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The air as of an ice-house met me crossing the threshold. The door fell-to behind us. The sexton said something to his wife that made her turn toward us.—What a change had passed upon her! It was as if the splendour of her eyes had grown too much for them to hold, and, sinking into her countenance, made it flash with a loveliness like that of Beatrice in the white rose of the redeemed. Life itself, life eternal, immortal, streamed from it, an unbroken lightning. Even her hands shone with a white radiance, every “pearl-shell helmet” gleaming like a moonstone. Her beauty was overpowering; I was glad when she turned it from me.
But the light of the candle reached such a little way, that at first I could see nothing of the place. Presently, however, it fell on something that glimmered, a little raised from the floor. Was it a bed? Could live thing sleep in such a mortal cold? Then surely it was no wonder it should not wake of itself! Beyond that appeared a fainter shine; and then I thought I descried uncertain gleams on every side.
A few paces brought us to the first; it was a human form under a sheet, straight and still—whether of man or woman I could not tell, for the light seemed to avoid the face as we passed.
I soon perceived that we were walking along an aisle of couches, on almost every one of which, with its head to the passage, lay something asleep or dead, covered with a sheet white as snow. My soul grew silent with dread. Through aisle after aisle we went, among couches innumerable. I could see only a few of them at once, but they were on all sides, vanishing, as it seemed, in the infinite.—Was it here lay my choice of a bed? Must I go to sleep among the unwaking, with no one to rouse me? Was this the sexton’s library? were these his books? Truly it was no half-way house, this chamber of the dead!
“One of the cellars I am placed to watch!” remarked Mr. Raven—in a low voice, as if fearing to disturb his silent guests. “Much wine is set here to ripen!—But it is dark for a stranger!” he added.
“The moon is rising; she will soon be here,” said his wife, and her clear voice, low and sweet, sounded of ancient sorrow long bidden adieu.
Even as she spoke the moon looked in at an opening in the wall, and a thousand gleams of white responded to her shine. But not yet could I descry beginning or end of the couches. They stretched away and away, as if for all the disparted world to sleep upon. For along the far receding narrow ways, every couch stood by itself, and on each slept a lonely sleeper. I thought at first their sleep was death, but I soon saw it was something deeper still—a something I did not know.
The moon rose higher, and shone through other openings, but I could never see enough of the place at once to know its shape or character; now it would resemble a long cathedral nave, now a huge barn made into a dwelling of tombs. She looked colder than any moon in the frostiest night of the world, and where she shone direct upon them, cast a bluish, icy gleam on the white sheets and the pallid countenances—but it might be the faces that made the moon so cold!
Of such as I could see, all were alike in the brotherhood of death, all unlike in the character and history recorded upon them. Here lay a man who had died—for although this was not death, I have no other name to give it—in the prime of manly strength; his dark beard seemed to flow like a liberated stream from the glacier of his frozen countenance; his forehead was smooth as polished marble; a shadow of pain lingered about his lips, but only a shadow. On the next couch lay the form of a girl, passing lovely to behold. The sadness left on her face by parting was not yet absorbed in perfect peace, but absolute submission possessed the placid features, which bore no sign of wasting disease, of “killing care or grief of heart:” if pain had been there, it was long charmed asleep, never again to wake. Many were the beautiful that there lay very still—some of them mere children; but I did not see one infant. The most beautiful of all was a lady whose white hair, and that alone, suggested her old when first she fell asleep. On her stately countenance rested—not submission, but a right noble acquiescence, an assurance, firm as the foundations of the universe, that all was as it should be. On some faces lingered the almost obliterated scars of strife, the marrings of hopeless loss, the fading shadows of sorrows that had seemed inconsolable: the aurora of the great morning had not yet quite melted them away; but those faces were few, and every one that bore such brand of pain seemed to plead, “Pardon me: I died only yesterday!” or, “Pardon me: I died but a century ago!” That some had been dead for ages I knew, not merely by their unutterable repose, but by something for which I have neither word nor symbol.
We came at last to three empty couches, immediately beyond which lay the form of a beautiful woman, a little past the prime of life. One of her arms was outside the sheet, and her hand lay with the palm upward, in its centre a dark spot. Next to her was the stalwart figure of a man of middle age. His arm too was outside the sheet, the strong hand almost closed, as if clenched on the grip of a sword. I thought he must be a king who had died fighting for the truth.
“Will you hold the candle nearer, wife?” whispered the sexton, bending down to examine the woman’s hand.
“It heals well,” he murmured to himself; “the nail found in her nothing to hurt!”
At last I ventured to speak.
“Are they not dead?” I asked softly.
“I cannot answer you,” he replied in a subdued voice. “I almost forget what they mean by dead in the old world. If I said a person was dead, my wife would understand one thing, and you would imagine another.—This is but one of my treasure vaults,” he went on, “and all my guests are not laid in vaults: out there on the moor they lie thick as the leaves of a forest after the first blast of your winter—thick, let me say rather, as if the great white rose of heaven had shed its petals over it. All night the moon reads their faces, and smiles.”
“But why leave them in the corrupting moonlight?” I asked.
“Our moon,” he answered, “is not like yours—the old cinder of a burnt-out world; her beams embalm the dead, not corrupt them. You observe that here the sexton lays his dead on the earth; he buries very few under it! In your world he lays huge stones on them, as if to keep them down; I watch for the hour to ring the resurrection-bell, and wake those that are still asleep. Your sexton looks at the clock to know when to ring the dead-alive to church; I hearken for the cock on the spire to crow; ‘Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead!’ ”
I began to conclude that the self-styled sexton was in truth an insane parson: the whole thing was too mad! But how was I to get away from it? I was helpless! In this world of the dead, the raven and his wife were the only living I had yet seen: whither should I turn for help? I was lost in a space larger than imagination; for if here two things, or any parts of them, could occupy the same space, why not twenty or ten thousand?—But I dared not think further in that direction.
“You seem in your dead to see differences beyond my perception!” I ventured to remark.
“None of those you see,” he answered, “are in truth quite dead yet, and some have but just begun to come alive and die. Others had begun to die, that is to come alive, long before they came to us; and when such are indeed dead, that instant they will wake and leave us. Almost every night some rise and go. But I will not say more, for I find my words only mislead you!—This is the couch that has been waiting for you,” he ended, pointing to one of the three.
“Why just this?” I said, beginning to tremble, and anxious by parley to delay.
“For reasons which one day you will be glad to know,” he answered.
“Why not know them now?”
“That also you will know when you wake.”
“But these are all dead, and I am alive!” I objected, shuddering.
“Not much,” rejoined the sexton with a smile, “—not nearly enough! Blessed be the true life that the pauses between its throbs are not death!”
“The place is too cold to let one sleep!” I said.
“Do these find it so?” he returned. “They sleep well—or will soon. Of cold they feel not a breath: it heals their wounds.—Do not be a coward, Mr. Vane. Turn your back on fear, and your face to whatever may come. Give yourself up to the night, and you will rest indeed. Harm will not come to you, but a good you cannot foreknow.”
The sexton and I stood by the side of the couch, his wife, with the candle in her hand, at the foot of it. Her eyes were full of light, but her face was again of a still whiteness; it was no longer radiant.
“Would they have me make of a charnel-house my bed-chamber?” I cried aloud. “I will not. I will lie abroad on the heath; it cannot be colder there!”
“I have just told you that the dead are there also,
said the librarian.
“I will not,” I cried again; and in the compassing dark, the two gleamed out like spectres that waited on the dead; neither answered me; each stood still and sad, and looked at the other.
“Be of good comfort; we watch the flock of the great shepherd,” said the sexton to his wife.
Then he turned to me.
“Didst thou not find the air of the place pure and sweet when thou enteredst it?” he asked.
“Yes; but oh, so cold!” I answered.
“Then know,” he returned, and his voice was stern, “that thou who callest thyself alive, hast brought into this chamber the odours of death, and its air will not be wholesome for the sleepers until thou art gone from it!”
They went farther into the great chamber, and I was left alone in the moonlight with the dead.
I turned to escape.
What a long way I found it back through the dead! At first I was too angry to be afraid, but as I grew calm, the still shapes grew terrible. At last, with loud offence to the gracious silence, I ran, I fled wildly, and, bursting out, flung-to the door behind me. It closed with an awful silence.
I stood in pitch-darkness. Feeling about me, I found a door, opened it, and was aware of the dim light of a lamp. I stood in my library, with the handle of the masked door in my hand.
Had I come to myself out of a vision?—or lost myself by going back to one? Which was the real—what I now saw, or what I had just ceased to see? Could both be real, interpenetrating yet unmingling?
I threw myself on a couch, and fell asleep.
In the library was one small window to the east, through which, at this time of the year, the first rays of the sun shone upon a mirror whence they were reflected on the masked door: when I woke, there they shone, and thither they drew my eyes. With the feeling that behind it must lie the boundless chamber I had left by that door, I sprang to my feet, and opened it. The light, like an eager hound, shot before me into the closet, and pounced upon the gilded edges of a large book.
“What idiot,” I cried, “has put that book in the shelf the wrong way?”
But the gilded edges, reflecting the light a second time, flung it on a nest of drawers in a dark corner, and I saw that one of them was half open.
“More meddling!” I cried, and went to close the drawer.
It contained old papers, and seemed more than full, for it would not close. Taking the topmost one out, I perceived that it was in my father’s writing and of some length. The words on which first my eyes fell, at once made me eager to learn what it contained. I carried it to the library, sat down in one of the western windows, and read what follows.