It was in the course of a journey to Switzerland, at Zürich, on the very evening of his arrival that Henri Létang, in three seconds, was hurled into one of the most terrible adventures that can befall a man.
Henri Létang arrived at Zürich by an evening train. He was driven to his hotel. Being well enough off to travel very comfortably, he had chosen one of those hotels recommended by the guide books as well- conducted establishments, frequented by the right sort of people. He dined downstairs; then, feeling a little tired after the railway journey, went up to his room and, though not sleepy went to bed. It was a comfortable bed.
Henri Létang was like a great many other people. Of course he had come to Zürich to see the town and before getting there had been quite curious to know it. But on the evening of ones arrival in a town, ones feeling towards it become blunted, or rather, having had time to satisfy themselves, they lapse into a state of repose, merely requiring of the town its continued presence. Henri Létang was lying in a bed in Zürich; the electric lamp which lit his room was the electric lamp of a Zürich room. He had put his cigarette case on his bed-side table. He took out a cigarette from it, put it in his mouth: he was going to smoke it in Zürich. That was sufficient for him.
Having lit his cigarette, he had just thrown away his match when he was seized with an anxiety, or rather a scruple. Might not this burning match, falling on the mat, cause a fire? Henri Létang bent down; he had been right to look: as a matter of fact the match was not yet out. He was going to get up, put on a slipper to crush it underfoot, when suddenly, brutally, he no longer needed to perform the act.
Clearly apparent, with all four fingers and thumb bunched up, a hand hidden under the bed emerged, rose, then descended, pressed on the march and extinguished its flame.
At first our brain appreciates only what our eyes have indicated to it. The first thought that seized Henri Létang related to the very action which he had just seen accomplished. When you place your hand on a burning object you risk getting burnt. How had the owner of the hand managed to avoid that? Henri Létang said to himself that of course this man had wet his fingers with his saliva.
It was probably, then, after the lapse of time he required to reason this out, that Henri Létang could say to himself:
There is a man under my bed!
Then slowly, word by word, this thought came to him:
He is waiting till I am asleep to kill and rob me. When he had understood, weighed, in some sort, touched each of the words of this thought, Henri Létang could not have any other. All his ideas were replaced by a frightful silence which, suddenly entering the room, filled it and became a much more terrible inmate of it even than he who was under the bed, waiting for his hour. It hit Henri Létang like a blow on the head. It was like awakening from a long sleep. He remembered a thing which he had long forgotten. He said to himself:
Ah yes, its time. Id forgotten that I must die some day.
And when he swallowed his saliva, he was surprised by the atrocious taste it had, a taste which seemed as if it must forever remain in his throat.
I am going to be murdered to-night!
It was as if he already had in his gullet the taste of his own corpse. He could not stand it.
Sometimes, gently, not to arouse attention, fearing he knew not what, if he made a noise, with every precaution he was capable of, he made his head pivot round on his neck and, avidly casting a glance round, looked at the articles of furniture in the room. There was a sideboard which he did not recognize,
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