Eugene Manceau was a harness maker in a little village in Bretagne (Brittany). He was a jovial man, loved by all, who sold his harnesses, his reins garnished with bells, his straps and his horse collars, with a smile. His wife Leonie was gentle, pious and completely devoid of imagination. She lived calmly and the only questions in life that she asked herself concerned what she was going to make for lunch or the evening dinner. However, she was about to live a very strange adventure.
On the evening of the 11 November 1923, Eugene Manceau, who had been in the Artillery during the War, donned his best suit and cap, and left, as he did each year, to attend the Returned Soldiers’ Banquet. Before leaving, he told his wife not to wait up for him because he was sure that he wouldn’t return home before two o’clock in the morning.
So, Leonie Manceau prepares her soup, dines in her cat’s company, reads a newspaper for half-an-hour beside the fire, then around ten o’clock, goes upstairs to bed. A quarter of an hour later, she is sleeping deeply.
Around one o’clock in the morning, a loud noise wakes her with a start. It is coming from the shop which is situated just underneath the bedroom. It sounds as if someone is taking down all the articles and throwing them onto the floor. Leonie hears objects falling, bells tinkling, furniture being moved. At first, she is afraid by all this noise; then she thinks that it must be her husband, a bit drunk, having fun with a few friends. She thinks that they are probably putting on harnesses and playing at being horses. When men are a bit drunk, they are capable of anything. Anyway, when they are tired of playing, they will stop.
But downstairs, the noise does not seem to be going to stop. On the contrary, it gets louder. Leonie now has the impression that someone is literally emptying the shop. She distinctly hears objects being dragged along the floor, bridle rings banging against each other, collars noisily falling down.
And suddenly, something strikes her: in the middle of all this noise, she doesn’t hear any sound of voices. Why are her husband and his friends making all this racket without saying a word? She thinks that it is probably because they are so drunk that they are unable to speak…
Nevertheless, the thing intrigues her and she wants to know for sure. She rises, puts on a dressing-gown and descends. What she sees stupefies her: the shop is empty! There is nothing left. Not one harness, not one yoke, not one strap, not one rein, not one saddle. Everything has been taken down. Leonie asks herself what on earth the imbeciles can have done. They can’t possibly have, in their drunkenness, thrown everything outside. Or could they?
She opens the door and, prudently, for she thinks that Eugene and his friends are perhaps hiding to play a joke on her, she looks into the street. There is no-one, the village is calm, asleep, silent.
Leonie doesn’t understand. Where is Eugene? Where are his friends? Why have they emptied the shop? What have they done with all the material that they have taken down? Finally, she thinks that, inspired by a drunken idea, they have transported everything to the hangar in the garden and that they have all gone to sleep. And as she is not accustomed to worrying too much, Leonie goes back to bed.
She is only just in bed when new sounds are heard in the shop. This time, it is very clear that someone is walking, moving objects, dragging chairs. Leonie gets up again, puts her dressing-gown back on and goes back downstairs.
When she is at the bottom of the staircase, she screams. In the middle of the shop, there is now, on two trestles, a coffin covered by a pall and surrounded by candles.
Then Leonie thinks that Eugene and his friends play really tasteless jokes. If it was only to do this to her that they emptied the shop, they are just imbeciles!
And, furious, she goes back upstairs to bed. A few minutes later, she is starting to doze off when the electric light goes on. She turns and sees Eugene who is undressing.
Leonie lets her husband know what she thinks of his prank. Eugene is completely bewildered. What coffin? There is no coffin in the shop. Leonie rises, puts on her dressing-gown and drags her husband towards the staircase. No coffin! And what’s that in the middle of the shop, then…? She stops, astounded. The shop looks the same as usual. There is no coffin, no candles, no pall…
“You’ve taken it away? But how have you had time to put all the things back?”
Eugene doesn’t know what she’s talking about. What things?
“All the things that you took down when you emptied the shop.”
Eugene tells her that no-one has touched anything; certain objects even have a layer of dust on them… And anyway, he has only just returned home. His friends had accompanied him to the door. He tells her that she must have been dreaming.
Leonie studies her husband. He is a bit congested by the good meal he has eaten, but he doesn’t at all look like a man who has drunk too much.
Then, for the first time in her life, she finds herself before a mystery which anguishes her. And she is trembling as she recounts to Eugene everything that she heard and saw. Eugene smiles and tells her again that she had had a dream. A nightmare.
But Leonie maintains that she is certain that she got up twice, that she descended to the shop, that she had found it empty, then had discovered the coffin. She even gives him proof:
“When I opened the door onto the street, I saw an empty packet of cigarettes on the footpath, a packet of blue Gauloises… Let’s go and look!
They open the door. On the footpath, there is an empty packet of blue Gauloises.
To be continued.