It was at the close of a dinner-party of men, at the hour of endless cigars and incessant sips of brandy, amidst the smoke and the torpid warmth of digestion and the slight confusion of heads generated by such a quantity of eatables and by the absorption of so many different liquors.
Those present were talking about magnetism, about Donato’s tricks, and about Doctor Charcot’s experiences. All of a sudden, those men, so skeptical, so happy-go-lucky, so indifferent to religion of every sort, began telling stories about strange occurrences, incredible things which nevertheless had really happened, they contended, falling back into superstitions, beliefs, clinging to these last remnants of the marvelous, becoming devotees of this mystery of magnetism, defending it in the name of science. There was only one person who smiled, a vigorous young fellow, a great pursuer of girls in the town, and a hunter also of frisky matrons, in whose mind there was so much incredulity about everything that he would not even enter upon a discussion of such matters.
He repeated with a sneer:
“Humbug! humbug! humbug! We need not discuss Donato, who is merely a very smart juggler. As for M. Charcot, who is said to be a remarkable man of science, he produces on me the effect of those story-tellers of the school of Edgar Poe, who end by going mad through constantly reflecting on queer cases of insanity. He has set forth some nervous phenomena, which are unexplained and inexplicable; he makes his way into that unknown region which men explore every day, and not being able to comprehend what he sees, he remembers perhaps too well the explanations of certain mysteries given by speaking on these subjects, that would be quite a different thing from your repetition of what he says.”
The words of the unbeliever were listened to with a kind of pity, as if he had blasphemed in the midst of an assembly of monks.
One of these gentlemen exclaimed:
“And yet miracles were performed in former days.”
But the other replied: “I deny it. Why cannot they be performed any longer?”
Thereupon, each man referred to some fact, or some fantastic presentiment, or some instance of souls communicating with each other across space, or some case of secret influences produced by one being or another. And they asserted, they maintained that these things had actually occurred, while the skeptic went on repeating energetically:
“Humbug! humbug! humbug!”
At last he rose up, threw away his cigar, and with his hands in his pockets, said: “Well, I, too, am going to relate to you two stories, and then I will explain them to you. Here they are:
“In the little village of Etretat, the men, who are all seafaring folk, go every year to Newfoundland to fish for cod. Now, one night the little son of one of these fishermen woke up with a start, crying out that his father was dead. The child was quieted, and again he woke up exclaiming that his father was drowned. A month later the news came that his father had, in fact, been swept off the deck of his smack by a billow. The widow then remembered how her son had wakened up and spoken of his father’s death. Everyone said it was a miracle, and the affair caused a great sensation. The dates were compared, and it was found that the accident and the dream had very nearly coincided, whence they drew the conclusion that they had happened on the same night and at the same hour. And there is the mystery of magnetism.”
The story-teller stopped suddenly.
Thereupon, one of those who had heard him, much affected by the narrative, asked:
“And can you explain this?”
“Perfectly monsieur. I have discovered the secret. The circumstance surprised me and even embarrassed me very much; but, I, you see, do not believe on principle. Just as others begin by believing, I begin by doubting; and when I don’t at all understand, I continue to deny that there can be any telegraphic communication between souls, certain that my own sagacity will be enough to explain it. Well, I have gone on inquiring into the matter, and I have ended, by dint of questioning all the wives of the absent seamen, in convincing myself that not a week passed without one of themselves or their children dreaming and declaring when they woke up that the father was drowned. The horrible and continual fear of this accident makes them always talk about it. Now, if one of these frequent predictions coincides, by a very simple chance, with the death of the person referred to, people at once declare it to be a miracle; for they suddenly lose sight of all the other predictions of misfortune that have remained unconfirmed. I have myself known fifty cases where the persons who made the prediction forgot all about it in a week afterwards. But, if in fact the man was dead, then the recollection of the thing is immediately revived, and people will be ready to believe in the intervention of God, according to some, and magnetism, according to others.”
One of the smokers remarked:
“What you say is right enough; but what about your second story?”
“Oh! my second story is a very delicate matter to relate. It is to myself it happened, and so I don’t place any great value on my own view of the matter. One is never a good judge in a case where he is one of the parties concerned. At any rate, here it is:
“Among my acquaintances in society there was a young woman on whom I had never bestowed a thought, whom I had never even looked at attentively, never taken any notice of, as the saying is.
“I classed her among the women of no importance, though she was not quite bad-looking; in fact, she appeared to me to possess eyes, a nose, a mouth, some sort of hair — just a colorless type of countenance. She was one of those beings on whom one only thinks by accident, without taking any particular interest in the individual, and who never excites desire.
“Well, one night, as I was writing some letters by my own fireside before going to bed, I was conscious, in the midst of that train of sensual images that sometimes float before one’s brain in moments of idle reverie, while I held the pen in my hand, of a kind of light breath passing into my soul, a little shudder of the heart, and immediately, without reason, without any logical connection of thought, I saw distinctly, saw as If I touched her, saw from head to foot, uncovered, this young woman for whom I had never cared save in the most superficial manner when her name happened to recur to my mind. And all of a sudden I discovered in her a heap of qualities which I had never before observed, a sweet charm, a fascination that made me languish; she awakened in me that sort of amorous uneasiness which sends me in pursuit of a woman. But I did not remain thinking of her long. I went to bed and was soon asleep. And I dreamed.
“You have all had these strange dreams which render you masters of the impossible, which open to you doors that cannot be passed through, unexpected joys, impenetrable arms?
“Which of us in these agitated, exciting, palpitating slumbers, has not held, clasped, embraced, possessed with an extraordinary acuteness of sensation, the woman with whom our minds were occupied? And have you ever noticed what superhuman delight these good fortunes of dreams bestow upon us? Into what mad intoxication they cast you! with what passionate spasms they shake you! and with what infinite, caressing, penetrating tenderness they fill your heart for her whom you hold fainting and hot in that adorable and bestial illusion which seems so like reality!
“All this I felt with unforgettable violence. This woman was mine, so much mine that the pleasant warmth of her skin remained between my fingers, the odor of her skin remained in my brain, the taste of her kisses remained on my lips, the sound of her voice lingered in my ears, the touch of her clasp still clung to my side, and the burning charm of her tenderness still gratified my senses long after my exquisite but disappointing awakening.
“And three times the same night I had a renewal of my dream.
“When the day dawned she beset me, possessed me, haunted my brain and my flesh to such an extent that I no longer remained one second without thinking of her.
“At last, not knowing what to do, I dressed myself and went to see her. As I went up the stairs to her apartment, I was so much overcome by emotion that I trembled, and my heart panted; I was seized with vehement desire from head to foot.
“I entered the apartment. She rose up the moment she heard my name pronounced; and suddenly our eyes met in a fixed look of astonishment.
“I sat down.
“I uttered in a faltering tone some commonplaces which she seemed not to hear. I did not know what to say or to do. Then, abruptly, I flung myself upon her; seizing her with both arms; and my entire dream was accomplished so quickly, so easily, so madly, that I suddenly began to doubt whether I was really awake. She was, after this, my mistress for two years.”
“What conclusion do you draw from it?” said a voice.
The story-teller seemed to hesitate.
“The conclusion I draw from it — well, by Jove, the conclusion is that it was just a coincidence! And, in the next place, who can tell? Perhaps it was some glance of hers which I had not noticed and which came back that night to me — one of those mysterious and unconscious evocations of memory which often bring before us things ignored by our own consciousness, unperceived by our minds!”
“Let that be just as you wish it,” said one of his table companions, when the story was finished, “but if you don’t believe in magnetism after that, you are an ungrateful fellow, my dear boy!”
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58