Once upon a time, I lived in a small Provençal village, whose fortifications dated back to the 12th C. It was there that my German neighbor, who had been an airline pilot until he crashed a plane off the West African coast, told me the following story.
“My ghost was spotted by the au pair, but not by me,” my neighbor said in what had once been a crisp Berlin accent, but was now slurred from the rosé wine he had been drinking since lunch time, followed by Armagnac in lieu of dinner.
“She saw him in the courtyard below, by the well, next to the bedroom where she was sleeping.”
I remained silent, letting him elaborate on my question about the strange noise I had heard the night before.
“She told me that he looked near starvation and held his hands out piteously towards her, but though she could see his form, she could not make out any distinctive features, yet was sure he was a man from the trousers and peasant’s shirt he was wearing.”
Although I felt goosebumps and then the hairs on the back of my neck and along my forearms stand up, I remained riveted to the rush-bottomed chair next to the roaring fireplace in his kitchen. Since I said not a word, he went on with his story.
“It was enough to scare her away, and she did not last the week, poor girl. Since then, I have had other guests who have also seen my poor, starving ghost. You do know that the village lay under siege in the 14th C. for many, many months, probably from the Saracens, but I no longer remember all the details,” he said as he drank his brandy.
“Tant pis! (Never mind!) The water supply had long been exhausted, along with the food. And without water, the poor villagers couldn’t survive. After that long terrible siege, the villagers decided to build cisterns under the village. This house is called the Deux Puits, because it is the only house in the village with two wells — that one over there by the door as you came in, and the one out in the courtyard. It was these two wells that let the villagers survive the sieges from that time on.”
He poured himself another brandy, stood up, and placed another log on the fire. I thought of the film “Manon of the Springs” and its story about the fight over water rights among the people of Provençe. From what my neighbor was saying, the struggle went back many centuries.
“The wall beyond my courtyard and your garden were part of the original village. You’ve seen the tunnel in your lower cellar, haven’t you?”
“Yes,” I replied, nodding my head slowly. “But the entrance has been bricked up.”
“Tant pis!” he said again. “Once you could take the tunnel and go straight to the château. Apparently, it was also used for keeping many a rendezvous gallant between the count and the lady of the house.”
“All the big houses in the village are connected to the château by tunnels. That way the gentry could escape if the outer walls were breached. The peasants were left behind to fend for themselves, and I think that’s where my ghost comes from…” and his voice trailed off as he took a deep draught of his brandy and stared into the fireplace, before rousing himself again.
“Sometimes I think I hear a low moaning near here,” as he pointed to the enormous walk-in fireplace.
“You do know that all these four houses were once connected, don’t you?” he asked in a more quiet tone.
“The two small houses next to your big place housed the laundry and the oven for baking bread, which is why the street is called Rue du Four. But my house was where the servants lived, and your great big house belonged to the nobility. Our two houses were once connected by a door that used to be right here,” he said as he pointed to an area next to the fireplace.
“See — you can still make out its outline, even though it has been sealed up. It let the servants go back and forth easily when they served the food cooked here.”
I stammered in bewilderment, “Bu… but… that is where my utility closet is. You know, on the other side. That… that is…” But I could not continue.
He looked at me closely in the flickering light of the fireplace, and reached again for the bottle of Armagnac.
“Are you quite sure you are all right?” he asked, in a tone gentler than normal. “You look as though you have seen a ghost.”
As I shook my head, no, No, NO! — I could not tell him that in my wanderings of the night before, I had traced the eerie haunting sound in my house to the innocuous utility closet with the grand doorway.