L_MANTLE

 

1838
TWICE-TOLD TALES
LADY ELEANORE'S MANTLE
by Nathaniel Hawthorne

NOT LONG AFTER Colonel Shute had assumed the government of
Massachusetts Bay, now nearly a hundred and twenty years ago, a
young lady of rank and fortune arrived from England, to claim his
protection as her guardian. He was her distant relative, but the
nearest who had survived the gradual extinction of her family; so that
no more eligible shelter could be found for the rich and high-born
Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe than within the Province House of a
transatlantic colony. The consort of Governor Shute, moreover, had
been as a mother to her childhood, and was now anxious to receive her,
in the hope that a beautiful young woman would be exposed to
infinitely less peril from the primitive society of New England than
amid the artifices and corruptions of a court. If either the
Governor or his lady had especially consulted their own comfort,
they would probably have sought to devolve the responsibility on other
hands; since, with some noble and splendid traits of character, Lady
Eleanore was remarkable for a harsh, unyielding pride, a haughty
consciousness of her hereditary and personal advantages, which made
her almost incapable of control. Judging from many traditionary
anecdotes, this peculiar temper was hardly less than a monomania;
or, if the acts which it inspired were those of a sane person, it
seemed due from Providence that pride so sinful should be followed
by as severe a retribution. That tinge of the marvellous, which is
thrown over so many of these half-forgotten legends, has probably
imparted an additional wildness to the strange story of Lady
Eleanore Rochcliffe.
The ship in which she came passenger had arrived at Newport, whence
Lady Eleanore was conveyed to Boston in the Governor's coach, attended
by a small escort of gentlemen on horseback. The ponderous equipage,
with its four black horses, attracted much notice as it rumbled
through Cornhill, surrounded by the prancing steeds of half a dozen
cavaliers, with swords dangling to their stirrups and pistols at their
holsters. Through the large glass windows of the coach, as it rolled
along, the people could discern the figure of Lady Eleanore, strangely
combining an almost queenly stateliness with the grace and beauty of a
maiden in her teens. A singular tale had gone abroad among the
ladies of the province, that their fair rival was indebted for much of
the irresistible charm of her appearance to a certain article of
dress- an embroidered mantle- which had been wrought by the most
skilful artist in London, and possessed even magical properties of
adornment. On the present occasion, however, she owed nothing to the
witchery of dress, being clad in a riding habit of velvet, which would
have appeared stiff and ungraceful on any other form.
The coachman reined in his four black steeds, and the whole
cavalcade came to a pause in front of the contorted iron balustrade
that fenced the Province House from the public street. It was an
awkward coincidence that the bell of the Old South was just then
tolling for a funeral; so that, instead of a gladsome peal with
which it was customary to announce the arrival of distinguished
strangers, Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe was ushered by a doleful clang, as
if calamity had come embodied in her beautiful person.
"A very great disrespect!" exclaimed Captain Langford, an English
officer, who had recently brought dispatches to Governor Shute. "The
funeral should have been deferred, lest Lady Eleanore's spirits be
affected by such a dismal welcome."
"With your pardon, sir," replied Doctor Clarke, a physician, and
a famous champion of the popular party, "whatever the heralds may
pretend, a dead beggar must have precedence of a living queen. King
Death confers high privileges."
These remarks were interchanged while the speakers waited a passage
through the crowd, which had gathered on each side of the gateway,
leaving an open avenue to the portal of the Province House. A black
slave in livery now leaped from behind the coach, and threw open the
door; while at the same moment Governor Shute descended the flight
of steps from his mansion, to assist Lady Eleanore in alighting. But
the Governor's stately approach was anticipated in a manner that
excited general astonishment. A pale young man, with his black hair
all in disorder, rushed from the throng, and prostrated himself beside
the coach, thus offering his person as a footstool for Lady Eleanore
Rochcliffe to tread upon. She held back an instant, yet with an
expression as if doubting whether the young man were worthy to bear
the weight of her footstep, rather than dissatisfied to receive such
awful reverence from a fellow-mortal.
"Up, sir," said the Governor, sternly, at the same time lifting his
cane over the intruder. "What means the Bedlamite by this freak?"
"Nay," answered Lady Eleanore playfully, but with more scorn than
pity in her tone, "your Excellency shall not strike him. When men seek
only to be trampled upon, it were a pity to deny them a favor so
easily granted- and so well deserved!"
Then, though as lightly as a sunbeam on a cloud, she placed her
foot upon the cowering form, and extended her hand to meet that of the
Governor. There was a brief interval, during which Lady Eleanore
retained this attitude; and never, surely, was there an apter emblem
of aristocracy and hereditary pride trampling on human sympathies
and the kindred of nature, than these two figures presented at that
moment. Yet the spectators were so smitten with her beauty, and so
essential did pride seem to the existence of such a creature, that
they gave a simultaneous acclamation of applause.
"Who is this insolent young fellow?" inquired Captain Langford, who
still remained beside Doctor Clarke. "If he be in his senses, his
impertinence demands the bastinado. If mad, Lady Eleanore should be
secured from further inconvenience, by his confinement."
"His name is Jervase Helwyse," answered the Doctor; "a youth of
no birth or fortune, or other advantages, save the mind and soul
that nature gave him; and being secretary to our colonial agent in
London, it was his misfortune to meet this Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe.
He loved her- and her scorn has driven him mad."
"He was mad so to aspire," observed the English officer.
"It may be so," said Doctor Clarke, frowning as he spoke. "But I
tell you, sir, I could well-nigh doubt the justice of the Heaven above
us if no signal humiliation overtake this lady, who now treads so
haughtily into yonder mansion. She seeks to place herself above the
sympathies of our common nature, which envelops all human souls.
See, if that nature do not assert its claim over her in some mode that
shall bring her level with the lowest!"
"Never!" cried Captain Langford indignantly- "neither in life,
nor when they lay her with her ancestors."
Not many days afterwards the Governor gave a ball in honor of
Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe. The principal gentry of the colony
received invitations, which were distributed to their residences,
far and near, by messengers on horseback, bearing missives sealed with
all the formality of official dispatches. In obedience to the summons,
there was a general gathering of rank, wealth, and beauty; and the
wide door of the Province House had seldom given admittance to more
numerous and honorable guests than on the evening of Lady Eleanore's
ball. Without much extravagance of eulogy, the spectacle might even be
termed splendid; for, according to the fashion of the times, the
ladies shone in rich silks and satins, outspread over
wide-projecting hoops; and the gentlemen glittered in gold embroidery,
laid unsparingly upon the purple, or scarlet, or sky-blue velvet,
which was the material of their coats and waistcoats. The latter
article of dress was of great importance, since it enveloped the
wearer's body nearly to the knees, and was perhaps bedizened with
the amount of his whole year's income, in golden flowers and
foliage. The altered taste of the present day- a taste symbolic of a
deep change in the whole system of society- would look upon almost any
of those gorgeous figures as ridiculous; although that evening the
guests sought their reflections in the pierglasses, and rejoiced to
catch their own glitter amid the glittering crowd. What a pity that
one of the stately mirrors has not preserved a picture of the scene,
which, by the very traits that were so transitory, might have taught
us much that would be worth knowing and remembering!
Would, at least, that either painter or mirror could convey to us
some faint idea of a garment, already noticed in this legend- the Lady
Eleanore's embroidered mantle- which the gossips whispered was
invested with magic properties, so as to lend a new and untried
grace to her figure each time that she put it on! Idle fancy as it is,
this mysterious mantle has thrown an awe around my image of her,
partly from its fabled virtues, and partly because it was the
handiwork of a dying woman, and, perchance, owed the fantastic grace
of its conception to the delirium of approaching death.
After the ceremonial greetings had been paid, Lady Eleanore
Rochcliffe stood apart from the mob of guests, insulating herself
within a small and distinguished circle, to whom she accorded a more
cordial favor than to the general throng. The waxen torches threw
their radiance vividly over the scene, bringing out its brilliant
points in strong relief; but she gazed carelessly, and with now and
then an expression of weariness or scorn, tempered with such
feminine grace that her auditors scarcely perceived the moral
deformity of which it was the utterance. She beheld the spectacle
not with vulgar ridicule, as disdaining to be pleased with the
provincial mockery of a court festival, but with the deeper scorn of
one whose spirit held itself too high to participate in the
enjoyment of other human souls. Whether or no the recollections of
those who saw her that evening were influenced by the strange events
with which she was subsequently connected, so it was that her figure
ever after recurred to them as marked by something wild and unnatural-
although, at the time, the general whisper was of her exceeding
beauty, and of the indescribable charm which her mantle threw around
her. Some close observers, indeed, detected a feverish flush and
alternate paleness of countenance, with a corresponding flow and
revulsion of spirits, and once or twice a painful and helpless
betrayal of lassitude, as if she were on the point of sinking to the
ground. Then, with a nervous shudder, she seemed to arouse her
energies and threw some bright and playful yet half-wicked sarcasm
into the conversation. There was so strange a characteristic in her
manners and sentiments that it astonished every right-minded listener;
till looking in her face, a lurking and incomprehensible glance and
smile perplexed them with doubts both as to her seriousness and
sanity. Gradually, Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe's circle grew smaller,
till only four gentlemen remained in it. These were Captain
Langford, the English officer before mentioned; a Virginian planter,
who had come to Massachusetts on some political errand; a young
Episcopal clergyman, the grandson of a British earl; and, lastly,
the private secretary of Governor Shute, whose obsequiousness had
won a sort of tolerance from Lady Eleanore.
At different periods of the evening the liveried servants of the
Province House passed among the guests, bearing huge trays of
refreshments and French and Spanish wines. Lady Eleanore Roch-
cliffe, who refused to wet her beautiful lips even with a bubble of
Champagne, had sunk back into a large damask chair, apparently
overwearied either with the excitement of the scene or its tedium, and
while, for an instant, she was unconscious of voices, laughter, and
music, a young man stole forward, and knelt down at her feet. He
bore a salver in his hand, on which was a chased silver goblet, filled
to the brim with wine, which he offered as reverentially as to a
crowned queen, or rather with the awful devotion of a priest doing
sacrifice to his idol. Conscious that someone touched her robe, Lady
Eleanore started, and unclosed her eyes upon the pale, wild features
and dishevelled hair of Jervase Helwyse.
"Why do you haunt me thus?" said she, in a languid tone, but with a
kindlier feeling than she ordinarily permitted herself to express.
"They tell me that I have done you harm."
"Heaven knows if that be so," replied the young man solemnly. "But,
Lady Eleanore, in requital of that harm, if such there be, and for
your own earthly and heavenly welfare, I pray you to take one sip of
this holy wine, and then to pass the goblet round among the guests.
And this shall be a symbol that you have not sought to withdraw
yourself from the chain of human sympathies- which whoso would shake
off must keep company with fallen angels."
"Where has this mad fellow stolen that sacramental vessel?"
exclaimed the Episcopal clergyman.
This question drew the notice of the guests to the silver cup,
which was recognized as appertaining to the communion plate of the Old
South Church; and, for aught that could be known, it was brimming over
with the consecrated wine.
"Perhaps it is poisoned," half whispered the Governor's secretary.
"Pour it down the villain's throat!" cried the Virginian fiercely.
"Turn him out of the house!" cried Captain Langford, seizing
Jervase Helwyse so roughly by the shoulder that the sacramental cup
was overturned, and its contents sprinkled upon Lady Eleanore's
mantle. "Whether knave, fool, or Bedlamite, it is intolerable that the
fellow should go at large."
"Pray, gentlemen, do my poor admirer no harm," said Lady
Eleanore, with a faint and weary smile. "Take him out of my sight,
if such be your pleasure; for I can find in my heart to do nothing but
laugh at him; whereas, in all decency and conscience, it would
become me to weep for the mischief I have wrought!"
But while the by-standers were attempting to lead away the
unfortunate young man, he broke from them, and with a wild,
impassioned earnestness, offered a new and equally strange petition to
Lady Eleanore. It was no other than that she should throw off the
mantle, which, while he pressed the silver cup of wine upon her, she
had drawn more closely around her form, so as almost to shroud herself
within it.
"Cast it from you!" exclaimed Jervase Helwyse, clasping his hands
in an agony of entreaty. "It may not yet be too late! Give the
accursed garment to the flames!"
But Lady Eleanore, with a laugh of scorn, drew the rich folds of
the embroidered mantle over her head, in such a fashion as to give a
completely new aspect to her beautiful face, which- half hidden,
half revealed- seemed to belong to some being of mysterious
character and purposes.
Farewell, Jervase Helwyse!" said she. "Keep my image in your
remembrance, as you behold it now."
"Alas, lady!" he replied, in a tone no longer wild, but sad as a
funeral bell. "We must meet shortly, when your face may wear another
aspect- and that shall be the image that must abide within me."
He made no more resistance to the violent efforts of the
gentlemen and servants, who almost dragged him out of the apartment,
and dismissed him roughly from the iron gate of the Province House.
Captain Langford, who had been very active in this affair, was
returning to the presence of Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe, when he
encountered the physician, Doctor Clarke, with whom he had held some
casual talk on the day of her arrival. The Doctor stood apart,
separated from Lady Eleanore by the width of the room, but eying her
with such keen sagacity that Captain Langford involuntarily gave him
credit for the discovery of some deep secret.
"You appear to be smitten, after all, with the charms of this
queenly maiden," said he, hoping thus to draw forth the physician's
hidden knowledge.
"God forbid!" answered Doctor Clarke, with a grave smile; "and if
you be wise you will put up the same prayer for yourself. Wo to
those who shall be smitten by this beautiful Lady Eleanore! But yonder
stands the Governor- and I have a word or two for his private ear.
Good night!"
He accordingly advanced to Governor Shute, and addressed him in
so low a tone that none of the by-standers could catch a word of
what he said, although the sudden change of his Excellency's
hitherto cheerful visage betokened that the communication could be
of no agreeable import. A very few moments afterwards it was announced
to the guests that an unforeseen circumstance rendered it necessary to
put a premature close to the festival.
The ball at the Province House supplied a topic of conversation for
the colonial metropolis for some days after its occurrence, and
might still longer have been the general theme, only that a subject of
all-engrossing interest thrust it, for a time, from the public
recollection. This was the appearance of a dreadful epidemic, which,
in that age and long before and afterwards, was wont to slay its
hundreds and thousands on both sides of the Atlantic. On the
occasion of which we speak, it was distinguished by a peculiar
virulence, insomuch that it has left its traces- its pit-marks, to use
an appropriate figure- on the history of the country, the affairs of
which were thrown into confusion by its ravages. At first, unlike
its ordinary course, the disease seemed to confine itself to the
higher circles of society, selecting its victims from among the proud,
the well-born, and the wealthy, entering unabashed into stately
chambers, and lying down with the slumberers in silken beds. Some of
the most distinguished guests of the Province House- even those whom
the haughty Lady Eleanore Rochcliffe had deemed not unworthy of her
favor- were stricken by this fatal scourge. It was noticed, with an
ungenerous bitterness of feeling, that the four gentlemen- the
Virginian, the British officer, the young clergyman, and the
Governor's secretary- who had been her most devoted attendants on
the evening of the ball, were the foremost on whom the plague stroke
fell. But the disease, pursuing its onward progress, soon ceased to be
exclusively a prerogative of aristocracy. Its red brand was no
longer conferred like a noble's star, or an order of knighthood. It
threaded its way through the narrow and crooked streets, and entered
the low, mean, darksome dwellings, and laid its hand of death upon the
artisans and laboring classes of the town. It compelled rich and
poor to feel themselves brethren then; and stalking to and fro
across the Three Hills, with a fierceness which made it almost a new
pestilence, there was that mighty conqueror- that scourge and horror
of our forefathers- the Small-Pox!
We cannot estimate the affright which this plague inspired of yore,
by contemplating it as the fangless monster of the present day. We
must remember, rather, with what awe we watched the gigantic footsteps
of the Asiatic cholera, striding from shore to shore of the
Atlantic, and marching like destiny upon cities far remote which
flight had already half depopulated. There is no other fear so
horrible and unhumanizing as that which makes man dread to breathe
heaven's vital air lest it be poison, or to grasp the hand of a
brother or friend lest the gripe of the pestilence should clutch
him. Such was the dismay that now followed in the track of the
disease, or ran before it throughout the town. Graves were hastily
dug, and the pestilential relics as hastily covered, because the
dead were enemies of the living, and strove to draw them headlong,
as it were, into their own dismal pit. The public councils were
suspended, as if mortal wisdom might relinquish its devices, now
that an unearthly usurper had found his way into the ruler's
mansion. Had an enemy's fleet been hovering on the coast, or his
armies trampling on our soil, the people would probably have committed
their defence to that same direful conqueror who had wrought their own
calamity, and would permit no interference with his sway. This
conqueror had a symbol of his triumphs. It was a blood-red flag,
that fluttered in the tainted air, over the door of every dwelling
into which the Small-Pox had entered.
Such a banner was long since waving over the portal of the Province
House; for thence, as was proved by tracking its footsteps back, had
all this dreadful mischief issued. It had been traced back to a lady's
luxurious chamber- to the proudest of the proud- to her that was so
delicate, and hardly owned herself of earthly mould- to the haughty
one, who took her stand above human sympathies- to Lady Eleanore!
There remained no room for doubt that the contagion had lurked in that
gorgeous mantle, which threw so strange a grace around her at the
festival. Its fantastic splendor had been conceived in the delirious
brain of a woman on her death-bed, and was the last toil of her
stiffening fingers, which had interwoven fate and misery with its
golden threads. This dark tale, whispered at first, was now bruited
far and wide. The people raved against the Lady Eleanore, and cried
out that her pride and scorn had evoked a fiend, and that, between
them both, this monstrous evil had been born. At times, their rage and
despair took the semblance of grinning mirth; and whenever the red
flag of the pestilence was hoisted over another and yet another
door, they clapped their hands and shouted through the streets, in
bitter mockery: "Behold a new triumph for the Lady Eleanore!"
One day, in the midst of these dismal times, a wild figure
approached the portal of the Province House, and folding his arms,
stood contemplating the scarlet banner which a passing breeze shook
fitfully, as if to fling abroad the contagion that it typified. At
length, climbing one of the pillars by means of the iron balustrade,
he took down the flag and entered the mansion, waving it above his
head. At the foot of the staircase he met the Governor, booted and
spurred, with his cloak drawn around him, evidently on the point of
setting forth upon a journey.
"Wretched lunatic, what do you seek here?" exclaimed Shute,
extending his cane to guard himself from contact. "There is nothing
here but Death. Back- or you will meet him!"
"Death will not touch me, the banner-bearer of the pestilence!"
cried Jervase Helwyse, shaking the red flag aloft. "Death, and the
Pestilence, who wears the aspect of the Lady Eleanore, will walk
through the streets tonight, and I must march before them with this
banner!"
"Why do I waste words on the fellow?" muttered the Governor,
drawing his cloak across his mouth. "What matters his miserable
life, when none of us are sure of twelve hours' breath? On, fool, to
your own destruction!"
He made way for Jervase Helwyse, who immediately ascended the
staircase, but, on the first landing-place, was arrested by the firm
grasp of a hand upon his shoulder. Looking fiercely up, with a
madman's impulse to struggle with and rend asunder his opponent, he
found himself powerless beneath a calm, stern eye, which possessed the
mysterious property of quelling frenzy at its height. The person
whom he had now encountered was the physician, Doctor Clarke, the
duties of whose sad profession had led him to the Province House where
he was an infrequent guest in more prosperous times.
"Young man, what is your purpose?" demanded he.
"I seek the Lady Eleanore," answered Jervase Helwyse, submissively.
"All have fled from her," said the physician. "Why do you seek
her now? I tell you, youth, her nurse fell death-stricken on the
threshold of that fatal chamber. Know ye not, that never came such a
curse to our shores as this lovely Lady Eleanore? that her breath
has filled the air with poison? that she has shaken pestilence and
death upon the land, from the folds of her accursed mantle?"
"Let me look upon her!" rejoined the mad youth, more wildly. "Let
me behold her, in her awful beauty, clad in the regal garments of
the pestilence! She and Death sit on a throne together. Let me kneel
down before them!"
"Poor youth!" said Doctor Clarke; and, moved by a deep sense of
human weakness, a smile of caustic humor curled his lip even then.
"Wilt thou still worship the destroyer and surround her image with
fantasies the more magnificent, the more evil she has wrought? Thus
man doth ever to his tyrants. Approach, then! Madness, as I have
noted, has that good efficacy, that it will guard you from
contagion- and perchance its own cure may be found in yonder chamber."
Ascending another flight of stairs, he threw open a door and signed
to Jervase Helwyse that he should enter. The poor lunatic, it seems
probable, had cherished a delusion that his haughty mistress sat in
state, unharmed herself by the pestilential influence, which, as by
enchantment, she scattered round about her. He dreamed, no doubt, that
her beauty was not dimmed, but brightened into superhuman splendor.
With such anticipations, he stole reverentially to the door at which
the physician stood, but paused upon the threshold gazing fearfully
into the gloom of the darkened chamber.
"Where is the Lady Eleanore?" whispered he.
"Call her," replied the physician.
"Lady Eleanore! Princess! Queen of Death!" cried Jervase Helwyse,
advancing three steps into the chamber. "She is not here! There, on
yonder table, I behold the sparkle of a diamond which once she wore
upon her bosom. There"- and he shuddered- "there hangs her mantle,
on which a dead woman embroidered a spell of dreadful potency. But
where is the Lady Eleanore?"
Something stirred within the silken curtains of a canopied bed; and
a low moan was uttered, which, listening intently, Jervase Helwyse
began to distinguish as a woman's voice, complaining dolefully of
thirst. He fancied, even, that he recognized its tones.
"My throat! my throat is scorched," murmured the voice. "A drop
of water!"
"What thing art thou?" said the brain-stricken youth, drawing
near the bed and tearing asunder its curtains. "Whose voice hast
thou stolen for thy murmurs and miserable petitions, as if Lady
Eleanore could be conscious of mortal infirmity? Fie! Heap of diseased
mortality, why lurkest thou in my lady's chamber?"
"O Jervase Helwyse," said the voice- and as it spoke the figure
contorted itself, struggling to hide its blasted face- "look not now
on the woman you once loved! The curse of Heaven hath stricken me,
because I would not call man my brother, nor woman sister. I wrapped
myself in PRIDE as in a MANTLE, and scorned the sympathies of
nature; and therefore has nature made this wretched body the medium of
a dreadful sympathy. You are avenged- they are all avenged- Nature
is avenged- for I am Eleanore Rochcliffe!"
The malice of his mental disease, the bitterness lurking at the
bottom of his heart, mad as he was, for a blighted and ruined life,
and love that had been paid with cruel scorn, awoke within the
breast of Jervase Helwyse. He shook his finger at the wretched girl,
and the chamber echoed, the curtains of the bed were shaken, with
his outburst of insane merriment.
"Another triumph for the Lady Eleanore!" he cried. "All have been
her victims! Who so worthy to be the final victim as herself?"
Impelled by some new fantasy of his crazed intellect, he snatched
the fatal mantle and rushed from the chamber and the house. That night
a procession passed, by torchlight, through the streets, bearing in
the midst the figure of a woman, enveloped with a richly embroidered
mantle; while in advance stalked Jervase Helwyse, waving the red
flag of the pestilence. Arriving opposite the Province House, the
mob burned the effigy, and a strong wind came and swept away the
ashes. It was said that, from that very hour, the pestilence abated,
as if its sway had some mysterious connection, from the first plague
stroke to the last, with Lady Eleanore's Mantle. A remarkable
uncertainty broods over that unhappy lady's fate. There is a belief,
however, that in a certain chamber of this mansion a female form may
sometimes be duskily discerned, shrinking into the darkest corner
and muffling her face within an embroidered mantle. Supposing the
legend true, can this be other than the once proud Lady Eleanore?


THE END

 

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