Returning to Severance's chamber, I said nothing of all this. He was, by an odd coincidence, looking over a portfolio of Fayal sketches made by himself during his late voyage. Among them were a dozen studies of just such capotes as I had seen,--some in profile, completely screening the wearer, others disclosing women's faces, old or young. He seemed to wish to put them away, however, when I came in. Really, the plot seemed to thicken; and it was a little provoking to understand it no better, when all the materials seemed close to one's hands.
A day or two later, I was summoned to Boston. Returning thence by the stage-coach, we drove from Tiverton, the whole length of the island, under one of those wild and wonderful skies which give, better than anything in nature, the effect of a field of battle. The heavens were filled with ten thousand separate masses of cloud, varying in shade from palest gray to iron-black, borne rapidly to and fro by upper and lower currents of opposing wind. They seemed to be charging, retreating, breaking, recombining, with puffs of what seemed smoke, and a few wan sunbeams sometimes striking through for fire. Wherever the eye turned, there appeared some flying fragment not seen before; and yet in an hour this noiseless Antietam grew still, and a settled leaden film overspread the sky, yielding only to some level lines of light where the sun went down. Perhaps our driver was looking toward the sky more than to his own affairs, for, just as all this ended a wheel gave out, and we had to stop in Portsmouth for repairs. By the time we were again in motion, the changing wind had brought up a final thunder-storm, which broke upon us ere we reached our homes. It was rather an uncommon thing, so late in the season; for the lightning, like other brilliant visitors, usually appears in Oldport during only a month or two of every year.
The coach set me down at my own door, so soaked that I might have floated in. I peeped into Severance's room, however, on the way to my own. Strange to say, no one was there; yet some one had evidently been lying on the bed, and on the pillow lay the old book on the Second Sight, open at the very page which had so bewitched him and vexed me. I glanced at it mechanically, and when I came to the meaningless jumble, "In thunder two," a flash flooded the chamber, and a sudden fear struck into my mind. Who knew what insane experiment might have come into that boy's head?
With sudden impulse, I went downstairs, and found the whole house empty, until a stupid old woman, coming in from the wood-house with her apron full of turnips, told me that Severance had been missing since nightfall, after being for a week in bed, dangerously ill, and sometimes slightly delirious. The family had become alarmed,and were out with lanterns, in search of him.
It was safe to say that none of them had more reason to be alarmed than I. It was something, however, to know where to seek him. Meeting two neighboring fishermen, I took them with me. As we approached the well-known wall, the blast blew out our lights, and we could scarcely speak. The lightning had grown less frequent, yet sheets of flame seemed occasionally to break over the dark, square sides of the house, and to send a flickering flame along the ridge-pole and eaves, like a surf of light. A surf of water broke also behind us on the Blue Rocks, sounding as if it pursued our very footsteps; and one of the men whispered hoarsely to me, that a Nantucket brig had parted her cable, and was drifting in shore.
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.
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