Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 717
The Kellers, smug, prosperous philistines, return home after an evening at the opera and a nightclub. The maid tells them that their son-in-law, Chorb, supposedly on his honeymoon in the south of France, has paid a call, saying that his wife is ill. He is staying in the same disreputable hotel where he and his bride spent their wedding night, after fleeing the elaborate reception arranged by her dismayed parents. Although Chorb has promised to call in the morning, the alarmed couple immediately sets out for the hotel.
The wife is in fact not ill, but dead. Nearly a month earlier, the laughing girl had accidentally touched a fallen roadside power line. Chorb’s world has ceased to exist:Her death appeared to him as a most rare, almost unheard-of occurrence; nothing . . . could be purer than such a death, caused by the impact of an electric stream, the same stream which, when poured into glass receptacles, yields the purest and brightest light.
The young husband wishes to possess his grief alone, “without tainting it by any foreign substance and without sharing it with any other soul.” For this reason, Chorb has not informed the parents but rather has undertaken a ritualistic return journey.
The bereaved bridegroom decides to re-create, to immortalize, the image of his dead wife by retracing step-by-step their long, autumn-to-spring honeymoon journey. The re-created image will, he hopes, replace his bride. Starting from the place of her death, Chorb attempts to relive each of their memories, the small shared perceptions with which they delighted each other: the oddly marked pebble found on a Riviera beach, the winter in Switzerland, the autumn walks in the Black Forest where they saw an iridescent, dewdrop-covered spiderweb radially spanning two telegraph wires, perhaps, Chorb now thinks, prefiguring his bride’s fate. Completing his reverse journey, Chorb has arrived back at their starting point.
The young writer checks into the same disreputable hotel and by chance gets the same shabby room that he recognizes by the picture over the bed. He also recognizes the green couch on which he spent their chaste first night while she slept in the bed. He recalls his bride’s amusement at the seedy establishment and their glee at having escaped her stuffy parents and their reception. The room seems haunted: A mouse rustles behind the wallpaper, and the light bulb hanging from the ceiling sways gently. Though exhausted by his sleepless, three-week journey, Chorb is too distraught to rest and sets out for a nocturnal walk. As he wanders, he recalls a wedding-eve stroll with his laughing, skipping bride. Finding himself at the house of his in-laws, he learns from the maid that they are at the opera and leaves word that their daughter is ill.
Chorb realizes that he is now back at the source of his recollections. He needs only to spend one night in their former hotel room, and the ordeal will be over. Her image will be complete. He senses, however, that he cannot spend the night alone in the haunted room. He must have a companion. At length, he finds a prostitute, who accompanies him to the room where she has spent other nights. Chorb, to the surprise of the untouched girl, immediately falls asleep. The prostitute prowls about the room, fingers the dead wife’s clothes in a trunk, and finally goes to sleep. The air is rent by a visceral scream. Chorb has awakened to find his “wife” beside him in the bed. The terrified girl leaps up and turns on the lamp to find Chorb huddled in the bedclothes with his hands over his face, through which one eye can be seen burning “with a mad flame.” Chorb gradually recognizes the prostitute and gives a sigh of relief. His ordeal is now over. He moves to the green couch and gazes at the girl with “a meaningless smile.” Still terror-stricken, she scrambles to dress.
Voices and steps are heard in the corridor, and there is a knock on the door. The girl flings it open to meet the stupified gazes of Keller and his wife. Responding to a signal from the hotel employee, she bolts out as the in-laws enter. The door closes. The girl and the bellboy wait at the door, listening. Silence reigns.