In 1743, a twenty-year-old actress by the name of Claire Hippolyte Legris de Latude, whose stage name is Mademoiselle Clairon, lives at 28 rue de Buci, on the corner of Rue Bourbon-le-Chateau, in Paris. Tiny and graceful, it is said of her that she is a “chef d’oeuvre in miniature”.
This young lady, who was to become the greatest and most famous actress of her time, of course has a pack of passionate admirers following her around. The most star-struck is a young poet from Brittany whose name Mademoiselle Clairon only writes as Mr de S. in her Memoires.
Mr de S. is thirty-years-old. He is an attractive young man, and possesses some fortune, charm, and quite a bit of wit. His education is flawless, his reserve is appreciated by good-mannered people, and his poems are very tender. Mlle Clairon soon favours him among the crowd of her suitors. Even better, seeing that he was held back by quite a lot of timidity, she helps things along with that authority and spirit of initiative often shown by theatrical ladies in affairs of love. Having met him in the Foyer of the Comedie-Francaise where she is triumphantly appearing, she says to him, one evening:
“Why don’t you come to my place?”
He accepts and they begin a love affair. Unfortunately, Mr. de S. is jealous and has a temperament which demands exclusivity. He soon tries to oblige Mlle Clairon to meet no other person, and even to no longer listen to any compliment. He claims that she does not need any of this because she has himself, who loves her like no-one else can.
This does not go down well with the lady, who loves being surrounded by love-struck men. Mr de S. tells her one evening that she would be his only love and that he would be her only love, too. Mlle Clairon suddenly sees a frightfully dull future ahead of her, and breaks off the affair. Mr de S. becomes ill as a result, and after a while, feeling his strength declining, he asks for Mlle Clairon at his bedside. He writes:
“Please come. I am near the end. Please accord me the sweetness of seeing you one last time.”
She refuses and he dies, having near his bed only his domestics and an elderly lady friend.
Some time later, on a summer evening in 1743, Mlle Clairon receives a few members of her inner circle for supper. There are her mother, some actors and an Intendant des Menus Plaisirs who, for the moment, is also very much in love with her.
After the meal, the young actress sings some of those insipid romantic songs known as moutonnades that Jean-Jacques Rousseau has just made fashionable. Everyone applauds, and compliments start to shower down on her. Suddenly, as the clock strikes eleven, there is a piercing scream outside the window. An atrocious cry that rattles the glass.
Thinking that it had come from the balcony, they rush to open up and look outside. They see no-one, except for a few neighbours who had also heard the scream, and opened their shutters. They close the window, but Mlle Clairon is so shaken that she remains prostrated in an armchair for a long time. When she starts to feel a bit better, the Intendant des Menus Plaisirs, who is jealous (another one) takes her aside and berates her for the lack of subtlety in the signals given by her lovers. The actress shrugs her shoulders and replies:
“I have only this to say to you, Sir, that as I am free to receive whomever I like, this kind of signal is absolutely unnecessary… “
So what was the cry? Everyone was asking the question. Finally, Mlle Clairon’s friends conclude that it must be a practical joker. They advise her to alert the police, and have the street watched, in case the person does it again. Mlle Clairon asks them all to stay with her until morning, then asks them to come back to spend the evening with her the next day. She is afraid to be alone.
The next evening, they are all there again, while two policemen in civilian clothes patrol the footpath outside and the neighbours, behind their shutter slats, watch the street. And once again, on the last stroke of eleven o’clock, exactly like the evening before, a scream explodes under Mlle Clairon’s window. The policemen, in front of the house at that moment, are astounded. The cry is coming from a place where there is no-one.
The following day, the same phenomenon occurs. And for weeks, every evening at the same time, this frightful cry terrifies Mlle Clairon and the inhabitants of the Rue de Buci. Then the ghost – if it is a ghost – seems to amuse himself by following his victim. Mlle Clairon writes:
“Several times, while I was talking with my mother, the cry came from between us.”
She hears it again successively under a porch, in the presence of a magistrate, in her carriage where one of her friends faints from fright, and in a house at Versailles where her hostess, Mme Grandval, thinks that the whole of Hell has entered into her chamber…
Some time later, the “ghost” again changes his ways. He becomes an excellent marksman. Here’s what Mlle Clairon has to say:
“Seven or eight days later, the bells of eleven o’clock are followed by a gunshot fired into one of my windows. Everyone hears the sound, but the window is not at all damaged. We conclude that someone wants to kill me, that they missed, and that we need to take precautions for the future. The Intendant flies to Mr de Marville’s place, – he is then Police Lieutenant and his friend. The houses opposite are inspected. During the following days, they are guarded from top to bottom. Mine is inspected. The street is filled with all possible policemen. But however much care is taken, the gunshots are seen and heard, for three whole months, always at the same time in the same window pane, without anyone ever being able to see from what place they are fired. This fact is recorded in the police registers.”
To be continued.