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Tales of the Dead

II. THE FATED HOUR, continued

{78} "'Mademoiselle, Seraphina is in your father's closet.'


"'No with his excellency.'

"I ran to the boudoir: the door, which was previously shut, at that instant opened, and my father with Seraphina came out: the latter was in tears. I remarked that my father had an air of chagrin and doubt which not even the storms of public life had ever produced in his countenance.

"He made us a sign full of gentleness, and Seraphina followed me into another room: but she first assured my father she would remember the promise he had exacted, and of which I was still ignorant.

"Seraphina appeared to me so tormented by the internal conflicts she endured, that I several times endeavoured, but in vain, to draw from her the mysterious event which had so recently thrown her into so alarming a situation. At last I overcame her scruples, and she answered me as follows:

"'Your curiosity shall be satisfied, in part. I will develop some of the mystery to you; but only on one irrevocable condition.'

"I entreated her instantly to name the condition: and she thus continued: --

"'Swear to me, that you will rest satisfied with what I shall disclose to you, and that you will {79} never urge nor use that power which you possess over my heart, to obtain a knowledge of what I am obliged to conceal from you.

"I swore it to her.

"'Now, my dear Florentina, forgive me, if, for the first time in my life, I have a secret from you; and also for not being satisfied with your mere word for the promise I have exacted from you. My father, to whom I have confided every thing, has imposed these two obligations on me, and his last words were to that effect.'

"I begged her to come to the point.

"'Words are inadequate to describe,' said she, 'the weight I felt my soul oppressed with when I went to get my clothes. I had no sooner closed the door of the room in which you and my father were, than I fancied I was about to be separated from life and all that constituted my happiness; and that I had many dreadful nights to linger through, ere I could arrive at a better and more peaceful abode. The air which I breathed on the staircase was not such as usually circulates around us; it oppressed my breathing, and caused large drops of icy perspiration to fall from my forehead. Certain it is, I was not alone on the staircase; but for a long while I dared not look around me.

"'You know, my dear Florentina, with what earnestness I wished and prayed, but in vain, that {80} my mother would appear to me after her death, if only for once. I fancied that on the stairs I heard my mother's spirit behind me. I was apprehensive it was come to punish me for the vows I had already made.'

"'A strange thought, certainly!'

"'But how could I imagine that a mother, who was goodness itself, could be offended by the natural wishes of a tenderly beloved child, or have imputed them to indiscreet curiosity? It was no less foolish to think that she, who had been so long since enclosed in the tomb, should occupy herself in inflicting chastisement on me, for faults which were nearly obliterated from my recollection. I was so immediately convinced of the weakness of giving way to such ideas, that I summoned courage and turned my head.

"'Although my affrighted survey could discover nothing, I again heard the footsteps following me, but more distinctly than before. At the door of the room I was about to enter, I felt my gown held. Overpowered by terror, I was unable to proceed, and fell on the threshold of the door.

"'I lost no time, however, in reproaching myself for suffering terror so to overcome me; and recollected that there was nothing supernatural in this accident, for my gown had caught on the handle of an old piece of furniture which had been {81} placed in the passage, to be taken out of the house the following day.

"'This discovery inspired me with fresh courage. I approached the wardrobe: but judge my consternation, when, preparing to open it, the two doors unclosed of themselves, without making the slightest noise; the lamp which I held in my hand was extinguished, and -- as if I was standing before a looking-glass, -- my exact image came out off the wardrobe: the light which it spread, illumined great part of the room.

"'I then heard these words: -- Why tremble you at the sight of your own spirit, which appears to give you warning of your approaching dissolution, and to reveal to you the fate of your house?'

"'The phantom then informed me of several future events. But when, after having deeply meditated on its prophetic words, I asked a question relative to you, the room became as dark as before, and the spirit had vanished. This, my dear, is all I am permitted to reveal.'

"'Your approaching death!' cried I: -- That thought had in an instant effaced all other.

"Smiling, she made me a sign in the affirmative; and gave me to understand, at the same time, that I ought to press her no further on this subject. 'My father,' added she, 'has promised to make you {82} acquainted, in proper time, with all it concerns you to know.'

"'At a proper time!' repeated I, in a plaintive voice; for it appeared to me, that since I had learned so much, it was high time that I should be made acquainted with the whole.

"The same evening I mentioned my wishes to my father: but he was inexorable. He fancied that possibly what had happened to Seraphina might have arisen from her disordered and overheated imagination. However, three days afterwards, my sister finding herself so ill as to be obliged to keep her bed, my father's doubts began to be shaken; and although the precise day of Seraphina's death had not been named to me, I could not avoid observing by her paleness, and the more than usually affectionate manner of embracing my father and me, that the time of our eternal separation was not far off.

"'Will the clock soon strike nine?' asked Seraphina, while we were sitting near her bed in the evening.

"'Yes, soon,' replied my father.

"'Well then! think of me, dear objects of my affection: -- we shall meet again.' She pressed our hands; and the clock no sooner struck, than she fell back in her bed, never to rise more.

"My father has since related to me every particular as it happened; for at that time I was so {83} much overcome that my senses had forsaken me.

"Seraphina's eyes were scarcely closed, when I returned to a life which then appeared to me insupportable. I was apprehensive that the state of stupefaction into which I was thrown by the dread of the loss that threatened me, had appeared to my sister a want of attachment. And from that time I have never thought of the melancholy scene without experiencing a violent shuddering.

"'You must be aware,' said my father to me (it was at the precise hour, and before the same chimney we are at this moment placed) -- you must be aware, that the pretended vision should still be kept quite secret.' I was of his opinion; but could not help adding, 'What! still, my father, though one part of the prediction has in so afflicting a manner been verified, you continue to call it a pretended vision?'

"'Yes, my child; you know not what a dangerous enemy to man is his own imagination. Seraphina will not be the last of its victims.'

"We were seated, as I before said, just as we now are; and I was about to name a motive which I had before omitted, when I perceived that his eyes were fixed in a disturbed manner on the door. I was ignorant of the cause, and could discover nothing extraordinary there: notwithstanding {84}, however, an instant afterwards it opened of its own accord."

Here Florentina stopped, as if overcome anew by the remembrance of her terror. At the same moment Amelia rose from her seat uttering a loud scream.

Her sister and her friend inquired what ailed her. For a long while she made them no reply, and would not resume her seat on the chair, the back of which was towards the door. At length, however, she confessed (casting an inquiring and anxious look around her) that a hand, cold as ice, had touched her neck.

"This is truly the effect of imagination," said Maria, reseating herself: "It was my hand: for some time my arm has been resting on your chair; and when mention was made of the door opening of its own accord, I felt a wish to rest on some living object -- "

"But à-propos, -- And the door -- ?"

' "'Strange incident! I trembled with fear; and clinging to my father, asked him if he did not see a sort of splendid light, a something brilliant, penetrate the apartment.

"'Tis well!' answered he, in a low and tremulous voice, 'we have lost a being whom we cherished; and consequently, in some degree, our minds are disposed to exalted ideas, and our imaginations {85} may very easily be duped by the same illusions: besides, there is nothing very unnatural in a door opening of its own accord.'

"'It ought to be closely shut now,' replied I; without having the courage to do it.

"'Tis very easy to shut it,' said my father. But he rose in visible apprehension, walked a few paces, and then returned, adding, 'The door may remain open; for the room is too warm.'

"It is impossible for me to describe, even by comparison, the singular light I had perceived: and I do assure you, that if, instead of the light, I had seem my sister's spirit enter, I should have opened my arms to receive it; for it was only the mysterious and vague appearance of this strange vision which caused me so much fear.

"The servants coming in at this instant with supper, put an end to the conversation.

"Time could not efface the remembrance of Seraphina; but it wore off all recollections of the last apparition. My daily intercourse with you, my friends, since the loss of Seraphina, has been for me a fortunate circumstance, and has insensibly become an indispensable habit. I no longer thought deeply of the prediction relative to our house, uttered by the phantom to my sister; and in the arms of friendship gave myself up entirely to {86} the innocent gaiety which youth inspires. The beauties of spring contributed to the restoration of my peace of mind. One evening, just as you had left me, I continued walking in the garden, as if intoxicated with the delicious vapours emitted from the flowers, and the magnificent spectacle which the serenity of the sky presented to my view.

"Absorbed entirely by the enjoyment of my existence, I did not notice that it was later than my usual hour for returning. And I know not why, but that evening no one appeared to think of me; for my father, whose solicitude for every thing concerning me was redoubled since my sister's death, and who knew I was in the garden, had not, as was his usual custom, sent me any garment to protect me from the chilling night air.

"While thus reflecting, I was seized with a violent feverish shivering, which I could by no means attribute to the night air. My eyes accidentally fixed on the flowering shrubs; and the same brilliant light which I had seen at the door of the room on the day of Seraphina's burial, appeared to me to rest on these shrubs, and dart its rays towards me. The avenue in which I was happened to have been Seraphina's favourite walk.

"The recollection of this inspired me with courage, and I approached the shrubs in the hope {87} of meeting my sister's shade beneath the trees. But my hopes being frustrated, I returned to the house with trembling steps.

"I there found many extraordinary circumstances: nobody had thought of supper, which I imagined would have been half over. All the servants were running about in confusion, and were hastening to pack up the clothes and furniture.

"'Who is going away?' I demanded.

"'Why surely, mademoiselle!' exclaimed the steward, 'are you not acquainted with his excellency's wish to have us all?'

"'Wherefore then?'

"This very night we are to set out for his excellency's estate."

"'Why so?'

"They shrugged their shoulders. I ran into my father's cabinet, and there found him with his eyes fixed on the ground.

"'Seraphina's second prophecy is also accomplished,' said he to me, 'though precisely the least likely thing possible. -- I am in disgrace.'

"'What! did she predict this?'

"'Yes, my child; but I concealed it from you. I resign myself to my fate, and leave others better to fill this perilous post. I am about to retire to my own estates, there to live for you, and to constitute the happiness of my vassals.'

{88} "In spite of the violent emotions which were created by my father's misfortune, and the idea of separating from all the friends I loved, his apparent tranquillity produced a salutary effect on my mind. At midnight we set off. My father was so much master of himself under his change of condition, that by the time he arrived at his estate he was calm and serene.

"He found many things to arrange and improve; and his active turn of mind soon led him to find a train of pleasing occupations.

"In a short time, however, he was withdrawn from them, by an illness which the physicians regarded as very serious. My father conformed to all they prescribed: he abstained from all occupation, though he entertained very little hope of any good resulting from it. 'Seraphina,' he said to me (entirely changing his former opinion), 'Seraphina has twice predicted true; and will a third time.'

"This conversation made me very miserable; for I understood from it that my father believed he should shortly die.

"In fact, he visibly declined, and was at length forced to keep his bed. He one evening sent for me; and after having dismissed his attendants, he, in a feeble voice, and with frequent interruptions, thus addressed me: --

"'Experience has cured me of incredulity; When {89} the clock strikes nine according to Seraphina's prediction) [sic] I shall be no more. For this reason, my dear child, I am anxious to address a few words of advice to you. If possible, remain in your present state; never marry. Destiny appears to have conspired against our race. -- But no more of this. -- To proceed: if ever you seriously think of marrying, do not, I beseech you, neglect to read this paper; but my express desire is, that you do not open it beforehand, as in that case its contents would cause you unnecessary misery.'

"Saying these words, which with sobbing I listened to, he drew from under his pillow a sealed paper, which he gave me. The moment was not favourable for reflecting on the importance of the condition which he imposed on me. The clock, which announced the fated hour, at which my father, resting on my shoulder, drew his last gasp, deprived me of my senses.

"The day of his interment was also marked by the brilliant and extraordinary light of which I have before made mention.

"You know, that shortly after this melancholy loss I returned to the capital, in hopes of finding consolation in your beloved society. You also know, that youth seconded your efforts to render existence desirable, and that by degrees I felt a relish for {90} life. Neither are you ignorant that the result of this intercourse was an attachment between the count Ernest and me, which rendered my father's exhortations abortive. The count loved me, and I returned his affection, and nothing more was wanting to make me think that I ought not to lead a life of celibacy: besides, my father had only made this request conditionally.

"My marriage appeared certain; and I did not hesitate to open the mysterious paper. There it is, I will read it to you: --

"'Seraphina has undoubtedly already told you, that when she endeavoured to question the phantom concerning your destiny, it suddenly disappeared. The incomprehensible being seen by your sister had made mention of you, and its afflicting decree was, that three days before that fixed on for your marriage, you would die at the same ninth hour which has been so fatal to us. Your sister recovering a little from her first alarm, asked it, if you could not escape this dreadful mandate by remaining single.

"'Unhappily, Seraphina did not receive any answer: but I feel assured, that by marrying you will die. For this reason I entreat you to remain single: I add, however -- if it accords with your inclinations; as I do not feel confident that even this will ensure you from the effect of the prediction.

{91} "'In order, my dear child to save you from all premature uneasiness, I have avoided this communication till the hour of danger: reflect, therefore, seriously on what you ought to do.

"'My spirit, when you read these lines, shall hover over and bless you, whatever way you decide."'

Florentina folded up the paper again in silence; and, after a pause which her two friends sensibly felt, added: --

"Possibly, my dear friends, this has caused the change in me which you have sometimes condemned. But tell me whether, situated as I am, you would not become troubled, and almost annihilated, by the prediction which announced your death on the very eve of your happiness?

"Here my recital ends. To-morrow the count returns from his travels. The ardour of his affection has induced him to fix on the third day after his arrival for the celebration of our marriage."

"Then 'tis this very day!' exclaimed Amelia and Maria at the same moment; paleness and inquietude depicted on every feature, when their eyes glanced to a clock on the point of striking nine.

"Yes, this is indeed the decisive day," replied Florentina, with a grave yet serene air. "The {92} morning has been to me a frightful one; but at this moment I find myself composed, my health is excellent, and gives me a confidence that death would with difficulty overcome me to-day. Besides, a secret but lively presentiment tells me that this very evening the wish I have so longed formed will be accomplished. My beloved sister will appear to me, and will defeat the prediction concerning me.

"Dear Seraphina! you were so suddenly, so cruelly snatched from me! Where are you, that I may return, with tenfold interest, the love that I have not the power of proving towards you?"

The two sisters, transfixed with horror, had their eyes riveted on the clock, which struck the fated hour.

"You are welcome!" cried Florentina, seeing the fire in the chimney, to which they had paid no attention, suddenly extinguished. She then rose from her chair; and with open arms walked towards the door which Maria and Amelia anxiously regarded, whilst sighs escaped them both; and at which entered the figure of Seraphina, illumined by the moon's rays. Florentina folded her sister in her arms. -- "I am thine for ever!"

These words, pronounced in a soft and melancholy tone of voice, struck Amelia and Maria's {93} ears; but they knew not whether they were uttered by Florentina or the phantom, or whether by both the sisters together.

Almost at the same moment the servants came in, alarmed, to learn what had happened. They had heard a noise as if all the glasses and porcelain in the house were breaking. They found their mistress extended at the door, but not the slightest trace of the apparition remained.

Every means of restoring Florentina to life were used, but in vain. The physicians attributed her death to a ruptured bloodvessel. Maria and Amelia will carry the remembrance of this heart-rending scene to their graves.

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