AT eight o'clock that evening I called upon M. Louis de Franchi, to inquire whether he had anything to confide to me. But he begged me to wait till next morning, saying:
"The night will bring counsel with it."
Next morning, therefore, instead of calling at eight, which would have given us plenty of time to go to the meeting, I called at half-past seven.
Louis was already writing in his study.
He looked up as I entered, and I noticed how very pale he was.
"Excuse me," he said, "I am writing to my mother. You will find the morning papers there; if you can amuse yourself with them you will see a charming feuilleton by M. Mèry in the _Presse._"
I took the paper thus indicated, and contrasted the livid pallor of the speaker with his calm and sweet voice.
I endeavoured to read, but I could not fix my attention, the letters brought no meaning with them.
In about five minutes Louis said,
"There, I have finished." And he rang for his valet.
"Joseph," said he, "I am at home to no one, not even to the Baron Giordano. If he calls, ask him to wait in the _salon._ I wish to be alone with this gentlemen for ten minutes."
The valet shut the door and disappeared.
"Now, my dear Alexander, listen. Giordano is a Corsican, and has Corsican ideas. I cannot, therefore, confide all I desire to him. I will ask him to keep the secret, that's all. But as regards yourself, I wish you, if you will permit me, to request that you will promise to observe my instructions."
"Certainly. Is not that the duty of a second?"
"A duty more real than you imagine, for you can save our family a second misfortune if you will."
"A second misfortune!" I exclaimed.
"Wait. Read this letter."
I took the letter addressed to Madame de Franchi, and read as follows, with growing astonishment:--
"MY DEAREST MOTHER,--
"If I did not know that you possessed Spartan fortitude allied with Christian submission, I would have used means to prepare you for the blow in store for you--for when you receive this letter you will have but one son!
"Lucien, my dear brother, love our mother for _both_ in future.
"For some time I have been suffering from brain fever. I paid no attention to the premonitory symptoms--the doctor came too late. Darling mother, there is no hope for me now. I cannot be saved but by a miracle, and what right have I to suppose that Providence will work a miracle on my behalf?
"I am writing to you in a lucid interval. If I die, this letter will be posted immediately after my death; for in the selfishness of my love for you I wish that you should know that I am dead without regretting anything in the world except your tenderness and my brother's.
"Do not weep for me. It is the soul that lives, not the body, and when the latter perishes the former will still live and love you.
"Adieu, Lucien! Never leave our mother; and remember that she has you only to look to now.
"Your Son, "Your Brother, "LOUIS DE FRANCHI."
When I had finished the letter I turned to the writer and said--
"Well, and what does this mean?"
"Do you not understand?" he said.
"I am going to be shot at ten minutes past nine."
"You are going to be shot?"
"You are mad! Why, what has put such an idea into your head?"
"I am not mad, my dear friend. I have been warned--that's all."
"Warned! By whom?"
"My brother has already told you, I think, that the male members of our family enjoy a singular privilege?"
"True," I replied, shuddering, in spite of myself. "He spoke to me about apparitions."
"Quite so. Well, then, my father appeared to me last night. That is why you find me so pallid. The sight of the dead pales the living!"
I gazed at him with astonishment, not unmixed with terror.
"You saw your father last night, you say?"
"And he spoke to you?"
"He announced my death!"
"Oh, it was some terrible dream!"
"It was a terrible _reality._"
"You were asleep, my friend."
"I was wide awake. Do you not believe that a father can appear to his son?"
I hung my head, for at the bottom of my heart I _did_ believe in the possibility.
"What passed between you?" I asked.
"It is a very simple and very natural story. I was reading, expecting my father--for I knew if any danger threatened that he would appear to me--and at midnight the lamp burnt low, the door opened slowly, and my father appeared."
"In what form?" I asked.
"Just as if he were alive--dressed in his usual manner--only he was very pale, and his eyes were without expression."
"Good heavens!" I ejaculated.
"He slowly approached my bed. I raised myself with my elbow, and said, 'You are welcome, father.'
"He came close, and regarded me fixedly, and it then appeared to me as if some sort of paternal solicitude was expressed in his face."
"Go on," I said; "this is terrible!"
"Then his lips moved, and, though I could hear no sound, I seemed to hear his words distinctly, though distant as an echo."
"What did he say?"
"'Think of God, my son!'
"'I shall be killed in this duel, then?' I asked.
"I saw the tears roll down the pallid visage of the spectre.
"'And at what hour?'
"He pointed towards the timepiece. I followed the direction of his finger. The clock showed ten minutes past nine.
"'So be it, my father,' I said; 'God's will be done. I leave my mother, but I rejoin you.'
"Then a faint smile passed over his face, he waved me a sign of farewell and glided away.
"The door opened as he advanced towards it, and when he had disappeared it shut of its own accord."
This recital was so simply and so naturally told, that it was evident to me the event had occurred just as de Franchi had related it, or he was the victim of an illusion, which he had believed to be real in consequence of the pre-occupation of his mind, and was therefore all the more terrible.
I wiped the perspiration from my forehead.
"Now," continued Louis; "you know my brother, don't you?"
"What do you think he will do when he learns that I have been killed in a duel?"
"He will leave Sullacaro at once to challenge the man who has killed you."
"Just so, and if he is killed in his turn, my mother will be thrice a widow; widowed by the loss of her husband, widowed by the loss of her two sons."
"Ah! I understand. This is fearful!"
"Well, this must be avoided, and that is why I have written this letter. Believing that I have died from brain fever my brother will not seek to avenge me, and my mother will be the more easily consoled, knowing it was the will of God, and that I did not fall by the hand of man. At least----"
"At least what?" I repeated.
"Oh, nothing," replied Louis. "I hope that will not come to pass."
I saw that he was referring to some personal fear, and I did not insist farther.
At this moment the door opened, and the Baron de Giordano entered.
"My dear de Franchi," he said, "I respect your privacy more than anything, but it is past eight, and the meeting is appointed for nine; we have quite a league and a half to drive, and we should start at once."
"I am ready, my dear fellow," said Louis. "I have told my friend here all I had to say to him."
He put his finger on his lips as our eyes met.
"For you, my friend," he continued, turning to the table and taking up a sealed letter, "there is this; if anything should happen to me read this letter, and I pray you to carry out my request contained in it."
"To the very letter," replied the Baron.
"You were to provide the arms," said Louis.
"Yes," I replied, "but just as I was coming away I found that one of the dogs did not bark properly, so we shall be obliged to get a case of pistols from Devisme."
Louis looked at me, smiled, and held out his hand. He knew quite well that I did not wish to see him killed with my pistols.
"Have you a carriage?" he asked; "if not I will send Joseph for one."
"My coupé is here," said the Baron, "and can carry three at a pinch; besides, my horses will take us more quickly than a _fiacre._"
"Let us go," said Louis.
We went downstairs. Joseph was waiting at the door.
"Shall I accompany you, sir?" he said.
"No, Joseph," replied his master, "I shall not require your services to-day."
Then, stepping back a pace and pressing a roll of gold into the man's hand, he said, "Take this, and if at any time I have appeared brusque to you, pardon my ill-humour."
"Oh, monsieur!" said Joseph, with tears in his eyes, "what is the meaning of this?"
"Chut!" said Louis, and he sprang into the carriage.
"He is a good servant," he murmured, "and if either of you can ever be of use to him I shall be obliged."
"Is he about to leave you?" said the Baron.
"No," said Louis, smiling; "I am leaving him, that is all!"
We stopped at Devismes just long enough to secure a case of pistols, powder and bullets, and then resumed our way at a brisk trot.