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The Haunted Mind

From "Twice Told Tales"

What a singular moment is the first one, when you have hardly begun to
recollect yourself after starting from midnight slumber! By unclosing
your eyes so suddenly, you seem to have surprised the personages of
your dream in full convocation round your bed, and catch one broad
glance at them before they can flit into obscurity. Or, to vary the
metaphor, you find yourself, for a single instant, wide awake in that
realm of illusions, whither sleep has been the passport, and behold
its ghostly inhabitants and wondrous scenery, with a perception of
their strangeness, such as you never attain while the dream is
undisturbed. The distant sound of a church-clock is borne faintly on
the wind. You question with yourself, half seriously, whether it has
stolen to your waking ear from some gray tower, that stood within the
precincts of your dream. While yet in suspense, another clock flings
its heavy clang over the slumbering town, with so full and distinct a
sound, and such a long murmur in the neighboring air, that you are
certain it must proceed from the steeple at the nearest corner. You
count the strokes--one--two, and there they cease, with a booming
sound, like the gathering of a third stroke within the bell.

If you could choose an hour of wakefulness out of the whole night, it
would be this. Since your sober bedtime, at eleven, you have had rest
enough to take off the pressure of yesterday's fatigue; while before
you, till the sun comes from "far Cathay" to brighten your window,
there is almost the space of a summer night; one hour to be spent in
thought, with the mind's eye half shut, and two in pleasant dreams,
and two in that strangest of enjoyments, the forgetfulness alike of
joy and woe. The moment of rising belongs to another period of time,
and appears so distant, that the plunge out of a warm bed into the
frosty air cannot yet be anticipated with dismay. Yesterday has
already vanished among the shadows of the past; to-morrow has not yet
emerged from the future. You have found an intermediate space, where
the business of life does not intrude; where the passing moment
lingers, and becomes truly the present; a spot where Father Time, when
he thinks nobody is watching him, sits down by the wayside to take
breath. O that he would fall asleep, and let mortals live on without
growing older!

Hitherto you have lain perfectly still, because the slightest motion
would dissipate the fragments of your slumber. Now, being irrevocably
awake, you peep through the half-drawn window-curtain, and observe
that the glass is ornamented with fanciful devices in frostwork, and
that each pane presents something like a frozen dream. There will be
time enough to trace out the analogy, while waiting the summons to
breakfast. Seen through the clear portion of the glass, where the
silvery mountain-peaks of the frost scenery do not ascend, the most
conspicuous object is the steeple, the white spire of which directs
you to the wintry lustre of the firmament. You may almost distinguish
the figures on the clock that has just told the hour. Such a frosty
sky, and the snow-covered roofs, and the long vista of the frozen
street, all white, and the distant water hardened into rock, might
make you shiver, even under four blankets and a woollen comforter.
Yet look at that one glorious star! Its beams are distinguishable
from all the rest, and actually cast the shadow of the casement on the
bed, with a radiance of deeper hue than moonlight, though not so
accurate an outline.

You sink down and muffle your head in the clothes, shivering all the
while, but less from bodily chill than the bare idea of a polar
atmosphere. It is too cold even for the thoughts to venture abroad.
You speculate on the luxury of wearing out a whole existence in bed,
like an oyster in its shell, content with the sluggish ecstasy of
inaction, and drowsily conscious of nothing but delicious warmth, such
as you now feel again. Ah! that idea has brought a hideous one in its
train. You think how the dead are lying in their cold shrouds and
narrow coffins, through the drear winter of the grave, and cannot
persuade your fancy that they neither shrink nor shiver, when the snow
is drifting over their little hillocks, and the bitter blast howls
against the door of the tomb. That gloomy thought will collect a
gloomy multitude, and throw its complexion over your wakeful hour.

In the depths of every heart there is a tomb and a dungeon, though the
lights, the music, and revelry above may cause us to forget their
existence, and the buried ones, or prisoners whom they hide. But
sometimes, and oftenest at midnight, these dark receptacles are flung
wide open. In an hour like this, when the mind has a passive
sensibility, but no active strength; when the imagination is a mirror,
imparting vividness to all ideas, without the power of selecting or
controlling them; then pray that your griefs may slumber, and the
brotherhood of remorse not break their chain. It is too late! A
funeral train comes gliding by your bed, in which Passion and Feeling
assume bodily shape, and things of the mind become dire spectres to
the eye. There is your earliest Sorrow, a pale young mourner, wearing
a sister's likeness to first love, sadly beautiful, with a hallowed
sweetness in her melancholy features, and grace in the flow of her
sable robe. Next appears a shade of ruined loveliness, with dust
among her golden hair, and her bright garments all faded and defaced,
stealing from your glance with drooping head, as fearful of reproach;
she was your fondest Hope, but a delusive one; so call her
Disappointment now. A sterner form succeeds, with a brow of wrinkles,
a look and gesture of iron authority; there is no name for him unless
it be Fatality, an emblem of the evil influence that rules your
fortunes; a demon to whom you subjected yourself by some error at the
outset of life, and were bound his slave forever, by once obeying him.
See! those fiendish lineaments graven on the darkness, the writhed lip
of scorn, the mockery of that living eye, the pointed finger, touching
the sore place in your heart! Do you remember any act of enormous
folly, at which you would blush, even in the remotest cavern of the
earth? Then recognize your Shame.

Pass, wretched band! Well for the wakeful one, if, riotously
miserable, a fiercer tribe do not surround him, the devils of a guilty
heart, that holds its hell within itself. What if Remorse should
assume the features of an injured friend? What if the fiend should
come in woman's garments, with a pale beauty amid sin and desolation,
and lie down by your side? What if he should stand at your bed's
foot, in the likeness of a corpse, with a bloody stain upon the
shroud? Sufficient without such guilt is this nightmare of the soul;
this heavy, heavy sinking of the spirits; this wintry gloom about the
heart; this indistinct horror of the mind, blending itself with the
darkness of the chamber.

By a desperate effort, you start upright, breaking from a sort of
conscious sleep, and gazing wildly round the bed, as if the fiends
were anywhere but in your haunted mind. At the same moment, the
slumbering embers on the hearth send forth a gleam which palely
illuminates the whole outer room, and flickers through the door of the
bedchamber, but cannot quite dispel its obscurity. Your eye searches
for whatever may remind you of the living world. With eager
minuteness, you take note of the table near the fireplace, the book
with an ivory knife between its leaves, the unfolded letter, the hat,
and the fallen glove. Soon the flame vanishes, and with it the whole
scene is gone, though its image remains an instant in your mind's eye,
when darkness has swallowed the reality. Throughout the chamber,
there is the same obscurity as before, but not the same gloom within
your breast. As your head falls back upon the pillow, you think--in a
whisper be it spoken--how pleasant in these night solitudes would be
the rise and fall of a softer breathing than your own, the slight
pressure of a tenderer bosom, the quiet throb of a purer heart,
imparting its peacefulness to your troubled one, as if the fond
sleeper were involving you in her dream.

Her influence is over you, though she have no existence but in that
momentary image. You sink down in a flowery spot, on the borders of
sleep and wakefulness, while your thoughts rise before you in
pictures, all disconnected, yet all assimilated by a pervading
gladsomeness and beauty. The wheeling of gorgeous squadrons, that
glitter in the sun, is succeeded by the merriment of children round
the door of a school-house, beneath the glimmering shadow of old
trees, at the corner of a rustic lane. You stand in the sunny rain of
a summer shower, and wander among the sunny trees of an autumnal wood,
and look upward at the brightest of all rainbows, overarching the
unbroken sheet of snow, on the American side of Niagara. Your mind
struggles pleasantly between the dancing radiance round the hearth of
a young man and his recent bride, and the twittering flight of birds
in spring, about their new-made nest. You feel the merry bounding of
a ship before the breeze; and watch the tuneful feet of rosy girls, as
they twine their last and merriest dance in a splendid ballroom; and
find yourself in the brilliant circle of a crowded theatre, as the
curtain falls over a light and airy scene.

With an involuntary start, you seize hold on consciousness, and prove
yourself but half awake, by running a doubtful parallel between human
life and the hour which has now elapsed. In both you emerge from
mystery, pass through a vicissitude that you can but imperfectly
control, and are borne onward to another mystery. Now comes the peal
of the distant clock, with fainter and fainter strokes as you plunge
further into the wilderness of sleep. It is the knell of a temporary
death. Your spirit has departed, and strays like a free citizen,
among the people of a shadowy world, beholding strange sights, yet
without wonder or dismay. So calm, perhaps, will be the final change;
so undisturbed, as if among familiar things, the entrance of the soul
to its Eternal home!

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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