The Contributors' Club

I MET my friend Miss Blackstone on the street the other day, and was surprised to see her looking so well. Five years ago she was one of my patients, and I own I thought her a hopeless case of nerves.

“ The world has used you well since we met,” I observed.

“ No, indeed,” she answered gayly; “it has used me wretchedly. I have been on the eve of suicide most of the time. The tide turned, however, about a month ago, which accounts for my good spirits.”

“ That may be, but I should not think it could account for your avoirdupois and your rosy cheeks and firm step. It takes more than a month to get over general debility.”

“ Oh, yes, but I got well long ago, in the very midst of my suicidal schemes.”

This astonished me. My previous experience of this lady had led me to think there was an unusually close connection between her body and mind, and I said so.

“ I used to think so myself,” replied Miss Blackstone ; “ but I have discovered several things of late years not formerly dreamt of in my philosophy, and as it is too bad that a physician like you should sometimes lend his countenance to a sentimental fiction, merely because he allows his kind and sympathetic heart to deceive him, I have a great mind to tell you what I have learned, — that is, if you have time for a stroll across the Common with me.” Of course I was all curiosity and attention.

“ You see,” said Miss Blackstone, confidentially, “ we all like to think we are such finely organized beings that a breath of sorrow will wither us, and we take a certain pride in thinking we may disregard all the laws of health, and yet bloom on just as long as we have our own way about everything. I have a friend who is killing herself by embroidering her clothing, sewing ten or twelve hours a day, and she attributes her feeble condition entirely to the conduct of her lover. It is easy enough to let your mind destroy your body. I could make myself bilious in ten minutes if I should try, especially if any one said an unkind word to me.”

“ It seems to me,” I remarked, “ that I have heard you declare frequently that no medicine would do you good as long as circumstances were obdurate.”

“ So you have,” she admitted, “ and I thought I told the truth. Still, I took the powders you gave me, and felt better. Of course a change in circumstances would have cured me sooner, but I reflected that it was better to be cured by medicine than not cured at all. And if I must be wretched I would rather be so in mind alone than in both mind and body. So I have faithfully observed the laws of health ever since I found them out.”

“ I am thankful to find you were so much less nervous than I supposed. I did not believe common sense could do so much for you.”

“ On the contrary, I do not believe you ever could have exaggerated the state of my nerves. It makes me shudder to think of it. I know I should have been insane if I had not used mental anodynes.”

Naturally, I inquired her meaning.

“ To begin at the beginning,” she replied seriously, “ when a great sorrow befalls us, for which our own acts are in no manner responsible, I believe it may be met with a noble fortitude and resignation ; that we need not try to lull our sorrow to sleep, but we may accept it and be ennobled by it. I have not been able to meet my own sorrows in this spirit always, but I believe it is possible. Now I cannot tell you what my trials for the past few years have been. I will simply say that the greater part of each day I have been beset by worrying, irritating cares, which have been to me as if I were pricked with pins incessantly. Worst of all, I was responsible for them. I could not in conscience lay them aside, nor had I the capacity to meet them. To illustrate, suppose some one proposed to you to read Sanskrit, in order to save your wife from the guillotine. You would be sure to try, though you would know you could not do it when you began; and you would probably feel very nervous, and I doubt if the discipline would be ennobling.”

“ But what has this to do with mental anodynes ? ” I suggested modestly.

“ I am coming to that. I knew that nervousness would not help me to read Sanskrit, and that without it I might guess at a word here and there. And then I hate to be nervous, because it makes me so uncomfortable. So, for one thing, I read novels when I had any spare time. That was generally after I had gone to bed, and of course I risked my eyesight. But as it was a question between eyes and nerves, I felt justified.

“ I began with the best novels. But I found they generally asserted you could read Sanskrit, or do any other desirable thing, if you only thought you could, and that added the pangs of conscience to my preliminary nervousness ; so these novels ceased to be an anodyne, and I threw them aside.

“ Then I remembered that when Carlyle’s manuscript for the second volume of the French Revolution was burned he read Marryatt’s novels from morning till night for some months, wondering all the time how the author could be such an idiot as to write them. I used the same anodyne with considerable success. I think I must have read every secondrate novel in the English language by this time.”

“ Are you sane ? ” I asked, in some consternation.

“ No wonder you ask,” she said. “ But you know I am going to tell you the truth for the benefit of your patients. Have you any idea how the Wandering Jew and the Count of Monte Cristo will minister to a mind diseased ? ”

I shook my head. If any one must have novels, let him have the best.

“ Sometimes I could read myself to sleep,” continued she, “ but not often, and so I was obliged to think myself to sleep. When I was moderately wretched, I could do this in a beautiful and high-minded way. I would think of all the pictures I had ever seen in detail, beginning with Raphael and coming down to Hunt. The slender thread of connection was soothing, and yet each picture was separate from every other, and could be thought of without any exertion. Sometimes I repeated poetry ; but most poems I can remember are too short, and there comes a painful break, when one must wake up and think. The Snark is an exception. That is an almost infallible remedy for insomnia. Sometimes I used to recall all the woodland walks I had taken, and think where such a tree grew, what stone was covered with fern moss, and where the wood-thrush sang. Sometimes I fancied myself in a boat, and keeping time with imaginary oars ; dreamed how far every stroke sent me along some of the lovely New England rivers I know.

“ When I was too weak and nervous to concentrate my mind to such a degree as this, I fancied myself in a certain meadow, gathering violets. One by one I gathered them. You see each thought I had was beautiful, and the mental strain was nothing.”

“ Now this is lovely,” said I; “I approve of your anodynes.”

“ Yes, I have Kant’s own authority for such mild measures, though I did not stumble upon it till I had applied them. He says that when he suffered so much from sleeplessness he found it necessary to let his thoughts follow some definite train, interesting enough to keep them from wandering, but not highly interesting so far as results are concerned. But the time came when mild measures failed. ‘ In lowest deeps there was a lower depth.' I found it necessary to give my fancies an essentially selfish direction, in order to allay the irritation of my nerves.”

I looked at her in some dismay, and she laughed rather uneasily.

“ I wish I had not begun to tell you the truth. However, my experience is unique, and may have its lessons. I deliberately fancied myself in possession of untold wealth; not because I wanted to use it for the benefit of others, or even to make the most of myself, but to lead an absolutely idle, luxurious life, without too palpably and directly oppressing others. I fancied myself lying in a beautiful upper chamber in a fine house, dressed in a wrapper of Eastern silk or gorgeous cashmere, waited on by servants whose light duties were so fabulously paid for that they scarcely regretted that they could not be as idle as I, — it was a peculiarity of my nervous state to believe that every one else must long for complete inaction as much as I did, — and seeing no one, reading nothing, doing nothing, thinking nothing. I fancied that I had a band of exquisite musicians in the house, who came at the call of a silver bell, and, hidden from sight in a curtained recess, played rare music for me when I chanced to be in the mood. I also had a companion, — not a friend, for I believed myself to be removed from every one I knew, — who lived in wonderful apartments next mine, and came at my bell to read poetry to me for a little while; not long, for it would have made me wretched to fatigue any one, no matter how extravagantly I was willing to pay for the fatigue.”

“ I suppose you had been taking opium,” I remarked, as she paused to take breath.

“ No, indeed. This was simply a mental anodyne, on which I had stumbled by chance. I fancied myself always lying there with a peaceful smile on my face, and if I thought at all simply breathing to myself the word ‘ Nirvana.’ ”

Being fresh from The Light of Asia and Johnson’s India, I interrupted, with some heat. “ Now, indeed, I cannot forgive you for desecrating such a word by giving it such a meaning.”

“ Do not think,” she replied, quietly, “ that I was for one moment so mistaken as to think my imaginary life approached Nirvana. But Nirvana, in its best sense, was then my highest aspiration, and in my worst moments I hoped it meant annihilation.”

“ How frightfully you must have been overworked! ” I said, in despair of understanding her.

“ Oh, no. On the contrary, my work was light. If I had been overworked, I could not have gained health and strength as I did. The difficulty was simply, as I told you, that it was my duty to do a kind of work for which I had no natural or acquired capacity. My life was worse than useless to others, though through no moral fault of mine, and only torture to myself.”

“ How long did this strange fancy comfort you ? ”

“ Ten or twelve months, I should think, day and night. In all this time, I avoided every one, and my brain did no work whatever, as I was absorbed in my motionless dream. In the mean time, my health had become perfect. My headaches had vanished. I was strong and active, could walk miles, and my spirits overflowed when I chanced to meet friends.”

I rubbed my eyes, thinking I must be dreaming myself, but she went on seriously : —

“ By and by, my vision palled. I found some relief in fancying myself dying, — that I slowly, slowly faded, until the spark of life went out.”

I thought this both morbid and bad ; but as I did not like to show any feeling, I merely said, “ I suppose even so radical a remedy could only be temporary. What did you try next ? ”

“ I have often wondered what I should have tried,” said she. “ I think it probable I should have committed suicide, though I have never felt any inclination to do so. But, happily, a sudden and one might almost say a providential change in my circumstances occurred, though I had deserved very little from Providence. My health being already perfect, of course the moment the burden rolled off I was overflowing with life and spirits. I enjoyed every ripple of every wave, every dancing ray of sunshine, every green leaf and delicate flower, and visions of beauty followed me to the very verge of peaceful and refreshing sleep.”

“ I should call your whole story utter nonsense,” said I, “but for the indisputable fact that I know what your nerves once were, and I see you now in the most blooming health. But tell me honestly, do you not believe some less morbid remedy would have worked your cure ? I ask it reverently, — would not religion help you ? ”

“ I have asked myself that question again and again,” she answered, rather sadly. ' I can only say it did not help me. The more I tried to think and feel religiously, the more excited and unstrung I became. I do not believe the emotions are subject to the will, certainly not to my will, though I know the best people think otherwise, probably because they have a nobler and better - trained will. And you know I was trying to do conscientiously what I thought right, so that I was not placing myself in opposition to religion. Yet I truly believe that a person of more religious nature than I would have felt a deeper peace than all my anodynes could furnish. None the less do I feel sure that such a peace was out of my reach. Do not think I am speaking lightly when I say that religion could no more soothe my mind then than it could cure the toothache.”

“ But anodynes do not cure the toothache, you know,” said I. “ If the tooth is diseased it must come out. Pardon me if I ask whether, in spite of your health and spirits, you think you are thoroughly cured.”

“ I might hunt the metaphor to death by saying the tooth is out, since the intolerable circumstances are changed. But I see you have a grave doubt in your mind, and I will answer it. It is not true that I am on as high a spiritual or mental plane as I should have been without this experience, and certainly I should respect myself more if I had allowed the pain to kill me, rather than to stoop to use such anodynes. Still, I have a dim theory. It is nature, and not medicine, which works cures of every kind; but when a patient suffers acute pain, nature cannot act. Allay the pain if possible, and leave nature to do the rest. When I suffered the pain I could not rise above it. Now I am free from it, and though on a low moral plane it seems to me more like that of a child, as if I were beginning anew. I am weak because I have gained no strength. Suppose some light tasks should be set me now: perhaps I could do them ; and perhaps years hence I shall have gained the strength necessary to meet such a task as that in which I have now utterly failed. Perhaps you will not understand the theory which circumstances have forced upon me. But, for me, it is worth while to think of it, at any rate.”

A clock struck at that moment, and she hurried away to meet a train, but I found time for a last question : —

“ I suppose I am to look upon this as a confidence ? It is sacred to you ? ”

“ Oh, no. Perhaps because I have used these mental anodynes so much, I am not in the least sensitive about their action, — no more sensitive than if I had dreamed all this, or than if the disease had been of the body and the medicines bought at the apothecary’s.”

I walked slowly away, pondering. Such results ought not to follow such causes, either physically or morally. But what shall we do in the face of facts ? I am puzzled. Can any one help me ?

— I claim that the most oppressed people, in the Northern States at least, is the great middle class, — that class that gives itself no airs and asks no favors.

It is snubbed, taken advantage of, and filched from by the class which cannot get any lower down; snubbed, etc., by certain of its own “ set,” who apparently labor under the apprehension that otherwise they will not be considered “ good enough ” for it ; and snubbed, or coolly ignored, by the small upper class, whose fathers or grandfathers were for the most part proud of having risen into it.

To illustrate: Having occasion not long ago to travel in the horse-cars towards a place of popular resort, I asked the conductor if his route led directly thither.

“ No,” he replied ; “ there’s a coach that takes you the rest of the way.”

Feeling sure the distance must be within a mile, and being minded to walk it if it were, I asked next, “ How far is it from the end of your route ? ”

“ I don’t know. I never was there,” was the reply, given in that unsympathetic tone that I think the traveling public are sufficiently familiar with to need no closer description.

“ Why, I should think he would be ashamed, when he goes so near! ” cried a lady emphatically, to whom I related the circumstance.

“ But passengers ask such annoying questions ! ” says a tender-hearted male philanthropist.

Let no official think to stop a woman’s tongue that way! No sooner is she snubbed than her brain is racked with questions demanding an answer. It was with great difficulty I refrained from asking that conductor how far he guessed it was ; was it as much as or less than a mile ; how long it took the coach to go and return ; whether the horses looked tired when they came back, etc., and it was well that another man soon took his place, of whom I asked no questions, as I wished to travel the rest of the way on a footing of at least apparent equality.

On the return route, and when most of the car seats had each its five, — a tight fit, — there appeared on a street corner a woman of a class such as we do not have — as resident at least — in the rural districts. She was old, and tanned very brown as to her face and the bare, skinny arm with which she signed peremptorily for the car to stop. She had apparently emptied an old pillow of feathers to fill it with apples, and I shrank a little, our seat having only four, and thought, not altogether with bitterness, “ He won’t stop for her, — he won’t see her ! ” But he did, and he stopped. She was told where to put her apples, and then another seat with four ladies was pointed out to her. When she reached her destination she signed as emphatically for the car to stop as when she wanted to get in, and going for her property she placed a dirty-looking cloth on her head, so indicating, and perhaps by words also, that the bag was to be placed there. The driver very good-naturedly lifted it on, and she trudged off, while I sighed with satisfaction, deciding that if one of us two must be snubbed that day it had better be the more fortunate.

Again, two ladies dressed in respectable mourning entered a steam train at a way-station. When the conductor came for the tickets the younger one asked him if he would assist the elder, who seemed infirm, when she came to her journey’s end. He might have taken her wish as an order, and intended to obey it, but he gave no sign that he so much as heard her, and the old lady, evidently doubting him, moved forward, to be near the door when the cars should stop. Seeing this, the young lady requested the assistance of a gentleman passenger, who had acknowledged her salutation when she entered. This favor was of course granted.

Again, I want a house built, and send for a carpenter — one who, being constantly engaged in building, would certainly be supposed to know the state of the markets and the price of labor — to make an estimate of the cost. Meantime the shrewdest Yankee of our town, learning of my project, fills my soul with terror by informing me that, whatever the carpenter says, I may rely on the actual cost as double his estimate, “just about double,” — and the event proves him correct, usually.

My friend wants a drain constructed. Operations are begun, the kitchen sink is made unavailable for use, and there is a pause of a whole fortnight before he of the drain pipe comes again. She attempts to bring this forward to friends as a special grievance, but finds everybody is so used to it that she was simply “ behind the times ” in not having expected it.

Of course rich men suffer in a measure from this management of affairs by those who control labor, but their inconvenience is as nothing to that experienced by those to whom cost and time are important matters. To these it seems as if promises and estimates are mere forms to entrap the public.

If any one wishes to see the oppression of the middle class by the lower, he will find it in perfection when a dear old soul of a housewife comes to feel the need of “ help,” her children having married off and left her, only to increase her work by visits home. I have known such a case, where an Irish girl, considered an excellent domestic while employed in the family of a married son, when transferred to a place where “ the help must be one of the family, of course,” — that is, must eat with them, etc., — would do scarcely any work ; as to eating, in the quaint language of the old lady, the girl “ was down to the table when meals were ready, whether anybody else was there or not.” A native born sovereign was next installed, who at once adopted herself, without being invited so to do ; spoke of and to the master and mistress as “ father ” and “ mother,” and in all respects conducted herself as a daughter of the house. Though her forwardness was a little “ wearing,” still she was far better than the granddaughter of Ireland who came last, and who, regarding herself evidently as a grandchild of the family, assumed fitting language and conduct.

— How much genius must an author possess to justify him in turning a cold shoulder on Father Time, or, in a more savage mood, making a murderous assault upon the old gentleman ? One of the principles of quaternions is that a crooked line between two points is the exact equivalent of a straight line between those points. My original ideas of value have been very much upset by learning this proposition, but still I cling to a remnant of my former conceptions, and ask whether there is any science of which an author may avail himself, to make his heroines grow old before they are born. One of the No Name Series is called His Majesty, Myself. Three young men, Trent, Thirlmore, and Guernsey, are among the chief characters. They are all brought more or less into relation with slavery as it existed here before the civil war. They all seem to admire the institution, and references to it are found throughout the book, from page 13, when Trent is sixteen years old, to page 288, when Guernsey announces a determination of his to one of his slaves. A period of from twelve to fifteen years has presumably elapsed between these two events, as Trent is then grown up, married, and the father of children. In the first part of the book, in the account of some incident in Trent’s college life, it is said that “ Dr. McMasters . . . had no more idea of the awful woe that was impending than the rest of us.” The neighboring text makes it evident that this sentence refers to the coming rebellion; and thus we not only learn that it had not then happened, but we gladly perceive that, however ill the anonymous writer may appreciate the causes which brought about that “awful woe,” he does know that it actually came. A reference to a president of the United States who had once been governor of Virginia, who had betrayed his party, etc., fixes the date of the college life of the three heroes in the time of Tyler, 1840 to 1844. This would of course give time for the action of the story before 1861, but during their college life, Thirlmore and Trent become acquainted with their future wives, Peace and Revel Vandyke, and this is their history : Their grandfather, Professor Rodenstein, driven from Germany because of his participation in one of the revolutions of 1848 (the date is given) came to America, where his daughter married, and her twin girls were born in due, or rather in undue, time to become the loves and wives of these young gentlemen of a previous epoch. One of the jests of our war-time was a saying that it would have been ten dollars in Jeff Davis’s pocket if he had never been born. Methinks that the converted Peace Thirlmore, in the last chapter of His Majesty, Myself, must have felt it worth many dollars in her depleted pocket that at least she need suffer no remorse because in her girlhood she had kept her lover from trying to save the life of Deacon Ruggles, since when she coldly watched the old man drown she had not even been born.

— A contributor to The Atlantic for June calls attention to the curious likeness discovered “ between people and the numeral Arabic figures.” My fancy has not led me in the same direction, but I am often impressed by a likeness in human faces and figures to all sorts of objects, animate and inanimate. With me, these comparisons are instantaneous operations of the mind, and often are so true as to impress with their justness persons not at all given to making them. A lady of my acquaintance is the only person I ever met with whom the exercise of this faculty amounted to a regular habit. Her fancies are always accurate and always amusing. An elderly gentleman, well known in our community, has been by her likened to an absentminded rat; a young girl acquaintance to a house with all its doors and windows open; and an old negro’s appearance brings an overwhelming conviction that his only food is oyster-shells. I have myself seen a gentleman whose likeness to an Irish potato was unmistakable ; another who resembled a circus-tent ; and once, while riding in a Baltimore street-car, I called a friend’s attention to a youth who irresistibly reminded me of a broken paper lamp-lighter. My friend, too, at once saw the likeness, matter-offact man of business as he was. Our novelists have frequent recourse to such fancies ; Dickens, notably so. The law of the association is not always easy to see, but in my case there is generally some prominent feature or other peculiarity to suggest the resemblance.