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funerals. Whenever a corpse was borne along the street, in sunshine, rain, or snow, whether a pompous train, of the rich and proud, thronged after it, or few and humble were the mourners, behind them came the lonely woman, in a long, white garment, which the people called her shroud. She took no place among the kindred or the friends, but stood at the door to hear the funeral prayer, and walked in the rear of the procession, as one whose earthly charge it was to haunt the house of mourning, and be the shadow of afffiction, and see that the dead were duly buried. So long had this been her custom, that the inhabitants of the town deemed her a part of every funeral, as much as the coffin-pall, or the very corpse itself, and augured ill of the sinner's destiny, unless the 'Old Maid in the Winding-Sheet' came gliding, like a ghost, behind. Once, it is said, she affrighted a bridal party, with her pale presence, appearing suddenly in the illuminated hall, just as the priest was uniting a false maid to a wealthy man, before her lover had been dead a year.
Evil was the omen to that marriage! Sometimes she stole forth by moonlight, and visited the graves of venerable integrity, and wedded love, and virgin innocence, and every spot where the ashes of a kind and faithful heart were mouldering. Over the hillocks of those favored dead, would she stretch out her arms, with a gesture, as if she were scattering seeds; and many believed that she brought them from the garden of Paradise ; for the graves, which she had visited, were green beneath the snow, and covered with sweet flowers from April to November. Her blessing was better than a holy verse upon the tomb-stone. Thus wore away her long, sad, peaceful, and fantastic life, till few were so old as she, and the people of later generations wondered how the dead had ever been buried, or mourners had endured their grief, without the Old Maid in the Winding-Sheet.'
Still, years went on, and still she followed funerals, and was not yet summoned to her own festival of death. One afternoon, the great street of the town was all alive with business and bustle, though the sun now gilded only the upper half of the church-spire, having left the house-tops and loftiest trees in shadow. The scene was cheerful and animated, in spite of the sombre shade between the high brick buildings. Here were pompous merchants, in white wigs and laced velvet; the bronzed faces of seacaptains ; the foreign garb and air of Spanish creoles ; and the disdainful port of natives of Old England; all contrasted with the rough aspect of one or two back-settlers, negociating sales of timber, from forests where axe had never sounded. Sometimes a lady passed, swelling roundly forth in an embroidered petticoat, balancing her steps in high-heeled shoes, and courtesying, with lofty grace, to the punctilious obeisances of the gentlemen. The life of the town seemed to have its very centre not far from an
old mansion, that stood somewhat back from the pavement, surrounded by neglected grass, with a strange air of loneliness, rather deepened than dispelled by the throng so near it. Its site would have been suitably occupied by a magnificent Exchange, or a brick-block, lettered all over with various signs ; or the large house itself might have made a noble tavern, with the King's Arms' swinging before it, and guests in every chamber, instead of the present solitude. But, owing to some dispute about the right of inheritance, the mansion had been long without a tenant, decaying from year to year, and throwing the stately gloom of its shadow over the busiest part of the town. Such was the scene, and such the time, when a figure, unlike any that have been described, was observed at a distance down the street.
• I espy a strange sail, yonder,' remarked a Liverpool captain ; that woman, in the long white garment !
The sailor seemed much struck by the object, as were several others, who, at the same moment, caught a glimpse of the figure, that had attracted his notice. Almost immediately, the various topics of conversation gave place to speculations, in an under tone, on this unwonted occurrence.
• Can there be a funeral, so late this afternoon?' inquired some.
They looked for the signs of death at every door — the sexton, the hearse, the assemblage of black-clad relatives — all that makes up the woeful pomp of funerals. They raised their eyes, also, to the sun-gilt spire of the church, and wondered that no clang proceeded from its bell, which had always tolled till now, when this figure appeared in the light of day. But none had heard, that a corpse was to be borne to its home that afternoon, nor was there any token of a funeral, except the apparition of the Old Maid in the Winding-Sheet.'
• What may this portend ?' asked each man of his neighbor.
All smiled as they put the question, yet with a certain trouble in their eyes, as if pestilence, or some other wide calamity, were prognosticated by the untimely intrusion, among the living, of one whose presence had always been associated with death and woe.
What a comet is to the earth, was that sad woman to the town. Still she moved on, while the hum of surprise was hushed at her approach, and the proud and the humble stood aside, that her white garment might not wave against them. It was a long, loose robe, of spotless purity. Its wearer appeared very old, pale, emaciated, and feeble, yet glided onward, without the unsteady pace of extreme age. At one point of her course, a little rosy boy burst forth from a door, and ran, with open arms, towards the ghostly woman, seeming to expect a kiss from her bloodless lips. She made a slight pause, fixing her eye upon him with an expression of no earthly sweetness, so that the child
shivered and stood awe-struck, rather than affrighted, while the Old Maid passed on. Perhaps her garment might have been polluted, even by an infant's touch ; perhaps her kiss would have been death to the sweet boy, within the year.
She is but a shadow!'whispered the superstitious. The child
put forth his arms, and could not grasp her robe !' The wonder was increased, when the Old Maid passed beneath the porch of the deserted mansion, ascended the moss-covered steps, lifted the iron knocker, and gave three raps. The people could only conjecture, that some old remembrance, troubling her bewildered brain, had impelled the poor woman hither to visit the friends of her youth ; all gone from their home, long since and forever, unless their ghosts still haunted it -- fit company for the "Old Maid in the Winding-Sheet.' An elderly man approached the steps, and reverently uncovering his gray locks, essayed to explain the matter.
None, Madam,' said he, have dwelt in this house these fifteen years agone — no, not since the death of old Colonel Fenwicke, whose funeral you may remember to have followed. His heirs, being ill-agreed among themselves, have let the mansionhouse go to ruin.'
The Old Maid looked slowly round, with a slight gesture of one hand, and a finger of the other upon her lip, appeared more shadow-like than ever, in the obscurity of the porch. But, again she lifted the hammer, and gave, this time, a single rap. Could it be, that a footstep was now heard, coming down the staircase of the old mansion, which all conceived to have been so long untenanted ? Slowly, feebly, yet heavily, like the pace of an aged and infirm person, the step approached, more distinct on every downward stair, till it reached the portal. The bar fell on the inside ; the door was opened. One upward glance, towards the church-spire, whence the sunshine had just faded, was the last that the people saw of the Old Maid in the Winding-Sheet.'
Who undid the door ?' asked many. This question, owing to the depth of shadow beneath the porch, no one could satisfactorily answer. Two or three aged men, while protesting against an inference, which might be drawn, affirmed that the person within was a negro, and bore a singular resemblance to old Cæsar, formerly a slave in the house, but freed by death some thirty years before.
Her summons has waked up a servant of the old family,' said one, half seriously.
Let us wait here,' replied another. More guests will knock at the door, anon. But, the gate of the grave-yard should be thrown open!'
Twilight had overspread the town, before the crowd began to separate, or the comments on this incident were exhausted. One
after another was wending his way homeward, when a coachno common spectacle in those days — drove slowly into the street. It was an old-fashioned equipage, hanging close to the ground, with arms on the pannels, a footman behind, and a grave, corpulent coachman seated high in front — the whole giving an idea of solemn state and dignity. There was something awful, in the heavy rumbling of the wheels. The coach rolled down the street, till, coming to the gateway of the deserted mansion, it drew up, and the footman sprang to the ground.
Whose grand coach is this ?' asked a very inquisitive body.
The footman made no reply, but ascended the steps of the old house, gave three raps, with the iron hammer, and returned to open the coach-door. An old man, possessed of the heraldic lore so common in that day, examined the shield of arms on the pannel.
' Azure, lion's head erased, between three flower de luces,' said he ; then whispered the name of the family to whom these bearings belonged." The last inheritor of its honors was recently dead, after a long residence amid the splendor of the British court, where his birth and wealth had given him no mean station.
He left no child,' continued the herald, and these arms, being in a lozenge, betoken that the coach appertains to his widow.'
Further disclosures, perhaps, might have been made, had not the speaker suddenly been struck dumb, by the stern eye of an ancient lady, who thrust forth her head from the coach, preparing to descend. As she emerged, the people saw that her dress was magnificent, and her figure dignified, in spite of age and infirmity - a stately ruin, but with a look, at once, of pride and wretchedness. Her strong and rigid features had an awe about them, unlike that of the white Old Maid, but as of something evil. She passed up the steps, leaning on a gold-headed cane ; the door swung open, as she ascended — and the light of a torch glittered on the embroidery of her dress, and gleamed on the pillars of the porch. After a momentary pause — a glance backwards - and then a desperate effort — she went in. The decypherer of the coat of arms had ventured up the lowest step, and shrinking back immediately, pale and tremulous, affirmed that the torch was held by the very image of old Cæsar.
* But, such a hideous grin,' added he, was never seen on the face of mortal man, black or white ! It will haunt me till my dying day.'
Meantime, the coach had wheeled round, with a prodigious clatter on the pavement, and rumbled up the street, disappearing in the twilight, while the ear still tracked its course.
Scarcely was it gone, when the people began to question, whether the coach and attendants, the ancient lady, the spectre of old Cæsar, and the Old Maid herself, were not all a strangely combined
delusion, with some dark purport in its mystery. The whole town was astir, so that, instead of dispersing, the crowd continually increased, and stood gazing up at the windows of the mansion, now silvered by the brightening moon. The elders, glad to indulge the narrative propensity of age, told of the long faded splendor of the family, the entertainments they had given, and the guests, the greatest of the land, and even titled and noble ones from abroad, who had passed beneath that portal. These graphic reminiscences seemed to call up the ghosts of those to whom they referred. So strong was the impression, on some of the more imaginative hearers, that two or three were seized with trembling fits, at one and the same moment, protesting that they had distinctly heard three other raps of the iron knocker.
Impossible !' exclaimed others. "See! The moon shines beneath the porch, and shows every part of it, except in the narrow shade of that pillar. There is no one there!'
Did not the door open ?' whispered one of these fanciful persons.
• Didst thou see it, too ?'' said his companion, in a startled tone.
But the general sentiment was opposed to the idea, that a third visitant had made application at the door of the deserted house. A few, however, adhered to this new marvel, and even declared that a red gleam, like that of a torch, had shone through the great front window, as if the negro were lighting a guest up the staircase. This, too, was pronounced a mere fantasy. But, at once, the whole multitude started, and each man beheld his own terror painted in the faces of all the rest.
What an awful thing is this !' cried they.
A shriek, too fearfully distinct for doubt, had been heard within the mansion, breaking forth suddenly, and succeeded by a deep stillness, as if a heart had burst in giving it utterance. The people knew not whether to fly from the very sight of the house, or to rush trembling in, and search out the strange mystery. Amid their confusion and affright, they were somewhat reassured by the appearance of their clergyman, a venerable patriarch, and equally a saint, who had taught them and their fathers the way to Heaven, for more than the
space of an ordinary life-time. He was a reverend figure, with long, white hair upon his shoulders, a white beard upon his breast, and a back so bent over his staff, that he seemed to be looking downward, continually, as if to choose a proper grave for his weary frame. It was some time, before the good old man, being deaf, and of impaired intellect, could be made to comprehend such portions of the affair, as were comprehensible at all. But, when possessed of the facts, his energies assumed unexpected vigor.
Verily,' said the old gentleman, “it will be fitting that I enter