CORDELIA was a murderess, but she was also a very good cook, and we were delighted when the verdict of ‘not guilty’ restored her to our home and kitchen.
‘I certainly am glad to have you back, Cordelia,’ I said on the first evening, after a supper of fried chicken and hot rolls such as only she could make, ‘and I think we all ought to be mighty thankful, since you really did shoot Jake, that things have turned out as they have.’
‘Yes’m, I sho’ am,’ said Cordelia.
‘You ought to be grateful to Mr. Brewer, too,’ I preached on, ‘because if he hadn’t been such a good lawyer and known just what to say to the jury — ‘
‘Oh yes, ma’m, he had done fixed the jury,’said Cordelia, rather missing my meaning but having one of her own. It had been a dose call, they said, but I do not believe she had indulged even the most fleeting vision of herself with a rope around her neck. She had always been the most light-hearted and sweet-tempered of human beings, and such she continued to be. I wondered sometimes what Jake could possibly have done to ‘aggravate’ her so, and I used to speculate a bit, when I would see her light, her candle end and start up the back stairs to her remote and solitary bedchamber, on the possibility of his reappearance in a form less simple to deal with than mere flesh and bone; but I honestly believe he left Cordelia’s slumbers after her long day’s work as untroubled as they deserved to be. Indeed I am being forced — reluctantly, I admit — to modify those extreme views of Conscience I used to hold.
‘What must Hitler’s nights be like!’ exclaimed a friend the other day at breakfast, looking up from the morning paper.
‘Nice, I am sure; he sleeps just fine. Do you?’ I could not resist saying, for I knew she didn’t; not on account of her conscience, but because of the play she was writing. And it may well be that Hitler, himself no mean dramaturge, also finds the hours of darkness more propitious for working out his most telling scenes; but that he lies awake regretting things, I for one do not believe.
Remorse as practised formerly — by Lady Macbeth, for example, or Eugene Aram — has undoubtedly lost its hold on the imagination, and no one misses it more, I imagine, than the writers of fiction. If used at all in literature to-day, it is rather as a convention, and only until some more satisfactory psychological phase can he established in its place. Conscience, either before or after the fact, can no longer be said to make cowards of us all, and I must confess, having been formed in the earlier tradition, that a malefactor untormented by a sense of guilt is to me a very insipid character. I miss the whole setup; the vast pathetic fallacy; nature herself taking a hand in goading the victim and betraying his secret: ‘It is a common fancy that nature seems to sleep by night. It is a false fancy, as who should know better than he? . . . There was not a blade of growing grass or corn but watched; and the quieter it was, the more intent and fixed its watch upon him seemed to be.’ And how much worse was that for Jonas Chuzzlewit, and how much better for the reader, than any third degree in a prison cell or a seat in the electric chair!
Personally I should like to go backward instead of forward (for my reading at least) in the conception of guilt and its attendant discomforts: back as far as Orestes, let us say. And now I have to smile, remembering the college girl who was studying Æschylus and reported Agamemnon’s unhappy children as saying one to another, ‘If you don’t kill Mother, 1 will.’ That is criticism fresh and cool and rather shuts the door in the face of the Furies.
But while I deplore their banishment from literature I am forced to admit, having known Cordelia, that there is really very little place for them in a busy life. They would have been terribly in her way in the kitchen where the rolls and cakes and biscuits rose light as feathers under her little black hands (I could never picture them holding that dreadful gun), or in the laundry where she sat on Sunday afternoons reading the ‘funny paper’ to her admirers (‘I’se got a little learnin’,’ she used to say with modest pride); most of all would they have been in the way when she stood up to get married all over again to a World War veteran and moved to town to live happy ever after on what she called his ‘bondage’ from the Government.
ANNE GOODWIN WINSLOW