The Beggar at the Corner
I ’m a man of a certain age --- old enough to have been every kind of fool --- and I find to my surprise that the only counsel I have to pass on is this: Never let your name be found in a dead man’s trousers.
Name, yes . Mine is Hector Carpentier. These days, Professor Carpentier, of the École de Médecine. My specialty is venereology, which is a reliable source of amusement for my students. “Come with us,” they say. “Carpentier’s going to tell all about the second stage of syphilis. You’ll never screw again.”
I live on the Rue du Helder, with an orange tabby named Baptiste. My parents are dead, I have no brother or sister and haven’t yet been blessed with children. In short, I’m the only family I’ve got, and at certain intervals of calm, my mind drifts toward those people, not strictly related, who took on all the trappings, all the meaning of family --- for a time, anyway. If you were to pin me down, for instance, I’d have to say I recall the lads I went to medical school with better than I recall my own father. And Mother... well, she’s present enough after all these years, but from some angles, she’s not quite as real as Charles. Who was perhaps not real at all but who was, for a time, like family.
I think about him every time I see a penta. One glance is all it takes, and I’m standing once more in the Luxembourg Gardens, somewhere in May. I’m watching a pretty girl pass (the angle of her parasol, yes, the butter brightness of her gloves), and Charles is brooding over flowers. He is always brooding over flowers. This time, though, he actually plucks one and holds it up to me: an Egyptian star cluster.
Five arms, hence its name. Smaller than a whisper. Imagine a starfish dragged from the ocean bottom and... never mind, I can’t do it justice. And, really, it’s not so remarkable, but sitting there in the cup of his hand, it lays some claim on me, and so does everything else: the Scottish terrier snoring on a bench; the swan cleaning its rump feathers in the fountain; the moss-blackened statue of Leonidas. I am the measure of those things and they of me, and we are all --- sufficient, I suppose.
Of course, nothing about our situation has shifted. We are still marked men, he and I. But at this moment, I can imagine a sliver of grace --- the possibility, I mean, that we might be marked for other things. And all because of this silly flower, which on any other day, I would have stepped on like so much carpet.
He’s been on my mind of late, because just last week, I received a letter from the Duchesse d’Angoulême. (She is staying at Count Coronini’s estate in Slovenia.) The envelope was girt round with stamps, and the letter, written in her usual shy hand, was mostly an essay on rain, sealed off by prayers. I found it comforting. Word has it that the Duchess is penning her memoirs, but I don’t believe it. No woman has clutched her own life more closely to her bosom. She’ll hold it there, I expect, until the coroner assures her she’s dead.
Which may be a long time coming. God’s funny that way. The more his servants pine for his presence --- and make no mistake, the Duchess does --- the longer he keeps them shackled to the old mortal coil. No, it’s the blasphemers he’s aching to get his hands on. Take Monsieur Robespierre. At the very height of the Terror, Robespierre decided that the name “God” had too much of an ancien régime color to it. In his capacity as head of the Committee of Public Safety, he declared that God would henceforward be known as the Supreme Being. There was some kind of festival, I believe, to celebrate God’s promotion. A parade, maybe. I was only two.
A few months later, with half his jaw shot off, groaning toward the scaffold, was Robespierre already composing apologies? We’ll never know. There was no time for memoirs.
Me, I have acres of time, but if I were to write up my life, I don’t think I could start with the usual genuflections --- all those ancestors in halberds, I mean, the midwives catching you in their calloused mitts. No, I’d have to start with Vidocq. And maybe end with him, too.
A strange admission, I know, given that I spent no more than a few weeks in his company. Fifteen years have passed with virtually no word from him. Why, then, should I bother revisiting the terrible business that brought us together?
Not from any hope of being believed. If anything, I write so that I may believe. Did it really happen? In quite that way? Nothing to do but set everything down, as exactly as I can, and see what stares back at me.
And how easily the time slips away, after all. I need but shut my eyes, and two decades vanish in a breath, and I am standing once more in...
The year 1818. Which, according to official records, is the twenty-third year in the reign of King Louis XVIII. For all but three of those years, however, his majesty has been reigning somewhere else entirely --- hiding, an unkind soul might say, while a certain Corsican made a footstool of Europe. None of that matters now. The Corsican has been locked away (again); the Bourbons are back; the fighting is done; the future is cloudless.
This curious interregnum in French history goes by the name of “the Restoration,” the implication being that, after senseless experiments with democracy and empire, the French people have been restored to their senses and have invited the Bourbons back to the Tuileries. The old unpleasantness is never alluded to. We have all seen enough politics to last us a lifetime, and we know now: to take a hard line is to take a hard fall. I know it, too --- although I am young when this story begins, so young I scarcely recognize myself. Four years shy of thirty: thin and pink and inclined to catch cold. My father has been dead for some eighteen months. He left me and Mother the house I grew up in, as well as some undeveloped land in the Chaussée d’Antin, which I have already lost through bad speculations. To be specific, I was the chief investor in a pretty, bony dancer named Eulalie. She had dark eyes and a stealthy sort of smile, it seemed to climb round from the back of her head, and a way of softly clicking her wrists in and out of joint which never lost its charm.
I’ve heard it said that dinners and plays and carriages and gloves cost nothing in Paris. This is certainly true if you’re not the one paying for them. And Eulalie, in the time I knew her, never paid for a blessed thing --- it was part of her allure --- and when, under duress, she admitted that she owed two thousand francs to the dressmaker and another thirteen hundred to the upholsterer and, oh, God knows what else, it was the most natural thing in the world to sell my father’s land and walk about in muddy bluchers and a single black suit.
I learned after a time that the money was going to a law clerk named Cornu, who had been keeping company with Eulalie through five years and two children.
Scenes always disgusted her, so we never had one. She left me a cellar of memories, which is where I spend most of these early days of the Restoration. Rummaging. My mother and I reside in the Latin Quarter, and to make up for the lost assets, we’ve begun to take in lodgers --- students, mostly, from the university. Mother, in her tulle cap, presides over the dinner table; I fix leaks. Squeaks, too, if I can. (The joists are a bit rotten on the third floor.) In my spare time, I haunt the university’s laboratories, where Dr. Duméril, an old friend of my family, suffers me to carry out experiments, the nature of which no one is quite clear on. I tell people I am halfway through a monograph, but in fact, I’ve been halfway through this monograph for about two years. The only part I’ve finished, really, is the title: “The Therapeutic Efficacies of Animal Magnetism in Conjunction with Divers Orientalist Practices of Ancient... ”
Oh, I won’t go on. I once rattled off the whole thing to my mother, and her face assumed a look of such bottomless misery that I resolved never to speak of it again --- and nearly resolved to drop the project altogether. If I’d been braver, I would have.
Why did I mention the monograph? Oh! Because I am coming home from the laboratory on the morning in question. No, that’s not quite right. I am coming home from Le Père Bonvin. It’s Monday. March the twenty-third. Spring, to be exact, although word is late getting to Paris. About a week ago, a front of green-gray drizzle ice settled in like a malevolent houseguest. The old distinctions between air and water no longer hold. Everywhere you hear splashing --- your own, the man behind you, the woman ahead --- and everywhere a roiling liquid darkness, as if we’re all frogs in a sunken kingdom.
Umbrellas are useless. You clap your hat on as firmly as it will go and pull up your lapels and carry on. Even if you have nowhere to go... go!
Yes, that describes me pretty well as I turn into the Rue Neuve-Sainte Geneviève: grimly resolved and going no place in particular. Except home. The street is empty, except for Bardou, who lifts his head a bit by way of greeting. Bardou is my chief coordinate, for he keeps his corner vigil no matter what the conditions. Long ago, they say, he lost his arm in a paper mill, and though he works now and then as a church beadle, he always comes back to his station by the old condemned well, and whenever I pass, I try to drop a coin or two his way (more copper of late than silver), and he shows his appreciation by tipping his head an inch to the side. It’s our ritual, obscurely comforting in its outlines.
But on this day of March the twenty-third, this ritual will be violated in a rather shocking way. By Bardou himself, who commits the singular offense of looking at me. Angling his face toward mine and fastening on with a real intent.
Is he chiding me for my stinginess? That’s my first thought, I admit, but as I make my way down the street to my house, another possibility strikes me, and this is more shocking than being stared at. The possibility, I mean, that this is not Bardou.
I’m laughing even as I look back. Not Bardou. The same crooked, huddled form. The tattered hat and the leather shreds of boot, always threatening to come apart but never quite managing. And the stump, for God’s sake! Twitching like a divining rod. Not Bardou?
He vanishes from my thoughts the moment I enter the house. The student lodgers have gone to their lectures; Mother has taken Charlotte, the maid, to buy curtains at the Palais-Royal; I am alone. Precious minutes lie before me, waiting to be squandered. I kick off my boots and incline on the horsehair settee, the one that no one is supposed to sit on, and I read Talma’s notices in the latest issue of the Minerve Française (which I had to lift from Le Père Bonvin because we can’t afford to subscribe) and I... I was going to say reflect, but dozing seems to cover it. When the knocking comes, I feel as if I’m being dragged from a canyon.
Never mind. I drape the newspaper over my face. Charlotte will get it.
Ah, but Charlotte’s not home. No one’s at home but me, and the knocking is coming louder and faster. I can ignore it, I’ve done that before, it’s an aptitude of mine, but the rapping grows only more urgent, and in my dazzled state, I begin to wonder if it might not harbor a code, which will never be explained until I answer the door, and I have no time to ask if I want it explained, I’m running into the foyer and pulling back the bolt and throwing open the door...
And there stands Bardou. His head bowed, his voice choked. “A thousand pardons, Monsieur.”
It’s the most shocking thing he’s done yet. Standing. For the first time in my memory... and maybe the last. His bent frame inscribes slow circles in the air. A second more, he’ll give way altogether.
“Some bread,” he gasps, steadying himself against the lintel. “If you... ”
I should make this clear. There is not an ounce of charity in me at this moment, only a prickling of terror. I don’t want him to die on our parquet floor. Because, even if I manage to spirit the body away, Mother will smell him, seeping into her wax, and it will be one more item on the scroll of offenses, and this scroll is no piece of paper, it is something endless and coiling and half fluid, it is the pink tongue of a great serpent, flicking at my neck as I dash toward Charlotte’s pantry...
He mustn’t die on our floor. He mustn’t die on our floor.
There’s no bread, but there’s... something that resembles bread... a macaroon! A week old, perhaps. Perfect.
Back I trundle with my stale sweet, a thin smile penciled on my face, and there, on the front stoop...
From behind, I hear a clearing of throat. It is Bardou. Transposed by some strange agency to our dining room. Leaning against our buffet.
The words die in my throat as he grabs the macaroon and downs it in two bites.
“Ugh,” he says, flinging the wrapper away. “Lizard shit.” And then he lowers himself into the very settee I’ve just vacated. (The one that no one is supposed to sit on.)
And again the words --- the bourgeois reproaches --- won’t come clear, for I am just now remarking the change in Bardou’s voice, which is shaking off years with each passing second.
And this is nothing next to the alteration in Bardou himself. He is coming undone. The ribbons tumble from his empty sleeve, and his lone arm scurries into the hollow of his breast, and in mere seconds, another arm has miraculously appeared where there was only stump.
Like a hydra, I think, staring in wonder. Growing new appendages. “See here, my good fellow, I don’t know what you’re up to... ”
He pays me no mind, he’s too busy dragging his hands across his face --- and taking Bardou’s face right with it. And why stop there? Why not yank the white hair straight off his head, like a bird molting in a single stark second?
There he stands, the brazen nestling. Hair: a damp sward of chestnut. Mouth: wryly puckered. Grayish blue eyes presiding over a voluptuous nose. And, most troubling of all, the faintest trace of a scar on his upper right lip.
“You should --- you should be aware,” I stammer. “There’s a guardhouse. Not two blocks away.”
The stranger smiles into the handkerchief that is even now smeared with the remains of Bardou, and in a suave and strange voice, he says:
“Four blocks,” he insists, with a priest’s patience. “Corner of Cholets and Saint-Hubert. We can go there right now if you like.”
And then comes the most remarkable transformation of all. He straightens. No. That doesn’t begin to describe it. He grows. As though he’s suddenly discovered another five inches of spinal column and is unfurling it to a previously unguessed length. Before my eyes, the tiny old cripple from the street corner has become a strapping man of five and six. Square and proud and blunt, built along geological lines, with thick strata of muscle bleeding into outcroppings of fat --- and the fat somehow bleeding back into muscle, so that he remains an indissoluble unit, a thing of bestial power, shaking you down to your larynx.
“I must ask you to leave this house right now,” I say. “You have --- you have presumed far enough on my charity... ”
There may be a tremor in my voice, but I wouldn’t know. I can only hear the stranger’s dry muttering undertone:
“Call that a macaroon... paving stone, more like it... what does he think he’s... ” And then rising to his own declamation: “Christ, don’t you have something to wash it down with?”
His eyes light on a bottle of half-drunk wine on the buffet. Wrenching the cork free, he grabs a glass from the china cabinet, holds it skeptically to the light (eczema spots of dirt appear from nowhere, as though he’s called them into being), and then decants the wine with great care into the glass, running his truffle nose round the rim.
“Better,” he says, after a couple of sips. “Beaune, is it? That’s not half bad.”
And me, I’m... looking for weapons. Amazing how few come to hand. A couple of butter knives. A candlestick. Maybe Charlotte left the corkscrew in the drawer? How long would it take to find? How long to...
But every last calculation ceases the moment he says:
“Please, Dr. Carpentier. Have a seat.”
Death of a Potato
Just like that, he’s disarmed me. And for one excellent reason: He has called me Doctor.
In these early days of the Restoration, no one thinks me worthy of that title, least of all me. And so, even as I lower myself into one of the dining chairs, I am rising toward that Doctor. Striving, yes, to be worthy.
“Well now,” I say. “You know my name, and I have not yet had the honor of --- of being introduced.”
“No, it’s true,” he concedes.
He’s on the prowl now --- sniffing, inspecting --- compromising everything he touches. The rectangular fruitwood table with its matted surface. The clouded, chipped carafes. The scorch marks on the ivory lampshade. Everything, under his touch, gives off a puff of meanness.
“Aha!” he cries, running his finger down a stack of blue-bordered plates. “Made in Tournai, weren’t they? Don’t look so ashamed, Doctor. There’s nothing like convict labor to keep the porcelain cheap.”
“Monsieur. I believe I have already begged the honor of knowing
His merry eyes rest on me for a second. “You have, indeed, and I do apologize. Perhaps you know of a man called...”
And here his fingers form a bud round his mouth, and the name flowers forth, like a shower of pollen.
He waits, with great confidence, for the dawning in my eyes.
“You mean --- oh, he’s that policeman sort of fellow, isn’t he?”
His smile dips down, his eyes shrink. “Policeman sort of fellow. And Napoleon is just a soldier sort of fellow. Voltaire told a good joke. Honestly, Doctor, if you can’t get things in their right scale, I despair of you.”
“No, I don’t --- I mean he locks up thieves, doesn’t he? He gets written up in the papers.”
A grandiloquent shrug. “The papers write what they like. If you want to know about Vidocq, ask the scoundrels who tremble at his name. They’ll write you whole tomes, Doctor.”
“But what has Vidocq to do with anything?”
“Vidocq is me.”
It has the air of afterthought the way he says it. As though, having breathed the name into the air, he need lay only the gentlest claim on it. And this is more declarative than if he’d shouted the news to the chandeliers.
“Well, that’s all very well,” I say, folding my arms across my chest.
“But do you have any papers?”
“Listen to him now! Papers! Please, Doctor-eating-off-your-convict-made-china, tell me why I need papers.”
“Why, you come in here....” I’m amazed to find my anger rising in direct proportion to his. “You barge in here, Monsieur Whoever You Are, with your little tricks and your faux stump, and you say, ‘Voilà! Vidocq!’ and expect me to believe it. Why should I? How can I be sure you’re who you say you are?”
He mulls it over. And then, with some regret, informs me:
It is a good lesson to get out of the way. Eugène François Vidocq, if so he is, will not be held to the same empirical standards as the rest of the world. Take him at face value or go to hell.
“Very well,” I say. “If you’re this Vidocq fellow, tell me where Bardou is.”
“Having a lovely week, I assure you, with the Bernadine sisters. Tending to their melons. I think you won’t find him eager to return to his street corner, Doctor.”
“But why would you go to such lengths in the first place? Taking his place on the corner, dressing like him, looking ---”
“Well, now.” The stranger leans into the table. “If a hunter is tracking prey, Doctor, he must take care not to be seen.”
“But who is the prey?”
And in that moment, I twitch my head to the side, and there, in front of the settee, lie my empty boots and my half-read newspaper.
“And why should you have any call to hunt me?” I ask.
Except I already know.
With distressing speed, the writ scrolls out in my head. Eulalie and her law clerk... fencing stolen plate... captured by the gendarmes... we’ll let you off this time if you give up your mastermind... and who better to give up than poor little Hector? Won’t he do anything for Eulalie --- still? Won’t he go to La Force for her?
And back from my shriveled clod of heart comes the answer: yes.
“It’s absurd,” I say. “I’ve done --- what could I have ---”
“Now now,” he says, working the crick out of his neck. “If there’s interrogating to do, you really should leave it to me. That’s what they pay me for, you know. Let me see....” He gulps down another draft of wine, swipes his arm across his lips. “You could start by telling me what a certain Monsieur Chrétien Leblanc wanted with you.”
“I don’t know anyone named Leblanc.”
He smiles softly. “You’re quite sure about that, Doctor?”
“As sure as I can be, yes.”
“Well then, it’s a very funny business. Because I’m here to tell you that Monsieur Leblanc knows you.”
Fumbling once more in his shirtfront cache, he draws out --- not another arm, no --- a piece of butcher’s paper. Flecked with wax, stiff with grease. And from this corrupted surface, the words leap up: hot, black.
DR. HECTOR CARPENTIER
No. 18, Rue Neuve-Sainte-Geneviève
He’s behind me now, the terrible stranger, watching me read, wreathing my neck with his breath. The air grows confused with wine.
“That is your address, is it not, Doctor?”
“And that is your name?”
“And I believe you have the honor of being the only Dr. Carpentier in all of Paris. Don’t think I didn’t check,” he adds, cuffing me gently on the ear. “Damnit, though, I’m still hungry as the devil. Anything else to eat? That fucking macaroon...”
A moment later, I hear him rustling in the pantry, arraigning each article as he finds it. “Chestnuts have seen better days.... Pear preserves? I think not.... Cheese looks all right, except... well, that’s a scary purple, you don’t see that particular...”
“This is ridiculous!” I call after him. “I’ve never received a Monsieur Leblanc here! I’m not ---”
Not even a practicing physician...
But pride cuts me short. Or else it’s the sight of the stranger, re- emerging with a potato in his mouth. A raw potato, crammed like an apple into a trussed pig.
“Well, Doctor.” He grinds out a hunk of its hard flesh, mashes it into submission. “We’re certainly --- in agreement on --- on one point. You couldn’t have --- received Monsieur...”
“Leblanc,” he echoes, through whirling pellets of tuber. “For the simple reason... he never made it here.”
“Well, then, why are you bothering me? Why don’t you question him?”
Another hunk of potato. Another round of gnashing.
“Because he’s... mpxxcchsik....”
That’s how it comes out, I’m afraid. He puts up a single finger --- Wait, please --- but it’s a good long minute before his larynx breaks free.
“Because he’s dead.”
The taste of the raw potato must finally breach his senses, for all of a sudden, it comes sluicing out in a fast brown stream --- right into the waiting carafe.
“Thought it was a bit riper,” he mutters.
And my first thought is, yes: Mother. Must clean up the mess before Mother gets here. I’m already reaching for the carafe when he intercepts me.
“Three blocks from here.” (His sausage fingers curled round the carafe handle.) “That’s where the unfortunate Monsieur Leblanc died. Not too far from the Université where you spend so much of your days.”
He pushes the carafe away, takes one long step toward me.
“Monsieur Leblanc was killed on the way to seeing you, Doctor, and I’m counting on you to tell me why.” He brushes a pebble of damp potato from my coat. “If it’s a question of which confessor you’d prefer, I should tell you I’m a much easier touch than God. At the very worst, you’ll get a few years of state-supported education in a cell of your choice. Think of it as an exercise in character building. Come now, tell Vidocq all about it. Before” --- and here he gives me the most knowing of smiles --- “before Mama Carpentier comes home and gets her little white feathers ruffled.”
He steps back and contemplates me for a moment. Then, wheeling round, he upends the wine bottle. A single crimson drop touches down on the dining table’s surface.
“Oops, we’re out! Be a good man and fetch us another, would you?”
The Chamber of the Dead
It’s the way of the human conscience, I suppose. A man suggests you’re guilty of something, and the more you say you’re not, the more it sounds like you are. The voice rings of tin, the heart rattles like a fistful of beans, and every no sounds like a yes, until you can actually feel this yes, inching onto the parapet of your lip... when your interlocutor grabs the bottle of Burgundy --- the one you fetched for him not half an hour ago --- and peers into its jungle green interior and, in a voice tinctured with resignation, announces:
Then he waggles his finger at the glass of wine sitting unmolested before you. The one you haven’t had the stomach to drink (thanks to him).
“Are you --- do you ---”
And, seeing you shrug, he hoists it straight to his mouth. A long leak of satiated breath and then a belch, fruiting the air. He looks down at himself. He sees, as if for the first time, Bardou’s rags. He draws out a watch.
“Time to go.”
For both of you to go, that’s what he means. He is moderately surprised to find you remaining in your chair.
“I need to show you something,” he says.
And still you don’t move, and rather than explaining himself further, he lifts his voice into a gently mocking register.
“Maybe you need to leave a note first? In case she worries?”
And here’s the damnable part of it. You were going to leave a note. And all you can do now is squeeze yourself into your boots and stare at the newspaper still lying on the floor and think (you can’t help it): This is all that will be left of me.
Your legacy: a half-read journal, a half-finished monograph. But you can’t do more than pause because he’s already swung the front door open and stepped out on the stoop with the air of a man surveying his estates. He’s waiting for you.
“Coming,” you mutter. “Coming, damn you.”
Later today, I will reflect on the curious fact that he came alone. No other officers, no squad of gendarmes to subdue me. Not even a weapon, as far as I can tell. He’d watched me long enough to know: I could be handled.
And was he wrong? Here I am, climbing without a second thought into the carriage waiting round the corner. Waiting, benumbed, as he barks the address to the driver above.
“Quai du Marché!”
He pulls the curtains over the windows and yanks up his sleeves --- only to remember he doesn’t have sleeves, only Bardou’s damp rags, which cling to him now in the form of an apology.
The cab must recently have carried a wedding party, for there’s a scrap of lace caught in the door and a scattering of hothouse orange blossoms and the snapped-off handle of a Japanese fan. And overlaying everything a ripening scent, like something that would waft from a tannery. His smell, I suddenly realize.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“Paying a little call at the morgue, that’s all.” He smiles faintly, shakes his head. “You still don’t believe me, Doctor.”
“No, I ---”
“You don’t think I’m him, do you? Not another word, damn you! Here!”
Into my lap drops a round pasteboard card, wedged between two pieces of glass. On one side: the arms of France and the words Surveillance et Vigilance. On the other: a single surname, VIDOCQ, in triumphally raised gold letters.
“Signed by the prefect himself,” he says dryly. “If that eases your mind, Dr. May-I-see-your-papers.”
It doesn’t, how could it? It only gives me leave, finally, to call him by that name. And still I hesitate.
Vidocq. Say it, for Christ’s sake. Eugène François Vidocq. Come at it in pieces, if you must, syllable by syllable. Vee. Dohk. Vee. Dohk... <
Even in these early days of the Restoration, it is a famous name. It comes, you might say, with its own exclamation point. Terror of thieves! Scourge of crime! Bonaparte of the barrières!
Only a couple of years past forty, and yet he already drags behind him a full complement of legends. There are people, for instance, who swear they were at Denoyes’ cabaret the night he raided it. They remember him staring down a dance floor of knife-wielding thugs and, in a voice that resonated as far as the Bastille, ordering them to quit the premises. One man demurred and lost a finger. The rest obeyed without a murmur. (Vidocq chalked white crosses on the worst offenders as they passed so that the policemen waiting outside would know which to arrest.)
And what about the time he tracked down a thief, knowing only the color of the man’s curtains? Or when he waded right into a Tuileries reception and plucked a confidence man in the act of bowing to the King? Or captured the fearsome giant Sablin in Saint-Cloud while Sablin’s wife lay in the throes of labor? (Vidocq had enough time left over to catch the baby and to serve as godfather.)
One night, they say, he insinuated himself into a group of assassins stationed outside his very own door. Sat with them all night, they say, waiting for that accursed Vidocq to show up, then joined them in their despondent trek home --- where, naturally, he’d stationed a tribe of gendarmes. (His reward was a tumble in the sheets with the ringleader’s mistress.)
Legend has it that if you give Vidocq two or three of the details surrounding a given crime, he will give you back the man who did it --- before you’ve had time to blink. More than that, he’ll describe the man for you, give you his most recent address, name all his known conspirators, tell you his favorite cheese. So compendious is his memory that a full half of Paris imagines him to be omniscient and wonders if his powers weren’t given him by Satan.
And yet he is doing God’s work, is he not? To hear the papers tell it, Vidocq, in the space of a few years, has sent hundreds of malefactors to prison. The ones that remain abroad cross themselves at the sound of his name. If a robbery falls apart at the last minute, it’s Vidocq’s doing. If a credulous old widow manages, against all odds, to keep her jewels, blame it on that scoundrel Vidocq. If an innocent man lives to see another morrow, who’s behind it? The accursed Vidocq, that’s who.
All it takes some nights is a shift in the wind’s direction, a creak on the stair, and the name flies like an oath from their throats.
Vidocq. Vidocq is abroad.
And now this same Vidocq is pounding on the roof of our cab, as if to gouge out a straighter path for his words.
“Driver! A little faster, will you? Oh, and don’t forget to stop at Mabriole’s bakery. I want to show this bastard what a macaroon tastes like.”
Folding his arms across the swell of his belly, he regards me with a look of naked skepticism.
“You’re not a fainter, are you?”
“No, of course not.”
“Well, that’s a relief. You look like one.”
I’ve always thought of the morgue as the fullest realization of democracy. Anyone can enter: man, woman, child; dead, alive. You don’t even have to give your name. When Vidocq and I arrive a little after two, I catch only the faintest glimmer of a concierge. I’m already moving, like everyone else, toward the glassed-in chamber that opens off the main hall.
Through the panes, three biers slope toward us like grain chutes. On each bier, a body. To be kept here another twenty-four hours and then, if no one claims it, shipped straight to the medical schools, ten francs a cadaver. And so hundreds of still-living souls crowd round this window every day to keep their friends and relations off the dissecting table --- or else to enjoy the spectacle of someone else’s death. I’ve seen more English tourists in the morgue than in the Louvre.
“Come,” says Vidocq.
He takes me by the elbow, draws me down a corridor. We pass into a room with yellow calico curtains and a horsehair settee and... and, most troubling of all, a pianoforte. I reach for middle C. It pings back, in perfect tune.
“What do you want?” Vidocq grumbles. “The morgue keeper’s family has to pass the time, don’t they?”
We enter a room with no flowers, no pianos. No furniture, not even a window. Only a black marble slab, draped in white cambric, and two candles, blazing in sconces.
Vidocq grabs one of the candles, walks to the head of the table, and peels back the sheet to reveal the slumbering head beneath.
“I don’t believe you two have met,” he says, in a voice dry as shavings. “Dr. Carpentier? Monsieur Chrétien Leblanc.”
Excerpted from THE BLACK TOWER © Copyright 2008 by Louis Bayard. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow. All rights reserved.