Tales of the Dead/The Fated Hour
THE FATED HOUR.
———— "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."
Southey's Joan of Arc.
"The clock has toll'd; and, hark! the bell
Of death beats slow."Mason's Elegies.
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."
"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 then 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. "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 seized me, and I covered my face over with the clothes."
"Alas!" exclaimed Amelia, "I cannot tell you how frequently I have 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 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 my horrors. But no more of useless mystery. I will fulfil 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 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 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 tight 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 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 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.
"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 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 phænomena, 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 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, 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.
"'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 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 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 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 of 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 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 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, 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 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 seen 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 recollection 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 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 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?'
"This very night we are to set out for his excellency's estate."
"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.'
"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 the clock strikes nine according to Seraphina's prediction) 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 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.
"'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 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 long 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 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 blood-vessel. Maria and Amelia will carry the remembrance of this heart-rending scene to their graves.