Towards the close of a chilly afternoon, in the latter part of last November, I was travelling in New Hampshire on horseback. The road was solitary and rugged, and wound along through gloomy pine forests and over abrupt and stony hills. Several circumstances conduced to my discomfort. I was not sure of my way; I had a hurt in my bridle hand, and evening was approaching, heralded by an icy rain and a cold, searching wind. I felt a sinking of spirits which I could not dispel by rapid riding; for my horse, fatigued by a long day's journey, refused to answer spur and whip with his usual animation. In an hour after, I was convinced that I had mistaken my road, and night surprised me in the forest. I had been in more unpleasant situations; so I adopted my usual expedient of letting the reins fall upon my courser's neck. He, however, blundered on, with his nose drooping to the ground, stumbling every moment, though ordinarily as surefooted as a roebuck. So we plodded on for a mile, while the landscape grew darker and darker. At length, finding my horse less intelligent or more despairing than myself, I resumed the rein, and endeavored to cheer my brute companion. To tell the truth, I stood in need of something exhilarating myself. The sombre air of the eternal pines struck a deathly gloom to my heart, as one by one they seemed to rise on my path, like threatening genii extending their scathed limbs to meet me. The rain, fine and cold, bedewed me from head to foot, and I question if a more miserable pair of animals ever threaded their way through the mazes of an enchanted forest. I thought of the comfortable home I had left for my forlorn pleasure excursion, of that cheerful hearth around which my family were gathered, of wine, music, love, and the thousand endearments I had left behind, and then I gazed into the recesses of the shadowy wood that closed about me, almost in despair. I began to dread the apparition of some giant intruder, and was seriously meditating the production of a pair of pistols, when my quick glance caught the glimmer of distant lights, twinkling through some opening in the trees, and darting a beam of hope upon the wanderer's soul. My reins were instantly grasped, and my rowels were struck into the sides of my charger. He snorted, pricked up his ears, erected his head, and sprang forth in an uncontrollable gallop. Up hill and down hill I pricked my gallant gray; and when the forest was past, and his hoofs glinted on the stones of a street leading through a small village, I felt an animation that I cannot well describe. A creaking signboard, swinging in the wind on rusty irons, directed me to the only inn of the village. It was a two-story brick building, standing a little back from the road. I drew rein at the door, and dismounted my weary nag. My loud vociferations summoned to my side a bull dog, cursed with a most unhappy disposition, and a hostler whose temper was hardly more amiable. He took my horse with an air of surly indifference, and gruffly directed me to the bar room.
This apartment was tenanted by half a dozen rough farmers, rendered savage and morose by incessantly imbibing alcohol; and by the proprietor of the tavern, a bluff man, with a portly paunch, a hard gray eye, and a stern Caledonian lip. He welcomed me without much frankness or cordiality, and I sank into a wooden settle, eyed by the surly guests of mine host, and the subject of sundry muttered remarks. The group, as it was lighted up by the strong red glare of the fire, had certainly a bandit appearance, which, however delightful to a Salvator Rosa, was by no means inviting to a traveller who had sought the bosom of the hills for pleasure. After making a few remarks, which elicited only monosyllables in answer, I relapsed into silence; from which, however, I was soon aroused by the entrance of the surly hostler, who in no very gracious manner informed me that my horse was lame, and likely to be sick. This intelligence produced a visit to the stable, and the conviction that I could not possibly resume my journey on the ensuing day; which was somewhat disagreeable to a man who had taken up a decided prejudice against the inn and all its inmates.
Having succeeded in procuring a private room and a fire, I ignited an execrable cigar, (ah, how unlike thy principes, dear S.,) and endeavored to lose myself in the agreeable occupation of castle building while supper was preparing. Alas! my fancy came not at my call. I had lost my power of abstraction—the realities around me were too engrossing. Ere the dying shriek of a majestic rooster had ceased to sound in my ear, his remains were served upon my table, together with a cup or two of very villanous gunpowder tea, and a pitcher of cider, with coarse bread and butter ad libitum. Supper was soon despatched, and in answer to a bell, lightly touched, a vinegar-visaged waiting-maid, of the interesting age of forty-five, entered and removed the scarcely touched viands—the rudis indigestaque moles. I ventured to address her, with a request that I might be supplied with a few books, to enable me to while away the evening. I anticipated a literary feast from the readiness with which she rushed from the room; but she reappeared, bringing only Young's Night Thoughts, (very greasy,) a volume of tales with the catastrophes torn out, a set of plays consisting only of first acts, and an odd number of the Eclectic Magazine. This was sufficiently provoking; but I read a few pages, and tried a second cigar, and made the tour of the apartment, examining a family mourning-piece worked in satin, a genealogical tree done in worsted, and a portrait of the mutton-headed landlord and his snappish wife. I counted the ticks of the clock for half an hour, and was finally reduced to the forlorn expedient of seeing likenesses in the burning embers. When the clock struck nine, I rang for slippers and a guide to my bed room, and the landlord appeared, candle in hand, to usher me to my sleeping apartment. As I followed him up the creaking staircase, and along the dark upper entry, I could not help regretting that fancy was unable to convert him into the seneschal of a baronial mansion, and the room to which I was going a haunted chamber. It seemed as if my surly host had the power of divining what was passing in my mind, for when he had ushered me into the room, and placed the candle on the light stand, he said,—
"I hope you'll sleep comfortable, for there ain't many rats here, sir. And as for the ghost they say frequents this chamber, I believe that's all in my eye, though, to be sure, the window does look out on the burial ground."
"Umph! a comfortable prospect."
"Very, sir; you have a fine view of the squire's new tomb and the poorhouse, with a wing of the jail behind the trees. And I've stuck my second-best hat in that broken pane of glass, and there's a chest of drawers to set against the door; so you'll be warm and free from intrusion. I wish you good night, sir."
All that night I was troubled with strange dreams, peopled by phantoms from the neighboring churchyard; but a bona fide ghost I cannot say I saw. In the morning I rose very early, and took a look from the window, but the prospect was very uninviting. The churchyard was a bleak, desolate place, overgrown with weeds, and studded with slate stones, bounded by a ruinous brick wall, and having an entrance through a dilapidated gateway. One or two melancholy-looking cows were feeding on the rank herbage that sprang from the unctuous soil, spurning many a hic jacet with their cloven hoofs. But afar, in the most distant part of the field, I espied the figure of a man who was busily occupied in digging a grave. There was something within that impelled me to stroll forth and accost him. I dressed, descended, and having ordered breakfast, left the inn, clambered over the ruinous wall, and stood within the precincts of the burial-place. The spot had evidently been used for the purposes of sepulture for a number of years, for the ground rose into numerous hillocks, and I could hardly walk a step without stumbling upon some grassy mound. Even where the perishable gravestones had been shattered by the hand of time, the length of the elevations enabled me to judge of the age of the deceased. This slight swell rose over the remains of some beloved child, who had been committed to the dust with only the simple ceremonies of the Protestant faith, bedewed by the tears of parents, and blessed by the broken voice of farewell affection. This mound, of larger dimension, was heaped above the giant frame of manhood. Some sturdy tiller of the soil, or rough dweller in the forest, perhaps cut off by a sudden casualty, had been laid here in his last leaden sleep—no more to start at the rising beam of the sun, no more to rush to the glorious excitement of the hunt, no more to pant in noonday toil. Over the whole field of the dead there seemed to brood the spirit of desolation. Stern heads, rudely chiselled, from the grave stones, and frightful emblems met the eye at every turn. Here was none of that simple elegance with which modern taste loves to invest the memorials of the departed; no graceful acacias, or nodding elms, or sorrowing willows shed their dews upon the turf—every thing spoke of the bitterness of parting, of the agony of the last hour, of the passing away from earth—nothing of the reunion in heaven!
I passed on to where the grave digger was pursuing his occupation. He answered my morning salutation civilly enough, but continued intent upon his work. He was a man of about fifty years of age, spare, but strong, with gray hair, and sunken cheeks, and certain lines about the mouth which augured a propensity to indulge in dry jest, though the sternness of his gray eye seemed to contradict the tacit assertion.
"An unpleasant morning, sir, to work in the open air," said I.
"He that regardeth the clouds shall not reap," replied the grave digger, still plying his spade. "Death stalks abroad fair day and foul day, and we that follow in his footsteps must prepare for the dead, rain or shine."
"A melancholy occupation."
"A fit one for a moralist. Some would find a pleasure in it. Deacon Giles, I am sure, would willingly be in my place now."
"And why so?"
"This grave is for his wife," replied the grave digger, looking up from his occupation with a dry smile that wrinkled his sallow cheek and distorted his shrunken lips. Perceiving that his merriment was not infectious, he resumed his employment, and that so assiduously, that in a very short time he had hollowed the last resting-place of Deacon Giles's consort. This done, he ascended from the trench with a lightness that surprised me, and walking a few paces from the new-made grave, sat down upon a tombstone, and beckoned me to approach. I did so.
"Young man," said he, "a sexton and a grave digger, if he is one who has a zeal for his calling, becomes something of an historian, amassing many a curious tale and strange legend concerning the people with whom he has to do, living and dead. For a man with a taste for his profession cannot provide for the last repose of his fellows without taking an interest in their story, the manner of their death, and the concern of the relatives who follow their remains so tearfully to the grave."
"Then," replied I, taking a seat beside the sexton, "methinks you could relate some interesting tales."
Again the withering smile that I had before observed passed over the face of the sexton, as he answered,—
"I am no story teller, sir; I deal in fact, not fiction. Yes, yes, I could chronicle some strange events. But of all things I know, there is nothing stranger than the melancholy history of the three brides."
"The three brides?"
"Ay. Do you see three hillocks yonder, side by side? There they sleep, and will till the last trumpet comes wailing and wailing through the heart of these lone hills, with a tone so strange and stirring, that the dead will start from their graves at its first awful note. Then will come the judgment and the retribution. But to my tale. Look there, sir; on yonder hill you may observe a little isolated house, with a straggling fence in front, and a few stunted apple trees on the ascent behind it. It is sadly out of repair now, and the garden is all overgrown with weeds and brambles, and the whole place has a desolate appearance. If the wind were high now, you might hear the old crazy shutters flapping against the sides, and the wind tearing the gray shingles off the roof. Many years ago, there lived in that house an old man and his son, who cultivated the few acres of arable land which belong to it.
"The father was a self-taught man, deeply versed in the mysteries of science, and, as he could tell the name of every flower that blossomed in the wood and grew in the garden, and used to sit up late of nights at his books, or reading the mystic story of the starry heavens, men thought he was crazed or bewitched, and avoided him, and even hated him, as the ignorant ever shun and dread the gifted and enlightened. A few there were, and among others the minister, and lawyer, and physician of the place, who showed some willingness to afford him countenance; but they soon dropped his acquaintance, for they found the old man somewhat reserved and morose, and, moreover, their vanity was wounded by discovering the extent of his knowledge. To the minister he would quote the Fathers and the Scriptures in the original tongues and showed himself well armed with the weapons of polemical controversy. He astonished the lawyer by his profound acquaintance with jurisprudence; and the physician was surprised at the extent of his medical knowledge. So they all deserted him, and the minister, from whom the old man differed in some trifling points of doctrine, spoke very slightingly of him; and by and by all looked upon the self-educated farmer with eyes of aversion. But he little cared for that, for he derived his consolation from loftier resources, and in the untracked paths of science found a pleasure as in the pathless woods! He instructed his son in all his lore—the languages, literature, history, philosophy, science, were unfolded, one by one, to the enthusiastic son of the solitary. Years rolled away, and the old man died. He died when a storm convulsed the face of nature, when the wind howled around his shattered dwelling, and the lightning played above the roof; and though he went to heaven in faith and purity, the vulgar thought and said that the evil one had claimed his own in the thunder and commotion of the elements. I cannot paint to you the grief of the son at his bereavement. He was, for a time, as one distracted. The minister came and muttered a few cold and hollow phrases in his ear, and a few neighbors, impelled by curiosity to see the interior of the old man's dwelling, came to his funeral. With a proud and lofty look the son stood beside the departed in the midst of the band of hypocritical mourners, with a pang at his heart, but a serenity on his brow. He thanked his friends for their kindness, acknowledged their courtesy, and then strode away from the grave to bury his grief in the privacy of his deserted dwelling.
"He found, at first, the solitude of the mansion almost insupportable, and he paced the echoing floors from morning till night, in all the agony of woe and desolation, vainly imploring Heaven for relief. It came to him first in the guise of poetic inspiration. He wrote with a wonderful ease and power. Page after page came from his prolific pen, almost without an effort; and there was a time when he dreamed (vain fool!) of immortality. Some of his productions came before the world. They were praised and circulated, and inquiries were set on foot in the hope of discovering the author. He, wrapped in the veil of impenetrable obscurity, listened to the voice of applause, more delicious because it was obtained by stealth. From the obscurity of yonder lone mansion, and from this remote region, to send forth lays which astonished the world, was, indeed, a triumph to the visionary bard.
"His thirst for fame was gratified, and now he began to yearn for the companionship of some sweet being of the other sex, to share the laurels he had won, to whisper consolation in his ear in moments of despondency, and to supply the void which the death of his old father had occasioned. He would picture to himself the felicity of a refined intercourse with a highly intellectual and beautiful woman, and, as he had chosen for his motto, What has been done may still be done, he did not despair of success. In this village lived three sisters, all beautiful and all accomplished. Their names were Mary, Adelaide, and Madeleine. I am far enough past the age of enthusiasm, but never can I forget the beauty of those young girls. Mary was the youngest, and a fairer-haired, more laughing damsel never danced upon a green. Adelaide, who was a few years older, was dark haired and pensive; but of the three, Madeleine, the eldest, possessed the most fire, spirit, cultivation, and intellectuality. Their father was a man of taste and education, and, being somewhat above vulgar prejudices, permitted the visits of the hero of my story. Still he did not altogether encourage the affection which he found springing up between Mary and the poet. When, however, he found that her affections were engaged, he did not withhold his consent from her marriage, and the recluse bore to his solitary mansion the young bride of his affections. O sir, the house assumed a new appearance within and without. Roses bloomed in the garden, jessamines peeped through its lattices, and the fields about it smiled with the effects of careful cultivation. Lights were seen in the little parlor in the evening, and many a time would the passenger pause by the garden gate to listen to strains of the sweetest music, breathed by choral voices from the cottage. If the mysterious student and his wife were neglected by their neighbors, what cared they? Their endearing and mutual affection made their home a little paradise. But death came to Eden. Mary fell suddenly sick, and, after a few hours' illness, died in the arms of her husband and her sister Madeleine. This was the student's second heavy affliction.
"Days, months, rolled on, and the only solace of the bereaved was to sit with the sisters of the deceased, and talk of the lost one. To Adelaide, at length, he offered his widowed heart. She came to his lone house like the dove, bearing the olive branch of peace and consolation. Their bridal was not one of revelry and mirth, for a sad recollection brooded over the hour. Yet they lived happily; the husband again smiled, and, with a new spring, the roses again blossomed in their garden. But it seemed as if a fatality pursued this singular man. When the rose withered and the leaf fell, in the mellow autumn of the year, Adelaide, too, sickened and died, like her younger sister, in the arms of her husband and of Madeleine.
"Perhaps you will think it strange, young man, that, after all, the wretched survivor stood again at the altar. But he was a mysterious being, whose ways were inscrutable, who, thirsting for domestic bliss, was doomed ever to seek and never to find it. His third bride was Madeleine. I well remember her. She was a beauty, in the true sense of the word. It may seem strange to you to hear the praise of beauty from such lips as mine; but I cannot help expatiating upon hers. She might have sat upon a throne, and the most loyal subject, the proudest peer, would have sworn the blood within her veins had descended from a hundred kings. She was a proud creature, with a tall, commanding form, and raven tresses, that floated, dark and cloud-like, over her shoulders. She was a singularly-gifted woman, and possessed of rare inspiration. She loved the widower for his power and his fame, and she wedded him. They were married in that church. It was on a summer afternoon—I recollect it well. During the ceremony, the blackest cloud I ever saw overspread the heavens like a pall, and, at the moment when the third bride pronounced her vow, a clap of thunder shook the building to the centre. All the females shrieked, but the bride herself made the response with a steady voice, and her eyes glittered with wild fire as she gazed upon her bridegroom. He remarked a kind of incoherence in her expressions as they rode home-ward, which surprised him at the time. Arrived at his house, she shrunk upon the threshold: but this was the timidity of a maiden. When they were alone he clasped her hand—it was as cold as ice! He looked into her face.
"Madeleine," said he, "what means this? your cheeks are as pale as your wedding gown!" The bride uttered a frantic shriek.
"My wedding gown!" exclaimed she; "no, no—this—this is my sister's shroud! The hour for confession has arrived. It is God that impels me to speak. To win you I have lost my soul! Yes—yes—I am a murderess! She smiled upon me in the joyous affection of her young heart—but I gave her the fatal drug! Adelaide twined her white arms about my neck, but I administered the poison! Take me to your arms: I have lost my soul for you, and mine must you be!"
"She spread her long, white arms, and stood like a maniac before him," said the sexton, rising, in the excitement of the moment, and assuming the attitude he described; "and then," continued he, in a hollow voice, "at that moment came the thunder and the flash, and the guilty woman fell dead upon the floor!" The countenance of the narrator expressed all the horror that he felt.
"And the bridegroom," asked I; "the husband of the destroyer and the victims—what became of him?"
"He stands before you!" was the thrilling answer.None 0 Report Embed 1
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