At the beginning of August 1885, a young magistrate from Privas, Monsieur Berard, who is later elected Deputy for Ardeche, comes for a week’s rest to Vals, which is then a quiet little town, where a few people with drawn faces walk in the cool shade of the trees, after having drunk or bathed in the mineral waters. Every morning, the magistrate leaves his hotel, a map of the region under his arm, and goes for a long walk in the surrounding forests. He is a good walker and can cover twenty-five to thirty kilometres in one day.
One evening, he gets lost in the woods and ends up, at nightfall, on a deserted road where a sign indicates that he is ten kilometres away from Vals. He is tired – he has just walked for six hours – he is hungry, he is thirsty, he feels a bit discouraged. After a short pause, he sets off anyway.
He has walked less than a kilometre when, to his relief, he sees an inn. A very modest inn, rather miserable even, a sort of stop-over for carters, which bears the sign “Au rendez-vous des amis” (Friends’ Meeting Place). He enters. The room is dark and smells of smoke and greasy food. The inn-keeper, built like Hercules, has an evil face and a yellow complexion. His wife, a little prune with greasy hair, completes the picture with dirty hands, black fingernails and shifty eyes.
Neither of them greets Mr Berard.
After this rather bad impression, the magistrate goes to sit at a table and tries to look amiable. He asks if he can dine and sleep there that night. The inn-keeper growls that it might be possible, if he has money. The magistrate assures him that he has a little money on him, pulls a few coins from his pocket and puts them on the table.
The inn-keeper takes them, telling him that, in his inn, people pay in advance. He counts the coins and decides that there is enough money.
Dinner, served in chipped, badly-washed plates, is disgusting. When he has finished, Mr Berard sees his hostess approaching, a candle in her hand. She studies him suspiciously. He has no luggage. The magistrate explains that he is on foot.
The woman leads him down a long corridor, then up a steep staircase to a shabby, smelly chamber, situated above the stable. As soon as he is alone, he locks the door, lies down and, tired from his long walk, falls into a deep sleep.
During the night, he has an appalling nightmare. He is standing with his back against the wardrobe, in the same inn chamber. An unknown man, with side-whiskers, is in his place in the bed and is sleeping peacefully. Suddenly, still in his nightmare, the magistrate hears creaking coming from outside. Anguished, he rushes to put a table in front of the door and pushes against it. But the creaking gets louder and Mr Berard watches in horror as a curtain on the other side of the room slowly moves aside, revealing a second door, open onto the night.
This door, whose existence he had not even suspected, permits communication with the courtyard by an outside staircase. The curtain slides farther and the magistrate sees the inn-keeper appear, a long knife in his hand. Behind him, his wife veils the light of the lantern with her black fingers. They both approach the bed on tip-toe, then the inn-keeper plunges his knife into the throat of his victim and takes his watch and well-filled purse. He then returns to the bed and grabs the cadaver by the feet. He tells his wife to take the shoulders.
The woman is going to obey but she is encumbered by the lantern. Her husband says that he will hold it with his teeth.
Finally, both of them, carrying the dead man, descend the staircase, by the light of the lantern dangling under the assassin’s chin.
Horrified, the magistrate sees them cross the courtyard and go towards a pile of dung, under which they bury their victim.
Then he cries out, and this cry wakes him with a start. He is perspiring, panting. He looks around him. It is daylight, the August sun inundates the chamber. All is calm. However, his nightmare is still very much present. He rises and, to reassure himself completely, goes to pull aside the curtain at the other end of the room. He then discovers, with a fluttering heart, that behind the curtain, there really is a door. He opens this door and sees that there is a staircase and that this staircase is the exact one that he had seen in his nightmare.
Very nervous, Mr Berard dresses, descends for a cup of coffee in the inn’s main room and takes off towards Vals.
Three years pass. And one morning, the magistrate reads the following brief article in his newspaper:
“The bathers and population of Vals are greatly affected by the sudden, incomprehensible disappearance of Maitre Victor Arnaud, the lawyer whose eloquence and famous side-whiskers are well-known to those who frequent our courts. Eight days ago, Me Arnaud left for a walk of a few kilometres in the mountains; he has not returned to his hotel.”
These lines trouble the magistrate who cannot refrain from connecting it to his fabulous nightmare. So, three days later, his emotion is even stronger when he reads this in his newspaper:
“Partial traces have been found of Maitre Victor Arnaud. On the evening of 24 August, he was seen by a carter in an isolated inn “Au rendez-vous des amis”. He was preparing to spend the night there. The inn-keeper who, until now, had not mentioned his traveller, has been interrogated. He says that the man left the same evening and did not sleep at his inn.”
To be continued.