The Sinister Shaft
Translated by Anita Conrade
Quem ad finem sese effrenata iactabit audacia?
Cicero, In Catilinum I
It is not difficult to understand why the vital role played by the Chevalier C. Auguste Dupin in the unravelling of the gory riddle of the Rue Morgue made such a strong impression on the mind of the Prefect of Police, Monsieur G. The logical processes of induction by which my friend gradually dispelled the mystery never having been revealed to the latter, it is quite conceivable that, to his understanding, the affair had taken a phenomenal turn. As the dignitary in question later commented (only half jokingly), these faculties of the mind to which we now apply the term analytical would, only a few centuries ago, have seen Dupin conducted forthwith to the stake, notwithstanding all arguments that he did not practise sorcery. I was all the more convinced of the accuracy of this particular insight of Monsieur G.’s - which, thank goodness, was confined to the remote past - by the fact that even in an age as enlightened as our own, in the midst of a population eager to partake of scientific knowledge, my friend Dupin often had to struggle to persuade his admirers that he did not dabble in the occult arts. People were continually calling to implore him either to reveal the future, or to solve some puzzle in the past. They hoped that he would divine events occurring in distant places. It was not at all rare to hear some newly introduced visitor begin his discussion with Dupin with the request: “Sir, I wish you could tell me the name or names of the so-and-so who stole such-and-such property from me last night.” As you may well imagine, rather than playing the oracle in such situations, Dupin rapidly disillusioned these seekers, losing no time in instructing them to report the crime to the police straightaway (although I cannot vouch for the efficacy of such a course of action). Less frequently, he derived a mischievous delight from exercising his skills in the untangling of such skeins of narrative, a hobby of his which, I repeat, took on a tinge of the supernatural in the popular imagination. Thus, on a minor occasion which tested his talents, he successfully proceeded with the old “Blackened Hen” experiment as I watched. Here is the gist of it: if one has reason to suspect a member of one’s domestic staff of thievery, the servants should be assembled in a darkened room. They are then asked to stroke the back of the black hen, a fellow captive. An innocent can do so with impunity, the story goes, but the hen will betray the hand of the culprit by cackling when approached. Naturally, all those with a clear conscience have absolutely no qualms about stroking the fowl, whereas the true culprit will take care not to touch the bird. By this precaution, he reveals himself, for the hen’s feathers have been coated with soot, and leave a mark on the palm of all those who caress her. A modicum of insistence should soon elicit the culprit’s confession.
Dupin’s achievements, the result of the soul and essence of his strategy, took on the aura of being the insights of a prodigious intuition. The gifted Chevalier became a sort of beacon attracting the gaze of the Prefect of Police, and innumerable times, Monsieur G. endeavoured to secure Dupin’s talents for the use of his own detectives. One of the most remarkable cases involved the sudden and unexplainable death of General Dubourg de la Poitevinière, Grand Officier de la Couronne and Premier Officier de la Maison du Roi.
The general was an inveterate billiards fiend. Since the abdication of Buonaparté, whom he had fought like a bulldog, he had taken up residence at Malmaison castle. Every evening at twilight, the oak trimmings of the majestic gaming room resounded with merry shouts, laughter, the clack of billiard balls, and the clink of crystal glasses. The general was presiding over his daily billiards tournament. A hale, hearty fellow in the prime of life, a great strapping lad who had lent his nerves of steel and brazen heart to the campaign led by the Comte d’Artois during the Cent-Jours, he had a single weakness: billiards. Now, in his dress uniform, he commanded, as seriously as in the thick of battle. His aides-de-camp swarmed around him, submissive, respectful, swooning with admiration at each of his shots. When he scored a point, they raced to chalk it on the board. When he was thirsty, they vied to pour him a glass of wine. And the sight of all these powdered cheeks, dimpled with smiles, the obsequious bows, the rustle of epaulettes and the rattle of medals, seemed to have been inspired by the parties hosted by Monsieur, the younger brother of the late Louis XVI, biding his time in Ghent on the eve of the second Restoration.
The General’s adversary that night was a lieutenant in the Light Brigade. He excelled at billiards and was capable of trouncing any general on Earth, but at the moment he was applying his supreme skills to maintaining a precise balance between winning and losing. It was a thrilling game. The ivory balls described a busy geometry on the felt, whizzing past each other with a faint hiss, or, on the contrary, colliding with a thud. The cushions were lively, the table was warm. The eyes of the general’s staff were as if glued to the action on the table. Suddenly, the young lieutenant’s mood seemed to change. He drew a square of chalk from the pocket of his uniform, rubbed it carefully on the tip of his cue, and, shedding his reserve, let fly with a masterful series of strokes which nearly won the game. Surprise reddened the cheeks of the general. His aides-de-camp quivered with indignation. Stoked by his fury, Dubourg dared shots which regained him his lead. But the young officer scarcely batted an eyelid. His movements were lithe, powerful, smooth. Seventeen! Eighteen! Nineteen! They had to scramble to mark the points. His eyes shining, his cheeks aflame, dripping with perspiration, Dubourg fought like a lion. He played with stupefying skill, lining up a flawless series of shots with breathtaking rapidity. It seemed as though his right arm had been endowed with a brain, and that the tip of his cue obeyed his will like a living extension of his index finger. In a moment of bravura he performed a set of sixty strokes, with a multiplicity of ricochets and carefully choreographed banks. With dazzling acumen and insane audacity, he made points that no one had ever attempted before. Still others simply defied the laws of physics. At last, it was the ultimate shot. A great hush blanketed the room: would the general win his game? Bending over the draped table, his eyes riveted on the balls which lay at seemingly impossible angles, he calculated a cunning combination bank shot with infinite care. Then, poised to dive upon the red like an eagle on its prey, Dubourg brought his hand to his lips to moisten the tip of his cue in his usual way, licking his fingertips to transfer his saliva to the extremity of the stick. But suddenly, quaking as if gripped by a fever, he stood immobile for a few moments, his arm paralysed in mid-air. He seemed to be in the throes of a wrenching agony. Later, his aides-de-camp reported that they had heard a terrifying shriek – one of those that freeze us to the very marrow, penetrating us with the ferocious thrill of horror – an abominable yell, as I was saying, burst forth from the general’s chest. Frothing at the mouth, wall-eyed with pain, Dubourg de la Poitevinière leaped away from the table and collapsed onto the carpet. A second later, he was dead, in the desperate posture of his fall, the billiard cue still clutched in his hands.
Two weeks had elapsed since this drama, without shedding the faintest light on the enigma. Strange as it may seem, we had yet to hear the slightest rumour of this event, which had sown such turmoil in the minds of the courtiers of the Maison du Roi. For several weeks, Dupin and I had neither set foot outdoors nor received the least significant visitor. We had barely even glanced at the headlines of the daily gazettes. News of the general’s mysterious death first reached us when Monsieur G. called on us in person. He appeared to be dismayed by the failure of his bureau’s efforts to elucidate the tragedy. He intimated that his reputation and honour were at stake, and that there was no sacrifice he would not make, were it to enable him to pierce the enigma. He ended his speech with a compliment to Dupin for what he called his tact, and an offer to reward him quite handsomely, though I shall not disclose the exact amount that he proposed. My friend made light of the compliment, but immediately pocketed the thick envelope proffered by the law enforcement official.
Once these terms were established, our friend the prefect narrated that tragic game of snooker in every detail, interspersing his account with many a comment which he thought to be astute, regardless of its relevance. Dupin, seated in his favourite armchair, was the very portrait of respectful attention. But the furtive glances I cast at his eyes, half hidden by the spectacles with green lenses he had donned in the course of Monsieur G.’s long account, soon convinced me that although Dupin’s slumber was silent, it was nonetheless profound. I understood my error only later, because, as soon as Monsieur G. had taken his leave, my friend roused himself from his feigned torpor with a bound. He seized the pen and writing paper, and feverishly scribbled down a long missive. Sealing it, he immediately dispatched it to our friend François Vidocq, chief of the Sûreté.
As I have mentioned before, my companion Dupin sometimes exhibited idiosyncratic behaviour, and I always strove to indulge his every whim. At present, his fancy was to deliver his soul into his own dreams, and he refused to say a word about the death of the general. It was only the next morning that he abruptly asked me if I had noticed anything uncanny in what the Prefect had said. I admit that the tone in which he uttered the word “uncanny” made me shiver, though I don’t know quite why.
“No, nothing uncanny,” I replied, in an ill-assured voice.
Dupin shrugged his shoulders, and, as if reciting a monologue, began to talk.
“I fear that the Prefect did not apprehend the full hideousness of the horror. But enough said about the imbecilic opinion of this bumbling bureaucrat, which has certain comical aspects in addition to those which are downright pitiful. There is no wit quite as nimble as his when it comes to denying reality and explaining fiction. Once again, he has committed the enormous error of confusing the extraordinary with the abstruse, as if he were totally unaware that reason invariably follows the meanders of the normal course of events as they flow towards a solution. In investigations like the one we are dealing with here, it is less important to wonder about the way things happened than it is to examine in what way they differ from all that has happened so far. In any case, I will have solved the mystery as soon as I receive a written response from Vidocq, which I expect the messenger will bring shortly.”
Just then, as a matter of fact, we heard steps climbing the stairs. According to the Chevalier’s instructions, the concierge had left the outer door of the house open, and the messenger, who had been able to enter without ringing, was soon standing in the drawing room, bearing the letter Dupin was expecting. He gave it to my companion, along with a large hatbox which was emitting strident squeals and a wicker cylinder like those that are ordinarily used to carry fishing rods. Dupin dismissed him, and then, picking up the wicker basket and the leather box, went and locked himself in his office. He emerged much later, at about noon, bearing a handsome billiard cue and an old tricolour flag in his right hand, and, in his left, a small steel cage wriggling with two large blue rats. He placed the cage in front of him, next to the lamp burning on the table.
I stared at my friend in mute astonishment.
“It is not unlikely,” he declared, without deigning to provide me with the slightest explanation, but doubtless deeply amused at my expression of surprise, “that the inexorable progress of the science known as phrenology will soon succeed in identifying and locating the organ of the brain adapted for analysis, as soon as its existence is duly postulated. Although this faculty, which can be described but not altogether defined as the ability to reduce a thought to its elements, is not in fact an essential part of what philosophy has lately named ideality, there are certainly good reasons to believe that it is a primary instinct. I am personally convinced that it may be a component of ideality, contrary to the popular superstition (which is nonetheless based on the assertions of the most reliable authorities) which holds that the faculties of causality and comparison are incompatible with that of imagination, and that the three – to be succinct – cannot coexist peacefully. My insight may contradict received wisdom, but it is actually quite pertinent, in view of the fact that the processes of invention or creation have been observed to be closely related to the processes of resolution – the former being practically, if not absolutely, the mirror image of the latter. In other words, let me say that truth is often superficial by its very nature, and that, in many cases, it is imbued with more depth in the crevices where we search for it than out in the open, where it can readily be found. Nature herself seems to bear witness to these ideas. For example, when contemplating a celestial body, is it not striking that one is better able to distinguish a star in every detail when one simply glances rapidly in its general direction than when one stares directly at it with attention, application, and concentration? The reason for this apparent paradox, of course, is the fact that the centre of the retina is less sensitive to a faint emission of light than the periphery of the organ.”
“In somewhat the same way,” Dupin continued, brandishing the tricolour flag I mentioned earlier, “the Prefect of Police would have been sure to question me about the source of this glorious relic, pitted by shot, surprised to see it in my possession. But even if he had merely noted to himself that the staff of the flag I was waving under his nose was much shorter than it should have been – if he had understood that the billiard cue I was also holding in my hand, just as I am with you right now, had been made of the missing portion of the staff – if he had, in short, thought to identify the type of wood that was used – Taxus baccata, commonly known as yew – I still maintain that he would foolishly have exclaimed, “That’s another one of your bizarre ideas!” For he is obsessed with the need to call anything beyond his field of comprehension ‘bizarre’, and, as a result, lives surrounded by a legion of bizarreries.”
Propping the old flag in a corner of the drawing room, the Chevalier caught a better grip on the billiard cue in his right hand and said, “Watch closely, dear friend: I shall take a bit of dough from the bun left over from our breakfast, and knead it until it assumes the approximate shape and thickness of a coin. I shall then place it in contact with the tip of the cue and rub the latter briskly, as if I were chalking it up. Done. Very well. The remaining step is to feed the morsel to these two denizens of the sewers.”
Thus saying, my friend tossed the tiny scrap of bread into the cage which stood on the table. Its voracious occupants fell upon it and had soon devoured every crumb. A few seconds elapsed; then my ears began to ring with shrill, piercing cries. I peered into the steel cage and felt a shiver go up my spine: with their little red eyes rolling about and popping out of their heads, and their thick blue fur shaken by convulsive spasms, the two rats were engaged in a danse macabre worthy of Hans Holbein the Younger, which would have set nerves sturdier than mine a-quaking. Then, as their funereal choreography drew to an end, they abruptly collapsed upon each other in a frightful heap, stone dead.
“Men have always distilled violent poisons from natural sources,” Auguste Dupin coldly proclaimed. “Thus, the evergreen yew, or hemlock, has been known since time immemorial for its great toxicity. The Romans made of it the symbol of death and the emblem of those bound for the underworld, by dedicating it to Hecate, the Queen of Hades. Its sap produces an alkaline poison as harmful as aconite, henbane, and nightshade. In his Commentaries, Caesar reports that the legionaries coated the tips of their spears, lances, and arrows with the substance, to make the wounds they inflicted fatal. As the centuries passed, similar processes were adapted to criminal purposes. For example, during the reign of Henri IV, thieves mixed this demoniacal syrup into the sweets with which they poisoned the burghers of Paris. More recently, a gang of bandits from Sainte-Catherine Market robbed anyone imprudent enough to accept a gift of their special herbal candy. Indeed, even a tiny amount of this plant venom is enough to cause death without delay. The victim begins to feel dizzy and sees spots in front of his eyes. An intense headache ensues. Then the hallucinations and delirium set in: the victim’s bulging eyes make his mask especially tragic, and he passes from life to death in unutterable agony and terror.”
My companion paused for a moment to rub his hands carefully with alcohol. Then, going to fetch a bottle of Médoc, he poured us each a glass, and resumed his explanation.
“Such was the torment experienced by Dubourg de la Poitevinière in the antechamber to the tomb. As Vidocq confirmed in his letter, after I bade him to question the domestic staff when he went to Malmaison to recover these objects for me, the general had once encountered the emperor abandoned by all, without a single valet to serve him in the great hall. Dubourg had rejoiced to see him leave for the isle of Elba, on the same day and practically at the same hour as Louis XVIII arrived in Paris. Later, taking up residence in Malmaison himself, he indulged the extravagant fancy of having a billiard cue made of the staff of the flag which his sworn enemy had brandished to rally his troops, in the heat of the battle of Arcole Bridge. This was his downfall, for the pole of the glorious relic was made of yew, and our man was given to the maddening habit of moistening the tip of his billard cue with saliva three times, before each of his shots. Imagine the disastrous result, after a “series of sixty” – in other words, one hundred and eighty repeated tastes of the toxic sap. Enough to floor an officers' corps!”