Sergeant Bertrand’s Secret
Translated by Anita Conrade
Quant à la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est piéça dévorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et poudre.

François Villon
It was early in the summer of the year 18..., on a day when the heat, oddly enough, was as deadly as it occasionally is in the very heart of August. I happened to be with C. Auguste Dupin and our old acquaintance, François Vidocq, the chief of the Sûreté police, in Dupin’s apartments on the rue Dunot.
Even if I live to the age of one hundred, I shall always remember my first meeting with Vidocq, which was already history on that sweltering day in June. He put me in mind then of a gladiator: brawny, brainy, and bloodthirsty, with an expression which was always somewhat guarded and secretive. In fact, I recall that during his entire stay in our drawing-room that fateful day, the detective twisted and turned his Herculean bulk in a way that prevented me from seeing his face distinctly enough to imprint his features on my mind. Neither by the light of day which, admittedly, was already fading when we were introduced, nor by the faint glow of the candles Dupin lit so reluctantly, did the man’s visage ever frankly meet my gaze; I never perceived more than one quarter of it at a time. It is impossible for me to assert whether this was accidental or intentional on the part of the individual. But, by whatever means, his face always melted into the shadows without any obvious effort on his part to conceal himself from examination. Our singular visitor had seemingly acquired the habit of using his astonishingly supple and authoritative hands to avoid subjecting himself to any careful scrutiny. Sometimes he brought these hands together on his forehead, like someone striving to prevent his memory from evaporating – and, in the act, obscuring his brow and half of his face; sometimes he placed one hand on his brow like a visor, as if to shield his eyes from the glare; sometimes he folded both hands over his mouth in a pensive way, like a rapt listener, incidentally concealing the bottom half of his countenance. Moreover, I definitely perceived an invisible yet powerful aura emanating from the presence of this singular personage, well before Dupin told me his name. Secretly, I felt myself in the sway of the gravitational fields of two different planets in close proximity: the supremely intelligent and mercurial attraction of the Chevalier, to which I was accustomed, had met a second magnetism, endowed with a different spectrum of talents and properties. A complex interweaving of the earthy and the subtle exerted its own irresistible pull on my being.
Indicating the person unknown to me with a satisfied glance, Dupin simply said, “This is François Vidocq.” On hearing the name so famous in crime-solving circles, I remembered glimpsing the man on more than one occasion in my companion’s study, although we had never been formally introduced, and Dupin had never commented on his station or business. Having learned that the safest way to avoid arousing Dupin’s animosity was to respect all of his mysterious whims and his circumspect nature, I never asked him the names of the visitors with whom I rubbed elbows in his drawing-room. When, at last, he determined the moment had come to break the charm, I could only rejoice. The honouree was certainly worthy of acquaintance.
Dupin held Vidocq in the highest esteem, mainly for his exceptional performance in conducting the tenebrous affairs of the secret police, arbitrarily clarified by means of outstanding tact or unheard-of audacity. But the quality Dupin admired most in the illustrious detective was a keen animal instinct which enabled him to sniff out and latch onto the most evanescent or even non-existent clue. It was as if Vidocq, hearing an uncanny voice, were seized by an uncontrollable trembling like the dowser gripping his divining rod, seeking water deep beneath the soil. “The crime is here!” he would cry. His henchmen dig, and lo and behold... Dupin, whose mind was profoundly analytical, prized this keen intuition. He, too, was well endowed with an uncommon sense, as he proved to me on many occasions over the years, walking me step by step through the tangled labyrinth of human greed and motivation, leading me to the very depths of the cavern where all false currency is minted, where all conspiracies are woven, where all murders are plotted, before they emerge into the world of reality.
To return to my story, in paying us a visit on this sweltering day, in our bizarre, old-fashioned town house situated on a remote and lonely street of the faubourg Saint-Germain, which Dupin had asked me to lease and furnish in a style appropriate to the melancholy twist of character the two of us shared, Vidocq had chosen the road which runs along the riverbank, believing that a breeze from the Seine would bring him some relief. But his hopes were not availed. “What a furnace! Sheer living Hell!” he grumbled, as he staggered in. “The paving stones are glaring yellow, and the air is full of fine, corrosive dust. It’s like breathing fire. Going outdoors in this weather is a veritable pilgrimage!”
Forgive me for this friendly cruelty, but I found the sight of the great detective perspiring, panting, and grunting like an ox in the sun extremely amusing. He must have expected to reap considerable benefit from a visit which had cost him such a long hike in the muggiest of weather.
We had just finished dinner. Vidocq, who had spiked his coffee with brandy, held his cup under his nose, sniffing the mixture with delectation. He was smiling, but his gaiety seemed forced to me, and I had no doubt that Dupin, with his eagle eye, had also noticed that our guest’s bonhomie was only feigned. As twilight was coming on, my friend rose to light a lamp, but he resumed his seat when Vidocq confided that he had come to ask Dupin’s opinion about a matter that was causing him a great deal of annoyance.
“If it is something that requires reflection,” said Dupin, refraining from lighting the wick, “it will be better to grapple with it in the shadows.”
“Another example of your curious nature,” sighed the detective. “You seem to be enamoured of the night for sheer love of the darkness.”
“Quite true, I admit,” my companion replied, offering the humidor to Vidocq. “I am a passionate lover of the night. And now, what is the case that troubles you? I hope it is not political...”
“Oh, no. Nothing like that! But the fact is that the story is really quite tangled, and I thought you might appreciate hearing the details. I shall be brief, but, before I begin, let me emphasise that this is a highly confidential, secret case. I would certainly lose my job if Monsieur G. learned that I had leaked the information to anyone whomsoever.”
“Well, in that case, seal your lips,” Dupin retorted hotly.
“No, no, quite the contrary. I trust you.”
And, releasing a long and solid puff of smoke, Vidocq began to tell his tale.
“Friday night, I was on duty at the Préfecture de Police. A group of us had pulled up chairs around a table, and were idly stuffing ourselves with cold roast and other odds-and-ends, which we washed down with white wine laced with that holy water of the cellar, rum. We were smoking quite a bit, as well. How else are we to pass the time in a room where we are always at the Prefect’s beck and call? Sleeping is out of the question. Monsieur G. himself never dozes off for more than fifteen minutes. Imagine! He is expected to handle twenty reports per minute: a fire here, a theft there, a suicide, a murder, a conspiracy... He leaps off the couch and rings a bell. We are supposed to appear immediately, ready to receive his orders; ‘You go here! ... and you, go there!’ Once you’ve been designated, you don your disguise – a smock or a waistcoat, as the case may be - you grab a wig, and glue some false whiskers - yellow, black, white, or grey – to your chin, and, clapping a suitable hat or cap on your head, you’re off to conduct your investigation. So, as I was saying, it had been a slow night, and we’d all eaten more than our fill, though dawn was still a long way off. The clock on the Quai des Orfèvres had just chimed eleven, when I saw the shadow of a feminine form hovering agitatedly on the other side of the glass door of our office, which, I may have omitted to mention, opens onto a landing of the stairway leading to the Prefect’s suite. I arose. Yes, it was indeed a woman visitor. I opened the door and inquired what she wanted. Without looking at me, the lady replied rather coldly and briskly that she had to speak to Monsieur G. I knew she was a lady because, even in the absence of the magnificent gown she wore with such aplomb, her bearing would have inspired awe and respect. Her apparel intrigued me. What was a woman dressed so richly doing in the Rue de Jérusalem at midnight? Her business was assuredly a great emergency. Despite her distress, I was on the verge of telling her that Monsieur G. would require more information before receiving her, when the doors to the prefect’s suite of apartments opened, and the officer who is on nightly duty in the antechamber beckoned to her. The doors closed behind her skirts, a moment elapsed, and then I heard the familiar chiming of the bells in our offices. Monsieur G. was ringing them all at once. Was I the person he was requesting? I cannot be certain that I was, for that night I might very well have been elsewhere than at the Préfecture. I did not always report there for work. All the same, I believe in acting on impulse, for better or for worse, and I leaped up the flight of stairs leading to the Prefect’s office.
“‘Vidocq,’ he said to me point-blank, as soon as I’d entered the room, ‘a young officer of the King died suddenly tonight, after the ball, on the cushions of Madame’s carriage.’
“‘Very well, sir. We shall draw up and file a report on a sudden death.’
“‘Madame’s husband has been away, but he is returning tonight.’
“‘What time?’
“‘In other words, he is already here.’
“‘Exactly. The body is downstairs,’ Monsieur G. added softly. ‘It is lying in milady’s carriage.’
“The young woman raised her eyes and looked at me. I was as calm as I am right now. I was listening, and making plans.
“‘Yes, sir,’ I answered. ‘I await your orders.’
“‘You must get rid of this man for us.’
“‘The husband or the lover?’
“‘The dead man,’ G. specified, humourlessly.
“I had understood, of course, but I couldn’t resist making a little joke.
“‘That makes it much more difficult,’ I sighed to my chief. ‘It’s easy to dispose of a living man, but once he’s dead... ! Imagine! If I understand correctly, you want me to get rid of the corpse that is in the carriage belonging to Madame the Duchess de Cléry, before dawn.’
“The young lady gasped.
“‘Do you know me?’ she burst out.
“‘I do have the honour, Madame.’
“The Prefect looked at her with an expression that said, ‘I told you that there was no danger in imparting this secret to Vidocq.’
“At last, I declared, ‘I can think of one easy way out of this awkward situation.’
“The duchess’s eyes flashed with an electric energy.
“‘What is that?’ she begged to know.
“‘If it’s all right with you, Madame, in four or five hours, once the sun rises, the officer could be found lying on the boulevard, the victim of several stab wounds...’
“‘Murdered, you mean?’
“‘Exactly, Madame. Three blows to the stomach, and one to the heart. It is foolproof. The body is recovered, and his purse, watch, and rings are missing. Obviously, he was waylaid by prowlers, and the scoundrels killed him and took flight. The news causes a great uproar for twenty-four hours; the police carry out an investigation – an investigation that can lead nowhere, since, in reality, neither theft nor murder have occurred. Within a week, the event has been forgotten.’
“‘Murdered, you say!’
“‘But since he is dead, what is the trouble with stabbing him?’
“‘It’s horrible! Unbearable! No, no! I could never allow it,’ wailed the duchess, who had hidden her face in her white-knuckled hands. ‘Enough, sir! You are paining me!’
“I cast an enquiring look at the Prefect, wondering about his opinion: I was not about to pursue mine any further. Still, murdering a corpse appealed greatly to me: no fuss, no muss! I remained silent. In fact, no one spoke for a minute or so, after the plan I had suggested had been rejected so forcefully – unjustly, I might even add, given the prickly position in which we found ourselves. But some people are squeamish, I suppose.
“‘If that solution is unacceptable to you, Madame,’ I said to the duchess, ‘let me suggest another. The body of the man who is in your coach could disappear without a trace. Would you consent?’
“‘What do you mean?’ she asked in a quaking voice, opening her hands to let me see her horrified face.
“‘I am simply asking if you would be relieved, were the necessary steps taken to have this officer and his sudden death disappear, no less suddenly, from the world we inhabit. He could be sought, but he could never be found.’
“‘Do you mean he would have no burial?’
“‘A burial? A grave? ... If you insist on that sort of luxury, my plan is unworkable... unless...’
“I hid a smile. A diabolical plot had just taken root in my mind. ‘The lady seems to want a sepulchre,’ I continued. ‘So be it! But it must be an unmarked tomb, in a remote corner of the cemetery, with no memorial.’
“‘Tell me more, sir!’
“‘Leave it up to me,’ I said.
“‘But I must know more,’ she implored.
“‘Believe me, Madame, it would be best to leave the details to me. I will use my excellent judgement to take the measures which I believe to be the most reliable and the best, in order to safeguard your reputation, and yet fulfil your longing for the body of the dead man to be respected as if it lay in a marble mausoleum. I give you my solemn oath that by sunrise, the remains of your gentleman will lie in hallowed ground. And you, Madame,’ I continued, pulling out my pocket watch, ‘will be in your carriage within five minutes, bound for your town house, free of the sorry burden it now contains.’
“You will no doubt understand that I had no time to lose if the execution of my plan was to go smoothly. And so, without further ado, I stepped to the other side of the Duchess de Cléry, and opened the door, a gesture which clearly indicated that we had no further business in the private office of the Prefect who, in fact, had taken advantage of my long-winded plea to take his leave, without bidding us farewell. I led the dazed woman down the stairs. When we reached the landing, I stopped to open the door to the staff room, and beckoned to one of my men, Jonquin, in whom I have the greatest trust. He rose, taking up his cloak, hat, and cane, and followed us. With a few guarded words, as we are capable of uttering when the situation requires it, I gave him the pertinent instructions, adding, ‘This seems to be the best course for us to take, as long as the duchess’s coachman is asleep. If he is awake, we’ll have to change our plans slightly, for that will be a bit of a difficulty.’ Indeed, everything hinged on the sound of the coachman’s snoring. Our first task was to remove the corpse from the carriage. And how were we to accomplish that, if the coachman were awake?
“The three of us, the duchess, Jonquin, and myself, had reached the Prefecture courtyard. Feeling it was unwise to allow the young lady to accompany us, I enjoined her to stay within the confines of the great gates, and convinced her to wait for us patiently in the outer guardhouse. My subordinate and I then exited via the Rue de Jérusalem gate and hurried along the walls leading to the Quai des Orfèvres. There, we cut behind the carriage and doubled back. As we passed the horses’ heads, we discreetly raised our eyes to the coachman’s seat and, to our relief, observed that the man was sleeping soundly. ‘Quick!’ I said to Jonquin. ‘Run and tell the duchess that her carriage is ready for her.’ I had already swung the door open, lifted the dead man out, and deposited him in the shadow of the low wall running along the sidewalk on the riverbank side. He was a young officer in full dress regalia: red trousers, a white jacket with gold trim, a sky-blue dolman, a busby ornamented with various insignia, his sword worn proudly on his flank and his sabretache riding on his thigh. I laid all that finery on the ground, propping it up against the low wall to keep it in the line of shadow. Having rapidly accomplished that task, I left him there and returned to the carriage. The duchess was just arriving, on unsteady feet. I had to lift her onto the seat of her coach. Oh, the terror and silent entreaty I read in her eyes as I set her down! The package that had been lying on the seat was no longer there.
“Frantically clutching at my sleeve with her sharp little fingernails, she panted, ‘You must assure me, Sir, you simply must, that no indignity will be done...’
“‘I solemnly swear, Madame, that by daybreak, the dead man will lie in hallowed ground. You have my word.’
“I gave her a salute, then slammed the carriage door with a resounding bang. Instantly, I pounced on the coachman, and pinched his ear as if to draw blood. ‘You worthless rascal, you!’ I trumpeted. ‘Can’t you hear your mistress, who has been ordering you to drive away for the past fifteen minutes?’
“‘Here I am, sir, here I am!’ the domestic quavered, grabbing the reins. ‘I’m ready! Where to? What address?’
“‘Why, to your own residence, you drunken ape, on the rue de Verneuil!’
“The four-in-hand shot away like a bolt of lightning, in a clatter of hooves. Within a few minutes, they were out of sight and silence reigned again.
“Without losing a moment, I led Jonquin to the darkened cranny where I had propped up the young officer’s body. Standing on either side of him, we raised him to his feet, draping his arms about our shoulders and bracing him by the waist as well as we could. We employed the time-honoured method used to carry home a man who has drunk himself into a stupor. Although Jonquin’s strength was nearly equal to mine, it was quite a challenge to the two of us to keep our companion from sliding out of our embrace. Staggering along in this fashion, we set out for the Pont Saint-Michel. We halted there, where I planned to hail the first passing fiacre. As soon as I heard one approaching, I began to bellow out a drinking song, urging Jonquin to join in, as if we were a trio of carousers in their cups. What a splendid picture we must have made, swaying to and fro, with our dead friend between us, pitching and reeling like a ship on the high seas. When the carriage was only a few paces away, I shouted to the driver: “‘Coachman! Would you be so kind as to convey us to the rue Froidevaux? We have an assignation there with a trio of charming jades. And we mustn’t keep the fresh flesh waiting!’ Before the man could refuse, we hoisted ourselves and our corpse into the cab. I stashed the officer in the back seat and Jonquin and I squeezed into the seat in front. Then I quickly shut the door and cried out, ‘Let’s go!’ to the driver. The good man must have sighed, ‘I hope these three fools can pay the fare to their next orgy.’ He drove on.
“By and by we reached the Barrière d’Enfer. The chilly night breeze had arisen, and so I surmised the hour to be between one or two in the morning. At the corner of the Rue Froidevaux, the coach halted, as the unpaved alley was cut by gullies that could only be navigated on foot. While I tipped the driver, Jonquin took care of our companion, slinging both of his arms around his neck. Our surroundings were as lonely and lugubrious as could be. The night was pitch dark: the stars were obscured by a ceiling of clouds. But, as you know, one of my many resources is my keen nocturnal vision, a phosphorescence in the pupil I share with cats and owls. I could thus make out the wall of Montparnasse Cemetery, which seemed to be marching out to meet us, stopping just shy of the street. Indeed, the last section dropped way back and sidled off to the left to meet a turret covered with ivy, which was obviously the rear wall of a tomb. I had formulated the following plan: to fulfil the promise I had made to the Duchess of Cléry, I would smuggle her lover’s body into the necropolis behind the wall. Then I would break into one of the many burial shrines, raise the slab beneath the altar, and carry the corpse into the vault. I gauged the height of the wall that loomed before me: it stood at least eighteen feet high. As a habitual escapee from the confines of Toulon prison in my youth, I had become an expert at scrambling up a wall by hoisting myself along the angle, using the strength of my arms alone, barely relying upon the few footholds in the rock. But hauling deadweight would doom the enterprise. It requires all of one man’s strength to make such a climb. The slightest burden throws him off balance. A rope would have been eminently useful, but where was one to be found, in the middle of the night, on the Rue Froidevaux? Just then, my eyes fell upon the silhouette of a nearby lamppost. It was one of those old structures in which the lantern is raised and lowered by means of a cable running through a couple of pulleys. I took my knife and jemmied the lock on the little iron case protecting the spool of cable, and, next thing you know, I had my rope. With Jonquin’s help, I slipped it under the dead man’s arms and, securing it around his chest, attached the other end of the harness to my belt. Then I turned to the wall and climbed it with ease – in a half minute, I was kneeling on the slate roof of the shrine. “Put our tinhorn’s back to the ivy!” I instructed my inspector, in a low voice. He immediately obeyed; meanwhile, I slung my end of the cable over a sturdy beech branch which happened to be just above my head. In a moment, I had hauled the corpse up to my perch, and caught it in my arms. Freeing him from the harness, I stretched him out on the roof and gave him a neat kick which sent him rolling down the sloped surface to the ground below, at the foot of the shrine. Just as his body landed, the air was torn by an immense blast, as if some infernal device had just exploded. This frightful din was followed by a no less blood-curdling groan of pain which seemed to issue directly from the corpse’s mouth. It was answered by a mournful echo resounding through the gloomy alleys of the city of the dead. I was rocked by a flash of astonishment. The most terrifying ideas ran pell-mell through my mind. There are times when hideous assumptions attack us like a band of harpies, battering their way into our mind’s inner gates of awareness. As I was reeling from this perfidious assault, it dawned on me that I was hearing a new sound, which, although it instantly commanded all my attention, also increased my apprehension. With a shiver, I realised there was no mistaking the dull rhythmic thudding coming from below: it was the marching of a rapidly approaching patrol, most likely made up of cemetery guards. Then a bellowing voice reached my ears. ‘There he is, lads! Come on! He won’t get away from us this time!’ This exhortation was followed by a hullabaloo as the men began to hunt down their quarry with determination, crashing through hedgerows and shrubbery, as their chief hollered instructions interspersed with imprecations to other guards manning outposts here and there. There was such an uproar I could barely make out every word, and until it died down, I remained immobile, perched on the roof of the funerary shrine like a raven. I held my breath and felt the perspiration dripping down my spine. Finally, as the fuss seemed to be rumbling off in the other direction, I silently slid down the slope of the roof to where it met the cemetery wall. Creeping along the ridge until I reached the tree, I leaped down into the Rue Froidevaux, where Jonquin awaited me anxiously. Without a word as to what I had seen and heard on the other side, I seized his arm and we ran away headlong, as far as possible from the accursed cemetery.”
Vidocq brought his cup to his lips, drained it of the brandy mixture, and said, with a grimace:
“This morning, La Gazette des Tribunaux printed a report on the affair.”
“Ah! Have our beloved muckrakers already joined the fray?” chuckled Dupin.
“Alas, they have. Do you mean you have not yet seen the story?”
“No, I’ve barely glanced at La Gazette today – only to skim the political pages. Why should they investigate this affair? It’s simply an excuse to let their reporters’ imagination run wild, and raise a hue and cry over matters best left silent!”
“Ah, how right you are, Monsieur Dupin, to abominate the daily press!” cried our guest. “You cannot imagine worse troublemakers. How can the secret police do their job if the newspapers are free to disclose whatever they like? They engage in all manner of speculation on the cases assigned to the Sûreté. Unfortunately (although, in a way, it is fortunate for me), the Gazette’s version of the facts is pure fantasy. Unwittingly, the reporter has mixed up two different matters. So did the cemetery guards, oddly enough. I was careful not to puncture the bubble of their illusions when I warned them to remain silent for lack of any better solution.”
Vidocq took a newspaper clipping from his satchel and read us these lines:
“Our readers will no doubt recall the horrifying tale of a hideous character who was said to haunt the grounds of Montparnasse Cemetery on stormy nights, unearthing the bodies of recently buried young women. The criminal always committed the same odious, barbaric deeds: prising open the coffin, he tore off the ornaments that had been buried, in piety, grief, and chagrin, with the maidens. The mayhem of their tattered shrouds, violently ripped from the young corpses, and the outrageous sight of the shattered objects were incontrovertible evidence of the monster’s heinous and ignominious behaviour. Because the dastardly vampire had struck several times despite the guards’ increased vigilance, the management of the cemetery resolved to trap him by all possible means. The guards had thus prepared a foolproof snare, consisting of a half-dozen rifles, loaded to the gills with shot, and attached to a board, which was placed on a grave covered with wreaths. The barrels of the muskets were aimed at the wall, and they were to fire all at once when the villainous wretch unwittingly trod upon a wire connected to their triggers. Indeed, as expected, the scoundrel took the bait. As he crept along the wall, he tripped on the wire, setting off the explosion which showered him with bullets. Fatally shot in the head and chest by several of the fiery projectiles, he collapsed in the grass. The guards on duty, alerted by the sound of the blast, ran to the trap and discovered him, lifeless, next to a shrine which he was doubtless eager to desecrate. In all likelihood, it was a case of insanity. The cemetery administration has not yet disclosed the individual’s identity.”
“A choice imbroglio,” remarked Dupin, when Vidocq had finished reading. “Obviously, your unfortunate officer of the King has been mistaken for the compulsive grave robber the press has dubbed ‘the Vampire of Montparnasse.’ Now I recall seeing several articles about him in earlier issues of La Gazette des Tribunaux.”
“And I fear there is still further confusion!” sighed the detective. “The identity of the true desecrator has just been discovered. However, for the moment, at least, I am one of the few privy to the secret!”
The Chevalier’s eyes sparkled.
“Tell us more, my friend,” he urged.
“Listen to this: a soldier who had lost a great deal of blood was recently found at the gates of the Val-de-Grâce hospice, where he had managed to drag himself. The wounded man, one Sergeant François Bertrand, of the 74th line regiment, initially declared that he had been hit by a volley of bullets on his way back to his quarters after a night of carousing in a tavern at the Barrière d’Enfer. He claimed he had been unable to distinguish the source of the rifle fire. But, skilfully interrogated by the physician who had removed the slugs from a large number of wounds in his flesh, made by several different projectiles of unequal size, Bertrand finally changed his story. He admitted he had fallen into the trap that had been set inside Montparnasse Cemetery, for he was in the habit of sneaking in almost nightly to search fresh graves. Luckily, he said nothing of the other soldier who was also there that night... in a lifeless state, it is true. No doubt, he did not notice him. That’s a stroke of luck.”
Dupin chuckled dryly.
“And when you heard the maniac Bertrand howling in pain, the hair on your scalp stood on end,” he commented. “You believed the cries were coming from the mouth of the young officer you had just hurled into the shadows of the cemetery. The weight of his falling body must have triggered the infernal device set up to trap the so-called vampire whose depredations have been reported lately in the press.”
Vidocq rubbed his forehead in dismay and embarrassment.
“Great Lord of mercy,” he murmured. “You’re right. I thought the duchess’s lover had come back to life.”
And, forgetting his cup was empty, our guest paused to raise it to his lips. Tasting no comfort, he mutely appealed to Dupin, who was seated closest to the decanter.
“Not a single drop!” my friend decreed, placing a forbidding hand on the crystal stopper. “First, I must know the young officer’s name. That’s the price of another drink.”
“I admit,” stammered Vidocq. “All right, I admit it...”
“Come, come, dear friend. What do you admit?”
“Well... well. All right. Damn! I do not know the man’s name. His uniform proves that he is a surgeon-major in the infantry, and that’s all.”
“What? Surely, as a detective, you must have thought of searching him.”
“Naturally, Monsieur Dupin. Jonquin and I rummaged thoroughly, before throwing him overboard. However, aside from his watch, his snuffbox, his purse, and an ivory miniature of the Duchess de Cléry, he had nothing on him.”
“True. But you must have informed yourselves subsequently, by other means. What did that yield?”
“Of course, I could not ask the Duchess to tell me her lover’s name,” Vidocq replied, with a thinly disguised snort of indignation. “Asking the Prefect was even less advisable. If it comes to his attention that I have failed to carry out an assignment as delicate as this one with the greatest dispatch and secrecy, I shall have no alternative but to resign from the force... And now, please, my good man, have mercy! Pour me a drink!”
“So be it!”
Dupin filled Vidocq’s cup with rum, and the latter tossed it back in a single gulp. Then he exclaimed, “In any case, the Duchess’s lover is becoming rather burdensome. One of these days, the cemetery administration will learn that Bertrand is the culprit, and then the question of the identity of this other young stud will be raised.”
“By the way,” remarked the Chevalier, with a grimace, “what did you do with his body?”
Vidocq heaved a sigh which came from the soles of his boots.
“Upon my soul!” he exclaimed piteously. “I allowed it to go through the usual channels, and it is now stashed at Delmarle’s! You should have seen the expression on his face!”
My companion had just filled his pipe with tobacco and was about to light it. His hand stopped in mid-air when he heard the name Delmarle.
“Who might that be?” I inquired.
“My dear friend, Jacques Delmarle is the coroner-in-chief. He is in charge of the activities at the meat-packing yards which King Henri II built on the riverbank by the Pont Saint-Michel. Of course, under the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte, they were converted into a morgue. The structure of the meat-packing plant was quite well-suited to the dissection of dead human flesh,” he observed, in a sarcastic tone of voice.
And, drifting away from our conversation, he leaned deep back in his armchair and, puffing on his pipe, murmured pensively to himself, “Duchess... lover... surgeon-major... Delmarle... morgue...” Suddenly, shooting out of the seat as if ejected by a powerful spring, he turned to Vidocq and fairly shouted in his face, “Hurry to Louis Daguerre’s studios on the Rue des Marais. This very night! You must ask him to do me the favour of sending his assistant to the morgue tomorrow morning at dawn, so that we can obtain a likeness of your officer. I must have this daguerreotype as soon as possible. I will need a portrait of the duchess as well. But you already possess the cameo, don’t you? By Jove, if I act quickly, I may be able to save the day!”
When I awoke the next morning, I found a note from Dupin asking me to meet him in front of the Hôtel des Invalides at three o’clock that afternoon. He added that he expected me to be punctual, as he had an appointment there with General Guillaumont, commander-in-chief for Paris. As always, I ransacked my memory in an effort to guess the purpose of our visit to this person, but my attempts yielded little.
I had arrived at Les Invalides by early afternoon, and was walking from St-Louis Church to the gardens of the Hospital, enjoying the sights until Dupin arrived. On the mall, old soldiers mingled with young recruits and itinerant vendors – hawking apples, coconuts, pastries, and ice creams - amid the families strolling up and down the triumphal avenue, admiring the heroic white marble figures lining the promenade. Here and there, a knot of curious onlookers had gathered around a street singer or a seller of penny engravings. The most sought-after of these illustrations was a cruel and cynical caricature of Louis-Philippe as Gargantua. Nearby, a colossal statue of Vauban, posing with his tricorne held aloft as if to shield his eyes from the sun, seemed to observe the commotion in amazement. In the huge courtyard of the hospital, a swarm of children, watched lazily by their nursemaids, were romping about amid the rows of artillery pieces brought from Constantine and Algiers. Near a gardener clipping the topiary, a very small girl was entertaining herself by scooping up sand in her little pink fingers and transferring it to the upturned barrel of an ornate howitzer covered with curlicues, cast in the time of King François I. Two crippled veterans wearing bearskin bonnets – former grenadiers in the imperial guard, perhaps - stood nearby on their wooden legs, smiling at the sight of her antics. No doubt they were now in charge of guarding the display. Behind them, a little boy sang at the top of his lungs, astride a twenty-four calibre cannon, the very one which sliced the thighs of a gendarme when it fired the first salvo for the funeral of Napoleon in 1840.
My patience was soon rewarded. Just two minutes after the bells of the Dôme church chimed three o’clock, a chocolate-coloured omnibus drew to a halt near where I was standing. Dupin emerged from it, and strode in my direction with the light and graceful step characterising his guise as a dandy. Point-blank, he greeted me with the news that he had nearly frozen to death that morning at the morgue, where he had gone to interview Jacques Delmarle and obtain the fateful daguerreotype. After that, he said, he had practically stifled in the noonday heat at the Val-de-Grâce hospital, the next stop on his schedule.
“I easily gained permission to visit François Bertrand,” he told me, “thanks to the intercession of an old friend, Dr. Baudens, who treated Bertrand when he was first admitted to the hospice. As a chronic case, he had been transferred to the veterans’ unit of the facility, and I soon caught sight of him limping about the courtyard on his crutches, at some distance from the other soldiers. He was quite pale, and seemed to be struggling to overcome some inner torment.
“Dr. Baudens introduced him to me. The sergeant was of average size, with blond hair combed to the side. His moustache was carefully trimmed. His hands, however, were covered with calluses, and his fingernails were in such a frightful state that I wondered if they were not still encrusted with dirt. I offered him some tobacco and spoke soothingly to him, beginning by expressing my sympathy at seeing him in such a profound state of sorrow. Spontaneously, he burst out that ever since childhood, he had been subject to fits of melancholia. ‘But it usually only took hold of my soul on nights when the moon was full,’ he added, ‘and sometimes it would leave off for months at a time. Under its spell, I would haunt the forest like Leatherstocking, burrowing into the empty lairs of boars to curl up on a bed of oak leaves until dawn. The rest of the time, I was known to the village as a cheerful, sociable young buck.’ Then he told me he had received an excellent education, and had developed quite an aptitude for Greek and Latin. He is especially fond of reading Tacitus and Plato. Despite his intellectual leanings, five years ago he enlisted for a military career, starting as a mere infantryman. When he described regiment life, he grew quite animated. ‘I was always popular with my fellows because of my mildness,’ he said, ‘and my superiors appreciated my honesty and good conduct. In every town where we were billeted, the people I had met there were sorry to see me leave. Having always enjoyed excitement and change, I was delighted when our regiment was stationed in Paris at the beginning of this year.’ Bertrand spoke to me at length about the drills, manoeuvres, and parades which, although they taxed the patience of other soldiers, made him supremely happy, because they gave him an opportunity to work off his excess energy. However, as soon as I mentioned the subject of his nocturnal visits to Montparnasse Cemetery and the crimes of desecration of which he was accused, he bowed his head and took refuge in an impenetrable silence. Doctor Baudens, who had been following us at a distance of three paces, signalled to me to desist. He took me aside and informed me that Bertrand had just written a letter of confession, at the doctor’s request.
“Here you are, my friend,” Dupin went on, holding out a sheet of paper covered with cramped handwriting. “This is a copy of the document in question. I can only assert that the confession is more blood-curdling than the most terrifying tale by Ann Radcliffe.”
I read the letter straight through, and I must admit that the words aroused horror, mingled with grief. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be useful to present the reader with an excerpt from the document. Here it is:
I acknowledge the fact that I am guilty of all the crimes of desecration of which I am accused. I committed the first under the following circumstances: having visited Montparnasse Cemetery on a Sunday and been charmed by its loneliness, I decided to return. The very next night, between ten and eleven, I scaled the northern wall and began to explore. I happened upon a freshly dug grave. The gravediggers had not finished their task, and had left their spades and rakes nearby. I was overwhelmed by wicked thoughts. I seized a pick and unearthed the body of a young woman. She must have been about nineteen or twenty. When I saw her face, I began to tremble all over. I lost all control of myself. I lay down by her side and pressed her body close to mine, embracing her passionately, stroking her hair, hoarsely whispering endearments. When I’d finished, shattered by emotion, I pulled myself out of the grave, covered the corpse with earth again, and crept away. In the weeks that followed, on countless occasions I left the barracks to visit the cemetery secretly. It was during this time that I unearthed a certain number of dead young women and indulged in the same excessive behaviour, for which my first victim had given me a craving. Indeed, I had constituted a collection of the bodies of anonymous drowning victims, from the potter’s field. I laid these women inside a shrine I had broken into and committed all manner of blasphemy with their remains. More than once during my nocturnal visits, the cemetery guards fired at me, but this did not suffice to discourage me. It would have been easy for me to neutralise the booby traps they had set up to catch me, but the thought never occurred to me, because the devices did not frighten me in the least. The day before yesterday, at around nine in the evening, as I was leaving an alehouse at the Barrière d’Enfer, my unhappy fate led me past the cemetery. I could not prevent myself from scaling the wall, because when these wicked thoughts take root in me, I cannot ignore them. Once inside the graveyard, I headed for the shrine I mentioned earlier. Near there, I was wounded. I believe that this time, had the booby-trap missed me, I would have been cured of my penchant for the cemetery. I was beginning to weary of all this desecration. My mania was fading, and I have every reason to believe that it was losing its power over me.
“Now I understand why these words were impossible for him to utter,” I said, folding the paper up again, “when you questioned him. The shame is more bearable when such villainies are simply set down on paper.”
“Who mentioned shame and villainies?” retorted Dupin, with a shrug of his shoulders. “Would a soldier who, by definition, must maintain the most profound respect for discipline and duty, be likely to lack that sentiment enough to soil his epaulettes with a sacrilege as monstrous as it is senseless?”
“Do you mean...” I stammered, in perplexity.
“...that this confession is hogwash from beginning to end?” continued my friend. “Yes, that is exactly what I mean. The true story is different.”
Dupin took me by the arm in an affectionate way and explained:
“When I had finished reading the so-called confession, I took the cameo of the Duchess out of my pocket, along with the daguerreotype of her lover, whom Delmarle had identified: Etienne de Rouvroy, surgeon-major in the 74th line regiment. As soon as he laid eyes on the two portraits, Sergeant Bertrand – who had served in the 74th as well, if you may recall – collapsed completely. I admit that his sobbing stirred my pity, so I scolded him only half-heartedly. ‘What do you mean?’ I murmured, feigning indignation, ‘Do you want to spend the rest of your life in the madhouse at Bicêtre? That’s where your lying will get you! I may still be able to intercede in your favour, if you agree to tell me everything. I daresay that my plea on your behalf will convince the military authorities to be lenient with you. However,’ I added, emphatically, ‘you must hold nothing back. I demand the unadorned truth from you, as naked as the goddess rising from the well!’
“I should say that I was already fairly well acquainted with the truth. The inductive logic which had enabled me to unravel the mystery was the fruit of my reflection, supplemented by the revelations provided by Jacques Delmarle a couple of hours prior to my meeting with Bertrand. But I was determined to hear the little I still did not know straight from Bertrand’s mouth.
“The crux of the matter is this: of all the ladies of the court, lovely Ellénore de Cléry, despite her tranquil appearance, happens to be prey to the most ruthless, all-consuming, indeed, devouring passion. Delmarle told me her secret: she is a sort of necrophiliac.”
“Necrophiliac?” I interrupted. “What on earth is that?”
“The term was recently coined by Joseph Guislain, the physician from Ghent who penned the Traité sur l’aliénation mentale,” Dupin explained. “It designates the very opposite of the vampire – which could be summed up as a dead person disturbing the living. In the case of the necrophiliac, a living person disturbs the dead. The Duchess de Cléry was fond of visiting the autopsy room of the morgue and the anatomy lectures at Val-de-Grâce, in search of perverse thrills. It became a veritable obsession with her. I am still unsure exactly what attracted her more: the corpses themselves, or their scholarly dissection by her dashing lover, the surgeon-major Etienne de Rouvroy. However, although the sight of a scientist sawing at and scrutinising a dead body, a source of knowledge, may surprise the uninitiated, it contains only a slight indication of the true (and doubtless highly complex) nature of Ellénore’s funereal delights. Old as the world, necrophilia intrigues and perplexes whoever contemplates the phenomenon seriously. Perhaps the duchess experiences a profound, inexplicable joy, a supernatural frisson, from grasping the invisible, the ineffable. She stands there, her heart throbbing madly with disgust and desire: disgusted by the idea of taking the place of a freshly buried maiden in the tomb, and filled with the irresistible desire to do something forbidden and mysterious.”
“Take the place of a freshly buried maiden in her tomb? How repulsive! Hideous! Appalling!”
Dupin’s reply to my exclamations of woe was a bitter smile.
“I readily concur, my dear friend. But, lest we forget, the duchess is unwell: she is subject to an erotic, macabre madness. For months, she had been indulging in a morbid ritual of her own tormented invention, and which had become a veritable addiction for her. Had a prominent family just buried a maiden whose beauty, virtue, and innocence had made her the admiration of all? You could be certain that the slab would be unsealed that very night: the shroud in which the young virgin had been wrapped would be ripped away, and her tender body cast out of the cushioned bier. Ellénore would clamber down into the grave, lie in the casket, and abandon herself to the ravishment of her lover – a monomaniac no less peculiar than she. No earthly mistress had ever tasted such excruciatingly intense, such pungent delights! And Bertrand was the labourer who wielded the spade, digging up the corpses of the young women: blindly, doggedly, dutifully obeying the orders of his superior, Etienne de Rouvroy. During the terrifying cholera epidemic, de Rouvroy had saved Bertrand. For that reason, Bertrand assumed the blame for desecrating the graves. To him, the reputation of the surgeon-major was sacrosanct.
“Three nights ago, in the vault where they had just been locked in a furious embrace, the young officer collapsed in Ellénore’s arms, stricken by a fit of apoplexy. At wits’ end, the duchess prevailed upon Bertrand to carry his body from the cemetery to her waiting coach. Then she hurried to the Prefect; we know what ensued. However, ironically enough, Vidocq disposed of the surgeon-major’s corpse in the very graveyard where, at that precise location in space and time, Bertrand was striving to cover up the traces of de Rouvroy’s latest tryst with Ellénore. The sergeant was flabbergasted when he saw the body of his saviour tumble out of the firmament – and trigger the infernal trap which had been set up nearby. He limped away as fast as he could, bleeding from multiple gunshot wounds, and cursing the duchess as a loathsome witch, who was no doubt responsible for the latest and most unfortunate turn of events. In my presence, Bertrand registered real revulsion when describing her: ‘If only you knew how the duchess de Cléry enjoys mutilating the young maidens I bring out of the grave, Sir! That blue-blooded Putiphar deserves to have her bowels turned inside-out!’ he moaned in a piteous frenzy.”
I accompanied my friend the Chevalier to the Hôtel des Invalides, where he told the whole wretched story to General Guillaumont. The military authorities were shocked, and the necrophiliac habits of the Duchess de Cléry and Etienne de Rouvroy were never revealed. François Bertrand, court-martialled on charges of grave robbery, was condemned to a year of imprisonment in the fortress. When he was released, Vidocq took it upon himself to give him five thousand francs and provide him with a false passport. Disguised as the Russian subject Michael Ostrog, Bertrand was able to travel to England. Under this borrowed identity, the former sergeant established himself in one of London’s shabbier districts, where he boldly hung out a shingle as a barber-surgeon.
Nota Bene: This handwritten annotation can be found in the margin of an 1891 memorandum from an inspector at Scotland Yard, investigating the crimes of Jack the Ripper: “Michael Ostrog, Russian doctor, suffering from mania and committed to a lunatic asylum. This man is said to have been habitually cruel to destitute females, and for a long time was known to have carried about with him surgical knives and other instruments. His whereabouts at the time of the Whitechapel murders could never be satisfactorily accounted for.”