A man was traveling on a train through France on a moonless, airless, and burning night. He was alone, facing an old gentleman who was looking out of the window. They had left Paris three hours before and were approaching the heart of France. Suddenly, they saw a strange apparition in a forest: a big fire and two men standing around it. The two travelers wondered what these people could be doing in the forest at midnight and in the height of summer.
The old gentleman began to talk about how the world was full of mystery in the old days and how the supernatural had disappeared from the earth.
How disturbing the world must have been in the old days when it was full of mystery!
He believed that people were truly afraid only of what they did not understand.
We are truly afraid only of what we do not understand.
The man then shared a story told by a Russian storyteller, Tourgeniev, about a terrifying encounter with a madwoman in a Russian forest. The storyteller had been swimming in a river when he felt a hand touch his shoulder and saw a frightful creature staring at him. He swam frantically to the shore, but the monster followed him. Eventually, a boy with a whip came to his rescue and chased the creature away.
The old gentleman then shared his own experience of fear while traveling in Brittany. He had been walking at night when he heard a rolling sound approaching him. He hid in a ditch and saw a wheelbarrow running all by itself. He was paralyzed with fear and could not move. Later, he realized that a barefooted child must have been pushing the wheelbarrow, but the fear of the unknown had terrified him.
The old gentleman also spoke about the cholera outbreak in Toulouse, which he believed was more than just a disease. He thought it was a malevolent spirit that had come back to the world, causing people to dance and celebrate in defiance of the unseen enemy.