Serendipity - The Woman and the Cat by Eugène Marcel Prévost

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The Woman and the Cat
by Eugène Marcel Prévost

"Yes," said our old friend Tribourdeaux, a man of culture and a

philosopher, which is a combination rarely found among army surgeons;

"yes, the supernatural is everywhere; it surrounds us and hems us in and

permeates us. If science pursues it, it takes flight and cannot be

grasped. Our intellect resembles those ancestors of ours who cleared a few

acres of forest; whenever they approached the limits of their clearing

they heard low growls and saw gleaming eyes everywhere circling them

about. I myself have had the sensation of having approached the limits of

the unknown several times in my life, and on one occasion in particular."

A young lady present interrupted him:

"Doctor, you are evidently dying to tell us a story. Come now, begin!"

The doctor bowed.

"No, I am not in the least anxious, I assure you. I tell this story as

seldom as possible, for it disturbs those who hear it, and it disturbs me

also. However, if you wish it, here it is:

"In 1863 I was a young physician stationed at Orléans. In that patrician

city, full of aristocratic old residences, it is difficult to find

bachelor apartments; and, as I like both plenty of air and plenty of room,

I took up my lodging on the first floor of a large building situated just

outside the city, near Saint-Euverte. It had been originally constructed

to serve as the warehouse and also as the dwelling of a manufacturer of

rugs. In course of time the manufacturer had failed, and this big barrack

that he had built, falling out of repair through lack of tenants, had been

sold for a song with all its furnishings. The purchaser hoped to make a

future profit out of his purchase, for the city was growing in that

direction; and, as a matter of fact, I believe that at the present time

the house is included within the city limits. When I took up my quarters

there, however, the mansion stood alone on the verge of the open country,

at the end of a straggling street on which a few stray houses produced at

dusk the impression of a jaw from which most of the teeth have fallen out.

"I leased one-half of the first floor, an apartment of four rooms. For my

bedroom and my study I took the two that fronted on the street; in the

third room I set up some shelves for my wardrobe, and the other room I

left empty. This made a very comfortable lodging for me, and I had, for a

sort of promenade, a broad balcony that ran along the entire front of the

building, or rather one-half of the balcony, since it was divided into two

parts (please note this carefully) by a fan of ironwork, over which,

however, one could easily climb.

"I had been living there for about two months when, one night in July on

returning to my rooms, I saw with a good deal of surprise a light shining

through the windows of the other apartment on the same floor, which I had

supposed to be uninhabited. The effect of this light was extraordinary. It

lit up with a pale, yet perfectly distinct, reflection, parts of the

balcony, the street below, and a bit of the neighboring fields.

"I thought to myself, 'Aha! I have a neighbor."

"The idea indeed was not altogether agreeable, for I had been rather proud

of my exclusive proprietorship. On reaching my bedroom I passed

noiselessly out upon the balcony, but already the light had been

extinguished. So I went back into my room, and sat down to read for an

hour or two. From time to time I seemed to hear about me, as though within

the walls, light footsteps; but after finishing my book I went to bed, and

speedily fell asleep.

"About midnight I suddenly awoke with a curious feeling that something was

standing beside me. I raised myself in bed, lit a candle, and this is what

I saw. In the middle of the room stood an immense cat gazing upon me with

phosphorescent eyes, and with its back slightly arched. It was a

magnificent Angora, with long fur and a fluffy tail, and of a remarkable

color—exactly like that of the yellow silk that one sees in cocoons—so

that, as the light gleamed upon its coat, the animal seemed to be made of


"It slowly moved toward me on its velvety paws, softly rubbing its sinuous

body against my legs. I leaned over to stroke it, and it permitted my

caress, purring, and finally leaping upon my knees. I noticed then that it

was a female cat, quite young, and that she seemed disposed to permit me

to pet her as long as ever I would. Finally, however, I put her down upon

the floor, and tried to induce her to leave the room; but she leaped away

from me and hid herself somewhere among the furniture, though as soon as I

had blown out my candle, she jumped upon my bed. Being sleepy, however, I

didn't molest her, but dropped off into a doze, and the next morning when

I awoke in broad daylight I could find no sign of the animal at all.

"Truly, the human brain is a very delicate instrument, and one that is

easily thrown out of gear. Before I proceed, just sum up for yourselves

the facts that I have mentioned: a light seen and presently extinguished

in an apartment supposed to be uninhabited; and a cat of a remarkable

color, which appeared and disappeared in a way that was slightly

mysterious. Now there isn't anything very strange about that, is there?

Very well. Imagine, now, that these unimportant facts are repeated day

after day and under the same conditions throughout a whole week, and then,

believe me, they become of importance enough to impress the mind of a man

who is living all alone, and to produce in him a slight disquietude such

as I spoke of in commencing my story, and such as is always caused when

one approaches the sphere of the unknown. The human mind is so formed that

it always unconsciously applies the principle of the causa sufficiens. For

every series of facts that are identical, it demands a cause, a law; and a

vague dismay seizes upon it when it is unable to guess this cause and to

trace out this law.

"I am no coward, but I have often studied the manifestation of fear in

others, from its most puerile form in children up to its most tragic phase

in madmen. I know that it is fed and nourished by uncertainties, although

when one actually sets himself to investigate the cause, this fear is

often transformed into simple curiosity.

"I made up my mind, therefore, to ferret out the truth. I questioned my

caretaker, and found that he knew nothing about my neighbors. Every

morning an old woman came to look after the neighboring apartment; my

caretaker had tried to question her, but either she was completely deaf or

else she was unwilling to give him any information, for she had refused to

answer a single word. Nevertheless, I was able to explain satisfactorily

the first thing that I had noted—that is to say, the sudden extinction of

the light at the moment when I entered the house. I had observed that the

windows next to mine were covered only by long lace curtains; and as the

two balconies were connected, my neighbor, whether man or woman, had no

doubt a wish to prevent any indiscreet inquisitiveness on my part, and

therefore had always put out the light on hearing me come in. To verify

this supposition, I tried a very simple experiment, which succeeded

perfectly. I had a cold supper brought in one day about noon by my

servant, and that evening I did not go out. When darkness came on, I took

my station near the window. Presently I saw the balcony shining with the

light that streamed through the windows of the neighboring apartment. At

once I slipped quietly out upon my balcony, and stepped softly over the

ironwork that separated the two parts. Although I knew that I was exposing

myself to a positive danger, either of falling and breaking my neck, or of

finding myself face to face with a man, I experienced no perturbation.

Reaching the lighted window without having made the slightest noise, I

found it partly open; its curtains, which for me were quite transparent

since I was on the dark side of the window, made me wholly invisible to

any one who should look toward the window from the interior of the room.

"I saw a vast chamber furnished quite elegantly, though it was obviously

out of repair, and lighted by a lamp suspended from the ceiling. At the

end of the room was a low sofa upon which was reclining a woman who seemed

to me to be both young and pretty. Her loosened hair fell over her

shoulders in a rain of gold. She was looking at herself in a hand mirror,

patting herself, passing her arms over her lips, and twisting about her

supple body with a curiously feline grace. Every movement that she made

caused her long hair to ripple in glistening undulations.

"As I gazed upon her I confess that I felt a little troubled, especially

when all of a sudden the young girl's eyes were fixed upon me—strange

eyes, eyes of a phosphorescent green that gleamed like the flame of a

lamp. I was sure that I was invisible, being on the dark side of a

curtained window. That was simple enough, yet nevertheless I felt that I

was seen. The girl, in fact, uttered a cry, and then turned and buried her

face in the sofa-pillows.

"I raised the window, rushed into the room toward the sofa, and leaned

over the face that she was hiding. As I did so, being really very

remorseful, I began to excuse and to accuse myself, calling myself all

sorts of names, and begging pardon for my indiscretion. I said that I

deserved to be driven from her presence, but begged not to be sent away

without at least a word of pardon. For a long time I pleaded thus without

success, but at last she slowly turned, and I saw that her fair young face

was stirred with just the faintest suggestion of a smile. When she caught

a glimpse of me she murmured something of which I did not then quite get

the meaning.

"'It is you,' she cried out; 'it is you!'

"As she said this, and as I looked at her, not knowing yet exactly what to

answer, I was harassed by the thought: Where on earth have I already seen

this face, this look, this very gesture? Little by little, however, I

found my tongue, and after saying a few more words in apology for my

unpardonable curiosity, and getting brief but not offended answers, I took

leave of her, and, retiring through the window by which I had come, went

back to my own room. Arriving there, I sat a long time by the window in

the darkness, charmed by the face that I had seen, and yet singularly

disquieted. This woman so beautiful, so amiable, living so near to me, who

said to me, 'It is you,' exactly as though she had already known me, who

spoke so little, who answered all my questions with evasion, excited in me

a feeling of fear. She had, indeed, told me her name—Linda—and that was

all. I tried in vain to drive away the remembrance of her greenish eyes,

which in the darkness seemed still to gleam upon me, and of those glints

which, like electric sparks, shone in her long hair whenever she stroked

it with her hand. Finally, however, I retired for the night; but scarcely

was my head upon the pillow when I felt some moving body descend upon my

feet. The cat had appeared again. I tried to chase her away, but she kept

returning again and again, until I ended by resigning myself to her

presence; and, just as before, I went to sleep with this strange companion

near me. Yet my rest was this time a troubled one, and broken by strange

and fitful dreams.

"Have you ever experienced the sort of mental obsession which gradually

causes the brain to be mastered by some single absurd idea—an idea almost

insane, and one which your reason and your will alike repel, but which

nevertheless gradually blends itself with your thought, fastens itself

upon your mind, and grows and grows? I suffered cruelly in this way on the

days that followed my strange adventure. Nothing new occurred, but in the

evening, going out upon the balcony, I found Linda standing upon her side

of the iron fan. We chatted together for a while in the half darkness,

and, as before, I returned to my room to find that in a few moments the

golden cat appeared, leaped upon my bed, made a nest for herself there,

and remained until the morning. I knew now to whom the cat belonged, for

Linda had answered that very same evening, on my speaking of it, 'Oh, yes,

my cat; doesn't she look exactly as though she were made of gold?' As I

said, nothing new had occurred, yet nevertheless a vague sort of terror

began little by little to master me and to develop itself in my mind, at

first merely as a bit of foolish fancy, and then as a haunting belief that

dominated my entire thought, so that I perpetually seemed to see a thing

which it was in reality quite impossible to see."

"Why, it's easy enough to guess," interrupted the young lady who had

spoken at the beginning of his story.

"Linda and the cat were the same thing."

Tribourdeaux smiled.

"I should not have been quite so positive as that," he said, "even then;

but I cannot deny that this ridiculous fancy haunted me for many hours

when I was endeavoring to snatch a little sleep amid the insomnia that a

too active brain produced. Yes, there were moments when these two beings

with greenish eyes, sinuous movements, golden hair, and mysterious ways,

seemed to me to be blended into one, and to be merely the double

manifestation of a single entity. As I said, I saw Linda again and again,

but in spite of all my efforts to come upon her unexpectedly, I never was

able to see them both at the same time. I tried to reason with myself, to

convince myself that there was nothing really inexplicable in all of this,

and I ridiculed myself for being afraid both of a woman and of a harmless

cat. In truth, at the end of all my reasoning, I found that I was not so

much afraid of the animal alone or of the woman alone, but rather of a

sort of quality which existed in my fancy and inspired me with a fear of

something that was incorporeal—fear of a manifestation of my own spirit,

fear of a vague thought, which is, indeed, the very worst of fears.

"I began to be mentally disturbed. After long evenings spent in

confidential and very unconventional chats with Linda, in which little by

little my feelings took on the color of love, I passed long days of secret

torment, such as incipient maniacs must experience. Gradually a resolve

began to grow up in my mind, a desire that became more and more

importunate in demanding a solution of this unceasing and tormenting

doubt; and the more I cared for Linda, the more it seemed absolutely

necessary to push this resolve to its fulfilment. I decided to kill the


"One evening before meeting Linda on the balcony, I took out of my medical

cabinet a jar of glycerin and a small bottle of hydrocyanic acid, together

with one of those little pencils of glass which chemists use in mixing

certain corrosive substances. That evening for the first time Linda

allowed me to caress her. I held her in my arms and passed my hand over

her long hair, which snapped and cracked under my touch in a succession of

tiny sparks. As soon as I regained my room the golden cat, as usual,

appeared before me. I called her to me; she rubbed herself against me with

arched back and extended tail, purring the while with the greatest

amiability. I took the glass pencil in my hand, moistened the point in the

glycerin, and held it out to the animal, which licked it with her long red

tongue. I did this three or four times, but the next time I dipped the

pencil in the acid. The cat unhesitatingly touched it with her tongue. In

an instant she became rigid, and a moment after, a frightful tetanic

convulsion caused her to leap thrice into the air, and then to fall upon

the floor with a dreadful cry—a cry that was truly human. She was dead!

"With the perspiration starting from my forehead and with trembling hands

I threw myself upon the floor beside the body that was not yet cold. The

starting eyes had a look that froze me with horror. The blackened tongue

was thrust out between the teeth; the limbs exhibited the most remarkable

contortions. I mustered all my courage with a violent effort of will, took

the animal by the paws, and left the house. Hurrying down the silent

street, I proceeded to the quays along the banks of the Loire, and, on

reaching them, threw my burden into the river. Until daylight I roamed

around the city, just where I know not; and not until the sky began to

grow pale and then to be flushed with light did I at last have the courage

to return home. As I laid my hand upon the door, I shivered. I had a dread

of finding there still living, as in the celebrated tale of Poe, the

animal that I had so lately put to death. But no, my room was empty. I

fell half-fainting upon my bed, and for the first time I slept, with a

perfect sense of being all alone, a sleep like that of a beast or of an

assassin, until evening came."

Some one here interrupted, breaking in upon the profound silence in which

we had been listening.

"I can guess the end. Linda disappeared at the same time as the cat."

"You see perfectly well," replied Tribourdeaux, "that there exists between

the facts of this story a curious coincidence, since you are able to guess

so exactly their relation. Yes, Linda disappeared. They found in her

apartment her dresses, her linen, all even to the night-robe that she was

to have worn that night, but there was nothing that could give the

slightest clue to her identity. The owner of the house had let the

apartment to 'Mademoiselle Linda, concert-singer,' He knew nothing more. I

was summoned before the police magistrate. I had been seen on the night of

her disappearance roaming about with a distracted air in the vicinity of

the river. Luckily the judge knew me; luckily also, he was a man of no

ordinary intelligence. I related to him privately the entire story, just

as I have been telling it to you. He dismissed the inquiry; yet I may say

that very few have ever had so narrow, an escape as mine from a criminal


For several moments the silence of the company was unbroken. Finally a

gentleman, wishing to relieve the tension, cried out:

"Come now, doctor, confess that this is really all fiction; that you

merely want to prevent these ladies from getting any sleep to-night."

Tribourdeaux bowed stiffly, his face unsmiling and a little pale.

"You may take it as you will," he said.

Story Copyright © 2008 by Eugène Marcel Prévost. All rights reserved.
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About the author

The successful French novelist shares his birthday with Serendipity's editor. What better reason for including one of his stories?

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