The Guardian Angel
THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY.
A Magazine of Literature, Science, Art, and Politics.
VOL. XIX.— MARCH, 1867. — NO. CXIII.
DOWN THE RIVER.
LOOK at the flower of a morning-glory the evening before the dawn which is to see it unfold. The delicate petals are twisted into a spiral, which at the appointed hour, when the sunlight touches the hidden springs of its life, will uncoil itself and let the day into the chamber of its virgin heart. But the spiral must unwind by its own law, and the hand that shall try to hasten the process will only spoil the blossom which would have expanded in symmetrical beauty under the rosy fingers of morning.
We may take a hint from Nature’s handling of the flower in dealing with young souls, and especially with the souls of young girls, which, from their organization and conditions, require more careful treatment than those of their tougher-fibred brothers. Many parents reproach themselves for not having enforced their own convictions on their children in the face of every inborn antagonism they encountered. Let them not be too severe in their self-condemnation. A want of judgment in this matter has sent many a young person to Bedlam, whose nature would have opened kindly enough if it had only been trusted to the sweet influences of morning sunshine. In such cases it may be that the state we call Insanity is not always an unalloyed evil. It may take the place of something worse,— the wretchedness of a mind not yet dethroned, but subject to the perpetual interferences of another mind governed by laws alien and hostile to its own. Insanity may perhaps be the only palliative left to Nature in this extremity. But before she comes to that, she has many expedients. The mind does not know what diet it can feed on until it has been brought to the starvation point. Its experience is like that of those who have been long drifting about on rafts or in long-boats. There is nothing out of which it will not contrive to get some sustenance. A person of note, long held captive for a political offence, is said to have owed the preservation of his reason to a pin, out of which he contrived to get exercise and excitement by throwing it down carelessly on the dark floor of his dungeon, and then hunting for it in a series of systematic explorations until he had found it.
Entered according to Act of Congress, in the year 1867, by TICKNOIE AND VIEI.DS, in the CletVs Office of the District Court of the District of Massachusetts.
Perhaps the most natural thing Myrtle Hazard could have done would have been to go crazy, and be sent to the nearest asylum, if Providence, which in its wisdom makes use of the most unexpected agencies, had not made a special provision for her mental welfare. She was in that arid household as the prophet in the land where there was no dew nor rain for these long years. But as he had the brook Cherith, and the bread and flesh in the morning and the bread and flesh in the evening which the ravens brought him, so she had the river and her secret store of books.
The river was light and life and music and companionship to her. She learned to row herself about upon it, to swim boldly in it, for it had sheltered nooks but a little way above The Poplars. But there was more than that in it,— it was infinitely sympathetic. A river is strangely like a human soul. It has its dark and bright days, its troubles from within, and its disturbances from without. It often runs over ragged rocks with a smooth surface, and is vexed with ripples as it slides over sands that are level as a floor. It betrays its various moods by aspects which are the commonplaces of poetry, as smiles and dimples and wrinkles and frowns. Its face is full of winking eyes, when the scattering rain-drops first fall upon it, and it scowls back at the storm-cloud, as with knitted brows, when the winds are let loose. It talks, too, in its own simple dialect, murmuring, as it were, with busy lips all the way to the ocean, as children seeking the mother's breast and impatient of delay. Prisoners who know what a flower or an insect has been to them in their solitary cell, invalids who have employed their vacant minds in studying the patterns of paper-hangings on the walls of their sick-chambers, can tell what the river was to the lonely, imaginative creature who Used to sit looking into its depths, hour after hour, from the airy height of the Fire-hang-bird’s Nest.
Of late a thought had mingled with her fancies which had given to the river the aspect of something more than a friend and a companion. It appeared all at once as a Deliverer. Did not its waters lead, after long wanderings, to the great highway of the world, and open to her the gates of those cities from which she could take her departure unchallenged towards the lands of the morning or of the sunset ? Often, after a freshet, she had seen a child's miniature boat floating down on its side past her window, and traced it in imagination back to some crystal brook flowing by the door of a cottage far up some blue mountain in the distance. So she now began to follow down the stream the airy shallop that held her bright fancies. These dreams of hers were colored by the rainbows of an enchanted fountain, — the books of adventure, the romances, the stories which fortune had placed in her hands, — the same over which the heart of the Pride of the County had throbbed in the last century, and on the pages of some of which the traces of her tears might still be seen.
The literature which was furnished for Myrtle’s improvement was chiefly of a religious character, and, however interesting and valuable to those to whom it was adapted, had not been chosen with any wise regard to its fitness for her special conditions. Of what use was it to offer books like the “ Saint's Rest ” to a child whose idea of happiness was in perpetual activity ? She read “ Pilgrim's Progress,” it is true, with great delight. She liked the idea of travelling with a pack on one's back, the odd shows at the House of the Interpreter, the fighting, the adventures, the pleasing young ladies at the palace the name of which was Beautiful, and their very interesting museum of curiosities. As for the allegorical meaning, it went through her consciousness like a peck of wheat through a bushel measure with the bottom out, — without touching.
But the very first book she got hold of out of the hidden treasury threw the “ Pilgrim’s Progress ” quite into the shade. It was the story of a youth who ran away and lived on an island,— one Crusoe, — a homely narrative, but evidently true, though full of remarkable adventures. There too was the history, coming much nearer home, of Deborah Sampson, the young woman who served as a soldier in the Revolutionary War, with a portrait of her in man's attire, looking intrepid rather than lovely. A virtuous young female she was, and married well, as she deserved to, and raised a family with as good a name as wife and mother as the best of them. But perhaps not one of these books and stories took such hold of her imagination as the tale of Rasselas, which most young persons find less entertaining than the Vicar of Wakefield, with which it is now-a-days so commonly bound up. It was the prince’s discontent in the Happy Valley, the iron gate opening to the sound of music, and closing forever on those it admitted, the rocky boundaries of the imprisoning valley, the visions of the world beyond, the projects of escape, and the long toil which ended in their accomplishment, which haunted her sleeping and waking. She too was a prisoner, but it was not in the Happy Valley. Of the romances and the love-letters we must take it for granted that she selected wisely, and read discreetly ; at least we know nothing to the contrary.
There were mysterious reminiscences and hints of her past coming over her constantly. It was in the course of the long, weary spring before her disappearance, that a dangerous chord was struck which added to her growing restlessness. In an old closet were some seashells and coral-fans, and dried starfishes and sea-horses, and a natural mummy of a rough-skinned dog-fish. She had not thought of them for years, but now she felt impelled to look after them. The dim sea-odors which still clung to them penetrated to the very inmost haunts of memory, and called up that longing for the ocean breeze which those who have once breathed and salted their blood with it never get over, and which makes the sweetest inland airs seem to them at last tame and tasteless. She held a tiger-shell to her ear, and listened to that low, sleepy murmur, whether in the sense or in the soul we hardly know, like that which had so often been her lullaby,—a memory of the sea, as Landor and Wordsworth have sung.
“ You are getting to look like your father,” Aunt Silence said one day ; “ I never saw it before. I always thought you took after old Major Gideon Withers. Well, I hope you won't come to an early grave like poor Charles, — or, at any rate, that you may be prepared.”
It did not seem very likely that the girl was going out of the world at present, but she looked Miss Silence in the face very seriously, and said, “ Why not an early grave, aunt, if this world is such a bad place as you say it is ? ”
“ I am afraid you are not fit for a better.”
She wondered if Silence Withers and Cynthia Badlam were just ripe for heaven.
For some months Miss Cynthia Badlam, who, as was said, had been an habitual visitor at The Poplars, had lived there as a permanent resident. Between her and Silence Withers, Myrtle Hazard found no rest for her soul. Each of them was for untwisting the morning-glory without waiting for the sunshine to do it. Each had her own wrenches and pincers to use for that purpose. All this promised little for the nurture and admonition of the young girl, who, if her will could not be broken by imprisonment and starvation at three years old, was not likely to be over-tractable to any but gentle and reasonable treatment at fifteen.
Aunt Silence’s engine was responsibility, — her own responsibility, and the dreadful consequences which would follow to her, Silence, if Myrtle should in any way go wrong. Ever since her failure in that moral coup d'état by which the simple dynasty of the natural self-determining power was to be dethroned, her attempts in the way of education had been a series of feeble efforts followed by plaintive wails over their utter want of success. The face she turned upon the young girl in her solemn expostulations looked as if it were inscribed with the epitaphs of hope and virtue. Her utterances were pitched in such a forlorn tone, that the little bird in his cage, who always began twittering at the sound of Myrtle’s voice, would stop in his song, and cock his head with a look of inquiry full of pathos, as if he wanted to know what was the matter, and whether he could do anything to help.
The specialty of Cynthia Badlam was to point out all the dangerous and unpardonable transgressions into which young people generally, and this young person in particular, were likely to run, to hold up examples of those who had fallen into evil ways and come to an evil end, to present the most exalted standard of ascetic virtue to the lively girl’s apprehension, leading her naturally to the conclusion that a bright example of excellence stood before her in the irreproachable relative who addressed her. Especially with regard to the allurements which the world offers to the young and inexperienced female, Miss Cynthia Badlam was severe and eloquent. Sometimes poor Myrtle would stare, not seeing the meaning of her wise caution, sometimes look at Miss Cynthia with a feeling that there was something about her that was false and forced, that she had nothing in common with young people, that she had no pity for them, only hatred of their sins, whatever these might be, — a hatred which seemed to extend to those sources of frequent temptation, youth and beauty, as if they were in themselves objectionable.
Both the lone women at the Poplars were gifted with a thin vein of music. They gave it expression in psalmody, of course, in which Myrtle, who was a natural singer, was expected to bear her part. This would have been pleasanter if the airs most frequently selected had been cheerful or soothing, and if the favorite hymns had been of a sort to inspire a love for what was lovely in this life, and to give some faint foretaste of the harmonies of a better world to come. But there is a fondness for minor keys and wailing cadences common to the monotonous chants of cannibals and savages generally, to such war-songs as the wild, implacable “ Marseillaise,” and to the favorite tunes of low-spirited Christian pessimists. That mournful “ China,” which one of our most agreeable story-tellers has justly singled out as the cry of despair itself, was often sung at The Poplars, sendingsuch a sense of utter misery through the house, that poor Kitty Fagan would cross herself, and wring her hands, and think of funerals, and wonder who was going to die, — for she fancied she heard the Banshee’s warning in those most dismal ululations.
On the first Saturday of June, a fortnight before her disappearance, Myrtle strolled off by the river-shore, along its lonely banks, and came home with her hands full of leaves and blossoms. Silence Withers looked at them as if they were a kind of melancholy manifestation of frivolity on the part of the wicked old earth. Not that she did not inhale their faint fragrance with a certain pleasure, and feel their beauty as none whose souls are not wholly shrivelled and hardened can help doing, but the world was, in her estimate, a vale of tears, and it was only by a momentary forgetfulness that she could be moved to smile at anything.
Miss Cynthia, a sharper-edged woman, had formed the habit of crushing everything for its moral, until it lost its sweetness and grew almost odious, as flower-de-luces do when handled roughly. “There’s a worm in that leaf, Myrtle. He has rolled it all round him, and hidden himself from sight; but there is a horrid worm in it, for all it is so young and fresh. There is a worm in every young soul, Myrtle.”
“ But there is not a worm in every leaf, Miss Cynthia. Look,” she said, "all these are open, and you can see all over and under them, and there is nothing there. Are there never any worms in the leaves after they get old and yellow, Miss Cynthia ?”
That was a pretty fair hit for a simple creature of fifteen, — but perhaps she was not so absolutely simple as one might have thought.
It was on the evening of this same day that they were sitting together. The sweet season was opening, and it seemed as if the whispering of the leaves, the voices of the birds, the softness of the air, the young life stirring in everything, called on all creatures to join the universal chorus of praise that was going up around them.
“ What shall we sing this evening ?” said Miss Silence.
" Give me one of the books, if you please, Cousin Silence,” said Miss Cynthia. “It is Saturday evening. Holy time has begun. Let us prepare our minds for the solemnities of the Sabbath.”
She took the book, one well known to the schools and churches of this nineteenth century.
“ Book Second. Hymn 44. Long metre. I guess ‘ Putney' will be as good a tune as any to sing it to.”
The trio began,—
and got through the first verse together pretty well.
Then came the second verse : —
The land of horror and despair,
Justice has built a dismal hell,
And laid her stores of vengeance there."
Myrtle’s voice trembled a little in singing this verse, and she hardly kept. up her part with proper spirit.
“Sing out, Myrtle,” said Miss Cynthia, and she struck up the third verse: —
Tormenting racks and fiery coals,
And darts t' inflict immortal pains,
Dyed in the blood of damnéd souls.”
This last verse was a duet, and not a trio. Myrtle closed her lips while it was singing, and when it was done threw down the book with a look of anger and disgust. The hunted soul was at bay.
“ I won’t sing such words,” she said, “ and I won’t stay here to hear them sung. The boys in the streets say just such words as that, and I am not going to sing them. You can't scare me into being good with your cruel hymn-book ! ”
She could not swear : she was not a boy. She would not cry; she felt proud, obdurate, scornful, outraged. All these images, borrowed from the Holy Inquisition, were meant to frighten her, and had simply irritated her. The blow of a weapon that glances off, stinging, but not penetrating, only enrages. It was a moment of fearful danger to her character, to her life itself.
Without heeding the cries of the two women, she sprang up stairs to her hanging chamber. She threw open the window and looked down into the stream. For one moment her head swam with the sudden, overwhelming, almost maddening thought that came over her, — the impulse to fling herself headlong into those running waters and dare the worst these dreadful women had threatened her with. Something — she often thought afterwards it was an invisible hand — held her back during that brief moment, and the paroxysm — just such a paroxysm as throws many a young girl Into the Thames or the Seine — passed away. She remained looking, in a misty dream, into the water far below. Its murmur recalled the whisper of the ocean waves. And through the depths it seemed as if she saw into that strange, half-remembered world of palm-trees and white robes and dusky faces, and amidst them, looking upon her with ineffable love and tenderness, until all else faded from her sight, the face of a fair woman,— was it hers, so long, long dead, or that dear young mother’s who was to her less a recollection than a dream ?
Could it have been this vision that soothed her, so that she unclasped her hands and lifted her bowed head as if she had heard a voice whispering to her from that unknown world where she felt there was a spirit watching over her? At any rate, her face was never more serene than when she went to meeting with the two maiden ladies on the following day, Sunday, and heard the Rev. Mr. Stoker preach a sermon from Luke vii. 48, which made both the women shed tears, but especially so excited Miss Cynthia that she was in a kind of half-hysteric condition all the rest of the day.
After that Myrtle was quieter and more docile than ever before. Could it be, Miss Silence thought, that the Rev. Mr. Stoker’s sermon had touched her hard heart ? However that was, she did not once wear the stormy look with which she had often met the complaining remonstrances Miss Silence constantly directed against all the spontaneous movements of the youthful and naturally vivacious subject of her discipline.
June is an uncertain month, as everybody knows, and there were frosts in many parts of New England in the June of 1859. But there were also beautiful days and nights, and the sun was warm enough to be fast ripening the strawberries, — also certain plans which had been in flower some little time. Some preparations had been going on in a quiet way, so that at the right moment a decisive movement could be made. Myrtle knew how to use her needle, and always had a dexterous way of shaping any article of dress or ornament, — a natural gift not very rare, but sometimes very needful, as it was now.
On the morning of the 15th of June she was wandering by the shores of the river, some distance above The Poplars, when a boat came drifting along by her, evidently broken loose from Its fastenings farther up the stream. It was common for such waifs to show themselves after heavyrains had swollen the river. They might have run the gauntlet of nobody could tell how many farms, and perhaps passed by half a dozen towns and villages in the night, so that, if of common, cheap make, they were retained without scruple, by any who might find them, until the owner called for them, if he cared to take the trouble.
Myrtle took a knife from her pocket, cut down a long, slender sapling, and coaxed the boat to the side of the bank. A pair of old oars lay in the bottom of the boat; she took one of these and paddled it into a little cove, where it could lie hid among the thick alders. Then she went home and busied herself about various little matters more interesting to her than to us.
She was never more amiable and gracious than on this day. But she looked often at the clock, as they remembered afterwards, and studied over a copy of the Farmer’s Almanac which was lying in the kitchen with a somewhat singular interest. The days were nearly at their longest, the weather was mild, the night promised to be clear and bright.
The household was, to all appearance, asleep at the usual early hour. When all seemed quiet, Myrtle lighted her lamp, stood before her mirror, and untied the string that bound her long and beautiful dark hair, which fell in its abundance over her shoulders and below her girdle.
She lifted its heavy masses with one hand, and severed it with a strong pair of scissors, with remorseless exaction of every wandering curl, until she stood so changed by the loss of that outward glory of her womanhood, that she felt as if she had lost herself and found a brother she had never seen before.
“ Good by, Myrtle ! ” she said, and, opening her window very gently, she flung the shining tresses upon the running water, and watched them for a few moments as they floated down the stream. Then she dressed herself in the character of her imaginary brother, took up the carpet-bag in which she had placed what she chose to carry with her, stole softly down stairs, and let herself out of a window on the lower door, shutting it very carefully so as to be sure that nobody should be disturbed.
She glided along, looking all about her, fearing she might be seen by some curious wanderer, and reached the cove where the boat she had concealed was lying. She got into it, and, taking the rude oars, pulled herself into the middle of the swollen stream. Her heart beat so that it seemed to her as if she could hear it between the strokes of the oar. The lights were not all out in the village, and she trembled lest she should see the figure of some watcher looking from the windows in sight of which she would have to pass, and that a glimpse of this boat stealing along at so late an hour might give the clew to the secret of her disappearance, with which the whole region was to be busied in the course of the next day.
Presently she came abreast of The Poplars. The house lay so still, so peaceful, — it would wake to such dismay ! The boat slid along beneath her own overhanging chamber.
“ No song to-morrow from the Firehang-bird's Nest!” she said. So she floated by the slumbering village, the flow of the river carrying her steadily on, and the careful strokes of the oars adding swiftness to her flight.
At last she came to the “ Broad Meadows,” and knew that she was alone, and felt confident that she had got away unseen. There was nothing, absolutely nothing, to point out which way she had gone. Her boat came from nobody knew where, her disguise had been got together at different times in such a manner as to lead to no suspicion, and not a human being ever had the slightest hint that she had planned and meant to carry out the enterprise which she had now so fortunately begun.
Not till the last straggling house had been long past, not till the meadows were stretched out behind her as well as before her, spreading far off into the distance on each side, did she give way to the sense of wild exultation which was coming fast over her. But then, at last, she drew a long, long breath, and, standing up in the boat, looked all around her. The stars were shining over her head and deep down beneath her. The cool wind came fresh upon her check over the long grassy reaches. No living thing moved in all the wide level circle which lay about her. She had passed the Red Sea, and was alone in the Desert.
She threw down her oars, lifted her hands like a priestess, and her strong, sweet voice burst into song, — the song of the Jewish maiden when she went out before the chorus of women and sang that grand solo, which we all remember in its ancient words, and in their modern paraphrase, —
Jehovah hath triumphed, his people are free ! ”
The poor child’s repertory was limited to songs of the religious sort mainly, but there was a choice among these. Her aunt’s favorites, beside “ China,” already mentioned, were “Bangor,” which the worthy old New England clergyman so admired that he actually had the down-east city called after it, and “Windsor,” and “Funeral Hymn.” But Myrtle was in no mood for these. She let off her ecstasy in “Ballerina,” and “Arlington,” and “ Silver Street,” and at last in that most bacchant of devotional hymns, which sounds as if it had been composed by a saint who had a cellar under his chapel, — “Jordan.” So she let her wild spirits run loose ; and then a tenderer feeling stole over her, and she sang herself into a more tranquil mood with the gentle music of “ Dundee.” And again she pulled quietly and steadily at her oars, until she reached the wooded region through which the river winds after leaving the “Broad Meadows.”
The tumult in her blood was calmed, yet every sense and faculty was awake to the manifold delicious, mysterious impressions of that wonderful June night. The stars were shining between the tall trees, as if all the jewels of heaven had been set in one belt of midnight sky. The voices of the wind, as they sighed through the pines, seemed like the breath of a sleeping child, and then, as they lisped from the soft, tender leaves of beeches and maples, like the half-articulate whisper of the mother hushing all the intrusive sounds that might awaken it. Then came the pulsating monotone of the frogs from a faroff pool, the harsh cry of an owl from an old tree that overhung it, the splash of a mink or musquash, and, nearer by, the light step of a woodchuck, as he cantered off in his quiet way to his hole in the nearest bank. The laurels were just coming into bloom, — the yellow lilies, earlier than their fairer sisters, pushing their golden cups through the water, not content, like those, to float on the surface of the stream that fed them, — emblems of showy wealth, and, like that, drawing all manner of insects to feed upon them. The miniature forests of ferns came down to the edge of the stream, their tall, bending plumes swaying in the night breeze. Sweet odors from oozing pines, from dewy flowers, from spicy leaves, stole out of the tangled thickets, and made the whole scene more dream-like with their faint, mingled suggestions.
By and by the banks of the river grew lower and marshy, and in place of the larger forest-trees which had covered them stood slender tamaracks, sickly, mossy, looking as if they had been moon-struck and were out of their wits, their tufts of leaves staring off every way from their spindling branches. The winds came cool and damp out of the hiding-places among their dark recesses. The country people about here called this region the "Witches' Hollow,” and had many stories about the strange things that happened there. The Indians used to hold their “powwows,” or magical incantations, upon a broad mound which rose out of the common level, and where some old hemlocks and beeches formed a dark grove, which served them as a temple for their demon-worship. There were many legends of more recent date connected with this spot, some of them hard to account for, and no superstitious or highly imaginative person would have cared to pass through it alone in the dead of the night, as this young girl was doing.
She knew nothing of all these fables and fancies. Her own singular experiences in this enchanted region were certainly not suggested by anything she had heard, and may be considered psychologically curious by those who would not think of attributing any mystical meaning to them. We are at liberty to report many things without attempting to explain them, or committing ourselves to anything beyond the fact that so they were told us. [The reader will find Myrtle’s “Vision," as written out at a later period from her recollections, at the end of this chapter. ]
The night was passing, and she meant to be as far away as possible from the village she had left, beforemorning. But the boat, like all craft on country rivers, was leaky, and she had to work until tired, bailing it out, before she was ready for another long effort. The old tin measure, which was all she had to bail with, leaked as badly as the boat, and her task was a tedious one. At last she got it in good trim, and sat down to her oars with the determination to pull steadily as long as her strength would hold out.
Hour after hour she kept at her work, sweeping round the long bends where the river was hollowing out one bank and building new shore on the opposite one. so as gradually to shift its channel; by clipper-shaped islands, sharp at the bows looking up stream, sharp too at the stern, looking down, — their shape solving the navigators problem of least resistance, as a certain young artist had pointed out ; by slumbering villages : by outlying farmhouses ; between cornfields where the young plants were springing up in little thready fountains ; in the midst of stumps where the forest had just been felled ; through patches where the fire of the last great autumnal drought had turned all the green beauty of the woods into brown desolation ; and again amidst broad expanses of open meadow stretching as far as the eye could reach in the uncertain light. A faint yellow tinge was beginning to stain the eastern horizon. Her boat was floating quietly along, for she had at last taken in her oars, and she was now almost tired out with toil and excitement. She rested her head upon her hands, and felt her eyelids closing in spite of herself. And now there stole upon her ear a low, gentle, distant murmur, so soft that it seemed almost to mingle with the sound of her own breathing, but so steady, so uniform, that it soothed her to sleep, as if it were the old cradlesong the ocean used to sing to her, or the lullaby of her fair young mother.
So she glided along slowly, slowly, down the course of the winding river, and the flushing dawn kindled around her as she slumbered, and the low, gentle murmur grew louder and louder, but still she slept, dreaming of the murmuring ocean.
APPENDIX TO CHAPTER VIII.
MYRTLE HAZARD'S STATEMENT.
" A VISION seen by me, Myrtle Hazard, aged fifteen, on the night of June 15, 1859. Written out at the request of a friend from my recollections.
“The place where I saw these sights is called, as I have been told since, Witches’ Hollow. I had never been there before, and did not know that it was called so, or anything about it.
" The first strange thing that I noticed was on coming near a kind of hill or mound that rose out of the low meadows. I saw a burning cross lying on the slope of that mound. It burned with a pale greenish light, and did not waste, though 1 watched it for a long time, as the boat I was in moved slowly with the current and I had stopped rowing.
" I know that my eyes were open, and l was awake while I was looking at this cross. I think my eyes were open when I saw these other appearances, but I felt just as if I were dreaming while awake.
" I heard a faint rustling sound, and on looking up I saw many figures moving around me, and I seemed to see myself among them as if I were outside of myself.
" The figures did not walk, but slid or glided with an even movement, as if without any effort. They made many gestures, and seemed to speak, but I cannot tell whether I heard what they said, or knew its meaning in some other way.
" I knew the faces of some of these figures. They were the same I have seen in portraits, as long as I can remember, at the old house where I was brought up, called The Poplars. I saw my father and my mother as they look in the two small pictures ; also my grandmother, and her father and mother and grandfather, and one other person, who lived a great while ago. All of these have been long dead, and the longer they had been dead the less like substance they looked and the more like shadows, so that the oldest was like one’s breath of a frosty morning, but shaped like the living figure.
“ There was no motion of their breasts, and their lips seemed to be moving as if they were saying, Breath ! Breath ! Breath ! I thought they wanted to breathe the air of this world again in my shape, which I seemed to see as it were empty of myself and of these other selves, like a sponge that has water pressed out of it.
“ Presently it seemed to me that I returned to myself, and then those others became part of me by being taken up, one by one, and so lost in my own life.
“My father and mother came up, hand in hand, looking more real than any of the rest. Their figures vanished, and they seemed to have become a part of me ; for I felt all at once the longing to live over the life they had led, on the sea and in strange countries.
“ Another figure was just like the one we called the Major, who was a very strong, hearty-looking man, and who is said to have drank hard sometimes, though there is nothing about it on his tombstone, which I used to read in the graveyard. It seemed to me that there was something about his life that I did not want to make a part of mine, but that there was some right he had in me through my being of his blood, and so his health and his strength went all through me, and I was always to have what was left of his life in that shadow-like shape, forming a portion of mine.
“ So in the same way with the shape answering to the portrait of that famous beauty who was the wife of my greatgrandfather, and used to be called the Pride of the County.
“ And so too with another figure which had the face of that portrait marked on the back, Ruth Bradford who married one of my ancestors, and was before the court as I have heard in the time of the witchcraft trials.
“ There was with the rest a dark, wild-looking woman, with a head-dress of feathers. She kept as it were in shadow, but I saw something of my own features in her face.
“It was on my mind very strongly that the shape of that woman of our blood who was burned long ago by the Papists came very close to me, and was in some way made one with mine, and that I feel her presence with me since, as if she lived again in me ; but not always, — only at times, — and then I feel borne up as if I could do anything in the world. I had a feeling as if she were my guardian and protector.
“It seems to me that these, and more, whom I have not mentioned, do really live over some part of their past lives in my life. I do not understand it all, and perhaps it can be accounted for in some way I have not thought of. I write it down as nearly as I can give it from memory, by request, and if it is printed at this time had rather have all the real names withheld.
“ MYRTLE HAZARD.”
NOTE BY THE FRIEND.
“This statement must be accounted for in some way, or pass into the category of the supernatural. Probably it was one of those intuitions, with objective projection, which sometimes come to imaginative young persons, especially girls, in certain exalted nervous conditions. The study of the portraits, with the knowledge of some parts of the history of the persons they represented, and the consciousness of instincts inherited in all probability from these same ancestors, formed the basis of Myrtle’s ‘ Vision.’ The lives of our progenitors are, as we know, reproduced in different proportions in ourselves. Whether they as individuals have any consciousness of it, is another matter. It is possible that they do get a second as it were fractional life in us. It might seem that many of those whose blood flows in our veins struggle for the mastery, and by and by one or more get the predominance, so that we grow to be like father, or mother, or remoter ancestor, or two or more are blended in us, not to the exclusion, however, it must be understood, of a special personality of our own, about which these others are grouped. Independently of any possible scientific value, this ' Vision ’ serves to illustrate the above-mentioned fact of common experience, which is not sufficiently weighed by most moralists.
“How much it may be granted to certain young persons to see, not in virtue of their intellectual gifts, but through those direct channels which worldly wisdom may possibly close to the luminous influx, each reader must determine for himself by his own standards of faith and evidence.
“ One statement of the narrative admits of a simple natural explanation, which does not allow the lovers of the marvellous to class it with the quasi miraculous appearance seen by Colonel Gardiner, and given in full by Dr. Doddridge in his Life of that remarkable Christian soldier. Decaying wood is often phosphorescent, as many readers must have seen for themselves. The country people are familiar with the sight of it in wild timber-land, and have given it the name of ‘Fox-fire.’ Two trunks of trees in this state, lying across each other, will account for the fact observed, and vindicate the truth of the young girl’s story without requiring us to suppose any exceptional occurrence outside of natural laws.”
MR. CLEMENT LINDSAY RECEIVES A LETTER, AND BEGINS HIS ANSWER.
IT was already morning when a young man living in the town of Alderbank, after lying awake for an hour thinking the unutterable thoughts that nineteen years of life bring to the sleeping and waking dreams of young people, rose from his bed, and, half dressing himself, sat down at his desk, from which be took a letter, which he opened and read. It was written in a delicate, though hardly formed female hand, and crossed like a checker-board, as is usual with these redundant manuscripts. The letter was as follows : —
“OXBOW VILLAGE, June 13, 1859,
“ MY DEAREST CLEMENT, — You was so good to write me such a sweet little bit of a letter, — only, dear, you never seem to be in quite so good spirits as you used to be. I wish your Susie was with you to cheer you up ; but no, she must be patient, and you must be patient too, for you are so ambitious ! I have heard you say so many times that nobody could be a great artist without passing years and years at work, and growing pale and lean with thinking so hard. You won't grow pale and lean, I hope ; for I do so love to see that pretty color in your cheeks you have always had ever since I have known you ; and besides, I do not believe you will have to work so very hard to do something great, — you have so much genius, and people of genius do such beautiful things with so little trouble. You remember those beautiful lines out of our newspaper I sent you ? Well, Mr. Hopkins told me he wrote those lines in one evening without stopping! I wish you could see Mr. Hopkins — he is a very talented person. I cut out this little piece about him from the paper on purpose to show you,—for genius loves genius, — and you would like to hear him read his own poetry — he reads it beautifully. Please send this piece from the paper back, as I want to put it in my scrap-book, under his autograph : —
" ' Our young townsman. Mr. Gifted Ilopkins, has proved himself worthy of the name he bears. His poetical effusions are equally creditable to his head and his heart, displaying the highest order of genius and powers of imagination and fancy hardly second, to any writer of the age. He is destined to make a great sensation in the world of letters.’
" Mrs. Hopkins is the same good soul she always was. She is very proud of her son, as is natural, and keeps a copy of everything he writes. I believe she cries over them every time she reads them. You don’t know how I take to little Sossy and Minthy, those two twins I have written to you about before. Poor little creatures, — what a cruel thing it was in their father and mother not to take care of them ! What do you think ? Old bachelor Gridley lets them come up into his room, and builds forts and castles for them with his big books ! " The world’s coming
to an end,’ Mrs. Hopkins said the first time he did so. He looks so savage with that scowl of his, and talks so gruff when he is scolding at things in general, that nobody would have believed he would have let such little things come anywhere near him. But he seems to be growing kind to all of us and everybody. I saw him talking to the Firehang-bird the other day. You know who the Fire-hang-bird is, don’t you ? Myrtle Hazard her name is. I wish you could see her. I don’t know as I do, though. You would want to make a statue of her, or a painting, I know. She is so handsome that all the young men stand round to see her come out of meeting. Some say that Lawyer Bradshaw is after her ; but my! he is ten years older than she is. She is nothing but a girl, though she looks as if she was eighteen. She lives up at a place called The Poplars, with an old woman that is her aunt or something, and nobody seems to be much acquainted with her except Olive Eveleth, who is the minister’s daughter at Saint Bartholomew’s Church. She never has beauxs round her, as some young girls do — they say that she is not happy with her aunt and another woman that stays with her, and that is the reason she keeps so much to herself. The minister came to see me the other day, — Mr. Stoker his name is. I was all alone, and it frightened me, for he looks, O, so solemn on Sundays ! But he called me ' My dear,’ and did n’t say anything horrid, you know, about my being such a dreadful, dreadful sinner, as I have heard of his saying to some people — but he looked very kindly at me, and took my hand, and laid his hand on my shoulder like a brother, and hoped I would come and see him in his study. I suppose I must go. but I don't want to. I don’t seem to like him exactly.
" I hope you love me as well as ever you did. I can’t help feeling sometimes as if you was growing away from me, — you know what 1 mean, — getting to be too great a person for such a small person as I am. I know I can’t always understand you when you tall: about art, and that you know a great deal too much for such a simple girl as I am. O, if I thought I could never make you happy ! . . . . There, now! I am almost ashamed to send this paper, so spotted. — Gifted Hopkins wrote some beautiful verses one day on 'A Maiden Weeping.' He compared the tears falling from her eyes to the drops of dew which one often sees upon the flowers in the morning. Is n’t it a pretty thought ?
“ I wish I loved art as well as I do poetry ; but I am afraid I have not so much taste as some girls have. You remember how I liked that picture in the illustrated magazine, and you said it was horrid. I have been afraid since to like almost anything, for fear you should tell me some time or other it was horn'd. Don’t you think I shall ever learn to know what is nice from what is n’t?
O, dear Clement, I wish you would do one thing to please me. Don’t say no, for you can do everything you try to,— I am sure you can. I want you to write me some poetry, — just three or four little verses To SUSIE. O, I should feel so proud to have some lines written all on purpose for me. Mr. Hopkins wrote some the other day, and printed them in the paper,' To M——e.’ I believe he meant them for Myrtle,— the first and last letter of her name, you see, ' M ’ and ' e.’
“Your letter was a dear one, only so short! I wish you would tell me all about what you are doing at Alderbank. Have you made that model of Innocence that is to have my forehead, and hair parted like mine ? Make it pretty, do, that is a darling.
" Now don’t make a face at my letter. It is n’t a very good one, I know ; but vour poor little Susie does the best she can, and she loves you so much !
" Now do be nice and write me one little bit of a mite of a poem, — it will make me just as happy!
“ I am very well, and as happy as I can be when you are away.
" Your affectionate
Directed to MI-. Clement Liudsny, Alderbank.)
The envelope of this letter was unbroken, as was before said. when the young man took it from his desk. He did not tear it with the hot impatience of some lovers, but cut it open neatly, slowly, one would say sadly. He read it with an air of singular effort, and yet with a certain tenderness. When he had finished it, the drops were thick on his forehead; he groaned and put his hands to his face, which was burning red.
This was what the impulse of boyhood, years ago, had brought him to ! He was a stately youth, of noble bearing, of high purpose, of fastidious taste ; and, if his broad forehead, his clear, large blue eyes, his commanding features, his lips, firm, yet plastic to every change of thought and feeling, were not an empty mask, might not improbably claim that Promethean quality of which the girl's, letter had spoken,—the strange, divine, dread gift of genius.
This poor, simple, innocent, trusting creature, so utterly incapable of coming into any true relation with his aspirinmind, his large and strong emotions, — this mere child, all simplicity and goodness, but trivial and shallow as the little babbling brooklet that ran by his window to the river, to lose its insignificant being in the swift torrent he heard rushing; over the rocks,— this pretty idol 1or a weak and kindly and easily satisfied worshipper, was to be enthroned as the queen of his affections, to be adopted as the companion of his labors ! The boy, led by the commonest instinct, the mere attraction of biped to its female, which accident had favored, had thrown away the dearest possession of manhood, — liberty,— and this bawble was to be his life-long reward ! And yet not a bawble either, for a pleasing person and a gentle and sweet nature, which had once made her seem to him the very paragon of loveliness, were still hers. Alas ! her simple words were true,— he had grown away from her. Her only fault was that she had not grown with him, and surely he could not reproach her with that.
"No,” he said to himself, “ I will never leave her so long as her heart clings to me. I have been rash, but she shall not pay the forfeit. And if I may think of myself, my life need not be wretched because she cannot share all my being with me. The common human qualities are more than all exceptional gifts. She has a woman’s heart; and what talent of mine is to be named by the love a true woman can offer in exchange for these divided and cold affections ? If it had pleased God to mate me with one more equal in other ways, who could share my thoughts, who could kindle my inspiration, who had wings to rise into the air with me as well as feet to creep by my side upon the earth, — what cannot such a woman do for a man !
" What! cast away the flower I took in the bud because it does not show as I hoped it would when it opened? I will stand by my word ; I will be all as a man that I promised as a boy. Thank God, she is true and pure and sweet. My nest will be a peaceful one ; but I must take wing alone, — alone.”
He drew one long sigh, and the cloud passed from his countenance. He must answer that letter now, — at once. There were reasons, he thought, which made it important. And so, with the cheerfulness which it was kind and becoming to show, so far as possible, and yet with a little excitement on one particular point, which was the cause of his writing so promptly, he began his answer.
June 16, 1859.
“ MY DEAR Susie,—I have just been reading your pleasant letter; and if I do not send you the poem you ask for so eloquently, I will give you a little bit of advice, which will do just as well, — won’t it, my dear ? I was interested in your account of various things going on at Oxbow Village. I am very glad you find young Mr. Hopkins so agreeable a friend. His poetry is better than some which I see printed in the village papers, and seems generally unexceptionable in its subjects and tone. I do not believe he is a dangerous companion, though the habit of writing verse does not always improve the character. I think I have seen it make more than one of my acquaintances idle, conceited, sentimental, and frivolous, — perhaps it found them so already. Don’t make too much of his talent, and particularly don’t let him think that because he can write verses he has nothing else to do in this world. That is for his benefit, dear, and you must skilfully apply it.
“ Now about yourself. My dear Susie, there was something in your letter that did not please me. You speak of a visit from the Rev. Mr. Stoker, and of his kind, brotherly treatment, his cordiality of behavior, and his asking you to visit him in his study. I am very glad to hear you say that you ‘don’t seem to like him.’ He is very familiar, it seems to me, for so new an acquaintance. What business had he to be laying his hand on your shoulder ? I should like to see him try these free-and-easy ways in my presence ! He would not have taken that liberty, my dear ! No, he was alone with you. and thought it safe to be disrespectfully familiar. I want you to maintain your dignity always with such persons, and I beg you not to go to the study of this clergyman, unless some older friend goes with you on every occasion, and sits through the visit. I must speak plainly to you, my dear, as I have a right to. If the minister has anything of importance to say, let it come through the lips of some mature person. It may lose something of the fervor with which it would have been delivered at first hand, but the great rules of Christian life are not so dependent on the particular individual who speaks them, that you must go to this or that young man to find out what they are. If to any man, I should prefer the old gentleman whom you have mentioned in your letters, Father Pemberton. You understand me, my dear girl, and the subject is not grateful. You know how truly I am interested in all that relates to you,—that I regard you with an affection which —”
HELP! HELP! HELP!
A cry as of a young person’s voice was heard faintly, coming from the direction of the river. Something in the tone of it struck to his heart, and he sprang as if he had been stabbed. He flung open his chamber window and leaped from it to the ground. He ran straight to the bank of the river by the side of which the village of Alderbank was built, a little farther down the stream than the house in which he was living.
Everybody that travels in that region knows the beautiful falls which break the course of the river just above that village ; narrow and swift, and surrounded by rocks of such picturesque forms that they are sought and admired by tourists. The stream was now swollen, and rushed in a deep and rapid current over the ledges, through the rocky straits, plunging at last in tumult and foam, with loud, continuous roar, into the depths below the cliff from which it tumbled.
A short distance above the foil there projected from the water a rock which had, by parsimonious saving during a long course of years, hoarded a little soil, out of which a small tuft of bushes struggled to support a decent vegetable existence. The high waters had nearly submerged it, but a few slender twigs were seen above their surface.
A skiff was lying close to this rock, between it and the brink of the fall, which was but a few rods farther down. In the skiff was a youth of fourteen or fifteen years, holding by the slender twigs, the boat dragging at them all the time, and threatening to tear them away and go over the fall. It was not likely that the boy would come to shore alive if it did. There were stories, it is true, that the Indians used to shoot the fall in their canoes with safety ; but everybody knew that at least three persons had been lost by going over it since the town was settled ; and more than one dead body had been found floating far down the river, with bruises and fractured bones, as if it had taken the same fatal plunge.
There was no time to lose. Clement ran a little way up the river-bank, flung off his shoes, and sprang from the bank as far as he could leap into the water. The current swept him toward the fall, but he worked nearer and nearer the middle of the stream. He was making for the rock, thinking be could plant his feet upon it and at the worst hold the boat until he could summon other help by shouting. He had barely got his feet upon the rock, when the twigs by which the boy was holding gave way. He seized the boat, but it dragged him from his uncertain footing, and with a desperate effort he clambered over its side, and found himself its second doomed passenger.
There was but an instant for thought.
“Sit still,” he said, “and, just as we go over, put your arms round me under mine, and don’t let go for your life! ”
He caught up the single oar, and with a few sharp paddle-strokes brought the skiff into the blackest centre of the current, where it was deepest, and would plunge them into the deepest pool.
“ Hold your breath ! God save us ! Now ! ”
They rose, as if with one will, and stood for an instant, the arms of the younger closely embracing the other as he had directed.
A sliding away from beneath them of the floor on which they stood, as the drop fails under the feet of a felon. A great rush of air, and a mighty, awful, stunning roar, — an involuntary gasp, a choking flood of water that came bellowing after them, and hammered them down into the black depths so far that the young man, well used to diving and swimming long distances under water, had wellnigh yielded to the fearful need of air, and sucked in his death in so doing.
The boat came up to the surface, broken in twain, splintered, a load of firewood for those who raked the river lower down. It had turned crosswise and struck the rocks. A cap rose to the surface, such a one as boys wear, — the same that boy had on. And then — after how many seconds by the watch cannot be known, but after a time long enough, as the young man remembered it, to live his whole life over in memory — Clement Lindsay felt the blessed air against his face, and, taking a great breath, came to his full consciousness. The arms of the boy were still locked around him as in the embrace of death. A few strokes brought him to the shore, dragging his senseless burden with him.
He unclasped the arms that held him so closely encircled, and laid the slender form of the youth he had almost died to save gently upon the grass. It was as if dead. He loosed the ribbon that was round the neck, he tore open the checked shirt —
The story of Myrtle Hazard's sex was told ; but she was deaf to his cry of surprise, and no blush came to her cold cheek. Not too late, perhaps, to save her, —not too late to try to save her, at least !
He placed his lips to hers, and filled her breast with the air from his own panting chest. Again and again he renewed these efforts, hoping, doubting, despairing, — once more hoping, and at last, when he had almost ceased to hope, she gasped, she breathed, she moaned, and rolled her eyes wildly round her, — she was born again into this mortal life.
He caught her up in his arms, bore her to the house, laid her on a sofa, and, having spent his strength in this last effort, reeled and fell, and lay as one over whom have just been whispered the words, “ He is gone.”