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The Haunters and the Haunted edited by Ernest Rhys online
XLII THE VISION OF CHARLES XI. OF SWEDEN
From a _ProcÚs-verbal_
The authenticity of the following narrative rests upon a _procÚs-verbal_, drawn out in form, and attested by the signatures of four credible witnesses.
Charles XI. was one of the most despotic and, at the same time, one of the ablest monarchs that ever ruled the destinies of Sweden. History represents him as brave and enlightened, but of a harsh and inflexible disposition; regulating his opinions by positive facts, and wholly ungifted with imagination. At the period of which we are about to speak, death had bereaved him of his Queen, Ulrica Eleonora. Notwithstanding the harshness which had marked his conduct to the Princess during her lifetime, and which, in the opinion of his subjects, had precipitated her into the grave, Charles revered her memory, and appeared more affected by her loss than might have been imagined from the natural sternness of his character. Subsequently to this event, he became more gloomy and taciturn than before, and devoted himself to study with an intensity of application that evinced his anxiety to escape the tortures of his own painful reflections. Towards the close of a dreary autumnal evening, the king, in slippers and _robe de chambre_, was seated before a large fire, in a private cabinet of his palace at Stockholm. Near him were his grand chamberlain, the Count de Brahe, who was honoured with the favourite estimation of his sovereign, and the principal state physician, Baumgarten, a learned disciple of Hippocrates, who aimed at the reputation of an _esprit fort_, and who would have pardoned a disbelief in anything except in the efficacy of his own prescriptions. The last-mentioned personage had on that evening been hastily summoned to the presence of the monarch, who felt or fancied himself in need of his professional skill. The evening was already far advanced, and the king, contrary to his wont, delayed bidding the customary "goodnight to all,"--the well-understood signal at which his guests always retired. With his head bent down, and his eyes fixed upon the decaying embers, that gradually withdrew even their mockery of warmth from the spacious fireplace, he maintained a strict silence, evidently fatigued with his company, yet dreading, though he scarcely knew why, to be left alone. The grand chamberlain, who perceived that even his profound remarks failed to excite the attention of the monarch, ventured to hint that his majesty would do well to seek repose; a gesture of the king retained him in his place. The physician, in his turn, hazarded a casual observation on the injurious tendency of late hours. The significant innuendoes were, however, thrown away on Charles, who replied to them by muttering between his teeth, "You may remain; I have no wish to sleep." This permission, with which the drowsy courtiers would willingly have dispensed, but which was really equivalent to a command, was succeeded by an attempt on their part to enliven his majesty with different subjects of conversation. No topic, however, that they introduced could outlive the second or third phrase. The king was in one of his gloomy moods; for royalty, with reverence be it spoken, has its moments of merriment and ill-humour, its mixture of sunshine and of cloud; and be it known to thee, gentle reader, that ticklish is the position of a courtier when majesty is in the dumps. To mend, or rather to mar the matter, the grand chamberlain, imagining that the sadness which overshadowed the royal brow came from regret, fixed his eyes upon a portrait of the queen, hung up in the cabinet, and with a sigh of pathos exclaimed, "How striking the resemblance! and who could not recognise the expression of majesty and gentleness, that----" "Fudge!" cried the king. Conscience had probably something to do with the abruptness of the exclamation. The old chamberlain had unwittingly touched a tender chord; every allusion to the queen appearing like a tacit reproach to the august and widowed spouse. "That portrait," added the king, "is too flattering, the queen was far from handsome"; then, as if inwardly repentant of his harshness, he rose from his seat and paced the apartment with hasty strides, to conceal the tears that had well-nigh betrayed his emotion. He sat in the embrasure of a window which looked upon the court; the moon was obscured by a thick veil of clouds; not even a solitary star twinkled through the darkness. The palace at present inhabited by the kings of Sweden was not at that time finished; and Charles XI., in whose reign it had been commenced, usually resided in an old-fashioned edifice, built something in the shape of a horseshoe, and situated at the point of Ritterholm, commanding a view of Lake Mader. The royal cabinet was at one of the extremities, nearly opposite to the grand hall or council-chamber, in which the States were accustomed to assemble when a message or communication from the crown was expected. Just at this moment the windows of the council-chamber appeared brilliantly illuminated. The king was lost in surprise. He at first imagined the light to proceed from the torch of some domestic. Yet what could occasion so unseasonable a visit to a place that for a considerable time had been closed? Besides, the light was too vivid to be produced by one single torch, it might have been attributed to a conflagration; but no smoke was perceptible, no noise was heard, the window glasses were not broken, everything in short seemed to indicate an illumination, such as takes place on public and solemn occasions. Charles, without uttering a word, remained gazing at the windows of the council-chamber. The Count Brahe, who had already grasped the bell-cord, was on the point of summoning a page, in order to ascertain the cause of this singular illumination, when the king suddenly prevented him. "I will visit the chamber myself," said his majesty; the seriousness of his deportment and the paleness of his countenance indicating a strange mixture of determination and superstitious awe. He quitted the cabinet with the unhesitating step of one resolved to obtain mastery over himself; the legislator of etiquette, and the regulator of bodies, each with a lighted taper, followed him with fear and trembling. The keeper of the keys had already retired to rest; Baumgarten was despatched by the king to awaken him, and to order him forthwith to open the doors of the council-chamber. Unbounded was the worthy keeper's surprise at the unexpected intimation. Benign Providence, however, has ordained monarchs to command, and created keepers of keys to obey. The prudent Cerberus yawned, dressed himself in haste, and presented himself before his sovereign with the insignia of his office, a bunch of keys of various dimensions suspended at his girdle. He commenced by opening the door of a gallery, which served as a sort of ante-room to the council-chamber. The king entered; but his astonishment may be conceived, on finding the walls of the building entirely hung with black. "By whose order has this been done?" demanded the king in a tone of anger. "Sire," replied the trembling keeper of the keys, "I am ignorant; the last time the gallery was opened it was wainscoted with oak, as usual, most assuredly these hangings are not from your majesty's wardrobe." The king, however, had by this time traversed at a rapid pace two-thirds of the gallery, without stopping to avail himself of the worshipful warden's conjectures. The latter personage and the grand chamberlain followed his majesty, whilst the learned doctor lingered a little in the rear. "Sire," cried the keeper of the keys, "I beseech your majesty to go no farther. As I have a living soul, there is witchcraft in this matter. At this hour ... and since the death of the queen, God be gracious to us! It is said that her majesty walks every night in this gallery." "Hold, Sire!" cried the Count in his turn, "do you not hear a strange noise which seems to proceed from the council-chamber? Who can foresee the danger to which your majesty may expose your sacred person?" "Forward!" replied the resolute monarch in an imperative tone; and as he stopped before the door of the council-chamber, "Quick! your keys!" said he to the keeper. He pushed the door violently with his foot, and the noise, repeated by the echoes of the vaulted roof, resounded through the gallery like the report of a cannon. The old keeper trembled; he tried one key, then another, but without success; his hand shook, his sight was confused. "A soldier, and afraid?" cried Charles with a smile. "Come, Count, you must be our usher: open that door." "Sire," replied the grand chamberlain stepping backwards, "if your majesty command me to walk up to the mouth of a Danish cannon, I will obey on the instant; but you will not order me to combat with the devil and his imps?" The monarch snatched the keys from the palsied hands of the infirm old keeper. "I see," said his majesty in a tone of contempt, "that I must finish this adventure"; and before his terrified suite could prevent his design, he had already opened the massy oaken door, and penetrated into the council-chamber, first pronouncing the usual formula, "with the help of God." The companions of his midnight excursion entered along with him, prompted by a sentiment of curiosity, stronger on this occasion even than terror; their courage too was reinforced by a feeling of shame, which forbade them to abandon their sovereign in the hour of peril. The council-chamber was illuminated with an immense number of torches. The ancient figured tapestry had been replaced by a black drapery suspended on the walls, along which were ranged, in regular order, and according to the custom of those days, German, Danish, and Muscovite banners, trophies of the victories won by the soldiers of Gustavus Adolphus. In the middle were distinguished the banners of Sweden, covered with black crape. A numerous assemblage was seated on the benches of the hall. The four orders of the state--the nobility, the clergy, the citizens, and the peasants,--were ranged according to the respective disposition assigned to each. All were clothed in black; and the multitude of human faces, that shone like so many luminous rays upon a dark ground, dazzled the sight to such a degree that, of the four individuals who witnessed this extraordinary scene, not one could discern amidst the crowd a countenance with which he was familiar; the position of the four spectators might have been compared to that of actors, who, in presence of a numerous audience, were incapable of distinguishing a single face among the confused mass. On the elevated throne whence the monarch habitually harangued the assembly of the States, was seated a bleeding corpse, invested with the emblems of royalty. On the right of this apparition stood a child, a crown upon his head and the sceptre in his hand; on the left an aged man, or rather another phantom, leaned upon the throne, opposite to which were several personages of austere and solemn demeanour, clothed in long black robes, and seated before a table covered with thick folios and parchments; from the gravity of their deportment the latter seemed to be judges. Between the throne and the portion of the council-chamber above which it was elevated, were placed an axe and a block covered with black crape. In this unearthly assembly none seemed at all conscious of the presence of Charles, or of the three individuals by whom he was accompanied. At last the oldest of the judges in black robes--he who appeared to discharge the functions of president--rising with dignity, struck three times with his hand upon an open folio. Profound silence immediately succeeded; some youths of distinguished appearance, richly dressed, and with their hands fettered behind their backs, were led into the council-chamber by a door opposite to that which Charles had opened. Behind them a man of vigrous mould held the extremity of the cord with which their hands were pinioned. The prisoner who marched in the foremost rank, and whose air was more imposing than that of the others, stopped in the midst of the council-chamber before the block which he seemed to contemplate with haughty disdain. At the same instant the corse seated on the throne was agitated by a convulsive tremor, and the purple tide flowed afresh from his wounds. The youthful prisoner knelt upon the ground, and laid his head upon the block; the fatal axe glittering in the air descended swiftly; a stream of blood forced its way even to the platform of the throne, and mingled with that of the royal corse; whilst the head of the victim, rebounding from the crimson pavement, rolled to the feet of Charles, and stained them with blood. Hitherto, astonishment had rendered the monarch dumb; but at this horrid spectacle his tongue was unloosed. He advanced a few steps towards the platform, and addressing himself to the apparition on the left of the corse, boldly pronounced the customary abjuration, "If thou art of God, speak; if of the Evil One, depart in peace." The phantom replied in slow and emphatic accents, "Charles, not under thy reign shall this blood be shed [here the voice became indistinct]; five monarchs succeeding thee shall first sit on the throne of Sweden. Woe, woe, woe to the blood of Wasa!" Upon this the numerous figures composing this extraordinary assemblage became less distinct, till at last they resembled a mass of coloured shadows, soon after which they disappeared altogether. The fantastic torches were extinguished of themselves, and those of Charles and his suite cast their dim, flickering light upon the old-fashioned tapestry with which the chamber was usually hung, and which was now slightly moved by the wind. During some minutes longer a strange sort of melody was heard, a harmony compared by one of the eye-witnesses of this unparalleled scene to the murmur of the breeze agitating the foliage, and by another to the sound emitted by the breaking of a harp-string. All agreed upon one point, the duration of the apparition, which they stated to have lasted about ten minutes. The black drapery, the decapitated victim, the stream of blood which had inundated the platform, all had disappeared with the phantoms; every trace had vanished except a crimson spot, which still stained the slipper of Charles, and which alone would have sufficed to remind him of the horrid vision, had it been possible for any effort to erase it from his memory. Returning to his private cabinet, the king committed to paper an exact relation of what he had seen, signed it, and ordered his companions to do the same. Spite of the precautions taken to conceal the contents of this statement from the public, they soon transpired, and were generally known, even during the lifetime of Charles XI. The original document is still in existence, and its authenticity has never been questioned; it concludes with the following remarkable words:--"If," says the king, "all that I have just declared is not the exact truth, I renounce my hopes of a happier existence which I may have merited by some good actions, and by my zeal for the welfare of my people and for the maintenance of the religion of my fathers." If the reader will call to mind the death of Gustavus III., and the trial of his assassin, Ankarstroem, he will observe the intimate connection between these events and the circumstances of the extraordinary prediction which we have just detailed. The apparition of the young man beheaded in the presence of the assembled States prognosticated the execution of Ankarstroem. The crowned corse represented Gustavus III., the child, his son and successor, Gustavus Adolphus IV.; and lastly, by the old man was designated the uncle of Gustavus IV., the Duke of Sudermania, regent of the kingdom and afterwards king, upon the deposition of his nephew.