A Fatal Gift*

THERE are many wishes which we habitually conceive and express, without considering what the result would be were it possible to realise them,and what enormous consequences their realisation would would entail. For instance, we are apt to exclaim, when perplexed by the conduct of others, “I’d give anything to know So-and-So’s thoughts!” A facility of this kind seems, at the first blush, to promise an easy solution of our difficulties. The effect of realising this wish will, however, be illustrated in the following narrative.

I was sitting up late one Saturday night finishing my sermon for the following Sunday; and the completion of which, as was very frequently the case with my sermons, had been delayed till the last moment, owing to the pressure of other duties. The subject, which I had afterwards strange reasons for remembering, was Faith.

I had been endeavouring to point out that what men find so difficult in a religious sense, really forms the foundation of secular life. Take, for instances, our investments of money, our whole system of commercial credit, nay, higher than that, our dearest domestic relations, our best social affections. “Why, without Faith,” I had written,“the world would come to a dead-lock; there would be an end of concerted action; men would be perfectly isolated. Faith was the cohesive principle which bound together the human atoms.” I little thought that that very night would afford me a terrible illustration of what I had written in a spirit of speculative contemplativeness.

Just as I had finished my discourse, I heard a low, single rap at the street-door. The servant had gone to bed, so I undid the bolts, and looked out; and eventually looking down, I discovered a little scared girl not more than seven years old standing in the doorway.

“Please sir, Mr. C. is very ill, and would like to see you.”

“Mr. C.!”

The name was not familiar to me; but, reflecting for a moment, I recollected meeting a gentleman of that name some years back.

“What’s the direction?” I asked.

“— Adelphi Chambers,” said the child.

“I’ll be there directly,” I replied (with a sigh, I confess), for the rain was coming down heavily, and I had had a hard day’s parochial duty.

I pulled on my boots accordingly, and, with coat and umbrella, sallied forth. I was admitted into the house by a decent looking woman, who I presumed was the keeper of the chambers. She led me up-stairs —cheerless chamber-stairs; and I shuddered as she went before me with the feeble light.

“It is well for me to be here,” I thought, “if I can in anywise comfort a poor creature dying without the support of home care, and affection.”

I stopped the woman at the chamber-landing, and made her communicate to me some particulars of the case. The malady, it appeared, had quite puzzled the doctors; the woman herself thought Mr. C was troubled by something on his mind.

“He has lived here, sir,” said she, “for about six months: a nice quiet gentleman, and no trouble; but from the first there was something strange in his manner. He always seemed to want to be to hisself; me or my husband being in the room seemed to irritate him and he never liked to be waited upon by anybody but our little girl. Since his illness he has had a screen drawn close round his bed, and he don’t like anybody to see him: not even the doctor.”

As I entered the room, where a shaded candle was dimly burning, in one corner I perceived a small camp-bed, almost concealed by a curtained screen. The woman mentioned my name, and withdrew. Then a voice, feeble but perfectly articulate, addressed me from behind the curtain.

“I am deeply your debtor for coming to see me at such a time.” I expressed my hope that I might be of comfort to him. “Will you be good enough,” he continued, “to take a seat near my bed, without disturbing the curtains; the request is strange, but I will explain it by-and-by.”

I did as he desired.

“Perhaps,” said he, “you have not forgotten my name: we met casually some years ago. I have not forgotten you! Your manner and appearance made a very deep impression on me; and when I chanced to hear that you were living in this district, I could not resist sending for you, in a sort of vain hope that you might afford me some alleviation.”

I signified to him that my mission was rather to deal with spiritual affliction.

“Ay,” said he, “there’s the source of the malady. I fear cure is beyond your power; but this night I am impelled by a strong desire to speak out the terrible secret which is consuming me. The last time we met was, if you recollect, at R ‘s rooms; and the conversation even there turned on mesmerism. I was an enthusiastic mesmerist; I mesmerised some of the party, and you were much interested in the experiments. I remember your saying that this new discovery, whereby the troubled spirit might be wrapped in calm and released from pain, was a precious gift, but manifestly very liable to abuse, and should therefore be religiously exercised for the benefit of mankind, and not for the purposes of vain curiosity. I treated your words lightly at the time, but I have often thought of them since. I have learnt, in a terrible manner, that they were signally true.

»I was a most skilful mesmerist — in other words, by intense strength of will I could subdue the submitted volition of other people. The longer I exercised this gift, the stronger my power grew; at last I no longer required perfect submission from those on whom I operated. I could encounter mental opposition, and overcome it. You must bear patiently with me if I am somewhat exact and minute in describing this psychological process.

»At first I could only deal with a mind which thought of nothing but Me; then I acquired the power of driving away extraneous thought from the mind of the patient, and substituting the thought of Me exclusively. When I first acquired the latter power I could merely detect a mental opposition, which seemed like a painful depression cast on my own mind; but gradually, as my power grew, I could distinguish the opposing thought thrown like a reflection in a mirror on my own mind.

»Sometimes the thought was fear — sometimes a proud desire not to be overcome. As I was very careful to verify the truth of my discernment,I made my patients, after the trance was over, call to mind, as far as possible, then last thought before unconsciousness began; and invariably the thought which had existed in the mind of the patient had co-existed in my own mind.

»Would to God I had been contented thus far! It was in my power to benefit others largely by affording them freedom from pain, but the desire of being able to read the thoughts of men absorbed me. The slight progress I had made seemed but the germ of a mighty power of which the world had no conception. To be master of the motives of men’s actions, to watch the gradual development of thought into action — above all, to be able to unmask false profession by a knowledge of the actual feeling — this was a gift conferring power incalculable.

»And out of much meditation upon this idea there grew a colossal fascination which grasped my whole soul.”Alas! there is always more or less of isolation in the intensity of a great thought; when deeply seated, it dries up our sympathies and feeds upon the social inclinations of the heart. “You know how the alchemists of the middle ages laboured in the hope of discovering the golden secret of the physical world; how they spent time, and thought, and substance in the work. You have read, perhaps, Balzac’s ‘Recherche de l’Absolu?’ I was striving for the golden secret of the mental world; no trouble was too great, no labour too hard for me; and as it was well known in the profession that I possessed the power of lulling pain, doctors would send for me at all times, day and night, to ease the anguish of patients whose maladies defied opium itself. I used to answer their call with the greatest readiness, for severe pain, by distracting the mind of the sufferer, increased the difficulty I had in subduing that mind to my own, and my power always grew stronger after opposition.

»For a long period I did not progress beyond the ability to feel with the greatest clearness the thoughts in my patients’ minds prior to their lapsing into the trance. I attained my higher power suddenly. One day I had succeeded in alleviating a case of severe pain. The sufferer was the son of a very old man, and the father thanked me with tears in his eyes, grasping my hands.

» ‘The doctor told me,’ said he, ‘that if we could subdue the pain he might live a few days yet—my other boy may reach home in time to see him.’

»Instantly I recognised a strange thought in my mind, and I looked sternly in the old man’s face.

»’You hope your other son will return in time?’

»’Ay, that I do,’ replied the old man somewhat flurried with my glance, ‘they are so fond of one another.’

»I hurried from the house, jumped into a cab and drove to the Insurance Office. It happened that I was well acquainted with one of the clerks. I inquired whether So-and-So, mentioning the dying man’s name, was insured there.

»’He is,’ replied my friend, ‘and if he lives another two days a handsome bonus will be added to his policy.’ The clerk’s words sufficed to tell me that I had acquired my long-sought power. While the old man was lavishing his thanks upon me in the sick room, I had felt his thought, ‘that if his son lived two days longer, the policy would possess additional value.

“Surely, sir,” said I, interrupting his narrative, “this was merely some casual coincidence of thought.”

“Coincidence, indeed,”replied the voice, mournfully, “but constant, not casual. From that day was given me the gift of reading human thought; a few, only very few, minds were sealed from my introspection. At this period the conditions and limitations of my power appeared to be these. — I had to hold the person’s eyes steadily on mine, my mind required to be as much as possible in a passive state, vacant of thought, for positive thought on my part dimmed, or quite effaced, the thought reflected from the other mind.

»Ah! I tremble now when I think of it, the towering pride and exultation which beset me as I left that assurance office; as I strode along the busy city streets, men seemed dwarfs, pygmies, in comparison with my power. I laughed as I thought of their comparative impotence. I was strangely moved, too full of strong feeling to exercise my power again that day; but when I got home I shut myself up in my room, and let exultation have full sway; and a great tide of thought at the wondrous consequences of my gift flowed through my excited mind.”

I interrupted him at this point, and strongly insisted that this could only be some strange hallucination which ought to be fought against, prayed against, and resolutely conquered.

“Ay, ay!” was the reply; “I have hugged that idea, clung to it, prayed, fervently prayed, that it might be after all some vain delusion. No, no, that hope’s passed, but you must hear my case out before you can suggest any remedy. Alas!” he continued, “my power has been verified hundreds of times. I have never been in error. I recollect even on that first day of exultation, after the first fervid burst was over, I trembled at my vast power. Even then a sense of desolation, of utter isolation overcame me. I had broken through the mental limits of mankind. I must traverse this new realm of knowledge without help — without sympathy; friendship could give me no comfort — wisdom no advice. I was sole tenant of a new world, without chart, without rule, without serviceable law. I stood Alone, with my wretched feeble reason to uphold me.

»And yet at first glance conduct would seem very easy; thought is the parent of action: if we are cognisant of thought we can predict action. Not so! Thank God — not so.

»I have seen men, good men in the world’s estimation, yet the thoughts of their hearts, the promptings of passion, have been vile; but the world was right, those very men have after all acted well . I had seen the temptation to evil, and the strong habit of right, almost unthought, which in a moment thrust back evil and forced to virtuous action.

»Ah! I have seen noble thoughts, piety, grand aspirations. I could have humbled myself and knelt before some men, and yet all this greatness has been lost in mean and selfish acts. Alas! I only beheld the thoughts of men, to become mystified by their subsequent actions. I trusted, where I was deceived; I doubted where I might have trusted; mankind perpetually falsified my predictions. What wonder? I had only my poor trivial unaided reason to guide me amid the infinite complexities of the soul.

»The consequent labour of attempted analysis has worn my mind and body. In the personal intercourse of life I dare not trust; I may not doubt. Oh! I have prayed for faith — prayed that my awful vision might be mercifully darkened, that I might be led back to that open judgment-ground of mortals — positive acts.”

At this point Mr. C seemed somewhat exhausted, and asked me to give him the lemonade. I was very much moved by his strange confession — the gloom of the room, the dead silence of the large house, broken only by the voice of the hidden speaker, feeble at times, then suddenly breaking out in painful energy — the thin, worn hand stretched through the curtain to grasp the glass. I felt that this extraordinary delusion, evidently deep seated, was not to be uprooted by mere emphatic contradiction or ridicule. I hoped by inducing him to relate some of the experiences upon which he had built his terrible conclusion, I might convince him of some fallacy, of some erroneous assumptions in his train of argument.

“I think,” said I, addressing him, “I understood you to say that you have never revealed this faculty of yours to any one?”

“What!” he exclaimed vehemently, “and let men know my power, so that they should cast me forth as an unhallowed spy—all shrinking from me, as some involuntarily shrunk from Dante, declaring he had walked in Hell — no! I was isolated enough without that.”

“Still,” said I, “you were certainly wrong, because another person, free from that morbid feeling which exists in your mind, might have been able to show you that this coincidence of thought, upon which you base your supposed power, was merely the natural effect of common circumstances upon two minds. Relate to me one of your strongest instances.”

He assented to my proposal.

“I had an old uncle,” said he, “who was very well off. I was his favourite nephew, the son of a sister who had been very dear to him. He was a kind, good old man, somewhat sensitive in matters of courtesy and attention. When I grew so entirely absorbed in my great idea, I gave up all social intercourse, and entirely neglected my uncle as well as the rest of my friends.

»People used to tell me that a young cousin of mine, home from his first voyage, was staying at my uncle’s house; that I risked my chance of after-fortune by my imprudent conduct. I paid attention to none of these warnings, and one night I was sent for in a great hurry ; my uncle had had a sudden fit, and was fast sinking. I hastened to the house; on entering the room I found my uncle was in a heavy dose of unconsciousness, but on my approaching the bed, he feebly opened his eyes and gazed vacantly at me without the slightest sign of recognition.

»’He does not know you,’ said my cousin.

»But he did know me! the body was fast sinking, yet the mind was still active. I felt, as I looked deeply in his eyes, his thought of returning tenderness — Janet’s only son— and then the terrible regret that that was not signed. In my desperation I seized pen and paper — I thrust the pen into his hand, and clasped the yielding fingers on it.

»’It is too late!’ said my cousin.

»’No, no!’ I replied.

»It was too late. The pen fell away from the nerveless hand, but I felt the intense inward struggle which strove in vain to reanimate the failing strength of the dying man.”

“Allow me to observe,” said I, “that I cannot consider this as any proof of your power — you knew that your uncle’s affections were cooled towards you, that your cousin would in all probability be his heir — all the rest was merely the effect of excited imagination.”

“You are too hasty, sir,” was the reply to my objection. “We found, on searching my uncle’s papers, a will in his desk, making my cousin his heir, to my entire exclusion, but so convinced was I of the truth of what I had felt pass in my uncle’s mind, that I made unabated search through all the papers, even waste papers — and in the waste paper basket, thrown in by the servant who cleared the room, I took up a common circular which, from its date, my uncle must have received the very morning of his seizure, and turning over to the blank sheet, I discovered in his handwriting the draft of a codicil which would have made me joint-heir with my cousin; but it was nothing more than a draft.

»Again, sir! I knew my cousin was a young man of generous feeling — I say I knew this, because when we discovered the will, I saw his inward feeling of surprise, his regret that I had been entirely excluded, and his fear lest I should think he had been undermining my credit with my uncle.

»Surely, I thought, he will be affected now by this evidence of my uncle’s feeling, and will to some extent act upon it. I gave him the memorandum to read. I watched him very intently. After reading he was silent awhile, and then I saw to my astonishment great exultation in his mind that the document was legally invalid. Hard words were rising to my lips — thank God! I spoke them not — with utterance sudden as thought, he swore to act upon the codicil. I grasped his hands, expressing my deep sense of his noble conduct.

»’Tell me, Harry,’ said I, at length, ‘did not you at first feel glad that the codicil was not signed?’

»’How the deuce did you guess that?’ he replied, ‘I did feel glad for a moment! — but I kicked that thought to the devil!’

It was clearly hopeless to try to satisfy Mr. C. of the fallacy of his idea through his own narratives. He had evidently squared all his proofs with such strange ingenuity. I trusted, therefore, that something might occur under my own cognisance which would enable me by the impartial use of fact to satisfy him of his error.

“What was wealth to me?” he continued — “my terrible power was growing, I no longer required contact of vision; merely personal presence unobstructed within a certain distance sufficed. To possess any peace of mind in the presence of others I am forced to conceal myself, to veil in my vision.

»I told you there were some few who were sealed from my power; these were the friends I loved best — I know not why, or how — perhaps from that strong element of faith which is contained in true love.

»Alas! one by one, my power gradually prevailed over these. I was forced to leave them; the world thought me fickle and inconstant; I could not help that; it was so utterly wearisome to bear in one’s bosom the thoughts of others — so dreadful to behold continually the anatomy of the soul to be perpetually reasoning out men’s acts from their thoughts. You know how pleasant are the words of friendly intercourse, how refreshing is the sound of friendly talk, but here was the climax of my misery — I felt the idea before the tongue spoke it — the human voice was never fresh to me, it was always telling an old tale, falling flat and sickening on the ear.

»At last there was only one being over whose mind I was powerless — Oh! how desperately I clung to her — how earnestly I prayed of her to accept me. It was ecstatic, that doubt of mine, while I waited for her reply; that thrill of uncertainty, as I gazed into her dark eyes, and rejoiced in their glorious mystery — and then her sweet voice falling fresh, oh! so fresh upon my ears— her words, sweeter to me than softest music, springing from an unfathomed heart, and assuring me, with sincere emotion, that that heart was mine. I loved her with all the happiness of faith! I have no words to describe the intensity of my feeling. Do you recollect that German ballad:

»I knew but heaven in Wilhelm’s kiss,
And all is hell without it?

»That was my love for her! ay, and intensified far beyond the poet’s meaning — it was the last bond that held me to the common joys of mankind. They might well say I worshipped her — I could sit for hours gazing silently on the play of her eyes, listening to the slightest things she uttered. I can never make you understand what her voice was to me — her voice, the only voice in the world I could bear to hear.

»I used to tremble at the thought of losing her. Not by death — for she had all the chances of youth and strength, but from my terrible power. I reasoned thus: love for a while had saved me some friends; but I loved this girl far beyond friendship, and love would be her shield. Again, I had observed that the smallest feeling of doubt towards any friend had been the commencement of my fatal vision — but doubt towards her was impossible, for I loved her with the strongest faith.

»Nevertheless I was to be isolated from all the world —doubt did come one day. Clara had a cousin, a wild young fellow, who had been shipped by his family to Australia for the double purpose of reformation and fortune. It seems he had been always fond of her, but her friends would never listen to his proposals. Some time after our engagement he returned to England, having made a good round sum in the gold scramble. I met him at a party to which I had accompanied Clara and her mother. I saw on our introduction that he had an aversion to me, and independently of this I was not prepossessed by his manner and appearance. I told Clara my feeling, and she defended him, as I thought, rather too warmly.

“In the course of the evening, while I was talking to Clara, he came and stood near us; our conversation, which had been in reference to him, was silenced by the singing. I know not what induced me to direct my attention towards him — he was gazing earnestly on Clara; I felt the violent love which was raging in his bosom, and the wild lawless inclination to make her his. Involuntarily I turned on Clara. Cursed doubt was in my mind arising out of our previous conversation. In an instant I beheld her thought — tenderness and love towards her cousin!

»And then by a now access of my power the thoughts of both those minds were mirrored in mine — Oh it cuts very sharp to know a rival’s love, but think of the bewildering torture of feelings that rival’s love, and the love felt towards him at work in your own breast!

»In my pain and anger I was advancing towards this man. Then flashed on my mind with a force before which the previous feeling with all its intensity shrivelled away, the terrible fact that my last hope was gone. I had read her mind — I must be alone henceforth.”

The voice gradually dropped into indistinctness — I listened, there was a dead silence. I drew back the curtain — he had fainted — poor C.! how sadly altered from the young man I recollected but a few short years back. The light fell horizontally on his pale face, on the ridges revealed and the hollows in dark shade worn by the fever — his fatal imagination.

* * * *

C. permitted me to state his real condition to the doctor. This gentleman was a very clever, clear-headed, and benevolent man, and took immense interest in the case. Both of us reasoned with C. upon his hallucination. I strove on religious grounds to show him the improbability of such a condition being divinely permitted. We both of us blamed him for having doubted on such frivolous grounds his betrothed’s love and fidelity.

He told us it was this last struggle which had so completely worn away his health. This love for her cousin, as far as he had seen, was only a passing thought; but alas! his joy in her was at an end; her voice had lost its sweetness, her eyes their mysterious delight — he dared not bind himself to a life of perpetual attraction and repulsion, beholding all the fluctuations of her thoughts, yet never knowing her true feelings. Love was impossible without faith. He had broken off the match, offering what compensation money could afford — this had been proudly refused, but he had made his will in her favour.

We urged upon him that he ought at the least to take the lady’s word whether or not the thought he had mentioned had ever existed in her mind. With some difficulty, upon giving our pledge to act with fairness in the matter, we induced him to agree to this proposition. We had every hope that her disavowal would afford us a lever to uproot his strange convictions.

At C ‘s desire I called upon Miss M . I saw her and her mother. She, poor girl, evidently loved C. still, and was much distressed to hear of his dangerous condition. It appeared that he had excused himself for breaking off the match, on the ground of some hereditary malady, and he had blamed himself in strong terms for ever making her an offer.

From what Mrs. M. said, she seemed to regard C. with pity rather than with resentment, notwithstanding the sad trial it had been to her daughter. I stated the object of my visit; that it would afford much consolation to C. , if Miss M. would visit him, and answer a certain doubt which existed in his mind; it was right for me to state that the question which would be asked was of a painful nature, but I was quite convinced that one true word from Miss M. would explain the whole matter at once.

Miss M. and her mother readily agreed to my request. It was a very painful meeting. The curtain had been drawn back, Miss M , her mother, and the doctor stood at the end of the bed; I was at C.’s side, and as he was very weak he requested me to speak. After recalling to Miss M.’s recollection the events of the particular evening (it was less than a year from that day), and stating that C. made no question of the sincerity of her love (he also speaking to the same effect himself), I asked her whether she could remember at the particular moment just before C. fainted in the room, experiencing a feeling of regard towards her cousin?

C., in breathless suspense, bent forward in his bed, and regarded her intently. She, poor girl, was deeply moved, blushing crimson. Her mother interposed with warmth, and denied my right to ask such a question. I expostulated, and prayed of her to allow her daughter to answer.

The doctor suddenly moved forward: C. had fallen back insensible! And then Miss M., hurrying to the bedside, and kneeling as she clasped C.’s hand, confessed that the thought had passed through her mind — “a morbid folly,” she cried, “the recollection of childish days, of what people had said, as boy and girl, of their marrying;” she had never approved of her cousin’s conduct since he had grown up — she had refused his hand but a month ago.

From this time C gradually sank.

* It ought to be mentioned, in justice to both Author and Editor, that this story was in type some two or three weeks before the appearance of the July number of “Blackwood,” which contains a story on the same theme.

Author: G. V. S., August 1859

Cover: Egon Schiele




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