THE ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN LITERARY TRADITION (PART 9)

After the mysterious voice’s prediction is validated a new and rather bizarre character is introduced by the narrator,

I now come to the mention of a person with whose name the most turbulent sensations are connected. It is with a shuddering reluctance that I enter on the province of describing him. Now it is that I begin to perceive the difficulty of the task which I have undertaken; but it would be weakness to shrink from it. My blood is congealed: and my fingers are palsied when I call up his image. Shame upon my cowardly and infirm heart! Hitherto I have proceeded with some degree of composure, but now I must pause. I mean not that dire remembrance shall subdue my courage or baffle my design, but this weakness cannot be immediately conquered. I must desist for a little while.”1

-and further,

One sunny afternoon, I was standing in the door of my house, when I marked a person passing close to the edge of the bank that was in front. His pace was a careless and lingering one, and had none of that gracefulness and ease which distinguish a person with certain advantages of education from a clown. His gait was rustic and aukward. His form was ungainly and disproportioned. Shoulders broad and square, breast sunken, his head drooping, his body of uniform breadth, supported by long and lank legs, were the ingredients of his frame. His garb was not ill adapted to such a figure. A slouched hat, tarnished by the weather, a coat of thick grey cloth, cut and wrought, as it seemed, by a country tailor, blue worsted stockings, and shoes fastened by thongs, and deeply discoloured by dust, which brush had never disturbed, constituted his dress.”2

As Clara observes the tatterdemalion garb of this traveler the stereotype of the country hick, the nescient bumpkin enters her mind; she wonders idly whether it is possible, through “progressive knowledge,” to reconstitute the relationship between agriculture and ignorance. These reflections seem suggestive of Brown’s own political and social inclinations. Clara wearies of her vigil and returns to her kitchen where her maid, a young woman, is busying herself. In short order a knock can be heard upon the front door; the maid goes forth to meet the stranger and is greeted by a cavalcade of arcane allusions.

“‘Pry’thee, good girl, canst thou supply a thirsty man with a glass of buttermilk?'” She answered that there was none in the house. ‘Aye, but there is some in the dairy yonder. Thou knowest as well as I, though Hermes never taught thee, that though every dairy be an house, every house is not a dairy.’ To this speech, though she understood only a part of it, she replied by repeating her assurances, that she had none to give. ‘Well then,’ rejoined the stranger, ‘for charity’s sweet sake, hand me forth a cup of cold water.’ The girl said she would go to the spring and fetch it. ‘Nay, give me the cup, and suffer me to help myself. Neither manacled nor lame, I should merit burial in the maw of carrion crows, if I laid this task upon thee.’ She gave him the cup, and he turned to go to the spring.”3

Clara is struck by the singular nature of the stranger’s voice, particularly the articulate passion of the utterances, so much so that her eyes are filled with “unbidden tears.” Clara, compelled to see to whom this powerful voice belongs, is shocked to find out that the beggar was none other than the raggedy traveler she had observed upon the road. This description is a touch melodramatic and, more unfortunately, rather gives the show away to the reader sufficiently skilled in deduction; if you, dear reader, happen to find yourself deficient of that aforementioned attribution, fear not, all shall, in short order, be made clear.

Sometime later, as she lies in bed, Clara hears mysterious voices once more, this time, however, there is no uncertainty as to the murderous intention which lies behind them.

The first voice intones: “Stop, stop, I say; madman as you are! there are better means than that. Curse upon your rashness! There is no need to shoot.”4

The second voice responds: “Why not? I will draw a trigger in this business, but perdition be my lot if I do more.”5

The first voice, enraged, rises: “Coward! Stand aside, and see me do it. I will grasp her throat; I will do her business in an instant; she shall not have time so much as to groan.”6

Clara, terrified, flies from the room and faints from the strain of her peril. Later, Pleyel relays that he has chanced upon the raggedy stranger who had so moved Clara previously; both the stranger and Pleyel had meet in Spain some time ago. Pleyel tells his friend that the stranger’s named was Carwin, a Englishman by birth and a Spaniard by choice with whom Pleyel had kept up some correspondence. Carwin, in keeping with cultural propriety, had, upon moving to his new homeland, converted to Catholicism, learned the Spanish tongue and appropriated their dress and customs to such a degree that he was, in every particular, indistinguishable from a born-and-bred Spaniard. Even his name, Carwin, was a Spanish adoption (recall the title; yet another instance of “transformation”). Whilst it was suspected by many who knew him that Carwin’s faith was merely adopted for political convenience, this claim goes unproved. It is also revealed that Carwin and Pleyel are firm friends. When Carwin calls upon Clara and Pleyel, they are fascinated by his articulation but confused as to the destitution of his rustic American garb, so at odds with the eloquence of the man’s gestures and speech and his previous fixation on Spanish lineaments. Pleyel attempts, during one of these meetings, to steer the conversation towards Spain in the hopes of excavating the reason for the strange man’s drastic metamorphosis; Carwin’s response is quire fascinating as he states, “Britons and Spaniards… are votaries of the same Deity, and square their faith by the same precepts; their ideas are drawn from the same fountains of literature, and they speak dialects of the same tongue; their government and laws have more resemblances than differences; they were formerly provinces of the same civil, and till lately, of the same religious, Empire.”7 Whilst not singular for the time, such a conception of common ethnography would be considered profoundly radical.

After many of these encounters, they notice a change in Carwin, he assumes a solemnity which disquiets the Wieland household. Clara notes that she is unable to tell ever whether his intentions were good or ill. One night Clara approaches the closet wherefrom she had previously heard the two murderous voices, this time another voice cries out for her to “hold!” She is again terrified but masters herself and determines to get to the bottom of the mystery and root out the source of the mysterious voice once and for all. Opening the closet doors the young woman is greeted by the shadowy form of Carwin who curses the voice which had warned her of impending danger stating quite plainly that he would have raped her long ago had this not occurred. Disturbingly, Carwin does not seem much perturbed by the grotesque nature of his intentions and elaborates upon his schemes, “I was impelled by a sentiment that does you honor; a sentiment, that would sanctify my deed; but, whatever it be, you are safe. Be this chimera still worshipped; I will do nothing to pollute it.”

 

 

 

 

 

1Brown, Wieland, p. 56

2Brown, Wieland, p. 57

3Brown, Wieland, p. 58

4Brown, Wieland, p. 65

5Brown, Wieland, p. 65

6Brown, Wieland, p. 66

7Brown, Wieland, p. 82

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Futurist, artist and published fiction writer whose work asks the question, Of what use is the art which does not ruthlessly seek to force life to imitate it?

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