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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

Wieland’s Defence

By Charles Brockden Brown (1771–1810)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1771. Died there, 1810. From Wieland; or, The Transformation. 1798.—The Novels of Charles Brockden Brown. 1857.]

THEODORE WIELAND, the prisoner at the bar, was now called upon for his defence. He looked around him for some time in silence, and with a mild countenance. At length he spoke:—

“It is strange: I am known to my judges and my auditors. Who is there present a stranger to the character of Wieland? who knows him not as a husband,—as a father,—as a friend? yet here am I arraigned as a criminal. I am charged with diabolical malice; I am accused of the murder of my wife and my children!

“It is true, they were slain by me: they all perished by my hand. The task of vindication is ignoble. What is it that I am called to vindicate? and before whom?

“You know that they are dead, and that they were killed by me. What more would you have? Would you extort from me a statement of my motives? Have you failed to discover them already? You charge me with malice; but your eyes are not shut; your reason is still vigorous; your memory has not forsaken you. You know whom it is that you thus charge. The habits of his life are known to you; his treatment of his wife and his offspring is known to you; the soundness of his integrity, and the unchangeableness of his principles, are familiar to your apprehension; yet you persist in this charge! You lead me hither manacled as a felon; you deem me worthy of a vile and tormenting death!

“Who are they whom I have devoted to death? My wife—the little ones, that drew their being from me—that creature who, as she surpassed them in excellence, claimed a larger affection than those whom natural affinities bound to my heart. Think ye that malice could have urged me to this deed? Hide your audacious fronts from the scrutiny of heaven. Take refuge in some cavern unvisited by human eyes. Ye may deplore your wickedness or folly, but ye cannot expiate it.

“Think not that I speak for your sakes. Hug to your hearts this detestable infatuation. Deem me still a murderer, and drag me to untimely death. I make not an effort to dispel your illusion; I utter not a word to cure you of your sanguinary folly; but there are probably some in this assembly who have come from far; for their sakes, whose distance has disabled them from knowing me, I will tell what I have done, and why.

“It is needless to say that God is the object of my supreme passion. I have cherished in his presence a single and upright heart. I have thirsted for the knowledge of his will. I have burnt with ardor to approve my faith and my obedience.

“My days have been spent in searching for the revelation of that will; but my days have been mournful, because my search failed. I solicited direction; I turned on every side where glimmerings of light could be discovered. I have not been wholly uninformed; but my knowledge has always stopped short of certainty. Dissatisfaction has insinuated itself into all my thoughts. My purposes have been pure, my wishes indefatigable; but not till lately were these purposes thoroughly accomplished and these wishes fully gratified.

“I thank thee, my Father, for thy bounty; that thou didst not ask a less sacrifice than this; that thou placedst me in a condition to testify my submission to thy will! What have I withheld which it was thy pleasure to exact? Now may I, with dauntless and erect eye, claim my reward, since I have given thee the treasure of my soul.

“I was at my own house; it was late in the evening; my sister had gone to the city, but proposed to return. It was in expectation of her return that my wife and I delayed going to bed beyond the usual hour; the rest of the family, however, were retired.

“My mind was contemplative and calm,—not wholly devoid of apprehension on account of my sister’s safety. Recent events, not easily explained, had suggested the existence of some danger; but this danger was without a distinct form in our imagination, and scarcely ruffled our tranquillity.

“Time passed, and my sister did not arrive. Her house is at some distance from mine, and, though her arrangements had been made with a view to residing with us, it was possible that, through forgetfulness, or the occurrence of unforseen emergencies, she had returned to her own dwelling.

“Hence it was conceived proper that I should ascertain the truth by going thither. I went. On my way my mind was full of those ideas which related to my intellectual condition. In the torrent of fervid conceptions, I lost sight of my purpose. Sometimes I stood still; sometimes I wandered from my path, and experienced some difficulty, on recovering from my fit of musing, to regain it.

“The series of my thoughts is easily traced. At first every vein beat with raptures known only to the man whose parental and conjugal love is without limits, and the cup of whose desires, immense as it is, overflows with gratification. I know not why emotions that were perpetual visitants should now have recurred with unusual energy. The transition was not new from sensations of joy to a consciousness of gratitude. The Author of my being was likewise the dispenser of every gift with which that being was embellished. The service to which a benefactor like this was entitled could not be circumscribed. My social sentiments were indebted to their alliance with devotion for all their value. All passions are base, all joys feeble, all energies malignant, which are not drawn from this source.

“For a time my contemplations soared above earth and its inhabitants. I stretched forth my hands; I lifted my eyes, and exclaimed, ‘Oh that I might be admitted to thy presence! that mine were the supreme delight of knowing thy will, and of performing it!—the blissful privilege of direct communication with thee, and of listening to the audible enunciation of thy pleasure!

“‘What task would I not undertake, what privation would I not cheerfully endure, to testify my love of thee? Alas! thou hidest thyself from my view; glimpses only of thy excellence and beauty are afforded me. Would that a momentary emanation from thy glory would visit me! that some unambiguous token of thy presence would salute my senses!’

“In this mood I entered the house of my sister. It was vacant. Scarcely had I regained recollection of the purpose that brought me hither. Thoughts of a different tendency had such absolute possession of my mind, that the relations of time and space were almost obliterated from my understanding. These wanderings, however, were restrained, and I ascended to her chamber.

“I had no light, and might have known by external observation that the house was without any inhabitant. With this, however, I was not satisfied. I entered the room, and, the object of my search not appearing, I prepared to return.

“The darkness required some caution in descending the stair. I stretched my hand to seize the balustrade by which I might regulate my steps. How shall I describe the lustre which at that moment burst upon my vision?

“I was dazzled. My organs were bereaved of their activity. My eyelids were half closed, and my hands withdrawn from the balustrade. A nameless fear chilled my veins, and I stood motionless. This irradiation did not retire or lessen. It seemed as if some powerful effulgence covered me like a mantle.

“I opened my eyes and found all about me luminous and glowing. It was the element of heaven that flowed around. Nothing but a fiery stream was at first visible; but, anon, a shrill voice from behind called upon me to attend.

“I turned. It is forbidden to describe what I saw: words, indeed, would be wanting to the task. The lineaments of that being whose veil was now lifted and whose visage beamed upon my sight, no hues of pencil or of language can portray.

“As it spoke, the accents thrilled to my heart:—‘Thy prayers are heard. In proof of thy faith, render me thy wife. This is the victim I choose. Call her hither, and here let her fall.’ The sound, and visage, and light vanished at once.

“What demand was this? The blood of Catharine was to be shed! My wife was to perish by my hand! I sought opportunity to attest my virtue. Little did I expect that a proof like this would have been demanded.

“‘My wife!’ I exclaimed; ‘O God! substitute some other victim. Make me not the butcher of my wife. My own blood is cheap. This will I pour out before thee with a willing heart; but spare, I beseech thee, this precious life, or commission some other than her husband to perform the bloody deed.’

“In vain. The conditions were prescribed; the decree had gone forth, and nothing remained but to execute it. I rushed out of the house and across the intermediate fields, and stopped not till I entered my own parlor.

“My wife had remained here during my absence, in anxious expectation of my return with some tidings of her sister. I had none to communicate. For a time I was breathless with my speed. This, and the tremors that shook my frame, and the wildness of my looks, alarmed her. She immediately suspected some disaster to have happened to her friend, and her own speech was as much overpowered by emotion as mine.

“She was silent, but her looks manifested her impatience to hear what I had to communicate. I spoke, but with so much precipitation as scarcely to be understood; catching her, at the same time, by the arm, and forcibly pulling her from her seat.

“‘Come along with me; fly; waste not a moment; time will be lost, and the deed will be omitted. Tarry not; question not; but fly with me!’

“This deportment added afresh to her alarms. Her eyes pursued mine, and she said, ‘What is the matter? For God’s sake, what is the matter? Where would you have me go?’

“My eyes were fixed upon her countenance while she spoke. I thought upon her virtues; I viewed her as the mother of my babes; as my wife. I recalled the purpose for which I thus urged her attendance. My heart faltered, and I saw that I must rouse to this work all my faculties. The danger of the least delay was imminent.

“I looked away from her, and, again exerting my force, drew her towards the door:—‘You must go with me; indeed you must.’

“In her fright she half resisted my efforts, and again exclaimed, ‘Good heaven! what is it you mean? Where go? What has happened? Have you found Clara?’

“‘Follow me, and you will see,’ I answered, still urging her reluctant steps forward.

“‘What frenzy has seized you? Something must needs have happened. Is she sick? Have you found her?’

“‘Come and see. Follow me, and know for yourself.’

“Still she expostulated, and besought me to explain this mysterious behavior. I could not trust myself to answer her, to look at her; but, grasping her arm, I drew her after me. She hesitated, rather through confusion of mind than from unwillingness to accompany me. This confusion gradually abated, and she moved forward, but with irresolute footsteps and continual exclamations of wonder and terror. Her interrogations of ‘what was the matter?’ and ‘whither was I going?’ were ceaseless and vehement.

“It was the scope of my efforts not to think; to keep up a conflict and uproar in my mind in which all order and distinctness should be lost; to escape from the sensations produced by her voice. I was therefore silent. I strove to abridge this interval by my haste, and to waste all my attention in furious gesticulations.

“In this state of mind we reached my sister’s door. She looked at the windows and saw that all was desolate. ‘Why come we here? There is nobody here. I will not go in.’

“Still I was dumb; but, opening the door, I drew her into the entry. This was the allotted scene; here she was to fall. I let go her hand, and, pressing my palms against my forehead, made one mighty effort to work up my soul to the deed.

“In vain; it would not be; my courage was appalled, my arms nerveless. I muttered prayers that my strength might be aided from above. They availed nothing.

“Horror diffused itself over me. This conviction of my cowardice, my rebellion, fastened upon me, and I stood rigid and cold as marble. From this state I was somewhat relieved by my wife’s voice, who renewed her supplications to be told why we came hither and what was the fate of my sister.

“What could I answer? My words were broken and inarticulate. Her fears naturally acquired force from the observation of these symptoms; but these fears were misplaced. The only inference she deduced from my conduct was that some terrible mishap had befallen Clara.

“She wrung her hands, and exclaimed, in an agony, ‘Oh, tell me, where is she? What has become of her? Is she sick? Dead? Is she in her chamber? Oh, let me go thither and know the worst!’

“This proposal set my thoughts once more in motion. Perhaps what my rebellious heart refused to perform here, I might obtain strength enough to execute elsewhere.

“‘Come, then,’ said I; ‘let us go.’

“‘I will, but not in the dark. We must first procure a light.’

“‘Fly, then, and procure it; but, I charge you, linger not. I will await for your return.’

“While she was gone, I strode along the entry. The fellness of a gloomy hurricane but faintly resembled the discord that reigned in my mind. To omit this sacrifice must not be; yet my sinews had refused to perform it. No alternative was offered. To rebel against the mandate was impossible; but obedience would render me the executioner of my wife. My will was strong, but my limbs refused their office.

“She returned with a light. I led the way to the chamber: she looked round her; she lifted the curtain of the bed; she saw nothing.

“At length she fixed inquiring eyes upon me. The light now enabled her to discover in my visage what darkness had hitherto concealed. Her cares were now transferred from my sister to myself, and she said, in a tremulous voice, ‘Wieland, you are not well: what ails you? Can I do nothing for you?’

“That accents and looks so winning should disarm me of my resolution, was to be expected. My thoughts were thrown anew into anarchy. I spread my hand before my eyes that I might not see her, and answered only by groans. She took my other hand between hers, and, pressing it to her heart, spoke with that voice which had ever swayed my will and wafted away sorrow:

“‘My friend! my soul’s friend! tell me thy cause of grief. Do I not merit to partake with thee in thy cares? Am I not thy wife?’

“This was too much. I broke from her embrace, and retired to a corner of the room. In this pause, courage was once more infused into me. I resolved to execute my duty. She followed me, and renewed her passionate entreaties to know the cause of my distress.

“I raised my head and regarded her with steadfast looks. I muttered something about death, and the injunctions of my duty. At these words she shrunk back, and looked at me with a new expression of anguish. After a pause, she clasped her hands, and exclaimed,—

“‘Oh, Wieland! Wieland! God grant that I am mistaken! but something surely is wrong. I see it; it is too plain; thou art undone,—lost to me and to thyself.’ At the same time she gazed on my features with intensest anxiety, in hope that different symptoms would take place. I replied to her with vehemence,—

“‘Undone! No; my duty is known, and I thank my God that my cowardice is now vanquished, and I have power to fulfil it Catharine, I pity the weakness of thy nature; I pity thee, but must not spare. Thy life is claimed from my hands; thou must die!’

“Fear was now added to her grief. ‘What mean you? Why talk you of death? Bethink yourself, Wieland; bethink yourself, and this fit will pass. Oh, why came I hither? Why did you drag me hither?’

“‘I brought thee hither to fulfil a divine command. I am appointed thy destroyer, and destroy thee I must.’ Saying this, I seized her wrists. She shrieked aloud, and endeavored to free herself from my grasp; but her efforts were vain.

“‘Surely, surely, Wieland, thou dost not mean it. Am I not thy wife? and would’st thou kill me? Thou wilt not; and yet—I see—thou art Wieland no longer! A fury resistless and horrible possesses thee:—spare me—spare—help—help—’

“Till her breath was stopped she shrieked for help,—for mercy. When she could speak no longer, her gestures, her looks, appealed to my compassion. My accursed hand was irresolute and tremulous. I meant thy death to be sudden, thy struggles to be brief. Alas! my heart was infirm, my resolves mutable. Thrice I slackened my grasp, and life kept its hold, though in the midst of pangs. Her eyeballs started from their sockets. Grimness and distortion took place of all that used to bewitch me into transport and subdue me into reverence.

“I was commissioned to kill thee, but not to torment thee with the foresight of thy death; not to multiply thy fears and prolong thy agonies. Haggard, and pale, and lifeless, at length thou ceased’st to contend with thy destiny.

“This was a moment of triumph. Thus had I successfully subdued the stubbornness of human passions: the victim which had been demanded was given; the deed was done past recall.

“I lifted the corpse in my arms and laid it on the bed. I gazed upon it with delight. Such was the elation of my thoughts, that I even broke into laughter. I clapped my hands and exclaimed, ‘It is done! My sacred duty is fulfilled! To that I have sacrificed, O my God! thy last and best gift, my wife!’

“For a while I thus soared above frailty. I imagined I had set myself forever beyond the reach of selfishness; but my imaginations were false. This rapture quickly subsided. I looked again at my wife. My joyous ebullitions vanished, and I asked myself who it was whom I saw. Methought it could not be Catharine. It could not be the woman who had lodged for years in my heart; who had slept nightly in my bosom; who had borne in her womb, who had fostered at her breast, the beings who called me father; whom I had watched with delight, and cherished with a fondness ever new and perpetually growing: it could not be the same.

“Where was her bloom? These deadly and blood-suffused orbs but ill resemble the azure and ecstatic tenderness of her eyes. The lucid stream that meandered over that bosom, the glow of love that was wont to sit upon that cheek, are much unlike these livid stains and this hideous deformity. Alas! these were the traces of agony; the gripe of the assassin had been here!

“I will not dwell upon my lapse into desperate and outrageous sorrow. The breath of heaven that sustained me was withdrawn, and I sunk into mere man. I leaped from the floor; I dashed my head against the wall; I uttered screams of horror; I panted after torment and pain. Eternal fire, and the bickerings of hell, compared with what I felt, were music and a bed of roses.

“I thank my God that this degeneracy was transient,—that he deigned once more to raise me aloft. I thought upon what I had done as a sacrifice to duty, and was calm. My wife was dead; but I reflected that though this source of human consolation was closed, yet others were still open. If the transports of a husband were no more, the feelings of a father had still scope for exercise. When remembrance of their mother should excite too keen a pang, I would look upon them and be comforted.

“While I revolved these ideas, new warmth flowed in upon my heart—I was wrong. These feelings were the growth of selfishness. Of this I was not aware, and, to dispel the mist that obscured my perceptions, a new effulgence and a new mandate were necessary.

“From these thoughts I was recalled by a ray that was shot into the room. A voice spake like that which I had before heard:—‘Thou hast done well. But all is not done—the sacrifice is incomplete—thy children must be offered—they must perish with their mother!——’”