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Tales of the Dead


                     ---- "What guilt
Can equal violations of the dead?
The dead how sacred!" ----
{94} The beauty of the evening which succeeded to a very sultry day tempted colonel Kielholm to sit, surrounded by his little family, on the stone bench placed before the door of the noble mansion he had recently purchased. In order to become acquainted by degrees with his new tenants, he took pleasure in questioning on their occupations and conditions the greater part of those who passed by; he alleviated their little sufferings by his advice as well as by his bounty. His family enjoyed particular pleasure in seeing the little inn situated in front of the château, which, instead of presenting a disgusting object, as when the late owner lived there, became each succeeding day better and more orderly. Their pleasure was heightened from the circumstance that the new landlord, who had been many {95} years a servant in the family, was loud in praises of its amended condition, and delighted himself in his new calling, with the idea of the happy prospects it held forth to himself, his wife, and children.

Formerly, though the road was greatly frequented, nobody ventured to pass a night at this inn; but now each day there was a succession of travellers; carriages were constantly seen at the door or in the court-yard; and the air of general satisfaction of each party as they proceeded on their route, incontestably proved to the landlord, (who always, hat in hand, was at the door of their carriages as they drove off,) that his efforts to give the various travellers satisfaction were completely successful.

A moving scene of this nature had just disappeared, which furnished conversation for the moment, when a whimsical equipage, which arrived from another quarter, attracted the attention of the colonel and his family. A long carriage, loaded with trunks and all sorts of luggage, and drawn by two horses, whose form and colour presented the most grotesque contrast imaginable, but which in point of meagreness were an excellent match, was succeeded by a second long and large vehicle, which they had, most probably at the expense of the adjacent forest, converted into a travelling thicket. The four steeds which drew it, did {96} not in any respect make a better appearance than the two preceding. But the colonel and his family were still more struck by the individuals who filled this second carriage: it was a strange medley of children and grown persons, closely wedged together; but not one of their countenances bore the slightest mark of similarity of ideas. Discontent, aversion, and hatred, were legible in the face of each of these sunburnt strangers. It was not a family, but a collection of individuals which fear or necessity kept together without uniting.

The colonel's penetrating eye led him to discover thus much, though the distance was considerable. He at length saw descend from the back part of the carriage a man of better appearance than the others. At something which he said, the whole troop turned their eyes towards the inn; they assumed an air of greater content, and appeared a little better satisfied.

The first carriage had already stopped at the door of the inn, while the second was passing the château; and the extremely humble salutations from the passengers in the latter, seemed to claim the goodwill of the colonel and his family.

The second carriage had scarcely stopped, ere the troop were out of it, each appearing anxious to quit those next to whom they had been sitting with all possible speed. The spruce and agile manner {97} in which they leapt out of the vehicle, left no doubt on the mind what their profession was, -- they could be none other than rope-dancers.

The colonel remarked, that "notwithstanding the humble salutations they had made, he did not think they would exhibit in these parts; but according to appearances they would proceed to the capital with all possible dispatch; as it was hardly to be expected that they would be delayed a single day, by the very trivial profit to be expected from exhibiting in a mere country village."

"We have," said he, "seen the worst side of these gentry, without the probability of ascertaining whether they have any thing to recommend them to our notice."

His wife was on the point of expressing her dislike to all those tricks which endanger the neck, when the person whom they had observed as being superior to the rest, advanced towards them, and after making a low bow, asked permission to remain there a few days. The colonel was unable to refuse this request, as he shewed him a passport properly signed.

"I beg you," replied the colonel, "to declare most positively to your company, that every equivocal action is punished in my villages; as I am anxious to avoid all possibility of quarrels."

"Do not in the least alarm yourself, Monsieur; {98} an extremely severe discipline is kept up in my troop, which has in some respects the effect of a secret police among ourselves: all can answer for one, and one can answer for all. Each is bound to communicate any misconduct on the part of another to me, and is always rewarded for such communication; but, on the contrary, if he omits so to do, he is severely punished."

The colonel's lady could not conceal her aversion to such a barbarous regulation; which the stranger perceiving, shrugged his shoulders.

"We must all accommodate our ideas to our condition. I have found, that if persons of this stamp are not so treated, there is no possibility of governing them. And you may the more confidently rely on my vigilance, as I had the happiness of being born in this place, and in consequence feel a double obligation: first, to the place of my birth; secondly, to his worship."

"Were you born here?" demanded the colonel's wife with surprise.

"Yes, my lady; my father was Schurster the schoolmaster, who died lately. But I call myself Calzolaro, finding that my profession succeeds better under an Italian than a German name."

This explanation redoubled the interest the colonel and his lady already felt for this man, who appeared to have received a tolerable education. {99} They knew that the schoolmaster, whose profession had been pretty lucrative, owing to the numerous population of the village, had died worth some considerable property; but that he had named a distant female relation as his sole heiress, leaving his only son an extremely scanty pittance.

"My father, continued Calzolaro, "did not behave to me as he ought: and I cannot but think I should be justified in availing myself of some important informalities in his will, and endeavouring to set it aside, which is my present intention. But excuse, I pray you, my having tired your patience with relations to which the conversation has involuntarily given rise. I have still one more request to make: Permit me to return you my best thanks for your gracious condescension, and to shew you some of the exercises for which my troop is famous."

The colonel acceded to Calzolaro's request, and a day was fixed for the performance.

Calzolaro went that very evening to the village pastor, and communicated to him his intentions relative to his father's will. The worthy minister condemned such procedure, and endeavoured to convince Calzolaro that his father's anger was just. "Picture to yourself, young man," said he, " a father who has grown old in an honest profession, and who rejoices in having a son to whom he can leave it: added to which, this son has great talents, a good {100} understanding, and is well-disposed. It was natural that the father should use every possible exertion to obtain for this son his own situation at his death. The son is in truth nominated to succeed him. The father, thinking himself secure from misfortune, feels quite happy. It was at this period that the son, enticed by hair-brained companions, gave up a certain and respectable, though not very brilliant provision. My dear Schurster, if, when shaking off the salutary yoke, and quitting your venerable father, to ramble over the world, you could lightly forget the misery it would occasion him, you ought at least in the present instance to behave differently; or, in plain terms, I shall say you are a good-for-nothing fellow. Did not your father, even after this, do all he could to reclaim you? but you were deaf to his remonstrances."

"Because the connexion which I had formed imposed obligations on me, from which I could not free myself, as from a garment of which one is tired. For had I then been my own master, as I now am -- "

"Here let us stop, if you please: I have only one request to make of you. You ought, from respect to your father's memory, not to dispute his will."

This conversation and the venerable air of the pastor had a little shaken Calzolaro's resolutions: {101} but the next day they returned with double force; for he heard several persons say, that shortly before his death, his father was heard to speak of him with great bitterness.

This discourse rendered him so indignant, that he would not even accede to a proposal of accommodation with the heiress, made to him by the pastor.

The colonel tried equally, but without success, to become a mediator, and at length determined to let the matter take its course.

He however assisted at the rehearsals made by the troop; and took so much pleasure in the performances prepared for the amusement of him and his family by Calzolaro, that he engaged him to act again, and invited several of his neighbours to witness them.

Calzolaro said to him on this occasion: "You have as yet seen very trifling proofs of our abilities. But do not fancy that I am an idle spectator, and merely stand by to criticize: -- I, as well as each individual of my troop, have a sphere of action; and I reserve myself to give you, before we take our leave, some entertaining experiments in electricity and magnetism."

The colonel then told him, that he had recently seen in the capital a man who exhibited experiments of that sort, which had greatly delighted him; {102} and above all, he had been singularly astonished by his powers of ventriloquism.

"It is precisely in that particular point," replied Calzolaro, [sic: no open quotation mark here] that I think myself equal to any one, be they whom they may."

"I am very glad of it," answered the colonel. "But what would produce the most astonishing effect on those who have never heard a ventriloquist, would be a dialogue between the actor and a death's head : -- the man of whom I made mention gave us one."

"If you command it, I can undertake it."

"Delightful!" exclaimed the colonel. And Calzolaro having given some unequivocal proofs of his powers as a ventriloquist, the colonel added: "The horror of the scene must be augmented by every possible means: for instance, we must hang the room with black; the lights must be extinguished; we must fix on midnight. It will be a species of phantasmagoria dessert after supper; an unexpected spectacle. We must contrive to throw the audience into a cold perspiration, in order that when the explanation takes place they may have ample reason to laugh at their fears. For if all succeeds, no one will be exempt from a certain degree of terror."

Calzolaro entered into the project, and promised that nothing should be neglected to make it {103} successful. -- They unfurnished a closet, and hung it with black.

The colonel's wife was the only one admitted to their confidence, as they could rely on her discretion. Her husband had even a little altercation on the subject with her. She wished, that for the ventriloquist scene they should use the model of a head in plaister, which her son used to draw from; whereas the colonel maintained that they must have a real skull: "Otherwise," said he, "the spectators' illusion will speedily be at an end; but after they have heard the death's head speak, we will cause it to be handed round, in order to convince them that it is in truth but a skull."

"And where can we procure this skull?" asked the colonel's wife.

"The sexton will undertake to provide us with it."

"And whose corpse will you thus disturb, for a frivolous amusement?"

"How sentimental you are!" replied Kielholm, who did not consider the subject in so serious a light: "We may easily see you are not accustomed to the field of battle, where no further respect is paid to the repose of the dead, than suits the convenience of the labourer in the fields where they are buried."

"God preserve me from such a spectacle!" exclaimed {104} the colonel's lady in quitting them, when she perceived her husband was insensible to her representations.

According to the orders which he received, the sexton one night brought a skull in good preservation.

The morning of the day destined for the representation, Calzolaro went into the adjacent forest to rehearse the dialogue which he was to have with the death's head. He considered in what way to place the head, so as to avoid all suspicion of the answers given by it being uttered by a person concealed. In the mean while the pastor arrived at the spot from a neighbouring hamlet, where he had peen called to attend a dying person: and believing that the interposition of Providence was visible in this accidental meeting, the good man stopped, in order once again to exhort Calzolaro to agree to an accommodation with the heiress.

"I yesterday," said he, "received a letter from her, in which she declares that, rather than any disrespect should be paid to your father's last will and testament, she will give up to you half the inheritance to which she is thereby entitled. Ought you not to prefer this to a process at law, the issue of which is doubtful, and which at all events will never do you credit?"

Calzolaro persisted in declaring that the law {105} should decide between him and the testator --. The poor young man was not in a state to see in a proper point of view his father's conduct towards him. -- The pastor, finding all his representations and entreaties fruitless, left him. Calzolaro proceeded slowly to the inn, to assign to each of his band their particular part. He told them that he should not be with them; but notwithstanding he should have an eye over their conduct. He was not willing to appear as the manager of these mountebanks, to the party assembled at the colonel's, thinking that if he appeared for the first time in the midnight scene, as an entire stranger, it would add still more to the marvellous.

The tumbler's tricks and rope-dancing were performed to admiration. And those of the spectators whose constant residence in the country prevented their having witnessed similar feats, were the most inclined to admire and praise the agility of the troop. The little children in particular applauded. The compassion excited by their unhappy destiny, mingled with the approbation bestowed on them; and the ladies were subjects of envy, in giving birth to the satisfaction depicted in the countenances of these little wretches by their liberal donations.

The agility of the troop formed the subject of general conversation the whole afternoon. They {106} were even speaking in their praise after supper, -- when the master of the house said to the company assembled:

"I am rejoiced, my dear friends, to see the pleasure you have received from the little spectacle that I have been enabled to give you. My joy is so much the greater, since I find you doubting the possibility of things which are very natural; for I have it in my power to submit for your examination something of a very incomprehensible nature. At this very moment I have in my house a person who entertains a most singular intercourse with the world of spirits, and who can compel the dead to answer his questions."

"O!" exclaimed a lady smiling, "don't terrify us."

"You jest now," replied the colonel; "but I venture to affirm your mirth will be a little changed when the scene takes place."

"I accept the challenge," answered the incredulous fair one. All the party was of her opinion, and declared themselves so openly and so loudly against the truth of these terrific scenes, that the colonel began to be really apprehensive for the effects likely to be produced by those he had prepared. He would have even relinquished his project, if his guests, one and all, had not intreated him to the contrary. They even went further: they besought {107} him not long to delay the wonderful things he promised. But the colonel, keeping his own counsel, feigned ignorance that they were laughing at him; and with a grave air declared that the experiment could not take place till midnight.

The clock at length struck twelve. The colonel gave his servants orders to place chairs facing the door of a closet which had been hitherto kept shut: he invited the company to sit down, and gave orders for all the lights to be put out. While these preparations were making, he thus addressed the company:

"I entreat you, my friends, to abstain from all idle curiosity." The grave and solemn tone in which he uttered these words made a deep impression on the party, whose incredulity was not a little lessened by the striking of the clock, and the putting out the lights one after the other. Presently they heard from the closet facing them the hoarse and singular sounds by which it is pretended spirits are conjured up; and which were interrupted at intervals by loud strokes of a hammer. All on a sudden the door of the closet opened: and as by slow degrees the cloud of incense which filled it evaporated, they gradually discovered the black trappings with which it was hung, and an altar in the middle also hung with black drapery. On this altar was placed a skull,

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