Frédéric Boutet: The Ghost of M. Imberger (part three)
“You don’t know him,” he said with conviction. “He has no interest in the world but his collections. He loves no one in the world but his wife. He has for me, who respects him as a father, the most affectionate indulgence. He has spared me the suffering of my youthful follies… It’s thanks to him I keep my position in society…”
He interrupted himself, choked with emotion.
As to the domestics, they were at the time plaintive and bewildered. Horribly distraught at the mystery that brooded over the house, they were seized with that obsequious fear we police inspire often enough—caused by all-powerful justice, of which we are the hand. Their innocence, in any case, was evident. They recounted all they knew, which is to say, almost nothing, and I alternately applied friendliness, harshness, and surprise, without producing one additional thing.
I made serious researches into the private life of M. Imberger, but he had not, I may say, any sort of private life. What we call the private life clearly was well regulated and without complications, nothing hidden, nothing in the domain of money, nothing of…distractions…
The only secret I discovered was charitable work, pursued with discretion. Numerous protégés were revealed to me, a clientele truly of interest, a few even ignorant of the name and quality of their benefactor. M. Imberger had what we call an embarrassment of riches, and he appeared also—after all that had been told to me about him—an original in the best sense of the term, a man of spirit and heart, for whom some of his friends had as much affection as admiration.
M. Imberger had habits…everyone in his entourage knew them, and consequently, nothing was more simple than to follow step by step, the seeming everyday employment of his time. When he went out alone, it was always to the same places, passing a day in the houses of certain antique dealers, and of certain friends. He had always told them, when leaving his own house, where he was going.
And not one of the louche residences knew him, not by name or sight, for I brought out his photograph before them all. Of these old gentlemen whose virtue covers the sort of hidden affairs that keep us in business, he was not one; and never either near or far had he been touched by the most banal scandal. He was an upright man who loved his wife. He had no enemies, no known sorrows, and his intellect was always intact.
I had also to consider the question of money. In the days preceding his disappearance, M. Imberger had not withdrawn any funds from his bank—besides that, a sizeable sum in cash sat in the safe of his office, to which Mme Imberger had the double key and knew the combination.
It is true that M. Imberger made a custom, so as to conclude any purchase for his collection on the spot, of carrying around three or four thousand francs on his person; often much more…with this money he might live for a while without needing to procure new funds.
I myself inspected the wardrobe, and questioned the valet de chambre, and Mme Imberger. Nothing was missing but his black coat, and the large dark cape he was in the habit of wearing. This indicated merely that M. Imberger had put on his evening things with the intention of joining his wife…
Or perhaps merely to cause a belief in this intention.
My inquiry had not advanced a jot. I waded in the most disconcerting of mysteries, one that thickened itself at each measure I took to clear it up. They wish to recognize in me certain aptitudes, for I have found with a little patience and persistence, the key to most problems apparently unsolvable… But, I swear that, in this case, I felt walled up, hemmed in, locked out.
One key alone might have fitted the lock and opened a way, but was such as demanded, before I tried to make use of it, that I exhaust all other chances of success. And to complete my happiness in the passing days, the noise of M. Imberger’s disappearance grew inordinately, and the sensational reporting of falsehoods, of fabricated information, multiplied itself. This flow of gossip, I will admit to you, annoyed me. By some curse, there was at that time no great event, no royal visit, no political quarrel within or without, no catastrophe, no grand première. All Paris made itself passionate over the mystery of Passy, and the journals began to joke about me, with a persistence that struck me in bad taste.
The 1st of March, the Superintendent called me, impatient as to the exact state of the Imberger affair, and in his office presented me to the professor Ferrier, who he said had something to tell me.
I was most intrigued…Ferrier, as you know, was already an illustrious medical practitioner, and at that time a professor on the faculty and member of the Académie de Médicine. He was a tall fellow, curious in aspect, with a pale, clean-shaven face, a long nose, a wide thin mouth, and behind his gold-rimmed glasses, clear eyes, intent and searching, that seemed to see your insides through your clothes.
“They say to me that you are an intelligent man, sure and adept, and I believe it,” he said, when we were alone. “Listen to me. I returned yesterday from a long voyage of study. I was not able to come back before, and did so only for this interview with you. Imberger was my closest friend…I have known him from college days. He was rich. I am myself poor. He, from his purse, paid my dues to the Faculty of Medicine. When I was a student and he was also, every month, from the allowance made him by his parents, he gave me what I needed to live, so I could do my work. It is thanks to him, far more than to myself, that I am what I am. It is thanks to him all the human creatures I have cared for and cured have been saved. Imberger was one of those men whose moral sensibility compensates you for the cruelty, the cowardice and vice of all those miserable people who pass through your hands. I tell you this, that you understand the reason for my intervention. I tell you this so that you will comprehend what feeling, what value, comes from this word friend, when I apply it to Imberger. What’s more, I’ll tell the world, I will advertise it in the streets…”
The Ghost of M. Imberger
(2019, translation, Stephanie Foster)