The story opens by an opera house in Germany, where Keller and his wife, conveniently and appropriately named Frau Keller, are headed home from a performance (a Wagner opera, though we don’t know which one yet).
From the unflattering description we get, we can tell this is not the world’s most likeable couple. Also, Keller looks somewhat like a monkey (no joke, Nabokov suggests this).
When they arrive home, the maid greets them and reports that Chorb has paid a visit and reported that "she" is ill. (All will be explained in good time, so chill for a minute.)
Keller is not happy. Muttering about "no letters for a month," he declares that he refuses to wait until the next morning and will go now to find Chorb and this woman.
The woman turns out to be the Kellers’ daughter; Chorb is her new husband. The Kellers are none-too-pleased with their son-in-law, nor with the fact that he’s taken their daughter for the second time to a "vile hotel."
Now the narrative moves away from the Kellers and we get a little more information about just what’s going on here. The good news is, Chorb’s wife isn’t ill. The bad news is…she’s dead. Chorb hasn’t told her parents yet because he feels her death is "pure" and doesn’t want to corrupt it by sharing the news with anyone else.
So here’s the skinny: Chorb married his wife in Germany several months earlier. Then they left for their honeymoon, which was going well until the south of France when she touched a live electric wire from a fallen telephone pole and was killed. Chorb buried her abroad and then returned to Germany by retracing their steps.
As he traveled back to Germany, Chorb tried to recall various moments with his wife. Every detail reminded him of her, from the cliff formations she had pointed out to a small black rock she had picked up and admired.
In Chorb’s mind, collecting all these memories had a purpose: "if he re-created […] the near past – her image would grow immortal and replace her forever."
The hardest part for Chorb is the nighttime, when he is irrationally afraid of her presence beside him.
Now we cut to earlier in the evening in question in Germany, while the Kellers are still at the opera. At about eight p.m., Chorb is riding a fiacre through the street (fiacre = horse-drawn carriage). On the way, he passes a black poodle peeing on an opera playbill for Parsifal (the same Wagner opera the Kellers are attending, if you feel like putting two and two together.)
Chorb arrives at a seedy hotel, its black paint peeling off the walls. A lackey leads him down the equally decrepit walls to an equally disgusting hotel room, and at seeing a pink painting of a bather on the wall, Chorb recognizes that this is where he and his wife spent their wedding night together.
Actually, what happened was this: Chorb and his wife were supposed to attend a wedding reception at her parents’ place and then spend the night there. Instead, they snuck away to this hotel so they could be alone. This is part of the reason why the Kellers dislike Chorb so much.
So, now, Chorb is back in the same hotel room, this time without his wife, because she’s dead. As he sits and looks around the room, the light bulb hanging bare from a cord in the ceiling sways, casting an eerie shadow across the room.
Chorb looks at the green couch, where he slept on the wedding night while his wife dozed virginally on the bed. The only hanky-panky that went down was a harmless good night kiss on her neck.
Meanwhile, there’s a rather boisterous mouse making disturbing sounds from a corner of the room. When a moth hits the lampshade with an eerie "ping," Chorb has had enough. He walks downstairs and out into the street.
Walking along the roads, Chorb looks at the trees lining the sidewalks. It’s May now, but he remembers how they looked in autumn when he was with his wife. Everything was decaying, what with it being fall and all, but at the time, presumably because he was with the woman he loved, Chorb thought that "happiness itself had that smell, the smell of dead leaves."
Chorb walks all the way to the Kellers’ house (at this point, they are still out at the opera). Looking through the window, he sees the maid making their bed and calls for her to come outside and speak to him.
Chorb tells the maid that his wife is sick and that he’s staying at the "same old place."
Having visited the Kellers’ house, Chorb feels he’s "traveled back to the very source of his recollections." (Remember, he said earlier that re-creating the near past was his mission.) All that’s left, he decides, is to spend the night in their wedding-eve hotel room.
As he heads back to the seedy hotel, however, Chorb realizes that he won’t be able to sleep alone, especially since everything in that room is uber-creepy (like the mouse, the swinging light bulb, the moth, etc.) So he stops on the way back and picks up a prostitute, without really looking at her or caring who she is.
The lackey back at the hotel recognizes the prostitute (we told you it was a seedy shack) and winks at her as she and Chorb head upstairs.
Chorb then gives the girl the money. She gets into bed, but he just goes to sleep without doing anything, telling her he’ll pay her some more in the morning.
While Chorb is sleeping, the prostitute wanders around the room. She opens up a suitcase which is full of woman’s garments, all "smelling so nice," which makes her sad.
She then looks out the window and sees a stone statue of Orpheus at the corner of the opera house across the street. (HMMM! Did you say ORPHEUS? Interesting…)
The performance has just ended, so she watches the crowd of people leaving the opera house. Afterwards, the prostitute switches off the light and gets back into bed with Chorb. Seeing the same pink painting on the wall behind the bed, she realizes she’s spent a night or two in this same room before.
Not an hour after the prostitute falls asleep, she is woken by Chorb’s mad screaming. She leaps out of bed while Chorb, afraid to look at her "white specter," has his hand covering his eyes. He had woken up and thought he saw his wife sleeping next to him. When he finally peeps out again through the cracks between his fingers, he sees that she’s only the prostitute he hired, and he calms down.
Chorb, relieved, moves over to the green couch and smiles.
Of course, this freaks out the poor prostitute even more. She dresses ASAP and is ready to get the hell out of there when the sound of footsteps is heard outside the door. Chorb and the girl can hear the lackey protesting, but a couple (clearly the Kellers) insist that the girl inside is their daughter and that he needs to open the door.
The prostitute, who has had enough weirdness for one night, grabs her purse and flings open the door.
The lackey motions for the prostitute to exit, which she does. She stands in the hallway with the lackey while the Kellers, shocked, move into the hotel room with Chorb and close the door behind them.
From the hallway, the prostitute leans toward the door to try to hear what’s being said. But nothing follows except an eerie silence from inside the room. The lackey puts his finger to his lips and says to her, "They don’t speak."