The hotel-guests slowly entered the dining-room, and sat down in their places. The waiters began to attend on them in a leisurely fashion so as to enable those who were late to arrive, and so as to avoid bringing back the dishes; and the old bathers, the habitués, those whose season was advancing, gazed with interest towards the door, whenever it opened, with a desire to see new faces appearing.
This is the principal distraction of health-resorts. People look forward to the dinner-hour in order to inspect each day’s new arrivals, to find out who they are, what they do, and what they think. A vague longing springs up in the mind, a longing for agreeable meetings, for pleasant acquaintances, perhaps for love-adventures. In this life of elbowings, not only those with whom we have come into daily contact, but strangers, assume an extreme importance. Curiosity is aroused, sympathy is ready to exhibit itself, and sociability is the order of the day.
We cherish antipathies for a week and friendships for a month; we see other people with different eyes when we view them through the medium of the acquaintanceship that is brought about at health-resorts. We discover in men suddenly, after an hour’s chat, in the evening after dinner, under the trees in the park where the generous spring bubbles up, a high intelligence and astonishing merits, and a month afterwards, we have completely forgotten these new friends, so fascinating when we first met them.
There also are formed lasting and serious ties more quickly than anywhere else. People see each other every day; they become acquainted very quickly; and with the affection thus originated is mingled something of the sweetness and self-abandonment of long-standing intimacies. We cherish in after years the dear and tender memories of those first hours of friendship, the memory of those first conversations through which we have been able to unveil a soul, of those first glances which interrogate and respond to the questions and secret thoughts which the mouth has not as yet uttered, the memory of that first cordial confidence, the memory of that delightful sensation of opening our hearts to those who are willing to open theirs to us.
And the melancholy of health-resorts, the monotony of days that are all alike, help from hour to hour in this rapid development of affection.
Well, this evening, as on every other evening, we awaited the appearance of strange faces.
Only two appeared, but very remarkable-looking, a man and a woman — father and daughter. They immediately produced the same effect on my mind as some of Edgar Poe’s characters; and yet there was about them a charm, the charm associated with misfortune. I looked upon them as the victims of fatality. The man was very tall and thin, rather stooping, with hair perfectly white, too white for his comparatively youthful physiognomy; and there was in his bearing, and in his person that austerity peculiar to Protestants. The daughter, who was probably twenty-four or twenty-five, was small in stature, and was also very thin, very pale, and she had the air of one who was worn out with utter lassitude. We meet people like this from time to time who seem too weak for the tasks and the needs of daily life, too weak to move about, to walk, to do all that we do every day. This young girl was very pretty, with the diaphanous beauty of a phantom; and she ate with extreme slowness, as if she were almost incapable of moving her arms.
It must have been she assuredly who had come to take the waters.
They found themselves facing me at the opposite side of the table; and I at once noticed that the father had a very singular nervous spasm.
Every time he wanted to reach an object, his hand made a hook-like movement, a sort of irregular zigzig, before it succeeded in touching what it was in search of; and, after a little while, this action was so wearisome to me that I turned aside my head in order not to see it.
I noticed, too, that the young girl, during meals, wore a glove on her left hand.
After dinner, I went for a stroll in the park of the thermal establishment. This led towards the little Auvergnese station of Chatel Guyot, hidden in a gorge at the foot of the high mountain, of that mountain from which flow so many boiling springs, arising from the deep bed of extinct volcanoes. Over there, above us, the domes, which had once been craters, raised their mutilated heads on the summit of the long chain. For Chatel Guyot is situated at the spot where the region of domes begins.
Beyond it, stretches out the region of peaks, and further on again the region of precipices.
The “Puy de Dome” is the highest of the domes, the Peak of Sancy is the loftiest of the peaks, and Cantal is the most precipitous of these mountain-heights.
This evening it was very warm. I walked up and down a shady path, on the side of the mountain overlooking the park, listening to the opening strains of the Casino band.
And I saw the father and the daughter advancing slowly in my direction. I saluted them, as we are accustomed to salute our hotel-companions at health resorts; and the man, coming to a sudden halt, said to me,
“Could you not, monsieur, point out to us a short walk, nice and easy, if that is possible? and excuse my intrusion on you.”
I offered to show them the way towards the valley through which the little river flowed, a deep valley forming a gorge between two tall craggy, wooded slopes.
They gladly accepted my offer.
And we talked naturally about the virtues of the waters.
“Oh!” he said, “My daughter has a strange malady, the seat of which is unknown. She suffers from incomprehensible nervous disorders. At one time, the doctors think she has an attack of heart disease, at another time, they imagine it is some affection of the liver, and at another time they declare it to be a disease of the spine. To-day, her condition is attributed to the stomach, which is the great caldron and regulator of the body, that Protean source of diseases with a thousand forms and a thousand susceptibilities to attack. This is why we have come here. For my part, I am rather inclined to think it is the nerves. In any case it is very sad.”
Immediately the remembrance of the violent spasmodic movement of his hand came back to my mind, and I asked him.
“But is this not the result of heredity? Are not your own nerves somewhat affected?”
He replied calmly:
“Mine? Oh! no — my nerves have always been very steady.”
Then suddenly, after a pause, he went on:
“Ah! You were alluding to the spasm in my hand every time I want to reach for anything? This arises from a terrible experience which I had. Just imagine! this daughter of mine was actually buried alive?”
I could only give utterance to the word “Ah!” so great were my astonishment and emotion.
“Here is the story. It is simple. Juliette had been subject for some time to serious attacks of the heart. We believed that she had disease of that organ, and we were prepared for the worst.
“One day she was carried into the house cold, lifeless, dead. She had fallen down unconscious in the garden. The doctor certified that life was extinct. I watched by her side for a day and two nights. I laid her with my own hands in the coffin, which I accompanied to the cemetery, where she was deposited in the family vault. It is situated in the very heart of Lorraine.
“I wished to have her interred with her jewels, bracelets, necklaces, rings, all presents which she had got from me, and with her first ball-dress on.
“You may easily imagine the state of mind in which I was when I returned home. She was the only one I had, for my wife has been dead for many years. I found my way to my own apartment in a half distracted condition, utterly exhausted, and I sank into my easy-chair, without the capacity to think or the strength to move. I was nothing better now than a suffering, vibrating machine, a human being who had, as it were, been flayed alive; my soul was like a living wound.
“My old valet, Prosper, who had assisted me in placing Juliette in her coffin, and preparing her for her last sleep, entered the room noiselessly, and asked:
“‘Does monsieur want anything?’
“I merely shook my head, by way of answering ‘No.’
“He urged, ‘Monsieur is wrong. He will bring some illness on himself. Would monsieur like me to put him to bed?’
“I answered, ‘No! let me alone!’
“And he left the room.
“I know not how many hours slipped away. Oh! what a night, what a night! It was cold. My fire had died out in the huge grate; and the wind, the winter wind, an icy wind, a hurricane accompanied by frost and snow, kept blowing against the window with a sinister and regular noise.
“How many hours slipped away? There I was without sleeping, powerless, crushed, my eyes wide open, my legs stretched out, my body limp, inanimate, and my mind torpid with despair. Suddenly, the great bell of the entrance gate, the great bell of the vestibule, rang out.
“I got such a shock that my chair cracked under me. The solemn, ponderous sound vibrated through the empty chateau as if through a vault. I turned round to see what the hour was by the clock. It was just two in the morning. Who could be coming at such an hour!
“And abruptly the bell again rang twice. The servants, without doubt, were afraid to get up. I took a wax-candle and descended the stairs. I was on the point of asking, ‘Who is there?’
“Then I felt ashamed of my weakness, and I slowly opened the huge door. My heart was throbbing wildly; I was frightened; I hurriedly drew back the door, and in the darkness I distinguished a white figure, standing erect, something that resembled an apparition.
“I recoiled, petrified with horror, faltering:
“‘Who — who — who are you?’
“A voice replied:
“‘It is I, father.’
“It was my daughter.
“I really thought I must be mad, and I retreated backwards before this advancing specter. I kept moving away, making a sign with my hand, as if to drive the phantom away, that gesture which you have noticed — that gesture of which since then I have never got rid.
“‘Do not be afraid, papa; I was not dead. Somebody tried to steal my rings, and cut one of my fingers, the blood began to flow, and this reanimated me.’
“And, in fact, I could see that her hand was covered with blood.
“I fell on my knees, choking with sobs and with a rattling in my throat.
“Then, when I had somewhat collected my thoughts, though I was still so much dismayed that I scarcely realized the gruesome good-fortune that had fallen to my lot, I made her go up to my room, and sit down in my easy-chair; then I ran excitedly for Prosper to get him to light up the fire again and to get her some wine and summon the rest of the servants to her assistance.
“The man entered, stared at my daughter, opened his mouth with a gasp of alarm and stupefaction, and then fell back insensible.
“It was he who had opened the vault, and who had mutilated, and then abandoned, my daughter, for he could not efface the traces of the theft. He had not even taken the trouble to put back the coffin into its place, feeling sure, besides, that he would not be suspected by me, as I completely trusted him.
“You see, Monsieur, that we are very unhappy people.”
The night had fallen, casting its shadows over the desolate, mournful vale, and a sort of mysterious fear possessed me at finding myself by the side of those strange beings, of this young girl who had come back from the tomb and this father with his uncanny spasm.
I found it impossible to make any comment on this dreadful story. I only murmured:
“What a horrible thing!”
Then, after a minute’s silence, I added:
“Suppose we go back. I think it is getting cold.”
And we made our way back to the hotel.
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40