Two Memories of a Childhood

[Before his untimely death in 1904, Lafcadio Hearn had began a series of sketches which he hoped to weld together into a kind of episodic autobiography of the mind. Six were completed, which will have place in the Life and Letters of Lafcadio Hearn, by Elizabeth Bisland, presently to be published. The two related fragments printed below have a vivid biographic significance which all readers of Hearn’s mature work will recognize. — THE EDITORS.]

I

MY GUARDIAN ANGEL

Weh ! weh !
Du hast sie zerstört,
Die schöne Welt! — FAUST.

WHAT I am going to relate must have happened when I was nearly six years old — at which time I knew a great deal about ghosts, and very little about gods.

For the best of possible reasons I then believed in ghosts and in goblins, — because I saw them, both by day and by night. Before going to sleep I would always cover up my head to prevent them from looking at me; and I used to scream when I felt them pulling at the bedclothes. And I could not understand why I had been forbidden to talk about these experiences.

But of religion I knew almost nothing. The old lady who had adopted me intended that I should be brought up a Roman Catholic; but she had not yet attempted to give me any definite religious instruction. I had been taught to say a few prayers; but I repeated them only as a parrot might have done. I had been taken, without knowing why, to church; and I had been given many small pictures edged with paper-lace, — French religious prints, — of which I did not understand the meaning. On the wall of the room in which I slept there was suspended a Greek icon, — a miniature painting in oil of the Virgin and Child, warmly colored, and protected by a casing of fine metal that left exposed only the olivebrown faces and hands and feet of the figures. But I fancied that the brown Virgin represented my mother, — whom I had almost completely forgotten, — and the large-eyed Child, myself. I had been taught to pronounce the invocation, In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; but I did not know what the words signified. One of the appellations, however, seriously interested me; and the first religious question that I remember asking was a question about the Holy Ghost. It was the word “Ghost,” of course, that had excited my curiosity; and I put the question with fear and trembling, because it appeared to relate to a forbidden subject. The answer I cannot clearly recollect, — but it gave me an idea that the Holy Ghost was a white ghost, and not in the habit of making faces at small people after dusk. Nevertheless the name filled me with vague suspicion, especially after I had learned to spell it correctly, in a prayer-book, and I discovered a mystery and awfulness unspeakable in the capital G. Even now the aspect of that formidable letter will sometimes revive those dim and fearsome imaginings of childhood.

I suppose that I had been allowed to remain so long in happy ignorance of dogma because I was a nervous child. Certainly it was for no other reason that those about me had been ordered not to tell me either ghost-stories or fairy-tales, and that I had been strictly forbidden to speak of ghosts. But in spite of such injunctions I was doomed to learn, quite unexpectedly, something about goblins much grimmer than any which had been haunting me. This undesirable information was given to me by a friend of the family, — a visitor.

Our visitors were few, and their visits, as a rule, were brief. But we had one privileged visitor who came regularly each autumn to remain until the following spring, — a convert, — a tall girl who looked like some of the long angels in my French pictures. At that time I must have been incapable of forming certain abstract conceptions; but she gave me the idea of Sorrow as a dim something that she personally represented. She was not a relation; but I was told to call her “ Cousin Jane.” For the rest of the household she was simply “Miss Jane;” and the room that she used to occupy,upon the third floor, was always referred to as “Miss Jane’s room.” I heard it said that she passed her summers in some convent, and that she wanted to become a nun. I asked why she did not become a nun; and I was told that I was too young to understand.

She seldom smiled; and I never heard her laugh; she had some secret grief of which only my aged protector knew the nature. Although handsome, young, and rich, she was always severely dressed in black. Her face, notwithstanding its constant look of sadness, was beautiful; her hair, a dark chestnut, was so curly that, however smoothed or braided, it always seemed to ripple; and her eyes, rather deeply-set, were large and black. Also I remember that her voice, though musical, had a peculiar metallic tone which I did not like.

Yet she could make that voice surprisingly tender when speaking to me. Usually I found her kind, — often more than kind; but there were times when she became so silent and sombre that I feared to approach her. And even in her most affectionate moods — even when caressing me — she remained strangely solemn. In such moments she talked to me about being good, about being truthful, about being obedient, about trying “to please God.” I detested these exhortations. My old relative had never talked to me in that way. I did not fully understand ; I only knew that I was being found fault with, and I suspected that I was being pitied.

And one morning (I remember that it was a gloomy winter morning), losing patience at last during one of these tiresome admonitions, I boldly asked Cousin Jane to tell me why I should try to please God more than to please anybody else. I was then sitting on a little stool at her feet. Never can I forget the look that darkened her features as I put the question. At once she caught me up, placed me upon her lap, and fixed her black eyes upon my face with a piercing earnestness that terrified me, as she exclaimed, —

“My child!—is it possible that you do not know who God is?”

“ No,” I answered in a choking whisper.

“God! — God who made you ! — God who made the sun and the moon and the sky, — and the trees and the beautiful flowers, — everything! . . . You do not know ? ”

I was too much alarmed by her manner to reply.

“You do not know,” she went on, “that God made you and me?—that God made your father and your mother and everybody ? . . . You do not know about Heaven and Hell? ...”

I do not remember all the rest of her words; I can recall with distinctness only the following: —

. . . “and send you down to Hell to burn alive in fire for ever and ever! . . . Think of it! — always burning, burning, burning! — screaming and burning! screaming and burning!—never to be saved from that pain of fire! . . . You remember when you burned your finger at the lamp ? — Think of your whole body burning, — always, always, always burning!—for ever and ever! . .”

I can still see her face as in the instant of that utterance, — the horror upon it, and the pain . . . Then she suddenly burst into tears, and kissed me, and left the room.

From that time I detested Cousin Jane, — because she had made me unhappy in a new and irreparable way. I did not doubt what she had said, but I hated her for having said it, — perhaps especially for the hideous way in which she had said it. Even now her memory revives the dull pain of the childish hypocrisy with which I endeavored to conceal my resentment. When she left us in the spring, I hoped that she would soon die, — so that I might never see her face again.

But I was fated to meet her again under strange circumstances. I am not sure whether it was in the latter part of the summer that I next saw her, or early in the autumn; 1 remember only that it was in the evening and that the weather was still pleasantly warm. The sun had set; but there was a clear twilight, full of soft color; and in that twilight-time I happened to be on the lobby of the third floor, — all by myself.

... I do not know why I had gone up there alone; — perhaps I was looking for some toy. At all events I was standing on the lobby, close to the head of the stairs, when I noticed that the door of Cousin Jane’s room seemed to be ajar. Then I saw it slowly opening. The fact surprised me because that door — the furthest one of three opening upon the lobby — was usually locked. Almost at the same moment Cousin Jane herself, robed in her familiar black dress, came out of the room, and advanced towards me — but with her head turned upwards and sidewards, as if she were looking at something on the lobby-wall, close to the ceiling. I cried out in astonishment, “Cousin Jane!” — but she did not seem to hear. She approached slowly, still with her head so thown back that I could see nothing of her face above the chin; then she walked directly past me into the room nearest the stairway, — a bedroom of which the door was always left open by day. Even as she passed I did not see her face,— only her white throat and chin, and the gathered mass of her beautiful hair. Into the bedroom I ran after her, calling out, “Cousin Jane! Cousin Jane! ” I saw her pass round the foot of a great four-pillared bed, as if to approach the window beyond it; and I followed her to the other side of the bed. Then, as if first aware of my presence, she turned; and I looked up, expecting to meet her smile. . . . She had no face. There was only a pale blur instead of a face. And even as I stared, the figure vanished. It did not fade; it simply ceased to be, — like the shape of a flame blown out. I was alone in that darkening room, — and afraid as I had never before been afraid. I did not scream; I was much too frightened to scream; — I only struggled to the head of the stairs, and stumbled, and fell,— rolling over and over down to the next lobby. I do not remember being hurt; the stair-carpets were soft and very thick. The noise of my tumble brought immediate succor and sympathy. But I did not say a word about what I had seen; I knew that I should be punished if I spoke of it. . . .

Now some weeks or months later, at the beginning of the cold season, the real Cousin Jane came back one morning to occupy that room upon the third floor. She seemed delighted to meet me again; and she caressed me so fondly that I felt ashamed of my secret dismay at her return. On the very same day she took me out with her for a walk, and bought me cakes, toys, pictures, — a multitude of things,

— carrying all the packages herself. I ought to have been grateful, if not happy. But the generous shame that caresses had awakened was already gone; and that memory of which I could speak to no one

— least of all to her — again darkened my thoughts as we walked together. This Cousin Jane who was buying me toys, and smiling, and chatting, was only, perhaps, the husk of another Cousin Jane that had no face. . . . Before the brilliant shops, among the crowds of happy people, I had nothing to fear. But afterwards — after dark — might not the Inner disengage herself from the other, and leave her room, and glide to mine with chin upturned, as if staring at the ceiling? . . .

Twilight fell before we reached home, and Cousin Jane had ceased to speak or smile. No doubt she was tired. But I noticed that her silence and her sternness had begun with the gathering of the dusk, — and a chill crept over me.

Nevetheless, I passed a merry evening with my new toys, — which looked very beautiful under the lamplight, and Cousin Jane played with me until bedtime.

Next morning she did not appear at the breakfast-table; — I was told that she had taken a bad cold, and could not leave her bed. She never again left it alive; and I saw her no more, — except in dreams. Owing to the dangerous nature of the consumption that had attacked her, I was not allowed even to approach her room. . . . She left her money to somebody in the convent which she used to visit, and her books to me.

If, at that time, I could have dared to speak of the other Cousin Jane, somebody might have thought proper — in view of the strange sequel — to tell me the natural history of such apparitions. But I could not have believed the explanation. I understood only that I had seen; and because I had seen I was afraid.

And the memory of that seeing disturbed me more than ever, after the coffin of Cousin Jane had been carried away. The knowledge of her death had filled me, not with sorrow, but with terror. Once I had wished that she were dead. And the wish had been fulfilled — but the punishment was yet to come! Dim thoughts, dim fears — enormously older than the creed of Cousin Jane — awakened within me, as from some prenatal sleep, — especially a horror of the dead as evil beings,hating mankind. . . . Such horror exists in savage minds, accompanied by the vague notion that character is totally transformed or stripped by death, — that those departed, who once caressed and smiled and loved, now menace and gibber and hate. . . . What power, I asked myself in dismay, could protect me from her visits ? I had not yet ceased to believe in the God of Cousin Jane; but I doubted whether he would or could do anything for me. Moreover, my creed had been greatly shaken by the suspicion that Cousin Jane had always lied. How often had she not assured me that I could not see ghosts or evil spirits! Yet the Thing that I had seen was assuredly her inside-self, — the ghost or the goblin of her, — and utterly evil. Evidently she hated me: she had lured me into a lonesome room for the sole purpose of making me hideously afraid.... And why had she hated me thus before she died ? — was it because she knew that I hated her, — that I had wished her to die ? Yet how did she know ? — could the ghost of her see, through blood and flesh and bone, into the miserable little ghost of myself ? . . . Anyhow, she had lied. . . . Perhaps everybody else had lied. Were all the people that I knew — the warm people, who walked and laughed in the light — so much afraid of the Things of the Night that they dared not tell the truth? . . . To none of these questions could I find a reply. And there began for me a second period of black faith, — a faith of unutterable horror, mingled with unutterable doubt.

I was not then old enough to read serious books: it was only in after years that I could learn the worth of Cousin Jane’s bequest, — which included a full set of the Waverley Novels, the works of Miss Edgeworth, Martin’s Milton,

— a beautiful copy, in tree - calf, — Langhorne’s Plutarch, Pope’s Iliad and Odyssey, Byron’s Corsair and Lara, — in the old red-covered Murray editions,

— some quaint translations of the Arabian Nights, and Locke’s Essay on the Human Understanding! I cannot recall half of the titles; but I remember one fact that gratefully surprised me: there was not a single religious book in the collection. . . . Cousin Jane was a convert: her literary tastes, at least, were not of Rome.

Those who knew her history are dust,

. . . How often have I tried to reproach myself for hating her. But even now in my heart a voice cries bitterly to the ghost of her: “Woe! woe!thou didst destroy it,—the beautiful world! . . .”

II

IDOLATRY

“ Ah, Psyche, from the regions which
Are Holy Land ! ”

The early Church did not teach that the gods of the heathen were merely brass and stone. On the contrary she accepted them as real and formidable personalities — demons who had assumed divinity to lure their worshipers to destruction. It was in reading the legends of that Church, and the lives of her saints, that I obtained my first vague notions of the pagan gods.

I then imagined those gods to resemble in some sort the fairies and the goblins of my nursery-tales, or the fairies in the ballads of Sir Walter Scott. Goblins and their kindred interested me much more than the ugly Saints of the Pictorial Church History, — much more than even the slender angels of my French religious prints, who unpleasantly reminded me of Cousin Jane. Besides, I could not help suspecting all the friends of Cousin Jane’s God, and feeling a natural sympathy with his enemies, — whether devils, goblins, fairies, witches, or heathen deities. To the devils indeed — because I supposed them stronger than the rest — I had often prayed for help and friendship; very humbly at first, and in great fear of being too grimly answered, — but afterwards with words of reproach on finding that my condescensions had been ignored.

But in spite of their indifference, my sympathy with the enemies of Cousin Jane’s God steadily strengthened; and my interest in all the spirits that the Church History called evil, especially the heathen gods, continued to grow. And at last one day I discovered, in one unexplored corner of our library, several beautiful books about art, — great folio books containing figures of gods and of demi-gods, athletes and heroes, nymphs and fauns and nereids, and all the charming monsters — half-man, half-animal — of Greek mythology.

How my heart leaped and fluttered on that happy day! Breathless I gazed; and the longer that I gazed the more unspeakably lovely those faces and forms appeared. Figure after figure dazzled, astounded, bewitched me. And this new delight was in itself a wonder, — also a fear. Something seemed to be thrilling out of those pictured pages, — something invisible that made me afraid. I remembered stories of the infernal magic that informed the work of the pagan statuaries. But this superstitious fear presently yielded to a conviction, or rather intuition,—which I could not possibly have explained, — that the gods had been belied because they were beautiful.

(Blindly and gropingly I had touched a truth, — the ugly truth that beauty of the highest order, whether mental, or moral, or physical, must ever be hated by the many and loved only by the few!) . . . And these had been called devils! I adored them! — I loved them! — I promised to detest forever all who refused them reverence! . . . Oh! the contrast between that immortal loveliness and the squalor of the saints and the patriarchs and the prophets of my religious pictures! — a contrast indeed as of heaven and hell. . . . In that hour the mediæval creed seemed to me the very religion of ugliness and of hate. And as it had been taught to me, in the weakness of my sickly childhood, it certainly was. And even to-day, in spite of larger knowledge, the words “heathen” and “pagan" — however ignorantly used in scorn — revive within me old sensations of light and beauty, of freedom and joy.

Only with much effort can I recall these scattered memories of boyhood; and in telling them I am well aware that a later and much more artificial Self is constantly trying to speak in the place of the Self that was, — thus producing obvious incongruities. Before trying to relate anything more concerning the experiences of the earlier Self, I may as well here allow the Interrupter an opportunity to talk.

The first perception of beauty ideal is never a cognition, but a recognition. No mathematical or geometrical theory of æsthetics will ever interpret the delicious shock that follows upon the boy’s first vision of beauty supreme. He himself could not even try to explain why the newly-seen form appears to him lovelier than aught upon earth. He only feels the sudden power that the vision exerts upon the mystery of his own life, — and that feeling is but dim deep memory, — a blood-remembrance.

Many do not remember, and therefore cannot see — at any period of life. There are myriad minds no more capable of perceiving the higher beauty than the blind wan fish of caves — offspring of generations that swam in total darkness

— is capable of feeling the gladness of light. Probably the race producing minds like these had no experience of higher things, — never beheld the happier vanished world of immortal art and thought. Or perhaps in such minds the higher knowledge has been effaced or blurred by long dull superimposition of barbarian inheritance.

But he who receives in one sudden vision the revelation of the antique beauty, — he who knows the thrill divine that follows after, — the unutterable mingling of delight and sadness, — he remembers! Somewhere, at some time, in the ages of a finer humanity, he must have lived with beauty. Three thousand

— four thousand years ago: it matters not; what thrills him now is the shadowing of what has been, the phantom of rapture forgotten. Without inherited sense of the meaning of beauty as power, of the worth of it to life and love, never could the ghost in him perceive, however dimly, the presence of the gods.

Now I think that something of the ghostliness in this present shell of me must have belonged to the vanished world of beauty, — must have mingled freely with the best of its youth and grace and force, — must have known the worth of long light limbs on the course of glory, and the pride of the winner in contests, and the praise of maidens stately as that young sapling of a palm, which Odysseus beheld, springing by the altar in Delos. . . . All this I am able to believe, because I could feel, while yet a boy, the divine humanity of the ancient gods. . . .

But this new-found delight soon became for me the source of new sorrows. I was placed with all my small belongings under religious tutelage; and then, of course, my reading was subjected to severe examination. One day the beautiful books disappeared; and I was afraid to ask what had become of them. After many weeks they were returned to their former place; and my joy at seeing them again was of brief duration. All of them had been unmercifully revised. My censors had been offended by the nakedness of the gods, and had undertaken to correct that impropriety. Parts of many figures, dryads, naiads, graces, muses, had been found too charming and erased with a pen-knife. And, in most cases, garments had been put upon the gods — even upon the tiny Loves — woven with cross-strokes of a quill-pen, so designed as to conceal all curves of beauty, — especially the lines of the long fine thighs.

However, in my case, this barbarism proved of some educational value. It furnished me with many problems of restoration; and I often tried very hard to reproduce in pencil-drawing the obliterated or the hidden line. In this I was not successful; but, in spite of the amazing thoroughness with which every mutilation or effacement had been accomplished , my patient study of the methods of attack enabled me — long before I knew Winkelmann — to understand how Greek artists had idealized the human figure. Perhaps that is why, in after years, few modern representations of the nude could interest me for any length of time. However graceful at first sight the image might appear, something commonplace would presently begin to reveal itself in the lines of those very forms against which my early tutors had waged such implacable war.

Is it not almost invariably true that the modern naked figure, as chiseled or painted, shadows something of the modern living model, —something, therefore, of individual imperfection? Only the antique work of the grand era is superindividual,— reflecting the ideal, — supreme in the soul of a race. Many, I know, deny this; —but do we not remain, to some degree, barbarians still? Even the good and great Ruskin, on the topic of Greek art, spake often like a Goth. Did he not call the Medicean Venus “an uninteresting little person”?

Now after I had learned to know and love the elder gods, the world again began to glow about me; glooms that had brooded over it slowly thinned away. The terror was not yet gone ; but I now wanted only reasons to disbelieve all that I feared anti hated. In the sunshine, in the green of the fields, in the blue of the sky, I found a gladness before unknown. Within myself new thoughts, new imaginings, dim longings for I knew not what, were quickening and thrilling. I looked for beauty, and everywhere found it: in passing faces, — in attitudes and motions,— in the poise of plants and trees, — in long white clouds, — in faint blue lines of far-off hills. At moments the simple pleasure of life would quicken to a joy so large, so deep, that it frightened me. But at other times there would come to me a new and strange sadness, — a shadowy and inexplicable pain.

I had entered into my Renaissance.