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Backlog Studies - Fourth Study Post by :prospertogether Category :Essays Author :Charles Dudley Warner Date :May 2012 Read :1105

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Backlog Studies - Fourth Study

It is difficult to explain the attraction which the uncanny and even the horrible have for most minds. I have seen a delicate woman half fascinated, but wholly disgusted, by one of the most unseemly of reptiles, vulgarly known as the "blowing viper" of the Alleghanies. She would look at it, and turn away with irresistible shuddering and the utmost loathing, and yet turn to look at it again and again, only to experience the same spasm of disgust. In spite of her aversion, she must have relished the sort of electric mental shock that the sight gave her.

I can no more account for the fascination for us of the stories of ghosts and "appearances," and those weird tales in which the dead are the chief characters; nor tell why we should fall into converse about them when the winter evenings are far spent, the embers are glazing over on the hearth, and the listener begins to hear the eerie noises in the house. At such times one's dreams become of importance, and people like to tell them and dwell upon them, as if they were a link between the known and unknown, and could give us a clew to that ghostly region which in certain states of the mind we feel to be more real than that we see.

Recently, when we were, so to say, sitting around the borders of the supernatural late at night, MANDEVILLE related a dream of his which he assured us was true in every particular, and it interested us so much that we asked him to write it out. In doing so he has curtailed it, and to my mind shorn it of some of its more vivid and picturesque features. He might have worked it up with more art, and given it a finish which the narration now lacks, but I think best to insert it in its simplicity. It seems to me that it may properly be called,


A NEW "VISION OF SIN"

In the winter of 1850 I was a member of one of the leading colleges of this country. I was in moderate circumstances pecuniarily, though I was perhaps better furnished with less fleeting riches than many others. I was an incessant and indiscriminate reader of books. For the solid sciences I had no particular fancy, but with mental modes and habits, and especially with the eccentric and fantastic in the intellectual and spiritual operations, I was tolerably familiar. All the literature of the supernatural was as real to me as the laboratory of the chemist, where I saw the continual struggle of material substances to evolve themselves into more volatile, less palpable and coarse forms. My imagination, naturally vivid, stimulated by such repasts, nearly mastered me. At times I could scarcely tell where the material ceased and the immaterial began (if I may so express it); so that once and again I walked, as it seemed, from the solid earth onward upon an impalpable plain, where I heard the same voices, I think, that Joan of Arc heard call to her in the garden at Domremy. She was inspired, however, while I only lacked exercise. I do not mean this in any literal sense; I only describe a state of mind. I was at this time of spare habit, and nervous, excitable temperament. I was ambitious, proud, and extremely sensitive. I cannot deny that I had seen something of the world, and had contracted about the average bad habits of young men who have the sole care of themselves, and rather bungle the matter. It is necessary to this relation to admit that I had seen a trifle more of what is called life than a young man ought to see, but at this period I was not only sick of my experience, but my habits were as correct as those of any Pharisee in our college, and we had some very favorable specimens of that ancient sect.

Nor can I deny that at this period of my life I was in a peculiar mental condition. I well remember an illustration of it. I sat writing late one night, copying a prize essay,--a merely manual task, leaving my thoughts free. It was in June, a sultry night, and about midnight a wind arose, pouring in through the open windows, full of mournful reminiscence, not of this, but of other summers,--the same wind that De Quincey heard at noonday in midsummer blowing through the room where he stood, a mere boy, by the side of his dead sister,--a wind centuries old. As I wrote on mechanically, I became conscious of a presence in the room, though I did not lift my eyes from the paper on which I wrote. Gradually I came to know that my grandmother--dead so long ago that I laughed at the idea--was in the room. She stood beside her old-fashioned spinning-wheel, and quite near me. She wore a plain muslin cap with a high puff in the crown, a short woolen gown, a white and blue checked apron, and shoes with heels. She did not regard me, but stood facing the wheel, with the left hand near the spindle, holding lightly between the thumb and forefinger the white roll of wool which was being spun and twisted on it. In her right hand she held a small stick. I heard the sharp click of this against the spokes of the wheel, then the hum of the wheel, the buzz of the spindles as the twisting yarn was teased by the whirl of its point, then a step backwards, a pause, a step forward and the running of the yarn upon the spindle, and again a backward step, the drawing out of the roll and the droning and hum of the wheel, most mournfully hopeless sound that ever fell on mortal ear. Since childhood it has haunted me. All this time I wrote, and I could hear distinctly the scratching of the pen upon the paper. But she stood behind me (why I did not turn my head I never knew), pacing backward and forward by the spinning-wheel, just as I had a hundred times seen her in childhood in the old kitchen on drowsy summer afternoons. And I heard the step, the buzz and whirl of the spindle, and the monotonous and dreary hum of the mournful wheel. Whether her face was ashy pale and looked as if it might crumble at the touch, and the border of her white cap trembled in the June wind that blew, I cannot say, for I tell you I did NOT see her. But I know she was there, spinning yarn that had been knit into hose years and years ago by our fireside. For I was in full possession of my faculties, and never copied more neatly and legibly any manuscript than I did the one that night. And there the phantom (I use the word out of deference to a public prejudice on this subject) most persistently remained until my task was finished, and, closing the portfolio, I abruptly rose. Did I see anything? That is a silly and ignorant question. Could I see the wind which had now risen stronger, and drove a few cloud-scuds across the sky, filling the night, somehow, with a longing that was not altogether born of reminiscence?

In the winter following, in January, I made an effort to give up the use of tobacco,--a habit in which I was confirmed, and of which I have nothing more to say than this: that I should attribute to it almost all the sin and misery in the world, did I not remember that the old Romans attained a very considerable state of corruption without the assistance of the Virginia plant.

On the night of the third day of my abstinence, rendered more nervous and excitable than usual by the privation, I retired late, and later still I fell into an uneasy sleep, and thus into a dream, vivid, illuminated, more real than any event of my life. I was at home, and fell sick. The illness developed into a fever, and then a delirium set in, not an intellectual blank, but a misty and most delicious wandering in places of incomparable beauty. I learned subsequently that our regular physician was not certain to finish me, when a consultation was called, which did the business. I have the satisfaction of knowing that they were of the proper school. I lay sick for three days.

On the morning of the fourth, at sunrise, I died. The sensation was not unpleasant. It was not a sudden shock. I passed out of my body as one would walk from the door of his house. There the body lay,--a blank, so far as I was concerned, and only interesting to me as I was rather entertained with watching the respect paid to it. My friends stood about the bedside, regarding me (as they seemed to suppose), while I, in a different part of the room, could hardly repress a smile at their mistake, solemnized as they were, and I too, for that matter, by my recent demise. A sensation (the word you see is material and inappropriate) of etherealization and imponderability pervaded me, and I was not sorry to get rid of such a dull, slow mass as I now perceived myself to be, lying there on the bed. When I speak of my death, let me be understood to say that there was no change, except that I passed out of my body and floated to the top of a bookcase in the corner of the room, from which I looked down. For a moment I was interested to see my person from the outside, but thereafter I was quite indifferent to the body. I was now simply soul. I seemed to be a globe, impalpable, transparent, about six inches in diameter. I saw and heard everything as before. Of course, matter was no obstacle to me, and I went easily and quickly wherever I willed to go. There was none of that tedious process of communicating my wishes to the nerves, and from them to the muscles. I simply resolved to be at a particular place, and I was there. It was better than the telegraph.

It seemed to have been intimated to me at my death (birth I half incline to call it) that I could remain on this earth for four weeks after my decease, during which time I could amuse myself as I chose.

I chose, in the first place, to see myself decently buried, to stay by myself to the last, and attend my own funeral for once. As most of those referred to in this true narrative are still living, I am forbidden to indulge in personalities, nor shall I dare to say exactly how my death affected my friends, even the home circle. Whatever others did, I sat up with myself and kept awake. I saw the "pennies" used instead of the "quarters" which I should have preferred. I saw myself "laid out," a phrase that has come to have such a slang meaning that I smile as I write it. When the body was put into the coffin, I took my place on the lid.

I cannot recall all the details, and they are commonplace besides. The funeral took place at the church. We all rode thither in carriages, and I, not fancying my place in mine, rode on the outside with the undertaker, whom I found to be a good deal more jolly than he looked to be. The coffin was placed in front of the pulpit when we arrived. I took my station on the pulpit cushion, from which elevation I had an admirable view of all the ceremonies, and could hear the sermon. How distinctly I remember the services. I think I could even at this distance write out the sermon. The tune sung was of--the usual country selection,--Mount Vernon. I recall the text. I was rather flattered by the tribute paid to me, and my future was spoken of gravely and as kindly as possible,--indeed, with remarkable charity, considering that the minister was not aware of my presence. I used to beat him at chess, and I thought, even then, of the last game; for, however solemn the occasion might be to others, it was not so to me. With what interest I watched my kinsfolks, and neighbors as they filed past for the last look! I saw, and I remember, who pulled a long face for the occasion and who exhibited genuine sadness. I learned with the most dreadful certainty what people really thought of me. It was a revelation never forgotten.

Several particular acquaintances of mine were talking on the steps as we passed out.

"Well, old Starr's gone up. Sudden, was n't it? He was a first-rate fellow."

"Yes, queer about some things; but he had some mighty good streaks," said another. And so they ran on.

Streaks! So that is the reputation one gets during twenty years of life in this world. Streaks!

After the funeral I rode home with the family. It was pleasanter than the ride down, though it seemed sad to my relations. They did not mention me, however, and I may remark, that although I stayed about home for a week, I never heard my name mentioned by any of the family. Arrived at home, the tea-kettle was put on and supper got ready. This seemed to lift the gloom a little, and under the influence of the tea they brightened up and gradually got more cheerful. They discussed the sermon and the singing, and the mistake of the sexton in digging the grave in the wrong place, and the large congregation. From the mantel-piece I watched the group. They had waffles for supper,--of which I had been exceedingly fond, but now I saw them disappear without a sigh.

For the first day or two of my sojourn at home I was here and there at all the neighbors, and heard a good deal about my life and character, some of which was not very pleasant, but very wholesome, doubtless, for me to hear. At the expiration of a week this amusement ceased to be such for I ceased to be talked of. I realized the fact that I was dead and gone.

By an act of volition I found myself back at college. I floated into my own room, which was empty. I went to the room of my two warmest friends, whose friendship I was and am yet assured of. As usual, half a dozen of our set were lounging there. A game of whist was just commencing. I perched on a bust of Dante on the top of the book-shelves, where I could see two of the hands and give a good guess at a third. My particular friend Timmins was just shuffling the cards.

"Be hanged if it is n't lonesome without old Starr. Did you cut? I should like to see him lounge in now with his pipe, and with feet on the mantel-piece proceed to expound on the duplex functions of the soul."

"There--misdeal," said his vis-a-vis. "Hope there's been no misdeal for old Starr."

"Spades, did you say?" the talk ran on, "never knew Starr was sickly."

"No more was he; stouter than you are, and as brave and plucky as he was strong. By George, fellows,--how we do get cut down! Last term little Stubbs, and now one of the best fellows in the class."

"How suddenly he did pop off,--one for game, honors easy,--he was good for the Spouts' Medal this year, too."

"Remember the joke he played on Prof. A., freshman year?" asked another.

"Remember he borrowed ten dollars of me about that time," said Timmins's partner, gathering the cards for a new deal.

"Guess he is the only one who ever did," retorted some one.

And so the talk went on, mingled with whist-talk, reminiscent of me, not all exactly what I would have chosen to go into my biography, but on the whole kind and tender, after the fashion of the boys. At least I was in their thoughts, and I could see was a good deal regretted,--so I passed a very pleasant evening. Most of those present were of my society, and wore crape on their badges, and all wore the usual crape on the left arm. I learned that the following afternoon a eulogy would be delivered on me in the chapel.

The eulogy was delivered before members of our society and others, the next afternoon, in the chapel. I need not say that I was present. Indeed, I was perched on the desk within reach of the speaker's hand. The apotheosis was pronounced by my most intimate friend, Timmins, and I must say he did me ample justice. He never was accustomed to "draw it very mild" (to use a vulgarism which I dislike) when he had his head, and on this occasion he entered into the matter with the zeal of a true friend, and a young man who never expected to have another occasion to sing a public "In Memoriam." It made my hair stand on end,--metaphorically, of course. From my childhood I had been extremely precocious. There were anecdotes of preternatural brightness, picked up, Heaven knows where, of my eagerness to learn, of my adventurous, chivalrous young soul, and of my arduous struggles with chill penury, which was not able (as it appeared) to repress my rage, until I entered this institution, of which I had been ornament, pride, cynosure, and fair promising bud blasted while yet its fragrance was mingled with the dew of its youth. Once launched upon my college days, Timmins went on with all sails spread. I had, as it were, to hold on to the pulpit cushion. Latin, Greek, the old literatures, I was perfect master of; all history was merely a light repast to me; mathematics I glanced at, and it disappeared; in the clouds of modern philosophy I was wrapped but not obscured; over the field of light literature I familiarly roamed as the honey-bee over the wide fields of clover which blossom white in the Junes of this world! My life was pure, my character spotless, my name was inscribed among the names of those deathless few who were not born to die!

It was a noble eulogy, and I felt before he finished, though I had misgivings at the beginning, that I deserved it all. The effect on the audience was a little different. They said it was a "strong" oration, and I think Timmins got more credit by it than I did. After the performance they stood about the chapel, talking in a subdued tone, and seemed to be a good deal impressed by what they had heard, or perhaps by thoughts of the departed. At least they all soon went over to Austin's and called for beer. My particular friends called for it twice. Then they all lit pipes. The old grocery keeper was good enough to say that I was no fool, if I did go off owing him four dollars. To the credit of human nature, let me here record that the fellows were touched by this remark reflecting upon my memory, and immediately made up a purse and paid the bill,--that is, they told the old man to charge it over to them. College boys are rich in credit and the possibilities of life.

It is needless to dwell upon the days I passed at college during this probation. So far as I could see, everything went on as if I were there, or had never been there. I could not even see the place where I had dropped out of the ranks. Occasionally I heard my name, but I must say that four weeks was quite long enough to stay in a world that had pretty much forgotten me. There is no great satisfaction in being dragged up to light now and then, like an old letter. The case was somewhat different with the people with whom I had boarded. They were relations of mine, and I often saw them weep, and they talked of me a good deal at twilight and Sunday nights, especially the youngest one, Carrie, who was handsomer than any one I knew, and not much older than I. I never used to imagine that she cared particularly for me, nor would she have done so, if I had lived, but death brought with it a sort of sentimental regret, which, with the help of a daguerreotype, she nursed into quite a little passion. I spent most of my time there, for it was more congenial than the college.

But time hastened. The last sand of probation leaked out of the glass. One day, while Carrie played (for me, though she knew it not) one of Mendelssohn's "songs without words," I suddenly, yet gently, without self-effort or volition, moved from the house, floated in the air, rose higher, higher, by an easy, delicious, exultant, yet inconceivably rapid motion. The ecstasy of that triumphant flight! Groves, trees, houses, the landscape, dimmed, faded, fled away beneath me. Upward mounting, as on angels' wings, with no effort, till the earth hung beneath me a round black ball swinging, remote, in the universal ether. Upward mounting, till the earth, no longer bathed in the sun's rays, went out to my sight, disappeared in the blank. Constellations, before seen from afar, I sailed among stars, too remote for shining on earth, I neared, and found to be round globes flying through space with a velocity only equaled by my own. New worlds continually opened on my sight; newfields of everlasting space opened and closed behind me.

For days and days--it seemed a mortal forever--I mounted up the great heavens, whose everlasting doors swung wide. How the worlds and systems, stars, constellations, neared me, blazed and flashed in splendor, and fled away! At length,--was it not a thousand years?--I saw before me, yet afar off, a wall, the rocky bourn of that country whence travelers come not back, a battlement wider than I could guess, the height of which I could not see, the depth of which was infinite. As I approached, it shone with a splendor never yet beheld on earth. Its solid substance was built of jewels the rarest, and stones of priceless value. It seemed like one solid stone, and yet all the colors of the rainbow were contained in it. The ruby, the diamond, the emerald, the carbuncle, the topaz, the amethyst, the sapphire; of them the wall was built up in harmonious combination. So brilliant was it that all the space I floated in was full of the splendor. So mild was it and so translucent, that I could look for miles into its clear depths.

Rapidly nearing this heavenly battlement, an immense niche was disclosed in its solid face. The floor was one large ruby. Its sloping sides were of pearl. Before I was aware I stood within the brilliant recess. I say I stood there, for I was there bodily, in my habit as I lived; how, I cannot explain. Was it the resurrection of the body? Before me rose, a thousand feet in height, a wonderful gate of flashing diamond. Beside it sat a venerable man, with long white beard, a robe of light gray, ancient sandals, and a golden key hanging by a cord from his waist. In the serene beauty of his noble features I saw justice and mercy had met and were reconciled. I cannot describe the majesty of his bearing or the benignity of his appearance. It is needless to say that I stood before St. Peter, who sits at the Celestial Gate.

I humbly approached, and begged admission. St. Peter arose, and regarded me kindly, yet inquiringly.

"What is your name?" asked he, "and from what place do you come?"

I answered, and, wishing to give a name well known, said I was from Washington, United States. He looked doubtful, as if he had never heard the name before.

"Give me," said he, "a full account of your whole life."

I felt instantaneously that there was no concealment possible; all disguise fell away, and an unknown power forced me to speak absolute and exact truth. I detailed the events of my life as well as I could, and the good man was not a little affected by the recital of my early trials, poverty, and temptation. It did not seem a very good life when spread out in that presence, and I trembled as I proceeded; but I plead youth, inexperience, and bad examples.

"Have you been accustomed," he said, after a time, rather sadly, "to break the Sabbath?"

I told him frankly that I had been rather lax in that matter, especially at college. I often went to sleep in the chapel on Sunday, when I was not reading some entertaining book. He then asked who the preacher was, and when I told him, he remarked that I was not so much to blame as he had supposed.

"Have you," he went on, "ever stolen, or told any lie?"

I was able to say no, except admitting as to the first, usual college "conveyances," and as to the last, an occasional "blinder" to the professors. He was gracious enough to say that these could be overlooked as incident to the occasion.

"Have you ever been dissipated, living riotously and keeping late hours?"

"Yes."

This also could be forgiven me as an incident of youth.

"Did you ever," he went on, "commit the crime of using intoxicating drinks as a beverage?"

I answered that I had never been a habitual drinker, that I had never been what was called a "moderate drinker," that I had never gone to a bar and drank alone; but that I had been accustomed, in company with other young men, on convivial occasions to taste the pleasures of the flowing bowl, sometimes to excess, but that I had also tasted the pains of it, and for months before my demise had refrained from liquor altogether. The holy man looked grave, but, after reflection, said this might also be overlooked in a young man.

"What," continued he, in tones still more serious, "has been your conduct with regard to the other sex?"

I fell upon my knees in a tremor of fear. I pulled from my bosom a little book like the one Leperello exhibits in the opera of "Don Giovanni." There, I said, was a record of my flirtation and inconstancy. I waited long for the decision, but it came in mercy.

"Rise," he cried; "young men will be young men, I suppose. We shall forgive this also to your youth and penitence."

"Your examination is satisfactory, he informed me," after a pause; "you can now enter the abodes of the happy."

Joy leaped within me. We approached the gate. The key turned in the lock. The gate swung noiselessly on its hinges a little open. Out flashed upon me unknown splendors. What I saw in that momentary gleam I shall never whisper in mortal ears. I stood upon the threshold, just about to enter.

"Stop! one moment," exclaimed St. Peter, laying his hand on my shoulder; "I have one more question to ask you."

I turned toward him.

"Young man, did you ever use tobacco?"

"I both smoked and chewed in my lifetime," I faltered, "but..."

"THEN TO HELL WITH YOU!" he shouted in a voice of thunder.

Instantly the gate closed without noise, and I was flung, hurled, from the battlement, down! down! down! Faster and faster I sank in a dizzy, sickening whirl into an unfathomable space of gloom. The light faded. Dampness and darkness were round about me. As before, for days and days I rose exultant in the light, so now forever I sank into thickening darkness,--and yet not darkness, but a pale, ashy light more fearful.

In the dimness, I at length discovered a wall before me. It ran up and down and on either hand endlessly into the night. It was solid, black, terrible in its frowning massiveness.

Straightway I alighted at the gate,--a dismal crevice hewn into the dripping rock. The gate was wide open, and there sat-I knew him at once; who does not?--the Arch Enemy of mankind. He cocked his eye at me in an impudent, low, familiar manner that disgusted me. I saw that I was not to be treated like a gentleman.

"Well, young man," said he, rising, with a queer grin on his face, "what are you sent here for?"

"For using tobacco," I replied.

"Ho!" shouted he in a jolly manner, peculiar to devils, "that's what most of 'em are sent here for now."

Without more ado, he called four lesser imps, who ushered me within. What a dreadful plain lay before me! There was a vast city laid out in regular streets, but there were no houses. Along the streets were places of torment and torture exceedingly ingenious and disagreeable. For miles and miles, it seemed, I followed my conductors through these horrors, Here was a deep vat of burning tar. Here were rows of fiery ovens. I noticed several immense caldron kettles of boiling oil, upon the rims of which little devils sat, with pitchforks in hand, and poked down the helpless victims who floundered in the liquid. But I forbear to go into unseemly details. The whole scene is as vivid in my mind as any earthly landscape.

After an hour's walk my tormentors halted before the mouth of an oven,--a furnace heated seven times, and now roaring with flames. They grasped me, one hold of each hand and foot. Standing before the blazing mouth, they, with a swing, and a "one, two, THREE...."

I again assure the reader that in this narrative I have set down nothing that was not actually dreamed, and much, very much of this wonderful vision I have been obliged to omit.

Haec fabula docet: It is dangerous for a young man to leave off the use of tobacco.

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