The hero of the startling occurrences about to be narrated was the late Dr. Noah Stone of Guildford, Conn., father of David M. Stone, the editor and proprietor of the New York Journal of Commerce. The facts themselves, — which, by the way, need no embellishment, — are distinctly remembered by a few persons yet living, and may well make one pause before answering the question whether the astrologers of the Middle Ages were wholly empirical.
When Dr. Stone was in his twelfth year he obtained by chance some old volumes on astrology written by Albubater, Jason Pratensis, and Paracelsus; and, being a studious and somewhat reticent and pensive lad, he spent much of his time in poring over those works after the family had retired, frequently seeking his pillow only when the dawn had ushered in the morning. Nor was it long before he had become quite an adept in the “black art,” having, among other things, discovered that his pensiveness had arisen from the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter in Litra at the time of his birth; while his melancholy was occasioned by the meeting of Saturn and the moon in Scorpio. At this time, also, his little chamber was filled with various figures, imperfect and somewhat rudely drawn it is true, with phrases and scraps of writing such as, “Lord of the geniture,” “The quartile aspects of Saturn and Mars,” the one culminating, and the other in the fourth house, — “eclipses and earthquakes,” — the present conjunction or opposition in Sagittary or Pisces, of the sun and moon, “if the moon be in conjunction or opposition, at the birth-time, with the Sun, Saturn, or Mars, many diseases follow,” etc. In short, however few the pupil’s years or limited the number of his books and his times and chances of study, it was quite apparent that the curious boy had been in good earnest looking upon the heavens “as a great book, whose letters are the stars, wherein are written many strange things for such as can read.”
It happened about this time that a neighbor of his father, a very worthy man in humble circumstances, by the name of Crowfoot, had the misfortune to lose his cow, a remarkably fine animal, which, by a bountiful supply of milk, contributed largely toward the support of a numerous family of children. Having been turned out to graze upon the extensive common lands between the Tunxis and Simsbury mines, crummie had strayed away and disappeared, to the no small concern of the owner, and the still greater inconvenience of the dependent children. Isaac Crowfoot was himself as meek as Moses; but his wife was a sort of Job’s comforter, and this circumstance had no tendency to mitigate the domestic calamity. Several days of fruitless search had been spent, and no tidings obtained of the cow, which had never before failed of coming home at sunset. And at each successive luckless return of the husband he was fated to encounter the sharp reproof of the spouse for the faithlessness of his search after the absconding quadruped. One evening as Uncle Isaac—for thus he was familiarly called—was returning in a gloomy and desponding mood from a fruitless search, in passing the house of young Stone, the latter accosted him as follows: —
“Why, Uncle Isaac, haven’t you found old brindle yet?”
“No, I guess not,” replied Uncle Isaac. “I’ve bin a hunting all day, and haive walked afoot clean from here down to Poguonnuck, and then up to the Turkey Hills and back ag’in, and hain’t hearn nothing on the plaguy varmint.”
“Have you been up the river to Farmington, and over the mountain to West Hartford, Uncle Isaac?”
“Why, I calculate I haive. I went eenymost round the mountain on Thursday, and I reckon she’s bin stole. It’s a desput loss to a poor man like me, though if I was as rich as your daddy, I shouldn’t think nothing on’t, for’t I know. The old woman will take on so when she sees me to-night without the cow, for the children has bin crying their eyes out for milk ever sin’ Sabba’ day.”
Young Stone was a compassionate lad; and the reference of Uncle Isaac to the wants of his children instantly enlisted his sympathies in their behalf. Accordingly, as Uncle Isaac was departing from the gate, the boy caught his sleeve quickly, as though a thought had suddenly struck him, and said: “I say, Uncle Isaac, I’ll cast a figure to-night, and tell you where old brindle has been hiding herself, if you will come along this way in the morning.”
Uncle Isaac knew little of what was meant by “casting a figure,” yet he said he “should be terrible glad if he could find out where the darned critter was, for he’d be blamed if he hadn’t trampoosed about until his shoes looked an awful sight worse, than those of them ’ere sinful Gibeonites, when they played such a cute trick upon Jin’ral Joshua.” This was an unwonted attempt at pleasantry on the part of Uncle Isaac, and he thereupon got himself to his own house.
It was remarked the next morning by the family, when young Stone came down to prayers, that his countenance was exceedingly pale; and he appeared like one who had been deprived of his sleep. His manner was disturbed and restless, and his mother, with much solicitude, made divers inquiries respecting his health, which he satisfied as best he could.
Shortly after breakfast Uncle Isaac appeared trudging up the road, and was met by the young seer with, “I’m afraid I have done something wrong, but I can tell you where old brindle is; that is, if I have worked it—I mean if I have guessed right.”
“You hain’t seen her, I conclude, have you?” replied Crowfoot, his features lighting up with joy.
“No,” replied the youth; “but if I can guess right, old brindle is seven miles off, about in the middle of the oak plains yonder. She has caught her horns in the bushes, close to the ledge of rocks on the west side of the round hill, and can’t get away; and what’s more, she is nearly starved.”
“Like enough,” said Uncle Isaac; “but I guess you’re a’most a witch to find all that out, if somebody hain’t tell’d ye on’t. I shall be awful glad an’ no mistake to find her ag’in. I’ll go straight off. Let’s see, the road up toward Newgate’ll be the nighest, I reckon. I was plaguy feared that some of them ere fellows, jest out of the mines there, had stole her. The Guvner pardons tew many of them consarned rascals.”
“Now don’t be too certain,” responded the youth, as Uncle Isaac moved forward with renewed energy and confidence; “it’s guess-work, after all, and I shall be glad if it don’t come to pass, he added, in an undertone; I’d rather give him pa’s best cow than—but never mind; I don’t believe a word of it myself.”
Old Isaac, however, nothing doubting, pursued his way, and penetrated the thick underbrush of shrub-oaks, until he reached the place that had been indicated by the lad.
Sure enough crummie was there, entangled by the horns, and in the sorry, half-starved condition which the boy had foretold!
The youthful diviner awaited the return of Isaac with more anxiety than he had ever before felt; and a shuddering sensation crept over him when, toward evening, he saw the old brindled favorite, in an emaciated and pitiful plight, wending her way slowly homeward, followed by Crowfoot in person. Joining the poor man as quickly as possible, Stone learned all the circumstances of the finding, and at the end of their conference implored Uncle Isaac to say nothing about the matter, protesting that it was all guess-work, a mere accident, as he felt confident in his own mind it must be. But if the good man could have kept the secret, his spouse could do no such thing; and the incident was consequently noised abroad, greatly to the annoyance of the lad, and without being diminished by repetition, until shortly reports of no slight magnitude and equivocal complexion found their way to his parents.
The investigation that grew out of this incident brought to light his midnight vigils, in which the parents readily discovered the cause of their son’s ill health; for by this time his constitution, never vigorous, had begun apparently to yield. His cheeks had become unusually pale, and his flesh seemed to be wasting by degrees away. Indeed, the lad admitted that, whether it was the want of sleep or that “virtue had gone out of him,” he never passed a night in “casting a figure,” without experiencing a prostration and loss of nervous force, — the same loss of vital force, undoubtedly, that modern trance-mediums feel after one of their séances. Accordingly, he was requested by his parents to discontinue his astrological studies; while, at the same time, in the hope that a change of air would be beneficial, he was sent to the parish of Applebury, a beautiful country town on the Long Island coast, where he was to continue his classical studies under the direction of the late reverend and venerable Dr. Elliott, a clergyman distinguished alike for his scholarly attainments and his piety.
But the story of Isaac Crowfoot, and the singular finding of his truant cow, followed the lad to Applebury; and before he had reached his sixteenth year he had occasion to make additional trials of his skill, his extreme reluctance to do which was overcome only by the most persevering entreaties.
It happened that in the regular course of his business as a West India trader, Captain David Hoyt, an old friend and relative of the father of the writer, purchased a cargo of mules, — an animal formerly of extensive exportation from Connecticut to those islands, — and sailed, in a vessel of his own, bound to St. Domingo. A step-son of Captain Hoyt, of about the age of young Stone, accompanied him. He was the only son of his mother, and greatly beloved; and was, until his death a few years since, a respectable farmer in Applebury. The vessel was a long time absent, and no intelligence from her was received. A brig which sailed from Applebury in company with Captain Hoyt had made a prosperous voyage and returned; but no tidings of the other were brought back, nor had she arrived out at the time the brig sailed on her return. His friends, consequently, became exceedingly anxious respecting his fate; and the wife of the absent captain, greatly alarmed for the safety both of her husband and son, having heard the gossip touching the wonderful finding of the long-lost brindle cow, came to our young hero, beseeching him to inform her of the fate of the absent schooner and those on board. There was no affectation in the youth, and he was really and truly reluctant to renew the experiment. But after much persuasion he consented to gratify the feelings of an anxious wife and mother as far as lay in his power, although he admonished the good woman against reposing any confidence in his reputed skill. In sober honesty he had no confidence in it himself; for, in respect to the previous affair, he regarded it only in the light of one of those coincidences frequently occurring in the course of human events, but which are not exactly susceptible of explanation upon any known principles of mental philosophy.
Contrary, however, to his expectations and even to his own wishes, during a night of laborious application, the results of his “figures” enabled him to return a full answer on the following morning, the correctness of which would be tested in a few days. This answer was, that the absent schooner, after having parted company with the before-mentioned brig, had been for a long time becalmed. The captain and all hands were all well; but their provisions had become short, their provender and water exhausted, and the greater part of the mules had died of starvation. The vessel, according to the “figure,” would to a certainty put back in distress, and arrive within Sandy Hook on the following Tuesday, after having, on the preceding day, thrown the last of the mules overboard, and would reach Applebury the next Thursday. It proved to be even so. On the Thursday following the prediction Captain Hoyt and his step-son arrived in Applebury from New York; and in relating the events of the disastrous voyage confirmed all that young Stone had divined, to the minutest particular, even to the hour at which they ran past the Sandy Hook lighthouse and entered the harbor of New York.
The fulfilment of the prediction, if such it might be called, was yet a matter of greater surprise to the young astrologer than in the former instance. He was conscious of having intentionally done or attempted nothing wrong on either occasion; but the success which had attended his calculations was a subject utterly inexplicable even to himself; and he was half induced to believe that there must have been an evil superintending agency in the premises. He shuddered at the idea; for although not at that time a communing member of the Church, his mind was deeply imbued with religious feelings. From his earliest infancy, his young thoughts had been directed heavenward; the habits, and all the regulations of his father’s household, were religious; the observance of all the outward forms of devotion were strict and unremitted on the part of the father; while all its sweetest and most attractive influences were beautifully illustrated in the quiet and unobtrusive, yet active examples of the mother. A moment’s reflection, however, convinced him of the groundlessness of his apprehensions. In the exercise of his supposed power of divination, he had only followed rules laid down in printed books of, as he insisted on believing, pretended magic. Those books directed the construction of questions germane to the matter in hand, and then, by going through certain arithmetical problems in connection with the position of the heavenly bodies, the answer was to be read in the result, by affirmatives and negatives. His art, as it seemed to him, had this extent and no more. In his juvenile days, he had looked into the books with curiosity; now, in the greater maturity of his youth, he had tried his skill as an interesting experiment only; and, as he supposed, any other person who would assume the labor, could play the magician in the same way. The fulfilment of his predictions he yet attributed to coincidences only; and, in any event, he was quite certain, for in this he could not be mistaken, that he had invoked the aid of no evil genius: and he had no reason to suppose that messengers of that character ever went abroad upon such errands uninvited or unbidden. He therefore allowed his mind to go to rest upon the subject, mentally resolving to avoid in future even the appearance of evil, and to essay no more experiments of the kind.
But the tears and importunities of women who can withstand? Hearts of sterner stuff than was that of our youthful hero, and of more experience, have often been subdued by such appeals; and that he should have been induced to swerve from his determination can therefore be no matter of surprise. In temporarily changing his residence from the valley of the Tunxis for the shades of Applebury, he had vainly imagined that the little unwelcome notoriety of his first achievement would have been left behind. But, mistaken in that supposition, he had, in consequence of his first experiment, been forced into a second, the fame of which was widely bruited about, to his still greater annoyance; and he was soon involved in a third trial, the result of which was still more astounding.
General Carlos Wilcox, a respectable merchant residing in a neighboring town, and a man of no inconsiderable importance in that community, had fitted out and freighted for the West India market a ship with a cargo of unusual value. The supercargo had instructions, in certain contingencies, to attempt sundry speculations, by trading from island to island over the wide American archipelago. In the lading of this vessel the owner had incurred heavy responsibilities, which her return from a prosperous voyage would alone enable him to discharge. But, although he had received early information of his ship’s safe arrival, and of her departure from the first port of destination, yet for a long period there was no further intelligence from her. As time passed on, demands for heavy payments came upon him which he was unable to meet; and he was consequently obliged to entreat for delay. Still, there were no tidings from the ship, and his situation was daily becoming more critical, while his mind was full of embarrassment and perplexity.
While matters were in this situation, the merchant, almost driven to distraction by the difficulties accumulating in his path, was persuaded, against his better judgment, to seek the assistance of the young student of Dr. Elliott at Applebury, now universally considered the smartest young man of those parts. It was believed he could solve almost any mystery, short of the origin of evil, and discover every hidden thing, excepting Kidd’s money. Indeed, the latter was hardly an exception, since some of the knowing ones had begun to think of obtaining his assistance in searching for those numerous pots of treasure which the great freebooter was supposed to have imbedded in the island coves and along the indented coasts of the Sound. To the application of General Wilcox himself however, the young student respectfully but firmly refused his assent, laboring earnestly to convince him that he had no particular skill of the description which a good-natured, though gossiping world had attributed to him, assuring him that the facts cited to disprove this avowal were merely circumstances of time and chance which happen to all.
The wife of the merchant, however, was not to be put off in this manner. The affairs of her husband were approaching a crisis, and the return of the ship could only save him from ruin. Should the vessel be already lost, they might as well yield at once to the importunities of their creditors, who were becoming more clamorous with every hour’s delay; each being eager, in the event of bankruptcy, to be foremost in seizing upon the property of the insolvent. The lady, therefore, rode over to Applebury, and renewed the application with so much energy and such persuasive eloquence, as to wring a reluctant consent from the young astrologer that he would make another attempt to read what, if not exactly the future, was at least the unknown.
Accordingly, during the ensuing night, it being starlight, he resorted to his slate and his rules as before; and after laboring through a great number of figures, the results enabled him to frame a history of the voyage, which promised golden returns to the harassed owner. Punctual to her engagement, and eager for an answer, which she had the fullest belief would end her suspense, however painful might be their destiny, the lady returned to Applebury on the following morning. Our hero thereupon very reluctantly informed her of the result of his midnight vigil, but cautioned her at the same time not to place the least reliance upon the prediction. “Your ship,” said he, “according to my poor figures, is perfectly safe, and now on her homeward voyage. She touched at several places among the West India Islands,” (specifying their names), “prospered in all her speculations and in the exchange of her commodities. She there ran down upon the coast of the Spanish Main, and has been successfully engaged in trade, and is now returning with twenty-two thousand dollars in doubloons, besides other merchandise of great value. On Tuesday next, at two o’clock past meridian, the Killingworth will enter the harbor, whose name she bears, in safety. But the supercargo is dead of the yellow-fever, and two men will return fatally sick of the same disease.” With this reply, which she believed would be fulfilled to the letter, the lady returned with feelings mingled with melancholy and gladness. The super-cargo was a young man of enterprise and high promise, and her kinsman. But the fortunes of her husband would be restored.
The period intervening between the prediction and the time assigned for its fulfilment was one of intense anxiety, not only to the distressed and doubting merchant and his wife, but to young Stone. If the fortunes of the former hung upon the fate of the ship, the feelings of the latter were deeply interested in the result of this third and most important experiment; for he now felt a strong presentiment that his calculations would be realized; he began to doubt whether he had not been engaged in matters of unlawful and fearful import; and he reproached himself that feelings of shame and diffidence had prevented him from taking counsel of his friend and guide, Dr. Elliott.
The day for time under such circumstances of uncertainty and anxiety seems to fly with leaden wings appeared long in coming; but it arrived at length, and was truly one of bright and sunny promise. The merchant was early at an upper window with his glass intently examining every sail that whitened the placid bosom of the Sound, and eagerly watching every additional vessel that could be descried heaving in sight. Soon after twelve o’clock at noon his heart bounded high as he perceived the well-known signal of his own proud ship, which was borne easily onward by a gentle breeze, until at length, exactly at the hour foretold, she entered the harbor, discharged a gun, and ran alongside of the wharf. The remaining part of the calculation, even to the minutest detail, was true to the letter. The whole voyage had been prosecuted as already described; the exact sum of specie was received; two of the seamen were ill of the yellow-fever, beyond hope of recovery; and the supercargo was no more, the waters his winding-sheet, the ocean his grave!
The untoward aspect of the merchant’s fortunes was, of course immediately changed, and the “decencies of grief” having been observed, joy once more beamed from the countenances which for weeks had been shaded by the gloom of despondency and anticipated ruin. Not so, however, with the young astrologer. On hearing the intelligence in the gray of the evening, he was astounded by the accurate verification of his calculations and greatly agitated at what he had done. On the two former occasions, as we have seen, he had attributed his success to fortuitous coincidences. But with this third, more complicated, and momentous trial, the results amazed him. From this moment it became his settled conviction that some evil agency had been exerted in those efforts which he had been persuading himself were very innocent calculations, though withal not a little interesting. The result was that he at once burned up his works on necromancy, and registered a solemn vow (ever afterward sacredly kept) never more to engage in such questionable experiments.
We attempt no explanation of the foregoing. The facts have been presented nakedly, and with no attempt at color. But, in view of them, it would seem as though the marvellous stories which come down to us from the olden time, of the fulfilment of predictions made by the astrologers of the Middle Ages, — and, further back, the Chaldean soothsayers of the Babylonian Empire, — contained at least a few grains of truth. Of this nature was the prophecy (which is well authenticated) made by the astrologer to Nell Gwynn in her days of mendicancy, that she should at a future day be possessed of wealth and be influential with a powerful monarch; not to mention the also well-authenticated predictions and fulfilments of the celebrated Dr. Dee, whose portraiture has been so vividly drawn by the great wizard novelist of Scotland. The Chaldean soothsayers could never have maintained their ascendency for so long a period, had it not been that many of their predictions were fulfilled; some of which were so remarkable as to make it hard to explain them, on the ground of a superior knowledge of the sciences.
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