Tales of the Dead/The Storm
——"Of shapes that walk
At dead of night, and clank their chains, and wave
The torch of hell around the murderer's bed."
Pleasures of Imagination.
On the evening of the 12th of June 17—, a joyous party was assembled at Monsieur de Montbrun's château to celebrate the marriage of his nephew, who had, in the morn of that day, led to the altar the long-sought object of his fond attachment. The mansion, which was on this occasion the scene of merriment, was situated in the province of Gascony, at no very great distance from the town of ——.
It was a venerable building, erected during the war of the League, and consequently discovered in its exterior some traces of that species of architecture which endeavoured to unite strength and massiveness with domestic comfort. Situated in a romantic, but thinly peopled district, the family of Monsieur de Montbrun was compelled principally to rely on itself for amusement and society. This family consisted of the chevalier, an old soldier of blunt but hospitable manners; his nephew the bridegroom, whom (having no male children) he had adopted as his son, and Mademoiselle Emily, his only daughter: the latter was amiable, frank, and generous; warm in her attachments, but rather romantic in forming them. Employed in rural sports and occupations, and particularly attached to botany, for which the country around afforded an inexhaustible field, the chevalier and his inmates had not much cultivated the intimacy of the few families which disgust to the world or other motives had planted in this retired spot. Occasional visits exchanged with the nearest of their neighbours sometimes enlivened their small circle; with the greater part of those who lived at a distance, they were scarcely acquainted even by name.
The approaching nuptials, however, of Theodore (which was the name of Monsieur de Montbrun's adopted son) excited considerable conversation in the adjacent district: and the wedding of her cousin, it was determined by Emily, should not pass off unaccompanied by every festivity which the nature of their situation and the joyfulness of the event would allow. On this occasion, therefore, inquiries were made as to all the neighbouring gentry within a considerable distance around; and there were none of the least note neglected in the invitations, which were scattered in all directions. Many persons were consequently present, with whose persons and character the host and his family were unacquainted: some also accepted the summons, who were strangers to them even in name.
Emily was attentive and courteous to all; but to one lady in particular she attached herself during the entertainment with most sedulous regard. Madame de Nunez, the immediate object of Emily's care, had lately settled in the neighbourhood, and had hitherto studied to shun society. It was supposed that she was the widow of a Spanish officer of the Walloon guards, to whom she had been fondly attached; indeed so much so, that, notwithstanding he had been dead several years, the lady never appeared but in the garb of mourning. She had only lately settled in Gascony; but her motives for retiring from Spain and fixing on the French side of the Pyrenees were not known, and but slightly conjectured. Isabella de Nunez was about twenty-eight years of age, tall and well-formed: her countenance was striking, nay even handsome; but a nice physiognomist would have traced in her features evidence of the stronger passions of human nature. He would have seen pride softened by distress; and would have fancied, at times, that the effects of some concealed crime were still evident in her knit brow and retiring eye, when she became the object of marked scrutiny.
She had never before entered the château de Montbrun, and her person had hitherto been unnoticed by Emily; but who, having now seen her, devoted herself with ardour to her new friend. The lady received the attentions of her amiable hostess with grateful but dignified reserve.
The morning had been extremely sultry, and an oppressive sensation in the air, which disordered respiration, threw, as the day closed, an air of gloom over the company, ill suited to the occasion of their meeting. Madame de Nunez appeared more than any one else to feel the effects of the lurid atmosphere; the occasional sparks of gaiety which she had discovered, gradually disappeared; and before the day had entirely shut in, she seemed at times perfectly abstracted, at other times to start with causeless apprehension. In order to divert or dispel this increasing uneasiness, which threatened to destroy all the pleasure of the festival, dancing was proposed; and the enlivening sounds of the music in a short time dissipated the temporary gloom. The dancing had not however long continued, ere the expected storm burst in all its fury on the château: the thunder, with its continued roar, reverberated by the adjoining mountains, caused the utmost alarm in the bosom of the fair visitors; the torrents of rain which fell, might almost be said to swell the waters of the neighbouring Garonne, whilst sheets of lightning, reflected on its broad waves, gave a deeper horror to the pitchy darkness which succeeded. The continuance of the storm gradually wound up the apprehensions of the greater part of the females to horror; and they took refuge in the arched vaults, and long subterranean passages which branched beneath the château, from the vivid glare of the lightning; although unable to shut their ears to the reiterated claps of thunder which threatened to shake the building to its foundations. In this general scene of horror, Isabella alone appeared unappalled. The alternate abstraction and alarm, which before seemed to harass her mind, had now vanished, and had given place to a character of resignation which might almost be considered as bordering on apathy. While the younger females yielded without resistance to the increasing horrors of the tempest, and by frequent shrieks and exclamations of dread bore testimony to the terror excited in their bosoms by the aggravated circumstances of the scene, she suffered no symptom of apprehension to be visible in her now unvarying features. Agitation had yielded to quiet: she sat ostensibly placid; but her apparent inattention was evidently not the effect of tranquillity, but the result of persevering exertion.
The hour was approaching towards midnight; and the storm, instead of blowing over, having increased in violence, the hospitable owner of the mansion proposed to his guests, that they should abandon the idea of returning home through the torrents of rain, which had already deluged the country, and rendered the roads in the vicinity impassable; but should accommodate themselves, with as little difficulty as possible, to the only plan now to be devised,—of making themselves easy during the remainder of this dismal night. Although his mansion was not extensive, yet he proposed (with the aid of temporary couches, and putting the ladies to the inconvenience of sleeping two in each room) to render the party as comfortable as his means would allow; and which would, at all events, be more agreeable than braving abroad the horrors of the tempest.
Reasonable as such a plan was in itself, it was still more strongly recommended by the circumstance, that the carriages which were expected to convey the parties to their respective abodes had not arrived; and from the state of the roads, and the continuance of the still pitiless storm, it seemed visionary to expect them.
The party, therefore, yielded without regret to the offered arrangement, save with one dissenting voice. The fair Spaniard alone positively declined the offered accommodation. Argument in vain was used for a considerable space of time to detain her; she positively insisted on returning home: and would alone in the dark have faced the storm, had not an obstacle which appeared invincible, militated against her resolve; this was too imperious to be resisted—her carriage and servants were not arrived; and from the representation of Monsieur de Montbrun's domestics (some of whom had been detached to examine the condition of the neighbouring roads), it was perfectly clear, that with that part of the district in which she resided, no communication could for several hours take place. Madame de Nunez, therefore, at length yielded to necessity; although the pertinacity of her resistance had already excited much surprise, and called forth innumerable conjectures.
The arrangements between the respective parties were soon made, and the greater part of the ladies gladly retired to seek repose from the harassing events of the day. Emily, who had not relaxed in her marked attention to her interesting friend, warmly pressed her to share her own room, in which a sopha had been prepared as a couch, and to which she herself insisted on retiring, while madame de Nunez should take possession of the bed. The latter, however, again strenuously objected to this plan, asserting, that she should prefer remaining all night in one of the sitting-rooms, with no other companion than a book. She appeared obstinately to adhere to this resolution, until Emily politely, yet positively, declared, that were such the intention of her new friend, she would also join her in the saloon, and pass the time in conversation until the day should break, or until Madame's servants should arrive. This proposition, or rather determination, was received by the frowning Isabella with an air of visible chagrin and disappointment, not altogether polite. She expressed her unwillingness that Mademoiselle should be inconvenienced, with some peevishness; but which, however, soon gave place to her former air of good-breeding.
She now appeared anxious to hurry to her room; and the rest of the party having some time retired, she was escorted thither by the ever-attentive Emily. No sooner had they reached the chamber, than Isabella sunk into a chair; and after struggling for some time in evident emotion for utterance, at length exclaimed:—
"Why, dearest Emily, would you insist on sharing with me the horrors of this night? To me the punishment is a merited one: but to you——"
"What, my dearest madam, do you say?" replied Emily affectionately—"The terrors of the night are over, the thunder appears retiring, and the lightning is less vivid; and see in the west (added she, as she went to the window) there are still some remains of the summer twilight. Do not any longer, then, suffer the apprehension of the storm which has passed over us, to disturb the repose which you will, I hope, so shortly enjoy."
"Talk you of repose!" said Madame de Nunez, in a voice almost choked with agitation—"Know you not, then, that on the anniversary of this horrid night?——but what am I saying!—to you, at present, all this is mystery; too soon your own feelings will add conviction to the terrible experience which six revolving years have afforded me, and which, even now but to think on, harrows up my soul.—But no more—."
Then darting suddenly towards the door, which had hitherto remained a-jar, she closed it with violence; and locking it, withdrew the key, which she placed in her own pocket.—Emily had scarcely time to express her surprise at this action and the apparent distraction which accompanied it, ere Madame de Nunez seized both her hands with more than female strength, and with a maddened voice and eye straining on vacancy, exclaimed:—
"Bear witness, ye powers of terror! that I imposed not this dreadful scene on the female whose oath must now secure her silence."
Then staring wildly on Mademoiselle de Montbrun, she continued:—
"Why, foolish girl, wouldst thou insist on my partaking thy bed? the viper might have coiled in thy bosom; the midnight assassin might have aimed his dagger at thy breast—but the poison of the one would have been less fatal, and the apprehension of instant annihilation from the other would have been less oppressive, than the harrowing scene which thou art doomed this night to witness—Doomed, I say; for all the powers of hell, whose orgies you must behold, cannot release you from the spectacle which you have voluntarily sought."
"To what am I doomed!" cried Emily, whose fears for herself were lessened in the dread she felt for her friend's intellects, which she supposed were suddenly become affected by illness, or from the incidents of the past day.
Isabella, after a silence of several minutes, during which she endeavoured to recover some degree of composure, in a softened but determined voice, said:—
"Think not, my friend, (if I may use that endearing expression to one whose early prospects and happier days I am unwillingly condemned to blast,) that disorder has produced the agitation which, spite of myself, you have witnessed.—Alas! great as have been my sorrows, and heavy as my crime weighs on me, my reason has still preserved its throne: to seek oblivion in idiotcy; to bury the remembrance of my fatal error in temporary derangement; would, I might almost say, be happiness to me. But fate has forbidden such an alleviation, and my impending destiny is not to be guarded against by precaution, cannot be avoided by repentance."
"Nay," said Emily, "exaggerated as your self-condemnation makes the fault to which you allude appear, in religion you may find a solace which could efface crimes of much deeper dye than any with which you can possibly charge yourself."
"Ah! no," replied the fair Spaniard.—"Religion, it is true, holds out her benignant hand to receive the wandering sinner;—she offers to the stranger a home; she welcomes to her bosom the repentant though blood-stained criminal;—but for crimes like mine, what penitence can atone?—But we waste time," added she; "the midnight hour approaches; and ere the clock in the turret first announces that dreaded period, much must be done."
Thus saying, she went into the adjoining oratory, and finding on the little altar at which Emily offered her daily oraisons, an ivory crucifix, she returned with it in her hand; and again seizing and forcibly grasping the hand of her now really alarmed hostess, she exclaimed in a hollow, yet determined voice:—
"Swear, that whatsoever you may this night, this eventful night, be a witness to, not all the apprehensions of hell, not all your hopes of heaven, shall tempt you to reveal, until I am committed to the silent tomb—Swear!"
Emily for a moment hesitated to adopt an oath imposed under circumstances of such an extraordinary nature: but whilst she was debating, Madame de Nunez, more violently grasping her hand, exclaimed, in a voice harsh from agitation:—
"Swear; or dread the event!"
"Swear!" Emily fancied she heard echoed from the oratory. Almost sinking with horror, she faintly repeated the solemn oath, which the frantic female, whose character appeared so perfectly changed, thus dictated to her.
She had no sooner thus solemnly bound herself to silence, than Madame de Nunez's agitation appeared to subside; she replaced the crucifix on the altar, and sinking on her knees before the chair in which Emily, almost void of animation, was seated, she feebly exclaimed:—
"Pardon, dearest Emily, the madness of my conduct; necessity has dictated it towards you; and your wayward fate, and not your suffering friend, is answerable for it. For six long years have I confined to my own bosom the horrors which we this night must jointly witness. On the anniversary of this day—But I dare not yet communicate the dreadful event; some hours hence I may recover composure to relate it: but remember your oath. While I live, the secret is buried in your bosom. You must have remarked my unwillingness to remain in your dwelling; you could not have been inattentive to my repugnance to share your room—too soon you will have a dreadful explanation of the cause. Be not angry with me—I must endeavour to conceal the circumstances which appal my soul: I must still preserve the respect of society, although I have for ever forfeited my own—hence the oath I have imposed on you. But—"
Here further conversation was interrupted by the sound of the turret clock, which began to strike the hour of midnight. It had scarcely finished, ere the slow rolling of a carriage was heard in the paved court-yard; at the noise of which, Madame de Nunez started from the posture in which she had continued at the feet of Emily, and rushed towards the door, which she had previously locked. Emily now heard heavy footsteps ascending the oaken stair-case; and before she could recall her recollection, which so singular a circumstance had bewildered, the door of the room in which they were sitting, spite of its fastening, slowly moved on its hinges; and in the next minute—Emily sunk on the earth in a state of stupefaction.
It is well for the human frame, that when assailed by circumstances too powerful to support, it seeks shelter in oblivion. The mind recoils from the horrors which it cannot meet, and is driven into insensibility.
At an early hour of the ensuing morning Madame de Nunez quitted Monsieur de Montbrun's château, accompanied by her servants, whom the retiring torrents had permitted to await their mistress's commands. She took a hasty farewell of the master of the mansion, and without making any inquiries as to the rest of the party, departed.
At the usual hour of breakfast, Emily did not appear; and her father at length went to her room door, and receiving no answer to his inquiries, went in. Judge his horror, when he discovered his daughter lying on the bed in the clothes she had worn the preceding day, but in a state of apparent insensibility. Immediate medical assistance was procured, and she at length discovered symptoms of returning life; but no sooner had she recovered her recollection, than, looking with horror and affright around her, she again relapsed into a state of inanimation. Repeated cordials being administered, she was again restored to life; but only to become the victim of a brain-fever, which in a few days put a period to her existence. In a short interval of recollection, in the early part of her illness, she confided what we have here related to her father; but conscientiously kept from his knowledge what she was bound by her oath to conceal. The very remembrance of what she had witnessed on that fatal night, hurried her into delirium, and she fell a victim to the force of recollection.
Madame de Nunez did not long survive her; but expired under circumstances of unexampled horror.