A True Account of an Apparition
NOTE: This entry is in draft form; it is currently undergoing the VSFP editorial process.
Introductory Note: “A True Account of an Apparition” was published in Household Words, a popular Victorian periodical headed by Charles Dickens. “A True Account of an Apparition,” tells the story of a man who finds out that his neighbor is actually the ghost of a French Revolutionary. The story brings up questions of social reform and revolution while simultaneously entertaining readers.
ON a wintry afternoon in the month of February—carnival time—in Paris, I sat in my room, in the Rue Rambouillet, Quartier Latin, alone. The course of lectures in the Collège de France which I had been following, were suspended for the holidays. All serious things were put aside for that round of gaiety which was to fortify the Parisians against the supposed privations of Lent. I, however, had determined to eschew all pleasures for awhile. Upon a serious review of my career for some months previously, I had come to the conclusion, that nothing short of hard study and moderate fare, in my hermitage, far removed from the gaiety of Paris, in the time of carnival, could atone for the past, and bring me upon good terms with myself. So, upon this afternoon—being the third day of my voluntary confinement—I had returned from the restaurant, and putting on my dressing gown and Greek cap, sat down with my book open before me.
There is a solemn sensation in a wintry afternoon, when the dusk comes on early, and we sit quietly alone, which belongs to no other season. Mine was a retired street, and my room being au sixième, I was as much removed from the bustle of Parisian life as if I had been in Palmyra or Pompeii.1“Au sixième” literally means “on the sixth,” but as the French don’t count the ground floor as the first floor of a building, this means the author was on the seventh floor. Palmyra was a city in ancient Syria and Pompeii was a city in ancient Rome. Yet, sometimes, in the pauses of my reading, out of the very solitude and stillness, perhaps from an involuntary listening for some sound, there grew up a low noise in the air, which seemed always about to become more distinct; but dying away, returned again, in a manner that perplexed me. I speculated upon the cause of it. I fancied it was the whole noise of the city blended and softened down into one deep murmur. I imagined the variety of sounds of which it was composed. I analysed it into the rumbling of vehicles, voices of people, bells, shutting of doors, working of machines, falling of waters, music, laughter, wailings: and, letting my fancy take such shapes as it would, I saw, in my reverie, many scenes from which such sounds might arise. I found pleasure in such fancies, and gave myself up to them easily. When I aroused, the sound was hushed; but on waiting awhile and listening attentively, the same murmur seemed to fill the air. A suspicion that it was a deception of a sense overstrained by listening, set me meditating; for with this, as with most trifling things which baffle our inquiries into their causes, I was reluctant, having begun my speculations, to give them up without coming to some satisfactory conclusion.
I rose from my seat and looked out of the window. In the square yard below, the bare branches of the trees were not stirred by a breath of wind. The sky was cloudy as if snow were about to fall: in the dusk, here and there, I saw lights at the windows. My neighbour, the daguerreotyper, who lived with his wife—a Norman woman—and four children, in a little erection upon the next roof, I could see smoking and reading by the fire.2A daguerreotype is an old type of photograph. “Norman” refers to someone from the region of Normandy in the north-west of France. For three weeks, nobody had been on his roof to pose for a portrait; the sun having altogether withdrawn his smiles from the people of Paris during that time, and the secret of taking photographic portraits par tous les temps, not having been then discovered.3“Par tous les temps” means “in all types of weather.” He was a cheerful man, and his wife was a cheerful woman, yet he was poorer even than I was. He had a little glass-case beside a shop-door in the Rue Dauphine, with an announcement that he would take portraits, in a style there exhibited, at two francs fifty centimes; or in family groups, of not less than four, at one franc per physiognomy; and directing the public to “M. Brison, Rue Rambouillet, No. 2, top of the house.” His roof was never crowded at the best of times, and in dull weather his occupation was gone. At such times, with the wind that way, I have missed the savoury smell of soup or bouilli at the accustomed hour of eleven in the morning.4“Bouilli” is boiled meat. A Frenchwoman can make soup of anything; and the poverty must be sad indeed, when she can no longer provide this.
I took an interest in this family. I climbed up their dark staircase one day, six flights of stairs and a ladder, and as soon as I could recover my breath, demanded a portrait at two francs fifty centimes. They had attracted my attention from my window, and I was prompted more by curiosity than aught else to pay them a visit. The sun was feeble that day; and after “posing” eight times, and waiting while his wife gave an extra polish to the plate; and, finally, for the ninth time putting on that look of profound sagacity, mingled with good-humor, which all people try to get into their portraits, I was obliged to give it up. The time was not wholly lost; I had seen something of Monsieur Briston’s home in the time that I had waited, and this was my chief object in going to him. Indeed a portrait would have been of no manner of use to me, and I half suspected myself of a secret design in choosing such a dull day. So I rose to go away; and, after remarking upon the trouble to which I had put him, held out two francs in my hand. Poverty was written on his walls, and in his patched blue blouse; but he resolutely refused my offer, with a speech that would have brought down an avalanche of applause on the stage of the Gymnase, if he had pronounced it there in a tone of trifle more tragic than that in which he then spoke, and had paused to take the sense of the house on the propriety of his sentiment. That man’s cheerfulness puzzled me. I strove to account for it upon philosophical principles, and thought all daguerreotypers in Paris must be cheerful, because they live on the roofs, and are most subject “to skyey influences.” So I fell meditating deeply upon this subject.
When I looked out again, it was getting darker, and there was a slight fog, which made some lights, a long way off, across the housetops, glimmer in a halo. Looking round my room, it had to me a drearier air than usual, with its scanty furniture, and floor of polished tiles. My fire was nearly out—if an Englishman could give the name of fire to a few chips of charcoal, shut up closely in a porcelain cylinder, standing out in the room, and, communicating with the chimney by a rusty tin-pipe. I opened its little door; and, kneeling down, was just in time to blow out the last remains of vitality. The weather was cold, but I did not care to light it again. It was becoming too dark to read, and I determined not to light my lamp. I sat down again, and wrapped my dressing-gown about me with a shiver. The great pipe, which my friend Louis Raynal gave me, when he came back from Africa, hung upon the wall. I sat looking at its enormous bowl—carved into the face of an Arab, with a fierce grin and small black eyes—until I could scarcely see it; though, now and then, I knew not why, it suddenly became more distinct. When I was tired, my eye wandered, and fixed itself upon the carving of the Crucifixion on the mantelpiece. This was white wood, and consequently remained distinct, for a longer time, in the deepening twilight of the room. I was not sorry when I could see it no longer. I would have preferred that that carving had not been in the room alone with me that afternoon.
It was growing darker still; and, as the few objects near me faded away, and my attention was no longer occupied, I heard again the murmuring in the air, which had troubled me at first,; but this time it was still more perplexing. Now and then, as I listened, it seemed about to become deeper; and then, with the utmost effort, I could not hear it at all. It was its monotony (while it lasted) that teased me. If any one of the multitudinous noises, of which I supposed it to be composed, would have predominated for a moment, I should have been content. If some clanging peal of bells would have broken out near me, or come from a distance upon a sudden shifting of the wind, I would have lighted my lamp, and gone on with the perusal of my book. But it was still the same confusion of noises—so perfectly blended, that although sometimes it became louder, no distinct sound could be caught: as if, at a certain moment, all its components increased, in exact proportion, in order to preserve a perfect monotony.
It is strange that this trifling fancy was gradually sapping the foundations of my resolution—holding me with so singular a fascination, that I was compelled to abandon my studies for that day. I began to suspect that the sudden change, from a life of pleasure, to one of solitary study, had wrought some injury to my mind. I experienced a degree of timidity and irresolution that I had never known before. I had other strange fancies. Once, while walking to and fro, in my room, I had seen my features, darkly, in the glass, and instinctively shrunk from looking there again. Afterwards, on reflecting, I could not divest myself of the notion that they were not my features that I had seen there, but a face wholly different. I sat down again, and thought of going out and wandering in the streets. I knew that, during the cold weather, great wood fires were lighted at midnight, in certain open places in the city, that the houseless might not perish of the cold; and I thought of spending the night by one of these, and not returning to my room until daylight.
From this mood I was suddenly startled by a noise, as of something falling on the floor of the adjoining room. I was startled, because I had always known that room to be uninhabited; and as it communicated by a door with my room, I knew that I should have heard of any change in this respect. It was one of those rooms, often met with in the great houses of Paris (where each floor is divided into many apartments, or, as we should say in England, sets of chambers), into which it had been found impossible to admit sufficient daylight for as sitting-room. In such a case, the usual course would have been to let it with my room as a sleeping-chamber; but I had declined it, and it had remained unoccupied during the several years of my residence there.
I listened attentively for a repetition of the noise; and now all my wild fancies were forgotten in this new feeling of curiosity. I had never been in that room, for the door had always been kept locked, and the key was in the possession of the porter below; but I recollected, now, having frequently heard noise in the night, which I had attributed to the wind out of the doors, but which, I seemed now to remember, had come from the empty garret. I had once heard from the Concierge (though I had taken it for an idle story), that Danton—memorable among the tyrants of the Revolution—had lived in a room in that house. And now I thought I remembered that it was in a house in that quarter where he had spent the night (it was the night of the terrible butcheries at the prisons of La Force and the Conciergerie) in conversation with Camille Desmoulins, until, seeing the first glimmering of the dawn across the house-tops, he told Camille that a terrible blow had been struck at Royalism, even while they had been setting there.5Camille Desmoulins was a journalist who worked during the French Revolution. It seemed to me remarkable that I had not thought of this before. I remembered now distinctly the words “across the house-tops,” in the account that I had read; and a superstitious conviction forced itself upon me, that it was in that very room that Danton (affecting, as was common with the revolutionary leaders, an appearance of poverty) had dwelt.
My fancy had wandered away among the scenes of that terrible Revolution, when I was roused again by a second noise. But this time it was the sound of a light footstep walking in the room. I listened, and waited with my eye fixed upon the door, and now for the first time I remarked a faint light shining though the keyhole. The footstep ceased for a moment; and then I saw by the long light in the crevice, that the door, which I had always supposed to be locked, was ajar. I had not heard any movement of the handle of the lock, but I felt convinced that it had only just been opened; for it was impossible, otherwise, that I should not have observed it. The door trembled for a moment, as if an undecided hand were upon the lock, and then, opening wide, I saw, to my surprise, the figure of a man standing in the doorway.
He held in one hand a thin candle, with a shade, which threw that part of the room in which I sat into darkness; but I could see him distinctly, as he stood there a moment, apparently hesitating whether to go on or turn back. His face was deadly pale, and his eyes, in the light that struck upward, through the aperture in the shade, were fixed and sunken. His dress was that which was worn by the old revolutionary leaders; but he bore no resemblance to the portraits of Danton. I recognised him at a glance. The prominent forehead, the short pointed nose, the scornful curl of the upper lip, the powdered hair, the frilled shirt, the broad sash, and even the nosegay in his hand—all except the general faded look of his attire, identified him at once with the ideal indelibly fixed in my mind, by portrait and tradition, of the great fanatical Jacobin, Maximilian Robespierre.6A famous figure of the French Revolution. “Jacobin” refers to a political party during the Revolution. The door closed sharply behind him, as if by the current of air, for his light was extinguished at the same moment. I heard his footstep across my room; the door closed behind him as he went out upon the landing. I listened, but could hear no footstep descending the stairs. I walked to the door, and looked down into the darkness of the great staircase, and listened, but the house was quite still.
Was I to believe my senses? Here I sat, exactly as I had sat ten minutes before. My stove was cold: my room was dark: I was alone: my book was open before me. I saw the light still in the daguerreotyper’s window, on the roof, and at other places far off. I walked over, and tried the door of the room, but it was fast locked again. Everything was in its usual state. In a few minutes from the time when I first fancied that I heard the noise, the door had been unfastened, this strange apparition had passed through my room, the door was re-fastened, and no trace of what had happened remained. I was not dreaming? No. But how often, in sleep, had I questioned myself of the reality of my dream, and invariably ended by convincing myself that I was awake—sometimes even remembering that I had so deceived myself before; but always, at last, conquering my own objection, and coming to the conclusion that this time, at least, I stood amid the real life of the daylight world. But I rubbed my eyelids, rose again, and walked to and fro, and convinced myself that I was really awake.
What could I think, but that my reason was becoming weakened? The life I had led for some time had been wild and reckless. I had become so accustomed to excitement, that it was almost necessary to my existence; so that when I applied myself to a steadier life, I experienced something of the depression of the drunkard in the first days of his reformation. The mood in which this vision had found me was favourable to such hallucinations. My mind had been unsettled. My fancies would not let me apply myself to my task. Whimsical, and filled with vague apprehensions, I knew that my mental state exactly coincided with the descriptions of those who have been visited by similar apparitions.
Smoking would, I thought, soothe me. I lighted some wood in my stove with a fusee, and taking down my pipe from the wall, filled it, and sat there smoking hour after hour. The great transparent bowl glowed in the darkness at every puff, so deeply, that I could watch the wreaths of smoke by the light that it gave. I strove to fix my mind upon cheerful images—thinking of an English home, where the fatted calf was ever ready to be killed when I should return; but chiefly of thee, Eugénie, (of whom I knew myself unworthy,) lily-handed, lovelier than the loveliest of all flowers!7The fatted calf refers to the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke Chapter 15.
I dropped asleep, and awoke several times, always dreaming and waking up with the feeling, that my strange vision was a portion of my dream; but the burning embers in my stove recalled to me what had passed, and each time, putting on more fuel, I dropped asleep again.
I do not know how long I had been sleeping the last time. When I awakened, my fire was out, and I was in darkness. I knew, however, that it was past midnight, the hour at which my ghostly visitor would probably have returned, if had had an intention of returning. My slumbers had tranquillised me. Looking out of the window, it did strike me that a certain dark object, close upon the next roof, had somewhat the look of a monk, staring out of his cowl at me through my window; but I speedily recognised it for a portion of the daguerreotyper’s apparatus for fixing his customers in the required position. The fog had cleared away. There were no lights on any of the roofs, or at any windows far and wide. In the distance rose the dusky towers of St. Sulpice; and the stars were shining.8The church of St. Sulpice is the second largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame de Paris.
I had determined to go to bed, and think no more of my apparition until the morning, when turning to light my lamp, my eye caught again a faint light though the key-hole of the adjoining room. This was stranger still; for I knew that no one, in the habit of shutting doors so noisily, could have passed through my room while I had been sleeping. I lighted my lamp and listened. I heard again a light footstep, and presently a voice as of some one talking to himself, though loud enough, sometimes, for me to distinguish his words:
“A good wind getting up, such a wind as blows sharp dust into the face on a frosty night. Whew! I wouldn’t turn a dog out. This is cheerless; but better than that hot cursed place, full of shrieking, whining men and women. How the dusky Satan took that girl, and turned her till her brain was giddy, and she swooned! She had a pretty simple look; but she would not have been there if she were as innocent as her face. They knew me. The priest taunted me with my free use of the guillotine. No matter. That peasant girl did not shrink from the monster, nor look upon my hands to see if they were bloodstained, when we joined the others in their devilry. Oh, it was a pretty sight for them to see a man with some thousands of murders on his mind, looking so merry, and handling a nosegay so delicately—a nosegay that they knew so well in all my portraits! Well, well! enough of this for to–night. My feet can scarcely forget their habit. The fascination of that whirling multitude haunts me. I seem to have her still—my peasant girl. Steadily! Hold me firmly. Now then! Away!”
My mysterious neighbour seemed to be turning rapidly about the room. I heard the quick movement of his feet; and then a noise, as if a heavy body had come violently in contact with the wainscot. I walked on tiptoe to the door, and looked through the keyhole, but my sight only ranged over a small portion of the room, and I could see no one. There was a silence for some moments. Then I heard him talking—again:
“This kind of sport does not suit the middle of the night. I shall wake the whole floor. Let me see; how am I to amuse myself? No rest for me to-night. At daylight I must begone.”
I heard again a noise, as if he had flung himself heavily into a chair; and then there was a long silence again. I sat listening for any sound, and wondering at the strange words that I had heard; but, when the church-clocks had twice chimed the quarters, the room was still quiet. Looking at the keyhole, the light was gone; but, on observing again, I thought I saw a faint glimmer, as if the candle were still burning, with the shade down. After a while, however, I resolved to retire to bed; taking first the precaution to place a chair against the door, in such a manner that it would fall and awaken me, if he attempted again to enter my room; besides which, I placed my sword-stick within reach. I tried to persuade myself that this was some trick of my fellow-students to alarm me, or that my neighbour was a harmless madman, personating the great republican; although I felt uneasy at remembering that he was in possession of the key of the door opening into my room. Resolved, however, at any rate, to shake off my alarm, I strove to rally myself upon the subject. “If M. Robespierre,” said I, aloud, “takes a fancy to walk through my room again, he will be kind enough to shut the doors with less noise, if I am sleeping.”
Instantly, I heard the footstep again; the handle of the lock turned; the chair, with some articles that I had designedly placed upon it, fell with a loud clatter; the door opened wide; and the same figure that I had seen before stood in the doorway.
“Keep off!” I exclaimed, seizing my sword-stick, and planting myself, like Roderick Dhu, with my back to the wall.9Roderick Dhu is a character from “The Lady of the Lake” by Walter Scott.
“I beg your pardon!” said my disturber, with a low bow.
“Who are you? What do you do here?” I demanded, waxing bolder.
“M. Hector Favart—at your service; student of the Ecole de Médécine; having the honour to do duty in the Third Legion of the Garde Nationale—an honour that will take me out of doors at daylight this frosty morning.”
“What!” said I, letting my sword-stick fall from my hand—“the cousin of my Eugénie?”
“Eugénie de la Tour?”
“Eugénie de la Tour.”
“But how do you find yourself in that room?” I asked, still somewhat incredulous.
“I took this little place to-day,” said he, “as a quiet room to read in, and to sleep in at night. By the way, I have to apologise for coming through your apartment in your absence, for the porter had not yet given me the key of the other door upon the landing.”
“I saw you,” said I; “but how did you contrive to lock your door again without my hearing it?”
“Do you not know that when this door is once shut, it cannot be opened again, from your side, without a key?”
“I understand,” said I, advancing, with the light, to shake hands with him. But his unaccountable resemblance, in dress and features, to Robespierre himself (which I had almost forgotten), his pale face, and sunken eyes, struck me again so forcibly, as the light shone upon him, that I started back. “I hope you will not think me unpolite,” said I, “if I observe, before coming closer, that I am struck very forcibly with the remarkable resemblance that you bear to a certain historical personage.”
“Ha! ha!” he laughed, in a tone that sounded strangely hollow. “To whom, now? Tell me. To Louis Seize, or the Cardinal Richelieu; Jean Jacques Rousseau, or the Emperor Napoleon; the lean Frederick of Prussia, or the portly Mirabeau?”10“Louis Seize” is Louis XVI, the French king executed during the Revolution. Richelieu was a secretary of state. Jean Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher during the Enlightenment. Frederick of Prussia was a king of Prussia from 1740-1786. Mirabeau was a leader during the French Revolution.
“To none of those,” said I.
“To a man of the Revolution—eh? A Girondin, or a Cordelier; a Feuillant, or a Jacobin?”11Different political groups during the Revolution.
“To a Jacobin!” said I, “without any offence.”
“No doubt!” he replied; “but to which of them? Not to Marat, the blackguard, I hope?12Jean-Paul Marat was a political leader during the French Revolution. Nor little Camille Desmoulins? nor the jolly Danton? Something more of the Robespierre look about me—isn’t there?” holding the nosegay in one hand, he placed himself exactly in the attitude of Robespierre in the portraits.
“I certainly,” said I, “did have such an impression when I first saw you; and now that you stand in that position, I cannot help being struck with the similarity between you.”
He laughed again, in the husky tone of a man afflicted with a severe cold. “The day I was born, my nurse—who never before, in her life, admitted a child to have the slightest resemblance with anybody but his own father—could not help exclaiming, ‘Ah, le petit Robespierre!’ for she had seen the great man when a girl. Everybody said I resembled him exactly; everybody was right. Faith! to-night, at the fancy ball at the Chaumière, I make my appearance in this style, with nosegay complete, and everybody recongises me in a moment.”
“Ha! ha!” I exclaimed, laughing in my turn. “The mystery is unravelled! Pray, step in; I will light my fire in a moment. I think I have materials for a bowl of punch.”
“With all my heart,” said he. “I dare not go to bed, lest I should oversleep myself, and forget my engagement.”
“To your fair cousin, Eugénie!” said I, when the bowl stood smoking on the table, while we struck our glasses together, in ratification of the toast.
“To one not less fair!” said he, filling again, “whose name I need not tell.”
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15 March 2021
5 October 2021
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|↑1||“Au sixième” literally means “on the sixth,” but as the French don’t count the ground floor as the first floor of a building, this means the author was on the seventh floor. Palmyra was a city in ancient Syria and Pompeii was a city in ancient Rome.|
|↑2||A daguerreotype is an old type of photograph. “Norman” refers to someone from the region of Normandy in the north-west of France.|
|↑3||“Par tous les temps” means “in all types of weather.”|
|↑4||“Bouilli” is boiled meat.|
|↑5||Camille Desmoulins was a journalist who worked during the French Revolution.|
|↑6||A famous figure of the French Revolution. “Jacobin” refers to a political party during the Revolution.|
|↑7||The fatted calf refers to the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke Chapter 15.|
|↑8||The church of St. Sulpice is the second largest church in Paris, after Notre Dame de Paris.|
|↑9||Roderick Dhu is a character from “The Lady of the Lake” by Walter Scott.|
|↑10||“Louis Seize” is Louis XVI, the French king executed during the Revolution. Richelieu was a secretary of state. Jean Jacques Rousseau was a French philosopher during the Enlightenment. Frederick of Prussia was a king of Prussia from 1740-1786. Mirabeau was a leader during the French Revolution.|
|↑11||Different political groups during the Revolution.|
|↑12||Jean-Paul Marat was a political leader during the French Revolution.|