Years ago, my husband and I and another couple took a three-week driving tour through Europe. While in the Beaujolais region of France, we happened upon the exact circumstances described in this story, though our guide book and map were paper. I’ve adapted it for our Pride and Prejudice characters, with a modern setting. Some of the town names and the hotel name have been P&P fictionalized. Sit back with a glass of wine and enjoy this little tale for our October theme!
“Charlie, Jane, wake up. You gotta see this.”
Two pairs of bleary eyes were accompanied by slightly interested groans. If you could ever call a groan interested, it would come from Charlie and Jane, who were so upbeat about everything, they were even positive about being awakened from a nap in the back seat of our rental Audi.
“Are we there yet?” Charlie quipped.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” I said. It had been a long traveling day.
My husband, Will Darcy, added, “And we have no clue how close we are since the car lost its GPS. This was the last turn we got before it went all wonky. We tried our phones, but the service is weak, so we couldn’t get the GPS working.”
We had turned into a lane that was just two ruts between trees so tightly planted they almost blocked the sunlight, and their branches were nearly scraping both sides of the little rental car. The lane had mature grass that I swear was nearly two feet tall, so the ruts were barely visible—just lines of dents in the grass as it disappeared into the late afternoon shadows. It made a strange noise as it brushed the bottom of the car.
“Wow, this is creepy,” said Charlie as we slowly moved down the path, his head practically spinning while he took in the heavy branches of the tree canopy overhead.
“It reminds me of the old back way into Gramma’s farm when we were kids,” said Jane as she pulled out her phone. “Only hers wasn’t so overgrown. Here, I’ve got GPS. What’s the address?” offered Jane.
“Hotel Boilly is all I have,” I said. “It’s supposed to be an estate house, a vineyard escape, if I recall correctly, north of Chalon-sur-Saone.”
“Have we passed Chalon?”
“Oh yeah,” replied Will. “You missed that fun.”
“We got lost, probably because of a pair of roundabouts that were supposed to take us toward our destination. The car just didn’t want to go this way,” he joked.
“Well,” said Jane as she peered at her cell phone, “We’re on the right road.”
“That’s too bad,” said Will, “because I was hoping for a hotel where guests were more frequent than once a millennium.”
The trees became thinner spaced until, instead, the road’s boundary was marked with a series of wood spikes either randomly placed or mostly missing. One or two had an old rag tied near the top. In the distance, men were moving strangely in the grassy road—were they dancing? It was hard to see with the low sunlight now in our eyes.
“Holy firetruck!” said Charlie. “Are they for real?”
The strange movements turned out to be the men operating old-fashioned scythes to cut the grass. There were five of them: three dressed in black and two shirtless. Up and down they went with huge swaths of grass being cut by the sharp edges of the old-fashioned tools.
“Grim reaper, here we come,” he added.
“Come on, hon,” Jane said. “They’re trimming the grass for us. What a nice welcome.”
“Nice and spooky. Woo-oo-oo.” He attempted some sort of a theremin sound that didn’t come off that well.
As we crept up to where they worked, the farm workers gradually stepped to the side of the road, some continuing to cut the grass on the roadside as we went by. Two chose to lift their hand in a languid wave to our wave of thanks for letting us by. None changed their dull, expressionless faces. Why did it feel like they were bidding us goodbye and good luck? Somehow, this road had changed my viewpoint of our destination quite a lot.
The ruts were easier to see now, and we picked up speed. The road took a curve and not much later, we encountered a stone wall with a large, arched opening that our car fit through easily. This seemed more like the entry to a manor house. A few hundred feet on the other side of the wall was a large stone house that had seen better days. This must be our hotel.
“Well, it’s no Chateau de Fontainebleau, but I like it,” said Charlie.
No. Not that I needed Fontainebleau either, but I thought we were getting something better than this…this…ancient and slightly run-down old stone farmhouse. Of course Charlie, always the optimist, would like it. Besides, he was the photographer in the group. He liked to shoot old stuff.
“Oh, you guys, I’m sorry. It looks much larger and nicer in the web site photos,” I said.
“We just need two rooms in a quaint building,” replied Jane, “I’m sure you picked a pleasant enough place for us to stay.”
“It came from the Relais et Chateaux web site and it even has a Michelin star.”
“One Michelin star?” asked Will.
I didn’t reply, I just gave his ear a dirty look as he slowed the car, looking for the preferred place to park near the house. Suddenly, a youngish man ran out of one of the smaller stone buildings that flanked the “manor house” and waved wildly to us. He ran in front of the car and Will stopped immediately, though we were barely moving as it was.
The guy was freaky looking. He had dusty brown hair that was wildly sticking out in all directions and wore dirty olive coveralls that were unbuttoned to the waist and a skinny, almost hairless, slightly dirty chest showed. I’d say he was homeless if we were in the city, but out here, I figured he must be some kind of unkempt hired help. At least he had a more lively appearance than the fellows down the road.
“Eleezabeth Bennet? Eez one of you Eleezabeth Bennet?” he shouted.
Will tilted his head back and lifted one brow as he looked at me sideways. “Know this guy?”
“I dunno, I mean…he must be…he must know we were coming.”
The man rounded the car and came over to Will’s open window.
“I’m Elizabeth Bennet.”
“Bienvenue!” he said as he reached a dirty-nailed hand past Will to pump mine. “I am Gerard Boilly, and this is my papa’s ’otel.”
I’m sure I gave him the wimpiest handshake back as I stared wide-eyed like a deer in the headlights. Gerard grinned. I could count three good teeth in front.
“’E is not ’ere so it weel be my pleasure to serve you, my guests, this weekend. Park over there by the door on the right. We don’t use that door. Don’t mind ze chickens, they weel run away. I weel take ze bags and show you your chambres.”
He jogged alongside the car as we drove up to one end of the house, which didn’t get better looking upon closer scrutiny. It may have had its good days, but they were long past. We all got out of the car and looked it over, Charlie and Jane mumbling their approval and Will eyeing me with what I swear was a look that meant he was holding back a sarcastic comment. I’d have to wait until later to get his opinion.
I walked up to a flower bed in hope of finding something nice to praise, but the weeds had taken over. A lizard was sunning himself in a gap in the mortar of the house. “Hello, little dragon. Do you live here?” I said in a soft voice. I couldn’t fathom myself living within these walls. I noticed a loose shutter sitting askew. I tried to tell myself it was just age and lack of maintenance, but something else was there, making me unsettled. It wasn’t just the visual appearance that was disturbing me. A gust of warm wind messed with my hair and I tucked it behind my ear.
Meanwhile, a ruckus had started behind me when Gerard and Will vied for who could carry the most bags from the trunk of the car. When both were packed up and Charlie held a token bag in the form of Jane’s makeup case, we followed Gerard toward the house.
He chattered as he walked. “You are from the US, no?” We answered in unison that yes, we were, and where each of us was from.
“I love Americans. You are our only guests tonight, so you must, as you say in the United States, make yourself at home.”
We entered the hotel and had to adjust our eyes to the darkness inside. The first room was a large dining room entirely paneled in dark wood. There were pilasters every six feet or so that featured goblins atop them, much like indoor gargoyles. It was an odd sort of design I’d never seen before. A flash went off and I jumped. Charlie was taking photos.
“I am sorry that I cannot offer you dinner tonight. Maman is ze cook and papa is ze waiter and they are not ’ere. But there are two towns nearby with good restaurants. If you want some wine to take to dinner, we have good cellars ’ere. Follow me upstairs, please.”
Off to one side of the dining room was a narrow, dark, but ornate staircase to the second level. At the top, we twisted and turned through hallways and wider spots that I’d call rooms until we were at one end of the house. I have a pretty decent sense of direction, yet I was uncertain that I’d ever find my way back to the car again.
“This is the chambre for Monsieur et Madame Bingley,” Gerard said with a head gesture.
Jane smiled nervously. “It has a nice view.” She was right—the multi-paned window looked over the back of the house across the vineyards, and even though two panes were cracked, it was pretty enough. Being at one end of the house, the ceiling was angled for the gable, yet the large room was still quite high in the middle, where an ancient wrought-iron bed stood. Jane went over to what looked like the closet and opened it, only to find that it was the door to another room. Dust motes filtered the late afternoon light from the window of the otherwise empty room.
“No one weel be staying in there,” Gerard said briskly as he and Will sorted the luggage. “Weelliam and Eleezabeth weel be this way.”
Before we were out the door, however, Jane tried a second door, and it led to a dark, narrow back staircase that immediately twisted out of sight! Now if that had been my room, I’d certainly be creeped out. Finally, the third door she tried was the bathroom. She fiddled for a light switch and Gerard showed her the pull chain.
“All zee lights are like that. She eez an old ’ouse. Do you know how to operate instant hot water?”
“Sure do!” replied Charlie.
Gerard, Will, and I returned via the door we came in, made a quick right, and were in a similar-sized room with a similar view, similar bed, and a single sloped ceiling and three other doors coming off the long walls. The wool carpet looked like it had been expensive when it was new.
Jane called out to Gerard about something in their bathroom, so he left Will and me alone. Still unsettled, I reached out and pulled the chain on the light in the middle of the room to brighten it a little, but the yellow glow merely made it look older. The sparse furnishings could be called antique, I supposed. Will flopped onto the bed and bounced. The wire springs squeaked a little.
“Comfortable enough,” he said.
In the meantime, I was checking out the doors on each side of the room. There was the one we came in from, one that led to another hallway, one to the bathroom, which led to another room, and the fourth door to that other room that housed only an iron bedframe. It was, in short, a maze of dusty rooms.
“We share our bathroom with no one, I guess,” I said. To my ears, my voice was tense.
Just as I closed the bathroom door behind me again, Gerard returned. “Do you need anything more?”
“Can you recommend a good place for dinner?” asked Will.
“Oui, there is a restaurant in Chasse-Gué and another in Rosaces.”
“Just one restaurant in each town?” Will was incredulous. I think he expected more dining choices in the French countryside.
“Oui. But you don’t want to go to the one in Rosaces.”
“No, bad vibe.” He pointed two fingers at his eyes. “They all look at you, like in Texas.”
It was late when we got back from a lovely, inexpensive meal that included a bottle of the best wine I’d ever had. We’d never had a bad meal in France, not even the cheap ones.
The ride down the newly mown lane was a bit more familiar, but somehow it hadn’t gained any appeal by night. The moonlight left eerie shadows on the path where the trees didn’t obliterate it in favor of total darkness. Even harsher shadows came from the archway into the estate. If they wanted to keep trouble out, they surely could do so just with the unnerving appearance of the place.
Each couple went our separate ways. Because it was so late and he’d had a long day driving, Will indicated he was going to sleep right away. After I washed up, I was going to continue my usual routine of reading a bit before bedtime. He was asleep by the time I came back into the room. The only light was a small lamp beside the bed on my side. It was a little strange, so I hurried into bed.
I propped myself up beside him, pillows behind me on the headboard, and opened my e-reader. It was the middle of a rather steamy Regency romance and I was eager to see how the protagonists had managed to get themselves into trouble this chapter. I had read only about three pages when I had this uncanny sense of someone else in the room watching me. Scurrying out of bed, I rushed across the room to turn on the main room light with its pull chain. Of course, no one was there. Come on, Lizzy, you’re the one whose courage rises with every attempt to intimidate you.
My nerves were frazzled, though, so I dug into our bag for a part bottle of Beaujolais from a picnic the day before. I poured myself some into a Lexan camping glass and brought it with me to bed, setting it on the little “antique” end table. After I’d turned off the overhead light, I made myself comfortable in bed again and sipped my wine to calm my anxiety while I read some more.
It didn’t work. Even when I was most involved in my reading, I was distracted with a sensation of something sinister just beyond the lighted portion of our bedroom. I didn’t want to wake Will because, for one thing, he’d think I was silly, and I’d never live it down, and for another, he was sleeping so soundly, I couldn’t bear to disrupt him. So I had to brave the unsettling beliefs all by myself. But the perception was so vivid, I couldn’t go to sleep for fear of…I don’t know what.
When I was a little girl, I used to think that I could see monsters or ghosts if I wore my glasses. As an adult, I’d had fleeting impressions of what I’d call ghosts once or twice over the years, but they only ever lasted for seconds and then went away. But nothing in my imagination had been so determined to unnerve me as whatever spiritual existence lurked in the shadows in Hotel Boilly.
Finally, my glass of wine was empty, I was a little tipsy from that and the wine from dinner, and I’d read until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I set down the e-reader, turned off the end table light, and settled in on my back to go to sleep, tugging the down duvet under my chin. I was literally exhausted, but in the moments before I went to sleep, an intense sensation of a tremendous energy force hovering just above my face scared the wits out of me. I couldn’t move a muscle.
I was quiet at breakfast, which was simple continental fare, but fresh and wholesome. Will leaned over and asked me if everything was okay.
“Yeah, but do you think we could go ahead to Nolay today instead of tomorrow?”
“You’re not comfortable here?”
“It’s not what I envisioned. We can afford better.”
Gerard, who had miraculously cleaned up overnight and was wearing a chunky turtleneck and jeans, was fine with it when Will asked him if we could settle up and leave early.
“But you must first taste my special sherry,” he said, “I make it myself. Secret recipe.”
We agreed to do so and he helped us load the car before we went to one of the outbuildings—the one he’d come from yesterday. Inside was a motorcycle under repair, probably the reason for his unkempt appearance when he met us the day before. He went over to an old brown cabinet and pulled out a bottle and four metal shot glasses.
“Oh, not for me,” said Jane, “I don’t drink hard liquor.”
“It’s just sherry. Barely stronger than wine,” Gerard replied with as pleasant a smile as a fellow with three upper teeth can offer.
It was pretty awful. Apparently the secret was walnut skins. As we drove away from the Hotel Boilly, my anxiety over my experience of the night before diminished. Was it the wine that caused the weird feelings? No, I’d just had enough to make me tipsy, and I’d had that much wine before without any dire effects. However, dire effects had just started to happen within our car.
“Pull over, now! I’m going to be sick!”
Will stopped the Audi in record time and Jane flew out of the back seat.
“Must have been the walnut sherry,” said Charlie as he held her hair.
“Or the hex for leaving too early,” I said to myself.
Isn’t it neat that several of the authors have written their vignettes based on things they had experienced in real life! I love that. What did you think of Suzan’s story? Did it give you a spooky feeling? I don’t think I would have enjoyed that hotel either. Have you ever felt that someone was watching you even though there was no one around? If so, share your experience with us. Thanks, Suzan, for telling your story for our mystery month of haunting tales. This one fit perfectly.
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