IF Master Bernard felt a natural gratitude to his young pupil for saving him from an imminent peril, he was in a state of infinite perplexity to know why he should have needed such aid. He, an active, muscular, courageous, adventurous young fellow, with a stick in his hand, ready to hold down the Old Serpent himself, if he had come in his way, to stand still, staring into those two eyes, until they came up close to him, and the strange, terrible sound seemed to freeze him stiff where he stood,—what was the meaning of it ? Again, what was the influence this girl had exerted, under which the venomous creature had collapsed in such a sudden way ? Whether he had been awake or dreaming he did not feel quite sure. He knew he had gone up The Mountain, at any rate; he knew he had come down The Mountain with the girl walking just before him; — there was no forgetting her figure, as she walked on in silence, her braided locks falling a little, for want of the lost hair-pin, perhaps, and looking like a wreathing coil ofShame on such fancies!—to wrong that supreme crowning gift of abounding Nature, a rush of shining black hair, that, shaken loose, would cloud her all round, like Godiva, from brow to instep ! He was sure he had sat down before the fissure or cave. He was sure that he was led softly away from the place, and that it was Elsie who had led him. There was the hair-pin to show that so far it was not a dream. But between these recollections came a strange confusion ; and the more the master thought, the more he was perplexed to know whether she had waked him, sleeping, as he sat on the stone, from some frightful dream, such as may come in a very brief slumber, or whether she had bewitched him into a trance with those strange eyes of hers, or whether it was all true, and he must solve its problem as he best might.
There was another recollection connected with this mountain adventure. As they approached the mansion-house, they met a young man, whom Mr. Bernard remembered having seen once at least before, and whom he had heard of as a cousin of the young girl. As Cousin Richard Venner, the person in question, passed them, he took the measure, so to speak, of Mr. Bernard, with a look so piercing, so exhausting, so practised, so profoundly suspicious, that the young master felt in an instant that he had an enemy in this handsome youth,— an enemy, too, who was like to be subtle and dangerous.
Mr. Bernard had made up his mind, that, come what might, enemy or no enemy, live or die, he would solve the mystery of Elsie Venner, sooner or later. He was not a man to be frightened out of his resolution by a scowl, or a stiletto, or any unknown means of mischief, of which a whole armory was hinted at in that passing look Dick Venner had given him. Indeed, like most adventurous young persons, he found a kind of charm in feeling that there might be some dangers in the way of his investigations. Some rumors which had reached him about the supposed suitor of Elsie Venner, who was thought to be a desperate kind of fellow, and whom some believed to be an unscrupulous adventurer, added a curious, romantic kind of interest to the course of physiological and psychological inquiries he was about instituting.
The afternoon on The Mountain was still uppermost in his mind. Of course he knew the common stories about fascination. He had once been himself an eyewitness of the charming of a small bird by one of our common harmless serpents. Whether a human being could be reached by this subtile agency, he had been skeptical, notwithstanding the mysterious relation generally felt to exist between man and this creature, “ cursed above all cattle and above every beast of the field,”—a relation which some interpret as the fruit of the curse, and others hold to be so instinctive that this animal has been for that reason adopted as the natural symbol of evil. There was another solution, however, supplied him by his professional reading. The curious work of Mr. Braid of Manchester had made him familiar with the phenomena of a state allied to that produced by animal magnetism, and called by that writer by the name of hypnotism. He found, by referring to his note-book, the statement was, that, by fixing the eyes on a bright object so placed as to produce a strain upon the eyes and eyelids, and to maintain a steady fixed stare, there comes on in a few seconds a very singular condition, characterized by muscular rigidity and inability to move, with a strange exaltation of most of the senses, and generally a closure of the eyelids, —this condition being followed by torpor.
Now this statement of Mr. Braid’s, well known to the scientific world, and the truth of which had been confirmed by Mr. Bernard in certain experiments he had instituted, as it has been by many other experimenters, went far to explain the strange impressions, of which, waking or dreaming, he had certainly been the subject. His nervous system had been in a high state of exaltation at the time. He remembered how the little noises that made rings of sound in the silence of the woods, like pebbles dropped in still waters, had reached his inner consciousness. He remembered that singular sensation in the roots of the hair, when he came on the traces of the girl’s presence, reminding him of a line in a certain poem which he had read lately with a new and peculiar interest. He even recalled a curious evidence of exalted sensibility and irritability, in the twitching of the minute muscles of the internal ear at every unexpected sound, producing an odil little snap in the middle of the head, that proved to him he was getting very nervous.
The next thing was to find out whether it were possible that the venomous creature’s eyes should have served the purpose of Mr. Braid’s “bright object” held very close to the person experimented on, or whether they had any special power which could be made the subject of exact observation.
For this purpose Mr. Bernard considered it necessary to get a live crotalus or two into his possession, if this were possible. On inquiry, he found that there was a certain family living far up the mountain-side, not a mile from the ledge, the members of which were said to have taken these creatures occasionally, and not to be in any danger, or at least in any fear, of being injured by them. He applied to these people, and offered a reward sufficient to set them at work to capture some of these animals, if such a thing were possible.
A few days after this, a dark, gypsylooking woman presented herself at his door. She held up her apron as if it contained something precious in the bag she made with it.
“ Y’wanted some rattlers,” said the woman. “ Here they be.”
She opened her apron and showed a coil of rattlesnakes lying very peaceably in its fold. They lifted their heads up, as if they wanted to see what was going on, but showed no sign of anger.
“ Are you crazy ? ” said Mr. Bernard. “ You’re dead in an hour, if one of those creatures strikes you ! ”
He drew back a little, as he spoke; it might be simple disgust; it might be fear; it might be what we call antipathy, which is different from either, and which will sometimes show itself in paleness, and even faintness, produced by objects perfectly harmless and not in themselves offensive to any sense.
“ Lord bless you,” said the woman, “rattlers never touches our folks. I’d jest ’z lieves handle them creators as so many stripéd snakes.”
So saying, she put their heads down with her hand, and packed them together in her apron as if they had been bits of cart-rope.
Mr. Bernard had never heard of the power, or, at least, the belief in the possession of a power by certain persons, which enables them to handle these frightful reptiles with perfect impunity. The fact, however, is well known to others, and more especially to a very distinguished Professor in one of the leading institutions of the great city of the land, whose experiences in the neighborhood of Graylock, as he will doubtless inform the curious, were very much like those of the young master.
Mr. Bernard had a wired cage ready for his formidable captives, and studied their habits and expression with a strange sort of interest. What did the Creator mean to signify, when he made such shapes of horror, and, as if lie had doubly cursed this envenomed wretch, had set a mark upon him and sent him forth, the Cain of the brotherhood of serpents ? It was a very curious fact that the first train of thoughts Mr. Bernard’s small menagerie suggested to him was the grave, though somewhat worn, subject of the origin of evil. There is now to be seen in a tall glass jar, in the Museum of Comparative Anatomy at Cantabridge in the territory of the Massachusetts, a huge crotalus, of a species which grows to more frightful dimensions than our own, under the hotter skies of South America. Look at it, ye who would know what is the tolerance, the freedom from prejudice, which can suffer such an incarnation of all that is devilish to lie unharmed in the cradle of Nature ! Learn, too, that there are many things in this world which we are warned to slun, and are even suffered to slay, if need be, but which we must not hate, unless we would hate what God loves and cares for.
Whatever fascination the creature might exercise in his native haunts, Mr. Bernard found himself not in the least nervous or a affected in any way while looking at his caged reptiles. When their cage was shaken, they would lift their heads and spring their rattles; but the sound was by no means so formidable to listen to as when it reverberated among the chasms of the echoing rocks. The expression of the creatures was watchful, still, grave, passionless, fate-like, suggesting a cold malignity that seemed to be waiting for its opportunity. Their awful, deep-cut mouths were sternly closed over the long hollow fangs that rested their roots against the swollen poison-bag, where the venom had been hoarding up ever since the last stroke had emptied it. They never winked, for ophidians have no movable eyelids, but kept up that awful fixed stare which made the two unwinking gladiators the survivors of twenty pairs matched by one of the Roman Emperors, as Pliny tells us, in his “ Natural History.” But their eyes did not flash, as he had expected to see them. They were of a pale-golden or straw color, horrible to look into, with their stony calmness, their pitiless indifference, hardly enlivened by the almost imperceptible vertical slit of the pupil, through which Death seemed to be looking out like the archer behind the long narrow loop-hole in a blank turret-wall. Possibly their pupils might open wide enough in the dark hole of the rock to let the glare of the back part of the eye show, as we often see it in cats and other animals. On the whole, the caged reptiles, horrid as they were, were yet very different from his recollections of what he had seen or dreamed he saw at the cavern. These looked dangerous enough, but yet quiet. A treacherous stillness, however,—as the unfortunate New York physician found, when he put his foot out to wake up the torpid creature, and instantly the fang flashed through his boot, carrying the poison into his blood, and death with it.
Mr. Bernard kept these strange creatures, and watched all their habits with a natural curiosity. In any collection of animals the venomous beasts are looked at with the greatest interest, just as the greatest villains are most run after by the unknown public. Nobody troubles himself for a common striped snake or a petty thief, but a cobra or a wife-killer is a centre of attraction to all eyes. These captives did very little to earn their living; but, on the other hand, their living was not expensive, their diet being nothing but air, au naturel. Months and months these creatures will live and seem to thrive well enough, as any showman who has them in his menagerie will testify, though they never touch anything to eat or drink.
In the mean time Mr. Bernard had become very curious about a class of subjects not treated of in any detail in those text-books accessible in most countrytowns, to the exclusion of the more special treatises, and especially the rare and ancient works found on the shelves of the larger city-libraries. He was on a visit to old Dr. Kittredge one day, having been asked by him to call in for a few moments as soon as convenient. The Doctor smiled good-humoredly when he asked him if he had an extensive collection of medical works.
“Why, no,” said the old Doctor, “I haven’t got a great many printed books ; and what I have I don’t read quite as often as I might, I'm afraid. I read and studied in the time of it, when I was in the midst of the young men who were all at work with their books; but it’s a mighty hard matter, when you go off alone into the country, to keep up with all that's going on in the Societies and the Colleges. I’ll tell you, though, Mr. Langdon, when a man that’s once started right lives among sick folks for five-anti-thirty years, as I've done, if he hasn’t got a library of five-and-thirty volumes bound up in bis head at the end of that time, he’d better stop driving round and sell his horse and sulky. I know the better part of the families within a dozen miles’ ride. I know the families that have a way of living through everything, and I know the other set that have the trick of dying without any kind of reason for it. I know the years when the fevers and dysenteries are in earnest, and when they’re only making believe. I know the folks that think they’re dying as soon as they’re sick, and the folks that never find out they’re sick till they’re dead. I don’t want to undervalue your science, Mr. Langdon. There are things I never learned, because they came in after my day, and I am very glad to send my patients to those that do know them, when I am at fault; but I know these people about here, fathers and mothers, and children and grandchildren, so as all the science in the world can’t know them, without it takes time about it, and sees them grow up and grow old, and how the wear and tear of life comes to them. Yun can’t tell a horse by driving him once, Mr. Langdon, nor a patient by talking half an hour with him.”
“ Do you know much about the Venner family ?” said Mr. Bernard, in a natural way enough, the Doctor’s talk having suggested the question.
The Doctor lifted his head with his accustomed movement, so as to command the young man through his spectacles.
“ I know all the families of this place and its neighborhood,” he answered.
“ We have the young lady studying with us at the Institute,” said Mr. Bernard.
“ I know it,” the Doctor answered. “ Is she a good scholar ? ”
All this time the Doctor’s eyes were fixed steadily on Mr. Bernard, looking through the glasses.
“ She is a good scholar enough, but I don’t know what to make of her Sometimes I think she is a little out of her head. Her father, I believe, is sensible enough ; — what sort of a woman was her mother, Doctor?—I suppose, of course, you remember all about her?”
“ Yes, I knew her mother. She was a very lovely young woman.”—The Doctor put his hand to his forehead and drew a long breath. — “What is there you notice out of the way about Elsie Yenner ?”
“ A good many things,” the master answered. “ She shuns all the other girls. She is getting a strange influence over my fellow-teacher, a young lady, — you know Miss Helen Darley, perhaps? I am afraid this girl will kill her. I never saw or heard of anything like it, in prose at least; — do you remember much of Coleridge’s Poems, Doctor ? ”
The good old Doctor had to plead a negative.
“ Well, no matter. Elsie would have been burned for a witch in old times. I have seen the girl look at Miss Darley when she had not the least idea of it, and all at once I would see her grow pale and moist, and sigh, and move round uneasily, and turn towards Elsie, and perhaps get up and go to her, or else have slight spasmodic movements that looked like hysterics; — do you believe in the evil eye, Doctor ? ”
“Mr. Langdon,” the Doctor said, solemnly, “ there are strange things about Elsie Venner, — very strange things. This was what I wanted to speak to you about. Let me advise you all to be very patient with the girl, but also very careful. Her love is not to be desired, and”—he whispered softly—“ her hate is to be dreaded. Do you think she has any special fancy for anybody else in the school besides Miss Darley?”
Mr. Bernard could not stand the old Doctor’s spectacled eyes without betraying a little of the feeling natural to a young man to whom a home question involving a possible sentiment is put suddenly.
“ I have suspected,” he said,— “ I have had a kind of feeling—that she— "Well, come, Doctor,— I don’t know that there’s any use in disguising the matter, — I have thought Elsie Vernier had rather a fancy for somebody else, — I mean myself.”
There was something so becoming in the blush with which the young man made this confession, and so manly, too, in the tone with which he spoke, so remote from any shallow vanity, such as young men who are incapable of love are apt to feel, when some loose tendril of a woman’s fancy which a chance wind has blown against them twines about them for the want of anything better, that the old Doctor looked at him admiringly, and could not help thinking that it was no wonder any young girl should be pleased with him.
“ You are a man of nerve, Mr. Langdon ? ” said the Doctor.
“ I thought so till very lately,” he replied. “I am not easily frightened, but I don’t know but I might be bewitched or magnetized, or whatever it is when one is tied up and cannot move. I think I can find nerve enough, however, if there is any special use you want to put it to.”
“Let me ask you one more question, Mr. Langdon. Do you find yourself disposed to take a special interest in Elsie, — to fali in love with her, in a word? Pardon me, for I do not ask from curiosity, but a much more serious motive.”
“ Elsie interests me,” said the young man, “ interests me strangely. She has a wild flavor in her character which is wholly different from that of any human creature I ever saw. She has marks of genius,—poetic or dramatic,—I hardly know which. She read a passage from Keats’s “Lamia” the other day, in the schoolroom, in such a way that I declare to you I thought some of the girls would faint or go into fits. Miss Darley got up and left the room, trembling all over. Then I pity her, she is so lonely. The girls are afraid of her, and she seems to have either a dislike or a fear of them. They have all sorts of painful stories about her. They give her a name that no human creature ought to bear. They say she hides a mark on her neck by always wearing a necklace. She is very graceful, you know, and they will have it that she can twist herself into all sorts of shapes, or tie herself in a knot, if she wants to. There is not one of them that will look her in the eyes. I pity the poor girl; but, Doctor, I do not love her. I would risk my life for her, if it would do her any good, but it would be in cold blood. If her hand touches mine, it is not a thrill of passion I feel running through me, but a very different emotion. Oh, Doctor ! there must be something in that creature’s blood that has killed the humanity in her. God only knows the mystery that has blighted such a soul in so beautiful a body ! No, Doctor, I do not love the girl.”
“ Mr. Langdon,” said the Doctor, “you are young, and I am old. Let me talk to you with an old man’s privilege, as an adviser. You have come to this countrytown without suspicion, and you are moving in the midst of perils. There is a mystery which I must not tell you now; but I may warn you. Keep your eyes open and your heart shut. If, through pitying that girl, you ever come to love her, you are lost. If you deal carelessly with her, beware ! This is not all. There are other eyes on you beside Elsie Venner’s. — Do you go armed ? ”
“I do!’’said Mr. Bernard, — and he 'put his hands up’ in the shape of fists, in such a way as to show that he was master of the natural weapons at any rate.
The Doctor could not help smiling. But his face fell in an instant.
“ You may want something more than those tools to work with. Come with me into my sanctum.”
The Doctor led Mr. Bernard into a small room opening out of the study. It was a place such as anybody but a medical man would shiver to enter. There was the usual tall box with its bleached rattling tenant; there were jars in rows where “ interesting cases ” outlived the grief of widows and heirs in alcoholic immortality,—for your “preparation-jar” is the true “monumentum œre perennius there were various semipossibilities of minute dimensions and unpromising developments; there were shining instruments of evil aspect, and grim plates on the walls, and on one shelf by itself, accursed and apart, coiled in a long cylinder of spirit, a huge crotalus, rough-scaled, flat-headed, variegated with dull bands, one of which partially encircled the neck like a collar,— an awful wretch to look upon, with murder written all over him in horrid hieroglyphics, Mr. Bernard’s look was riveted on this creature,—not fascinated certainly, for its eyes looked like white beads, being clouded by the action of the spirits in which it had been long kept,—but fixed by some indefinite sense of the renewal of a previous impression; — everybody knows the feeling, with its suggestion of some past state of existence. There was a scrap of paper on the jar with something written on it. He was reaching up to read it when the Doctor touched him lightly.
“ Look here, Mr. Langdon ! ” he said, with a certain vivacity of manner, as if wishing to call away his attention,—“this is my armory.”
The Doctor threw open the door of a small cabinet, where were disposed in artistic patterns various weapons of offence and defence,— for he was a virtuoso in his way, and by the side of the implements of the art of healing had pleased himself with displaying a collection of those other instruments, the use of which renders them necessary.
“ See which of these weapons you would like best to carry about you,” said the Doctor.
Mr. Bernard laughed, and looked at the Doctor as if he half doubted whether he was in earnest.
“ This looks dangerous enough,” he said. — “for the man that carries it, at least.”
lie took down one of the prohibited Spanish daggers or knives which a traveller may occasionally get hold of and smuggle out of the country. The blade was broad, trowel-like, but the point drawn out several inches, so as to look like a skewer.
“ This must be a jealous bull-fighter’s weapon,” he said, and put it back in its place.
Then he took down an ancient-looking broad-bladed dagger, with a complex aspect about it, as if it had some kind of mechanism connected with it.
“ Take care ! ” said the Doctor; “ there is a trick to that dagger.”
He took it and touched a spring. The dagger split suddenly into three blades, as when one separates the forefinger and the ring-finger from the middle one. The outside blades were sharp on their outer edge. The stab was to be made with the dagger shut, then the spring touched and the split blades withdrawn.
Mr. Bernard replaced it, saying, that it would have served for side-arm to old Suwarrow, who told his men to work their bayonets back and forward when they pinned a Turk, but to wriggle them about in the wound when they stabbed a Frenchman.
“Here,” said the Doctor, “this is the thing you want.”
He took down a much more modern and familiar implement, — a small, beautifully finished revolver.
“ I want you to carry this,” he said ; “ and more than that, I want you to practise with it often, as for amusement, but so that it may be seen and understood that you are apt to have a pistol about you. Pistol-shooting is pleasant sport enough, and there is no reason why you should not practise it like other young fellows. And now,” the Doctor said, “ I have one other weapon to give you.”
He took a small piece of parchment and shook a white powder into it from one of his medicine-jars. The jar was marked with the name of a mineral salt, of a nature to have been serviceable in case of sudden illness in the time of the Borgias. The Doctor folded the parchment carefully and marked the Latin name of the powder upon it.
“ Here,” he said, handing it to Mr. Bernard,— “ you see what it is, and you know what service it can render. Keep these two protectors about your person day and night; they will not harm you, and you may want one or the other or both before you think of it.”
Mr. Bernard thought it was very odd, and not very old-gentlemanlike, to be fitting him out for treason, stratagem, and spoils, in this way. There was no harm, however, in carrying a doctor’s powder in his pocket, or in amusing himself with shooting at a mark, as he had often done before. If the old gentleman had these fancies, it was as well to humor him. So he thanked old Doctor Kittredge, and shook his hand warmly as he left him.
“ The fellow’s hand did not tremble, nor his color change,” the Doctor said, as he watched him walking away. “ lie is one of the right sort.”
Mr. Langdon to the Professor.
MY DEAR PROFESSOR,-
You were kind enough to promise me that you would assist me in any professional or scientific investigations in which I might become engaged. I have of late become deeply interested in a class of subjects which present peculiar difficulty, and I must exercise the privilege of questioning you on some points upon which I desire information I cannot otherwise obtain. I would not trouble you, if I could find any person or books competent to enlighten me on some of these singular matters which have so excited me. The leading doctor here is a shrewd, sensible man, but not versed in the curiosities of medical literature.
I proceed, with your leave, to ask a considerable number of questions,—-hoping to get answers to some of them, at least.
Is there any evidence that human beings can be infected or wrought upon by poisons, or otherwise, so that they shall manifest any of the peculiarities belonging to beings of a lower nature ? Can such peculiarities be transmitted by inheritance ? Is there anything to countenance the stories, long and widely current, about the “evil eye"? or is it a mere fancy that such a power belongs to any human being ? Have you any personal experience as to the power of fascination said to be exercised by certain animals ? What can you make of those circumstantial statements we have seen in the papers of children forming mysterious friendships with ophidians of different species, sharing their food with them, and seeming to be under some subtile influence exercised by those creatures? Have you read, critically, Coleridge’s poem of “ Christabel,” and Keats’s “ Lamia ” ? If so, can you understand them, or find any physiological foundation for the story of either ?
There is another set of questions of a different nature I should like to ask, but it is hardly fair to put so many on a single sheet. There is one, however, you must answer. Do you think there may he predispositions, inherited or ingrafted, but at any rate constitutional, which shall take out certain apparently voluntary determinations from the control of the will, and leave them as free from moral responsibility as the instincts of the lower animals? Do you not think there may be a crime which is not a sin ?
Pardon me, my dear Sir, for troubling you with such a list of notes of interrogation. There are some very strange things going on here in this place, country-town as it is. Country-life is apt to be dull; but when it once gets going, it beats the city hollow, because it gives its whole mind to what it is about. These rural sinners make terrible work with the middle of the Decalogue, when they get started. However, I hope I shall live through my year’s school-keeping without catastrophes, though there are queer doings about me which puzzle me and might, scare some people. If anything should happen, you will be one of the first to hear of it, no doubt. But I trust not to help out the editors of the “Rockland Weekly Universe” with an obituary of the late lamented, who signed himself in life
Your friend and pupil,
BERNARD C. LANGDON.
The Professor to Mr. Langdon.
MY DEAR MR. LANGDON,—
I DO not wonder that you find no answer from your country friends to the curious questions you put. They belong to that middle region between science and poetry which sensible men, as they are called, are very shy of meddling with. Some people think that truth and gold are always to be washed for; but the wiser sort are of opinion, that, unless there are so many grains to the peck of sand or nonsense respectively, it does not pay to wash for either, as long as one can find anything else to do. I don’t doubt there is some truth in the phenomena of animal magnetism, tor instance; but when you ask me to cradle for it, I tell you that the hysteric girls cheat so, and the professionals are such a set of pickpockets, that I can do something better than hunt for the grains of truth among their tricks and lies. Do you remember what I used to say in my lectures ? — or were you asleep just then, or cutting your initials on the rail ? ( You see l can ask questions, my young friend.) Leverage is everything,— was what I used to say ; — don't begin to pry till you have got the long arm on your side.
To please you, and satisfy your doubts as far as possible, I have looked into the old books,— into Schenckius and Turner and Kenelm Digby and the rest, where I have found plenty of curious stories which you must take for what they are worth.
Your first question I can answer in the affirmative upon pretty good authority. Mizaldus tells, in his “Memorabilia,” the well-known story of the girl fed on poisons, who was sent by the king of the Indies to Alexander the Great. “ When Aristotle saw her eyes sparkling and snapping tike those of serpents, he said, ' Look out for yourself, Alexander ! this is a dangerous companion for you ! ’ ”—and sure enough, the young lady proved to be a very unsafe person to her friends. Cardanus gets a story from Avicenna, of a certain man bit by a serpent, who recovered of his bite, the snake dying therefrom. This man afterwards had a daughter whom no venomous serpent could harm, though she had a fatal power over them.
I suppose you may remember the statements of old authors about lycanthropy, the disease in which men took on the nature and aspect of wolves. Aëtius and Paulus, both men of authority, describe it. Altomaris gives a horrid case; and Fincelius mentions one occurring as late as 1541, the subject of which was captured, still insisting that he was a wolf, only that the hair of his hide was turned in ! Versipelles, it may be remembered, was the Latin name for these “ werewolves.”
As for the cases where rabid persons have barked and bit like dogs, there are plenty of such on record.
More singular, or at least more rare, is the account given by Andreas Baccius, of a man who was struck in the hand by a cock, with his beak, and who died on the third day thereafter, looking for all the world like a fighting-cock, to the great horror of the spectators.
As to impressions transmitted at a very early period of existence, every one knows the story of King James’s fear of a naked sword and the way it is accounted for. Sir Kenelm Digby says, — “ I remember when he dubbed me Knight, in the ceremony of putting the point of a naked sword upon my shoulder, he could not endure to look upon it, but turned his face another way, insomuch, that, in lieu of touching my shoulder, he had almost thrust the point into my eyes, had not the Duke of Buckingham guided his hand aright.” It is he, too, who tells the story of the mulberry mark upon the neck of a certain lady of high condition, which “ every year, in mulberry season, did swell, grow big, and itch.” And Gaffarel mentions the case of a girl born with the figure of a fish on one of her limbs, of which the wonder was, that, when the girl did eat fish, this mark put her to sensible pain. But there is no end to cases of this kind, and I could give some of recent date, if necessary, lending a certain plausibility at least to the doctrine of transmitted impressions.
I never saw a distinct case of evil eye, though I have seen eyes so bad that they might produce strange effects on very sensitive natures. But the belief in it under various names, fascination, jettatura, etc., is so permanent and universal, from Egypt to Italy, and from the days of Solomon to those of Ferdinand Naples, that there must be some peculiarity, to say the least, on which the opinion is based. There is very strong evidence that some such power is exercised by certain of the lower animals. Thus, it is stated on good authority that “ almost every animal becomes panic-struck at the sight of the rattlesmake, and seems at once deprived of the power of motion, Or the exercise of its usual instinct of self-preservation.” Other serpents seem to share this power of fascination, as the Cobra and the Bucephalus Capensis. Some think that it is nothing but fright; others attribute it to the
Within the magic circle of the eye,”—
as Churchill said, speaking of Garrick.
You ask me about those mysterious and frightful intimacies between children and serpents of which so many instances have been recorded. I am sure I cannot tell what to make of them. I have seen several such accounts in recent papers, but here is one published in the seventeenth century which is as striking as any of the more modern ones: —
“ Mr. Herbert Jones of Monmouth, when he was a little Boy, was used to eat his Milk in a Garden in the Morning, and was no sooner there, but a large Snake always came, and eat out of the Dish with him, and did so for a considerable time, till one Morning, he striking the Snake on the Head, it hissed at him. Upon which he told his Mother that the Baby (for so he call'd it) cry’d Hiss at him. His Mother had it kill’d, which occasioned him a great Fit of Sickness, and ’twas thought would have dy’d, but did recover.”
There was likewise one “ William Writtle, condemned at Maidston Assizes for a double murder, told a Minister that was with him after he tvas condemned, that his mother told him, that when he was a Child, there crept always to him a Snake, wherever she laid him. Sometimes she would convey him up Stairs, and leave him never so little, she should be sure to find a Snake in the Cradle with him, but never perceived it did him any harm.”
One of the most striking alleged facts connected with the mysterious relation existing between the serpent and the human species is the influence which the poison of the Crotalus, taken internally, seemed to produce over the moral faculties, in the experiments instituted by Dr. Hering at Surinam. There is something frightful in the disposition of certain ophidians, as the whip-snake, which darts at the eyes of cattle without any apparent provocation or other motive. It is natural enough that the evil principle should have been represented in the form of a serpent. but it is strange to think of introducing it into a human being like cowpox by vaccination.
You know all about the Psylli, or ancient serpent-tamers, I suppose. Savary gives an account of the modern serpenttamers in his “ Letters on Egypt.” These modern jugglers are in the habit of making the venomous Naja counterfeit death, lying out straight and stiff, changing it into a rod, as the ancient magicians did with their serpents, (probably the same animal.) in the time of Moses.
I am afraid I cannot throw much light on “ Christabel ” or “ Lamia ” by any criticism I can offer. Geraldine, in the former, seems to be simply a malignant witch-woman, with the evil eye, but with no absolute ophidian relationship. Lamia is a serpent transformed by niagie into a woman. The idea of both is on thological, and not in any sense physiological. Some women unquestionably suggest the image of serpents; men rarely or never. I have been struck, like many others, with the ophidian, head and eye of the famous Rachel.
Your question about inherited predispositions, as limiting the sphere of the will, and, consequently, of moral accountability, opens a very wide range of speculation. I can give you only a brief abstract of my own opinions on this delicate and difficult subject. Crime and sin, being the preserves of two great organized interests, have been guarded against all reforming poachers with as great jealousy as the Royal Forests. It is so easy to hang a troublesome fellow ! It is so much simpler to consign a soul to perdition, or say masses, for money, to save it, than to take the blame on ourselves for letting it grow up in neglect and run to ruin tor want of humanizing influences ! They hung poor, crazy Bellingham for shooting Mr. Perceval. The ordinary of Newgate preached to women who were to swing at Tyburn for a petty theft as if they were worse than other people, — just as though he would not have been a pickpocket or shoplifter, himself, if he had been born in a den of thieves and bred up to steal or starve! The English law never began to get hold of the idea that a crime was not necessarily a sin, till Hadfield, who thought he was the Saviour of mankind, was tried for shooting at George the Third ;— lucky for him that he did not hit his Majesty!
It is very singular that we recognize all the bodily defects that unfit a man for military service, and all the intellectual ones that limit his range of thought, but always talk at him as if all his moral powers were perfect. I suppose we must punish evil-doers as we extirpate vermin ; but I don’t know that we have any more right to judge them than we have to judge rats and mice, which are just as good as cats and weasels, though we think it necessary to treat them as criminals.
The limitations of human responsibility have never been properly studied, unless it be by the phrenologists. You know from my lectures that I consider phrenology, as taught, a pseudo-science, and not a branch of positive knowledge; but, for all that, we owe it an immense debt. It has melted the world’s conscience in its crucible and cast it in a new mould, with features less like those of Moloch and more like those of humanity. If it has failed to demonstrate its system of special correspondences, it has proved that there are fixed relations between organization and mind and character. It has brought out that great doctrine of moral insanity, which has done more to make men charitable and soften legal and theological barbarism than any one doctrine that I can think of since the message of peace and good-will to men.
Automatic action in the moral world; the ref ex movement which seems to be selfdetermination, and has been hanged and howled at as such (metaphorically) for nobody knows how many centuries: until somebody shall study this as Marshall Hall has studied reflex nervous action in the bodily system, I would not give much for men’s judgments of each other’s characters. Shut up the robber and the defaulter, we must. But what if your oldest boy bad been stolen from bis cradle and bred in a North-Street cellar? What if you are drinking a little too much wine and smoking a little too much tobacco, and your son takes after you, and so your poor grandson’s brain being a little injured in physical texture, he loses the fine moral sense on which you pride yourself, and doesn’t see the difference between signing another man’s name to a draft and his own ?
I suppose the study of automatic action in the moral world (you see what I mean through the apparent contradiction of terms) may be a dangerous one in the view of many people. It is liable to abuse, no doubt. People are always glad to get hold of anything which limits their responsibility. But remember that, our moral estimates come down to us from ancestors who hanged children for stealing forty shillings’ worth, and sent their souls to perdition for the sin of being born, — who punished the unfortunate families of suicides, and in their eagerness for justice executed one innocent person every three years, on the average, as Sir James Mackintosh tells us.
I do not know in what shape the practical question may present itself to you ; but I will tell you my rule in life, and I think you will find it a good one. Treat bad men exactly as if they were insane. They are in-sane, out of health, morally. Reason, which is food to sound minds, is not tolerated, still less assimilated, unless administered with the greatest caution ; perhaps, not at all. Avoid collision with them, as far as you honorably can; keep your temper, if you can,— for one angry man is as good as another; restrain them from injury, promptly, completely, and with the least possible injury, just as in the case of maniacs, — and when you have got rid of them, or got them tied hand and foot so that they can do no mischief, sit down and contemplate them charitably, remembering that nine-tenths of their perversity comes from outside influences, drunken ancestors, abuse in childhood, bad company, from which you have happily been preserved, and for some of which you, as a member of society, may be fractionally responsible. I think also that there are special influences which work in the blood like ferments, and I have a suspicion that some of those curious old stories I cited may have more recent parallels. Have you ever met with any cases which admitted of a solution like that which I have mentioned?
Yours very truly,
Bernard Langdon to Philip Staples.
MY DEAR PHILIP,-
I HAVE been for some months established in this place, turning the main crank of the machinery for the manufactory of accomplishments superintended by, or rather worked to the profit of, a certain Mr. Silas Peckham. He is a poor wretch, with a little thin fishy blood in his body, lean and flat, long-armed and large-handed, thick-jointed and thin-muscled, — you know those unwholesome, weak-eyed, half-fed creatures, that look not fit to be round among live folks, and yet not quite dead enough to bury. If you ever hear of my being in court to answer to a charge of assault and battery, you may guess that I have been giving him a thrashing to settle off old scores ; for he is a tyrant, and has come pretty near killing his principal lady-assistant with overworking her and keeping her out of all decent privileges.
Helen Darley is this lady’s name,— twenty-two or -three years old, I should think, — a very sweet, pale woman,— daughter of the usual country-clergyman, — thrown on her own resources from an early age, and the rest: a common story, but an uncommon person,— very. All conscience and sensibility, I should say,— a cruel worker,— no kind of regard for herself,—seems as fragile and supple as a young willow-shoot, but try her and you find she has the spring in her of a steel crossbow. I am glad I happened to come to this place, if it were only for her sake. I have saved that girl’s life ;
I am as sure of it as if I had pulled her out of the fire or water.
Of course I’m in love with her, you say,— we always love those whom we have benefited: “saved her life, — her love was the reward of his devotion,” etc., etc., as in a regular set novel. In love, Philip? Well, about that, — I love Helen Darley—very much: there is hardly anybody I love so well. What a noble creature she is! One of those that just go right on, do their own work and everybody else’s, killing themselves inch by inch without ever thinking about it,— singing and dancing at their toil when they begin, worn and saddened after a while, but pressing steadily on, tottering by-and-by, and catching at the rail by the wayside to help them lift one foot before the other, and at last falling, face down, arms stretched forward-
Philip, my boy, do you know I am the sort of man that locks his door sometimes and cries his heart out of his eyes, — that can sob like a woman and not be ashamed of it? I come of fighting-blood on my mother’s side, you know; I think I could be savage on occasion. But I am tender,—more and more tender as I come into my fulness of manhood. I don’t like to strike a man, (laugh, if you like,-—-I know I hit hard when I do strike,) — but what I can’t stand is the sight of these poor, patient, toiling women, that never find out in this life how good they are, and never know what it is to be told they are angels while they still wear the pleasing incumbrances of humanity. I don’t know what to make of these cases. To think that a woman is never to be a woman again, whatever she may come to as an unsexed angel,—and that she should die unloved ! Why does not somebody come and carry off this noble woman, waiting here all ready to make a man happy ? Philip, do you know the pathos there is in the eyes of unsought women, oppressed with the burden of an inner life unshared ? I can see into them now as I could not in those earlier days. I sometimes think their pupils dilate on purpose to let my consciousness glide through them; indeed, I dread them, I come so close to the nerve of the soul itself in these momentary intimacies. You used to tell me I was a Turk,— that my heart was full of pigeon-holes, with accommodations inside for a whole flock of doves. I don’t know but I am still as Youngish as ever in my ways,— Brigham-Youngish, I mean; at any rate, I always want to give a little love to all the poor things that cannot have a whole man to themselves. If they would only be contented with a little !
Here now are two girls in this school where I am teaching. One of them, Rosa M., is not more than sixteen years old, I think they say; but Nature has forced her into a tropical luxuriance of beauty, as if it were July with her, instead of May. I suppose it is all natural enough that this girl should like a young man’s attention, even if he were a grave schoolmaster; but the eloquence of this young thing’s look is unmistakable, — and yet she does not know the language it is talking,— they none of them do; and there is where a good many poor creatures of our good-for-nothing sex are mistaken. There is no danger of my being rash, but I think this girl will cost somebody his life yet. She is one of those women men make a quarrel about and fight to the death for, — the old feral instinct, you know.
Pray, don’t think I am lost in conceit, hut there is another girl here that I begin to think looks with a certain kindness on me. Her name is Elsie V., and she is the only daughter and heiress of an old family in this place. She is a portentous and mysterious creature. If I should tell you all I know and half of what I fancy about her, you would tell me to get my life insured at once. Yet she is the most painfully interesting being, — so handsome ! so lonely! — for she has no friends among the girls, and sits apart from them, —with black hair like the flow of a mountain-brook after a thaw, with a low-browed, scowling beauty of face, and such eyes as were never seen before, I really believe, in any human creature.
Philip, I don’t know what to say about this Elsie. There is a mystery around her I have not fathomed. I have conjectures about her which I could not utter to any living soul. I dare not even hint the possibilities which have suggested themselves to me. This I will say, — that I do take the most intense interest in this young person, an interest much more like pity than love in its common sense. If what I guess at is true, of all the tragedies of existence I ever knew this is the saddest, and yet so full of meaning! Do not ask me any questions, — I have said more than I meant to already; but I am involved in strange doubts and perplexities,— in dangers too, very possibly,— and it is a relief just to speak ever so guardedly of them to an early and faithful friend.
P. S. I remember you had a copy of Fortunius Licetus “De Monstris” among your old books. Can’t you lend it to me for a while? I am curious, and it will amuse me.