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Fancy's Show-Box

A Morality.
From "Twice Told Tales"


What is Guilt? A stain upon the soul. And it is a point of vast
interest, whether the soul may contract such stains, in all their depth
and flagrancy, from deeds which may have been plotted and resolved upon,
but which, physically, have never had existence. Must the fleshly hand
and visible frame of man set its seal to the evil designs of the soul, in
order to give them their entire validity against the sinner? Or, while
none but crimes perpetrated are cognizable before an earthly tribunal,
will guilty thoughts,--of which guilty deeds are no more than shadows,--
will these draw down the full weight of a condemning sentence, in the
supreme court of eternity? In the solitude of a midnight chamber, or in
a desert, afar from men, or in a church, while the body is kneeling, the
soul may pollute itself even with those crimes, which we are accustomed
to deem altogether carnal. If this be true, it is a fearful truth.

Let us illustrate the subject by an imaginary example. A venerable
gentleman, one Mr. Smith, who had long been regarded as a pattern of
moral excellence, was warming his aged blood with a glass or two of
generous wine. His children being gone forth about their worldly
business, and his grandchildren at school, he sat alone, in a deep,
luxurious arm-chair, with his feet beneath a richly carved mahogany
table. Some old people have a dread of solitude, and when better company
may not be had, rejoice even to hear the quiet breathing of a babe,
asleep upon the carpet. But Mr. Smith, whose silver hair was the bright
symbol of a life unstained, except by such spots as are inseparable from
human nature, he had no need of a babe to protect him by its purity, nor
of a grown person to stand between him and his own soul. Nevertheless,
either Manhood must converse with Age, or Womanhood must soothe him with
gentle cares, or Infancy must sport around his chair, or his thoughts
will stray into the misty region of the past, and the old man be chill
and sad. Wine will not always cheer him. Such might have been the case
with Mr. Smith, when, through the brilliant medium of his glass of old
Madeira, he beheld three figures entering the room. These were Fancy,
who had assumed the garb and aspect of an itinerant showman, with a box
of pictures on her back; and Memory, in the likeness of a clerk, with a
pen behind her ear, an inkhorn at her buttonhole, and a huge manuscript
volume beneath her arm; and lastly, behind the other two, a person
shrouded in a dusky mantle, which concealed both face and form. But Mr.
Smith had a shrewd idea that it was Conscience.

How kind of Fancy, Memory, and Conscience to visit the old gentleman,
just as he was beginning to imagine that the wine had neither so bright a
sparkle nor so excellent a flavor as when himself and the liquor were
less aged! Through the dim length of the apartment, where crimson
curtains muffled the glare of sunshine, and created a rich obscurity, the
three guests drew near the silver-haired old mail. Memory, with a finger
between the leaves of her huge volume, placed herself at his right hand.
Conscience, with her face still hidden in the dusky mantle, took her
station on the left, so as to be next his heart; while Fancy set down her
picture-box upon the table, with the magnifying-glass convenient to his
eye. We can sketch merely the outlines of two or three out of the many
pictures which, at the pulling of a string, successively peopled the box
with the semblances of living scenes.

One was a moonlight picture; in the background, a lowly dwelling; and in
front, partly shadowed by a tree, yet besprinkled with flakes of
radiance, two youthful figures, male and female. The young man stood
with folded arms, a haughty smile upon his lip, and a gleam of triumph in
his eye, as he glanced downward at the kneeling girl. She was almost
prostrate at his feet, evidently sinking under a weight of shame and
anguish, which hardly allowed her to lift her clasped hands in
supplication. Her eyes she could not lift. But neither her agony, nor
the lovely features on which it was depicted, nor the slender grace of
the form which it convulsed, appeared to soften the obduracy of the young
man. He was the personification of triumphant scorn. Now, strange to
say, as old Mr. Smith peeped through the magnifying-glass, which made the
objects start out from the canvas with magical deception, he began to
recognize the farm-house, the tree, and both the figures of the picture.
The young man, in times long past, had often met his gaze within the
looking-glass; the girl was the very image of his first love,--his
cottage love,--his Martha Burroughs! Mr. Smith was scandalized. "O,
vile and slanderous picture!" he exclaims. "When have I triumphed over
ruined innocence? Was not Martha wedded, in her teens, to David Tomkius,
who won her girlish love, and long enjoyed her affection as a wife? And
ever since his death, she has lived a reputable widow! "Meantime, Memory
was turning over the leaves of her volume, rustling them to and fro with
uncertain fingers, until, among the earlier pages, she found one which
had reference to this picture. She reads it, close to the old
gentleman's ear; it is a record merely of sinful thought, which never was
embodied in an act; but, while Memory is reading, Conscience unveils her
face, and strikes a dagger to the heart of Mr. Smith. Though not a
death-blow, the torture was extreme.

The exhibition proceeded. One after another, Fancy displayed her
pictures, all of which appeared to have been painted by some malicious
artist, on purpose to vex Mr. Smith. Not a shadow of proof could have
been adduced, in any earthly court, that he was guilty of the slightest
of those sins which were thus made to stare him in the face. In one
scene, there was a table set out, with several bottles, and glasses half
filled with wine, which threw back the dull ray of an expiring lamp.
There had been mirth and revelry, until the hand of the clock stood just
at midnight, when murder stepped between the boon companions. A young
man had fallen on the floor, and lay stone dead, with a ghastly wound
crushed into his temple, while over him, with a delirium of mingled rage
and horror in his countenance, stood the youthful likeness of Mr. Smith.
The murdered youth wore the features of Edward Spencer! "What does this
rascal of a painter mean?" cries Mr. Smith, provoked beyond all patience.
"Edward Spencer was my earliest and dearest friend, true to me as I to
him, through more than half a century. Neither I, nor any other, ever
murdered him. Was he not alive within five years, and did he not, in
token of our long friendship, bequeath me his gold-headed cane and a
mourning ring?" Again had Memory been turning over her volume, and
fixed at length upon so confused a page, that she surely must have
scribbled it when she was tipsy. The purport was, however, that, while
Mr. Smith and Edward Spencer were heating their young blood with wine, a
quarrel had flashed up between them, and Mr. Smith, in deadly wrath, had
flung a bottle at Spencer's head. True, it missed its aim, and merely
smashed a looking-glass; and the next morning, when the incident was
imperfectly remembered, they had shaken hands with a hearty laugh. Yet,
again, while Memory was reading, Conscience unveiled her face, struck a
dagger to the heart of Mr. Smith, and quelled his remonstrance with her
iron frown. The pain was quite excruciating.

Some of the pictures had been painted with so doubtful a touch, and in
colors so faint and pale, that the subjects could barely be conjectured.
A dull, semitransparent mist had been thrown over the surface of the
canvas, into which the figures seemed to vanish, while the eye sought
most earnestly to fix them. But, in every scene, however dubiously
portrayed, Mr. Smith was invariably haunted by his own lineaments, at
various ages, as in a dusty mirror. After poring several minutes over
one of these blurred and almost indistinguishable pictures, he began to
see that the painter had intended to represent him, now in the decline of
life, as stripping the clothes from the backs of three half-starved
children. "Really, this puzzles me!" quoth Mr. Smith, with the irony of
conscious rectitude. "Asking pardon of the painter, I pronounce him a
fool, as well as a scandalous knave. A man of my standing in the world,
to be robbing little children of their clothes! Ridiculous!" But while
he spoke, Memory had searched her fatal volume, and found a page, which,
with her sad, calm voice, she poured into his ear. It was not altogether
inapplicable to the misty scene. It told how Mr. Smith had been
grievously tempted, by many devilish sophistries, on the ground of a
legal quibble, to commence a lawsuit against three orphan children, joint
heirs to a considerable estate. Fortunately, before he was quite
decided, his claims had turned out nearly as devoid of law as justice.
As Memory ceased to read, Conscience again thrust aside her mantle, and
would have struck her victim with the envenomed dagger, only that he
struggled, and clasped his hands before his heart. Even then, however,
he sustained an ugly gash.

Why should we follow Fancy through the whole series of those awful
pictures? Painted by an artist of wondrous power, and terrible
acquaintance with the secret soul, they embodied the ghosts of all the
never perpetrated sins that had glided through the lifetime of Mr. Smith.
And could such beings of cloudy fantasy, so near akin to nothingness,
give valid evidence against him, at the day of judgment? Be that the
case or not, there is reason to believe that one truly penitential tear
would have washed away each hateful picture, and left the canvas white as
snow. But Mr. Smith, at a prick of Conscience too keen to be endured,
bellowed aloud, with impatient agony, and suddenly discovered that his
three guests were gone. There he sat alone, a silver-haired and highly
venerated old man, in the rich gloom of the crimson-curtained room, with
no box of pictures on the table, but only a decanter of most excellent
Madeira. Yet his heart still seemed to fester with the venom of the
dagger.

Nevertheless, the unfortunate old gentleman might have argued the matter
with Conscience, and alleged many reasons wherefore she should not smite
him so pitilessly. Were we to take up his cause, it should be somewhat
in the following fashion: A scheme of guilt, till it be put in execution,
greatly resembles a train of incidents in a projected tale. The latter,
in order to produce a sense of reality in the reader's mind, must be
conceived with such proportionate strength by the author as to seem, in
the glow of fancy, more like truth, past, present, or to come, than
purely fiction. The prospective sinner, on the other hand, weaves his
plot of crime, but seldom or never feels a perfect certainty that it will
be executed. There is a dreaminess diffused about his thoughts; in a
dream, as it were, he strikes the death-blow into his victim's heart, and
starts to find an indelible blood-stain on his hand. Thus a novel-writer,
or a dramatist, in creating a villain of romance, and fitting him with
evil deeds, and the villain of actual life, in projecting crimes that
will be perpetrated, may almost meet each other, half-way between reality
and fancy. It is not until the crime is accomplished, that guilt
clinches its gripe upon the guilty heart, and claims it for its own.
Then, and not before, sin is actually felt and acknowledged, and, if
unaccompanied by repentance, grows a thousand-fold more virulent by its
self-consciousness. Be it considered, also, that men often overestimate
their capacity for evil. At a distance, while its attendant
circumstances do not press upon their notice, and its results are dimly
seen, they can bear to contemplate it. They may take the steps which
lead to crime, impelled by the same sort of mental action as in working
out a mathematical problem, yet be powerless with compunction, at the
final moment. They knew not what deed it was that they deemed themselves
resolved to do. In truth, there is no such thing in man's nature as a
settled and full resolve, either for good or evil, except at the very
moment of execution. Let us hope, therefore, that all the dreadful
consequences of sin will not be incurred, unless the act have set its
seal upon the thought.

Yet, with the slight fancy-work which we have framed, some sad and awful
truths are interwoven. Man must not disclaim his brotherhood, even with
the guiltiest, since, though his hand be clean, his heart has surely been
polluted by the flitting phantoms of iniquity. He must feel, that, when
he shall knock at the gate of heaven, no semblance of an unspotted life
can entitle him to entrance there. Penitence must kneel, and Mercy come
from the footstool of the throne, or that golden gate will never open!

Nathaniel Hawthorne


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