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In which a man confronts the ghost of a young woman who urges him to comb and braid her long hair.
Guy de Maupassant
One day as I was walking I met a friend I had not seen in years, and he told me of the misfortune which had shattered his life.
Having fallen madly in love with a young girl, he had married her, but after a year of more than earthly happiness she died suddenly of an affection of the heart. He left his country home on the very day of her burial and came here to the city, where he lived now, alone and unhappy, sad and wretched.
I promised to do him a slight favor he asked, to go to his country home and get out of the desk in his bedroom–their bedroom–some papers of which he had urgent need. For nothing on earth, he said, would induce him to reenter that house. He gave me the key to the room, which he himself had locked on leaving.
He explained to me exactly what I had to do. It was very simple. I must take two packages of letters and a roll of papers from the first right-hand drawer of the desk.
I took leave of him to accomplish my mission. It was simply the matter of a ride which I could make in an hour on horseback, his country property being but a few miles distant from the city.
* * *
The manor looked as if it had been abandoned for twenty years. The open gate was falling from its hinges, the walks were overgrown with grass and the flower beds were no longer distinguishable.
The noise I made by kicking at a shutter brought out an old man from a side door. He seemed stunned with astonishment at seeing me.
“Then you are going in–into her room?” he asked me.
“But–but it has not been opened since–since the - death. If you will be kind enough to wait five minutes I will go and–and see if–”
I interrupted him angrily, and he no longer objected.
Pushing him aside, I went into the house.
I first went through the kitchen, then two rooms occupied by this man and his wife. I then crossed a large hall, mounted a staircase and recognized the door described by my friend.
I easily opened it, and entered the apartment. It was so dark that at first I could distinguish nothing. I stopped short, disagreeably affected by that disagreeable, musty odor of closed, unoccupied rooms. As my eyes slowly became accustomed to the darkness I saw plainly enough a large and disordered bedroom, the bed without sheets but still retaining its mattresses and pillows, on one of which was a deep impression, as though an elbow or a head had recently rested there.
The chairs all seemed out of place. I noticed that a door of a closet, had remained half open.
I first went to the window, which I opened to let in the light, but the fastenings of the shutters had grown so rusty that I could not move them. I even tried to break them with my sword, but without success. As I was growing irritated over my useless efforts and could now see fairly well in the semi-darkness, I gave up the hope of getting more light, and went over to the writing desk.
I seated myself in an armchair and, letting down the lid of the desk, I opened the drawer designated. It was full to the top. I needed but three packages, which I knew how to recognize, and began searching for them.
I was straining my eyes in the effort to read the superscriptions when I seemed to hear, or, rather, feel, something rustle in back of me. I paid no attention, believing that a draught from the window was moving some drapery. But in a minute or so another movement, almost imperceptible, sent a strangely disagreeable little shiver over my skin. It was so stupid to be affected, even slightly, that self-respect prevented my turning around. I had just found the second package I needed and was about to lay my hand on the third when a long and painful sigh, uttered just at my shoulder, made me bound like a madman from my seat and land several feet off. As I jumped I had turned round my hand on the hilt of my sword, and, truly, if I had not felt it at my side I should have taken to my heels like a coward.
A tall woman dressed in white, stood gazing at me from the back of the chair where I had been sitting an instant before.
Such a shudder ran through all my limbs that I nearly fell backward. No one who has not experienced it can understand that frightful, unreasoning terror! The mind becomes vague, the heart ceases to beat, the entire body grows as limp as a sponge.
I do not believe in ghosts, nevertheless I collapsed from a hideous dread of the dead, and I suffered, oh! I suffered in a few moments more than in all the rest of my life from the irresistible terror of the supernatural. If she had not spoken I should have died perhaps. But she spoke, she spoke in a sweet, sad voice that set my nerves vibrating. I dare not say that I became master of myself and recovered my reason. No! I was terrified and scarcely knew what I was doing. But a certain innate pride, a remnant of soldierly instinct, made me, almost in spite of myself, maintain a bold front.
“Oh, sir, you can render me a great service.”
I wanted to reply, but it was impossible for me to pronounce a word. Only a vague sound came from my throat. She continued:
“‘Will you? You can save me, cure me. I suffer frightfully. I suffer, oh! how I suffer! ”, and she slowly seated herself in my armchair, still looking at me.
“‘Will you? ” she said.
I nodded in assent, my voice still being paralyzed.
Then she held out to me a tortoise-shell comb and murmured:
“Comb my hair, oh! comb my hair; that will cure me; it must be combed. Look at my head–how I suffer; and my hair pulls so! ”
Her hair, unbound, very long and very black, it seemed to me, hung over the back of the armchair and touched the floor.
Why did I promise? Why did I take that comb with a shudder, and why did I hold in my hands her long black hair that gave my skin a frightful cold sensation, as though I were handling snakes? I cannot tell.
That sensation has remained in my fingers, and I still tremble in recalling it.
I combed her hair. I handled, I know not how, those icy locks. I twisted, knotted, and unknotted, and braided them. She sighed, bowed her head, seemed happy.
Suddenly she said, “Thank you!”, snatched the comb from my hands and fled through the closet door that I had noticed ajar.
Left alone, I experienced for several seconds the horrible agitation of one who awakens from a nightmare. At length I regained my senses. I ran to the window and with a mighty effort burst open the shutters, letting a flood of light into the room. Immediately I sprang to the door by which that being had departed. I found it closed and utterly immovable!
Then the mad desire to flee overcame me like a panic the panic which soldiers know in battle. I seized the three packets of letters on the open desk, ran from the room, dashed down the stairs four steps at a time, found myself outside, I know not how, and, perceiving my horse a few steps off, leaped into the saddle and galloped away.
I stopped only when I reached my lodgings. Throwing the reins to my orderly, I fled to my room and shut myself in to reflect. For an hour I anxiously asked myself if I were not the victim of a hallucination. Undoubtedly I had had one of those incomprehensible nervous attacks, those exaltations of mind that give rise to visions and are the stronghold of the supernatural. And I was about to believe I had seen a vision, had a hallucination, when, as I approached the window, my eyes fell, by chance, upon my breast. My cape was covered with long black hairs!