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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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FEB 2020 Issue
Fiction

inSerial: part fourteen
The Mysteries of Paris

4. The Search

Rodolphe’s house in the Allée des Veuves was not his primary residence. He lived in one of the finest homes along the Faubourg Saint-Germain, at the end of the Rue Plumet. To avoid the honors due his sovereign rank, he had maintained his incognito ever since his arrival in Paris, his chargé d’affaires to the French court having announced that his master was making certain essential official visits under the name of the Comte de Duren. By means of this arrangement, common in the Northern courts, a prince could travel freely and agreeably, and escape the tedium of official diplomacy. In spite of his transparent incognito, Rodolphe maintained, as appropriate, a stately apartment.

It had just struck ten in the morning. In the middle of a large room on the ground floor, located next to Rodolphe’s office, Murph sat at a desk sealing messages. An usher, dressed in black and wearing a silver chain around his neck, opened the two leaves of the door to the waiting room and announced: “His Excellency, Baron Graün.”

Without interrupting his work, Murph greeted the baron with a gesture that was both cordial and familiar. “Monsieur le chargé d’affaires,” he said smiling, “warm yourself up, I’ll be with you in a moment.”

“Sir Walter Murph, private secretary of His Most Serene Highness, I await your orders,” Monsieur de Graün answered gaily, as he smiled broadly and made a showy gesture of bowing deeply and respectfully to the worthy squire.

The baron was about 50 years old, had sparse gray hair, lightly powdered and curled. His slightly prominent chin was partly concealed by a tall, stiff mousseline neckcloth of immaculate whiteness. His features were delicate, his appearance one of distinction, and behind the lenses of his gold spectacles his gaze was sly and penetrating. Although it was only ten in the morning, Monsieur de Graün was dressed in black—etiquette required it. A multicolored ribbon was knotted to his buttonhole. He placed his hat on an armchair and went toward the chimney while Murph went on with his work.

“His Highness must have been up half the night, my dear Murph, for you have an impressive pile of correspondence.”

“My Lord retired at six this morning. He wrote an eight-page letter to the grand marshal and dictated another, equally long, to the head of the supreme council.”

“Should I wait for his Highness to rise before conveying the information I have to deliver?”

“No, no, Baron, his Highness ordered that he was not to be disturbed before two or three in the afternoon. He wants you to send these dispatches this morning by courier rather than waiting until Monday. You can give me whatever information you have gathered and I shall relate it to his Highness when he wakes. Those are his orders.”

“Splendid! I believe his highness will be satisfied with what I have learned. But, my dear Murph, I hope that this mail does not bode ill. The last dispatches I had the honor of sending . . .”

“Indicated that all was going well there. And it is precisely because my lord wishes to express his satisfaction as soon as possible to the head of the supreme council and to the grand marshal that he wants you to send this correspondence this very day.”

“Ahh, I recognize the hand of his highness in this. Had it been a reprimand, there would not have been such urgency. There is but one voice concerning the firm and skillful administration of our interim rulers. It’s quite simple,” the baron added with a smile, “the watch was excellent and perfectly adjusted by our master. It was merely a question of winding it from time to time so its invariable and reliable operation would continue to indicate the employment of every hour and every individual. An orderly government always produces confidence and tranquility among the people. That explains the good news you have given me.”

“And here? Nothing new, dear Baron? No rumors? Our mysterious adventures?”

“Have been completely ignored. Ever since his highness’s arrival in Paris, it is customary to see him only rarely among the few individuals he has had introduced. It is believed that he is enjoying his retirement, that he makes frequent excursions to the outskirts of Paris. His Excellency has wisely dismissed, at least for a time, his chamberlain and aide-de-camp, whom he brought with him from Germany.”

“And who would have been highly inconvenient witnesses.”

“With the exception of countess Sarah MacGregor, her brother Tom Seyton of Halsbury, and Karl, their lost soul, no one is aware of his highness’s disguise. However, neither the countess nor her brother, not even Karl, have any interest in betraying our secret.”

Murph smiled. “My dear Baron, how unfortunate that this damned countess is now a widow!”

“Didn’t she marry in 1827 or 1828?”

“1827, shortly after the death of that poor child. She would be 16 or 17 years old now. Although he never speaks about it, his highness cries about her every day.”

“Highly understandable given that his highness’s marriage didn’t produce a child.”

“And, Baron, I suspect that aside from the pity inspired by poor Goualeuse, his interest in the unfortunate creature has a great deal to do with the fact that the child he so bitterly regrets, no matter how much he detests her mother, the countess, would now be about her age.”

“It is most unfortunate that Sarah, just when we thought we were done with her, should find herself a free woman a mere 18 months after the loss by his highness of his wife—a most exemplary wife, and married only a few years. I’m certain the countess believes herself to be favored by providence for this double loss.”

“And her unwarranted hopes have returned, stronger than ever, even though she is aware that his Highness has the most profound, and fully justified, aversion for her. Wasn’t she the one who caused . . . Oh, Baron!” Murph was unable to complete his thought. “That woman is nothing but trouble. May God prevent her from bringing other misfortunes down upon our heads.”

“What do we have to fear, my dear Murph? In the past she was able to influence his highness. She was a resourceful schemer and he was a young man who had never been in love before and found himself in the circumstances you are aware of. But her influence was destroyed by the discovery of her disgraceful behavior, especially the memory of the terrifying event she provoked.”

“Lower, my dear de Graün, lower still. We have reached that sinister month and are approaching the fateful day, January 13. I fear for his Highness.”

“Yet, if such a great fault could be pardoned through penance, shouldn’t his Highness be absolved?”

“I beg you, Baron, please let’s not talk about it; I’ll be miserable for the entire day.”

“As I was saying, at present Countess Sarah’s objectives are absurd. The death of the poor young girl you spoke of has destroyed the last bond between his Highness and that woman. She is mad to persist in her expectations.”

“Yes, but she is a dangerous madwoman. And as you know, her brother shares her ambitious and stubborn fantasies, even though they have as much reason to despair today as they did to entertain the possibility of success eighteen years ago.”

“Not to mention the trouble caused since then by that wretched Polidori through his criminal complacency.”

“I was told that the wretch has been here for the past year or two, no doubt living in extreme poverty or engaged in some shady business or other.”

“What a fall for a man of his knowledge, wit, and intelligence.”

“Yes, and such appalling perversity as well. Heaven help us if he meets the countess. The union of those two evil minds would indeed be dangerous.”

“I repeat, my dear Murph, no matter how unreasonable her ambition, the countess’s own self-interest will always prevent her from taking advantage of his highness’s taste for adventure to attempt some unpleasantness.”

“I hope you’re right. However, chance alone has undone some scheme—certainly despicable—the woman wished to concoct with the Schoolmaster, now harmless and living with some honest farmers in the village of Saint-Mandé. I am convinced that it was to avenge me that his highness inflicted such terrible punishment on the assassin and risked putting himself in such grave danger.”

“Grave! No, no, my dear Murph. Consider the following: An escaped criminal, a known murderer, breaks into your home and stabs you. Because you have a right of self-defense, you are free to kill him or send him to the scaffold. In either case the wretch is going to die. But now, instead of killing him or throwing him to the executioner, by means of a terrible but well-deserved punishment, you place the monster in a position whereby he can do no further harm. Who would judge you? Would the court bring a civil suit against you in favor of a such a man? Would you be condemned for not going as far as the law allows, and for merely blinding a man you could legally have killed? How is it that, in defending my life or avenging some flagrant adultery, society recognizes my right over the life and death of my fellows, a formidable right, an uncontrolled right, from which there is no appeal, by which I am both judge and executioner, and yet I am unable to modify at will the capital punishment I might have inflicted with impunity? Especially, especially where it concerns the criminal in question. For that is the heart of the matter. I leave aside our position and the fact of his being a sovereign prince of the German Confederation. I know it has no importance under the law, but there is de-facto immunity. Moreover, assume that such a suit were brought against his highness. Consider the many charitable acts that would plead in his favor, the donations, the revelation of such untold benevolence. Under the present conditions, if this strange case were to come before a court, what do you think would happen?”

“His Highness has always said that he would accept the accusation and take no advantage of the immunity granted by his position. But who would reveal such an unfortunate event? You know that David’s discretion is unshakeable; so is that of the four Hungarian servants at the house in the Allée des Veuves. Chourineur, to whom his highness has been so generous, never uttered a word about the Schoolmaster’s punishment, for fear he might compromise himself. Prior to his departure for Algeria, he swore to me to remain silent about this issue. As for the criminal, he knows that any complaint he might lodge would lead him directly to the executioner.”

“So none of us—his highness, you, me—shall speak of it, is that correct? My dear Murph, this secret, although known to several individuals, shall nonetheless remain secure. At most we have to fear no more than a few minor inconveniences. And yet, such noble, such great things would be revealed in exposing this unusual cause that such an accusation, I repeat, would be a triumph for his highness.”

“You reassure me completely. But you said you had some information obtained on the basis of the letters found on the Schoolmaster and the Owl’s statements while she was in the hospital with her fractured leg. Although I hear she’s been out for several days.”

“Here is the information” said the baron, drawing a paper from his pocket. “It concerns the results of our research on the birth of the young girl known as La Goualeuse and the current residence of François Germain, the Schoolmaster’s son.”

“Would you please read the note, Graün? I’m familiar with his Highness’s intentions, I can determine if the information is useful. Are you still satisfied with your agent?”

“He’s very valuable: intelligent, capable, and discreet. I’m even required to moderate his enthusiasm from time to time, for, as you know, his Highness prefers to find out certain things for himself.”

“And he remains ignorant of his Highness’s role in all this?”

“Absolutely. My diplomatic position serves as an excellent pretext for my investigations. Badinot—the name of our agent—has considerable skill and a number of relationships, some known, some unknown, in every social strata. He was formerly a lawyer but was forced to sell his business for a serious breach of trust. Nonetheless, he has retained certain very precise notions concerning the wealth and position of his former clients. He possesses a number of secrets, which he boasts openly of having sold. He has lost several fortunes already and is too well known to invest in any new speculative endeavor. So he is reduced to living from day-to-day through a variety of more-or-less illicit methods; he’s a kind of Figaro, rather curious when you listen to him speak. Although he is guided solely by self-interest, he belongs body and soul to whoever pays him. He has no interest in deceiving us. Besides, I’ve had him watched; we have no reason to suspect him.”

“The information he has provided so far has been accurate.”

“He is honest in his own way and I can assure you, my dear Murph, that Badinot is one of those mysterious creatures you encounter only in Paris. He would greatly amuse his Highness if it weren’t necessary that he have no correspondence with him.”

“We could pay Badinot more. Do you think that would be necessary?”

“Five hundred francs a month plus incidental expenses of roughly the same amount seems adequate. The man appears to be satisfied. Besides, we can always revise our assessment later on.”

“And he’s not ashamed of his work?”

“Badinot? On the contrary, he takes great pride in it. He never fails, when he brings me his reports, to assume an air of importance, even, dare I say it, of diplomacy. For he seems to believe he is involved in matters of State and is surprised by the hidden connections that exist between the most varied interests and the destinies of empires. At times, he has had the insolence to say to me ‘The common man is ignorant of the unknown complications that prevail in government. Who would suspect, Monsieur le Baron, that the information I provide you plays a role in the affairs of Europe!’”

“These rascals always try to conceal their dishonesty; it flatters honest folk. But the notes, my dear Baron?”

“Here they are. They have been drafted based on Badinot’s report.”

“I’m listening.”

Monsieur de Graün began to read.



Note Concerning Fleur-de-Marie

“Early in the year 1827 a man known as Pierre Tournemine, currently detained at Rocherfort Prison for forgery, asked a woman by the name of Gervais, called the Owl, to take care of a little girl of five or six years of age in return for a salary that would amount to a thousand francs once paid.”

“Baron,” said Murph, interrupting Monsieur de Graün, “1827 is the year when his Highness learned of the death of the unfortunate child whose loss has caused him such sorrow. For that reason, and for many others, it was a tragic year for our master.”

“The happy years are rare, my poor Murph. However, I’ll go on:

The contract concluded, the child remained with the woman for two years, after which, hoping to escape the ill treatment forced upon her, the little girl disappeared. The Owl heard nothing further about her for several years, when she saw her again for the first time in a cabaret in La Cité, approximately six weeks ago. The child, now a young woman, was known as La Goualeuse.

Shortly after their meeting, Tournemine, who the Schoolmaster met in the Rochefort prison, gave to Bras-Rouge (a mysterious and regular correspondent of the prisoners held in the jail or released) a detailed letter concerning the child formerly placed with the woman Gervais, known as the Owl.

Based on the letter and statements by the Owl, it turns out that a certain Madame Séraphin, governess of a notary by the name of Jacques Ferrand, had, in 1827, asked Tournemine to find a woman for her, who, for a thousand francs, would agree to take care of a child of five or six years of age, who was going to be abandoned, as mentioned previously.

The Owl accepted this proposal.

Tournemine’s objective, in providing this information to Bras-Rouge, was to provide the latter with the means to blackmail Mme Séraphin through a third party, threatening to publicize this matter, which had been forgotten for so many years. Tournemine stated that Mme Séraphin was merely the agent of unknown persons.

Bras-Rouge turned this letter over to the Owl, who had been an accomplice to the Schoolmaster’s crimes. This explains how this information was found in the criminal’s possession, and how, when he met La Goualeuse at the Lapin-Blanc, the Owl, to torment the girl, said to her ‘We found your parents, but you’ll never know them.’

The question was whether the letter from Tournemine concerning the child who had been given up to the Owl contained the truth.

We made inquiries about Mme Séraphin and the notary Jacques Ferrand.

Both of them exist.

The notary resides at 41 Rue du Sentier. He passes for an austere, pious man; at least he goes to many churches. His business practice is characterized by an excessive regularity that is seen as unsympathetic. His study is excellent. His parsimony approaches avarice. Mme Séraphin is still his governess.

Monsieur Jacques Ferrand, who was very poor, purchased his commission for 350,000 francs. The money was given to him against a guarantee by a Monsieur Charles Robert, superior officer at the national guard headquarters in Paris, a very handsome young man, highly fashionable within a certain segment of society. He shares with the notary the proceeds of the business, which is estimated to be approximately 50,000 francs. Needless to say, he is not involved in the notary’s business dealings. There are idle gossips who claim that, subsequent to some lucky speculation or investment in the stock market, made in cooperation with Charles Robert, the notary is presently able to repay the loan. But Ferrand’s reputation is so well established that these rumors tend to be seen as no more than slander. It appears certain that Mme Séraphin, this saintly man’s governess, will be able to provide important information about the birth of La Goualeuse.”

“Excellent, Baron,” said Murph. “There is some semblance of reality in the statements of this Tournemine. Perhaps the notary can supply us with the means to learn the identity of the parents of this unfortunate child. Do you have any information about the Schoolmaster’s son?”

“Although not as accurate, it is equally satisfactory.”

“Truly, your Monsieur Badinot is a treasure.”

“You see, this Bras-Rouge is the linchpin of the whole affair. Badinot, who must have contacts in the police force, had already pointed him out as the go-between for a number of prisoners when his Highness first attempted to locate the son of Madame Georges Duresnel, the unfortunate wife of that monster, the Schoolmaster.”

“Most likely. And it was when his Highness went to find Bras-Rouge in his hovel in La Cité, 13 Rue aux Fèves, that he met Chourineur and Goualeuse. His Highness was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to visit those hideous dens of iniquity, perhaps believing he would find some unfortunates to pluck from the mud. His intuition did not fail him, but at what price, my God!”

“Dangers that you bravely shared with him, my dear Murph.”

“Aren’t I his highness’s resident coal porter?” the squire answered with a smile.

“Rather his intrepid bodyguard, my friend. But to speak of your courage and devotion would be to state the obvious. I shall, therefore, continue my report. Here is the note concerning François Germain, son of Mme Georges and the Schoolmaster, formerly known as Duresnel.”.

This work received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Cultural Services of the French Embassy in the United States through their publishing assistance program.

Contributors

Eugène Sue

French author, Eugène Sue (1804 – 1857) was born near the city of Cannes in southern France and came from a distinguished family of doctors. Like his father, Sue also studied medicine. He began his career as a naval doctor but retired in 1829 to write.

In 1842 he began writing Les Mystères de Paris, a novel in parts published serially in Le Journal des Débats. It was the first time in a novel that readers had been exposed to the social agitation and mixing of classes experienced in the bars and cabarets of Paris’s dense core on Ile de la Cité.

His complete works, depending on the edition, run to 78 volumes.

Robert Bononno

ROBERT BONONNO is credited with the translation of over two dozen full-length works of fiction and nonfiction and numerous shorter pieces. These include René Crevel’s My Body and I—a finalist for the 2005 French-American Foundation Prize—Hervé Guibert’s Ghost Image, and Henri Raczymo’s Swan’s Way. In 2002 he received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to complete a translation of the non-fiction work of Isabelle Eberhardt and in 2010 he received an NEA grant for the retranslation of Eugène Sue’s classic crime novel, The Mysteries of Paris. Mr. Bononno’s latest translation, Pascal Kramer’s Autopsy of a Father, was recently published by Bellevue Literary Press.

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The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2020

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