inSerial: part nine
The Mysteries of Paris
17. The Coeur-Saignant
After responding to the Schoolmaster’s signal, the host of the Coeur-Saignant advanced with civility to the doorway. The man, whom Rodolphe had searched for in La Cité, and whose real name he did not yet know, was Bras-Rouge. Small, thin, stunted, and weak, the man looked to be about fifty. His physiognomy resembled that of a weasel or rat: a pointy nose, receding chin, bony cheekbones, small black eyes, shifty and piercing, lent his features an unmistakable expression of cunning, shrewdness, and intelligence. An old blond wig, now yellow with age and matching his bilious complexion, was perched on top of his skull, revealing a fringe of gray hair along his neck. He wore a round waistcoat that resembled the long, dark aprons often seen on waiters. Our three characters had barely descended the final step when a small, pallid child of no more than ten appeared. He had an intelligent face but was lame and misshapen. He came forward to join Bras-Rouge, whom he so strikingly resembled that one might have mistaken him for his son. They shared the same penetrating and shrewd gaze. The boy’s forehead was half hidden beneath a forest of yellowish hair, stiff and straight like a horse’s mane. He wore brown pants and a gray blouse, cinched with a leather belt. The boy, who had been given the name Tortillard because of his infirmity, stood next to his father, resting on his good leg like a heron at the edge of a swamp.
“There’s the boy,” said the Schoolmaster. “Finette, let’s not waste time, it’s getting dark. We should take advantage of the remaining daylight.”
“Yes, of course. I’ll ask his father if I can borrow him.”
“Hello, old man,” said Bras-Rouge, addressing the Schoolmaster in a high-pitched voice, harsh and sharp, “how may I be of service?”
“Can you lend the boy to my wife for fifteen minutes? She lost something nearby and he can help her look for it.”
Bras-Rouge winked at the Schoolmaster and said to his son: “Tortillard, go with Madame.”
The deformed child, drawn to the Owl’s ugliness and cruelty the way others are charmed by a well-meaning exterior, hobbled over to the one-eyed crone and took her hand.
“Now, there’s a sweet child,” remarked Finette. “He comes as soon as you call. He’s not like that little Pégriotte. She always looked as if she was going to gag whenever she came near me, the little beggar.”
“Get a move on, Finette. Open your eye and stay alert. I’ll wait here.”
“We won’t be long. You first, Tortillard.”
And the one-eyed woman and the crippled boy climbed the slippery stairs.
“Finette, take my umbrella!”
“It’ll only get in the way,” she replied and disappeared with the boy into the thickening fog that had gathered with the waning day, as the wind rustled in the black, leafless branches of the great elms along the Champs-Élysées.
“Let’s go in,” said Rodolphe.
They had to bend to pass through the doorway of the cabaret, which was divided into two rooms. One held a counter and a worn billiard table; in the other were garden tables and chairs, which had once been green. Two narrow windows with broken panes, covered with cobwebs, cast a dim light into the two rooms, their walls green with mold and mildewed from damp. Rodolphe remained alone a short while as Bras-Rouge and the Schoolmaster rapidly exchanged a few mysterious words and signs.
“Will you have a glass of beer or a brandy while we wait for Finette?” asked the Schoolmaster.
“No, I’m not thirsty.”
“To each his own. I’ll have a glass of brandy, though, for myself.” And the thief sat down at one of the small green tables in the second room. The darkness began to fill this room until it was soon impossible to see, in a distant corner, the gaping entrance to one of the cellars. This was accessed by means of a trap door with two leaves, one of which always remained open for the staff’s convenience. The table at which the Schoolmaster sat was very near this deep, black hole, to which he had his back turned, completely concealing it from Rodolphe’s view. Rodolphe looked out the window to maintain his composure and hide his discomfort. The sight of Murph hastening to the Allée des Veuves did not fully reassure him. He feared that the worthy squire had failed to understand the entire meaning of his note, which was so laconic as to contain only the following words: “Tonight at ten.”
Although resolved not to venture into the Allée des Veuves before that time or to leave the Schoolmaster out of his sight, he trembled at the thought of losing this unique opportunity to possess the secrets he so ardently wished to unlock. Although he was strong and well armed, he would have to match wits with an unscrupulous assassin who was capable of anything. But—must it be said?—such was the energetic stamp of this strange man, so eager for harsh and violent emotions, that Rodolphe found a certain terrible charm in the uncertainties and obstacles that had complicated the plans he had made the previous night with Murph and Chourineur. Nonetheless, not wishing to be discovered, he sat down at the Schoolmaster’s table and asked for a glass merely to maintain appearances. Bras-Rouge, after a few words exchanged with the Schoolmaster, glanced at Rodolphe with a look that was curious, sardonic, and untrusting.
“My advice,” said the Schoolmaster, “is that if my wife tells us that the people we want to see are home, we can pay them a little visit around eight.”
“That will be two hours too soon,” said Rodolphe. “We would be disturbing them.”
“You think so?”
“I’m certain of it.”
“Fie! Friends don’t stand on formality.”
“I know them. I’m telling you we can’t be there before ten.”
“You’re a stubborn young man, aren’t’ you.”
“That’s my intention, and the devil take me if I move from here before ten o’clock.”
“Have no fear, I never close before midnight,” said Bras-Rouge in his falsetto. “That’s when my best customers arrive, and the neighbors don’t complain about the noise.”
“As you wish, young man,” replied the Schoolmaster. “Agreed. We won’t leave before ten.”
“Here’s the Owl,” Bras-Rouge announced, as he heard and replied to a call that resembled the one the Schoolmaster had made earlier. A moment later, the Owl entered the billiard room alone.
“It looks good, we can go ahead.”
Bras-Rouge discretely withdrew without asking what had become of Tortillard, whom he most likely had no expectation of seeing at this time. The old woman’s clothing dripped with water. She sat down opposite Rodolphe and the Schoolmaster.
“Well,” he said.
“So far the boy has told the truth.”
“You see,” Rodolphe exclaimed.
“Let the Owl talk, young man. Go ahead, Finette.”
“I arrived at number 17, having left Tortillard curled up in a hole to serve as our lookout. It was still daylight. I rang at a small door. The hinges are on the outside and two inches of sunlight can be seen beneath the sill—nothing to worry about. I rang again and a porter opened the door. A tall, stout fellow about fifty. A bit slow and good-natured, red sideburns and mustache, bald. Before ringing, I put my bonnet in my pocket so I looked like one of the neighbors. As soon as he appeared, I began to cry as hard as I could, sobbing that I had lost my parakeet, Cocotte, poor creature, whom I adored. I told him I lived on Avenue Marbeuf and that I had followed the bird from garden to garden. I begged him to let me look for her.”
“Hmpph!” muttered the Schoolmaster with a look of proud satisfaction as he pointed at Finette. “What a woman!”
“Very clever,” Rodolphe added. “But what happened next?”
“The porter let me in to look for my bird and I found myself in the garden calling ‘Cocotte! Cocotte!’ and looking up at the sky, and left and right, taking it all in. Inside the walls a trellis covers the entire garden; it’s as good as a staircase. In a corner of the wall, on the left, is a pine tree that could serve as a ladder. A pregnant woman could manage it. The house has six windows on the ground floor—there are no other floors—and four cellar windows without bars. The ground-floor windows have shutters. There’s a bolt on the bottom and a spring latch on top; a little pressure on the bottom, pull the wire through and . . .”
“You’re in,” answered the Schoolmaster.
The Owl continued, “The entrance door has a glass pane, with two louvered shutters on the outside.”
“And all from memory,” the Schoolmaster commented.
“It’s as if we were there,” Rodolphe added.
“On the left,” the Owl resumed, “near the courtyard, is a well. There’s no trellis here but we can uses the rope if we can’t get out by the door. Inside the house . . .”
“You were inside the house? She got in!” said the Schoolmaster with pride.
“Of course. When I was unable to locate Cocotte, I began to sob. Pretending to feel a little faint, I asked the porter if I might sit down on the doorsill. The kind gentleman told me to come inside and offered me a glass of water and some wine. ‘A plain glass of water,’ I said, ‘a plain glass of water, good sir.’ He invited me into the sitting room—rugs everywhere, which is good to know. They’ll silence our footsteps or the sound of breaking glass if we have to break the window. To the right and left are doors with lever handles. If you simply breathe on them, they’ll open. At the end of the room is a sturdy door, locked with a key. I’m certain it’s the safe. It smells of money. Fortunately, I had my wax in my basket.”
“She had her wax with her, young man. She never goes anywhere without it,” the Schoolmaster interjected.
The Owl continued: “I had to get close to that door. I pretended to cough so hard that I was forced to lean against the wall. When he heard me, the porter said ‘I’ll give you a piece of sugar.’ He probably went to get a spoon because I heard the silver clink. Silver! In the room on the right. Don’t forget that, pet. Finally, still coughing, still whining, I moved toward the door at the back of the room. The wax was in my hand. I leaned against the lock as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Here’s the imprint. If we don’t use it today, we can use it some other time.”
The Owl gave him a piece of yellow wax on which the imprint could clearly be seen.
“Now you can tell us if it’s the door to the safe,” the Owl said.
“That’s it, that’s where the money is kept,” Rodolphe answered. And to himself he muttered, “Was Murph the dupe of this miserable old witch? It’s possible. He was only expecting something to happen at ten. By then, he will have taken the necessary precautions.”
“But the money is not all there!” resumed the Owl, her green eye brilliant. As I approached the windows, still looking for Cocotte, I saw in one of the bedrooms, to the left of the door, bags of money on a bureau. I saw them just the way I see you now. There were at least a dozen.”
“Where’s Tortillard?” the Schoolmaster suddenly interjected.
“In his hole, two steps from the garden gate. That boy’s like a cat, he can see in the dark. There’s only one entrance to number 17. When we return, he can tell us if someone was there.”
The Schoolmaster had barely spoken these words when he rushed at Rodolphe, grabbed him by the neck, and threw him into the cellar, whose opening gaped behind the table. The attack was so sudden, so unexpected, so vigorous, that Rodolphe was unable to anticipate or prevent it. In her alarm, the Owl uttered a piercing cry, for the outcome of the struggle was not immediately apparent to her. When the sound of Rodolphe’s body falling down the steps had ceased, the Schoolmaster, who was very familiar with the building’s subterranean chambers, slowly walked downstairs, listening attentively.
“Be careful, my pet!” cried the Owl, leaning into the opening. “Don’t forget your knife.”
The Schoolmaster did not answer and disappeared from sight. At first, all was silent. Then, after a few moments, the distant sound of a rusty door creaking on its hinges could be heard in the depths of the cellar, and all was silent once more. Below was only darkness. The Owl rummaged in her basket, struck a match, and lit a small candle that cast its glow into the dismal gloom below. At that moment, the monstrous countenance of the Schoolmaster appeared in the entranceway. Unable to restrain herself, the Owl shouted with fear as she caught sight of that pale, seamed, and horribly mutilated face, with its nearly phosphorescent eyes. It appeared to rise from the floor among the shadows, which the candle’s weak light did nothing to dissipate. When she had recovered somewhat from her shock, she exclaimed with a kind of fiendish flattery: “You look terrible, my pet. You frightened even me.”
“Quickly, to the Allée des Veuves,” said the Schoolmaster, closing the two panels of the cellar door with an iron bar. “In an hour it may be too late. If it is a trap, it hasn’t been set yet. And if it’s not, we’ll do this by ourselves.”
18. The Cellar
As a result of his fall, Rodolphe had been knocked unconscious. As he lay motionless at the bottom of the steps, the Schoolmaster, had dragged him down to a second cellar, much deeper than the first, closed by a heavy, iron-studded door. After an hour had passed, Rodolphe gradually began to regain consciousness. He found himself lying on the ground in near total darkness. Stretching out his arms, he felt a stone step. Experiencing a distinct impression of coolness on his feet, he extended his hand to see what it was and discovered a pool of water. With a violent effort he managed to sit upright on the bottom step of the staircase. Gradually his head cleared and he was able to move his limbs. He listened but heard nothing other than a dull, soft, and incessant lapping. At first he was unable to determine its origin. As his confusion dissipated, he went over the circumstances of the attack in his mind, but slowly and incompletely. He was at the point of trying to recollect what had happened when he experienced a second wave of coolness at his feet. He bent over and upon closer examination found he was ankle-deep in water.
Within the gloomy silence surrounding him, he again heard, although more distinctly this time, the same dull, soft sound. Now he understood its cause. The level of the Seine had risen considerably, and because the structure was below ground level, water was entering the cellar. The danger helped Rodolphe collect his thoughts. He quickly climbed the damp steps but when he reached the top, was confronted by a locked door. Vainly he struggled to shake it loose, but it remained motionless on its iron hinges. Under these desperate circumstances, his first thought was for Murph. “If someone doesn’t warn him, that monster is going to kill him. And I’m the one, I’m the one who will have caused his death. Oh, Murph!” This cruel thought magnified Rodolphe’s strength. Bracing his legs, he rounded his shoulders and hurled himself repeatedly against the door but was unable to impart the slightest movement upon it. Hoping to find something he might use as a lever, he returned to the cellar. On the penultimate step, two or three round, elastic bodies rolled and scurried beneath his feet—rats that the rising water had chased from their burrows. He felt around the room in every direction, the water now up to mid-calf, but he found nothing. Slowly, he reascended the stairs, in deepest despair. He counted the steps. There were thirteen in all, three of which were already under water.
Thirteen! That fateful number. Under certain circumstances, even the most resolute intellects may succumb to superstitious ideas, and Rodolphe saw in this number an ill-fated omen. He again considered Murph’s possible fate. In vain he sought an opening between the door and the cellar floor, whose dampness had almost certainly swollen the wood, for it made a hermetic seal with the damp, chalky earth. Rodolphe shouted with all his might, assuming his cries would reach the customers above. He listened but could hear nothing other than the dull, soft, incessant lapping of the water as it continued its inexorable ascent.
Rodolphe sat down with his back to the door. He felt overwhelmed and wept for his friend, who at that very moment might be struggling to ward off the assassin’s blade. He bitterly regretted his bold but misguided projects, no matter how generous their motivation. With anguish he recalled the manifold signs of Murph’s devotion, a wealthy and well-respected man who had left behind a wife and child, and abandoned his own affairs to follow him along the path of heroic but mystifying expiation he had imposed upon himself.
The water continued to rise. Now, only five steps were dry. Standing before the door, Rodolphe found that his forehead touched the top of the vault and he was able to calculate the length of time his agony would endure. His death would be slow, silent, horrific. He remembered the pistol. At the risk of wounding himself by firing point-blank at the door, there was a chance of breaking through. But it was not to be. In his fall, the weapon had been lost or taken by the Schoolmaster. Had it not been for his concern for Murph, Rodolphe would have faced his death with serenity. He had lived a great deal. He had loved deeply. He had done some good in the world, but wanted to do so much more. God only knew! Although he accepted his fate, he saw it as the just punishment for a fatal action that had yet to be redeemed. His thoughts grew exalted, were magnified with the danger.
Now, a new torment tried his resolve. The rats, fleeing the water, had taken refuge on the steps, finding no other escape. Unable to climb the door or wall, they clung to Rodolphe’s clothing. It is impossible to express his horror and disgust as he felt the creatures writhing upon him. He tried to brush them off, but his hands were soon bloody from their sharp, cold teeth. In his fall, his smock and waistcoat had come undone, and upon his naked chest the sensation of icy paws and warm fur could be felt. Tearing them from his clothing, he threw the filthy creatures as far from him as he could, but they returned upon the rising water. Rodolphe cried out again, but in vain. In a short time, he would do so no longer, for the water, now at his neck, would soon cover his mouth.
In that confined space, the air soon began to dissipate and Rodolphe felt himself succumbing to the first symptoms of asphyxiation: the arteries in his temples pounded violently, he grew dizzy. Death was upon him. He turned his thoughts to Murph one last time and then raised his soul to God, not that he might remove himself from danger but that he might accept his suffering. At that supreme moment, at the point of abandoning not only everything that makes a life joyful, brilliant, and enviable, but a nearly royal title and sovereign power as well; forced to abandon an undertaking that by satisfying his two most powerful instincts—a love of good and a hatred of cruelty—might one day be seen as recompense for his faults; as he prepared to undergo a cruel and unjust death, Rodolphe remained untroubled by the kind of rage and impotent fury that lead weaker souls to curse men, fate, and God. No. As long as he remained lucid, Rodolphe accepted his fate with submission and respect. As pain clouded his mind and abandoned to vital instinct alone, he struggled—if it can be so expressed—physically, but not morally, against death.
An onrush of vertigo swept away Rodolphe’s thoughts in its rapid and terrifying surge. The water bubbled at his ears. He felt as if he were spinning. The final spark of reason was about to go out when the sound of running feet and confused voices could be heard outside the cellar door. Hope reanimated his waning strength. With a supreme effort, he succeeded in grasping the following words, the last he was able to comprehend, “You see, there’s no one here.”
“What? But it’s true,” the disappointed voice of Chourineur was heard to say.
The footsteps faded in the distance. Rodolphe, overcome, did not have the strength to support himself any longer and began to slide down the length of the steps. Suddenly, the cellar door was kicked open from without. The water, which had been confined to this subterranean vault, rushed out as if a dam had burst and Chourineur grabbed hold of Rodolphe who, although he was beginning to drown, with a convulsive movement had clung to the bottom of the door.