The Ghost of M. Imberger
The Ghost of M. Imberger
The Ghost of M. Imberger
I belonged for thirty years to the Paris police, and my career, I assure you, has been rather eventful—but the most extraordinary affair on which I made enquiries was certainly the disappearance of M. Imberger, which is still a famous case.
Yes, says Barfin, this one gave me a good bit of trouble, and I worked at it with a passion. After weeks, it remained an impenetrable mystery, which strange adventures altered without in the world elucidating, while revising my opinions—to the extent that I risked having any.
The public could follow only the external facts, gripping and dramatic as these were, unfolding…
It has never known the underlying psychology. As well then, now years have passed, and I am retired, that I tell you all of this in detail.
M. Imberger was a rich man, of character a little original, and in excellent health. In life, he did no other thing than to collect doorknockers. I wouldn’t know myself, but it appears he had acquired the rarest of pieces. He did not otherwise hold himself to this specialization; he was competent in trinkets of every sort, and all the antique dealers of Paris considered him not only a client, but an expert, whom one might fruitfully consult on the subject of a find’s authenticity. His hunts, his visits to the world of the great flea markets, the care of his collection, these occupied all his time.
His collection was one of the loves of M. Imberger. He had but one other, his wife Andrée, a blonde with black eyes, very pretty…yes, truly, one of the loveliest women I have ever seen, refined, graceful, pleasant, a charming voice, a luminous complexion, an air of gentle languor.
She was twenty-five years younger than her husband, who had passed his fiftieth year. He had married her three years earlier, having looked after her when she’d lost her father, a brilliant, worldly man…a spendthrift, who had left a complicated will, where more was owed than had. Finally, the young woman found herself without a sou, and it was then that M. Imberger, who was her relative (he had been the childhood companion of Andrée’s mother), offered to marry her. She said yes…with or without hesitation, I don’t know.
At the end of Passy, on a short, quiet street, where trees above the walls overlook passersby, they lived comfortably in a small and venerable house, their domestics attending them, and everything restful.
A son of the older brother of M. Imberger had for some months been living with them. His name was Maxence. He was a handsome boy of thirty, who, under the pretext of studying painting, was a little near ruin, having made for ten years disastrous liaisons, first at Paris, then Italy, again Paris, finally the Near East. He had been defrauded as well by mystic poseurs, old neurasthenic whores.
Returning in poverty, he was welcomed, and welcomed each time, by this excellent man Imberger, who was his only relative, and who, despite enough of louche stories about the gambling, and the women who ran on behalf of the handsome Max, had opened his house and his purse as to a son—avoiding thus, to all appearances, Maxence making our acquaintance.
The young wife of M. Imberger seemed not, at first, to look with an approving eye on this intrusion. This nephew of her husband was distant enough as to parentage, but he was not much older than she; he had been her childhood friend, she knew him well, and seemed wary of him—even in dread of him.
Yet after an early period of discontent and cold defiance, during which Andrée kept Max, so to speak, under observation, the thing was arranged, very well arranged, and in the little house all three seemed perfectly happy and in accord.
The affair began on a night in February. Mme Imberger had gone alone to a costume ball, at the house of her friends. Imberger had little taste for this type of entertainment, for the disguises to be assumed. The wigs made his head hurt. Beyond that, he was content, if he were not personally obliged to partake in such pleasures, to let his wife go out as much as she liked. When she went without him, to the theatre, or anyplace in the world, he would arrive some time near the end to seek her; as well, to show himself present.
The evening of which I tell you, M. Imberger, by the usual formula, had promised to join his wife at one o’clock in the morning, and to take part in the supper.
He did not arrive.
One-thirty, two o’clock, two-thirty sounded. The supper was long since finished, but no Imberger.
The young wife, who had danced and amused herself a great deal, was not exactly conscious at first of this unusual delay. But taking stock, she was astonished…then at once reassured herself with a logical explanation: M. Imberger had at the last moment changed his mind, preferring the peace of his room to the boisterous throng of a carnival supper. He had stayed in his corner by the fire at his work, and hadn’t yet come to bring her home.
When three o’clock passed, M. Imberger still was not there. Mme Imberger now felt worried. The guests were beginning to take their leaves. M. Imberger was punctuality itself, how had he not come?
She told her anxiety to her hosts; they reassured her of his having a plenitude of good reasons, the usual in such a case, and counselled her to have patience, to go on dancing. Imberger will come, wait and see…lost in a book, he has let an hour go by…
Someone lights on the simple idea, shall we telephone the house?
Why, yes! How did we not think of it sooner?
If M. Imberger is found unwell, and cannot come for this reason, we will know at once.
Yes…but, in that case, how would he not himself have telephoned, to prevent…?
No matter, let’s telephone.
Perhaps he is asleep.
The bell will wake him.
They ask that the call be put through. There is no response. They insist, they assure the telephone operator that someone is there…
The operator rings and rings again, and affirms that no one responds.
Note that the domestics sleeping in the communicating rooms could not hear. Finally, Andrée, anguished, decides to return immediately to her home, and places herself in the care of two respectable friends of the latecomer, who, without saying so to the young wife, have come to share her fears.
They enter the little house of Passy, dark and quiet. No Imberger.
The nephew Maxence this evening had dined in the city, and must, as he often did, pass the rest of the night at his club. They go nonetheless to look into his chamber, to see if he has returned. The chamber is empty, the bed still made—it is probable Maxence has not come back.
Mme Imberger stations herself in the office of M. Imberger, and in company with his two friends waits, mad with anxiety, listening for noises from outside.
Around four in the morning, a car turns onto the little street, and stops. They all rush to the gate. Maxence, his back to them, pays his driver, spins round stunned, and questions them. What is all this?
They make him aware of the inexplicable absence of his uncle. He is at a loss. He had left his uncle at seven in the evening, and has since received no message, no visit. All this night Maxence has spent at his club, taking part in a fierce game of poker.
The last and feeble hope, of getting from him any clue, fades.
At the suggestion of Maxence, they gather lanterns and explore every corner of the garden. M. Imberger perhaps had felt ill, wanted to take the air, was stricken with congestion…had fallen in a faint…
All searches are in vain.
Mme Imberger, desperate, trembling in a fever, goes indoors to change for a town dress the ball gown she had not thought of removing. She comes down the stairs to the office, where the three men have gone; and with them, when the police station opens, she makes the declaration that her husband has disappeared.
And it was there that I, the next day, was assigned to the inquiry.
I had won already my little reputation. The commissioner wanted particularly to say that the assignment was due to my tact and good manners. I was flattered. He confided to me the details of the affair, and his urgent instructions.
The most important of these was to act quickly, with discretion. I must avoid such gaffes as create or augment scandal. I must give the least of information; to the private life of the missing man as little as possible of publicity—without, however, an air of anything concealed. It was necessary to avoid, as much as could be, the disappearance of M. Imberger becoming sensationalized.
This hope could not be accommodated. M. Imberger was known throughout Paris; he was the friend of highly-placed personalities, of politicians, of artists and scientists, and this fantastic story must make a noise to rival all the devils.
But with ardor I set myself to work. I visited every room of the house at Passy, going from top to bottom…nothing. I interrogated everyone.
I received no information having the least value.
Outside the facts I’ve told you, the household knew nothing. Mme Imberger—never have I seen so pretty a creature, with her pale cheeks, her large eyes under her disheveled hair, brilliant with tears—responded to all the questions I posed, at a loss:
“I don’t know…I don’t know. He must come back. He does not come back. I beg you to find him…”
And all at once, she burst into convulsive sobs, which ended in an attack of nerves.
The nephew Maxence, a magnificent showboat, having a fine, ruffian head on the shoulders of an athlete, seemed sunken in the most profound pain, which did not prevent him doing his best to help, to be an intelligent guide, while we covered the house in search of any clue.
He helped me explore from the cellars to the attic, and the garden…where the old well was found, which we hazarded sounding. Nothing.
Maxence had not the least idea what could have become of his uncle, and refused even to envision the possibility of a breach of conduct.
“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 consequences 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 arm. Their innocence, in any case, was evident. They recounted all they knew, which is to say again, 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 brothels 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; his intellect had been 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. Which 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 muddied 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 this was such as demanded, before I made 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-shaved 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 sojourn 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 too, 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 will understand the reason for my intervention. That you will comprehend what feeling, what value, comes from this word friend, when I apply it to Imberger. What’s more, I will tell the world, I will advertise it in the streets…”
His voice broke a little, his eyes became grim. A brilliant thing, that was a tear, rolled down his long nose.
“What is your opinion on his disappearance?” He said this at last.
Given the nature of my opinion, I felt a bit constrained, but before such a man it was useless to attempt a lie.
“I believe there was a murder,” I said. No more.
A small twitch touched the corner of Ferrier’s mouth, but he recovered himself, and in a voice wholly calm, answered: “I’m sure…I can’t believe it. The fugue, or the suicide, which for you might be counted a hypothesis you must at least envision, cannot even enter into discussion for me, who knew him. If a transformation of any order whatsoever had taken place in his life, I would have known of it. He told me everything. And to be so upstanding, so clear, so energetic…there could be no weakness, not even a passing one. Since he has disappeared, this is fact. He has disappeared. Now, is it that you share the opinion of your chief—a crime of hazard, an attack of rogues on the street corner?”
“No,” I told him frankly. “In such a case we would find the corpse nearby. Or some trace of his assassin, the vestige of a struggle…and in this case, nothing. Not one witness. No one saw anything, heard anything, remarked anything abnormal or even unusual, in the house or in the neighborhood. These rogues who attack to steal would abandon the body in place where the first blow was struck, and flee, the thing accomplished. That is the way of it. And if we allow they had even thought of making him disappear—obviously, for lack of premeditation and means, they could not have done it to perfection. No, it will not, if there was a crime…as I believe, by the way…it will not have been a crime of villainy.”
“Then, what do you think?” He spoke coldly, his words detached. His penetrating eyes would not leave mine. “What is your personal theory?”
Here I felt truly embarrassed. “I think… I think… You know, monsieur le professeur…”
I evaded this question, too neat, and tried to avoid answering. “In my own work, we are obliged to think of things implausible, even when we admit to ourselves that these things are implausible. One should not believe we take all of our hypotheses for realities, but on the other hand, we are forced, that we may arrive at a solution, to make all sorts of hypotheses. All sorts…”
There was silence.
“No,” the professor answered me suddenly, to this I had not said. “She has done nothing…I know her. Her as well, as much as one can know a woman. She has done nothing! Don’t shake your head,” he added with impatience. “We will get nowhere if you don’t believe what I say to you. This that I affirm to you, you must admit, otherwise we will be delayed at every pass…”
I allowed myself to interrupt.
“Pardon, monsieur le professeur, we have an old husband, old relative to his very young wife…you see, you see… He is rich, she is poor; he will leave everything to her and she knows it. Between them is a young man, well-built, handsome, unscrupulous, wholly suited to the role of lover… And that is the case, from all the indications I have been able to gather. The husband disappeared. The solution, it seems to me, imposes itself. It was they who struck the blow. Perhaps she, with no interest in money, I am willing, wanted only to be free. Or for the love of Max, or under his domination, was afraid. I do not believe she participated in the crime. She is too weak, too given to nerves. But as to knowing of it, that is another thing. I have, for myself, made a few researches, and taken some information; I have this documented, against the day I have the right to act fully. And if officially, I cannot yet make inquiries on this path, that is because I have on this subject, formal orders… We have an affair of worldly personalities; we are wary, we fear ridicule and the odium of error, the scandal of a false accusation. And this obliges me to exhaust everything before I may return freely to that line of inquiry. But I will have my hour, I count it well…”
“No,” Ferrier repeated to me. “Not like that. Your solution revolves around the truth, but it is halfway false, certainly. He alone is guilty. Of her, nothing is suspect. No, no, believe me, nothing, I am sure of it. That wretch, whom Imberger in his bounty had saved from the miseries of prison, is the lover of Andrée…this I have known for a long time, and he is a sensual brute, jealous and greedy. There is everything in his crime, things banal and things revolting, and poor human feelings, commonplace… There is everything of rude passion and self-interest. He lusts for domination and pleasure, vain as are all mediocre men. He wants for himself alone the woman and the money. The money first, then the rest…”
“Have you seen,” I asked him, “the least proof?”
“None. It is for you to find. All you may need, as to personal help, information or funds, ask me. It will remain between us. You must find the body, convince yourself of the assassin; he is, moreover, shrewd and cunning and must not be made suspicious.”
Ferrier left. His opinion shed light on mine and corroborated it. But I must have at least the beginnings of a case. A mistake would cost me dearly.
Maxence lived now in a bachelor flat in the quarter de l’Europe, and went rarely to Passy. The young wife remained plunged in mourning. An elderly cousin from the provinces had come to look after her, and she did not go out.
The newspapers oppressed me more and more, with their lively mockeries of my blindness. Certain wise reporters, following personal inquiries pressed to the depths, had most certainly glimpsed what I believed to be the truth, and in veiled words hinted at a drama of passion within the family.
I waited before acting. Suspicion began to close round the handsome Maxence. He, whom I’d met at Passy on one occasion, had in my presence a fit of indignation, which if acted, was acted well. He spoke of nothing less than a challenge to the editor.
It was then that an extraordinary event occurred—
M. Imberger was met with on the street.
It was the chambermaid of Mme Imberger who first saw him after his disappearance. One evening this girl, at the little house of Passy, reentered shaken, claiming that on a neighboring street she had passed her former employer, in person.
“It was monsieur!”
She said it to me when I saw her after this fantastic meeting. “I saw him as I see you! I have eyes and I’m not crazy. Put my head under the blade, and I will say it again, monsieur, and if it was not him, it was his ghost! And, you know, I even think it was his ghost… I’m sure he did not have the air of a living man. He had a great black cape like he always wore, and a face very queer, very pale, frozen, with that…I don’t know how to say it, but very queer… He walked on the opposite side from me…his steps were lively and he must have recognized me, for then he was even quicker. For me, not at all. Seeing him I was struck numb in the legs. For that, he got to the turning of the street, gone…and me with my teeth still chattering. Lay eyes on a ghost, you could be dead within a year. Chase after one, no thank you! And, you know, it would have served nothing. This was not a living man, I would swear it under the knife! But it was monsieur, I would swear it before the judge! They murdered him, he has come to demand vengeance and burial…”
She did not want to set foot outside, but I must say that no one believed her at first.
However, as this meeting, if it were real, constituted a proof in favor of a simple disappearance, we alerted Dr. Ferrier, who questioned the chambermaid in his turn. He diagnosed hallucination.
That also was my opinion.
What to think, if in fact M. Imberger was not dead, nor a fugitive, but that for secret reasons of his own, he had left his family and his home…? That he returned just to show himself in the environs of his household, in a district such as Passy, a charming little enclave where the greater part of the inhabitants are known at least by sight…and this one more than all others must be remarked? For his silhouette was peculiar enough, as were his forays as a collector.
What’s more, he knew the habits of his domestics, and the chambermaid had seen him on the street at the hour when regularly, each day, she would walk out to pick up the post and newspapers.
No. Nervous and superstitious, haunted by the disappearance of her employer, and frightened by the evocation of a crime, the chambermaid had identified the silhouette of some passerby as that of the disappeared, or even created from whole cloth an image not there…
The hypothesis of hallucination was the more believable, and everyone adopted it. But the next day, it fell by the wayside. M. Imberger appeared again.
This was about six in the evening, at a shop of curiosities on the rue de Châteaudun, where he was in the custom of making long stops. The ghost showed himself at the door, half-opening this as though to enter. Then as one who changes his mind, it made a rapid about-face and disappeared into the crowd.
Disconcerted as the chambermaid, and like her, perhaps, a little frightened by the possibility of a mystery from beyond (as to this perspective, you know, it is always necessary to account for human credulity), the merchant had not, any more than the chambermaid, the presence of mind to seek after and halt this apparition, to shed light on this distressing question.
He said he did not because he was alone, and could not think of abandoning his store, even for a few minutes. But M. Imberger had been his client for many years, had been seen by him often, and for long visits. He was struck by the mien of the caller, haggard and strange, with a livid pallor and an air of suffering. But he affirmed that no hesitation was possible as to the identity.
From that point, the apparitions of M. Imberger multiplied themselves, in places more diverse. In the space of four or five days, he was seen by many people whose good faith could not be suspected, and who, all of them, gave the same significations: a great black cape, a rapid darting look, a face white and frozen. The same information in every case. They met the disappeared invariably at the hour of dusk; and barely had they glimpsed him, when he took himself off, very quickly.
His attorney, M. Druide, more determined, and perhaps more courageous than the others, tried pursuing him on the boulevard Montmartre, where they’d crossed paths unexpectedly, but M. Imberger fled at speed, and could not be caught up. M. Druide saw him disappear into the Passage des Panoramas, and lost him there.
Then Professor Ferriet saw again with his own eyes the friend he believed murdered. It was an emotional meeting, though it lasted no more than an instant, and no more than the others had the professor been able to speak to M. Imberger or approach him. Here is how Ferrier himself told me the thing, an hour after it took place, while he was still agitated and near trembling:
“I have seen him. I have seen him, no doubt is possible. I left the school of medicine at nightfall, after I’d finished my class. A car was stopped at the curb…I looked at it mechanically. Suddenly at the door I saw the face of Imberger. I saw him lean out into the half-light from a lamppost, seeming to watch for me as in the past, when at times he would come to wait for me. The face was white and frozen, just as described by everyone who’s seen him. After a moment of stupor, I threw myself at the car, but it started off in a hurry, carrying Imberger, who made me a sign I did not understand.”
It could no longer be called a hallucination, and neither medicine, nor modern justice admits of phantoms, spectres, ghosts. A few journals, in a jesting manner, published articles on, “the apparition of the murdered man”. The spiritual reviews maintained energetically that such things are possible, and that history offers numerous examples. They went as far as citing Jesus Christ appearing to the apostles. The aspect of Imberger made a precious argument for these spirit-scribes, who asserted that his bizarre lividity, so striking, was of the other world.
However, I will not astonish you much when I tell you that for the law, for Professor Ferriet, for the greater public—and for me—one fact seemed evident: M. Imberger was still of this world.
But the mystery made itself only to change face. For what aim did M. Imberger keep hidden, and in such a way? Was he at a second home? All who had known him refused to allow this explanation, that contradicted his passionate love and anxious care for his wife. Furthermore, in these troubling apparitions, he was always seen alone, and those who had met him since his disappearance said he had not, in any fashion, the air of a man who conceals happiness; all were in accord on his bizarre appearance, on his worried and furtive look.
A current of opinion formed, however, that allowed the idea of a modest fugue, envisioning Imberger as an old débauché, incapable any longer of cloaking his vices under a mantle of austerity. The victim became the young Mme Imberger, cast loose, not only in the most outrageous and cowardly manner, but under circumstances that might plausibly have touched her with an infamous slander. Yet when I questioned her, she repulsed with disdain these imputations against her husband.
“He was the best of men. A man whose life was simple and upright, where deceit could not have been necessary…but also he was incapable, I’m sure of it, of any bad act. If he’s alive, it must be some pressing motive I know nothing about, that I can’t begin to imagine, that constrains him to keep hidden, and far from me, far from us all. In that case his strange conduct at these meetings is easily explained. Yes…he acts as though he would avoid all conversation. But he shows himself, plainly and often, to reassure us of his existence, not to allow a horrible suspicion to weigh on an innocent—
“I have thought, sadly, on these things, you see…of all that is, in the realm of the possible. What you suggest might still be the reason my poor husband has gone into the shadows… But, where, and how, does he live? With what resources, what money? Since he has withdrawn nothing of his fortune. No matter, it’s all awful…”
Distraught, she wrung her hands and sobbed. She was prettier than ever, in her somber clothes. She had recognized, I remark it in passing, that singularity of being effaced and out of the picture, needing to comport herself as a widow, without being one…
But not falling fully into mourning, however, which, if M. Imberger lived, must become vulgar and vaudevillesque; what’s more, without ceasing to be one of the best-dressed women of Paris.
The majority of the public had rallied to this explanation, that M. Imberger had gone off in a fit of madness. It was, in fact, since he’d begun to appear, the most believable. When an unexpected event occurs, a number of people will always boast they’d foreseen it. There were now a good number of friends—and those familiar with the house, those who lived in the district, tradesmen who visited—who declared they had always suspected the eccentricity of M. Imberger, and for some weeks had seen this increasing in a worrying way.
The servants themselves gave of his late oddity several examples: the master gruff, where once kind and gentle; become overwrought, nervous, easily discontented, and most severe with poor Max, to whom in the past he had showed himself indulgent. But now seemed set to rebuke him at any moment…further, he loved his solitude more and more, and sat for long hours silent and still, with a sad pensive air.
This change in humor everyone had witnessed, and the facile erudition of the armchair practitioner steamed ahead. They spoke of an episode of somnambulism, of wakeful walking, during which the man ceases to be himself, quits his own personality to become another, propelling him at hazard through a life that when he returns to himself he knows nothing of.
The professor Ferrier, at this time, showed me documents on what he called, “diseases of the ego”; the first state, and the second.
He gave examples of what he called an “ambulatory epileptic crisis”. And here I permit myself to lose a moment in repeating the account he made to me of the curious case studied by Charcot, around 1881 or 1882.
The sufferer made deliveries, for a dealer in bronzes on the rue Amelot. He had no morbid tendencies, no hereditary defect. Yet he was stricken all at once with this ambulatory crisis. Here is how he recounts one episode, of January 18:
“On this day, I left the house at a good hour, having a number of errands to do. Upon the last, I had gone up to the house of a client, rue Mazagran, and I had received his money. It must have been seven in the evening when I came down to the street. From that moment, I recall nothing more, absolutely nothing. I did not climb into the car, which waited for me a long time. The coachman left for home, and made known he had no idea what had become of me.”
“Then,” remarks Charcot, “from the 18th of January, around eight in the evening, a night had completed itself in your mind. And when you’d awakened?”
“It was the 26th of January, at two in the afternoon. I was on a suspension bridge, in the middle of an unknown town. A regiment passed, music at the head, and colors. I did not know where I was. I did not dare inquire, for fear they would think me mad. I asked for the rail station…there, I saw that I was in Brest…”
When the crisis had seized him, he’d had money on his person, of which a part (200 out of around 900 francs), he had spent. His clothes and shoes were clean and not worn, so he must have come from Paris by rail. He had eaten, he had slept in hotels, he had lived like everyone, but without knowing, and without true consciousness, had participated in the acts performed.
But unluckily for him, the poor fellow had the fatal idea of returning, without touching, the money which did not belong to him, and addressed himself to a gendarme. He was arrested without ceremony, and despite being able to show all sorts of papers—and notably an order Charcot had given him at the time of an earlier crisis—he stayed in prison six days and was not released but for the efforts of his patron, in whose service he had been for twenty years, and who attested to his perfect honesty.
“And you think this case is analogous to that of M. Imberger, monsieur le Professor?” I asked of Ferrier when he had finished his story. “What is your personal opinion?”
Curtly, he said, “I haven’t got one.”
And I believe he was as much in doubt as me.
The explanation of simple madness, or disease of the personality, I found not at all satisfactory. It must be said that for the mind of a policeman, who looks at facts, all the machinery of science can produce possibilities in theory believable, but that never in the end solve the case to which one is attached. In the end is seen, moving in the shadows, the human realities…life…
I did not believe any longer in a fugue…oh! That, not at all.
I asked myself if this was not mere foolishness; if it could not be the notion of watching his wife and nephew, for which M. Imberger had disappeared…to learn what they both would do, once the noise had died down.
To know, and not to suffer an intolerable doubt.
But why then did he show himself expressly to people who knew him? For the entirety of the apparitions revealed a will, and a system so evident, that it was this most surely destroyed for me the theory of lunacy.
And this was why, at other moments, obstinately, the idea of murder came nagging me again, despite all these appearances. I am incredulous by nature and by profession. I had not seen the missing man. His wife, Max, and I were, among those connected to this business, the only ones who had not seen him.
His wife, Max, and I…
Perhaps it was in the reason for this grouping, that one must locate the most valuable and useful foundation, as to motive…and I did not suppose I was myself at fault.
But inquire became impossible. One cannot have free reign to gather information on a so-called crime, when there is no longer a victim. I would have to put aside the only means of arriving at a result; I could not exercise strong surveillance, nor complete the preliminaries in the house of Imberger…where, I was aware, the searches in the first hour had been summary.
Yet the Imberger mystery impassioned me more than ever; I was resolved on finding the key, no matter the cost. For my personal pride, and outside all official orders…even in secret.
I kept, if I may say, an eye on the house in Passy, and an eye on handsome Max, who went back rarely, only to make his pretty aunt visits brief and correct, where the tone, I was told by my informants, was amicable, but the conversation singularly banal and without allusion to the family drama.
Mme Imberger lived in a fashion retired, and perfectly suitable, sheltered from the material point of view by interest payments directed by his lawyer on her husband’s untouched fortune. She did not quit the old relative who served as her chaperone, but shared with her monotonous days, the loneliness of which was barely enlivened by visits from a few intimates.
For Maxence, things went well otherwise. He had returned to his club in the Europe quarter, and to a life of license and liaison, for which the resources remained to me mysterious, as he had no money of his own and gained nothing from this vague painting, its product largely unsold, and neglected by him six-and-a-half days out of seven.
I have never known whether or not, during this time, Maxence held clandestine meetings with Mme Imberger. Her, they did not permit me to follow, and he had the artfulness to shed those of my men who trailed him. But I have always thought she gave him money, for in the evenings of certain days, when he was particularly free of restraint, he gambled with his circle for high stakes, or paid his costs in champagne…
After all, it may be that Andrée acquitted herself thus from family duty, making it her own; or simply from respect for the customs of her husband towards this young man who’d been in his charge. One must not excuse the act one can explain charitably, more than another.
And so I felt at last a cold exasperation. This business began to turn for me on a fixed idea. I must determine Imberger alive or dead. Well…it was at the Mi-Carème that I found him dead. Or alive. That evening, I was in the grand salon of a night café in Monmartre. It did not call itself a dancehall at that time, but amounted to the same thing. I admit I was not there altogether in connection with my work…I was feeling fatigued, annoyed, set on edge by these last weeks of fruitless inquiry. For a few hours, I desired a change of scene; not neglecting, however, to observe everything around me—as the night cafés are full of information.
I had for half an hour watched the little women who danced in the middle of the room, when Maxence himself entered with a gang of friends. He was an habitué of the house; I had counted on seeing him…while, for practical purposes, I was camouflaged so that he could not recognize me.
They sat themselves at a table not far from mine, four men in tuxedos. Max himself, and a fat, hearty gladhander that I knew a little, having asked him for information on recent activities before the disappearance of M. Imberger. As well, two revelers without interest. With the men were three of the women, the little dancers familiar to all the bars and nightclubs. All three more or less were disguised as Persians, and one of them, a dainty blonde they called Cora, laughed and swayed, and lovingly caressed the irresistible Max. But she did not leave the line.
The men’s supper began with a dry champagne. The room grew animated. I saw the dancers’ serpentine movements, the spangles and scarves, the mounting smiles of the men, the women’s shopworn, squealing flirtations. All at once, they rose to perform.
“Wait for me, wait for me, I’m going too!” cried little Cora, half-lying on Max and smoking a cigarette. “And then you’ll see, I will do something amazing!”
“What? Tell, baby!”
The fat fellow, a little plastered, tried to hold her, but she danced free. “It’s a surprise! You’ll see, you big walrus!”
She took from the banquette an immense carpet bag, the mode of that era, which seemed heavy and stuffed. She gave the handsome Max a long kiss, and ran to the lavatory where she shut herself in, as though to make up her face.
Five minutes later she came out with one of her friends, who laughed like a fool. Cora took her by the waist and they threw themselves in among groups who were pressing to look at her, applauding and laughing, without my being able to see why. It was then that she came to the table where the two revelers had sunk in their seats, the fat man remaining all hilarity, and Max, nonchalant with his back to the banquette and a cigar between his teeth, waiting for her. She dashed up behind him, moved in front, and showed herself.
His eyes flew open and his face changed, becoming blanched and convulsed in horror; he stood in a single bound, fists clenched, knocking over the table.
“You dare it, in the name of God! You dare it!”
His shout drowned all other voices in the room.
There was a general silence, everyone staring. At Max’s side, the fat man got to his feet, aghast. He looked at the girl, who stood petrified. He grew pale himself, and cried:
“But…it’s the picture of M. Imberger!”
All this passed in ten seconds. I was rushing already to see the little dancer, her winsome face covered with a wax mask, a droll contrast to her blonde curls. It was painted to resemble an old man, recognizably that of innumerable photos, en face or in profile, that I’d seen of M. Imberger.
I turned to Max. “Where did you put the body?”
I seized his arm.
I was braced for a battle I could not be at all sure of winning with a rascal of his size. But he was a brute without courage. When two policemen called by the manager came in, he sank in my hands. Quickly they removed him, to the astonishment of the revelers and the girls—
Who would understand next day, when they read their newspapers.
I had taken the mask from our little Cora, and saw her run into the arms of the fat fellow, sobbing. “I did it for a joke,” she said again and again. “He had a bunch of them over his mantelpiece.”
And the fat man, distrait, repeated, “What a business! I’d thought him such a nice boy…!”
I found the corpse of M. Imberger buried in the cellar of the little house in Passy. This, as in most old houses, had dark corners among its arches. Barrels, bottles, and some rubble were heaped there, in a pell-mell fashion that had looked to me natural when making my quick inspection.
In one such corner, the corpse was buried at a shallow depth.
The impetus of the crime, you will guess. M. Imberger had perceived the attentions of Maxence towards his wife, without believing yet that Max was her lover. In a violent confrontation, he’d ordered his nephew to leave.
Maxence—it was he who gave me all the details, for he was a criminal of the talkative variety—had gained time from the absence of the young wife. (Recall, this was the night of the costume ball.) He had hid himself in the office of his uncle, and strangled him with his hands. He then carried the body to the lowest part of the cellar. I would have found it sooner, if the apparitions of M. Imberger had not obliged me to officially interrupt my searches.
And this was a truly a marvelous invention of the dandy Maxence. In one blow, these appearances detoured suspicion and neatly forestalled my interrogations. He had taken an impression from the bust of M. Imberger, you understand, and had fabricated the wax mask to resemble him.
When he saw me closing near he began using it. He donned the great cloak of the dead man at that hour when the light of lampposts mingles with that of fading day. He appeared, as you know, suddenly and rapidly, on his own face this other, frozen and haggard, so striking to all those who thought they had seen M. Imberger.
This mask he had hung at home over the fireplace, not, by an excess of cleverness, trying too hard to hide it, amid others grotesque or horrible, Chinese and Tibetan. Little Cora, brought there one night, chose to filch this one, to make her Carnival dress.
Maxence, betrayed by chance, which sometimes favors the criminal and sometimes the police, was conducted to the assize, where he was given only ten years—for they had wanted to see in this a crime of passion.
Mme Imberger, though in no way pursued, could not even appear as a witness. A cerebral fever held her between death and life; she did not cease in her delirium to repeat:
“If I had known…if I had known…”
But for Ferrier, who cared for her—as he was quite willing to tell me—there was no knowing whether she felt remorse at being the involuntary cause of her husband’s murder, for becoming the mistress of Maxence, or if she regretted not being there to manage things, so as to help her lover save himself…
The Garden of the Pirate
The unknown visitor seated himself on the chair indicated by M. Duvaudois.
“Monsieur,” he said, “you will forgive my insisting on being received in this way, presenting myself without telling my name, but there are grave reasons that oblige me to do so. Never otherwise would I have dared to act thus, but before of a man of your high intelligence, and further, one who exemplifies the most perfect honorability.”
M. Duvaudois was a fat man of fifty years, rich and vain. In a city of the west, he lived in a beautiful mansion, surrounded by a grand garden, and he considered himself a personage of great importance. The preamble, mysterious and laudatory, of his visitor, a correct young man of thirty, flattered him; and equally, it set him at defiance. He did not answer, but majestically fanned himself with his pocket handkerchief.
It was summer, and very hot.
The unknown visitor spoke again. “Monsieur…here is the thing that needs doing. At the bottom of your superb garden, at the back of the wall that encloses it, is an abandoned pigeoncote, the base of which holds your rabbits, the top, bales of hay…one of your former gardeners told me this detail…
“At the roof are cut two dormers opening onto your garden, and facing these windows is a large bay that opens onto the neighboring garden. Well, monsieur, I come to ask a favor…one that’s singular, I know, but of paramount importance to me…that you let me stay at this window tonight, and for the two nights to come, that I may watch the neighbor’s garden.”
“Do you mean the House of the Pirate? That garden?” said M. Duvaudois.
“Yes, monsieur, since they name it so. I dare hope you will not refuse me, however bizarre this seems. I appeal to you…but I have imperatives that must remain secret. If you will excuse me, I beg you ask me no further questions.”
Having spoken, the young man waited with dignity for the answer of M. Duvaudois.
Duvaudois sat a moment in silence. This insolent request, addressed to him by a stranger, seemed to him terribly out of the way; but inordinately, at the same time, it intrigued him. The house next door had for a few years been occupied by a mysterious man, whose retired life was spent in fierce isolation, his only company an elderly black man who served him, and was never heard to speak. To account for this, strange stories had taken flight. They called this fellow the Pirate and said that he’d enriched himself by crime, through distant voyages, underhanded forays…
And they said that he’d passed his nights counting his treasure, wishing to forget the remorse that haunted him. He had been dead for three years, the servant had departed, and the house was for sale…but no one had ever cared to buy it.
All these details returning to the mind of M. Duvaudois, made for him a passionately felt mystery. But the fear of compromise and a wish to force down what he judged an indiscreet question, struggled against his curiosity. It was, however, devouring.
“Monsieur.” He gathered himself. “Your accents seem to me those of an honest man.”
“Believe me, monsieur,” interrupted the other in haste, “an honest man almost become a vic… But no, I must not say it.”
“And, I consent to allow what you ask, but one condition is necessary for my peace of mind. I will watch at your side for the three nights. I will observe what you observe and will witness your acts. You understand, that given the mystery with which you surround yourself, I must feel assured that any reprehensible attempt…”
To this the stranger at first sketched a gesture of contrariety, but at once he suppressed it. “Monsieur, you have reason. This prudence is worthy of your character, and I prefer of all things that you render account, for yourself, of the purity of my motives. I will come this night at eleven o’clock.”
That night, at eleven o’clock, both kept vigil in the attic of the pigeoncote, which was nearly empty of hay. M. Duvaudois had opened the door himself to his mysterious guest, and guided him through the beautiful garden, fresh and fragrant. But the visitor was too preoccupied, and M. Duvaudois too intrigued, to enjoy the charm of a summer night. They climbed the ladder of the pigeoncote and opened, not without difficulty, the worm-eaten shutter.
In the uncertain gleam of a waning moon, the neighboring garden appeared between leaves and branches, savage, abandoned, full of wild herbs and shoots pushing up freely. In the middle was a pool, half-filled, farther off a sundial, and facing them, against an enclosing wall, a well. Leaning from the window, they could see at the right the wall that bordered the street; and at the left, the limits of the garden, the house itself, long and low, much dilapidated under invasive ivy.
They waited without speaking. Midnight sounded from a nearby bell tower, then one o’clock, two o’clock…
Nothing occurred. M. Duvaudois slept where he stood. Finally, morning lightened the horizon.
The stranger, serene, said to his host, “You will accept my apologies and my thanks. Tonight…!”
“Tonight…” grumbled M. Duvaudois, in ill humor.
And he went indoors to sleep, after seeing the stranger out.
The following evening, the vigil recommenced at the top of the pigeoncote. But barely past twelve had the two men waited when, in the silence of a provincial night, they heard a muted noise, a prolonged creaking. The gate that gave access from the street onto the Pirate’s garden, opened itself, and a man entered furtively.
“It’s him. Get back!” Gripped by a lively agitation, the stranger whispered in the ear of M. Duvaudois. They withdrew a little, so that their heads were obscured by the leafy branches surrounding the window.
The man below moved ahead with caution. He carried a short spade, rested this against the sundial, and took from his pocket a huge sheet of paper. He unfolded and stared at it in the gleam of a little electric torch. He put the paper back in his pocket, as well as the torch, and with only the light of the moon directed himself towards the house.
He turned his back to the entry steps; departing from the bottom of these, he made in measured paces for the sundial. At a dozen, he stopped and plugged a small stake into the ground.
“That’s it! That’s it! The misery, he has found the plan!” In the pigeoncote the stranger, seeming at the pitch of excitation, seized the arm of M. Duvaudois and squeezed it hard.
“Hush! He’ll hear you!” ordered Duvaudois, quivering with intrigue.
But the man in the garden seemed too preoccupied to hear. He went towards the wall opposite the pigeoncote, to the place where the well could be seen. Turning his back to the coping, he counted ten steps, in the direction of the center pond, and plugged into earth another stake. Then he unrolled a ribbon from this stake to the first, measured with care one-third of its length, and placed another stick of wood just at the foot of a great chestnut tree. He took his spade, and taking pains, pried up a rectangle of lawn, then eagerly began to dig.
The stranger in the pigeoncote gasped.
After digging for about an hour, the man in the garden came out of the hole he’d made, wiped his brow and looked around him with disappointment. Again he took out his plan, read it by the light of his electric torch. He retraced his steps and his measurements, which carried him to the same spot. Then appearing animated by a new courage, he commenced with fresh energy to dig his hole.
All at once he made a low exclamation. A metallic noise of iron sounded under his spade. Feverishly, he struck four or five blows with this, threw aside his tool and began to dig with his hands. They saw him take out his torch, bend to illuminate the bottom of the hole and whatever he’d found there. He made a cry of joy, leapt from the excavation…and began to dance like a fool.
“He has it! He has it! The pirate! He stole it from me! He ruined me! But he will know who he’s dealing with!”
The stranger at the side of M. Duvaudois seemed as overwrought as the stranger in the garden. But the latter, in the midst of his gambols, made a false step. He stumbled, put a leg in the hole he had made, and fell heavily.
He had done himself a cruel injury, for he gave a stifled groan, righted himself with difficulty, sat on the ground holding his ankle and cursing between his teeth. At the end of a few minutes, he tried again to get on his feet, and nearly fell. He made a gesture of helpless anger. Dragging himself with pain, he sought to collect his spade from where he’d thrown it. He went back to the hole and began to fill it, without having removed anything of what he’d found.
He worked on in apparent pain, bit by bit, muffling the cries that his suffering tore from him, stopping frequently to rest. When the hole was almost leveled, he replaced the turf of grass, scattered the dirt that remained; then planted twigs and dead leaves to conceal all trace of his digging. Crouched very low, he limped along the trunks of trees, went to the well and threw in his spade, gained the gate to the street, and disappeared as furtively as he’d come.
“Monsieur,” said the stranger to Duvaudois, “thanks to you a great injustice has been thwarted. I know all now. This accident of fate has interrupted a criminal enterprise. What we have witnessed gives me the chance to make my move. You may believe me eternally grateful that, as I hope, I have seen this in time.”
M. Duvaudois walked him back to the garden gate. The stranger, urbane in manner, took his leave and departed.
Duvaudois did not sleep that night.
After the stranger left, he stayed a full hour, seated in his garden, unmoving, prey to an interior struggle…postulating, calculating, constructing plans…
Then he went to get a hammer and a large screw, going noiselessly into the street, in the soft darkness that precedes the dawn, reaching the door of the Pirate’s House. With a blow of the hammer (wrapped in his handkerchief to soften the noise), he forced the screw into the old lock. Certain, then, that this house could be entered no more, he returned to his own.
Before noon, he was in conference with his lawyer.
“The House of the Pirate…indeed, I have been charged with selling it. It belongs to the Dupray brothers, you know, the two nephews of the mysterious fellow.”
“He must have left them a considerable inheritance,” M. Duvaudois remarked, with an air of detachment.
“But no, not at all. That is an error. All the city believed we would find enormous sums… Not in the least! Nothing! Barely four or five thousand francs… The two brothers were furious and accused each other of looting. They left for Paris completely baffled. You don’t remember them? You must have met them when they were here.”
“Oh, yes, I have seen them, it seems to me… Blond, are they?”
“No, dark, very dark. The older one has a monocle, and a large moustache.”
(That is my gentleman, M. Duvaudois said to himself.)
“The younger one is taller, and has a beard.”
(That is the man in the garden, thought M. Duvaudois. I’m sure of it!)
“The latter,” the lawyer went on, “came back to see me three days ago. He had asked me for a key to open the house. This very morning, he was here again at the opening of the office, before leaving on the ten o’clock train. The unlucky fellow has lamed his foot to the point of not being able to take a step, and I had to go down for him to summon a car. He insisted, against my counsel, on raising the price of the house. That is folly. Already we couldn’t find a purchaser. Now it will be impossible.”
“Why so? The house is pretty and the garden would suit me perfectly for the enlarging of mine. I would like to buy it…”
M. Duvaudois was, despite himself, becoming a little flushed. The whole story seemed clear as crystal to him, and an insuppressible hope swelled his greedy heart.
The lawyer was surprised.
“My faith, M. Duvaudois, if you’d like to buy it, I’d be delighted. It is, to be sure, a beautiful house, except that the price…excuse me… I’m sorry to say, the price is a little high. At first, it was twenty thousand, but since this morning, I am forbidden to sell it for less than forty-five.”
M. Duvaudois jumped to his feet. “Forty-five thousand!”
“Sorry, yes. It has shot up! But, perhaps, if you’re talking seriously…”
“Oh, my faith!” M. Duvaudois resumed his seat. “The property has become expensive! And then, this is only a caprice. But…if you can sell it… Oh well, I’ll buy!”
The notary seemed somewhat bewildered. “M. Duvaudois,” he said at last, “I have the power of attorney, and I can arrange the sale whenever you like.”
When M. Duvaudois returned with the keys which, thanks to him, were made useless, and clutching the document that made him owner of the house, the garden, and all that it contained (he had insisted on this stipulation), he sighed with an unspeakable joy, and waited impatiently for the night to come, as he deemed mystery necessary to his operations.
Around one o’clock in the morning, having misgivings that a storm threatened, he went down to his garden. He carried a spade slung over his back, and with the aid of a ladder, scaled the wall that separated his old from his new property. In the wild garden, at the foot of the tall chestnut tree, he had no trouble finding the place he’d watched the stranger dig. He dug in his own right, with all his strength. He worked passionately for what seemed more than an hour, not allowing himself to be stirred by flashes of lightning and the roar of thunder, any more than by the deluge of rain that soon spilled in.
All at once, the spade struck a metallic object. Drunk with exaltation, he shoveled earth from a carefully closed box, in appearance like a biscuit tin. He grabbed this and fled to the ladder under torrents of rain, passed over the wall with all speed, and as little noise as possible. He gained his own house, and in his office fell on the box, breathing hard, soaked to the bone, covered in mud to the belly. A puddle of water formed at his feet.
Placing his find on his desk near his lighted lamp, M. Duvaudois, more emotional than he had ever been in his life, cut the wire that encircled the box, lifted the lid, tore the lead sheet that enclosed a folded packet, drew out a second tin curio box, and from this a large parchment, covered in writing. He unrolled it.
From the brothers Dupray
For the sale at forty-five thousand francs, of an old house worth twenty thousand.
You take a Duvaudois susceptible of believing in hidden treasures, and willing to steal them from their legitimate owners…
M. Duvaudois read no more. He became livid, then violet. He made a convulsive inhalation that sounded like a rattle, put a hand to his throat and fell in a faint, his nose on the recipe.
A Few Blackmails
Tall and lithe, svelte in her perfect but simple tailoring, Marie-Anne d’Hauberive leant standing against the mantelpiece of her little sitting room. She had been going out for her morning walk, when the chambermaid presented the visiting card, of one who insisted he would wait.
Entered a small man, fat and old, whose face was shaven and whose eyes were sharp and chill under round-lensed spectacles. He advanced smiling, obsequious, bowing at each step, much at his ease.
“Very honored I am, madame,” he began when the chambermaid had closed the door.
With calm disdain Mme d’Hauberive interrupted.
“What do you have to say to me?” She stood aloof, holding his card between her fingers. “Who are you?”
“Read my card, madame. Take care. M. Mathieu, man of business. Yes, I permitted myself to indicate I’d come for the good works of the rue Raynouard… I think I had no hope of being received, otherwise, would you say? It is a little old, but we imagine you have not forgotten…”
No shadow passed over the beautiful, scornful face of Marie-Anne d’Hauberive. “I do not understand you.”
“No. For if you understood me, you would not have me in your parlor. But I will come to the aid of your memory. I permit myself this, too. No one can hear us? Of course, M. d’Hauberive will not dare enter your rooms without begging your leave. Before you, I put the confidential and delicate… It is a disobliging thing for a queen of beauty and high society, to be sure. But the reason, to be precise…shall we go back more than fifteen years? More than fifteen years, perhaps eighteen, perhaps twenty… When you still called yourself Mlle Marie-Anne Belléve, daughter of President Belléve… Yes, you had frequented the rue Raynouard, you remember it yourself, now, don’t you? You’d had the misfortune in childhood to lose Madame your mother. Monsieur your father, occupied by the duties of his office, saw little of you. Your governess obeyed you without a word, for she dreaded you, and because it was her living and you gave her generous gifts… And you, going out in the world, met Jacques Piétry, a young man, a colonial. He was very handsome, very interesting, energetic, strong…his explorations in Africa had made him a near celebrity. My God! but the souls of young girls are enthusiastic, and yours, always so proud, so independent… So natural for you, meeting for the first time a man who seemed worthy. For nearly a year you went to see him, in his little house on the rue de Raynouard… You remember that, you had gone there almost every day. Sometimes you arrived by the Passage des Eaux. You entered in secret; he had given you a key. All this is very moving, and proves the power of love. After all, you were planning to marry him. But he lived almost in poverty…at least in consideration of your tastes, your habits, and your own wealth. And then, to call yourself Mme Piétry… You hesitated. He left again on a new mission, and you allowed him to go. And there it ended. Two years later, you married M. d’Hauberive, a diplomat, very rich, very important, and who is now an ambassador. M. d’Hauberive admires you, venerates you, madame. You are a model of elegance, dignity, breeding. No malicious talk dares touch you. The past is known to no one, your governess is dead. Jacques Piétry is no doubt also dead…”
He broke off. Mme d’Hauberive, without taking the trouble to answer, had reached for the bell.
“One moment! Nothing imprudent, eh?” cried M. Mathieu, whose round face, gone pallid, was no longer jovial but menacing. “You forget, dear madame, that during the year you were mistress of Jacques Piétry, you wrote to him. Yes, when you spent a month at the château de Lavernière. And what letters, what letters! Intimate, tender, passionate…enflamed even. Precise, detailed… Ah! You loved him well. And completely. My word! I, who am an old man, have been impressed by these letters. There are six…of the most emotional. The others Jacques Piétry has burned, he swore it to me. For he is not dead at all, only the colonies have been a failure for him… Yes, the voyage, the one you’d known of, from that voyage he did not return in all haste. Because he understood you did not love him enough to marry him. And he loved you too much to accept something near to sharing you… So he remained, I don’t know where, in a lost country, destroying himself with alcohol and opium. He did not come back until a year ago, a used-up, ruined man without a sou. He lives in a little room in the house where I have my office. By this means we have come to know each other…I, being sociable—I take an interest in my fellow man. I have given him aid. He makes copies for me, of accounts. Woman, he had eaten nothing for days! On an evening when I offered him dinner, he told me everything. You know a glass of alcohol loosens the tongue. In short, he has asked me to take up his affairs. He has come to know me, and I have prevented his starving. And you, woman…he feels that you have broken his life. I answered him that you had acted in feminine practicality, which puts reason above sentiment, but he will hear none of it. He poses a question: How much value will you put on these six letters?”
All this M. Mathieu had said calmly, with a natural ease.
Mme d’Hauberive allowed none of the feelings which agitated her to show on her face. She gave no answer.
M. Mathieu, at the end of a minute, went on:
“Business is business. These letters are to you…or shall we say, they are to my client and myself…like bank notes, since they are of your issuing. So, if you won’t buy them back, we’ll make our proposition to your husband. You may imagine he will pay what we ask, anything to prevent our sending, with explanations, typewritten copies to various people… You recall them, do you not, these letters? Truly, they are intimate and detailed. There are certain words…evocations… Ah, by God, you were an ardent young girl!”
His smile was fat, insolent. He added:
“It is not necessary for me to waste your time. We…that is to say, myself and my client… My client wishes to see you, it is the idea of this fellow. We will wait for you a short time, until four o’clock. Here is the address. Don’t fail, or I will be here tomorrow to consult with M. d’Hauberive.”
Becoming once more obsequious, he took his leave, conducted off by the chambermaid. Mme d’Hauberive, alone, held herself immobile, still impassive to appearances, a corner of her mouth barely lifting to crease in bitterness. The distaste, the fear that tried her, the menace that weighed on her, were less cruel than the thought that he’d become this, her Jacques Piétry, the only memory of love in a life consecrated otherwise to fashion and décor. And this, the memory he had of her…a mere means to blackmail. She shuddered in anger and shame. On such a man she had once squandered the whole of her existence, sacrificed all her ambition…
Yet she had a burning curiosity to know him, as he was now.
She asked herself with anguish how she would find the enormous sum of money that would be, without doubt, demanded of her.
It was in a little street, winding and steep, in the neighborhood of the Panthéon…
Mme d’Hauberive, arriving at the doorstep of an ill-kept house, saw that M. Mathieu waited. He bowed to the ground and preceded her into a dark hallway. He descended three steps and opened a door. Without hesitation she entered the narrow room, bare of furnishings, where scarcely any of a greenish light filtered through a tiny window, giving onto a courtyard like the depths of a well.
In a corner more shadowed than the others sat a man behind a table. Mme d’Hauberive looked at him in horror and revulsion. Was he this ghost with sunken cheeks, balding head, grey and wild beard, who fixed on her—seeming not to see her—dull eyes, watery and without expression?
She thought he was drunk, and felt afraid, though she did not lose her disdainful hauteur.
“My dear friend,” said M. Mathieu, “you see we have not presumed too far, as to madame’s spirit of practicality. She understands, she comes, she will hear us. Madame, there are six letters, in that envelope on the table. No, no need to read them again, certainly you remember them. And as you seem a person of decision and bold initiative, permit me to place myself between the table and you. Madame, we reckon these letters at thirty thousand francs apiece. Six times thirty thousand is eighteen…but let us make it a round number, of two hundred thousand francs. There. You may receive these letters in exchange for two hundred thousand francs in bank notes. When must you make this purchase? We cannot wait a long while. Let us have it eight days from now.”
“You’re insane!” It needed all her energy to keep calm. “Where would you have me find such a sum, on such short notice, without anyone’s knowing it?”
“And you are joking. The fortune of your husband is considerable, you have rich parents…you have jewelry. You can borrow. I assure you that tomorrow M. d’Hauberive will pay far more.”
M. Mathieu smiled as he made these threats.
Mme d’Hauberive almost roused herself to leave, revolted to be there, discussing these things…
But her fear of humiliation was stronger, and subdued her pride. She would be left with no recourse but to disappear. For the first time, she climbed down from her height, tried bending to this fat old man, sinister and jovial.
“But only see, monsieur, it is in your interest as well as mine to allow me a longer time, and to lower your demands…”
“No, madame. What is said is said.” M. Mathieu rubbed his hands together. “Our stipulations are moderate. You will pay, or another will pay. That is your opinion too, is it not, my precious client? Come, dear madame, have you decided?”
Marie-Anne d’Hauberive suffocated with anguish. She could not find in a week such a sum of money without some explanation of what she would do with it. She felt she would rather die than make this confession to her husband. Breathing hard, she stood motionless, not weeping, but with her face wrenched in a horrible distress.
She trembled. The ghost, until that moment utterly still, not seeing or speaking, but the seated image of a brute, suddenly raised himself, took two wavering steps, and fell on M. Mathieu, seizing him in his arms.
“The letters!” he cried at the same time. “On the table, the envelope… Marie-Anne, burn them! I want no more. I want no more. Hurry, Marie-Anne, burn them… The matches are on the mantelpiece. I will hold him, burn them… Don’t run with them, he’ll escape and catch you on the street!”
She snatched the envelope, verified the six letters were inside, crumpled and set them alight, throwing them into the fireplace.
“Idiot! Thief! Imbecile! Let me go!” shouted M. Mathieu, who tried in vain to escape the embrace of his adversary. “Two hundred thousand francs! Idiot!”
They both by then were on the floor, rolling. Mme d’Hauberive, watching to see the letters wholly consumed, recoiled towards the door.
“Go, Marie-Anne!” cried Jacques Piétry, in a voice growing feeble. “Go! I can’t hold him! Go and don’t fear. Be at peace.”
“Yes, my dear Vardot, I saw these men this morning, and I tell you the thing is done. You will be named mayor. No candidate will oppose you. Which is only fair, eh? Isn’t the factory, that you direct with such command, a source of prosperity to our city? And when your father was dead, had you hesitated to leave the pleasures and opportunities of Paris? No, but here you arrived to continue his work. You have won recognition everywhere, shared in great part by Mme Vardot. Now…another thing, my dear friend… I am going to be indiscreet! In Paris, last week, on finding myself at the ministry, I learned of an official testament to the high esteem in which they hold you… That’s it! The red ribbon for your buttonhole.”
At once, Vardot fumbled his cup of coffee. His large face, engulfed in a grey, wiry beard, grew empurpled. He stood, to stammer: “Monsieur le deputy! My gratitude…my dear friend… It is you, it is your influence…”
“Yes, yes, it is you he must thank, I’m sure of it,” said Mme Vardot.
“Ah. It is none of my duty as a deputy to call attention… However, the merits of M. Vardot declare themselves. Goodness! Two-thirty already! In your house, madame, one commits the sins of gluttony and overstaying…very agreeably! I have, unfortunately, my train.”
He rose to take his leave. Then, suddenly:
“My dear Vardot, I forget. This fellow of mine, for whom you’ve had the goodwill to promise employment as a supervisor in your factory, has arrived. I saw him this morning. He will present himself with a note from me at your office this day, at around four o’clock. Here is his name, which, I believe, I haven’t even told you…you have welcomed my request with such alacrity! I thank you again.”
The deputy wrote two words on a piece of paper and handed this to Vardot, who protested: “Thank me, go on! As you see, I am entirely at your service, and very happy…”
When he’d escorted his visitor to the garden gate, Vardot came back to his wife. She was standing in the middle of their grand salon, a space all green and gold, the admiration of the city.
“Well, there it is,” she said to her husband.
“Yes, there it is. The mayor’s post, the decoration. All that we could wish.”
They exalted. Their importance would wax large, become definitive. They would rule in this little city, which for them was the world.
“It’s Tuesday tomorrow…my day,” said Mme Vardot. “Am I to announce it to these women?”
“Of the appointment, you may speak to them, certainly. You will say that I have a mandate of my fellow citizens.”
“And as for the Legion of Honor, I will content myself with clever allusions.”
“Just so. Now, I’m off to the factory. I have orders to give. And then I will have to receive this protégé of M. Terbil. He asked me the other day to find work for him, some sort of job not difficult to fill, as this was an old man past his prime, who was dying of hunger, gone to ruin in Paris. And if you’re thinking I haven’t got a place free, I am going to create one, just to please Terbil, but only when old May takes his retirement. I will give his place to this fellow.”
He unfolded the paper given him by Terbil, and read the name.
“What is it?” asked his wife.
He had gone white, then red. Hesitant, trembling, he handed across the note.
She read aloud: “Melchior Bostelette.”
“Well?” said Vardot, in a strangled voice. “You don’t remember? That time…?”
She flushed as well. Yes, at this moment, and with a shock, she did. “Oh… Oh!”
Between them fell a cruel silence. Mme Vardot, who under the halo of majestic virtue sat enthroned in authority among the women of her city; whom the tax collector, a well-read and waggish old man, had for many years compared to the chaste Juno…had at another time—that time evoked by Vardot—been called La Grande Caro. She has sought her fortune painted and plumed, taking chairs at tables in the cafés of the boulevard Saint-Michel.
Vardot had come to know her on a Carnival night, dragged along by a band of his comrades. After a dull adolescence, sitting bottom of his class at a provincial college, he had found a little freedom in Paris, and finished his studies there on a meagre allowance, from a father severe and economical. Ugly, coarse, and timid, Vardot dreaded women and ignored them, but Caro inexplicably had picked him out. It pleased her that this one presented difficulties—first to conquer, then to keep.
For Vardot’s part, he had never in the world had a woman but her, perhaps because he had never dared speak to another. After a few years of a liaison grown more and more attached, he had finally married her, hoping to have her all to himself…without the distaste of her knowing other clients. To his few friends, rarely seen now, he declared she was a victim of fate, and more than the equal of better respected, higher-born persons.
Around this time, old Vardot, who had known nothing of this adventure, died. At once the son and his wife left Paris, with no mind to return. They would establish themselves in the little city, their careers falling into a peaceful slumber, their horizons wide, their days regularly arranged, and not a care for M. Vardot but the directing of an enterprise capable of going by itself.
Mme Vardot was drunk with joy at realizing what, during her years of hazardous dalliance, had been her secret dream—to be a respectable bourgeoise, managing her own household, closed in a circle of public approbation…
And as to this word love, outside of conjugal duty, where was the sense of it?
But it had come.
To fall within this happiness, lasting now twenty years, this name: Melchior Bostelette. Melchior Bostelette had been a member of that rowdy Latin Quarter gang. Older and richer than the rest, a vivant already jaded, his pleasure was to be among young men; and towards their transient companions, he had showed himself full of gallantry.
“But perhaps this is not him,” murmured Mme Vardot, at last.
“Yes, yes, it is. There cannot be two men in the world named Melchior Bostelette.”
“Perhaps he won’t remember. I had red hair in those days. And then, why should he think…?”
She stopped herself, flushing once more. Vardot did not dare question the relationship she’d had with Bostelette. He sat, as did she, bitterly discomfited. A past that all around them were ignorant of; a past concerning two people they no longer were, one that rarely came to their recollection…
This twist felt to them a hideous comeuppance. The mire of it terrorized and menaced. The cruelty that could bring this Bostelette at the very hour of their triumph…it made them revolt inside. They felt a savage hatred of this witness resurfaced, who could cover them with opprobrium. They envisioned him telling all the city…
But Mme Vardot recovered herself.
“Listen. There’s every chance he won’t remember your name, or at any rate, make any connection. From what M. Terbil told you, he must be a wreck, senile almost. For that matter, the age he would be! And if he’s gone on carousing as he did… After all, you may be obligated because of Terbil to take him on…but in your manner you must show nothing. Act with the ease and authority of a businessman who for charity’s sake employs a nobody, and has no need of him. Only be careful. What exactly is this job?”
“To watch the buildings. And to note down the workers, as they arrive. He is given a room, and a small allowance… He runs the occasional errand, and keeps the address book for the catalogue. For all that, I pay by the month…obviously no life of luxury, but earnings. A sinecure.”
“Well, treat him as you treat old man May, exactly. And now, go. This evening, you’ll let me know.”
M. Vardot, in a state of nerves, went to his factory in the suburbs. When in the evening he came back, he seemed a little reassured.
“It’s him,” he said to his wife. “I recognized him, but I’m almost certain he hasn’t recognized me. This is a man wholly spent. He suspects nothing, he barely speaks. To all I say, he answers, yes, yes…with an air of stupidity. We do not have, I believe, anything to fear.”
“All to the good,” said Mme Vardot, triumphant. “If you knew the congratulations I’ve received from these women!”
She recounted the accolades to Vardot, whose chest expanded. He insisted for his own part on the dotage evident in the dandy Melchior Bostelette, and in the following days, Mme Vardot was able to convince herself by meeting her husband in the city. Hardly could she recognize in this ragged old man, stumbling and wasted, the elegant Bostelette of former nights. He passed her by without appearing to see her.
At the factory he led the dull life of an invalid, and did not even earn his small allowance, as M. Vardot remarked, tranquil in his scorn.
The surprise for this gentleman was great, therefore, when at the end of a month Bostelette presented him the accounts, written in a trembling hand, of his working expenses. Baffled by the total, M. Vardot glanced quickly through the details. The first items, errands run and copies made, appeared fair.
At the last, Vardot shuddered. It read: Monthly silence, 500 francs.
Vardot raised his eyes to the old man. And those, usually dulled by Melchior Bostelett, gleamed, lucid and mocking.
M. Vardot paid.
“Monsieur, a gentleman has come on the part of the Philanthropic Society of Paris.”
“Well, allow him in,” said M. Blestat. He folded his newspaper, shook his cigar ash into the fire, and rose from his armchair.
Ushered by the servant came a shabby person, tall and pale, grey-haired.
“Monsieur, I have the honor,” he said with ease, and took the seat offered by M. Blestat. “Charming home you have here. One of the loveliest in the city. Your garden is a paradise, a true paradise; your parlor, which I have just crossed…”
“Be so good as to tell me the reason for your visit,” Blestat interrupted.
“Thank you for recalling this to me. You are well, are you not, M. Théodore Blestat? Merchant, widower, fifty-five years of age, father of a young man of twenty-eight, M. Philippe. No, don’t be impatient, you will understand me. The Philanthropic Society, shall we speak of it no more…? It was for the sake of being received; it will serve for another time. Give me five minutes, you’ll see. You’ll see! Your son, my dear monsieur, is affianced to Mlle Claire Verralive. The engagement dinner was yesterday. The wedding will soon take place. A beautiful alliance, very beautiful! A ravishing young woman, a fortune, a good family, and overall such respectability! M. Verralive, the father, is a man of another age. He is pure of heart, rigid in his integrity, uncompromising. His conduct is clear as crystal, his name stands in example…”
M. Blestat said impatiently, “I know as well as anyone the merits and just reputation of M. Verralive…”
“Then, my dear monsieur, what do you think of your brother Auguste?”
Blestat gave a start and grew livid.
“My dear monsieur, merely to see you at this moment erases all doubt.” The visitor spoke with satisfaction, paused, and added: “Let us have a quiet talk. My approach may seem a little delicate, but my goal is in your interest—the avoidance of disagreeable tales. I ask only to be treated as a friend, and note, I am no more than an intermediary. The people who have sent me…they do not live in this city, they live in Paris…oh! They know your brother. They know…yes, yes, they know all. His history in Nantes, in Paris, and then, Bordeaux, the worst…the fakery, the fraudulent scheming, the trial, the sentence… That’s an old affair, twenty years past.
“After so long a time, one could believe all has been forgotten, above all when one has had a change of address, as you, when quitting Nantes and coming here. And then, he died in that place, did poor Auguste…not yet released. Yes, we could believe it all forgotten. What’s to be done, my dear monsieur? There are some who remember, who choose this moment to send me to you, to say to you, M. Blestat, does M. Verralive know your brother was in the hulks? Have you told him? This is the first point. Now, if M. Verralive knows this, does he allow his daughter to marry your son? And thus, the second point. My dear monsieur, I tell you this at once. Nothing is more unjust than these scandals so long hidden, that reassert themselves to taint the innocent. Of course, you are honest as well, a perfect life, nothing to reproach yourself with. Your son is a young man off-limits. He does not enter into it. This is between ourselves, men of business. You grasp what I’m saying…wait, don’t trouble to answer. The truth is written on your face; one has but to read it. So, my third and last point…what price silence? Tell me your sum, I will tell you mine…that is to say, the one they would have me give you. Since I am only an intermediary. “
There passed a very long silence.
“Who are you?” demanded M. Blestat in a hollow voice.
“Why, I was a witness at the trial of poor Auguste. I failed him… In short, we were friends. He spoke to me of you, oh…three or four times. Rightly or wrongly, he felt you had abandoned him and he wanted you… By faith, I tell you frankly I had formed a bad opinion of you. It is understood…one is honorable, one does not wish to be compromised. But—devil take it!—a brother is a brother. You have a son you would like to shelter, I realize. And poor Auguste was impractical. What do you want? He was a dreamer, like me. You, now…you are orderly, so much the better for you, my dear monsieur. My thoughts in recent days have returned to you. I find myself at a very bad pass. By chance, in my researches, I learned you did a large business here. Friends I consulted advised a little syndicate, among ourselves, to exploit the idea. They found me the money…and here I am arrived. I made a small investigation…this fell to my favor, just so. I waited, because of the marriage, for the suitable moment…and here, since I see you won’t name your price, I will name ours: one hundred thousand! A round number, a sum unimportant to you. Unimportant, I say—you are very rich. No, I beg you, no discussion, my dear monsieur, only think! I will return to you tomorrow. You will tell me yes or no. If no, I tell the little story of poor Auguste to M. Verralive. He will give me something for my trouble. And then, I’ll tell it in the town, as well. But, if yes, and I think it will be yes, as you love your son, and as you care what the world thinks, indeed…! If yes, I stop here a moment, and then I take my train. Everyone is content. The marriage is made, and you will never hear from me again. My dear monsieur, I give you my word of honor.”
He finished with a great air of seriousness. He gave and easy wave, and left without waiting for an answer. His steps crunched on the gravel path and the gate of the garden rang as he closed it.
M. Blestat remained in his chair. The cigar between his fingers extinguished itself. He was aghast.
Better even than his impudent visitor, he knew the effect such a revelation would produce, and the disrepute, unjust but inevitable, this would reflect on himself. He thought of his friends and his enemies, of prudish society, of the rigid wealthy of his provincial city. These people were all known to one another, and the place of importance he held was his universe. He thought of M. Verralive, the uncontested leader of this society, with whom he’d been so proud to have made the alliance. He thought of his son Philippe, who adored Claire Verralive…
Amidst all of which, the shadow of the convict reared in menace, evoked by that scoundrel now emerged, whose blackmail, if paid, would beyond doubt renew itself through eternity.
Long did M. Blestat reflect. Many changes of decision came, before he rested definitely on one. He stood, took up his overcoat and hat, but on the point of going out hesitated still, his suffering cruel. At last he went striding off.
A quarter of an hour later, he was in the presence of M. Verralive, and he, with his imposing carriage, long grey hair and noble visage, his unchanging smile, grave and pacific at once, listened and leant against the mantelpiece in his work office.
M. Blestat was there to tell the truth, and he did. He revealed summarily the history of his brother: his follies, his evils, his crime, his condemnation, his death in prison. Then he told of the visitor he’d received, and the tendering of the blackmail scheme. He spoke in a strained voice, choked by shame. After some conventional remarks on the injustice of extending to an entire family the opprobrium of one member, he added emotional words on the love between Philippe and Claire. Then he waited with a lowered head, as miserable as the day his brother had been condemned.
M. Verralive listened with less than his usual smile, but listened unstirred. He then said nothing, while long minutes passed. His face grew little by little lighter.
“Why have you not given this man one hundred-thousand francs?” he asked at last.
“As I say, because he would continue to blackmail me, because it would be a constant threat hanging over me…over my son…and because I would be at great fault, if I were to hide this from you.”
“It is not for the sum itself?”
“No. The sum is not important. I would rather give three times the amount…”
Blestat did not finish with: “To avoid the humiliation of this moment.”
M. Verralive said: “One sees that you are rich. You did very well to refuse. We do not allow ourselves to be plucked in this way. I will not hide from you that the story is most dismaying. But I esteem you, and I esteem your son. Neither you, nor he, is guilty. When this master singer returns tomorrow, flank him round at the door and threaten him with the police. If he dares come here, I will make the cause my own. We will not allow him crying tales about the city. Who will believe him, when I, Hippolyte Verralive, forcefully deny it?”
M. Blestat felt reborn. A tremendous gratitude uplifted him. “Thank you! From the bottom of my heart, thank you!”
“Not at all, not at all! We will speak of it no more. As to the wedding…that’s for next month. But on this subject, my dear friend, I have a little thing to say to you. We are men of business, the two of us, and I will explain frankly. It concerns the dowry of Claire. Due to unpreventable circumstances, I find myself a bit embarrassed, as to disposable funds. I cannot give all I would like…but why should the young people suffer for my fault? I will count on you, my dear friend, to make up the difference. This is hardly of importance to you, after all, only one hundred-thousand francs… Naturally, you will permit no difficulties?”
“But none, naturally, none,” stammered M. Blestat, managing to smile despite his astonishment.
(more to come)