Henri René Albert Guy de Maupassant ~ The Flayed Hand

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.

“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 clinched. 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 pick-axe 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.

~ Lagniappe ~

From the Tomb

The guests filed slowly into the hotel’s great dining-hall and took their places, the waiters began to serve them leisurely, to give the tardy ones time to arrive and to save themselves the bother of bringing back the courses; and the old bathers, the yearly habitues, with whom the season was far advanced, kept a close watch on the door each time it opened, hoping for the coming of new faces.

New faces! the single distraction of all pleasure resorts. We go to dinner chiefly to canvass the daily arrivals, to wonder who they are, what they do and what they think. A restless desire seems to have taken possession of us, a longing for pleasant adventures, for friendly acquaintances, perhaps, for possible lovers. In this elbow-to-elbow life our unknown neighbors become of paramount importance. Curiosity is piqued, sympathy on the alert and the social instinct doubly active.

We have hatreds for a week, friendships for a month, and view all men with the special eyes of watering-place intimacy. Sometimes during an hour’s chat after dinner, under the trees of the park, where ripples a healing spring, we discover men of superior intellect and surprising merit, and a month later have wholly forgotten these new friends, so charming at first sight.

There, too, more specially than elsewhere, serious and lasting ties are formed. We see each other every day, we learn to know each other very soon, and in the affection that springs up so rapidly between us there is mingled much of the sweet abandon of old and tried intimates. And later on, how tender are the memories cherished of the first hours of this friendship, of the first communion in which the soul came to light, of the first glances that questioned and responded to the secret thoughts and interrogatories the lips have not dared yet to utter, of the first cordial confidence and delicious sensation of opening one’s heart to someone who has seemed to lay bare to you his own! The very dullness of the hours, as it were, the monotony of days all alike, but renders more complete the rapid budding and blooming of friendship’s flower.

That evening, then, as on every evening, we awaited the appearance of unfamiliar faces.

There came only two, but very peculiar ones, those of a man and a woman—father and daughter. They seemed to have stepped from the pages of some weird legend; and yet there was an attraction about them, albeit an unpleasant one, that made me set them down at once as the victims of some fatality.

The father was tall, spare, a little bent, with hair blanched white; too white for his still young countenance, and in his manner and about his person the sedate austerity of carriage that bespeaks the Puritan. The daughter was, possibly, some twenty-four or twenty-five years of age. She was very slight, emaciated, her exceedingly pale countenance bearing a languid, spiritless expression; one of those people whom we sometimes encounter, apparently too weak for the cares and tasks of life, too feeble to move or do the things that we must do every day. Nevertheless the girl was pretty, with the ethereal beauty of an apparition. It was she, undoubtedly, who came for the benefit of the waters.

They chanced to be placed at table immediately opposite to me; and I was not long in noticing that the father, too, had a strange affection, something wrong about the nerves it seemed. Whenever he was going to reach for anything, his hand, with a jerky twitch, described a sort of fluttering zig-zag, before he was able to grasp what he was after. Soon, the motion disturbed me so much, I kept my head turned in order not to see it. But not before I had also observed that the young girl kept her glove on her left hand while she ate.

Dinner ended, I went out as usual for a turn in the grounds belonging to the establishment. A sort of park, I might say, stretching clear to the little station of Auvergne, Chatel-Guyon, nestling in a gorge at the foot of the high mountain, from which flowed the sparkling, bubbling springs, hot from the furnace of an ancient volcano. Beyond us there, the domes, small extinct craters—of which Chatel-Guyon is the starting point—raised their serrated heads above the long chain; while beyond the domes came two distinct regions, one of them, needle-like peaks, the other of bold, precipitous mountains.

It was very warm that evening, and I contented myself with pacing to and fro under the rustling trees, gazing at the mountains and listening to the strains of the band, pouring from the Casino, situated on a knoll that overlooked the grounds.

Presently, I perceived the father and daughter coming toward me with slow steps. I bowed to them in that pleasant Continental fashion with which one always salutes his hotel companions. The gentleman halted at once.

“Pardon me, sir,” said he, “but may I ask if you can direct us to a short walk, easy and pretty, if possible?”

“Certainly,” I answered, and offered to lead them myself to the valley through which the swift river flows—a deep, narrow cleft between two great declivities, rocky and wooded.

They accepted, and as we walked, we naturally discussed the virtue of the mineral waters. They had, as I had surmised, come there on his daughter’s account.

“She has a strange malady,” said he, “the seat of which her physicians cannot determine. She suffers from the most inexplicable nervous symptoms. Sometimes they declare her ill of a heart disease; sometimes of a liver complaint; again of a spinal trouble. At present they attribute it to the stomach—that great motor and regulator of the body—this Protean disease of a thousand forms, a thousand modes of attack. It is why we are here. I, myself, think it is her nerves. In any case it is sad.”

This reminded me of his own jerking hand.

“It may be hereditary,” said I, “your own nerves are a little disturbed, are they not?”

“Mine?” he answered, tranquilly. “Not at all, I have always possessed the calmest nerves.” Then, suddenly, as if bethinking himself:

“For this,” touching his hand, “is not nerves, but the result of a shock, a terrible shock that I suffered once. Fancy it, sir, this child of mine has been buried alive!”

I could find nothing to say, I was dumb with surprise.

“Yes,” he continued, “buried alive; but hear the story, it is not long. For some time past Juliette had seemed affected with a disordered action of the heart. We were finally certain that the trouble was organic and feared the worst. One day it came, she was brought in lifeless—dead. She had fallen dead while walking in the garden. Physicians came in haste, but nothing could be done. She was gone. For two days and nights I watched beside her myself, and with my own hands placed her in her coffin, which I followed to the cemetery and saw placed in the family vault. This was in the country, in the province of Lorraine.

“It had been my wish, too, that she should be buried in her jewels, bracelets, necklace and rings, all presents that I had given her, and in her first ball dress. You can imagine, sir, the state of my heart in returning home. She was all that I had left, my wife had been dead for many years. I returned, in truth, half mad, shut myself alone in my room and fell into my chair dazed, unable to move, merely a miserable, breathing wreck.

“Soon my old valet, Prosper, who had helped me place Juliette in her coffin and lay her away for her last sleep, came in noiselessly to see if he could not induce me to eat. I shook my head, answering nothing. He persisted:

Monsieur is wrong; this will make him ill. Will monsieur allow me, then, to put him to bed?’

No, no,’ I answered. ‘Let me alone.’

“He yielded and withdrew.

“How many hours passed I do not know. What a night! What a night! It was very cold; my fire of logs had long since burned out in the great fireplace; and the wind, a wintry blast, charged with an icy frost, howled and screamed about the house and strained at my windows with a curiously sinister sound.

“Long hours, I say, rolled by. I sat still where I had fallen, prostrated, overwhelmed; my eyes wide open, but my body strengthless, dead; my soul drowned in despair. Suddenly the great bell gave a loud peal.

“I gave such a leap that my chair cracked under me. The slow, solemn sound rang through the empty house. I looked at the clock.

“It was two in the morning. Who could be coming at such an hour?

“Twice again the bell pulled sharply. The servants would never answer, perhaps never hear it. I took up a candle and made my way to the door. I was about to demand:

Who is there?’ but, ashamed of the weakness, nerved myself and drew back the bolts. My heart throbbed, my pulse beat, I threw back the panel brusquely and there, in the darkness, saw a shape like a phantom, dressed in white.

“I recoiled, speechless with anguish, stammering:

Who—who are you?’

“A voice answered:

It is I, father.’

“It was my child, Juliette.

“Truly, I thought myself mad. I shuddered, shrinking backward before the specter as it advanced, gesticulating with my hand to ward off the apparition. It is that gesture which has never left me.

“Again the phantom spoke:

Father, father! See, I am not dead. Someone came to rob me of my jewels—they cut off my finger—the—the flowing blood revived me.’

“And I saw then that she was covered with blood. I fell to my knees panting, sobbing, laughing, all in one. As soon as I regained my senses, but still so bewildered I scarcely comprehended the happiness that had come to me, I took her in my arms, carried her to her room, and rang frantically for Prosper to rekindle the fire, bring a warm drink for her, and go for the doctor.

“He came running, entered, gazed a moment at my daughter in the chair—gave a gasp of fright and horror and fell back—dead.

“It was he who had opened the vault, who had wounded and robbed my child, and then abandoned her; for he could not efface all trace of his deed; and he had not even taken the trouble to return the coffin to its niche; sure, besides, of not being suspected by me, who trusted him so fully. We are truly very unfortunate people, monsieur.”

He was silent.

Meanwhile the night had come on, enveloping in the gloom the still and solitary little valley; a sort of mysterious dread seemed to fall upon me in presence of these strange beings—this corpse come to life, and this father with his painful gestures.

“Let us return,” said I, “the night has grown chill.”

And still in silence, we retraced our steps back to the hotel, and I shortly afterward returned to the city. I lost all further knowledge of the two peculiar visitors to my favorite summer resort.

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