The Flight of the Albatross
Translated by Anita Conrade
Souvent, pour s’amuser, les hommes d’équipage
Prennent des albatros, vastes oiseaux des mers.

Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du mal
Upon a sunny afternoon in September, 18.., as the two of us were strolling along the Quai des Morfondus past the three formidable towers of the Palace of Justice, my friend C. Auguste Dupin was seized by a sudden urge to go inside and visit the Conciergerie built by Saint Louis. It is impossible for me to divine what suggested the notion to him, unless he formulated it as a means of escaping from the public session of the Academy to which we had been invited. In any case, we crossed the threshold and rang at the caged door of the guardsman’s lodge. It swung open, the Chevalier presented himself as a personal friend of the Prefect of Police, and in no time a key-bearer was appointed to guide us wherever we wished in the ancient prison.
Indeed, the entrance hall turned out to be well worth our shoe leather: the enormous guardroom built by King Louis IX is a marvel of Gothic architecture. We were surrounded by soaring vaulted arches and ogees, supported by tall, carved columns endowing the vast space with antique dignity, grace, and rhythm. In a corner, I noticed the iron rack designed to accommodate the guards’ weapons, still encumbered with rusty halberds and lances. Upon hearing our footsteps, a clerk, who had hitherto been hidden behind heaps of dusty old files and record-books, rose from his stool, doffed his cap, polished his spectacles on the sleeve of his tunic, and courteously inquired, “No doubt these gentlemen would like to visit the dungeon where Ravaillac was imprisoned?”
“No doubt,” Dupin replied, without batting an eyelid.
The clerk lit a taper and nodded to the key-bearer, bidding him to accompany us. Then he set his cap back on his noggin, adjusted his spectacles on his nose, and returned to his scrivener’s task.
As we made our way through the corridors, hallways, and passages, I began to feel oppressed, assailed by the airlessness and obscurity, nagged at by an unidentifiable but nevertheless rotten, nauseating presence with funereal, lugubrious overtones. The Conciergerie has an odor all its own, just as its chiaroscuro is unique. There, air is no longer air; light ceases to be light, as if the iron bars had the power to rob these two elements of all their joy and freedom. Now and then, we would come to a staircase crowded with gendarmes, and, amid a bustle of officers and constables, we would see some poor devil handed from bailiff to solemn bailiff, with the sober words, “At disposal.”
“Whatever does that mean?” I asked Dupin.
“That the investigating magistrate has finished questioning the man, and that he is at the bailiff’s disposal.”
“For immediate release?”
“Heavens! Quite the contrary: to be locked up again.”
Our key-bearer finally halted before a low door, only about four and a half feet high. Its mass was relieved only by a small peephole, and it was fitted with a huge square lock which, when the key was inserted, opened with a frightful metallic creak and clatter, revealing the regicide Ravaillac’s cell. Allow yourself to imagine a large vaulted chamber paved with an antique herringbone pattern of bricks and slate. The walls, to which a once-scarlet coating still clung in a few places, were of a hideous nudity. All their ruthless impenetrability sank down upon one’s heart. In the middle of the dungeon sat an unusual and sinister object, a long, narrow table made of flagstones joined with leaden mortar, its immense weight borne by three stout stone pillars. Our guide informed us that the culprit had spent six weeks stretched out on that bed of dolor, spread-eagled by four chains attached to each of his limbs, and girdled about the waist by a leather strap attached to a fifth chain suspended from a large iron hook cemented to the keystone of the vault. Dupin and I both allowed our glances to travel from the menacing hook above to the table beneath it, considering them with curiosity mingled with dread, recalling that Ravaillac had been chained there, guarded day and night by six squires and six officers from the merchants’ guild, for the entire duration of the investigation and judgement of his crime.
Leaving this terrifying dungeon behind, we entered the rotunda where the revolutionary tribunal had convened during the Terror. It had been converted into a dormitory for the prison guards. Twenty bunks radiated from the great hearth in the center like the spokes of a wheel. A wooden shelf placed above the head of each bed contained the personal belongings of its occupant, generally consisting of a canvas sack, a brush, and an old pair of boots. A single one of the shelves, however, bore a pile of books, and Dupin remarked upon it. The gaol-keeper explained that this was the personal library of a guard who had befriended Pierre-François Lacenaire, the famed assassin-poet. Lacenaire had taught the man how to read.
“I declare, the sight of that scoundrel scribbling all day excited my comrade’s admiration,” admitted the keeper. “Lacenaire bequeathed him some of his books. In fact, he even gave him a little money to buy some more, and a list of titles and booksellers.”
As we were led through the bowels of the old fortress, we caught sight, here and there, through dusty basement windows, of immense cellars, mysterious, deserted chambers with portcullises opening onto the river; dark passageways, chilling garrets – sinister cells full of cobwebs, lined with weeping, mossy stones – vague, ominous shadows haunted by fleeting glimpses of pallor. Whenever Dupin inquired, “And what is this?” our guide invariably replied, “Oh, that’s no longer used.” What had it been used for in the past? My private conjectures caused me to quake with horror. I remembered having read that, long ago, beneath the bed of the river, there had been an abominable, windowless, airless cell. Its nickname was “Hell’s Grotto.” A single oaken beam was attached to the ceiling, eight feet above the muck into which the floor had long since crumbled, unable to withstand the dampness incessantly dripping and oozing from the walls. At regular intervals, rusty chains and iron yokes dangled from the oak ridgepole. This dungeon was the last abode of prisoners sentenced to death: they were abandoned in the dank obscurity, nearly hanged, until their final journey to the gallows. How long had the poor wretches lingered there, delirious with weariness, doomed to expend their last shreds of vitality to reach their ration of bread and water? A month or two – six months, or sometimes even a year. Shackled to an iron leash so short that they were unable to lie down, they hung there, their knees and hips giving way beneath them, gaining a few moments of respite only by hanging from their chains by their hands instead of stumbling for a foothold in the muck. Whenever sheer exhaustion caused them to doze off standing up, they were awakened, strangled by the iron yoke, or startled by the nibbling of a rat. In my opinion, “Hell’s Grotto” was too tender a name for this dungeon, which was assuredly worse than the antechamber of Gehenna. When it was sealed up by royal decree, it was found to contain a number of bizarre relics: a chipped razor, and the rotting remains of an orangutan which had once escaped from the Jardin des Plantes. The ape’s disappearance was almost surely linked to numerous and undeniable reports of apparitions of the Devil in the rue Trianon Bas in the thirteenth year of His Majesty’s reign. It is thought that the guards, finding the ferocious animal wandering in the subterranean passageways of the prison, had captured and shackled it. But, wearying of feeding the monster, they had allowed it to perish of starvation.
At one point in our tour, we were joined by the director of the prison, a gentleman named Mr. de Hauterive. He was an affable man, with a certain quality of keenness in his gaze, clad in a long waistcoat with the red ribbon of the Légion d’Honneur decorating his lapel. He apologized to the Chevalier, saying that he had been informed of our visit with some delay, and asked us if we would allow him to be our guide. We readily accepted, and, as our new cicerone led us through the next corridor, he paused. “Here is one of our curiosities,” he remarked, ushering us into a windowless rotunda about fifteen feet in diameter, lit only by the door.
“Do you know where we are?” he asked us.
“I believe I do,” replied Dupin, who recognized the room as the famous Chambre de la Question. “This is the chamber where Damiens, Cartouche, La Voisin, and the Marquise de Brinvilliers were tortured, is it not?”
The crypt, reminiscent of the interior of an upside-down funnel, occupies the ground floor of the crenellated tower, the smallest of the three round towers of Saint-Louis.
“The whole grim story, told in the language of tears, sweat, and blood,” my companion Dupin was later to reflect, “has oozed, drop by drop, into the pores of the rock, soaking the walls and floor. Not a single gory detail is missing, and yet nary a whisper has ever escaped. The suffering is sealed up there, locked away from the outer world, overwhelmed by the sheer obstinacy of the fortress walls. No one has ever told of this evil, betrayed it, or revealed it in any way. The tower stones have absorbed the secret of all the confessions they ever helped to wring from human throats. They have muffled every shriek. These walls still throb and convulse with the horrifying torments they once harbored, emanating to this day a hideous miasma of evil I am unable to name.”
Indeed, the singular horror of the airless cave fashioned by human hands was the fact that it was located right in the middle of the bustle of the city, on the teeming riverbank, with neither a moat nor a rampart to separate it from passers-by. On the inner side of the thick stone walls, they plied the thumbscrew, the brodequin, the ruthless wooden horse, the bone-crushing rack, the hot poker... Blood sizzled on the coals, the judges conducted a routine interrogation, the victim roared with pain and the utmost despair. Outside, only four yards away, townspeople went about their business, women laughed, children romped, merchants traded: all the usual tumult of Paris, its air, its sky, its sun... in a word, its freedom. Oddly enough, the windowless tower always seemed silent to the world outside. In the past, it was no louder than it is today. The walls must certainly be stout, to shut out all noise of the street to those within the fortress, and to prevent any of the terrifying sounds of the goings-on inside the tower from reaching the street!
After only an hour within the prison compound, I was already so accustomed to iron gates and locks that I no longer paid them any mind. Likewise, I had ceased to be bothered by the stale air I had found so suffocating upon entering the Conciergerie. It is thus impossible for me to say how many doors were unlocked as we were conducted from ward to ward. I cannot recall.
However, when the gaol-keeper unlocked a forbiddingly high set of bars at the end of the long vaulted passageway, we found ourselves in the heart of the prison, in the men’s courtyard. It was time for the prisoners’ daily exercise, and inmates were strolling about in groups of two or three. They all wore drugget, save one man: a somber and serious mariner, still clad in his waterproof canvas cloak. He was sitting at some distance from the others, absorbed in reading an almanac when we entered the yard, and he raised his gaze from the pages of the small book to observe us.
“This large yard was quite useful during the riots,” Mr. de Hauterive was saying. “I had more prisoners than I knew what to do with. The Prefect of Police sent a message: ‘How many men can you house?’ I answered, ‘I can take about two hundred.’ Three hundred and fifty soon arrived, along with a second request: ‘How many more can we send?’ I thought they were joking with me. Yet I made room, filling the record-offices. ‘I believe I can house one hundred more men,’ I replied. They brought three hundred, asking, ‘How many more will fit?’ That’s when I lost my temper. ‘Why, you may as well load up as many as you like!’ I barked. Well, sir, the next convoy consisted of six hundred men. I put them here. They slept on straw pallets on the ground. I was praying God that we’d be spared an outbreak of cholera. And do you know what? I didn’t have a single case. The young rascals were a turbulent bunch, though. One of them, a republican rebel leader from Lyon, made a bargain with me: ‘Mr. de Hauterive, if you grant me a visit with my wife, I can promise you to keep them quiet.’ I consented, he kept his word, and my six hundred firebrands became charming and well-behaved. They remained that way until, for the purpose of the investigation, they were allowed to mingle with the rebels arrested on the barricades in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine. That horde of vandals was set them afire: ‘You’re mad to be so docile! You have to roar, you have to rant and rave!’ And suddenly my boys from Lyon were raging bulls. A whiff of Paris turned them into demons overnight! Sometimes they’d shout, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. de Hauterive, it’s not your fault. It’s Louis-Philippe! We’ll show him we’re men of mettle!’ And they stripped off their clothing, and exposed their nudity.”
“Is that how they showed they were men of mettle?” I said, chuckling.
Mr. de Hauterive smiled at my remark, then took me by the arm and pointed out where a prisoner had scaled the wall just two days earlier. The right angle formed by the enclosure of the yard at its northernmost point had sufficed as a ladder for the inmate Lebris. Bracing his back in the corner, he had wriggled up, relying solely on the muscular strength of his shoulders, elbows, and heels. Reaching the roof, he seized the lightning rod, and hoisted himself onto the slate. From there, he was able to jump down into an outer courtyard and run away. All in broad daylight!
While the director of the prison was engaged in telling me this story, the sailor-man with the almanac had respectfully approached Dupin. He seemed desirous to show my friend a collection of small objects he had carved from bits of bone, the proceeds from the sale of which he intended to apply to paying a fee for a better prison accommodations, “à la pistole”. Indeed, in exchange for the small sum of sixteen centimes per day, the Conciergerie can provide a tidy little room with one or two bunks covered with heavy wool mattresses. My friend heard out the sailor indulgently, allowing himself to be led to a bench at some distance from us, where the enterprising seaman began to present the products of his craftsmanship. There was a multitude of them, carefully packed into a small papier-mâché box.
“Had the stem of the lightning rod given way, Lebris would have been a dead man,” continued Mr. de Hauterive, enlarging on his tale of the escape. “He risked breaking his neck, though the poor fellow was guilty of nothing more than having accumulated too much debt and scandal. He was due to be released in a matter of months. When I re-read his files, I saw that he was from Concarneau. He had been a seafaring lad, which explains his vitality, his resourcefulness, and his audacity. The privateer captain Angenard, in his memoirs, remarks on the fearlessness of his Breton crew, swarming up the masts like a troupe of acrobats to reef the topsails in the teeth of a violent squall. I shouldn’t be heard saying so, but a feat of such great daring as Lebris’s deserves to be crowned with success. I was almost happy that the rascal outwitted these pitiless walls.”
Our tour of the Conciergerie would be incomplete, Mr. de Hauterive suggested, unless we honored him with a visit to his “salon.” I have never seen anything as strange as the room which bore the inscription Salon du Directeur on the door. A vast Gothic chamber, with frightful wallpaper pasted into the ogees, a chandelier which was a refugee from some attic, crookedly hung old portraits of magistrates lacking frames, armchairs upholstered with tired ecru canvas covers, a bookcase full of mildewed volumes with shabby, unmatching bindings, and a mahogany desk which resembled a counter in a dry-goods establishment. The purpose of this room, part palace, part dungeon, and part shopkeeper’s quarters, was to provide a reception room where the more privileged prisoners could conduct visits. While serving his term, the remarkable but somewhat unscrupulous financier Ouvard entertained his friends here, as did Prince Louis-Napoléon his family.
Mr. de Hauterive escorted us to the outer door of the Conciergerie, and we stepped out into the street. As we were walking away, we overheard a group of men in workmen’s smocks, milling about, chuckle, “There go a couple of rascals who have just been released. Free at last! Imagine how happy they must feel.”
“Apparently, we look like criminals!” laughed Dupin. “In any case, the three hours we spent in the old prison were rich in instruction. The Academy must still be in session, and my soul rejoices at the idea that, had we attended, we would still be imprisoned at the Institute.”
The Chevalier paused three paces upstream from the Pont Neuf to light his meerschaum pipe. He leaned nonchalantly on the parapet of the riverbank and puffed on the pipe in silence, seemingly lost in the contemplation of the graceful flight of the gulls over the river. I dared not interrupt his nicotinic reverie to ask him where he had acquired the finely crafted watch-charm I noticed he had been fiddling with ever since we left the Conciergerie. I had never seen it before. As far as I could make out, it depicted a sea bird in flight, its huge wings outstretched. Had the seaman with the almanac sold it to him for three sous?
A bit later, as we neared the Passerelle des Arts on our stroll along the left bank of the Seine, my companion confided, without preamble:
“It is urgent for me to confer with an excellent man who dwells in the village of Passy, at number 19 of the Rue Basse. If you are amenable to it, my good friend, we shall go and see him this very afternoon.”
I willingly consented, and, at the Louvre, we boarded the river ferry which took us as far as Chaillot. From there, a small barge conveyed us to the Passy gate. It was then necessary for us to climb a narrow street, forbiddingly steep and perpendicular, picking a tortuous, twisting path between the great walls retaining the hill. The challenging ascension makes my heart thump and my temples perspire at the mere thought of having attempted it. At last, we reached the Rue Basse and Dupin pulled the bell-rope at Number 19. As soon as the doorman unlatched the gate, Dupin uttered a phrase as enigmatic as it was unexpected (to my ears): “The albatross has flown the coop.” The domestic, as wary and conspiratorial as a guard-sergeant, looked him sternly in the eye, and, although he seemed to find little there to recommend us, murmured, “Second floor.”
His sinuous gaze followed us up the steps, and it was not out of friendliness. At the top of the stairs, we found the doorman’s wife was stationed, like a sentry guarding a gate leading to a second landing. “The albatross has flown the coop,” Dupin told her. “Go down into the courtyard,” replied the woman. We had climbed up one set of steps only to go down another one, nearly opposite the first, as if going over an especially high stile. At the bottom of the steps, we met a little girl who must have been the doorman’s daughter. She, too, obstructed our progress until we again resorted to the magical password. When, for the third time, the Chevalier repeated, “The albatross has flown the coop,” the little girl, with a mysterious, shrewd gleam in her eye, pointed to a dilapidated, peeling cottage standing at the foot of the garden. It seemed to be definitively abandoned and hermetically closed.
“Rap at the door, my friend,” Dupin advised.
I promptly obeyed, although I secretly felt there was little hope that my knock would arouse anything except a horde of mice in the midst of all this dust and decay. To my surprise, a loud and lusty voice answered the rap on the door. It was followed by its owner, a plump German servant-woman, who appeared on the doorstep. It was my turn to try the password. She nodded her blond braids and repeated the phrase, “The albatross has flown the coop,” wrapping the words in a beatific smile. Then she beckoned to us to follow her, and showed us into a drawing-room which was also a study. A glass-paned door, opening onto a garden framed by some scraggly lilac bushes, allowed the sun to penetrate a room whose walls were lined with unframed paintings and empty frames. As we came in, a velvet curtain to our left rustled and a middle-aged man slowly emerged from the tranquil blue glow of a bedroom. His cheeks were round and ruddy; his trousers, untrammeled by braces, were creeping away from his ample vest, and the bottoms of them did not quite meet the tops of his battered boots. His cravat was askew, having been knotted just under his left ear, and his beard had not seen a razor for at least four days. He beheld us with the most extreme suspicion, but as soon as Dupin took the seaman’s watch-charm out of his pocket and held it out to him, he relaxed. He took the object and contemplated it affectionately, turning it over and over in his hand. Presently, in an inquiring tone, he said simply, “Kerloc’h?”
“Kerloc’h,” affirmed my friend.
“What a relief! Now I am fully certain that I can trust you, Mr... Er, whom do I have the honor of addressing?”
“I am the Chevalier Auguste Dupin,” declared my friend, with a bow. Then, as he presented me, I bowed in turn.
Our host returned our greetings with a broad smile, crying, “Honoré de Balzac, at your service!”
I restrained myself from exclaiming with surprise and delight. Incredible! The quaint little fellow standing right before my eyes was none other than the illustrious author of Scenes from Private Life and Philosophical Studies? Of course, I had enjoyed the indescribable pleasures of reading most of his works, but I had never dreamed that one day I might indeed have the immense privilege of wringing the author’s hand. The only sign that Mr. de Balzac had taken note of my amazement, and was enjoying the effect he had upon me, was a bright twinkle in his eye; aside from that, he was the soul of composure and courtesy. In effusive and brilliant terms, he thanked Dupin for honoring him with a visit to his humble abode. He mentioned that François Vidocq, who often stopped by, never tired of extolling the virtues of the Chevalier.
The clock chimed six, signaling that dinner was about to be served. Mr. de Balzac insisted that we join him. Our evening with this man of gargantuan appetite was among the most memorable in my life. His cravat tossed aside, his shirt open, his knife clutched in his fist, Mr. de Balzac ate, drank, and talked with joyous abandon. His mouth savored every morsel, his eyes lit up with delight, and he fairly clapped his hands with excitement every time the German servant-woman entered, bearing aloft platters piled high with pyramids of victuals. At last, when nothing remained of dessert except for the crumbs, it was time for the post-prandial demitasse. Mr. de Balzac lived up to his legend by conducting a veritable ceremony around the beverage. Everything about the coffee we sipped was exquisite – the color, the aroma, the flavor, the texture! He explained that he had his own favorite blend of imported beans, of three varieties: Martinique, Bourbon, and Arabica. He purchases the Martinique from a grocer in Montmartre; the Bourbon was roasted at a shop on the Rue des Vieilles-Haudriettes; and the best Arabica was to be found in the faubourg Saint-Germain, quite near the house the Chevalier and I share.
Having served us a digestive on the verandah, Mr. de Balzac took my friend by the hand in a friendly, persuasive way and suggested they take a stroll around the garden together. “We have a serious matter to discuss privately,” he added in a tone that would brook no opposition. The writer had made himself clear: what he was about to say to the Chevalier must not fall into the ears of a third party. I was not offended in the slightest; on the contrary, I was happy to remain in the great man’s sanctuary alone. Returning to the confines of the study, I was able to admire a colossal bust of Balzac by the great David d’Angers, a magnificent sculpture made of the finest marble, a masterpiece by the portrait-sculptor whose rigor became the benchmark for all who endeavor to carve human likenesses in stone. Next, I perused the titles of the books in the man’s personal library. The works of Chateaubriand, Alphonse de Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and Alexandre Dumas were mingled, helter-skelter, with such reference works as L’Année littéraire, Le Bulletin des lois, and La Biographie Universelle. Lastly, my eye traveled to a small writing-table – where the genius no doubt composed his much-acclaimed masterpieces – which held a single volume: the best dictionary ever printed of the French language.
Arm in arm, the two new friends had just stepped over the threshold separating the study from the garden, as nimbly as school-boys. As my friend Dupin trod on the rug, I overheard him say, “I admit that it’s a pity, but nevertheless, I think it would be wisest for the Albatross to give up flying forever.” Diabolically enigmatic words!
Elsewhere I have mentioned that Dupin was subject to rapidly changing moods and sudden whims which I had learned to respect. As a result, seeing that it had struck his fancy, since leaving Passy, to be profoundly and exclusively concerned with watching the volutes of smoke rise from his pipe, I refrained from asking him any questions – although I was burning with curiosity! – about the reason for our visit to the Rue Basse and the substance of his conversation with Mr. de Balzac.
The next morning at a fairly early hour, the door of our apartments opened to admit our old acquaintance the Prefect of the Paris police. We welcomed him with a cordial greeting. Mr. Gisquet settled into an armchair, accepted the pipe that was held out to him, and said to Dupin:
“My police force functions beautifully. It is my duty to enlighten myself, and it is also incumbent upon me to inform myself. Knowledge pleases me: thus, I know all of your visit to the Conciergerie and your encounter with this chap Kerloc’h. I can easily assume what followed, and I shall not waste my breath questioning you. I shall simply repeat what the King said to me last night: “Mr. Gisquet, what is your opinion in this matter of the artificial diomedian? It was a mistake on our part to scorn Lebris’s offer. Our inability to realize that France had any stake in his invention is now going to be a source of difficulty. All this has the potential to harm us seriously. Not that I am gifted with hindsight, but this is serious business, and I fear no good will come of it. Sir Robert Peel recently said to me, ‘Sire, there must be a war between France and England every twenty years. History proves it!’ I replied, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, what good are intelligent minds if we let the human race commit the same follies over and over again?’ The King then rose from his armchair. He took a few quick paces across the drawing-room carpet, then returned to his seat. “What good was it for us to get wrapped up with this albatross, anyway? It is only logical for me to be anxious: I feel Europe revolving around my person. The thing that makes peace difficult is that there are two realities which crowned heads loathe: France and me. Napoleon was a burden upon them, and they ousted him by encouraging him to fight wars, which was his weakness. I am a burden upon them, and they would like to rid themselves of me, by pushing me away from the state of peace and tranquillity I love. Do you know, the dispute between France and England over this albatross reminds me of a bar-house brawl between two second lieutenants, because one looked at the other cross-eyed. It could lead to a duel to the death. However, two great nations must not behave like two oafish musketeers.' At that point, the King took his head in his hands. He sat perfectly still for a moment, leaning back in his armchair, as if he were being crushed by the weight of the world. At last, he sat up and, becoming animated, declared, ‘I have made my decision: neither one must have it. Delenda est diomedea!’”
Mr. Gisquet let out a large puff of smoke, and then resumed speaking: “The King granted me full discretionary powers to settle this matter in the best interests of all concerned. I am in a position to secure Mr. Lebris’s pardon and erase his debts... if he yields all rights to the Albatross, of course. Dupin, my dear friend, what do you think?”
“Why, it sounds like a fair exchange to me – as long as you include the release of Kerloc’h and a bag of gold.”
“It’s a bargain. I shall have the funds delivered to you, with a note specifying the time, date, and place of our meeting with Lebris, as soon as they are definite. I do believe that the King is curious to see the bird fly one last time.”
“As it pleases his Majesty.”
The encounter occurred three days later in Grenelle Field, the parade grounds of the royal armies. When we arrived on the vast expanse, which had been evened up and raked for the occasion, we noted that it was guarded on three sides by a double row of mounted grenadiers. In the distance, the metallic reflections of the sun on the dome of Les Invalides, softened by the mist on the luminous sky, made the splendid monument gleam like a somber jewel. As soon as we were announced, Prefect Gisquet, whose black suit glittered with medals and set off the red ribbon in his buttonhole to perfection, climbed out of an armored carriage with a ducal crest on the doors. The curtains of the elegant conveyance were drawn.
“That coach belongs to the Duchess of Orleans,” Dupin whispered in my ear. “I’m willing to wager my watch that the King is inside, with the Queen and Madame Adelaide.”
The Prefect came, bowed stiffly in greeting, and led us over to a bench, where he set the example by seating himself, all without uttering a word. He gave a signal; the clarion sang, and promptly, from the opposite end of the huge field, an extraordinary object appeared on the horizon, as if rising from the depths of the Seine. At first we saw it looming, a vague and indistinct shape, much broader than it was tall, against the green and russet background of the forest of Chaillot, which shimmered in the sunlight. Then, as it grew closer, its contours became easier to distinguish, and suddenly, it transformed itself into a gigantic artificial bird, its wings spread for flight, like the one in the famous drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
“A flying machine!” I shouted in amazement.
“You should call it a glider,” Dupin corrected me. “It has been christened “the Albatross” because it attempts to imitate the flight of that most majestic of sea birds.”
Now I understood the special meaning of the word “albatross” which I had heard so often in the past several days.
I should mention that the glider (to apply the term the Chevalier had instructed me to use) was mounted on a horse-drawn cart. Lo and behold! The driver of the team was none other than the sailor I had glimpsed at the Conciergerie, the prisoner named Kerloc’h. Dupin had spotted him too, and was giving him a cordial wave.
“But who is this lunatic running out to meet them?” I inquired.
The person to whom I referred was wearing a derby hat which had seen better days, a shabby, rumpled suit, a frayed cravat, and the type of green goggles which would have suited a rural bailiff’s clerk with a mortal fear of the sun’s glare.
“That is Jean-Marie Lebris, the inventor of the Albatross.”
“Holy smoke! Must he wear such threadbare clothes?”
Dupin chose to laugh at my remark.
“Ha! I understand and share his taste for well-worn suits and hats,” he joked. “The snugness of new headwear always hinders the circulation of ideas to the brain.”
Then, becoming serious again, the Chevalier gave me the following explanation:
“The Albatross measures about thirteen feet in length and four feet abeam. It has a wingspan of about forty-five feet, and yet the whole contraption weighs only ninety pounds, of which eighteen pounds are accounted for by hardware and levers. Its skeleton is a light rowing craft of ash and pine which Lebris steam-molded himself in the boilers at Ville d’Avray. The spar you see protruding from the bow is rigged with the ropes necessary to maneuver the wings. The pilot stands inside the shell, with either hand on a horizontal lever which controls the longerons.”
“Ingenious,” said I. “And does it fly?”
“By Jove, we shall soon find out.”
The clarion sounded again. Lebris climbed into position, standing erect in the glider, which was attached to the cart with a rope its driver, Kerloc’h, was holding. Then Kerloc’h began to urge the horses on. They galloped onto the esplanade, running for all they were worth. We could hear him shouting encouragements above the thunder of their hooves: “Hu-ho!” and “Dia-hu!” as crisp as the crack of a whip. The momentum built and built until the team was at a full gallop. And just when the frenzy reached a climactic pitch, Kerloc’h released the rope. Like a fabulous creature, the glider took flight.
The Albatross was now soaring over our heads, with the elegance of the prince of the seven seas. It was awe-inspiring.
“Lebris applied Bernouilli’s precepts perfectly. The curve of the upper surface of the wing is essential to flight,” Dupin mused. “It is quite natural for the glider to rise into the air when sufficient lift has been generated by the forward speed.”
My own thoughts had flown to mythical times. Throughout human history, men have yearned to fly like birds, to cross vast oceans and deserts, to enjoy a feeling of absolute freedom. Icarus personified this longing: imprisoned in the labyrinth of King Minos, Dedalus and his son Icarus made an attempt to fly over the walls using artificial wings made of wax and feathers. Ignoring his father’s warnings, Icarus flew too close to the sun. The heat of the orb melted the wax in his wings, and he fell to the sea, to drown. Lord! Let us pray that Lebris is spared a fate as ignoble and tragic as a splash in the waters of the Seine, whose meanders are visible on the horizon. No! The Albatross gradually sank in altitude, until it gently came to rest on the packed dirt at the northern end of the field. The device had been airborne for over one minute. What an amazing accomplishment! How daring of the inventor! How skillful of the coachman!
We were not to have time to congratulate the two men. As they strode back towards the spectators, a navy cadet hastened out to meet them, saluted them smartly, and said, with a solemn air, “His Excellency, the Prince of Joinville, has commissioned me to award a captain’s patent to Mr. Jean-Marie Lebris, and quartermaster’s papers to Kerloc’h. Their ship, La Bretonne, will be setting out from Brest in three days. I have been ordered to escort them there immediately!”
After watching this brief encounter, Dupin smiled bitterly and gestured with his hand: “What an elegant way of suppressing an undesirable. Lebris’s Albatross constituted a threat to French security, because it could have fallen into the hands of a foreign power. In this instance, England, aware of the glider’s potential as a formidable reconnaissance vessel, or even a bomber, was eager to bid for it. Kerloc’h, due to his considerable knowledge of the marvelous new invention, had also become a pest. Now they’ve been conjured away, and all it took to do the trick was two sets of navy uniforms and a sea journey as long as Mr. de la Pérouse’s. Louis-Philippe is an astute judge of men, but he has no curiosity about the “heavier-than-air”, which is what I call these flying machines. I read that as long ago as 1673, a certain Besnier had managed to take flight by strapping adjustable sails to his arms and legs. The Marquis de Bacqueville, conducting an experiment in Paris in 1742, soared briefly over the Seine with great, white artificial wings attached to his limbs. But I fear that these attempts have been greatly embellished by legend. It was not until the dawn of our own century that an Englishman, Sir George Cayley, designed and built a working gliding craft, large enough to hold a man. His Ornithopter is indeed capable of flight, but it cannot bear the weight of a pilot, whereas the Albatross can take off with a man aboard. Had Cayley gotten his hands on Lebris’s drawings and built an entire fleet of Albatrosses, the English would have possessed a decisive military advantage.
“By the King’s great seal!” added Dupin, with a hint of mockery in his tone. “Let us forget all that we have seen, and go call on Mr. de Balzac at his pleasant home in Passy. I have no doubt that you now understand what role he played in unraveling this affair...”
“Of course I do, dear friend, but it would be such a pleasure to me to hear you say it again,” I babbled somewhat awkwardly and hypocritically, in a vain attempt to conceal my ignorance.
Dupin was not fooled. Indeed, due to the keenness of his well-known analytical abilities, he is able to read my heart like an open book. He thus took me affectionately by the arm and proffered the following explanation:
“Lebris was certainly an extraordinary fellow, but, if you will recall the maxim of Jean De la Fontaine, “No man is a prophet in his own land.” He thus left Brittany after his pichon (pigeon) had been scoffed at by the local gentry, and came to Paris, hoping to interest a government official in his glider device, the military importance of which was evident. Initially, he settled in Ville-d’Avray, in order to pursue his experiments undisturbed. That is where he made the acquaintance of Mr. de Balzac, who had a mansion there named Les Jardies. The author, endowed, as you know, with a curious and open mind, was immediately seduced by the Albatross. Perhaps he expressed his admiration for the project a bit too freely in the Paris salons, because Lebris was soon visited by an agent in the employ of Louis-Napoléon. Having just fled the fortress of Ham where he had been locked up after his attempted coup d’état. the prince had found asylum in London. The royal agent invited Lebris to travel to England with the drawings for his flying machine: Sir Robert Peel was rumored to be willing to pay a fortune to acquire them. The aeronaut stalled, understanding the dangers involved, and asked his friend Balzac for advice. Balzac, in turn, confided the matter to Vidocq. The old fox felt it would be wise to discuss the Albatross with the Prefect of Police, Mr. Gisquet, and immediately did so. Gisquet was able to speak privately with the King about the subject. At the time, Louis-Philippe was preoccupied with punishing a man who had made an attempt on his life, and he laughed at the story of the Albatross. Cock and bull!
“Like Balzac, Lebris was riddled with debts, and on many an occasion, when creditors were insistently ringing his bell, he escaped them by sneaking over to his illustrious neighbor’s house. As you know, for he was boasting of it to us just the other day, the novelist prides himself on the strategy he has adopted for discouraging unwanted visitors from Paris, seeking payment. It is amusing to imagine the scene at Les Jardies. Someone pulls the bell rope, out at the gate: the jerk can come only from a bill collector. At a nod, the news is confirmed! Immediately, the entire household is struck by paralysis. The guest strolling through the garden rushes to hide behind the closest tree and remains there in a state of complete immobility. The gardener leans on his hoe, as still as a statue. The dog is trained to respond to a tug on his collar by swallowing his barks and retiring to the straw of his doghouse. He will emit an occasional growl, but is quickly silenced by the imperious glare of the doorman’s wife or sons. And, from behind the shutters of the house, with shivers of fear mingled with glee, Balzac and his guests listen to the creditor’s imprecations: a long string of profanities ending with the exasperated words: “What! Are they all dead in there?” Indeed, they are! For such was the purpose of stifling all noise, all sign of life: to convince the unwelcome visitor that he has erred, that he has mistaken a mausoleum for a home. And it works. The creditor leaves empty-handed, his journey having earned him nothing but frustration. With bated breath, the denizens of the household listen for the crunch of his footsteps on the gravel path. They watch as he glumly observes the botanical specimens in the wild, until the Versailles coach arrives, and he climbs onto the upper deck to be borne away. Then they are resurrected! The shutters are opened and light again pours into the parlor; in the garden, the guests resume their strolling and their reverie. The gardener plies his rake with renewed energy, the dog barks to his heart’s delight at the cats and the pigeons, and once again, an atmosphere of freedom, harmony, and joy reigns... until the next time the bell is rung, causing a hush to fall over the house and summoning another cycle of dramatic events identical to the one I have just described.
“Unfortunately, after a time, even the bill collectors learn to be crafty: they stalk up to the gate, ring the bell subtly, and glue their ears to the door in an effort to discern whether anyone is lurking inside. One fine day, the insistence of an especially ornery creditor overwhelmed Lebris’s defenses, and he was arrested and hustled off to the Conciergerie. There he stayed, a prisoner, until his case could be tried. He was most likely going to be sent to the Hôtel des Haricots, as the debtors’ prison is called. Meanwhile, underhanded machinations were being plotted between bill collectors and Louis-Napoléon’s agents at Ville-d’Avray. They were conspiring to make away with the drawings for the glider, hoping to cover their expenses by selling them for a handsome sum. Fortunately, Balzac was looking out for Lebris’s interests. He alerted Vidocq, who promptly jailed Lebris’s faithful servant, the man you know as Kerloc’h. This was part of a masterful plan to obtain the incarcerated Lebris’s signature on a contract dated one month earlier, yielding all rights to the Albatross to Mr. de Balzac. Thus, with this document as proof of his proprietorship, the author could demand that the drawings for the flying machine be turned over to him. He was planning to donate them to the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, just to spite the enemy agents. Alas! Without notifying anyone, Lebris had decided to make his escape from the Conciergerie – just the day before his manservant arrived to smuggle in the contract. Naturally, Kerloc’h was dismayed to hear of Lebris’s flight (over the prison wall, of course), and was seeking a means of communicating the news to Balzac as soon as possible. But how could he contact the author? That is where Lady Luck comes in. Kerloc’h had briefly been in the employ of one of our neighbors on the Rue Dunot, and had often spied us walking past with hour friend Vidocq: he promptly recognized us when he saw us come strolling through the Conciergerie. Prior to his arrest, as part of their scheme, he and Balzac had arranged for a password that would admit messengers into the author’s presence: by presenting a scrimshaw watch-charm depicting an albatross, and uttering the magic word itself, a visitor would find himself welcome at either of Balzac’s residences, Les Jardies or Passy. Kerloc’h thus approached me in the exercise-yard of the prison, pretending to be eager to sell me the scrimshaw trinket and a number of others. When we could speak privately, he told me of his true predicament and begged me to help. Naturally, I accepted. You witnessed the rest: our meeting with Honoré de Balzac, Mr. Gisquet’s visit, the bargain that was made with the Prefect of Police, and the appointment made for a demonstration of the flying abilities of the Albatross before its definitive destruction.
I nodded slowly in agreement.
“One question remains nevertheless, Dupin, if it’s all right with you...”
“Certainly, my friend. I’ll do my best to answer.”
“Where did our friend Lebris find refuge after he leaped the walls of the Conciergerie?”
The Chevalier shrugged his shoulders and replied, with an indulgent smile:
“An excellent prank to savor! Why, he lived with Vidocq, of course! What safer hiding place than the home of an illustrious detective? In fact, Vidocq was the one who finally gave him the sack of gold and arranged for the event in Grenelle Field.
“And now,” added Dupin, after a pause, “let there be no more talk. We must save our breath! Ahead of us lies a rude climb up the Rue Basse, which is terribly steep, despite its hypocritical name!"
Upon his return from circumnavigating the world, Jean-Marie Lebris settled in Brittany, where he built a second Albatross. When it was tried in 1856, the glider reached an altitude of 100 yards, and flew through the air for a distance of about two hundred yards. However, this accomplishment, although carried out in the presence of witnesses, attracted very little notice. Having invested every penny in a project that was seen as a hare-brained scheme in an era when railroad transportation (rather than flight) seemed to hold the most glorious promise for mankind, Lebris gave up his aeronautical pursuits a few years later, and dropped into oblivion.