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The Bathing-Machine Mystery, Part 2: 1893

 

Posing on a bathing-machine, Ostend. Library of Congress image collection.

Posing on a bathing-machine, Ostend. Library of Congress image collection.

[See part one here. After straying into the wrong bathing-machine, our hero tries to explain his presence to its fair occupant.]

And he told her everything. She recovered her senses by degrees; her eyes indicated attention at first, then confidence in the sincerity of the guilty man.

When he had finished she looked at him with an air of despair that would have brought tears from a stone, and passing from tears to sobs, which she restrained with heartrending efforts, she said: “So, sir, because it has pleased you to satisfy your insulting curiosity, here I am lost, dishonored forever. And I, who have done nothing, who do not even know your name, I shall bear through all my life the opprobrium which you have needed but a moment to attach to it!”

At these words Gaston comprehended the enormity of this fault which, by its consequences, assumed minute by minute the proportions of a crime. He fell on his knees and implored pardon. Through the tears that dimmed her eyes she let fall on him one of those glances which can in a moment of danger give to a man the power of a god. The poor child, kneeling, and her hands joined as in prayer, looked at him with the most supplicating air in the world, and the confidence of the weaker being, who awaits her rescue by the stronger, shone in her pretty eyes.

Here Gaston gave the measure of what was to be expected of his coolness and lucidity in moments of peril.

“Before everything, madame,” said he, “let us begin by seeing how matters are outside. I do not see how I am going to conceal myself in these bare walls, but in desperate straits the first thing to try is that which is most simple, and I want to see if I can not simply open the door and walk away.”

But Gaston, applying his eye to the keyhole, saw a spectacle, or rather a scene, which left him no hope from that side. He sat down on the bench with a despairing shake of the head to his companion in captivity.

Outside, or rather around, were groups, seemingly posted by chance, evidently surrounding and guarding No. 13.

There was at that time in Mareville a retired Parisian milliner, who had married herself in some unknown way to an old beau in the last extremity, and who called herself the Baroness de Longuepine. She passed her life sowing evil reports and reaping scandals.

When the Pichard woman returned from opening for the fair bather the door of No. 13, the Baroness de Longuepine had come down to the beach to pick up the gossip of the day. The Pichards’ two children, a little boy and a little girl, who aided their parents in the service of the bathers, came up at this moment, and declared that they had seen a gentleman bather go into No. 13 a few minutes before the lady came out of the water and that he had not come out again. Severe cross-questioning failed to shake them in their belief, and their story, deftly aided by the baroness’s sharp tongue, soon worked the Pichard woman up to a fine pitch of anger.

“I’ll show them,” she cried in a loud and angry tone, “I’ll teach these turtle-doves to build their nests in my bathing-machines! Come,” she said, turning to the children, “let us find the mayor and the constable.”

At these words the baroness was off like a shot to spread the precious news, and to such good purpose that soon a great crowd of the curious gathered about No. 13, and she was beside herself with joy.

“Poor things,” said she, “do you think they will be sent to the galleys? After this — more’s the pity —Mareville is lost,” she ran on, to the proprietor of the three prettiest cottages on the beach, “if such scandalous affairs are allowed to pass unpunished.”

A general movement of arms and heads directed toward the great stairs of the promenade announced the arrival of the mayor. Soon he was seen to appear on the left of the line, along which he passed rapidly and stopped a few paces in front of No. 13. Never had Mareville witnessed such a scene! The curious crowd, breaking from all restraint, formed a semicircle, and concentrated their hungry looks on the door where in a few moments the victim would appear in all her shame and dishonor. It was one of those little pictures in which humanity shows itself in all its cowardliness and cruelty.

The mayor now gave a signal to the constable, and the latter, respectfully unfolding a package wrapped in gray paper, drew from it a tri-colored scarf with silver fringe, with which the mayor begirt himself. He was drawing the two ends to cross them, when a sharp little noise came from the interior of No. 13 It was the bolt, which had just been drawn. The mayor, an excellent man at heart, let fall the two ends of his scarf, his heart failed him as he thought of the poor penitent whose punishment was about to begin.

A minute at least passed. The crowd no longer heard the waves, which seemed to rumble curses mingled with the cries of a soul in anguish. Another noise was heard; the latch was being lifted. The poor mayor almost fainted and turned his head aside, but the others, craning their necks, took a step forward.

The door opened slowly, slowly, and the fair bather, beautiful as the day, brilliant as a fairy, appeared on the sill, where she stopped a moment to consider the remarkable picture that presented itself to her gaze. It was horrible. The evil sentiments that possessed them had entirely changed all the faces; the sight of this troop hungering for scandal reminded one of a pack of wolves ready to throw themselves on a lamb. The bather swept the groups with a look of unutterable scorn, and she stepped down to the sand.

“What boldness!” cried the baroness, eyeing her victim from head to foot. And she flew into the bathing-machine to see The Man.

She recoiled with surprise and horror. The Man was not there!

Her cheeks became green, her lips gray, and she stood for a moment suffocated with spite and anger.

The beautiful bather, seeing everyone hurry to her bathing-machine, seemed greatly astonished and demanded what it meant. But no one dared reply, and she turned to the mayor to demand an explanation of him, when the two children, led by the Pichard woman, were brought forward, and, parrot-like, repeated their declaration to the mayor.

But just then the father came up, and not seeming to know what was going on, said to his wife, with an uneasy air: “Say, Marie, you haven’t seen the gentleman of No. 3, have you? Everybody came out of the water long ago, he has been in the water at least two hours, and his clothes are still in the machine. I have been looking for him for half an hour; I have gone out in the water more than a mile, and there’s no one to be seen. I hope nothing has happened to him!”

“Heaven help us, what a day!” cried the woman: “how was he dressed?”

“Red suit, with black edges, and a red-and-black cap.”

“The man we saw go into No. 13 was dressed like that,” cried the two children.

At these words the face of the Pichard woman turned pale; she made the sign of the cross, and said, looking at her husband: “Holy Virgin! it was his ghost the children saw!”

At this new turn of affairs there was a change like a transformation in a theatre. Every one rushed to the drowned man’s machine, while our heroine, after a covert glance at hers, walked away with the last of the crowd to where the boat was being put out.

After more than two hours the searchers came back. They had found nothing, and No. 3 was still empty.

They gathered together his effects, finding a card bearing the name “Gaston de Rochekern,” but no address, and the mayor proceeded to draw up his prods-verbal.

All the evening the events of that memorable day were discussed, and at the moment when Dr. Destombes was explaining to an attentive audience that it was not difficult to cite hallucinations such as had deceived the imaginations of the two children — at the moment when, pursuing his demonstration, the learned doctor added finely that many popular beliefs have no better origin. Gaston de Rochekern, who was not dead, but only buried, slipped as stealthily as a cat up the last step of the promenade and managed, unperceived, to reenter the cottage which he occupied alone.

He meditated the greater part of the night, and at dawn, before any one was astir, he put on his bathing-suit again, went and lay down on the edge of the beach, and waited. About an hour later, found by an early fisherman, the inanimate body of the drowned man was carried on a litter to the Casino, where Dr. Destombes, after energetic treatment, had the happiness to restore him to life. Gaston then recounted how, on the evening before, just as he was regaining the raft, he had been seized by a cramp; that he had made the raft; that the cramp had lasted a long time, getting worse: that the sea had carried him off again; that he had not been able to reach the shore; that, happily, he had managed to catch a piece of driftwood, which had sustained him until the incoming tide had carried him to the beach. It was, in fact, a tale long enough to put one to sleep, but to which no objection could be made.

Now, do you wish to know how he got out of the bathing-machine? It is very simple. With a strip of iron from the latch he had taken up two boards from the floor. With the aid of his companion he had scooped a hole beneath the floor, throwing the sand in the space between the floor and the beach; he had concealed himself in the hole, and the lady, replacing the planks, had only to rest the heel of her boot on them to drive the nails back in their holes, which Gaston had taken care to enlarge by working the nails in them like a drill.

From his place of concealment he had heard all that passed. He had remained hidden until night, and then, having carefully poked out his head to see that the beach was clear, he had made his escape.

The lady left Mareville in a few days, and her name was never registered in its hotels again: but Madame the Vicomtesse Gaston de Rochekern, who came there on the following year on her wedding tour, was marked by the wise bathing-master to bear resemblance to the fair bather of No. 13.

From the French of Eugene Mouton.

The Argonaut [San Francisco, CA] 16 January 1893

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the ideal bathhouse here.

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.

The Bathing Machine Mystery, Part 1: 1893

Bathing Machines, Ostend, From the Library of Congress image collection

Bathing Machines, Ostend, From the Library of Congress image collection

Mrs Daffodil is packing up the Family for their annual sea-side jaunt. There are bathing-dresses to be let down and taken up; bathing-caps and shoes to be located and inspected for holes; and a whole host of creams and unguents packed in the first-aid kit for the inevitable sun-burn. Once the Family has been seen off, then it’s on with the muslin loose-covers, the cheese-cloth over the mirrors, pictures, and chandeliers, and out with the carpets, to be taken up, beaten, and aired. In view of this hurly-burly and with the children clamouring for their water-wings, Mrs Daffodil presents a diverting story in two parts, translated, naturally, from the French.

THE NUMBER THIRTEEN MYSTERY.

 

After All It Was Not What Appearances Indicated.

 

At Mareville all the bathing-machines are actually alike; they are made of boards, painted yellow, with blue horizontal stripes. The swimming-master and his wife rejoice in the name of Pichard, and have two

children.

Gaston, being accustomed to close his door without locking it, was not surprised to find it open when, after more than an hour in the surf, he came forth, dripping, and blue with cold, and bounded into what he thought he recognized as his own bathing-machine. He closed

the door quickly.

Outside, the sun was blinding; it was half-past four on a warm July afternoon. Gaston’s eyes, dazzled by the glare of the sun and the reflection on the water, could not at first distinguish the details of the interior, but at the end of a minute he could see clearly, and

perceived that he had made a mistake — he was in some fair bather’s dressing-room.

His first idea was to get out again immediately; but the devil, who was watching this little scene out of the corner of his eye, judged that it was time to interfere and to make of this innocent mistake a tragedy which

should set the whole beach by the ears. The devil, then, so managed it that Gaston was seized by an irresistible curiosity and stopped to look about him.

With a furtive and rapid glance, then, he passed in review the garments which hung floating from the wall like so many perfumed clouds. He inspected the dress, with its fluted folds and fantastic buttons; he

took down the dainty sailor hat, with its fish of iridescent enamel floating in a bouquet of green alga; and red actinias ; and he gently stroked a little pair of undressed-kid boots. And then he saw on the shelf a great ivory comb and brush — and no false switches! There were still two or three hairs of the color of molten gold which remained interlaced among the teeth of the comb.

This examination had lasted but four or five minutes at the most, and Gaston, ashamed of his indiscretion, now that his curiosity was satisfied, put his thumb on the latch and opened a slit of the door, glancing out to

see if he could escape without being seen. But he hastily closed the door again; a fair bather was hurrying from the water in the direction of this bathing-machine, at the same time beckoning to the Pichard woman, who was now running to open the door for her.

At the sound of the key entering the lock Gaston felt his knees giving way beneath him. In a few seconds, with the rapidity of lightning, he ran through all the possible schemes to escape. Should he lower his head,

and, dashing out like a bull, scattering the women in his way, spring into the sea and swim to America, never to return? Should he fall on his knees, with protruded chin and the palms of his hands toward the

zenith, and sobbingly demand pardon? Should he lie down at full length and pretend to be dead? Should he conceal himself and await events?

 

The key turned in the lock, and while the fair bather, her eyes half-blinded by the sun, turned toward the door and closed it, Gaston had gone down on all fours, and, like a dog that has done something he knows he should not do, had squeezed himself under the bench

which ran across the back of the room.

Happily for him. the mirror was hung above the bench, and the brush and comb were on the shelves at right and left, so that the bather, naturally placing herself before the glass, looked at her own face, and

did not see the man at her feet. She began by wiping her face and neck, then she unbuckled a belt of oxydized copper that confined her waist, after which she unfastened her blouse. That done, she disengaged one

arm, then the other, and the discreet light of the dressing-room lighted up the most divine torso that ever nature, in her inexhaustible munificence, lovingly molded for the admiration of the artist or the delight of less gifted men.

But let the ladies reassure themselves, and the gentlemen smooth down their affrighted hair; the modesty of the fair bather ran no risk. The unfortunate Gaston, consumed with fear, did now as does the ostrich in

distress, he concealed his head. He glued his face against the wall, and of the magnificent spectacle being developed in the room he saw nothing.

Having quitted her bathing costume, the lady pushed it with her foot into the corner at the left of the door, threw a towel on the floor, and, having partially dressed herself, sat down on the bench and commenced putting

on her stockings, glancing about meanwhile for her shoes. The left one was at the corner of the door; she picked it up, drew it on, and buttoned it. The other was not to be found. The lady stood up, and with the

tip of her booted foot pushed aside her bathing suit to see if it did not cover the missing shoe. She stooped down and reached under the bench; instead of her shoe she caught hold of the bare foot of a man!

A terrible cry would have burst from her lips, but it could not, and she fainted, walling up with her inanimate body the place of concealment where Gaston was suffering agonies.

Then he turned his head, saw this insentient body, these disheveled strands of hair, these beautiful eyes closed as in death, and delicately pushing aside this charming obstacle, he came forth from beneath the

bench. After a few seconds, which seemed centuries to him, Gaston at last saw those beautiful lids open languidly. She sighed deeply, raised her hand to her head, and murmured: “Where am I?”

Then she saw Gaston, and her face took on an expression of terror.

“In heaven’s name, madame,” said he. “in the name of your honor, do not cry out or you are lost! I am in the depths of despair at what has happened to you through my fault, and I am ready to do anything and

everything to save you. I beg of you to listen to me, and we will try if we can not find some way to get out of this situation.”

[To be continued tomorrow. ]

Mrs Daffodil has previously written about the ideal bathhouse here.

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.