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"She did so," replied the sexton, shaking off Luke's hold. "And was it to tell me that I had a mother's murder to avenge, that you brought me to the tomb of her destroyer— when he is beyond the reach of my vengeance?"
Luke exhibited so much frantic violence of manner and gesture, that the sexton entertained some little apprehension that his intellects were unsettled by the shock of the intelligence. It was, therefore, in what he intended for a soothing tone that he attempted to solicit his grandson's attention.
"I will hear nothing more," interrupted Luke, and the vaulted chamber rang with his passionate lamentations. "Am I the sport of this mocking fiend?" cried he, "to whom my agony is derision my despair a source of enjoyment-beneath whose withering glance my spirit shrinks—who, with half-expressed insinuations, tortures my soul, awakening fancies that goad me on to dark and desperate deeds? Dead mother! upon thee I call. If in thy grave thou canst hear the cry of thy most wretched son, yearning to avenge thee-answer me, if thou hast the power. Let me have some token of the truth or falsity of these wild suppositions, that I may wrestle against this demon. But no," added he, in accents of despair; no ear listens to me, save his to whom my wretchedness is food for mockery."
"Could the dead hear thee, thy mother might do so,” returned the sexton. "She lies within this space."
Luke staggered back, as if struck by a sudden shot. spoke not, but fell with a violent shock against a pile of coffins, at which he caught for support.
"What have I done!" exclaimed he, recoiling. A thundering crash resounded through the vault. the coffins, dislodged from its position by his fall, tumbled to the ground, and alighting upon its side, split asunder.
"Great heavens! what is this?” cried Luke, as a dead body, clothed in all the hideous apparel of the tomb, rolled forth to his feet.
"It is your mother's corpse," answered the sexton, coldly, "I brought you hither to behold it. But you have anticipated my intentions."
"This my mother?" shrieked Luke, dropping upon his knees by the body, and seizing one of its chilly hands, as it lay upon the floor, with the face upwards.
The sexton took the candle from the sconce. "Can this be death?" shouted Luke. 66 Impossible! Oh God! she stirs-she moves. The light!-quick-I see her stir! This is dreadful!"
"Do not deceive yourself," said the sexton, in a tone which betrayed more emotion than was his wont. ""T is the bewilderment of fancy-she will never stir again."
And he shaded the candle with his hand, so as to throw the light full upon the face of the corpse. It was motionless as that of an image carved in stone. No trace of corruption was visible upon the rigid, yet exquisite tracery of its features. A profuse cloud of raven hair, escaped from its swathements in the fall, hung like a dark veil over the bosom and person of the dead, and presented a startling contrast to the waxlike hue of the skin, and the pallid sere-clothes. Flesh still adhered to the hand, though it mouldered into dust within the gripe of Luke, as he pressed the fingers to his lips. The shroud was disposed like night-gear about her person, and from without its folds a few withered flowers had fallen. A strong aromatic
odour, of a pungent nature, was diffused around; giving evidence that the art by which the ancient Egyptians endeavoured to rescue their kindred from decomposition had been resorted to, to preserve the fleeting charms of the unfortunate Susan Bradley.
A pause of awful silence succeeded, broken only by the convulsive respiration of Luke. The sexton stood by, apparently an indifferent spectator of the scene of horror. His eye wandered from the dead to the living, and gleamed with a peculiar and indefinable expression, half apathy, half abstraction. For one single instant, as he scrutinised the features of his daughter, his.brow, contracted by anger, immediately afterwards was elevated in scorn. But otherwise you would have sought in vain to read the purport of that cold, insensible glance, which dwelt for a brief space on the face of the mother, and settled eventually upon her son. At length the withered flowers attracted his attention. He stooped to pick up one of them.
"Faded as the hand that gathered ye; as the bosom on which ye were strewn!" he murmured. "No sweet smell left — but—faugh!" Holding the dry leaves to the flame of the candle, they were instantly ignited, and the momentary brilliance played like a smile upon the features of the dead.
Peter observed the effect.
"Such was thy life," he exclaimed;
a brief, bright sparkle followed by dark, utter extinction!"
Saying which, he flung the expiring ashes of the floweret from his hand.
THE SKELETON HAND.
Duch. You are very cold.
I fear you are not well after your travel.
Fer. Let her have lights enough.
Duch. What witchcraft doth he practise, that he hath left
A dead hand here?
Duchess of Malfy.
THE Sexton's waning candle now warned him of the progress of time, and having completed his arrangements, he addressed himself to Luke, intimating his intention of departing. But receiving no answer, and remarking no signs of life about his grandson, he began to be apprehensive that he had fallen into a swoon. Drawing near to Luke, he took him gently by the arm. Thus disturbed, Luke groaned aloud.
"I am glad to find you can breathe, if it be only after that melancholy fashion," said the sexton; "but come, I have wasted time enough already. You must indulge your grief elsewhere."
"Leave me," sighed Luke.
"What, here? it were as much as my office is worth. You can return some other night. But go you must, now at least, if you take on thus. I never calculated upon a scene like this, or it had been long ere I brought you hither. So come away; yet, stay; but first lend me a hand to replace the body in the coffin."
"Touch it not," exclaimed Luke; "she shall not rest another hour within these accursed walls. I will bear her hence myself." And sobbing hysterically he relapsed into his former insensibility.
"Poh! this is worse than midsummer madness,” said Peter; "the lad is crazed with grief, and all about a mother who
has been four-and-twenty years in her grave. her out of the way myself."
I will even put
Saying which, he proceeded as noiselessly as possible, to raise the corpse in his arms, and deposited it softly within its former tenement. Carefully as he executed his task, he could not accomplish it without occasioning a slight accident to the fragile frame. Insensible as he was, Luke had not relinquished the hold he maintained of his mother's hand. And when Peter lifted the body, the ligaments, connecting the hand with the arm, were suddenly snapt asunder. It would appear afterwards, that this joint had been tampered with, and partially dislocated. Without, however, entering into further particulars in this place, it may be sufficient to observe, that the hand, detached from the socket at the wrist, remained within the gripe of Luke; while, ignorant of the mischief he had occasioned, the sexton continued his labours unconsciously, until the noise, which he of necessity made, in stamping with his heel upon the plank, recalled his grandson to sensibility. The first thing the latter perceived, upon collecting his faculties, were the skeleton fingers twined within his own.
"What have you done with the body? Why have you left this with me?" demanded he.
66 It was not my intention to have done so," answered the sexton, suspending his occupation. "I have just made fast the lid, but it is easily undone. You had better restore it."
"Never," returned Luke, staring at the bony fragment. "Pshaw! of what advantage is a dead hand? T is an unlucky keepsake, and will lead to mischief. The only use I
ever heard of such a thing being turned to, was in the case of Bow-legged Ben, who was hanged in irons for murder, on Hardchase Heath, on the York road, and whose hand was cut off at the wrist the first night, to make a Hand of Glory, or Dead Man's Candle. Hast never heard what the old song says?" And without awaiting his grandson's response, Peter broke into the following wild strain: :
THE HAND OF GLORY. *
From the corse that hangs on the road-side tree,
(A murderer's corse it needs must be,)
Sever the right hand carefully:
Sever the hand that the deed hath done,
* See the celebrated recipe for the Hand of Glory in "Les Secrets du Petit Albert.
Ere the flesh that clings to the bones be gone;
As an unpolluted shroud.
Next within their chill embrace
The dead man's awful candle place;
Of murderer's fat must that candle be,
(You may scoop it beneath the road-side tree,)
Of wax, and of Lapland Sisame.
Its wick must be twisted of hair of the dead,
By the crow and her brood on the wild waste shed.
Vainly the sleeper may toss and turn,
So long as that magical taper glows.
Life and treasure shall he command,
Who knoweth the charm of the Glorious Hand!
"Peace!" thundered Luke, extending his mother's hand towards the sexton, "What see'st thou ?"
“I see something shine. Hold it nigher the light. Ha! that is strange, truly. How came that ring there?"
"Ask of Sir Piers! ask of her husband!" shouted Luke, with a wild burst of exulting laughter. "Ha! ha! ha! 't is
a wedding ring! And look! the finger is bent. It must have been placed upon it in her life-time. There is no deception in this no trickery — ha!”
"It would seem not; the sinew must have been contracted in life. The tendons are pulled down so tightly, that the ring could not be withdrawn without breaking the finger."
Can any doubt exist ?"
"You are sure that coffin contains her body?" "As sure as I am that this carcass is my own." "The hand 't is hers. "Wherefore should it? accident within this moment. but it must have been so."
It was broken from the arm by
"Then it follows that she was wedded, and I am no. Illegitimate. For your own sake I am glad of it.” 'My heart will burst. Oh! could I but establish the fact of this marriage - her wrongs would be indeed avenged."
*The seven planets, so called by Mercurius Trismegistus.