One in the Eye
Translated by Anita Conrade
Il n’est d’assez borgne qui ne voit d’un œil.
Journal des Jésuites, 1609.
In my account of the horror of the Rue Morgue, I mentioned that I had been struck with admiration at the amazing analytical aptitude of the Chevalier Dupin. Indeed, my friend made no secret of his exceptional abilities, the product of a hyperactive intelligence, and was even likely to admit quite frankly that he derived a pungent pleasure from practising them upon me. Laughing silently as was his wont, he often told me that I had a transparent window bang over my heart, and he accompanied this assertion with evidence of the most surprising sort. Another example of the acuity of his observations will no doubt interest the reader.
One night in May, 18..., we were strolling down the rue de Valois, in the vicinity of the Palais-Royal. We had not exchanged a single word since leaving the Tuileries, so absorbed were we (at least in appearance) in our private musings. Suddenly, Dupin exclaimed:
“A band of sightless minstrels! Indeed, it was quite a good idea. The best solution possible, under the circumstances.”
“Exactly,” I replied, in such a daze that I did not immediately notice that my friend’s remark was the perfect reply to my reverie.
A few seconds elapsed before I came to my senses, with the usual astonishment. “Dupin,” I cried, “I know that you have played this trick on me before. However, I cannot hide the fact that I am completely bewildered. How the devil were you able to guess that I was thinking of...”
I paused to make certain that he had undeniably divined the secret of my thoughts.
“Of the blind musicians in the only subterranean café in the Palais-Royal?” he inquired. “Why did you interrupt yourself? You were just in the process of saying that their blindness had made them especially qualified to play in a bawdy-house where, in the old days, some of the goings-on might have aggrieved the sensitivity of a sighted orchestra.”
Indeed, that was exactly the remark I had just made to myself. The Homeric orchestra which gave its name to the Café des Aveugles had been assembled to entertain the Incroyables and their Merveilleuses at the saturnalias they held during the Directoire.
“For Heaven’s sake, dear friend,” I yelled. “Please reveal how you were able to penetrate my soul!”
The Chevalier chuckled before giving me this mystifying reply:
“The sight of the elegant old man with the black pince-nez led you to the conclusion that the only musicians capable of performing in that den of iniquity would have had to be blind.”
“What elegant old man with a black pince-nez? I’m sorry, but I know none.”
“The elderly yet flawlessly dressed gentleman, who gave us such an admirable rendition of that romantic old song by Garat as we walked past the Passage Vérité a moment ago.”
It dawned on me that I had indeed noticed a handsome and surprisingly distinguished old man standing in a window and strumming a guitar as he sang “Plaisir d’amour,” where the Rue des Bons-Enfants leads into the Place de Valois. But what did that have to do with the Café des Aveugles? I was completely unable to guess.
“I shall explain it to you,” said Dupin. “The person I referred to as ‘the elegant old man with the black pince-nez,’ because he was still keen to exert his charm despite his age and his blindness, was wearing his hair curled in the Incroyable style and a white cravat. He sported an opal stud on his shirtfront and his fingers glittered with love-puzzle rings. His hands were smooth and white and his voice went straight to your heart. He reminded you of your father, who went blind after the death of his beloved wife, your mother, and could not keep himself from weeping as he played the song which had always been one of his late ladylove’s favourites. You have always remembered the lines: “Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un instant... Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.” As your mind took a grip on this thought, you felt yourself fill with emotion at the recollection of this tender youthful memory, just as when a forgotten illustration reappears beneath the wrinkled warp and woof of the tapestry of life. Alas, today the flutina and pianoforte have vanquished the guitar. The suave timbre of that delicate instrument harmonised marvellously with the graces and gallantries of the Directoire era.
“Just then, we were climbing the step leading to the Galerie de Valois, and a loud beating of drums informed us that the Savage was still performing his show at the Café des Aveugles. A single wing-beat of the imagination sent your thoughts to light upon the special orchestra which, in the Directoire years, zealously banged out waltzes and quadrilles, for the entertainment of curly-haired dandies looking much like that handsome old gentleman at his window. And it was then that I interrupted your pondering to draw your attention to the fact that hiring blind musicians was a stroke of genius on the part of the proprietors of the establishment, where the goings-on would have shocked the eyes of ordinary fiddlers.”
The Chevalier paused for an instant to enjoy my awestruck expression; then he took me by the arm and said, “It is still early enough for us to enjoy the pleasures of the Palais-Royal. Then, Diable! we’ll sup, either at La Pâtisserie on the Boulevard Montmartre or at La Boulangerie, Rue Richelieu. Both restaurants are authorised to remain open until two. They’ll serve frugal yet tasty fare: meat pies, perhaps a roasted fowl, and a selection of pastries, which are invariably washed down with Madeira wine. Bah! We’ll make do with that.”
We descended the stair to the subterranean room of the Café des Aveugles. Absolute decency reigned. The orchestra, made up of a half-dozen blind men, was politely performing waltzes and mazurkas. The tables were overflowing with a motley crew of regular patrons who, like the audience at the Théâtre des Funambules, showed up every evening without fail to applaud the same show put on by the same actor: Monsieur Blondet, alias the Savage.
Shortly after we arrived, we were treated to two shots of deliciously tart verjuiced aqua-vitae “on the house,” served in crystal glasses as small and thick as jug-stoppers. A bell clattered, and with a terrific blast of their trumpets, the musicians swung into Le Vengeur, a rollicking tune which was a paean to the heroic sacrifice of the sailors serving the Republic. Suddenly, the music ceased, except for a single drum. But what a drum it was! It was the Savage, the fearsome Savage, capering all by himself like a demon, in an infernal crescendo which suggested by turns the cannonade, the tempest, and the wreck of the ship. Urged on by thunderous applause, the Savage executed encore after encore, beating out the throbbing, crashing rhythm with increasing fervour. Only one man remained unmoved, a sort of red-maned Hercules. He kept his brawny arms crossed, and, to anyone who would listen, he sneered that Monsieur Blondet seemed tired, and was not quite up to the performance he had given the day before. I was unable to make the comparison, myself.
Although midnight was nearing, the tables were still crowded. Next to us, a majestic and haughty septuagenarian, a clothed version of a massive nereid by Jordaens, was conversing with a zombie-like young dandy. His cheeks were hollow and emaciated, his lips bloodless, and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of milky spectacles. However, the pallor of the whole was relieved by his long black locks and carefully waxed and twisted mustachios. He was encased in a suit cut by one of the most accomplished tailors, and his only sins against good taste were a shirt with a frothy lace front and pleated cuffs, a blue cravat, and a bright red waistcoat with green pinstripes. His watch fob may have been mere pinchbeck, his cufflinks rhinestones, but he wore it all to a glittering effect in the light from the chandeliers.
“I told you so, Théophraste,” the lady was admonishing. “You weren’t made to burn the midnight oil. And yet you stubbornly refuse to go home and go to sleep. Your vision tires before all the rest, and I have no doubt that your little gooseberry eyes can no longer see straight, despite the pince-nez. The chicken broth fortifies you, it’s true, but the damage the liquor does overwhelms you.”
“Bah!” retorted the dandy. “I drink to forget my problems.”
“And I to forget my sorrows. Come now, my sweet little Théophraste, buy me a glass of aqua-vitae.”
“Oh, Gustine, be reasonable. You know your doctor has forbidden it.”
“Oh, he won’t mind a little verjuice,” the lady implored. “You are so sweet, Théophraste. Ah, if only I was still the young nymph of yesteryear!”
She had just been served, but her hand trembled so that she lost her grip upon the topaz-coloured glass. Gallant Dupin immediately bent down to pick it up, but its contents had been lost.
“Bring another verjuice, please,” ordered the Chevalier.
“How generous of you,” murmured the lady. “You remind me of that old roué Barras. Ah! He was a birdwatcher, he certainly was! ... A big strapping lad just like you!”
She grew even bolder with the second verjuice.
“Gather round, boys, and I’ll tell you a secret. I was a real Merveilleuse back in those days, with rings on my toes, and Bonapartes and mirliflores fighting for my favours.”
“Where are the phaetons of yesteryear?” mocked the dandy, polishing his glasses. “Poor Gustine, you’ve no more than you deserve from the good lord.”
“The good lord?!” she sputtered, exasperated. “The good lord is the Devil!”
At these words, a gentleman seated nearby, the red-headed Hercules who, a little earlier, had refused to applaud the antics of the Savage, finally uncrossed his impressive arms. And reaching toward the ceiling, as if to implore the heavens to be his witness, he said, in a style of language which belied his appearance:
“If the good lord is the devil, then the devil must be the good lord! It’s all the same in the end. The matron has committed a frightful paralogism, as sure as my name is Babin Barbarin!”
“Take care: the mood is turning sour,” Dupin whispered in my ear. “To cool the ardour of the patrons, the management has installed a special sprinkler system. Water sprays down from the ceiling onto the pugilists, and, if that doesn’t suffice, there’s a special apparatus which blocks the drains. As the room fills with water, the most enraged beg for mercy. If you don’t want to get your socks soggy, dear friend, count to one hundred and then take your leave. Feign nonchalance, as if you were a smoker looking for a flame to light your cigar. Make your way over to the steps calmly, and saunter out into the street.”
Emphatically, he added: “Follow these instructions without questioning them, and, especially, don’t get mixed up in anything that’s about to happen. As soon as I can, I’ll meet up with you again, on the Place de Valois.”
Mr. Babin Barbarin had resumed his caustic tirade, in an even louder voice. “How foolish this underclass can be! Isn’t it a shame to hear the voice of vice echoing in the base and wicked phraseology of the scoundrel?”
Although this rigmarole was completely incomprehensible to him, the man known as Théophraste bore the full brunt of its scorn. He made a face and snapped his fingers twice. Immediately, a number of scarred and scowling fellows rose from the neighbouring tables. He himself stood up, and, in a sort of helpless frenzy, imprecated the Hercules in slang, shouting into his face:
Tu crânes trop pour mézigue, mon gros muffeton! Jaspine voir encore, qu’on fase pitance du pivois de ton blair et de ton palpitant!”
Trembling like a reed, he lowered his voice and added, “What can you say to defend yourself, before we chop you into kindling wood?”
In guise of reply, the redhead uttered a fearsome curse and let fly with a terrific punch which floored the dandy. Immediately, a titanic battle erupted between Barbarin and Théophraste’s thugs. With a slap and a backhand, the Hercules had floored two adversaries and knelt upon their chests. But three more ruffians had seized hold of him, by the arms and neck, and held him firmly pressed upon their companions, who were groaning as if crushed by a millstone. Barbarin held off the band of assailants like a lion resisting a horde of jackals.
Before leaving the room, I had the time to see Dupin bend down towards the panting body of the dandy. I had the impression that he was gently massaging the man’s face, rubbing his temples, and patting his cheeks, as if attempting to revive him. But darkness and chaos reigned, preventing me from making out exactly what the chevalier was doing.
As I leapt up the stairs, I turned to take one last glance at the crowd which had surrounded the combatants, exhorting the Hercules to do battle unguibus et rostro. Then I stumbled through a vestibule, pushed open a door, and found myself beneath the starry sky in the gardens of the Palais-Royal.
It was not long before Dupin fell in step with me on the place de Valois.
“The exception that proves the rule,” he chuckled. “The guards, alerted by a busboy, arrived in time to prevent a deluge. The belligerents were separated manu militari, and I availed myself of the opportunity to take French leave, as they say in America.”
Taking me by the elbow, the chevalier added, “And now, if it’s all right with you, we’ll go dine at one of the local rotisseries. I am in serious need of sustenance.”
As we were retracing our path back up the passage Vérité towards the rue des Bons-Enfants, I was somewhat surprised to hear Dupin hail the old gentleman with the guitar we had seen earlier. As soon as the fellow appeared at his window, Dupin called, “A la Grand Pinte, rue Croix-des-Petits-Champs!”
“Proceed without fear, Sir, the errand will be done, without a hitch,” the elderly beau promptly replied.
Aware of the confusion this brief exchange had engendered in my spirit, my friend forestalled my questions by declaring:
“One day, when we had just begun to live under the same roof, you told me you sometimes enjoyed imagining a double Dupin: one of them an inventor and the other an analyst, so convinced were you that my soul did not contain an iota of dishonesty. Well, dear friend, I must apologise for disillusioning you. I must reveal that I tricked you into following me exactly where I wanted you to accompany me, by using a contrario the peculiar analytical talents that you know so well. That is, rather than divining the nature of your thoughts, I generated them by means of a number of preconceived schemes, such as the “elegant old gentleman with the black pince-nez,” as I chose to call him. He was simply an actor I hired to don this costume and stand in a window of the passage Vérité. I had instructed him to sing Plaisir d’amour in his most seductive voice when he saw us in the street below. Moreover, if necessary, he was to transmit the messages I gave him.”
I was crestfallen and filled with indignation. But before I could remonstrate with Dupin for defrauding me so nonchalantly, he added these words:
“Waste no more time resenting me; instead, listen. You know how much I trust you. I shall tell you a secret, but first you must vow not to say a single word about this matter to anyone.”
I gave him the promise he required, and, after observing a few moments of almost meditative silence, he began this recitation:
“Our old acquaintance Monsieur Gisquet, the Prefect of the Paris Police, recently sought my help on a case of the greatest importance which had him completely befuddled. Swearing me to secrecy, he told me that he had personally been informed by a high-ranking individual that an object of very small size but considerable value had been stolen from a member of the King’s inner circle. The thief’s identity was known to the victim, and this knowledge was no secret to the thief himself. As the miserable fellow had adopted the strategy of using the power he had acquired by this token to a dangerous degree, the victim of the theft had become certain that it was necessary to recover the stolen property as quickly as possible. But, as this could not be done openly, the Prefect of Police was ordered to accomplish the task with the utmost discretion.
“It was obvious that the stolen object was still in the hands of the thief, because it was the fact that it was being kept hidden that conferred such inestimable value upon it. Were the secret accompanying its possession to be divulged, a scandal which would annihilate the owner would arise. Gisquet’s first move was thus to organise a careful search of the thief’s rooms – unbeknownst to the latter, of course. It was not difficult to pull off, as the thief often spent the entire night away from home and had no domestic. For weeks, whenever his absence made it possible, every hour between sunset and sunrise was devoted to this investigation. In fact, the strategy was not abandoned until every nook and cranny of the apartments had been gone over several times with a fine-toothed comb. It became certain that regardless of the fastidiousness with which the endeavour was carried out, no trace of the precious object would be found.”
“But couldn’t the thief have hidden the object in a safer place than his own home?” I shrewdly insinuated.
“Not at all likely. The ability to produce the object immediately was a factor at least as important as possessing the object itself. In addition, the Prefect had rejected the hypothesis that the stolen property was hidden on the thief’s own person. He had paid false muggers to waylay the individual three or four times, and his clothing had been scrupulously investigated, but to no avail. Obviously, the sly fox had foreseen the eventuality of such underhanded methods. At last, on the brink of despair, Gisquet came to enlist my aid, trusting me to conduct my own inquiry and to take the stolen object into my own possession.”
Behind the ruins of the old Saint-Honoré cloister, hidden by the facades of the new dwellings, is a rotisserie famous among Paris’s noctambules.
“Here we are!” announced Dupin, gesturing towards the tin sign which was creaking in the wind. And softly he intoned the colourful song penned by the painter-poet Auguste de Châtillon:
À la Grand Pinte, alors qu'il gèle,
Dans la cuisine, on voit briller
Toujours un tronc d'arbre au foyer,
Flamme éternelle,
Ou rôtissent en chapelets,
Oisons, canards, dindons, poulets,
Au tournebroche,
Et puis le soleil jaune d'or,
Sur les casseroles encor,
Darde et s'accroche.
“It’s the only establishment which is bound to stay open from twilight to twilight,” he added, as we went in.
“But a great capital should never sleep,” I protested. “Why isn’t Paris like London?”
“Because, in Paris, we have doorkeepers, whereas in London, the people have keys,” replied my friend with a shrug of his shoulders. “Every Englishman owns one, and he can thus come home at any hour he pleases.”
The Chevalier added, with emphasis:
“If I were good Monsieur Gisquet, rather than have the shops, theatres, cafés, and restaurants close at midnight, I would give a financial incentive to those which stay open all night. For, although I do not believe that the police have ever abetted thievery, it does seem that the law forcing honest businesses to shut down at night actually offers a defenceless city to plunderers. A number of tradesmen and artists – printers, actors, critics, lamplighters, and machinists, for example – are obliged to work until late in the night. Moreover, I have often heard foreigners laugh when they hear that Parisians are put to bed at such an early hour!
“Three carved roasted fowl will be perfect!” decreed Dupin, settling down close to the fireplace. “But let’s begin with a bowl of chicken soup. It won’t be enough to dull our appetite. Besides, a cook who serves five hundred chickens a day is bound to have the wherewithal to fill the pot and boil up an excellent consommé.”
In a trice, two steaming bowls had been set before us, and the soup was indeed delicious. Next we savoured some Strasbourg crawfish, as big as small lobsters. As we were licking our fingers, the Hercules from the café des Aveugles burst into the rotisserie and pulled up a chair at our table, without so much as a by-your-leave.
“Excuse me, my friend, but I don’t believe you were invi...,” I sputtered.
However, my indignation turned into a cry of amazement when the Hercules pulled off his cap of red hair, revealing the smooth forehead and straight black locks of our friend Vidocq.
“What?! Was that you?” I marvelled, so stunned I nearly stuttered. “What an excellent disguise. I would never have recognised you.”
The chief of the Sûreté police guffawed.
“Ha, ha! Your eyeballs are popping out of your head,” he said. “This fiery wig is simply the fleece I had to don in order to sidle up to our lamb Théophraste and chuck him under the chin – a bit roughly, I admit.”
“But what was the point?” I inquired, still flabbergasted.
“You had better ask Dupin,” Vidocq replied. “I know little more than you. I was simply obeying orders while on duty.”
I nodded, and then urgently addressed the Chevalier.
“Come on,” said I. “Tell us all about it.”
“I shall,” he promised, and let out a puff of smoke from his meerschaum, which he had just lit. Then he uttered these words:
“I needed a man of steel to help me accomplish certain specific tasks at the café des Aveugles, and I quite naturally chose Vidocq. One could not dream of a more diligent and trustworthy accomplice than the chief of the Sûreté, with his phenomenal muscular strength and his no less prodigious ability to assume a role and act it out to the hilt. We thus agreed upon a strategy, and, when the time came, I gave him the signal. My police officer, disguised as a circus Hercules, started a brawl in the middle of the barroom. To begin with, and according to the instructions I had given him in advance, he immobilised Théophraste with a punch in the jaw, and then continued the battle with the other hoodlums. It was necessary to entertain the onlookers for a moment, and Vidocq applied himself to the task with vehemence. At the same time, amidst the shouts and vociferations of the crowd, I went straight to the young dandy who was laid out cold on the tile and bent over his prostrate form.
“I observed his emaciated face, his hollow cheeks, his bloodless lips, his ivory teeth... But his eyes... his eyes were invisible to me, hidden by the pince-nez which was still clinging to his nose. I wanted to see these eyes, which were still unknown to me. Thus, I pulled away the lenses protecting them, and examined the eyes carefully, one by one, with the greatest of care. Why should he have two eyes? Wasn’t there one too many?... And I took my thumb and gouged out the right one, as if pitting a plum.”
Dupin, who had risen from his chair to mime the scene, sat down again and removed a small object from his vest pocket. He rolled it across the tabletop like a marble and then neatly trapped it under an overturned glass. He picked it up again and tossed it in his palm a few times before pocketing it again, declaring coolly, “Théophraste’s right eye.” The macabre announcement made my flesh creep. What was Dupin up to? What was the meaning of the version of coconut shies he had just played on the tablecloth? I implored him to explain.
Turning to me, he began: “It is all quite clear, and perfectly congruent with my reasoning. Please follow my line of thought, would you? Since the Prefect of Police had failed to discover the stolen property outside the person of Théophraste – because, although I omitted to mention it, he was the thief – the object must not have been kept outside of this individual. And since it had not been detected in the pockets of the clothes he was wearing, the property must have been hidden in an even deeper recess of his being, in his very flesh... under his skin... in his eye... Why, it was simply a matter of searching Théophraste’s right eye!”
And Dupin took the enigmatic marble from his pocket again and tapped it on the table a few times.
“Here, have a look,” he said, holding it out to me.
Taking it, I rose to examine it by the light of the lamp on the wall.
“An artificial eye!” I exclaimed.
It was a ovoid sphere, of the size and shape of a large almond, a perfect imitation of a real eye, painted to imitate every detail of the globe, the iris, the pupil, and the cornea.
“Yes, an artificial eye,” sighed the Chevalier, “a mere prosthesis Théophraste would slip into his right eye socket, which was otherwise empty. An insignificant enamel marble he protected behind a pince-nez with opaque lenses, which contained and still contains an object which conferred fabulous power upon him... As you will soon see!”
Using the silver knife rest as if it were a tiny hammer, Dupin struck the glass eye a few times, until the shell was broken. Within, we saw the flash of a diamond gemstone which set the table alight with a thousand sparkling reflections.
“The Kabossah diamond!” cried Vidocq, in a voice which trembled with emotion.
“Quite right, dear fellow,” the Chevalier smiled. “It is indeed the legendary missing jewel.”
I will not even try to describe the feelings which arose in my chest as I contemplated the marvel. As you may well imagine, awe and amazement dominated.
We were all silent for a moment, until Dupin, aware that I was dying of impatience to know the solution to the prodigious mystery, enlightened us in full detail as to all the circumstances attenuating to the fact.
“They say that, not long ago, a cannibal king named Kabossah, invited to the Tuileries, bestowed this jewel upon our monarch as a token of his esteem,” he said, toying with the diamond on the tablecloth. “Having a great weakness for the lovely Léa P., our sovereign impetuously gave the gem to her, in order, he said later, for her to have it mounted by her jeweller. But well informed courtiers were all too eager to arouse the jealousy and wrath of the queen. It was thus imperative to regain possession of the jewel and return it to its rightful place in the Crown treasure, as a guarantee of the king’s good faith. Unfortunately, one of the admirers of the young woman, who held salon at Rambouillet, was none other than the powdered dandy Théophraste Séchard. This gentleman, whose glossy kid waistcoat concealed the dark and dastardly heart of a predator, managed to worm his way into Léa’s jewel box and made off to Paris with the diamond. Sobbing, Léa threw herself at the King’s feet and confessed her mistake, but it was too late: Théophraste was at large. He and his band were in an excellent position to levy blackmail on all the finest families of the capital, for the scoundrel had laid his hands on the talisman which could shake the throne to its foundations!”
“But then Auguste Dupin, like the deus ex machina of a second-rate Molière, intervened, saving the monarchy!” Vidocq broke in, in a mocking voice. “I thought you were a democrat, Monsieur le Chevalier!”
“At your service, kind sir, chief of the Sûreté police,” retorted Dupin, feigning obsequiousness. “In fact, I am about to provide you with formal proof of my anti-tyrannical convictions.”
At which he reached for the precious stone, made it hop into his hand, and then speedily threw it into the fire blazing on the hearth.
I was speechless. As for Vidocq, he looked thunderstruck. For a few seconds, he sat there with his mouth gaping, with an expression of pure incredulity on his face. Finally, he seemed to recover his faculties somewhat and, rubbing his forehead with a weary hand, he said, in a pitiful tone, “Miserable wretch, what have you done? You have just reduced a king’s ransom to ashes!”
“And, by the same token, I played a dirty trick on your evil rival, the fat Prefect of Police, not to mention the no less obese and idiotic King of France,” replied Dupin insouciantly.
He pushed his meerschaum pipe away from him, carefully knotted a napkin around his neck, and joyously added, “Come now, fellows, it is no longer time to moan. Let us enjoy this excellent roast fowl. But first, I’d like to make a toast.”
Raising the glass he had filled with ruby-red Bordeaux wine, he cried out, at the top of his lungs, to the delight of the other patrons of the Grand Pinte: “Remember the patriots of July, 1830! Vive la République! Vive la Liberté!”