One evening about eight months ago I met with some college comrades at the lodgings of our friend Louis R. We drank punch and smoked, talked of literature and art, and made jokes like any other company of young men. Suddenly the door flew open, and one who had been my friend since boyhood burst in like a hurricane.
Guy De Maupassant was a master of the short story whose subjects were usually taken from everyday life. This one is taken from everyday life and death.
The copy here is from Twenty-Five Ghost Stories (Edited by W. Bob Holland), which is available at Project Gutenberg.
“Guess where I come from?” he cried.
“I bet on the Mabille,” responded one. “No,” said another, “you are too gay; you come from borrowing money, from burying a rich uncle, or from pawning your watch.” “You are getting sober,” cried a third, “and, as you scented the punch in Louis’ room, you came up here to get drunk again.”
“You are all wrong,” he replied. “I come from P., in Normandy, where I have spent eight days, and whence I have brought one of my friends, a great criminal, whom I ask permission to present to you.”
With these words he drew from his pocket a long, black hand, from which the skin had been stripped. It had been severed at the wrist. Its dry and shriveled shape, and the narrow, yellowed nails still clinging to the fingers, made it frightful to look upon. The muscles, which showed that its first owner had been possessed of great strength, were bound in place by a strip of parchment-like skin.
“Just fancy,” said my friend, “the other day they sold the effects of an old sorcerer, recently deceased, well-known in all the country. Every Saturday night he used to go to witch gatherings on a broomstick; he practised the white magic and the black, gave blue milk to the cows, and made them wear tails like that of the companion of Saint Anthony. The old scoundrel always had a deep affection for this hand, which, he said, was that of a celebrated criminal, executed in 1736 for having thrown his lawful wife head first into a well—for which I do not blame him—and then hanging in the belfry the priest who had married him. After this double exploit he went away, and, during his subsequent career, which was brief but exciting, he robbed twelve travelers, smoked a score of monks in their monastery, and made a seraglio of a convent.”
“But what are you going to do with this horror?” we cried.
“Eh! parbleu! I will make it the handle to my door-bell and frighten my creditors.”
“My friend,” said Henry Smith, a big, phlegmatic Englishman, “I believe that this hand is only a kind of Indian meat, preserved by a new process; I advise you to make bouillon of it.”
“Rail not, messieurs,” said, with the utmost sang froid, a medical student who was three-quarters drunk, “but if you follow my advice, Pierre, you will give this piece of human debris Christian burial, for fear lest its owner should come to demand it. Then, too, this hand has acquired some bad habits, for you know the proverb, ‘Who has killed will kill.’”
“And who has drank will drink,” replied the host as he poured out a big glass of punch for the student, who emptied it at a draught and slid dead drunk under the table. His sudden dropping out of the company was greeted with a burst of laughter, and Pierre, raising his glass and saluting the hand, cried:
“I drink to the next visit of thy master.”
Then the conversation turned upon other subjects, and shortly afterward each returned to his lodgings.
About two o’clock the next day, as I was passing Pierre’s door, I entered and found him reading and smoking.
“Well, how goes it?” said I. “Very well,” he responded. “And your hand?” “My hand? Did you not see it on the bell-pull? I put it there when I returned home last night. But, apropos of this, what do you think? Some idiot, doubtless to play a stupid joke on me, came ringing at my door towards midnight. I demanded who was there, but as no one replied, I went back to bed again, and to sleep.”
At this moment the door opened and the landlord, a fat and extremely impertinent person, entered without saluting us.
“Sir,” said he, “I pray you to take away immediately that carrion which you have hung to your bell-pull. Unless you do this I shall be compelled to ask you to leave.”
“Sir,” responded Pierre, with much gravity, “you insult a hand which does not merit it. Know you that it belonged to a man of high breeding?”
The landlord turned on his heel and made his exit, without speaking. Pierre followed him, detached the hand and affixed it to the bell-cord hanging in his alcove.
“That is better,” he said. “This hand, like the ‘Brother, all must die,’ of the Trappists, will give my thoughts a serious turn every night before I sleep.”
At the end of an hour I left him and returned to my own apartment.
I slept badly the following night, was nervous and agitated, and several times awoke with a start. Once I imagined, even, that a man had broken into my room, and I sprang up and searched the closets and under the bed. Towards six o’clock in the morning I was commencing to doze at last, when a loud knocking at my door made me jump from my couch. It was my friend Pierre’s servant, half-dressed, pale and trembling.
“Ah, sir!” cried he, sobbing, “my poor master. Someone has murdered him.”
I dressed myself hastily and ran to Pierre’s lodgings. The house was full of people disputing together, and everything was in a commotion. Everyone was talking at the same time, recounting and commenting on the occurrence in all sorts of ways. With great difficulty I reached the bedroom, made myself known to those guarding the door and was permitted to enter. Four agents of police were standing in the middle of the apartment, pencils in hand, examining every detail, conferring in low voices and writing from time to time in their note-books. Two doctors were in consultation by the bed on which lay the unconscious form of Pierre. He was not dead, but his face was fixed in an expression of the most awful terror. His eyes were open their widest, and the dilated pupils seemed to regard fixedly, with unspeakable horror, something unknown and frightful. His hands were clenched. I raised the quilt, which covered his body from the chin downward, and saw on his neck, deeply sunk in the flesh, the marks of fingers. Some drops of blood spotted his shirt. At that moment one thing struck me. I chanced to notice that the shriveled hand was no longer attached to the bell-cord. The doctors had doubtless removed it to avoid the comments of those entering the chamber where the wounded man lay, because the appearance of this hand was indeed frightful. I did not inquire what had become of it.
I now clip from a newspaper of the next day the story of the crime with all the details that the police were able to procure:
“A frightful attempt was made yesterday on the life of young M. Pierre B., student, who belongs to one of the best families in Normandy. He returned home about ten o’clock in the evening, and excused his valet, Bouvin, from further attendance upon him, saying that he felt fatigued and was going to bed. Towards midnight Bouvin was suddenly awakened by the furious ringing of his master’s bell. He was afraid, and lighted a lamp and waited. The bell was silent about a minute, then rang again with such vehemence that the domestic, mad with fright, flew from his room to awaken the concierge, who ran to summon the police, and, at the end of about fifteen minutes, two policemen forced open the door. A horrible sight met their eyes. The furniture was overturned, giving evidence of a fearful struggle between the victim and his assailant. In the middle of the room, upon his back, his body rigid, with livid face and frightfully dilated eyes, lay, motionless, young Pierre B., bearing upon his neck the deep imprints of five fingers. Dr. Bourdean was called immediately, and his report says that the aggressor must have been possessed of prodigious strength and have had an extraordinarily thin and sinewy hand, because the fingers left in the flesh of the victim five holes like those from a pistol ball, and had penetrated until they almost met. There is no clue to the motive of the crime or to its perpetrator. The police are making a thorough investigation.”
The following appeared in the same newspaper next day:
“M. Pierre B., the victim of the frightful assault of which we published an account yesterday, has regained consciousness after two hours of the most assiduous care by Dr. Bourdean. His life is not in danger, but it is strongly feared that he has lost his reason. No trace has been found of his assailant.”
My poor friend was indeed insane. For seven months I visited him daily at the hospital where we had placed him, but he did not recover the light of reason. In his delirium strange words escaped him, and, like all madmen, he had one fixed idea: he believed himself continually pursued by a specter. One day they came for me in haste, saying he was worse, and when I arrived I found him dying. For two hours he remained very calm, then, suddenly, rising from his bed in spite of our efforts, he cried, waving his arms as if a prey to the most awful terror: “Take it away! Take it away! It strangles me! Help! Help!” Twice he made the circuit of the room, uttering horrible screams, then fell face downward, dead.
As he was an orphan I was charged to take his body to the little village of P., in Normandy, where his parents were buried. It was the place from which he had arrived the evening he found us drinking punch in Louis R.’s room, when he had presented to us the flayed hand. His body was enclosed in a leaden coffin, and four days afterwards I walked sadly beside the old cure, who had given him his first lessons, to the little cemetery where they dug his grave. It was a beautiful day, and sunshine from a cloudless sky flooded the earth. Birds sang from the blackberry bushes where many a time when we were children we had stolen to eat the fruit. Again I saw Pierre and myself creeping along behind the hedge and slipping through the gap that we knew so well, down at the end of the little plot where they bury the poor. Again we would return to the house with cheeks and lips black with the juice of the berries we had eaten. I looked at the bushes; they were covered with fruit; mechanically I picked some and bore it to my mouth. The cure had opened his breviary, and was muttering his prayers in a low voice. I heard at the end of the walk the spades of the grave-diggers who were opening the tomb. Suddenly they called out, the cure closed his book, and we went to see what they wished of us. They had found a coffin; in digging a stroke of the pickaxe had started the cover, and we perceived within a skeleton of unusual stature, lying on its back, its hollow eyes seeming yet to menace and defy us. I was troubled, I know not why, and almost afraid.
“Hold!” cried one of the men, “look there! One of the rascal’s hands has been severed at the wrist. Ah, here it is!” and he picked up from beside the body a huge withered hand, and held it out to us.
“See,” cried the other, laughing, “see how he glares at you, as if he would spring at your throat to make you give him back his hand.”
“Go,” said the cure, “leave the dead in peace, and close the coffin. We will make poor Pierre’s grave elsewhere.”
The next day all was finished, and I returned to Paris, after having left fifty francs with the old cure for masses to be said for the repose of the soul of him whose sepulchre we had troubled.