Aramante’s Last Pirouette
Translated by Anita Conrade
She danced like a Hindu priestess,
like a Nubian girl of the cataracts of the Nile,
like a Lydian bacchante.
She swayed to and fro with abandon,
like a blossom being tossed by the storm.

Gustave Flaubert, Herodias
One rainy day in 18..., I was indulging in the twin pleasures of tobacco-smoking and study, in the company of my friend the Chevalier Auguste Dupin, when I heard a heavy step slowly climbing the stair. It came to a halt on the third floor, and then a sharp rapping shook our door. A voice cried:
“Open up, in the name of the law!”
“What is the meaning of this?” Dupin muttered, with a frown. “Why don’t you go find out, my friend?”
I opened the door. A man girdled with a tricolour sash loomed on the threshold. He was flanked by some shadowy, sombre-faced figures.
“Please excuse this intrusion,” declared the newcomer. “The hour is late indeed, but duty requires that I disturb your serenity. It is impossible to postpone the matter until daylight. Are you really Auguste Dupin?”
My friend had risen, and was gazing imperturbably at the stranger, whose sash was an unmistakable sign of his rank. He was a police commissioner investigating a crime, accompanied by a squadron of officers.
“I am Chevalier Dupin,” affirmed my companion, taking a step forward.
“Oh, a thousand pardons, sir,” murmured the officer of justice, turning to Dupin. “Your presence escaped my notice. There is so very little light in your quarters...”
He bowed, adding in a gracious tone: “Would you be so kind as to follow me? I shall try to take as little of your time as possible, but your testimony is of vital importance to the solution of this case.”
Dupin nodded his assent, and beckoned to me to accompany him. We crossed the corridor of our landing and found ourselves in front of the door to the servants’ quarters. One of the men from the escort of Mr. Heurteloup (for that was the name of the unimpeachable representative of the law) shined a small lamp on the lock and popped it open with a swift, sure jerk.
We entered a narrow room, modestly furnished with a table, three chairs, and a bedstead, cushioned with a cheap straw mattress. In one corner, we could make out a metal trunk shut with a padlock. The commissioner called for a candle, and sat down at the table, motioning to us to take the remaining chairs. Then he removed a number of documents from his briefcase and spread them on the table before us. When he had finished, he nodded to one of his subordinates. At this signal, the man uttered an order: “Bring in the suspect.”
The sound of footsteps echoed on the landing, and soon a man with haggard eyes was hauled into the room, supported on either side by an officer of the law.
“Come closer,” said Mr. Heurteloup, who was observing the wretch carefully over the tops of his gold-framed spectacles. “Your name is Gaël Le Cabuc, and you were born in Ploërmel. For the past eight weeks, you have been in the employ of Mr. Jean-Paul Evrard, a wine merchant, residing in Ménil-montant on the Rue de la Courtille.”
The unhappy man gazed back at him as if stunned, appearing to have heard nothing. Calmly, the commissioner continued, “You are suspected of having strangled your master. In an effort to wipe out every trace of the crime, you then attempted to destroy his apartments with an infernal machine of your own invention. What do you have to say for yourself?”
At these words, the suspect was seized by a convulsive trembling. Once or twice he opened his mouth to speak, but he was incapable of saying anything intelligible, so petrified was he by fright.
“Come now, Le Cabuc,” insisted Mr. Heurteloup. “We are neither judges nor executioners, so there is no reason for you to be wary of speaking openly to us. There is a remote possibility that you may be innocent, although the charges against you are quite serious. Let me make it clear to you that your unseemly behaviour and silence are likely to be interpreted as signs of your guilt. Do you deny having served as an assistant powderman at the Brest arsenal when you were conscripted? As such, you were trained to fabricate bombs of any size. Do you also deny having purchased saltpetre and sulphur the day before yesterday from an apothecary in the Rue de Charonne? And do you imagine I am ignorant of the fact that they are two of the ingredients of gunpowder?”
The suspect made a violent effort to wrench himself out of the grip of his guards, but it was in vain. At this, tears sprang to his eyes, and in a voice interrupted by fits of sobbing, he implored us to believe in his innocence.
“Oh, gentlemen, I am an honest man, I swear I am! Back in Brittany, where I’m from, everyone will vouch for me. I’ve just become engaged to be married, and I came to Paris to make some money. Me, a murderer? Oh, woe is me, woe is me!”
He clasped his chained hands together and attempted to raise them toward the heavens. Then, suddenly, all his strength seemed to abandon him. He heaved a deep sigh, and, if the officers hadn’t held him up, he would have collapsed headfirst onto the tile floor.
“Carry him to the bed,” said Mr. Heurteloup, indicating the cot which lay in the corner.
As they were laying the suspect down, Dupin tapped the commissioner’s shoulder, and said, with an indefinable smile, “So, according to your reasoning, Sir, this man is a murderer?”
Mr. Heurteloup spun around in surprise, and then muttered, in a voice so low that only my friend and I could hear, “There is incontrovertible evidence of his guilt. Believe me, this fellow is not only a wicked scoundrel - he is also a talented actor.”
With a wave of his hand, he again cautioned two of his men to keep an eye on Le Cabuc, whose unconsciousness could very well have been simulated. He ordered a third man to open the metal chest. The officer took a hammer, smashed the padlock which held the case shut, and lifted the lid. Candle in hand, the commissioner came closer and peered in. The chest contained modest belongings, but the garments were carefully brushed and the linen was neatly folded.
The suspect, meantime, had come to, and was seated in a chair. His eyes brimming with tears, he looked on as the officers rapidly rifled through the stacks of clothing, seizing his rags and unfolding them, shaking them, feeling pockets and ripping open linings with the approval of the commissioner. But though they carefully searched the garments, inside and out, and rummaged in every nook and cranny of the trunk, they seemed unable to find what they were looking for.
“Forget about the trunk,” Mr. Heurteloup finally instructed them, seeing that their quest was fruitless. “Instead, give this straw mattress a good going-over. Perhaps that’s where the money will be found.”
The miserable bedding was flipped over, split open, and scattered, to no avail. Nonetheless, the commissioner refused to admit defeat. He had the floor tiles inspected with the utmost care, and then ordered that the furniture be broken up, to make sure it did not contain any hollow hiding places in which gold might have been secreted. The table was taken apart, the walls were rapped upon, and the fireplace was searched. Finally, after they had spent nearly an hour on this feverish hunt, the officers relented. Wearily, they exchanged meek glances like sportsmen who have beaten the hedgerows all day without discovering the slightest trace of game.
“Inconceivable! Indeed, it is completely unheard of!” muttered the commissioner. “What could have become of the gold? This man knew no one in Paris. He was operating alone, I’m sure. The murder was committed yesterday, we arrested him an hour ago, and now it is impossible to find the money that was stolen.”
After a few pensive moments, Mr. Heurteloup seemed to decide to try once more to enlist the suspect’s help.
“The findings of our preliminary search tilt the scales in your favour,” he admonished. “However, do not assume that the court will give up the investigation. A large amount of money was stolen on the night of the murder. It must and will be found. You are the object of the most serious suspicions. All the circumstances implicate you as the murderer of your master. Your only salvation now is your honesty. Admit your crime, and tell us where you have hidden the stolen money, tell us the name of your accomplice. The court, taking your sincerity into consideration, may mitigate the penalty, and you may be spared the death sentence which hangs over your head.”
In a broken voice, Le Cabuc hiccoughed, “I am innocent.”
“Think hard. Tomorrow it may already be too late. The law will have discovered what you are hiding, and your confession will not matter.”
“I am innocent.”
“Very well. From now on, I shall cease to speak to you. The investigating judge will know how to handle the matter.”
Then the commissioner turned to Dupin, who seemed oblivious to his injunctions.
“Please excuse me, Sir,” he said, “for demanding your presence at this interrogation. It is because your testimony may be valuable to us. I beg you, tell me all you know about the suspect. He spent one week in the room adjacent to your apartment before finding employment as a groom with Mr. Evrard. Didn’t you ever notice something suspicious about his behaviour?”
“Aha! Is that why you had me attend these proceedings?”
“Doubtless. One cannot dwell for a time next door to a man without noticing his habits, and, at the very least, his visitors. Did he entertain guests during the short time he stayed here? Did you overhear people conversing? Was he more likely to go out in the morning, or in the evening?”
Seeming to ignore Mr. Heurteloup’s suggestions, Dupin went to stand right next to Le Cabuc. He regarded him for a moment, with his deep, soothing gaze, before saying to him, “You were planning to marry upon returning to your village, weren’t you, my friend?”
“Yes, sir,” replied the suspect, his eyes rolling about in terror.
“Well, you can order your wedding suit from the tailor. You’ll soon be a free man!”
And, pulling his greatcoat over his shoulders, Dupin haughtily strode out of the room, without bidding anyone good-bye.I hastened to catch up with my companion. I found him in the drawing-room, leaning over the hearth, poking at the dying embers of the fire.
“Well, my friend,” I burst out. “What do you think of all this? Do you really believe that Le Cabuc is innocent?”
“I am utterly convinced he is,” Dupin replied.
“Have you no compunctions about your conduct?” I inquired, smiling. “Might it not have allowed some suspicion to persist in the mind of this worthy law enforcement officer?”
Dupin shrugged his shoulders, and, feigning lassitude, retorted:
“Pshaw! What of it? Must I remind you that the solution to the case of the Rue Morgue made quite an impression on the wits of our friend G..., the Prefect of police? The zealous commissioner should have done his homework: ever since that affair, my name has been a byword for probity with the offices of the Sûreté. Whenever a mystery appears to be insoluble, the Prefect’s first impulse is to inform me of the matter. Have you forgotten the efforts and entreaties the police have made, to secure the rental of my talents as a sleuth? But, as you know, I don’t give a fig for that sort of life.”
My friend leaned back into his favourite armchair and closed his eyes. Despite his apparent indifference, it was easy to see that his mind was racing with activity. No doubt he was still brooding over the unpleasant scene he had just been forced to witness.
Just as the clock in our study was chiming six, the rustle of papers being placed on a doormat indicated to us that a diligent hand had, as usual, delivered the evening bulletins to our door. And, a few moments later, we were able to peruse the following article from the late printing of La Gazette des Tribunaux:
Ménil-Montant. A heinous crime has spread consternation throughout the Rue de la Courtille. This morning at around five o’clock, the household of Mr. Jean-Paul Evrard, vintner, was awakened by shrieking coming from the large drawing-room. After a slight delay caused by a failure to open the door immediately (Mr. Evrard always locked the doors to his apartments after midnight), a crowbar was brought, and the door was forced open. By that time, the shrieking had subsided. As the butler was preparing to enter, accompanied by the valets, the coachman, and the cook, a violent explosion occurred in the drawing-room, forcing them all into a hasty retreat. When the clouds of smoke finally cleared from the room, the witnesses were stunned by the spectacle they beheld. The drawing-room was topsy-turvy: furniture had been knocked over, and the curios were shattered and spread hither and thither. Sprawled on the carpet blackened by the beginnings of a fire, which fortunately had extinguished itself, was the body of Mr. Evrard. His face bore deep scratches, and his throat was mottled with purplish bruises and contusions, as if he had been strangled. His corpse was charred by the fire, which had burned long enough to consume his garments. Beside him lay the remains of a large wax figure, which had melted almost entirely in the heat of the conflagration. The police surmise that Mr. Evrard must have grabbed at the figure in desperation just before collapsing. The cause of these untoward events, which have thrust a neighbourhood into mourning for one of its most respected and honoured citizens, is, as yet, a complete mystery. Indeed, there was not a living soul in the room when the servants entered. It is impossible to discern how the murderer escaped, because all the windows were fitted with bars, and the only door was found locked tightly, with the key inside the room.
Further down the page, this paragraph was appended:
Just as we were going to press, we learned that Mr. Evrard’s murderer has been apprehended. We were told that the suspect is a domestic named Le Cabuc, who had been employed by the victim only last week. Motivated by the lowest sort of greed, this wretch strangled his master, and then attempted to make every trace of his crime disappear by igniting an infernal device of his own fabrication. However, due to either an insufficient amount of gunpowder, or a flaw in the design of the bomb itself, the explosion succeeded only in upsetting the furniture, blasting the paintings off the walls, destroying a wax statue, and shattering a handsome collection of porcelain figurines.
“What would you say if I snatched Le Cabuc away from the gallows?” Dupin remarked, pushing the newspaper aside.
“Are you certain that he is not guilty?” I asked.
“Quite so,” he replied.
“You’re tempted by the challenge of demonstrating his innocence and finding the true culprit, aren’t you?”
“Quite so again,” came the answer. “The plight of the unfortunate factotum is easily resolved. The self satisfaction of the police commissioner over the supposedly damning evidence was misplaced – as the English have it, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ – for chemicals have many uses. A brine made with saltpetre will preserve and redden meat, and it is a perfectly ordinary thing for a servant to be pickling some beef for his master. And you may have perceived, as I did, that Le Cabuc was in a poor state of health. His maladies, which he treated with a noxious physic of sulphur and were compounded by a neurotic disposition, left him unable to speak up for himself under the commissioner’s interrogation.”
Not for the first time, I had cause to wonder at my friend's encyclopaedic knowledge and lucidity.
Then he added, “As for the victim himself, let us conduct our own investigation before we make up our minds. We shall visit the scene of the crime and inspect it with our own eyes. It should be easy enough to obtain the authorisation to do as we please from our friend the Prefect of Police.”
Permission was granted the very next day, and we went straight to the Rue de la Courtille. We had no trouble finding the home of the late Jean-Paul Evrard. It was already late in the afternoon, for the neighbourhood where the gentleman lived is quite a distance from our own quarter, the faubourg Saint-Germain. We rang at the gate, showed our credentials to the gendarme who answered, and were permitted to go upstairs. At the door to the apartments, a stooped butler with hair whitened by age escorted us to the drawing-room where he had discovered the body of his master. The corpse was still lying on the floor.
In a mournful voice, the butler exclaimed, “Poor Mr. Evrard! He was always so fearful of burglars, always so careful to lock the doors of his apartments against intruders! It’s dreadful, isn’t it?”
The scene of the crime had been left untouched, as is the accepted police practice. I saw nothing more than what had been described in La Gazette des Tribunaux. Nevertheless, Dupin subjected everything to a minute examination, not excluding the body of the victim, whose neck bore the obvious marks of a strangulation. He also gave a close inspection to the debris of a large wax figure, whose limbs were strewn here and there on the carpet, half of which had burned when the incendiary device exploded. Finally, he scrutinised the countless shards of porcelain which remained. This observation took quite a while, and, by the time my companion concluded his lengthy, quiet conversation with the old butler, dusk was falling on the heights of Ménil-Montant. We hired a cab to drive home. Elsewhere I have mentioned that my friend was prone to act on rather eccentric whims, which I invariably indulged. This time, it suddenly struck his fancy to pay a visit to the Conservatory of Arts and Trades. I made no objection, and dropped him off there, returning to the Rue Dunot alone.
    Dupin’s return coincided with the twelfth stroke of midnight. His eyes were gleaming like diamonds.
“I fear the Gazette failed to fathom the full horror of the case,” he remarked, shedding his greatcoat. “We have little to learn from the reporter’s opinion. The ease with which I arrived at the solution to the riddle can be explained by the simple fact that I did not yield to the temptation to confuse the extraordinary with the abstruse.”
Then my friend settled into his armchair, and, lighting his favourite meerschaum, continued.
“Let us allow our imaginations to convey us to the room where the lifeless body of Jean-Paul Evrard was found. What was the first element to be investigated? Naturally, the means of escape available to the murderer. Let us review those means, one by one. Undeniably, the murderer was still present when the servants ran to the drawing-room door. Thus, that is the only room for which we need analyse the openings. The only door to the drawing-room was solidly locked, with the key on the inside. The chimney, which is of the usual breadth for a height of about eight or ten feet above the hearth, narrows sharply beyond that point, to the size of a conduit which would be a squeeze for a large cat. The windows, of which there are four, are each fitted with closely-spaced iron bars which had not been tampered with; moreover, they were also snugly shuttered and latched from inside. Having determined beyond the shadow of a doubt that it was impossible to flee by any of the passages I have just described, and having ruled out the existence of a secret corridor, I came to the conclusion that the murderer was still in the room when the servants arrived. In fact, I swear that they saw the individual with their own eyes. And so did you, dear fellow!”
I stared at Dupin in mute astonishment. My incredulity seemed to be a source of personal amusement for him, for, without pausing to allow me to question him, he went on:
“The evidence is as obvious as the writing on the advertisements painted on the walls of buildings. But it is so glaringly enormous that it escapes the eye of the ordinary observer. Remember the case of the purloined letter: in that affair, the microscopes, gimlets, and lenses of the police failed to discover elements which were in plain sight! The very fact that the clues were visible and begging for attention made the investigators blind to them. The analogy between the two inquiries is so delicious it makes me want to shout out bis repetita! However, I shall refrain from doing so, because in the case of the letter, my wits were matched with those of a criminal endowed with keen intelligence, whose only indelicacy was to threaten to sully the honour of a lady of the noblest extraction. He was a redoubtable foe, a perverse rascal, of course, but a creature of flesh and blood nevertheless. In the case we are now studying, we have encountered the accomplishment of a machiavellian – but accidental- plot. It is simply the posthumous consequence of a punishment conceived for the victim’s father, which was never inflicted. And it was perpetrated by... an object.”
I was stunned by this outrageous affirmation. I sat speechless, motionless, my mouth agape, my eyes popping out of their sockets, watching my friend as if he were a sorcerer. As before, without acknowledging the mesmeric effect his words were having upon me, he declared,
“Of course, I reached these conclusions only after having questioned the butler of the late Jean-Paul Evrard, and then conferring at length with the director of the Conservatory of Arts and Trades. Thus, this evening I assert that the riddle is unravelled.”
Dupin then embarked upon the following explanation, as if he were reciting a soliloquy. I have already described the distracted, glacial aspect he assumed on such occasions. His words were intended for me, of course; but his voice, although dwelling in its usual register, was coloured by the sort of intonation and intensity necessary for communicating with a hearer who is some distance from the speaker. As he spoke, his eyes took on a vague expression, staring into the void.
“The story begins over half a century in the past, with the illustrious clockmaker Jacques Vaucanson. Some years before his death – at the age of seventy-two – Vaucanson boasted that he could devise an ingenious mechanical combination capable of imitating the movements of any living creature. The rodomontade was made in the gaming rooms of the Prince of Lauzun. Soon, all the guests were apprised of the subject, and the inventor was assailed with curious questions. 'Would you be able to build an artificial grasshopper, capable of hopping?’ someone demanded. ‘Of course. It would hop like a veritable grasshopper.’ There was laughter. But the elderly Marquis de Mortemart, laying down his cards, challenged Vaucanson to build a device that could leap, whirl, and pirouette as gracefully as Aramante Zuccari, the young dance sensation who had captivated his senses. Mortemart’s request, as urgent as it was sarcastic, aroused the inventor’s imagination.
“Vaucanson carefully isolated himself in his laboratory for the next few days. After that time had elapsed, he paid a visit to the Prince of Lauzun, carrying a special sort of cane in his hand. Two jointed appendages were attached to either side of the walking stick a few inches from the handle. A matching pair had been fitted on the same axis a little further down. Vaucanson spun the device, and the limbs stretched out nimbly and effortlessly, as light and lithe and slender as living arms and legs. ‘If I increase the rotation speed,’ he remarked to his host, ‘the cane will spin as neatly as a top, and the jointed limbs fold back onto the axis, due to the difference in weight of the parts of which they are made.’ When the prince complimented him on the curious and ingenious invention, the clockmaker declared that his device was not a cane, but a ballerina. ‘Well, it can be said to function much like a ballerina,’ Lauzun corrected him, smiling. Vaucanson bowed, and then humbly opined, ‘Wouldn’t Your Excellency agree that it is the principle of the ballerina, and the principle alone, that wrenches the soul of the Marquis de Mortemart? Don’t we have every reason to believe this is true? First, he challenged me to make a mechanical imitation of a leaping, graceful body. He obviously longs for an android that can perform as delightfully as the young dancer with whom he is fascinated. Soon after speaking to me, he rushed off to the theatre where Aramante Zuccari is currently engaged. Would he not have been satisfied to remain calmly at his gaming table, had we been able to produce the ballerina for him... or, at least, the likeness of La Zuccari?’”
Vaucanson’s question met with silence from the prince. Then the latter smote his forehead, as the truth of the assertion slowly dawned on him. “By Jove, Sir, you are absolutely right. If you succeed in curing my unhappy friend the marquis of what is tormenting him, I will shower you with gratitude. And I think your experimentation is worth financing. Help yourself to my treasury.” Thus, Vaucanson came away from the prince’s salon with a letter of credit, after having given him the twirling cane – a model of the dancing mechanism he intended to build - as a memento.
“Aramante Zuccari soon learned of the mischief being plotted against her, and she was correct in assuming that it was against her, since the point of it was to oust her from her privileged and incontestable position as the queen of Mortemart’s affections. Nevertheless, she simply laughed it off, so convinced was she that she would ultimately triumph. Would a mere machine ever be capable of such grace, expression, and elasticity? Come now!
“She was informed that Vaucanson was haunting the offices of the director of the theatre. The impresario had on several of these occasions requested the presence of the ballet-master, as well as that of her partner, Floridor, who assisted her in her soaring leaps and seconded her when she arched her supple back. This partner, who was regarded by the public as little more than a piece of stage decor, was wildly jealous of Aramante’s acclaim. His assistance was easily secured by the inventor. As for the ballet-master, he was a devoted but stand-offish fellow, distinguished by his emotional reserve. A large trunk was brought to the theatre and stowed with great precaution in a spare dressing-room which was henceforth kept locked. However, every day, the ballet-master and Floridor took the key, and, together with Vaucanson and sometimes the director, spent hours closed up in there. Aramante could not be unaware of their mysterious meetings, but she was utterly oblivious to them. Her indifference was so extreme that she had no idea exactly what the inventor was planning. Would his device ever be perfected? Would it take him a month, or half a year? By then, as Lady Mortemart, she would no longer have to submit to the whims of any theatre manager.
“The season’s premiere ballet was called Panthée et Prométhée. The second act took place in a grotto beneath a waterfall, represented by a curtain of green gauze. The stage was veiled in chiaroscuro, completed by an interplay of flickering beams of light projected from the wings, creating an extremely effective illusion. The water spirits supposed to dwell in the grotto would appear one by one, awaiting their queen. The first dance was rather aimless, but when La Zuccari burst onto the scene in the second, cloaked in a mantle of orange light, she was as awe-inspiring as a goddess. Still haloed by the orange glow, and seemingly more perfect, more vibrant than life, she enchanted the audience with her movements, as if the light enhanced her natural grace and distilled the ideal artist from the merely human. She became a vision, barely recognisable as the dark-haired, provocative dancer one had glimpsed in the lobby, gossiping with the habitués. Vaucanson had taken all this into consideration.
“One evening, as the first act was ending, the manager of the theatre warned La Zuccari to hurry. Aramante simply laughed, and went on arranging her hair in her dressing room. How could the show go on without the star? When she was finally ready, she drifted down the stairs to the wings. She found the director, peeping avidly through the seam between the panels of the backdrop. Had the second act already begun? Discountenanced, Aramante had a look for herself, and what she saw plunged her into fury mingled with amazement. On the other side of the set, barely separated from her by the painted canvas, a ballerina identical to her in every way was performing. In fact, the impostor was even more lovely, for her idealised features were imbued with the celestial grace of fantasy. Floridor was dancing in perfect step with her, timing his leaps to coincide with hers, lending her the support of his muscular arm. At the climax of the pas-de-deux, the gentleman seized the ballerina’s slender waist as she fell backwards in graceful abandon, her body forming a perfect arch, her arms spread like wings, her hair brushing the floorboards. Effortlessly, she then arose, and, as Floridor held her pretty arm in the air, she spun about on her toes, with a precision and perfection that La Zuccari herself had never achieved. All the while her angelic gaze remained serene and ecstatic. Then she bounded away, swinging her head and torso to the right and left in an adorably coquettish wiggle. The audience burst into applause. In a front-row box, the Marquis of Mortemart was waving a bouquet. Aramante had risen, livid with rage, spouting imprecations. The theatre manager was in league with Vaucanson and the Prince of Lauzun, as he stood to earn a tidy sum of money for his cooperation. Thus, he snappily ordered La Zuccari to shut her mouth and return to her dressing-room.
“However, at the same moment, a different sort of scene was being played out in the inner lobby. The Marquis de Mortemart, who was a well-known figure there, was rushing to congratulate his beloved Aramante, the sweetest, most exquisite, most graceful ballerina in the history of dance! He always demonstrated his admiration for the creature with some generous gift. That evening, in addition to the posies, he had brought a pair of diamond earrings which were worth at least several thousand écus. Vaucanson went to meet the marquis, and then, using physical pressure as well as his persuasive voice, led him to a private room, the door to which he carefully locked behind them. When the two men emerged, a half-hour later, Mortemart’s countenance had undergone a perceptible change. He seemed dazed and slightly annoyed, although his eyes were shining with a sort of naive satisfaction. When he and Vaucanson reached the door to the theatre, the clockmaker said, “If we are agreed, I shall have her delivered tomorrow, sir.” The elderly gentleman nodded his head as he climbed into his carriage. And they parted.
“That was the last night Mortemart was seen at La Popelinière. His box, rented for the season, remained empty, enraging La Zuccari, who had resumed her choreographic gyrations at the very next performance. Her nature, which was already somewhat acrimonious, became even more bitter. She quarrelled with everyone, and finally became so awkward and sour that the theatre manager fired her at the earliest opportunity. Vaucanson died the following year. As for the marquis, he became a recluse. He lived for seven more years, cloistered in his mansion on the Ile Saint-Louis. No one could guess what mysterious attraction kept him entertained behind closed doors, away from society.
“Every evening, in the immense white-and-gold reception room, where the late marquise had held her fashionable soirées, the old gentleman would have all the tapers lit: the crystal chandeliers, the golden candelabra, and the gilded fixtures on the walls; he would have the doors closed and the curtains drawn. Alone, he would go and open a massive cabinet which stood against one wall. He moved with such great precaution that it seemed as though he feared he would shatter some fragile glass object. When the doors of the wardrobe were ajar, they revealed a graceful and lifelike replica of La Zuccari, standing behind a filmy veil, and reflected in the gilt-edged mirrors with which the cabinet was panelled. The diamonds that were a gift from the marquis glittered on her wax earlobes; he had attached them with his own hands. She smiled, bowed her head graciously, and made a little curtsey. Then her movements became more energetic, more lively. She came stepping out, her slippers flashing as she charmingly curved her arms, arching her back, stretching her lithe body, and finally spinning about on her toes, flinging her arms to and fro in time to her beautiful inner music. Mortemart found the slow, supple gestures of the mechanical doll intoxicating. She danced, for him alone, and never wearied of his admiration. And his life had been transformed by this bizarre enchantment: he was filled with ecstasy, tenderness, love, and peace. Aware that his life was ebbing away to its end, he felt as if rejuvenated when he indulged in his harmless and solitary illusion. He came back every night, at every moment, longing to set his doll in motion again. His craving for the wax figure was like one of those slow poisons which flood the entire organism, procuring an exquisite thrill every time the dose is increased.
“As the marquis grew older, he became prey to feebleness. After he was bedridden one spring, he was advised by his physician to spend some time in the fresh air at his country estate. He flatly refused. May and June went by. The house was like a tomb. In July, the roar of a crowd in the street penetrated all the way to his bedroom. He heard shouts, songs, the rat-a-tat-tat of musket fire, followed by a hullabaloo so explosive that the entire dwelling trembled on its foundations. The old man perked up his ears, and was suffused with a renewed vigour. He rang for his valet and questioned him. The servant’s face was the picture of fear itself. He stammered that the Bastille had been stormed, that the prisoners had been freed, and that the mob was now ransacking all the aristocratic dwellings in the neighbourhood. In fact, they had just broken down the doors of this very home; it was madness to resist. In a moment, the hubbub outside the room subsided. The commoners had withdrawn, respectful of the old gentleman’s final hours. Mortemart arose and ordered his staff to bring him to the gold-and-white reception room one last time – to carry him, if necessary. They obeyed. Once he reached the door, a supernatural force seemed to take hold of him. He dismissed the servants with a wave of his hand, and abruptly opened the door. His gaze took in the topsy-turvy furniture, the shattered mirrors, the ripped-down curtains. But he gasped in alarm when he saw that the great cabinet at the end of the room was yawning empty. Aramante’s limbs were strewn all over the rug as if she had been butchered. The rioting mob, enraged by this display of pampered luxury, had vented its fury on the wax figure, who wore diamonds in her ears whereas they had no bread for their bellies. Never had a living enemy been subjected to a vengeance this cruel. Sobbing, Mortemart collapsed upon the heap of wax limbs. He died one hour later, still in the company of his mechanical doll, the graceful masterpiece that Vaucanson had invented. She had been the light of his old age, and had warmed the cockles of his dying heart.”
Dupin drew a few voluptuous puffs of blond tobacco into his throat, and went on:
“The character I must now introduce left a terrifying mark on the history of the first revolution. He was an ugly, twisted creature, with a sallow complexion and an amphibian’s broad mouth, who assumed with zeal the position he had voluntarily chosen for himself in the vanguard of the insurrection. When I reveal that he christened himself “the friend of the people” and, at the height of the torment, demanded a thousand powdered heads every day, you will easily recognise the sinister Marat. But while the crowds that had conquered the Bastille were celebrating their victory, making merry and dancing carmagnoles around the stones of the dismantled fortress, this rascal had calmly begun to explore the treasures that could be harvested. He had just inventoried the Saint-Antoine quarter. As he was embarking on his search on the Ile Saint-Louis, he stopped and eyed the mansion of the marquis of Mortemart, which the mob had just abandoned.
“Jean-Paul Marat was born in Switzerland in 1743. He left Neufchâtel, where he was an apprentice clockmaker, at the age of sixteen. Upon his arrival in Paris, he lived from hand to mouth until Vaucanson, taking pity on his impoverished circumstances, hired him for his workshop on the rue de Charonne. There, he was able to admire the automats the genial inventor had built, such as the man who played the flute and the maiden who played the tambourine. Later, although there was little likelihood that it was true, Marat boasted that he had assisted Vaucanson in creating the first automatic loom, as well as a horseless carriage which was tested in the presence of the King and the Court. However, there is no doubt that Marat did help Vaucanson assemble the self-propelled marionette which had so delighted the old marquis.
“And now Marat found himself in the presence of the dismembered body of Aramante – or rather, of her automat – in the white and gold reception room of the Mortemart mansion. He did not hesitate for an instant: shoving aside the corpse of the elderly lord, who was still embracing his waxen beloved, Marat claimed the android “in the name of the French people” and made off with its remains, without forgetting a single cog or spring.
“Three years later, just after Louis XVI was beheaded, and when he was at the height of his power at the Convention, Marat summoned Urbain Gautreaux, a master clockmaker he had known in the old days in Vaucanson’s shop. Gautreaux had been promoted to the administration of the Conservatory of Arts and Trades. Marat ordered Gautreaux to repair the automatic ballerina. Pretending that he planned to have her preside over the feasts of the Republic, he called upon the master craftsman to gown her in red, white, and blue and to cover her wig with a jaunty Liberty cap. In truth, the scoundrel had his own private designs on her: she would dance for him alone, in his apartment on the Rue des Cordeliers. But he was out of luck, because Gautreaux, outraged by the way the King had been punished, had secretly vowed himself to serve the Girondin cause. He hatched a magnificent plot whereby the doll would wreak his vengeance. To begin with, he restored the android entirely, endowing it with all the movements and steps suitable for dancing. Then he designed a subtle mechanism, which, when triggered, would cause the mannequin to take three bounds towards Marat and break that man’s neck with its iron fingers. To make doubly sure that the wicked revolutionary would perish, the clockmaker booby-trapped the automat’s belly with an explosive device. Thus, if Marat somehow eluded being strangled, he would certainly be blown to smithereens by the bomb, which could be trusted to explode at the proper time.
“But fate was to intervene. On the thirteenth of July, at the hour when Gautreaux was expected at the Rue des Cordeliers to discuss the imminent delivery of the android, Charlotte Corday stabbed Marat while he was in his bath. Suspected of complicity, the watchmaker was imprisoned, tried, and promptly guillotined. As for the ballerina automat, she was relegated to the cellars of the Conservatory. She was to remain there, slumbering in a sort of oaken coffin, for over fifty years.”
Dupin paused for a moment to clean his meerschaum and refill it with fragrant golden blond tobacco. Then, having lit the contents carefully, he continued:
“A short while after the assassination of “the friend of the people,” a baby boy came into the world, and was named Jean-Paul after his father. He was the product of the illegitimate union of Marat with his muse, young Simone Evrard, a native of Tournus-Saint-André in the Saône-et-Loire. The advent of Napoleon Bonaparte had sent Simone and her son back to that rural village, where she was to remain until her death. Jean-Paul inherited her family’s vineyards and became a vintner. After the insurrection of 1832, he set up business in Paris, on the rue de la Courtille, where he made a fortune in the wine trade.
“It is when men are in the prime of life that they become sentimental about their childhood. Marat’s son was no exception. He recalled his mother’s marvellous descriptions of the Vaucanson ballerina which his father had brought back to life, as it were. Determined to take possession of the doll, he searched for it, found it, and purchased it. From then on, every evening would bring Evrard hours of sweet leisure. Like the marquis before him, he would gaze at the wax dancer in a sort of ecstasy, fascinated by every movement she made. Often, this machine-worship would last into the small hours of the night, while the android contemplated her new master with her beautiful, ingenuous eyes.
“One evening, yielding to a morbid desire for the artificial flesh, Evrard rose from his armchair, approached the doll, and stroked her gently. That was his fatal error. In three bounds, the automat had caught him in her iron grip; her glacial steel fingers were around his throat and squeezing it as if she meant to wrench his head off. Evrard shrieked in pain but did not struggle at all. Panting, he seemed only to apprehend a mechanical flaw in his beloved ballerina rather than his own death. Suddenly, there was a burst of lightning and a crash of thunder. Evrard felt a bolt of electricity pierce his very heart, and he lost consciousness. And that is how the son of Marat was murdered, the victim of the posthumous wrath of a clockmaker.”
I have nothing to add to Dupin’s explanation. Le Cabuc was released, after Dupin provided the judge investigating the case with all the relevant evidence. Then, as he always did, my friend willed himself to forget this tragedy. However, he did allude to it once, in the most humorous way. One evening, when we were strolling the streets arm in arm, hoping that the flash and bustle of the teeming city would conjure up the sort of thrill that one cannot derive from seclusion and study, an itinerant vendor tossed a mechanical toy at our feet. It was a little metal dog, wearing a ballerina’s tutu, which stood on its hind legs and danced a little jig. Dupin pulled me aside sharply, and, putting his hands to his neck and looking alarmed, he called out, in his rich tenor voice, “Cave canem... cave salticam puellam!”