Robertson’s Shadows
Translated by Anita Conrade
All the reports concur: in their tombs, the dead gnash their teeth,
making a noise as loud as that of swine feeding.
Hence the name Schmazenden Todten (“chewing dead”) by which they are known in Hungary.

Michael Ranft, De masticatione morturoum in tumulis, Leipzig, 1728.
    This perplexing series of events began in the most uneventful way possible, one November day in 18--. I had accepted an invitation from an impecunious bibliophile whose acquaintance I had made in a library in the rue Montmartre. This eccentric, who was always lugging around a load of old books, was known in that neighbourhood by the no less unusual nickname of Polygonial. He had urged me to come to his home that very evening, because he owned an extremely rare book, which (he hinted) he would be willing to part with for a reasonable fee. It was an unexpurgated 1746 edition of Les Dissertations sur les apparitions des anges, des démons et des esprits, et sur les revenants et vampires de Hongrie, de Bohême, de Moravie et de Silésie by Augustin Calmet, with manuscript annotations by the author. The volume was so valuable I would have been happy to journey to Rome to acquire it, and now I jubilated: a copy was to be found right here in Paris, on the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne!
When a cab dropped me off in front of the Fontaine de l’Arbre-Sec, dusk had fallen. The central marketplace was beginning to bustle in preparation for the night of commerce ahead. Pushcarts piled high with cabbages, parsnips, cockles and mussels, or heads of lettuce were being trundled this way and that. “What a lovely autumn sky!” I exclaimed to myself as I caught sight of the stars sparkling in the vault above the huge marketplace, bounded on the left by the cupola of the Wheat Exchange and the cabalistic column of Catherine de Médicis. It led the eye to the heavy wrought iron arcades of the poultry market, and, nearby, the as-yet only partially built wholesale meat market. The greyish silhouette of Saint Eustache Church towered over the scene from behind, forming a backdrop. This admirable edifice, in which the florid style of the Middle Ages is so happily wedded to the aesthetic propriety of the Renaissance, was still magnificently lit by the moon. The arches and flying buttresses of its Gothic framework glowed silver, suggesting the ribs of some beached leviathan.
I went to ask my way at the door of the Maison d’Or, a tavern which stayed open all night, so that the cartmen, after delivering their goods, could quench their thirst, throwing back pear ale at six sous a glass, before fortifying themselves with a savoury chicken soup at twenty centimes. There I found a fair flower-merchant settled in front of the brazier, fuelling an inner fire with sips of eau-de-vie.
“Would you be so kind as to point out the way to the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne for me, my dear?”
She glanced at the clock on the wall to ascertain the hour before she answered, in that gritty Paris accent which heralds phthisic decay, and which is acquired through the immoderate consumption of hard liquor.
“Rue de la Vieille Lanterne? Better not go there by foot, my good little lord.”
“Really? I didn’t think it was very far.”
“’Tisn’t! It’s just below the Rue du Temple, on the right-hand side, as you head towards the river. The thing is...”
“Go on, my beauty...”
The flower merchant looked me up and down with a mocking smile on her lips, and finally rasped, “There’s been some trouble over that way... Just yesterday, in fact, a gang of snafflers roughed up a gentleman stroller.”
I shrugged.
“I have no fear of thieves,” I declared. “Bring them on! Just let them try to dodge the blows when I start windmilling with my cane. I’m not too shabby at kick-boxing, either. Should that fail to dissuade them, I’ll give them a little taste of what this puts out!”
And I took my little five-shot pistol from my pocket. It had been a gift from a New Jersey gunmaker who had just invented the device, and it was no doubt deadly. “With this revolver,” I boasted, loud enough to be heard by any wretched thief who might be skulking around the cafe in search of an easy mark, “I can muss the hair of whatever remains of the Lacenaire gang!”
The stars had vanished. After I crossed the Rue Saint-Denis and entered the old Temple neighbourhood, with its thousand labyrinthine alleys, I felt as though I’d been engulfed by a lake of shadows, oozing with doom, a dark and disturbing geography. All movement having ceased, an eerie hush reigned. A pitch-black sky loomed over the tangle of deserted streets, like a huge shroud flung over a vast grave where I myself was buried. Not a single light burned in the windows of the houses lining the alleys; no living presence disturbed the funereal harmony of the endless rows of gates, chimneys, and roofs. Here and there, in the mass of shadow, a gaslight shed a faint and stingy glow. By its vague reflection shining on the wet pavement, I guided my steps. At other intervals, I was startled when blurred gradations of grey threw immobile hulks into relief. They were Saint-Merri Church, the Tour Saint-Jacques, and two or three other imposing buildings, architectural giants, metamorphosed by the night into phantoms.
At last I reached the corner of the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. This spot was even gloomier, more desolate, and more lugubrious than the alleys I had just explored. The grim, icy silence of the world beyond the grave was all-pervasive. An eerie trepidation took hold of me. I stopped. “What’s the trouble with me?” I thought to myself. True, the night was dark, very dark, but like Dupin, I was enamoured of the night for its own sake. The dusky divinity delighted me, and when she steals over the city, winding it in her cloak the colour of raven’s wings, I had never felt the slightest disquiet. Had I met with some tangible threat, such as a marauder, I’d have charged without hesitation, quivering with vicious rage. In any case, I had a weapon – my revolver. But I prevented my hand from instinctively creeping to grasp it. I was determined to resist the fear that I could feel taking root in my belly. Although I was very close to reaching the house I’d been seeking, I lingered. Did I feel some intuition? The mysterious precognition which subjugates a man’s senses when he is about to witness something unexplainable? Perhaps. Who knows?
“Come now,” I encouraged myself. “According to what Polygonial himself told me, he lives in the next-to-last house on the street, going towards the Seine. It’s only a short distance now. And I’ve come all this way.” I added aloud, to give myself heart, “Stir your stumps, lazybones! You don’t get offered a Dom Calmet vintage 1746 every day. Scram!”
Boldly, I strode onto the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. The shadows here were murky. My eyes could barely pierce the darkness, but in the first few seconds, I noticed nothing extraordinary. True, there was a ringing in my ears, but I am subject to tinnitus. However, as I walked, I could tell the ringing was becoming more distinct, more explicit. I soon understood that it was not the ordinary sound of my blood rushing through my arteries which made this humming in my ears, but some curious and novel source of sound. I could hear a sinister grinding and scraping noise, “gritch! gritch! gritch! gritch,” the sounds of chewing, which came unmistakably from the obscure depths of the street. I was overcome by a wave of profound terror. I peered this way and that, seeking some way to pierce the dark veil of fog enveloping me, but I could barely see the paving stones three steps ahead. Beyond, everything dissolved into night. And yet, I could still hear these infernal “gritch! gritch!” noises, insistently repeated. There was not the slightest doubt that a demoniacal entity was on the prowl nearby. I shivered at the thought of this occult, maleficent ? presence I guessed was dogging my steps. At that instant, as if to augment my terror by yet another degree, there was an outburst of lugubrious ?, howling laughter, similar to the cries of the hyenas at the Menagerie. Abruptly, I crossed the street and crouched in the shelter of a low door. I cocked my revolver and held my breath. The howling had ceased. I remained in my refuge a few seconds longer, tense and immobile. Nothing happened. But as soon as I straightened up again and began to walk, the “gritch! gritch! gritch!” resumed, from behind me, this time. Apparently, they were following me, about to close in on me. Conquering my fears, I halted momentarily in the dim glow of a street light. In a voice from which I strove to banish any tremolo, I brandished my revolver and cried, “Who goes there? Is that you, Polygonial?” The answer was not long in coming, but it was not the one I was hoping for. A sort of gurgling issued from a source directly over my head. I looked up and... met with sheer panic! Hideous spectres were floating in the air, all around me. Their chalky skulls rocked gently to and fro, seeming to mock me with their abject ? grins. I was so utterly terrified, in my heart, in my body, and in my soul, that I felt my knees turn to jelly. Fortunately, just then, three short toots on a whistle, reaching my ears, snapped me out of my anguished trance and back to some semblance of reality. My legs sprang into action, I leaped forward, and ran towards the riverbank as fast as I could.
  “Fear,” declared Dupin, “is an atrocious sensation, an awful spasm of the mind and heart, resembling a decomposition of the soul. But for brave men like you, dear fellow, it is not precipitated by a mere human attack or any of the familiar forms of peril. True fear is aroused only by extraordinary, insane, paranormal threats. Few people, even among the most reasonable ones, have not been prey to a vague but captivating belief in supernatural phenomena. You underwent that horrifying experience on the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne.”
“Absolutely,” I sighed. “Alas! I nearly died of fright at the sight of those ghosts.”
Dupin nodded his agreement, and seemed to lapse back into the profound state of reverie so typical of him. For a long time, he sat there mutely in the feeble halo of the two tapers which provided the only lighting in our drawing room. He clutched his meerschaum pipe in his mouth, seeming to reflect upon nothing except for the curly whorls of smoke which hung in the air. As for myself, I had settled into an armchair at his side, and, with my heart set at ease by his presence, I had unfolded the evening edition of La Gazette des Tribunaux. But suddenly, just as I finished reading a long article on the upcoming performance at the Opéra of Meyerbeer’s masterpiece, Robert le Diable, Dupin’s face brightened. “Robert le Diable!” he exclaimed, smiting his forehead with his palm, “Why the Devil didn’t I think of it earlier? Just picture Polygonial: the emaciated, almost skeletal frame; the deeply wrinkled face, ravaged by nervous tics. I’m sure that’s it, I’m absolutely sure!”
“Your description of the fellow you met in a reading room on the Rue Montmartre,” he confided, leaning towards me, “coincides with my own memory of the man, and tends to reinforce Vidocq’s suspicions about the individual. Yes, there’s no doubt, it’s him, all right!”
Dupin put away his beloved meerschaum, then beckoned to me to stand up. “Prepare yourself,” he said emphatically. “Bring your revolver. We’re going back there. Assuredly, before dawn, I will have this story disentangled.”
A thick fog shrouded the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne. I made my way into the melancholy slowly, but I was no longer alone: Dupin was by my side. He had equipped himself with one of those illuminating devices that sailors call “storm lamps,” but the powerful beam of light magnified by its Fresnel lens could barely pierce the heavy shadows. In all this morbid obscurity, were we not about to discover phenomena even more frightening than what I had witnessed a few hours earlier?
We had not gone one hundred paces before the same “gritch! gritch gritch!” sounds I described earlier reached our ears.
“Well, what do you know?” Dupin simply murmured. “They have come to meet us.”
Next, as we halted under the only lamp in the whole street that was lighted, the howling laughter began again.
“Ha, ha!” said my friend, raising his eyes. “Take a good look!”
It began with vague wisps of steam which seemed to be coming directly from the flame of the gaslight. Then, fleeting, evanescent shapes began to whirl about within the mists, melting into one another. Finally, a milky countenance appeared in the artificial fog. A dim, opalescent aura gave it an other-worldly aspect. But as Dupin unflinchingly aimed his lamp at this abominable face, it dissipated into nothingness.
“Better and better,” grunted my friend. “I’m sure that many more surprises await us. Let’s explore!”
Indeed, as we walked farther down the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne, the ray of light from the storm lamp revealed more pale spectrrs slithering along the slimy facades of the houses. They, too, defied gravity in the nocturnal air. Certainly, I was reassured by Dupin’s presence; nevertheless, I shivered when I saw their sinister, grimacing faces leaping out of the night, caught in the illumination of the lamp. It was horrible.
My friend stopped walking, and from the pocket of his cloak he drew the dagger he always carried. And then, I witnessed an incredible scene. Dupin braced himself for an instant, facing the mass of phantoms draped in opalescent shrouds by the wisps of fog. Taking a deep breath, he advanced on them, and deliberately, methodically, stabbed them, one after another. What happened? The spectres withered, shrinking and shrivelling until they were nothing more than a vague mass of whitish skins, shreds of flesh dangling grotesquely from the crags in the sooty walls of the houses lining the street.
     “Strolling through Père Lachaise Cemetery, have you ever noticed that strange tombstone shaped like an obelisk, adorned with winged skulls, owls, and demonic silhouettes?” Dupin inquired, once we had returned to our apartments. And, as I confessed my ignorance, he continued, “It marks the sepulchre of Etienne Gaspar Robertson, who was the maestro of phantasmagoric illusions after the first revolution. He had taken possession of the ruins of the Capucine convent, and there, with an assistant, using a sort of magic-lantern which projected light through glass plates onto wispy draperies and clouds of smoke – to the accompaniment of a terrifying racket – he thrilled audiences with the fright of their lives.
Robertson became quite a wizard with his ingenious optical illusions and horrifying performances. He operated the entertainment for many years, alarming such crowds of people that he became famous as Robert le Diable.”
“Robert le Diable? Isn’t that also the title of Meyerbeer’s masterpiece?” I marveled. “Last night, in La Gazette des tribunaux, I read that a new production of the opera is about to be staged.”
“Exactly. Indeed, when I glanced at that article in your lap, the solution to the mystery suddenly became clear to me. I immediately connected Meyerbeer’s opera entitled Robert le Diable and Etienne Gaspar Robertson, alias Robert le Diable. In fact, I wonder if Scribe and Delavigne did not have the master of phantasmagoria in mind when they penned the libretto of their musical tragedy. Likewise, I made a connection between Robert le Diable and Polygonial. Were you not curious as to where your bibliophile had got his odd nickname? Would you like to know? Well, I’ll tell you: the Polygonial is a brownish-orange butterfly with dark spots on its wings, a member of the Nymphalidae family. Its natural habit is park and garden hedgerows. As for the specimen you encountered in the Rue Montmartre, he happens to be the man who was once Robertson’s loyal assistant. Robertson thought of him as his spiritual son, and the sight of the younger man fluttering around backstage like a butterfly, checking all the pulleys, wires, and cables, making sure that everything went off without a hitch, so as not to spoil in the slightest the infernal enchantment of the entertainment, amused the illusionist no end. Facetiously, Robert le Diable senior gave Robert le Diable junior the scholarly Latin name of a butterfly which is commonly known in French as a “robert-le-diable”.
“Dupin, once again you have amazed me with the acuity of your analytical abilities!” I exclaimed to my friend.
“As you know, exercising this talent always procures me a pungent pleasure,” he replied, with a little laugh of sheer delight. And he went on to say, “After 1802, Robertson lost the title which had given him a monopoly on phantasmagoria. In order to keep entertaining crowds, he embarked on a travelling show, demonstrating hot-air balloons throughout Europe, ranging from St. Petersburg to Madrid. Polygonial had remained in Paris by himself, having inherited all of the optical equipment, sets, and accessories for the macabre horror shows from his master. But no one would crowd into a tent to have the dickens scared out of them by his special effects, whether he pitched it on the Boulevard du Crime or on the outskirts of Paris. One year, he could not pay his servant’s wages; the next, he couldn’t scrape together the money for the rent. He had already pawned all of his knick-knacks to get his hands on some cash. That was when he began parting with the most valuable books in his library, accepting a pittance for volumes he’d spent a fortune to acquire. When even this meagre resource began to run out, he gave up his usual dinner of bacon and eggs, supping on bread and potatoes instead. A second-hand dealer had relieved him of his last pieces of furniture, and then any clothing, linen, or blankets he could spare. Through all this adversity, he stubbornly held onto Robertson’s legacy, never even considering the possibility that it could be sold. One day, when all he had left was a twenty-sou coin, Polygonial sat down on a stone not far from his door, and remained there, immobile, for several hours, staring at the ground with vacant eyes. At twilight, a sombre cast came over his face. He returned to his chambers, rummaged through a trunk, and filled either end of a long pillowcase with all the gimcrackeries that had been used to conjure up the phantasmagorical illusions. He hoisted this improvised knapsack over his shoulder and went out. He was never seen again.”
Dupin lit his meerschaum pipe, drew a couple of puffs of smoke from the Bulgarian tobacco, and resumed his description. “Polygonial headed for the wholesale wheat market, where he struck up a friendship with the paupers and vagrants who loiter there. His plan, although it was highly ingenious, was also quite simple: to trawl for wealthy gentlemen, attract them one by one to a deserted street in the Saint-Merry neighbourhood after nightfall, and then to give them the fright of their lives by unleashing a brigade of phantoms and bugaboos from the shadows, using the equipment Robertson had devised for his horror shows. In the ensuing hullabaloo, lifting the gentleman’s pocket-book would be child’s play. My friend, no doubt you too would have been the victim of an assault by Polygonial’s gang of crooks, had you not exhibited your fearsome revolver ahead of time, at the Maison d’Or. I’m willing to wager that a member of the group happened to be in the alehouse at the same time. He must have scurried over to the Rue de la Vieille Lanterne to alert his accomplices, by whistling through his teeth three times. Had the well-known thieves’ code for ‘Beat it, we’re cooked!’ not resounded, you would no doubt have been beaten, robbed, and thrown in the gutter.”
Slowly, painfully, I nodded my head.
“I understand now,” I said. “All the macabre phenomena I saw and heard were simply the trappings of a sinister criminal plot. Very well; I shall recover presently. But what do you plan to do?”
“You should ask me what I have already done,” smiled Dupin. “Perhaps it has already slipped your mind, dear fellow, but on our way home from our nocturnal expedition, we stopped in at the police station. While you remained outside – you seemed to be enjoying the first rays of dawn – I sat down at the station desk. A candle is always left burning there, with a pen, ink, and paper, where the night patrol can consign or report on any offences they may have observed. I covered the entire page with writing, then folded it like a letter and sealed it. On the outside, in capital letters, I addressed it thus: ‘Instructions for Mr. François Vidocq. Strictly confidential.” They may not know it, but the rapscallions of the Vieille Lanterne are enjoying their last hours of liberty. You and I are both well acquainted with the redoubtable efficiency of our friend the chief of police. As for Polygonial, I said not a word about him in my missive. In my opinion, the ingenuity he displayed compensates for the scandalous behaviour in which he engaged. I wash my hands of him, by Jove! May he go hang himself!”
Dupin fell silent for a few minutes, observing the fine whorls of smoke rising from his pipe. Then, in a mocking tone, he concluded, “What a lot of fuss, all the same, for a couple of dozen empty bladders painted to look like phantoms and inflated with gas... In short, for a lot of hot air!”