Charles Brockden Brown (17711810). Edgar Huntley; or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker. 1857.
NEXT morning I stored a small bag with meat and bread, and, throwing an axe on my shoulder, set out, without informing any one of my intentions, for the hill. My passage was rendered more difficult by these encumbrances, but my perseverance surmounted every impediment, and I gained, in a few hours, the foot of the tree whose trunk was to serve me for a bridge. In this journey I saw no traces of the fugitive.
A new survey of the tree confirmed my former conclusions, and I began my work with diligence. My strokes were repeated by a thousand echoes, and I paused at first, somewhat startled by reverberations which made it appear as if not one but a score of axes were employed at the same time on both sides of the gulf.
Quickly the tree fell, and exactly in the manner which I expected and desired. The wide-spread limbs occupied and choked up the channel of the torrent, and compelled it to seek a new outlet and multiplied its murmurs. I dared not trust myself to cross it in an upright posture, but clung, with hands and feet, to its rugged bark. Having reached the opposite cliff, I proceeded to examine the spot where Clithero had disappeared. My fondest hopes were realized, for a considerable cavity appeared, which, on a former day, had been concealed from my distant view by the rock.
It was obvious to conclude that this was his present habitation, or that an avenue, conducting hither and terminating in the unexplored sides of this pit, was that by which he had come hither, and by which he had retired. I could not hesitate long to slide into the pit. I found an entrance through which I fearlessly penetrated. I was prepared to encounter obstacles and perils similar to those which I have already described, but was rescued from them by ascending, in a few minutes, into a kind of passage, open above, but walled by a continued rock on both sides. The sides of this passage conformed with the utmost exactness to each other. Nature, at some former period, had occasioned the solid mass to dispart at this place, and had thus afforded access to the summit of the hill. Loose stones and ragged points formed the flooring of this passage, which rapidly and circuitously ascended.
I was now within a few yards of the surface of the rock. The passage opened into a kind of chamber or pit, the sides of which were not difficult to climb. I rejoiced at the prospect of this termination of my journey. Here I paused, and, throwing my weary limbs on the ground, began to examine the objects around me, and to meditate on the steps that were next to be taken.
My first glance lighted on the very being of whom I was in search. Stretched upon a bed of moss, at the distance of a few feet from my station, I beheld Clithero. He had not been roused by my approach, though my footsteps were perpetually stumbling and sliding. This reflection gave birth to the fear that he was dead. A nearer inspection dispelled my apprehensions, and showed me that he was merely buried in profound slumber. Those vigils must indeed have been long which were at last succeeded by a sleep so oblivious.
This meeting was, in the highest degree, propitious. It not only assured me of his existence, but proved that his miseries were capable of being suspended. His slumber enabled me to pause, to ruminate on the manner by which his understanding might be most successfully addressed; to collect and arrange the topics fitted to rectify his gloomy and disastrous perceptions.
Thou knowest that I am qualified for such tasks neither by my education nor my genius. The headlong and ferocious energies of this man could not be repelled or diverted into better paths by efforts so undisciplined as mine. A despair so stormy and impetuous would drown my feeble accents. How should I attempt to reason with him? How should I outroot prepossessions so inveterate,the fruits of his earliest education, fostered and matured by the observation and experience of his whole life? How should I convince him that, since the death of Wiatte was not intended, the deed was without crime? that, if it had been deliberately concerted, it was still a virtue, since his own life could by no other means be preserved? that when he pointed a dagger at the bosom of his mistress he was actuated, not by avarice, or ambition, or revenge, or malice? He desired to confer on her the highest and the only benefit of which he believed her capable. He sought to rescue her from tormenting regrets and lingering agonies.
These positions were sufficiently just to my own view, but I was not called upon to reduce them to practice. I had not to struggle with the consciousness of having been rescued, by some miraculous contingency, from imbruing my hands in the blood of her whom I adored; of having drawn upon myself suspicions of ingratitude and murder too deep to be ever effaced; of having bereft myself of love, and honour, and friends, and spotless reputation; of having doomed myself to infamy and detestation, to hopeless exile, penury, and servile toil. These were the evils which his malignant destiny had made the unalterable portion of Clithero, and how should my imperfect eloquence annihilate these evils? Every man, not himself the victim of irretrievable disasters, perceives the folly of ruminating on the past, and of fostering a grief which cannot reverse or recall the decrees of an immutable necessity; but every man who suffers is unavoidably shackled by the errors which he censures in his neighbour, and his efforts to relieve himself are as fruitless as those with which he attempted the relief of others.
No topic, therefore, could be properly employed by me on the present occasion. All that I could do was to offer him food, and, by pathetic supplications, to prevail on him to eat. Famine, however obstinate, would scarcely refrain when bread was placed within sight and reach. When made to swerve from his resolution in one instance, it would be less difficult to conquer it a second time. The magic of sympathy, the perseverance of benevolence, though silent, might work a gradual and secret revolution, and better thoughts might insensibly displace those desperate suggestions which now governed him.
Having revolved these ideas, I placed the food which I had brought at his right hand, and, seating myself at his feet, attentively surveyed his countenance. The emotions which were visible during wakefulness had vanished during this cessation of remembrance and remorse, or were faintly discernible. They served to dignify and solemnize his features, and to embellish those immutable lines which betokened the spirit of his better days. Lineaments were now observed which could never coexist with folly or associate with obdurate guilt.
I had no inclination to awaken him. This respite was too sweet to be needlessly abridged. I determined to await the operation of nature, and to prolong, by silence and by keeping interruption at a distance, this salutary period of forgetfulness. This interval permitted new ideas to succeed in my mind.
Clithero believed his solitude to be unapproachable. What new expedients to escape inquiry and intrusion might not my presence suggest! Might he not vanish, as he had done on the former day, and afford me no time to assail his constancy and tempt his hunger? If, however, I withdrew during his sleep, he would awake without disturbance, and be unconscious, for a time, that his secrecy had been violated. He would quickly perceive the victuals, and would need no foreign inducements to eat. A provision so unexpected and extraordinary might suggest new thoughts, and be construed into a kind of heavenly condemnation of his purpose. He would not readily suspect the motives or person of his visitant, would take no precaution against the repetition of my visit, and, at the same time, our interview would not be attended with so much surprise. The more I revolved these reflections, the greater force they acquired. At length, I determined to withdraw, and, leaving the food where it could scarcely fail of attracting his notice, I returned by the way that I had come. I had scarcely reached home, when a messenger from Inglefield arrived, requesting me to spend the succeeding night at his house, as some engagement had occurred to draw him to the city.
I readily complied with this request. It was not necessary, however, to be early in my visit. I deferred going till the evening was far advanced. My way led under the branches of the elm which recent events had rendered so memorable. Hence my reflections reverted to the circumstances which had lately occurred in connection with this tree.
I paused, for some time, under its shade. I marked the spot where Clithero had been discovered digging. It showed marks of being unsettled; but the sod which had formerly covered it, and which had lately been removed, was now carefully replaced. This had not been done by him on that occasion in which I was a witness of his behaviour. The earth was then hastily removed, and as hastily thrown again into the hole from which it had been taken.
Some curiosity was naturally excited by this appearance. Either some other person, or Clithero, on a subsequent occasion, had been here. I was now likewise led to reflect on the possible motives that prompted the maniac to turn up this earth. There is always some significance in the actions of a sleeper. Somewhat was, perhaps, buried in this spot, connected with the history of Mrs. Lorimer or of Clarice. Was it not possible to ascertain the truth in this respect?
There was but one method. By carefully uncovering this hole, and digging as deep as Clithero had already dug, it would quickly appear whether any thing was hidden. To do this publicly by daylight was evidently indiscreet. Besides, a moments delay was superfluous. The night had now fallen, and before it was past this new undertaking might be finished. An interview was, if possible, to be gained with Clithero on the morrow, and for this interview the discoveries made on this spot might eminently qualify me. Influenced by these considerations, I resolved to dig. I was first, however, to converse an hour with the housekeeper, and then to withdraw to my chamber. When the family were all retired, and there was no fear of observation or interruption, I proposed to rise and hasten, with a proper implement, hither.
One chamber in Inglefields house was usually reserved for visitants. In this chamber thy unfortunate brother died, and here it was that I was to sleep. The image of its last inhabitant could not fail of being called up, and of banishing repose; but the scheme which I had meditated was an additional incitement to watchfulness. Hither I repaired at the due season, having previously furnished myself with candles, since I knew not what might occur to make a light necessary.
I did not go to bed, but either sat musing by a table or walked across the room. The bed before me was that on which my friend breathed his last. To rest my head upon the same pillow, to lie on that pallet which sustained his cold and motionless limbs, were provocations to remembrance and grief that I desired to shun. I endeavoured to fill my mind with more recent incidents, with the disasters of Clithero, my subterranean adventures, and the probable issue of the schemes which I now contemplated.
I recalled the conversation which had just ended with the housekeeper. Clithero had been our theme, but she had dealt chiefly in repetitions of what had formerly been related by her or by Inglefield. I inquired what this man had left behind, and found that it consisted of a square box, put together by himself with uncommon strength, but of rugged workmanship. She proceeded to mention that she had advised her brother, Mr. Inglefield, to break open this box and ascertain its contents; but this he did not think himself justified in doing. Clithero was guilty of no known crime, was responsible to no one for his actions, and might some time return to claim his property. This box contained nothing with which others had a right to meddle. Somewhat might be found in it, throwing light upon his past or present situation; but curiosity was not to be gratified by these means. What Clithero thought proper to conceal, it was criminal for us to extort from him.
The housekeeper was by no means convinced by these arguments, and at length obtained her brothers permission to try whether any of her own keys would unlock this chest. The keys were produced, but no lock nor keyhole were discoverable. The lid was fast, but by what means it was fastened the most accurate inspection could not detect. Hence she was compelled to lay aside her project. This chest had always stood in the chamber which I now occupied.
These incidents were now remembered, and I felt disposed to profit by this opportunity of examining this box. It stood in a corner, and was easily distinguished by its form. I lifted it and found its weight by no means extraordinary. Its structure was remarkable. It consisted of six sides, square and of similar dimensions. These were joined, not by mortise and tennon, not by nails, not by hinges, but the junction was accurate. The means by which they were made to cohere were invisible.
During his residence with Inglefield, many specimens of mechanical ingenuity were given by his servant. This was the workmanship of his own hands. I looked at it for some time, till the desire insensibly arose of opening it and examining its contents.
I had no more right to do this than the Inglefields; perhaps, indeed, this curiosity was more absurd, and the gratification more culpable, in me than in them. I was acquainted with the history of Clitheros past life, and with his present condition. Respecting these, I had no new intelligence to gain, and no doubts to solve. What excuse could I make to the proprietor, should he ever reappear to claim his own, or to Inglefield for breaking open a receptacle which all the maxims of society combine to render sacred?
But could not my end be gained without violence? The means of opening might present themselves on a patient scrutiny. The lid might be raised and shut down again without any tokens of my act; its contents might be examined, and all things restored to their former condition, in a few minutes.
I intended not a theft. I intended to benefit myself without inflicting injury on others. Nay, might not the discoveries I should make throw light upon the conduct of this extraordinary man which his own narrative had withheld? Was there reason to confide implicitly on the tale which I had heard?
In spite of the testimony of my own feelings, the miseries of Clithero appeared in some degree fantastic and groundless. A thousand conceivable motives might induce him to pervert or conceal the truth. If he were thoroughly known, his character might assume a new appearance; and what is now so difficult to reconcile to common maxims might prove perfectly consistent with them. I desire to restore him to peace; but a thorough knowledge of his actions is necessary, both to show that he is worthy of compassion, and to suggest the best means of extirpating his errors. It was possible that this box contained the means of this knowledge.
There were likewise other motives, which, as they possessed some influence, however small, deserve to be mentioned. Thou knowest that I also am a mechanist. I had constructed a writing-desk and cabinet, in which I had endeavoured to combine the properties of secrecy, security, and strength, in the highest possible degree. I looked upon this, therefore, with the eye of an artist, and was solicitous to know the principles on which it was formed. I determined to examine, and, if possible, to open it.