Subduing, at once, the passion to which he had yielded only in the faith that it was unwitnessed, Sir William Howe became conscious that an aged woman, leaning on a gold-headed staff, was standing betwixt him and the door. It was old Esther Dudley, who had dwelt almost immemorial years in this mansion, until her presence seemed as inseparable from it as the recollections of its history. She was the daughter of an ancient and once eminent family, which had fallen into poverty and decay, and left its last descendant no resource save the bounty of the King, nor any shelter except within the walls of the Province House. An office in the household, with merely nominal duties, had been assigned to her as a pretext for the payment of a small pension, the greater part of which she expended in adorning herself with an antique magnificence of attire. The claims of Esther Dudley's gentle blood were acknowledged by all the successive Governors; and they treated her with the punctilious courtesy which it was her foible to demand, not always with success, from a neglectful world. The only actual share which she assumed in the business of the mansion was to glide through its passages and public chambers, late at night, to see that the servants had dropped no fire from their flaring torches, nor left embers crackling and blazing on the hearths. Perhaps it was this invariable custom of walking her rounds in the hush of midnight that caused the superstition of the times to invest the old woman with attributes of awe and mystery; fabling that she had entered the portal of the Province House, none knew whence, in the train of the first Royal Governor, and that it was her fate to dwell there till the last should have departed.
"While the burden of life remains upon me, I will have no other shelter than this roof," persisted Esther Dudley, striking her staff upon the floor with a gesture that expressed immovable resolve. "And when your Excellency returns in triumph, I will totter into the porch to welcome you."
"Beshrew the old fool!" muttered Sir William Howe, growing impatient of her obstinacy, and ashamed of the emotion into which he had been betrayed. "She is the very moral of old-fashioned prejudice, and could exist nowhere but in this musty edifice. Well, then, Mistress Dudley, since you will needs tarry, I give the Province House in charge to you. Take this key, and keep it safe until myself, or some other Royal Governor, shall demand it of you." As the General glanced back at Esther Dudley's antique figure, he deemed her well fitted for such a charge, as being so perfect a representative of the decayed past--of an age gone by, with its manners, opinions, faith and feelings, all fallen into oblivion or scorn--of what had once been a reality, but was now merely a vision of faded magnificence.
And so they left her the undisturbed mistress of the old historic edifice.
Many and strange were the fables which the gossips whispered about her, in all
the chimney corners of the town. Among the time-worn articles of furniture
that had been left in the mansion there was a tall, antique
mirror, which was well worthy of a tale by itself, and perhaps may hereafter
be the theme of one. The gold of its heavily-wrought frame was tarnished, and
its surface so blurred, that the old woman's figure, whenever she paused before
it, looked indistinct and ghostlike.But it was the general belief
that Esther could cause the Governors of the overthrown dynasty, with the beautiful
ladies who had once adorned their festivals, the Indian chiefs who had come
up to the Province House to hold council or swear allegiance, the grim Provincial
warriors, the severe clergymen--in short, all the pageantry of gone days--all
the figures that ever swept across the broad plate of glass in former times--she
could cause the whole to reappear, and people the inner world of the mirror
with shadows of old life. Such legends as these, together with the singularity
of her isolated existence, her age, and the infirmity that each added winter
flung upon her, made Mistress Dudley the object both of fear and pity; and it
was partly the result of either sentiment that, amid all the angry license of
the times, neither wrong nor insult ever fell upon her unprotected head. Indeed,
there was so much haughtiness in her demeanor towards intruders, among whom
she reckoned all persons acting under the new authorities, that it was really
an affair of no small nerve to look her in the face. And to do the people justice,
stern republicans as they had now become, they were well content that the old
gentlewoman, in her hoop petticoat and faded embroidery, should still haunt
the palace of ruined pride and overthrown power, the symbol of a departed system,
embodying a history in her person.
Yet Esther Dudley's most frequent and favored guests were the children of the town. Towards them she was never stern. A kindly and loving nature, hindered elsewhere from its free course by a thousand rocky prejudices, lavished itself upon these little ones. By bribes of gingerbread of her own making, stamped with a royal crown, she tempted their sunny sportiveness beneath the gloomy portal of the Province House, and would often beguile them . . .
The figure of the aged woman in the most gorgeous of her mildewed velvets and brocades was seen passing from casement to casement, until she paused before the balcony, and flourished a huge key above her head. Her wrinkled visage actually gleamed with triumph, as if the soul within her were a festal lamp.
She set the mansion in the best order that her means allowed, and, arraying herself in silks and tarnished gold, stood long before the blurred mirror to admire her own magnificence. As she gazed, the gray and withered lady moved her ashen lips, murmuring half aloud, talking to shapes that she saw within the mirror, to shadows of her own fantasies, to the household friends of memory, and bidding them rejoice with her and come forth to meet the Governor. And while absorbed in this communion, Mistress Dudley heard the tramp of many footsteps in the street, and, looking out at the window, beheld what she construed as the Royal Governor's arrival.
"O happy day! O blessed, blessed hour!" she exclaimed. "Let me but bid him welcome within the portal, and my task in the Province House, and on earth, is done!"
She turned the key--withdrew it from the lock--unclosed the door-and stepped across the threshold. Advancing up the court-yard appeared a person of most dignified mien, with tokens, as Esther interpreted them, of gentle blood, high rank, and long-accustomed authority, even in his walk and every gesture. He was richly dressed, but wore a gouty shoe, which, however, did not lessen the stateliness of his gait. Around and behind him were people in plain civic dresses, and two or three war-worn veterans, evidently officers of rank, arrayed in a uniform of blue and buff. But Esther Dudley, firm in the belief that had fastened its roots about her heart, beheld only the principal personage, and never doubted that this was the long-looked-for Governor, to whom she was to surrender up her charge. As he approached, she involuntarily sank down on her knees and tremblingly held forth the heavy key.
"Alas, venerable lady. said Governor Hancock, lending her his support with all the reverence that a courtier would have shown to a queen. "Your life has been prolonged until the world has changed around you. You have treasured up all that time has rendered worthless--the principles, feelings, manners, modes of being and acting, which another generation has flung aside-and you are a symbol of the past.
"She hath done her office!" said Hancock solemnly. "We will follow her reverently to the tomb of her ancestors; and then, my fellow-citizens, onward--onward! We are no longer children of the Past!"