"Mesmerism vs. Common Sense"
July 1881
Peterson's Magazine

Dublin Core


"Mesmerism vs. Common Sense"
July 1881
Peterson's Magazine





Miss Wynn followed her brother out of his new house, and stood on the verandah. She looked down at the slope of forest and farm land.

“You ought to be a satisfied man, Stephen,” she said, in her full, hearty tones. “There is not a prettier home in Fauquier county. And so Lee will think, I’ll answer for her.”

Doctor Wynn locked the door carefully, and glanced doubtfully around him.

“It ought to please Lee,” he said. “Nine years of preparation! And always with an eye to her wishes. It ought to please her. But I don’t know—I don’t know!”

They walked together, down the steps, and along the avenue of elms, to the gate, where their horses were waiting.

Ellen Wynn, who was a tall girl, with a firm free step, and frank, gray eyes, half hummed, half sang, to herself, as they went; but the doctor was grave and silent. He was a thin, fair-haired man, with a more refined and sensitive face than his sister. But it was to the woman, with that resolute face of hers, that you would have turned for help, in an emergency.

Nelly, watching him keenly, as she walked, decided that he did not look as the prospective bridegroom of next week should do. Yet nobody, who had known Stephen Wynn for ten years, had recognized him, in that time, as anything else than Lee Page’s lover. That was the essential fact about the man. The Wynns and Pages were allied, by those countless ties of blood and intermarriage, which bind Virginia families together; the cousins, Stephen and Lee, had been lovers in their cradles. The current of their love had flowed always without a ripple, and under a summer sun. Parents, friends, uncles, aunts, and an innumerable cousinship, had waited, approving and impatient, for the day, when Stephen should have established himself in practice, and should be ready to bring home his bride. The practice now was established; the house was built, and furnished; and Miss Wynn had just made her final visit of inspection.

At the great Page mansion, in the next county, the clan had already begun to assemble; tremendous preparations were going on, in the kitchens of a dozen country-seats, which the wedding-party would visit, on their triumphal progress, a fortnight hence; far-off kinsmen were on their way, in lumbering family-coaches, with outsiders from Kentucky and Carolina; the last stitch had been taken in the bride’s trousseau, the very veil was in its box, pinned to the orange blossoms; and yet Doctor Wynn’s blue eye wandered uneasily, and he bit his thin lip, as if his good fortune was a mere vision, fading in thin air.

“What is the matter with you, Stephen?” said Nelly, sharply. “You look like tragedy itself.”

“It may be my jealous fancy, Nell, but,” hesitating, “there is something troubles me.”

“Tell me all about it,” with a decisive nod. “It’s not about Lee, is it? You have your weaknesses, Stephen, but you’re not jealous. It can’t be a jealous fancy. Lee is nervous, romantic, but—“

“No, I never had cause for jealousy,” interrupted the doctor. “And I’ve known Lee since we were children. But there is a coldness, a reserve in Lee’s letters, lately, which I cannot understand. There was another matter.” He hesitated. “Nell, I shall not go into detail. But there have been several unaccountable circumstances, which make me uneasy, and uncertain; even though,” he added, smiling uncomfortably, “my wedding-day comes next week.”

Miss Wynn waited a moment, in hopes that he would be more candid. But he seated her on her horse, and mounted his own in silence. “What can you do for me, Nell?” he said, as they cantered down the hill together.

“I will go on to Colonel Page’s to-morrow, Stephen,” said Nell, prompt as usual, “instead of waiting to go with you, next week. If anything is wrong, trust to me to find it out, and set it right.”

“I knew you would suggest something, Ellen. But if anything is wrong with Lee, I must set it right myself. Nobody must come between us—not even you.”

“I will go, to-morrow,” said Ellen, decidedly. “There is nothing more to tell me?” looking at him sharply, feeling that she had received but a half-confidence.

“No, nothing,” said Doctor Wynn, evading her eye. 

Among Miss Wynn’s many qualities, was a certain big, careless, good nature. “Very well, Stephen, I’ll do the best I can,” she said. “Keep up heart. It will all be right. Things always do turn out right in the end.” Especially, she thought, with regard to Stephen’s fantastic, imaginary grievance.

But the matter, which he had reserved, was, this time, more than a fantastic grievance. A year ago, Doctor Wynn had presented to Miss Page, a pearl necklace. He was not a rich man, and his gifts to his bride represented much actual self-denial and privation, a fact which Lee well knew. A week since, while he was in Lynchburg, completing his purchases for the house, he had seen this necklace exposed for sale, in a jeweler’s window, and, supposing that it had been stolen, had entered, and demanded to know how it came there.

“It was sold to us,” said the jeweler, “by Miss Lee Page. I have her letter here, offering it for a certain sum, cash, which we paid her.”

The writing was Lee’s.

“The pearls are very fine. Will you look at them with a glass?” said the man.

Doctor Wynn did not look at them with a glass. He went out of the shop, sick, and almost staggering. Lee, trading with her jewels? Lee, selling his poor, little gifts for ready cash? The mystery, the horror of the whole thing, was so incredible, so dreadful, to him, that he could not bring himself to tell Ellen of it. She started, the next day, therefore, ignorant of his trouble.



COLONEL PAGE, with all the rest of the innumerable family connections, had the highest respect for Ellen Wynn’s abilities. He received her with that peculiar, anxious deference, which men pay to a woman, whose shrewd sense and keenness scares and awes them.

“It is very kind in you to come so soon, Ellen. Lee is out in the park, somewhere,” he said, hurriedly. “She is not as well as we should like to see her—too pale and haggard. But that’s natural, I suppose. We have a few friends with us, already, the Cedar-Lodge Marshalls, and the Volneys, and all of cousin Betty’s folks, and the Professor. Pyrus, where is Miss Lee? Oh, I forgot. She is walking with Professor Sarth. She’s not as strong, Ellen, as I could wish. She feels the need of her mother now, as never before, I think.” All this was poured forth, eagerly and incoherently, as the old gentleman marched up the long hall, with Ellen, pulling his long, white whiskers. 

Ellen Wynn knew, as plainly as if he had put it into words, that there was something to conceal, something which he did not himself understand. “Poor old cousin Rupert,” she thought, with an amused smile. “I must find it out.”

“I will change my dress, and find Lee,” she said, aloud, however. “Do not send for her. I know my room. Maumee Sue will take me to it.”

Half-a-dozen servants escorted her to her chamber. “Miss Nelly,” with her hearty good humor, and sharp authority, was dearer to them than their own gentle, irresolute mistress.

Mrs. Betty Page, from Kentucky, hurried to welcome Ellen, as soon as she heard of her arrival, and to pour out the news.

“Go on with your hair, my dear, and I’ll sit here, by the window,” she said. “You’ve seen cousin Rupert? He is in his element. You know he always did rejoice in a turmoil, and a house full to bursting. So fond as he is of Stephen, too. The dear old man would be perfectly happy, I think, if only he could know that Fred was alive.”

“He has not heard of Fred, for a year,” said Ellen, sharply. “Not since he started to India. Why does he choose this especial time to worry about him? I should waste very little anxiety on such a feather-headed fellow, at any season, I am sure.”

“You never were a father, my dear. An only son, too. And Fred never had any fault, except a drop of vagabond blood. It’s quite natural, that his father should wish for him, at this crisis in the family affairs.” 

“I suppose so. But Fred always seemed such a cipher to me, that I cannot understand anybody wasting affection, or emotion, on him. The Cedar-Lodge people are here?”

“Yes. But the house will not really fill, until next week. All that are here now, are of our own family, except Professor Sarth.”

“Who is Professor Sarth?” she said, carelessly, thrusting a gold bodkin, through the soft, dark puffs of her hair.

“He is a friend of Lee’s. She met him in Lynchburg, two months ago. He followed her home, and cousin Rupert invited him to stay for the wedding.”

Ah! What a trouble such a mass of hair is. If it only were curly. This friend of Lee’s—he is very pleasant, of course? What family does he belong to?”

“Oh, gracious knows, if he ever had a family. He might be Melchisedek,[1] from the mystery there is about him—without father, or mother, or descent. Very learned, and very silent, and with no breeding at all to speak of. A thin, colorless, pale-eyed creature. His eyes have that dreadful death-in-life glare, which I have seen in a fish.”

Ellen laughed. “Not much fear of his fascinating any of your girls, cousin Betty.”

“No. Not my girls.” She coughed, uneasily, and arranged the flounces on her skirt. “Not my girls,” she repeated, meaningly. But Miss Wynn was too busy with lacing her bodice, to answer. “I honestly confess, Ellen,” continued Mrs. Page, lowering her voice, “that I do not like this man, nor his doings. He professes to be a mesmerist—magnetizer—I hardly know what. Thank heaven, I’m a good church member, and trouble myself very little about such infidelisms. But he declares that Lee is wonderfully receptive of the mesmeric influence. He puts her to sleep, at will; wakens her; summons, or sends her from him, at his will. He has had one or two exhibitions of his power, in the drawing-room. But I have heard it hinted, that his power over Lee is much greater than we are allowed to see; that he can command her, when absent, as if he were present; bring her to him, by a few passes of his hand.”

“That is absurd!” said Ellen, hotly. “I have heard of this mesmerism. It is all a fraud, an ungodly fraud! Do you mean to say, that Lee lends herself to such trickery? Or that cousin Rupert allows her to do it?”

“Her father was much opposed to it. But Lee insisted on the experiments. She has shown, gentle as she is, that she has a will of her own. I did wonder,” said the matron, with a sudden access of frankness, “what Stephen Wynn would say to it all. And I am glad, on this very account, Ellen, to see you here, to-day.”

“I am glad that I came,” said Ellen, calmly, for she had regained her control. “But the matter is not as serious as you think, I hope, cousin Betty.”



MISS WYNN, indeed, was too practical, to take alarm. Lee was an exceptionally refined and sensitive woman, and the most likely to become a partner in any coarse trickery. “I have wronged Stephen’s future wife,” she said to herself, “even in listening to such an accusation.”

Nevertheless, a strange change in Lee’s manner and countenance, shocked and startled her. Lee was more eagerly affectionate than ever before; but she was pre-occupied; and scarcely paid any heed, even when Ellen delivered messages from her brother. The girl, too, had grown thin; her skin was dry and hot; her dark-blue eyes restless and fiery.

“Magnetism, indeed! It looks more like malarial fever,” thought Ellen, as she watched Lee, during the long supper. 

Professor Sarth, as it happened, was seated opposite to her; a pale-colored, little man, with yellow hair, bristling brows and mustache, and large round eye-glasses. He ate but little, and appeared to shrink from observation. In the whole chattering, gay circle, he and Lee were the only silent members. “A mere book-worm, and half fed at that,” decided Ellen, after one or two keen glances. “As little of a wizard, as a man could be! Cousin Betty’s romance always did run away her with her wits.”

After supper was over, Colonel Page went to his study, while the young people flocked to the great hall, which was the usual place of assembling in the evening. It was a vast, low-ceiled apartment, extending through the middle of the house, with two immense fire-places, at either end, in which, the evening being chilly, fires of heaped pine-knots were burning.

The stateliness and impressive air of antiquity, which belonged to the old mansion, reached its culmination in this hall, which had been, in fact, the living-room of the Pages for generations, and had absorbed their character, as the more splendid, but less used libraries, and withdrawing rooms, had failed to do. There were their portraits, high-featured, stern men, and fastidious women, on the wall; there were the enormous buffets, laden with plate, among it cups and salvers won at half the courses in the South, by racing grandfathers; there were spindle-legged harpsichords of the time of cousin Dolly Madison, and cousin Martha Washington; there were swords and guns belonging to Cavlier and Tory ancestors; and, mixed in with them, were gigantic stalks of corn, deer’s antlers, stuffed pet-dogs, and Lee’s last master-pieces, of bits of painted satin, or stiff crayons. Lee herself, in her clinging, tight-sleeved, gown of some pale-blue stuff, her soft brown hair, rolled like a crown above her timid, high-bred face, was a fitting figure to give life to the quaint, old-time habitation. 

Ellen drew Lee apart, while the others gathered into noisy, gossiping groups. “We have not had a minute to ourselves,” she said, “and I have so much to tell you of the house.”

“The house?”

“Yes—your house. Stephen took me over it, yesterday. Are you listening, dear? You watch the door, as if you expected somebody to come in, with bad news.”

“Nonsense!” Lee forced a smile. “Tell me about the house. Stephen has written every detail but it is different to actually see it for yourself.”

“You will see it, for yourself, next week.” But Lee did not blush, nor smile. She listened, with her eyes fixed vacantly on Ellen’s face; but now and then they gave the same quick, terrified glance at the door.

“Only a week, to-day, and you will be at home there—at home,” pursued Ellen, keenly watching her. “Do you realize that it will be next week?”

“Next week? No! Sometimes I think it will be never,” Lee broke out, with a passionate contortion of her features. Then she controlled herself. “Don’t heed me, Ellen,” laughing, “I am not well, lately. I hardly know what I am saying, sometimes.”

“Sit down, quietly, Lee. You are a little nervous, naturally. Let me tell you what Stephen is doing, to make ready for you.”

“Another time. I cannot stay now. I am wanted outside.” Her strained eyes on the door.

“No one called you.”

“No, but—oh, there he is!”

The door opened, and Professor Sarth came in. He had a soft, noiseless tread, and glided round, behind the groups, until he reached the window recess, near to Ellen and Lee. He made an authoritative, but scarcely perceptible gesture, with his finger, and Miss Page instantly went towards him. Ellen blushed with anger.

“He summons her as if she were a spaniel, and she obeys him! There is no prouder or more reserved girl, with men, in all Virginia, than Lee Page. At least, heretofore.”

Meantime, the professor said to Lee, in the sharp tone he would have used to a servant, “I must have another exhibition; and put you to sleep.”

“Now? Here? No, no! For God’s sake, not now!” cried Lee, but in a whisper. “My father forbade me, positively, the other day, to submit to the passes again. Dr. Wynn’s sister is here; she would think it improper, indecent in me. It will break off my marriage.” 

“Ta, ta!” with a careless fillip of his fingers. “If you choose to consider your father, and your marriage, instead of me, very well! I am satisfied—“ But, he looked her steadily in the eye. The sentence was finished between them without words. Her lips grew colorless, her features pinched, as she stared into his gray, implacable eyes. She tried to speak once, but the sound choked in her throat. At last she bowed assent. The professor whirled round lightly. 

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, in a shrill gay voice. “I propose a little scientific exhibition, for our amusement, this evening. It will especially amuse Miss Wynn,” bowing to Ellen, “who is, I understand, a lady of scholarly tastes and high culture.”

There was a momentary, embarrassed silence. Then cousin Betty Page came to the front. “If you mean, Professor,” she said, boldly, “by your exhibition, a repetition of the experiment you made, last night, with my cousin Lee, I must very decidedly object to it. It is not pleasant, to use the mildest expression, for a lady to submit to, or for her friends to witness.”

“If Miss Lee objects to it, I shall not insist,” he said, smiling amiably. “What does she say?” He did not even glance at her, being occupied in taking off his eye-glasses, and carefully polishing them. But Lee’s eyes were fixed on his face.

“I do not object,” she said.

“Do you wish for it?” he persisted, placidly.

“It is a thing, Lee,” cried cousin Betty, hotly, “which your mother, if living, would not allow.”

The girl threw up her hand, in desperation, but did not take her fascinated gaze from Sarth.

“Do you wish for it?” he insisted, still without looking at her. But Ellen fancied that he made a slow sign with his hand, a gesture, by which he seemed to assume control of the girl’s whole flexible, slight body, as she bent towards him.

“I do wish for it,” she said, in a low, steady voice, “and if my dead mother were here—“ she paused, and added, “I should still consent to it.”

“Take your seat,” said Sarth. She sank into a chair. 

I, for one, shall not stay to see it,” said cousin Betty, angrily, leaving the room.

“Why such a pother?” said the little man, in his airy, foreign accent. “It is but a moment’s divertissement. The lady is tired. I put her to sleep—so,” rapidly waving his lean, white hands over her, then passing them, with light touches down her arms. Her head sank on her breast, her whole body relaxed; but the eyes rested on his—helpless, obedient. 

“She sleeps,” he said, triumphantly. Then, after a moment’s pause, he reversed the passes. “She is awake, now,” he said. “But it is better that she should rest. The day has been exhausting. Go to your own room, Miss Page,” he commanded. And Lee, rising slowly, walked to the door, sluggishly, as though under the influence of a narcotic.

“It is but a little experiment,” he said, smiling, and turning to Ellen. “I had understood you were interested in science and kindred pursuits. Miss Page is singularly receptive of mesmeric influences. I may say that I have brought her under absolute control.” 

Miss Wynn bowed, but made no reply. She left the room, however, and sent a messenger for her brother. “Come at once,” she wrote. “It is imperative: don’t wait.”

Miss Page did not go to her own room. There was a little chamber, adjoining the library, dimly lighted by the lamps in the larger room, and opening through low windows into the garden. Its damp, dusky air was heavy with the smell of herbs and roses. It was here that Sarth had chosen to hold his interviews with her; and here the girl dragged herself, with slow, unwilling steps. Sarth entered, a few minutes later, and threw himself on a sofa.

“Sit down,” he said, waving his hand.

But she remained standing.

“What do you want, now?” she asked.

Repugnance, fear, loathing, were in her face; a timid, immature face, which, up to a month ago, had never expressed any emotion, which an innocent child might not experience.

“What do I want? I want more money. That is, your brother wants it, if he is to be saved from the gallows.”

“What can I do? I have sold every jewel I own, even the cross my mother gave me—“

“It was to save her boy. She was very fond of Fred, wasn’t she? He has often talked to me, at night, when we would be camping on the plains together, of your mother; and the little garden you and he made, while she watched you; and of your lessons together.” He watched her keenly, as he talked. She began to weep, sobbing silently. “Fred never ceased to love you and his mother. He was a wild fellow; he drank hard, and gambled high; but there was the one hope for him, his love for his mother and you. I can’t bear to tell him that you are so engrossed with your lover, and your marriage, that you will let him die, and will do nothing.”

“It would be a lie, if you told him that,” said Lee, standing erect. “Only tell me what I can do, and I will do it.”

“You know, as well as I. Fred has killed this man, Phipps. Under great provocation, he says. But that must be proved. Phipps was popular in Denver. Fred is a stranger. He needs the best counsel that can be had. His witnesses must be brought from another State. In short, we want money—money, and more of it. Will you tell your father?”

“It would kill him. To go to him, and say that my brother was on trial for murder, and that—oh, my God, I cannot do it,” she cried. “Anything but that!”

“Then, will you ask Doctor Wynn for the money?”

“He has none to give me.” The blood rushed to her face. Her voice was suddenly strong. “What right have I to ask Stephen Wynn to help me? I never will marry him. There never was a blot upon the family name of the Wynns. He shall never think that he brought disgrace into it by me.”

“You are going to shoulder the disgrace of being the sister of a murderer, then?”

She shuddered, but did not answer. 

“You will not ask Wynn for the money?”


“Nor marry him?”

“I never will,” she said, sinking into a chair, and beginning to cry.

“Then—marry me!” hissed Sarth, springing up, and stooping over her. “You told me that the fortune, left to you by your mother, was to be paid to you on your wedding-day. It does not matter who the man is, that you marry, the money must be paid, all the same.”

“Marry you?” Her lips scarcely formed the words. “You?”

She feebly lifted both hands, to thrust him away, but they fell, powerless. 

“Yes, me! John Sarth. From the very first day I saw you, I meant to have you for my wife. But what matters that?” recollecting himself. “You care nothing for me. But in this way you can save your brother. It is the only way. When Fred sent me to you, to ask help, he said, ‘Little Lee will refuse you nothing, for me.’ You say you cannot be Wynn’s wife, or get money from him. Then take this other way. Go with me, now—to-night—to a magistrate, and marry me. I have shown them all the power I have over you, purposely, to explain such a course. They will think it love; love for me, not mesmerism. Eh! do you see?” lowering his voice, and lifting her hand. She attempted to draw it away, but he made a rapid gesture, and it lay in his, cold and nerveless.

“To-morrow,” he continued, “the money will be paid to you. I will telegraph it, by draft, to Denver, as I have done the other funds you have given; and Fred will be saved. Will you do it?”

She tried to rise. “Give me time—my father,” she muttered.

“Time? As much as you choose, provided you don’t risk poor Fred’s life with the delay. But I would not be slow in deciding, if you want to keep the boy from being hung.”

His very brutality forced her in the way he would have her to go. It was something so alien to herself, so outside of any former experience of her life, that it stunned her. This talk of the gallows, this dragging her into marriage by sheer brute force, felled her reason, as the attack of an ox would her body. 

She rose to her feet, however, with something of the dignity, which had always belong to Lee Page. “I cannot marry a man, whom I do not love,” she said. But her words sounded to her like one of the feeble platitudes of her copy-book. Love? Who had talked of love?

She must marry him to save Fred’s life. Love had nothing to do with it.

She went out of the room, into a long passage, from which the doors of the sleeping-chambers opened. Sarth followed her, quietly. She walked hastily towards her father’s room, laid her hand upon the door-knob. She could hear him moving inside. A sense of rest and calm fell on her, at the thought of telling him all.

All? That his son was a murderer? Her hand dropped. “I cannot do it,” she said.

“As soon as Fred is set free, he will come home, and begin a new life,” Sarth eagerly whispered, for he had followed her. “It will make your father a happy man. He need never know what has happened. But if Fred is found guilty—when you father hears it—“

She turned on him. “Have you no mercy?” she cried. “No man could torture a woman as you do me!”

“It is not I. It is you, you refuse the only chance of escape. Marry me, and Fred is saved. Come, come,” gently drawing her toward the door. “I have a buggy in waiting, in the garden road. We can drive to Mill Creek, and be back in half-an-hour. The money will be sent, and—“ he hesitated, then went on, boldly, “if you wish it, I never will see your face again. Come.”

He passed his hands quickly over her head, down her arms; and half dazed, and shivering, she followed him, down the steps, and along the garden path. At the gate stood the buggy.

The girl stopped, muttering something about her mother.

“Come,” said Sarth, holding out his hand, shaking with excitement, but not touching her.

She followed him.

Suddenly, there was a quick, firm step, behind.

“Ah, Lee!” said Ellen Wynn. “I have found you at last! Just in time for a quiet chat. Professor Sarth will excuse you, I am sure, especially as I have good news to tell you. Your father telegraphed, yesterday, to San Francisco, to know if anything could be discovered of Fred. He was impatient to have news of him, before the wedding. He has just received a reply.”

“Well?” gasped Sarth, with a hoarse laugh. “What of Mr. Fred?”

Lee did not speak. 

“He arrived from Honolulu, a fortnight ago, in good health and spirits. He has been in Japan for a year. He started for home at once. He is due here to-morrow. Your father is—“

But Lee, with pallid face, and blazing eyes, had turned on Sarth, like one of the Erinyes.[2]

“And you—?” she cried. 

But the man was already gone. Nor was he ever seen again by one of the Page family.

Fred Page did arrive the next day, a sturdy, manly, bearded fellow, who, if he had not made his fortune, had sowed his harmless wild oats, and was quite ready to settle down.

Sarth, he recognized by description, as a disreputable, clever fellow, whom he had made his partner and confidant in the mines, and who had used the knowledge of his family, so gained, to cheat poor, credulous Lee out of her jewels, by a clumsily invented story, and to force her nearly into marriage.

The wedding was one of the gayest, and most brilliant, which was ever known in the great Page clan. From the dressing of the bride, to the throwing of the last shoe, Ellen Wynn was the manager, the good genius, of the whole affair. 

Lee hung upon her neck, fondly, at parting.

“You do not know from what you saved me,” she whispered.

But there was a queer twinkle in Ellen’s eye, which seemed to say that she did know.



1. A reference to Hebrews 7:3: “Without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but likened unto the Son of God, continueth a priest for ever.”

2. The Furies of Greek mythology, female vengeance deities.


Abigail Fagan
University of Connecticut



Abigail Fagan University of Connecticut, “"Mesmerism vs. Common Sense"July 1881Peterson's Magazine,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed May 22, 2019, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/45.