Not long before the opening of the French capital’s Great Exposition of 1889, a distraught young Englishwoman rushed into the British embassy in Paris and told a story that has reverberated through fantasy and fiction ever since. She and her mother were on their way home from India and, owing to the shortage of accommodations in the crowded city, had taken two single rooms in a hotel. The mother chose room 342, decorated with rose-strewn wallpaper and plum-colored velvet curtains. Then the older woman collapsed on the bed.
After examining the prostrate guest and talking excitedly in French with the hotel manager, the house doctor told the young woman that her mother was seriously ill and must have some medicine. But the proper medication could be found only in his office on the other side of town. The daughter would have to take his carriage and carry a note to his wife, who would hand her the drugs.
What should have been a simple errand consumed four hours. The driver kept the horses to an amble and seemed to steer in circles, and the doctor’s wife took a long time to produce the medicine.
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Finally, the frustrated daughter arrived back at the hotel, only to discover that all queries about her mother were met with blank stares. “I know nothing of your mother,” said the manager. “You arrived here alone.” The doctor was similarly confused by the woman’s questions. Frantic now, the young traveler examined the hotel register. Instead of her mother’s familiar signature she saw a stranger’s beside room 342. Insisting on looking at the room itself, she found no velvet curtains, no flowered wallpaper, no familiar baggage – only the luggage of strangers. At this point she fled to the embassy, where she was received with sympathy – and general disbelief. Trapped in a nightmare, the young woman ended her days in a British mental hospital.
This chilling tale has inspired at least two novels and a film – Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes. But no one has been able to verify that it ever happened, and no supporting documents have been unearthed at the British Foreign Office of elsewhere. Even the Detroit Free Press journalist who first reported this vanishing story could not remember whether he had covered or created it.
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