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The Prophetic Pictures

From Twice Told Tales

[This story was suggested by an anecdote of Stuart, related in Dunlap's
History of the Arts of Design,--a most entertaining book to the general
reader, and a deeply interesting one, we should think, to the artist,]

"But this painter!" cried Walter Ludlow, with animation. "He not only
excels in his peculiar art, but possesses vast acquirements in all other
learning and science. He talks Hebrew with Dr. Mather, and gives
lectures in anatomy to Dr. Boylston. In a word, he will meet the best
instructed man among us, on his own ground. Moreover, he is a polished
gentleman,--a citizen of the world,--yes, a true cosmopolite; for he will
speak like a native of each clime and country on the globe, except our
own forests, whither he is now going. Nor is all this what I most admire
in him."

"Indeed!" said Elinor, who had listened with a woman's interest to the
description of such a man. "Yet this is admirable enough."

"Surely it is," replied her lover, "but far less so than his natural gift
of adapting himself to every variety of character, insomuch that all men
--and all women too, Elinor--shall find a mirror of themselves in this
wonderful painter. But the greatest wonder is yet to be told."

"Nay, if he have more wonderful attributes than these," said Elinor,
laughing, "Boston is a perilous abode for the poor gentleman. Are you
telling one of a painter, or a wizard?"

"In truth," answered he, "that question might be asked much more
seriously than you suppose. They say that he paints not merely a man's
features, but his mind and heart. He catches the secret sentiments and
passions, and throws them upon the canvas, like sunshine,--or perhaps, in
the portraits of dark-souled men, like a gleans of infernal fire. It is
an awful gift," added Walter, lowering his voice from its tone of
enthusiasm. "I shall be almost afraid to sit to him."

"Walter, are you in earnest?" exclaimed Elinor.

"For Heaven's sake, dearest Elinor, do not let him paint the look which
you now wear," said her lover, smiling, though rather perplexed. "There:
it is passing away now, but when you spoke, you seemed frightened to
death, and very sad besides. What were you thinking of?"

"Nothing, nothing," answered Elinor, hastily. "You paint my face with
your own fantasies. Well, come for me to-morrow, and we will visit this
wonderful artist."

But when the young man had departed, it cannot be denied that a
remarkable expression was again visible on the fair and youthful face of
his mistress. It was a sad and anxious look, little in accordance with
what should have been the feelings of a maiden on the eve of wedlock.
Yet Walter Ludlow was the chosen of her heart.

"A look!" said Elinor to herself. "No wonder that it startled him, if it
expressed what I sometimes feel. I know, by my own experience, how
frightful a look may be. But it was all fancy. I thought nothing of it
at the time,--I have seen nothing of it since,--I did but dream it."

And she busied herself about the embroidery of a ruff, in which she meant
that her portrait should be taken.

The painter, of whom they had been speaking, was not one of those native
artists, who, at a later period than this, borrowed their colors from the
Indians, and manufactured their pencils of the furs of wild beasts.
Perhaps, if he could have revoked his life and prearranged his destiny,
he might have chosen to belong to that school without a master, in the
hope of being at least original, since there were no works of art to
imitate, nor rules to follow. But he had been born and educated in
Europe. People said, that he had studied the grandeur or beauty of
conception, and every touch of the master hand, in all the most famous
pictures, in cabinets and galleries, and on the walls of churches, till
there was nothing more for his powerful mind to learn.

Art could add nothing to its lessons, but Nature might. He had therefore
visited a world, whither none of his professional brethren had preceded
him, to feast his eyes on visible images, that were noble and
picturesque, yet had never been transferred to canvas. America was too
poor to afford other temptations to an artist of eminence, though many of
the colonial gentry, on the painter's arrival, had expressed a wish to
transmit their lineaments to posterity, by means of his skill. Whenever
such proposals were made, he fixed his piercing eyes on the applicant,
and seemed to look him through and through. If he beheld only a sleek
and comfortable visage, though there were a gold-laced coat to adorn the
picture, and golden guineas to pay for it, he civilly rejected the task
and the reward. But if the face were the index of anything uncommon, in
thought, sentiment, or experience; or if he met a beggar in the street,
with a white beard and a furrowed brow; or if sometimes a child happened
to look up and smile; he would exhaust all the art on them, that he
denied to wealth.

Pictorial skill being so rare in the colonies, the painter became an
object of general curiosity. If few or none could appreciate the
technical merit of his productions, yet there were points in regard to
which the opinion of the crowd was as valuable as the refined judgment of
the amateur. He watched the effect that each picture produced on such
untutored beholders, and derived profit from their remarks, while they
would as soon have thought of instructing Nature herself, as him who
seemed to rival her. Their admiration, it must he owned, was tinctured
with the prejudices of the age and country. Some deemed it an offence
against the Mosaic law, and even a presumptuous mockery of the Creator,
to bring into existence such lively images of his creatures. Others,
frightened at the art which could raise phantoms at will, and keep the
form of the dead among the living, were inclined to consider the painter
as a magician, or perhaps the famous Black Man, of old witch times,
plotting mischief in a new guise. These foolish fancies were more than
half believed among the mob. Even in superior circles, his character was
invested with a vague awe, partly rising like smoke-wreaths from the
popular superstitious, but chiefly caused by the varied knowledge and
talents which he made subservient to his profession.

Being on the eve of marriage, Walter Ludlow and Elinor were eager to
obtain their portraits, as the first of what, they doubtless hoped, would
be a long series of family pictures. The day after the conversation
above recorded, they visited the painter's rooms. A servant ushered them
into an apartment, where, though the artist himself was not visible,
there were personages whom they could hardly forbear greeting with
reverence. They knew, indeed, that the whole assembly were but pictures,
yet felt it impossible to separate the idea of life and intellect from
such striking counterfeits. Several of the portraits were known to them,
either as distinguished characters of the day, or their private
acquaintances. There was Governor Burnett, looking as if he had just
received an undutiful communication from the House of Representatives,
and were inditing a most sharp response. Mr. Cooke hung beside the ruler
whom he opposed, sturdy, and somewhat puritanical, as befitted a popular
leader. The ancient lady of Sir William Phipps eyed them from the wall,
in ruff and farthingale, an imperious old dame, not unsuspected of
witchcraft. John Winslow, then a very young man, wore the expression of
warlike enterprise, which long afterwards made him a distinguished
general. Their personal friends were recognized at a glance. In most of
the pictures, the whole mind and character were brought out on the
countenance, and concentrated into a single look, so that, to speak
paradoxically, the originals hardly resembled themselves so strikingly as
the portraits did.

Among these modern worthies, there were two old bearded saints, who had
almost vanished into the darkening canvas. There was also a pale, but
unfaded Madonna, who had perhaps been worshipped in Rome, and now
regarded the lovers with such a mild and holy look, that they longed to
worship too.

"How singular a thought," observed Walter Ludlow, "that this beautiful
face has been beautiful for above two hundred years! O, if all beauty
would endure so well! Do you not envy her, Elinor?"

"If earth were heaven, I might," she replied. "But where all things
fade, how miserable to be the one that could not fade!"

"This dark old St. Peter has a fierce and ugly scowl, saint though he
be," continued Walter. "He troubles me. But the Virgin looks kindly at

"Yes; but very sorrowfully, methinks," said Elinor.

The easel stood beneath these three old pictures, sustaining one that had
been recently commenced. After a little inspection, they began to
recognize the features of their own minister, the Rev. Dr. Colman,
growing into shape and life, as it were, out of a cloud.

"Kind old man!" exclaimed Elinor. "He gazes at me, as if he were about
to utter a word of paternal advice."

"And at me," said Walter, "as if he were about to shake his head and
rebuke me for some suspected iniquity. But so does the original. I
shall never feel quite comfortable under his eye, till we stand before
him to be married."

They now heard a footstep on the floor, and turning, beheld the painter,
who had been some moments in the room, and had listened to a few of their
remarks. He was a middle-aged man, with a countenance well worthy of his
own pencil. Indeed, by the picturesque, though careless arrangement of
his rich dress, and, perhaps, because his soul dwelt always among painted
shapes, he looked somewhat like a portrait himself. His visitors were
sensible of a kindred between the artist and his works, and felt as if
one of the pictures had stepped from the canvas to salute them.

Walter Ludlow, who was slightly known to the painter, explained the
object of their visit. While be spoke, a sunbeam was falling athwart his
figure and Elinor's, with so happy an effect, that they also seemed
living pictures of youth and beauty, gladdened by bright fortune. The
artist was evidently struck.

"My easel is occupied for several ensuing days, and my stay in Boston
must be brief," said he, thoughtfully; then, after an observant glance,
he added, "but your wishes shall be gratified, though I disappoint the
Chief Justice and Madam Oliver. I must not lose this opportunity, for
the sake of painting a few ells of broadcloth and brocade."

The painter expressed a desire to introduce both their portraits into one
picture, and represent them engaged in some appropriate action. This
plan would have delighted the lovers, but was necessarily rejected,
because so large a space of canvas would have been unfit for the room
which it was intended to decorate. Two half-length portraits were
therefore fixed upon. After they had taken leave, Walter Ludlow asked
Elinor, with a smile, whether she knew what an influence over their fates
the painter was about to acquire.

"The old women of Boston affirm," continued he, "that after he has once
got possession of a person's face and figure, he may paint him in any act
or situation whatever,--and the picture will be prophetic. Do you
believe it?"

"Not quite," said Elinor, smiling. "Yet if he has such magic, there is
something so gentle in his manner, that I am sure he will use it well."

It was the painter's choice to proceed with both the portraits at the
same time, assigning as a reason, in the mystical language which he
sometimes used, that the faces threw light upon each other. Accordingly,
he gave now a touch to Walter, and now to Elinor, and the features of one
and the other began to start forth so vividly, that it appeared as if his
triumphant art would actually disengage them from the canvas. Amid the
rich light and deep shade, they beheld their phantom selves. But, though
the likeness promised to be perfect, they were not quite satisfied with
the expression; it seemed more vague than in most of the painter's works.
He, however, was satisfied with the prospect of success, and being much
interested in the lovers, employed his leisure moments, unknown to them,
in making a crayon sketch of their two figures. During their sittings,
he engaged them in conversation, and kindled up their faces with
characteristic traits, which, though continually varying, it was his
purpose to combine and fix. At length he announced, that at their next
visit both the portraits would be ready for delivery.

"If my pencil will but be true to my conception, in the few last touches
which I meditate," observed he, "these two pictures will be my very best
performances. Seldom, indeed, has an artist such subjects."

While speaking, he still bent his penetrative eye upon them, nor withdrew
it till they had reached the bottom of the stairs.

Nothing, in the whole circle of human vanities, takes stronger hold of
the imagination, than this affair of having a portrait painted. Yet why
should it be so? The looking-glass, the polished globes of the andirons,
the mirror-like water, and all other reflecting surfaces, continually
present us with portraits, or rather ghosts, of ourselves, which we
glance at, and straightway forget them. But we forget them, only because
they vanish. It is the idea of duration--of earthly immortality--that
gives such a mysterious interest to our own portraits. Walter and Elinor
were not insensible to this feeling, and hastened to the painter's room,
punctually at the appointed hour, to meet those pictured shapes, which
were to be their representatives with posterity. The sunshine flashed
after them into the apartment, but left it somewhat gloomy, as they
closed the door.

Their eyes were immediately attracted to their portraits, which rested
against the farthest wall of the room. At the first glance, through the
dim light and the distance, seeing themselves in precisely their natural
attitudes, and with all the air that they recognized so well, they
uttered a simultaneous exclamation of delight.

"There we stand," cried Walter, enthusiastically, fixed in sunshine
forever! No dark passions can gather on our faces!"

"No," said Elinor, more calmly; "no dreary change can sadden us."

This was said while they were approaching, and had yet gained only an
imperfect view of the pictures. The painter, after saluting them, busied
himself at a table in completing a crayon sketch, leaving his visitors to
form their own judgment as to his perfected labors. At intervals, he
sent a glance from beneath his deep eyebrows, watching their countenances
in profile, with his pencil suspended over the sketch. They had now
stood some moments, each in front of the other's picture, contemplating
it with entranced attention, but without uttering a word. At length,
Walter stepped forward,--then back,--viewing Elinor's portrait in various
lights, and finally spoke.

"Is there not a change?" said he, in a doubtful and meditative tone.
"Yes; the perception of it grows more vivid, the longer I look. It is
certainly the same picture that I saw yesterday; the dress,--the
features,--all are the same; and yet something is altered."

"Is then the picture less like than it was yesterday?" inquired the
painter, now drawing near, with irrepressible interest.

"The features are perfect, Elinor," answered Walter, "and, at the first
glance, the expression seemed also hers. But, I could fancy that the
portrait has changed countenance, while I have been looking at it. The
eyes are fixed on mine with a strangely sad and anxious expression. Nay,
it is grief and terror! Is this like Elinor?"

"Compare the living face with the pictured one," said the painter.

Walter glanced sidelong at his mistress, and started. Motionless and
absorbed--fascinated as it were--in contemplation of Walter's portrait,
Elinor's face had assumed precisely the expression of which be had just
been complaining. Had she practised for whole hours before a mirror, she
could not have caught the look so successfully. Had the picture itself
been a mirror, it could not have thrown back her present aspect, with
stronger and more melancholy truth. She appeared quite unconscious of
the dialogue between the artist and her lover.

"Elinor," exclaimed Walter, in amazement, "what change has come over

She did not hear him, nor desist from her fixed gaze, till he seized her
hand, and thus attracted her notice; then, with a sudden tremor, she
looked from the picture to the face of the original.

"Do you see no change in your portrait?" asked she.

"In mine?--None!" replied Walter, examining it. "But let me see! Yes;
there is a slight change,--an improvement, I think, in the picture,
though none in the likeness. It has a livelier expression than
yesterday, as if some bright thought were flashing from the eyes, and
about to be uttered from the lips. Now that I have caught the look,
it becomes very decided."

While he was intent on these observations, Elinor turned to the painter.
She regarded him with grief and awe, and felt that he repaid her with
sympathy and commiseration, though wherefore she could but vaguely guess.

"That look!" whispered she, and shuddered. "How came it there?"

"Madam," said the painter, sadly, taking her hand, and leading her
apart, "in both these pictures, I have painted what I saw. The artist--
the true artist--must look beneath the exterior. It is his gift--his
proudest but often a melancholy one--to see the inmost soul, and by a
power indefinable even to himself to make it glow or darken upon the
canvas, in glances that express the thought and sentiment of years.
Would that I might convince myself of error in the present instance!"

They had now approached the table, on which were heads in chalk, hands
almost as expressive as ordinary faces, ivied church-towers, thatched
cottages, old thunder-stricken trees, Oriental and antique costume, and
all such picturesque vagaries of an artist's idle moments. Turning them
over, with seeming carelessness, a crayon sketch of two figures was

"If I have failed," continued he, "if your heart does not see itself
reflected in your own portrait, if you have no secret cause to trust my
delineation of the other, it is not yet too late to alter them. I might
change the action of these figures too. But would it influence the

He directed her notice to the sketch. A thrill ran through Elinor's
frame; a shriek was upon her lips; but she stifled it, with the self-
command that becomes habitual to all, who hide thoughts of fear and
anguish within their bosoms. Turning from the table, she perceived that
Walter had advanced near enough to have seen the sketch, though she could
not determine whether it had caught his eye.

"We will not have the pictures altered," said she, hastily. "If mine is
sad, I shall but look the gayer for the contrast."

"Be it so," answered the painter, bowing. "May your griefs be such
fanciful ones, that only your picture may mourn for them! For your
joys,--may they be true and deep, and paint themselves upon this lovely
face till it quite belie my art!"

After the marriage of Walter and Elinor, the pictures formed the two most
splendid ornaments of their abode. They hung side by side, separated by
a narrow panel, appearing to eye each other constantly, yet always
returning the gaze of the spectator. Travelled gentlemen, who professed
a knowledge of such subjects, reckoned these among the most admirable
specimens of modern portraiture; while common observers compared them
with the originals, feature by feature, and were rapturous in praise of
the likeness. But it was on a third class--neither travelled
connoisseurs nor common observers, but people of natural sensibility--
that the pictures wrought their strongest effect. Such persons might
gaze carelessly at first, but, becoming interested, would return day
after day, and study these painted faces like the pages of a mystic
volume. Walter Ludlow's portrait attracted their earliest notice. In
the absence of himself and his bride, they sometimes disputed as to the
expression which the painter had intended to throw upon the features; all
agreeing that there was a look of earnest import, though no two explained
it alike. There was less diversity of opinion in regard to Elinor's
picture. They differed, indeed, in their attempts to estimate the nature
and depth of the gloom that dwelt upon her face, but agreed that it was
gloom, and alien from the natural temperament of their youthful friend.
A certain fanciful person announced, as the result of much scrutiny, that
both these pictures were parts of one design, and that the melancholy
strength of feeling, in Elinor's countenance, bore reference to the more
vivid emotion, or, as he termed it, the wild passion, in that of Walter.
Though unskilled in the art, he even began a sketch, in which the action
of the two figures was to correspond with their mutual expression.

It was whispered among friends, that, day by day, Elinor's face was
assuming a deeper shade of pensiveness, which threatened soon to render
her too true a counterpart of her melancholy picture. Walter, on the
other hand, instead of acquiring the vivid look which the painter had
given him on the canvas, became reserved and downcast, with no outward
flashes of emotion, however it might be smouldering within. In course of
time, Elinor hung a gorgeous curtain of purple silk, wrought with
flowers, and fringed with heavy golden tassels, before the pictures,
under pretence that the dust would tarnish their lines, or the light din
them. It was enough. Her visitors felt, that the massive folds of the
silk must never be withdrawn, nor the portraits mentioned in her

Time wore on; and the painter came again. He had been far enough to the
north to see the silver cascade of the Crystal Hills, and to look over
the vast round of cloud and forest, from the summit of New England's
loftiest mountain. But he did not profane that scene by the mockery of
his art. He had also lain in a canoe on the bosom of Lake George, making
his soul the mirror of its loveliness and grandeur, till not a picture in
the Vatican was more vivid than his recollection. He had gone with the
Indian hunters to Niagara, and there, again, had flung his hopeless
pencil down the precipice, feeling that he could as soon paint the roar,
as aught else that goes to make up the wondrous cataract. In truth, it
was seldom his impulse to copy natural scenery, except as a framework for
the delineations of the human form and face, instinct with thought,
passion, or suffering. With store of such, his adventurous ramble had
enriched him; the stern dignity of Indian chiefs; the dusky loveliness of
Indian girls; the domestic life of wigwams; the stealthy march; the
battle beneath gloomy pine-trees; the frontier fortress with its
garrison; the anomaly of the old French partisan, bred in courts, but
grown gray in shaggy deserts;--such were the scenes and portraits that he
had sketched. The glow of perilous moments; flashes of wild feeling;
struggles of fierce power; love, hate, grief, frenzy; in a word, all the
worn-out heart of the old earth had been revealed to him under a new
form. His portfolio was filled with graphic illustrations of the volume
of his memory, which genius would transmute into its own substance, and
imbue with immortality. He felt that the deep wisdom in his art, which
he had sought so far, was found.

But, amid stern or lovely nature, in the perils of the forest, or its
overwhelming peacefulness, still there had been two phantoms, the
companions of his way. Like all other men around whom an engrossing
purpose wreathes itself, he was insulated from the mass of human kind.
He had no aim,--no pleasure,--no sympathies,--but what were ultimately
connected with his art.

Though gentle in manner, and upright in intent and fiction, he did not
possess kindly feelings; his heart was cold; no living creature could be
brought near enough to keep him warm. For these two beings, however, he
had felt, in its greatest intensity, the sort of interest which always
allied him to the subjects of his pencil. He had pried into their souls
with his keenest insight, and pictured the result upon their features,
with his utmost skill, so as barely to fall short of that standard which
no genius ever reached, his own severe conception. He had caught from
the duskiness of the future--at least, so he fancied--a fearful secret,
and had obscurely revealed it on the portraits. So much of himself--of
his imagination and all other powers--had been lavished on the study of
Walter and Elinor, that he almost regarded them as creations of his own,
like the thousands with which he had peopled the realms of Picture.
Therefore did they flit through the twilight of the woods, hover on the
mist of waterfalls, look forth from the mirror of the lake, nor melt away
in the noontide sun. They haunted his pictorial fancy, not as mockeries
of life, nor pale goblins of the dead, but in the guise of portraits,
each with the unalterable expression which his magic had evoked from the
caverns of the soul. He could not recross the Atlantic, till he had
again beheld the originals of those airy pictures.

"O glorious Art!" thus mused the enthusiastic painter, as he trod the
street. "Thou art the image of the Creator's own. The innumerable
forms, that wander in nothingness, start into being at thy beck. The
dead live again. Thou recallest them to their old scenes, and givest
their gray shadows the lustre of a better life, at once earthly and
immortal. Thou snatchest back the fleeting moments of History. With
thee, there is no Past; for, at thy touch, all that is great becomes
forever present; and illustrious men live through long ages, in the
visible performance of the very deeds which made thorn what they are. O
potent Art! as thou bringest the faintly revealed Past to stand in that
narrow strip of sunlight, which we call Now, canst thou summon the
shrouded Future to meet her there? Have I not achieved it? Am I not thy

Thus, with a proud, yet melancholy fervor, did he almost cry aloud, as he
passed through the toilsome street, among people that knew not of his
reveries, nor could understand nor care for them. It is not good for man
to cherish a solitary ambition. Unless there be those around him, by
whose example be may regulate himself, his thoughts, desires, and hopes
will become extravagant, and he the semblance, perhaps the reality, of a
madman. Reading other bosoms, with an acuteness almost preternatural,
the painter failed to see the disorder of his own.

"And this should be the house," said he, looking up and down the front,
before he knocked. "Heaven help my brains! That picture! Methinks it
will never vanish. Whether I look at the windows or the door, there it
is framed within them, painted strongly, and glowing in the richest
tints--the faces of the portraits--the figures and action of the sketch!"

He knocked.

"The Portraits! Are they within?" inquired he, of the domestic; then
recollecting himself,--"your master and mistress! Are they at home?"

"They are, sir," said the servant, adding, as he noticed that picturesque
aspect of which the painter could never divest himself, "and the
Portraits too!"

The guest was admitted into a parlor, communicating by a central door
with an interior room of the same size. As the first apartment was
empty, he passed to the entrance of the second, within which his eyes
were greeted by those living personages, as well as their pictured
representatives, who had long been the objects of so singular an
interest. He involuntarily paused on the threshold.

They had not perceived his approach. Walter and Elinor were standing
before the portraits, whence the former had just flung back the rich and
voluminous folds of the silken curtain, holding its golden tassel with
one hand, while the other grasped that of his bride. The pictures,
concealed for months, gleamed forth again in undiminished splendor,
appearing to throw a sombre light across the room, rather than to be
disclosed by a borrowed radiance. That of Elinor had been almost
prophetic. A pensiveness, and next a gentle sorrow, had successively
dwelt upon her countenance, deepening, with the lapse of time, into a
quiet anguish. A mixture of affright would now have made it the very
expression of the portrait. Walter's face was moody and dull, or
animated only by fitful flashes, which left a heavier darkness for their
momentary illumination. He looked from Elinor to her portrait, and
thence to his own, in the contemplation of which he finally stood

The painter seemed to hear the step of Destiny approaching behind him, on
its progress towards its victims. A strange thought darted into his
mind. Was not his own the form in which that destiny had embodied
itself, and he a chief agent of the coming evil which he had

Still, Walter remained silent before the picture, communing with it, as
with his own heart, and abandoning himself to the spell of evil
influence, that the painter had cast upon the features. Gradually his
eyes kindled; while as Elinor watched the increasing wildness of his
face, her own assumed a look of terror; and when at last he turned upon
her, the resemblance of both to their portraits was complete.

"Our fate is upon us!" howled Walter.--"Die!"

Drawing a knife, he sustained her, as she was sinking to the ground, and
aimed it at her bosom. In the action and in the look and attitude of
each, the painter beheld the figures of his sketch. The picture, with
all its tremendous coloring, was finished.

"Hold, madman!" cried he, sternly.

He had advanced from the door, and interposed himself between the
wretched beings, with the same sense of power to regulate their destiny,
as to alter a scene upon the canvas. He stood like a magician,
controlling the phantoms which he had evoked.

"What!" muttered Walter Ludlow, as he relapsed from fierce excitement
into silent gloom. "Does Fate impede its own decree?"

"Wretched lady!" said the painter. "Did I not warn you?"

"You did," replied Elinor, calmly, as her terror gave place to the quiet
grief which it had disturbed. "But--I loved him!"

Is there not a deep moral in the tale? Could the result of one, or all
our deeds, be shadowed forth and set before us, some would call it Fate,
and hurry onward, others be swept along by their passionate desires, and
none be turned aside by the PROPHETIC PICTURES.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

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