THE ANCESTRESS; OR, FAMILY PRIDE.

FROM THE SWEDISH OF THE LATE BARONESS KNORRING.



I.

Adelgunda was one of the most beautiful creatures ever moulded by the great Master's hand, and one on whom He might deign to look with the same paternal complacency as Pygmalion looked on his Galathea.

Adelgunda was also as the apple of their eye to her father and mother; but not the less did they bring her up with the utmost strictness and severity, in the awful loftiness of their aristocratic principles, which made no allowance for a single error, a single imperfection, a single weakness even, among any who belonged to them. Everyone was to be super-excellent, and supremely high-bred like their ancestors; for their ancestors had only virtues, their failings being entombed with their bodies. The slightest infringement of the stately decorum, the formal propriety--and, to the honour of their ancestors we must add--the rectitude, the loyal and chivalric conduct of these worthies, called forth as unmerciful punishment as a heinous fault. And Adelgunda, from her earliest infancy, learned to form grand ideas about her noble, ancient, and opulent family; it was impressed on her mind that she would be very degenerate indeed if she did not resemble all those long departed, and now mouldering dames and damsels, whose portraits hung in long rows in the great picture-gallery, as a large old-fashioned apartment was called, which, in spite of accidental fires, of repairs and renovations in the old baronial castle, had preserved unaltered its antique appearance since the middle of the sixteenth century.

In her infancy, Adelgunda had often been taken into this venerable saloon, and, counting with her five small fingers, she could repeat the names of all those haughty-looking, long-bearded cavaliers, equipped in heavy armour, or these stiff, richly-dressed nobles, most of them decorated with jewelled orders, or other tokens of a high worldly position; and these grand-looking ladies, encased in whalebone and stiff corsets, with towering powdered heads and magnificent jewellery, evincing the wealth of the family. These ladies and gentlemen hung, as has been said, in straight rows on each side of the long, narrow, dark, oak-paneled hall; and they were all half-length portraits in oval or almost square frames, the gilding of which had long since faded into a sort of a brownish-yellow cinnamon tint. But at the end of the hall, between two deep Gothic windows, with small old-fashioned panes of glass, there hung alone in state the great ancestress, or founder of the family--a tall, dark, stern-looking woman, whose countenance was grave, austere, and almost menacing, though the features, when narrowly examined, were regular and beautiful.

In contrast to the half-length portraits around, this picture was almost colossal in size; and the noble lady it represented, who in Roman Catholic times had ended her days as the Abbess of a convent, stood there so stately and so stiff in the close black garb, with the unbecoming white linen band across her forehead, and with one hand, in which she held a crucifix, resting on a dark-looking stand, on which a missal, a skull, and a rosary, lay near each other, the other hand hung carelessly down by her side, and almost reached the lower portion of the picture-frame, which seemed considerably darker and more time-worn than all the rest. This picture was painted on thick wood, or on canvas stretched on wood, it was not certain which, but everyone knew that it was as heavy as lead--and so it proved to be.

The likeness of the patriarch of the family--of the father of the race--painted to correspond in size and everything else to that of the high-born lady above mentioned, had in former days hung also in this saloon, but had been destroyed in a fire which had taken place between the years 1740 and 1750, so that the stern imperious-looking dame now occupied the place of honour alone.

Her parents had never omitted, when they accompanied Adelgunda into the picture gallery, to take her up first to one, then to another of the noble ladies whose lineaments adorned the walls, saying, 'How fortunate for you if you could be as good as this ancestress of yours was--as clever as that one--as beautiful as she was--as dutiful and affectionate as yon lady!' Adelgunda would fix her eyes on each by turns, and every time she looked at them her desire to resemble them increased. But the great gloomy portrait of the tall dark lady always awakened a thrill of terror in the little girl's mind. This was partly owing to the tales with which the servants frightened her about this harsh, awful-looking abbess, partly to her being obliged, whenever she was naughty, to go into the sombre apartment where the picture was, and, curtseying before it, to beg pardon of the stern, threatening figure.

With her tearful looks fixed upon it, she had often fancied that the eyes of the portrait moved; but it was a still greater trial to poor Adelgunda, when she had been guilty of some great offence, to be condemned, as a punishment, to stand for a quarter of an hour, or half-an-hour, under the dreaded portrait with her back to it.

There was a tradition in the family that many, many years back, during the lifetime of one of the more ancient lords of the castle, a little girl, a member of the race, who was undergoing a similar punishment, distinctly felt the terrible lady's hand, which hung unemployed by her side, stretch over the picture-frame and seize roughly hold of her hair. The recollection of that tradition was martyrdom to Adelgunda when this most dreaded penance was inflicted on her; and on one occasion, when her conscience was not of the clearest, and she had cried herself almost into a fever from fright, she fancied that she actually felt a grasp at her little golden tresses.

It is easy to imagine how anxious, in consequence of all this, Adelgunda was to avoid committing any faults, and with what terror the picture inspired her. And even in riper years, when she began to lay aside her childish dress and childish ideas, and when reason told her that a painted figure could have no more power or influence than any other inanimate object, she still looked with a certain degree of awe upon the portrait of her frowning ancestress, especially when her conscience told her that she had been guilty of any slight indiscretion; while, on the contrary, she felt some pleasure at gazing on the other family pictures, which all seemed to smile upon her.

But years and time wore on, and the aristocratic bones of Adelgunda's proud, high-born parents were laid in the dust to mingle with the honoured remains of the old stock. She was then still in her minority, and found a new home with a kind aunt, who had resided too short a time under the same roof with the ancestral portraits, and in the place which had been the cradle of their race, to have imbibed their exaggerated family pride.

The estate, which was entailed, with everything belonging to it, including the much-prized portrait, passed in trust, for future generations, to Adelgunda's only brother, of whom we purposely have not spoken, that we might not be obliged to give an account of all the exaggerated ideas of the consequence of his family which his father and mother had diligently and zealously laboured to imprint on the mind of their son--the only male scion of that ancient house, which was now threatened with speedy extinction--he who, after them, was alone to represent the glory of their time-honoured ancestry. What precepts and exhortations he, the only son and last hope, received under his progenitor's portrait--what deference and devotion were inculcated to the name of the haughty-looking abbess, whose severe virtue and pious deeds were held to reflect honour on her descendants--what aristocratic ideas and exclusive principles were there engrafted on his soul, we will not stop to relate--they would be incomprehensible to many, and do not require to be dwelt on in our short tale.

In the aunt's cheerful, hospitable, pleasant, light modern villa quite another tone prevailed, and quite another mode of life from that within the solid walls of the old baronial castle or under its gloomy roof. At Adelgunda's age new impressions are soon received, new associations and new ideas are welcomed with avidity, and seldom fail to influence the mind. Adelgunda--truth obliges us to confess--soon forgot a very stringent and important paragraph in the paternal and maternal lectures--forgot the faithful portraits of the defunct females of her noble house, and even the threatening glance--the dark eye that shone from beneath the white linen fillet of the haughty abbess--forgot them all amidst new-born and overflowing happiness in the arms of an adored and adoring husband, a young naval officer, rich in all nature's brightest gifts, and standing high in the opinion of the world, but on whom the great ancestress would certainly never have permitted her hand to be bestowed, had she known of the matter; for his patent of nobility was not mouldy from age, was not even made out, and still worse, was not likely ever to be drawn up, because he did not feel the slightest wish ever to possess one.

Adelgunda, nevertheless, felt unspeakably happy, and her noble brother, to whom the family mode of thinking had descended as an heirloom in conjunction with the entailed property, winked at the plebeian match--partly because he well knew that Adelgunda's very limited portion would never tempt any among the needy and impoverished of his own class to lay their hearts at her feet--partly because it was the preservation of the family name and tree in his own person that lay nearest to his heart, not the offshoots from the female line--and partly that, though he was a proud man, and unflinching in his aristocratical notions, he had a kind heart, was fondly attached to his sister, rejoiced in her happiness, and was well aware how much superior in character his estimable brother-in-law was to the generality of the young men of the day.

But for himself, this brother and lord of the castle sought a spouse who should entwine no vulgar burgher twig around the fair branches of his genealogical tree, but one who counted as many generations as other good qualities; for ancient lineage is not apt, like wealth, to corrupt the heart, and Adelgunda's sister-in-law was truly an amiable lady.

Again the lordly halls of the ancient castle became the abode of domestic happiness; and it was admitted that it could not be otherwise, for not one alone, but many of the old servants who had passed into the service of the heir of entail, and who were not notorious for their superstition, had clearly and distinctly observed that the first time the young countess entered the picture gallery, the majestic ancestress had relaxed her stern lips almost into a smile of approbation, which had never happened but once before--in the year 1664, on a similar occasion; a remarkable event, which had been recorded by the chaplain of the castle, with many subscribing witnesses, in a document which was preserved like a holy relic amidst the family's most valued papers, parchments, and deeds.

When the young count and countess were happily wedded, and comfortably settled at the castle, which however, did not happen until about five years after Adelgunda's marriage to her delightful naval hero, the brother and sister felt a strong wish to meet once more under the paternal roof. And Adelgunda's husband promised that on his return in autumn from an expedition in which he was then engaged, he, his wife, and their little son, a boy about four years of age, should without any delay accept of the count's invitation, and make the visit so much desired by all parties--even by the young countess, Adelgunda's sister-in-law, who was by no means a stranger to her. They had been friends in childhood, indeed were distantly related to each other; for it so happens that almost all the families amongst the most ancient of the Swedish nobility are connected by ties of consanguinity.

At length the long-looked-for day arrived, and Adelgunda beheld, with tears of mingled joy and sorrow, the grey old towers of the castle where she was born, and where she had spent her earliest years--those years which, on comparing them with the subsequent epochs of our life, we denominate the gayest and the happiest. Adelgunda and her husband, who had had a long day's journey, arrived late in the evening at the castle, and were shortly after conducted to their sleeping-rooms, a suite of lofty arched apartments in one of the farthest towers, and in the olden time the principal guest-chambers, but which did not bear the best of reputations as regarded spectres, midnight noises, groans, rattling of chains, and the like horrors. Adelgunda had all her life entertained great respect for, but also no little fear of, these apartments; and those feelings were probably heightened by an old tradition which averred that some most extraordinary and mysterious events had taken place in these chambers. Some pretended to know that one of these apartments, which along with the picture-gallery had remained most unchanged during the lapse of years, had served as the bridal-chamber for the great ancestress of the family; at any rate, there was something that savoured of awe and discomfort about them.

Never in her life had Adelgunda slept in any of these gloomy apartments, and in former days nothing would have induced her to do so; but now, with her brave, bold sailor by her side, she smiled at her old childish fears,--at least when he laughed at her recital of them. She would not, however, on any account, allow her little Victor to sleep in the first antechamber with the trembling waiting-maid, but placed the child's crib close to her own bed, and often during the long, dark, and stormy autumnal night, when the wind shook the panes of glass, and howled through the adjacent forest, and she was awakened by its violence, she turned quickly, and with a beating heart, towards the child, leaned over his little bed, and felt unhappy until she had ascertained that her darling was sleeping soundly and peacefully.

'Well!' said her husband the next morning, when the sun was already pretty high in the heavens, and cast his cheerful rays through the narrow casements of these haunted chambers--'well, dearest Adelgunda, have you heard or seen any spectre last night--been visited in any way by a ghost?'

'No,' she replied laughingly, as the bright sunshine restored her courage; there was but one spirit near me last night--one dear, good spirit;' and she embraced her husband.

'And you, Annette?' cried the incredulous visitor to the poor waiting-maid, 'I hope you have not been disturbed by the ghosts either?'

But Annette, who was half-dead from fear, asserted that she had not closed her eyes the whole night; that she had distinctly heard sighs and groans, and heavy footsteps up and down the floor; and there had been many other frightful things that she could not describe.

Now, in the cheering daylight, Adelgunda laughed heartily at these fancies, as she called them; but the previous night she would not have done so,--at least not with a heart so much at ease.

'I wonder what his uncle and aunt will say of my little Victor, now that he is nicely dressed, and not so sleepy and cross as he was last night, after that long fatiguing journey!' said Adelgunda to Annette, with a mother's pride in her pretty boy, and while they were both engaged in arranging his curly hair, and putting on his handsome new green dress.

Adelgunda's husband had risen early and gone out to stroll round the old castle, and the former young lady of the mansion, who had now become a wife and mother, took up her little son in her arms to go down to her sister-in-law, who had already sent to inquire how she had slept, and to let her know that breakfast was ready.

Humming an air, Adelgunda proceeded with her light burden through the dear old well-remembered passages where her very footsteps echoed, until she came close to the door which opened into the picture-gallery; she then stopped, seized suddenly with a strong impulse to enter it, while a strange, sad foreboding of evil filled her heart. Influenced, as it were, by an invincible power over which she had no control, she laid her hand upon the lock, turned it, and stood, she scarcely knew how, in presence of the mute family, who seemed gazing on her from both sides. Adelgunda's heart beat quickly; recollections from her childhood and her youthful days began to rush back on her. These aristocratic feelings, which had so long slumbered, began to start up in her mind, and she dared not look towards the terrible lady at the extreme end, for fear of meeting her angry, implacable glance.

'That is a pretty lady! And there is another nice lady! What a grand gentleman! and see, yonder is a fine gentleman, too!'

Such were little Victor's exclamations, as Adelgunda went slowly with him past all these well-known portraits of uncles and aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, and other members of the family, all long since asleep in their graves.

'But, oh, mother, look!' cried Victor, as he first caught sight of the largest; 'see how horrible that one up yonder looks! See, mother, how that tall woman there on the wall frowns down at us!' And Victor knit his little brows, and drew in his small mouth, to make his face look very terrible in return.

'Oh, do not speak so--do not speak so!' exclaimed his mother, trying in vain to hush the child. 'On the contrary,' she added, in a faltering voice, 'she is an excellent lady, and very kind to all good, well-behaved children. We will go up yonder, and beg her pardon and her blessing.'

'No, no!' screamed Victor, kicking his little legs with all his might; 'I won't have anything to do with her: she looks as cross as if she would bite me.'

'Again his mother entreated Victor to be a reasonable, good boy, and by that time they stood under the great lady's picture. A tremor crept over Adelgunda as she encountered that austere, repulsive look, and involuntarily she dropped her eyes beneath it. But reason soon triumphed; she approached closer to the portrait, and said to her little son, whom she still held in her arms, 'Now we shall say good morning to that lady;' and she curtseyed herself, and bent with her hand the obstinate little head; 'and we shall beg her to look kindly and gently down upon us, for your dear, good papa's sake, and we will kiss her hand.' And Adelgunda kissed the hand in the picture that was hanging down; but when she attempted to raise the child's face up towards the hand, the little fellow, in whose infantine breast was aroused a portion of his father's bold spirit, and perhaps impetuous temper, and who, though somewhat frightened, felt his courage rising, and was, withal, extremely angry, struggled furiously, clenched his little fist, and instead of kissing the great lady's drooping hand, thumped it with all his might--and at that moment he was strong enough.



II.

Adelgunda's brother and sister-in-law waited in vain for her appearance at the breakfast-table. She came not! But at length the startling intelligence was brought to them that a strange, frightful noise had been heard in the picture-gallery. No one knew what was the cause of it, for no one had dared to venture in to see what had happened, but now every one rushed in. A cloud of dust, a heap of mortar and wood was before them; and a sight so dreadful, so shocking, so appalling, met their eyes, that every heart was like to break.

But only one heart did break, for notwithstanding his strength of mind--his unconquerable spirit--his undeniable fortitude, the bereaved husband and father almost sank beneath the frightful calamity that had suddenly deprived him of the wife he adored, and the child on whom all his hopes were centred. Yet he was the first--the only one who had sufficient energy, and presence of mind to drag the lifeless remains of his wife and son from under the destroying weight of the heavy portrait.

It was a frightful event, and made a great sensation. A rotten rope, and the mouldering state of the wall which should have upheld the enormously heavy wooden frame, had done all the evil.

The naval officer passed over distant seas to many a foreign land--the world was all before him, but he never forgot what he had lost.

The picture of the awful ancestress met with little injury in its fall; but several years elapsed before it was hung up again in its former place. It was, however, at length restored to its old position, but fastened with new rope, and everything necessary to make it more secure. The dreadful occurrence was beginning to be forgotten, and the brotherly affection which had somewhat cooled, seemed to have displayed itself sufficiently in having banished the lofty dame for some years to a lumber-room. She could not always be left there! So at length she hung in her old place again, as stern, as frowning as formerly. And the count, who had now become an old man, generally when he alluded to the terrible event, reasonably ascribed it to natural causes. But, once upon a time, when he observed his youngest daughter, a girl not much more than sixteen years of age, casting furtive and rather friendly glances at a young man, the son of a country parson, who, on account of his handsome person and pleasant manners, was often received at the baronial castle,--when he saw this, by means of some sidelong looks with the corner of his eye, which were not perceived by the young couple, then he took his daughter by the hand, led her silently and solemnly into the picture-gallery, walked with her up to the replaced portrait of their great ancestress, and said with the gravity of an anxious father, and the dignity of an aristocratic nobleman,--

'Beware, my daughter! Remember the fate of your aunt!'

These words were all he uttered.


'And this happened in the nineteenth century, and here in our father-land? 'Such an inquiry will assuredly be made by one or other of our readers. But we will not answer it ourselves; we shall only advise the inquirer to address himself to the descendants of one of the most ancient families in Scania, and ask them whether it be true or not.