There is a certain church in the city of New York which I have
always regarded with peculiar interest, on account of a marriage
there solemnized, under very singular circumstances, in my
grandmother's girlhood. That venerable lady chanced to be a
spectator of the scene, and ever after made it her favorite
narrative. Whether the edifice now standing on the same site be
the identical one to which she referred, I am not antiquarian
enough to know; nor would it be worth while to correct myself,
perhaps, of an agreeable error, by reading the date of its
erection on the tablet over the door. It is a stately church,
surrounded by an inclosure of the loveliest green, within which
appear urns, pillars, obelisks, and other forms of monumental
marble, the tributes of private affection, or more splendid
memorials of historic dust. With such a place, though the tumult
of the city rolls beneath its tower, one would be willing to
connect some legendary interest.

The marriage might be considered as the result of an early
engagement, though there had been two intermediate weddings on
the lady's part, and forty years of celibacy on that of the
gentleman. At sixty-five, Mr. Ellenwood was a shy, but not quite
a secluded man; selfish, like all men who brood over their own
hearts, yet manifesting on rare occasions a vein of generous
sentiment; a scholar throughout life, though always an indolent
one, because his studies had no definite object, either of public
advantage or personal ambition; a gentleman, high bred and
fastidiously delicate, yet sometimes requiring a considerable
relaxation, in his behalf, of the common rules of society. In
truth, there were so many anomalies in his character, and though
shrinking with diseased sensibility from public notice, it had
been his fatality so often to become the topic of the day, by
some wild eccentricity of conduct, that people searched his
lineage for an hereditary taint of insanity. But there was no
need of this. His caprices had their origin in a mind that lacked
the support of an engrossing purpose, and in feelings that preyed
upon themselves for want of other food. If he were mad, it was
the consequence, and not the cause, of an aimless and abortive

The widow was as complete a contrast to her third bridegroom, in
everything but age, as can well be conceived. Compelled to
relinquish her first engagement, she had been united to a man of
twice her own years, to whom she became an exemplary wife, and by
whose death she was left in possession of a splendid fortune. A
southern gentleman, considerably younger than herself, succeeded
to her hand, and carried her to Charleston, where, after many
uncomfortable years, she found herself again a widow. It would
have been singular, if any uncommon delicacy of feeling had
survived through such a life as Mrs. Dabney's; it could not but
be crushed and killed by her early disappointment, the cold duty
of her first marriage, the dislocation of the heart's principles,
consequent on a second union, and the unkindness of her southern
husband, which had inevitably driven her to connect the idea of
his death with that of her comfort. To be brief, she was that
wisest, but unloveliest, variety of woman, a philosopher, bearing
troubles of the heart with equanimity, dispensing with all that
should have been her happiness, and making the best of what
remained. Sage in most matters, the widow was perhaps the more
amiable for the one frailty that made her ridiculous. Being
childless, she could not remain beautiful by proxy, in the person
of a daughter; she therefore refused to grow old and ugly, on any
consideration; she struggled with Time, and held fast her roses
in spite of him, till the venerable thief appeared to have
relinquished the spoil, as not worth the trouble of acquiring it.

The approaching marriage of this woman of the world with such an
unworldly man as Mr. Ellenwood was announced soon after Mrs.
Dabney's return to her native city. Superficial observers, and
deeper ones, seemed to concur in supposing that the lady must
have borne no inactive part in arranging the affair; there were
considerations of expediency which she would be far more likely
to appreciate than Mr. Ellenwood; and there was just the specious
phantom of sentiment and romance in this late union of two early
lovers which sometimes makes a fool of a woman who has lost her
true feelings among the accidents of life. All the wonder was,
how the gentleman, with his lack of worldly wisdom and agonizing
consciousness of ridicule, could have been induced to take a
measure at once so prudent and so laughable. But while people
talked the wedding-day arrived. The ceremony was to be solemnized
according to the Episcopalian forms, and in open church, with a
degree of publicity that attracted many spectators, who occupied
the front seats of the galleries, and the pews near the altar and
along the broad aisle. It had been arranged, or possibly it was
the custom of the day, that the parties should proceed separately
to church. By some accident the bridegroom was a little less
punctual than the widow and her bridal attendants; with whose
arrival, after this tedious, but necessary preface, the action of
our tale may be said to commence.

The clumsy wheels of several old-fashioned coaches were heard,
and the gentlemen and ladies composing the bridal party came
through the church door with the sudden and gladsome effect of a
burst of sunshine. The whole group, except the principal figure,
was made up of youth and gayety. As they streamed up the broad
aisle, while the pews and pillars seemed to brighten on either
side, their steps were as buoyant as if they mistook the church
for a ball-room, and were ready to dance hand in hand to the
altar. So brilliant was the spectacle that few took notice of a
singular phenomenon that had marked its entrance. At the moment
when the bride's foot touched the threshold the bell swung
heavily in the tower above her, and sent forth its deepest knell.
The vibrations died away and returned with prolonged solemnity,
as she entered the body of the church.

"Good heavens! what an omen," whispered a young lady to her

"On my honor," replied the gentleman, "I believe the bell has the
good taste to toll of its own accord. What has she to do with
weddings? If you, dearest Julia, were approaching the altar the
bell would ring out its merriest peal. It has only a funeral
knell for her."

The bride and most of her company had been too much occupied with
the bustle of entrance to hear the first boding stroke of the
bell, or at least to reflect on the singularity of such a welcome
to the altar. They therefore continued to advance with
undiminished gayety. The gorgeous dresses of the time, the
crimson velvet coats, the gold-laced hats, the hoop petticoats,
the silk, satin, brocade, and embroidery, the buckles, canes, and
swords, all displayed to the best advantage on persons suited to
such finery, made the group appear more like a bright-colored
picture than anything real. But by what perversity of taste had
the artist represented his principal figure as so wrinkled and
decayed, while yet he had decked her out in the brightest
splendor of attire, as if the loveliest maiden had suddenly
withered into age, and become a moral to the beautiful around
her! On they went, however, and had glittered along about a third
of the aisle, when another stroke of the bell seemed to fill the
church with a visible gloom, dimming and obscuring the bright
pageant, till it shone forth again as from a mist.

This time the party wavered, stopped, and huddled closer
together, while a slight scream was heard from some of the
ladies, and a confused whispering among the gentlemen. Thus
tossing to and fro, they might have been fancifully compared to a
splendid bunch of flowers, suddenly shaken by a puff of wind,
which threatened to scatter the leaves of an old, brown, withered
rose, on the same stalk with two dewy buds,--such being the
emblem of the widow between her fair young bridemaids. But her
heroism was admirable. She had started with an irrepressible
shudder, as if the stroke of the bell had fallen directly on her
heart; then, recovering herself, while her attendants were yet in
dismay, she took the lead, and paced calmly up the aisle. The
bell continued to swing, strike, and vibrate, with the same
doleful regularity as when a corpse is on its way to the tomb.

"My young friends here have their nerves a little shaken," said
the widow, with a smile, to the clergyman at the altar. "But so
many weddings have been ushered in with the merriest peal of the
bells, and yet turned out unhappily, that I shall hope for better
fortune under such different auspices."

"Madam," answered the rector, in great perplexity, "this strange
occurrence brings to my mind a marriage sermon of the famous
Bishop Taylor, wherein he mingles so many thoughts of mortality
and future woe, that, to speak somewhat after his own rich style,
he seems to hang the bridal chamber in black, and cut the wedding
garment out of a coffin pall. And it has been the custom of
divers nations to infuse something of sadness into their marriage
ceremonies, so to keep death in mind while contracting that
engagement which is life's chiefest business. Thus we may draw a
sad but profitable moral from this funeral knell."

But, though the clergyman might have given his moral even a
keener point, he did not fail to dispatch an attendant to inquire
into the mystery, and stop those sounds, so dismally appropriate
to such a marriage. A brief space elapsed, during which the
silence was broken only by whispers, and a few suppressed
titterings, among the wedding party and the spectators, who,
after the first shock, were disposed to draw an ill-natured
merriment from the affair. The young have less charity for aged
follies than the old for those of youth. The widow's glance was
observed to wander, for an instant, towards a window of the
church, as if searching for the time-worn marble that she had
dedicated to her first husband; then her eyelids dropped over
their faded orbs, and her thoughts were drawn irresistibly to
another grave. Two buried men, with a voice at her ear, and a cry
afar off, were calling her to lie down beside them. Perhaps, with
momentary truth of feeling, she thought how much happier had been
her fate, if, after years of bliss, the bell were now tolling for
her funeral, and she were followed to the grave by the old
affection of her earliest lover, long her husband. But why had
she returned to him, when their cold hearts shrank from each
other's embrace?

Still the death-bell tolled so mournfully, that the sunshine
seemed to fade in the air. A whisper, communicated from those who
stood nearest the windows, now spread through the church; a
hearse, with a train of several coaches, was creeping along the
street, conveying some dead man to the churchyard, while the
bride awaited a living one at the altar. Immediately after, the
footsteps of the bridegroom and his friends were heard at the
door. The widow looked down the aisle, and clinched the arm of
one of her bridemaids in her bony hand with such unconscious
violence, that the fair girl trembled.

"You frighten me, my dear madam!" cried she. "For Heaven's sake,
what is the matter?"

"Nothing, my dear, nothing," said the widow; then, whispering
close to her ear, "There is a foolish fancy that I cannot get rid
of. I am expecting my bridegroom to come into the church, with my
first two husbands for groomsmen!"

"Look, look!" screamed the bridemaid. "What is here? The

As she spoke, a dark procession paced into the church. First came
an old man and women, like chief mourners at a funeral, attired
from head to foot in the deepest black, all but their pale
features and hoary hair; he leaning on a staff, and supporting
her decrepit form with his nerveless arm. Behind appeared
another, and another pair, as aged, as black, and mournful as the
first. As they drew near, the widow recognized in every face some
trait of former friends, long forgotten, but now returning, as if
from their old graves, to warn her to prepare a shroud; or, with
purpose almost as unwelcome, to exhibit their wrinkles and
infirmity, and claim her as their companion by the tokens of her
own decay. Many a merry night had she danced with them, in youth.
And now, in joyless age, she felt that some withered partner
should request her hand, and all unite, in a dance of death, to
the music of the funeral bell.

While these aged mourners were passing up the aisle, it was
observed that, from pew to pew, the spectators shuddered with
irrepressible awe, as some object, hitherto concealed by the
intervening figures, came full in sight. Many turned away their
faces; others kept a fixed and rigid stare; and a young girl
giggled hysterically, and fainted with the laughter on her lips.
When the spectral procession approached the altar, each couple
separated, and slowly diverged, till, in the centre, appeared a
form, that had been worthily ushered in with all this gloomy
pomp, the death knell, and the funeral. It was the bridegroom in
his shroud!

No garb but that of the grave could have befitted such a
deathlike aspect; the eyes, indeed, had the wild gleam of a
sepulchral lamp; all else was fixed in the stern calmness which
old men wear in the coffin. The corpse stood motionless, but
addressed the widow in accents that seemed to melt into the clang
of the bell, which fell heavily on the air while he spoke.

"Come, my bride!" said those pale lips, "the hearse is ready. The
sexton stands waiting for us at the door of the tomb. Let us be
married; and then to our coffins!"

How shall the widow's horror be represented? It gave her the
ghastliness of a dead man's bride. Her youthful friends stood
apart, shuddering at the mourners, the shrouded bridegroom, and
herself; the whole scene expressed, by the strongest imagery, the
vain struggle of the gilded vanities of this world, when opposed
to age, infirmity, sorrow, and death. The awe-struck silence was
first broken by the clergyman.

"Mr. Ellenwood," said he, soothingly, yet with somewhat of
authority, "you are not well. Your mind has been agitated by the
unusual circumstances in which you are placed. The ceremony must
be deferred. As an old friend, let me entreat you to return

"Home! yes, but not without my bride," answered he, in the same
hollow accents. "You deem this mockery; perhaps madness. Had I
bedizened my aged and broken frame with scarlet and
embroidery--had I forced my withered lips to smile at my dead
heart--that might have been mockery, or madness. But now, let
young and old declare, which of us has come hither without a
wedding garment, the bridegroom or the bride!"

He stepped forward at a ghostly pace, and stood beside the widow,
contrasting the awful simplicity of his shroud with the glare and
glitter in which she had arrayed herself for this unhappy scene.
None, that beheld them, could deny the terrible strength of the
moral which his disordered intellect had contrived to draw.

"Cruel! cruel!" groaned the heart-stricken bride.

"Cruel!" repeated he; then, losing his deathlike composure in a
wild bitterness: "Heaven judge which of us has been cruel to the
other! In youth you deprived me of my happiness, my hopes, my
aims; you took away all the substance of my life, and made it a
dream without reality enough even to grieve at--with only a
pervading gloom, through which I walked wearily, and cared not
whither. But after forty years, when I have built my tomb, and
would not give up the thought of resting there--nor not for such
a life as we once pictured--you call me to the altar. At your
summons I am here. But other husbands have enjoyed your youth,
your beauty, your warmth of heart, and all that could be termed
your life. What is there for me but your decay and death? And
therefore I have bidden these funeral friends, and bespoken the
sexton's deepest knell, and am come, in my shroud, to wed you, as
with a burial service, that we may join our hands at the door of
the sepulchre, and enter it together."

It was not frenzy; it was not merely the drunkenness of strong
emotion, in a heart unused to it, that now wrought upon the
bride. The stern lesson of the day had done its work; her
worldliness was gone. She seized the bridegroom's hand.

"Yes!" cried she. "Let us wed, even at the door of the sepulchre!
My life is gone in vanity and emptiness. But at its close there
is one true feeling. It has made me what I was in youth; it makes
me worthy of you. Time is no more for both of us. Let us wed for

With a long and deep regard, the bridegroom looked into her eyes,
while a tear was gathering in his own. How strange that gush of
human feeling from the frozen bosom of a corpse! He wiped away
the tears even with his shroud.

"Beloved of my youth," said he, "I have been wild. The despair of
my whole lifetime had returned at once, and maddened me. Forgive;
and be forgiven. Yes; it is evening with us now; and we have
realized none of our morning dreams of happiness. But let us join
our hands before the altar as lovers whom adverse circumstances
have separated through life, yet who meet again as they are
leaving it, and find their earthly affection changed into
something holy as religion. And what is Time, to the married of

Amid the tears of many, and a swell of exalted sentiment, in
those who felt aright, was solemnized the union of two immortal
souls. The train of withered mourners, the hoary bridegroom in
his shroud, the pale features of the aged bride, and the
death-bell tolling through the whole, till its deep voice
overpowered the marriage words, all marked the funeral of earthly
hopes. But as the ceremony proceeded, the organ, as if stirred by
the sympathies of this impressive scene, poured forth an anthem,
first mingling with the dismal knell, then rising to a loftier
strain, till the soul looked down upon its woe. And when the
awful rite was finished, and with cold hand in cold hand, the
Married of Eternity withdrew, the organ's peal of solemn triumph
drowned the Wedding Knell.

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Czytelnia - treści losowe

Główna Czytelnia Literatura Legendy THE WEDDING KNELL
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