[From the French of Jules Lermina, in the Paris “Figaro.”
Everybody in the little town of Lyre-sur-Ys was astonished when it became known that Mr Mathias was dead.
He was barely forty-five years of age, and was a robust man, as straight as an arrow. About three years before he had become the husband of a young girl of twenty, a niece of the tax collector, and whom he had loved with frenzy.
Of course, once dead, Mr Mathias was credited with having been during his lifetime the possessor of every virtue. It would have gone hard with the one who should have dared speak of him as having been a usurer or a miser, as people termed him while living.
No man would have dreamed of publishing anew the account of that celebrated marriage, which certainly did him honour, and which would have brought back to mind the remembrance how all had feared that tall, artful, avaricious and rich man whom people supposed to occupy his spare moments in concocting poisons, with which he experimented on dogs. It was no time to talk about that then. He was dead. Peace to his ashes.
After all, thinking the matter over, was there anything so very extraordinary about this death It was plain that Mr Mathias had had forebodings of its approach, for had he not, but a short time before, sent to Paris for workmen to erect in the cemetery the mortuary chapel that was at that moment waiting to receive his mortal remains? Besides it had been noticed that of late he had prowled about the house as if fearing mysterious robbers. He sequestered his wife and closed himself up for weeks in his laboratory, the chimney of which seemed in ablaze every night. All these were the premonitory symptoms of brain trouble had said Dr Labarre, who had decided that death had resulted from apoplexy.
Mr Mathias had a splendid funeral. One-third of the population of the town had followed his remains to the grave-yard, and it may even be said there were a few moist eyes when the oaken coffin was lowered into the crypt of the chapel, a real monument in itself, where two men of his size might have slept at their ease.
The mourners returned from the funeral, wondering what the widow would do.
* * *
Now, the truth of the matter is that Mr Mathias was not dead.
Two hours after the ceremony, any one who might have been in the vault where the coffin rested would have certified to the truth of this statement. Two sharp clicks, like the snap of a spring-, resounded, and the coffin opened like a closet. Mr Mathias sat up, stretching his limbs just like a man waking up. Through a grating in the ceiling a little light entered. Mr Mathias stood up, slowly rubbing his slightly benumbed knees.
Taking all in all, he felt comfortable, quite comfortable. The dose of the narcotic, which he had carefully measured himself before taking, had had the effect he desired. People had supposed him dead and buried, so much the better.
Since a long while Mr Mathias had made his preparations. The vault had been fitted up with great care. In it were suitable clothing, food, and a few bottles of good wine. As nothing stimulates the appetite more than a funeral, even if it is one’s own, Mr Mathias seated himself comfortably on his coffin, broke his fast and drank good luck to the future.
It is about time to say why, of his own free will, Mr Mathias was at that moment six feet below the surface of the ground.
As usual, there was a woman mixed in the matter. Unmoved by feminine charms until the age of forty, Mr Mathias, formerly an apothecary, who made a fortune with anti-spasm pills, fell in love with pretty Anne Peidefer, the niece of the tax-gatherer at Lyre-sur-Ys. He had bluntly proposed to the young girl, who had just as bluntly refused to become Mrs Mathias, in consequence of which he fell in love like a fool. I beg pardon I should say like a man of forty who allows himself to fall in love. Not being of an over-honest nature, he had woven such a subtle web about the tax-gatherer, that in less than a year’s time, knowing that the Government’s cash did not count up right, the unfortunate man was seriously considering the advisability of committing suicide. It was at this moment that Mr Mathias appeared in the guise of a saviour and made his terms. The niece offered herself up as a sacrifice to save an uncle who had been a father to her, although her affections were already pledged to a clerk in the office of a notary in the neighbouring town. As a sad victim on the altar of duty, Anne became Madame Mathias.
She soon felt all the consequence of the catastrophe. Mr Mathias (and perhaps he was not far wrong) was convinced that his wife hated him. From this conviction to the belief that she was deceiving him, there was but one step. Ever tormented by this suspicion, he became a monomaniac. His wife never put her foot out of doors, and nobody came to see her. Still, Mr Mathias imagined that the reason he did not catch his wife wrongdoing was on account of his awkwardness, and in his own mind he voted himself an ass.
It was then that a bright idea struck him. He would pretend that he was going on a journey, not to Versailles or Havre, as do comedy husbands, but on a long, long journey, from which it would seem very difficult for him to return.
And then, some night, he would come back as much alive as ever, to the great confusion of the guilty one.
He allowed himself three days’ time, and he was quite pleased with himself as he thought of all this, in stretching himself out comfortably in his coffin once more.
Mr Mathias was getting impatient as the third day drew to a close. He waited until the cemetery clock struck eleven, the hour he had chosen to begin operations.
His plans had all been well laid. The wall of the graveyard bounded his property. He had on hand a complete suit of black clothes in which to array himself as a phantom druggist. In the graveyard only would he wear his shroud, to be in keeping with the predominating colour of the locality. Once over the wall he would hie straight to his wife’s apartment. Then the fun would begin!
Mr Mathias dressed himself, and, everything being all right, he tilted over the marble slab covering the vault, climbed up into the mortuary chapel, opened the door, and walked out into the graveyard with his winding sheet on his arm.
As soon as he got into the alley, he unfolded the ample shroud and tried to cast it around his shoulders. But the sheet was quite heavy, and he failed in his attempt. Just as he was about to try it over again he heard a voice behind him say:
‘Hold on! I will give you a hand.’
Not to realise what a disagreeable surprise this was, would be a certain proof that one had never been at midnight in a graveyard trying to put on one’s shroud.
The voice that had addressed Mr Mathias came from the sexton of the graveyard, old Grimbot, an odd fish, well known in all the neighbouring taverns. He drew near and looked Mr Mathias full in the face, exclaimed:
‘Hello! is that you, Mr Mathias? Already!’
Mr Mathias, not a little embarrassed kept on trying to wind his shroud about him, hoping that a ghostly appearance would rid him of his inopportune companion. It did not, however. On the contrary, Grimbot kindly assisted him in putting on his sheet and arranging it so that the folds fell gracefully.
‘I have just left my tomb,’ began Mr Mathias, in a hollow voice.
‘So I see,’ said Grimbot interrupting him. You seem to be in a much greater hurry than the others.”
Mr Mathias did not listen to him. He was now taking long strides, walking on tiptoe, just like a ghost. Grimbot kept up with him and continued
‘’The idea does not come to the others so soon. They generally let a month or two go by.’
Mr Mathias suddenly turned toward him and extended both arms, exclaiming:
‘Begone, profane man! Begone!’
‘Tush! Tush!’ said Grimbot, in a fatherly tone. ‘Don’t mind me—after all I suppose you want only to take an airing like the other fellows.’
Mr Mathias kept on straight ahead, not deeming it worth his while to answer. He soon perceived, through the darkness, the gate of the cemetery. Being always prepared for the worst, he had a few louis in his pocket. ‘Come,’ said he, offering a couple of gold pieces to Grimbot, ‘let’s waste no time in talk. Here let me have the key.’
‘What! The key! you want to go out! That’s a funny notion! But, I say, none of that!’
‘I will give you four louis!’ groaned Mr Mathias.
‘Say now, stop that,’ replied Grimbot, ‘or else I’ll knock you on the head. I have no objection to your leaving your tomb and walking about. The others do so too ‘
‘The others! what others?’
Grimbot gave a wide sweep around with his hand, as he replied:
‘Why, the dead, of course!’
‘The dead—who is talking to you about the dead? Why man, I am alive, still living don’t you see?’
‘Phew! that is an awful joke; but, see here, l am a good fellow. Come along and take a drink with me.’
Like a pair of pincers his hand grasped Mr Mathias’ wrist. He dragged him to a small building, where he lived, and made him enter on the ground floor.
Mr Mathias was literally dumbfounded. After closing the door Grimbot got a bottle from a shelf, and, filling two glasses he took one and held it up, saying:
‘Here’s to you, Mr Mathias.’
‘Listen to me, good man,’ said Mr Mathias. ‘You want to have your little joke at my expense. Well and good. But there is a time for all things. For a reason that concerns me only, I have allowed myself to be buried. Now business of great importance requires my presence outside. Let me go, and, I assure you, I shall pay you well.’
While he was speaking, Grimbot had slowly walked around the table and taken a position, standing, his back against the door.
‘You are a good talker,’ sneered he. ‘So you are alive, eh? Well, you are not the first who told me that. You see I hear such strange stories. I am quite fond of my subordinates. Every night one or two of them come without ceremony to take a drink with me. Last night it was the notary. You know whom I mean your neighbour, Radel, the one that has the broken column. The night before last I had a call from Mme. Claudin, a mighty fine looking woman I can tell you. I am a good fellow. I let them walk about at night and chat with them but as to letting them go out, that is quite another thing.’
Mr Mathias began to feel uncomfortable. And no wonder, for Grimbot spoke with perfect composure, like a functionary who understood the responsibilities of his office.
He was a medium-sized, thick-set man, with hands like a gorilla’s. His eyes were black and glistening. A shiver ran through Mr Mathias’ frame as the idea struck him that the man was crazy.
Yes, that must be it. He must be a visionary fellow, who believed his graveyard peopled with ghosts. He lived in a fantastic world, the creation of a drunkard’s brain.
Mr Mathias began talking, pleading, supplicating. Why, how could he, the good, kind, intelligent, Grimbot, make such a mistake as to take him for a dead man, and he burst into a laugh.
‘Here!’ said Grimbot curtly; ‘enough of this! so long as you won’t behave reasonably, you will have to go in again.’
‘Go in again! go in where?’
‘Into the tomb!’
‘You won’t! Once! Twice!’
Mr Matias looked at the enormous hands. Overcome with terror, he glanced around, looking for an opening to escape through. There was but one, the door, and there was Grimbot propped up against it! Anyhow, he had to pass, cost what it may! So he rushed forward with a scream.
Grimbot quietly put forward his open hand, into which the throat of his assailant fitted closely. Mr Mathias hiccoughed and tried to struggle. The hand closed more tightly. Mr Mathias slid down on the floor, kicked about for a little while, and then remained motionless.
Grimbot, like one used to occurrences of this kind, picked him, and, walking with the dignified step of a man conscious of having done his duty, he carried him back to the tomb, where he cast him into the crypt. He then kicked the slab back into its place, closed the grated door, and resumed his walk among the tombs muttering:
‘Did you ever see the like? Wanted to go out, eh! And me lose my situation? Not much.’
This is why Mr Mathias’ widow was able shortly after, to marry the one she always loved.
Tuapeka [NZ] Times, 25 April 1888: p. 6
Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: The husband-pretending-to-be-dead motif is well-known to folklorists; usually it ends in tears, murder, or divorce. Here is a representative specimen:
A FAITHLESS WIFE TRAPPED BY HER HUSBAND
Stockholm, April. 10. Karl Peterson, a wealthy merchant, who had only been married a year, became suspicious of his wife, and arranged with a doctor and a solicitor for a mock death. The husband was placed in a coffin, and his will was read, leaving all his property to his wife.
Directly the doctor and solicitor departed, the wife telephoned to her lover the splendid news that her “monstrous husband was dead.” The lover arrived and kissed the wife, and Peterson thereupon leaped out of the coffin and confronted them. The wife fainted and the lover fled. Petersen was subsequently granted a divorce.
Press, 13 April 1914: p. 7
But in this month of loves and doves, one does like a happy ending, particularly for the much-tried Madame Mathias.
And how refreshing it is to find a public functionary so assiduous in his duties as well as impervious to bribery! The citizens of Lyre-sur-Ys, alive or dead, must surely congratulate themselves on the efficient M. Grimbot. Mrs Daffodil feels confident that he never lost a corpse to a Resurrectionist.
Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes
You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.
Wonderful story … reminds me of the episode in Tom Sawyer where Tom and Huck attend their own funeral.
Mrs Daffodil is pleased that you enjoyed it. It is, as Mrs Daffodil said, a well-worn motif and, if properly executed by someone not as bungling as Mr Mathias (perhaps a clever pair of lads) it inevitably causes a sensation.