MiSTings and More

Alonzo and Melissa
a do-it-yourself MiSTing

Chapter 15

A new scene was now opened to Alonzo in the wonders of the mighty deep. The sun rising from and setting in the ocean; the wide-spread region of watery waste, now smooth as polished glass, now urged into irregular rolling hillocks, then swelled to

“Blue trembling billows, topp’d with foam,”

Hugh and Meredith [in unison]: Blue tumbling billows.

Lucy [usual business with reference books]: You’re right. It’s from the Anarchiad, a New England poem. Written in 1786–87 by a team of four: Joel Barlow 1754–1812, David Humphreys 1752–1818, John Trumbull 1750–1831, and Lemuel Hopkins 1750–1801.

David [mutters something under his breath about cooks and broth].

or gradually arising into mountainous waves. Often would he traverse the deck amid the still hours of midnight, when the moon silvered over the liquid surface: “Bright luminary of the lonely hour,” he would say, “that now sheddest thy mild and placid ray on the woe-worm head—

Hugh [with Meredith and Linda nodding assent]: The woe-worn head.

Lucy [loyally]: I like “woe-worm”. It gnaws its way into your heart, bringing misery in its path.

Linda: And leaving holes in your head.

of fortune’s fugitive, dost thou not also pensively shine on the sacred and silent grave of my Melissa?”

Favourable breezes wafted them for many days over the bosom of the Atlantic.—At length they were overtaken by a violent storm.

David: This is going to be a whopper. Anything up to mountainous waves is just part of the scenery.

The wind began to blow strongly from the southwest, which soon increased to a violent gale. The dirgy scud first flew swiftly along the sky;

Hugh [1804 text]: The dingy scud.

Lucy: You wouldn’t think so, but he’s right.

The wind blew hard, the sea ran high,

The dingy scud drove ’cross the sky.

Charles Dibdin, “Ev’ry Inch a Sailor”. English propagandist, but some of his stuff was so good it was swiped by the Colonies.

then dark and heavy clouds filled the atmosphere, mingling with the top-gallant streamers of the ship. Night hovered over the ocean, rendered horrible by the intermitting blaze of lightnings, the awful crash of thunder, and the deafening roar of winds and waves. The sea was rolled into mountains, capped with foaming fire. Now the ship was soaring among the thunders of heaven, now sunk in the abyss of waters.

David: In retrospect, trying to launch a seaplane in the middle of a thunderstorm was probably not the best idea.

The storm dispersed the fleet, so that when it abated, the ship in which Alonzo sailed was found alone; they, however, kept on their course of destination, after repairing their rigging, which had been considerably disordered by the violence of the gale.

The next morning they discovered a sail which they fondly hoped—

Lucy: One more for the OED list. He accidentally used “fond” in the archaic sense of “foolish”.

might prove to be one of their own fleet, and accordingly made for it. The ship they were in pursuit of shortened sail, and towards noon wore round and bore down upon them, when they discovered that it was not a ship belonging to their convoy.

Linda: Oops.

Lucy: I thought I was kidding, but it really was a foolish hope.

It appeared to be of about equal force and dimensions with that of their own; they therefore, in order to prepare for the worst, got ready with all speed for action. They slowly approached each other, manoeuvering for the advantage, till the strange ship ran up British colours, and fired a gun, which was immediately answered by the other, under the flag of the United States. It was not long before a close and severe action took place, which continued for three hours, when both ships were in so shattered a condition that they were unable to manage a gun.*

* The particulars of this action, in the early stage of the American war, are yet remembered by many.

David: He doesn’t remember it himself, so he’s using the time-honored “familiar to all” gimmick.

Mark [passing through in time to yank reference book out of Lucy’s hand]: He’s talking about the Trumbull. The duel leaving both ships wrecked was with the Watt in June 1780.

The British had lost their captain, and one half their crew, most of the remainder being wounded.—The Americans had lost their second officer, and their loss in men, both killed and wounded, was nearly equal to that of the enemy.

While they lay in this condition, unable either to annoy each other more,

Meredith: The sailors were reduced to making faces and mooning each other from the railings.

or to get away, a large sail appeared, bearing down upon them, which soon came up and proved to be an English frigate, and which immediately took the American ship in tow, after removing the crew into the hold of the frigate. The crew of the British ship were also taken on board of the frigate, which was no sooner done than the ship went down and was for ever buried beneath mountains of ponderous waves. The frigate then, with the American ship in tow, made sail, and in a few days reached England.

Mark: Definitely the Trumbull. Its capture by the Iris in August 1781 agrees with its being separated from a convoy in a storm, captured and taken in tow.

David: We finally get rid of Edmund Pearson and now this know-it-all shows up.

Linda [pushing Mark out the door]: So when the author says “this action” he means two different actions separated by over a year, and when he says “the early stages of the war” he means towards the end of the war.

Mark [from the doorway]: And when he says “England” he means “New York”.

The wounded prisoners were sent to a hospital, but the others were confined in a strong prison within the precincts of London.

The American prisoners were huddled into an apartment with British convicts of various descriptions.

Lucy: I’m sure there’s something about this in the Geneva Convention.

Among these Alonzo observed one whose demeanor arrested his attention. A deep melancholy was impressed upon his features; his eye was wild and despairing; his figure was interesting, tall, elegant and handsome.

Meredith: Does that mean his figure was one, interesting, two, tall, three, elegant, and four, handsome—or does it mean that the interesting thing about his figure was that it was tall and elegant and handsome?

David: It means that the bill collectors were knocking on Mitchell’s door again.

He appeared to be about twenty-five years of age. He seldom conversed, but when he did, it was readily discovered that his education had been above the common cast, and he possessed an enlightened and discrimi­nating mind. Alonzo sympa­thetically sought his acquaintance, and discovered therein a unison of woe.

One evening, when the prisoners were retired to rest, the stranger, upon Alonzo’s request, rehearsed the following incidents of his life.

Hugh: A shared theatrical background created an immediate bond between the two.

“You express,” said he, “some surprise at finding a man of my appearance in so degraded a situation; and you wish to learn the events which have plunged me in this abject state. These, when I briefly relate, your wonder will cease.

“My name is Henry Malcomb;

Linda: Stop the presses! We’ve got another man with two names.

my father was a clergyman in the west of England, and descended from one of the most respectable families in those parts. I received a classical education, and then entered the military school,

Lucy: Uh . . . What military school?

Linda [reaching behind Lucy to grab reference book]: The Royal Military Academy, set up to train engineers and artillerymen so they would know what they were doing. For everyone else it was enough to look good in scarlet and have the money to buy a commission.

as I was designed for the army, to which my earliest inclinations led. As soon as my education was considered complete, an ensign’s commission—

Lucy: In the army?

Linda [keeping a firm grip on book]: Yup. Until 1870, the starting rank for British infantry officers was ensign.

David: So when he says “my education was considered complete” he means “I was kicked out of the artillery training school for being a hopeless dunce”.

was procured for me in one of the regiments destined for the West Indies. Previous to its departure for those islands, I became acquainted with a Miss Vernon,

Meredith: Since Alonzo doesn’t know the lady, it would obviously be inappro­priate to tell him her first name.

who was a few years younger than myself, and the daughter of a gentleman farmer, who had recently purchased and removed on to an estate in my father’s parish. Every thing that was graceful and lovely appeared centered in her person; every thing that was virtuous and excellent in her mind.

Lucy: Goodness gracious me. Why, she could have been Melissa’s twin.

I sought her hand.

David: I’ve got an editorial comment in the margin, but I can’t make it out.

page image

Hugh: I think he was trying to write “but slipt”, but his hand slipt.

Our souls soon became united by the indissoluble bonds of sincerest love,

Lucy: After he asked for her hand.

Meredith: I think that’s in The Rules.

and as there existed no parental or other impediments to our union, it was agreed that as soon as I returned from the Indies, where it was expected that my stay would be short,

David: Two months at sea, take on fresh water and provisions, turn around and come back.

the marriage solemnities should be performed. Solemn oaths of constancy passed between us, and I sailed, with my regiment, for the Indies.

“While there, I received from her, and returned letters filled with the tenderest expres­sions of anxiety and regret of absence. At length the time came when we were to embark for England, where we arrived after an absence of about eighteen months.

Meredith: It’s called “Island time”. Anything under three years is considered a short stay.

The moment I got on land I hastened to the house of Mr. Vernon, to see the charmer of my soul. She received me with all the ardency of affection, and even shed tears of joy in my presence. I pressed her to name the day which was to perfect our union and happiness, and the next Sunday, four days only distant, was agreed upon for me to lead her to the altar.

Lucy [as Mr. Vernon]: Young lady, you should have your mouth washed out with soap. We’ve never had anything but banns in this family; you’ll wait three weeks and like it.

How did my heart bound at the prospect of making Miss Vernon my own!—of possessing in her all that could render life agreeable; I hastened home to my family and informed them of my approaching bliss, who all sympathized in the anticipated joy which swelled my bosom.

Linda: They have a cream to make those go down.

“I had a sister some years older than myself, who had been the friend and inmate of—

Hugh [1804 text]: Intimate of.

Lucy: Oh. I just assumed it had something to do with that “Asylum” subtitle.

my angel in my absence. They were now almost every day together, so that I had fre­quently oppor­tunities of her company.

Linda: Um . . . Of whose company? He’d see his sister every day anyway, and if he’s getting married in four days it would look odd if he didn’t call on Miss Vernon regularly.

One day she had been with my sister at my father’s, and I attended her home. On my return, my sister requested me to attend her in a private room. We therefore retired, and when we were seated she thus addressed me:

“‘Henry, you know that to promote your peace, your welfare, and your happiness, has ever been the pride of my heart.

Hugh: Uh-oh. This sounds suspiciously like the opening of Melissa’s father’s speech. There’s bad news coming up.

Nothing except this could extort the secret which I shall now disclose, and which has yet remained deposited in my own bosom: my duty to a brother whom I esteem dear as life, forbids me to remain silent. As an affectionate sister, I cannot tacitly see you thus imposed upon; I cannot see you the dupe and slave of an artful and insidious woman, who does not sincerely return your love; nor can I bear to see your marriage consummated with one whose soul and affections are placed upon another object.’

Lucy: If she means herself, she’s an idiot. Marrying your female sweetheart’s brother is the perfect camouflage for an ongoing relationship. And if the sister is “some years older than” her 25-year-old brother, she’s practically a confirmed old maid already, so nobody will be surprised when she goes to live with her married brother.

“Here she hesitated—while I, with insufferable anguish of mind, begged her to proceed.

“‘About six or eight months after your departure,’ she continued, ‘it was reported to Miss Vernon—

Meredith: In the passive voice. You told her yourself, didn’t you?

that she had a rival in the Indies; that you had there found an American beauty, on whom you lavished those endearments which belonged of right to her alone. This news made, at first, a deep impression on her mind, but it soon wore away; and whether from this cause, from fickleness of disposition, or that she never sincerely loved you, I know not; but this I do know, that a youth has been for some time past her almost constant companion.

Linda: Awright, Sis, come clean. Why are you trying to sabotage your best friend’s love life?

To convince you of this, you need only tomorrow evening, about sunset, conceal yourself near the long avenue by the side of the rivulet, back of Mr. Vernon’s country-house, where you will undoubtedly surprise Miss Vernon and her companion—

David: There’s your answer. She’s worried about the gene pool. If Miss Vernon is too dim-witted to tell her secret lover to make himself scarce for a few days until she’s safely married, this is not someone you want as mother to your nephews and nieces.

in their usual evening’s walk. If I should be mistaken I will submit to your censure; but should you find it as I have predicted, you have only to rush from your concealment, charge her with her perfidy, and renounce her forever.’

“Of all the plagues, of all the torments, of all the curses which torture the soul, jealousy of a rival in love is the worst. Enraged, confounded and astonished, it seemed as if my bosom would have instan­taneously burst. To conceal my emotions, I left my sister’s apart­ment, after having thanked her for her information, and proceeded to obey her injunctions.

Hugh [exasperated]: Promised to obey.

I retired to my own room, and there poured out my execrations.

“Cursed woman!” I exclaimed, “is it thus you requite my tender love! Could a vague report of my inconstancy drive you to infidelity!

Lucy: Talk about the pot calling the kettle black. All he’s got is his sister’s unsupported word.

Did not my continual letters breathe constant adoration? And did not yours portray the same sincerity of affection? No, it was not this that caused you to perjure your plighted vows. It was that damnable passion for novelty, which more or less holds a predominancy over your whole sex. To a new coat, a new face, a new lover, you will sacrifice honour, principle and virtue. And to those, backed by splendid power and splendid property,

Linda: It’s Beauman! He never went to New York; he headed straight for England.

David: Judging by that business with Alonzo’s ship, the author is a bit fuzzy on the difference between New York and England anyway.

you will forfeit your most sacred engagements, though made in the presence of heaven.”—Thus did I rave through a sleepless night.

Meredith: Alonzo immediately recognizes a kindred spirit.

“The next day I walked into the fields, and before the time my sister appointed had arrived, I had worked up my feelings almost to the frenzy of distraction. I repaired, however, to the spot, and concealed myself in the place she had named, which was a tuft of laurels by the side of the walk. I soon perceived Miss Vernon strolling down the avenue, arm in arm with a young man elegantly dressed, and of singular, delicate appearance. They were earnestly conversing in a low tone of voice; the hand of my false fair one was gently pressed in the hand of the stranger.

Linda [1836 text]: In the hands of the stranger.

Lucy: You gotta watch out for those three-armed rivals. A man who can walk arm in arm with a young lady and still have two free hands is a dangerous competitor.

As soon as they had passed the place of my concealment, they turned aside and seated themselves in a little arbour, a few yards distant from where I was. The stranger clasped Miss Vernon in his arms: ‘Dearest angel!’ he exclaimed, ‘what an interruption to our bliss by the return of my hated rival!’ With fond caresses and endearing blandish­ments, ‘fear nothing,’ she replied; ‘I have promised and must yield him my hand, but you shall never be excluded from my heart; we shall find sufficient oppor­tunities for private conference.’ I could contain myself no longer—my brain was on fire. Quick as lightning I sprang from my covert, and presenting a pistol which I had concealed under my robe,—‘Die!’ said I, ‘thou false and perjured wretch, by the hand thou hast dishonoured, a death too mild for so foul a crime!’ and immediately shot Miss Vernon through the head,

David: Gene pool, definitely. In the time it took him to get through that speech, she could have jumped up and run for safety while the lover wrested the pistol out of his grasp. Pistols in 1804 were only accurate up to about ten, twenty yards.

who fell lifeless at my feet! Then suddenly drawing my sword, ‘And thou, perfidious conta­minator and destroyer of my bliss!’ cried I— ‘go! attend thy companion in iniquity to the black regions of everlasting torment!’ So saying, I plunged my sword into his bosom.

Linda: The mystery of the military school is solved. He was expelled for excessive and inappro­priate use of deadly force.

A screech of agony, attended by the exclamation, “Henry, your wife! your sister!” awoke me, too late, to terrors unutterable, to anguish unspeakable, to woes irretrie­vable, and insup­portable despair! It was indeed my betrothed wife, it was indeed my affectionate sister, arrayed in man’s habit.

Meredith: I know that when I read the next page, I’m going to be disappointed as to what the explanation for this is.

The one lay dead before me, the other weltering in her blood! With a feeble and expiring voice, my sister informed me, that in a gay and incon­siderate moment they had concerted this plan, to try my jealousy, determining to discover themselves as soon as they had made the experiment.

Meredith: Yup. Disappointed. But it illustrates why the fidelity test in stories is always done with women. They don’t carry weapons.

“‘I forgive you, Henry,’ she said, ‘I forgive your mistake,’ and closed her eyes for ever in death! What a scene for sensi­bilities like mine!

Hugh: If he’d been your ordinary murdering lout it wouldn’t have bothered him, but Henry has refined sensi­bilities.

To paint or describe it, exceeds the power of language or imagination. I instantly turned the sword against my own bosom; an unknown hand arrested it, and prevented its entering my heart. The report of the pistol, and the dying screech of my sister, had alarmed Mr. Vernon’s family, who arrived at that moment, one of whom had seized my arm, and thus hindered me from destroying my own life. I submitted to be bound and conveyed to prison. My trial came on at the last assizes. I made no defence; was condemned to death.

David: Whew! What a good thing they didn’t let him kill himself, then.

Lucy: On the contrary, that’s what sealed his fate. Back then, suicide was a capital crime.

My execution will take place in eight weeks from to-morrow. I shall cheerfully meet my fate; for who would endure life when rendered so peculiarly miserable!”

The wretched Malcomb here ended his tale of woe.

Linda: And none too soon.

No tear moistened his eye—his grief was too despairing for tears; it preyed upon his heart, drank the vital streams of life, and burst in convulsive sighs from his burning bosom.

Alonzo seriously contemplated on the incidents and events of this tragical story. Conscience whispered him, are not Malcomb’s miseries superior to thine? Candor and correct reason must have answered yes.

Linda: Item: One dead girlfriend.

David: Check.

Linda: On Malcomb’s side: Died because he was an idiot.

David: On Alonzo’s side: Died because . . . uh . . . because she was an idiot.

Hugh: I hate to say it, but Alonzo is right. Malcomb’s situation is worse.

“Melissa perished,” said Alonzo, “but not by the hand of her lover: she expired, but not through the mistaken frenzy of him who adored her. She died, conscious of the unfeigned love I bore her.”

Alonzo and his fellow prisoners had been robbed, when they were captured, of every thing except the clothes they wore.

Lucy: I believe the verb he’s groping for is confiscate.

Linda: The underpaid prison guards made ends meet by helping themselves to convicts’ belongings and selling them on the black market.

Their allowance of provisions was scanty and poor. They were confined in the third story of a lofty prison.

Meredith: Outrageous. Officers are supposed to be housed on the topmost floor, befitting their rank.

Time rolled away; no prospects appeared of their liberation, either by exchange or parole. Some of the prisoners were removed, as new ones were introduced, to other places of confinement, until not one American was left except Alonzo.

Meantime the day appointed for the execution of Malcomb drew near.

David: If Alonzo is thinking of some kind of clever escape involving switched identities and a bribed hangman, he’d better get cracking.

His past and approaching fate filled the breast of Alonzo with sympathetic sorrow. He saw his venerable father, his mother, his friends and acquaintance, with several pious clergymen, frequently enter the prison to console and comfort him, and to prepare him for the unchangeable state on which he was soon to enter. He saw his mind softened by their advice and counsel;—frequently would he burst into tears;—often in the solitary hours of night was he heard addressing the throne of grace for mercy and forgiveness. But the grief that preyed at his heart had wasted him to a skeleton;

Linda and David [1836 and 1851 texts]: Can we make it a mere skeleton?

Hugh [grumbling]: Oh, all right.

a slow but deleterious fever had consequently implanted itself in his constitution. Exhausted nature could make but a weak struggle against disease and affliction like his, and about a week previous to the day appointed for his execution, he expired in peace and penitence,

Lucy: That was a close call. If he’d lived long enough to be executed for murder, his body would have been made available to medical schools for dissection.

trusting in the mercy of his Creator through the sufferings of a Redeemer.

Hugh: The merits of a Redeemer.

David: This is some kind of obscure theological point, isn’t it?

Soon after this event, orders came for removing some of the prisoners to a most loath­some place of confinement in the suburbs of the city.

Lucy: Imprisoned in the suburbs?! When Amnesty Inter­national hears about this, someone’s going to be in big trouble.

It fell to Alonzo’s lot to be one. He therefore formed a project for escaping. He had observed that the gratings in one of the windows of the apartment were loose and could easily be removed. One night when the prisoners were asleep, he stripped off his clothes, every article of which he cut into narrow strips,

Meredith [1811 text]: Narrow slips.

Linda: Using the scissors that the guards fortuitously overlooked when they confis— sorry, robbed him.

tied them together, fastened one end to one of the strongest gratings, removed the others until he had made an opening large enough to get out, and then, by the rope he had made of his clothes, let himself down—

Lucy: —landing with a bone-shattering crash when the last grating demonstrated that “strong” and “easily removed” are not mutually exclusive.

into the yard of the prison. There he found a long piece of timber, which he dragged to the wall, clambered up thereon, and sprang over into the street. His shoes and hat he had left in the prison, as a useless encumbrance—

Hugh [1804 text]: As useless encumbrances.

without his clothes, all which he had converted into the means of escape, so that he was now literally stark naked.

Lucy: As opposed to figuratively stark naked, the way he would be if he tried to pay a social call without his hat.

He stood a moment to reflect:—“Here am I,” said he, “freed from my local prison indeed, but in the midst of an enemy’s country, without a friend, without the means of obtaining one day’s subsistence, surrounded by the darkness of night, destitute of a single article of clothing, and even unable to form a resolution what step next to take.

Linda: His clothes wouldn’t quite reach, so he had to slice up part of his frontal lobe as well.

The ways of heaven are marvellous—may I silently bow to its dispen­sations!”

Meredith: God, he’s an idiot. I hope he gets hypothermia.

David: He won’t. There’s no weather in England, only in Connecticut.

The incidents of our story
will here produce a pause.

Alonzo passed
along the street . . .

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