The Spasm by Guy de Maupassant
The hotel guests slowly entered the dining-room and took their places.
The waiters did not hurry themselves, in order to give the late comers a
chance and thus avoid the trouble of bringing in the dishes a second
time. The old bathers, the habitues, whose season was almost over,
glanced, gazed toward the door whenever it opened, to see what new faces
This is the principal distraction of watering places. 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. We always have a
vague desire to meet pleasant people, to make agreeable acquaintances,
perhaps to meet with a love adventure. In this life of elbowings, unknown
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
people with different eyes, when we view them through the medium of
acquaintanceship at watering places. We discover in men suddenly, after
an hour's chat, in the evening after dinner, under the trees in the park
where the healing spring bubbles up, a high intelligence and astonishing
merits, and a month afterward we have completely forgotten these new
friends, who were so fascinating when we first met them.
Permanent and serious ties are also formed here sooner than anywhere
else. People see each other every day; they become acquainted very
quickly, and their affection is tinged with the sweetness and unrestraint
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 in which a soul was unveiled, of those first glances
which interrogate and respond to 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 seem to open theirs to us in return.
And the melancholy of watering places, the monotony of days that are all
alike, proves hourly an incentive to this heart expansion.
Well, this evening, as on every other evening, we awaited the appearance
of strange faces.
Only two appeared, but they were very remarkable, a man and a woman
—father and daughter. They immediately reminded me of 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 fate.
The man was very tall and thin, rather stooped, with perfectly white
hair, 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. She was
rather pretty; with a transparent, spiritual beauty. 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 sat facing me, on the opposite side of the table; and I at once
noticed that the father had a very singular, nervous twitching.
Every time he wanted to reach an object, his hand described a sort of
zigzag before it succeeded in reaching what it was in search of, and
after a little while this movement annoyed me so 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
After dinner I went for a stroll in the park of the bathing
establishment. This led toward the little Auvergnese station of
Chatel-Guyon, hidden in a gorge at the foot of the high mountain, from
which flowed so many boiling springs, arising from the deep bed of
extinct volcanoes. Over yonder, above our heads, the domes of extinct
craters lifted their ragged peaks above the rest in the long mountain
chain. For Chatel-Guyon is situated at the entrance to the land of
Beyond it stretches out the region of peaks, and, farther on again the
region of precipitous summits.
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
It was a very warm evening, and I was walking up and down a shady path,
listening to the opening, strains of the Casino band, which was playing
on an elevation overlooking the park.
And I saw the father and the daughter advancing slowly in my direction. I
bowed as one bows to one's hotel companions at a watering place; and the
man, coming to a sudden halt, said to me:
"Could you not, monsieur, tell us of a nice walk to take, short, pretty,
and not steep; and pardon my troubling you?"
I offered to show them the way toward the valley through which the little
river flowed, a deep valley forming a gorge between two tall, craggy,
They gladly accepted my offer.
And we talked, naturally, about the virtue of the waters.
"Oh," he said, "my daughter has a strange malady, the seat of which is
unknown. She suffers from incomprehensible nervous attacks. 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 they
declare it to be a disease of the spine. To-day this protean malady, that
assumes a thousand forms and a thousand modes of attack, is attributed to
the stomach, which is the great caldron and regulator of the body. 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
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 jerking movement of my hand every time I
try 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 utter, "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 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
"I wished to have her interred with her jewels, bracelets, necklaces,
rings, all presents which she had received from me, and wearing her first
"You may easily imagine my state of mind when I re-entered our home. She
was the only one I had, for my wife had been dead for many years. I found
my way to my own apartment in a half-distracted condition, utterly
exhausted, and 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 an open wound.
"My old valet, Prosper, who had assisted me in placing Juliette in her
coffin, and aided me in preparing her for her last sleep, entered the
room noiselessly, and asked:
"'Does monsieur want anything?'
"I merely shook my head in reply.
"'Monsieur is wrong,' he urged. 'He will injure his health. 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 winter hurricane, blew with a regular,
sinister noise against the windows.
"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 doorbell,
the great bell of the vestibule, rang out.
"I started so that my chair cracked under me. The solemn, ponderous sound
vibrated through the empty country house as 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 drew back the heavy
bolts. My heart was throbbing wildly. I was frightened. I opened the door
brusquely, 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 backward before this
advancing spectre. 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 which has remained with me ever since.
"'Do not be afraid, papa,' said the apparition. 'I was not dead. Somebody
tried to steal my rings and cut one of my fingers; the blood began to
flow, and that restored me to life.'
"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
bewildered that I scarcely realized the awesome happiness that had
befallen me, I made her go up to my room and sit dawn in my easy-chair;
then I rang excitedly for Prosper to get him to rekindle the fire and to
bring some wine, and to summon assistance.
"The man entered, stared at my daughter, opened his mouth with a gasp of
alarm and stupefaction, and then fell back dead.
"It was he who had opened the vault, 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 trusted him
"You see, monsieur, that we are very unfortunate people."
He was silent.
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
"What a horrible thing!"
Then, after a minute's silence, I added:
"Let us go indoors. I think it is growing cool."
And we made our way back to the hotel.