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A TALE FOR A CHIMNEY CORNER.
From The Indicator."
A MAN who does not contribute his quota of grim stories now-adays, seems hardly to be free of the republic of letters. He is bound to wear a death's head, as part of his insignia. If he does not frighten every body he is nobody. If he does not shock the ladies, what can be expected of him?
We confess we think very cheaply of these stories in general. A story merely horrible, or even awful, which contains no sentiment elevating to the human heart and its hopes, is a mere appeal to the least judicious, least healthy, and least masculine of our passions-fear. They whose attention can be gravely arrested by it, are in a fit state to receive any absurdity with their wits off; and this is the cause, why less talents are required to enforce it, than in any other species of composition. With this opinion of such things, we may be allowed to say, that we would undertake to write a dozen horrible stories in a day, all of which should make the common worshippers of power, who were not in the very healthiest condition, turn pale. We would tell of Haunting Old Women, and Knocking Ghosts, and Solitary Lean Hands, and Empusas on one Leg, and Ladies growing Longer and Longer, and Horrid Eyes meeting us through Key-holes, and Plaintive Heads, and Shrieking Statues, and Shocking Anomalies of Shape, and Things which when seen drove people mad; and indigestion knows what besides. But who would measure talents with a leg of veal, or a German sausage?
Mere grimness is as easy as grinning; but it requires something to put a handsome face on a story. Narratives become of suspicious merit in proportion as they lean to Newgate-like offences, particularly of blood and wounds. A child has a reasonable respect for a Raw-headand-bloody-bones, because all images whatsoever of pain and terror are new and fearful to his inexperienced age: but sufferings merely physical (unless sublimated like those of Philoctetes) are common-places to a grown man. Images, to become awful to him, must be removed from the grossness of the shambles. A death's head was a respectable thing in the hands of a poring monk, or of a nun compelled to avoid the idea of life and society, or of a hermit already buried in the desert. Holbein's Dance of Death, in which every grinning skeleton leads along a man of rank, from the Pope to the gentleman, is a good Memento Mori; but there the skeletons have an air of the ludicrous and satirical. If we were threatened with them in a grave way, as spectres, we should have a right to ask how they could walk about without muscles. Thus many of the tales written by such authors as the late Mr Lewis, who wanted sentiment to complete his talents, are quite
puerile. When his spectral nuns go about bleeding, we think they ought in decency to have applied to some ghost of a surgeon. His little Grey Men, who sit munching hearts, are of a piece with fellows that eat cats for a wager.
Stories that give mental pain to no purpose, or to very little purpose compared with the unpleasant ideas, they excite of human nature, are as gross mistakes, in their way, as these, and twenty times as pernicious for the latter become ludicrous to grown people. They originate also in the same extremes, either of callousness, or morbid want of excitement, as the others. But more of these hereafter. Our business at present is with things ghastly and ghostly.
A ghost story, to be a good one, should unite as much as possible .objects such as they are in life with a præternatural spirit. And to be a perfect one, at least to add to the other utility of excitement, a moral utility,—they should imply some great sentiment, something that comes out of the next world, to remind us of our duties in this; or something that helps to carry on the idea of our humanity into afterlife, even when we least think we shall take it with us. When "the buried majesty of Denmark" revisits earth to speak to his son Hamlet, he comes armed, as he used to be, in his complete steel. His visor is raised; and the same fine face is there; only, in spite of his punishing errand and his own sufferings, with
A countenance more in sorrow than in anger.
When Donne the poet, in his thoughtful eagerness to reconcile life and death, had a figure of himself painted in a shroud, and laid by his bedside in a coffin, he did a higher thing than the monks and hermits with their skulls. It was taking his humanity with him into the other world, not affecting to lower the sense of it by regarding it piecemeal or in the frame-work. Burns, in his Tam O'Shanter, shews the dead in their coffins after the same fashion. He does not lay bare to us their skeletons or refuse, things with which we can connect no sympathy or spiritual wonder. They still are flesh and body to excite the one; yet so look and behave, inconsistent in their very consistency, as to excite the other.
Coffins stood round like open presses,
Which shewed the dead in their last dresses;
Each, in his cauld hand, held a light.
Reanimation is perhaps the most ghastly of all ghastly things, uniting, as it does an appearance of natural interdiction from the next world with a supernatural experience of it. Our human consciousness is jarred out of its self-possession. The extremes of habit and newness, of common-place and astonishment, meet suddenly, without the kindly introduction of death and change; and the stranger appals us in proportion. When the account appeared the other day in the newspapers, of the galvanized dead body, whose features as well as limbs underwent such contortions, that it seemed as if it were about to rise up, one almost expected to hear, for the first time, news of the other world. Perhaps the most appalling figure in Spenser, is that of Maleger (Fairy Queen. B. 2. c. 11.)
Upon a tygre swift and fierce he rode,
That as the winde ran underneath his lode,
Whiles his long legs nigh raught unto the ground:
But of such subtile substance and unsound,
That like a ghost he seemed, whose grave-clothes were unbound.
Mr Coleridge, in that voyage of his to the brink of all unutterable things, the Ancient Mariner (which works out however a fine sentiment) does not set mere ghosts or hobgoblins to man the ship again, when its crew are dead; but reanimates, for a while the crew themselves. There is a striking fiction of this sort in Sale's Notes upon the Koran. Solomon dies during the building of the temple, but his body remains leaning on a staff and overlooking the workmen, as if it were alive; till a worm gnawing through the prop, he falls downThe contrast of the appearance of humanity with something mortal or supernatural, is always the more terrible in proportion as it is complete. In the pictures of the temptations of saints and hermits, where the holy person is surrounded, teazed, and enticed, with devils and fantastic shapes, the most shocking phantasm is that of the beautiful woman. To return also to the Ancient Mariner. The most appalling personage in Mr Coleridge's Ancient Mariner is the Spectre-woman, who is called Life-inDeath. He renders the most hideous abstraction more terrible than it could otherwise have been, by embodying it in its own reverse. "Death" not only "lives" in it; but the "unutterable" becomes uttered. To see such an unearthly passage end in such earthliness, seems at the moment to turn common-place itself into a sort of spectral doubt. The Mariner, after describing the horrible calm, and the rotting sea, in which the ship was struck, is speaking of a strange sail which he descried in the distance.
The western wave was all a-flame,
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun ;
When that strange ship drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.
And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
As if through a dungeon-grate he peer'd,
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer, as through a grate ?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is Death that Woman's mate?
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
The Night-Mare Life-in-Death was she,
But we must come to Mr Coleridge's story with all our imagination upon us. Now let us put our knees a little nearer the fire, and tell a homelier one about Life in Death. The groundwork of it is in Sandys's Commentary upon Ovid, and quoted from Sabinus.*
A gentleman of Bavaria, of a noble family, was so afflicted at the death of his wife, that, unable to bear the company of any other person, he gave himself entirely up to a solitary way of living. This was the more remarkable in him, as he had been a man of jovial habits, fond of his wine and visitors, and impatient of having his numerous indulgencies contradicted. But in the same temper perhaps might be found the cause of his sorrow; for though he would be impatient with his wife, as with others, yet he loved her, as one of the gentlest wills he had; and the sweet and unaffected face which she always turned round upon his anger, might have been a thing more easy for him to trespass upon while living, than to forget when dead and gone. His very anger towards her, compared with that towards others, was a relief to him; and rather a wish to refresh himself in the balmy feeling of her patience, than to make her unhappy herself; or to punish her, as some would have done, for that virtuous contrast to his own vice.
But whether he bethought himself, after her death, that this was a very selfish mode of loving; or whether, as some thought, he had wearied out her life with habits so contrary to her own; or whether, as others reported, he had put it to a fatal risque by some lordly piece of self-will, in consequence of which she had caught a fever on the cold river during a night of festivity; he surprised even those who thought that he loved her, by the extreme bitterness of his grief. The very mention of festivity, though he was patient for the first day or two, afterwards threw him into a passion of rage; but by degrees, even his rage followed his other old habits. He was gentle, but ever silent. He eat and drank but sufficient to keep him alive; and used to spend the greater part of the day in the spot where his wife was buried.
He was going there one evening, in a very melancholy manner, with his eyes turned towards the earth, and had just entered the rails of the burial ground, when he was accosted by the mild voice of somebody coming to meet him. "It is a blessed evening, Sir," said the voice. The gentleman looked up. Nobody but himself was allowed to be in the place at that hour; and yet he saw, with astonishment, a young chorister approaching him. He was going to express some wonder, when, he said, the modest though assured look of the boy, and the extreme beauty of his countenance, which glowed in the setting sun before him, made an irresistible addition to the singular sweetness of his voice; and he asked him with an involuntary calmness, and a gesture of respect, not what he did there, but what he wished. "Only to wish
*The Saxon Latin poet, we presume, Professor of Belles lettres, at Frankfort. We know noking of him except from a biographical dictionary.
you all good things," answered the stranger, who had now come up; ❝ and to give you this letter." The gentleman took the letter, and saw upon it with a beating, yet scarcely bewildered heart, the handwriting of his wife. He raised his eyes again to speak to the boy, but he was gone. He cast them far and near round the place, but there were no traces of a passenger. He then opened the letter; and by the divine light of the setting sun read these words:
"To my dear husband, who sorrows for his wife.
"Otto, my husband, the soul you regret so, is returned. You will know the truth of this, and be prepared with calmness to see it, by the divineness of the messenger who has passed you. You will find me sitting in the public walk, praying for you; praying, that you may never more give way to those gusts of passion, and those curses against others, which divided us.
"This with a warm hand, from the living Bertha.”
Otto (for such it seems was the gentleman's name) went instantly, calmly, quickly, yet with a sort of benumbed being, to the public walk. He felt, but with only a half-consciousness, as if he glided without a body. But all his spirit was awake, eager, intensely conscious. It seemed to him as if there had been but two things in the world,-Life and Death; and that death was dead. All else appeared to have been a dream. He had awaked from a waking state, and found himself all eye, and spirit, and loco-motion. He said to himself, once as he went: "This is not a dream. I will ask my great ancestors to-morrow to my new bridal feast, for they are alive." Otto had been calm at first, but something of old and triumphant feelings seemed again to come over him. Was he again too proud and confident? Did his earthly humours prevail again, when he thought them least upon him? We shall see.
The Bavarian arrived at the public walk. It was full of people with their wives and children, enjoying the beauty of the evening. Something like common fear came over him, as he went in and out among them, looking at the benches on each side. It happened that there was only one person, a lady, sitting upon them. She had her veil down; and his being underwent a fierce but short convulsion as he went near her. Something had a little baffled the calmer inspiration of the angel that had accosted him; for fear prevailed at the instant, and Otto passed on. He returned before he had reached the end of the walk, and approached the lady again. She was still sitting in the same quiet posture, only he thought she looked at him. Again he passed her. On his second return, a grave and sweet courage came upon him, and in an under but firm tone of enquiry, he said, "Bertha !"-" I thought you had forgotten me," said that well-known and mellow voice, which he had seemed as far from ever hearing again, as earth is from heaven. He took her hand, which grasped his in turn; and they walked home in silence together, the arm which was wound within his, giving warmth for warmth.
The neighbours seemed to have a miraculous want of wonder at