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PREFACE TO THE FOURTH EDITION.
you again, under a new, and, I trust, more favourable aspect; beseeching you, in the mean time, in the words of old Rabelais, “to interpret all my sayings and doings in the perfectest sense. Reverence the cheese-like brain that feeds you with all these jolly maggots; and do what lies in you, to keep me always merry. Be frolic now, my lads ! Cheer up your hearts, and joyfully read the rest, with all ease of your body, and comfort of your reins.”
London, May 12. 1836.
It has been observed, and I am apt to believe it is an observation which will generally be found true, that before a terrible truth comes to light, there are certain murmuring whispers fly before it, and prepare the minds of men for the reception of the truth itself.
Within the gloomy precincts of a vault by the feeble light of a candle stuck in a sconce against its walls - and at midnight's witching hour, two figures might be discovered, seated on an old oaken coffin-lid, and wrapped in silence as deep as that of the dead around them. The sepulchre, in which this meeting took place, was of singular construction, and considerable extent. The roof was of solid stone masonry, and rose in a wide semi-circular arch to the height of about seventeen feet, measured from the centre of the ceiling to the ground floor, while the sides were divided by slight partitionwalls, into ranges of low narrow catacombs. The entrance to each cavity was surmounted by an obtusely-pointed arch, resting upon slender granite pillars; and the intervening space was filled up with a variety of tablets, escutcheons, shields and inscriptions, recording the titles and heraldic honours of the departed. There were no doors to these niches; and within,
might be seen piles of coffins, packed one upon another, till the floor groaned with the superincumbent weight of lead. Against one of the pillars, upon a hook, hung a rack of tattered, timeout-of-mind hatchments; and in the centre of the tomb might be seen the sable effigies of Sir Ranulph de Rokewode (surnamed “the Grim ") the builder of the mausoleum, and the founder of the race who slept within its walls. This statue (a master piece sculpture) differed from most monumental carved-work, in that its posture was erect and life-like, not recumbent. Sir Ranulph was represented as sheathed in a complete suit of plate armour, decorated with his emblazoned and gilded surcoat, his arm leaning upon the pummel of a weighty curtal-axe. The attitude was that of stern repose. A conicallyformed helmet rested upon his brow; the beaver was raised, and revealed harsh but commanding features. The golden spur of knighood was fixed upon his heel; and, at his feet, enshrined in a costly sarcophagus of black marble, dug from the same quarry as the statue, rested the mortal remains of one of “the sternest knights to his mortal foe that ever put speare in the rest.”
Streaming in a wavering line upon the roof, the sickly flame of the candle partially fell upon the human figures before alluded to, throwing them into darkest relief, and casting their opaque and fantastical shadows along the ground. An old coffin upon a bier, we have said, served the mysterious twain for a seat. Between them stood a bottle and a glass, evidences that whatever might be the ulterior object of their stealthy communion, the immediate comfort of the creature had not been altogether overlooked. At the feet of one of the personages were laid a mattock, a horn lantern (from which the candle had been removed), a crow-bar, and a bunch of keys. Near to these implements of a vocation which the reader will readily surmise, rested a strange superannuated terrier with a wiry back and frosted muzzle ; a head minus an ear, and a leg wanting a paw.
His master, for such we shall suppose him, was an old man with a lofty forehead, covered with a singularly shaped nightcap, and clothed, as to his lower limbs, with tight, ribbed, grey worsted hose, ascending externally, after a by-gone fashion, considerably above the knee. The old man's elbow rested upon the handle of his spade, his wrist supported his chin, and his grey glassy eyes, glimmering
like marsh-meteors in the candle light, were fixed upon his companion with a glance of searching scrutiny.
The object of his investigation, a much more youthful and interesting person, seemed lost in reverie, and alike insensible to time, place, and the object of the meeting. With both hands grasped round the barrel of a fowling-piece, and his face leaning upon the same support, the features were entirely concealed from view; the light, too, being to the back, and shedding its rays over, rather than upon his person, aided his disguise. Yet, even thus imperfectly defined, the outline of the head, and the proportions of the figure, were eminently striking and symmetrical. Attired in a rough forester's costume, of the mode of 1737, and of the roughest texture and rudest make, his wild garb would have determined his rank as suffi. ciently humble in the scale of society, had not a certain lofti. ness of manner and bold though reckless deportment argued pretensions on the part of the wearer to a more elevated station in life, and contradicted, in a great measure, the impression produced by the homely appearance of his habiliments. A cap of shaggy brown fur, fancifully, but not ungracefully fashioned, covered his head, from beneath which, dropping, in natural clusters, over his neck and shoulders, a cloud of raven hair escaped. Subsequently, when his face was more fully revealed, it proved to be that of a young man, of dark aspect, and grave, melancholy expression of countenance, approaching even to the stern, when at rest; though sufficiently animated and earnest when engaged in conversation, or otherwise excited. His 'features were regular, delicately formed, and might be characterised as singularly handsome, were it not for a want of roundness in the contour of the face, which gave the lineaments a thin, worn look, totally distinct, however, from haggardness or emaciation. The nose was delicate and fine; the nostril especially so; the upper lip was short, curling, graceful, and haughtily expressive. As to complexion, his skin had a truly Spanish warmth and intensity of colouring. His figure when raised was tall and masculine, and though slight, exhibited great personal vigour.
We will now turn to his companion, the old man with the great grey glittering eyes.
Peter Bradley, of Rookwood (comitatû Ebor), where he had exercised the vocation of sexton for the best part of a life already drawn out to the full span ordinarily allotted to mortality, was one of those odd caricatures of humanity, whom it occasionally delighteth our inimitable George Cruikshank to limn. His figure was lean and almost as lank as a skeleton. His bald head reminded one of a bleached skull, allowing for the overhanging and hoary brows. Deep-seated, and sunken within their sockets, his grey orbs gleamed with intolerable lustre. Few could endure his gaze; and, aware of his power, Peter seldom failed to exercise it, He had likewise another habit, which as it savoured of insanity, made him an object of commiseration with some, while it rendered him yet more obnoxious to others. The habit we allude to, was the indulgence of wild screaming laughter at times when all merriment should be checked; and when the exhibition of levity must proceed from utter disregard of human grief and suffering, or from mental alienation.
Wearied with the prolonged silence, Peter at length condescended to speak. His voice was harsh and grating as a rusty hinge.
“Another glass ?" said he, pouring out a modicum of the pale fluid.
His companion shook his head.
“ It will keep out the cold,” continued the sexton, pressing the liquid upon him ; “ and you, who are not so much accustomed as I am to the damps of a vault, may suffer from them. Besides,” added he, sneeringly," it will give you courage!”
His companion answered not. But the flash of his eye resented the implied reproach.
“Nay, never stare at me so hard, Luke," continued the sexton, I doubt neither your courage nor your firmness. But if you won't drink I will. Here's to the rest eternal of Sir Piers Rookwood ! You'll say amen! to that pledge, or you are neither grandson of mine, nor offspring of his loins.” |
Why should I reverence his memory,” answered Luke bitterly, refusing the proffered potion, « who showed no fatherly love for me? He disowned me in life : in death I disown him. Sir Piers Rookwood was no father of mine.”
“He was as certainly your father, as Susan Bradley, your mother, was my daughter,” rejoined the sexton.
“And, surely," cried Luke, impetuously, "you need not boast of the connection ! ”T is not for you, old man, to couple