FROM THE CASTLE IN THE AIR TO THE LITTLE
CORNER OF THE WORLD
MEMORY, like a beauty that is always present to hear itself flattered, is flattered by everyone. But the absent and silent goddess, Forgetfulness, has no votaries, and is never thought of; yet we owe her much. She is the goddess of ease, though not of pleasure.
When the mind is like a room hung with black, and every corner of it crowded with the most horrid images imagination can create, this kind, speechless goddess of a maid, Forgetfulness, is following us night and day with her opium wand, and gently touching first one and then another, benumbs them into rest, and at last glides them away with the silence of a departing shadow. It is thus the tortured mind is restored to the calm condition of ease, and fitted for happiness.
How dismal must the picture of life appear to the mind in that dreadful moment when it resolves on darkness, and to die! One can scarcely believe such a choice was possible. Yet how many of the young and beautiful, timid in everything else, and formed for delight, have shut their eyes upon the world, and made the waters their sepulchral bed! Ah, would they in that crisis, when life and death are before them, and each within their reach, would they but think, or try to think, that Forgetfulness will come to their relief, and lull them into ease, they could stay their hand, and lay hold of life.
But there is a necromancy in wretchedness that entombs the mind, and increases the misery, by shutting out every ray of light and hope. It makes the wretched falsely believe they will be wretched ever. It is the most fatal of all dangerous delusions; and it is only when this necromantic night-mare of the mind begins to vanish, by being resisted, that it is discovered to be but a tyrannic specter.
All grief, like all things else, will yield to the obliterating power of time. While despair is preying on the mind, time and its effects are preying on despair; and certain it is the dismal vision will fade away and Forgetfulness, with her sister Ease, will change the scene. Then let not the wretched be rash, but wait, painful as the struggle may be, the arrival of Forgetfulness; for it will certainly arrive.
I have twice been present at the scene of attempted suicide. The one a love-distracted girl in England, the other of a patriotic friend in France; and as the circumstances of each are strongly pictured in my memory, I will relate them to you. They will in some measure corroborate what I have said of Forgetfulness.
About the year 1766, I was in Lincolnshire, in England, and on a visit at the house of a widow lady, Mrs. E , at a small village in the fens of that country. It was in summer; and one evening after supper, Mrs. E and myself went to take a turn in the garden. It was about eleven o’clock, and to avoid the night air of the fens, we were walking in a bower, shaded over with hazel bushes. On a sudden, she screamed out, and cried, “Lord, look, look!” I cast my eyes through the openings of the hazel bushes in the direction she was looking, and saw a white shapeless figure, without head or arms, moving along one of the walks at some distance from us.
I quitted Mrs. E, and went after it. When I got into the walk where the figure was, and was following it, it took up another walk. There was a holly bush in the corner of the two walks, which, it being night, I did not observe; and as I continued to step forward, the holly bush came in a straight line between me and the figure, and I lost sight of it; and as I passed along one walk, and the figure the other, the holly bush still continued to intercept the view, so as to give the appearance that the figure had vanished.
When I came to the corner of the two walks, I caught sight of it again, and coming up with it, I reached out my hand to touch it; and in the act of doing this, the idea struck me, will my hand pass through the air, or shall I feel anything ? Less than a moment would decide this, and my hand rested on the shoulder of a human figure.
I spoke, but do not recollect what I said. It answered in a low voice, “Pray let me alone.” I then knew who it was. It was a young lady who was on a visit to Mrs. E, and who, when we sat down to supper, said she found herself extremely ill, and would go to bed. I called to Mrs. E, who came, and I said to her, “It is Miss N.” Mrs. E said, “My God, I hope you are not going to do yourself any hurt”; for Mrs. E suspected something. She replied with pathetic melancholy, “Life has not one pleasure for me.” We got her into the house, and Mrs. E took her to sleep with her.
The case was, the man to whom she expected to be married had forsaken her, and when she heard he was to be married to another the shock appeared to her to be too great to be borne. She had retired, as I have said, to her room, and when she supposed all the family were gone to bed (which would have been the case if Mrs. E and I had not walked into the garden), she undressed herself, and tied her apron over her head; which, descending below her waist, gave her the shapeless figure I have spoken of. With this and a white under-petticoat and slippers, for she had taken out her buckles and put them at the servant maid’s door, I suppose as a keepsake, and aided by the obscurity of almost midnight, she came down stairs, and was going to drown herself in a pond at the bottom of the garden, toward which she was going when Mrs. E screamed out. We found afterwards that she had heard the scream, and that was the cause of her changing her walk.
By gentle usage, and leading her into subjects that might, without doing violence to her feelings, and without letting her see the direct intention of it, steal her as it were from the horror she was in (and I felt a compassionate earnest disposition to do it, for she was a good girl) she recovered her former cheerfulness, and was afterwards a happy wife, and the mother of a family.
The other case, and the conclusion in my next:
In Paris, in 1793, I had lodgings in the Rue Fauxbourg, St. Denis, No. 63. They were the most agreeable, for situation, of any I ever had in Paris, except that they were too remote from the Convention, of which I was then a member. But this was recompensed by their being also remote from the alarms and confusion into which the interior of Paris was then often thrown. The news of those things used to arrive to us, as if we were in a state of tranquility in the country.
The house, which was enclosed by a wall and gateway from the street, was a good deal like an old mansion farm-house, and the court-yard was like a farm-yard, stocked with fowls, ducks, turkeys and geese; which, for amusement, we used to feed out of the parlor window on the ground floor. There were some hutches for rabbits, and a sty with two pigs.
Beyond, was a garden of more than an acre of ground, well laid out, and stocked with excellent fruit trees. The orange, apricot, and greengage plum, were the best I ever tasted; and it is the only place where I saw the wild cucumber. The place had formerly been occupied by some curious person.
My apartments consisted of three rooms; the first for wood, water, etc., with an old fashioned closet chest, high enough to hang up clothes in; the next was the bed room; and beyond it the sitting room, which looked into the garden through a glass door; and on the outside there was a small landing place railed in, and a flight of narrow stairs almost hidden by the vines that grew over it, by which I could descend into the garden, without going down stairs through the house.
I am trying by description to make you see the place in your mind, because it will assist the story I have to tell; and which I think you can do, because you once called upon me there on account of Sir [Robert Smyth], who was then, as I was soon afterwards, in arrestation. But it was winter when you came, and it is a summer scene I am describing.
I went into my chambers to write and sign a certificate for them, which I intended to take to the guard-house to obtain their release. Just as I had finished it a man came into my room dressed in the Parisian uniform of a captain, and spoke to me in good English, and with a good address. He told me that two young men, Englishmen, were arrested and detained in the guard-house, and that the section (meaning those who represented and acted for the section), had sent him to ask me if I knew them, in which case they would be liberated.
This matter being soon settled between us, he talked to me about the Revolution, and something about the Rights of Man, which he had read in English; and at parting offered me in a polite and civil manner, his services. And who do you think the man was that offered me his services? It was no other than the public executioner Samson, who guillotined the King, and all who were guillotined in Paris; and who lived in the same section, and in the same street with me.
As to myself, I used to find some relief by walking alone in the garden after dark, and cursing with hearty good will the authors of that terrible system that had turned the character of the Revolution I had been proud to defend.
I went but little to the Convention, and then only to make my appearance; because I found it impossible to join in their tremendous decrees, and useless and dangerous to oppose them. My having voted and spoken extensively, more so than any other member, against the execution of the King, had already fixed a mark upon me: neither dared any of my associates in the Convention to translate and speak in French for me anything I might have dared to have written.
Pen and ink were then of no use to me: no good could be done by writing, and no printer dared to print; and whatever I might have written for my private amusement, as anecdotes of the times, would have been continually exposed to be examined, and tortured into any meaning that the rage of party might fix upon it; and as to softer subjects, my heart was in distress at the fate of my friends, and my harp hung upon the weeping willows.
As it was summer we spent most of our time in the garden, and passed it away in those childish amusements that serve to keep reflection from the mind, such as marbles, scotch-hops, battledores, etc., at which we were all pretty expert.
In this retired manner we remained about six or seven weeks, and our landlord went every evening into the city to bring us the news of the day and the evening journal.
I have now, my “Little Corner of the World,” led you on, step by step, to the scene that makes the sequel to this narrative, and I will put that scene before your eyes. You shall see it in description as I saw it in fact.
He recovered, and being anxious to get out of France, a passage was obtained for him and Mr. Choppin; they received it late in the evening, and set off the next morning for Basel before four, from which place I had a letter from them, highly pleased with their escape from France, into which they had entered with an enthusiasm of patriotic devotion. Ah, France! thou hast ruined the character of a Revolution virtuously begun, and destroyed those who produced it. I might almost say like Job’s servant, “and I, only, am escaped.”
Two days after they were gone I heard a rapping at the gate, and looking out of the window of the bed room I saw the landlord going with the candle to the gate, which he opened, and a guard with muskets and fixed bayonets entered. I went to bed again, and made up my mind for prison, for I was then the only lodger. It was a guard to take up [Johnson and Choppin], but, I thank God, they were out of their reach.
The guard came about a month after in the night, and took away the landlord Georgeit; and the scene in the house finished with the arrestation of myself. This was soon after you called on me, and sorry I was it was not in my power to render to [Sir Robert Smyth] the service that you asked.
I have now fulfilled my engagement, and I hope your expectation, in relating the case of [Johnson], landed back on the shore of life, by the mistake of the pilot who was conducting him out; and preserved afterwards from prison, perhaps a worse fate, without knowing it himself.
You say a story cannot be too melancholy for you. This is interesting and affecting, but not melancholy. It may raise in your mind a sympathetic sentiment in reading it; and though it may start a tear of pity, you will not have a tear of sorrow to drop on the page.
Here, my contemplative correspondent, let us stop and look back upon the scene. The matters here related being all facts, are strongly pictured in my mind, and in this sense Forgetfulness does not apply. But facts and feelings are distinct things, and it is against feelings that the opium wand of Forgetfulness draws us into ease.
Look back on any scene or subject that once gave you distress, for all of us have felt some, and you will find, that though the remembrance of the fact is not extinct in your memory, the feeling is extinct in your mind. You can remember when you had felt distress, but .you cannot feel that distress again, and perhaps will wonder you felt it then. It is like a shadow that loses itself by light.
It is often difficult to know what is a misfortune: that which we feel as a great one to-day may be the means of turning aside our steps into some new path that leads to happiness yet unknown. In tracing the scenes of my own life, I can discover that the condition I now enjoy, which is sweet to me, and will be more so when I get to America, except by the loss of your society, has been produced, in the first instance, in my being disappointed in former projects.
Under that impenetrable veil, futurity, we know not what is concealed, and the day to arrive is hidden from us. Turning then our thoughts to those cases of despair that lead to suicide, when, “the mind,” as you say, “neither sees nor hears, and holds counsel only with itself; when the very idea of consolation would add to the torture, and self- destruction is its only aim,” what, it may be asked, is the best advice, what the best relief? I answer, seek it not in reason, for the mind is at war with reason, and to reason against feelings is as vain as to reason against fire: it serves only to torture the torture by adding reproach to horror.
All reasoning with ourselves in such cases acts upon us like the reason of another person, which, however kindly done, serves but to insult the misery we suffer. If reason could remove the pain, reason would have prevented it. If she could not do the one, how is she to perform the other? In all such cases we must look upon Reason as dispossessed of her empire, by a revolt of the mind. She retires herself to a distance to weep, and the ebony scepter of Despair rules alone. All that Reason can do is to suggest, to hint a thought, to signify a wish, to cast now and then a kind of bewailing look, to hold up when she can catch the eye, the miniature-shaded portrait of Hope; and though dethroned, and can dictate no more, to wait upon us in the humble station of a handmaid.