On Saturday, 10 August 1901, around four o’clock in the afternoon, two ladies who had come to visit the Palace of Versailles, enter the avenue which leads from the Grand Canal to the Petit Trianon. The ladies are English tourists. The elder, Miss Annie Moberly, is aged fifty-five; the other, Miss Eleonor Jourdain, is thirty-seven.
Miss Moberly is Headmistress of a Ladies’ College in Oxford; Miss Jourdain is Headmistress of a school in Watford. They have been on holidays in Paris for the past few days, and have already visited Notre-Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Napoleon’s Tomb. Today, their Baedeker Guide Book has taken them to Versailles.
Knowing very little about French History, their tour of the Palace has not interested them particularly. At the Petit Trianon, which they mistake for the Hameau de Marie-Antoinette, the two friends think that they will at least be able to admire the trees, the flowers and the water-lilies on the pond. It’s a warm day, and they walk quickly.
Having arrived at the Grand Trianon, instead of continuing straight ahead, they bifurque to the left, and enter an alley. This mistake will lead them to an extraordinary experience.
It all starts with them meeting, near a vegetable garden, two men wearing a curious green livery and tricorns. Thinking them to be guards, the English ladies go up to them and ask for directions. The men tell them to continue straight ahead. They continue. But they are suddenly invaded by a sort of inexplicable sadness. Here is what Miss Moberly will write about it, later:
“We were walking at a good pace, chatting like before, but as soon as we had left the alley, an extraordinary depression invaded me and, in spite of my efforts to shake it off, it kept getting worse. I continued walking however, fearing that my companion would notice the darkness which had descended on me and which soon became completely overwhelming.”
While Miss Moberly is trying to hide her despondency from Miss Jourdain, this lady suddenly feels uneasy. She will later write:
“I was starting to feel like a sleepwalker and this heavy impression of unreality was oppressing.”
However, the two friends continue on their way and pass in front of a house where, on the doorstep, Miss Jourdain notices a woman and a young girl of thirteen or fourteen carrying an earthenware jug. Their costumes of another age surprise her. They are both wearing long skirts which drag on the ground, scarves tucked into their bodices and white bonnets which cover their ears.
More and more anguished, the English ladies pass through a fairly thick copse and discover a little edifice resembling a music kiosque, surrounded by boulders. Miss Moberly will later write:
“There, everything seemed abnormal, unusual and unpleasant. Even the trees, behind the kiosque, seemed to have no depth and no life, like a wood embroidered on a tapistery. Further, the light of day seemed to have darkened and not a leaf was stirring.”
This place, however, is not deserted. On the balustrade of the kiosque, a man is seated. He is wearing a wide-brimmed hat and a cloak. When the English ladies arrive, he turns his head and looks at them. His face, which is of a dark complexion and scarred by smallpox, is repugnant, and Miss Moberly feels faint.
At this moment, the two women hear, with relief, that someone is running behind them. Thinking that it is the guards that they had seen earlier, they turn around. There is no-one on the path.
Suddenly, they jump nervously. Another man, surging from nowhere, is in front of them. He, too, is wearing a dark cloak and a big hat, but he is smiling, and Miss Moberly notices that he has beautiful, black eyes, curly hair and appears to be a gentleman. She would later write:
“His hair made him look like an old portrait.”
This man seems extremely excited. He exclaims to the two women:
“Mesdames! Mesdames! You mustn’t pass that way!”
Then he stretches out his arm and adds firmly:
“This way… Look for the house!… “
Miss Moberly immediately pulls her friend towards a little rustic bridge situated on the right and, turning her head to thank the stranger, she notices with astonishment that he has disappeared.
Rather bewildered, the two women cross a little waterfall which plunges into a crevice, and soon see the back of the Petit Trianon. Feeling a bit better, they approach and discover, in the middle of a lawn, a lady who seems to be sketching. Miss Moberly thinks:
“After all, we are not as alone as we thought!…”
The lady is wearing a sun-hat of white straw perched on a mass of blond hair, and a light, white gown, rather short, decorated with a collar forming a scarf like the ones seen on engravings at the end of the XVIIIth Century. Her bodice is green.
At the moment that the two English ladies pass near her, the unknown lady turns her head and looks at them. Miss Moberly will write:
“Her face was not young and, although it was fairly pretty, it lacked attraction. There was something antipathic about it, and an inexplicable feeling made me want to leave. We climbed then towards the terrace, but I had the impression of being in a dream, the mortal silence which reigned around us seemed so oppressing and abnormal.”
Not knowing where to go, the two women went along the side of the Petit Trianon. Suddenly, a young man came out of the building, slamming the door behind him. Miss Joudain will say:
“He had the impertinent air of a lackey.”
The boy calls to the two ladies and explains to them that the way to enter the house is through the Cour d’Honneur. He tells them to go around through the garden.
Miss Moberly and Miss Jourdain obey and come at last to the front of the main entrance of the Petit Trianon. Then, suddenly, the feeling of anguish which had been clutching them dissipated, the light of this lovely summer afternoon became normal, and the leaves on the trees were again trembling.
To be continued.