Twice Told Tales HTML version
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 man. 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.