1830 FMN

The Omen.
By John Galt, Esq.


   ***** We were thirteen, the ominous number, and all strangers to each other.  It is true that Von Hesse and I had travelled from Prague together, but we had no previous acquaintance; indeed, we had been three days in company before either of us knew the other's name.

   Our host, the banker, was a jolly facetious personage, with a dash of freethinking in his conversation, which, though regulated by some feeling allied to good taste, was yet sufficiently obtrusive. He appeared to be sensible that an open display of his religious opinions might give offence, and evidently repressed his inclination to sport irreverent jests; but habit, in despite of resolution, now and then broke out, and an occasional expression indicated that with more intimate friends his infidelity would have been probably less mitigated. As often as any of these expressions escaped him, the thoughtful countenance of Von Hesse was darkened; and twice or thrice, when the banker went a little too far, he gently contrived to check the mirth which the unchristened gibe was calculated to awaken.

   The air and demeanour of Von Hesse were at all times mild and winning.  His physiognomy was serene, almost solemn; his voice soft and pleasing; and a slight touch of sadness in his accent increased the interest which his calm and engaging manners universally


inspired. It bespoke something like pity; for it suggested an apprehension that his spirit was affected by forebodings, or laden with the remembrance of misfortunes. Once, and once only, in the course of our journey to Frankfort, I saw him agitated. It was but for a moment; something wilder than sadness gleamed as it were through the habitual seriousness of his features; an ashy and ghastly hue, the complexion of horror or of dread.

   It happened in the twilight of an evening, as we approached a little village where we were to pass the night, that, at a turn of the road, we came suddenly on a small burying-ground, the most spectral and dismal place of the kind I had ever seen.  It was indeed like no other. Tall, black, and fantastical wooden memorials served for tombstones; some of them bore a mysterious resemblance to hatchments and funeral banners, others reminded me of skeletons: they suggested frightful associations, and I could not help saying, "These are surely the sepulchres of men who have made dreadful confessions!"

   It was at that moment his countenance became so strangely changed from its wonted pensiveness; but I then ascribed the change to his participating in the momentary superstition with which I was myself affected, nor did I afterwards think of what I had noticed till our host, in his jocular sallies, derided the communion of spirits and the visitation of ghosts.

   His remarks were playful and ingenious, and, to


some of the guests, afforded amusement. To me they were disagreeable; not, however, I frankly confess, so much owing to their irreverence, as to their visible effect on Von Hesse.

   It was at this turn of the conversation that the slow and meditative eye of professor Khüll became fixed upon him so earnestly, that I could not but think he was actuated by a curiosity similar to my own.  Strange, I had travelled four weeks with Von Hesse without discovering any symptom of his mysterious disease, and yet the professor, who had never seen him before, in less than an hour had discerned that he was one of those peculiar beings who have "that within which passeth show." But the extraordinary metaphysical discernment of Khüll has often been the wonder of his friends.

   Falling in with the current of the conversation, Khüll remarked, in reply to our host, that whatever the generality of mankind might think of the communion of spirits, and of ghosts and dreams, it is impossible to dissipate by reason the faith of those who believe in them; "because," he added, looking at Von Hesse, "the faith is built up of experiences. The believers do not adopt their creed upon persuasion, but have had testimonials to its truth in themselves, influencing them to believe. The soundness of a man's judgment would not suffer much, in my opinion, by his assuring me that he had seen a ghost."

   This singular observation drew from the banker one


of his sharpest jokes; for the professor was not esteemed very orthodox, but suspected of cherishing notions adverse, not only to every kind of superstition, but even to some of the popular dogmas of religions.

   Von Hesse interfered, and said, with evident emotion, "But you must allow, professor, that the experience of such mysteries can only affect ourselves: we have no faculty by which we can adequately convey the horror of our experience to others.

   "I should infer from that, sir," replied Khüll, "that you have tasted of 'that horror.'"

   "I have," said Von Hesse, firmly, "but I have seen no ghosts, nor held communion with spirits, nor–but I will tell you of an instance of my experience."

   The table was solemnly hushed as he spoke. All save our host were touched with awe; his attempt, however, to rally, by pushing round the wine, was interrupted by Khüll saying, "A good metaphysical tale is worth a tun of Johannisberger–pray, do let him proceed."

   "At the close of the war," said Von Hesse, "I was ordered, along with three other officers, to investigate some of the army accounts which remained at Basle unsettled. Being at the time slightly indisposed, I found it necessary to travel by easier stages than my companions, and accordingly allowed them to go on before.

   "On the morning after they left me, I was sensible of a remarkable change in my disease; the slow fever


with which I had for weeks been affected went suddenly off–I should say, it passed from the body to the mind; for, although the corporeal hectic was extinguished, an acute moral excitement succeeded, and my reflections became so hurried and morbid that a dread of madness fell upon me. My sleep was unrefreshing, and filled with dismal and ominous dreams, the imagery of which was sometimes fearfully distinct, at others dark, indistinguishable, and prophetical. I was depressed without cause, and apprehensive without reason; and often, in the still of the evening, while solitary in the inns where I halted for the night, I felt as if I had been conscious of the presence of invisible spirits of departed friends compassionately regarding me.

   "By the time I rejoined my companions at Basle, this comfortless state had produced a visible change in my appearance. They said that my complexion had become strangely wan, and that my eyes shone with something more like light than the natural lustre.

   "One morning after a restless night, I fell into a profound sleep–so profound that every trace and sentiment of existence might be said to have been obliterated for the time. From this syncope I was suddenly startled by an indescribable alarm. I heard no voice, nor any sound, and yet I received a supernatural intimation of a dreadful misfortune having befallen one of my dearest friends.

   "When I joined my companions they were shocked


at my appearance, and one of them anxiously inquired what had happened. I told them, and they looked gravely at each other: they seemed to think it was a warning to myself.

   "I then noted the hour and day of this alarm in my pocket-book; and, strange to tell, from that time I felt myself released from the singular enchantment of dismay which had so invested my spirit; my health revived, my complexion regained its wonted hue, and I laughed at superstition.

   "When our inquiries were finished we returned to Vienna, and, soon after, I resolved to visit the friend on whose account I had been so disturbed. He resided at Prague; but just as I was on the eve of setting out on the journey, I received from him a letter, which at once froze me with awe and overwhelmed me with sorrow.

   "He described himself as having been for a long time afflicted with an irresistible depression of spirits, a foreboding of calamity, while all things with him were prosperous. Then he proceeded to relate that one morning, quoting the date–I referred to my pocket-book, it was the same, the day and hour, on which I had received the intimation–he dreamt that he saw a hand with a knife at the throat of one of his children; he was at the same moment roused by a message from the nursery that the child was ill. The doctor was sent for, the disease was croup of the worst kind, and to relieve the sufferer the doctor made an incision


with an instrument precisely similar to the knife he had seen in his dream. The same hour one of the servants was found to be ill of a fatal fever, the infection of which spread so rapidly in the family, that the utter desolation of his house at one time seemed to be ordained.–Now, Professor Khüll, what explanation can you give, either by sympathies or associations, of the fact, the sublime fact, of this sense of an event which was taking place at a great distance, and of which there could have been no possible fore-knowledge?"