We were brought up together; there was not quite a year difference in ou_ges. I need not say that we were strangers to any species of disunion o_ispute. Harmony was the soul of our companionship, and the diversity an_ontrast that subsisted in our characters drew us nearer together. Elizabet_as of a calmer and more concentrated disposition; but, with all my ardour, _as capable of a more intense application and was more deeply smitten with th_hirst for knowledge. She busied herself with following the aerial creation_f the poets; and in the majestic and wondrous scenes which surrounded ou_wiss home—the sublime shapes of the mountains, the changes of the seasons,
tempest and calm, the silence of winter, and the life and turbulence of ou_lpine summers—she found ample scope for admiration and delight. While m_ompanion contemplated with a serious and satisfied spirit the magnificen_ppearances of things, I delighted in investigating their causes. The worl_as to me a secret which I desired to divine. Curiosity, earnest research t_earn the hidden laws of nature, gladness akin to rapture, as they wer_nfolded to me, are among the earliest sensations I can remember.
On the birth of a second son, my junior by seven years, my parents gave u_ntirely their wandering life and fixed themselves in their native country. W_ossessed a house in Geneva, and a campagne on Belrive, the eastern shore o_he lake, at the distance of rather more than a league from the city. W_esided principally in the latter, and the lives of my parents were passed i_onsiderable seclusion. It was my temper to avoid a crowd and to attach mysel_ervently to a few. I was indifferent, therefore, to my school-fellows i_eneral; but I united myself in the bonds of the closest friendship to on_mong them. Henry Clerval was the son of a merchant of Geneva. He was a boy o_ingular talent and fancy. He loved enterprise, hardship, and even danger fo_ts own sake. He was deeply read in books of chivalry and romance. He compose_eroic songs and began to write many a tale of enchantment and knightl_dventure. He tried to make us act plays and to enter into masquerades, i_hich the characters were drawn from the heroes of Roncesvalles, of the Roun_able of King Arthur, and the chivalrous train who shed their blood to redee_he holy sepulchre from the hands of the infidels.
No human being could have passed a happier childhood than myself. My parent_ere possessed by the very spirit of kindness and indulgence. We felt tha_hey were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to their caprice, but th_gents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed. When I mingle_ith other families I distinctly discerned how peculiarly fortunate my lo_as, and gratitude assisted the development of filial love.
My temper was sometimes violent, and my passions vehement; but by some law i_y temperature they were turned not towards childish pursuits but to an eage_esire to learn, and not to learn all things indiscriminately. I confess tha_either the structure of languages, nor the code of governments, nor th_olitics of various states possessed attractions for me. It was the secrets o_eaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outwar_ubstance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul o_an that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, o_n it highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.
Meanwhile Clerval occupied himself, so to speak, with the moral relations o_hings. The busy stage of life, the virtues of heroes, and the actions of me_ere his theme; and his hope and his dream was to become one among those whos_ames are recorded in story as the gallant and adventurous benefactors of ou_pecies. The saintly soul of Elizabeth shone like a shrine-dedicated lamp i_ur peaceful home. Her sympathy was ours; her smile, her soft voice, the swee_lance of her celestial eyes, were ever there to bless and animate us. She wa_he living spirit of love to soften and attract; I might have become sullen i_y study, through the ardour of my nature, but that she was there to subdue m_o a semblance of her own gentleness. And Clerval—could aught ill entrench o_he noble spirit of Clerval? Yet he might not have been so perfectly humane,
so thoughtful in his generosity, so full of kindness and tenderness amidst hi_assion for adventurous exploit, had she not unfolded to him the rea_oveliness of beneficence and made the doing good the end and aim of hi_oaring ambition.
I feel exquisite pleasure in dwelling on the recollections of childhood,
before misfortune had tainted my mind and changed its bright visions o_xtensive usefulness into gloomy and narrow reflections upon self. Besides, i_rawing the picture of my early days, I also record those events which led, b_nsensible steps, to my after tale of misery, for when I would account t_yself for the birth of that passion which afterwards ruled my destiny I fin_t arise, like a mountain river, from ignoble and almost forgotten sources;
but, swelling as it proceeded, it became the torrent which, in its course, ha_wept away all my hopes and joys.
Natural philosophy is the genius that has regulated my fate; I desire,
therefore, in this narration, to state those facts which led to m_redilection for that science. When I was thirteen years of age we all went o_ party of pleasure to the baths near Thonon; the inclemency of the weathe_bliged us to remain a day confined to the inn. In this house I chanced t_ind a volume of the works of Cornelius Agrippa. I opened it with apathy; th_heory which he attempts to demonstrate and the wonderful facts which h_elates soon changed this feeling into enthusiasm. A new light seemed to daw_pon my mind, and bounding with joy, I communicated my discovery to my father.
My father looked carelessly at the title page of my book and said, "Ah!
Cornelius Agrippa! My dear Victor, do not waste your time upon this; it is sa_rash."
If, instead of this remark, my father had taken the pains to explain to m_hat the principles of Agrippa had been entirely exploded and that a moder_ystem of science had been introduced which possessed much greater powers tha_he ancient, because the powers of the latter were chimerical, while those o_he former were real and practical, under such circumstances I shoul_ertainly have thrown Agrippa aside and have contented my imagination, warme_s it was, by returning with greater ardour to my former studies. It is eve_ossible that the train of my ideas would never have received the fata_mpulse that led to my ruin. But the cursory glance my father had taken of m_olume by no means assured me that he was acquainted with its contents, and _ontinued to read with the greatest avidity.
When I returned home my first care was to procure the whole works of thi_uthor, and afterwards of Paracelsus and Albertus Magnus. I read and studie_he wild fancies of these writers with delight; they appeared to me treasure_nown to few besides myself. I have described myself as always having bee_mbued with a fervent longing to penetrate the secrets of nature. In spite o_he intense labour and wonderful discoveries of modern philosophers, I alway_ame from my studies discontented and unsatisfied. Sir Isaac Newton is said t_ave avowed that he felt like a child picking up shells beside the great an_nexplored ocean of truth. Those of his successors in each branch of natura_hilosophy with whom I was acquainted appeared even to my boy's apprehension_s tyros engaged in the same pursuit.
The untaught peasant beheld the elements around him and was acquainted wit_heir practical uses. The most learned philosopher knew little more. He ha_artially unveiled the face of Nature, but her immortal lineaments were stil_ wonder and a mystery. He might dissect, anatomize, and give names; but, no_o speak of a final cause, causes in their secondary and tertiary grades wer_tterly unknown to him. I had gazed upon the fortifications and impediment_hat seemed to keep human beings from entering the citadel of nature, an_ashly and ignorantly I had repined.
But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and kne_ore. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became thei_isciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteent_entury; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools o_eneva, I was, to a great degree, self-taught with regard to my favourit_tudies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with _hild's blindness, added to a student's thirst for knowledge. Under th_uidance of my new preceptors I entered with the greatest diligence into th_earch of the philosopher's stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soo_btained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object, but what glor_ould attend the discovery if I could banish disease from the human frame an_ender man invulnerable to any but a violent death!
Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promis_iberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfillment of which I mos_agerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attribute_he failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skil_r fidelity in my instructors. And thus for a time I was occupied by explode_ystems, mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories an_loundering desperately in a very slough of multifarious knowledge, guided b_n ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again change_he current of my ideas.
When I was about fifteen years old we had retired to our house near Belrive,
when we witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced fro_ehind the mountains of Jura, and the thunder burst at once with frightfu_oudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained, while the stor_asted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at th_oor, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautifu_ak which stood about twenty yards from our house; and so soon as the dazzlin_ight vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blaste_tump. When we visited it the next morning, we found the tree shattered in _ingular manner. It was not splintered by the shock, but entirely reduced t_hin ribbons of wood. I never beheld anything so utterly destroyed.
Before this I was not unacquainted with the more obvious laws of electricity.
On this occasion a man of great research in natural philosophy was with us,
and excited by this catastrophe, he entered on the explanation of a theor_hich he had formed on the subject of electricity and galvanism, which was a_nce new and astonishing to me. All that he said threw greatly into the shad_ornelius Agrippa, Albertus Magnus, and Paracelsus, the lords of m_magination; but by some fatality the overthrow of these men disinclined me t_ursue my accustomed studies. It seemed to me as if nothing would or coul_ver be known. All that had so long engaged my attention suddenly gre_espicable. By one of those caprices of the mind which we are perhaps mos_ubject to in early youth, I at once gave up my former occupations, set dow_atural history and all its progeny as a deformed and abortive creation, an_ntertained the greatest disdain for a would-be science which could never eve_tep within the threshold of real knowledge. In this mood of mind I betoo_yself to the mathematics and the branches of study appertaining to tha_cience as being built upon secure foundations, and so worthy of m_onsideration.
Thus strangely are our souls constructed, and by such slight ligaments are w_ound to prosperity or ruin. When I look back, it seems to me as if thi_lmost miraculous change of inclination and will was the immediate suggestio_f the guardian angel of my life—the last effort made by the spirit o_reservation to avert the storm that was even then hanging in the stars an_eady to envelop me. Her victory was announced by an unusual tranquillity an_ladness of soul which followed the relinquishing of my ancient and latterl_ormenting studies. It was thus that I was to be taught to associate evil wit_heir prosecution, happiness with their disregard.
It was a strong effort of the spirit of good, but it was ineffectual. Destin_as too potent, and her immutable laws had decreed my utter and terribl_estruction.