that all I
shall find in the young girl's book will be some outlines of angels with
immense eyes, traceries of flowers, rural sketches, and caricatures,
among which I shall probably have the pleasure of seeing my own features
figuring. Very likely. But I'll tell you what _I_ think I shall find. If
this child has idealized the strange little bit of humanity over which
she seems to have spread her wings like a brooding dove, - if, in one of
those wild vagaries that passionate natures are so liable to, she has
fairly sprung upon him with her clasping nature, as the sea-flowers fold
about the first stray shell-fish that brushes their outspread tentacles,
depend upon it, I shall find the marks of it in this drawing-book of
hers, - if I can ever get a look at it, - fairly, of course, for I would
not play tricks to satisfy my curiosity.

Then, if I can get into this little gentleman's room under any fair
pretext, I shall, no doubt, satisfy myself in five minutes that he is
just like other people, and that there is no particular mystery about
him.

The night after my visit to the young man John, I made all these and
many more reflections. It was about two o'clock in the morning, - bright
starlight, - so light that I could make out the time on my
alarm-clock, - when I woke up trembling and very moist. It was the heavy,
dragging sound, as I had often heard it before, that waked me. Presently
a window was softly closed. I had just begun to get over the agitation
with which we always awake from nightmare dreams, when I heard the sound
which seemed to me as of a woman's voice, - the clearest, purest soprano
which one could well conceive of. It was not loud, and I could not
distinguish a word, if it was a woman's voice; but there were recurring
phrases of sound and snatches of rhythm that reached me, which suggested
the idea of complaint, and sometimes, I thought, of passionate grief and
despair. It died away at last, - and then I heard the opening of a door,
followed by a low, monotonous sound, as of one talking, - and then
the closing of a door, - and presently the light on the opposite wall
disappeared and all was still for the night.

By George! this gets interesting, - I said, as I got out of bed for a
change of night-clothes.

I had this in my pocket the other day, but thought I wouldn't read it.
So I read it to the boarders instead, and print it to finish off this


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