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becomes imitative. As in Washington Irving we have the revivication of the Spectator school of literature, as in Cooper we see only the pale and watery reflexion of Walter Scott, so in Dr. Holmes we have an American edition (expurgated) of Montaigne and Rabelais and Sterne. The modern work of English literature which the “ Aristocrat” and the “ Professor” at the breakfast-table at once call to mind, -as much, perhaps, in the way of contrast as in the way of resemblance,-is the Noctes Ambrosiana. The broad rollicking humour and strong sense of the Scotch professor, however, are in contrast as remarkable with the somewhat thin intellectual wit of the American, as the dry toast and tea of a Boston boarding-house are to the “strong waters” and meat-suppers of Ambrose's. The divinity student and school-dame and vexed female in bombazine are the proper hearers of the wisdom of the Autocrat, as the Shepherd and Tickler are the fitting interlocutors of North. The entire absence of dramatic powers in Holmes is, however, what chiefly differentiates him from Wilson. The boarders at his breakfast-table are only 80 many points to which the Autocrat attaches the threads of his conversation, so many mirrors in which he is variously reflected. They exist only as they are shone upon by him. We are sorry to speak in what appears disparagement of a writer for whom we entertain a very sincere admiration; from whom the reader is sure of entertainment and of a certain amount of mental stimulus; in whom we acknowledge wit, humour, fancy - real, if not of the highest order, shrewd observations of life, if not deep insight into character, ingenious if somewhat superficial criticism on art, literature, and philosophy. We are glad to add, without any qualification, that Dr. Holmes's sympathies are always large and humane; and that the most odious of tyrannies,_always associated in those who indulge it with a deep underlying scepticism, which suspects its own truth of being a cunningly disguised lie that may be found out, the tyranny which would suppress free thought on the most stupendous of all themes,-is thoroughly hated and despised by him. Seeing life by snatches rather than seeing it whole, apprehensive of the salient points of a character rather than grasping it in its living unity, endowed, in a word, with susceptible fancy rather than with a sterling imagination, Dr. Holmes's vocation would appear not to be towards fiction. It is in fragmentary “guesses at truth,” rather than in completed delineations of life and character, that his strength hitherto has seemed to lie. Whether Elsie Venner confirms this pre-supposition, or rather the author's doctrine, that every man has at least one novel in him, and “that he (Dr. Holmes), as an individual of the human race, could write one novel, or story, at any rate, if he would;"—which of these
alternatives is true, remains to be seen. If he has succeeded, he has furnished the best refutation of Mr. Hawthorne's notion that American life and manners do not afford materials for a romance, by doing what was pronounced impossible. Solvitur ambulando.
The “destiny" which is referred to in the title-page is not, we may premise, the “manifest destiny" of which we used to hear so much in connexion with America,-romance though that appears now to have become. It refers to the doctrine, very prominent in all Dr. Holmes's writings, that character, mental and moral, is largely dependent on organisation; that transmitted and congenital qualities form a determining force in life. This opinion is not peculiar to Dr. Holmes. Every man, not only of science, but of sense, holds it, with more or less limitation; and Dr. Holmes himself does not hold it altogether without limitation. In many cases, however, the limitation is held so strongly as practically to reduce the original truth to nothing; in others so slight a limitation is admitted as virtually to leave the doctrine unchecked, to drift into a materialistic fatalism. Apart from the nicely-balanced judgments of physiologists and psychologists, in the matter of truths admitted into any mind, there are some which, from a natural affinity, become operative in it, and are always present with it; they form the key by which it unlocks the secrets of character, the light in which it views nature and life, the interpretation of all mysteries. There are other truths, different of course in different persons, which, admitted in words, are practically ignored. To the former class, in the case of Dr. Holmes, belongs the doctrine of congenital qualities, coming to us by hereditary transmission. It is the clue by which he finds his way through the labyrinth. He deduces from it, as he well may, many lessons of practical wisdom, and of tender and enlarged charity. Not denying, occasionally in a sort of moral compulsion conceding, that the mind has a self-determining power, operative under fixed conditions, he soon loses sight of the self-determining power, and remembers only the fixed conditions. Character, he allows, is destiny; but organisation is character, and organisation is an affair of race and parentage and external influences, moulding the individual as clay is moulded. This is the “ destiny,” the “romance” of which is told in Elsie Venner. It is there put in a very bold and startling, and what will be to some minds repulsive, shape.
Elsie Venner is the daughter of a gentleman of wealth and culture, belonging to what the author calls the Brahmin caste of New England, and resident in the flourishing town of Rockland, lying at the foot of a mountain, which forms an important part of the scenery of the story.
“ The one feature of The Mountain that shed the brownest horror on its woods was the existence of the terrible region known as Rattlesnake Ledge, and still tenanted by those damnable reptiles, which distil a fiercer venom under our cold northeru sky than the cobra himself in the land of tropical spices and poisons.
From the earliest settlement of the place, this fact had been, next to the Indians, the reigning nightmare of the inhabitants. It was easy enough, after a time, to drive away the savages; for 'a screeching Indian Divell,' as our fathers called him, could not crawl into the crack of a rock to escape from his pursuers. But the venomous population of Rattlesnake Ledge bad a Gibraltar for their fortress that might have defied the siege-train dragged to the walls of Sebastopol. In its deep embrasures and its impregnable casemates they reared their families, they met in love or wrath, they twined together in family knots, they hissed defiance in hostile clans, they fed, slept, hibernated, and in due time died in peace. Many a foray had the town's-people made, and many a stuffed skin was shown as a trophy,—nay, there were families where the children's first toy was made from the warning appendage that once vibrated to the wrath of one of these cruel serpents.' Some. times one of them, coaxed out by a warm sun, would writhe himself down the hill-side into the roads, up the walks that led to houses,worse than this, into the long grass, where the bare-footed mowers would soon pass with their swinging scythes,-more rarely into houses,
—and on one memorable occasion, early in the last century, into the meeting-house, where he took a position on the pulpit-stairs, -as is narrated in the 'Account of some Remarkable Providences,' &c., where it is suggested that a strong tendency of the Rev. Didymus Bean, the Minister at that time, towards the Arminian Heresy may have had something to do with it, and that the Serpent supposed to have been killed on the Pulpit-Stairs was a false show of the Damon's Contrixance, he having come in to listen to a Discourse which was a sweet Savour in his Nostrils, and, of course, not being capable of being killed Himself. Others said, however, that, though there was good Reason to think it was a Dæmon, yet he did come with Intent to bite the Heel of that faithful Servant,-&c.
One Gilson is said to have died of the bite of a rattlesnake in this town early in the present century. After this there was a great snakehunt, in which very many of these venomous beasts were killed, -one in particular, said to have been as big round as a stout man's arm, and to have had no less than forty joints to his rattle,-indicating, according to some, that he had lived forty years, but, if we might put any faith in the Indian tradition, that he had killed forty human beings, an idle fancy, clearly. This hunt, however, had no permanent effect in keeping down the serpent population. Viviparous creatures are a kind of specie-paying lot, but oviparous ones only give their notes, as it were, for a future brood,-an egg being, so to speak, a promise to pay a young one by and by, if nothing happen. Now the domestic habits of the rattlesnake are not studied very closely, for obvious reasons; but it is, no doubt, to all intents and purposes oviparous. Consequently it has large families, and is not easy to kill out.
In the year 1844, a melancholy proof was afforded to the inhabitants of Rockland that the brood which infested The Mountain was not extirpated. A very interesting young married woman, detained at home at the time by the state of her health, was bitten in the entry of her own house by a rattlesnake which had found its way down from The Mountain. Owing to the almost instant employment of powerful remedies, the bite did not prove immediately fatal; but she died within a few months of the time when she was bitten.
All this seemed to throw a lurid kind of shadow over The Mountain. Yet, as many years passed without any accident, people grew comparatively careless, and it might rather be said to add a fearful kind of interest to the romantic hill-side, that the banded reptiles, which had been the terror of the red men for nobody knows how many thousand years, were there still, with the same poison-bags and spring-teeth at the white men's service, if they meddled with them."
On the incident described in the last paragraph but one of the preceding extract, the story turns. Elsie Venner is the daughter of the lady who is bitten by the rattlesnake; she is born shortly after the accident. The poison of the reptile, however, has entered her system ; a nature lower than human is grafted upon, and overshadows, and suppresses, ber womanly qualities. She is a Lamia--a serpent. In external indications, as well as in character, this fact expresses itself. She walks with a peculiar undulation of movement. The pattern of her dress, the mode in which her scarf is twisted round her, her habit of coiling and uncoiling her gold chain about her wrist, her sibilant utterance, the power of mysterious fascination which lurks through the strange cold glitter of her eyes, and compels an involuntary obedience, perplex observers, and reveal the serpent nature to the reader, who is in the secret. She bites a playfellow in childish anger, and the wound requires to be cauterised, that it may not be mortal; when provoked, “she throws her head back, her eyes narrowing, and her forehead drawing down ;” so that an observer “ thought her head actually flattened itself.” Round her neck is a mysterious circular mark, always concealed by a golden chain. She visits alone Rattlesnake Ledge, and exercises a mysterious ascendency over its fearful inhabitants, saving a chance wanderer to that spot.
“Mr. Bernard walked to the mouth of the cavern or fissure and looked into it. His look was met by the glitter of two diamond eyes, small, sharp, cold, shining out of the darkness, but gliding with a smooth steady motion towards the light and himself. He stood fixed, struck dumb, staring back into them with dilating pupils and sudden numbness of fear that cannot move, as in the terror of dreams. The two sparks of light came forward until they grew to circles of flame, and all at once lifted themselves up, as if in angry surprise. Then for the first ti me thrilled in Mr. Bernard's ears the dreadful sound that nothing which
breathes, be it man or brute, can hear unmoved,—the long, loud, stinging whirr, as the huge thick-bodied reptile shook his many-jointed rattle and adjusted his loops for the fatal stroke. His eyes were drawn as with magnets toward the circles of flame. His ears rung as in the overture to the swooning dream of chloroform. Nature was before man with her anæsthetics. The cat's first shake stupefies the mouse; the lion's first shake deadens the man's fear and feeling; and the crotalus paralyses before he strikes. He waited as in a trance,-waited as one that longs to have the blow fall, and all over, as the man who shall be in two pieces in a second waits for the axe to drop. But while he looked straight into the flaming eyes, it seemed to him that they were losing their light and terror, that they were growing tame and dull; the charm was dissolving, the numbness was passing away, he could move once more. He heard a light breathing close to his ear, and, half turning, saw the face of Elsie Venner, looking motionless into the reptile's eyes, which had shrunk and faded under the stronger enchantment of her own.”
The moral qualities of this singular being are precisely correspondent. The story shows the gradual humanising of Elsie Venner, partly through the influence of a strong attachment, partly, we are left to infer, through the natural dying out of the lower nature engrafted on the higher. The physical change which the system is by some believed to have gone through in all its parts, by the time it reaches maturity, casts out the poison which had perverted it; but the struggle has been too long and protracted, and life perishes with it.
The conception of a literally brute nature in a human form is in itself by no means attractive. The idea of a reptile semiparentage is still more repulsive. In Elsie Venner we have the moral counterpart of the artistic incongruity which Horace censures when
“turpiter atrum Desinit in piscem mulier formosa supernè.” Dr. Holmes, though not vouching for the possible existence of a nature so influenced as that of his heroine, evidently inclines to believe that such a case not only might occur but has occurred. In his preface he explains himself to the following effect:
“In calling this narrative a romance, the author wishes to make sure of being indulged in the common privileges of the poetic license. Through all the disguise of fiction, a grave scientific doctrine may be detected lying beneath some of the delineations of character. He has used this doctrine as a part of the machinery of his story, without pledging his absolute belief in it to the extent to which it is asserted or implied. It was adopted as a convenient medium of truth, rather than as an accepted scientific conclusion. The reader must judge for himself what is the value of various stories cited from old authors. . ... The author must be permitted, however, to say here, in his personal character, and