I began by making an excursion into Italy. The sunshine did me much good. For six months I wandered about from Genoa to Venice, from Venice to Florence, from Florence to Rome, from Rome to Naples. Then I traveled over Sicily, a country celebrated for its scenery and its monuments, relics left by the Greeks and the Normans. Passing over into Africa, I traversed at my ease that immense desert, yellow and tranquil, in which camels, gazelles, and Arab vagabonds roam about--where, in the rare and transparent atmosphere, there hover no vague hauntings, where there is never any night, but always day.
I returned to France by Marseilles, and in spite of all its Provencal gaiety, the diminished clearness of the sky made me sad. I experienced, in returning to the Continent, the peculiar sensation of an illness which I believed had been cured, and a dull pain which predicted that the seeds of the disease had not been eradicated.
I then returned to Paris. At the end of a month I was very dejected. It was in the autumn, and I determined to make, before winter came, an excursion through Normandy, a country with which I was unacquainted.
I began my journey, in the best of spirits, at Rouen, and for eight days I wandered about, passive, ravished, and enthusiastic, in that ancient city, that astonishing museum of extraordinary Gothic monuments.
But one afternoon, about four o'clock, as I was sauntering slowly through a seemingly unattractive street, by which there ran a stream as black as the ink called "Eau de Robec," my attention, fixed for the moment on the quaint, antique appearance of some of the houses, was suddenly attracted by the view of a series of second-hand furniture shops, which followed one another, door after door.
Ah! they had carefully chosen their locality, these sordid traffickers in antiquities, in that quaint little street, overlooking the sinister stream of water, under those tile and slate-pointed roofs on which still grinned the vanes of bygone days.
At the end of these grim storehouses you saw piled up sculptured chests, Rouen, Sevres, and Moustier's pottery, painted statues, others of oak, Christs, Virgins, Saints, church ornaments, chasubles, capes, even sacred vases, and an old gilded wooden tabernacle, where a god had hidden himself away. What singular caverns there are in those lofty houses, crowded with objects of every description, where the existence of things seems to be ended, things which have survived their original possessors, their century, their times, their fashions, in order to be bought as curiosities by new generations.
My affection for antiques was awakened in that city of antiquaries. I went from shop to shop, crossing in two strides the rotten four plank bridges thrown over the nauseous current of the "Eau de Robec."
Heaven protect me! What a shock! At the end of a vault, which was crowded with articles of every description and which seemed to be the entrance to the catacombs of a cemetery of ancient furniture, I suddenly descried one of my most beautiful wardrobes. I approached it, trembling in every limb, trembling to such an extent that I dared not touch it, I put forth my hand, I hesitated. Nevertheless it was indeed my wardrobe; a unique wardrobe of the time of Louis XIII., recognizable by anyone who had seen it only once. Casting my eyes suddenly a little farther, toward the more somber depths of the gallery, I perceived three of my tapestry covered chairs; and farther on still, my two Henry II. tables, such rare treasures that people came all the way from Paris to see them.
Think! only think in what a state of mind I now was! I advanced, haltingly, quivering with emotion, but I advanced, for I am brave--I advanced like a knight of the dark ages.
At every step I found something that belonged to me; my brushes, my books, my tables, my silks, my arms, everything, except the bureau full of my letters, and that I could not discover.
I walked on, descending to the dark galleries, in order to ascend next to the floors above. I was alone; I called out, nobody answered, I was alone; there was no one in that house--a house as vast and tortuous as a labyrinth.
Night came on, and I was compelled to sit down in the darkness on one of my own chairs, for I had no desire to go away. From time to time I shouted, "Hallo, hallo, somebody."
I had sat there, certainly, for more than an hour when I heard steps, steps soft and slow, I knew not where. I was unable to locate them, but bracing myself up, I called out anew, whereupon I perceived a glimmer of light in the next chamber.
"Who is there?" said a voice.
"A buyer," I responded.
"It is too late to enter thus into a shop."
"I have been waiting for you for more than an hour," I answered.
"You can come back to-morrow."
"To-morrow I must quit Rouen."
I dared not advance, and he did not come to me. I saw always the glimmer of his light, which was shining on a tapestry on which were two angels flying over the dead on a field of battle. It belonged to me also. I said:
"Well, come here."
"I am at your service," he answered.
I got up and went toward him.
Standing in the center of a large room, was a little man, very short, and very fat, phenomenally fat, a hideous phenomenon.
He had a singular straggling beard, white and yellow, and not a hair on his head--not a hair!
As he held his candle aloft at arm's length in order to see me, his cranium appeared to me to resemble a little moon, in that vast chamber encumbered with old furniture. His features were wrinkled and blown, and his eyes could not be seen.
I bought three chairs which belonged to myself, and paid at once a large sum for them, giving him merely the number of my room at the hotel. They were to be delivered the next day before nine o'clock.
I then started off. He conducted me, with much politeness, as far as the door.
I immediately repaired to the commissaire's office at the central police depot, and told the commissaire of the robbery which had been perpetrated and of the discovery I had just made. He required time to communicate by telegraph with the authorities who had originally charge of the case, for information, and he begged me to wait in his office until an answer came back. An hour later, an answer came back, which was in accord with my statements.
"I am going to arrest and interrogate this man, at once," he said to me, "for he may have conceived some sort of suspicion, and smuggled away out of sight what belongs to you. Will you go and dine and return in two hours: I shall then have the man here, and I shall subject him to a fresh interrogation in your presence."
"Most gladly, Monsieur. I thank you with my whole heart."
I went to dine at my hotel and I ate better than I could have believed. I was quite happy now, thinking that man was in the hands of the police.
Two hours later I returned to the office of the police functionary, who was waiting for me.
"Well, Monsieur," said he, on perceiving me, "we have not been able to find your man. My agents cannot put their hands on him."
Ah! I felt my heart sinking.
"But you have at least found his house?" I asked.
"Yes, certainly; and what is more, it is now being watched and guarded until his return. As for him, he has disappeared."
"Yes, disappeared. He ordinarily passes his evenings at the house of a female neighbor, who is also a furniture broker, a queer sort of sorceress, the widow Bidoin. She has not seen him this evening and cannot give any information in regard to him. We must wait until to-morrow."
I went away. Ah! how sinister the streets of Rouen seemed to me, now troubled and haunted!
I slept so badly that I had a fit of nightmare every time I went off to sleep.
As I did not wish to appear too restless or eager, I waited till ten o'clock the next day before reporting myself to the police.
The merchant had not reappeared. His shop remained closed.
The commissary said to me:
"I have taken all the necessary steps. The court has been made acquainted with the affair. We shall go together to that shop and have it opened, and you shall point out to me all that belongs to you."
We drove there in a cab. Police agents were stationed round the building; there was a locksmith, too, and the door of the shop was soon opened.
On entering, I could not discover my wardrobes, my chairs, my tables; I saw nothing, nothing of that which had furnished my house, no, nothing, although on the previous evening, I could not take a step without encountering something that belonged to me.
The chief commissary, much astonished, regarded me at first with suspicion.
"My God, Monsieur," said I to him, "the disappearance of these articles of furniture coincides strangely with that of the merchant."
"That is true. You did wrong in buying and paying for the articles which were your own property, yesterday. It was that which gave him the cue."
"What seems to me incomprehensible," I replied, "is that all the places that were occupied by my furniture are now filled by other furniture."
"Oh!" responded the commissary, "he has had all night, and has no doubt been assisted by accomplices. This house must communicate with its neighbors. But have no fear, Monsieur; I will have the affair promptly and thoroughly investigated. The brigand shall not escape us for long, seeing that we are in charge of the den."
* * * * * * *
Ah! My heart, my heart, my poor heart, how it beats!
I remained a fortnight at Rouen. The man did not return. Heavens! good heavens! That man, what was it that could have frightened and surprised him!
But, on the sixteenth day, early in the morning, I received from my gardener, now the keeper of my empty and pillaged house, the following strange letter:
"I have the honor to inform Monsieur that something happened, the evening before last, which nobody can understand, and the police no more than the rest of us. The whole of the furniture has been returned, not one piece is missing--everything is in its place, up to the very smallest article. The house is now the same in every respect as it was before the robbery took place. It is enough to make one lose one's head. The thing took place during the night Friday--Saturday. The roads are dug up as though the whole fence had been dragged from its place up to the door. The same thing was observed the day after the disappearance of the furniture.
"We are anxiously expecting Monsieur, whose very humble and obedient servant, I am, PHILLIPE RAUDIN."
"Ah! no, no, ah! never, never, ah! no. I shall never return there!"
I took the letter to the commissary of police.
"It is a very clever restitution," said he. "Let us bury the hatchet. We shall nip the man one of these days."
* * * * * * *
But he has never been nipped. No. They have not nipped him, and I am afraid of him now, as of some ferocious animal that has been let loose behind me.
Inexplicable! It is inexplicable, this chimera of a moon-struck skull! We shall never solve or comprehend it. I shall not return to my former residence. What does it matter to me? I am afraid of encountering that man again, and I shall not run the risk.
And even if he returns, if he takes possession of his shop, who is to prove that my furniture was on his premises? There is only my testimony against him; and I feel that that is not above suspicion.
Ah! no! This kind of existence has become unendurable. I have not been able to guard the secret of what I have seen. I could not continue to live like the rest of the world, with the fear upon me that those scenes might be re-enacted.
So I have come to consult the doctor who directs this lunatic asylum, and I have told him everything.
After questioning me for a long time, he said to me:
"Will you consent, Monsieur, to remain here for some time?"
"Most willingly, Monsieur."
"You have some means?"
"Will you have isolated apartments?"
"Would you care to receive any friends?"
"No, Monsieur, no, nobody. The man from Rouen might take it into his head to pursue me here, to be revenged on me."
* * * * * * *
I have been alone, alone, all, all alone, for three months. I am growing tranquil by degrees. I have no longer any fears. If the antiquary should become mad . . . and if he should be brought into this asylum! Even prisons themselves are not places of security.