In the middle of the XIXth Century, in Livonia (Lettonia), between Riga and Volmar, there is a college for noble young ladies which is called the Pensionnat Neuwelcke. The boarders belong to the greatest Livonian families, and the Director, Mr Buch, flatters himself that he has in his establishment, among others, the second daughter of Baron Guldenstubbe, the charming and very intelligent Julie, aged thirteen.
In 1845, Mr Buch engages a French teacher, Mademoiselle Emilie Sagee. She is a pretty Bourguignonne, born in Dijon, blonde with light eyes and an amiable character. She is thirty-two. Intelligent, cultured, she soon conquers the Director’s estime, her colleagues’ friendship and her pupils’ affection.
Strange rumours, however, run through the pensionnat about the new teacher. In fact, several times, certain pupils have noticed that they disagree on an apparently insignificant detail: the place where they have just met Mlle Sagee. When one says that she has seen her in one part of the establishment, it is frequent that another assures having met her elsewhere at the same moment.
At first, the pupils believe that they are mistaken. But as it continues to occur, they finish by finding the thing very strange. To the point that they decide to speak about it to the other mistresses.
One morning, a delegation goes to find the Arithmetic teacher and tells her that they are sure that Mlle Sagee is a strange person, because she is sometimes in two different places at the same time…
The teacher bursts out laughing, shrugs her shoulders and declares that she has never heard anything quite so stupid, that these young ladies are really too imaginative and that they are making it all up… After which, she sends the girls back to their studies…
But the anomalies in the French teacher’s comportment soon take on a character which excludes all possibility of error or fantasy.
One day when Mlle Sagee is giving a lesson to thirteen of her pupils, and is writing a sentence on the blackboard, the girls are suddenly very frightened to see two Mademoiselle Sagees one beside the other.
Riveted to their benches, they notice with growing stupor that, while the two people who are writing at the blackboard look exactly alike and are making the same gestures, only the real Emilie Sagee, a piece of chalk in her hand, is effectively writing. Her double, with empty hand, is only imitating the movements that she is making while tracing the words.
This story is immediately spread, and causes a sensation among the other boarders. The Director, informed of a strange incident which is supposed to have occurred during a French lesson, interrogates Mlle Sagee’s pupils. But even though all of them, without exception, affirm having seen the second form and are perfectly in agreement on the description that they make of the phenomenon, Mr Buch, too, shrugs his shoulders… He tells them that their story is foolish, that they were dreaming… Perhaps they had been a bit tired at that particular moment. There, there, we’ll say no more about it!
The pupils leave his study very disappointed about not succeeding in convincing him, for they are sure of their facts: they really saw Mlle Sagee divide into two.
A little while later, a second incident comes to trouble the pensionnat. It unfolds in a bedroom where a pupil, Antoinette de Vrangel, is dressing to go with a few friends to a local festival. Mlle Sagee has come to help her, and is hooking up the back of her dress. Suddenly, the young girl looks over her shoulder and sees two Emilie Sagees taking care of her. She is so frightened that she faints.
This time, Mr Buch is worried. He asks hinself if his boarders have not all gone mad. He makes enquiries and learns with fearful astonishment that the pensionnat‘s domestics, too, have seen the French teacher split into two. These peasant women explain to him that, from time to time, in the refectory, they see Mlle Sagee’s double standing behind her chair, while she is eating. This double, they say, imitates all of her movements, but “without knife or fork, or food in its hands”…
Mr Buch is very troubled. He becomes even more so a few days later when some teachers come to tell him, horrified, that they now believe in the ubiquity for they, too, have seen Mlle Sagee divide into two before their eyes…
And the phenomena continue.
The witnesses then notice that there can also be variations. In certain cases, the double doesn’t imitate the movements of the real person. It has a sort of existence of its own. For example, it is seen to remain seated when Mlle Sagee rises. Sometimes, the double’s independence is even clearer. One evening, the French teacher is in bed with a heavy cold. Antoinette de Vrangel has come to read to her to relieve her boredom. Suddenly, she sees her pale and stiffen as if she is about to faint. Frightened, she asks the teacher if she is feeling worse. Mlle Sagee weakly denies it.
A few minutes later, the boarder happens to look over her shoulder and distinctly sees the patient’s double walking back and forth in the room…
But here is the most remarkable case of the apparently independent activity of Mlle Sagee’s two forms. One day, the pupils of the pensionnat, all forty-two of them, are gathered in the sewing room. It is a big room on the ground floor with four windows opening onto the garden.
The boarders are all seated around a long table and, through the open windows, they can see Mlle Sagee who is picking flowers along a garden path.
At the end of the table, a supervisor is sitting in a green leather armchair. At one moment, this lady leaves. However, her armchair does not remain empty very long for the young girls suddenly see Mlle Sagee’s form appear in it. They immediately turn their gazes toward the garden and see their French teacher still busy picking her bouquet; but her movements seem to be slower and heavier than a while ago, like those of someone who is very tired.
They turn their eyes to the armchair again. The double is there, silent, motionless, but with such an appearance of reality that, if they hadn’t just seen Mlle Sagee in the garden, they could think that she is there in person.
However, they all know that it is the double, and they are now so used to this strange phenomenon that two of them rise, approach the armchair and, trembling a little, touch the apparition.
The whole class watches them, frightened, and Mlle de Vrangel asks them what it feels like. They answer that it feels like a piece of muslin or crepe material.
And, now feeling very audacious, one of them dares to pass right up against the armchair, thereby traversing part of the form. When she returns to her place, she is livid…
The double then gradually disappears and the pupils notice that Mlle Sagee, in the garden, is now gathering her flowers with her usual vivacity.
These phenomena last for months, to Mr Buch’s despair. He fears that this strange comportment might damage his establishment’s reputation.
His fears are justified. Many parents, informed of what is happening, remove their children. After eighteen months, there are only twelve pupils left out of forty-two. Mr Buch is then obliged to fire his French teacher – for ubiquity…
To be continued.