The Emperor Nicholas died in March, 1855, having lived long enough after the beginning of that great war which he had so rashly provoked to see his armies everywhere beaten and his fleets everywhere blockaded, while the Russian leadership of Europe was struck down at a blow, never to be resumed, unless there should be a radical change effected in Russian institutions. Nearly thirty years of the most arrogant rule ever known to the world came to an end in a moment, because the Emperor took "a slight cold." A breath of the Northern winter served to stop the breath of the Emperor of the North. He slept with his fathers, and his son, Alexander II., reigned in his stead. The new Czar, who has the reputation of being a much milder man than his father, and to bear considerable resemblance to his uncle, as that uncle was in his best days, was soon reported to be an emancipationist; but as the same reports had prevailed respecting both Alexander I. and Nicholas, the world gave little heed to what was said on the subject. It was not until he had reigned for almost two years that something definite was done in relation to it by the Czar; and then as many obstacles were thrown in the way of the reform as would have served to disgust any man who had not been in downright earnest. The Czar then took matters into his own hands, so far as that was possible, and the work was pushed forward with considerable speed. There was much discussion, and there were many disappointments, in the course of the business; but through all the Czar held to his determination, with a pertinacity that was not expected of him, and which leaves the impression that his character has not been properly understood. The history of the undertaking is yet to be written, but, from what little is known of its details, we should say that Alexander II. experienced more opposition, and that of an extremely disagreeable character, from the nobility, than Alexander I. would have encountered from the nobles of his time, had he resolved upon emancipation in good faith, and adhered to his resolution, as his nephew has done. Persons who suppose that a Russian Czar cannot be drowned, because belonging to that select class who are born to be strangled, would have it that the question would be settled by an application of the bowstring, or the sash of some guardsman, to the Imperial throat; and so a successful palace revolution lead to the postponement of the plan of emancipation for another quarter of a century. But Russian morality is of a much higher character than it was, and the members of the reigning house are models of decorum, and know how to defer to opinion. The nobles, too, are men of a very different stamp from their predecessors of 1762 and 1801. The Russian polity is no longer a despotism tempered by the cord. Fighting the good fight with something of a Puritanical perseverance, the Czar was enabled to triumph over all opposition to his preliminary project; and on the 3d of March, (N.S.,) 1861, the "Imperial Manifesto" emancipating the serfs was published.
In the opening paragraph of this document, the Autocrat declares, that, on ascending the throne, he took a vow in his innermost heart so to respond to the mission which was intrusted to him as to surround with his affection and his Imperial solicitude all his faithful subjects of every rank and of every condition, from the warrior who nobly bears arms for the defence of the country to the humble artisan devoted to the works of industry,—from the official in the career of the high offices of the State to the laborer whose plough furrows the soil; and then proceeds to say,—"In considering the various classes and conditions of which the State is composed, we came to the conviction that the legislation of the empire, having wisely provided for the organization of the upper and middle classes, and having defined with precision their obligations, their rights, and their privileges, has not attained the same degree of efficiency as regards the peasants attached to the soil, thus designated because either from ancient laws or from custom they have been hereditarily subjected to the authority of the proprietors, on whom it was incumbent at the same time to provide for their welfare. The rights of the proprietors have been hitherto very extended and very imperfectly defined by the law, which has been supplied by tradition, custom, and the good pleasure of the proprietors. In the most favorable cases this state of things has established patriarchal relations founded upon a solicitude sincerely equitable and benevolent on the part of the proprietors, and on an affectionate submission on the part of the peasants; but in proportion as the simplicity of morals diminished, as the diversity of the mutual relations became complicated, as the paternal character of the relations between the proprietors and the peasants became weakened, and, moreover, as the seigneurial authority fell sometimes into hands exclusively occupied with their personal interests, those bonds of mutual good-will slackened, and a wide opening was made for an arbitrary sway which weighed upon the peasants, was unfavorable to their welfare, and made them indifferent to all progress under the conditions of their existence. These facts had already attracted the notice of our predecessors of glorious memory, and they had taken measures for improving the condition of the peasants; but among those measures some were not stringent enough, insomuch as they remained subordinate to the spontaneous initiative of such proprietors as showed themselves animated with liberal intentions; and others, called forth by peculiar circumstances, have been restricted to certain localities, or simply adopted as an experiment. It was thus that Alexander I. published the regulation for the free cultivators, and that the late Emperor Nicholas, our beloved father, promulgated that one which concerns the peasants bound by contract. ... We thus came to the conviction that the work of a serious improvement of the condition of the peasants was a sacred inheritance bequeathed to us by our ancestors,—a mission which, in the course of events, Divine Providence called upon us to fulfil."
It will be observed that the Czar goes no farther back than the beginning of the reign of his uncle, sixty years since, in speaking of the measures that have been taken for the improvement of the peasants' condition; and he names only his father and his uncle as reforming Emperors, though his language is such as to warrant the belief that all his ancestors, who had reigned, had been friends of the serf, and anxious to promote their welfare. But Alexander II. is too well acquainted with the history of his family to venture to speak of the actions of either the Great Peter or the Grand Catharine toward the peasants. Gurowski tells us of the effect of one of Peter's acts in very plain language. "In 1718," he says, "Peter the Great ordered a general census to be taken all over the empire. The census officials, most probably through thoughtlessness or caprice, divided the whole rural population into two sections: First, the free peasants belonging to the crown or its domains; and, secondly, all the rest of the peasantry, the krestianins, or serfs living on private estates, were inscribed khrepostnoie kholopy, that is, as chattels. The primitive Slavic communal organization thus survived only on the royal domain, and there it exists till the present day. The census of Peter having thus fairly inaugurated chattelhood, it immediately began to develop itself in all its turpitude. The masters grew more reckless and cruel; they sold chattels separately from the lands; they brought them singly into market, disregarding all family-ties and social bonds. Estates were no more valued according to the area of land they contained, but according to the number of their chattels, who were now called souls. In short, all the worst features of chattelism, as it exists at the present day in the American Slave States, immediately followed the publication of this accursed census."[B] The same authority states that Nicholas in reality was the first Emperor who granted estates excepting therefrom the resident peasantry.
[Footnote B: Slavery in History, pp. 245, 246.]
Alexander II., in his Manifesto, expresses his confidence in the nobility of Russia, which compliment is pronounced ironical, inasmuch as they did not yield their consent to emancipation until they discovered that the Czar and the serfs had united to extort it. "It is to the nobles themselves," says the Czar, "conformably to their own wishes, that we have reserved the task of drawing up the propositions for the new organization of the peasants,—propositions which make it incumbent upon them to limit their rights over the peasants, and to accept the onus of a reform which could not be accomplished without some material losses. Our confidence has not been deceived. We have seen the nobles assembled in committees in the districts, through the medium of their confidential agents, making the voluntary sacrifice of their rights as regards the personal servitude of the peasants. These committees, after having collected the necessary data, have formulated their propositions concerning the new organization of the peasants attached to the soil in their relations with the proprietors. These propositions having been found very diverse, as was to be expected from the nature of the question, they have been compared, collated, and reduced to a regular system, then rectified and completed in the superior committee instituted for that purpose; and these new dispositions thus formulated relative to the peasants and domestics of the proprietors have been examined in the Council of the Empire." Invoking the Divine assistance, the Czar says that he is resolved to carry this work into execution. In virtue of the new dispositions, the peasants attached to the soil are to be invested with all the rights of free cultivators. The proprietors are to retain their rights of property in all the land belonging to them, but they are to grant to the peasants for a fixed regulated rental the full enjoyment of their close, or homestead; and, to assure their livelihood, and to guaranty the fulfilment of their obligations toward the Government, the quantity of arable land is fixed, as well as other rural appurtenances. In return for the enjoyment of these territorial allotments, the peasants are obligated to acquit the rentals fixed to the profit of the proprietors; but in this state, which must be a transitory one, the peasants shall be designated as "temporarily bound." The peasants are granted the right of purchasing their homesteads, and, with the consent of the proprietors, they may acquire in full property the arable lands and other appurtenances which are allotted to them as a permanent holding. By the acquisition in full property of the quantity of land fixed the peasants will become free from their obligations toward the proprietors for land thus purchased, and they will enter definitively into the condition of free peasants, or landholders. A transitory state is fixed for the domestics, adapted to their callings, and to the exigencies of their position. At the close of two years, they are to receive their full enfranchisement, and some temporary immunities. "It is according to these fundamental principles," says the Manifesto, "that the dispositions have been formulated which define the future organization of the peasants and of the domestics, which establish the order of the general administration of this class, and specify in all their details the rights given to the peasants and to the domestics, as well as the obligations imposed upon them toward the Government and toward the proprietors. Although these dispositions, general as well as local, and the special supplementary rules for some particular localities, for the lands of small proprietors, and for the peasants who work in the manufactories and establishments of the proprietors, have been, as far as was possible, adapted to economical necessities and local customs, nevertheless, to preserve the existing state where it presents reciprocal advantages, we leave it to the proprietors to come to amicable terms with the peasants, and to conclude transactions relative to the extent of the territorial allotment, and to the amount of rental to be fixed in consequence, observing at the same time the established rules to guaranty the inviolability of such agreements." The new organization, however, cannot be immediately put in execution, in consequence of the inevitable complexity of the changes which it necessitates. Not less than two years, or thereabout, will be required to perfect the work; and to avoid all misunderstanding, and to protect public and private interests during this interval, the existing system will be maintained up to the moment when a new one shall have been instituted by the completion of the required preparatory measures. To this end, the Czar has deemed it advisable,—
"1. To establish in each district a special court for the question of the peasants; it will have to investigate the affairs of the rural communes established on the land of the lords of the soil.
"2. To appoint in each district justices of the peace to investigate on the spot all misunderstandings and disputes which may arise on the occasion of the introduction of the new regulation, and to form district assemblies with these justices of the peace.
"3. To organize in the seigneurial properties communal administrations, and to this end to leave the rural communes in their actual composition, and to open in the large villages district administrations (provincial boards) by uniting the small communes under one of these district administrations.
"4. To formulate, verify, and confirm in each rural district or estate a charter of rules, in which shall be enumerated, on the basis of the local statute, the amount of land reserved to the peasants in permanent enjoyment, and the extent of the charges which may be exacted from them for the benefit of the proprietor, as well for the land as for other advantages granted by him.
"5. To put these charters of rules into execution as they are gradually confirmed in each estate, and to introduce their definitive execution within the term of two years, dating from the day of publication of the present manifesto.
"6. Up to the expiration of this term the peasants and domestics are to remain in the same obedience towards their proprietors, and to fulfil their former obligations without scruple.
"7. The proprietors will continue to watch over the maintenance of order on their estates, with the right of jurisdiction and of police, until the organization of the districts and of the district tribunals has been effected."
In the concluding portion of the Manifesto, the Czar expresses his confidence in the nobility, and his belief that they will so labor as to perfect the great work upon which all parties in Russia are engaged; but there is something in the language he employs that sounds hollow, as if he were not altogether so certain of support as he claims to be. He speaks less like a man stating a fact than like one appealing to the controllers of powerful interests. He also warns those persons who have misunderstood the Imperial purpose, "individuals more intent upon liberty than mindful of the duties which it imposes," and whose conduct was not beyond reproach when the first news of the great reform became diffused among the rural population. The serfs are called upon, with much unction, to appreciate and recognize the considerable sacrifices which the nobility have made on their behalf. They are expected to understand that the blessings of an existence supported upon the basis of guarantied property, as well as a greater liberty in the administration of their goods, entail upon them, with new duties toward society and themselves, the obligation of justifying the protecting designs of the law by a loyal and judicious use of the rights which are now accorded to them. "For," says the Autocrat, "if men do not labor themselves to insure their own well-being under the shield of the laws, the best of those laws cannot guaranty it to them." These are "noble sentiments"; but the shrewder portion of the serfs will probably attach more importance to the declaration, that, "to render the transactions between the proprietors and the peasants more easy, in virtue of which the latter may acquire in full property their homestead and the land they occupy, the Government will advance assistance, according to a special regulation, by means of loans, or a transfer of debts encumbering an estate."
Such are the principal details of this great measure, the most important undertaking of modern days, whether we refer only to the measure itself, or take its probable consequences into consideration. That forty-five millions of human beings should be lifted out of the slough of slavery, and placed in a condition to become men, would alone be a proceeding that ought to take first rank among the illustrations of this age. But we cannot consider it solely by itself. Every deed that is likely to influence the life of a nation that is endowed with great vitality and energy must be considered in connection with its probable consequences. Russia stands in the fore-front rank of the leading nations of the world. In the European Pentarchy, she is the superior of Austria, the controller of Prussia, and the equal of France and England. The growth of the United States in political power having received a check through the occurrence of the Secession Rebellion, the relations of the great empires, which our advance had threatened to disturb in an essential manner, will probably remain unchanged; and so Russia, unless she should become internally convulsed, will maintain her place. Assuming that the work of emancipation is to be peacefully and successfully accomplished, it would be fair to argue that the power of the Russian Empire will be incalculably increased through the elevation of the masses of its population. The Czar is doing for his dominions what Tiberius Gracchus sought to do for the Roman Republic when he began that course of much misunderstood agrarian legislation which led to his destruction, and to the overthrow of the constitutional party in his country. As the Roman Tribune sought to renew the Roman people, and to substitute a nation of independent cultivators for those slaves who had already begun to eat out the heart of the republic, so does the Russian Autocrat seek to create a nation of freemen to take the place of a nation of serfs. If the Roman had succeeded, the course of history must have been entirely changed; and if the Russian shall succeed, we may feel assured that his success will have prodigious results, though different from what are expected, perhaps, by the Imperial reformer himself. His motives of action are probably of that mixed character which governs the proceedings of most men. Undoubtedly he wishes well to the millions for whose freedom he has labored and is laboring; but then he would improve their condition in order that he may become more powerful than ever were his predecessors. He would rule over men rather than over slaves, because men make better subjects and better soldiers than slaves ever could be expected to make. The Russian serf has certainly proved himself to be possessed of high military qualities in the past, but it admits of a good deal of doubt whether he is equal to the present military standard; and Russia cannot safely fall behind her neighbors and contemporaries in the matter of soldiership. The events of all the wars in which Russia has been engaged since 1815 prove that her armies have not kept pace with those of most other countries. The first of Nicholas's wars with Turkey would have ended in his total defeat, if the Turks had been able to find a leader of ordinary capacity and average integrity. The Persian War was successful because Persia is weak, and she had not the means of making a powerful resistance to her old enemy. The Poles, in 1831, held the Russians at bay for months, and would have established their independence but for their own dissensions; and even then Russia was much assisted by Prussia. The invasion of Hungary was a military promenade, and the failure of the patriots was owing less to the ability of Paskevitch than to the treason of Goergei. In the contest between Russia and the Western powers, (1854-6,) the former was beaten in every battle; and when she had only the Turks on her hands, in 1853, her every purpose was foiled, and not one victory did her armies in Europe win over that people. The world saw that a new breed of men had taken the places of those soldiers who had been so prominent in the work of overthrowing Napoleon; and even the heroes of 1812-15 were admitted to be inferior to their predecessors, the soldiers of Zuerich and Trebbia and Novi. It is the fact, and one upon which military men can ruminate at their leisure, that the Russian armies showed more real power and "pluck" a century ago than they have exhibited in any of the wars of the last sixty years. They fought better at Zorndorf and Kunersdorf, against the great Frederic, than they did at Austerlitz and Friedland, against the greater Napoleon, or than we have seen them fight, at the Alma, and at Inkerman, and at Eupatoria, against Raglan, and St. Arnaud, and Omar Pacha. There was no falling off in the soldiers of Suvaroff; but personal character had much to do with his successes, as he was a man of genius, and the only original soldier that Russia has ever had; and the men whom he led to victory in Turkey, Poland, and Italy were trained by officers who had learned their trade of the warriors who had fought against Frederic. But in the nineteenth Century the change in the Russian army was perceptible to all men, and in none could that change have produced more serious feelings than in the present Czar and his father. Nicholas is supposed to have died of mortification because his army, the instrument of his power over Europe, had been cut through by the swords of the West; and Alexander II. succeeded to a disgraced throne because his troops had proved themselves unworthy successors of the men of Kulm. Wishing to have better soldiers than he found in his armies, or than had served his father, Alexander II. hastened that scheme of emancipation which he had been thinking of, we may presume, for years, and which, he asserts, is the hereditary idea of his line. We do not suppose that he is less inclined to rule despotically than was his father, or that he would be averse to the recovery of the position which was held by his uncle and his father. We find not the slightest evidence, in all the proceedings of the Russian Government, that the people whom the Czar means to create are to be endowed with political freedom. A more vigorous race of Russians, morally speaking, is needed, and, except in some parts of the United States, there are no men to be found capable of arguing that any portion of the human family is susceptible of improvement through servitude. The serf is naturally clever, and can "turn his hand" to almost anything. The inference that freedom would exalt his mind and improve his condition is one that was logically drawn at St. Petersburg and Moscow, though they reason differently at Richmond and Montgomery. An army recruited from slaves could not, in these times, when even bayonets think and cannon reason much more accurately than they did when Louis XIV. was a pattern monarch, ever look in the face the intelligent trained legions of France or England or Germany. A combination of political circumstances, similar to those of 1840, might give victory to a grand Russian army, like that laurelless triumph which was then won in Hungary, when the victors were nothing but the bloodhounds and gallows-feeders of the House of Austria; but of military glory the present Russians could hope to have no more. To regain the place they had held, it was necessary that they should be made personally free. That they might be the better prepared to enslave others, they were themselves to be converted into men. The freedom of the individuals might be the means of supplying soldiers who should equal the fanatics who followed Suvaroff, or the patriots who followed Kutusoff, or the avengers who followed the first Alexander to Paris. The experiment, at all events, was worth trying; and the Czar is trying it on a scale that most impressively affects both the mind and the imagination of mankind, who may learn that his works are destined greatly to bear upon their interests.
In war, it is not only men that are wanted, and in large numbers, but money, and in large sums. Always of importance to the military monarch, money is now the first thing that he must think of and provide, or his operations will be checked effectually. War is a luxury that no poor nation or poor king can now long enjoy. It is reserved for wealthy nations, and for sovereigns who may possess the riches of Solomon without being endowed with his wisdom. Having impressed so many agents into its service, and subdued science itself to the condition of a bondman, war consumes gold almost as rapidly as the searches and labors of millions can produce it. The only sure, enduring source of wealth is industry,—industry as enlightened in its modes and processes as imperfect man will allow to exist. Russia is an empire that abounds with the means of wealth, rather than with wealth itself. It is a country, or collection of countries, of which almost anything in the way of riches may be predicated, should intelligent labor be directed to the development of its immense and various resources. Russian sovereigns have frequently sought to do something for the people; but Alexander II., a wiser man than any of his predecessors, is willing that the people should do something for themselves, because he knows that all that they shall gain, each man for himself, will be so much added to the common stock of the empire. The many must become wealthy, in order that one, the head of all, may become strong. Time and again has Russia found her armies paralyzed and her victories barren because she was moneyless; and but for the gold of foreign nations she must have halted in her course, and never have become a European power. With a nation of freemen all this may be, and most probably it will be, changed,—though it is not so certain that the change will be attended with exactly that order of results which the Czar may have arranged in his own mind. The mightiest of monarchs are not exempt from the rule, that, while man proposes, it is God who disposes the things of this world. Not one of those reforming kings who broke down the power of the great nobles of Western Europe, and so created absolute monarchies, appears to have had any just conception of the business in which he was engaged; but all were instruments in the hands of that mighty Power which overrules the ambition of individuals so that it shall promote the welfare of the world.
The two years that are set apart for the completion of the plan of emancipation will be the trial time of Russia. They may expire, and nothing have been done, and the condition of the peasants be no more hopeful than it was in those years which followed the "good intentions" of Alexander I. It is not difficult to see that there are numerous and powerful disturbing causes to the success of the project. These causes are of a twofold character. They are to be found in the internal state of the empire, and in the relations which it holds to foreign countries. There is still a powerful party in Russia who are opposed to emancipation, and who, though repulsed for the time, are far from being disheartened. One-half the nobility are supposed to be enemies of the Imperial plan, and they will continue to throw every possible obstacle in the way of its success. There is nothing so pertinacious, so unrelenting, and so difficult to change, as an aristocratical body. The best liberals the world has seen have been of aristocratical origin, or democracy would have made but little advance; but what is true of individuals is not true of the mass, which is obstinate and unyielding. There is nothing that men so reluctantly abandon as direct power over their fellows. The chief of egotists is the slaveholder, unless he happen to be the wisest and best of men. Man loves his fellow-man—as a piece of property, as a chattel, above all things. It is a striking proof of superiority to be able to command men with the certainty of being as blindly obeyed as was the Roman centurion. The sense of power that is created by the possession of slaves is sure to render men arbitrary of disposition and insolent in their conduct. The troubles of our own country ought to be sufficient to convince every one that there must be nobles in Russia who would prefer resistance to the Czar to the elevation of millions whose depression is evidence of the power of the privileged classes. But for the conviction that the United States could no longer be ruled in the interest of the slaveholders, the Secession movement would have been postponed for another generation, and certain traitors would have gone to their graves with the reputation of having been honest men. There are Secessionists in Russia, and for the next two years they may be able to do much to prevent the completion of the work so well begun by Alexander II. But he appears to be as resolute as they can be, and even fanatically determined upon having his way. Supported by one-half the nobles, and by all the serfs, and confident of the army's loyalty, he ought to be able to triumph over all internal opposition. What he has already effected has been extorted from a powerful foe; and that costly step, the first step, having been taken, the Russian reformers, headed by the Emperor, ought to prove victorious in so vitally important a contest as that in which they have voluntarily engaged.
The greatest danger to the emancipation project proceeds from the side of foreign countries. As we have seen, both Alexander I. and Nicholas were led away from the pursuit of a policy that might long since have converted the Russian serfs into a Russian people, through their desire to interfere in the affairs of other nations. They could not reform Russia and crush reformers elsewhere. That they might decide grand contests in which Russia had no immediate interest, it was necessary that Russians should remain enslaved. What was it to Russia whether Bourbons or Bonapartes should reign over France? If she had an interest in the question, it was rather favorable to the Bonapartes, whom she overthrew, than to the Bourbons, whom she set up in order that the French might again overthrow them. The old Bourbons were never friendly to Russia, and would gladly have headed a coalition to drive her back to her forests; and the first Bonaparte was very desirous of being on good terms with the Northern Colossus, as if he were dimly forewarned of his coming fate at its hands. Led away from the true path, Alexander I. squandered on foreign affairs the time, the industry, and the money that should have been devoted to the prosecution of those internal reforms that were necessary to convert his subjects into men. Nicholas inherited from his unwise brother that policy which he so vehemently supported, and which caused him to waste on France and Austria the attention and the energy which, as a conscientious sovereign, he was bound to bestow upon Russia. The danger now is that Alexander II. will walk in the same wrong path that was found to lead only to destruction by his uncle and his father. The world was never so unsettled as it is now, and wars of the most extensive character threaten every country that is competent to put an army into the field. The Italian question is yet to be solved, and its solution concerns Russia, which is strongly interested in every movement that threatens to break up the Austrian Empire, or that promises to create in the Kingdom of Italy a new Mediterranean nation. The Schleswig-Holstein question is yet to be settled, and Russia has an immediate interest in its settlement, as Denmark, she expects, will one day be her own. The Eastern question is as unanswerable as ever it has been, and it is but a few weeks since the belief was common that Russia and France were to unite for the purpose of settling it, which could have meant nothing less than the partition of the Turkish Empire,—the union of one of the "sick man's" old protectors with his enemy, for the perfect plundering of his possessions. This arrangement, had it been completed, would have led to a war between France and Russia, on the one side, and England and Austria on the other, while half a dozen lesser nations would have been drawn into the conflict. But if an alliance for any such purpose was ever thought of by the Autocrat and the Stratocrat, it is supposed that it fell through in consequence of the occurrence of troubles in Russian Poland,—the Polish question, after having been kept entirely out of sight for years, having suddenly forced itself on the attention of Europe's monarchs, to the no small increase of their perplexities. Here are four great questions that are intimately connected with Russia's interests, any one of which, if pressed by circumstances to a decision, would probably plunge her into a long and costly war, one of the effects of which would be to postpone the emancipation of the serfs for many years. No empire could effect an internal change like that which the Czar has begun, and at the same time carry on a war that would require immense expenditures and the active services of a million of men. The Czar is in constant danger of being "coerced" into a foreign war; and the enemies of emancipation would throw all their weight on the side of the war faction, even if they should feel but little interest in the fortunes of either party to a contest into which Russia might be plunged. Leaving aside all the questions mentioned but that of Turkey, that alone is ever threatening to bring Russia into conflict with some of her neighbors. Neither England nor Austria could allow her to have her will of Turkey, no matter how excellent an opportunity might be presented by the death of the Sultan, or some similar event, to strike an effectual blow at that tottering, doomed empire. So that war ever hangs over the Czar from that side, unless he should, for the sake of the domestic reform he so much desiderates, disregard the traditions and abandon the purpose of his house. Were he to do so, it would be a splendid example of self-denial, and such as few men who have reigned have ever been capable of affording either to the admiration or the derision of the world. But could he safely do it? Then it does not altogether depend either upon the Czar or upon his subjects whether he or they shall preserve the peace of their country. Suppose Poland to rise,—and she has been becoming very wakeful of late,—then war would be forced upon Russia; and that war might be extended over most of Continental Europe. A Polish war could hardly fail to draw Prussia and Austria into it, they being almost as much interested in the maintenance of the partition as Russia; and France could scarcely be kept out of such a contest, she having been the patron of Poland ever since the partition was effected.
Considering the matter in its various bearings, and noting how inflammable is the condition of the world, and observing that a Russian war would be fatal to emancipation, we can but say, that the freedom of the serfs is something that may be hoped for, but which we should not speak of as assured. Alexander II. wishes to complete his work, but he is only an instrument in the hands of Fate, and things may so fall out as to cover the present fair prospect with those clouds and that darkness in which have been forever enveloped some of the best undertakings for the promotion of man's welfare. We may hope and pray for a good ending to the reform that has been commenced, but it is not without fear and trembling that we do so.
* * * * *
THE HAUNTED SHANTY.
As the principal personage of this story is dead, and there is no likelihood that any of the others will ever see the "Atlantic Monthly," I feel free to tell it without reservation.
The mercantile house of which I was until recently an active member had many business connections throughout the Western States, and I was therefore in the habit of making an annual journey through them, in the interest of the firm. In fact, I was always glad to escape from the dirt and hubbub of Cortland Street, and to exchange the smell of goods and boxes, cellars and gutters, for that of prairie grass and even of prairie mud. Although wearing the immaculate linen and golden studs of the city Valentine, there still remained a good deal of the country Orson in my blood, and I endured many hard, repulsive, yea, downright vulgar experiences for the sake of a run at large, and the healthy animal exaltation which accompanied it.
Eight or nine years ago, (it is, perhaps, as well not to be very precise, as yet, with regard to dates,) I found myself at Peoria, in Illinois, rather late in the season. The business I had on hand was mostly transacted; but it was still necessary that I should visit Bloomington and Terre Haute before returning to the East. I had come from Wisconsin and Northern Illinois, and, as the great railroad spider of Chicago had then spun but a few threads of his present tremendous mesh, I had made the greater part of my journey on horseback. By the time I reached Peoria the month of November was well advanced, and the weather had become very disagreeable. I was strongly tempted to sell my horse and take the stage to Bloomington, but the roads were even worse to a traveller on wheels than to one in the saddle, and the sunny day which followed my arrival flattered me with the hope that others as fair might succeed it.
The distance to Bloomington was forty miles, and the road none of the best; yet, as my horse "Peck" (an abbreviation of "Pecatonica") had had two days' rest, I did not leave Peoria until after the usual dinner at twelve o'clock, trusting that I should reach my destination by eight or nine in the evening, at the latest. Broad bands of dull, gray, felt-like clouds crossed the sky, and the wind had a rough edge to it which predicted that there was rain within a day's march.
The oaks along the rounded river-bluffs still held on to their leaves, although the latter were entirely brown and dead, and rattled around me with an ominous sound, as I climbed to the level of the prairie, leaving the bed of the muddy Illinois below. Peck's hoofs sank deeply into the unctuous black soil, which resembled a jetty tallow rather than earth, and his progress was slow and toilsome. The sky became more and more obscured: the sun faded to a ghastly moon, then to a white blotch in the gray vault, and finally retired in disgust. Indeed, there was nothing in the landscape worth his contemplation. Dead flats of black, bristling with short corn-stalks, flats of brown grass, a brown belt of low woods in the distance,—that was all the horizon inclosed: no embossed bowl, with its rim of sculptured hills, its round of colored pictures, but a flat earthen pie-dish, over which the sky fell like a pewter cover.
After riding for an hour or two over the desolate level, I descended through rattling oaks to the bed of a stream, and then ascended through rattling oaks to the prairie beyond. Here, however, I took the wrong road, and found myself, some three miles farther, at a farm-house, where it terminated. "You kin go out over the perairah yander," said the farmer, dropping his maul beside a rail he had just split off,—"there's a plain trail from Sykes's that'll bring you onto the road not fur from Sugar Crick." With which knowledge I plucked up heart and rode on.
What with the windings and turnings of the various cart-tracks, the family resemblance in the groves of oak and hickory, and the heavy, uniform gray of the sky, I presently lost my compass-needle,—that natural instinct of direction, on which I had learned to rely. East, west, north, south,—all were alike, and the very doubt paralyzed the faculty. The growing darkness of the sky, the watery moaning of the wind, betokened night and storm; but I pressed on, hap-hazard, determined, at least, to reach one of the incipient villages on the Bloomington road.
After an hour more, I found myself on the brink of another winding hollow, threaded by a broad, shallow stream. On the opposite side, a quarter of a mile above, stood a rough shanty, at the foot of the rise which led to the prairie. After fording the stream, however, I found that the trail I had followed continued forward in the same direction, leaving this rude settlement on the left. On the opposite side of the hollow, the prairie again stretched before me, dark and flat, and destitute of any sign of habitation. I could scarcely distinguish the trail any longer; in half an hour, I knew, I should be swallowed up in a gulf of impenetrable darkness; and there was evidently no choice left me but to return to the lonely shanty, and there seek shelter for the night.
To be thwarted in one's plans, even by wind or weather, is always vexatious; but in this case, the prospect of spending a night in such a dismal corner of the world was especially disagreeable. I am—or at least I consider myself—a thoroughly matter-of-fact man, and my first thought, I am not ashamed to confess, was of oysters. Visions of a favorite saloon, and many a pleasant supper with Dunham and Beeson, (my partners,) all at once popped into my mind, as I turned back over the brow of the hollow and urged Peck down its rough slope. "Well," thought I, at last, "this will be one more story for our next meeting. Who knows what originals I may not find, even in a solitary settler's shanty?"
I could discover no trail, and the darkness thickened rapidly while I picked my way across dry gullies, formed by the drainage of the prairie above, rotten tree-trunks, stumps, and spots of thicket. As I approached the shanty, a faint gleam through one of its two small windows showed that it was inhabited. In the rear, a space of a quarter of an acre, inclosed by a huge worm-fence, was evidently the vegetable patch, at one corner of which a small stable, roofed and buttressed with corn-fodder, leaned against the hill. I drew rein in front of the building, and was about to hail its inmates, when I observed the figure of a man issue from the stable. Even in the gloom, there was something forlorn and dispiriting in his walk. He approached with a slow, dragging step, apparently unaware of my presence.
"Good evening, friend!" I said.
He stopped, stood still for half a minute, and finally responded,—
"Who air you?"
The tone of his voice, querulous and lamenting, rather implied, "Why don't you let me alone?"
"I am a traveller," I answered, "bound from Peoria to Bloomington, and have lost my way. It is dark, as you know, and likely to rain, and I don't see how I can get any farther to-night."
Another pause. Then he said, slowly, as if speaking to himself,—
"There a'n't no other place nearer 'n four or five mile."
"Then I hope you will let me stay here."
The answer, to my surprise, was a deep sigh.
"I am used to roughing it," I urged; "and besides, I will pay for any trouble I may give you."
"It a'n't that," said he; then added, hesitatingly,—"fact is, we're lonesome people here,—don't often see strangers; yit I s'pose you can't go no furder;—well, I'll talk to my wife."
Therewith he entered the shanty, leaving me a little disconcerted with so uncertain, not to say suspicious, a reception. I heard the sound of voices—one of them unmistakable in its nasal shrillness—in what seemed to be a harsh debate, and distinguished the words, "I didn't bring it on," followed with, "Tell him, then, if you like, and let him stay,"—which seemed to settle the matter. The door presently opened, and the man said,—
"I guess we'll have t' accommodate you. Give me your things, an' then I'll put your horse up."
I unstrapped my valise, took off the saddle, and, having seen Peck to his fodder-tent, where I left him with some ears of corn in an old basket, returned to the shanty. It was a rude specimen of the article,—a single room of some thirty by fifteen feet, with a large fireplace of sticks and clay at one end, while a half-partition of unplaned planks set on end formed a sort of recess for the bed at the other. A good fire on the hearth, however, made it seem tolerably cheerful, contrasted with the dismal gloom outside. The furniture consisted of a table, two or three chairs, a broad bench, and a kitchen-dresser of boards. Some golden ears of seed-corn, a few sides of bacon, and ropes of onions hung from the rafters.
A woman in a blue calico gown, with a tin coffee-pot in one hand and a stick in the other, was raking out the red coals from under the burning logs. At my salutation, she partly turned, looked hard at me, nodded, and muttered some inaudible words. Then, having levelled the coals properly, she put down the coffee-pot, and, facing about, exclaimed,—"Jimmy, git off that cheer!"
Though this phrase, short and snappish enough, was not worded as an invitation for me to sit down, I accepted it as such, and took the chair which a lean boy of some nine or ten years old had hurriedly vacated. In such cases, I had learned by experience, it is not best to be too forward: wait quietly, and allow the unwilling hosts time to get accustomed to your presence. I inspected the family for a while, in silence. The spare, bony form of the woman, her deep-set gray eyes, and the long, thin nose, which seemed to be merely a scabbard for her sharp-edged voice, gave me her character at the first glance. As for the man, he was worn by some constant fret or worry, rather than naturally spare. His complexion was sallow, his face honest, every line of it, though the expression was dejected, and there was a helpless patience in his voice and movements, which I have often seen in women, but never before in a man. "Henpecked in the first degree," was the verdict I gave, without leaving my seat. The silence, shyness, and puny appearance of the boy might be accounted for by the loneliness of his life, and the usual "shakes"; but there was a wild, frightened look in his eye, a nervous restlessness about his limbs, which excited my curiosity. I am no believer in those freaks of fancy called "presentiments," but I certainly felt that there was something unpleasant, perhaps painful, in the private relations of the family.
Meanwhile, the supper gradually took shape. The coffee was boiled, (far too much, for my taste,) bacon fried, potatoes roasted, and certain lumps of dough transformed into farinaceous grape-shot, called "biscuits." Dishes of blue queensware, knives and forks, cups and saucers of various patterns, and a bowl of molasses were placed upon the table; and finally the woman said, speaking to, though not looking at, me,—
"I s'pose you ha'n't had your supper."
I accepted the invitation with a simple "No," and ate enough of the rude fare (for I was really hungry) to satisfy my hosts that I was not proud. I attempted no conversation, knowing that such people never talk when they eat, until the meal was over, and the man, who gladly took one of my cigars, was seated comfortably before the fire. I then related my story, told my name and business, and by degrees established a mild flow of conversation. The woman, as she washed the dishes and cleared up things for the night, listened to us, and now and then made a remark to the coffee-pot or frying-pan, evidently intended for our ears. Some things which she said must have had a meaning hidden from me, for I could see that the man winced, and at last he ventured to say,—
"Mary Ann, what's the use in talkin' about it?"
"Do as you like," she snapped back; "only I a'n't a-goin' to be blamed for your doin's. The stranger'll find out, soon enough."
"You find this life rather lonely, I should think," I remarked, with a view of giving the conversation a different turn.
"Lonely!" she repeated, jerking out a fragment of malicious laughter. "It's lonely enough in the daytime, Goodness knows; but you'll have your fill o' company afore mornin'."
With that, she threw a defiant glance at her husband.
"Fact is," said he, shrinking from her eye, "we're sort o' troubled with noises at night. P'raps you'll be skeered, but it's no more 'n noise,—onpleasant, but never hurts nothin'."
"You don't mean to say this shanty is haunted?" I asked.
"Well,—yes: some folks 'd call it so. There is noises an' things goin' on, but you can't see nobody."
"Oh, if that is all," said I, "you need not be concerned on my account. Nothing is so strange, but the cause of it can be discovered."
Again the man heaved a deep sigh. The woman said, in rather a milder tone,—
"What's the good o' knowin' what makes it, when you can't stop it?"
As I was neither sleepy nor fatigued, this information was rather welcome than otherwise. I had full confidence in my own courage; and if anything should happen, it would make a capital story for my first New-York supper. I saw there was but one bed, and a small straw mattress on the floor beside it for the boy, and therefore declared that I should sleep on the bench, wrapped in my cloak. Neither objected to this, and they presently retired. I determined, however, to keep awake as long as possible. I threw a fresh log on the fire, lit another cigar, made a few entries in my note-book, and finally took the "Iron Mask" of Dumas from my valise, and tried to read by the wavering flashes of the fire.
In this manner another hour passed away. The deep breathing—not to say snoring—from the recess indicated that my hosts were sound asleep, and the monotonous whistle of the wind around the shanty began to exercise a lulling influence on my own senses. Wrapping myself in my cloak, with my valise for a pillow, I stretched myself out on the bench, and strove to keep my mind occupied with conjectures concerning the sleeping family. Furthermore, I recalled all the stories of ghosts and haunted houses which I had ever heard, constructed explanations for such as were still unsolved, and, so far from feeling any alarm, desired nothing so much as that the supernatural performances might commence.
My thoughts, however, became gradually less and less coherent, and I was just sliding over the verge of slumber, when a faint sound in the distance caught my ear. I listened intently: certainly there was a far-off, indistinct sound, different from the dull, continuous sweep of the wind. I rose on the bench, fully awake, yet not excited, for my first thought was that other travellers might be lost or belated. By this time the sound was quite distinct, and, to my great surprise, appeared to proceed from a drum, rapidly beaten. I looked at my watch: it was half-past ten. Who could be out on the lonely prairie with a drum, at that time of night? There must have been some military festival, some political caucus, some celebration of the Sons of Malta, or jubilation of the Society of the Thousand and One, and a few of the scattered members were enlivening their dark ride homewards. While I was busy with these conjectures, the sound advanced nearer and nearer,—and, what was very singular, without the least pause or variation,—one steady, regular roll, ringing deep and clear through the night.
The shanty stood at a point where the stream, leaving its general southwestern course, bent at a sharp angle to the southeast, and faced very nearly in the latter direction. As the sound of the drum came from the east, it seemed the more probable that it was caused by some person on the road which crossed the creek a quarter of a mile below. Yet, on approaching nearer, it made directly for the shanty, moving, evidently, much more rapidly than a person could walk. It then flashed upon my mind that this was the noise I was to hear, this the company I was to expect! Louder and louder, deep, strong, and reverberating, rolling as if for a battle-charge, it came on: it was now but a hundred yards distant,—now but fifty,—ten,—just outside the rough clapboard-wall,—but, while I had half risen to open the door, it passed directly through the wall and sounded at my very ears, inside the shanty!
The logs burned brightly on the hearth: every object in the room could be seen more or less distinctly: nothing was out of its place, nothing disturbed, yet the rafters almost shook under the roll of an invisible drum, beaten by invisible hands! The sleepers tossed restlessly, and a deep groan, as if in semi-dream, came from the man. Utterly confounded as I was, my sensations were not those of terror. Each moment I doubted my senses, and each moment the terrific sound convinced me anew. I do not know how long I sat thus in sheer, stupid amazement. It may have been one minute, or fifteen, before the drum, passing over my head, through the boards again, commenced a slow march around the shanty. When it had finished the first, and was about commencing the second round, I shook off my stupor, and determined to probe the mystery. Opening the door, I advanced in an opposite direction to meet it. Again the sound passed close beside my head, but I could see nothing, touch nothing. Again it entered the shanty, and I followed. I stirred up the fire, casting a strong illumination into the darkest corners; I thrust my hand into the very heart of the sound, I struck through it in all directions with a stick,—still I saw nothing, touched nothing.
Of course, I do not expect to be believed by half my readers,—nor can I blame them for their incredulity. So astounding is the circumstance, even yet, to myself, that I should doubt its reality, were it not therefore necessary, for the same reason, to doubt every event of my life.
At length the sound moved away in the direction whence it came, becoming gradually fainter and fainter until it died in the distance. But immediately afterwards, from the same quarter, came a thin, sharp blast of wind,—or what seemed to be such. If one could imagine a swift, intense stream of air, no thicker than a telegraph-wire, producing a keen, whistling rush in its passage, he would understand the impression made upon my mind. This wind, or sound, or whatever it was, seemed to strike an invisible target in the centre of the room, and thereupon ensued a new and worse confusion. Sounds as of huge planks lifted at one end and then allowed to fall, slamming upon the floor, hard, wooden claps, crashes, and noises of splitting and snapping, filled the shanty. The rough boards of the floor jarred and trembled, and the table and chairs were jolted off their feet. Instinctively, I jerked away my legs, whenever the invisible planks fell too near them.
It never came into my mind to charge the family with being the authors of these phenomena: their care and distress were too evident. There was certainly no other human being but myself in or near the shanty. My senses of sight and touch availed me nothing, and I confined my attention, at last, to simply noting the manifestations, without attempting to explain them. I began to experience a feeling, not of terror, but of disturbing uncertainty. The solid ground was taken from beneath my feet.
Still the man and his wife groaned and muttered, as if in a nightmare sleep, and the boy tossed restlessly on his low bed. I would not disturb them, since, by their own confession, they were accustomed to the visitation. Besides, it would not assist me, and, so long as there was no danger of personal injury, I preferred to watch alone. I recalled, however, the woman's remarks, remembering the mysterious blame she had thrown upon her husband, and felt certain that she had adopted some explanation of the noises, at his expense.
As the confusion continued, with more or less violence, sometimes pausing for a few minutes, to begin again with renewed force, I felt an increasing impression of somebody else being present. Outside the shanty this feeling ceased, but every time I opened the door I fully expected to see some one standing in the centre of the room. Yet, looking through the little windows, when the noises were at their loudest, I could discover nothing. Two hours had passed away since I first heard the drum-beat, and I found myself at last completely wearied with my fruitless exertions and the unusual excitement. By this time the disturbances had become faint, with more frequent pauses. All at once, I heard a long, weary sigh, so near me that it could not have proceeded from the sleepers. A weak moan, expressive of utter wretchedness, followed, and then came the words, in a woman's voice,—came I know not whence, for they seemed to be uttered close beside me, and yet far, far away,—"How great is my trouble! How long shall I suffer? I was married, in the sight of God, to Eber Nicholson. Have mercy, O Lord, and give him to me, or release me from him!"
These were the words, not spoken, but rather moaned forth in a slow, monotonous wail of utter helplessness and broken-heartedness. I have heard human grief expressed in many forms, but I never heard or imagined anything so desolate, so surcharged with the despair of an eternal woe. It was, indeed, too hopeless for sympathy. It was the utterance of a sorrow which removed its possessor into some dark, lonely world girdled with iron walls, against which every throb of a helping or consoling heart would beat in vain for admittance. So far from being moved or softened, the words left upon me an impression of stolid apathy. When they had ceased, I heard another sigh,—and some time afterwards, far-off, retreating forlornly through the eastern darkness, the wailing repetition,—"I was married, in the sight of God, to Eber Nicholson. Have mercy, O Lord!"
This was the last of those midnight marvels. Nothing further disturbed the night except the steady sound of the wind. The more I thought of what I had heard, the more I was convinced that the phenomena were connected, in some way, with the history of my host. I had heard his wife call him "Ebe," and did not doubt that he was the Eber Nicholson who, for some mysterious crime, was haunted by the reproachful ghost. Could murder, or worse than murder, lurk behind these visitations? It was useless to conjecture; yet, before giving myself up to sleep, I determined to know everything that could be known, before leaving the shanty.
My rest was disturbed: my hip-bones pressed unpleasantly on the hard bench; and every now and then I awoke with a start, hearing the same despairing voice in my dreams. The place was always quiet, nevertheless,—the disturbances having ceased, as nearly as I could judge, about one o'clock in the morning. Finally, from sheer weariness, I fell into a deep slumber, which lasted until daylight. The sound of pans and kettles aroused me. The woman, in her lank blue gown, was bending over the fire; the man and boy had already gone out. As I rose, rubbing my eyes and shaking myself, to find out exactly where and who I was, the woman straightened herself and looked at me with a keen, questioning gaze, but said nothing.
"I must have been very sound asleep," said I.
"There's no sound sleepin' here. Don't tell me that."
"Well," I answered, "your shanty is rather noisy; but, as I'm neither scared nor hurt, there's no harm done. But have you never found out what occasions the noise?"
Her reply was a toss of the head and a peculiar snorting interjection, "Hngh!" (impossible to be represented by letters,) "it's all her doin'."
"But who is she?"
"You'd better ask him."
Seeing there was nothing to be got out of her, I went down to the stream, washed my face, dried it with my pocket-handkerchief, and then looked after Peck. He gave a shrill whinny of recognition, and, I thought, seemed to be a little restless. A fresh feed of corn was in the old basket, and presently the man came into the stable with a bunch of hay, and commenced rubbing off the marks of Peck's oozy couch which were left on his flanks. As we went back to the shanty I noticed that he eyed me furtively, without daring to look me full in the face. As I was apparently none the worse for the night's experiences, he rallied at last, and ventured to talk at, as well as to, me.
By this time, breakfast, which was a repetition of supper, was ready, and we sat down to the table. During the meal, it occurred to me to make an experimental remark. Turning suddenly to the man, I asked,—
"Is your name Eber Nicholson?"
"There!" exclaimed the woman, "I knowed he'd heerd it!"
He, however, flushing a moment, and then becoming move sallow than ever, nodded first, and then—as if that were not sufficient—added, "Yes, that's my name."
"Where did you move from?" I continued, falling back on the first plan I had formed in my mind.
"The Western Reserve, not fur from Hudson."
I turned the conversation on the comparative advantages of Ohio and Illinois, on farming, the price of land, etc., carefully avoiding the dangerous subject, and by the time breakfast was over had arranged, that, for a consideration, he should accompany me as far as the Bloomington road, some five miles distant.
While he went out to catch an old horse, ranging loose in the creek-bottom, I saddled Peck, strapped on my valise, and made myself ready for the journey. The feeling of two silver half-dollars in her hard palm melted down the woman's aggressive mood, and she said, with a voice the edge whereof was mightily blunted,—
"Thankee! it's too much fur sich as you had."
"It's the best you can give," I replied.
"That's so!" said she, jerking my hand up and down with a pumping movement, as I took leave.
I felt a sense of relief when we had climbed the rise and had the open prairie again before us. The sky was overcast and the wind strong, but some rain had fallen during the night, and the clouds had lifted themselves again. The air was fresh and damp, but not chill. We rode slowly, of necessity, for the mud was deeper than ever.
I deliberated what course I should take, in order to draw from my guide the explanation of the nightly noises. His evident shrinking, whenever his wife referred to the subject, convinced me that a gradual approach would render him shy and uneasy; and, on the whole, it seemed best to surprise him by a sudden assault. Let me strike to the heart of the secret, at once,—I thought,—and the details will come of themselves.
While I was thus reflecting, he rode quietly by my side. Half turning in the saddle, I looked steadily at his face, and said, in an earnest voice,—
"Eber Nicholson, who was it to whom you were married in the sight of God?"
He started as if struck, looked at me imploringly, turned away his eyes, then looked back, became very pale, and finally said, in a broken, hesitating voice, as if the words were forced from him against his will,—
"Her name is Rachel Emmons."
"Why did you murder her?" I asked, in a still sterner tone.
In an instant his face burned scarlet. He reined up his horse with a violent pull, straightened his shoulders so that he appeared six inches taller, looked steadily at me with a strange, mixed expression of anger and astonishment, and cried out,—
"Murder her? Why, she's livin' now!"
My surprise at the answer was scarcely less great than his at the question.
"You don't mean to say she's not dead?" I asked.
"Why, no!" said he, recovering from his sudden excitement, "she's not dead, or she wouldn't keep on troublin' me. She's been livin' in Toledo, these ten year."
"I beg your pardon, my friend," said I; "but I don't know what to think of what I heard last night, and I suppose I have the old notion in my head that all ghosts are of persons who have been murdered."
"Oh, if I had killed her," he groaned, "I'd 'a' been hung long ago, an' there 'd 'a' been an end of it."
"Tell me the whole story," said I. "It's hardly likely that I can help you, but I can understand how you must be troubled, and I'm sure I pity you from my heart."
I think he felt relieved at my proposal,—glad, perhaps, after long silence, to confide to another man the secret of his lonely, wretched life.
"After what you've heerd," said he, "there's nothin' that I don't care to tell. I've been sinful, no doubt,—but, God knows, there never was a man worse punished.
"I told you," he continued, after a pause, "that I come from the Western Reserve. My father was a middlin' well-to-do farmer,—not rich, nor yit exactly poor. He's dead now. He was always a savin' man,—looked after money a leetle too sharp, I've often thought sence: howsever, 't isn't my place to judge him. Well, I was brought up on the farm, to hard work, like the other boys. Rachel Emmons,—she's the same woman that haunts me, you understand,—she was the girl o' one of our neighbors, an' poor enough he was. His wife was always sickly-like,—an' you know it takes a woman as well as a man to git rich farmin'. So they were always scrimped, but that didn't hinder Rachel from bein' one o' the likeliest gals round. We went to the same school in the winter, he an' me, ('t isn't much schoolin' I ever got, though,) an' I had a sort o' nateral hankerin' after her, as fur back as I can remember. She was different lookin' then from, what she is now,—an' me, too, for that matter.
"Well, you know how boys an' gals somehow git to likin' each other afore they know it. Me an' Rachel was more an' more together, the more we growed up, only more secret-like; so by the time I was twenty an' she was nineteen, we was promised to one another as true as could be. I didn't keep company with her, though,—leastways, not reg'lar: I was afeard my father 'd find it out, an' I knowed what he 'd say to it. He kep' givin' me hints about Mary Ann Jones,—that was my wife's maiden name. Her father had two hundred acres an' money out at interest, an' only three children. He'd had ten, but seven of 'em died. I had nothin' agin Mary Ann, but I never thought of her that way, like I did towards Rachel.
"Well, things kep' runnin' on; I was a good deal worried about it, but a young feller, you know, don't look fur ahead, an' so I got along. One night, howsever,—'t was jist about as dark as last night was,—I'd been to the store at the Corners, for a jug o' molasses. Rachel was there, gittin' a quarter of a pound o' tea, I think it was, an' some sewin'-thread. I went out a little while after her, an' follered as fast as I could, for we had the same road nigh to home.
"It weren't long afore I overtook her. 'T was mighty dark, as I was sayin', an' so I hooked her arm into mine, an' we went on comfortable together, talkin' about how we jist suited each other, like we was cut out o' purpose, an' how long we'd have to wait, an' what folks 'd say. O Lord! don't I remember every word o' that night? Well, we got quite tender-like when we come t' Old Emmons's gate, an' I up an' giv' her a hug and a lot o' kisses, to make up for lost time. Then she went into the house, an' I turned for home; but I hadn't gone ten steps afore I come agin somebody stan'in' in the middle o' the road. 'Hullo!' says I. The next thing he had a holt o' my coat-collar an' shuck me like a tarrier-dog shakes a rat. I knowed who it was afore he spoke; an' I couldn't 'a' been more skeered, if the life had all gone out o' me. He'd been down to the tavern to see a drover, an' comin' home he'd follered behind us all the way, hearin' every word we said.
"I don't like to think o' the words he used that night. He was a professin' member, an' yit he swore the awfullest I ever heerd."—Here the man involuntarily raised his hands to his ears, as if to stop them against even the memory of his father's curses.—"I expected every minute he'd 'a' struck me down. I've wished, sence, he had: I don't think I could 'a' stood that. Howsever, he dragged me home, never lettin' go my collar, till we got into the room where mother was settin' up for us. Then he told her, only makin' it ten times harder 'n it really was. Mother always kind o' liked Rachel, 'cause she was mighty handy at sewin' an' quiltin', but she'd no more dared stan' up agin father than a sheep agin a bull-dog. She looked at me pityin'-like, I must say, an' jist begun to cry,—an' I couldn't help cryin' nuther, when I saw how it hurt her.
"Well, after that, 't wa'n't no use thinkin' o' Rachel any more. I had to go t' Old Jones's, whether I wanted to or no. I felt mighty mean when I thought o' Rachel, an' was afeard no good 'd come of it; but father jist managed things his way, an' I couldn't help myself. Old Jones had nothin' agin me, for I was a stiddy, hard-workin' feller as there was round,—an' Mary Ann was always as pleasant as could be, then;—well, I oughtn't to say nothin' agin her now; she's had a hard life of it, 'longside o' me. Afore long we were bespoke, an' the day set. Father hurried things, when it got that fur. I don't think Rachel knowed anything about it till the day afore the weddin', or mebby the very day. Old Mr. Larrabee was the minister, an' there was only the two families at the house, an' Miss Plankerton,—her that sewed for Mary Ann. I never felt so oneasy in my life, though I tried hard not to show it.
"Well, 't was all jist over, an' the kissin' about to begin, when I heerd the house-door bu'st open, suddent. I felt my heart give one jump right up to the root o' my tongue, an' then fall back ag'in, sick an' dead-like.
"The parlor-door flew open right away, an' in come Rachel without a bunnet, an' her hair all frowzed by the wind. She was as white as a sheet, an' her eyes like two burnin' coals. She walked straight through 'em all an' stood right afore me. They was all so taken aback that they never thought o' stoppin' her. Then she kind o' screeched out,—'Eber Nicholson, what are you doin'?' Her voice was strange an' onnatural-like, an' I'd never 'a' knowed it to be hern, if I hadn't 'a' seen her. I couldn't take my eyes off of her, an' I couldn't speak: I jist stood there. Then she said ag'in,—'Eber Nicholson, what are you doin'? You are married to me, in the sight of God. You belong to me an' I to you, forever an' forever!' Then they begun cryin' out,—'Go 'way!' 'Take her away!' 'What d's she mean?' an' old Mr. Larrabee ketched holt of her arm. She begun to jerk an' trimble all over; she drawed in her breath in a sort o' groanin' way, awful to hear, an' then dropped down on the floor in a fit. I bu'st out in a terrible spell o' cryin';—I couldn't 'a' helped it, to save my life."
The man paused, drew his sleeve across his eyes, and then timidly looked at me. Seeing nothing in my face, doubtless, but an expression of the profoundest commiseration, he remarked, with a more assured voice, as if in self-justification,—
"It was a pretty hard thing for a man to go through with, now, wasn't it?"
"You may well say that," said I. "Your story is not yet finished, however. This Rachel Emmons,—you say she is still living,—in what way does she cause the disturbances?"
"I'll tell you all I know about it," said he,—"an' if you understand it then, you're wiser 'n I am. After they carried her home, she had a long spell o' sickness,—come near dyin', they said; but they brought her through, at last, an' she got about ag'in, lookin' ten year older. I kep' out of her sight, though. I lived awhile at Old Jones's, till I could find a good farm to rent, or a cheap un to buy. I wanted to git out o' the neighborhood: I was oneasy all the time, bein' so near Rachel. Her mother was wuss, an' her father failin'-like, too. Mother seen 'em often: she was as good a neighbor to 'em as she dared be. Well, I got sort o' tired, an' went out to Michigan an' bought a likely farm. Old Jones giv' me a start. I took Mary Ann out, an' we got along well enough, a matter o' two year. We heerd from home now an' then. Rachel's father an' mother both died, about the time we had our first boy,—him that you seen,—an' she went off to Toledo, we heerd, an' hired out to do sewin'. She was always a mighty good hand at it, an' could cut out as nice as a born manty-maker. She'd had another fit after the funerals, an' was older-lookin' an' more serious than ever, they said.
"Well, Jimmy was six months old, or so, when we begun to be woke up every night by his cryin'. Nothin' seemed to be the matter with him: he was only frightened-like, an' couldn't be quieted. I heerd noises sometimes,—nothin' like what come afterwards,—but sort o' crackin' an' snappin', sich as you hear in new furnitur', an' it seemed like somebody was in the room; but I couldn't find nothin'. It got wuss and wuss: Mary Ann was sure the house was haunted, an' I had to let her go home for a whole winter. When she was away, it went on the same as ever,—not every night,—sometimes not more 'n onst a week,—but so loud as to wake me up, reg'lar. I sent word to Mary Ann to come on, an' I'd sell out an' go to Illinois. Good perairah land was cheap then, an' I'd ruther go furder off, for the sake o' quiet.
"So we pulled up stakes an' come out here: but it weren't long afore the noise follered us, wuss 'n ever, an' we found out at last what it was. One night I woke up, with my hair stan'in' on end, an' heerd Rachel Emmons's voice, jist as you heerd it last night. Mary Ann heerd it too, an' it's little peace she's giv' me sence that time. An' so it's been goin' on an' on, these eight or nine year."
"But," I asked, "are you sure she is alive? Have you seen her since? Have you asked her to be merciful and not disturb you?"
"Yes," said he, with a bitterness of tone which seemed quite to obliterate the softer memories of his love, "I've seen her, an' I've begged her on my knees to let me alone; but it's no use. When it got to be so bad I couldn't stan' it, I sent her a letter, but I never got no answer. Next year, when our second boy died, frightened and worried to death, I believe, though he was scrawny enough when he was born, I took some money I'd saved to buy a yoke of oxen, an' went to Toledo o' purpose to see Rachel. It cut me awful to do it, but I was desprit. I found her livin' in a little house, with a bit o' garden, she'd bought. I s'pose she must 'a' had five or six hundred dollars when the farm was sold, an' she made a good deal by sewin', besides. She was settin' at her work when I went in, an' knowed me at onst, though I don't believe I'd ever 'a' knowed her. She was old, an' thin, an' hard-lookin'; her mouth was pale an' sot, like she was bitin' somethin' all the time; an' her eyes, though they was sunk into her head, seemed to look through an' through an' away out th' other side o' you.
"It jist shut me up when she looked at me. She was so corpse-like I was afraid she'd drop dead, then and there: but I made out at last to say, 'Rachel, I've come all the way from Illinois to see you.' She kep' lookin' straight at me, never sayin' a word. 'Rachel,' says I, 'I know I've acted bad towards you. God knows I didn't mean to do it. I don't blame you for payin' it back to me the way you're doin', but Mary Ann an' the boy never done you no harm. I've come all the way o' purpose to ask your forgiveness, hopin' you'll be satisfied with what's been done, an' leave off bearin' malice agin us.' She looked kind o' sorrowful-like, but drawed a deep breath, an' shuck her head, 'Oh, Rachel,' says I,—an' afore I knowed it I was right down on my knees at her feet,—'Rachel, don't be so hard on me. I'm the onhappiest man that lives. I can't stan' it no longer. Rachel, you didn't use to be so cruel, when we was boys an' girls together. Do forgive me, an' leave off' hauntin' me so.'
"Then she spoke up, at last, an' says she,—
"'Eber Nicholson, I was married to you, in the sight o' God!'
"'I know it,' says I; 'you say it to me every night; an' it wasn't my doin's that you're not my wife now: but, Rachel, if I'd 'a' betrayed you, an' ruined you, an' killed you, God couldn't 'a' punished me wuss than you're a-punishin' me.'
"She giv' a kind o' groan, an' two tears run down her white face. 'Eber Nicholson,' says she, 'ask God to help you, for I can't. There might 'a' been a time,' says she, 'when I could 'a' done it, but it's too late now.'
"'Don't say that, Rachel,' says I; 'it's never too late to be merciful an' forgivin'.'
"'It doesn't depend on myself,' says she; 'I'm sent to you. It's th' only comfort I have in life to be near you; but I'd give up that, if I could. Pray to God to let me die, for then we shall both have rest.'
"An' that was all I could git out of her.
"I come home ag'in, knowin' I'd spent my money for nothin'. Sence then, it's been jist the same as before,—not reg'lar every night, but sort o' comes on by spells, an' then stops three or four days, an' then comes on ag'in. Fact is, what's the use o' livin' in this way? We can't be neighborly; we're afeard to have anybody come to see us; we've got no peace, no comfort o' bein' together, an' no heart to work an' git ahead, like other folks. It's jist killin' me, body an' soul."
Here the poor wretch fairly broke down, bursting suddenly into an uncontrollable fit of weeping. I waited quietly until the violence of his passion had subsided. A misery so strange, so completely out of the range of human experience, so hopeless apparently, was not to be reached by the ordinary utterances of consolation. I had seen enough to enable me fully to understand the fearful nature of the retribution which had been visited upon him for what was, at worst, a weakness to be pitied, rather than a sin to be chastised. "Never was a man worse punished," he had truly said. But I was as far as ever from comprehending the secret of those nightly visitations. The statement of Rachel Emmons, that they were now produced without her will, overturned—supposing it to be true—the conjecture which I might otherwise have adopted. However, it was now plain that the unhappy victim sobbing at my side could throw no further light on the mystery. He had told me all he knew.
"My friend," said I, when he had become calmer, "I do not wonder at your desperation. Such continual torment as you must have endured is enough to drive a man to madness. It seems to me to spring from the malice of some infernal power, rather than the righteous justice of God. Have you never tried to resist it? Have you never called aloud, in your heart, for Divine help, and gathered up your strength to meet and defy it, as you would to meet a man who threatened your life?"
"Not in the right way, I'm afeard," said he. "Fact is, I always tuck it as a judgment hangin' over me, an' never thought o' nothin' else than jist to grin and bear it."
"Enough of that," I urged,—for a hope of relief had suggested itself to me,—"you have suffered enough, and more than enough. Now stand up to meet it like a man. When the noises come again, think of what you have endured, and let it make you indignant and determined. Decide in your heart that you will be free from it, and perhaps you may be so. If not, build another shanty and sleep away from your wife and boy, so that they may escape, at least. Give yourself this claim to your wife's gratitude, and she will be kind and forbearing."
"I don't know but you're more 'n half right, stranger," he replied, in a more cheerful tone. "Fact is, I never thought on it that way. It's lightened my heart a heap, tellin' you; an' if I'm not too broke an' used-up-like, I'll try to foller your advice. I couldn't marry Rachel now, if Mary Ann was dead, we've been druv so fur apart. I don't know how it'll be when we're all dead: I s'pose them 'll go together that belongs together;—leastways, 't ought to be so."
Here we struck the Bloomington road, and I no longer needed a guide. When we pulled our horses around, facing each other, I noticed that the flush of excitement still burned on the man's sallow cheek, and his eyes, washed by probably the first freshet of feeling which had moistened them for years, shone with a faint lustre of courage.
"No, no,—none o' that!" said he, as I was taking out my porte-monnaie; "you've done me a mighty sight more good than I've done you, let alone payin' me to boot. Don't forgit the turn to the left, after crossin' Jackson's Run. Good-bye, stranger! Take good keer o' yourself!"
And with a strong, clinging, lingering grasp of the hand, in which the poor fellow expressed the gratitude which he was too shy and awkward to put into words, we parted. He turned his horse's head, and slowly plodded back through the mud towards the lonely shanty.
On my way to Bloomington, I went over and over the man's story, in memory. The facts were tolerably clear and coherent: his narrative was simple and credible enough, after my own personal experience of the mysterious noises, and the secret, whatever it was, must be sought for in Rachel Emmons. She was still living in Toledo, Ohio, he said, and earned her living as a seamstress; it would, therefore, not be difficult to find her. I confess, after his own unsatisfactory interview, I had little hope of penetrating her singular reserve; but I felt the strongest desire to see her, at least, and thus test the complete reality of a story which surpassed the wildest fiction. After visiting Terre Haute, the next point to which business called me, on the homeward route, was Cleveland; and by giving an additional day to the journey, I could easily take Toledo on my way. Between memory and expectation the time passed rapidly, and a week later I registered my name at the Island House, Toledo.
After wandering about for an hour or two, the next morning, I finally discovered the residence of Rachel Emmons. It was a small story-and-a-half frame building, on the western edge of the town, with a locust-tree in front, two lilacs inside the paling, and a wilderness of cabbage-stalks and currant-bushes in the rear. After much cogitation, I had not been able to decide upon any plan of action, and the interval between my knock and the opening of the door was one of considerable embarrassment to me. A small, plumpish woman of forty, with peaked nose, black eyes, and but two upper teeth, confronted me. She, certainly, was not the one I sought.
"Is your name Rachel Emmons?" I asked, nevertheless.
"No, I'm not her. This is her house, though."
"Will you tell her a gentleman wants to see her?" said I, putting my foot inside the door as I spoke. The room, I saw, was plainly, but neatly furnished. A rag-carpet covered the floor; green rush-bottomed chairs, a settee with chintz cover, and a straight-backed rocking-chair were distributed around the walls; and for ornament there was an alphabetical sampler in a frame, over the low wooden mantel-piece.