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Tales of the Dead


                            ---- "Wan the maiden was,
Of saintly paleness, and there seem'd to dwell
In the strong beauties of her countenance
Something that was not earthly."

"The clock has toll'd; and, hark! the bell
Of death beats slow."
{64} A heavy rain prevented the three friends from taking the morning's walk they had concerted: notwithstanding which, Amelia and Maria failed not to be at Florentina's house at the appointed hour. The latter had for some time past been silent, pensive, and absorbed in thought; and the anxiety of her friends made them very uneasy at the visible impression left on her mind by the violent tempest of the preceding night.

Florentina met her friends greatly agitated, and embraced them with more than usual tenderness.

"Fine weather for a walk!" cried Amelia: "how have you passed this dreadful night?"

"Not very well, you may easily imagine. My residence is in too lonely a situation."

{65} "Fortunately," replied Maria, laughing, "it will not long be yours."

"That's true," answered Florentina, sighing deeply. "The count returns from his travels to-morrow, in the hope of soon conducting me to the altar."

"Merely in the hope?" replied Maria: "the mysterious manner in which you uttered these words, leads me to apprehend you mean to frustrate those hopes."

"I? ---- But how frequently in this life does hope prove only an untimely flower?"

"My dear Florentina," said Maria, embracing her, "for some time past my sister and I have vainly attempted to account for your lost gaiety; and have been tormented with the idea, that possibly family reasons have induced you, contrary to your wishes, to consent to this marriage which is about to take place."

"Family reasons! Am I not the last of our house; the only remaining one, whom the tombs of my ancestors have not as yet enclosed? And have I not for my Ernest that ardent affection which is natural to my time of life? Or do you think me capable of such duplicity, when I have so recently depicted to you, in the most glowing colours, the man of my heart's choice?"

"What then am I to believe?" inquired Maria. {66} "Is it not a strange contradiction, that a young girl, handsome and witty, rich and of high rank, and who, independently of these advantages, will not by her marriage be estranged from her family, should approach the altar with trembling?"

Florentina, holding out her hand to the two sisters, said to them:

"How kind you are! I ought really to feel quite ashamed in not yet having placed entire confidence in your friendship, even on a subject which is to me, at this moment incomprehensible. At this moment I am not equal to the task; but in the course of the day I hope to be sufficiently recovered. In the mean while let us talk on less interesting subjects."

The violent agitation of Florentina's mind was so evident at this moment, that the two sisters willingly assented to her wishes. Thinking that the present occasion required trifling subjects of conversation, they endeavoured to joke with her on the terrors of the preceding night. However, Maria finished by saying, with rather a serious air, --

"I must confess, that more than once I have been tempted to think something extraordinary occurred. At first it appeared as if some one opened and shut the window of the room in which we slept, and then as if they approached my bed. I distinctly heard footsteps: an icy trembling {67} seized me, and I covered my face over with the clothes."

"Alas!" exclaimed Amelia, "I cannot tell you how frequently I heard similar noises. But as yet nothing have I seen."

"Most fervently do I hope," replied Florentina in an awful tone of voice, "that neither of you will ever, in this life, be subject to a proof of this nature!"

The deep sigh which accompanied these words, and the uneasy look she cast on the two sisters, produced evident emotions in them both.

"Possibly you have experienced such proof?" replied Amelia.

"Not precisely so: but -- suspend your curiosity. This evening -- if I am still alive -- I mean to say -- that this evening I shall be better able to communicate all to you."

Maria made a sign to Amelia, who instantly understood her sister; and thinking that Florentina wished to be alone, though evidently disturbed in her mind, they availed themselves of the first opportunity which her silence afforded. Her prayer-book was lying open on the table, which, now perceiving for the first time, confirmed Maria in the idea she had conceived. In looking for her shawl she removed a handkerchief which covered this book, and saw that the part which had most probably {68} occupied Florentina before their arrival was the Canticle on Death. The three friends separated, overcome and almost weeping, as if they were never to meet again.

Amelia and Maria awaited with the greatest impatience the hour of returning to Florentina. -- They embraced her with redoubled satisfaction, for she seemed to them more gay than usual.

"My dear girls," said she to them, "pardon, I pray you, my abstraction of this morning. Depressed by having passed so bad a night, I thought myself on the brink of the grave; and fancied it needful to make up my accounts in this world, and prepare for the next. I have made my will, and have placed it in the magistrate's hands: however, since I have taken a little repose this afternoon, I find myself so strong, and in such good spirits, that I feel as if I had escaped the danger which threatened me."

"But, my dear," replied Maria, in a mild yet affectionate tone of reproach, "how could one sleepless night fill your mind with such gloomy thoughts?"

"I agree with you on the folly of permitting it so to do; and had I encouraged sinister thoughts, that dreadful night would not have been the sole cause, for it found me in such a frame of mind that its influence was not at all necessary to add to {69} my horrors. But no more of useless mystery. I will fulfill my promise, and clear up your doubts on many parts of my manner and conduct, which at present must appear to you inexplicable. Prepare yourselves for the strangest and most surprising events. -- But the damp and cold evening air has penetrated this room, it will therefore be better to have a fire lighted, that the chill which my recital may produce be not increased by any exterior cause."

While they were lighting the fire, Maria and her sister expressed great joy at seeing such a happy change in Florentina's manner; and the latter could scarcely describe the satisfaction she felt, at having resolved to develop to them the secret which she had so long concealed.

The three friends being alone, Florentina began as follows: --

"You were acquainted with my sister Seraphina, whom I had the misfortune to lose; but I alone can boast of possessing her confidence; which is the cause of my mentioning many things relative to her, before I begin the history I have promised, in which she is the principal personage.

"From her infancy, Seraphina was remarkable for several singularities. She was a year younger than myself; but frequently, while seated by her side I was amusing myself with the playthings {70} common to our age, she would fix her eyes, by the half hour together, as if absorbed in thought: she seldom took any part in our infantine amusements. This disposition greatly chagrined our parents; for they attributed Seraphina's indifference to stupidity; and they were apprehensive this defect would necessarily prove an obstacle in the education requisite for the distinguished rank we held in society, my father being, next the prince, the first person in the country. They had already thought of procuring for her a canonry from some noble chapel, when things took an entirely different turn.

"Her preceptor, an aged man, to whose care they had confided her at a very early age, assured them, that in his life he had never met with so astonishing an intellect as Seraphina's. My father doubted the assertion: but an examination, which he caused to be made in his presence, convinced him that it was founded in truth.

"Nothing was then neglected to give Seraphina every possible accomplishment: -- masters of different languages, of music, and of dancing, every day filled the house.

"But in a short time my father perceived that he was again mistaken: for Seraphina made so little progress in the study of the different languages, that the masters shrugged their shoulders; and the dancing-master pretended, that though her {71} feet were extremely pretty, he could do nothing with them, as her head seldom took the trouble to guide them.

"By way of retaliation, she made such wonderful progress in music that she soon excelled her masters. She sang in a manner superior to that of the best opera-singers.

"My father acknowledged that his plans for the education of this extraordinary child were now as much too enlarged, as they were before too circumscribed; and that it would not do to keep too light a hand over her, but let her follow the impulse of her own wishes.

"This new arrangement afforded Seraphina the opportunity of more particularly studying the science of astronomy; which was one they had never thought of as needful for her. You can, my friends, form but a very indifferent idea of the avidity with which (if so I may express myself) she devoured those books which treated on celestial bodies; or what rapture the globes and telescopes occasioned her, when her father presented them to her on her thirteenth birth-day.

"But the progress made in this science in our days did not long satisfy Seraphina's curiosity. To my father's great grief; she was wrapped up in reveries of astrology; and more than once she was found in the morning occupied in studying books which {72} treated on the influence of the stars, and which she had begun to peruse the preceding evening.

"My mother, being at the point of death, was anxious, I believe, to remonstrate with Seraphina on this whim; but her death was too sudden. My father thought that at this tender age Seraphina's whimsical fancy would wear off: however, time passed on, and he found that she still remained constant to a study she had cherished from her infancy.

"You cannot forget the general sensation her beauty produced at court: how much the fashionable versifiers of the day sang her graceful figure and beautiful flaxen locks; and how often they failed, when they attempted to describe the particular and indefinable character which distinguished her fine blue eyes. I must say, I have often embraced my sister, whom I loved with the greatest affection, merely to have the pleasure of getting nearer, if possible, to her soft angelic eyes, from which Seraphina's pale countenance borrowed almost all its sublimity.

"She received many extremely advantageous proposals of marriage, but declined them all. You know her predilection in favour of solitude, and that she never went out but to enjoy my society. She took no pleasure in dress; nay, she even avoided all occasions which required more than ordinary {73} expense. Those who were not acquainted with the singularity of her character might have accused her of affectation.

"But a very extraordinary particularity, which I by chance discovered in her just as she attained her fifteenth year, created an impression of fear on my mind which will never be effaced.

"On my return from making a visit, I found Seraphina in my father's cabinet, near the window, with her eyes fixed and immoveable. Accustomed from her earliest infancy to see her in this situation, without being perceived by her I pressed her to my bosom, without producing on her the least sensation of my presence. At this moment I looked towards the garden, and I there saw my father walking with this same Seraphina whom I held in my arms.

"In the name of God, my sister -- !" exclaimed I, equally cold with the statue before me; who now began to recover.

"At the same time my eye involuntarily returned towards the garden, where I had seen her; and there perceived my father alone, looking with uneasiness, as it appeared to me, for her, who, but an instant before, was with him. I endeavoured to conceal this event from my sister; but in the most affectionate tone she loaded me with questions to learn the cause of my agitation.

{74} "I eluded them as well as I could; and asked her how long she had been in the closet. She answered me, smiling, that I ought to know best; as she came in after me; and that if she was not mistaken, she had before that been walking in the garden with my father.

"This ignorance of the situation in which she was but an instant before, did not astonish me on my sister's account, as she had often shewn proofs of this absence of mind. At that instant my father came in, exclaiming: 'Tell me, my dear Seraphina, how you so suddenly escaped from my sight, and came here? We were, as you know, conversing; and scarcely had you finished speaking, when, looking round, I found myself alone. I naturally thought that you had concealed yourself in the adjacent thicket; but in vain I looked there for you; and on coming into this room, here I find you.'

"'It is really strange,' replied Seraphina; 'I know not myself how it has happened.'

"From that moment I felt convinced of what I had heard from several persons, but what my father always contradicted; which was, that while Seraphina was in the house, she had been seen elsewhere. I secretly reflected also on what my sister had repeatedly told me, that when a child (she was ignorant whether sleeping or awake), she {75} had been transported to heaven, where she had played with angels; to which incident she attributed her disinclination to all infantine games.

"My father strenuously combated this idea, as well as the event to which I had been witness, of her sudden disappearance from the garden.

"'Do not torment me any longer,' said he, 'with these phaenomena, which appear complaisantly renewed every day, in order to gratify your eager imagination. It is true, that your sister's person and habits present many singularities; but all your idle talk will never persuade me that she holds any immediate intercourse with the world of spirits.'

"My father did not then know, that where there is any doubt of the future, the weak mind of man ought not to allow him to profane the word never, by uttering it.

"About a year and half afterwards, an event occurred which had power to shake even my father's determined manner of thinking to its very foundation. It was on a Sunday, that Seraphina and I wished at last to pay a visit which we had from time to time deferred: for notwithstanding my sister was very fond of being with me, she avoided even my society whenever she could not enjoy it but in the midst of a large assembly, where constraint destroyed all pleasure.

"To adorn herself for a party, was to her an {76} anticipated torment; for she said, she only submitted to this trouble to please those whose frivolous and dissipated characters greatly offended her. On similar occasions she sometimes met with persons to whom she could not speak without shuddering, and whose presence made her ill for several days.

"The hour of assembling approached; she was anxious that I should go without her: my father doubting her, came into our room, and insisted on her changing her determination.

"'I cannot permit you to infringe every duty.'

"He accordingly desired her to dress as quickly as possible, and accompany me.

"The waiting-maid was just gone out on an errand with which I had commissioned her. My sister took a light to fetch her clothes from a wardrobe in the upper story. She remained much longer absent than was requisite. At length she returned without a light: -- I screamed with fright. My father asked her in an agitated manner, what had happened to her. In fact, she had scarcely been absent a quarter of an hour, and yet during that time her face had undergone a complete alteration; her habitual paleness had given place to a death-like hue; her ruby lips were turned blue.

"My arms involuntarily opened to embrace this sister whom I adored. I almost doubted my sight, {77} for I could get no answer from her; but for a long while she leaned against my bosom, mute and inanimate. The look, replete with infinite softness, which she gave my father and me, alone informed us, that during her continuance in this incomprehensible trance, she still belonged to the material world.

"'I was seized with a sudden indisposition,' she at length said in a low voice; 'but I now find myself better.'

"She asked my father whether he still wished her to go into society. He thought, that after an occurrence of this nature her going out might be dangerous: but he would not dispense with my making the visit, although I endeavoured to persuade him that my attention might be needful to Seraphina. I left her with an aching heart.

"I had ordered the carriage to be sent for me at a very early hour: but the extreme anxiety I felt would not allow me to wait its arrival, and I returned home on foot. The servant could scarcely keep pace with me, such was my haste to return to Seraphina.

"On my arrival in her room, my impatience was far from being relieved.

"'Where is she?' I quickly asked.

"'Who mademoiselle?'

"'Why, Seraphina.'

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