Every story begins with a tremble of anticipation. At the start we may have an idea of our point of arrival, but what lies before us and makes us shudder is the journey, for that is all discovery. This strange and curious story begins for me at the sea. Its sound and scent are my punctuation. Its movements are my verbs. As I write this, angry waves break upon the rocks, and when the water recedes, the rocks seem to be weeping. As if nature is expressing what is in my soul. Expressing what I cannot speak of out loud but can only write, here, in secret, for you, Fantine.
This is the story of a lost man. An exile not just from his beloved country but also from his sanity. I believe it to be a true and honest account. Whether or not you will, I know not. But I owe you this effort—to try to explain my actions and myself and how what transpired came to be.
This story begins in the south of France in early September of 1843. The first scene, as fate would have it, set against the sea.
I had been on a monthlong holiday with my mistress, whom you know of course as Juliette D. We had been traveling for three weeks when we reached the Island of Oléron. The weather was oppressively hot without breeze or relief.
“So this is what living in hell must be like,” I said as we rode to our hotel. Ah, but I had no idea how portentous those words were.
Everywhere we went the talk was about the monstrous weather and the mystifying plague that had stolen the lives of dozens of children. Even my beloved bay offered nothing pleasant for once. There were no invigorating sea breezes, no birdsong. As I walked the salt marshes, forced to step in seaweed to avoid the mud, only the distant voices of the convicts, one after another, as they were counted in for the evening kept me company.
For the first time in my life I was unhappy by the sea. It seemed death was in my soul. As if the island was a coffin laid in the sea with the moon as torch.
Concerned about the mysterious fevers and wanting to escape the melancholy atmosphere, we decided not to stay as long as planned and made immediate arrangements to depart the following morning.
On the boat the next day, the talk among the sailors continued to be morbid as they focused on several recent drowning incidents that had occurred in the vicinity.
“As if death is following us,” I told Juliette.
By the time we arrived at Rochefort on the mainland we were depressed, tired and thirsty. Since we had a few hours to wait for the evening coach to La Rochelle, we proceeded to the main square to find refreshments. Café de l’Europe was open and not crowded. We found seats and ordered beers.
There were newspapers available. Juliette picked up a copy of Le Charivari and I, a copy of Le Siècle.
Just then a square-bodied woman passed in front of the window, distracting me from the front page. She had a child with her, a little girl of eight or nine. As they walked by, the woman tripped and went sprawling. The child stood frozen for a moment, as if astonished her mother was capable of falling. Then, her face etched with grave concern, the little girl knelt down and gently offered her mama her hand.
I drew the moment in my mind. A scene to pull up when I was writing, an image to file away for future use. I wanted to remember the worry on the child’s face and the love on the mother’s as she let her girl help her up.
Then, with my usual foreboding, I readdressed the news. Politicians are fools and the games they play are fools’ games. There are lives at stake and yet these men solve nothing with their endless posturing except to fatten their own wallets. Power corrupts morals and turns men to monsters all. Not surprisingly, the newspaper was filled with worrisome articles about all this and more. Spain was in crisis . . . there were rumblings of yet more conflict in Paris . . . and then my own name swam before my eyes.
I was not unused to seeing items about my politics or my poetry in the papers, but this was different. Terrible words leapt out and assaulted me. Suddenly I could not breathe. Sweat poured down my face. This was not possible. I could not be reading the words correctly.
“What is it, Victor?”
I looked up but could not focus on Juliette’s face.
“Something horrible,” I said, and pushed the paper toward her. The words I’d just read ran through my mind, repeating as they would for hours, days, months and years to come . . .
“A yacht has capsized . . . on board was M. Ch. Vaquerie’s wife, Leopoldine, the daughter of Victor Hugo . . . The corpse of M. Pierre Vaquerie was recovered. It was first assumed that M. Ch. Vaquerie, who is an experienced swimmer, had been washed downstream in the attempt to save his wife and relatives . . . the net dredged up the lifeless body of the unfortunate young woman . . .”
In the newspaper, I discovered what my wife, Adele, who was at home in Le Havre, had known for days what my sons and other daughter already knew: my eldest daughter, my dearest Didine, had drowned along with her husband of only eight months in the Seine in Villequier.
For the next few hours Juliette and I wandered through the town, waiting for the coach to be readied that would take us back to Paris. Juliette told me later how the sun beat down on us, and how we walked around the square and into the countryside to try to escape the heat and the prying eyes of townspeople who had heard the news and, recognizing me, followed the progress of our sad stroll.
But I don’t remember any of that. I could only see images of the terrible accident. I pictured the boat sailing down the river. Wind whipping the waves into a frothy frenzy. The boat keeling. Dipping. Rocking. Then capsizing. The ferocious current swirling around the bodies. My darling’s face surprised by the watery chaos. Struggling to swim in the churning current. Her dress billowing out around her. Her arms reaching for help. Desperate for air, she must have swallowed mouthfuls of that muddy river. I imagined her face underwater. Her skin losing color, her graceful hands flailing. Fish swimming into and becoming tangled in her beautiful hair. Her eyes wide, searching the murky darkness for a ray of light to climb toward.
It was not possible that this report was true, I kept telling Juliette, even as I knew it was, even as the grief began to form around me in a pool, then a stream, then a river, then an ocean. Until I too was going to drown.
Ah, if only I could join Didine, that at least would be relief.
With every step we took, I absorbed more of the horror of what had occurred. Soon guilt was pounding at me, like waves in a storm.
I had been with my mistress on holiday while my child died. My wife, Adele, was alone dealing with this tragedy.
And worse—would Didine even have been on the boat if I had been in residence in Le Havre? Adele and I might have been invited on the boat. And if I’d been there, maybe I could have saved her.
But I had not been there and the daughter of my heart, the child of my soul, was gone.
• • •
There is no greater unrelenting sadness that a man can bear than to lose his child. But that is what happened to me and what ultimately brought me to the state of mind I was still in, two years ago, when I first arrived in Jersey, in a self-imposed political exile from my beloved France. A decade of grieving had deposited me on a slim shore of hope. Though I do not believe in formal religions or the clergy, I have strong convictions. I have faith that we live again and I anticipate another life for me and for those I love. How could I not? If there were no continuation, what would be the point of all this suffering we are forced to endure? What kept me breathing one day to the next was the idea that Didine was not gone for all time.
My love for my daughter is at the heart of this story. My delightful daughter. My sunshine. I know every father says this, but she truly was special. Even in this world she was visibly living a higher life. I had seen her soul. It had touched me. In this world of misery, suffering and horrible injustice, Didine was my own wonder, my own happiness. And in Jersey, she became my own madness.
After someone you love so dearly dies, you are absent from the world for a time, living only loss. The pain of existing without the other is too hard to bear. Only slowly do you return to life. To being hungry, not just eating for sustenance. To pouring a glass of good wine, not just drinking to quench a thirst. To hearing the words of those around you and answering. To being stirred into having indignation at the statesmen, at the clergy, at the government. One returns slowly. And then one dawn as you watch the sun rise, you realize your daughter is dead but you are still alive.
What I didn’t know then was that an ache, as steadfast as my love, would remain. My grief for Didine is a living thing. My longing to see her again has never abated, never lessened. I never stopped yearning to hear her speak, to watch her eyes fill with laughter, to feel her lean over my shoulder to read what I am writing. Oh, if only I could just once more engage in conversation with my daughter about my ideas—my ideas that were hers also.
For all these years I have ached to dream about her just once. To have her visit me even behind my closed eyes. I prayed to the terrible God who had taken her to allow me to see my daughter again. Even if only to say good-bye. To apologize to her for not being there when she was buried. To tell her I grieved even more because of that. I prayed to him who is not kind or just to let me glimpse where she was so I might know she had passed through his gate and was safe in heaven’s arms. Not even in sleep was I allowed a visitation with my dead.
So it was that shortly after our own arrival in Jersey, on the anniversary of Didine’s death, my childhood friend, the playwright Delphine de Girardin, arrived from Paris for a weeklong visit. Along with all sorts of delicacies and delights she brought with her a devilish sort of alchemy. And nothing has been the same since.
My daily rituals in Jersey are not that different from what they were in Paris. We dine en famille most nights. Usually a simple meal of fish, vegetables, fresh bread, wine and then a pastry. Our cook here is every bit as good as the woman we employed in France but younger and more comely. Caroline’s tarte framboise is as delicious as her lips, which she has occasionally allowed me to taste.
For Delphine’s first dinner, Caroline had made a feast that began with a fine lobster soup and ended with a perfect chocolate mousse. All as superior as you would find at Grand Véfour in Paris.
No one referred to Didine’s death anniversary as we ate. My wife and I lived with our loss daily; we did not need to honor this one day above any other. And there was no reason to spoil anyone else’s evening with morbid talk. Instead, Delphine filled us in on the gossip from Paris. How our friends were. Who had moved to the country. Which plays had succeeded, which had failed. The affairs of the heart and the scandals. Which new restaurants had opened. Which had closed.
And then she told us about a craze that was sweeping the city: a parlor game called talking tables that allowed you to speak to the dead.
The single word echoed in the dining room. Did Delphine notice how my wife stole a glance at me? How I looked away after seeing the pain in Adele’s eyes? How my son Charles drank too quickly from his goblet. How his brother, François-Victor, cleared his throat. And how my youngest, also Adele, named after her mother, looked down in her lap, tears immediately flowing from her lowered eyes.
If Delphine was aware of our reactions, it wasn’t obvious to me. Breathlessly, she continued on, describing the séances she’d attended and the spirits who had actually visited the assembled guests.
I had always been curious about the mind’s ability to reach beyond its bony confines into the beyond. One of my experiments had led me to form the French Hashish Club with fellow authors Balzac and Dumas. The sweet cannabis did in fact produce dreams beyond anything I’d imagined. But I’d felt I was traveling further inside my own mind instead of venturing outside it. And that was what I yearned for, to leave the narrow boundaries of my own reality.
I also experimented with Friedrich Anton Mesmer’s provocative theories. The scientist believed our bodily fluids link us to each other and the universe and that their balance affects our mental and physical health. Firsthand, I’d witnessed magnets recalibrating my son François-Victor’s fluids and restoring him when he was ill. I’d even allowed an expert in mesmerism to attempt to put me into a trance, hoping I would emerge more perceptive to the point of being able to divine the future. Alas, I never reached the state for which I yearned.
Now Delphine’s le spiritisme sounded promising. The father of this new movement, Hippolyte-Léon Dénizart-Rival, who now called himself Allan Kardec, believed we can communicate with the dead. He claimed we live plural lives. That we have been here before and will return again. In his talks, he explained that he’d learned about reincarnation during his lifetime as a Celtic Druid and then in another lifetime in ancient Greece when he knew Pythagoras.
The man’s heritage struck me as a curious coincidence and I told Delphine about the hundreds of Celtic ruins here in Jersey. “It’s common while taking a stroll in the woods or on the beach to stumble upon remains of their temples and graves.”
She asked if I would escort her the next afternoon on a tour, and after I agreed she continued telling us about the séances she’d attended in Paris.
“But how do you contact the spirits through les tables tournantes?” my wife asked.
“We choose a medium, who places his or her hands on a small three-legged stool you put atop the table. When the stool is ready, the spirits speak by tapping the stool’s legs in code. Speaking to the dead,” she said, “is in vogue.”
We all bombarded her with questions, which she answered patiently. “There’s really no way to explain it,” she finally said. “It would be better to let me show you. We can attempt a séance ourselves.” She looked around the table. “Yes?”
Everyone but my wife was enthusiastic.
“Bien,” Delphine said, “there are six of us; at least one of us will have the ability to make a connection.”
The idea seemed harmless enough. I was intrigued but doubtful. It sounded too playful, too frivolous a way to communicate with the spirit world. And so it began.
That first night, I did not sit at the table myself but watched as each member of our group attempted to bring forth a spirit from the four-legged stool. No one succeeded, but all were gripped with the desire. Now that they had tasted the possibility, determination had set in. So the following day, after our tour of some of the island’s strange monuments, Delphine asked if I’d take her shopping so she could purchase a smaller séance stool. Perhaps, she told me, our square one was the impediment.
But when we tried again, the new, smaller, three-legged version didn’t solve the problem.
After four days, bored with the game, I encouraged everyone to give it up for the folly it was.
“Just one more try,” my eldest son pleaded. “This time, Papa, you come sit at the table too, and I’ll put my hands on the stool. That’s the only combination we haven’t tried.”
Against my better judgment, I agreed. I was always too critical of Charles and since coming to Jersey had been trying to be more supportive.
We made what I anticipated to be our last attempt on the afternoon of September 11.
At dinner that night we hosted Delphine, August Vaquerie, General Le Flo and Pierre de Revenue. All dined on roasted chicken, herbed potatoes, tender asparagus and an apple tart. A good red wine was served, but I drank little of it. Since I was going to sit at the table, if anything did happen, I wanted to be aware and receptive to it, and wine muddles the brain and causes bouts of sleepiness. Instead, after dinner while Delphine set up the séance, I indulged in some postprandial hashish to stir the brain, encourage my awareness and aid in my receptiveness.
Our house at Marine Terrace in Jersey overlooks the Channel and the window opens on the sea. That evening she was eloquent. Her ceaseless waves crashed on the shore, filling the silence with angry music as we arranged ourselves at the table. It was a restless song, I thought, as if the sea too were anxious with impatience, waiting for something to occur.
And it did. The fourth séance was terrifying and joyous. Frightening and beautiful. Powerful in a way that no man, no beast, no God can protect against. Another world opened up that night, one beyond the sea, the sky, even beyond the stars.
We discovered a crack in the wall that separates the present from the past. When the wind blew through our parlor windows on the evening of September 11, 1853, it blew in the unthinkable. A portal opened. The sea howled in rebellion. And a humble man was tempted with a gift that might have proved his ruin, and yours.
“Put your fingertips on the stool’s top,” Delphine instructed.
Charles did as she suggested.
“Keep your fingers there no matter what occurs. François-Victor, when the stool’s leg begins to tap, take careful notes. One tap for yes, two for no. Remember what I told you, words will be spelled out one letter at a time, the number of taps corresponding to that letter in the alphabet. We can decipher the conversation later.”
We sat in a circle around this twenty-five-centimeter-high centerpiece on our card table. Adults playing a parlor game. All curious, but one with a desire so strong it must have extended out into the ether, to the spirits. It gave off sparks. And shone.
As I watched, I allowed how profoundly I wanted this trick to be real. I desperately wanted to speak to the dead. On the last day of the week of the anniversary of Leopoldine’s death, I longed to speak to my daughter.
“Open your minds,” Delphine instructed us all. “Let the spirits in. Make them welcome and allow them to speak.”
Nothing happened. With each passing second, I felt my hope ebbing. Then after almost a full minute, the little stool began to move. One of its legs tapped. And then again. And again.
“Is someone here with us?” Delphine asked, the excitement in her voice rising like bubbles in a champagne glass. “Are you here?”
I will never forget the reverberation of that wood against the table. It was no different from the sound of a tree branch snapping. Of a door shutting. Of a box lid closing. An innocent sound, I thought then. But how wrong I was, because with each rap, another seed of madness took root in the fertile soil of my mind. The tapping was wicked, degenerate; it was depraved.
“Is someone there?” my wife cried out, clearly unnerved.
The taps continued at a slow pace. François-Victor diligently made notes, but I was certain they would prove to be random and inconclusive knocks. From the expression on Delphine’s face, I could see she thought the same.
Another effort, another failure, I thought.
And then the rhythm changed. The tapping sounded more determined.
As François-Victor laboriously recorded the number of taps, I somehow anticipated the word being spelled out as if I were having a conversation with a ghost; I was able to understand these whispers of air. Ah, this is difficult to explain, even for me. So much of this adventure is. But believe me, during that séance and those that followed, our spirit guests spoke to me. Not out loud so others could hear, but not in my imagination either.
I am here. I am with you.
Then the tapping stopped. The stool ceased to move. This time it remained still for two full minutes. I was ready to push my chair away when it finally started up again. The stool appeared agitated. Jittering. Sliding a bit, then pushing back. Was Charles doing this himself?
“Are you the spirit who was tapping before?” Delphine asked.
“Who are you?” she asked.
The stool tapped four times. Then stopped.
Then one tap.
Then a long flow of even taps. Charles counted twenty-one. Then a stop.
Then seven taps.
It had taken me one second to hear what it took the stool several minutes to spell out. One word, Daughter.
Then it stopped for a slight pause before starting up again. Immediately the stool tapped out four more taps.
I knew this word too, long before its last letter tapped out. I put the two words together.
“Who are you?” Delphine asked once more.
The spirit identified herself this time by tapping out her name. Letter by letter.
“Is it truly you, Didine?” I asked. “Is it you?”
I did not have to wait for the tedious taps. I knew. Nevertheless a single tap confirmed it.
“Are you happy?”
“Where are you?”
“How can we be with you, my dearest?”
“Do you watch over us and see our unhappiness?”
As a student of human nature, I have trained myself to read faces and see what is in someone’s heart regardless of the words they use. As that stool tapped out its answers to the questions we were asking, I watched those present for chicanery and guile. Was Charles exerting some kind of pressure upon the stool? Could he have been so desperate as to make it move out of grief? Or so cruel as to make a joke of such a somber occasion as this?
I asked him outright and he assured me he wasn’t manipulating the stool. Were my other children in on it somehow? Or my wife? She claimed to suffer because of my dalliances, but she didn’t hate me enough to punish me like this. No, Adele was not capable of such a hoax. In fact she was sobbing and our daughter, her mother’s namesake, was crying with her.
No, this was no prank. Sybil’s tripod had come to life.
Outside the wind picked up, sending plaintive pleas to the sea, who answered with roars and splashes. Nature communicates all its attitudes better than any man’s words.
I asked Didine one last question.
“Will you come back to talk to us more?”
One glorious tap. The yes I had yearned to hear.
And so, in a matter of moments, a life changes.
I who had never been haunted, who had been skeptical of visitations, suddenly accepted all possibilities. Or as a priest would say, in that moment, I allowed the devil into my life.
But the priest would be wrong. I did more than allow him in. I gave the devil a warm hearth and a hospitable place to rest for as long as he wanted one. I gave him access to my very soul.