As we entered the garden, lights gleamed in the shrubbery. To my surprise, it was Paul and his wife, with their two oldest children,--these last being quite delighted with the stir, and showing so much illumination, in the lee of the house, that it was quite a Feast of Lanterns. They seemed a little surprised at meeting us, too; but we might as well have talked from Point Judith to Beaver Tail as to have attempted conversation there. I walked round the building; but a flash of lightning showed nothing on the western piazza save a birch-tree, which lay across, blown down by the storm. I therefore went inside, with Paul's household, leaving the fishermen without.
Never shall I forget that search. As we went from empty room to room, the thunder seemed rolling on the very roof, and the sharp flashes of lightning appeared to put out our lamps and then kindle them again. We traversed the upper regions, mounting by a ladder to the attic; then descended into the cellar and the wine-vault. The thorough bareness of the house, the fact that no bright-eyed mice peeped at us from their holes, no uncouth insects glided on the walls, no flies buzzed in the unwonted lamplight, scarcely a spider slid down his damp and trailing web,--all this seemed to enhance the mystery. The vacancy was more dreary than desertion: it was something old which had never been young. We found ourselves speaking in whispers; the children kept close to their parents; we seemed to be chasing some awful Silence from room to room; and the last apartment, the great drawing-room, we really seemed loath to enter. The less the rest of the house had to show, the more, it seemed, must be concentrated there. Even as we entered, a blast of air from a broken pane extinguished our last light, and it seemed to take many minutes to rekindle it.
As it shone once more, a brilliant lightning-flash also swept through the window, and flickered and flickered, as if it would never have done. The eldest child suddenly screamed, and pointed with her finger, first to one great window and then to its opposite. My eyes instinctively followed the successive directions; and the double glance gave me all I came to seek, and more than all. Outside the western window lay Severance, his white face against the pane, his eyes gazing across and past us,--struck down doubtless by the fallen tree, which lay across the piazza, and hid him from external view. Opposite him, and seen through the eastern window, stood, statue-like, the hooded figure, but with the great capote thrown back, showing a sad, eager, girlish face, with dark eyes, and a good deal of black hair,--one of those faces of peasant beauty such as America never shows,--faces where ignorance is almost raised into refinement by its childlike look. Contrasted with Severance's wild gaze, the countenance wore an expression of pitying forgiveness, almost of calm; yet it told of wasting sorrow and the wreck of a life. Gleaming lustrous beneath the lightning, it had a more mystic look when the long flash had ceased, and the single lantern burned beneath it, like an altar-lamp before a shrine.
"It is Aunt Emilia," exclaimed the little girl; and as she spoke, the father, turning angrily upon her, dashed the light to the ground, and groped his way out without a word of answer. I was too much alarmed about Severance to care for aught else, and quickly made my way to the western piazza, where I found him stunned by the fallen tree,--injured, I feared, internally,--still conscious, but unable to speak.
With the aid of my two companions I got him home, and he was ill for several weeks before he died. During his illness he told me all he had to tell; and though Paul and his family disappeared next day,--perhaps going on board the Nantucket brig, which had narrowly escaped shipwreck,--I afterwards learned all the remaining facts from the only neighbor in whom they had placed confidence. Severance, while convalescing at a country-house in Fayal, had fallen passionately in love with a young peasant-girl, who had broken off her intended marriage for love of him, and had sunk into a half-imbecile melancholy when deserted. She had afterwards come to this country, and joined her sister, Paul's wife. Paul had received her reluctantly, and only on condition that her existence should be concealed. This was the easier, as it was one of her whims to go out only by night, when she had haunted the great house, which, she said, reminded her of her own island, so that she liked to wear thither the capote which had been the pride of her heart at home. On the few occasions when she had caught a glimpse of Severance, he had seemed to her, no doubt, as much a phantom as she seemed to him. On the night of the storm, they had both sought their favorite haunt, unconscious of each other, and the friends of each had followed in alarm.
I got traces of the family afterwards at Nantucket and later at Narragansett, and had reason to think that Paul was employed, one summer, by a farmer on Conanicut; but I was always just too late for them; and the money which Severance left, as his only reparation for poor Emilia, never was paid. The affair was hushed up, and very few, even among the neighbors, knew the tragedy that had passed by them with the storm.
After Severance died, I had that temporary feeling of weakened life which remains after the first friend or the first love passes, and the heart seems to lose its sense of infinity. His father came, and prosed, and measured the windows of the empty house, and calculated angles of reflection, and poured even death and despair into his crucible of commonplace; the mother whined in her feebler way at home; while the only brother, a talkative medical student, tried to pooh-pooh it all, and sent me a letter demonstrating that Emilia was never in America, and that the whole was an hallucination. I cared nothing for his theory; it all seemed like a dream to me, and, as all the actors but myself are gone, it seems so still. The great house is yet unoccupied, and likely to remain so; and he who looks through its western window may still be startled by the weird image of himself. As I lingered round it, to-day, beneath the winter sunlight, the snow drifted pitilessly past its ivied windows, and so hushed my footsteps that I scarce knew which was the phantom, myself or my reflection, and wondered if the medical student would not argue me out of existence next.
This is the end of my story. If I sought for a moral, it would be hard to attach one to a thing so slight. It could only be this, that shadow and substance are always ready to link themselves, in unexpected ways, against the diseased imagination; and that remorse can make the most transparent crystal into a mirror for its sin.
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