MIND OF A MADMAN: BEHIND THE VEIL
The sexton stood in the porch of the Elpee meetinghouse, pulling busily at the bell rope. The old people of the village came stooping along the street. Children, with bright faces, tripped merrily beside their parents, or mimicked a graver gait, in the conscious dignity of their Sunday clothes. Spruce bachelors looked sidelong at the pretty maidens, and fancied that the Sabbath sunshine made them prettier than on weekdays. When the throng had mostly streamed into the porch, the sexton began to toll the bell, keeping his eye on the Reverend Mr. Roy’s door. The first glimpse of the clergyman's figure was the signal for the bell to cease its summons.
"But what has good Parson Roy got upon his face?" cried the sexton in astonishment.
All within hearing immediately turned about, and beheld the semblance of Mr. Roy pacing slowly his meditative way toward the meetinghouse. With one accord they started wondering if some strange minister were coming to dust the cushions of Mr. Roy's pulpit.
"Are you sure it is Mr. Roy?" inquired Jason Gravis of the sexton.
"Certainly, it is he," replied the sexton. "He has returned to the village of Elpee to preach his message."
The cause of so much amazement may appear sufficiently slight. Mr. Roy’s gentlemanly person, of about thirty, was dressed with due clerical neatness, as if a careful wife had starched his band, and brushed the weekly dust from his Sunday's garb. There was but one thing remarkable in his appearance: swathed about his forehead, and hanging down over his face so low as to be shaken by his breath, Mr. Roy had on a black veil. On a nearer view it seemed to consist of two folds of crepe, which entirely concealed his features, except the mouth and chin, but probably did not intercept his sight, further than to give a darkened aspect to all living and inanimate things. With this gloomy shade before him, goad Mr. Roy walked onward, at a slow and quiet pace. He was stooping somewhat, and looking on the ground, as is customary with abstracted men. Yet he was nodding kindly to those of his parishioners who still waited on the meetinghouse steps. But so wonderstruck were they that his greeting hardly met with a return.
"Is that really him behind the veil?," asked Ash Strife, echoing the sentiments of Gravis.
"I don't like it," muttered the Lord of the Phantoms, as he waddled into the meetinghouse. "He has changed himself into something awful, only by hiding his face."
"Our parson has gone mad!" cried Jason Gravis, following him across the threshold.
A rumour of some unaccountable phenomenon had preceded Mr. Roy into the meetinghouse, and set all the congregation astir. Few could refrain from twisting their heads toward the door; many stood upright, and turned directly about while several little boys clambered upon the seats, and came down again with a terrible racket. There was a general bustle, a rustling of the women's gowns and shuffling of the men's feet, greatly at variance with that hushed repose which should attend the entrance of the minister. But Mr. Roy appeared not to notice the perturbation of his people. He entered with an almost noiseless step, bent his head mildly to the pews on each side, and bowed as he passed his oldest parishioner, a whitehaired great-grandsire, who occupied an armchair in the center of the aisle. It was strange to observe how slowly this venerable man became conscious of something singular in the appearance of his pastor. The best way to describe this man was to say he was cynical. He seemed not fully to partake of the prevailing wonder, till Mr. Roy had ascended the stairs, and showed himself in the pulpit, face to face with his congregation, except for the black veil. That mysterious emblem was never once withdrawn. It shook with his measured breath, as he gave out the psalm; it threw its obscurity between him and the holy page, as he read the Scriptures; and while he prayed, the veil lay heavily on his uplifted countenance. Did he seek to hide it from the dread being whom he was addressing?
Such was the effect of this simple piece of veil, that more than one woman of delicate nerves was forced to leave the meetinghouse. Yet perhaps the pale-faced congregation was almost as fearful a sight to the minister, as his black veil to them.
Mr. Roy had the reputation of a good preacher, but not an energetic one; he strove to win his people heavenward by mild, persuasive influences, rather than to drive them thither by the thunders of the Word. The sermon which he now delivered was marked by the same characteristics of style and manner as the general series of his pulpit oratory. But there was something, either in the sentiment of the discourse itself, or in the imagination of the auditors, which made it greatly the most powerful effort that they had ever heard from their pastor's lips. It was tinged, rather more darkly than usual, with the gentle gloom of Mr. Roy's temperament. The subject had reference to those sad mysteries which we hide from our nearest and dearest and a subtle power was breathed into his words. Each member of the congregation, the most innocent girl, and the man of hardened breast, felt as if Mr. Roy had crept upon them, behind his awful veil, and discovered their hoarded iniquity of deed or thought. Many spread their clasped hands on their bosoms. There was nothing terrible in what Mr. Roy said, at least no violence; and yet, with every tremor of his melancholy voice, the hearers quaked. An unsought pathos came hand in hand with awe. So sensible were the audience of some unwonted attribute in their minister, that they longed for a breath of wind to blow aside the veil, almost believing that a stranger's visage would be discovered, though the form, gesture, and voice were those of Mr. Roy.
At the close of the services, the people hurried out with indecorous confusion, eager to communicate their pent-up amazement, and conscious of lighter spirits the moment they lost sight of the black veil. Some gathered in little circles, huddled closely together, with their mouths all whispering in the center; some went homeward alone, wrapt in silent meditation; some talked loudly, and profaned the Sabbath day with ostentatious laughter. A few shook, their sagacious heads, intimating that they could penetrate the mystery; while one or two affirmed that there was no mystery at all, but only that Mr. Roy's eyes were so weakened by the midnight lamp as to require a shade. After a brief interval, forth came good Mr. Roy also, in the rear of his flock. Turning his veiled face from one group to another, he paid due reverence to the hoary heads, saluted the middle-aged with kind dignity as their friend and spiritual guide, greeted the young with mingled authority and love, and laid his hands on the little children's heads to bless them. Such was always his custom on the Sabbath day. Strange and bewildered looks repaid him for his courtesy. None, as on former occasions, aspired to the honor of walking by their pastor's side.
Mr. Roy returned, therefore, to the parsonage, and, at the moment of closing the door, was observed to look back upon the people, all of whom had their eyes fixed upon the minister. A sad smile gleamed faintly from beneath the black veil, and flickered about his mouth, glimmering as he disappeared. "How strange," said the Lord of the Phantoms, "that a simple black veil could become such a terrible thing on Mr. Roy's face."
"Something must surely be amiss with Roy's intellects," observed the cynical old man, the physician of the village. "But the strangest part of the affair is the effect of this vagary, even on a sober-minded man like myself. The black veil, though it covers only our pastor's face, throws its influence over his whole person, and makes him ghostlike from head to foot. Do you not feel it so?"
"Truly do I," replied the Lord of the Phantoms; "and I would not be alone with him for the world. I wonder he is not afraid to be alone with himself!"
The afternoon service was attended with similar circumstances. At its conclusion, the bell tolled for the funeral of a young lady. The young lady was identified as the former lover of the cynical old man, whose solemn figure made attendance at the procession. The relatives and friends were assembled in the house, and the more distant acquaintances stood about the door, speaking of the good qualities of the deceased, when their talk was interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Roy, still covered with his black veil. It was now an appropriate emblem. The clergyman stepped into the room where the corpse was laid, and bent over the coffin, to take a last farewell of his deceased parishioner. As he stooped, the veil hung straight down from his forehead, so that, if her eyelids had not been dosed forever, the dead maiden might have seen his face. Could Mr. Roy be fearful of her glance, that he so hastily caught back the black veil? A person who watched the interview between the dead and the living noted that at the instant when the clergyman's features were disclosed, the corpse had slightly shuddered, rustling the shroud and muslin cap, though the countenance retained the composure of death. The superstitious old cynic was the only witness of this prodigy. From the coffin Mr. Roy passed into the chamber of the mourners, and thence to the head of the staircase, to make the funeral prayer. It was a tender and heart-dissolving prayer, full of sorrow, yet so imbued with celestial hopes, that the music of a heavenly harp, swept by the fingers of the dead, seemed faintly to be heard among the saddest accents of Mr. Roy.
The people trembled because as he prayed that they, and himself, and all of mortal race, might be as ready as he trusted this young maiden had been, for the dreadful hour that should snatch the veil from their faces. The bearers went heavily forth, and the mourners followed, saddening all the street, with the dead before them, and Mr. Roy in his black veil behind.
"Why do you look back?" said Gravis to the cynic.
"I had a fancy," replied he. "That Mr. Roy and the maiden – my Jennifer's - spirit were walking hand in hand."
"And so had I, at the same moment," said Strife.
And so it was. When Mr. Roy returned to Elpee, the first thing that people’s eyes rested on was the horrible black veil, which had added deeper gloom to the funeral, and could portend nothing but evil. Such was its immediate effect on the people that a cloud seemed to have rolled duskily from beneath the black veil. Even Little Red could not help but quiver at the tremulous hand of the bridegroom, and her deathlike paleness compared to that of the buried maiden, Jennifer. Not phased in the least, Mr. Roy raised a glass of wine to his lips, wishing happiness to all in a strain of mild pleasantry that ought to have brightened the features of the people, like a cheerful gleam from the hearth. At that instant, catching a glimpse of his figure in the looking glass, the black veil involved his own spirit in the horror with which it overwhelmed all others. His frame shuddered, his lips grew white, he spilt the untasted wine upon the carpet, and rushed forth into the darkness.
For the Earth, too, had on her Black Veil.
The next day, the whole village of Elpee talked of little else than Mr. Roy's black veil. That, and the mystery concealed behind it, supplied a topic for discussion between acquaintances meeting in the street, and good women gossiping at their open windows. It was the first item of news that the tavern-keeper told to his guests. The children babbled of it on their way to school. One imitative little imp covered his face with an old black handkerchief, thereby so affrighting his playmates that the panic seized himself, and he well-nigh lost his wits by his own swagger.
It was remarkable that of all the busybodies and impertinent people in the parish, not one ventured to put the plain question to Mr. Roy: “Why are you wearing that?” However, no individual among his parishioners chose to make the black veil a subject of friendly remonstrance. There was a feeling of dread, neither plainly confessed nor carefully concealed, which caused each to shift the responsibility upon another. Finally, it was decided among the people of Elpee that someone must confront Mr. Roy about the mystery, before it should grow into a scandal.
There was one person in the village unappalled by the awe with which the black veil had impressed all besides herself. Celeste, with the calm energy of her character, was determined to chase away the strange cloud that appeared to be settling round Mr. Roy, every moment more darkly than before. As his plighted wife, it should be her privilege to know what the black veil concealed.
After Mr. Roy had seated himself, she fixed her eyes steadfastly upon the veil, but could discern nothing of the dreadful gloom that had so overawed the multitude; it was but a double fold of crepe, hanging down from his forehead to his mouth, and slightly stirring with his breath.
"No," said she aloud, and smiling, "there is nothing terrible in this piece of veil, except that it hides a face which I am always glad to look upon. Come Jason, let the sun shine from behind the cloud. First lay aside your black veil; then tell me why you put it on."
Mr. Roy's smile glimmered faintly.
"There is an hour to come," said he, "when all of us shall cast aside our veils. Take it not amiss, beloved wife, if I wear this piece of veil till then."
"Your words are a mystery, too," returned Celeste. "Take away the veil from them, at least."
"Celeste, I will," said he, "So far as my vow may suffer me. Know, then, this veil is a type and a symbol, and I am bound to wear it ever, both in light and darkness, in solitude and before the gaze of multitudes, and as with strangers, so with my familiar friends. No mortal eye will see it withdrawn. This dismal shade must separate me from the world; even you, Celeste, can never come behind it."
"What grievous affliction hath befallen you," she earnestly inquired, "that you should thus darken your eyes forever?"
"If it be a sign of mourning," replied Mr. Roy, "I, perhaps, like most other mortals, have sorrows dark enough to be typified by a black veil."
"But what if the world will not believe that it is the type of an innocent sorrow?" urged Celeste. "Beloved and respected as you are, there may be whispers that you hide your face under the consciousness of secret sin. For the sake of the village, do away this scandal!"
The colour rose into her cheeks as she intimated the nature of the rumours that were already abroad in the village. But Mr. Roy's mildness did not forsake him. He even smiled again - that same sad smile, which always appeared like a faint glimmering of light, proceeding from the obscurity beneath the veil.
"If I hide my face for sorrow, there is cause enough;" he merely replied; "and if I cover it for secret sin, what mortal might not do the same?"
And with this gentle but unconquerable obstinacy did he resist her entreaties. At length Celeste sat silent. For a few moments she appeared lost in thought, considering, probably, what new methods might be tried to withdraw her foyer from so dark a fantasy, which, if it had no other meaning, was perhaps a symptom of mental disease. Though of a firmer character than his own, the tears rolled down her cheeks. But, in an instant, as it were, a new feeling took the place of sorrow; her eyes were fixed insensibly on the black veil, when, like a sudden twilight in the air, its terrors: fell around her.
She arose, and stood trembling before him.
"And do you feel it then, at last?" said he, mournfully.
She made no reply, but covered her eyes with her hand, and turned to leave the room. He rushed forward and caught her arm.
"Have patience with me, Celeste" said he. "Do not desert me, though this veil must be between us here on earth. Be mine, and hereafter there shall be no veil over my face, no darkness between our souls! It is but a mortal veil - it is not for eternity.”
"Lift the veil but once, and look me in the face," said she.
"Never. It cannot be." replied Mr. Roy.
"Then farewell…" said Celeste.
She withdrew her arm from his grasp, and slowly departed, pausing at the door, to give one long shuddering gaze, that seemed almost to penetrate the mystery of the black veil. But, even amid his grief, Mr. Roy smiled to think that only a material emblem had separated him from happiness, though the horrors which it shadowed forth must be drawn darkly between the fondest of lovers.
From that time no attempts were made to remove Mr. Roy’s black veil, or, by a direct appeal, to discover the secret which it was supposed to hide. By persons who claimed a superiority to popular prejudice, it was reckoned more an eccentric whim, such as often mingles with the sober actions of men otherwise rational, and tinges them all with its own semblance of insanity.
But with the multitude, good Mr. Roy was irreparably a bugbear. He could not walk the street with any peace of mind, so conscious was he that the gentle and timid would turn aside to avoid him, and that others would make it a point of hardihood to throw themselves in his way. The impertinence of the latter class compelled him to give up his customary walk at sunset to the burial ground; for when he leaned pensively over the gate, there would always be faces behind the gravestones, peeping at his black veil. A fable went the rounds that the stare of the dead people drove him thence. It grieved him to observe how the children fled from his approach, breaking up their merriest sports, while his melancholy figure was yet afar off. Their instinctive dread caused him to feel more strongly than aught else that a preternatural horror was interwoven with l the threads of the black veil.
In truth, his own antipathy to the veil was known to be so great, that he never willingly passed before a mirror, nor stooped to drink at a still fountain, lest he should be affrighted by himself. This was what gave plausibility to the whispers, that Mr. Roy's conscience tortured him for some great crime too horrible to be entirely concealed. Thus, from beneath the black veil, there rolled a cloud into the sunshine, an ambiguity of sin or sorrow, which enveloped the fallen man, so that love or sympathy could never reach him. It was said that ghost and fiend consorted with him there. With self-shudderings and outward terrors, he walked continually in its shadow, groping darkly within his own soul, or gazing through a medium that saddened the whole world. Even the lawless wind, it was believed, respected his dreadful secret, and never blew aside the veil. But still good Mr. Roy sadly smiled at the pale visages of the worldly throng as he passed by.
Among all its bad influences, the black veil had the one desirable effect, of making its wearer a very efficient clergyman. By the aid of his mysterious emblem - for there was no other apparent cause - he became a man of awful power over souls that were in agony of sin. His converts always regarded him with a dread peculiar to themselves, affirming that, before he brought them to celestial light, they had been with him behind the black veil. Dying sinners cried aloud for Mr. Roy, and would not yield their breath till he appeared. And as he stooped to whisper consolation, they shuddered at the veiled face so near their own. Such were the terrors of the black veil, even when Death had bared his visage. Strangers came long distances to attend service at his church, with the mere idle purpose of gazing at his figure, because it was forbidden to them to behold his face.
In this manner Mr. Roy spent a long life, irreproachable in outward act, yet shrouded in dismal suspicions; kind and loving, though unloved, and dimly feared; a man apart from men, shunned in their health and joy, but ever summoned to their aid in mortal anguish. As years wore on, shedding their snows above his sable veil, he acquired a name throughout the churches, and they called him Father Roy. Nearly all his parishioners, who were of mature age when he was settled, had been borne away by many a funeral. With his work completed, it was now good Father Roy's turn to rest.
Several persons were visible by the shaded candlelight, in the death chamber of the old clergyman. Natural connections he had none. And there lay the hoary head of good Father Roy upon the death pillow, with the black veil still swathed about his brow, and reaching down over his face, so that each more difficult gasp of his faint breath caused it to stir. All through life that piece of veil had hung between him and the world; it had separated him from cheerful brotherhood and woman's love. And yet it still lay upon his face, as if to deepen the gloom of his darksome chamber, and shade him from the sunshine of eternity.
For some time previous, his mind had been confused, wavering doubtfully between the past and the present, and hovering forward into the indistinctness of the world to come. There had been feverish turns, which tossed him from side to side, and wore away what little strength he had. But in his most convulsive struggles, and in the wildest vagaries of his intellect, he still showed an awful solicitude lest the black veil should slip aside. At length the deathstricken old man lay quietly in the torpor of mental and bodily exhaustion, with an imperceptible pulse, and breath that grew fainter and fainter, except when a long, deep, and irregular inspiration seemed to prelude the flight of his spirit.
The cynical man approached the bedside.
"Venerable Father Roy," said he, "the moment of your release is at hand. Are you ready for the lifting of the veil that shuts in time from eternity?"
Father Roy at first replied merely by a feeble motion of his head; then, apprehensive, perhaps, that his meaning might be doubtful, he exerted himself to speak.
"Yes," said he, in faint accents, "my soul has a patient weariness until that veil be lifted."
"And is it fitting," resumed the cynic, "that a man so given to prayer, of such a blameless example, holy in deed and thought, so far as mortal judgment may pronounce; is it fitting that a father in the church should leave a shadow on his memory, that may seem to blacken a life so pure? I pray you, my venerable brother, let not this thing be! Suffer us to be gladdened by your triumphant aspect as you go to your reward. Before the veil of eternity be lifted, let me cast aside this black veil from your face!"
The cynic bent forward to reveal the mystery of so many years. But, exerting a sudden energy, that made all the beholders stand aghast, Father Roy snatched both his hands from beneath the bedclothes, and pressed them strongly on the black veil, resolute to struggle, if the cynic would contend with a dying man.
"Never!" cried Roy.
Father Roy's breath heaved; it rattled in his throat. But with a mighty effort, grasping forward with his hands, he caught hold of life, and held it back till he should speak. He even raised himself in bed; and there he sat, shivering with the arms of death around him while the black veil hung down at that last moment in the gathered terrors of a lifetime. And yet the faint, sad smile that is so often there, now seemed to glimmer from its obscurity and linger on
Father Roy's lips:
Why do you tremble at me? Why have men avoided me? Why have women shown no pity, and children screamed and fled? Is it because of my black veil? Is it the mystery which this veil obscurely typifies that has made this piece of fabric so awful? You loathsomely deem me a monster, for the symbol beneath which I have lived?
But look around you. There is a black veil on all of your faces. You all hide behind your veil… your shame and your hurt pride. You cannot remove the veil and expose your true faces. Behind the veil, the rotting is underneath.
While his auditors shrank from one another, in mutual affright, Father Roy fell back upon his pillow, a veiled corpse, with a faint smile lingering on the lips. Still veiled, they laid him in his coffin, and a veiled corpse they bore.
The grass of many years has sprung up and withered on that grave, the burial stone is moss-grown, and good Mr. Roy's face is dust; but awful is still the thought that it depreciated beneath the black veil.