Project Canterbury

Literary Remains of J. H. Shorthouse
edited by His Wife

London: Macmillan, 1905


I HAVE been all my life what Nathaniel Hawthorne calls "a devoted epicure of my own emotions," and this in a manner which I have never heard any one else express as their own experience. Nothing is more common than to hear of a man having no other companion than his own thoughts, and in this way people talk of creating a world within themselves, and fancy they have made a very grand creation. Now I have no wish to impugn the beauty of their peculiar worlds, but I wish to express a difference between such people's dreaming and my own, which is this, that, as in their case they themselves remain the chief and ruler as it were over their so created kingdoms, marshalling their thoughts and bringing them up as in battalia to fight on any particular side, in my case, on the contrary, you subside, and lose all personal identity, every one of your thoughts acting for itself without any exertion of your will to call it into being, or being so to act--yet are you not so dead asleep but that the knowledge of your own existence is still present with you between dream and reality, and a power to observe or contemplate lazily these thoughts, which can no longer be called yours, together with any half-seen, half-understood objects of the material world that may chance to mingle with them. This power of half-observation is all that is left, both of and to you, all the rest having become separated, and attained an identity and a personality of its own, and a mixture with the outer world. Of course this--this--whatever you choose to call it, for I cannot think of a word to express the peculiar state I have endeavoured to describe--takes place mostly when the body is at rest, and more especially at seasons of ill-health or sickness, when the powers of the body are prostrated and those of the mind proportionably increased, and the instance of which, with your leave, I will venture to attempt a description, occurred at one of these times of sickness.

I was travelling with a party of young men, and being all reckless and wild from school, we committed a thousand imprudences, which in my case, never being of a very strong constitution, brought on a violent cold, which in a few days ended in something worse, in the midst of which I separated from my companions, and set out on horseback to ride some sixty or eighty miles, to a friend's house, with whom I was to spend a few weeks. When I left a town about halfway from my place of destination, I began to feel very ill, but persevered in hopes of reaching my friend's house, where I was sure of being well cared for, and in this hope I set out about the middle of the day. I shall never forget that ride--the weary, weary length it was; the many attempts I made to shorten it by increasing my horse's speed, which always ended in sinking back listlessly again into a walk; the desperate efforts I made to waken myself from the increasing insensibility that was creeping over me; the strange things my disordered vision saw upon the road; the horrid feeling that everything was fading away from me; and finally, all the trees and the road and the stones seemed to rush fiercely upon me, and I lost all consciousness and knew no more where I was. When I came to myself, or rather, when I regained that one power of half-observation of which I spoke above, I found myself in bed--in a large, high-canopied, antique bed, with gold stars on the top of the canopy, and a large sun with great rays in the midst. The room in which I was, was large, and furnished in the manner of a bygone age, with dark tapestries on the walls and dark oaken chairs and large cabinets; there was a large bay window on the right-hand side near the bed, through which I could see over the leafy tops of apple trees into shady but sunny fields beyond.

All this I saw without hardly opening my eyes, and with a languid feeling of curiosity not strong enough to cause me to make the least effort to gratify it. It seemed to me--and it is impossible to describe the force with which this seeming comes when your thoughts act entirely independently of any will of your own--it seemed to me as if I was living then in the only possible way any one could live, and that all that I remembered of my past life seemed to me as faint histories of what occurred a thousand years ago seem to us. All that I ever read of past ages seemed to come before me languidly, and I seemed to wander and die and suffer misery with dead men of the old time at the very moment that I was conscious of the exquisite luxury of the soft bed, and of my own weak, listless, dreamy state; for through all this the principal feature is the absolute inaction and inanity in which you are, and it is impossible to describe the strange confusion with which you see before you the actions of past ages, mixed up with what used to be your own thoughts, together with the half-seen objects of the material world which are moving around you, and which become as it were strange personages acting in the old, remembered tale.

The afternoon sun streamed in through the small panes, and illumined with its dusty and softened rays the dim obscurity of the farther end of the room, and shone full on the portrait of a gentleman in the costume of a century and a half ago. Underneath was a legend showing it to be the portrait of a certain Lord Edward Darrell, who was drowned in the year 1702 in crossing a ford not far from this house, together with two verses, seemingly a portion of some ballad, and which ran thus:

Lord Edward has ridden o'er Lanton Chase
And down to the banks of Dee;
He has ridden hard through the summer heat,
From his weary thoughts to flee.
O'er Lanton Chase, and down to the Dee
They have seen Lord Edward ride;
He entered the ford all fearlessly,--
But he never came up on the other side.

And as I read these words, the chamber and the bed vanished from me, and I was walking in a beautiful flat meadow all strewn with buttercups and daisies, by the side of a fair, smooth river, with willows on the banks and water-lilies covering great part of its surface; and I found the body of the drowned Lord Darrell lying close to the bank, with the lilies intertwined over him; and I hoped he would so remain for ever, for I thought he was well buried there in a right beautiful grave, with his own body for the effigy, and the lilies for the carving, and the wreaths upon his tomb. And as I stood there, a very beautiful lady came to me and told me I must be quiet and not speak, which I thought was very strange; and she sat down in the meadow among the bright yellow buttercups, and told me how Lord Darrell was betrothed to his cousin, a lady who lived at this house, Lady-Croft Hall; and how he was a very wild, dissipated young man; and how he did not love her, in spite of her beauty, which was very great; and how he rode down from London one beautiful April afternoon, after heavy rains; and how he was drowned in the ford; and when she said that, I thought it was well he had died then. And I prayed that when it should arrive that by my wrong-doing I was going to give pain to any one that loved me, I might die too, and, harmless to myself and to all others, lie down and be at rest. Then I asked the lady, wondering, why she had said "this house," when we were in the field, and could only just see the roofs and chimneys of the Hall over the willow trees; and she shook her head and said I was not in the fields, but in bed, whither I had been brought when found senseless in the road, near the gateway of the house; and then I saw she was right, and I was lying in the old bed again; but I could not see the lady any more, though the door at the other end of the room opened, and another lady came in, dressed in white in an old fashion, with beautiful golden hair wreathed with strings of violets. She did not take any notice of me, but came and sat down by the open window and looked fixedly out over the apple trees and fields to where she could see the London road stretching before her. I lay a long time looking at her dreamily--she sat with one arm leaning on the window-sill, and the afternoon sun shining on her--as a man looks at a beautiful picture which he is quite certain will not fade away. And I thought how pitiful was the ingratitude of men, who have set before them beautiful gifts that a god might envy, and who throw them lightly away. We are waited for, for hours, by bright angels, and we come not, or if we come, repay with a short, cold word the anxiety of a life. And there was no sound heard but the humming of the insects through the open windows, and everything was so very still and calm that I thought nothing would ever disturb the tranquillity of that scene, and that I had come upon a blessed country where all things always were the same.

Suddenly, in the midst of this sweet calm, the lady started up with a wild cry--"A horse, a horse!" and there was a great noise as of galloping, and the running to and fro of servants and of people being sent out to seek; and then the body of Lord Darrell, which I had seen in the river, was brought in and laid in the very bed in which I lay. And I struggled against the horror of that wet, loathsome thing, but could not shake it off, and its cold, flabby hand fell upon my face, and I fainted away. And then I heard as if everything everywhere was preaching this one sermon--that when we think we stand, then certainly we fall; that when that house was at its stillest and calmest, and when I thought no evil could possibly befall it, then the darkest cloud hung over it and the deepest blow was struck; and when that lady thought her happiness at the full, then it was dashed rudely to the ground; and that when I lay fixedly in the most perfect state of bodily pleasure and dreamy happiness, then was I nearest to that dead body--which at that very moment was coming up the stairs to lie down upon me in all its ghastly horror and deathliness.

And now but one word more. I am now perfectly recovered, and am to-morrow to be married to the beautiful lady I met walking in the meadow with the buttercups; and our love, though begun in a dream, will, I fervently trust, be continued through the stern realities of a life.

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