THE TALL WOMAN
by Pedro Antonio De Alarcon
From "Modern Ghosts" translated by Rollo Ogden.
"How little we really know, my friends; how little we really know."
The speaker was Gabriel, a distinguished civil engineer of the mountain
corps. He was seated under a pine tree, near a spring, on the crest of the
Guadarrama. It was only about a league and a half distant from the palace
of the Escurial, on the boundary line of the provinces of Madrid and
Segovia. I know the place, spring, pine tree and all, but I have forgotten
"Let us sit down," went on Gabriel, "as that is the correct thing to do,
and as our programme calls for a rest here—here in this pleasant and
classic spot, famous for the digestive properties of that spring, and for
the many lambs here devoured by our noted teachers, Don Miguel Bosch, Don
Maximo Laguna, Don Augustin Pascual, and other illustrious naturalists.
Sit down, and I will tell you a strange and wonderful story in proof of my
thesis, which is, though you call me an obscurantist for it, that
supernatural events still occur on this terraqueous globe. I mean events
which you cannot get into terms of reason, or science, or philosophy—as
those 'words, words, words,' in Hamlet's phrase, are understood (or are
not understood) to-day."
Gabriel was addressing his animated remarks to five persons of different
ages. None of them was young, though only one was well along in years.
Three of them were, like Gabriel, engineers, the fourth was a painter, and
the fifth was a litterateur in a small way. In company with the speaker,
who was the youngest, we had all ridden up on hired mules from the Real
Sitio de San Lorenzo to spend the day botanizing among the beautiful pine
groves of Pequerinos, chasing butterflies with gauze nets, catching rare
beetles under the bark of the decayed pines, and eating a cold lunch out
of a hamper which we had paid for on shares.
This took place in 1875. It was the height of the summer. I do not
remember whether it was Saint James's day or Saint Louis's; I am inclined
to think it was Saint Louis's. Whichever it was, we enjoyed a delicious
coolness at that height, and the heart and brain, as well as the stomach,
were there in much better working order than usual.
When the six friends were seated, Gabriel continued as follows:
"I do not think you will accuse me of being a visionary. Luckily or
unluckily, I am, if you will allow me to say so, a man of the modern
world. I have no superstition about me, and am as much of a Positivist as
the best of them, although I include among the positive data of nature all
the mysterious faculties and feelings of the soul. Well, then, apropos of
supernatural, or extra-natural, phenomena, listen to what I have seen and
heard, although I was not the real hero of the very strange story I am
going to relate, and then tell me what explanation of an earthly,
physical, or natural sort, however you may name it, can be given of so
wonderful an occurrence.
"The case was as follows. But wait! Pour me out a drop, for the
skin-bottle must have got cooled off by this time in that bubbling,
crystalline spring, located by Providence on this piny crest for the
express purpose of cooling a botanist's wine."
Well, gentlemen, I do not know whether you ever heard of an engineer of
the roads corps named Telesforo X—-; he died in 1860."
"No; I haven't."
"But I have."
"So have I. He was a young fellow from Andalusia, with a black moustache;
he was to have married the Marquis of Moreda's daughter, but he died of
"The very one," said Gabriel. "Well, then, my friend Telesforo, six months
before his death, was still a most promising young man, as they say
nowadays. He was good-looking, well-built, energetic, and had the glory of
being the first one in his class to be promoted. He had already gained
distinction in the practice of his profession through some fine pieces of
work. Several different companies were competing for his services, and
many marriageable women were also competing for him. But Telesforo, as you
said, was faithful to poor Joaquina Moreda.
"As you know, it turned out that she died suddenly at the baths of Santa
Agueda, at the end of the summer of 1859. I was in Pau when I received the
sad news of her death, which affected me very much on account of my close
friendship with Telesforo. With her I had spoken only once, in the house
of her aunt, the wife of General Lopez, and I certainly thought her bluish
pallor a symptom of bad health. But, however that may be, she had a
distinguished manner and a great deal of grace, and was, besides, the only
daughter of a title, and a title that carried some comfortable thousands
with it; so I felt sure my good mathematician would be inconsolable.
Consequently, as soon as I was back in Madrid, fifteen or twenty days
after his loss, I went to see them very early one morning. He lived in
elegant batchelor quarters in Lobo Street—I do not remember the number,
but it was near the Carrera de San Jeronimo.
"The young engineer was very melancholy, although calm and apparently
master of his grief. He was already at work, even at that hour, laboring
with his assistants over some railroad plans or other. He was dressed in
"He greeted me with a long and close embrace, without so much as sighing.
Then he gave some directions to his assistants about the work in hand, and
afterwards led me to his private office at the farther end of the house.
As we were on our way there he said, in a sorrowful tone and without
glancing at me:
"'I am very glad you have come. Several times I have found myself wishing
you were here. A very strange thing has happened to me. Only a friend such
as you are can hear of it without thinking me either a fool or crazy. I
want to get an opinion about it as calm and cool as science itself.
"'Sit down,' he went on when we had reached his office, 'and do not
imagine that I am going to afflict you with a description of the sorrow I
am suffering—a sorrow which will last as long as I live. Why should I?
You can easily picture it to yourself, little as you know of trouble. And
as for being comforted, I do not wish to be, either now, or later, or
ever! What I am going to speak to you about, with the requisite
deliberation, going back to the very beginning of the thing, is a horrible
and mysterious occurrence, which was an infernal omen of my calamity, and
which has distressed me in a frightful manner.'
"'Go on,' I replied, sitting down. The fact was, I almost repented having
entered the house as I saw the expression of abject fear on my friend's
"'Listen, then,' said he, wiping the perspiration from his forehead."
"'I DO not know whether it is due to some inborn fatality of imagination,
or to having heard some story or other of the kind with which children are
so rashly allowed to be frightened, but the fact is, that since my
earliest years nothing has caused me so much horror and alarm as a woman
alone, in the street, at a late hour of the night. The effect is the same
whether I actually encounter her, or simply have an image of her in my
"'You can testify that I was never a coward. I fought a duel once, when I
had to, like any other man. Just after I had left the School of Engineers,
my workmen in Despenaperros revolted, and I fought them with stick and
pistol until I made them submit. All my life long, in Jaen, in Madrid, and
elsewhere, I have walked the streets at all hours, alone and unarmed, and
if I have chanced to run upon suspicious-looking persons, thieves, or mere
sneaking beggars, they have had to get out of my way or take to their
heels. But if the person turned out to be a solitary woman, standing
still or walking, and I was also alone, with no one in sight in any
direction—then (laugh if you want to, but believe me) I would be all
covered over with goose-flesh; vague fears would assail me; I would think
about beings of the other world, about imaginary existences, and about all
the superstitious stories which would make me laugh under other
circumstances. I would quicken my pace, or else turn back, and would not
get over my fright in the least until safe in my own house.
"'Once there I would fall a-laughing, and would be ashamed of my crazy
fears. The only comfort I had was that nobody knew anything about it. Then
I would dispassionately remind myself that I did not believe in goblins,
witches, or ghosts, and that I had no reason whatever to be afraid of that
wretched woman driven from her home at such an hour by poverty, or some
crime, or accident, to whom I might better have offered help, if she
needed it, or given alms. Nevertheless, the pitiable scene would be gone
over again as often as a similar thing occurred—and remember that I was
twenty-four years old, that I had experienced a great many adventures by
night, and yet that I had never had the slightest difficulty of any sort
with such solitary women in the streets after midnight! But nothing of
what I have so far told you ever came to have any importance, since that
irrational fear always left me as soon as I reached home, or saw any one
else in the street, and I would scarcely recall it a few minutes
afterwards, any more than one would recall a stupid mistake which had no
result of any consequence.
"'Things were going on so, when, nearly three years ago (unhappily, I have
good reason for knowing the date, it was the night of November 15-16,
1857), I was coming home at three in the morning. As you remember, I was
living then in that little house in Jardines Street, near Montera Street.
I had just come, at that late hour, a bitter, cold wind blowing at the
time, out of a sort of a gambling-house—I tell you this, although I know
it will surprise you. You know that I am not a gambler. I went into the
place, deceived by an alleged friend. But the fact was, that as people
began to drop in about midnight, coming from receptions or the theatre,
the play began to be very heavy, and one saw the gleam of gold in plenty.
Then came bank-bills and notes of hand. Little by little I was carried
away by the feverish and seductive passion, and lost all the money I had.
I even went away missing a second sum, for which I had left my note behind
me. In short, I ruined myself completely; and but for the legacy that came
to me afterwards, together with the good jobs I have had, my situation
would have been extremely critical and painful.
"So I was going home, I say, at so late an hour that night, numb with the
cold, hungry, ashamed, and disgusted as you can imagine, thinking about my
sick old father more than about myself. I should have to write to him
for money, and this would astonish as much as it would grieve him, since
he thought me in very easy circumstances. Just before reaching my street,
where it crosses Peligros Street, as I was walking in front of a
newly-built house, I perceived something in its doorway. It was a tall,
large woman, standing stiff and motionless, as if made of wood. She seemed
to be about sixty years old. Her wild and malignant eyes, unshaded by
eyelashes, were fixed on mine like two daggers. Her toothless mouth made a
horrible grimace at me, meant to be a smile.
"The very terror or delirium of fear which instantly overcame me gave me
somehow a most acute perception, so that I could distinguish at a glance,
in the two seconds it took me to pass by that repugnant vision, the
slightest details of her face and dress. Let me see if I can put together
my impressions in the way and form in which I received them, as they were
engraved ineffaceably on my brain in the light of the street-lamp which
shone luridly over that ghastly scene. But I am exciting myself too much,
though there is reason enough for it, as you will see further on. Don't be
concerned, however, for the state of my mind. I am not yet crazy!
"'The first thing which struck me in that WOMAN, as I will call her, was
her extreme height and the breadth of her bony shoulders. Then, the
roundness and fixity of her dry, owl-eyes, the enormous size of her
protruding nose, and the great dark cavern of her mouth. Finally, her
dress, like that of a young woman of Avapies—the new little cotton
handkerchief which she wore on her head, tied under her chin, and a
diminutive fan which she carried open in her hand, and with which, in
affected modesty, she was covering the middle of her waist.
"'Nothing could be at the same time more ridiculous and more awful, more
laughable and more taunting, than that little fan in those huge hands. It
seemed like a make-believe sceptre in the hands of such an old, hideous,
and bony giantess! A like effect was produced by the showy percale
handkerchief adorning her face by the side of that cut-water nose, hooked
and masculine; for a moment I was led to believe (or I was very glad to)
that it was a man in disguise.
"'But her cynical glance and harsh smile were of a hag, of a witch, an
enchantress, a Fate, a—I know not what! There was something about her to
justify fully the aversion and fright which I had been caused all my life
long by women walking alone in the streets at night. One would have said
that I had had a presentiment of that encounter from my cradle. One would
have said that I was frightened by it instinctively, as every living being
fears and divines, and scents and recognizes, its natural enemy before
ever being injured by it, before ever having seen it, and solely on
hearing its tread.
"'I did not dash away in a run when I saw my life's sphinx. I restrained
my impulse to do so, less out of shame and manly pride than out of fear
lest my very fright should reveal to her who I was, or should give her
wings to follow me, to overtake me—I do not know what. Panic like that
dreams of dangers which have neither form nor name.
"'My house was at the opposite end of the long and narrow street, in which
I was alone, entirely alone with that mysterious phantom whom I thought
able to annihilate me with a word. How should I ever get home? Oh, how
anxiously I looked towards that distant Montera street, broad and well
lighted, where there are policemen to be found at all hours! I decided,
finally, to get the better of my weakness; to dissemble and hide that
wretched fear; not to hasten my pace, but to keep on advancing slowly,
even at the cost of years of health or life, and in this way, little by
little, to go on getting nearer to my house, exerting myself to the utmost
not to fall fainting on the ground before I reached it.
"'I was walking along in this way—I must have taken about twenty steps
after leaving behind me the doorway where the woman with the fan was
hidden, when suddenly a horrible idea came to me—horrible, yet very
natural nevertheless—the idea that I would look back to see if my enemy
was following me. One thing or the other I thought, with the rapidity of a
flash of lightning: either my alarm has some foundation or it is madness;
if it has any foundation, this woman will have started after me, will be
overtaking me, and there is no hope for me on earth. But if it is madness,
a mere supposition, a panic fright like any other, I will convince myself
of it in the present instance, and for every case that may occur
hereafter, by seeing that that poor old woman has stayed in that doorway
to protect herself from the cold, or to wait till the door is opened; and
thereupon I can go on to my house in perfect tranquillity, and I shall
have cured myself of a fancy that causes me great mortification.
"'This reasoning gone through with, I made an extraordinary effort and
turned my head. Ah, Gabriel!—Gabriel! how fearful it was! The tall woman
had followed me with silent tread, was right over me, almost touching me
with her fan, almost leaning her head on my shoulder.
"'Why was she doing it?—why, my Gabriel? Was she a thief? Was she really
a man in disguise? Was she some malicious old hag who had seen that I was
afraid of her? Was she a spectre conjured up by my very cowardice? Was she
a mocking phantasm of human self-deception?
"'I could never tell you all I thought in a single moment. If the truth
must be told, I gave a scream and flew away like a child of four years who
thinks he sees the Black Man. I did not stop running until I got out into
Montera Street. Once there, my fear left me like magic. This in spite of
the fact that that street also was deserted. Then I turned my head to look
back to Jardines Street. I could see down its whole length. It was lighted
well enough for me to see the tall woman, if she had drawn back in any
direction, and, by Heaven! I could not see her, standing still, walking,
or in any way! However, I was very careful not to go back into that street
again. The wretch, I said to myself, has slunk into some other doorway.
But she can't move without my seeing her.
"'Just then I saw a policeman coming up Caballero de Gracia Street, and I
shouted to him without stirring from my place. I told him that there was a
man dressed as a woman in Jardines Street. I directed him to go round by
the way of Peligros and Aduana Streets, while I would remain where I was,
and in that way the fellow, who was probably a thief or murderer, could
not escape us. The policeman did as I said. He went through Aduana Street,
and as soon as I saw his lantern coming along Jardines Street I also went
up it resolutely.
"'We soon met at about the middle of the block, without either of us
having encountered a soul, although we had examined door after door.
"'"He has got into some house," said the policeman.
"'"That must be so," I replied, opening my door with the fixed purpose of
moving to some other street the next day.
"'A few moments later I was in my room; I always carried my latchkey, so
as not to have to disturb my good Jose. Nevertheless, he was waiting for
me that night. My misfortunes of the 15th and 16th of November were not
"'"What has happened?" I asked him, in surprise.
"'"Major Falcon was here," he replied, with evident agitation, "waiting
for you from eleven till half-past two, and he told me that, if you came
home to sleep, you had better not undress, as he would be back at
"'Those words left me trembling with grief and alarm, as if they had
predicted my own death to me. I knew that my beloved father, at his home
in Jean, had been suffering frequent and dangerous attacks of his chronic
disease. I had written to my brothers that, if there should be a sudden
and fatal termination of the sickness, they were to telegraph Major
Falcon, who would inform me in some suitable way. I had not the slightest
doubt, therefore, that my father had died.
"'I sat down in an arm-chair to wait for the morning and my friend, and,
with them, the news of my great misfortune. God only knows what I suffered
in those two cruel hours of waiting. All the while, three distinct ideas
were inseparably joined in my mind; though they seemed unlike, they took
pains, as it were, to keep in a dreadful group. They were: my losses at
play, my meeting with the tall woman, and the death of my revered father.
"'Precisely at six Major Falcon came into my room, and looked at me in
silence. I threw myself into his arms, weeping bitterly, and he exclaimed,
"'"Yes, my dear fellow, weep, weep."'"
"My friend Telesforo," Gabriel went on, after having drained another glass
of wine, "also rested a moment when he reached this point, and then he
proceeded as follows:
"'If my story ended here, perhaps you would not find anything
extraordinary or supernatural in it. You would say to me the same thing
that men of good judgment said to me at that time: that every one who has
a lively imagination is subject to some impulse of fear or other; that
mine came from belated, solitary women, and that the old creature of
Jardines Street was only some homeless waif who was going to beg of me
when I screamed and ran.
"'For my part, I tried to believe that it was so. I even came to believe
it at the end of several months. Still, I would have given years of my
life to be sure that I was not again to encounter the tall woman. But,
to-day, I would give every drop of my blood to be able to meet her again.'
"'To kill her on the spot.'
"'I do not understand you.'
"'You will understand me when I tell you that I did meet her again, three
weeks ago, a few hours before I had the fatal news of my poor Joaquina's
"'Tell me about it, tell me about it!'
"'There is little more to tell. It was five o'clock in the morning. It was
not yet fully light, though the dawn was visible from the streets looking
towards the east. The street-lamps had just been put out, and the
policemen had withdrawn. As I was going through Prado Street, so as to get
to the other end of Lobo Street, the dreadful woman crossed in front of
me. She did not look at me, and I thought she had not seen me.
"'She wore the same dress and carried the same fan as three years before.
My trepidation and alarm were greater than ever. I ran rapidly across
Prado Street as soon as she had passed, although I did not take my eyes
off her, so as to make sure that she did not look back, and, when I had
reached the other end of Lobo Street, I panted as if I had just swum an
impetuous stream. Then I pressed on with fresh speed towards home, filled
now with gladness rather than fear, for I thought that the hateful witch
had been conquered and shorn of her power, from the very fact that I had
been so near her and yet that she had not seen me.
"'But soon, and when I had almost reached this house, a rush of fear swept
over me, in the thought that the crafty old hag had seen and recognized
me, that she had made a pretence of not knowing me so as to let me get
into Lobo Street, where it was still rather dark, and where she might set
upon me in safety, that she would follow me, that she was already over me.
"'Upon this, I looked around—and there she was! There at my shoulder,
almost touching me with her clothes, gazing at me with her horrible little
eyes, displaying the gloomy cavern of her mouth, fanning herself in a
mocking manner, as if to make fun of my childish alarm.
"'I passed from dread to the most furious anger, to savage and desperate
rage. I dashed at the heavy old creature. I flung her against the wall. I
put my hand to her throat. I felt of her face, her breast, the straggling
locks of her gray hair until I was thoroughly convinced that she was a
human being—a woman.
"'Meanwhile she had uttered a howl which was hoarse and piercing at the
same time. It seemed false and feigned to me, like the hypocritical
expression of a fear which she did not really feel. Immediately afterwards
she exclaimed, making believe cry, though she was not crying, but looking
at me with her hyena eyes:
"'"Why have you picked a quarrel with me?"
"'This remark increased my fright and weakened my wrath.
"'"Then you remember," I cried, "that you have seen me somewhere else."
"'"I should say so, my dear," she replied, mockingly. "Saint Eugene's
night, in Jardines Street, three years ago."
"'My very marrow was chilled.
"'"But who are you?" I asked, without letting go of her. "Why do you
follow me? What business have you with me?"
"'"I am a poor weak woman," she answered, with a devilish leer. "You hate
me, and you are afraid of me without any reason. If not, tell me, good
sir, why you were so frightened the first time you saw me."
"'"Because I have loathed you ever since I was born. Because you are the
evil spirit of my life."
"'"It seems, then, that you have known me for a long time. Well, look, my
son, so have I known you."
"'"You have known me? How long?"
"'"Since before you were born! And when I saw you pass by me, three years
ago, I said to myself, THAT'S THE ONE."
"'"But what am I to you? What are you to me?"
"'"The devil!" replied the hag, spitting full in my face, freeing herself
from my grasp, and running away with amazing swiftness. She held her
skirts higher than her knees, and her feet did not make the slightest
noise as they touched the ground.
"'It was madness to try to catch her. Besides, people were already passing
through the Carrera de San Jeronimo, and in Prado Street, too. It was
broad daylight. The tall woman kept on running, or flying, as far as
Huertas Street, which was now lighted up by the sun. There she stopped to
look back at me. She waved her closed fan at me once or twice,
threateningly, and then disappeared around a corner.
"'Wait a little longer, Gabriel. Do not yet pronounce judgment in this
case, where my life and soul are concerned. Listen to me two minutes
"'When I entered my house I met Colonel Falcon, who had just come to tell
me that my Joaquina, my betrothed, all my hope and happiness and joy on
earth, had died the day before in Santa Agueda. The unfortunate father had
telegraphed Falcon to tell me—me, who should have divined it an hour
before, when I met the evil spirit of my life! Don't you understand, now,
that I must kill that born enemy of my happiness, that vile old hag, who
is the living mockery of my destiny?
"'But why do I say kill? Is she a woman? Is she a human being? Why have I
had a presentiment of her ever since I was born? Why did she recognize me
when she first saw me? Why do I never see her except when some great
calamity has befallen me? Is she Satan? Is she Death? Is she Life? Is she
Antichrist? Who is she? What is she?'"
"I will spare you, my dear friends," continued Gabriel, "the arguments and
remarks which I used to see if I could not calm Telesforo, for they are
the same, precisely the same, which you are preparing now to advance to
prove that there is nothing supernatural or superhuman in my story. You
will even go further; you will say that my friend was half crazy; that he
always was so; that, at least, he suffered from that moral disease which
some call 'panic terror,' and others 'emotional insanity'; that, even
granting the truth of what I have related about the tall woman, it must
all be referred to chance coincidences of dates and events; and, finally,
that the poor old creature could also have been crazy, or a thief, or a
beggar, or a procuress—as the hero of my story said to himself in a lucid
"A very proper supposition," exclaimed Gabriel's comrades; "that is just
what we were going to say."
"Well, listen a few minutes longer, and you will see that I was mistaken
at the time, as you are mistaken now. The one who unfortunately made no
mistake was Telesforo. It is much easier to speak the word 'insanity' than
to find an explanation for some things that happen on the earth."
"I am going to; and this time, as it is the last, I will pick up the
thread of my story without first drinking a glass of wine."
"A few days after that conversation with Telesforo I was sent to the
province of Albacete in my capacity as engineer of the mountain corps.
Not many weeks had passed before I learned, from a contractor for public
works, that my unhappy friend had been attacked by a dreadful form of
jaundice; it had turned him entirely green, and he reclined in an
arm-chair without working or wishing to see anybody, weeping night and day
in the most inconsolable and bitter grief. The doctors had given up hope
of his getting well.
"This made me understand why he had not answered my letters. I had to
resort to Colonel Falcon as a source of news of him, and all the while
the reports kept getting more unfavorable and gloomy.
"After an absence of five months I returned to Madrid the same day
that the telegraph brought the news of the battle of Tetuan. I remember
it as if it were yesterday. That night I bought the indispensable
Correspondencia de Espana, and the first thing I read in it was the notice
of Telesforo's death. His friends were invited to the funeral the
"You will be sure that I was present. As we arrived at the San Luis
cemetery, whither I rode in one of the carriages nearest the hearse, my
attention was called to a peasant woman. She was old and very tall. She
was laughing sacrilegiously as she saw them taking out the coffin. Then
she placed herself in front of the pall-bearers in a triumphant attitude
and pointed out to them with a very small fan the passage-way they were to
take to reach the open and waiting grave.
"At the first glance I perceived, with amazement and alarm, that she
was Telesforo's implacable enemy. She was just as he had described her to
me—with her enormous nose, her devilish eyes, her awful mouth, her
percale handkerchief, and that diminutive fan which seemed in her hands
the sceptre of indecency and mockery.
"She immediately observed that I was looking at her, and fixed her gaze
upon me in a peculiar manner, as if recognizing me, as if letting me know
that she recognized me, as if acquainted with the fact that the dead man
had told me about the scenes in Jardines Street and Lobo Street, as if
defying me, as if declaring me the inheritor of the hate which she had
cherished for my unfortunate friend.
"I confess that at the time my fright was greater than my wonder at those
new COINCIDENCES and ACCIDENTS. It seemed evident to me that some
supernatural relation, antecedent to earthly life, had existed between the
mysterious old woman and Telesforo. But for the time being my sole concern
was about my own life, my own soul, my own happiness—all of which would
be exposed to the greatest peril if I should really inherit such a curse.
"The tall woman began to laugh. She pointed at me contemptuously with the
fan, as if she had read my thoughts and were publicly exposing my
cowardice. I had to lean on a friend's arm to keep myself from falling.
Then she made a pitying or disdainful gesture, turned on her heels, and
went into the cemetery. Her head was turned towards me. She fanned herself
and nodded to me at the same time. She sidled along among the graves with
an indescribable, infernal coquetry, until at last she disappeared for
ever in that labyrinth of tombs.
"I say for ever, since fifteen years have passed and I have never seen her
again. If she was a human being she must have died before this; if she was
not, I rest in the conviction that she despised me too much to meddle with
"Now, then, bring on your theories! Give me your opinion about these
strange events. Do you still regard them as entirely natural?"