Frédéric Boutet: The Apparition (complete)
It was ten o’clock, and all those who were this evening to participate in the séance at the house of Mme Harmelle, had arrived. In a grand salon, of a sumptuousness sober and old-fashioned, they formed three distinct groups, with the Spiritualists, devoted habitués of the séance (a bespectacled Englishwoman, extravagant of manner; a Slavic princess, disquieting; and an old colonel, retired), together in a corner; the Skeptics (four serious gentlemen who argued in low voices near the fireplace); and last, quite apart, the medium Artis, a strange figure without age, dressed in ecclesiastical black, who stood upright, perfectly still. He had a pale, stony face where only the eyes were alive—icy and aware at the same time.
The hour struck. Mme Harmelle raised herself from the armchair enfolding her. Under white hair her face was worn with disappointment; her thin hands trembled, despite an effort to control her emotion.
“It is time,” she said.
“One moment, I beg you. I have a word to say to Monsieur.”
From the group at the fireplace, a fat man, grey-haired, clean-shaved, detached himself. His substantial frock coat sported a red rosette. He moved straight to the medium.
“Do you know me?” he demanded, with a brusqueness that seemed his habit.
“Yes, monsieur. You are the illustrious professor Herbin, of the Academy of Medicine, the uncontested master of modern physiology…”
M. Artis spoke without budging, in a voice pallid and uninflected, and seemed to recite, without comprehension, a lesson.
The scientist interrupted. “Well and good. Thank you. I am here particularly as the intimate friend of Mme Harmelle. The three gentlemen by the fireplace are also dear friends or relatives. The others you know better than I. I want to say this: for more than a year you have taken upon the mind of Mme Harmelle an absolute sovereignty by invoking for her—I repeat what you have made her believe—a person cherished by her, who is dead.”
His gaze went to the portrait of a young woman.
“Mme Harmelle has in you a blind faith, but these séances, which, M. Artis, are quite costly…they put her in a nervous condition that is truly dangerous. There are various considerations for the present and for the future. Her friends have intervened. At our insistence she has consented to have us sit through one of your experiences, if the word can be applied. I want to warn you, M. Artis, that we shall be pitiless, does the matter demand it. You understand? Supposing your séances are what I believe—and truly, what else can they be?—you have time yet to take yourself off. You may use the excuse of illness, you may leave, disappear. It might be prudent…for you play above your means. Think about it.”
The medium stood immobile. His voice without inflection came to them again. “The consultations of scientific royalty cost dearly as well. I am a doctor of the soul. I have consented to make experiment before you this evening, under conditions that you know, thus to convince you…for I hope, on the evidence, you will face the truth. I have nothing more to say.”
He left the professor and went to Mme Harmelle, who’d observed them, in a worried state.
“I am ready.” He added a few words in a low voice.
She gave him her nod, and aloud, solemn, said: “We will begin. But before we begin I remind all present that they have sworn an oath not to intervene, in any way whatsoever, with this séance M. Artis has agreed to conduct under only such a circumstance. I remind you that any interference puts his life in danger and perhaps forever drives away those who, through him, have come to visit us…”
Her voice broke. With rapid steps she made for an open door, and in her wake they all passed into a neighboring chamber.
This was a small room, scarce of furnishings, and but for a lamp on the mantelpiece, poorly lit. Barricading one corner, fell two black curtains to the floor. Professor Herbin, going at once to spread them, saw nothing behind but a stool, and on the stood, a guitar.
The English spiritualist covered the lamp with a red globe, and placed this on the floor in a corner, behind a screen equally red. In the weak light that remained, the medium, on a wooden stool, sat before the black curtains. The chain formed, Mme Harmelle giving her hand to the medium, then the others, alternately skeptics and believers, reaching the professor opposite, himself not touching the medium. One of the grave gentlemen, not taking part, withdrew to the back of the room.
Time passed. The medium murmured an invocation, and a silence fell, heavy.
All at once the curtains, visible only in form, swelled as though lifted by a strong wind, and the participants felt a cold breeze touch their faces. Rappings that seemed to come from the furnishings and walls, skittered from all corners. The wind blew stronger, the curtains bellied like sails, and the medium disappeared. A note of music sounded, then another; then a melody sketched itself. A cry came suddenly from the professor that someone had pulled his hair.
Through the curtains the stool came out by itself. It levitated to the shoulder of the colonel, on which it supported itself, gave a little leap, passed over the head of the Polish princess, and descended as though guided by intellect.
They heard a gasp from the medium and saw him stand. A pale object hopped above him, appearing as a flower of wavering light. An odor of violets spread. Then there was silence, and for a few minutes in the reddish shadows, nothing was seen.
“Look! Look!” said the Englishwoman, in a muffled voice.
A nebulous ball seemed to descend from on high in the area of the black curtains, which agitated themselves again. It dropped, growing into a cloud, and an apparition that glowed faintly clarified into the vaporous figure of a girl.
“She comes. It is her,” murmured Mme Harmelle, subdued and trembling.
But at this, a flash of brilliant light filled the room. There were cries, and tumult. Professor Herbin, with all the fire of a young man, threw himself to the fray. He had seized with both arms the black curtains, the medium, and the apparition.
They saw the bright light brandished by the serious man who had not taken part in the chain, and the medium struggling. From a fold of filmy white cloth crumpled in his hands, fell a deflated bladder to the floor, curling in on itself.
“There! Your apparition!” shouted Herbin. “You see the mousseline and the bladder! I have gone back on my word of honor, I understand, but it was necessary to save you from scoundrels, my dear friend…”
He turned, triumphant, towards Mme Harmelle.
She, overwrought, livid, appeared to suffocate with horror. Tears streamed from her eyes and she flung herself at him.
“Begone! Begone!” she cried to Herbin with a terrible gesture. “You are the liar! You are the wretch! You think you know, but you know nothing! And I, I know that he tells me the truth, because it is my daughter he brings back to me! My daughter, I tell you! My little girl!”
There was a silence, and the Professor Herbin, following his three companions, made off like a villain.
(2020, translation, Stephanie Foster)