Forgotten Fiction Friday: an escape from the guillotine

“Such was the substance of the gruesome tale which was poured into my astonished ears,” added the fair narratress, “a tale indeed all the more gruesome by its verisimilitude and air of truth.”


This week’s neglected text comes from the anonymously authored collection The Haunted Manor House, published by Skeffington and Sons in 1896.  I can find almost no information about this writer, other than that they also wrote A Flight to Florida (under the intriguing pseudonym “Peregrinator”), and An Episode at Schmeksand that at least one reviewer thought they were female*.

The story I’ve reproduced below, titled “From The Guillotine”, is entertainingly macabre, and represents a surprisingly early manifestation of a certain horror cliché that my readers will be familiar with, if they’ve ever heard scary stories told around a campfire or on a playground… or in any venue, really.

From The Haunted Manor House (pages 41-50), please enjoy:

From the Guillotine

by Anonymous/Peregrinator


From the Guillotine

On a certain typical Christmas evening, when the ground was white and the wind was cold, a large party of merry young people gathered around a fire of blazing yule-logs to rest after their exertions.  For they had been playing Blindman’s-buff, Hunt-the-slipper, and other riotous games which, though delightful, are fatiguing.  They were, therefore, glad of a little breathing space.  And whilst they were enjoying it, somebody having suggested that it was just the house and scene for a ghost story, their pleasant and genial hostess (who was an excellent raconteuse) said she would tell them one which had occurred in her own experience, and which, after a few moments’ preliminary silence, she proceeded to relate as follows: –

“The year before I was married, I made the charming Alpine tour with my brother, during which the idea often occurred to me that though mountaineering is certainly attended with great danger to life and limb, on the other hand, the pleasure arising from it is not only peculiar, but unique.  For the sensation of being “Up above the world so high,” combined with the extraordinary clearness of the air, superinduces a cheery frame of mind and gives birth to feelings which cannot be experienced elsewhere or under any other circumstances.  Besides, whereas on the dusty highway and in beaten tracks adventures, properly so called, are now impossible, while wandering among those remote untrodden paths, exciting incidents often occur, which give great additional piquancy and interest to the way.

“It was whilst exploring the magnificent scenery of the Grisons that one evening during the tour in question, my brother and I found ourselves so belated at Misocco, that we gladly accepted the refuge offered us by the ancient castle of that name – a stately remain which stands on a rocky promontory overhanging the village, and which, in its grandeur, isolation and apartness, forms a very striking and remarkable picture.  For it seems to have no part or lot in the tiny cluster of cottages which nestle under its shadow; and it is surrounded by impending cliffs and steep precipices where cascades flash and sparkle through the dark foliage of pine and fir trees, and finally mingle in the torrent of the Moësa which foams in the depths beneath.


“Thus, nothing could be finer than the situation and general aspect of this Alpine fortress.  It is, in short, one of those spots which imagination could scarcely invest with any additional charm, and where the reality far exceeds even the most glowing anticipations.  Nevertheless, directly I entered it, I was conscious of experiencing a strange, eerie feeling, as though something untoward and unpleasant was about to happen.  And this feeling was intensified to an uncomfortable degree when the wife of the caretaker (her husband was away at the time) showed me into the room in which I was to pass the night, and which was not only large and dismal-looking, but in many of its details different from any apartment I had ever occupied before.  For the walls were hung with black, moth-eaten arras, which here and there contained figures as large as life – and as these frightful figures swayed to and fro with every current of air, the effect, to me, was perfectly terrifying.  Moreover the chamber had a sort of ghostly air about it, as if it were conscious of holding dark secrets, and had been rendered gloomy by memories and mysteries of the past; and as it was also very dimly lighted, it may readily be imagined that it was by no means a dainty bower.

“But then I am naturally courageous and strong-minded.  So I tried to overcome and shake off the disagreeable impression which my surroundings made on me.  And yet I must acknowledge that when the woman had lighted my lamp and left me to my own thoughts, a sense of terrible loneliness oppressed me, and I could not help wishing heartily that morning were come.  However, I had sleep to look forward to.  And after a fatiguing day – spent chiefly on foot – I felt so very tired that I quite longed to lie down.

“Nevertheless, anxious as I was to rest, there was something about the bed – something that I am quite unable to define or explain – which made me feel that I could not get into it.  When, therefore, I had partly undressed I threw myself into an arm-chair which was beside it, and lying back I hoped that sleep would come to me there and then.  But it did not do so.  On the contrary, it was in vain that I wooed it.  For fears and fancies born of the weird influences of the scene came thronging to my brain; every sound however slight disturbed and disquieted me, even the tapping of a branch against the window-pane; and though the lamp still burned on, I often thought that darkness itself would be preferable to its sickly, flickering glare – which now leaping and now falling cast strange and uncanny reflections on the floor and ceiling, which increased my discomposure and added to my nervous dread.

“Thus hour after hour passed, during which I lay awake, feeling the pulse of my own sensations, and listening with strained ear to that aggregate of faint sound which is called the silence of night.  However, shortly after a clock in a distant part of the castle had chimed one, I at length began to feel drowsy; surrounding objects grew dimmer and more confused by degrees; my eyes closed of their own accord; and presently I felt that I was at last going to enter the Ivory Gate.  But just as I was about to do so, and whilst I was enjoying that most delightful feeling of vanishing consciousness, something suddenly roused me and I grew wide awake again.

“What it was I could not say, but without any physical agency – for there was no noise, and nothing stirred in the room – the conviction was forced upon my mind that I was not alone.  It was an awful thought, a thought so awful that it made me shudder and tremble in every limb, but I could not banish it, the certainty was too strong.  Howbeit, before I had time to think what it portended, my attention was attracted by a sort of rustle behind the arras on the opposite wall, and almost immediately afterwards I saw, with a thrill of horror which I could not even attempt to describe, the shadow of a female figure gliding slowly along that part of the wall whence the sound had seemed to issue.  ‘Great heaven, what is going to happen!  What’s to become of me!’ I murmured under my breath – for I could not audibly articulate – my voice had failed me.

“But just as the words were hovering on my lips, there was a fearful sound at the further end of the room – it was that of something very heavy rolling off the sofa and falling with a dull thud to the ground, and as it smote upon my ear my overwrought senses seemed to give way, and scarcely knowing what I was doing, I jumped into the fatal bed, and covering down in it drew the counterpane over my face in the hope of shutting out both sight and sound if possible.  There I lay, scarcely daring to draw my breath, every nerve tingling with dread, and the dew of mortal terror oozing from every pore.

“But  – good God, how can I describe what followed! – whilst thus I lay, trembling and almost breathless, I heard a deep sigh breathed beside me – as if some head were resting on the pillow touching my own – and the next moment a hand, cold and clammy with the chill of death, grasped mind and pressed it so heavily that I could endure no more – I shrieked aloud in my agony – and darting from the bed, I rushed to the door, flung it open, and then flew down the passage as though all the fiends in the lower regions were pursuing me.  But I did not go very far – for the corridor was a short one – and as I got near the end of it, I saw a door, from beneath which a faint stream of light issued.  I therefore pushed it open, and with the piteous cry, ‘Oh, save me, save me!” I rushed into the room and straightaway fell a helpless mass at the feet of the attendant – who having heard my shriek was just coming to my assistance.

“‘Oh, what is the matter?  What has happened you?’ she cried in great consternation, as she helped me to rise.  For I had not fainted, and never lost consciousness for a moment.  It was merely a temporary suspension of strength, brought on by that maddening fear which so often causes loss of reason as well as of physical power.  When, therefore, she had assisted me into a chair and got me to drink some water – the relief afforded by her presence was so great that I speedily recovered.  And as soon as I was able, having minutely described all that had taken place in the fearful room I had just quitted, she forthwith told me the following extraordinary story – certainly the strangest I had ever heard in my life.



“One night, shortly after the Revolution had broken out, a young Frenchman named St. Gérand was traversing a lonely by-street in Paris on his way to his own apartments, when he saw a woman lying on a doorstep, whom he at first supposed to be dead.  But on finding that she still breathed, though very faintly, he took her up in his arms and carried her to his temporary home, where he applied restoratives with such success, that at the end of a few minutes she opened her eyes, and, gazing about her wildly, asked where she was.

‘You are with friends, or rather, a friend,” answered St. Gérand; ‘I found you lying outside a door near this; how did you come to be there? and what has happened to you?’ ‘Oh, heaven! is it a terrible dream, or a still more terrible reality?’ exclaimed the stranger, who was both young and beautiful, as she put her hand to her head in a distracted manner.  But presently, as though her memory had suddenly returned, she added with a groan, ‘Yes, I remember all now!’  And turning towards St. Gérand, she said imploringly, ‘then if you are a friend, oh, save me, for God’s sake, and take me to some place of safety.  I am under sentence of death – merely because my birth is noble – and this morning I was in the Bastile, from which a friend promised to rescue me, and I suppose he did so, though why he left me in the street I cannot think.  My brain is confused.  I can only recollect his giving me some drops to make me insensible, and saying that he could more easily carry me away and succour me when I wwas in that state.  But now that you have found me,’ she went on excitedly, ‘you look so good and kind that I feel sure you will befriend me, and I beseech you to take me away; I shall never be safe as long as I am in Paris.’

‘I will take you anywhere you like to go,’ returned St. Gérand, kindly, ‘but you must eat something first, or you will faint again.’  Saying which he rang the bell for some supper; and whilst she was eating it he feasted his eyes on her face, from which he could not withdraw his gaze, and which seemed to him the fairest and sweetest he had ever seen.

“It was, in short, a most striking instance of love at first sight.  But then it was in all respects an intelligible one.  For the fair stranger was endowed with every charm most calculated to attract the eye and captivate the fancy.  A lovely face, a soft voice, and – judging from the sentiments she expressed – a sweet nature also.  What followed, therefore, was only what might have been expected under such very abnormal and desperate circumstances.  And the upshot of the long conversation which ensued, and which lasted many hours was, that at the end of it he had made her an offer of his hand, which, in her terrible situation, she was only too glad to accept.  Minor matters were then easily and speedily arranged.  And St. Gérand having got a priest whom he knew, to marry them, it thus came to pass that this pair whose meeting had been so curiously brought about, and who had been utter strangers to each other such a short time before, left Paris together on the following morning as man and wife.

“In those days travelling was very different from what it is now, and the Castle of Misocco – St. Gérand’s home – being in the Grisons, was, comparatively speaking, a long way off.  But all throughout the journey the fair bride was so charming that the love of the infatuated husband grew by what it fed on; and by the time he reached his home he felt he was the happiest man in the world for having obtained the heart and hand of so peerless a creature.  There was, however, one thing about her which puzzled him exceedingly, and excited his curiosity to such an extent that he absolutely longed to gratify it.  And that was a broad leather band, something like a large dog collar, which she wore around her neck, and never removed day or night.  But though she was peculiarly sweet and gentle, there was something so regal in her manner that he could not speak as freely to her or be as familiar with her as if she had been another woman.  Thus time passed on – and the mystery remaining unrevealed, he was still a prey to a curiosity which was so excessive that it quite interfered with his enjoyment and disturbed his peace of mind.  But on the day they arrived as Misocco, the bride said she felt so tired that she would like to rest for a while before dinner; and when he went up to her room a short time afterwards, he found her lying on a couch with her fair head buried in the cushion and sunk in such profound slumber that an irresistible impulse seized him to solve the mystery which she was thus unconscious.


He, therefore, approached her noiselessly, and then having kneeled down beside the couch, he proceeded with trembling hands – for he was so strangely excited that he could hardly steady his fingers to perform their allotted task – to unfasten the band on her throat.  There was some difficulty in getting it open, but he at last succeeded, and the moment he did so, oh, horror of horrors! the beautiful head rolled heavily to the ground, and blood spouted from the trunk to which it had only been united by the collar which his fatal curiosity had unloosed.

“Such was the substance of the gruesome tale which was poured into my astonished ears,” added the fair narratress, “a tale indeed all the more gruesome by its verisimilitude and air of truth.  For Sanson used to declare that numbers of the heads he cut off retained life after they were severed from the body, and frequently bit the bottom of the basket into which they were thrown.  Besides, we know that many scientific men in that era held the theory that if the severed head were applied to the trunk without an instant’s delay, the flame of life, though dimmer and suspended for the fractional part of a second, would be rekindled – just as an extinguished candle can be relighted if you blow upon it at once.  In any case, the relatives of the unfortunate lady, who met her tragic end in the room I had just occupied, and whose shadow still haunts it, held this belief.  And one of them having obtained permission from the authorities to bury the body, as he said, was bearing her to a place of safety when St. Gérand found her on the doorstep, where he had merely left her from a moment whilst he went into the house to get a glass of water.  It is said that the unhappy St. Gérand never recovered the shock, and that he died soon afterwards in the fatal room where he had so unintentionally killed his beautiful bride.”


This text has been prepared from an out-of-print book scanned by the British Library Labs, which is available in PDF format here.  It is as faithful a reproduction as possible, but the formatting has been altered slightly for readability.

Illustrations come from other works in the British Library Labs and Internet Archive digitised image collections.

To the best of my knowledge, this story has never appeared online as an edited digital text before.  Please feel free to use this edited version for any purpose.

*I haven’t read the author’s other books, but on the basis of this group of stories, and going by my gut, I would suspect this reviewer is correct, and that we’re talking about a female writer.  The works in this collection (which are a lot of fun, although the title story is surprisingly the weakest of the bunch) demonstrate a preoccupation with demonstrating the intelligence and strength of character of the female characters; one example is the earnest declaration by this story’s female narrator that “but then I am naturally courageous and strong-minded”.  This doesn’t necessarily rule out a male writer, but in my experience of reading Victorian literature, it would more typical of a woman.

A related and interesting theme that’s found in this story, which I’ve spotted in the works of other female Victorian writers of this period – most notably Ada Maria Jocelyn’s excellent £100,000 Versus Ghosts, of which more later – is a tendency to occasionally succumb to fainting, or near-fainting but then to recover swiftly, and/or disclaim it in a mildly embarrassed manner.  The show (and the ghost hunt) must go on!  Again, I would see this as being very much characteristic of a female author.  Regrettably, the male writers that we have looked at from this period are particularly uninterested in representing female characters at all, let alone highlighting their strength and ghost-hunting abilities.


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