Bible Pictures Not Within Covers
— Lovers of Elia will remember with a sympathetic thrill the gentle essayist’s reminiscences of his childhood’s nightly tryst with the spectre of the witch-raised Samuel, — the “ old man covered in a mantle,” — evoked from the pictured pages of Stackhouse’s History of the Bible. Similar visitings, I believe, fall to the lot of every young and imaginative reader of the Old Testament, though the disclosure of one’s terrors in this direction may be reserved for riper years. A lady tells me that her childish eyes were never opened after the bedtime candle had been extinguished, lest she should behold the “ handwriting on the wall ” that broke up the banquet of Belshazzar. I find that I am able to reproduce from the fading lines of the original draft, actual or visionary, several such Bible pictures, with the texts by which they were suggested. When a small schoolchild I was frequently taken by my parents to the house of a relative living in the country. These visits, otherwise delightful, became a matter of dread and dislike, from my inevitable encounter with a petrifying spectacle displayed upon the wall of the sitting-room. This was a dingy, colored print representing the Deluge. The circumstance that this work of art hung in an obscure light rather enhanced than diminished its baleful influence, since, from the imperfect hints afforded, imagination the more bestirred itself to supply the details of that ancient diluvian calamity. It marked the nude and gleaming limbs flung about on the black flood, or grasping vainly at the yet unsubmerged crags. Sometimes, to my steady gaze, the outreached hands of the doomed ones seemed endowed with convulsive motion, while the voluminous din of agony was more than my spirit’s ear could endure. If I turned away, the fascination exerted by the picture was sure to draw me back again. Eventually, to avoid the strain of this emotional experience, I resorted to plausible pretexts for remaining at home whenever a visit to the country was projected.
A not less thrilling picture, though one existing only in the mind’s chamber, was that evoked by a text in Habakkuk ; “ Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves.” I see the interior of a log-cabin in the woods ; a fireplace, to which the earth forms a hearth. A young woman sits before the fire ; beside her, a cradle with a sleeping child. The young woman has broken off in the midst of her lullaby, and no longer rocks the cradle. Her eyes are opened wide, and their regard is fastened upon something at the cabin’s one small window, — restless balls of flame, always in twos, moving against the panes, and not to be confounded with the harmless dancing firelight reflections that fill the room. A moan, a wail, a blast of sound, not to be mistaken for the wind’s shout through the tree-tops! How the woman’s heart beats, how she fears that the baby will wake and cry, how she listens for the rifle-shot that tells of her husband’s home-coming ! This was my visionary translation of “ more fierce than the evening wolves,” and the miseen-scène was derived from my grandmother’s account of her pioneer life in the Ohio wilderness.
Another moving picture had its origin in a verse of Deborah’s song of triumph. A warrior clad in armor, bearing shield and lance, and mounted upon a dark steed, slowly ascends a hill. The night is windless, frosty cold. All the great and the least stars are out, and intense in their scrutiny of earth. The rider reaches the crest of the hill. Suddenly, every keen point of light overhead elongates, and becomes a hurled and glittering javelin ! These infinite dartings — spirit shafts — enter the rider’s armor, and pierce him with innumerable wounds. A writhing and sinking shape, an upturned face, white with anger and with death! The scene moves to the sound of these slow-dropping, mystical words : “ They fought from heaven ; the stars in their courses fought against Sisera.”
In another instance Nature joined with Revelation to illuminate an ancient text. As often as I beheld the not unfamiliar meteorological act of the “ sun drawing water,” at contemplation of those broad shafts of light falling against a sombre cloud and slantwise into the calm bosom of the lake, my childish soul hurried back in ecstasy into the Beginning. Somewhat fearfully, yet with ripe expectancy, I looked cloudward, whence might soon be reached the Hand that, some time between evening and morning of the second day, made the firmament in the midst of the waters, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament.