In the whole history of man there is no chapter more instructive for the heart and mind than the annals of his errors. On the occasion of every great crime a proportionally great force was in motion. If by the pale light of ordinary emotions the play of the desiring faculty is concealed, in the situation of strong passion it becomes the more striking, the more colossal, the more audible, and the acute investigator of humanity, who knows how much may be properly set down to the account of the mechanism of the ordinary freedom of the will, and how far it is allowable to reason by analogy, will be able from this source to gather much fresh experience for his psychology, and to render it applicable to moral life.
The human heart is something so uniform and at the same time so compound! One and the same faculty or desire may play in a thousand forms and directions, may produce a thousand contradictory phenomena, may appear differently mingled in a thousand characters, and a thousand dissimilar characters and actions might be spun out of one kind of inclination, though the particular man, about whom the question was raised, might have no suspicion of such affinity.
If, as for the other kingdoms of nature, a Linnæus for the human race were to arise, who could classify according to inclinations and impulses, how great would be the empire, when many a person whose vices are now stifled in a narrow social sphere, and in the close confines of the law, was found in the same order with the monster Borgia.
Considered from this point of view, the usual mode of treating history is open to much objection, and herein, I think, lies the difficulty, owing to which the study of history has always been so unfruitful for civil life. Between the vehement emotions of the man in action, and the quiet mind of the reader, to whom the action is presented, there is such a repelling contrast, such a wide interval, that it is difficult, nay, impossible for the latter, even to suspect a connexion.
A gap remains between the subject of the history and the reader which cuts off all possibility of comparison or application, and which, instead of awakening that wholesome alarm, that warns too secure health, merely calls forth the shake of the head denoting suspicion. We regard the unhappy person, who was still a man as much as ourselves, both when he committed the act and when he atoned for it, as a creature of another species, whose blood flows differently from our own, and whose will does not obey the same regulations as our own.
His fate teaches us but little, as sympathy is only founded on an obscure consciousness of similar peril, and we are far removed even from the bare suspicion of such similarity. The relation being lost, instruction is lost with it, and history, instead of being a school of cultivation, must rest content with the humble merit of having satisfied our curiosity. If it is to become any thing more and attain its great purpose, it must choose one of these two plans: either the reader must become as warm as the hero, or the hero must become as cold as the reader.
I am aware that many of the best historians, both of ancient and modern times, have adhered to the first method, and have gained the heart of their reader, by a style which carries him along with the subject. But this is an usurpation on the part of the author, and an infringement on the republican freedom of the reading public, which is itself entitled to sit in judgment: it is at the same time a violation of the law of boundaries, since this method belongs exclusively and properly to the orator and the poet. The last method is alone open to the historian.
The hero then must be as cold as the reader or — what comes to the same thing — we must become acquainted with him before he begins to act; we must see him not only perform, but will his action. His thoughts concern us infinitely more than his deeds, and the sources of his thoughts still more than the consequences of his deeds. The soil of Vesuvius has been explored to discover the origin of its eruption; and why is less attention paid to a moral than to a physical phenomenon? Why do we not equally regard the nature and situation of the things which surround a certain man, until the tinder collected within him takes fire?
The dreamer, who loves the wonderful is charmed by the singularity and wonder of such a phenomenon; but the friend of truth seeks a mother for these lost children. He seeks her in the unalterable structure of the human soul, and in the variable conditions by which it is influenced from without, and by searching both these he is sure to find her. He is now no more astonished to see the poisonous hemlock thriving in that bed, in every other part of which wholesome herbs are growing, to find wisdom and folly, virtue and vice, together in the same cradle.
Not to mention any of the advantages which psychology derives from such a method of treating history, this method has alone the preference, because it uproots the cruel scorn and proud security with which erect and untempted virtue commonly looks down upon the fallen, because it diffuses the mild spirit of toleration, without which no fugitive can return, no reconciliation between the law and its offender is possible, no infected member of society can escape utter mortification.
Had the criminal of whom I am now about to speak a right to appeal to that spirit of toleration? Was he really lost for the body of the state, without a possibility of redemption? I will not anticipate the reader’s verdict. Our leniency will no more avail him, since he perished by the hand of the executioner, but the dissection of his crime will perhaps instruct humanity, and possibly instruct justice also.
Christian Wolf was the son of an innkeeper in a provincial town (the name of which must be concealed for reasons which will be obvious in the sequel), and, his father being dead, he assisted his mother in the business till his twentieth year. The business was bad, and Wolf had many an idle hour. Even from his school days he was notorious as a loose kind of fellow. Grown up girls complained of his audacity, and the lads of the town reverenced his inventive powers. Nature had neglected his person. A little insignificant figure, curly hair of an unpleasant blackness, a flat nose, and a swollen upper lip, which had been moreover put out of its place by the kick of a horse, gave a repulsiveness to his appearance, which scared all the women away from him, and afforded abundant material for the wit of his comrades.
Obstinately did he endeavour to gain what had been denied him; because he was unpleasant he determined to please. He was sensual, and persuaded himself that he was in love. The girl whom he chose ill-treated him; he had reason to fear his rivals were more fortunate; nevertheless the girl was poor. A heart that was closed to his endearments might possibly open to his presents, but he himself was oppressed by want, and his vain endeavour to produce an effective exterior absorbed the small gains of his miserable business.
Too indolent and too ignorant to restore his dilapidated affairs by speculation, too proud, and also too delicate to exchange the condition of master which he had hitherto held, for that of peasant, he saw but one path before him — a path which thousands before and after him have taken with better success — that of stealing honestly. His native town bordered on a wood, which belonged to the sovereign; he turned poacher, and the profits of his depredations were faithfully placed in the hands of his mistress.
Among the lovers of Johanna was Robert, a huntsman in the service of the forester. This man soon perceived the advantage which had been gained over him by the liberality of his rival, and filled with envy, he investigated the source of this change. He appeared more frequently at the Sun — this was the sign of the inn — and his watchful eye, sharpened by envy and jealousy, soon showed him whence the money had been procured. A short time before, a severe edict had been revived against poachers, condemning transgressors to the house of correction. Robert was unwearied in observing the secret paths of his rival, and finally succeeded in catching the unwary man in the very fact. Wolf was apprehended, and it was only by the sacrifice of all his property, that he was able — and then with difficulty — to escape the awarded punishment by a fine.
Robert triumphed. His rival was beaten out of the field, and Johanna’s favour was at an end, now he was a beggar. Wolf knew his enemy, and this enemy was the happy possessor of Johanna. An oppressive feeling of want was combined with offended pride, necessity and jealousy raged together against his sensitiveness, hunger drove him out upon the wide world, revenge and passion held him fast. For a second time he turned poacher, but Robert’s redoubled vigilance was again too much for him. Now he experienced all the severity of the law, for he had nothing more to give, and in a few weeks he was consigned to the house of correction attached to the capital.
This year of punishment had passed, absence had increased his passion, and his stubbornness had become greater under the weight of his misfortune. Scarcely had he regained his freedom than he hastened to the place of his birth to show himself to his Johanna. He appeared, and all shunned him. Pressing necessity at last subdued his pride, and overcame his sense of personal weakness, — he offered himself to the opulent of the place, as willing to serve for daily hire. The farmer shrugged his shoulders as he saw the weakly looking creature, and the stout bony frame of a rival applicant was decisive against him in the mind of the unfeeling patron. He made one effort more. One office was still left — the very last post of an honest name. He applied for the vacant place of herdsman of the town, but the peasant would not trust his pigs to a scape-grace. Frustrated in every effort, rejected at every place, he became a poacher for the third time, and for a third time had the misfortune of falling into the hands of his watchful enemy.
The double relapse had increased the magnitude of the offence. The judges looked into the book of laws, but not into the criminal’s state of mind. The decree against poachers required a solemn and exemplary satisfaction; and Wolf was condemned to work for three years in the fortification, with the mark of the gallows branded on his back.
This period also had elapsed, and he quitted the fortification, a very different man from the man he was when he entered it. Here began a new epoch in his life. Let us hear him speak himself, as he afterwards confessed to his spiritual adviser, and before the court. “I entered the fortification,” he said, “as an erring man, and I left it — a villain. I had still possessed something in the world which was dear to me, and my pride had bowed down under shame. When I was brought to the fortification, I was confined with three and twenty prisoners, two of whom were murderers, while all the rest were notorious thieves and vagabonds. They scoffed at me, when I spoke of God, and encouraged me to utter all sorts of blasphemies against the Redeemer.
Obscene songs were sung in my presence, which, graceless fellow as I was, I could not hear without disgust and horror; and what I saw done, was still more revolting to my sense of decency. There was not a day in which some career of shame was not repeated, in which some evil project was not hatched. At first I shunned these people, and avoided their discourse as much as possible; but I wanted the sympathy of some fellow creature, and the barbarity of my keepers had even denied me my dog. The labour was hard and oppressive, my body weak; I wanted assistance, and, if I must speak out, I wanted compassion also, and this I was forced to purchase with the last remains of my conscience. Thus did I ultimately become inured to what was most detestable, and in the quarter of the year I had surpassed my instructors.
“I now thirsted after the day of liberty, as I thirsted after revenge. All men had offended me, for all were better and happier than me. I considered myself the martyr of natural rights, the victim of the law. Grinding my teeth, I rubbed my chains, when the sun rose behind the mountain on which the fortification stood; — a wide prospect is a two-fold hell for a prisoner. The free breeze that whistled through the loop-holes of my tower, the swallow that perched on the iron bar of my grating, seemed to insult me with their liberty, and made my confinement the more hideous. Then I swore a fierce, unconquerable hate against all that resembles man, and faithfully have I kept my oath.
“My first thought, as soon as I was free, was my native town. Little as I had to hope there for my future support, much was promised to my hunger for revenge. My heart beat more wildly as I saw the church-steeple rise in the distance from the wood. It was no more that heartfelt comfort, which I felt, when first I returned thither. The remembrance of all the afflictions, all the persecutions which I had suffered then roused me at once from a frightful torpor; every wound bled afresh, every scar was opened. I quickened my steps, for I walked in the thought of terrifying my enemy by my sudden appearance, and I now thirsted as much after new humiliation as I had before trembled at it.
“The bells were ringing for vespers, while I stood in the middle of the market. The congregation was thronging to church. I was now recognised, and every one who came near me shyly shrank back. I was always very fond of little children, and even now, by an involuntary impulse, I gave a groschen to a boy who was skipping by me. The boy stared at me for a moment, and then flung the groschen into my face. Had my blood been cooler I should have remembered that the beard, which I had brought with me from the fortification, disfigured my face in the most frightful manner, but my bad heart had infected my reason. Tears, such as I had never shed, ran down my cheeks.
“‘The boy does not know who I am, nor whence I come,’ I now said to myself, half aloud, ‘and yet he shuns me like some noxious beast. Have I any mark on my forehead, or have I ceased to look like a man because I can no longer love one?’ The contempt of this boy wounded me more bitterly than three years’ service in the galleys, for I had done him a kindness, and could not charge him with personal hatred.
“I sat down in a timber-yard opposite the church. What I actually desired I do not know, but this I know, that I rose with indignation; when, of all my acquaintance that passed, not one would give me a greeting. Deeply offended, I left the spot to seek a lodging, when just as I was turning the corner of a street I ran against my Johanna. ‘The host of the Sun!’ she cried aloud, and made a movement to embrace me. ‘Thou returned, dear host of the Sun — God be praised!’ Her attire bespoke misery and hunger, her aspect denoted the abandoned condition to which she had sunk. I quickly surmised what had happened; some of the prince’s dragoons who had met me, made me guess that there was a garrison in the town. ‘Soldier’s wench!’ cried I, and laughing, I turned my back upon her. I felt comforted that in the rank of living beings there was still one creature below me. I had never loved her.
“My mother was dead, my creditors had paid themselves with my small house. I had lost every body and every thing. All the world shunned me as though I were venomous, but I had at last forgotten shame. Before, I had retired from the sight of men because contempt was unendurable. Now I obtruded myself upon them, and felt delight in scaring them. I was easy because I had nothing more to lose, and nothing more to guard. I no more needed any good quality, because none believed I could have any.
“The whole world lay open before me, and in some strange province I might have passed for an honest man, but I had lost the spirit even to appear one. Despair and shame had at last forced this mood upon me. It was the last refuge that was left me, to learn to do without honour, because I had no longer a claim to it. Had my pride and vanity survived my degradation, I must have destroyed myself.
“What I had actually resolved upon was yet unknown even to myself. I had to be sure a dark remembrance that I wished to do something bad. I wished to merit my fate. The laws, I thought, were beneficial to the world, and therefore I embraced the determination of violating them. Formerly I had sinned from necessity and levity, now it was from free choice, and for my own pleasure.
“My first plan was to continue my poaching. Hunting altogether had gradually become a passion with me, and besides I was forced to live some way. But this was not all; I was tickled at the thought of scorning the princely edict, and of injuring my sovereign to the utmost of my power. I no more feared apprehension, for I had a bullet ready for my discoverer, and I knew that I should not miss my man. I killed all the game that came across me, a small quantity of which I sold on the border, but the greater part I left to rot. I lived miserably, that I might be able to afford powder and ball. My devastations in the great hunt were notorious, but suspicion no longer touched me. My aspect dissipated it: my name was forgotten.
“This kind of life lasted for several months. One morning I had, as usual rambled through the wood, to follow the track of a deer. I had wearied myself for two hours in vain, and was already beginning to give up my prey as lost, when I suddenly discovered it within gun-shot. I was about to take aim and fire, when I was suddenly startled by the appearance of a hat which lay on the ground a few paces before me. I looked closer, and discovered the huntsman Robert, who from behind the thick trunk of an oak tree was levelling his gun at the very animal which I had designed to shoot. At this sight a deadly coldness passed through my bones. Here was the man whom I detested more than any living thing, and this man within reach of my bullet.
At the moment I felt as if the whole world depended on the firing of my gun, and the hatred of my whole life seemed concentrated in the tip of the finger that was to give the fatal pressure to the trigger. An invisible fatal hand was suspended over me, the index of my destiny pointed irrevocably to this black minute. My arm trembled, when I allowed my gun the fatal choice, my teeth chattered as in an ague fit, and my breath, with a suffocating sensation, was confined in my lungs. For the duration of one minute did the barrel of the gun waver uncertainly between the man and the deer, one minute — and one more — and yet one more. It was a doubtful and obstinate contest between revenge and conscience, but revenge gained the victory, and the huntsman lay dead on the ground.
“My gun fell as it had been fired. ‘Murderer,’ I stammered out slowly — the wood was as silent as a churchyard, and I could hear plainly that I said ‘murderer.’ When I drew nearer, the man had died. Long did I stand speechless before the corse, when a shrill burst of laughter came as a relief. ‘Will you keep counsel now, friend?’ said I, and boldly stepping up to the murdered man, I turned round his face towards myself. His eyes were wide open. I was serious, and again became suddenly still. An extraordinary feeling took possession of me.
“Hitherto I had sinned on account of my disgrace, but now something had happened for which I had not yet atoned. An hour before, I think, no man could have persuaded me that there was any thing under heaven worse than myself, whereas, now I began to suspect that my condition an hour before was, perhaps, an enviable one.
“God’s judgments did not occur to me, — but I had a dim recollection of sword and cord, and the execution of an infanticide which I saw while a school-boy. There was something peculiarly terrible to me in the thought that my life from this moment had become forfeit. More I do not recollect. My first wish was that Robert was still living. I endeavoured forcibly to recall to my mind all the wrong that the deceased had done me during his life, — but strange to say, my memory seemed to have perished. I could recall nothing of that, which a quarter of an hour before had impelled me to madness. I did not understand how I had been induced to commit this murder.
“I was yet standing by the corpse. The crack of some whips, and the noise of carts, which were passing through the wood, brought me to my senses. The deed had been committed scarcely a quarter of a mile from the high road, and I was forced to think of my own safety.
“Unintentionally I strayed deeper into the wood. On the way, it struck me that the deceased once possessed a watch. I needed money to reach the border — and yet I lacked courage to return to the spot, where the dead man lay. A thought of the devil and of an omnipotence of the deity began to terrify me. However, I summoned all my audacity, and resolved to set all hell at defiance. I returned to the place. I found what I had expected, and also money amounting to rather more than a dollar in a green purse. Just as I was about to put them both up, I suddenly stopped, and began to reflect. It was no fit of shame, nor was it the fear of increasing my crime by plunder. I believe it was out of a spirit of defiance that I flung away the watch, and only kept half the money. I wished to be taken for a personal enemy of the murdered man, but not for one who had robbed him.
“I now fled deeper into the wood, which I knew extended four German miles to the north, and there touched the border of the country. Till noon I ran breathless. The rapidity of my flight had dissipated the anguish of my conscience, but the return of that anguish was frightful, when my strength more and more declined. A thousand hideous forms passed before me, and struck into my heart, like sharp knives. Between a life filled with an increasing terror of death, and a violent end, the awful choice was now left me — and choose I must. I had not the heart to quit the world by self-destruction, and I was terrified at the prospect of remaining in it. Fixed as it were between the certain torments of life, and the uncertain terrors of eternity — unable to live or to die — I passed the sixth hour of my flight — an hour brimful of horrors, such as no living man could narrate.
“Slowly — absorbed in myself, and with my hat unconsciously slouched over my face, as if I wished to conceal myself from the eye of inanimate nature, — I had insensibly followed a narrow path, which led me through the deepest part of the thicket — when suddenly a rough imperious voice called to me, ‘stop.’ The voice was quite close; my abstraction and the slouched hat had prevented me from looking round. I raised my eyes and saw a wild man, armed with a great knotted club, approaching me. His figure was almost gigantic — at least my first surprise made me think so — and the colour of his skin was a yellow mulatto sort of black, with which the whiteness of a squinting eye stood in terrible contrast. Instead of a girdle he had a thick rope wound twice round a green woollen coat, in which were stuck a broad knife and a pistol. The cry was repeated, and a powerful arm held me fast. The sound of a man had frightened me, but the aspect of a villain gave me new heart. In my present situation, I had cause to tremble before every honest man, but none to tremble before a robber.
“‘Who is there?’ said the apparition.
“‘One like yourself,’ was my answer, ‘if you really correspond to your appearance.’
“‘That is not the way out? What are you looking for here?’
“‘What is that to you?’ retorted I, insolently.
“The man considered me twice from top to toe. It seemed as though he wished to compare my figure with his own, and my answer with my figure. ‘You speak as rudely as a beggar,’ he said at last.
“‘Perhaps so. I was a beggar yesterday.’
“The man laughed. ‘One could swear you did not want to pass for any thing better now.’
“‘For something worse then.’ — I wished to proceed.
“‘Softly friend, why in such a hurry? What time have you to lose?’
“I reflected for a moment. How the words came to my tongue I do not know. ‘Life is short,’ said I, slowly, ‘and hell lasts for ever!’
“He stared at me. ‘May I be d — d,’ he said at last, ‘if thou hast not brushed close by a gallows.’
“‘Very possibly. So good bye for the present, comrade!’
“‘Topp, comrade!’ he cried, as he drew a tin flask out of his hunting-pouch, took a good draught from it, and handed it to me. Flight and anguish had exhausted my energies, and nothing had passed my lips the whole day. I had already feared that I should have sunk from exhaustion in this wood, where no refreshment was to be expected for three miles round. Judge how joyfully I responded to this health. With the animating draught new strength flowed into my bones, new courage into my heart, and I felt hope and the love of life. I began to think that perhaps I was not quite wretched; so much at least was the welcome beverage all to do. Yes, I must even confess that my situation approached that of happiness, for at last, after a thousand vain hopes, I had found a creature who seemed similar to myself. In the condition to which I had fallen I should have drank good fellowship with the spirit of evil himself for the sake of having a confidant.
“The man had stretched himself out on the grass. I did the same.
“‘Your liquor has done me good,’ said I. ‘We must become acquainted.’
“He struck fire to light his pipe.
“‘Have you carried on this business long?’
“He looked hard at me. ‘What do you mean by that?’