Anon., "The Last Man," Blackwoods (1826)


[Anonymous, in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, XIX, March 1826, 284-86]

 *  *  *  *  I awoke as from a long and deep sleep. Whether I had been in a trance, or asleep, or dead, I knew not; neither did I seek to inquire. With that inconsistency that may often be remarked in dreams, I took the whole as a matter of course, and awoke with the full persuasion that the long sleep or trance in which I had been laid, had nothing in it either new or appalling. That it had been of long continuance I doubted not; indeed I thought that I knew that months and years had rolled over my head while I was wrapped in mysterious slumbers. Yet my recollection of the occurrences that had taken place before I had been lulled to sleep was perfect; and I had the most accurate remembrance of the spot on which I lay, and the plants and flowers that had been budding around me. Still there was all the mistiness of a vision cast over the time and the cause of my having laid myself down. It was one of the vagaries of a dream, and I thought on it without wondering.

The spot on which I was lying was just at the entrance of a cave, that I fancied had been the scene of some of my brightest joys and my deepest sorrows. It was known to none save me, and to me it had been a place of refuge and a defence, for in the wildness of my dream I thought that I had been persecuted and hunted from the society of man; and that in that lone cave and that romantic valley, I had found peace and security.

I lay with my back on the ground, and my head resting on my arm, so that when I opened my eyes, the first objects that I gazed on were the stars and the full moon; and the appearance that the heavens presented to me was so extraordinary, and at the same time so awful, because so unlike the silvery brightness of the sky on which I had last gazed, that I raised my head on my hand, and, leaning on my elbow, looked with a long and idiot stare on the moon and the stars, and the black expanse of ether.

There was a dimness in the air--an unnatural dimness--not a haze or a thin mantle of clouds stretching over and obscuring the atmosphere--but a darkness--a broad shadow--spreading over, yet obscuring nothing, as if above the heavenly bodies had been spread an immense covering of clouds, that hid from them the light in which they moved and had their being.

The moon was large and dark. It seemed to have approached so near the earth, that had it shone with its usual lustre, the seas, and the lands, and the forests, that I believed to exist in it, would have been all distinctly visible. As it was, it had no longer the fair round shape that I had so often gazed on with wonder. The few rays of light that it emitted seemed thrown from hollow and highland--from rocks and from rugged declivities. It glared on me like a monstrous inhabitant of the air, and, as I shuddered beneath its broken light, I fancied that it was descending, nearer and nearer to the earth, until it seemed about to settle down and crush me slowly and heavily to nothing. I turned from that terrible moon and my eyes rested on stars and on planets, studded more thickly than imagination can conceive. They too were larger, and redder, and darker than they had been, and they shone more steadily through the clear darkness of the mysterious sky. They did not twinkle with varying and silvery beams--they were rather like little balls of smouldering fire, struggling with a suffocating atmosphere for existence.

I started up with a loud cry of despair,--I saw the whole reeling around me,--I felt as if I had been delirious,--mad,--I threw myself again on the flat rock, and again closed my eyes to shut out the dark fancies that on every side seemed to assail me,--a thousand wild ideas whirled through my brain,--I was dying,--I was dead,--I had perished at the mouth of that mossy cave,--I was in the land of spirits,--myself a spirit and waiting for final doom in one of the worlds that I had seen sparkling around me. No, no,--I had not felt the pangs of dissolution, and my reason seemed to recall unto me all that I had suffered, and all that I had endured,--I repeated the list of my miseries,--it was perfect, but Death was not there.

I was delirious,--in a mad fever,--I felt helpless and weak, and the thought flashed across my mind that there I was left to die alone, and to struggle and fight with death in utter desolation--the cave was known to none save me, and--as I imagined in my delirium--to one fair being, whom I had loved, and who had visited my lonely cave as the messenger of joy and gladness. Then all the unconnected imaginations of a dream came rushing into my mind, and overwhelming me with thoughts of guilt and sorrow,--indistinctly marked out, and darkly understood, but pressing into my soul with all the freshness of a recent fact,--and I shrieked in agony; for I thought that I had murdered her, my meek and innocent love, and that now with my madness I was expiating the foulness of my crime.--No, no, no,---these visions passed away, and I knew that I had not been guilty,--but I thought--and I shook with a strong convulsion as I believed it to be true--I thought that I had sunk to sleep in her arms, and that the last sounds that I heard were the sweet murmurs of her voice.--Merciful heavens! she too is dead,--or she too has deserted me,-- my shrieks, my convulsive agony, would else have aroused her. But no--I shook off these fancies with a strong effort, and again I hoped. I prayed that I might still be asleep, and still only suffering from the pressure of an agonizing dream. I roused myself--I called forth all my energies, and I again opened my eyes, and again saw the moon and the stars, and the unnatural heaven glaring on me through the darkness of the night, and again overpowered with the strong emotions that shook my reason, I fell to the ground in a swoon.

When I recovered, the scene was new. The moon and the stars had set, and the sun ahd arisen,--but still the same dark atmosphere, and the same mysterious sky. As yet, I saw not the sun, for my face was not in the direction of his rising. My courage was, however, revived, and I began to hope that all had been but one of the visions of the night. But when I raised my head, and looked around, I was amazed,--distracted,--I had lain down in a woody and romantic glen,--I looked around for the copse and hazel that had sheltered me, --I looked for the clear wild stream . that fell in many a cascade from the rocks,--I listened for the song of the birds, and strained my ear to catch one sound of life or animation; no tree reared its green boughs to the morning sun,--all was silent, and lone, and gloomy,--nothing was there but grey rocks, that seemed fast hastening to decay, and the old roots of some immense trees, that seemed to have grown, and flourished, and died there.

I raised myself until I sat upright. Horrible was the palsy tbat fell on my senses when I saw the cave--the very cave that I had seen covered with moss, and the wild shrubs of the forest, standing as grim and as dark as the grave, without one leaf of verdure to adorn it, without one single bush to hide it; there it was, grey and mouldering; and there lay the beautiful vale, one dreadful mass of rocky desolation, with a wide, dry channel winding along what had once been the foot of a green valley.

I looked around on that inclosed glen as far as my eye could reach, but all was dark and dreary, all seemed alike hastening to decay. The rocks had fallen in huge fragments, and among these fragments appeared large roots and decayed trunks of trees, not clothed with moss, or with mushrooms, springing up from the moist wood, but dry, and old and wasted. I well remembered, that in that valley no tree of larger growth than the hazel, or the wild rose, had found room or nourishment, yet there lay large trees among the black masses of rock, and it was evident that there they had grown and died.

Some dreadful convulsion must have taken place--yet it was not the rapid devastation of an earthquake. The slow finger of time was there, and every object bore marks of the lapse of years--ay, of centuries. Rocks had mouldered away--young trees and bushes had grown up, and come to maturity, and perished, while I was wrapped in oblivion. And yet, now that I saw, and knew that it was only through many a year having passed by, that all these changes had been effected, even now my senses recovered in some measure from the delirious excitement of the first surprise, and, such is the inconsistency of a dream, I almost fancied that all this desolation had been a thing to be looked for and . expected, for then, for the first time, I remembered that during my long sleep I thought that I knew, that days and months, and years, were rolling over me in rapid and noiseless succession.

No sooner had this idea seized my mind--no sooner did I conceive that I had indeed slept--that I had indeed lain in silent insensibility, until wood, and rock, and river, had dried up, or fallen beneath the hand of time--that the moon and the stars--and, prepared as I was for wonders, I started, as at that instant I instinctively turned towards that part of the heavens in which the sun was to make his appearance; prepared as I was, I started when I beheld his huge round bulk heaving slowly above the barrier of rocks that surrounded me. His was no longer the piercing ray, the dazzling, the pure and colourless light, that had shed glory and radiance on the world on which I had closed my eyes--he was now a dark round orb of reddish flame. He had sunk nearer the earth as he approached nearer the close of his career, and he too seemed to share with the heaven and the earth the symptoms of decay and dissolution.   *  *   *  *  *  *

When I saw universal nature thus worn out and exhausted--thus perishing from old age, and expiring from the sheer want of renewing materials, then I thought that surely my frail body must likewise have waxed old and infirm--surely I too must be bowed down with age and weariness.

I raised myself slowly and fearfully from the earth, and at length I stood upright. There I stood unscathed by time--fresh and vigorous as when last I walked on the surface of a green and beautiful world--my frame as firmly knit, and my every limb as active as if a few brief hours, instead of many and long years, had witnessed me extended on that broad platform of rock.

At first a sudden gleam of joy broke on my soul, when I thought that here I stood unharmed by time--that I at least had lost nothing of life by the wonderful visitation that had befallen me.

I felt as if I could fly away from this scene of devastation, and in other climes seek for fresher skies and more verdant vales. Alas! alas! I soon and easily gained the top of the rising bank, and fixed my eyes on the wide landscape of a desolate and unpeopled world  *   *  *  *  *

*   *   Desolation! Desolation! I knew that it was to be dreaded as a fearful and a terrible thing, and I had felt the horrors of a lone and helpless spirit--but never, never had I conceived the full misery that is contained in that one awful word, until I stood on the brow of that hill, and looked on the wide and wasted world that lay stretched in one vast desert before me.

Then despair and dread indeed laid hold of me--then dark visions of woe and of loneliness rose indistinctly before me--thoughts of nights and days of never-ending darkness cold--and then the miseries of hunger and of slow decay and starvation, and homeless destitution--and then the hard struggle to live, and the still harder struggle of youth and strength to die---Dark visions of woe, where fled ye? before what angel of light hid ye your diminished heads? The sum of my miseries seemed to overwhelm me--a loud sound, as of one universal crash of dissolving nature, rung in my ears--I gave one wild shriek--one convulsive struggle--and --awoke---and there stood my man John, with my shaving-jug in the one hand, and my well-cleaned boots in the other--his mouth open, and his eyes rolling hideously at thus witnessing the frolics of his staid and quiet master.

By his entrance were these visions dispelled, else Lord knows how long I might have lingered out my existence in that dreary world, or what woes and unspeakable miseries had been in store for