In 2011 I was told a true story.
It was narrated by a middle-aged, physics teacher, who, while sharing her experience, kept checking that I wasn't ridiculing her, because that is exactly what she’d been used to when she told this story.
She and her party had left for France on the tenth of August in a rainstorm, and crossed a rough Channel by ferry under a heavy green-grey sky. It would be the first time her husband would drive on the right side of the road, and they and the couple they were travelling with were a little nervous with anticipation, mostly hoping not to crash their Jaguar. In fact, it was the first time they’d been to France, and they’d chosen their hotel from a book of French pensions, and were less than confident about their choice.
With that backdrop they drove off the ferry in Calais, slowly and attentively, and headed toward a town called Thiverval-Grignon, about thirty minutes from Versailles, using the A28 to take in Rouen on the way.
Ninety-three years earlier, to the very day, two other academics, Charlotte Anne Elizabeth Moberly and Eleanor Frances Jourdain, made their way around the Palace of Versailles following a guided tour, but found it ultimately bereft of interest and somewhat too staid in docent delivery.
Moberly was the first Principal of St Hugh’s College, having been born in the beautiful city of Winchester in 1846, the tenth child of fifteen by her very tired mother, and had mastered Hebrew, Latin, and Greek by the time she took up the post in Oxford.
Born seventeen years later, Jourdain was from the equally-picturesque Ashbourne, in Derbyshire, in the Peak District, and was the eldest of ten. After a year in Paris studying Durante di Alighiero degli Alighieri (or just Dante, to his friends), she returned to England to tutor French, and take up the post of Vice Principal of St Hughs. She also led the suffrage movement there, and published works like the Moral Instruction and Training in Schools, in 1908, On the Theory of the Infinite in Modern Thought in 1911, and An Introduction to the French Classical Drama a year later, and became one of the first women to hold university lectures in England, and the very first woman to conduct undergraduate examinations.
And so, equipped with a small map of the grounds at Versailles, they slipped away, determined to search out the Petit Trianon, a comparatively smaller chateau in the park around the palace, located along the main street, Allee des Deux Trianons.
Meanwhile, Jean, my storyteller, described the uneventful journey to their destination, including a quick stop to see the Gothic church of Saint-Maclou, and a stroll along the cobbled, half-timbered streets of Rouen, before continuing their drive toward Versailles.
About an hour outside of Thiverval-Grignon, the group began to get oddly and prematurely tired, and after a quick discussion decided to find a hotel and stop for the night.
So, they began to look for a place to stay, and almost immediately saw a sign for a guesthouse called La Petite Cour, which Jean recalled very clearly. They all quickly agreed to follow the old red sign which indicated a three kilometer distance to rest.
Moberly and Jourdain had no sign to follow, and took a wrong turn along an alley, which they followed just a little way, before coming upon a farmhouse with a plow in the front garden, a woman at a window shaking out a white sheet, and a couple of gardeners, of whom they asked directions to the chateau.
This was all a little strange to the visitors, as the farmhouse and locals seemed somewhat incongruous, but they pressed on in the direction they had been given.
Further on, they came upon a cottage, with a woman and a young girl standing at the door. At first, they thought the people were waxworks, as they had an odd artificiality to them, almost like a museum staging, until they began moving. Jourdain described it as ‘unnatural; even the trees seemed to become flat and lifeless, like wood worked in tapestry. There were no effects of light and shade, and no wind stirred the trees.’
This would have been odd in itself, had Moberly, who was with Jourdain the whole time, reported that she hadn’t seen anything at all where the cottage supposedly stood.
Jean and her friends didn’t take any wrong turns, but followed the signs right up to the front of the old hotel with its ancient sloping levels, parked, and entered through what she described as ‘a big wooden church door’, and rang the tin bell in the reception area. It took only a moment for the door behind the desk to open and a young woman walked through, accompanied by a strong smell of honey and cloves. Jean described her as being authentically attired in an eighteenth-century dress, with a tight, laced bodice and pleated open skirt, and hair that was curled and full.
She greeted them all pleasantly, in faltering English, and rang the bell again for someone to take their bags to their rooms. A child, maybe eleven or twelve, came at once through the front door and collected their luggage. He too was dressed for the part, and they all made their way up an old but solid stone staircase to their rooms on the first floor.
Inside, they found large, four poster beds, and a fire already lit in the hearths as if they were somehow expected. It was absolutely delightful, Jean had told me, and although the bathroom was quite primitive, it was warm and cozy and smelt of polished wood and tobacco, and would suit them very well.
At six o-clock, the bell rang three times, and they went down to dinner, having washed, rested, and changed for the occasion.
While Jean and her friends' evening was shaping up nicely, Moberly and Jourdain’s day was becoming even stranger.
As they walked they saw a man, sitting near a small outbuilding, his face hidden beneath a large-brimmed hat, which he slowly tipped upwards before turning to look at them, revealing a ‘face marked by smallpox’ and an expression that they both said was ‘evil and yet unseeing’, ‘odious, dark and rough’.
With his countenance not easy to forget, they walked on and finally came to the chateau itself, where a lady was sitting on the grass, sketching, and who Moberly described as wearing an eighteenth century-style summer dress, and a white hat. Jourdain didn’t add to this description because she didn’t see anyone on the front lawn at all.
They entered the chateau, and toured it together, room by room, without anything untoward happening.
For Jean and friends, dinner was delightful, served by the same young woman who checked them in, and they enjoyed at least three bottles of a most delicious wine, and retired well-fed to their rooms and instant sleep.
In the morning, they ate a full breakfast, and brought their bags to the desk to pay, where an older man, in blue tunic and cream tights, and a brown three-cornered hat, handed them the bill.
Jean’s husband grabbed it and told them it’d be his pleasure to cover that, and sent them all to the car while he settled up.
Which he did.
Moberly and Jourdain spoke nothing of those events at Petit Trianon for some time, until over afternoon tea one day they could contain it no more, and discussed the experience in detail, penning an account of the visit, An Adventure, under the pseudonyms Elizabeth Morison and Frances Lamontto, to avoid the backlash they expected, and certainly got, from their paranormal tale of time travel, which was a sensation at the time.
The Oxford academics spent the next ten years researching what had happened that day, the tenth of August, revisiting the path and trying to make sense of what and who they’d encountered on their walk to the chateau.
Jean’s husband sat down in the driver's seat of the Jaguar and laughed. When the others asked why, he said that the bill, which he was holding, for two room nights at the hotel, dinner and breakfast for all of them, and three bottles of wine, totaled to two livre and three deniers, an amount he had paid for with a one-hundred Euro note because he didn’t have a clue what a livre or a denier was.
Slightly bewildered, the foursome drove away from La Petite Cour, and determined to stay again on their way back, because the experience was so authentic, and the cost was even better.
And of course, just as Moberly and Jourdain never found that farmhouse or the outbuildings, or their inhabitants ever again, so the hotel was not where it had been when Jean and her party returned a week later, to find only the foundations of a building that had fallen down many years before.
I didn’t doubt Jean’s sincerity for a second, and I suspect I won’t doubt Moberly and Jourdain either, if I ever get a chance to hear them tell me of the day trip to Versaille in 1911.
Photo by Cottonbro