But more significant, as showing the success of the experiment, is the change of feeling among the white soldiers towards the negro regiment, a change due in part to the just policy of General Saxton, in part to the President's Proclamation of January 1st, which has done much to clear the atmosphere everywhere within the army-lines, but more than all to the soldierly conduct of the negroes themselves during their expeditions. I had one excellent opportunity to note this change. On the 6th of April, Colonel Higginson's regiment was assigned to picket-duty on Port Royal Island,—the first active duty it had performed on the Sea Islands,—and was to relieve the Pennsylvania Fifty-Fifth. When, after a march of ten miles, it reached the advanced picket-station, there were about two hundred soldiers of the Pennsylvania Fifty-Fifth awaiting orders to proceed to Beaufort. I said, in a careless tone, to one of the Pennsylvania soldiers, who was looking at Higginson's regiment as it stood in line,—
"Isn't this rather new, to be relieved by a negro regiment?"
"All right," said he. "They've as much right to fight for themselves as I have to fight for them."
A squad of half a dozen men stood by, making no dissent, and accepting him as their spokesman. Moving in another direction, I said to a soldier,—
"What do you think of that regiment?"
The answer was,—
"All right. I'd rather they'd shoot the Rebels than have the Rebels shoot me"; and none of the by-standers dissented.
As one of the negro companies marched off the field to picket a station at the Ferry, they passed within a few feet of some twenty of the Pennsylvania soldiers, just formed into line preparatory to marching to Beaufort. The countenances of the latter, which I watched, exhibited no expression of disgust, dislike, or disapprobation, only of curiosity. Other white soldiers gave to the weary negroes the hominy left from the morning meal. The Major of the Fifty-Fifth, highest in command of the relieved regiment, explained very courteously to Colonel Higginson the stations and duties of the pickets, and proffered any further aid desired. This was, it is true, an official duty, but there are more ways than one in which to perform even an official duty. I rode back to Beaufort, part of the way, in company with a captain of the First Massachusetts Cavalry, who was the officer of the day. He said "he wasn't much of a negro-man, but he had no objection to their doing our fighting." He pronounced the word as spelled with two gs; but I prefer to retain the good English. Colonel Montgomery, who had a partly filled regiment, most of whom were conscripts, said that on his return from Jacksonville he sent a squad of his men ashore in charge of some prisoners he had taken. Some white soldiers seeing them approach from the wharf, one said,—
"What are those coming?"
"Negro soldiers," (word pronounced as in the former case,) was the answer.
"Damn 'em!" was the ejaculation.
But as they approached nearer, "What have they got with 'em?" was inquired.
"Why, some Secesh prisoners."
"Bully for the negroes!" (the same pronunciation as before,) was then the response from all.
So quick was the transition, when it was found that the negroes had demonstrated their usefulness! It is, perhaps, humiliating to remember that such an unreasonable and unpatriotic prejudice has at any time existed; but it is never worth while to suppress the truth of history. This prejudice has been effectually broken in the Free States; and one of the pageants of this epoch was the triumphal march through Boston, on the 28th of May, on its way to embark for Port Royal, of the Fifty-Fourth Regiment of Massachusetts Volunteers, the first regiment of negro soldiers which the Free States have sent to the war. On the day previous, May 27th, a far different scene transpired on the banks of the Mississippi. Two black regiments, enlisted some months before in Louisiana under the order of Major-General Butler, both with line and one with field officers of their own lineage, made charge after charge on the batteries of Port Hudson, and were mown down like summer's grass, the survivors, many with mutilated limbs, closing up the thinned ranks and pressing on again, careless of life, and mindful only of honor and duty, with a sublimity of courage unsurpassed in the annals of war, and leaving there to all mankind an immortal record for themselves and their race.
I cannot here forbear a momentary tribute to Wentworth Higginson. Devoting himself heroically to his great work, absorbed in its duties, and bearing his oppressive responsibility as the leader of a regiment in which to a great extent are now involved the fortunes of a race, he adds another honorable name to the true chivalry of our time.
* * * * *
Homeward-bound, I stopped for two days at Fortress Monroe, and was again among the familiar scenes of my soldier-life. It was there that Major-General Butler, first of all the generals in the army of the Republic, and anticipating even Republican statesmen, had clearly pointed to the cause of the war. At Craney Island I met two accomplished women of the Society of Friends, who, on a most cheerless spot, and with every inconvenience, were teaching the children of the freedmen. Two good men, one at the fort and the other at Norfolk, were distributing the laborers on farms in the vicinity, and providing them with implements and seeds which the benevolent societies had furnished. Visiting Hampton, I recognized, in the shanties built upon the charred ruins, the familiar faces of those who, in the early days of the war, had been for a brief period under my charge. Their hearty greetings to one whom they remembered as the first to point them to freedom and cheer them with its prospect could hardly be received without emotion. But there is no time to linger over these scenes.
* * * * *
Such are some of the leading features in the condition of the freedmen, particularly at Port Royal. The enterprise for their aid, begun in doubt, is no longer a bare hope or possibility. It is a fruition and a consummation. The negroes will work for a living. They will fight for their freedom. They are adapted to civil society. As a people, they are not exempt from the frailties of our common humanity, nor from the vices which hereditary bondage always superadds to these. As it is said to take three generations to subdue a freeman completely to a slave, so it may not be possible in a single generation to restore the pristine manhood. One who expects to find in emancipated slaves perfect men and women, or to realize in them some fair dream of an ideal race, will meet disappointment; but there is nothing in their nature or condition to daunt the Christian patriot; rather, there is everything to cheer and fortify his faith. They have shown capacity for knowledge, for free industry, for subordination to law and discipline, for soldierly fortitude, for social and family relations, for religious culture and aspirations; and these qualities, when stirred and sustained by the incitements and rewards of a just society, and combining with the currents of our continental civilization, will, under the guidance of a benevolent Providence which forgets neither them nor us, make them a constantly progressive race, and secure them ever after from the calamity of another enslavement, and ourselves from the worse calamity of being again their oppressors.
* * * * *
NO AND YES.
I watched her at her spinning; And this was my beginning Of wooing and of winning.
But when a maid opposes, And throws away your roses, You say the case forecloses.
Yet sorry wit one uses, Who loves and thinks he loses Because a maid refuses.
For by her once denying She only means complying Upon a second trying.
When first I said, in pleading, "Behold, my love lies bleeding!" She heard me half unheeding.
When afterward I told her, And blamed her growing colder,— She dropped upon my shoulder.
Had I a doubt? That quelled it: Her very look dispelled it, I caught her hand, and held it.
Along the lane I led her, And while her cheeks grew redder, I sued outright to wed her.
Good end from bad beginning! My wooing came to winning,— And still I watch her spinning.
* * * * *
THE MATHER SAFE.
The service I was able to render an official personage connected with ——College in New England procured me access to the library belonging to that institution. In common with many of my fellow-citizens, I had previously enjoyed the pleasure of responding to circulars petitioning for money to buy books for interment in this choice literary catacomb; nay, I was even allowed the satisfaction of an annual stare at them through an iron grating, and of reading a placard to the effect that nobody was allowed to enter an alcove or take down a volume. As it occurred to me that the generous donors could not object to add one more to the select half-dozen or so, who, by having the privilege of the shelves, could really use the library, I demanded this favor of the gentleman who desired to recompense me for what I had done for him. The Librarian, who valued books as things capable of being locked up in cells like criminals, there to figure numerically to the confusion of rival institutions, was manifestly disturbed when I presented my credentials. The authority, however, was not to be questioned;—I was to be admitted to the library at any hour of the day; and I took care to drop a civil expression to imply my estimation of the privilege and my purpose of enjoying it.
Wanting the leisure to attempt that ponderous undertaking known as "a course of reading," it became my habit to browse about the building upon Saturday afternoons, and finally to establish myself, with whatever authors I had selected, in a certain retired alcove devoted to the metaphysicians. This comfortable nook opens just behind Crawford's bust of the late President T——, and is nearly opposite the famous Mather Safe. As it is possible that I am addressing some who are not graduates of —— College, nor familiar with its library, it may be well to say a word of the history of the spacious and ancient coffer to which allusion is made.
The Mather Safe—which, by the way, is not of iron, but of oak heavily bound with that metal—is said to have been among the possessions of the author of the "Magnalia." Its last private proprietor was a collateral descendant of the Mathers, an eccentric character, popularly known as Miser Farrel. As Farrel was a bachelor, and had the reputation of being enormously rich, the College authorities of his day were accustomed to treat him with distinguished consideration, and went so far, I believe, as to vote him some minor degree. What effect these academic blandishments may have had upon their object cannot at present be determined. For when the day came for the long-expected will to be opened, it was found that the old gentleman had bequeathed to the College only his Mather Safe, with certain papers carefully let into the wood-work in one corner of the same,—which papers were not to be removed or opened for a hundred years.
It may be conceived that this bulky benefaction was not accepted with the best grace, particularly as the testator made no provision for considerable expense necessarily incurred in moving and setting it up in the library. Yet, not satisfied with this culpable negligence, Mr. Farrel had affixed still other conditions to the acceptance of his gift. He had caused two massive locks to be put upon the Mather Safe, of which he enjoined that the respective keys should be forever held by the President and Treasurer of the College, to the end that neither could have access to its contents except in the presence of the other. Moreover, he required that the Safe should be used only as a receptacle for packages which the depositors desired to keep from the world for at least fifty years. Of course no right-minded corporation would have endured this posthumous fussiness, were it not for the mysterious papers left in the Safe,—these being considered instruments whereby immense possessions would finally come to the College. But, as their worthy friend, however niggardly in other respects, had taken care to save nothing in lawyers, there were really no means of disregarding his wishes, except by relinquishing all claims under the will. And so, many years ago, the Mather Safe came to be opened to the public on the conditions already declared. At first, it was matter of surprise that so many persons appeared to claim the privilege of Farrel's singular legacy. Carefully enveloped packages had been consigned to various periods of oblivion by all conditions of men and women. These were numbered and registered in a volume kept for the purpose; they were severally addressed, perhaps to a specified descendant of some living person, perhaps to the future occupant of some professor's chair or metropolitan pulpit.
It was near the Mather Safe, as I have already said, that my favorite alcove opened. In the short winter afternoon, when the twilight thickened without the building, and the type began to blur within, I would lay aside my book and muse over wild rumors of secrets borne by this messenger between the generations. Journals and letters, it was said, were there concealed, which should change the current gossip of history, and explode many bubble-reputations that had glittered on the world. There were hints of deadly sins, committed by men high in Church and State, which their perpetrators lacked the courage to confess before their fellows, but which, in the bitterness of remorse, they had recorded in the Mather Safe, to blacken their fame to future times,—thus taking a ghastly satisfaction from the knowledge that they should not always appear as whited sepulchres before men. There was vague talk, also, of funds which had been deposited to found some professorship in the College, to furnish some instruction which the age was not advanced enough to accept. Then, too, there were intimations of endowments to establish scholarships for women, who,—so it was argued,—after the increasing enlightenment of a few score of years, would be admitted to every privilege of culture offered to men. In short, there was matter enough to send a curdling tingle through the blood, as this tough old ark, buffeting slowly through the years, entered its familiar night. If there was deficiency in the testimony which consigned any special wonder to its keeping, there was, doubtless, sufficient truth in common reports to justify the imagination in interpreting misty hieroglyphics of its own device.
During the latter part of a certain August—my family being established at the seaside—I determined to devote a long day to the College Library. The fact was, that a trifling domestic incident—no other than the smoking of a kitchen-chimney—had turned my attention to the conditions of atmospheric changes. Certain phenomena I had observed seemed inconsistent with the law assumed in popular text-books. Indeed, as it appeared to me, modifications of a received theory—which might be determined by a diligent comparison of existing authorities—would suggest a household economy of great practical importance. Certain facts, which must have been noted by all the great voyagers of the world, might give me data from which to establish the suspected conclusion. I accordingly repaired to the library at a very early hour, and labored through the day in collecting and committing to writing what had been observed by many eminent navigators upon the point in question. Four o'clock in the afternoon found me too tired to apply any process of analysis to the observations obtained. I therefore retired to my accustomed seat, took down almost the first book which came to hand, and resigned myself to the impressions of a favorite author. I had passed about an hour in a delicious state of dreamy tranquillity, sometimes reading, sometimes pausing to color the faded page with the brilliant hues of more modern thought, when my attention was attracted by a familiar voice proceeding from the neighborhood of the Mather Safe.
"The President and Treasurer were to have been here at five o'clock."
"I have heard nothing of it," said the Librarian. "I am sure that the President is out of town for the day."
"Strange! strange!" exclaimed the Reverend Mr. Clifton, in a very excited tone. "I wish to make a deposit of great importance in the Mather Safe. I had the assurance that the Safe should be opened at five this afternoon. Here, read the solemn promise upon which I have come from Foxden!"
The Librarian glanced at an open letter which Clifton held out to him, and said, in a quiet manner,—
"The President promises to meet you in the College Library on the afternoon of Thursday, the twenty-fourth instant; to-day is Wednesday, the twenty-third."
"Is it possible?" muttered the clergyman, with a look of startled despair. "Pardon my disturbance. I have been hardly myself for these last weeks. Yet I can wait."
I spoke to Mr. Clifton as he was about to leave the library. He blenched at hearing my voice, and strove to conceal the package beneath his arm.
"How do my good friends in Foxden?" said I, inviting him into my alcove. "Is it true that Dr. Dastick has presented his cabinet of curiosities to the town?"
"What are you reading?" said the clergyman, in a tone of curt authority very foreign to the mild persuasiveness of his usual professional accents.
I exhibited the title of the book: it was the "Meditations of Descartes."
"And do you follow those who vainly seek for truth through the inner world of man, not conforming themselves to the necessities of the outward world and the teachings of Revelation?"
I defended the usefulness of some acquaintance with the original and powerful thinker, whose apologies are certainly profuse enough to satisfy the most orthodox.
"Yes; I suppose you read Spinoza, Hegel, Fichte, the Atheism of D'Holbach, Utilitarianism Systematized by Auguste Comte! Did you ever go fishing in a dory when the wind was off shore?"
There was an alarm in the eye and manner of Mr. Clifton, a tremulous restlessness in his speech, which warned me to avoid discussion, and endeavor to soothe his agitation. It was only to the last interrogatory, therefore, that I made some light reply.
"The sea sparkles gayly," pursued the clergyman, in the manner of an extemporaneous preacher who strives to catch in a net of decorations some illustration which presents itself,—"the boat tosses on from wave to wave, for dories will sail before the wind. Soon we are miles from shore, and throw the anchor. What auspicious expansion of soul and body! How we slide up and down the backs of great billows, and cast our lines with ever-varying success! But the night comes, and with it the necessity of rowing back against wind and tide. Ah, then how long the lonely ocean-leagues! How distant the time when we may hope to stand confused and giddy upon solid earth! Some never see the land again, but are swept out into the storm and darkness, and are lost,—lost!"
"I presume I understand the significance of your similitude," I replied, a little annoyed at this inopportune indulgence of the pastoral privilege. "You would imply the dangerous tendency of a certain sort of philosophical speculation; and so far we doubtless agree. Yet I ought to say, that, in cases where personal investigation is possible, I would take neither popular clamor nor learned dogmatism as conclusive evidence against any writer's honesty and usefulness. With the vulgar, genius has always seemed a sort of madness; and should a man rise preeminent above the teachers of his generation, his wisdom would appear to them as foolishness."
A change came over the face of Clifton as I said these words. It was as if a mask had fallen. Perchance he had wished to appear to me in that character of instructor which he desired some competent person to assume to him. Now, the relaxed muscles and averted eye only asked the sympathy of an equal. He spoke with forced, and almost grating, utterance.
"Then you have used experience well enough to know that some minds may bear into the world a light, a knowledge too fine for general perception, too pure for even exceptional recognition."
"I fully believe it possible," I said. "Yonder old Safe, if rumor says true, holds many mystic signals which the past and present could address only to the future,—signs meaningless, no doubt, to you or me, but which the freemasonry of higher intelligence shall render plain in the time hereafter."
"And what if I had come," exclaimed Clifton, eagerly,—"what if I had come to add to those deposits which are not for this time, but which may be for other times? What blame to me, if I am here to do this? Should we common men, who find a life full of active duties presented to our acceptance,—should such as we, I say, receive this world as a pageant before which we must sit down and evolve a doctrine? The conceit of external education is at present too strong to acknowledge a divine element radiating from the depths of the soul, and finding in the mind only an awkward and imperfect instrument. Any extravagance is now tolerated, but an extravagance of spirituality; and we find altogether wanting the perception, that, rising from the gross symbols of language, can know the subtile and precious emotion which in a more advanced state of being those symbols might suggest."
As it was evident that Mr. Clifton was laboring under great nervous excitability, I judged it prudent not to question the sequence of what he said, or even demand that it be made intelligible by further explanation. Indeed, I was sufficiently occupied in striving to identify this incomprehensible person with my familiar acquaintance, the pastor of the First Church in Foxden. It occurred to me that something had once been said of Clifton's connection with that topsy-turvy sodality popularly known as "The Transcendentalists." But this was many years ago; and the world always supposed that he had outgrown his early errors, and found, in the liberal theology of New England, a more genuine inspiration. In meeting him in his pastoral relation, I had only remarked that he was one of those men who find it very difficult to resist the social influences into which they may be thrown. This was probably the case even where that influence tended to degrade him from the plane he would have occupied, if left to himself. His spiritual life seemed to lack that vigor and buoyancy so infinitely important to contemplative men. He appeared to be ever yearning for something which should add robustness to his convictions. After a pause of some moments, Clifton again addressed me.
"Recollections of moments, months of excitement, of intense power, have returned! They may not fade again unspoken. You shall know my long-cherished secret. Younger in years, you may scarcely advise; but, at least, you may give sympathy that shall confirm my decision. I have engaged rooms at the neighboring hotel. Come and pass the evening—nay, the night—with me; for much must be read and thought and spoken before the black veil of personality can be lifted between us."
It has already been observed that my family were at the seaside. This circumstance left me sole disposer of my time and localities. How, then, resist the inclination to see out the adventure upon which I had stumbled? Let me credit myself also with a worthier motive: I saw that my companion was in no state to be left to himself,—and, really, there was no mutual friend to whom I could consign him. Accordingly I offered my arm in a manner to imply acquiescence in his proposal.
We soon reached the hotel, and ascended to a room in the remote corner of a spacious wing. Clifton at once turned the key, placed his package upon the table, and proceeded to employ a stray bit of carpet in stopping a ventilator which communicated with the entry. Having satisfied himself that this passage was rendered impervious to sound, he drew two chairs up to the table, motioned me into one, and planted himself in the other with the air of a man, in popular phrase, about to make a night of it.
"Did you ever hear of Herbert Vannelle?" he asked, abruptly.
It can hardly be necessary to say that a substitute is here placed for the name really mentioned.
I replied in the negative, and asked where the gentleman lived.
"He lives nowhere on earth; he is dead,—just dead."
"A friend of yours?"
"A master once; now a presence eluding, haunting, torturing. He left me this manuscript; it is a 'Philosophy of the Absolute.'" (Here Clifton drew from a curiously contrived case of parchment a cluster of pages.) "It has now twenty-two hours to appear in the present century. You shall devote the night to reading it, and tell me that I have acted well."
A sultry August evening, a smoky boarding-house lamp, much skirmishing of mosquitoes, and—a manuscript system of philosophy! The prospect was not inviting. The reading of other people's manuscripts is surely the crucial test of a devoted benevolence. There are few ways in which I am so little ready to oblige my fellow-men. I had, indeed, at times, been induced to inspect sundry romances in blotted embryo; but, as yet, nobody had called upon me with a system of philosophy. Printed philosophy is none too easy reading. But to sit there, under the guardianship of Clifton, and spell out the dim dogmatism of some nebulous fanatic,—of course it was not to be thought of for a moment. With a suave periphrasis of speech I questioned the expediency of the proposition.
"I shall ring for candles that will burn during the night," said Mr. Clifton, heedless of my expostulation. "Also some refreshment. You take tea, I suppose? You shall read the first ten pages of Vannelle's writing. It is possible you may exercise self-control enough to abandon it unfinished. But you will not sleep tonight."
There was a confidence in the minister's tone which gave rather unpleasant emphasis to this final prophecy. Still, I believed myself capable of the ten pages without establishing a hopelessly wakeful condition,—indeed, it was something to be guarantied against the opposite infirmity. The tea, accompanied by a few thin shavings of toast, presently arrived. The means of procuring light were also furnished us. Clifton's hand lay heavily upon the manuscript until the attendant had disappeared for the last time, and the door was locked behind him. He then opened the papers before me, and signified that the time had come. I braced myself as for a serious undertaking.
Thus I accepted the task. How give words to the singular emotions which soon possessed me? As if some charm, some spell of magnetism, had been given to the paper, my whole consciousness was riveted upon it. I know not how to represent this bold, this startling attempt to establish a positive basis for metaphysical philosophy, an exact science of all things human and divine. Here was a man, perchance of more courage and conscience, perchance of more devilish recklessness, than any of his contemporaries. But how deal with what came to me from that wondrous writing in the ambiguities of common language? All thought—even supposing it embodied in a perfect form of speech—is subject to the limitations of the recipient mind. My own glimpses of the writer's meaning were necessarily most indistinct. I cannot attempt to transfer them. I was controlled by a force not my own. The shadow of a mysterious power was over me. The mists of sentimental pantheism were left far below the clear-cut summits whither the reader was invited to ascend. There was an interpretation of Revelation far more removed from the apparent letter than that of Swedenborg. Here was reaffirmed (though for a widely different purpose) what the Romish Church has ever declared,—that the Scriptures, recording spiritual truth, cannot be comprehensible to the natural understanding,—that, while the Sacred Writings contain a natural letter, it can be translated into spiritual verity only by a few exceptional men. If this scheme of philosophy was an idealism, it nevertheless manifested itself through the plainest realities. The solution of the problem seemed to come not from one point, but from all points. Certainly there was a tendency towards the supersensible; but this direction was taken through stern grappling with the actual. At one time I struggled against the august spirit that was borne in upon me; at another, I was utterly subdued by the lofty enthusiasm of the writer,—something within me capable of absolute cognition seemed responding to his appeals. But the pith and vitality of this marvel could be recognized only by long experience. And here the student was required to stake his soul upon a perilous cast. For, if not pursued and fathomed to full satisfaction, this view of things would be disturbing, paralyzing. With any half-acceptance a man might scarcely live. It must fashion the mind as an artist fashions the passive metals into a musical instrument, and then every event in time might touch it to exquisite harmony. But the more ravishing the beauty which seemed offered through perfect realization of this knowledge, the more blighting would be its effects, if entertained in the spirit of a selfish dilettanteism. For in certain passages were breathed faint suggestions, that moral codes held sacred by the people could not bind the initiated,—nay, that what seemed most evil might be so explained as to become wholly legitimate to the elect.
It was far into the night. I had gone over about a third of the manuscript. Sharp questions assailed my ears. Was I bound to jeopard all the common good of life for the chance of—just failing to know existence from a higher plane? Could I ascend so far above the frailties of average men as to receive in purity and innocence the license which acceptance of this strange scheme would surely give? Dim-sighted as I was, it was necessary to rise and dispel this splendid phantasm. I shuddered in sudden alarm at the danger which threatened me. By a spasmodic movement, in which I failed to recognize any presence of my will, the manuscript was closed and handed to Clifton. Welcome existence under coarsest and harshest terms, rather than tamper with such fearful possibilities!
For hours the minister had gazed into my face, partaking the excitement to which he had subjected me. He had lighted and trimmed the candles, as was necessary, but had never broken silence. And now there came from him the deep sigh of relief from an absorbing interest; he sighed as a little child when the fairytale is ended and the tense strain of attention may be relaxed.
"What was this man?" I demanded, hurriedly.
"What he was is to be discovered through these writings, if it may be found out at all. What he was is not for me nor for you to know. It is possible that he may meet with competent judges hereafter, even among men. Look at this address."
Clifton handed me a little memorandum relating to the ultimate disposition of the manuscript. It was to remain for eighty years in the Mather Safe, and was then to be consigned to the occupant of the Chair of Moral Philosophy in the College.
"Say rather to the last minority-candidate for the professorship!" I exclaimed. "I doubt if the actual winner of that comfortable possession will feel disposed to abandon the market-worth of conventional acquirements, and set forth as a humble student of unpopular truth."
The minister seemed struck with the suggestion, and made the alteration I had indicated.
The darkest hour of the night had come. Every sound of human activity had long ago ceased. It was the quiet time when one may most easily probe an intense experience. I felt that more was to be known,—something which the minister longed to tell,—something to which what he had caused me to read was to serve as a prelude. I suspected how powerless must have been this sensitive man in the presence of the Idea which he had carried. Doubtless, in one of his peculiar tendencies, it might prevent all harmonious action,—it might ever goad the intellect, and crush the heart. As the confession trembled upon the lips of Clifton, I signified my profound sympathy. It is an awful moment, when a mature man tries to put off the solitariness of his life.
What was then communicated I can repeat only in the first person. The pathetic earnestness of the speaker imprinted on my memory the very phrases that he used; there can be few verbal changes as they now flow from the pen.
NARRATIVE OF THE REVEREND CHARLES CLIFTON.
I am indebted for education to a bachelor uncle, who, after our great bereavement, received at his house an infant sister and myself. I was at that time about twelve years old. My relative enjoyed a handsome annuity, which he spent with the utmost liberality. As I was rather a thoughtful, though not very studious boy, it was determined that I should go to college. I entered with some difficulty soon after my seventeenth birthday,—an age somewhat later than the average at that time.
Two years before me in college was the class of 18—. Upon the roll of its fifty-two members stood the name of Herbert Vannelle. Rich, an orphan, inclined to thought and study beyond the limited academic range of those days, endowed with personal fascinations of a very rare and peculiar kind,—there seemed only one possible shadow to darken his career. In his family there had been said to exist a tendency to eccentric independence of action, which vulgarly, perhaps justly, passed for insanity. His father, who died soon after Herbert entered college, had given much uneasiness to the wealthy and respectable city-circle with which he was socially connected. Upon the death of his wife he had retired to the Vannelle homestead in the northwestern part of Connecticut, and there lived in studious seclusion. There he insisted upon bringing up his only son, deprived of such recreations and companionships as are suitable to youth. He had, indeed, superintended his studies with patience and thoroughness, and had not failed to accomplish him in the grace of physical power, at that time little recognized as a part of education.
So much was known of Vannelle when he appeared at college among the young men of the Junior Class. And little more was known of him when he left America on the day his class graduated. His connections with the other students had been very slight. He had never cared to acquire that fluency in retailing the thoughts of others upon which college-rank depends. An access to the library was all that he seemed to value in his connection with the institution. And here he busied himself, not with the openings to the solid and rational sciences, but with the bewildering sophistries of the school-philosophies, and their aimless wrangling over verbal conceits.
At that time I happened to be taking a young man's first enchanting rounds upon the tread-mill of metaphysics. At the library I often encountered Vannelle in search of some volume of which I had just possessed myself. This led to an acquaintance. I was soon fascinated by a power which streamed from his large, expressive eyes, and persuaded by a voice modulated in a pathos and sweetness that I have heard in no other person. His influence upon me at this time was not unlike that which the mesmerists had just begun to exercise. Yet, while he showed an interest in directing my inquiries along the paths to which they naturally tended, he never communicated the results of his own studies, or offered me the slightest assistance in generalizing my random observations. What he thought himself, or by what writers he was influenced, it was not easy to fathom. He was deeply acquainted with the writings of the New-England Transcendentalists, then at their greatest notoriety, yet never for an instant seemed giddy upon the hazy heights where those earnest spirits soared.
Vannelle spent two years in Germany, and returned to America about the time that my college-course was finished. The little I knew of him during his absence was from the scattered notices of newspaper-correspondents, who intimated that Herbert possessed the privilege of friendly intercourse with men most distinguished for knowledge in the Old World. Just before Class-Day, I received a letter dated from X——, in Connecticut, inviting me, in terms which seemed almost a command, to spend the summer at the Vannelle homestead. Herbert had returned, and thus abruptly summoned me. Intending to postpone until the autumn the study of a profession, I promised to come to him for a few weeks,—a visit which might be extended, were it mutually agreeable.
There was, at that time, a day of weary staging after leaving the cars, before arriving in the village of X——; there were also six rough miles of carriage-conveyance before the traveller could attain the old house by the damp river-marsh whereto I was destined. When I arrived there, Vannelle stood at the door to greet me.
"We have six months' concern together," he said, as if delivering himself of some studied speech,—"we have six months' concern together; then we may stand at the parting of the ways,—we may cleave to one another, or separate forever."
A low, dark house. The south-side planted out from the sun by pines and cedars. The parlors covered with well-worn Turkey carpets, chafed into dusty ridges. The wretched window-glass breaking and distorting the pine-trees without. Little oval mirrors distorting the human countenance within. In the living-room (so called by those able to live in it) loomed a rusty air-tight stove of cathedral proportion,—a ghastly altar which the bitterest enemy of the family might feel fully justified in protecting. A square, cellarless room, about twenty feet from the house, had been the study of the elder Vannelle. Tables covered with a confused mass of writing-materials. A jumble of retorts and other chemical apparatus about the floor. Cabinets of the ugliest pattern reached to the ceiling;—at first I supposed them to be made of painted wood; afterwards I discovered they were of iron, and filled with rare books and manuscripts.
"My father built this study," said Vannelle, as we passed into it. "He wished to get rid of those periodical clearings-up from which there is no escape in a New-England household. Mrs. Brett, the wife of our farmer, could never resist the feminine itch to put things to rights. She was always contriving to arrange papers and books in symmetrical piles where nothing could be found. My father could never turn his back but she was sure to annihilate important scraps of writing that were lying about the floor, and, under pretence of sweeping, invoke a simoom of dust that hours were insufficient to allay. But when he built this room, and kept the key of it, there was no more trouble."
I shudder as I hurry through these descriptions, for a confession which I hardly dare to put into words must accompany them. All these surroundings, seen by me for the first time, had a fearful familiarity. In some occult state of spiritual existence I seemed to have known them all. I have learned that the soul may enter into communion with other minds otherwise than through the senses,—nay, more, it may thus take an inexplicable cognizance of material things. Of this I have had such proof as it would be infatuation to doubt. I was compelled to test this startling suspicion for the first time.
"You need not take me up-stairs, Herbert," I said, as we returned to the house. "The picture of your father, which hangs in the large chamber projecting over the porch, was doubtless a good likeness of the mask he wore at city club-houses and family-dinners,—but the man as you knew him here, how little does it resemble! As for the Chinese cabinet which stands between the windows, it has associations, no doubt, but it is sadly out of repair. Those pink tiles about the fireplace may be interesting to antiquaries; but I rather prefer the blue variety, as corresponding to the mental state in which their infinitely pretentious subjects and execrable drawing always put me."
The lightness of speech was painfully forced. Vannelle turned to me and said, slowly,—
"Have you been here before?"
"Has any one described to you this house or its contents?"
"Then thought has been conveyed from mind to mind in unconditioned purity. It is as I had supposed. We are brothers forever."
The next day, after an early breakfast, Vannelle summoned me to the study. I glanced distrustfully at the confusion of the room, which seemed in strange contrast with the exquisitely neat and even fashionable attire of its proprietor. A smile of proud pity touched the lips of Vannelle, as he seemed to divine my thought. Then, as if I had read them in letters of light, these words seemed to answer me:—
"Shall we, the stewards and guardians of the highest interests of mankind, fret our souls at trifles,—we, who are to be instruments in marshalling the race from slavery and folly to wisdom and freedom? Behold, in one bound, the hovels and palaces of earth shall be alike, and, floating free in spiritual space, we will win such dominion as the highest graduates in saintship dimly perceived, but were never able to declare!"
These thoughts, energizing the brain of my companion, seemed thrown into my consciousness with far more distinctness than if they had been uttered. It was with awe that this mystic correspondence between mind and mind was made plain to me. One man out of this myriad-bodied humanity had sought me out, and in his presence I was never more to be alone. The gigantic shadow of self passed from me; I was as clay in the potter's hands!
At length Herbert spoke.
"Our work in this world is determined for us; mine is allotted to me,—not by my own choice. I return to this house never to leave it till I go to join my father, with his great work more nearly completed than when it came to my hands. At that table he died, with some glimpses of the promised land whither he tended,—where he prayed that I might enter."
There escaped from me a feeble remonstrance,—no utterance of the heart, but rather a dry rattling of such conventional proprieties as lingered in the memory.
"And you intend to leave this wholesome world,—you, whose career might be such as few have it in their power to choose? You know, you must know, the wonderful gifts which you possess; you cannot alone be ignorant of the fascination you might exercise over man and woman."
"I know all these temptations, and others that you cannot surmise," exclaimed Vannelle, "and I will conquer them,—if not through spiritual grace, then by some bodily penance of lasting effect. I discern in you certain qualities of mind that may serve to regulate the equipoise of mine. I have the means to provide for us both during the high speculations in which we shall engage. Let us be comrades in this undertaking. I seek to bridge the great gulf that separates the natural from the spiritual. My father firmly believed in the possibility of obtaining an absolute ground for the philosophy which should include all things human and divine. He passed onward before the inestimable gift he seemed to have won could be set forth in the symbols of the world. To see is not difficult, but only to contrive a popular adaptation through which others may discern the thought. I seek the means to express the truth which he saw, and of which I can catch some glimpses through such colored mythologies as represent the higher religions of the world. Man has found out the knowledge by which a universe was evoked from chaos: shall he not perfect that knowledge in the Law which includes the divine element by which the universe is informed? How can we love with our whole heart what we do not know with our whole mind? Clifton, I declare to you that knowledge of the Law by which the Creator is and acts is possible to man!"
I shall seem to you weak and unstable in no common degree to have been moved by utterance like this. Remember that I can reproduce only the words, not the wild power of that persuasive voice, not the aspiring courage that struck me from his eye. Almost against my will there was produced in me a plasticity of mind that seemed to demand the impress of some foreign mould. The tree of knowledge was set in the midst of the garden, and again were audible the seductive serpent-tones: "Your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil."
I found Vannelle so far my superior in the knowledge of all earthly lores, that I at length came to think it possible he might be the appointed instrument of communicating the singular intelligence that he sought. He proposed to review the different systems built by human thought before applying himself to the problem of finding a system of philosophy which should include them all. His idea was, that from the extreme negation of the so-called transcendental position—when that position had been legitimately attained by a thoroughly conscientious thinker—some new light must break upon the mind. His was no shrinking from the conflict with real things to indulge in vague yearnings after the inaccessible, but a definite effort so to place the soul and discipline the understanding that wisdom could be realized without process or media. Unlike most inquirers of that time, he had no love for the abstract and the controversial, but entertained them freely as finally discovering some path to the concrete and the unquestioned. He declared that only to superficial persons was skepticism the terminus of speculative deism. Let me also say this for my friend,—that his directing stimulus to action was neither ambition nor curiosity, but what, had it been directed to any recognized end, the world would have called a religious principle. He was never guilty of the shallow wickedness of seeking self-culture as an end; he sought the highest self-culture only as a state of more passionate yearning for regeneration.
What need to tell how I was fascinated, mesmerized, into a humble companionship? how I became inspired with his own mighty belief in the feasibility of the object he strove to attain? We read together certain manuscripts of the elder Vannelle, in which, wrapt in a gorgeous symbolism, seemed dimly to approach a great truth, which, at times, could be faintly perceived, but never mastered. There were hints, apparently of the deepest significance, which, when the mind endeavored to grasp them, vanished like a vision.
Day after day, almost night after night, for five months, I passed with Vannelle in the room I have described. And during that vivid period I knew an intellectual intoxication which seemed the pure ecstasy of spirit wholly delivered from the burden of the flesh. Vannelle talked like one inspired upon the higher problems of metaphysical research, showing, or appearing to show, in what sense the speculations of the philosophers were true, and in what sense absolutely false. We seemed to have cut ourselves adrift from the human race, and to look down upon it from a position whence its basest moral corruptions and most detestable oppressions marked the rhythm in a majestic poem. The infinite vagaries of crime, the unspeakable ecstasies of blessedness, were equally wholesome as equally full of Law. At times it seemed impossible that any words could so mould themselves as to give distinctness to the thought which flashed through our minds. At times a representation corresponding to what Vannelle so eloquently uttered seemed embodied in every phase of opinion man had known. But, alas, there were also periods of doubt and despair analogous to those which succeed physical intoxication. The grosser systems of antiquity were not only considered, but actually personated in our experience. Here it was necessary for us to penetrate into some of the darkest recesses of the human soul, and to test how nearly allied is that which exalts man to that which degrades him, how the noblest virtues plunge headlong into the maddest passions. Yet we learned to welcome these convulsions of Chaos and Old Night, as blindly bearing us onward towards our destined goal.
—But enough of this. I would only faintly express how terribly real was the delusion (the world would so call it, and who am I to gainsay it?) which has overhung my earthly life.
Let me tell in briefest words how the spell was broken,—partially broken. During those months of passionate exaltation, letters from friends once dear to me had been thrown aside half-read, and wholly valueless. On the eleventh of November I started,—as a black seal was to be broken. My uncle had suddenly died. The last instalment of his annuity had been paid, and my little sister, an orphan and penniless, was thrown upon me for education and support. Shame to me that I then hesitated! Yet it was some hours before I could persuade myself to put the letter into Vannelle's hand, and say that I must abandon him forever. Let me forget the bitter temptation. Of course my friend begged to provide for my sister from his own ample means, and even offered her an asylum at his house. I still retained sufficient sanity to perceive the wrong of bringing a young child to that dismal place to wither removed from all human companionship and sympathy. A spirit not in a condition to be sustained and elevated by the society of Herbert would be confused, and finally petrified. Had this refined probing and questioning deadened all sense of duty? Was this the end of my Absolute Philosophy, that the intellect should usurp the place of the conscience and the moral law? Shame to me that I could have paused to ask such questions! yet any claim but one tittle less urgent I should have bantered aside. I seemed to realize the torture described in the dream of Dante,—two souls struggling together in one frail body. I had been applauding good and condemning evil when it cost me nothing but the sentiment; but when the fiery test came, my purpose cracked and shrivelled before it. Yes, I conquered; but the scars that purchased the victory have ached through my life.
There was but one calling wherein it seemed possible for me to earn my bread; for how could I descend to chaffer in the market, to trim and huckster through the world,—I, who had thought to condition the Spirit of the Universe? But there were metaphors faintly shadowing divine things, symbols adapted to the limitations of the popular mind, and with these I might do an honest work for the souls of men. Honest? Yes,—unless Augustine was a hypocrite, when he declared that he spoke of the Unseen as unity in three persons, less to say something than not to remain altogether silent. To a certain order of minds among the clergy this is the daily cross,—the necessity of maintaining a fixed position, and ever looking down from it to teach, instead of ever yearning upward to be taught.
It is enough to say, that, supporting myself and my sister by school-teaching, I achieved such courses of reading as are supposed to qualify for enrolment among the liberal clergy of New England. Until the time when my sister left me by marriage I was settled at N——, on the Connecticut. Soon after this event, died old Dr. P—— of Foxden, and I received a call to his vacant parish. I knew that the sort of society to be found in that place would minister to my most urgent need. I craved some intellectual clanship which should never seek to rise to an equal spiritual companionship. For there was only one man to whom I might speak freely, and from him my path ever diverged. How far apart the years had led us! Sometimes there came a whisper that I had been snatched from the hand of Satan, killer of souls; sometimes my only opportunities of salvation seemed left in that sad, damp homestead. I could never return to him; I could never be wholly free from him. Ever was I controlled by a shadowy force which reached me from his abundant power. No occupation was so absorbing as to protect me from the invading presence of Herbert Vannelle.
* * * * *
The first Sunday of the present month brought the twentieth anniversary of the day that I parted from Vannelle. In the morning I had preached a written sermon on those solemn words of the Apostle, "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin." For the first time I shrank from the consciousness that the words uttered were true to me in a very different sense from that in which the congregation received them. I found it difficult to poise in tremulous balance between Truth and its available representation to common men. It is my custom to preach extemporaneously in the afternoon. Upon rising, after the introductory services, I could perceive that my pulse and breathing were accelerated. A certain numbness of the brain seemed pierced with convulsive, fugitive shocks. An inexplicable influence, a command for cerebral sympathy, seemed beating at my forehead. I turned the sacred pages before me, but could find nothing upon which to base my remarks. But to my lips would come incessantly a passage from Sir Thomas Browne. At last I gave it voice:—
"There are, as in philosophy, so in divinity, sturdy doubts and boisterous objections wherewith the unhappiness of our knowledge too nearly acquainteth us. More of these no man hath known than myself; which I confess I conquered, not in martial attitude, but on my knees."
An extraordinary impetus seemed imparted to my mental powers. Men have said that I spoke with a fluency and eloquence unknown to them before. Indeed, I was conscious of a capacity to receive and convey such portions of divine wisdom as corresponded to their needs. To speak in figure, my heavenly race was as if the Lord of Evil pursued my soul.
Thoroughly exhausted by the effort, I returned to my study and threw myself upon a sofa. More fully than ever before, I entered that state where one far distant may make himself perceived and known. The occult power of foreknowing events, the delicate perception of forbidden things, worked their abnormal invigoration in the brain. I became conscious that a carriage miles off was rolling nearer and nearer; I knew that it would stop at my door. I waited, waited long into the night. One by one went out the scattered village-lights. Another consciousness of twenty years seemed compressed into those brilliant, bitter hours. My lamp flickered. I rose with effort and supplied oil; it would now burn till morning. The carriage came nearer. I knew that Vannelle was in it. At last the heavy rumble ceased at the door.
A figure stood before me. The old fascination in the eyes; a soul burning with lofty enthusiasm looked through and kindled them. But the face,—it was ghastly, livid as the face of a leper: it was spectral,—blanched and dried with the white flames of his exalted vigils. Ah, black eyes, well may you shine in terrible triumph! The old idolatry this man demanded of me would not be repelled. I gazed upon my visitor as upon a phantom from another sphere, and knew no reckoning of time. His magnetism was upon me; I could only crouch into myself—and wait. At length the silence was broken.
"Charles Clifton, teacher of the people, listen that you may be taught! For the last time I have come down into your world of passion and sense. The impulses with which you vainly strive and wrestle are behind me. Alone, alone, I have risen from the abysmal depths of personality. I have struggled fiercely. I have also conquered."
The livid face showed no change. It suddenly came to me, that, by some voluntary disfigurement of his exquisite beauty of feature, this man had cut away the lusts for pleasure, fame, and influence. What woman would kiss that ghastly cheek? What sycophant could fawn and smirk in that chilly presence? The injunctions concerning the offending eye and hand Vannelle had interpreted literally.
"I hold," he continued, "the noble prize of intellectual satisfaction seized by effort. Multiply the self-satisfactions of earth by infinity, and you may guess a little of the sublime contentment which wraps me round! Does the best stage-trick of your liberal clergy help them to anything but a plasticity of mind to be moulded into artistic forms of skepticism? How can you feel the delight of a definite, positive affirmation which accounts for and includes all creeds and lives of men? How can you come out from your partial dogmas to enter Truth and find it alone dogmatic and compulsive? Clifton, I pity you. I would rescue you from this haze of thought and feeling,—I, who have even now discarded Intelligence and enthroned Wisdom."
"I hope to be pardoned," I said,—"the current of this life sets so in favor of Utility and the Practical; men long to be fed with sentiment,—why try to give them ideas?"
"Fulfil, then, forever your little round of decencies and proprieties," exclaimed Vannelle; "I judge you not. Perchance your weakness is the pardonable weakness of one who has done his best. You may be guiltless in failing to attain the strength, the glory, of a true conviction."
"Is it too late?" I asked, faintly.
"It is the question I must put to you," replied Herbert. "I bring you in this manuscript the result of my life,—the result of two lives. Here is written, as clearly as can be written in gross symbols of human language, that which may suggest the Absolute, the Alpha and Omega, the System, not humanly built upon hypothesis, but divinely founded upon Law."
I knew that a package had been placed upon the table at my side.
"If you can so far command the fragmentary life you lead as to give this manuscript the sober, searching thought which it invites, the truth may be brought to you. But if these twenty years have only filled you with the pride of inventing arguments and detecting analogies, if they have only given you the petty skill of a petty scholar, why then dally on with a tinsel variety of superficial attainments, and give others the blessed privilege you are not strong enough to accept."
"Take it from me," I said. "It has haunted me too long. What you may have found, it is for your honor to promulgate."
"The finding is enough for one life," replied Vannelle. "The spiritual manhood is indeed complete, but the shell which enclosed it totters towards earth. My responsibility in this matter is at an end: yours will now begin."
A tremor ran through my frame as he spoke these words. A mystery rigid as Fate seemed to shackle me. Without seeing him go, I knew that Vannelle had left the room. Again was I conscious of the carriage-rumble growing fainter, fainter, fainter in the distance. A dream of passionate excitement, a phantasmagoria of old wishes, old hopes, of the life I might have led, flew before me. For a moment the energy of Vannelle seemed to have transfused itself through every fibre. An unquenchable thirst that I had never summoned struck into my brain. I seized the manuscript, and devoured page after page. Then I felt the approaches of a supreme despotism that might annihilate all I had been, all I hoped to be,—that might compel me to denounce all that I had taught, to hear all that was respectable and healthy in the world jeer at me as an impostor, an enthusiast, a madman. It was not that I was simply invited to come above the ordinary doctrines of the day, and stand supported and encouraged by a few advanced minds; but I was called to place myself where the most earnest souls—unless a second birth could be granted them—would scoff with the ignorance and intolerance of the mass.
At last the gray light of morning shone upon me.
One of my deacons, whistling sturdily, passed along the street. A physical emanation from his healthy vitality partially counteracted the influence of the night. Gathering up every muscle of my feeble will, I closed the manuscript forever. Hereditary imperfections of body and mind confine me to a sphere of reputable usefulness. If I have sinned in the past, I have also suffered. If, as I sometimes suspect, I have thrust from me the grandest opportunity ever offered to man, the loss through all eternity will be mine.
In eight days I heard of the death of Herbert Vannelle.
As the last words of his strange narration fell from Clifton's lips, he bowed his head and was greatly agitated. The vast theologic conception over which he had so long brooded, instead of lifting him on high, had crushed him to the earth. His moral consciousness had demanded a satisfaction which he lacked integrity of purpose to pursue and challenge. A fixed conviction of the dreariest pessimism would have been better for this man than the lofty uncertainty which had tortured his days; for in the belief that one may neither struggle nor aspire there is a certain practical drift. But how shall he do any good who bears about him a quick conscience, a skeptical understanding, sensitive religious affections, and a feeble will? Charles Clifton had neither the leisure, nor possibly the application, to follow the creeping advances of systematic knowledge. He had listened to a fatal persuasion, and at the same time had sought to satisfy contradictory principles of the human mind. The kindest thing I could do for him was soon perceived.
"Reverend Sir," I said, "you must permit me to advise you. It is now six o'clock. In an hour the early train leaves for Foxden. You must take it and return home. Any further vacuum in your daily employment will produce a crushing pressure from without that might endanger reason itself. I solemnly promise to deposit this manuscript in the Mather Safe,—nay, I will not leave town until the President and Treasurer have met me this afternoon according to your agreement. I pledge you my honor that the parchment shall be consigned to its resting-place with every necessary formality."
My companion gazed long upon vacancy before returning any answer. He strove to dispel the cloud-pageantry which had sailed above him in shapeless beauty. He walked up and down the chamber, paused, threw open the window, and looked upon the street below. I felt that every petty detail of man's daily craft struck outlines of painful vividness upon the morbid sensibility of his condition. Finally he spoke to this effect: —
"A grief has been lessened in giving it words. My deepest and most solitary moments have been revealed to human sympathy, and the relief is great. It may be that I have been created to some wholesome end,—that some truth may shine before the world through what seems the failure of my life. I will return at once to the sphere of the senses: it is, as you say, all that is left me. Let who will inquire into the significance and purpose of the Universe; it is for me to work in the bondage of the flesh, to be the humble tool of the age in which my lot is cast."
Yet it was not easy to induce the clergyman to commit to my care the conclusion of the enterprise which had brought him to town. His peculiar nervous temperament foretold a thousand accidents that might befall the precious legacy of his friend. It was only by addressing his reason in repeated arguments, and by solemnly asseverating my entire fidelity, that I induced him to yield.
It was a gracious gift to be once more alone.
I seemed awakened from a dream of pining exultation, of dark foreboding. Without acknowledging it to myself, I had been strangely wrought upon by what I had read and heard. As Clifton emerged from the magical influence of Vannelle, was it not concentrated upon me? The impulse to return to the perusal of the manuscript was almost irresistible. Yet it was evident, that, failing to receive as my very life what was there written, I should become hopelessly entangled in discrepancies and contradictions. A glance at the imminent peril sent me shuddering to my only safety.
It has been mentioned that I had interested myself in some inquiries tending to modify the received understanding of a certain natural law. During my morning in the College Library I had collected the records of many facts, which, laboriously compared, might confirm the hypothesis I had conceived. I now braced myself to the task of tracing an order in these random observations. I was soon stimulated by perceiving that my statistics seemed to confirm the justice of the reasoning which at first roused my suspicion. More and more plainly did man's experience respond to the results I had dared to predict. Trivial circumstances, noted in remote times and disconnected places, pointed in one direction, and there beat the regular pulse of Nature.
It is perhaps a little humiliating to mention, what I afterwards discovered, that the doctrine which I endeavored to reach had been already conceived and passed upon by a not very eminent scientist in one of the Western States. But at that time absorption in the search for attainable truth was necessary to my welfare; and, with very brief intervals for rest and refreshment, I continued my pursuit until the afternoon-hour for visiting the library.
The President and Treasurer entered the building at five o'clock.
For some minutes I had stood before the massive doors of the Mather Safe, wondering if any of its mysterious contents could be more singular than the consignment about to be made to its keeping.
"Is Mr. Clifton of Foxden in the library?" inquired the President.
"I am here to represent him," I replied. "He made a strange mistake in the day of appointment, and was compelled to leave town this morning. The package which he wished to deposit in the Mather Safe I hold in my hand."
"Lex Universalis Naturae; THE PHILOSOPHY OF THE ABSOLUTE," exclaimed the Treasurer, reading the inscription upon the outer parchment. "Poh, poh! I thought that sort of philosophy had long ago been handed over to the limbo of fallacies."
"By those who have neither feeling nor imagination enough to care for anything not transmutable into dollars, perhaps it has," I rejoined, somewhat tartly.
"Come, come!" said the President, in his good-natured, rolling tones; "since the days of the great Jonathan, our New-England metaphysicians have generally been broken-down poets, and should be treated with the greatest tenderness. Some flighty minds will prefer dangerous trips to dream-land to the rigid demonstrations of figures; but the mass of our graduates accept the teaching of their Alma Mater, that only the mathematician has the right to investigate, and that of all philosophers only natural philosophers are competent instructors."
"Yet, Sir," I said, "you will remember that the time was when your natural philosophers were persecuted as wizards by Church and State. Even the mathematician is defined by an old lexicographer to be 'Magus daemonum invocator'; and I cannot forget that all that is of honor and respect to-day is but the actual of a once despised ideal."
I really marvelled at my own audacity in presuming to question the words of this distinguished and excellent gentleman. Indeed, it was particularly surprising, because (if I knew myself) I precisely agreed with him. But there is a certain waywardness in my composition, which loves to puncture an inflated conventionality, even when I myself am most conventional.
In the mean time the Treasurer, taking the President's key with his own, had opened the Safe. I looked in and beheld coffers of lead and oak, nooks and pigeon-holes covered and sealed with the College seal, little cells of glass which appeared to hold documents of the utmost importance, and, in short, whatever might best defy the injuries of time. The weighty book which registered the contents of the Safe was opened before me. I was told to write the number assigned to the manuscript, to describe its present condition, and to indicate its destination. This I carefully did, and was about to confide my charge to its long oblivion.
"Stay!" said the President. "You have forgotten the mottoes! Here is only one; and it is our rule that every deposit in the Mather Safe be distinguished by three, in as many languages.
The selection is good, though it has already been adopted by a Massachusetts statesman. It is now for you to supply two others."
Singular as it may appear, this sudden call to perform a trifling office which I had not anticipated, filled me with a conflict of emotions. In choosing another's words, I seemed to indorse or repudiate the strange matter with which they were to be associated. I thought of Vannelle's wondrous language, of Clifton's exhilaration, and of the vivid buoyancy with which my spirit had striven to rise. I even groped for some phrase which might hint what delicate aerial impressions had tended to condense the soul on the supreme point of spiritual ecstasy. But memory was a blank when I demanded words for this seeming-glorious fact in the experience of humanity. Success was made impossible by the very intensity of the effort to summon an appropriate message to be dropped over the abyss of Time. I was confident that there were many apt things which might be said, if I could come at them, as it were, sideways. In order that I might take them at this advantage, I snatched a letter from my pocket, and began to read. My eye was soon caught by the impression of a seal that I had once given my wife. It was a good [woman's] motto, I jestingly told her; and now it was returned to me at my sorest need. Six little words of the good Pascal,—
"Le plus sur est de croire."
Something compelled me to write them, and a new freedom was with me when I had done so.
"Make haste, make haste, for the prayer-bell is ringing!" cried the President "See, here is a copy of Plato's 'Phaedrus,'—a work which our vapory brethren are fond of quoting, generally at second-hand; perhaps you may pick out a sentence that will prophesy with sufficient ambiguity."
But it was not Plato or his "Phaedrus" that then claimed my thoughts. There loomed a Rock graven with more august instruction than the sage of the Academy was privileged to communicate,—a Rock against which the heaving surface of human opinion had chafed and broken in vain. Tossed to and fro upon the tide of life, who has not sometimes listened to the wrangling voices which shouted, "Mystical Interpretation," "Absolute Fiction," "Huge Conglomerate of Myths"? Whose eye has never been caught by the sparkling tinsel of modern philosophies, with their Seers, Heroes, Missions, Developments, Insights, Principles of Nature, Clairvoyance, and Magnetic Currents? Happy those who are able to return to that one channel through which magnetic currents have indeed descended from an unseen sphere, and touched the noblest hearts! For there is a certain mediation between the necessities and aspirations of man,—an assured deliverance from the gross and sordid surroundings of his earthly life. There came before me one simple period from a familiar Book. Most direct and confident is the solemn statement. I wrote it as the final motto.
"NOW THE SERPENT WAS MORE SUBTILE THAN ANY BEAST OF THE FIELD WHICH THE LORD GOD HAD MADE."
THE TERTIARY AGE, AND ITS CHARACTERISTIC ANIMALS.
In entering upon the Tertiaries, we reach that geological age which, next to his own, has the deepest interest for man. The more striking scenes of animal life, hitherto confined chiefly to the ocean, are now on land; the extensive sheets of fresh water are filled with fishes of a comparatively modern character,—with Whitefish, Pickerel, Perch, Eels, etc.,—while the larger quadrupeds are introduced upon the continents so gradually prepared to receive them. The connection of events throughout the Tertiaries, considered as leading up to the coming of man, may be traced not only in the physical condition of the earth, and in the presence of the large terrestrial Mammalia, but also in the appearance of those groups of animals and plants which we naturally associate with the domestic and social existence of man. Cattle and Horses are first found in the middle Tertiaries; the grains, the Rosaceae, with their variety of fruits, the tropical fruit-trees, Oranges, Bananas, etc., the shade- and cluster-trees, so important to the comfort and shelter of man, are added to the vegetable world during these epochs. The fossil vegetation of the Tertiaries is, indeed, most interesting from this point of view, showing the gradual maturing and completion of those conditions most intimately associated with human life. The earth had already its seasons, its spring and summer, its autumn and winter, its seed-time and harvest, though neither sower nor reaper was there; the forests then, as now, dropped their thick carpet of leaves upon the ground in the autumn, and in many localities they remain where they originally fell, with a layer of soil between the successive layers of leaves,—a leafy chronology, as it were, by which we read the passage of the years which divided these deposits from each other. Where the leaves have fallen singly on a clayey soil favorable for receiving such impressions, they have daguerreotyped themselves with the most wonderful accuracy, and the Oaks, Poplars, Willows, Maples, Walnuts, Gum- and Cinnamon-trees, etc., of the Tertiaries are as well known to us as are those of our own time.
It was an eventful day, not only for science, but for the world, when a Siberian fisherman chanced to observe a singular mound lying near the mouth of the River Lena, where it empties into the Arctic Ocean. During the warmer summer-weather, he noticed, that, as the snow gradually melted, this mound assumed a more distinct and prominent outline, and at length, on one side of it, where the heat of the sun was greatest, a dark body became exposed, which, when completely uncovered, proved to be that of an immense elephant, in so perfect a state of preservation that the dogs and wolves were attracted to it as by the smell of fresh meat, and came to feed upon it at night. The man knew little of the value of his discovery, but the story went abroad, and an Englishman travelling in Russia, being curious to verify it, visited the spot, and actually found the remains where they had been reported to lie, on the frozen shore of the Arctic Sea,—strange burial-place enough for an animal never known to exist out of tropical climates. Little beside the skeleton was left, though parts of the skin remained covered with hair, showing how perfect must have been the condition of the body when first exposed. The tusks had been sold by the fisherman; but Mr. Adams succeeded in recovering them; and collecting all the bones except those of one foot, which had been carried off by the wolves, he had them removed to St. Petersburg, where the skeleton now stands in the Imperial Museum. The inhabitants of Siberia seem to be familiar with this animal, which they designate by the name of Mammoth, while naturalists call it Elephas primigenius. The circumstance that they abound in the frozen drift of the great northern plain of Asia, and are occasionally exposed in consequence of the wearing of the large rivers traversing Siberia, has led to the superstition among the Tongouses, that the Mammoths live under ground, and die whenever, on coming to the surface, the sunlight falls upon them.
Had this been the only creature of the kind found so far from the countries to which elephants are now exclusively confined, it might have been believed that some strange accident had brought it to the spot where it was buried. But it was not long before similar remains were found in various parts of Europe,—in Russia, in Germany, in Spain, and in Italy. The latter were readily accounted for by the theory that they must be the remains of the Carthaginian elephants brought over by the armies of Hannibal, while it was suggested that the others might have been swept from India by some great flood, and stranded where they were found. It was Cuvier, entitled by his intimate acquaintance with the anatomy of living animals to an authoritative opinion in such matters, who first dared to assert that these remains belonged to no elephant of our period. He rested this belief upon structural evidence, and insisted that an Indian elephant, brought upon the waves of a flood to Siberia, would be an Indian elephant still, while all these remains differed in structure from any species existing at present. This statement aroused research in every direction, and the number of fossil Mammalia found within the next few years, and proved by comparison to be different from any living species, soon demonstrated the truth of his conclusion.
Shortly after the discovery of fossil elephants had opened this new path of investigation, some curious bones were found by some workmen in the quarries of Montmartre, near Paris, and brought to Cuvier for examination. Although few in number, and affording but very scanty data for such a decision, he at once pronounced them to be the remains of some extinct animal preceding the present geological age. Here, then, at his very door, as it were, was a settlement of that old creation in which he could pursue the inquiry, already become so important in its bearings. It was not long before other bones of the same kind were found, though nothing as yet approaching an entire skeleton. However, with such means as he had, Cuvier began a comparison with all the living Mammalia,—with the human skeleton first, with Monkeys, with the larger Carnivora and Ruminants, then with all the smaller Mammalia, then with the Pachyderms; and here, for the first time, he began to find some resemblance. He satisfied himself that the animal must have belonged to the family of Pachyderms; and he then proceeded to analyze and compare all the living species, till he had collected ample evidence to show that the bones in question did not correspond with any species, and could not even be referred to any genus, now in existence. At length there was discovered at Montmartre an upper jaw of the same animal,—next a lower jaw, matching the upper one, and presently a whole head with a few backbones was brought to light. These were enough, with Cuvier's vast knowledge of animal structure, to give him a key to the whole skeleton. At about the same time, in the same locality, were found other bones and teeth also, differing from those first discovered, and yet equally unlike those of any living animal. The first evidently belonged to some stout and heavy animal, the others were more slender and of lighter build. From these fragments, ample evidence to him of his results, he drew the outlines of two animals: one which he called the Palaeotherium, (old animal,) a figure of which is given in the above wood-cut, and the other Anoplotherium, (animal without fangs). He presented these figures with an explanatory memoir at the Academy, and announced them as belonging to some creation preceding the present, since no such animals had ever existed in our own geological period. Such a statement was a revelation to the scientific world: some looked upon it with suspicion and distrust; others, who knew more of comparative anatomy, hailed it as introducing a new era in science; but it was not till complete specimens were actually found of animals corresponding perfectly to those figured and described by Cuvier, and proving beyond a doubt their actual existence in ancient times, that all united in wonder and admiration at the result obtained by him with such scanty means.
It would seem that the family of Pachyderms was largely represented among the early Mammalia; for, since Cuvier named these species, a number of closely allied forms have been found in deposits belonging to the same epoch. Of course, the complete specimens are rare; but the fragments of such skeletons occur in abundance, showing that these old-world Pachyderms, resembling the Tapirs more than any other living representatives of the family, were very numerous in the lower Tertiaries.
There is, however, one animal now in existence, forming one of those singular links before alluded to between the present and the past, of which I will say a few words here, though its relation is rather with a later group of Tertiary Pachyderms than with those described by Cuvier. On the coast of Florida there is an animal of very massive, clumsy build, long considered to be a Cetacean, but now recognized, by some naturalists at least, as belonging to the order of Pachyderms. In form it resembles the Cetaceans, though it has a fan-shaped tail, instead of the broad flapper of the Whales. It inhabits fresh waters or shoal waters, and is not so exclusively aquatic as the oceanic Cetaceans. Its most striking feature is the form of the lower jaw, which is bent downward, with the front teeth hanging from it. This animal is called the Manatee, or Sea-Cow. There are three species known to naturalists,—one in Tampa Bay, one in the Amazon, and one in Africa. In the Tertiary deposits of Germany there has been found an animal allied in some of its features to those described by Cuvier, but it has the crown of its teeth folded like the Tapir, while the lower jaw is turned down with a long tusk growing from it. This animal has been called the Dinotherium. A part of the head, showing the heavy jaws and the formidable tusk, is represented in the subjoined wood-cut.
Its hanging lower jaw, with the protruding tusk, corresponds perfectly to the formation of the lower jaw and teeth in the Manatee. Some resemblance of the Dinotherium to the Mastodon suggested a comparison with that animal as the next step in the investigation, when it was found that at the edge of the lower jaw of the latter there was a pit with a small projecting tooth, also corresponding exactly in its position to the tusk in the Dinotherium. The Elephant was now examined; and in him also a rudimentary tooth appeared in the lower jaw, not cut through, but placed in the same relation to the jaw and the other teeth as that of the Mastodon. It would seem, then, that the Manatee makes one in this series of Dinotherium, Mastodon, and Elephant, and represents the aquatic Pachyderms, occupying the same relation to the terrestrial Pachyderms as the Seals bear to the terrestrial Carnivora, and, like them, lowest in structure among their kind.
The announcement of Cuvier's results stimulated research, and from this time forward Tertiary Mammalia became the subject of extensive and most important investigations among naturalists. The attention of collectors once drawn to these remains, they were found in such numbers that the wonder was how they had been so long hidden from the observation of men. They remind us chiefly of tropical animals; indeed, Tigers, Hyenas, Rhinoceroses, Hippopotamuses, Mastodons, and Elephants had their home in countries which now belong to the Cold Temperate Zone, showing that the climate in these latitudes was much milder then than it is at present. Bones of many of these animals were found in caverns in Germany, France, Italy, and England. Perhaps the story of Kirkdale Cave, where the first important discovery of this kind was made on English soil, may not be so well known to American readers as to forbid its repetition here.